By CHRIS HAISE
In years past, you may have read my varied attempts at a “Best Albums of the Year” write-up. While I feel that offering my personal opinions on music in a definitive, categorical list was an audacious idea even then, the pandemic of 2020 makes it feel even more so, to me. Artists have been working as hard as ever in producing and releasing their work despite the current socio-economic climate…but this year, it really doesn’t feel like ranking their efforts is prudent, or fair.
I had a hard time organizing my own musical journey in 2020 so far. It feels like it has been years since January, but also like it was only two weeks ago. Torn from my usual routines, I didn’t consume new music in the same way I normally would, which probably affected my interpretations as well – it must have, right?
Like everything in life, music consumption this year became a more solitary experience. My headphones replaced speakers in cars, backyards and basements for most of the year. Even more impactful to me personally, was lacking the music flowing from the speakers of bars, festival grounds and arenas. For the first time that I can remember, I can count on one hand the number of live shows I have attended so far this year.
No one knows what the new normal means for music and the institutions and industries surrounding it. But I do feel confident in saying that songs often become defining features of the times they reflect. So, I have boundless hope for the quality of music and art we can expect going forward, regardless of what kinds of catastrophes the future may hold for us.
With my disclaimers aside, here are some albums from 2020 that I thought were fantastic and helped bridge the gap between normalcy and our currently shared reality. As always, please consider appropriate parental advisories when it comes to each of these selections.
Here we go – happy listening to you all!
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4
Release date: June 3, 2020
Disregarding the successful franchising of the Police Academy movies, having too many installments around a single theme can be hard for any artist to pull off. That said, this feels like the album Killer Mike and El-P set out to make when their collaborative project started in June of 2013. A collection of absolute anthems for the times, this project was released in the midst of some of the toughest weeks of 2020.
I appreciate records like this that start hot and never let up. The second track, “ooh la la,” has the raw energy that helps to define the rest of this intense album. There is a unique rhythm to the way the aggressive production and well-written verses land and come together. The group confronts the struggles of the modern age with the swagger and bravado of hip-hop, a very smart choice for reflecting these turbulent times.
Already being something of a supergroup, there are fewer featured artists doing guest spots than you might expect, but the help the band does have here is strong. One can never go wrong with a Pharrell feature, and he delivers on “JU$T,” an obvious highlight in this effort. Part
of an angry and brooding conclusion to the record, “pulling the pin” features Joshua Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame and the legendary voice of Mavis Staples.
Wherever this collaborative project is headed in the future, I think this release will be a benchmark record for the group, as well as for this year in music.
Perfume Genius – Set my Heart on Fire Immediately
Release date: May 15, 2020
Artist Matt Hadreas showcases his voice and incredible songwriting chops on every single one of this record’s 13 songs. I think his blending of modern sounds and aesthetics and themes with a classic approach to pop music songwriting is incredibly successful.
Whether it’s the driving “Describe” or the tender “Jason,” Hadreas’ lyrics seem to effortlessly float over the melodies and constructs of these songs. I loved the infectiously catchy “On the Floor” and the dreamy quality of “Moonbend.”
I thought one hidden highlight tucked-in here was the dark and haunting “Some Dream.” As the song lifts in the middle, “I know you called me and I didn’t pick up,” sings Hadreas, “I was busy freaking-out.” Perhaps a bit too on-the-nose for the times, but wonderfully insightful and thoroughly engaging.
This is one of those projects where you easily fall in love with the singer, and once entrenched, you can marvel at his power with the written word. Hadreas’ voice is really the force and the feeling behind this whole record, and his artistry will draw you in, and keep you mesmerized from beginning to end.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Release date: June 19, 2020
I know it shouldn’t matter, but this guy turns 80 next May. Apart from that, he already has a Nobel-Prize-winning catalogue of songs that seem to define the American ethos.
It was great to get a set of original songs from Bob after more than a few years of covering standards from the great American songbook. Somehow, even when he is pushing 80, he still has something to say, 59 years after his debut on Columbia Records. Yeah, the voice isn’t what it was, we know, but if you’re really listening, it’s hard to beat Bob when he is on his game.
These are some of his best original songs since his Oscar-and-Grammy-winning efforts released in the early 2000’s. He is still working with the much of the same band he assembled during that era, and they are as good as it gets – whether it’s live at the Eagles Ballroom last fall or on this record. They clearly relish having Bob as a band leader and it shows on tracks like “False Prophet” where Dylan croons, “I am first among equals / second to none. The last of the best / you can bury the rest.”
Many of the lyrics seem to be transparent and intimate but believing in that can be a dangerous path to choose where Bob Dylan, the ragged clown, the Jokerman, is involved. Indeed, other lines like “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand” on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” seem to indicate the legendary troubadour may have more tricks up his sleeve. No matter what Bob may truly be trying to get us to think about, this record is definitely a bright spot in a storied career and a true highlight of 2020’s new music.
Mac Miller – Circles
Release date: January 17, 2020
Releasing albums after an artist has died can be tough and seem contrived, but this effort from early in the year has no trouble walking on that fine line. With the blessing of the family, talented producer Jon Brion finished the record they had been working on prior to Miller’s tragic passing in September of 2018
Extremely intimate and open, the songs convey a tremendous warmth. Bubbling with the strong musicality and hooks that defined Mac’s brand of hip-hop, Brion’s pop influence as a producer led to some infectiously fun and melodic songs, like “Complicated,” and the heartrending last track “Once a Day.” But despite the pop overtones, you still get the type of hip-hop that you would expect from Miller on tracks like “Blue World” and “Hands”.
Miller’s gift for words and his infinite wit shine throughout the record. But sometimes, like on the final song, it feels almost too poignant, given the circumstances under which this record was released. “Some people say they want to live forever / That’s way too long I’ll just get through today.”
This effort should go down in anyone’s book as a fitting send-off to a very talented artist who left us too soon. It also happens to be one of the very best records of the year.
Release date: May 22, 2020
The end of May was the perfect time for me to consume this 22-track album. Sprawling in compositional depth and starting with a Greta Thunberg speech no less, the many tracks of this release are immediately diving in and out of raucous rock, cinematic segues, and the trippy-pop gold that the band has perfected.
Bold and indulgent production is something of a divergence for the band but was absolutely great for how I’ve been consuming music in 2020. I threw on the old headphones and got lost wandering around in the almost intimidatingly huge track list. I was drawn toward the vibe on songs like “The Birthday Party,” which made the middle section of this record particularly strong. “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), like many of the songs, has that classic pop feel, with full, intertwined harmonies, and big ear-worm hooks that will leave you humming in the hallway.
There are also some incredibly gentle and melodic moments, like in the ballad “Playing on My Mind,” where the band is attempting to encapsulate millennial dread with lines like “But I won’t get clothes online ‘cause I get worried about the fit / But that rule don’t apply concerning my relationships.” The finale of this epic work comes with “Guys,” which is essentially a band of friends singing about how they are truly good friends, and still it somehow works.
As a whole, this is a record that is worth paying attention to in 2020, and beyond. It is a seriously deep dive of good songs from a very talented band, and definitely a release I keep coming back to as the year progresses.
*After compiling my list, I realized four of the selections were released between mid-May and mid-June. While it was not intentional, I don’t think it is a coincidence. Stay healthy out there! *