After nearly a decade of living through 2020, we’re finally entering the home stretch. That means it’s time to look back on our long national nightmare and try to find some bright spots.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hard as we expected. A team of 15 RIFF photographers, writers and editors got on a Zoom call hoping to put together a list of the 50 best albums of 2020 and, after looking back on the year, came up with 75 instead.
As it turns out this year has felt so long and been so packed with stress and bad news that quite a few albums we assumed had been out for ages were actually just a few months old. Each of us had also completely missed a few albums that were favorites of several other members of the team. That’s all probably true of you as well, so expect to rediscover some albums you’d forgotten and find some new favorites as the list goes on.
The people’s names you see next to the artist and album names are the authors of the blurb, but also usually someone who either nominated or supported the album during our debate. If you love the album, or if it introduced you to a new favorite, that’s the person to thank. If you think it should have been higher on the list, blame everyone else, because the writer was the guy or gal on your side.
So sit back, maybe grab a snack, and join us as we recap some of the rare good things to come from 2020.
75. BLACKPINK — The Album – Universal – Onome Uyovbievbo
BTS had the most-anticipated K-pop album of the year, but it was another huge act that overtook it in terms of both quality and wow-factor. A few years ago BLACKPINK was just another contender in the genre in the YG Entertainment Group. But since 2016 the group rose swiftly through the K-pop ranks, releasing hit after hit that made contact even in the U.S. The Album is a culmination of all that. It features bangers that have taken on a life of their own on social media (“How You Like That”), all-star collaborations (Selena Gomez and Cardi B make appearances on a couple of songs), and at eight songs, it comes nowhere close to overstaying its welcome to our readers, who may just now be dipping their toes in K-pop.
74. Tom Petty — Wildflowers & All the Rest – Warner – Sam Richards
Many long-running rock acts can assemble enough hits, misses, rarities and miscellaneous bits to make a great box set. But Tom Petty was able to put together such a package around a single album, his 1994 solo work “Wildflowers.” While several of that album’s songs have become mainstream rock standards, the seven-LP “Wildflowers & All the Rest” set presents not only alternative versions of those songs, but—most interestingly—the songs that didn’t make the cut for inclusion on the 1994 release. “Somewhere Under Heaven“ and “Hung Up and Overdue,” in particular, may well have been attention-getting cuts on the original album had they appeared there. Also, “Hung Up” appears in two radically different versions in this package, each complete with its own feel and, perhaps, different intended audiences. That Petty could have so many good songs end up on the cutting room floor—while making a single album—speaks not only to his creative fertility in the early ‘90s, but to the true worth of the box set concept.
73. Charli XCX — How I’m Feeling Now – Atlantic – Josiah Skallerup
Charli XCX and her band of collaborators have been leading the charge of pushing pop music headlong into new territories over the last few years, using the latest and greatest in PC Music production techniques. Throughout How I’m Feeling Now, she doesn’t exactly match the quality or sheen of a record written and produced over the course of months or years. Then again, this one only took 38 days. Considering the constraints she put on herself and where she’s been evolving as an artist, it’s a logical place for her to be right now. She took her natural instinct for future pop sensibility and put it to terrific use on this time capsule of an important batch of feelings. It’s not only a diary of the loneliness, insecurity and uneasiness that we’re all going through, but delivers glimmers of warmth, optimism and anticipation needed to make it to the other side.
72. Ed O’Brien – Earth – Capitol – Alex Baechle
Obscure Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien debuted this year as a solo artist with Earth, a hypnotic and ambitious experiment, which revealed his unique contributions to his other band’s iconic sound. Lengthy multifaceted compositions like “Brasil” and “Olympik” serve as O’Brien’s auteur pieces, while gentle porch ballads underpin complex, layered arrangements. Ed O’Brien contrasts a throughline of summery peacefulness against the jarring machinations of a chaotic modern world. With the immersive Earth, O’Brien sounds confident and realized on his own.
71. Nicolas Jaar – Telas – Other People – Tim Hoffman
The surreal and abstract soundscape conjured up by Nicolas Jaar on Telas brings to mind the works of Jackson Pollock. The ethereal, ambient soundtrack creates an ancient feel to the work—between the industrial and electronic abrasive elements clashing with more organic and traditional instrumentation. This clashing of synthetic and natural qualities carry listeners between moments of chaotic intensity and tranquil and meditative soundscapes.
70. Washed Out – Purple Noon – Sub Pop – Roman Gokhman
After experimenting with jazzy psychedelia and abstract songwriting, Georgia producer-songwriter and chillwave artist Ernest Greene (Washed Out) is back to his bread and butter on Purple Noon. The record is sonically light-as-air and thematically as heavy as a bag of bricks. Greene has said he was influenced by the island culture of the Mediterranean. It also pays homage to smooth music operators like Sade, ’80s-era Phil Collins and is heavy on melodramatic balladry that suits the windswept, luscious (and lusty) stories of flings, broken hearts, reconnection and isolation. The album is like a weighted blanket that keeps you comfortable as the ocean rocks you back and forth.
69. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind – Warp – Max Heilman
If David Axelrod were active today and decided to make psychedelic soul by sampling Miles Davis’ electric period, you wouldn’t be far off from Yves Tumor’s Heaven to a Tortured Mind. Less on a plunderphonics kick than on 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, this thing contains some of the most palatable music Sean Bowie has ever released. Augmented by a fantastic roster of guest singers and musicians, this is necessary listening for those who like their jazz-rock to have an experimental, psychedelic edge.
68. The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives – Merge – Max Heilman
The lo-fi legends might not be so lo-fi anymore, but Getting into Knives is a powerful bastion of roots rock done right. The Mountain Goats carry the lived experience with such a prolific and impressive career, getting back to the best of how things were. The band has a mindset refined by the knowledge of how things can be. Getting Into Knives does a lot to revitalize the American songwriting tradition, without going the route of so many others and just rehashing the standards. John Darnielle’s voice might not have the bite it did before, but it has all the emotion fans should expect at this point. This is original, inspired and heartfelt music from people who know a thing or two about good acoustic, folky rock.
67. Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown – Pressure – Spinefarm – Tony Hicks
What is Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown? Some records are more country than rock, other times its vice-versa. Who cares? The quartet, formed around a Texas guitar prodigy with a fresh voice, projects American rock and roll based on hooks, looks and good times (with pro playing that won’t let down the nerds). Get a look at the video for “Crazy Days,” and pretend life is that simple again. You may even believe it for a minute.
66. Willie Nelson – First Rose of Spring – Legacy – Alex Baechle
National treasure Willie Nelson’s First Rose Of Spring is no great departure from his classic sound. Nor does he waver from a recent run of exceptionally strong songwriting. Still touring as of January, the 87-year-old country legend elegantly ponders mortality, recounting shenanigans and hard life lessons over typically sparse and succinct arrangements. Nelson’s iconic voice weathers well amid songs that are by turns comforting, droll, insightful and virtuous.
65. Fleet Foxes – Shore – ANTI‐ – Max Heilman
While in some ways the most ordinary of the Fleet Foxes albums, Shore is incredibly easy to enjoy. The band remains worthy of its elite-tier position in the indie rock landscape, with impeccable harmonies and swelling instrumentation. The difference here really boils down to some more straightforward rock grooves. This in no way takes from the creativity of the band. If anything, it makes for a more robust rhythm section than most bands in this style would usually offer. As the pendulum swings away from this type of music, it’s comforting to see that one of the genre’s flagships still has its creative juices flowing.
64. Moses Sumney – græ – Jagjaguwar – Max Heilman
This double album finds Moses Sumney pushing his artistry to the limit. Græ is an auspicious journey of avant-soul and earthy folk that does an admirable job at keeping your attention. Amid lush, dynamic arrangements and unpredictable singing, Sumney explores the fluidity of human sexuality, using that as a springboard to a full-bodied exploration of masculinity and Blackness in relation to carnal desire. This San Bernardino visionary has never sounded this inspired and intense.
63. The Strokes — The New Abnormal – RCA – Alex Baechle
When The Strokes’ comeback album The New Abnormal dropped during the first month of COVID-19 lockdown, few knew how apt that title would be for 2020. Julian Casablancas and company teamed up with uber-producer Rick Rubin for a strong set of songs, no filler, rife with choral hooks and ‘80s references. Guitar-driven anthems like “Bad Decisions” and “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” shoulder up against weird, lengthy experiments like “Eternal Summer.” The result: The Strokes’ most vital set since 2005’s First Impressions Of Earth.
62. Logic — No Pressure – Visionary Music Group – Tim Hoffman
Logic retires with grace on No Pressure, an album that truly encapsulates his love of everything from ‘90s boom-bap and Frank Sinatra to geek culture. Logic covers everything from mental health awareness, racism, fatherhood and his climb to the top of the music industry. The album carries his iconic upbeat and positive attitude, celebrating an illustrious career that admittedly took a bit of a turbulent turn within the last year. Frequent collaborator No I.D. returns, providing an array of masterful beats. While it’s sad to see Logic go, he will always remain an icon within hip-hop as the voice of positivity.
61. Ethan Gruska – En Garde – Warner – Max Heilman
Other than his teenage stint as one half of The Belle Brigade, Ethan Gruska has spent many years behind the scenes honing his craft. Perhaps resonant creativity is in his blood, as he is the grandson of John Williams (no big deal, right?). En Garde not only defies expectations, but inflates simple ideas with taste and tact. En Garde succeeds both as a singer-songwriter album and as a mad-scientist arranger’s test to see what he can get away with. It’s truly a fun ride, but seriously, listen to those chord progressions. He’s way better than he’s letting on… and that makes him even better!