Hard to Be Anywhere These Days: Top 25 Albums of 2020

I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.

As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.

One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.

01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.

02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.

03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.

04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.

05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.

06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.

07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.

08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”

09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.

10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.

11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing. 

12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”

13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.

14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.

15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges. 

16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.

17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.

18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.

19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.

20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.

21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.

22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.

23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.

24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.

25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.

Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.

Legacy & Lineage: Old and new jazz from Joshua Redman; Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas; Brad Mehldau Trio

still dreaming

Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming tells a story of lineage and legacy. It starts all the way back with Ornette Coleman, the “free jazz” godfather who still daunts neophytes with his reputation for entropy and abrasion. Exposure to his work unveils the alleged rabble-rouser as a tunesmith without equal, and on early classics like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, Coleman pursued an aesthetic equally devoted to free expression and melodic purity. Those early Coleman records use the master’s great tunes as trailheads for idiosyncrasy and invention; they feel both direct and unpredictable, with each player developing a unique personal grammar amidst a tumble of melodies and rhythms. The restless Coleman would eventually be seduced by funk and electronics, but the spirit of those seminal explorations was continued by Old and New Dreams—a group of Coleman alumni that included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell, and saxophonist Dewey Redman. Old and New Dreams were keepers of the flame, perhaps, but they used it as a spark for further combustion. Their albums from the 70s and early 80s carve out new territory within Coleman’s elastic aesthetic; their legacy exists in his shadow, but it also deepens his pioneering vocabulary.

Joshua, as you might have guessed, is Dewey’s son—and though he’s recorded several albums of his own with Coleman/Old and New Dreams veterans, he’s always been aloof in his relationship to his father’s pedigree. The younger Redman is many things, including a deep conceptual thinker, a generous collaborator, and a preeminent balladeer. One thing he’s not is complacent custodian to anyone’s legacy—Coleman’s, his father’s, or anyone else’s.  The great thrill of Still Dreaming, then, is how it reveals the ideals of Old and New Dreams to be eternally renegotiable. This music deliberately engages with a particular sound and tradition but not as a means to preserve it in amber; instead, the saxophonist and his third-generation dreamers blow the dust off familiar conceits, taking a rangy and roaming approach to their springy melodic pursuits. It’s an album about lineage, but only as filtered through their unique and vibrant personalities.

The newest dreamers include Ron Miles on coronet, Brian Blade on drums, and Scott Colley on bass—all three players whose eclecticism both embraces and surpasses jazz traditionalism. (Colley, in particular, is quickly becoming an MVP sideman; see also the twitchy energy he brings to the Nels Cline 4.) Their performances evoke the spontaneous camaraderie and effervescent tunefulness of Old and New Dreams without ever lapsing into tribute-band territory—and as evidence, check their take on Haden’s “Playing,” which served as the title song on Old and New Dreams’ best album. The original began as a speaker-rattling bass rumble, as though it was recorded from deep within a subwoofer, but here it’s recast as mournful dialogue between Redman and Miles before Colley and Blade enter with a nervous-tic pulse. This song and Coleman’s “Comme II Faut” are the only canonical selections here, with everything else composed anew by Redman or his band members—and perhaps it’s telling that the most lovably Coleman-esque song on the whole album is “New Year,” a bubbly Colley composition that opens with a tightly melodic head before each band member peels off into a joyous and ramshackle solo, stretching the tune like it’s taffy but never losing its original shape.

Elsewhere, they recast Old and New Dreams’ lineage in their own image; listen to “Blues for Charlie,” with a smoky romance from Redman that goes down smoother than anything his ancestors ever recorded together, even as its malleable easy-listening is warped and transfigured over the song’s seven-minute run time. This, basically, is the Old and New value proposition: Musicians of extraordinary distinction putting pristine melodies through one mutation after another, bending them against their personal aesthetic preferences. There’s a prickly energy to the whole album, a high-wire tension heard in how Redman and his band fly so high above their melodic safety net, only to find their way back to its reassuring familiarity. You hear it best on “Unanimity,” a Redman composition. The quartet springs headlong into a halting groove, all four of them voicing the song’s buoyant refrain in perfectly stuttered unison, before they unravel it into a frayed jumble: Snaps and pops and rolling thunder from Blade, pliant swing from Colley, horn solos that disassemble the main theme and then jigsaw it back together. Take the song’s title as a mission statement: One of the great pleasures in jazz is hearing individual voices finding common ground, personal freedom wed to like-minded co-creation. It’s a pleasure that Still Dreaming both ratifies and expands.

It’s not the only recent jazz album to renegotiate a prestigious legacy. On a new collaborative album, Norwegians Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas engage the legacy of ECM Records, the venerated label that’s printed countless classics from Paul Bley, Keith Jarett, Charles Lloyd, and, as luck would have it, Old and New Dreams. ECM is acclaimed for its sound—bright, crisp, and warm—but also for its aesthetic, one that upholds both jazz and classical works and increasingly blurs the distinction between the two. Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas embraces ECM’s pristine sonics as well as its reputation for elegant synthesis, bringing both into the digital age. (The entire record feels like the answer to a question you hadn’t realized you’d asked: What would the classic ECM aesthetic sound like it augmented with laptop computers?) Wesseltoft is a jazz pianist long conversant with electronica, Thomas a keyboard texturalist indebted to jazz’ looseness and its use of space. Here their sensibilities dissolve into a seamless fusion, one that brings out the best in both artists while also pushing them into new discoveries. There are surprising textural composites here: “Norte do Brasil” sounds like the music of cathedrals as played on the chintziest Casio keyboard, euphoria channeled through washed-out synths. There are unexpected left turns into the back pages of jazz: “Sin Tempo,” intimate minimalism for live piano and drums, flirts with the melancholy and romance of a Bill Evans ballad. “Bar Asfalt” is elevator exotica, Wesseltoft’s piano winding its way through a funhouse of chimes and drum loops. But the album’s 800-pound gorilla is opening song “Furuberget,” an 18-minute shapeshifting groove that encompasses electronica’s layers and loops and the jazz tradition of thematic variation: Sometimes the song dissolves into its own beeps and bloops, only to be respawned as something recognizable yet reimagined. It’s a case study in how music that’s built on the past can still utterly surprise.

And you can’t discuss jazz legacies without talking about one of the music’s preeminent living historians—that is, someone for whom jazz is living history, ever open to reinterpretation. Pianist Brad Mehldau thinks about jazz structurally, comparatively, and taxonomically, not just in his heady liner notes but also in intellectually rich solo piano albums. This year’s reflective After Bach considered classical music through a jazz prism—it would have fit in well in the ECM discography—but his most colorful and kinetic albums are the ones he makes in the trio format. Seymour Reads the Constitution! crackles with energy and swing; it’s the work of a group that’s as comfortable with each other as they are with the lineage they unspool—Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard. There’s no overarching concept here, but the album belongs to the same tradition as Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle—albums that subtly animate the pliable nature of the piano/bass/drums format. Mehldau remains devoted to the porous nature of the jazz canon, here claiming a couple of pop tunes as standards: The trio brings a nimble touch to the folksy flourishes of Paul McCartney’s “Great Day,” and they breeze through The Beach Boys’ waltz “Friends.” There are more canonical standards, too: “Almost Like Being Love” begins with an ambling gait but builds into a whirling dervish of fleet-fingered piano and rumbling drums. These songs map out the physical and intellectual possibilities implicit in the chemistry between three musicians, but the most valuable offerings of all may be Mehldau’s originals: The clattering “Spiral” ascends forever, faster and faster as it goes, while the title song is a tragicomic picaresque, a sly shuffle through melancholy and whimsy. These are some of Mehldau’s most charismatic compositions to date, finding room for distinction in a lineage that stretches on.