15. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
OPN first caught my attention on Daniel’s opening spot for Nine Inch Nails back in 2014. I wasn’t immediately in love, but there was something about his unsettling take on ambient music that got its hooks in me. And on an album like Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, it’s clear to see why. Daniel Lopatin has always been a master at building and maintaining a mood throughout his records, and this one is no exception. Here he explores a twisted sense of nostalgia, mining the sounds and textures of 1980s elevator muzak, afterschool specials, and other incidental bits of background music that were once used to set a happy go lucky tone. But in OPN’s world, this nostalgia curdles into something more sinister and menacing, bleeding from bright warbling synths into walls of noise and atonal clash without a second’s notice. Beyond that, Magic OPN also plays with more pop-based song structures as well. While he doesn’t use vocals often, here he uses them on several tracks as the focus of the song, or at least a melodic center to hold the more abstract moments together (or even just to poke fun at indie rock with the tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Love Me Anymore”). But beyond including more vocals in his arsenal, he also flirts more with traditional verse-chorus-verse structures, which allow him to more easily lure you into a false sense of security during the album’s more syrupy, saccharine moments. Because those moments are only brief respites before Daniel throws you headlong back into musical uncanny valley, flipping what almost sounding like a traditional bit of pop, rock, or electronic back on its head. Oneohtrix Point Never’s music can be hard to digest or even get into at times, but if you have any interest in electronic or experimental music, this one is definitely worth a listen.
14. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
When both my brother and a good friend of mine were suddenly talking about beabadoobee nonstop, I knew I had to check her out. I knew next to nothing about her going into this album, outside of hearing a few non-album tracks I’d been linked, so I was definitely caught off guard by what I heard. Because on Fake It Flowers, this 20 year old woman has faithfully replicated the sound of music that was already out of fashion before she was even born. Beabadoobee handily mines that 1990s singer/songwriter alternative rock vibe, lovingly and unironically paying tribute to and revitalizing that sound. But were nostalgia the only thing Fake It Flowers had to offer, well, it wouldn’t be here in my top 15. Because once the veneer of nostalgia is stripped away, it’s clear that this girl has some incredible songwriting chops. These songs are raw and emotional, with Beabadoobee pouring her heart out lyrically and vocally amidst a bed of lush acoustic guitars, gentle keyboards, and rich string arrangements. It’s a warm and inviting sounding record, made even more so by her easy melodic prowess and ear for dynamics. This is easily one of the best put together debut albums I’ve heard in quite a while, and if the beginning of her career is this good, well…I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
13. IDLES- Ultra Mono
It’s rare to see public opinion of a band sway so quickly. IDLES were post-punk darlings just a couple of years ago with the release of Brutalism, being held up for their leftist-leaning lyricism and inclusivity. But now they’re being painted as having “gentrified punk” by espousing those same views without the (un)luxury of having lived in squalor or not having been sufficiently oppressed by the things they decry in their music. Personally, I couldn’t give less of a fuck about any of that. On Ultra Mono, IDLES have written the closest thing they’ll probably get to their pop record, leaning hard into hooky battle cries and tight songwriting. These are songs that leap out of the speakers with explosive energy by keeping things simple and raw. And sure, some of the lyrics do come off as trying too hard occasionally, but I believe that they believe everything they’re saying, and I believe in those things as well. Just because they haven’t experienced an equal helping of injustice doesn’t invalidate their positions: in fact, there’s just as much merit in using your more privileged position to bring injustice to light, as long as you’re doing it intelligently and respectfully. So when you marry those beliefs with jagged punk riffs, big choruses, anthemic one liners, and a sense of raw, fun energy, well, you get Ultra Mono.
12. Hum – Inlet
Hum is one of those bands that never quite got their due when they were first active, but they developed a cult following and quietly influenced their fair share of rock and metal bands through the years because of it. So when they suddenly announced that they’d be dropping a brand new album in just a few days time earlier this year, it was a huge shock: after all, it’d been something like 20 years since their last one, and nothing really pointed to them being even close to writing a record. And man, are there a lot of things that can go wrong when a band has decades – plural – between their last release. Thankfully, Hum picked up exactly where they left off and gifted us with a wonderful comeback album. Inlet is packed with towering guitar riffs that sound a thousand miles wide, creating a nearly overwhelming sense of distortion and power. And while most bands that opt for such attention-grabbing guitars would go for a heavier, more traditionally metal approach, Hum leaves plenty of room for delicate ambiance and reverb to make it feel like you’re hearing these instruments bouncing off of high cliffs (instead of simply getting blasted by a dimed amp). But this record does feel plenty heavy too, driving along at a steady pace and becoming almost hypnotizing with its sense of repetition and slow development, and paired with its understated vocals. Hum starts each track with a clear destination in mind, but no set time to get there: there’s plenty of room in the middle to explore and enchant along the way.
11. The Fall of Troy – Mukiltearth
After their original line up reunited and released a brand new album in 2016, The Fall of Troy soon found themselves in trouble again. Bass player and backup screamer Tim left the band once again, derailing the band’s momentum and leaving them in an awkward place. After all, they’d written a few new tunes together, but now they wouldn’t have enough to make an album, and they had to figure out how to move forward with the band and leave the past behind. On Mukiltearth, they found the perfect way to do that. The first 6 tracks on this record are re-recordings of the very first material that line up wrote together as a different band, Thirty Years War, and the other 4 tracks are the very last tracks they wrote together. The older tracks brim with the fire and naivety of youth, throwing caution to the wind and writing winding, energetic tunes influenced by emo and post-hardcore. They hadn’t quite found their wildly chaotic style that would be on full display by Doppelganger, and this material does sound a bit less developed when being revisited after 6 full length albums as The Fall of Troy. But they also feel freshly updated, as the nearly 20 years of experience as a band has quite obviously not only changed them as musicians but as people, and it gives that youthful energy a more refined maturity.
And while it would be easy for these 6 tracks to feel like a total tonal whiplash when set against the 4 new ones, they aren’t: for as much as The Fall of Troy may have changed in the intervening years, some things always stay the same. These tracks are a bit more straightforwardly structured – and a little more immediately catchy – but they still feature those classic twisting, winding, and complex guitar lines, colossal bass riffs, and hard hitting drum patterns that only Thomas Erak, Andrew Forsman, and Tim Ward could put together. So with one eye on the past they’re leaving behind, and the other on the future of The Fall of Troy (now that they’ve acquired a new bassist), Mukiltearth perfectly sums up not only the band’s sound and style, but their history as well.
10. Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything
I never would’ve thought at the beginning of this year that Deftones would drop a new album, and I would be…just not that enthusiastic about it. And I also wouldn’t have thought that a brand new band would be able to pick up their torch and out-Deftones them at their own game. But here we are: Loathe dropped I Let It In and It Took Everything to immediate acclaim, and for good reason. While a large chunk of this album is made up of drop tuned, extended range guitar riffs that are more reminiscent of Meshuggah and Car Bomb, there’s also a lot more going on. For every bit of crushing heaviness and throat-shredding screaming here, you’ll find an equal measure of blissed out ’90s alt-rock that borrows a vibe from Deftones and Hum. Tracks like Two Way Mirror, Screaming, and A Sad Cartoon are ethereal takes on grunge rock, featuring plenty of breathy vocal lines and long corridors of reverb. These are tracks that you can fully lose yourself in, and almost forget just how heavy stuff like Red Room and New Faces in the Dark are, until another one comes along to snap you out of that dream-like reverie. And while it would be easy to accuse these guys of cribbing a bit too much from their heroes, I don’t quite see it that way. While plenty of aspects of their sound remind me of other bands I love, they manage to blend these influences in a way that still feels engaging and unique to Loathe, and I’ll never not be a sucker for a band that can expertly glide between heavy and soft without coming off as goofy good cop/bad cop metalcore goons.
9. Touche Amore – Lament
Touche Amore have spent years shouting their pain at the top of their lungs, struggling through personal struggles and tragic losses by transforming that hurt into words. Not just any words, but words that mirror your own struggles, and words that you can scream along with and channel your own pain through. But on Lament, Touche Amore seem to be seeking a different form of catharsis. For the first time, it feels like they have their eyes on something akin to hope: there may not yet be anything but a dim bulb at the end of the tunnel, but its enough to prove that all the work hasn’t been for naught. Lament is an album that focuses on learning who you are and how you work, accepting the best and worst parts of yourself in equal measure, and then finding ways to short circuit those dark parts and find a way to the better ones before they can drag you back down. And in a year that’s been full of so much darkness trying to drag us all down, well, Lament resonated with me pretty damn quickly.
8. END – Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face
Fuck me if END didn’t deliver one of the filthiest, heaviest metal albums of 2020. Admittedly, they landed on my radar because former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Billy Rymer snagged a spot on their drum throne, but they earned their spot in my rotation for much more than a connection to another band. From start to finish, Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face is bleak, nihilistic, and just unrepentantly pissed off, with each riff hitting harder than the last. It’s honestly kind of tough to write about a record like this, because it offers up everything about itself immediately: crushing guitars, breakneck drumming, relentlessly dark lyricism, and grim production that leaves just enough grit to make this thing feel convincing in its ugliness. And END aren’t content to stay in one lane, because their sound blends a wide variety of metal subgenres together into something that defies easy categorization. Since you’ll find little bits of death, grind, thrash, and core here, it’s easier to just say that END is fucking heavy, fucking dark, and fucking excellent.
7. Mac Miller – Circles
Few celebrity deaths hit me hard, but for some reason, Mac Miller’s did. I didn’t even really know his music very well when he passed, I had mostly just seen his come up from afar, transforming from a scrappy young kid spitting backpack raps into a full-fledged musician producing, writing, and playing a plethora of instruments to craft something that was truly his own. After his death, I had checked out his final album Swimming and instantly loved what I heard in its combination of funk, jazz, cloud rap, and traditional hip hop beats, and Mac’s unique singing voice that he peppered into his bars.
So when I found out that he had a companion album to that on deck, that was almost fully done at the time of his passing, I was pretty damn excited. Bur when the first single dropped, Good News, my excitement turned to heartbreak. Mac’s lyrics revealed someone who was bone-tired, already seeming to look at himself in the past tense, and realizing that the hole he had fallen into might be too deep to dig out of. It was downright eerie hearing someone practically eulogize themselves over a year after they had left us, and I wasn’t sure I’d be ready for the rest of the record. However, Circles is mostly a different beast than that track. On it Mac almost entirely abandons rap and focuses mostly on a hybrid of singing with rap cadences, to the point where it’s almost hard to even call this a rap release. It’s an almost sunny record full of bouyant keys and lush string arrangements courtesy of Jon Brion, and yet its brilliant in its low-key vibe and minimalism. You could look at that minimalism as the result of an artist dying before completing what would be his final work, but to me it feels deliberate. Nothing here is overused, and the slimmed down instrumentation serves only to highlight Mac’s character to its fullest. Whether we’re getting bars that remind us of the effervescent kid in Blue Slide Park, the downtrodden moments where he reflects on addiction and heartbreak, or even the rays of hope as he longs to start his own family and raise a child one day, Circles gives us a full picture of who Mac really was. It also proves that he really had nowhere to go but up: his writing, playing, and production was only getting better and more experimental with each release, and he was shifting into a lane all his own. Mac so clearly had much more love and music to give, and the world is worse off without him in it.
6. Protest the Hero – Palimpsest
Time sure flies, huh? While Protest the Hero dropped a 6 track EP in 2016, it has been 7 long years since their last full length album, Volition. That record was a crowning achievement for them, a masterpiece created in the midst of what nearly ended up being the end of the band. And while most bands lose the fire that made them so great after losing key members and taking a long break, Protest the Hero hasn’t. Because on Palimpsest, the band explores a more refined side of their sound. They’ve spent a lot of time pulling back on some of the constant guitar heroics, and instead use that space for dramatic string arrangements, layered keyboards, and some powerfully melodic vocal passages that create a strong sense of push and pull throughout the album. And they pair these emotional arrangements with an equally stirring concept: Rody Walker uses the lyrics here to explore different aspects of America’s revisionist history.
Because let’s face it, no matter which side of the aisle you may fall on, America has a lot of skeletons in its closest. From our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, our willingness to massage a narrative and trick the public, the ugliness and abuse so prevalent in our celebrity culture, and even the bloody outlaws that played such a part in building our country. But while Rody spends a lot of time calling out and bringing to light the harsh parts of his neighboring country’s history, he doesn’t mean any ill will. Instead, with the album’s closing track we find him repurposing a dog whistle phrase that’s less about returning to some golden standard of living and more about reconstituting a more racially segregated, unequal society. Because when Rody calls to “make America great again”, what he really means is to recapture (or create) the American spirit of ingenuity, equality, rebelliousness, and innovation. America is built on some lofty ideals that we very often don’t live up to, but the potential to meet them is always there. And after an album that spends its runtime digging up America’s dark secrets and undoing the rewrites we’ve used to paint ourselves as the heroes, it asks us to rewrite the only thing that really matters: how we treat each other.
5. Cloudkicker – Solitude
Generally when Cloudkicker releases an album, it’s pretty much a guarantee to land somewhere on my year end list. But sadly, it’s actually been a long while since Ben Sharp’s last full length record: Unending came close last year, but it wasn’t quite as full-fledged as I would’ve liked. Thankfully(?), due to the pandemic, Ben suddenly found himself with a lot more free time. With a pandemic looming heavy in the air and forcing everyone to stay home for an indefinite, interminable amount of time, there was an easy source of inspiration, too. That inspiration led to Solitude, easily Ben’s darkest sounding material to date and possibly his heaviest. Cloudkicker hasn’t been exceptionally heavy for a while now, so right from the opening notes of this record, I knew I was in for a ride. And like the year it was born from, Solitude rarely lets up on the darkness. These songs rarely stop to catch their breath, delivering riff after thundering riff, and filling every nook and cranny of empty space with drums, gritty bass, or ambient guitar textures to create a cinematic sense of push and pull in each moment. And even when the album finally does land on a slower moment, there’s not really much sense of relief: there’s still tension hiding in the corners, never letting you forget what Solitude‘s goal is: bloodletting the pain of a rough year.
4. The Weeknd – After Hours
I’ll admit to not having paid the Weeknd much attention over the years. I’ve liked his singles here and there, but outside of his Trilogy stuff, I always found his full length albums lacking either for direction or for some of the fat to be trimmed. I wanted to like him more than I did, because his voice is golden and I love the dark pop he does so well, but it just wasn’t to be…until After Hours. This record grabbed me immediately, and here at the end of 2020, it’s still in my rotation pretty damn often. Here Abel finds his more cohesive and coherent vision by mining the sounds of both the past and the future, focusing on a heavy dose of ’80s pop nostalgia and filtering it through a turbulent, foreboding lens of drug addiction, personal struggle, and failed relationships. Cuts like Snowchild, Heartless, After Hours, and Until I Bleed Out are murky, washed out tracks detailing everything from his troubled childhood to his inability to love, and even the grim fate that awaits him should he continue down this path.
But the darkness that pervades this album is excellently balanced out by some of his biggest pop hits yet. In Your Eyes, Blinding Lights, Hardest to Love, and Save Your Tears are just absolutely massive earworms, finding their way into your brain and refusing to leave for days. These tracks take that same murky ’80s pop influence as the darker cuts on the record, but they go for sugar instead of the spice, delivering the dopamine-rush only an excellent pop song can. And above all, After Hours is impeccably produced, leaving plenty of air to breathe when the mood requires it, and knowing when to hit harder and create fuller soundscapes and washes of texture, making this an incredibly rewarding album to listen to again and again.
3. Bring Me the Horizon – Post Human: Survival Horror
Bring Me the Horizon has had one hell of a fascinating career. Once upon a time they were deathcore darlings, young kids caked in eyeliner and swoopy emo haircuts that cared more about churning out breakdowns than songs. And even back then, I had a soft spot for a lot of stuff on Count Your Blessings and Suicide Season, but I always felt like they could be more than they were. And they must have felt the same, because with each album, their sound grew: from atmospheric metalcore, then to mainstream radio rock, and finally to unabashed, dark electronic pop, they weren’t content to stay in any lane long. And of course, lots of people felt lots of ways about these shifts to more accessible sounds, but I loved them all and found myself amazed at how easily they could craft a hook.
But after all those years of experimentation and focusing on landing in the mainstream, it’d be easy for them to lose their way, or sell out their values. Instead, on Survival Horror the band completely throws caution to the wind and focuses down every single one of those sounds into one seven song EP. The opening track Dear Diary, is a ripper that could’ve come directly from those Suicide Season days, Kingslayer (feat. Babymetal) toys with Count Your Blessings-era death growls and some absolutely massive riffs, and One Day the Only Butterflies Left… would sound right at home alongside Sempiternal‘s more somber, slower tracks. And then there’s tracks like Obey and Teardrops that seem to blend all of those things together at once: huge earworm choruses, aggressive guitars, a heavy dose of keyboards and programming, even a touch of nu-metal, and both sung and screamed vocals. In fact, Oli is screaming all over this album, which makes me quite happy since I was pretty convinced he either wouldn’t or just couldn’t scream ever again. And Kingslayer might be one of the finest tracks they’ve ever laid down, careening drunkenly from barreling riffs, glitchy electronics, devilish screams, and the airy-yet-powerful vocals of Suzuka Nakamoto to complete this metal kaleidoscope of a song. Survival Horror is jam packed with moments that will please just about every fan of Bring Me the Horizon, no matter which album may be their favorite, and it excels at proving why this band has managed to stay relevant and interesting for over 14 years now. With this release, they’ve created a funhouse that collides together metal, pop, rock, and electronic into one succinct package that somehow feels completely natural and absolutely vital. This band has become a powerhouse and I’m no longer ashamed to call them one of my favorites.
2. Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God
From the moment I first heard a Dillinger Escape Plan record, I knew Greg Puciato was a vocalist of unmatched caliber. The man can scream like the victim of a possession, softly coo and croon his way over jazzier, quieter moments, and even belt out a wickedly catchy chorus worthy of constant radio rotation. And yet, these moments were always fleeting in Dillinger: you would only get a small taste of the full range Greg was capable of before the song would move into something else entirely, and it left me long wishing for him to put together a project that could fully explore his talents.
Thankfully, we’ve finally gotten that with his first full-fledged solo album. Outside of the drums, Greg has written and recorded everything you hear on this record, being the sole creator of his own vision, and that vision encompasses a vast range of possibilities. On Child Soldier: Creator of God you’ll find both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Of course, you’ll get a fair helping of outright heaviness, like on the Dillinger-infused cut Fire For Water (featuring former Dillinger drummer Chris Pennie, no less), the furious grunge rock of Deep Set, or the hateful screed of Roach Hiss. But it would’ve been both too easy and too predictable for Greg to turn in an album that was nothing but metal and hard rock, and thankfully he hasn’t pigeonholed himself. Because outside of the heavier sounds, this album finds plenty of room for the pretty and the melancholy. Temporary Object is a glittering piece of 80s-inspired synthpop that would be perfectly at home on his other project, The Black Queen, easily doling out some gorgeous melodic falsettos over a bed of blissful electronics. Earlier than that though, you’ll find a noisy piece of pulsing, pounding, distorted electronica in the album’s title track, and later on in the tracklist you’ll find Evacuation, which takes some of the sparkle of Temporary Object and then blows it out halfway through with stomping guitars and vicious screams that make for a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails album. And even more out of left field comes Down When I’m Not, a track that somehow seems to fuse the aesthetic of ’90s pop punk with the guitar wash of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. On paper, this sounds like it should be an absolute mess of genre-hopping with no coherent vision. But instead, despite the massive variations in sound and mood from track to track, everything on this record feels purposeful and coherent, with each piece serving as the foil to another. Without a strong personality holding this thing together, a lesser artist would fall apart. But Greg’s character comes through on every track, no matter what he may be trying his hand at, and that creates a through-line that makes Child Solider: Creator of God one of the most compelling and impossible to define records of the year.
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4
Well, I don’t think I need to say it, but I will anyway: 2020 fucking sucked. Not only have we had to contend with the worse pandemic since the Spanish Flu, but it seemed like our number was coming up on every front. Our government abandoned any pretense of pretending they represent us, income inequality grew by leaps and bounds while the rest of us were evicted from their homes, racial tensions simmered in the face of a party that no longer couched its hatred in economic theory, and the Trump administration seemed hellbent on corrupting and breaking every part of government they could if they thought if could enrich or reelect them. And then at the end of May, that powder keg finally exploded. George Floyd was murdered by police for the crime of passing a fake $20 bill, and cell phone video showed all 9 minutes that the officers spent holding him down and kneeling on his neck while he begged for a breath.
So who would’ve known, months before all this had happened, that Run the Jewels were writing the album that would come to define 2020? Because no piece of music this year was more powerful or hair raising than a line from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow”. On it, he references the 2014 murder of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed for the crime of selling loose cigarettes and who also begged for a breath in his final moments. Hearing Killer Mike say the words “I can’t breathe”, after watching protests against police brutality erupt across the country – fueled by tens of millions of rightfully angry people – didn’t just feel prophetic, it was downright depressing. What should have been a six year old reference was now suddenly brand new again, highlighting the complete impasse that America is stuck at in terms of its racial relations. These guys would love nothing more than to just be angry middle aged dudes yelling at the clouds, with no basis in reality for their indignation. But instead, their rage is just as justified as ever, as the elites rob and pillage everything they can and leave the scraps for the rest of us to fight each other over.
And yet, for as heavy as things can get on RTJ4, social commentary isn’t the only thing Run the Jewels have going for them. This record is the duo’s clearest mission statement yet, perfectly distilling the best parts of their sound and attitude into one concise package. El-P’s production has always been ahead of his time, and after 20 years in the game, its fully congealed into something that’s entirely his own. In his toolbox you’ll find everything from nods to classic boom-bap to flashes of modern trap, and in between you’ll find the futuristic hyper-beats that only El-P can create, layered with everything from eerie guitars, ghostly backing vocals, and even a cinematic saxophone solo. And yet, for everything going on in the sound design of this record, nothing is wasted or overstays its welcome: these tracks are refined into the absolute best versions of themselves, wasting no time on drawn out instrumental sections or superfluous verses. These rich beats are nothing without great rappers on top of them though, and both Killer Mike and El-P turn in rabble rousing performances throughout. These two men have a brotherly camaraderie that’s impossible to replicate, easily trading bars, finishing each others lines, and bigging each other up with nothing but love. And of course, for as serious as they can get while dealing with the social ills of our time, they’re still hilarious MCs too. These guys can have to wanting to tear something down one moment and laughing at a dick joke the next, or defiantly spitting in the face of the devil with grim gallows humor. These guys have seen it all, and haven’t been broken by it yet, instead finding fuel in the strife and trying to find some light in the dark. One can only hope that one day these guys will start being wrong – that the world won’t be such an ugly place, that black people won’t have to fear walking past an officer, that the poor may have some representation and a chance to earn an honest living, that things aren’t just completely fucked all around. But until that day comes, well, I couldn’t think of two better men to be the voice of our times.