Top 20 Albums of 2020
Hi guys, welcome back to The Social Tune! And today, we discuss arguably the most important list of the year: the best albums of 2020!
Honestly, I wasn't sure how this was going to turn out. See, about a month ago, I was fully prepared to simply make this list a Top 10 with a few honourable mentions. Sure, I had listened to a LOT of music in 2020, but I wanted to really highlight the cream of the crop, the stuff I know for a fact I will go back to as a whole, not just a couple of songs. The tough part was the order. In the past, I've based this list off of personal scores and critical analysis of each album as a whole, and that always lead to a list that always felt "professional", but would slightly lose water over time. Or in other words, there are albums I've given an 8/10 to in the past that I go back to way more than many of the 9/10s I've handed out. And if you find yourself going back to an album more over time, doesn't that mean it should be higher on a year-end list? Especially if you claim your lists to be personal and your own biased opinion?
So I decided to make things a lot tougher on myself this year, limiting the number of albums I placed on the list to 10, and putting a lot more emphasis on what I found re-listenable, what I went back to, basically completely throwing aside any scoring criteria in favour of personal resonance and replay value... and then, right as I had finalised my list (barring a few surprise last-minute releases), it turned out half of you still wanted the full Top 30! And I do mean HALF by the way, this split my audience 50-50 in a poll I ran on Twitter (follow me there @TheSocialTune).
So fine, let's compromise: I'll split the difference and do a Top 20! Yes, I could have made a top 30 pretty easily, but there's only so many times I can say "this is great, just not their best." So yeah, if you're wondering where some of the usual suspects like Destroyer or clipping. are, there's your answer. Finally, be warned, as much as many genres shone and stood out in 2020, the easy stand-out this year was hip-hop, which had one of its best years since at least 2015! Just one phenomenal project after another, which will be reflected on this list, just warning you!
And now, let us begin:
So, to kick things off, you ever see an album title and just know instinctively that something is going to work for you?
Sex, Death & The Infinite Void by Creeper
1. Thorns Of Love
3. Poisoned Heart
https://open.spotify.com/album/5SroqSFEbS5mfI2fYSS1v1?si=FoXWkLwHSo-BRpfLBW2aKg Part of me really feels that Creeper's debut should have made my 2017 year-end list. After all, it made my midyear list, but when it came to the year's end, I found myself struggling to place it opposite the competition... and in fairness, there was a lot of it, I could have made a top 50 that year! But I have to admit, I did feel a pang of sadness when I heard they had split up, because yes, someone did actually fall for that! Of course, they came back, and announced that they were going to be switching up their sound to head in a more glam rock direction! Ok, bit risky, but they're a young band, so I indulged them. And sure enough, their sophomore effort is utterly over-the-top and completely wonderful because of it!
More than any album I have heard in a long time, this reminds me a LOT of post-Bat Out Of Hell Meatloaf, with thunderous guitars, a hyperbolic narrative revolving around the world ending as a fallen angel and a mortal enjoy their newfound romance and fuck their way to the apocalypse! Even with the twist this album takes halfway through in the crazy ex coming into the picture to kill the mortal woman, which finally prompts them into action, the album is still incredibly over-indulgent, basking in its excess and enjoying every second of this wild ride. And God bless it for it... whatever sense that makes.
The album is insanely catchy, arguably just as much as Eternity In Your Arms, except without some of the much slower, more melancholic moments that didn't age all that well for me on that album. Oh, it has its ballads, like All My Friends and Four Years Ago, but shockingly, Mike Gould appears to have got even better as a vocalist, opting for a more controlled lower range which commands a lot more quivering presence... and again, you're not supposed to take any of it seriously. It's one of the most blatantly fun albums of the year, and if you haven't heard of it or you were on the fence about the change in sound, I can assure you it is well worth all of your time!
If you've been listening to mainstream-adjacent hip hop the past couple of years (or even the past half a dozen if you've been looking a bit closer), one of the most prevalent names has been Griselda! The label that has been garnering a ton of buzz and attention for its talented and seasoned MCs, coke-rap content, and killer production, with style and flair that doesn't sacrifice lyrics and bars. Okay, it's not for everyone, and I'll admit I've had a lot of eyebrows raised at me ever since I started listening to them in 2019, after they signed a deal with Shady Records, but hey, I like what I like! And thus, to the surprise of nobody who heard this:
From King to a GOD by Conway the Machine
1. Lemon (Ft. Method Man)
2. Front Lines
3. Anza (Ft. Armani Caesar)
https://open.spotify.com/album/6DGCEJKSnaK626YgoElkjk?si=EOBFfQtUSZK7skydJyGE4Q Westside Gunn's Pray For Paris was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, and came VERY close to making this list! But ultimately, Conway was the Griselda member whose official debut I had been anticipating the most, and when it finally dropped, he more than delivered! After Griselda dropped many MANY projects that could be considered a bit too grimy for radio, this is by far the most accessible album that has come out of their camp yet, without sacrificing any of the signature content and insane bars. Seriously, as an MC, Conway is just on fire on this project, with so many killer lines that I'm still picking out gems to this day! And for the uninitiated, this is a guy who got shot in the head and needed facial reconstruction surgery! As he says himself, the fact that he can still rap better that most MCs in the game when he can barely pronounce some of these words, that's fucking impressive. It helps that all his guests really deliver terrific performances, particularly Method Man and fellow Griselda member Armani Caesar, who really steal the show on their verses. Along with some of the best hooks and instrumentals on any rap album this year, which had me coming back to this as a whole from the moment I heard it!
Sure, content-wise, you get the usual coke rap, but you also get a much bigger emphasis on his journey to where he is today, paying special homage to those who died along the way. There are multiple interludes from DJ Shay on this album, who Conway actually had a falling out with shortly before his untimely death, and you can tell how heavily that weighs on him. Add onto that all the references to police violence on this album, and the contemplation of his own legacy and accolades that he'll be leaving behind, and you have an album that is trying so much harder than anyone expected, and just gets better with every single listen.
Conway dropped a bunch of projects this year that were strong contenders for this list, but ultimately, this one's the easy winner! If you're a fan of rap music and you haven't listened to Griselda yet, do yourself a favour, and get on board right here!
There are some rappers who are so heady and wordy that it can take years to decode a lot of their material. And while some, like billy woods of Armand Hammer (Shrines barely missed this list), have gained a following and some attention over the years, I have another name you can all add to that list:
Descendants Of Cain by Ka
1. I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev)
2. Solitude Of Enoch
3. Sins of the Father (Ft. Roc Marciano)
https://open.spotify.com/album/0yhyMBfxKhjy1f7TsXXssl?si=7Ye035TZRGydIqi-2BapGw Ka's Descendants Of Cain is a journey, and not one for the faint of heart! It's frigid, dark, layered, and filled with turns of phrase and bars that are so clever, yet so subtle you could easily be forgiven for missing them the first time round. I'll admit that because of this, a lot of his material can take multiple listens to really connect and hit you, as he's by no means an overly emotional or expressive MC, but his skills can't be denied even on his densest albums. And lucky for all of you, in 2020, he made what is easily his most easily accessible and understandable project to date! This album has a pretty basic concept: drawing a parallel between Cain, Abraham's son who's best-known for murdering his brother Abel, and the modern black man living in the world, specifically the African American. Pretty simple in concept... but it goes a lot deeper than "brother killing brother". It goes into the deep-seated feeling of injustice Cain must have felt when his offering to God was rejected, essentially giving him the short end of the stick moving forwards, and the thirst to prove himself afterwards. It's also worth noting that each of these concepts doesn't get its own song, each one spans across multiple cutting themes with line after memorable line ("never marinate on beef we don't plan on finishing", "all I heard was don't sleep, I ain't get the rest", just to name a couple) and some of the best hooks of Ka's career! I was genuinely surprised how many of the choruses on this album stuck with me, which isn't something I can really say for his other projects. So yeah, if you've been thinking of getting into this guy, but were a little thrown off by Honor Killed The Samurai... trust me, I do get it, but this is an amazing place to get started. If you're in the mood for deep and frigid rap music that is a bit easier to follow, this will definitely fulfil that need!
So overall, looking back, maybe I was a little bit harsh on 2018. Yeah, it wasn't great, but Full Circle Nightmare, God's Favorite Customer, Room 25, those are all amazing albums, and that's just to name a few. Maybe it just feels weaker to me because I reviewed so many albums that year and was underwhelmed by a lot of them. I mean one album that I checked out right at the end of that year was from this country wannabe who had only got so much attention because of who he was dating! There was no way someone like that could ever be good, right?
Shape & Destroy by Ruston Kelly
1. Radio Cloud
3. Mid-Morning Lament
https://open.spotify.com/album/0pILyYJr65rEAWnogtd8Xt?si=E0ICEBsBSHunwl0P2hsxmw Okay okay, I'm clearly exaggerating, Dying Star is a perfectly good album, don't @ me! That said, I gotta say, I wasn't as impressed by Ruston Kelly's debut as many country fans were, including people whose opinion I deeply respect. Sure, the writing was pretty damn good, but much like Gabe Lee, I just didn't particularly care for his voice, at least not on a full project. So when I heard that Shape & Destroy was taking more steps away from country, instead doubling down on the indie rock influences that peppered that first album, I expected not to go back to this beyond a cursory listen... and yet for some reason, this time, it connected pretty immediately for me. And what's weird is that, as I said before, this is definitely only country by association, and in the songwriting, with only barely a few instrumental touches to indicate those roots. Most of these guitars are dreamy and hazy, the drums are softer, and there are more folk rock elements than anything else! Hell, I'll even say the writing is less ambitious than on his debut... but the songwriting's better, as are the hooks. Seriously, practically every song here is incredibly catchy, and while he sounds raspier than ever, there's a hangdog charm to his earnest delivery that really hit me this time. With songs about depression, existential dread, and a yearning to just remove yourself from the rest of the world, balanced out with the maturity to face those challenges head-on, grounded by a woman who has made that daily struggle so much easier. It really is romantic as fuck... which is why it's so sad and tragic to me that he and his wife Kacey Musgraves split up just a month before this album's release. That casts a dark, haunting shadow over this entire album, especially whenever Kacey's backing vocals show up on these songs. And yet that layer of tragedy is probably what kept me so engaged, as it makes the simpler love songs, and the ones about struggling with relationships like Changes, take on a whole new meaning that does add a lot of weight to me as a listener. Not the only album touched by Kacey Musgraves' presence on this list... but we'll get to that in just a moment. For now, this was the album that convinced me that this guy's star has only just started burning, and I wish him all the best in getting through this dark period of his life. And this album, the perfect soundtrack to that.
Do you all remember Danny Brown's album Atrocity Exhibition? You know, that album that made you feel like you were high on an assortment of drugs? Well, if there was one drug that I felt was clearly underrepresented: LSD! And while sure, you could just vibe out to A$AP Rocky's track of the same name, here's my alternative:
American Head by The Flaming Lips
1. Assassins Of Youth
2.At The Movies On Quaaludes
3. Mother Please Don't Be Sad
https://open.spotify.com/album/2s79HMasjZVNXwoqXTe1X2?si=bYmXAqm_QEi49fXD-q5K_g Yeah, even as someone who kinda likes all their projects -yes, even Oczy Mlody... and no, not counting that Miley Cyrus album- this is easily one of the best albums in The Flaming Lips' catalogue, spanning across gorgeous psychedelic soundscapes of bells, pianos, gentle guitars which occasionally break out with some real scuzz, and some of the best crescendos of the entire year. It's also the first time since The Terror that the instrumentals and production have been balanced to best compliment Wayne Coyne's vocals, which despite being lonnnnng past their prime, do sound fantastic on this album... or at the very least there are enough effects to convince the listener he doesn't sound terrible! Either way, props to David Friedman, and maybe don't see these guys live anytime soon. Now all of that aside, what kept drawing me back to this album, aside from the beautiful melodies and the band's best collection of hooks in ages, was the timely and kinda devastating content! Sure, some of these songs are very typical like Dinosaurs On The Mountain, where the drug jokes just write themselves, but surprisingly, there's a big emphasis on the escapism aspect of drug use on this album; and not in an entirely positive or negative light. See, while there are references to the destructive power of drugs on songs like At the Movies On Quaaludes, there's also a strong emphasis on the peace it brings, and how when you're on them, you can finally be happy and believe in concepts as bullshit as "the American Dream!" And then you also have the moments that drag you back to reality like the 2 songs directed at a disappointed mother, the first one seeming to be justifying why the protagonist would use drugs - bringing up some legitimate points by the way- and then the second song... which is where he's talking to his mother from beyond the grave after supposedly overdosing. Even the instrumental songs fit in so seamlessly that I barely noticed them the first couple of times! It's just song after song that trades between being funny, heightening your senses, and just being utterly devastating. All while subtly taking jabs at a society that both bans drugs while actively driving a lot of people toward using them, specifically highlighting religion as an easy fallback argument; God and the Policeman in particular hits pretty hard with the year we've just had, especially when you hear those who believe in authority make excuse for murder at the hands of law enforcement.
Add to that the incredible Kacey Musgraves, who provides a single credited feature and backing vocals across multiple other songs here like Flowers Of Neptune 6, and this was an album that drew me in with its sound, and convinced me to stay because of its complexities. It was also my go-to album this year whenever I needed to lay back and chill, which was very much needed in a year like this! A fantastic album, and if you jumped ship on The Flaming Lips at some point this past decade, you're going to want to get back on board, trust me.
2016 was when I started reviewing music on a semi-consistent basis on YouTube, and thus it was the first year where I decided to venture into more of my own independent music exploration. And in the midst of that, I came across a Detroit MC who's been active for over 2 decades and who really doesn't get enough attention, especially when his albums are this entertaining:
Seven Times Down Eight Times Up by Elzhi
1. THUGGed Out Zombies
3. Hot Winter Cold Summer
My introduction to Elzhi was his 2016 album Lead Poison, an album that I did enjoy, but which felt a tad uneven to me. Sure, I still go back to Misright and especially the excellent concept song Hello!!!!!, but as a whole, it just didn't bring me back all that much, especially compared to other hip-hop albums from that year. Well, in 2020, he made what is undoubtedly his most accessible album to date, without compromising what a fantastic lyricist he is!
It's like even he finally realised that he's not nearly as popular as he deserves to be, so he decided to make his case to all of us and force us to acknowledge him. Well, he succeeded, because unlike some of his other projects, this is an album that I can just play on loop for hours, it just goes down SO smoothly, with song after song that hits! And because of how catchy and laid-back some of it feels, you'd be forgiven for missing just how much raw talent is on display here on your first listen. This guy's wordplay and bars are next-level, which makes his argument that he's here to school y'all and earn his damn accolades all the easier to justify. But he doesn't just leave it at bragging, as he also displays some amazing creativity and versatility on this! From the fact that all the hooks manage to be easily sticky and memorable, with a couple even sounding radio-ready, to the incredibly funny and clever tracks like G.O.D., to songs that I'm just shocked he ever thought to make like THUGGed Out Zombies and the closing track JASON, to a number of tracks that outright reflect on how much bigger he deserves to be. Which yes, I know, should come across as a tad self-serving... but he also clearly has a point. Not only has this man been around for over 2 decades now, but in terms of Detroit rappers, he deserves to be put in the same conversations as Eminem or Royce, he's THAT fucking good! Well, this album is his mission statement, and a goddamn fantastic one at that!
I genuinely didn't know if I could put this album on this list. I mean, out of all his projects in the past decade, this is easily the worst one, where the flaws and slower moments are the most obvious. And sure, the production was trying harder than ever, and the writing was still phenomenal, and the bad songs... well, "bad" isn't really fair, maybe just "decent"... or "really good"... and suddenly I realised this is still an album I tend to play from start to finish with no skips and what am I even arguing about, it's Jason Fucking Isbell!!!
Reunions by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
1. It Gets Easier
2. Only Children
https://open.spotify.com/album/5XIafkwTpyvL7jjLJx1xKz?si=nVIroHsqReuee5c_4XRswg Initially, this spot was going to go to Katy Pruitt's debut Expectations, but eventually I realised that for as much as I do love that album and go back to it in pieces, I don't go back to it as a whole much... which again, by my new rules, means putting it on here would be disingenuous. And besides, in the end, who would I even be shocking or surprising by not giving Jason his usual props, nobody cares about my opinions that much! ... Is it clear yet how much I've been wrestling with this album all year? Because as I've said before, this is easily Jason Isbell's most fractured, tense and uncomfortable album to date, one where the production feels wilder and more ambitious than ever, which can result in an album that definitely leans more than ever into the rock and Americana side of his music rather than country. Which does work considering the subject matter... which may be part of why this album can be hard to listen to. See, all of this guy's releases for the past few years have been a result of his time he spent at rock bottom before 2013's Southeastern. Even his last album The Nashville Sound, despite some desperate moments, still primarily pushed a message of hope and revolution, it left me feeling uplifted. Here, not only has his belief system been severely tested, but so has his personal life. From songs directed at his wife where their marriage has clearly been pushed to the brink on Overseas, Running With Our Eyes Closed and St Peter's Autograph, the last of which is pretty fucking candid about the death of a guy he didn't know that well personally. To songs about time flying by and leaving him wistful and disoriented, to moments that are both on-the-nose and fearful for the future like Be Afraid and What've I Done To Help! And especially on those last 2 songs, it almost feels like a promise to try rather than the reassurance that things will definitely get better, which makes me think his next album will either be a big sigh of relief or have him spiraling off the rails completely! But despite the tangle of emotions, and the minor panic attack whenever I listen to it, the writing is still excellent, the more uneven production only adds to the experience, and Jason Isbell gives some of his most emotional performances of his career. So ultimately, no, I can't leave it off this list, because I do find myself going back to it a lot, even if I sometimes do question why. It's an incredible album that only hits harder because of how invested I am in this guy's career, and with 2021 on the horizon, I hope that his long nightmare will come to an end soon.
As I said, Griselda was busy in 2020, releasing a ton of projects, including from the 3 main figureheads Westside Gunn, Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, all 3 of whom had a strong chance to make this list... and yet for some reason, even more than Conway's excellent debut, the Griselda affiliate whose album I found myself returning to the most, his seemed to fly under the radar for a lot of people. Let's fix that:
The Price Of Tea In China by Boldy James & The Alchemist
1. Surf & Turf (Ft. Vince Staples)
2. Grey October (Ft. Evidence)
3. Scrape The Bowl (Ft. Benny The Butcher)
Boldy James is not typically the kind of rapper who works for me. he has a very monotone voice, which doesn't do much in the way of inflection. Sure, he's made up for that in more recent years by improving his flow and writing, but he wasn't exactly the kind of MC I would normally pay much attention to. Well, that all changed in 2020, where he developed what I can only describe as real intensity and charisma! Suddenly his feature on Pray For Paris was one of the coolest things I'd heard all year, and I was very eager to check out his solo work. And while he actually released multiple projects this year, including one that's set to drop this month, this was easily the best thing he did all year!
A large part of the reason why this album works so well comes down to the producer. Alchemist is a legend, who actually produced Boldy's official debut My 1st Chemistry Set, but here the beats feel more varied, almost cinematic in spots. Each one conveys a very specific feeling, whether it be lingering threat, a desperate run to save your life, or just pure badassery on a song like Speed Demon Freestyle! It more than compensates for Boldy's lack of modulation, and in turn he contributes some of his best technical rapping to date, riding every single one of these beats effortlessly, and not always with the flow you'd expect! And he also provides the griminess and detail that is needed for this style of rap about running from the law, dealing drugs and killing those who cross his path.
The album is also boosted further by its features, all of whom are in absolutely top form, and lend a great variety from song to song. Don't get me wrong, Boldy can take a couple of these songs all on his own and still be incredible, but the multiple people on this album together make it something much more dynamic and relistenable to me! And if you're still unsure if I'm being disrespectful to the man, in my opinion, this album is the closest rapper-producer combo I've heard to Madlib and Freddie Gibbs' Piñata, including Freddie's own attempts these past few years! And if that's not high praise, I don't know what is! This album kicks ass!
Well... this isn't even fair!
Spirit World Field Guide by Aesop Rock
2. Sleeper Car
3. Button Masher
https://open.spotify.com/album/1i4NEdHn7WBvmmqU3ilJSb?si=VN2HMcVnQNi_V3hcXt706Q I was perfectly fine with being all on my own on this one. That said, it's been fascinating seeing the public's response to this album. Usually, Aesop's albums slip below the radar, and when they're like THIS, 21 tracks long with no features and incredibly dense and wordy, this brand of his material usually has people running for the hills. Instead, it seems most people are taking the time to listen to the album and really appreciate it, which is awesome! Of course, I knew I was probably going to love it, I regularly lose myself in nothing but Aesop Rock music for days on end, but I have to say it's nice not to be alone for a change (The Impossible Kid being to obvious exception.) Now I will say, at first, I wasn't sure if this was quite up there with Aesop's very best projects. It was better than his last one Malibu Ken, which I already loved a lot, but it is very long, as every single critic has highlighted! I suppose it does help that it's also very catchy considering its length, with hooks and instrumentals that will really stick with you. Aesop's been improving his own production skills since Skelethon, and he's only getting better with each consecutive release. But... look guys, this man is my favourite rapper for a reason, and after a couple of listens, I realised that this combines a number of factors that make this one of my favourites in his discography. The fact that it's so long and heady is kind of nostalgic to me as a fan of his older material. The greater emphasis on hooks reminds me of the best elements of Skelethon and while it doesn't have the high points of The Impossible Kid, I'd argue it's more consistent as a whole. And if you pair that with the themes of overcoming depression, being a beacon of common sense in a world that's burning down around him, and the metric TON of spiritual and video game references, this is the type of rap album that is tailor-made for me, and has the potential to only grow on me with time! Just watch, give it 10 to 20 years and this will be considered a classic, I'm willing to guarantee it. Again, this guy is my favourite lyricist in hip hop, and while this kind of music isn't for everyone, to me it's pure poetry. In a year that had a lot of fantastic, wordy rap music I could just lose myself in, Aesop Rock once again proved how untouchable he is, as this is far and away one of the best albums of the year!
So one of the final cuts from this list was Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia, an album I love very dearly! But let's be fair here, it wasn't the best pop album of the year. And like everyone else, I'm so happy that it came from right here in Ireland, and from an artist I've been rooting for since his debut!
Heartbreak Weather by Niall Horan
1. Nice To Meet Ya
2. Bend The Rules
3. Put A Little Love On Me
https://open.spotify.com/album/5gdoRB1AUsGnScCuZ8gmPp?si=pMf6cikMRe2eoyu1lZgYxw Niall has been making waves ever nice Nice To Meet Ya first dropped in late 2019. Well actually, if you were paying attention, he stole the show with Flicker back in 2017, with incredible songs like On The Loose, This Town and the title track! Honestly, it would have made my year-end list back then, except for how strong 2017 was for music! But even with that in mind, Heartbreak Weather is far and away the best thing he's done so far! Every song is catchy as Hell, the writing isn't over-complicated, but very mature and straightforward, and Niall's turning into an excellent vocalist. Really, the album has such a straightforward appeal that it doesn't really give me a ton to say! Sure, there are a couple of rough spots here and there in his upper range and the themes aren't anything overly-complicated, but as a pop album, it does everything it needs to do. It's an album I can play on loop, from start to finish, and even after how often I've heard it, I'm never not in the mood to hear it, with simple elements that build to a fantastic whole, and not a skippable moment on the entire project.
I may be finally coming round on Harry this past year, but as much as I do recognise his considerable talent, Niall's had my attention from the very beginning, and this album absolutely sealed the deal for me! The rest of his former bandmates have a LOT of catching up to do, so come on fellas... by which I mean Harry and Louis, cause ZAYN's hopeless and Liam's a dead end,. So come on you remaining 2, any time now!
So now we're in the top 10! Couple of albums you were probably expecting have already been mentioned, so I'm sure you're all wondering: what were the 10 albums I see myself revisiting the most after 2020?
You know what... I'm going to say it if nobody else is: to call this band's output over the past decade "uneven" is being generous! And thus, I had no expectations, nor any reason to check their latest album out. And yes, that may sound harsh, but I'd just decided their music wasn't for me, that's all! Then I checked this out based on a random recommendation with my friend circle... and oh BOY, was it rewarding!
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz
1. Pac-Man (Ft. ScHoolboy Q)
2. The Pink Phantom (Ft. Elton John & 6LACK)
3. The Lost Chord (Ft. Leee John)
... Look, I've never been a Gorillaz fan. Sure, Demon Dayz is great, but I wasn't won over before reviewing Humanz back in 2017, which then turned out to be their worst album, that felt cheap and full of failed experiments! And sure, The Now Now was better, if incredibly easy to ignore (with the exception of Tranz, love that song). The point is, please understand, the fact that I'm putting them on this list is very surprising to me! But from the first time I sat down and heard Strange Timez, followed by The Valley Of Pagans, and then each subsequent song which was varied and awesome in its own unique way, I was absolutely blown away! And let me be clear, there are certain experiments that should NOT work here! They put Elton John and 6LACK on the same ballad, for God's sake! There's a track here produced by Mike Will Made-It! Friday 13th sounds like a SoundCloud rap song that could either chart for 1 week or 30, even if the production is miles better! And it ends with what is essentially a British punk song! None of this should work, or remotely fit together... and yet it just comes together perfectly, even though it emphatically shouldn't! And yes, I know the band said that these are all supposed to be stand-alone tracks based off of their Song Machine series, with no common theme or concept, but the album still manages to maintain a very cohesive sonic pallet! On top of this, that title kinda says it all for me, because in a year as strange as this one, the themes on these songs felt more relevant than ever. Existential dread, jabs at capitalism, finding only moments of brief respite in a world on fire, yes this was indeed a strange time to be alive! Now, does that mean this would have hit differently if we hadn't had the year we did? Well, I'd argue it still would, because the hooks and production are still incredible outside of the lyrics! Seriously, the mixing and mastering on this album is masterful, especially if you consider all the different guests and the styles of music that they cycle through all across the project! And to do all that and STILL maintain a consistent feel throughout these 11 tracks, that's a level of skill that few acts are able to pull off! In other words, to me, this was the first time in over a decade that Gorillaz finally lived up to their high reputation. It's by far one of the catchiest, best-produced and interesting projects released all year, and an incredibly fun listen! And coming from me, that is high praise indeed. Well done you guys; now watch everyone overlook my love for this album in favour of blasting me for my critiques of the rest of their discography, I know it's coming!
Right, so I just want to emphasise, again, that this is my opinion, and that many of you WILL probably disagree with these picks... Fuck it, the point is, I don't care, I put Taylor Swift in my top 10!
folklore by Taylor Swift
2. exile (Ft. Bon Iver)
3. illicit affairs
https://open.spotify.com/album/2fenSS68JI1h4Fo296JfGr?si=xFWLy_UMQw-RZOstJr0L3A A week ago, I was prepared to concede that this album was pure critic-bait, but that God damn it, I was biting! Then came evermore, which felt far more calculated and poised to appeal to a very particular indie demographic. And while I do still love that album and only see it growing on me, it had a couple of weak points that only made folklore shine all the stronger to me!
Here, Taylor made her most art-poppy, folk-leaning album to date, recruiting co-writers from indie acts like The National and Bon Iver, and somewhat inadvertently made an album that was a perfect fit for my 2020 lockdown experience. It's also by far my favourite of her albums, with some of her best hooks, clever writing, beautiful instrumentals, and even some recurring themes and crossing narratives between the songs! Really, my only criticism was initially that she didn't get more personal, as a lot of these songs are written from the point of (semi-)fictional characters. However, even then, she's matured into such a great songwriter over the years that it took me a fair few listens to even notice that aspect! It FEELS real, and if you read between the lines, there are elements of self-loathing and pain that seep through on a lot of these songs that don't exactly come out of nowhere. There are multiple references to her own controversial reputation that feel much better woven in than on her last coupe of albums, yet no less direct and on-the-nose! And although many will probably try to insinuate that it not that deep, or revolutionary, or even that it's built on the shoulders of giants -all of which is kind of fair- I still can't deny how much I genuinely adore this album! Call me a basic bitch all you want, but to me, this is the album Taylor was always destined to make, with all of the elements she's been flirting with over the years coming together in one fell swoop! It's an album that grew on me organically, one track at a time, until I couldn't skip a single song on the whole thing. And it's easily one of the albums I played the most this year, I can stick it on anytime, anyplace.
Sadly, it hasn't done as well as her other releases, for obvious reasons, as it's not always the most pop-friendly -if evermore does blow up to be even bigger, that'll be more because of how it was marketed, just look at Ariana's Sweetener vs thank u, next- but if you've been letting all that get in the way of you hearing this album, fix that, because it's something truly special!
So despite some great releases, I will admit it wasn't the strongest year for country music. Sure, Lori McKenna, Katy Pruitt, even my boy Jason, they all released great albums in 2020, but even they were missing that "wow" factor, that little something that pushes a great album into amazing territory. And just as I was about to give up, I came across a new album from a completely unexpected source... and I realised I'd been looking in the wrong place this whole time:
Tumbleweed by Roo Arcus
2. Calico Rail
https://open.spotify.com/album/19T2COVqJZKloTHZj7CSxH?si=xwTLW7zlRXal1aKZa0Dy9w For some context, Roo Arcus is a country artist from -wait for it- Australia! ... Yes, really! And despite that, he loves country music so much that he decided to make several albums of real quality, with this being his fourth release, and in my humble opinion, easily his best. Recruiting successful songwriters from American country like Troy Olsen and brothers Jim and Brett Beavers, Roo Arcus decided to capitalise on all the goodwill that he's been building up for the past few years to make his most focused, well-produced step into country, and simultaneously made an ode to the genre that I haven't heard so lovingly delivered since Mike & The Moonpies did it in 2018 on Steak Night at the Prairie Rose!
Roo Arcus knows he's a man outside of his time, and he plays into it with songs about feeling out of place like Mockingbird and Won't Give Up On My Dreams, realising that he's fighting an uphill battle, but dammit, he's going to prevail! Sure, it's corny, and the several tracks -especially the love songs- may rub a cynical audience the wrong way. But Roo Arcus knows that, and he's not about to apologise for it, as he sells the Hell out of every love song, stomping barnburner and lonesome outsider ballad with fullthroated passion! There's a level of commitment and care on this album that connected with me very strongly as a fan of this often ridiculed genre, and the stand-out tracks are some of the best of the entire year! Regardless, for me, Tumbleweed is the country album of the year, from a very unexpected source, but a more than welcome one! I expect this guy is going to start blowing up in the near future, so make sure you all get on board now!
Some of you may still be a bit surprised how low Aesop Rock was placed on this list... and look, who's to say which one is "better"? All I know is, while I can see Spirit World Field Guide growing on me with time, I've had this one for many more months, and therefore, it just hits a little bit harder right now. Even with that said though, this album only seems to grow on me with each listen, so all you MCs have a lot of catching up to do if you want to touch this:
Purple Moonlight Pages by R.A.P. Ferreira
1. LEAVING HELL
2. RO TALK
I've talked about the rapper formerly known as milo a few times, but he's never actually made one of these year-end lists of mine. It took changing his name to finally sneak onto this list, and even though I did recognise him immediately as one of the most unique MCs in underground hip hop, and stopped him at the door... I very quickly let him pass on through. Because almost immediately, I realised that this new album was something very different, and hear me out here: I'd argue that Rory Allen Philip Ferreira has never sounded so content or comfortable on another project before. For one, despite the fact that this album is 18 songs long and spans across a range of existential themes where Mr Ferreira breaks down the struggles that artists go through -trying to make a living that both seems to need them and does nothing to support them, clamouring for their voices of wisdom, then shunning them when they do speak out- he doesn't allow himself to be swallowed up by that negativity as he may have in the past. Because he's finally learned that despite how important this career is to him, he knows that it's not all there is. The fact that he can find such joy in just doing laundry, humming in the kitchen alongside his wife and child, it's similar to J. Cole's Folding Clothes, but for me it feels much more casual and fun as opposed to the utter disbelief and awkwardness that song was delivered with.
Even beyond that though, he seems to have accepted that rap music will no longer be the only thing that drives his entire life, he's not going to be a starving artist anymore. Instead, he's going to fall off the wheel and just do things at his own pace, and he's confident that he has the skill, luck and supportive fanbase to still sustain him. Because he'll just endure, persevere, then kick back and inherit the world. That's a confidence that is rare to see from this guy, and it manages to feel sincere instead of cocky, it's so damn compelling! Of course, all of this is just my personal interpretation across many MANY listens through this project; R.A.P. Ferreira is still an incredibly tangled and confusing rapper who uses a lot of big words. The primary reason I even bothered to come back to it at all comes down to the music, which is absolutely top-notch. Seriously, putting aside that there are more genuine hooks on this album than I've ever seen from Rory, the instrumentation is absolutely KILLER! I'm serious, if you've been yearning for a night at a jazz lounge, this instrumentation will be SO up your alley, where half of it almost feels improvised in the moment and it all sounds phenomenal, especially those horns! I have to give major props to The Jefferson Park Boys, aka Aaron Carmack, Mike Parvizi, and Kenny Segal... yes, THAT Kenny Segal, who made my favourite rap album of 2019! And make no mistake, this sounds absolutely nothing like Hiding Places, this guy's diversity is stunning! Tie it all up with just a couple of features from Mike Ladd and Open Mike Eagle, and you have a stellar project that I came back to consistently all year! Don't get me wrong, it is not for everyone, and sometimes I even find myself wondering why it works so damn well for me, but why question it when it just... does? This is my favourite album this man has put out, by far, and I cannot wait to hear what he brings us next!
Back in 2018, I faced a little bit of backlash for placing this act on my list of the best albums of that year. Now in fairness, I didn't get as much as I was expecting, which shows me that most of you get their appeal, even if it's not for you, which I do appreciate! That said, in 2020, they dropped their best album of original material to date, and not only that, but it was an album I sorely needed in a year that was this miserable. So I'd ask you to indulge me a little... but also not to judge a book by its cover, because this is still in my top 10 for damn good reason!
The Prophecy by Ninja Sex Party
1. I Don't Know What We're Talking About
2. Welcome To My Parents' House
3. The Mystic Crystal
https://open.spotify.com/album/4RkG0RMfWgyrp5ifijj6Th?si=eQ0M9xSnQbaX0DKLjiVW2w This is Ninja Sex Party's 8th album and it's the manifestation of everything they've built up over the past decade. When it came to earlier projects from them, my main complaints were the production and the album lengths, but Cool Patrol was a massive improvement across the board, mainly thanks to live instrumentation from Tupperware Remix Party, whom they'd worked with on their cover albums. Well, The Prophecy goes above and beyond, with not a wasted second, skits that are brief but more hilarious than ever, a great balance between comedy and some genuinely great heartfelt moments, as well as some of the band's most ambitious songs to date, including an 11+ minute epic opener in The Mystic Crystal, a song I didn't think would make this album, but fits perfectly! However, it still wouldn't be this high up if the quality weren't there... so I'll just say it, Danny's got one of the best voices in modern music, with a beautiful range and a ton of expressive power! He can make you laugh just as easily as he can make you feel, and I think he deserves a ton of props for it! Along with that, again, Tupperware Remix Party's instrumental chops have improved ridiculously in the past few years, as there are spots on this album that are genuine and fitting homages to classic rock, disco, R&B, smooth jazz, synthwave, and ALL of them feel organic and genuine! The pallet of this album is diverse and incredible, it's easily the best-produced project of the year for me, with their strongest collection of hooks, stand-out lines and songs to date! But that's not all! Much like their best song Danny Don't You Know, this entire album feels like a love letter to their fans, the ones who've been supporting them over the years! The most obvious example is the sequel to The Decision, one of their best-known songs which dropped over 10 years ago, that's filled with references to their discography over the past decade. But you also have that positive message all across this album, it's so warm and uplifting. Hell, you could listen to this and not even guess it was made during such a trying time, it's just the band doing what they do best, entertaining the Hell out of their fans! And that's an escape I really needed this year, I'm so grateful to them for making this! Amazing album, definitely go check it out!
Brave Faces Everyone by Spanish Love Songs
3. Generation Loss
https://open.spotify.com/album/7GP702lI6EeRJnruJPoznv?si=vuvRYtvJSTCIegSw_37i0g If you've been paying attention, I've been maintaining the narrative that I didn't care for this album as a whole... so yeah, I lied.
Well, in fairness, not exactly! Once again, I'm not basing this list on scores, just on my own personal enjoyment of the music. And that being said, the first couple of months after I heard this album, I was prepared to call it phenomenal, with some of the most crushing songs in emo and punk rock this side of the 2000s, but that its energy is not something I can revisit on a full project all that often. That much was true... but then around September, when I was reaching my lowest dip in terms of this whole lockdown, I revisited it... and it finally clicked. BIGTIME!
Seriously, it's crazy to think there was a time I considered not placing this album on this list at all! Oh sure, it was always going to be a project I respected, just not necessarily one I particularly enjoyed listening to. But when I re-listened to it after a couple of months of bleak isolation and crushing news stories, I suddenly realised that I couldn't STOP listening. And that's honestly weird to me! I mean yeah, the stand-out tracks have always been powerful to me, and some of the lines on this album are some of the most cutting and devastating that I think I've EVER heard, in emo or otherwise. But why did it take so long to click for me when it seemed to connect so damn quickly with everyone else?! Well, I think it's because, especially during those Autumn months, this quarantine hit me very hard, which only re-doubled when I turned 24 back in November. Seriously, that birthday, unremarkable and spent alone, despite the good wishes and the texts from those I love... yeah, there was a part of me that really faced the reality of hurtling through life on this godless rock that refuses to die! And as much as that line has stuck with me since THAT album's release (if you know, you know), it also finally made me appreciate the solidarity in an album like this one. And I haven't been able to stop playing it since.
I can't tell you how many stand-alone lines on this album struck me to my core this year! The anxiety, the tiredness, the deep-seated feeling of solitude in a world that gives you absolutely no breaks! Where, if by some miracle you manage to figure out your own shit, everyone else you care about is dying or getting depressed. Where people will show up to your funeral and judge you, yet expect to have compassion extended towards them. And even if you're aware of all of that, you're just left with a hollow feeling of desperate nihilism, tempted to just throw in the towel and give up! It's the soundtrack of a generation with some of the best anthems I've heard over the past decade! Where the only moments of relief are bogged down by reality, and where even if you do hope things could possibly get better, you'll have 10 people telling you you're naïve, and all the others just silently waiting for you to come crashing back down to Earth! And yet despite all that, it's an album that encourages you to brave it all out, and to just try your best, which is as much as ant of us can do.
So yeah, while I may usually prefer something a bit brighter, a bit more optimistic, this is an album for when you're feeling at your lowest, and just need reassurance that you're not alone! In that regard, in a year like this one, I can't think of any example that fit the bill so damn perfectly! Well... apart from one other, but we'll get to that.
Thankfully, I don't feel like that every day, so I can't quite place it higher. It's definitely an album I have to be in the mood to listen to, and if it weren't for the year 2020 has been, I doubt it would have ever resonated with me quite so deeply. But even aside from that, whenever I am in the mood and I stick it on, I have to acknowledge this as the best emo album I've heard this decade and one of the most essential listens of 2020, hands down!
Actually, wait, scratch what I said before! Because yeah, The Prophecy is incredible... but the BEST-produced album of the year? No contest!
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius
1. Nothing At All
2. On the Floor
You know, I'm not sure how, but I think Mike Hadreas may be getting even better! I was genuinely surprised how much I went back to No Shape over the course of 2017, and so my expectations for his follow-up were sky high... and yet he met them in a way that feels effortless! That last album had a lofty framing device about existentialism and self-discovery, with individual moments of beauty and pure bombast that left me speechless, and yet by NOT trying as hard, instead going for a much more personal and relaxed soft rock approach, Perfume Genius somehow made an even better project with this newest release! And the reason why... I honestly think it comes down to something I said about Ariana Grande's positions about a month ago: I stated back then that drama is more interesting to an audience than contentment, which is why I was far more likely to go back to the uneven but complex thank u, next. And while I do stand by that... I have found myself going back to positions a fair bit in spite of myself. And the reason why is because... well, while I stand by that statement, when an artist is fully in their pocket and content AFTER all that drama in their life has passed, the contentment feels earned, and as a fan, you can't help but feel happy for them! It's the same reason I connect the milo's album so much as well, it's the happiest I've heard him sound in a long time, in his own weird way. And the absolute poster child of this phenomenon in 2020 was Mike Hadreas, who after spending years struggling with hating his body, his health and even how his sexuality has made his life harder because of the prejudice that comes with it... to hear a man like that sound so comfortable, content, and confident rather than defiant; yeah, it really connected. Of course, it does help that the album sounds utterly gorgeous, with some of the best songs of his entire career. I mean even aside from the main 3 highlighted above, this album had more contenders for my Top 50 songs of 2020 than any other album released this year, with some of his best hooks and most incredible melodies to date! Honestly, this album was in constant battle for the number 1 spot since the moment I heard it, it's got that AOTY potential in spades... However...
folklore is easily one of the catchiest albums of the year, which has received some of the most acclaim of any album released this year. But it's not quite THE most acclaimed album of this year, nor the catchiest. And while Taylor could be accused of emulating other more underground acts to make her best album, that same label absolutely can't be attributed to Fiona Apple!
Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
1. Under The Table
2. Fetch The Bolt Cutters
3. Rack of His
I've spent the last year or so becoming obsessed with a specific subgenre of punk-adjacent female singer-songwriter. The gold standard of this for me is Amanda Palmer, who has made some of my favourite albums of the past decade, including the excellent There Will Be No Intermission last year. And while I had never quite bought into Fiona Apple to the same degree, that all changed this year when she dropped this album!
The fact that Fetch The Bolt Cutters isn't a contender for AOTY at the Grammys is baffling to me! Yes, I know it got some nominations in the rock categories, but with an album as monumental as this one feels like, you'd expect that organisation to catch on a bit! Then again, they somehow found a way to completely ignore The Weeknd in one of his biggest years, so I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised. Either way, this is an album I expect to see on every single Best Albums list released for 2020, and I most certainly wasn't going to be the exception to that!
This album takes a similar approach to outlining women's struggles through life as Kesha has on past releases, by taking typically male stereotypes and tropes, and then flipping and subverting them, like how Kesha would refer to her "junk" on TiK ToK. This is a technique that can seem bizarre or off-putting, but that's the point, the absurdity only highlights how weird and often disturbing these tropes truly are. Sure, we all sing along to rap songs about ogling women's breasts, but when Fiona Apple does the same to men on Rack Of His, it's somehow considered off-putting.
And she doesn't just stop there, as she goes through multiple different scenarios where her reactions are intentionally exaggerated in order to make a point. From the victim-blaming reaction that we can have when reading about your average sex scandal, To men who claim to respect women based specifically on their own wives and daughters, thinking that will excuse every foul action they take, with lines like "You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in" feeling particularly poignant. To cycles of vengeance, to how we feel our affections deserve to be reciprocated, to the condescension we can occasionally take by grouping all women together, and so many more!
Each song is rickety, jerky and catchy as sin, as Fiona Apple's rough vocals tear through each song with reckless abandon, with lyrics that are very catchy at first, until you take a closer look and realise just how scathing these songs are. It takes every argument or excuse that society has thrown out and then guts it with logic, and I have to admit, it's fucking awesome! I've heard some say that it's almost TOO curt and scathing, but a) the people to whom these messages are directed need to hear and understand them, and b) it still doesn't stop it from being catchy as Hell, with too many quotable lines to count!
This is a very necessary album in a post-MeToo world, where more people may be willing to listen and reflect on their own behaviors, men and women alike. And hey, if you've been rolling your eyes up to this point, or thanking your lucky stars that none of this applies to you, maybe you need to hear this album too, just saying. Because while this is by no means the first album to present a lot of these ideas, it does so with a passion, fervour, and a fresh sound that I haven't heard done so well in a very long time! It's not judging you for fun, it's making a point so that you can listen to it, not asking for revenge, only for change. It's a classic on arrival, and an essential listen in 2020! Give this women her awards, she's more than earned all of them!
So Perfume Genius made a pretty happy release this year, and Fiona Apple made one filled with righteous fury... but if you want me to come back to your album on a regular basis, you want a mix of both. Make it dark, but also with a fighting spirit that makes you want to pump your fist in the air in the face of injustice. And in 2020, especially with the murders committed by the authorities in America for the umpteenth time, even during a fucking global pandemic... yeah, just like everyone else, I needed this!
Run The Jewels 4 by Run The Jewels
1. walking in the snow (Ft. Gangsta Boo)
2. JU$T (Ft. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)
3. out of sight (Ft. 2 Chainz)
https://open.spotify.com/album/6cx4GVNs03Pu4ZczRnWiLd?si=2VSyaMksS7mrYB6ze3wREQ RTJ4 is Run The Jewels' bleakest release to date. Oh, it's still pretty funny half the time, but that's more a product of how clever these MCs are, because the overall tone is a lot darker, with more and more cutting lines and observations that really give you pause. It's the album where the duo are coming at you as revolutionaries, in a world that has already gone to Hell, encouraging you to take back your power and stand up against the elite. And the fact that this album was so huge for them, reaching number 10 on the Billboard 200 and the top 20 in multiple countries across the world, that shows that their message is definitely resonating with the public.
Now if you've been following these 2 for the past few years, some elements will be familiar: El-P's production is top-notch with some of his most accessible beats to date, while not compromising their signature sound! Killer Mike spits truth and rhetoric with an energy that never seems to let up, even in the more personal moments like whenever he brings up his now-deceased mother, a burden that clearly weighs very heavily on him. And of course, El has his own intricate bars and stand-out turns of phrase all across the album that make me marvel at how his brain works. But it's all delivered in some of their best and most accessible songs to date, highlighting the populism and widespread appeal that they clearly intended with this release. Hell, just look at the guests! Sure, Gangsta Boo, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and Zack de la Rocha, those are all somewhat expected and they're all more than welcome! But Pharrell? 2 Chainz? Mavis Staples? I'll admit I did a double-take when I saw them in the tracklist... but again, they fucking nail it, and they fit in absolutely perfectly! If you've been feeling angry at the world, and needed a soundtrack to help you fight back against all of that, rather than wallow in your own misery, this is the quintessential album of 2020! It's an anti-fascist throatpunch that will leave you reeling, where each song sticks with you and only reveals more killer lines or flows with every listen!
Now, with all that being said, I'd still say I prefer RTJ3 as a whole, but I know I'm in the minority on that opinion. Because to many, this was the hip-hop album of the year, a project that dropped at just the right time to capture the zeitgeist of 2020 in a way very few hip-hop projects have ever done so effectively. Killer Mike's "I can't breathe" line haunts me every single time I replay that song, and the fact that he wrote it all the way back in November of last year is a truly damning statement of the American justice system. Never forget. As on the last list, if you can, go donate here: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/ms_blm_homepage_2019 (Black Lives Matter) or here https://act.naacpldf.org/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=15780&_ga=2.163417210.738780536.1591041087-655866077.1591041087 (NAACP). I get the feeling that link will sadly still be necessary for a long time yet.
RTJ4 is more than an album, it's a movement, and yet another example of why Killer Mike and El-P are the undisputed kings of hip-hop! If you haven't got on board with the revolution yet, you're officially out of excuses with this release!
And yet, despite all of that, not quite my favourite album of the year! So... what topped it?
For the longest time, my top spot was a constant battle between RTJ and Fiona Apple. They're both incredible for different reasons, and the only reason they ended up in the order they did was down to how often I go back to them. But I'll be honest, I was waiting and hoping for something exceptional to drop, something that surprised me and caught me completely off-guard, with the quality to back it up! But Hell, that was a pipe dream! After all, to beat RTJ for me, you would need something incredibly personal, expertly produced and atmospheric, preferably something unique coming from the artist in question, a left turn that makes no sense... until you take a closer look at the artist's life recently and realise it makes all of the sense.
Well, as it happens, the same day that The Prophecy dropped, so did the latest work from a guy who's not just a rapper; he's sovereign, and his motherfucking name is Michael Eagle!
Anime, Trauma & Divorce by Open Mike Eagle
1. Everything Ends Last Year
2. Sweatpants Spiderman
3. Bucciarati (Ft. Kari Faux)
Some of you may just say this is recency bias. After all, the album dropped in October to mixed, if mostly positive reviews from critics, for being a decidedly more morose and sombre release from Open Mike, who isn't exactly the most joyful artist in the first place! I mean just based on the title, this promised to be somewhat of an ordeal... but even so, I was not prepared for this! This guy already blew me away multiple times this past decade, culminating in Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, an album I would place in my top 10 of the entire past decade, regardless of genre! And while only time will tell whether this will measure up to it in my books, the fact that it has the potential to do so speaks volumes.
See, while he has got personal in the past, Open Mike Eagle has always kept things somewhat light and humorous on his albums, where the hurt and existentialism was more subtext to a lot of the humour, outside of isolated moments like Idaho and My Auntie's Building. Well here, the gloves are off, as he gets even more personal by detailing the worst year of his entire life -that being 2019- in which his marriage, career and life completely fell apart! From the songs about staring into the abyss on The Edge Of New Clothes and the closer, to the all-consuming hopelessness of Bucciarati and Everything Ends Last Year, to the midlife crisis he's feeling on Wtf is Self Care and Sweatpants Spiderman -and really across the majority of this album to be honest- to the one or 2 welcome moments of respite on Headass and I'm a Joestar, which you feel are just as much for his benefit as ours.
You're witnessing an artist who seems to have had such a clear vision of the trajectory of his career, now watching that plan fall to pieces, having no idea where to even start putting it all back together, as he walks among the wreckage that was his life, which he likens to a plane crash! And again, the worst part is: this is Open Mike Eagle! I've looked up to this guy: he's incredibly smart, he's self-aware, he makes all the right moves! Well, no, because he's human; as he says on Death Parade, just because you know you're in a bad cycle, even if you take all the right steps to get out, you may still find yourself right back in there at the end of it all. And in keeping with that, he doesn't exactly paint himself in the most flattering light across this album. The Black Mirror Episode didn't REALLY ruin his marriage, it's very much implied that he probably wasn't focusing on his family enough compared to his career! That's an attempt at humour, which like a lot of the comedic moments on this album, feel more and more like a coping mechanism, delivered through gritted teeth! I mean I still laugh, they're funny lines and jokes, but I usually do so exactly like him, wryly and shaking my head in disbelief. And the multiple anime references are just a welcome bonus for someone like me!
This album does not have a single miss, and the production, content and performances are all next-level, particularly from our guests Video Dave and Kari Faux, who certainly match Open Mike on each of their songs! As does, surprisingly, his son the Infamous A$e, who shows up on a couple of the tracks here to add yet another layer to all this, and a much needed one at that! You see, despite all his pain and grief, Open Mike is still incredibly smart and mature; and so after wallowing for a bit, he does come to the conclusion that he can't let himself drown, because his kid still needs him! And he won't let his son get caught up in that cycle, even if it threatens to swallow him up again! After all, as I said before, there is an implication the marriage ended because he prioritised his career over his family, and he's at least going to try and work on that element of himself as he attempts to piece everything else back together too!
... Look, I've been saying for years now this guy is one of my favourite artists, if not my favourite solo artist to come out of the 2010s. Most of his work is music I have heralded as some of the best of the decade, and back in 2017, the only thing barring his album from the number 1 spot was, funny enough, RTJ3, my favourite Run The Jewels album! Well, in 2020, Open Mike Eagle didn't just earn that number 1 spot, he absolutely ran away with it! Rarely have I heard a rap album this layered, deep, mature, compelling, and deeply personal to me as a huge fan of the guy! This is an album that feels like it would have hit me just as hard as it did regardless of the context from the rest of this year, and it serves as a personal exercise in deep-seated empathy that absolutely overwhelms me whenever I listen to it!
And so, I am proud and also kind of sad to pronounce Anime, Trauma & Divorce the best album of 2020! Congratulations Mike Eagle, I'm so sorry for the trauma you had to go through to make this, and I wish you all the best moving forward! I for one will continue to support whatever you decide to do next!
But hey, if you disagree, or think any of my other picks are dumb, let me know your own favourites in the comments. I appreciate the interaction, and in a year like this, I feel it's more important than ever. One more list to go this month, so stay tuned, and until the next time, I'm Fionn and this is The Social Tune signing off.