Joel's top 10 albums of 2020

Joel Oliphint

To be honest, I spent much of 2020 listening to older ambient/drone music, filling my ear holes with wordless waves of synth and piano and guitar. Fennesz sent me down that path last year with Agora, and I’ve been following that serpentine road ever since, binging on trailblazers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd (RIP) and, with the help of the Flow State newsletter and recs from likeminded buddies, finding newer artists like Alaskan Tapes, Warmth and Phil France (The Swimmer is my jam).

But I listened to albums with more traditional songs, too, and there were plenty of good ones to pick from. For those even vaguely familiar with Music Joel Likes, the overall vibe of this list probably won’t surprise.

Two-way tie for 10. Hum: Inlet (Earth Analog) and Nothing: The Great Dismal (Relapse)

Yeah, I’m putting these two albums in a tie to make sure both get some shine. But they also scratch the same itch for me: big, shoegaze-y guitars, with Nothing taking a dreamier approach and Hum grunging its way forward like the 22 years between albums never even happened.

9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions (Southeastern)

I wasn’t crazy about the first two singles from this record, but the rest of the album made up for it. Isbell is one of the greatest living songwriters. And if you have a daughter, and you’re able to listen to “Letting You Go” without welling up even once, congratulations: You’re a robot.

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

Few records charmed me more than this one, a long-form story-album about a night on the town. It’s full of seemingly insignificant moments and bad/good jokes, all told with this Canadian songwriter’s wry sense of humor and eye for casually incisive details.

7. Ezra Feinberg: Recumbent Speech (Related States)

I tuned in and/or zoned out to this album countless times in 2020. The instrumental guitar, psychedelic flourishes and ambient beds consistently deliver the vibe I crave.

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

This is the year my son started getting more into hip-hop, but when I played RTJ4 in the car recently (clean version, don't @ me), he’d never heard of Run the Jewels. Kids these days. But, I can only name one Juice Wrld song, so I guess we’re even? I don’t know. But this album amped me up every time I listened in 2020, though this isn’t pure escapism by any stretch. It’s an urgent call for justice.

5. Christian Lee Hutson: Beginners (Anti-)

With production help from Phoebe Bridgers, Christian Lee Hutson's seemingly simple songs hit harder and harder with each listen. “By the time I left you the room looked like a bruise/A curtain breach let pink and blue light wash across your face,” he sings on “Unforgivable,” one of several songs that takes intensely personal moments and displays them in widescreen.

4. Mary Lattimore: Silver Ladders (Ghostly)

Produced by Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, Silver Ladders is a transportive, aptly named record, with Lattimore’s bright, shimmering harp ascending heavenward as Halstead provides just enough subtle accompaniment to give the whole thing some structural support.

3. Blake Mills: Mutable Set (New Deal/Verve)

I realize this is a strange thing to say about an album that snagged a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork, but I think Mutable Set is one of the most overlooked records of the year, perhaps because it’s so unassuming at first. But this album (Stefon voice) has everything: pristine yet adventurous production, surprising sonic and melodic flourishes, expertly crafted lyrics. It takes several listens to fully realize Mills’ humble brilliance, but once it clicks, it sticks.

2. Adrianne Lenker: Songs and Instrumentals (4AD)

I’ve never heard rain sound better than it does on “come,” from Lenker’s Songs. It’s the perfect mood-setter for the Big Thief songwriter’s unpredictable, intimate folk compositions. Instrumentals, a beautifully peaceful guitar record, is perhaps even more vulnerable, putting the listener right next to Lenker in a one-room cabin in a Massachusetts forest. “I’m starting over,” she says at one point during “music for indigo,” unknowingly speaking aloud what we’re all hoping for in 2021.

1. Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher (Dead Oceans)

“I Know the End” is probably the most 2020 of 2020 songs — a winding, slow-build masterpiece that starts tentative and ends with primal screams and orchestral dissonance — so it makes sense that Punisher’s closing track gets the most attention, along with Bridgers’ lines about burying bodies (“Garden Song”) and wanting to kill her dad (“Kyoto”). But it’s the opening to “Chinese Satellite” that gets me every time: “I’ve been running around in circles/Pretending to be myself/Why would somebody do this on purpose/When they could do something else?” On the chorus, Bridgers looks to the stars and instead finds a satellite, but the searching continues, and therein lies the hope. Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there.