We immensely appreciate when an artist successfully evolves and refines their sound that put them on our radar to begin with. After countless hours of discussion, intensive voting, and a series of danceability tests cross-referenced with emotions-felt-whilst-listening charts, we have landed on…
The 20 BEST albums of 2020.
Modus Vivendi hangs in musical space with an air of maturity that far out-dates Danielle Balbuena, or 070 Shake. At just 23 years old, Shake lines her tracks with an introspective depth that might take some an entire lifetime to learn. Her tracks are calm and futuristic, with her unique, almost un-interested sounding voice fluttering hypnotizingly over entrancing synths. These tracks aren’t the kind of futuristic music that you would hear in line at Disneyland’s Blast Mountain ride; they’re futuristic in the way that they push the boundaries that exist currently in hip hop. I say that we just bottle this album up and launch it into space for some intergalactic species to find.
I do think that the cosmic beats would speak to an alien civilization, with the thoughtful lyrics teaching them about the human experience to boot. The album title, Modus Vivendi, is in itself a lightly encoded message; Latin for an arrangement or agreement allowing conflicting parties to coexist peacefully, either indefinitely or until a final settlement is reached. The two parties that Shake is referring to is up for debate. Could it be her struggling to find middle ground with a lover, or her quest to find solace within herself? The beautiful thing about this work of art is you get what you want out of it. Listen to these lyrics, and I guarantee you’ll get pretty introspective yourself.
LA’s favorite trio established their towering industry dominance with Women in Music Pt. III, whose hodgepodge approach to genre renders more of a playlist than a cohesive album. But listening through the band’s third studio album, the ride is way too fun to have any listener concerned with the bigger picture. Each effort from the HAIM sisters is as thrilling and ambitious as the next, as they seamlessly tackle reggae, country, indie, stadium rock, folk, and even house on the sprawling 51-minute project. Impressively enough, despite the clear branching out into new genres, the result is still glaringly and unapologetically HAIM- the individuality still bursts through.
HAIM’s swiss army knife approach to Women In Music Pt. III is not just a blast to listen through but also, to a certain degree, is just showing off. Who else could land the one-two combos that the sisters deliver here with such grace? They pull it off here with extremely high technical proficiency in their performances but also with the intangibles they bring to the table. They have a deep love for the genres they pay homage to and they perform like their lives depend on it, full speed with a high stakes urgency. In the year 2020, no one’s heart is more in it than HAIM.
One could say that Franc Moody is a musical collective with no end, as the two ring-leaders Ned Franc and Jon Moody intentionally keep the size and expanse of the group as ambiguous as can be. Dream in Colour, while technically being their debut album, was borne from a long and gritty history full of equal parts ingenuity and experience. Dream in Colour gets its hands dirty, diving right into the raw creativity that London, the band, and the creatives around them have to offer. Each track is a groove injection for the ears, daring anyone to say “disco is dead” just so they can eat their words. The contemporary feel of the tracks gives a relevant texture to the heavy funk and disco influences, making it entirely digestible for even the most stubborn of naysayers. Each track tells a story, as one can easily tell from the song titles themselves (i.e. “She’s Too Good for Me”, “Grin and Bear It”, etc.). The relatable lyrics bring the backing beats a whole new meaning entirely, and the album is aiming right for your heartstrings. So go turn on “Flesh and Blood”, and as the lyrics croon “All my skin feels leathery; And all my bones are ivory; I feel extrasensory; Charged with electricity” lay back and prepare to slip into an existential trip.
EPHEMERA is an album that made our list by NOT living up to its name. Ephemera, defined as “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”, is a striking title in the face of what we at the K would call a timeless staple of house pop. As one of our defining albums of 2020, we believe that Jim-E Stack is not only here to stay, but here to grow. EPHEMERA has a warm collaborative feel that Stack aimed to foster, and as he told Billboard, “It’s coming from an environment of ‘nothing really matters except listening to music and making music with your friends,’ and having fun doing it.”
EPHEMERA serves as a beloved collection of sorts, not of rocks or coins, but of artists and sounds. Working with Empress Of, Dijon, Octavian, Kacey Hill, Bon Iver, Bearface, and Ant Clemons, Stack showcases their unique voices with a rich backdrop of his curated sounds. The album’s songs are plucked like eyebrows, sisters but not twins. EPHEMERA plays like a cohesive art gallery, with the content ranging from upbeat and jazzy to introspective and somber, starting off with the invigorating power ballad “Note to self” that we all needed after this challenging year (“Sometimes we just have to fall down/ Don’t fight it, let it bring you back around”). Here’s to EPHEMERA, one we can enjoy for a long time to come.
Every long-standing Kid Cudi fan had some set of expectations going into the third MOTM. Yes, Pitchfork, blah blah blah. Nostalgia plays into the listening experience. Isn’t that true of any release from a seasoned artist with a cult following? For me, it wasn’t nostalgia that drove expectations. I was a huge fan of the Kids See Ghosts project so my hopes were high in that regard. That said, I remember (not so nostalgically) shaking my head with varying levels of disappointment after Cudi’s 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 releases. Thankfully, after listening once through, my expectations for the project had been exceeded. Phew.
The first half of MOTM III fluctuates between confusing and refreshing as a result of the heavy mixing and mastering and the clear Travis Scott influence that shines through. Ultimately, the feature selection and tracks like “She Knows This” and “Show Out Feat” simply do not seem like Cudder’s pure creative direction. Label play? Radio play? Who cares. When “Solo Dolo, Pt. III” comes in at Track 9, Cudi kicks things into overdrive, and space travel commences. From this point on, Cudi veers from the oddly sober and grounded vibe of the first 8 songs and crafts a spectacular addition to the MOTM experience. Most importantly, it works in the context of the series and drove clear improvement in Cudi’s overarching discography. Proud.
Danish producer Kölsch’s fourth LP, Now Here No Where, may be the dance-oriented electronic album of 2020. Fusing elements of melodic techno, house, and live classical instrumentation from composer Gregor Schwellenbach, Kölsch has delivered a genre-bending collection of orchestral techno.
Versatility in a project will always win big points from us. Now Here No Where effortlessly ranges from the urgency of its cinematic opener “Great Escape” to jazz-tinged house weapon “Remind You”, before taking the listener through techno as Kölsch sees it. This type of techno makes its mark with some of the absolute largest synth-sound design we have ever encountered, punctuated by epic standout track “Fandango” and the following Gregorian chant stomper “Glypto”.
Finally, we’re left with the reassuring, emotional embrace of the closing track, which seems to sadly acknowledge the absence of the space where we were meant to experience the album. For now, we can only dream of witnessing it welcome a Playa sunrise with the return of our dearly missed dance floor, but we know that day will come…until then we’ll “Pause”.
Dua Lipa’s full-length debut is one of the richest and most anthemic pop albums of the year, and it was long overdue from the rising songstress. Dua Lipa operates with the utmost grace and confidence on Future Nostalgia, whose title is an apt descriptor of the impressive fusion of different musical eras throughout. England’s stargirl is a versatile threat on every dynamic track, tackling a variety of unique pop iterations with ease. Moreover, her vocal delivery is dripping with personality, carrying power, elegance, and charisma with every run. Despite a 37 minutes full of colorfully layered production, what stands out most and brings the whole thing home is Dua Lipa’s staggering comfort in every pocket she sits in. This hardly sounds like the debut effort of a pop up-and-comer. But amazingly and enticingly enough, it is, and Dua Lipa still has plenty left in the tank.
The Weeknd’s latest studio album, After Hours, takes listeners on a 14 track, artistic bell curve of a breakup and all its many faces. His past three albums were veiled and hedonistic – dark-liquor nights that are sultry, haunting and a need-based affair that hit the spot if you wanted it to. If his previous work were bourbon, “After Hours” is Gin – A bit on the lighter, hopeful side dressed in upbeat and uplifting notes.
After Hours has a higher level of energy compared to his previous albums. The opening tracks ease listeners in with his signature haunting, warbling sound with a darker message. For OG Weeknd fans, “Heartless” and “Snowchild” stick to what you know with a similar look and feel to his old material. The core of “After Hours” begins to move into a unique version of a ballad – cutting wide and bearing all with the desperate (but catchy) “Hardest to Love” and “Scared to Live”. Don’t let the emotional current deter you, these songs are still excellent entertainment with a solid sound and strong baseline. The album begins to show signs of real artistic evolution in the thick of it with “Blinding Lights” and “In your Eyes”. These two tracks catapult listeners straight into the ’80s with their heavy synth-pop emphasis, a little Kenny G sax action, and an all-around feel-good, redeeming plot line that rounds out the album.
On King Krule’s first studio album since 2017, a very quiet optimism lurks beneath the heavy, heavy weight of the album’s sound. King Krule is no stranger to kicking down doors between genres and he continues this habit on Man Alive!, masterfully blending the sounds of Post-Punk, jazz, and countless other genres. The record manages to still be incredibly cohesive despite having songs that differ greatly in mood and sound. “Stoned Again” is an anguished cry from a dark abyss, with Archy reflecting on his adolescence over heavy drums and a distorted bassline while “Underclass” is a slow jazz cut that features Archy crooning about the complex emotions that come with being in love and approaching fatherhood. This sort of complexity, paired with usual King Krule surrealism, makes this album feel quite a bit like a David Lynch film.
Much like its album cover, this record is an abstract portrait of a man and it captures the myriad of conflicting emotions that reside within him. This ambivalence of Archy Marshall is reflected by the volatile nature of this album’s songs. Songs swing back and forth from utter desolation to something that feels more like hope. “Alone, Omen 3”, the midpoint of the record, encapsulates the heart of this album with its recurring lyrics: “Don’t forget you’re not alone”
Archy continues saying, “The ache and thunder in the storms of your mind/ Soak it in, for the rain will pass in time/ Nothing wrong in sinking low” over the somber instrumental. Then, drums kick in and lift the tempo of the song, hinting at a light at the end of the tunnel despite the weight of the present. This song is a microcosm of the album as a whole: acknowledging the surrounding darkness but searching for something bright beyond it, something that may feel new to fans of King Krule.
Singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold’s fourth studio album arrived as a surprise on the autumn equinox, bursting into the pandemic void as a “life-preserver in this ocean of bad news” after being nearly abandoned in April. The feeling of resurrection and rebirth is poignant throughout Shore’s 55-minute open-windowed ascension, harkening us back to the Seattle band’s brightly colored 2008 self-titled debut. Shore emerges as an exuberant new frontier from the familiar landscape that birthed Fleet Foxes’ sonic identity.
At 34 years old, Pecknold is still pondering death and the makings of a meaningful life within the vibrant context of an explosive folk-rock sound, cultivating a tone that is relentlessly tinged with unpretentious joy. While Pecknold’s intelligent lyricism offers a fair amount of realistic contemplation, the band’s musicality makes euphoric resolution feel within arm’s reach. The standout track “Can I Believe You” coaxes a distrusting heart out of hiding with a big choral hug that encapsulates the band’s sound. Pecknold pulls the mask off, admitting, “It never got less strange, showing anyone just a bare face.” A couple tracks later, he embraces the fragility of it all on “Featherweight,” sending up something of a prayer, “And with love and hate in the balance / One last way past the malice / One warm day’s all I really need.” Shore gives us a gateway to the kind of acceptance that makes the richness of life attainable. By the end of the album, perhaps you’ll sail to the center of the sun, or at least glimpse the possibilities of a warmth that meets you where you are.
Arguably at the forefront of what seems to be a revival of hip hop beats over trap in the mainstream, Freddie Gibbs has been having an excellent couple of years. After proving his ability to release solid, timeless albums (his past projects Piñata and Bandana with Madlib are both near perfect,) his newest LP Alfredo turned out to be no different. Linking with renowned producer The Alchemist, the result is a 10 track Grammy-nominated LP best described as a treat for any hip hop or music lover alike. Al’s instrumentals are vintage; riddled with old timey samples, dusty percussion, and clips from mob movies. The mafioso theme runs throughout, making the artwork, which is a clear nod to The Godfather, fitting. While Alchemist’s production really shines through on this project, it would be wrong to say this album would be as enjoyable without a rapper like Freddie. For 35 minutes Gibbs effortlessly flows, touching topics like drugs, crime, revolution, and overdose. He shows us that a life of fame and wealth isn’t always pretty, and just like in the mob, your hands get dirty from time to time. Enrolling Rick Ross, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine, and Tyler the Creator for stellar features, Freddie exemplifies the quality that is all too often lacking in the modern LP.
Gone but never forgotten, Mac Miller’s Circles provides an in-depth look into the psyche of Mac’s life. The songwriting on this record proves to be some of the most poetic lyrics that came out of 2020. Mac Miller went above and beyond to be vulnerable about a life of fame and fortune, which isn’t always glamorous. Circles is Mac’s preplanned sequel to Swimming; when put together they give us “Swimming in Circles” which is fitting as both records highlight mental health and the constant internal battles we all fight. Circles serves as the hug we all need sometimes (especially in a year like this) and, even in death, Mac Miller can provide that for us with his eloquent words and timeless talent. RIP Mac.
Where to even begin with this display of pure class? Though two very different musicians, no one is going to argue that these two artists are a recipe for disaster. The increasingly popular young south London talent Tom Misch teamed up with underground jazz drumming maniac Yussef Dayes to perform a genre-defying compilation of flawless jams that will put a stank face on anyone in the room. Somewhere in between indie jazz and electronica R&B, the perfectly titled What Kinda Music album highlights both these artists’ impeccable musicianship in an array of atmospheric soundscapes. From Misch’s silky voice and elegant guitar riffs to Dayes’ incredibly swung and innovative drum licks, the two have delivered an album worth writing home about. The first half of the album holds loose boundaries, flowing through a variety of soft-spoken gems that paint the image of natural light on a disco ball with songs like ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘The Real’. The two continually get funkier through the second half of this LP with ‘I Did it For You’ ringing in the familiar Misch guitar rhythms we’ve grown to love, and ‘Julie Mangos’ playing out some soft synth wubs that inherently make you feel some type of oceanic way. Start to finish this album will impress anyone who truly listens to music.
SAULT’s double-sided album ‘Untitled’ (Rise & Black Is) would be one of Marvin Gaye’s favorite albums in the digital era of music. If this album was released in 1965, I believe SAULT would be recognized as one of the most prolific artists of the era, and one who producers today would look to for inspiration.
SAULT (whom some believe is a creation of Cleopatra Nikolic [Cleo Sol] & producer Inflo [Michael Kiwanuka & Little Simz]) have managed to do something few have attained… Create an album that is both listenable to the average ear, while simultaneously making a socio-political statement. Many of the widely acclaimed politically charged albums in the past have been quite abrasive sonically — as to yell its message at the listener (Public Enemy, Green Day, The Clash, etc). However, SAULT takes the approach of Marvin Gaye in ‘What’s Going On.’ The record feels unstressed and unstrained… Almost as if it’s a stream of consciousness by its creators while taking a look at the times at hand, and allowing the listener to engage without having to expend much brainpower.
The songs on both sides of the album sound like incredibly well arranged jams with a nod to the way soul music was created in the Motown era… A producer friend of mine stated: “its like they recorded this in Grandpa’s studio using 60-70s era mics but brought in their UAD interface & 2020 ADAM audio speakers.” None of the instruments on the album are very processed, and at times the drums sound like they are being recorded by a mono mic into a tape deck… Bringing the sonic atmosphere of the album back in time.
Westside Gunn is undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the year having dropped three solo albums and worked on countless projects with his label meets crew, Griselda. While his brand and aesthetic fall somewhere between OG Supreme and MOMA, Westside Gunn is not an aesthetic rapper or a social media backed act. Gunn has been working the game, various industries, and the streets for over a decade and after a number of massive cosigns and collaborations, it is no wonder that his rough-edged flow and Griselda collaborators- Benny The Butcher and Conway The Machine- have been embraced into the mainstream at last.
The first of Gunn’s 2020 projects, Pray For Paris, was the standout and is backed by an interesting story. While Virgil Abloh was designing a 2019 Louis Vuitton collection, he played Griselda’s catalogue front to back and then invited Gunn to join him at Paris Fashion Week as a result. Pray For Paris was written in its entirety while Gunn was there and the audio time capsule that resulted is magnificent. Gunn reasons, “A lot of these dudes, they sell their soul quick for that bag because they wasn’t shit before the rap game. When you chase the bag, it’s not organic… people aren’t going to feel it…” The authenticity of Gunn’s lyrics and hustler narrative is undeniable and shines through on each track. Features from Tyler, The Creator, Joey Bada$$ and Freddie Gibbs level up the album but ultimately the instrumentals coming from a wide array of aspiring producers and greats, including Alchemist on “$500 Ounces,” round out the concept project to near perfection.
Playing on the “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” tag, The Avalanches are without a doubt “your favorite indie electronic artist’s favorite indie electronic”. Their 2020 release, We Will Always Love You, is a concept project that ties in motifs of lost love and intergalactic space travel through a beautiful blend of organic instrumentation and experimental electronic modulation.
At 25 tracks, the project flows so seamlessly with sample-based interludes telling a story that I’ve only begun to decipher after my 10th listen: the further the protagonist travels from the earth into the stars, the further they accept their lost relationship and begin to find love quite literally everywhere else. In the telling of these love stories, The Avalanches take “genreless” to new heights as features fluctuate from rap verses and ballads from the likes of Blood Orange and Kurt Vile, to production contributions from critically acclaimed artists such as Jamie XX and The Chemical Brothers. The resulting project is undeniably one of the most refreshing projects of the year and marks another notch in the duo’s timely influence across all sounds.
We commend The Avalanches’ seamless fluctuation between genres with each subsequent song, and can confidently say that there is a track for everyone on this album. Thank you for giving us this flawless piece of work when we needed it most.
A staggering 5 years since his last album release as Caribou, the very talented Dan Snaith returns with a deeply personal and eclectic collection of songs that seemingly arrived out of nowhere: Suddenly, if you will. This unexpected LP is approachable and exciting, but fragile. Snaith’s vocals throughout the album touch on his personal relationships, the struggle with loss and grief, and displays a new side of his creative process we haven’t quite seen before. Undoubtedly, Suddenly pivots away from Snaith’s dance floor hits from previous albums, and draws inspiration from all walks of life that result in a blissful compilation of genres that feel very nostalgic. From the opening vocal ballet of ‘Sister’, to the RnB sample of Gloria Barnes in ‘‘Home’, or the jazz melodies of ‘Lime’, to the ecstatic and energy driven ‘Never Come Back’, it is clear Snaith refuses to be pigeonholed. This album felt special to Snatih, so it feels special to us. Suddenly serves as a window into Dan Snaith’s character and his ever-developing artistic endeavors. We will continually be quick to listen to any new releases from the legend himself!
Since this Texan power trio arrived on the scene, the surprises have yet to stop. Smokey, psychedelic guitar and groovin n’ movin basslines, held together by their human metronome drummer has been Khruangbin’s M.O from the jump, yet each release sees them add ingredients to their by-now signature recipe. an EP with vocalist and fellow Texan Leon Bridges, a curated mix for the consistently brilliant Late Night Tales series, and much their anticipated 3rd album rounded out quite the year for Khruangbin, who on their most recent offering sound as polished as ever.
Strong singles like the flourishing “So We Don’t Forget” or the Latin-influenced “Pelota” sounded like the same band we’ve come to love, but refreshingly different. The effortlessly cool opener “First Class” and smile inducing “If There is No Question” stick out personally, though in a tracklist with this much range you’re bound to find your own favorites. Need some disco breaks? “Time (You and I)” has that covered. Liked their Dub album? Check “One to Remember”. More vocals than on their past offerings is a welcome addition to a band who’ve typically let their instruments do all the talking. This, and the group’s penchant for nodding their world music influences make for a band that is yet to fall short of surprises.
The legacy of glossy indie darlings The Strokes was rock-solid leading up to The New Abnormal– they could afford to play as safe as they wanted and still be remembered as legends. But rather than settle for half-baked nostalgia bait, the band instead reinvented itself, delivering some wonderfully honest and daring indie rock. The New Abnormal shows Julian Casablancas and company bringing a new experimental flair to their tried and true afterparty aesthetic, this time around incorporating some fascinating electronic, progressive, and synth-pop influences. The result, backed by vocal and instrumental performances that are as crispy clean as ever, is a pure delight, a momentous occasion for The Strokes.
Nearly two decades following their outstanding debut album, the band is still toeing their narrow boundaries elegantly: honest but not overbearing, melodramatic but not cheesy, indulgent but not self absorbed. What’s even more enchanting is how they still sound so intimately familiar even with this new direction. It feels like they picked up right where they left off.
“Do you remember we were standing here a year ago?
…If there was trouble in the world we didn’t know
If we had a care, it didn’t show,” fittingly begins our top album of 2020…
In what feels like only days ago, The K stood in a massive crowd at The Forum in early March—worries about the world just beginning to set in—staring in awe as Kevin Parker gave everything he had in what would unknowingly be one of his last performances of 2020. What took place on that stage was magical, and being able to look back on its sonic glory as our last memory of a live show has been nothing short of a gift.
The Slow Rush is the album we all needed this year before we knew we needed it. How many times have you heard someone, or yourself, talk about the strange sensation of quarantine time? Days in isolation without so much as a silent disco to look forward to on the weekend passed at a glacial pace, the Zoom happy hours got old after a month…and yet here we are. 2021 is only days away. The most excruciatingly lethargic year of all time has somehow slipped by in the blink of an eye. Is there a better way to describe 2020 than a Slow Rush?
Tame Impala’s fourth full-length LP is a snapshot of frontman Kevin Parker surveying his past, present, and future as he stands before the greatest leap of his life. Released on Valentine’s Day, the album is centered on the impact of his fiancée (now wife) Sophie and his reflections on everything that’s led the loner of Lonerism to wedding bells. Parker’s continued development as a Pop genius and production mastermind are undeniable, but what truly locks in The Slow Rush as our far-and-away #1 record of the year is its inadvertent, perfect relevance to 2020.
Pairing his signature basslines and meticulously crafted percussion with heavy additions of bongos and piano/keyboard, Parker manages to package a deeply personal assessment of time into a danceable prescription for how to move forward. Forgive the past and forget what doesn’t serve you; Breathe Deeper and persevere through self-doubt and setbacks (even if your Malibu studio burns down mid-album); embrace your future and act now because forever is positively hurtling toward us.
Whatever might not have gone to plan this year, we made it this far. All that’s left to do now is flip 2020 the bird and move ahead with the defiant energy hidden in the background of Track 7, the 2020 ballad (listen closely around 4:37):
“But strictly speaking, I’m still on track…
(still on track motherfucker!!)“