Woman’s got the power, as 70% of my top 10 releases of 2020 are albums by female solo recording artists. A woman has yet to become president of the United States, but the charts were ruled by ladies this year.
A number of recording artists pushed back releases due to the pandemic, so hats off to those who did release material. We needed new music to help us navigate through the most unusual year of our lives.
1. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” (Epic Records): Apple is a rarity, a recording artist a quarter century into her career who improves with each album. That’s strong praise since her debut, 1996’s “Tidal,” is very good. The lone negative is that Apple is anything but prolific. Eight years passed between 2012’s “Idler Wheel” and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” but it was worth the wait. It takes a few spins to digest how exceptional the deep and varied “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is and how daring Apple has become.
“I Want You to Love Me” is an instant classic. The song is gorgeous, infectious and features Apple’s best-ever vocal. “I Want You to Love Me” is warm, deep, and it builds toward a welcome climax. The piano line from “Shameka” drives the wonderfully left-of-center song. The long-awaited release is a percussive workout. Apple, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Amy Aileen Wood are perfectly in sync throughout the 10 tracks. Hopefully, Apple’s next release will drop sooner than later. If not, we’ll just continue to play “Bolt Cutters.”
2. Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (Columbia Records): Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young prove that rock isn’t just a young man’s game. Just a year from octogenarian status, Dylan blew fans away with “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” Dylan’s first album of new material in eight years, perhaps that span is necessary these days for making a generational album, is full of powerful, yet playful songs.
The poetic Nobel Prize winner snarls his way through his lyrics, which are filled with sardonic wit. He recorded with a crack band, which features Matt Chamberlain, who is the finest session drummer in the business. Perhaps part of what makes “Rough and Rowdy Ways” such an extraordinary album is that Dylan literally has nothing left to accomplish. All of the boxes have been checked in his incomparable career. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been an iconoclast for more than two-thirds of his life. That’s incomprehensible.
“Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute tune, which is the first song of the enigmatic figure to reach the top of Billboard’s rock charts, was inspired by JFK’s assassination. But it’s easy to connect the epic tune to the murder of George Floyd. There’s even bits of humor infused in the song. “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando / Mix ’em up in a tank and get a robot commando.” Who else writes like Dylan? Long live the aging but still brilliant bard.
3. Run the Jewels, “RTJ4” (BMG): The dynamic duo of Killer Mike and El-P crafted their fourth and finest album to date. “RTJ4” is filled with angry, anthemic tunes, which are urgent, clever and full of swagger. Some of the cuts recall the most fiery moments of Public Enemy circa 1989. Systemic racism and police brutality are the focus throughout this uncompromising release. “Murderous chokehold cops still earning a living” was recorded before Floyd’s death. 2 Chainz, Josh Homme and Pharrell Williams lend a hand, but the stars are clearly Killer Mike and El-P, who stepped up their game.
4. Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher” (Dead Oceans): Bitterness becomes Bridgers. The same goes for melancholy. Her sad, literate lyrics paint compelling pictures. Her sonic narratives are gritty and pretty. Bridgers’ material is dark and oh so revealing. Bridgers lays it all out there and does so in such a melodic fashion. The catchy “ICU” is one of the finest songs of the year. Hopelessness has seldom sounded so good.
5. Fleet Foxes, “Shore” (Anti-): Nice work by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, who played most of the instruments and produced “Shore.” Pecknold tips his cap to late musical heroes Elliot Smith, Richard Swift and Judee Sill during the quietly intense “Sunblind.” Pecknold impresses during complex cuts such as “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” but he routinely knocks it out of the park with simple, gentle tunes such as “I’m Not My Season.” “Shore” is an uplifting album when we all can use a boost. Pecknold has a gift for crafting warm, wistful songs that provide a welcome escape.
6. Grimes, “Miss Anthropocene” (4AD): “Miss Anthropocene” isn’t the name for the adventurous singer-songwriter’s next child if she and her tech billionaire partner Elon Musk have a daughter. Grimes’ latest envelope pusher addresses climate change. The stylish and atmospheric electronic tunes are ambient and at times catchy. “My Name Is Dark” is a hook-laden, dreamy gem. Like much of what Grimes produces, her material sounds like the future. Her son, with the serial number of a name, x-AE A12, will certainly have a trippy childhood.
7. Taylor Swift, “Folklore” (Republic Records): When Swift morphed from country to full-blown pop, I always wondered if the singer-songwriter could have become the next Emmylou Harris if the iconoclast stayed on her initial course. After a spin of “Folklore,” it’s evident that Swift can channel the elegant Harris and make a commercial splash without production or hype. Swift is savvy. Great move connecting with Aaron Dessner, the mind behind beloved the National.
The 17 new songs are moody, introspective and at times brooding. The gorgeous “Exile,” a duet with Bon Iver, could be the theme for the pandemic, and it begs for more. Will Swift re-embrace the sheen of unadulterated pop or take a chance by moving in an unexpected direction post-pandemic? Either way, Swift will continue to sell out stadiums when she most likely returns to the road in 2022.
8. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia” (Urban): It’s not easy following up an album of hit singles, but Dua Lipa nails it throughout her sophomore effort. The British singer connects with playful and provocative dance pop. Lipa effectively looks back and delivers with the message of her album title. “Break My Heart” features the subtle guitar work inspired by INXS. “Levitating” is buoyed by electro-disco. Unlike Billie Eilish, who confessed to Jimmy Kimmel that she didn’t know who Van Halen was, Lipa is a student of music past. If you don’t know your history, good luck moving forward. There’s no doubt Lipa’s future is beyond bright.
9. Soccer Mommy, “Color Theory” (Loma Vista Recordings): Soccer Mommy, aka Sophie Allison, established herself with compelling solo work, but she really benefits recording with a band. The support throughout “Color Theory” makes a difference. Allison is expert at crafting catchy but melancholy songs, which are often poignant. The epic ballad “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” is heavy, gorgeous and the high water mark so far for the young recording artist.
10. Megan Thee Stallion, “Good News” (300 Entertainment): Brassy and hedonistic only begin to describe the sonic roller-coaster ride “Good News” provides. Megan Thee Stallion’s talent for delivering raw, clever raps, which are old school, is appreciated. MTS is uncompromising and oh so defiant. It’s such a breath of fresh air in a world of pop music that’s so mannered and filled with recording artists who are so concerned about alienating their audience. Not so for MTS, who brings it during the infectious “Freaky Girls” and “Body.”
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