When we look back on 2020 years from now, I think it will be remembered as a really cool year that everyone enjoyed a lot. Nothing bad happened and everyone had a lot of fun with it. But it wasn’t just a great year for society — it was also a terrific year for music. In all seriousness, this was my favorite year of music since I started blogging, so I decided to make an extra large list for the end of the year. This turned out to be a giant mistake as I ended up running out of adjectives and burning myself out a bit, but I really wanted to shine a (very tiny) spotlight on these artists, who helped me a lot this year. Let’s get to it.
#30. Death Valley Girls – Under the Spell of Joy
The album title tells a lot of the story here: Under the Spell of Joy is an homage to early garage rock and punk, and its focus is on providing heavy riffs and a lot of personality without trying to be too artful. The squawking horns are an ode to Fun House, and they go with the heavy, melodic riffs to make an album that is not a lot more than an avalanche of raucous, joyous sound. It’s a welcome throwback to when rock took itself a little less seriously.
#29. All Hits – Men and Their Work
The spirit of Riot Grrrl lives on in All Hits, who make straight-forward feminist-leaning punk that balances abrasive rage and sweet melodies. This won’t win points for originality, but it has all the elements I like in this sort of music, especially the feeling that these songs matter to the bandmembers and are played with a lot of conviction. And some, like “Sugar Supply,” are just well-written, catchy rock songs. Running just 20 minutes, Men and Their Work is a brief but potent statement.
#28. Marie Davidson and L’Œil Nu – Renegade Breakdown
Following up her excellent last album, Working Class Woman, Davidson finally pulled off her long-threatened departure from the club scene with this album, which takes cues from disco and lounge pop. Joined by a couple of French guys who I don’t care about (I think one is her husband or something), Davidson presents her most diverse collection of songs so far and pushes herself into new territory. This mostly makes the list because the title track is one of my favorites of the year; it’s a scathing collection of darkly funny one-liners that shows Davidson in total command of her blunt, sarcastic persona as she goes scorched earth on the entire music industry and its obsession with performative misery (“the uglier I feel, the better my lyrics get” is an all-timer). The rest of this album is more low-key, maybe to a fault, as Davidson experiments with slower, more vocal-centric songs in French that get a little meandering. Still, she’s a voice I always look forward to because she’s so different and has a real sense of humor in her work.
#27. Lithics – Tower of Age
The main draw of Lithics is vocalist Aubrey Horner, whose speak-singing and abstract style of lyrics garners obvious comparisons to a less gleefully offensive Mark E. Smith of The Fall. The band backs up her unorthodox style well, with jagged guitars, bursts of noise, and prominent bass that accentuate the weirdness and give the band its own personality-driven style.
#26. Bacchae – Pleasure Vision
Pleasure Vision captures a lot of my favorite parts of 90s punk, with a mix of Riot Grrrl fury and more melodic poppy songs (like “Hammer”) that have sweeter vocals with the crunchy guitars. The lyrics are relatable and insightful for anyone who feels like a bit of a screw-up: “Everything Ugly” details feelings of self-loathing and struggling, and “See it Coming” is a nuanced take on consumerism (“why does it feel so good to live so bad?”). On the surface, this resembles a fairly standard punk album, but I appreciate its passion and avoidance of clichés.
#25. Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
The former The History of Apple Pie bassist (you can’t run from your past, Kelly) makes elegant electronica that varies between hypnotic techno instrumentals (“Jeanette”) and airy down-tempo ballads (“L.I.N.E.”). KLO’s production skill creates these immersive environments that are bolstered by her dreamy vocals when she feels like singing. Inner Song is mostly a study in sound, but KLO does have a personality and she finds the right balance between her pop instincts and experimental elements.
#24. Naked Roommate – Do the Duvet
Naked Roommate combines post-punk and electronic influences in a way that captures the original loose, playful spirit of bands like ESG and Delta 5. A lot of Du the Duvet revels in absurdity, with repeated nonsense phrases, funky rhythms, and some honking saxophone on songs like “Fondu Guru.” The silliness shouldn’t be mistaken for the band being mindless or not having pride in their craft; these are talented people who enjoy making music with each other and who don’t feel like they need to take themselves 100% seriously. In 2020, I find that to be a refreshing attitude, and the energy on this album is infectious.
#23. Demae – Life Works Out… Usually
Demae’s debut release is a charming and brief (24 minutes) piece of soul. In its short length, Life Works Out… Usually tells a coherent story about growing up, self-discovery, and identity, and does it in its own introspective way. Her voice and the quality of production makes all of these songs work as basic pop, but she adds jazzy asides and dreamy spoken word interludes that make this feel more like a reflection of a distinct personality. The themes she is working with here are fairly common, but I like how this album allows them to come through via storytelling and with a more progressive sound.
#22. Annie – Dark Hearts
Annie’s first album in 11 years is a solid showcase for what makes her electro-pop feel fresh compared to almost everyone else’s. Her wispy vocals won’t blow away listeners, and her songs aren’t that unconventional, but she is able to put real emotion and feeling into these songs. Dark Hearts is lower energy than her previous releases; it trades in the more exciting “jams” for the melancholy, bittersweet style that she specializes in. All of these songs feel like they’re connected to each other, and Dark Hearts forms its own internal world with different characters and stories.
#21. Holy Motors – Horse
Don’t ask too many questions about why this Estonian band is so into the cowboy/horse signifiers of the American west. Instead, enjoy these wide-screened songs with the twangy reverbed guitar and vocals that aren’t too off from Hope Sandoval. I appreciate that this band knows exactly what they’re trying to do and accomplishes it quite well, even if it’s a sound a lot of other artists are playing with.
#20. Loma – Don’t Shy Away
Loma is one of the few bands right now that seems to be working in their own genre. Don’t Shy Away lands somewhere on the folk-rock spectrum, but Emily Cross’ rich, soulful vocals and a wide range of instruments and sounds make this more mysterious and intriguing than those kinds of straight-ahead bands. Cross also delivers one of indie’s finest clarinet performances on this album, adding a distinct element to these songs that already sound like they’re in their own world.
#19. Pool Shop – A Shadow
Jaimee Fryer has been on my radar for a few years because of her bedroom pop songs like “How Long.” On A Shadow, she gets a band together for a brief but memorable debut LP of affecting dream pop full of shimmering reverb. Fryer’s vocals are reminiscent of Victoria Legrand of Beach House, but Pool Shop’s sound is more optimistic and inviting, and even with a full band she is able to maintain the original sense of intimacy from her solo home recordings. While modest in its ambitions, this album shows Fryer’s songwriting skill and has a humble charm.
#18. Public Practice – Gentle Grip
Sam York (formerly of WALL) fronts this band, whose music is a time capsule into the CBGB New York scene, with some of the funky dissonance of Bush Tetras combined with the relaxed cool and pop instincts of Blondie. Gentle Grip is the kind of internal, thoughtful punk I prefer to “Republicans bad,” and the lyrics are relatable contemplations on modern life. “Compromise” stridently describes the difficulty in staying true to yourself these days (“you don’t want to live a lie, but it’s easy”) while the disco-flavored “In My Head” captures mental anxiety and getting in your own way. There’s a wide variety of songs and moods on Gentle Grip, which is what separates it from a lot of one-note, simple rock music.
#17. Nation of Language – Introduction, Presence
The debut full length for this band is a pure retro throwback, with vintage synth pop songs that recall bands like Tears For Fears, New Order, or The Human League. The novel part of Nation of Language isn’t just the pop songcraft, but how they fully embrace the past — they embody an 80s band and own the cheesier aspects of the music with no self-consciousness. Songs like “Friend Machine” feel straight from that era (it initially parses as a Weird Science reference for me), but also show how some of those themes are still relevant today, especially the strange relationship we have with technology. In less capable hands, this could have felt like a pointless nostalgia trip, but everything here works.
#16. Il Quadro di Troisi – Il Quadro di Troisi
Eva Geist and Donato Dozzy collaborate for this Italian disco album, which I’ll admit is probably strengthened by me not understanding any of the words. Lyrics would just be a distraction from this album’s shimmering, occasionally majestic sound, especially on songs like “Real” that incorporate strings and piano flourishes with the pulsing beats. These are lush, colorful creations that also have some personality, and the album’s entire vibe is intoxicating.
#15. Discovery Zone – Remote Control
JJ Weihl’s album starts off sounding like somewhat traditional electronic pop with some more mystical qualities, but evolves into a thought-provoking meditation on artificial intelligence and our relationship with technology. The sequencing of Remote Control creates an interesting experience, where it feels like a protagonist is established and then on “Sophia Again” begins to question who she is as the sounds get more robotic and strange. This is one of the year’s more original attempts at storytelling and the way it plays out in order is brainy and affecting.
#14. Midwife – Forever
Forever is about grief and loss, but Madeline Johnston’s album does more than just wallow in its own misery. Heavy guitars are repurposed here to create a sound that is haunting and beautiful, with droning notes that wash over the listener. I feel the pain and loss through these songs, but I also feel hope and inspiration from the sound. Johnston has her own sound (she calls it “heaven metal”) and it’s what makes this album nuanced and emotionally impactful.
#13. Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders
The harpist’s latest album is astoundingly pretty, and I’m trying to think of the nicest way to say how much I enjoyed falling asleep to it. It isn’t because the album is boring, but because of how its peaceful sounds inspire thought and let the mind wander into dreams. Neil Halstead of Slowdive adds just enough production touches to add to the atmosphere without detracting from Lattimore’s skill on her instrument. Some of these songs like “Pine Trees” capture the calming beauty of nature, but the album’s longest track, “Til a Mermaid Drags You Under” uses droning notes to create a mildly unsettling fantasy world. Lattimore doesn’t just play notes; she spins entire stories through sound. (Side note: this was also my favorite cover art of 2020.)
#12. Throwing Muses – Sun Racket
Almost 40 years into their career, Throwing Muses are still a rock band that doesn’t really sound like anyone past or present. Frontwoman Kristin Hersh’s unique voice hasn’t missed a beat since their most prominent albums from the early 90s (one day I’ll get around to writing about how The Real Ramona is a classic) and Sun Racket is a return to the somewhat traditional alt rock from those years compared to their last album, the sprawling, fractured Purgatory/Paradise. All of the elements that make this band special are still intact: “Bo Diddley Bridge” itself has all of the classic Throwing Muses traits, with the cryptic lyrics, tempo/mood shifts and muscular guitar sound. It’s inspiring to hear this band continue to make some of the most bracing and impactful rock songs.
#11. Widowspeak – Plum
Widowspeak might be the world’s coziest band — there is warmth in Molly Hamilton’s sweet vocals and in the band’s familiar sound, which they’ve iterated on for a decade now without any major stylistic shifts. But none of this should be mistaken for a band that “plays it safe” or presents no challenges to listeners. The nostalgia naturally present in their sound is used to enhance their storytelling that has themes of looking back and trying to move forward; a childhood babysitter is remembered in the bittersweet “Amy” while on songs like “Money” and “Breadwinner” Hamilton sings about the difficulty of balancing life, art, and work in a way that is relatable and true. This isn’t the most innovative band, but there is more humanity and depth to their music than they get credit for.
#10. Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
Emma Ruth Rundle’s solo work has been metal-adjacent, which made this collaboration with the popular sludge/doom band Thou intriguing as a chance to hear her in a more overtly heavy context. On the tracks where ERR takes the lead and Thou accompanies, it feels like I’m listening to a new version of metal, one that has the same volume but is dreamy, emotive, and not just about being as aggressive as possible. The more Thou-centric songs probably appeal more to normal metal fans, but they don’t have that contrast I love between beauty/femininity and the crushing noise. So about 70% of this is transcendent to me, and it’s hopefully a way for ERR to reach some new listeners who can discover her unique talent and versatility.
#9. Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
If we’re being honest with ourselves, maybe a small handful of artists make actually original music in a given year. And in the land of derivative musicians, the perfectly executed mimicry of Peel Dream Magazine is king. This band steals from the right artists (My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, etc.) and performs their songs with a certain integrity and an endearing affection for the source material. The fuzzy motorik grooves and vocal harmonies between Joe Stevens and Jo-Anne Hyun on Agitprop Alterna are irresistible to anyone predisposed to this kind of music, and there’s enough of a distinct voice in the lyrics to push it just past homage/tribute band territory.
#8. No Joy – Motherhood
On the other end of the shoegaze spectrum, there is No Joy — now just a solo project of Jasamine White-Gluz — which might be the closest the genre has now to an innovator. Which raises the question: is it still shoegaze if it sounds this different and new? Really, I don’t know how to classify Motherhood except to say it’s the most enjoyably quirky, fun rock album of 2020. White-Gluz constructs these Frankenstein’s monsters out of disparate influences like trip-hop and nu-metal and somehow makes it all work because of her ability to craft unusual, addictive hooks. Nothing has ever sounded like a lot of this album, and I wish more music had this sense of unpredictability and took so much pleasure in exploring and being creative. White-Gluz deserves credit for fully committing to this vision that likely seemed absurd on paper — her greatest attribute might be her confidence in her own weirdness.
#7. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Ranking Lipa’s cred-killing album here would seem to be an act of poptimism, but really it’s the opposite: the success of Future Nostalgia is because it embraces the fact that this kind of mega popular music is junk food and not meaningful art. The elevation of these artists in the critical discourse has led to an irritating phenomenon where every good-looking celebrity with a team of producers thinks they’re making the greatest album of all time. But Lipa is smart enough to understand that when someone goes to Taco Bell, they’re not trying to get a delicate flan of sea urchin on potato puree topped with Arabica coffee foam — they want addictive, familiar, unhealthy, mildly disgusting food, and they want it quickly. Her goals on this album are clear, and she accomplishes them with delightful shamelessness, pilfering hooks from the past and crafting earworm choruses that laser-target the lizard part of our brain that only desires the slickest, most pleasurable sounds without a bunch of complicated “ideas.” Real thought went into making music that feels this mindless.
#6. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I have a weird theory on Fetch the Bolt Cutters: the album is actually too good. Apple knows who she is so much, and is so effective at expressing her ideas with striking clarity, that the end product is initially incredible but doesn’t leave much room for exploration or discovery from the listener. This made the album land in a strange spot for me where I recognized it as a masterful singer-songwriter accomplishment, but also didn’t find myself going back to it and listening much through the year. It’s still worth celebrating an album that is this distinct, and Apple has a way of telling stories about familiar themes in a way no one else does, with words other people don’t use and her own singing style. Everything on Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflects who she is in precise detail.
5. I Break Horses – Warnings
Maria Linden hadn’t put out an album in six years, and with Warnings she vowed to make the most personal, intimate music of her career. She succeeded maybe even more than she had imagined. The songs on Warnings represent a quantum leap over her previous (good) music, adding layers of personality and heart to her immaculately produced, cinematic soundscapes. Linden’s warm vocals complement the spacious, icy electronic sounds, leading to an album that is vast and immersive while still having a level of intimacy as the lyrics often plunge into dark, emotional material. This album is much more than just a chill aesthetic, and it deserves to be remembered as a modern pinnacle of the nebulous “dream pop” genre along with artists like Beach House and Tamaryn.
#4. Ganser – Just Look at That Sky
If it feels like guitar rock is dead, it’s probably because the music media inexplicably overlooks a band like Ganser, whose Just Look at That Sky is a vital album that captures a lot of the anxiety and teetering-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff feeling of 2020. Their noisy, aggressive arrangements create a chaotic environment where it feels like everything could break down at any time, and the band’s vocalists, Nadia Garofalo and Alicia Gaines, each offer a different perspective on living through unreal times and trying to maintain a grip on your own mental well-being. Instead of offering easy platitudes to the listeners, Just Look at That Sky provokes and questions, adding an intellectual side to the visceral thrill of the sound. Everything on the album is played with a purpose, and its nuance and sophistication is a welcome relief from the didactic nature of most current discourse.
#3. Cold Beat – Mother
Written while she was pregnant, the aptly titled Mother continues a terrific run for Hannah Lew’s band, which I remain obsessed with. This is her most dense and experimental album so far, with lots of overlapping synth parts and a variety of other instruments, but it’s also her most human. Lew said she was inspired by the idea of explaining the world to a newborn, and without overtly explaining itself, the sound of the album captures life’s unpredictability and chaos, with Lew’s vocals as the human presence that grounds everything in feeling, particularly on the softer, tender songs like “Crimes” and “Flat Earth.” Very few bands are making music that is this fascinating to listen to and rewarding.
#2. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
This year has mostly been about me randomly getting into disco, and What’s Your Pleasure? stands above the rest as maybe the most enjoyable pure pop album in my years of pointlessly writing about music. Jessie Ware takes in all of these funk and disco influences and channels them into an album that feels refreshing and exciting. The sound is cohesive with the glitzy production featuring strings and horns throughout, but there is also a diversity in the songwriting — Ware varies between being serious, funny, flirty, or yearning, and there is no filler in sight on the album. Everything good about Future Nostalgia in terms of being self-aware and unpretentious applies here, but Ware adds an extra layer of sophistication and maturity that comes from years of experience. This album made me want to go out and enjoy a night on the town even though I’m a reclusive weirdo who typically hates that stuff and there’s a global pandemic happening.
#1. The Green Child – Shimmering Basset
The second album for the pair of Mikey Young and Raven Mahon is maybe the most deft psychedelic pop recording since Broadcast. Like that band, The Green Child excel at making normalcy seem extraordinary through subtle retro-futuristic synth sounds and lyrics that explain little while always provoking thought. Mahon has Trish Keenan’s same knack for calming vocals that emphasize humanity and relatability over hitting huge notes, and given his contributions to Cold Beat, Total Control, and this band, it seems reasonable to assume that Young is some kind of unheralded genius of this kind of music. Inspired by Mahon moving to Australia, every note on Shimmering Basset is imbued with the sort of wonder that comes from moving to a new place and feeling like you’re seeing the world for the first time again. The album’s general mood is hazy and focused a lot on the unexplainable and intangible, which risks making it too vague for its own good, but everything is underpinned by a palpable sense of joy and chemistry between the two performers. These songs really take me to a different place, and I was especially grateful for that this year.