My 100 Favorite Albums from 2020 (Part 3 of 4)

Link to Part 1 Here

Link to Part 2 Here

And we barrel forward. Exciting, right?

Brian Mietz – Panzarotti

Release date: March 2nd

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Pop rock, power pop

Pull track: Hollyweed

Synopsis: I don’t really know much about Brian Mietz, except for the fact that he’s a poster artist and he’s put me in the position of having to say one of the best pop songs of the year is called “Hollyweed”. The rest of the album’s not too far behind, either—it’s all chock-full of effortlessly smart and hooky songwriting. I’m not sure why this seems to be a zero-stakes release—bands and labels have gambled their careers on lesser collections of songs and come out on top. Fans of classic downer guitar pop like Grandaddy and the slower Fountains of Wayne songs (as well as fellow list-maker Mo Troper) should hear this. And everyone else should, too. (Bandcamp link)

Mint Mile – Ambertron

Release date: March 20th

Record label: Comedy Minus One

Genre:  Alt-country, Americana, alt-rock

Pull track: Fallen Rock

Synopsis: Tim Midyett becomes the final living member of 90s indie heroes Silkworm to pilot an album on his own, and Ambertron is well worth the wait. The gorgeous glimpses and potential of the three EPs Mint Mile sprinkled throughout the back half of the 2010s is fully realized here on this double LP. While the insistent “Giving Love” and anthemic “Shy”, the picture-perfect “Riding On and Off Peak” and the lumbering Crazy Horse antics of “The Great Combine” reveal themselves through time. While I still hold out hope for a reunion of Midyett and Andrew Cohen a la the likely-deceased Bottomless Pit, Ambertron (as well as the excellent non-album single “Interpretive Overlook”) is a triumph all its own. (Bandcamp link)

Jason Molina – Eight Gates

Release date: August 7th

Record label: Secretly Canadian

Genre: Ambient alt-country, folk, slowcore

Pull track: Shadow Answers the Wall

Synopsis: Although recorded towards the end of his career and, sadly, his life, Eight Gates has more in common with the stark late-period Songs: Ohia albums than the full-band Magnolia Electric Co. affairs that are closer to its timeline. Although it feels a bit slight at 25 minutes with most songs hovering below the three minute mark, Molina was an absolute master at shining in these sparse landscapes, and the likes of “Thistle Blue” and “Whisper Away” would be career touchstones for many perfectly respectable songwriters, instead of “merely” comparatively solid album anchors for a comparatively solid posthumous Jason Molina album. (Bandcamp link)

Thurston Moore – By the Fire

Release date: September 25th

Record label: Daydream Library

Genre: Noise rock, experimental rock, Sonic Youth

Pull track: Cantaloupe

Synopsis: Now this is what I like to hear! While I do occasionally enjoy some of the more out-there antics of Sonic Youth and its former brain trust (see the Lee Ranaldo entry coming up in a bit), whenever one of them deigns to dip back into the accessible noise pop that defined the best of 90s and 00s SY, I will always be the first in line. Don’t worry, the guitar jams are still there (average song length: 9.11 minutes, buoyed by the 16-minute “Locomotives”) but songs like “Breath” find room for both the freakouts and the toe-tapping rock and roll. (Bandcamp link)

Bob Mould – Blue Hearts

Release date: September 25th

Record label: Merge Records

Genre: Alternative rock, punk rock

Pull track: Everything to You

Synopsis: Mr. Mould flirts with giving these Protest Songs ™ on this Anti-Trump album ™ too short of a shelf life but stops just shy, and besides, the thesis of the album’s lead single is that Bob’s seen all this shit before and he’ll see it again, and, regrettably, war, climate change and poverty are, uh, nonperishables. (Bandcamp link)

The Mountain Goats – Songs for Pierre Chuvin

Release date: April 17th

Record label: Merge Records

Genre: Lo-fi indie, Panasonic RX-FT500

Pull track: Exegetic Chains

Synopsis: Oh, of course your favorite Mountain Goats album of 2020 is the one that was recorded just by John Darnielle into a boombox, you lo-fi purist (hey, I liked the other one too, I just had to draw the line somewhere). Yes, sure, sonically it is somewhat reminiscent of the 90s Mountain Goats albums that changed my outlook on music and life in general as a malleable high school kid, but Darnielle doesn’t renege on his songwriting evolution for nostalgia’s sake. It’s hard to imagine something as thornily comforting as the pull track or intentionally withdrawn as “Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons” on Nothing for Juice, for example. But the lack of saxophone undeniably helps as well. (Bandcamp link)

Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else

Release date: June 26th

Record label: Arrowhawk Records/Don Giovanni Records

Genre: Indie folk, lo-fi, folk punk

Pull track: South Somewhere Else

Synopsis: This is the southern reckoning album that the Elephant Six bands were never queer or punk enough to make. After a not-so-steady stream of good but slightly underachieving-feeling albums strewn throughout the 21st century, Theo Zumm seems to be submitting his bid for indie rock elder statesman, and if “Jangle Manifesto” is on the app then it’ll probably go through. Younger DIY bands, take notice. Grizol—you’re hot. Keep at it. (Bandcamp link)

No Thank You – Embroidered Foliage

Release date: October 23rd

Record label: Lame-O Records

Genre: Philly emo indie rock

Pull track: Saturn Return

Synopsis: No Thank You continues to be a perpetually underrated modern emo-rock band, to the point where I apparently missed their sophomore album entirely despite enjoying thoroughly both this album and their debut. There’s really no excuse for a stunner like the pull track to languish in DIY purgatory while—well, not to name names, but some of the schlubs currently riding 90’s alt-rock revival to indie superstardom aren’t fit to polish No Thank You’s twinkly feet. (Bandcamp link)

Oceanator – Things I Never Said

Release date: August 28th

Record label: Plastic Miracles

Genre: Singer-songwriter emo indie DIY rock

Pull track: A Crack in the World

Synopsis: Yet another Tiny Engines refugee—don’t let my mess of a genre description scare you off, it’s really quite good. I was aware of an “Oceanator” but I didn’t give Elise Okusami’s band a shot until David Bazan and Pedro the Lion started boosting her pretty frequently. There is a Bazanesque blend of anthemic and confessional songwriting going on where, with similarly just enough attention given to the rock band backdrop to accent it. Here is where I have to rue the pandemic for robbing me of the opportunity of seeing Okusami rip through these songs in some basement show somewhere—by the time we can all leave our bunkers I imagine she’ll have surpassed that scene. Polyvinyl’s already scooped her up, I can only imagine while saying “Seriously? Nobody’s inked this stuff yet?” (Bandcamp link)

Of Montreal – UR FUN

Release date: January 17th

Record label: Polyvinyl Record Co.

Genre: Synthpop, indie pop

Pull track: You’ve Had Me Everywhere

Synopsis: I’ve seen this album dismissed in a couple places as straightforward, cheesy synthpop that’s beneath Kevin Barnes. It’s no Hissing Fauna, I’ll give you that—but this is good cheesy synthpop! I thought we all liked pop music now! Do I need to hear Kevin working out his feelings on polyamory on-record? No, but he can sing about whatever the hell he wants when the songs are this well-dressed. And besides, any Of Montreal fan knows that part of the deal is accepting some of Kevin’s lyrics to get to the good stuff—we are all quarry in someone’s sex safari, indeed, Mr. Barnes. (Bandcamp link)

OOIOO – Njimusi

Release date: January 17th

Record label: Thrill Jockey Records

Genre: Experimental rock, psychedelic rock, noise rock

Pull track: Kawasemi Ah

Synopsis: The latest from Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-We is the best of what I like about Thrill Jockey. Like the Horse Lords album mentioned earlier, I enjoy how it’s grounded in traditional rock band setup and instruments and then goes off the rails from there. Even the more recognizable moments, such as the psych-rock “Bulun”, are cased in an 8-minute chant. It’s worth it. (Bandcamp link)

Options – Wind’s Gonna Blow

Release date: May 21st

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Emoindierock, slowcore vibes

Pull track: Better Past

Synopsis: I really dithered over which of Seth Engel’s two 2020 releases would occupy this spot. The spacier, deconstructed ambient of Window’s Open was in pole position for awhile, but when it comes down to it, Wind’s Gonna Blow is the one with all the hits. Engel has no qualms about presenting the listener with an album full of similarly-toned, similarly-simply-titled short songs that bleed into each other and letting one sift through what’s there, and here we’re left with a remarkable ratio of diamonds in the rough (or, perhaps, roughs within the diamonds). (Bandcamp link)

Parlor Walls – Heavy Tongue

Release date: February 21st

Record label: Famous Swords

Genre: Noise rock, post-punk, no wave, experimental rock

Pull track: Pinafore > Ignite

Synopsis: Heavy Tongue should be the blueprint for what an exciting rock record in 2020 sounds like. A good deal of the album feels murky, and you aren’t sure when the tension is going to break, or even how it could. The primal pull track is the best cathartic release here, but the stomping “Spinning Gold” gives it a run for its money, and there’s even a bizzaro world pop song here in “Violets”. (Bandcamp link)

Pelvis Wrestley – Vortexas Vorever

Release date: September 18th

Record label: ATHRecords

Genre: Synthpop, glam country

Pull track: Dance Alone

Synopsis: Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder what is wrong with me. Surely there is some reason why the giant pop stars of today and yesterday are the most popular forms of music. Sincerely—why does 99% of it do nothing for me, emotionally? I don’t view myself as some sort of superior elite hipster for genuinely thinking that some guy from Texas who calls himself Pelvis Wrestley made a better pop album in 2020 than folks who have been paid seven figures to do so. I just want to know why I am like this and other people aren’t. Why is it that every note of “Try Your Hardest” is perfect, every instrumental flourish in exactly the right place for me? Why is it that the shift at 3:42 in the pull track, where the rhythm section stops building and starts galloping and the fiddle does its thing, better than any other sort of drop or breakdown I’ve heard from music that lives and dies on such moves? Perhaps Pelvis Wrestley will become a household name in 2021, and everything will click into place for me. (Bandcamp link)

Pere Ubu – By Order of Mayor Pawlicki (Live in Jarocin)

Release date: June 26th

Record label: Cherry Red Records

Genre: Art punk, post-punk

Pull track: Heart of Darkness

Synopsis: While part of me wishes for a new live record that would shine light on some of Pere Ubu’s underappreciated middle years (such as the Fontana albums or mid-to-late 90s “road” albums), Pere Ubu tears through their canonized early material here with such gusto that it’s hard to be disappointed too much. The band’s absolute reckless treatments of songs like “Navvy” and “The Fabulous Sequel” do more than live up to their album versions, they give them an (unneeded but not unwelcome) new edge. Despite the somewhat esoteric (even for Ubu) nature of most of their recent releases, the band remains the tight rock machine it’s always been despite many a personnel and style shift—something David Thomas and crew have always prided themselves on, and with good reason. (Website link)

Personality Cult – New Arrows

Release date: February 14th

Record label: Dirtnap Records

Genre: Garage punk, garage rock

Pull track: Telephone

Synopsis: This is (mostly) no-frills, plenty-of-thrills garage punk rock and roll, with not a wasted moment throughout its 24-minute runtime. Reminds me a bit of new Cloud Nothings instrumentation, mid-period Cloud Nothings vocals, and early Cloud Nothings knack for a hook. The last track is practically an opus at nearly 5 minutes. (Bandcamp link)

Psychic Flowers – Gloves to Grand Air / Freedom of Failure

Release date: March 13th/October 8th

Record label: Living Lost Records

Genre: Lo-fi indie rock, garage power pop

Pull track: Turn Around

Synopsis: These two mini-albums together add up to about a 45-minute LP, so hopefully the sole member of Psychic Flowers, Mr. David Settle, doesn’t mind me combining them for listicle purposes. Altogether you have 20 songs’ worth of blown-out, full one-man-band sounding fuzz-pop with tastefully Pollardesque psychedelic flowery titles and motifs such as “Towards the Trees” and “123 Eyes”. At least check out the downer strummer acoustic version of the pull track if distortion scares you. (Bandcamp link)

Frances Quinlan – Likewise

Release date: January 31st

Record label: Saddle Creek

Genre: Indie rock/pop/folk, chamber pop

Pull track: Your Reply

Synopsis: An excellent and every-bit-worthy solo effort from the lead singer of one of the best rock bands of the 2010s. Likewise is most similar on the surface to Hop Along’s 2018 effort Bark Your Head Off, Dog, moving away from a traditional four-piece rock band setup and towards whatever suits the song. Acoustic instruments, keyboards, and harps allow Quinlan’s entertainingly verbose and not-quite-opaque lyrics to steal the show again. The pull track feels like it’s entirely composed of asides, footnotes, and the referenced margin scribbles, and Quinlan continues to mine gold with their ability to find humor and humanity in academia and literature. Of course, none of this would hit as hard as it does without their Bejar-esque ability to turn phrases that would’ve yielded zero Google results a year ago into memorable refrains. (Bandcamp link)

Radical Dads – Paved Mountain

Release date: June 23rd

Record label: Uninhabitable Mansions

Genre: Indie rock, college rock

Pull track: Don’t Wanna Go

Synopsis: Neither here nor there, but, it’s perhaps the album title of the year. Radical Dads have been kicking around for most of the 21st century at this point, and one of them was in just-Google-it-if-you-need-to phenomenon Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at point. None of this information is necessary to enjoy this confident and comforting exercise in classic indie rock 101. (Bandcamp link)

Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree – Names of North End Women

Release date: February 21st

Record label: Mute Artists Ltd.

Genre: Ambient, experimental rock, electronic

Pull track: Light Years Out

Synopsis: The antithesis of Thurston’s previously-mentioned Sonic Youth revival album, this collaboration finds Lee speaking more often than singing over the sound collage-scapes that Refree’s made for him. The opener sounds like Ranaldo reciting a poem over sparse instrumentation, and while Lee does sing in “The Art of Losing”, a good deal of the song is his healthily auto-tuned vocals over droning and minimal beats by Refree. Find a street to walk down around 5 p.m. and take the journey. (Bandcamp link

Ratboys – Printer’s Devil

Release date: February 28th

Record label: Topshelf Records

Genre: Indie rock, indie folk, alt-country

Pull track: Anj

Synopsis: Although Ratboys have always embraced the alt-country label, it’s really best thought of as one ingredient in their alternatingly anthemic and contemplative blend of basement indie rock. Soldiering on into their second decade of existence, they’re practically DIY veterans at this point, and after nearly three years since their last LP, Printer’s Devil doesn’t disappoint. There’s go-ahead power pop such as the opening track and the pull track, with “My Hands Grow” being the prime, well, grower. (Bandcamp link)

Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

Release date: May 20th

Record label: Polyvinyl Record Co.

Genre: Pop punk, power pop, punk rock

Pull track: Ohio Tpke

Synopsis: With Worry. being the undeniably punk rock opera that forced Serious Music People to take the sometimes-ska always-punk seriously, and POST- being the doomed-to-be-underrated, slow burn of a follow-up, Jeff Rosenstock has dealt with 2020 by making an album that grabs you by the shoulders and demands your attention. Sort of like We Cool? but without the “well, it’s just me now” self-consciousness—perhaps the best comparison for NO DREAM is the chaotic good sugarpunk of Rosenstock’s last band. The album is really just highlight after highlight—“Scram!” is the kind of fuck-you anthem that few other than Jeff can pull off so easily, “The Beauty of Breathing” mutates a girl-group-worthy melody into something much more harrowing, and “State Line” and the pull track show that not only has Rosenstock earned his late-career (late for a punk guy at least) resurgence, he’s still growing as an artist and writer and he’s got much more in the tank. (Bandcamp link)

Ben Seretan – Youth Pastoral

Release date: February 28th

Record label: Whatever’s Clever

Genre: Indie folk, Indie-emoish-rock

Pull track: Am I Doing Right by You?

Synopsis: A shortcut to getting me interested in your album is garnering David Bazan comparisons. As the album title hints at, these are some songs about the Big Man and the cult around him, by a dude young enough to still have real capital F-feelings about all this but old enough to really frame and look at them. (Bandcamp link)

Six Organs of Admittance – Companion Rises

Release date: February 21st

Record label: Drag City Inc.

Genre: Experimental folk, psychedelic folk

Pull track: Companion Rises

Synopsis: Good old fashioned fucked-up Drag City freak folk music, just like momma used to make. Ben Chasny is perfectly able to turn down the distortion and head-spinning a bit when he wants/needs to (the title and pull track is an excellent acoustic ballad), but like the vintage albums from fellow travelers The Microphones, the inferno must be taken as part of the worthwhile overall vision. (Bandcamp link)

Slum of Legs – Slum of Legs

Release date: March 13th

Record label: Spurge Recordings

Genre: Post-punk, noise pop, art punk

Pull track: I Dream of Valves Exploding

Synopsis: These British “queer, feminist noise pop” agitpunks are one of 2020’s “should’ve been launched into the stratosphere” bands. Sounding like a young, pissed-off Mekons or The Ex at their most accessible, Slum of Legs accent their classic punk shout-vocals with screeching violin and just enough synths, enough to turn the pull track into a genuine hit (in my book). Look, I like IDLES well enough, but….let’s be a bit more selective with these imports, yes? (Bandcamp link)

Move on to Part 4!

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

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