This article was originally published in The Sting on December 11, 2020.
When I used to work at Record and Tape Traders, it was a lot easier to keep track of new releases. After all, if I wasn’t the one organizing them on Thursday after closing, I was the one selling them upon opening Friday. This year has been so long and ridiculous, I almost forgot that some of my favorite records of the year actually came out this year. That being said, over the last week I’ve revisited some of my favorite albums of 2020, and I’m going to offer you my top 10. Give them a shot if you need something to listen to over the winter break.
Fair warning: Taylor Swift’s Folklore is not on this list. The lyrics were okay, but the album overall wasn’t very good. She surprise-dropped another album this morning, evermore. I’ll give it a listen at some point, but I’m not expecting much.
10. The Network – Money Money 2020 Part II: We Told Ya So!
Are they a secret side-project of pop-punk band Green Day? The answer is most likely, yes. We were first introduced to The Network in 2003 when they released Money Money 2020, a decent new wave record that was a stark contrast to pretty much anything Green Day had done up to that point. After a 17-year hiatus, The Network seems to believe that the year 2020 lived up to their expectations. Part II is actually a pretty good record, with a similar sound to the original. If you’re a fan of New Wave, you’ll probably enjoy this. Unlike the original, the tracks on this LP seem to have a greater political message behind them, which may harken more toward Green Day’s American Idiot.
9. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Musical savant Kevin Parker is back at it again. The Australian multi-instrumentalist and record producer tackles a host of issues, from his tumultuous relationship with his father on “Posthumous Forgiveness” to feelings of being trapped in a rut on “One More Year.” “Lost in Yesterday.” a song about being addicted to nostalgia, really hits home for me. While Parker writes and records all the material himself, he has touring musicians perform with him on the road. Last year, Tame Impala headlined Coachella, perhaps signaling to Parker that his solo-project had finally made it.
8. HAIM – Women in Music, Pt. III
I think the word that best describes HAIM’s third record is “exploratory.” It’s similar to their first two efforts in two regards: harmonizing vocals and heavy guitars. Other than that, HAIM is setting out to explore new territory. Some tracks feel like synth-pop. Others, like “Up From A Dream,” almost remind me of David Bowie’s last record. The guitar playing on “The Steps” almost reminds me of late-Beatles or early- solo George Harrison. It might be a little different, but overall, it’s a good record.
7. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Hip-hop duo Run the Jewels’ fourth record was released less than a month after the killing of George Floyd sparked protests across the United States and the world. Self-admittedly, I’m not always the biggest fan of rap, but this album struck a chord with me. The messaging, along with a host of venerable beats and sounds from the rap music of yesteryear is what really makes this effort unique. Joshua Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and gospel singer Mavis Staples are featured on “pulling the pin.” Although it may sound like an unusual pairing, the two really make the track pop.
6. Jason Isbell – Reunions
Jason Isbell unpacks so much in his latest record. The former Muscle Shoals studio musician continues to reflect on those he’s loved and lost, and his struggle for sobriety, now almost a decade ago. “Only Children” dives into his regret that his parents, mainly his mother, never had a chance to experience coming of age properly, since they had him so young. While he expresses feelings of regret on a few songs, he’s hopeful for the future. Isbell tells us in “It Gets Easier” that things were difficult for him, but they certainly got better, even though things may never be easy.
5. The Weeknd – After Hours
The Weeknd is really one of the only modern-day R&B artists I thoroughly enjoy. After Hours gives us a bit more of an 80’s synth sound, but I’m all here for it. I listened to the single, “Blinding Lights” on repeat for a solid hour of my five-hour drive to Cooperstown, NY back in March. I was lucky that the entire album was released the following week for my listening pleasure. “Scared to Live” might be the most upbeat track on the album, but it still has some dark undertones. Overall, very fitting for what this year became.
4. The Struts – Strange Days
The Struts were the only big name I had the chance to see in concert this year. Their third record, Strange Days, will serve as a bit of a time-capsule in the years to come. Recorded over 10 days during quarantine, the album is quite intimate with a huge sound. It perfectly captures the experience of living through 2020. “Science fiction I believe, has become reality,” really just couldn’t be more fitting.
3. Machine Gun Kelly – Tickets to My Downfall
Tickets to My Downfall is my favorite pop-punk album in years. Featuring the drum power and production of Blink-182’s Travis Barker, MGK takes a break from the rap music he’s usually known for. It’s loud. It’s bombastic. It’s the perfect album to listen to at full-volume with the windows down. “title track” is a great, blustering opening to the album, beginning with acoustic guitar and vocals, then ripping into Barker’s verbose drumming. “concert for aliens” seems to call back to the sound of Blink’s 1998 effort Enema of the State. This record fits right in with the pop-punk albums of the early 2000’s perfectly.
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan has the unique distinction of being the first to release a top-40 record in every decade since the 1960’s. His latest, Rough and Rowdy Ways, doesn’t miss a beat. Dylan is as honest as he’s always been. It’s a meditation of who we are and where we’ve been as a society. He likens himself to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones, proclaiming the he too, “[has] multitudes.” He remembers blues musician Jimmy Reed in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a thumping blues track that just might be my favorite on the record. Rough and Rowdy Ways ends with the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” magnum opus about President John F. Kennedy’s death, and all the things the slain president never had the chance to witness
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
My favorite album of the year was also my favorite Springsteen album since 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s brutally honest, focusing on the intricacies of life and death in a way only The Boss could aptly do. Three tracks on the album predate Springsteen’s 1973 debut, but they still fit in with the songs he’s written over the last few years. Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded the album at his New Jersey farm last November, long before the pandemic threw a wrench in many artist’s recording plans. If you’re interested in learning more about the recording and stories behind this album, Springsteen released a documentary on Apple TV+. Here’s to hoping we’ll get to see them out on the road in 2021.
Tony Sheaffer is managing editor for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.