Monday, January 18, 2021

My favorite 100+ albums of 2020

Best Reissues: 
This collection from Hall and Oates (Fall in Philadelphia: The Definitive Demos 1968-71) is less "reissue" and more "all demos of mostly later-fleshed-out songs," but it's a mellow yacht-rock keeper. Lou Reed's New York is one of my favorites and it got the deluxe treatment this year, with the best new stuff being a ton of live burners. The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me Deluxe is packed with tons of new extras and, of course, there could never be enough versions of "Can't Hardly Wait." Lemonheads' Lovey 30th Anniversary Edition doesn't add much other than a disc's worth of live tracks, but this is one of the great underrated pop-punk releases of the 90s. Various Really Obscure Artists finally get their time in the sun on the early-R.E.M.-like-tastic Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground.

Biggest Disappointments:
Tame Impala: The Slow Rush (started out a few years back as one of my favorite new bands and have devolved over several releases into an adult-contemporary version of shoegazer rock. Boring)
Huey Lewis and the News: Weather (I was kind of actually excited about the return of these 80s pop-rockers, and Picture This is a far superior album to Sports, but this lays an egg)
Daniel Blumberg: On&On&On ... (there are three great songs on this one, but the rest is almost unlistenable, which is a shame since Blumberg is the former leader of one the last decade's greatest bands Yuck)
The Killers: Imploding the Mirage (it feels a little icky to say I've liked all this band's releases, and this one starts promisingly but devolves into some very bad disco without the hooks)
Prince: Sign O' the Times 2020 Remaster (why do so many people consider this his best release?; it has a few great songs, tons of filler, and is way out of the league of the likes of Purple Rain and 1999)
Smashing Pumpkins: CYR (a mere few days after I was reflecting on how great Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, this also-long player came out and blew my mind with its overly dramatic awfulness)

Best EPs: 
Surfer Blood's Hardboiled is the top EP of the year, with excellent female guest vocalists on three of the five songs infusing a fresh sound to an always excellent little emo-rock band. Taking EP to a new level of art, Surfer Blood's Hourly Haunts is, again, a testament to one of the sneakily best bands around these days. As if one full-length wasn't enough from this cowboy this year, Orville Peck's Show Pony is an unstoppable force, including an anthemic duet with Shania Twain. CHIKA's Industry Games is a joyous hip-hop celebration. Ages and Ages' Nothing Serious showcases in a crib notes version why it is such a great Portland pop band. lazylazy's buddy is straightforward, pretty perfect indie rock. ROOKIE's On Audiotree Live is a throwback to 1980s loud production values, as if Tom Petty got in the studio with Motley Crue. Kailee Morgue's Here in Your Bedroom fits pleasurably somewhere between early Madonna and Courtney Barnett. 2nd Grade's Boys in Heat is a very brief blast of perfect power pop that's easy to miss but essential to not. Terrace Martin's They Call Me Disco is a blast of hip hop disco pop funk soul that may be the most danceable record on this list. A few songs of archival material from the brilliant Donnie & Joe Emerson were released this year; check them out. Bright Eyes’ Mariana Trench is a long-welcome return of extra-catchy Conor Oberst tunes. Pom Pom Squad's Ow is like a new, freakier version of the beloved Bettie Serveert. Tobin Sprout's output has seriously declined since he left Guided by Voices (a second time) so any little bit is great, and this is Simon-and-Garfunkel beautiful. Kurt Vile's Speed, Sound, Lonely KV is a pleasurably little finger-picked gem. Yo La Tengo's Sleepless Night is a slight release, but worth it if only for the cover of the Byrd's "Wasn't Born to Follow." Gold Connections' Ammunition is a sweet and funny ode to 90s indie like Pavement and 00s post-indie like Yuck.

Top 111:
111. Mayer Hawthorne: Man About Town (this is really groovy soul for an L.A. hipster who hasn't released much after a flurry of great output about 10 years ago)
110. Black Lips: Sing in a World That's Falling Apart (good yee-haw fun that is true to it's title and impossible to leave off a year-end list)
109. Phantom Planet: Devastator (this band came back seemingly out of nowhere, but you can't go wrong with any of their releases when you need a little quiet/loud power pop)
108. Calexico: Seasonal Shift (a sometimes goofy but often beautiful album to add to the Christmas cannon)
107. Snarls: Burst (at first I thought they were just an ingenuine knockoff of Bully, but then repeat listens changed my mind considerably)
106. Are We Static: Accepting the Universe (a band I know nothing about, but the big guitars and harmonies are infectious)
105. The Streets: None of Us Are Getting Out of This Alive (one of my favorite under-the-radar rappers, this is one of his less engaging releases but still pretty enjoyable) 
104. Deap Lips: Deap Lips (the Flaming Lips meet an equally experimental L.A. girl duo that, together, create an arguably entertaining mishmash of psych pop)
103. Bob Mould: Blue Hearts (this is a pretty incidental record, but it still represents what wouldn't be a bad offering into the Husker Du catalog)
102. Yukon Blonde: Vindicator (catchy new wave dance pop will never go out of style)
101. Blitzen Trapper: Holy Smokes Future Jokes (how these latter-day hippies stay so calm and mellow in 2020 is amazing, and a pretty beautiful thing to cherish)
100. Rose City Band: Summerlong (somewhere between the Dead and Beachwood Sparks, this was recommended by a friend, which thankfully bailed me out from listening to Bob Dylan's latest yawner)
99. The Bird and the Bee: Put Up the Lights (there's no need to be cynical about a Christmas album. If there were a time to tune in to such a joyous collection, it's 2020)
98. White Lies: FIVE (I'm pretty sure nobody needs another Interpol knock-off, but this is really groovy goth wave that just deserves to be listened to)
97. Bobby Conn: Recovery (this guy is always super weird when he comes back around with new music. Not for any time of the day, but super interesting stuff regardless)
96. Mandy Moore
: Silver Landings (now that she's out from under the negative influence of ex Ryan Adams, Moore has found her voice and inspiration)
95. Public Enemy: What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? (it's always the right time for a new PE album, but this feels right-er than ever in this year of Black Lives Matter rising into the mainstream)
94. Rufus Wainwright: Unfollow the Rules (he's carrying the torch for indie pop songwriters whose every song could be the basis for a killer Broadway musical)
93. Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin' Grass - Vols. 1 and 2 (my young daughter came prancing into the room while I was listening and said jubilantly, "this is cowboy music." Can't disagree)
92. Cults: Host (another enjoyable wave pop release from this NYC duo)
91. The Lemon Twigs: Music for the General Public (I was expecting, frankly, much better things from this freaky band of brothers, and while the middle part of the album is great, there is way too much aimless excess elsewhere)
90. Eels: Earth to Dora (this is a typically understated Eels release, and excellent in the process)
89. Eminem: Music to Be Murdered By (there were lots of critics who could only commit to half-liking this album, but it's exceptional rap/hip hop all of its long way through)
88. of Montreal: UR FUN (this band excels at being weirdly avantgarde and accessibly poppy, and this is probably its best, most rejuvenated-feeling effort in at least a decade)
87. Adam Green: Engine of Paradise (Green has been teasing a modern-day Lou Reed-like masterpiece for years now; this one snuck up and finally delivered)
86. Mystery Jets: A Billion Heartbeats (these psych popsters have been churning out quietly exceptional noise for a decade and a half, starting back when their leader was 12)
85. Peter Bjorn and John: Endless Dream (nobody ever thought these early 2000s one-hit "Young Folks" wonders would still be making super-catchy pop, but this album is really fun)
84. Nana Grizol: South Somewhere Else (the return of some key players from the 1990s musical collective Elephant 6 offers a mature version of their psych pop rock n' roll)
83. Ryan Adams: Wednesdays (this is a surprise release after serious abuse allegations; while redemption may not be in his cards, these are haunting songs that testify to what must have been a miserable 2020 - deservedly - for Adams)
82. The Lees of Memory: Moon Shot (the former leader of Superdrag is back with this power-pop collection. The first half sounds like Teenage Fanclub and the second Foo Fighters)
81. Tyler, The Creator: IGOR (ethereal hip hop with great backing vocals throughout that often sound like little-kid Michael Jackson era)
80. Badly Drawn Boy: Banana Skin Shoes (much like PBJ above, this is another blast from the past that I thought I'd just listen to and forget, but I kept listening to it over and over and couldn't forget)
79. Morrissey: I Am Not a Dog On a Chain (much as I don't want to like the Moz and his wack-job viewpoints anymore, this is a darn good collection of pop tunes)
78. Mac DeMarco: Other Here Comes the Cowboy Demos (a super-mellow and relaxing and relaxed effort that is another edition to DeMarco's increasingly strong discography)
77. Eyelids: The Accidental Falls (a bit of an indie-rock supergroup, consisting of members who have played with Guided By Voices, Stephen Malkmus, and many others; very enjoyable)
76. Nada Surf: Never Not Together (this feels like one of NS's slighter releases, but there is still Greatest Hits-type material like "So Much Love " and "Come Get Me")
75. Soccer Mommy: color theory (not much more of a hyped release came out of the indie-rock world in 2020, and while there are a handful of classic pop tunes, there are an equal number of complete snoozefests; shoulda been an EP)
74. Greg Dulli: Random Desire (the Afghan Whigs frontman puts together a weird but soulful and heart-wrenching solo release)
73. Thurston Moore: By the Fire (a highly-listenable mix of the former Sonic Youth leader's typical postpunk experimentation and blindingly beautiful and catchy pop-guitar moments)
72. Mura Masa: R.Y.C. (the year's best "electronic" release, mixing in major elements of hip hop and rock)
71. Grouplove: Healer (this album hits after not-a-word from the band since 2017, and they remain as rowdy and catchy as ever)
70. Yacht Rock Review: Hot Dads in Tight Jeans (yes, everything about this entry is admittedly ridiculous, but who can argue with new classics being added to the 70s light-rock cannon?)
69. Hazel English: Wake UP! (I know nothing about this singer with a glorious voice and catchy hooks and upbeat shoegazer sunny-afternoon laziness in abundance)
68. Peach Pit: You and Your Friends (I know nothing about this band, but it is pop bounce that always will put you in a good mood, even when under quarantine)
67. The Avett Brothers
: The Third Gleam (this qualifies as a disappointment for these excellent folkies, but only because it's a bit of a minor release albeit still quietly beautiful)
66. My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall II (this is a typically excellent MMJ release that is even more impressive for essentially being the fully-formed leftovers from The Waterfall I)
65. Neil Young: Homegrown (although this legend has had some debatable releases lately, this one is my favorite kind of NY: laid-back country, Harvest-style)
64. Built to Spill: Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston (these songs aren't much different from either artist, which makes them the perfect songwriter for the band to cover ... enjoyably)
63. Jake Xerxes Fussell: Out of Sight (I saw this folk storyteller last year open for Bill Callahan and he was tremendous, and he's maybe even more tremendous and melancholy on this album)
62. Cornershop: England is a Garden (the "Brimful of Asha" 90s wonders are back with their best album)
61. Sunshine Boys: Work and Love (this is in the vein of the power pop-folk of Buffalo Tom, which makes sense since Freda Love of Blake Babies is on drums)
60. Coriky: Coriky (Fugazi's Ian MacKaye is back with a little punk-pop release that goes down rocking and easy)
59. Hinds: The Prettiest Curse (a bit of a letdown for a band of Spanish women who set the bar high on their first releases, but still wonderfully weird and melodic)
58. Dent May: Late Checkout (this L.A. new wave pop songsmith is back with a killer EP and pretty decent LP)
57. Destroyer: Have We Met (another killer solo effort from this member of The New Pornographers; the best art-prog-pop artist of the past decade)
56. The Strokes: The New Abnormal (critics like to criticize them for never reaching the heights of their debut; but that's plain unfair, and the first half of this release is almost as good as Is This It)
55. Childish Gambino: 3.15.20 (despite universal appraisal, he has been hit-or-miss; but this one, after a slow start turns into a joyous party in which Prince is helping spirit lead)
54. Brendan Benson: Dear Life (the return of one of the top power-pop kings is every bit as innovative and catchy as expected)
53. Drive-By Truckers: The New OK (one of two Truckers' releases this year, it's not one of their many classics but it's got a lot of great southern rock-pop winners throughout)
52. Diet Cig: Do You Wonder About Me? (this is the 2020s version of the Blake Babies, with great pop hooks and soaring indie-rock vocals)
51. Lily Hiatt: Walking Proof (another great country chanteuse added to this list, this one is super catchy)
50. The Dears: Lovers Rock (somewhere between The Smiths and The Style Council is this always-amazingly cinematographic new-wave band of storytellers)
49. Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B (if this is truly the leftovers from 2019's Dedicated, then this top 40 regular is jaw-droppingly talented and prolific)
48. Paul Weller: On Sunset (not as brilliant as his release last year, but the former leader of The Jam just keeps knocking out complex pop albums at a pace nobody could have expected)
47. Surfer Blood: Carefree Theater (this band has carved itself out a nice spot as a bit of a Vampire Weekend light, and this is part of a tear of recent output and creativity)
46. The Weeknd: After Hours (the superstar has somehow issued a very understated dance-pop release, while also being epic in length and great throughout)
45. Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling (how does this Southern rock band in the vein of a modern-day, woke Lynyrd Skynyrd just somehow keep getting better?)
44. Eric Hutchinson: Class of 98 (wacky songs with an absolute lovable happiness about them, perfect for a depressing year)
43. Car Seat Headrest: Making a Door Less Open (this release out-Strokes the new also-very-good Strokes album)
42. Kathleen Edwards: Total Freedom (a long break for this country-pop master thankfully ends with more of her easy-listening joy. She never makes a bad song)
41. Secret Machines: Awake in the Brain Chamber (a party pumper for new-wave fans)
40. Bright Eyes: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (a typically haunting and upbeat collection of new tunes from the excellent Conor Oberst)
39. Whitney Rose: We Still Go to Rodeos (this is a beautiful slice of Americana. She's still little known, I saw her at Hill Country with about 30 people attending, but if there were justice, that will change soon)
38. Illuminati Hotties
: Free I.M.: This is Not the One You've Been Waiting For (somewhere between unlistenable and impossible to turn away from, like a mix of riot grrrl and 90s prime-era Sebadoh)
37. Green Day: Father of All ... (what really needs to be said: this band may be getting better with punk age rage)
36. Pist Idiots: Ticker (a rowdy group straight out of the early Replacements/Lemonheads guitar punk school. Short and delicious)
35. Lady Gaga: Chromatica (I was never a big fan until A Star is Born. This sounds like that amazing soundtrack mixed with what Madonna could have been if she didn't suck now)
34. Anna Birch: If You're Dancing (this one is a soft, slow-grower; like her brilliant debut release, this is beautiful, weird, and creative)
33. Young Jesus: Welcome to Conceptual Beach (a slow grower with a voice like Antony and the Johnsons and a jazzy meandering, this Rough Trade release is a classis in the tradition of Slint)
32. Versus: Ex Voto (New York City lifers bring a pop-punk pleaser with a jab of math-rock guitar, like a softer Sleater Kinney or Polvo)
31. Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men: Downtime (somewhere between early Bryan Adams and Tommy Stinson, this one gives the Old 97s a run for the power pop/dadrock release of the year)
30. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: Temple (this is the highest of the weirdo albums on the list, but every time I think I'm going to stop liking this band, they come back with an even better release. Hypnotizing)
29. Beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers (this messy and mesmerizing debut LP is deep and a grower; it may someday prove to be worthy of a higher ranking on this list)
28. 2nd Grade: Hit to Hit (24 songs would normally be a bit much, but these short nuggets are a throwback to the 90s bubblegum of Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits and is one of the most welcome efforts in an otherwise awful year)
27. Bill Callahan: Gold Record (the Smog leader offers a book of wisdom as he wanders across the desert plains once explored by the likes of Johnny Cash)
26. Taylor Swift: evermore (at first, it seemed Swift's second release of the year was a bore, but as usual, with more listens, it grew into a brilliant celebration of pandemic isolation)
25. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions (a perfect release for a pandemic, making you long for the good old days and tap your alt-country foot at the same time)
24. The Flaming Lips: American Head (in a return to Soft Bulletin-style after years away in the experimental wilderness, this freaky release is hard to stop listening to)
23. Soul Asylum: Hurry Up and Wait (this would be the album of the year if there weren't several stinkers; but several of the power-pop highlights are among the year's best tunes)
22. Taylor Swift: folklore (a bit long, but it was deemed by many the first real album of the pandemic; repeat listens transform it from a mellow jam to the work of a deeply talented songwriter)
21. CeeLo Green: Is Thomas Callaway (his sneakily best album is pure pop-soul-funk pleasure)
20. Mac Miller: Circles (I had never heard anything by Miller before he died, but this posthumous release is undeniably the catchiest hip-hop album of the year)
19. HAIM
: Women in Music Pt. III (great backing music fuel a large batch of songs that remain catchy and creatively sung after many many summertime listens, by far the band's best release)
18. Guided by Voices: Mirrored Aztec (this one has some of the Dayton band's best work at the front and back ends, with lots more that may take a long time to sift through in between)
17. Jeff Tweedy: Love is the King (not monumental like a Wilco release, but there are a lot of examples showing why it makes sense that this guy just literally wrote a book on songwriting)
16. Low Cut Connie: Private Lives (this is the modern, and better, version of The Black Crowes, perfect for a post-pandemic generation)
15. The Jayhawks: XOXO (this band is quietly in my hall of fame; it touches on so many different levels of pop and alt-country perfection; out-Wilco-ing Wilco)
14. Bully: Superegg (the best screamopop band around; yet another great release to this band's catalog)
13. Mary Bue: The World is Your Lover (this renaissance Minneapolis rocker has put out perhaps the most pleasant surprise on this list based on the fact I'd never heard of her before this release)
12. Orville Peck: Pony (this is in the running for my favorite new artist; he's certainly the strangest, landing on the prairie like Morrissey stuck in Johnny Cash's body)
11. Stephen Malkmus: Traditional Techniques (a psychedelic mostly-acoustic slow-grower from the former leader of Pavement continues his string of always-unexpected and instant-classic releases)
10. Guided by Voices: Surrender Your Poppy Field (it's just unfair. Even a GBV release that isn't perfect still beats most of the rest of the field. That said, this is a serious grower over time)
09. Lydia Loveless: Daughter (she is in a dead tie with Waxahatchee for best country singer of the year; a powerfully emotional and catchy album all the way through with several song-of-the-year candidates)
08. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud (a beautiful country turn by an artist who was already putting out some of the most excellent rock around) 
07. Best Coast: Always Tomorrow (a perfect bouncy, good-mood pop-punk album for our not-so-good-mood times)
06. Laura Jane Grace: Stay Alive (a quiet yet rowdy anthem of an album for our year, this old punker just keeps getting better with age)
05. Guided By Voices: Styles We Paid For (unlike the other inevitable GBV releases on this list, it's instantly lovable and right up there among the band's many classics)
04. The High Water Marks: Ecstasy Rhythms (this is by far the poppiest release from the legendary Elephant 6 collective, and all the better for it, shelving the experimentation and launching into bursts of perfect songs the whole way through)
03. Old 97s: Twelfth (Dallas Cowboys' fans will love the cover art, 90s alterna-rockers will love the songmanship and Evan Dando-like crooning, and dad-rockers may find this their soundtrack of the year)
02. The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers (this had the #1 album locked up until Paul came along at the end of the year, and I don't know what Jump Rope Gazers are, but they amount to perfect power pop. These girls top a female-heavy year of monumental rock n'roll, which is never dead, of course)
01. Paul McCartney: McCartney III (nobody, not even my other favorites like Pollard, Westerberg, and Tweedy can come close to Sir Paul when he is firing on all cylinders. This one takes a few listens before the pop weirdo brilliance all comes together to make the indisputable album of the year. It even went to #1 with the mass public in its first week of release)

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