What were the albums that helped you through this crazy year? So much happened in 20202, and if you’re like us, music played a big part in mirroring what was happening, what you were going through, and lifted your spirits when it was most needed.
While there were more amazing songs released than anyone could imagine, the following list consists of the complete albums which stood as complete accomplishments start to finish in our eyes (and to our ears). Without further adieu, below are our Top Albums of 2020:
Top 20 Albums of 2020 (Bo)
- Nathan Gray – Working Title
Listening to an early copy of this album last December, I immediately knew this was music that was going to get me through 2020 (and that was before everything Covid went down). Gray has always been a powerful songwriter, going back to his work with BoySetsFire, but with Working Title, he wrote a collection of songs that was both more personal and at the same time more universal, than anything he had written before. From the hopeful self-analysis of “In My Defense” and the title track, to the empowering anthem “No Way”, the songs here hit every mark: emotionally driving, huge hooks, pure punk rock power, and catchy as hell. It helps that Gray is also one of the best vocalists in punk rock, able to go from a hardcore scream to a hushed acoustic lament with ease. This album is a spirit-lifter through and through, and certainly helped made 2020 far more bearable.
2. Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy
On his covers EP released last year, Kelly described his sound as “dirt emo”, taking the instrumentation and rustic pathos of Americana and folk and melding it with the vulnerability and self-dissection of emo music. While all these qualities were on display on Shape & Destroy, what wasn’t covered was the deep introspection, thoughtful musing and personal growth as a songwriter infused into this collection of songs. There’s no denying that songs like “Radio Cloud” are easy singalongs that get better and better on repeat listens, but it’s tracks like “Changes”, with their romantic reach and “Into the Blue”, with it’s hopeful musings (“I’m still gonna sing with the angels”) that made this album a breath of fresh air. It’s an album that’s richness can be heard in the warm instrumentation, the sharp production, and of course Kelly’s evocative vocals. The songs here transcend any singular painful event, reaching for the furthest heights of the heart.
3. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
At some point it’s clear that Phoebe Bridgers made a conscious decision to make 2020 her bitch, and she sure as hell succeeded. One can look at the visual world she created in her (few) live performances, with her skeleton onesies, humorous off-kilter videos, and her A+ Twitter game. But none of that would have had any meaning if Punisher wasn’t an excellent album. Bridgers has certainly proven herself an adept storyteller; her detailed conflicts with her father during a tour in Japan in “Kyoto”, or the murder of a next door skinhead in “Garden Song”. It also needs to be noted how well she took her sounds to the next level, incorporating horns, full band arrangements, and distorted freak-outs (like the one that sends “I Know the End” out in a blaze of glory). Bridgers is far more than some quiet guitar strummer – she’s a Gen Z rock star bringing wit and humanity into a world that desperately needs it.
4. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Though never intended to be, RTJ4 became one of the unofficial soundtracks to this turbulent year of protests and speaking truth to power. The duo of Killer Mike and El-P have had their fingers on the pulse since forming Run the Jewels, and yet it feels like they are sonically hitting a new peak here. Each song here hits harder than a cement block, with classic boom-bap beats merging with modern production. This album is truly about the lyrics though. Incisive, unrepentant, and irreverent through, I could drop a million examples (“First of all, fuck the fuckin’ law, we is fuckin’ raw, Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar” “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it? Yeah)“) but seeing them written here will never have the same effect as when they are delivered by these two masterful MCs at the height of their game.
5. Pearl Jam – Gigaton
Not only are Pearl Jam one of the last of the big 90’s grunge bands left standing – on Gigaton, they prove they are still making music as riveting and thrilling as they were thirty years earlier. Having left their grunge trappings behind to focus on a more rollicking rock n’ roll approach, the band still proves to have some tricks up their sleeves. The Talking Heads-inspired first single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” brings new grooves into the band’s repertoire, and the almost choral harmonies on “Quick Escape” over an inspired drum beat prove the group’s songwriting is still inspired. Yet even without these nuances, Gigaton is still a fantastic, straight-ahead rock record, with blistering guitar solos, and Eddie Vedder‘s roars, wails and whispers sounding as good now as when he first got in the game. Pearl Jam are rock n’ roll lifers and thank goodness for them.
6. Brian Fallon – Local Honey
Fallon’s transition from a soulful Jersey punk rocker into an Americana-inspired folk troubadour has been a smooth, nearly flawless one. Diving full into quieter, acoustic songwriting, Local Honey is a majestic yet delicate masterpiece. Contained to a tight eight songs, the album still feels full and lush, and never misses an emotional beat. The fortified pain in “21 Days” melds metaphors to heartbreaking effect, and “When You’re Ready” will certainly soundtrack father/daughter wedding dances for years to come. And then there are the striking, unabashedly romantic tracks; “I Don’t Mind (If I’m With You)” and “You Have Stolen My Heart”. Songwriting like this takes confidence, and Brian Fallon‘s is clearly growing with each new solo record he releases.
7. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine
I won’t lie – when All Time Low first hit the scene over a decade ago, I wasn’t on the bandwagon. At the time, they appeared to be just another group riding the musical coattails of blink-182 and Fall Out Boy. Then some years later they released “Weightless”, an instantly memorable pop-punk gem that had me doubting my original assumptions. As the group continued to release new music, they continued to dispel any notions that they were just another generic small stage Warped Tour act. Cut to Wake Up, Sunshine – truly one of the best, catchiest pop-punk albums of the year, and an all-around great alt. rock record. While the blackbear-featuring “Monsters” has proven to be the rock radio smash for the group, it was preceded by two crazily infectious singles, “Some Kind of Disaster” and “Sleeping In” that both deserved the same amount of success. There is not a bad song here, with one of the album’s highlights, the road-ready “Safe”, not even pushed as a single! I formally apologize to the band for having ever written them off – they have earned a place in the pop-punk hall of fame.
8. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
There isn’t much that can be said about The Boss that has not been said about him a million times before. He’s a national treasure; a soulful New Jersey poet rock n’ roller and one of the best in the business. On Letter to You, his return with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen tackles aging, grief and death with beatific gravitas. At its heart though, the album is an ode to the music that has driven Springsteen’s life, treating it like a religion (“The Power of Prayer”), and painting heaven as a “House of a Thousand Guitars”. He also pays respects to those he’s lost (the powerhouse “Ghosts”) and the loneliness of being “The Last Man Standing”. One of the best American songwriters to ever live, Letter to You is proof that the legend has plenty left to say worth hearing.
9. The Airborne Toxic Event – Hollywood Park
Transforming one’s life stories into songs is nothing new, but on Hollywood Park, the soundtrack to his memoir of the same name, Mikel Jollett and his band Airborne Toxic Event have done so in rousing fashion. While ATE have always brought grande ambitions to their music, they reach new cinematic heights here, taking their 80’s influenced alternative rock songs and elevating them to stadium-ready opuses. And they do this without losing the details of Jollett’s story. In the title track, Jollett recounts his father’s exit from prison and journey to start a new life, and later on “Brother”, he returns to his father’s perspective, as he writes to his brother in Vietnam. Individually, these are some of the band’s best songs since their debut, with tracks like the beat-heavy “Come on Out” emotionally stirring, and album highlight “All These Engagements” evolving from a dreamy pop song into a passionate rocker. While I can’t say for sure it’s the best book soundtrack ever, it very well might be.
10. Butch Walker – American Love Story
Every time the relevancy of the “rock opera” seems to be fading, someone comes along and revives it with a new urgency and inspiration. In 2020, it was Butch Walker. With the current cultural divide in our country as its backdrop, American Love Story navigates the lives of the types of characters Walker grew up with in the South, following them as they confront their hate-filled youth, seek forgiveness after a traumatic event, find love and eventually find peace. More impressive, Walker manages to weave this yarn across a canvas of the different pop and rock styles that permeated the radio he grew up listening to. For hair metal to summer pop to acoustic ballads, the album steeps itself in Americana in both story and sound, hitting a number of emotional notes along the way. Walker also deserves the award for best guitar solo of 2020 on the devastating “Out in the Open”.
11. Lola Marsh – Someday Tomorrow Maybe: A lush, cinematic blend of alt. pop, like Lana Del Rey backed by Ennio Morricone.
12. American Aquarium – Lamentations: Songwriter BJ Barham shows himself a master of narrative storytelling in this collection of sometimes inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking tunes.
13. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine: Sweetly abrasive pop punk with a sharp underlying wit.
14. Gus Dapperton – Orca: Alt. pop songwriter shows a knack for sticky melodies that sneak into your consciousness.
15. Thomas Newman – 1917: A glorious orchestral score that matches the power and beauty of the film.
16. Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling: The recent hard times and political turmoil have at least been great inspiration for the Truckers, as they continue to set great cultural commentary to rocking Americana music.
17. Bob Mould – Blue Hearts: Mould’s latest is a return to pure punk raging, tearing apart the current “American Crisis” with anthem after anthem.
18. The War And Treaty – Hearts Town: Soul/rock duo latest collection reaches the highest of secular gospel heights, and masters the slowest of slow burners.
19. Low Cut Connie – Private Lives: Soulful piano rock that evokes the personal songwriting of Jersey’s best.
20. Ketch Harbour Wolves – Avalon: Superb melodic rock from rising Canadian band.
The Lawrence Arms – Skeleton Coast
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Fake Names – Fake Names
Top 3 EPs of 2020
- Strays Don’t Sleep – A Short Film for a Long Story
- Tony Lewis – More Than I Dared
- Superlove – Superlove
Top 5 Albums of 2020 (Melanie)
- We Are the Guests – Daughters & Sons
It’s no wonder that this is my top pick for the year when it comes to album releases. I not only interviewed We Are The Guests for The Indy Review back in February, but I also reviewed this album in full in October. I had been waiting for this album ever since their first single, “House A Habit,” was released in 2019, and I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint in the slightest. Daughters & Sons is an incredibly strong debut release by an indie folk band, and I truly hope that it continues to gain momentum in 2021.
2. Colony House – Leave What’s Lost Behind
Colony House has honestly never had a bad album. The two preceding this latest release are both stellar, and they continue that tradition on Leave What’s Lost Behind. It’s a wonderful blend of inspirationally driven music to songs that make you want to jump out of your seat and dance. This album has heart, grit, and everything in between.
3. Delta Rae – The Light
Another band with a strong history in regard to stellar albums is Delta Rae. This album has been five years in the making, and they hit it out of the park once more. On top of the release of this stellar album, the band began an online streaming project leading up to the musical they are working on, Behind the Door (https://behindthedoor.deltarae.com/). Delta Rae brings an amazing energy with beautiful tunes and riveting voices to their Southern Gothic Rock sound.
4. The Lil Smokes – Tornillo
Great bluegrass through and through. Tornillo, released by The Lil Smokies, has one song that became a 2020 anthem on repeat for me, “World’s On Fire.” The album is full of amazing, quick-picking tunes and bellowing harmonies, as well as soul-catching ballads.
5. The National Parks – Wildflower
Last but not least on my list, Wildflower by The National Parks. I also did a full review of this album back in July. Loaded with amazing melodies and sweeping orchestrations, this fourth album stays true to form for this great band from Provo, Utah.
Listen to all of these in our Top Albums of 2020 Playlist!
Ooo, you loved 41 Miles To Roscoe by The Midnight Callers, and yet their fantastic debut Red Letter Glow does not even get an honorable mention? Hmm…
Cheers, Matt Street