Much of 2020 was awful but the new music released in this Year of Endless Sorrows™ wasn’t. To celebrate, rather than posting one single article about the year in music, I’m going to post a new piece each day this week. Monday through Thursday will cover my four favorite albums of the year and Friday will provide a list of additional new releases that I’ve enjoyed in 2020, a year that—despite one or two really great moments—can go ahead and just end already.
Presented in alphabetical order.
Best known as the singer-songwriter who released two out of a (facietiously) promised 50 state-themed albums, Sufjan Stevens ditched the acoustics and went full electronica for an early 2020 release titled Aporia. Because that album was a collaboration with Lowell Brams, Stevens’ stepfather and business partner, it was easy to chalk it up to a one-off oddity. Then, six months later, he released The Ascension and it became apparent that Stevens and his folksy sensibilities had tumbled into the digital code of Kid A. That weird mix works and I would imagine that The Ascension marks a unique jumping off point for an artist that appears very ready to explore new sonic landscapes.
Bent sounds like Moving Mountains’ 2013 self-titled LP and feels like walking across campus with your head down, a scarf pulled tight to keep out the damp fog. It’s a dreary record filled with the kind of self-contained emotional turmoil that, like Bent‘s thrumming guitars, smolders with deep passion while never burning too hot. The album churns with heavy, shadowy motion, carrying the listener to a satisfaction that Bent‘s narrators never seem to find. “I left you on the other side,” the album ends, capturing the dark journey in one swift line.
2020 has been so relentlessly bleak that every carefree piece of art has come to feel extraterrestrial because where else is anyone feeling carefree? The appropriately named Big Vibe gives off summer rock, uh, vibes that fall somewhere between A Will Away’s Here Again and everything that was on the radio in 1998, including the proto-pop-punk and the boy bands. It’s fun as hell and exactly the kind of thing that I’ll be spinning every summer from here on out.
I didn’t need any more Four Year Strong in my life. 2007’s Rise or Die Trying was and remains the pinnacle of a certain kind of rambunctious, hyper-energetic pop punk and, just as I gave up on screamo after Define the Great Line perfected the genre, leaving no room for anything better in its wake, I pretty well gave up on Four Year Strong and their contemporaries after Rise. For more than a decade, that was the right call. But Brain Pain, released in February, has overcome that personal embargo to win a share of my 2020 listening time. Is there anything truly new here for Four Year Strong? No, not really. But something about this record sparks in a way that none of their intervening releases have and goddamn if doesn’t make you want to air drum and sing along.
It’s been almost 20 years—more than half my life!—since I was screaming the words to “Commerce, TX” in tiny bars and finding pieces of my soul uncovered by “In Other Words.” While I’ve listened to all of his releases since then, no Ben Kweller album has meant half as much to me as his debut, Sha Sha. (2006’s self-titled was pretty great, though.) Circuit Boredom doesn’t quite climb to the nostalgic heights of Sha Sha but it makes a strong case for being his second best album—at the very least, “Starz” has definitely claimed a place among his best songs—and it’s certainly his most aggressive album to date, with crunching guitars, wailing vocals and healthy smattering of f-bombs. Can we end this pandemic already? I wanna go sing along at a Ben Kweller concert again.
The cover of Devastator depicts an outdoor wedding being dwarfed by a volcanic smoke plume so we can just go ahead and send that to the Guggenheim for their inevitable “Images of 2020” exhibition. The photo proves a fitting metaphor for an album that sounds like it should be played at a wedding—if you’re engaged: 1) Congratulations; 2) Save the big party for next year or the one after that; and 3) Go ahead and pencil in “Only One” for your cocktail hour playlist—while the lyrics often reflect the melancholy of being Phantom Planet’s first breakup album.
Taylor Swift’s pandemic album is muted and sparse. Sometimes that means the record drags a bit because even the best-intentioned piano ballads can become wearisome after an hour, and folklore clears that runtime by several minutes. At its best, though, folklore is a really wonderful piece of modern pop and tracks like “the 1” and “peace” stand out as among the best that Swift has ever written.
Have you seen Stranger Things? Of course you’ve seen Stranger Things. Well, Horror Show sounds like if someone took the eerie, synth-heavy instrumentals from Stranger Things and turned them into a 24-minute synthwave EP that closes with a shockingly fitting cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” The vocals are smooth, the vibe is exceedingly ’80s and the hooks will get in your brain like the Mind Flayer.
Sara Bareilles is at her best when she’s ripping uptempo melodies over solidly constructed pop songs. When she dials the tempo and energy down, she’s still capable of writing classics, though the success rate drops a bit. More Love, a collection of songs originally written for the Apple+ show Little Voice that Bareilles has reimagined here, stays exclusively in that subdued register. Though the album lags a bit in its later tracks, the A-side is strong enough to justify listening.
Caspian is the only (mostly) instrumental post-rock band that can reasonably make a claim to holding comparable acclaim to genre kings Explosions in the Sky. (Until the day I die, I’ll keep arguing that Tides of Man’s Young & Courageous is the genre’s best entry, though.) That prestige is well deserved and Caspian has been turning out fantastic records for more than a decade. As great as Waking Season is, though, On Circles is their best record, delivering peak versions of the band’s aggression (“Collapser”) and their understated beauty (“Circles on Circles”).
Pink Elephant is the next evolution of what was once pop punk. The album seems formed out of the raw material of Paramore’s Riot!, baked under the synthwave-adjacent work of The 1975 and then topped with a light smattering of post-hardcore edge. The result is that Pink Elephant sounds like the future to me, even as I’m listening to it right now in the present. And I love that. If this is what the future sounds like—all crunchy hooks and big, swooping vocals—then bring it on because Pink Elephant is excellent.
Tyson Motsenbocker’s debut LP, Letters to Lost Loves, seemed designed to break your heart and his sterling EP Almira seemed intent on rebuilding it, even if that process was painful in its grace. Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You follows down that path and though it doesn’t reach the highs of its predecessors, it’s still a warm and inviting listen. The albums focuses on what to do with that rebuilt heart of yours and, for all he’s been through, Motsenbocker seems optimistic. “A new day’s coming,” he sings, “and I don’t wanna be scared no more.”
Off Road Minivan is a guitar rock band which by itself makes them a band misplaced in time. They don’t incorporate synths or studio wizardry or any other contemporary affectations, instead doubling down on riffs, melodies and pounding drums. Theirs is a classic sound and they do it as well as anyone, much like of some of the best pre-Light We Made work of Balance and Composure. Swan Dive continues what Off Road Minivan started with their excellent 2018 EP Spiral Gaze; both should be heard by fans of that delightfully archaic beast known as guitar rock.
I called PUP’s Morbid Stuff one of the two best albums of 2019 so it makes sense that This Place Sucks Ass, an EP largely composed of B-sides from that recording session, would be great. The EP’s sonic high point stretches from the crescendoing outro of “Nothing Changes” through the aggressive dissonance of “Floodgates.” But the album’s greatest artistic merit lies in the lyrics to the violent finale, “Edmonton.” After missing a funeral while on tour for The Dream Is Over, an album including the song “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will”, PUP frontman Stephan Babcock penned two haunting stanzas that are as brilliant as they are painful.
Tangible Problems entered my life and threw me into a past that did not truly exist. From the first moment I heard this record, I was vividly reminded of a band from when I was in high school. Or was it college? Or maybe middle school? Tangible Problems reminded me of a band that I used to listen to, but I could not put my finger on which band that was and, for weeks at a time, this mental gap consumed me. (Shoutout to my friends Bob and Jim who helped solve the mystery.) It turns out my memory was doing double duty—the imagined past that Topiary Creatures had awoken in me was a Frankenstein combination of The Reunion Show’s Kill Your Television and “Straight Ahead at the End of the Court,” the Zella Mayzel single whose video should have won an Oscar for its cutting teardown of the early-2000s emo scene. Even if the memory it fabricated wasn’t, Tangible Problems is for real. I look forward to misremembering it fondly in the future.
Like Sara Bareilles, PVRIS is at their best when they’re pushing the volume and the tempo. (Comparisons like that are the content you come here for.) And just as Bareilles downshifted into a lower gear for More Love, PVRIS has substantially mellowed on Use Me. There’s nothing here as emphatically memorable as half the tracks on White Noise, but Use Me is still compelling from beginning to end with “Stay Gold” and “January Rain” standing out as the best iterations of this newfound sound.
As far as I can tell, there simply aren’t any other bands that sounds quite like Violent Joy and their debut, self-titled EP which focuses on soulful vocals and rich instrumentation. Perfect summer jam “Bored to Tears” is the EP’s best song but the release is defined by “1000 Gods” and its unique vibe of late-stage emo by way of the congregation, particularly as Ryan Hunter sultrily wonders, “Who’s gonna be your lord and savior? Who’ll save you, be your truth and light? Who’s gonna be there when all hope is gone?” I don’t know the answers but I can’t stop listening to the questions.
When I tell you that Women in Music Pt. III is the least accessible and radio-friendly of HAIM’s three albums, you should know that the record begins with a saxophone solo and that’s not even what I’m talking about, really. This is not a complaint. HAIM is still capable of the sort of uptempo, hook-laden bops that brought them fame—“The Steps” totally rips—but with Women in Music Pt. III HAIM soften their approach and focus on mid-tempo, low-key jams. It works. From beginning to end, including three excellent bonus tracks, Women in Music Pt. III is a simmering success.