Set The Tape’s Top Albums 2020

2020 will always be a time capsule year.  It’ll always be easy to recall how it was spent, who/what with, nursing which emotions when.  It was a time of pain, of disarray, of anger and of patience. This made art completely invaluable… maybe more so than ever.

In crafting this list, there were only two albums I knew would outright make the board.  That’s not to say nothing else sprang to mind as worthy, it’s actually to say entirely too much did. At one point, I had eleven albums vying for three positions.  Whittling down to five seemed impossible, but here you have it.

Here are my absolute favourites.

5] Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

When I first assembled the list, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud was the pencilled number five pick – and I guess it’s number six; blinder of a record, highly recommend!  But NO DREAM pipped it to the post on sheer playtime. I realised I couldn’t in good conscience exclude such an important part of my 2020 listening experience.

What kept me returning to Jeff’s fourth solo LP was initially the nostalgia element, the comfort of a youth-shaping sound in an unparalleled time.  The more I listened, however, the more I remembered why Jeff Rosenstock is an essential artist in today’s world, even with the albatross of a long “dead” genre like pop-punk around his neck. There’s just nothing pretentious about what he makes, the sound you hear is his vein of expression and it goes no deeper. No focus grouping, no market scouting, not even any promo for the album. Music for the sake of it… I love it.

It just so happens that the album is fucking unbelievable too, and instantly up there with 2016’s WORRY. ‘Scram!’ and ‘State Line’ are making their way up the hierarchy of best career tracks.  NO DREAM is a guaranteed energy port whenever you need it. If pop-punk ever meant anything to you, you owe it to yourself to give this a once over.

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4] Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

You knew this’d be here. The critical darling of 2020, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.  Every bit as good as everyone says it is.

On her first studio album in 8 years, the always daring Apple takes on some big concepts: why we hate what we hate, the pitting of women against one another, if monogamy even works…

But the reason this record spoke to so many people this year is clear as day. This was an instant lockdown soundtrack.  The discussion of independence, of investigating your loneliness and feelings towards it, was disgustingly apropos.

The R&B touches of this project are where my favourite content is.  I think Fiona crafts a song in a way most (including myself) can’t imagine. Exercise: read the lyrics to any of these songs on paper and see if you can conjure up the melody line/flow in which she’ll deliver them. You won’t.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is too interesting a piece of work to ignore, even if you’re someone who actively avoids hyped projects.  So, get over yourself, you’re missing out.

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3] Adrianne Lenker – songs

Adrianne Lenker is the most dependably brilliant songwriter currently alive. No stranger to my lists, her last two releases heading indie-folk outfit Big Thief, Two Hands and UFOF, made my number two spot and an honourable mention for best albums in 2019. This work, however, is a much more personal affair, stripped to the core, the majority being solely her guitar and voice.

Settling into her new world of isolation, Lenker meditates a while. She wanders through her deepest emotions, most vivid memories, mentally stock-taking after a few blurred and busy years on the road. This unconcealed experience of realisation and feeling can’t miss, with lush sonic dreamscapes that would otherwise lose you to trance, if not for the accompanying picture-painterly vivid wordsmanship.

Beautiful for the whole duration.

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2] Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

“…chain me to the dream, forever.”

I’ve always liked Perfume Genius as a project, but this? This was the album I’d been waiting for. Michael Hadreas lassoed me within the first thirty or so seconds of this album – ‘Whole Life’ as an opener is a very ballsy move.

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a galaxy of many distinguishable planets and atmospheres. That sonic inconsistency is not going to do it for everyone, but I found it evermore enthralling with each visitation. Exploring over months of both casual and dedicated listening, I’d find new things. Little moments of subtle synchronicity in the instrumental textures, noises I flat out never acknowledged were lurking in the mix… there’s a wild amount of replay value.

Hadreas vocally delivers based on what he’s singing about, and as bizarre as that might sound, it’s a very effective tool for his aesthetic land-grab.  The piercing falsetto of the intimate ‘Jason’ is instantly followed by a pretty good Lux Interior on ‘Leave,’ and the contrast is an album wide high-point.  This is an insanely creative body of work that knocks it out of the park in, dare-I-say, all of its attempted stylistic avenues.

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1] Run the Jewels – RTJ4

“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rapping/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum.” – Kendrick Lamar, ‘Hood Politics.’

Killer Mike and El-P’s fourth eponymous record as Run the Jewels is the protest song collection of 2020, a fact emphasised by their decision to drop two days early in the wake of the protests against George Floyd’s death in June.  ‘Walking in the snow’s recounting of racially motivated state-on-civilian violence is something you desperately wish was outdated, not the most apposite it could have been.  The fact that it was recorded in November of 2019 yet so many online assumed it must’ve been laid down in the weeks leading up to release is the most telling fact of all.

Throughout the collection of tracks, Mike and El fuse the old and new schools of the wider genre effortlessly. The “conscious” revivalism of the 2010s is executed with bar-heavy grit, East Coast production flavour, and alternative and jazz-rap pulsations. If you think that leaves no room for sauntering braggadocio bombast and tongue-in-cheek lyrical comedy beats, you’re wrong.  I don’t know how it all occupies the same plate, but it does and it’s stellar.

Not only is this album of the year, it’s the album of their career(s) and for my money, the best hip-hop joint in half a decade.

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