Spencer’s Top Fifteen (?!) Albums of 2020

After all, why not? Why shouldn’t I do fifteen?

Photo by Eric Krull on Unsplash

What a dumpster fire of a year. But! I contend that the one bright spot of 2020 has been the music. In preparation for making this list, I keep a running annual tally of all the enjoyable albums that have come out that year. The list normally caps out at around 15. But this year, that number is twenty fucking nine. 29! So, I’ve decided to do something radical: I’m increasing my list to top fifteen albums of the year. In exchange, I won’t be talking about singles. As a reminder of my criteria, the album must have been released this year, and I need to have listened to an album in full. So, without further ado, let’s get into it!

Album #15: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius

Superlative: Most experimental and varied

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a brutal, emotional album. Perfume Genius is known for weaving vulnerability and queerness into his music, and his newest endeavor is no exception. Mike Hadreas brings his crooning voice and extremely wide-ranging instrumentation — from pianos and strings to synths and drum machines — to every inch of this album. It almost feels as though from the opening track Hadreas takes you by the hand, and leads you on a journey through his experiences, thoughts, and most private moments, in the hopes that you might be able to understand, empathize, and learn from what he has to show you. It’s an experience I whole-heartedly recommend.

Album #14: Fish Pond Fish by Darlingside

Superlative: Most soothing and intimate

Darlingside always make the listener feel like they are sitting with them, around a fire, singing songs about the nature of our relationship to the world, what family means to us, and how we treat each other. I can’t think of another band that gets so intimate with its audience or that engages through highly technical and beautiful instrumentation. Darlingside is not very well known (criminal, in my book), but that obscurity helps the intimacy in each song feel all the more earnest. Fish Pond Fish is a masterclass in harmonization and putting traditionally folksy instruments to good use.

Album #13: SUGAREGG by Bully

Superlative: Most done with your bullshit

One of the more aggressive albums on this list, SUGAREGG is the first album from Bully after the band was reinvented as a solo project. Alicia Bognanno proves definitively that she can keep making incredible albums on her own. Each song on SUGAREGG feels like a shot of adrenaline, and it’s hard not to shout along with the lyrics or just get up and move. The energy this album brings is in the same vein as Bully’s previous albums, but SUGAREGG has more of a biting edge — the lyrics send a message saying “Enough with the bullshit, why don’t you show me who you really are?” Combined with the rough guitars and raw drums, the message cuts deep.

Album #12: Shore by Fleet Foxes

Superlative: Best Music to Fall Asleep/Wake Up to

Shore is the most calming album on this list. Fleet Foxes once again embrace the light folk sound they’re known for — each song on this album sounds like a summer day, with the sun shining while the breeze flows through your hair, with the album title literally invoking a beach scene. If that’s the kind of vibe you’re in the mood for, look no further than Shore. It’s also great to study to!

Album #11: Heavy Light by U.S. Girls

Superlative: Most banger of an opening

I discovered U.S. Girls this summer, when I heard their song “Poem” from their previous album on the radio. I instantly fell in love. Shortly after listening to that album to death, their newest dropped. And boy does this album start off on a high note. The jam “4 American Dollars” sets the disco vibe of the rest of the album. The opening hook pulls you in, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from listening to the rest of the album. With a Bowie-esque range, this album reaches all kinds of genres and sounds, from slick guitar bops to light piano tracks that, if nothing else, will make you respect the hell out of the artistry.

Album #10: The Slow Rush by Tame Impala

Superlative: Most psychedelic (I mean come on, it’s Tame Impala, what did you expect)

You know the deal with Tame Impala: psychedelic music over echo-y vocals and cool beats. The Slow Rush delivers on that expectation in every way. Essentially a continuation of what we heard on the last album, Currents, this album gave me hope for 2020 back when it came out in February. That turned out to be false hope, but it’s a credit to the album.

Album #9: I’m Your Empress Of by Empress Of

Superlative: Most expressive

This is Empress Of’s best yet. She unapologetically embraces her Latina background, and imbues it into every song, even at times bringing on her mom to speak. In doing so, she meaningfully adds to each song, making some absolute bangers in the process. I’m Your Empress Of mixes electronica and percussives to create a dance-y sound that you won’t be able to stop jamming to. The lyrics and vocals are both fun and introspective, and touch on subjects of feminism, break-ups, and womanhood. A truly modern album that helped set the bar for music early on this year, I’m Your Empress Of absolutely earns its placement on this list.

Album #8: Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Superlative: Most Melancholic

In early December, a meme went around Twitter comparing Phoebe Bridgers to Taylor Swift — saying things like “Taylor Swift is Phoebe Bridgers for people who don’t lie to their therapist” (@ramencult) or “phoebe bridgers is taylor swift for girls who have crumbs in their bed” (@onlineryn). Here’s the thing: despite the unseriousness of the meme, the comparison is apt. They’ve got the same style, only Bridgers is more indie, less country, and less wholesome. Punisher radiates with melancholic, in-your-feelings vibes, and Bridgers makes for an excellent storyteller. I only discovered her music this year, and it’s worth mentioning that her first album merits a listen as well. [Side note: As I was writing this, Phoebe Bridgers released a new EP of Christmas songs, and folks, it’s good! Featuring both Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger, it’s perfect for the season.]

Album #7: As Long As You Are by Future Islands

Superlative: Most longing-for-what-once-was-and-what-might-have-been

Future Islands has, of late, liked to keep things consistent. Themes of nostalgia, lost love, and dwelling on the past can be found both in Singles and on The Far Field. Future Islands keep up the trend yet again on As Long As You Are. This consistency led certain critics (*cough* Pitchfork *cough*) to dislike this album for not innovating more, but I say to hell with that. If you’ve got a sound that I like, and you give me more of that, you’re good. If you like Future Islands’ last few albums, then you know what you’re in for — i.e. synths and guitars mixed with a soothing but occasionally viscerally guttural voice — and you will thoroughly enjoy their latest.

Album #6: WOMB by Purity Ring

Superlative: Most abstract and anatomically interesting

WOMB features conjoined, abstract lyrics that conjure vivid imagery that make you feel like you’re catching a glimpse of another plane of existence. One of the great joys of reading books, watching movies, and listening to music is being able to be transported to another world and experience a reality different to the one we live every day. Purity Ring absolutely fulfill that joy in every way on this album.

Album #5 Shadow Offering by Braids

Superlative: Most ethereal

I’ve always loved the vocals behind Montreal locals Braids — Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s voice sounds like an ethereal call, and it’s no different on Braids’s newest record, Shadow Offering. The main difference between this album and their previous discography is that the songs here feel more grounded, and less abstract than those in Flourish//Perish, their 2013 name-maker. The subject of the songs on Shadow Offering range from lovers and friends to guilt and fear, in a colorful expression of thoughts and emotions that not only espouses the band’s ideas, but also paints a picture of their vision of the world. And they do so alongside some truly excellent electronica. An absolute delight.

Album #4: Free Love by Sylvan Esso

Superlative: Most compellingly danceable

Free Love is hard to describe. On the one hand, it has soft, quiet moments of contemplation and reflection (see: “What If”, “Free”, “Rooftop Dancing”). On the other, there are pieces where the music will drive you to move your body (see: “Train”, “Frequency”, “Runaway”). My one qualm about the album is that it’s short — it’s just under a half hour in length — and after it was over, I wanted more, but had to settle for re-listening to the album and Sylvan Esso’s previous discography. In spite of that, it remains a Sylvan Esso classic: snappy lyrics mixed with dance-y tunes. If you want a unique, indie pop sound that’s a short and sweet experience, look no further.

Album #3: We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches

Superlative: End-of-the-year surprise!

This album only came out on December 11th, and yet I’ve already placed it near the top of my list for best albums of the year. Recency effect aside, this album is incredible. The Avalanches are back with their signature sampling, mixed in with added new sounds both of their own creation and through collaboration. The way I’ve always viewed The Avalanches is that each of their album evokes a particular place and mood. Since I Left You put the listener on an ocean liner sailing across the Atlantic in the 1920’s. Wildflower was all about living in Brooklyn in the 90’s. Their newest endeavor takes the listener on a 2001-style trip through space, like a radio transmission propagating throughout the universe (think: the opening scene of Contact).

Album #2: None!

That’s right, we’ve got nothing coming in at rank number two. Why? Well, because our number one pick is…

Album(s) #1: Women In Music Pt. III by HAIM & RTJ4 by Run The Jewels

Superlative: Most fun/innovative/clever/summer-y

That’s right, I’ve got a tie for first place this year. Both of these albums represent the best this year had to offer in two incomparable ways, so they will be sharing this year’s number one slot. Let’s start by talking about HAIM.

Women In Music Pt. III, or, as it is often abbreviated, WIMPIII, is, simply put, a perfect album. A consistent fun and upbeat sound, paired with thoughtful lyrics and a rhythm you can’t help but dance to, WIMPIII is an album that embodies the feeling of summer. The Haim sisters go from celebrating their hometown of LA in the opening track “Los Angeles” to contemplating returning a drunk call from an ex in “3 AM” to closing by pouring out their emotions for how in love they feel in “FUBT.” And as if the full album wasn’t enough, HAIM also decided to include three bonus tracks at the end, giving us a little extra cherry on top of a fantastic listening experience. HAIM brilliantly make use of guitars that won’t quit, drums that manage to always keep it interesting, and a driving bass that holds it all together. WIMPIII will make you dance, laugh, cry, and feel every emotion in between. Every track here is a banger. Listen to them.

Superlative: Most of-the-moment

RTJ4, by comparison, is the epitome of an album that meets the moment. It was released at the height of the George Floyd protests, and even though it was written many months before, it feels as though it could have been written entirely in those weeks. El-P’s impeccable production combined with stinging lyrics brings an album fueled by rage against a failing government, greedy corporations, and all the systemic injustices within modern American society. Take this lyric from “walking in the snow,” sung by Killer Mike: “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.” Invoked are the last words of Eric Garner, which in turn were echoed as the last words of George Floyd, as Killer Mike condemns the inaction of those who profess to be sympathetic to the cause of racial injustice but whose actions fail to match their words. And yet this condemnation is not blame — rather, the frequency of these kinds of events have numbed the public to them, which is the true tragedy. To quote Kendrick Lamar, on his song “Hood Politics” from To Pimp a Butterfly, “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.” RTJ continues to prove him right as one of the best duos in rap. Don’t be like the critics. Put the pistol and fist up in the air and blast RTJ4.

Honorable Mentions: Ghosts V & Ghosts VI by Nine Inch Nails; La Vita Nuova EP by Christine and the Queens

Way back in 2008, Nine Inch Nails released an album called Ghosts I-IV which was composed of instrumental music, much of which went on to have second lives. Some songs became tracks on the soundtrack for The Social Network, while another became the backing track for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” This year, NIN followed up on that previous album with two new ones: Ghosts V & VI. Each represented different themes — V presented a theme of hope, while VI presented a theme of despair. Both albums are strong additions to the instrumental oeuvre of NIN, and make for great background music, depending on your mood.

Also worthy of a mention on this list, despite not being album length, is Christine and the Queens’s EP La vita nuova. Taking influence from Chairlift, La vita nuova is packed with funky beats that are laced with vocals that drip with emotion. When combined with singer Héloïse Letissier’s French lyrical additions, each song becomes the perfect blend of danceable and heartfelt. At 22 minutes, it’s not a long listen, but it will leave you wanting more. Also, on a side note, if you haven’t listened to the episode of the podcast Song Exploder where Christine and the Queens breaks down her writing process for the song “Doesn’t matter,” it’s fascinating and awe-inspiring!

That wraps up this year’s (very long) list! Despite its length, I’m bummed I didn’t get to talk about a whole bunch of other albums I enjoyed that came out this year. For instance, the new Childish Gambino album! Did you forget that came out back in March? I know I did for a while! Or Dreamland, the new Glass Animals album which, while the album did was not as cohesive as it attempted to be, had some absolute bangers on it! Matt Berninger, of The National fame, made his solo debut, and Fiona Apple had a comeback. But if, for whatever, reason, you’ve decided to only listen to a couple 2020 albums, I hope you’ll give the ones in this list priority. And to make it even easier for you to do so, I’ve made a playlist of all of the albums on this list, in order from 1 to 15, which is embedded at the end of this article. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I’ll see you all next year for the best albums of 2021!

Paleontologist-in-training, also enjoys indie music and indie video games.