by Dave Heaton
“I used to think the world was true and now I’m not so sure” – Katie Pruitt, “Searching for the Truth”
2020 was a horrific year and if we’re pretending otherwise, God help us all. It was hard to find time to write about music in a year when “hanging in there” became the default answer to “how are you?”. The end-of-year horse-race feels so irrelevant when friends, family and fellow humans are struggling, hurting, dying. When the very fabric of ‘ordinary life’ is crumbling around us.
Yet it was an extraordinary year for music, at least as good as any recent year I can remember.
Generalizing, from my POV, 2020 was:
- Yet another year where women made the best music but received less of the promotional/industry attention (in some genres especially).
- A year dominated, again, by forward-thinking jazz centered around Chicago, London, and a handful of other major metropolitan areas. Jazz, old and new, was one of the best balms during this rollercoaster year.
- The year of disco. The pulse of disco ran through several of 2020’s best pop albums. Was it the absence of in-person community this year that made music about physical, communal connection so attractive?
- A year to look beyond the US, for exploring new music. While my list, tastes and life are US-focused, I went down many rabbit holes of music from around the world – especially African pop music.
- Yet another year demonstrating how hip-hop has replaced rock as the underlying spirit beneath our musical language, across genres, globally. Even if I had fewer-than-usual straightahead ‘rap albums’ on my list, it’s in the air throughout the list.
- A year where I had less time for nonsense. The best music felt sharpened to its own point, connected at every step to its purpose, no matter the genre or style it came wrapped in.
My favorite 30 albums of 2020 are below, with short descriptions. Albums beyond the 30 are grouped together thematically, bringing the total to 141 if I did my math right. This is not an all-inclusive list, I cut a good 50-100 more favorites for the sake of ‘readability’.
I also haven’t taken the time to do a singles list in 2020, though a list of great songs not on these albums would also be incredibly long. (I’ll sneak in 5 songs for good measure – Suboi “Bet On Me”; Lil Baby “The Bigger Picture”; Pongo “Wafu”; Iris DeMent “Going Down to Sing in Texas”; 70 Shine x Nacho “Domino.”)
1. Katie Pruitt – Expectations
Genre descriptions like singer-songwriter, folk, country, etc. will go nowhere towards describing: 1)how precisely written these heart-baring songs are 2) her stunning singing 3) the powerful, timely themes about societal repression of individuality and the way that’s internalized by families to horrific impact… 4) …and the way our systems and traditions reinforce all of that repression and lack of mutual understanding 5) how touching and tender the songs describe human connections in the face of that axis of repression 6) how self-analytical and perceptive songs on the verge of sentimentality can be 7) the rebellious spirit within traditional song structures 8) the way a great singer can feel like a friend, confidant, supporter during the course of a simple song 9) how forcefully it introduces Katie Pruitt as a star/anti-star-in-the-making (one can only hope).
2. Cindy – Free Advice
The San Francisco-based band Cindy makes patient, whispery pop that seems to be speaking its own language. Songs that feel wrapped in mystery, almost code-like, but underneath are simple observational stories and letters. Its music that seems easily dismissed with labels or comparisons (‘slowcore’ and similar) but spend much genuine time with it, and its charms and puzzles will win you over.
3. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle
A Cleveland Ohio collective probing the inherent injustice of America, and current end-times mood, within heady, murky soul-funk-electronics-etc workouts that also double as complicated love/betrayal songs. However you describe it, it’s powerful stuff doing deep work on listeners’ minds, bodies and hearts. They describe themselves as, “a multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.”
4. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
Disco ‘returned’ in 2020, — providing a virtual sense of body-focused, visceral community during a year lacking it – and this album from the UK pop singer Jessie Ware was its apex. Self-consciously in tribute yet fully, vitally living up to any standards those stylistic references might set. Transcendent, beat to beat.
5. Luke Stewart – Exposure Quintet
A quintet album wrapped up the language and philosophy of free improvisation, which delivers in a diverse and energetic manner all of the listening pleasures which that creative freedom sparks and offers. It starts amped-up and spreads out along the way, as if meant to demonstrate how far focused, creative improv can take us.
6. Shabaka and the Ancestors – We Are Sent Here By History
Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has been behind much of the best music of the past few years – this time leading his ensemble through Afrocentric, spiritual jazz oriented towards looking back at what’s been lost and forward at what’s possible.
7. Luke Schneider – Altar of Harmony
Steel-guitar ambient – taking sounds you think you might recognize and stretching them out to be meditative, beautiful, patient yet also impatient, unsettled, unsure.
8. Alabaster DePlume – To Cy and Lee: Instrumentals, Vol 1.
The best balm for anxious nerves in 2020 was this collection of elegant jazz reveries, inventive and surprising within a placid sunrise/sunset sort of atmosphere.
9. Little Big Town – Nightfall
Fleetwood Mac harmonies within sentimental, carefully crafted now-country sounds has been Little Big Town’s way for a long time now, but here they’ve reached an apex, transcending the intellectual and emotional limitations of their genre’s current state and displaying a well-rounded, almost-wisdom.
10. Fenne Lily – Breach
On her second album Fenne Lily expanded her sound far beyond the ‘indie-folk’ label she’s been given. A gorgeous album, with a layered pop sound. Lonely songs wrestling with anxiety, isolation, and memory — essentially the world we’ll all living in right now – handled with panache and guts.
11. Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
Led by drummer/producer/composer Boyd, another funky London jazz masterwork – this one especially eclectic, with big-band buoyancy melting into almost trip-hop club music. Moody poetry, electric guitar and complex rhythms are all in the mix.
12. Ariana Grande – Positions
The pop superstar’s latest – her best — is personal and playful, its erotic wordplay and subtly experimental melodic forms lending the album its own individual style. Trauma is woven throughout as a theme, the creativity a form of healing.
13. Keeley Forsyth – Debris
Debris is a title and a mood (opening lyric: “the streets are filled with debris”). Forsyth’s voice pierces in stunning but also unsettling ways, while the songs traffic in the same feeling, embodying and arising from depression.
14. Azana – Ingoma
The young South African singer Azana has an elegant way with pop/soul ballads evocative at times of ‘90s R&B, at others of something smooth like Sade. Ingoma means “song”, and beautiful songs, sung well, is the clear focus.
15. Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brotherhood – Live
A raw, powerful live album, recorded in Berlin – channeling deep rage against racism’s pervasiveness, at home and abroad.
16. HHY & The Kampala Unit – Lithium Blast
The Uganda underground/electronic label Nyege Nyege Tapes’ releases tend towards beyond-hyper eclecticism. Lithium Blast is smoother yet at least as exciting – a futuristic vibe among vibes, and full of surprises.
17. Killah Priest – Rocket to Nebula
Beatless hip-hop, intergalactic meanderings from a cult hero and one-time Wu-Tang affiliate who is off on his own trajectory, always and forever
18. John Carroll Kirby – My Garden
Kirby has worked with Solange and Frank Ocean, among others; on his debut album the music’s perhaps more in step with ‘70s R&B that those two newer artists draw from. My Garden is sneaky in its persistence, the soul-jazz grooves that take a simple melody and mood and keep on it until it’s hard to shake.
19. Taylor Swift – evermore
Less of an ambitious showpiece than her other 2020 album Folklore, but low-key better, evermore is Swift at her most comfortable yet precise.
20. Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red
Tongue-twisting hip-hop stylist with a vampire-punk demeanor amps up the gloom and the disavowal of convention, in service of playful nihilism. His music seems so dumb, until you realize the loss and emotion within the anger – which he only lets you see if you keep with him through each track of this uncompromising epic.
21. Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy & Happiness
A ‘90s “one-hit” pop-soul singer I don’t remember returns close to three decades later with a stunning collection of stylish, strangely sci-fi songs chronicling human pain. “My Mind Is Out of Its Mind”, reads one representative title.
22. Lewsberg – In This House
This Dutch band lives in the VU-Feelies zone of a locked-in electric guitar groove that serves as a platform for their noncomformist, anti-rock sort of rock, tied to ‘small’ stories and musings about life.
23. Caitlyn Smith – Supernova
Heartbreak anthems and detailed portraiture, from a singer who marries songwriter-y precision to belt-it-out showmanship; country music, but always resistant to getting too comfortable.
24. Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico
New Mexican bohemians playing UFO pop daydreams.
25. Tiwa Savage – Celia
Longtime, accomplished African singer breaks worldwide, on Motown, with a personal album (named after her mother) where the melodies and beats are light and bubbly, yet the subject matter goes deeper than is at first apparent.
26. Josephine Foster – No Harm Done
Mystic/folk singer with an extensive discography and fairytale voice records in Nashville, puts some gorgeous depth and form around her songcraft, tilting it in a grounded, almost-blues/country direction. One of her best.
27. Jamael Dean – The Ished Tree
Delicate almost to an extreme, this is a gorgeous solo piano jazz album teaming with not just skill but a distinctive, calming atmosphere of its own.
28. Koney – Koney
A crackerjack power-pop band (The ACBS) has turned into a creator of minimalist, enigmatic soft-pop.
29. Caleb Landry Jones – The Mother Stone
Pretentious art-rock s**t from a pretentious movie actor/bohemian. Nightmarish circus music that I love and then want to shut out of my mind forever.
30. The Growth Eternal – Bass Tone Paintings
The title says it all – bass that chases itself into a blissful oblivion, meditations on the world around us, messy as it is.
ALSO RECOMMENDED (in b.s. groupings vaguely by genre, topic or keywords)
‘AMERICANA’ [US mythology exposed]
- David Dondero – The Filter Bubble Blues
- Kahil El’Zabar – America the Beautiful
- Lonnie Holley – National Freedom
- Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band – Just Like Moby Dick
BEATS & RHYMES
- 42 Dugg – Young & Turnt Vol 2
- Boldy James and The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China
- Boldy James & Sterling Toles – Manger on McNichols
- Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
- Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats – Unlocked
- Father – Come Outside We Not Gone Jump You
- Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
- Gunna – Wunna
- Mozzy – Beyond Bulletproof
- Polo G – The Goat
- Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation
- Roy Kinsey – Kinsey: A Memoir
- Shabazz Palaces – The Don of Diamond Dreams
- Rod Wave – Pray 4 Love
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4
- ShooterGang Kony – Red Paint Reverend
- Yhung T.O. – Jupiter
SHINY AND RUSTIC (country-ish)
- Ashley McBryde – Never Will
- Ashley Ray – Pauline
- Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive
- Cam – The Otherside
- Hailey Whitters – The Dream
- Indigo Girls – Look Long
- Ingrid Andress – Lady Like
- Jaime Wyatt – Neon Cross
- Jerry David DeCicca – The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures
- Joe Ely – Love in the Midst of Mayhem
- Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels
- Taylor Swift – Folklore
- Ambrose Akinmusire – On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
- Anteloper – Tour Beats, Vol 1
- Asher Gamedze – Dialectic Soul
- Carlos Nino & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Chicago Waves
- Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure
- Gil Scott-Heron & Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again
- Irreversible Entanglements – Who Sent You?
- James Brandon Lewis Quartet – Molecular
- Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
- Jeremy Cunningham – The Weather Up There
- Kamaal Williams – Wu Hen
- Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings Sides E & F
- Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Failing
- Nubya Garcia – The Source
- Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust
- Asa Tone – Temporary Music
- Bing & Ruth – Species
- David Bird – Mirrors
- Ezra Feinberg – Recumbent Speech
- Frankie Reyes – Originalitos
- Gabriel Birnbaum – Nightwater
- J. Pavone String Ensemble – Lost & Found
- Jonas Munk – Minimum Resistance
- M. Sage – Blessing Redux (vivo relief)
- Pole – Fading
- Sarah Davachi – Cantus, Descent
- Sarah Louise – Earth and Its Contents
- Windy & Carl – Allegiance and Conviction
POP! (of various stripes)
- Andrew ‘Hotdog’ Kaffer – Head Band
- Anna McClellan – I Saw First Light
- Astrid S – Leave It Beautiful
- Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
- Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
- Demae – Life Works Out…Usually
- Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
- Ego Ella May – Honey For Wounds
- Georgia – Seeking Thrills
- H. Moon – Trustblood
- Haim – Women in Music Pt III
- Jessy Lanza – All the Time
- Kabza De Small – I Am the King of Amapiano
- Katie Dey – mydata
- Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
- The Legends – The Legends
- Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately
- Pia Fraus – Empty Parks
- Sarkodie – Black Love
- Terry vs Tori – Heathers
- Thibault – Or Not Thibault
- The Very Most – Needs Help
“ROCK” (or maybe these are still pop, I’m not sure…)
- 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit
- The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
- Gum Country – Somewhere
- Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree – Names of North End Women
- The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin
- Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else
- Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
- Porridge Radio – Every Bad
- Shopping – All or Nothing
- The Stroppies – Look Alive
- Stutter Steps – Reeling
- Torres – Silver Tongue
- Wednesday – I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone
SONGS (“Singer-songwriter” aka intimate music by solo artists not already above)
- Adam Selzer – Slow Decay
- Allegra Krieger – The Joys of Forgetting
- Angelica Garcia – Cha Cha Palace
- Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming
- Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part
- Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners
- Darren Hayman – Home Time
- Emma Kupa – It Will Come Easier
- Jeff London – Trouble Trust
- Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season
- Kath Bloom – Bye Bye These Are the Days
- Mac Miller – Circles
- Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer
- Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming
- Sweet Whirl – How Much Works
HAPPY NEW YEAR!