Arts and culture frequently mirrors its time and surroundings, and this massive kidney stone we call 2020 demonstrated that in spades. (I know I said pretty much the same thing about brilliance under duress in 2016, but it still applies.) Even though most of us couldn't go to a movie theater or attend a music festival, there were artistic achievements to celebrate. A uniquely weird year certainly wasn't a bad one, and if visiting the record store wasn't an option, then we all knelt at the throne of Spotify in 2020.
1. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple. In a year where up was down, left and right, and nothing could be taken for granted, the most outstanding release of the year was a literal shaggy dog story. Apple recorded this album with a tight quartet, on and off for five years, in between her rescue pets barking at her home studio in Venice Beach. Neither prolific (her third album since 2000) nor predictable, Apple takes any assumptions you make about her work --sometimes radically shifting a song at mid-course-- and throws it out the window. Bolt Cutters is jarring, cathartic, disarming, but above all very human. Odds are, Apple will disappear for another six or seven years, assume everyone forgot about her, then release another album that's even more astounding than this one.
2. Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee. Trading the defiant alt-rock of her fourth solo album for a contemplative, country sound, Katie Crutchfield turned inward to fight off getting complacent. Newly sober and in a state of introspection, Crutchfield's Alabama twang sounds wry and effortless. She's in a new chapter in her life, she insists, but the story is still being written.
3. RTJ4, Run The Jewels. In a word, searing. Always killer with minimal filler, RTJ's beefy revolution anthems were both a harbinger and soundtrack to a tense and violent summer. Police brutality, systemic racism, and class injustice are not new problems, as Killer Mike and El-P reminded us, and it's not going away anytime soon. It's a vicious cycle, and without any systemic change it will keep popping up in the news over and over again.
4. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius
5. Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor
6. Women In Music Pt. III, HAIM
7. It Is What It Is, Thundercat
8. The New Abnormal, The Strokes
9. The Slow Rush, Tame Impala
10. Rough And Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan. If 2020 was about expecting the unexpected, how about a nearly 80-year-old Nobel Prize winner putting out yet another outstanding album? Old Man Zimmerman was probably thrilled that he didn't have to tour for this latest release, where he locks horns with his legacy as well as his own mortality. As ever, Dylan speaks directly but remains elusive; he says he's weary, but has energy to spare. The last half-hour of this album (maybe his last, but who knows) has only two songs, both rambling in nature yet compelling to listen to and decipher.
Honorable Mentions: Miss Anthropocene, Grimes; Letter to You, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band; All Thoughts Fly, Anna von Hausswolff.
BEST JAZZ ALBUMS:
1. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas. Genre-bending (I debated putting on the above list) and overwhelmingly peaceful, La Havas' self-titled third album was written in the span of half a decade. Unlike Fiona Apple, however La Havas chose chill over catharsis. Detailing her split with her former creative and romantic partner, La Havas sings like a woman reborn, blending R&B, soul, and acid jazz while barely breaking a sweat.
2. Hero Trio, Rudresh Mahanthappa
3. All Rise, Gregory Porter
4. Canvas, Robert Glasper
5. Originations, Ryan Cohan
Honorable Mentions: Purple Dark Opal, Kuzu; Fearless, Sharel Cassity.
BEST SONGS: (in no order)
"All In My Head," Whethan & Grandson
"You Need Me," Nathanial Rateliff
"Blinding Lights," The Weeknd
"Hell and Back," Bakar
"Be Afraid," Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
"I Will Run," Dawes
"I'm Alive," Norah Jones
"What's The Matter," Twin Peaks
"Savage," Megan Thee Stallion
"Boss Bitch," Doja Cat
"Aries," Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook
"Sorceress," Jess Williamson
"My Game," Zella Day
"You're Not Alone," Semisonic
"Fake," Lauv feat. Conan Grey
"Get Weird," North By North
"See Monkey," Elvis Perkins
"Pienso En Ti," Levitation Room
Outstanding Achievement by a Song That Was Preceded by a 13 Minute Dirge About The Titanic, and Soon to Be Followed By a 20 Minute Ballad About the Hindenburg Explosion: "Murder Most Foul," Bob Dylan
Best Song From 2019 That I Discovered in 2020: "I'm Ready," Black Pumas
1. "WAP," Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion. Well great, the basement's flooded...
2. "Therefore I Am," Billie Eilish. The mall *looks* abandoned, but this clip was probably shot during regular business hours.
3. "Sickeningly Teeth," Melkbelly. A small army of Chicago-turned-NYC improvisers (including, ahem, some acquaintances of mine) remind you of the importance of flossing.
4. "3 Segundos," Melenas. A goofy green-screen pastiche of classic American TV shows, featuring Pamplona's modern-day riot grrls.
5. "Blind Youth Industrial Park," METZ. My annual heady, surreal, sci-fi/fantasy pick.
Honorable Mention: "Bad Decisions," The Strokes. Supplies are limited! Order now!
See you all in '21.