This list probably bears no resemblance to any of the Best Albums lists you’ve seen so far. But just so you know, my picks weren’t inspired by my wish to be a contrarian; I wholeheartedly believe these to be the some of the best full length album listening experiences of 2020. And while they span several genres they are linked by one particular quality, specifically, their devotion to melody, their hook-filled songs, their proper tunes. And so this list is less about “grooves” or “beats” and more about the twists and turns that with a little luck, will induce butterflies or cause spontaneous swooning.
When I was young and had to invest my entire allowance to purchase a single album you better believe I squeezed every bit of life out of each one I managed to acquire. I would play my precious handful of LP’s over and over, beginning to end, wearing down their grooves to unlistenable crunchy nubs (as well as ripping the seams of their inner sleeves from sliding them out so frequently). This complete immersion in a small pile of vinyl is how I came to know every John Oates song on the Hall & Oates albums. It ensured my intimate familiarity with the Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland tracks on The Police LP’s. “The telephone is ringing, is that my Mother on the phone !”, Andy scream-screeched on Synchronicity… and I gladly accepted that aural abuse because I’d ridden my bike to the next damn town to buy that album with my meagre savings and was doggedly hellbent on getting my money’s worth. I even exchanged my 45 of “Every Breath You Take” because there was a scratch on the b-side ( “Murder By Numbers” fact fans) and there was no way I was going to accept that only $1 of my $2 purchase was playable. And so I endured another treacherous bike ride on an unpaved road next to the highway because I had a right to my f*cking b-side.
Excuse me Mister, side 2 skips…
Even as our collective listening habits have evolved over the course of the streaming era, there is still something genuinely rewarding about immersing yourself in a whole album. Settling in, spending time, looking it in the eye and really listening to what it is saying, willingly buckling in for a long journey of the sort you experience from a good book or movie. While I am an undisciplined Soundcloud addict and enjoy the glorious high I get going from song to song, auditioning and discovering within its never-ending stream of new anthems, I also find it completely exhausting. The river never stops, the blood never staunches. And I worry that if I don’t keep up that I will potentially miss the “greatest song I’ve ever heard™” ( private note to self: you’ve already heard the greatest song you’re ever gonna hear, by the time a person turns 20 they have generally heard it and it’s really time you accepted this, jeezus). And truth be told, having to trawl through stuff that isn’t awesome to find the diamonds can sometimes be a drag.
Well, I self-admitted myself to an album listening recovery/rehab program over this past (horrific) year. I am officially trying these days, which is to say I now make a concerted effort to listen to whole albums just like the olden days when I had no other choice. And know what, based on the stuff that’s surfaced this year, it’s been 100% worth the effort. Yup, I may well have taught myself something about the virtues of patience.
And with that I now offer you the PuR picks for the Best Albums of 2020. The most consistently hypnotic-melodic and enveloping pieces of work from the past (hell) year. Not a bunch of disparate songs all working as individuals competing to be the one piece of spaghetti that sticks to the wall but real, genuine albums. I truly, truly hope you find something to fall in love with. Here we go…
Ane Brun: After The Great Storm
Ane Brun: How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow
No you are not seeing things. Wondrous Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun really did release 2 albums in 2020 ( in October and November, boom). They were her first offerings of new music since 2015, the time in between marked by the passing of her father, illness and the lack of inspiration both situations and just plain life itself engendered. The contents of both albums were written by Brun during a 3 week flurry in the summer of 2019 and the plan was to release the songs as an old school double album. But Brun had a rethink during the 2020 lockdown and decided to divide the set of songs in half, categorizing and breaking them out by “mood”.
The first release, the electronically tethered After the Great Storm alternately sounds like a classic ’60s Motown album recorded during a particularly frigid winter (think the seminal Supremes track “Reflections” ) and Kate Bush’s painterly latter day masterpiece Aerial. Which is to say it’s full of infectious songs brimming with unbridled emotion that clock in at an average of 5 minutes…so basically it’s end to end gorgeous. “Honey” is a stunner, a pop-tastic, icicle strewn anthem of reassurance (oh lord, if only it had been alive for Martha and the Vandellas to do back in the day but we can dream right ?). Other highlights include “Feeling Like I Wanna Cry”, all swelling synthetic swooshes rising from the ashes of despair and the heartbreakingly haunted wintry soul ballad “Fingerprints”. And if you are hungry for a twirl on the dancefloor, the mesmeric pulsating swirl of “Take Hold Of Me” is here to soundtrack your moves.
How Beauty Holds the Hand of Sorrow is a more delicate affair, featuring skeletal piano and guitar backdrops and the soulful otherworldly voice of Brun pushed up front and center. There are songs that sound as old as time ( hymnal, gothic and poetic “Closer”, “Last Breath” and “Meet You At The Delta”) as well as straight up nods to now (a stunning and stark piano version of After the Great Storm’s chugging dynamo “Don’t Run And Hide”). And the absurdly handsome pair of “Gentle Winds Of Gratitude” and “Trust” score perfect 10’s on the swoon meter, all hazy heat and dizzying headrushes.
The Wall. Songs In The Key Of Life. Blonde On Blonde. Double albums were once regarded as the grandest statement a musician could make. It showed you meant business artistically, that you were f-ing serious. And having been exposed to their epic gatefold grandeur at a vulnerable age, I still perceive them that way, and continue to fetishize their all-consuming bigness, the commitment they required to create and the time required to listen to ’em …which is why my preferred (deranged) way of listening to both Brun albums is to stuff them into one playlist and pretend I’m listening to a double album called After The Great Storm How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow. And so go on, give in and let Ane Brun lead you on an extended existential pop journey; she knows what she’s doing.
Tenille Townes: The Lemonade Stand
The Lemonade Stand is Canadian country singer-songwriter Tenille Townes’s third album. She’s toured with Miranda Lambert and comes from a similar sonic place…which is to say there are some pop-like flourishes here and there but her songs never veer too far out of the hometown of Country. Townes’s voice is just plain super fine, with hints of Lambert, Maren Morris and yes, even a little Dolly. The Lemonade Stand is Hallmark card sentimental, occasionally silly, supremely sticky and fascinatingly cynical. “Jersey On The Wall (I’m Just Asking)” is a direct message to God, a relentlessly melodic passive aggressive query pondering why bad things happen. It’s freakin’ great…as are the punchy “White Horse”, the lush “The Way You Look Tonight” and heart-squeezin’ “The Most Beautiful Things” ( and there’s more). If you need further convincing to listen, please know that the album was produced by Jay Joyce who was at the helm for albums by legends Patty Griffin ( including her brilliant Flaming Red) and Emmylou Harris as well as modern day country megastars Eric Church, Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde. It is a damn fun ride.
Bibio: Sleep On The Wing
My ongoing fascination with ’70s pop duo Seals & Crofts continues to baffle me. A few months ago I wrote a bit about how I had finally gotten past my fixation… but as it turned out I was only on hiatus; a mere month after bragging how I was done, I was back to breathing in the fumes of “Summer Breeze” and worshipping the “Diamond Girl”. While Bibio aka Stephen James Wilkinson is British and his admitted influences reflect that and include things like the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake, all I can hear in Sleep On The Wing is, you guessed it, Seals & Crofts. It’s melodic acoustic ramblings bear a peculiarly striking resemblance to the sort of thing you’d hear soundtracking an American ’70s Afterschool Special or PBS kids show. It’s evocative, transportive and ridiculously pretty, all hazy summer days, fireflies and bicycles ( and with it’s 28 minute running time is as fleeting as childhood itself). And so while Bibio didn’t necessarily experience those aforementioned ’70s era American touchstones he somehow manages to evoke them here; Sleep On The Wing is uncanny and utterly charming.
Jonathan Something: Cannibal House Rules
Jon Searles is Jonathan Something and Cannibal House Rules is an unabashed love letter to the neon sound (and soundtracks) of the ’80s. It’s full of endlessly lush and evocative synthpop storytelling and is the perfect backdrop for all the fantastical zombie populated, blood-soaked love stories with ambiguous, sequel ready endings you could ever want to daydream. As someone who “teen-ed” in the ’80s, hearing this thing was like stepping straight into a time machine (or in my case, an eternally shitty Ford Granada); amongst other things, there were hints of “Let’s Dance” era Bowie ( “Power Moves”), Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (“Firestarter”) and Howard Jones’s earnest balladry (“Cake World”). It’s a veritable panorama of endlessly sweet and reverential nods to the glossy synthesized pop universe of the era. And so, if you feel like stepping away from the current mayhem ( yeah you do), slip on some headphones and let Cannibal House Rules cosmically transport you to 1984, to a suburban 7-11 parking lot at 2 am, where you can enjoy your Big Gulp™ whilst reclining on the hood of your car under a bed of stars, while you figure out how to stop the zombie apocalypse, save the world and get the crush of your dreams to fall in love with you.
Le Pie: A Room Of One’s Own
” I step into the ring and take my best swing! I look up to the clouds and scream it out loud!” Yes girl, YES. The debut album from Le Pie ( of Sydney, Australia) is an epic collection of fantastical pop heartache, a lovelorn diary that is equal parts dreampop, Ronettes, Shangri-La’s, Siouxsie, Liz Fraser and Sinead. It’s full of gorgeous, painfully cathartic girl group laments with a beating Rock heart. There are so many great songs on here it seems unfair to call any out but okay, anthemic opening track “Circles” and the runny mascara’d “If Misery Loves Company” are particularly, ridiculously glorious. A Room Of One’s Own makes crying into a pillow feel positively heroic.
Bonus Cuts !
I also want to acknowledge a couple of big name albums that you will likely notice on some of the other 2020 best of lists out there. Both of the titles that follow have been written about in a far more eloquent and succinct manner than I’m remotely capable of, which is why I’m basically sitting this one out, but please know they are extremely luscious and worthy of your time :
Fleet Foxes: Shore
Shore is a gorgeous, transportive coastal and emotional travelogue, a marriage of classic Beach Boy-esque shuffle to Milton Nascimento’s classic 1972 album Club Da Esquina 1. It’s the sonic embodiment of a truly noble, romantic red/orange/yellow sunset.
Owen Pallett: Island
Composer-multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett’s 5th solo studio album Island has a slightly complex backstory you can read about in this interview from earlier in the year. But you don’t have to know anything to appreciate it’s regal, airy, emotional classical/folk/chamber pop. Cryptic mystery and beauty abound on Island.
Look I made something for you ! I’ve assembled a playlist featuring highlights from all the aforementioned albums so you can digest things a bit easier. Check it out below and listen on shuffle for added enjoyment!
Best Albums of 2020 Highlight Playlist: