Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2020

I never thought I’d need music again like I did in 2020.

I spent big chunks of 2018 and 2019 sorting back through records that had been formative in my life, first from the 2000s and then the 2010s. If anything, those processes showed me that the way I listened to music and connected with it had largely changed. And that made sense: the 2000s were the decade where I came of age, where I fell in the love with music for the first time, and where I went through the tumult of high school and all the joys and stumbles that path entails; the 2010s were my college years, the decade where I fell in love with my wife, where I saw my big youthful dreams die, where I saw another set of dreams sprout up to take their place, where I got married, and where I found my way toward contentment in my professional and personal life.

That kind of contentment is a gift, but it can also change the way you connect with art. When you’re young, you latch onto music in a primal way, because your emotions are heightened and every year brings so many milestones and so much change. Settling into the routine of adulthood affords fewer reasons to rely on an album like it’s a lifeline, or to listen to a song and feel like it might have just saved your life. Looking back at my year-end lists from the past two years, it’s clear to me that I was losing that visceral bond with the songs I thought I loved. While there are albums I adore on those lists, there are also many that don’t have any true relationship with beyond simple appreciation. 2020 was different. The world was a storm and I turned to music again as my raincoat, not unlike the way I used to in high school or college and facing a broken heart or a moment of crisis.

In recent days and weeks, as countless music fans across the internet have shared their “best of 2020” lists, I’ve read time and time again that folks “didn’t listen to much new music in 2020.” Maybe they felt they lacked the mental or emotional capacity to process anything else that was new and unfamiliar when our entire way of life suddenly seemed alien. Maybe people were just retreating to albums and songs they’d loved for years, taking solace in sounds that felt like old friends.

That wasn’t me: I spent the year putting out a call to the music world to give me something, anything that made me feel alive, or that spoke to the hope or grief or resilience or frustration I was feeling at any given moment. And the artists more than answered that call, delivering music that kept me afloat through it all, from the early days of the pandemic to a summer that never quite was, and from the jitters of election night through to the melancholy sadness that floated over the holiday season. It’s my favorite single-year slate of albums in at least half a decade – a list where I feel a more emotional connection with the LP at number 26 than I did with last year’s number 6. For the sake of the world and my own mental health, I hope I don’t have a reason to lean on music as much in 2021 as I did in 2020. But during a time when almost everything around me felt like it was falling apart, these albums gave me the hope and faith to keep going. I’ll never forget that.

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Review: Taylor Swift – Evermore

Taylor Swift - evermore

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Taylor Swift’s folklore was one of 2020’s few saving graces. For myself and many other Taylor fans, the songs on that album were a salve to sooth some of the heartbreak and disappointment of this year. Even the discourse around the songs was a welcome distraction from all the bad things happening around us. That the album would never have come to exist, likely in any form, without the pandemic is one of the only positives in this remarkably net-negative hellscape we’ve been living in since March. So when Taylor announced that she’d be dropping a sequel album called evermore last Thursday, it felt a bit like lightning striking twice. The first album was a sepia-toned autumnal beauty shot through with the wistful strains of a dying summer—in 2020’s case, a lost summer. Released two weeks out from what could be the loneliest Christmas many people ever experience, evermore promised to be folklore’s wintry twin: a cold-weather soundtrack full of snow-strewn backdrops, frosty windows, and solitary reflections. Taylor positioned the album as her gift to everyone else for her 31st birthday, but it’s more like alternative Christmas music in a year when playing the usual celebratory Christmas tunes seems bizarre or even profane. Tis the damn season, folks, and Taylor Swift is here to get you through it.

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Review: Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

Chris Stapleton - Starting Over

Chris Stapleton, it seems, has little interest in being famous. Five years on from the CMA Awards team-up with Justin Timberlake that made Stapleton a superstar, he’s yet to cash in on his A-list status in any of the significant way, barring perhaps playing concerts in bigger rooms. His follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have been gargantuan. He easily could have called in another favor from Timberlake for a guest feature, and you have to assume that other famous pop stars, country stars, songwriters, and producers were lining up to work with him. Yet, rather than deliver a bid for crossover success, Stapleton dropped a pair of albums that were, essentially, b-side collections. From A Room: Vol. 1 and From A Room: Vol. 2, released roughly six months apart in 2017, were made up of covers and songs that Stapleton had written during his long career as a writer for a Nashville publishing agency. The songs didn’t grapple with Stapleton’s newfound fame, nor did they really push any boundaries in terms of sonics or structure. Instead, both records played like low-stakes almost-demo collections, with spartan production, no notable features, and no-frills production from Dave Cobb, the same guy who’d sat behind the boards for Traveller.

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Review: U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind

All That You Can’t Leave Behind is not the best U2 album. The Joshua Tree is greater and grander. Achtung Baby is more innovative and more daring. War has more to say. I can see reasonable arguments for preferring most of the U2 catalog over this record—and frankly, many U2 fans do. Even the band’s non-Achtung ‘90s albums—the experimental, occasionally brilliant, occasionally baffling pair of Zooropa and Pop—tend to garner more praise from the average U2 fan than their 2000 comeback. And yet, despite all the criticisms thrown at All That You Can’t Leave Behind—that it’s too safe; that it effectively ends U2’s legacy as a chance-taking band; that it’s as top-heavy as any 2000s record give or take a Hot Fuss—it’s also, by far, the U2 album I reach for most. The Joshua Tree is my go-to favorite, and Achtung is the one I love thinking about most, but All That You Can’t Leave Behind has an advantage over both: something about it just feels like home.

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Review: Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

Bruce Springsteen - Letter to You

At this point, you don’t get a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band project without questions about it being the last one. That’s actually been the case for years: when Springsteen and company closed out their 1999-2000 reunion tour at Madison Square Garden with a special extended version of “Blood Brothers,” it felt remarkably final. Nine years later, when The Boss concluded the Working on a Dream tour with a full-circle performance of his debut album, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, a common topic of conversation in the Springsteen fan community was about whether we’d ever get another E Street tour. The band came back in 2012—sans late sideman Clarence Clemons—for a tour supporting Springsteen’s then-new LP Wrecking Ball, and came back again in 2016 to play 1980’s double-LP masterpiece The River in full night after night. At the end of each tour, the question resurfaced: was this the last dance? The ensuing years only gave credence to the idea that it might be, as Springsteen penned his memoir, spent more than year on Broadway, and circled back to old songs for last year’s solo Western Stars. Each of these projects was wrought with ruminations about fading youth, aging, and mortality. Bruce wrote and spoke extensively about Clemons, whose death in 2011 clearly shook him to the core. On Stars, he closed the album with “Moonlight Motel,” his most aching look back at the past, and at the little glories of youthful freedom and young love that can’t quite ever be replicated or recaptured.

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Review: Taylor Swift – Speak Now

Taylor Swift - Speak Now

Speak Now is the most pivotal album in the Taylor Swift discography. It’s not the one that started the story (2006’s self-titled debut) or the one that made her a global superstar (2008’s Fearless), nor is it her biggest album (2014’s 1989) or her straight-up best (2012’s Red). But it was on Speak Now where Swift took full control of her creative enterprise, came into her own as a songwriter, and established many of the key elements that would ground her career for the next decade. It also might be the album that, more than any other, sets the table for the next 10 years of country music, from the pop influences to the confessional style of songwriting. It is, in a word, a landmark.

Swift, unlike many mainstream country stars, was always a songwriter first and foremost. Her debut self-titled record dropped when she was just 16 years old, but she still had writing credits on all 11 songs (and wrote three of them solo, including the number-one country smash “Our Song”). On Fearless, she more than doubled that number, taking solo writing credits on seven of the 13 songs (including “Love Story,” which briefly became the best-selling country single of all time). Still, Swift racked up a lot of co-writes on those first two albums, particularly with veteran Nashville songwriter Liz Rose, who has 12 writing credits across Taylor Swift and Fearless. On Speak Now, the big selling point isn’t that it’s a concept album about wild romance and dramatic heartbreak (Red), or a leap into pop (1989), or a rejoinder to her haters (Reputation), or her “indie” record (folklore). No, the big selling point here is the simple fact that Swift wrote all 14 tracks by herself.

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Review: Jimmy Eat World – Invented

Jimmy Eat World - Invented

I have fallen in love with a disproportionately large number of my favorite albums in cars. Riding in cars, sleeping in cars, driving in cars, singing in cars. 15-minute drives to school in cars and cross-country road trips in cars. Nighttime drives with no other cars on the road and gridlocked rush hour drives with hundreds of other cars on the road. Hot-as-hell summer drives in cars and cold-as-ice winter drives in cars that were slipping and sliding down snow-covered roads. Celebratory “turn the music up” moments in cars with friends, and long, lonely, sad solo drives in cars with nothing but the music and my own thoughts to keep me company. There is something about being in transit in an automobile that makes music sound better, and it’s something that can’t be replicated on a boat, or a plane, or a train, or a subway, or a city bus. It’s the combination of the small space and the big sound, of the endless scenery flying by outside the window and the tiny self-contained environment of the vehicle. The right car ride can make a good album sound great and a great album sound immaculate. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my fondest years of musical discovery align directly with the years where I spent the most time in cars.

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Review: Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy

On his debut album, 2018’s sublime Dying Star, Ruston Kelly grappled with addiction and found his way to sobriety. It was a raw, revealing, heart-wrenching record, wrought with struggle and pain and rendered incredibly moving by what looked, at the time, like a hard-won happy ending. Kelly wrote the album after getting sober, falling in love, and getting married, to country star Kacey Musgraves. “I’m a dying star, front seat of your car/Where you brave the cold and come find me falling apart/Brought me out of the dark/I went way too far this time.” So Kelly sang on Dying Star’s eponymous song and penultimate track. In the album’s liner notes, he explained the lyrics and the idea of the song, which were inspired directly by the support Musgraves lent to him when he needed a little help pulling himself out of the darkness:

Stars are born and will die to be born as new stars again. A supernova brings life anew to the universe. A galactic baptism of sorts.

This song is an ode to the love between Kacey and I. There were many nights during the making of this record where I broke down in her car from the weight of who I had been. And how deep below I felt under it. And she every time, with patience and that special redemptive power only great women possess, reminded me I’m not that man anymore. No matter who or where you are, you have your thorn. It is my belief that’s why we are alive on this earth. To see the glow in the cracks. Light in the tunnel. Suffering is a prerequisite to joy in my opinion. But it’s also the human element that connects us all.

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Review: The Killers – Imploding the Mirage

The Killers - Imploding the Mirage

Did The Killers just make their best record?

Conventional wisdom about The Killers—at least in the critical community—is that they peaked on their first record, delivered a few iconic hits and a bunch of filler, and then went off on an ill-advised journey to become this generation’s U2 (if this generation’s U2 were fronted by Bruce Springsteen, that is). People adored the glitzy, hedonistic pop tunes on 2004’s Hot Fuss because they were undeniable. They still are: there’s a reason “Mr. Brightside” kills at every wedding you’ve ever been to. But go forward in this band’s catalog and you’ll find fewer and fewer champions for each of their ensuing albums. 2006’s Sam’s Town, at least, is regarded as something of a lost classic. 2008’s Day & Age also has a generally positive reputation for its playful, all-over-the-place vibe—though its ardent fans are fewer and farther between than Sam’s Town’s. 2012’s ultra-bombastic Battle Born has its defenders (including yours truly), but also tends to get written off by music critics, casual fans, and Brandon Flowers himself. And Wonderful Wonderful is regarded by most as something of a dud (also not by me).

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Butch Walker Week

Butch Walker

Once upon a time, I had a lot more time to write about music than I do now!

In 2013, about a year after I joined the staff at AbsolutePunk, I decided I’d take on a project called “Butch Walker Week.” The basic idea was that I’d go back and write about every Butch album, from the records with his former band Marvelous 3 up to his solo output, in the week leading up to his then-new EP Peachtree Battle. That project ended up running 11 reviews and about 16,000 words of text.

When Jason started reviving old AbsolutePunk content to post here on Chorus, I knew I wanted to resurrect this feature. Butch Walker has been one of the absolute constants in my musical evolution for the past 15 years. Getting to write about all his records back then was super fulfilling (and even earned some Twitter recognition from the man himself). Reading back through these reviews reminded me how much these albums meant to me (and how much they continue to mean to me now). So whether you’re familiar with Butch’s work or just thinking about listening to him for the first time, I hope you’ll give these old write-ups a look!

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Review: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

When Arcade Fire won the Album of the Year Grammy for The Suburbs on February 13, 2011, it was legitimately shocking. Sure, the Grammys, as an institution, are known for weird out-of-left-field choices, particularly in the Album of the Year category, where the favorites (either odds-wise or in terms of public or critical sentiment) regularly lose to something a bit more sentimental (think Green Day, Usher, Alicia Keys, and Kanye West all losing to the late Ray Charles in 2005) or maybe just a bit more white (Beyonce’s self-titled smash losing to an unexceptional late-career Beck album in 2015). But The Suburbs was different. There was no precedent for an indie band taking the top prize. A band hadn’t won the award period since U2 and Dixie Chicks won back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. The other contenders were also all gargantuan albums that had spawned at least one ubiquitous, generational hit: Katy Petty’s Teenage Dream, Eminem’s Recovery, Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now. Arcade Fire weren’t nobodies: they’d made arguably the second most acclaimed album of the 2000s with 2004’s Funeral (the first most acclaimed being Radiohead’s Kid A), and The Suburbs had even debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. But next to a gaggle of mainstream hit machines, the Canadian indie rock band didn’t stand a chance.

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Review: Taylor Swift – Folklore

Taylor Swift - folklore

Not many songwriters have ever been better than Taylor Swift at opening up a window into their own life. While songwriting is often a deeply personal artform, one of Swift’s greatest strengths has always been her ability to make listeners feel like she was singing to them from the pages of her diary. Some of her greatest songs—“All Too Well,” “Last Kiss,” “Long Live,” “Soon You’ll Get Better,” “Lover”—are snapshots of important moments or milestones of her life that she felt her fans deserved to live along with her: boys who broke her heart; triumphs of her young life; her mom’s battle with cancer; the relationship that might just stand the test of time. She’s always written these stories vividly, with details that make them feel as lived-in to you as your own memories: the places, the dates, the objects, the articles of clothing, the colors, the refrigerator light. Swift got so good so early on at telling her own story that, by the time she got to her most recent albums—2017’s Reputation and last year’s Lover—the songs had begun to feel like her chance to have the last word on all the tabloid bullshit that had built up around her life. The results were thrilling, but they sometimes lacked the lovely, unguarded scene-setting she’d perfected on Speak Now and Red. Instead of feeling like diary pages, the lyrics felt a bit like op-eds—still honest, still written with the strong voice of an obviously skilled scribe, but more clearly meant for public consumption. The thing that had made Swift seem most special at first—that you could picture her writing these songs in her bedroom, with no idea whether anyone would ever hear them—wasn’t as present anymore.

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Why Music Still Matters

It’s easy at a time like this to start viewing music as trivial, as inessential, as disposable; as something we can cancel and forget. The last few months have been tough. They’ve delayed tours, eliminated annual festivals from the calendar, and left artists unable even to play bars for half-attentive audiences—let alone arenas for hordes of fans. They’ve cleared concert halls, halted opera and symphony seasons, and shut the lights down on Broadway. They’ve made album release days feel almost frivolous, because how can we spend our days talking about or digesting new music when the world seems to be falling apart around us? They’ve caused music writers in my Twitter feed to ponder out loud whether their jobs have meaning or relevance at a time like this. Amazon indirectly labeled books and music as inessential by calling a temporary halt to shipments of physical media like vinyl and CDs.

And yet, in other ways, the past four months have underlined why music matters so much. People in countries like Italy and Spain were quarantined and locked down, unable to interact with one another or even leave their homes. They found solace, connection, and communal emotion by playing or singing together from their balconies. We’ve perhaps never been so cognizant of the physical distances between us. I certainly can’t recall another situation where keeping apart from others was not just a personal choice but a mandate. And yet, music has been forging invisible bridges across those gaps in the air, allowing hearts and voices and melodies to join even in a year where “social distancing” has become a part of our collective vocabulary.

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Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Best of 2020 (So Far)

I don’t need to tell anyone reading these words that 2020 has been a tough year. The last few months have, in many ways, been like living through a nightmare and slowly realizing you don’t get to wake up from it. Thank God, then, for the music. A few major artists delayed their new albums because of COVID-19, but the ones that stayed the course and released their art into this uncertain world have had an unusual opportunity to make a mark as much more than background music. In the depths of quarantine, I certainly used music as something of a life raft, looking to Fridays and new album releases as rare bright spots in weeks packed with bad news, or building huge emotional connections with the records on this list. I frankly can’t remember a year that had a stronger first half in terms of music releases. I guess someone out there knew we fucking needed something good to break the deluge of bad.

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