Um. So, that was quite a year.
We’ve been publishing some version of our favorite albums of the year since at least 2005, and the past twelve months have been unlike anything I’ve ever been through. It’s a year that will leave an indelible mark on all who experienced it, and I worry it will be years before we will be able to best understand and cope with the collective mass trauma. It was a year of uncertainty, a year of isolation, and a year of reshaping even the little routines that make up our lives. Tasks as simple as a trip to the grocery store are now measured risks, and going outside includes masks and a social construct with those around us to keep a safe distance. And I don’t know about you, but I found it very comforting to have music to turn to this year. It’s been such a constant in my life, and I often found myself reaching for it like a comfort blanket. As a way to regain a shred of normalcy, or as a way to connect with others across the internet as we shared a moment or discussion about a new song.
Before we reflect on the music that was released last year, I wanted to take a quick moment to thank everyone who read this website this year. We all went through this together, and I’m as appreciative as ever for having an outlet to write about things I’m passionate about and share with likeminded readers. Thank you.
Now let’s rank things.
Note: Check the bottom of this post for links to individual contributor lists.
The Top Albums of 2020
Phoebe Bridgers is incapable of writing a bad song. On her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, the LA-based singer showed off her talents in the stunning three-track run of “Smoke Signals,” the Ryan Adams-based takedown, “Motion Sickness,” and one of her finest songs to date in “Funeral.” Bridgers quickly established herself as a songwriter to look out for, with her quietly devastating, witty stories. On Punisher, our album of the year, her artistry has grown beyond belief. Here, the perfect three-song run entails the lo-fi, glitchy glory of “ICU” (or, “I See You”); “Graceland Too,” which features her boygenius accomplices, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, in a love song to friends; and “I Know the End,” a track that reaches epic proportions in its climax.
Upon first hearing Stranger or Punisher, it’s easy to think, “what’s so special about this? There’s nothing happening here. Too many slow songs!”. That’s fair. Bridgers has a lovely voice, for sure, and the instruments aren’t there to create big moments. However, to deny yourself the dreamy nostalgia of “Chinese Satellite” is just wrong. The fact is, there’s always an interesting angle to her songs, stories that shock and awe, stories that stick with you years after you hear them. That’s the beauty of Punisher.
Bridgers is only two years older than me. And yet, she’s hailed as Artist of the Year on Consequence of Sound and is only an album away from the title, “voice of a generation.” Meanwhile, I’m a woman who writes about music online, attempting to make sense of our increasingly chaotic planet. Punisher, and everything else Bridgers attaches her name to, help make sense of it all. Her worlds are smaller, more intimate, and funny spaces that remind us that it’s OK to experience imposter syndrome (“Kyoto”), to tell your friends that you love them, and to take pleasure in making people uncomfortable every now and then. – Mary Varvaris
We all have reacted differently to this dumpster fire of a year. While some of us have chosen to re-focus on the things that matter most in our lives, others have taken this opportunity to look for inspiration to write some of the most pandemic-appropriate songs to come out of this situation. Taylor Swift did a little bit of both on Folklore as she worked with people she trusted and respected the most in longtime collaborator Jack Antanoff (Bleachers) and someone she had always wanted to make music with, Aaron Dessner (The National). Swift took the opening line of “The 1” to heart as she sang, “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / Been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’,” as she took a significant detour from the upbeat pop of her previous albums in favor of a rustic indie rock feel on the first of her two surprise albums in 2020.
Folklore doesn’t really have stand-alone singles, even though tracks like “Cardigan” and “Exile (feat. Bon Iver)” were extremely well-received when they first made their way into our ears, but taken out of the context of this beautiful and cohesive album seems like a tragedy in itself. This record is meant to be listened from front to back without outside distractions that could potentially take away from the majestic lore of this album. As the album unfolds with some of Swift’s best work to date in tracks like “The Last Great American Dynasty” and “My Tears Ricochet” it becomes apparent that she always had this record inside of her, but maybe the timing wasn’t appropriate to release it.
From the gorgeous melodies and craftsmanship of “Mirrorball” to the heat-wrenching lyrics of “This Is Me Trying,” all of the songs in this work of art connect various pieces of the puzzle that Swift has given us clues about in her previous albums. “August” continues to be one of my favorite songs to come out of this year, and you can almost feel the smile that comes through Swift’s heartfelt words of “meet me behind the mall,” as she describes a summer love. Other creative moments are seen on the lyrical web of “Invisible String” that describes a timeline of events that can tie two people together, and the fury of a lover scorned on “Mad Woman.” “Betty” is another example of an artist at the top of her game as she connects the characters in her story with grace and poise.
It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that this record may not have seen the light of day had the pandemic not forced the hand of artists such as Taylor Swift to hunker down and look for inspiration in the most difficult of circumstances. Luckily for us, there were some acts of beauty and purpose to come out of this whole mess. In one of the most amazing things to come out of this year, Folklore will ultimately be one of those unique timestamps we look back upon years from now to see how far we’ve come. – Adam Grundy
When you front one of the biggest, arguably most scrutinized bands on the planet, it’s hard to not become known for just that one thing. Hayley Williams, despite quietly becoming one of the most respected women in rock music during this last decade, has had a name synonymous with the word “Paramore” for not only her entire career, but the majority of her life. But much like the trope of a band releasing their self-titled album to indicate it being the most representative of themselves, Hayley’s first solo outing is a stark, exuberant characterization of herself and the deeply personal intricacies of her singular experience. It’s a kaleidoscopic showing of intimacy, pain, and resilience, all masterfully crafted to present the experience of processing trauma. It’s one of those records made impossible to be defined by any one sound, while maintaining a level of cohesion only accomplished by a woman striving to untangle herself more with every passing day. Plus, those bass lines though. – Trevor Graham
“Stage Four was a mandatory record for my well-being,” explains Touché Amoré vocalist Jeremy Bolm. “I wasn’t as focused on doing everything perfect as I was doing it to feel better.” It’s been four years since the Touché Amoré vocalist bared his soul on the band’s fourth album Stage Four, diving head first into the grief surrounding the passing of his late mother. Even though Stage Four refined the band’s signature hardcore sound, there was little joy to be found for Bolm. And because of Stage Four’s lasting impact on countless fans, he unintentionally became somewhat of a walking vessel for other’s emotional trauma, serving as the inspiration behind tracks like “I’ll Be Your Host” and “Deflector.”
Those songs are just one part of the picture presented on Touché Amoré’s latest album Lament – a realistic if not sometimes boring look into every day life after you lose someone. Stage Four was a defining moment in the band’s career, but it doesn’t define Bolm and Lament’s 11 tracks are a reminder that life can and does go on – it’s okay to be okay. “Come Heroine” shoots the record right out of the gate in electrifying fashion (“From peaks of blue/come heroine”), Bolm wrapping himself in the love and support his partner gives him despite all his shortcomings. It’s arguably the band’s best album opener (no small feat considering their discography), setting the tone for Touché Amoré’s most accomplished collection yet. Add in a show stopping Andy Hull feature on the band’s best song ever, “Limelight,” along with new wrinkles such as Nick Steinhardt introducing the pedal steel guitar (“A Broadcast”), pop structures (“Reminders”), and post-punk (“Feign”) into the band’s relentless blend of emo and hardcore. Not only is Lament an all-timer in the band’s storied career, it’s also cements Touché Amoré as one of the most important bands of this modern hardcore era. – Drew Beringer
Bartees Strange was this year’s indie sensation it seems, and rightly so. “Boomer,” the album’s second single and one of the year’s best songs, exemplifies why. It’s at once a swaggering rap song, a pop rock anthem, and an early 2000s indie rock cut, all in a neat 3-and-a-quarter minute package. This sort of genre blending rarely works out, but for Strange, it sounds natural. “Boomer” contains within it most (but not all!) of the various styles Strange toys with on his debut LP Live Forever, making it both an impressive sampler and a delightful singalong. “Kelly Rowland” and “”Mossblerd” blow up the song’s rap verses into two full tracks, “Mustang” makes good on its promise of pop rock hooks, and “Stone Meadows” supersizes its chorus into 2005’s best indie rock smash hit that never was. The song is Live Forever’s centerpiece at track 6, and it’s a perfect showcase of Strange’s raw talent; its skyscraping chorus finds him pushing his voice to gorgeous heights only hinted at elsewhere on the album. But Live Forever is more than a collection of singles; it’s an impressively cohesive album for the number of styles Strange weaves together. He even taps into R&B (“Flagey God”) and folk (“Far,” “Fallen for You”) before the album’s closing track. “Ghostly” can’t accurately be placed into any of the aforementioned categories; it’s a song only Bartees Strange could’ve written. It’s like he says on “Mossblerd”: “genres keep us in boxes.” Forget about the genre tags. Listening to Live Forever, none of it matters. It’s not rap, it’s not folk, it’s not indie. It’s all just Bartees Strange’s. – Zac Djamoos
It is unsurprising to me to see both of Taylor Swift’s albums in our top ten this year. The only mystery going in was which one was going to end up ranked higher. From what I can tell, only Craig Manning had the gumption to put Evermore above Folklore in their final tally, but if I’m honest, given just a few more weeks with the album, I believe I would have been just as inclined. Folklore surprised, shocked even, with its stylistic departure from her previous few albums. It was widely, and rightly praised. It appears on our list at number two and felt like one of the more infrequent “reverse crossover” hits.1 And on first glance, the surprise release of Evermore seemed to just be more of what worked the first time out.
However, I’d argue that while Evermore contains obvious sonic similarities to Folklore, it’s far more than just a collection of afterthoughts. In many ways it feels even more confident in combining this stylistic direction with Taylor’s earworm instincts. It also reads to me as far more sad. There’s an emotional weight that reveals itself in many of the lyrics, embedding themselves into your brain upon subsequent listens. And after all the time I spent listening to Folklore, and the obvious love I have for that album, it’s Evermore that I often find myself thinking about. And I may just be coming around to Craig’s line of thinking that Evermore will be the one of the pair I come back to more often in the future. In the end, the debate in my head is mostly academic and superfluous anyway. Because, if I’m honest, in ten years when I look back on 2020, there will be a lot to think about. And there will be albums I tie with the year from hell and how they helped me cope with everything. And I think I’ll view these two albums from Taylor Swift as two parts of a whole. Two intertwined releases put out in a year unlike any other, but two albums that also reminded me about the restorative and connective properties of music, and of the power of a shared musical experience with a community.
In a year of shit, Taylor Swift was good. And for that I’m thankful. – Jason Tate
Sophia Allison, better known as her stage name Soccer Mommy, took great strides in her professional growth as a songwriter on her sophomore album Color Theory, that continued the trend of women artists’ stranglehold on getting their deserved recognition in music. She continued to expand upon the elements introduced on her early EPs and debut full-length record, Clean, to begin to fully realize her vision of what she was capable of creating. From great singles such as “Crawling In My Skin” and the haunting “Circle The Drain” took the project known as Soccer Mommy to newfound heights. Other tracks such as the sprawling “Yellow is the Color of Her Eyes” further solidified Allison’s ability to convey a wide range of emotions into a single song. 2020 was a rough time for a lot of people, but thankfully the music that came out during this year brought some glimmers of hope for those looking for better days ahead. – Adam Grundy
Dua Lipa wasn’t kidding around when she sang, “I wanna change the game,” on the title track of her sophomore album, Future Nostalgia. Dua Lipa certainly made a name for herself on this record that garnered worldwide praise and recognition. The record is filled with smash hit after hit with songs like “Don’t Start Now,” “Physical,” and the most recently released single “Levitating.” In a year filled with so much great contributions from female artists, Future Nostalgia was one of the records I kept coming back to in order to lift my spirits or give me a creative push in my own life.
Dua Lipa explored her vocal prowess all over the record as she displayed impressive poise, control and range in her delivery. From the smooth build up hooks in “Cool” to the sexually tinged songs like “Pretty Please” and “Good In Bed,” it becomes crystal clear that her vision for her music is unmatched and the vibes come across extremely polished and confident. Other songs like the club-ready anthem “Hallucinate” will find you dancing like no one is watching as Dua Lipa takes you on a journey to the nearest dancefloor. From the sampled trumpet riff from Al Bowlly’s “My Woman” on her track “Love Again” that intersperses the guitar melodies of INXS’ “Need You Tonight,” there would be no denying the catchiness of songs like this from blasting off into the stratosphere of pop greatness.
From the Grammy nominations that followed the release of this surefire hit of a record, to the other critical accolades that came as more listeners became aware of her work, there is no denying that Dua Lipa changed the game of how to make a quintessential pop smash look so damn easy. The world will surely be watching to see when we get the next taste of music from this amazing breakthrough artist. – Adam Grundy
I had the pleasure of writing about Spanish Love Songs’ Brave Faces Everyone when we wrote about The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far) six months ago. I wrote that this record “will serve as a thesis of the year, but will also be remembered by many as a record that helped many get through the days.” I still feel this way about this record, but looking back on the year, this album has the potential to be so much more than I originally thought. Brave Faces Everyone is loaded with material that hits the nail on the head for what this year was like, especially with song titles like “Routine Pain,” “Generation Loss” and “Optimism (As a Radical Life Choice)”. The record hit on so many issues that are still prevalent and have in a way been escalated by the pandemic. Years from now, if someone who never lived through 2020 asks what the year was like, you should show them this record. Not only does it perfectly capture anxieties and struggles people go through every day in 2020, but it perfectly encapsulates the will to go on, even when it seems extremely difficult to do so. You have to roll up your sleeves, put on a brave face and take on whatever curveballs and lemons life chooses to throw at you. This year may have thrown a lifetime’s worth of problems at us all, but in the end we all persevered and will continue to do so. Brave Faces Everyone will forever help tell that tale, even though it came out pre-pandemic. – Brett Bodner
Barely Civil’s I’ll Figure This Out is a record for our times. It feels insular, claustrophobic—music made for shut-ins before we were collectively forced to shut in. It also longs to break from its confinement: the group vocals on opener “…For Now” immediately announce the importance of community and companionship, and in what follows, you hear songs that are made for a live setting. Anthems like “Box for My Organs” and “I Woke Up Laughing” sound huge even on this tightly wound record, where the decibel levels seem deliberately contained, but they would downright explode in a small, sweaty concert hall, with band and fans screaming in unison. A 2020 album for a 2020 audience, I’ll Figure This Out desperately seeks but is unable to escape from its confines, so we have to continue to enjoy this record in isolation, only imagining the catharsis of one day witnessing these songs live. – Kevin Stevens
Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama is the best kind of pop record: one that sounds like nothing else. At various points, Sawayama draws on Timbaland, Lady Gaga, and early 2000s metalcore. That is to say, Sawayama has a little bit of everything in it, and the result is something that sounds entirely fresh. Pop and metal isn’t quite a novel mix in 2020, but it’s never sounded as convincing as it does in Rina Sawayama’s capable hands. But as much as “STFU!” might be a bold and invigorating blend of the two, Sawayama is at her best when she’s operating in full-on pop balladry mode. “Bad Friend” exemplifies this, giving her the opportunity to show off her incredible voice. Songs that fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, like showstopping opener “Dynasty” and radio single “XS,” prove that Rina Sawayama’s no one-trick pony. Contrarily, she’s one of the most forward-thinking pop stars of the past decade. And she’s only getting started. – Zac Djamoos
Ruston Kelly is a country artist who writes songs like he’s an early 2000s emo/pop-punk artist. On Shape & Destroy (which he abbreviates as SAD), Kelly is drawing as much from Dashboard Confessional and Blink-182 as he is from his country heroes like Patsy Cline and the Carter Family. The result is an album that is deeply intimate – sometimes uncomfortably so. Kelly’s willingness to tell the truth about his life – his daily struggles to stay sober, his deep love for now-ex-wife Kacey Musgraves, the lessons he’s learned on a long and sometimes dark road – colors his music and makes it hum with the electricity of hard-fought truths. When Kelly released the sparse acoustic “Brave” as this album’s first single, he called it “a sword song. “Writing it made me feel armed to face my lesser self,” he wrote, “Because becoming a better version of myself requires taking account of the painful missteps along the way and fighting the anguish of facing them. And to ultimately (and hopefully) come out better than who I was before. Taller and stronger. This is the highest achievement a human being can hope for, everything else is secondary.” Shape & Destroy is an album full of sword songs: of songs that feel like displays of immense resilience and strength, as well as songs that seem to be nearly buckling under the weight of it all. It’s a wrenching but hopeful album about the strength of the human spirit, and about how it’s sometimes the deepest moments of despair (“Mid-Morning Lament”) that make the flickers of bliss (“Alive”) feel so full of wonderment and life. – Craig Manning
13. Deftones – Ohms
Deftones do not deal in filler. Even the band’s most divisive albums — 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist and 2016’s Gore — have their devoted fanbases, and it’s rare for a fan of the band to find nothing to appreciate in new music from the nu/alternative/post-metal veterans. This level of deserved loyalty explains just why this year’s Ohms is so beloved; in enlisting longtime producer Terry Date to help them craft an album that builds upon their past work as often as it twists it into new and exciting shapes, they’ve created their most striking and essential work since 2010’s Diamond Eyes.
Date’s production hearkens all the way back to the band’s Around the Fur days (most notably on “Error”), while frontman Chino Moreno brings some of his brightest chorus melodies to shine against the thrashy, distorted instrumentals of songs like “Urantia” and “This Link is Dead.” Fans of the band’s lusher, dreamier side will swoon over the brooding “Ceremony” and album standout “The Spell of Mathematics,” which features gang snaps(!) and a weary chorus that borders on shoegaze. Put simply, Ohms excels because just like their best work, it distills what the band does and offers something for every kind of Deftones fan – including those that have yet to discover them. – Aaron Mook
Born out of tragedy, I’m Glad It’s You’s Every Sun, Every Moon could have easily been a dirge. Instead, it is not consumed by despair but is rather animated by the various stages of grief, resulting in a rich, textured rock album with varying tones and timbres. There are sensuous songs like “The Silver Cord,” a swooning love letter to a lost friend; slow-burning brooders like “Lazarus” and “Lost My Voice”; and massive anthems like “Big Sound,” which makes a crushing confessional, “there’s no coming back from this one,” sound like a life-affirming celebration. The album’s biggest anthem, “Silent Ceremony,” is also its best song, even the best of I’m Glad It’s You’s career, not least because Kelly Bader so aptly, so beautifully, identifies grieving as a “silent ceremony that carries on and on and on.” But also because it is roaring, confident, and immediately catchy, a song that directs a plea towards celestial heights—”come home / keep close to me / breathe into everything”—and, in doing so, arrives at transcendence. – Kevin Stevens
Brian Fallon making what is ostensibly a country record would not have been on my bingo card for the former Gaslight Anthem frontman 10 years ago. For years, Fallon looked like the “savior of rock ‘n’ roll” – and got labeled as such so many times in press coverage that he eventually started to bristle against the very concept. Still, his music has never strayed too far from that world, adding lots of other flourishes (see the R&B influences all over 2010’s American Slang and 2018’s Sleepwalkers, or the Full Moon Fever-esque Americana of 2016’s Painkillers) but always centering the music around that familiar, raspy Gaslight howl. Local Honey is different: it starts with a song written for Fallon’s daughter (“When You’re Ready”) and ends with his most direct love song ever (“You Have Stolen My Heart”), both of them plaintive acoustic ballads. In between, Fallon writes honest, stripped-back songs that split the difference between the dark, atmospheric longing of his work with The Horrible Crowes (the late-album 1-2 punch of “Horses” and “Hard Feelings” sounds like Elsie: Part II) and classic country (“Vincent,” a detail-rich murder ballad that references a Dolly Parton song; someone call the Nashville kingmakers). At just eight tracks in length, Local Honey is sparse and fleet, and feels instantly like the classic pieces of vinyl your parents handed down to you when you first started showing interest in music. It’s not his masterpiece, but it’s a quietly assured piece of work from a songwriter who has realized that he’s free to do whatever he wants. – Craig Manning
16. Hum – Inlet
I wasn’t expecting Hum to release a new record in 2020 – much less their best record ever. 22 years after Downward Is Heavenward closed the first chapter of the band, the Champaign, Illinois trio returned with a record that just never lets up. From the crushing opener “Waves” through the sprawling nine-minute “Desert Rambler,” Inlet is otherworldly, as Hum combines the best of shoegaze, post-hardcore, and alt-metal into one seamless blend of perfect rock and roll music. You know that skit on I Think You Should Leave with the aliens who love motorcycles? yeah, they have guitars. – Drew Beringer
Not only is Beach Bunny’s Honeymoon one of the best albums of the year, but it’s also a top contender in best debut albums of the year. Beach Bunny combines ingredients of indie pop, pop punk, rock and pop to create a perfectly baked cake, with just a little bit of bite under the surface. While the band makes music that sounds poppy and happy, the lyrics often deal with breakups, the feelings of love lost, uncertainty in relationships, jealousy over past lovers who have moved on, insecurities and other ups and downs of young love.Lili Trifilio’s voice is infectious and she has a real talent of writing choruses that you can’t help but hum hours after listening to the song. Whether it’s the catchy chorus on “Promises” or the epic conclusion of “Rearview,” Honeymoon packs in nine extremely enjoyable songs in just 25 minutes of run time. This is a record you can play on repeat over and over and never get sick of it. Sort of like that album that never left your CD player in your car when CDs were still a thing. Unlike CD’s, Beach Bunny are ready to take the music world by storm and it’s exciting to think about what they will come out with next. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long as they’ll be dropping their new EP Blame Game on Jan. 15. – Brett Bodner
Between RTJ3 dropping on Christmas Eve of 2016 and the release of RTJ4, we watched as world politics got worse and civil unrest led to protesters and activists taking the streets, all while an ongoing health crisis swept the globe. There is nothing good to say about the way the past four years have played out, but it did set the stage perfectly for another dose of Killer Mike and El-P’s radicalized rap history lessons.
Behind the boards, El-P continues to churn out confident, genre-bending beats that are capable of tapping into old-school boom-bap (“yankee and the brave”) and bass-heavy electronica (“goonies vs. E.T.”) just moments later. But lyrically, RTJ4 belongs to Killer Mike, who continues to dish out anarchistic bravado (“ooh la la”) and haunting emotion (“walking in the snow”) in equal measure. Not unlike 2014’s RTJ2, this album refuses to waste a single second of its runtime, leading to some of the duo’s hardest bars, most interesting beats, and ultimately, their strongest album to date. – Aaron Mook
As we wrap up the worst year in recent memory, Jeff Rosenstock released NO DREAM, the third album released over the past four years of fucking hell. Rosenstock’s records over the last four years felt like some sort of fortune teller if only those fortunes were super crappy, with NO DREAM being the breaking point. An aggressive collection that draws its ire towards consumerism and how fucked up the political spectrum continues to be while keeping the same fervent upbeat punk/ska/sometimes scramz (huh?) energy. It’s full of career highlights like the frenetic Nikes (Alt), the vulnerable “State Line,” the explosive “Ohio Tpke,” and a title track that goes from zero to 100 in a blink of an eye. Shortly into NO DREAM, Rosenstock gleefully sings, “Looking down the barrel of a shitty future” and very little throughout the record changes that outlook, but hey at least we got Rosenstock leading this sinking ship. – Drew Beringer
20. Dogleg – Melee
Like my favorite Smash Bros’ character Kirby, Dogleg takes the best parts from your favorite artists and catapults to a level you could never imagine. Melee’s mix of aggression and melody recall indie stalwarts like Cloud Nothings and Japandroids while existing within the same vulnerabilities that made emo legends The Get Up Kids and Modern Baseball so beloved. Yet Melee is so uniquely abrasive and personal that it transcends genre lines (“Kawasaki Backflip” has already cemented itself as one of emo’s greatest opening salvos of all time) – blurring them with each Alex Stoitsiadis’ throat-shredding screams and rarely hitting the pause button thanks to the frenetic rhythms composed by Chase Macinski and Jacob Hanlon. Stoitsiadis relives his emotional trauma behind the wall of sound he and Parker Grissom create (“Prom Hell” and “Hotlines”) – so buckle up, motherfuckers: there is no quiet, no calm throughout one of the strongest and most thrilling debuts I’ve ever heard. – Drew Beringer
“I don’t want to leave you out, I just wanna leave the house.” This is a line not pulled from Porches’ 2020 LP, Ricky Music, but rather 2017’s The House. Perhaps fittingly, Aaron Maine has always excelled at designing music to be danced to alone. His songs feel alien, almost always longing for human connection, and Ricky Music is no different.
Despite being recorded pre-pandemic, Ricky Music’s 27-minute runtime and pent-up, unpredictable energy make it perfect for those who wrestled with cabin fever this year. It’s thrilling to hear an album house upbeat ballads about wanting to experience joy (“Do U Wanna”) and garbled, 30-second guitar freakouts about things looking, well, pretty fucking bad (“PFB”) just a track or two later. But the album’s largely unfocused, occasionally jarring outbursts are one of its strongest attributes, making for some of 2020’s most beautiful moments of experimental pop music; look no further than the shimmering keyboard work on “Lipstick Song,” or the pitched-up song of the year contender “rangerover.” – Aaron Mook
Just like Pixar movies, music starts to hit you a little differently as you get older. This is especially true when it comes to Jason Isbell and his latest album, Reunions, is sure to stir up all different kinds of emotions for those slipping deeper into adulthood. From the beautiful imagery of being a kid and playing outside on summer night on “Dreamsicle”, to the idea of giving your daughter away to her husband someday on “Letting You Go”, this album has a little bit of everything. Reunions is packed with incredible songwriting that will have you hanging on each lyric while simultaneously making you feel the emotion of each track. The 400 Unit provides the perfect music to back Isbell’s lyrics, making the atmosphere just right and helping make this album truly something special. Reunions is easily one of the best of his career and should always be a staple of summer music going forward. Whether you’re barbecuing in the backyard, sitting on the porch in a folded lawn chair or taking a long evening drive, this album promises to take you on a journey. – Brett Bodner
23. PVRIS – Use Me
Use Me from PVRIS has become a record for all seasons and moods. It’s one I listened to when I felt energetic, one I listened to when the weather was warm, one I listened to when I was feeling down, and one I continue to play as the rain pounds the pavement on this cold December evening. It’s an album of bottled anxieties, pleas, and emotional catharsis. And it’s an album that in any other year breaks out and flirts with mainstream success. Of everything I listened to in 2020, this is the album I returned to the most often. It felt oddly perfect as the soundtrack to a lost year, with songs that bounce between feelings of unease and self-doubt and yet are infused with acidic electricity.
In a year of such turmoil, where life was upended in such a dramatic way, I worry that we will forget about the art that was released amongst the lockdowns and unrest. I worry that artists who released music in 2020, and were unable to tour on it, will soon forget it as they move into the next album cycle. I fear for a year of lost albums, albums that could have been so much more, being relegated to deep cuts in live sets, or even worse, the artists that created them never recovering from the financial hit this year brought. I’ve spent a good portion of my career talking about the underrated album or the surefire hit that just never broke out. As I look at all the songs that hit me this year, I can’t help but feel there’s a group within that will be confined to musical history as “what could have been.” And I feel like they deserve better. They deserve the stadiums they were built for, they deserve adoration, and they deserve to be someone’s new favorite band. And when I think about this PVRIS album, I’m convinced it has all the makings of a breakout release. And it will be a real shame if it’s forever remembered as a cult classic amongst those who know. A worthy addition to the hall of music scene classics, and another that if not for the cruelty of timing may have been destined for far more. – Jason Tate
Sometimes, I wish Chris Stapleton was a little more ambitious. On the one hand, there’s something so relatable about his superstardom: a guy who just happens to have a dynamite voice makes a heartfelt record for his late father, earns accolades from underground country sites, scores a breakthrough on live TV by teaming up with a pop music celebrity, and rides that one appearance to a career of performing in arenas. Since then, Stapleton has mostly been keeping his head down, making lovely but unflashy music and keeping his band on the road for (at least before 2020) what felt like it could be a never-ending tour. Whenever Stapleton does stretch a bit outside of his comfort zone, though, the results are absolute magic. That happens a few times on Starting Over, like on the string-drenched “Cold,” which sounds like his twist on a 007 theme; or “Watch You Burn,” a black-magic rocker loaded with some of the loudest gospel choir backups I’ve ever heard on a record. The less risky songs are terrific, too—especially no-frills acoustic strummers like the title track and “Nashville, TN,” or soulful covers like “Joy of My Life” and “Old Friends.” But for how electric things sound when Stapleton lets things get a little weird, it’s thrilling to imagine what a full album of risk-taking, no-holds-barred songwriting might bring. In the meantime, Starting Over is another crowd-pleasing chapter in the unlikely superstar’s story, and an album I imagine I’ll reach for many times when I’m looking for a good evening spin on the turntable. – Craig Manning
Listening back now, Wake Up Sunshine feels like the soundtrack to a summer that never quite was. By rights, these songs should have been fodder for road trips with friends and scalding hot days at the beach; for summer flings and sweaty moshpits at communal rock shows; for hazy Fourth of July barbeques where you drank one beer too many. That version of summer 2020 never happened, and Wake Up Sunshine feels melancholier than it should as a result. That’s the great thing about music, though: the release is a moment in time, but the album lasts forever. This one feels like it has the power to linger, spinning off songs to your hot-weather playlist for years to come until Wake Up Sunshine finally becomes the send-up to a celebratory summer than it deserved to be in 2020. As an album, it’s the most fully realized distillation yet of everything that All Time Low does well. Monster choruses; big helpings of nostalgia; songs that nod toward classic pop-punk tropes (“Melancholy Kaleidoscope,” “Clumsy”) and other songs that shoot straight for skyscraping arena rock (“Favorite Place,” “Safe”). It’s a bright, fun listen that I probably personally underrated because the overall mood of the world wasn’t in that place in 2020. But again, the release is a moment in time and the album lasts forever, and I’m glad I’ll have these songs to come back to when the tide shifts and all the things Wake Up Sunshine was meant to soundtrack can happen once more. – Craig Manning
Imploding the Mirage was framed as a comeback – as in, “Can you believe this legacy band released such a fantastic album in 2020?” Beyond the bizarre nature of trying to wrap my head around classifying The Killers – a band whose debut album I bought at Walmart in the middle of eighth grade – as a legacy band, I also took issue with the word “comeback.” If you’re asking me, The Killers have been releasing great albums ever since that aforementioned debut – particularly 2012’s Battle Born, my pick for the most underrated rock album of the last 10 years. But I can hardly fault critics climbing aboard imploding the Mirage, a larger-than-life stadium rock record released in a time where it felt like stadium rock might never be a thing ever again. Just like Hot Fuss, Mirage burns exceedingly hot for its first half (“My Own Soul’s Warning,” “Blowback,” “Caution,” and “Dying Breed” is the year’s most miraculous four-track run) and eases off the gas deeper into the tracklist. Despite the top-heavy design of the record, though, Imploding the Mirage remains miraculous, stowing songs that would seem positively gargantuan in any other hands (the War on Drugs-aping “Running Towards a Place,” or the U2 cosplay of “When the Dreams Run Dry”) on a second half that feels modest for the simple reason that the first half is so comically outsized. My assumption is that those first four songs will always control the narrative around Mirage, just like the “Mr. Brightside”/”Smile Like You Mean It”/”Somebody Told Me”/”All These Things That I’ve Done” string dominates the legacy of Hot Fuss. Then again, when you’ve got songs as picture-perfect as “Caution,” with its rip-roaring Lindsey Buckingham guitar solo”; or “Dying Breed,” with its sheer adrenaline-boosting kinetic energy, you’ve got nothing to fear from having your legacy guided by just your A-list songs. – Craig Manning
Is there a harder working band out there than Silverstein? The band had an extremely busy 2020, as they saw the release of their tenth studio album A Beautiful Place To Drown, and never being ones to be complacent, they also released their second version of reimagined songs in REDUX II. The band’s tireless work ethic paid major dividends as their latest studio album took their creative spirit to new heights. Under the careful guidance of veteran producer Sam Guaiana, the band crafted 12 songs that sounded different than anything they had ever recorded before, yet still felt like Silverstein.
With several collaborations (five to be exact) to round out their sound on this album, there were plenty of nuances and interesting moments to be found all over the record. From the introduction of new instruments (saxophone on “All On Me”) to further exploring what their band was capable of creating, A Beautiful Place To Drown examined the world around us during such a tumultuous year that would require us all to rethink our priorities. Although this album came out before the pandemic hit, it still carries the same weight and power to help guide us through the unknown of what comes next. – Adam Grundy
The beginning of the year always hits a little different, resting somewhere between the epilogue of “ranking season” and the prologue of music’s future. And maybe that’s part of why On Circles hit so many of us like the titan it is: a cacophonous palate cleanser to kick off 2020 from one of the most consistent acts in post rock. Glistening guitars singing triumphant melodies atop each other, and chest caving rhythms pounding away at our heartstrings, Caspian show us repeatedly that they’re no strangers to creating sonic cinema. But the magic of On Circles lies more in their knack for dynamic balance and variety — where “Ishmael” boasts a hopeful array of orchestral strings and mid-tempo swagger, the preceding track “Collapser” sounds like the doom and gloom assault that would be fitting to soundtrack the literal end of the world. These are songs designated to be performed loudly in concert halls everywhere, but for 2020, it was a pleasure to throw on a pair of headphones with this and just dream. – Trevor Graham
On her debut LP, Georgia-born Americana singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt delivers the most resilient anthem of hope than any artist shared in 2020. It’s also precisely the kind of hope that I needed to feel in 2020, because it doesn’t come easy. Expectations is hardly a happy album: it’s grounded in autobiographical tales of Pruitt’s southern upbringing, her coming-of-age, and her coming out as a gay woman. The songs grapple with confusion, fear, familial rejection, denial, questions of self-identity, depression, and quite a bit of pain. Occasionally, Pruitt sounds one verse shy of giving up, like on opener “Wishful Thinking” where she writes off the idea of pining for a movie-screen-worthy romance as “just wastin’ all your time.” In “Grace Has a Gun,” the narrator describes a lost girl who does ultimately give up – who thinks “the scars on her arms means that she’s in control” and who, eventually, turns the gun at herself and pulls the trigger. But then you get songs like “Georgia,” about coming out to your parents and fearing the worst, only to have them surprise you; or the closing duo of “Loving Her” and “It’s Always Been You,” deeply impactful love songs that have that much more payoff after all the other emotional beats the album throws the listener’s way. Queer voices are more prevalent in music than they once were, across all genres, but they are still a relative rarity in Pruitt’s country/Americana wheelhouse. Ironically, the trappings of country music as a storytelling medium first and foremost give that much more space for Pruitt to go into detail about her experiences and tell the whole truth. The result is a searing, life-affirming piece of work that should have gotten more attention than it did. No hyperbole, Expectations is the kind of record that saves lives. On some of my darker days in 2020, it sure felt like it was saving mine. – Craig Manning
What can I say about Fetch the Bolt Cutters – my personal album of the year – that hasn’t been said already by writers who have spent decades listening to Fiona Apple’s music; or by Jenn Pelly, who not only penned the 10.0 review of the album for Pitchfork, but also spent months coming up with a cover story feature with Apple, and profiled the Shameika. The fact is, once you spend time with this album, your music-listening life has changed forever.
To some, songs like “Relay” or “Heavy Balloon” just sound like clanging pots and pans. To others, like yours truly, they are revelatory. Who else writes the passage, “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” in journals at age 15? Fiona Apple. Who else takes “I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans” from a children’s gardening book? The one and only Fiona Apple. In a Vulture interview, she described depression as living with something so heavy, pretending to have fun in the darkest moments. “Heavy Balloon” allows her to be like strawberries, to spread herself out and take over the whole garden. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is imperfect. It’s messy, Apple’s dog Mercy is heard barking at the end of the titular track, her vocal is raw and unfurnished. The drawing factors of her fifth album are the imperfections, alongside the stories and relationships with women.
On the rollicking “Shameika,” Apple draws from formative childhood experiences – with bullies and the person that stands up for the victim, who feels small – and inhabits your own personal experiences, whatever they may be. On “Newspaper,” she is enraged at knowing that protecting other women from predators isn’t what she’s supposed to do. It’s a genius idea to have “Ladies” follow “Newspaper,” which explores closeness between women and being proud of the fact. It turns out that in order to make an album like Fetch the Bolt Cutters, all you need is a supremely talented storyteller with a voice beyond her years, proficiency on the piano, creating percussion from whatever is around you, and Garageband. – Mary Varvaris
Some contributors have shared their individual best of 2020 lists:
- Jason Tate
- Craig Manning
- Drew Beringer
- Aaron Mook
- Brett Bodner
- Mary Varvaris
- Adam Grundy
- Garrett Lemons
- Trevor Graham
If you’d like to share your best of 2020 list, there’s a thread in our community, or feel free to share it in the comments.
The Nerd Stat Stuff
Our final compiled list was put together using our ranking algorithm. There were 14 contributors and 208 unique albums across all of the lists. In total, 70 albums out of the 208 were on more than one list, with the number one album appearing on 11 of the 14 lists. Turns out we really like Phoebe Bridgers.