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Tim’s 10 (Or So!) Favorite Albums of 2020

From Dua to Phoebe, our weird year in music.
January 1, 2021
Featured Image
Singer Phoebe Bridgers performs onstage at Teragram Ballroom (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Music never really hit right for me until I understood it as a communal experience. As a kid there was always a connective tissue missing in the Alice 105.9 Top 40, my school’s marching band, my parents smooth jazz. I wasn’t the type to listen to ambient sounds as I did homework. Or sit alone with my discman. It wasn’t until I started going to shows with my friends that I really started to get it. To feel how it can bind you with your fellow man, with time, with your own emotions.

So writing about music in 2020 is necessarily melancholic because we were denied that togetherness. We had our memories or our bubbles, but without the sensory overload of a sweaty rock club or the majesty of the Greek Theatre or the mass of humanity at a festival it wasn’t really the same. The connective tissue was torn.

I rang in 2020 with Poolside and some of my besties in Los Angeles. We made friends with strangers, including a guy who looked like Joe Burrow who proceeded to have a few too many to drink after which he began repeatedly doing the Heisman pose to our pleasure. Had I known it would be the last time I was at a show all year well … I probably would’ve stayed for the whole after-show DJ set, but it was late, I was tired. The babysitter had to get paid. Lesson learned.

So this 2020 albums of the year list comes with a unique distinction from my previous  efforts. I haven’t actually seen a single song on this list played live. When most of them were written, the artists expected they’d be touring—the music was written outside the context of our quarantined world. As the year went on some adapted, like everyone else, and the themes of isolation and contagion seeped in. It makes the whole thing feel a little weird.

So, inspired by Sonny Bunch’s haphazard methodology, here are my 10 (or so) favorite albums of 2020.

I want to offer one important caveat before we get to the list: I’m just a humble content man and music buff. I don’t have the talent to judge these albums on musicianship. I’m not going to pretend to like something that got rave reviews from the pros (hi Fiona) or mass appreciation from my peers (this essay on Taylor Swift’s records was better for me than her music). Plus I was pretty busy helping to defeat a nectarine tyrant this year so I may discover some of 2020’s best music in 2021.

This is simply a list of favorites—what resonated for me this year—in the hope you might read it and find something new to love too.

So in that spirit, here’s a Spotify playlist with the best tracks from the below records (sans WAP, to respect those with virgin ears) if you’d rather experience the music than read my vamping about it.

Honorable mentions: Orville Peck, Show Pony EP (Country); Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions (Country); Freddie Gibbs, Alfredo (Hip Hop); Run the Jewels, RTJ4 (Hip Hop); Kamaiyah, No Explanations (Hip Hop); Khruangbin/Leon Bridges, Texas Sun EP (Rock); Kevin Morby, Sundowner (Rock); The Strokes, The New Abnormal (Rock); U.S. Girls, Heavy Light (Rock); and Caribou, Suddenly (Rock).

11. Dehd: Flower of Devotion

10. Acid Tongue: Bullies

So here’s the deal: My grandma always smiled widest when Big Band came on. All you boomers reading this still get tingly over McCartney and Dylan. No matter how on trend some of us attempt to be, in the end it’s the music that we fell in love with as we came of age that pleases us most. For me that’s indie rock and my beloved genre is beginning to feel about as aged as swing and Beatlemania: Back in aught-nine when I was seeing 40 shows a year while wearing an onion on my belt (as was the style at the time), the entire Coachella line-up was indie rockers with guitars. These days … not so much.

Which brings me to Dehd and Acid Tongue, two bands that hit all of my erogenous zones.

Acid Tongue brings the simple winning formula of drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. When that hook drops on Sometimes and Guy Keltner belts in his twangy falsetto “LOVE IS A STRANGE ONE, LOVE ISN’T KIND … GOD SAVE THE WICKED” I just want to be 3 whiskey and cokes deep in a pit-stained v-neck tee at the Black Cat. It’s perfect. Their rockier numbers bring a northwest garage/psych rock feel of a Ty Segall or Dandy Warhols and their poppier numbers are in the vein of Kings of Leon.

Dehd is a three-piece rock band with a more spacey, psychedelic sensibility. When Emily is on vocals they have a Siouxsie and the Banshees feel and the album’s lead track Desire has an absolutely massive chorus that would echo off the walls of the Fox Theatre.

Both albums are great and will let you scratch that stripped down, raucous indie rock itch that’s been left untended at a time when the music world is going a different direction and the rock clubs are closed.

9. Kota The Friend: Everything

Kota has dropped an album or EP each of the past three years and they’ve all been fantastic. He’s been my most consistent listen for a while now. Kota exudes a feel-good, Chance The Rapper-style hip hop vibe with smooth rhymes and jazzy beats that groove easily into any circumstance. Despite Kota’s youth the album has a pleasant nostalgia about it, where I sort of have to remind myself that it wasn’t me living these summertimes in Brooklyn.

8. Car Seat Headrest: Making a Door Less Open

The smart set didn’t like the latest from Will Toledo. Too weird and self-indulgent. They don’t like that his take on “Hollywood” is cliche. Too much like Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” they observed.

Well I say fuck the smart set. (Populism!) “Beverly Hills” is a bop! And so are most of the tracks on Making A Door Less Open.

The album has hooks for days and days. “Weightlifters” sounds like a stadium show epic that rock bands don’t make anymore. “There Must Be More Than Blood” is an absolute monster anthem that I blared windows down all summer. “Can’t Cool Me Down” is a slinky earworm that’s a departure from the rest of the catalogue. So stick it to those elites with their lattes and book reading and Bulwark+ subscriptions and enjoy some rock music.

7. Jay Electronica: A Written Testimony

An enigmatic hip hop luminary that hadn’t put out more than a few stray singles in a decade, Jay exploded in 2020 with multiple albums and tracks, most notably A Written Testimony, on which Jay-Z collaborated heavily. Jay-E (he … does not go by this) is a graduate of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans (home of the best high school brass band in America) and the record’s first real song is a tribute to New Orleans rap legend Soulja Slim, while a later track samples the Big Easy’s Lil’ Elt doing “Get the Gat” which of course also holds the honor as the soundtrack to the only thing that happened in the White House this year that was worth a shit.

Outside of these NOLA references, Jay-E weaves his spiritual musings (he’s a professed Nation of Islam member) and clever rhymes into a style of verse that feels like an East Coast rap record from the aughts with Jay-Z taking a bunch of turns at the wheel. The record’s best track is “Shiny Suit Theory,” a silky R&B number with horns and bells—originally written in 2010—in which Jay-E recounts convos with his shrink and with “Puff”(Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Sean Combs) like any good middle-aged hip hopper figuring out what it all means.

6. Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher

It must’ve been flattering when one of the world’s biggest pop stars took two swings at making an imitation Phoebe Bridgers record this year and just didn’t quite get there. On the O.G Punisher, which dropped in June without songwriting help from The National, Bridgers delivers a gorgeous, melancholy, clever, heart-rending indie album par excellence.

“We hate Tears in Heaven, but it’s sad that his baby died,” Bridgers deadpans on “Moon Song.” On the title track, she shouts out all those who suffer from RBF: “I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face.” And I couldn’t help but think that she knew what was to come this year when she wrote about “drinking and wearing a mask.”

The pianos and harmonies on Punisher are reminiscent of Elliott Smith and like Smith she sings of death in Angeles: “They killed a fan down by {Dodger} stadium. Was only visiting, they beat him to death.”

It’s an intimate and dazzling portrait of a young woman’s life and your best bet for feeling feelings on the list.

As an added bonus, Bridgers’s success is fitting coda to the demise of Ryan Adams—a musician he harassed not only ended his lukewarm career, but she released a record better than any of his.

5. Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?

Yasss Qween.

I am really tempted to leave the review there. But for those who want a bit more, Jessie offers pure early Pose-era disco realness and it is only missing Pray Tell camping on the mic. The sound is Spirits Having Flown-era Bee Gees and in 2021 I think we deserve a Barry Gibb collab.

The record as a whole is a little bit cheeky. A little bit Anita Ward.

It’s the most fun you could’ve had this past year. So enjoy it.

4. Thundercat: It Is What It Is

I first came across It Is What It Is right as the pandemic was hitting and it marked what I thought would be a painful 6 week stretch of isolation. Whoops. It is what it is. Thundercat instead ended up being the soundtrack for a socially distant year.

Previously recognized for his grammy-award winning collaboration bringing the jazz and bass to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, IIWII is a more jazz-fusion, less hip hop take on the genre. It shines on the track “Black Quails,” a funky collaboration with Childish Gambino and Steve Lacy that happens to be one of 2020’s best songs. Later, on “Dragonball Durag,” Thundercat gives you no option but to envision tipsily dancing on your man (or girl) as the night winds down. The hazy, jazzy “Existential Dread” is a track that gives advice on surviving a panic attack, a timely PSA if there ever was one.

3. Yves Tumor: Heaven To A Tortured Mind

Is there anything more “2020” than an album that aims at soothing tortured minds? Yves latest record opens with a sharp, pulsing horn sample and bass line that breaks into a MGMT-esque psych rock anthem asking “how much longer til December?” a rhetorical q that ended up carrying more weight than they anticipated.

This opening track is also a signal that the gender- and genre-bending experimental/electronic/R&B artist was going to try their hand at glam rock. The Bowie and Prince inspirations are all over the libidinous 12-track romp, guitar solos and all. Amidst the glam are a few detours through modern alternative R&B, in the vein of peers like Blood Orange, closing with a sultry number that would make Barry White blush. If you are looking for a new record to replace Jivanka’s sexy mix, this is it.

2. Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia

Mother Jones’s Sam Van Pykeren wrote that Dua Lipa wants you to take a break from the end of the world and dance and, well, she achieved her goal. It was the record that our family came back to most this year any time we wanted to put on a wig and get weird.

Dua succeeds in her effort to transport the listener to an apocalyptic, interstellar dance party, without giving you a moment to breathe. It was by far the year’s best pop record front to back, it could’ve had 5 singles, ranging from Disco to Winehouse to Gaga.

It is the stay at home party record of the year, try “Levitating”, “Don’t Start Now”, and “Hallucinate” on your living room dance floor tonight.

1. The Avalanches: We Will Always Love You

My favorite album of 2020 was released with the year nearly over, after some of the professional critics had already published their lists. I tweeted that the new Avalanches record was hotttttt. And it is that. But it is also a soundscaping, sampling masterpiece that bridges soul and spacey indie rock and trip hop seamlessly.

The aussie duo Robbie Chater and Tony di Blasi first appeared in 2000 with an underground mega-hit that wove together hundreds of samples from junk-store records. It was 16 years until they delivered another record, thanks in part to Chater’s substance abuse. Di Blasi toured that record alone, with Chater in rehab, unaware that the band was pressing forward without him.

After four years sober Chater reunited with di Blasi and put together an all-star cast to support We Will Always Love You. Leon Bridges croons on “Interstellar Love,” a spacey Eno-esque jam that is destined to appear on a Christopher Nolan soundtrack. “Blood Orange” brings an R&B groove to the title track. Soul singer Sananda Maitreya, née Terence Trent D’Arby, belts on “Reflecting Light.” The dance number “Music Makes Me High” elevates the 1980 disco track by Salty Miller to such a degree that Bill Kristol would be forced to start swishing his hips. “Take Care In Your Dreaming” is a meditative hip hop number with Denzel Curry, trip-hop legend Tricky, and fellow Aussie R&B artist Sampa the Great.

Somehow Chater and di Blasi connect these various vocalists and their sounds through space and time, offering us the perfect quarantine record, one that will restore your sense of connectedness, until that time we can meet in the fields of Indio again.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.