In a year of distancing, anxiety, protests and polarization, musicians were separated from audiences and, often, each other. Some 2020 albums were already well underway before the pandemic; others were made under quarantine, with long-distance collaborations or none. On release, they were heard privately. It was a good year for the most personal, idiosyncratic statements.
1. Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Ascension’
Phalanxes of synthesizers, programmed beats and sturdy pop melodies fortify Sufjan Stevens and his gentle voice as he contemplates America in turmoil. He tries to summon a moral compass and enough faith to overcome wholesale confusion, lies and fear. Victory is not assured.
2. Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
A triumph of willfulness, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is Fiona Apple proclaiming she “won’t shut up” amid a percussive clatter she created at her home: banging on pots and pans, pushing her voice to extremes, letting her dog bark. The songs avenge and exorcise all sorts of slights and traumas, distant and recent, mixing spite with amusement. And they mutate as they go, mingling spoken words and melody and drawing at whim on rock, jazz, show tunes, choir harmonies, chants and cheers. Apple doesn’t forget or forgive; she just moves ahead.
3. Moses Sumney, ‘Grae’
“Grae” demands to be heard as a rhapsodic whole, a suite of songs and fragments continually dissolving and rematerializing around Moses Sumney’s otherworldly voice. The music touches down in slow-motion R&B, but moves toward abstractions — orchestral, jazzy, electronic — as Sumney ponders solitude and connection, masculinity and identity, self-doubt and self-realization, existence and transcendence.