My 100 Favorite Albums from 2020 (Part 1 of 4)

Congrats on randomly stumbling onto this list. All of these albums are worth a listen, but I’ve done you the courtesy of giving you a CliffsNotes version of all of them if you wanna be choosey. I will also note that I got a little better at doing this as I made it further along, so apologies if the first couple of entries are rough. Or maybe you oughta skip to part 2. Alphabetical order.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Release date: April 17th
Record label: Epic Records
Genre: It got a 10.0 on Pitchfork
Pull track: Cosmonauts
Synopsis: Oh dear. Doing this alphabetical by artist name means coincidentally that I have to start with the most beloved and talked-about album on this list. I could do a spiel about how music journalism and Serious Album Listener People culture seem to love worshipping scarcity, threading everything through The Narrative, and turning releases into Big Events over just celebrating good music made for good music’s sake with little fanfare (spoken like a true Guided by Voices fan). But it’s not like Ms. Apple is responsible for this mess we’re in, nor would it be cool and edgy of my to deprive myself of another good Fiona Apple album for this reason.

Arbor Labor Union – New Petal Instants

Release Date: February 7th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Psychedelic pop rock, cowpunk
Pull track: Flowerhead
Synopsis: This is some Georgian southern-fried, psychedelic jangle/noodle pop that appears to at the very least be aware of punk rock. Comparisons to Elephant Six and Meat Puppets invite themselves. Put on your paisley shirt and feel good about something for a few minutes. (Bandcamp link)

Bacchae – Pleasure Vision

Release date: March 6th
Record label: Get Better Records
Genre: Post-punk, pop punk
Pull track: Hammer
Synopsis: As the name implies they can do pure pop, but also frequently wade into moodier territory (of both the righteous fury and plodding and seething variety), like a J. Robbins not having to come up in the Credibility War of 1994. My crystal ball says they’re a “band to watch”. (Bandcamp link)

Bad History Month – Old Blues

Release date: April 24th
Record label: Exploding in Sound Records
Genre: Folky slowcore, post-rock
Pull track: A Survey of Cosmic Repulsion
Synopsis: This is one that one have to just carve out 45 minute of one’s time and just take in, much like that new Microphones album. Although for whatever reason Sean Sprecher’s musings just resonated with me more. Must be an East Coast versus West Coast thing. (Bandcamp link)

Bad Moves – Untenable

Release date: June 26th
Record label: Don Giovanni Records
Genre: Power pop, pop punk
Pull track: Toward Crescent Park
Synopsis: Their first LP being such an effortless party record, BM have moved onto making a Serious Statement. Oh no! But wait, line after line of this is making me nod my head in solidarity? The energy and hooks are still there, just more sharply focused? We have some Good Moves here. It would be their Wide Awake! if it was a little more popular and less satisfying. (Bandcamp link)

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

Release date: October 2nd
Record label: Memory Music
Genre: 2000s indie, alt-R&B, rap and rock but like not rap-rock
Pull track: Boomer
Synopsis: This one fascinates me because of all the entrances and exit points here. “Mustang” is no-strings-attached alt-rock, “Fallen for You” is an acoustic solo success, “Kelly Rowland” is what I’d like [insert big-name acclaimed male pop star here] to sound like, and “Boomer”….well, I would love a whole album of Boomers, and I’m sure Mr. Strange could. (Bandcamp link)

The Bats – Foothills

Release date: November 13th
Record label: Flying Nun Records
Genre: Jangle pop, Dunedin sound
Pull track: Smaller Pieces
Synopsis: I will not commit the music reviewer cardinal sin of prematurely (less than a week after release) declaring this not quite as good as late career highlight The Deep Set, but it does seem a little harder to get a handle on first blush. Perhaps not coincidentally it has been constant rotation for me since last Friday. (Bandcamp link)

The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers

Release date: July 10th
Record label: Carpark Records
Genre: Power pop, indie pop
Pull track: I’m Not Getting Excited
Synopsis: Maybe at first glance this one would be a “moody and difficult” sophomore effort, but the New Zealand band can point to an entire country’s worth of examples as to why getting a bit melancholy and contemplative doesn’t diminish the immediacy of the songs. And there’s still upbeat songs for the rubes too. (Bandcamp link)

R Boyd and Dusk – High Country Skyway

Release date: July 31st
Record label: JAC World
Genre: Alt-country, roots rock
Pull track: Mechanical Things
Synopsis: Not sure who this R. Boyd is, or what the R even stands for, but if he’s good enough for Country Dusk than he’s good enough for me. It’s got twang but the album it’s quite as country-laced as Dusk’s albums on their own—Mr. Boyd is a pop songwriter that can slip into several modes. Rhett Miller, Elvis Costello, The Jayhawks, William Matheny all come to mind. (Bandcamp link)

Cartalk – Pass Like Pollen

Release date: October 2nd
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Emoindiefolkrock
Pull track: Sleep
Synopsis: There is so much mediocre music out there that bears a superficial resemblance to Cartalk’s Pass Like Pollen. Some of this such music stumbles onto a label that knows how to get it noticed without actually seeming like it’s doing anything, and it gets lauded as “bold” and “innovative” (and then the creator of said music gets to do this again when they pivot to synthpop on the follow up). Wait, what were we talking about? About how I wish I could write a damn song like Cartalker Chuck Moore? Let alone sell it, you know, like that? How nobody has packed this much emotion into the name of the Union’s 35th state since Hop Along’s Francis Quinlan? (Bandcamp link)

Close Lobsters – Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols

Release date: February 21st
Record label: Shelflife
Genre: Jangle pop, C86
Pull track: All Compasses Go Wild
Synopsis: Close Lobsters made an album this year! And it’s very good! In fact, it might be their best one! There is a surprising heft to the back end of this, and the front rivals their version of their greatest hits. (Bandcamp link)

Cloud Nothings – The Black Hole Understands

Release date: July 3rd
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Pop punk, power pop
Pull track: Right on the Edge
Synopsis: In early 2017, Dylan Baldi made a bold leap forward. Life without Sound is my go-to pick for “underrated album of the past ten years”, a move towards mature and measured songwriting that kept his edge that was nonetheless greeted by universal shrugs and grumbling about how it was “generic” by a culture that demands instant gratification and blah blah et cetera. What I’m trying to get at here is this is one a wide-eyed pop triumph, snuck under the table as a self-released quarantine release in advance of the Real Cloud Nothings-Brand Angry Post Hardcore Pop Album coming next year recorded by poker and Scrabble world champion Steve Albini. Is this having the cake, or eating it too? (Bandcamp link)

Coriky – Coriky

Release date: June 12th
Record label: Dischord Records
Genre: Post-punk
Pull track: Clean Kill
Synopsis: While I have certainly always respected the career of Ian MacKaye, and I’ve liked a Fugazi tunegazi here and there, this would be the first band of his I wouldn’t hesitate to call myself a fan of. Mid-tempo, minimalism, and female vocals suit his music, I should finally get around to checking out The Evens. I’m not sure if they meant to make several of these songs sound like Silkworm, but that’s certainly never a bad thing. Either Joe or Ian (both?) sounds like Tim Midyett here but I’m blowing through there right now and don’t feel like taking the time to figure out which one. (Bandcamp link)

Cornershop – England Is a Garden

Release date: March 6th
Record label: Ample Play Records
Genre: Glam pop rock, Britpop?
Pull track: I’m a Wooden Soldier
Synopsis: Dear nineties bands that I’ve heard of but never heard: please stay together and keep putting out music, for my personal benefit. I’ll get to it, I promise. Never having actively listened to this band before, somehow I heard one of these songs and then, well, here we are. But then again, I’m probably not giving Cornershop enough credit here—your average faded-from-the-limelight act isn’t drawing from anywhere near the unique well that they are, allowing them to make arguably their best work in 2020 (yes, I went to their back catalog to make sure this is only a half-empty claim). (Bandcamp link)

Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface

Release date: October 30th
Record label: Concord Records
Genre: Chamber pop, art rock
Pull track: No Flag
Synopsis: I admit ignorance when it comes to most of Elvis’s 21st century output, but I did hear Look Now!, and I don’t think it was entirely unreasonable of me to come out of that with the impression that Elvis was settling into a soft rock late act. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying the kitchen-sink stylings of this album more. Not every second of this one lands and, full disclosure, this was one of the final albums to make the cut, but hearing something like “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” in 2020 is just undeniable.

Country Westerns – Country Westerns

Release date: June 26th
Record label: Fat Possum Records
Genre: Country punk rock, “”””heartland”””” rock
Pull track: It’s Not Easy
Synopsis: CW seems to be the roots lifer band that’s been allowed to have some positive music press attention this year, and we’re all better for it. Like the 2018 version, State Champion, there appears to be some sort of David Berman connection (God bless that man), but they seem more like fellow travellers and less like acolytes (and that’s not just because of the Magnetic Fields cover, although it was very funny that Pitchfork apparently thought they wrote Two Characters in Search of a Country Song). (Bandcamp link)

Dearest Hearts – Dear William

Release date: April 24th
Record label: Dollhouse Lightning
Genre: Indie folk, folk punk
Pull track: Breaking Up the Band
Synopsis: New England meta folk rock band—this scratches the classic Okkervil River itch I’ve been needing to get scratched since 2010 or so. As you may’ve gathered, this band doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, but it absolutely could and get away with it. The sincerity, straightforwardness of the title track and the outright joke of the song before it both shade the album, but it’s when they settle on “clever” (such as the pull track) that points the way forward for them. Jump on this one while you still can, movers, shakers and quakers. (Bandcamp link)

Dehd – Flowers of Devotion

Release date: July 17th
Record label: Fire Talk
Genre: Post-punk, spaghetti western dreampop dancepunk
Pull track: No Time
Synopsis: The rubber band guitar of Chicago’s late NE-HI lives! Not only that, but it thrives! Like most albums that shoot for the moon, it doesn’t always land (the line “a cigarette between the lips / like sharing a secret kiss” makes me shudder for all the wrong reasons) but all is forgiven for this album that does not have to go as hard as it does, indeed, go. (Bandcamp link)

Destroyer – Have We Met

Release date: January 31st
Record label: Merge Records
Genre: Synthpop, post-yacht rock
Pull track: It Just Doesn’t Happen
Synopsis: Would I be here with you today, listening to the slap bass in “Cue Synthesizer” and enjoying every second of it, if it was anyone other than Dan Bejar leading me and everyone else who just wants to hear him on another New Pornographers album down this path? I don’t know, but it sure is nice here. And expensive-looking. Sorry, I mean expansive. No, I don’t believe we have met, Mr. Bejar. (Bandcamp link)

Wendy Eisenberg – Auto

Release date: October 16th
Record label: Ba Da Bing!
Genre: Experimental rock, indie folk, free jazzy guitar stuff
Pull track: Futures
Synopsis: Here’s some unpredictable music for you! Wait, wait, come back, it’s very good! Nobody’s going to mistake this for Coldplay or anything, but it’s surprisingly accessible for something of its ilk (conservatory-incubated)—it’s all grounded by Eisenberg’s sense of melody both in voice and in guitar playing. Feels like it should’ve come out in Chicago, Drag City or Thrill Jockey, circa 1998. (Bandcamp link)

Elder – Omens

Release date: April 24th
Record label: Armageddon Label
Genre: Psychedelic rock, progressive rock, stoner rock
Pull track: In Procession
Synopsis: Judged aesthetically and by who they’re frequently lumped in with, Elder are “heavier” than what I normally go for musically. I gathered they’ve moved away from the more metal moves in recent years, but really, this isn’t too different from some of the rock music I consume regularly, just, you know, a little longer (~10 minute song lengths) and louder. For the indie kids, just consider it psych-shoegaze post-rock, and dive in. (Bandcamp link)

Empty Country – Empty Country

Release date: March 20th
Record label: Get Better Records
Genre: 90’s indie rock revival, Philly heartland rock stuff
Pull track: Becca
Synopsis: Cymbals Eat Guitars released their Built to Spill-meets-Springsteen rock opus in 2016, and then apparently decided they couldn’t top it and dipped. Thankfully, frontman Joseph D’Agostino still has songs to play and record. The Empty Country project is a bit less bombastic, but a combination of the likes of the go-for-it 6 minute opener and Wrens-assisted “Ultrasound” with the forward-looking back half of the LP points towards life beyond Pretty Years. (Bandcamp link)

Eyelids – The Accidental Falls

Release date: February 14th
Record label: Jealous Butcher Records
Genres: Power pop, jangle pop, did I mention power pop and jangle pop
Pull track: The Accidental Falls
Synopsis: Portland lifers John Moen and Chris Slusarenko put together their strongest full-length to date as Eyelids. They’ve flashed brilliance before (see “Maybe More” and “Slow It Goes” from previous releases), but this virtually filler-less, Peter Buck-produced outing is a cornucopia of guitar pop, from the Posies-nodding “1, 2, 3” to the done-in-under-two “The Minutes” that one would expect from collaborators of Elliott Smith and Robert Pollard.  (Bandcamp link)

Flat Worms – Antarctica

Release date: April 10th
Record label: Drag City
Genre: Post-punk, garage rock
Pull track: Antarctica
Synopsis: You could files these guys on the shelf of the current strain of Fall-influenced post-punk revival-revival (your Fontaines DCs, your Prototypical Martyrs), but they also have garage punk cred (produced by Ty Segall, shares members with Thee Oh Sees) and have the all-important Steve Albini engineering credit for noise rock aficionados. If this weighs on the minds of the Worms they don’t show it, confidently moving forward with their More Songs About buildings, geography, and catastrophe both awesome and mundane. (Bandcamp link)

FOX Japan – What We’re Not

Release date: March 10th
Record label: Self-released
Genre: Jangle pop, post-punk revival, power pop
Pull track: Luau
Synopsis: You skimming through this list? Stop on this one. While this list isn’t ranked, this would be the one I’d like for most people to take away from it. While it would be impossible for me to top the lone description of the album offered on the band’s Bandcamp page (“Catchy, guitar-driven songs about ambition, humiliation and death”), it merits a shot. Imagine the futile yet defiant character studies of Richard Dawson’s Peasant translated to suburban ennui by a Fountains of Wayne on a huge Flying Nun and The Chills bender. No album this year has contained refrains more memorable and triumphant, and no lyrics more worthy of the fine-toothed comb. You will be humming the first two songs for weeks before full getting a handle of the horror-movie plots of them both (and a few more before appreciating the differentiation between them). Even a song that shouts its message at you (Let Your Ambition Go!) has several twisting alleyways to go down itself. (Bandcamp link)

“Oh, it’s fine if the world is confused by me,

And if all of my intentions are delicate

And if all is one day lost to history,

Then to strive for perfection seems desperate.”

You can follow Spotify playlists of either the 100 albums on this list, or one of a pull track from each of them.

See also:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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