This will probably be my last best-of-the-year list, because I am egregiously breaking a rule. I have not listed Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. All critics over the age of 55 are required, by Rock Critic Law, to include any Bob Dylan album of new recordings not consisting of jazz standards or holiday music. But I just couldn't; it contains at best three good songs and one eccentric monument that asks more of listeners than it gives back. So there. Go ahead, revoke my license to critique.
Anyway, there were a number of excellent albums from both veterans and relative newcomers, and a bit of a trend of big-name artists releasing two albums (which might be pandemic-related), several of whom show up on my list. (One two-albumer who doesn't, Taylor Swift, almost became interesting with her move to less slick and more acoustic production, but her sense of melody remains a predictable algorithm that may get her on the pop charts but is too much like playground chants to achieve emotional depth.)
- Moving Targets: Humbucker (Dead Broke)
Picking this album by revived '80s Boston stalwarts probably marks me as an old fart, but dammit, half the tracks are the catchiest, most energizing tunes I heard this year. Kenny Chambers retains his genius for simple but irresistible hooks.
- 2. Bob Mould: Blue Hearts (Merge)
After an acoustic opening track, Mould kicks into gear with the furious “Next Generation” and never lets up, most of the pummeling songs bleeding into the next. Until closing track “The Ocean,” slower and slightly less relentless through still electric, no song breaks the three-minute mark. Comparisons to Husker Du and/or Sugar would be unfair and inaccurate, but if they’re how you most like Mould, you’ll like this 35-minute burst of passion.
3. The Flaming Lips: American Head (Warner Bros.)
This is nothing like the title might suggest; rather, it is a beautiful and heart-wrenching meditation on early death -- not pandemic-related, yet apt for 2020. Not just death, though; also youth, innocence and its loss, drugs (good and bad), and of course love. The surprise (with the Lips, there’s always a surprise) is the presence of country singer Kacey Musgrave, whose contributions are key. BTW the Lipsters sort of got in on the two-albums trend with Deap Lips, a collaboration with Deap Vally; perhaps it was by the Lips concentrating their eccentricities on Deap Lips that American Head got to be relatively straightforward and attractive.
4. Autechre: SIGN (Warp)
Another two-albums-in-2020 artist. SIGN, while still quite recognizably Autechre, uses far more melodic material than their norm, and thus seems warmer and more emotive. (PLUS, a tad less melodic, makes that much less impact, though it’s still great.)
5. Ben Neill & Eric Calvi: Trove (Blue Math)
This serialized project from the inventor of the Mutantrumpet and the French producer/sound engineer is ongoing but had reached 15 items and well over an hour of music by the end of 2020, enough to qualify for this list. Neill composes these ambient pieces "based on a Fibonacci series matrix," whatever that entails; it transcends genre and structure. Released via all digital outlets; iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc.
6. SAULT: Untitled (Rise) (Forever Living Originals)
Two-album artist #3. This is by far the better of their two. With beats either hip-hop or African, lyrics that ping-pong between Pollyannaish uplift and righteous protest, chanted/declaimed, flung upward in diva outbursts of virtuoso bravura, or occasionally sung in deliberately high-range fuzzy chorus style a la children’s singing, and often minimal harmonic instrumental underpinning, though at times harmony becomes fuller, notably on the beautiful piano-powered penultimate track, "The Black & Gold." Most viciously cutting track: "You Know It Ain't."
7. Sweeping Promises: Hunger for a Way Out (Feel It)
Post-punk with urgent female vocals is one of my favorite sounds; here's a new entry that pushes all the right buttons. The sound is familiar -- throbbing bass lines, trebly guitar chords, the occasional synth interjection, angularly propulsive rhythms -- yet unimitative enough to spark new pleasure.
8. The Johns: Forge (Concierge)
This Brooklyn band, led by singer/guitarist John Dydo, sounds different on every track here; what ties everything together are Dydo’s David Berman-esque vocals and wry humor. Aside from "Blood Run Free," it’s a low-key album that doesn't push itself at listeners, but on repeated listens proves quite ingratiating, with the stylistic variety turning into a selling point.
9. Wire: Mind Hive (pinkflag)
No rock band with a recording hiatus of over a decade has ever come back more prolifically AND successfully (artistically speaking) than Wire. They are a borderline two-2020-albums band, having both this (new material) and the Record Store Day release 10:20 album of outtakes (in the process equaling the number of full-length studio albums they released in 1977-91). The first track, "Be Like The," is startling in its metal –style guitar chords, but after that they mostly return to their familiar post-2003 style, though "Oklahoma" contains a few surprising production touches.
10. Deerhoof: Future Teenage Cave Artists (Joyful Noise)
Another of the two-album groups; the other is a digital-only concert album. As I wrote in my review in The Big Takeover, "Future... is this quartet’s new studio album, and though its sound is immediately recognizable, still they have never repeated themselves. Their use of unusual textures and arty post-punk approach ("O Ye Saddle Babes" even sounds like Captain Beefheart!) gives them a great deal of room to experiment and an appealing looseness.
11. Oranssi Pazuzu: Mestarin kynsi (Nuclear Blast)
Perhaps the most stylistically adventurous band in metal, this Finnish band has the usual cartoonish guttural black-metal growls, courtesy of vocalist Jun-His, but instrumentally their mixture of asymmetrical meters, dense arrangements, unexpectedly varied timbres, and psychedelic/shoegaze/prog-rock touches is unique and enthralling
12. Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling (ATO)
It is perhaps no coincidence that DBT’s first album after a four-year recording break is a coruscating look at the Trump years.
13. Live Skull: Dangerous Visions (Bronson)
Though there's not a lot of new material here, it does include some songs written during New York City's semi-quarantine this year, the most affecting of which is "In a Perfect World." The second half is '80s archival material, and some of the first half is re-recordings of back-catalog items.
14. Activity: Unmask Whoever (Western Vinyl)
Travis Johnson (ex-Grooms) has transcended all his early influences (not to say one can't hear hints, but they're thoroughly melded now) to make this haunting album of gently chiming guitars, evocative lyrics, and enough rhythmic energy to keep it edgy.
15. Sufjan Stevens: Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty)
On his first solo album in five years, Stevens changes musical directions with an album of musically gentle electronica but hard-hitting lyrics. Of course, when a good songwriter changes production styles, the good songwriting serves as the throughline, so this sounds less disconnected from his earlier work than it might seem on first listen. It was his second release of 2020, the first being a second-billed collaboration with Lowell Brams, his stepfather, on a mostly instrumental album.
16. Cleaners from Venus: Dollybirds and Spies (self-released)
Martin Newell continues to write the most magically perfect pop songs, as he's been doing for forty years, and if nobody else will put them out, he’ll keep doing it himself. Truly he is, as one of his album titles proclaimed in 1993, The Greatest Living Englishman. This is not even in the top half of his output and it's still better than 99.99% of 2020's releases. Would that Sir Paul McCartney's latest had been half this melodic and quirky and charming.
17. Drive-By Truckers: The New OK (ATO)
Finally, a band whose two 2020 albums are both top-20-albums-worthy. This despite the fact that one suspects these are leftover tracks from The Unraveling (whose title track is not there, but rather here on The New OK). There is further commentary on the Trump years; "The Perilous Night," the centerpiece of the album, says "Ronnie Reagan must be spinnin’ in his grave" and "flags of oppression are blocking out the light, dismantling the Greatest Generation's fight." In this context, the closing cover of The Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away" packs extra oomph.
18. The Mommyheads: New Kings of Pop (Fan/Mommyhead)
My Big Takeover review: "Indie-rockers influenced by prog-rock who avoid the latter genre’s self-indulgent excesses, this brilliant but ill-fated '90s band lives up to the cheeky title of their newest album, which is super-catchy; if modern pop won’t accept them as kings, that’s pop’s problem, not their fault. They have now made more albums since their 2008 reunion than they did in their original incarnation, and with no drop-off in quality. Highlights include 'Greta Thunberg,' a tribute to the teenage environmental spokeswoman, and the Queenesque harmonies on the title track."
19. Magnetic Fields: Quickies (Nonesuch)
In a year of seriousness, Stephi n Merritt provided the perfect relief, a goofy albeit often comically morbid album. The title, though there's a song about a brief assignation in a bathroom, most reflects the brevity of all tracks, one as short as 12 seconds, the longest 2:35, and six are under a minute; needless to say, nothing overstays its welcome.
20. Cirith Ungol: Forever Black (Metal Blade)
My metal-loving friends may have many 2020 metal albums they consider better than this one by a veteran American group, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, albeit having been on hiatus for half that time, making this just its fifth studio full-length, and its first this century. It is, however, arguably their most accomplished performance; while some of their early albums are more historically important, they suffer sonically. And there's a certain nostalgic glow coming off this album, and a sense of a band that has consolidated its strengths into one brilliant statement.
Best song from an album not listed: "A Hero’s Death" by Fontaines D.C. from their album A Hero's Death (Partisan)
Various Artists: Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story, 1975-1993
Another great label compilation. Black Fire was an indie label in Virginia that put out some great soul and spiritual jazz albums; artists here include Oneness of Juju, early E.U. before they went hip-hop, jazz saxophonist Byard Lancaster, African drummer Okyerema Asante, and more. There’s enough R&B here that it lands on this list.
2. Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions: Limbo (Manifesto)
Eighties L.A. scene band that briefly included Jeffrey Lee Pierce (Gun Club) playing jump blues and garage rock, including Pierce’s “What a Friend We Have in Whiskey.” This two-CD set is the year’s most fun reissue.
3. Red Lights: Red Lights (In the Red)
Another Pierce project: he started this group in 1978 with two members of The Last. This EP has the band’s five demos. "Debbie by the Christmas Tree" is about Blondie's Debbie Harry.
4. Be Bop Deluxe: Axe Victim (Cherry Red)
BBD's debut album features a more glam-oriented approach than its subsequent release and launched Bowie comparisons leader/singer/guitarist Bill Nelson ran from (the group was completely revamped afterwards aside from Nelson). Nonetheless it has held up quite well in terms of songwriting and production, and "Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape" pointed towards BBD’s future. The attraction for fans is of course all the additional material -- a whopping 28 tracks of radio appearances, audition versions, alternate takes, and varying mixes.
5. Pete Rodriguez: I Like It Like That (Craft)
"Mr. Boogaloo," born in the Bronx in 1932, gets a vinyl reissue of his biggest hit. The LP (issued by Alegre in 1967) is all killer, no filler.
Albums I would list above if not for conflict of interest:
Buck Curran: No Love Is Sorrow (ESP-Disk')
Gentle psychedelic folk created in quarantine.
Kevin Keller: The Front Porch of Heaven (Kevin Keller)
A lovely ambient album with emotive undercurrents.
Dusty Wright: Can Anyone Hear Me? (PetRock)
Simple on the surface but touches on universal truths; rewards attention with catharsis. (Read Rob Cochrane's review here.)
- Steve Holtje
Hi Steve...just a heads up that the label for Trove is Blue Math, my own imprint; and the tracks are available at all digital outlets; iTunes, Amazon, etc. Thanks for the support!