Exclaim!'s 50 Best Albums of 2020
Published Dec 02, 2020
Toronto-based kulintang ensemble Pantayo weren't content with merely breaking genre barriers on their debut record; they also felt the need to break the fourth dimension. Pantayo sounds both ancient and futuristic, blending the distinctive ring of Filipinx gongs with synth pulses in order to craft their unique blend of R&B, pop and punk rock. While the album flows freely through instrumental passages, percussive explosions and cinematic choruses, it is unified by a feeling of communal triumph. These self-proclaimed "everyday witches" cast off conservative bullshit, opting instead to celebrate the magic of queer camaraderie with the cheeky temerity of international icons.
Full disclosure: Pantayo member Kat Estacio is Exclaim! Magazine's layout editor.
9. Bob Dylan
Rough and Rowdy Ways
Marking his first album of original songs since 2012, Rough and Rowdy Ways found Bob Dylan and his band working at full power — blunt yet enigmatic (and funny) lyrics swimming at the surface of positively stirring and hypnotic soundscapes. The sentiments are either plain as day or else shadowy and weird, but, in its reflection of American history and his own lives and times, it's beguiling, forward-thinking, and some of his best work. As he has been wont to do for so long, Dylan again teaches us history lessons as though he is looking back at us over his shoulder, from the future.
8. Yves Tumor
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Change is the only true constant in Yves Tumor's discography, which sees them trying on mask after mask and creating through different sets of eyes. In Heaven to a Tortured Mind, their fourth full-length release, the many worlds Tumor traverses — from noisy psych rock to ambient R&B — fuse and are polished into a brand new persona. An apocalyptic foray through strange dualities is the result. Tumor seduces the possibilities of contrast: doomsday poetry swallows love songs, musique concrète weaves into raw instrumentals, and even the most grating distortions feel refined. Collisions abound between morbidity and magic, chaos and coordination, reverent lust and disgust.
7. Lido Pimienta
Taking a brassy strut down the catwalk, Lido Pimienta intercepted Steve Harvey's 2015 Miss Universe fumble and ran with it, giving the country she formerly called home a postcolonial pageant. With contributions by Sexteto Tabala and Bomba Estéreo's Li Saumet, Afro-Colombian rhythms serve as Miss Colombia's heartbeat as Pimienta unpacks colonialism's residual effects and delivers sermons about self-worth and the importance of second chances. Arriving in a year where we're all forced to reduce our worlds, Miss Colombia's widescreen vision let Pimienta get lost in a larger sandbox, emerging with intimate truths resonating on multiple levels.
Women in Music Pt. III
On Women in Music Pt. III, the HAIM sisters dig into a buffet of sounds and styles on their lengthiest — and strongest — project so far. Dipping into R&B on "3AM," country/folk guitars on "Leaning on You" and bluesy horns on "I've Been Down," the album is rich with experimentation. Singles "Now I'm in It," "The Steps" and "Summer Girl" are some of the strongest songs in the band's catalogue, and are reflective of the sisters' ever-evolving passion for crafting a variety of innovative pop-rock hits.
Sarah Jessica Rintjema
Caribou's Suddenly feels like a culmination of all of Dan Snaith's past work — the off-key folktronica of his early days as Manitoba, looped hip-hop samples like his club-ready Daphni work, and organically clarified dancefloor beats reminiscent of 2010's Swim and 2014's Our Love. Suddenly's abrupt shifts are gleefully stitched together, sweetly brushed with an air of heartache as Snaith's falsetto is left more open and vulnerable, adding a subtle personal element to Caribou's multicoloured approach. Vocal samples are masterfully atomized into indecipherable bits and purposely mixed into Caribou's warm and tidy collages, eliciting an emotional response based purely on Snaith's impeccable ability to pair cerebral sonic adventurism with disorienting familiarity.
4. Run the Jewels
Released during the height of global protests about racial injustice, RTJ4 might as well fill in for Merriam-Webster's definition of "zeitgeist." El-P and Killer Mike capture America's searing anger and moral crossroads unlike any album in 2020. In under 40 minutes, Run the Jewels drop atomic truth bombs on everything from the evils of corporate media to the prevalence of police brutality. It is undeniably punchy and raw, leaving the listener emotionally drained; both a healing and a revolution enmeshed. Channelling America's blunt force trauma, RTJ4 cuts deep and cuts often.
3. Phoebe Bridgers
If Phoebe Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps was the type of debut that hinted at greatness, Punisher is the kind of follow-up that proves the theory. The 26-year-old is already a master of exposition, description and mood-setting, making poetry that's imbued with rich details, lived-in memories and an air of mystery. With Punisher, she has drawn comparisons to Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, and for good reason. In just a few years, Phoebe Bridgers has demonstrated that she has the sharp mind, musical instincts and sense of whimsy to eventually join them among the ranks of all-time great singer-songwriters.
2. Fiona Apple
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Coming eight years after mystifying singer-songwriter Fiona Apple's previous album The Idler Wheel…, Fetch the Bolt Cutters couldn't have arrived at a more perfect time. Meticulous and poetic, Apple explores the intimate and explosive moments of womanhood while breaking free of isolating restrictions, cutting her way out by whatever means necessary. With swerving rhythms, galloping pianos and vocals that range from guttural hums to feral rasps and squeaks, the album maintains its splendour while keeping a charmingly unpolished and homemade quality. With each brazen track, Fetch the Bolt Cutters grounds listeners back to our primal human emotions.
God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It
Although chances are that you may have first heard of Backxwash from the many music critic co-signs, culminating in her Polaris Music Prize win in October, no one deserves credit for the success of God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It but the rapper-producer herself. Across a scant 22 minutes, the Montreal-based/Zambia-born musician manages to pull together a hefty and unlikely range of sounds, influences and moods, coming off compellingly dark and gothic on "Into the Void," expertly melding a Black Sabbath sample into the album's potent title track, and sharing the spotlight with a variety of expertly curated guest stars. God Has Nothing to Do with This is a sonically raw, emotionally honest and starkly creative piece of art that completely blows minds, challenges how we think about the art of hip-hop, and — most importantly — stands on its own merit.