Auteur composer/producer Sean Bowie has been confounding ears since 2015 with their psychedelic experimental walls of sound, but their WARP records debut in 2018, Safe in the Hands of Love, seems to be the point at which they grounded and set a trajectory for themselves. Heaven to a Tortured Mind sees Tumor doing their usual floating between genres, but where previous work flirts with ambient, down-tempo and Brit pop, this album leans much more into conventional rock. Don’t mistake leaning for commitment, though. While Heaven to a Tortured Mind shows much more refinement and focus than their previous albums, Tumor’s twisted sense of identity is never in question. Their exploration of rock extends beyond flirtation into a full-on love affair, contorting its boundaries in a way that feels intimate and visceral all at once. To my taste, the refinement in this record makes for the Tumor’s least interesting listen; that is to say the least perplexing—a quality I’ve always adored about their music. But the least interesting work by one of the most interesting artists in the game still exists on a level beyond what most artists are able to achieve, so Heaven to a Tortured Mind still hits hard enough to make my list.
14. Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song
Kelly Lee Owens built herself a quaint little nightclub in our dreams with her eponymous 2017 debut, and Inner Song saw the club receive a hefty expansion. The sophomore effort is already a big hill to climb for most emerging artists with a successful first record, and to make matters more challenging, this album was written and recorded following what Owens refers to as the most difficult three years of her life, but the result is soaring—the pain and power and healing and doubt all shine through the veneer of dreamy pulsating dance rhythms and dark synth pop. The pacing from the onset of this album is unexpected and should not work as well as it does—with a moody instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” serving as the opening statement, bringing us into the world of Owens’ psyche, creating a space for it to mingle with ours. What follows is, lyrically, the most direct statement on the album. In “On,” Owens ponders what it means to love oneself, accept things outside of one’s control, and finally, to move forward—vulnerable and important concepts on any given day, but especially so for this broken-hearted music reviewer when he first stumbled onto this album after suffering a painful loss himself. Once Owens immerses us in her sonic world and lures our feelings up to the surface, the beat drops like an anvil and most of the rest of the album is spent in a rave-like trance, with the occasional excursion back through dream-pop territories that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch project and enchanted swamplands like that of the John Cale-featured “Corner of my Sky.” Inner Song makes me long for the dance floor, not for the pure ecstasy of dancing with friends and strangers, but for the catharsis of exposing my vulnerabilities, shaking them out into a dark, communal space, and summoning the spirits to do away with them, if only for that precise moment.
13. Destroyer - Have We Met
Sometimes a band exists outside of my reach; I feel like I should like them but I haven’t found my access point. That access point could come in the form of a live show(oh, to live in that world again), a pointed recommendation from a friend, or perhaps just stumbling onto the right album at the right time—the effects of music are circumstantial that way. Have We Met was my doorway into the Destroyer catalogue. Dan Bejar’s long-beloved indie project has always seemed inaccessible to me, Bejar’s cerebral lyrics and spindly voice never invited me in—or maybe I just never wanted to enter. Something clicked with Have We Met, though, instantly and inexplicably. It’s arrangements are impeccably tight, weaving together elements from all over the rock spectrum, infusing them with a touch of hip hop and theatrics, and distilling them somehow into a minimal bedroom vibe. It scratches a musical itch I didn’t know I had, like the once in every 5+ years I use a backscratcher and think to myself, “dammit I have to get myself one of these,” as my eyes roll pleasurably into the back of my skull. By my logic, this much criss-crossed stylistic processing should render a muddied album, but John Collins’ production retains a tidy sense of self. Bejar’s vocals find an unlikely home in this musical environment; the contrast between his stream-of-consciousness poetics and the airtight instrumentation seem contrary but, in practice, are strangely symbiotic. My relationship with Destroyer is still so new that I still struggle to describe why this whole equation suddenly works for me, but it does. And, like a key that has unlocked a whole new wing of my musical house, my love for Have We Met has allowed me access to the rest of the formidable Destroyer archive. I’m still exploring it, and rather enjoying myself.
12. Mac Miller - Circles
One of the great pre-covid albums of 2020, it’s fortunate that this album isn’t wrapped up in the pandemic conversation, because it has a different story to tell. Miller was well into recording the second installment of an intended trilogy of albums at the time of his tragic death. His producing partner, Jon Brion, picked up where Miller left off, finishing Circles based on the landscape that Miller had already created. In an eerily prophetic manner not uncommon among talented and tortured artists(with all respect paid to that grossly generalized word, ‘tortured’), Miller’s final project turns his already introspective style further inward, unpacking some deep anguish with a maturity that feels stunning and heartbreaking now that he is gone. The sound of the album is sedate—more singer/songwriter than rapper—nothing in its musical language is abrasive or unwelcoming, and while many of Miller’s vocal lines are too melodic to be considered rap, even the “rapped” lines are infused with a warmth that welcomes the listener in with no cynicism and no expectation. Circles is the kind of album that would have been a milestone if Miller were still alive and making music. Instead, it will always feel like a beautiful and loving send-off; whether that send-off is from Him to Us or the other way around is hard to say. That’s the beautiful symbiosis of music, I suppose.
11. The Strokes - The New Abnormal
I admit that I, until this year, counted myself among the many who hold the Strokes’ first two albums in unreachably high regard while more or less discounting the rest of their subsequent body of work. I sometimes find myself humming tunes from First Impressions of Earth but could neither hum nor name a single song from Angles or The Comedown Machine. I’ve always thought it unfair that such a pivotal band in modern music should be doomed to live in the shadow of it’s debut effort, but shrugged my shoulders at the idea nonetheless. With The New Abnormal, the band seized my wandering head in both hands and forced me to stare them dead in the face while they whispered, “we’re still here.” And I listened. It’s a stunning restatement after 7 years of quiet from the New York rock group. Not a reinvention—all of the old elements are still present, from repurposing pop tropes to building an unshakeable structure out of the simplest musical ideas—but there is a vitality in this album that I haven’t heard from the band in over a decade. With legendary producer Rick Rubin at the helm, all 5 of the original Strokes are in fine form here, but the most surprising performance by a mile is Julian Casablancas, confidently grounding the album’s emotional core while he soars far above the treble clef with a falsetto that I would have assumed was ripped to shreds from the no-holds-barred rock and roll lifestyle the Strokes notoriously lead at the beginning of the century. Not so, though; his gorgeous high notes are just another tool in his belt, which he employs along with the classic growls and hollers for which he’s known.
10. Laura Marling - Song for Our Daughter
It’s a strange experience to learn that Laura Marling is only 30 years old. Her records(of which there are seven—if she remains as prolific as she was in her 20’s, she is sure to have one of the most formidable bodies of work in modern music) play like those of a sagely aging folk songstress whose voice itself tells even deeper stories than her wise words do. Pairing down this album to its bare bones and writing for a daughter that does not exist allowed Marling to inhabit perspectives other than her own with more sincerity and simplicity than ever before, confidently relying on her unique vocal quality and deft storytelling to carry the listeners attention. Multiple times on this album I experienced one of my favorite musical phenomenons; when the relationship between harmonic and melodic sequences—the way a melody interacts with the movement of chords beneath it—gives me butterflies in my stomach. It’s the closest thing I know to something taking my breath away. It happens less frequently these days than it used to, but Marling’s got my number; she just knows what works, what feels good. She’s one of the best young storytellers in music right now, and she is at peak performance in Song for Our Daughter.
9. Arca - KiCk i
Wow, wow, wow. Flashback to 2015 when I stumbled into Arca’s Mutant, completely unaware that it would drag me through a cybernetic musical odyssey that would inform how I listened to music forevermore. Tell me then that in 5 years, the same Venezuelan composer/producer would release one of the best electro pop albums of the year and land herself a Grammy nomination in the Electronic Album category... I don’t know! It’s just all too much to handle! Not to mention coming out as a trans women in that time and undergoing a stunning transition while developing one of the most fascinating visual aesthetics in pop music. I used to consider my obsession with Arca’s cyborg universe one of the fringe-iest corners of my musical taste, but now that the light is shining in that corner, it seems I have a lot more company there than I once thought. Kick I denotes a deliberate shifting of gears for Arca toward the pop universe, she does so while sacrificing none of the avant aspects of her previous work. Each moment glitches into the next, samples malfunction and explode, beats deconstruct, untether themselves from tempo, and float in space. Chaos is everywhere in Arca’s work, creating a special kind of respite when the percussion finds equilibrium and synths begin to glitter across the stereo field. On one hand, this album feels like the moment you stick a fork into a power outlet, but it earns intimacy at the same time. Its sound is so unique to its composer that I can’t help but feel like I see straight through the cacophony to the spiritual center of Arca, celebrating all sides of herself and all of the space in between.
8. The Avalanches - We Will Always Love You
We Will Always Love You is a celebration. It may not be the jubilant rager that we all wish for at the end of the most turbulent year in most of our lifetimes, but it feels right, nonetheless. It evokes images not of jumping up and down, pumping fists in the air, but of looking around the night club, locking eyes with your friends (not all of them, but the dearest ones, the ones you’ve been through the shit with), raising a glass, and letting the moment dissipate into the beat drop. Kurt Vile monologues on his ‘Gold Sky’ guest feature, “I gotta tell ya, I’m feeling just the right minimal to maximal shattered by life.” This sentiment begins to feel like a thesis as the album plays on, seamlessly transitioning from track to track, supporting its final-afterparty club aesthetic. Each lyric and musical texture say, either implicitly or explicitly, “Nothing is quite as it should be, but at least we’re together and at least there is music.” Togetherness is further evoked not only through the eclectic walls of sound that encase every track, but through a hugely dynamic range of guest artists, including Blood Orange, Jamie xx, Denzel Curry, Leon Bridges, and perhaps a dozen more, who it seems all met on a zoom call to discuss the topics and themes they would sing about on these tracks, though presumably this is just effective curation and world-building on the part of the Avalanches. Tumultuous as 2020 was, this New Year still marks the inevitable passing of time, another year in the history books, and the fact that we fucking made it. The Avalanches showed up in the 11th hour to remind us that through the chaos, there is always something to celebrate, and that there is room for both chaos and celebration in every moment.
7. Bartees Strange - Live Forever
So, millennials have fully come of age; we have made it through the emotional tumult of young adulthood and are beginning to settle in, if only developmentally. Being the first internet-age generation—the ones who collectively discovered p2p file-sharing and held hands diving into the murky waters of Napster and Kazaa and Limewire together—the forthcoming age of musical nostalgia is sure to sound like nothing we’ve ever heard. Or, perhaps, like everything things we’ve ever heard. Ugh, and thus we find ourselves squarely in the predicament of nostalgia art. Where does originality find a place in the recreation of things already done? Well, one could take a note from Bartees Strange. Only two tracks into my first listen of Live Forever, I had to scrap the mental list of sonic influences I was hearing—it was already too extensive. So I began imagining what one might see upon a quick scroll through Bartees’ iPod Nano circa 2006, but also ditched that idea after reading a couple interviews with the Oklahoma-born, D.C.-based songwriter. He doesn’t frame his musical background in terms of bands he listened to, but in moments he experienced; bouncing from one church service to another to watch his mother sing gospel choir tunes, driving around with his friends listening to Emo and post-punk, thrashing with other Midwest teenagers who didn’t know how to use their instruments but loved to make noise. Bartees spent years taking in this information, processing it, developing his own musical vocabulary, before finally dropping his debut LP at 31 years old(already an inspiration for this millennial who also began releasing music at 30). The result is a nostalgic brew that is far greater than the sum of its parts. It wears its influences on its sleeves but sacrifices none of its from-the-hip creativity or from-the-heart authenticity. It is vital; brimming with spirit in a way that makes me giddy for live shows again, as Bartees’ will likely be essential viewing. Live Forever marks a big entrance on the scene by a uniquely powerful musical force. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Bartees Strange.
6. Fiona Apple - Fetch the Boltcutters
Fetch the Boltcutters sounds like the product of a group of wood elves who have spent their entire lives locked inside a windowless garage with nothing but power tools, scrap metal, a few instruments, and no access to the outside world. I’m forced to create a wild hypothetical because I can’t imagine such a seasoned veteran of the music biz as Fiona Apple staring so many rules of musical arrangement and songwriting dead in the eyes and so plainly saying, “fuck you.” On the other hand, I get the impression listening to this album that this chaotic spirit is Fiona Apple, that it has always been present in her enigmatic catalogue, and that her time spent solidifying her place in the industry has granted her permission to let the demons loose, free to roam about the world and bang on whatever they find and scream and yodel in ways that we aren’t used to hearing in mainstream channels of music. Not terribly surprising, given it’s idiosyncrasies, that Fetch the Boltcutters was famously passed on for a Grammy AOTY nom; while it’s not a shoe-in for the award in my opinion, it more than deserves consideration. Instead, this album finds Apple in the company of Tom Waits—ever in defiance of the laws of music, always carving her own path through the weeds on the outskirts of the zeitgeist, dodging categorization with every release; which inevitably causes collateral damage vís-a-vís mainstream attention and following, but thankfully for us, not everyone in the biz is a shameless money-grabber. We should all be so lucky as to keep such company as Waits and Apple.
5. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
I don’t know how to describe Perfume Genius except using the idea of depth. Nothing about Michael Hadreas is two-dimensional, everything has a story to tell that you can’t see or hear or discern. There is pain and longing in his voice, whatever style he inhabits, of which there are many on this album. His look is otherworldly, like an archetype or a sage who has weathered too many lifetimes but still bears the face of a handsome young man. Hadreas has released 5 albums in the last 10 years, and each one finds him diving deeper into a seemingly endless well of creativity. I sense no trace of doubt or boundary in any of his artistic exploration, just an identity that is so unique that to unpack many of his songs is to be completely hoodwinked. You might learn upon investigation that a tune most closely resembles country, though it masquerades as glam, or that a free-flowing ambient piece is actually supported by an airtight musical structure. It’s all as confusing and mysterious as the man himself, and makes for one of the most fascinating listens of the year by one of the most enigmatic characters in the game. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is gorgeous, challenging, and, like its creator, profoundly deep.
4. King Krule - Man Alive!
One of the superpowers of the album as an art form is it’s ability to create an entire universe within itself. English sewer crooner Archy Marshall, at 26 years old, has already honed this ability to a nearly exact science. While not as grand in scope as his 2017 opus the Ooz, nor as unapologetically vulnerable as his 2015 sound experiment A New Place 2 Drown (released as Archy Marshall), Man Alive! Deftly employs the tools that Marshall took from these projects to refine his own sonic universe. Emotionally, the album finds Marshall in limbo, having already recorded half of the album before learning of his partner’s pregnancy, relocating with her, and spending the rest of the writing/recording process reconciling the grungy teenage angst for which he’s known with the idea of parenthood, one of the symbolic milestones of growth. The result is wonderfully polarizing—some reviewers calling it too bleak, wishing Marshall would allow the listener to “come up for air,”; while others call it far more optimistic and accessible than it’s predecessor—very few musical artists evoke such starkly opposite responses to a single piece of music. It’s one of the characteristics that makes King Krule a standout artist in this highly saturated world.
3. Sault - Untitled(Black is)
“We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.”
Black people have always been forced to fight for their lives, and the longer the fight rages on, the further away the end feels. This year could mark a watershed moment, though, so long as we keep pushing, keep fighting, to keep the moment alive. Sault’s two-part Untitled series will prove an invaluable weapon in the fight. The Juneteenth release of it’s first installment, Black is, is an infallible statement of power and resilience in the face of oppression, and a testament to how music can transcend itself to become an all-encompassing snapshot of a moment in time. Above is a statement the mysteriously closed-doored British outfit released in tandem with Black is, 25 days after the murder of George Floyd rightly set much of the world on fire with rage and sent thousands into the streets to demand change. “Change is happening...We are focused.” Focused is an understatement regarding Black is, wherein the group distills multi-generational issues into single words or simple phrases, which they repeat, manipulate, layer, and expand into sprawling works of psychedelic, afrobeat, jazz, and funk, to name a few of the many stylistic bases covered. The musicianship is astounding, made more so by the anger, sadness, pride, and courage in every note and every word—a complex brew that is nevertheless so authentic that the result sounds impossibly simple. Nothing is unnecessary, everything is earned, and everything is deeply felt. The track list plays like poetry, though even the spoken word interludes are free of ornamental language. In all manners of conception and execution, Sault never loses sight of its goal. It is a qualified display of leadership in arguably the most important moment in our generation.
2. Charli XCX - how I'm feeling now
Look, when it comes to new music, I try my best to remain open to any and all possibilities; but the fact is , I can’t see a world in which Charli XCX and Producer/Creative PIC A.G. Cook release an album together and it’s not a contender for my favorite pop album of the year. The two are unstoppable together. Cook has been a vanguard of pop music for the better part of the 2010’s, throwing his weight behind such artists as SOPHIE and Caroline Polacheck, and serving as a figurehead of influence for the likes of 100 gecs(whose appreciation hasn’t gone unnoticed by Cook—gecs’ Dylan Brady has a writer or producer credit on 4 of the album’s tracks). If this isn’t the foreseeable trajectory of pop, this budding music reviewer will quit while he’s ahead. You might have found Cook’s 7G release on this best of list if I felt the 3 hr, 49 song odyssey really qualified as an album, instead of a colossal smattering of musical experiments. Enough about the man behind the computer, though, how about the lady in front of it? Charli is hardly the first pop songstress with a fuck-all attitude toward all manners of refinement and social norms, but to my taste, she has far-and-away found the most interesting sound to support the young pop diva persona. Similarly, while she is hardly the only artist whose musical and lyrical styles are contrary to these solitary COVID times, hers was the most interesting transition for me. The amalgamation of dirty club beats, glitchy beeps and boops, and sentiments of loneliness and isolation make for a listening experience full of just the right kind of tension; an artist at odds with herself, struggling to define her relationship with the world around her. Also, to her credit, my first listen-through of How I’m Feeling Now was the first moment when I thought to myself, “oh, this is a COVID album. We’ve reached the age of COVID music.” It’s been an interesting age to say the least, and Charli’s the one who ushered me through the door. I’m grateful to her for that.
1. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
This may strike some readers as an unexpected AOTY pick, but for me it’s unquestionable. I have always adored Lianne La Havas, as much for her current body of work as for the promise of her work to come. This album feels like the embodiment of that promise—an immensely matured and ever-growing artist stepping fully into her potential. Satisfying as this fulfillment of promise is, though, it didn’t come in the form I expected it to. There is nothing flashy about Lianne La Havas; it contains neither the blatant bleeding heart lyrics of her debut (if you’ve never listened to the lyrics “you broke me/ and taught me/ to truly hate myself” while absolutely wallowing in self pity, I can’t say I recommend it, but...) nor the shiny pop production of her sophomore effort Blood(I adored much about this album, but the pop sheen never fit quite right on her for me); instead, La Havas has simply compiled a group of excellently crafted songs, composed with maturity and produced with crushing confidence that somehow exists devoid of ego. La Havas’ sultry voice and thickly-textured guitar work serve as the gravitational center of a rich musical universe that revolves around La Havas, elevates her, and shines brightly on its own, but never overshadows her. This album feels like so many things to me; a statement of hope, an insistence of courage, a warm blanket, a loving hug, a flirty wink, the solidarity of “I’ve made it through, and so will you.”