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

Remember Part 1?

Part 2?

Part 3?

Let’s go!

Tobin Sprout – Empty Horses

Release date: September 18th

Record label: Fire Records

Genre: Folk, alt-country

Pull track: Every Sweet Soul

Synopsis: Well, this is certainly a left turn from the former Guided by Voices contributor. Instead of the fuzzy psych-garage-pop of that band and his last solo release, Sprout has presented us with a acoustic guitar-heavy classic folk concept record about the Civil War. Tobin slips into these new shoes with ease, with many of the straight acoustic cuts (“The Return”, “Antietam”, the pull track) functioning as excellent showcases for his twin talents: an ageless, graceful voice and an incredible knack for melodies. (Bandcamp link)

STAR – Violence Against Star

Release date: October 23rd

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Noise pop, shoegaze

Pull track: Angel School Anthem

Synopsis: Unfortunately for my ears, my predilection for sweet vocal hooks married to headache-inducing blown-out production hasn’t waned by now. While vocalist Shannon Roberts isn’t too far removed from the Donnellys and Deals who briefly threatened to make dream pop a force in the 90s, a more accurate sonic comparison would be Psychocandy or, hell, Times New Viking and other assorted shitgaze fiends. Not sure if this is the last of STAR (Theodore Beck, 1/3 of the trio, tragically passed away around the time of release) but an appropriate supernova if so. (Bandcamp link)

Stay Inside – Viewing

Release date: April 10th

Record label: No Sleep Records

Genre: Post-hardcore, emo

Pull track: Revisionist

Synopsis: This theatrical, icily beautiful post-hardcore album sounds a lot like mewithoutYou. As someone who doesn’t like most post-hardcore bands that aren’t named mewithoutYou, this is a good thing. One upgrade here is the male-female vocal thing going on, which allows for some moments of reprieve in this tornado of a record. Fun fact: apparently, fellow list-appearer Bartees Strange was in this band at one point. Thanks Wikipedia! (Bandcamp link)

Superchunk – Clambakes Vol. 10: Only in My Dreams – Live in Tokyo 2009

Release date: May 8th

Record label: Merge Records

Genre: Punk rock, pop punk

Pull track: Precision Auto

Synopsis: Without releasing a proper studio album, Superchunk have still managed to be a bright spot in 2020. They released an excellent Halloween single, made the first nine volumes of their Clambakes live album bootleg series widely available digitally, and unveiled a brand new volume as well. This 2009 recording from a Japan tour sounds excellent and contains selections from across their illustrious career—including two songs from the then-unreleased Majesty Shredding. The spirited cover of Telekinesis’s “Tokyo” is just icing. (Bandcamp link)

Teenage Halloween – Teenage Halloween

Release date: September 18th

Record label: Don Giovanni Records

Genre: Pop punk, power pop

Pull track: Holes

Synopsis: Everyone knows I’m a sucker for big, bombastic, sincere, ambitious hooky punk rock collectives. Bad Moves, Martha, PUP—Teenage Halloween has arrived and already vaulted themselves into some esteemed company. The album is full of victories, but the nonstop pogoing of the pull track is the one that consistently wows me. Fun fact: Jordan Hudkins of Rozwell Kid made the album art for this one. Thanks Bandcamp! (Bandcamp link)

Them Airs – Union Suit XL

Release date: January 17th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Experimental rock, post-punk, skronk

Pull track: Reception Desk

Synopsis: As the band’s album title (as well as their immaculately-curated Spotify playlists) suggests, this band worships at the alter of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, something more people ought to do in 2020. It’s quality egg punk, with heavy emphasis on the “egg”. They’ve already amassed an impressive discography for their time alive (including a quarantine album not making an appearance here), and if this don’t end up amounting to much more than the detritus of classic New England weirdos, then it can be our enjoyable secret. (Bandcamp link)

Throwing Muses – Sun Racket

Release date: September 4th

Record label: Fire Records

Genre: Alternative rock, college rock, post punk

Pull track: Dark Blue

Synopsis: Where would we bewithout Kristin Hersh? It’s hard to imagine the kind of spunky, barebones “DIY” indie rock that’s in vogue today without herself and her band’s groundwork. Although (what I remember from) her more recent releases have shown a bit of wanderlust, Sun Racket is classic Muses—plenty of simmering, coiling stuff but bringing the fire and brimstone as well. (Bandcamp link)

Told Slant – Point the Flashlight and Walk

Release date: November 13th

Record label: Double Double Whammy

Genre: Indie folk, bedroom pop, chamber pop

Pull track: Run Around the School

Synopsis: Don’t let the occasional fingerpicking and campfire motifs fool you into thinking this is some kind of bedroom folk project—this is Felix Walworth’s big shiny pop album. I wish the other such widescreen-aiming albums lived up to such billing. I’d really like to see Told Slant again and watch Felix sing and drum to these songs like they did last time I saw them.  Meditation. Catharsis. Meditation. Foot stomping. Etc. (Bandcamp link)

Trace Mountains – Lost in the Country

Release date: April 10th

Record label: Lame-O Records

Genre: Indie folk, “”heartland”” rock

Pull track: Me & May

Synopsis: I can’t tell you how many precious lo-fi-minded bands have made a move towards a big, populist, “heartland” production and totally erased any sort of uniqueness or personality they possessed. Okay, I can tell you how many: it’s one, and I’m still mad about it. But that’s not what happened here. Primarily because, despite all the Big Country grand ambitions of this record, it’s still a Dave Benton album through and through. All the friendly, catchy songs about dreams and dogs are still here, and Dave’s voice is still front and center, it’s just now we are (in a nice bit of synergy with the previous album on this list) going on a walk in the woods with him. The pull track is where the album succeeds best—some bells and whistles, but without getting lost in the….well, you know. (Bandcamp link)

Mo Troper – Natural Beauty

Release date: February 14th

Record label: Tender Loving Empire

Genre: Power pop, jangle pop

Pull track: Lucky Devils

Synopsis: Mo Troper is, as far as I’m concerned, a national treasure at this point. Following up 2017’s end-of-decade shortlister Exposure & Response was going to be difficult, but the only real complaint to be had is that I wish there was more of it. Stuff like “Come and Get Me” and “Your Boy” is just absolutely timeless, I-could-do-this-in-my-sleep pop rock, but I’ve always found Troper at his best when he reaches a bit difficult, like on 2016’s bass-and-vocals “Somebody Special”. Here, we get the blistering Portland beatdown of the pull track (gifting us “the Charlie Chaplin of empty gestures” like it’s nothing), and the six-minute, vocal-straining, acoustic-based closing track that is, unfortunately, not about the celebrity pay-per-video website (as far as I can tell at least). (Bandcamp link)

John Vanderslice – Dollar Hits

Release date: March 20th

Record label: Tiny Telephone

Genre: Ambient pop, glitch

Pull track: Weirdo: The Beginning

Synopsis: This is certainly a strange and wonderful second act from the veteran indie rocker and producer. A far cry from the (excellent) choirboy chamber pop polishings of his late 00s and early 10s work as well as the more rock-band oriented time with MK Ultra and early solo releases, Dollar Hits is a twisted and deconstructed DAW trainwreck, like someone trying to drown everything resembling 1995 from Kid A. While my favorite parts of it are where the sun peaks through (the pull track and “Show Me Love”), I’ve also found myself getting sucked into the likes of “Cracked Pass Words” as well. If all this sounds a bit intimidating, you might want to start with 2019’s more song-based The Cedars, one of the best albums of last year. (Bandcamp link)

Various Artists: Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

Release date: November 13th

Record label: Captured Tracks

Genre: Jangle pop, college rock

Pull track: Late As Usual

Synopsis: I debated whether or not I should count this, as several of these tracks originally appeared on other albums during the run specified in the comp’s title, but I decided for inclusion because 1) a lot of these songs never did actually appear on a long-player and 2) a lot of the albums that actually did feature these songs are long out-of-print. And also, it’s awesome. 90 minutes of underground, jangly 80s indie rock? From mostly bands I’d never heard of? Sign me up. I already knew that the Primitons and the Windbreakers were hidden gems, but “Promise” by One Plus Two? “I’m in Heaven” by the Cyclones? The pull track? Any of these would be good enough to start a movement. (Bandcamp link)

Vintage Crop – Serve to Serve Again

Release date: August 7th

Record label: Upset the Rhythm

Genre: Post-punk, garage rock, punk rock

Pull track: The North

Synopsis: Australia seems to churn out a lot of these droll garage rock bands as of late (from what I understand it’s a bit nasty down there), but Vintage Crop stand near the top of the trash heap. Serve to Serve Again threads the right amount of bile, surrealness, and on-the-nose into their lyrics, and what they lack in Nobel Prize-winning writing they make up for in the delivery. The backwards glam of the pull track is their best look. (Bandcamp link)

Vundabar – Either Light

Release date: March 13th

Record label: Gawk Records

Genre: Post-punk revival, indie pop

Pull track: Montage Music

Synopsis: Vundabar might be trending towards “taken for granted” territory. Consistently releasing good indie pop rock music without fuss will do that to you. And Either Light is quite good—and also, like, weirdly backloaded? Not to badmouth the first three songs, but “Petty Crime” is the one that really grabbed me (turning that title into that level of earworm ought to be against the law), and the thing didn’t let up after. (Bandcamp link)

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Release date: March 27th

Record label: Merge Records

Genre: Alt-country, Roots rock, folk rock

Pull track: Hell

Synopsis: Katie Crutchfield was one of the best songwriters to emerge over the last decade. She’s dressed up her albums in various sheens and succeeded every time—snotty pop punk, bedroom home recordings, shiny radio rock—I’m not at all surprised that her pivot to Americana and country ranks among her best. I won’t even get into her lyrical skillset, because it gets remarked upon every album cycle as if we hadn’t already, ya know, noticed. What she may not get enough credit for is her incredible sense of melody and her arguably singular influence on the current state of DIY indie rock. Saint Cloud indicates that Katie will be making worthwhile music long after her imitators have faded. (Bandcamp link)

Western State Hurricanes – Through with Love

Release date: February 14th

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Seattle indie rock

Pull track: Through with Love

Synopsis: Through with Love was recorded in the late 1990s, sat in a vault for twenty years as WSH lead singer John Roderick re-recorded most of these songs with his next band, The Long Winters, and in 2020 was finally rescued from poor taping by advanced technology and got a crowdfunded release. Roderick’s been mostly inactive since the last Long Winters album came out in 2006, so I’d forgotten exactly the damage his songs can do. The lone previously-unreleased song here, the title and pull track, is an absolute monster. When John and Stephanie Wicker start singing separate parts in the second first it’s my favorite music moment of either 1998 or 2020, take your pick. The Hurricanes were, perhaps unsurprisingly, grungier than the Long Winters ended up being, while still being recognizably similar beasts—all the proto-LW songs here are weird and different and make for a fascinating alternate history. Still waiting on that next Long Winters album, though. (Bandcamp link)

Whelpwisher – New Brilliant Polygons/Okay Sick

Release date: February 18th and July 31st

Record label: Self-released

Genre: Power pop, lo-fi indie rock

Pull track: Deaf to False Metal

Synopsis: Psychic Flowers rules apply here, too. Ben Grigg had a productive 2020—the “proper album” Okay Sick is the better of the two releases listed here, but the write-and-record-a-song-a-day project of New Brilliant Polygons is also worth a mention in its ramshackle glory. On the slower, more crowd-pleasing numbers like “Line at the Cool Bar” and the pull track he comes off as a kindred spirit to fellow Power Pop list-appearers Mo Troper and Brian Mietz, but he’s also got a fuzzy garage rock side, and bass-driven headspinners like “Kneel Young” suggest another path entirely. (Bandcamp link)

Wire – 10:20

Release date: June 19th

Record label: Pinkflag

Genre:  Post-punk, art punk

Pull track: The Art of Persistence

Synopsis: Wire’s second album of 2020 is a collection of outtakes and alternate versions (recorded in 2010 and this year, hence the title). They pull heavily from their underappreciated 1980s releases on this one, so if you’d like to hear songs from that era without the admittedly of-the-time production flourishes, then this one is for you. Even if you do like those albums (like myself) it’s a treat to hear “Boiling Boy” and “Small Black Reptile” seamlessly integrated with newer fare. This is what, the fourth version of “Over Theirs” to show up on a release? And I’m still not tired of it! (Pinkflag link)

Wire – Mind Hive

Release date: January 24th

Record label: Pinkflag

Genre: Art punk, post-punk

Pull track: Cactused

Synopsis: It’s a good sign when a band releases an album of new stuff and an album of old stuff in the same year and the new stuff record’s the better of the two. Really, it’s hard to believe that this band started making music in the 1970s. I think part of the reason some people struggle to get into Wire is that they’ve been ripped off so many times (punk stole the Pink Flag blueprint, indie rock took Chairs Missing, and new wave got 154) they lose a bit of their edge. Which is why I recommend just diving into their later catalog—it’s just as good without the baggage. You can trace the line from their beginning to Mind Hive if you want (start with Outdoor Miner to Off the Beach) but you can also pretend this is a hip new post-punk band associated with Speedy Wunderground and it works just as well. (Pinkflag link)

Wolf Parade – Thin Mind

Release date: January 24th

Record label: Sub Pop Records

Genre: Indie rock, post-punk

Pull track: Forest Green

Synopsis: Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner continue to be two of the most substantial artists to emerge from the blog churn of the 00s. They’d qualify as such even if they hadn’t made a solid Wolf Parade album at the beginning of the year thanks to Operators and Moonface, but that Spencer can just step back into these old shoes and bust out “Julia Take Your Man Home” is just gravy. (Bandcamp link)

Worriers – You or Someone You Know

Release date: April 3rd

Record label: 6131 Records

Genre: Pop punk, punk rock

Pull track: Chicago Style Pizza Is Terrible

Synopsis: Worriers are back! Lauren Denitzio’s band’s last album was 2017’s Survival Pop, and I couldn’t describe SideOneDummy refugees’ sound any better than that. If you’re looking for big, hooky queer modern punk anthems, this record’s got them. But my favorite song (whose title doubles as advice to Midwestern tourists) is the kind of reflective mid-tempo stroke that stops one in one’s tracks. (Bandcamp link)

X – Alphabetland

Release date: May 1st

Record label: Fat Possum Records

Genre: Punk rock

Pull track: Cyrano deBerger’s Back

Synopsis: X’s first original-lineup album in 35 years does everything you could possibly want an original-lineup X album to do in 2020—namely, rock. I actually like the first post-Billy Zoom album, but the re-recorded version of the pull track is a pretty clear improvement. If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong. (Bandcamp link)

Xetas – The Cypher

Release date: January 24th

Record label: 12XU

Genre: Post-punk, punk rock

Pull track: The Hierophant

Synopsis: Nearly 40 minutes of noisy, shouty punk rock. Catnip for anyone who counts Our Band Could Be Your Life among their favorite books. 12XU is a virtual quality-assurance stamp when it comes to this kind of thing. Not much else to say here other than it’s good stuff. (Bandcamp link)

Neil Young – Homegrown

Release date: June 19th

Record label: Silver Bow Productions

Genre: Folk rock, Country rock

Pull track: Separate Ways

Synopsis: Another archival release from Neil Young, this shelved 1970s album doesn’t quite reach the heights of his best work from that decade but is still a key piece of one of the greatest ten-year periods for any songwriter, period. In terms of cohesion it’s more American Stars and Bars than On the Beach, with signature Neil left turns like “Florida” sharing space with the tossed off excellence of “Mexico” and “Kansas”, and the first two songs could hold their own on basically any Neil album.

Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Release date: April 3rd

Record label: Warp Records

Genre: Experimental rock, industrial soul

Pull track: Gospel for a New Century

Synopsis: While it’s certainly a populist move compared to Safe in the Hands of Love, no one’s going to mistake this for anything other than a Yves Tumor album. They haven’t given up the hoopla, just, you know, shaped it a little differently. What we end up with is stuff like “Kerosene!” (a substance with an above-average track record as a song subject) and the little-banger-as-a-treat pull track (Bandcamp link).

Thanks to everyone who made it all the way through this list, it means a lot that you took the time to read this. I have some vague plans as to what I’m going to do with this blog in 2021–hopefully it involves talking about both new and old music that I like.

If you’re reading this because you were involved in making or releasing any of these albums–thanks so much for salvaging something from this rough year. I look forward to hearing and writing about your future endeavors.

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 my favorite EPs from 2020.

Honorable mentions:

  • Adulkt Life – Book of Curses
  • Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band – Just Like Moby Dick
  • Alright – I’m Doing This to Myself
  • Alice Bag – Sister Dynamite
  • Anton Barbeau – Kenny vs. Thrust
  • Cable Ties – Far Enough
  • Dennis Callaci – The Dead of the Day
  • Dead Famous People – Harry
  • Dope Body – Home Body
  • Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia
  • En Attendant Ana – Juillet
  • FACS – Void Moments
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
  • Damien Jurado – What’s New, Tomboy?
  • KNOWSO – Specialtronics/Green Vision
  • Lo Tom – LP2
  • Midwife – Forever
  • Munson-Hicks Party Supplies – s/t
  • David Nance – Staunch Honey
  • Powerwasher – The Power of Positive Washing
  • Josh Ritter – See Here, I Have Built You a Mansion
  • Daniel Romano – White Flag
  • Seazoo – Joy
  • Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1
  • Sinai Vessel – Ground Aswim
  • Sweeping Promises – Hunger for a Way Out
  • Video Daughters – Cut Back

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