We’re starting to get into the nitty gritty of our list of the best albums of the year. These next 30 involved the most amount of arguing. Feelings were hurt. If you want to know where we were coming from, catch up with the first four parts of this countdown: 75-61, 60-51, 50-41 and 40-31. As for this part, you can expect an appearance by Seattle grunge-rockers Pearl Jam, both a former and current member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the noisiest and most intricate musicians of the entire list, and a repeat horrorcore visit from Daveed Diggs and clipping.
30. clipping. — Visions of Bodies Being Burned – Sub Pop – Tim Hoffman
On the follow-up to 2019’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood, clipping. scratches the horrorcore itch again with a blood-dripping hook hand a la “Candyman.” Visions of Bodies Being Burned delivers the kind of psychological horror-show that’ll give the undead heart palpitations. With homages to horror cinema with tense narratives that range from the abstract and ethereal to the more concrete and politically charged, every song on this album will send chills up your spine. Between the raw lyricism of Daveed Diggs and the cold, clanging electro-industrial production, you won’t be able to help yourself once you’ve said the name.
29. John Frusciante — Maya – Timesig – Alex Baechle
Ordinarily, when a rock guitarist quits a lucrative gig to make jungle electronica, it warrants a big “whatever, dude.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ on-again, off-again guitarist John Frusciante nevertheless sought his bliss, dabbling with mixed results in dance music and alternative rock during a 14-year hiatus from his main money maker. At last, with Maya, Frusciante made the hyper-focused, sonically specific loops-and-synths album to justify his madness. Named after the house cat who sat in on Frusciante’s musical process for 15 years, Maya is jam-packed with hairpin breakbeats, oblique chanting and cosmic arcs. The album’s high-strung reactivity makes sense as a theme of instinctual creatures navigating an increasingly automated environment. Frusciante proves that living your best life involves more than following your muse—you also got to bring the goods. (Subtext: Frusciante’s cat made him quit the Chili Peppers.)
28. Jehnny Beth — To Love Is To Live – Caroline – Tim Hoffman
To Love Is To Live, the debut album by Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth, is a beautiful and intense display of the cognitive dissonance one feels about the desire to be open while wishing to remain closed off. This neuroticism from the French post-punk artist screams into the abyss of the human condition, as she emotionally pours out and fills the void. The album takes heavy influence from a multitude of cinematic scores, which gives it plenty of room to experiment with an array of sounds and concepts without losing the thematic focus that paints Beth’s experiences.
27. Hailey Whitters — The Dream – self-released – Roman Gokhman
Hailey Whitters is the “new” country up-and-comer you need in your life today. OK; new isn’t the right word. It’s her second record. But “The Dream” is what took her from waiting tables at a Cajun restaurant outside Nashville to touring alongside Maren Morris. It deserves all that credit and more. Like Margo Price on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Whitters chronicles her own struggles over a decade in Music City, which saw much more failure than success. The Dream is a story of how her personal dream has changed. The naivete is gone, but so is her desire to bend to country music’s expectations of stardom. To fund the album, she had to humble herself by selling a guitar, dipping into savings and postponing getting married. She had no other options. No record label showed any interest. The struggles and her course-corrected outlook on life inform much of the album, such as on “Ten Year Town,” “Red, Wine & Blue,” “Heartland,” and “Dream, Girl.” The album also includes “Happy People,” a song she wrote with Lori McKenna that was recorded by Little Big Town in 2017. All are standouts, but the biggest one of all may be “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” an ode about honoring the advice of elder women
26. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher – Dead Oceans – Max Heilman
This is arguably the best album Phoebe Bridgers has made, and a necessary journey many have taken during 2020. Punisher juxtaposes personal issues with the insurmountable calamities occurring throughout the world. Bridgers provides empathy for those who feel trapped within themselves during pandemic and social unrest. Her words provide solace for those who struggle with social anxiety or depression, rather than berating them for caring about such things in the face of worldwide issues. There’s a few interesting crossovers into the COVID mindset here and there, but this is one folk record that deserves to be taken with listeners everywhere they go. It’s universal enough to feel accessible, but it’s also a heartfelt journey through Bridgers’ life and times. The musicianship and production should be internalized by every aspiring singer-songwriter. It’s not just the voice and the lyrics, but the arrangement, that defines a great album.
25. Throwing Muses — Sun Racket – Fire – Alex Baechle
Kristin Hersh, the main force behind tenured indie rockers Throwing Muses, is the transcendent renaissance woman everyone needed in 2020. In addition to being a multitalented athlete and published children’s author and self-proclaimed art-chick, Hersh knows how to rock convincingly. After nearly drowning in the ocean, Hersh wrote a bunch of water-themed songs. Songs like “Maria Laguna” invoke cryptic seafaring lore, while “Dark Blue” and “Frosting” invoke tidal rhythms via sludgy grooves. Like a sometimes tranquil harbor, Sun Racket ebbs and churns with warm flanged guitar and abstruse lyrics, concealing an undefined menace beneath the surface. Hersh’s loud mix of melodic danger and abrasive courage make turbulence feel navigable for those who have the right tools.
24. Metz — Atlas Vending – Sub Pop – David Gill
If your 2020 required periodic bursts of angry noise to help quiet the demons, METZ had you covered. The Toronto trio provides some of the densest guitar mud of the year, but with pugilistic percussion from drummer Hayden Menzies and deft bass work from Chris Slorach, the band is like a heavyweight fighter: it floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee. With traces of The Jesus Lizard and Gang of Four, METZ brings the noise for your venting sesh.
23. Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension – Asthmatic Kitty – Max Heilman
Sufjan Stevens’ idiosyncratic approach continues onto his embrace of synth-pop, but in many ways this is his most down-to-earth lyrical statement to date. He explores his disillusionment with America and his faith, while re-contextualizing his underlying fascination with indietronica. Stevens’ appreciation of weird electronic music traces back to his second album, but this LP finds him extracting melodies from unconventional arrangements. His respect for synthesizers as musical instruments is evident throughout, as he individually credits each synth he uses for each song—as though the keyboards were performers themselves! Stevens’ human narrative shines through the keyboard-driven soundscapes, providing a potent narrative thrust to match his evolved songwriting. Look no further than closer “America” for a striking encapsulation of what The Ascension represents for Stevens as an artist and a person.
22. Pearl Jam — Gigaton – Republic – Tony Hicks
Pearl Jam is still making albums at a time in which albums sometimes need defining. That’s OK, because Gigaton isn’t just a collection of songs as much as it’s really meant to be heard from start to finish. The band’s first LP in seven years reads like a good book, in which peaks fall into valleys and the audience needs to be grabbed early. That explains why the catchiness of “Superblood Wolfman” and new-wave-ish “Dance of the Clairvoyants” falls early in the song sequence. Pearl Jam saves the best for (almost) last, with the warm and thoughtful “Retrograde,” a song with plenty of the band’s classic creative juice, and “River Cross,” with a nice payoff. Pearl Jam still makes music for music’s sake, which means that like most of its quality material, it will sound even better with a live audience—whenever that can happen. Eddie Vedder and bandmates have swung and missed plenty the past couple decades, but Gigaton is a solid line drive into the gap. The last band standing from the Pacific Northwest’s early ‘90s scene still scores.
21. Black Thought — Streams of Thought, Vol.3: Cane and Able – Human Re Sources – Tim Hoffman
Black Thought continues to drop astute observations addressing the gradual societal decay to which we bared witness over the course of this year. While Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Able feels very freeform in the way Black Thought jumps from topic to topic, there’s a strong cohesiveness between each song and bar that speaks to this overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face impending doom in a concise delivery. While the album does not necessarily provide any direct solutions to the problems we’re facing, the encapsulation and structuring of the problems at hand seems to help with understanding the scope. With that in mind, perhaps we can finally begin to tackle them.