Top Five 2020 Albums

Hey, what are everyone’s top five albums from this year? I feel like when I get to the end of each year, I can always pick out five favorites, but I don’t think we’ve done threads for music like we do for the games.

The rules are as loosey-goosey as they come. You don’t need to rank them or anything, and I’m not going to tabulate any votes. Write as much or as little as you want about them. Judgment of others’ picks should be kept to a minimum. Diverse tastes welcome!

I’ll add mine once I have a chance to narrow them down.

I love music but for me it is listening to the past rather than the present though I do listen to current day music it’s in a minority compared to older stuff.

I got a record player and speakers for Xmas and spent some time researching what I fancied to play on it and purchased my first Vinyl in around 25 years.

I bought the following

Paul Simon - Graceland - I used to listen to this while reading IT by Stephen King when I was 15 and still love it to this day.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours - Seen these in Concert - Amazing group
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Chronicles 20 Greatest Hits - Wish I had seen these
The Beatles - 20 Greatest Hits - The first music I remember listening to with my Dad when I was 8 year old. Still sound great to me, takes me back to those days.
The Very Best of Elton John - My wife introduced me to him and we are still together nearly 30 years on.

I am looking to add the following

Paul Simon - The Ultimate Collection.
Bob Marley - Legend
Oasis - Stop the Clocks

1 artist I am ashamed to admit I only discovered fairly recently is Joe Bonamasa who I think is just awesome.

I wasn’t terribly engaged with music this year, but here are the albums that caught my attention in 2020:

  • Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
  • The Flaming Lips - American Head
  • Taylor Swift - Folklore
  • Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1
  • Everything Everything - RE-ANIMATOR

That’s a good start to a vinyl collection (or a re-start, if you already had a collection)! My wife and I think of vinyl as having a sort of threshold to cross before we purchase one. We really need to enjoy the entire album, start to finish. So I think of our vinyl collection as the most distilled possible version of our musical tastes. And every Christmas, we try to buy the other the albums on vinyl that we think the other liked the most that year. (This year, she got albums from The Chicks and Taylor Swift, and I would have gotten her the Kesha album if they had pressed it).

I ping-ponged between country music and vaporwave-y stuff all year long. For me, in no particular order, my favorite albums from this year were:

Cuttin’ Grass, Vols. 1 and 2 - Sturgill Simpson
It seems lame to love a cover album so much, but does it less lame when it’s an album full of covers of that artist’s own songs? I don’t know, but I love this collection for a few reasons. One, it’s eminently singable in a way that Simpson isn’t always - he likes his growls, his emotion, and his dirty (for lack of a better word) instrumentation, but everything here is clean vocals, fiddles, banjoes, guitars, and pianos. Two, it’s a wide studio release of a lot of songs from Simpson’s previous band, Sunday Valley. “Jesus Boogie” is fantastic, so getting a version that doesn’t sound like it was recorded on someone’s phone is the tops.

The Horror and the Wild - The Amazing Devil
A single from this album was mentioned in one of our threads here. I think it’s easy to look at “a band with the guy from The Witcher in it” and assume it’s a vanity project or a gimmick, given the popularity of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” But the band came first, and they don’t fuck around on this release. “Welly Boots” and “Fair” both routinely bring tears to my eyes. It’s the most dramatic folk music I’ve ever heard. I love it.

Western Swing and Waltzes, and Other Punchy Songs - Colter Wall
Colter Wall trades in his low-down Johnny Cash voice for something a little less gruff, and he trades in his sparse instrumentation for a full band. Several covers and traditional songs here, but the execution is great.

Paradise Killer Original Soundtrack - Epoch
I’m not very good at Paradise Killer. It’s not hard, I just feel like maybe games that require focus and concentration don’t really jive with my attention span anymore (the same thing happened with poor Obra Dinn). The game has been discussed here and there, and the soundtrack is almost always brought up at the same time, for good reason. It’s this distillation of city pop, vaporwave, and jazz that is so danceable it hurts. The soundtrack will live on long after the game has left my hard drive.

Show Pony - Orville Peck
Orville Peck is kind of odd, even putting the whole “masked” persona aside (which I will always be into, for what it’s worth). I think his schtick of “country music by way of Lana Del Rey” sounds better on paper than it did in reality on his debut release last year. This one is a shorter EP, but I think it delivers much better on his promise than the previous album. It’s all sparse, reverby instruments and long vocal notes. I think it goes in the bin of “perfect music to listen to while playing Red Dead Redemption” (reinforced by this music video, which is basically a RDR2 cosplay).

I liked her output this year. I think Covid removing a lot of things that would normally eat up an artist’s schedule (touring, TV appearances, etc) resulted in some really great music, despite the otherwise terribleness of the year.

So for another listicle thingy I came up with a top ten. I’ll try to break 'em down into components.

Top 3, in no particular order:

Lianne La Havas, S/T:

Sweeping Promises, Hunger For A Way Out:

Daniel Romero, How Ill Thy World is Ordered:

The middle four in my top ten, no particular order for this set:

Caroline Rose, Superstar:

Frankie Valet, Waterfowl

Elephant Stone, Hollow:

Caribou, Suddenly:

The always-important final three. No particular order for this group:

Declan McKenna, Zeros:

Kelley Stoltz, Ah! (Etc):

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Sideways to New Italy

Another Sweeping Promises - Hunger for a Way Out vote here, hooray for multiple votes for that on a site.

House of Harm - Vicious Pastimes

I could list a bunch of other post-punk or shoegaze bands to fill out the remaining 3 but not sure which I would choose.

Unfortunately, there’s a ton of albums I want to go back to and hear again, that I just couldn’t keep in my head between pandemic brain, the awful Google Play Music > YouTube Music transition, and my finally giving in and signing up for fucking Spotify, which still refuses to listen when I tell it not to connect what my PC and phone are doing (no, I don’t want a permanent, battery-draining notification on my phone anytime I’m listening on my PC, and no, I don’t want to hit play on my PC to continue what I was listening to on there after I get back from using my phone on the bluetooth speaker, only to have whatever the phone was on replace the album I was in the middle of on my PC.).

Sorry, rant aside, there’s been a ton of amazing music this year that I have missed out on fully appreciating. But thankfully, there’s still 10 albums I can pretty easily rank as my best, and I doubt many would be pushed out by revisiting the other stuff. These albums really defined my year, keeping me company through long, awful pandemic days and making sure I always had something to fill the silence left when all my friends were reduced to tiny Zoom boxes :(

  1. Unleash the Archers - Abyss
    Power metal to the absolute maximum degree with Brittney Slaye’s absurd vocals soaring all over everything to tell the batshit crazy scifi tale of an immortal warrior fighting across the stars to finally stop the machinations of an ancient youth-drinking witch. Sorry to the excellent Brothers of Metal who put out a solid power metal effort, but UtA take the fucking cake in 2020.
  2. Æther Realm - Redneck Vikings From Hell
    North Carolina’s own melodeath masters return on a major label with an absurdly varied and creative album that bounces between schmaltzy ballads to pop rock bangers to searing death metal scorchers to a ten-minute long instrumental piece with Spanish guitar interludes. It’s just so fucking good. AR is “American Wintersun” no more; Wintersun are now just Finnish Æther Realm!
  3. The Amazing Devil - The Horror and the Wild
    This one totally took me by surprise on a friend’s excellent recommendation. Described by the Googles as a dramatic lyrical alt-folk band, they roll up a lot of what I used to dig about groups like The Dresden Dolls and The Decemberists, they somehow hit a lot harder on the emotional front and just have some absolutely gorgeous arrangements and duets throughout. Stunning.
  4. The Midnight - Monsters
    I lost track of synthwave pretty badly this year, apart from Dan Terminus’s solid Last Call and a last-minute jam to Droid Bishop, but there was absolutely no way that I was missing The Midnight’s latest – especially with their awesome streamed show during the pandemic. Monsters goes in some new directions and also nestles right into the heart of the nostalgia-drenched vibes I love so much about TM.
  5. Sojourner - Premonitions
    Far and away the most potent atmospheric black metal album of the year, Premonitions represents the pinnacle of what Sojourner have been working toward for three records now, and with Chloe Bray’s tragic departure shortly after this launched, they’ll likely turn toward something new in the future. I will cherish this release for many, many years as the very best they could offer in this form.
  6. Haken - Virus
    Haken, the poor British prog metal band who were set to release an album entitled Virus in the middle of a global pandemic. I managed to catch the tour for this album shortly before the world closed down, and it’s a damn shame it probably hurt them so badly, because it’s yet another awesome, varied, crushing album from them that has so many catchy hooks that I can’t keep 'em all straight.
  7. Demons & Wizards - III
    Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer finally find time to record the long-delayed third D&W album, just after an all-too-brief tour across the US late last year I managed to catch, and it’s absolutely everything I’ve been waiting for. Crushing riffs, howling vocals, sick solos, and epic choruses, as only these two geniuses can bring us.
  8. Night Flight Orchestra - Aeromantic
    Okay so NFO are cheesy as all shit in the most absurd kind of way, but this absurd 80s synthed out rock shit is just so deliciously good as a guilty pleasure on the musical side. Somehow even catchier and more foot-tappable than the last, Aeromantic is these guys operating at the peak of their absurd style, and I couldn’t be more pleased to finally have it in my ears.
  9. Oceans of Slumber - Oceans of Slumber
    Cammie Gilbert’s voice is straight up the closest thing I have to proof there might be a god, because it’s clearly a gift from one. Combined with the crushing goth’ed out instrumentation of the reforged backing band and their ever-increasing mastery of songwriting around Gilbert’s talents, this should be the record that finally breaks OoS out and into the wider world. Their one-off cover of “Strange Fruit” is really something, too.
  10. Amaranthe - Manifest
    In a year with new Nightwish and Leaves Eyes, and featuring the blistering debut of Ad Infinitum, Amaranthe isn’t the symphonic metal artist I figured I’d have in the top 10, but here we are: a three-vocalist assault of cheesy, pop-styled hard rock anthems will worm its way into your brain stem and lodge itself there for weeks after you put this one down.

Ranked Videos

Condolences to Pain of Salvation’s deeply weird PANTHER for just missing the cut.

Disappointments this year included just not being able to get fully into the new Dark Tranquility, Ayreon, or Nightwish albums, alas.

I desperately want to get back to the amazing Thou/Emma Ruth Rundle collab, the new Caligula’s Horse, Draconian’s incredible new release, Lucifer’s delightful romp through the 70s, the new folk metal drops from Alestorm and Finntroll, and some dark and harrowing black metal releases like Mesarthrim’s and the Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum collab, but ugh, there’s just only so much time. TBH my “you genuinely need to give these five more spins” list is around 50, and end-of-year lists are only adding more. Shit, did Igorrr really put out a new album this year? Master Boot Record, too?!

In no particular order:

  • Sepultura: Quadra
    An 80s thrash metal band still putting out great music. Even after significant lineup changes here and there throughout the decades, these guys still manage to deliver. This and Testament’s latest release show there’s still plenty of music to be summoned from the ether by bands that have been around for 35 years.

  • Grayceon: Mothers Weavers Vultures
    This album dropped out of NOWEHERE a few days ago. There was a seven year stretch between LPs earlier in the decade, but now Grayceon have delivered their second full length album within the span of 2 years, Merry Christmas indeed. For a three-piece band, these guys make a lot of noise, and it sounds great. This is for fans of cellos and metal.

  • Intronaut: Fluid Existential Inversions
    Although this particular album doesn’t reach the highs for me that their previous album did, it’s still very much worth a spot on my best-of list for the year. Besides some questionable vocal choices here and there where the lead singer occasionally summons the spirit of Weird Al, the album is pure progressive goodness that I can still listen to and have absolutely zero chance of correctly humming along with due to the complicated beat the singer keeps to during his delivery in half the songs.

  • Cattle Decapitation: Death Atlas
    If 2020 had a soundtrack, this would be it. released at the tail end of 2019, this earns a spot on the list for showing up after most places had already chosen their albums of 2019. Maybe next time around, Cattle Decapitation will think twice about what they ask for.

  • Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
    Long gone are the days of a barely-18 Fiona Apple sexually exploiting herself in a dark basement for pop videos, like Criminal. Now days she’s putting out albums that most listeners probably have to work at to find listenable. But it’s been freaking 8 years since her last album, and this one couldn’t come soon enough for me.

How do you not mention that this also the band of the actor that plays Jaskier on the Witcher?

Because I have no idea what that sentence means? Hah, never played the games or watched the show, but that’s cool!

He plays the bard in the show. Look up Toss a Coin to your Witcher which became a bit of a hit/meme from the show with him singing. I’m on my phone or I’d just link it.

How do you guys find so many new albums?

As a middle aged white guy, my source is NPR’s New Music Friday podcast.

If you’re a Spotify user, it curates two weekly play lists for you based on things you like: a New Releases one that pulls in new releases from artists you like, and a Discover one that pulls in things you haven’t listened to before that it thinks you would like.

It’s far from perfect. The New Releases playlist tends to give me way more remixes and remaster than I want. Out of the Discover playlist, I’m lucky to enjoy more than one or two songs from it each week. But I have found a ton of music that I really love that I just would never have come across otherwise.

I read lists of new releases and buzzsaw through them on YouTube/Bandcamp/Apple Music. And read threads like these. Sometimes I go 2-3 years without picking up much new music, though.

Find some folks – even music artists – who seem to have tastes that align with yours. Find some folks who maybe don’t align with you, but who seem to have a lot of sincere, followers as well, and maybe give them a chance to win you over. Follow them on social media. listen to the music they post about. Note anything that makes you not hate it, and be willing to revisit.

Repeat. :)

I don’t listen to many new albums during the year, so one thing I do over the winter holidays is look at various ‘best-of’ lists at the end of the year. Metacritic usually puts together a meta list of these near the end of the year, so I start there and listen to the best-scoring albums. Then, I’ll read lists from publications whose tastes I generally find agreeable (e.g., Pitchfork, Complex, The Wire, Resident Advisor) and listen to the albums whose writeups are interesting. If I have the time, I might seek out genre-specific sources focused on genres I don’t normally listen to—like metal or country—and see what’s faring well on those and try to listen to an album from each.