Andy's top 10 albums of 2020

Andy Downing

10. Andy Shauf: The Neon Skyline (Anti-)

On his low-key new album, the Canadian singer and songwriter bar hops, bumps into an ex and temporarily feigns a British accent, detailing these commonplace interactions with a novelist’s eye and admirable heart and humor.

9. Waxahatchee: St. Cloud (Merge)

Appropriately, Katie Crutchfield emerges from previous album Out in the Storm, from 2017, with what sounds like her most sun-kissed effort to date. The songwriting is clear-eyed and strong (“I have a gift, I’ve been told, for seeing what’s there,” she offers on “The Eye,” and she’s not wrong), and the music, at its best, sounds like springtime in full bloom. Witness “Can’t Do Much,” which has been in regular rotation for me since the album surfaced in late March and still sparks memories of summer drives, even as Christmas draws near.

8. Hum: Inlet (Earth Analog)

On Hum’s first album in 22 years, the space rockers craft a series of massive, melodic guitar epics that capture the power of natural phenomena. Witness the churning “Waves,” where the guitars hit with the corrosive power of a storm-whipped ocean pounding the shoreline.

7. Soccer Mommy: color theory (Loma Vista)

“My world is sinking,” Sophie Allison sings on “Royal Screw Up,” “and I am the captain of it all.” The line echoes an approach the singer adopts throughout her sophomore stunner, on which she navigates a range of tumultuous, early 20s emotions while somehow remaining in complete and total control.

6. Pallbearer: Forgotten Days (Nuclear Blast)

In a 2019 interview with Alive, Pallbearer frontman Brett Campbell described “the ball of discontent” that had long inhabited his body, and for which he found release in the band’s music. It’s certainly true of the Arkansas doom crew’s latest bleak missive, on which Campbell sings of the ways that time can grind “even the greatest of triumphs to nothing.” It’s a sadly true statement, but this album is powerful enough that it should stand longer than most.

5. Mourning [A] BLKstar: The Cycle (Don Giovanni)

The shapeshifting Cleveland soul/funk collective ably moves from tracks like the opening “If I Can I May,” a spacey, horn-spiked plea to choose love, to the comparatively somber “Be,” where vocalists James Long, LaToya Kent and Kyle Kidd wrestle with myriad stumbling blocks before appearing to rediscover an inner power. “Light up a new morning!” Kent belts as the song stretches into the five-minute mark, coming on like a woman who has survived the long night and stands ready to greet the sun.

4. Melkbelly: PITH (Wax Nine/Carpark)

The Chicago quartet’s second album balances unshakeable pop melodies with noise-rock bursts like the barbed, immersive “Kissing Under Some Bats,” a song on which the guitars somehow mirror the sound of a garbage disposal being jammed down a garbage disposal. 

3. Run the Jewels: RTJ4 (Jewel Runners/BMG)

RTJ mates Killer Mike and El-P are on an album streak that places the duo among the greats, knocking out four nearly flawless records that balance balletic wordplay (for a big man, Mike is blessed with a jarringly nimble voice) with brutalist beats befitting these dark times.

2. SAULT: Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) 

Landing less than a month after George Floyd’s death, Untitled (Black Is) from mysterious collective SAULT funnels that rage and sorrow into an eclectic mix of soul, spoken word and funk. “Take off your badge/We all know it was murder,” a singer offers on jarring album highlight “Wildfires.” Untitled (Rise), released just three months later, borrows more heavily from disco and house and finds the collective still dealing with a lingering ache (“It hurts on the inside”) while aspiring to better days on songs like “Strong”: “We’re moving forward tonight.”

1. Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today (Domino)

The songs populating the bleak, brutal, predictive new album from the Detroit post-punk quartet were written prior to the coronavirus reaching our shores and the new civil rights movement that rose up in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. But you’d never guess as much listening to singer Joe Casey rail on about a “foreign disease washed up on the beach,” rioting in the streets and a population reliant on respirators for survival. “What a way to die/Pulled apart by the absence of what sustains us,” he offers in his sing-speak cadence amid “Modern Business Hymns.” No album released this year better captures the horrors of 2020.