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Music matters more in 2020. If there was a common thread among XPN’s on-air hosts and online contributors when we asked them to reflect on their favorite music of the year, it’s simply that.

A global pandemic changed the way we all live, the way we work, the way we interact with our friends and family. We navigated the anxiety-inducing politics of a brutal election year, we watched as an uprising around systemic racism and injustice erupted right outside our door, we lost dear loved ones to COVID-19.

The one thing that’s remained constant is music, the ability to pop on headphones and find moments of solace and serenity as easily as moments of rage and catharsis, to emotionally connect with those we can no longer see in person, to hear words and melodies that lift us from the fog of our self-isolated days and remind us that although we’ve never gone through anything like this before, we are not doing it alone.

In that spirit of togetherness, we’re presenting XPN’s Best Albums of 2020 as a unified, alphabetical list. This is not a 20-to-one countdown like we usually give you at the end of each year; none of these albums is “number one,” none has “won” the year in music. All of these albums were so important to us individually and collectively, ranking them felt like a disservice, and as you read on and listen on, we hope that you find that same sense of healing, hope, and harmony within. – John Vettese, editor, The Key


Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers

Personal and reflective songwriting isn’t new to Courtney Marie Andrews, but for those that turn to her country-folk hooks find that on Old Flowers she’s pouring it out like never before. It shows Andrews’ most deeply diaristic writing on display, while its stripped-down accompaniment steps aside for the strength of her voice. And while the heartache is there and nearly palpable without a moment of letting up — Andrews tells us it’s fresh on “Together or Alone” — she’s later somewhat optimistically sorting it out on the apt closing of “Ships in the Night.” It’s a gentle reminder to lend that listener’s ear; the reminder that everyone’s going through silent battles of their own. – Brian Wilensky, The Key

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Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the fifth installment in Fiona Apple’s perfect discography. (Yes. I said it. Perfect.) This album is a natural evolution of her music, with songs that feel both familiar — “Shameika” recalls the similarly jaunty “Not About Love” (Extraordinary Machine, 2005), “Ladies” nicely compliments “I Know” (When the Pawn… 1999) — and freshly focused on non-piano percussion (“Relay,” “Heavy Balloon”). Her trademark layered wit both poetically and melodically makes repeated listens not only pleasurable, but necessary…which is good, because there probably won’t be a new Fiona Apple album for another decade. And it will be worth the wait.  – Kristen Kurtis, XPN Morning Show

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Bacchae – Pleasure Vision

The nervous energy of DC’s Bacchae encapsulates the anxiety and anger that the realizations of recent years have brought to all of us.  Songs such as “Older I Get” could be the official anthem of today’s 20-somethings: “I’m sick of being sick! I’m done with feeling down! I’m too young to feel this old; I’m always hopeless, tired now.” Released within days of lockdown and quarantine, Pleasure Vision is a great album to jump around to and get motivated to fight the powers that be. – Maureen Walsh, The Key

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Bartees Strange – Live Forever

Bartees Strange grew up a military brat who lived in four different countries and several States before he was 12. Now 31 and based in Washington DC, BT moves through an even more impressive number of genres over the 11 tracks of his invigorating debut album, Live Forever. Here he introduces himself as a triple threat of a memorable songwriter, emotive musician, and adroit producer whose use of tension and release through sonic dreamscapes creates a listening experience that makes you feel *alive.* And want to be back at a concert, like, rightnow. – Kristen Kurtis, XPN Morning Show

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Jake Blount – Spider Tales 

Immediately from an opening track consisting of only open-back banjo and foot percussion, you know you are listening to something different. In Spider Tales, singer-songwriter Jake Blount reaches far back into the “old-time” world, and returns holding the bare essentials of what makes this music great. Jake’s superb musicianship is joined by the fiddle playing of Tatiana Hargreaves, and other long-time collaborators to fill out an already cohesive sound. Spider Tales draws on the traditions and history of Black and indigenous folk music, and shines a light on the contributions of LGBT musicians in the folk and roots field; themes that are more vital to showcase now than perhaps ever before. – Ian Zolitor, XPN Folk Show

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Brandy – B7

Built around sophisticated arrangements and production, as well as Brandy’s own dizzyingly complex vocal harmonies, B7 helps further solidify the former teen pop star’s current standing as a tireless innovator of R&B. From the dreamy psychedelic soul of “Lucid Dreams,” to “Saving All My Love” with its futuristic post-Dilla groove, B7 is an experimental world of blissful sonic ear candy. – John Morrison, Culture Cypher Radio

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Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your favorite musicians also have favorite musicians. Punisher is a reminder that we all look to others to lean into, for sources of expression, or to feel seen. Phoebe Bridgers channels her adoration for Elliott Smith into what sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse or a dystopian nightmare of some sort. It’s threaded with her incredibly melancholic, yet bitingly humorous lyrics. Bridgers’ words are elegant in their delivery and imagery, and she presents everyday scenarios as compelling narratives within her work. The production connects the record as a whole, and from the atypical pop of “Kyoto” to the plaintive folk of “Halloween,” every track carries purpose. – Regina Schliep, The Key

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Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open

Exceedingly prolific, Will Toledo has consistently expanded the scope of his former bedroom project, leading up to the band’s latest album, Making a Door Less Open, which embraces dance music wholeheartedly. Simply put: it slaps. – Stephen Kallao, World Cafe

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Deep Tissue – Patience or Fear

You know what they say: gothy post-punk hits different during a global pandemic. Patience Or Fear, the debut album from West Philly’s Deep Tissue is dark and heavy, but with a dancy beat that permeates the whole thing (think early 80s Cure). And while I wouldn’t characterize these songs as particularly cheerful in lyrics or tone, it’s also not a total bummer, which is crucial right now. I put this album on repeat while writing my review and during “Daisy Chained” – possibly the most goth club-sounding song out of the bunch – I got totally overwhelmed, not just by how badly I want to see Deep Tissue play live again, but also how much I miss going out. 2020 has been so utterly crushing and I am grateful for albums like this one that have cut through all those storm clouds.  – Yoni Kroll, The Key

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Disq – Collector

Wisconsin newcomers Disq find the perfect balance between influence and creation. Their aptly titled debut Collector wrangles indie-rock signifiers far and wide into something exciting and fresh. From the feedback-drenched cacophony of opener “Daily Routine,” to the charmingly languid ode to long-lost gear on “D19,” to album standout “Loneliness” – a four-minute trip of chunky hooks and regret – Collector is an almost perplexingly well-rounded debut record. – Sean Fennell, The Key

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Kahil El’Zabar – Spirit Groove

Chicago multi-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar has performed with some of jazz’s greatest musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Eddie Harris and Rahssan Roland Kirk throughout his career, and at the age of 66, his music feels more vital than ever. Mixing live and studio performances — that include featured artist David Murray on sax, Emma Dayhuff on bass, and Justin Dillard on keys — Spirit Groove is a deep expression of self and societal reflection. It occasionally teeters on the edge, but it always finds peace and resolution in its rhythm, equally as likely to alter your perception as it is to make you nod your head. – Julian Booker, Sleepy Hollow

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Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death

Make no mistake about it: the Grammy-nominated Fontaines D.C. play rock and roll. The Dublin City band has swagger, songs with killer hooks, scintillating guitars, high-energy rhythmic drive and a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him frontperson in the form of Grian Chatten, who channels the presence of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Musically, Fontaines D.C. captures the smoother edges of British post-punk legends The Fall with forceful — sometimes snarling — angular rock songs. From the infectious, galloping drive of the title song to the pensive ballad, “No,” and the almost-off-the-rails chaos of “A Lucid Dream,” A Hero’s Death puts forth substantial evidence to prove rock is still very much alive. – Bruce Warren, XPN Program Director

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Devon Gilfillian – Black Hole Rainbow

The healing power of music is helping all of us work through 2020. One album that has done that for me is Black Hole Rainbow, the debut from XPN Artist to Watch Devon Gilfillian. He has crafted a strong and soulful album, with songs like “The Good Life,” “Unchained,” “Lonely,” “Even Though It Hurts,” and “Find A Light” each revealing another layer of who he is as an artist and a person. Devon explains that “I want these songs to motivate listeners to take action in their lives, and to better themselves so they can go out and give love to others.” Devon, who now lives in Nashville, credits his father Nelson with introducing him to the recordings of Jimi Hendrix, which changed the life of a 14 year old from Morton, PA and set him on his musical path, which has most recently led to his note-for-note tribute to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  The XPN community celebrated as Black Hole Rainbow was nominated for a Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Album.  I’d nominate Devon for Best New Artist of 2020! – Helen Leicht, XPN Midday Show

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Paul Grabowsky and Paul Kelly – Please Leave Your Light On

Are two Pauls better than one? Please Leave Your Light On reminds me very much of the Randy Newman and Paul Simon songbooks: great songs with minimalist, yet moving piano accompaniment. In 2016, Paul Kelly released another two-person CD with a guy named Charlie Owen. While this CD, another one of my yearly picks, consisted mostly of covers of contemporary classics, Please Leave Your Light On consists of Kelly originals, many of which you may have heard before, but also one or two new ones like “True To You.” Kelly and Grabowsky’s collaboration is seamless and beautiful, and if I ever make it to Australia, I hope that Paul and Paul will be somewhere nearby. – Chuck Elliot, Sleepy Hollow

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Heart Bones – Hot Dish

There are few things from this year that I will actively choose to remember, but one thing I’ll never forget is the last concert I attended before taking on a new career as a professional hermit. Heart Bones’ show at Johnny Brenda’s was the third time I’d seen the group, co-fronted by Sean Tillmann (Har Mar Superstar) and Sabrina Ellis (Sweet Spirit / A Giant Dog), but the first since the February release of their debut album. Galvanized by years of touring this project and others, Hot Dish is a confident mission statement from a combo of seasoned entertainers. Using every inch of their acrobatic voices, Tillmann and Ellis playfully egg each other on during “I Like Your Way” and “Unforgiveable.” They pile on the auto-tune for a mind-bending cover of Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” paying homage to the group’s performance of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack on their first tour. While Heart Bones’ synchronized choreography can’t be captured on record, much-needed joy is bursting from every track on Hot Dish. – Eric Schuman, Indie Rock Hit Parade

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Khruangbin – Mordechai

I’m a big fan of wordplay, but this year a majority of music that’s caught my attention has been due to production and not words. Smooth arrangements with live instrumentation make it easy to be still and exhale any type of stress. That’s why Khruangbin’s album Mordechai was a definite source of escape from the year 2020. The Houston trio of bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr. take you on a soulful psychedelic trip on a paper plane around the world while entertaining their passengers with global sounds: Spanish rumba, Haitian kompa, dub, reggae, punk, disco and more, showing how good music keeps us connected globally. That doesn’t take away from the lyrics – primarily sung in English, but also in French, Spanich, Thai and more — because lines like “You’re wild, but you’re not crazy,” are short, impactful, and probably a great description of the year. But Lee, Speer, and Johnson’s musicianship is the MVP here, and for forty-four minutes, Mordechai is a great escape from the world’s madness. – Rahman Wortman, The Key

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Lomelda – Hannah

The endearing project of Silsbee, TX songwriter Hannah Read, Lomelda has now released four LPs since 2016, but Hannah runs the longest and probably rocks the hardest, too. Read’s elastic vocal performances stay central, but this set of 14 new songs is also packed with inventive synth parts, radiant acoustic guitar playing, downright gorgeous drumming, and thought-provoking compositional choices that make Lomelda stand out among their indie peers. The elegant opening “Kisses,” the singalong bullseye “Hannah Sun” and the self-referential catharsis of “It’s Lomelda” made me smile the most. – Thomas Hagen, The Key

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Low Cut Connie – Private Lives

One of the last shows I saw before the pandemic hit was a solo performance by Adam Weiner, the engine that makes the South Philly rock ‘n’ roll band Low Cut Connie go.  In addition to some covers and Low Cut Connie favorites, he previewed songs from Private Lives, the band’s new double album.  The new songs resonate to the times we’re living in and they come from an artist who has a focused vision of what his art and music mean.  And the best part?  Private Lives is pure rock and roll.  The songs are cathartic, liberating and in many ways just what we needed to make the best of 2020. – Mike Vasilikos, XPN New Music Show

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Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

Whew, what a trajectory Megan Thee Stallion has had. It started with the Tina Snow mixtape in 2018, and caps off with her first studio album. In between, she’s released chart-topping collabs with two of the most prominent female emcees of the 21st century (Nicki Minaj and Cardi B), and even a song with Queen B herself. And despite the unfortunate incident earlier this year with Tory Lanes, Meg came through on top with Good News. The album is full of so many good songs, leading off with “Shots Fired” – a diss track directed at Tory featuring a flip of Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya” (which itself served as a diss to 2 Pac). Another favorite is the Adina Howard flip “Freaky Girls” featuring SZA. And of course, we can’t forget about “Body,” a twerk anthem turned dance challenge that has already gone viral. While some may find the hook irksome, there is something about the repetitiveness that harkens back to double dutch or handsome songs from Black girl childhoods. Well, the Black girl’s all grown up now, she’s unapologetic, loud, sexual, and brave. – Melissa Simpson, The Key

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Orion Sun – Hold Space For Me

One thing we’ve all learned in 2020 is how much the small things can make a big difference. An unexpected text message from an old friend checking in, a cat jumping on your coworker’s lap during a tedious Zoom meeting, a humble home-cooked meal from your partner. The debut studio album from Philly singer-songwriter and visionary producer Orion Sun revels in these moments of tenderness, warmth, and beauty. Lyrical images describe first cars and lost loves, terrifying storms and late nights at a diner; the dreamlike production incorporates the sounds of neighbors fighting, voicemails and disconnection messages, sirens in the distance, folding them all into a sympathetic collage. The songs shimmer with touches of psychedelic melancholia (“Coffee For Dinner”), pop / R&B vigor (the infectious “Lightning”), and haunting jazz (the breathtaking guitar-and-voice minimalism of “Birds Give Up”), and amid all of it, Orion Sun takes us on a voyage of self-discovery, finding confidence, and chasing one’s destiny. – John Vettese, The Key

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Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Perfume Genius’ latest record, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, is heartbreaking and life-affirming, replete with tragic lows and giddy highs. As always, Perfume Genius turns inward for inspiration: Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is deeply personal and immeasurably queer, exploring the ephemerality of sex, the pain of heartbreak, the triumph of love, and everything in between. – Kyle Whiting, The Key

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Pine Barons – Mirage on the Meadow

The latest LP from New Jersey’s Pine Barons was the first release through all of quarantine that I specifically chose to come back to, over and over. I had listener fatigue, bad, but this album has withstood every type of mood that has hit me while locked down. I fell in love with Pine Barons when I first heard “Chamber Choir,” and I thought a cooler song would never be written. Every track off MotM has all of the best elements of the band’s sound, from tone to texture to vocals, but in a way that feels more fully realized. It’s a charmingly weird, specific listen, with lyrics that leave no room for second-guessing the message. It’s going to be an album that helped define this year for me while it was the soundtrack to what has otherwise felt like intense monotony. – Emily Herbein, The Key

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Frances Quinlan – Likewise

The Hop Along bandleader’s solo album, released in January, feels like a remnant now of another time. But maybe there can still be salience drawn from songs that never knew what a strange era this would be – chances for emotional investigation; awkward conversations still to be had. Discomfort is a very normal sensation, Quinlan seems to remind you, when she turns that feeling into the most compassionate album of this year. – Sam Kesler, The Key

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Run The Jewels – RTJ4

In any other year, RTJ4 would have been an impressive step up for hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, but in 2020, it was even more than that. RTJ4 was released in June, days after protests against racial injustice and police brutality broke out around the country. Aggressive, catchy, and openly critical of systems of oppression – it became a definitive soundtrack for an historic moment. – Raina Douris, World Cafe

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Sylvan Esso – Free Love

Sylvan Esso took us all on a tiny adventure with their most ambitious, yet personal album yet. While things in 2020 felt like a hurricane, this album gave you a moment to yourself in the eye of the storm. – Stephen Kallao, World Cafe

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The Strokes – The New Abnormal

When The Strokes announced their new album in February of this year, they most likely had no idea how fitting the album title would actually be. The New Abnormal was released on April 10th, deep in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the veteran NYC rock band’s first swing at a full length album since 2013, and finds them largely sticking to their catchy indie roots, just with a more mature perspective. This approach really shines in the album’s opening track, “The Adults are Talking.” It reimagines The Strokes’ signature sound without losing any of their edge, and this album on the whole stands strong, harkening a new era for The Strokes while reminding us why we loved them in the first place. – Rachel Del Sordo, The Key

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Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

Kevin Parker has such a precise clarity of vision and control over his artform, that he finds himself almost universally beloved by all manner of genre enthusiasts.  It’s hard not to respect someone who makes music that’s just so much…fun.  The aptly titled The Slow Rush finds him in top form with no signs of slowing down.  An auditory meditation on time for a year that seemingly never ends. – Matthew Shaver, The Key

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Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Yves Tumor’s opus Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a dreamy, playful Bowie-esque reshaping of the acid-jazz infused, noisy bedroom electronica found on their previous records. Defying both genre and gender, the artist born Sean Bowie (no relation) offers us a chance to transform with them, as sounds stab through the speakers with an urban gospel cyberpunk urgency (“Dream Pallette”), a drunk and distorted rock bombast (“Medicine Burn”), all culminating in the soulful Eno-esque flourishes of album closer “A Greater Love.” Lead single “Gospel for a New Century” boasts an explosive carnival sound indebted to punk bands like Pure Hell and early TV on the Radio as much as it is to the Black church, and as soon as it hits, you start to wonder why you’ve never heard a song quite like it ever before. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is the twisted and beautiful glam rock fantasy we needed in 2020, perfect for dancing around our apartments for the 500th time, hairbrush as microphone, wearing our weirdest clothes, preening for the mirror (or Tik Tok if we were brave) imagining a world free of constraints, free of our own tortured minds. – Alex Smith, The Key

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Twisted Pine – Right Now

Coming off of their 2018 Dreams EP, a set of wide-ranging covers, the expectations for a full length album of original material by New Engling ensemble Twisted Pine were mostly unknown. Right Now is a showcase of the band’s maturing songwriting style and exemplary musicianship that is on par with the contemporary greats of progressive bluegrass, and moreover, includes a flute! As a relatively young band in the field, they are on the pulse of a modern sound that unabashedly incorporates the rhythmic and musical influences of styles from all over the world. – Ian Zolitor, XPN Folk Show

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Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

If there was ever a year to listen to music written by someone who has found peace and healing, it’s 2020. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud takes on a hopeful tone that’s new for singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield, and the album’s softer, Americana-inspired sound is a fitting match for its narrative-driven self-reflection. Packed with the kind of wisdom of someone who’s made it through a hard time, Saint Cloud is proof of the lightness at the end of any struggle. – Sarah Hojsak, The Key

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