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CD Reviews:
2020's Best Albums of the Year

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, December 28, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic stopped a lot of things this year.

But music wasn't one of them.

Despite challenges and uncertainties — and particularly the total shutdown of the touring industry — it was as robust and exciting a year for new releases as any others. There were some delays and postponements, but also there was invention and surprises — two each, in fact, from Taylor Swift and Eminem.

In short, when we most needed it, music was there to provide comfort and inspiration, and even just plain good times and a few tuneful minutes to mitigate the concerns.

With that in mind, here's 2020's top dozen releases in alphabetical artist order, from a Taylor two-fer to a trippy trip Down Under.

• Fiona Apple, "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" (Clean Slate/Epic): Eight years after her last album and more than two decades removed from Grammy Award-winning start, Apple sounds like an artist out to prove something on this experimental exposition. Started back in 2015 and built largely with GarageBand, "Bolt Cutters" finds Apple vocalizing over "percussion orchestras" with songs as provocative lyrically as they are sonically.

• Brendan Benson, "Dear Life" (Third Man): Producing wonderful pop songs seems as easy as sneezing for this Detroit native and Raconteurs co-founder — even seven years after his last solo effort.

• Drive-By Truckers, "The Unraveling" and "The New OK" (ATO): Taylor Swift wasn't the only busy act this year, although this Americana quintet gave us advance notice on both of these titles. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were angry and didn't hold back on these topical, politically charged and rocking attacks, each capable of waking even the most determined of slumberers.

• Early James, "Singing For My Supper" (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch): Hailing from Alabama and discovered by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, the debut from this 27-year-old singer and songwriter has the gravity of a new arrival discovering his old soul and letting it take us all for a ride.

• King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, "K.G." (Flightless): This psychedelic Australian sextet has been at it for a while but its 16th studio album — aptly subtitled "Explorations into Microtonal Tuning, Vol. 2" — as fresh and exciting as it's ever been, a sonic circus that has something new to find on nearly every listen.

• Dua Lipa, "Future Nostalgia" (Warner): The British singer took the dance-pop crown hands-down this year, seamlessly blending classic and cutting edge grooves and surprising samples to serve the ears as well as the feet.

• Ashley McBryde, "Never Will" (Warner Music Nashville): On her fourth album McBryde assumes the mantle of rockin' country hellraiser, full of spitfire attitude that scares you a little but ultimately lures you in for a good, long stay.

• Tom Petty, "Wildflowers and All the Rest" (Warner): Yes, his "Wildflowers" album came out in 1994, and did its triple-platinum business back then. But the late Petty originally intended it as a double record, and by restoring that vision, "All the Rest" shows us what could have — and, really, should have — been 26 years ago.

• Run the Jewels, "RTJ4" (Jewel Runners/BMG): Killer Mike and El-P have never really let us down, and the hip-hop duo was on point with its fourth outing, a muscular Black Lives Matter treatise fortified by a potent guest list that weaves smoothly through these 11 tracks.

• Taylor Swift, "folklore" and "evermore" (Republic): Swift changed her tune in a big way this year, exploring indie introspection with collaborators both old (Jack Antonoff) and new (Aaron Dessner of the National) without losing her melodic core. Some artists don't make two albums this solid and progressive in the same career, much less the same year.

• Rufus Wainwright, "Unfollow the Rules" (BMG): Wainwright has never really followed any rules, but after a number of ambitious conceptual outings it was nice to hear him get back to an original song focus for the first time in nine years.

• The War and Treaty, "Hearts Town" (Rounder): The Michigan (now Nashville) husband-and-wife duo lives up to its 2019 Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist of the Year with another arrival statement that soulfully takes stock of the divisions in the country and the divisions within ourselves, celebrating a heart's resilience to beat even when it most feels like breaking.

Best of the Rest — 10 more highlights from the year:

AC/DC, "Power Up" (Columbia); The Claudettes, "High Times in the Dark" (Forty Below); Eminem, "Music to Be Murdered By — Side B (Deluxe Edition)" (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope); Gorillaz, "Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez" (Parlophone); The Mavericks, "En Espanol" (Mondo Mundo/Thirty Tigers); Paul McCartney, "McCartney III" (Capitol); Professor and the Madman, "Sιance" (Fullertone); Royce da 5'9", "The Allegory" (eOne); Bruce Springsteen, "Letter To You" (Columbia); The Weeknd, "After Hours" (XO/Republic)

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