by InRO Staff Featured Music Year in Review

Top 25 Albums of 2020 — 10-1

December 22, 2020

From our Honorable Mentions post: While many of us lingered and struggled inside of our homes — and are still patiently following quarantine protocols until this global pandemic ends (with the major exceptions here being NBA YoungBoy and The Chainsmokers) — the best albums released in 2020 were able to transport us away from such existential bother. The releases on our list took to the far-away cosmos (Honey Harper and The Avalanches) and back to Baby Pluto (Lil Uzi Vert). They connected artists from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny) to the Fennoscandian Peninsula (Sweden’s Bladee) and even to the Land of the Long White Cloud (New Zealand-based Tami Neilson). They found ways to break free from societal constructs and confines of masculinity (Dorian Electra and Yves Tumor), femininity (HAIM and Flo Mili), and patriarchy (Fionna Apple and Taylor Swift) — and, for good measure, embodied the acts of creative rebirth (Lil Wayne and Machine Gun Kelly) and spiritual awakening (Jay Electronica). There was a little something for everyone in a year where most had everything taken away, and while some sectors of the music industry will most likely not make it out of this alright, at least the quality of the following records didn’t suffer in the process. Paul Attard

Welcome to InRO’s Top 10 Albums of 2020. You know the drill: a select amount of the below writing is excerpted from album raves published here earlier in 2020, while most is newly commissioned for this feature, offering takes on albums we missed in regular review form or fresh takes on records we simply wanted to write about again. If you only have time to catch up with ten albums this year, these are the ones. Trust us. [For full BOTY music coverage: 11–25 and Honorable Mentions]

Credit: Grant Spanier

10. The Avalanches | We Will Always Love You

For nearly two decades now, The Avalanches have repurposed pillaged sounds of yesteryear in order to locate a current emotional resonance, to connect the past with the present and vice versa. Within this compelling artistic process, they’ve consistently elucidated how music functions as one of man’s few common unifiers: that regardless of whatever language, decade, or country a great tune is from, its power transcends boundaries. So in a year of global separation and political strife, there’s maybe been no better time for such optimistic tenets to be confidently reaffirmed by the guys who thought it was a good idea to mash Wayne and Shuster over the Enoch Light Singers (which it obviously was). But in an era where music’s flexibility is at an all-time high, in terms of both availability and structural malleability — as opposed to 2000, when they first debuted — the group’s entire schtick this time around hinges less on its novelty and more on its actual quality; it’s gotta have a little something more than what a DJ on SoundCloud can offer up instead. So let’s get out of the way what their latest LP, We Will Always Love You, decidedly isn’t: an excuse for Robert Chater and Tony Di Blasi to gloat about the impressive list of friends and cleared samples they’ve assembled in their Rolodex over the years. The voices massed here feel like natural inclusions into the grand tapestry of genres and tonalities the duo ambitiously traverses; a contemporary Gorillaz or DJ Khaled album, this is not. If anything, their guests’ abilities are utilized and incorporated so harmoniously through the project’s overarching structure that their star power never overshadows any one particular moment, while still delivering these features in progressive, exciting ways. Disparate generation talents such as MGMT and Johnny Marr (“The Divine Chord”), to Terence Trent D’Arby (sorry, Sananda Maitreya) and Vashti Bunyan (“Reflecting Light”), to even Cornelius and Kelly Moran (“Music Is the Light”) are able to coalesce and bounce off the seemingly endless soul, blues, disco, and psychedelic riffs thrown their way. But make no mistake, this is still firmly The Avalanches’ show, with their unique voices still ringingly present as they orchestrate a mix that’s downright cosmic — which is perhaps the best descriptor for this collection of new material, as each track progresses into the next with such uniformity that it hardly feels like a gimmick by the time mega incel Rivers Cuomo shows up. And if you can make him sound tolerable these days, then, sweet Jesus, you must be on to something at the very least. Paul Attard

Credit: Munachi Osebgu

9. Flo Milli | Ho, why is you here?

If you listened to and believed the hip-hop gatekeepers, influencers, and bloggers (whose reviews read like thinly disguised PR campaigns) from the past few months, you’d be sold on the narrative that 2020 was Megan Thee Stallion’s year. While she doesn’t really have the album sales to back up this claim, illustrious co-signs from the likes of Cardi B and Queen Bey certainly help make this argument convincing in the eyes of the general public. Plus, having every conservative commentator in the country criticizing the validity of your wet ass pussy is always a positive boost. But considering the lack of major label competition she faced this year — with the more taciturn Tierra Whack and bohemian Rico Nasty, Megan’s 2019 XXL Freshman contemporaries, staying relatively quiet in comparison (Doja Cat was too busy being canceled for the past few months to be up for consideration) — and how quickly those in the media were willing to endorse the Stallion enterprise wholesale, her ascension has often felt like a forgone conclusion, one that’s been accelerated as the genre has felt continued (and not undeserved) pressure to include more women into the national conversation. Enter a new challenger to the throne, one who’s a little less conventional but just as commanding: Alabama’s Flo Milli, the greatest shit-talker in the game who doesn’t reside in Detroit, Michigan. She’s funny, confident, rude, wacky, dexterous, and delirious; all of the qualities (and then some) needed to make compelling rap music. Take the breezy “In The Party,” with its bouncing piano line and effortless swagger, which has gems such as “Family don’t like the way that I’m living/But they didn’t raise me, so fuck they opinion,” or the “Gucci Bandana” interpolating “Not Friendly” that practically buckles under the weight of her sheer aplomb — no matter the situation or mood, Flo Mili is here to leave her mark. The title of her debut mixtape sums up this ethos best by posing a question, one in a tone that’s both aggressive and flippant, to those still doubting: Ho, why is you here? Paul Attard

Credit: Grammy

8. Lil Uzi Vert | Eternal Atake

2020 wasn’t exactly overflowing with significant (pop) rap releases, some of the genre’s biggest stars putting out absolute duds (Donald Glover, Drake), while others hyped up projects that, in all likelihood, quietly got postponed for a more “tour friendly” rollout window. Dependable figures like Future and Young Thug were undeterred, continuing to churn out music at their usual pace, but it was hard to ignore the lack of vitality in projects like High Off Life and Pluto X Baby Pluto, as well as Slime & B, Thug’s ethically compromised collaborative mixtape with Chris Brown. So yes, it was hardly a crowded field, but even were it not, Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake would still be firmly among the few contenders for essential rap release of the year. Both a piece of a larger, more expansive project (the “Deluxe” edition, which positions this album as a coda to the guest heavy “Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2”) and a self-contained work of its own merit, Eternal Atake was rightfully anticipated as the follow up to Uzi’s tremendous 2017 breakthrough Luv is Rage 2. The three-year wait in between these releases certainly tracks as unusual for an artist who found his initial successes on SoundCloud, but it’s clear that this extended incubation period has allowed Uzi to perfect this release in a way that doesn’t prioritize gaming of streaming numbers. This may make Eternal Atake sound like a stodgier release than it is, when in actuality it’s a very modern and refreshing reconsideration of The Album. There is a clear logic to the structure and sequencing of songs that goes largely ignored in the Spotify era, but at the same, time these songs are not so tightly bound together, mostly aligned based on temperament and vibe. Uzi builds a generalized narrative out of this (one that he has explicitly confirmed in interviews); a sort of escape from the fraughtness of terrestrial life that culminates in pointed self-interrogation out amongst the stars. The punchy aggression of early tracks “Lo Mein” and “You Better Move” (its angry repurposing of a Space Cadet 3D Pinball sample reflecting the album’s aesthetic in micro) gives way to the frantically horny “Homecoming” (which figures out a way to make “Baby Got Back” cool again), before drifting into regretful ballad territory with support from Syd, on the melancholic “Urgency,” and Chief Keef, in a rare guest producer turn on “Chrome Heart Tags.” Songs like these (and “I’m Sorry” and “XO Tour Llif3”-sequel “P2”) suggest that fame has come with its usual price tags for Uzi, his emo leanings still quite apparent all these years later, albeit for new reasons. But there’s no doubt that Eternal Atake takes full advantage of the rapper’s very high profile, working on an expanded canvas without losing perspective (surely aided by his career-long collaboration with production collective Working on Dying, responsible for 9 tracks here). It’s an album that manages to bridge the divide between two generations of artists while still working to define the future, an inspiring and necessary fulcrum in a year where artist and audience alike found themselves mired in a bleak present. M.G. Mailloux

Credit: Zak Arogundade

7. Bladee | 333

To call Bladee a rapper would be a bit misleading — sure, he sorta sings in a cadence and manner one could associate with “rapping,” but the music the young Swedish savant crafts is decidedly outside the parameters that such rigid genre labels would seek to enclose him in. A student of Yung Lean, his formula goes something like this: Start with a little cloud rap (“100s”), mix in a bit of futuristic dream pop (“Don’t Worry”), add a dash of moody folktronica (“Valerie”), and, you get… well, the suggestion of these oddball parts still doesn’t provide a clear enough sense of just what exactly the dude’s about. For one Benjamin Reichwald, the sonic aesthetic that he’s crafted over the years is marked by a refusal to properly explain himself beyond vague signifiers of being “experimental” and taking influence from the disparate likes of performers such as Chief Keef and Basshunter, extending further into the sounds of the Beach Boys and Lil B. You’re either with him, or against him; either a ride-or-die member of the Drain Gang, or someone who thinks he’s pure kitsch. Like most internet musicians, there’s little middle ground to occupy on the matter. On 333, his strongest solo outing to date, Bladee’s blissful merriment proves it will not falter in the face of such non-believers; if anything, he delves further into his ephemeral sound’s elation until it begins to resemble the soundtrack to an unbegun kawaii anime series. “Noblest Strive,” one of the most beautiful compositions he’s yet sung over, could very well be the OP for the next season of One Piece with its introspective lyrics — “Endlessly go over my mistakes, just to find out what it takes to be great” — and existential angst imbued within its lush synth-heavy melody. But more importantly, the project is the mark of a prodigy who continues to pave his own way without relying on outsider gimmicks or the need to conform to contemporaneous trends. In this regard, his artistic development could be likened to one of his idols: a young Brian Wilson, as both are known for constructing heavenly — and rather distinctly foreign, in approach — tunes for depressed pre-teens to lose themselves in. At least, for the moment, his life remains thankfully free of any Mike Love figure. Paul Attard

Credit: Vevo

6. Taylor Swift | folklore

All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. The two albums she recorded and surprise-released during the pandemic represent not just a coherent body of work, but also her most seismic aesthetic disruption since the glitchy beats on “I Knew You Were Trouble” signaled her exodus from mainstream country. Working with well-credentialed indie rock collaborators, including members of Bon Iver and The National, Swift took advantage of her break from touring by making a pair of records that sound completely unencumbered by any need to be legible from the cheap seats of a stadium; instead, folklore and its sister album, evermore, lean into moodiness and melancholy, a sound that suits the undercurrent of grief and dislocation that ran through 2020. Evermore may be the looser and more adventurous of the two, but it’s folklore that best illustrates how much Swift has matured in her songcraft. That’s reflected not so much in her casual profanity, but in how she draws blood from clean, simple metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). It’s also evident in the airtight structures of these songs, which may lean into indie folk, minimalist electronica, and even dream pop, but at their core feel almost like standards in their meticulous assembly, well-paced verses, and exquisite bridges. (Cue the Tony Bennet versions!) There is immense pleasure in hearing Swift navigate new sounds with some of the most assured and restrained singing of her career, and indeed, the entire album benefits from the feeling that notorious people-pleaser Swift is newly unburdened: There are no sweaty attempts at a breakout single here, and no sense that she’s tied to her own metanarratives. Which is not to say that she has written herself out of the story completely; for as much as folklore has been celebrated for its third-person storytelling, Swift drops morsels of autobiography across the album like breadcrumbs, little moments of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). Now, as ever, she is her own most compelling character. Josh Hurst

Credit: Instagram

5. Lil Wayne | Funeral

A more appropriate title for Lil Wayne’s 13th studio album, if he hadn’t already used it, would have been Rebirth, as Wayne continues to find new and exciting ways to reinvent and re-discover his ability as an MC. Like The Carter series before it, Funeral engages with the album format less as a prestigious final product and more as an empty canvas, an approach recalled from a bygone past of centerless mixtape-oriented releases that now somehow works best in our playlist-friendly streaming era. So consider this a fresh slate, a chance to once again start new, and the joys of listening to Wayne rap will never be clearer: his penchant for crafting dizzying, densely constructed punchline wordplay is represented here with such harmonious ease that it’s easy to write off the tone as insouciant. […] But when he’s simply spazzing for the sake of it — again, proving everyone wrong — the results are still sumptuous. There’s the opening one-two punch of “Mahogany” and the industrial “Mama Mia,” where he subtly shades his former prodigy Drake (“Got real bitches with fake asses / With real views and fake eyes”) and jests Akon regarding his darkened skin tone. Both are mini-spectacles of paronomasia, tracks that stagger with the sheer number of woozily high-concept double-to-triple entendres as gifts to the listener. There’s a laser-focused immediacy and precision here; he doesn’t just sound like he’s on point, but he brings a presence that suggests he’s the very reason the point ever existed. […] While Wayne indulges heavily in this lyrical play throughout, he never compromises his music’s listenability. That he manages to hop on such a wide array of diverse sounds is admirably forward-thinking, a proficient old-head willing to learn and improve his techniques from the guidance of youngsters[…] As he beautifully puts it on “Wayne’s World” — a song where there’s a “Wayne’s World!” ad-lib and Wayne responds with “party time, excellent,” just so you know that he’s definitely not above doing this sort of thing — we are just guests in the universe of one Dwayne Michael Carter. In turn, we should be appreciative that he’s allowed us to exist as visitors in a realm rife with so much untouched creativity, one with so much promise for the future as he boldly enters into the third decade of his profession with the same vigor he’s had since his first. It really has been quite the journey. Paul Attard  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: 4AD

4. Grimes | Miss Anthropocene

Not since Bjork’s 1997 watershed Homogenic has a weird pop artist cast a masterpiece in the mold of Miss Anthropocene: a fusion of progressive sonics, compelling song craft, and high-concept ecological…stuff. It would have been difficult to imagine Grimes pulling this off a decade ago, when she was a true indie artist just breaking through with Visions — an album beholden to obfuscating aesthetics and lo-if experimentation […] What really elevates Miss Anthropocene is the assured production throughout; somehow, Grimes’s fantasy-world landscape seems as vivid a space as the technologically advancing Iceland that Bjork and her producers used as a blueprint for the sound of Homogenic. One could argue that earlier Grimes albums like Visions and Geidi Primes tread similar aesthetic terrain; the difference is that the world of Miss Anthropocene actually sounds like a fun place to spend an extended period of time in. As with Homogenic, and its intentional proximity to trip-hop and drum-n-bass, however abrasive and chaotic the production on Miss Anthropocene gets, the songs tend to tether themselves to genre signifiers: “Violence” is the kind of floor-filling European techno rave-up that Lady Gaga might record if her music was as adventurous as her videos, while “Before the Fever” and “New Gods” embrace the unapologetic drama of the power ballad. It’s a testament to Grimes’s musical evolution, though, that this album’s seven-minute finale signifies less any particular genre than a distillation of the sound of an artist who’s starting to create her own: If “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” is all tentative uncertainty and gaping negative space, “IDORU” fills that space with euphoric emotion and sonic excess, approximating some hybrid of tropical house, shoegaze, and drone — but let’s just call it Grimes, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off. Sam C. Mac  [Excerpted from full review.]

Credit: Dead Oceans

3. Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher

The second solo album from the prolific singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is, in both its aesthetic and lyrical clarity of expression, a total triumph. From the liminal delirium of intro “DVD Menu” to the bombastic finish, the 11 tracks on Punisher are a perfect distillation of a particular generational malaise; its lyrics reflect emotional awareness hindered by social disintegration, reflecting the often unfortunate combination of introspection and abstraction of personal interaction in the digital age. Bridgers is never too forward about contemporary themes here, letting their slow reveal come through lyrical precision, and the album’s distinct mood is beautifully reflected in its production. One can hear many of the artist’s roots, of which she is indeed publicly quite open, in her emo-folk sound, but one of the record’s most interesting aspects is Bridgers’ and co-producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska’s electronic distortion of live instruments on several tracks. The compression of the acoustic guitar and bass on “Garden Song” lends the track’s arrangement a sense of fragility which perfectly compliments its lyrics about the melancholy of time passing. The whining flute in the background on “Halloween,” shrouded in a raspy synth, externalizes the song’s study of codependency and willful ignorance in a relationship. Punisher is not only remarkable for this brand of acuity and honesty, but also for the unique approach taken to its sonic construction and its ability to capture and sustain a set of specific emotions, both in sound and word, producing a streamlined concatenation of myriad external influences. Rather than openly state the grander significances of its personal content, the record embodies them unmistakably. The directness of the lyrics is at once an indication of the artist’s openness as well as a reflection of the ongoing disappearance of personal privacy, both voluntarily and otherwise — the broken relationships and traumas represented in the lyrics further suggest the consequences of this threat upon identity, while on the other hand, references to conspiracies and anti-government paranoia don’t appear in service of any overt political statement, but rather as a part of its fabric of emotional extremes. In its internalization of an array of social and political circumstances that condition the lives of youth and young adults, Punisher is one of the first great expressions of the shame and tendency toward hopelessness that comes with growing up in a world that can too-readily feel on the precipice of collapse. Alec Lane

Credit: Gary Miller/Getty

2. Fiona Apple | Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters has already endured a predictable backlash to its initial rapturous reception — a backlash led by a loud and peculiar subculture of internet trolls, all of them men, of course, who seem convinced that an album’s merit is determined by a complex calculus they’ve devised that plots its first-week sales against a Metacritic score — and has, at year’s end, re-emerged as one of the few broad consensus choices for this year’s truly great albums. Ultimately, it’s a record that is impossible to separate from its timeliness: 2020 deserves an album that drills into the very concept of failure and rages against every broken system that either sets individuals up to fail or enables predators to exploit their privileges. And who better than Apple, always one of pop music’s most shrewd observers of humanity at its worst and messiest, to outline our contemporary cultural failings? The specificity of Apple’s songwriting here is what makes it so effective. To choose the most salient example: Over the course of the last year, the #MeToo movement has been dismissed by many of its perpetrators and their apologists as creating a “cancel culture.” In exactly a dozen words on “For Her,” Apple explodes the power dynamics and hypocrisy that turned #MeToo into a cultural watershed and, rightly and righteously, re-centers the victims of sexual violence in the story: “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” “For Her” may be the album’s most arresting track, but every song finds Apple similarly hell-bent on holding someone — sometimes, herself — accountable for their shortcomings. “Evil is a relay sport,” she spits on “Relay,” “When the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” And then she comprehensively dresses-down a dinner companion for insisting that she stay quiet after an insult on “Under the Table.” While Apple has stated that the song was inspired by an actual event in her personal life, there’s no way to distinguish whether the narrative is pure autobiography, a moment of corrective wish-fulfillment, or some combination thereof. Even “Shameika,” the album’s official single and another song Apple has claimed was sourced from an actual incident, never fully commits to who is the protagonist, the artist never elucidating whether Shameika’s statement —“Shameika said I had potential” — was meant as a compliment or a withering indictment. Even when Apple’s feelings about her subjects are complicated, her tone is one of liberation. Throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple sings from a place of power and triumph. She wails and snarls and belts her way through these songs, refusing to apologize for pointing out anyone’s moral failings or for suggesting that, in a year as deeply fucked-up as this one, no one’s hands are entirely clean. Jonathan Keefe

Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

1. Jay Electronica | A Written Testimony & Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn)

For most of the past decade, Jay Electronica has been more myth than man. After dropping a mixtape in 2007, the MC appeared only in rumors, features, and singles, none of which suggested the character of his eventual label debut. In many ways, A Written Testimony is the tale of two Jays, with Hov himself both presiding over and playing hype man for Jay Electronica’s (re)emergence. But perhaps most surprising is Z’s willingness to provide auxiliary support here. Watch the Throne succeeded on its spectacle, an ego collision that wrung creation from gladiatorial battle. A Written Testimony is diametric to the Ye-Jay collab: it’s anointment, and Jay-Z demonstrates a new evolutionary facet in his career renaissance by operating chameleonically, spitting tête-à-tête across verses and sharing space in a way never felt on WTT. He’s ever-present on the album, but always contorting his style and function to fit his protege’s clear vision, a fitting act of blessing-giving for an album built on spiritual expression. Jay Electronica’s concerns on A Written Testimony can be largely synthesized into various dualities — life and death, regret and celebration, peace and pain — and he captures these ruminations in both cosmic and grounded fashion. […] There’s a fiercely intelligent contemplativeness to Jay’s mystic-minded writing, an understanding of the infinity of seeking, that keeps his more piffling observations from devolving into cheap banality. On “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” the rapper even manages to not just shout out Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, which may be the definitive cornball novel, but to turn that work’s climactic, puerile metaphor into an affecting commentary on his much-speculated time out of the spotlight: “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin / Sometimes, like Santiago, at crucial points of my novel / My only logical option was to transform into the wind.” All of this thematic clarity is buttressed by the rapper’s smooth, drawled flow — few others could successfully open a song by rhyming “tale of” with “squalor” — and hip hop’s best production of the year, at times industrial, at times symphonic, littered with TV and radio samples, eccentric synth work, and layered with mechanical precision. In other words, a sort of faithful chaos. A Written Testimony is exactly that — Jay’s accounting for and of his life, who he is, where he’s been, the parts he’s made of. Luke Gorham  [Excerpted from full review.]

Imagine that your cousin steals your laptop (the dirty motherfucker), finds a rough draft of a project you’ve long given up on, and submits it to some competition or sweepstakes, which you then win. Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) is kinda like that: Jay Electronica’s near-mythical planned debut album — which had a title and track list and a feature slate already back in July of 2012 (!!) — had been languishing on a hard drive for years until a mysterious confluence of events set it free. I’m not going to mince words here — Act II was straight-up stolen. A certain notorious leaker somehow got a hold of the thing (there are conflicting accounts as to how he stole it), sold it to the highest bidder, and in not much time at all, it was out in the wild. Jay and his team did the best they could to reap some benefit from the crime, hurriedly throwing the unfinished Act II onto streaming services, but it didn’t stick; the album was taken down a few weeks later, presumably due to uncleared samples (the rights to Serge Gainsbourg and Ryuichi Sakamoto can’t be cheap). The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t release, though, was just enough to legitimize the project for most publications, and a stream of raves followed. Now, put all that aside — what you’re left with is a “draft,” for sure, but only a “rough” one in certain areas: “Rough Love,” thanks to a removed Kanye verse that Jay didn’t get permission for, and the naked emotion of “Nights of the Roundtable,” which would probably hit harder with a proper, finished beat. And yet, so much of the rest of Act II boasts a kind of gorgeous and boldly experimental production — as well as agile flows and intelligent lyricism — that few in contemporary rap could match, or would be likely to even try. The cinematic collage of “Patents of Nobility,” the Nujabe-esque string arrangement on “10,000 Lotus Petals,” and the goddamn original “Bound” beat (look it up) on “Life on Mars” all rank among the most inspired and creative hip-hop production choices the genre has seen of late. But the real stunner is “Bonnie and Clyde,” four-and-half minutes of pure vibing over the titular chopped-up Gainsbourg track, with Jay spitting verses equal parts doomy and boastful (“I’m swimming in light like Mahoney in Cocoon / The truth like bones of man under the moon”). As it turns out, this was a great year to steal from Jay Electronica: at least he got to officially release A Written Testimony first. That finished album, taken together with this ghost of one, is as good as music got in 2020. Sam C. Mac