For more than a decade, I've made it a tradition to compile my favorite albums of each year come January, using the months prior to revisit and reevaluate hundreds of albums. Though the pandemic cut live music out of the picture, there were still so many incredible new recordings to help music fans get through it. So, yet again, here are my favorite albums from 2020. -Alex Wood
1. Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
When it comes to songwriting, musicianship, production, and overall creativity, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is simply unsurpassable. If what you’re looking for is familiar sounds and soaring guitar solos, this obviously wasn’t made for you. But Apples’ fifth album revels in the idea of density. From the stacks of percussion instruments creating a backdrop to the constantly shifting vocal melodies to the most important aspect - the density of the lyrics.
Sure it’s another bitter breakup album from Fiona Apple. What did you expect? But with underlying themes of empowering and not blaming women, of the inherently unacceptable excuses made for lying and cheating, and the raw emotions and realizations that follow after, it’s simultaneously gorgeous and ugly.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the sound of creative freedom at its best, an inimitable musical design where listeners can pour over the lyrics for years to come. And, if we’re lucky, a message we can learn from.
2. Andy Shauf - The Neon Skyline
The sheer creativity of The Neon Skyline, the fifth full-length album from Canadian songwriter Andy Shauf, makes the record an essential listen from this past year. The concept album requires the sort of uninterrupted, focused listening that too rarely exists in the digital age, and listeners would be wise to follow along with the lyrics throughout.
Lyrically, the album reads like a short novel, the songs containing dialogue, characters and detailed settings throughout. Taking place over the course of a single night at two of the narrator’s favorite bars, the songs follow an exchange with a friend and fellow bar-regular, where he learns that his ex-girlfriend is back in town. While that may sound simple, the plot unravels, becoming anything but, as the narrator analyzes the failed relationship, his present state and the emotional patterns and tendencies that led to both.
Musically, Shauf seals the deal, creating melancholy, often whimsical indie-folk, performing all instruments himself. While guitar, piano, bass and drums may hold the arrangements together, the inclusion of oboe and other woodwinds helps set each scene as the narrator navigates the storyline. Shauf’s soft vocal delivery remains a dominant focus, his expert storytelling abilities pulling the listener in throughout.
An all-around brilliant production, The Neon Skyline is the sort of fully-realized work of art that doesn’t come around often.
3. Chris Stapleton - Starting Over
If any one word exemplifies Starting Over, it would be ‘timeless.’ Soulful outlaw-country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s newest album matches the incredible impact and power of his 2015 solo debut, Traveller, which is no small feat. Starting Over has everything a fan could want from Stapleton - massive, blues-informed guitar riffs with gritty-yet-melodic vocals, beautiful acoustic ballads, lyrical themes that range from drinking anthems to Nashville living to his love for his wife (who is featured on vocals throughout the album) to a heartfelt ode to the passing of his dog- and it all sound so easy. Without even seeming to try, Stapleton created one of the most catchy, honest and lovable albums of the year.
Though Stapleton keeps one foot grounded in Nashville country tradition, it’s where the other foot lands that makes Starting Over so compelling. His vocal prowess is undeniable, using sharp dynamics that can seamlessly move from a croon to a shout, all without sacrificing melody. Musical arrangements can lean toward classic soul, to the extent that the strings on “Cold” could have been found on a Sam Cooke record. There’s no clever shtick here, no wild concepts, no re-invention - and that’s what makes Starting Over such a success. Stapleton represents everything one could ever ask for from a country artist, and Starting Over is a straightforward shot of overwhelmingly enjoyable songwriting that no other modern artist could deliver.
4. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II
As the story goes, My Morning Jacket didn’t intended to release The Waterfall II now, but frontman Jim James heard some of the unreleased recordings from 2015’s sprawling sessions for The Waterfall and decided to use the free time opened up from the pandemic to complete the second release.
With The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket really came into a sound of their own, that not only combined their influences but sort of streamlined the eclecticism of their past work, without imitating any specific sounds that had been done before, by them or others. The album prioritizes textures, coming from both the production and instrumentation. Between Bo’s use of pianos, keyboards and synthesizers, Carl switching from guitar to slide to saxophone and Jim’s vocal range and abilities, the meticulous layers of sound are simply captivating. Having an ear for arranging songs is a talent in its own right, and one the five-piece has honed over the years.
The band wants you to hear The Waterfall II as a continuation, and completion, of the first record. And for me, this draws easy comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album, their notoriously sporadic double-album that features all these different techniques, genres, styles and textures but still always sounds like the Beatles. Both Waterfall albums are distinctly My Morning Jacket, but not the MMJ of the past, a modern one. They’re still growing, learning and working together, in the now.
5. Future Islands - As Long As You Are
Since nailing down their sound on 2014’s Singles, Future Islands has only gotten better, as evidenced by the group’s most recent release, “As Long As You Are.” Generally considered ‘post-wave,’ a genre that combines the romanticism of New Wave with the urgency and energy of Post-Punk, the band’s dramatic, synthesizer-driven sound is matched by the distinct and emotional vocal performances of singer Sam Herring.
While the band hasn’t changed their sound considerably over the last five years, “As Long As You are” features a certain maturity and confidence that makes it stand out. The 11 songs flow seamlessly, with the record slowly working toward a climax. Though no singles stand out the way “Seasons (Waiting On You)” did, this gives the album the sense of being one large song, a gripping 45-minute ride through a cohesive piece of art. Its expansive, textured instrumentals match Herring’s big-picture search for meaning.
Though clearly influenced by the art-rock of the late 70s and early 80s, Future Islands remain firmly planted in the modern music scene, an evolution and extension fo the synth bands of the past.
6. Run The Jewels - RTJ4
Regardless of your musical tastes, it’s impossible to ignore Run The Jewels. The hip-hop duo, consisting of El-P and Killer Mike, continue to do what they do best on RTJ4, a much needed blast of poignant political commentary released early and for free in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder.
The blueprint essentially remains the same: insanely heavy beats match the intensity of insanely intelligent lyrics. Paralleling 2020’s movements against police brutality and racism as well as concern over capitalism’s uneven wealth distribution, RTJ4 calls for revolution in a way that was seemingly on the tip of much of the nation’s tongues. Though a slew of high-profile guests appear throughout - Zack de la Rocha, 2 Chainz, Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, Josh Homme, David Sitek, to name a few - nothing ever beats the verses from El-P and Killer Mike. It’s quite simply some of the best writing in the history of hip-hop, the kind of songs you have to pour over, re-listen to and even research.
7. Rose City Band - Summerlong
Fans of modern psychedelic rock already know Ripley Johnson. Guitarist of heady, effects-laden Wooden Shjips and half of psych-meets-krautrock experimentalists Moon Duo, the prolific songwriter is nothing short of legend. Yet there’s his seemingly overlooked project Rose City Band, which released an incredible sophomore album, Summerlong, in June.
The record features Johnson on all instruments besides drums, and features a psychedelic-meets-Americana twang that fans of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead won’t want to miss. By stripping back the more experimental and noisy layers of his other bands, Johnson’s spectacular songwriting comes to the forefront. Keeping a relaxed, sunny vibe throughout, the songs can move from a glacial pace to a multi-guitar freakout seamlessly, each track anchored by Johnson’s loose and meandering but always proficient solos.
Though fans of his bands already knew of Johnson’s capabilities on guitar, rarely has his songwriting prowess shined like Summerlong. The album slow-burns up until explosive closing tracks “Wee Hours>Wildflowers,” making this the kind of album you’ll simply want to play over again.
8. Fleet Foxes - Shore
Folk-rock revivalists Fleet Foxes have never stayed in one place. Moving from the simplicity of their self-titled debut to the denser Helplessness Blues to the sporadic, proggy Crack-Up, songwriter, singer and producer Robin Pecknold has explored a lot of what the genre can possibly contain.
Which leads to Shore.
Feeling a bit like a culmination of each previous album while simultaneously representing a clear step forward, the record sheds the more experimental nature of Crack-Up without simply returning to the band’s roots. There’s a compelling warmth that comforts listeners through each song, coming from production, music and lyricism. Appropriately released at the exact moment of the October equinox, its autumnal feel provides a certain charm and elegance the band hasn’t shown in the past. It’s a newfound maturity that shines through both the songwriting and refined arrangements.
An incredibly cohesive set of songs, Shore could stand as a pillar for what folk-rock can and has become, flawlessly easy-going but packed with detail that stands out more with each listen. Yet again, Fleet Foxes continue to grow in all the right directions.
9. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
California songwriter Phoebe Bridgers seemingly appeared out of nowhere to suddenly be everywhere at once. After an acclaimed debut album in 2017, she recorded the incredible boygenius EP, a collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, followed by Better Oblivion Community Center, an album and band formed with Conor Oberst. Whether it was surrounding herself with such incredible songwriters for a year or simply a natural and necessary evolution of her own writing skills, next came Punisher, Bridgers’ best project yet.
Lyrically, Bridgers sticks to themes of isolation and sadness, yet rooted in realistic, day-to-day storytelling which makes them extremely effective. Imagery of death, space, apocalyptic scenes and destruction anchor the songs’ melancholy. Instrumentally, the songs are deceptively complex, sounding far simpler than they actually are. Innovative production adds layers of density to even the softest songs, the spacious arrangements matching her delicate vocals, a variety of instruments coming and going with impressive ease through each track, yet never taking the spotlight off her vocals. An album that truly sucks you in and only gets better with additional listens, Punisher officially solidifies Bridgers’ spot as one of the best songwriters around.
10. Sault - Untitled (Black Is
Though plenty of politically-charged music was created during the tumultuous year, nobody mastered the protest album like Sault. The elusive British collective, whose members choose not to reveal their identities and won’t speak with press, released two incredible records this year, “Untitled (Black Is)” and “Untitled (Rise),” following the release of two albums in 2019.
“Untitled (Black Is)” was released, appropriately, on Juneteenth, less than a month after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests. Combining funk, R&B, soul, Afrobeat and more into an eclectic-yet-cohesive whole, both the styles and songwriting celebrate black culture, life and tradition. Hard-hitting lyrical themes in both the songs and interludes balance fear and hope, with a clear call to action addressing racism, both individually and institutionally. If the political and social stress of 2020 was properly represented by any single album, “Untitled (Black Is)” is certainly the one.
11. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman
12. Woods - Strange To Explain
13. The Flaming Lips - American Head
14. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions
15. Bright Eyes - Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
16. Sault - Untitled (Rise)
17. Takuya Kuroda - Fly Moon Die Soon
18. Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn’t Make It
19. Chubby And The Gang - Speed Kills
20. Thundercat - It Is What It Is
21. Bananagun - The True Story Of Bananagun
22. Jaga Jazzist - Pyramid
23. Fontaines D.C. - A Hero’s Death
24. Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 & 2
25. Jyoti - Mama, You Can Bet!
26. Margo Price - That’s How Rumors Get Started
27. Rookie - Rookie
28. Futurebirds - Teamwork
29. Destroyer - Have We Met
30. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
31. Man Man - Dream Hunting In The Valley Of The In-Between
32. The Avalanches - We Will Always Love You
33. Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
34. Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension
35. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - K.G.
36. Butcher Brown - #KingButch
37. This Is The Kit - Off Off On
38. Ben Seretan - Youth Pastoral
39. Soakie - Soakie
40. Samantha Crain - A Small Death
41. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
42. Car Seat Headrest - Making A Door Less Open
43. Garcia Peoples - Nightcap At Wit’s End
44. Bill Callahan - Gold Record
45. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
46. Taylor Swift - evermore
47. Nation Of Language - Introduction, Presence
48. Pacific Range - High Upon The Mountain
49. Turtle Skull - Monoliths
50. GoGo Penguin - GoGo Penguin
51. Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter
52. Fuzz - III
53. Holy Wave - Interloper
54. Nubya Garcia - SOURCE
55. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Sideways To New Italy
56. Pearl Jam - Gigaton
57. Khruangbin - Mordechai
58. Haim - Women In Music Pt. III
59. illuminati hotties - FREE I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For
60. J.S. Ondara - Folk ’n Roll Vol. 1: Tales Of Isolation
61. Makaya McCraven - We’re New Again: A Reimagining
62. Spillage Village- Spilligion
63. Pokey LaFarge - Rock Bottom Rhapsody
64. Moses Boyd - Dark Matter
65. Skyway Man - The World Only Ends When You Die
66. U.S. Girls - Heavy Light
67. Cut Worms - Nobody Lives Here Anymore
68. The Magnetic Fields - Quickies
69. Trace Mountains - Lost In The Country
70. Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides
71. White Denim - World As A Waiting Room
72. Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison
73. Waylon Payne - Blues Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
74. Ohmme - Fantasize Your Ghost
75. Nathaniel Rateliff - And It’s Still Alright
76. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush
77. Country Westerns - Country Westerns
78. Porridge Radio - Every Bad
79. The Avett Brothers - The Third Gleam
80. Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur
81. Cory Henry - Something To Say
82. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo
83. Ganser - Just Look At The Sky
84. Paul McCartney - McCartney III
85. Steve Earle & The Dukes - Ghosts Of West Virginia
86. Kevin Morby - Sundowner
87. Drive-By Truckers - The New OK
88. The Nude Party - Midnight Manor
89. Jeff Tweedy - Love Is The King
90. Pinegrove - Marigold
91. Adrianne Lenker - songs
92. Badge Époque Ensemble - Self Help
93. Hum - Inlet
94. Backxwash - God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
95. William Elliott Whitmore - I’m With You
96. Oh Sees - Protean Threat
97. Soccer Mommy - color theory
98. The Killers - Imploding The Mirage
99. Songhoy Blues - Optimisme
100. Kelly Lee Owens- Inner Song
101. Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life
102. Wolf Parade - Thin Mind
103. Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways
104. Bredan Benson - Dear Life
105. M. Ward - Migration Stories
106. Sen Morimoto - Sen Morimoto
107. Steve Arrington - Down To The Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions
108. Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders
109. Bob Mould - Blue Hearts
110. Empty Country - Empty Country
111. Causa Sui - Szabodelico
112. Shopping - All Or Nothing
113. Lydia Loveless - Daughter
114. IDLES - Ultra Mono
115. Taylor Swift - folklore
116. Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You
117. Dominic Fike - What Could Possibly Go Wrong
118. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers
119. Sorry - 925
120. Of Montreal - UR FUN
121. H.C. McEntire - Eno Axis
122. The Mountain Goats - Songs For Pierre Chuvin
123. Post Animal - Forward Motion Godyssey
124. M. Ward - Think Of Spring
125. Black Thought - Streams Of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane And Abel
126. Dirty Projectors - 5EPs
127. Moses Sumney - græ
128. Elvis Costello - Hey Clockface
129. The Jayhawks - XOXO
130. Shamir - Shamir
131. Kacy & Clayton - Plastic Bouquet
132. North Americans - Roped In
133. Grouplove - Healer
134. Nicole Atkins - Italian Ice
135. Aesop Rock - Spirit World Field Guide
136. Tops - I Feel Alive
137. The Lone Bellow - Half Moon Light
138. Adulkt Life - Book Of Curses
139. Ambrose Akinmusire - On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment
140. The Steeldrivers - Bad For You
141. The Psychedelic Furs - Made Of Rain
142. Cults - Host
143. Half Waif - The Caretaker
144. Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow The Rules
145. 2nd Grade - Hit To Hit
146. Local H - Lifers
147. Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today
148. Caribou - Suddenly
149. Norah Jones - Pick Me Up Off The Floor
150. Earl Sweatshirt - FEET OF CLAY