Stephen and Sylvia’s Top 10 Albums for 2020 (Sort Of)

Forthwith we present to you a collaboration: five albums each, plus some honorable mentions. (Please note some of these musics have the swears in them and are not for everyone.)

Stephen P. Jones is a frequent contributor to SuperPosition. Sylvia Trein is a contributor and the managing editor.

Stephen’s Picks

5. Deftones, Ohms 

I know people might take pause on this one. Your associations with this band might be that you have some nostalgia for White Pony, or that they were a nu metal band with an album called Around the Fur for crying out loud. 

Honestly, though, try not to count out this band. This is their ninth studio album, and it’s one of their best. It’s simultaneously ethereal and punishing. It opens with whirring electronic noise just before it pummels through a blistering opening track (“Genesis”). Then, for 46 minutes, it takes you through a sonic landscape at times even diverting into melodic instrumental asides before finally arriving at a cathartic finale of a title track that’s the most lyrically astute song on the album. It will play just as well on your turntable late at night as it will blast out stadiums one day when this whole COVID mess is over. (I can also say from experience that it will piss off your wife if you do the former.) 

Highlight: “Genesis” 

Further listening: Health, Disco4 :: Part I

Sylvia’s response: I’m an introvert with a high sensitivity to noise. Anything scream-y in music reduces me to the equivalent of a nerdy rabbit. (Glasses, plaid sweater vest, shivering.) That said, these guys have musical chops that I can appreciate. I remembered and had to go find “Back to School,” a track from 2000 when I was, in fact, in school. 

4. Beach Bunny, Honeymoon

This was love at first listen to me. This year, for all its mountains of dumpster fire awfulness, was an excellent, truly resplendent year for female-led rock bands. There’s no shortage of albums that could have filled this spot (HAIM…cough cough…Women in Music III…cough cough). However, I went with this syrupy sweet bit of poppy, punky, bubblegum goodness. 

There’s not an ounce of guile or cynicism on one single track of this album. Just 25 minutes of earnest joy, and I can’t help but think it’s what we need right now. I put one of my students on to it. She said she thought it was just okay. I asked her to name one thing that mankind has done that’s better. I’m still waiting for a response. 

Highlight: “Dream Boy” 

Further listening: Dogleg, Melee

Sylvia’s response: Agree with Stephen on several fronts: great year for female-led rock bands, and this is a standout. (And yeah, better than HAIM.) Definitely what we need right now. I mean, how cute is “April”?

3. R.A.P. Ferreira, Purple Moonlight Pages 

I struggled a bit here because this almost went to Run the Jewels, RTJ4, which I think is the most politically acute and astute hip-hop album of the year. (I’m definitely not sneaking in additional entries, Sylvia.) I decided to go with PMP by R.A.P. Ferreira, A.K.A. Milo, A.K.A. Scallops Motel, because it really didn’t get the love or exposure that it deserves. This is a smart–dare I say intellectually stimulating–piece of jazz rap. 

Highlight: “Noncipher” 

Further Listening: Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Sylvia’s response: I’m still a hip hop novice (and I always play the foreigner card to excuse it), but R.A.P. Ferreira’s diction is, for lack of better word, beautiful, in the same way a newly black lacquered piano is beautiful. I like the experimental, fusion mixes and loops. I definitely love the existential questioning (see: “An Idea Is a Work of Art”). (FWIW, Stephen, I liked RTJ4 too.)

2. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?

It’s disco, but it doesn’t suck. No one is more surprised at how much I loved this album than I am. It’s this glorious and rapturous medley of pop, neo-disco, and synth. I don’t just love it, but I’ve been actively singing its praises to everyone that will listen. 

Highlight: “Ooh La La” 

Further listening: Charlie XCX, How I’m Feeling Now

Sylvia’s response: Stephen recommended this one to me and I also loved it. Perfect for night drives and chaotic news cycles. One of those backup singers definitely sounds like Michael Jackson.

1. Hum, Inlet

I remember jamming obsessively to You’d Prefer an Astronaut will full-fledged indie cred on its release. Okay, that’s BS. I was 11 when Hum released their most commercially viable album with chart topper single “Stars.” I was well into high school when it became part of my rotation thanks to my older cousin. We went halfsies on Downward Is Heavenward from FYE (do those still exist?). That release felt even more my own because I’d sought it out. 

I was able to catch these guys about 2013 with Torche and Failure and I marveled at how tinnitus-inducingly heavy they were live. So you can imagine how utterly ecstatic I was to learn that they were surprise-dropping a new album this past July after decades of no new music. My response: instant love. Long twilight sessions on my headphones. Here’s a band with no interest in commercial viability crafting dense, fuzzy, heavy, 5-10 minute tomes. It’s glorious. I dub this fuzz-wave at its finest. 

Highlight: “Step into You” 

Further listening: Nothing, The Great Dismal

Sylvia’s response: Yeah, totally into this. I would have loved this at fifteen as much as I love it now.

Honorable Mentions

Flaming Lips, American Head: A dense, somber, heady (no pun intended), softer side of Wayne & Co. It’s genuinely worth multiple listens to take it all in. 

Sufjan Stevens, Ascension: If Illinoise was his indie instrumental opus, then Ascension is hands down his electronic masterpiece. A sprawling, emotional, and intimate wonder-work.

Sylvia’s response: Really enjoyed the Sufjan Stevens as well. The Flaming Lips are great, but they definitely sound like an indie movie soundtrack. Something directed by Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Zach Braff. 

Sylvia’s Picks

5. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher 

There’s something about a beautiful and delicate sound that’s also just a bit rough and unhinged. I’d put Phoebe Bridgers in that category. I was recommended her 2017 album Stranger in the Alps, then kept up with her other projects, Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius (a supergroup of three such unique weird stunners). Punisher is at turns plaintive and sardonic, but always reflective, and it was in heavy rotation for me this year. 

Highlight: “Garden Song” 

Further listening: The string arrangements of four of these songs, Copycat Killer

Stephen’s response: This totally would have made my list, but I knew you’d include it… Sucker! I love this waifish blonde songstress in her skeleton getup. It’s some of the most beautiful and genuine music out there. 

4. Field Music, Making a New World

An old band that was new to me. It was written as a museum project to express the effects of war (specifically World War I). The nineteen multi-genre tracks flow in a continuous narrative covering topics such as women’s suffrage, government-funded housing, and the Treaty of Versailles. If you listen ignorant of all of this (as I was), it just sounds like stories about working class English life. Ear candy for those who love genre-bending and interesting combinations of instruments. There are some definite Sergeant Pepper and some Talking Heads moments in there. 

Highlight: “Do You Read Me?” 

Further listening: BC Camplight, Deportation Blues

Stephen’s response: Ah, pretentious art school rock concept album… So I listened to it in the most pretentious art school way possible: I bought it on cassette… No lie. So def taking some heavy cues from the great art school rock acts of the ’70s (think touch of Bowie, a drizzle of Roxy Music, a heavy dose of Talking Heads, and just a sprinkling of Pink Floyd). I dug it. Made me think of The Jam’s Setting Sons conceptually. 

Sylvia: Where did you buy a cassette??

3. Blake Mills, Mutable Set 

Much of this atmospheric album is quiet and restless. It really suited COVID quarantine. While using largely acoustic instruments, they’re arranged and sonically manipulated just enough to feel a bit hallucinatory but not enough to spoil their natural charisma. Blake Mills has produced artists as diverse as John Legend, Conor Oberst, and Perfume Genius (including the latter’s 2020 album, which is on many actual music critics’ top ten lists). (Stephen, don’t be offended.) I loved this one for its unsettling dreaminess and a complexity that you miss the first listen or two. 

Highlight: “Vanishing Twin” 

Further Listening: Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Elliott Smith, Either/Or

Stephen’s response: When I started listening, I had a major “Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh” moment. I definitely remember listening to this. Good pick. You really did a great job of picking some that got lost in the shuffle of a great music year (emphasis on music). Definitely some really earnest and emotive singer-songwriter tracks. That said, there’s really a smoky sexiness to it all. There were times where I was thinking Andrew Bird covering Tom Waits circa Rain Dogs.

2. Moses Sumney, græ

Moses Sumney contemplates love, trust, sex, gender, jealousy, acceptance, loneliness, identity, and a host of other intimate human experiences in relation to self and others. Clearly all singers use their voice as an instrument, but Sumney is highly adept and attentive to his vocals’ role in a soundscape. This album is cohesive, vulnerable, and gorgeous.

Highlight: “Bless Me” 

Further listening: Perfume Genius, Too Bright

Stephen’s response: Okay, I slept on this. Saw it on a lot of “best of 2020” lists. Love the evocative cover. It’s got fine musicianship that really defies genre classification. The lyrics are thoughtful and introspective, and damn, Sumney can falsetto like no one’s business. I’m going to say it: some heavy Prince vibes.

1. Torres, Silver Tongue

I fell in love with this one immediately. I think of Torres as a more grounded Kate Bush or an American Annie Lennox. The lyric “Good grief, baby, there’s no such thing,” never made more sense than it did this year. Also, “Two of Everything” might be one of the best songs about infidelity ever written. There’s not one weak link on this album.

Highlight: “Records of Your Tenderness” 

Further listening: St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

Stephen’s response: Okay, great pick. This got lost in the shuffle of all the really excellent female lead releases this year. Love the Kate Bush comparison. It’s unabashedly intimate, and it feels like it’s getting lost in itself until the next track pulls you back from the brink. Love the self-deprecating title, too. 

Honorable Mentions

BAMBARA, Stray: For darkwave fans. Such a treat.  

Jordan Lehning, Little Idols: Really sweet, but not cloying, and diverse enough to be interesting.

Stephen’s Response: BAMBARA sounds like Bauhaus made a surf rock album. Jordan Lehning, what’s not to like. It’s short, sweet, and lovely. I’m going to slip in a shameless promotion. Our mutual friends made an album. KIDS, Lost Cities. It’s got major Local Natives vibes and it’s respectfully spacious, open, beautiful, and captivating, like Joshua Tree where it was recorded. 

Sylvia: You’re a way better friend than I am. Sorry, Josh Diaz. We love you.

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Jonathan
28 days ago

This is pretty damn slick from what I’ve seen and read so far… Nicely done.