Now we come to the Grand Finale of lists – our Favorite 50 Albums of 2020. As is always the case, the list does not represent the best albums of the year because we are in no position to say which album stands above all the rest. We heard only a small fraction of what was released this year, so we can only share what we know. The list is in alphabetical order, and as customary we’ve included a playlist. If you would like to check out lists from the recent and distant past, click here.

Happy Holidays everyone, and thanks for joining us on another year of musical discovery!

A.A. WilliamsForever Blue

First impressions can last a lifetime. It can also make a career, and A.A. Williams album, Forever Blue, is one of the most impressive debuts of the past five years. The record is a starkly enrapturing pageantry of Gothic post-rock and post-classical. The London-based artist masterfully balances bleakness with beauty, heaviness with levitating lightness, and harshness with haunting allure. Her music, however, is not the only aspect of her limitless talents that creates a trembling effect. Throughout the LP’s eight songs, Williams enchants with her tales of isolation, anxiety, suffering, and an awakening. Pain seeps through the slow-building “All I Asked For (Was To End It All)” and the emotionally revealing “I’m Fine”. It is on “Melt”, however, where Williams reaches her apex and delivers an unforgettable moment from an unforgettable record.  ~Ben

 

Agnes ObelMyopia

Very few artists can make melancholy feel like an out-of-body experience, but Agnes Obel is beyond ordinary. The Danish singer-songwriter, producer, and composer’s fourth album, Myopia, is vulnerable, emotive, and stunning. From the LP’s delicate opener, “Camera’s Rolling”, to its emotional centerpiece, the enchanting title track, to the beautiful finale, “Won’t You Call Me”, Obel weaves a spell that is unbreakable. Through the gorgeous arrangements and the artist’s soft vocals, Myopia also feels fractured. Her lyrics give the sense that she’s stuck in an unforgiving, desolate place. As she sings on “Island of Doom”, she is being self-consumed, “For the road of your mind will eat you up / On your island of doom”. And yet, she won’t give in, as she repeats,  “I won’t be no effigy”, on “Can’t Be”. One listen, though, is all it takes for listeners to succumb to Obel’s wonderful artistry.   ~Ben

 

Angelica Garcia – Cha Cha Palace

Angelica Garcia’s first record, Medicine for Birds, was a southern style rocker with what felt like occasional mentions of her Salvadoran grandmother and her Latinx heritage. On her latest record, Cha Cha Palace, Garcia completely embraces her culture, and the result is one of the year’s best records. The folk rock is largely gone, and in its place is electronics, looped vocals, and Latin style drumming. Songs like “Karma The Knife” and “Lucifer Waiting” are infectiously danceable. “Jícama” made Barack Obama’s favorite music list, and for good reason: it’s about Garcia’s identity as an American-born Mexican & Salvadoran, and the struggle of being seen as any kind of identity. There’s still some rock, like “It Don’t Hinder Me”, a proud acceptance of her L.A. roots. It also features one of the year’s most haunting tracks, “Valentina in the Moonlight”, Garcia’s voice powers over finger picked guitar and an perfectly understated layer of drum machine. Cha Cha Palace’s biggest statement comes from “Guadalupe”, a song of female empowerment, invoking La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Cha Cha Palace marks a transformation for Garcia, from a great indie-folk singer into a powerful voice for the Latinx community.  ~Rich

 

Bambara – Stray

There was a time when albums were vehicles for brilliantly-conceived concepts and stories. Such records are now a rarity in music in general, unless the band’s name is Bambara. With their fourth LP, Stray, Reid Bateh (vocals/guitar), William Brookshire (bass), and Blaze Bateh (drums) have created the musical equivalent of Frank Miller’s famed Sin City collection. It is, in other words, a dark, heavy, and astounding sonic and literary achievement that turns sound into cinema. Each of the ten songs tells the story of different character and her/his rise and fall. The searing broodiness of “Miracle”, the heart-racing suspense of “Heat Lightning”, and the dreary but pounding “Machete” highlight the trio’s creativity and imagination. All now that needs to happen is for someone like Quentin Tarantino to take Bambara’s stories and put them on screen.  ~Ben

 

The BethsJump Rope Gazers

The dreaded sophomore slump is known to afflict musicians and bands, but New Zealand’s The Beths buck the trend with their outstanding Jump Rope Gazers. Whereas their debut LP, Future Hates Me, was like the soundtrack for a John Hughes’ movie, their sophomore effort is a worthy sequel to the trials and tribulations of twenty-somethings trying to maneuver through life’s many obstacles. With jittery, guitar-pop flair, “I’m Not Getting Excited” and “Dying to Believe” sees front-woman Elizabeth Stokes trying to find happiness in routine. Yet despite her own challenges, Stokes still seeks to be our best friend, as she proclaims her unbreakable loyalty on the stirring title track, “Don’t Go Away”, and “Out of Sight”. Jump Rope Gazers isn’t just another record – it is the stories of all of our lives.  ~Ben

 

BullySugaregg

Change represents an opportunity to do something new. Or, in the case of Alicia Bognanno, it represented an opportunity for her to be truly heard, as she turned Bully into her solo project. The result is Sugaregg, Bully’s third album that remains as loud and propulsive as its first two albums. This time, however, Bognanno sings with more power and reassurance. Opener “Add It On” is raw and explosive with the Nashville-based artist hollering, “Okay, I had mine, but I’m angry / And I want someone to blame”. These words of not lying down for anyone are reiterated on the anthemic duo “Every Tradition” and “Where to Star”. The record is also filled with revelatory moments. The melodic rocker, “Prism”, sees Borgnanno openly discuss lively with bipolar disorder while she on examines her relationship with her mother on the moving “Hours and Hours”. Despite all the changes in her life, Bognanno once again reveals she’s a tour-de-force and one of music’s finest talents of the past decade.  ~Ben

 

Caroline RoseSuperstar

Right from the first track on Superstar, you can tell things are gonna get weird. That’s the charm of Caroline Rose’s music: it’s weird, groovy, and catchy as hell. Huge synths mark the opening track, “Nothing’s Impossible”, and halfway through, a spoken-word part with wild vocal effects cut the track in half. It stars the narrative of the album – one of Caroline Rose, the “superstar”, an embellished version of herself with bits of music’s big stars mixed in, including Kanye and Britney. Singing about moving to L.A. in “Got to Go My Own Way” to the self-centered “Feel The Way I Want”, Rose stays in character the entire record. Superstar couldn’t exist if Rose didn’t have a sense of humor. From the anxiety-driven “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?” to “Freak Like Me”, Rose’s wit is on full display. The record is FUN. It’s also musically rich, with big synths, vocal manipulation executed to perfection, and tracks that match the ambition of Rose’s Superstar vision.  ~Rich

 

DarlingsideFish Pond Fish

Few bands give listeners a purer listening experience than Darlingside. The four-piece indie baroque folk-pop outfit known for their cashmere-smooth harmonies released the best album of their career this year. Fish Pond Fish is the soothing antidote to 2020 and all its myriad stresses. These eleven songs are infused with bright energy that rejuvenates from start to finish. The vivid lyrical imagery begs to be heard with closed eyes; in return the band reward listeners with sigh-inducing calm. Songs like “Crystal Caving” and “Ocean Bed” evoke the serenity of a cloudless summer day while “Denver” and “See You Change” call to mind colorful autumn splendor. There is no denying the talent of this band. Fish Pond Fish is the kind of album listeners can escape into any time of year. Its lush tones and textures fit every season, making it a must-have album for all music fans.   ~Hollie

 

Deep Sea Diver Impossible Weight

The entire year of 2020 has felt like an impossible weight to bear. When the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jessica Dobson and her husband/drummer, Peter Mansen wrapped up work on Impossible Weight, the third Deep Sea Diver record. Like many on this list, it’s a personal record, one that references the heft of responsibility, many moments on the album are inspired by her time volunteering in a homeless shelter for sex workers, and how that perspective changed her views on her own issues. The record centers around its title track that features a guest appearance from Sharon Van Etten, but it’s worth more than a guest appearance. Dobson’s voice is undeniable throughout. It’s a dynamic thriller of a record that goes many different places and tells many different stories.  ~Rich

 

Dolly ValentineHow to Be Good

Dolly Valentine’s How To Be Good was a big leap for those involved. Leslie Schott and Andrew Valenti were creating music as Holy Golden, hallmarked by heavy drum-machine percussion, distorted post-rock influenced guitar, and Schott’s stunning voice. However, it was time for a change, and Dolly Valentine was born. Musically, the transformation was huge. The distortion was gone, and the drums became delicately-played companions for pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and piano. What didn’t change was the power of Schott’s voice. Lyrically, Dolly Valentine try to navigate the question presented in the album title: how can we be good in a world that doesn’t make much sense? Songs like “Love is Love” and “Stupid Love Song” show that love can guide us. Not grand gestures of love, but the love of friends, family, and someone beside you on the road. The whole record has a nostalgic feel, not in a “reliving the good ol’ days” way but looking back and appreciating the lessons of the past. How To Be Good is a heartfelt record: it’s warm, it’s inviting, but most of all it’s human.   ~Rich

 

Drive-by TruckersThe Unraveling, The New OK

Drive-By Truckers had not planned to release their 12th and 13th albums in the same year. But a lot changed between the January arrival of the first, The Unraveling, and the release of its successor, The New OK, in October. Dystopian topics loom large on these albums, their response to a calamitous year marked by heartbreak and fear. This band has never bit their tongues regarding important issues; if anything, their outrage is fueled by their outspokenness and vice versa.

But the music is far from depressing: the power chords and scorching riffs flow nonstop, sound-tracking history one song at a time. As much as we would like to forget that 2020 included deadly wildfires, the murders of innocent Black men and women, fascist riots, and babies in cages, at least Drive-By Truckers gave listeners plenty of ways to cope with the news. Both albums serve as a wake-up call with timeless messages worth heeding.  ~Hollie

 

E^STI’m Doing It

Australian alt-pop star E^ST (Melisa Bester) delivered a captivating and exhilarating debut album this past summer, I’m Doing It. The 22-year old lays out her highs and lows and the full gamut of emotions with her latest effort. The tracks cover young budding love on “Flight Path” and being unlucky in love with “Maybe It’s Me”, “I’m Not Funny Anymore”, and “Fresh Out of Love”. The title track tackles a lost love and the strength in finally moving on. “Talk Deep” is capturing the emotions felt with a brand new love. “Turn” speaks towards making different choices in life, hopefully better ones. Bester’s vocals do take the forefront on the album with simple instrumentation on most tracks and simplistic yet energetic beats. ~ Wendy

 

Ela MinusActs of Rebellion

There have been few debut records as anticipated as Ela Minusacts of rebellion. Gabriela Jimeno’s distinctive sound, defined by analog synthesizers, infectious drum-machines, and near-whisper vocals create a unique vibe. On acts of rebellion, Ela Minus exceeds expectations in many different ways. Jimeno gets political, as would be expected on an album named acts of rebellion. Tracks like “megapunk” and “they told is it was hard, but they were wrong” tell us that rebellion is not as difficult as you’d assume. Then on tracks like “el cielo no es de nadie” and “dominique”, it’s clear that Ela Minus finds small acts of love, of betterment, of change, of care are important acts of rebellion. The penultimate song, “do whatever you like, all the time” is a beautiful instrumental, but the title says it all, doing whatever you like is a revolutionary act. The record closes in a stunning way with an assist from Helado Negro. Jimeno describes Ela Minus as “bright music for dark times,” and for a year as dark as 2020, we sure appreciated the bright music.  ~Rich

 

Fiona AppleFetch the Bolt Cutters

Some albums may be louder and have more layers, but few can match the brilliance and low-key ferocity of Fiona Apple‘s first album in eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Recorded during quarantine, the legendary artist strips everything back and throws out the pop playbook that long guided her music. Instead, she sits herself at the piano with the support of a small band and goes off the board. The result is pure brilliance. Furthermore, her stories possess the eye-opening observations and honesty of Virginia Woolf or Mary Wollstonecraft. The title track intelligently tells Apple’s story of seeking liberation while the soulful “Under the Table” and smooth “Heavy Balloon” cleverly address how women’s servitude. She saves her most powerful words on “Newspaper”, on which she sings, “And it’s a shame, because you and I didn’t get a witness / We’re the only ones who know”. The record is not just simply a masterpiece, but it arrives at a time that perfectly documents how times are and still require changing.  ~Ben

 

Fontaines D.C.A Hero’s Death

With a debut album as transcendent as Dongrel, Dublin post-punk outfit Fontaines D.C. would have been forgiven if their sophomore effort fell a little short. After all, A Hero’s Death was released a year later. Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar), Conor Deegan III (bass), and Tom Coll (drums), however, not only dispelled notions that second records tend to be less impressive, but they unleashed another classic. It is bleaker, darker, and yet calmer than its predecessor. The foreboding mood echoes from tantalizing opener “I Don’t Belong”, to the LP’s jittery core of “You Said” and “Oh Such A Spring” to the pensiveness of closure “No”, perfectly reflects how the band have embraced and resisted change in these last 18 months. But beyond the darkness, Fontaines D.C. offer an unexpected shot of brightness. Within the depths of despair, they encourage us to search inwardly to find the answers to our plight. A Hero’s Death not only captures their evolution, it quietly charts a destination to which we all should journey. A place where each of us can eventually find our truest self.   ~Ben

 

Frances QuinlanLikewise

When Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlan announced her debut solo album, it was hard for fans to contain their excitement. Quinlan has an incredible way with words, taking small moments and turning them into grand statements. That does not change at all with Likewise. It’s obvious from just the opening moments. “Piltdown Man” is still as lyrically impactful, perhaps even more so with just Quinlan at an electric piano. “Your Reply” has a playful, throwback vibe, and showcases how multi-faceted Quinlan’s voice can be. From the heavy strumming on “A Secret” to the folky “Lean”, there is much variety on the record. The most interesting moment may be when “Now That I’m Back” shifts from a minimalist track with distorted vocals to an all-out dance party. On Likewise, without the distinctive roar of Hop Along, Quinlan was able to create a more diverse and mature record, while building on everything that makes her such a special songwriter.  ~Rich

 

Future IslandsAs Long as You Are

There’s no better answer to a tough year than a record from a band so full of passion and love as Future Islands. As Long As You Are is a welcome respite from this absolute dumpster fire of a year. The voice of Samuel T. Herring is as warm and inviting as ever, and the crew of William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and Mike Lowry create soundscapes as groovy and dreamy as ever. “For Sure” gets us moving like some of Future Islands’ best. “Born in a War” shifts the tone of the record and gives it more of an edge. There are some stunners when the record slows down. “City’s Face” is an ode to a changing hometown that’s become something unrecognizable, while “Thrill” is perhaps one of the band’s most impactful songs. Although they don’t push the envelope too far musically, As Long As You Are may be Future Islands’ strongest lyrical record.  ~Rich

 

I Break HorsesWarnings

Six years separated I Break Horses‘ memorable sophomore record, Chiaroscuro, and Warnings. For long-time fans of Maria Lindén, the break felt like an eternity, but the Stockholm-based artist rewarded the faithful and newcomers alike with an engrossing third album that masterfully fuses synth-pop, dream-pop, and shoegaze into a gorgeous cinematic affair. From heartbreak to elation and suffering to forgiveness, Warnings covers a range of push-pull emotions and unassailable struggles in an awe-inspiring escapade. It begins with the sweeping epic, “Turn”, and moves effortlessly through the widescreen effects of “Silence” and the cosmic allure of “I’ll Be The Death Of You” and “Neon Lights”.  It is on “Death Engine”, though, where Lindén’s talents shine. Euphoric and awe-inspiring, the song showcases how Lindén can take an emotional event (a friend’s suicide attempt) and turn it into an unforgettable epic that leaves a permanent mark on everyone it touches.  ~Ben

 

IDLESUltra Mono

In a year marked by resistance as people across the world stood together to address social inequality and injustice, one album captured the ongoing struggle. Not surprisingly, the Bristol battery of Joe Talbot (vocals), Mark Bowen (guitar, backing vocals), Slow Lee Kiernan (guitar), Dev Devonshire (bass, backing vocals), and Jon Beavis (drums) – a.k.a. IDLES – delivered the goods with their super-charged, politically-fueled third LP, Ultra Mono. For most of its 43-minute duration, the record is explosive. The hammerheads “War”, “Grounds”, and “Kill Them with Kindness” and the disco-punk “Reigns” roar with the desperation of a defiant people. The insightful “Model Village” addresses the isolated safe havens of the suburbs, where people live in a world of false realities. Even when the quintet slow things down, as they do on “A Hymn”, they deliver a powerful sermon about unity and inclusion. “I want to be loved / Everybody does” are words which we all can agree upon.   ~Ben

 

Lanterns on the LakeSpook the Herd

For more than a decade, Newcastle’s Lanterns on the Lake have developed a reputation as the thinking person’s band. They’ve written about economic crises, the dissolution of communities and families, and the importance of unity to combat our fears. Their thoughtful approach resulted in Hazel Wilde, Paul Gregory, Oliver Ketteringham, Bob Allan, and Angela Chan developing a solid legion of fans, but mainstream recognition escaped them. That was until this year. Their fourth studio album, Spook the Herd, earned them a long-awaited Mercury Prize nomination. It is meticulously composed with every element contributing to breathtaking soundscapes that surround Wilde’s soothing vocals and captivating stories. In many ways, Spook the Herd is like a page-turning book where each chapter presents a new experience. There are breathtaking moments (the stirring “When It All Comes True” and the majestic crescendo of “Every Atom”), times of pure cinema (“Swimming Lessons”, “Before They Excavate”), and periods of uneasiness (“Blue Screen Beams”). And once it comes to an end, the only thing left to do, as we do with the great books of our time, is replay and re-live the experience all over again.   ~Ben

 

Lo TomLP2

“Kneeling at the altar of easy credit” is one of those lines that becomes tattooed on your psyche after the first listen. Strokes of lyrical brilliance like this are scattered throughout the second album from Lo Tom, the collaboration between members of Pedro the Lion and Starflyer59. These eight songs may seem like pure grungy rock ’n roll on the surface, but a closer listen reveals a lifetime’s worth of sage advice sung by David Bazan. LP2 begins with a bang: “Start Payin’” features riffs strong enough to wake the dead along with the “easy credit” reference to adult responsibility. On “Outta Here” Bazan wields lyrics with the precision of a surgeon’s knife (“at a tender age I learned to scrub my feelings whenever they went against the grain”) as he cuts deep into layers of emotional walls. These songs offer the most cathartic release when played at max volume. Bazan and bandmates TW Walsh, Jason Martin, and Trey Many provide Hüsker Dü-level intensity sure to satisfy Gen-X fans while also appealing to younger listeners as well. Let the reverberation of each power chord resonate on a cellular level. This is an album you can keep in heavy rotation and discover new facets with each listen. Musically and lyrically, it packs a punch worth savoring.  ~Hollie

 

LomeldaHannah

Hannah Read has been creating some of the most beautiful, heartfelt music over the last few years as Lomelda. On Hannah, she focuses on her identity, affirming it with the album title, but questioning it throughout, in moments that address that uncertainty. “Hannah Sun” is a simple mantra, “Hannah, do no harm.” While most of the record goes into that pretty folk area, there are moments like “It’s Lomelda” that go into electronic forays. It actually grounds the record and helps contrast the quieter moments, even within the same song. “Stranger Sat By Me” feels like a turning-point on the record. As it starts out quiet and understated, Read sings, “What’s your name? / are you okay?” as it departs into a surreal and tense ending. “Hannah Happiest” offers the answer: “Asked you if you knew who I was / you said ‘Hannah”. An introspective conversation occurs on “Hannah Please”, which brings this stunning album to a powerful, beautiful conclusion.  ~Rich

 

Love Fame TragedyEverywhere I Go, I Want To Leave

2020 did not include any new music from The Wombats since they announced a hiatus.  Matthew Murphy, however, graced fans with his new project, Love Fame Tragedy. His new offering is probably the most raw and open, as he tackles topics like transgressions and addiction on “My Cheating Heart” and “Pills”. He also brings up mental health issues on “5150”. The album wouldn’t be complete without speaking of relationships that might not be the best on “Hardcore” and “Riding A Wave”.  Murphy just has a knack for singing about serious subject matters with the most feel-good beats, offering the perfect balance to this difficult year. ~Wendy

 

MarsicansUrsa Major

Sometimes there are bands that emerge and they just can’t seem to record one bad track. So far, Marsicans are one of those bands.  Just take a listen to their current catalog which dates back to 2014 and reaches its apex on Ursa Major. The quartet’s debut album is a stellar achievement that turns melodic indie rock into an anthemic affair. Beyond the infectious noise lies stories of despair and struggle. They tackle addiction on “Mr. Jekyll” and strained relationships on “Summery In Angus” and “Leave Me Outside”. “Juliet” addresses one’s battle with anxiety and overthinking, and “These Days” touches on isolation and not even wanting to go outside.  “Someone Else’s Touch” is a beautiful song on love lost. “Evie” is heartbreaking and shows the depth of their songwriting. The growth of their sound and talent leaves us all to wonder why everyone does not already know their name. ~Wendy

 

MISSIOCan You Feel The Sun

Austin-based MISSIO released a solid and cohesive album this year, Can You Feel The Sun, which once again highlights Matthew Brue’s transparent and impactful lyrics. They also brought in some hard hitting collaborations with Paul Wall (“Cry Baby”) and Esoteric from Czarface on “Vagabond”, which definitely gets you hyped up. There is something for everyone with this album. The title track is a standout, which provides infectious melodies that convey hope roped in with doubt. “Don’t Forget To Open Your Eyes” is for those just struggling to get up each and every day.  MISSIO’s eclectic sound on this album further proves the duo’s growth and expansion in who they are. They continue to create art based on their vision and it crosses all genres. ~Wendy

 

Nadia ReidOut of My Province

The most truly special albums require your uninterrupted attention, where they are spun in the quiet solitude of a room or a cabin on the lake. Singer-songwriter Nadia Reid‘s third album, Out of My Province, is one of them. Working with Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb, the resident of Port Chalmers, New Zealand, transforms her trademark indie-folk beginnings into a lush and stunning experience. While her sound is more widescreen, her storytelling brilliance remains. Loneliness and yearning for companionship quietly bellow on the gorgeous “All of My Love” and the knockout stunner “High & Lonely”. The upbeat tribute the land of the north, “Oh Canada”, and the folk-rocker “The Future” rekindle memories of long road trips. The album’s closer, “Get the Devil Out”, though, is the show stopper. Featuring just Reid, her acoustic guitar, and supporting strings, the song is a moment of unexpected open vulnerability from the usually quiet and guarded artist. In the process, she delivers one of the year’s most unforgettable songs from a truly extraordinary record.   ~Ben

 

Nation of LanguageIntroduction, Presence

“Imitation is the best compliment,” says an old adage. But what if the new output is even better than the original, such as with Nation of Language‘s spectacular debut, Introduction, Presence? Reinventing ’80s new wave and synth-pop, Ian Devaney (vocals), Aidan Noéll (synths), and Michael Sue-Poi (bass) crafted a record that transcends anything made by artists who topped the charts 40 years ago, as it simultaneously captures hopelessness and loss with optimism and heroism. The stunning “Tournament” and the emotive “Sacred Tongue” reveal Devaney’s endless pursuit to define his life while the New Order-esque “The Wall & I” recounts the fraying of friendships and familial bonds. On the euphoric “September Again” and the blissful “On Division St”, a sense of finality is shared. Through these ten tracks, Introduction, Presence reminds us that great records can offer an escape yet force us to contemplate our existence. It forces us to remember to live our lives to the fullest.  ~Ben

 

Ólafur ArnaldsSome Kind of Peace

Winter brings its own kind of serene beauty. The stillness of freshly fallen snow is calming, an invitation to pause and breathe and appreciate the natural world. Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds is the musical equivalent to such a scene. As the title of his newest release suggests, Some Kind of Peace is a restorative collection of songs that bring listeners to a place of calm. And in this tumultuous year, serenity was an especially precious commodity. Fans of Arnalds know to expect a certain level of escape in his ambient/experimental/modern classical music, and this album delivered wide-ranging options. The collaborations with Bonobo and JFDR shine brightly while the mellower instrumentals (“Spiral” and “We Contain Multitudes”) are breathtaking in their delicate beauty. Some Kind of Peace is an album of restoration and renewal. Despite its short duration of just 39 minutes, it will have listeners returning to it often to bask in its gentle perfection.  ~Hollie

 

Perfume Genius Set My Heart on Fire, Immediately

Mike Hadreas is truly an artistic chameleon, as no two albums (let alone two songs) sound alike. He has delivered gorgeous piano overtures, widescreen glam-pop, and even an esoteric-pop opera with No Shape. His fifth Perfume Genius album, Set My Heart on Fire, Immediately, wades once again into uncharted territory filled with unexpected twists and turns. Where melancholic beauty blooms in one instance (“Whole Life”), a dark edge creeps behind the next corner (“Describe”, “Nothing at All”). When joy is expressed (“On The Floor”, “Without You”), mystery (“Your Body Changes Everything”) and even uneasiness await (“Some Dream”, “Just a Touch”). The album’s thirteen tracks, however, are not all accessible, but those who invest the time to listen and delve into Hadreas’ enchanting world will be rewarded with an experience like no other. Set My Heart on Fire, Immediately is a stand-alone masterpiece.  ~Ben

 

Phoebe BridgersPunisher

Phoebe BridgersPunisher is undeniably one of the year’s most important records. It’s an affirmation of what we all knew: Bridgers is a superstar. Her songwriting hits deep, emotional levels. But within the pain are moments of fun. On “Kyoto”, she gets playful and shows her sense of humor. Bridgers maintains that balance delicately, following it up with two serious heartbreakers, “Punisher” and “Halloween.” “Chinese Satellite” is a monster of a track, and one of Punisher’s more hopeful songs. The record comes to close with a song that fits 2020 better than anything released this year, “I Know The End”. The vivid imagery that Bridgers is known for – the surreal nature, the slow build, the abrupt shift halfway through – all lead to a chorus repeating “the end is here!” as she screams in a moment of true catharsis that we all needed this year. Punisher is a defining record of the year, and deservingly, it has earned Bridgers four Grammy nominations.  ~Rich

 

Porridge RadioEvery Bad

“I’m bored to death, let’s argue / What’s going on with me?”, Porridge Radio mastermind Dana Margolin (vocals/guitar) asks on Every Bad‘s stirring opening track, “Born Confused.” Over the next 40 minutes she, along with Maddie Ryall (bass), Georgie Stott (keys), and Sam Yardley (drums), traverses emotional storms attempting to answer this question. The ride is epic. Every Bad is a torrent of explosive alt-rock. At times it channels the angst of Nirvana at their peak (“Sweet”), and other times is reminiscent of Savages’ starkness (“Don’t Ask Me Twice” and “Nephews”). At the heart of every song lies Margolin’s sharp and poignant lyricism that is akin to PJ Harvey. This is most evident on the sobering “Lilac.” As the song slowly evolves from somber to raging, Margolin vulnerably sings, “I don’t want to get bitter, I want us to get better / I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other.” In the end her original question is directed not so much about her state of mind but the collective’s. About whether we can feel whole again in the midst of anguish, pain, and suffering.  ~Ben

 

RatboysPrinter’s Devil

Bold was the tagline, “Ratboys are your new favorite band”, that accompanied Julie Steiner and David Sagan’s debut album, GN, in 2017. Now it looks to be prophetic, as the Chicago-based guitar-pop band’s popularity has grown with fans and tastemakers. With the permanent additions of bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio, Ratboys dial up the intensity and volume and deliver one thoughtful ear-worm after another with Printer’s Devil.  The clever “Alien With a Sleep Mask On” addresses one’s constant sense of disorientation though an infectiously upbeat approach. “Look To” echoes the energetic pop-rock of Swearin’ while the slow-building “Victorian Slumhouse” is reminiscent of Veruca Salt. The album, though, is one full of heart and soul. Through the ’90s indie-rock prism of Pavement and Built to Spill, Steiner discusses the importance of “Anj” in her life. The song is touching and comforting, giving us memories to hold onto during difficult times. This album, likewise, offers the rare bright moment in a year full of darkness.  ~Ben

 

Run the JewelsRTJ4

Plenty of albums attempt to chronicle the times, but others turn it into a history lesson. Killer Mike and El-P, the duo behind Run the Jewels, do exactly this on RTJF4. The album is an unapologetic assault on America’s lengthy history of social injustice, inequality, and violence. It opens with “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, which sees the two running from the police. It’s a song that evokes images of George Floyd being pinned to the ground and his eventual death that sparked waves of protest across the world. Killer Mike later raps on “walking in the snow”, “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper — ‘I can’t breathe’”. While social injustice is the dominant theme of the record (“pulling the pin”), the two also tackle social inequality (“JU$T”, “the ground below”) and the perpetual cycle of violence and poverty (“out of sight”). Unlike their previous efforts, RTJ4 isn’t made for good times and parties. It’s made for the streets and to ensure people continue to fight for change.  ~Ben

 

Sault Untitled (Black Is); Untitled (Rise)

SAULT remain of the year’s most baffling mysteries. The mysterious collective released two double albums this year that left listeners awestruck and a bit dumbfounded, a repetition of their 2019 dual-release strategy. Untitled (Black Is) arrived in June, a tour-de-force collection featuring Michael Kiwanuka on two tracks. SAULT’s timely fusion of genres (blues, disco, funk, jazz, and soul) echoed the global feelings of strife and uncertainty. The hypnotic “Hard Life” is a slow-burning anthem of support for those “fighting to be seen” while “Wildfires” entrances with sultry energy.

Fans barely had time to fully digest the brilliance of this album when the elusive group delivered the follow-up album Untitled (Rise) just three months later. Here they amped up the funk and house elements to reveal a highly groovy, nearly psychedelic dance experience. If the first album was a call to action, the second was a celebration of unity and purpose. Both are equally glorious.  ~Hollie

 

 

Sea WolfThrough A Dark Wood

Sea Wolf delivered a masterpiece in the form of fifth album Through a Dark Wood. Its arrival in late March may have been obscured by the beginning of the global pandemic. Its presence, however, during the following months proved to be one of the year’s most auspicious blessings. Each song from Alex Brown Church seemed to resonate deeply, offering comfort and encouragement for weary listeners. Serenity is the common thread running the album, beginning with the instrumental opener, “Forward.” The lyrical honesty of “Fear of Failure” (“I have to be brave / even though I’m still afraid”) and “Forever Nevermore” (“I was afraid I was losing my way again”) rang especially true in 2020. These sonic tapestries are rich and densely woven, a welcome calm amidst a stormy year.  ~Hollie

 

Slow PulpMoveys

Over their early EPs and singles, Chicago’s Slow Pulp created a reputation as a fantastic, ’90s-alternative-influenced band. However, with their first LP, Moveys, the quartet of Emily Massey (vocals/guitar), Alexander Leeds (bass), Theodore Mathews (drums), and Henry Stoehr (guitar) blew that reputation out of the water and emerged as a well-rounded band with one of the most diverse sounding records on this list. “New Horse” opens the album with a finger-picked guitar and dreamy vocals. “Idaho” is a gorgeous slow-build that becomes a monster as it grows. There are still some tasty alt-rockers (like “At it Again” and “Channel 2”) that go to some real wild places. Then there’s the heartfelt, confessional “Falling Apart”. The record comes to a close with a fun, lighthearted hip-hop beat that proves that Slow Pulp are indeed way more than any one classification label.  ~Rich

 

Soccer MommyColor Theory

In 2017, our Hollie wrote, “If you list the reasons why indie artists so often put mainstream pop singers to shame, then emerging star Soccer Mommy should be in the Top 5.” That statement rang true on Soccer Mommy’s debut LP, Clean, and she justifies it even more on her new record, color theory. The LP is disarmingly upbeat at times. “circle the drain” channels some of the best 90’s songwriters. Much like those songwriters, Sophie Allison combines those grand moments with lyrics rooted in anxiety, self-doubt, and heartache. Allison refers to herself as the “princess of screwin’ up” on “royal screw up”, showing an honesty with the listener and, most importantly, herself. The whole album is equally honest and relatable, and its early March release positioned it to be many peoples’ companions as the world around them changed completely.  ~Rich

 

Sufjan StevensThe Ascension

Some artists create therapeutic music without even trying. Sufjan Stevens has that gift in spades. He can tap into a listener’s deepest sorrows one moment then send spirits soaring the next. That emotional connection endears him to fans and keeps them spellbound through every phase of his career. The Ascension is a collection of songs that defy genre labels: while “pop music” is applicable to a few tracks, this album is more artistic than commercial. Early tracks “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse” and “Lamentations” have vivid electronic flashes that pair well with the danceable “Video Game.” Those upbeat beacons shine through the melancholy haze of “Run Away With Me,” “Tell Me You Love Me”, and “Landslide”. The contemplative final tracks dazzle with understated brilliance, a testament to how masterfully Stevens pairs feelings with melodies.  ~Hollie

 

Sunship BalloonEverywhen

Everywhen is the full length album from Sunship Balloon, which is comprised of Daniel Haggis and Tord Øverland Knudsen. The album is cerebral and existential. Stand out tracks include “1000 Conversations” and “A4 Life”. On “Hashtag World”, the duo address the craziness of social media, singing, “I’m just trying to stay happy in this hashtag world”. Although the album is littered with upbeat pop structures, Haggis and Knudsen get political with the instrumental closer, “Flat Earthers”.  The album is somewhat of a concept album, but there are plenty of luscious tracks that provide an atmospheric dream world you want to stay in for a while. With 14 tracks totaling a tad under 50 minutes, you can do just that. ~Wendy

 

Team Picture The Menace of Mechanical Music

For nearly half a decade, Leeds-based Team Picture endlessly sought to define who they were. They dabbled in anthemic indie rock and titillating post-punk. They then waded into ’80s synth-pop. These years of experimenting contributed to Team Picture forging their own distinct path much like David Byrne, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire have done. The product of their journey is The Menace of Mechanical Music, a glorious spectacle of sonic fireworks. Opener “Baby Rattlesnake” is a treasure trove of wondrous sound, combining synth-pop and art-rock. “Sleeptype Auction” is a dizzying, Gothic synth-pop ballad. Bleak yet enrapturing is “this is the”, which echoes The Cure’s grandest tapestries. New wave converges with anthemic rock on “Keep Left” while “Handsome Machines” exemplifies how dreamgaze can be mysterious, alluring, and tense. As daring the music is, the sextet poetically articulate humanity’s gradual demise from start to finish. The band themselves, though, might single-handedly save us with their fearlessness.  ~Ben

 

Thao & The Get Down Stay DownTemple

Thao Nguyen’s music has always been personal. However, none is more personal than Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s latest, Temple. From its title track, “Temple”, describing war-torn Vietnam, the whole thing carries a lot of weight. Musically, Temple is an album with a bit of everything: there’s hip-hop influence in “Lion On The Hunt,” the lush sound of “Marauders,”and the bread-and-butter indie rock of tracks like “Pure Cinema.” Where Temple thrives is when Nguyen refuses to stay in one place for too long. The sparse “I’ve Got Something” that leads into the immense closer, “Marrow,” is one of the best moments on the record. Whether Nguyen is singing of her sexuality, the lessons of her past, or her family, she always does it in unique and wholly captivating ways, and that’s amplified even more in Temple.  ~Rich

 

Told SlantPoint The Flashlight And Walk

Over the course of three records, Told Slant’s Felix Walworth refuses to stay in one spot very long. Their sound has evolved from the “bedroom punk” of Still Water to the intimate, simple moments of Going By to something much bigger on Point the Flashlight and Walk. Walworth and their collaborators expanded Told Slant’s sound far, adding more piano, synth, banjo, and harp. There are beautiful moments in choruses. The drumming is stellar, as would be expected from an album featuring Walworth. The lyrics cut sharp as well, most notably on tracks like “Run Around the School”, a song celebrates that even unrequited love is something to be celebrated. That’s the theme of Point the Flashlight and Walk, it’s a record about love, about losing love, about falling in love, about feeling stuck in love. When it finally comes to a close with “Walking With the Moon”, Walworth asks “Shouldn’t I Love You?” Told Slant continue to evolve as a musical project, Walworth learned harp between the records, and they added so much to their sound just beyond that. This record is a logical progression. It’s also something more, something special, and Told Slant’s best album yet.  ~Rich

 

TORRESSilver Tongue

One album into a three-album deal with a major label, Torres’ Mackenzie Scott was dropped by the label for not being “commercially successful enough”, whatever that means. It has to be deflating, scoring a gig with a legendary company that’s worked with many of her heroes, but only to be dropped almost immediately. However, anyone who has heard Scott’s records knows absolutely nothing will stop her. On Silver Tongue, Scott shows even more confidence and drive than on her previous releases, all done without working with a producer. Scott continues to push the boundaries of her sound as well as the boundaries between herself and the listener. She’s brutally honest with herself, with her lovers, and her quest for love throughout Silver Tongue. This is an intense record with “Last Forest” and “Good Grief” delivering tension-building synths and distorted guitar. Meanwhile, “Dressing America” and “Gracious Day” offer moments of quiet with the latter being an absolutely beautiful love song. Silver Tongue is a huge statement from an artist who refuses to be denied. Thankfully she’s found a much cooler and better fitting home with Merge Records.  ~Rich

 

Trace MountainsLost In The Country

Our list is full of some of this generation’s most phenomenal storytellers, who paint vivid pictures with words and maybe a little bit of guitar and drums. Dave Benton is among the best, whether as one-third of the lyrical force of LVL UP or his solo project, Trace Mountains. On Lost In The Country, Benton paints pictures of the times and spaces between shows, and the kind of introspection only those kinds of journeys provide. It matches that wide open spaces vibe. Songs like “Dog Country” have a beauty in their vastness. “Rock & Roll” and “Lost in the Country” feature stellar guitar work, one being a rocker and the other that is so easy to get lost in with its immense closing moments. “Absurdity” is perhaps Benton’s strongest statement on the record, using surreal imagery to describe our insatiable desire to always be connected and the complex history of the country he’s lost in. The crew on Lost in The Country is also part of what makes it such a special record with Jim Hill (guitar, organ, & vocals – Slight Of), Greg Rutkin (drums – LVL UP), Susannah Cutler (synth & vocals – Yours are the Only Ears) and Sean Henry (bass) all contributing.  ~Rich

 

The War and TreatyHearts Town

Resilience was the crucial quality we all needed to survive 2020. In a year that seemed to last a decade, most of us felt two quarts low on resilience and completely out of hope. Yet the dozen songs on The War and Treaty’s sophomore album, Hearts Town, breathed fresh life into listeners. Inspired by the challenges married couple Michael Trotter, Jr. and Tanya Blount faced, these songs are soul-stirring and inspirational. Their music is relatable, thanks to harmonies that can move mountains. On the bleakest days of this year, one spin of this album would result in an instant mood transformation. We all needed encouragement to survive 2020, and Hearts Town provided it. The boldly soaring opener “Yearning” is the sonic match they use to ignite this blazing album. Guest star Jason Isbell adds fuel on “Beautiful” while “Five More Minutes” restores your faith in the power of love to save lives. When your embers of hope are waning, their voices will stoke the fire anew. The War and Treaty gifted music fans with one of the year’s most powerful and wonderfully life-affirming LPs.  ~Hollie

 

WaxahatcheeSaint Cloud

Some records are instant classics and that goes for Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud. It’s been a long path to Saint Cloud for Katie Crutchfield. In many ways the artist who wrote Saint Cloud is not the same Waxahatchee who wrote the previous records. Crutchfield has a clear vision of the lessons learned in her past, and she tackles both her new-found sobriety and the idea of settling down on Saint Cloud. “Oxbow” starts things out with a clear statement: Crutchfield will pursue what’s important to her no matter what changes she needs to make. “Can’t Do Much”, “Fire”, and “Arkadelphia” are Crutchfield at her best. They feature powerful imagery that draws the listener into every word. “Hell” is a confessional song that  sees Crutchfield examining the hell she’d brought on herself. But in the process, she has become more confident, and so confident she declares “I want it all!” at the end of “Oxbow.” ~Rich

 

WidowspeakPlum

Throughout their career as Widowspeak, vocalist Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas have consistently displayed the ability to leave listeners breathless with their intimate dream-pop and create vivid vignettes of ordinary people. They are, in other words, a vestibule into a previous era, specifically the peak days of the Laurel Canyon neighborhood, as demonstrated on Plum. Their sublime fifth album is more than a dazzling display of musical artistry. It is also a poignant observation of the world today. “Breadwinner” and “Money” calmly address the entrapment of capitalism. The never-ending search for what is “home” emanates from the stirring title track. The solemn “Even True Love” evokes images of a solitary wanderer cross the Mojave Desert. Meanwhile, the lo-fi “Amy” and “Jeannie” capture the innocence of two individuals wanting nothing more than to forget the past. Although the album depicts humanity’s fall from grace, it also describes our resilience. It tells that even in challenging times we can and will persevere. ~Ben

 

WilsenRuiner

ruiner cover

One of our most anticipated records of 2020, Wilsen’s Ruiner lived up to the hype and then some. The Brooklyn-based trio of singer Tamsin Wilson, guitarist Johnny Simon, Jr., and bassist Drew Arndt stated that Ruiner is a record about “meeting your various inner selves, and a promise to be better.”  Wilsen continue to be hard to categorize into a single genre, effortlessly segueing from folk to pop to rock throughout the record. What’s obvious is Wilsen’s ability to leverage great heights against quiet moments. Hearing the drumbeat and infectious vocals of “Down” give way to the folk intimacy of “Wearing” is the perfect Wilsen sweet spot. There’s a run of three tracks (“Birds,” “Wedding,” and “Birds II”) that is absolutely stunning. “Feeling Fancy” adds a nice, upbeat vibe to the record and is one of the band’s best tracks. On Ruiner, Wilsen got a little louder, a little braver, and a little more mature. The result is their most complete effort to date. ~Rich

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