After a year that was the most unpredictable in my lifetime and continues to be up until these final moments, I’ve compiled my list of best albums of 2020. The last time I ever felt the way I did this year must have been sometime in my teens. Probably around 15 when everything seemed out of control and the whole world seemed crazy. All I could do this year was keep going and enjoy the times when stuff wasn’t hitting the fan.
So, we begin at the end of the list. With a couple of albums that simply existed. Both for different reasons.
12. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
I’ve probably listened to this album 10 times and I couldn’t tell you one song on it. It just plays like background music in a non-offensive and completely unremarkable 70’s AM radio kind of way. That’s disappointing for a band that used to make me marvel at their creativity. If you want to pick up the best Tame Impala-related song of the year, you’d be wise to check out the first track of The Streets’ None of Us are Getting out of this Life Alive, which appears further up the list.
11. Elbow – Live at the Ritz
Elbow was the last band I saw live before the lockdown happened. It was a characteristically great Elbow show. Much of that was due to the strength of their new material and that strength is evident here as well. If there’s one thing that keeps this from being higher on the list is the tediousness of the between-song banter on this album. Guy Garvey is affable as ever, but you only need to hear his stories once. I’d love to see a full “electric” Elbow live album at some time in the future. But feel free to cut out the stories. Just the tunes, please.
10. Doves – The Universal Want
If you had told me a Doves album was coming out this year and that I’d have it toward the tail end of my list, I would have called you crazy. But, in a year that things made no sense, I guess this is par for the course.
This is not to say this is a bad album. It has grown on me. Its lower rating is probably not helped by the fact that my first listen was on a mis-pressed vinyl copy that sounded like a flexi-disc from the back of a comic book. Since then, I’ve exchanged it for a better copy and the digital version has sounded good on a few short distance car rides. But something just feels incomplete or like a shadow of a great Doves record. “Broken Eyes” is the best example. The production sounds like an off-center record and that really blows what could be a good song. It’s not exactly “Doves by the numbers”, but The Universal Want is the weakest album of their discography. Maybe it’ll reveal something I’m missing in the months to come. Maybe it’s an album that needs the springtime to be fully appreciated. Maybe it’s just this stupid year.
9. Greg Dulli – Random Desire
The first of two “band leaders” on the list to have gone out on their own for the first official time this year is Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs. I’m not a stalwart Whigs fan, nor do I know everything that the Twilight Singers, his other band, have recorded. But I have seen the Whigs live and I own all the crucial entries in their discography. This record just sounds like the Whigs with a little less energy. The songs seem promising at first blush but never quite achieve the dramatic liftoff the way Afghan Whigs’ best songs do. The hooks aren’t as hooky and the sleaze not as sleazy. But sometimes, that’s what solo albums are meant to be; a departure from the artist’s day job. And even if it doesn’t have the highs of a proper Whigs release, Dulli nails some pretty great vibes all the way through. More, please.
8. Peter Bjorn & John – Endless Dream
This album hit at a weird time of this year. I was sort of in a place where I didn’t know what to listen to next, and before any of the albums higher up on this list hit. It was as if Endless Dream was the last vestige of the old normal before we realized just how weird things would be for just how long. It’s a fairly sunny PB&J outing and eschews the electronics of their past two albums. Therefore, it’s a solid outing from a now-veteran indie band. The songwriting is sharp throughout and the melodies are hummable, if not completely memorable. But in the midst of the album, everything works and it’s an enjoyable listen. It feels a lot like that first week of February felt – comfortable and blissfully unaware.
7. Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
Feeling like a reaction to last year’s Sunshine Rock, Blue Hearts could be mistaken for an 80s SST release. From its DIY-like cover to the searing guitar chords it contains, Mould is still pissed off and not afraid to confront his demons or spout his frustration with the status quo circa 2020. He also touches on all phases of his solo career (except for Modulate, thankfully) in broad strokes. Far off echoes of Workbook are present in “Heart on My Sleeve”. “Forecast of Rain” could easily be a Black Sheets of Rain outtake and “American Crisis” would have felt comfortable right after “JC Auto” on Beaster.
Is it Mould repeating himself? Not any more than how 2020 has been a bulked-up phantom of turmoil past. He’s filtering the current climate into his language and it’s a solid outing through and through.
6. Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
This is the point in the list where things start to get interesting. Despite fair to middling reviews of this first solo outing, The National’s Matt Berninger recruited the production help of Booker T. Jones for an album more interesting that then National’s recent output. There’s a familiar wine-buzz weariness to Berninger’s voice throughout the whole album and much of it is sung in a mutter. “Distant Axis” is a warm, pleading song reminiscent of the best of the National’s early albums. Gail Ann Dorsey makes an appearance in “Silver Springs” that is more effective than her work on the previous National album. The collaboration connection to David Bowie is not lost on Berninger. He’s just as much of a student of rock ‘n roll as a practitioner. (If there’s any doubt, see his recent cover of the Velvet Underground.)
Wrapping up the album with the title track proves to be the most memorable point of the album and rewarding in a very off-kilter way. It’s not a genius piece of writing but it is incredibly beguiling and leaves you really satisfied with the entire album you just heard. As a whole, the work plays like a mid-winter walk at dusk. It’s hard to tell what everything is, but in the cold winter air and silver moonlight, you wish you could bottle up the feeling.
5. The Streets – None of Us are Getting out of This Life Alive
I’ve done more sit-ups and washed more dishes to this album that I care to remember. Something about it is tailor made for cutting through monotony and taking the sting out of the things I absolutely hate. On his latest outing, Mike Skinner has teamed with some of popular music’s most popular voices for an album that is completely underrated. The addition of Idles’ Joe Talbot on the title track seems like a master stroke. Especially given the context of the times. The same with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker making an appearance on “Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better”. Everything on this album is recontextualized in a COVID world but one can infer that it will survive just as well outside of it – whenever that happens. That said, this album isn’t perfect. As with all Streets records, there are misfires and some truly dopey lyrics. But overall, it’s an enjoyable, gonzo listen for less than enjoyable times.
4. Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life
Somewhere along the way, Hamilton Leithauser became a crooner. There were always hints of it in his work with the Walkmen but on The Loves of Your Life he embraces it fully. (See also, his live album from this year, Live! At Café Carlyle.) Since disbanding the Walkmen several years back, he has expanded his musical palette and continues to push his voice in ways that seem to defy gravity. His songwriting on Loves absolutely shines and reads more like poetry with a clutch of misfits as the protagonists.
“Don’t Check the Score” is set in a story where you know there is bad news to be had — you know you’re better off not checking in to receive it. If it had been written after 2020, it would seem a little on the nose. But as it is, it just seems like some sort of premonition.
“Here They Come” paints a vivid picture with both the production of the song and the story being told. It starts as a hushed lamentation of the end of something. About midway, that lamentation almost turns into an Americana jug band singalong of joyful self-flagellation. It deserves to be played loud, late and after you’ve had one more than you should have.
The Loves of Your Life is a truly great album by an artist that shows he has more tricks up his neatly-tailored suit sleeve than anyone imagined. Eat your heart out, Old Blue Eyes.
3. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
There was a point earlier in this year when this album came out and I was sure it would be the album of the year. In any normal year, it would have been. It is easily one of the best Strokes albums and despite some stiff competition, some days it could sit at the top of this list.
The Strokes’ storied career has seen its fair share of infighting and bad timing. Like a mirror image, back in 2001, Is This It contained a song berating the NYPD which delayed the release in the wake of 9/11. This album showed up as the band was back on speaking terms after years of bad blood, getting ready for something of a comeback tour. But bad release timing aside, The New Abnormal is full of great songwriting and crisp playing.
“Ode to the Mets” is one of the best songs in the Strokes’ catalog, mixing melancholy with some sort of inexplicable determination. The combination of that and the yearning in the music is incredibly powerful. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” finds the Strokes indulging their lighter 80’s-influences and coming up with one of their most memorable choruses of their career. On any other summer, “Endless Summer” would have been rocked on the NH car stereo with reckless abandon. Somehow, it was hard to capture that feeling this summer. But thanks to the Strokes, it’s an endless summer so there’s always next year.
2. Promartyr – Ultimate Success Today
The Michigan band Protomartyr has been on my radar for a few years. On the music blogs I frequent, there’s always a mention of them. But I’m not sure why this is the year I decided to check them out. It must have been a review somewhere that used the words “apocalyptic” or “nihilistic” that drew me in one day in this weird, sticky sludge of a year. I’m not sure when it was but I do remember how I was feeling – hopeless. For all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here as you probably experienced many of them yourself, I was feeling anxious and more than a little worn down. It was right before a workout that I decided, I’ll give this a shot.
At around the time the plank portion of the drill kicked in, “Processed by the Boys” did as well and I was smitten. Staccato, almost classical punches of rhythm accented by Joe Casey’s hoarse, grunted lyrics did it for me. The scenes of a culture on the brink flashed through my mind like my Twitter feed and instead of fleeing it, I recognized it. “Boys” describes the bleakness of 2020 like it was written during 2020. But it wasn’t “A foreign disease, washed up on the beach… …Fiction! Fiction!” Um, no it’s not, Joe.
“Michigan Hammers” and “Modern Business Hymns” do the same type of thing. They terrify you like a classic horror movie. Except, this movie is a little more déjà vu than Freddie Kruger could ever be. It’s hard to describe but very accessible. It strikes fear into your heart while also thumbing its nose at it. But I’ll admit, I don’t own this on vinyl yet. I must be in the right mood and I’m not sure I want to spend too much time in this dark of a place. But man, when the timing is right, there’s really nothing better than Ultimate Success Today. Talk about facing your demons.
TIE 1. Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
The first time I heard The 2020 Fontaines D.C. release, A Hero’s Death, the vocals reminded me of Peggy Suicide-era Julian Cope. A sort of clipped baritone that only elongated to into sustained notes to practice a sort of vocal high-wire act. These weren’t the vocals of a singer but definitely the vocals of a proclaimer.
Kicking off with “I Don’t Belong”, the album begins on plenty of warmth but also repetitive vocals, only to be bested by the second track, “Love is the Main Thing”. It’s the type of song that would have made Ian Curtis feel like Pavarotti. Cavernous guitar crashes on rolling waves of snare and cymbals and drives it to a climactic finish that threatens to get messy but never does.
That’s when the real power of Fontaines D.C. reveals itself. “Televised Mind” is a post-punk masterpiece. From the bass riff to the to the first smack of the drums, it rolls up everything that you’ve ever heard from the genre and delivers it in a smokey-blue, cavernous rumble. The wildly Irish swagger-soaked vocals evoke a cocky confidence of a band that knows that it has what it takes. “A Hero’s Death” and “I Was Not Born” display the same type of swagger later in the album that keep the pace up while not sacrificing mood or brilliant but subtle flashes of absolute rock and roll ecstasy.
Discovering this album lit the fuse that caused me to dive in their first album, Dogrel, as well as take detours into the Idles and Protomartyr universes. Fontaines D.C. were clearly the musical gateway drug of the year for me and even after a good several months with the album, it’s exciting and foreign. A welcome distraction from the confusion and crap of 2020.
TIE 1. Idles – Ultra Mono
If A Hero’s Death was the musical representation of how I acted this year, Ultra Mono (and the Idles back catalog) was the representation of how I felt. This band just ignites some primal love of music in me. They leave nothing on the table and I don’t remember the last time I saw a group so into what they’re doing. (I’ve just realized that it is impossible for me to classically review this album. It’s NYE, I’m tired and I have no objectivity when it comes to this band. It’s all primal for me. Proceed at your own risk. Bad writing ahead.)
It’s been interesting to see the band get slagged off by other bands and in the music press for the age-old sin of being to earnest. Others accuse them of clichés and platitudes. What I’m struggling to figure out is, when did all of these people lose the joy in simply rocking the heck out?
I can’t pick a favorite off the album. But I know that there’s not a clunker in the bunch. I promise you that if you vacuum to this, your work will be done in half the time, or less. Coming from someone who abhors vacuuming, that’s the highest praise possible.
One final note – my 9-year-old totally gets this band (she only hears the non-explicit songs, however.) My wife and 13-year-old, not so much. Then again, the younger one tends to get a little more fired up like I do. Now where did I put that vacuum?