Group Feature: ACRN’s Top 15 Albums of 2020

15. Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation, [Sugar Trap; 2020]
By Kwase Lane, Features Editor

It’s kind of weird how long Rico Nasty’s been around without dropping a debut album. I mean, I’m not complaining; if anything, this is a bonus. Nightmare Vacation encapsulates all of Rico’s growth as an artist and is a pleasure to listen to — A cyberghetto-bass-filled-bold-as-fuck pleasure, but who could ask for anything else? Her delivery is more refined without losing the edge that propelled her to stardom. This growth is made even more apparent by the production on this project. It’s not boring by any means, but when compared to Anger Management, there is a certain refreshing simplicity to most of the beats Rico’s rapping over. Even on songs like “Own It” and “No Debate” where the production does challenge Rico for center stage, she rises to the occasion with an almost understated confidence. Rico remains a master of her style, and this album only shows how much further she could go.

Listen: Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacation

14. A.G. Cook – 7G, [PC Music; 2020]
By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

7G, A.G. Cook’s debut solo album, is a smorgasbord of hyperpop, experimental noise and ambience. With the debut album coming much after Cook’s rise to fame as a respected producer, artist and music industry influencer, 7G feels like the key to a vault of songs Cook has been amassing for years.

7G is broken up into seven disks each holding seven songs with simple titles such as “A.G. Drums”, “A.G. Piano” and “A.G. Extreme Vocals”, to name a few. Within the 49 songs, elapsing two hours and 39 minutes, there are moments of pure melodic bliss and others of digitally warped harsh noise. Although it is more understandable due to the monstrous runtime, the sonic variety held within 7G is both breathtaking and overwhelming.

Although fairly incohesive as an entire project, that doesn’t seem to be its goal. With 7G, Cook shows the world his unbridled abilities. Whether it be acoustic-electronic hybrid pop songs or infinitely complex instrumentals, this project clears out the A.G. Cook backlog, and we are all better off because of it. With the 49 songs 7G as well as his sequential album, Apple, fans of Cook will have enough material to sift through for the near future, giving Cook time to work on projects within the many genres in his wheelhouse. 

Listen: A.G. Cook – 7g

13. Bladee – EXETER, [YEAR0001; 2020]de
By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

For Stockholm’s Bladee, 2020 was a prolific year to say the least. Whether it’s his talent for crafting brief and melodious soundscapes or simply the time that quarantine afforded him to work on new material, he managed to drop three full-length albums. Probably any experienced producer can manage to match Bladee’s output; however, it’s not quantity that’s impressive. It’s quality.

EXETER, the first of his 2020 releases, is the manifestation of Bladee’s ability to fully realize a song’s potential while keeping the track under or around two minutes. The album itself only totals 18 minutes, though it contains nine tracks. Each song feels like a singular hook or idea that Bladee knows is too infectious to allow it to linger, but the project never carries the sensibility of an obnoxious earworm. The album is stylistically sleek and consistent, and each song sustains such a glossy perfection that I imagine the textures of the soundwaves to be similar to that of a freezing tear, maybe one that’s rolling down Bladee’s face while he croons about girls and snowy weather.

A typical occurrence throughout Bladee’s work, Ecco2k appears on EXETER, injecting some much-needed variety and expressiveness that is otherwise unattainable to the human autotune machine known as Bladee. Tracks “WONDERLAND” and “LOVESTORY” each feature Ecco, and it’s no surprise that they are two of the most dynamic tracks on the album. On EXETER, the album’s complexity lies in its brevity, as every instance of reverb-drenched falsetto is carefully crafted so that it never leaves your head.

Listen: Bladee – Exeter3

12. Poppy – I Disagree, [Sumerian; 2020]
By RJ Martin, Music Director

This year saw internet personality and pop star Poppy innovating her sound in the most interesting way possible. Poppy’s third full-length effort, I Disagree, dropped in just the first weeks of 2020 and started an otherwise miserable year off with a bang. The album boldly dives into a genre-bending pop-metal romp that sways from both sounds seamlessly. Chugging riffs and catchy synths are the motif, and the record should be heralded as one of the gold standards for mashing genres in an irresistibly fun and interesting way. The album opens with the line “Bury me 6 feet deep / Cover me in concrete / Turn me into a street” and sets the tone for the absolutely blissful yet brutal ride you’re about to take. This was not only one of the most refreshing and fun sounds to come from pop and metal alike this year, but simply one of the most consistently good records to drop. 

Listen: Poppy – I Disagree

11. 100 gecs – 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues, [Dog Show; 2020]
By Jonah Krueger, News Editor

Anyone who held that 100 gecs were a passing fad, an ironic joke destined to remain in the late 2010s, was proven sorely wrong with 1000 gecs and The Tree of Clues, Dylan Brady and Laura Les’ triumphant victory lap. More than doubling the length of the duo’s previous release and boasting what can only be classified as a “fuck you” level of features, 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues is the maximalist, absurd, no-holds-barred remix album that gec-heads (gecies? gec-stans? pissbabies?) deserved.

The tracklist is composed of reimagined and expanded versions of the songs found on 1000 gecs, with three new compositions and two live tracks thrown in for good measure. The result is a relaxed, fun-first experience where listeners can freely explore the new levels of insanity and, in all seriousness, genuinely compelling songwriting of the remixes. Cuts like the pop-punk and dubstep infused “hand crushed by a mallet” remix featuring Fall Out Boy, Craig Owens and Nicole Dollanganger or the sugary remix of “ringtone” featuring Charli XCX, Rico Nasty and Kero Kero Bonito are perfect to joyfully drown out anyone musing over the implications of hyperpop with a straight face. At this point, the gec train is clearly not losing steam, so why not join in and have some fun?

Listen: 100 gecs – 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues 

10. The Weeknd – After Hours, [XO/Republic; 2020]
By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

Aside from my dream of a breakbeat track made by The Weeknd coming true on this album in the form of “Hardest to Love”, After Hours contains some of the most unique production and most interesting narratives that pop music currently has to offer, and this is, of course, only enhanced by The Weeknd’s sexy voice and prince-like disposition. As ’80s synths collide with sounds and production techniques that describe contemporary hyperpop, breakbeat and R&B, The Weeknd’s vibrato shimmers across melancholy and dance-worthy tracks. Glitchy sounds and warped bass transform what would be a typical R&B project into an album that even the most pretentious IDM fans must applaud — see ya later, Aphex.

Tracks like “Alone Again”, “Hardest to Love” and “Heartless” embody the context of the album, which overwhelmingly feels like a yearning for an idealized yet unachievable type of love. Though this context is ever-present both throughout the album’s narrative and in its tone, the wildly fun and serendipitous instrumentation on After Hours makes each song unlike the last. ’80s-esque “Snowchild” and “Blinded by the Lights” convey The Weeknd’s special brand of sad-prince-aesthetic: though he has “made it” by the standards of the music industry, he feels unfulfilled in his personal life. It’s an album for the clubgoer, but even more so, it’s an album for the cry baby — in the best possible way.

Listen: The Weeknd – After Hours

9. Machine Girl – RePorpoised Phantasies, [1818199 Records DK2; 2020]
By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

Whoa there, partner! Don’t you know it’s rave salad time?

On RePorpoised Phantasies, Machine Girl delivers a delectable blend of juke, UK garage and jungle. Yes, indeed, this is one for all of you WLFGRL purists out there. Though it’s only five tracks, RePorpoised Phantasies covers as much sonic ground as any dance EP could hope to traverse — and more. Overwhelmingly bouncy, rave-y and precise, tracks like “Cyan Hardcore” and “Waited so Long” fingerwag you to the dance floor Tom-and-Jerry-pie-in-the-window style with their synth stabs and irresistible bass lines. Dirty and detuned, Phantasies maintains the MG cyberpunk sensibility but still keeps it squeaky and vapory. 

The EP is reminiscent of Lone’s Emerald Fantasy Tracks, with “The Storm” featuring one of the project’s few breakbeats. Open hats and hard kicks maintain momentum throughout Phantasies while each track boasts its own unique elements and quirks, such as the ever-so crisp click on “Waited so Long” or the Merky ACE verse on “Greaze (Machine Girl Mix)”. 

Though this EP — originally a reward for MG Patreon subscribers — came as a surprise in the midst of MG’s full band endeavors and the state of the world, it was certainly a blessing. Truly, the only thing consistent when it comes to Machine Girl is the kick, and I love it.

Listen: Machine Girl – RePorpoised Phantasies

8. Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts, [RCA; 2020]
By Lauren McCain, Columns Editor

No stranger to controversy, outlandish album concepts or unprompted wall twerking, Miley Cyrus has been through the tabloid ringer perhaps more than any other childhood celebrity. Her albums have ranged from a rebellious Can’t Be Tamed in 2010 through the shimmering Mike-WiLL-Made-it-produced mess of Bangerz in 2013 to the very bizarre Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz album released in 2015. These albums were rarely judged on their quality of music but, rather, on the quality of Cyrus’s wild activities that were making headlines at the time. 

When the internet lost it over Cyrus’s rock cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” earlier this year, it seemed as though a new side of Cyrus was emerging: a femme rocker in leather pants with an edgy voice, a blonde mullet and a more refined confidence. Plastic Hearts is a pop rock album that leans into the campy, ’80s-rocker trope in all the right ways, featuring songs with ’80s rock legends Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks. On the album, Cyrus reflects on her past self and behaviors, detailing the flaws of her failed relationships and underlying insecurities that come with a life in the spotlight. 

“I did it all to make you love me and to feel alive / Oh, that’s just the world that we’re living in / The old boys hold all the cards, and they ain’t playing gin / You dare to call me crazy; have you looked around this place?”

With Plastic Hearts, it seems that Cyrus has finally found a lane for her undomesticated creativity to thrive. She carries the voice, the passion and the wild spirit of a successful rock singer, which I suppose is what she was trying to tell us all along with her 2007 hit “Rock Star”. Regardless, this album will make history not for Cyrus’s wild antics surrounding its release, but for the praise the album itself received instead. 

Listen: Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts 

7. Sickboyrari – Nokia Talk 2002, [Goth Money; 2020]
By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

If you took your favorite melodic elements from a Lil Uzi song, replaced them with early 2000s pop synths and bleep-bloops and then finally ran it all through a flip phone, the result would probably be something similar to Sickboyrari’s LP, Nokia Talk 2002. Lyrically, the album is a typical Sickboyrari tape, with imagery of zooming cars and flickering blunts lending themselves to Rari’s professed fun-but-not-what-it-seems lifestyle. Rari’s style is one of nostalgia and intricate imperfection, as his pensive bars slyly flow under supersonic synth leads that soar under the heavy influence of tremolo and harmony. 

Rari’s bumping 808s and rolling hi-hats sometimes feel desolate and sorrowful next to his delivery, but trilling keys and cheerful piano chords instill a bittersweetness with unknown origins. It’s similar to the sentiment sought after by Drain Gang’s artists, but no one does it quite like Sickboyrari. Whereas Drain Gang’s maximalist hypertrap finds its sense of sadness in massive melodies and soundscapes, Rari is content to use negative space to his advantage, and the cute ringtone synths at his disposal shine because of it. As elements move in and out of each track, it feels like somehow watching a trap set well at the bottom of a cobblestone. “Trap Twerk Like Trina” alone contains perhaps the best low-key piano riff of the century.

Listen: Sickboyari – Nokia Talk 2002

6. Bladee – 333, [YEAR0001; 2020]
By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

333 is a heavenly rebirth or, rather, a sonic reinvention of Bladee’s previously dark, moody, “drained out” sound. Tapping into Bladee’s less explored pop sensibilities, the songs on 333 feature more singing broken up by only slightly less melodic rap. 

Whitearmor’s production is the backbone of the shift in Bladee’s sound. Ethereal and atmospheric but infectiously catchy, each beat wraps around Bladee’s voice. Filling in spots where he lacks while falling back to give him space when needed, Whitearmor’s production and Bladee’s vocals dance back and forth to produce a full, vibrant environment throughout the entire project.

With instrumentation that feels like audio sunset replications, Bladee delivers the same level of raw emotional expression as his darker work. Combining genuine vulnerability on feelings surrounding topics such as rising to fame with consistent illusions to holiness and his likeness to Jesus, Bladee delivers a raw sense of emotion alongside a beautiful level of self absorption that may reflect on the nature of fame itself. Even separated from his clever themes of divinity, the project feels as if it came from above, shining down rays of sparkling light. The video for “Only One” encapsulates this feeling perfectly, with shaky phone-quality video clips of bleeding sunsets and piercing light through a mass of dark clouds.

Bladee has taken great leaps artistically in 2020, and it seems to have paid off. Departing from the sounds that made him famous, it is clear being a gimmick is not the reason Bladee will be remembered.

Listen: Bladee – 333

Read the full review for 333 here.

5. Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, [Gorillaz/Parlophone/Warner; 2020]
By Kwase Lane, Features Editor

The Gorillaz’ Song Machine, Season One: Strange Times brings all of the off-the-wall flair that fans of the virtual band have come to know and love. This project is packed with collaborations that have no business being as good as they are. Have you ever wanted to see JPEGMAFIA and Chai on the same track? How about Elton John and 6lack? Well, whatever weird asshole was waiting for that itch to be scratched is finally satisfied, and so are the rest of us who could have never seen this coming. The whole album has a feel that’s dreamlike and spazzy all at once, and it’s so much fun to listen to. The song “Pac-Man” effortlessly crosses back and forth between mimicking the bleeps and boops of the titular game and a disgustingly smooth Schoolboy Q verse without feeling jarring. All of this is without mentioning the unconventional, episodic release of the base project. All of this combines to form an album that maybe doesn’t work in concept but definitely does in execution, and that’s what the Gorillaz do.

Listen: Gorillaz  – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Times

4. Machine Girl – U-Void Synthesizer, [Self-Released; 2020]
By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

U-Void Synthesizer is perhaps the peak of a trend in Machine Girl’s work, increasing intensity and harshness. U-Void Synthesizer is an offensive wall of sound, berating the listener with the full force of Sean Kelly’s inhuman drumming and Matt Stephenson’s screams. 

Whereas many of Machine Girl’s previous albums take short breathers in which the production and vocals become toned back and more melodic, this project is a marathon of full force sonic assault with little to no moments of rest. Layers of sound mesh together creating a cacophony so hard for the brain to keep up with, and all senses become numbed; a Machine Girl zombie is born. Do beware, those listening to U-Void Synthesizer may only respond to guttural barking or poetically cryptic 21st century mantras.

U-Void Synthesizer isn’t your casual background music: it’s an ear wax remover, a forceful palette cleanser and your auditory morning coffee enema. If you need to release some pent up energy, try going into a dark room. Listen to this with your best noise-canceling headphones, and shake around for 32 minutes. It’s the hottest new wellness trend right behind sunning your asshole.

Listen: Machine Girl – U-Void Synthesizer

3. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now, [Atlantic/Asylum; 2020]
By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

how im feeling now is a shining example of innovation, creativity and productivity within the chaos of 2020. Under the pressure of a global pandemic, a diamond was forged. Still bathing in the success of her 2019 album, Charli, Charli XCX chose to take the halting of the world as an opportunity for the creation of something beautifully collaborative. 

In under two months, Charli connected virtually with roughly 11 producers and writers to create the songs that would come to make how im feeling now. Not only did she collaborate with other musicians, but thousands of her fans as well. She opened up the creative process to her followers through her Instagram, and many of her followers gave creative feedback and even voted on versions of artwork, coming together to create an surprisingly connected album within a period of time characterized by isolation.

how im feeling now is just as it seems: an intimate look at the artists emotions during the time of its creation. Themes of love, reconnection, sadness and isolation are sprinkled throughout the album, showing Charli’s diverse range of emotions in the moment. This complexity surely mirrors many of the feelings of her listeners during our collective situation.

The sounds, executively produced by A.G. Cook and BJ Burton, match the themes above with raw, unpolished but beautifully expressive production. Collaboration coming from many places, the creativity feels spread out and diverse but pulled together by the unique process of its creation. how im feeling now is a time capsule of emotion not only for Charli XCX, but for us. Infinitely relatable, our emotions are solidified in art.

Listen: Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

Read the full review for how i’m feeling now here.

2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher, [Dead Oceans; 2020]

By Jonah Krueger, News Editor

What can be said about Phoebe Bridgers — the patron saint of indie music? Seldom has the term ‘universally acclaimed’ been so fitting — as finding someone who doesn’t like Bridgers and her music is as difficult as tracking down a unicorn’s imaginary friend. With a prominent Twitter presence and an already iconic skeletal aesthetic, Bridgers danced, cried and did donuts in the spotlight throughout the entirety of the year.

Strangely enough, the praise is well-deserved. After cutting her teeth with successful collaborative projects — Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst and boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker — Bridgers returned with a definitive voice and much to say. Punisher, her first full-length release since 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, is a rewarding, dazzling, often sublime listen. Whether it’s indulging in pure catharsis (“I Know the End”), sedately lamenting (“Moon Song”) or providing a cracked window of rock-ish escapism (“Kyoto”), Punisher proved to be one of the best companion pieces to 2020. When listening alone on a misty morning or during a stormy dusk, the album can start to feel like a two-way therapy session, and in such a year as the one we just experienced, what else could we possibly need more?

Listen: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters, [Epic; 2020]
By Lauren McCain, Columns Editor

Dogs barking, pots banging, stomping, hand-clapping, and chanting — all the cacophonic yet inspired sounds of Fiona Apple’s fourth studio album that shook up the music industry when it dropped this past April. Apple’s album is truly unparalleled, exploding in passionate lyrics and off-the-wall sounds that project all of the subdued anxieties, insecurities and frustrations that many listeners, especially women, are all too familiar with. The tracks do not so much make up an album as they do a manifesto, calling out the bullshit and inequities of the world and insisting that we all “fetch the bolt cutters” to escape society’s compromising environments. 

After nearly a decade, Fetch the Bolt Cutters follows Apple’s previous albums that defined ‘sadgirl’ aesthetics, rejection of patriarchal standards and, again, the general bullshit of society. While Fetch the Bolt Cutters is undoubtedly within Apple’s wheelhouse, there is a new aura of confidence and acceptance that is woven into the lyrics this time around. She learned from her high school bullies, her abusers and anyone who held her down, turning her experiences into fuel for her creativity and healing.

“I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill / Shoes that were not made for running up that hill / But I need to run up that hill / I need to run up that hill / I will; I will.” 

As a now 42-year-old woman, Apple has seen the world for what it is: unfair and brutal but inevitable. Apple’s album insists that rather than let the world happen to you and scream into the void, pick up your tool of choice and cut your way out.

Listen: Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Read the full review for Fetch the Bolt Cutters here.

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