All we have now is music right? In a year where it felt like the world was falling apart, there was so much to take hope in (even songs that were written and recorded long before things started going to shit). A number of artists created work that both reflected the current moment inadvertently (Punisher, RTJ4) and very intentionally (Taylor Swift, Charli XCX). These are my top albums of the year:
20. The Killers-Imploding the Mirage
In 2020, The Killers have become something of a classic rock song, with the opening notes of “Mr. Brightside” as recognizable as the opening piano on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” While the band doesn’t reinvent the wheel with their latest album, the band still finds a way to make their anthemic rock n’ roll sound fresh by teaming up with the likes of k.d. lang and Weyes Blood for a modern spin on their classic sound.
19. The Weeknd-After Hours
Following the brightness and cool of Starboy is no easy feat, but The Weeknd offered a much darker and cathartic take. The trademark cool and sex-appeal are ever present in The Weeknd’s music, but After Hours is much colder than past releases.
18. Code Orange-Underneath
The absolutely pulverizing nature of Code Orange is amplified by a completely 2020 take on metalcore. The band’s chugging guitars and screamed vocals are offset with glitchy production and creepy samples. Other than the normal intensity, the band also leans into nu-metal aspects and scale back in their most hook-oriented album yet.
17. Poppy-I Disagree
Plenty of elements of Poppy’s I Disagree bare resemblance to the likes of Slipknot or Marilyn Manson, but the often bright and fast-paced chorus show something much more inventive in the online-personality turned rocker. With last year’s viral success of 100 gecs, it’s impossible to not hear the similarities coming from Poppy, who can flow from nu metal to musical theater to anime-intro pop-punk in the span of a song.
16. Illuminati Hotties-Free I.H. This is the One You’ve Been Waiting For
The L.A. indie pop quartet also embraced aspects of experimentation and humor on their mixtape from July. Tracks like “Frequent Letdown” are free-wheeling indie rock fun, while songs like “Melatonezone” play more into pop music and experimentation where it shows singer Sarah Tudzin seemingly just joking around and having fun with her sound. Plus there’s nothing better than the bluesy garage rock opener where Tudzin sings about “smash[ing] to a podcast.”
15. Megan Thee Stallion-Good News
Megan has been the breakout star of 2020, and Good News is the culmination of the hype. The rapper navigates through being a voice for social justice along with packing in simply upbeat and exciting hype songs. She’s managed both worlds with grace, destroying the opening track “Shots Fired,” by completely dissing Tory Lanez following the shooting incident, but can still bring the Beyoncé remix of “Savage” to graceful point near the end of the album.
14. Diet Cig-Do You Wonder About Me?
To some extent, there are moments on Diet Cig’s second full length that resemble Swear I’m Good at This, but Do You Wonder About Me? shows the group tightening up the screws on their intensely fun and emotional music. Singer and guitarist Alex Luciano loosens up and feels like she is trying less hard to be silly and poetic and rather just says what she feels. She kisses of those with half-assed apologies (“Who Are You”), but she also opens up in a way that feels much more legitimate than her past songs in “Broken Body,” where she chronicles an injury that anyone who’s been to a Diet Cig show should recognize why its so devastating.
13. Brian Fallon-Local Honey
Fallon’s first two solo efforts seemed like interesting explorations to find his voice and footing as a solo performer. Local Honey finds The Gaslight Anthem frontman in the most vulnerable and scaled back in his career. The Americana album shows off just how tight his chops are, as he offers meditative songs on a variety of subjects like quitting smoking (“21 Days”) or an outlaw love song (“Vincent”) yet makes them universal. The tracks can be heart-wrenching or sweet depending on how you look at them, and they sound completely fleshed out even though its his quietest record to date.
12. Into It. Over It.-Figure
The long awaited return of IIOI has certainly been a welcome one. As frontman Evan Weiss catches listeners up, this album is just as emotive as past records, yet the emo elder statesman has embraced new ideas (like incorporating technology) into an album that spoke to indie rock isolationism this year (even though it’s been in the works since long before the pandemic). Tracks like “They Built Our Bench Again in Palmer Square” and “We Prefer Indoors” are apt representations that speak to the state of the world, mixed with songs like “Perfect Penmanship” and “Courtesy Greeting,” which feel like the sort of reflections that come with time.
11. Charli XCX-how I’m feeling now
Charli’s always been a lukewarm artist for me, and the idea of a quarantine album seemed gimmicky. Despite the odds being stacked against her, she created one of the defining LPs for this year. Besides playing into the idea of a quarantine album, the singer’s willingness to adapt and embrace hyperpop has made her a popstar to watch out for in the coming years.
10. Lil Uzi Vert-Eternal Atake
Few rapper’s presence is nearly as exciting as Lil Uzi Vert’s. The 26 year-old found ways to bridge the gap between the innovative emo-rap sounds that artists like Lil Peep pioneered and merge them with mainstream trap to create a unique crossover genre. Eternal Atake is something of a culmination of Luv is Rage 2 and the one off songs he released in its lead up. It can hype you up (“Baby Pluto”, “Venetia”) or cut you down (“Urgency”) with enough callbacks to his earlier stuff to satisfy the old heads.
Short and explosive indie rock that makes you want to shove your friends around and spill beer all over the place. Even though the energetic hype (a la Japandroids) is there, the emotional core of lyrics begging for confidence (“Hotlines”) or grabbing at religious straws (“Fox”) pull the listener to their wits’ ends in the best possible way.
8. Bartees Strange-Live Forever
Bartees Strange has been one of the most hard-to-pin down acts to come out this year. The fusion of rap, rock, electronic music, and so much more creates a unique, indie music nerd’s wet dream. It’s an album that can get your adrenaline going (“Boomer”) or can force you to just sit with your thoughts (“Fallen For You”).
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit-Reunions
Jason Isbell can capture the heartbreaking reality that nostalgia isn’t always served with a scoop of ice cream as we make it out to be. Isbell’s lyrics often hold a certain timelessness to them, which is only complimented by the fact that he’s surrounded by lush country instrumentation that make his songs feel like they could’ve been plucked straight from the mid-70’s. While songs like “St. Peter’s Autograph” and “Dreamsicle” can be softly shattering, takes like “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier” show another facet of the artist that he does just as well: write massive anthems.
6. Juice WRLD-Legends Never Die
Listening to Legends Never Die is an exercise in disappointment and heartbreak. It’s an exciting and hit-packed album that really did the fusion of pop-punk and Soundcloud rap better than any of the other major players had. Songs like “Come and Go” and “Man of the Year” are true blue pop-punk songs (with lyrics that sound like Pete Wentz wrote them), and songs like “Titanic” and “Blood on My Jeans” fit more in the emo-rap style that Juice WRLD had helped bring to the mainstream. Legends Never Die showed an artist who could’ve been an innovator, who was lost far too young.
5. Jeff Rosenstock-No Dream
My catchphrase for the past year could’ve easily just been “Fuck off,” and no artist delivers songs that feel quite like throwing a middle finger in the face of authority quite like Jeff Rosenstock. Just listen to the chorus of “Scram!,” (“Go kick rocks and die”). Despite songs that are just as furious as they are self-conscious like the title song and “Nikes (Alt),” Rosenstock also finds reflective and sweet moments like “Honeymoon Ashtray” or “Ohio Tpke.”
4. Taylor Swift-folklore/evermore
[Full disclosure: folklore already had this slot before evermore was announced, but now the 4th spot feels more deserved.] Two Taylor Swift albums wasn’t on my 2020 bingo card, and the two don’t deserve to be as good as they are. Swift scaling her stuff down and “breaking all her own rules” paid off with some of the most memorable work of her career, aided by Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner’s presences. Whether Swift is singing about heartache (“betty”, “coney island”), eccentric women (“the last great american dynasty”) or partying with friends (“august”), the two albums create a truly enjoyable experience. Pro-tip: take your favorites from both albums and put them in a 12-15 song playlist to create one super album.
3. Run the Jewels-RTJ4
We really needed RTJ4 when it dropped. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, a grieving and angry nation could easily find solace in Killer Mike and El-P’s lyrics. While there were plenty of bangers (“goonies vs E.T.”, “ooh la la”), the moments of clarity (which have always been RTJ’s best moments) stuck out the most. Killer Mike’s verse in “walking in the snow” would’ve been scathing to begin with, but hearing it at the beginning of June made it feel all the more prescient, and the final verse of “a few words for the firing squad” were searing.
2. Phoebe Bridgers-Punisher
After proving herself as solid songwriter and folk virtuoso on “Stranger in the Alps” (and then expanding on that range with boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center), Punisher shows Bridgers as a star. While there are plenty of soft and vulnerable moments to appease longtime fans (“Punisher”, “Garden Song”), Bridgers expands on herself as a real frontwoman rather than just a great songwriter. Songs like “Chinese Satellite” and “I Know the End” show someone with much more ambition than Stranger in the Alps’ humble beginnings. Her specific and often devastating lyrics, provided much pessimistic comfort in an awful year.
1. Spanish Love Songs-Brave Faces, Everyone
I don’t want to say that Spanish Love Songs predicted the pandemic on their third album, but Brave Faces is a record that holds a mirror up to all the bullshit that singer Dylan Slocum sees and asks for answers. The band has graduated from depressing self-reflection to depressing societal reflections. The songs more on processing the horribleness of the world around you and trying to find some positivity (“Optimism (As a Radical Life Choice)”). The LA band paints pictures of America that’s crumbled (“Losers 2”) and assholes profiting off of it (“Beach Front Property”). While there’s certainly sulking and anger, the record ends with an important embrace to say, “Well, let’s hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.”
AJJ-Good Luck Everybody
100 gecs- 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues
Destroyer-Have We Met
ACxDC-Satan is King
Dua Lipa-Future Nostalgia
Perfume Genius-Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Nothing-The Great Dismal
Various-Save Stereogum comp
Brandon Benson-Dear Life
Kill Lincoln-Can’t Complain
A Few Great EPs:
Soul-Glo-Songs to Yeet at the Sun
PUP-This Place Sucks Ass
Zeal & Ardor-Wake of a Nation
Phoebe Bridgers-Copycat Killer