Hornet’s 20 Favorite Albums of 2020

Hornet’s 20 Favorite Albums of 2020

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In the year of eternal lockdown, it was hard to listen to music. Not, you know, physically difficult, but tough to connect, especially — though not only — with dance music. No end in sight, no clubs reopening that weren’t in Florida or the Ozarks (or New Zealand — congrats), so whatever charms the dance floor would bring to releases from Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa and Kylie will have to wait for the bass-booming orgy to come sometime in ’21. For now, here are our 20 favorite albums of 2020, and unlike the past few years, it’s not all gay, though we certainly held our own (by my count, at least half is represented by the LGBTQ flag).

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

An underground secret for far too long, this Texas rapper’s debut release following a series of mixtapes has her longtime supporters crying sellout because she had the audacity to find a sizeable audience.  Forgive me for being old, but I’ve heard the same thing since time immemorial about every beloved cult artist hitting the mainstream.  It’s just as parochial hearing it lobbed at Megan Jovon Ruth Pete as it was with, say, R.E.M. Like her song of the summer co-star Cardi B, MTS arrives at her moment like a princess to her coronation. And while she does her bit to keep her “WAP” moist (“Work That”; “Intercourse feat. Popcaan & Mustard”), she spends an equal amount of time staving off the haters coming for her (“What’s New”), including the less talented rapper who shot her (“Shots Fired”).

Shygirl – Alias EP

Her debut full-length long overdue, Blane Muise dba Shygirl co-founded her own record label, so there’s no COO pressuring her to get it done. Her two EP’s – 2018’s Cruel Practice and this year’s Alias – are the future sound of dance music and hip hop, beholden to no sub-genre since everything is fair game in her sound. She’s raunchy as fuck with beats that turn scenarios into orgiastic frenzies (“Freak”; “Slime”) and though it would be insane to hear her in a packed club, these 7 slabs of forward motion work just as well in your bedroom, or sex dungeon, or anywhere you’re making your move.

Moses Sumney – Græ

This double album isn’t merely ambitious, it’s dense.  Released in May, it’s taken nearly six months to wrap my head around its audacity and accomplishment.  While his spiritual predecessor is Prince, his points of reference span multitudes.  For sheer audio experimentation and grandeur, his only compitition on this list is Fiona Apple. He eschews genre as much as he does gender. And I look forward to unraveling Græ’s pleasure for some time to come.  Like I said, it’s dense. (“Virile”; “Neither/Nor”)

Jacob Collier – Djesse Vol. 3

The most surprising of this year’s Grammy nominations was also its most interesting.  Collier – a 26-year-old jazz-ish performer from the U.K. – looks like a standard issue twink with a shockingly robust voice and melodic instincts reminiscent of more mature composers (e.g. Rufus Wainwright, below).  Having done most of the work on his 2016 debut alone, the Djesse volumes were consciously about collaboration and impulse, and move from his jazz-indebted strengths on the first two volumes to uncharted territory here (namely, electronic funk, some hip hop, swaths of glitch pop, et. al.). (“In My Bones feat. Kimbra & Tank and the Bangas”; “Count the People feat. Jessie Reyez & T-Pain”)

Sault – Untitled (Black Is); Untitled (Rise)

Sault – an English soul collective – don’t engage with the media, but they definitely do with the world.  In this year of Black Lives Matter, they released two politically sparked long-players that harken back to the great soul classics of the 70s (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; Stevie Wonder’s Innervision) and sound just as timeless.  (“Hard Life”; “Strong”)

Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now

Fulfilling a promise to her fans to write and record an album entirely during quarantine, she delivered a great pop record and a great dance one together that’s, imho, a better listen than the other three major dance releases of the year (that’d be Gaga, Lipa, and Kylie) and, generally, just a lot of fun. (“pink diamond”; “claws”)

Ariana Grande – Positions

What else was there to do during this great lost year than hunker down in her bunker with a fuck boi or two to help pass the time?  Oh yeah.  Write and record about it. (“34+35”;  “positions”)

Rufus Wainwright – Unfollow the Rules

Unfettered by commercial considerations, his best album in years (said I, in our mid-year round-up of LGBTQ releases) was his best sung as well.  He hits notes I didn’t know he had in him (did he quit smoking, perhaps?) and added a few spectacular epics to an already massive catalogue of first-rate tunes.  Is it possible for the gods of music to someone bestow upon him a hit at least as big as the one that brought his father to the mainstream back in the early 70s (that’d be “Dead Skunk” kids if you didn’t know)?  (“Unfollow the Rules”; “Damsel in Distress”)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

For a white country artist, Isbell is as progressive as you could wish for; his seventh record predates BLM, yet was inspired by what was happening in the country prior to it.  Regardless of whether he’s worrying over his own culpability in the state of our union (“What’ve I Done to Help”) or the mercurial vicissitudes of love (“Overseas”), he’s a straight-shooter who knows how to decimate his target.

Active Child – In Another Life

The first release of 2020 that got to me through the noise of the pandemic was a gentle exploration of love, birth, inclusiveness, and matters of the spirit.  Eight months later it’s still in heavy rotation and just as stunning as the first time I heard it.  On a personal note, I’d like to thank Pat Grossi (aka Active Child) for returning some equilibrium to my life and giving me back the gift of music.  (“In Another Life”; “Gaze Will Cast a Shadow”)

Cub Sport – Like Nirvana

The fourth record from this Australian quartet sounds like a new beginning:  less pop-leaning, more prismatic and searching, which is fitting for the continued gender explorations of lead singer Tim Nelson. (“Confessions”; “Be Your Man”)

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

She’s never going to kowtow to trends which is why she’s as viable an artist now as she was when she took over the world in 1999.  (“Heavy Balloon”; “Shameika”)

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

I get the sense that their fans were less than pleased with album four.  While I admit it may not be as instantly appealing as their debut or A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, it’s where Matt Healey consolidates his strength as a formidable writer with humor and humility.  And even when these narratives are so obviously about the life of one Matt Healey, he knows how to turn whatever he writes about into a universal sentiment. (“The Birthday Party”; “Jesus Christ God Bless America feat. Phoebe Bridgers”)

Chaz Cardigan – Vulnerabilia EP; Hologram EP

Born and raised in Kentucky, this young queer artist is the American Troye Sivan, though his pop, across these two 2020 EPs, is less electronically based and more, you know, homegrown. (“Not OK!”; “Room”)

Cry Club – God I’m Such a Mess

Queer bubblegum punk duo from Melbourne who’s sartorial choices – fun and funny – will eventually come back to haunt them when they get older.  For now, their threads are as colorful and celebratory as their tunes. (“Obvious”; “Nine of Swords”)

X – Alphabetland

Old punks never die; they just go away for a really long time and then reappear 27 years later with a late entry classic.  (“Alphabetland”; “Goodbye Year, Goodbye”)

Bright Light Bright Light – Fun City

Rod Thomas goes collaboration crazy on album four featuring partners both fresh and iconic. (“This Was My House feat. Niki Haris, Donna De Lory & Initial Talk”; “Sensation feat. Jake Shears”)

Ela Minus – acts of rebellion

Colombia-born artist making inroads with her electronic-based confections. In some way, she reminds me of Billie Eilish with more beats. (“they told us it was hard, but they were wrong”;  “tony”)

Arca – KiCK i

The Venezuelan SOPHIE continues to confound expectations while trailblazing for the transgender community of musicians she so proudly represents on album four. (“Mequetrefe”; “Nonbinary”)=

Tylwyth Teg – Splatter EP

Full disclosure: I know the artist’s father. And like everyone else who approaches you with a recommendation from a family member, you come at it with trepidation (and the horrifying thought that you might have to, well, lie a little when giving them you’re opinion). I should have known better. This bedroom pop EP is a weird little wow – five bizarre indie tracks that remind me of artists much older than the one who goes by Tylwyth Teg and yet indebted to none of them. Whether she follows through in this vocation is up to her, but I will be listening with great anticipation. (No separate tracks, but here is the link to listen at bandcamp.)

Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation

Around a bit longer than Megan Thee Stallion, Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly dba Rico Nasty is also finally releasing her debut after years of mixtapes.  As she’s still under the radar she hasn’t been accused of sellout but give it time.  She’s going to blow up soon enough.  (“STFU”; “IPHONE”)

What were your favorite albums of 2020?

Featured image by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

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