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.

Riffs & Reveries: Guitar odysseys from The Messthetics, Tinariwen, and Bruce Cockburn

anthropocosmic nest

Just close your eyes and listen and you might almost convince yourself that The Messthetics were test tube engineered by some ax-obsessed mad scientist, designed to highlight every conceivable expression of electric guitar heroics. Novices should begin with the group’s self-titled 2018 debut, a library of riffs and a testament to the elasticity of the power trio. Then, when you’re ready for the real brain melt, dive into Anthropocosmic Nest, the wirier and more disruptive follow-up; an album that conveys the same technical prowess as their debut, but jolts it with the gutsiness and bravado that only a year of steady touring can bring. This is a band equally adept at building locomotive grooves and then ripping them open with crackling pyrotechnics; at crafting immaculately linear rock and roll songs, then allowing them to dissolve in bursts of static and noise. Anthropocosmic Nest is demonstrably more anarchic than its predecessor, but what makes it lovable is the ease with which The Messthetics shift between clean, conceptual playing and the biggest, dumbest, most lumbering riffs imaginable: check “Scrawler,” where a clattering countdown launches the band into throttling, in-the-red punk, then deep-space jazz noodling. “Drop Foot” thrashes and bashes but then takes a strange detour into junkyard percussion and knob-tweaking chirrup, as if the band is suddenly caught in a swarm of chirping cicadas. Don’t confuse it with “Insect Conference,” a weird minute and a half of twittering sound effects. And don’t let either of those songs fool you into thinking The Messthetics don’t do straight-ahead beauty: “Pacifica,” coasts through wave after wave of glorious melody, its moody atmospherics suggesting an alternate timeline in which The Messthetics play straight shoegaze; you’ll even hear an acoustic guitar in “Because the Mountain Says So,” as clarion as a folk song, as insistent as arena rock. These songs are epic in their build and patient in their pacing, and set the stage for at least one more curveball: “La Lontra,” the next to last song on the album, may be its sleaziest rock and roller of all. Scratch the shoegaze thing; maybe what this band was really cut out for is hair metal?

The Messthetics’ restless spirit is more than equalled by Tinariwen, a caravan of literal nomads whose new Amadjar was assembled on the go, recorded guerilla-style at campsites throughout the Sahara. The album’s title is translated as the foreign traveler, and at first blush it seems like it could have been affixed to most any album the group has made since its 1979 inception, each one of them bearing witness to the roving curiosity and low-key political dissidence of these Tuareg exilees. Upon closer listen, devotees may find that Amadjar captures their rambling nature—the paradoxical way in which they sound so tethered to their particular part of the Earth yet also so defined by their transience and homelessness— as vividly as any Tinariwen album to date. The relaxed and intoxicating album, devoid of anything you could justifiably call a rocker, drones and swirls with loose guitar jams that stretch into endless night; campfire rags featuring call-and-response singing of hymnal austerity and pentecostal fervor. One thing that sets the album apart from other Tinariwen releases is how they’ve opened their caravan to other wayfarers, allowing a number of similarly restless non-African musicians to overdub textures, wrinkles, and vibes of their own. These post-production effects are so organic you might not be able to place them without consulting the album credits; the closest to being ostentatious is probably Micah Nelson, whose spritely mandolin on “Taqkal Tarha” finds the connective tissue between Tinariwen’s African traditionalism and American folk, gospel, and blues. Stephen O’Malley, of the band Sun O))), adds sinister cinema to the ghostly “Wartilla,” a minor-key lament where dexterous finger-picked guitar seems like it’s being sucked into a black hole of electric drone. Bad Seed Warren Ellis shows up several times to add mournful violin, and Cass McCombs enmeshes his own guitars with the band’s thick bramble. These guests all supply welcome accents and color, but they never steal the spotlight from Tinariwen’s endlessly hypnotic weave of guitars, hand claps, and community sing-along vocals. Those with a fluency in the band’s native tongue will identify plenty of agitation in their lyrics, but even if you can’t offer a literal translation, you’ll still feel like you’re basically speaking the same language: Theirs is a musical vocabulary of pilgrimage, of peace and community amidst rootlessness and upheaval. What could be more universal?

On the topic of pilgrims making progress, consider Canadian troubadour Bruce Cockburn, whose close to three dozen (!!) singer/songwriter albums document a lifelong wrestling match with the Almighty, plus an extended inquiry into pancultural musical traditions. Crowing Ignites is only his second album of purely instrumental acoustic guitar music, and what astonishes about it is how it conveys the same characteristics that make his sung poetry so compelling; these compositions are literate, questing, and mystical, seeming at once tranquil and disquieted. A couple of elegiac cycles come toward the front of the album— “Easter” is a contemplative resurrection reverie, “April in Memphis” a procession through actual funeral bells— but his pensiveness is offset here by a handful of earthy surprises. Cockburn doles out snarling blues licks on “The Moan,” but better still is “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz,” swingin’ after-hours jazz guitar complete with brushed cymbals and the sympathetic groan of a muted trumpet (the latter supplied by coronet master Ron Miles). All of this is recorded by producer Colin Linden in immaculate clarity, and suggests that Cockburn is as enraptured by sound and texture as he is high-concept songwriting; consider “Bells of Gethsemane,” where the rustle of acoustic strings stands out against the backdrop of haunted chimes and singing bowls, its very title evoking the Christ-hauntedness that’s always animated Cockburn’s music. There’s a resourcefulness of sound on other songs, too: “Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley” features guitar strings that thrum and drone in simulation of Scottish bagpipes, while “Seven Daggers” cuts a crooked path through chiming kalimba, the tactility of Cockburn’s playing shrouded in otherworldly mist. Such excursionary arrangements mirror the album’s probing spirit: His fleet-fingered playing keeps these songs in perpetual motion even when the mood is reflective, trying to lay his hands to revelation beyond words.