Northern Transmissions Best Albums of 2020
At the end of the year, nearly everyone engages in the act of reflection. An act which, in normal years, consists of the same, bone-dry resolutions and nostalgic gazes into the past.
To the surprise of precisely nobody, 2020’s reflection will be considerably different. The year brought forth untold disruption, illness, and discomfort, the likes of which most people have never seen. In the past 12 months alone, North America has seen over 400,000 preventable deaths, grassroots social justice movements akin to the glorious culmination of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and raging wildfires that caused unbelievable damage.
Oh, and that’s not even mentioning a contentious election, the death of numerous social and political figures, and the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, all of which will rightly be studied vigorously by historians as separate, yet still impactful, events.
As Twitter thread-starter Eric Alper remarked on Sunday, “5 years ago today, 2020 started”. Without exaggeration, it really does seem that way.
But, of all the things that 2020 brought, exceptional music was one of the few positives. Without trying to seem too self-righteous or privilege-ridden, this year has been exceptionally revealing for key sects of the music industry.
Aside from the weeding out of some less-than-stellar individuals within the business itself (see: The Growlers, Hoops), 2020 saw some truly triumphant victories for women in music, with Phoebe Bridgers (Punisher), Fiona Apple (Fetch The Bolt Cutters), Adrianne Lenker(songs), Waxahatchee (Saint Cloud), and so many others asserting themselves as strong, forceful voices in a still male-dominated industry. Beyond that, meaningful, rebellious anthems have come to the fore in a time of gut-wrenching racial inequality and brutal political unrest.
Of course, this isn’t even mentioning the many excellent records that have been conceived out of necessity given the pandemic’s halting of habitual tour schedules. This year alone, Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Adrianne Lenker’s instrumentals ( the brilliant parallel to the aforementioned songs) were released, both of which were born, nurtured, and set free during the pandemic’s darkest days. All in all, 2020 showed the immense creativity and imagination present in today’s rising stars, both musically and mentally.
Even in purely utilitarian terms, narrative songwriting was the focus of some tremendous records, with AndyShauf’s The Neon Skyline and Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways reminding audiences of the value of story-driven music.
Regardless of genre, length, or depth, 2020 had something for everyone, whether it be the plethora of bite-size EPs released intermittently through the early segments of quarantine or the stunning full-length records that finally saw the light of day after years of production.
Most of all, real music was appreciated for what it was. Songs about culture, queerness, individualism, struggle, and discrimination were all listened to and internalized for what they were. In an ideal world, music wouldn’t just be a catalyst for social change, it would be the vessel through which meaningful change takes place. The industry—and, more broadly, pop culture—may not be there yet, but, as every year inches forward, so too does the closeness of that reality.
Overall, it seemed as though musicians and music fans alike came to a sort of reckoning this year. Yes, there remains a tremendous amount of inequality, cruelty, and deep-seeded superiority within music, and in popular culture as a whole. However, this year proved that the groundwork for meaningful and sustained change is being laid, even if at a painfully slow pace.
And so, as 2020 comes to a merciful end, the time is now for reflection. While it may have been painful, it brought some incredible music that will surely endure the test of time. If for that only, 2020 should be remembered slightly fondly, though not too fondly. It is 2020, after all.
TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2020
30. IDLES – Ultra Mono
On Ultra Mono, IDLES double down on their bluntness. They beat their political polemics into your head. They believe in what they say, and they make a point of saying it as clearly as possible because they feel they’ve been misinterpreted for as long as they’ve existed. “Go ahead. Tell ’em what I’ve intended,” Joe scoffs on “Grounds,” one of the album’s many responses to the band’s critics.
29. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death
A Hero’s Death is more delocalized than its predecessor, but the sunny influence of California seeps into its title track. Above bopping harmonies, which the band played around with while driving through the Golden State and listening to the Beach Boys, Chatten shares wisdom about how to be a good, grounded person and manage your expectations.
28. Destroyer – Have We Met
Perhaps the difference in tone is due to his unconventional song writing methods, Bejar has explained that he writes through bursts of lyrics and melodies that come to him as he goes about his days. Despite the few moments where Bejar lulls the listener into an apathy paralysis, Have We Met is one of the strongest albums in Destroyer’s fruitful career. Many of these songs are certain to be highlights of the band’s live repertoire for years to come.
27. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
Despite adhering more closely to the strictures of genre and expressing love – a topic that typically holds less artistic stock than the “sordid” aforementioned – Heaven To a Tortured Mind is as intoxicating, exhilarating, daring, and adventurous as fans have come to expect of Yves Tumor.
26. The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed
To discover this hidden treasure in real time makes it all so much more rewarding than if it was all just detailed to you fully beforehand. It’s ironic that Little Dominiques Nosebleed is made up of so many samples as the album is so wonderfully original. It just goes to show that it’s not the paint but the painter and Dominique Purdy AKA The Koreatown Oddity is one helluva artist.
25. Moses Sumney – Grea
Tempered and genre-bending, græ is an outstanding anthology that bemuses stable ears and offers an absurd amount of variety. Marked by Sumney’s acrobatic and quivering vocals and complemented by a deluge of diverse instrumentation, it is, deservedly, one of the year’s most expansive and enthralling efforts.
24. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
Color theory is an album that is full of gifts. With repeated listens there is always something to hear and treasure. Nothing here shies away from reality but because the songwriting is so honest, so personal to Sophie Allison’s experience, listeners will be able to grasp on to it all and relate wholly. It’s a really special thing when someone makes a record that can transcend age, gender and capture human experience so beautifully that whatever renaissance may be happening in music, it’s a guarantee that Soccer Mommy will be around the forefront.
23. Taylor Swift – Folklore
Folklore is a huge surprise. Just the fact that this album exists and we hadn’t heard a hint about it is pretty unreal. An album Swift started to craft when plans to tour her last record, just dropping eleven months ago, faded away with the global pandemic. Locked up at home she channeled her energies into these songs and you can feel her every intention.
22. Haim – Women In Music part lll
It’s exceedingly rare that a band’s third album is anything but fodder to keep the brand going, but Haim have exceeded all the expectations with Women In Music Pt. III. The record is a beautiful account of what it is to be young and sensitive in the world today. While it is full of hooks, the thing that will get people the most is the honesty that the sisters show in every song.
21. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The Strokes have had a contentious history in the recording studio. At its height, during the making of 2011’s Angles; Casablancas submitted his vocals and vague writing instructions via email while the rest of the band toiled in the studio. But on The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound more in sync than almost ever. It’s impossible to speculate on the writing and recording of The New Abnormal, but it’s nice to think the title of the second track, “Selfless,” describes the band’s more democratic and even convivial interpersonal dynamics at the time.
20. Kurt Vile – Speed, Sound, Lonely KV
Since this recording the building that housed the Butcher Shoppe was sold and Prine has unfortunately passed but the energy, the excitement and wonder of the music that was so lovingly crafted there, in that city, will never disappear. For some of us, as well, Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV (ep) may be the gateway drug we didn’t know we needed.
19. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
The entirety of Neon Skyline is so emotionally direct and engaging that the spoils are best left to discover on your own. There is no doubt that Shauf has honed his talents over the years and now they are razor sharp, witty and winning and the album is a perfect example of an artist come into their own. The Party may have put Shauf on the map but Neon Skyline should continue to open his world up to more listeners, ones that will stick around to whatever he chooses to do next for a long time to come.
18. Hum – Inlet
Despite its maximalist guitar texturing and extra-epic song lengths (half of its tracks sit above eight minutes), Inlet hardly wears out its welcome. While washing away some of Hum’s scrappier tendencies (think the chaotic metre-shifting finale of “I’d Like Your Hair Long” or Talbott’s raspier tone on “Comin’ Home”), it’s an undeniable masterwork from these tone veterans. Dive in.
17. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
It’s easy and accurate to call Margolin a strong songwriter and performer. But what makes Every Bad special is the way in which it all sounds so familiar, like other bands and songs, but, as your ear tries to pin things down, ultimately like nothing else. For that reason, Every Bad might be most like the work of painter Georges Seurat, the noted Pointillist. From a distance, it’s one lovely thing but the true beauty is in the small details that comprise the larger piece.
16. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
The Ascension is a lot to digest and one that you cannot in a single sitting. Luckily the arrangements are interesting enough to hook you into wanting to come back for more and with every round, you start to peel away the record’s denseness and find some truly transcendent moments. Stevens has said that this is his more pessimistic record yet but with him crafting this album, one with so much thoughtfulness to it, shows that ultimately while he is upset with how things are in the current climate, he cares enough to air his grievances in this intriguing, beautiful and quite sprawling way. A lot has changed in the last five years but at least in all this upheaval, we still have Sufjan Stevens here to put forth these emotions in an honest, poignant and considerate way.
15. Fleet Foxes – Shore
This year, like the shore that Pecknold and company are staring into is an ever changing, swirling mass of ambiguity and anxiety but here on the land, through these songs, we can take a little comfort in the knowledge that our feet are firmly planted in the sand and there is some optimism on the horizon and as cautious as we may need to be about it, we can literally hear it running throughout the entirety of this wonderful record.
14. Freddie Gibs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist have surprised fans by releasing a new joint project Alfredo, featuring Tyler, The Creator, Rick Ross, Benny, The Butcher and Conway The Machine and include the single “1985” directed by Ben “Lambo” Lambert. The project is their second collaboration together following their 2018 tape with Curren$y, Fetti. Alfredo follows Freddie Gibbs’s joint album with Madlib, Bandana, from last year.
13. Metz – Atlas Vending
Bringing the record and song to a close, METZ dial down the intensity for something sounding closer to tarnished shoegaze as ‘Atlas Vending’ is jammed out to an elongated finale. Ugly yet beautiful ‘Atlas Vending’ just illustrates how METZ are the masters of their craft.
12. Rina Sawayama – Sawayama
SAWAYAMA is an album that encompasses who Rina is. She explains: “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.”
11. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
The band seemed to appear out of nowhere, dropping two records in 2019 and two records this year that are potent, provocative looks into the full spectrum of Black existence. A collection of R&B, funk, spoken word and protest anthems, Untitled (Black Is) is the perfect record to score this year.
10. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
For many, the easiest thing in the world is to recycle beats and keep making the same album over and over again. But Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is attentively and intelligently constructed. At the same time, the album doesn’t feel overthought or overly intricate. It’s Hadreas’ personal, idiosyncratic take on pop music, but it’s also one that’s easy to appreciate.
9. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Evidently, Bartees Strange has a broad musical influence and something incredibly important to say, and it’s taken his mercurial talent to bind these disparate outposts together into one cohesive body of work. Where others might have made a big ol’ mess of his ever-evolving inspiration, this visionary has crafted something simply wonderful with Live Forever.
8. Nothing – The Great Dismal
The Great Dismal refers to a swamp, a brilliant natural trap where survival is custom fit to its inhabitants. The nature of its beautiful, but the taxing environment and harsh conditions can’t ever really be shaken or forgotten too easily.
7. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Over the course of Saint Cloud’s 11 songs, which were recorded in the summer of 2019 at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX, and Long Pond in Stuyvesant, NY, and produced by Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Big Red Machine), Crutchfield peels back the distortion of electric guitars to create a wider sonic palette than on any previous Waxahatchee album. It is a record filled with nods to classic country (like the honky tonk ease of “Can’t Do Much”), folk-inspired tones (heard in the confessional lilt of “St. Cloud”), and distinctly modern touches (like the pulsating minimalism of “Fire”).
6. Muzz – Muzz
The songs featured here are very well written, mature, sharply observed and featuring wonderfully restrained performances. While the album may not eclipse anything that previously lit us up from Interpol, The Walkmen or Bonny Light Horseman, the work on display here is full of charm and grace. Muzz may be saddled under the supergroup denomination but their genuine care to the craft of this record should hopefully allow them to have listeners treat this as its own thing; a beautifully made album from three very talented artists.
5. Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways
Rough and Rowdy Ways is the 39th studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on June 19, 2020 by Columbia Records. It is Dylan’s first album of original songs since his 2012 album Tempest, following three releases, one a triple album, that covered traditional pop standards. It features contributions from several musicians, including Blake Mills, Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench and Alan Pasqua.
4. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Throw up your pistol and fist, puff out that chest and “Kill Your Masters” because Run The Jewels are giving you with RTJ4 the soundtrack to fight the oppressors and the antidote to today’s unrelenting barrage of bullshit.
3. Adrianne Lenker – Songs
Circumstances forced Big Thief off the road and in turn Lenker off the map and into desolation to relax and heal from years of hard work. Being the artist that she is though, even away from everything, in one of the most confusing times our generation has ever gone through, Lenker was able to channel the way she felt personally and made it infinitely relatable to us all with Songs.
2. Fionna Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fetch The Both Cutters is one of the rare records that is a true artistic statement that also stands to affect every single person that listens to it because there is so much to relate here. Fiona Apple has crafted an exciting, messy, funny and beautiful record that mirrors the excitement, messiness, humour and beauty locked up in all our heads and all our hearts.
1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Punisher is a rare album. One that has been anxiously anticipated and also fulfils expectations on every level. There’s an understated charge that elevates every single moment in Bridger’s songs to the point where they are almost excruciatingly relatable. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers can be described as prolific but it’s more apt to describe her and her music as heartbreaking, hilarious, human and nostalgic for a time we’ve all lived and for moments we have yet too.
Follow the entire playlist on our Spotify page:
Intro Best Albums 2020: Hayden Godfrey
Credits Best Albums 2020: Charles Brownstein, Alberto Dal Santo, Adam Fink, Adam Williams, Leslie Chu, Dave Macintyre, and the rest of NT’s family.
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