20. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III [Columbia]

Women in Music Pt. III is just as eclectic in sound as Days Are Gone or Something to Tell You, but this time around HAIM feel more confident in their delivery, as if they are symbolically letting us know that this is their moment. The vulnerable and confessional lyrics definitely aid this growth and transition, reminiscent of Maggie Rogers’ Heard It in a Past Life, but the real growth on the record is that their “experimental” sounds don’t sound very, well, experimental anymore – they sound distinctly and authentically HAIM, which is not something that their previous material fully possessed. Perhaps this album’s biggest strength, aside from the vulnerability, is that all of the songs don’t sound the same – something that cannot be said for their previous albums. In other words, the group is done pretending to be other people and ready to be themselves. With Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM has learned the power of turning inward and inviting others on the journey to self-discovery. As pop singer Marina Diamandis once said, “Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless.” Our flaws are what make us more experienced, relatable individuals, so by learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group has created its best work to date. – Jeffrey Davies

19. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia [Warner]

With a runtime of fewer than 40 minutes, Dua Lipa’s short and tight sophomore album, second for second, inspires a mad dash to a hypothetical dance floor amid a devastating pandemic. What a wasted opportunity that dance-pop this fabulous couldn’t be road tested in gay clubs across the country and around the globe. Future Nostalgia nevertheless feels like an artistic breakthrough, harmonizing with Robyn’s self-titled classic from 2005 and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion a decade after that.

Examples of a disco-inspired resurgence abound in 2020: Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine and Kylie Minogue’s (ahem) Disco. And then there’s Lady Gaga’s blockbuster Chromatica, not directly related to ‘70s dance, but deeply rooted in the genre’s immediate aftermath. Future Nostalgia may not be the most accomplished (or disco-specific) album of the bunch, an honor that goes to What’s Your Pleasure?. But it is the most forward-thinking of these worthy throwbacks.

Hence Future Nostalgia’s oxymoronic title. Its effervescent dance songs bridge the gap from yesterday, today and tomorrow. Highlights such as “Break My Heart”, “Love Again” and “Don’t Start Now” are infectious and irresistible. And when Dua Lipa goes fully anthemic – see the one-two wallop of “Physical” and “Levitating” – her masterwork is elevated from merely fantastic to truly electric. Somewhere a mirrorball is spinning furiously and bouncing back and forth with pure joy. – Peter Tabakis

18. Sevdaliza – Shabrang [Twisted Elegance]

Each song on Sevdaliza’s sophomore album Shabrang sounds like a Frankenstein’s monster of haunting instrumental body parts. Acoustic guitar lines are filtered as sound bites through a telephone, twitching synths complement piano arpeggios and Sevdaliza’s voice drifts subtly in and out of Auto-Tune as she grapples with her humanity. “I don’t wanna feel pain,” she laments on the eclectic “All Rivers at Once,” and she falls deeper into despair on “Habibi” as she asks “Is there anyone out there/ To get me out of my head?

Once classified as trip hop, Sevdaliza’s music hangs onto the genre only by a thread of tight drum kit beats. Shabrang isn’t “cool” like Portishead, and it’s not nearly as violent as Massive Attack. James Blake, with his skittish dub-piano ballads, is perhaps the closest comparison, but Sevdaliza’s music evades classification in the same way that the singer aches to abandon her humanity. This culminates in the slow burning climax “Human Nature,” on which a vocoder contorts Sevdaliza’s strained falsetto into a nightmarish ocarina as she sings “Our souls have been separated.” Brooding synths and a screeching violin make this one of the year’s most unsettling and vulnerable songs as Sevdaliza reveals the monster inside.

Perhaps the most frightening yet comforting point that hits home here is that Sevdaliza is not unique in her rage against human nature. Her rejection is intimately relatable, and Shabrang demonstrates that the fear of and anger towards our nature is itself our most human quality. – Aaron Paskin

17. The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin [Merge]

In a year full of unpleasant surprises, 2020 did bring with it two albums by The Mountain Goats. Getting into Knives commands attention with its full-bodied arrangements, but Songs for Pierre Chuvin embodies the very foundation of the band’s career. It’s the first Mountain Goats album in 18 years to feature frontman John Darnielle by himself – recalling the project’s inception as Darnielle’s solo venture.

Like many a musician during these Covid-19 months, Darnielle turned his isolation into inspiration by hunkering down with a Panasonic boombox and banging out 10 songs. In fact, the track list is equal to how many days it took for him to finish the album! Recorded in 10 consecutive two-hour sessions, Songs for Pierre Chuvin is as deep as it is stripped-down. In an age where anyone can grab an acoustic guitar and record a sloppy voice memo, it’s still really refreshing to hear an established artist take such an intimate approach. Darnielle’s quirky remarks at the start of the tracks speak to the spontaneous and personal nature of the album. It’s easy to imagine him pulling these songs out around a campfire, in the living room or in a coffee shop – and he could fill any of the spaces with unadulterated energy with just his axe and his voice.

Songs for Pierre Chuvin not only represents a spirited return to Darnielle’s roots, but a strong reminder of his knack for storytelling. Regardless of whether listeners knew about Pierre Chuvin before this album dropped, it provides a compelling 27-minute tribute to that historian’s book A Chronicle of the Last Pagans. No one knew they needed a quick fix of lo-fi bangers about the Pagan’s struggle against the Christianization of the Roman Empire, now it’s here and it’s awesome! – Max Heilman

16. Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman [37d03d]

At face value, Bonny Light Horseman is not much more than a simple album compiling esoteric folk songs from North America and Europe. It’s intimate, and despite the vastness of the source material it reaches to for inspiration, it feels homegrown. Even if it was nothing more than this, it would still be one of the best folk albums of the year. But when given a closer listen, a couple of realizations about Bonny Light Horseman come out.

The first is the universality of the themes being explored across the album. While these songs may have been written centuries ago by people whom we will never know the name of, the heartbreak in seeing your lover’s affection for you fade is just as emotionally potent as it ever will be, no matter the original author. Bonny Light Horseman have simply given ideas like this one a new life with modern appeal.

The second realization is that with the lyrical liberties they have taken across much of the album’s songwriting, Bonny Light Horseman is a natural continuation of the folk song writing process. With no solid origin, it’s impossible to say how many times over these songs have been reshaped and rewritten. This album provides just one more stepping stone for these stories in their aimless journey through time and culture. – Thomas Stremfel

15. clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned [Sub Pop]

There’s little structure to Visions of Bodies Being Burned, which is a shock given the conceptual nature of earlier clipping. releases and rapper Daveed Diggs’ all-around technical mastery of the form. The group don’t want you to focus on structure here, though. The album is the group’s most visceral and terrifying; it takes the horrorcore tropes so perfected on last year’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood and indulges in them further. It demands a response from the listener; Diggs’ chaotic rhymes alternate between mind-twisting paranoia and dark humor while chopped samples flow in and out of the mix to create further disorientation. It almost defies deeper dissection, not because there isn’t any depth to the album but because clipping. demand that initial emotional response whether it be fear, disgust or bewilderment. Yet that intensity never strays into self-parody; perhaps that’s because the world has devolved into self-parody over the last couple of years, but that only makes an album like Visions all the more prescient. It’s a tour through a state of mind, a product of fiction that nonetheless feels immediate and tied to our current state. There may be a few better albums that were released in 2020, but nothing released in this god-forsaken year has an energy as unique and as unsettling as Visions of Bodies Being Burned – Kevin Korber

14. Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez [Warner Brothers]

Gorillaz have never worried about taking chances, Song Machine makes that point abundantly clear. It takes a certain kind of band to make an album using resources as diverse as Jpegmafia, Elton John and Tony Allen. Pulling it off successfully takes untold levels of skill. Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn certainly have loads of that, making the band an animated undertaking that pushes the edges of the envelope.

Blurring the lines between musical styles, they open up new ways to think about what music is and what it can be. Want something slick and smooth, you’ve got “Désolé.” Something more bass heavy with mechanical edge, how about “Aries,” featuring Peter Hook on vocals. In the past Albarn has mined African music, and dabble in oriental themes, yet Gorillaz opens up vast treasure troves of sound for him and Hewitt.

It’s not every day you get to watch cartoon characters grow as individuals. Yet watching Murdoc, 2-D, Noodle and Hobbs grow has been revelatory. They change, move on and age the same way the rest of us do, becoming real within the virtual world. Such is the gift Gorillaz offer, they say what needs to be said. Song Machine is the sound of a band at the height of their power. – Bob Fish

13. King Krule – Man Alive! [True Panther/Matador]

When it was released early in the year, Man Alive! – the latest record from Londoner Archy Marshall’s nom de guerre King Krule – registered as a summing-up of Marshall’s music up to this point. It did not seem to take any radical, new direction, but rather close the book on the first decade of his woozy musical output.

King Krule records have a tendency to burrow in, to stick with the listener. Some of this is down to Marshall’s treacly vocals, slathered over his chaotic mix of punk and jazz. The deep groove of tracks like “Alone, Omen 3” or the howling chorus of “Stoned Again” have a peculiar earworm quality, often echoing the parasitic quality implied by the name. Marshall is a master of expressing the twinned feelings of rage and ennui.

But Man Alive!, after repeated listens, reveals many moments of tenderness, too. Marshall modulates his harsher tones – vocally and otherwise – to accommodate something like love piercing through the fog and haze. On “(Don’t Let the Dragon) Draag On” he sings: “I hang my head for those/ Who ain’t been held too close/ In times of pain/ When the ceiling drips/ The room’s bathed in grey/ Outside’s a trip/ For another day.” Moments like that are what make Marshall one of the most exciting musicians of this era – and keep us listening into the next. – Ian Maxton

12. Taylor Swift – folklore [Republic]

If you were looking for proof that Taylor Swift has plenty more to say and more surprises up her sleeve, even after a string of ubiquitous hits across genres, folklore provides all the evidence you need. Working with the ever-adaptable Jack Antonoff and the inspired left-turn pick of Aaron Dessner as producers and co-writers, she reconnects with her singer-songwriter roots for an album of beautiful, heartfelt ballads, some of the best music she’s ever written.

folklore is a story of reflection, with Swift mirrored in fragile piano notes. In one of her finest vocal performances from start to finish, she sings with a wounded vulnerability and inner strength that casts aside easy heroes and villains for the endless complexities of love and life. She displays her struggle to achieve a level of tranquility, with each step forward being hard-won. It feels like Swift is looking back to the girl who wrote “Teardrops on My Guitar” and making note of the distance, heartache and love she’s experienced since then.

The album reaches its apex with the Bon Iver-duet of “exile,” Justin Vernon and Swift’s voices harmonizing wonderfully. No, wait, it actually peaks with the sparkling “mirrorball.” Hmm, or the echoing “this is me trying.” Maybe the country-tinged “betty”? It’s one of those records where there’s a new highlight every time you listen. No matter which song is your favorite though, the impactful lines Swift sings out hit just as hard each time. Towards the end of folklore, Swift asks earnestly, “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” Through a year of isolation, Swift turned back to her music and herself, finding moments of serenity through a soulful cleansing. Through folklore, she finally gave herself some measure of peace. – Joe Marvilli

11. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? [PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope]

In a summer where it wasn’t safe to go to the club, Jessie Ware brought the club to us. What’s Your Pleasure? – Ware’s fourth and best album – took a confident step away from the smooth, sophisticated pop of its predecessors and onto the dancefloor. This wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for Ware, who’d lent her pipes to the likes of SBTRKT and Disclosure earlier in her career, but it was the first time she applied that same charge to one of her own albums from front to back. She even beat her erstwhile collaborators at their own game, bringing a sense of personality and intimacy that Disclosure’s own ENERGY sorely missed. (Did you forget Disclosure released an album earlier this year?)

What’s Your Pleasure? offers no shortage of (ahem) pleasures, flirting with disco (“Spotlight”), boogie (“Read My Lips”), funk (“Ooh La La”), soul (the stirring closer “Remember Where You Are”), synth-pop (“Soul Control”), and even house (“Save a Kiss”). It’s an album that hearkens back to a time when Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Madonna ruled the radio – listeners who grew up in this era might even catch the resemblance between “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” and Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” – but though these songs sound unmistakably familiar, they’re never derivative. Instead, What’s Your Pleasure? taps into the same collective unconscious groove from whence classics like “Holiday” and “Chain Reaction” came, and draws 12 damn near perfect bangers from it. Few albums are as ready for a wedding as they are for a night at the club; fewer still feel like their own greatest hits compilation. What’s Your Pleasure? is the only album I can think of that might be both. – Jacob Nierenberg

10. Fleet Foxes – Shore [Anti–]

With 2017’s Crack-Up, Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes returned to the world largely the same as when they left, though a darkness surrounded the album that made it feel cold, isolating, and perhaps not as great as we would have liked after six years. Just three years later, though, came something a little different: Shore. The blissful and light-filled fourth record by the gentle psych-folk act sees their dust firmly shaken off, and most importantly, the windows are thrown wide open.

The lightness is a gift. They aren’t entirely new spaces for Fleet Foxes, but it feels like the group never made Crack-Up, and never entered their long hibernation. They sprawl out like expansive farmlands and damp beaches, where rich details can be easily overlooked, but can still be fully enjoyed if you don’t get lost in the minutiae.

Angst still exists within Shore, but singer Robin Pecknold doesn’t seem to be willing to let his own sorrows get him down: “I could worry through each night/ Find something unique to say/I could pass as erudite/ But it’s a young man’s game.” On the opening track, the winningly pure-hearted “Sunblind,” which sees Pecknold paying tribute to all of the lost souls – David Berman, Elliott Smith, Judee Sill – who helped form the singer as we know him. He neither fetishizes their deaths nor deifies them, instead painting them all as gracious muses. These are themes that stand in defiance of all of the senseless death and isolation that have existed within the expanse of 2020, helping us to believe that, miraculously, everything might turn out alright. – Holly Hazelwood

9. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind [Warp]

Two albums ago, Yves Tumor was making ambient miniatures out of field recordings and plaintive vocal samples. Now they’re making tortured sex-god glam rock, and somehow it sounds like a natural progression from what came before. That’s just how it is with this Turin-based artist, who seems capable of just about anything and whose music has only become gnarlier and more exciting as it’s moved towards orthodox pop forms.

It’s hard to make rock sound new in 2020. The genre has been caught in an echo chamber of self-reference for more than a decade, with few meaningful movements to push the genre forward. Heaven to a Tortured Mind somehow breaks this illusion. It helps that Tumor came out of electronic music, debuting with the post-chillwave project Teams and finding wider acclaim with the slithering Serpent Music and the sampledelic Warp debut Safe in the Hands of Love. Here, with all the filters tugging at the horns and guitars from beneath, it’s hard to tell what’s a sample and what’s being played. This is producer-based pop with absolutely nothing to do with the Brian Wilson tradition. Imagine Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair;” then add Biblical dread, occult imagery, and pharaonic majesty.

Guitars rise like hot steam. The bass is a burbling, sludge-like presence leering out of the mix. A female singer is always nearby. The tempos are slow but never sluggish. This is not music with anything to do with longhairs playing guitar in a room; it sounds like a cloud of pollution, and Yves Tumor rises above it, cigarette in hand. Some strains of rock harbor a misguided distrust of platform shoes and lipstick and flashy clothes, but Tumor as a queer person understands that performance doesn’t necessarily diminish the true self. They chew the scenery, lisp audible, voice pushing at the paper-thin boundary between the speaker and the listener’s ear. This person’s mere presence is enough to generate excitement, not to mention the possibility of what they’ll do next. – Daniel Bromfield

8. Moses Sumney – grae [Jagjaguwar]

Duality is at the heart of Moses Sumney’s second long-player, græ. Released in two parts, the Ghanaian-American’s insistence on his “right to be multiple” is reflected in the tone of the discs. The first one, released in February, communicates a sense of split identity in its song titles (“Jill/Jack”; “Neither/Nor”). Combining moments of vulnerability with masculinity (“Am I just your Friday dick?” he asks on “Polly”), it contrasts with the more intimate tracks on its companion piece, which was issued in May.

The musical experimentation and his refusal to be confined by any single genre or mood means that, despite this slight shift in tone, they work as a single body of work. Frustrated that his 2017 debut Aromanticism was reductively labelled as R&B, its 20-song double follow-up fluidly moves between styles that include jazz, old school soul, and experimental electronica.

He enlists some stellar collaborators – basslines from Thundercat, production from Oneohtrix Point Never, samples from author Taiye Selasi and Jill Scott – but remains defiantly his own man. With the androgyny and vocal range of prime Prince, and the sci-fi futurism of Janelle Monáe, he demonstrates an unshowy confidence throughout. This results in græ being left-field commercial while also musically risk taking. – Susan Darlington

7. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud [Merge]

Thirty-one-year-old songwriter Katie Crutchfield has spent the better part of the last decade touring. Whether it’s with her twin sister Allison as P.S. Elliot (or the lesser known Ackleys), or as solo project Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s early, anxiety-ridden music takes you on a lo-fi, reverb soaked journey through both her fluctuating life and psyche. Tracks on American Weekend and Cerulean Salt are fuzzy vignettes of getting high and routinely getting left in the wind. Later records Ivy Tripp and Out in the Storm find Crutchfield backed by a full band with tighter, and more dynamic production. But she’s still fatigued – both physically and mentally. Yet, with new record Saint Cloud, she’s looking at the world with stars in her eyes. After sobering up and moving to Kansas City with partner Kevin Morby, she sings with a newfound conviction and just outright optimism. Ditching grunge for the Americana country twang she grew up with in Birmingham, Alabama, she delivers some of the most impressive songwriting in her catalogue.

One must assume that with sobriety comes a sense of clarity. But for Crutchfield it wasn’t an immediate discovery. At first, her writing initially felt blurred. But for this reason the songs feel all the more tender, as if each line was delicately molded into place. It’s Saint Cloud’s genuine storytelling about traveling across the world and making repeated mistakes that allow you to easily view all the crosses she’s removed, reexamined and replaced. It’s soft and sunny, without being deceitfully utopian. But more importantly, it’s a replanting of Crutchfield’s roots. She’s removed all the weeds and decided to let herself bloom. With a folksy, gentle backbeat Saint Cloud becomes the soundtrack for new beginnings. And with this reinvention, it’s now more clear than ever that Waxahatchee is one of the best contemporary indie-rock projects right now. – Samantha Small

6. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately [Matador]

Mike Hadreas was already one of the brightest talents in pop as Perfume Genius, but few could have foreseen the quantum leap of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. Inspired by his work with dance choreographer Kate Wallich, Hadreas augments his confessional art-pop with a muscular immediacy and a greatly expanded sonic palette. Check the mixture of grinding shoegaze guitars and string-bending twang on “Describe” or the all-but-vacant space around distant, echoing flute pulses of “Moonbend” to hear an artist stretching well beyond prior limits. Tracks regularly zag where you think they will zig, as when “Jason” abruptly shifts from a gentle, brittle ballad to harpsichord-led baroque pop. On “Your Body Changes Everything,” a hollow marching beat gives a danceable urgency to a track otherwise defined by swelling strings and canned woodwind trills.

That the album was conceived in response to Hadreas’s dance work perhaps gives the impression that this will be a high-energy, propulsive record, but what is most surprising is how subtly it captures the sense of the body’s potential. The woozy textures of dream pop are present throughout, but the most unexpected touchstone is a kind of Americana, not quite to the level of trendy country-pop but instead a wide-canvas projection of the artist’s intimacy. “Without You” has a campfire singalong bounce that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fleet Foxes album, while “Nothing at All” manages to wrangle buzzing synths from a sedate Nine Inch Nails number into expressive industrial country that in turn blossoms into throwback Killers-like rock. Set My Hear on Fire Immediately is not a busy, overstuffed album, yet its consistent ability to combine oil-and-water elements into a third sound entirely makes it among the densest records of the year, and the best-yet showcase for Hadreas as one of the most imaginative, emotionally multivalent artists in pop today. – Jake Cole

5. Adrianne Lenker – Songs and Instrumentals [4AD]

Folk is enjoying a cyclic resurgence in popularity right now, but every generation has its own flavor; from the moment the 29-year-old Lenker wraps her delicate, multitracked voice around her resonant guitar strums on “two reverse,” it’s clear that this generation’s version is no Joan Baez belt or Kingston Trio harmonies. Lenker’s voice is small and slight, her articulation a little mushy, and her presence close: she is whispering in our ears. The chords loop around, guitar tracks overlaying each other with a light hand.

The intimacy of the album – recorded in a cabin with minimal equipment and personnel – rests on that vocal delivery and wraparound guitar, complemented by lyrics that speak to ache, frustration and lost possibilities. Lenker has said that most of the tracks were written during the recording process, lending both freshness and a feeling of transitoriness.

The companion album, instrumentals, comprises two long, lovely tracks (over 37 minutes total) of Lenker’s deft guitar-playing, wind chimes and incidental sounds. Her tones are so varied that they evoke other instruments; an inattentive listener would be forgiven for thinking they were created by a full band. The pieces have “movements” that seem influenced by aspects of the natural world in which they were created; one imagines one hears rain on the roof, wind at the door.

Such sounds introduce meaning on songs. When birdsong enters the soundscape on “zombie girl,” it signals a turning point on the album. “What a dream that was/ I almost couldn’t wake because/ I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl,” the song begins, a metaphor for the singer’s heartbroken soul. But by the end of the song, she is still hurting, but able to move: “Then the next night/ Dreaming I could feel your skin/ But the dream escaped so easily/ And I woke up to the road again.” The mood lifts a bit on “not a lot, just forever,” and by “dragon eyes,” we see Lenker beginning to heal and look to the future: “I don’t wanna blame you,” “I don’t wanna change you,” “Stars bloom on a warm summer night/ They have a clear view without the bedroom light/ I just want a place with you,” she sings. The last line of songs, on “my angel,” sums up the journey: “Returning to my oxygen.– Valerie Polichar

4. Run the Jewels – RTJ4 [Jewel Runners/BMG]

The Run the Jewels project made perfect sense from the start. El-P consistently displays his inventiveness as a producer, whether he looks backward at old boom-bap sounds or pushes into a sci-fi future. Killer Mike provides power vocals and a sharp eye; the former a good balance to El-P’s approach and the latter simply a complement. The pairing immediately took off, and if their 2013 debut was meant as a casual one-off, it didn’t show, and the duo was here to stay. As the social commentary picked up, the bravado and the fun persisted. For this year’s RTJ4, the act pushed the politics, making for a hyper-charged and demanding album that remained as listenable as anything they’ve done, El-P’s beats drawing the shades for either a hit or a party (or both).

Single “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)” took just a minute to get into it, and by the time Killer Mike brings in the police, 2020 levels of tension develop. “We don’t mean no harm but we truly mean all the disrespect,” they say, and the frame for the album closes into place. “Walking in the Snow” takes on everything, from Gitmo to the prison-industrial complex to “Pseudo-Christians.” The pair was ready to match 2020’s intensity, and they brought in new creativity and surprises. Mavis Staples makes an unlikely appearance; turning decades of wisdom in hope into visceral hurt. The album ends with a kiss-off that cleverly builds in a wall of allusions. That finish echoes “Goonies vs E.T.,” a cut sharper than its zany title would suggest. After a string of references (the Public Enemy nod highlights an influence on the album), Killer Mike says, “Me and Jaime versus y’all with a knife and a musket.” Run the Jewels might be a duo, but they know they’ve got an army at their backs, and they employ all their tactics. – Justin Cober-Lake

3. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways [Columbia]

Nobody’s pandemic bingo card could have picked Bob Dylan emerging from his Great American Songbook haze to deliver his first original material in nearly a decade. Much less that the first single would be a 17-minute rumination on the assassination of JFK. As much ink and reflection as that’s inspired, it turned out to be the weakest of his new material, and one wonders if the very title “False Prophet” is his way of sub-tweeting his own sprawling opus. Because Rough and Rowdy Ways, if it be his final missive, sums up the craftsman and trickster’s career with a grizzled wink.

Dylan is so contrary that he calls Key West, a place known for day drinking and debauchery as much as natural wonder, “the gateway key/ To innocence and purity.” That’s when you know he’s joking. That’s how you know his assassination drama, as much as his vision of the Florida town also known as “The Lowest Point in America,” as well of his vision of the whole country, is an idealized vision of past and present from an artist who indeed contains multitudes. Invoking Walt Whitman invokes America as much as paying a long homage to Frank Sinatra and the pop standard catalogue – and by recently selling off his own catalogue, Dylan takes his place in the continuum of cultural capital that will forever be controlled by a multinational conglomerate.

So for what may well be a valedictory spin, Rough and Rowdy Ways simmers through strange nearly spoken-word pop like “I Contain Multitudes,” bluesy elder choogles like “False Prophet” and finally the unpredictable, dumbfounding of “Murder Most Foul,” the kind of both too vague and too literal statement that only a legend of his stature could get away with – and only Bob Dylan could pull off. If rock’s premier poet has at this late date resorted to boilerplate phrases like “shot down like a dog” and “keep hope alive,” well, so many of his own phrases have become so much a part of the pop firmament that to invoke Dylan has itself become a cliché. Let him ride into the sunset with a lament for an American icon, let him free-associate about the stuff of souvenir-shop kitsch, but let those souvenir-shop images share space with the jazz and blues legends on whose shoulders this marquee troubadour humbly stands. – Pat Padua

2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher [Dead Oceans]

“DVD Menu” presents a dread that’s seeded throughout Punisher into each smattering of piano, every string that bends in one ear then floats to the next, each delicate drum fill and every horn that whispers. These subtle flourishes pantomime Bridgers’ reserved vocals. They deepen each track’s tapestry by adding volume that grows in magnitude upon repeat listens. Yet Punisher is never overblown. Yes, it’s a deeper listen due to Bridgers’ implementation of multiple guest performers and an expansive list of instruments, but more so it is a quiet apocalypse that rewards attentive ears perked beyond Bridgers’ deadpan vocals.

The two instances where Bridgers magnifies the grandeur of her performance are on opposing ends of the emotional spectrum. “Kyoto” is Bridgers’ pop anthem of being where you want to be yet being unable to enjoy the sights. The triumphant horns and rising chorus would lead you to believe it’s her blazing chariot, signaling a recovery of some sort. This recoup never comes. As the rest of Punisher exposes there’s plenty of healing Bridgers still needs to do. The ghosts of murky relationships, isolation and cognitive dissonance have not been forgotten although Bridgers is in a more therapeutic place than she left on Stranger in the Alps.

The other explosion is closer “I Know the End,” a confession of Punisher’s portentousness. Finally, those background flourishes untether themselves and soar to the forefront in a fiery exhalation. Bridgers, who throughout Punisher has remained matter-of-fact, closes with a hiss of breathlessness. She’s exhumed everything from inside her in one last torrential outpour that she didn’t even voice. This admission of exhaustion connects Punisher to the universal umbrage of this calendar year. – Colin Dempsey

1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters [Epic]

The titular bolt cutters in Fiona Apple’s masterpiece aren’t just those steel jaws (from the Gillian Anderson line) that chomp through metal. They’re also, as the David Garza-designed album art suggests, bolts of lightning, electric revelations. “Up until now in a rush to prove/ But now I only move to move.” “Evil is a relay sport/ When the one who’s burned/ Turns to pass the torch.” “Shameika said I had potential.” Yes, the percussion on this LP hits really goddamn hard, but nothing packs more punch than these crackling word combos, mantras for survival within systems whose operating logic is divisive competition.

Dropping in the midst of a pandemic and an election year that showed the continuing and expansive appeal of unrelenting hatred and privileged apathy, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has been nothing less than a spiritual salve. The pointed arching of oohs in “Cosmonauts,” the handclap tent revival of “Relay” and the Fiona Apple Tabernacle Choir in “For Her” are perhaps the clearest sonic signs of this sacred element, but you only need to go as far as the low piano punctuation and raw conviction in her voice on opener “I Want You to Love Me” to hear it. “And I know none of this will matter in the long run/ But I know a sound is still a sound around no one,” she bellows, simultaneously acknowledging her own impermanence and announcing the palpable impact of her refusal to shut up about toxic masculinity and the fractured relationships it breeds. The album acts as an epistle to those who live within music, the ones who – literally or figuratively – find and draw attention to patches of melodic pattern and bursts of rhythm exactly as they are felt.

Trapped inside her house, pre-Covid, while recording the bulk of these 13 tracks, Apple prophetically broadcasts their restless signal from her past into our quarantined present. In doing so, she offers a nuanced, tapped-in depiction of contemporary existence: Fetch the Bolt Cutters is goofy, fervent, inclusive, aware and, most crucially, sickening in the truths it lays bare. It is quite simply the record of 2020, our best chance for recognizing the real possibility of learning from the time we’ve spent in isolation. Listen again and break free. – Jeff Heinzl

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