2020 has been a crazy year, that much is clear. The music industry has not been immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerts and festivals have been canceled for the foreseeable future, live music shifted to an online endeavor, live venues and music stores in particular have been hit hard by the pandemic. While this year has truly been unlike any other, we did see a masterclass of music put out from artists this year. Much of this has not only made quarantining tolerable, but have been a much needed source of joy for many.
Today we would like to honor the 30 albums that in particular we felt had an impact this year. Some of the albums come from emerging artists, while others are from established acts that made triumphant returns in 2020. Regardless, these are all great entries into the alt music genre and we're happy to highlight them.
30. Duncan Fellows - The Sadlands - True to our word, Duncan Fellows' album The Sadlands has landed on our end of the year list! This album features a slick mix of alt and indie sounds that can be bright at times, while other times can be quite massive sonically. This Austin, TX group is one to watch as they're on the rise.
29. Hinds - The Prettiest Curse - An exciting, noisy, poppy album that inspires hope, The Prettiest Curse was a summer winner for Hinds. At times, it has a throwback feel to it that is so genuine, you'll feel like you've been in a time machine (see "Good Bad Times"). While it's able to cleverly nod to the past, it does keep a foot in the present, presenting an alt pop mix you'll be sure to love.
28. Bright Eyes - Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was - To the great delight to all Bright Eyes fans, they return after a decade with their tenth studio album. DITWWWTWOW can be looked back on as an ominous warning of all that 2020 was to hail, having been recorded before the pandemic hit full force in March. Since 1995, front man Conor Oberst and the Bright Eyes gang have treated fans to well arranged Pop music with the vastness of including full orchestra and choir segments along with their signature warped and blown out distortion sprinkled throughout. That familiarity rings through in this album while also expressing the Middle Age that has come for Oberst and Bright Eyes both personally and musically.
27. The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form - As the fourth studio album for the 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form also serves as the second album of their third release cycle, following A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (2018). The 1975 have always been coined as genre-hoppers, and this release is no different as it mainly focuses on dance music and electric pop. While critical acclaim for the album was polarized, there remained the general consensus that Healy’s unfiltered lyrics allow his listeners to settle into album, no matter how it differs in sound from its predecessors. It is to be expected The 1975’s fan base will only grow and they will consistently put out albums for years to come.
26. COIN - Dreamland - Alt/pop superstars COIN were busy this year releasing their Dreamland LP and their Indigo Violet EP this year. Receiving rave reviews for Dreamland, the band has continued to push themselves to greater heights. COIN has such a unique ability to make songs that just bop and are addicting to listen to. Dreamland has the same qualities and helped the band continue to build their already massive following.
25. Porridge Radio - Every Bad - Porridge Radio returned with their first release since 2016, and what an album it was. Every Bad highlighted the band's strength as an alt powerhouse. Every Bad is an indie darling sure to make many Best Of lists and for good reason. It's one of the strongest releases of the year from an emerging band that is sure to only get stronger.
24. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately - Set My Heart on Fire immediately is a champion of 2020 as it explores queer themes and pays homage to 80s pop music and is to be considered Mike Hadreas’ best work. The album appears on several “Top 50 Albums of 2020” lists including Billboard and NPR. Not much more can be said than this- go listen to the glamorous “On the Floor”.
23. Moses Sumney - Græ - Græ is one of the most unique albums to have come out in 2020. The production/writing process for the album was massive; it featured a collective group of artists which were featured. Among them were Thundercat, James Blake, and Ezra Miller, to name a few. The release was also special as this 20 track work was released as a double album. The first portion of the album was released digitally on February 21st while the second part was released with full album on May 15th. The album was preempted with a selection of singles, one of which was “Polly”; it was accompanied by a music video. Sumney recorded the video on a webcam, intently looking right into it as he cries. Once he wipes away the tears, a smile breaks across his face and the expression that remains is that of elated happiness.
22. Fleet Foxes - Shore - Fleet Foxes front man Robin Pecknold has disappeared and reappeared in the music scene over the last 15 years- one hiatus nearly 6 years long. After releasing Cracked Up in 2017 and disappearing again, he reemerged on September 21st of this year and announced Shore only one day in advance of its release, coming out on the autumnal equinox. This was a cheeky ploy by Pecknold, as the album’s themes focuses on the seasons and the elements. As their most compelling album yet, Shore was universally acclaimed.
21. Bully - SUGAREGG - After writing the music for Alex Ross’s Perry film Her Smell (2019), starring Elisabeth Moss as a strung out rocker, Alicia Bognanno releases SUGAREGG after overcoming personal issues that overshadowed its predecessor, Losing(2017). After parting ways with old bandmates and taking the time to treat her Bipolar II disorder, anxiety fell away and she took a different approach- Bognanno brought in John Congleton to engineer the album instead of doing it herself. This album re-introduces Bully as a solo project for Bognanno and while SUGAREGG projects some uncertainty from her, Bully remains a tried and true.
20. Diet Cig - Do You Wonder About Me? - Diet Cig are a band that has perfected an infectious indie/pop sound that is sure to make you want to move. However, there are moments where they can downright rock (see "Flash Flood") into a garage rock feel. This versatility and the strength of Do You Wonder About Me? Has landed them firmly in our Top 30 for this year. Give them a listen. You won't regret it.
19. Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor - Petals for Armor is the first solo album for Williams on her hiatus from Paramore. On the album, Williams explains:
“Some of my proudest moments as a lyricist happened while writing Petals for Armor. And I was able to get my hands a little dirtier than usual when it came to instrumentation. I’m in a band with my favorite musicians so I never really feel the need to step into a role as a player when it comes to Paramore records. This project, however, benefited from a little bit of musical naïveté and rawness and so I experimented quite a bit more.”
Whether or not there will be another Paramore album might be uncertain, but Williams is doing just fine on her own.
18. beabadoobee - Fake it Flowers - beabadoobee, or Bea Kristi is a 90’s fueled cinema lover who writes songs for movies that play in her head. Most known for her song coffee and the remix with Powfu, Fake it Flowers is a force to reckoned with as a debut album. At only 20 years old she made the Billboard “Top US Top Rock Albums” at number 28. She will be starting her Europe tour on September 7th, 2021 at The Ritz in Manchester.
17. The Killers - Imploding the Mirage - Legendary alt superstars The Killers returned in August with their first album in three years Imploding the Mirage. The band as always shows continued evolution in their sound, while keeping a foot in the familiar to satisfy their legions of fans. Imploding the Mirage is another entry into the band's already illustrious catalog.
16. Gorillaz - Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez - Song Machine, Season One, Strange Timez is the collection of songs released from web series consisting of music videos and featuring different guest artists. This massive project solidifies Gorillaz as master of beats and more relevant than ever. The project was a critical success and must be experienced to really understand just how large the vision and the world Gorillaz have built really is. This also marked the return of the fictional character Murdoc Niccals, who was absent from 2018’s The Now Now.
15. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit reminded folks of why they're alt/country royalty in 2020 with the release of Reunions. Isbell and Co. gave us a ten song tour de force with the album, including highlights such as "Be Afraid", "What've I Done to Help", "Dreamsicle", and "It Gets Easier". While these tracks are particularly strong, Reunions is one that is best to just start at the beginning and play it through.
14. Ray LaMontagne - MONOVISION - To say we were disappointed in LaMontagne's 2018 release Part of the Light was an understatement. We've documented this repeatedly on Alt Revue. That said, LaMontagne's release of MONOVISION restored what makes LaMontagne one of music's most unique artists. It put the spotlight back on his incomparable vocals! MONOVISION was a return to form for the alt/folk master.
13. Peach Pit - You and Your Friends - In a year of the mundane, You and Your Friends is the perfect breakup album. It is moody, it iss self-loathing while also being catchy. What is not to love? There has not been a lot talk about this album so let’s freakin’ talk about. The most popular song is about the objects and visuals cues that are left behind in a relationship. A true homage to life imitating art. With that said, enjoy these lyrics from “Shampoo Bottles”.
“I’ve been seeing that red Corolla parked out on the corner there / If it were yours, there’d be some hippie bullshit hanging from the rearview mirror”.
12. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall II - My Morning Jacket was another band that returned in 2020 with their album The Waterfall II. The Waterfall II is comprised of songs that were not included on their 2015 release The Waterfall. However, its selling this album short to frame these songs as merely castoffs from another album. Rather, The Waterfall II is a poignant continuation of the band's psychedelic tinged rock journey and we are certainly along for the ride.
11. Nada Surf - Never Not Together - Another band that returned in 2020, Nada Surf released Never Not Together, their first LP since 2016's You Know Who You Are. Never Not Together is just another example of why Nada Surf might just be one of the most underrated bands in music. Never Not Together was an achievement for the band that consistently seems to put out strong work from top to bottom. If you missed this one earlier this year, get on board now.
10. The Strokes - The New Abnormal - Perhaps the largest band to make a comeback this year was none other than The Strokes. The New Abnormal represents the band's first release in seven years and we can say that the indie scene missed them. The Strokes got a little experimental on this one with tracks that eschew the typical indie sound, but also provided some of the familiar with their selections. The New Abnormal crushed when it dropped and is deserving of a spot on this list.
09. Run the Jewels - RTJ4 - Run the Jewels 4 is the best RTJ album and some of the best work Killer Mike and El-P have ever put out. The masterwork of Killer Mike as a lyricist is proven as he takes a hard stand against racism and systematic poverty. With the turmoil that took place all across the United States this summer, this album served as the soundtrack for everyone who took a stance for a moral, political, and social revolution. RTJ4 earned its place at number 10 on the Billboards “Top 200”.
08. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud - Saint Cloud is a unrelenting self-examination of singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield. She examines a period of time after which she chose to get sober and takes listeners on a journey throughout the album. The ride is intimate, raw, and important. This is can't miss stuff from Waxahatchee.
07. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush - The Slow Rush is easily one of the most anticipated albums of 2020- especially after Tame Impala mastermind, Kevin Parker, announced its release in October of 2019. After topping charts at number 4 in 2015, Currents is still an album heard often and is still relevant in the mainstream. To continually put out works that are opuses and staples in the musical repertoire of many is no easy feat. To understand Parker’s form and mode of conceptualizing to figure out his out his modes of writing would be a labor he would not want from any of his fans. He himself has said:
"I don't want to labor over music. More and more, that's becoming a quality of music that I'm allergic to.”
So, do not labor. Sit back and enjoy.
06. Fionna Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fetch the Bolt Cutters comes is Apple’s first release in almost 8 years. It was well worth the wait. When they say “You can’t rush art”- this is what they are talking about. This album serves as a meditation on the use of percussion. Apple uses her voice as an instrument, commenting:
"I have fun with my voice, but I'm not trying to make it pretty all the time. I'm not trying to convince anybody I'm a singer. It just turned out to be another instrument".
The album is applauded by critics to sound like no other music and serves as a subversion of Pop music with its industrial like percussion sounds. Apple snagged herself a nomination for Best Alternative Music and “Shameika” was nominated for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards
05. Phantogram - Ceremony - Ceremony is Phantogram’s strangest albums. As they’ve more into the mainstreamed they seemed to have strayed from their true dark pop identities. At this album’s quietest moments is when they are most themselves; an example of this is “Glowing”. Despite its strangeness, this album demands a listen.
04. The Weeknd - After Hours - After Hours is distinctly different from its predecessor Starboy (2016). Stylistically, the Weeknd has experimented greatly, but his new psychedelic sounds seems like a good home for him. His music videos have always told stories and this new sound/persona is inspired by films such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Joker (2019) , Casino (1995), and Uncut Gems (2019) which he had a small cameo as himself. All these films have bright colors and harshly color graded cinematography. Maybe it is a little insight that we are only seeing what he wants us to see. After all, he has led a fairly private life. The mystery continues.
03. Soccer Mommy - color theory - Soccer Mommy returned for her second album color theory and we have to say that it was an even stronger effort than her acclaimed 2018 release Clean. Sophie Allison was everywhere this year, including playing supporting roles for Bernie rallies, to collaborating with alt superstars on remixes of her tracks. color theory was one of our absolute favorite releases of the year and maintained a spot in our rotation list throughout 2020.
02. MISSIO - Can You Feel the Sun - MISSIO's release Can You Feel the Sun shows continued growth for a band that is so excitingly spectacular, that you wonder how they can improve. The album rocked October and is full of bangers throughout, while also tackling serious issues such as isolation and depression. The MISSIO Mafia was grateful to receive this one from the Austin, TX natives, as it's been crushing it on alt radio countdowns.
01. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher - 2020 musically was the year of Phoebe Bridgers as she continued her success with the release of her sophomore album Punisher. She graced covers of magazines throughout the year, held massive livestreams, and was nominated for several Grammy Awards. Punisher is such a great release from the talented singer/songwriter as she may be the most talented lyricist in music today.
We hope you enjoyed our countdown of our favorite albums of 2020! Be sure to share your thoughts with us and have a great rest of your 2020!