Kyle Kohner’s Top 35 Albums of 2020
Let’s see… Insert metaphor about why the year 2020 sucked HERE. COVID-19 mention right HERE. Crazy election, right? Pandemic sucked for me, hbu? Performative social justice comment here. Insert another COVID-19 mention right HERE (Try coronavirus this time?) Fuck Trump! Fuck Nazis! Wear a mask! The Grammy nominations sucked (they were ok, actually). This pandemic sucks. Quarantining sucks. The people eating at restaurants and drinking at bars, suck!
The world sucks!
Now that I’ve got the obligatory world-at-large, socio-political commentary out the way, let’s all admit one thing—there were some great records released in a—wait for it—terrible year. So I’ll just cut the crap and run down what were my 35 favorite records of 2020 (with some honorable mentions). And yes, you’ll encounter a few mentions about COVID-19 and social justice along the way. But who cares! I wrote the intro last anyway :)
35. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia: At this time last year, which seemed like a decade ago, I sure in the hell did not expect to become a fan of the ascending force that is Dua Lipa and her radio-friendly brand of pop music. Before releasing Future Nostalgia, the 25-year-old seemed to be in danger of embracing the pitfalls synonymous with mind-numbing, overproduced pop star purgatory. Instead, she brought listeners a taste of what made ’80s pop music so brilliantly infectious. The aptly titled Future Nostalgia is littered with bangers, and there’s even enough room for thoughtful lyrics about misogyny, sexism, and living freely. It’s everything a pop record should be; it’s dare I say it—the equivalent to what Emotion was to Carly Rae Jepson when she was in danger of being swallowed by the viral internet success of “Call Me Maybe.”
34. Bambara – Stray: Following up their beguiling 2018 record Shadow On Everything with the equally shadowy Stray, it’s safe to say that Bambara’s latest album is leaps and bounds above any expectations I had. Slithering through slinky atmospheres with a swagger that is intimidating-yet-fragile, Reid Bateh unravels poetry with a ripping drawl. “She kicked me in the teeth for my crying,” he laments on “Stay Cruel”; “Hooked me on a leash and then she tied it / Tightly to a tree where her little dogs piss.” A kindred, bleak spirit to both Michael Gira and Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, it is clear Bateh’s snarling voice is the backbone of this album and Bambara’s overall, unique sound. So, if you like post-punk painted in amorphous hues, a few shades darker, packed with a rowdy blues-punk punch, don’t let this record slip through the cracks.
33. Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress: If COVID-19 wasn’t going to do it, Gulch entered 2020, probably with intentions of obliterating our existences with their live shows. And as is the case with many bands these days, it’s unfortunate we will not be treated to a consensual execution in the pit, losing control over Gulch’s new album played live. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is a hallmark moment for hardcore, and it’s difficult to explain precisely why. It’s truly one of those records to be listened to in order to grasp what I mean. It’s eviscerating, poignant, and the perfect soundtrack to punching your local Nazi in the face— the ideal formula for a near-perfect hardcore record.
32. The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed: A project that presents a humorist firing on all cylinders, housed within the sonic infrastructure composed of cleverly placed samples and hazy lo-fi beats, Dominique Purdy’s fingerprints, both as a lyricist and producer, are smudged all over this record. With “Looking back to understand where I’m at” as his very first words spoken on the record, Purdy cuts to the chase over why he wrote this album. The ‘why’ quickly turns into ‘how’ as we witness the amusing rapper wield his childhood trauma and his hometown as the foundation to his acrobatic raps, proving gradually over the record’s duration that few projects belong to an artist like Little Dominiques Nosebleed.
31. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News: There are not many rappers who can match the sheer confidence of Houston’s Megan Thee Stallion. She’s earned where she’s at, and nothing will hold her back, not even some cowardly gunshots fired by Torey Lanez. So, when Megan announced she was releasing a new record, all attention and anticipation immediately flocked to how she would address her abuser. As her physical wounds healed, Megan answered the call on Good News, castrating Lanez and all his credibility along the way. But was there any question this would happen? Hell no! Good News sees Megan at her most furious but potent self. Her bars remain raunchy and outrageous, but they’re never aimless. This time, her raps always have a target in front of them, so don’t expect any male counterparts to try and cut her down any time soon. In a year where any good news has been hard to find, the bar-busting Texan, full of raw charisma and energy, is every bit of good news.
30. SAULT – Untitled (Rise): With the world pushed to living their lives online more than ever before, it’s quite incredible that SAULT has remained as anonymous as they have. It’s even more impressive, considering their allure has ballooned with each one of their four record releases—two this year. Though their identity and origins remain an anomaly, they’ve become impossible to ignore with Untitled (Rise)—their second of 2020. It’s near-impossible to have one record without the other, but Untitled (Rise) just feels like a work of art of the utmost importance. As SAULT paints a mysteriously beautiful portrait of the black diaspora, both in its strife and hopeful future, their intoxicating blend of funk, jazz, reggae, and hints of dance-punk strikes a chord that further vibrates that of their heady yet empowering messaging—black is brave, bold, and beautiful.
29. IDLES – Ultra Mono: Though each track aims to spread love and unity, whether you believe the band’s polarizing frontman or not, Ultra Mono is a record that can still be admired for its vicious post-punk formula. You will not find here, shape-shifting epochs like the 2018 single “Colossus”; however, the band finds comfort in simple song structures, leaving room for them to romp around more frantically and blood-thirsty than ever. While Talbot’s lyrics lack the brutal quality of records prior, IDLES make it a point not to pull any punches musically. Full Review
28. Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price Of Tea In China: Boldy James’ first record of 2020 took a while to sink in, but truthfully, the drab and dreary The Price Of Tea In China has all one would want in a gangster rap record. There’s a compelling storyline of life in the streets, towering guest features that bode well next to Boldy’s menacing delivery (namely Freddie Gibbs and Griselda’s Benny The Butcher), and of course, super slinky beats and a nocturnal atmosphere befitting to the dreary portrait of Detroit Boldy paints. With The Alchemist in peak form as the album’s producer, he cements the record’s mystique with his signature boom-bap touch, while Boldy slices and dices his way through Alc’s cloudy milieu with lyrical preciseness like the savvy rap vet he is.
27. Pet Shimmers – Trash Earthers: Though many bands have tried to revive the outsider music aesthetic, all but few have fallen short, and yet Pet Shimmers’ style is provenly off-kilter for this descriptor. Though an imperfect comparison, Pet Shimmers call upon the same spirit of lo-fi disillusionment as the legendary Neutral Milk Hotel but conveyed through psychedelic synths and an eight-bit milieu instead of room-filling horn sections and singing saws. And though the environment they’ve developed across these two records feels faintly unhinged, it’s an uncanny feeling reflective of a reality that isn’t entirely inconceivable. Full Review
26. Backxwash – God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It: In a year sopping with death, disease, and dreadful storylines, the success of Canadian horrorcore phenom Backxwash may be one of the most encouraging developments of the past year. Yes, the world is still relatively unaware of the rapper’s talents, but the star of this unforeseen Polaris Prize winner will only become brighter. As we wait for her industrial bludgeonings to take over the world, feast your ears upon the forebodingly drab God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. Unlike other, more prominent figures/projects operating within the horrorcore genre, Backxwash’s raps brood like a haunting spirit, suitable to the record’s dense beats and insidious atmospheres. The future is limitless for Backxwash.
25. No Home – Fucking Hell: London-based noise project No Home, aka Charlie Valentine, casts brooding dark synth spells that dismember the basics of punk music, morphing it into something almost unfathomable. Their debut record Fucking Hell is quintessential bedroom punk, stripped to its harrowing core. Yet, it is reinvented and reinvigorated because of a very real possible future shrouded in doubt and fire—if it isn’t already. A concept album about “[imagining] you’re the devil who spent thousands of years in hell…trying to redeem yourself,” Valentine offers something intriguing based on premise alone.
24. Empty Country – Empty Country: Released right before the thing, you know the thing (pssss… COVID), Joe D’Agostino, formerly of Cymbals Eat Guitars, made a quiet but profound re-entry into the spotlight with one of the most slept-on records of the year. Melodic and curative, the debut from Empty Country isn’t entirely out of the left-field from any of D’Agostino’s work with Cymbals, and yet, Empty Country does paint him as a much more mature lyricist, pained by life over the years. Now that it seems heartland rock runs through his veins, the once-explosive moving parts around D’Agostino have been tamed to a lull, placing the focus more on D’Agostino as a lyricist, than ever. And what a welcomed shift this turned out to be, as Empty Country’s debut delivers some of the most earnestly sung words uttered all year.
23. Moor Jewelry – True Opera: Though a relatively brief listen at 26 minutes, the collaborative project between Mental Jewelry and poet Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, is an exhilarating encounter from front to back that promises to leave a searing mark. Combining industrial hip-hop beats and flows, anarcho-punk tropes, and a no-wave dread, True Opera is yet another riveting record released under the banner of Black Lives Matter in 2020. It’s angry, fueled by trauma, scrappy in the trenches, rabidly direct, and certainly not about that performative bullshit some call social justice.
22. Liturgy – Origin of The Alimonies: Many artists, especially within the genre of Black Metal, have difficulty separating themselves from the crowd and fully realizing their vision without falling into the trappings of “honoring” what came before. Simply put, black metal tends to be too limiting because of self-righteous pricks and traditionalism. The same is true of classical music. But Liturgy, aka Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, is reclaiming the authoritarian limitations of which black metal and classical music sadistically share. Triumphantly, her latest offering, titled Origin of the Alimonies, subverts and reimagines both styles into an experience that is undoubtedly more all-encompassing and all-inviting than any tangential artist working within this mutual musical sphere.
21. We Are Only Human Once – Withering (Or, Songs of Yore): The second of three records released in 2020 by We Are Only Human Once, Withering (Or, Songs of Yore) is lo-fi indie folk at its purest and most raw. A vast departure from the Ohio project’s noise-pop leanings, this record is a kindred, lo-fi little brother to Car Seat Headrest’s early bedroom-produced records, and the similarities are striking. But this is not about good ol’ Will Toledo. Withering (Or, Songs of Yore) reveals a uniquely broken heart resting inside Adalyn McComb, damaged by alienation, death, and gender dysphoria. Though the acoustic guitar-driven Withering (Or, Songs of Yore) radiates with warmth and extends an invitation to listen in, it sometimes feels ‘wrong’ going through this record as a casual listener—uncomfortable even. These songs are intensely personal to Addie, and all we could do is thank them for allowing us to experience such a vulnerable work of art.
20. Military Genius – Deep Web: The great magnitude and singularity of Vancouver art collective and post-punk freakazoids Crack Cloud are not limited to what they create as a whole. From the rising outfit birthed yet another project, the solo debut from Bryce Cloghesy under the name, Military Genius. Straying far from the serrated art-punk antics of his mother collective, Military Genius’ debut channels the mediative quality of Arthur Russell by stringing together a gorgeous display of strumming, free-wheeling baroque pop that will transport listeners into a beguiling new world. This world is layered, mysterious, inventive, and draws excitement over what will come next from Cloghesy, whether it be through Military Genius or any of his other many music projects he’s entangled in.
19. Riki – Riki: Riki’s debut bursts at the seams with warmth and organic textures, which is a breath of fresh air taking into account the oft-chilling realm of dark synth music. This record’s songs pulse with an affectionate heart; they’ll get you dancing, but above all, they will impress you with Riki’s knack for constructing a damn good pop song. So don’t let this album dissipate behind the dark veil it casts. Considering how far she’s traversed from the hellish depths of deathrock and anarcho-punk, Riki had unflinchingly proven her medal as a versatile visionary, making her a name to watch down the line.
18. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020: We all wish to be young again, and Phil Elverum is no different, as enigmatic he is. In resurrecting The Microphones, Elverum’s latest hums and strums through his days as a youth, and it does so with an intensity to behold. Each of his words sustains your attention, while each point in his story compels as if it’s the first time he’s telling it all. If any other artist presented listeners with one 45-minute-long folk song, they’d be tarred and feathered for attempting to subject listeners to such a grueling venture. So how is Elverum any different, and why shouldn’t listeners just turn an ear at the daunting length of this one song? Well, they shouldn’t. The story of Elverum’s life is a mystifying one that mandates respect and focus; just have your tissues ready once you finally direct your ears, hearts, and eyes toward Microphones in 2020.
17. Owen – The Avalanche: While guiding listeners through crashing waves of unrestrained and raw poetry, Kinsella – with the help of producer S. Casey (Bon Iver drummer) – makes every single one of his aching words deeply felt. This is achieved by imbuing the recognizable Owen sound with a resounding level of musical depth that listeners have yet to experience from the long-standing project. By texturing the project’s well-established, straight-forward guitar sound with ample string arrangements, electronic hues, and pronounced lap-steel guitar, Kinsella has made an Owen record that compels beyond his gripping storytelling. Full Review
16. Arca – KiCk i: As Arca harmonizes both jolting energy and hushed beauty into a single aura, it’s hard not to pound the desk and pin her as the future of pop music. But then reality sets in: the sensory overload she tends to serve up will continue to confound many – even if this is her most accessible and celebratory record to date. Needless to say, her presentation of what she describes as “gender euphoria,” provides the perfect blueprint to a more healthy, embracing, and confident exploration of the concept and conversation of gender and identity in popular music. Full Review
15. Charli xcx – how I’m feeling now: Before it was cool—and soon, annoying and overwrought— for artists to make and release their ‘quarantine’ record, Charli xcx reigned supreme as a trendsetter should. Perhaps no “quarantine” record produced the level of flare and commanding spirit like Charli xcx’s most recent project, how I’m feeling now. As we all continue to learn more about ourselves during this pandemic—both good and bad—Charli shows we are not alone in this self-refection, as how I’m feeling now unravels a new level of emotional complexity to her image as “THE” queen of pop music, while still delivering heavy blows hyper pop goodness with ease and unheralded bravado.
14. Girl Friday – Androgynous Mary: Featuring four fiery leads—yes, this is a genuinely collective effort— Girl Friday are comprised of bassist Libby Hsieh, Virginia Pettis on drums, and Vera Ellen and Sierra Scott on guitar. A traditional band set up, yes, but Girl Friday wield their uniquely powerful parts as a commandeering whole, yielding a vicious punk-adjacent sound with pain leeching on its core. Though tragedy may loom like a black cloud, there’s a palpable sense throughout this record that they can overcome it all—together, of course. Full Review
13. Yung Lean – STARZ: Considering his beginnings as an insincere – albeit misjudged – viral sensation, Lean’s artistic fortitude has often been dismantled as existing for aesthetic purposes. What was once considered merely ‘nice’ and ‘gorgeous’, the rapper’s sound is now more textured with down-to-earth lyrics and depressing sentiments, even more so than his 2016 album Warlord, which was recorded during his well-documented hospitalization. With most viral music sensations having eventually made their way down the drain into the obscurity of nowhere, Yung Lean has made it. Full Review
12. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM: Whether it was foretelling the inevitable election of Donald Trump in his 2016 record WORRY. or giving voice to the socio-political turmoil that defined the aforementioned’s first year in office on 2018’s POST-, Jeff Rosenstock’s music has proven to be eerily prescient, time and time again. Amidst the pessimism, however, Rosenstock has managed to always coax a smile from even his most jaded listeners. On his latest record, NO DREAM, the smirking 37-year-old punk unleashes another power-pop collection dead set on tearing open the festering wounds of the toiling United States. Full Review
11. Owen Pallett – Island: Another record released after many highly-anticipated years in the works, Owen Pallett blessed us with the stunning chamber-folk magnificence of their third proper LP, Island. Bursting at the seams with an impressively cinematic atmosphere, Island is quite the masterful display from the classically-trained genius of Pallet. Though the surprise nature of Pallett’s latest dampened what could have been more commotion and critical acclaim, it has not, however, dampened what is fact—Pallett remains proven an one of the most thoughtful storytellers alive.
10. Pink Siifu – NEGRO: With touches of avant-garde jazz, lo-fi plunderphonics, and blood-shedding strikes of hardcore and noise rock existing through discord, Negro is an inaccessible, guttural musical experience that’s hard to take in but is better for it. An upheaval of White Supremacy is amidst us, and Pink Siifu’s latest record is the unheralded soundtrack that captures it all. It’s the perfectly confrontational record that our society needs; unfortunately, people aren’t ready. But will they ever be?
9. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters: The world was just entering a pandemic-induced lockdown, and society needed a pick-me-up. Enter our savior, Fiona Apple. Both fierce and fun, there are many reasons why Fiona Apple’s first record in forever earned the elusive Pitchfork ’10’. Besides fulfilling expectations eight years in the making, Fetch The Bolt Cutters wound up being everything we’ve come to know Apple to be—a provocative poet and truly, one of the greatest songwriters of the 21st century. While Fetch The Bolt Cutters will keep her Appleseeds, bushels of apples, or whatever you want to call her fans, at bay, let’s all hope we don’t have to wait for another plague to hear her next masterpiece.
8. Run The Jewels – RTJ4: No matter the moment in time, Run The Jewels don’t miss. Recent socio-political unrest proved too prescient to ignore over earlier in the year, pushing the rowdy and esteemed duo of Killer Mike and El-P to release their new record—RTJ4. Serving as a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter protests, which emerged across the country and in the streets this past summer, RTJ4 eliminates any doubt over how a new album would hold up, as recent events accentuate their combination of experimental beats and hardcore raps, which are as hard-hitting as ever.
7. King Krule – Man Alive!: The easily arguable detractor against The Ooz was that it felt overstuffed, which didn’t necessarily bode well with its overt sleepiness in style. Man Alive! trims the fat whilst still maintaining the tone-setting dreariness. With the extra layer of haze now lifted, every cut from King Krule’s latest is allowed room to breathe. From beginning to end, there’s not a single miss. Each track is sequenced to perfection, is emotionally gripping, beautifully performed, and deeply felt without hesitation. Full Review
6. Jean Dawson – Pixel Bath: In a year where polarization, divergent opinions, and extreme maxims have ruled supreme, Dawson’s overlapping, post-genre approach is an overflowing spring that comes to fruition on his proper debut album Pixel Bath. A mature and much more focused follow-up to his 2019 mixtape, Dawson’s latest outing dabbles in a bit of everything – bedroom pop, pop-punk, industrial rap, and even glitch-pop – and the final product is a boisterous marvel to behold, touched through and through with deep emotion. Full Review
5. Jerskin Fendrix – Winterreise: A collection of unhinged pop songs for unhinged times, Fendrix avoids breakup album clichés on Winterreise by combining them with a reality of batshit craziness. Bursting at the seams in self-loathing poetry and eccentric pop excursion, wracked with emotional complexities and sudden sonic interruptions, Winterreise is a lovelorn giant that establishes Jerskin Fendrix as one of pop’s bold new voices. Full Review
4. Anjimile – Giver Taker: The best Sufjan Stevens record of 2020 wasn’t even made by Sufjan. It was created by up-and-coming talent, Boston’s beloved Anjimile. Obvious religious subtext aside, Anjimile’s songs are soft-spoken but full of soul, like Sufjan. It’s also worth noting that Anjimile similarly surrounds his voice with instrumentals that run the scale between intimacy and radiance. But the comparisons stop there. Giver Taker is Anjimile’s story, a complex one birthed from—but not defined by—pain and addiction. However, Giver Taker never feels haunted by the past. It inhabits the present triumphantly, full of life, extending an open hand at another chance at life. This time, Anjimile will live his life, controlled only by himself and defined by no one else. All this to say, Giver Taker is one of the most empowering projects and easily one of the best debuts of 2020.
3. Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach: In all of the album’s slow-churning delightfulness, both lyrically and musically, Young Jesus have succeeded in striking an aural balance between meditative and unpredictable that simultaneously positions listeners inward and on their toes. Welcome to Conceptual Beach lacks the slightly angered explosiveness of albums past, which may be unfortunate news for those who’ve fallen in love with the band through their drawn-out, hyperactive live performances. But, as they explore and weave in and out of structure seamlessly, Young Jesus sound like they’re having more fun than any band – while maintaining delicacy and emotionality. Full Review
2. Told Slant – Point the Flashlight and Walk: Told Slant’s latest record, Point the Flashlight and Walk, is truly fragile. With intimate images like “two empty things exchanging emptiness” or two hands caressing each other in the backseat of a car, the timorous Felix Walworth is a voyeuristic fly, observing their own tumultuous attempts at devotion from afar. With these precious memories—of many— at the forefront, Walworth tries to see hope and aims to stand brave, but they give into righteous heartbreak—that is until they don’t. Yes, we are left with a moment of catharsis near the end of the record where Walworth, in a triumphant tremble, sings, “I’ll stay with you, even when it’s scary to.” If it was your goal to shed a tear while listening to music in 2020, but have yet to, look no further.
1. Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics: More of an art initiative than a band, Crack Cloud is many things, but at this very moment, they are an ascending enigma with a compelling background, underscored by pain and addiction, and on Pain Olympics, they are wrestling back their narrative from those who’ve discomfortingly focused on the drug-dependent pasts of several of their members. Lingering demons of drug abuse are relived on these songs through a startling display of barbaric textures and claustrophobic noise-making, but beneath the cracked surface of Pain Olympics’ art-punk wasteland, there is unmistakable hope that belies the much-publicized cycle of trauma and relapse. It’s a hope that peers into society’s future, where the group’s story will be reclaimed. Full Review
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce
Black Wing – No Moon
Touché Amoré – Lament
Them Airs – Doped Runner Verse
Them Airs – Union Suit XL
Adrianne Lenker – songs
Duval Timothy – Help
Respire – Black Line
Vundabar – Either Light
Buscabulla – Regresa
Samia – The Baby
A.G. Cook – 7G
Pet Shimmers – Face Down in Meta
Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Black Dresses – Peaceful As Hell
Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight To Eternity
The Weekend – After Hours
Chris Crack – White People Love Algorithms
Eartheater – Flames Are Dew Upon my Skin
Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today
Tiña – Positive Mental Health Music
Orpine – Grown Ungrown
Ichiko Aoba – Windswept Adan
Junk Drawer – Ready for the House
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Dehd – Flower of Devotion
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Dogleg – Melee
No Joy – Motherhood
Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation
Helena Deland – Someone New
TOP 100 SONGS OF 2020 PLAYLIST: