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Under the Radars Top 100 Albums of 2020 Part 1

Jan 15, 2021
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So, 2020 was quite an uneventful year wasn’t it? Nothing much of note happened. It was pretty boring. But at least there were some decent records to liven things up. This is the intro to our Best Albums of 2020 list I wish I could be writing. Well… who wants life to be completely boring, but living through actual future history all the time has gotten quite exhausting. Depending on your age, you may have already experienced some living history, such as 9/11, but 2020 will go down as a particularly troubling year. You don’t need me to spell out why, but the two pillars were the COVID-19 pandemic and the most divisive presidential election in our lifetime. Many were financially affected by the coronavirus and the necessary lockdown that followed, but few more so than touring musicians, as venues across the world were forced to shut down most of the year (and some will never reopen their doors). At the outset of COVID-19 several notable albums were postponed a few months in hopes that things would improve, but it quickly became clear that touring wasn’t coming back any time soon and they were released anyway. There are probably some amazing finished albums that were going to come out in 2020, but were never announced and have been shelved until live music returns (hopefully later this year, now that the vaccines are very slowly rolling out). And yet 2020 was still filled with aural delights, including some creative full-lengths written and recorded while under quarantine.

Before I present Under the Radar’s favorite albums of 2020, I will fully acknowledge that we are late to the year-end party. While I don’t totally understand why some websites insist on posting their best of the year lists prematurely in late-November or very early in December—simply to be first and get more clicks, but without being able to consider any albums that might be surprise-released later in December—I’m aware that mid-January is also a bit too tardy. We have actually been working on this list since November and had intentions of getting it up by late-December, but various factors and other projects derailed those plans. And we also take great care to get our best albums ranking right each year, so it does take a lot of time to finalize everything and get new blurbs written for each of the Top 50 albums.

For list nerds, here’s how it’s done: Each of our writers and editors are encouraged to turn in a list of their favorite 45 albums of the year. Each person’s number one album counts for 45 points, with their number two getting 44 points, and so on down to their number 45 getting one point. They are also allowed to submit up to 15 honorable mentions that count for one point each. In order for an album to make the final list it’s got to be picked by at least three different writers, to give a true consensus, and each album also gets extra points for the number of people who voted on it. Almost all of the albums in the Top 50 were picked by at least four or five people, each of the Top 10 were all picked by 12 or more people, and our number one album was chosen by 17 different contributors. Overall, 22 of our writers and editors (including myself and my Co-Publisher/wife Wendy Lynch Redfern) weighed in. Our Top 100 Albums of 2020 represents Under the Radar’s 2020 coverage very well, with many being artists we interviewed and/or reviewed favorably last year and our Top 2 being the two artists who appeared on the cover of our last print issue (it was not engineered that way, that’s just how the vote played out).

Here’s hoping that my intro to the Best Albums of 2021 list will be more mundane, although based on the political events of the last two weeks and the continued pandemic that seems unlikely. By Mark Redfern (Senior Editor/Co-Publisher of Under the Radar)

Click here to check out part 2 of our Top 100 Albums of 2020 list, with numbers 61-100.

1

Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher

Dead Oceans

Phoebe Bridgers’ stunning sophomore effort is the very definition of a slow burner. With each listen, the record reveals new details or a new devastating lyrical couplet. Her presentation is often characteristically understated, with only a few moments breaking the subdued emo-folk style, such as the wild brass and screamed climax to “I Know the End” and the upbeat rock instrumental of “Kyoto.” Yet the flourishing strings, subtle vocal manipulations, and gorgeous arrangements that run through the album keep it interesting.

The real draw, though, is and always will be Bridgers’ lyricism. The record is almost an out of body experience as Bridgers watches life move by, commenting with a dry wit and endlessly quotable turns of phrase. Death, despondency, and disappointment color the album as Bridgers hits with emotional gut-punches, one after another. There’s a naked honesty to her mundane details such as the noise of the nearby hospital on “Halloween” or the apocalyptic portents of “I Know the End.” On Punisher Phoebe Bridgers turns these banalities into beauty, drawing a candid intimacy and devastating honesty from her every lyrical turn of phrase. It’s dreamy, it’s heart wrenching, it’s endlessly relatable, and it’s undeniably brilliant.

By Caleb Campbell

2

Moses Sumney

Græ

Jagjaguwar

Even if there were still Moses Sumney doubters after his debut, Aromanticism, there can’t be any now. Blasting straight through traditional concerns around difficult second albums, Græ is a ridiculously impressive statement of intent. With the first half released separately early in 2020 as a warm-up, it’s the combined version that shines brightest. Shifting through genre influences with every breath, Sumney presents a beautiful, swirling mix of intimate song writing, bold musical experimentation, and sinuous, personal lyrics. It’s jazz, rock, folk, classical, soul, pop, and just about everything else combined into music no one else is making and everyone should be listening to right now.

By Stephen Mayne

3

HAIM

Women In Music Pt. III

Columbia

On Women In Music Pt. III, the California sister act’s third album, we can unequivocally say there is a HAIM sound. Their 2013 debut, Days Are Gone, drew criticisms of pastiche and countless comparisons that at first must’ve been flattering, then just tiresome. And while they tried to shake it off on 2017’s sophomore outing, Something to Tell You, the albatross lingered.

Finally, we can use HAIM as shorthand to describe other bands: Magpie in their sonic styling’s, yet able to effortlessly execute ear-wormy, fully realized, modern rock and pop gems. Fearless in the way they tackle mental health issues, with an added fuck-you to patriarchy. Anchored in virtuoso-like musicianship and buoyed by the kind of heavenly harmonies that only siblings from the same mother can summon.

Lyrically, the body of work reflects their maturity while leaning in to a newfound freedom and willingness to let go, to play. In turn their songwriting is more robust and their ability to tease out the right vibe be it Muscle Shoals, swingy jazz, or UK garage, all en pointe. “I Know Alone” boasts the garage beat and came after listening to “Born Slippy” and the entire Trainspotting soundtrack, although you barely hear it’s original reference. It just sounds like, well, HAIM—doing a sad, electro banger!

“The Steps,” “Hallelujah,” “Summer Girl,” “Man from the Magazine” and “Now I’m In It” are among standouts—each a rumination on their wrestles with depression, misogyny, or abusive relationships. But the album also provides light relief with the booty call, sex-capade of “3AM.” Or the slinky “Gasoline”—what it feels like when women are in the driver’s seat, Danielle Haim drawls: “When you lie in between my legs it doesn’t matter/You say you wanna go slower but I wanna go faster/Faster, faster.” But don’t sleep, every non-single has something to offer—“Another Try” with its reggae beat, electronic bleeps, and flourishes of horns vibes pleasurably and is utterly addictive. Let HAIM now be an aesthetic and byword for women in music who kick ass.

By Celine Teo-Blockey

4

I Break Horses

Warnings

Bella Union

Maria Lindén’s third album as I Break Horses may have been a long time in the making but was well worth the wait. Six years after its predecessor Chiaroscuro, Warnings arrived in the first half of 2020 not too long after the first lockdown was taking hold. A stark progression from I Break Horses’ previous releases, Warnings finds Lindén at her most cinematic. Candid in its lyrical themes, Warnings runs like a fantasy soundtrack that changes its moods and emotions at the drop of a hat. Whether it be gargantuan opener “Turn”—arguably one of the finest introductions to an album in years—or the industrial waltz of “I’ll Be the Death of You” or soothingly ambient “Neon Lights,” Warnings represents its creator’s finest body of work to date.

By Dom Gourlay

5

Jessie Ware

What\'s Your Pleasure?

PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope

If pop confirmed one thing in 2020, disco certainly isn’t dead. Kylie Minogue’s aptly titled Disco, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine, and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia all revived the sounds and styles of ’70s disco divas to great effect. Yet, none were as consistent, effortless, and magnetic as Jessie Ware.

What’s Your Pleasure? beautifully melds the style of ’70s disco with strains of funk and electro pop for an electrifying experience. The rapturous high of “Save a Kiss” and the sensuous whisper of “Adore You” transport the listener back to carefree times and moonlit romance. The whole record is the type of achingly physical and communal experience that begs to be played to a crowd. In a year where these experiences were largely inaccessible, Ware’s intoxicating ability to recreate the pulsing thrill of a packed dance floor feels not only invigorating but essential.

By Caleb Campbell

6

Waxahatchee

Saint Cloud

Merge

Amongst the tragedies and travesties of 2020, it may be hard to say that not being able to see Katie Crutchfield fronting Bonny Doon in support of her new album would stack up against them. But if the loss of live music is to be mourned, this would have been the hot ticket of the season. Fortunately, we still received Crutchfield’s best album to date in Saint Cloud. Between the inscrutable beginning of “Oxbow” and the gentle fade of closer “Saint Cloud” lies the best alt-country album since the genre’s mid-’90s heyday. The rim click cadence of “Lilacs” captivates, while the Buddy Holly riffs and playful lyrics of “Witches” bring a knowing smile. But what Saint Cloud does best is showcase Crutchfield’s voice. The audible aspect of that certainly, though more importantly her narrative. With her hero, Lucinda Williams, as her muse, Crutchfield gets to the vernacular of her roots in economical language that reveals truck loads of truth.

By Mark Moody

7

Perfume Genius

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Matador

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the sort of wordy, melodramatic title that instantly lets you know what you’re in for. The latest record from Mike Hadreas is a brilliant feat of transportive music that swells and crashes with exquisite beauty. Hadreas fills his world with every bit of longing opulence, whether he meditates on the balletic glories of romance as with “On the Floor” and “Without You” or a clumsy and vulnerable hookup on “Jason.”

Where the record thrives though, is in the changeability of Hadreas. With his newest work, he delves into some of his most poignant and crushing musings, in the weighty distortion of “Describe” or the heartbreaking emptiness of “Borrowed Light.” It is equally a sweeping album of breathtaking grandeur and a stark, intimate work. Hadreas marries his ever-shifting facets and adds even more, delivering the most sprawling and detailed vision of his world yet.

By Caleb Campbell

8

Fleet Foxes

Shore

ANTI-

Robin Pecknold’s dense, joyful fourth full-length as Fleet Foxes was one of the only pleasant surprises of 2020. Shore was announced and released in the 24 hours leading up to the autumnal equinox. It was recorded in close collaboration with engineer/mixer Beatriz Artola (Adele, Common) who helped Pecknold achieve a significant sonic and emotional shift toward warmer, more reassuring territory. From the stunning swell of opener “Wading in Waist-High Water,” featuring excellent guest vocals from newcomer Uwade Akhere, to the delicate swoon of the title track closer, Shore is absolutely packed with excellent songs. “Can I Believe You,” “Sunblind,” “Jara,” Thymia,” “Quiet Air/Gioia,” and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” (which makes very smart use of a Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson sample) all rank among the best of Pecknold’s already weighty discography. Shore is an undeniable new classic that arrived just when we needed it and, hopefully, signals a brighter future for all of us.

By Paul Bullock

9

Run the Jewels

RTJ4

Jewel Runners/BMG

Run the Jewels’ latest LP, RTJ4, was the masterpiece that both quelled and fueled the feelings of 2020’s tumultuous summer. In one way, it provided the type of palliative soundtrack to those in need of commiseration and catharsis. Listening to Killer Mike and El-P rap about police brutality and social injustices made listeners certain they weren’t going crazy. What they’d intuited through observation was indeed reflected back by the emcees. For others, the record, much like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, provided the rhythms and extra energies necessary to get up and get out into the streets to protest centuries of racial and other social injustices. For these, the country owes a debt of gratitude to Run the Jewels. We will likely repay them one spin at a time for decades to come.

By Jake Uitti

10

Soccer Mommy

color theory

Loma Vista

Color theory guides the listener through the shades of singer/songwriter Sophie Allison’s inner world: blue for depression, yellow for illness, gray for mortality. It’s a morose journey, wracked with self-doubt, insecurity, and tragedy and largely taking place in the confines of Allison’s room. But the same journey also represents one of the year’s biggest jumps in songwriting quality, taking Allison to grimmer places than ever before and emerging all the more strong.

Where Allison’s Clean (her 2018 debut full-length) took on an unassuming indie pop energy, color theory dazzles with gorgeous studio production. From the seven-minute shimmering epic of “yellow is the color in her eyes” to the sneering post-grunge guitar layers of “lucy,” Allison immaculately recreates and enhances the sound of early 2000s alternative radio. Similarly, “circle the drain” is an amazing take on a lost Avril Lavigne song, while “crawling in my skin” takes a page from Liz Phair. Much like those artists’ best work, color theory trades on buoyant pop simplicity, but Allison’s disquieting observations lend the record an even greater depth of feeling. Few songwriters married these two worlds better in 2020 than Soccer Mommy.

By Caleb Campbell

11

Fiona Apple

Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Epic

In a year overloaded with uncertainty, at least we can count on a new Fiona Apple release to be every bit as good as we’ve by now come to expect from pretty much anything she does. Fetch the Bolt Cutters finds Apple in peak form, offering an enthralling mix of personal examination and rallying cry wrapped in exquisite song craft. She can make words do anything, twisting and bending, stretching lines, paring them back, mixing wry commentary with hard hits. Throw in percussion seemingly made from everything she found around the house, and a voice that gets better with every release and her fifth album truly is a marvel. Or to put it another way, it’s a Fiona Apple quality record.

By Stephen Mayne

12

Doves

The Universal Want

Imperial

As unpredictable as 2020 was, it had its fair share of comebacks, which, considering the instability of the year, have provided familiar and reliable touchstones. No matter when Doves would have decided to return, the Manchester, UK trio would have been welcomed without question, and with much gratitude. Their return three-quarters of the way through the year with The Universal Want was a palpable relief. Eleven years after their unplanned hiatus, Doves haven’t missed a beat. The Universal Want retains all that was beloved about the trio on its first four albums: its particular blend of indie melancholy, its distorted guitars, its dancefloor-informed beats, and Jimi Goodwin’s raw vocals, which always sound like they’ve had a rough night out. And as always, managing a balance of the up with the down. “Prisoners” sounds both desperate and euphoric at the same time. The dreamy swirls of the deeply personal “Cycle of Hurt” are anchored by stabbing guitar riffs. “Cathedrals of the Mind” pogos between joyful melodies and gloomy sentiments. What is perhaps best about The Universal Want, and which is not easy to recreate, is Doves following of their own blueprint, and making music that sounds like exactly the right thing in a much different landscape than its first time around.

By Lily Moayeri

13

Sufjan Stevens

The Ascension

Asthmatic Kitty

Rather than a descendant of his aching tribute to his mother and her husband (Carrie & Lowell), or his numerous recent collaborations (including Aporia, with the aforementioned Lowell Brams), or his Oscar-nominated contribution to Call Me By Your Name, The Ascension is really a successor to 2010’s The Age of Adz. The only analog outside of Stevens’ own work is perhaps Björk’s Homogenic, a similarly searching album that absorbs a variety of influences for moments of true, angelic beauty but also stretches of anxious discord. The search is anchored by Stevens’ magical voice, tender but strong, always laden with emotion.

By Jim Scott

14

The Beths

Jump Rope Gazers

Carpark

Elizabeth Stokes sings of keeping her dreams in check on Jump Rope Gazers’ lead-off track, “I’m Not Getting Excited.” But through a stroke of geographical luck, she and her band are back touring behind the album. At least down Australasia way. The Beths structured their sophomore album exceedingly well and it one-ups their debut (2018’s Future Me Hates Me) by varying tempos while keeping can’t miss hooks and layered harmonies on the menu. As punchy as the band’s debut was, here the softer side adds another dimension and makes for several album highlights. The title track is a wistful winner and the quietest track, “Do You Want Me Now,” pays off beautifully with Stokes’ multi-tracked chorus. Jump Rope Gazers proves that impeccably done indie pop never goes out of style.

By Mark Moody

15

Bartees Strange

Live Forever

Memory Music

More than any other single artist, 2020 seems to have been Bartees Strange’s year. In the span of one year, he’s exploded in popularity from a relative unknown to a rising star on the indie scene with his EP of The National covers, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, and his debut full-length record, Live Forever.

The ambition of what Strange accomplishes with Live Forever speaks for itself. Strange crosses genre lines with preternatural ease and confidence, mixing together influences with a keen ear and unique voice. A song like “Boomer” could easily be an unmitigated disaster from a lesser artist, with its mix of hip-hop, country, post punk, and blues. But in Strange’s hands, it is one of the most inventive songs of the year. He claims any and every style as his own, and blends them so well you wonder why genre divides even existed in the first place. Bartees Strange refuses to be pigeon-holed and refuses to settle for anything less than greatness.

By Caleb Campbell

16

JARV IS...

Beyond the Pale

Rough Trade

No matter what his incarnation, you can rely on a couple of things from Jarvis Cocker: sly wit and deadpan delivery. His current manifestation as (the awfully named) JARV IS… has been performing live for the last few years. Beyond the Pale is the first official recording derived from these shows. Seven extended songs from Cocker the storyteller, a twisted version of spoken word, his deep tones masking his tongue-in-cheek perspective. It’s Cocker’s sense of humor that drives Beyond the Pale. On “Must I Evolve?” he’s “dragging my knuckles/listening to…” pause, then in a theatrical whisper: “Frankie Knuckles.” Speaking of which, Cocker turns the hallowed phrase “house music all night long,” generally accompanied by writhing bodies on a dancefloor, into a lament with the distinctly miserable song of the same name. And on “Am I Missing Something?” he says, “I don’t want to dance with the devil,” then suggests, “But do you mind if I tap my foot?” Cocker is too clever for his own good. He’s kept in check by his bandmates Serafina Steer and Emma Smith who taunt and goad him in turns. Their rebuttal of “No shit Sherlock” to Cocker on “Swanky Modes” is priceless.

By Lily Moayeri

17

Future Islands

As Long as You Are

ANTI-

Future Islands is a band that often feels more like a stage performance. Lead singer, Samuel T. Herring, could just as easily be crooning Macbeth as delivering an excellent song rendition on David Letterman’s late night show. The band is theatrical but that does not mean they aren’t stalwart in their songwriting, of course. Not by a long shot. Future Islands’ latest LP, 2020’s As Long as You Are, brings the group’s signature synth sounds to life as Herring sings his stories over the album’s 11 songs. My particular favorite is the record’s final track, “Hit the Coast,” which captures that numinous, glowing feeling of packing your clothes in canvas bags, dropping everything else, and going out in search of a horizon to call your own. All the world’s a stage, after all.

By Jake Uitti

18

Laura Marling

Song for Our Daughter

Partisan/Chrysalis

For those with long memories, the early days of lockdown held a certain familial charm for some. Forced togetherness and time spent with jigsaw puzzles, board games, bike rides, and neighborhood walks. Ultimately, and perhaps sadly so, the lure of Netflix’s Tiger King reminded us that our electronic lives had not been so disrupted after all. Into these more innocent of pandemic days, two artists in particular went with their instincts. Fiona Apple refused to accept a delayed release and Laura Marling released Song for Our Daughter four months early. These artists zigged where others zagged and the world was better for it.

Marling’s forward-looking, but still reflective album made for a perfect and gentle companion for idle, yet addled, days. Add to this that the social media shy songwriter suddenly discovered her webcam and you find an artist who embraced an unpleasant moment in time. For those that abhor the livestream, Marling’s explanations of “Drop D” tuning and other intricacies, held out a more welcoming hand. Listening back to the album 3/4 of a year on, Marling’s spring water clear vocals and compassion for her subjects, real or imagined, bring back a beguiling sense of calm that holds tremendous worth.

By Mark Moody

19

Yves Tumor

Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Warp

Yves Tumor’s latest entry may not push at the boundaries like Safe in the Hands of Love did, but it makes up for it as a strutting and glaring mix of blues, funk, and psychedelic rock. The repeated false starts of “Gospel for a New Century” ups the anticipation for the sneering rip through of the best opening track of the year. While “Kerosene!” and “Super Stars,” with their blend of distorted guitars and open sexuality, point to the void left by Prince. The clash of musical styles and grinding repetition of some of the shorter tracks recall the experimentation of Bowie’s (David, not Sean) Lodger some 40 years on. In spots a challenging listen, but one that rewards its tension with eventual release.

By Mark Moody

20

Destroyer

Have We Met

Merge

Recording vocals at the kitchen table at night trying to keep the volume down to avoid waking people might seem an eccentric approach for some performers. For Dan Bejar and his Destroyer project, it’s about right. Have We Met, the 12th Destroyer studio album, continues the weird alchemy where things that sound disconcerting on paper produce some of the most incredible music of the past couple of decades. From cryptic lyrics—“the palace has a moss problem” anyone?—to a soft rock, lounge vibe that comes with the impression of being mixed with a David Lynch directed burlesque show, it’s disconcertingly brilliant. It’s also proof Bejar is showing no signs of creative decline despite his prodigious output. Across a consistently strong record, he manages several tracks that are up there with the best he’s ever done, not least the stunning “The Raven.” And as oblique as his lyrics often are, the opening line from that song has continued to grow in relevance across 2020. “Just look at the world around you, actually no don’t look” indeed. If you’re looking for comfort, at least we still have Destroyer.

By Stephen Mayne

21

Tame Impala

The Slow Rush

Interscope

It was pretty much impossible for Kevin Parker to follow up Currents, an album that resonated around the globe with such a force, it was unifying. In all honesty, not sure anyone would want Parker to go through the emotional pain he went through that resulted in Currents. He came as close as possible with The Slow Rush—an even more difficult feat as now married, Parker is in the opposite headspace he was in when he created Currents. The album is the next step in Parker moving away from the psych-rock of his original sound and moving into psych-dance instead. Shifting into the higher and higher reaches of his effected falsetto and deeper and deeper into his synthesized melodies, The Slow Rush has downright peppy dancefloor moments such as on the euphoric album opener, “One More Year,” the swinging “Borderline,” and the rolling funk of “Lost in Yesterday.” It also has painful moments such as on the sorrowful “Posthumous Forgiveness,” which references his late father, with whom Parker had a difficult relationship. The through-thread of the prog-disco The Slow Rush is time, a concept which the closer, “One More Hour” bookends.

By Lily Moayeri

22

Caribou

Suddenly

Merge

It’s been 15 years since Dan Snaith first released a full-length record as Caribou. He’s recorded under different names before and since, but it’s as Caribou he’s had the most lasting success. Fifteen years and five albums is a long time. Most artists are reduced to legacy status by now, pumping out diverting yet trivial records with only flashes of past peaks. That’s certainly not happened here as Suddenly proves. Snaith’s still finding new ways to stretch himself, adding his own vocals to every track while continuing to dart in ever-widening circles for material to mix in. The dancefloor energy of previous releases is dialled back, these 12 tracks coming at a more contemplative pace. This is lie back on the bed with headphones and eyes closed music, a transportive experience. Beats repeat and shift gradually, hooks are wrung out for every drop. It never comes full bore because it doesn’t need to. Suddenly is a whisper growing into an unforgettable roar.

By Stephen Mayne

23

Westerman

Your Hero Is Not Dead

Partisan

On his debut album, Will Westerman presents an amalgam of pop and rock music from a plethora of different decades. The production, handled by Nathan Jenkins (aka Bullion), fuses glitchy synthesizers with organic instrumentation, both of which contribute to a unique fusion of psychedelic pop-rock that sounds simultaneously classic and modern. It serves as a perfect backdrop for Westerman’s poetic, abstract lyricism that captures modern woes with the existential angst of a mid-20th century writer. On Your Hero Is Not Dead, Westerman takes his influences and creates something completely new and singular.

By Joey Arnone

24

Braids

Shadow Offering

Secret City

After a three-year hiatus, Braids returned in 2020 with their best work yet, honing their songwriting to new refined beauty with Chris Walla (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie) on production. Where the band was once more restrained, Shadow Offering constructs soundscapes of dizzying excess. Listeners find the band at their most lush and expansive with nearly every song ascending to grand climactic heights, bolstered by diaristic and unrelentingly honest lyrics. But the real focal point is frontwoman Raphaelle Standell-Preston. With each track Preston fashions new luscious and cinematic beauties and builds a powerfully affecting record around the contours of her voice.

By Caleb Campbell

25

Andy Bell

The View from Halfway Down

Sonic Cathedral

David Bowie’s passing affected—and continues to affect—the entire music world. For Andy Bell of Ride (and Oasis and Beady Eye), it meant completing a solo album, The View from Halfway Down. This is Bell’s first under his own name, rather than his pseudonym, Glok, the culmination of finishing songs he had been tinkering with on and off for years. This doesn’t mean that The View from Halfway Down sounds anything like a Bowie record. It sounds like who Bell is as a person: unfussy and understated, go-along and get-along. You would be forgiven in thinking The View from Halfway Down is just like another Ride album based on the powered-up shoegaze vibes of opener, “Love Comes in Waves” or the dreamy “I Was Alone.” That idea is soon extinguished with the psychedelic strains of “Indica,” the Stone Roses-esque warbles of “Skywalker,” and the slow, bass-based “Cherry Cola.” He includes three instrumentals: the spare and beautiful, guitar-based “Ghost Tones,” the experimental, indie-prog rock “Aubrey Drylands Gladwell,” and the IDM-ish album closer, “Heat Haze on Weyland Road.” Bell packs a lot into the eight songs on The View from Halfway Down, touching on a lot of styles in the process, and all of it works.

By Lily Moayeri

26

Kelly Lee Owens

Inner Song

Smalltown Supersound

On her sophomore LP, Inner Song, Kelly Lee Owens made electronic music for the masses. More importantly, she made it sound exciting and vulnerable to listen along. All the tracks play out across a spectrum of themes; the socially conscious banger (“Melt!”), the cryptic lust of “Re-Wild,” there’s even a poetic ode to Wales featuring John Cale (“Corner of My Sky”). But Owens steals the show when she opens her mouth, finds her voice, and lets the songs unfold around her melodies, like on the gorgeous, “L.I.N.E.” Inner Song is a lifetime’s worth of perspective, a trove of music we’ll be revisiting for years.

By Scott D. Elingburg

27

Andy Shauf

The Neon Skyline

ANTI-

Andy Shauf has the enviable songwriting gift of making the simple profound. That gift is at the core of The Neon Skyline. The concept behind the record is thoroughly pedestrian: A man walks into the eponymous bar after a hard breakup. As the night wears on, his ex-lover walks in. They reminisce, flirt a little, and he goes home alone. But it’s from these everyday experiences that the album draws its poignancy. Shauf fills the scenes with minor gestures, fumbled drunken jokes, and half-remembered memories, building texture and an unmistakable human element into his world. Set to Shauf’s distinctive vocal lilt, gentle clarinet, and ever-sweet melodies, Shauf delivers some of 2020’s most affecting and thoroughly enthralling storytelling.

By Caleb Campbell

28

Deep Sea Diver

Impossible Weight

ATO/High Beam

The four-year span between Deep Sea Diver albums was a worthwhile wait given how exhilarating Impossible Weight turned out to be. Jessica Dobson and company made the leap here to headlining heavyweights with a vulnerable yet empowering album about frailty and faith. “Do I have to be strong enough?” sings Dobson on the opening track, “Shattering the Hourglass.” Given the likely demands ahead for more of Deep Sea Diver’s time and attention, the answer for all band members involved is a resounding yes.

By Matt Conner

29

My Morning Jacket

The Waterfall II

ATO

A song cycle about wasting time and not seizing the day seems like a rough fit for a quarantine. And yet it was so good to hear Jim James and company again after five years backing those thoughts of “Spinning My Wheels” with their blend of dirty roots rock and spacey Floyd jams that The Waterfall II somehow felt more like galvanizing wishes for a new future than condemnations of a fruitless past. From the gorgeous “Feel You,” with its warm butter guitar solo, to the raging “Magic Bullet,” it was amazing to hear these old friends and remember how great they can be.

By Jim Scott

30

Helena Deland

Someone New

Luminelle

Montreal-based songwriter Helena Deland’s debut full-length is summed up well by the title of the song “Fruit Pit.” Someone New leans to the bitter side of sweet, where not all in the ways of love go as imagined. Over the course of the album’s nearly 50 minutes, Deland keeps things interesting by varying the sonic palette to different shades of blue. The singles are certainly sublime. The title track smartly unsticks itself shortly after Deland complains of drifting in neutral. While the following “Truth Nugget” fizzles over its low grade synth footings. But other more gauzy tracks, like “Clown Neutral” with its breathy overtone, succeed as well given the care taken with them. An accomplished debut that shows skills on par with Mitski’s ability to craft an imperfect world within the confines of a four-minute song.

By Mark Moody

31

Muzz

Muzz

Matador

Armed with serious indie rock cred, the members of this so-called super-group have nothing to prove individually. But their collective body of work set the expectation bar extremely high for this joint venture of singer Paul Banks (Interpol, Julian Plenti, Banks + Steelz), drummer Matt Barrick (Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen), and producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman, The National, The War on Drugs), and Muzz doesn’t disappoint. Some tracks feel more like conceptual musical ideas rather than fully formed songs; with clever arrangements, playful horns, and a pleasant cacophony of motley instrumentation. But all are a warm and fuzzy kind of rock with woozy orchestrations and pleasant swirls of sound. Muzz envelops and enraptures the listener with whimsies and trances as it moves through a varied rock landscape of sublime melodies.

By Matt the Raven

32

Adrianne Lenker

songs

4AD

Few songwriters have been as prolific as Adrianne Lenker in the past few years, and her latest album, songs, represents something of a zenith and a diversion. After releasing two records with her outfit Big Thief in 2019, 2020 was defined by a greater quiet for Lenker—a quiet reflected in the music she produced. Fresh out of a long-term relationship and with a tour cancelled by the pandemic, Lenker sequestered herself in Massachusetts with an 8-track tape deck. The results—a record called songs and a companion piece called instrumentals—are her most personal work, eschewing the abstract phrasings of her previous lyrics to find direct first-person revelations. It’s intimate and raw; like poring over the diary of an enigmatic but close friend. It sounds like being inside.

By Blaise Radley

33

The Dears

Lovers Rock

Dangerbird

The allure of an album about “isolation and survival” in 2020 probably hinged on whether you sought music for escape or commiseration during such a long and lonely year, but if you had the stomach for facing down harsh feelings then The Dears’ eighth full-length drew a vibrant map to get through them. Songs like “I Know What You’re Thinking and It’s Awful” and “The Worst In Us” are some of the best that Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak, the couple at the heart of the band, have brought together since their breakthrough, No Cities Left.

By Ian King

34

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

Sideways to New Italy

Sub Pop

On their second studio album, Melbourne’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever master surf-influenced arrangements that radiate sun-soaked drive and relentless enthusiasm. Through soaring, jangly changes, the band’s trio of singing guitarists appears both slightly mysterious and remarkably familiar. “Falling Thunder” glistens with percussive polish, while the awkward and warbly “Beautiful Steven” reflects the band’s Catholic school roots. More casually, “Cars in Space” addresses vague surreality set against a wall of motoring instrumentation. It may have been recorded and released during an immensely dark year, but Sideways to New Italy is a bright record with ample pep that fits perfectly when paired with open air and sunshine. Like surf rock itself, it’s simple and accessible, but has a bit more grit than one might think, making it an intriguing listen if only for the edge.

By Hayden Godfrey

35

Sorry

925

Domino

Sorry—who orbit around the creative nucleus of Asha Lorenz and Louis O’Bryen—released a stunning, genre-traversing debut album in the form of 925 in 2020. It’s an album that distils their experimental tendencies and natural curiosity into something more cohesive but doesn’t sacrifice their unconventional, forward-looking approach to creating music. Working alongside producer James Dring, Sorry have crafted a glittering debut album that seems to perfectly capture the post-Millennial zeitgeist. Fusing a variety of disparate styles, they’ve managed to create an album that is of its time and imbued with a sound that is uniquely very much their own. There’s the whirling disorientating pop in the form of “Right Around the Clock,” the glitchy sleaze of “Starstruck,” and the throbbing dirty electronica of “More.” 925 shines a light on Lorenz and O’Bryen’s seemingly innate ability to traverse and mash-up genres and spit out something new and exciting. It’s a stunning debut meshing soaring guitar licks and propulsive electronic dance beats with reflective slightly dystopian tales of love, lust, and vulnerability.

By Andy Von Pip

36

Loma

Don’t Shy Away

Sub Pop

This sophomore album from Loma continues their foray into the impressionistic and spectral indie rock sound that they first laid down on their 2018 self-titled debut album. Flowing with a lush underbelly of intriguing sounds and Emily Cross’ beautiful voice, the slithery rhythm patterns and trippy beats on Don’t Shy Away transform dreamy soundscapes into slinky, luxurious space-pop songs. Using an array of instruments and musical styles, and a peculiar approach to songwriting, Loma paste together melodic fragments with a mysterious vapor of intriguing sounds. But what sets them apart and gives them some originality is the cabaret-ish vocal stylings of Cross.

By Matt the Raven

37

Bob Dylan

Rough and Rowdy Ways

Columbia

When the 17-minute dirge inspired by the assassination of JFK, “Murder Most Foul,” arrived in March of last year, one was initially left to wonder if the song was recorded in the ’60s or sometime later. But the lyrics slowly give away the sweep of all that has occurred since that fateful day, whether proud or painful. Dylan turns 80 this spring and seemed an artist content to while away his days crooning Frank Sinatra ballads. We should have known better. Rough and Rowdy Ways turns out to be Dylan’s best since 2001’s Love and Theft. Full of sly brags (“I Contain Multitudes”) and tell-tale signs (“Crossing the Rubicon”), the album and its lyrical content stand among Dylan’s finest.

By Mark Moody

38

Bully

SUGAREGG

Sub Pop

Bully’s third album is a densely packed mix of angular guitar riffs, thumping bass lines, and tight drumming played with the attitude of Sonic Youth and a sound arguably described as a convergence of a caffeinated Sleater-Kinney and Cherry Glazerr on speed. Built with rapid rhythms, and short, pointed hooks, Bully’s acid-pop guitar squalls and fuzzy guitar swirls fit nicely with the rapid-fire drumming and Alicia Bognanno’s gritty vocals and candid lyrics. The pounding rhythmic drums and supercharged guitars are suppressed enough to not be overbearing, allowing the inner beauty of the more melodic fragments to shine through. While not groundbreaking, SUGAREGG is innovative in approach and original in delivery and listeners will certainly find some edgy and cool post-punk to latch on to.

By Matt the Raven

39

Angel Olsen

Whole New Mess

Jagjaguwar

As one of indie’s most mystical characters, Angel Olsen has a knack for crafting beautiful melodies that are as silky smooth as they are raw. Recorded almost entirely in a hollowed-out church in northern Washington in October 2018, Whole New Mess is deservedly one of 2020’s most delicate and gorgeous records. From the sweltering, cavernous atmosphere of the title track to Olsen’s breathtaking whimpers on “Waving, Smiling,” her fifth studio album is an exercise in brilliant vulnerable intimacy. Also deserving of praise are “(Summer Song)” and “Chance (Forever Love),” which sparkle under the weight of Olsen’s loose, chorus-drenched guitar. Almost every note is full of ethereal ambience and profound emotional impact. As a partial follow-up/companion piece to her 2019 smash hit All Mirrors (featuring stripped down versions of many of the same songs, but recorded before that album), Whole New Mess cements Olsen as a resourceful songwriter with an abundance of musical and lyrical creativity.

By Hayden Godfrey

40

Everything Everything

Re-Animator

Infinity Industries

A shift from the pure arithmetic of math rock for Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs to more emotion-led pop, fused two opposing views for one of the year’s best. Re-Animator is the fifth album from the Mercury Prize-nominated Manchester quartet. It captures the zeitgeist of disgust and despair brought on by a Trumpian, post-Brexit world disorder (“Arch Enemy,” “Planets”). Yet unlike previous albums, the rage is tempered. It offers ways to mitigate the unrelenting madness with a reframing (“The Actor”) and awakening (the orchestral “In Birdsong”). Then distills life to its pure essence, gifting us the most uplifting song for this apocalypse (“Violent Sun”). The music video presents them stubbornly playing ashen instruments that were destroyed by a fire at the start of the pandemic. Running with full force towards an unknown future as a propulsive beat carries them, it echoes the poeticism of a Phoenix rising. And so, we will.

By Celine Teo-Blockey

41

Khruangbin

Mordechai

Dead Oceans

Khruangbin is a testament to the philosophy that artists should only make art for themselves, be true to yourself and likeminded people will find you. The Texas trio released two instrumental albums of psych-rock jams, perform proggy covers of hip-hop classics, take their influences from global sounds, and make musical choices that deem it impossible for them to fit onto any playlist—so they end up on all of them. Khruangbin’s third album, Mordechai, marks a big change for the trio with the inclusion of vocals. But it’s still the loose funk of Mark Speer’s fluid guitar playing, the instinctual feel of DJ Johnson’s drumming, and the emotive bass playing of sometime vocalist Laura Lee Ochoa that is the draw. Hypnotic and cool, introspective and expansive, sexy and serious, it’s hard not to do a little shimmy-in-place to the teasing “Connaissais de Face,” the come-hither “Pelota,” and the languorous “Shida.”

By Lily Moayeri

42

Porridge Radio

Every Bad

Secretly Canadian

Every Bad, UK band Porridge Radio’s first full-length album for Secretly Canadian, sees the quartet taking a huge sonic leap forward. After releasing a string of demos and 2016’s self-produced Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers, Every Bad sees them finessing their sound, without losing their powerful slightly unhinged edge. Singer Dana Margolin—Porridge Radio’s creative lynchpin—writes songs that sound raw and deeply personal, and she has the ability to transform the mundane minutiae of daily life into something more than the sum of their parts. For example on the single “Sweet” the somewhat humdrum matter of her mother giving her a pen—“And my mum gave me this pen, she said it lights up when you press it”—is linked it to her anxieties and it becomes cloaked in symbolism sounding both ominous and cathartic.

Every Bad is a bold statement and gives a snapshot of a band fizzing with ideas expanding their sound whilst retaining the very thing that made them interesting in the first place. It mixes jarring guitars with uncompromising, belligerent vocals interspersed with pockets of tenderness and vulnerability. What emerges from the rage and fragility is a sense of defiance, of striving to be better, which is often underlined by Margolin’s use of repetition employed almost as a mantra for rejuvenation. The tension of contradiction runs throughout Every Bad as Margolin wrestles with her existential angst, rage, and ennui. It’s these conflicting emotions that ensure it’s an album that is visceral unapologetic and hugely compelling.

By Andy Von Pip

43

Car Seat Headrest

Making a Door Less Open

Matador

For those expecting something seamlessly knitted together—à la Twin FantasyMaking a Door Less Open goes in an entirely different direction. That’s to say about any direction you can point to. The scattershot approach lands some duds—the little bit late cautionary casting couch tale of “Hollywood” and the every ’80s hair band ballad “What’s With You Lately”—but the balance of Making a Door Less Open is more than solid. The low key synth explorations of “Can’t Cool Me Down” and “There Must Be More Than Blood” are endlessly groovy, while the riff laden “Martin” lands admirably among Will Toledo’s best singles. One worth revisiting and letting the sounds settle in.

By Mark Moody

44

Jess Williamson

Sorceress

Mexican Summer

Several albums in, singer/songwriter Jess Williamson comes fully into her own on Sorceress. Like a select set of her forebears, Nancy Griffith and Patty Griffin come to mind, she can write about anything and says the most when she says it quietly. If you need further evidence, post album single, “Pictures of Flowers” tapped into the pandemic pathos while maintaining humility and a healthy dose of humor. Even though the album’s singles come before, the final two thirds of Sorceress are a meditative study of a song cycle. All culminating in the devastating beauty of “Gulf of Mexico,” that contends with, of all things, aging in the thankless era of on-line dating.

By Mark Moody

45

Taylor Swift

folklore

Republic

On July 23, 2020, with minimal fanfare Taylor Swift announced that her eighth studio album, folklore, was to drop within 24 hours. Written during the first phase of the pandemic and collaborating with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver, and Jack Antonoff, Swift crafted a “surprise” lockdown album full of graceful, nuanced, understated beauty. Swift’s songwriting brilliance isn’t just down to her unerring gift for memorable hooks or her razor sharp lyrics but also her ability to tune into the zeitgeist. And folklore’s sparser arrangements certainly fed into the collective feeling of lockdown induced isolation, of wistful nostalgia and of a hope for brighter days ahead. Despite the stripped-back sound, folklore radiates genuine warmth and empathy. “Epiphany,” for example, which touches on the coronavirus pandemic whilst paying tribute to healthcare workers, is a track of singular beauty and sees Swift exuding real compassion when she sings “something med school did not cover/someone’s daughter, someone’s mother/holds your hand through plastic now.” There’s the beautiful “my tears ricochet,” which contains classic Swiftian lyrics such as “if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?/Cursing my name, wishing I stayed.” Whilst The National-esque “this is me trying” and “august” are arresting examples of how Swift can combine relatable sentiments with gorgeous melodies to craft songs that can move, inspire and uplift. Elsewhere “mirrorball” ventures into the realms of dream-pop whereas “betty” has more of an Americana twang and demonstrates just what an accomplished storyteller Swift is. Folklore is quite simply an exceptional album from an artist who has the ability to effortlessly embrace almost any genre and still remain at the absolute top of their game.

By Andy Von Pip

46

beabadoobee

Fake It Flowers

Dirty Hit

Ironically, Fake It Flowers, the highly anticipated full-length debut from beabadoobee, wasn’t her biggest hit of 2020. That came when Canadian rapper Powfu sampled her debut single, “Coffee” for a Tik Tok hit. Like most Tik Tok hits it went as fast as it came, but it was an excellent reminder of how much Fake It Flowers delivers on the initial hype. The record is filled with dense and grungy hooks, reclaiming the sounds of 1990s alt rock for the main stage. Yet, as much as she pays dues to Stephen Malkmus and Thurston Moore, beabadoobee also carves her own path filling her music with a singular magnetic intensity and tender perspective.

By Caleb Campbell

47

The Flaming Lips

American Head

Warner

On The Flaming Lips’ newest LP, American Head, the band went all out on execution and effort. But what else would you expect from a band that made the bubble concert both possible and popular in 2020. The songs float, dip, and dive like splotches of cotton candy. Purple, teal, pink explosions in guitar riffs, bumping rhythms and, of course, frontman Wayne Coyne’s signature falsetto voice. For Coyne, the music opens up something that then opens up in his listeners too. But don’t look to American Head for any political or militaristic symbolism. It is not a map or a bible in any way. Instead, it’s a way to step away and be yourself while wearing the clothes of a band that knows how to breathe new sonic life into the world even decades into their long career.

By Jake Uitti

48

Oceanator

Things I Never Said

Plastic Miracles/Big Scary Monsters/Polyvinyl

The debut record from Elise Okusami could not have come during a more fitting year. After all, it’s about the end of the world, as well as the relationships that keep us moving forward while it feels like everything is crumbling. For as dire as the record can be though, the propulsive power pop of “Heartbeat,” the girl-group lilt of “Walk With You,” and the fuzzy grooves of “A Crack in the World” all kept us dancing while the world raged. The explosive melodies and infectious energy found on Oceanator’s debut proved to be a refreshing salve for the year’s trials, meeting them with heart and defiant hope.

By Caleb Campbell

49

Real Estate

The Main Thing

Domino

The New Jersey chillers’ fifth album is a firm reminder of their subtle strengths after the fine but forgettable In Mind. Nostalgia nags and maturity calls as more carefree times recede in the rearview mirror, but frontman Martin Courtney isn’t torn so much as taking it all in. “Paper Cup” pairs Courtney with Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath for Real Estate’s most absorbing single in some time, but the whole album bathes in a tidepool where the vibes of long American summers and stark northern winters mingle.

By Ian King

50

Bright Eyes

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Dead Oceans

Bright Eyes, the longtime project of skilled songwriter Conor Oberst, released its latest LP, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, in 2020, raising the eyebrows and ears of many of its devoted fans. It was the first record release from the Omaha-based trio (also featuring Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott) in nine years but it brought with it the signature flair for descriptive storytelling and passion. On the lead single, “Persona Non Grata,” Oberst sings about truth, wailing with a gravel to his normally reserved, though rubbery voice. It’s effective, raw. The album also opens with a ragtime piano, bringing a jaunty tone to the long-awaited work. While for some, time crumbles ambition. It would seem that, for Bright Eyes, it has only helped.

By Jake Uitti

51

Protomartyr

Ultimate Success Today

Domino

52

The Mountain Goats

Getting Into Knives

Merge

53

NZCA LINES

Luxury

Memphis Industries

54

The Microphones

Microphones in 2020

P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.

55

U.S. Girls

Heavy Light

4AD

56

Fontaines D.C.

A Hero\'s Death

Partisan

57

Anna Burch

If You\'re Dreaming

Polyvinyl

58

The 1975

Notes on a Conditional Form

Dirty Hit

59

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist

Alfredo

ESGN/Empire

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Steve
January 15th 2021
7:01pm

Thanks guys and gals great list - one I look forward to each year.
Cheers

Flotilla IOT
January 26th 2021
5:53am

thanks for sharing useful information

Aboutconnect
January 30th 2021
7:08am

thanks for sharing this awesome info . your article is informative and excellent . keep it up with such great content .

Matt Zivich
February 1st 2021
11:49am

No Hazel English, that is a surprise.

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February 3rd 2021
12:18am

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February 8th 2021
4:03am

These are one of the greatest top 100 albums of the year 2020