— Music — 11 min read
2020 will go down in the history books as a weird and hard year for countless reasons, including but not limited to a global pandemic, continued police brutality against people of color, and a president who refuses to acknowledge that he lost what many have called the most secure election in US history. Inspite of all of those things (and maybe to some degree because of them) 2020 was a year of amazing music of every sort imaginable. Below I'll share my top 50 albums, a few honorable mentions, and some playlists featuring songs from my top 10, 25, and 50 albums respectively.
For those who don't want to wade through this ridiculously long list, here are some spotify playlists with highlights:
A couple of my friends started an amazing tape label this year called Friend Club Records. A few of their releases made it onto my list, but their entire catalog is worth checking out. If you're looking for where to start, I would especially recommend my friend El's new solo project Tag Day. While you're at it, you should also check out El's other projects - Hounding & Floods In Japan.
My friend & former coworker Kaivon turned me on to Yves Tumor during the early months of the pandemic and I found their genre-defying approach to music to be both refreshing and inspiring. If you haven't heard them before, you should definitely give Heaven to a Tortured Mind a listen.
Blackgaze from Aizerbaijan with lots of dream pop influence and moments of synthy bliss? Yes please.
Shiner has been making great space rock since the early 90s. Almost 30 years into the game and Schadenfreude doesn't disappoint!
Stay Inside is putting out some of the freshest emocore stuff I've heard in a while. With big post-"all-the-things" vibes, Viewing is a great listen.
Boneflower is an outstanding screamo band from Madrid, Spain. Pulling influences from the best of what post-rock, melodic-hardcore and post-hardcore have to over, Armour is a solid album from start to finish.
Two brothers making noisy chaotic experimental black metal with jazz and blues influences. From their bandcamp page:
"Mamaleek draws inspiration from post-war public housing—specifically Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing project—seeking to analyze the emotional impact of the spaces we occupy, the surreal forces behind the appearance of physical reality, and the residues they leave behind."
Delightful high energy pop punk emo at it's very best! Melee is an accurate description of their three-piece onslaught.
Gorgeous and uplifting emo from Sweden. If you haven't checked them out before stop whatever you're doing and listen to No Driver right now!
The first track I ever heard from Cincinatti DIY hip-hop artist Eugenius was Breathe / Sleep - A scorching lament about racial injustice that samples "After The Eulogy" by BoySetsFire. I had unreasonably high expectations for Midlife as a result, and it did not disappoint! I'm hoping 2021 will be the year Eugenius gets the attention he deserves.
As good as their debut album was, this sophmore release is better in everyway. It's the cream of the blackened screamo crop, they go hard but still leave plenty of room to breathe.
On paper I would probably reject Loathe without giving them a listen. "Metalcore with strong shoegaze and nu-metal influence" just feels like too much. It's not too much. It's wonderful. Loathe remind me of Vein in all the best ways, just add a few dashes of "smack you in the face" wall-of-sound shoegazey glory.
Iress are a band from LA playing grungy doomgaze that is surprisingly beautiful. Sludgy with soaring melodies, Flaw is an album you'll want to blast loud and sink into.
Emo punk from Daytona Beach. This is my very specific brand of dad rock.
Since the first time I heard Mineral back in the late 90s, I've been a huge fan of Chris Simpson's songwriting. Music For Looking Animals brings top-shelf gospel-tinged indie folk that is still very much everything I've ever loved about Chris Simpson. The man has a way with words, and lays them over the most mournful of melodies.
With a more mature sound on this sophmore release, these lads from Dublin have a brand of punk/post-punk that is all their own.
Love yourself. Love your neighbor. If you don't Idles will probably curb stomp you.
Liturgy keeps pushing the boundaries of expirimental black metal further and further. A chamber ensemble, the occasional electronic pulse of club music, burst beats, and a beauty that pushes past nihlism into something new and different. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is an absolute force.
Open Mike Eagle is one of my favorite hip-hop artists. This latest outing is his most personal music to date, and it makes for a great piece of art.
Another fantastic genre defying release, NNAMDÏ's album Brat is neon art-pop wrapped around cynically comical musings on life. This album has more depth than you might catch on a first listen.
Bob Nanna - best known for his work with midwest emo bands Braid and Hey Mercedes - appears here with sparse acoustic arrangements of thoughtful & introspective songs. This is a great "sitting by the record player, drinking a cup of coffee" album.
While this may not be my favorite Deftones record, it's a solid example of everything I love about their music. Moody, atmospheric, and bombastic all at once.
Spotlights has a particular flavor of post-metal/doomgaze that I find to be the perfect blend of "heavy and beautiful". We Are All Atomic is my favorite collection of songs they've released to date. This album is the sonic equivalent of being pummled through layers of cloud-like gauze.
Carpool brings that cassic emo revival sound seasoned with plenty of punk and a dash of shoegaze. This Carpool album is one that surprised me with how often I've come back to it.
One of my favorite "emo" albums of 2020. Hot Mulligan serves up heaping helpings of nostalgia laden pop-punk. I may have played BCKYRD on repeat for like a week.
I think Evan Stephens Hall may be the best song writer in the current indie/alternative scene. Marigold is filled with meticulous arrangements, Surprising melodies that always seem "just right", and clever turns of phrase that will worm their way deep into your brain. If Moment doesn't grab you in a way that makes you want to immediately listen to it again, you may need to check your pulse.
Spitting silver-tongued rhymes over gold gilded beats, Aesop Rock has long been one of my favorite MCs. This album - both lyrically and sonically - might be his best work to date.
I wake up with "Old Calendar" playing in my head at least once a week. Any day now I expect to turn the TV on and hear Paul Yoon singing to me during a pivotal plot moment. Paul is gonna end up being a singer/songwriter that everybody knows. I feel it in my bones. Start listening now so you can say "I was a fan back when..."
Noisy angular post-hardcore that goes and doesn't stop. My buddy Adam Baker turned me on to these guys back in 2019, and this latest album is their best work to date.
Several of my friends all seemed to stumble upon this record at the same time. When I say I like melodic post-hardcore, this is what I'm looking for. Their band camp describes them like this:
"Think Hüsker Dü meets Helmet meets Nothing meets Torche"
I think that pretty much nails it.
This is the Nothing album I've always wanted. Nothing has been one of those bands that I should love but I was never able to really get into. This album did it for me and I can't stop listening.
This is Phoebe's strongest solo release to date. The album closer is one of the best songs of 2020!
This album is a non-stop riff party. Steve Pedersen is one of my favorite rhythm guitar players, and this is him at his best. Big anthemic emo/post-hardcore with super catchy hooks.
Gothic tinged synthwave revival from Belarus. It's like a Russian speaking Ian Curtis has been reincarnated.
Calling this a post-rock album feels like it misses the mark - this is gorgeously composed art that captures the full range of the human experience. As always, Jonthan Ford's bass work is front and center and it doesn't disappoint. This is the kind of album you want to listen to from front to back in a space where you can just let it wash over you.
From where I sit Denzel Curry can do no wrong. Working with Kenny Beats worked out better than I think anyone could have imagined. One part MF Doom, One part Wu Tang Clan, and several parts raw Denzel aggresion. The music is only half of the package though... the animated film that accompanies it is amazing!
When you take the doomy sludge of Thou and mix it with the sonic explosion of Emma Ruth Rundle's guitar and vocals, the results are amazing. This album pulls itself in several different directions without ever feeling like it's coming apart at the seams. The end product is greater than the sum of it's parts (and those parts are already amazing in their own right).
Blackened screamo but make it baroque. Beautiful strings, horns, vibraphones and voices get slammed into searing blast beats, relentless basslines and frantic guitar work. Building on the foundations they laid on their last record Dénouement, the results are more gorgeous, heartbreaking and breathtaking than ever.
This delightful indie folk band has been making music for over 30 years now, and it's quite possible that this latest record is the best work they've done to date. A sonic hug, a slice of musical sunshine sent from a bygone summer into the endless winter of 2020. This album has been downright therapeutic for me this year. I am grateful it exists.
Midwest emo with a lot of post-hardcore punch. The Casket Lottery dropped their first album in 1999, and more than 20 years later they're unleashing some of their best work yet. Stacy Hilt's bass work is especially tasty!
Over the past couple of years I've become good friends with a dude named Nat that I've never actually met in person. Nat sings and plays guitar in SPACESHIPS, and their album Pillars is a sonic and spiritual work of art. Gorgeous melodies laid on top of a postgaze canvas that occasionally explodes with big dream metal walls of sound. Don't call them a "christian emo band". They're a doomgaze math rock boy band that creates thin spaces between heaven and earth. get it right.
The kings of heavy shoegazing spacerock are back and better than ever. Listen to this album. Do it now.
I didn't think they would ever be able to match the catharsis of their album Stage Four, but Lament gives it a run for it's money. Shouty, earnest, artful post-hardcore with a lot of punk rock attitude. Though the anguish on this album is ever present, there are notes of hope woven throughout.
Songs that fill me with a longing for "home" in all it's forms. This album has been a bit of a refuge for me this past year. I've often listened to it's quiet notes early in the morning, sipping coffee while the rest of my family sleeps. These songs are full of love and longing. Don't sleep on this!
Daveed Diggs is a force of nature. This most recent Clipping album - the second in a double album set - is like a horrorcore lens for viewing our current cultural moment and the deepseated terror of White Supremacy in the USA. This is one that should be taken in with lyrics in hand, undistracted from start to finish.
Envy does a better job of occupying the intersection of heavy and beatiful than any other post-everything screamo band in the game. Another outstanding release from a band that can do no wrong. The Fallen Crimson was worth the five year wait since their last release.
Genre-defying music with a ton of heart and soul, Bartees Strange delivers on every level. Will Yip's production work gives this album a surprising amount of cohesion while it rips through all the boundaries that genre gatekeepers try and erect. For fans of life, living, and good music.
Released before the pandemic was even a blip on anyone's radar, this album is the most 2020 thing you'll ever hear. Truly cathartic stuff that an entire generation can INSTANTLY identify with. Big riff emo-punk that shouts over top of the void and into the new spaces we're all fighting to get to as we claw our way out of this cesspool that keeps trying to engulf us all.
Say "keep your head up" if you're not okay
But not okay is what's expected
They claim you're a hero, but you died there on the couch
You know the truth in what they say
The world's gonna kick you either way
If you've made it this far you already know that I'm a sucker for genre-blurring music that is simultaneously heavy and beautiful. This post-metal, post-hardcore, shoegaze band from Bristol, England is at the top of that pile.
Caspian has long been one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) post-rock band. Their latest release is flawless. Crushingly heavy at some points and light and life giving at others, this album is another one that covers the full range of human emotion. About as close to a perfect album as you can get.
This one is kinda cheating, but Old Man Gloom released two albums this year and they really function like a big double album (even though the band insists they're not). Light of Meaning & Darkness of Being cover a serious amount of sonic territory while staying true their doomy, sludgy, post-hardcore-meets-post-metal roots. For years Aaron Turner has been my favorite purveyour of noisy chaos, and his work with Old Man Gloom has always hit the sweet spot for me. When Cave-In released Final Transmission in 2019 I thought it would be the last new Caleb Scofield music we heard. To my surprise his bass work is heard in several spots on these latest Old Man Gloom release. Also worth noting is the way the heaviness here never completely gives way to nihilsm. The final track is almost hopeful in it's defiance:
Love is strength
Love is power
In this world so jaded
Your love is bravery
I am not afraid
I will never cower
In a world so lost
Your love is bravery
This list wouldn't be complete without shouting out the absolute joy I found in blasting the 2020 quarantine re-recordings that Goldfinger did.
Last but not least, I have to shout-out my friends in "Bares His Teeth". They're full length is the album i'm most looking forward to in 2021. This track is more timely than ever, and it seems like a great way to finish this post off: