2020 will go down in history as one of the craziest and unprecedented years the world has seen. Tours were cancelled, albums were delayed, and college radio found itself streaming from home for the first time ever. This all being said, the insanity of this year led to massive projects and creativity blossoming all around us; so moving forward into a (hopefully) better 2021, here are our picks for the most memorable albums of 2020.
Best 2020 Debut Album:
China Club – Ming + Zhizhi
It’s easy to remember 2020 as the year of the hermit, staying indoors trying to not get down with the sickness, but it was also one of social and political upheaval. Hundreds of thousands of people in the US and China demanded an immediate change of the broken system that oppress citizens daily. China Club’s Ming + Zhizhi simulates this challenge of facing down a monolithic force in a virtual vacuum with accelerating breakbeat polyrhythms and blistering synthesizers. The local legends came through with a debut album saturated with technical prowess from beginning to end. And in the end, China Club encourages us to pick it up and try again because the battle for justice and equality is a battle that is never complete.
TLDR- lofi beats to start a revolution to. – Jonathan Stewart
Worst Album Art To Use As Your Zoom Background:
Green Day – Father of All…
Your choice of custom background on Zoom can say a lot about you: your aesthetic, your favorite media, what Ikea showroom you wish your room looked like, the list goes on. Choosing the latest Green Day album artwork as your backdrop will also send a strong message: do not hand this person the virtual aux cord. The barely-hidden expletive on the cover alone would make this an HR violation to all but the hippest employers, and even the more profanity-tolerant workplaces would find it tacky. Ultimately though, this artwork’s gravest sins aren’t against formality but the concept of good taste in general.
Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong designed the album cover himself, which screams less “CBGBs” and more ‘Kidz Bop”. The band’s name is meant to appear like it’s written in blood (presumably spilled in some totally badass moshpit), but looks a lot closer to a red gel pen you’d pick up at a school book fair along with some pencil toppers and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not book the size of your torso. Meanwhile, the rainbow-puking unicorn obscuring the epithet is too garish for even furries to co-opt. To add insult to injury, the outstretched arm is copy-pasted from the band’s 2004 landmark LP American Idiot, begging you to compare your middle-school nostalgia with this regurgitated pile of dentists’ office rock. If you wanna show Billie Joe & co. some virtual love, inflicting this artwork on your classmates or coworkers is not the way to do it. – Daniel Valdez
Album that Makes You Miss Concerts the Most:
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – K.G.
Undeterred by the pandemic and the loss of a drummer (who is now working full-time as their label, Flightless), the six-membered King Gizzard put out their first socially distant album with each member recording remotely. One of their most diverse releases as it includes turkish-house, acoustic microtonal rock, and heavy metal; K.G. brings something to the table for every King Gizzard fan. Not to mention that a sister album, L.W., recently confirmed in an interview with MOJO magazine, has fans at the edge of their seats to hear more King Gizzard. On top of all that, King Gizzard has released eight more albums (live, demos, and an old classic) for people to make their own records, cassettes, and CDs to sell like they did with their 2017 release, Polygondwanaland. All of this hype and new music has fans like me on the edge of their seats to buy tickets to their next shows when they become available. – John Lawler
Worst Album To Show Your Mom:
Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
But hey, maybe your mom’s different! Maybe she’s a Houston hip-hop head and appreciates the pitched-down foreboding of the Geto Boys sample on “Say the Name”. Perhaps she cut her teeth on classic horror flicks like Wes Craven’s Scream, so grisly allusions like “96 Neve Campbell, the TV set on your face” will have her chuckling in recognition instead of commanding Alexa to turn this racket off. It could be that while the other moms were playing Baby Einstein tapes for their kids, your childhood was soundtracked by the harsh noise squalls of Whitehouse, so ferocious freakouts like “Something Underneath” make your folks nostalgic and bust out the scrapbook instead of their earplugs. If any of those describes your mom, then sure, go ahead and introduce her to the haunting horrorcore of Clipping. Otherwise, the only Daveed Diggs rap you should stream in the family living room is on the Hamilton soundtrack. – Daniel Valdez
Best Release During Quarantine
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
If you’ve been unhealthily glued to social media like most of us since March, you’ve probably seen preachy posts about how if you’re not maximizing your time in quarantine to learn seven new languages, write the Next Great American Novel, and shrink to 1% body fat, then you’re “wasting” time. By that metric, Charli XCX has “succeeded”, but the collaborative process and empathy behind her electro-pop masterpiece proved she never played by those rules to begin with.
Throughout six weeks in April and May, the British hyperpop princess recorded and wrote this album remotely alongside collaborators like A.G. Cook and 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady. Every step of the way, she kept fans in the loop and sought their input on everything from cover art to track sequencing. Her fanbase of “Angels” has a devoted queer contingent, and the album’s club-ready sonics and existential lyrics speak to the sharply felt loss of IRL queer communities this year. She pays homage to her “clique running through my mind like a rainbow” on “C2.0”, one of many moments on the album where the salvation of community and grief of isolation exist in an uneasy standstill. “All my friends are invisible, 24/7 miss ‘em all”, she laments on “Anthems”, the track that feels most in-tune to our global moment where both nothing and everything is happening at once. She hopes over a throbbing, headphone-rattling beat, “Finally, when it’s over, we might even be closer”. By harnessing the power of online connection and communal creation, How I’m Feeling Now helped bring pop fans closer during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern history. – Daniel Valdez
Best Local Album to Close Your Eyes and Pretend You Were at a DIY Venue To
Steven Leftovers – Mercury Nickels & Buffalo Pennies
Once you close your eyes, the rest of your senses begin to fill your mind: The hit of a cymbal and rustling as the previous act breaks down, the smell of sweat and drinks, the shoulder brush of a slightly familiar bearded guy. And just like that, you are back in the middle of a swarming DIY coalescence, the kind that could only be quieted by something as gentle and compelling as the guitar on Steven Leftover’s opening track, “Gucci Picture in the Magazine.” Right away, it’s clear that this album holds nothing back on a vocal or emotional level. The intricate mix of high and low register harmonies immerse the listener into a world of reflection, love, and loss. These themes ring throughout the album with repeating lyrics like “I miss everything now” and the standout ode to a beloved musician, “When David Berman Died.” As the set continues, Steven Leftovers holds on to his tenderness. The echoed dreamscape of “Moth Song” as well as the equally groovy and sentimental pull of “Use All I Have” highlight the unmatched musicianship this local artist has developed with his time in the scene. So if you’ve been missing house venues, do not sleep on this album. Mercury Nickels & Buffalo Pennies manages to capture a complex joy of DIY shows: the intimacy that imagines only you and the music in existence and the togetherness that fosters love through shared experience. – Abby Mancini
Album that will Manifest an RPG Video Game Adaptation
Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED
Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats came back to us again in 2020 with a tight seventeen minute EP using their signature hard-hitting styles. As fun as it is serious, Unlocked has been a go to for me while playing Cyberpunk 2077 because it’s the perfect soundtrack for exploration and combat. The story-driven music video for the album has Denzel and Curry taking a saturday-morning-cartoon-esque journey into reclaiming the newly leaked tracks of Unlocked. Denzel, always leaving his fans hungry for more, would be a perfect creative force to manifest a videogame for this album, or one in the future. – John Lawler
Best Album Released by an Artist/Group in 5+ Years
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Emerging from her cicadian hole after almost 8 years of radio silence, the elusive Fiona Apple chose the auspicious year of 2020 to release her new album and thank god she did. While this album can hardly be described as a “breath of fresh air”, and more like a long-deserved confrontation, on FTBC Apple sings, wails, and screams her way through years of pent-up emotions. 2020 could not have had a better music backdrop, with tracks like “Relay” enumerating the cyclical nature of evil (ever present this year) and the title track giving a mantra to widespread (covid-19-induced) cabin fever. FTBC finds Apple at her most fed up, not only with the bigoted attitudes of well… bigots, but seemingly the piano-rock instrumentation she has previously claimed as her trademark. On some tracks, in exchange for rippling piano arpeggios, Apple opts instead for instrumentation from perhaps the first canines to be featured on a Grammy-nominated album: Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Alfie, and Little. I would hate to seemingly lump Apple into the stereotypical category of unhinged women who spew their ills to anyone in a splash-zone radius, because every song on this album is effortlessly held together by her untouchable artistic genius. All in all, FTBC adds yet another musical masterpiece to Apple’s already incredible oeuvre, only polishing her throne as one of the most innovative singer-songwriters of the 21st-century.
Best Album to Listen To as the World Falls to Pieces
draag me – I Am Gambling With My Life
Steady Turn The Cog: mass awakening that life is meaningless
Passing Thru: is it just me or is it getting hot in here? (the world)
Why Do You Feel Nothing?: life-long relationships declining
The Curve: some AI just took my job
I Am Gambling With My Life: now apathetically unemployed
Burned My Tapes: destroyed all my belongings cause i’m punk, definitely was not from the rampant wildfires in my state
There Is A Party Where I’m Going: ok things are looking pretty bad but we can still get lit?
All Bad Score Emulations: forgot that parties make me sad
Running Instead: ohmygodARE THOSE ZOMBIES? RUN
Wrench: ohmygod i just got bit by a zombie
Fools Every Day: but my last two brain cells are loving this
Die On That Hill: got drafted into the zombies vs. AI world war
Form: they’re gonna make a real (zombie) man out of me!
Lie: fell in love with an AI girl and it’s getting harder and harder to lie
Money: are we even getting paid for this war?
You’re Giving It Away: my AI gf just sacrificed herself to save a way less hot AI :,(
Coming Home: forget everything, i’m quitting and returning to the nuclear ruins of my home town
Closer: all the old homies are leaving for outerspace
I Want To Go First: you bet i’m on that spacecraft, peace out world!!!
– Abby Mancini