In a year that otherwise disappointed in so many ways, music came through for us. The pandemic did little to slow the tide of new releases from both established stars and bright newcomers, with standout albums coming from all corners of music and the globe. Who would have guessed that such an awful year could have produced so many wonderful records?
These were our favorite albums of the year, as voted on by Radio Milwaukee DJs and staff.
25. Barely Civil – “I’ll Figure This Out”
24. Chika – “INDUSTRY GAMES”
23. 070 Shake – “Modus Vivendi”
22. Disclosure – “ENERGY”
21. Fleet Foxes – “Shore”
20. Lido Pimenta – “Miss Colombia”
19. The Beths – “Jump Rope Gazers”
18. Perfume Genius – “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately”
17. Brandy – “b7”
16. Samia – “The Baby”
15. The Chats – “High Risk Behavior”
14. IDLES – “Ultra Mono”
13. Sylvan Esso – “Free Love”
12. Khruangbin – “Mordechai”
11. Chaii – “Lightswitch EP”
10. Waxahatchee – “Saint Cloud”
Before writing her fifth album as Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield got sober and fell in love, changes so momentous she marked them with nothing less than a total reinvention of Waxahatchee’s sound. Gone almost completely are the alternative and power-pop trappings of her previous albums, replaced with the luxurious twang and unhurried tempos of the Americana records she grew up on. Crutchfield’s “wiser, slower and attuned” makeover, to borrow her phrasing from the achingly gorgeous “Fire,” complements her so completely it almost feels like a waste that it took her so long to embrace her inner country singer. “Saint Cloud” was one of the first major albums released after the world went into lockdown in March, and its sumptuous tour of the American South couldn’t have been a more welcome escape. (Evan Rytlewski)
9. Kaytranada – “BUBBA”
In a year that’s been corroded with so much despair, “BUBBA” plays as close to a lighthearted escape from reality as one could possibly get. While I’m generally familiar with the Kaytranada sound, this project considerably exceeded my expectations. Each track flows seamlessly through a series of hard-grooving house beats, with transitions that create that favored instance in music listening where you don’t find the need to skip to the better song. This is set early with track two’s repeated line, “won’t you stop and listen to the music,” as you’ll inadvertently find yourself dancing and unable to move your ears and body from anything else. Nearly every song features a different artist, and each one comfortably meshes their unique sound within the dance template that Kaytranada has established. This album will organically make you move and groove, while lifting your spirits and serving the vibe that we all deserve. (B~Free)
8. Dua Lipa – “Future Nostalgia”
“Future Nostalgia” was supposed to be ripping through the speakers at the PrideFest dance pavilion this year, alongside Gaga’s “Chromatica,” a moment I was surely looking forward to with my friends. But even though we didn’t get to party in person, “Future Nostalgia” blared through my own speakers throughout the summer. A nearly perfect pop album from a fresh artist gives you everything — huge hooks, disco basslines and major danceability to truly feel yourself, even if you’re alone in your living room. (Nate Imig)
7. Tame Impala – “The Slow Rush”
My boss, Jordan Lee, describes Tame Impala as, “a perfect puzzle piece.” He’s thinking of it like a DJ. You can play Tame Impala out of boom-bap hip-hop because of the drums. You can play into ’70s AM because of the vocals. Or really between everything because Kevin Parker is a record shelf. That’s way “The Slow Rush” hit with so many people on staff here. No matter what your musical center is, Tame Impala overlaps it and also brings something else into it. It’s that perfect puzzle piece. (Justin Barney)
6. Bad Bunny – “YHLQMDLG”
It’s no mystery how the year 2020 will be remembered in the future. The effects from the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement to combat racial injustice in our nation and all over the globe has taken a toll on everyone. You know what? With all of the negativity surrounding it all, we still have music. Creatives can’t be stopped and this was evident in the three full length albums Bad Bunny released this year. My pick this year is YHLQMDLG, which stands for “Yo hago lo que me da la gana.” Translation? “I do what I want.” This piece gave millions of fans the escape they needed and still seek to pass the time and maybe even thrive. Reggaetón and Latin trap beats mixed with raw, exhilarating, and healing lyrics kept us moving forward. This is why Bad Bunny is my number one artist of 2020. (Kenny Perez)
5. Phoebe Bridgers – “Punisher”
How is it that Phoebe Bridgers can simultaneously haunt and console? What kind of ethereal sorcery does she possess to be so angelic, yet so cooly sinister? She’s mysterious, yet candidly confessing. She’s the unassuming villain we eternally empathize with.
“Punisher” exists like a liquid running through me, warming the dark patches of my being with a weight equally as dark. I have not lived the personal experiences Bridgers so poetically writes about, yet the imagery and emotional response that her songs induce resonates with me, stirring up internalized wounds I could never put words to.
“Punisher” is beautiful. It’s an album born from cathartic necessity with earnestness and intention. It molds pain into hypnotic comfort. We all need to feel the feels every now and then, so please, treat yourself to the best breakdown this album can offer. (Erin Bagatta)
4. Fiona Apple – “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”
The opening bars for the first track “I Want You To Love Me” start bouncy, playful even. Next comes swirling, cinematic notes from a piano, followed by Fiona’s vocals. An introduction of sorts, letting you know she’s still here, waiting for love and approval. But from who? I find it all kinda mysterious. But it’s clear that she’s not playing around when her vocals in the last 30 seconds of the song turn into guttural screeches while she bangs the final notes out on the piano. That’s when I smile and realize she’s just getting started to exercise some stuff out on this record. And I’m ALL IN.
Next comes “Shameika,” a song inspired by memories of childhood schoolmates. Fiona’s lyrics reveal those awkward moments most of us faced in school as a kid. You know, when you just wanted to fit in. Some of the lyrics read as if she was looking through messages scrawled in her own yearbook. Some reveal moments she felt bullied and rejected. But when the line “Shameika said I had potential” starts, you realize she may have not been totally alone.
In the next track, the chorus repeats “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long” which seems like the start of Fiona’s journey to heal from traumatic issues in her childhood. Pay attention to the end of the track, to the soft, echoing whisper voices, dogs barking and audible breathing. It seems like she may have just escaped from where she’s been trapped and stuck, for a long time. I’ve seen a couple of my friends post that the line from “Under The Table” that goes “Kick me under the table all you want. I won’t shut up” resonate. That makes me smile. My friends are strong women and this song is an ode to women everywhere finding their voices. Fiona Apple does not pull any punches on this album. (Dori Zori)
3. Run The Jewels – “RTJ4”
“Do Killer Mike and El-P possess a cultural crystal ball?” This is the question I asked myself as I listened to “RTJ4” for the first time in the summer of 2020, a summer we will always remember. We were all growing anxious and frustrated with the limitations the pandemic had placed on us. We could not go out and see shows. We could not enjoy the tours we had all planned on seeing, which for me included seeing Run The Jewels with Rage Against the Machine at Alpine Valley.
Then George Floyd was murdered.We all collectively had experienced this horror before, but 2020 sharpened our response. As I spent the early summer looking for the words to express how I felt, along came “RTJ4.” Of course I had already heard the lead single “Ooh La La” prior to the album release, and thought RTJ4 was potentially going to be an album of rap tricks and treats for old hip-hop fans like me. I had no idea how poignant and timely the content was going to be.
On “RTJ4,” Killer Mike returned to the level of lyricism I expected from him on his “R.A.P. Music” album. Cold, cunning, sharp and right on point, Killer Mike found the words to express the way I was feeling in the summer of 2020. El-P also stepped up his lyrical wits on this project, standing toe to toe with his hip-hop anti-hero comrade. I must’ve listened to this record 20 times in the first month it was released. I kept going back to it, finding new things I missed the first few times I listened to it, and deeper meanings in the lyrics and themes of the album.
Music critics from many different publications and websites have placed this album high on their year end lists, but for me as a huge RTJ fan this album is more than just a great collection of songs for a strange and wondrous year. This album cements Run The Jewels on the list of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, any rap fan will agree that those groups belong on this list. “RTJ4” has pushed Run The Jewels onto that list for me now as well. (Jordan Lee)
2. Thundercat – “It Is What It Is”
It takes a certain amount of something to pull off what he is; a bass player-cum-singer songwriter. And now, Thundercat has done it twice, on his last release and this one; which finds him once again working with psychedelically savant beatmaker Flying Lotus, “It Is What It Is” finds its groove in headier spaces defining what it means to be, dank. (Marcus Doucette)
1. SAULT – “Untitled (Black Is)”/”Untitled (Rise)”
Releasing an album on Juneteenth in a year of a racial reckoning has to be one of the most potent, creative statements of the year. That is precisely what the enigmatic band Sault did with “Untitled (Black Is).” Sault took Black anger, revolution and joy and managed to express all of it in under 57 minutes. Not only that, “Untitled (Black Is)” was able to showcase the amazing beauty and the wide-ranging sounds of the Black diaspora from the Motown-inspired soul of “Miracles” to the Afrobeat-rock vibe of “Bow” featuring Michael Kiwanuka to the futuristic R&B of “Wildfires,” the standout track of the album.
If that wasn’t enough, Sault followed up “Untitled (Black Is) after only 12 weeks with another album titled “Untitled (Rise).” While “Untitled (Black Is) was filled with raw emotions, this one feels hopeful and meditative. The first album was telling me it is okay to be angry and sad and I need the time to deal with my emotions, while “Untitled (Rise)” told me to take time to breathe and now it is my time to take action. The songs on this album are more upbeat and inspired by sounds of funk and disco, which you can definitely hear on the tracks “Strong, “I Just Want To Dance,” and “Fearless.” The latter is one of the highlights of the album.
Without promotion or much fanfare, Sault dominated the year with two of the best albums. While major awards shows ignored these albums, they have earned album(s) of the year in my book. Sault truly showcased what Black excellence is all about! (Tarik Moody)
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