Most things about 2020 sucked, but not the music.
With the live music world at a complete standstill, musicians had a lot of free time on their hands in 2020.
A terrible year brought forth great albums by many of pop's biggest names; Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Megan Thee Stallion, BTS, and Lady Gaga each put out a record (or two!) this year, just to name a few. But in the shadows of all those major-label releases, there was a quiet storm of independent bands, singer-songwriters, and rappers, all coping with 2020's terrors by doing what they do best: making some music.
Below, we've rounded up just 20 of our favorite overlooked albums that came out this year (or in the last couple weeks of 2019). Hopefully, this'll be enough to hold you over until concerts at your favorite local music venue can safely return.
KeiyaA, Forever, Ya Girl
On her debut album Forever, Ya Girl, Brooklyn-via-Chicago upstart KeiyaA offers her own inventive take on R&B. Mixing elements of experimental hip-hop with flourishes of psychedelic funk, KeyiaA meditates on loneliness, inviting you to make sense of your own self-reflections in the process.
Short Fictions, Fates Worse Than Death
Released at the very end of 2019, Fates Worse Than Death seemed to forebode one of the darkest times in modern history. But Pittsburgh indie band Short Fictions used their debut record to highlight topics like climate change and gentrification—issues that, like pandemics, impact marginalized communities most severely. Over twinkly guitar riffs, Fates Worse Than Death is a soundtrack for a harsh reality.
Hook, Crashed My Car
Hook's Crashed My Car is tailor-made for all messy house parties that couldn't happen. In collaboration with rising DIY producer Nedarb—perhaps best known for his collaborations with the late Lil Peep—the young California rapper has made a name for herself with raspy delivery, and an infectious spunk. Though the woozy, distorted instrumentals of Crashed My Car might feel like a stone's throw from "SoundCloud rap," Hook's whip-smart lyrics and solid choruses set her miles ahead of the pack.
Ratboys, Printer’s Devil
Chicago band Ratboys tightened and solidified their sound on Printer's Devil, a power pop record boasting bold riffs and a catchiness reminiscent of '90s groups like the Breeders. Its lyrics evoke the confusion of young adulthood, realizing in hindsight that the tribulations of adolescence never truly go away—they only adapt with you. Wistful and heartwarming, Printer's Devil is a contemporary take on tried-and-true alt formulas.
Empty Country, Empty Country
Empty Country is the new solo project of Joseph D'Agostino, frontman of the now-defunct New Jersey band Cymbals Eat Guitars. His debut under the new name is a refreshing dose of Americana-lite that aches with grief and anxiety towards an uncertain future. Empty Country is brimming with heartbreaking lore, such as a miner who envisions his daughter's future after his inevitable death, or a man waiting for his wife's biopsy results. And though most, if not all, of these tales are fictitious, D'Agnostino's nuanced writing strikes a delicate nerve.
The sound of London band Sorry is a bit tricky to pin down. A cocktail of post-punk, indie rock, jazz, and pop, their debut album 925 is a chaotic whirlwind in the best way possible. Helmed by the witty lyrics and often jarring voice of Asha Lorenz, the album's songs are full of irreverent, unapologetic attitude. Albeit unusual on paper, Sorry still manage to pull you in to all their music's idiosyncrasies.
Chicago band Deeper are one of the most promising acts to emerge from the post-punk craze's latest iteration. With sparkling synths, forward-moving drums, and nimble riffs, the band's new album Auto-Pain evokes the complex, erratic energy of post-punk greats like Devo and Wire. The record ruminates on self-care in the context of all-consuming depression, and as Deeper hope to make peace with themselves, the album envelops you in its intricacies.
Floral Tattoo, You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start
Though released before quarantine began, You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start is an album fit for feeling stagnant as time passes by. The latest record by Seattle band Floral Tattoo might deal with frustrations of mundane service jobs and crappy apartments, but as a whole, its tight musicality advances it beyond tired adolescent angst.
Trace Mountains, Lost In the Country
Though he rose to local prominence as founding member of the beloved New York band LVL UP, Dave Benton seemed like he was losing himself. On Lost In the Country, the latest album under his solo moniker Trace Mountains, Benton attempts to make sense of his place in the world—or his own personal world, at least—over brisk guitar rock, inspired by his recent move from Brooklyn to the quaint Hudson Valley. Rather than moping about the "could've beens," Lost In the Country acts as a how-to guide for shaping your own reality.
Stay Inside, Viewing
Floating somewhere between post-hardcore, emo, and shoegaze is Brooklyn's Stay Inside, whose music grips with trauma and potential dangers of the outside world—public heath crises aside. Alternating between bombastic, sweltering chords and calmer moments, Viewing is just as dynamic and ambitious as it is refreshingly cathartic.
Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
In a music industry so fraught with sexism and racism, Lido Pimienta's Miss Colombia acts as a fierce reclamation of her crown. The Colombia-born, Canada-raised musician's latest album is a fusion of pop-adjacent genres, held together by a core of Afro-Colombian influences. Though the album's mostly Spanish lyrics convey anger, its layered, heavily-detailed instrumentation gives the music a hopeful edge.
Musician and general artistic polyglot NNAMDÏ is a man with endless personas. His latest album BRAT leaps between rock, synth-pop, and everywhere in-between, all with the elegance of someone hopelessly devoted to their craft. But behind every restless artist are moments of self-doubt; for each moment NNAMDÏ soars, there's another in which he second-guesses his entire trajectory. This gives BRAT a sense of semi-autobiographical charm, in all its thrilling moments.
Yaya Bey, Madison Tapes
It's clear just from peering at the track titles of Yaya Bey's third album, Madison Tapes, that its delineate life in small, yet heartbreaking moments, like when you decide to unfollow a former fling on social media, or when you long to share the excitement of a job promotion with a partner. A collection of intimate, DIY neo-soul, Madison Tapes is Yaya Bey's own interpretation of breakup songs.
Disheveled Cuss, Disheveled Cuss
Nick Reinhart's solo project, Disheveled Cuss, is a self-described attempt at making "normal songs"—whatever that means when you're also the guitarist of math rockers Tera Melos. While Disheveled Cuss bears tinges of the austere experimentation that built Tera Melos' legacy, this album entwines those frenzies rhythms and guitar lines with more accessible power pop. While Reinhart's skill as a guitarist has always been evident, Disheveled Cuss outlines irrefutable evidence of his songwriting chops, too.
MIKE, weight of the world
After losing his mother last year, 21-year-old MC MIKE channels his grief into his latest project, weight of the world. With off-kilter beats and a flow undoubtedly inspired by MF DOOM, the album reflects on his childhood and rise to underground prominence.
With her project Bully, grunge rock revivalist Alicia Bognanno is an expert in gritty howls, sticky hooks, and the best of noisy '90s guitar pop. There's no shortage of any of that on her latest album, SUGAREGG, which feels like a freewheeling trip to self-discovery. Across the album's songs, Bognanno sings of past lovers, societal norms, and advice she wishes she'd heard sooner. Altogether, it's a delight to join her on the ride.
Yankee Bluff, Everybody Hits
Depending who you ask, Yankee Bluff could be considered a supergroup. The duo's members are both best known for their work in emo revival bands that broke up too soon: Algernon Cadwallader's Peter Helmis and Snowing's Nate Dionne. On the debut album from their new band Yankee Bluff, you won't find the twinky riffs or strained yells of their former bands. Everybody Hits instead sees the pair explore lo-fi indie rock with a punk flair.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland
Transmissions might not be new, per se, but it's a well-rounded introduction to an incredibly influential composer. Blending jazz, new age, folk, the compilation album attempts to summarize the decades-spanning career of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who—in addition to being considered one of the best in his field—also became a fixture in the Black trans community. Due to the often autobiographical nature of his music, Transmissions details heartbreak, dissatisfaction, and then, euphoria.
Ohmme, Fantasize Your Ghost
Ohmme are revolutionizing pop on their own terms. After cutting their teeth in the Chicago scene and recording with the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Chance the Rapper, the duo's second album Fantasize Your Ghost is an expansive collection of modern baroque pop, elevated by Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham's harmonies.
Special Interest, The Passion Of
The music of Special Interest was never meant to go down easy. Their latest album The Passion Of is a mix of glam noise-punk with crunchy industrial elements, a combination ideal for screaming and thrashing about the endless ways life infuriates you, whether it be war or the latest gawdy condo driving up rent prices. Between singing about love on a personal level or social issues, The Passion Of also tributes the band's Black gay forebearers with grace.
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