These 15 albums, like the songs on my previous list, helped me and countless listeners get through this arduous year, and each and every one of them is an essential part of 2020's music scene.
Originally published on 12/31/20.
15. Blake Mills – Mutable Set
Easily one of the gentlest, most subdued albums I’ve heard this year, Blake Mills’ Mutable Set is an atmospheric marvel. This is a truly gorgeous record that all but demands to be listened to in the quietest setting with the highest-quality headphones. Collaborating with fellow musician Cass McCombs, Mills delivers a sonically dense yet easy-on-the-ears record with clever lyrics, creative arrangements, and a prevalent air of smile-inducing pleasantness (even though the songs themselves aren’t particularly happy). Tracks like “Money Is the One True God” and “Vanishing Twin” use every second of their extended runtimes to maximum effect, while much shorter ones such as “Eat My Dust” and “Farsickness” still manage to feel essential to the album. Nearly every track on Mutable Set is excellent, and it’s a wonderful album to get lost in.
14. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
If a disco revival happens sometime in the near future, Jessie Ware will undoubtedly be the one helming it based off this album alone. What’s Your Pleasure? is an excellent, top-notch nostalgic trip to the genre’s heyday, with a significant helping of synthpop in the mix. The sheer sound of the album suggests a giant disco ball in the middle of wherever you’re listening to it, showering everything around you in tiny, gyrating dots of light. It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a dance party anytime soon. What’s Your Pleasure? is not only Jessie Ware’s best release by miles, it’s arguably 2020’s most purely smile-inducing album, a genuine pick-me-up from this truly abysmal year. (If the horn sections on “Step into My Life” don’t make you grin like an idiot, see a therapist at once.) Seldom is there a song that doesn’t shine through the darkness of the soul, which makes the heavy employment of one of music’s most divisive genres even more impressive. Take note, everybody: This is how you do a throwback.
13. Destroyer – Have We Met
Don’t let the cheesy-looking cover fool you: Dan Bejar’s latest album with his band Destroyer is an imaginative and memorable outing, one that turned out to be eerily prophetic. But even before the pandemic, Have We Met has consistently stuck out to me as being both wondrously pleasant and something of a warning; it’s like a yoga class being held right before the apocalypse. Throughout, Bejar sings characteristically bizarre lyrics in his signature wavering baritone over a cohesive combination of genres; the record seamlessly meshes gratifying indie rock with gorgeous vocal pop and expansive washes of ambience. Have We Met is an album to just sit back and lose yourself in for 42 minutes, almost as if Bejar and his crew specifically equipped us with that luxury before everything went to hell. For me, it’s one of those records that’s perfect for a lazy, cloudy day: pretty and yet not particularly happy.
12. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Ah, yes. The first album I reviewed here on Key Change. This was all the way back in February, when the world was comparatively some semblance of normal – and even then it was anything but. The release of the first Tame Impala record in nearly five years was a sign for some that 2020 might turn out to be a pretty good year. And musically (and basically no other way whatsoever), it was; it was a genuine thrill to kick off the year with such an album, and a lot of other great music would soon follow.
Though The Slow Rush has its problems here and there, it’s another sublime release from one of current music’s most ingenious minds. It never ceases to amaze me that Kevin Parker records and arranges such densely layered and ever-changing music all by himself; crisp drums, watery synths, impressive bass playing, flanged guitar, and anything else that strikes his fancy are all on The Slow Rush in spades. Parker’s passion for melody also continues to be a staple of his output, as some of his catchiest songs to date live comfortably here. It may not be the best or most everlasting Tame Impala album (that’s Currents, of course), but The Slow Rush is still a hugely enjoyable showcase of Kevin Parker’s musical genius and intense dedication to his craft.
11. Dogleg – Melee
If there was any album in 2020 that was the perfect outlet for people going mad in quarantine, Dogleg’s Melee would almost certainly be the one; this album was definitely the cause of at least a few smashed-up bedrooms. 35 endlessly replayable minutes of blistering, melodic emo-punk that could not have come at a more fitting time, Melee is the sound of an up-and-coming band firmly staking their claim on both genres. These songs were made for crowds to scream along to at the top of their lungs, which we can only hope will once again be a reality at some point. It’s difficult to overstate the heavy emotional impact of these songs, as vocalist Alex Stoitsiadis does more than enough to convey every bit of both the profound hurt and childlike glee that went into them. (It helps that the album boasts one of the year’s finest closing tracks, “Ender,” a masterpiece of catharsis.) If 2020 has turned out to be nothing but painful – and it has – Melee should be at least part of everyone’s soundtrack for the release of that pain. It’s the best straight-up rock album of the year.
10. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
If Dogleg’s Melee is the best album for those going completely insane while in quarantine, Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now is for the introspective cooldown. While undergoing a self-imposed lockdown, the British pop artist had a massive creative spark and recorded an entire album in roughly a month. Not only did Charli work with her musical collaborators over the Internet, but she also held Zoom conferences with fans to answer questions, take creative input, and gather crowdsourced material for music videos. The album was released back in May, when many of us still held out hope that the pandemic would blow over in a matter of weeks. Don’t you miss those days? Wasn’t that fun?
Anyway, even though the rather depressing context is totally inseparable from the album itself, how i’m feeling now is nevertheless a wonderful 37-minute trip of creative pop escapism. Over the synth-heavy, rubbery, stretchy-latex production that has become synonymous with her name at this point, Charli sings gorgeously-written songs largely not just about love and loss, but of quarantine-induced loneliness and a desire to go to parties once again. Through the music and the conditions it was all created under, how i’m feeling now manages to create a sense of community that I’m not sure any other album this year quite did. And God knows we all need to feel some semblance of human connection now more than ever.
9. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED
I don’t care if some people call this an EP, I’m putting it on this list anyway. UNLOCKED is one of the strongest releases of the year, and it doesn’t even reach the 18-minute mark. In that short amount of time, hip-hop powerhouses Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats prove to be an unstoppable duo (because of course they would be). For a brief but fiery stretch, Denzel unleashes the masterclass raps he’s become synonymous with while Kenny provides his signature brand of expertly crafted instrumentals. It’s even more amazing when you consider that the project was recorded in just 24 hours. It’s one of the most fruitful collaborations hip-hop saw in 2020, and thank God the two were able to work together in the same room just before coronavirus ruined everything. Hopefully we’ll get a second installment when all this blows over.
8. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas continues his streak as one of indie music’s best artists right now with Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. Filled with elaborate, poppy arrangements, expressive lyrics, and moving vocal performances, Hadreas has delivered another elegant album of chamber pop, indie rock, and whatever else he and collaborator Blake Mills can get their hands on. The result is his most stylistically diverse body of work yet. Once again, Hadreas’ influences are on full display – including Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, and the Beatles – and once again, he seamlessly works them into his own style like the auteur he is. Nearly every song here is a masterpiece, many of which easily rank among the best in Hadreas’ discography. All this and more make Set My Heart on Fire Immediately a deep pool of thrills that begs to be cannonballed into; it’s easily one of the year’s finest albums.
7. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
The sisterly trio returns with their third and best album, a positively wonderful collection of some of the year’s catchiest pop tunes. Filled to the brim with earworm melodies, outstanding production, and tons of personality, HAIM’s humorously-titled Women in Music Pt. III is pure pop excellence. The sisters seamlessly mix a litany of genres into their signature pop rock sound – including R&B, synthpop, acoustic rock, and funk – creating their most diverse body of work yet. Lyrically it’s stellar, too; even when Danielle Haim is belting down-to-earth couplets about her struggles with depression (“I’ve Been Down”), the melodies and instrumentation are about as poppy as you can get, and the two things somehow don’t clash with each other at all. Women in Music Pt. III is one of the most adventurous pop records of 2020; let’s see if the Haim sisters can top this one in a few years.
6. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Not too long after the pandemic officially started taking over the entire world, Rina Sawayama released the pop album – and debut album – of the year. Nearly three years after the Japanese-born British artist dazzled with her breakout EP RINA, she returned in 2020 with an even more fully-formed sound on SAWAYAMA, a truly magnificent full-length debut. The production, the lyricism, the hooks, the melodies; it all comes together to make a fantastic pop record. Every single refrain on this thing just hits, each one all but guaranteeing its refusal to leave your thoughts shortly after hearing it.
Working once again with criminally underrated experimental pop mastermind Clarence Clarity – who produces most of the songs on SAWAYAMA himself – Sawayama weaves a joyous and unexpected tapestry of genres. From the Evanescence-esque nu metal of “STFU!,” to the breakneck-speed J-pop of “Paradisin’,” to the driving power pop of “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” to the absolutely nasty future bass of “Akasaka Sad,” SAWAYAMA takes an exceptionally wide range of influences and manages to make all of them sound right at home together. A few of these genres are more or less extinct – and not too fondly reflected on – in 2020. But the most striking thing about what Sawayama does here is that she not only fully embraces the ham, cheese, and corn of all of it; she combines it all into a collection of genuinely great music. It never sounds like she’s trying to resurrect kitschy musical genres, but rather gleefully paying homage to the then-popular music she grew up with. An endlessly replayable body of work, SAWAYAMA succeeds with flying colors where better-known artists like Taylor Swift have largely failed.
5. clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
One of modern rap’s most revolutionary acts returned in 2020 with arguably their best project to date, providing another thrilling helping of strange horrorcore. Serving as the sister album to 2019’s excellent There Existed an Addiction to Blood, Visions of Bodies Being Burned yet again showcases clipping.’s penchant for descriptive lyricism, magnificent production, and strong collaborations. Nearly every single track here is a standout; the creeping gangsta rap of “’96 Neve Campbell,” the unnerving drug trip of “Enlacing,” the screeching power electronics of “Make Them Dead,” the rowdy noise of “Looking Like Meat,” the nocturnal atmospheres of “Pain Everyday,” and the downright bizarre and disorienting “Eaten Alive” spring to mind. William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes provide consistently electrifying (and sometimes genuinely disturbing) instrumentals, and Daveed Diggs’ storytelling is as sharp, vivid, and graphically violent as ever. It’s everything you could possibly want in an experimental rap record, and – for those with the stomach and twisted mindset for it – serves as a dark, thrilling getaway from the stress of 2020.
4. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Hoo, boy. Phoebe Bridgers really outdid herself with Punisher. It’s honestly hard to know where to start. Vocally, lyrically, instrumentally, this thing is beautiful. Bridgers’ songwriting has grown by leaps and bounds, and the results are nothing short of majestic. Poetic, well-written lyrics are delivered through Bridgers’ gorgeous voice, the lilting, minimal, richly textured instrumentation carrying it all like dandelion seeds in the wind. Punisher is far more than just silent angst, though; Bridgers makes sure to put in her fair share of catchy, wonderful indie pop to balance it all out. All the emotional baggage carried over this album’s 40 minutes is released on the finest song of 2020, “I Know the End,” a piece of music whose final moments are the very definition of catharsis. Working with numerous fellow indie musicians, the California-based singer-songwriter crafted one of the most emotionally overwhelming albums of the year, and it’s only her second solo effort. God only knows where exactly she’ll go from here, but wherever it is, I’m ready for it.
3. Moses Sumney – græ
It may say something about my attention span that this is the only hour-plus album that made it onto my list this year, but no matter; Moses Sumney’s græ is a triumph in nearly every respect. A beautifully addictive ride of an album, græ mixes various sounds and aspects of Sumney’s life together into a cohesive musical statement, one of the most powerful of the year. The more I listen to it, the more I love it. Even the tiny handful of songs that falter slightly are high-quality and magnificent.
Vocally, græ might be the best thing I’ve heard all year; Sumney is undoubtedly one of the finest singers working today, able to flit back and forth between deep, smooth bass and soaring falsetto while never missing a note. Instrumentally it’s no less of a marvel, dense and creative throughout the whole album. Lyrically it’s beautiful and poetic, tackling many different themes such as isolation, hyper-masculinity, masochism, and heartbreak. Even the interludes, the interludes are top-tier. Really, what more could you want from an R&B record? græ is Moses Sumney’s greatest achievement in his burgeoning career, and it firmly establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. I’m genuinely unsure what else to say about it other than this: You don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t listened to this one yet.
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I know. I know. I know I gave this a 10. I know this was supposed to be #1. But honestly, some other flaws have arisen in the last several months that bring this album down a few pegs. Maybe “Relay” and “Cosmonauts,” especially the former, suffer from their repetition and eventual devolution into aimless vocal passages. Perhaps the final leg of the album needed a bit more work and isn’t as satisfying as I originally thought. Mayfrigginhap the otherwise masterful “Heavy Balloon” ends too abruptly. Thus, I now rank this album on the low end of a solid 9½. (Please don’t kill me.)
But that doesn’t stop Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters from being a stunning overall achievement filled with some of her best material yet. That doesn’t make the album’s most amazing moments – which is, like, 93% of it – any less impactful. That doesn’t prevent the record from boasting countless passages that are just so good they still give me chills and a huge grin on my face. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is very much a creative triumph brought down by only minor blemishes. The household-object percussive arrangements, the wild vocal performances, the masterful lyrics; I firmly believe no other album in 2020 sounds as free and unbound as this one. Apple’s music has never been this ambitious before, nor has it been quite this powerful. I will probably never grow tired of listening to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, as it’s easily one of the year’s best releases. Like I said in my original review: Listen to this album.
1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
There are many reasons why I think RTJ4 is the best album of 2020. (If you want a more in-depth analysis, my review is right here.) For one, no album this year was as perfectly timed, point blank, period, full stop, fight me. Released just after the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd (and a couple of days early because of it), RTJ4 sees the dynamic duo of Killer Mike and El-P return once again for their fourth collection of masterful, unforgiving, necessary hip-hop. Just about every aspect of their music has been blown up to maximum quality, which is saying a lot; RTJ4 is emphatically Run the Jewels’ strongest album to date. The guest features, El-P’s production, and the bottomless well of chemistry between him and Killer Mike are all more striking than they’ve ever been.
I could go on about how amazing the beats are here, from the minimal hardcore hip-hop of “JU$T,” to the explosive, bassy percussion of “yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” to the disorienting, crank-the-volume-up rhythms of “holy calamaf**k.” But more than anything, RTJ4 was precisely what we all needed when we all needed it: furious denouncement of all forms of nationwide corruption. Out of all the albums that effectively served as soundtracks to 2020, RTJ4 is undoubtedly the very best and most essential; it pretty much singlehandedly defined 2020. May Mike and El continue to thrive as a duo, and may 2021 be at least marginally less miserable.