Delayed albums. Cancelled tours. The untimely deaths of beloved artists. You don’t need me to tell you how messed-up the music world has been this year. And it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But thankfully, some things never change: Artists keep releasing songs and albums (eventually). And we all keep listening. Especially me — as usual, I’ve probably heard more than 500 new releases so far this year. Here are the discs that stood out above the rest. Most of them you know. A few you probably don’t. Some were no-brainers. Others snuck up on me. And if you ask me again next week, I would undoubtedly change my mind. But for the moment, here are the Top 20 Albums of 2020 (So Far) in alphabetical order. Click on the cover art to read more and listen to the tunes.
As Tolstoy taught us: “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I doubt even he could have concocted an upbringing like the one experienced by Airborne Toxic Event frontman Mikel Jollett — as chronicled in his sixth and most personal album Hollywood Park. Sparked by the death of his father and accompanied by an autobiography of the same name, the dozen-song disc reflects on Jollett’s early childhood in the notorious Synanon cult, followed by a young life scarred by poverty, hardship, drugs and emotional abuse. It could easily have been a maudlin downer that would make Lou Reed’s Berlin resemble a fairytale, but in Jollett’s capable hands it becomes a stirring, cathartic work of survival and eventual redemption, set against a backdrop of swelling, soaring heartland rock grandeur reminiscent of an artsier Bruce Springsteen. “You tell me that you wanna know my story,” Jollett says at one point. “I promise you it’s boring.” Not a chance.
THE PRESS RELEASE: “Rejoice is a very special collaboration between Tony Allen, the legendary drummer and co-founder of Afrobeat, and Hugh Masekela, the master trumpet player of South African jazz. Having first met in the 70s thanks to their respective close associations with Fela Kuti, the two world-renowned musicians talked for decades about making an album together. When, in 2010, their touring schedules coincided in the UK, the moment presented itself and producer Nick Gold took the opportunity to record their encounter. The unfinished sessions, consisting of all original compositions by the pair, lay in archive until after Masekela passed away in 2018. With renewed resolution, Allen and Gold, with the blessing and participation of Masekela’s estate, unearthed the original tapes and finished recording the album in summer 2019 at the same London studio where the original sessions had taken place. Rejoice can be seen as the long overdue confluence of two mighty African musical rivers — a union of two free-flowing souls for whom borders, whether physical or stylistic, are things to pass through or ignore completely. According to Allen, the album deals in “a kind of South African-Nigerian swing-jazz stew”, with its roots firmly in Afrobeat. Allen and Masekela are accompanied on the record by a new generation of well-respected jazz musicians including Tom Herbert, Joe Armon-Jones, Mutale Chashi and Steve Williamson.”
WHO IS SHE? The outspoken, uncompromising, fearless and peerless singer-songwriter who burst onto the scene as a teenager with the raw, cathartic 1996 debut album Tidal and the Grammy-winning single Criminal. Speaking of awards: She’s also the artist who once accepted another prize by saying, “This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life (on) what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything.” Speaking of everything: She is also the artist who titled her second album When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Rebirth. Rejuvenation. And perhaps most of all, reinvention. Recorded in, around and with her Venice Beach home, the 13-song Fetch The Bolt Cutters finds Fiona Apple tossing out the rule book to deconstruct and rebuild her songwriting from the ground up. She mixes genres wildly, bouncing between rock and pop and jazz and blues and soul and classical and avant-garde. Along with regular instruments like piano, bass and drums, these elastic songs are filled with everything from stomping and clapping to barking dogs, the sound of roasted seed pods and Apple tapping on a box that contains her dead dog’s ashes — all the better to support her fearsome and powerful vocals, which can shape-shift instantly from a shivery bray to a soulful croon to a sinister snarl to a playground sing-song. Her lyrics are equally boundless and boldly unconventional, tackling both the intimately personal and the universally political with unflinching honestly, poetic beauty and scathing humour.
We may be trapped in the darkest timeline right now. Not to mention stuck inside our individual homes and headspaces. But hey, that don’t mean we can’t dance. And take a much-needed mind-clearing, soul-cleansing interior trip in place of an actual outing IRL. And who better to deliver it like pizza to a flaming bedroom than Troy Barnes himself — aka Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino (aka Earnest Marks if you wanna take it all the way to Atlanta) — via his fourth album 3.15.20. Quietly and briefly released as one massive loop (and with no cover art) on the title date, this 57-minute masterpiece finds Glover/Gambino ambitiously pushing the sonic and stylistic envelope even farther than he has previously (which is saying something). If you’re looking for touchstones, there are plenty — these cuts take plenty of cues from latter-day George Clinton P-Funk and early/more experimental Prince, with dashes of Death Grips, clipping., Anderson .Paak and assorted others thrown into the mix. Not surprisingly, that makes for a supremely and superbly diverse affair. Playing out more like a well-sequenced mixtape than a traditional song-based album, these freewheeling, meandering and compellingly replayable tracks unfailingly hit a host of satisfying sweet spots — groovy vs. trippy, organic vs. electronic, introverted vs. extroverted, noisy vs. melodic, funky vs. soulful, and plenty more besides. The sweetest spot of all: Along the way, they can, should and most likely will help free your mind. With any luck, your ass will follow.
Ian MacKaye never lets you down. Not politically. Not philosophically. And certainly not musically. Four decades after forming the legendary Minor Threat and more than 15 years after the deservedly worshipped Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus, the singer-guitarist and punk icon remains as creative, passionate, potent and relevant as ever. Coriky, his latest collaboration with Warmers drummer (and wife) Amy Farina and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, deliver one of the year’s strongest debuts with their long-awaited eponymous full-length. Their sound and approach are stylishly spare, engagingly economical and artfully arranged; MacKaye’s baritone guitar advances and retreats, slashing and burning with laser-focused blasts; Farina’s offbeat rhythms dart and dance in and out and around the edges of the grooves; Lally’s melodic basslines rise to the top of the songs even as they anchor the bottom end. Woven together with near-psychic interplay, they fashion striking tracks that deftly target the bittersweet spot between post-punk and art-rock, providing a darkly rich, tastefully understated backdrop for their sharp-eyed, sharp-witted sociopolitical commentary and world-weary lyrics. It all comes not a moment too soon; if there every was a time when we needed to hear from MacKaye, it’s now. You can only hope that he and Coriky — who have already been together for five years, but didn’t play live until 2018 — will have plenty more to say in the near future.
WHO ARE THEY? The venerable, dependable and commendable southern-fried indie-rock stalwarts fronted by singer-songwriter guitarists, longtime musical partners and onetime roommates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. And the band that served as the launching pad for acclaimed singer-guitarist Jason Isbell.
WHAT IS THIS? Their dozenth studio album — and the orneriest, most opinionated and political work of their two decade-plus career. Granted, 2016’s election-cycle protest album American Band wasn’t exactly a frothy romp. But the tellingly titled Unraveling almost makes it look like pop in comparison to these grim, broodingly intense tracks tackling the border crisis, opioid addiction, mass shootings, religious hypocrisy, income inequality, right-wing punditry and more.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Outrage. Disgust. Horror. Basically what every person with a functioning soul, heart and brain thinks and feels every time they read or watch the news — except these dispatches from the edge are set to rangy, raw-boned guitar-rock and voiced in a twangy drawl.
“I’m a man of contradictions. I’m a man of many moods. I contain multitudes.” Bob Dylan rasps that little confession (with no apologies to Walt Whitman) a couple of minutes into his 39th studio album. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not exactly breaking news. But let me tell you this: When it comes to Rough and Rowdy Ways, truer words have never been spoken. Especially those last three words. Over the course of 10 tracks and 70 jam-packed minutes, the former Robert Zimmerman essentially surveys “the history of the whole human race” from Creation to Judgment Day — paying special attention to the bittersweet mysteries of life, love, war, religion, creativity and anything else that sparks his razor-sharp mind and roguish wit. Bragging like a gangster rapper and dropping pop culture references faster than Dennis Miller on speed, the 79-year-old singer-songwriter pinballs from topic to topic like James Holzhauer running the Jeopardy! board. He ponders the assassination of JFK and its turbulent aftermath. He expresses his love for Key West and sends off Jimmy Reed (but not Jimmie Rodgers, the source of the album’s title). He lays his heart bare as a young lover. He thumbs his nose at death. And he name-checks everyone from Julius Caesar and Karl Marx to The Rolling Stones and Indiana Jones. Even more impressive: Somehow he manages to tie it all together like one giant murder board of humanity. And he wisely sets it all to another nostalgic collection of laid-back blues, Americana and vintage Tin Pan Alley songcraft that works to complement and not compete with his lyrical tsunami. By the time you get to the end ofthe near-17-minute epic Murder Most Foul, there’s no doubt that Rough and Rowdy Ways is the latest late-career masterpiece from a man who’s not only the finest and most influential songwriter of the last half century — but also one of the most original and impactful songwriters working today. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that either.
Steve Earle has never been afraid to dig deep. Or mix art with politics. But the outspoken singer-songwriter takes his musical activism to a new level — and in a new direction — on Ghosts of West Virginia. Earle’s 20th studio outing (counting a pair of collaborative efforts) is one of his darkest and most dramatic works: A concept album about the disastrous Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men in 2010. It’s also dramatic in the theatrical sense; Earle voices these songs from the perspective of the blue-collar miners and their families, forging empathy with his subjects instead of just preaching to the choir. Originally penned for a play called Coal Country and retooled here with full-band arrangements, these tales are pointed, passionate and potent — never more so than on It’s About Blood, when Earle recites the names of the miners who perished in the tragedy. Appropriately, these haunting stories are grounded in a rough-hewn assortment of timeless Americana — gothic Appalachian bluegrass, fingerpicked acoustic folk, bare-knuckled roots-rock, slapback-echo rockabilly, country balladry, even an a cappella piece midway between a gospel hymn and a work song. It all comes together into a masterful, moving and memorable creation from an artist who remains at the height of his powers — yet continues to push himself onward, upward and forward.
Jason Isbell has come a long way. When he started out nearly two decades ago, he was the hard-drinking young-gun guitarist playing dive bars with Drive-By Truckers (which is where I first saw him, back in the band’s Southern Rock Opera era). These days, he’s older and wiser. Cooler and calmer. He’s embraced sobriety, marriage and fatherhood — all of which have also helped him mature into one of the most compelling and evocative singer-songwriters of his generation. That’s been made abundantly clear on his more recent Grammy-winning albums. And it certainly hasn’t changed on his seventh studio set Reunions, which is also his fourth with superstar producer Dave Cobb. Continuing to follow the therapeutic and personally revealing trail he’s been on for several years, these songs find Isbell once again sifting the ashes of his past, confronting and communing with a cast of ghosts and personal demons awaiting artistic exorcism. Not surprisingly, Reunions is also quieter, softer, more melodic and sleeker than some previous outings, focusing on hushed ballads, supple grooves and jangly Americana at the expense of the rangy, raw-boned roots-rockers of Isbell’s misspent youth. If I’m being honest, I miss those days and those songs a bit — I would like Reunions a little more if he cranked the volume, the tempo and the energy a little higher a little more often. But as he’s repeatedly shown, Isbell is more committed personal growth than crowdpleasing nostalgia. And who can blame him? As the poised, polished and powerful Reunions makes clear, he’s in it for the long haul.
“My heart is black as night,” Mark Lanegan claims a few minutes into Straight Songs of Sorrow. And maybe he’s telling the truth. But on the plus side, his mind has never been clearer and more focused. The former frontman for Screaming Trees, Queens of The Stone Age, Gutter Twins, Twilight Singers and plenty more penned this dozenth studio album as a companion to his just released memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. I haven’t seen that yet, but if it’s half as unflinching and harrowing as some of these musical confessions, I wouldn’t read it alone in the dark. Over a mixed backdrop of skittery electro-rock, fingerpicked acoustic folk, lush synth-pop, post-modern Americana, junkie gospel and more, Dark Mark leads you on a grim personal travelogue of drugs and violence, blood and beauty, death and destruction, paranoia and persecution. And even though there are the occasional glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel, by the time he’s through, he makes Iggy Pop and Lou Reed seem like Donny and Marie. “I spent my life trying every way to die,” he confesses at one point. “If I had a razor, I would cut you everywhere,” he warns at another. Yikes. No wonder he can’t seem to keep a band together. On well. At least you can’t accuse him of not giving it to you straight.
Nobody is going to accuse The 1975 of pandering to fans. Though some might accuse Matt Healy and co. of trying to overload them. The British indie superstars’ monumentally ambitious fourth full-length Notes On a Conditional Form — the wildly anticipated sequel to their late 2018 knockout A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships — is the sort of disc that makes its predecessor (not to mention recent releases from their peers and competitors) look like a fluffy pop lark. Over the sprawling course of 22 songs and 80 minutes, the freewheeling, ever-changing epic furiously pinballs unpredictably between sounds, styles and sonic settings. Boisterous post-punk and sunny indie-pop, experimental electronica and earthy roots, arty rock and ambient soundscapes, ’80s synth-pop and earnest folk, gospel and Greta Thunberg speeches; it’s all here, along with plenty more. And as usual, most of it is every bit as creative, cool compelling as it is confounding and challenging — sorta like Radiohead, but if they cracked a smile and cranked out an unironic house track every once in a while. Not surprisingly, the boldly unclassifiable album ends up feeling more like a shuffled playlist than a pointed, focused work. Then again, maybe all that eclecticism and diversity is the point. Who knows? Maybe Healy. So go ask him. You ask me, all I know is that Notes On a Conditional Form should keep their fans occupied until The 1975 decide what form their next album should take. As if they could ever settle on just one.
WHO ARE THEY? Singer-guitarist Amy Love and bassist Georgia South, a high-powered London grime-punk duo who have been around since 2014, touring behind the likes of Wolf Alice, Fever 333 and Prophets of Rage — which prompted guitarist Tom Morello to call them “The best band you’ve never heard.” He was right. But here’s your chance to rectify that.
WHAT IS THIS? Their long-gestating, long-overdue first album — and the most distinctive, dynamic and devastating debut of the year so far.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A thunderiffic mashup of rock, rap, grime, punk, pop, grunge, metal and anything else that strikes Love and South’s fancy. Their meaty, beaty, big and bouncy songs come anchored by walloping hip-hop grooves, driven by grinding subterranean basslines, fuelled by serrated power-chord guitar riffage and topped with take-no-prisoners lyrics and vocals that lurch from sultry raps to flamethrower screams at the drop of a beat. On top of that, they know how to write songs that get instantly and indelibly wedged deep inside your noggin.
“I’ll make you scream, I’ll make you defecate,” cracks Ozzy Osbourne on the opening track on his dozenth studio album and first solo outing in nearly a decade. Well, it’s nice to see the Prince of Darkness hasn’t lost his sense of humour. Even better: He hasn’t lost his wonderfully evil touch on the musical side either. Despite a host of physical ailments — which now include Parkinson’s, as he recently revealed — wicked wizard Oz is in fiendishly fine form on these 11 energized tracks, wailing and yowling and cackling and howling with the same demonic lunacy and intensity that has possessed him since the opening seconds of Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut LP half a century ago. Give props to producer and guitarist Andrew Watt, who surrounds Ozzy with suitably massive, majestic and malevolent sonics and ambience — not to mention an all-star band that includes Slash and Tom Morello, Duff McKagan, Chad Smith, Charlie Puth, new bestie Post Malone and even old pal Elton John. Not that Osbourne needs the help; even in declining health at 71 — though really, it’s a bloody miracle he’s actually alive in the first place — he makes it clear that he’s the real Iron Man on hell-raising, fire-breathing riff-fests like Under the Graveyard, Eat Me, It’s A Raid and Straight to Hell. Bottom line: Ordinary Man is as bat-bitingly good as anything he’s done in the past couple of decades. Bust out the Depends and let ’er rip.
Some people prefer music that’s the sonic equivalent of comfort food — safe, familiar, easy to swallow. Others have a more adventurous palate. The latter group will want to sink their teeth into Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia. And they will come away both satisfied and hungry for more. The Toronto singer-songwriter’s third album and the followup to her acclaimed 2016 release La Papessa, this daring and dynamic creation presents a fantastic, innovative and stirring fusion of ambition and artistry, novelty and nostalgia, timely and traditional. Over her signature fusion of cumbia, electronica and classical — which she has descriptively dubbed industrial reggaetón — the candid Pimienta tackles everything from injustice in her Colombian homeland to her own loves, losses and personal traumas. Of course, unless you are fluent in Spanish, you’ll need to check out some lyrical translations to truly appreciate and understand all of that. And while you should make the effort, you don’t necessarily have to. You can get almost as much pleasure out of the disc just from immersing yourself in the futuristic and unique sounds that dominate the disc’s first half, or by soaking up the transfixing traditional grooves and percussion that dot its second part. But however well you get to know her, you’ll come away quite understandably and rightly convinced that Miss Colombia is unmistakably a winner.
WHO ARE THEY? The musical heroes of every dude (or dudette) who ever donned a flannel shirt and a backwards ball cap. And Seattle’s second-favourite musical sons after Nirvana — or maybe third, if you want to go back and include Jimi Hendrix. Any way you slice it, they’re the last major grunge band standing (sorry, Mudhoney; no hard feelings). More importantly, they are indisputably the most important, relevant and vital American rock band of their generation. Maybe this generation too.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? The album we all need right now. Whether you want to rage against the system (and the Fuckstick-In-Chief), contemplate the perilous state of our world or just rock out to get your mind off of it all, Gigaton will speak to you and perhaps for you. A powerful, pointed, potent and overtly political return to form, the dozen-track set finds Eddie Vedder and his long-serving bandmates sounding the alarm about climate change and global apocalypse. Granted, that isn’t the apocalypse at the top of everybody’s list right now, but it’s close enough for rock ’n’ roll. Speaking of which: The album sports a fair share of crowdpleasing arena-rock anthems — along with a few tunes that take their music in unexpected new directions and monkey with their time-honoured brain/brawn balance.
“I should’ve fucked your friends / It would’ve been the best revenge.” Those are the first words Jessie Reyez sings on the opening track of her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us — an album whose cover pictures her perched on a coffin in a cemetery. Clearly, the woman knows how to get your attention. More importantly, she knows how to keep it with her sensually scratchy drawl, songwriting that manages to be nostalgic and groundbreaking at the same time, and provocative lyrics that find her fixated on obsession, instability and death. If love doesn’t end you, she just might.
“Every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free,” Killer Mike rhymes midway through Run The Jewels’ RTJ4. “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper: ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Amazingly, he wrote those prescient lines last year, not last week. But they will undoubtedly be just as true and topical next week. And next year. And if that doesn’t give you a hint of just how fierce, committed and relevant the masterful RTJ4 is, rest assured there’s plenty more words where those came from. The uncompromising and potent 11-track album is brimming over with provocative, take-no-prisoners lyrics about racism, justice, police brutality, political corruption, revolution, social media and umpteen other topical issues. And naturally, those urgent, challenging pronouncements are set atop relentlessly driving, endlessly creative and punishingly heavy tracks — many of which welcome VIPs like Pharrell, Mavis Staples, 2 Chainz, Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, and DJ Premier. Still not sold on the disc? Well, you don’t have to be — as usual, Mike and partner-in-rhyme El-P are giving the damn thing away for free. So really, the only goods RTJ4 doesn’t deliver are dinner, a facemask and a cure for COVID-19. But hey, they’re probably working on all of that.
We’ve all been there, man. You’ve got nothing to do, nowhere to go and nada in the fridge, so you call your buddy and meet at the pub where you all hang out. A few rounds later, that ex you’ve been thinking about — you know, the one you never quite got over — shows up out of the blue, and you’ve had just enough to drink to think maybe you could get back together, despite the way she treated you. Will you? Won’t you? And is this really enough storyline to carry a concept album? You’ll have to listen to Neon Skyline to answer the first two questions. As for the third: In the skilled, sensitive hands of Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf, it most assuredly is. The solo followup to his likeminded 2016 musical narrative and commercial breakthrough The Party, the intimate and compelling Neon Skyline (set in a real-life Toronto watering hole) unfurls gracefully and gradually, chronicling a night of boozy camaraderie, nostalgic yearning and romantic revelation that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had to confront love vs. loneliness at last call. Fashioned from the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist’s bittersweet melodies, lazily drawled vocals and powerful mellow brand of orch-tinged folk-pop, this modest masterwork might be the most Canadian concept album ever. Or at least until Shauf writes one about going to the lake on the long weekend, hanging out in Timmy’s parking lot after hockey practice, or apologizing.
Restless. Fearless. Boundless. They’re all fitting adjectives for singer-songwriter Sean Bowie, the musical visionary behind Yves Tumor. Which is not to suggest for a second that his fourth album Heaven To A Tortured Mind embraces the doctrine that less is more. On the contrary. Bowie/Tumor doesn’t skimp on anything over the course of these 12 tracks. Not on style. Not on substance. Not on sonic artistry. And certainly not on sexuality. Heaven To A Tortured Mind comes off like one long 36-minute come-on as Tumor tries to get inside your pants, brain and soul with a seductive cocktail of post-modern art-rock, get-down freak-funk, mind-bending psychedelia and winsome soul-pop. If I had to liken this to anyone or anything, it would be Prince at his sexiest fronting TV On The Radio at their artsiest. But that doesn’t really cover it. Because Yves Tumor is ultimately unlike anyone else. Which reminds me of one final fitting adjective for him: Peerless.
So much for This Sweet Old World. Less than three years after lovingly revisiting her darkly beautiful 1992 masterpiece, Lucinda Williams’ nostalgic mood has definitely soured on her 14th studio album. Despite its uplifting title, Good Souls Better Angels is an angry record that’s firmly grounded in the here and now of life below heaven. The 67-year-old singer-songwriter comes out swinging and pulls no punches as she lashes out at her country’s liar-in-chief, his cadre of lunatics and hypocrites, abusive men she’s known and pretty much anyone else fool enough to get in her way or on her bad side. Not surprisingly, the hour-long set is also her most musically aggressive in years, with her ragged, rugged drawl underpinned by raw-boned, bare-knuckle blues laced with everything from noisy psychedelia and gritty garage-rock to ominous cellos. Recorded in just two weeks, it might be the leanest, meanest and most powerfully pointed album she’s made. Along with one of the most solid and satisfying. Ignore it — and her — at your own risk.