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2020 Was A Nightmare But At Least It Gave Us These 15 Great Albums

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I don’t feel like spending time figuring out the billionth way to describe how much 2020 sucked, so I won’t. Without further ado, here’s my Definitive and Very Important list of the top 15 records of the last year, ordered from least amazing to most amazing. Please do check out the embedded songs as you read, as the material here is all (obviously) incredibly good.

  1. how I’m feeling now – Charli XCX

Closeness can unwittingly lead to harm. Such is the crux of both Schopenhauer’s hedgehog’s dilemma and the largely lovelorn and heartbroken pop music canon. In a fun twist, this was also the reigning theme for all of humanity in 2020. Charli XCX—fresh off one of the best albums of 2019—was the first high-profile artist to the draw when it came to making a record about the unique anxieties of quarantine, and the resulting how I’m feeling now remains one of the most thoughtful meditations on the everyday struggle of life during COVID.

 

As the year drew to a close, we were inundated with content—memes, SNL sketches, even a Netflix mockumentary—gunning for lowest-common-denominator catharsis with the grace and insight of an amateur standup shuffling around stage going “2020, am I right?” Fuck that. 2020 may have been a bad year, but it was also complex—no one with the slightest self-awareness could exit the last 12 months without feeling differently about themselves, their loved ones, and the infrastructure we all rely on. In cleverly adapting pop music’s thematic mainstays of love, loneliness, and angst to the lockdown lifestyle, Charli XCX has captured the ethos of the last year better than any other artist.

  1. Music in Eight Parts – Philip Glass

While my general musical taste now skews towards records that balance accessibility and complexity, I still, from time to time, love a record that presents a daunting technical challenge. Philip Glass’s Music in Eight Parts may only consist of a few instruments and vocal performers (the titular eight parts), but there’s no way you could throw this on in the background as ambient music and forget about it. Glass begins with a simple 5/4 vamp, but adjusts the composition every couple minutes in ways both subtle (sometimes literally just the addition of one solitary new note) and jarring, most obviously when the piece begins a new movement that brings with it a new time signature and heightened intensity. A fun challenge for any nerds reading this: try listening through at least one movement while only tracking what a single performer is doing, ignoring the other seven. I’ve tried to do this quite a few times this year and I think I’ve failed each attempt.

 

Philip Glass is the greatest American composer, and with Music in Eight Parts, he delivers a fantastic jigsaw puzzle—fascinating as you try to understand it, and incredibly rewarding when you’ve put it together (or think you have, anyway).

  1. folklore and evermore – Taylor Swift

There are a lot of things you could’ve told me about 2020 around this time last year that I wouldn’t have believed. The fact that Taylor Swift would come out with two albums that I legitimately love, however, may have been the hardest to wrap my head around. Swift’s music has always been weighed down by a remarkable sense of pettiness and insecurity—an inexplicable trend among other ultra-successful pop artists of the 2010s, including Drake and Ed Sheeran. Taking vague shots at other celebrities and former flames has been her songwriting default for years now, and an artistic reflex which reached its nadir with 2017’s Reputation, a record hellbent on drowning you in the noxious T. Swift tabloid mythos.

 

With folklore and evermore, however, Swift finally frees her music of its bullshit baggage, and the resulting batch of tracks is stunning in its elegance and emotional immediacy. Over wonderful instrumentation neither too flashy nor too stripped back, Swift proves herself an exceptional storyteller as she weaves together narratives of youth, heartbreak, and womanhood, often seemingly set in small towns that cling to distant memories far longer than they should. There are some subtle differences between the two records: folklore tells more intricate stories (the delirious high school love song “betty” is the best, sugariest country-pop banger of the year) while evermore has denser instrumentation. And while I’d give the slight edge to folklore, I’m incredibly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed both LPs.

One of my favorite things to see in pop culture is a safe, reliable artist doing a 180 and starting to make whatever the fuck they want to make. With folklore and evermore, the Swift metanarrative is gone—–no more Kanye, no more tabloid relationships and breakups, no more pop vs. country debate. Good riddance. What she’s arrived at here is an infinitely more earnest and thoughtful manner of songwriting, and whether or not she sticks with this specific sound moving forward, I hope the more mature attitudes underlying this new approach persist.

  1. Legends Never Die – Juice WRLD

I’m no longer ashamed to say that I love some good old-fashioned, histrionic pop-punk and emo. And while I was initially wary of the emo/hip-hop genre-blending that began a few years ago, the likes of Lil Peep, Trippie Redd, Lil Uzi Vert, Bones, and even Post Malone have shown how devastatingly potent the stylistic mash-up can be. In my book, however, the rising subgenre’s most formidable presence was Juice WRLD, who passed away of an overdose late in 2019 at the age of 21.

It goes without saying that listening to his posthumous LP, Legends Never Die, with this knowledge makes it an incredibly heavy experience. On its best track (and maybe my favorite overall song this year), “Wishing Well,” Juice’s exploration of the push-pull relationship between his social anxiety and opioid dependency is so brutally honest that it was tough to get through on the first few listens, even with its beautifully arranged instrumentation. But like the best emo frontmen, Juice also generously gives the audience room to blur out the fine details of his own struggles and insert our own demons. In other words, we aren’t left to passively sit with the sadness of “Wishing Well”’s anthemic hook (“I’m waiting for the exhale / Toss my pain with my wishes in the wishing well / Still no luck, but oh well / I still try even though I know I’m gon’ fail”). We can instead reconfigure it into something that gives personal solace and catharsis.

 

While the record’s 19 preceding tracks mostly find Juice doing battle with himself, Legends Never Die’s final full song, “Man of the Year,” sees him more or less at peace. Over fantastic, hooky pop-punk instrumentation, Juice recognizes his significance and takes pride in the help his music gives people: “Let’s raise our hands, let’s sing and dance / I know my lyrics saved you, I know I helped you break through.”

Whether another album’s worth of Juice WRLD material even exists is still an open question, but I hope any subsequent posthumous releases are assembled and presented as thoughtfully and respectfully as Legends Never Die. 

  1. RTJ4 – Run the Jewels

I liked Run the Jewels’ three previous records insofar as it’d basically be impossible for a fan of sociopolitical lyricism and off-kilter beats to not like those albums; El-P and Killer Mike are simply masters of their craft, and someone with only a vague understanding of rap music could probably identify that they are, in fact, very good at what they do. But until now, RTJ’s records, for all their passion and creativity, were often burdened by an off-putting lack of specificity. Mike and El-P’s anger was palpable, but that rage rarely felt as pointed as it should’ve.

Of the duo’s output, however, RTJ4 feels the most like the modern equivalent of a record from one of their clear influences, like Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine. The last twelve months have given the whole world a lot to be angry about, and RTJ volunteer themselves to serve as incisive conduits for that rage. Police brutality, politicians who cozy up to powerful pedophiles, internet-borne apathy, and capitalism’s failings all find themselves targets of Mike and El-P’s surgical strikes. There are a few moments of levity, like the Gang Starr-sampling “Ooh La La,” but for the most part, RTJ4 is pure, clenched-fist catharsis. The bars are hellfire, the 808s are apocalyptic, and the subject matter isn’t merely timely—it’s urgent. Just what the doctor ordered.

  1. Mama, You Can Bet – Jyoti

I have some catching up to do. Looking at her list of releases, singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow (performing here as Jyoti) has been a jazz and R&B powerhouse since the mid-aughts, though I’ve only heard of her recently due to the buzz generated by her latest record. Mama, You Can Bet spends its runtime seeking out and demonstrating the connections between various styles of Black music, from Coltrane-esque spiritual jazz voyages to mind-bending Brainfeeder style trip-hop. What should make for a jarring listening experience is somehow completely seamless.

 

At the same time, this intertextuality doesn’t leave Mama, You Can Bet as a stiff, music-nerds-only project. As fun as it is to pick apart the underlying influences, the songs here hold up even free of that context. The title track fashions a short, simple baseline and a 4-bar piano loop into the centerpieces of the most moving jazz arrangement I’ve heard all year. And while it may not be as elegant, the bass-heavy, off-kilter “Bemoanable Lady Geemix” is one of the hardest beats of 2020. Homework goes from burden to privilege when it comes to a great artist’s catalogue, and I’m incredibly excited to delve more into Muldrow’s discography in 2021.

  1. Forever, Ya Girl – KeiyaA

KeiyaA’s Forever, Ya Girl is firmly rooted in the realm of suggestion; like a sonic Rorschach test, it gives you shapes of the familiar and entrusts you with filling in the blanks as you see fit. The record seamlessly weaves through examinations of the dramatic swings in self-worth that stem from love, success, and marginalization with the utmost restraint. KeiyaA’s vocals are spartan (the best R&B singers always do more with less), and the collection of beats she sings over play out like the hazy memory of a song you can’t quite remember.

 

But make no mistake, the record’s minimalist qualities never keep you at a distance. If anything, Forever, Ya Girl is only made more intimate by the fact that it isn’t fully shaped and overly refined—these are raw thoughts expressed as such rather than manipulated and forced into typical songwriting molds. And as KeiyaA navigates the complex web of emotions and ideas that interlink personal relationships, sociopolitical injustices, history, and popular culture, it would seem impossible to keep your own mind still—to not run through this same gauntlet of thought.

  1. Unlocked – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats

Armed with the knowledge that Unlocked was recorded over a period of 72 hours, its 18-minute runtime makes perfect sense. Far tougher to comprehend, however, is how the hell Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats managed to make the record as dense as it is given so little time. Not a second feels wasted, and every moment of this glitchy, retro-futurist opus feels thoroughly practiced and fully realized. Zel and Kenny already have more than earned themselves spots in hip-hop’s current upper echelon, but not many bragging rights beat having made a project that surpasses most other artists’ labored-over records in a small fraction of the time.

 

In the last couple years, my interest in gargantuan, 60+ minute albums has faded. A sweeping epic should take care to respect your time, but in the era where more songs yields more streams and playlist placements regardless of quality, that justification is rare. I find myself increasingly drawn to short projects that condense the flow and arc of a longer album into something brisk and accessible, and no record from 2020 pulls off this balancing act better than Unlocked.

  1. The Mosaic of Transformation – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

A remarkable warmth emanates from The Mosaic of Transformation. Listening to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s expertly arranged layers of analog synths and vocals reassuringly work through their respective patterns can’t help but bring on an enveloping sense of calm. Just because this is peaceful music, however, doesn’t mean it’s pandering or unchallenging. Smith is one the all-time great analog synth composers, and here she finds a wonderful balance between adventurous progression and stoic ambience. The gargantuan final cut (fittingly titled “Expanding Electricity”) grows from a few simple synth cello phrases to a staggering rush of vocals and synthetic strings, brass, and mallets without ever feeling overtly maximalist. And if you compare the beginning and ending of my personal favorite song, the mid-album track “The Spine is Quiet in the Center,” you’ll find that the composition completely changes shape over the course of its runtime despite the fact that it never noticeably transitions into a new section.

 

In a year that’s brought us all face-to-face with our own mortality and (perhaps even more depressing) so much unforgivable human ugliness, The Mosaic of Transformation has offered an immensely welcome and valuable oasis of kindheartedness and tranquility.

  1. Pray for Paris – Westside Gunn

Westside Gunn has the most staggeringly mercurial flow in hip-hop today. From bar to bar, the density of his rhyme schemes and where they’ll fall on the beat are always open questions. Sometimes he’ll start a new scheme only to revert to the previous one in the middle of a line. Sometimes he’ll seemingly kick off a couplet, forgo a rhyme in the second bar, and then rhyme twice in the third bar, as if paying off a debt. Shit, he may only rap for half a measure or not even rhyme in the first place.

 

After coasting on the strength of this zigzagging style for the last couple years, West’s Pray for Paris finally and stunningly succeeds in immersing us in the strange world he’s spun for himself with his freewheeling bars—a world where pro wrestling, fine art, gritty trap narratives, and European high society somehow all meet. There’s a breezy, piano-driven boom-bap cut about eating French toast with a French girl (“but y’all don’t call it French toast”), an interlude consisting of a clip of WWE star Ted DiBiase demanding millions of dollars of diamonds be added to his championship belt, and a haunting set of verses traded with hip-hop’s 2020 MVP, Boldy James, meditating on jail stints over an Alchemist beat that consists of nothing but a 2-bar vocal sample, a couple bass guitar notes, and a whole lot of empty space. If you’ve ever wondered what it would sound like if the climactic shootout in Scarface took place during a Wrestlemania afterparty hosted by Roc Nation at the Louvre, you now have your answer.

  1. Because of a Flower – Ana Roxanne

Quoth the legendary Alice Coltrane in a rare interview: “the [planet] you term Jupiter, really, is weightless. But you see it as so much tonnage.” While this isn’t actually correct (Jupiter weighs a lot), Coltrane’s point is still a good one. Most of what we perceive as significant, rigid, and unchangeable is only interpreted as such because that’s what we’ve all either agreed to or not bothered to challenge. On both a conceptual and purely musical level, Ana Roxanne’s Because of a Flower hypnotically protests these agreements. Her opening spoken word piece reflects on the malleability of gender, while in a later poem she expresses a desire to be as formless and adaptive as water.

 

And there’s perhaps no better way to capture the spirit of her music than to call it aqueous. Ambient synth voyages, elegant post-rock guitar arrangements, meditative (almost Gregorian) choral vocals, and shuffling, Portishead-esque downtempo beats all meld into each other effortlessly; the seams don’t show, it feels, because they were never considered in the first place.

  1. Grief – Sivyj Yar

As with many of my favorites in the genre, Sivyj Yar is more interested in dialing in on heavy music’s emotional intensity than its abrasiveness, and Grief is an hour’s worth of pure, white-knuckled immediacy. Much of the album’s success stems from fundamental (yet critical) songwriting choices. Beyond the opening song, each track here is a hulking, 9-plus minute epic. Yet despite the length of the tracks, none are overly-complex in their structuring, and there are no Mastodon-esque proggy digressions in sight. There’s a welcome straightforwardness to it all that, when coupled with Sivyj Yar’s instrumental mastery, makes for an incredible dose of ear candy.

Grief’s construction is almost filmic; we’re given our initial intrigue through a disarmingly simple opener (complete with a groovy ass drum beat), our harrowing nadir comes in the form of pummeling blast beats, and the closing track is a massive moment of triumph driven by piercing tremolo-picked guitars. In a year that didn’t give us much in the way of new movies, Grief is a fine stand-in for 2020’s biggest blockbuster epic.

  1. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist

It’s no surprise that the product of a collab between arguably the best MC out right now, Freddie Gibbs, and arguably one of the best producers ever, The Alchemist, is an absolute triumph. Alfredo isn’t great because it’s a Kanye- or Kendrick-esque boundary-pusher. It’s great because it revels in hip-hop’s foundational elements, and executes on them with confident virtuosity. The Alchemist sets Gibbs up brilliantly. His beats here, whether gritty or lavish, are universally slow and measured. There’s a wide, soundscape quality to them, and while this gives Gibbs room to work, Alc subtly shifts his samples and drum patterns to hold your attention throughout.

With the alley-oop from The Alchemist, Gibbs delivers a glass-shattering dunk. Since his breakout one-two punch of 2013’s BFK and 2014’s Piñata, Gangsta Gibbs has grown leaps and bounds as a lyricist—and he was already a good one to begin with. His bars reflecting on his old street life and his new fame are incredibly vivid, and shift from funny, to sad, to cutthroat on a dime. Two of my absolute favorite verses of the year are found on this record: the first verse on “Scottie Beam” sees Gibbs somehow successfully weaving basketball references into brutal bars about racial profiling and police brutality, while Gibbs’ bars on “Frank Lucas” are just ice-cold super villainy.

 

Freddie Gibbs’ 2015 track “Extradite” ends with a clip of an interview between him and Snoop Dogg. In it, they reflect on the fact that there haven’t been many notable artists from Gibbs’ hometown of Gary, Indiana—Michael Jackson being the major exception. Snoop remarks that this means Gibbs will be the one to set the standard, the one to declare “‘after me, there will be you.’”

“After me, there will be you.” Nothing could more perfectly sum up the attitude underlying Alfredo. Gibbs and Alc have put a stake in the ground and issued a challenge to the rest of the rap game: do better.

  1. Shabrang – Sevdaliza

Roughly translated from Farsi, and in Sevdaliza’s own words, “shabrang” means “palette of the night.” These are the deep, cool blues, greens, and purples you might see reflecting off the water at night. These are also colors you might spot on a bruise. That the Dutch-Iranian singer/producer poses stoically on Shabrang’s cover with a black eye foreshadows much of what you’ll hear—this record is laser-focused on a single theme: pain.

Sevdaliza opens things with the brilliant “Joanna,” a haunting description of a woman who’s “evil personified,” and whose specter looms large. From there, Sevdaliza continues to inspect cruelties both small and large. The catchy-as-hell “Oh My God,” finds her struggling to reconcile her heritage with Western culture’s ever-shifting expectations, using the hook to plead, “Oh my God, who should I be? / What is it you want when you come for me?” The song “Habibi,” meanwhile, brilliantly captures the melancholy of feeling alone despite being in a relationship; on the first stretch of the song, she speaks directly to her lover “Habibi, habibi / No one understands me,” while the chilling refrain that repeats through the latter half of the track is seemingly meant for anyone who will listen (“Is there anyone out there / To get me out of my head?”).

 

What I’ve described is certainly heavy, but Shabrang isn’t a dysphoric dirge of an album. For its part, the production Sevdaliza and longtime collaborator Mucky lay down is usually pretty spare, but there’s always an utterly addictive earworm among the handful of instrumental ideas on each song—the acoustic guitar drenched in chorus effects on “Lamp Lady,” and the bouncy, reversed keyboard riff on “Oh My God,” are two of my favorites, and the crown jewel is undoubtedly the massive drum beat on “Wallflower” that just kicks so much ass that words can’t describe it. Sevdaliza’s vocal delivery through all this is mostly cool and composed, sometimes diving into subtly trilling melodies influenced by Iranian music. This confident reserve, in turn, makes the occasional shows of vocal pyrotechnics hit like a truck.

For all their more sinister connotations, the night’s hues are also vibrant and alluring, and Shabrang is a dynamic, richly detailed ode to the beauty and dignity that lies within the struggle to untangle and understand life’s hardships.

  1. Manger on McNichols – Boldy James & Sterling Toles

The greatest mindfuck musical moment of the year was piecing together a few couplets on two different tracks on Boldy James and Sterling Toles’ Manger on McNichols. On “Detroit River Rock,” Boldy—in his usual cold, matter-of-fact tone—declares “I ain’t never been in the joint / But that’s just how it is when you live in Detroit.” Two tracks later, on “The Middle of Next Month,” Boldy is hoarse, almost yelling, and spits these bars with palpable desperation: “Only one that sent me mail when I was locked up was Danielle / …Them letters held a n**** down like an anvil / In that time capsule, where time stand still.”

With this, the way in which Manger on McNichols was recorded and assembled becomes clear. Boldy began recording the album with Toles, an experimental producer who’s been a mainstay in Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene, back in 2007. So Boldy doesn’t claim to have not been to jail on one track only to describe his hellish experience locked up a few songs later in order to present a premeditated narrative; he does so because he very likely had been to jail between the two recording sessions.

 

James and Toles lean into this nonlinearity in other fascinating ways, too. A clip of an interview with Boldy discussing an early version of the track “Mommy Dearest” appears within the final version of the song. It’s put to great use too. The track itself hinges around an interpolation of Biggie’s infamous “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion“ line, and the clip finds Boldy speaking to the motivations and the personal fallout from releasing such a personal track. And for a lighter demonstration of the singular process behind the making of Manger, you’ll notice that a feature on “Welcome to 76” is credited to “First Lady Deja,” followed by a sly “;)”. “Deja,” as she was called at the time of recording, was just an unknown, aspiring artist. She’s now better known as Dej Loaf, the Detroit pop-rapper with multiple Gold and Platinum singles to her name.

An album that partly serves as a deconstruction of the format itself carries, of course, a risk of showiness and indulgence. But Manger is never as concerned with itself as it is with the multi-faceted narratives spawned from the trenches of Detroit’s “hell blocks.” The sheer intricacy and attention to detail is readily apparent in its jaw-droppingly dense production. Sterling Toles’ beats are constantly on the move, combining original instrumentation with jazz, R&B, gospel, and the occasional Detroit techno sample. Sometimes the chameleonic beats heighten the stakes of Boldy’s bars, as on “Welcome to 76,” where melancholic flute and sax melodies flit around descending strings and a clattering drum beat. Other times, the production provides us with our only moments of brightness and levity, like the angelic choral vocals and blissful breakbeat that hijack “B.B. Butcher” halfway through without warning.

The ways in which the album captures the passage of time are also almost always in service to complicated and tragic questions: How many setbacks can you take in stride? How many tragedies can you push through? How many times can you figuratively die and come back? Throughout Manger on McNichols, Boldy James recounts dozens of stories—whether in passing or in depth—of friends and family whose stories came to an abrupt halt at the hands of drug addiction, draconian jail sentences, gang violence, and freak accidents. But through all this, Boldy continually and miraculously survives, at the price of being forced to make sense of an ever-expanding web of trauma.

Boldy’s world of “concreatures” and “gorgonites” eking out a living in Detroit is sometimes fleshed out through moments of small, heartrending pathos—the opener features a lengthy verse about a careful deliberation over whether to check the “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” box on an application form for a job that he ultimately doesn’t get, just as the pressures of first-of-the-month bills sink in.

 

Other times, misfortune’s ever-presence is writ devastatingly large. “The Middle of Next Month” finds Boldy broken down, seething with barely-contained rage as he raps about a recent jail bid and the deaths of his unborn twins. On the hook he envisions his revenge. “Somebody’s gotta die / ’til I’m captured I’ma prey / On your mommy and your pa, tell him “Happy Father’s Day” / Tell him “Happy Kwanzaa,” tell her “Happy Mother’s Day” / Tell her “Happy Hanukkah” before I blow your fucking brains / Into the middle of next month, I’m going through a thing.” But there’s no one to get revenge on, no singular source of cruelty to target—the threat simply disappears into an uncaring void.

Despite all this, Boldy continually expresses his faith that if he can just push through and rebuild one more time, he’ll finally find peace in life. On the beautiful closer, he undergoes a metamorphosis as he’s released from county jail: “Put on my street clothes, took off my county blues / Put on my Free Throws, took off my shower shoes / Threw my piece on, cut off my wristband / Then threw my freeze on and screw my earring in, then put my ring on… / They call me King James Jones, it was writ in stone.”

In mere moments, Boldy James goes from anonymous convict to iced-out rap game titan. Manger on McNichols is lightning in a bottle—an out-of-nowhere masterpiece from two artists who were unknown to most (myself included) prior to 2020. But it’s also only one of four other great (but not as great) projects Boldy’s put out this year, the aggregate buzz from which has earned him a spot on Westside Gunn’s formidable Griselda Records roster. Something tells me that this rebirth will be the one that sticks.

That does it for this series of album reviews that I’ve masqueraded as a best-of-the-year list. [Placeholder sentence about hoping 2021 will be better or some shit.]