2020 has been a year of exceptions. There will forever be an asterisk marked next to the year in any textbook we read. But damn were there a lot of great albums this year. Some were years in the making (A Written Testimony, Fetch the Bolt Cutters), some started and completed all in quarantine (Folklore, McCartney III). And wow was music our saving grace this year – whether it was refrigerator buzz noise just to have on in the background to keep us company, or in depth, reflective epics that required us to study. Despite the feeling that making an album and needing to share it with the world is so self-indulgent, these albums were here to remind us that, we don’t have to make anything during this time. We don’t have to be productive. But rather, sit in and feel these feelings that we’ve suppressed and never had to feel before. Here are Era of Good Feeling’s top 10 albums of 2020.
10. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
2020 was supposed to be the year of the Strokes. A new album, their first national tour in almost a decade, and even a Grammy nomination to top. More New Order than Velvet Underground, The New Abnormal takes elements from that era and makes them more stylish. Saturated synths take over guitars as they milk new wave vibes to address something more grand and profound than previous Strokes records. But the Strokes have never been a “message” band. They’re less on concept and more on endurance. Their music makes you feel like you’re having a good time. And well-crafted songs can make you feel that way. Regardless of what decade this album came out, there’s always been an innate “time stamp” within their music. That is, there’s a sensorial aspect to it that locks onto the moment you first here one of their songs, one that you’ll always be brought back to when you hear it. And when we hear this record again in the future, we’ll damn sure remember where we were when we first heard it.
9. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
Who would’ve thought that, five years ago, Grimes would be marrying and bearing a child to the second richest man in the world? (Was not on my bingo card list.) It feels like people had turned a cold shoulder to Grimes ever since. But in 2020, she came back with an album that eclipses any gossip or malevolence thrown in her direction. Miss Anthropocene is an album that seduces with dark sensuality, like a devil on your shoulder advising you. The album feels like a dystopian thriller a la Blade Runner: sharp BPM ramp ups, stark and vivid imagery, and melodic hooks that become more visceral with each listen. The beats embed themselves like worms in your muscles and feel like they’re fucking with your DNA. They infect your biorhythms, change how your body moves, and burst into your nervous system to ooze like a thousand barrels of renegade crude. It wouldn’t be 2020 without an album embracing and celebrating singularity.
8. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Earlier this year, Rina Sawayama was denied a Mercury Prize nomination, an award given to outstanding achievement in British music, as they claimed she was not “British” enough given her Japanese heritage despite having lived in the U.K. all her life. Which is a shame, because when you start dictating music via nationalities, that’s where segregation of sounds begins. Music is supposed to mesh, not separate, and Sawayama was the greatest example of that in 2020. Varied sounds of nü-metal, pop, and Japanese cultural music are things that generally don’t go together. But Sawayama embraces her multi-cultural side. It sounds reminiscent of the pop from early 2000s, but brought to a new plane of sophistication. Nothing sounds out of place, but right where it needs to be. Her vocal range soars high above the amalgamation of sounds beneath her, dancing atop of what sounds like an explosion of Black Sabbath and Britney Spears. Music like this is born in the face of adversity. It was never going to be liked unanimously. Instead, it aims to dare listeners rather than please.
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
“It gets easier/But it never gets easy,” sings Jason Isbell on his latest joint effort with the 400 Unit. A testament to sobriety, Reunions journals the friction that comes with assimilating back into a functioning society. A recovering alcoholic, Isbell details this journey like the 12 steps to sobriety, each song a step closer to what looks like finally may be the finish line. However, any recovering addict knows that there is no finish line. It’s a point one desperately tries to work toward, only to discover that you’ll always be chasing and outrunning. Songs like “What’ve I Done to Help?” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” prove that true reunions are almost near impossible for recovering addicts. You can never truly go back to what you left behind. And as Isbell outruns his demons, he reminds us that it’s okay to look back, just don’t stare.
6. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III
Ever since I first heard HAIM in a college dorm room in 2013, I never thought I’d still be listening to them seven years later. Only now, they’re just more intimate. Their palette of 90s hooks and Natalie Imbruglia choruses has evidently paid off, bridging a gap between decades. But their orientation proves to be most effective in these types of songs: you swear you’ve heard them before riding in the passenger seat while your mom drove the mini-van. These songs will age well, because you can tell objectively that these are just great songs to hear and revisit. Like Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” or Imbruglia’s “Torn,” these catchy, explosive choruses have a timelessness about them. The title itself is enough to prove that this is the best rock album of the year – women owned rock in 2020, thus giving the genre a much-needed rejuvenation. The album is about relationship committal, the magnetic reluctance to one another. Who would’ve thought the best rock record of 2020 would be about intimacy?
5. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
I remember seeing Perfume Genius perform at the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles back in 2016. There was nothing but him, a keyboard, and the backdrop of the L.A. skyline. Back then, that was all we needed. But Set My Heart on Fire Immediately presents a different instrumental mix. Varied textures mark and single out each song, guitars cross with synthesizers, and vocals morph into harmonies. But the greatest mark of the album is how un-Perfume Genius it sounds. Each song has its own varied identity, but they all work so well together that each song feels like a natural culmination of the one that came before it. But its strongest suit is how it transmits electronic music emotionally, giving off what at first sounds hollow, and imbues it with emotional significance. But it sounds like it began with how he began everything else in his career: just him and a keyboard.
4. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Jay Electronica would release an album just as the world is ending. His long awaited and highly anticipated debut album finally arrived in the wake of the pandemic, a rather peculiar time to release an album, given that he’s had around ten years to do so. But the timing proved apt. A Written Testimony is a biblical epic as if it was brought down by a different type of Messiah. Filled with religious allegories and pious imagery, the songs play out like characters in a religious text: each one serving a specific function and adding onto the conflict at hand. Maybe it was a specific choice to release the album at the height of the world’s paranoia and distress. At a time where we had to cling onto anything we could believe in, Jay made damn sure his pious message would be available for any dissenters that may need it.
3. Taylor Swift – Folklore
What’s left to be said about Folklore? Yes, one could see it as a massive “stint” as if Taylor Swift just “put on her indie hat.” But it’s more than that. It’s a scale down to intimacy. It’s the only album this year I looked forward to listening to when I woke up in the morning. You could go into the three perspectives in the album and what song represents which POV, but all that’s secondary to me, because the most fascinating thing the album does is change your perspective of time – how you feel it, how you spend it, and how you perceive it at different points in your life. Your relationship with past events changes. It makes you feel this ephemeral, fleeting thing tangible. SONGS. Folklore has those, too. Each one more private than the last. And when you get through them all, you’ll swear you had your finger on the pulse of time itself.
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple has been living the same lifestyle we’ve been living this year for half of her life. The anti-socialite has never listened to any current pop (she’s claimed to never have listened to Billie Eilish or Lorde), and rarely leaves her Venice Beach home. So, it feels natural that she’d be our spiritual shaman to guide us through 2020. Having released an album only once a decade, she’s a voice that only speaks up when she feels it’s necessary. The album is heavy in percussion – auxiliary and drums, but also her pets make debuts on the record. And the layered vocal melodies ride on the percussion in such a way that it serves as a vessel for carrying the melodies. And in between are cathartic rips of gasps and restrained yells – the sound of a songwriter trying to keep her composure. It sounds like a retribution (“You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”) but also has moments of fleeting levity (see “Ladies”). She sings of abuse, generational trauma, and everything she resulted in but was never of her fault or choosing. And once again, it feels good to be saved by the accompaniment of a voice who knows it will get worse before it gets better.
1. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Like I said in the intro, this year has been a year of exceptions. And who’s better at deciphering the contradictory than Bobby D.? And what better way to capture the mood of 2020 than the blues? Rough and Rowdy Ways is a series of songs that detail historical anecdotes inside them. Songs like “Key West” and the 17 minute opus “A Murder Most Foul” conjure up a zeitgeist that brings to mind the emotions these events gave light to. The JFK assassination pulled the rug out underneath the U.S. and shook the suppressed emotions of the entire nation to the surface, exposing us for who we really are: vulnerable. 2020 has brought forth such emotions, too. We see this as a year that’s been “robbed of us,” but the fact of the matter is, we are neither old nor young, but rather always in the middle of something.
2020 had such volatility as well. Unpredictable and the unknown is what we had to jump into with both feet whether we wanted to or not. But I think we’re looking at 2020 the wrong way: we can’t just see it as a “year lost,” because that would be devoid of any self-reflection, which would mean we have learned nothing. It’s exactly what 2020 wants us to think. We’ve had better years in the past, but we know we’ll have better years in the future. To say that a year has been robbed of us is to say that we have learned nothing about ourselves. When really, we’ve gotten to know ourselves better than we ever have. Dylan chose 1963 as the year that emotions rose to the surface. And when we look back at 2020, we’ll see that we, too, harbored existential dread unbeknownst to us. The hard part’s over. Now we wait for time to do its work.