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U92 Year-End Review: The 5 Best Albums of 2020

5. Black Dresses - Peaceful as Hell (Blacksquares)

The bandcamp bio for “Peaceful as Hell," Ada Rook and Devi McCallion’s final album as Black Dresses, reads simply “SONGS MADE IN 2020 ABOUT VARIOUS TOPICS." It’s an apt description. Sometimes an album this dense and chaotic can only be summed up so simply. “Peaceful as Hell” follows a string of well received records that were self-released throughout 2019 which garnered the duo a strong cult following; each of these releases built upon the sonic pallets of the last, leading to this one which takes unique elements of electronica, power-pop, hip-hop, nu-metal, screamo, and noise and covers them in saccharine glitchy textures to create a blissfully chaotic and thoroughly modern noise-pop opus. The album is raw, abrasive, and unapologetic while still managing to be infectious and catchy. Lyrically songs here deal heavily with empathy, with subjects covering life with mental illness, a general sense of unbelonging, and how hard it can be to feel safe when you are hated, ignored, denied, or cast aside due to your identity. The duo don’t claim to have the answer, but with these songs they sort of outstretch a hand to their audience reminding them that they’re not alone. Ada Rook and Devi McCallion have no shortage of music outside of this project -- much of which is excellent in it’s own right. Still, no matter where their artistic paths take them from this point, this record feels like it will always be heralded as a unique high point in the internet-era of self-released music. - Griffin McMorrow

4. Clipping. - Visions of Bodies Being Burned (Sub-Pop)clipping. - Visions of Bodies Being Burned

Visions of Bodies Being Burned is hip-hop trio clipping.'s second foray into horrorcore, and it succeeds in achieving much of the blood curdling they were able to accomplish on it’s companion album, "There Existed an Addiction to Blood." Daveed Diggs proves that he is still one of the most technically gifted and creative rappers making music right now, and his attention to detail is stunning. He weaves stories that will make your skin crawl with a precision that is nothing short of hypnotic. As on the companion album, clipping.’s greatest strength is inducing a level of stress in the listener similar to that of watching a horror flick; steady changes in dynamics and Diggs’s mechanically accelerating flow underpin this vibe nicely. The main difference between the two albums is how producers William Hutson and Jonathon Snipes incorporate noise and abstraction throughout the record. This album achieves a balance between experimentalism and hard-hitting beats that may make it a slightly more accessible album for some listeners while never sacrificing the noise-play that’s always been at the groups core. Visions of Bodies Being Burned succeeds in being one of the scariest and most vivid hip hop releases of this year and is certain to sneak into your nightmares if you let it. - Anthony Wells 

Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters3. Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic Records)

Fiona Apple’s fifth studio album is her first in nearly eight years. While Apple’s revered status as a songwriter and lyricist was already well-established by the time of its release, this album features uniquely cutting-edge instrumentals for an artist already so far along in her illustrious career. Intricate, percussive beats full of found sounds and found objects propel each track along paths that are often long and meandering. Barking dogs on the title track chime in as if in assent with the song’s message. Rumbling sawing on upright bass underscores the defiant climax of “Under the Table.” The driving, clanking percussion of “Relay” hammers home its central metaphor. This auditory onslaught is never exhausting, however, and tracks like the opener “I Want You to Love Me” as well as “Cosmonauts” incorporate some more classic Fiona Apple piano ballad sounds. Still, the lyrics on “Bolt Cutters” never take a back seat. Apple’s poetic style is present in full force, never obfuscating the central themes of the album. Throughout the project, Fiona presents many (largely autobiographical) scenarios involving confinement and powerlessness and counters them with a call to seek liberation. Descriptions of schoolyard torment, misogyny, and sexual assault give way to fiery feminist anthems and a general message of empowerment. The broad acclaim for this record should not fool listeners into thinking that its appeal is surface level. It is masterfully crafted and emotionally evocative art pop from front to back, and, for as heavy as many of the song topics are, it's fun and playful sound and sharp-witted humor make it irresistible enough to play on repeat. - Noah Spencer

Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind2. Yves Tumor- Heaven to a Tortured Mind (Warp Records)

Bursting out of the gates with their grandiose opener Gospel For a New Century, Yves Tumor sets the stage brilliantly for Heaven to a Tortured Mind. Yves’ fervent pleas of love intertwine with Pan Daijing’s elegant background vocals expertly as they desperately try re-igniting the fire of a fading love. This record shifts from Yves Tumor's previous work: Safe in the Hands of Love. Contrasting heavily with the cold loneliness and desperation of the latter, Heaven to a Tortured Mind burns through the passions of romance and sexual desire in a way that few other albums do. While it is tempting to categorize Heaven to a Tortured Mind as simply glam rock or neo-psychedelia, chaotic tracks such as Dream Palette and Folie Imposée transcend their perspective genres. More impressively, despite being such an eclectic record there’s not a single track that could be described as unapproachable. There’s no other way to describe it: Yves Tumor is a rock star, and this is their second masterpiece. - Victor Perez

Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher1. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher (Dead Oceans)

“Punisher," the highly-anticipated solo follow-up to her 2017 full length debut “Stranger in the Alps” via Dead Oceans, already feels like a high water mark in short career full of astounding releases. Punisher feels like the culmination of every project Bridgers has been associated with since that debut, and still yet this album has a voice all it’s own- with nocturnal and submerged instrumentation laying way to subtle psychedelic elements that make for the perfect backing for Phoebe’s powerful yet tender voice. These songs are filled with painstaking and heartbreaking detail, every ounce of emotion is palpable as Phoebe belts odes to the dead, the dying, the idols, the punishers and -- most consistently -- lost people just desperate for connection, answers, or a place to call home. Bridgers is seemingly in the middle of it all, relating to all of these positions. She sings about her past and present traumas, abusive parents and partners, fractured relationships, loss of housing (or of a home); doing so through whip smart songwriting that will have you revisiting these tracks over and over and spotting something new each time. Phoebe explores the unknown or the unexplored -- government drones, chemtrails, ghosts and aliens are lyrical touchstones just absolutely brimming with metaphor throughout. The lyrical throughlines are perhaps best felt when directly comparing the first and last tracks, “Garden Song” and “I Know the End," respectively. On the latter she details a garden which grows on the remains of a murdered Nazi. The song seems to question if something so beautiful can truly blossom from something so brutal. While the rest of the record attempts to solve that first question in various ways, it’s only the closer which finds any real resolve as Phoebe learns to make her own peace and accept that which she can’t control, culminating in an apocalyptic vision while Bridgers herself repeats the phrase “yeah, I guess, the end is here” before launching into a cathartic, powerful, spiteful, and victorious scream. It is as if she’s saying come get me, nothing can hurt me now; a powerful message to cap off a trying year. - Griffin McMorrow

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