Top 20 Albums of 2021

If you’ve read one of my year-end lists before, you’re probably going to notice a few things are different around here: this year’s list is way shorter, was posted way later, and doesn’t contain nearly as many new artists as usual. Basically, I dropped the ball in 2021. I could blame the pandemic, work stress, or laziness, but truthfully I just couldn’t find the same fervor I’ve had for new music as in years past. Was it a bad year for new music? Possibly. Or maybe scouring the depths of indie music for 25 years eventually led to listener exhaustion. Whatever the case, I apologize to those that look to my list for guidance on new music to check out. Despite my failure to keep you abreast on the latest and greatest in music, I did happen to find some albums in 2021 that resonated with me. It may not be the exhaustive 40 album list of yore, but here are my top 20 albums of 2021. 

Honorable Mention: 

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

Big Ghost Ltd & Conway the Machine, If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed

Cloud Nothings, The Shadows I Remember

Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time

Goon Sax, Mirror II

Steve Gunn, Other You

Damien Jurado, The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, L.W

Panopticon, …And Again in the Light

Parannoul, To See the Next Part of the DreamYasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood

20. Chubby and the Gang

Mutt’s Nuts

[Partisan; 2021]

For the past eight years I’ve had the tradition of spending January focusing on one year of music from the past. I see it as a bit of a palate cleanser after wrapping up all of my year-end lists in December. For me, January of 2021 was all about the burgeoning punk rock scene of 1978. Artists like the Buzzcocks, The Misfits, and The Stranglers dominated my listening queue for a large portion of the year. So it’s not surprising that I struggled to find passion for the new music I was perusing when most of it lacked the chutzpah of that classic, raw punk sound. 
Then, of course, Chubby and the Gang’s sophomore album, The Mutt’s Nuts, came to me in September, stirring up the remnants of angsty, raw music that defined the latter part of 2021 for me. There have been many divergent paths in the punk rock genre, but Chubby and the Gang have circumnavigated all of the side-tracks and reached back to the gritty, no-bullshit punk rock that sprouted in 1978. The Mutt’s Nuts is an album that pays homage to the past without patronizing.

19. Floatie

Voyage Out

[Exploding in Sound; 2021]

Voyage Out is a mesmerizing venture. Much like a kaleidoscope spinning in an endless, hypnotic cycle of colors, Floatie’s debut album works with automated precision, the guitars rotating gears, the bass a humming generator,  and the drums pitter-pattering like a machine press. The results are pretty astounding for a small DIY band from Chicago that has been cutting their teeth for four years in small clubs. 

It would be easy to label the band’s sound as math rock due to the jaunty, off-kilter time signatures, but the music is way too warm and inviting to fit that mold. The sunny vibes suggest it could be jangle rock, but there’s nary a jangle to be found on any of the nine tracks. The result of this dichotomy is an album that unveils joyful, unexpected moments within each disorienting listen.

18. Spectral Wound

A Diabolic Thirst

[Profound Lore; 2021]

For decades, black metal was synonymous with Norway due to its birth and prominence in the region, but over the past few years a cacophonous screeching has emerged in the wilderness of eastern Canada that might suggest the genre immigrated at some point during the pandemic. From Maeskyyrn to Délétère to Fortresse, there might be nothing more exciting in the world of metal than what is coming out of Quebec and Montreal lately. But probably my favorite release yet from this region was Spectral Wound’s A Diabolic Thirst

Enter this album at your own risk because once you start the onslaught, it’s impossible to avoid the impending chaos. Shrieks reach out from the murky depths as the guitars eviscerate everything in their path. As some more prominent black metal bands have softened their approach in recent years, Spectral Wound have defiantly spit in the face of melding beauty into their old school, breakneck horror show. Listener beware.

17. Goat Girl

On All Fours

[Rough Trade; 2021]

On first listen, Goat Girl’s On All Fours is harmless fun. The jaunty guitars, peppy drums, and smooth alto voice of Clottie Cream all make for an easygoing listen of upbeat rhythms and joyful melodies. But one look at the album’s lyrics and this is anything but a nice walk in the park. 

Hidden just beneath the surface of positive vibes is an album with cutting, unapologetic themes about modern culture and society. The album runs the gamut of hot button issues, from climate change, Western hypocrisy, and the pandemic. All of the horrifying imagery is underscored by a common trope – the characters all go through their daily life, numbly oblivious to the impending doom lurking around the corner. Much like the disarming music on Goat Girl’s sophomore album, the terrifying truth is there if you take time to look beyond the surface.

16. Pino Palladino / Blake Mills

Notes with Attachments

[New Deal; 2021]

You may not know the names Pino Palladino and Blake Mills, but you certainly know their work. Palladino’s bass playing can be heard on albums by artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and The Who, while Mills has produced albums by Bob Dylan, Fiona Apple, and John Legend. Notes with Attachments is the first album to come out with both their names on the cover, but this is so much more than a debut album. 

The duo’s years of acting as background players has honed their craft, resulting in an album that is intimate, nuanced, and warm. Mixing elements from a wide spectrum of genres – funk to West African – Palladino and his crew playfully navigate the music landscape, making for an enlightening, exciting listen. It may seem strange to say this about a 63-year-old veteran of the music industry, but the future looks bright for Pino Palladino.

15. Kiwi Jr. 

Cooler Returns

[Sub Pop; 2021]

I can’t think of a band that has had worse timing than Kiwi Jr. Back in 2019, the Toronto-based band began making waves in the indie scene with their infectious debut, Football Money. And just as they were ready to tour and spread their sunny sounds across the globe, the pandemic arrived. 
Not only did the band avoid the sophomore curse with Cooler Returns, they returned with an album that rivals their debut, jam-packed with catchy melodies and humorous imagery. Once again, the band has barely been able to tour in support of the album, and I fear that one of the most promising young acts may miss their chance at a wider audience. Then again, with two straight albums teeming with undeniable hits, maybe these young slackers still have a fighting chance.

14. Ol’ Burger Beats / Vuyo


[Jakarta; 2021]

Has anybody else gotten bored with current, hip-hop in America? From the tired, played-out beats, the uninspired basslines, to the lazy, lyrical cliches, the music that blares from teenagers’ airpods these days is the rap equivalent of N’Sync.  Are you searching for hip-hop that hearkens back to the days where producers reinvented samples of old jazz and soul albums? Do you miss the days where an MC’s rhyme can make you think, laugh, and cry, sometimes simultaneously? Well, my friend, have I got a treat for you.
Welcome to Norway, the new home of hip-hop. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop album as exciting and fun as Dialogue, a collaboration between producer Ol’ Burger Beats and rapper Vuyo. Burger Beats dusty, chill tracks are the perfect background for Vuyo’s raspy baritone, spitting lyrics that balance between outlandish allusions and insightful assaults. It’s clear that the duo is highly influenced by the American hip-hop of yore, even including samples and shout-outs to Nas and Tribe Called Quest, but their take is refreshing in the landscape of the mundane.

13. Shame

Drunk Tank Pink

[Dead Oceans; 2021]

Shame burst onto the indie rock scene in 2018 with their debut album Songs of Praise. At the time, the band’s ages ranged between 19-21 and the inexperience is pretty evident on the tracks that borrowed heavily from influential cornerstones of post-punk. This time around the band is three years older, and while that may not seem like much, it’s clear that these South London chaps have learned a few things over the course of that time. 
Drunk Tank Pink is more confident, self-assured, and cutting than their debut. The band continues to take guidance from greats like Gang of Four and The Fall, but this time around they are able to shape these flourishes into their own post-punk creations. The songs still are propelled by youthful exuberance, but there is also an aura of wisdom in the band’s precision and bite.

12. Torres


[Merge; 2021]

I placed Torre’s album Silver Tongue on my 2020 year-end list, focusing for the most part on the positive shift in her lyrics and mood. Well, if Silver Tongue was a shift, then 2021’s Thirstier is a seismic tremor of joy, picking up where she left off in 2020 and diving headfirst into bliss. 
Where Silver Tongue hinted toward a healthy relationship, Thirstier is a 10-song ode to the healing powers of love. The songs are more energetic, the lyrics more hopeful, and Mackenzie Scott’s voice more vibrant than ever. Thirstier is a celebration of the redemption and rehabilitation that can emerge from finding true love.

11. Pardoner

Came Down Different

[Bar/None; 2021]

Let’s be frank: the music on Pardoner’s sophomore album, Came Down Different, is sloppy, noisy, and slapdash. The vocals are mumbled, the drums are messy, the guitars slightly off-key. One may be apt to ask themselves whether these guys are even trying? 

And therein lies the brilliance of this slacker band’s latest effort – despite all its fringed edges, there’s something irresistible and endearing about this collection of homespun indie rock. The lyrics are self-aware and sardonic, the spirit is downcast yet mellow, the songs lazy yet full of homespun energy. This San Francisco band hasn’t reinvented indie rock; they’ve simply revisited the sounds of 90s greats like Pavement and Yo La Tengo and given them a nudge.

10. Aimee Mann

Queens of the Summer Hotel

[SuperEgo Records; 2021]

Aimee Mann has been lauded for years for her ability to write songs that have a cinematic feel to them, so it’s no surprise that she was pegged to write music for what was to be a Broadway musical based on the Susanna Kaysen memoir, Girl Interrupted. As Mann neared completion of the project, the pandemic arrived and plans for the stage show were put on the back burner. 
Instead of waiting for the never ending pandemic to end, Aimee decided to go forward with the tracks, releasing them on the 2021 album Queens of the Summer Hotel. Once again Mann delivers with a collection of songs packed with vivid imagery and dark themes. Production-wise, the album is more ornate than anything she’s done before with strings and horns providing a more regal back-drop to her signature confessional style of songwriting. The stage production of Girl Interrupted may never be seen by an audience, but Queens of the Summer Hotel provides enough context to view what might have been in your minds-eye.

9. The Armed 


[Sargent House; 2021]

The album title Ultrapop seems like a pretty inaccurate name for an album that is often loud, fast, and tumultuous, but the brief moments of sugary pop are really the indelible moments that make this an album worthy of multiple visits. 
The sparkling, sweet morsels of Ultrapop are embedded in a wall of sound with the eight piece Detroit outfit burying the listener in layer upon layer of distorted guitars, gravelly vocals, and piercing synthesizers. With Ultrapop, The Armed have taken hardcore music into the next decade with an innovative assault that can both fascinate and paralyze at the same time.

8. The War on Drugs

I Don’t Live Here Anymore

[Atlantic; 2021]

On the surface, The War On Drug’s fifth studio album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, seems pretty straight-forward. A simple vocal melody, a softly strumming guitar, a slow and steady drum beat, and a loping, melancholic bassline. And if that’s all you hear while listening to the band’s 2021 release, the band has succeeded once again at what they do best – making the complex sound effortless. 

Similar to how Steely Dan made intricate jazz compositions sound like straight-forward pop songs in the 70s, The War On Drugs construct Byzantine arrangements, hiding all the moving parts just below the surface of the smooth, calming grooves that define the band’s sound. Over this whirlpool of twinkling pianos and churning synths, Adam Granduciel sings about the simple things in life with no-nonsense lyrics, giving them even more heft to weigh on the listener’s soul.

7. Mdou Moctar

Afrique Victime

[Matador; 2021]

Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime came to me at the perfect time. After a year and a half of sheltering in place, the streets were suddenly alive again this past summer. As I took my daily bike ride around Minneapolis, I often found myself listening to this album, it’s positive energy and communal spirit enhancing the joyful experience of seeing humanity interacting once again. 
I realize those feelings of freedom were foolish and fleeting. As I write this, the Omicron strain has taken a grip on the world, and those feelings that COVID was in the rearview mirror now seem silly. And yet, I can put this boisterous collection of Nigerian music on and be guided back to a more joyous, carefree time. There is value in community, and the intermingling of musicians on Afrique Victime is a prime example of what is possible when people are able to come together and create.

6. Illuminati Hotties

Let Me Do One More

[Snack Shack Tracks; 2021]

As with anything Sarah Tudzin has released up to this date, her latest Illuminati Hottie’s effort is pure, unadulterated fun. The melodies are catchy, the riffs are energetic, and the lyrics are self-deprecating and silly. But take a look just below the surface, and you’ll see that Let Me Do One More is an album of surviving during uncertain times. 

Within Tudzin’s collection of lively pop songs is an underlying sense of doom. Capitalism, consumerism, and media bias all sneak their way into her stories of daily life. These demoralizing elements of modern society sneak up on the listener throughout the album, and yet she passes them by without a second glance. Instead, she focuses on daily occurrences like burnt Pop-Tarts, practicing kick flips, or pool parties. Yes, Tudzin lives in the same cracked society as the rest of us, but she’s able to look past the impending ruination and focus on the little, mundane things that get her through the day.

5. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony Orchestra


[Luaka Pop; 2021]

For the Promises project, Sam Shepard, the producer behind the name Floating Points, had a lot of ideas to execute. First off, create a celestial, synthesized atmosphere. Then bring in the London Symphony Orchestra to add swells of emotional flourishes to the magical tapestry. Perhaps the easiest task for Floating Points was bringing jazz legend Pharoah Sanders in and just telling him to improvise for the entirety of the 47-minute opus. 
Sanders is 80-years-old, and it shows in his playing. That’s not an insult, in fact his wisdom and grace enwraps every enchanting note, his improvisations simple, serene, and somber. Promises is an out-of-body experience, the meandering notes twinkling in the ether as Sanders wanders into the unknown with inquisitive confidence. While the piano melody stays the course throughout the album, the other players are given space to breathe in the ever-expanding soundscape.

4. Ty Segal


[Drag City; 2021]

Ty Segal is easily overlooked. With an output of 16 albums over the course of the last 12 years, it’s easy to skip some of his releases or give them the once over. Despite his track record of mix bag releases, his 2021 release Harmonizer is an album that you don’t dare let pass you by. 
With so much material released at such a feverish pace, there are times where it feels like Segal needs to slow down and put together an album that is meticulously pieced together. Well, that album has finally arrived in Harmonizer, a searing album of sleazy, automated glam rock. If T Rex was around today, he might be making music that sounds like Harmonizer with its swaggering riffage and clever use of technology to give its tracks a modern, edgy bravado. I doubt you’ll find this album on any year-end lists, and I don’t blame listeners for missing the boat with such an expansive output, but believe me when I say that this album is a can’t miss.

3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor

G_d’s Pee at STATE’s END!

[Constellation; 2021]

It’s crazy to think that the Montreal post rock ensemble known as Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been making their symphonic blend of punk rock for over 25 years. The early albums gained the band attention due to the shambolic nature of their approach to their stirring soundscapes. The albums released since they rejoined forces in 2011 are more precise and gracefful in delivery but just as powerful as their early work. With all this said, I can’t help but feel that their 2021 release, G_d’s Pee at STATE’s END! Is their best album in decades. 
The brilliance of the band’s 2021 release is how hopeful it all sounds. Oh, no worries, the chaos and cacophony still reign supreme, but there is a driving spirit to the music this time around that feels inevitable and anthemic. It’s easy to get lost in your own head while listening to STATE’S END with songs traversing from darkness to light and then back again. As with most GSY!BE albums, there are no lyrics, but the song titles provide some guidance as to each suite’s focus: from melting glaciers to corrupt governments, this is more than background music. And despite the dreary imagery found in the song titles, the final track provides just a glimpse of hope – “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN”. And if it doesn’t? Well, I guess that’s the point.

2. Little Simz

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

[Age 101; 2021]

Little Sim’s 2017 release, Stillness in Wonderland, told the story of a young woman navigating the confusing modern world, trying to find herself. Well, the artist that once surrounded herself with Alice in Wonderland imagery has finally found the secret tiny door that has led to her full self-discovery as a woman of power, grace, and dignity. 
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is Little Simz at her most confident. Lyrically she speaks candidly of her internal struggles, all backed by grand arrangements that flourish with regal splendor. Strings, horns, and hip-hop beats meld into a powerful force, propelling her introspective lyrics into the stratosphere. For years I’ve been supporting Little Simz and the wide array of styles she has dabbled in, so it warms my heart to hear her reach her apex with an album that is self-assured, emotive, and poised.

1. Low


[Sub Pop; 2021]

Low’s 2018 album Double Negative felt like an exciting diversion for the Duluth, Minnesota natives. For three decades they had been creating haunting yet serene harmonies, making the 2018 effort shocking in its utilization of distortion and chaos. Instead of returning to their sweeter melodies of yore, the band has leaned into their noisy experimentation with their 2021 release, HEY WHAT

I’ll never forget the first time I listened to this album back in September. Feelings of confusion, intrigue, and excitement swirled in my soul, the robotic beeps and squawks slowly taking shape into music like I’d never heard before in my life. My friend Paul had a similar experience, messaging me about that first listen while riding his bike: “The clouds were brewing and I was biking on the path beneath a canopy of trees. I felt like I was on a spaceship or something.” Coming up with the order to place albums on this list is always an exercise in futility, but I had to place HEY WHAT at the top spot due simply to its ability to shock and dazzle listeners in a time where it feels like everything has already been done. A lot of bands that were sharing bills with Low back in the 90s are gone, and yet Low still endures due to their ability to continue pushing boundaries and experimenting with their tried and true formula.


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Year of the Iggy (Episodes #4 and #5)

Check out episode’s #4 and #5 of the “Year of the Iggy” Podcast to learn the stories that helped shape The Stooge’s first two albums.

Here is the Nico music video mentioned in episode #4:

Here’s the photo of Iggy pouring wax on his chest at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go:

Here’s the concert video discussed in episode #5:

INTERVIEWS (Can be found on YouTube)

120 Minutes

CBS Sunday Morning

Iggy Pop: South Bank Show

Jim Jarmusch Interview

Live for 6 Music

Raised On Radio

Red Bull Music Academy


BBC: Lust for Life


Stooges: Gimme Danger

VH1 Behind the Music: Iggy Pop


Open Up and Bleed: The Iggy Pop Story by Paul Trynka

Total Chaos: Iggy Pop’s Story of the Stooges by Iggy Pop

Gimme Danger: The Iggy Pop Story by Joe Ambrose

In episode’s #4 and #5 of the “Year of the Iggy” podcast, we take a look at the events that helped shape The Stooges’ first two albums. Check it out at the links below:

Episode #4

Episode #5

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Year of the Iggy: Episode #1

In this month’s episode of “Year of the Iggy”, we take a look at Iggy’s trailer park upbringing and the larger than life personality that was evident at a young age. Check it out HERE, or better yet, subscribe on ApplePodcasts, Stitcher, or GooglePlay (search: Year of the Iggy).


Here are some pictures from Iggy Pop’s childhood.

Here is a picture of Iggy Pop’s high school band, The Iguanas.

INTERVIEWS (Can be found on YouTube)

120 Minutes

CBS Sunday Morning

Iggy Pop: South Bank Show

Jim Jarmusch Interview

Live for 6 Music

Raised On Radio

Red Bull Music Academy


BBC: Lust for Life


Stooges: Gimme Danger

VH1 Behind the Music: Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop (The Iguanas)

“Again and Again”

“I Don’t Know Why”


Stooges “Dum Dum Boys”


Ray Charles “Mess Around”

Frank Sinatra “Young At Heart”

Sandy Nelson “Let There Be Drums”

Rolling Stones “It’s All Over Now”

John Coltrane “A Love Supreme”

Bob Dylan “It’s All Over Now”

The Kings “You Really Got Me”


Open Up and Bleed: The Iggy Pop Story by Paul Trynka

Total Chaos: Iggy Pop’s Story of the Stooges by Iggy Pop

Gimme Danger: The Iggy Pop Story by Joe Ambrose

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Top 40 Albums of 2020 (20-1)

2020 was clearly not a great year, and in the early months of the pandemic, I wondered if I’d even be up for doing a year-end list with so many artists canceling their releases without the ability to go on the road to promote. There was certainly a lot of great music put on the back burner, but despite my original uncertainty, a plethora of exciting new music was released over the course of the year. In fact, some artists used the pandemic as a moment to try new things or use this moment to make a statement. In fact, music was one of the few avenues of escape during a year of perpetual lockdown. Here are some of the albums that helped me make it through the year.

Check out numbers 40-21 HERE!

20. Lianne La Havas

Lianne La Havas

[Nonesuch; 2020]

When Lianne La Hava’s critically acclaimed debut, Blood, came out five years ago, I wasn’t quite sure I understood the hype. She had a great voice, but the material all sounded so sheen and plastic, resulting in a series of songs that felt inauthentic and dull. I’m damn lucky I gave her self-titled release a chance after such a sour first impression because it’s one of the most soulful and intimate listens of 2020.

This time around, La Havas recorded an album the way she always had before getting signed to a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, with barebones acoustic instrumentation and stripped-down, straight-forward vocals. With all the ornamentation torn away, her talent for emoting each and every line is revealed.


19. Coriky


[Dischord; 2020]

Fugazi was an anti-capitalist band before it was cool. In fact, just when the band’s common messages were becoming a bigger threat with the rise of George W. Bush and his cronies in 2000, the band decided to call it quits. Since then, frontman Ian Mackaye has released sporadic material, but nothing quite as hard-hitting and unflinching as his output in the 80s and 90s. 

One of those projects was his band The Evens formed with his wife, Amy Farina, but those acoustic, muted drum tracks never quite lined up to the world falling around our ears.  Even in the Trump era Mackaye mostly kept quiet, that is until this past spring when he released the first album from Coriky. The addition of Fugazi bassist Joe Lally to The Evens combo has seemed to awaken the activist within MacKaye with the songs on their self-titled debut eviscerating the current state of the world with irony and wit. Lally’s bass looms over the proceedings as MacKaye and Farina trade vocals alongside mounting guitar riffs and rumbling drums. Coriky is a nice reminder that no one can quite hit the nail on the head like Ian MacKaye.

18. Paysage d’Hiver

Im Wald

[Kuntshall Produktionen; 2020]

2020 has been a year of isolation, resulting in many yearning for the warmth of an embrace from a loved one or a connection to the outside world. The first full-length effort from Swiss black metal outfit Paysage d’Hiver could not have come at a better time with Im Wald, an album that basks in exile. 

Much like the pandemic, Im Wald is cold, lonely, and never-ending, clocking in at over 2 hours. Within those two hours, the icy guitars and brittle vocals create ambient, frosty expanses to lose yourself in. These dreary woods of chaos are often counterweighted by mid-song field recordings of someone trudging through the snow, each footstep crunching into the chilly void. If anything, this year has forced us to slow down and look inward, and Paysage d’Hiver’s hike through a blizzard of noise was the perfect soundtrack to this journey of beleaguerment.


17. Bill Callahan

Gold Record

[Drag City; 2020]

This may sound hyperbolic, but Bill Callahan’s 2020 record, Gold Record, features his best lyrics to date. For a man that has had a 30 year, 21 album career, that’s saying a lot, especially when you consider the plethora of profound stories the man has already crooned on past work. 

The stories on the album are from varying perspectives and all walks of life, but what makes them all so powerful is Callahan’s ability to sneak life lessons within each unique tale. The songs sing of love – love of thy neighbor, love of words, and love of the simplicity of life. Musically, Gold Record might be his most mundane effort with its stripped-down approach, but this simplicity helps draw even more focus on the intricate narratives stitched into each, intimate track.



16. Jeremy Cunningham 

The Weather Up There

[Northern Spy; 2020]

Back in 2008, jazz drummer Jeremy Cunningham had his life path pretty much planned out. After graduating with a Bachelors of Music from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, he had plans to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music. Then, his journey was changed by one tragic moment. His brother was sitting at home playing video games when two men carrying AK-47s burst into their apartment and killed him on the spot. 

Devastated by the loss, Cunningham aborted his original plans and moved to Chicago to entrench himself in the thriving jazz scene. Playing alongside promising young artists like Jeff Parker, Tomeka Reid, and Makaya McCraven, Cunningham began working on what would be an album in memory of his brother, The Weather Up There. The result is a patchwork of personal phone messages, calming piano chords, and emotive horns, expressing Cunningham’s feelings of loss and his search for understanding. 

15. Thurston Moore

By the Fire

[Daydream Library Series; 2020]

Since Sonic Youth’s breakup nine years ago, Thurston Moore has seemed to be going through a bit of soul searching musically. While his bandmates, Kim Gordon and Lee Renaldo, have continued in the vein of their past contributions to the band, Moore has released material that spans the genre divide, from acoustic, singer-songwriter albums, to 60-minute, live experimental improv albums, to his foray into straight forward punk rock with the side project Chelsea Light Morning. But with his 2020 release, By the Fire, he has finally returned to the classic Moore sound that defined classic Sonic Youth albums. 

In fact, there a plethora of moments during By the Fire that will stir up memories of the first time you heard languid guitars of “Teen Age Riot”, the driving growl of “Kool Thing”, and the euphoric discord of “Schizophrenia”. However, By the Fire is more than a nostalgic retread; it’s an artist returning home to the avant-garde dissonance that defined his innovative music decades ago.

14. Ka

Descendants of Cain

[Iron Works; 2020]

There is a lot other MCs could learn from the grizzled veteran Ka and his resume of weighty work over the past 15 years. While many in the rap game bounce around thematically on meandering mixtapes, Ka has always understood the concept of “the album” and how to tell a cohesive story via allusions from our cultural literary.

This time around, Ka uses the stories of the bible to convey his story. The album Descendants of Cain focuses primarily on the story of Cain and Abel, using the trope of the damned son to embolden his own view on what it means to be a black man in America. Ka’s cerebral, calm delivery is strengthened by the backing tracks filled with echoing church pianos, lumbering beats, and ghostly gospel choirs. The music mirrors the bewitching stories professed on each moving track.

13. Kiwi Jr.

Football Money

[Mint; 2020]

In the 90s, bands like Pavement, Archers of Loaf, and Weezer sang of barely scraping by over disheveled guitars and stumbling drums. While this musical demeanor eventually faded with the turn of the century, 2020 is a better year than ever for a resurgence of slackerism with the rising cost of living and the increase in joblessness as a result of Covid.

Kiwi Jr’s brand of downer nonchalance is music perfectly suited for the times we’re living in. On the band’s debut, Football Money, Kiwi Jr focuses on their lot in life, supporting their music careers with humdrum 9 to 5 jobs, with lines like “everything’s out of my price range” and “dropped out of college/took to the streets for knowledge.” Beyond the emphasis on scraping by, the album is also jam-packed with humorous imagery and silly wordplay, a perfect addition to music that is simply put, fun. For those in need of a smile during these trying times, throw on some Kiwi Jr and bask in the slacker joyride. 

12. Mountain Goats

Songs For Pierre Chuvin

[Merge; 2020]

Between 1990 and 1995, John Darnielle released a plethora of material known today as “the cassette tapes” by hardcore fans. The name logically comes from the fact that for all his early work, he recorded songs live, directly to a boombox. The results are what I consider his best work, albums that are homespun masterpieces. 

In the decades that followed, Darnielle used a more traditional, in-studio recording approach and while he still released some great material, something also felt missing from the more polished efforts. In the spring of 2020 as Darnielle quarantined at home, he decided it was time to dust off his old boombox and return to the grainy, authentic sounds that defined his early work. The album Songs for Pierre Chuvin is a callback to simpler times, Darnielle inserting quips between takes and barrelling forward even when a wrong note is struck. I know a lot of people that have used this time of isolation to focus more on their passions (quilting, writing, carpentry) and Songs for Pierre Chuvin is a welcome reminder of what is possible with a little gumption, some extra time to reflect, and a boombox.

11. Dehd

Flowers of Devotion

[Fire Talk; 2020]

Part of what made Dehd’s debut album Water so charming was the lackluster recording quality. Sure, it sounded like they were recording inside of a tin can, but the album was still overflowing with undeniable melodies and comforting guitar licks. As a result, I was a bit uneasy about their 2020 release, Flowers of Devotion, due to it being recorded in a professional recording studio. 

Of course, my apprehension about the band’s new album was misguided. In fact, with the grit and grime wiped away, the band’s penchant for memorable tunes are allowed to shine more. Emily Kempf’s voice sounds even more commanding and clear while Jason Balla’s guitars seem to relish in the echoing spaces found within the studio. The band’s simplicity still reigns supreme, but the little mixing board tweaks have given their welcoming sound a little more luster.


10. North Americans

Roped In

[Third Man; 2020]

While ambient music has been around for almost 50 years, not a lot has changed since those early days of Brian Eno’s knob twisting. That’s what makes North American’s work on Roped In so interesting – it takes the tenets of the genre and imbues them with countrified folk flourishes that bring moments of surprise to the generally soothing genre. 

On most tracks, Patrick McDermott lays down the foundation with his cyclical guitar pick riffs echoing into the ether. Once lulled into a daydream, Barry Walker’s grizzled steel guitar comes sliding up the bar, disorienting the entire affair throughout the album. The addition of guests like William Tyler and Mary Lattimore add even more indelible details to chew on. As a result, Roped In is one of the most satisfying ambient albums I’ve heard in years – both warm and weird at the same time.


9. Sufjan Stevens

The Ascension

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2020]

Back in the 2000s, Sufjan Stevens often hid behind his array of concept albums, whether it be an analysis of artist Royal Robertson’s life or his geographical exploration of states like Illinois and Michigan. But that all changed in 2015 when Sufjan released Carrie & Lowell, an autobiographical tell-all that uncovered his own childhood trauma in a way we’d never seen from the singer-songwriter.

2020’s The Ascension is once again an album devoid of metaphor. Instead, Sufjan continues to release his emotions straight from the heart with lyrics that are direct and earnest. Musically the album returns to the synthesized experimentations found on Age of Adz, but it’s clear that he is more comfortable in the icy terrain this time around. This comfort is fitting for an album where the singer seems clear-eyed in his own struggles with religion, sexuality, and depression. 


8. Protomartyr

Ultimate Success Story

[Domino; 2020]

On Protomartyr’s first four albums, the band shined a spotlight on the ills of the world, so much so that at times, the lyrics took precedence over the music. Frontman Joe Casey refers to himself as a lyricist rather than a singer, and it’s a fitting descriptor for a man that gruffly spouts out diatribes about the crumbling of the American middle class.  

Ultimate Success Story continues in the vein of exposing the awful truth; it’s fitting music for a year that was, well awful. But what makes the 2020 release more impactful than their past work is the complexity of their post-punk anthems. For the project, the band brought in musicians more apt for an orchestra album. The addition of woodwinds, brass, and a cello gives the band’s already unsettling delivery even more resonance. Maybe Casey remains a lyricist, but the band’s dissonant orchestration makes for one jarring listen.

7. Destroyer

Have We Met

[Merge; 2020]

When Dan Bejar put out the smooth jazz album Kaputt in 2014, it felt like a silly little diversion. He has always played around with genres, from singer-songwriter to full-on glam rock, but the sultry saxophones and cheesy synths didn’t really seem like a sound that would stick with the eccentric songwriter. Boy, was I wrong.

Since Kaputt, Bejar has released three albums that remained in synthesized lounge lizard mode, and on his 2020 release Have We Met, he sounds more comfortable than ever in the artificial environs. The beauty of Bejar on the album is the nonchalance and silliness of his lyrics all while conveying them with a voice that seems lost, aloof, and lonely. Bejar has always tinkered with humorous, off-kilter lyrics, but on Have We Met, his strange brand of humor is brimming with more heart than ever. 


6. The Microphones

Microphones in 2020

[P.W. Elversum & Sun]

Microphones in 2020 is the first album in 17 years that Phil Elversum has released under the pseudonym “The Microphones”, and it’s a fitting callback for an album rooted in Elversum’s recollection of his life 20 years earlier when he was still a young, hopeful musician. His work as Mount Eerie has often lived in the moment with Elversum revealing his struggles after the loss of his wife in 2016. Microphones in 2020 is him trying to remember a time before his sole focus was loss. 

The album is comprised of one, 45-minute song filled with imagery of a different time whether it be his memories of seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or checking his for fan interactions.  Within this menagerie of early 2000, Elversum tries to make sense of it all, and more importantly how he ended up here, still feeling empty and lost. Microphones in 2020 is an album of digging through memories in hopes of finding that glimmer of hope to get through dark days.

5. Jeff Rosenstock


[Polyvinyl; 2020]

Throughout the annals of rock and roll history, artists have emerged from the shadows to lend a voice to the voiceless during times of darkness. From Neil Young to Stevie Wonder to Public Enemy, impactful lyrics have helped provide anthems of passion and empathy, often helping bring about change in the world.  In what is certainly one of the most uncertain years of the 21st century, Jeff Rosenstock has emerged as the voice for the disheartened with the album NO DREAM

Rosenstock has always dabbled with politically charged lyrics, but never has it sounded as stirring as it does on NO DREAM, an album jam-packed with one passion-laced diatribe after another. As a whole, the album has a recurring theme of everyone being “asleep” as the world around them crumbles, but Rosenstock insists throughout that “it’s not a dream”. In what is one of the biggest wakeup calls in 2020, NO DREAM is an album that has zero interest in pushing the snooze button. 


4. Oranssi Pazuzu

Mestarin kynsi

[20 Buck Spin; 2020]

It’s clear from their 2020 album Mestarin kynsi that Oranssi Pazuzu should no longer be referred to as a black metal band because it simplifies something far more complex than anything else coming out of the genre these days. It seems that 2016’s groundbreaking effort Värähtelijäu was just a starting point for the Finnish innovators.

Mestarin kynsi picks up where the band left off and takes the ghostly experimentations into even more terrifying terrain. The album hits harder than anything the band has done before due in large part to the complexity of their craft, songs riding a wave of proggy stop and halt rhythms and psychedelic guitar squeals. Unexpected subtleties pop up from every murky corner, from whispery flutes to squawking synths. On Mestarin kynsi, Oranssi Pazuzu has created another dense, expansive atmosphere that leaves listeners both in shock and awe.


3. Bob Dylan

Rough and Rowdy Ways

[Columbia; 2020]

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan’s music (he’s our logo, in our name, and featured at the end of every monthly podcast). But I have to admit that it has been a really long time since I truly enjoyed a new Bob Dylan album. The last album I’ve felt a kinship with was Time Out of Mind, and that came out over 20 years ago. I guess I had subconsciously resigned myself to the fact that the aging troubadour was no longer capable of releasing something as riveting as his output in the 60s and 70s. Boy, was I wrong.

Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is not only the best album he’s released in the past 20 years, but it might be his most personal, blunt, and honest effort since, dare I say, Blood on the Tracks? Throughout the album, Bob sings/speaks in a low, crackling voice, the somber backing tracks setting the mood for one prophetic song after another. Bob is in no rush to move along, instead, songs range from 5-17 minutes, each slowly unrolling like a pastoral landscape outside a train car. Rough and Rowdy Ways begs for your undivided attention as Bob unveils one unpredictable image after another, his allusions spanning the 79 years of his time on this earth. In a time of constant distraction, Rough and Rowdy Ways invites you to turn the outside world off and bask in the wisdom of our greatest songwriter. 

2. Run the Jewels


[Jewel Runners/BMG; 2020]

The weeks that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer were filled with anger, sadness, and uncertainty. Amidst a Twitter feed of frustration and fear came a beacon of light from Killer Mike announcing an early release of the new Run the Jewels album writing, ““Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.” 

The album, written and recorded months before the shocking death of Floyd, zeros in on topics like police brutality, racial profiling, and the endless parade of dead black men across this country. Despite being written before the country erupted into frustration and anger, Killer Mike was spitting out bone-chilling lyrics like “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’”. El-P’s true talent in the Run the Jewels collaborative has always been his gifts as a producer, and on RTJ4 his beats, samples, and menacing basslines provide the emotional backdrop required for an album that stands unflinchingly in the face of hatred and inequality. 


1. Fiona Apple

Fetch the Bolt Cutters

[Epic; 2020]

Back in 1996, the music industry was ready to make Fiona Apple a mega-popstar. She had everything the mainstream crowd loves: young, beautiful, and a sultry voice to boot. But Fiona had other plans. It was controversial when she won the VMA award for the song “Criminal” and told the audience of music industry insiders and celebrities that “This world is bullshit.” Many saw it as the end of her career; for Fiona, it was a new beginning.  

Since that career-altering pronouncement, Apple has continued to buck expectations, remaining out of the spotlight while all the while releasing one riveting, unpredictable album after another. Her 2020 release, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, might be her best effort yet, a collection of homespun, confessional anthems that continue in her tradition of doing and saying what you least expect. The album, released during quarantine, was recorded at Apple’s Venice home, and the raw, crafty elements of the album were a welcome arrival during a time many of us were self-isolating. She stomps the floor, she bangs on her walls, and all the while, her dogs’ barking seeps into the nooks and crannies of each track. Lyrically, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an album of feminist anthems, from the title track to the post-Kavanaugh hearing response “For Her”, to the rising anthem “Under the Table” where Fiona proclaims “kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up,” – thank God she hasn’t.

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Top 40 Albums of 2020 (40-21)

2020 was clearly not a great year, and in the early months of the pandemic, I wondered if I’d even be up for doing a year-end list with so many artists canceling their releases without the ability to go on the road to promote. There was certainly a lot of great music put on the back burner, but despite my original uncertainty, a plethora of exciting new music was released over the course of the year. In fact, some artists used the pandemic as a moment to try new things or used this moment to make a statement. In fact, music was one of the few avenues of escape during a year of perpetual lockdown. Here are some of the albums that helped me make it through the year.

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The Top 20 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

The Covid-19 virus has changed the way we live in 2020. Almost all  industries have been impacted by the changes to how we interact with the outside world, and the entertainment industry has not been immune to the crisis. The music industry, in particular, has found itself maneuvering through uncharted waters. In the modern era, artists make the bulk of their income from live shows where they can earn money via ticket sales and merch. Obviously, that money-stream has disappeared, and what remains are streaming services that fail to pay artists their fair share. 

As a result, many artists pulled their material from release in 2020, and I don’t blame them. Despite this curtailment in new music, some brave artists have still released some pretty amazing new music. Below you will find 20 incredible albums released before July 1st that have helped buoy my spirits during uncertain times.

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