Gabriel's 2020 AOTY List
We're finally here
I told you I’d have my AOTY list this week, and here it is. It’s been a pretty spectacular year for music, which is good because everything else has been dogshit. I started this list with more than 30 albums on it, and reducing it down to 10 was incredibly difficult. For the sake of not having this newsletter be several thousand words long, we’re gonna do quick blurbs for every album and for this intro. Let’s dive in.
10. Half Waif - The Caretaker
There are going to be a couple themes through some of these picks, and it starts with Half Waif’s The Caretaker. While it was released in March before the worst of the pandemic set in, it’s an album that lives deeply in a sense of isolation and reflection. The central idea of “The Caretaker” as a character and how Nandi Rose Plunkett worked through her own loneliness to reach a healthier place is breathtaking. Tracks that combine some synth work with alt-rock instrumentals like “In August” are standouts here. Whenever I’m lonely I put this album on and allow myself to feel it deeply.
9. Blackstarkids - whatever, man
Another thing that myself and lots of other people this year appreciated is nostalgia. Whether it’s watching old shows like Avatar or just things that carried the sheen of it like The Mandalorian, we found comfort and inspiration in what we loved. Blackstarkids have taken the pop trends they loved from the early 2000s and fused them with their own forward thinking, genre-spanning sound to create a gem in whatever, man. The lyricism and hook on “FRANKIE MUNIZ” have been in my head for the last three months, easily. While they release music at an incredible pace, Blackstarkids’ most recent album will be in rotation for me for awhile.
8. Charli XCX - how i’m feeling now
Charli XCX has been steadily releasing absolute pop masterpieces for years, so it should come as no surprise that she can whip one up in quarantine. Written and created entirely in the early weeks of the lockdown, how i’m feeling now is going to hold up well as a time capsule for the restlessness of those early months of 2020. It’s also just peak Charli, with pulsing dance tracks and layers upon layers of production across an in-your-face pop music blitz. The intimacy and rawness of it also adds a new wrinkle to her sound, and is damn impressive given what she had to work with at the time. Charli XCX forever.
7. HAIM - Women In Music Pt. III
It is an all caps TRAGEDY HAIM was not able to do the deli tour they wanted to surrounding Women In Music Pt. III. The throwback classic rock vibes from “The Steps” to “I’ve Been Down” would have played perfectly in equally throwback, historic shops. It’s clear the trio of sisters have great admiration for the sounds and aesthetic that informed their own, and leaning into it for a more grounded, coarser sound paid major dividends. I am also glad they decided to leave off the earlier singles as just bonus tracks, a risky move that nonetheless pays dividends in the form of a more cohesive album.
6. Rina Sawayama - SAWAYAMA
Rina Sawayama’s album SAWAYAMA is impossible to classify as one genre. I suppose if I had to I would call it pop, but it is a true mashup of sounds that no one else could make work together. Opening track “Dynasty” alone is pop, rock, nu-metal, and opera all tossed together. From the hilarious and grimy “STFU!” to the tender pop ballad “Chosen Family,” Sawayama covers so much ground with so much deftness it makes my mind spin. Each track is a new adventure, and they’re all tied together by strong writing and an even stronger sense of self. (Sidebar: Sawayama’s cover of Lady Gaga’s “Dance In The Dark” from this year also rules)
5. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
We’re into the top half of the list, and it contains a lot of emotional devastation. First up in this half is Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. The draining emotional damage of a toxic relationship detailed in “Fire” will rip the listener’s heart out and tear it apart. The healing she goes through throughout the album is inspiring, and because it’s Waxahatchee many of the tracks are toe-tappers to help ease the pain. “Lilacs” will have you humming along through the tears, and “Witches” is a fun ode to friendship that plays on the classic imagery of scared Puritans rejecting women they can’t understand.
4. Run The Jewels - RTJ4
No discussion of anything in 2020 can be complete without the continued reckoning of America with its deeply racist systems, sparked by the continued brutal police killings of citizens like George Floyd. Released at the height of those protests, Run The Jewels’ fourth album is timeless in the most angering, heartbreaking way. Of course El-P’s production is energetic and thrilling, but it’s the lyrical content that transcends. Killer Mike’s verse on “walking in the snow” about the fear Black Americans face for their own safety every day just existing is so important. The whole album is full of moments like these, furthering conversations we need to have for generations to come.
3. Taylor Swift - folklore
folklore is the best of every previous era of Taylor Swift rolled into one. The songwriting is impeccable, as it was in her earliest days. She’s combined it with a knack for good riffs and hooks, as she did during the 1989 pop rise. And she’s not afraid to get into the more sordid, complicated parts of her life and her own persona and also say the word “fuck” like the Reputation era. Smarter people than I have written all about the timelines that tie songs together, who represents who, and how it ties into the entire Swift-world. I’m content just listening to a fantastic poppy folk album from an artist harnessing everything she’s ever learned.
2. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
The best pure pop album of the year is also one of the albums I’m most disappointed we didn’t get to experience in the wild. Imagine the dance clubs losing their shit to the disco-inspired “Don’t Stop Now.” Think about how hard we could all dance together to the techo-based ‘80s jam “Physical.” Imagine the intense physical reactions to “Levitating” or the pleas of “Pretty Please.” Maybe Dua Lipa put this album out in quarantine so we would be even more ready for it once we can all go out dancing again. Either way, she was the undisputed ruler of pop in 2020, and Future Nostalgia contains 0 skippable tracks and a bevy of the best pop bangers of the year.
1. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Imagine getting through Punisher without crying. It’s completely impossible. Every second of Phoebe Bridgers’ latest album is an emotional warhead bringing destruction in the best way. She never gets far away from the guitar-plucking and core songwriting that allows her to express pain and confusion so clearly, and the production she does use compliments her writing perfectly. Think about the synths on the title track or that slight echo on “Moon Song.” No album ends better either, with “I Know The End” a summation of everything the listener and Bridgers has just been through, with a stirring crescendo to bring everyone back to the world they knew before they listened. But that world has changed just a little bit after listening, as it does after every great album we press play on.