30. Mac Miller – Circles
I worry, listening to and writing about Circles, that I contribute unhelpfully to the celebration and mythologisation of the young, dead artist. I was never a particularly big Mac Miller fan — total discretion, I’m still not — but I think that, like much of the rapper’s expansive, largely unreleased catalogue (ask Rowan), Circles has much to offer. This is in spite of Miller’s death, not because of it. Ideally, Miller would still be alive; he would not have succumbed to his addiction; Circles would have received some kind of follow-up. As his (unfortunate) finale, however, the album feels remarkably conclusive. Not because it stands out in any particular way from the rest of his discography, but rather, because it doesn’t. That is, Circles doesn’t feel, necessarily, like the end of Mac Miller. Chronologically, yes (unless someone were to sort through the hundreds of unofficial loosies [expect, maybe, a wave of fan-made mixtapes]). Ultimately, though, as a continuation of Miller’s gradual shift into funk-inspired R&B, Circles does not (like many posthumous albums) feel at all out of place, or like an awkward cap on what the artist was doing, or where he was going. Its magic is that it could and does work either way. There’s significant comfort in that. –BlushfulHippocrene
29. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
I’ve never gotten Ulcerate. This, of course, hasn’t stopped the band from being a fixture on lists like this for the last decade. Since 2009, the New Zealand band have razed a hellish trail with their singular and defining take on death metal, enjoying an uncanny outsider appreciation coming as close to ‘household name’ status as a band like them could. Yes, of course, each release has an unmatched thematic gravitas. Yeah, I understand the embarrassment of layers and tones belies an unassuming technical mastery. But, Ulcerate have felt, to me, closer to a formless aesthetic than a corporeal death metal group.
But how wrong I’ve been! Stare Into Death and Be Still, unlike its predecessors, is a cup running over with diversity, bombast, and unparalleled vision. Unequivocally, it’s the band’s most approachable release to date, taking their signature oeuvre and forming it into a mesmerizing collection of multilayered death metal portraits with more melody and variation than ever before. The band’s unique scorched approach to songwriting isn’t quelled, but new and revelatory tones fluidly meet an unassuming grooviness, providing Stare Into Death and Be Still with something less apocalyptic and more cathartic. It’s nothing short of genius.
Now, after more than a decade, I can count myself among the lucky who get Ulcerate. Stare Into Death and Be Still is the sort of excellence that makes me question everything about the band. Heading into the next decade, it further cements Ulcerate as one of the de facto legends of death metal, something which has been known to admirers for years. –Xenophanes
28. Dark Tranquillity – Moment
It’s amazing how Moment almost sounds like a typical Dark Tranquillity record considering the band have two new guitarists. Whatever they’ve been feeding those guys has worked, as Moment brings the familiar riffs and has the best guitar solos the band have ever done. Don’t be fooled by the song “Identical To None”; Moment is similar to a lot of Dark Tranquillity records. That’s not a bad thing — Dark Tranquillity are at the point of their long and storied career that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Moment is the slowest and most atmospheric of their last few records. The prominence of Mikael Stanne’s operatic singing and the overall melancholic tone of Moment bears the closest resemblance to the group’s 1999 effort Projector. Its haunting and dense tone, along with the plodding, purposeful pace and keyboard work, reminds me a lot of the seminal N64 game Perfect Dark — and if you know anything about video games, you know that this is a very flattering comparison. –Trebor.
27. Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
I don’t know if it was wise to expect anything more than a supreme downer in Bright Eyes’ comeback, but you can bet your bottom dollar (very much the one in question here) that it delivers as such. My goodness. This album’s portrayals of restlessness and exhaustion make me wonder what it’s like to find the energy or motivation to stand up and dance to it. Rowan’s fantastic review highlights the potential for empowerment in these tracks’ self-realisation and transmission of empathy, yet Conor Oberst’s performance is as emaciating for its all-consuming necessity as it is emancipatory for the baggage he relays with it. His major statements confirm as much: centrepiece “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” frames change (read: disturbance) as the one true constant in life, “Dance and Sing” relegates this to a seemingly futile gesture of self-serving expression, “Calais to Dover” verges on dismissing the significance of personal development in the face of geographical shifts, and “Comet Song” leaves us with a titular spaceball chasing its own tail in constant motion, as though mapping out the circuitous senselessness of our own pathways on a cosmic stage. The more things change, the more they stay the same; the way this pattern entrenches itself is ultimately greater than any individual’s suffering. Whether this a comforting solace or a bitter pill to swallow depends on the listener, but the album caters to both perspectives.
Its stylisation reinforces this theme hilt-deep. Bright Eyes dismiss time as a framework rendered obsolete by its failure to produce meaningful change, and reflect this by taking anachronisms in their stride. MVP Nate Walcott churns them out like there’s no tomorrow (apt): “Dance and Sing”‘s choral coda is pulled straight from a weathered ’50s kitchen sink-adjacent radio set, “Stairwell Song”‘s chorus is a rare breed of baroque schtick, “Persona Non Grata” might as well have been taken from an ’80s(ish) off-Broadway sadtime musical (perfect fanfic for Oberst’s tuneless pathos right there), and one of the many, many flooring parts of “To Death’s Heart” is its incorporation of honest to God square-wave synthesisers. Everything here, even the oft-cited Bataclan reference, feels like it’s being relayed from multiple decades away; “Pageturners Rag” frames the album as a tabloid installation, but the archaism of its title seems to ask what difference it makes whether we’re being treated to news from yesterday or the last century. Oberst clutches onto the specific details of individual hardships as the only tangible outline by which things can be defined or remembered; as such, Down in the Weeds… resonates clearly in 2020’s hellish landscape, but, unlike many comparable albums this year that were virtually built in obsolescence, it doesn’t have to be treated as something of the here-and-now to maintain that resonance. Turns out there is something to celebrate after all. –JohnnyoftheWell
26. The Soft Pink Truth – Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?
So surprising is it still that The Soft Pink Truth began as a house music dare. After all, Drew Daniel, under his experimental moniker, has graced us with multidimensional and thought-provoking electronic music ranging from black metal to dance music for nearly two decades. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is as mystifying as anything Daniel has produced thus far under this alias. But this collection has an ineffable magic to it; distant worlds floating just out of sight as if they’re mere visions which contain multitudes. It’s unarguably beautiful, bountiful in its soft strings and keys which percolate among the airy ambiance. It isn’t always an easy listen, but its challenges are well-rewarded. –Xenophanes
25. Sault (UK) – Untitled (Rise)
Hugely prolific British collective Sault have taken the music world by storm. Untitled (Rise) is their second album in 2020, following on Untitled (Black Is) directly inspired by the murder of George Floyd. While (Rise) is not as thematically focused on the Black Lives Matter movement as its predecessor, it more than makes up for it with its unflagging energy. While (Black Is) was mostly ominous and foreboding, Rise is more like a riotous party. This is perfectly exemplified by the opening trio of dance tracks that seamlessly combine funk, Latin rhythms and soul without ever sounding like a retro homage. The album keeps on messing with the listener’s expectations though, throwing in percussive breakdowns and embellishing most songs with dazzling string arrangements. The production courtesy of Inflo is in a class by itself throughout as he manages to come up with a distinctly cinematic feel. Clever spoken word interludes are effectively interwoven between the tracks, making for impeccable flow. It’s also an exceptionally timely record that taps into the themes that have dominated 2020: the grief, the paranoia and the suppressed anger. One of the album’s highlights, the sinister ballad “Scary Times”, ends in a call for rebellion: “Don’t lose yourself / Don’t let them make you lose yourself.” Untitled (Rise) is a phenomenal album that captures something truly uncanny about these turbulent times. –Greg.
24. Hum – Inlet
Inlet dispels Hum’s two-decade absence like a mountain brushing snow from its shoulders. It makes for one of this year’s richest treasures, and there’s a rare weight behind every ounce of its familiar elements. Opener “Waves” instantly reminded many of the Loveless sound, and for good reason — many such lines have already been drawn between Inlet and the wider worlds of shoegaze and stoner metal (among others), and in many ways it’s a much more conservative record than Hum’s ersatz swan song Downward is Heavenward. However, the band seem to recognise that mining into their fundaments was a wiser course of action than forcing through various cutting-edge ‘upgrades’ to their sound; after all, a slew of atmospherically-minded alternative metal bands have been doing this with mixed results ever since the ’00s. These songs have simple focuses, but their deep sensitivity to tone and soundscaping are seen through by the band’s steady performance style and far-spanning patience, striding on to a staggeringly vast scope. “Desert Rambler” and “In the Den” churn over a small handful of riffs amidst glacial pacing because the earth-shaking resonance commanded by each iteration would be lost in busier songwriting; “Step Into You” is such a gratifying revision of Downward‘s palette partially because it’s the only throwback, while the likes of “The Summoning” and “Folding” set their sights and bpms on territories seemingly removed from the past and future alike. It’s a little moot to assess how Inlet has aged six months on; it shakes off this kind of inspection just as it did upon release. Perhaps more than any other album here, it feels less like something of 2020, and much more like something ancient and almighty that the year as an entity happened to coincide with. That’s the way to tell it further down the line: it was a long road through a dark year, but we met a giant on our way. –JohnnyoftheWell
23. Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
The qualities instructive of the “confrontation pop” genre tag with which Cindy Lee outfitted their peculiar indie rock remain intact on their fifth longplayer, What’s Tonight to Eternity, and that is the source of its wonder. There is something innately challenging to the arch girl-group touchstones befogged by harsher no-wave tendencies, and yet the striking compositions, among the best of songwriter Pat Flegel’s career, point to a more complex technical narrative to the “confrontation” of this kind of pop music and its intended audience. These are decadent noise experiments rendered strikingly queer, emboldened by a strong magnetic pull toward the center of generous, bracing melodies. The identity of its creator, the legacy of its forebear, the subtle critiques of classification and the inculcation of pop culture, Karen Carpenter: all vividly whisked in these heat-warped sonic splendors. The result is an album of considerable beauty and surprising comforts; never in spite of its tumult, and always because of it. –Lewis
22. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
Petals for Armor may not have been released exactly when COVID-19 was first striking the States, but it will go down as my closest association to the pandemic’s peak here — and with that, a soundtrack that got me through heightening paranoia, uncertainty, and eventual acceptance of the changed state of the world in 2020. Maybe that comes from some confluence between Williams’ emotional state throughout the creation, recording, and production of Petals for Armor — divorce, depression, and the light in-between — and our own stages of grief dealing with the pandemic.
Williams’ first earnest foray into pop music is carried by her raw honesty, clear imagery, and elevating compositions. Take “Cinnamon” for example — a track that hooks on the sense cues of everyday routine while portraying the strangeness and fear of new aloneness while surrounded by crooked off-beats and eerie melodies. The genius of a track like this is how it manages to twist the off-putting into an erupting, pop-frenzied celebration of freedom, all while maintaining that initial hook, crook, and quirk. “Dead Horse” starts with a frank recording of Williams stating, “I was in a depression, but I’m trying to come out of it now,” before sweetly singing about waking from a dream of being held underwater. Through it all, Williams manipulates raw emotion and personal experience around cliché and plays upbeat against melancholy with a potent slyness that elevates the entire record. It’s a crafty and grounded way of taking the hand of the album’s progressive pop structures to ground them in an artful product that’s deeply introspective, anxiously exploratory, and rejoicing in the imperfect despite the sheen of pop perfection. –Thompson Gerhart
21. Honey Harper – Starmaker
I’m far from being a connoisseur of country music; the extent of my experience with the genre goes about as far as Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. In truth, I’ve just never had a lot of opportunities presented to me where I just had to go out of my way to listen to a country album outside of At Folsom Prison (one of the greatest live albums ever recorded), and in 2020 no less. So by that very reasoning, that is precisely why Starmaker had such a profound effect on me, and why I would advocate it as being a great introduction for noobs (like me) of the genre.
This neo-country peregrination definitely bathes in the adulation of country’s traditions and core values, but it’ll be the contemporary implementations that make it so captivating for modern listeners. Starmaker is filled with lavish synthetic swells, vivacious string arrangements, and the tasteful burrowing of woodwind instrumentation that only stand to bolster this already ambitious arsenal of sounds. It’s a well-balanced mixture of synthetic and organically pieced together compositions, bringing with it a sound that is simultaneously authentic and wholesome, yet intensely relevant for this day and age. Starmaker is a psychedelic soundtrack inhabiting the southern-drawled clichés this long-standing genre is so well known for. The distinction, though, is that it takes these tropes and rejuvenates them immeasurably.
There has been a lot of surprise albums dotted around this year, but I think this underdog rightfully deserves all of the recognition it can muster. Whether you’re a long-standing country veteran or completely green-eared to this type of sound, I can almost guarantee its broad accessibility will win over an eclectic crowd of music fans. –Simon K.
20. Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
I still remember the first time I got my hands on Psychotic Waltz’s debut. Everything about it, from the cover art, the band name and the album title, screamed “inaccessible” and “weird”. You see, it was long before all the streaming platforms, when all the above (and music reviews) meant much more than they do today. So when the first notes of A Social Grace graced (sic) my ears, I was relieved, because if it’s one thing that Psychotic Waltz’s music reeks of, that’s emotion. A Social Grace is quirky, but also a fine example of ’90s experimentation. Now, 30 years later, the news and sight of a new Psychotic Waltz album conjured nostalgia and a slight fear that what felt like a mystical experience in the past might be spoiled. Because who expected The God-Shaped Void to sound not only like the natural progression of Bleeding, but also be that good? The possibility of a young metalhead, who has never heard of these guys, picking up this record and immersing himself into Psychotic Waltz’s vast and chaotic world fills me with joy and hope that even now, the San Diego act might get some well-earned recognition for its one-of-a-kind progressive metal. The God-Shaped Void might be the metal comeback album of the year, but Psychotic Waltz’s return is even more important to the metal world. –manosg
19. Deftones – Ohms
Even though Deftones have no trouble releasing brilliant albums one after another, the more collaborative efforts between members are the ones which work best and become fan favorites as well. Ohms was quickly heralded as one of them since it feels real tight overall. Stylistically, we received a blend of early efforts-like riffage amid the current shoegaze metal direction. The results are especially smooth; the tracks flow gorgeously from start to end. There is a darker vibe surrounding this LP, which reminisces White Pony (happy 20th anniversary!). This feature is stemmed mainly from Frank Delgado’s ethereal electronic contributions. His often minimalistic layers brood in the background, easily changing the album’s tone from song to song. Meanwhile, the interesting interplay between Stephen Carpenter and Sergio Vega matured as well. Both added more strings to their guitar and bass, respectively, trading low end and higher pitched grooves. This trend was audible on Gore, yet here the blend is definitely more refined. On top of these, Chino Moreno plays his usual cryptic self, delivering a fluid mix of charismatic croons mixed with trademark screams. He focuses less on unexpected switching from one to another and more on creating memorable melodies. Despite not presenting anything new sound-wise, Deftones made sure to channel all their energy into crafting a beautiful, mature experience meant to be listened to as a whole. They are still way ahead of their peers and will forever remain so. –Raul Stanciu
18. ManDancing – The Good Sweat
A very anxious energy permeates — drives even — ManDancing’s The Good Sweat. The album is reminiscent of, as others have pointed out, bands like Manchester Orchestra and The Dangerous Summer. A further comparison I’d like to draw is to that of Julien Baker, and even the late Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit, Owl John). Less, these latter two, in terms of sound (though there is something shared in their acoustic emo base) than that, despite their nervousness — their bleakness of subject matter — there is a certain amount of hope within the artists’ music. A sense of pulling back from the edge and from the darkness. ManDancing’s music is, in this way, less a dark cloud than a shadowy blanket: one that is unavoidably grim, though which provides warmth at one’s lowest and rest in the moments preceding recovery. Take lead single “Coffer”, which, in its last verse, breaks through its malaise with an at once cathartic, borderline dancy groove. It’s the kind of conclusion one has to suspend cynicism to fully appreciate: such is the nature of emo music, though. It’s a willingness to buy into an artist’s pain (and convalescence) that forms fanbases in the first place. This (over)emotionality is reflected in the songwriting: there is little by way of choruses on The Good Sweat, which makes the music feel at times indistinct. Importantly, though, there is an abundance of instrumental talent in ManDancing — particularly in drummer Thomas DeVinko, whose quick, at times frenetic style contributes greatly to the album’s nervous propulsion — that helps move the album engagingly along. It’s the kind of music that, given the right audience, can and will save lives. Whether that’s hyperbolic, I’m not here to say; I think, maybe, epiphanies always are. –BlushfulHippocrene
17. Fleet Foxes – Shore
Shore made me care about Fleet Foxes. They were always vaguely on the periphery of my taste, being pleasant in the background, and Crack-Up was okay but not something I could get deeply engaged in. Then I heard “Sunblind” and it was like a ray of light, cutting through the gloom and musty indoors-for-months energy of 2020; the old ‘it brightened my day’ cliché has never honestly been so true. The whole album is pretty fantastic, but I kind of think “Sunblind” is both the synthesis of Shore and its early peak. The thing is just lovely, soaked in sun-dappled harmonies and references to lost luminaries David Berman, Elliott Smith and more, melodically direct and free of the unnecessary convolution and clutter of Crack-Up, absolutely pristinely produced and mixed.
It’s hard not to smile in indie-film-protagonist wonder at a song like “Sunblind”, but the whole album isn’t stuck in the same lovely gear, instead choosing to walk a delicate melancholy line that feels like a honest concession to the miserable fucking year we all just lived through. The elegant “Featherweight” aches with the desire to move on, while “I’m Not My Season” is the most simple argument against being consumed by seasonal depression. Gorgeous pop tune “Can I Believe You” interrogates ideas of failing trust and crumbling relationships while “Quiet Air / Gioia” is positively apocalyptic, with an art rock coda begging, “Oh, devil walk by,” ranking among the greatest things Fleet Foxes have ever recorded. In other words, Shore is not as straightforward as it might appear: like a clear mountain stream with a yawning cavern underneath it, there are hidden depths to be excavated from this initially lovely and heartwarming album, if you care to look for them. –Rowan5215
16. Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae – Hole In My Head
While it might be inaccurate to claim that Erstwhile Records are singlehandedly maintaining the relevance of electroacoustic improvised music, it’s not really that dubious a claim, which matters, maybe. The label tends to venerate seasoned, respected composers in a way that renders them monolithic — such is also the case with Hole in My Head, a collaboration between Korean experimentalists Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae. The significance here is that music in this vein tends to exist somewhere separated from time, mostly, so it counts for something when Hole in My Head forces its way into chronology. It’s not obvious to me whether the pieces are minimalist or maximalist — obsessed with everyday noises in microscopic detail, or more interested in abstract broad-view collage. “E”, for example, is thoughtfully produced, and almost poetic in flow if not for the sadistic tendencies. A centrepiece contender, “H” could, in concept, be a body horror narrative, though a rendition via concrete noises. “in my” could be a non-linear cyberpunk psychodrama. I’m basically just saying things, and I’m not too concerned with that admission, since I doubt you’ll hear the same thing anyway, and likely neither will I, should you check in a month or so from now. The point is, this album makes me feel good in a way that seems too ephemeral, and disconcerted — anxious, really — in a way that seems more corporeal. It belongs in 2020. –Tristan Jones
15. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine
You’ll Be Fine shouldn’t have been my favorite album of 2020. I was underwhelmed by Pilot and even actively annoyed with it at times. Listening to the next record from Hot Mulligan, then, was a whim that I almost didn’t indulge. I would have been a damn fool. Once the relentless groove of “*Equip Sunglasses*” harpooned my eardrums, I was hooked. The record’s 31-minute runtime meant I could play it again and again without tiring of it. Eventually, I got the feeling that this was going to be the record that no other artist could top this year, and I ended up being right.
Hot Mulligan’s quirky song titles and the initial shock of Tades Sanville’s yells mean that not every listener will stick with them long enough to realize how emotionally pummeling You’ll Be Fine can be. The rotting corpse of nostalgia infests “Backyard”, a song about how parents assure you that life gets better and easier, and what the realization is like when it doesn’t. The climax of “Dirty Office Bongos” is ostensibly about phone anxiety but is really about missing out on the lives of people you love because of crippling self-doubt. The furious “Digging In” is aimed squarely at a friend’s rapist. So much of the lyrics are so deadly serious that the song titles, though some might cringe at them, become a necessary component of the record. Otherwise, it might be too much. And, even then, despite what the record’s title assures me, I’m left with a lingering question: “Will we?” –Channing Freeman
14. Empty Country – Empty Country
There’s something about the music of Joseph D’Agostino that refuses to stick with or click for me. That’s not a bad thing. Because of it, every listen of Empty Country feels fresh somehow. This is despite its songs sounding like anthems I’ve heard repeated on radio stations for decades longer than I’ve actually lived. Opener “Marian” in particular strikes me as a sort of classic. Not a “modern classic,” mind you, but rather something I — and everyone — have been listening to forever, and refuse (collectively) to get sick of. Part of this must be by design: D’Agostino’s engaging marriage of catchy pop hooks with murky rock, country, and acoustic psychedelic production evokes a unique kind of nostalgia. The reason, I think, that Empty Country doesn’t quite stick — for me, in my memory — is that its songs, despite seeming incredibly simple at first, reveal on further listens layers upon layers. Largely this is due to D’Agostino: his falsetto is, more often than not, buried beneath the muddiness of Kyle Gilbride’s production; his lyrics are, more often than not, fragmented. These are, though, what make the album so engaging in the first place: in spite of its messiness, Empty Country is often thoughtful, sometimes epic, and always captivating — always, brutally, beautiful. –BlushfulHippocrene
13. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
During my junior year of college I lived with five roommates in the same tiny, narrow dorm, sharing the same tiny common area. From two months after our time living together commenced to its cessation in May of 2016, all I ever heard was goddamn Art Angels in full at least three or four times a day for seven months straight, in my room, in the common area, the instant I walked into the goshdarn dorm. The sheer extremity of the situation probably sounds like it was pure agony, and on some days it was, but it was also sort of a fun experiment to receive an album passively, but at all times, to witness Grimes slowly transform into a deity-like presence in all of our lives, presiding over all changes in collective mood large and small — even if I was never the one throwing it on.
If I were to extend my personal experience into an analogy for describing Miss Anthropocene, this year’s followup to Art Angels, and I guess I will with a caveat or two, that analogy would likely follow the party line on Grimes’ most recent work: COVID considerations aside, a year spent with your roommates blasting Miss Anthropocene would be pretty weird. “Ethereal, dark, nocturnal” etc. where its predecessor was “ebullient, Technicolor, playful” etc., Miss Anthropocene is certainly the sound of Grimes retreating inward, harangued at the time of recording by personal tragedy and the weight of her own corrosive perspective on the Earth and its progress.
Certainly. But look at it from another angle and you start seeing the similarities, too. Both Miss Anthropocene and Art Angels illustrate with great verve Grimes’ attraction to generating external avatars as a means of relaying inner life (I am indebted to former Sputnik staffer Conrad Tao for this interpretation); both albums also, and seemingly without much effort, depict the artist simultaneously thrilling to and being quite bummed out about the necessity of this externalization process to her artistic practice. The uncanny effect of both albums, overall mood set aside, is that of a great metaphor, an overwhelming one in the classic Homeric style that goes on for a long time and describes a lot of different things, but which doesn’t lose its principal link to the thing it’s supposed to represent. Which thing, in both cases, is Grimes — take her or leave her. From the opening salvo of Art Angels (“This music makes me cry / It sounds just like my soul / Oh, but I’m not ready to win…”) to “Delete Forever”‘s “I can’t see above it / Guess I fucking love it,” from “World Princess”es to “New Gods”, both albums are about some fake, made-up shit and some very real shit at the same time. Even if you don’t think the putative supervillain-goddess-of-climate-change concept of Miss Anthropocene sounds smart, the music, through its full-hearted and very personal expressions of ambivalence and doom and beauty and all the rest 21st-century life has to offer, totally is.
The upshot of this admixture of personalized and fantastic elements of songwriting practice is that Miss Anthropocene is, whaddayaknow, just as listenable as Art Angels (and Visions! And maybe more listenable than Halfaxa or Geidi Primes! All of which are really good!) as a result — a densely constructed package of deep synth tones, strings, plasticky guitar, a digital flute or two, all of these sonic details resonating with the sense of organic exertion proper to an artist who has thought about this stuff for a long time. So it is that, where I thought I had had enough Grimes to last me a lifetime, it turned out I only needed a change in the light. –robertsona
12. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
I’m sitting on my couch in my cluttered living room — backache and all — trying my best to somehow type this blurb out as my two-year old runs circles around me. I suppose this fits; there’s something about Jeff Rosenstock’s angst-heavy, shape-shifting formula that thrives on chaos. This is nothing new, but it’s more apparent than ever on NO DREAM.
Released as a surprise album at the very moment the pandemic was dismantling our way of life as we know it, NO DREAM quickly became a very necessary form of escapism in a fucked-up but relatable way. Amid rising anxieties and political differences, suddenly the prospect of empty beer-can pyramids felt oddly comforting — maybe even necessary. Jeff Rosenstock reels you in with these exaggerated but therapeutic anecdotes -– always a hint of truth behind his biting satire. With an undeniable focus through the ugliness of it all, NO DREAM might be the most human album of his career. As the soaring closer, “Ohio Tpke” sinks its teeth in, there’s a therapeutic sense of shared relief — Jeff’s burdens and the listener’s melting away as one. At the very least, this is the most convincing Mr. Rosenstock has been since his work on Bomb the Music Industry’s phenomenal Vacation. In a year like 2020, I’ll take that as a big win. –Atari
11. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
Two years ago, when Spanish Love Songs’ Schmaltz landed at #20 on our list, I wrote about how the record was unexpectedly the funniest of 2018. In February of 2020, weeks before quarantine started in earnest, they released an album so devoid of humor that it is almost difficult to listen to sometimes. Of course, after COVID struck, fans were quick to name Brave Faces Everyone as the album that best encapsulated this terrible year. Though that view is understandable, the band’s music is less predictive than it is diagnostic, and they would likely want listeners to know that the woes they write and sing about long predate COVID.
Still, with 1/10th of the U.S. facing eviction, lyrics about debt, loss, and hopelessness certainly hit harder than they might have a year ago. “Dolores”, the album’s least-heard song, is about nurses dealing with gun violence, but now, it suggests images of overflowing infectious disease wards across the world. Several songs flow into the next, creating an unbroken landscape of shattered lives and descending realizations that, sometimes, it just won’t get better. However, devoid of humor doesn’t mean devoid of hope. After 40 minutes of despair, they find some small glimmer of promise in the arms of other people, in presenting a brave face that others might find believable, even if you know it’s a lie. –Channing Freeman