Culture Blender’s 15 Best Albums of 2020

2020 was…a year. It’ll be remembered for some historic ups and downs (mostly downs), but amongst it all there was music for us to cling to. Music that made our hearts sing. Music that gave us hope. Music that grounded us despite the state of our world, and music that addressed it. Music that – we’ll save you the shitty eulogizing. Here’s Culture Blender’s 15 Best Albums of 2020:

15. After Hours – The Weeknd

KG: The Weeknd’s blast from the past After Hours repurposes the buzzing synths and punchy drum machines of the 80’s into a contemporary new wave titan, filled with lively trap drums and head-boppin’ hi hats that perfectly reflect the state of pop music. There are moments on After Hours as soulful as any in The Weeknd’s discography, a perfect consolidation of the electronic elements of Starboy and the scornful croon of Trilogy. I dig the hell out of an artist willing to tie themself to older sounds without it coming off as corny, most recognizable in wildly popular synth-anthems (“Blinding Lights”) and cyberpunk sonnets (“After Hours”). The only thing lacking on this record is an overwhelming wow-factor that truly knocks your socks off, kinda like the end of Forrest Gump when Lieutenant Dan unexpectedly arrives at Forrest’s wedding after he fucking backstrokes into the middle of the ocean. Oh Gary Sinise, how are you so resilient? It would be a great success if the axis of pop music followed in The Weeknd’s footsteps and further embraced the 80’s. If I didn’t give this album a glowing review, the Zoomers would eat me alive.

Blender Nuggets: “Hardest To Love,” “Heartless,” “After Hours”

14. The Slow Rush – Tame Impala

KG: 2020, the year Tame Impala became the biggest band on earth… that’s how I’ll try to remember it at least. The Slow Rush pushed forth a new Kevin Parker to the spotlight of modern music, more confident than ever and ready to showcase his wealth of production talent on any type of track imaginable. Parker effortlessly weaves between traditional psychedelic-pop songs (“Borderline”), outright electronic dance slaps (“Is It True”) and profound ballads (“Posthumous Forgiveness”) like it’s just another day at the office. Although he loses points for exposing himself to some of the more melodramatic songwriting trends of the day (“Instant Destiny,” “Lost In Yesterday”), The Slow Rush is just too tightly produced to harp on its flaws for long. Hopefully as high of a percentage of people that had Tame Impala in their top 5 artists on Spotify Wrapped end up getting the COVID vaccine. 

Blender Nuggets: “Breathe Deeper,” “Tomorrow’s Dust,” “One More Hour”

13. Microphones in 2020 – The Microphones

-Guest Writer Colby Jordan

CJ: Seventeen years after their album Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum revives The Microphones moniker with an album about reflection and change, Microphones in 2020. This one track, forty-four minute, forty-four second album serves as an autobiography on Phil’s life, a gripping story whether or not you have prior knowledge with his work under The Microphones or Mount Eerie (the band, not the album. That can get confusing). The album revolves around one repeated guitar riff which, as other elements fade in and out, helps represent the constant twists and turns in Phil’s life. It isn’t flashy or complex, but Phil’s lyricism and storytelling remains unrivaled, with every line seething with the same emotion and passion he has always perfectly expressed. In the end, Phil showcases how life constantly marches forward, filled with uncertainty, but all we can do is move forward while we’re still here. This may be my personal AOTY, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who wants to either contemplate life or contemplate why Max and Kevin are wrong for placing this at number 13.

12. Shore – Fleet Foxes

KG: Robin Pecknold stakes his claim as one of the best young singer-songwriters in music. Shore is Pecknold’s baby, it is the only Fleet Foxes album written and produced entirely by him, and fully displays his ability to execute an artistic vision. Where Fleet Foxes older releases found themselves drawing from the luscious harmonies and guitar work of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Shore feels like it’s molded in the image of a lyrical technician like Paul Simon. Pecknold’s ability to package the broad existential subjects of time and memory into warmhearted narratives of personal growth (“Can I Believe You”) and sincere homage to the legacy of past artists (“Sunblind”) is a testament to his skill mastery. Gorgeously layered folk-rock instrumentals that elicit feelings of a tranquil autumn afternoon cover this album, so gentle and sweet you start missing shit you didn’t experience from rural America for some reason. God I miss whittling on my front porch, hugging my grandpappy and packing the fattest lip my body can handle. Wait, what? Robin Pecknold is only 34 years old, so we will have many years to eagerly watch his career play out. I’m stoked.

Blender Nuggets: “Featherweight,” “A Long Way Past The Past,” “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman”

11. Sundowner – Kevin Morby

MC: I’ll be the first to admit that we here at the Blender have a slight bias towards psychedelic Americana, so naturally Kevin and I happily ate up this latest platter of folk rock offerings from Kansas City-raised sing-songwriter Kevin Morby. His weathered and earnest voice brings to mind Bob Dylan’s New Morning era croon, and his delivery and knack for observational lyricism evokes the late-great Leonard Cohen. Between Morby’s shimmering guitar tones, love for the mellotron, and the rest of his sepia-tinged production, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that this was some recently-uncovered late-60’s gem. This is music suited for long-rides through vast landscapes, filled with subtle arrangements that unfold unhurriedly allowing listeners to cling onto every last lyric. Morby’s words and music create a slyly psychedelic travelogue of a Midwest that finds serenity in the quieter moments. It’s a treat tagging along for the ride. 

Blender Nuggets: “Sundowner,” “Valley,” “Campfire”

10. American Head – The Flaming Lips

MC: With the band’s 2010’s seeming most notable for recording a 24 hour song and releasing a collaborative album with Miley Cyrus, it seemed that the anything-goes adventurous spirit of Oklahoma City’s psych rock veterans was dissolving into a resortment to gimmicks in place of quality albums. Yet here we are, 34 years (?!?!) after the groups debut, celebrating another vital Flaming Lips album full of cosmic contemplations about life, death, family and making sense of the past. Their signature absurdity still remains intact (“Dinosaurs on the Mountain”), along with their overt drug references (“Mother I’ve Taken LSD”), but even at nearly 60 Coyne’s imperfect voice carries as much sincerity, humanity, and naive wonder as it ever has. The album marks a return to a more straightforward pop sound than their more recent releases, and the album swells with phased out guitars, vocals, synths, and Stephen Drozd’s classic blown-out drum sound that Kevin Parker has cited as a massive influence. As one of the most remarkably cohesive albums of the year, the songs transition brilliantly into one-another (“Mother Please Don’t Be Sad” into “When We Die When We’re High” blew my mind upon first listen). It’s the kind of start-to-finish trip that the Lips do best, making for a true album-lover’s album…and Spacey Kacey Musgraves even pops up a couple times on this thing, so what’s not to love? 

Blender Nuggets: “Will You Return / When You Come Down,” “Mother I’ve Taken LSD,” “When We Die When We’re High”

9. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers

MC: “Taylor Swift is just Phoebe Bridgers for people whose parents still love each other.” In a year where TSwizzle donned her most somber flannel and released two admittedly solid indie folk albums, LA singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers seemingly perfected the formula that Swift was in search of. A mix of intensely confessional songwriting, darkly observant storytelling, and emo-folk melodies that lodge themselves instantly in your head, Punisher made for 2020’s perfect soundtrack for late-night cry sessions into your pillow (or so I would assume because I definitely don’t do that…). If some sort of Sadness EDC existed for indie artists, Bridgers would be the slotted right after the headliner, (Bon Iver maybe?) when the drugs start to wear off and you’re in the throes of the existential comedown of your life. Punisher’s combination of sheer vulnerability, songcraft, and a quietly psychedelic sheen results in the type of album that would have made Elliott Smith proud. Collections of songs about falling apart rarely sound so well put-together.

Blender Nuggets: “Garden Song,” “Moon Song,” “Savior Complex”

8. Rough and Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan

MC: There’s a 79-year-old man who’s seen it all, residing in a dimly-lit bar somewhere off of Highway 61, necking down rounds of whisky and muttering profundities to himself, the bartender, or anyone that’s within earshot. That’s where we find America’s most important songwriter of the modern era on his first album of original material since 2012. Dylan’s coarse, gravelly croak sounds every bit his age, and only adds a mysterious authenticity to his cryptic poetry, stories, and myths. Dylan seemingly recontextualizes the entire literary canon, every historical figure, and countless significant pop culture references into stories and ruminations about life and death, good and evil, and his own legacy. While he and his tempo might be slowing down, his pen hasn’t missed a beat and hearing Dylan ramble his way through line after line and verse after verse remains one of the greatest joys in music. Few literary or musical figures have possessed the command of language that Dylan has displayed for damn near 60 years now. This is the sound of a national treasure discontent with just resting on his laurels, and with this latest album he’s adding another late-career classic onto an already unfuckwithable resume. 

Blender Nuggets: “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” “Murder Most Foul,” “My Own Version of You”

7. Suddenly – Caribou

KG: What isn’t there to like about the latest record from Canadian singer, composer, mathematician and DJ, Caribou. Hint – nothing. It’s hard to make electronica that differentiates itself as well as Suddenly does, teetering the line between vibrant “let’s make a dance circle in the middle of this club” tracks, (“Never Come Back,” “Ravi”) and silky smooth IDM (“Lime”) that makes me feel like my brain is downloading a software update from the great computer gods in the sky. Caribou layers his soothing vocals atop an overwhelming abundance of sounds, every sample (and there are a looooot) is expertly selected and sequenced to capture the exact tone Caribou is looking for, with literally no bias in any one artistic direction. One track will be straight out of the J Dilla playbook (“Home”) featuring powerful hip hop drums and motown samples, while the next is an ethereal electronic hallucination (“Cloud Song”) that could find its way into the Brian Eno school of music for robots. I find it’s always easy to root for Canadians, and Caribou is no exception. How aboot that!

Blender Nuggets: “Home,” “New Jade,” “You and I”

6. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs

MC: Cementing himself as undeniably one of the best rappers in the game over the last six years with one fantastic project after the next, Freddie Gibbs doesn’t ever seem to ever miss. After the collaborative success he’s had with Madlib, pairing him with another crate-digging production wizard like The Alchemist seemed like a no-brainer for rap excellence. Alfredo somehow surpasses these lofty expectations, with The Alchemist creating lush, soulful, and opulent sounding canvases interspersed with pieces of mafia dialogue that give the album the cinematic feel of a mob classic. Freddie skates across these beats, casually switching flows up and juggling hooks (“God Is Perfect”), and finding new ways to craft whip-smart and braggadocious bars about his two favorite subjects: drug-dealing (“Frank Lucas”) and women (“Baby $hit”). One line Freddie offers gritty, yet timely, imagery about the state of being a black man in America, and the next he’s making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks puns (“Scottie Beam”) – this is what peak rap versatility looks like.

Blender Nuggets: “Something to Rap About,” “God Is Perfect,” “Scottie Beam”

5. Man Alive! – King Krule

KG: England’s gloomiest superhero returns from The Ooz with a slice of sunshine cutting through the clouds, Man Alive! serves as even the subtlest breathes of fresh air for an artist who has made melancholy their motto. Similar to past releases from King Krule, Man Alive! is dark and eclectic. “Stoned Again” is a 1 of 1 art-punk experimental-rock song examining Krule’s early relationship with weed, his deep roar reminisces about the innocence of being a kid before smoking entered your life, and expresses the frustration of finding yourself stoned…again. “The Dream” is a hazy experimental interlude that sounds like you’re floating in an imaginary universe like Binky from Arthur. These are both very by-the-book King Krule tracks, and they’re as engaging as ever. Krule has somehow positioned himself as the king of the gargoyles, sitting high on his throne of sorrow. But here’s what makes Man Alive! different. Songs like “Perfecto Miserable” and “Underclass” offer a glimmer of hope not often found in the dreary lexicon of our favorite ginger shadow-lurker. The latter gives off this schmaltzy sheen of lust as Krule bellows his heart out for his lover, a snazzy saxophone complements his vivacious voice perfectly, “Under the underclass / deep in society’s hole / that’s where I saw you, love.” Even if it’s just a tiny drop of bliss in the sea of forlorn, King Krule’s excellent change of pace is exactly what we needed to see out of him. Man Alive! stands as the most consistent song to song entry into the Krule discography, and solidifies itself as a top 5 album of 2020.

Blender Nuggets: “Stoned Again,” “Comet Face,” “Underclass”

4. RTJ4 – Run The Jewels

KG: RTJ4 is 39 minutes of protest music that is absolutely necessary to listen to for contemporary civil activism’s sake. A word of warning: This album isn’t beautiful at all. El-P’s explosive, hard-hitting beats are an abrasive parallel to Killer Mike’s vulgar social commentary, rightfully so, as he paints the picture of a fucked up United States of America. RTJ4 is Run The Jewels at their absolute pinnacle: corruption, guns, drugs, cops…everything under the sun is available for the boys to spit about, and they do so with the raw honesty, confidence and knowledge required to make an album this pointed. You couldn’t ask for a better tandem’s eloquent attempt at inciting social revolution, further confirmed by the appearance of all-time badass Zack De La Rocha giving his two cents on the track “JU$T.” In a way, there is beauty to this album; protest music this good needs to continue being made. For the sake of you, me and every Pete Buttigeg supporter out there.

Blender Nuggets: “yankee and the brave (ep.4),” “pulling the pin,” “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”

3. What’s Your Pleasure – Jessie Ware

MC: Disco is far from dead, baby! English singer-songwriter Jessie Ware serves up dance banger after banger on her newest effort, an album that seems like our generation’s closest sonic recreation of the days when Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder tracks were burning up sweaty underground dance floors in NYC. Ware grew up a club kid, and with the help of collaborators like Midland and Morgan Geist she successfully modernizes that sensation of flailing around under a disco ball and losing sight of the trivialities of day-to-day life. Ware sounds incredibly loose, confident, and emotive delivering hooks and bridges that are the stuff of pop classics. The beats are downright sleek and it would be only the most primal of human reactions to strut to the nearest dance floor the moment basslines like the ones on “Ooh La La,” and “Self Control” start hitting. It’s a post-disco tour de force and plays out seamlessly with the highs and lows of any great club set. In a year where many pop artists looked backwards to move forward (The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, and Roisin Murphy to name a few), nobody owned that sound as flawlessly as Ware.

Blender Nuggets: “Spotlight,” “Ooh La La,” “Save a Kiss”

2. We Will Always Love You – The Avalanches

MC: Partially inspired by The Golden Record that was carried upon The Voyager to communicate the sounds of Earth to celestial beings, and released in the dying days of 2020, sample-happy Australian electronic-duo The Avalanches blessed us with the kind of escapism that we were so desperately craving all year long. The album balances the ethereal with the jubilant, Perry Farrell features with Denzel Curry ones, samples with live instrumentation, and it seems to exist entirely in a universe of its own. Yet, it remains buoyed by the humanity and strange beauty of the human voice…and there’s a lot of voices on here. The closest parallel for a great album I can think of where rampant guest features meld together to form such an entirely unique atmosphere would be Plastic Beach by Gorillaz, but in this case it sounds like it’s all being beamed in from a satellite on the fringes of the solar system where Matthew McConaughey is realizing he was Murph’s ghost the whole time. It’s a triumph in the way they  manage to stitch together hundreds of samples and a boat-load of features, into a sound that feels reverent of its source material, but completely unlike anything else. With 25 tracks spanning 71 minutes, it’s one of the year’s most ambitious projects, with interludes as sonically rich as the full songs, and they absolutely hit the bullseye, packaging the melancholy, the danceable and the blissfully psychedelic into one incredible start-to-finish listen. 

Blender Nuggets: There’s too many to list, just listen to the whole thing

1. Heaven To A Tortured Mind – Yves Tumor

MC: Hopefully somewhere amongst all the miscellaneous bummers that 2020 brought our way, we can at least look back at this as the year where Yves Tumor breathed some much-needed new life back into the “rock” album. In an incredible feat of songwriting, Tumor combines jagged post-punk riffs, funk, electronic instrumentation, and a general penchant for experimentation into a cohesive set of songs that sound downright arena-worthy. It’s simultaneously incredibly bizarre and instantly accessible, with tracks like “Folie Imposée” and “Asteroid Blues,” allowing Tumor to contort sounds in all sorts of abstract and fascinating directions, and songs like “Gospel for a New Century,” “Kerosene!” and “Super Stars,” which sound like the rock hits of the future. Tumor’s charismatic and innuendo-laced vocal performance oozes with swagger, and the album stacks searing guitars, propulsive basslines, and extended periods of psychedelia into something entirely unique. It feels like the type of album that could only exist in our present moment, with remarkable genre-fluidity and a nonbinary star taking center stage. It’s challenging, it’s catchy, and it’s remarkably adventurous. If this is the sound of rock music to come, sign me up for more.

KG: Over the past few days leading up to the writing of this blurb, I’ve had conversations with friends attempting to find the correct words to make sense of what this album truly is. The result was a mixed bag of genres and impressions that are simply incomparable to any other album out there. Yves Tumor so thoroughly blurs the lines of genres and sounds that composing Heaven To A Tortured Mind into a tightly-wrapped cohesive experience is a stroke of genius. It feels like the perfectly balanced seesaw of experimentation, somehow discovering stability between untamed artistic flair and grounded, stellar songwriting. “Dream Palette” opens in chaotic fashion: drums pounding, guitar repeating a wild phrase, the sound of whistling fireworks flying all around, when suddenly everything centers around a biting bass line and charismatic Tumor singing with a whirlwind of energy. On the other hand, “A Greater Love” is a psychedelic-rock nugget flush with washy drums and piercing guitar that perfectly lays host to Yves Tumor and Clara La San echoing each other’s impassioned wail. Heaven To A Tortured Mind goes right where many albums go wrong, and is a saving grace for the current state of rock music that needed some shaking up. Welcome to, whatever this is. 
Blender Nuggets: “Kerosene!” “A Greater Love,” “Strawberry Privilege”

Published by culture blender

off the cusp musings on music & pop culture in the streaming age

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