Art of the Apocalypse: The Best Indie Rock Albums and Songs of 2020
Never have we needed music more than in 2020. Never have we seen a tougher environment for new music. The constant assault of this year on our collective sanity has made it substantially tougher than normal to focus on and appreciate art. Now imagine how much harder it has been for creators to produce said art during the year. They have either had to block out all of their 2020 stressors in order to create anything or channel those stressors into their creations, all while knowing that touring — the musician’s main source of income in the backwards music industry model — had disappeared in an instant, without hope of returning for…a year? Two years?
Despite <gestures wildly> all of this working against us, we have gotten some fantastic records in 2020. Some were produced pre-pandemic and came out early in the year. Many of these were casualties of COVID, with all grand plans for tour support having disappeared into the ether. Others were written right in the middle of everything, and had to compete for attention with the siege of pandemic and election news. They may have come and gone while you were obsessing over one or more of the big events of the year, but if you missed them then, you should take some time for them now.
Best Albums of 2020
Disclaimer: my best-of lists do not attempt to be all things to everyone. This is about guitar-driven independent rock in 2020. In the space of about five years, some of the more prominent, once reliable year-end music lists have transformed from unique sources of discovery into bland, cookie cutter regurgitations of whatever sold the most during the year (the one exception to this appears to be The Alternative, which cranked out a solid list this year). Most have turned into today’s version of Billboard charts, highlighting only what the few remaining major labels prefer across every genre. In my articles, you get only what legitimately grabs me and, let’s face it, in only a handful of genres. Onward…
Beach Bunny — Honeymoon
This record is stellar. It didn’t fully land for me on my first pass, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because the first half is solid, while the back half just blew me away. The back end of this record is better than anything else I’ve heard in a long time. Colorblind is the only song this year that I just couldn’t put down. It alternates between strong guitar lines behind catchy choruses and playful guitar interludes. It sounds as though the two guitars are singing to each other and having the time of their lives doing it — I just love it and am incapable of listening to it just once. It feels like this song construction is part of an evolution of Beach Bunny’s sound. Dream Boy and Cloud 9 take on a similar style to crush the end of the album. If this is what Beach Bunny is going to be moving forward, I’m all in. The first press is on light blue vinyl and comes with a poster.
Greg Dulli — Random Desire
This record is not getting enough attention. Any Dulli album is likely to appear on my list, but this is the most complete record he has released in a decade, and it’s tragic that the pandemic robbed us of the tour that was supposed to accompany it. (Side note: I think the two best songs he has cranked out during that 10-year stretch — These Sticks and Lost in the Woods — were on The Afghan Whigs’ Do to the Beast, but on the whole, I think Random Desire is a slightly superior album.) The tracks I keep going back to are The Tide, Black Moon, and Pantomima. Black Moon is the quintessential killer closer from Dulli, even though it’s not actually the last track on the album. People seem to have latched onto Lockless as well. I like that one, but I’m still acclimating to Dulli’s newfound low-end vocal warble, and it’s a little overpowering on Lockless. Bottom line: Random Desire is excellent and belongs in a whole lot more end-of-year lists. Released on clear and black vinyl, along with a Barnes & Noble exclusive signed version (black vinyl).
Diet Cig — Do You Wonder About Me?
Diet Cig’s second full-length was definitely a victim of COVID. It dropped May 1, right in the middle of the first real wave. A very good effort overall — poppier and more mellow than their first album, with a few more interlude tracks, but just as many earworms: Thriving, Who Are You?, and Night Terrors will all get lodged in your brain if you give them the opportunity. Flash Flood is the highlight for me, though — that’s the only real high-energy song on the album. I like it most when Diet Cig gets a little thrashy. This band has stayed busy during the COVID months, with frequent streaming performances (it helps that they live together). They also launched a Patreon site a few months ago, and they are one of the bands that is doing Patreon the right way; lots of variety in their content, catering to different types of fans, but consistently knocking out exclusive tracks (one cover per month). And don’t sleep on the track they just put out on the new digital Father/Daughter holiday compilation. I think it’s my second favorite Diet Cig song of 2020. The first pressing of Do You Wonder About Me? came out on glow-in-the-dark and baby pink vinyl.
Long Neck — World’s Strongest Dog
Long Neck has had one hell of a year. Following the resolution of the public battle between Adult Mom and Tiny Engines Records (I’ll spare you the rehashed details — Google can tell you everything you need to know), Long Neck also extracted themselves from their relationship with the label. They reached an agreement to pay back expenses related to the recording and pressing of their new album, and then took to Indiegogo to crowdsource the necessary funding. Well…it worked. Dramatically. They hit their goal in four hours, and the self-released record came out in April. Just in time for the first wave of the apocalypse in New York. Maybe that’s why I didn’t initially listen to it as much as I should have. I really liked it from the start, but I think bigger things were afoot. I listen to it a lot more now. It is a particularly solid rock record: strong guitars, vocals, and lyrics, with great overall intensity that peaks when it needs to. They Shoot Horses lays waste to its enemies with reckless abandon. Other highlights: Campfire, Cicada, M.D.P. Campfire gets stuck in your head quite easily, especially in light of the live stream series that main Long Neck creator Lily Mastrodimos organizes called Around the Campfire. These are really well done and well worth your time. Lily gets some spectacular bands to participate and the sound is usually really good (far better than many live stream shows I’ve seen). The vinyl came out on a really cool blue swirl and a salmon pink.
Oceanator — Things I Never Said
Oceanator is another Tiny Engines refugee. Elise Okusami, the creative force behind Oceanator, launched her own label, Plastic Miracles, and used that imprint to put out Things I Never Said. This is a great rock record. Elise hits on a number of different styles throughout the album, many of which grow out of slower tempo and strong guitars. There’s one faster-paced song on here, Heartbeat, and it’s my favorite on the record. There’s another track on here, I Would Find You, that should be the soundtrack to a montage of bad things happening in an 80s movie. I mean that it a good way, I promise. Okusami also managed to do one thing that no one has really done well since the 90s: nail the rock epic. Now, the rock epic doesn’t mean the same thing it once did: I’m talking about 5–6 minute songs. That’s about as epic as our 2020 attention spans can handle, though. Hide Away and The Sky Is Falling are two of those anthemic epics, and both are excellent. The first pressing was of Things I Never Said was on two colors: orange and orange with yellow splatter. Big Scary Monsters released a different version in the UK, and the album has since been picked up by Polyvinyl. They are re-releasing it on a couple of additional fun colors in January.
Teenage Halloween — S/T
I saw Teenage Halloween twice in 2019, first with Team Dresch, and later with The Ergs! and Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band, and they killed it both times. They were fully on my radar at that point, and yet…I completely missed their first full-length coming out in September. I have now remedied that problem. This record slays. It’s 24 minutes of emotionally charged indie rock and pop-punk, and you can tell they mean every bit of it. It has the intensity I look for in all music. It’s tougher to find than you might think. Highlights: SMH City, Clarity, Summer Money. The first pressing was on orange and black splatter vinyl, and a second is already on the way.
The Beths — Jump Rope Gazers
The Beths’ second album has not received the media fanfare that the first did (outside of New Zealand). Maybe it’s the higher concentration of ballads on this one, but I don’t listen to it as much as I did their first record, despite it being a very good album. I do listen to a couple of tracks quite a bit. Dying to Believe and I’m Not Getting Excited are the two best examples on here of what I love about The Beths. Both are higher tempo tracks with catchy vocals and deceptively complex arrangements, and both rank highly on my list of songs of the year. Out of Sight and Mars, the God of War are both strong ones as well. And that’s not to say the ballads aren’t good — they are. I just like the other songs more. Jump Rope Gazers was first released on tangerine vinyl, and there was a version that came with a bonus 7" featuring a demo and an earlier version of two album tracks. Then, there was a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive on yellow vinyl (highly annoying, as it required a Vinyl Me, Please subscription to purchase), and a Rough Trade exclusive on red vinyl (less annoying and available to everyone).
Bob Mould — Blue Hearts
Holy hell, folks, Bob’s pissed. When the first single from this album, American Crisis, dropped as a teaser, I knew we were in for something special. I like basically everything Bob Mould releases, but this is the best complete album he’s put out in some time. It is clear Bob took out his frustrations with the state of the country/world on his poor instruments in making this record. It’s not a subtle one, and it’s got a driving energy that hammers its lyrical points home. This is the closest-sounding album to Hüsker Dü that Bob has released since that band existed. I think it’s fair to say angry Bob is the best Bob, at least if you are looking for loud guitars. Highlights: Next Generation, Siberian Butterfly, American Crisis. Released on a really cool black/white/blue tri-color vinyl as well as black.
Ratboys — Printer’s Devil
Ratboys have classically been a little mellow for my tastes. I’ve always really enjoyed their faster-paced stuff, but have never gotten fully locked in before now. Then came Printer’s Devil. I Go Out at Night is a particularly beautiful song, and as it stands, one of my favorites of the year. Anj and Alien with a Sleep Mask On are two other highlights, but it is a great record all around. Despite not being able to tour, the band has been super active with live stream performances. They did a whole virtual tour, and if you haven’t caught one of their streaming performances, you should, as they will charm you to death. The first press of Printer’s Devil was on several colors with fun names: sandstorm, lake blue, mist grey, and dissolve red. That’s obviously the blue one above. There’s a second press with some additional fun colors.
Best Songs of 2020
I discussed many of these tracks above, but there are some other to cover, as not all came out on albums. First off, can we take a moment to recognize that we got new Archers of Loaf material this year?!? It’s damn good, too. Four songs, two singles…and then the planned accompanying tour dates disappeared into the COVID void. All are good, but Raleigh Days is the best of the bunch. It sounds like vintage Loaf, and I am here for it.
Next up: Anika Pyle did it again this year. She only put out a couple of songs in 2020, but one of them was this indie-pop gem: Poetry vs. Reason. This song would have taken the top slot for me if I hadn’t gotten so wrapped up in Colorblind.
Then, we have Fishbone. As you may or may not have heard, Fishbone is red hot. Fishbone has also been playing in recent years with their full original lineup (minus Kendall), and it’s been amazing to see. This year, news broke that they recorded a new album with Fat Mike, for 2021 release. They teased one track in a live performance — a modern take on Strange Fruit called Estranged Fruit, and holy crap is it good. Since it’s not officially out yet, I will save that song for next year’s list. However, Fishbone also performed a cover of Alice in Chains’ Them Bones for the Museum of Pop Culture Founders Award. For this, they had the full original lineup — Kendall included. And they just slayed it. That one makes the 2020 list, even if it was a live performance and not an official single.
And finally, we got news this year that Sincere Engineer had been signed to Hopeless Records, and with that news, we got a new track, Trust Me, and it kills. When I first heard this band, I considered it a guilty pleasure. The more I listened to their first album, Rhombithian, though, the more I realized that, no, they’re a work of emo-punk beauty, and they crush it without exception. This is their newest, and it makes me pretty excited for the next album.
So here we are…my top tracks of 2020:
- Beach Bunny — Colorblind
- Anika Pyle — Poetry Vs Reason
- Archers of Loaf — Raleigh Days
- Greg Dulli — Black Moon
- Sincere Engineer — Trust Me
- Ratboys — I Go Out at Night
- The Beths — Dying to Believe
- Long Neck — They Shoot Horses
- Diet Cig — Flash Flood
- Oceanator — Heartbeat
- Greg Dulli — The Tide
- Beach Bunny — Cloud 9
- Fishbone — Them Bones (live)
- Bob Mould — Next Generation
- Teenage Halloween — SMH City
John Pette is too curious for his own good. He is a data scientist, researcher, archivist, and music reviewer. He has run Pette Discographies since 2007, a site for record collectors who want to go deeper into bands’ discographies. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram.
A version of this article appears on the Pette Discographies Blog.