2020 might have been a tough year, but at least music gave society a break with some amazing creations. UHS News’s music critic Drew Datillo brings you an expansive list of the best albums to blow your mind and soothe your soul.
42. Shore-Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes made a return in 2020 with their fourth studio album, Shore, and this record lived up to what fans were hoping for. Being the follow-up to their popular third record, The Crack Up, Fleet Foxes delivered a gorgeous piece of calamity during a time of chaos, with a focus on tight songwriting and lush production. This record is definitely one that nobody should miss out on, as it can be turned to for a period of relaxation during this hectic time in our lives.
41. No Moon-Black Wing: The synthwave project by Have A Nice Life and Giles Corey member Dan Barrett, No Moon blends the post-punk raw energy from his days in HANL with smooth, but icy synths, and creates a certain melancholic ambience that reinforces the dark lyrical topics that appear throughout the record. This record is perfect for anyone who wants to feel the dark somber energy that this record forces the listener to endure.
40. Punisher-Phoebe Bridgers: The sophomore album from singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has gotten critical praise from music publications and fans alike, and it’s fairly obvious why. The vocal performances from Bridgers are infectious, and the instrumentation across the album serves to complement the intimate songwriting that Bridgers passionately wrote. The production on the record, again, is beautifully done, and Punisher is a clear standout in music of 2020, with it’s honest and passion-filled songwriting attracting many listeners.
39. N***O-Pink Siifu: The first Hip-Hop record on the list, Pink Siifu relays abrasive experimentation on his second record, with a bold 20-track album that doesn’t hold back at all. The gritty production on a large handful of the tracks create some really headstrong instrumentals that never tire the listener for a second. Pink Siifu displays a great amount of potential, and leaves listeners hoping for more bold experimentation on his future records.
38. The Main Thing-Real Estate: Their fifth studio effort and the follow-up to their popular 2017 record, In Mind, this new record showcases the group’s knack for tight songwriting, as the lush instrumentals provide a feeling of ease in the listener. Similar to that of Shore by Fleet Foxes, this record consists of slower, more mellow songs that demand patience out of listeners, but also like Shore it doesn’t fail to deliver a good bunch of tracks.
37. Honeymoon-Beach Bunny: The debut album from Indie group Beach Bunny provides one of the most fun batches of songs from this year. The songwriting feels strong for the most part across the record, and doesn’t feel as bland as many other groups similar to Beach Bunny feel. The record sounds nice on a technical front, and consists of repeatedly fun guitar riffs and catchy vocal lines, making it a standout for the many Indie-Alternative records that came out this year.
36. Ugly Is Beautiful-Oliver Tree: The scooter obsessed artist makes a statement of general life struggle and pressure as an artist on his abrasive debut record, Ugly Is Beautiful. A mostly consistent group of Alt-Rock songs, the album never eases up on the listener, and forces them to endure a wondrous journey through the mind of Oliver Tree. Ugly Is Beautiful proves the capability of Oliver Tree as being more than just a gimmicky internet personality, but as an artist with true potential for growth and strong records in the near future.
35. Drop 6-Little Simz: Being the first EP on the list, it doesn’t contain the rich, fullness of a full-length record, but it still is extremely worthy of a mention. With last year’s Gray area being a well-loved record to many Hip-Hop fans, another project was garnering anticipation, and U.K. Rapper Little Simz decided to drop this short EP amongst the chaos of 2020, and it feels just as in-your-face as her previous project. Consisting of groovy bass riffs and punchy bars all throughout, Drop 6 is a great mini project for any Hip-Hop fan.
34. Lineage-Plusol: Plusol, a very small artist, deserves recognition for this amazing album of electronica music. Very consistent with tight song flow, Lineage serves some of the best hyper-electronic music from the year. While being loud and energetic for the majority of the album, the songs can switch to smooth piano and/or synths in a matter of seconds, and still sound neatly put together (the best example being the track “Crossings,” an all piano and strings song that transitions the record into its second half). Plusol definitely deserves more recognition for the insane production that he creates so beautifully, and makes his record one of the best of the year.
33. All The Time-Jesse Lanza: Lanza brings a handful of experimental Pop tracks to her latest record, All The Time. Lanza laces groove with infectious melodies throughout the whole project, creating a feel-good vibe in every listener. The production on this project feels really bubbly and intricate, with the songs clearly having a lot of care put into them. The vocals are crisp and straight-forward, with various effects mixed with the catchy vocal lines from Lanza all over the record, and is perfect for anyone who desires a fun, bubbly Pop record that deviates from the typical hits heard on the radio.
32. Heaven Inc.-Shlohmo: Another EP on the list, Shlohmo follows up his amazing record The End with an EP that displays the artistic craftsmanship of the electronica producer, fusing lush guitar chords and Hip-Hop beats throughout the whole project. The deep, fuzzy bass lines and the powerful synths all stand strong against the abrasive percussion, making this EP a major standout.
31. Positions-Ariana Grande: With the popularity of Thank U, Next, Grande’s follow up was anticipated with great hope for a record just as consistent and raw, and Positions delivers for the most part. It might not be as tightly woven as her last record, but Grande exemplifies her growth as a songwriter on this record nonetheless, continuing the positive vibes and sensual feelings she sported all over her last album. The instrumentals sound crisp and her vocals sound beautiful and seductive, and that’s enough to draw in listeners to this new Ariana Grande record.
30. Untitled (Rise)-SAULT: This R&B/Soul collective from the U.K. burst into the Indie scene with two beautifully crafted records during 2019, and were met with bewilderment and curiosity as little is known about the group. This year, SAULT did the same “double surprise drop” with two new records dropping at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, and both records near flawlessly display the suffering experienced by black people from all over the world. Untitled (Rise) is the second record they dropped in 2020, and it continues the brutal honesty that appears on all of their previous records, making a sorrowful, uncomfortable, but beautifully humbling experience.
29. Down Through-Gleemer: The Shoegaze quartet Gleemer released a soothing record that can make one forget about this wild year, and get lost in the music. They achieve the typical Shoegaze dynamic of spacey guitar riffs muffled with layers of reverb, but also achieve a greater songwriting ability, making it the perfect listen for any Shoegaze/Dream Pop fan, or anyone who just wants to listen to an album with carefully crafted songs and intimate vocals complementing every chord.
28. Fetch The Bolt Cutters-Fiona Apple: Fiona Apple is a veteran when it comes to music, as she has been releasing records since she was a teenager in the 90’s, and her fifth studio effort contains the raw passion that Apple is known for. There’s a lot of emphasis on the percussive elements, and they perfectly complement the abrasive songwriting across the album, and Fiona Apple’s voice sounds as crisp, elegant, and dangerously beautiful as ever. Her last record, The Idler Wheel… garnered much praise, and Fiona didn’t divert expectations with Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
27. Desire-Desire Marea: The South African musician, Desire Marea, released his debut record this year, and it’s a hard-hitting album full of bold experimentation and honesty. The instrumentals are a bizarre take on modern dance music, with pulsing bass rhythms flying into the mix to greet the listeners abrasively. Desire Marea also mixes some Jazz and IDM elements into the record, which made for a breathtakingly interesting listen this year.
26. Man Alive!-King Krule: Archy Ivan Marshall, better known by stage name King Krule, served a purposely disorienting record to complement this fracus of a year, and King Krule brought his all on Man Alive!. The influences can be well-traced across this album, with obvious inspiration hailing from Post-Punk pioneers Joy Division, but King Krule manages to strengthen his own style of the genre with powerful songwriting that hits the listener like a punch in the face. The gritty production elevates the project to a lofty level, and Archy’s vocal performances never tire the audience for a second.
25. Heaven To A Tortured Mind-Yves Tumor: Being a widely popular release from 2020, it’s easy to understand why this record holds its place as a standout. The entire journey through this record feels like a dream, and the instrumentals do nothing but reinforce that very idea. Yves Tumor quite literally takes his audience through the mind of a tortured individual, and releases a boundful energy through the music. The opening track, “Gospel For A New Century,” is one of the best songs of 2020 period, and the record holds its place as a standout release.
24. Surrogate-Fake Fever: The debut full-length from Chillwave/Vaporwave artist Fake Fever serves a warm feeling that can be consistently felt throughout the entirety of the record. Fake Fever welcomes the listener with rich synths and atmospheric vocals and percussion, and continues that very pattern from then on. A perfect listen for anybody who wants a fun record to just sit back to and engulf, as it demands only that out of its listener.
23. Legends Never Die-Juice WRLD: The first posthumous release from the late singer/rapper, and it mostly delivers a well-crafted handful of tracks that serve to honor the artist. Being some of the last songs he ever recorded, the trip through this record is painful for longtime fans, but Juice WRLD receives the farewell he deserves with Legends Never Die. The features for the most part elevate the tracks they appear on, and the production revitalizes the same catchy style from Juice WRLD’s previous albums.
22. The New Abnormal-The Strokes: Their first record in seven years was met with some mixed reactions from fans and music publications alike, but some fans heard the delicate handle on this tight album from Garage-Rock legends The Strokes. Julian Casablancas’ voice has never sounded more clean and fragile than it is on this record, as he passionately layers his melodics on top of the smooth instrumentation from the rest of the band. “Eternal Summer” is a definite standout from The New Abnormal, with Julian communicating a provocative message about the ongoing problem of climate change to veterans of their music and new fans alike.
21. Top Shotta-NLE Choppa: This young Memphis rapper released his debut record Top Shotta earlier this year in August, being only seventeen years old at the time. NLE Choppa brings forth his own abrasive and energetic style of trap, with hard-hitting production to back up the bold, aggressive flows he laces all across the record. The record features his 2020 single “Shotta Flow 5,” which was one of the most impressive singles to come out this year, making his position on the XXL Freshmen list well-deserved, as he shows great potential for the future.
20. Years Later-Let Em Riot: This record was probably missed by many people, as Let Em Riot is a very small artist specializing in nostalgic synthwave, but Years Later provides strong feel-good vibes with his record full of punchy guitar riffs, bright vocal melodies, and fuzzy synths. The songwriting is consistently creative and fun, pulling in listeners to the catchy hooks and melodies that are dispersed all across the project. A great album for anyone who wants to simply forget about the world around them and dive into a fresh, relaxing piece of music.
19. Liteware-FM Skyline: Legendary Vaporwave label 100% Electronica added this seminal artist to their roster recently, and released his masterpiece titled Liteware. A beautifully crafted record on all fronts, FM Skyline satisfies old-school Vaporwave fans with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia, but even more impressively, draws in a fresh new wave of Vaporwave fans with his catchy approach to percussion and instrumentation.
18. 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues-100 Gecs: 100 Gecs is a hyper electro-pop duo who recently broke through into the spotlight on the video-sharing platform Tik Tok. People reacted in many ways to their eccentric, hyper, and unique musicianship, with some cringing as they are forced to listen to the uncomfortable sounds plunging into their ears, while others celebrate the abrasive Electronica duo for the lengths they go to make such people feel uncomfortable. Their latest record isn’t a normal studio album, but a remix of their first official record, and the varying styles of music they incorporate into their songs as well as the top notch performances from the features make for a thrilling ride for fans. It’s hard to describe 100 Gecs’ music in detail, as the uncertainty of their sound and the chaos it creates is part of their charm. This record is not for everyone, but for people that want to listen to something experimental and crazy, this record will satisfy those desires.
17. Savage Mode II-21 Savage (with Metro Boomin): The sequel to 21’s first Savage Mode back in 2016, sees rapper 21 improving immensley on all fronts, from his lyricism, his vocal performances and flows, and consistency. Critically acclaimed producer Metro Boomin handled the production for the whole record (as he did for the last Savage Mode as well), and his contributions did nothing but elevate the quality of the songs on the project to a higher level. Savage Mode II sees 21 exploring new depths of his songwriting, with the track “RIP Luv” being one of the most heartfelt and well-produced tracks to come out in 2020. For old 21 fans and new alike, this project stands as one of his best (if not THE best) projects, and one of the best projects of 2020.
16. Seeking Thrills-Georgia: U.K. Dance-Pop artist Georgia released one of the most fun Pop records this entire year, and it never tires the listener for a second. Georgia is a multi-instrumentalist and handles most of the production on the record, and fills the record with bouncy drum beats and groovy synths, along with her impressive vocal work on top of it all. This record is perfect for anyone who wants a record that they can dance to all night long, and Georgia is one of the most talented underground artists out right now, and she definitely deserves recognition for this phenomenal album.
15. Forever Nothing-Dan Mason: Another new addition to Vaporwave label 100% Electronica’s roster, Dan Mason released his seminal new album, Forever Nothing, back in February. The record, supported by really strong singles, consists of pure Vaporwave bliss for its entirety, and the songwriting is some of the best I’ve ever heard on a Vaporwave record. Filled with choppy synths and catchy vocal melodies, Forever Nothing can appeal to the veterans of Vaporwave and to newcomers of the genre alike. For anyone who wants to get into Vaporwave, or just wants to listen to a beautiful, fresh-sounding record, this is the perfect album for just that.
14. As Lost Through Collision-Sprain: Another Indie group that hasn’t received their deserved recognition yet, called Sprain, released one of the best Post-Rock/Post-Hardcore albums this year. The album only consists of five tracks, some of them being very long, but that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the record. Full of unnerving melodies and heavy, dissonant riffs, Sprain welcomes the listener with abrasive and heavy-hitting songwriting right from the get go, and they treat the listener the same way as the album closes. Admittingly, any fan of Post-Rock, Post-Hardcore, or Post-Punk can see the influences in the band’s music, with legends of the before mentioned genres, such as Slint, Shellac, Big Black, Mogwai, Swans, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor having large influences on the group. Despite this, the group manages their own as they create an album that’s consistently engaging in its own right. This record is a perfect listen for anyone into more hardcore genres, or any fans of the artists mentioned above.
13. Nectar-Joji: The second studio album from meme legend Joji sees a massive improvement in all areas, particularly with songwriting, production, and vocal performances. When listening to this project, anybody who’s familiar with Joji’s music can recognize a major improvement on his ability as a songwriter, as he now tries to take himself a little more seriously than before, and that benefits both himself and the listener. The production is a lot better as well, with the instrumentals sounding more crisp and well-crafted, and the mixes are much improved with the songs sounding clean and not as muddy as some tracks on his last record. Joji’s voice has never sounded better than it does on this project. The emotion that he pours into the tracks seems way less gimmicky and more serious in tone.
12. Shrines-Armand Hammer: Underground Rap duo Billy Woods and Elucid are back once again for their fourth record, Shrines, and this abrasive Hip-Hop album does not hold back at all. Billy Woods laces his abstract and thoughtful lyricism onto these tracks, and Elucid is right by his side to support him. The instrumentals on this album are absolutely phenomenal, with “Leopards” and “King Tubby” having some of the best instrumentals of all time. Overall, it’s not quite as phenomenal as their last record, Paraffin, but it comes pretty close, as both rappers continue to give some of the best performances in Hip-Hop today.
11. After Hours-The Weeknd: On his highly anticipated fourth studio album, After Hours, singer/rapper Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, brings one of the most raw R&B records to date. It’s no question that The Weeknd was snubbed by the Grammys, as he didn’t receive a single nomination for his new album, and anyone who has listened to the record would most likely agree with that sentiment. Abel’s songwriting has never been better (only matched by his phenomenal 2018 EP) and the emotion Abel puts into his lyricism is so strong that it can easily be felt by the listener. Tesfaye’s voice sounds as rich and smooth as ever, and this only heightens the songwriting to a lofty height. This was one of the best records of 2020 period, and it shouldn’t be missed.
10. Folklore-Taylor Swift: A surprise drop from the seminal Pop artist, Swift delivers a stylistic record that captures the desolate feelings of the whole year, putting passionate vocals on top of soft-sounding instrumentals that make for a relaxing listening experience during the chaos in this year. This record, however; has received some negativity from music fans saying that she “stole” from Indie music as it has similar qualities to that of an Indie-Folk record. These types of comments completely ignore Swift’s humble beginnings as a singer-songwriter with just her voice and acoustic guitar at her side. Overall, Taylor Swift follows up her last record (which was also a great album) with a fresh sounding album that will resonate with fans for years to come.
9. Kiss My Super Bowl Ring-The Garden: The new record from brothers Wyatt and Fletcher Shears is a hard-hitting criticism of the human experience, and it doesn’t hold back at all. Instrumentally, this record brings some of the most bold experimentation and energetic sounds that the duo has ever made, and this energy is consistent throughout the whole record. The vocals can change from simple singing to piercing screams in an instant, and it somehow works really well with the record. This is a must-listen for anyone who likes experimental music (especially Rock and Electronic), but for others it might just be chaos, give it a listen and find out!
8. Unlocked-Denzel Curry: One of the best rappers in the game right now teamed up with legendary producer Kenny Beats, and made one of the most abrasive, energetic albums of the whole year. The record consists only of 8 tracks, but the listening experience never truly stops as this record will probably resonate with most Hip-Hop fans that hear it. Denzel delivers some of his hardest flows on this album, and those vocals are only heightened by Beat’s immaculate production. Overall, this is a gritty, well-produced record that features some of best vocals from Denzel Curry so far.
7. Run The Jewels 4-Run The Jewels: The Rap duo consisting of Hip-Hop legends EL-P and Killer Mike brought their most abrasive, lyrically profound album to date. The record explores the depths of the Black American experience, with some terrific production laced all over the record. This record is filled with infectious bars and instrumentals, with the hook from the song “JU$T” where Killer Mike chants “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar!” being one of the biggest standout moments in the album. This is a great listen for all kinds of Hip-Hop fans, as there’s something that most everyone can find appealing on this record.
6. Untitled (Black Is)-SAULT: The group’s third release arrives at a time of great suffering and disparity for Americans, especially for the African-American community. This record beautifully captures the suffering felt by people all around the world, and laces the record with melodic and hard-hitting grooves. As previously stated on the paragraph regarding their other album Untitled (Rise), this record is a sorrowful, but hopeful record that is beautifully humbling.
5. Inlet-Hum: Legendary Shoegaze/Post-Hardcore band Hum make their comeback after 22 years with a new record that is reminescent of their previous records, while containing fresh-sounding songwriting throughout the whole record. The album is filled with heavy hitting riffs and great vocal performances from frontman Matt Talbott, and makes for an exciting 2020 listening experience. There’s not much else to be said about it, and this is a great listen for anyone who’s into heavier music.
4. Atlas Vending-Metz: The latest album from Rock group Metz brings forth one of the hardest, abrasive, and energetic records of the year. The record hits the listener like a punch in the face from beginning to end, with strong songwriting and bizarre vocals woven all throughout Atlas Vending. Simply put, listening to the record feels like a trip through the Underworld, leaving the listener with a satisfying feeling of desolateness.
3. It Is What It Is-Thundercat: Legendary bassist Thundercat brings some of the grooviest, playful songs on his fourth studio record. The production feels smooth and warm all across the record, which was handled by Flying Lotus and Thundercat himself. As stated before, this new record features some of the best songwriting done by Thundercat, with one of the singles “Dragonball Durag” being a hilarious journey through the mind of a man trying to impress a woman with his durag. Thundercat’s bass-playing is just as groovy, energetic and fun as ever, making the record an easy listening experience for anyone who just wants to have some fun.
2. Moonstone City-Traipse: This Vaportrap (offshoot of the microgenre Vaporwave) EP from the electronic artist Traipse lands a spot on this list for its beautiful production and songwriting. The EP is fairly short, but it still features memorable tracks and Traipse somehow manages to mix a lot of styles into this project, such as ambient music. Available only on Bandcamp, it is definitely easy to miss this release but it’s highly recommended for anyone simply looking for something new.
1. George Clanton and Nick Hexum-George Clanton and Nick Hexum: This collaborative album from 311 frontman Nick Hexum and Vaporwave pioneer George Clanton is an incredibly fun, consistent, and relaxing listening experience for anyone who’s willing to lend an ear. The duo displays a great amount of musical chemistry, with both songwriters putting forth their all into the record, despite the difference in styles between the two artists. The record captures the feeling of just chilling out in the summer, which makes it the perfect album for summertime. This record is highly recommended for anyone who simply wants a fresh, relaxing, and highly enjoyable listening experience.