TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has come up with a list of his favorite albums of 2020. That includes music acts old and new with artists ranging from Dua Lipa to Bob Dylan. It was a year, Ken says, in which familiarity was comforting and artistic daring provided some very necessary inspiration for hope.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE LIFE")
X: (Singing) Wind up a top. It spins 'til it drops. It spins fast. Hit the gas. That's me falling. That's my calling. It's been a strange day, a strange night, strange day, strange life.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It's been a strange day, a strange night sings the great Los Angeles rock band X in a phrase that comes close to summing up 2020 for me. In early April, X released "Alphabetland," the quartet's first album of new material with its original lineup in 35 years. It's my favorite album of the year for the way it seized its moment with an urgency that the band couldn't have known would be so timely just before the world seemed to shut down. These days, I'm listening with increased appreciation to a song on the album that I didn't even play in my initial review. It's the powerful cry of exhilaration and release called "Free."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE")
X: (Singing) My words are fire. My fist is raised. I got a question you can't answer. You hurt my sister with a doctor's hand with boiling water and blowing sand. Let me go free. Don't tell me I can't. Let me go free. Don't tell me I can't. Let me go free to a promised land.
TUCKER: This year that was like no other ended up making me respond to its music in a way I never had before. The pandemic, along with unprecedented political and social upheaval, made the notion of pleasure both more intense and more open to question. There was a general feeling among almost everyone I know that we didn't just want to be transported by new music. We needed to be transported. The escapism of art was one of the few things we had control over. It's this context that gives the bright pop sound of Dua Lipa its depth on her marvelous album "Future Nostalgia."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEVITATING")
DUA LIPA: (Singing) If you wanna run away with me, I know a galaxy and I could take you for a ride. I had a premonition that we fell into a rhythm where the music don't stop for life. Glitter in the sky, glitter in my eyes, shining just the way I like. If you feeling like you need a little bit of company, you met me at the perfect time. You want me. I want you, baby. My sugar boo, I'm levitating. The milky way, we're renegading, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I got you, moonlight. You're my starlight. I need you all night. Come on. Dance with me. I'm levitating.
TUCKER: X and Dua Lipa occupy the first two spots on my 2020 top 10. Here's the rest. The Happy Fits and their album "What Could Be Better," Low Cut Connie's "Private Lives," which for my money was a better Bruce Springsteen album than the year's actual Bruce Springsteen album. In the fifth spot is Taylor Swift's "Folklore," then Fiona Apple's clattering comeback album "Fetch The Bolt Cutters." Let's pause to hear Apple performing "Heavy Balloon."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVY BALLOON")
FIONA APPLE: (Singing) People like us, we play with a heavy balloon. We keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon. People like us, we play with a heavy balloon. We keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon. People like us, we play with a heavy balloon. We keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon. I spread like strawberries. I climb like peas and beans. I've been sucking it in so long that I'm busting at the seams.
TUCKER: Finishing off my list at No. 7, there's the sister act Haim with "Women In Music Pt. III," the bristling hip-hop broadsides of Run The Jewels on "RTJ4," Bob Dylan's remarkably spunky collection "Rough And Rowdy Ways" and Pokey LaFarge for his album "Rock Bottom Rhapsody." No one all year has hit rock bottom as beautifully as Pokey.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF MY ROPE")
POKEY LAFARGE: (Singing) Growing up was easy for some but not me. And getting older is the same old story. They say I've come too far, but too late to turn back now. So I guess there's nowhere left to go. Say it loud for the whole world to know. Let me die on stage singing the last song I know. Let the spotlight shine the skin off my bones. Yes, I'm a long way from normal and not much left to go 'til I get to the end of my rope.
TUCKER: And I should add that if this were a list of the year's best singles, it would be dominated by hip-hop where Megan thee Stallion and Flo Milli made exhilaratingly intricate and profane music and where Lil Yachty, Drake and DaBaby collaborated on the year's most amusing song, "Oprah's Bank Account." Missing from my list this year is a country album. With the exception of Mickey Guyton's song "Black Like Me," too much of the most popular country music sounded safe and timid during a time that demanded resilience and fortitude. Those are also qualities I wish for you now and in the new year to come.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. You can find his 10 best list at freshair.npr.org. The "Anthology Of American Folk Music" has been called the founding document of the American folk revival of the '50s and '60s. It's a collection of commercial recordings from the '20s and '30s of folk and blues musicians, and it was curated by an eccentric collector of 78s named Harry Smith. Now there's a new box set collecting the flip sides of those historically important 78s. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear from Lance and April Ledbetter, who curated that new box set and released it on their label, Dust-to-Digital. And we'll hear from comic Amber Ruffin, a writer and performer on "Late Night With Seth Meyers," who now has her own show on Peacock, NBC's streaming service. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OWN VERSION OF YOU")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) All through the summers into January, I've been visiting morgues and monasteries looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts. I'll bring someone to life. It's what I want to do. I wanna create my own version of you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.