As we’ve all trudged through 2020, slogging through each subsequent contradiction to “at least it can’t get any worse,” I know there has been a light at the tunnel keeping everyone going: my famous year-end recap!
Here is the second installment of my annual playlist, the best 50 songs by 50 different artists that I’ve heard this year, highly curated for public consumption. Not ranked or in any particular order.
New Artists to Look Out For
This year I’d like to highlight some freshman faces to the scene. So get out your poncho, you’re in the splash zone and these artists are going make a big one!
Sam Himself is a Swiss artist that blends a baritone voice having the emotional gravitas of Matt Berninger with the new wave, atmospheric sound of The War on Drugs. The result is personal, cinematic music ready for a coming-of-age montage. Here’s him in drag in an awesome video.
It is a little more dubious to include Frazer as a new musician, as he has sang and performed drums for Durand Jones and the Indications. However, this year he has released his first real foray into solo music this year (beyond the odd singles in 2017). The end result is an easily danceable jazzy blue-eyed soul sung with a smooth falsetto.
A Dutch male duo (What ever happened to male duo pop groups?) consisting of Daniel De Jong and Daniel Elvis Schoemaker, the double-Dans make beachy stoner soul that is just audio catharsis. Yet to send out a full album, their most recent 2020 EP is like riding down a lazy river with nowhere else to be.
Albums of the Year
- The Strokes – The New Abnormal
After a seven year hiatus, The Strokes have returned. Produced by Rick Rubin, The Strokes have made their best since Room on Fire in 2003. They honed the new wave influences that were explored in Angles and Comedown Machine and melded it with the tried and true post-punk of their peak. It’s Casablancas’ best singing performance, coming out of his typical understated croon with emotional balladeering and use of a falsetto. The album mixes the angst of garage or punk with the pop sensibility of 80’s synth hits, maybe no more evident than “Eternal Summer” which sounds like Phoenix covered Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The homages to the 80’s are intentional and acknowledged in the lyrics (“Oh the 80’s bands, where did they go?” and “The Rubik’s Cube isn’t solving for us”). The period-piece-ness is most obvious with “Bad Decisions,” their obligatory radio-hit, that is really fun and enjoyable despite being clearly derivative of The Cure and Generation X (they gave Billy Idol writing credit on the song).
Favorite Track: Why Are Sundays So Depressing
- Adrienne Lenker – songs
The lead singer of Big Thief goes solo again. A stripped down, acoustic, archetypal singer-songwriter album, with such few tools it’s difficult to differentiate yourself. Lenker’s candid and afflicting lyricism is sung with a melodic ease akin to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon that makes the heavy themes go down smooth. The album is uniquely emotionally powerful and calming at the same time.
Favorite Track: zombie girl
- Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open
Will Toledo’s frenetic, low-fi indie rock gets a polished revamp. While Toledo’s vulnerable, angsty lyricism may be better fitted to his previous work that leans towards punk or post-punk, he still has his feverish rock anthems with the more slickly produced “Martin” or “Deadlines (Hostile).” Also in the album are synth tracks, however they still have the CSH’s trademark sound that dramatically swells and crescendos (“Life Worth Missing”).
Favorite Track: Deadlines (Hostile)
- The Undercover Dream Lovers – It’s All In Your Head
The brainchild of Matt Koenig, UDL makes shimmery synth pop that is like Tame Impala with some extra dopamine. Koenig’s slick falsetto hovers over funky arrangements that, true to his moniker, have atmospheric, dreamy haze while being extremely danceable.
Favorite Track: You Don’t Have to be Lonely
- Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
The front man of The National gives us his first solo album, and it’s about what you’d expect. It doesn’t stray much from the general mood or style of his band, though the beautiful arrangements are more minimalist and accentuate Berninger’s distinctive, middle-aged ennui baritone. This emphasis highlights Berninger’s sometimes esoteric lyricism, and sentiments that lean in on Morrisey-level self-pity (“Its so hard to be loved so little.”) But sometimes those vibes just hit the spot.
Favorite Track: All For Nothing
- Fenne Lily – BREACH
BREACH is an album that is a great example of the vogue Gen-Z, emotionally intelligent indie rock via Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief. The album switches between slow-burn, heart-on-sleeve tracks (“Berlin” and “Somebody Elses Trees”) and angstier rock tracks (“Alapathy” and “Solipsism”) that are all erudite, vulnerable, and compelling.
Favorite Track: I, Nietzsche
- The Nude Party – Midnight Manor
The Nude Party, like their name suggests, is a tongue-in-cheek group that produces fun, careless sleaze rock that has influences of the Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. While sometimes leaning towards the blues or to country , the whole album rocks and is simply a lot of fun, fit for a dive bar jukebox dance on top of the pool table.
Favorite Track: Nashville Record Co.
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
With Kevin Parker, you can always expect a meticulously crafted album. The Slow Rush is no different, as Parker actually remixed “Borderline” after its initial single release for the album to make the bass more prominent, evincing him a perfectionist. While lacking the consistency of “Currents,” Parker’s lush arrangements are a great time whether they’re club-ready radio hits (“Borderline” and “Is It True”) or smoldering slow-builders (“Instant Destiny” and “On Track”) as all tracks are the passionate synth that Tame Impala has made its name by.
Favorite Track: Borderline
- Muzz – Muzz
A supergroup including Paul Banks of Interpol and Josh Kaufman of the National, Muzz creates Radiohead-esque, shoegaze-y alt rock. Banks melancholily drones over moody, atmospheric arrangements that are beautiful in a jading way.
Favorite Track: Everything Like It Used to Be
- Bahamas – Sad Hunk
Afie Jurvanen, or Bahamas, doesn’t stray too far from his tropical feel-good vibes with his latest work. Probably his grooviest contribution to date, he channels John Mayer to provide slick guitar riffs with smooth, breathy vocals for a catchy, easy-listening experience. What makes this album especially good is Jurvanen’s intimate lyricism, baring his insecurities and self-failings in a reflective personal commentary.
Favorite Track: Done Did Me No Good
Colter Wall – Western Swing and Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs
Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times
For some reason I felt loathe to include country music into the rankings, maybe because many fans of the 1-10 albums would be country adverse. However, these two albums are fresh but nostalgic country albums that starkly contrast from what’s on the radio. I love outlaw country, and both these artists are modern cowboys that elicit imagery of the wild west with charming storytelling and folksy but poignant lyricism to jaunty instrumentation of 60’s and 70’s country.
Favorite Tracks: Big Iron, Heads You Win