*Insert opening comment about 2020 being a real bastard of a year *
A good year for music though, right? This list comes to you from a Starbucks around the corner from my apartment. The central heating there has been playing up, so I’m perched here with a vanilla latte (with oat milk, new to China), hammering this out while trying to ignore the other patrons. Already the woman next to me is sneaking glances at this here blog-post in creation. I’m wondering if she’s a fan of Bright Eyes.
可能。Anyway, 2020 saw the return of that band, amongst others, and also produced a record from said band, amongst others. As has become tradition here at Craig Reviews Music (and the only thing ever posted anymore), here’s my AOTY list for 2020. Seventy-five records, all killer, no filler, no Sum 41. 2021, perhaps. Bandcamp links included where they exist, but you should know by now that there are plenty of places you can find these. Support, as always, is appreciated.
Enjoy, and cheers for dropping by,
Craig / 大橙子
Empty Country – Empty Country (Bandcamp)
Exhalants – Atonement (Bandcamp)
Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God (Bandcamp)
Ichicko Aoba – Windswept Adan (Bandcamp)
JME – Grime MC
Ratboys – Printer’s Devil (Bandcamp)
Sigur Rós – Odin’s Raven Magic (Bandcamp)
The Strokes – The New Abnormal
75) Haru Nemuri – Lovetheism
Super-slick J-pop, full of genre-bending moments of surprise and uplifting hooks. A firework mini-album. Bandcamp
74) I am the Avalanche – Dive
A welcome return from the revered punk band. Six years out of the game, and still crafting raucous and earnest songs to raise a glass to.
73) Backxwash – God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It
Not always an easy listen, but an excellent record of industrial hip-hop/horrorcore. Dark and heavy, furious bars overlaying powerful beats. Memorable from start to finish. Bandcamp
72) Snarls – Burst
A real joy of a record, ten tracks of shimmering and cathartic indie with a gentle, teasing amount of bite. Opens with a lyrical walk through the woods, and keeps you amidst that greenery even after the songwriting has moved to other shades of shrubbery. Bandcamp
71) Emmy the Great – April / 月音
Just a great indie-pop record, and one inspired by the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. April / 月音 occupies a curious space, “liminal” like track three, in the chaos that has been 2020. Here, Emma Lee-Moss navigates Hong Kong in the aging summer, and lets the city wash over here, bringing with it an immense amount of comfort. The record, likewise, is a tropical pocket of warm weather. Instrumentally sparse, but gorgeously so, spinning stories of simple afternoon street-walking, April / 月音 finds a stirring amount of depth and release in such mundanity. “I think I know exactly of who I am,” Moss sings on highlight “A Window / O’Keeffe,” and that sense of peace seeps into every pleasant cobblestone crack of her fourth LP. Bandcamp
70) Stand Atlantic – Pink Elephant
I found myself gradually moving away from pop-punk in 2020, hitting twenty-six years of age and finally (FINALLY) discovering the likes of Joni Mitchell and Prince, but Stand Atlantic’s second LP was a solid reminder of everything I love(d) about the genre. With hooks upon hooks upon hooks, Pink Elephant is a difficult one to shake. It has a trampoline bounce and pomposity to it, but there’s some meat to the lyrical elephant here also, vocalist/guitarist Bonnie Fraser addressing some heavy themes such as mental health. Loud, catchy as hell, and with some real food for thought, Pink Elephant is everything a good pop-punk record should be. Bandcamp
69) Into It. Over It. – Figure
Figure presents a slight reimagining for Into It. Over It., the project of Evan Weiss, master indie storyteller and reluctant midwest-emo hero. That reimagining means that Figure is far less of a solo venture than it is a group project, in that, here, Weiss turns to friends and collaborators frequently. As such, his first record since 2016’s Standards feels much more “colourful” as a result. It has a sense of scope to it, instrumentally and lyrically, especially in terms of the latter, Weiss at his most open to date, chronicling break-ups, menial work, and the burden of being a tourist artist post-tour. It makes for a rich and immersive listen, as well as Weiss’ strongest and most cohesive Into It. Over It. record to date. Bandcamp
68) Enter Shikari – Nothing is True & Everything is Possible
St. Albans’ stalwarts Enter Shikari have never been a band afraid to try new things, and have made a hot-streak habit of routinely expanding their sound without compromising the quality of their output. Their sixth LP is their most adventurous yet, a rock-opera of a record, frontman Rou Reynolds conducting a grand spectacle. The concepts channeled here translate splendidly from a sonic perspective, making for some of the band’s most memorable material yet (“modern living…”, “Satellites* *”). At times it’s bleak, at others hopeful, but throughout it pushes boundaries as only Enter Shikari can. It also suggests that the band are nowhere near running short of ideas. Everything, it seems, is indeed possible.
67) Dorian Electra – My Agenda
Where excellent 2018 LP Flamboyant was, well, flamboyant, Dorian Electra’s 2020 follow-up is twisted and venomous. Also, it’s similarly excellent, if a little on the short side. It did take some time to grow on me, in comparison to its predecessor, but My Agenda further solidifies Dorian Electra as one of the most exciting and forward-thinking artists in modern pop. Bandcamp
66) An Autumn for Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
An Autumn for Crippled Children make black metal interesting. For a genre in which releases often follow a familiar template, the Dutch outfit show no signs of doing the same. On All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet, they continue to innovate, mixing in moments of elation and quiet amidst swirling riffs and dense walls of noise. The opening minute of “Water’s Edge” feels almost danceable, for example, whereas the title track possesses elements of shoegaze. This is very listenable black metal, even for those who aren’t normally fans of the genre. One to get lost in, for sure. Bandcamp
65) Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
Long-hinted at, and teased by one of my favourite singles of the year (“Simmer”), Petals for Armor proved that Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams was more than capable of flying solo. Wearing her influences (perhaps a little too) boldly on her sleeve, Williams crafted a personal and cathartic record, extending on some of the darker lyrical tones of her bands most recent LP, Hard Times. There are some real standout moments here, such as the swaggering “Dark Horse” and jaunty “Cinnamon,” but things waver a little towards the end, meaning the early momentum doesn’t quite carry throughout the fifteen tracks here. Still, Petals for Armor is a real statement, and I’m excited to see what Williams produces next.
64) Laura Jane Grace – Stay Alive
A (mostly-acoustic) record from one of punk rock’s most distinctive and important voices, dropped out of the blue in October? Count me fully in and committing lines to memory early on. In a year that has often been a case of simply “staying alive,” Grace released a record in which she is both vulnerable and steadfast. This is the sound of a woman recording songs in her bathroom with a guitar and making it seem incredibly easy. There’s a lot to love and take comfort in here. Bandcamp
63) Record Setter – I Owe You Nothing
I Owe You Nothing is a candid title for a candid record. On their Topshelf Records debut, following 2017’s Purge, Denton, Texas natives Record Setter lay it all on the table. The result is a fierce and fairly ferocious record, one which takes tried and tested emo/screamo/post-rock tropes and blends them into something immensely rewarding for a listener. It’s a jagged mix, unpredictable at the best of times, intricately-composed and cathartically delivered, howled vocals aplenty over explosive instrumentals. It reminded me of Topshelf alumni Caravels, and of fellow Denton natives, Two Knights. There’s a similar sort of release to I Owe You Nothing, an unburdening, distilled down into sharp blends of emotion. This is a screamo record, predominantly, but it’s more than that. I Owe You Nothing possesses tenacity, doggedness, and it delivers on several equally affecting fronts. Bandcamp
62) Mystery Jets – A Billion Heartbeats
I didn’t expect to find myself enjoying a Mystery Jets album in 2020 to the extent that I did. Truthfully, I haven’t actually listened to the band since they released Twenty-One in 2008, back in my NME reading-and-walking days. A Billion Heartbeats is a politically-driven record with something worth saying. It moves amongst the protestors who inspired the bulk of the lyrics here, waving its own flag. Opener Screwdriver serves as an initial rallying call, powerful riffs and stomping drums, and from here things progress with a similarly anthemic aplomb. With their sixth record, Mystery Jets have managed to accurately depict the state of the times in modern Britain, fashioning a release that inspires just as much as it impresses.
61) Half Waif – The Caretaker
Half Waif, alias of Nandi Rose, has built up a modest cult following over the past decade, gaining wider recognition following the release of the splendid Lavender in 2018. That record was a quiet LP that said a lot, meticulously produced, gently abrasive, a lesson in juxtaposition. The Caretaker plays out as a direct sequel, but here Rose goes deeper, focusing on small moments and the breaking/healing to be found in such seeming trivality. Single “Ordinary Talk,” plays out as an inventory list of such vignettes, Rose “Sitting in the dark / Dreaming up a song / Crying in [her] coffee / Walking to the lake / Getting in [her] car / Folding up the laundry,” using these personal spaces to reflect. Across dark, minimalist soundscapes, Rose’s vocals dart and dance, an inherent beauty to their movement. They illuminate, Rose the caretaker of her own solitude, communicating it with goosebump-inducing grace here. Bandcamp
60) Deftones – Ohms
I wasn’t a huge fan of Deftones’ last record prior to this one, 2016’s Gore, finding it overly produced and compressed to all hell. As such, I didn’t have huge hopes for Ohms, though that changed with the release of the first single / title track. Here, Deftones are well and truly back to their best, and Ohms ends up as my favourite from the band since 2010’s Diamond Eyes. Crushingly heavy at times, but still showcasing that trademark tranquility, the band’s latest LP truly soars.
59) Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Returning from a 10-year hiatus earlier this year, Bright Eyes successfully managed to recapture a lot of what made them the darlings of 00’s indie. The 2020 iteration of the band have certainly aged during their time away, but Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was puts those interim years into perspective. This is a wounded, weary record, a study of aging to middle under an LA spotlight. There’s hope in there too, for the record shifts between moods just as it does between styles. At times, it offers suitably grand set pieces and, at other times, morose steady page-turners. Oberst pulls out many of his old tricks, but there is a refinement to them this time around. Down in the Weeds doesn’t necessarily feel like a comeback record, but it is certainly a continuation. Bandcamp
58) Adrianne Lenker – songs
For someone known as one of modern rocks most prolific songwriters, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker somehow manages to outdo herself here. Tender, poignant, and sitting so close to the heart that you almost feel it pulsing, songs is an affecting and constantly compelling listen. Bandcamp
57) Hedgehog – A Newborn White Immortal
I was turned onto Hedgehog by a colleague, one quick to point out my lack of knowledge about Chinese music and then seek to steadily rectify the situation. She began with A Newborn White Immortal, and I was immediately hooked. Think Tame Impala, but with an added layer of mysticism and grit, comfortably orbiting the Earth. A real gem, shoutout to Alice, also a gem.
56) Caspian – On Circles
Another huge statement from instrumental Massachusetts outfit Caspian. On Circles finds the band exploring their sound further while still packing a heavy emotional punch. It lacks some of the standout moments of past LPs, but works very well when taken as a cohesive, cogent whole. There’s something to be said also for the third track, “Notalgist,” the first in the band’s long discography to feature vocals (courtesy of Pianos Become the Teeth’s Kyle Durfey). He suits the melancholic nature of the song well, taking a backseat to the instrumentals once they crest and break. Another surprise here is acoustic-led closer “Circles on Circles,” here featuring vocals from member Philp Jamieson. It’s an affecting ending, and one that proves, some seventeen years in, that Caspian are still a band taking risks. As has become a trend by this point, those risks come off wonderfully. Bandcamp
55) Retirement Party – Runaway Dog
Growing considerably on LP number two, but not sounding any closer to actual retirement, Avery Springer continues to pen rock songs that resonate. Here though, they are bigger, bolder, and benefit from excellent songwriting. Choruses surge into life, and Springer’s somewhat deadpan delivery style really shines alongside some grungy instrumentals. Standout track “Old Age” has been on repeat for me this year – huge. Bandcamp
54) Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind
You’re not going to find another record like this on this list. That’s mostly because I’ve left my death metal days (if I ever had them) long behind me. A special inclusion for Undeath though, who’ve become a fixture on my running playlist since Lesions of a Different Kind dropped in late 2020. This a brutal record through and through, immediate and uncompromising, ceaselessly delivering thick grooves and ground-shaking vocals. If I’m at the 10km mark with Lesions, I feel like something is in pursuit, pulled straight from the camp horror movies Undeath take as inspiration here. I get over the line, I survive. Bandcamp
53) Bury Tomorrow – Cannibal
Bury Tomorrow have been a band moving from strength to strength with each new release, and that stands true for their latest, a ferocious and uncompromising behemoth of an LP. Vocalists Dani Winter-Bates’ snarls are as vicious as ever, while Jason Cameron’s cleans make for some excellent highs, as on third track “The Grey (VIXI)”. Their partnership, at this point, is one of the strongest in the genre, and they’re the main draw here. Lyrically and instrumentally intense, Cannibal is Bury Tomorrow firing on all cylinders. At times, it’s easy to suggest (as it has been on previous LPs) that the band covers ground already well-trodden in their discography, but when it sounds this good, that’s not always a bad thing.
52) lang – There Is No Reply, But Sweet Wind Blew
This is technically a 2018 record, but I’m throwing it on here because I came to lang this year, when Brighton-based label Dog Knights Productions gave the album a vinyl release. Over the years, Dog Knights have become a label I turn to often if looking for something different, the kind of record that doesn’t crop up very often on streaming sites, one which needs to be searched for. In this searching, there is reward. There is no reply, but sweet wind blew. Hailing from Tokyo, lang make raw, emotionally abrasive screamo, the kind that frequently stuns with its intensity and sincerity. Bursts of passionate spoken word intersect with avalanche instrumentals, and, even if the words themselves lie beyond comprehension, the feeling behind them is meticulously conveyed. There Is No Reply, But Sweet Wind Blew is the kind of release that seems to pierce the skin and burrow deeper. Once it has its hooks in, they stay, such is the nature of the songs here. Everything is at the surface, nothing is hidden or concealed. It is communicated in a way that transcends language, expression best captured in music with this sense of emotional clarity. It crashes, breaks, reassembles, only to throw itself against the wall again. In opening track “IHATOV,” there is entire movie; you’re left drained by the end of it, five minutes so dense that they almost defy comprehension. On fifth track “Labor Praise” you’re lulled into a respite, the opening minute or so feeling almost romantic, before everything explodes suddenly. The song relents again though, beautifully so, before reaching crescendo once more at the death. The title track is another highlight, never quite allowing a listener to settle, moments of sheer beauty balanced against moments of chaos. If you’re a fan of the genre, then There Is No Reply, But Sweet Wind Blew is essential listening. I should note that I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the band have released music in 2020, a five-track EP titled カイエ Cahier, which is also excellent. Bandcamp
51) Written Years – A Cinematic Goodbye
I was very happy to see Written Years return in 2020, albeit for their final record. Coming some six years after their first, 2014’s Self-Titled, A Cinematic Goodbye was exactly that. From morose, dim-light dancehall diamonds such as “Superficial Feeling,” to the plaintive and somewhat pained “Sur Eive (Awful Love)”, the songs here sway and bend with finesse, poised and collected. As parting sentiment, listening to A Cinematic Goodbye is akin to watching a city skyscape, bars closing, lights shutting off one by one by one. It’s an affecting listen, but one that refuses to linger too long in the darkness that comes with extinguishing the flame. Take, “Not Alone,” for example, the highlight here, which sounds like peak 2011 Friendly Fires, its chorus absolutely electric. Hearing new material from Written Years in 2020 was like being reunited with an old and dear friend – so consider me grateful for that. Bandcamp
50) Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
Sophie Alison’s debut record as Soccer Mommy, 2018’s Clean, was a lifelike depiction of a person’s late teens, first loves, first heartbreaks, skinny-dipping, and clique jealousy. Despite covering such melodramatic themes, Alison managed to avoid any semblance of cliche, sharp-witted and above it. Her follow-up, color theory transitions to the other side of 20, and does with a similar amount of style. It has a very 90’s feel to it, especially on standout track “circle the drain,” an MTV soundtrack throwback, but Alison captures present anxieties with a string of on-point metaphors. As was the case with Clean, her songwriting and lyrics are definite highlights here. As a sophomore LP, color theory is a bold step forwards, and sees Alison improve on almost every aspect of her excellent debut. Bandcamp
49) Mal Devisa – Shade and the Little Creatures
For some, there was a criminal sense of injustice in Mal Devisa’s 2016 LP Kiid slipping under the radar of the mainstream, and it would be equally criminal for its follow-up to do the same. Shade and the Little Creatures is a towering beast of a record, pulsating and proud. Devisa’s vocals are razor-sharp here, her lyrics barbed and poisonous. See, “Born in the Pit,” which rages with the same energy that ignites the music of Xenia Rubinos, and, perhaps even Beyonce (to really go there). Lofty comparisons, but worthy comparisons, no doubt. Devisa here is a thoroughly compelling narrator; she beguiles and intrigues, she changes shape and fits all of them, and it makes her second LP an unshakeable listen.
48) Nothing – The Great Dismal
Talk about album titles. The Great Dismal is a record for 2020, a breakdown in progress, dwelling thematically on isolation, trauma, and existentialism. This is a packed listen, and one which ends up sounding absolutely huge. It manages to be heavy while featuring a whole lot of melody also, optimistic in glimmers but weighted for the majority. Frontman Dominic Palermo croons over shoegaze instrumentals, searching for some kind of escape, one not easy to find here. The Great Dismal is claustrophobic, but it’s also well worth exploring. Bandcamp
47) Infant Island – Beneath
Another Dog Knights Productions release here, this time out of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Beneath is a quagmire of a record, one which pulls you down deeper as it progresses. It’s only 26-minute long, but the nine tracks here are exhausting. Dissonance piles upon dissonance, sludge upon sludge, Beneath an anvil weight not to be lifted, forced further south. It’s a behemoth of an album, from thunderous opener “Here We Are” to atmospheric closer “Someplace Else,” one that pummels a listener into submission. The vocals are raw and painfully human, the instrumentation mammoth. What makes Beneath such a compelling listen though, is the moments of relative quiet amondst all of this noise, sunlight through a canopy of cloud. There are moments to catch a breath, and they are beautiful, but brief. Once they have passed, the storm returns, and Beneath pulls you under once more. A fascinating and unforgettable LP. Bandcamp
46) Hum – Inlet
I wasn’t around for Hum’s initial string of releases, back in the nineties. When the Illinois outfit released their first record on RCA, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, I had just turned one. As such, I wasn’t quite swept away by the wave of hype that followed the release of Inlet, the band’s first studio release in over twenty years. I listened to it all the same though, and then went back and listened to those first few records, the ones that hadn’t been passed down to me in the way that Nevermind and Relationship of Command had been. What I found in Inlet, thereafter, didn’t seem to be suggestive of such a lengthy absence. This is undoubtedly the same band who recorded Downward is Heavenward. It churns and swells in a similar fashion, a towering mix of shoegaze and alternative rock. The droning guitars are thick and chugging, the songs themselves expansive and powerful. As someone who never actually noticed that Hum were away, having them back proved a revelation. Bandcamp
45) Dikembe – Muck
Dikembe are always a band deserving of praise, highly grounded and committed to their craft. They embody the DIY punk ethos like few other bands in the scene, and they’ve come a long way since the Freaks and Geeks-sampling Chicago Bowls. Muck returns to the style of personal-favourite LP Mediumship, deeply introspective, instrumentally brash, and packed with catharsis moments. A band to be remembered, no doubt. Bandcamp
44) Wallflower – Teach Yourself To Swim
Similar to the likes of Boston Manor before them, Wallflower took their time in releasing their debut, first releasing a stream of excellent EPs, all of which showed an impressive level of promise. Teach Yourself To Swim makes those years of wait well worth it, an intense and ambitious debut LP, and one which really should have garnered more attention earlier this year. There’s no doubt that the scene at present is congested, but the quality apparent on each of the twelve tracks here should have certainly elevated Wallflower to the fore. The songwriting is tight and expressive, heart-on-sleeve lyrics offering memorable moments alongside huge choruses. In this sense, the band’s approach is familiar (think Black Foxxes and Can’t Swim), but never quite stale, though things here are stretched a little at 50 minutes. There is still a space for Wallflower, and hopefully, with the return of shows and festivals next year, they’ll be able to pick up where they left off. Teach Yourself To Swim is worthy of headline slots and crowds who have every line committed to memory. Bandcamp
43) Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me?
When Diet Cig returned in May of this year, it was immediately clear that the New York duo had done a whole lot of growing during their time away from the spotlight. Do You Wonder About Me?, their sophomore LP, is an anthemic and spirited listen, bubblegum sweet instrumentally, and resolute lyrically. The songs that Alex Luciano pens here are honest and earnest, sharp and witty, as she turns her own spotlight on an industry and society that she frequently finds herself aside at odds with. It’s hard-fought positivity, no doubt, but when Luciano finds her mark, she makes herself vindicated. Do You Wonder About Me? is a record to be celebrated, preferably at full-volume. Bandcamp
42) Biffy Clyro – A Celebration of Endings
I think it’s safe to say that Biffy Clyro have never been a band to disappoint, and here, on their eighth LP, they don’t. Written following the parting of the band and a long-time friend/colleague, A Celebration of Endings could have potentially be guilty of a little melodrama, but instead manages to avoid such a scenario with eleven very polished songs. As always, these songs are gigantic. From thunderous opener “North of No South” to sweeping closer “Cop” (one of the band’s best), there’s not a misstep here. It might lack some of the punch or draw of past records, but Biffy are still very much Biffy.
41) AJJ – Good Luck Everybody
The second track on AJJ’s seventh record is titled “Normalization Blues,” the fifth track titled “No Peace, No Hope, No Justice,” the sixth track titled “Mega Guillotine 2020.” You’d probably assume, from these three titles, that Good Luck Everybody is a political record, and you’d be right – it is the bands most explicit so far. Of all the punk records written about the torrid political landscape of 2020 America, AJJ have made the most potent. The lyrics here and damning and quickfire, scathing and questioning, the instrumentals fast and folksy. It’s all actually quite beautiful, the arrangements and delivery, but Good Lucky Everybody is satirically bleak, pointing fingers at a generation buried in cellphones, a president who cares more about his Twitter account than his people, and a year in which everything seems relatively fucked and unfixable. Writing about his motivations for the record on their Bandcamp page, frontman Sean Bonnette describes Good Lucky Everybody reluctantly, paints it as an album born of necessity, but not exactly as an album he wanted to make. When everything is on fire though, what else is there to write about except the flames? This is an urgent, very important release, and, by holding nothing back, it gives everything. Take “Psychic Warfare,” for example, which serves as an emphatic middle-finger to the man most deserving of such a middle finger this year. Bandcamp
40) Worriers – You or Someone You Know
You or Someone You Know, perhaps fittingly, begins with a track titled “End of the World.” “Do we multiply? / 2050 isn’t getting any further away / I found a nice house in the Bay / We could go there but there’s fire and earthquakes.” vocalist Lauren Denetzio sings, those first lines, and that first title, telling of where Worriers are going here. ‘Going’ is perhaps an unsuitable word though, because Denetzio is stuck. She’d “try to explain / but it’s complicated,” lines taken from eighth track “Enough.” In a year in which any kind of forward movement has been in baby steps, Worriers have provided the soundtrack to a rut, and it sounds oddly triumphant. You or Someone You Know is a finely spirited record, in the vein of The Menzingers or Martha. You’re well aware that things are sort of imploding, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it bring you down. There is acceptance in belatedly embracing adulthood for what it is – unsteady, unpredictable. You or Someone You Know is an honest record, but never uncomfortably so. Instead, it comforts. You don’t have to try and find this comfort; on a record this great, it finds you. Bandcamp
39) Vasudeva – Generator
More instrumental goodness from Vasudeva, who seem to grow more ambitious with each new LP. They also seem to become more close-knit in their playing, and Generator is their tightest project to date. This is compact, pristine math-rock, well-honed, and pleasingly intricate. Very few do it better. Bandcamp
38) Seahaven – Halo of Hurt
A very late addition to this list, the return of Seahaven, whose last record Reverie Lagoon: Songs for Escapism Only dropped in 2014, seems to have been slightly overlooked. It’s a shame, because Halo of Hurt is a welcome and triumphant return. It doesn’t quite possess the same magic or allure as the bands last effort, but the songs here are crisp and purgative, frontman Kyle Soto penning introspective lyrics over delicate instrumentation. The band take their time, letting these songs swell and recede in due course, and there’s a meticulous sense of care apparent in each of the nine tracks here. An excellent comeback record, and also a reminder of just how great Seahaven are – those first three LPs, genre highlights. Bandcamp
37) Poppy – I Disagree
I went into I Disagree knowing very little about Poppy, and, I’ll admit, this one took a while to grow on me. Sugar sweet vocals over metal instrumentals can make for a difficult juggling act, but Poppy finds a fine balance here, and, at times, there’s something suitably menacing about the contrast. Opener “Concrete” sets the tone well, Top 40 harmonies disguising lyrics which express a desire for the sweetness of blood after Poppy dismisses ‘coffee’ and ‘ice-cream’ as unsatisfying. The doors open on a carnival of horrors, and you’re gently, somewhat reluctantly, ushered inside. Once those doors shut, I Disagree manages to make the experience a memorable one. There’s great production here, some of the year’s best, meaning that I Disagree feels far less like a gimmick and more like something robust in its own right. It won’t be for everyone, sure, but I really enjoyed it.
36) Bring Me the Horizon – POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR
I remember buying Bring Me The Horizon’s second LP, Suicide Season, during a family holiday in Wales when I was fourteen. I was secretive about this purchase, smuggling it out of a HMV between two other cases, not wanting my parents to see the cover, which depicted a young woman bloody and with an armful of guts. The evolution of the band since that LP has been something to behold, and perhaps culminates in PH:SH, a fearless release that takes a bunch of composite parts that shouldn’t really mix, and then builds something Frankensteinish but far from monstrous. Featuring guest spots from the likes of Babymetal, Yungblud!, and Amy Lee of Evanescence fame, PH:SH someone makes it all work. Over sixteen years in, it’s a real pleasure to see Bring Me The Horizon continue to expand and explore the limits of their sound. Perhaps like the band themselves, I have no idea where those limits lie.
35) Lomelda – Hannah
Hannah passes like a blissful dream. You wake with your cheek against a window, the world blurring on the other side, and realise that it was only in the dream that things were stationary. Hannah Reed’s latest release as Lomelda is a record made to soundtrack bittersweet indie movies, sleeper hits, romantically tip-toeing over wooden floorboards in an oversized sweatshirt. Maybe it’s snowing, maybe it’s summer – it doesn’t really matter. What Hannah does is encourage you to pause amidst it all, pause for comfort, pause for contemplation, simply pause to perk ears to something in the distance. Hannah is like returning home to hot chocolate after a long flight. Hannah is a bouquet of flowers on the mantelpiece. Hannah is the quiet in the eye of the storm. Hannah is wonderful to an almost unfathomable degree. Bandcamp
34) Freddie Gibbs – Alfredo
I’ll listen to anything that super-producer The Alchemist has a hand in, and this marks his first of two appearances on this list. Here, paired with rapper Freddie Gibbs, the two craft a record with an almost unrivaled sense of aplomb. Alfredo is as confident as they come, tight bars, smoky late-night bar production, killer guest spots, and a swagger that elevates every track on here. Easy, so damn easy.
33) I Love Your Lifestyle – No Driver
Firstly, a thank you to Andrew Hatchet, who was nice enough to gift me this LP on Bandcamp – much appreciated. I think I probably would’ve missed it otherwise, and that would’ve been a shame. It would’ve been a shame because No Driver is a composite of all the things I typically love about brash and cathartic indie-emo: noodly guitar riffs, shout-along choruses, and self-deprecating lyrics aplenty. I was also a little surprised to find the band hailed from Sweden, because there’s something highly reminiscent about the Pacific Northwest scene here – if not for tracks like “Fram Och Tillbaka,” sung in Swedish, you’d be likely to misplace the band easily. The songs here benefit from a Scandavian sort of buoyancy though, carefree, especially during those choruses, which are electric and emphatic. Songs such as “Shilly-Shally” and “I Have No Point To Make” are almost joyous, very clean, very focused. Elsewhere, first track “Stupid!” is an immediate win, huge hooks, and a colossal breakdown to boot. If you’re not grinning by the end of this opener, maybe No Driver isn’t for you, but, if you are, I Love Your Lifestyle’s third LP is certainly recommended listening. Bandcamp
32) Hilary Woods – Birthmarks
Last year, I was both spooked and immensely moved by Lingua Ignota’s Caligula, a record simultaneously sparse and dense, thunderous and restrained. Listening to it was a claustrophobic experience, and the same could be said for Hilary Woods’ second LP, Birthmarks. This is a beast of a different nature, dark noise-folk, modest and delicate, but still a record to ensnare. It’s less about how Woods uses noise, but more about how she uses moments of quiet here. Her vocals come whispered and opaque, reedy and haunting. Soft guitars and strings move like wind under a doorframe, in that they chill. Lyrically, the record concerns Woods’ pregnancy, written and recorded during this time, and this subject matter allows her to consider her body – as almost alien to her. “I am afraid it’s growing inside of me,” she sings on excellent second track “Orange Tree, oppressed by this growth, the album seeming to shrink in contrast. Birthmarks is sometimes mournful, but is always captivating. Bandcamp
31) Fleet Foxes – Shore
Shore is a positive, hopeful record made to be listened to outdoors. The day of its release, I did just that, taking a walk out to the wetlands located in the north-east of my city. In an area such as this it’s easy to get lost, and easy to get lost in a record like this one likewise. With Robin Peckfold’s fourth Fleet Foxes LP on repeat, I got lost, the seconds in-between songs occupied by cricket chirps. No shores in sight, but everything golden at the start of autumn. Bandcamp
30) Creeper – Sex, Death & the Infinite Void
Creeper’s sophomore LP is nothing short of remarkable. For a band never short on ambition, Sex, Death & the Infinite Void is a radio-friendly goth-rock epic, and a huge step up from the bands already-solid 2017 debut. There’s a narrative that runs throughout the fifteen tracks here, apocalyptically romantic, and the band soundtrack that narrative with songwriting that frequently borders on the cinematic. This is a graphic novel of an LP, thoughtfully considered and gloriously realised. It might also be the catchiest alternative release of 2020, packed with crooning harmonies, Hollywood midnight choruses, and instrumentals that wouldn’t seem out of place on Broadway. Here, Creeper outdo themselves, and prove that the British rock scene is far from uninspired. A triumphant, landmark release.
29) Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
By this point in his career, you should have some idea of what to expect from a Jeff Rosenstock record: something anthemic, something loud, something raw, something a little melodramatic but likably so. NO DREAM is all of the above, Rosenstock’s latest LP containing his strongest and catchiest material to date. If it’s not the breakneck haste of “Monday at the Beach,” or the open-letter bounce of “***BNB,” Rosenstock is doing his best to channel something memorable. The repetition of “get fucked up” on the latter of these two tracks is electric, impossible not to enjoy. You’d struggle to find a record from 2020 that packs in as many hooks per minute as NO DREAM does – buoyant, summery, and with highly relatable lyrics. Bandcamp
28) Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
SAWAYAMA is still a bit of a mystery to me. It’s a pop record, but not exactly. On her debut LP, Rina Sawayama is navigating – navigating family, navigating identity, and navigating genre. The focus shifts often, the opening three-track run of “Dynasty,” “XS” and “STFU!” a bit of a headspin, the first reminiscent of Evanescence, the second of Christina Aguilera, and the third of Korn. On “Dynasty” she directly addresses her parents and her heritage, being born in Japan but raised in the UK. On, “XS” she directs her attention towards consumer cultures, the excess of the title. On “STFU!” she berates ignorant label executives. And that’s just how SAWAYMAMA opens. What follows from there are ten more tracks that bristle with an underlying aggression, splicing styles with a confidence rarely found on a debut record. It shouldn’t really work, and it definitely shouldn’t sound this good, but SAWAYAMA manages to sound totally self-assured. The tenacity with which it moves, and the way in which it tackles big topics with sharp rhetoric and insight makes it one of the most intriguing pop records of the past few years. If you can even call it pop, that is. Here, Rina Sawayama is reinventing and redefining the genre with the swagger of an artist already several records deep.
27) Loathe – I Let It in and It Took Everything
Loathe are the most exciting band currently operating in the British underground. If their 2017 debut The Cold Sun was the sound of a band taking their first unsteady foray into metalcore, then I Let It in and It Took Everything is the sound of a band fully realising their early potential and expanding the limits of the genre. I think back to Architects releasing Hollow Crown in 2009, and the leap that seemed at the time; Loathe’s second record feels like a similar jump in quality, far more mature, composed, and much stronger than their debut. When Loathe flex their muscles here, they do so in style, especially on the likes of “Aggressive Evolution” and “Two-Way Mirror,” two early highlights. These songs are huge, shattering any perceived ceiling that may have existed prior. Moments of ambience on the latter are stunning, and I don’t need to tell you about the clear Deftones influence, well-cited by this point. The only thing holding Loathe back at this point is that they aren’t quite transcending those influences; I Let It in and It Took Everything is rooted at a particular point in time, borrowing from the early 00’s while trying to incorporate new ideas. The ambition is something to applaud, the execution excellent, but you sense the band can still go further. Wherever they do go is entirely up to them; here, they are a band with the world at their feet. Bandcamp
26) Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
I’m not sure there’s much that I can add to the expansive critical discourse surrounding Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. This is a discourse which didn’t just come from music critics, the record openly praised and adored by artists, writers, poets, and performers. Perfume Genius is an artist for other artists, but Mike Hadreas’ music remains commercially accessible. He is poet/novelist Ocean Vuong’s favourite musician, and this album, more than any other on this list, comes closest to poetry. Fourth track “Jason,” for example, almost reads like an excerpt from Vuong’s 2019 novel, One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, clumsy love and awkward discovery. A few songs later, “Just a Touch” begs for a different kind of contact, holding onto an image of a lover like a lifeline. On both of these tracks, Hadreas’ vocals are pure and clean, the instrumental backdrop sparse and wavering. Elsewhere, these baroque-pop stylings are set aside in favour of louder, grander moments. The production and instrumentals of “On the Floor” are joyous, the guitars on second track “Describe” blown out and distorted. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately covers a lot of ground sonically, in that you could easily list off a double-digit selection of genres Hadreas plays with, but the record is always tethered in place by its creator, whose songwriting and lyrics frequently come to the fore of the songs here. He is the shining light at the heart of the album, yearning, confessional, burdened, sublime. Bandcamp
25) ManDancing – The Good Sweat
A late entry to this list, dropping at the end of November, but a more than worthy entry. I first heard of ManDancing a couple of years back, when they covered Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You” for a cover compilation, transforming a sugary-sweet movie soundtrack closer into something that felt painfully tender and sincere. That same sort of sincerity and heart is all over the band’s sophomore LP, one that borrows from genre familiars like Wild Pink and The Dangerous Summer but carves out a sound wholly it’s all. A lot of this comes from angular instrumentals, especially courtesy of drummer Thomas DeVinko, who is centered on tracks like “RJW” and “Wall Spot.” There’s something that feels almost desperate about his playing, and that intensity is matched by his bandmates at every turn. The Good Sweat is an electrifying record, a scorching necessity to a lot of the songs here, as if it desires simply to exist. I’m reminded of Have Mercy’s 2013 debut, The Earth Pushed Back, finding a lot of similar qualities, most notably in the vocals of Stephen Kelly, which communicative something both acute and essential. He shines on third track “Pancakes (Who Loves Who The Most?)” which is probably my favourite here, a beautiful moment on a record full of beautiful moments, though a special mention has to made more collectively for “Johnny Freshman,” which is a heartrending closer. With The Good Sweat, ManDancing have made something quite special, and I’ve certainly had the pleasure of spending the first fortnight of December soaking it in. It’s going to stick around until the weather warms up again. Bandcamp
24) Frances Quinlan – Likewise
Best-known as vocalist and guitarist of the impeccable Hop Along, Frances Quinlan makes an excellent first venture into solo recording here. Her voice, as always, is unmistakable, balanced on a knife-edge, strained but majestically controlled. Instead of it dancing across a rock-band backdrop, as it does with Hop Along, Quinlan turns her attention to subtler, more diverse tones. There are simple acoustic tracks here, pop/R&B crossovers, and ambitious string numbers also. It makes for a diverse sonic palette, and Quinlan shines regardless of the accompaniment. One of the main pulls of her work with Hop Along is her lyrical ability, and that’s a huge draw here also. Take “Rare Thing” for example, on which “sunlight touches on the plants [she’s] been torturing,” meditating on a dream, intimate and poetic. “I only managed to stay small / by making giants out of strangers / Through the chaos I can see / all afternoon you inhale / every bouquet you meet / I have to stop myself and admit I am happy,” she sings towards the end of the track, these final lines carrying a radiant warmth, an epiphany in real-time. Quinlan is thoroughly compelling here, and effort is required just to pull yourself away from her words, her voice, from the arrangements here. Likewise is a wistful and wonderful LP, endearing in almost every conceivable way. Bandcamp
23) I’m Glad It’s You – Every Sun, Every Moon
I like to think I’m fairly keyed-in when it comes to alternative Twitter (alternative in a music sense), but, for some reason, Every Sun, Every Moon, the second record from I’m Glad It’s You, seems to have slid under some radars. Sure, I haven’t been particularly vocal about it either, but I’m not vocal about anything on social media these days. Consider this an effort to rectify that somewhat. This is great emo/pop-punk, full of soul and grit, born from trauma following the death of tour videographer and friend Chris Avis. It tackles loss and grief with nuance, bringing in elements of the band’s debut, The Things I Never Say, and holding them up like a broken mirror to the present. On life and death, Every Sun, Every Moon is a discovery through contrasts, then and now. During second track “Big Sound,” vocalist Kelly Bader sings “I’ve been baptized in the desert with the blood of my friends / I can hear it calling me / And I know / There’s no coming back from this one.” There’s no return to normality when that absence remains, but I’m Glad It’s You shape their collective grief into a tribute, one which doesn’t shy away from the reality of loss, but uses it to make something truly affecting. That it also sounds exuberant for the majority is a joy, light in dark places. It’s the final lines of the record that really embody that here, and which shine on long after the closing notes: “This life will bear its weight on you / Let all your love carry you through / Every sun, every moon.” Bandcamp
22) IDLES – Ultra Mono
Following-up and surpassing mainstream breakthrough LP Joy As An Act of Resitance was always going to be a mammoth task for IDLES, but, if ever a band possessed the vigor required for such an undertaking, it’s these guys. Ultra Mono is politically-charged protest punk-rock for the 21st century, seemingly leaving no stone unturned when it comes to casting condescending looks on all of the least desirable aspects of modern society. Charged, uncompromising, and memorable for many reasons, Ultra Mono is a middle finger pointed in two-hundred different directions. Directed at a record like this one, any kind of retort is immediately snuffed out.
21) Boldy James & The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China
Everyone’s talking about Taylor Swift right now; one year, two full-length projects. There are fewer people talking about Boldy James; one year, four projects. It’s an impressive number, all the more impressive when you factor in that each of these projects has been pretty solid. The Price of Tea in China, released in February, was the first and is the best, an excellent start to an excellent year for the Detroit rapper. This is immersive hip-hop, rife with dense imagery and prosaic storytelling. James’ bars, for the most part, are delivered in a relatively tame fashion, in that he rarely rises towards aggression, or grows manic in the way that the likes of Danny Brown might (“Surf and Turf” aside). He is composed and precise, displaying a striking level of control as he delivers short vignettes of adolescence over intricate beats. The production here comes courtesy of The Alchemist, who showcases a similar level of control. As such, the two make for a formidable duo here. Though not necessarily pushing the boundaries of the genre, The Price of Tea in China is a resolute and tightly-packed listen. It isn’t groundbreaking, but everything it does do here is infallible.
20) Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
It’s no coincidence that Visions of Bodies Being Burned dropped eight days before Halloween. The second LP in Clipping.’s horror trilogy is a nightmare piece of abrasive, abstract hip-hop, pitch-black from the offset and begging to be experienced. This is an “enter at your risk” kind of record, jagged time signatures, industrial production, grotesque imagery, and one that oozes something caustic. The delivery of Daveed Diggs here is frenetic, lacing poison over barbed narratives and cautionary tales. He is the unreliable narrator, the fireside sage, backed up by the disorienting beats of Jonathan Snipes and William Hudson, both of whom stoke the cauldron that is Visions. As a sequel, this is a record that succeeds on every level. It is bolder than its predecessor, doubling down on the horror-core aesthetic, doubling down on the death, upping the stakes alongside the body count. It is a listen that exhausts, leaves you a little shaky afterwards perhaps, a bucket of cold water to the face. When Diggs raps, “the hook gon’ be the coldest pimp-slap” on fantastic second track “Say The Name” he means it, and clipping. deliver on this promise several times over. Bolstered by memorable guest spots, surpassing the first in the series and taking the trios sound to dark new places, Visions of Bodies Being Burned is one of 2020s more visceral releases, if not the most so. Bandcamp
19) Dogleg – Melee
You can’t keep a good Dog(leg) down, even in a year as turbulent has 2020 been. With the release of Melee in March, Dogleg exploded onto the scene, fully-formed and with a blistering energy. This energy pulsates through every single second of the Detroit band’s debut outing, and it makes for quite the outing. Melee comes out swinging, and never really stops swinging. It is an addictive, rollercoaster-ride of an album, one that speeds by with such intensity that it can’t help but pull you along with it. Loud, but not obnoxiously so, anthemic, but in an underground DIY sort of way, Melee is not to be wrestled with. From the opening assault of “Kawasaki Backflip,” to the pummeling barrage of “Ender,” Dogleg seem constantly turned up to eleven. If there’s a scale, they stomp all over it – they’re in their own league here. As far as escapism goes, Melee is insatiable and impossible to resist. It has so much going for it, the gang vocals, the huge choruses, the thundering instrumentals. It’s one of those records that makes you feel invincible; “hell yeah I can punch right through this wall.” High-octane, high-emotion, high-everything, this tight, wholly cathartic blend of post-hardcore, punk, pop-punk and emo has rightly blazed a trail right through 2020. Stand up to it, you can’t. Bandcamp
18) Suburban Living – How to Be Human
With 2016’s Almost Paradise, Philadelphia’s Suburban Living crafted a near-perfect dream pop record, and, if How to Be Human had contained more of the same, that would’ve been fine by me. What they have offered four years later on How to Be Human, though, is less of a continuation and more of an evolution/reinvention. The band’s third record returns to the goth-rock elements of the bands earlier work and adds additional gloss and polish, shimmering synths and melancholy. A walk down “Main Street” warps into something akin to a daydream, reminiscent of The Cure, of Morrisey’s solo work (it’s a little “Everyday Is Like Sunday”). There’s a distinctively 80’s appeal to the majority of How to Be Human, and the lyrical side of the record certainly pulls from the likes of Robert Smith, pensively mulling over themes of isolation and loneliness. Suburban Living are not a band content to dwell in the past though, and bring that aesthetic into the present day with signature style. There’s a lot of depth here, and a nice balance between the darker and lighter moments. Lead single, “Indigo Kids,” for example, is positively radiant instrumentally, the lyrics inspired by the story of child genius Boris Kipriyanovich. The “Indigo Kids” here are extra-terrestrials, and sometimes How to Be Human sounds likewise other-worldly. It takes pleasure in such contemplation, channels such lofty ideas as visible only through a kaleidoscope. This is a record with its head in the clouds, but with two feet rooted to the ground, wandering from bar to bar under fluorescent lights. It’s an immersive listen, wonderfully produced also – seventh track “No Roses” always my go-to when first trying out a new pair of earphones. How to Be Human doesn’t necessarily answer the dilemma it poses in its title, but it does encourage such reflection. Dense, varied, and gorgeous to listen to, Suburban Living have crafted something particularly rousing here. Bandcamp
17) Sinai Vessel – Ground Aswim
If there was one thing I was hoping 2020 would deliver musically, then it was a new Sinai Vessel record. Ground Aswim had felt a long time coming, some three and a half years after 2017’s Brokenlegged, but it proved to be worth that waiting period. Instantly, this is a record that ushers you closer, unfolding steadily, slow mournful opener “Where Did You Go?” immediately asking questions. What follows is a ponderous and highly thoughtful record, one which takes it’s time, tightly and intricately woven. Where Brokenlooked was louder, Ground Aswim opts for restraint, favouring lush instrumental backdrops, as on the third track “A Must While So Near.” These arrangements are composed meticulously, every song here an obvious labour of love, in such a way that not a single moment feels wasted. There isn’t a solitary note here that doesn’t seem to have been deliberated over. It makes for an incredibly confident listen, not showy or cocksure, but simply contented in the way it plays itself out. Warmth pours from every inch of it, the episodes Cordes’ reflects on coming into sharp focus, a little pained, seeking repair. Ground Aswim is tenderly complex, in that spend a lot of time looking back, on people, on places, Cordes quite literally with a “Birdseye” view over proceedings, “stuck up on the ceiling / chewing on a candid noose.” If Ground Aswim were a diorama, then Cordes would be subtly sculpting it, with a magnifying glass held up to inspect and tinker. The result is a record that feels uncannily vast in scope, but also pleasantly obsessive about the fine details and minutiae in composition. Bandcamp
16) Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
I don’t think I ever expected a Jessie Ware album to make one of these lists. Pre-2020, she wasn’t an artist I listened to, occupying the bubble of pop musicians that never quite made their way onto my playlists. I’ve found myself warming to the genre in recent years though, trying to throw away a lot of my prejudices there. What’s Your Pleasure? is a pop record, but it’s more so an authentic, highly likable disco record. Trust me, I’m a little surprised it made it here also, but there’s no resisting the style with which Ware works here, occupying the space, asking you to occupy it also. She describes the record as one of “escapism [and] groove,” and that feels right, because when What’s Your Pleasure? struts, you feel like strutting also. When the bass comes in on opener “Spotlight” you nod your head, because what else are you supposed to do? The production here is sleek and sophisticated, a throwback to a golden era that has now passed, but is partly reclaimed here. What’s Your Pleasure? is a record of liberation; it finds Ware at her more beguiling and mysterious, but also at her more transparent. The songs here are seductive and bold, they carry a swagger that elevates them. There’s a bravado to tracks like “Soul Control” and “Read My Lips,” in that everything Ware does seems to come with an added flourish. They’re songs I never expected to enjoy as much as I do, but I’m very glad that I do. With its infectious instrumentals and dance-floor grandiosity, What’s Your Pleasure? is a delectable listen, all sugar and honey.
15) Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield has come a long way since her humble beginnings with Waxahatchee. 2012’s American Weekend and 2013’s Cerulean Salt saw her emerge quietly but with a stir, those records minimalistic and affecting. On her fifth, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield embraces traditional Americana, and it makes for some of her most resonant music to date, especially towards the end of the album. There’s a quaint southern pull to a lot of the songs here, through which Crutchfield refines her songwriting and storytelling. “Arkadelphia,” as a strong example, is a rolling field, a short road-trip to the outskirts of town, finding calm acceptance in such brief escape. “We try to give it all meaning / glorify the grain of the wood / tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good / I hold on tight, come in from far / I watch the baby run around the yard / and get lonely for what I’ll never know,” Crutchfield sings, and you feel with her. Saint Cloud is a collection of recovery songs, centered thematically around sobriety and the relief that brings. In addition, it is romantic and optimistic, shedding some of the weight and energy that made 2017’s Out of the Storm such a turbulent listen. In contrast, Saint Cloud glows, penultimate track “Ruby Falls” possessing such tender grace and heart that it almost threatens to burst. The final lines here are the record’s most poignant and stirring; “When the picture fades, the years will make us calm,” Crutchfield sings, one line at a time, spaces between them, time given. “I’ll sing a song at your funeral,” she continues, “laid in the Mississipi Gulf / or back home at Waxahatchee Creek / you know you got a friend in me / I’m an angler, married to the sea.” Her voice rises and falls, comfortably so, and after singing that final line, the song continues for another fourty seconds, steel guitars punctuating a pleasant backdrop. It’s a spellbinding moment, on a record full of spellbinding moments. Bandcamp
14) Touché Amoré– Lament
Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm has always been a lyricist open about his writing process. When discussing his bands records, as a fan, or as a critic, you find that Bolm’s words are often rendered just as important as the intensity with which he and his bandmates deliver them. This shared level of dynamism, collectively channeled, makes Touché Amoré one of the tightest bands in the genre, and they remain particularly tight on Lament, a record on which Bolm experienced an understandable level of anxiety when it came to penning lyrics. A lot of this anxiety and uncertainty stemmed from the pressure of following-up a record as thematically strong as the bands last, Stage Four. In a lengthy interview on the always-enlightening Going Off-Track podcast, Bolm spoke of his desire to give the record a similar sense of focus, a need to “need” something to write about. Lament, in the end, doesn’t have the same narrative drive as Stage Four, but it excels in other areas, and finds the band at their most adventurous sonically, as well as their most well-rounded and accessible. Here, the lyrics do matter, but what matters more is that “everything” matters. It’s apparent in the gang vocal catch of “Reminders,” the sprawl of “Limelight,” the single-minded drive of “I’ll Be Your Host.” These three singles are Touché Amoré at their best. Nothing is front and center; rather, everything is centered. In some ways, these songs do include ripples of Stage Four, the latter in particular, but, as a whole, Lament is a different kind of memorable to the band’s 2016 output. A lot has to be said also for Ross Robinson’s production here, which makes for a finely-polished release and provides a gloss not normally found in the genre. This is apparent from the off, with the first track “Come Heroine” one of my favorite openers to any record this year. It kicks off a particularly strong first half, and Lament is marked by this opening run, but is marred somewhat by a weaker final leg. Despite this fairly forgettable finish, there’s not a whole lot to complain about here though. Touché Amoré remain excellent at what they do, and Lament is a strong addition to the band’s pioneering discography. Bandcamp
13) Hot Mulligan – you’ll be fine
A round of applause for the catchiest record of 2020. Follow said round of applause by shotgunning a beer and circulating some memes in the group chat. On the surface, you’ll be fine sounds like a last-minute DIY house show good-time, but, lyrically, it packs punches. Those punches are well-hidden, initially, and you’d be forgiven for glossing over them the first few playthroughs in favour of lending an ear to the hooks of “*Equip Sunglasses*” and “We’re Gonna Make It To Kilby.” Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll be fine shows itself as a little sullen at the core. You might be inclined to compare it to the likes of early Wonder Years LPs like The Upsides and Suburbia, the former of which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Hot Mulligan keep that style alive one decade on, but update it with an increased edge, found in the wailed vocals of frontman Nathan “Tades” Sanville and noodly guitar work of Chris Freeman. Things are dark, but the band’s sonic choices ensure that things never really come close to wallowing. Instead, you’re left with something poignantly anthemic. That delicate balance, shadows always peripheral, is what makes the record one of the most unforgettable of the year. It also marks a huge step-up from the band’s 2018 debut, Pilot. It’s a skyscraper-sized leap, actually, and I’m very excited to see where Hot Mulligan go next. Bandcamp
12) Run the Jewels – RTJ4
There’s a lot to be said for Run the Jewels and their ability to deliver exactly the right record at exactly the right time. Even if you’d only seen one five-minute segment running on CNN in 2020, you’d probably find at least one line on RTJ4 that references it somehow. This is protest music from two friends (no, brothers), doing their part to cast a critical lens upon modern America. Run the Jewels, the brainchild of super-producer El-P and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, are at their most potent on LP four, incensed with good reason. Few songs this year have done quite the heavy lifting that the one-two punch of “goonies vs. E.T” and “walking in the snow” do, for example. These aren’t so much songs as they are broadcasts, full of grim truths and social commentary. “Funny fact about a cage / they’re never built for just one group / so when that cage is done with them and you still poor they come for you,” El-P raps on the latter, Mike following up a minute later with the lines, “every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free / and you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper ‘I can’t breathe.'” This second collection of lines, written in response to the murder of Eric Garner in July 2014, then became applied to the murder of George Floyd in May of this year. RTJ4 was released shortly after the latter, a surprise drop, and seemed to encapsulate the anger and sense of injustice that gave birth to the various public movements that followed. As a document of present times, RTJ4 is written with indelible ink. It is vital because of its lyrical content, but, lyrics aside, it also finds its protagonists at the clearest moment of their partnership thus far. The two are connected as they haven’t been prior, jewel-running on identical wavelengths. The trade-offs and switches here are sharp, the two exchanges lines and verses with ease over some excellent beats. These beats are lively, the samples well utilised as always, the production cutting-edge and futuristic. If RTJ4 was nothing but the daredevil egotism of “ooh la la” and “out of sight,” it’d still be a great record. Pairing these more playful tracks with political heavy-hitters, though, makes for Run the Jewels at their genre-topping best.
11) Keaton Henson – Monument
As winter threatened to descend on the city I live in, the days oscillating between frigid, moderate, and temperate, Monument arrived, and, with it, seemed almost single-handedly responsible for the ceasing of that oscillation. Winter finally did descend, late autumn holding on and eventually succumbing as if gently ushered away by Henson’s fragile bird delivery. I let Monument accompany me on walks around the lake, watching the last leaves drop from the ginkgo trees, knowing those leaves would be swept away overnight, and thinking that every second of Henson’s seventh LP seemed a splinter away from disappearing likewise – as if something so beautiful yet breakable never quite seemed destined to survive an entire season. For those familiar with Henson’s body of work preceding Monument, the songs here will immediately feel like companion-pieces. There’s certainly a familiarity to tracks here, but that isn’t a bad thing. Over the years, Henson’s music has never quite lost its ability to move, forever teetering, vulnerable in such a way that you want to extend a hand towards it, usher it in from the cold. I still listen to Birthdays in the dark. I did the same the first time I pressed play on Monument, to the opening notes of “Ambulance,” a somber and melancholic mood-setter. “I’ll write until there’s nothing left of me,” Henson laments, “I’m dancing myself to death.” Art, art such as this, has a single-minded aim: to sustain, to nourish, and, if unable to nourish, then simply to sustain. Place any more expectation on it, and it crumbles. Everything it needs to provide, it provides. Here, Henson travels, philosophizes, ruminates, and returns each and every time to music as an anchor. For the listener able to move amongst Monument without being overwhelmed by it, the anchor is there for them also. I think it broke my heart, broke its own heart also, but, like those ginkgo trees by the lake, we endure.
10) tricot – Black / 10
tricot’s Black, the first of the Japanese math-rock bands 2020 full-lengths, begins sounding like an At The Drive-In record, with angular guitars and crashing drums, but only stays that way for a minute. It shifts quickly, that urgency abating as vocals come in, transitioning into the poppy, upbeat “Right Brain Left Brain.” These opening moments are symbolic of tricot’s music. Here you have a band well aware of what they’re doing, never afraid to throw a sudden shift or key change into the mix. It makes their records wildly unpredictable and thrilling in equal measure. Ten years into their career, tricot have grown tighter as a unit with each subsequent release, and that synergy, which has brought vivacity and immense technical dexterity to past records, is well-honed here. For any bands seeking to emulate, there’s also some taunt in how easy it all sounds, how well all of the pieces fit into place. At the peak of their powers, tricot are unmatched, and, on Black, they are frequently at their best. You don’t need to look any further than the likes of “Junpumanpan” as a shining example. Again, beginning frenetic, it settles in a comfortable lull, vocalist Ikkyu providing a pleasant respite, before things speed up once more. These jumps are never jarring, they never displace momentum, they only add something new. Black is a vivarium; there’s so much life crammed into the tracks here, making for an absolutely breathless fourty-two minutes. You could quite comfortably apply all of the above to 10 also, which was released in October, the band’s second full-length of 2020. In contrast to Black, the artwork and marketing aesthetic of which matched the title, 10 embraces the more colourful side of tricot, a celebration of sorts for the bands 10-year anniversary. This is a more cohesive body of work, the tracks here flowing cleanly into each other while maintaining the bands technical stylings. At times, it’s peaceful and calming, at others more dynamic. It’s always somewhat playful though, and you get the sense that the band are enjoying themselves immensely. There’s “Summer Night Town,” for example, on which each member contributes individual vocals. There’s also “Itazura,” on which Ikkyu’s vocals soar and climb, the guitar work especially cutting. As a culmination of their first decade together, 10 is absolutely emphatic.
9) Brian Fallon – Local Honey
You probably know Brian Fallon, the former frontman of The Gaslight Anthem and now a well-established solo artist in his own right. Local Honey, his third record post-Gaslight, contains his most personal and affecting material, with thoughts on parenthood, marriage, and family central themes here. Despite being only eight-tracks long, Local Honey manages to feel longer than its runtime, owed perhaps in part to the patient songwriting here. Fallon feels fully in control of where the record goes and how it gets there, and never runs the risk of meandering. It sees him move away from the full-band feel of past releases, scaling back but streamlining. It also finds him at his most Springstein-esque from a lyrical, storytelling perspective. There are poignant open letters to his daughter (“When You’re Ready”), sitting alongside sympathetic portraits of murderous lovers (“Vincent”), sitting alongside ruminations on death and what it means thereafter (“Horses). Where, in the past, Fallon has written songs for the road, the tracks here seem confirmed to the walls of his domestic day-to-day. It carries a fireplace warmth in its simplicity, the “honey” local indeed.
8) Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
If there was every a record to capture the angst, uncertainty, and occasionally crippling fear that comes from being under-30 in 2020, Brave Faces Everyone is that record. That likely makes it sound like a bit of a downer, but Spanish Love Songs’ second LP is a bit of a downer. It finds vocalist Dylan Slocum ducking in cinemas when a man with a holdall walks in, finds him fretting in coffee shops as his purchase contributes to a capitalist hierarchy midway through smothering him. It’s bleak, but it’s honest. Braves faces, these days, are often required in response to a system that stifles the working classes, strips them of healthcare, and puts meager pennies into their pockets – an amount only just covering high rental costs. Brave Faces Everyone tells it how it is, and there’s a lot to admire about a record and band that don’t shy away from the gritty reality of day-to-day life in modern America. As far as choruses go here, they cut deep, especially on “Optimism (As a Radical Life Choice),” Slocum singing, “Don’t take me out back and shoot me / I know my circuits are faulty / and that I’ve only ever been a kid pointing out dead dogs in the road.” Elsewhere, on “Generation Loss” (aptly titled), he shouts “When we’re so fucking tired / of explaining ourselves / we throw a pill down our throat / and ourselves into the office.” Heavy stuff, but, amidst all this nail-biting and empty-stomach nausea, Brave Faces Everyone finds a way to rally and inspire. It’s hard-fought, an uphill struggle, the tracks here perhaps not necessarily wanting to be anthemic, but feeling anthemic all the same. This is a record seeking to unite, highlighting difficulties, trying to find some resilience in the strength simply needed to put up with all that bullshit. It’s not melodrama for the sake of being melodramatic, shock value for the sake of shocking, but the way in which Spanish Love Songs craft and then deliver these songs feels like a call to arms more than a submission to the drudgery of modern living. And these tracks resonate, become powerful, become important, making for the most essential punk-rock record of 2020. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re just crawling towards it. Brace faces everyone, brave faces.
7) Mac Miller – Circles
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it on this site before, but the first gig I ever went to was a Mac Miller concert. I remember it well: HMV Ritz, Manchester, May 25th, 2012. The floor of the venue was made of recycled tennis balls, had a slight bounce to it. I and my three friends missed the last train home, and spent the night in a kebab shop, watching whatever movies we had on our old iPod Classics. In the weeks following Mac’s passing in September 2018, I went back to my memory of that night often, working my way through his discography (extensive for an artist only 26 when they pass), from the playful early mixtapes to the introspective and thoughtful later works. Through that vast collection of songs, I was able to chart Miller’s growth with relative ease, culminating in Swimming, which was, at the time, Miller’s latest LP. That record had always been intended to be the first of two closely-related works, and, earlier this year, Circles closed the loop. It is, without doubt, Mac Miller’s finest album, finding him at his most contemplative and affecting. When it leans heavily into soulful hip-hop, it seems to depict an artist older than their years, world-weary but optimistic (“Everybody”). When Mac does rap, though that’s rare here, he’s never sounded more comfortable in his delivery (“Hand Me Downs”). Overall, Circles is the sound of a musician who’s found balance, finally, you sense, and is making exactly the kind of music they want to. During a couple of years in which the majority of posthumous releases have been cobbled together, cheap cash-grabs, Circles is the rare record that adds wonderfully to its creators legacy. Miller’s legacy, certainly, will be a long one.
6) COVET – Technicolor
Nothing has found a way to get to me quite like the opening guitar notes of “good morning” have found a way to get to me this year. The opening track of COVET’s lastest LP, at just over three minutes long, is a song to soothe even the most violent of moods. The nine tracks that follow calm likewise, meaning that each subsequent play-through never fails to evoke the same sort of serenity. Technicolor is also the most appropriately-named record of 2020, in that it is lush with colour. There is fauna here, cool rivers of sound, submersion amidst all of that ambient instrumental greenery. And there are vocals here too, for the first time in the band’s discography, used sparingly, adding to rather than detracting from the experience. The focus here remains sensibly instrumental and finds each member of Covet operating almost symbiotically. The dynamic is delightful, mind-bendingly complex but also playfully effortless. When everything comes together on standout tracks such as “Parachute” and “Odessa,” the result is mesmeric. In a year rife with chaos and uncertainty, Technicolor has been a constant source of comfort. It flows beautifully, hot spring resort warm, a digital bath. “Hey, you’re gonna be okay,” guitar virtuoso and literal ray of sunshine Yvette Young sings on the final track “farewell,” and, as a listener, you’re hard-pressed to disagree. Technicolor is leaping and never quite landing, absolutely majestic. Bandcamp
5) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I doubt that there’s anything I can say about this Fiona Apple record that hasn’t already been said elsewhere on the internet. It’s really good, basically, at times almost unrecognisable as a pop record, so skewed are the structures here, so off-kilter the arrangements. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is wildly unpredictable, every song following jangly off-kilter opener “I Want You To Love Me” distinct from the one before it, thirteen zaps of pure electricity. Apple is unbridled, at times fierce, at times vulnerable, always uniquely engaging. With each subsequent listen, she reveals a little more of herself, a new favourite moment emerges and sticks, such is the catchy nature of the tracks here – catchy like loose twigs overhanging a sidewalk. Fetch the Bolt Cutters snags, tears a little, uses sewings pins to mend. This is a top-tier pop record, smart, sophisticated, but also a little unhinged, due mostly to percussion-heavy pot-and-pan instrumentation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a record like this, composed in the way it has been, has no right to sound this strong, but somehow it does.
4) Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Following her breakthrough wintry debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, was always going to be a big ask for Phoebe Bridgers. It’s a record I return to often, and one which has lost none of its initial charms, even three years and three-hundred playthroughs after it’s release. Punisher, for me, is an album I enjoy slightly less, but I think this is a credit to the strength of Bridger’s debut, more than a criticism of its follow-up. For her second record, Bridgers incorporates a much more “full-band” sound, with traditional rock songs like “Kyoto” and album highlight “Chinese Satellite.” In this way, she comfortably expands the possibilities of her music, her sugar-sweet vocals delivering dry wit and sharp rhetoric with added specificity. Even at it’s loudest, as it is here, Punisher remains achingly tender, in a way that only Bridgers seems to convey. It plays out inside a bubble, sparsely populated by friends and lovers. These characters come in various forms, crippled on “Moon Song,” distant on “Garden Song,” haunted on “Savior Complex.” Bridgers paints pictures of them with clarity and composure, intimately stark, lyrically descriptive. Her ability to tell stories in her songs is the most endearing trait of Punisher, showcased on “Graceland Too,” which features both Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, a Boy Genius short-film reunion. It is closer “I Know the End,” though, which sees Bridgers fully transform from an indie-label upstart into an artist with stadium-sized ambition, the crescendo of this track delivering a sense of catharsis not heard elsewhere in 2020. Somehow, at the album’s biggest moment, screaming into the void amidst a cacophony of noise, you’re still able to recognise the musician who delivered a beautifully serene version of Sun Kil Moon’s “You Missed My Heart” in closing out her debut. Punisher serves as a sublime next step, and Bridgers’ trajectory from here could take her anywhere. She sings often on her second LP of being abducted by aliens; in this sense, amongst others, the sky is not the limit. Bandcamp
3) NNAMDÏ – BRAT
If I was asked to try and describe BRAT to somebody, I’m not really sure how I’d go about doing it. Admittedly, this also makes it a difficult kind of record to write about. The record’s enigmatic, beyond words nature though, is exactly what I love about it. Just as you think you’ve begun to nail NNAMDÏ down on this LP, he makes sure that it shifts in a new, equally vibrant direction. As a listener, you’re left just trying to catch up. BRAT, in this regard, is a thoroughly absorbing and intriguing listen. It’s a bit of everything, a jack of all trades, if you will. Amidst the many left turns and surprises here, there are moments to hold onto, such as the repeated refrain of first track “Flowers to My Demons,” which crops up almost as a sample in several of the tracks here, each time altered slightly. After a couple of tracks though, you don’t really want anything to hold onto; you let BRAT lead the way, and sort of follow along wide-eyed. This is a record that revels in the uncanny and dramatic, most notably in the vocal tricks played throughout, the pitch-shifting of last words, the chipmunk-esque highs that flutter around the central NNAMDÏ like birds circling the cranium of a concussed cartoon character. You wonder if these are the demons NNAMDÏ is sending flowers to, but these demons manifest more clearly as the record progresses, voyaging into highly personal territory without compromising on the desire to keep the sonic palette unpredictable. Take “Semantics,” on which NNAMDÏ raps about isolation over some off-kilter beats, reminiscent in a way of his work as part of The Sooper Swag Project, whose record Bad Timing was all about weird time signature flows. Tracks ten and eleven, “Really Don’t” and “It’s OK” respectively, build on these anxieties, both equally memorable. “Call your family / Lie and say you’re okay,” he sings on the former; “It’s ok if you’re not ok. / I think you should take time if you gotta take time for you” he sings on the latter. For all of its lavish production and intricate complexities, there’s a real weight to BRAT which manages to counter-balance the occasional helium vocals and ambitious instrumentation. The way in which the record merges genres and styles reflects that nagging sense of instability. At times BRAT is hip-hop, or pop, or emo (see the twinkly guitars of “Perfect in My Mind,” like a cut from the first Foxing LP), or free-jazz – it’s always a selection box. What you get is bound to stir curiosity on the first listen. By the fifth or sixth, you’re in there and reading deeper. If it sounds like a party, then it is. If it sounds like an existential crisis, then it is. If it sounds like band practice, then it is. What BRAT is, is simply BRAT. It resists simple categorisation, and skews genres or labels in order to offer something new at every turn. Multi-faceted by self-definition, I haven’t heard anything else like it this year. This is, for its mind-bending entirety, the work of an immensely talented musician, operating at the absolute top of their game. Bandcamp
2) Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
It’s hard to think of any artist who’s been as consistent as Laura Marling over the last decade. Seriously, take a second. Anybody spring to mind? Song for Our Daughter is Marling’s seventh record and is by some distance her best. When she released her debut record, Alas I Cannot Swim, at 18, Marling was already an artist who sounded far wiser and talented than those eighteen years gave her any right to be. Here, only just passing 30, Marling is a veteran folk songstress, presenting her finest collection of songs to date. She has become, in fact, peerless, at the absolute height of her powers here. Song for our Daughter is a lush and immensely absorbing record, ten tracks in thirty-seven minutes, passing quickly as a sort of spell, a daydream. Marling’s songwriting is gorgeous, her vocals impeccable, second track “Hold Down,” a shining example of both these facets of her music. The images here, and throughout the record, are compact and evocative, the subtle vibrations of Marling’s voice pouring warmth. It is affecting most so on the title track, in which the line, “the book I left beside your bed” carries so much resonance that it encourages a moment of pause, such is the amount of meaning and emotion it carries. Marling invites you into the folds of her marriage, her family, and allows you glimpses of some rich tapestry, every inch of which has been hand-stitched and laboured over. The instrumentation is gorgeous, the lyrics are gorgeous, the singing is gorgeous, Song for our Daughter is absolutely gorgeous. This a generous gift of a listen, so listen. Bandcamp
1) Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Bartees Strange is the breakout star of 2020; this has been his year. When I came across his March EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, which consisted of five The National covers, I was hooked, and span his take on “Lemonworld” daily for what probably came to over three months. There, he’d done what I’d always wanted somebody to do to that track, take the chorus and make it stadium-sized. When he released subsequent covers of “Looking for Astronauts” and “The Geese of Beverly Road,” Strange didn’t make these similarly stadium-sized, but he did make them fully his own also. As such, you’d be forgiven for thinking that any of these covers weren’t in fact originals, such was the way Bartees Strange, real name Bartees Cox Jr., came to occupy every inch of them. His presence there, performing someone else’s songs, was huge, and appears bigger still on Live Forever, his genre-bending debut LP. As far as debuts go, they don’t come more confident or self-assured than this one. Here, you find an artist totally in control, moving effortlessly between styles and scenes, every song an original. This doesn’t come as a surprise, considering Cox’s long history in music. Born to an opera-singer mother and military father, his formative years were ones of travel and exposure. As a child, he sang in choirs; as a teen, he joined punk bands as a guitarist, not necessarily ready to become a vocalist. It was an aversion to the spotlight, Cox content just to play music. Cox speaks in interviews of his years spent in Mustang, Oklahoma, a predominantly white city, in a way that sheds some light on this period of his life. On his Bandcamp page, you find the quote, “In Mustang, I didn’t let myself be seen. I held myself down so I could make people feel more comfortable around me.” He’s speaking here of being a Black man in a white neighbourhood, and perhaps some of this can be extended to the state of the scene in the early 00’s when Cox was coming up. In 2005, Bloc Party play an incredible rendition of “Banquet” on Conan, the next year TV on the Radio release Return to Cookie Mountain to critical acclaim, including a score of 91 from Pitchfork. Fourteen years later, Bartees Strange is given the accolade of “Best New Music” by the same site. Live Forever is not an album about race, or at least, it doesn’t sound like one. You get the sense, when considering Bartees Strange the artists, that he has been biding his time, inspired by those musicians who came before him, waiting for his own moment to shine. That moment is now, but it’s no coincidence that Live Forever sounds like both a call-back to the era of indie-rock mentioned above; Cox himself said in a recent interview with Jeremy Bolm (on Bolm’s The First Ever Podcast), that a good amount of the material here has been curated from across his career, spanning back to that period. A long time in coming, Live Forever is a modern rock record that borrows from the past in a way that it makes it sound undeniably self-assured in the present.
Grounded as such, with years of momentum and consideration behind it, Live Forever never places a foot wrong. It dances between moods and methods, influencers and predecessors, but the result is fully here, now. When the opening barrage of second track “Mustang” arrives, following falsetto-haunted opener “Jealousy,” it does so with the intensity of a decade spent waiting, the best song of the year. On this track, Bartees Strange is a rock musician, on following track “Boomer” he transitions to hip-hop laced pop-punk, dropping some delightful wordplay (“Smoking in the lot they say that’s Cox he love the trees bro / I’ve man in the corner landing jets I call him Heathrow.”). On fourth track “Kelly Rowland” he flits somewhere between lo-fi bedroom pop and Soundcloud rap. And those are just the first four tracks. Live Forever contains eleven, each one distinct from that which came before. Cox is the cornerstone of each, his voice adapting accordingly. On “In a Cab” he waxes lyrical over horns, on “Stone Meadows” he strips it down in a way that conjures the late Marvin Gaye for the opening lines. Then there’s “Flagey God,” which offers pulsating bass and dance-club-closing dim mood lighting. The chorus on this track, despite it’s restraint, fully sticks, and I found myself turning it over in my head as I navigated the rooms of my apartment with a loose sway to my movements.
This second half of Live Forever, compared to a rollercoaster string of openers, is somewhat tamer, but loses none of its authenticity or energy. There’s the shapeshifting “Mossblerd,” like an Ire Works Dillinger Escape Plan experiment from an alternative timeline. Here, over wobbly, jagged instrumentals, Cox ruminates on “genres [that] keep us in our boxes,” appropriate for the box-breaking nature of the record. “Let a God’s wings burn,” he muses, “If I can’t bring the Beacon, I’mma bring the Mossblerd.” Boxes weren’t meant for artists like Bartees Strange, the wings burn. This is the darkest track on the LP, a juxtaposition to a final run that begins with the incredibly poignant “Far.” Here, initially, it is just Cox and his guitar, the two echoing and ethereal like the lyrics themselves (“So tell me what’s your name? / I’m underground / And I could be your ghost / Wander around”). When the song bursts into life, it does so with a bluesy jaunt difficult to resist. On this track, Cox is vulnerable and becomes more so on “Fallen For You,” a romantic ballad leading nicely into closer “Ghostly,” a shimmering finale.
If, during the years preceding his breakout year, Cox was waiting on the sidelines, with Live Forever he emerges fully into the spotlight, triumphant and vindicated. His staggering debut is a record full of creativity, bolstered by a heady sense of freedom in experimentation, a limitless sense of scope. As an act of self-definition, it is highly commendable; as a body of work, it is hugely impressive. 2020 didn’t get any better than this, and, if 2021 is set to be the year Cox is teasing it to be, we may well find ourselves here again next December. Talk about setting the bar high – Live Forever will require some beating.