My 100 Favorite Albums from 2020 (Part 2 of 4)

View Part 1 here.

Frankie Valet – Waterfowl

Release date: February 7th

Record label: It Takes Time Records

Genre: Bedroom/garage punk/rock/pop

Pull track: Engulfed

Synopsis: This is one of those exciting albums by young bands where they’re throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and you’re just along for the ride. There’s the dream pop opener, the snotty punk house feel of “Our Apartment”, and the full-on sprint of the pull track. Their bio calls them “Yo La Tengo with unmedicated ADHD”. Close enough. (Bandcamp link)

Fuzz – III

Release date: October 23rd

Record label: In the Red Records

Genre: Garage rock, psychedelic rock

Pull track: Spit

Synopsis: My first foray into Ty Segall’s most beloved non-solo work. Apparently both a good and bad place to start with Fuzz—it sound more like a fuzzier Ty solo album than what the trio had been up to before now. This is, if you’re aware of my feeling towards Mr. Segall, not a problem at all, especially since we didn’t get a full-length under his own name this year. If you take your hooks with heaviness, or vice versa, this is for you. (Bandcamp link)

Game Theory – Across the Barrier of Sound: Postscript

Release date: March 20th

Record label: Omnivore Recordings

Genre: Psychedelic pop, power pop, Paisley underground

Pull track: My Free Ride

Synopsis: The songs from this compilation date between the last Game Theory album (1988’s Two Steps from the Middle Ages) and the first Loud Family album (1993’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things) and capture the transformation of the former band into the latter. For anyone who is aware (or about to become aware) of the talents of the late Scott Miller, it’s an embarrassment of riches—live versions and demos of songs that would later wind up on PABARAT, several excellent covers, alternate versions, and the fully-realized pull-track. I would recommend a proper Game Theory or Loud Family album (such as, say, The Big Shot Chronicles) as a first step for those unfamiliar with Scott Miller’s work, but this album has appeal beyond the diehards as well.

Gaytheist – How Long Have I Been on Fire?

Release date: April 10th

Record label: Hex Records

Genre: Hard rock, metallic hardcore, punk rock

Pull track: The Dark Deep

Synopsis: I went into a fugue state sometime in May (pandemic, etc, you know) and awoke with this album in my frequent rotation. A Portland glam-hardcore-punk band named Gaytheist? Well, I never. There’s only one way something like this could have ever possibly ended up on this square’s list—that’s right, it’s really fucking catchy. The only thing more cathartic than their contempt for conservatives on “It’s Reigning Men” (Gaytheist? How could you?) is the escalating music itself. (Bandcamp link)

The Goodbye Party – Beautiful Motors

Release date: October 9th

Record label: Double Double Whammy

Genre: Power pop, lo-fi pop

Pull track: December Boys

Synopsis: The Goodbye Party is one of the greatest triumphs of today’s indie/DIY circuit to come out in 2020—so of course, it hasn’t garnered much attention beyond it. Recorded with Swearin’s Kyle Gilbride (who got the same credit on the Empty Country album earlier on this list), Beautiful Motors lives up to its name, featuring sparkling melodies and vocal performances from Michael Cantor and a kind of propulsion owed to a more band-heavy sound than Cantor’s previous releases. (Bandcamp link)

Guided by Voices – Mirrored Aztec

Release date: August 21st

Record label: Guided by Voices, Inc.

Genre: Indie rock, power pop

Pull track: Bunco Men

Synopsis: The clean-sounding and “creamy” Mirrored Aztec seems destined to be the “fan favorite” of the three Guided by Voices albums to come out this year. While the best addition to the GBV canon are presented early on (the gorgeous midtempo “To Keep an Area” and the post-punk ducking and dodging “Please Don’t Be Honest”), the most thrilling part of the LP is when the band begins gleefully burning through ideas in the second half. Robert Pollard is in his fifth decade of this now—he knows just exactly how much he needs to squeeze out of “Screaming the Night Away” and “I Touch Down” for maximum effect. (Bandcamp link)

Guided by Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field

Release date: February 20th

Record label: Guided by Voices, Inc.

Genre: Psychedelic pop, power pop, indie rock

Pull track: Year of the Hard Hitter

Synopsis: Not only the best Pollard-related album of 2020 but one of the best outright, the mid-fi Surrender Your Poppy Field has a bit of everything that Guided by Voices does well. The opening track is one of their classic prog-pop suites, containing enough melodies for an album in and of itself, “Always Gone” does 90’s basement-recorded GBV even better than anything off the album that openly aspired to do so (Warp and Woof), “Queen Parking Lot” is the straightforward hooky number that Pollard can (and should) write in his sleep, and there are left-turns galore (the psychedelic drone of “Cat Beats a Drum”, the Cocteau Twins(?!)-nodding “Andre the Hawk”, the Tommy-reminiscent orchestral closer “Next Sea Level”. Best GBV album in almost three years, and that’s saying something. (Bandcamp link)

Half Stack – Wings of Love

Release date: September 25th

Record label: Forged Artifacts

Genre: Alt-country, country rock

Pull track: Laguna Seca

Synopsis: Some good old-fashioned West Coast country rocking from a band with the songs to back it up. They’re young folks so of course they claim a big David Berman influence as well (there he is again!), but it balances out overall to more 1970s than 90s, and I can imagine flipping through radio stations three states away from where I’m supposed to be, hearing the pull track, and just vibing out in Indiana or wherever for a few miles. (Bandcamp link)

Andy Hampel – Nightshift

Release date: May 30th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: lo-fi power pop

Pull track: Ivory Towers

Synopsis: Solo effort from a member of Columbus indie rock stalwarts Connections. Hampel uses the break from the band (in name, if nothing else) to stretch out a bit, saxophones and pianos and whatnot, but you can still pogo to “Sharks”. (Bandcamp link)

Handle – In Threes

Release date: March 6th

Record label: Upset the Rhythm

Genre: Post-punk, no wave, experimental rock

Pull track: Punctured Time

Synopsis: Ah, “knocking over a bunch of dishes in the kitchen” post-punk! My favorite kind! This 25-minute album certainly veers towards the deconstructed at times, but stays grounded due to some of the most enjoyable rhythm playing I’ve heard this year and an excellent barking frontperson (note to bands who want to make this kind of music: don’t skimp on this). (Bandcamp link)

Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof

Release date: March 27th

Record label: New West Records

Genre: Alt-country, Americana

Pull track: P-Town

Synopsis: Ms. Hiatt makes a move away from the country rock of 2017’s excellent Trinity Lane for a more universal sound. These gambits often end sounding hollow, generic, watered-down, et cetera, but takes the next step in her career with grace, more than keeping up with the Lovelesses and Crutchfields of the world. If she continues making songs as good as “Never Play Guitar” she can record it with a nu metal band and it’d probably still sound good. (Bandcamp link)

Horse Lords – The Common Task

Release date: March 13th

Record label: Northern Spy

Genre: Krautrock, Experimental, Post-rock

Pull track: Fanfare for Effective Freedom

Synopsis: This isn’t my wheelhouse. I like three minute songs, vocals, melodies, and verses, choruses, and verses. But it works for me. These long, repetitive, droney, Krauty jams are good, actually. Maybe it’s just how normal it is musically that’s my entry point—I could see some of these songs as instrumental bits in something more linear, but just, like, extended on and on and expanded on and on. (Bandcamp link)

Hum – Inlet

Release date: June 24th

Record label: Earth Analog Records/Polyvinyl Records

Genre: Space rock, shoegaze, alt-metal

Pull track: Step into You

Synopsis: I was into Hum quite a bit in my younger “90s alt-rock” phase, but hadn’t given them much thought in recent years, so I was a bit skeptical that I’d get much out of their comeback album. But Inlet won me over. Matt Talbott and the vortex of sound around him have never sounded better. Whether or not the stretching-out of the songs (average: 6.9 minutes) is something that incubated during their hiatus or just something they felt more liberated to explore, it sets it apart from the shoegaze-adjacent rock music kicking around in 2020. (Bandcamp link)

Kiwi Jr. – Football Money

Release date: January 17th

Record label: Persona Non Grata

Genre: Post-pop-punk, Pavement

Pull track: Wicked Witches

Synopsis: Rising Canadians Kiwi Jr. might be easy to dismiss as “unoriginal” (either in comparison to certain 90s indie rock bands or certain 2010s indie rock bands aping certain 90s indie rock bands) but I can’t remember Malkmus ever sounding like he’s on a sugar rush like these guys here. And they certainly don’t sound, nor do they really attempt to sound, above it all or really above any of it. And believe it or not, Pavement never wrote a song that’s sort of about Brian Jones but also sort of not. Anyway, check them out before they—oh, wait, never mind, Sub Pop signed them. (Bandcamp link)

Knot – Knot

Release date: August 28th

Record label: Exploding in Sound Records

Genre: Post-punk, math rock

Pull track: Justice

Synopsis: This is another one that rewards repeated listening. Did Krill (the cult-legend former band for most of Knot’s members) ever need to slow it down a (k)notch and get, like, really real, y’all? Well, no, not really—I would’ve been happy with an infinite number of new Krill albums. But, for whatever reason, the members of Krill were not, they dug deep, and they found stuff like “Justice” and “Horse Trotting, the Feet Not Touching the Ground”.  Oh, and they also beat their old band at their own game with “Orange”. (Bandcamp link)

Lambchop – TRIP

Release date: November 13th

Record label: Merge Records

Genre: Chamber pop, Americanatra

Pull track: Where Grass Won’t Grow

Synopsis: Some of my favorite Lambchop songs are covers (see “King of Nothing Never” from What Another Man Spills), so unsurprisingly, they are fully in their element here with this full-length of other people’s songs.  This six-song LP (which accomplishes this mainly due to an extension on the already extended ambient outro of Wilco’s “Reservations”) actually hearkens back towards their indie-cultural early-2000s peak more so than their most recent (but still good) vocoder-led affairs. Motown, classic country, Nuggets, and an unreleased James McNew song comprise the rest of the album. (Bandcamp link)

Lawn – Johnny

Release date: September 4th

Record label: Muscle Beach Records

Genre: Jangle pop, post-punk

Pull track: Nighttime Creatures

Synopsis: I’m not entirely sure if the reason this album so confidently ping-pongs between bright, shiny guitar pop and shouty, motorik, bass-driven post-punk (sometimes within the same song) is because Lawn boasts two primary songwriters, but this is a feature rather than a bug. After all, it’s not as if this band’s likely heroes in The Clean (and, to go even further back, Velvets) shied away from placing the pretty next to the, uh, well, I certainly wouldn’t call “Honest to God/Paper” ugly… (Bandcamp link)

Brennen Leigh – Prairie Love Letter

Release date: September 18th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Bluegrass, country, folk

Pull track: Don’t You Know I’m from Here

Synopsis: In some ways the most traditional album on this list (there’s a song on here about a tractor, for Christ’s sake) it’s also very firmly grounded in 2020—yes, this is a concept album about the North Dakota cowboy (!?!), and if you think it’s going to let the DAPL off the hook, well you’d be wrong. Featuring a troubling amount of songs that have made me cry. God bless producer Robbie Fulks for his hand in this, and God bless Brennen for the songs. (Bandcamp link)

Long Neck – World’s Strongest Dog

Release date: April 10th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Pop punk, Emoindierockpunk

Pull track: They Shoot Horses

Synopsis: Not the only album on there falling under the banner of “would’ve been released by Tiny Engines if that label hadn’t shat the bed so thoroughly and blew the remarkable amount of goodwill it had accrued for an operation of its size”.  This is Lily Mastrodimos doing a big ole personal growth as a songwriter on this sophomore step, and getting a big ole boost from the Long Neck players to get there. Though there are still some solo acoustic numbers towards the back of the album, the biting pull track and other full-band efforts is where this one really shines. (Bandcamp link)

Lydia Loveless – Daughter

Release date: September 25th

Record label: Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late

Genre: Americana, alt-country

Pull track: Never

Synopsis: After a hard-charging, country-rock early 2010s, Loveless disappeared for a while—to borrow from one of this album’s songs, she went through the wringer a bit since 2016’s Real. Now over a decade removed from the creation of her debut album (recorded when she was 15 years old), a corresponding shift in sound isn’t too surprising. The slick production feels both at times an attempt to sculpt a more “mature” sound and an attempt to get the music out of the way of Loveless’s as always brutal songwriting. Whether or not I would’ve enjoyed this album more personally if they’d dressed it up like personal favorite Somewhere Else, if this is what it took to get songs like “Never” and “September” out of her, than I approve wholeheartedly. (Bandcamp link)

J. Marinelli – Laughing All the Way to the Fretex

Release date: January 15th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Lo-fi indie punk rock

Pull track: What We Talk About When We Talk Shit

Synopsis: J. Marinelli’s uniquely Appalachian brand of rockabilly lo-fi indie pop punk gets perhaps is strongest showcase yet in this 21-minute ripper of an album. Inspired equally by Hasil Adkins’ one-man band fearlessness (and poultry fixation) and Robert Pollard’s twisted, hooky Americana static, every song here is hummable the likes of “Teenage DNA” and “Mistake by the Lake” have no right to make their titular phrases stick in my brain like this. (Bandcamp link)

Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope

Release date: April 24th

Record label: You’ve Changed Records

Genre: Psychedelic pop, indie folk

Pull track: Mourning Dove

Synopsis: A record of wonderful snake-curled-in-the-grass-by-the-campfire Canadian psychedelic indie folk a la Chad VanGaalen, labelmate Daniel Romano, or American kindred spirit John Vanderslice circa late-2000s. I don’t always go for the likes of this but McKiel’s plain and friendly, affectless voice is the perfect companion for this eternal evening of an album. (Bandcamp link)

Mekons – Exquisite

Release date: June 19th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Alt-country, post-punk, folk punk

Pull track: What Happened to Delilah?

Synopsis: Well, at least we got a classic quarantine-recorded 2020 Mekons album out of all of **hand wave** this. Unlike some of the genre explorations that have characterized the past decade or so of the band, this one’s got a bit of it all—country, dub reggae, folk, rock, post-punk, collage…I do hope that this one gets a wider release eventually; the one-two punch of Deserted and this one in consecutive years suggests a band entering its sixth (!!) decade firing on all cylinders in a way that really only Wire comes close to matching. (Bandcamp link)

Melkbelly – PITH

Release date: April 3rd

Record label: Wax Nine/Carpark Records

Genre: Noise pop, fuzz rock, 90’s alt

Pull track: THC

Synopsis: Melkbelly cleans up the noise punk of 2017’s Nothing Valley, frontperson Miranda Winters does her best Kim Deal impression, and together the Chicago group has put together one of the most enjoyable alt-rock pastiches of the year. Anyone familiar with Winters’ solo output is aware of her capacity for a great vocal hook, but here is the first time her main band lets her run wild with it, and it’s all the better for it, especially the sugar-bludgeoning of the album’s first three songs. (Bandcamp link)

The Men – Mercy

Release date: February 14th

Record label: Sacred Bones Records

Genre: Country heartland Americana noise rock folk

Pull track: Breeze

Synopsis: The pull track and lead single hit me immediately, but it took a few listens for me to really appreciate this “cinematic journey” (per their Bandcamp) of an album by The Men. This Travis Harrison-recorded record feels like the band blowing through a showcase of their talents, like a tighter version of 2018’s Drift. The ten-minute choogling “Wading in Dirty Water”, the cheesy 80s “Children All Over the World”, and the sparse closing track all aren’t afraid of sharing close company with each other—much more ambitious bands could learn a thing or two from the way this album still comes off as unpretentious. (Bandcamp link)

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 3

Part 4

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