I always struggle with album of the year lists and I’m starting to think it’s something personally wrong with me. Is it normal to have to actively search for music? I don’t know.
I’m sorry, Fetch the Bolt Cutters didn’t do it for me. Here’s seven albums that did though. Maybe next year, The Weekend!
Here’s the albums I loved in 2020.
oldsoul — You Were Overwhelmed
TL;DR: In a year of “big” releases, this album from Massachusetts rock band oldsoul was on the most enjoyable.
My first introduction to the Massachusetts band oldsoul was a in-studio recording of their track “Slow Down, Senpai” from some subreddit I can’t remember.
I was immediately taken by the group’s sense of adventure and aptitude for writing a track that seemed so disparate and distant and yet cohesive. Prior to 2020, the band’s charm seemed to rest more on individual performances and less on the group being a solidified union. All that changed this year.
In 2020, the band got a handle on its sound and created You Were Overwhelmed, a record that found the group growing in their sound and creating some of the most hypnotic, wicked-smart rock tunes of the year. It’s an album that doesn’t fucking apologize as it wades through 11-tracks of introspective, mature rock songs. oldsoul has found the thing that makes it all click.
From guitarist Tom Stevens’s opening guitar rhythm on Like No Surprise to the alarming ending of Every Time I See You Breaks My Heart, the album is a total joy to experience.
Front-to-back, You Were Overwhelmed is a growth album containing some of their most soulful guitar work, tight rhythm section, and solid vocals supplied by lead singer Jess Hall.
The pandemic closed down venues across the country and ruined my chances to see nearly all the shows I wanted to see. Missing out on oldsoul performing this album — particularly the brilliant Like No Surprise — is clearly in the top five shows I regret missing in 2020.
Protest the Hero — Palimpsest
TL;DR: Protest the Hero the album of their career so far, a compact, intricate, brutal progressive metal album that holds a mirror to America’s not-so-awesome past.
I’ve become quite a big fan of Canadian progressive veterans Protest the Hero in the past three years despite the fact that from record to record, I’m never exactly sure what version of the band is going to show up.
There’s the dense and calculated lumbering progressive rock giants that emerge and throw their weight around on the heavy-handed 2015 EP Pacific Myth. Or you could have the brutal ambition, mathcore rage, and thundering madness of 2008’s breakout record Fortress.
Then there’s other albums like 2013’s Volition and 2005’s Kezia which each have their own personalities and shine in their own ways and are, in my opinion, complete and separate beings in the Protest the Hero universe.
The only thing I’ve found consistent with Protest the Hero is the band’s ambition to create something ambitious. These guys constantly find a way forward on each subsequent record, if only just a step ahead.
In 2020, Protest the Hero took not a step forward but a giant leap with Palimpsest, a mature, cohesive, career-high record. This release finds Protest the Hero harnessing their brutal ambition and frantic potential of previous releases and combining it with calculated and tempered song writing that only appeared previously in flashes.
With Palimpsest, Protest the Hero produced a completely satisfying metal album, which, if nothing else, gave it’s fans in the United States a great lesson in American history.
Palimpsest is a epic journey through some of the darker parts of U.S. history that features all the things fans have come to love from the band — pounding metal rhythms, unparalleled technical proficiency, and off-kilter rhythms that have an uncanny ability to just work.
For a Protest the Hero records, it’s a relatively compact affair in it’s execution and that’s what makes the album unique. As opposed to previous releases, which seemed to be more concerned with finding out how how fast or how heavy it could be done, Palimpsest feels fully realized in both length and execution, a properly-planned implementation.
As far as modern versions of how American history ain’t all rosy, it’s an unflinching wild ride that holds a mirror inches from your face and forces you to take a good long look.
Many tracks cover territory familiar for even the casual student of American history, like Great Depression icon The Migrant Mother on the album’s opener and the rambunctious, and relentless retelling Amelia Earhart’s story on Canary, a track befitting the protagonist’s narrative.
Perhaps when the album finds its voice truly is when the word “protagonist” is used not as a declarative but as a question. It’s when the stories told aren’t just relayed for their wondrous past but additionally presented with a glaring red question mark on the end.
From the Sky is a retelling of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that lyrically adds forgotten, important and not-so-awesome detail that grainy black-and-white image burned into our brains of the historical event leaves out the fact that the airship flew with a swastika emblazoned on it’s rudder.
Or there’s the resounding tone of loneliness and sadness of Gardenias, a track deals with the suicide of Peg Entwistle’s a British movies actress. The song takes words directly from the woman’s suicide note and adds a level of depth to the track about a disillusioned woman that climbed atop the “H” in the Hollywood sign and leapt to her death.
On Little Snakes, the band takes Mount Rushmore not as a monument to the country’s greatness but as tyrannical, “disembodied heads,” who look down on a Native people displaced by arrogant, white settlers that “disembowel the earth.”
Of the American expansion into the West and subsequent upheaval of it’s Native people, Protest the Hero’s Rody Walker sings:
We can make an exception and they can make some concessions
Because there's gold in the Black Hills
Armed to the teeth, we can make an example of every one of these savages
Because the rights they have, we gave to them
And we can take 'em away without giving a damn
Hum — Inlet
TL;DR: Hum returns quite unexpectedly with hulking beast of a rock album that borders on metal, drones on like a Black Sabbath fever dream, and stares unflinching into the nuclear blast in slow motion.
I was a fan of 1995’s spacey, riff-driven near-collision with stardom You’d Prefer an Astronaut. I owned three different copies of their followup album, 1998’s Downward is Heavenward, because I played them so much they either broke or became so damaged from eagerly passing them back and forth between friends like I was sharing the gift of salvation.
Then I, like a ton of other fans, spent some two decades spinning the same couple of recordings wondering if the guys from Champaign, Illinois, who made all that amazing music would reemerge and do something again.
And in the summer of 2020, with little warning, no advance marketing campaign or internet buzz, they returned. On June 23, 2020, Hum dropped Inlet, a remarkably heavy, rich journey that is equal parts alien landscape, intricate machine, and slow-motion zoom through a shattering explosion.
Unlike previous releases, Inlet’s individual tracks aren’t powered by riff or hook. Subsequently, the album features neither standout single or pinnacle track. Instead, flowing, sludgy, often times wondrous experience that moves like some 90-foot mechanical Galdalf the Grey, with several of the tracks stretching past the eight-minute march, taking just as long they need to.
If nothing else, Inlet is the sweeping, metal album of 2020 that is sometimes haunting sounds and others beautiful, a warm summer sunlight streaming through a window on your arm in a kaleidoscope pattern.
On tracks like In the Den and Folding, the album transforms into a sweeping view into the inner working of a secret machine, with millions of cogs and gears working in delicate unison to power some intricate and beautiful.
Other moments like Waves and The Summoning, are like grainy black and white video footage of a nuclear bomb test on an desert wasteland with the camera panning in through the explosion in slow motion, every second drawing nearer to the growing destruction of the mushroom cloud.
As still more moments like Folding and Cloud City soar high slowly over alien landscapes, with features both deeply wondrous and somewhat unnerving for reasons you can’t quite explain.
The album’s closer, Shapershifter, is both the ending to the experience as well as the best song they band has written. It’s closing lyrics are introspective and haunting like the siren guitar wail that opened the song.
Finding myself past the half-life of me
Lost in the weeds, tugging at sleeves
A dreadful despair of a color that pales to describe
So taking the form of a winged butterfly
And lifting myself through a sliver of white
The lazy path to the fence row and the flowers within
Needing some speed, I became then a fawn
Feeling the dangers of the quickening dawn
I leapt over the fence and raced across the softening ground
And after some time I discovered a pool
Water was clear where the lilies were blue
I drank until full and waited to no ill effect
Seeing the sky I became then a bird
A swallow that sped through the warm thinning air
To heights unimagined, ’til loneliness turned back its hold
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
It’s all tethered to a dream of the experience than drifts off towards the beginning of the album, bringing it all back around, where you’ll no doubt find yourself after the first listen.
Deftones — Ohms
TL;DR: Every Deftones release is sacred but Ohms is unique, hypnotizing, dramatic experience that will stick with you long after its ending.
I’ve always looked forward to Deftones releases because when they released an album, you knew you were going to get some kind of quality experience. No album is quite like another but still maintains that unique feel only the Sacramento, California band can create.
The band’s 2020 offering Ohms ended up being the thing that happened to me this year that I didn’t know I needed. When I got it, it became somewhat of an obsessive listen for me with a special quality that I couldn’t and still can’t seem to identify completely.
For me, the beauty of Ohms is that it’s something that sits just on the edge of your awareness but always out of touch, a thing I know is there in form yet is somehow indescribable in perfect detail.
Ohms for me is much closer to band’s seventh release, 2012’s No Koi Yokan, for it’s rich sonic landscapes and sweeping arrangements. All those elements are taken up a notch on Ohms though, on tracks like the immense Pompeji, intricate self-titled track Ohms, and the remarkable Radiant City.
Deftones have always a band known for having a superbly tight rhythm section supplied by the severely underrated collaborative efforts of drummer Abe Cunningham and bassist Sergio Vega. On Radiant City, the duo of Cunningham and Vega shine
Vega’s furious opening riff Radiant City, a compressed, driving bass line, is my favorite moment to come out of the instrument in 2020. Stephen Carpenter’s monstrous guitar work is here two, creating an atmosphere of wonder with Frank Delgado’s samples and keyboard work.
Vocalist Chino Moreno rounds out the affair with his signature Jekyll and Hyde, hyper-schizophrenic performance. Moreno’s vocals alternate between layered, thick passages in the verse that “Sit lonely inside these / Delusions we face” before breaking into a rage, screaming in frustration:
Where’s the ledge?
I can’t touch it
But I feel it’s so close
All this leads to an ultra clean delivery of Moreno on what best serves as a chorus, where the he sings that “no one alive has taken me here.”
The whole thing is remarkable for so many reasons that blend together effortlessly, creating a great sense of dread and foreboding that is nearly impossible to explain. The only thing I keep back to is Moreno’s frustrated tone in searching for the ledge.
August Burns Red —Guardians
TL;DR: August Burns Red save the universe by maturing as a band, reaching new heights and stepping forward with a powerful, crushing metal album.
I was so ready for August Burns Red to release a new album in 2020.
The Lancaster, PA. metalcore veterans’ previous effort, 2017’s Phantom Anthem, was a remarkable album released in a year of remarkable metal albums alongside Veil of Maya’s False Idol, We Came As Romans’s Cold Like War, and Code Orange’s Forever.
Phantom Anthem was on repeat in the Blyth household for nearly three months straight. Expectations for the next August Burns Red effort were high.
So when news of the first single from the band’s next record Guardians started to hit the Internet in early February 2020, I was excited but tempered my eagerness to hear some new music with a healthy dose of cautious optimism. Because after all, this is the music industry and mammoth records are often followed up with…. not so great efforts.
It’s all at once progressive, impactful and classically August Burns Red. Guardians is a tattered, beaten, ship coming to harbor flying a familiar flag that has returned from foreign lands with a new story to tell.
While words like crushing and brutal and harsh get tossed around with regularity to describe August Burns Red’s sound, I’ll agree there but also take things a step further. To me, this is the band truly enjoying the music they are making. You can hear it in their delivery, composition and recording — the boys are having a blast making this music. It’s part of the fun here and large part of the reason I enjoyed this track so much.
Spanish Love Songs — Brace Faces Everyone
TL; DR: Spanish Love Songs released the best rock album on 2020, an introspective, dynamic effort that should be the first live concert of 2021, or whenever we get concerts again.
It’s extremely rare for me to hear a record for the first time and immediately like it. Usually I have to spin something four or five times before it takes hold. Sometimes that doesn’t even happen — I have to be forced to revisit the album to discover its beauty.
Mastodon’s Leviathan sat unopened in CD format in my room for a year before I picked it up. Messhugah’s I EP took several listens to fully understand.
Not the case with Spanish Love Song’s Brave Faces Everyone, the instantly accessible, electric, passionate third release from the immensely talented Los Angeles rock band. It’s a catchy, well-written, energetic rock record despite itself over and over again.
Nearly every song on the album an ironic burst of excitement accompanied by seemingly off-handed, powerful asides like “you’re moving H with a guy to catch up, but it’s clear you’re using.” And when it’s not, like on Dolores, it’s an emotionally draining trip for a nurse “with her hand in a young man’s chest,” and more gut-wrenching lyrics pouring out:
“You think of your daughter at her wedding
You know life isn’t long enough,”
Lyrically, Brace Faces Everyone is a straightforward, emotionally-dense effort that paints some fairly gloomy pictures in graphic detail.
And there’s a lot of courage and beauty in that, a fact missed by critics in 2020 who trashed the band for their lyrics. These are the same people who, on one hand, praised Springsteen a generation earlier for writing songs for the common man but bemoaned Spanish Loves Songs for their effort in 2020’s. It’s the equivalent of one generation give less-of-a-fuck of the next’s suffering and instead saying, “buck up kid, we had it worse.”
There’s a delicious irony on how a well written rock album in terms of music can transcend not-so-happy lyrics.
There were plenty of times I found my wife rocking out by herself at her makeshift standing desk, tracks from the album blasting out of her ear pods, as she danced to the music.
Despite itself, Brace Faces Everyone is a powerfully moving musical experience built on a collaborative effort from its members. So many of Modest Mouse’s songs that flirted with greatness missed the mark because in the end, it was just a depressed Isaac Brock singing some introspective lyrics. It’s the literal difference between Truckers Atlas and Novocain Stain. Brace Faces Everyone works so well largely because it’s not that at all, it’s a record with weighty subject matter that happens to be backed by a talented group of musicians which worked their asses off to create some great music.
The Ocean — Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
TL; DR: German progressive metal band The Ocean release an epic record that requires your attention.
All bullshit aside, The Ocean’s eighth release, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic, doesn’t require any grand explanation or definitions on clarity to make it great. This album is so grand in scale, extraordinary in texture, and powerful in execution that is deserves your attention.
The Ocean released this album in September of 2020 and while I’m still trying to wrap my head entirely around the release, I can confidently say it’s become a constant companion in this decidedly horrible year. When all else fails, the production values and sheer professionalism on this album transcend.