Topher’s 2020 Albums of the Year
I listened to significantly less music in 2020 than I have in previous years, so I decided this time around that I’d trim the fat (top EP’s, honorable mentions, etc.) and just give you my top 20 favorite albums from the year, thoughts and all.
20. Chicano Batman – Invisible People
On their fourth studio album, L.A.’s Chicano Batman expands on their signature blend of prog and tropical music, from the modulating basslines to the occasional island-like vibes that show up. Overall, there’s a catchier, more accessible feel to much of Invisible People, making it the quartet’s best yet.
19. Vacay Nick – Off Days
Although he released his inaugural three singles in 2019, indie rocker Vacay Nick had been priming for a full album. When such an album finally came this past November, it did not disappoint, thanks to hints of both electro and psychedelia. Even with half of Off Days being unveiled ahead of album release day, hearing them all in the context of the record was just like hearing them for the first time all over again.
18. Algiers – There Is No Year
Atlanta’s Algiers is known for melding the brash sounds of noise and industrial with the purer tones of soul and gospel, while always keeping sociopolitical awareness at the forefront of their music. There Is No Year is no exception; if anything, the dark, often-brooding effort feels even more focused than either of its predecessors.
17. Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
With her first full-length in five years, English singer Lianne La Havas takes the concept of a failed relationship and transforms it into a comprehensive journey broken down into three distinct sections. Stylistically, La Havas’ self-titled third LP is vibey enough to make for the perfect coffeehouse mix but musically complex enough to keep even the closest of listeners intrigued. And while the bulk of the album’s highlights comes on its first third, La Havas’ powerful take on Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” rivals the original.
16. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Pop superstar Dua Lipa burst onto the global scene three years ago with her self-titled debut, a record with several smash hits, which landed on year-end lists galore. This past year saw the 25-year-old return to the spotlight, with her disco- and funk-ridden sophomore effort boasting a handful of hits of its own. Much like its title would suggest, Future Nostalgia is both fantastically futuristic and full of nostalgic overtones, from the bombastic stomp of the album’s title track to the bright bounce of “Levitating” and everything in between.
15. Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything
With the glaring exception of 2019, there’s been at least one metal or hardcore release each year ever since I started doing these lists for TUNED UP back in 2013. So, not surprisingly, 2020 saw my winter discovery of British heavy metal quintet Loathe, just as the Liverpool natives were releasing their second full-length record. I Let It In and It Took Everything is a fifty-minute trek through soundscapes both light and dark, both lush and pummeling. It is equal parts shoegaze and post-metal, with just enough melody to keep listeners guessing.
14. We Are the City – RIP
2020 was the year Canadian rock outfit We Are the City decided to hang things up for good, but not before releasing one final album back in February, fitfully titled RIP. Their incredibly-cohesive farewell LP is the kind of record that you can easily get lost in. From the instrumentation being this sonic marriage of progressive rock and experimental pop, to much of the lyrical content being clever, quotable, or a combination of the two, there’s no better way to send off these Vancouver natives.
13. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Since their inception in 2013, the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike have yet to disappoint, and RTJ4 is no exception. While in many ways the album is precisely what the American hip-hop group has become so known for over their years, both musically and lyrically, RTJ4 sees greater venturing into genres like dub, hard rock and metal, and psychedelia. Not only that, but its comprehensive list of guest spots includes previous collaborators like Gangsta Boo and Zack de la Rocha, adding in other heavyweights like Pharrell Williams, Mavis Staples, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme.
12. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – K.G.
Australian psychedelic rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are no stranger to sonic exploration, but on their sixteenth studio album (subtitled Explorations into Microtonal Tuning, Volume 2), they mean it quite literally. K.G. incorporates the band’s signature sound with elements of ‘70s funk and ‘80s synths. Much like their other releases, it is one continuous body of work that feels less like ten tracks and more like one single forty-minute track, constantly adapting and evolving.
11. Taylor Swift – evermore
No one had a bigger year musically than Taylor Swift, who released not one but two surprise records in 2020. Described as the “sister album” to July’s folklore, evermore in many ways follows in the same vein as its immediate predecessor: a sonic pairing of lush folk-pop and smooth indie rock that serves as the musical layering to the collection of dynamic third-person narratives. While the wintry evermore doesn’t quite live up to the precedent set by its prior counterpart, what it lacks as a whole is more than made up for with top-tier collaborations like HAIM on “no body, no crime,” The National on “coney island,” and Bon Iver on the title track. Add to that the killer 1-2-3 combo of “marjorie,” “closure,” and the aforementioned title track to close out the record, and it’s evident that several songs on evermore eclipse even folklore’s best.
10. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
The genius of album bookends “One More Year” and “One More Hour” is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to Tame Impala’s fourth full-length. Released on Valentine’s Day, The Slow Rush is twelve tracks of psychedelic disco that is equal parts fresh, vibey, and groovy. It is futuristic yet retrospective musically, often introspective lyrically, but always worth the nearly five years Kevin Parker made us wait for it.
9. The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
For the thrice-postponed fourth studio album from The 1975, gargantuan feels like the adequate descriptor. After all, with 22 tracks spanning over 80 minutes, it is the band’s longest long-player to date. Notes on a Conditional Form is also their most diverse: take its highlights, like the screamo punk rock lead single “People,” the folk rock duet with Phoebe Bridgers, “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” or the low-profile dancehall charts “Shiny Collarbone” and “What Should I Say.” With 22 tracks, there’s bound to be at least some filler throughout, and there is, but not so much that it deters from the overall vibe of the record.
8. Nothing But Thieves – Moral Panic
There’s perhaps no better album that sums up the year 2020 than the third studio effort from Brit alt.-rockers Nothing But Thieves. Much of Moral Panic focuses lyrically on the anxiety, confusion, and quite literally, “panic” in the world over the past year or so. This pairs well with the quintet’s strong, oft-unrelenting musical nature, its occasional softer moments like “Impossible,” and the album closer.
7. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
The stellar 15-song solo debut from Paramore’s Hayley Williams released back in May. While the majority of its highlights we heard well in advance—“Simmer” and “Leave It Alone” both premiered in January and the boygenius collaboration “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” did so in March—the album as a whole is a fantastic effort that feels like the farthest thing from a debut.
6. Poppy – I Disagree
If you want a good idea of what Poppy’s Sumerian Records debut (and her third album overall) is going to sound like, just listen to the opener “Concrete,” which in less than 3-and-a-half minutes has several changes, both in style and in mood. The record itself is this crushing amalgam of at least a dozen different genres and boasts countless twists and turns. It’s like if Allie X or Grimes was raised by Mr. Bungle and grew up listening exclusively to progressive metal and industrial music. Precise, I know. And with nodes of dream pop, nu-metal, J-pop, and even black metal at certain points, it’s no wonder I Disagree helped earn the Boston native her first Grammy nod.
5. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Speaking of Grammy nods, Phoebe Bridgers picked up three of her own with her sophomore full-length. If you gave me one word to properly describe Punisher, the word I would use is “haunting.” All across the record, from the eerie instrumental intro “DVD Menu” up through the apocalyptic closer “I Know the End,” there is this overwhelmingly haunting vibe present. Sometimes, like on the devastating third single “ICU,” that vibe is more subtle, but the majority of the time, like on any of the other singles from the album, it is far more blatant. Punisher is emo, indie, folk, and rock, all at once and all the time.
4. Ethan Gruska – En Garde
Released way back in January, the second LP from Los Angeles–native Ethan Gruska is easily one of the best-produced albums from 2020. En Garde is ethereal indie pop with tinges of folk, alternative, and rock throughout, with occasional ventures into more experimental territory. It is also chock full of clever one-liners, and as if that’s not enough it boasts an all-star list of guest vocalists, all of which themselves have albums on this list (La Havas, Bridgers, and Moses Sumney). There are plenty of “hits” on the record, yet on the flip side somehow the entire effort is still best digested in one sitting.
3. Taylor Swift – folklore
Taylor Swift shocked the world when she announced the release of her eighth studio album just hours ahead of its release, and less than a year removed from 2019’s Lover. With help from The National’s Aaron Dessner, Swift totally shifted gears this time, not only stylistically but also with regards to the perspective of her songwriting. The result that ensued was the 16-track smash folklore, with all 16 tracks entering the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously. Much of the album highlights come in groups, like the mid-record 3-song sequence starting with “this is me trying” and the closing trio of “betty,” “peace,” and “hoax.” None, however, hold a candle to the two powerful piano-driven lead singles, “cardigan” and “exile,” the latter featuring Bon Iver and the former feeling like the folksy distant cousin to The National 2017 hit “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”
2. Moses Sumney – græ
While it was supposed to be difficult for Moses Sumney to top his seminal 2017 debut, the American singer-songwriter has defied the odds before. Yet, on his massive double album græ, Sumney makes this very thing look effortless, easily toppling Aromanticism with a cohesive, expansive musical journey, devoid of any filler. One song flows right into the next, on both parts but especially on part one. The record boasts a wide array of musical styles and guests, but above all, Sumney makes it easy to get lost in the music and transported into his world. græ is cerebral and abstract, yet it is also concrete, accessible, and as a result handily one of the best releases from all of 2020.
1. Deftones – Ohms
Every ten years, the stars align and Sacramento’s Deftones release one of the best albums of their career. It first happened in 2000 with the quintet’s critically-acclaimed third LP White Pony, one many to this day still consider to be their best. Then, it happened again in 2010 with Diamond Eyes, a record that catches a lot of heat from fans despite being the strongest Deftones album from front to back. 2020 saw the alternative metallers issue their ninth studio effort (and their first in over four years), Ohms. In many ways it is their most abrasive release to date, but it wouldn’t be a Deftones record without plenty of musical contrast.
Ohms covers tons of ground, from the driving melodic rock of cuts like “Ceremony” or the title track, to the sludge-like stomp of “The Spell of Mathematics,” to the ambient outro of “Pompeji.” The latter two tracks, along with the beast that is “This Link Is Dead,” are three of the heaviest songs the band has ever written, so the fact that they’re all stacked on top of each other like they are adds to the album’s overall shock value. Its soaring lead single doubles as both the title track and the album closer. There’s an unbelievable sense of finality with the way that “Ohms” (and in turn the album as a whole) ends, and that I think is what actually secures Ohms as my album of the year.