2020 Music Reviews

Actress, Karma and Desire (2020)   D-
He went from this glitched-out, deconstructed style - which wasn't for everybody - to being completely abysmal: the songs don't 'evolve,' they just grind on until they cease being even semi-listenable. When Sampha can't save a track, you know there's a problem.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020)   B
She's not the quickest to release new material - which is a good thing - and there's definitely the same level of intensity one would expect from her on here (which is being called her statement on the #MeToo era, except she was doing that decades ago) except her effort to be "raw" and "unpredictable" leads to some silly moments ("Heavy Balloon") and tiringly skippable ones ("Shameika"). It's still an intriguing addition to her catalog - everything she's done to date is worth investigating - although I don't think it's as great as her first three albums.

Arca, KiCK i (2020)   D-
Ghersi certainly has a distinctive style, now the only question is how to fill out a full album that sounds like it has any kind of direction to it instead of randomly copying and pasting disparate clips together - or chopping it all up - and praying to the gods of IDM it works.

Autechre, Sign (2020)   C-
Brown and Booth have been doing this for decades, and while a real "cleanness" to their sound, too often it just seems like various bits of notes and samples played at random intervals with no cohesion. There are times ("Metaz form8") when it could pass as a soundtrack for a sci-fi movie, but a good amount of time it's just a slog ("th rd a," "schmefd 2").

The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You (2020)   B+
Let me get this right: it took them sixteen years after "Since I Left You" to release "Wildflower" and now in four years they've cooked up yet another top-ten worthy record? As with many albums that go past the hour mark, there are lesser moments - "We Go On" and "Running Red Lights" are both uncharacteristically irksome - but the collaborators they gathered together (Karen O, Tricky, Blood Orange, Leon Bridges) are a hearty bunch. We needed this and we needed it bad.

Awolnation, Angel Miners & the Lightning Riders (2020)   D-
They try to come off as "big" and "larger than a stadium" - as if they intend for every track to be an "anthem" - but it's super hard to get through the entire album without groaning in disgust (I'll admit their past hit "Sail" is fantastic, but "Radical" and "Slam" are atrocious). I have no idea why Rivers or Alex decided to appear on here, but maybe they owed people favors....

Best Coast, Always Tomorrow (2020)   C
They'll never not be kind of cool in their 80's rock sort-of-way, but there's an annoying 'sameness' to all their songs. Continuity can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to the same ol' rehashed chords.

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher (2020)   B-
It will probably depend on the listener, but her constantly breathy and downbeat delivery tends to make every song sound just a little bit the same, except the tracks are mostly good (especially closer "I Know the End" where she 'breaks free' from the melancholy and embraces oblivion). Of all artists working today, I fully expect her to have a masterpiece in her discography within ten years (I expect the same for collaborator Julien Baker).

Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (2020)   C
I thought he took the whole Melancholy Bard thing too far back (over twenty years ago!) and he's back whining again: thank heaven the music itself is kind of plucky in spots ("Calais to Dover"). That cracking, panicked voice is still very unique if polarizing.

Anna Burch, If You're Dreaming (2020)   D-
If I were dreaming I'd come up with something more engaging than this nasally void of imagination. I'd compare the lyrics to Bad Tumblr but I'd rather browse that site than ever relisten to this.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, In Summer (2016)   B+
For whatever reason, I keep forgetting to write a review of this luscious mini-ode to the summer months even though I may have listened to it in its entirety maybe fifteen to twenty times already. It's experimental music done exactly right: you can throw in a lot of glitches and pops and still keep it unmistakably human. The opening five minutes are simply ethereal.

Caribou, Suddenly (2020)   B
Not sure all of the samples Dan leans on heavily work - "Home" is a decent opening single, but the two tracks that precede it, "New Jade" and "Sunny's Time" are uncharacteristically irritating. It sounds like he's slowly 'tweaking' his sound as years go by, and that's promising: why shouldn't a Canadian mathematician want to play electronic R&B?

Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open (2020)   C
Mr. Toledo has always tried to sound like Julian from The Strokes - which is fine, I suppose - but now he wants to be Beck, and some of the stylistic ... choices ... definitely leave a lot to be desired, especially when he goes really too far with an "experimental" sound and it ends up being grating, like the sound effects on "Deadlines (Thoughtful)" and following that up with a hacky country ballad ("What's With You Lately"). I still like the kid, however, and he's got tons of room to evolve.

Charli XCX, How I'm Feeling Now (2020)   C-
The Auto-Tune gets abused so badly it should be taken into protective custody ... but that said it's not too bad for a quickie album made while in quarantine, where Ms. Aitchison talks about some of her current anxieties (which, let's be fair, are probably universal). Maybe the lock-down has me feeling a bit loopy because on "Visions" it sounds like she's saying "I got bitches in my mind" instead of "pictures."

Cloud Nothings, The Black Hole Understands (2020)   D
The intent, I'm guessing, is to make fun beach music (they're from Cleveland, Ohio ... so one can dream) but it doesn't work in their favor when the songs sound almost indistinguishable from each other - Baldi is also known to repeat himself (in order to make those banalities stick). Even listening to this on a scalding hot July afternoon didn't really get me going, which is what it's supposed to do.

A. G. Cook, 7G (2020)   C+
Supremely overambitious seven album release by Cook, with each disc featuring a particular instrument (drums, a Roland Supersaw, piano, guitar, etc.). It's spreading his talent a little thin - although ambition can be a good thing - and while there are plenty of sub-par to downright questionable inclusions ("Drink Blood," "Soft Landing," "Mad Max"), it's up to the listener as to whether or not he/she wishes to go through two and a half hours to find the "good stuff" (for me, that would be "A-Z," "DJ Every Night," his take on Charli XCX's "Official" and Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover"). Had he condensed this to the "best of," it would be a Top 10 contender.

The Cribs, Night Network (2020)   D+
The last thing we need right now - or any other time - is a whining Brit-Pop band that brings nothing new at all to the scene.

Miley Cyrus, Plastic Hearts (2020)   C
Look, I like Miley, but this is a fairly benign collection of songs - and I say this even though she brings in Billy Idol and Joan Jett (gotta respect your influences). The "real her" comes out when she gets to "Never Be Me" in which she basically admits she's not capable of being faithful or stable or reliable ... and yet I don't detect sarcasm. She's being honest about being dishonest. Her cover of "Heart of Glass" ain't too shabby, either.

DaBaby, Blame It on Baby (2020)   C+
A lot of people are going to accuse him of recycling himself - which he is doing ... pretty lazily, in fact - but there's a certain confidence to him that can't be taught. When he shows up, you notice. Now all he needs to do is actually think out an album a little longer than a few weeks. Let's go.

Danzig, Sings Elvis (2020)   B+
You can look at this two ways: (a.) It's a novelty record from Mr. Glenn Danzig, horror rocker, who thought it would be a hoot to using his crooning style to imitate the King of Rock & Roll or (b.) It's a deeply serious act of homage from a genuine fan. Danzig has a bit of a history allowing himself to be mocked (he had a guest spot on Aqua Teen Hunger Force), so it could be more of the former case, but I like to think he's doing it from a place of respect. No matter how you choose to look at it, it's honestly one of the best records of the year, and his gloomy approach to "Lonely Blue Boy," "Fever" and "Pocket Full of Rainbows" give them a tinge of dark irony.

Disclosure, Energy (2020)   B
In the past I've been a little too hard on these mad lads - yes, they tend to recycle themselves entirely too much ("Get Close," "Know Your Worth"), but when they nail a song it's so satisfying: the stretch from "Ecstasy" all the way through "Etran" (on the deluxe edition) is some damn fine club music.

Doves, The Universal Want (2020)   D
It starts with the dream-like "Carousels" - which got me thinking about their early album "The Last Broadcast" - and some haunting synths before turning into standard, dare I say even mediocre (the endless "For Tomorrow" and "Cathedrals of the Mind") rock. The vocals on "Mother Silverlake" are laughable - I don't recall them being this whiny twenty years ago....

Duma, Duma (2020)   B-
If you're like me and enjoy cultural oddities, check it out: this duo is from Kenya, they make grindcore ... and it's actually good: there's a relentless intensity to their tracks that will first have you wondering what you're listening to and then just embrace being disoriented and hammered on the head with drumbeats. The fact that there's a "flourishing underground metal scene" in Nairobi makes me smile like you wouldn't believe. Keep growling wherever you are (I'll stick to doing it internally).

Duster, Stratosphere (1998)   B+
One of those "lost" records brought back to everyone's attention by certain groups on the 'net: it's sad and soft and frail ... except when they crank it up, like on "Echo, Bravo," or ride a wave of noise (like on the title track). I'd be willing to bet serious cash Bradford Cox listened to this on repeat.

Eminem, Music to Be Murdered By (2020)   C-
It feels like he's been whining about his relatives for decades - you're a multi-millionaire, get over it - and those references to the 90's make me think he's in a state of arrested development: an angry twenty-plus year old with something to prove. So it's more of the same, although it is funny when he tries to compete with John Moschitta.

Everything Everything, Re-Animator (2020)   D+
Opener "Lost Powers" is a sparkling way to start things off ("Come on, you only lost your mind") - you know they were listening to early Radiohead (try not to hear Yorke on "It Was a Monstering") - but the rest fails to keep things engaging, and Higgs' embellished vocals are more aggravating than anything ("Planets" could be used to torture inmates).

5 Seconds of Summer, Calm (2020)   C-
Just as dumb as one might expect - you can group them in with the other dinguses releasing pop-radio "friendly" stations ("Old Me" is going to get a lot of air time, so get used to it) - but "Wildflower" and "Not in the Same Way" are too catchy to ignore.

The Flaming Lips, American Head (2020)   B
While I wouldn't consider this a "return to form" for Coyne & the Gang - it's not "In a Priest Driven Ambulance", "The Soft Bulletin" or "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" - but there's a nice level of warmth and nuance to this that's been missing over the years: now that they're middle-aged, maybe a kind of calm clarity has set into their psychedelic-infused bodies.

Fleet Foxes, Shore (2020)   C-
They're getting the accolades for this, but I'm not hearing anything special: it's "philosophical" folk for the Good Vibes gang who will walk three miles to buy designer mayonnaise and go on holistic retreats.

Fontaines D.C., A Hero's Death (2020)   D-
So is the idea for each song to write two (or maybe even three!) lines and then just repeat them over the most generic "post-punk" out there? It's true, life ain't always empty ... but this is.

Foster the People, In the Darkest of Nights, Let the Birds Sing [EP] (2020)   C
Mini-album from the typically over-dramatic Mr. Foster which has him try to sound like Tame Impala ("Lamb's Wool"), noodle around with Auto-Tune ("The Things We Do") and then try to sometimes imitate Billy Idol ("Under the Moon") ... none of which works out especially well.

Four Tet, Sixteen Oceans (2020)   C
Kieran's been at this a while - his first LP was back in 1999 - and while I've been sort-of keeping track of his output I've never been much of a fan: too many songs just sound like adding a few extra touches on pre-sets, and there's a lack of ingenuity that I usually look for in IDM artists. It is a rather soothing record, however, which is nice to listen to while being barracked in your own home because nothing less than a pandemic has closed down everything to do outside (in other words, good timing on the release).

The Fratellis, Half Drunk Under a Full Moon (2020)   F
The hubris of these guys is just outrageous: make one song that becomes something of an anthem and it clearly gets to their heads. Did they expect the intolerable "Oh Roxy" to be the next "Chelsea Dagger?" You know what they are: a flunky version of Grand Funk Railroad.

Future, High Off Life (2020)   D
Teachers out there: you know when you give the class a fairly extensive in-class project and tell them to take their time on it and one student runs up to you after five minutes, hands you a scribbled-on and half unfinished paper, tells you he's done and wants to know if he can get a drink or go on his tablet? That kid is Future. To everyone else that doesn't know what that means: there's more fluff in this than a teddy bear.

Future Islands, As Long as You Are (2020)   B-
It's peculiar: Mr. Herring is such a dynamic front man and he's such a blast in concert (and on TV - he's Letterman-approved!), and yet their records all seem to be subdued and safe. Still, despite lacking in death metal screaming and much-needed embellishments, there are enough good tracks ("For Sure," "Plastic Beach," "Moonlight") to make for an above-average listen.

Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, Alfredo (2020)   C
One of my long-standing issues with many hip-hop and rap acts (though not all) is the seemingly endless amount of braggadocio, and Gibbs is a Prime Offender: he's so infatuated with himself and can't stop bragging (there is no lack of married women he's "banged" or going to "bang" in the near future). The Alchemist's thoughtful beats try to counteract the woman hating ego-trip, but it's not always successful.

Selena Gomez, Rare (2020)   C+
Ms. Selena has a good voice and everything, but there aren't as many solid radio hits on this as on previous releases which, in case you missed them, are on the bonus disc (which includes her collaboration with Kygo). She could continue to crank out records like this for years, but I still think she's quite underrated as an actress (which even Woody Allen recognized).

Gorillaz, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020)   C
Eclectic gathering of artists - Elton John, JPEGMafia, Annie, Slowthai, etc. - are brought together by Albarn and company ... and somehow they manage to sound even less enthused than they usually do (their best record was their first). But then again, what was any supposed to expect from a band more interested in their visuals than the music itself?

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene (2020)   D+
With all the cooing and whispering you'd almost think Ms. Boucher is trying to be Enya (and a chipmunk at other points, like "You'll Miss Me When I'm Not Around") and while I realize she wants a variety of sounds (and collaborators), it's too erratic to be a solid full album.

Marika Hackman, Covers (2020)   C
It's a relief that she's not covering the "most obvious" songs - she kind of dug around to locate Radiohead's "You Never Wash Up After Yourself" - and she has a nice voice, but in several cases, I'd stick with the original (like Air's "Playground Love" and Sharon Van Etten's "Jupiter 4").

Halsey, Manic (2020)   C+
She's most likely not going to revolutionize pop music, but this isn't a terrible record - yes, she should have ditched the sound clips and maybe hired a writer or three and maybe tried to stick to a genre, but otherwise it's an easy listen and she has a nice voice: I like the country-tinged "Finally // Beautiful Stranger" and the welcoming "Clementine."

Health, Disco 4: Part I (2020)   F
They try bringing in a slew of artists (including 100 Gecs, Xiu Xiu and Full of Hell) to shake it up a bit - because they hit a major rut - and it still doesn't seem much different than their usual drivel. I respect asking JPEGMafia for some assistance, but even at less than two minutes, "Hate You" is too long.

Idles, Ultra Mono (2020)   B+
Steady, strong, political: Joe and the boys are back with a third (!) solid album, and while I still think "Brutalism" had the best hooks of all of them, there's no voice like his, and his band's a pulsating force behind him (I still have yet to see them live, which is high on my priority list). Johnny Rotten's crown has been passed.

Nicolas Jaar, Telas (2020)   D-
When he overloads it with the horns it's like a bad John Zorn impersonation, but when he has the dissonant buzzing sounds ("Telahora") it's clearly Aphex Twin. So I know his influences. But who is he exactly?

Jarv Is, Beyond the Pale (2020)   B+
We know Mr. Cocker has been working on his Leonard Cohen impersonation ("Save the Whales") but it's good to know he hasn't lost the snide wit that made him a superstar (on "Am I Missing Something?": "This body's a temporary home / This body wants to take your body home"). Maybe he's not quite as transcendent as he was with the rest of Pulp, but this side project is hearty enough to satisfy.

Damien Jurado, What's New, Tomboy? (2020)   D+
Well, to answer your question: certainly none of the ten songs on here. Extra negative points have also been awarded for that cracking voice.

The Killers, Imploding the Mirage (2020)   C-
Ardent fans aren't going to want to admit it, but they've never been the same since their debut (okay ... I'll even give you Sam's Town) and just a shell of their former selves ("Wash my feet with your tears") - in fact, most of this (which tries to be 'anthemic') is less-than-inspiring and almost tiring to sit through ("Caution," "Fire in Bone"). Speaking of implosions, the Mirage Hotel in Vegas is still intact, but we stayed at the Riviera Hotel before they sent that to the ground (and Jason Bourne drove through the front door).

King Krule, Man Alive! (2020)   C
He's had moments in the past where he sounded like he was drowsy and a little out of it but for this - which conveniently has a song on it called "Stoned Again" - he sounds barely awake at all: the records starts in a raw fashion, but by "Theme for the Cross" he's all but singing nappy-time lullabies to himself. I suspect he intended it to be a concept album - with the title being ironic - but that's not the best direction to go.

Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas (2020)   C+
No one is ever going to question her ability to vocally handle a song, but I think her songwriting could be spruced up a bit: it needed a bit more nuance. She does try to break her pattern by covering Radiohead's "Weird Fishes" ... unfortunately I still hear Thom. (For the record, I still think John Mayer's "Kid A" is the best Yorke & Co. cover.)

La Roux, Supervision (2020)   B-
It's not nearly as memorable as "Trouble in Paradise" - there are too many ho-hum stretches - but songs like "I.W.O.L." and "21st Century" should keep fans happy.

Lanterns on the Lake, Spook the Herd (2020)   C-
You can have the best voice in the world - and Hazel Wilde's is quite nice - but on most of this it just kind of mopes in place, dragging out longer than necessary ("Secrets and Medicine"). The whole 'moody lady and a piano' dream pop stuff has been done by others much better, with one exception where the band's strengths fold together wonderfully ("Every Atom").

John Legend, Bigger Love (2020)   B-
I find it kind of funny that my Father despises him - "What an egotistical ass" - but likes Childish Gambino (who I am not fond of), but the truth is that his voice is genuinely incredible: he could sing a Craiglist ad and it would win a Grammy. It album runs a little long, but in small doses is quite potent. Also, fun fact: I'm nine days older than him, how about that?

Adrianne Lenker, Songs (2020)   C-
Elf-voiced ladies whispering banal poetry is nothing new, and Lenker doesn't really do anything different to separate herself from the rest of them. This album did make me look up what Rachael Yamagata's been up to, so there's that....

Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake (2020)   B-
Some of the lyrics are so stupid you should be tempted to kick in your speaker ("Neck is a-choo, might catch the flu / Banana clip straight from the zoo"), but there's an exuberance to his delivery that's infectious, so when he's doing the usual bragging (he has the best clothes, every woman wants him, he's got stacks of money, you know the rest) the crisp production at least makes it sound good. I mean, "You Better Move" takes samples from a twenty-year-old Windows game and it's one of the best tracks on it ... and then there's his take on the Backstreet Boys ("That Way"). Stay weird, Mr. Woods.

Liturgy, Origin of the Alimonies (2020)   D-
So, tell me this: do they want to be Metallica with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony? The Trans-Siberian Orchestra? Are they tired of screaming for forty minutes straight? Please, anything but that....

Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter (2020)   D+
She has a lovely voice, but it's a shame she has nothing to say with it (it's a lot of preening and smugness) and her production team makes her come across like she's one half-step away from doing Gospel.

Matmos, The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form (2020)   C-
Another overly ambitious three-album release (also see: A. G. Cook) that's supposed to be the duo experimenting with new sounds but, to my ears, for the first two parts it just seems like a lot of the same-old, especially for those who have followed their careers closely up to this point - there are funny moments ("Nice Men in Stable Relationships," "Platformalism") but there aren't enough of them. It finally finds some kind of traction with part three - which has them collaborate with Mouse on Mars and OPN - with some wild samples diced up to hell and back ("Blessed Order Of," "Boomchicka").

The Microphones, Microphones in 2020 (2020)   B
Phil's back using his old moniker for what amounts to a single album-length song that shifts and undulates as it develops and blossoms over forty-five minutes. It's autobiographical and nostalgic in the best way - imagine if Mark Kozelek was less nasty and a little more humble.

Moby, All Visible Objects (2020)   D
If anyone had told me eons ago that the guy who made "Everything Is Wrong" and "Play" would make albums as pitifully repetitive and draining as this I would have had genuine doubts ("Too Much Change" is insufferable). He likes to end his records on long ambient pieces, but the title track and "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" (from 1995) barely seem like they were composed by the same person.

The Mountain Goats, Getting Into Knives (2020)   C+
There's nothing particularly "wrong" with this record, but they've been cranking out of a ton of music lately, and it sounds like they're recycling themselves. Take a breather, Darnielle ... what is this, album number nineteen in twenty-six years and their second in 2020 alone?

The Mountain Goats, Songs for Pierre Chuvin (2020)   B-
The "story" about how they came up with this is ... different: inspired by French historian Chuvin's book about pagans, they recorded ten tracks into an old Panasonic boombox. Darnielle's smarter-than-most lyrics are still there and the tape deck doesn't diminish his unmistakable delivery. Remember kids: before Bandcamp and Soundcloud, this is what people did to get their music out in the public.

Nap Eyes, Snapshot of a Beginner (2020)   B-
Nigel Chapman's vocals might not be for everyone - the group's name is right, it sounds like he has a stuffy nose and just woke up - but luckily the rest of the band is much more alert and enthused: it's a good balance. Sometimes they slip into some sort of alt-country hybrid ("Even Though I Can't Read Your Mind") but their ode to Facebook's less-than-human founder and "Fool Thinking Ways" (with its shining guitars) are superb. If you like Belle & Sebastian, here's Canada's answer to them.

Nation of Language, Introduction, Presence (2020)   D+
Throwback to the likes of Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys except not nearly as catchy or creative: come on, gang, you have to put your own spin on things, not just rehash what we've heard decades ago. Get some moxie. Take some risk.

The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form (2020)   D
I was initially afraid, based on the opening track with its inclusion of Greta Thunberg (who means well, but no one likes being lectured to by teenagers), that this would be just as dreadful as their last album, but it turns out there are a few solid nuggets in here ("I Think There's Something You Should Know," "The End (Music for Cars)") that kept me from turning it off. But with a total length of the release exceeding 80 minutes (they unwisely try to cover almost every genre) ... it's just overkill. Is that Timmy and Tommy from Animal Crossing at the start of "What Should I Say?"

No Age, Goons Be Gone (2020)   D
New-ish punks emulating Iggy Pop & the Stooges isn't a good idea - you either got it or you don't. When they aren't trying to be a little experimental - also not that effective - they're just monotonous.

Of Montreal, Ur Fun (2020)   B-
Barnes gets so glammy and exaggerates so much you could imagine the likes of the Village People and Marc Bolan kind of taking him aside and whispering, "Hey buddy, mind toning it down?" Despite the swooning, there are some solid songs on here, especially "You've Had Me Everywhere," which is sweet (in a Hallmark Card kind of way).

Angel Olsen, Whole New Mess (2020)   B
It's an acoustic version of 2019's "All Mirrors," so that means right off the bat it's going to be very good ... but I'd say I prefer the lush orchestration on last year's record. This one sounds like she's singing tears away in an old high school bathroom.

Oneohtrix Point Never, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never (2020)   C-
A (moderately) more tolerable record from Lopatin: he now realizes his lack of focus prevents him from actually making a whole "song" so he's just going to emulate the (very ancient) act of twirling around a radio knob and picking up random voices and notes.

100 Gecs, 1000 Gecs (2019)   D+
Let me try to understand this: they took fairly average and straightforward pop songs (with idiotic lyrics: "I feel so clean / like a money machine") and then proceeded to go all Kid606 on them and glitch them to pieces and people think it's groundbreaking? It's America's version of Die Antwoord....

Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (2020)   C
Mike's always had the tendency to ... embellish, which could be a lot of fun to listen to, but now he seems to be whining at a greatly reduced speed. Too many songs ("Moon Bend," "Borrowed Light") just get drawn out to the point where I stopped sympathizing and wished he'd just move on: kvetch all you want, but make it snappy - there are other things to do.

Poppy, I Disagree (2020)   F
Poppy's handlers/controllers must have watched Aggretsuko (a good show) for their latest "reinvention" of their nauseatingly manufactured "pop star," which would explain the black metal-inspired cover and the sporadic creeping up of heavy guitars. It doesn't work and it isn't cute, and the generic bubblegum "image" she began with still dominates the record.

Porcelain Raft, Come Rain (2020)   F
I genuinely think "Strange Weekend" is one of the best records from the previous decade but there's really no excuses to be made for this frankly terrible release, which sounds like Josh Groban doing a soundtrack for a Sedona retreat.

Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today (2020)   B+
Post-Clash Midwest punk done pretty straightforwardly - as with Greg Dulli, I appreciate Mr. Casey's rumpled disgust - except when they decide they need a sax and a clarinet for a little spice. "Processed by the Boys" is one of the best songs of the year in a walk, and the music video - which recreates a real incident on Brazilian television - is simply splendid (everyone should know how I feel about the authorities by now).

Purity Ring, Womb (2020)   F
The first two albums by this synth-pop duo didn't do much for me ... and this third one downright annoyed me with its absence of creativity and over-reliance on James' chirpy voice. It makes K-pop seem tolerable.

Real Estate, The Main Thing (2020)   C-
It's kind of ironic these fellows (originally from Jersey) come out with an album the same year as Best Coast: East Coast, West Coast, they both manage to grind their "signature style" into the ground where you wish they'd just, I dunno, mix it up a bit. Make something that can't be mistaken for easy listening ("Paper Cup"). Until improvements are made, I will start calling them Subprime Mortgage.

Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream (2020)   B
Although this is less inventive than past records - it's straightforward power-punk - the energy is infectious: I can only imagine the sweat spilled at one of his concerts (granted we're ever allowed to have those again). I never would have thought closer named "Ohio Tpke" - a road I have unfortunately been on - would be so touching ("You're the only person that I wanted to like me").

Asher Roth, Flowers on the Weekend (2020)   F
What kind of cornball nonsense is this? Take a peek at a few of the lines from the lyrical wizard: "No twenty-three in me, in my DNA, when I was twenty-three," "Cameras always on, come on Wayne, party on," "Got a bunch of gluten in your doodoo." And that's from the first four minutes. Yikes.

Soul Glo, Songs to Yeet at the Sun [EP] (2020)   B
Philly-based screamo-punk-rap hybrid strong enough to blow out your car's windows (it almost happened, I swear). After this Plague is over, I can't wait to see them in concert (and hopefully get slammed against a wall).

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You (2020)   B
He may be past the point where he's cranking out greatness, but even above-average Bruce is much welcomed. "One Minute You're Here" is a beautifully sad opener (and "Ghosts" is my personal favorite off of this), but I try to skip past "Jane Needs a Shooter" and "Last Man Standing." To anyone who missed his Quarantine Concert: be sure to track that down.

Squarepusher, Be Up a Hello (2020)   C-
He's been at this a fairly long enough time to know better than to crank out B-sides of past material. There's a lot happening ("Mekrev Bass"), but it isn't going anywhere ... not unlike pogo dancing in the same spot. While on meth.

The Strokes, The New Abnormal (2020)   A-
If you could use a time machine to travel back to a relatively more stable 2002 and play this for Julian and the boys I wonder what they'd think about it - it's a bit bloated, yes, and sometimes the hooks are a little too familiar, but "The Adults Are Talking," "Bad Decisions" and "Why Are Sundays So Depressing" are reminiscent of their early releases and their most engrossing work since "Room on Fire" (and they even stayed together as a band this whole time!).

Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension (2020)   B-
After dabbling in side projects for a while, Mr. Stevens has finally returned to what he does best: make thinly-disguised gospel music with a mixture of electronica. He gets a little too self-indulgent in parts (which is to be expected) and repeats himself way more often for my liking, but there's a strong sense of artistic integrity to it. The closing two tracks are pretty haunting.

Sufjan Stevens and Lowell Brams, Aporia (2020)   C+
So Sufjan decided to collaborate on an IDM/electronica album with his stepfather and this is the result: twenty one 'pieces,' with none going over four minutes. He has so much talent it would have been an impossibility for there to not be some precious moments on it ("Glorious You," the Aphex Twin-ish "Ataraxia") but there are a few too many bits that fade out before they had any chance of improving/evolving.

Taylor Swift, Evermore (2020)   C-
It's not like Swifty ever had all that much to say, so here's her second album in the same year (really, we didn't need it). She goes on about how she's aging, but something tells me Dessner came up with most of that (again) ... and hearing Berlinger's grumble show up is more than a little surreal.

Taylor Swift, Folklore (2020)   C-
No Porcelain Cat album is without a few good songs and this has a few ("The 1," "August"), but there's an attempt to be "more serious" (Bon Iver is a guest on "Exile") and less frivolous and it sounds even more artificial than she did previously. Aaron Dessner (of The National) and Jack Antonoff's words in her mouth can only go so far. As expected, the "critics" can't stop falling over themselves acting like this is a Tiffany Gem in a spotty discography: y'all remember Neko Case exists, right?

Tame Impala, The Slow Rush (2020)   C
Something of an odd turn for Parker with his neo-psychedelic project - it's not really that trippy and it seems to lean closer to Justice in spots ("Is It True"). It's chilled-out, however, and no one is going to consider him a top-notch lyricist but I'm not sure that's what they expect from him. In other words: if it pops up on some streaming service while you're driving, you most likely won't rush to turn it off ... it just won't blow you away.

This Will Destroy You, Vespertine (2020)   F
I'm not sure what's more egregious: naming the album after a famous Bjork release or having the band name clash with "music" that is a few notes held for twenty minutes. Sometimes minimalism works in music, but this is a joke.

Thundercat, It Is What It Is (2020)   D+
More 70's R&B/funk (queue sax!) revival from Stephen Bruner - he's stuck in some weird gap between being "honest" and being "jokey," except it's not competent enough to be taken seriously as something "personal" and not amusing enough ("Dragonball Durag") to function as a comedy record. So where is he going next? Gonna keep mining Parliament and Bill Withers records for "ideas?"

TOKiMONSTA, Oasis Nocturno (2020)   B-
I'm not sure if Ms. Lee is a fan of late 90's/early 2000's chill-out music, but this brings to mind the records I played on repeat back then (like The Orb and Thievery Corporation) - add to that a touch of R&B and you have a record that may not be the most memorable ("Phases" and "Get Me Some" are great; the instrumental songs are a tad so-so) but is a breezy forty-five minute ride.

Oliver Tree, Ugly Is Beautiful (2020)   C
If you can look past the JNCO jeans and the bowl cut and the Montbell windbreaker and the red sunglasses and really miss the rap-rock of Limp Bizkit and Korn, there are a few surprisingly catchy pieces in this jokey project ("1993," "Alien Boy"). He said this was the last album he was making so he could concentrate on filmmaking ... sure, right, that's the way to go....

U.S. Girls, Heavy Light (2020)   D+
She's been on a steady slide since the excellent "Half Free," which was better at incorporating Remy's thoughts on gender equality than anything she's done since: now it's just her glass-shattering shrill voice repeating itself. The thirty second sections where males and females answer open-ended questions is a move Straight Out of Art School.

M. Ward, Migration Stories (2020)   C
It starts very promising with the haunting "Migration of Souls" - a bit of a return to his old form - before churning out ten alt-country ballads that are half-decent if nothing particularly noteworthy ("Chamber Music" could put anyone to sleep). He usually has more pep in his step when Zooey's around....

M. Ward, Think of Spring (2020)   C
See my review of "Migration Stories" just above, because it's the same thing.

Jessie Ware, What's Your Pleasure? (2020)   B+
Normally I'm not a fan of any disco derivative (this is putting it mildly) but Ware is talented enough to elevate her songs, and the production on this is very crisp, with multiple knockout singles (it ends on the luscious "Remember Where You Are"). It's almost good enough to make you wanna do coke off a toilet seat at Studio 54.

Washed Up, Purple Noon (2020)   D
Having a title from an Alain Delon movie implies some sort of sensuousness, but I find it largely irksome: a full album of this guy is like downing half a bottle of Unisom and chasing it with Stoli (don't do that, by the way). "Time to Walk Away" is the single worth paying attention to, but the other nine tracks are just overkill.

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud (2020)   B+
Miss Crutchfield's last record did nothing for me, but this release has a hold to it that's unmistakable, and you can tell it's coming from a much deeper place: here, she's giving running commentary on her battle with alcoholism. Based on stories I've heard from friends who have struggled to get sober, it's brutally hard, but she seems like she has the right attitude going forward. Also helping: the simple and efficient production.

The Weeknd, After Hours (2020)   D
For having a cover that looks suspiciously like Kevin Abstract's "Arizona Baby" ("Look, I got into a fight!") and a song that talks about how "heartless" he can be, Tesfaye still comes off as a huge whiner who alternates between feeling bad for himself and bragging because of how magnificent he thinks he is ... not to mention mining the worst of 80's synth-pop ("Blinding Lights"). He wasn't too bad in the Safdie Brothers' "Uncut Gems" ("Why don't you go fuck The Weeknd?"), so maybe that's what he should stick to doing.

Wolf Parade, Thin Mind (2020)   D+
Their debut LP, "Apologies to the Queen Mary," announced the arrival of what I thought was a major new band - over a decade later, there's a clear lack of new ideas (it almost wants to be anthem rock) and some mediocre songwriting (avoid skimming any lyric sheets). "Out of Control" would have been fine if it didn't come across like something Muse would have written.

Women, Women (2008)   B-
Women, Public Strain (2010)   B
Short-lived project seems to have gathered a cult audience: I missed these two moody (if a bit messy) little gems when they first came out (although I've liked the subsequent Viet Cong/Preoccupations releases). It just goes to show that there's always something you missed when combing through the history of any art form, making them forever exciting.

Singles of the Year: The Avalanches (Featuring Leon Bridges): "Interstellar Love," Phoebe Bridgers: "I Know the End," A. G. Cook: "DJ Every Night," Disclosure (Featuring Etran Finatawa): "Etran," DaBaby: "Can't Stop," Danzig: "Lonely Blue Boy," Duma: "Lionsblood," Bob Dylan: "Murder Most Foul," Everything Everything: "Lost Powers," Future Islands: "For Sure," Halsey: "Clementine," Jarv Is: "Sometimes I Am Pharoah," La Roux: "I.W.O.L.," Lanterns on the Lake: "Every Atom," John Legend: "Always," Nap Eyes: "Fool Thinking Ways," The 1975: "I Think There's Something You Should Know," Of Montreal: "You've Had Me Everywhere," Protomartyr: "Processed by the Boys," Jeff Rosenstock: "Ohio Tpke," Bruce Springsteen: "Ghosts," Sufjan Stevens: "The Ascension," TOKiMONSTA (Featuring Sunni Colon): "Phases," Oliver Tree (Featuring Little Ricky ZR3): "1993," M. Ward: "Migration of Souls," Jessie Ware: "Remember Where You Are," Washed Out: "Time to Walk Away"