2020 has been a strange year in many ways. It’s effected my listening habits in odd ways too. Early on I listened to a lot of new stuff. But as this year has worn on (“worn on”—the perfect way to describe the passage of time this year I think) I’ve been turning more to the familiar. Or, if I have been listening to newer albums then I have chosen a few and listened to them relentlessly. If it’s not what I’m in the mood for in any given second, I’m probably changing to another album. With all that in mind, I present my top 20 albums of the year. It’s a little more expansive than I usually make these end of the year lists. But some of these albums were favorites, even if they didn’t get as many listens as they would have in a normal year.
20 Through 11
I realized as I put this together that if I did a blurb for every album here this journal entry would be too unwieldy. So these are getting a mention but no write-up. But they are all more than worthy of one.
10. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Favorite Tracks: Video Game, Tell Me You Love Me, and America.
Following up Carrie & Lowell, arguably the best album of his career, was never going to be easy. I liked that Sufjan swerved from the sound of that to the more electronic sound here (something he’s explored before) because his sweet voice meld with the skittering beats and synth pulses of a song like Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse in interesting ways. For one thing, there’s a sense of fragile humanity both lost in a machine and at one with it. Which seems appropriate for a record that contains a song about disconnecting from the toxic trap of social media while recognizing it’s ubiquity (Video Game) and songs about finding meaning past the shattering of old ideas and constructs (The Ascension, America.)
9. Purity Ring – Womb
Favorite Tracks: rubyinsides, i like the devil, pink lightning, star dew.
I listened to Purity Ring’s 2012 album a ton when it came out. Their follow-up, Another Eternity, somehow came and went without me ever hearing about it, and it was only when Womb popped up as a recommended listening that I thought “wow, it’s been a while since I’ve heard from Purity Ring.” Well, this is one of those cases where I have to thank Spotify, because I am so happy to reconnect with them on this album. Megan James has a singular voice—celestial, girlish—but with a certain grit or raggedness when it’s needed. The lyrics certainly point to a particular theme being explored here, but they are poetic enough to allow for a lot of different emotions and personal interpretations to take root.
8. Austra – HiRUDiN
Favorite tracks: Anywayz, Risk It, and It’s Amazing.
Austra has always been reliably great, but with her last album, Future Politics and this one her artistic powers have only grown. Future Politics leaned heavier on icy electronica. HiRUDiN is warmer, letting Katie Stelmanis’s striking vocals take center stage and lead you through a collection of songs that feel more intimate.
7. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Favorite tracks: Future Nostalgia, Physical, Boys Will Be Boys, Cool.
As far as I’m concerned, this was the album release of early 2020. I’m lad she didn’t delay this album due to COVID-19 like a lot of other artists were. And I hope she reaped the rewards because as a fan of dancepop, it doesn’t get much better than this. This album is fantastic from start to finish. It starts with a bang with Future Nostalgia, reaches incredible heights with Physical, and then ends with a real punch of a gut with Boys Will Be Boys. The latter a powerful anthem of the reality of women’s lives.
6. Carter Brut – Blood Machines OST
Favorite tracks: Again hard to choose. But I’d go with Intro and Blood Machine Theme.
I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to this, between watching the movie multiple times and listening to the propulsive synths of the score either on Spotify or (finally!) vinyl. Blood Machines (streaming now on Shudder) is the follow-up to Seth Ickerman and Carter Brut’s collaboration Turbo Killer, which you can view on YouTube. Featuring incredible synth music and eye-popping visuals, I admire both the movie and music so much. It’s like a Heavy Metal magazine comic book story brought to life.
5. Half Waif – The Caretaker
Favorite tracks: Clouds Rest, Ordinary Talk, Halogen 2
My friend Chris introduced me to this album, saying he thought I’d probably like it. And boy did I ever! Featuring crystal-clear vocals soaring over electronic instrumentation that is by turns propulsive or funereal or expansive, the songs here can pack an emotional wallop too.
4. Ólafur Arnalds – Some Kind of Peace
Favorite tracks: This is a hard one. I listen to this album as a whole every time I listen, so it’s hard to really pull out specific tracks.
The last month or two I’ve retreated to listening to some old favorites and new finds (like Ava – Waves) that are largely instrumental. A lot of that has been Max Richter. But Ólafur Arnalds new album, Some Kind of Peace, also became a quick favorite. The album is delicate and beautiful and hopeful. To me, it sounds like what quiet moments of reflection feel like.
3. ionnalee / iamamiwhoami – Kronologi
Favorite tracks: shadowshow, down by the lake, long;john, the deadlock
I have written a lot about ionnalee and my love for her music. Kronologi started as a playlist, a celebration of 10 years of ionnalee (under her name and her project iamamiwhoami) independently producing audio visual feasts for an ever-growing army of fans. The playlist was released track by track, over time, giving fans something to look forward to while many of us were trapped at home during the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The songs represent a look back at 10 years of artistic achievement, but each one is an alternate version of an existing track, a rarity, or song that never really found a home before now. Some of the reworked versions of the songs, in particular, given them exciting new dimensions, like the dark and mythic feel shadowshow takes on. ionnalee also graced us with a truly beautiful and moving live performance Konsert. Which I highly recommend watching.
2. Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Favorite tracks: Alice, 911, Rain on Me, Plastic Doll.
I really enjoyed Joanne, Lady Gaga’s more stripped-down album. Stripped of her usual dance floor anthems and heightened design aesthetic, it allowed Gaga’s voice and lyrics to take center stage. I think that experience might have elevated Chromatica. What I enjoy about Chromatica is that, to me, it feels like Gaga is more comfortable in her musical powers than ever before. Even on her best albums, there was this slight sense that there was some strain involved in some of the songs. Chromatica feels more effortless—full of weird day-glo color sci-fi imagery, sweeping orchestral interludes and intros, and s0ngs that feel personal and vulnerable even while they’re smashing your face off with beats. I listened to this album on repeat non-stop for weeks. It still has lost none of its power for me.
1. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Favorite tracks: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Shameika, Under the Table, Heavy Balloon.
If you didn’t already think The Grammys were kind of BS to start with, this year was another clear indicator. There is no way this album shouldn’t be album of the year. There are albums I enjoy listening to. Lyrics that hit me deeply. And then there are albums like this that I connect to in ways I’m surprised by. But, mostly, I’m just wowed by. Apple’s work here is inspirational. And I say that as someone who has always liked her music but has never been a fan, exactly. I am now. The album is so playful and funny and biting and badass.