All right, everyone, the faster we get through this list, the faster 2020 will be over. And if there’s a year I have more desperately wanted to be over, I cannot remember it.
What you’re about to read represents some of the brightest spots of my year. 2020 was marked by fear and isolation, by health scares and unwelcome diagnoses, by rapid change and slow-motion movement. It was also full of reminders that I know the best people, and renewed commitments to remain in touch with those people. There have been bright spots amidst the darkness, and it’s good to remember that.
There’s also been good music, and it’s important to remember that too. The list that follows is a personal one, and if you disagree, that’s fine. One of the reasons I am ending this column is that I’ve grown weary of defending my own personal taste. The things I like will not strike others the same way, and that is sometimes hard for me to remember. There are plenty of records – dozens, in fact – that could make a list like this one, and it’s all down to what moves you.
It’s amazing to me, though, that my last top 10 list ends with me in complete critical agreement with pretty much everyone. This year’s top album was so good, and so right for this moment, that it was undeniable. No iconoclastic choice from me this year. Just a big ol’ stamp with the words “I AGREE” engraved in it. The rest of the list won’t be as obvious, I don’t think, but the top choice has been clear for a long time.
Anyway, your mileage may vary. For me, these were my favorite albums from a long and lonely year.
#10. Vanessa Carlton, Love is An Art.
I chose this one over my “number elevens,” as I listed last week, because I love a good evolution. If you haven’t been keeping up with Vanessa Carlton since “A Thousand Miles,” you’ve missed some quiet yet tremendous artistic growth. This isn’t a knock on “Miles,” which is still a superb pop song, but if you’re looking for that youthful exuberance here, you won’t find it. Love is An Art is an immersive collection of mature songwriting, with often bizarre yet beautiful production by Carlton and Dave Fridmann. It’s the kind of album that makes no sense on first listen, but falls into place the more you get to know it. Love is An Art is (forgive me) a thousand miles from the piano-pop of her past, and charts a strong path for her future.
#9. Matt Wilson and his Orchestra, When I Was a Writer.
Matt’s brother Dan made headlines this year by reuniting Semisonic, but it was the lesser-known Wilson who made the biggest impact on me. When I Was a Writer is a lovely set of songs, performed with a scaled-down band of stringed instruments (including banjo and harp), and it sounds like a mix of bluegrass and chamber music. This setting is perfect for Wilson’s worn voice and songs about finding hope where you can. “Real Life” is one of the year’s finest, but you won’t be able to stop humming “Decent Guy” or “Come to Nothing” either, and with “Mental Patients” Wilson has basically written an anthem for all of us. Here’s hoping this is just the start of this orchestra’s run.
#8. Tim Minchin, Apart Together.
You know this record is good if it made this list mere weeks after its release. Australian Tim Minchin is widely known as a musical comedian and a composer of stage shows like Matilda and Groundhog Day. Apart Together is his first “real” album, and if you’ve been missing the heartfelt specificity of Ben Folds, Minchin’s work here will scratch that itch. This is a gorgeous album of big productions, but it is the detailed and heartfelt lyrics that steal the show. Minchin can still be funny – “Leaving L.A.” is a riotous chronicle of his miserable time in the title city, writing an animated film that went nowhere. But gems like “I Can’t Save You” and “I’ll Take Lonely Tonight” deliver with a wellspring of emotion Minchin has often kept hidden. If this is just the start of Minchin’s “serious” recording career, I look forward to following his work forever.
#7. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher.
Phoebe Bridgers’ extracurricular work in Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center will not prepare you for Punisher, a moody, dark, beautifully produced piece of work that is only “folk music” by the barest of associations. The music here is ethereal and otherworldly, which stands in lovely contrast to Bridgers’ lyrics. They’re full of tiny little details that draw you into her worlds, while she keeps the big moments at the edges, telling stories often by not telling them. The final song, “I Know the End,” is one of the greatest achievements of the year, an apocalyptic breakdown that slowly ratchets up until it explodes in fanfares and screams. This record is every bit as good as you’ve heard it is.
#6. Weiwu, Are You Perfect Yet.
Weiwu is Michael Gungor’s one-man project following the demise of his eponymous band. But don’t worry about that. No amount of familiarity with Gungor’s previous work will give you any idea what Are You Perfect Yet sounds like. This is progressive, electronic, noisy, danceable, meditative and deeply spiritual stuff, exploring Gungor’s fascination with Hinduism and with many different kinds of music. Some of this is clearly indebted to The Age of Adz, but the way this one takes you by the hand and leads you on a journey is pure Michael Gungor. I’ve never quite heard anything like this, an outpouring of imagination and wonder on an impressive scale. Check it out here.
#5. Hum, Inlet.
There were a few surprise album drops this year, but for my money, none were as surprising as the return of Hum. Their previous two, 1995’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut and 1998’s Downward is Heavenward, before I even knew where Champaign, Illinois was. The best word I have for their sound is immersive. The guitars are so thick and heavy that they cease to sound like guitars after a while, and the music floats you along like a turbulent ocean. Inlet is the same, but more so – the songs are longer, the riffs more massive, the sound even more enveloping. After 22 years away, Hum may have made their finest record. Surprise!
#4. Darlingside, Fish Pond Fish.
Darlingside, that Boston band with the incredible harmonies, has been a favorite for some time. But with Fish Pond Fish they complete their transformation into something almost indescribably beautiful. There’s a spectral quality to much of this record, a sense of ancient wisdom and otherworldly grace. The harmonies are still the main draw, and they are unspeakably wonderful from first song to last here. But the songs are stunning too. There’s a sense of warmth and optimism to this record, particularly on the luminous closer “A Light On in the Dark,” that felt like a soothing balm, even in the year’s darkest moments. Everything I wanted the Fleet Foxes album to be, this one was. Hear it here, as soon as you can.
#3. Ella Mine, Dream War.
Ella Mine is, without a doubt, my favorite discovery of 2020. Barely out of college, Mine has crafted a stunningly confident and sweeping debut album, one that plays like a single piece of music. Inspired by her own horrific experience with mind-altering pain medication, Dream War offers some of the most hard-won hope of the year, taking you to the edge of despair and then finding the glimmers of love and inspiration that bring us back from the brink. There’s no way Mine could have known how much an album like this would be needed in 2020, how relatable her journey through darkness would be in this bleak midwinter. But it feels like 2020, like crawling through isolation and pain to reach the other side. I could mention highlights here, like “Water’s Rise” or “Wheel of Love,” but Dream War is best heard as a whole. So block off an hour and hear it. You won’t regret it. Of everyone on this list, Ella Mine is the artist whose next work I am most excited to hear.
#2. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension.
The Ascension is a difficult album. It is practically dripping with pain, regret, betrayal, depression and inner turmoil, and when it reaches its conclusion after 82 minutes, that conclusion is utterly bleak. It is a lament writ large, for lost faith in God and in institutions, and taking it all in feels like being drowned over and over again. It is also an absolutely phenomenal piece of music, up to the impossibly high standards set by Stevens’ own catalog. Focusing almost entirely on electronic sounds, Stevens creates wind-blown landscapes and wildernesses for his beleaguered pilgrim to walk through, and though you may not want to keep going with him toward this particular destination, the album carries you along masterfully. This is one of the most brilliant cries of desperation I have ever heard, transforming both Stevens and the listener along the way, and its climax, the stunning title track, will hollow you out. I didn’t listen to this album too often this year, but when I did, it left a shadow over my heart. If your 2020 was a wrenching experience, taking you from every safe harbor you have known and making you question everything you hold dear, Sufjan Stevens has made the perfect soundtrack. It hurts. It’s beyond amazing, but it hurts.
And I almost considered it the most fitting album to top the list this year, considering… well, everything. But only briefly. The real story of the year is about living through trauma, about finding hope in hard places, about becoming more fully yourself. And that’s the story of the album that rightfully sits at this list’s peak.
#1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
It’s almost a cliché at this point to note that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is brilliant. Fiona Apple has been a tremendous songwriter and record-maker for some time, but it is here, for the first time, that we get a true sense of the scope of her talent. This is the first one that sounds like pure uncut Fiona. Made at home, it features household objects as percussion, off-kilter yet wonderful harmonies, songs that don’t go anywhere that you expect them to, and an overall feel that threatens to fall apart at any time, but never does. Every element works so well with every other element here, and I cannot imagine these songs any other way.
But it’s the songs that make this the astonishing experience it is. Apple has always been honest, but here she opens a vein, candidly discussing the experiences that have kept her down, kept her quiet, kept her from being her true self. The album’s title comes from a line in a television show, spoken by a character about to free a kidnap victim, and the entire feel of this record is of someone cutting through the chains that have held them down. “Under the Table” is exhilarating in its simplicity, Apple refusing to rein herself in for anyone. The title track is a low crawl to freedom, Apple repeating to herself that she has been stuck where she is for too long.
This is also a record about finding inspiration and hope in unlikely places. “Shameika” is a wonderful song about an offhand moment that Apple has carried with her for most of her life, and it brought her and the real Shameika together again after decades apart. “Relay” is a powerful reckoning with the way evil perpetuates, while “For Her,” one of the rawest and most harrowing songs here, ends with a confrontation over buried trauma, and the retaking of one’s power. It’s a pretty amazing 2:44, containing worlds and multitudes.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters could easily have been an angry album, but it isn’t one. It’s a wise one, a guidebook on forgiveness and perseverance and love. Closer “On I Go” is a mantra, Apple noting that she’s been in a rush to prove herself before, and now she only moves to move. This album is the product of years of healing, and if there has ever been a year in which we needed to hear the sound of healing, it’s this one. It doesn’t flinch from the darkness, but it learns to walk with it toward the light. That is the story of 2020 to me, and no one told it better than Fiona Apple.
And that’s it. This is the 21st of these top 10 lists I have been privileged to write for this column, and will likely be the last. Thanks to everyone for reading. Hope your holidays are merry and bright, as much as they can be. Come back next week as I bring this thing in for a landing.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.