The 75 best albums of 2020: 10-1

Fiona Apple, Doves, Run The Jewels, Thurston Moore, Fantastic Negrito, Jónsi, Code Orange, Hayley Williams, Tame Impala, Paramore, Jonsi, Sigur Ros, Sonic Youth, RTJ4, Never Not Together, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, By The Fire, The Slow Rush, The Universal Want, Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, Petals for Armor

The best albums of 2020 include (clockwise from top left): Fiona Apple, Doves, Run The Jewels, Thurston Moore, Fantastic Negrito, Jónsi, Code Orange, Hayley Williams and Tame Impala.

And so, we’ve arrived at the end of this countdown of the best 75 albums of 2020. If you haven’t yet, you should hit up everything else: 75-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31, 30-21 and 20-11. The following 10 albums are the best we heard this year. They include a complete left turn by Tame Impala—the same Tame Impala that over the years trained us to expect exceptional yet completely different kind of music—one of few albums that earned a 10/10 from us as well as some albums you’ll expect to find and some surprises.

2020 in Review, Best of 2020, best albums of 2020, best concerts of 2020, 2020 in review, The Most OK of 2020

Illustration: Skott Bennett/STAFF.

A team of 15 spent many hours compiling and creating this list, so we hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it useful. Now it’s your turn to pick apart who we missed and how you’d change it up. Did we get Tame Impala right? Will you give a listen to our surprise No. 2? (It’s worthy!) Did you expect our No. 1? Do any music lists even matter? Let us know!

10. Jónsi — Shiver – Krunk – Max Heilman

Shiver is the sound of an Icelandic icon reinventing himself for the new decade. Jónsi has covered a lot of ground with Sigur Rós and beyond, but he’s never sounded like this. This most comes from the production input of PC Music mastermind A. G. Cook. The results find the post-rock demigod finding common ground with the likes of Sophie and Charli XCX, while maintaining the essential component of his artistry—his voice. Though more abrasive and synthetic than on his debut solo LP, Go, Jónsi’s unmistakable falsetto finds a foothold within this avant-pop setting. Look no further than single “Salt Licorice” with Robyn to see how infectious and accessible this venture can get. Check out “Sumarið sem aldrei kom” for something a bit more Sigur Rós-ish. The real ear-catchers are cuts like “Wildeye” and “Swill,” which embrace the bombastic clamour inherent in the PC Music sound.

9. Hayley Williams — Petals for Armor – Atlantic – Mike DeWald

For longtime Paramore fans, Hayley Williams’ solo venture was not an immediately easy listen. A far cry from the upbeat bops of “Still Into You” or “Ain’t It Fun,” Petals for Armor takes a far different road. Lead single “Simmer” was dark and brooding, featuring some of Williams’ most intense lyrical imagery. The project came in the week of Williams’ personal struggle—the aftermath of her divorce—and the mental toll it took. But with each subsequent release, the creative endeavor portrait became clearer. While it’s not a concept album per se, the LP has a narrative arc, with the early material more of a drab and somber reaction to heartbreak and isolation. But Hayley Williams begins to bloom along the way and the album picks up pace. The instrumentation becomes more vibrant, and the lyrics turn to a more optimistic and encouraging tone. Petals For Armor succeeds for its completeness as a creative work, and an intimate portrait of one of pop-punk’s standard bearers.

8. Fantastic Negrito — Have You Lost Your Mind Yet – Blackball Universe/Cooking Vinyl – David Gill

Oakland’s Xavier Dphrepaulezz (aka Fantastic Negrito) has revived the world of the electric guitar with his flamboyant style and some serious soul. Five albums (three under the Fantastic Negrito moniker) into his career, Dphrepaulezz continues his hot streak with Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?, which features a tribute to Vallejo rapper E-40 as well as a collaboration with hip-hop poetry outfit Tank and the Bangas. But the album’s real treat is Dphrepaulezz’s genre-melting guitar playing, which merges rock, funk, hip-hop and pop music into a powerful musical lens Dphrepaulezz uses to explore Bay Area and American culture in the 21st century. Together with Gary Clark Jr., Dphrepaulezz is working to reclaim the electric guitar from the white shredder culture that measured quality by the sheer quantity of notes produced, and return it to the soulful energy of players like Jimi Hendrix and Funakdelic’s Eddie Hazel.

7. Doves — The Universal Want – Virgin/EMI – Skott Bennett

After Doves’ 11-year hiatus, The Universal Want arrives like a warm embrace from an old friend–precisely the thing that so many of us want but can’t have at this moment in time. Thankfully, this music was recorded pre-pandemic, so the themes of longing, disconnection and dwelling in memories for comfort feel uncalculated, genuine, vulnerable and, well, universal. On the haunting dub hymn “Cathedrals of the Mind,” singer Jimi Goodwin sinks deeply into his own memories, seeing friends, events and versions of himself long gone. In the era of Zoom happy hours and social (physical) distancing, hearing Goodwin roaming empty halls, hearing “voices lost in time” and talking to faces that “aren’t there” hits particularly hard. The requisite exquisite anthemic melancholy that Doves’ have been masters of since their debut 20 years ago is on full display on standout tracks like “Cycle of Hurt” and “Broken Eyes.” But there are many moments where the band goes beyond merely playing to its well-earned strengths. Single “Carousels” skitters along on an off-kilter Tony Allen drum sample and builds to a sublime psychedelic crescendo. You can sense the joy of a veteran band breaking new ground while pulling power from their experience.

6. Tame Impala — The Slow Rush – Interscope – Rachel Goodman

If you came to expect another psychedelic guitar rock album from genius Kevin Parker, (aka Tame Impala), you may have been a bit disappointed. Parker is back, but he’s trekking in a different direction. On The Slow Rush, Tame Impala uses plenty of synths and hazy arrangements, and has created a perfect pop album. This album, a departure from the synth-rock psychedelia of Currents, runs the gamut through pop music. Perhaps that shouldn’t be as big a surprise because Parker is now a sought-after producer (Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, even Kanye). “Borderline” is a synth-pop gem that will grab you by the chorus. Funky psych-rock “Posthumous Forgiveness” is about his relationship with his late father. As the song builds, it becomes layered in a dance-y synth-pop dreamscape that you don’t want to end. Then Tame Impala presents the disco funk of  “Is It True,” infectious -ear-worm “Lost In Yesterday” and the electronic-loop-filled and ‘80s-tinged “Breathe Deeper.” It’s impossible to not find a gem. Consider this a mea culpa of the original review of this Tame Impala gem.

5. Code Orange — Underneath – Roadrunner – Alex Baechle

For those who thrive on shattered nerves and haunted atmospheres, Pittsburgh’s Code Orange pushes the envelope. Chugging malicious riffs remain the band’s bread and butter, but on Underneath there is so much more tying it together. Screeching digital effects and stressful micro-stops where all sound drops out contribute to an experience that is at once harrowing and groovy. Corpse-like whispers add to a sleek horror-movie vibe, while spooky industrial interludes interrupt the percussive pummeling to build dynamic tension and highlight strident shouted vocal refrains. But perhaps what surprises the most are the strong choruses. Code Orange uses them sparingly, but to great contrasting effect on arresting, single-worthy songs like “Who I Am” and “The Easy Way.” Still, stressful arrhythmic percussion and samples keep listeners on their back foot for the most part, anxiously anticipating the next twist. Elsewhere, the band revels in Beelzebubbian creepiness, malicious cascading keyboard samples, psychotic ravings and evocative guitar leads that range from emo-core melodicism to classic rock harmony. The record as a whole drips with menace. With surgical precision and meticulous attention to detail, Code Orange calculates alienation and transcends the sub-genres that spawned them.

4. Thurston Moore — By The Fire – Daydream Library – Tony Hicks

Thurston Moore has been impressing the world with his art since Ronald Reagan’s first term. The word “artist,” has become cheapened in an age when anyone can turn their phone around and call the result “art.” But Moore—the driving force behind dreamscape post-punk noisemakers Sonic Youth—still manages to operate in a place where “art” actually still can mean incredibly creative cool. This year’s By the Fire is a real accomplishment in that he manages to be familiar while simultaneously still making honest-to-God art, from some of the most straightforward lead guitar work he’s ever done on “Cantaloupe,” to the grand scale of “Breath.” And that’s all within the first three songs. Layer upon layer indeed breathes at Moore’s pace, which always has a definite beginning and end, with the journey in between leading anywhere but boredom or tediousness. Either you’re a fan by now, or you’re not, and Moore pays tribute to those of us still around by making music both familiar and new. He shifts tempos and approaches effortlessly on “Siren,” “Locomotives” and “Venus,” between frantic guitar and lyrical dreaming. Sonic Youth’s apparent end is a bit less sad after listening to By the Fire. Moore still has it.

3. Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Epic – Tony Hicks

While isolation destroyed the rest of us, Fiona Apple put a choke chain on it and forced it to march to her beat in 2020. Only someone as skilled with insane depth that comes from … who-knows-where could make Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which should be the definitive album for this year, if only for the fact that such honesty scares people. It should. The record sounds like it was handmade at home; which it was, in an absolute explosion of barebones creativity leaning into female empowerment, whimsy, accusations, humor and a wide variety of legitimate humanness packed into pure talent. “FTBC is slam poetry morphing into groove. “Rack of His” is raw emotion through an unleashed singing voice. “Newspaper” is sparsely powerful, “Ladies” is jazz-groove poetry, “Cosmonauts” flairs into Tom Waits territory, and darkness emerges in “For Her.” Fetch the Bolt Cutters, fittingly, almost ends with a shrug on “On I Go,” as if she’s exhausted and asking what happens next? That ends up being the question of the year.

2. Nada Surf —  Never Not Together – Barsuk – David Gill

Best known for “Popular,” the snarky 1996 ode to high school diplomacy, Nada Surf reimagined themselves on Never Not Together, the band’s ninth studio album. Its overdriven pop serves as a canvas for vocalist Matthew Caws’ poignant reflections on life, love, addiction, success and perseverance. On the opener, “So Much Love,” Caws beats back cynicism with relentless hope, singing, “So much love in the air/ So much love, it’s always there/ How much love, I can’t say/ Just know I need to get out of its way.” Later in the song, Caws declares, “I’ll fight to stay open/ I’ll fight to stay wild/ I’ll seek better nature/ I’ll find it like a child/ How much love do you need?/ If you look hard, it’s in all you see.” The songs feel like unique opportunities to discover our better nature; opportunities to be more fully alive to ourselves. Caws’ unflinching emotional realness provides precisely the support many of us needed in this year of tribulations: hope for the future, forgiveness for our past and unwavering support in times of crises. On “Live, Learn and Forget,” Caws sings, “It’s always what you do next/ There’s always another track/ Every age you’ve ever been/ We carry on our backs.”

1. Run The Jewels — RTJ4 – Jewel Runners – Daniel J. Willis

Run the Jewels’ fourth album, RTJ4, is debatably the best album of 2020 by a wide margin. First and foremost for its musical quality; Run the Jewels came out of the gate with a classic album in 2013 and have only improved with each subsequent release, with RTJ4 setting a new standard. Killer Mike especially reached new heights of skill and artistry, though that’s not to diminish El-P’s talents. The guest performers are as diverse as they are legendary with the likes of 2 Chainz and Mavis Staples. But what really sets RTJ4 apart is that, on top of everything, just about every track carries a powerful message that especially resonates with 2020’s social and political upheaval. Each listen reveals a new depth, as nuanced as a biting commentary on the public school system in a verse on “Walking in the Snow” to a condemnation of illusory economic mobility by Pharrell Williams in the second pre-chorus of “JU$T,” which also features Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. It’s as close to a flawless album as we’ve seen in 2020.

(5) Comments

  1. Helen

    Riffmagazine? It's cool to be open minded but... This list it's quite incoherent. Maybe you could just change your name magazine, you will have more credibility for sure. Disappointed.

  2. Greg

    Run the Jewels #1 by a wide margin?!?! HA! Not only that but saying it won by a wide margin and flawless. HA! Can anyone say microwave popcorn for profit? Stick with Tame Impala, then add heavy butter & salt to the rest. No amount will cover up the bad taste the rest will leave in your mouth

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