There’s a famous “Peanuts” cartoon panel, long circulated as a meme among music nerds, in which the Schroeder character, bearing armloads of LP, explains to Lucy, “Buying records cheers me up… Whenever I feel low, I buy some new records.” We knew just how Schroeder felt in 2020 — even if “…I create a new playlist” would be the era-appropriate update for most of us. And it was recorded music we counted on, since the live element was cruelly taken away less than a fourth of a way into the year. Music was really the only art form that was effectively halved — taken away in toto on the performance side, leaving us, and Schroeder, more dependent on the sound of transformation coming through our hi-fis and smartphones than ever.
But if live music was crippled by quarantine in a way that films or TV weren’t, it had its advantages: It is only music, free to rush to work its way on you immediately, with no need for a narrative setup, that can be an instant mood-transformer, in 30 seconds or less. Sometimes in this pandemic year, a spontaneous pick-me-up was what the doctor ordered, and in other moments, we might’ve wanted music to take us even deeper into our feels. And lot of the best music that came to the fore this year combined at least a little bit of both. That was true of the sudden late rush of records recorded during this new stay-at-home era as well as the many that were recorded just prior, all destined to be deemed as prophetic if they had the premonitory power of feeling supalonely.
Here are Variety music writers’ picks for the best albums of 2020, from Taylor Swift quieting down to Run the Jewels raging ever more loudly against the machine. The Weeknd is not conspicuously absent in this roundup, but neither is the diva even the Grammys can agree on, Dua Lipa, who had pop fans levitating even as stay-at-home orders put a ceiling on just how high we could fly.
(Click on these links to jump ahead to the lists by Jem Aswad, Andrew Barker and Chris Willman.)
1. Sault — Untitled (Rise)
Somehow, the mysterious British R&B/electronic-ish combo Sault has managed to drop four richly diverse, socially confrontational albums, all of them good and two of them absolutely great, in just 18 months. Their willful anonymity would be annoying or pretentious if the music weren’t so good and if it weren’t in service to their powerful, Black-centric messaging. Sault’s sound is almost a showcase for the past 50 years of Black music: There are traces of early ‘70s R&B, Philly soul, disco, British R&B ranging from Soul II Soul to Massive Attack, jazzy grooves, several strains of African music, chants, sweeping string arrangements and even moments reminiscent of legendary NYC DJs Masters at Work — and it’s all mixed together with the fluidity and topicality of a great DJ. “Untitled (Rise)” is Sault’s most accessible album to date, with the harder, more angular rhythms of the previous “Untitled (Black Is)” replaced by driving, danceable grooves and more approachable melodies — at least, until moments like when you realize, in the middle of the fast and hard-driving “I Just Want to Dance,” that the lyrics have moved abruptly from dancefloor-loving lines to “Why do my people always die?” That uneasy juxtaposition between pleasure and pain makes it difficult to enjoy the music unselfconsciously, without checking multiple privileges — and that’s probably the idea. (Read our original review here.)
2. The Avalanches — We Will Always Love You
Twenty years ago, the Avalanches, an Australian DJ trio, released “Since I Lost You,” arguably the greatest masterpiece of sampling art since the Beastie Boys’ landmark, Dust Brothers-helmed 1989 album “Paul’s Boutique.” It took the group, by then a duo, 16 years to craft the equally great follow-up, “Wildflower” — and a relatively brief four to issue this year’s model. “We Will Always Love You” switches up the group’s previous, primarily lead-singer-less by adding a stellar lineup guest singers (including Leon Bridges, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Dev Hynes, Denzel Curry and even the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby) to about half of the songs. More importantly, the melodic sensibilities of their sonic collages have translated remarkably well to more traditional songwriting. Don’t let the extended dream team of influences and influencees mislead: This is still very much an Avalanches album, a joyful and adventurous journey into sound. (Read our original review here.)
3. Childish Gambino — 3.15.20
Gambino a.k.a. Donald Glover is often enigmatic, but he really outdid himself with the baffling rollout for this, his fourth full-length album: Expected by fans for nearly two years, it was briefly posted online on 3.15.20, just days after coronavirus took in the U.S., with no advance notice, removed after 12 hours, and then released officially, again with no notice, a week later. It has no title but its initial release date; most of the songs have numbers for titles; the cover is a blank white square — and yet it’s one of the most dynamic albums of the year, showing Glover’s immense maturation as a singer and songwriter. While the influences loom large — “Sign O’ the Times”-era Prince, Kanye, some Bill Withers and even a little Beach Boys — the songs range from soulful ballads (the Princely “Sweet Thing,” the Ariana Grande-featuring “Time”) to confrontational rock, Caribbean rhythms (“Feels Like Summer”) and even an irresistible song called “Big Foot, Little Foot” that could be from a children’s album. Why he decided to give his long-awaited masterwork a stealthy anti-drop is anyone’s guess, but its outward anonymity can’t conceal its greatness.
4. The Weeknd — After Hours
A month after he turned 30 — and just days after the pandemic took hold in North American — The Weeknd launched the next phase of his recording career with his most fully realized album yet, “After Hours.” Sonically, the hallmarks are ultra-cinematic keyboards, pulsating sub-bass, hard beats (which are seldom danceable), ‘80s synthesizer flourishes and caverns of echo, all of which contrast with his high, angelic voice. The sound is distinctively Weeknd, but an unusual progression — it’s somehow sharp and blurry at the same time. It’s a real album too, with a smoothly flowing arc and a loose storyline, a combination of bangers and ballads that musically finds him seeing just how much he can challenge his fans while remaining a commercial powerhouse. — (Read our original review here, our cover story here and a long talk with The Weeknd about the album here.)
5. Dua Lipa / The Blessed Madonna — Club Future Nostalgia
Remixes are a deceptively complex art, and the best ones are reinventions that take the original song on a joyride. Well, this one takes Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” which was already one of the year’s best albums, out shopping for some new clothes, to a romantic dinner, then to a party, a club, another club, an afterparty and then on a top-down drive to the beach to watch the sun rise over the ocean — it’s that good, and that far-ranging. Because let’s be honest: Even though it’s basically a disco-pop album, “Future Nostalgia” is pretty businesslike. The songs are beautiful but starkly direct, all muscle and bone, like Madonna in “Truth or Dare.” On “Club,” the basics of the original songs are there, but they’re dressed in different outfits, sometimes drastically so. The remixers — including Mark Ronson, Masters at Work, Jacques Lu Cont, Paul Woolford, Yaeji and more, all helmed by The Blessed Madonna — not only rework Lipa’s songs, they drop in bits of songs by other artists (Stevie Nicks, Gwen Stefani) here and there. The overall affect is like seeing friends at one of the bustling holiday parties we’re all so nostalgic for. At 50 minutes and 17 song long, “Club Future Nostalgia” is over way too fast. (Read our original review here.)
6. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
This 25 year-old, suddenly four-time Grammy nominee has a high, wispy, pretty voice that often camouflages the intense, incisive or batshit things she’s singing about. Combined with the soft-focus production on most of her songs, it’s almost lulling — and if you’re only half-listening, you may not realize a song is a rebuke to her estranged real-life father or is directed at a skeevy former mentor-lover twice her age. But that tension is hardly the only thing that’s made Bridgers the MVP for a generation of female singer-songwriters (not least her bandmates in Boygenius, Lucy Dacus and Julienne Baker) — her music has a rare multigenerational appeal. There’s Elliott Smith and emo rock from her own youth; the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters she was raised on; and even splashes of Gen X-era Liz Phair/Belly alt-rock. But most of all, she’s a precocious songwriter, equally unafraid to let a simple line hang or unspool an ambitious melody. Hopefully, “Punisher” is an early high-water mark in a career that will itself unspool over decades. (Read our original review here, and an in-depth interview here.)
7. Kali Uchis — Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)
Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis dropped one of the best alt-R&B albums in recent memory with 2018’s “Isolation,” and she brings a similar sumptuous vibe to her first Spanish-language album, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios).” Executive produced by Puerto Rican superstar producer Tainy (Cardi B’s “I Like It,” Bad Bunny, Daddy Yankee, Ozuna), the album ranges across multiple styles, from orchestrated, Portisheadesque menace and loping, upbeat R&B to slinky reggaetón and sparkling, ‘60s-style pop — and more than one song is reminiscent of late-period Sade.
8. 100 Gecs — 100 Gecs & the Tree of Clues
I will admit that the deeply confrontational music on both 100 Gecs’ 2019 debut album, obviously titled “1000 Gecs,” and this remix/revamp collection took me several weeks to come around to. As the accidental standard bearers of the mutant-pop genre apparently called “hyperpop” (after a Spotify playlist collecting similar pop rebels), their music does not go down easily at first, nor is it intended to: It’s an ADD-addled, quick-cut style loaded with autotuned voices, industrial noises, sound effects and seemingly anything within reach. Yet it combines all of that with an incongruous tunefulness and an innovative approach to songwriting that finds the duo’s unusual composition structure and seemingly nano-second-length attention spans still delivering fully realized songs, with hooks, choruses, bridges and most of the conventional elements — just not necessarily where you’d expect them. Along with seatmates like Charli XCX and A.G. Cook (whose influence they acknowledge) and Tierra Whack (whose “Whack World” album achieves a similar trick with 15 one-minute-long songs), they’re upending the songwriting process and delighting in the chaos.
9. Perfume Genius — Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
“Masterpiece” is not a word we use lightly around here, but it’s hard to think of a better description for Mike Hadreas’ (a.k.a. Perfume Genius) fifth and latest album. Its ornate, intricately arranged songs have an almost museum-like quality with multiple themes and subtexts in the lyrics and music that ranges from the string-quartet bedecked “Whole Life” to the fuzzed-out guitars and droning rhythm of “Describe” — and that’s just the first two songs. It’s elaborate, dramatic and demanding, and not the kind of art that one comes to lightly. (Read our original review here.)
10. Lido Pimienta — Miss Colombia
A surprisingly fluid fusion of pop, electronic music and cumbia, the second album from this sweet-voiced Colombian-Canadian singer is deceptively pleasant on the surface — but much of it is a reflection on the racisim Pimienta experienced as a person of Black South American descent (the title is partially inspired by the 2015 debacle when host Steve Harvey mistakenly crowned the Colombian contestant Miss Universe instead of Miss Philippines). If you don’t speak Spanish all of that is likely to go over your head, and that’s okay too: With a combination of indelible melodies and a crafty use of horns and woodwinds as well as electronics, “Miss Colombia” is a subtle and charming form of rebellion.
Yaeji “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던”
The 1975 “Notes on a Conditional Form”
Bad Bunny “YHLQMDLG”
Jessie Reyez “Before Love Came to Kill Us”
Nick Hakim “Will This Make Me Good”
1. Run the Jewels — RTJ4
The latest, and greatest, full-length from the hydra-headed hip-hop conquerors Killer Mike and El-P, “RTJ4” arrived with righteous fury just as the George Floyd protests hit a crest this past summer, speaking to a nation in crisis with appropriately revolutionary fervor – the perfect album for an extremely imperfect time. Whether dissecting the systemic failures of the American police state or elaborating the various ways that Run the Jewels will embarrass you in a lyrical battle, the album seethes with political urgency and pulses with open-veined sincerity, while somehow still managing to retain all of the pugilistic vulgarity and what-me-worry swagger that made these two such unlikely heroes to begin with. Come for the furious jeremiads against late-stage capitalism, stay for Mike clowning hypebeasts and El shouting out Bob Ross.
2. Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield has never tried to hide her Southern roots – she named her one-woman band after the Alabama creek near where she grew up, after all – but neither has she dug as deeply into those roots as she did on this year’s “Saint Cloud.” With warm Americana textures sweetening her characteristically unflinching lyrics (here detailing her newfound sobriety), she never fails to dredge some striking insight or glimmer of beauty out of the morass of addiction and regret. I’ve always admired Crutchfield’s music, but this is the first work of hers that’s taken up permanent residence in my psyche; there’s surely no single track I’ve replayed more this year than “Lilacs,” a perfect song by which to mark the slow, slow, slow passing of time.
3. Shabazz Palaces — The Don of Diamond Dreams
“I never was the type / To lead a sedentary life.” Those are the first words out of Ishmael Butler’s mouth on his fifth album as Shabazz Palaces, and they should really go without saying. A decade into his remarkable second act, hip-hop’s poet laureate of chthonian dreamscapes continues to follow his own inscrutable muse, but rather than dwell in the cobwebby catacombs that he and Tendai Maraire so memorably excavated on the 2011 masterpiece “Black Up,” this time he’s opened his music up to a little sunlight, with ornate cinematic flourishes and punchy funk bass giving the man once known as Butterfly enough room to take flight.
4. Taylor Swift — Folklore
As someone who’s long been enthralled by her songwriting, and entirely uninterested in the endless webs of tabloid narratives and self-referential meta-commentary that tend to swirl around her, Swift’s last few albums presented a bit of a challenge. “Reputation,” in particular, felt a bit like wandering into the middle of “Infinity War” having seen none of the last few Marvel installments. So it was a welcome change of pace to see her turn her considerable gifts outward on this delicate, beautifully crafted lockdown release, painting vivid pointillist portraits of illicit teenage love affairs, dynastic disintegration, and the wistful late-night musings of a speaker who may be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, Taylor Swift.
5. Open Mike Eagle — Anime, Trauma and Divorce
The Chicago-bred Open Mike Eagle has long been one of independent hip-hop’s most bruisingly funny, endlessly relatable MCs, but when he found himself teetering on the edge of 40, newly divorced, suffering a series of professional setbacks and wondering how long he wanted to keep rolling a boulder up the hill…he decided to make a bruisingly funny, endlessly relatable album about all of those experiences. The most lacerating rap treatise on aging, self-doubt and acceptance since Fatlip’s “The Loneliest Punk,” “Anime” may even convince me to finally give “Neon Genesis Evangelion” a try.
6. Soccer Mommy — Color Theory
Easily the best dreamy ‘90s alt-rock album ever made by someone who wasn’t even born when “Souvlaki” came out, Sophie Allison’s second LP as Soccer Mommy is deceptively nonchalant. With amorphous song structures and wispy vocals, “Color Theory” almost comes across as slight at first – but lean in a little closer and you realize just how much substance the album contains, how strong its hooks are, how poignant its lyrics. It didn’t hurt that “Circle the Drain” was one of the best accidental quarantine anthems released this year: depressive, couch-bound listlessness prettied up with a sunshiny sheen.
7. Kylie Minogue — Disco
It’s Kylie Minogue. Making a disco album. What else is there to explain here? Of course it’s good.
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions
Americana’s master craftsman turns out ten reliably excellent songs with so little sweat that it’s easy to forget how few people can do this. The man is rapidly approaching official National Treasure status.
9. Jay Electronica — A Written Testimony
After an entire decade’s worth of teases and long disappearances, onetime prospective-savior-of-hip-hop Jay Electronica finally released his long-awaited debut album just as COVID quarantine swept through most of the country, and even under those circumstances it still seemed surreal to know that it actually existed. Featuring Jay-Z as a sort of supporting character on a majority of its tracks, “A Written Testimony” comes across like one long exhalation after years of breathless false-starts and overthinking: it’s hard to imagine he could have delivered a masterpiece equal to expectations, so he focused on just making a really, really good rap record instead.
10. Roc Marciano — Mt. Marci
Any time a rapper opens an album by effortlessly rhyming “LMAO,” “yayo,” “fuego,” “Alfa Romeo,” “alfredo,” “Waco,” “mayo” and “Scott Baio” in the first verse of the first song, you tend to assume you’ll be in safe hands throughout. And so it proves on Marciano’s ninth full-length, as the king of thousand-yard-stare punchlines continues to cruise comfortably in a lane all his own.
Other stuff I liked: Lucinda Williams, “Good Souls Better Angels”; Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, “Alfredo”; The Mountain Goats, “Songs for Pierre Chuvin”; Carly Rae Jepsen, “Dedicated Side B”; Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and 9th Wonder, “Dinner Party”
1. Taylor Swift — Folklore/Evermore
Either of Taylor Swift’s two 2020 releases could be a list-topper in itself. Considered in tandem — entwined, like the braid that graces the cover of “Evermore” — they add up to one of the most accomplished and filler-free double-albums, official or otherwise, in pop lore. When the first album was announced with less than a day’s notice in July, as something that had been instigated and finished in what amounted to four months of lockdown at that point, it would’ve been easy to look at the forested cover images and rustic fonts and imagine that Swift had either made a very slapdash attempt at indie-folk or was just going to have a serious disconnect between her ruminative new self-image and the actual content of the music (a la Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods,” a trip into the trees that ended less well). But with the assistance of new collaborator Aaron Dessner and old one Jack Antonoff, she was up to something more original than anything we imagined in those few pregnant pre-release hours of wondering whether cabin fever had gotten to her. Tree bark didn’t really have a lot to do with it: she was biting into a kind of chamber-pop that pitted the sometimes very formal, largely acoustic, not-so-percussive track beds that she wrote to against the kinds of dramatic emotions and storytelling she’d always done, and magnificently splitting any difference. It was if she’d commissioned arrangements from her primary co-producers that ordered her: You need to calm down. She did, and a globe caught up in a similarly reflective mode stepped up to embrace it. “Evermore,” released five months later, felt like it had even fewer “pop” concessions than its predecessor — yet an electronically styled remix of “Willow” made it clear that this is really the kind of writing Swift has been doing all along, under our noses, as some turned theirs up at her shinier versions of the same. The high level of lyrical cleverness and phrasing in the best ballads put her in a class with the great writers of our time, like Aimee Mann. But you have to think back to the Beatles to think of a time when someone was turning out Event Albums in such fast succession and not setting anyone up for a letdown.
(Read Variety‘s review of “Evermore” last week here. Read our July review of “Folklore” here.)
2. Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters
It’d been eight years since her last album, but “Bolt Cutters” was worth the worrying weight — it turned out to be this Gen-X standard bearer’s best album. Much of the material is challenging on first listen, and smoothness is a quality Apple consigns to criminals, not her own middle-period work. But once you get past the experimental tinge of some of the arrangement (often involving banged-upon household objects), the album is nearly conventional in the ample pleasures it provides, in the form of earworms matched with emotional catharsis. Apple unbolted is a lot like the rest of us, unquarantined: dealing with jealousy and microaggressions, hoping for transcendence, looking for love on all the wrong mortal coils. This is why it has to at least be tied for the No. 1 spot in a year with plenty of contenders: Her laser focus on need and the vagaries of human interaction is so tight, amid the kitchen-sink-plus instrumental approach, that she’s finally made her masterpiece. (Read our original review here.)
3. Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways
It’s not as if the man who wrote “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has ever been at a loss for words. But you’d have to look one of the hip-hop deluxe editions that have been flooding the marketplace recently to find anything approaching Dylan’s new “Rough and Rowdy Ways” for sheer volume of verbiage. The already legendary “Murder Most Foul” lasts 17 epic minutes, and even a more minimalist number like “False Prophet” squeezes 10 verses into its six minutes. So any fans frustrated that Dylan hadn’t released an album of original material since 2012’s “Tempest” could have rested assured that, now that the most celebrated songwriter in rock history was coming back with new material after an extended Sinatra sojourn, he was making up for lost rhyme. Dylan was in much the same freestyling lyrical mode he’s been in since 2001’s “Love and Theft,” the moment at which he seemed to decide, probably presciently, that the 21st century would best be served by some kind kind of juke-joint dissociative disorder. Now, as on that pivotal work, it makes for songs that can be confounding as they are thrilling. What an accomplishment it is, anyway, to be 79 and achieving new levels of elusiveness — riveting elusiveness — as his mystery train rolls closer to the station. In just one song, the closing “Murder Most Foul,” a song that uses the JFK assassination as a springboard to riff on culture, he distills a vast and lifelong sense of exploration, as somebody who’s discovering not just the links between Kennedy and his killer(s?) but what ties together King James and Etta James, Beethoven and Warren Zevon, and his two favorite sources, Shakespeare and the gospel. By the end, you can almost imagine Dylan coming into focus after all, against all odds: as our greatest dot-connector.
(Read Variety‘s original review of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” here.)
4. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia
What is Lipa nostalgic for, exactly, on her second album? Is it the thumping disco of the 1970s? The primo funked-up Prince (and his coterie of female protégés) from the ‘80s? The dance sounds she might have remembered from when she was a toddler way back in the ‘90s? Why ask Jamiroqu-why? It’s all of the above, on a 100% ballad-free collection that literally doesn’t skip a beat but also never skimps for a moment on bringing the joy. The best dance-pop record to come along in years was a throwback in some stylistic ways, like its focus on some actual living-and-breathing bass playing you can feel at the bass of your spine. But it was also calling back to a time in which there was joy on the dance floor. Lady Gaga would soon come along and cement this as the feel of the season, but it was Lipa who was there at the very top of the pandemic urging us to “Don’t Start Now,” and yet she started us up anyway.
(Read our original review here. For Variety’s interview with Lipa, read here.)
5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions
What we really need to be reunited with, Isbell suggests, is our better angels. Without taking too ministerial a tone, the singer-songwriter indulges in some serious conscience-pricking, on our behalf and on his own. The stirring and haunting opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help,” speaks to would-be do-gooders in retreat: “Now the world’s on fire and we just climb higher, until we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound,” he sings. “Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher / Nothing given nothing found.” Sound like any recent social apocalypse you know? The careful songwriting of “Reunions” offers bittersweet childhood memories of summer nights and broken homes; forlorn tales of marital separation; sweet celebrations of parenthood; advice for newly sober pals just starting along the 12 steps; or angry broadsides against apathetic celebrities. The musical definition is a little slippery, as Isbell’s folky rock creeps more toward the Mark Knopfler-esque. But the lyrical genre for these alternately prodding and soothing songs couldn’t be clearer: it’s soul.
(Read Variety’s profile of Isbell here.)
6. Haim — Women in Music Pt. III
There’s a lot of sibling non-rivalry going on on this list: Taylor Swift described her two albums this year as sisters to one another, and then that really becomes flesh with the terrific albums delivered by Halle x Chloe (see below), the Secret Sisters and the “summer girls” of Haim. The title of the third album from Danielle, Alana and Este Haim, “Women in Music Pt. III,” could either be taken as tongue-in-cheek or earnest. Looking at their often amusing videos, you might think the former; listening to songs of empowerment like “Leaning on You” or straight-up feminist disappointment like “Man from the Magazine,” it became clearer that they’re waving the “women in rock” flag proudly. As much as they especially and unequivocally wave it for the “rock band” part of that, though, these are three women who love to kick out a jam live but, on record, are not afraid to run the Fleetwood Mac or any other influence they love through production and arrangement filters that make it clear they’re as raptly caught up in the pop music stylization of 2020. It’s a hugely fun record, and also one largely rooted in lyrical feelings of depression and isolation, which made it one of those so-called “prophetic” albums. Haim, of course, did not need a lockdown to know exultant anxiety is always in style.
(Read Variety’s June profile of Haim here and an interview about their Grammy nominations here.)
7. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
“When I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” Bridgers vows in “Garden Song.” Of course, this gardener has already done that in spades, we know from her archly contemplative, altogether self-knowing and self-owning corker of a second album. Due to the lovely softness of her voice and the songs’ acoustic underpinnings, Bridgers often gets labeled as an indie-folk artist, when classifiers aren’t calling her indie-rock, and that’s probably fair enough. But the more deliciously murky parts of “Punisher” might also remind you of the softer side of Peter Gabriel… if Gabriel was a funnier or at least more irreverent guy. Bridgers’ lyrics are full of cutting, seemingly random, everyday observations that bump up against what can border on being an ethereal tone. The specificity of the storytelling is almost at OCD odds with the grander designs the singer is getting at — a catalog of playful asides from a life narrative the rest of us don’t share, somehow adding up to a big picture of something we all do: heartache. With “Kyoto,” one of the year’s most sweeping rock songs, she was talked into taking a song she wrote to be quiet — as is her wont — and making it into something majestic. And the closing “I Know the End” builds to a remarkable album-ending crescendo. In-between these explosive moments, though, she’s fine with turning the volume down and making you lean into her. We’ll be doing that for a long time.
(Read Variety’s recent interview with Bridgers about her music video for “Savior Complex” here.)
8. Elvis Costello — Hey Clockface
Elvis Costello gives the clock a good, solid punch by continuing to release records that put the lie to the idea that veteran artists inevitably stop challenging themselves over time… or that anything in the vicinity of a 31st studio album should have to be cause for diminished expectations. The different elements of “Hey Clockface” were recorded more or less on the fly, mostly in rushed settings just prior to quarantine, as if Costello looked at his watch and saw it coming. But the looseness and even rawness of the musical settings — some of it done with a jazz-leaning combo in Paris, some with Costello making a joyful, clanging noise by himself as a one-man band in Helsinki — works wonderfully against the often formal elegance of his songwriting. There’s a variety of material encompassing his broad interests, from the nearly nihilistic neo-punk of “No Flag” (what a song for an American election year) to the cheerful Tin Pan Alley cleverness of the ’30s-influenced title track. And if you loved the useful beauty of “Painted From Memory” or the musical-theater-style storytelling of “Look Now,” here’s a lot more where that came from.
(Read Variety‘s recent profile of Costello here and a bonus Q&A here.)
9. Chloe x Halle — Ungodly Hour
At 22 and 20, respectively, sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey would seem to have all the time in the world. But not time enough for your nonsense. “I don’t have the time to teach you how to love all over again,” they warn a suitor (or, given that this is a duet act, suitors) in the title track of “Ungodly Hour,” even as they present a gentle suggestion: “When you decide you like yourself, holler at me.” That song, co-produced by another famous duo, Disclosure, glides along with a soothing dance-floor thump, as if the young man they’re correcting might take the hint and join them in growing up even as he joins them at the club. Virtually the whole album flows with that same easy grace: Even when the lyrics convey uncertainty or suspicion, the music is R&B at its least troubled-sounding, with an underlying optimism that these road bumps can all be smoothed over. Chloe x Halle are signed to Beyonce’s label, and there are times where the intricacy of their vocal work may put you in mind of a Destiny’s-Child-minus-one, also minus some of the melodrama. But of course even that group didn’t have the benefit of the Baileys’ blood harmony. They say the angelic look on the cover is meant as ironic, but by the end of this sophomore album, you may still insist on taking those wings at face value.
10. Ashley McBryde — Never Will
The intersection of “redneck” and “sensitive singer-songwriter” has been an ever-narrowing Venn diagram in the last couple decades, but McBryde made that twain meet again on a sophomore album that exceeded her estimable first. She’s Patty Griffin and Gretchen Wilson in the same tatted-up package, offering songs that sometimes fit squarely in the country pocket, sometimes revive a brasher outlaw tradition, and sometimes veer further into the realm of tart ‘n’ smart Americana than the mainstream labeling ever would have led you to expect. She’s nobody’s idea of an easy sell in a dude’s world, and her single “One Night Standards” just cracked the country top 20 after a long climb. But it’s a reminder of how great the genre can be when it’s willing to traffic in loneliness or orneriness — not so much a cheating song as a number that acknowledges there are easy pleasures to be found in cheating on yourself. She scoots satisfyingly between modern country, proto-hillbilly and Southern-fried ‘80s rock sounds, but it’s her full-throated willingness to go for the lyrical jugular that makes her the rising star the genre most needs.
(Read our original review of McBryde’s album here.)
And a few more just as honorable:
Bettye LaVette — “Blackbirds”
Brandy Clark — “Your Life Is a Record”
The Chicks — “Gaslighter”
Dawes — “Good Luck With Whatever”
Lucinda Williams — “Good Souls Better Angels”
Run the Jewels — “RTJ4”
Margo Price — “That’s How Rumors Get Started”
Sufjan Stevens — “The Ascension”