2020 might have sucked for most things, but it was actually a damn good year for music! Every year it seems like I complain that either there was not enough good music released – so had to scrape together ten albums – or too much was released and I’m forced to make hard choices to whittle the list to just ten.
2020 was definitely the latter.
Before I begin, let me do something I’ve never done on a “best album” post: explain my criteria. Although any album is technically eligible for the list, I strongly discourage “greatest hits” albums and compilations of any kind. I mean, the whole idea is an album as a single cohesive collection of music. For that reason, live albums are discouraged, too. Albums are also subject to the “one-hit wonder rule”: strongly discouraged from my list if the only reason they rank so highly on my Last.fm chart is because of a single song. Georgia’s Seeking Thrills album was #2 or #3 on my 2019 Last.fm album charts due to “About Work the Dancefloor”, a song I listened to hundreds of times. But I’ve only listened to the full album once, and I don’t think I’ve listened to any other song off that album more than twice. Lastly, I’ve decided that, going forward. EPs will be allowed on the “Honorable Mentions” chart, but singles will not, no matter how many times I listen to them that year. My list, my rules.
As always, below are my ten favorite albums of 2020. The list comes directly from my Last.fm stats; I have, however, tinkered with the order a bit. After the list is a new item: “Song of the Year”. Soon, I’ll do a separate post of some albums I’ve discovered this year but were released in years past. There’s also the list of few honorable mentions, followed by the raw data from Last.fm.
My Top Albums of 2020
10) Washed Out – Purple Noon – Perry, Georgia’s Ernest Greene made a huge splash on the chillwave scene – hell, he was the King of Chillwave – even before his first album, Within and Without, was released in 2011. Which makes it all the sadder that this album is… “just OK”. I mean, some songs – like the opener, “Too Late”, or the album’s first single, “Time to Walk Away” – are as good as anything Washed Out’s ever released. Yet, others, like “Face Up”, don’t seem “chill” so much as “lifeless”. Overall, this album seems more like a collection of outtakes from 2013’s Paracosm than the evolutionary growth of 2017’s awesome Mister Mellow. Even worse, it sounds like Greene really tried… and this is the best he could come up with.
9) Sylvan Esso – Free Love – Speaking of, the longer Sylvan Esso goes on, the less I like them. And I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think a big part of it is that Sylvan Esso has taken the place of Björk in the sense of “the songs I like, I really like, but the songs I don’t like I really hate” of my music world. On this album, “Ferris Wheel” is pretty damn fantastic… but “Ring” and “Rooftop Dancing” make me wanna punch somebody. We’ll see how the next album goes, eh?
8) The Sounds – Things We Do For Love – The Sounds are a Swedish rock band – kinda New Wavy, but closer to the West Coast New Wave like Berlin and Missing Persons – with a healthy dash of Blondie tossed in for good measure – than most of the synth-heavy bands I listen to. Yet despite being together for 22 years, they’ve only released 6 albums. So when a new one comes out, you pay attention! I’ll admit that the singles are the big draw here – “Safe and Sound” and the title track, “Things We Do For Love” – are way better than much of the filler down album. Call me crazy, but “Bonnie and Clyde” sounds like a Katy Perry reject song (fight me). Although there are occasional gems like “Hollow”. This is just a good working-class band that really hits when they hit:
7) Kid Francescoli – Lovers – Marseille-based Mathieu Hocine – performing as Kid Francescoli – has released three albums… and all three have landed on my “best of” list: 2014’s With Julia, 2016’s Play Me Again, and 2020’s Lovers. It’s not hard to see why: his lovely melodies and intimate lyrics caress your soul like a glove! The English-language songs on the album all hit it out of the park, while the Italian and French songs may or may not be something you’re interested in. I don’t speak a word of French, but have fallen in love with lots of French-language pop… but none of Hocine’s songs, oddly… until this album’s “Ces deux-là”! It sounds like something sexy people in Barcelona would listen to.
6) Linea Aspera – Linea Aspera II – Back when I lived in Atlanta, Album 88 used to play Linea Aspera all the damn time… and I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Well, the band is back after a 7 year break… and now I get it! This is some tight darkwave stuff that mages to call back to their earlier work, yet isn’t beholden to it, and is fully modern. It gets a bit samey, even for a band like this, though.
5) Empathy Test – Monsters – For some reason, Empathy Test reminds me of a cross between Massive Attack and a band like Delerium or Enigma… only without the… cheese, I guess? Check out “Monsters”, the album opener, below. I love that it’s so in your face, the way it tells you all you need to know about the band, in the same way Purity Ring’s “heartsigh” defines another eternity. And the album’s closer, “Love Moves”, is a song I’ve fallen deeply in love with. But there’s more: in fact, there are few bad songs on this album at all. “Empty Handed”, “Making Worlds”, and “Skin” are all fantastic tunes.
4) Kraków Loves Adana – Darkest Dreams – Freiburg, Germany’s Kraków Loves Adana have toiled away in relative obscurity… until they were picked up by Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label, instantly making them “a thing” with Chromatics fans everywhere. But after releasing a couple fantastic singles on IDIB, Kraków went their own way. The result is Darkest Dreams, admittedly the first album of theirs I’ve heard, but a worthy one all the same. For people who love Europeans with Synthesizers, tracks like “Don’t Ask Why”, “Love Isn’t Dead” and “The Ocean Between Us” are straight fire. But “Faded to Black” just bangs so hard… I don’t even know where to begin:
3) Purity Ring – WOMB– It would be impossible to top 2015’s another eternity and (spoiler alert!) WOMB doesn’t. That doesn’t mean WOMB is bad, though. As a Purity Ring thing, it’s solid. I didn’t like the opener (“rubyinsides”) nearly as much as “heartsigh”, but it’s grown on me over time. And yes, Megan James is still as into viscera as always (some people call this kind of music “witch house”, but I refuse to use that term in the presence of another sdult). The album picks up with “pink lightning”, the fantastic “peacefall” (see below) and “i like the devil”. And, of course, the album ends with an insanely great song (keep reading). It’s not that anything on this album is bad. It’s all pretty good, actually. But Purity Ring set expectations sky high with their previous album – my “Album of the Year” for 2015, and easily in my top 5 of the last 20 years – that this disc had nowhere to go but down.
2) Young Ejecta – Ride Lonesome – Young Ejecta are Neon Indian’s Leanne Macomber on vocals and producer Joel Fordare… doing everything else. They’ve been around since 2013, and have had several good singles over the years, like “Build a Fire” and “It’s Only Love”. But 2020’s Ride Lonesome is the first album of theirs that make me stop to listen. NYC synthpop it is, but it’s bubbly and addictive, like soda pop. The opener “Crayon Cactus” just bops along into the ethereal vocals of “Screen Guru”. “Four Corners” was all over my Spotify playlists, then there’s “9 to 5”, and we hit the album’s midpoint with the fantastic “Call My Name” (below). The second half is almost as strong – I can live without “Can I Dance With You”, but it’s all generally good stuff. I don’t know why, but this album really impressed me, and has stuck around in my memory this year.
1) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies – Mint Julep are a husband-and-wife duo from Boston, Hollie and Keith Kenniff. They make dramatic (but not over-the-top) music. In spirit, they remind me of an early Clan of Xymox (assuming Clan of Xymox formed in 2007), even if the music doesn’t always sound as such. All their albums are fantastic – 2011’s Save Your Season and (especially) Broken Devotion, which hit #2 on my Best Albums of 2016 list. So it’s not surprising that 2020’s Stray Fantasies would end up here. And I think the reason for that is… it was just around all year long. I mean that: the album came out on January 30, 2020, and where a lot of other 2020 albums burned brightly but quickly faded, this album stuck around all year. A big part of it is that I just love the hazy, dazy gauze of this band’s sound. But it’s more than just that. I mean, it is that – wispy, thin, light, airy. But something about Mint Julep’s sound is, like the Swedish group Postiljonen, nostalgic… even if you’ve never heard their music before. There’s this cinematic quality it has, where you hear it and instantly want it to be the soundtrack of your teenage memories. Give ’em a listen:
As I say, I maybe didn’t listen to this album ALL THE TIME. And only one song (“Just for Today”) really became one of my patented “song I listen to 800 times a year” hits, but the album was there, man. Through good times and bad, the beauty of their music is matchless.
As a bonus, here’s Mint Julep’s cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise”, a track from Broken Devotion:
Joy Downer – Paper Moon – More, please.
Discovery Zone – Remote Control – Please tell me what life is like on your home planet!
I Break Horses – Warnings – I used to sometimes just sit in awe that humans could make music as beautiful as Cocteau Twins. These guys, too. It’s crazy that music can be this good!
Misty Moon – Nu-Moon
Deserta – Black Aura My Sun – Shoegazy goodness! With actual guitars, even!
Atticus Ross – The Dispatches From Elsewhere soundtracks – There are two soundtrack albums from this excellent AMC series: Music from the Jejune Institute and Music from the Elsewhere Society. Either (or both) are fantastic, but my heart’s with Elsewhere Society, because of this absolute gem:
Also, if you haven’t watched the series, you really should.
Pale Honey – Some Time, Alone
Cecilia Bartoli – Baroque Queen – Something about this album just grabs me in a way none of her recent albums have:
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd – Another Flower – Rest in peace, Harold Budd.
Yumi Zouma – Truth or Consequences – Soooooo dreamy:
Annie – Dark Hearts – Remember Annie, the Norwegian dark pop sensation whose Anniemal album was a smash hit in certain circles in 2004? And whose second album, Don’t Stop, came out in 2009? Well, she’s back… and now she sounds a lot like an Italians Do It Better band like Chromatics and Desire. Not that that’s a bad thing… it’s quite good, actually:
Donny Benét – Mr Experience – It’s 1977. You’re sitting at the bar in the Whiskers Lounge at the Ramada Inn in Dale City, Virginia. And then the smoothest bastard you’ve ever seen slinks up to the stage and starts singing. Women want him, men want to be him. He is Australia’s greatest treasure: Donny Benét. Seriously, though: there’s something kind of amazing about seeing this much musical talent being used to parody late 70s\early 80s yacht music. It’s a very specific joke this guy is going for… but he really does have tons of talent:
Minuit Machine – Don’t Run from the Fire EP – Squeeeee! I love these girls!
Song of the Year
I never would have imagined a song about childbirth would be my Song of the Year, but 2020 is like that, and the choice wasn’t even close. Ladies and gentlemen, Purity Ring’s “stardew”:
All data scraped on 12/29/2020.
Here are my overall albums of the year from 01/01/2020 to 12/29/2020, with release year and annual play count:
1) You Drive – You Drive (2018, 598)
2) Purity Ring – Womb (2020, 563)
2) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies (2020, 528)
3) Monsters – Empathy Test (2020, 340)
4) Paradox Obscur – Artifact (2017, 445)
5) Tempers – Private Life (2019, 305)
6) Opale – L’incandescent (2013, 294)
7) Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012, 282)
8) Kid Francescoli – Lovers (2020, 245)
9) Young Ejecta – Ride Lonesome (2020, 238)
10) Burning Peacocks – Love Réaction (2016, 188)
Adjusted albums of the year, 2020 releases only:
1) Purity Ring – Womb (563)
2) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies (528)
3) Monsters – Empathy Test (340)
4) Kid Francescoli – Lovers (245)
5) Young Ejecta – Ride Lonesome (238)
6) Kraków Loves Adana – Darkest Dreams (170)
7) Joy Downer – Paper Moon (156)
8) The Sounds – Things We Do For Love (108)
9) Washed Out – Purple Moon (80)
10) Misty Moon – Nu-Moon (69)
Total plays per artist, 2020
1) Desire (831)
2) Purity Ring (784)
3) Chromatics (726)
4) Mint Julep (655)
5) Hoshi (654)
6) You Drive (598)
7) Marsheaux (573)
8) Cannons (570)
9) Saint Etienne (455)
10) Minuit Machine (385)
Total plays per artist since joining Last.fm in 2010
1) Marsheaux (5,583)
2) Saint Etienne (3,118)
3) You Drive (2,877)
4) CHVRCHES (1,873)
5) Chromatics (1,825)
6) Postiljonen (1,639)
7) Burning Peacocks (1,616)
8) The Raveonettes (1,562)
9) Desire (1,557)
10) Purity Ring (1,530)
Previous “Albums of the Year”
2019: Chromatics – Closer to Grey
2018: You Drive – You Drive
2017: Saint Etienne – Home Counties
2016: Marsheaux – Ath.Lon
2015: Purity Ring – Another Eternity
2014: La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
2013: Marsheaux – Inhale
2012: Beach House – Bloom
2011: The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
2010: Katy Perry – Teenage Dream*
* – There was no single choice for “best album” in 2010; the article simply listed my favorite albums that year in no particular order. The choice of Teenage Dream was made ex post facto from that list of albums.