By Penny Contributors
The past twelve months have certainly been tumultuous, but, thankfully, they have also been soundtracked excellently. With that in mind, a handful of Penny contributors shared some of their favorite releases of 2020, to place emphasis on the brighter parts of the year and to help compile the list below. Each album mentioned is linked, so make sure to give them a listen as you read!
Additionally, meet our new contributors, some of whom helped create this list, here.
After the viral success of Molchat Doma’s first two albums, Z krysh nasich domov and Etazhi, this album is their first release under Sacred Bones Records. On Monument, the band combines dark and moody lyrics with high pitched synths. It is the perfect soundtrack for gaming or for wandering around at night in the city. The highlight of this album is definitely the song “Discotheque,” which has a very catchy chorus and rhythm that makes you want to dance and sing along.
Black Marble’s Bigger than Life is a perfect album for gloomy weather. The deep voice of frontman Chris Stewart fits the minimal drum beats very well. The song structures throughout the record aren’t very technical but, sometimes, there is perfection in simplicity, which is definitely the case with this album. It has a very ‘80s feel to it and is fitting for occasional moments of time travel.
Notes on a Conditional Form, which was finally released in May 2020, was long-awaited, ever since it was announced and subsequently postponed multiple times. It features a variety of different genres and sounds, including the loud and noisy track ”People,” the dancy track “Shiny Collarbone,” and ballads such as “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” and “Guys” (which is an ode to the band itself by frontman Matty Healy). The songs work very well as singles, but the album as a whole has the tendency to come across as too chaotic, random, and not very thought-out. Generally, it’s very experimental and can come off as quite unusual to the occasional The 1975 listener.
On his third full-length under the alias King Krule, Archy Marshall explores the untold narrative of finding love as an individual so characteristically embodied by ostracization: the anguish of realizing that there’s now something left to lose. Like his previous releases, Man Alive! immerses the listener in a soundscape of jazz, punk, and darkwave, all of which serve as a bed for the poetic ramblings of Marshall’s perpetually melancholic state to lie on. But unlike 2017’s The Ooz (his previous release), rather than writing from the perspective of a troll living under society's bridge, Marshall explores his role as a newfound husband and father, and the emotional volatility that comes with those pressures on this record. For the first time in the King Krule discography, we see Marshalls more empathetic side, as he expresses, “I hang my head for those who haven’t felt too close in times of pain” ["Don’t Let The Dragon (Draag On)"] and offers the reminder, “Don’t forget your not alone” ("Omen 3"). Simultaneously, however, we find these sentiments bathed in underlying tones of unsettledness, as Marshall experiences the drug-like dependence that comes in engaging in loving relationships. We see this range from the powerfully violent exclamation — “You’re my everything, you make me feel alright,” on the track "Perfecto Miserable" — to the longingly whimpering of, “This world doesn’t move me…girl, please complete me” on the album’s closer. The irony of volatility in this state of Marshall’s life truly speaks to the album’s title, and creates an empowering insight that makes Man Alive! one of my favorites of the year. Needless to say, listeners of this album will agree, it’s “such a funny life.”
Fine Line is an album that makes you fall in love, eventually deal with a heartbreak and, learn to move on. It’s the epitome of what falling in love and finding yourself in this process feels like. It's brilliant if you want to just allow yourself to feel things, get over something or someone.
Niall’s latest pop/rock album leaves you smiling because of how beautiful the lyrics are. He’s himself with the catchy music and leaves your heart longing for more (and, also, he’s a heartthrob).
This album is honestly something that can make you realize how much there is to be thankful for in life. Each of its cherishable songs contain beautiful lyrics and melodies that are worth listening to on loop.
On her first album in eight years, Fiona Apple articulates her coming-of-age and realizations that the world is bullshit. Complete with dog barks and makeshift percussion sounds, this experimental album breaks every rule.
Haim’s third album radiates a warm Los Angeles glow. Sisters Alana, Este, and Danielle are at their most self-assured, and it shows throughout this, an album bursting with forward momentum.
Grimes masks their nihilism with their trademark saccharine, otherworldly sound on this release. Instead of simply singing about everyday problems, they view them through warped, fantastic lenses.
Dehd is a post-punk/pop trio from Chicago who have this very minimal and spacious sound that I love. On their latest record, Flower of Devotion, they fill a lot of that space with even more dreamy reverb and vocalist Emily Kempf’s catchy vocal melodies and playful experimentation. Overall, the album feels a lot more expressive and emotional than their previous albums; it has a lot more pop sounding, and I love it. Some of my favorite songs from the album include “Loner,” “Nobody,” and “Flying.”
It seemed like everyone and their mother was waiting for Phoebe Bridgers to release her sophomore album this year. With her debut album garnering millions of Spotify streams and good press, as well as giving Phoebe new fans, it was expected that her next release was going to be something incredible. Thankfully, fans were not disappointed and neither were critics, helping Bridgers earn four Grammy nominations.
This album was long-awaited following the great response Dominic’s debut EP, Don’t Forget About Me, Demos, received from fans and press. With this most recent release being Fike’s first full-length record, it gave him an opportunity to really show off his musical skills and another side of himself that we didn’t see on the EP.
To be honest, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was not a frequent listen for me this year. Generally, though, the sound of the record, reminiscent of an ‘80s disco, brought joy to many during a dull, lifeless quarantine. The album is full of spunk and life, quite different from the singer’s debut self-titled album, and got a lot of love from fans and critics alike.
NNAMDÏ is a staple in the Chicago music scene and his newest album is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. BRAT is equal parts a maximalist cacophony of noise and a soothing lullaby, with songs that span an array of genres. It tackles themes of selfishness and self-doubt with all the confidence of an excited toddler.
fav tracks: “Flowers To My Demons,” “Salut,” “Semantics”
I’ve been a really big fan of Haley for awhile so I was STOKED when she announced she was releasing a full-length album this year. Below the Salt takes all the familiar, beloved qualities of her previous music and amps them up a notch. It’s the perfect album to dance around your room or stare longingly out the window to.
fav tracks: “Ready or Not,” “Firestarter,” “Be Your Own Muse”
Listening to The Passion Of is like sticking your finger in a light socket but in the best way possible. It is urgent and chaotic, with elements of punk, industrial, and glam laying the groundwork for lead singer Alli Logout's sharp lyrics. It’s a must-listen for this current day and age.
fav tracks: “All Tomorrow’s Carry,” “With Love,” “Disco III”
Bambara’s Stray is forty minutes of Southern gothic purgatory, where you’re immediately sent hurtling through a pitch-black, rain-soaked tumult of amoral characters and inescapable horror. On the record, frontman Reid Bateh channels Flannery O’Connor as he sings of personified evil racing across America, all while the band’s reverb-tinged, perfectly calibrated, ravenous post-punk follows in his wake. The momentum is almost palpably violent on singles “Serafina” and “Heat Lightning,” while more carefully paced cuts like “Sweat” and “Machete” practically bare their teeth at you in their measured dread.
Where previous projects Giles Corey and Deathconsciousness mediated on their own despair, Dan Barrett finds a rare hope through Black Wing— even if, musically, the darkwave is no less dark. No Moon opens with the low, bright plea of “Bollywood Apologetics,” and sails through furiously battering tracks like “Vulnerable” and “Ominous 80.” Barrett closes with his 13-minute-long opus, “Twinkling,” a post-industrial synthpop behemoth that sounds like John Maus trapped in the bottom of a well, looking up and playing out to the stars.
Where 2017’s Relatives In Descent ended with an uncharacteristically hopeful sentiment — personifying truth as a woman, who’s “just trying to reach you / trying to reach you” — Ultimate Success Today violently discards that pretense with its opening lines, “I could not be reached / no matter how many times she repeats.” It’s a fittingly 2020 record, with lines on soothsayer-esque lead single “Processed by the Boys” even seeming to prophesize our current pandemic (“A foreign disease washed upon the beach / a dagger plunged from out of the shadows”). But, if anything, the record ends with the opposite of decay: blackout, with no further answers. At the end of “Worm In Heaven,” Joe Casey is cut off mid sentence. The guitars and percussion fall off. And in some beautiful way, it’s an apt conclusion to the five-act play that has been Protomartyr’s profound, unerring influence on the strange and lonely world of post-punk in the 2010s.
I only started listening to Soccer Mommy this year, while working on a music poster design project. Soccer Mommy’s music feels like a hug to me now, and the topics she chooses to sing about are just deep enough for you to feel like you’re listening in on a private conversation.
Mac Miller has an extremely special place in my heart, and after his passing last year, it felt like a gift from heaven to have one last album from him. Circles has been one of those albums that I just never get tired of listening to. It has been the perfect chill soundtrack to the insanity of 2020.
Missing Person by Kelsy Karter is my favorite album right now, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of my favorites of all time. I recently went through a pretty hard breakup, and the song “Stick To Your Guns” from this album has helped me through a lot of hard moments while healing. I think everyone should go listen to Kelsy Karter’s music; she’s insanely talented!
One of my favorite aspects of The Neighbourhood is that I am wholeheartedly surprised with each release, and in the most pleasant ways possible. Chip Chrome, their latest release, is experimental, bright, and colorful, but maintains the existentialism and rawness that the group drew me in with. I’ve found myself hitting replay on “BooHoo” most often — it has a combination of instrumentals that simply makes me want to boogie, and that I haven’t heard on any other The NBHD tracks .
I only now discovered Joji through my partner this year, but I wish I would have given him a listen sooner. I can most accurately sum up Nectar as an album that makes you feel as if you’re floating. It is atmospheric, openly emotional, and crisp. I feel that that description can hold true for the majority of Joji’s discography, too. I religiously streamed “Sanctuary” when my partner and I were still in a long distance relationship.
COIN is my comfort artist, meaning it was no surprise that Dreamland quickly became my comfort album throughout the chaos that is 2020. Everything that vocalist Chase Lawrence sings resonates deeply with me, and Dreamland undoubtedly intensified that connection. I would give anything to scream the lyrics to “Into My Arms” and “Babe Ruth” in my crowded Asheville music venue, but Dreamland is elite for windows down, nighttime car screaming, too. And, need I mention, the synths. I am a sucker for COIN’s synths, and Dreamland delivered.
If Pabllo Vittar’s não para não (2018) started with, “Ladies and gentlemen, buckle up and have a nice trip,” 111 congratulates you for making the land. The journey ahead consists of Vittar maturing an established, particular sound whilst broadening their horizons. From mixing techno beats with gospel writing to resuscitating 2013 Swedish EM with Charli XCX, or updating axé (a traditional brazilian genre popular in the 80s and 90s) with electronic productions with the biggest name in axé music, you sit through Vittar bending genres in their favour, but also staying true to their Brazilian-northeastern influences, as well as shining alongside big collaborators and proving that drag queen and LGBT narratives in music and pop culture aren’t as niche, nor short-lived as once claimed. An album filled with many tracks that could’ve been big party or carnaval hits, 111 is a trick up our sleeve to conquering international lands.
For those who love sad songs, Evermore describes all different perspectives of ending relationships. Once again, Swift surprises us with another album full of poetry references and incredible stories.
2020 was not so bad after all considering the number of artists who decided to return to the industry, McFly being one of them. A band that brings us their sixth album, they kept their roots with a handful of cheerful pop-rock songs. It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed between their last album and this one.
On an album that can only be described as a masterpiece, Miley manages to combine rock, pop, and country better than before and leaves us wanting more, as always.
If you’ve ever wondering what Parquet Courts and Real Estate’s baby would sound like, look no further. Rolling Coastal Blackouts Fever fulfills that fantasy with their new album that bends punk and new-wave with dreamy undertones. They have the kind of music you could put on in the car, which everyone would find themselves nodding along to.
With a first album so catchy, it was hard to imagine The Nude Party’s second album living up to the first. However, exploding into the indie scene, the Boone natives released their second album, Midnight Manor, to much acclaim.
In true indie fashion, the album follows the lead singer’s heartbreak and spreads it out over the course of 12 songs. Of course, the catchy, ‘70s rock tunes that the group is known for is littered throughout. If you’re in the mood to listen to music that makes you feel a little sad with a sprinkle of vintage stylings, this album is for you. Pro tip: the track “Things Fall Apart” is a heartbreaking journey that is so familiar it feels personal. Very Before Sunset vibes.
What can I say? I love Diet Cig. Revamping some of their old songs, the duo pushes out angsty, whining songs that are so relatable and fun to sing along to (good luck hitting some of those higher-pitched notes via singer Alex Luciano). I encourage anyone to listen to this album because after, you will feel like a badass.
Sultry, smooth, and almost begging to be noticed while still lurking in the shadows, North London's Sorry has absolutely nothing to apologize for following the release of their long-awaited debut. Ricocheting between orchestral malaise and jagged, angular grooves, 925 is an eclectic but cohesive body of work, pondering on anything from existential woes to lust. It oozes excellence, supported by a synth-ridden backbone and speckled with a cacophony of post-punk inclinations, making it an immediate toe-tapper. With such an earworm-inducing introduction, it's clear that this is a group you'll want to pay attention to.
I'm a sucker for some good 'ole fashioned shoe-gazey riffs and dreamy, distorted guitar-leaning instrumentation, leading Momma's sophomore record to hit the spot just right. The intrinsic, fated connection between the band's lyrical duo is immediately apparent throughout the tale they weave, wherein, backdropped by a fantastical otherworldly atmosphere (called the Bug House), they explore themes such as self-doubt, youth, and finding oneself, through the lens of the fictional characters they've created. It's a moody, angst-filled but infectious journey, and one that'll leave you aching to relive it again and again.
As early as the 2014 Tumblr days, LA sweethearts Slow Hollows have long existed within the indie sphere, with a number of albums in tow. In an unfortunate turn of events, though, their latest release, Actors, marks the group's final hurrah, which is certainly bittersweet. With the outcome considered, it's clear that they didn't want to go out without flexing their creative muscles, however, as Actors finds them delving further into the synth-pop realm than ever before (see "You Are Now On Fire" and "Heart," for example). At the same time, the record also takes extremely heartfelt and vulnerable dips, including the devastatingly soft "Hell" and the melancholy "Two Seasons." It's a strong addition to their repertoire and definitely a further indication of just how great this group is, and how much they will be missed.
From the Penny Mag team to you, have a happy holiday and happy new year, too! Here's hoping that 2021 is just as musically stacked as this last year.