Best Albums of 2020

While I appreciate the critical art of evaluating an entire year’s worth of albums and honing it down to a list of 10 essential releases that were arguably the most important or noteworthy of that year, I didn’t feel like giving in to that particular convention since 2020 certainly didn’t follow convention (or even civil etiquette) either. Time not seeing live bands, haunting record stores and supporting local venues was instead spent mailordering a shit ton of music and prowling Bandcamp for hours on end finding nuggets of sonic salvation to help push through this most unfortunate of years. So instead of the usual list of my top 10 albums, here are my top twenty…

 

ADULT - Perception Is As Of Deception

ADULT.Perceptions Is/As/Of Deception (Dais)
Released in April 2020, this Detroit duo’s latest batch of icy electro darkwave couldn’t have been more fitting during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adam Lee Miller’s unrelenting EBM pulse plodding under Nicola Kuperus’ commanding howl unwittingly made a fitting soundtrack for the isolation, misinformation, and social unrest that followed its release. Stylistically, this album has a more weathered aesthetic than their previous albums, as the punchiness of the EBM beat here is less Front 242/Nitzer Ebb glare and more haunted Clock DVA/Skinny Puppy creepy crawl, but it’s still lively enough to reveal a prescient and chilling worldview that ADULT. has been bringing into focus since 1998.

 

Alien Nose Job - Once Again The Present Becomes The Past

Alien Nose JobOnce Again the Present Becomes the Past (Iron Lung)
After being primed with 2019′s HC45 7″, Melbourne’s Jake Robertson came through for the noiseniks with an album’s worth of 1-2-1-2 hardcore punk that smokes through 14 tracks in an exhilarating 24 minutes. As mentioned before, this version of Alien Nose Job leans more towards the fury of Aussie greats Leather Towel than Robertson’s more indie/garage rock leanings in The Hierophants and Ausmutants, as the frenzied tempo rarely lets up, coming off like an amped up amalgam of the ’80s SoCal hardcore punk scene warped through a kaleidoscopic barrage of modern day satellite beams. The only respite from the barrage comes with a few new-wavish keyboard textures and interludes like “The Day After” and, literally, “Piano Interlude”, strategically placed to increase the impact of songs like “Present Becomes the Past” and “Sound of Sirens”. It’s a blast from the cold war past that swiftly negates the common complaint that the creative possibilities of hardcore punk are limited, as this ripper exists in a deliriously fun and inventive space that makes a 40-year-old style sound fresh and thrilling again.

 

Brandy - The Gift Of Repetition

BrandyThe Gift of Repetition (Total Punk)
After a solid debut LP and killer 45, this pedigreed noise rock trio from NYC with members from bands like Basic Cable, Pampers, Pop. 1280, Running, and others delivers an obnoxiously loud and stupendously fun stomp across 8 tracks on their sophomore LP. Saddling up to the same weird drinking hole that feeds weirdo noisepunk bands like west coast representatives Lamps and Mayyors, Brandy brings a ruthlessly spartan rhythm section, some buzzing synthesizers, brutal guitar bursts and a smirk to hits like “UFO’s 2 Heaven”, an alternate recording of “Clown Pain” from their Total Punk 45, and the insane album closer “Insane Screensaver”, which kicks in like a skipping Feedtime record to deftly deliver the gift of repetition. The biggest difference between this LP and their debut long player is that the vocals are no longer buried and obscured in the mix, so you’re actually able to decipher some of their lyrical gold on The Gift of Repetition. Plus, the guitar tone is a bit more focused here. While their debut, Laugh Track, is a monster in its own right, The Gift of Repetition comes off a little less sinister with a bit of dark humor. It’s more Cows than Brainbombs but a monster nonetheless. Give yourself the gift of The Gift of Repetition.

 

ClockOfTime-PestilentPlanet

Clock of Time – Pestilent Planet (Static Shock)
This band featuring Seth Sutton from NFZ faves Useless Eaters, Exit Group, and others, along with Corey Rose Evans from G.L.O.S.S. and members of Diät, Berlin’s Clock of Time delivered their debut LP in the form of a cold wave death rock, pounding and spitting with indignant punk disgust at a time when we needed it most. Along with False Brother’s Uncanny Valley (see below), Pestilent Planet fit the dire mood of 2020. In fact, coming out in the spring as the pandemic hit, Uncanny Valley reflected the new, uncertain times that fell upon us, while Pestilent Planet, released in August, seemed to embody and capture the weary hopelessness and disgust of humanity’s lesser qualities as the pandemic wore on. Informed by dark early UK postpunk, like those recently given reissue treatment by the Sacred Bones label, bands like 13th Chime, Part One, Vex, and the Killed By Deathrock compilations, Clock of Time taps into the times with a perfectly crafted dose of intensely poignant and austere postpunk, amped up with a level of bleakness that’s wholly their own and absolutely essential.

 

The Cool Greenhouse

The Cool GreenhouseThe Cool Greenhouse (Melodic)
With the passing of Mark E. Smith in 2018 and the subsequent conclusion of one of early UK punk’s most prolific and unique voices, there’s been a void that desperately needed to be filled. Despite a number of imitators and/or groups clearly influenced by The Fall, none of them really even come close or scratch that perennial itch enlightened listeners have for a new Fall album to absorb, savor, and embed within the greasy folds of the reptile brain. And while I imagine Tom Greenhouse, the genius namesake behind The Cool Greenhouse, has long tired of people making that obvious stylistic link, there’s no mistaking the utterly original and contemporary spin he’s brought to that style, as evidenced by a series of requisite singles, demos, and finally, this, his first album-length collection of songs. The stripped-down, bedroom punk take on Mark E. Smith’s three R’s of rock n’ roll (repetition, repetition, repetition) infused with the simultaneously tense but effortlessly cool effect of clashing notes walking hand in hand with clean minor chord guitar strum and junkyard organ blurps, instantly snatches the ear and, thankfully, proven to encase those greasy brain folds of the reptile brain in that fantastic way that only The Fall had been able to do for decades. And while I, as a clueless Yankee bloke, still scratch my head at 98% of what M.E.S. was rambling on about, the dry wit and LOL humor of The Cool Greenhouse comes through loud and clear, taking shots at alt.right d-baggery with “Cardboard Man”, internet trolls with “4Chan”, and the mundane absurdity of 21st century life by means that are anything but mundane. Here’s hoping that our reptile brains are lucky enough to be treated to decades of The Cool Greenhouse too.

 

Deerhoof - Teenage Future Cave Artists

DeerhoofFuture Teenage Cave Artists (Joyful Noise)
I’ve casually checked in on Deerhoof over the course of their 26 year (!) career, from Holdy Paws to Milk Man to Friend Opportunity and beyond, but for whatever reason I hadn’t paid them much attention lately. That changed in 2020 when Future Teenage Cave Artists started getting some heavy rotation on the local college radio station, each track making my ears perk up to wonder which Deerhoof record these golden nuggets were coming from and whether what I was hearing was even Deerhoof, as these tracks stretch into territories as of yet unexplored by them or any other indie rock band for that matter. Nothing on this record is straight-up or lacking the obvious exploratory homework necessary to create music so startlingly innovative and fresh. Sure, you’ll be able to latch on to a few pop hooks and choruses here and there, mangled beyond any direct source of inspiration, but those easy, predictable pop structures fall apart and dissolve in ways that keep this from being rote and basic. That’s not to say that their experimental bent — which admittedly is part of what kept them at arms length for me at times — prevents the melodic pull of their skillful songcraft to burrow deep into your brain. Unlike some “difficult” experimental rock records, Future Teenage Cave Artists has that magnetic melodic pull that makes you crave these songs from the first time you hear them as well as thousands more spins as you discover more and more layers of brilliance in this exquisitely-crafted labyrinth of chop pop. They’ve found a sweet spot that’s avant-garde while also being pretty dang catchy, all without relying on any predictable and tired pop tropes. If this isn’t their crowning achievement, so far, this album most certainly is going to be considered a landmark record from a landmark group.

 

Deradoorian - Find The Sun

DeradoorianFind The Sun (Anti-)
By the time the track “The Illuminator” hits halfway through Angel Deradoorian’s third solo album, you will either be totally on board with her spiritual art rock headtrip or you’ll be a clueless dolt whose tastes should face some serious introspection, perhaps while allowing this soul-seeking triumph to lead the way. Easily one of the coolest sounding songs to emerge in 2020, simultaneously calling back an age of free association beat poetry and wild jazz flutes, while also channeling some neo freak folk filter and a rock steady 4/4 beat, it served to bring much-needed chill vibes and critical contemplation as 2020 continued to spin out of control. Surrounding that killer track, Deradoorian also channels some krautrock-style jams that evoke Can’s Tago Mago escapades, while other tracks feature her lush layered vocal harmonies, sounding something like what I imagine Stereolab unplugged might sound like or The Breeders covering forlorn Persian love songs. The aching, underlying guitar buzz on the closing track “Sun” even hints at the dark groove of Black Sabbath’s quieter songs from their early records (see “Planet Caravan” from Paranoid for example), which perhaps reveals some influence from her time playing the role of Ozzy in a Black Sabbath tribute band, Black Sabbath Cover Band Rehearsal (aka BSCBR), featuring members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Uniform, Liturgy, Orthrelm, Krallice and others. You’d be hard pressed to find a better use of 53 minutes of your time. Highly recommended.

 

Duma

DumaDuma (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
It’s not often that you hear something that grabs your attention and stops you in your tracks. OK, there are some novel attention-seeking artists who may cause you to pause and pay off the WTF moment they’re so desperately looking for, but it doesn’t really hold or deserve your attention more than a few minutes or listens. I’m talking about something that perks up your ears, defies easy categorization, and continues to baffle and enthrall many listens later. Truthfully I can’t remember the last time that I experienced that type of enchantment by an album, so when I found myself considering the dizzying caterwaul of this Kenyan grindcore duo for the first time I took note and gushed about my new infatuation on this very blog. While familiarity has softened the shock of the new, this blazing, gnarly debut from Duma still captivates.

 

Facs - Void Moments

FacsVoid Moments (Trouble In Mind)
The heads at Trouble In Mind have a real knack for putting out releases by guitar-centric groups that breathe new life into the standard instrumentation of rock and roll. For example, 2019′s Everybody Split LP by the Australian group Possible Humans did not appeal to me much on paper, but holy hell, what an awesome, enchanting record that is. One of my favorites of 2019. Same with Mountain Movers, Sunwatchers and a handful of other groups that stand out despite their conventional instrumentation and genre constraints. With Facs, the standard guitar, bass, and drum elements are all there, as well as the genre tags and references we’re all familiar with, but this record is leagues away from any idea your mind might construct from those flimsy clues about what’s captured on Void Moments. Here, on their third album, Facs’ audio alchemy conjures an otherworldly space only hinted at on their earlier records of drifting postpunk, with a shimmering guitar tone masterfully crafted in the studio, weaving through breathy vocals and staccato hi-hat, creating a space that’s unlike anything else you’ll find in the rather dull world of guitar-based indie rock. A real headfucker with headphones, Void Moments demands your attention and will provide many substantial listening sessions. Not to be missed, this is Facs best work yet.

 

False Brother - Uncanny Valley

False Brother Uncanny Valley (Iron Lung)
Four years after their killer 8-song demo, Kansas City’s finest postpunk bummer get a proper vinyl release and it doesn’t disappoint. Released in April, the timing on this chilly fucker seemed prescient, as people continued to shut themselves in quarantine and were trying to figure out if things were ever going to be “normal” again. Ah, to recall those heady days of thinking that it’d only be a matter of weeks or months. We all know how things got worse, but Uncanny Valley stayed true and continued to offer a soothing salve for a year we’d all like to forget.

 

Lars Finberg - Tinnitus Tonight

Lars FinbergTinnitus Tonight (Mt St Mtn)
Even though it’s a collection of recordings dating back to 2018, Lars Finberg ensured that the epic shitshow that was 2020 at least had a healthy helping of his sideways surf punk and inverted riffs to help ease the suffering. After last year’s excellent Un-Psychedelic in Peavey City release by Finberg’s band The Intelligence, ya gotta be grateful for an album’s worth of garage punk gold in a year full of shit.

 

Napalm Death - Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism

Napalm DeathThroes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Century Media)
As dubious as you may feel about a 38-year old band containing zero original members present at the genesis of the alienating grindcore genre, you may want to set that doubt aside and take note at what these Birmingham brutes achieved in 2020. Being at the forefront of the whole grindcore genre, Napalm Death has proven its mettle time and time again by stretching limitations and drawing from the innovative spirit that belched out their violent, incendiary bursts. Whether slowing things down to a trudge, bringing in contemporary blackened metal and hardcore punk influences, un-conventional ideas as followers codified and confined grindcore to the limited creative scope the genre may seem to have on the surface, ND continues to push away from those constraints while still delivering with flair some of the fiercest grindcore of the modern day, keeping you on your toes with thoughtful arrangements that prevent it from feeling like an exercise in tedium. Songs like the album closer “A Bellyfull of Salt and Spleen” noise pound with the fury of early Swans or Missing Foundation, while industrial postpunk influences like Killing Joke are clearly felt on the pounder “Amoral”, capturing the primitive future of their earliest apocalyptic warnings in a sickly definition that only a modern recording studio and production process could capture. The bonus tracks version pays literal tributes to the band’s influences with inspired covers of one of Sonic Youth’s best tracks ever, “White Kross” from their underrated album Sister, as well as a version of Rudimentary Peni’s “Blissful Myth” which sounds pretty fucking amazing played with the heft of one the metal world’s heaviest hitters. It’s a thrilling listen and a bold declaration that this band is far from irrelevant nearly 40 years after it’s inception, especially in 2020.

 

Obnox - Savage Raygun

ObnoxSavage Raygun (Ever/Never)
Not long before Lamont Thomas’ magnum opus Savage Raygun came out, I’d noted how much of a killer track “Scenicide” was from his contribution to the Killed by Meth #3 compilation, as it’s definitely one of the best on that record, and was thinking I was about due to dig further into the top-shelf Obnox catalog. Then, low and behold, just as one of the first pandemic Bandcamp Fridays occurred, the wise heads at Ever/Never unleashed this masterwork from one of the garage punk scene’s most inventive geniuses. From initial listens streaming on Bandcamp through countless spins on the turntable throughout the year, every track across the four sides of Savage Raygun delivers sonic salvation. Including a rerecorded version of “Scenicide”, Savage Raygun threads together a mix of influences so broad that it seems like they couldn’t possibly hold together and flow as well as they do, but somehow Obnox makes the journey through Stoogian garage punk through hip-hop, krautrock, and damaged soul music all make sense, adding one of the best chapters to a body of work that has no peer. And while you can sample it via Bandcamp and other streaming services, this treasure will earn its space in your collection with a beautifully designed gatefold jacket and sleeves featuring gorgeous illustration by Raeghan the Savage. In a year with very few bright spots, this certainly was one of them.

 

OpticSink

Optic SinkOptic Sink (Goner)
This debut album from Memphis duo Natalie Hoffman (Moving Finger, The Nots) and Ben Bauermeister (Girls of the Gravitron, Toxie, Magic Kids) hums with the primitive buzz of early synth punk pioneers like the Screamers, Nervous Gender, and Suicide, but with a contemporary minimalist tilt that warps and bends electronic waves into something both fascinating and chilling at the same time. Hoffman’s detached vocal delivery and hypnotic synth work lays down an ominous vibe, while Bauermeister’s rollicking replicant drum machine pulse artificially sparks some electrifying inertia into the mix, both players leaving a human trace that prevents the 8 tracks from ever feeling robotic or rote.

 

Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi

Oranssi Pazuzu –  Mestarin Kynsi (Century Media)
Now on their fifth proper album, this Finnish quintet continues to stretch their sound ever outward, well beyond the codified trappings of the black metal scene that sprung them into the world circa 2007 and into new directions that exist somewhere in the nexus of psychedelia, space rock, experimental post-rock, and the avant garde. They pretty much defy standard genre constraints; the only tell-tale anchor to heavy metal might be the troll-style black metal vocals and massively sick riffs, but layered with electronics, horns, and whatever other cosmic reverberations these Finns are channeling. No strangers to tranced-out repetition, each track on Mestarin Kynsi goes 7+ minutes into uncharted sonic territory and take the listener on a ride that’s unlike any other. In fact, of their records this one has required the most spins to fully appreciate. My favorite Oranssi Pazuzu release is still probably 2013′s Valonielu, just because it’s the one that really pulled me into their universe, but the continued mystery and detail found within Mestarin Kynsi, as an admittedly more challenging and unconventional listen, may end up being the new favorite, at least until their next album is released. Really looking forward to following this band’s trajectory, wherever it leads.

 

Orphans Of Doom - II

Orphans of DoomII (The Company)
On account of their name, you may dismiss these KC heavyweights as one of a legion of doom bands currently chug-chugging away in the world today. Yes, their music is chock full of sludgy riffs and Sabbathian influence, but the Orphans of Doom are hardly another run-of-the-mill metal band. Focusing on the more expansive and progressive elements of their Black Sabbath lineage, they keep things interesting with Matt Pike-quality riffs that twist and bend and come at you from a variety of angles, with a touch of NWOBHM-style melodic leads and some unexpected texture, like the wigged out electronic effects in “The Last of Me (The Captain)” or the vintage organ hum on “Fever Dream”. “The Ornamentalist” in particular showcases the novel way they morph and twist riffs, as the song chugs along about halfway through, methodically contorting into new shapes before circling back with a reprise of the original riff. Bringing the best prog elements and songwriting chops of Mastodon with the barbaric heft of High on Fire, this, their sophomore album, confirms that they’re one of the standout metal bands of 2020.

 

OhSees-ProteanThreat

OseesProtean Threat (Castle Face)
I remind myself with some prolific artists like John Dwyer not to get lazy about keeping up with their overwhelming deluge of output. I got lazy about keeping up with Jay Reatard’s endless stream of releases from his many bands, collaborations and solo projects thinking that the quality would eventually suffer with the quantity, but that certainly wasn’t the case and now I’d be hella stoked if he were still alive and crankin’ out killer record after killer record. Dwyer and the Osees (née Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, O.C.S. etc) had a particularly productive pandemic year with at least 7 releases by my Discogs count and of those I heard, this one definitely kept my attention the most. As onboard as I was (and still am, frankly) for sprawling double album psych releases like 2018′s Smote Reverser and 2019′s Face Stabber, Protean Threat stands as one of the stronger Osees records in recent memory because it’s highly focused and covers a lot of sonic ground within its shorter songs. Also, Dwyer’s ever-evolving songwriting chops are really flexed here, not only covering some of the righteous psychedelic rippers you’ve come to expect with the latest incarnation of the band with songs like “Gong of Catastrophe”, but reaching in some new directions like the Doors-style keyboard bop of “If I Had My Way” or the synth-heavy “Wing Ruin” that feels like it could be a lost track from an early release by The Units. In fact, there’s a bit of a ’70s fusion vibe on Protean Threat that’s a welcome addition to the Osees ouevre, making the 13 tracks here a blast to cruise through. And even if you haven’t been along for the ride lately and crave classic Thee Oh Sees lineup tunes, the spazzy staccato pounder “Dreary Nonsense” will definitely hit the spot, but in a genetically modified way that keeps it fresh. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, but I will definitely vow to tune into the Dwyer universe as often as it’s transmitting in 2021 and beyond.

 

Rubber Blanket - Our Album

Rubber BlanketOur Album (Spacecase)
The second appearance of Lars Finberg in this list, this time teamed up with members of LA’s Wounded Lion to create nervy synthpunk with vintage gear (+ saxophones!) that channels some late-70s/early 80s Bay Area outfits like The Units and Vector Command, LA’s legendary Screamers, or even the audaciousness of Nebraska’s Better Beatles. Lyrics bring a layer of fun to the otherwise chilly electro vibe, evident from the get go with a reference to The Vandal’s “Anarchy Burger” in the first track, “Scented Candle”, and the conversational rambling of “My Family” or the absurdist lecture of “Owl Vision” that chalks up the value of art against the Harry Potter franchise… or something to that effect? All I know is that I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and it still makes me smile and appreciate Our Album even more.

 

Schonwald - Abstraction

SchonwaldAbstraction (Manic Depression)
Ravenna, Italy’s dynamic duo of Alessandra Gismondi & Luca Bandini delivered their fifth album in 2020, their best yet, which is really saying something after 2017′s solid Night Idyll and their previous releases of atmospheric, shoegazing coldwave. What they’ve perfected on Abstraction is the alluring balance between the ethereal goth glaze of Gismondi’s haunting vocals with the transcendent spectral shimmer of Bandini’s guitar play, fused together with a danceable but chilly beat, bass throb, synth and effects galore. Their sound instantly washes over you and pulls you into their hypnotic trance as each element layers into an echoey haze. It’s a sound distinct enough to earn its own genre tag: Shoehaze? Coldgaze? Postwave? Whatever you want to call it, it’s a spectacular example of the possibility that lies within all those root genres and one of the most breathtaking albums unleashed in 2020.

 

Stuck - Change Is Bad

StuckChange Is Bad (Born Yesterday)
One of the other nice benefits of 2020′s Bandcamp Fridays, besides channeling money directly to artists, is that it got a chance to flex its recommendation algorithm a bit more now that people were giving it more attention. Apparently my listening habits generated a recommendation for this Chicago’s quartet’s debut album and I’m very grateful for that. Expanding from the sonic soil that sprung complex postpunk guitar greats like Drive Like Jehu, with a writhing Polvo-style guitar sound, and perhaps even a bit of Television-style dual guitar and bass interplay, Stuck keep things interesting with sharp songwriting and an earnestness across the 11 tracks of their debut LP that have made Stuck my new surprise favorite band.

 

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