2020 Year-In-Review: The Top Five Albums
A simple list of my top five favorite albums of the year.
I've been saying this a lot, and I'll probably continue to say it for the next week or so, as more of these lists come out. 2020 was not the best year, that's for sure. For music, films, television, and books though, there is quite a lot on the table worth recognition. As always, the following list is highly subjective, and consists of albums that were heavily in my rotation this year. I'll float some honorable mentions under the list, but for now, here are my personal favorite albums of the year, from five to one.
5. Taylor Swift, folklore
No one is more shocked by my decision here than myself. Upon its surprise release back in July, I was initially underwhelmed by Swift's eighth studio album. I still included it on my listicle about the albums of the summer (available to read here), but it wasn't something that drew my attention more than the occasional listen. This all changed sometime in November, right after she released the Disney+ companion film/acoustic album and just a few weeks before she announced the sister album to folkore, evermore. folklore is an album that feels cold and distant, yet oddly familiar. It's not game-changing by any means, but when judged as an album that isn't trying to be game-changing, it actually provides a really calming and restful listening experience. I think releasing it in the Summer was definitely a choice, and perhaps one that wouldn't have been as fitting as releasing it in Autumn, amidst the weather changes, the falling leaves, and the transition to coldness. Similar to the changing season itself, folklore changes as you keep listening. It starts with enough, but not too much, energy, and as it works its way through each track, it slowly becomes more sharp, as the initially upbeat tunes are replaced by more emotional ones. The new album evermore may not shine as brightly as folklore in my opinion, but regardless, this marks an interesting direction and yet another career change for the veteran pop star, with much to look forward to if she continues on this path.
folklore is available to stream now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services. It is also available to purchase in physical format.
4. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20
Childish Gambino's newest album faded quickly from the headspace. Released just two days after The Weeknd's hit new album After Hours (great album as well, and probably would have been sixth or seventh on this list), and as quarantine was just beginning, most saw it as a disappointment, and quickly moved on from it. Yes, 3.15.20 is Gambino's most inaccessible album by far. Childish Gambino doesn't rap on it, and it doesn't have that nostalgic funk music feel that "Awaken, My Love!" possessed. It's a lengthy album, and doesn't really give listeners time to breathe as it moves from one song to the next, with every one of the 12 songs untitled (titled instead by just the time they appear on the album) besides two. It's not Gambino's best album, either. But, it's his boldest. It's a collision of different sounds, but not in a way that makes you want to rip your headphones out. Each song is charged with a certain energy that isn't replicated anywhere else on the album. 24.19 is eight minutes of a slow, vibey, melodic tune that could have been easily plucked from "Awaken, My Love!". The next song, 32.22, is a three minute song that's practically impossible to describe – fast paced, chaotic, and energetic. That's the magic of 3.15.20. Not only does it not have a direction, it knows it doesn't have one. And the product of that is a magical and deeply emotional listening experience, and as a result, one of my favorite albums of this year.
3.15.20 is available to stream now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services.
3. Moses Sumney, græ / Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Sure, this may be a six-album list now. But, not only are these two albums some of the best albums I have heard this year, they also create a new sonic experience and critical perspective when they are paired together.
Both græ and Set My Heart On Fire Immediately are filled with emotionally charged lyrics. As a result of that, they are both deeply melancholic, and provide a listening experience that brings on a lot of reflection on abstract and timeless concepts like love, life, and emotion, among so many other things. græ is the more somber album of the two. There isn't as much energy, and the music is more focused on Sumney's voice than background instrumentals. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately has these same qualities, but also explores different sounds as it plays from start to finish – there's some slow tunes (actually, there's a lot of them) but there are a few energetic ones to balance out the scales. As a result, Sumney's and Perfume Genius' albums do provide different listening experiences, but are still close enough in complexity, emotion, and themes that they can be paired together and experienced as a collective whole. And listening to them both? It may be a really somber experience, but I couldn't recommend it more. Moses Sumney's sophomore album, and Perfume Genius' fifth album, most definitely prove that there is a lot to look forward to from them both in the future.
græ and Set My Heart on Fire Immediately are available to stream now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services. They are also available to purchase in physical format.
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an album that gives no shits. And if even if it did, it'd be impossible to tell. It's been eight years since Apple's last album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and right from the first moments of Fetch The Bolt Cutters' first track, "I Want You To Love Me", it becomes more than obvious that the wait was well worth it. Impressively made primarily on Apple's GarageBand, Apple's album is one that seeps with everything that makes an album great – fantastic vocals, interesting and captivating lyrics, and an instrumental ensemble that brings everything together, manufacturing an unforgettable listening experience that absolutely served as the music to be listening to back in quarantine, when it was released. Fetch The Bolt Cutters has only aged well with time. Each time listening feels extraordinarily unique, and Apple's vocals and lyricism provide new insight into the album's themes each time you hear them. It's a wacky album, for sure, and for newbie listeners of Apple, it takes a bit of patience to fully sink into the sound. But it is by no means inaccessible. Each song sounds nothing like the previous one, the exact opposite of an issue that so many other albums have these days, where songs can easily blend into the next. But regardless of what song it is – if it's the simple yet catchy "Shameika", the rock-pop-alternative infused "Cosmonauts", or the repetitive (which is not an insult) "Relay" – there is so much infectious energy present. Fiona Apple is awesome, and Fetch The Bolt Cutters is as well.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is available to stream now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services. It is also available to purchase in physical format.
1. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Album of the year. At least for me, there's no doubt about it. Similar to folklore and Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Punisher was included on my albums of the summer list. But, by then, I already knew Bridgers' sophomore record was something else. Since then, the album has only improved to me. Each song seeps with emotion and melancholy, regardless of how energetic the track is (which trust me, the lively songs on this album, such as "Kyoto", are just as great as the calmer ones). It's an album that feels deeply personal for not just Bridgers but for listeners as well, filled to the brim with emotional lyrics expertly exploring ideas like love, death, and regret, among so many other things. It's also an album that isn't defined by any sort of energy, dissimilar to other albums on this list. It can be sombering to listen to at some points, and then merely minutes later, it's bursting with liveliness. Back in July, when describing the album, I stated that "With Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers knows exactly what she is doing, and it makes for quite a satisfying listening experience." Months later, that thought still holds up, but feels even more true now than it did back then. There's simply nothing else that has come out this year that is anything like Punisher, and it is far and away my favorite album of the year.
Punisher is available to stream now on Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming services. It is also available to purchase in physical format, although the vinyl copy has been sold out for a while now.
That's it for the main list, but here are some honorable mentions (some of which would have definitely made the list if I had done 10 choices as previously planned). The Weeknd's After Hours, The 1975's Notes on a Conditional Form, Chloe x Halle's Ungodly Hour, Bruce Springsteen's Letter To You, The Strokes' The New Abnormal, Chicano Batman's Invisible People, and Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia.