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“Dolby’s Top 50 Albums of 2020”

It was the worst of times, it was… the period offering albums eligible for this list.

But I love how we chastise 2020 with this foolish delusion that 2021 and the years to come are going to be even better. I mean, for all we know, next year there could still be the COVID and also like some boofing unicorns flying through the air at us, or some nonsense like that. And remember that brain-eating amoeba, or whatever? It would certainly be nice to say this were all a dream.

Anyway, apropos of my slopping this list together at all, one constant does bizarrely still hold up, which is that there is music being made out there that works, in compelling and innovative ways. And there’s just so MUCH of it being pumped out and yes, like last year and the year before, I relied pretty heavily on Bandcamp. I think the Pitchfork zeitgeist has definitely complete expired, what with them apparently taking the objective of devolving into sex-obsessed middle-schoolers, and no other journal has emerged to the point of defining a culture, since the last time they did it. 

Also, no one genre is dominant in music today, which I think is undeniably a good thing — it’s like walking down a street and seeing a Mexican restaurant, and Italian and a Chinese. The variety is there and there’s something for every mood — there’s music that soundtracks confrontation and there’s music that almost seems to mimic sleep in its hypnotic tranquility. And sleeping well through the storm — that my friends is the greatest gift of all. Here’s to your waking séance, reader.

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Honorable Mention:

Aemong – Crimson

Necrot – Mortal

Special Interest – The Passion of

Tusken Raiders – Bantha Tracks, Vol. 3

Era Bleak – Era Bleak

Simona Castricum – Panic/Desire

Ben Pest – Vim & Vigour (EP)

James Carney Sextet – Pure Heart

Expander – Neuropunk Boostergang

Dan Shake – Mosquito (EP)

Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence

Dummy – Ep2

Nothing – The Great Dismal

Ital Tek – Dream Boundary (EP)

Maral – Push

Clock of Time – Pestilent Planet

Eartheater – Phoenix: Flames are Dew upon My Skin

 John Frusciante – Maya

Fatwires – The Wicked Path

Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin – FlySiffu’s

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50 Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy – Onward and Upward

The mission statement of Ralph Peterson is surely modest enough to noticeably ingratiate itself: keep alive the legacy of the late Art Blakey, drummer, Wynton Marsalis protégé and founder of the band The Jazz Messengers. Peterson has woven a jazz tapestry in the spirit of his late mentor that, according to Bandcamp, “bears all the hallmarks of the Messengers including the variety of colors, the polyrhythms, the harmonies, the vast reservoirs of blues and soul, and the importance of continuity and telling a story.” This is music still vital to this day, its “color” resting on its own indescribability with words but unmistakable resonation upon an ardent listen.

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49 Redpine & Solo – Citizen (EP)

Continuing in the UK’s proud DJ tradition of Fatboy Slim and Four Tet, Redpine & Solo line up for their third release, the Citizen EP, with some serious, professional-sounding IDM glitch. The moods and atmospheres on these songs stay incredibly chill and easy, belying a percussion outlay of verbose kicks and snares that snap along at a breakneck speed, giving these mixes a cutting-edge swagger. The result is somewhat like Autechre doing a Mouse on Mars remix — the rhythmic frenzy takes the sonic forefront enough to where it embodies the music’s core, with a melodic backdrop that in its own right never seems to dry out. 

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48 Nubya Garcia – SOURCE 

Arguably the premiere female jazz musician in history, British saxophonist Nubya Garcia has followed the terse, staunchly chiseled mini-LP When We Are (2018) with a gorgeous, fully blossomed monster of a collection. One stunning aspect of SOURCE is how it combines eclectic genres like worldbeat and R&B into the original free jazz model but still comes off so personal and warm, with Garcia’s sax achieving timbres and inflections with a level of character and deliberateness of which most vocalists could even only dream.

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47 Ka – Descendants of Cain

I got hooked on Ka in 2013 on the stunningly bare, unapologetic snapshot of Brooklyn grit that was The Night’s Gambit. It seemed like the natural succession of hip-hop, with his voice even sounding beleaguered and almost moribund to the point of obviating authenticity and dedication. The direction he’s gone for 2020, and for the lingering parts of last decade, though retaining his record label Iron Works, is just putting in more time and dedication in the studio: he’s credited as the “co-producer” on Descendants of Cain but one look at the track list shows him writing his stamp on pretty much all these songs. He’s even having a traceable amount of fun, too, something hitherto unexpected, with tracks like “The Eye of a Needle” setting his disillusioned, stone-faced storytelling to some colorful soul samples and jungle grooves.

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46 Homeboy Sandman – Don’t Feed the Monster

I have to admit: I’m a little curious as to whether Homeboy Sandman is black or not, but I feel like a douche bag going and looking it up. And yeah ok I kind of feel like a moron being a white dude and listening to hip-hop but at the same time if you took away all the American genres of music spawned by black people we’d all be sitting here listening to like Winona’s Big Brown Beaver Band or something along those lines. This being said, Don’t Feed the Monster isn’t really a BLACK album in terms of trying to advance the stature of the race or proffering current black politics. But it is a Homeboy Sandman album through and through in the sense of him just getting on the mic, being himself and unburdening his soul to us, as they said in Chasing Amy. The results, then, aren’t always clean, or nice, or cooperative, but part of me believes that this album will go down as a classic for its verbose honesty and general guileless body of discourse, in addition to its apparently complete obliviousness to cottoning on to current, prevailing styles and strategies in the industry. It’s the epitome of a Bandcamp hip-hop album, in other words: crack open a beer with your buddies in the living room, hit “record” on Garage Band and just tell us what the fu** is what. 

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45 Aaron Parks – Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man

We now turn to what’s probably our proviso installment of “hippie jazz” on this list and Caucasian Aaron Parks, who leads the band Little Big on their second full-length recorded expedition but slots his own name in the project’s moniker as the group’s pianist and general songwriter. It’s jazz that secretly at night gets dressed up in its parents’ art rock and classic rock clothes, wielding the pristine melodic sense of Rush or Yes on the gorgeous piano journey “Here,” and grafting down a set of chords and intervals on “Solace” that reminded me of the more melodic, reflective Bela Fleck material (without the banjo, as it were).

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44 Khruangbin – Morcechai

Just barring an over-analysis of this particular enterprise, a cursory observation at hand would be that Mordechai features LYRICS within this Houston band’s suave funk-rock, with Con Todo el Mundo having been an albeit breezy and colorful instrumental album. Even still, though, the verbal statements the band transmits tend to be more broad and general than personal or narrative, the album’s centerpiece “Time (You and I)” buoyed by the incessant mantra of “That’s right / If we had more time / We could be together / If we had more time / We could live forever”. The one exception, though, is certainly a notable one: a charming and stunning, post-hurricane séance by two conversing vocalists, “Connaissais de Face,” which I’m sure means something in French but to me means that these guys are serious about this whole life moving too fast thing, and getting down to brass tacks with the people you care about, in order to cement the connection while you can.

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43 Mammal Hands – Captured Spirits

Mammal Hands is a jazz trio out of Britain, perhaps along with the celestial Nubya Garcia hammering the final nail into the coffin of the former conception that said nationality were averse to such a genre, along with the celestial Nubya Garcia. The blueprint isn’t totally incompatible with that of Aaron Parks, resting as it does within this sort of jam-rock/jazz permutation that keeps coyly calling to mind Bela Fleck, this particular project perhaps taking more of a penchant for expansiveness. These songs seem congenitally incapable of settling down on a conventional meter, or even sometimes of keeping the same meter for more than one single thought. Also similar to Garcia’s band, a saxophone takes the melodic fore and ostensibly the cerebral control panel of this music, with the sanguine sounds of Jordan Smart gallivanting with a refreshing and affectively mournful persona throughout.

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42 Fatt Father – King Father

Yes, do not adjust your computer screen: I have an album on here by a dude named “Fatt Father,” on which he calls himself “King Father.” Now, the whole realm of parenting usually being a pretty lame subject for rap music aside, you might off the top of your head thing it’s a satire, but it really isn’t — in fact Shabazz Ford, as the artist was originally christened, brings in themes of the African royalty from which his race descends and basically refers to such an ideal even from modern life in American, implying that what you settle for in this life shouldn’t be any less of a pinnacle of happiness and glory. One good line on the album is “Fu** the mountaintop / If you ain’t even hype for the climb” and a whole slew of savvy Detroit producers help musically flank the rad dad’s gritty but anthemic Motor City rhymes.

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41 Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammed – JID002 Roy Ayers

This is actually an album that I reviewed this past spring or summer and that I indeed enjoyed quite a bit right off the bat, finding it of course mightily underrated by some other key publications. In specific, Pitchfork made the complaint that Younge and Muhammad, the two spearheading the “jazz is dead” series (or “JID,” as it’s rendered here), put too much of their own stamp on this project and didn’t let it gyrate as enough of a distinct Roy Ayers album. Well, their pie-in-the-sky rhetoric might significantly overrate the influence Roy Ayers has ACTUALLY had on music in the last 40 years, and might underrate the possibility that this is in fact the best full album he’s ever done. Front-to-back, this is a funky, loungy soul album that’s kind of jazzy in only in its ethos of long, stretched-out songs that aren’t going anywhere for a while, and eclectic instrumentation.

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40 Thoom – Pork

Like a reincarnation of Wolf Eyes with a little more gadgetry lying around and a little less of a proclivity for maniacal screaming, Thoom crafts a nonetheless jarring and unpleasant masterpiece here where everything from rhythm, vocals, song structure and even the meaning of what comprises a musical instrument at all, seems to be reevaluated. Written across various sites in Beirut, Chicago and Berlin, each of which apparently in its own way “represents her ancestral home,” as Bandcamp reports, Pork is a distinct portal of musique concrete horror, where helicopter sounds are incorporated as rhythm, kick drums are amped and muffled to the point of sounding like threatening burglars, and most importantly, nobody has any clue what she’s going to do next. 

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39 Finsta Bundy – 101: The High

You could throw the opener to this album, “Finsta Baby,” on The Low End Theory and nobody would probably bat an eyelash or wonder what happened to their music. Actually, it sounds like the exact same upright bass that soundtracked “Excursions”… it might be that function on Garage Band that Mike Doughty was talking about in the Stereogum interview. And no I’m not going to go on one of those spiels that’s like THIS IS WHAT HIP-HOP NEEDED because truth be told we’ve been experiencing a gaggle of post-trap Golden Era throwback from Ya$e to Clear Soul Forces to MIKE and a slew of others and these kicks and snares all seem to pack an enticing punch. True to form of the organic feel of this album, most of these tracks were produced by Finsta himself, with Evil Dee and D Ruckus taking some of the production credit as well, according to Discogs.

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38 Cornershop – England is a Garden

To be honest, before I heard this new album by Cornershop from Leicester, England, I thought this band had maybe if not one good song then one good PART of a song, the verse to “Brimful of Asha,” that catchy ’90s fast food jingle we all know and love. Well, that was the age of making money on rock music, so maybe that was enough for them, then. With this being the case, I have no idea why I even listened to this new album at all, but right away you seem to notice a more accomplished sense of musicianship — full, robust drum production and a bass part that’s way funkier than anything of which I’d prior thought these guys capable. The melodic sense is viable and Tjinder Singh on the vocals has this way of sounding kind of shy and also kind of really into his music as to exude a distinct sense of purpose, as played-out as this genre might otherwise sometimes seem.

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37 Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels

Probably one of the few installments on this list I didn’t get from Bandcamp’s Facebook feed, Lucinda Williams is not at all steeped in genre but rather has always made the precarious practice of shirking it — walking a bold line between rock and country since her career started and for her commercial breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Very much the anti-Taylor Swift, this country girl stays true to her roots throughout her career and records albums that are deaf to mainstream and to convention. The brooding, painstaking mid-section of “Big Black Train” and “Wakin’ up” should offer more than ample proof: she’d take pleasing a select few lonely, heartbreak-stricken girls over men in suits and ties, any day.

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36 Gen Pop – PPM66

There are things about Olympia, Washington’s Gen Pop that are mysterious and esoteric. There are other things about this band that are so simple they practically smack you in the face, like the fact that they hail from the ostensible birthplace of Nirvana (arguably the community that instilled in the band their DIY, iconoclastic ethos, at least, if not all their musical influences) and they make music that seems to combine the protogrunge of Mudhoney and the coy, melodic, male/female vocal interface of The Vaselines, two of Kurt Cobain’s remote mentors. But boy, does this guy sound British, and boy, do these guys keep a low profile, offering no personnel information on either Bandcamp or Discogs — maybe they’re going for the mythmaking developments they say are so beneficial for marketing. I heard this guy used to sleep under a bridge.

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35 Googie & Henry Canyons – Hijinx

Sometimes you’ve just gotta take it back to New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, for the true sinews of where the art form is headed next. On Hijinx, Jersey’s Googie and Brooklyn’s Henry Canyons remind us that it’s all about swagger, attacking the mic right away on opener “Pay Day” with supreme confidence and swerve, just daring you to doubt that they’re masters of this craft. The quip “You can’t eat no dollar bills” seems like a timely, refreshingly heady critique of these “stimulus checks” we’ve all been getting among drastically slowed production and overall this LP has the feel of a wild New York ride, glossing over sex and violence with the rhythm sovereign, all the way. 

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34 Napoleon da Legend – The Stuff of Legend

Brooklyn, New York’s Napoleon da Legend even kind of looks like Chino XL or Immortal Technique, two fellow Big Apple denizens, and brandishes a similarly undeniable dedication to the craft when tackling the mic: he’s got this effortless way of avoiding awkward themes or excessive braggadocio while still adhering to a street discourse that’s rugged and true, lassoing these songs around catchy little choruses not unlike Wu-Tang protégés Killarmy. “Legend of the Basilik” is a standout as well as “Legend of Anansi,” with Ro Data coming on sounding about as gutter as Ka, or Street Life crushing egos on a Wu-Tang track.

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33 Shackleton/Zimpel – Primal Forms

Those sauntering in to Primal Forms expecting it to adhere to trite, popular jazz convention are in for a jarring undertaking. Right away, ominous synths are splattered by twisted, dubbed sound bites, making for a foreboding textural landscape that will inform the entire project. To even further the befuddlement, I was skimming all over these guys’ Bandcamp blurb to find who the saxophonist was: as it turns out this da** thing is a clarinet, courtesy of Waclaw Zimpel, with Sam Shackleton handling programming duties, constructing drum sounds that certainly sound real and pummel onto the mix with more than enough force to saturate these songs in a sense of impending mania.

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32 Havukruunu – Uinuos Syomein Sota

Uinuos Syomein Sota comes in draped in arcane, foreign vocals that sound like Gregorian chants and to be honest, I listen to so much music over the course of a year that I thought I were preparing to write about an ambient or worldbeat release, as a result. The album descends with full, cataclysmic force, though, into vociferous speed metal, with the vocals of a dude who just goes by “Stefan” eschewing tone for relentless, throaty screams. Credit guitarist Bootleg-Henkka with a heady sound restraint: versatility is the name of the game with these guys, as these songs can turn on a dime from speed back to Iron Maiden hair metal, and so remaining light on their feet is an imperative. 

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31 TALsounds – Acquiesce

Bandcamp writes that Natalie Chami, a.k.a. TALsounds, “is a DIY staple within Chicago’s electronic scene,” such a descriptor of “DIY” then apparently lending itself to the disparate styles Chami has used to achieve sounds and compose albums in her career, from vocals, to programmed drums, to synth minimalism. Acquiesce is disciplined, staunch minimalism through and through, but seems he**-bent on infusing all of these stagnant synth runs with amazing breaths of life. They’re reproduced sounds that think they’re alive, in other words, whether from too much coffee or whatever: they do not sit still bit eternally vacillate with multiplicity and vigor.

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30 Boundary – Interlazados (EP)

Interlazados is a terse statement in techno that’s as eccentric and intuitive as it is rhythmic and terse: the drum templates that Boundary applies here are like mere placemats for a world of melodic and stylistic forays that can include synths, spliced guitar sounds and anything else under the sun. It’s viable club music with the delicateness and sophistication of The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime, all the better for passing the time to, of course. 

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29 BEANS – All Together Now

Not to be confused with the Italian “pop group” Beans listed on Wikipedia, or the New York RAPPER named Beans on Bandcamp, this is an Australian band, which, in case you haven’t guessed from my hardly concealed frustration above, is pretty hard to find information about. Hopefully that will change soon, anyway, as this full-bodied indie rock LP that takes its name from a Beatles song fully does justice to its nomenclature with a crisp, disciplined and multifarious sequence of snazzy indie rock songs. “Stride” is probably the centerpiece, a noticeably infectious six-eight stomp that gallops into a common time second half that sounds like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists covering Pavement, with a killer, refreshingly unadorned guitar solo.

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28 Pyrrhon – Abscess Time

Pyrrhon, a Brooklyn death metal outfit, have been at it a long time — their current singer (or screamer, more accurately), Doug Moore, has held his post, for instance, since 2008. And indeed, amidst swathes of Lord of the Rings worshippers and ostentatious dramatists, these guys sound as angry with the uniform m.o. in recent metal as they do with the outside world, at which metal bands are supposed to be angry, anyway. Anyway, the drums, in particular, stand out to me about this project — deep and layered but also mixed pretty sparely and with some wicked Steve Albini-style reverb courtesy of Colin Marston’s production. 

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27 Run the Jewels – RTJ4

I’m really not kidding: I actually haven’t liked anything by these guys until this album. And I saw that it was just called “RTJ4,” an only slight permutation on their other albums, making it more than tempting to just cast it off as more contrived emo-rap without a cause, which is how I generally thought of these guys. I’m not sure if it was just the pandemic or what but something made the sense of urgency and the anger of this new one click with me, yes, even though I’m white and don’t always agree with all facets of the Black Lives Matter movement. The songwriting just seems crisper and more focused, like on “walking in the snow”: “Just got done walkin’ in the snow / God da** that motherfu**er cold”, and “JU$T,” with the chorus repetition of “Look at all those slave masters posing on your dolla”. Vocally, both Killer Mike and El-P are at the undeniable tops of their games, and El-P’s beats are lithe, able to drape onto the vocals without hogging too much attention or leaving too many musical holes, either.

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26 Eric Revis – Slipknots through a Looking Glass

This is one of what seems like a gaggle of jazz albums to feature a litany of musicians but just be named after one of said musicians. Even stranger is that Eric Revis is the bass player — it’s upright bass to which he lays claim, but still, you certainly don’t usually see the bass player running the show. Not surprising, then, in terms of the mix, is that you pretty much hear every poke and pounce this guy lays down, most of which are staccato stabs to flank measured, melodically sophisticated saxophone runs he commissions out to Bill McHenry and Darius Jones, respectively. Piano by way of Kris Davis chimes along with style and bounty, too, sewing this together as a jazz outfit that’s refreshingly tight and terse, hailing from LA and dedicating this project to the late Ellis Marsalis.

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25 Jerome Hill – The Pob Routine

Just call UK’s Jerome Hill the seven-inch savant: it turns out he’s been banging out 20-minute house EP’s for 12 years and counting. The Pob Routine is another in this long pattern and is sure not to disappoint, tendering bouncy, vaguely grating synth riffs against a low-register that packs more than enough punch. The title track gets things sauntering steadily into hypnotic groove and things get weirder and juicier on “Transmissions,” which brandishes a sampled spoken-word sound bite and what sounds to me like a recording of DJ scratching, just to throw you off and lambast the concept of “predictability.”

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24 Coolhandtrew – The James Crockett Experience

Right away on Coolhandtrew’s mainstream-ready but hearty and genuine hip-hop template, the message rings true: “Can’t hold us down / Can’t divide us”. With those words, alone, the foundational groundwork for American culture is lain: we’re at a time in our society where we’ve mastered any number of sophisticated, faraway things, but still tend to struggle with the everyday struggle of coming together in unity. But you’re starting to see it improve, with atrocities being punished, with a black, female vice president and with the general, burgeoning zero-tolerance  policy on bigotry and demographical hatred. But The James Crockett Experience is far from a corn-ball show, or a pie-in-the-sky high school assembly, and key guest appearances by Blu, Jean Grae and Sadat X help bolster this LP into a voluminous, cavernous hip-hop journey. 

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23 Small Bills – Don’t Play it Straight

Small Bills is the duo of rapper ELUCID and producer The Lasso. All over Don’t Play it Straight, the beats and sounds stay fresh, exciting and even intimidating, like on “Moses Was a Magician,” a sauna bath of distorted kicks and dominant sonic fuzz. ELUCID’s flows seem to toggle between coherent and cubist, with certain tracks unfurling everyday narratives and elsewhere the rapper almost gasping to keep up with the wacky ideas being lain down by The Lasso. Finally, then, the mantra in “Here Be Dragons” seems like the genuine cry of a mad genius: “I promise myself I’m gonna stop saying I don’t know / When I really do”. 

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22 No Age – Goons Be Gone

Oh, how the time does fly… here we are to the sixth studio album by No Age, the duo of Randy Randall (guitarist) and Dean Allen Spunt (singer/drummer) who were once the new-blood poster boy Pitchfork darlings with their direct, visceral noise rock back in ’08 (wrongly dubbed “punk” by most people, I think). Having veered toward the relatively poppy with ’11’s Everything in between and ’18’s Snares Like a Haircut, Goons Be Gone finds them proceeding down a naturally successive path and coming full circle to the unabashedly psychedelic, with these palatable verse-chorus songs preternaturally prone to fading into beautiful, textural ennui and oblivion. Randy Randall is a well-known sound technician on guitar, subject of many pedal and equipment podcasts and never one to settle on a conventional or mundane sound, and the gratifying results abound in full force all over this LP.

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21 DJ Boiler Room – Madonna Vai-te Embora

Portugal’s DJ Boiler Room makes “DJ” music in the traditional sense — hip-hop beats without the rapping, essentially. Too angular and unsteady to play in the “club,” probably, this is music for people who love beats, nonetheless, music that still blossoms out with pastoral melodies, seam-busting kicks and rigorous tension. On “Ganza – PSP – Opus Pistorum Macumba Remix – Opus Pistorum” (I’m just transcribing the track title straight from Spotify, which tends to offer some of the more abbreviated titles for this stuff on the Internet), the samples finally come out of the woods like crazed, headless horsemen — ominous spoken-work fare by suffocated men to manifestations of desperate screams to create a legitimately disturbing musical landscape. Hey, he told you you were entering the boiler room, didn’t he?

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20 Kansas Smitty’s – Things Happened Here

All this time I thought I was above Britain-borne jealousy (I even credit them with single-handedly inventing classic rock) and here I get the shocker of this band that’s even named after an American city, and bellowing out the kind of swanky, uber-cool jazz for which said city is ideally known, hailing from across the pond. Once I let my rancorous feelings of envy and malice dissipate, though, I’ll presumably be able to sink back into these grooves which let me tell you represent jazz’s absolute upper elite these days, if jazz is something to be immediately digestible and supremely enjoyable as in when Kamasi Washington is at his sharpest. There are songs of mourning, songs of opportunity and songs of unity, with “Dreamlane,” an ebullient, fully blossomed saxophone soiree, probably being the axis of the whole wheel.

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19 Hum – Inlet

A basic irony of ’90s alternative rock is that it was arguably the most vital time for popular rock and roll in the history of the genre, yet, at the same time, it also seems to have most copiously precipitated  the phenomenon of singular, galvanizing acts perennially flying under the radar, or going almost completely unnoticed. Hum joins a group that’s probably less select and more pronounced than I’m aware of, but that maybe contains Helmet, Morphine, Supergrass, The Cardigans and Better than Ezra, to name a few, of bands that made music that soundtracked our flannel-clad, AOL-surfing lives, or had the potential to do so, but still never really became household names. To make a long story short, then, Inlet, Hum’s first album since ’98’s Downward is Heavenward (probably the best album of their career next to this one, in my opinion), marries the visceral punch and snide, cutting vocals that made Hum so buoyant in the ’90s with an indulgent freedom from radio-viability restraint. The result is long, glorious songs, free to saunter at their own pace and in their own skin, taking all their concepts from the world around them, and none from the impetus to mold or to “fit in.”

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18 Guided by Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field

I was just thinking how weird and funny it is that Guided by Voices, a lo-fi act that started in the late 1980s, still pumps out albums at a breakneck speed like they’re fast food jingles. Much to my surprise, then, when I looked at Wikipedia just now and discovered that Surrender Your Poppy Field, which came out in March (eight months prior to composition of this post), isn’t even their most recent album — they’ve also dropped a Mirrored Aztec doogan on us this year, in August. True to form, I think, these LP’s don’t really get that much hype, or even attention, when they come out, and sure, the music is primitive, the vocals muffled and everyman and the songs expedited, not epic or bombastic in any way. But this is rock music for itch-scratching: rock music for people sick of rock music in its general sense, and Bob Pollard and company have a way of fomenting way more catharsis and tension into these crisp little romps than they have any business doing as a scrubby little garage band that they are. 

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17 Clear Soul Forces – ForcesWithYou

Detroit never really had its “golden era” of hip-hop: the muse sort of drips over the city gradually like a deadly leak from a nuclear power plant, from Kidrock through Black Milk through Elzhi, with Eminem the most noxious visionary of them all, of course, Anyway, Clear Soul Forces are partying like it’s 1989 on ForcesWithYou, spitting verses that are as dangerous and beguiling as they are organic and old-school, and wielding a stellar gift for rhyming and flow, while they’re at it. The beats from Ilajade, too, stay fresh, noodley and cracking, making ForcesWithYou a street soundtrack and dorm room party album, in equal parts. 

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16 Zeroh – BLQLYTE

Actress, another prominent black American creator of vital urban music, once described the general practice as “Sitting at your computer all the time and smoking a lot of weed,” or something along those lines. I can only imagine, then, what the routine must be for Zeroh: maybe something like sitting at your three computers all the time, smoking weed, eating shrooms and listening to Ibibyo Sound Machine. Anyway, there’s no denying the originality of this music, which masquerades as hip-hop, DJ, ambient IDM, musique concrete and probably more, with the track “Metacine” breaking down the progress (or stasis, more accurately) of American society as it pertains to blacks from “when heroin hit” to today. It’s music ABOUT “welfare queens and gang-bangers” that SEEMS directed toward curious white men, at least judging by how approachable I find this eerie masterpiece.

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15 Technoist – Project Fire Hammer

Bristol, UK’s Technoist pipes in here with his second album that’s really, just about, as billed: a legitimate club album you can put onto, space out on X to, if that’s what you’re into, and forget about for about an hour or so. It also makes for a passable solitary, sober listen to, coming complete with enough tension, edge and darkness to keep all minds engaged. True to British DNA, this music packs an amount of synthy melodic splendor to rival Four Tet, while still showing an adept expertise and percussive tension-and-release and lively sustenance of themes. “Monica’s Thursday Jam” is a 13-minute opus monsooned with grainy, cathartic bass synth, like the dark, brooding soundtrack to the mid-week grind, designed to induce cognitive dissonance and sub-conscious rump shaking, too.

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14 Actress – Karma & Desire

Actress albums, of which Karma & Desire is the eighth, seem to have a way of existing completely on their own plane: no other IDM sounds just like them (with Flying Lotus maybe the more boisterous, busier primary reference point) and, at least since R.I.P., they’ve got this eerie sense of time as if to be unscrupulous before plotting down one common theme for a lengthy clip. What with its bona fide techno infrastructure, then, of proud, jaunty kicks and claps, it’s not so much minimalism as it is great music for lying in the grave too: and ooh, even listen to the sample vocal in “Angels Pharmacy”: “Destiny is stuck in heaven / And blowing Nitro”. 

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13 G Herbo – PTSD

Chicago’s trap-minded G Herbo starts PTSD, his fourth album, with the line: “Where would I be without rap? / Nobody really knows”; and it’s that sort of humility that goes to springboard this album into a wealth of street discourse that’s real, and never posing. With ample opportunity to “get political,” as in diagramming ghetto struggle on “Cap Guns”: “Look at where they had us / Look at all those tragedies”, Herbo keeps it personal and lays down how he was made for ghetto life and wouldn’t take a white-bread world if it was given to him. The thematic multiplicity abounds, with even a reference that he “went back to he**” on the 4th of July in the ghetto, we get multiple “I ain’t a killer / But don’t push me” 2pac allusions all across the album and all in all this LP is a feast of urban music that pays respect to the legends of yore but keeps its stylistic scope fresh and up-to-date. 

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12 Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND – Scintillating Beauty

Cat Toren’s HUMAN KIND is a band fronted, with a stature I guess you have to call official, by Brooklyn’s Cat Toren, female. It’s a six-piece band, each member of which mans a different instruments, with Toren herself credited as operating no less than seven different instruments, one of which is listed as “tuning forks.” This is one of those albums, in other words. Well, in originality it certainly doesn’t falter, spinning out an easy, obstinately sublime and patient jazz web, with the first five minutes doodling in ambient cubism, no less. Xavier Del Castillo threatens to steal the show later within “Radiance in Veils” with some showy, hearty free-jazz saxophone runs, with all the percussion still prominent but scattered and irregular, almost postulating a sense of an ugly recoil from the untoward absorption of “scintillating beauty” that might referenced in the title.

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11 Common – A Beautiful Revolution (Pt 1) 

Seriously? Am I the only one who likes this Common album from this year? Or am I the only person who knew he put OUT a new album this year? Common is obviously a man who needs no introduction — very likely the best rapper to ever come out of Chicago, referenced by Jay-Z in the line “Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense” (Common Sense was his original name, then just shortened to “Common”) and the Talib Kweli reference to that Jay-Z line… giggity giggity… you get the point… on A Beautiful Revolution he initiates the ambitious blueprint of embodying the political center of black people nationwide and does so with an articulateness, thoroughness and charisma of which perhaps only he may be capable, hence the widespread reticence to embark on such an expedition at all in hip-hop. Still, he keeps it light, jazzy and breezy, not preachy or ham-handed, and that is part of why this album might go down as a classic.

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10 Yves Jarvis – Sundry Rock Song Stock

I probably would have been most bewildered and nonplussed by Yves Jarvis’ googley-eyed, maniacal Bandcamp pictures, if I hadn’t already been so startled and astonished by the relentless creativity of his new album from this year, all plain and ironic title and all. Yves Jarvis was born Jean-Sebastian Audet, a Frenchman from Calgary relocated to Montreal, where he would seem to find ethnic likeness, billed as “indie pop” but about the furthest thing from a desultory Nirvana ripoff you could fathom. The end result of this stuff is closer to where Sufjan Stevens was with the brilliant Illinois, the backdrop George W. Bush’s  war in Iraq now emaciated and given to wide-open expansiveness and a seemingly endless flow of ideas and jazzy tension.

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9 keiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl

I did see this album grace one other year-end list this year: to me it’s such preternaturally embraceable soul music that to hear it would be to instantly deem it classic, so I have a feeling its absence from other journals’ lists this December is explained by their sheer ignorance of the project and not their identification of flaws or snags therein. All of these songs are sharp, fiercely original R&B numbers that are also refreshingly non-sexual (she doesn’t mention condoms on the entire album, believe it or not) but the standout to me has got to be “Hvnli”: I heard it sometime around the thaw this past spring and was just filled with this undeniable feeling of freshness and renewal that’s just got to be rare enough to emanate as truly distinct.

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8 Aquiles Navarro & Tscheser Holmes – Heritage of the Invisible II

Now for the second straight act on this list I have no idea how to pronounce (like “Cheshire Cat,” maybe), I come to a Chicago jazz duo that Bandcamp describes as “Telepathic Afro-Caribbean improvisational” (their music is actually audible, for the record) and that plots down the busy mania of their city with a gaggle of wrinkles and ploys. After an opening track that amounts to a sort of abrasion session for its own sake that used to be common in the ambient drone expeditions of yore, things remain disconcerting for a spell with “plantains” representing an adamant case of “free jazz” at its most untamed and unadulterated. “M.O.N.K. (Most Only Never Knew)” is then a coy swaddle of Chicago blues piano that seems to aptly understand the zeitgeist while simultaneously raising a cold shoulder to mainstream and to convention. All throughout this LP, though, dedication to the craft and to pushing the styles artistically forward abounds as the calling card.

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7 Ron Thaler, Elimotion & DJ Logic – Elimotion 1

This new album with DJ Logic and drummer Ron Thaler, on which guitarist Eli Steele a.k.a. “Eli Steele” also weighs in, is so low-profile that I actually clicked on the Amazon link in order to try to find out information on it. Thaler, anyway, has a storied history as a producer, but to me it’s Logic whose earmarks dominate this soundscape — along with the multifarious, jazzy drumming of Thaler, which is certainly punchy in its own right, we get these ephemeral, rapid DJ scratches that are trampled down with modification and seem to hug the other tones so tightly as to almost be soothing, something you probably didn’t think a bunch of scratching could have been, prior. More jazz than club material, Elimotion 1 stylistically courts The Detroit Experiment more closely than any other musical entity in history, like jazz updated with a hipster’s sense of rump-shaking funk.

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6 Emily A. Sprague – Hill, Flower, Fog

Emily A. Sprague lists “California,” simply, as her place of origin on Bandcamp, and on the page for this album lie multiple panoramic scenes of expansive natural beauty, like lush, green hillsides and rich arboreal overlays. It’s funny, then, to come across the tidbit that she actually lives in LA — she certainly paints herself as quite the pastoral heathen. Her music, too, mimics the wide-open, grand and awe-inspiring patterns of life you’d find out in the country, with these long, ambient and gorgeous songs preaching the good word of contentedness and tranquility. On Hill, Flower, Fog, she replaces the prevalent piano of 2018’s Mount Vision with a synth she puts to dexterous use a la Emeralds on Does it Look Like I’m Here? The result also reminded me of the stately, melancholic and impossible beauty of Neu! 75, where the only right thing to do seems like to fall silent and absorb the hesitant splendor of this music as best you can. 

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5 24-Karat Black – III

Falling decidedly within the realm of “cool” as compared to a lot of other musical enterprises showcased on this list, Chicago’s 24 KARAT BLACK makes R&B that they kind of just KNOW is more than the sum of its parts. You don’t have to tell them. After all, those bongos in “I Need a Change” just saunter along so glibly, with a righteous simplicity, that you just this music was about FEEL more so than being about theory, or catharsis, or any of those other hackneyed concepts all too prominent in the minds of certain vultures, no question. Issued this year, III is actually the compilation of some demos of singer Dale Warren that were found and resurrected in the ’80s, having originally been lain to wax a decade before. In case you hadn’t guessed, it’s wondrously ahead of its time, with Warren piping out glorious melodies with the clarity and musicality of a mainstream diva like Des’ree, this overall project possessive of much more jazziness and tension so as to set it completely on its own island of vibes.

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4 Peter Oren – The Greener Pasture

It doesn’t get much more fitting of 2020 than an ominous, eerily spare folk singer/songwriter album with an opening chorus the simple repeated mantra of “In line to die / In line to die”. Certainly death seems like something ubiquitous and inescapable this year, whether it was the well-publicized George Floyd fiasco or this worldwide health pandemic with which we’ve been saddled and which has obliterated the lives of so many across the globe. The Greener Pasture takes an unflinching look at our current reality pervading us all and foments up the perfect level and quality of dire, fervent melancholy, like an entire folk album that’s got a “moment of silence” in mind and at heart, the entire way. 

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3 Yaya Bey – Madison Tapes

I should probably have some profound speech to use here on how it’s harder than ever for musicians to make money and how just the very materialization of a document as fresh and artistically inundating into my lap as Madison Tapes is something bordering on a celestial miracle, deserving of some sort of worship ceremony. The truth is, though, with this avocation I’m in here, that I just don’t have the time or energy for such a thing. It’s the most I can do to just pat myself on the back for slurping up all these albums on Spotify like a bloated suckerfish. That being said, there’s absolutely nothing about Madison Tapes that isn’t refreshing, right down to that almost unnervingly bare title, and the conspicuous lack of introductory blurb on this album’s Bandcamp page. Let me even backtrack a bit: in the wake of Homeboy Sandman’s quip from this year that was something about how everyone is nauseatingly afraid of making a mistake, Yaya Bey’s project here just smacks as supremely real and off-the-cuff, complete with what’s apparently the candid recording of a conversational rant by her friend Juu Mcfuckit about culture vultures. Elsewhere, these soul numbers are heroically unadorned by sonic frill, sweet little etudes like “paterson plank – unmixed” piping out with just a light, sassy electric guitar and Bey’s own canary-like croon.

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2 Cathlene Pineda – Rainbow Baby

I’m from South Bend, Indiana, home of “Mayor Pete” Buttigeig, who recently made the famous run at the national presidency as the first gay man to do so. While Buttigeig was mayor of South Bend, he instilled an initiative to bolster the commerce, nightlife and housing downtown. With this, his staff and administration sent certain funds to private businesses to start up and take operation in or adjacent to the downtown area. 

I know this seems off-topic but I’m using it to prove a point about the John Cusack (sorry to John Cusack… I really don’t hate him but again I’m mentioning him to prove a point), hipster, Bohemian conception we have of what “coolness” is, and hence, what “happiness” is. Rainbow Baby is like the opposite of that. There’s zero Cody Chestnutt to it. It came in the throes of “motherhood, pregnancy (and) loss,” according to Bandcamp, in the personal life of Pineda, the furthest thing removed from the sort of coy, too-cool-for-school disposition we usually hold as the most fecund and righteous in life. There’s zero mechanical arbitration of what’s “cool.” It’s all pure, noxious energy, shifting, undulating and Dionysian, toward the furnishing of a jazz album that’s got zero ambition to do anything but vibrate in its own skin, the way you could perhaps within an idealistic, well-wishing scope say my hometown once did, when it had the Anchor Inn on the West Side open and holding free concerts, and a functional YMCA on the East Side. Rainbow Baby opens with a song called “1nine,” ironic since the tune then does anything but abide by eight-bar phrasings, and then here comes a 12-minute song called “Rainbow Baby.” Oh, god, I can feel the “Wooly Wolly Gong” phenomenon taking hold of me. Time to run for my Kleenex. 

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1 Elzhi – Seven Times down Eight Times up

Wikipedia says Elzhi is from Detroit, Bandcamp says he’s from LA. Translation: he’s from Detroit but has moved out west at some point, like Kanye, Berry Gordy, the Beverly Hillbillies, half of America’s population in history, etc. Anyway, he’s 42 and this is only his third album, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that intensity and sense of urgency on this project would be undeniable. It starts with an introductory urban spoken-word vignette on Detroit by a local comedian named Foolish, whose diatribe albeit is more saddening and concerning than it is “funny” and whose earnest depictions of the upbringings these guys had in the Motor City are more affected than the masquerades of “humor.” From there, this thing is just kind of a blur: it’s a full-bodied hip-hop LP that bursts at the scenes with vibrancy and confidence like a grittier, Midwestern-borne Jay-Z, painting picture after picture and telling story after story with inimitable, hard-nosed swagger. It’s not really a “Detroit album,” per se, at the end of the day, with the production coming from Brooklyn’s JR Swiftz (although the beats kind of sound like Black Milk’s with the constant break beats and the ’70s soul element) and of course with the emcee low residing on the Pacific, but it is an effective emigration manifesto with ambitions of straddling radio and the ghetto that aren’t that unfounded, for their own rights. 

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