So, as this year wraps up, I’m sharing my favorite albums from 2020. There were a lot of great records that came out, and I honestly had a hard time narrowing it down to just ten but I did, and I’m about to share them. But before I do that, let me share my honorable mentions. These are albums I listened to and enjoyed but for one reason or another, didn’t quite make the top ten album list for me:
- Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
- Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
- Deftones – Ohms
- Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King
- Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
- Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life
- Idles – Ultra Mono
- Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
So, with that said, let’s jump in and countdown my top ten albums of the year.
10. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
This is the 7th album by the Nashville-based veteran singer-songwriter and he’s as sharp as ever with his craft. This introspective collection of songs deal with heavy topics like death, torn relationships, racism, and changing times. The production is fairly straight-head rootsy folk-rock from his backing band, the 400 unit, with maybe a little more emphasis on the lead guitar than usual. But it all serves to compliment his echoey, raspy vocals well, giving the whole album a haunted, ghostly feel. It’s great to hear someone keeping up the tradition of creating heartfelt songs in a fresh way. He’s again proven why he’s one of the top songwriters of our generation.
Essential Songs: Dreamsicle, Only Children, St. Peter’s Autograph
9. Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Laura is a British singer/songwriter I’ve casually followed for many years. This is her 7th album and a very solid collection of songs. I love the pretty tone of her voice and the great melodies she sings. Her lyrics are very deep and personal, often dealing with heartbreak, strong emotions, and raw storytelling. In many ways, she reminds me of a modern version of Joni Mitchell or occasionally Nick Drake. The production is pretty stripped down; mostly based on acoustic guitar, with bass, drums, subtle lead guitar parts, and occasional strings and piano. But the production doesn’t really need much to it because the songs stand well on their own. It had a real classic rock kind of vibe to it.
Essential Songs: Held Down, Song For Our Daughter, Fortune
8. EOB – Earth
This is the debut solo album of Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien. While most of the members of his main band have done multiple solo albums at this point, it’s finally his turn and the results are great. He typically sings backing vocals so it’s nice to finally hear him in the lead vocalist role. He sounds confident, mixing some of the experimental elements of Radiohead with approachable songwriting and production. This album is many years in the making, partially inspired by a year that he and his family lived in Brazil and experienced the blended music and culture available there. The songs often morph genres, like on “Brasil,” where the first half of the song begins with folk guitar picking, then transitions into a mellow EDM trance with subtle synthesizers. Other songs bring in the rock a bit more. It’s an adventurous record and a fun journey to listen to.
Essential Song: Shangri-La, Brasil, Deep Days
7. Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
This is the fourth album by this Nashville-based singer/songwriter and it’s a very solid release. His sound teeters somewhere between country, blues, roots-rock, and pop, but at the center of it all is his raspy, soulful voice. It’s filled with power and emotion, giving the songs a lot of added weight and depth to them. The production is very slick and crisp; with great punchy drums and full, clear tones with all the instruments. Normally, it would be a little too polished and mainstream sounding for my taste but it really works here. I think I’ve respected his music for a while but this is probably the first time I’ve really connected with it and thoroughly enjoyed listening.
Essential Songs: Devil Always Made Me Think Twice, Cold, Starting Over
6. Fleet Foxes – Shore
They have been one of my favorite bands for many years and this 4th album was a welcome, refreshing release after being somewhat disappointed by their last one from a few years ago. The songs bring back the strong melodies and optimism of their earlier sound, along with the thick harmonies and textural instrumentation that accompany singer Robin Recknold’s distinct voice. True to the album artwork and title, their music carries an organic quality as if they are providing something of a soundtrack to nature and outdoor adventure. And despite much of the album being recorded during the pandemic, it feels bright and warm, making it a very nice and pleasant listen.
Essential Songs: Can I Believe You, Sunblind, Jara, Thymia
5. Phantogram – Ceremony
This is the 4th album by this electronica duo and they sound as strong and confident as ever. The production is top-notch with solid, interesting beats and plenty of twists and turns with the instrumentation; including fluid bass lines, catchy guitar riffs, atmospheric synths, and punchy brass hits, The songs are very catchy and memorable; occasionally sounding funky and upbeat but other times, carrying a little edge and attitude. In some ways, their sound is occasionally reminiscent of Portishead but maybe sped up twice as fast and less depressing (if that makes any sense?). It’s a great album from start to finish; maybe their best. So, it’s a joy to hear a group like this at the top of their game and making great music.
Essential Songs: In A Spiral, Dear God, Pedestal
4. Nathaniel Rateliff – And It’s Still Alright
Despite Nathaniel having performed for many years and hearing his name mentioned many times, this artist is a new discovery for me this year. I finally gave him a chance and I’m glad I did because this album is fantastic. This marks his 6th album release and his seasoned abilities as a songwriter show. He has a great twangy folk-rock sound with a little bit of old-timey twist, similar in style to Father John Misty or Fleet Foxes. I love how soulful his voice sounds. It’s moving and even inspirational at times. The songs are equally impactful, with a strong passion behind the melody and lyrics.
Essential Songs: And It’s Still Alright, All Or Nothing, What a Drag, Time Stands
3. Gorillaz – Song Machine Vol. 1: Strange Timez
This is the 7th album released by this eclectic hip hop project in their 20 plus years of existence. If you’re unacquainted with Gorillaz, they consider themselves a “virtual band,” meaning that the members are portrayed as cartoons in their videos and interviews. You don’t usually see the humans behind the music except when they are performing live, but even then, the cartoons are featured heavily on giant screens. The sole core member of the band is Damon Albarn, who is famous for being the singer of the rock band Blur. Over the years, he has frequently collaborated with other artists to create the songs for Gorillaz, but this time, he’s taken it a step further and made every single song is a collaboration release each month as separate episodes in a web series. Some of them even feature big names like Elton John, Beck, and Robert Smith (from The Cure). This album collects all the songs from the first season of this series. There are a lot of fun tracks in this collection, featuring great eclectic production with somewhat of a funky, 80s dance influence. Great music for a party. But at the core, what really makes it work are the excellent melodies and songwriting.
Essential Songs: The Valley of the Pagans (feat. Beck), Strange Timez, Aries, The Lost Chord
2. Ásgeir – Bury The Moon
This is the 3rd album by this Icelandic singer-songwriter, whose full name is Ásgeir Trausti (but he just goes by his first name as a performer). My friend showed me his music a few years ago and I’ve been a fan since. His style is a blend of folk and electronica with subtle additions of piano, horns, and strings. He often sings in a high, falsetto voice which gives his music a gentle feel, but the music takes plenty of surprising twists and turns. His sound reminds me of a combination of Bon Iver, David Gray, and James Blake. I love the way it all blends together and supports his solid songwriting. The melodies are strong and super catchy. In addition to the English version of this album, he also has a version available where the lyrics are in Icelandic. It’s a great album from start to finish and I found myself coming back to it over and over throughout the year.
Essential Songs: Breath, Eventide, Turn Gold To Sand, Pictures
1. Travis – 10 Songs
Travis is a Scottish band I first discovered when I was in high school and I saw them on tour in the year 2000 when they opened for Oasis in Seattle. They were supporting their album The Man Who, which was starting to gain some traction in the US and helped pave the way for bands like Coldplay. I became an instant fan and that album remains one of my all-time favorites to this day. Over the years, they’ve declined in popularity. They’ve continued to release albums but none of them have quite reached the quality and magic they had with The Man Who. Now here they are, 30 years into their existence as a band, releasing their 9th album, which I think is among their best work. I think they really stepped up their game and tried harder than they have in a long time to make something special. What really makes it shine for me is the songwriting. The melodies are catchy, with nice rises and falls, and repetitions with a few unexpected twists. The lyrics are characteristically melancholy but with a sense of optimism. The songs are concise and get to the point, which I really like. This album is mellow and relaxing for the most part, mostly due to Fran Healy’s smooth voice and fairly straight-ahead production. It all sounds very effortless, even though I’m sure they labored immensely to hone-in on these well-crafted songs. It’s an album that holds up to repeat listens; I kept coming back to it and enjoying it more and more with each listen.
Essential Songs: A Ghost, A Million Hearts, Waving at the Window, Nina’s Song
Favorite Songs of 2020
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