According to my Apple Music Replay, I listened to a lot of music this year: nearly 1,000 hours of listening time, over 1,500 artists and nearly 400 albums graced my headphones over the last 12 months. In a normal year, I would balance the technical, musical and narrative elements of all of my favorite records to produce a ranked list of the “best” albums of the year; but 2020 is a different beast. This year was a year for music for the soul, music that inspired and music that engendered a sense of calm amidst a whirlwind of viral, social and political upheaval. To reflect this tone and to honor the calming and grounding role music played in our lives this year, I will be covering not the five best albums of 2020, but my five favorite albums of 2020– these are the albums that released this year that I listened to most, got the most out of or connected to most of all.
5. The Weeknd- “After Hours”
After 2016’s pop-tinged “Starboy,” Toronto-based R&B veteran Abel Tesfaye returned just as the first series of American COVID-19 lockdowns set in with the synth-heavy, 80’s-inspired “After Hours.” Often moody, dark and brooding, the album reaches high points with the mega-hit “Blinding Lights” and the progressive, shimmering title track. His most cohesive record ever and one of his most enjoyable, “After Hours” certainly put The Weeknd’s prowess on display.
4. Phoebe Bridgers- “Punisher”
Returning to the indie scene with her beautiful and brutally honest sophomore LP, Phoebe Bridgers systematically deconstructs modern life across “Punisher.” Sweet, crisp vocals find themselves swimming through sweeping synths and soft guitar lines. On the closing track “I Know the End,” Bridgers’ screams are drowned out by a symphony of horns and strings, each fading into the other before crashing into silence. “Punisher” successfully modernizes the indie genre and brilliantly scorns the world around it.
3. Run The Jewels- “RTJ4”
Released amidst the social upheaval and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests of May and June, Atlanta-based rapper and Brooklyn-based producer El-P come together for their fourth project under the Run the Jewels name to deliver 11 anti-establishment, anti-capitalist and anti- anthems. The record is uncompromising, offering track after track of blistering production and slick bars. “RTJ4” is easily the duo’s best work, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
2. Watsky- “Placement”
Poet, rapper and author George Watsky has notched a half-dozen albums of brainy, dorky and wordy rap since his 2009 self-titled debut and a half-dozen more EP’s, secret projects and live albums. Many of Watsky’s works have not reached critical acclaim or done much in the way of chart numbers, but his music has always been a comfortable kind of quirky for me. His 2020 LP “Placement,” the second in a planned trilogy, veers sharply away from his traditional role of simple production and cheesy bars: heavy, experimental and glitchy production, complex, meandering verses and a newfound singing voice makes “Placement” an artistic evolution in all the right ways. The album certainly isn’t for everyone, but its daring leaps, its happy sounds and its willingness to try something new checked all the right boxes for me.
1. Fleet Foxes- “Shore”
Amidst a chaotic, miserable and often painful year, music that soothed, calmed and inspired was the crutch that kept many limping towards the finish line. Fleet Foxes, the ubiquitous indie outfit that reached massive popularity for their medievalist folk LP’s in the late 2000’s, returned to the musical scene for their second record in nine years with “Shore,” an inspiring, soaring LP that turns new tides for the seasoned group and provides a desperately needed refuge from the rough waters outside it. “Sunblind” provides the backbone for the record’s shimmering demeanor (also serves the dual role of my favorite song of the year), while the closing title track smooths and calms. “Shore” is a beautiful, glistening north star for the turmoil of the moment.