A bit late to the party, but here we are, nonetheless.
Let’s get the obvious out the way first. 2020 was a bad year, and this did have a knock-on effect with the amount of music that was released as well. While I personally would not say we had any absolute gamechangers this year, that doesn’t mean the year was an absolute waste. (At least, not in this one regard…) It was enough to bring me back from the dead, after all.
I may not have the same mettle for metal as Matt, nor the same dedication to deathlessly digging up discoveries as Dæv, but I do hold my own brand of bloody odd tastes, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let XX XX take that from me. I’m hoping that, at the very least, there’ll be at least one album here for everyone, from the mainstream miscreants to those dirging up the depths for bands lost to the flow of time.
I’ve got 31 albums here. I couldn’t cut them down any further. These are the ones I felt obligated to talk about. Even ranking them individually felt like a triviality at points. As such I feel it goes without saying that I give them all my absolute recommendation.
With all that said, let’s begin.
31: Klô Pelgag – Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs (art pop)
It is amazing that a pop album as stylistically and instrumentally diverse as this one can also be so unifying and consistent. This is an album which knows how to use its orchestration to its fullest. Even when stripped instrumentally narrow, the production ensures that a lot of emotion can be gleamed from every single note. I just wish I could understand the lyrics fully, as this album feels like it gains as much meaning from Pel-Gag’s narrative as it does from her songwriting and performance.
30: Land Trance – First Séance (ambient / sound collage)
The first thing that struck me when randomly coming across this album during a series of offshoot music browsing was how pronounced its sense of location was. On first listen I closed my eyes and immediately found myself taken away on a tour of sorts, only communicated through the slightest percussive and electronic conveyances.
In one instance, rain falls upon the drunken sidewalks in droplets of glass and metal. In another, an almost holy gathering is intruded upon by the presence of the modern day. I have no idea if these are the exact scenes Land Trance meant to convey, but the fact that I could picture them so vividly on a blind listen was worth the price of admission on this tour alone.
29: Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (art pop)
While I failed to quite connect with my introduction to Perfume Genius in his extroverted and extravagant 2014 album Too Bright, he has slowly been earworming his way into my ballpark. In 2020, he finally grounded that extravagance in something a lot more personally relatable, both lyrically and sonically. The music of this album is delicate and brittle, implicitly asking for care, much like the human body Hadreas seems so invested in exploring. And given how much of 2020 I’ve spent feeling like I’m just trying to keep my own body from falling apart on me, something about that whole sentiment just seemed to hit home, you know?
28: Cocanha – Puput (Occitan folk)
Minimalistic, communal, filled with energy and joy for both the music and the ones performing it. This is one of the most effective demonstrations of the infective bliss of folk. The rhythms and harmonies the group find throughout this album are consistently as intricate as they are engaging.
27: Kaatayra – Só quem viu o relâmpago à sua direita sabe (acoustic black metal / Brazilian folk)
I barely listened to much metal in 2020. Perhaps it was that this year was one of my roughest, taken over by health complications beyond even the lingering anxiety of COVID, but I simply found it hard to engage with the distorted energy and/or dread that many of my usual favourite metal albums would possess. As a result, perhaps it’s only fitting that Kaatayra kicks off this list’s metal representation with an album I use more to soothe myself than energise.
The dry, cold woods of typically Nordic black metal have been flooded with overflowing rivers, the barren lands now teeming with vibrant life, a little less alone in their loneliness. The rain is warm and contemplative. The ferocity still lurks beneath it all, but the climate is shifting, and we could all use a breath of fresh air, now more than ever.
26: Katie Pruitt – Expectations (contemporary country)
Sometimes, straightforward really is best… Katie Pruitt’s debut LP is unabashed in spirit. Though she pulls from chamber and dream pop sounds for a beautifully lush and soothing soundscape, it’s an album that is headstrong at its core, defiantly both country and queer. Exploring what it’s like to be a lesbian in love where that love may not be accepted, there is a romantic sincerity and tenderness present throughout the album that could only have been expressed through the country stylings which may once have meant to reject her.
25: Neptunian Maximalism – Éons (avant-garde metal / free jazz / drone)
The Bandcamp descriptor for I, Voidhanger Records reads “obscure, unique, and uncompromising visions from the metal underground.” Éons feels like this mission statement put fully into practice. Pagan tribalism begets wild saxophone lines beget drones from the depths of hell. This album would have probably cracked my top 10 were I not utterly fatigued by the end of its 123-minute runtime. Either way, if my biggest complaint about an album is that there was too much of it, you should know that it is probably worth the dive.
24: Sevdaliza – Shabrang (ambient pop / trip hop / alternative R&B)
On her second LP, Sevdaliza turns her gaze fully inwards. Any excesses of art pop instrumentation are stripped back and laid bare, leaving a dense atmosphere of contemplation. The pop here is an ambient and introspective breed, borrowing from the calm yet foreboding environments of mid 90s trip-hop while still adding both modern and traditionally Persian twists into the mix. The result is an album that feels uniquely personal to Sevdaliza in both tone and content.
23: Siavash Amini & Saåad – All Lanes of Lilac Evening (ambient)
This was one of the hardest albums for me to place on this list. Primarily because the way this album makes me feel shifts every time I listen to it, depending on the context of where and when I’m listening to it. At night, alone in bed, the colours that bleed through the distant drones are comforting and powerful. Laying out on the grass on a cloudy winter day, the album turns cold until the sun comes out, at which point it’s biblical.
No matter how I listen to it though, I always love careful this album is with its compositions. Every shift of tone feels both organic and deliberate, and the album handles its field recordings with the utmost delicacy. I may not know where to place it, but it certainly belongs on this list.
22: 五人-首 – 死人賛歌 (avant-garde metal)
[EDIT: As of this article’s publication, the album has been uploaded by a stranger to Youtube, so I will provide that, however obtaining the album to any official capacity still remains a challenge outside of Japan. At least people can sample it now though.]
So I’m stuck in an awkward place when it comes to recommending this album to everyone. On one hand, it’s really good. On the other… it is borderline inaccessible unless you live in Japan. The only way I even got my hands on it is thanks to CTEBCM’s Dæv (cheers Dæv!) going to the ridiculous lengths of procuring it from Japan.
No single is available on Youtube, Bandcamp or any streaming service. So all I can say is “you’ll just have to trust me on this one.” If you can find it, get it.
Funnily enough, this is pretty “traditional” as avant-garde metal goes. The piano/synths alongside the regular line-up of guitars, bass and drums is the height of the instrumental diversity here, and the production is rather old-school too. Therefore the experimentation is found in the performance and the songwriting, and in these aspects the band deliver excellence from beginning to end. Special mention goes to the Anoji Matsuoka’s vocal performance here, consistently catching me off-guard with her diversity, passion and ferocity.
21: Аукцыон – Мечты (art rock / Russian folk rock / avant-folk)
One of my biggest musical sins has been that I only just discovered Аукцыон with this album… Because apparently, they’ve been making music since the 80s? And they’ve consistently been this good? I suppose we all must start somewhere though, so why not here?
Мечты is just a wholly entertaining ride from beginning to end. Filled to the brim with colourful and creative songwriting and emotive storytelling I wish I could understand but which I still feel, this album came out of nowhere and wholly took me on its wild joyride across the Russian countryside.
20: Kairon; IRSE – Polysomn (shoegaze / space rock)
Bit by bit, Kairon; IRSE have been inching their way towards becoming my favourite act from Finland’s music scene, overtaking names like Paavoharju, Amorphis and Oranssi Pazuzu with their stellar blend of shoegaze with psychedelic, space and progressive rock flavourings. With this album, they may have just done it.
Polysomn’s take on their unique shoegaze blend this time feels a lot more spacious; the fuzz that the band makes themselves familiar with is colder but still just as comforting. As such, there’s a feeling of unfamiliar exploration throughout the album that completely captivated me.
19: Nicolas Jaar – Telas (glitch / ambient)
Jaar had one hell of a 2020, with 3 albums to his name. However, the scratchy dance beats of his AAL project didn’t quite agree with me, and while I liked his darker and more solemn ambient work on Cenizas a fair bit more, it’s ultimately the last and most abstract of his 2020 projects that clicked with me (literally) the hardest.
The traditional ambient expertise of Jaar is still on full display here, however it’s interspersed with continual clicks, scrapes and fuzz of glitch that ensure that some minute presence is always at the tip of your eardrums. As meditative as the album is, there is always something pulling your ears in different directions, tickling at sensitivities you didn’t know you had. It nearly reminds me of the microsound projects of 池田亮司 in this sense. The atmosphere feels like a land frozen over, yet every second a new crack forms and something new threatens to break the standstill.
It’s a chaotic calm.
18: Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies (avant-garde black metal)
While I’ll confess to not understanding the layers upon layers of subtext to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s remarkably unique compositions, I can still take note of the way each prior album has felt like a building block towards this latest project. Delicately spaced sections of ambient build meld with loose, uncertain glitches to climb towards cathartic releases of sound.
17: Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar (neo-psychdelia / psychedelic pop)
This kind of maximalist psychedelic pop goodness has been a flavour I’ve loved for a long time. From beginning to end, Mystic Familiar is an ecstatic, upbeat thrill ride accented by fast-paced drumwork, blissful orchestration and kaleidoscopic synths. It takes that Merriweather Post Pavillionesque joy of itself and runs with it for miles. That it does so tracking the much more grounded subject matter of its lyricism only adds to its unique sensation. It’s overjoyed to be alive and also content with dying.
16: 万能青年旅店 – 冀西南林路行 (art rock / progressive rock)
Sometimes when digging through music, you draw parallels that are so unlikely yet also so uncanny you wonder just how subconsciously linked the musical world is… This is how I felt when listening to the jazzy, folksy art rock stylings of 冀西南林路行 and finding myself immediately reminded of why I loved Turkish band Gevende. The colourful guitarwork interspersed with brass accents… The band’s ability to shift from focused, subtly detailed art rock composition to wild flurries of jazzy grooves at the flick of a switch… The globalised combination of eastern and western soundscapes… The progressive rock flair for melodic and rhythmic playfulness… It was all there.
Except now, in place of the zeuhl-esque constructed language emulating a uniquely Mediterranean vocal approach, we have a distinctly Chinese poetic approach to both the lyrics and vocal delivery. It is amazing how one key distinctive factor can set such a strong sense of individual identity for a band, but despite not being able to understand a word of 董亞千’s vocals, they gave me a clear sense of culture behind album, despite the predominantly western musical influences.
With regards to these factors, 万能青年旅店 have joined Gevende as a band I will certainly be keeping my eye on, even if it takes yet another 10 years for their next album to drop.
15: Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (singer-songwriter / art pop)
I never said I was original, ok?
Fiona Apple has long been one of my favourite singer-songwriters, her tinge or jazz flavoured, DIY art pop has always lent her deeply personal lyricism the adequate soundscape to fully embrace and then free itself.
This holds especially true for Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which holds so much personal tension that it frequently feels on the cusp of bursting, consequences be damned. Perhaps that is why this is the album that got Fiona Apple the full legendary reception and universal standing ovation she has long deserved.
While the album still doesn’t quite reach the heights of my all-time favourites like 2012’s The Idler Wheel… did for me personally, I’m still more than glad that Fiona Apple is back on the map, and more outspoken and commended than ever before.
14: Young Knives – Barbarians (post-punk / experimental rock)
When some of the greatest atrocities of man are committed by those considered the most civilised, and some of the purest beauties produced by those considered “uncivilised”, we must begin to question the nature of what we consider to be Barbarian to begin with.
This seems to be the mission statement of Young Knives with this album; their art punk stylings lending handily to both musically and lyrically exploring this strange distinction between “the civil” and the impact of “the civil”. Poppy grooves clash and merge with experimental drones; the music is both infectiously catchy and unsettling at its core.
13: Clipping – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (experimental hip-hop)
Clipping have certainly been one of the bigger and more welcome major musical shakeups of the 2010s, and have made it clear that they’ve earned that status going into the 2020s. Visions of Bodies Being Burned is the second part to their horror aesthetic duology, but while 2019’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood was their first and only album that didn’t really click with me, this 2020 follow-up feels much more in-line with what I had hoped for from such a project.
From its opening moments, Visions… is filled with unsettling and uneasy atmospheres blended into driven, complex and yes, even catchy bops. Daveed Diggs remains outstanding in his field, both in lyrics and delivery, and the remarkable production of Hutson and Snipes somehow always knows how to give the vocals the necessary spotlight while still keeping excellently standout in its own right. You can always tune into any slight minutia of the full product at any moment, and there’s something exceptional to point out, even when the album is at its most minimal.
Another year, another reminder that Clipping is something special, I suppose…
12: Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink (art rock / jazz rock)
Tackling a myriad of issues surrounding modern womanhood and feminism from the more obvious concepts of social and sexual relations to the subtler intricacies and occasions of sexism and infantilising, Kitchen Sink certainly takes the gold for my favourite album title of the year.
As for the music itself, Shah excellently walks a tightrope between a maximalist production of jazzy outbursts (complete with big-band bombast) and grooves alongside a measured sense of restraint befitting her more mature, cross-cultural stylings. It feels like an album that is simultaneously spiralling outwards and trying its best to maintain itself through composure and wit, which is a remarkable balance to hold.
11: The Microphones – Microphones in 2020 (singer-songwriter / indie folk)
This was my album for the train rides to and from work, the most pensive moments from the everyday, where you’re forced to have the time to reflect, yet instead choose to spend that time clearing the mind instead of cluttering it. The opening minutes of the album eerily reflected that process for me. Brisk guitar-lines welcome themselves in and remain, virtually unchanging for 7 minutes, leaving you to just dissolve into their simplicity. It’s almost daring to ask that much patience of a listener, but it doesn’t feel like it’s just for the listener. This is a Phil Elverum project after all; the zone is as much for him as it is for you.
From there, Elverum goes into his everyday past; ultimately mundane, but made mythical through his presentation, accented equally so by his production. It’s not pretending to be more than what it is, just what it was and what it meant to him, which is where the music and its incredibly careful shifts come in to fill the blanks. It’s a transparent, personal story, presented transparently, and even if the specifics of that story don’t relate to you much, the storytelling certainly can.
10: Orchestre national de jazz – Rituels (experimental big band jazz / zeuhl)
This album is huge. It’s massive in both scope and execution. There is something notable about a big band tackling a style as tribalistic (or, dare I say, ritualistic) as zeuhl, and that’s how the album manages to stay interesting for its roughly 100 minutes of length. There is a consistent stream of incredibly creative ideas, particularly with the vocal arrangements here, that are presented such that one idea never gets given the time to grow stale before it forms offshoots into brand new ideas to take up the focus. It is unpredictable and wild, yet still manages to flow seamlessly as a whole, which is quite the achievement.
9: Envy – The Fallen Crimson (screamo / post-rock)
Screamo had a remarkable 2020. Though it may not first appear so at first glance upon this list, were I to expand it to a top 50, you would likely see a massive uptick in the genre’s representation, from Respire and Svalbard to Eyelet and No Note. At this point however, who better to represent the genre than its kings?
Envy have always been one of the most noteworthy names of screamo, in part thanks to their ability to enhance their emotional range beyond the expected rage and melancholy of the genre. This ability is also perfectly on display with The Fallen Crimson, the band consistently demonstrating the knowledge of when and how to lean more heavily on their post-rock side to demonstrate moments of melodic beauty, elation and hope when things seem at their bleakest.
This is the band at their most consistently solid in a long while, with tracks like “Swaying Leaves and Scattering Breath” and “Marginalized Thread” feeling damn-near anthemic while still capitalising on the emotional, melodic and rhythmic complexities the band has made themselves a name for.
8: The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You (pop / electronic)
For an electronic act so widely and highly revered, I have to confess The Avalanches had never clicked with me, both on their original classic and their comeback Wildflower. With that context, imagine my surprise when it was love at first listen with this album.
There is such a cathartic sense of positivity on this album; a burst of joy and passion for the mere act of being alive and forming bonds, even in a time of quarantine and disconnection. It’s a feeling of sincere elation I hadn’t quite drawn from an album since Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories back in 2013. It is rare to find an album so focused and precise in its production yet also so genuine and transparent in its feeling, and that’s how you know it comes from experience.
7: Howie Lee – 7 Weapons Series (IDM / Chinese folk)
Albums like these remind me of why I love the search for new music. Albums where cultures, genres and stylings all somehow manage to find themselves compatible in even the most unlikely of circumstances. So here we have Howie Lee, with his fresh blend ultratraditional Chinese folk and experimental electronic and dance music. It’s a fusion that so violently sticks out on paper, and yet I can place such a clear sense of place to this album in execution. This really feels like the sound of the modern Chinese underground, where nightlife clubs and traditional craftsmen lie across the street from each other.
As a tangential aside, I also want to give a quick shout-out to Umurangi Generation, a video game about photography in a shitty future (and best cyberpunk game of 2020) whose aesthetics feel very reminiscent to this album, both in environment and soundtrack, and without which I certainly wouldn’t have grown quite the taste for this album that I have.
6: Сва да ра – Зареница (djent / Ukrainian folk / progressive metal)
Upon listening through this album my first time, I was simply astonished, both by the music itself and by the fact that I had never heard anything like it before. The combination of djent’s rhythmic complexity and cyclicity makes it such a fantastic blend for such a wide variety of world folk music expression, where the colour and communal warmth of these same folk styles helps fix djent’s biggest problem in its sterility.
This blend of music was simply a perfect match, and I remain utterly shocked that folk-djent isn’t currently a much more common idea as a result. You could take the same approach from traditional folk music across the globe and still apply it wonderfully to this template. As such I hope to hear more globetrotting, rhythmically driven prog-metal in the future. This is simply too good to pass up.
All this said though, I still must not forget to mention just how exceptional this album is at its specific blend. Even though the concept itself is worth praise, the execution behind Зареница is also exceptional, endlessly creative with both halves of its makeup from start to end, and the vocal performance of Юлия Шевель is the absolutely stunning centrepiece of it all. The album never feels like a gimmick; this is a complete sound that fully realises its fusion.
5: Patricia Taxxon – Das triadische Ballett : Gelb / Rosa / Schwartz (experimental electronic / brostep / pop / ambient)
Is it cheating to put a triple-album together in one spot? Perhaps, but I’m doing so anyway because this is the collection that fascinated me the most this year, having grown from a project I wasn’t really partial to on first listen into one of my favourites from the whole year.
Gelb is bombastic, simply put. It has such a confident vigour that resonated with me in a way I haven’t felt since my teenage years back in the early 2010s, with its aggressive brostep very much emulating that time-period, yet simultaneously way more interesting and detailed than most offerings from then. There is an almost punkish glee to the composition of the music here which is also replicated in the lyrics’ joyfully revolutionary themes, and that glee echoed more feverishly with me with each subsequent listen.
Rosa, on the other hand, establishes itself a lot more delicately than its predecessor; the synths feel glassier and Gelb’s hyperpop aggression is toned down for a more contemplative feel. This was the album that gave me the clearest feel of location out of the trilogy; I could clearly visualise in my mind a barren, crystalline wasteland, a place simultaneously beautiful and lost, mesmerising and fragile. This delicate atmosphere paves the way for some of the most emotionally resonant tracks of the entire project in its closers, “Voices” and “Old Ways”.
Finally, Schwarz takes this lingering sense of atmosphere and runs with it, being the most continuously mesmerising album of the project. It also has some of my favourite concepts, such as “Escape”’s enigmatic dance beats and “Something Pretty”’s sincere break into elevated ambient pop. Mysterious, subdued and reflective, it’s the most mature feeling album and a fitting conclusion to the series.
Altogether, these three albums feel like a thorough journey, continuously shifting and blending into new ground, while keeping the through-line of Taxxon’s electronic expertise (as well as her uniquely gutsy songwriting flair) present throughout.
4: Gazpacho – Fireworker (progressive rock / art rock)
There have been few progressive rock bands as consistently enthralling as Gazpacho in the 21st century. The band’s more atmospheric, delicate approach to the genre has always been a breath of fresh air in the modern prog rock scene, and Fireworker is a standout in their already phenomenal discography, second perhaps only to 2014’s Demon, which I hold as one of my favourite albums of all time.
A fantastic showcase of creative and well-paced songwriting, Fireworker knows exactly when and how to play its cards. Moments of mystery, wistfulness, nostalgia are all communicated vividly through both lyrics and music and pave the way for the rare instances where the band shatter their traditional restraint with choirs, anthemic strings and, on one occasion, some of their heaviest material yet.
3: Bagdadski Vor – Колхида (ccreamo / math rock / post-hardcore)
I would be amiss if I understated how good 2020’s screamo output was by only having one screamo album on this list. Unlike Envy however—a band who have been honing their material for decades—Russian band Bagdadski Vor are seemingly brand new to the music world. In which case, what a stunner of an opening statement they have made here!
This album in a single word would be “impassioned”. Somehow the band has managed to blend the most feverish elements of math rock technicality and post-rock emotional conveyance to create an album that feels like every member is giving their all to every aspect of their performance, befitting the album’s similarly driven, revolutionary lyricism.
The guitar work knows exactly when to shift from technical weight to punkish power. The drums never relax their blistering pace and carry the seemingly boundless energy of the album with one of my favourite overall musical performances of the year. Lastly, the vocals carry such extraordinary passion for their subject matter, even by the standards of the usually impassioned screamo genre. Unfortunately, I can’t even find exact credits as to who did what on the album, so I’ll have to settle on congratulating “Alexey, Alexander and Victor” on creating an album that simply left me in awe.
Before I get to the top 2, I feel I need to stress something about these next albums…
You see, there were two albums last year that were essential for me personally, especially in the face of what has been one of the worst years of my life. Both my physical and mental health took nosedives due to a combination of a particularly nasty bout with my ulcerative colitis and two cases of MRSA in both my big toes leaving me unable to even walk for extended periods of time.
All the meanwhile, my medication left me on the vulnerable list for COVID, which gave me ridiculous amounts of stress while at work and left me unwilling to leave my house when furloughed from it. Basically, my life devolved into a series of constant cautionary checks, depressive episodes, health fuck-ups and failed attempts at productivity all the meanwhile.
These are two albums which helped me to cope with such a bleak year (each with a notably different approach too) and as such it is hard for me to detach from my strong personal connection to them. Though, at the same time, I suppose that the fact that I made so strong a connection with them reinforces why they’re topping my list.
It was damn-near impossible to rank one of these albums above the other when the year’s end came.
So I didn’t.
1: 柏大輔 – Program Music Ⅲ (electronic / new age classical / post-rock)
Sometimes you just need an album that can take you on a journey. Nearly 10 years ago, that album for me was an album making the rounds online but nearly nowhere else, fittingly titled Program Music Ⅰ. It was an album that brought a natural beauty to digital abstraction in a way that immediately enamoured me, and still does.
Back in 2016, 柏大輔 released Program Music Ⅱ, an album that maintained the emotive connectivity of the first, but lacked its predecessor’s glitchy subversion, seemingly more influenced by his more recent work on the soundtrack to 新海誠’s Garden of Words. It was a success in this regard, but still didn’t feel like an adequate follow-up to its namesake, and thus fell by the wayside for me.
In comes 2020, a year that very much decides to mess with me, physically and mentally. I both struggle to leave the house due to a variety of issues plaguing my body and struggle to want to leave it due to the threat of COVID and my being classified as clinically vulnerable. Long story short, by year’s end, I was in desperate need of an escape.
That’s when I find out that Program Music Ⅲ, Kashiwa’s latest new journey to the concepts that inspired one of my favourite albums of all time, particularly with regards to being an escapist journey, was releasing on my birthday at the end of the year. It’s amazing how much of a profound effect coincidences like these can have.
Better yet, Program Music Ⅲ truly feels like the successor to Program Music Ⅰ that Ⅱ never quite managed to embody. Better yet, this album feels like the culmination of KASHIWA’s entire body of work thus far. It feels like a journey through the discography of an artist who has managed to get a lot of experience under their belt, complete with celebratory callbacks to all of his works, but most important of all is that first part—it feels like a journey.
This album settles on a healthy middle-ground between Program Music Ⅰ and Ⅱ. The glitchy electronic influences makes a return, but rather than feeling like an abrasive contradicting point to the more direct emotional beauty of his classical work, this time the classical and glitch elements interact a lot more softly, almost working together at times. And it’s not just glitch this time either; industrial, dance, trip-hop and hip-hop stylings all come and go as they please, and the album as a whole takes on a flavour I could more accurately describe as post-rock than anything else.
Much like Program Music Ⅰ, this album is known primarily for its extensive core track, and much like I, said track feels like a wondrous stream of consciousness, effortlessly flowing between shapes and styles, easy to get lost in and just disappear for 50 minutes.
Basically, this album was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it. That said, that particularly personal impact, in addition to the fact that this is by far the most recent album on this list also means it’s much more subject to recency bias with me, so it’s also the album most likely to shift with time. However, for the effect it has on me right now, there is nowhere else I can put it.
1: Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone (pop punk / emo)
If my other #1 album was about providing an emotional escape from an oppressive 2020 for me, then Brave Faces Everyone is about confronting it head on.
Though not specifically about the incidents of the hell year, this is an album that confronts the generational feeling of loss, confusion, frustration and loathing that were compounded exponentially by the 2020 that this album preceded. And it does so with a level of honest awareness I’ve rarely ever seen before in music. It trades out flowery allegories for blunt recollections and observations, and swaps the stereotypical pop punk “angst” for the disabling anxiety far too many people have become familiar with lately.
It’s a horribly pessimistic album that strives for (to quote the album itself) optimism as a radical life choice. It serves up punch after punch of bleak reality, knuckles bared with the desperation of one who clearly knows this reality intimately – a generation reliant on medication to survive, stuck in debt, split between those who rely on their parents for comfort in life and those who are struggling with the basics of survival, both afraid of the other side, and everyone complicit in the knowledge that if we dare to try and understand or give voice to any of it, said voice will be shot down as entitlement from an unknowable era.
Despite all of this however, Spanish Love Songs try their hardest to see some kind of hint of hope in the crushing dread of it all, even if that merely comes in the form of living on, be it for ourselves or for the people who care about us. Hell, it could even be just to spite those who don’t think you’ll make it (including yourself)—“I’ll wear you out waiting for me to implode.”
The music itself only serves to accentuate this entire outlook. The mix of punk catchiness with emo’s tonal complexity is a perfect match to the more grounded lamentations, protests and gallows humour of the album. I also feel the need to emphasise that there is not a single bad track on this entire album. Every single track feels like a generational statement; anthemic yet centred upon a solid enough concrete base to keep it from being reduced to empty exclamations and catchy riffs. Every note, every shift in dynamics and tone feels deliberate and intended to fully spotlight the sledgehammer impacts of this album’s strikes.
This is all driven home by the album’s final moments where every shred of struggle the album has brought to light coalesces atop the mountainous guitar work, and vocalist Dylan Slocum cries out the album’s name and mission statement with uncertain reassurance. A statement that resonated with me more than anything else in a year that tried its hardest to make me feel like less than myself.
Brave faces, everyone.