This year, artists, record labels, and adjacent personnel faced unprecedented challenges in their creative endeavors and working lives. Despite this adversity, they kept the vibrations coming, bravely sharing their art with the world during a time of great uncertainty. This week, Riffs & Rhymes is spotlighting several of this year’s great releases in list format as a way to recommend projects we feel are significant and essential to have in your 2020 collection.
To kick things off, we asked our staff, friends, and other fellow writers to chime in on the new albums they loved most this year. Check out our Community Albums of the Year below.
Tyler Blankinship // Album Book Club
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
- Mac Miller – Circles
- Spillage Village – Spilligion
- Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
- Big Sean – Detroit 2
Well, here we go again. In a year where seemingly every facet of our lives has changed, one thing remains the same from 2019 and that is that Phoebe Bridgers has my favorite album of the year. While last year’s collaborative effort with Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst diversified the young singer-songwriter’s discography, Punisher finds Phoebe expanding on her signature style. She still brings the quietly sung, layered vocals and introspective, clever, and evocative lyrics that we fell in love with on 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, but this time with larger sounding instrumentation and even dips into country and rock. As her sonic palette expands, so does her subject matter. Phoebe covers everything from her obsession with Elliott Smith on the album’s title track to the impending doom of the apocalypse on the album’s closer. The latter song crescendos into a mass of screams from Phoebe and several of her frequent collaborators (Conor Oberst, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Christian Lee Hutson, Marshall Vore, and several others) making for an epic song beyond the scope of anything she’s made before.
Ellie Burleson // Riffs & Rhymes
- Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts
- BENEE – Hey u x
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
- Khruangbin – Mordechai
- Fleet Foxes – Shore
From blonde wigs to wrecking balls, Miley Cyrus has kept her fans and the media on their toes for the better part of two decades, but one thing that has never changed for the 28-year old Nashville native is her love of classic rock. At her concerts, Miley is known to throw some rock covers into her set list. Whether it’s Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” or The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” every time she performs a cover, it just works. Her unique raspy voice makes her capable of both singing male and female vocal parts in a captivating way. Taking a page from icons like David Bowie and Joan Jett, Miley put her heart and soul into her seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts. Although the project is advertised as a rock album, it also includes songs that are heavily pop focused and some acoustic tracks as well. There truly is something for everyone on this record. Plastic Hearts is just the introduction to rock ‘n’ roll Miley. I can only hope there is more to come in the near future.
Ilana Cohen // KXSC
- Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
- The Strokes – The New Abnormal
- Moses Sumney – Græ
- Dirty Projectors – 5EPs
- Khruangbin – Morchechai
Easily my most listened to album of 2020 (I’m sure Spotify will confirm this any day now), Fetch The Bolt Cutters could not have come at a more perfect time. When life showed us normal was no longer, I turned to Fiona Apple’s newest album as an auditory representation of my state of being. Her opening line on the first track – “I’ve waited many years” – applies to us, the waiting audience, and her message for us is to connect and love. On a similar note of empowerment, “Newspaper” and “Ladies” comment on a lack of communication that doesn’t go without trying, like unread articles in a newspaper, and banding together to form a strong group of ladies, all while using friends’ pets and vocals for harmonies and background noise. Preceding “Heavy Balloon” was perfect placement. Fiona often has a natural, fluid, seemingly random aura about her and it shows. This track is a breaking point after trying to get through to specific people that just won’t listen. She’s “spread like strawberries… bursting at the seams.” Fiona Apple’s raw and organic sounds sharpen her message. She is fierce and passionate, wants to stick it to the man, and she does it in a powerful and relatable way.
Mike Flores // Riffs & Rhymes
- Benny The Butcher – Burden Of Proof
- Pop Smoke – Meet The Woo 2
- Armani Caesar – The Liz
- REASON – New Beginnings
- Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake
“Last year was about branding, this one about expanding.” These are the first words Benny The Butcher raps on his album Burden Of Proof. Looking back on the damage the Griselda collective has done in the game over the last two years, they could not be more true. Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Benny and co. have made their mark in 2020 with some truly remarkable music. Burden Of Proof shines the brightest of the six releases the label put out this year. With rap music becoming the world’s largest genre and growing younger every year, I love that there is a place for the 36-year-old emcee in today’s game, and more are starting to see the truth (this was the label’s highest charting album to date). Benny’s otherworldly lyricism blends perfectly with Hit-Boy’s highly sought-after production. Burden Of Proof isn’t preachy, doesn’t show off, or make any claims that we don’t already know. Front to back, it’s simply a masterful work from one of the best spitters of this era.
Alex Johnson // Riffs & Rhymes
- Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
- Charley Crockett – Welcome To Hard Times
- Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
- Jesse Daniel – Rollin’ On
- Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart
In a year filled with loads of uncertainty, one thing that is certain, is that Chris Stapleton is the best country artist of our generation to come out of Nashville. Starting Over solidifies Stapleton as a modern day outlaw, but it also shows us that, underneath the gruffness and the giant beard, there is someone who is sensitive and very much in tune with his emotions and his conscience. The record is essentially one big reflection on Stapleton’s life and career while he figures out what matters the most to him. As always, what really carries this album is Stapleton’s ability to not just sing the songs but deliver them and tell a story with his remarkable vocals. We get songs that have a darker and more sinister edge to them, where he lets his voice soar, but we also get songs where he pulls back a bit in order to make us think about what is important in our lives.
Roberto Johnson // Riffs & Rhymes
- Neil Young – Homegrown
- HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
- Blu & Exile – Miles
- Kevin Morby – Sundowner
At first I was on the fence about including Homegrown in a post that’s primary focus is to spotlight great music that came out this year, but I think the fact that 2020, out of all years, was the one in which we got a long sought-after, unreleased Neil Young album from the mid ’70s justifies it. Is Homegrown better than the albums in its immediate vicinity? Maybe, maybe not. Does it even matter? It’s an album by Neil fucking Young in the middle of one of the greatest runs in rock history, which is precisely why it’s so fantastic. When Young recorded Homegrown, he was at the top of his game. In the midst of a stretch where just about every song that spilled out of his broken hippie soul was pure magic. And while this record shares the devastation that makes On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night so sad and endearing, it still feels unique in its own way. It’s down-and-out love songs and lurching tempos make it dismal enough to be another downer classic, but the joyful country-rock instrumentation slots it in nicely with Young’s best work in that lane too. It’s personal, deeply affecting, and simply brilliant. What else is there to say?
Lara // Petal Motel
- Lee Gallagher and The Hallelujah – L.A. Yesterday
- Trummors – Dropout City
- Gunn-Truscinski Duo – Soundkeeper
- Brigid Mae Power – Head Above the Water
- Pacific Range – High Upon the Mountain
The last few years I’ve decided to skip ranking albums because I can never pick a favorite, and each of the above does something really different for me. The truth is, all of the above are my favorite. Soundkeeper is my favorite soundtrack for bike riding, hiking, and other adventures where I feel a bit intrepid and moody. The Brigid Mae Power album is my favorite album for fall weather and making soup. Pacific Range is my favorite record to hear live and dance to. And L.A. Yesterday is my favorite dark desert highway listen.
Obviously I write a lot about California music and L.A. Yesterday totally fit my vibe. I actually saw an Instagram ad for the record and figured it looked like something I’d be into. I hit “unmute” and thought, holy shit, I need to buy this right this second. Great ad targeting! Lee’s voice is totally unique – his range is insane and there’s something so raw and honestly very sexy about it, especially on songs like “Breakin’ Up.” The lyrical content of songs like “Astral Plane Blues” and “Lullaby for the Acid Queen” are so psychedelic and cool. The band is amazing, with all those searing guitar solos by Jason Soda who also produced and played on my next pick, Trummors’ Dropout City. L.A. Yesterday is a really phenomenal record – transportive, trippy, sensual, and soulful.
Genesis Mihalko // What’s So Special About Music Anyways?
- Movements – No Good Left to Give
- MisterWives – SUPERBLOOM
- iDKHOW – RAZZMATAZZ
- The Killers – Imploding the Mirage
- Four Year Strong – Brain Pain
After the musical sensation that hit the world in 2017, Feel Something, Movements’ career skyrocketed and rightfully so. Thus, when they announced that they were closing that era to bring around a new sound with No Good Left to Give, I was nervous, but let me tell you, this record is the next level for Movements and I can’t wait to see where it takes them. This album shifts the band’s primary pop-punk approach to music. This genre becomes more like the backbone that forms the foundation for each track. With this set foundation, the band is now able to drive their spoken-word mashed with singing and screaming approach with sprinkles of more than just one genre. As one listens throughout the album, it is apparent that a lot of influences are coming from the classic rock, alternative, and even hardcore scenes. This variety stretches the band further than ever before, for now they can appeal to more than just one to two genres in terms of listeners. Just like with Feel Something, this record takes you on an emotional journey that you may not be ready for, nor have you ever experienced before. This album will break you down, but it will do so only to bring you back up even stronger than before. I could go on and on about this record, but you should listen to it for yourself to truly experience the journey that is No Good Left to Give.
G. Pierre // QUILL & CROWN
- Spillage Village – Spilligion
- Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
- theMIND – Don’t Let It Go To Your Head
- Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW
- Duckwrth – SuperGood
Ever since 2016’s Bears Like This Too Much, the final instalment in the group’s breakout trilogy, the return of Spillage Village has been a long awaited one. With each member taking immense strides in their creative output between the two projects, it was almost impossible for Spilligion to disappoint — and it didn’t. Being the only album I’ve heard this year whose release truly felt like a moment, Spilligion entered my regular rotation immediately. From its perfectly intricate production (which was masterfully handled by a small number of producers) to the beautifully varied vocal performances throughout, every aspect of the album proves itself to be the product of laborious perfectionism. While this is certainly the case, it goes a bit deeper than that. Regardless of how much time and effort a collective puts into an album like this, it’s hard to match the level of chemistry that the members of Spillage Village seem to have together and, along with their technical ability, this is what allows them to create masterpieces such as Spilligion.