The Best Albums of 2020
Well, that’s another year down. Same as the rest, eh? Hope 2021 is a little more exciting *yawn*.
This year was profoundly weird for so many reasons. We don’t need to get into them with another blustering analysis, it was just weird, man. In most years, there’s a toss-up on whether those 12 months saw better recorded albums or tours. This year the away team forfeited. 2020 was the year of the album. So, what did we get?? Almost every artist was foisted upon with the same statement in one form or another: “this must give you so much time to write!”. Well, yes and no. Absolutely, being off the road and stuck at home theoretically gives an artist more of that precious self-reflection time to conjure up their latest masterpiece. Yet for many, the road is where they source their greatest treasure. Spontaneous jams with the band on stage, wild stories of shit-show nights in backwater towns. The epiphanic nature of constantly facing something new. This shutdown was like being stranded at a gas station in the middle of the desert. The mind and creative forces can kind of fizzle. Not to mention the spectre of impending calamity filling our days with endless doom-scrolling doesn’t help those creative juices either. There is also a delay from initial creation to release. Not all records come together in a couple of months, some take years to get right. We may be seeing the babies of the quarantine popping out for years to come.
Despite all that, 2020 has some absolutely killer records. Some timely, some timeless. In this year more than most, the records with prescient and biting social commentary seemed to rise to the top as we all clamoured for meaning amidst the upending of our previously auto-piloted lives. While brilliantly inspired albums and chart success rarely coincided, those with their ear to the ground rather than the Billboard were rewarded with pieces of boundless inspiration.
1. RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4
With much of hip hop lost in pop-crossover Tik-Tok oblivion, siphoned of the encyclopedic linguistic prowess and ferocious social criticism that fueled its meteoric rise, it took a monumental album to shake its foundations and restore its glory. El-P and Killer Mike have been coming in hotter and harder with every new record since their 2013 debut Run The Jewels. The duo have a way of seamlessly blending bangin’ beats with devastating takedowns, using a surgeon’s precision to wire the bomb before settin’ that bitch off and walking away like action heroes with the fireball exploding behind them.
The beats on RTJ4 bump but they also slay. Without feeling like a contrived rock/rap crossover, El-P’s beats hit hard like a rock record. He cites metal alongside old-school hip hop as his creative inspiration. Vocally he brings his steady rollin’ Brooklyn swag with Mike dive-bombing in to set y’all straight with his commanding presence and classic Atlanta triplet cadence.
The March 25th single ‘ooh la la (Feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)’ gave us a light, good vibes joint with an addictive hook and only a sliver of tongue-in-cheek proletarian proselytizing. At the very least, this album was gonna be a sweet soundtrack for the party. This is before we really knew the insidious depths of the pandemic. Exactly two months before the death of George Floyd.
After the death of George Floyd, with the country already pent up from the pandemic lockdown, the States exploded with fury over the brazen murder of a black man face down on the pavement in the streets of Minneapolis. Racial tensions were at a fever pitch and the Black Lives Matter movement mounted daily nation-wide protests. At this point Run The Jewels fourth record was already in the can, teeming with incisive commentary on racial injustice. Fortunately, the album was the perfect statement to be released at that moment. Unfortunately, its poignancy comes from the fact that these police murders of unarmed black people were happening all the time and their comments recorded about Eric Garner felt all-too-familiar when it came to George Floyd.
As Killer Mike was speaking out on national TV to Atlantans to not burn their city down and instead protest peacefully and organize, the group moved up the release date by two days knowing the kind of timely material they were sitting on. They released it on June 3rd along with this statement: “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime + Mike”.
The album bounces in with the big boom of Brooklyn old school bombast. Morphing, woozy synths elevate it to undiscovered territory. The two MCs trade verses stringing together lengthy rhymes with a hard-earned mastery. Machine gun stutter kick drums pepper the battlefield and stops the show. By the midpoint, they’ve hypnotized with their lyrical prowess and got the adrenaline coursing. Get ready for the truth-bomb.
Meandering fuzzed-out guitars and looping brass fanfare trumpet the arrival of the monumental ‘walking in the snow’. The track is bursting with so many scorching indictments that you’ll be left jaw-dropped, replaying it again and again to relive all the perfectly summed up lines on life in our current times.
“Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too (oops)
Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent, kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit
If even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with” – EL-P
“The way I see it, you’re probably freest from the ages one to four
Around the age of five, you’re shipped away for your body to be stored
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free
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
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be, I promise I’m honest
They coming for you the day after they comin’ for me
I’m readin’ Chomsky, I read Bukowski, I’m layin’ low for a week
I said somethin’ on behalf of my people and I popped up in Wikileaks
Thank God that I’m covered, the devil come smothered
And you know the evil don’t sleep
Dick Gregory told me a couple of secrets before he laid down in his grave
All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves
Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state” – Killer Mike
The album boasts heavy-hitter guest spots but they never feel gratuitous. The common sense sendup of capitalism ‘JU$T’ features Pharell Williams laying down a silky smooth chorus hook while frequent RTJ guest Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha blasts in with a fiery final verse. Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme’s contribution to the penultimate ‘pull the pin’ is very understated, lending the perfect ‘desert backroad at night’ guitar to underscore the legendary Mavis Staples’ devastatingly soulful chorus.
RTJ4 was the record to meet the moment of 2020. Furious, tactile, incendiary. The two have become de facto voices of their generation, compelled to take action and speak out against these societal inequities that seem to persist year after year after year. Plus, the album SLAPS and after a hundred listens, it still invigorates and inspires like the first.
2. DEFTONES – OHMS
The trajectory of the Deftones’ career has guided them relatively unscathed through some razor-tight margins. Their genesis in the nineties had them running parallel to many groups that did not age well, crashing and burning as the new millennium began. They fell somewhat justifiably under the umbrella of “nu-metal” but they managed to avoid the pitfalls that took down the others. They were the genetic mutation that survived. They never really tried to become a rap-rock hybrid, the beats had hip hop influence but Chino was never up there pulling a Fred Durst. They fell nicely into that kinda grunge, kinda metal, kinda industrial vibe.
In the years since then, the guys have released albums every four or five years that are consistently widely praised. The band’s sound has evolved to incorporate more ethereal psychedelia and the sludgy riffing of doom and stoner metal but more than anything else, they sound more “like Deftones” than ever. The band has their lane and they own it.
Wavering reedy synth and a hanging guitar line create the establishing shot to open the album. As we zoom in, the band dive-bomb into frame with their well-honed syncopated signature sound. Chino has perfected the art of creating a severely infectious hook without having to put it in the standard cadence of a chorus. It’s often just a recurring word or two bellowed to the stormy skies above that lodges in your brain. ‘Ceremony’, ‘Urantia’, ‘The Spell of Mathematics’, ‘Pompeij’, they all nestle Chino’s airy croon amid a dense thicket of riffs that have some Meshuggah-style throwdowns tossed in for good measure.
The album runs seamlessly start to finish, creating a hypnotic bubble that envelopes you. Before you know it you’ve hit the tremendous title track which closes out the album. Lush feedback and cascading guitar triplets preface this track which sinks down into a good ol’ Sabbath style headbanger. Chino’s lyrics on the futility of regret and the inexorable march of time ink themselves in your brain thanks to his entrancing delivery.
When the concept of a live concert is once again possible, a front to back performance of this hypnotic album would be absolutely incredible.
3. JEHNNY BETH – TO LOVE IS TO LIVE
If she had merely gone out and done a solo record the way many singers do, it would have been engrossing and might have still made the top ten list. The French singer is a singular talent with an “it girl” magnetism combined with the ferocity of a hungry lioness. With Beth’s post-punk juggernaut, the English band Savages, she has released hurricanes of pent-up sonic energy with a positive message of persistence sitting calmly in the eye of the storm. The rowdy bandleader is known for spending large chunks of any show hoisted on the hands of the audience as she belts to the masses. Beyond her duties with her band, she also writes erotic fiction, an endeavor in which she has become prolific during the pandemic. Yet, she is not uncouth. This scrappy boxer is able to approach it all with a certain grace. Must be the French thing.
On To Love is to Live, Beth is able to combine all her interests and perspectives into an eclectic yet flowing piece of atmospheric post-industrial goodness. In a dream scenario, who do you reach out to in order to make this kind of album happen? The producer of some of the biggest dark alternative records of the 90s? The singer of a brazen post-punk phenomenon with a ton of buzz? A member of THE legendary industrial rock outfit? That dude from Peaky Blinders? How about all of them?
The illustrious Flood (NIN, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins) has his hand in the production of most of the record and you can see the wealth of his knowledge from decades of sculpting the most captivating records of an era. It’s richly textured, chaotic, blustery. Brutal at times and beautifully serene in others. The frontman of brash Bristol bangers IDLES, Joe Talbot joins for the bubbling digital cauldron of ‘How Could You’. Cillian Murphy lends his thick Cork accent to the spoken word ‘A Place Above’ that precedes the powerhouse ‘I’m The Man’, Beth’s gender-bending assertion of dominance. Atticus Ross, currently serving as Trent Reznor’s primary collaborator inside and outside Nine Inch Nails, helps to create the melting pitch-shifted horrorshow intro ‘I Am’ and the climactic finale ‘Human’. Beth is also writing alongside longtime partner Johnny Hostile with whom she’s been working with since their project John & Jehn was hatched in 2006. The xx’s Romy Croft collaborated on a few tracks. Danish electronic producer Trentemøller even got in on the action, helping with the snappy and slinky ‘Heroine’.
The album tracks the dark gothic passion of tumultuous relationships. Fiery and lurid, playing loosely with concepts of dominance and submission, masculinity and femininity. Yet a grace remains through it all. The pristine longing of the penultimate piano piece ‘French Countryside’ is intense but settles the passions into one calming meditation. Beth manages to tread many lines with a deft mastery that few this side of Bowie have been able to.
4. HUMAN IMPACT – HUMAN IMPACT
How fitting that the auspiciously named supergroup Human Impact would release its debut album on March 13th, 2020, the date where many strict lockdown policies began to come into effect in North America. The chicken or the egg debate on whether our species stoked the ire of our planet to unleash a virus on us is worth pondering. Needless to say, the band’s noxious concoction of noise rock and industrial metal scores a dour dystopian outlook that does not seem so far fetched in this foul year of our lord.
The Ipecac Records band boasts a lineup of members of Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, and reigning noise masters, Swans. The record is ferocious, groovy, and raw. Singer Chris Spencer can sound like a mixture of the low register growls of Maynard Keenan and Chris Cornell or unleash the fuzzed-out snarl of Skinny Puppy’s Ohgr. This is all backed by a band with the coarse strong-arm strength of Faith No More at their heaviest. Beyond the mechanical futuristic overtones, the group is a grimy New York collective at heart. Soundtracking the belly of the beast before it was whitewashed.
5. FIONA APPLE – FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS
This year Fiona came back to us after an eight year hiatus to bless us with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a wildly innovative, obstinately empowering, emotionally hyperaware masterpiece of yelps, jeers, howls, scowls alongside beautifully endearing moments of warmth and compassion. The album became an anthem for breaking free of oppressions, whether imposed by the world or self-made. Her fiesty determination is on display all over the record. “I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long that I’m bustin’ at the seams”.
This timely theme made it a universally lauded hit. The notoriously stingy Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10/10. An almost unheard of honour. Released on April 17th, right at our most uncertain hour when we were cowering in our homes and still largely unsure of what this virus meant, we needed a sure thing. A triumph.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a fantastic album. An innovative and inspired composition not only from Apple but fellow collaborators Sebastian Steinberg, Amy Aileen Wood, and David Garza. The crew shirked the stodgy nature of a typical studio, instead recording largely at Apple’s Venice Beach home studio (“the womb of where I’ve developed into an adult”). This no doubt incubated the group’s more eccentric impulses using kitchen utensils as percussion and letting the dogs bark along in the background.
Why then is the album not at the top of this list? Though it stands as an incredible accomplishment, the replay value isn’t quite as high as something like RTJ4. ‘Shameika’, ‘Relay’, ‘Heavy Balloon’, the hypnotic title track and the persistent closer ‘On I Go’ all burrow in the brain as classics. This is not to suggest that the rest of the album is filler, it couldn’t and shouldn’t be anything else. The perfect toy and your favourite toy are two different things.
6. PUSCIFER – EXISTENTIAL RECKONING
“Concrete conclusions be damned
They won’t believe you until it’s far too late
Go on, moron, ignore the evidence
Skid into Armageddon
Maynard’s snide barbs aimed squarely at Trump and his cult as they bungle an existential crisis was delivered alongside video of a biohazard-suited skateboarder riding through a deserted Los Angeles. The video for the lead single ‘Apocalyptical’ dropped May 8th with this lonely joyride interspersed with Keenan and duet partner Carina round dressed in ‘Addicted to Love’-inspired monochromatic suits, dancing what can only be described as “The Hand Hatchet Dance”.
80s sensibilities were a huge influence on the group for this record reclaiming the choppy beats and steel spring guitar effects for a new decade. Carina Round’s vocals often drew on the idiosyncratic melody choices of Yoko Ono and the B52s. Keenan again channeled perennial favorites Devo. The album flirts on and off again with its political fury, coming to a head with the vitriolic ‘Fake Affront’ which will satiate Tool fans thirsty for more of that classic Maynard spite. To conclude on a hopeful note, the closer ‘Bedlamite’ repeats the mantra “It’s gonna be alright/Everything will be alright”. The music video taken from their livestream performance at the Arcosanti Amphitheatre in the Arizona desert wraps with a glorious sunrise over the hills that for a moment makes you believe in his assured affirmation.
7. GREG PUCIATO – CHILD SOLDIER: CREATOR OF GOD
We at I.M.P. have been following Greg Puciato’s releases very closely this year. With Dillinger Escape Plan he pulverized the listener with his chainsaw delivery over the band’s vicious vortex of sound. Within that manic maelstrom, he was also able to expertly juxtapose delicate falsetto sections with devastating effect. When Dillinger disbanded at the end of 2017, Puciato continued on with his electronic project The Black Queen as well as groove metal supergroup Killer Be Killed. His career has been an archetype for pushing boundaries and taking chances creatively. The definition of “Music With Depth”.
His debut solo record culled from each of his other projects to create a motley collection of bangers and brawlers mixed in with a kind of post-industrial r&b. ‘Creator of God’ takes obvious influence from idol and mentor Trent Reznor’s bombastic distressed drums and fuzz vocals intercut with serene vocal interludes. The lead single ‘Fire For Water’ unleashes Puciato’s heinous growl over the flash bang syncopation of Dillinger while the second single ‘Deep Set’ bulldozes with a steady-rollin’ four on the floor and occasional Antichrist-era Manson screeches. ‘Temporary Object’ and ‘Fireflies’ are extensions of The Black Queen while ‘Roach Hiss’ returns to the battering fury on which he’s built a name. A powerful offering from this creative force of nature.
8. PEARL JAM – GIGATON
The last grunge band standing without losing a singer will always have a substantial and loyal following. Devotees to their three-hour-plus concert tours will argue that their output has stayed strong through the years but realistically, the forgettable has outweighed the memorable. Gigaton feels like a band revitalized, once again filled with purpose. On the heavier side, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ plows down the night highway with conviction and ‘Quick Escape’ churns on a nimbly reiterating bassline and a vocal belting style that would make fallen friend Chris Cornell proud. For lighter fare, the campfire acoustic number ‘Comes and Goes’ clears away the clutter to find clarity and the closer ‘River Cross’ is sung over an ominous organ as Vedder highlights the dire situation the planet is in and makes a last-ditch effort at encouraging us to let hope guide us as a people.
The lead single ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ is the album’s most striking piece. Tightly gated drums give Matt Cameron’s beat a machine-like quality that propels the song steadily up the mountain. Up-sliding bass and quivering synths feel like they belong on an Arcade Fire album. Eddie harnesses the best of everything he does shifting from earnest croon to fed-up yowl. Synths continue to shimmer in the chorus over even more brilliantly-crafted lyrics. ‘Dance..’ is what can happen when a veteran band is willing to step beyond their arena-filling mould to discover new ground.
9. WILDFLOWERS & ALL THE REST
This year Petty fans were gifted with not only a vinyl rerelease of his classic solo album which had been out of print since the mid-90s but a treasure trove of unreleased material including home demos, studio outtakes, live cuts, and most notably the shelved second disc to 1994’s Wildflowers album. For years prior to his death, Petty was planning an official release of the long-buried, Rick Rubin-produced material but he passed away before he could see it released to the public. For the purposes of this list, we’re going to ignore the original album and just count the All the Rest companion disc.
There are many, especially through the prism of time, who see this period as his best songwriting. Petty would agree, naming this album as his best work. For those who love Wildflowers, any new output from that time period is a welcome bounty and the tracks from this second album are “very Wildflowers”. They capture Petty’s introspective bent at a time when his marriage was dissolving and he was really taking stock of his own life. ‘Something Could Happen’ and ‘Hung Up and Overdue’ insist upon a stubborn optimism in troubling times. ‘Leave Virginia Alone’ (originally performed by Rod Stewart but penned by Petty) and ‘Harry Green’ are poetic character vignettes in the style of Paul McCartney’s storytelling tunes. Perhaps the highlight is the incredibly sincere ‘Confusion Wheel’ a sauntering, tumbling cavalcade of queries trying to trace where he went wrong. Surely, the only reason it didn’t make the cut is that there were already tremendous tracks covering similar ground on the original album and the producer and record company insisted on streamlining. 2020 was great timing for this collection with the world all simultaneously forced to stop and take stock.
Read Jon’s original review of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers and All the Rest” 9 LP Box Set.
10. NICK CAVE – IDIOT PRAYER
This might barely qualify as a new release as it only includes a single new song but the reimagined set of Nick Cave classics takes on an all-new vibe when stripped of the Bad Seeds sonic bravado and atmosphere. Cave parlayed his ‘Conversations With…” Q&A/solo tour of 2019 into a concert livestream to capture the zeitgeist of this unprecedented year. Alone at an imposing Fazioli grand piano in the middle of an empty ballroom at London’s Alexandra Palace, Cave belted out new grief-bound hymns and re-imagined murder ballad classics with an intensity broken only briefly by a chuckle over a final flubbed note. This set arrived precisely on time in June as we were all settling into the reality of what this year had in store for all of us. Cave has become a sort of Shaman for grief, particularly after the tragic loss of his son a few years back. At this important time, we all needed a guide and this sombre set was a healing tonic for the soul.
Katatonia – City Burials
The Budos Band – Long in the Tooth
Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
Zakk Sabbath – Vertigo
Marilyn Manson – We Are Chaos
Redman, Mehldau, McBride, Blade – RoundAgain
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
Gord Downie – Away Is Mine
Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V-VI