At times, putting together this list felt like a futile, ridiculous effort. After all, this isn’t 1995, when Rolling Stone could pretend that only white guys making rawk music qualified for their annual honors. The field is wide open now and the boundary between obscure critical darling and mainstream monster has blurred beyond recognition.
Somehow, music publications think they can and should rank hip-hop stars, polished pop icons, broke and broken indie troubadours and avant-garde artists under the same creative criteria. I’m not gonna even try to act like this is, in any way, a comprehensive list. To pretend that I have a handle on all the music out there would be dishonest and trying to make side-by-side comparisons on ridiculously divergent styles is just asking for trouble.
I can, however, assemble my own personal list, in the hope that you, dear reader, may find it useful. I have collected here 20 of my favorite indie records of 2020.
P.S. — Yes, I understand that Fiona Apple is missing, and yes, I’m sure that album will be remembered as a masterpiece. I just couldn’t get into it. Sorry…
A veritable buzz kid just a few years ago, Aaron Maine’s last two releases as Porches — including this year’s Ricky Music — haven’t quite resonated as much with indie rock’s always fickle critics. I have no idea why; the noirish synth hooks and glassy guitars he’s always brandished are here in full, enthralling effect, including the trembly, Guided By Voices-inspired “PFB” (a 33-second ditty that repeats the mantra, “It’s looking pretty fucking dad,”) and the woozy “Hair,” which contains the priceless snippet, “I’m kinda pretty/kinda busted too.” The real capper on this album is “rangerover,” an insanely catchy and immediate burst of vocally-altered energy.
Strange to Explain
Woods is one of those low-key prolific bands, seemingly guaranteed to produce an album each year (a rate of production even more impressive considering frontman Jeremy Earl also runs Woodsist, one of the best indie labels around.) Some albums — like 2010’s At Echo Lake — are paragons of psych folk rock, while others tend to fade into the background without much fanfare. Strange to Explain is their strongest effort in years, with Earl’s high-pitched howls providing immediacy on an album filled with moss-covered vignettes, including highlight cuts like the title track and the mesmeric “Where Do You Go When You Dream.”
As the years roll along, each music era seems to get the rose-tinted glasses treatment, with increasingly kind reflections paid to previously lambasted fads. For example, maybe certain radio-ruling, capital-A-Alternative ’90s bands like the Goo Goo Dolls, Semisonic, and Third Eye Blind weren’t that bad? Sophia Allison, the brain trust behind Soccer Mommy seems to think so. In her stellar 2018 debut, she mined the brittle rawness of artists like Liz Phair and Sleater-Kinney, but in her sophomore effort she cleans up the mix for a more radio-friendly effect. The songs have more of a sheen to them, but Allison’s withering self-assessments remain, like when she dryly notes that she’s “been falling apart these days,” on the enchanting alt-rock hymn “circle the drain.”
Hit to Hit
This album answers a critical question: What if Robert Pollard wasn’t a heroic drunk, but instead a lovestruck, heart-on-his-sleeve bard? Employing the Guided By Voices’ frontman’s philosophy that every idea is a good one and songs longer than two minutes are bloated messes, this Philadelphia band blows through 24 cuts in a scant 41 minutes on their sophomore album. Fans of Big Star, the Magnetic Fields and Yo La Tengo will appreciate the group’s sensitive songwriting approach, which comes in forms of power pop (“Boys in Heat”), alt-country (“100 Hrs”), and lo-fi fuzz rock (“Jazz Chorus”).
Snarls is what the Vivian Girls would be if they swapped their uber-cool Brooklyn insouciance for wide-eyed Midwestern verve. Snarls share their predecessors penchant for propulsive, kiss-off tempos, but infuse those licks with a wholesome earnestness. The Columbus, Ohio quartet’s songs hit hard, but there is a no-frills, steadfast nature to each track, with frontwoman Chlo White snapping out pieces of wounded prose. In an interview with Stereogum, White attributed the band’s name to the visceral reaction of a loyal dog — as in “don’t fuck with my friends or I’ll snarl at you.” Each song on the album contains that ethos. Snarls will proudly tell you how they feel.
The Flaming Lips
Ultimate survivors, The Flaming Lips have lived about 10 different existences, ranging from unexpected MTV heroes to atmospheric indie rock icons to abrasive contrarians (seriously, listen to 2009’s masterpiece Embryonic, a challenging and rewarding album from a band under no obligation to make such art.) With American Head, the band seems to have come full circle, returning to the sound that defined their late-’90s and early aughts glory days. The formula perfected with The Soft Bulletin still works: Wayne Coyne’s weary, Neil Young-on-acid vocals combined with Steven Drozd’s planet-building atmospherics. However, instead of talking about interstellar torment, Coyne delves into the daily lives of people in the margins of small-town Americana, shaped in large part by his experience growing up in Oklahoma.
Heaven To A Tortured Mind
After stunning everyone with a whirling, ambient IDM album (2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love), Yves Tumor (a.k.a. Sean Bowie), returned this year as a full-on fucking rock star. Heaven To A Tortured Mind is loud, assertive and noisy and recalls a certain a diminutive Purple God. Songs like “Medicine Burn” hit you straight in the face from the start, pummeling the ears with Prince-inspired guitar work and skronky rhythms. Other tunes, like “Hasdallen Lights,” are slinky, sexy affairs that would mesh perfectly on Purple Rain, while tracks such as “Kerosene!” show an audaciousness not witnessed since Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson walked this earth.
Has there even been a more apt opening declaration than the one delivered by Porridge Bad’s unstoppable Dana Margolin on Every Bad? She kicks off this English rock quartet’s fearless album by stating unequivocally that she’s “bored to death/let’s argue” — a rallying cry if there ever was one for these politically divisive, pandemically malaised times. With Margolin at the controls, Every Bad reads as a refreshing fuck you to all the malignant actors making headlines today.
Nation of Language
There is a reason that Nation of Language’s debut album has songs titled “The Motorist” and “Automobile” (one of the best tracks of the year). This is driving music — the kind of tunes that soundtrack your dusk-laden trips outside of the city, just as the urban lights give way to the dark and lush landscapes of nature. All the great ’80s synth and art rock bands are reference points here, from New Order to Soft Cell to Talking Heads (hell, there are even some Devo flourishes), but this Brooklyn-based trio is way too confident and in control to feel derivative.
I was a late arrival to this D.C.-via-Oklahoma songwriter, but damn I am all caught up now. Bridging the gap that we didn’t know existed between Bon Iver and Thundercat (okay, maybe that’s TV on the Radio), Bartees Strange (the stage name of Bartees Cox Jr.) eviscerates genre boundaries, effortlessly exploring hip-hop, jazz, stripped-down folk and powerful indie rock tunes. Much is said nowadays about playlist rock — music that touches upon all the various options available on Spotify — but few artists wield that tenuous approach more adeptly and genuinely than Bartees Strange.
Dan Snaith is one of the genuine good guys in the indie game, and he can always be counted on to deliver the goods, which should make it no surprise that Suddenly is one of the stronger efforts of the year. An evocative collection of art-rock and synth-pop tunes, the album is steeped in icy, frigid environs. From the blue album cover to the aqueous, sonic landscapes, Suddenly feels like ice skating on a perilously thin surface, with each track producing a sense of alien warmth — the kind that comes when you’re experiencing hypothermia. It is an entrancing, hypnotizing mix that invites you to stick around for a while, despite all your best intentions.
For sure, Fleet Foxes are not for everyone. Songwriter Robin Pecknold comes off as a little too precious, and the whole bucolic folk thing is tiring for some, but based on beauty alone, no one can touch this venerable Seattle act. Pecknold’s clarion-call voice is an instrument unto itself and he never sounds more blissful and vulnerable than on songs like “Young Man’s Game” “It’s Not My Season” and “Can I Believe You.” Few bands transport you to a specific place like Fleet Foxes — their songs are windswept, pastoral and flecked with pieces of sea salt. It’s all a little ridiculous, but after the four years of cynical alt-right memes, I’ll take Pecknold’s borderline twee sentimentality over Josh Tillman’s jaundiced, sardonic pessimism most days.
It feels almost masochistic to reminisce upon music that arrived before the pandemic, when everything wasn’t FUCKED (OK, it’s not like early 2020 was utopian.) But revisiting the uplifting and confessional surf rock music of Beach Bunny’s Honeymoon (released in February), serves as a wonderful reminder of the days when we could expunge our sins and revel together simply by escaping to a dingy punk club. Frontwoman Lili Trifilio’s songs are direct and simple — mostly of the heartbreak variety — but there is profundity in her poetry. Plus, these songs are just fucking fun.
If you like your post-punk extra post-punk-y, then Moaning is the band for you. The synths have just the right amount of glide, the guitars stab in all right parts (I will not use the term “angular,” thank you very much), and the vocals have the requisite sense of dispassionate detachment. This criminally underrated Los Angeles trio led by frontman Sean Solomon has been producing good music for years and Uneasy Laughter has mostly flown under the radar in 2020, but ignore this album at your own peril. Few bands have mastered the beguiling rock mixture of analog and synthetic quite like Moaning.
Microphones in 2020
He reached peak persona non grata status in 2020, but it would be a disservice to say that Mark Kozelek didn’t change the game a little bit with Benji, his 2014 release under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. With that album, Kozolek set the oft-copied template for observational dad rock, a theme that Phil Elverum explores with much more emotional depth and nuance on Microphones in 2020. A single 44-minute epic track comprises the album — the first released with the Microphones name in 17 years — as Elverum looks back on his career as an indie musician, touching upon all the highlights and tragedies in his typically candid fashion. As he takes us on that winding voyage, waves of feedback and dissonance ebb in and out, serving as a sort of topographical emotional legend for our trip.
The New Abnormal
Look, the Strokes are my favorite band of all time, so like any fanboy, the last 15 or so years of this band have been somewhat
very frustrating. Much has been said upon the disappointing returns of 2011’s Angles and 2013’s Comedown Machine (although, in appreciation, Angles’ has the best Strokes song ever made, “Under Cover of Darkness” and both releases make their once-maligned predecessor, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth look great in comparison), so expectations were surely muted for The New Abnormal. But this album is fucking great — from shameless ’80s rock rip offs (“Bad Decisions,” essentially a copy of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” but who cares), to trippy synth tracks (“At The Door”) to refreshingly poignant love ballads (“Selfless”), The New Abnormal proves once again that songwriter Julian Casablancas is a one-of-a-kind talent who cares nothing for convention.
It seems a little fucked up to compare a young songwriter to a crotchety living legend, but shit, Katie Crutchfield is making some kind of run at Bob Dylan with her newest release as Waxahatchee. Saint Cloud is a wordy, verbose undertaking, but the cerebral approach does nothing to diminish the cathartic emotional heft of this album. Like her folk-rock forefather, Crutchfield isn’t afraid to use words like quell, dilettante, or coalesce in her lyrics, yet ultimately her songs are plaintive, direct paeans to love and relationships. You can’t get more straightforward than saying “I’ll love you till the day I die,” which Crutchfield does to a devastating degree on “Can’t Do Much,” or, in an opposing sentiment, when she utters mordantly that she’ll “put you through hell,” (from “Hell.”) Whether going high with flowery language or low with barely-veiled threats, Crutchfield’s moral compass stays true. Elevating the deliveries are an intoxicating mix of pedal steels, plinking pianos, and understated guitar work, creating a rustic, idyllic setting for her redolent storytelling.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
For those of us who came to love Perfume Genius (nee’ Mike Hadreas) during his earlier career as a barebones, trembling piano troubadour, hearing his ever-evolving work has been quite the journey. Nothing, however, could quite prepare us for Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, an album that features everything from buoyant dancefloor pop creations to baroque ruminations to industrial dirges to formless avant-garde compositions. Hadreas addresses issues of self-worth, body image, and acceptance in this tour-de-force album, highlighted by the punishing “Describe,” a weighty, distorted number that signifies Hadreas’ days as a wailful wallflower are now officially over.
Stranger in the Alps, the masterful 2017 album from Phoebe Bridgers represented just about the most fully-formed debut one could imagine for a singer-songwriter, while simultaneously setting a ridiculously high bar. Somehow, the 26-year-old California native has topped it with Punisher, an endlessly inventive album that harkens back to the glory days of early aughts indie rock. Perhaps inspired by her collaborative work in Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, Bridgers reaches new creative heights, tapping into weepy tales of fallen idols (“Punisher”), wistful pop adventures (“Kyoto”), and declarative, kitchen-sink epics (“I Know The End.”) At the moment, no one’s voice is more confident and omnipresent as Bridgers, perhaps indie rock’s most influential musician.
Flower of Devotion
It’s always inspiring when a promising band makes the Big Leap Forward. The first two releases from this Chicago garage rock trio were lovingly low-stakes affairs, ramshackle and unsteady albums where the guitar licks felt like elbows to the ribs and the minimalist drumming stayed at levels just enough to keep the ship from keeling over. For Flower of Devotion, co-lead vocalists Emily Kempf and Jason Balla tighten up their harmonies and rein in their guitar and bass work without losing the lo-fi nature that made their earlier work so earnest and approachable (this is what the Black Lips would sound like if they ever truly got their shit together.) Former romantic partners, Kempf and Balla’s songs are ostensibly about heartbreak and grief, but they are infused with a survivalist creed, praising the power of moving on. Their androgynous deliveries add to the universal element of their message, and Kempf in particular owns this album with her ridiculously confident deliveries of defiance. The results are two-minute indie-rock nuggets that pack an album’s worth of emotive material. Even drummer Eric McGrady gets into the songwriting mix, contributing the painfully self-aware number “Apart,” a delicate treatise on aging that might actually be the best song on the album. His addition fits in perfectly on an album that views each emotional battle scar as a point of pride, each flaw as a fact of life and each failure as an opportunity to start anew.