The 100 Best Songs (And 20 Best Albums) of 2020

These are the songs and albums that got us through this hellacious year

December 11, 2020 10:11 am
This is the music that got us through 2020.
This is the music that got us through 2020.
Mike Falco

As you have no doubt read in every other year-end wrap-up thus far — or more likely than not figured out on your own by simply existing in this nightmare world and experiencing it firsthand — 2020 was a pretty bad year.

It was especially bad for working musicians, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic made live concerts impossible, essentially eliminating the largest chunk of their income for the majority of the year with no real indication of when it’ll return. And yet despite the financial devastation and the emotional toll of being stuck in quarantine, confronting a long-overdue reckoning over racial justice and dealing with the most contentious presidential election in modern history, they rose to the occasion, writing and recording some truly excellent music. Some of it addressed our current moment head-on, whether it was Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” or country singer Tyler Childers’ “Long Dark History,” which calls out his fellow white Southerners and speaks out against our nation’s ugly, racist past and present alike.

It’s worth noting before we dive into it all that here at InsideHook, we believe art is subjective, and ranking the “best” albums and songs from a given year — especially one as crazy as 2020 — feels a little silly. But the songs and albums listed below are personal favorites of ours, presented in no particular order, that helped get us through the rough times this year. We’ve compiled our 100 favorite songs from 2020 into a Spotify playlist below, as well as run through 20 of our favorite albums, with that in mind.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

As I wrote when we declared back in April that Fiona Apple had already put out the best album of the year (hey, when you know, you know), “Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a record about taking up space, making yourself heard, saying everything out loud, even the ugly stuff people don’t like to hear.” It’s Apple’s least traditional work, largely devoid of any pop structure, and it tackles tough issues like sexual assault and depression head-on. But there’s humor peppered in throughout on tracks like “Under the Table” and “Rack of His” to provide a little levity thanks to Apple’s clever lyricism. — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “Shameika”

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield wasn’t exactly toiling in obscurity before the release of Saint Cloud earlier this year, with nearly a decade of touring and generally well-received albums already under her belt, but she’s definitely hit a new creative peak. Crutchfield has always jumped around a bit stylistically, going from noisy, ’90s-inspired indie rock to much quieter, bedroom-style confessionals, but with Saint Cloud, she’s leaning more proudly into her Southern roots, letting hints of country and Americana shine through. The guitars are cleaner, and the recording is a little more hi-fi, but there’s still a really pleasant looseness to the whole thing. Her vocals are very much the star of the show, more self-assured and soulful than any she’s recorded before. Listen to the record if you haven’t, but also check out one (or all) of the many live streams she recorded from her home in Kansas City around the time of the album’s release. Seated in front of a computer and accompanied by just an acoustic guitar, she proves once more just how far three chords can take you. And if that sounds like a subtle dig, it’s not — it’s the highest praise I can think of. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “Can’t Do Much”

Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Stephen Bruner continues to be a leading example of just doing whatever the heck you want and knowing it will end up sounding great. And while chill yacht-rock gods like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald don’t show up this time around, he’s brought along some of his other funked up friends, including BadBadNotGood and Childish Gambino. The result is another album filled with tracks that bring us to a deeper understanding of one of the most fascinating musicians operating these days. — Jason Diamond

Key track: “Black Qualls”

Jeff Tweedy, Love Is the King

Four nights a week, at roughly 10pm, my 10-year-old daughter strolls through my living room, spots me perched on my couch in front of my laptop and says, “Tweedy show?” And she is right every time.

Since quarantine began back in March, Jeff Tweedy and his family have been appearing on Instagram Live, for an hour at a time, messing around and bickering with one another, sure, but also playing music — some Wilco songs, lots of covers — many of them sung by Tweedy’s sons Sammy and Spencer (and Spencer’s girlfriend Casey; no one ever mentions Casey, but her voice is great). Over the first few months of shows, Tweedy himself played a handful of unreleased songs in various stages of completion — those are the songs that would come to make up Love Is the King, his third proper solo album.

In a lot of ways, it’s a back-to-basics record for Tweedy. He’s said that, as the pandemic took hold, he began to take comfort in writing simple country songs, and that’s reflected in the stripped-down arrangements and gently twangy electric guitars accompanying his ever-present acoustic. The songs sound small, in the most charming way possible, but the themes they grapple with are anything but. “Robin or a Wren,” to which George Saunders contributed some lyrics, manages to tackle death and reincarnation with an economy of language that is just baffling. “Even I Can See” is a strikingly direct song about his wife that speaks to the foundation-shaking capabilities of capital-L love. Elsewhere, like in “Guess Again” or “Natural Disaster,” he’s singing about that same love in a more lighthearted but no less impactful way. There are sad moments scattered throughout, but Love Is the King is ultimately a warm and inviting collection that’s most defined by its optimism, by its belief that we will get through all of this if we stick together. It’s an especially useful idea right now, but also always. — Mike Conklin

Key Track: “Robin or a Wren”

Spanish Love Songs, Brave Faces Everyone

“You know the truth in what they say / The world’s gonna kick you either way” sighs/laughs frontman Dylan Slocum during “Kick,” the rare punk singalong that’s somehow both cathartically aggressive and emotionally resigned. Maybe the latter feeling is inevitable when you’re racing through a litany of subjects like single parenthood, drug dealing, prison time and visitation rights (that’s just in one song). Sonically recalling Hot Water Music, Samiam and The Lawrence Arms while possessing a lyrical viewpoint that’s very of today, Brave Faces Everyone is the bleak (but again, singalong!) soundtrack of our lives. Scary though on a follow-up: This record was released before COVID. — Kirk Miller

Key track: “Kick”

Caribou, Suddenly

Under his dual monikers Caribou and Daphni, Dan Snaith has been one of the most prolific electronic artists of the last two decades, releasing album after album of almost invariably maximalist music built on obscure samples, twitchy drumbeats and long, deliberate crescendos that are positively transcendent when unleashed on a live audience. He’s also an artist for whom the “accessibility” of his studio recordings has never been of great concern; you either get it or you’ve never seen him live, and once you do, you’ll get it. By his standards, then, Suddenly is almost a pop album, with only one track (closer “Cloud Song”) tipping the scales past six minutes and the majority of them checking in under four, and warm, familiar sounds borrowed from hip-hop and old Motown records appearing throughout. But it’s still an album that no one besides him could’ve made, at turns danceable (four-to-the-floor club jam “Never Come Back”), elegiac (the “You and I”) and soulful (“Home”), with Snaith’s inimitable vocal delivery — if it’s not the music world’s most nonchalant falsetto, it’s close — stitching everything together. — Walker Loetscher

Key track: “You and I”

Narrow Head, 12th House Rock

Among the younger set, all of the disparate sounds of ’90s weirdo rock become more and more of an amalgamation, a move which Narrow Head might be making the most of. Their newest record 12th House Rock gives bursts of shoegaze, noise rock and metal all guided by the band’s innate instincts to riff. “Ponderosa Sun Club” casts an endless summer of dreamy distortion, elsewhere “Hard to Swallow” sounds like it would’ve sat perfectly next to more aggro acts like Helmet or Quicksand on an episode of 120 Minutes. — John Hill

Key track: “Night Tryst”

DEHD, Flower of Devotion

Chicago indie-rock trio Dehd returns with their biggest, best album yet — full of reverb, yelps, and unique phrasings. Singer/bassist Emily Kempf’s voice steals the show on tracks like “Letter” (the way she stretches “baby” into “bay-ey-ey-BAY” there will stay with you) and the infectious “No Time,” but guitarist Jason Balla and drummer Eric McGrady both continue to pull their weight as well, and McGrady steps up to the mic for the first time on “Apart.” Flower of Devotion is Dehd’s finest work to date, and yet it leaves us with the sense that even bigger things are on the horizon. — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “Letter”

Jesse Kivel, Infinite Jess

With one solo EP and his work with the pop duo Kisses, Jesse Kivel has shown an ability to craft perfect tunes that — please excuse this corny-ass term — sort of dance through the air. Ever hear that album John Cale and Brian Eno did? He’s sort of got that wired into his brain, but with a little dose of Style Council soul weaving its way through. An upbeat album in a downer year, but not too upbeat. — Jason Diamond

Key track: “Northside”

Kevin Morby, Sundowner

If you’re following along closely, you may have noticed that two of my favorite records of the year were made by people who live in the same house, and while I’m loathe to refer to either of them as the boyfriend or girlfriend or S.O. of the other, I will simply say that, yes, Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield are a couple and that the spirit of creativity they seem to foster in one another is a real fucking boon for the music-listening public. (I will also say that the paint color in their living room is really nice, but that is admittedly beside the point.) 

Kevin Morby has been making perfectly solid records for a long time now, first with his Brooklyn-based band The Babies, then as bassist in the enigmatic Woods, and eventually on his own. His first few solo outings were enjoyable enough, but he’s really hit his stride of late. Starting with 2017’s City Music, and then even more so on 2019’s Oh My God, he’s emerged as an artist who’s refreshingly willing to indulge his grandest visions. No themes are too big, no arrangements too audacious. Sundowner, released somewhat suddenly in October of this year, started out small. Early versions of the songs were recorded on a Tascam 424 tape machine in a shed behind his house, their subject matter driven by the then-recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain — whom Morby aptly refers to as “perhaps the last honorable spokesman for America” — and the musicians Richard Swift and Jessi Zazu. Once it was given the full studio treatment, Sundowner came into focus as some of his best work yet. Quieter and more contemplative than Oh My God before it, it’s no less striking thanks to its evocative, plainspoken lyrics and overall clarity of vision. — Mike Conklin

Key track: “Sundowner”

Poppy, I Disagree

Taylor Swift got called out by black metal icons Emperor. Miley Cyrus was (maybe?) ripping off Celtic Frost. But that was all surface criticism: The only pop star to really dip their toes into heavy music — and yes, Miley’s gonna get there with a reported Metallica covers album — was a former YouTube personality who’s turned aggressively electro-metal. The sonically disjointed “BLOODMONEY” (yep, all caps) is up for a Grammy but it’s the schizophrenic pop headbanger “Fill the Crown” that gives us a sugar high. Funny enough, Poppy’s scary-looking new Christmas EP is really mellow! — Kirk Miller

Key track: “Fill the Crown”

Hum, Inlet

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that was expecting a new record from Hum this year, but in a sea of terrible things it managed to be one of the few welcome surprises. Twenty-two years after their last, the band found numerous ways to iterate on the space-rock dimensions so many fell in love with (and ripped off). They’ve opted to explore the far reaches of heavy music, venturing into Sabbathian reaches on “The Summoning” and progressive delights on “Cloud City.” All of these new ideas and textures coalesce into maybe the best song of their career “Shapeshifter,” a journey that feels like coming to terms with the chaos of the universe, ending softly in the sweetest melody of their career. — John Hill

Key track: “Shapeshifter”

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

In a year like this especially, you really have to be in the right mindset to take in and enjoy Phoebe Bridgers’ terrific Punisher. (For a while, my favorite bit was to ask “who’s ready to GET SAD?” before pressing play on it.) But Bridgers’ sophomore album, which earned her four Grammy nominations this year, is more than just sad; it’s devastatingly good, full of catharsis, stunning vocals and evocative lyrics, whether she’s tackling the mundane isolation of touring or dropping in a little dig at Eric Clapton long before he revealed himself to be an anti-lockdown idiot this year. (“We hate ‘Tears In Heaven,’” she sings, before conceding that “it’s sad that his baby died.”) — Bonnie Stiernberg

Key track: “I Know the End”

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist, Alfredo

It’s high time we go ahead and say Freddie Gibbs is the best rapper in the game right now. We could have said that last year when he collaborated with Madlib on Bandana, but the truth is, while some rappers put out one sick mixtape, then maybe guest on a few tracks between putting out disappointing albums for big money, Gibbs has been getting better with each passing release over the last decade. I’d say this, his album with the Alchemist is the culmination of the last 10 years, but I hope that’s not the case. My guess is he’s going to keep going at this pace and everybody needs to just stand back and respect it.  — Jason Diamond

Key track: “Something to Rap About”

Linda Diaz, Magic EP

Technically this isn’t even an album (or at least not a full-length one), nor was it released in 2020 (it came out in December 2019). But unless you went to high school with Diaz or play poker with her uncle, chances are you didn’t know she exists until August of this year, when she won NPR’s annual Tiny Desk Concert Contest, which this year reviewed more than 6,000 entries and has in previous years produced a number of eventual Grammy winners. Diaz won for “Green Tea Ice Cream,” a dreamy, jazzy summer ballad that lit up indie-radio airwaves just in time to transport us all from the doldrums of the weariest summer in recent memory. The rest of her seven-song EP delivers much of the same, with Diaz’s soft, confident voice recalling the best of Corinne Bailey Rae or Emily King as loungey, languid R&B vibes fill out the margins. — Walker Loetscher

Key track: “Green Tree Ice Cream”

Neil Young, Homegrown

There’s a ton of great Neil Young stuff out there, but, for my money, his burnt out, “The dream of the ’60s is dead” stuff from the first-half of the 1970s is pretty much perfect. From After the Gold Rush to Zuma, but especially On the Beach. That’s the gold standard for me. This year, in the midst of our own season of perpetual bummers, Neil went through the archives and decided to make an official release of his “lost” album that he recorded after On the Beach, and boy did it feel necessary. — Jason Diamond

Key Track: “Try”

Conway the Machine, From King to a GOD

Buffalo-based rap crew Griselda seem to be the only rappers making music both for the kids and the old-heads. Though there’s been a sea of mixtapes from the members, Conway the Machine’s From King to a GOD is the perfect entry point into the dark world they create. Album starter “Fear of God” kicks between Conway’s dark rhymes and Dej Loaf’s super confident sing raps. Elsewhere Conway pulls out maybe the best verse of G-Unit rapper Lloyd Banks’ entire career, par for the course on a record that doesn’t cease. — John Hill

Key track: “Juvenile Hell”

Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto

There is a whole story behind this 1968 recording done by a janitor at Palo Alto High School, but you can read about that elsewhere. All I’m going to say is it sounds perfect. Monk and his quartet put on a breathtaking performance during a period which, some critics may have made the mistake of saying the legend was past his prime, that he wasn’t “in.” Bullocks to all that. This whole album smokes. It’s a minor revelation that we all needed. — Jason Diamond

Key track: “Blue Monk”

Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?

The last time I drank too many drinks in a dark room with too many people in it and danced like only I can dance — which is to say poorly, but with integrity — was March 5, 2020. It’s these nights that I miss most, which is why I really needed an album this year that would take me back there. What’s Your Pleasure? is that album. Londoner Jessie Ware, who makes a very club-friendly variation on vocal-driven Top 40 pop music, has never quite enjoyed mainstream success in the U.S., and she probably won’t find it with this album, either. Instead, she’s doubled down on what she does best, with a bona fide disco record that would be at home next to the likes of Chic and Donna Summer. Chief production credits go to Ware as well as Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, who has filled the same role for everyone from Gorillaz to Arctic Monkeys to Depeche Mode. The title track as well as “Spotlight” and “Soul Control” will take you back to the halcyon days of Studio 54, but for me the standout track is “Adore You,” a gloomier, bouncier house track co-written by Joseph Mount of Metronomy. — Walker Loetscher

Key track: “Adore You”

Khruangbin, Mordechai

I’m constantly fascinated by the Houston trio Khruangbin. It feels like they came out of nowhere over the past few years and just delivered some of the finest, funkest, dubbiest jams one could ask for. On this, the band’s third LP, they start out with a slow jam that sounds like something they’re trying to work out, and then kicks right into “Time (You and I),” a song straight off one of those compilations of Studio One reggae artists when they started messing around with disco. Some vintage sounds that never go out of style, and listening to Mordechai was one of the few truly great feelings of 2020. — Jason Diamond

Key track: “Time (You and I)”

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