MMM Staff Picks: Masud Zaman’s Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2020
#10. Igorrr – ‘Spirituality and Distortion’
Being the perfect starter to the list thanks to its alarming title, this is not the album for the faint-hearted. This also happens to be my introduction to the Igorrr, and it is certainly a memorable one. Although one may find its weird musicality similar to its counterparts such as Bjork, Frank Zappa and Devin Townsend, Igorrr stands out in its uniqueness by presenting its relentless unhinged personality. If you are to pick one track from this as try-out, listen to “Downgrade Desert”; a song which holds terror and class in equal measure, while “Very Noise” presents an absurdist temperament with electro-metal music that presents a festive approach. Moving on, “Camel Dancefloor” and “Sleeptytime Gorilla Museum” complement each as the former fills up the orchestral gap while the latter adds more of a Mediterranean flair. It is not an easy album to listen to due to its occasional unintelligible vocals, but it is one of the most authentic pieces of music out there.
#9. Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
The hype for Fiona Apple’s new album proved to be sustained through its opening song. Arriving eight years after its predecessor, The Idler Wheel, we get a quick run down memory lane from “I Want You to Love Me”, as it showcases her signature idiosyncratic, vulnerable wittiness – and it only builds up further as the record continues. Running in contrast to the current times, “Shameika” mixes optimistic lyrics with joyful piano, where “Rack of His” tends to deliver clever wordplay and playful vocals. Fans held on this series of songs during quarantine, pertaining to great value of the artist, who delivers a fun-loving yet provocative record for the listeners.
#8. Poppy – ‘I Disagree’
There are not many artists that can cover pop and alt-metal within the same voice – and Poppy stands as an outlier. In her third, and possibly her best album yet, she carries her disorienting vocals with the mainstream quality of a Carly Rae Jepsen song. “Concrete” moves back and forth between poppy teen choruses to harmonic metal sounds, to palm-muted guitars, while “I Disagree” sees her vocals adopt a multi-level flow akin to the classic band Evanesence. With the perfect blend of moody and intensity, she delivers her most mature work here on I Disagree.
#7. The Weeknd – ‘After Hours’
On his fourth album to date, the Weeknd dabbles into an 80s acid-trip, and discotheque inspired pop, while producing an entirely original record that was meant to top the charts – which it did. A thoroughly enjoyable album with a few songs you can listen on a loop (particularly “Blinding Lights”). We are gifted with songs so unique from each other in subtle aspects in their narrative themes. It explores a lot of self-reflection from the artist himself and manages to maintain its authenticity in being incomparable to the Weeknd’s previous albums.
#6. Pain of Salvation – ‘Panther’
Yet another self-introductory album to my list, Pain of Salvation is one of the most consistent progressive metal bands out there, mixing social commentary with sundry arrangements and effective songwriting. Panther only adds to the diversity, oddness and further questions dilemmas (for example, societal views on ‘normality’ and ‘abnormality’). “Accelerator” is an exemplary track that pulls the listener with its quirky yet powerful undertones, while “Icon” thrives in being extensively poetic and meditative in its own right. Overall, the album is an all-out thematic victory.
#5. Perfume Genius – ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’
One of the most impressive lo-fi artists out there, Mike Hadreas has evolved into mainstream music with Perfume Genius’ fifth album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. From a professional standpoint, it is a delight to see them improve with each body of work they tend to produce. Assisted by producer Blake Mills and a couple more A-listers (including bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Jim Keltner), he dives into and takes charge of each of the numerous styles he attempts to replicate. From the dreamy pop/country style in “Describe”to the funk-infused grind in “On the Floor”, Hadreas has turned up with his most ambitiously fulfilling work.
#4. Ka – ‘Descendants of Cain’
Brooklyn native rapper Ka commands energy far beyond his years. In Descendants of Cain, he displays masterful storytelling along with matter-of-fact lyricism (“Never marinate on beef you don’t plan on finishing”). With matured songwriting and sophisticated production, the 48-year-old triumphs over his peers through his relentless pursuit of art and irrespective of the ongoing trends. The former Natural Elements member found solo success relatively late in life due to his refusal in compromising his vision, and the album is all the more better for it.
#3. Hayley Williams – ‘Petals for Armor’
Hayley Williams finally delivers her debut album, produced by her longtime Paramore band member Taylor York. It stands in stark contrast with their pop-punk and pop-rock roots, oozing on dance-friendly synth lines, strings and electronics elevated by Williams’ regulated vocals. Watch out for “Simmer”, as the track stands testament for a change in style we should look forward to.
#2. Bartees Strange – ‘Live Forever’
Bartees Strange finally is in the spotlight after getting universal adulation in a year where most artists and most people struggled more than ever. This took years of hard work, constant experimentation, and development to overcome. As it opens with the atmospheric track “Jealousy”, we are immediately transported into the emotional maze these songs contain. From there on, we listen to various genres in one single album; “Boomer” is a catchy hip-hop song, “In a Cab” is indie-rock and “Far” ends up being a folk song! Bartees just proves to be the most versatile artist on the list.
#1. Sufjan Stevens – ‘The Ascension’
The Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter is back with his eight solo LP. He returns with his epic poetic despair of a record full of experimental, electric beats coupled with whispery melodies that have defined Stevens’ staple in his rewarding career. If you are to listen to one song from this album, make sure you listen to the 12-minute epic “America” – for it is a clear foreshadow that defines the rest of the record. The singer, known for songs that carry out underlying bleakness with beauty, sends chills with “Death Star”. As he hauntingly sings: “Death star into space // What you call the human race // Expedite the judgement day,” we realize Stevens is not the one to run out of range. For the two decades he has given us, we can only return the favor by anticipating more.