There’s no way to address the end of 2020 without acknowledging the exhaustion of it all. In a time of refunded concert tickets and closed movie theaters, it’s too facile to state that the still fairly steady stream of recorded music was a nurturing escape from the agonies of a global pandemic — mismanaged to compounded troubles within the borders of the U.S. — but there’s also some truth to it. Doing my small part to provide financial support to a corner of the industry most reliant on live events, I bought more physical and digital musical than usual, dazzling myself anew with the breadth of talent available at the drop of a needle. Rarely have I had so many tremendous records to choose from for this annual exercise, and rarely have I been so certain about the title that must top the list.
1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Raw, propulsive, and endlessly inventive, Fiona Apple outdoes herself yet again. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a statement of adamant selfhood made in defiance of a society — and the mostly male beneficiaries of it — that instinctively yearn to diminish her. “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up/ I won’t shut up,” Apple declares on my favorite track, and it seems she’s prepared to lift every kindred voice along with hers.
2. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher — And here’s one of those kindred voices. An ingenious songwriter and emotionally alert performer, Phoebe Bridgers crafts a masterwork with her second full-length solo album. Filled with music that insinuates into the very soul, Punisher is beautiful devastation.
3. Bartees Strange, Live Forever — Taking a wide-ranging set of influences — funk and soul and indie rock and jazz and practically any other genre found in a proper record store — and melding them into a sound that is at one familiar and yet totally unique, Bartees Strange shows what can be accomplished when confining rules are set aside.
4. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud — Katie Crutchfield emerges from great personal change with an album of powerful vulnerability. Saint Cloud was created in the wake of Crutchfield getting sober and otherwise addressing personal troubles, and it feels like confession and release at all once.
5. Haim, Women in Music Pt. III — On their third album, Haim expands and explodes their slightly retrograde pop, adding unexpected textures at every turn while maintaining an unerring knack for delectable hooks. Their talent has been clear from the moment their splendid debut arrived. On Women in Music Pt. III, for the first time, that talent seems limitless.
6. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas — Neo-soul that is so exquisite that it’s no wonder Lianne La Havas decided that her third album should bear her name. Her ravishing vocals take songs that are already nicely crafted and elevates them to the heavens.
7. Bob Mould, Blue Hearts — The college-rock veteran unleashes his anger, responding to the regressive politics of the current moment with furious guitars and throat-shredding vocals. Blue Hearts is a roundhouse punch delivered with heavily blistered knuckles.
8. Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers — In some glorious pocket universe where the alternative rock boom of the nineteen-nineties led to the likes of Veruca Salt and Tracy Bonham becoming the arena-filling superstars, Fake It Flowers was the biggest album of the year.
9. Frances Quinlan, Likewise — The solo debut from the frontwoman of Hopalong reminds me of the sterling albums from the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger when she struck out on her own. That is a high compliment.
10. Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels — This is the sound of whiskey and spent cigarettes and the peeling paint of a dive bar conjured into tough, bluesy music. It is glorious.
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