2020, the year that stood still. Just 12 months ago at the turn of the decade, we all [or at least I] had such high hopes. It felt symbolic, this change in decade. In 2019, I spent the last week of December grinding through Webflow training to build this site and publish our Best of 2019 list. It feels like a distant memory, but don't all memories take on a sense of distance once they move beyond the here and now.
It definitely feels like longer than a year ago. For all the trash you can talk about 2020, we've really been blessed with amazing new music this year. It seems that being holed up at home, without the hustle and bustle of touring, has given artists the space to produce some truly outstanding work. From Charli XCX's' quarantine-produced "how i'm feeling now" to A.G. Cook's magnum opus of PC music "7G" to Adrienne Lenker's gourgeous "songs" creativity has somehow managed to thrive in seclusion.
On the other hand, many artists struggled to find the creative energy, and we can't blame them, this year has been tough for everyone, but especially for small artists whose main source of income is often touring. Spotify still only pays a few cents per thousand listens. We've included Bandcamp embeds in this list wherever possible, and we only ask just one thing of you. Buy something new you find on this list and support the art that gives us so much life.
Artists bring so much value to our lives by filling the silence [or low grade buzz] with something entirely more impactful. In compiling this list, one thing in particular stood out as being different this year. In normal years, live performances would provide some [perhaps unfair] bumps to the lucky few artists I was able to see in Columbus. In normal years seeing new music performed live on tour has always made a big impact on our lists.
We hope you enjoy this list and we can't wait for things to get back to normal so we can bring back what was once a major focus of this site and especially our Instagram page: live music.
Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud is the sound of Katie Crutchfield at her most conscious, comfortable and controlled. A vivid modern classic of folk and Americana stripped down to it’s emotional core.
Melee is satisfying emo punk delivered at a breakneck pace. Front man Alex Stoitsiadis hoarsely barks with sincere angst on this high energy album complete with rapid fire percussion and screaming guitars. [Noah]
Archy Marshall a.k.a. King Krule retains much of the brooding attitude and cynical lyrics he's come to be known for on Man Alive! Still, Krule is softer and more structured, laying down most of the instruments himself behind his emotive, yet singular vocal. The resigned miasma that mired The OOZ wafts slightly over the rest of the album. Marshall is prone to making songs without anything to pull the listener through to the other side, substance-less expressions of aggravation or isolation. [Alek]
Soccer Mommy’s releases have consistently improved in quality and Color Theory is no exception. The music is gentle and moody, with simple but catchy melodies that take everything that was great about 2018’s Clean and make it better. Sophia Allison’s songwriting on this record is impressive, with metaphors that fold into one another giving a deep dive into her psyche. Overall, a strong collection of introspective indie pop songs.
Every Bad is the band’s most definitive statement yet, thrusting the meter towards a more earnest, raw, and biting direction. It’s an album both expressive and exhilarating, led by emotionally potent performances from singer-songwriter Dana Margolin. Here she expertly blends sludgy malaise with tongue-in-cheek defiance. This ferocious record is full of thunderous and serrated post-punk guitars combined with simple mantras that have birthed vehement anthems. It’s an incredibly powerful album that feels like just the beginning for the Brighton band’s upward trending career.
In many ways, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors [our #3 pick in 2019] was a quintessential pre-pandemic record: elegant music with vast orchestral arrangements, made for glitzy all-nighters spent wandering the city. Less than a year later, the ballrooms might be shut down, but Olsen has returned with something far more intimate and spectacular.
Whole New Mess presents the All Mirrors material in its original form, which Olsen laid down in the fall of 2018 inside the Unknown, Phil Everum’s Catholic-church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington. The cinematic, grandiose arrangements are gone, allowing Olsen and her guitar the space to explore a raw and emotional intensity as she grapples with the dissolution of a long-term relationship.
“acts of rebellion does” an amazing job at dishing out techno-influenced, alternative dance bangers, with a punk flair, and enough room to breathe in between. Due to the short run time, the album is an extremely fun and invigorating listen that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. The irrefutable kinetic energy throughout the record captures the feeling of comradeship and freedom that we all so greatly miss on the dance floor in 2020. It feels like a time capsule where we can escape our worries, and dance like there’s no tomorrow. Or as Ela would say, its bright music for dark times. [Jacob]
Overall, Innocent Country pt 2 stands amongst the best in Quelle’s discography, while simultaneously presenting the veteran rapper’s most direct and triumphant work to date. Loaded with fantastic features as well as Chris Keys’ pristine jazzy and soulful production, it’s a grand undertaking. Together, they stick the landing. [Jacob]
Chicago-based experimental artist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s BRAT brings forth a barrage of genres, sounds, and emotions sure to leave you reeling. Each track manages to expand Nnamdi’s soundscape in unique and unexpected ways, a testament to his years of experience crafting music. [Alek]
Future Island’s As Long As You Are, a triumph of lyricism and sound from one of the most distinctive bands in the world today, an album in which every song achieves poignancy.
The band's sixth album is a return to form with deeply confessional synthpop that grows which each listen. Samuel Herring’s growling vocals paint a vivid portrait of life. [Alek]
Starting Over accomplishes what all country records have failed to for the past decade plus, it’s an honest to god everyman’s album. As of late, country records have fallen into two categories, music made for critics, and music made for commercial purposes. Unlike pop and rock, those two categories have rarely coalesced into a single record. Chris Stapleton decided there must be a way to mash the two together, and Starting Over beautifully proves his thesis. But it works because that level of thought never went into it. The album is a natural expression of what’s on Stapleton’s mind. Lucky for Stapleton, the things on his mind are weighing heavily on all of us. Bundle that with stellar songwriting, catchy hooks and a blistering guitar tone, you’ve got the best country album in a year rife with country excellence.
Armand Hammer is a rap duo that gets pointed to as prophetic, when the truth is a much harder pill to swallow: the times aren’t changing. Their brand of hip-hop has taken on the naked abyss of the real world for what it is countless times, and Shrines is no different. Functioning as a collapse of our conventions and our material realities, billy woods and ELUCID craft songs with samples that crater the earth and lyrics that expose the murk. Shrines opens its doors to an extensive list of collaborators with the mission remaining the same: to open the eyes of its audience to a reality that was already there. [Tucker]
After OPN reinvented early 2000s metal-pop and chronicled the downfall of all civilization on his past two albums, he takes the time to self mythologize and recontextualize his entire body of work. This album feels alive in a way unseen before and the organic synthwork accompanied by anachronistic radio interludes is a step above what he’s accomplished before feeling even more cinematic than his soundtrack work with the Safdie brothers. [Rodrigo]
Visions of bodies being burned builds upon the strengths of its predecessor, and takes the ideas and themes naturally embedded in horror-core in unexpected and thrilling directions. Both the lyrics and production are dreadful, mind-boggling, and absolutely gnarly. It’s by far one of the most vivid and visceral listening experiences of the year, and cements the groups’ reputation as one of the most creative acts in music today. [Jacob]
There are countless reasons as to why this album is excellent. The choice of instrumentation is an inspired mix of harsh synthesisers, surf guitars and relentless drums. But what truly sets West of Eden apart from modern music is the lyrical focus. With track titles like “The West is Dead,” and “War is Looming” it’s fairly clear what the record is getting at, but the cynicism and resignation with which it approaches these topics speaks to the stark dystopia of the modern day. The world of HMLTD carries no love, but revels in violence. Pleasant things exist only to be destroyed, as seen on “LOADED” where our protagonist’s “possessions / rendered [them] a slave / but [they] set [their] heart free/ [they] went home and blew it all away.” But even through acts of great sacrifice, the only outcome is violence, cynicism, humour and retaliation. [Drew]
Somewhere between a scrapbook and a puzzle, Material Girl finds himself not only cutting and pasting samples and genres onto Tangram, but emotions and turmoil—a gorgeous and unparalleled listening experience. [Alek]
Rare is an album that can cross over between Top 40 and critics so deftly. Future Nostalgia is a joyous cavalcade of punchy arrangements and disco aesthetics. Dua Lipa has concocted a synthpop album that is chock full of hooks and light on filler, and if nothing else, has some of the best basslines you will hear on an album this year. [Rodrigo]
What the fuck is hyperpop? Is it a burgeoning post-pop, post-internet, post-PC Music genre? Or is it just a spotify playlist for all this left field music that doest really fit in any of the more established genres it draws inspiration from. Regardless of your definition, hyperpop seems to be here to stay and Food House is a standout from the strong collection of hyperpop records released so far. This meme referencing, sonic the hedgehog sampling, weed and poppers fueled trip of an album may just be the most fun you’ll have listening to music this year. Fraxiom gives some of their most charismatic vocal performances to date, and Gupi’s colourful production keeps you dancing along from start to finish. [Liam]
Sumney explores uncertainty and ambiguity in græ, which he self describes as "a concept album about grayness.” The album balances personal and public messages working to directly address people’s emotionality. Asking questions about unexplainable phenomena in society, græ is a musically and lyrically demanding work that once again proves Sumney's creative genius.
Regardless of a language barrier, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs still transports listeners into a different universe whether they take in the literal meanings or not
The album is a tour-de force of French chamber pop driven by Pelgag's vocals and backed massive orchestral flourishes. [Alek]
Skins n Slime open with a subtle combination of piano and string. For the first second and a half or so maybe, the piece feels like a poignant and melancholic modern classical composition. But only for that first second and a half. Then the motif begins to repeat itself, over and over again. A short loop to define the opening piece and the rest of the tracks to come. A mechanical construction of cold screeches layered overtones that simultaneously unfurl yet feel confined to a rigid system. An apt title for an album of alien sonics in an ever human like state of construction. Shrouded in noise and distortion, these pieces peel away revealing skin, slime, and everything in between.
Taking its name from a biblical quote in Romans, this electronic project from Drew Daniel of Matmos blurs the line between house and ambient soundscape. The album’s chimes, bells, piano and chanty choir vocals give it an ethereal quality, almost to the point of being eerie. One track flows seamlessly into the next, shaping a sonic pilgrimage that will intrigue active and passive listeners alike.
Swedish musician and composer Anna Von Hasswolff creates a swirling, religious experience through heavy use of pipe organ on this solo effort. Somewhere between heaven and hell, eternal enlightenment and the bottomless pit, Von Hausswolff wields her instrument of choice with peerless ability. [Noah]
Ultraclub4k, is a collaborative effort of Døves and GothBoiClique co-founder Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. The 60 minute DJ Set/Album is a beautifully crafted combination of genres you never thought would play as well together as they do. A relentless blend of trance, cloud rap, hard dance, and trap feels at the same time fresh and incredibly nostalgic. [Zane]
For electronic fans make sure to check out our Top Electronic of 2020 as well!
Poetic but without bullshit, beware that it is 2020, Laura Marling is not a pastoral country singer anymore. Her stories are always touching, the words chosen are those that make you lift your nose from the book you read to just listen. She talks to her future daughter, defends her, wants to protect her innocence. She questions without judging the small marital prisons of our mothers. [Devrim]
Nicolas Jaar’s artistic growth is dynamic and begs to be listened to. Cenizas is the most autobiographical Jaar has gotten. He perfectly documents his introspective journey of coming out of his darkness. From the quiet start to the crescendo of realization at the end, Cenizas is as deeply philosophical as it is hauntingly beautiful. [Erick]
The four year gap felt like a passing moment compared to the 16 year hiatus plagued upon fans of the Avalanches in the early 2000's. But the crew is back, as fun as ever, and, if we can interpret the title as a message to us, never going to leave us like that again. The songs here as carefully crafted as ever -- the sun-filled day dreaming numbers of Wildflower turn into beat-driven tunes for nighttime wandering on We Will Always Love You, but most importantly the soul of this group feel fully intact. Though still sample laden, many of these tracks are fully fleshed out pop numbers as opposed to the kaleidoscope collages of their past and unsurprisingly they've proven that their history of composing tropical plunderphonic masterpieces translates well to the hook-driven songwriting anchoring this record. The continued evolution is timely -- just when we needed it the most, The Avalanches delivered on a wonderful set of feel-good songs to propel us through the winter and into the sanguine spring we all know we need. [Nick]
Released at the autumnal equinox, Shore feels like an invitation to take this new season in stride and find comfort where it presents itself, to honor our current standing and reach out with compassion at the void. We’re living through a maelstrom and holding fast may require unorthodox solutions like looking at the horizon and seeing the sun coming up. Shore is a different affair with the complexity matched by flowing experimentation and a charitable spirit at its core. It’s an album for the beaten down souls this year has left behind, inviting us to be grateful for the hands near us and the small graces every day can offer. [Rodrigo]
An album that walks a delicate balance between experimentation and dance pop, with the occasional bout high energy juke and electro influences.
"A lot of these sounds came from live take experiments using semi modular/modular equipment.” Jessy says ‘We got all of the machines talking to one another and would run patterns through. A lot of the little burps and quacks and squiggles heard on songs like Anyone Around, Like 'Fire', 'Face', and 'Badly' are from those experiments.
Discharged as an hour plus long single, Arca’s @@@@@ feels more typically “Arca” when compared to her other major project this year (KicK i), maintaining the virtually lyricless approach of some of her most notable past works. This is that version of Arca at her best, favoring primal moans and corporeal synths over discernable wordplay. The spectacle of KiCk i obscured the brilliance of this—arguably—better project, a must listen to for fans of queer, futuristic, electronic music—or simply forward thinking music in general. [Noah]
Every mythology demands an origin, a point where it’s divinations are birthed and it’s aesthetics are first sensed. It makes sense that it’s taken until Liturgy’s fifth album Origin of the Alimonies for these heady concepts to unravel into a sonic manifestation. The glitchy phrases of Kel Valhaal and the burst beats of Aesthethica conjoin with romantic classical instrumentation, producing a truly affirming work of metal. Birthing an entirely new idea has been the aim of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix since Liturgy’s inception; Origin of the Alimonies is the fruit of her labor, full of character, thrashing with vigor, and bleeding ideas that are full of life. [Drew]
What's Tonight To Eternity is not an easy album to digest. Recorded by Cindy Lee with their younger brother on drums, we find an album with a purely lo-fi sound, in which the songs go at their rhythm. Genuine pop-structures form the foundation of What’s Tonight to Eternity, but the melodies are deliberately disturbed by dissonant sounds and noise. The reverb on the vocals evokes the image of Cindy Lee recording in a dream land. What's Tonight To Eternity embodies yin and yang, in which soft melodies and ruthless ugliness are in almost perfect balance. [Devrim]
Tinkling piano, rippling strings, and bleeping synths wash over the listener on Mystic Familiar, accompanied by existential pondering that reassures and lifts. Deacon expresses the beauty found in the swirling dichotomy between life and death on his wonderful new record. [Noah]
Enjoy Yourself takes the lessons of the legendary System of a Down and cranks all of them past eleven. Trying to put it cleanly into a box is completely futile. A raging madhouse would be more likely to reveal truths about this record than anything you’d find in a genre designation. Melted Bodies takes such profane joy in shattering convention, expectation and metal norms that you can’t help but to be pulled into their world of warped mirrors and twisted faces. When five years have passed, this album will either be on the horizon, a beacon that metal has yet to catch up with, or casting a looming shadow over our trail as a pillar of experimental metal. [Drew]
It’s incredible what humans can withstand. Julianna Barwick delivers an album that feels so miraculously now, while still maintaining a grain of optimism—slicing through the unrelenting gloom that was this year. Yes, we aren’t out of the woods yet, but Barwick reminds us there’s daylight peeking through the bramble. Ethereal vocals and ambient synths crest and trough on this bittersweet landmark of a record. [Noah]
Eartheater returns with intimacy on this stripped down record that largely features acoustic instruments and wailing vocals. Focusing heavily on volcanic imagery, Eartheater describes the obliterating heat of passion that leaves new, obsidian forms in its wake. [Noah]
This album from the rapper formerly known as Milo is a stunning manifesto for independent rap in the 2020. Backed up by the inventive, jazz-infused production of Kenny Segal’s Jefferson Park Boys, R.A.P. Ferreira makes his most complex and well-developed case for psychic freedom yet, folding in gas station graffiti, existentialist wisdom, and doing his son’s laundry into his rich artistic tapestry., Rory’s raps on Purple Moonlight Pages are more naturalistic and free-flowing than ever, In fact, his delivery reflects the album’s ambitious conceptual framework; he sounds utterly free.
Conflict is the lifeblood of Run the Jewels. When El-P and Killer Mike emerged in 2013 as a hip-hop supergroup, they broke through with a fury and fervor that was the result of two artists traveling unique artistic paths.
Run The Jewels evoke the feeling of drinking a whole pot of coffee and then getting into a fistfight. Killer Mike & El-P deliver their hardest hitting album yet with RTJ4. They use their voice to tell us how much power everyday people have to fight the injustice in America.
RTJ4 is the reckoning of hip-hop’s new elder statesmen, artists who have been raging their entire careers finally reaching an apex of creative and political precision. [Tucker]
Phil Elverum knows how to command attention. Over the past few years, we’ve all been enraptured, however perversely, in his personal cycle of trauma and grief. But what so many overlooked was that his trauma was only so profoundly known because he was so capable of communicating it. Microphones in 2020, an unbroken 44 minute track and the first Microphones release since 2003’s Mount Eerie, puts this ability to communicate to the ultimate test. For 44 minutes, Elverum weaves his way through the messy chaos of life, and does it so compellingly that you can’t help but be pulled into his orbit. But even with all that talent, he still makes you wait to hear it. Nearly eight minutes pass before the first lyric, but that lyric “The true state of all things / I keep on not dying, the sun keeps on rising.” is worth the wait — it encapsulates everything. [Drew]
The first rave Róisín Murphy went to “was pretty much like a classic movie about rave.” Through the warehouse’s windows, she saw the sun rise. The first spark of inspiration for her self-titled album was this proto-house era music. She tried to emulate the sound that worked so well on the dance floor but also at the sink while doing dishes. She was wildly successful in her emulation because this album is a love letter to house that will possess you to dance wherever you are.
All hail the nu-disco queen! This record stands tall with the number of great nu-disco releases in 2020 and is about as perfect of a pop album that you could ask for. There are grand and coyly delivered vocals over some of the grooviest production I’ve heard in awhile. Even the lyrics, which I often find the least exciting part of pop, are stellar (the line “chivalry was dead but you revived it” from ‘Ooh La La’ gives me chills everytime I hear it). Whether you’re jumping around to along to tracks like ‘Save a Kiss’ or swaying to ‘Adore You’ this album is perfect for dancing, even if it's just in your kitchen for now. Jesse Ware asks us in the title of this album, What’s Your Pleasure? And if you are a person who has ever heard and liked a synthesizer, you’ll find your answer here. [Liam]
Anyone who listened to 2017’s hilariously titled Stranger in the Alps already knew that Phoebe Bridgers was capable of something special. But even the most ambitious of expectations have been outstripped by the results present on Punisher. The record is absolutely transportive in a way that few things ever are. Whether strolling through the streets in Japan on “Kyoto” or daydreaming about Pasadena on “Garden Song” Bridgers always makes sure that she’s walking arm in arm with the listener. That she’s able to do this with catchy melodies and deeply personal stories turns this record from solid to transcendent. And you can’t discount the fierce emotional catharsis that “I Know the End” leaves you with, it’s a special record, and should be treated as such.
It’s no secret that Adrienne Lenker has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in folk music today. Hot off the success of two of 2019’s best records, U.F.O.F and Two Hands, Lenker returns with a sparse and intimate but ultimately crushing collection of songs. While Lenker is no stranger to powerful vocals, on songs she captivates the listener with a voice that feels like it's on the brink of breaking into pieces. Over hypnotics guitarwork and entrancing melodies she guides you through the highs and lows of familial and romantic relationships. Ultimately, songs is another near perfect record by an artist with a near perfect discography. [Liam]
Arca’s most accessible album yet still whips, snaps, and groans in her signature bodily style, but this time, bursts with a refreshingly celebratory tone—a flavor that was previously absent from her discography. Fiercely danceable, she oscillates between spanish and english, delivering searing, iconoclastic banger after banger.
Arca provides an uncompromising self-portrait, rejecting whatever intolerance the listener may harbor, standing tall as something neither completely woman or man; human or machine; bull or matador.
Charli has used her time in quarantine to create one of the best pop records of the year, fully rooted in the context in which it was created. The pandemic and its accompanying isolation provide the thematic backdrop for introspective ballads and cathartic bangers. With forward-thinking production by AG Cook and a number of PC music-adjacent producers, how i'm feeling now gives us plenty to dance along to, even if it’s by ourselves for a while. [Liam]
2017-2019 is the second album by Nicholas Jaar under the moniker Against All Logic. Under his own name, Jaar is renowned for his experimental electronic music production. Against All Logic’s sophomore LP is darker and more introspective with a beat-driven edge that makes you want to move. Techno melodies, tribal rhythms, sirens, and industrial sounds are all cut up and reassembled with irreverent tact.
Kelly Lee Owens finds a delicate balance between art pop and emotionally charged techno. Inner Song is an atmospheric journey of celestial techno that floats between KLO's ethereal vocals and sonically rich dance tracks.
Mike Hadreas has spent the past decade expanding the palette of sounds available to Perfume Genius without sacrificing the core sensitivity that intimately draws listeners in. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is the most all-embracing he’s sounded, incorporating thunderous drones and delicate baroque compositions into his distinctly personal style of songwriting. As a chameleon-pop project, Perfume Genius has finally produced an album with a sonic weight to match it’s unflinching intimacy, and one that feels like a direct tether to the soul of its creator. [Tucker]
Sean Bowie always seems to find beauty in chaos. On the artist’s latest, manic breakdowns pass into polished pop and moments of melancholy, making for peculiar art rock rooted in the experimental. Yves Tumor emerges as a full-blown rock star, raising almost every bar set on their incredible 2018 album. The title of Tumor's latest album, "Heaven to a Tortured Mind", then seems appropriate and feels particularly moving in such difficult times. Not a single emotion is spared, as manic breakdowns pass into polished pop and moments of melancholy. However, through this chaos and emotional warfare, Tumor seems to find peace.
The album with all its peculiarities will be remembered as one of the most important rock albums of our time as a final piece - a pop star that is as genre-bending as the legends of the 70s and 80s that we hold on such a pedestal to this day. [Devrim]
While genres and micro-movements will come and go, and certain publications will take this opportunity in usual try-hard fashion to manufacture a cultural moment, what Apple has really accomplished is the ability to carve out her own aesthetic through years of sharpening a hot knife. The timing is interesting: here we are, with an inordinate amount of time to examine our lives and place in the world with the conceptual weight of a new decade. What will it look or sound like? Perhaps this record will just be another beloved effort among an established group of adoring Fiona Apple fans. For the rest of us, it’s nothing short of a staggering, refreshing, and singular document of growth from an underappreciated songwriter having met Shameika’s idea of potential. Uncertainty may be the defining characteristic of the new “roaring twenties”, and hell if I’m wrong about what will become of this album, at least we can take some comfort in knowing Fetch The Bolt Cutters already feels like an enduring, if not defining statement. [Chris]