This time last year, I would not have been able to fathom the events of 2020. I never dreamed there would be a year when I would see no live music whatsoever, let alone when no one would get to see any live music. Artists who make a living from performing are reeling; venues are in danger of shutting down, and as of now there’s no end in sight.
Sometimes it’s best not to contemplate the big picture, when the big picture is terrifying and confusing and isolating. Sometimes the only way to get through is to take one step at a time and handle each day as it comes. Instead of mourning the lack of shows to go to in 2020, I’d recommend getting deeply familiar with the piles of new music that have been released this year, in preparation for someday, when we will get to see these songs performed live, knowing every word by heart. Focusing on the inevitable future joy that will come when people can finally pack into a venue again is a much more productive undertaking than despairing at the current state of things.
The amount of new records this year is a bright spot in the chaotic darkness that has been 2020. Some of them, while great, have been written about extensively already (Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Women in Music Part III, The Slow Rush). The following list consists of 10 records from independent artists who have released the best of 2020, in one writer’s opinion.
10. The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark Records)
Released July 10, 2020
Members: Elizabeth Stokes, Benjamin Sinclair, Jonathan Pearce, Tristan Deck
Auckland, New Zealand
Just like on their 2018 release, Future Me Hates Me, The Beths are good for fun upbeat power pop– the kind of band that is always super fun to see live. The lyrics deal with some intense emotional stuff, but the vibe is always carefree and danceable. Unrelated to the music, Elizabeth Stokes’ New Zealand accent is so cute. I just think the way she pronounces things is nice.
When the Beths aren’t being raucous and fun, they’re being lush and gorgeous; the title track on this album features lovely harmonies and rich guitar tone. It’s a good song for pining about someone without getting too sad– as Stokes sings, “Oh, I remember watching the waves rolling in / Numbered in the thousands” and this song feels appropriate for gazing out over the water, watching waves roll in and thinking about someone you think you love, that you’ve loved the whole time. I don’t actually know what “jump rope gazers” means, but there’s speculation that it means “childhood friends”. Quick, someone turn this song into a movie!
“You Are a Beam of Light” is another beautiful one, with repeating lyrics and fingerstyle guitar. “You are a beam of light / maybe that’s why your battery runs dry.” The songs on this album seem to come from a place of genuine love and compassion; I don’t know Elizabeth Stokes but judging from her songwriting (the lyrics are mostly, if not all, hers), she seems like a lovely person.
I think sometimes albums like Jump Rope Gazers don’t get taken as seriously as they should, because it’s a woman singing about love, and it’s poppy and fun. But there’s serious musicianship here. Stokes and Jonathan Pearce play guitars that continue to delight for the whole album, and each song is lush with carefully considered instrumentals.
Listen & buy: https://thebethsnz.bandcamp.com/
9. Ringo Deathstarr (self-titled) (Reverberation Appreciation Society)
Released March 27, 2020
Members: Alex Gehring, Daniel Coborn, Dustin Gaudet, Elliott Frazier, Renan McFarland
I saw a “shoegaze chart” recently that listed Ringo Deathstarr as “fake shoegaze”, which struck me as particularly idiotic. Not sure what makes shoegaze “real” or “fake”, but Ringo Deathstarr has been around for awhile – they’re established, I’ve listened to them for a few years, and this year’s eponymously named Ringo Deathstarr sounds pretty damn real to me.
This album’s sound is timeless; it’s got clear shoegaze influences, and some of the sounds reference the 1980s, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Slowdive…. But none of it is derivative. Every sound, every guitar tone, generates the kind of sonic environment that Ringo Deathstarr can be relied upon to create, and it fits into a genre but doesn’t sound like a record made by any other artist in the genre.
There’s a subtle reference to Swervedriver in the song “Gazin”– “You swerve when you drive / soon we’ll leave it all behind”. Ringo Deathstarr recognizes the bands that have come before them– they don’t fancy themselves to be pioneers of shoegaze– but this is clearly 2020 shoegaze, not 1991 shoegaze.
The best moments on the album are when Alex Gehring is singing, but on “I Don’t Want to Lose This” there is a surprising Calvin Johnson (of Beat Happening and the Halo Benders) moment from Elliott Frazier– sounds like it could be goofy, but it works!
This is an album to put on while creating: writing, painting, sculpting, whatever. It’s ambient enough to retreat just far enough into the background not to be a distraction, but it’s by no means a “put it on and forget about it” kind of album.
Listen & buy: https://ringodeathstarr.bandcamp.com/
8. Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open (Matador)
Released May 1, 2020
Members: Will Toledo, Ethan Ives, Andrew Katz, Seth Dalby
“I believe my thoughts can change my body”. The first song on Making a Door Less Open, “Weightlifters”, starts off with a strange droning noise that carries on throughout the whole song. Does that sound annoying? It’s not.
Car Seat Headrest experiments with lots of noises, electronic and general, on this one. There’s a few moments when Will Toledo’s voice sounds kind of like early Beck, when he was still cool and weird and not so earnest. Some of the songs– like “Hollywood” sound like LCD Soundsystem, too. The lyric “Hollywood makes me wanna puke!” sounds like a more abrasive, west-coast version of “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”.
“Deadlines (Thoughtful)” is reminiscent of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?-era Of Montreal (specifically “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”); that same kind of relentless repetition to create a slightly hostile, but still cool, atmosphere.
I tend to really like it when bands incorporate more electronic sounds into the mix, and Making a Door Less Open is no exception to that rule. It’s a solid, consistent album that sounds cool and has enough substance to keep you interested through many listens, thus rightfully earning its place as one of the best releases of 2020.
Listen & buy: https://carseatheadrest.bandcamp.com/
7. Tennis – Swimmer (Mutually Detrimental/Thirty Tigers)
Released February 14, 2020
Members: Alaina Moore, Patrick Riley, James Barone
Alaina Moore has the perfect pop voice, and honestly people have been sleeping on Tennis for a long time now – they’ve been consistently putting out excellent work for the past decade. The instrumentals are always on point in Tennis’ work, but Alaina Moore’s voice doesn’t really need anything to hold it up.
“Need Your Love” switches tempos multiple times, effortlessly, which is pretty impressive. Tennis is just an impressive band; there’s a whole lot of talent here. I think part of the reason this album (and their work in general) is so successful is that it doesn’t feel like it strictly belongs to any particular era. Other than “pop”, I’m not sure exactly what genre this would even qualify as. Most consistently there’s references to 1960s pop music with sweet melodies and harmonies, but the 1980s synths, drum machines, and precise, persistent bass lines keep it from getting stuck there. Sometimes Moore’s voice evokes Ariana Grande; sometimes it evokes Kate Bush. It’s kind of miraculous that a band with such a consistent sound can be so diverse. The song “Runner” in particular evokes Kate Bush– the melody even almost but not quite sounds like “This Woman’s Work” but in a poppy, happy way; it’s in no way a tearjerker like “This Woman’s Work” is.
I really like music that specifically evokes the music from the 2002 “Vacation” expansion pack of The Sims, and the song “Tender as a Tomb” happens to do exactly that.
Listen & buy: https://tennis-music.com/
6. Higher Power – 27 Miles Underwater (Roadrunner)
Released January 24, 2020
Members: Jimmy Wizard, Louis Hardy, Max Harper, Alex Wizard, Ethan Wilkinson
Leeds, West Yorkshire, England
Reading album reviews usually annoys me; the pretentious reviews I read of 27 Miles Underwater kept up the tradition. I think Higher Power is a great band, and 27 Miles Underwater is a great album, with a huge array of influences and musical references, from Alice in Chains to Deftones to Hum to Jane’s Addiction (particularly on “In the Meantime”) to Box Car Racer to Bleach-era Nirvana. But it’s not derivative, and there’s riffs and solos throughout this album that sound more like 80s metal than any of the previously mentioned references. The album finds a perfect balance between light and heavy, with pretty, melodic hooks punctuated by thrash-y verses. I like an album that can’t be pinned down, and this one definitely can’t. Is it hardcore? Is it post-hardcore? Is it something else? Or are genres mostly just kind of meaningless? The answer…. is yes.
Listen & buy: https://higherpower.lnk.to/27MU
5. Shopping – All or Nothing (FatCat Records)
Released February 7, 2020
Members: Rachel Aggs, Billy Easter, Andrew Milk
London & Glasgow
All or Nothing comes right out of the gate with a cool riff and bass line. Anyone familiar with their catalog will instantly recognize them from guitar tone alone, but the bass part and some echoey ambient noises evoke Disintegration-era Cure mixed with Gang of Four plus Kleenex and Au Pairs, too.
“Initiative” feels like the B-52’s musically, like from Bouncing off the Satellites era (which is my favorite, so that’s a compliment). “About You” sounds like the B-52’s too, with some back-and-forth vocals that recall Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson (but without the tongue-in-cheek goofiness).
Billy Easter’s bass keeps each song moving forward consistently; his playing is a tour de force. The tone is rich, it’s absolutely on point 100% of the time and just truly masterful. The whole album is totally solid, the band’s sound is so tight as to suggest some sort of single entity playing all of these songs instead of three separate people.
This record would be a good one to put on while deep-cleaning your apartment. It’s full of energy and drive– each song is consistent with Shopping’s fast-paced sound, there are no breaks, no ballads, no bullshit, and not a single wasted second.
Listen & buy: https://shoppingfc.bandcamp.com/
4. Quattracenta – II (Brokers Tip Records/Phantomscope)
Released October 16, 2020
Members: Sarah Matas, Christian Sturgis, Andrea Shearer
Right off the bat this album is reminiscent of Slint, but not derivative, and the guitar riff on “It Gave Way” is an earworm that will subtly lurk in the back of your head all day– but in a good way. It seems like each noise Quattracenta makes on this 6-song release is carefully considered; nothing is extraneous, everything works together, carefully building. Even the drums are used sparingly, just enough to emphasize. This album is a good one to put on for some moody, dramatic sulking; it’s dark and cerebral.
The guitar tone around the 1:20 mark in “Of Descent” is my favorite of the album, but when searching for good tones and cool noises, II is a smorgasbord. For comparison, this album is the polar opposite of The Beths’ Jump Rope Gazers, but that doesn’t mean it would be any less fun to see Quattracenta play live. If they ever make their way out to the west coast, it would be a joy to watch the three of them (Sarah Matas, Christian Sturgis, and Andrea Shearer) put these sounds together live.
Some of the reviews of II make comparisons to PJ Harvey, which is valid, but Matas’ voice is its own beast that defies comparison. I think this album would have been disappointing if it felt like someone doing a PJ Harvey impression; despite some similarities in overall sound, it doesn’t feel that way at all. Just a few other artists Quattracenta evokes: Christian Death, Chelsea Wolfe, Hante., Emma Ruth Rundle, Swans. But really, all of those would work together to make a great playlist; more than any possible comparison, Quattracenta sounds like its own thing.
Listen & buy: https://quattracenta.bandcamp.com/
3. Man Man – Dream Hunting in the Valley of the In-Between (Sub Pop)
Released: May 1, 2020
Members: Honus Honus, Jazz Diesel, Mature Kevin, Thu Butler, Brett Swett, King Cyrus King
When recommending Man Man to other people, I always just think of the time I put Man Man’s Rabbit Habits on at a party and someone said “What the fuck is this.” Guess it was just a little too weird for that particular crowd, but Man Man has a completely solid catalog at this point, and Dream Hunting is consistent with their sound without sounding like more of the same. Each Man Man record is its own little microcosm of weird chaos.
Man Man’s usual selection of unusual instruments and sounds is very much present on this album, but I’d venture to guess that most of the melodies on Dream Hunting would not elicit the same party reaction as “Rabbit Habits”. There’s a lot more catchiness without compromising the weirdness, making it friendlier to a wider audience.
“Lonely Beuys” and “Sheela” are the standouts for me, but there are 17 songs on Dream Hunting and each one is kind of its own little world. Even on the twentieth listen, you still never really know what’s about to happen. Honus Honus as a songwriter is a beautiful mystery– no one else on the planet could write these songs.
Listen & buy: https://manmanbandband.bandcamp.com/
2. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle (Don Giovanni)
Released May 15, 2020
Members: James Longs, LaToya Kent, Kyle Kidd, Dante Foley, Theresa May, Pete Saudek, William Washington, RA Washington
The Cycle kicks off with “If I Can If I May”, which sounds like an instant soul classic– timeless, absolutely gorgeous vocals, sounds like it comes from one of the all-time greats. The neo-soul sound is consistent throughout the record, but synths, electronic beats, and samples keep it from being entirely classifiable as soul, since it switches genres at least once per song.
Though it’s difficult to stand out when presented with such consistently excellent musicianship, “Deluze” is undoubtedly a standout track. The lush instrumentals, LaToya Kent’s stunning vocals, and a mellow organ in the background – all of it works together to create a song that’s earned a spot on your “greatest of all time” playlist.
The album in general kind of demands that the listener simply shut up and listen; it’s well-suited for a thorough listen while soaking in a hot bath, where you can just close your eyes and hear it without distraction.
The Cycle is a double LP, 18 songs, which means that the experience that is listening to it lasts for an hour and 7 minutes, which feels like a gift. Sometimes bands stick their weaker songs at the end of a record, and you’d think this might be extra true for a double LP. With 18 songs, wouldn’t at least a couple be a little subpar? Nope, absolutely not. Down to the literal last seconds of the album, The Cycle is consistently wonderful.
Listen & buy: https://mourningablkstar.bandcamp.com/
1. Hum – Inlet (Earth Analog Records)
Released June 23, 2020
Members: Matt Talbott, Tim Lash, Jeff Dimpsey, Bryan St. Pere
Hum’s first album since 1998 came as a pleasant surprise to me; I had no idea it was even in the works. It just so happened that I learned about this album directly after hearing about the devastating and untimely death of one of my best friends this past summer, and in the confused few days after his death, this album seemed to support me; it’s a force. The album is laden with these huge walls of heavy guitar sound that bolster the listener like waves underneath a ship. At least, that’s how it felt for me.
One of the reasons why Hum is so good (1995’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut is a killer album if you aren’t already familiar) is the lyrical content; Matt Talbot’s vocals are human and emotional. On Inlet, they seem to be more about exploring an alien planet than dealing with human relationships, but still, on “Shapeshifter”, the last lines are a total heart punch–
Where is the place for what’s all left of me?
Where do we keep the things we don’t need?
Where is the solace promised me in voices before?
Suddenly me just here back on the land
Reaching for you, finding your hand
The very last line caused instant tears for me while grieving my friend.
Inlet is not a happy album, it’s not upbeat, and you can’t dance to it. But it’s not a stone-cold bummer, either. My ship metaphor is the best I can come up with: it carries you.
Listen & buy: https://humband.bandcamp.com/
– Molly Steadman
Molly Steadman is a writer, graphic designer, illustrator, and Portland transplant. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has lived in four states, of which Oregon is her favorite. Currently, she is working toward an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience from the Savannah College of Art and Design. You can find more of her work on Instagram at @molly.steadman and on her website, mollysteadman.com.