Now we’re getting into the really good stuff. If you missed the still-good-but-not-quite-as-good stuff you can find 75-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31 and 30-21 at those links. There’s some great albums there! If you haven’t read them, you should catch up. All done? Then let’s move on to this block, a group of albums that could easily have been in the top 10. We have Taylor Swift doing Taylor Swift things to yet another new (for her) genre, the Psychedelic Furs and The Chicks making impressive comebacks, Open Mike Eagle and Thundercat continuing to be great, and that’s only half the list!
20. Caribou — Suddenly – Merge – Rachel Goodman
It has been far too long (2014), since Dan Snaith, better known as Caribou, released an album. Suddenly, his fifth LP under the Caribou moniker, is the first on which he sings on every song. Snaith’s vocals are haunting and captivating, yet it’s his production that ultimately sticks with you. He created an album that has hooks for days. The songs that should be simple electronic dance music numbers are turned into experimental loop-filled jams. On “You And I” his vocals are soft yet he manipulates the back-beat, turning it into something more unique. “Never Come Back” is a ‘90s dance-floor banger and is quintessential falsetto-filled Caribou. “Like I Loved You” is filled with fingerpicking and loops, and takes you out of the reverie of the clubs. Yet it’s the funky breaks of “Home,” jazzy melodies of “Lime” and the ultimate house-disco-infused “Ravi” that ultimately keeps you hooked.
19. Nathaniel Rateliff — And It’s Still Alright – Stax – David Gill
Before Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats broke into the mainstream of dad rock with his ode to the DT’s, ‘S.O.B.,” the Denver-based musician recorded a number of mellow acoustic albums under his own name and with his earlier bands Born in the Flood and The Wheel. Following a successful pair of albums with The Night Sweats, Rateliff returned to his acoustic roots with And It’s Still All Right, a mellow tour de force that captures an intimate picture of the artist as he processes both his dizzying success that saw the Night Sweats open for The Rolling Stones as well as the death of his musical mentor and producer, Richard Swift. On the album’s title track, Rateliff sings, “They say you learn a lot out there/ How to scorch and burn/ Only have to bury your friends/ Then you’ll find it gets worse/ Standing out on the ledge/ With no way to get down/ You start praying for wings to grow/ Oh, baby, just let go.” Rateliff manages to capture the musical intensity of The Night Sweats with little more than an acoustic guitar and some serious feels.
18. Joji — Nectar – 88Rising – Max Heilman
Joji’s transformation from internet edgelord to pop star hasn’t been without its hiccups, but Nectar embodies a culmination of his artistic efforts. The scope of the instrumentation, the diversity of the production and the convincingness of his vocal performances add up to a truly breathtaking album at its best. Even when Nectar leans into vibey trap/pop bangers ripe for TikTok memes, Joji never succumbs to the minefield Zoomer pop has become. His voice has grown exponentially, and his choice of guests feels natural. If nothing else, he actually got Lil Yachty to sound good for the first time since the mumble rapper’s guest spot with Big Baby D.R.A.M. That’s proof of Joji’s artistic worth by itself!
17. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia – Warner – Mike DeWald
While it seems at this point like Dua Lipa is a household name in pop music, Future Nostalgia is just the U.K. singer’s sophomore album. While other big artists were pushing back releases during pandemic uncertainty, Dua Lipa took a risk and stuck with her spring release date. Releasing a dance pop album while so many were feeling the isolation of quarantine could have backfired. But the decision paid off with some of the best-crafted pop songs of the year. Dua Lipa built on her track record of delivering infectious and memorable songs. In some ways, the lyric “I should have stayed at home/ ‘Cause I was doing better alone” on “Break My Heart” works as a quarantine anthem. And honestly… who doesn’t like singing “sugarboo?”
Mainstays of visceral heaviness, Deftones have never been a typical metal band, and Ohms shows why. Rooted in grunge, eschewing obvious riffs for rumbling and saturated grooves, the Sacramento quintet renews its commitment to anguished slow-mosh anthems. Understated but powerful choruses carry Ohms. Nearly every song could be a single. Yet that’s not to say it ever sounds generic. Songs like “Error” flirt with total derailment, while the cerebral “Ceremony” blends chunky riffs with atmospheric synths. Subtlety, not always apparent on a nu-metal disc, guides Deftones from vulnerable moments to explosive torrents of passion. Constant tension lurks near every cathartic moment, feeding an organic push-pull dynamic that sets Deftones apart from their chest-thumping peers. With most of their classic lineup intact, the band continues its smoldering trajectory with glowering authenticity, making introspective hard rock that’s uniquely impactful.
15. The Chicks — Gaslighter – Columbia – Piper Westrom
Fourteen years later and The Chicks (fka Dixie Chicks) suffered no rust or wrinkles as they surged back with Gaslighter. A politically and emotionally charged break-up album, Gaslighter gave fans the perfect combination of old-school Chicks sound melded with new age pop and even hip-hop vibes that landed the album squarely in 2020. This LP was also rawer than anything the band had previously released, with a great deal of personal trauma as inspiration: from Natalie Maines’ divorce to the reality of being a woman in country music. It’s bold and pulls no punches.
14. The Psychedelic Furs — Made of Rain – Cooking Vinyl – David Gill
In the 1980s The Psychedelic Furs were one of the most recognizable bands in popular music. Lead singer Richard Butler’s raspy voice became the sound of teenage heartbreak as featured in John Hughes’ 1986 classic movie “Pretty in Pink.” After the Furs’ 1991 World Outside album, the band went on hiatus for nearly 30 years. That is until the band’s eighth studio album, Made of Rain dropped earlier this year. It’s a testament to their talent and musical vision that they were able to pick up just about exactly where they left off almost three decades earlier. The band retains its classic new wave sound and even manages to update it a bit. Opener “The Boy Who Invented Rock and Roll” melds strange synth sounds and a gritty rhythm section into a propulsive groove with wailing processed saxophone over the top. Butler’s voice still manages to be a Pandora’s box of teenage feels, grown only slightly older.
13. Thundercat — It Is What It Is – Brainfeeder – Alex Baechle
Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) boasts one of the strongest musical resumes of his generation. Having significantly contributed to projects as prestigious and wide-ranging as Suicidal Tendencies, Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington, the laureled bass whiz achieved his breakthrough as a solo artist with 2017’s well-received Drunk. All this begs the age-old question: how to follow up major success? For Bruner, the answer is not simple. It Is What It Is continues to showcase his awkwardly direct lyrics and instrumental virtuosity, but remains difficult to categorize apart from that. Short, funky tracks dominate the first half of the album before an introspective second act in which he reflects on the mortal challenges of growing older. The production of Flying Lotus shines. Impressively, each song is a rich and varied recipe for aural epicureans. But Bruner does not overindulge. The weird workings of his musical mind fly past so fast, your ears will require several listens to catch up.
12. Open Mike Eagle — Anime, Trauma and Divorce – Auto Reverse – Tim Hoffman
In five words Open Mic Eagle effectively summed up the year and expressed a sentiment that we are all feeling: “It’s October, and I’m tired.” Anime, Trauma and Divorce surveys the mental state of the rapper in the fallout of his divorce and the cancelation of his TV show. Mike’s had an emotionally turbulent time trying to cope with the misfortunes, while also trying to assess the meaning of self-care and pondering the state of his career. While the album is poignant in its subject matter, it still manages to be funny and relatable. It’s an anchor, grounding and reminding us to have more empathy for those around us.
11. Taylor Swift — Folklore – Republic – Daniel J. Willis
Taylor Swift could retire right now and still have more money than she could ever spend in a dozen lifetimes. Taylor Swift could, in fact, also continue to release the marketable pop music that earned her that fortune and become even richer. That just makes it all the more amazing that instead of either of those things she decided to spend her time in quarantine making Folklore, an album that has more in common with ‘70s folk revival than any of her previous work. On top of that she’s great at it. Her lyrics, deeply personal and veiled in allegory like the best ‘70s folk rock, stand among the best. The subtle details, like the tale of a love triangle told from three perspectives across three songs, display a rare talent. Analyses of the subjects of some songs are growing to rival “You’re So Vain.” If she makes her transition to folk singer permanent, we won’t mind at all.