Words by Brian LaBenne
Brian LaBenne is host of the Best Song Ever Podcast with his dear, dear cousin Luke LaBenne. Brian has been a music nerd for a long time now and obsessively keeps ranked lists of his favorite albums throughout the year, determined by an Excel spreadsheet that churns out a rating for each album. He has written for Off Shelf’s Singles Club posts as well.
This goes for every album on my list, so I will say it here and not repeat myself: at one point in the year I thought this could take my number 1 spot, it is that great. Spilligion is an immediate classic, full of soul, humor, great beats and just jaw dropping vocal performances across the board. Spillage Village is a hip-hop collective featuring J.I.D., EarthGang, 6lack, Mereba, Hollywood JB, JurdanBryant and Benji. I was familiar with several of these artists’ solo output before this album, but this is definitely the strongest album in any of their discographies. If you’re looking for amazing chill hip-hop from rappers and singers at the top of their game, look no further.
Is this Jay Electronica’s long awaited, triumphant “debut” album or the best Jay-Z album in the past 15 years? To me, it’s more of the latter, but regardless of how you frame it this album is amazing. Jay Electronica emerges with sage like, mystic wisdom and Jay-Z is right next to him every step of the way, always on fire and full of passion. The rapping alone on A Written Testimony would be enough for the album to be great over ordinary production, but what really sets it apart is the consistently otherworldly production. At various times it feels like nothing I’ve ever heard before, with disparate parts that somehow all come together.
Ever since I heard Westerman’s single Confirmation back in 2018 I’ve been anxiously awaiting whatever would become his debut full length album. He kept putting out singles and an EP and I kept not-so-patiently waiting until finally there was word of this album, Your Hero is Not Dead. Boy, was it worth the wait. This is some incredibly smooth and sparse art-pop adjacent singer-songwriter music executed with such precision. It’s pretty amazing that Westerman has come out of the gate with such a fully realized sound. The not-so-patient for his sophomore album has already begun.
I’m a huge fan of jazzy hip-hop, but rarely do you get an album that is straight up jazz AND hip-hop at the same time. Purple Moonlight Pages is full of fun and interesting detours down different pathways and branches out in unexpected ways like a beat that, in the words of R.A.P. Ferreira, “sounds like a long walk to the dumpster.” Ferreira’s poetic delivery is always engaging and after countless times listening to it I’m still finding some stand out lines that I had not noticed before. It really is a very special album, one that feels like it’s being performed live in your living room while listening to it and when Ferreira says “As always the question remains, Can you dig it?” I’m always tempted to answer.
6. Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW (Sad Saints Angry Angels)
Mainstream Afropop keeps getting more and more popular in the U.S. but I’ve never been able to get too attached to any of the resulting albums, that is until I heard Amaarae. To be fair, THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW is so much more than Afropop, or any one genre of music. It’s a kaleidoscopic journey into various different types of modern popular music that on one hand sounds familiar, yet on the other sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. This is largely because of the vocals of Amaarae, which are beautiful and alien and always utterly compelling.
5. keiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl (Forever Recordings)
Forever, Ya Girl is a hard album to write about. It really needs to be experienced to be understood. I almost feel bad just sharing a single song here, because it’s just a snippet from such a compelling whole. This album is full of incredibly unique, occasionally psychedelic, beautiful R&B music. Largely self-produced, with some production by like-minded rapper MIKE, keiyaA delves into territory that is often grimy but never feels overly dour or too heavy. I don’t know, ok, that’s the best I got. Just listen to the dang thing already.
Quelle Chris is on such an incredible winning streak, releasing an incredible album each year like clockwork for the past three years. Honestly, it’s probably even more than that because there are several I haven’t heard yet. Starting with 2018’s Everything’s Fine, his collaborative album with Jean Grae, continuing in 2019 with Guns and culminating with Innocent Country 2 from this year, his growth has been so exciting to witness and listen to. Innocent Country 2 is a long, but worthwhile journey into super chill hip-hop territory. It often reminds me of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album, which is a huge compliment.
I’ve been a huge fan of Charli XCX ever since hearing the song Nuclear Season in 2012 and I can say, without any hesitation, how i’m feeling now is most definitely Charli’s best album to date. Maybe I’m biased because I was intimately involved in the making of this album, like all good “Angels” were. It was entirely conceived, produced and recorded during quarantine and many decisions Charli made were with the input from her fans (said “Angels”) on Instagram live and Zoom calls. Yes, I logged on and let her know that I liked different beats or preferred some isolated vocals pitched up instead of normal. None of that would matter if these songs weren’t so catchy, beautiful and unique. This really is THE album of 2020 and will always be associated in my memory with this crazy time and place.
What a beautiful, strange, fascinating album Room for the Moon is. I wasn’t familiar with Kate NV’s music before this year, but will definitely follow her output closely from now on. Room for the Moon find Kate NV dipping into experimental art-pop territory to amazing results. She described her approach to making the album by saying each song was like a different room to explore. Each room had boundaries, but also could contain entire worlds inside of them. This inspiration really comes through when listening to Room for the Moon as it takes the listener on adventures to many distinct and new worlds.
Even though every preceding album on this list was good enough to top my list, What’s Your Pleasure? was always going to take the top spot. It’s just too good to refuse. Jessie Ware makes the type of chest pounding, emotional pop music that I crave and she does not disappoint with What’s Your Pleasure?, which is definitely the best album of her career. Each track gets into such amazingly dancey grooves, all anchored by the amazing vocals of Jessie. The absolute joy I feel from listening to this album has been such an amazing weapon against the general crumminess of 2020. So, cheers to Jessie Ware, and cheers to leaving 2020 far, far behind!