2020 sucked? Yes. There was so much that sucked. Shocking, I know. But did everything suck? Of course not! A lot of sweet albums came out last year. So let’s partake in retrospective nourishment of the aural canals, from less greetest to most.
Honorable Mention: Spiritbox, various 2020 singles
I really wanted to rank this brilliant metal outfit, but they didn’t have any albums in 2020. But I still wanted to plug their singles! Blessed Be, Holy Roller, and Constance came out this year, and continue to show this band’s strengths, switching between hardcore-influenced brutality and melodic beauty with so much ease. Vocalist Courtney LaPlante is insanely good at both vocal styles.
Honorable Mention: Luke Vibert, Lockdown Breaks
Okay, technically an album, but not really, so should I rank it? Luke Vibert needed some cash with the cancellation of touring….everywhere last year, so he put together this collection of free-to-use breaks for artists to sample. His work compiling library music in the past really shines here; it’s a treasure trove of styles!
30: Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V: Together & Ghosts VI: Locusts
Nine Inch Nails surprise-dropped this pair of new Ghosts albums (a series of instrumental soundtracks to nonexistent films), and these two capture the inherent tension of the pandemic in their juxtaposition: the warm ambiance of Together a balm of community support, the unsettling nightmare of Locusts a snapshot of death, disease, and civil unrest.
29: David Bowie, ChangesNowBowie
A brilliant release from the Bowie archives: an previously unreleased album of acoustic recordings from 1997. Most of the tracks are new renditions of his own tunes, but my two favs aren’t from his solo discography. His acoustic take of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” is fantastic, and “Shopping for Girls” (originally by his band Tin Machine) really shines here, bringing out country elements that take the tune to new heights.
28: Tim Heidecker, Fear of Death
Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric fame, has really come into his own as a musician over the past several years, and this latest concept album tackles the titular subject of death in a surprisingly cheery fashion. A sardonic singer-songwriter-styled take on the subject matter was especially poignant during a pandemic. Highlights include “Oh How We Drift Away” (a collab with Weyes Blood) and a surprising cover of “Let It Be.”
27: The Soft Pink Truth, Am I Free to Go?
While this year’s Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? might be more folks’ fav Soft Pink Truth album of 2020, I’ve always loved his mutations of other genres into his own offbeat dance music. And this one is crust punk! And ya gotta love the one new composition on here: “Space Formerly Occupied by an Amebix Cover but Fuck That Guy for Being a Holocaust Denier.”
26: Deftones, Ohms
Deftones returned with another classic. The pairing of Stephen Carpenter’s chunky riffs and Chino Moreno’s tortured and processed vocals is always a treat, and this hits some of the same vibes that make White Pony and Diamond Eyes my two favorite outings from the group. And there’s just something wonderfully digital about the aesthetic on this one.
25: KK Null, Ghost Machine Alive
KK Null is one of my fav noise artists because of the very clear influences of metal, experimental dance, and electronics on his sound. And this entry includes everything I love about that: destructured rhythms; effects processing that draws on his guitar work; passages dipping into ambient; and screams processed to a primal ferocity. A great summary of his style!
24: Yaeji, What We Drew
The Korean-American musician has graduated from her previous EPs to her first mixtape, and she uses the extended format as breathing room to expand her sound. Her hip hop influence is on its fullest display yet, and I would love to hear this in a chill room at a club. Relaxed in places but always rhythmic, it provides many a great breather while never pulling you entirely out of dancing.
23: DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ, Charmed
DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ makes utterly charming lo-fi house jams, with lots of dialogue samples (often from the namesake show). She’s put out several albums in recent years, all edited as continuous mixes (released on cassette, of course, as well as digital). This one goes back to the awesome double-cassette length of her debut Makin’ Magick, and it is a sublime 3 hours of vibing.
22: Clutch, Weathermaker Vault Series Volume 1
Clutch are veterans at this point, ranging from rough-edged stoner rock to smooth, bluesy grooves. Since 2019, they’ve put that experience to great use in their Weathermaker Vault Series of singles. Each is a cover of one of their influences, or a new recording of a track from their own catalogue. Compiled, they make a top-notch album that’s a snapshot of who they are and where’ve they been.
21: various artists, Appleville (Golden Ticket)
When the pandemic completely disrupted the live music industry, it was no surprise that the experimental pop label PC Music were quick to pivot to digital events. The first of these was Appleville, documented on this compilation. Various musicians on their roster performed, but the highlight was a Battle of the Bands that featured musicians from the label’s roster (performing under humorous pseudonyms) and PC Music fans. Who won? Everyone who listened, obviously!
20: Beaver Sheppard, Downtown
Most of the releases that come out through Joyful Noise Recordings White Label Series are reissues, but when Beaver Sheppard was invited to provide a recording by that month’s curator (Stella Mozgowa), he provided an entire new album! Its DIY ethos encompasses various alternative rock and electronic styles, and is a great showcase of how lo-fi doesn’t mean low quality.
19: Kool Keith, Saks 5th Ave
Kool Keith has been in the game since the ’80s, but he’s never slowed down and still releases multiple albums this year. Don’t overlook this album because of its ostentatious consumerism, on display in the cover art (personally, the touch with the bottles cracks me up) and the track titles (e.g. “Burberry Trench,” “Karl Lagerfeld,” “Kate Spade”). We could all use some superficial comforts. The beats are wonderfully old-meets-new NYC hip hop, and Kool Keith just flows over them.
18: ACxDC, Satan Is King
First of all, I adore the band name ACxDC, and the track title “Back in Black Bloc.” Secondly, this powerviolence is brutally straightforward. No stylistic gimmicks (although I love a good gimmick, don’t get me wrong), but sometimes, the basics are all you need. The mixing and mastering is top-notch, letting each instrument shine through; the bass playing is standout in particular.
17: Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO, Voices from Ghostwood
Acid Mothers Temple give a more subdued approach on this album, as “Voices from Ghostwood” parts 1 and 2 lean into their more ambient territory. Albeit, dark ambient, as it’s inspired by the dark electronic moods of Twin Peaks (there’s a few hints in the names and art on this album, already a way to win my heart). Following that unsettling sonic expanse, they erupt into their psychedelic freakout cover of “Sycamore Trees” (also from Twin Peaks). A stunning tribute to a stunning show.
16: The Gerogerigegege, Tokyo Anal Dynamite Singles
This is a compilation of remastered material recorded around the same time as the band’s 1990 noise classic Tokyo Anal Dynamite. It includes a treasure trove of EPs from that period, plus even more never before released content, including one of my fav’s from them, Yellow Trash Bazooka. So many shouted words followed by “1-2-3-4!”, so many blasts of chaotic rock’n’roll noise. And cover art with hilariously cartoonish nods to their antics in the Japanese fetish club scene.
15: Deftones, Black Stallion
In addition to the new album Ohms, Deftones also celebrated the 20th anniversary of White Pony in 2020. To commemorate it, they put together this wonderfully experimental remix album. Each track has been remixed by a different artist, with little in the way of genre constraint. Clams Casino, DJ Shadow, Purity Ring, Squarepusher, Robert Smith, and more, all shepherded by the Deftones!
14: Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass Vols. 1 & 2
I’m real grateful covid-19 didn’t completely kill Sturgill Simpson’s momentum in 2020, because the country musician (best working today, imo) released two full albums of bluegrass renditions of his catalogue. He’s just adept in bluegrass as he is country, and each of these volumes shines. Sturgill Simpson is even more an exemplar of Appalachian music traditions after this pair of albums.
13: A. G. Cook, 7G
After years of producing groundbreaking music for other artists; managing his label PC Music; and releasing scattered singles and EPs of his own, 2020 saw A. G. Cook drop his first full album. And full is an understatement! 7 instrument-focused groups of 7 tracks each, comprising a fascinating look into his craft via sketches, original and cover songs, and experiments in sonic timbre.
12: Boris, NO
Like many bands, Boris’s plans were upended when touring was cancelled in 2020. They then retreated into the studio and recorded their fiercest statement since Vein in 2006. NO draws on hardcore (i.e. the punk variety), and is only their second album since the early 2000s to heavily feature Atsuo’s screamed vocals. A furious response to the trauma of a fast-spreading pandemic.
11: Kool Keith x Thetan, Space Goretex
Kool Keith teamed up with hardcore punk band Thetan for one of his wildest records in a while. Don’t expect rapping over riffs, though: Thetan instead provide live hip hop beats via drums and bass, lending a really cool analogue vibe. The project also resurrects multiple Kool Keith personas: Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, and Black Elvis, all on a road trip together, and features additional outlandish characters via Gangsta Boo (Three 6 Mafia) and Casey Orr (Gwar).
10: A. G. Cook, Apple
Don’t let the more traditional looking track list on A. G. Cook’s second album of 2020 fool you: it’s still as wildly experimental and pop all at once, just like 7G. Song structures are fleshed out more, so you don’t really find sketches here, but the sonic effects and processing here are otherworldly. But don’t let the amount of electronics fool you: Cook has made a very human, personal album.
9: Code Orange, Underneath
Code Orange have been around a while, but they progressed by leaps and bounds with this album. It focuses more on their metalcore leanings (read: the less commercial varieties of that genre), and expands their palette to include industrial-metal programming that veers into ominous glitch territory. Add gorgeous melodic passages, plus gender-diverse vocals, and you have a masterpiece.
8: Baby T, I Against I
Sadly, a lot of the the DJ scene is like most of the scenes out there, and throws up barriers to women. So it’s always exciting when a woman shines so bright despite those. In this case, in jungle and drum’n’bass. Brianna Price debuted her new alias Baby T with two great EPs in 2020, and this one is my fav for being so unapologetically made by a woman with its track “Estrogen Attitude.”
7: Mr. Bungle, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
When Mr. Bungle re-debuted with live shows in early 2020 adding Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo to the fold, I was hoping for a live album, but we got even better: after playing Mr. Bungle’s debut demo album at those shows, they went to the studio and re-recorded the entire demo as a properly polished album! It’s Mr. Bungle at their thrashiest, and it’s so fucking cool. With Scott Ian on it!
6: Rui Ho, Lov3 & L1ght
Rui Ho is a nonbinary Chinese artist (she/they) working in Europe, and after multiple EPs of club music, she released her first album of experimental pop in 2020, featuring her vocals for the first time. Hearing the newfound confidence in her voice (after recent vocal feminization) is magical as a trans woman myself. And she still combines Chinese and European melodies to fantastic effect.
5: Gorillaz, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
After releasing a series of Song Machine episodes for a while, Gorillaz finally dropped their full “first season” of Song Machine as an album. The guest features are possibly the most diverse in Gorillaz’ discography, which is saying something (Elton John! Slowthai! Skepta! et al.), all tied together by Damon Albarn’s genre-diverse songcraft. (And get the deluxe edition, trust me.)
4: The Smashing Pumpkins, Cyr
A lot of fans didn’t give this new opus a proper chance, which is a great example of why folks should learn to check their expectations, because this is a fantastic collection of songs indebted to synth-pop and new wave as much as they are to ’90s alternative. One of the reasons I’ve always loved this band is their willingness to try new things, and this album is another knockout there.
3: Arca, KiCk i
This album marks two important milestones in Arca’s solo career: her first album since coming out as a nonbinary trans woman, and her first since further honing her pop songcraft co-producing Björk’s Utopia. But don’t worry, “pop” for Arca still means “fucking weird production.” Combined with unflinching trans themes and visual art, this album pushes boundaries in the best ways.
2: Speaker Music, Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
In response to the protests centered on America and roiling the world in 2020 (due to the ongoing, state-sanctioned racist violence and subsequent loss of Black lives in so many countries), the theorist-musician DeForrest Brown Jr. recorded this incredibly powerful album of experimental techno. The album is paired with a 60-page booklet of Black theory and poetry, and the music features urgent and gut-wrenching poetry and spoken word. Any list of exemplary art capturing what it felt like to grapple with racism in 2020 is incomplete without this album.
1: Charli XCX, how i’m feeling now
This album was in response to another defining aspect of 2020: the covid-19 pandemic. After California went under lockdown in the spring of 2020, Charli XCX decided to leverage it as a unique opportunity: she recorded an album entirely in lockdown, collaborating with her producers and fans remotely to craft a set of songs capturing her immediate feelings while isolated at home with her boyfriend. The production and songcraft don’t suffer at all from the unexpected circumstances and quick turnaround; the result is a fascinating record of life during a pandemic.