We’re celebrating Flashback February all week with a look back at 2020 — kicking things off with our picks for the year’s best albums.
You’ve heard it all before: 2020 was a dumpster fire of a year, one of the worst in the 21st century. It wasn’t a cursed year or a fluke. It was a culmination of centuries upon centuries of racism, capitalism, and the grinding gears of oppression – handled by an administration that proceeded to do everything in its power to either directly or indirectly cause those not in power to suffer. It was a terrible year because of a thousand things I cannot and will not dig into, because that’s not what this article is about.
However, I will link to my Black Lives Matter post and my community solidarity post. Both articles contain links to various charities and collectives to throw your support behind. Note that these articles are both from relatively early in the last year, so they aren’t fully updated. If you’re looking for more timely groups to support, I suggest looking to local charities and seeing what organizations your fellow local activists support.
When the powers that be can’t or won’t help us, we must support each other. Solidarity forever.That all being said, 2020 was at least soothed by the releases of some absolutely stellar albums. And here are just a few of my favorite records from the year. #flashbackfebruary Click To Tweet
Same rules as my 2019 Best Of list: I’ve assigned a special title for each record; some of these albums have been reviewed on this site and some haven’t; just because I have more to say about one record doesn’t mean the others aren’t equally good; all records are five stars.
(PS: It’s not in here because I haven’t fully formed my thoughts about it, but listen to Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple. It’s gorgeous.)
BEST HELLO (DEBUT)
Modus Vivendi — 070 Shake
Coming out at the dawning of the year, there’s no debut album that really made a bigger stamp on me than this album by Danielle Moon aka 070 Shake. The record deals a lot with Shake’s romantic relationships, processed through interstellar verses and indie rock influenced beats. While Shake treads well-paced ground, her unique vocals and perspective (a very sapphic perspective) add a new shine to studies of new love, lost love, marriage and “Divorce”.
The record’s absolutely stellar, showcasing Shake’s low and smoky vocals through tracks like “Microdosing” and folk song alteration “The Pines”. Moon is most well-known by listeners in connection to Kanye West after collaborating with him on 2018’s Ye, but I hope that in future years she emerges like a butterfly out from under his musical shadow. Fly on, astronaut.
BEST GOODBYE…FOR NOW (FAREWELL ALBUM)
Peaceful as Hell — Black Dresses
The tale of noise pop duo Black Dresses is a sad but an important one. Self-taught artists Ada Rook and Devi McCallion came together to release gorgeously distorted, wonderfully danceable music after working alone for years. They put out four albums in two years, from 2018 to 2020. Black Dresses was a DIY darling, made by two girls who know exactly how to worm their way into your brain with catchy hooks, turret gun quick beats, and relatable lyrics. Lyrics about trying to find yourself while still appealing to the people around you, about a desperate search for love and care in a world that seems to give neither, and about what comes after. Every track sounds simultaneously brand new and like a relic from 2000s era AMVs, and it’s a jarring but absolutely fun aesthetic.
The tragedy comes in when you learn that, due to extensive harassment and cruelty towards McCallion from some of their own fans, Black Dresses broke up only a month or so after the release of this record. Both members still make music – very good music. McCallion currently performs under the name Girls Rituals and Rook works under her own name, and you should check out both of their current work too. But Black Dresses, as we know it, is gone.
That’s a shame. It’s a shame, but it teaches a very important lesson: leave your favorite artists alone. They’re their own people, not just figures for you to obsess over. You don’t own them.
(Important Note: While this was in fact the band’s official last album after announcing their breakup 2020, they did release a new album in 2021 called Forever In Your Heart. According to a statement released on Twitter, the band says they are not getting back together. However, they have decided to keep putting out music. So, while there is some debate as to whether or not Peaceful as Hell counts as their final album, it’s still definitely one of the best of 2020. Forever In Your Heart is also more than worth a listen, and you can check it out here.)
I Disagree — Poppy
Watching this album make such tracks in the music world pleased me greatly this past year. I Disagree is Poppy’s breakthrough from the vaporwave, pop-influenced albums of her past and also acts as a breakthrough for the girl behind the Poppy project, Moriah Pereira. This is the final album she’s made with her former abuser, Titanic Sinclair, and this new sense of freedom and righteous fury flows through each track. It especially comes through on tracks like the title track with its absolutely shredding guitars, the deathcore sensibilities of “Bite Your Teeth” and the anthemic “Bloodmoney” which became the first song performed by a woman to be nominated for the Best Metal Performance Grammy.
This isn’t an album where Poppy loses herself, it’s an album where she arises to a new stage of who she wants to be without someone else dragging her down.
Mouth Dreams — Neil Cicierega
In a year bombarded by weird events, it was nice to see another Mouth album pop up on the radar. Cicierega is a master of sewing together songs that shouldn’t fit into a musical Frankenstein and sending the creature out into the world to confuse, confound, enrage, and delight. I won’t say a lot on this album, I’ll only give you a few hints of what can be found.
The most infuriating use of Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt”, baby back ribs, distortion, and a combination involving “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne that comes off strangely poignant in the wake of front-man Adam Schlesinger’s tragic passing from Covid-19.
BEST SHORT FORM
God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out Of It — Backxwash
Clocking in at only twenty-two minutes, this rap record by Canadian performer and newly minted Polaris Prize winner Backxwash aka Ashanti Mutinta is a gorgeously obscure piece mingling hip hop and heavy metal elements with her own experiences with mental illness and with Christianity. God Has Nothing to Do With This is an album that wears its influences on its sleeve, with samples from both the American pastor TD Jakes and the British heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Where it shines most though is with Mutinta’s wonderfully strange verses and delivery, her voice spitting bar after bar and bearing her very soul to her listeners.
Other highlights come in the various appearances and features it sports including American beat maker malldate on “Into The Void”, instrumentals by fatherfake and an artist simply known as SKIN, and both Devi and Ava of Black Dresses – Ava having mastered this record. It’s a short, stellar slice of music well-worth every nomination and promo its gotten.
BEST LIVE FROM HOME EXPERIENCE
TIE: Chunky Shrapnel — King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard / American Utopia — David Byrne
One of the many things 2020 took from us is the concert experience, so a lot of artists tried to make up for that. Some did livestreamed shows and Zoom call concerts, some released live albums (see my review of the Double Live Clipping record) and Tiny Desk concerts.
Two artists, alike in dignity but very different in scope and sound, released full movies.
The first was Talking Heads former front-man, iconic artist, and bike enthusiast David Byrne alongside his joyous band in the Spike Lee directed American Utopia based on the Broadway show of the same name. It’s an absolute tour de force, with performers from all over the world and songs from throughout Byrne’s many decades of musical experimentalism, bridged together to talk about human connection. I watched the film in one sitting and it gave me the strongest pop of serotonin I’ve had all year.
In the same vein, although far more destructive, comes the concert film Chunky Shrapnel by Australian rock band King Gizz (winners of 2019’s NHT Best Environmental Album award for Infest the Rat’s Nest).
Scored by front-man Stu Mckenzie, the album features performances from the band’s wild European tour for the aforementioned Rat’s Nest.
If you’re craving a more down to earth, wild concert experience, this is the film and album for you. It’s not the same, neither of these albums are the same, but it’ll help stem the tide until it’s safe to go again.
Good Luck Everybody — AJJ
I will openly admit that I didn’t think this record was going to be as poignant as it ended up being. Of course it makes sense – Arizona folk punk outfit AJJ’s always been pretty forward looking.
Admittedly, though, after almost a year spent in quarantine under a plague connected only through the internet and through a widely mutual hatred of and fight against the powers that be – songs like the violin charged Presidential middle finger “Psychic Warfare”, the dreamy and heartfelt “Body Terror Song”, and the absolutely shattering “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope” hit extremely differently. Sean Bonnette and friends are very honest, very straightforward performers when they need to be and those things shine through on this record. It’ll get to you, it’ll dig in, but looking back on 2020 you can’t say it doesn’t track wonderfully.
Plus, there’s always some joy to be found in a song like “Megaguillotine 2020”.
Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers
I’m extremely aware that I’m not the first person to lavish praise on this album. It’s on a ton of top 10 lists for very, very good reasons. Bridgers and this album are nominated for Grammys for very, very good reasons. But there’s an important reason why this album is on here.
This album made me feel, in 2020, what Lingua Ignota’s Caligula made me feel in 2019. Lonesome, wounded, but soothed all at once.
Bridgers writes in this sort of dreamy, poetic way that made me feel safe in a year I couldn’t find a place to land. There’s a weeping sort of solidarity, of peace, in the tracks on this record. This shines on tracks like “Garden Song” (gotta love a song that starts with the death of a racist), “Graceland Too” (a song I’ve wept over too many times to count), and the bone-deep wail of the album’s closer “I Know The End”. In 2020, I watched my graduation from home – as did most if not all of the other graduates I knew – and I struggled to figure out what to do next. What do you in a world on fire?
You reach out to others, you support yourself and each other, and you find whatever comfort you can. That’s what I did. I looked for work, I kept myself and others safe, I wrote, I celebrated the publishing of my first book (Trampled Crown, out now wherever books are sold online), and I survived and tried to help others survive.
In a world bombarded by plague, by tragedy, by cruelty, Punisher gave me a soft place to lay my head and try to make sense of things. For that I’m grateful.