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25 Favorite Albums of 2020

Welcome to year 13 of Everything Ecstatic’s Albums of the Year list. I’ve cut the number of albums featured significantly down from last year’s 60 (it was a lot!) to better represent the albums that I know I’ll be coming back to for years to come. If you feel like going down the rabbit hole of EE’s lists from year’s past, the Albums of the Year tab is where you’ll find it all in semi-organized fashion. 

At any rate, I read somewhere this year that the intro to these year-end lists is like the most mundane piece of music writing you’ll read all year. I couldn’t agree more, so let’s get to the albums.  I write about a ton of music like this year-round, so hit me up on Twitter to be tuned in as it happens and follow Everything Ecstatic on Twitter and Facebook to be updated whenever something goes up on the site (it’s rare these days, but always meaningful.)  There’s a track selection/video under each entry, a full playlist at the bottom of this post and if you’re thinking about buying any of this music, please do it directly through a label or on Bandcamp as they actually pay artists a reasonable split. Shouts!

— AS

25. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters 

I gotta admit, while I’d listened to Fetch The Bolt Cutters a number of times this year, I hadn’t tuned in with an objectively critical ear until I wrote about it as one of this year’s standouts for my Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook. Fiona Apple is bar none of the best lyricists alive and there are few experiences quite like her impactful music. 

24. Thelonious Monk – Palo Alto 

The story behind this finally released recording might be my favorite of any album this year. So Monk and his quartet got booked to play a show at Palo Alto High School in 1968 and the tapes only existed because the high school janitor of all people recorded the 47-minute set. It’s a fantastic set of classics that you can read more about in this piece by Marcus J. Moore of the New York Times.

23. Jordana – Something To Say To You 

The Grand Jury Music label has been consistently finding emerging talent for years and Wichita’s Jordana is their latest gem. I couldn’t quit her bedroom pop EPs that dropped throughout the year and this album is a combination of two of them. There’s charm in the simplicity of these productions and Jordana doesn’t give up her pointed fieriness for her everlasting wit.  

22. Moses Boyd – Dark Matter

I’ve been touting London jazz scene up and comers for the past few years and drummer Moses Boyd is among its finest prospects. This record shows Boyd’s traditional jazz drumming prowess, but with modern production sensibility. He’ll go from jazzed out hyperspace at one turn, to paying homage to his Caribbean roots at another. The Mercury Music Prize-nominated release also features cameos from other names in London jazz you need to know like saxophonist Nubya Garcia, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, tuba player Theon Cross and others. 

21. Dirty Projectors – 5 EPs

I love listening to anything Dave Longstreth creates. He focused on a different Dirty Projectors vocalist on each of the five EPs the band put out this year and then brought it all home on the fifth one. The 5 EPs album is a collection of those five releases and it shows how Longstreth can morph the band’s lineup over the years and still make amazing music. 

20. Porridge Radio – Every Bad

This album hit me like the two Savages albums from this past decade. Brighton’s Dana Margolin is pompous and punk all over this record and it’s a refreshing edge. British journalist Everett True called them “the best band in the world” back in 2015 and it’s as if Margolis has carried herself with that idea ever since and has now exploded with passionate anger on Every Bad, the band’s official breakthrough LP. 

19. Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music

I’m gonna be listening to this album on the beach forever. Tom Misch has presented perhaps the most accessible offerings from the new London jazz movement and now the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist links with the drummer Yussef Dayes for incredibly polished effort that’s meant to make it big. There’s even a Freddie Gibbs feature on the track “Nightrider” to boot. 

18. Waxahatchee  – Saint Cloud

Think I listened to this album while avoiding pandemic-infested San Francisco in Calistoga more than any other this year. It’s easily the best Waxahatchee album to date as Katie Crutchfield taps into instantly vintage pick-up truck Americana. 

17. Ambrose Akinmusire – on the tender spot of every calloused moment

Already a world-renowned trumpet player, this album represents the maturation of Akinmusire’s illustrious career with the mindset of someone who’s finally made it back full circle to the place where they learned the trade: Oakland. I spoke with him for KQEDArts in October about this blues-heavy essay on the state of America and Black music. The album just got a Grammy nomination and was one of my best Bay Area album of the year picks. 

16. Woods – Strange To Explain

Along with the Waxahatchee album, this was a constant companion as I spent as many days as possible on our family’s land in Calistoga this year. It’s perfect folk escapism from the Brooklyn band that was recorded in Marin County’s Panoramic House Studio and brims with the feeling of the Northern California coast.

15. Jeff Tweedy – Love Is The King

This might be my favorite Wilco or Wilco-adjacent record since Sky Blue Sky. Damnit if Jeff Tweedy ain’t one of the best songwriters in the world. I also read his memoir this year and it’s a comforting feeling to know that not all of your musical heroes are assholes and can in fact be good people with interesting things to say about life’s struggles, it’s triumphs and their art. With instrumentation from Tweedy’s sons, Love Is The King picks up where the memoir left off in my eyes.

14. Buscabulla – Regresa

This was a powerful release from Buscabulla, who recorded everything after moving back home to Puerto Rico from New York in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The album’s title itself means to “return” and every beat of this Latinx electropop album bursts with the feeling of a greater purpose to their island community. I wrote about them in May at Paste and I’m forever moved by Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle’s story. 

13. Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad – Jazz Is Dead 1

Was anyone busier than Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad this year? With the Jazz Is Dead project alone, they released 5 albums, plus the original score to Run This Town. Younge also released an excellent album with singer Angela Muñoz, another with Loren Oden and an album of production collabs. But I digress, Jazz is Dead is Young and Ali’s concept of revitalizing the music of jazz luminaries and including the subjects in the process. The first volume merely presents a sampling of the finest work from each of the installments (and future ones). In it, you’ll find the music of Roy Ayers, Azymuth, Marcos Valle, Gary Bartz, João Donato, Doug Carn and Brian Jackson… all alongside Younge, Ali and live instrumentalists. It’s a fascinating effort by the pair to introduce and re-introduce the the greats to old and new heads alike and you gotta hear it. 

12. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song

From where I’m standing, this was the best electronic release of the year. Apologies to albums by Four Tet and Caribou (both narrowly missed being included in this list) but Owens creates some of the most exhilarating productions I’ve heard in quite some time. Her music doesn’t feel derivative of anything, with the melody and bass floating in a world of its own. This one’s been living on repeat and I’d kill to sweat my ass of to a live set at a club from the Brit right now. 

11. Låpsley – Through Water

Låpsley has never put anything out in her short career that I haven’t absolutely gravitated too. I became enamored with the XL Recordings singer and producer’s EPs in 2014-15 and Through Water was a much-anticipated follow up to her 2016 debut LP. I cook to this music more than anything else as it puts me in an unparalleled zen state as I craft sauces, sauté vegetables and season meats. If you know me well, this is really saying something! This is deeply introspective music from an artist whose sound is exactly what I seek out.

10. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

There are very long and necessary deep exhales and then there’s this. The greatest cosmic bass player on the planet gave us 15 sweeping future funk and nu-jazz tracks about loss, grieving, depression, friendship, a life in flux and love in its many forms. Speaking of deep exhales, I had the pleasure of seeing Thundercat play a Drive-In concert at a driving range in Burlingame this past October and he seemed to know about how much I needed to stop arguing with my dog and go see a live show. 

9. Marcos Valle & Azymuth – Fly Cruzeiro

Another fascinating story about this re-issue. It was originally released in 1972 as a gift to flyers on the Cruzeiro Brazilian airline where only 500 copies were pressed. So now in crazy ass 2020, Light In The Attic Records pressed another 500 copies of this collection of Brazilian standards by damn hell ass legends in Valle and Azymuth. Listening to Fly Cruzeiro, I can’t help, but think of sleazy Mad Men-era smoke-filled flights or of some of the late 80’s flights I took as a kid on shuttered Brazilian airlines like Varig and Vasp, or even just being in the Mexico City airport today. This is a real Brazilian music treat and I just picked it up on vinyl through the label this very moment… if you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ out, you should probably do the same.

8. Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine

I thought this was the best pop record of the year. I yearned to hear more of Róisín Murphy’s late-career resurgence after  she graced DJ Koze’s “Illumination” last year and damnit she delivered. Songs like “Incapable” and “Murphy’s Law” aren’t too far-removed from Robyn, but with a decidedly disco lean. Queen Róisín of Ireland has entered the building. 

7. Cleo Sol – Rose In The Dark

This teases my #1 pick, but along with Arlo Parks (who didn’t put out an album this year), Cleo Sol was this year’s biggest revelation for me.  Sol writes and delivers sumptuous newfangled soul inflected with her roots as a British-Jamaican. Hers is a voice I can’t wait to hear grow just as she does as a globally-minded singer. More on her later, but for now, watch this:

6. Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder and Kamasi Washington – Dinner Party and Dinner Party Dessert

Yes, you read that correctly, Terrace Martin + Robert Glasper + 9th Wonder + Kamasi Washington. Does that sound like something you’d be interested in? It’s the jazzy hip-hop supergroup that we the people of this godawful year deserve for our misery. It clocks in at a modest 23 minutes, but the Dessert edition of the Dinner Party EP features elevated versions of all seven songs with singers and rappers including an unfuckwithable number featuring Rapsody on the mic and Herbie freakin’ Hancock on the keys. 

5. Seu Jorge & Rogê – Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions

Nothing made me prouder and happier to be Brazilian this year as much as this album. Look, I worship at the church of Seu Jorge (I interviewed him about the Bowie covers four years ago for KQEDArts and it meant the world to me) and although I’d never heard of his friend Rogê before, the result of their collaboration is mastery of Brazilian musical art forms; part samba, part MPB, with the pair on vocals and guitar backed by notable Brazilian percussionists. Their distinctly different voices contrast but coalesce via songs about friendship, passion, Rio and being fiercely Brazilian. 

4. Adrianne Lenker – Songs

I was finally able to put my finger on what makes Big Thief so great via this masterful feature on Lenker by The New Yorker‘s Amanda Petrusich (easily one of the best music scribes in the business btw.) The Big thief frontwoman stole away to the Western Massachusetts mountains to spend time away from COVID-riddled New York. She recorded this album in the cabin she stayed in and said it felt like playing inside of an acoustic guitar. That imagery never escapes you while listening to one of the most beautiful albums you’ll ever hear. 

3. Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce

Ahhh…the storied hip-hop deconstruction album. A lot of the great ones have been there and on Anime, Trauma and Divorce, Open Mike Eagle opens himself up for what I thought was the best hip-hop record of 2020. Since the end of last year, his show on Comedy Central (The new Negroes) got cancelled and he and his wife got divorced. Suffice it to say, he doesn’t shy away from his vulnerabilities on this album and I legit lost my shit the first time I listened to “Everything Ends Last Year.” Rapper, comedian, podcaster and more, Mike Eagle has become one of the finest hip-hop renaissance men in the business and this is his “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” 

2. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

Yves Tumor’s music has typically been a grinding and abrasive listen. But on Heaven To A Tortured Mind, they peeled back a thick layer of hurt to drop an album of unapologetic pop that’s somewhere between the chasm of Prince and Mykki Blanco. Every track is an unpredictable force that pulls at different peaks and valleys of infatuation.  The various hairpin turns of lust on “Kerosene!” and the difficult solace found on “Strawberry Privilege”  were more enamoring than anything else in 2020 and I’ll be hard-pressed to ever put this album down. 

1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

Nothing mattered more in 2020 than the fight for racial justice and equality that the surge in Black Lives Matter protests put firmly at the forefront of our lives. What Sault was able to do with Untitled (Black Is), is place the struggle and debate that was centered in America and very clearly show how passionately it resonates beyond our borders. A transatlantic collaboration between British producer Inflo, Chicago rapper Melissa Young (aka Kid Sister) and singer Cleo Sol (see above at #7), Sault found an argument for global unity within Black music. Soul, hip-hop, dancehall, gospel, R&B, trip-hop and then some, were all present on these thoroughly spiritual 20 tracks. And they did it by keeping their identities largely private. What mattered was the music and the purpose behind it. The pain it described and the healing it sought. Love over hate, compassion over greed, with peace through sound piercing through it all. 2020 was a motherfucker, but there’s hope in this album and there may be hope for us all yet.