Alex's Top 100 Albums of 2020

For more than a decade, I've made it a tradition to compile my favorite albums of each year come January, using the months prior to revisit and reevaluate hundreds of albums. Though the pandemic cut live music out of the picture, there were still so many incredible new recordings to help music fans get through it. So, yet again, here are my favorite albums from 2020. -Alex Wood

1. Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters

When it comes to songwriting, musicianship, production, and overall creativity, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is simply unsurpassable. If what you’re looking for is familiar sounds and soaring guitar solos, this obviously wasn’t made for you. But Apples’ fifth album revels in the idea of density. From the stacks of percussion instruments creating a backdrop to the constantly shifting vocal melodies to the most important aspect - the density of the lyrics.

Sure it’s another bitter breakup album from Fiona Apple. What did you expect? But with underlying themes of empowering and not blaming women, of the inherently unacceptable excuses made for lying and cheating, and the raw emotions and realizations that follow after, it’s simultaneously gorgeous and ugly.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the sound of creative freedom at its best, an inimitable musical design where listeners can pour over the lyrics for years to come. And, if we’re lucky, a message we can learn from. 

2. Andy Shauf - The Neon Skyline

The sheer creativity of The Neon Skyline, the fifth full-length album from Canadian songwriter Andy Shauf, makes the record an essential listen from this past year. The concept album requires the sort of uninterrupted, focused listening that too rarely exists in the digital age, and listeners would be wise to follow along with the lyrics throughout.

Lyrically, the album reads like a short novel, the songs containing dialogue, characters and detailed settings throughout. Taking place over the course of a single night at two of the narrator’s favorite bars, the songs follow an exchange with a friend and fellow bar-regular, where he learns that his ex-girlfriend is back in town. While that may sound simple, the plot unravels, becoming anything but, as the narrator analyzes the failed relationship, his present state and the emotional patterns and tendencies that led to both. 

Musically, Shauf seals the deal, creating melancholy, often whimsical indie-folk, performing all instruments himself. While guitar, piano, bass and drums may hold the arrangements together, the inclusion of oboe and other woodwinds helps set each scene as the narrator navigates the storyline. Shauf’s soft vocal delivery remains a dominant focus, his expert storytelling abilities pulling the listener in throughout. 

An all-around brilliant production, The Neon Skyline is the sort of fully-realized work of art that doesn’t come around often.

3. Chris Stapleton - Starting Over

If any one word exemplifies Starting Over, it would be ‘timeless.’ Soulful outlaw-country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s newest album matches the incredible impact and power of his 2015 solo debut, Traveller, which is no small feat. Starting Over has everything a fan could want from Stapleton - massive, blues-informed guitar riffs with gritty-yet-melodic vocals, beautiful acoustic ballads, lyrical themes that range from drinking anthems to Nashville living to his love for his wife (who is featured on vocals throughout the album) to a heartfelt ode to the passing of his dog- and it all sound so easy. Without even seeming to try, Stapleton created one of the most catchy, honest and lovable albums of the year.

Though Stapleton keeps one foot grounded in Nashville country tradition, it’s where the other foot lands that makes Starting Over so compelling. His vocal prowess is undeniable, using sharp dynamics that can seamlessly move from a croon to a shout, all without sacrificing melody. Musical arrangements can lean toward classic soul, to the extent that the strings on “Cold” could have been found on a Sam Cooke record. There’s no clever shtick here, no wild concepts, no re-invention - and that’s what makes Starting Over such a success. Stapleton represents everything one could ever ask for from a country artist, and Starting Over is a straightforward shot of overwhelmingly enjoyable songwriting that no other modern artist could deliver. 

4. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II

As the story goes, My Morning Jacket didn’t intended to release The Waterfall II now, but frontman Jim James heard some of the unreleased recordings from 2015’s sprawling sessions for The Waterfall and decided to use the free time opened up from the pandemic to complete the second release.

With The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket really came into a sound of their own, that not only combined their influences but sort of streamlined the eclecticism of their past work, without imitating any specific sounds that had been done before, by them or others. The album prioritizes textures, coming from both the production and instrumentation. Between Bo’s use of pianos, keyboards and synthesizers, Carl switching from guitar to slide to saxophone and Jim’s vocal range and abilities, the meticulous layers of sound are simply captivating. Having an ear for arranging songs is a talent in its own right, and one the five-piece has honed over the years.

The band wants you to hear The Waterfall II as a continuation, and completion, of the first record. And for me, this draws easy comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album, their notoriously sporadic double-album that features all these different techniques, genres, styles and textures but still always sounds like the Beatles. Both Waterfall albums are distinctly My Morning Jacket, but not the MMJ of the past, a modern one. They’re still growing, learning and working together, in the now.

5. Future Islands - As Long As You Are

Since nailing down their sound on 2014’s Singles, Future Islands has only gotten better, as evidenced by the group’s most recent release, “As Long As You Are.” Generally considered ‘post-wave,’ a genre that combines the romanticism of New Wave with the urgency and energy of Post-Punk, the band’s dramatic, synthesizer-driven sound is matched by the distinct and emotional vocal performances of singer Sam Herring. 

While the band hasn’t changed their sound considerably over the last five years, “As Long As You are” features a certain maturity and confidence that makes it stand out. The 11 songs flow seamlessly, with the record slowly working toward a climax. Though no singles stand out the way “Seasons (Waiting On You)” did, this gives the album the sense of being one large song, a gripping 45-minute ride through a cohesive piece of art. Its expansive, textured instrumentals match Herring’s big-picture search for meaning.

Though clearly influenced by the art-rock of the late 70s and early 80s, Future Islands remain firmly planted in the modern music scene, an evolution and extension fo the synth bands of the past. 

6. Run The Jewels - RTJ4

Regardless of your musical tastes, it’s impossible to ignore Run The Jewels. The hip-hop duo, consisting of El-P and Killer Mike, continue to do what they do best on RTJ4, a much needed blast of poignant political commentary released early and for free in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder. 

The blueprint essentially remains the same: insanely heavy beats match the intensity of insanely intelligent lyrics. Paralleling 2020’s movements against police brutality and racism as well as concern over capitalism’s uneven wealth distribution, RTJ4 calls for revolution in a way that was seemingly on the tip of much of the nation’s tongues. Though a slew of high-profile guests appear throughout - Zack de la Rocha, 2 Chainz, Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, Josh Homme, David Sitek, to name a few - nothing ever beats the verses from El-P and Killer Mike. It’s quite simply some of the best writing in the history of hip-hop, the kind of songs you have to pour over, re-listen to and even research. 

7. Rose City Band - Summerlong

Fans of modern psychedelic rock already know Ripley Johnson. Guitarist of heady, effects-laden Wooden Shjips and half of psych-meets-krautrock experimentalists Moon Duo, the prolific songwriter is nothing short of legend. Yet there’s his seemingly overlooked project Rose City Band, which released an incredible sophomore album, Summerlong, in June.

The record features Johnson on all instruments besides drums, and features a psychedelic-meets-Americana twang that fans of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead won’t want to miss. By stripping back the more experimental and noisy layers of his other bands, Johnson’s spectacular songwriting comes to the forefront. Keeping a relaxed, sunny vibe throughout, the songs can move from a glacial pace to a multi-guitar freakout seamlessly, each track anchored by Johnson’s loose and meandering but always proficient solos.

Though fans of his bands already knew of Johnson’s capabilities on guitar, rarely has his songwriting prowess shined like Summerlong. The album slow-burns up until explosive closing tracks “Wee Hours>Wildflowers,” making this the kind of album you’ll simply want to play over again.

8. Fleet Foxes - Shore

Folk-rock revivalists Fleet Foxes have never stayed in one place. Moving from the simplicity of their self-titled debut to the denser Helplessness Blues to the sporadic, proggy Crack-Up, songwriter, singer and producer Robin Pecknold has explored a lot of what the genre can possibly contain.

Which leads to Shore

Feeling a bit like a culmination of each previous album while simultaneously representing a clear step forward, the record sheds the more experimental nature of Crack-Up without simply returning to the band’s roots. There’s a compelling warmth that comforts listeners through each song, coming from production, music and lyricism. Appropriately released at the exact moment of the October equinox, its autumnal feel provides a certain charm and elegance the band hasn’t shown in the past. It’s a newfound maturity that shines through both the songwriting and refined arrangements. 

An incredibly cohesive set of songs, Shore could stand as a pillar for what folk-rock can and has become, flawlessly easy-going but packed with detail that stands out more with each listen. Yet again, Fleet Foxes continue to grow in all the right directions. 

9. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

California songwriter Phoebe Bridgers seemingly appeared out of nowhere to suddenly be everywhere at once. After an acclaimed debut album in 2017, she recorded the incredible boygenius EP, a collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, followed by Better Oblivion Community Center, an album and band formed with Conor Oberst. Whether it was surrounding herself with such incredible songwriters for a year or simply a natural and necessary evolution of her own writing skills, next came Punisher, Bridgers’ best project yet.

Lyrically, Bridgers sticks to themes of isolation and sadness, yet rooted in realistic, day-to-day storytelling which makes them extremely effective. Imagery of death, space, apocalyptic scenes and destruction anchor the songs’ melancholy. Instrumentally, the songs are deceptively complex, sounding far simpler than they actually are. Innovative production adds layers of density to even the softest songs, the spacious arrangements matching her delicate vocals, a variety of instruments coming and going with impressive ease through each track, yet never taking the spotlight off her vocals. An album that truly sucks you in and only gets better with additional listens, Punisher officially solidifies Bridgers’ spot as one of the best songwriters around. 

10. Sault - Untitled (Black Is

Though plenty of politically-charged music was created during the tumultuous year, nobody mastered the protest album like Sault. The elusive British collective, whose members choose not to reveal their identities and won’t speak with press, released two incredible records this year, “Untitled (Black Is)” and “Untitled (Rise),” following the release of two albums in 2019. 

“Untitled (Black Is)” was released, appropriately, on Juneteenth, less than a month after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests. Combining funk, R&B, soul, Afrobeat and more into an eclectic-yet-cohesive whole, both the styles and songwriting celebrate black culture, life and tradition. Hard-hitting lyrical themes in both the songs and interludes balance fear and hope, with a clear call to action addressing racism, both individually and institutionally. If the political and social stress of 2020 was properly represented by any single album, “Untitled (Black Is)” is certainly the one. 


11. Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman

12. Woods - Strange To Explain

13. The Flaming Lips - American Head

14. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions

15. Bright Eyes - Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was

16. Sault - Untitled (Rise)

17. Takuya Kuroda - Fly Moon Die Soon

18. Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn’t Make It

19. Chubby And The Gang - Speed Kills

20. Thundercat - It Is What It Is

21. Bananagun - The True Story Of Bananagun

22. Jaga Jazzist - Pyramid

23. Fontaines D.C. - A Hero’s Death

24. Sturgill Simpson - Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 & 2

25. Jyoti - Mama, You Can Bet!

26. Margo Price - That’s How Rumors Get Started

27. Rookie - Rookie

28. Futurebirds - Teamwork

29. Destroyer - Have We Met

30. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

31. Man Man - Dream Hunting In The Valley Of The In-Between

32. The Avalanches - We Will Always Love You

33. Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

34. Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension

35. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - K.G.

36. Butcher Brown - #KingButch

37. This Is The Kit - Off Off On

38. Ben Seretan - Youth Pastoral

39. Soakie - Soakie

40. Samantha Crain - A Small Death

41. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud

42. Car Seat Headrest - Making A Door Less Open

43. Garcia Peoples - Nightcap At Wit’s End

44. Bill Callahan - Gold Record

45. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas

46. Taylor Swift - evermore

47. Nation Of Language - Introduction, Presence

48. Pacific Range - High Upon The Mountain

49. Turtle Skull - Monoliths

50. GoGo Penguin - GoGo Penguin

51. Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter

52. Fuzz - III

53. Holy Wave - Interloper

54. Nubya Garcia - SOURCE

55. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Sideways To New Italy

56. Pearl Jam - Gigaton

57. Khruangbin - Mordechai

58. Haim - Women In Music Pt. III

59. illuminati hotties - FREE I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For

60. J.S. Ondara - Folk ’n Roll Vol. 1: Tales Of Isolation

61. Makaya McCraven - We’re New Again: A Reimagining

62. Spillage Village- Spilligion

63. Pokey LaFarge - Rock Bottom Rhapsody

64. Moses Boyd - Dark Matter

65. Skyway Man - The World Only Ends When You Die

66. U.S. Girls - Heavy Light

67. Cut Worms - Nobody Lives Here Anymore

68. The Magnetic Fields - Quickies

69. Trace Mountains - Lost In The Country

70. Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E&F Sides

71. White Denim - World As A Waiting Room

72. Matt Berninger - Serpentine Prison

73. Waylon Payne - Blues Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

74. Ohmme - Fantasize Your Ghost

75. Nathaniel Rateliff - And It’s Still Alright

76. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush

77. Country Westerns - Country Westerns

78. Porridge Radio - Every Bad

79. The Avett Brothers - The Third Gleam

80. Jonathan Wilson - Dixie Blur

81. Cory Henry - Something To Say

82. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo

83. Ganser - Just Look At The Sky

84. Paul McCartney - McCartney III

85. Steve Earle & The Dukes - Ghosts Of West Virginia

86. Kevin Morby - Sundowner

87. Drive-By Truckers - The New OK

88. The Nude Party - Midnight Manor

89. Jeff Tweedy - Love Is The King

90. Pinegrove - Marigold

91. Adrianne Lenker - songs

92. Badge Époque Ensemble - Self Help

93. Hum - Inlet

94. Backxwash - God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It

95. William Elliott Whitmore - I’m With You

96. Oh Sees - Protean Threat

97. Soccer Mommy - color theory

98. The Killers - Imploding The Mirage

99. Songhoy Blues - Optimisme

100. Kelly Lee Owens- Inner Song


Honorable Mentions:

101. Hamilton Leithauser - The Loves Of Your Life

102. Wolf Parade - Thin Mind

103. Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways

104. Bredan Benson - Dear Life

105. M. Ward - Migration Stories

106. Sen Morimoto - Sen Morimoto

107. Steve Arrington - Down To The Lowest Terms: The Soul Sessions

108. Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders

109. Bob Mould - Blue Hearts

110. Empty Country - Empty Country

111. Causa Sui - Szabodelico

112. Shopping - All Or Nothing

113. Lydia Loveless - Daughter

114. IDLES - Ultra Mono

115. Taylor Swift - folklore

116. Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You

117. Dominic Fike - What Could Possibly Go Wrong

118. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

119. Sorry - 925

120. Of Montreal - UR FUN

121. H.C. McEntire - Eno Axis

122. The Mountain Goats - Songs For Pierre Chuvin

123. Post Animal - Forward Motion Godyssey

124. M. Ward - Think Of Spring

125. Black Thought - Streams Of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane And Abel

126. Dirty Projectors - 5EPs

127. Moses Sumney - græ

128. Elvis Costello - Hey Clockface

129. The Jayhawks - XOXO

130. Shamir - Shamir

131. Kacy & Clayton - Plastic Bouquet

132. North Americans - Roped In

133. Grouplove - Healer

134. Nicole Atkins - Italian Ice

135. Aesop Rock - Spirit World Field Guide

136. Tops - I Feel Alive

137. The Lone Bellow - Half Moon Light

138. Adulkt Life - Book Of Curses

139. Ambrose Akinmusire - On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment

140. The Steeldrivers - Bad For You

141. The Psychedelic Furs - Made Of Rain

142. Cults - Host

143. Half Waif - The Caretaker

144. Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow The Rules 

145. 2nd Grade - Hit To Hit

146. Local H - Lifers

147. Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today

148. Caribou - Suddenly

149. Norah Jones - Pick Me Up Off The Floor

150. Earl Sweatshirt - FEET OF CLAY


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