We’ve finally come to it. The obituary of the year 2020. Good riddance, go fuck yourself, etc. While the past rotation around the sun was universally considered one of the darkest of our lifetimes, you wouldn’t know it by listening to the music. For all of its shitty tendencies and circumstances, 2020 brought with it some truly fantastic music. Country got weirder, rap got noisier, old names released some stellar new material, and the music world at large continued to spin and in the process churn out some memorable records. Say what you will about how 2020 sucked, but it would be fairly difficult to state that its music wasn’t excellent. Silver linings, I suppose.
Another aspect of 2020 worth mentioning with fondness is your interaction with this blog. In a trying and incredibly busy time for many of our writers and readership, this community banded together in ways that we haven’t seen before. Friendships were made, music was discussed, Nazis were dissed, and the spirit of the underground reared its glorious head as a being alive and well, and we couldn’t be more grateful for it and for you.
Thank you for sticking with us through thick and thin. It means the world.
As we retro the year, a few of us have put together our lists of our favorite records of the year. As is obvious as you read through, each of us approached our lists a bit differently. Eden and I wrote up our top five, Josh gave us a veritable feast, and Nick (the economical sweetheart he is) just covered records that were not previously written about. It’s one of the reasons that writing for this blog is such a treat, and we hope you enjoy the variety here. So without further ado feast your eyes on our exceptional taste, and let us know what you enjoyed outside of the extreme music world in the comments.
To a new year filled with pretty much anything better than what the last one gave us.
Records we loved in 2020 – The Top 10 Lists
10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (singer-songwriter)
9. Rope Sect – The Great Flood (goth rock)
8. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death (post-punk)
7. Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today (post-punk)
6. Adrianne Lenker – songs (alt folk)
5. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall II (alt country)
I’ve been a fan of MMJ since I first spun their masterpiece Z back in 2005. Their psychedelic, southern-fried brand of alternative country has been a staple in the music world for nearly three decades now, so it’s impressive that they are still making music at the same caliber of excellence as their early career records. The Waterfall II is the second half of the recording sessions that gave us the album’s first part, and lord if the tracks aren’t even better than those found on their predecessor. These tracks are lush, fun, and wizened in a manner that feels just right for a band that is moving into the status of “elder statesmen” for its chosen style. I’ve listened to this record at least a dozen times and will spin it at least a dozen more before it moves out of my regular rotation. A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating record.
4. Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (noise/experimental rap)
To say that I like this album is an understatement. As a halloween soundtrack, or as the score to the snuff film that is our current reality, Clipping. have conjured a horrorscape that is almost impossible to resist for fans of noisy, experimental hip-hop. Visions of Bodies Being Burned is the second half of a horrorcore diptych that began with 2019’s There Existed An Addiction to Blood, and while that album was a unique and mesmerizing slab of frightful delights, Visions takes those morbid musings even further. The production is riotous, dark, and infinitely brooding, and Daveed Diggs’ lyrics are sharper and more evocative than ever. This is a masterpiece of mood, which only increases in intensity as it reaches its final stages. If you’ve enjoyed literally anything the band has produced at this point, I have a hard time imagining you disliking Visions. My favorite of the group’s releases thus far.
3. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (alt folk)
Phoebe Bridgers’ debut record Stranger In the Alps is one of the most impactful albums I heard in the 2010s. I’ve driven to, cried to, and lived through that record perhaps more than any other released over the past decade, so to say that my hype level for this record was off the charts would be an understatement. Bridgers’ sophomore offering is a very different beast than her debut, but given exposure and time I’ve begun to love it in a new and powerful way. Expanding her sonic palette into more indie rock territory is a risky move for an alt-folk darling, but damn if it doesn’t work brilliantly. Bridgers’ is quickly becoming a master of her craft, churning out memorable lyrics and song structures like it’s second nature. Most likely because it is at this point. Whether you adored her debut or if Punisher is your first exposure, this record is a pure gem.
2. The Microphones – The Microphones in 2020 (alt folk)
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from The Microphones, the acclaimed project of one Phil Elverum, who most recently has been releasing records under his Mount Eerie moniker. 2020 was a different year for a lot of solo artists, and The Microphones in 2020 is possibly the most unique musical aberration to come from the wilds of one of the most unusual years of most of our lifetimes. A single, 40+ minute track isn’t always my favorite way for artists to express their inner selves, but in 2020 presents a notable exception. The repetitious, cyclical nature of the central riff, the vibrant storytelling, and the emotionally impactful musing constructed by Elverum here reach a high point in his storied career, with grief, joy, fear, and melancholy blending and flowing through one another like an impressionist painting. It’s calming and somehow exhilarating stuff from one of rock and folk music’s most profound and honest voices. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
1. Honey Harper – Starmaker (cosmic country)
Good lord. This album. Honey Harper came out of nowhere for me, and his debut record Starmaker has been in constant rotation since release. In the vein of names like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Harper is balancing country’s classic sounds within a psychedelic framework that just flat works for me. Every track on this record feels earthy and sublime, with each containing some impressive, expansive, and sometimes restrained instrumental work that is as dazzling as it is accessible. Harper’s songwriting is wistful, sharp, and supremely catchy, leaving lyrical ear worms for days. There isn’t a single aspect of this record that I would ask Harper to change. It’s an instant classic and the start of a career that I hope will last for many, many years to come. An exceptional debut.
2020 was as good a year for pop music as it was for heavier fare. In some way’s it’s been a bit of a disappointment, Taylor Swift’s lauded folklore leaving me relatively cold, while my feelings about its recently released surprise companion album, evermore – the lead single of which, “Champagne Problems” cribs the title of a Katy Perry single released a week earlier, along with the chord progression and vocal melody of the far superior “All Too Well” for the second time in as many albums – can be summarised thusly. Nevertheless, many of the year’s biggest and best pop records were released in November while I was too busy to do anything about it. To make it up, I now present a list of my Top 10 Strong Lady power Pop Records of 2020:
10. Little Mix – Confetti
Despite being seemingly tailor made for my tastes, Little Mix never clicked for me before and Confetti makes it clear that the problem was very much them not me. Simply put, the British quartet’s songs have never been anywhere near this good before. As X-Factor alums, Little Mix are likely the most overtly manufactured of the acts on this list (except for maybe Steps) and, if there’s a criticism to be levelled at the album it’s that it’s essentially pop-pastiche. However, when they pull it off this well – especially on tracks like “Holliday” and Happiness,” which have more than a touch of this list’s number seven and number one entries about them – it’s tough to complain.
9. Melanie C – Melanie C
8. Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts
Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz 2013 is the album I most frequent recommendation in my ongoing quest to find more music like Lady Gaga’s Artpop (2013). Not only does that album sound nothing like Artpop, but it’s also very bad. Plastic Hearts on the other hand taps into that ‘80s rock-tinged power pop sound that I love so much and, at its best, is a strong contender for pop album of the year. The record starts strong and the four-track run of “Prisoner” featuring Dua Lipa, seductive fem-dom anthem “Gimme What I Want”, “Night Crawler” featuring Billy Idol and the sublime Stevie Nicks-worshiping “Midnight Sky” is as strong an assault of pop excellence as any other heard this year, which bodes well for Cyrus’s upcoming (Elton John-featuring) Metallica covers album.
What holds Plastic Hearts back from being higher on this list is that, with the exception of “Gimme What I Want”, which ends up prominently sampling Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” in its final moments anyway, the songs rely on the back of Cyrus’s star studded array of guests and obvious influences rather than Cyrus herself. The one exception to the rule being “Bad Karma”, which not even the Joan Jett can save from its triteness. The other problem with the record is its schizophrenic 80s pop/country personality. The country songs, for the most part, are actually quite good – especially “High” and “Angels Like You” – but the transitions are also often jarring, and the album winds up weakened by being pulled in multiple distinct directions, rather than picking one and playing to its strengths.
7. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated: Side B
6. Steps – What the Future Holds
Steps’ 2017 single “Scared of the Dark” is one of the best kept pop secrets of the past decade and one which instantly makes up for all those times you’ve been forcibly subjected to “5, 6, 7, 8”. For their sixth studio album, the British has-beens (or their managers at least) decided, why not just make an entire album full of songs like that, leading to one of the most shameless fun and fulfilling dance pop records in years, of which their cover of Eurovision-wannabe anthem “Something in Your Eyes” is easily the weakest link.
The record’s title track, which my version of the album both opens and closes with instantly joins “Scared of the Dark” at the apex of shameless dance-pop excellence, with tracks like “To the Beat of My Heart” and “Heartbeat in This City” not far behind. When not putting the dance pop pedal to the medal, What the Future Holds frequently dabbles in melodramatic balladeering, at which the quintet again excels, the sensuous “Under the Skin”, softly inspirational “Clouds” and overblown “Hold My heart” providing further album highlights. Few would have seen it coming but, in 2020, Steps are a serious force to be reckoned with.
5. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
While ostensibly cut from the same cloth as Niki Minaj and Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion’s debut LP instantly outclasses the entire output of both artists. Her rap skills easily eclipse those of B, as their collab on “WAP” proves, and the album is far more focussed and effective in its musical approach than Minaj’s invariably bloated and uneven output. Good News isn’t quite the finished article just yet; the first half could do with a bit more variation, and it would be good to see Megan showcasing more of the softer, R&B-influenced side of her sound that comes through on songs like “Don’t Rock Me to Sleep”, “Freaky Girls” and “Savage”, while still doubling down on the aggressive sexual empowerment of tracks like “Girls in the Hood”, “Body” and “Do it on The Tip”, of course (although with maybe a few less features from male rappers telling “bitches” to kiss their rings while they shake their ass”). Then again, I’m a white guy, so who cares what I think; all I know is this album is a ton of fun.
4. Kylie Minogue – Disco
3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Putting this list together made it very apparent just how much British (and British adjacent) acts have dominated pop music in 2020. Although not quite the best pop album of the year, Future Nostalgia is very much the definitive pop record of 2020. Getting in early and setting the tone for the slew of neon-drenched retro-pop records that followed in its wake, Dua Lipa also set a standard that only one of the most revered and inventive acts in the history of pop music and the genre’s most exciting new voice managed to top. The album full of “Midnight Skies” we talked about earlier? Future Nostalgia is it, and it’s no mistake that Miley Cyrus’s run of form on Plastic Hearts kicks off with a Dua Lipa feature. Closer “Boys Will Be Boys tries to be far too profound for its own good but, other than that, Future Nostalgia is pure pop gold.
2. Lady Gaga – Chromatica
See: Delayed Gratification
1. Rina Sawayama – Sawayama
See: The Age of Men is Over
To address a couple of glaring omissions: The Charlie XCX album didn’t do anything for me and I don’t get Ariana Grande, sorry. Shoutout to Celebrity Drag Race-winner Hayley Kiyoko’s EP I’m Too Sensitive for This Shit though, which came out all the way back January, and shows huge growth and potential for the singer’s next full-length, which hopefully we’ll see in 2021.
10. Small Bills – Don’t Play It Straight (hip-hop/rap)
9. Honey Harper – Starmaker (folk/country)
8. Memorex Memories – The Life of Riley (vaporwave)
7. Beach Bunny – Honeymoon (indie rock)
6. Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (noise/rap)
5. Fog Castle/Foglord/Fogweaver – In the Kingdom of Fog (dungeon synth)
The multiple lockdowns elicited many emotions in me but one of the stronger ones was the desire to disappear, to just walk off into some hazy horizon and never be seen again. This split, spear-headed by the magnificent Fogweaver, was my main accomplice in achieving this desire. It is an album made entirely of fog (as the album and artist names might tell you) in the truest sense of the word, using melancholic and introspective dungeon synth to evoke hills in autumn, lands disappearing into time, and memory unspooling across the past as it blends with the present and the future. It’s a marvellous exploration of a scene that’s only going from strength to strength, further elaborating on their brand of dungeon synth.
4. Black Taffy – Opal Wand (vaporwave/jazz/classical)
This album restored my faith in the potential of vaporwave. It’s no secret that the genre, although it still produces some great albums, has fallen into repetition and memetics every since it exploded all over the Internet. But Black Taffy, in its clever weaving of haunting samples, classical instruments, choirs, and lo-fi production, manages to cut through all of that static and produce one of the most fascinating albums I’ve heard. It perfectly channels the dislocation, both in time and in space, that vaporwave is all about, while shirking the musical, aesthetical, and instrumental tropes that have come to dominate the genre.
3. Jacob Collier – Djesse Vol.3 (jazz/pop/hip-hop)
Collier does it again. Djesse Vol.3 lacks his experimentation and over-the-top vocal productions but whatever weight it loses in those areas, it makes up for groove and joie de vivre. This is Collier’s brightest work, almost always uptempo, direct, and chromatic. It works well when it’s oozing smooth hip-hop with Daniel Caesar, bounding the drums with Kimbra, and bouncing along Collier’s mind and unique approaches to music. Just like its creator, this album is a varied, multi-faceted, and delightful thing, always showing you a new angle you hadn’t considered before.
2. Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music (hip-hop/jazz/chill)
I think the best adjective to use when describing this album is “smooth”. What Kinda Music, whether in the incredible tones and sounds that Tom Misch has brought to bear or through Yussef Dayes incredible work on the drums, just flows together incredibly well. It’s that rare album that puts you at ease while still grabbing firm hold of your hips and induces you to move. That last attribute is definitely assignable to Dayes and the elusive control he has over the drum kit. Someone once told me there are two types of drummers: those you notice and make you go “holy shit” and those you don’t and make all of the music around them better. Dayes is both; you find yourself marvelling at some of his lines and ideas while others fly around your radar, simply making everything around them sound better.
1. TWRP – Over the Top (funk)
There was absolutely no other choice for me here. TWRP’s Over the Top completely dominated my playlists this year and for good reason; it represents one of the high points of this band’s incredible career. If music is meant to give us pleasure, happiness, wisdom, fun, you name it, this album has it. It has over the top (get it), 80’s electro pop. It has kick ass rock ballads fit for the Cobra Kai soundtrack. It has, as always, body positivity. It has hope. It has science fiction, continuing the band’s excellent history of collaboration with Dan Avidan. I do declare once again, this album has it all! And most of all, it will make you dance. There is simply no other choice. You will dance. Surrender to the groove.
10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (singer-songwriter)
9. Son Lux – Tomorrows I / II (art rock)
Following the anthemic indie rock of Bones, the newly trio form of Son Lux could have taken a decidedly poptimist turn, cashing in on more immediate crowd pleasers like “Change Is Everything” and “I Don’t Know You.” That does not seem to be what Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang had in mind though. They followed that album with the far less upbeat more sonically experimental Brighter Wounds and now with a trio of albums that seek to push the group further in all directions entitled Tomorrows, the first two of which dropped in 2020. The music of Tomorrows at times can seem more interested in painting impressions of themes than rock-solid songs that can stand on their own, but once you accept the music on its own terms there is just a ton to fall in love with. The musicality and production throughout these songs is incredible, as each of the three involved has proven to be one of the most fascinating practitioners of their own instruments/genres over the course of the past decade. If Brighter Wounds felt like a kind of awkward transition from more accessible indie to experimental art rock/pop with plenty of jazzy soul living in its roots, then Tomorrows shows the band well onto the other end of the art rock spectrum, unafraid to stare into possibilities yet unseen and bring them to life.
8. Ohmme – Fantasize Your Ghost (indie rock)
For possibly the first time since first being fully inundated with the music in college, 2020 found me being largely in a rut when it came to indie rock. Listen, I know I’m getting old and this is what is “supposed” to happen as I take my place as old man yelling at cloud because new indie just doesn’t sound like late 2000s era indie. But I can’t help that so much of the newer stuff being heralded by the big publications just isn’t doing it for me. Thankfully one of the few bright spots in this area was the dynamic duo of Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, aka Ohmme, whose knotty and off-kilter take on psych-tinged indie scratched an itch I had been feeling for a while but couldn’t quite put a name to. The dichotomy of exceedingly tight harmonies and complex rhythms with zero fear of breaking out and getting loud and messy is a potent combination that makes Fantasize Your Ghost sing. This is an album to get lost in and savor its spiraling complexities.
7. Algiers – There Is No Year (post-punk/indie rock)
The experimental Atlanta post-punk enclave Algiers made a name for themselves with their blend of gospel/soul vocals and sounds within more experimental post-punk, hip-hop, and rock production. For whatever reason their third album, There Is No Year, didn’t make nearly as big a splash and seemed to quickly fade away from public consciousness. The music of There Is No Year is for sure a bit more straight-forward and accessible, with the closest thing to straight-up “pop” songs they’ve had like “Dispossession.” But at the same time it’s also a far darker and denser piece of work, leaning heavily into horror soundtracks and production. There Is No Year, released last January, is in so many a prophetic album for the absolute nightmares that would ensue between a global pandemic, months of mass protests in the face of continued racially-motivated police brutality, and political misinformation weaponized by a cult-like faction hell-bent on maintaining their weakening grip on the levers of power throughout the country. It’s dark as hell, but also just as anthemic, thrilling, and straight-up danceable as anything they’ve released. Maybe There Is No Year wasn’t the album some fans wanted, but, frankly, it’s the one that we deserved for the absolute nightmare that 2020 was.
6. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind (psych pop/glam rock)
5. Sa-Roc – The Sharecropper’s Daughter (hip-hop/neo-soul)
Here are two things I very much like: the politically-charged afro-futuristic r&b/pop of Janelle Monae and the jazzy, equally politically-charged production and lyrics of Kendrick Lamar circa To Pimp a Butterfly. So hearing Sa-Roc essentially mash those two things together on her major label debut The Sharecropper’s Daughter was a no-brainer win for me. Tracks like “Rocwell’s America,” “Hand of God,” and “The Black Renaissance” hit a sweet spot of combining biting and thrilling lyricism with production and composition that more than hold my attention on its own. Taken as a whole, The Sharecropper’s Daughter is a powerful statement that has easily placed Sa-Roc on my list of artists to keep a close eye on.
4. Fleet Foxes – Shore (indie rock/folk)
2020 was rough, to say the least. And in times of strife it’s so easy to lean into the darkness, peer into the void, and speak to it. Robin Pecknold, no stranger to giving voice to the darkness in his own mind, decided to lean hard in the opposite direction. And thus he gave a gift in the form of an uncomplicated, unmitigatingly positive and bright collection of songs in the form of Shore. As so many have done literally or figuratively throughout time, Shore evokes the idea of water and the ocean as an entity of cleansing. And the music and lyrics of the album itself do exactly that through its clear-eyed vision of appreciating what is and what can be all the while giving proper deference to those who laid the path we tread now. To be honest, I probably prefer the complicated and more experimental/prog-leaning stylings of Crack-Up, but goddamn if “Sunblind,” “Can I Believe You,” “Maestranza,” and “Young Man’s Game” don’t just plaster a big ol’ grin on my face. They’re a beam of sun breaking through the clouds to warm your face, and they’re exactly what is needed most when everything else looks so bleak.
3. clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (experimental hip-hop)
2. Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide (alt/psych hip-hop)
1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (indie rock/folk)