Staff Picks for Top 20 Albums of 2020

Top 20 albums of 2020

Graphics by Kevin Shin

 

The Top 20 Records of 2020

As chosen by our staff!

 

Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters

by Tatum Jenkins, Music Coordinator

At first, I didn’t like this album because – as the title suggests – Fiona Apple literally took bolt cutters to any conventional constructions of music, and it was dizzying. However, as I listened more, I saw that the clarity of Apple’s artistic vision is astonishing, and no music lover can avoid it. She uses her deep understanding of her own voice and lyricism to create an album unlike any other. With songs like “Shameika,” she looks to the past to shape her present while also creating something new. This is what makes her music – and this album specifically – so special.

 

Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

by Nora Onanian, Staff Writer

After releasing collaboration projects as Boy Genius and Better Oblivion Community Center, Phoebe Bridgers made her return as a solo artist in March with the release of her sophomore album, Punisher. Whether she is reflecting on the past like in “Kyoto,” or focusing on the future like in “Garden Song,” Bridgers’ lyrics use anecdotal details to approach complex subject matters. Paired with instrumentals ranging from soft finger-plucked melodies to a chorus of horns, her hauntingly beautiful storytelling speaks to the soul. At a time where many are grappling with all sorts of unique challenges, Punisher offers an opportunity to feel all the feels alongside Bridgers. 

 

Lianne LaHavas - Lianne Lahavas

by Phil Jones, Afternoon Host

UK based Lianne Lahavas has taken complete control of her sound. It's fitting that her third record is self titled, as she has actual ownership of the sound for the first time. After two excellent albums where outside producers attempted to steer her toward iconic soul, Lahavas has pivoted to a dynamic, sometimes rocking, sometimes tear jerking place. Check out her meticulous tapping on 'Can't Fight', and the brilliant reimagining of Radiohead's 'Weird Fishes' long a staple of her live sets.

 

Mt. Joy - Rearrange Us

by Izzy Indresano, Program Coordinator

Rearrange Us is one of my favorite albums of this year because it takes you on a groovy, yet moving journey through hurting and healing. The tracks stay true to Mt. Joy’s sunny alternative roots, but with an elevated twist; every song is unique, yet dynamically cohesive to tell a whole story about taking on everything life throws at you. As you listen through to the end of the album, the final four songs spell out “Witness” “Us” “Become” “Strangers,” symbolizing a hard acceptance of a new reality with a triumphant, victorious ending track. Just like the year 2020, this album reminds us that life will try to rearrange us, but we always make it out on the other side even stronger than we were before.

 

Haim - Women in Music Pt. III

by Kiersten Tate, Staff Writer

Women in Music Pt. III navigates relationships with oneself and others, loss, and frustration while experimenting with sounds of different genres and eras. Danielle Haim, one of the band members, says “The Steps” embodies the entire mood of the album. This track expresses HAIM’s frustration with people’s nit-picky critiques of their music, and the sound channels a 90s rock style, but slightly more relaxed. The band strategically scrambles songs about the ups and downs of life, so that the listener isn’t overwhelmed by just negative or positive topics. The sequencing of the songs and themes mirroring the complexity of life with its joys and sorrows make Women in Music Pt. III such an amazing album.

 

The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form

by Tatum Jenkins, Music Coordinator

The 1975 travel back in time through their sound with Notes on a Conditional Form. Exploring everything from the garage music they listened to as kids to a speech from Greta Thunberg, the band decides to let go of their traditional synth and guitar driven songs in most of the twenty-two songs on the album in exchange for some musical freedom. It’s a look to the past before diving into the present – a moment of reflection The 1975 seemed to have needed. Out of that introspection and nostalgia comes an amazing variety of music, proving to their fans how good they are at keeping their art fresh and captivating even at a time where the whole world seems at a standstill.

 

The Strokes - The New Abnormal

by Lea Tatoris, Live Mix Coordinator

After not releasing a full-length album for seven years, “The New Abnormal” by the Strokes was a highly anticipated album that was worth the wait. Released in early April with a title perfect for the pandemic, the album reflects on frontman Julian Casablancas’ past relationships and the Strokes’ early career on songs like “Ode To The Mets.” Though the punchy drums and dueling guitar riffs on much of the album is seen as a return to the band’s early sound, “New Abnormal” is far from a carbon copy of “Is This It.” If you don’t believe me, check out the drum machine and synths on “Eternal Summer” or the autotune on Casablancas’ voice on “At The Door.”

 

The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

by Zack Greenstein, Web Services Coordinator

Listening to Jump Rope Gazers is like reading a diary. Lead singer Liz Stokes pours her heart out on every track, throwing in intimate details that betray her deepest insecurities. She writes and sings with so many conflicting emotions that bring out the humanity of her stories. Songs like the “Acrid” and “Out Of Sight” especially sound like she’s singing from just a few feet away. Despite the persistent themes of self-doubt, the album’s sound projects confidence. The roaring guitars and crashing drums evoke the band’s punk ethos that make Jump Rope Gazers one of the most fun releases of the year. The lyrics may be very personal, but this high energy makes it feel like a full band project instead of The Liz Stokes Band. Even slower songs like “Do You Want Me Now” and “You Are A Beam Of Light,” in which the New Zealand quartet takes some inspiration from shoegaze, sound more upbeat in the context of the album. Instead of wallowing in insecurity, The Beths throw a big party where everyone can sing along and act like they have their life together. And in 2020, that’s exactly what we all needed.

 

The Pretenders - Hate for Sale

by Izzy Indresano, Program Coordinator

The Pretenders gave us new rock anthems of the year with Hate For Sale. It’s as fiery and unapologetic as it is smooth and catchy. The album captures the feelings of blinding infatuation, coupled with just enough anger to keep us on our toes, and the fun of having original drummer Martin Chambers back in the lineup. It’s that iconic sound of rebellion we love The Pretenders for and just what we needed to get us through a 2020 summertime.

 

Bruce Springsteen - Letter to You

by Hal Slifer, Host of Chagigah

Bruce Springsteen recorded his 20th studio album , Letter To You, in just five days, with the E Street Band, whom he had not recorded with since 2014. Bruce has recorded so many great tunes about the glory days of other people, yet at age 71, he is at the age where he knows he’s got more time behind him than ahead. In this album he sings about his own Glory Days. Besides the powerful title track, some of  my favorites are “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and “ One Minute You’re Here” where he sings the haunting lyric:  “I lay my penny down on the rails, as the summer wind sings its last song.”

 

Khruangbin - Mordecai

by Tatum Jenkins, Music Coordinator

This Texas-based trio brings their signature experimental sound and groove with their third album, Mordecai. The instrumentation is specific and transportative; each note feels as though it wants to take you someplace you’ve never been before. While the lyricism is more sparse, there’s a beauty in its simplicity. My favorites lines are in the first verse of the song “Time (You and I)” when the band sings, “We can wise when we grow old/Get slow when we grow old/Just you and I/Have we got the time?” Backed by a throwback disco beat, Khruangbin still makes it sound brand new by adding their own modern twist. Mordecai showcases their incredible ability at balancing comforting, familiar sounds with their own injection of style. 

 

Devon Gilfillian - Black Hole Rainbow

by George Knight, Morning Show Host

Devon Gilfillian’s “Black Hole Rainbow” is one heck of a debut album. It came out at the very start of 2020, before all the craziness started, and as it turns out it’s a great antidote to bad stuff going on in the world. The first song on the album, “Unchained” was released a few months before the album, and is a great showcase of Devon’s very soulful, heartfelt vocals. The next song, “Get Out and Get It”, is a call to action with a nice funky beat, that to me has a Curtis Mayfield feel. There’s more of that funkiness with songs like “The Good Life”, but he also includes some very well done ballads. What I love about “Black Hole Rainbow” is the way the album moves song-to-song from one feel and mood to another. It sounds like Devon really set out to create a true album, and not just a collection of songs. If you like this one, you need to check out Devon’s recreation of the entire Marvin Gaye album “What’s Going On.” It’s brilliant.

 

Dawes - Good Luck With Whatever

by Phil Jones, Afternoon Host

Being middle aged is a drag! Yet somehow, Taylor Goldsmith and the gang still feel like kids in a totally out of whack world. There's humor, resignation, and moments of quiet beauty all over the new record. Check out the hilarious opening track, and the masterful storytelling on 'Who Do You Think You're Talking To', where Goldsmith proves once again that the characters he writes could knock down anyone in the Dylan pantheon if it came to fist a cuffs. Best of all, the gentle evening breeze of a song, 'St. Augustine at Night'.

 

Beabadoobee - Fake it Flowers

by Megan Doherty, Staff Writer

Despite being born in 2000, beabadoobee brings back flavors of ‘90s alternative rock for her debut album Fake it Flowers. With pretty, airy vocals and huge pop hooks fused with distorted electric guitar riffs, she explodes into a new era of modern grunge. That coupled with her lyrics, make this LP simultaneously sound defiant, intimate, massive, beautiful, punchy, and peaceful. Take “Worth It” for instance – just the first few seconds feel like a giant release. The guitar-fueled chorus repeatedly erupts between bouts of quiet, clean vocals, giving us a sense of freedom. Fake it Flowers is the kick of liveliness and the moment of thoughtful reflection we needed this year.

 

U.S. Girls - Heavy Light

by Lea Tatoris, Live Mix Coordinator

On “Heavy Light,” Meg Remy, the experimental pop artist behind U.S. Girls, creates a collage of traumatic experiences and feelings of emptiness and turns them into a wonderful pop album. “Heavy Light” borrows classic themes from disco, ‘60s girl groups, and Sprinsgteen, adding layers of noise and lyrics about childhood trauma and existential crises on top that just throws your head for a spin. Remy covers themes like the dangers of living under American capitalism on the funky track, “4 American Dollars” but also more introspective themes like the dehumanizing gender roles of women on “State House (It’s a Man’s World),” a dizzying reconstruction of “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. The album features a group of backup singers, who also reflect on their childhood experiences on spoken-word tracks like “Advice to Teenage Self” and “The Most Hurtful Thing”. Though Remy’s experiences are at the core of this album, “Heavy Light” tells the story of all of our collective trauma that we need to heal together. 

 

Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

by Izzy Indresano, Program Coordinator

Tame Impala delivers yet again on their latest album The Slow Rush, giving us a musical journey that feels like an hour-long dream sequence and the perfect psychedelic escape from the world around us. Each song seems to almost tell the story of a different dream, a unique fantasy created in his brain, giving a reason to long for the future. This album highlights the unmatched talents of Tame Impala, which is the contrastingly earthly stage name of Kevin Parker, who writes, records, and produces all of the music on his own. The upbeat tune “Is It True” was written in only 8 hours, an impressive and intentionally short amount of time. This album came out back in February of 2020, and as a self-proclaimed music-maker for loners, he released a remixed version of the album during quarantine, called “The Slow Rush in an Imaginary Place.” This version was made to sound like the music was coming from a different room, representing isolation during the pandemic. This album was extremely creative, and had some of my favorite tunes to play on air throughout the year while DJing!

 

Darlingside - Fish Pond Fish

by Phil Jones, Afternoon Host

Every so often an album comes out of the local sphere that reminds me absolutely of the limitless talent this town can generate. Darlingside are scary good. Every moment on Fish Pond Fish requires absolute precision from all four singers; and they never waver on their harmonic tightrope. Witness the chilly a capella 'Woolgathering' and the wildness of 'Green + Evergreen'. Despite the adventurousness, the album is very listenable and comes highly recommended for a winter road trip.

 

Taylor Swift - folklore/evermore

by Ashley Peterson, Associate Director of Development

Quarantine changed everything for everyone, but one of the bright spots is that it gave superstars like Taylor Swift quiet moments away from breakneck tour schedules to try something they never would have otherwise. I have to believe that's the reason we've been treated to not just folklore but also evermore  in 2020. Stripped of all the pop and glitz, drama and attitude of her past albums, folklore and evermore are nothing if not gorgeous. They're soft, emotional, beautiful, and studded with stars like Aaron Dessner, the sisters of HAIM, and Justin Vernon. Rumor has it folklore and evermore exist as part of a trilogy, and 2020 isn't over yet... Here's hoping! 

 

Soccer Mommy - color theory

by Lea Tatoris, Live Mix Coordinator

“Color Theory” is a raw, honest self-portrait of 22-year old singer Sophie Allison, better known as Soccer Mommy, that wildly spins you through a color wheel of emotions. The songs on Allison’s sophomore album are grouped together based on three themes, or colors: blue, representing depression and sadness, yellow, representing physical and emotional illness, and gray, representing darkness, emptiness, and loss. Listening to the vivid imagery Allison uses to describe her struggles with mental illness and the sea of dreamy guitars and synths on songs like “yellow is the color of her eyes” and “gray light,” you can’t help but feel the weight of her emotions on your shoulders too. 

 

Tom Petty - Wildflowers (And All the Rest)

by Phil Jones, Afternoon Host

Tom Petty doesn't write throw away songs. The only thing wrong on this collection from the late singer  is how long it took to come out. 'Wildflowers' was supposed to be a double album, and 'All the Rest' stands up admirably to the single disc that came out in 1994. Petty solo albums typically employ the Heartbreakers as studio musicians, and taking the pressure off the band as performers, to my ear, opens them up for all kinds of experimentation. Check out the electric sitar on 'Somewhere Under Heaven' and the George Harrison influenced 'Something Could Happen'..

 

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