How does one even begin to reflect on 2020? This year was awful. Just exceptionally terrible on every level possible. It’s hard to think back to the early months of the year before the coronavirus completely threw everyone’s world into a constant state of fear, dread, and uncertainty. It feels like another lifetime ago. And it’s even harder to imagine returning to normal. I can’t find any words to do it justice.
The one constant in my life was always music. But unlike years previous where I was attending about a concert a week, even my relationship with music changed. No matter how many times I put on a vinyl cranking it up as high as my neighbors would tolerate and imbibing one too many drinks in the comfort of my place, I could never recreate the magic of a live concert. Believe me, I tried. It’s hard to remember the feeling of screaming out the words to a beloved song surrounded by people you’ve never met screaming those exact same words back. I feel for all the bands whose livelihoods were thrown in turmoil, the workers at venues across the globe who lost their jobs, the venues that will inevitably shut down for good, and every single person who missed the magic only a concert can deliver.
I feel for all of us and all we had to endure to make it to this point at 8:37pm on December 6th as I sit here writing this. So many of us have had to endure undue tragedy and loss this year that we all deserve healing in 2021. Personally, as I sit here cuddled up to my girlfriend and puppy Archie, I know how lucky I am to even be able to be writing this. I’m still recovering from my own fight with COVID. Only a month ago, I couldn’t even have imagined making it to this point. I hope in all this trauma, we can find gratitude for what we have in this fragile life. In spite of all this, 2020 was an incredible year for music. Albums recorded before the shutdowns took on new meaning upon their release, artists found ways to be creative even in isolation, and music recorded that would’ve never seen the light of day if not for the pandemic was gifted to us. We owe all these musicians a debt of thanks for the solace we found in music. This year, I found myself digging into the back catalogues of bands, finding magic at the bottom of used record crates, enjoying many bands most critically panned albums, and cherishing more than ever the escape that music gave me even if only temporary. My best of list serves as a thank you to all the bands who made this year a little easier for me.
Compiled below are the twenty records that got me through 2020. I want to take a moment to acknowledge The Homeless Gospel Choir, Spanish Love Songs, and Jeff Rosenstock for releasing new albums at the height of the pandemic that got me through those early uncertain times. In a normal year, their albums would’ve topped my list. But it’s really hard to listen to those albums anymore because they seem suspended in that time. I hope one day to see those songs played live to be able to find new connections in them and make new memories. Albums by Higher Power, Laura Jane Grace, Deftones, and X also made previous draft versions of my best of and I’d recommend checking those out as well. Without further pontification, I give to you my best of 2020. Thanks for reading my reviews, interviews, and to Punknews for the opportunity to continue to write about music I love.
Top 20 of 2020
is Chelsea Wolfe and Jessie Brower joining forces again to create dark and drugged out post-punk that rages in abandonment. This album is the product of a rekindled friendship and exercise in solidarity of no expectations. You can tell from the jump with the poet-esque delivery in opener 'To Crawl Inside' this album is a ride. From the bone rattling industrial of 'No One Wants to Party With Us' to the sludgy punk rock in 'Downer Surrounded By Uppers,' this formula served the bandleaders well. I found myself spinning Self Surgery
more than a few times and being continually in awe at how heavy it delivers.
19. Haley Williams: Petals For Armor
Petals For Armor serves as the debut release from Haley Williams outside Paramore. Since the band started as a Haley Williams project and has had a tumultuous and fluctuating lineup, it feels like all their previous material was leading to this moment. Combining elements of Radiohead, Erykah Badu, and some of the light funk explored on the last Paramore album, Petals For Armor is an ambitious project broken into three separate parts. The release itself is an exercise your demons statement exploring her trauma from a previous marriage. Williams has never sounded so much in her own skin. Tracks like 'Cinnamon' demonstrate nicely how these disparate parts come together to form a compelling whole.
I love a hardcore album that feels like a statement piece. California Cursed
is exactly that. Exploring the lure and pull of living on the West Coast, this album ties it all together with the acid soaked artwork and beach drenched ends. If that doesn't pique your interest, the huge riffage, bouncing breakdowns, and thrashy guitar leads certainly will. I would've loved to hear some of these monstrous riffs live this year because hardcore deserves live shows to be fully evaluated. Until concerts return though, this will serve as an ample soundtrack for being caught in a living room mosh. Key tracks are 'Army of One' and 'California Cursed.'
If there was a band set to conquer 2020 with a new album, it was Code Orange. This release had a ton of buzz from the start, a huge tour lined up to support it, and enough music critics willing to give its nods to nu-metal artistic credibility. Unfortunately for Code Orange, the pandemic shutdown hit right in the lead up to its release putting much of that on ice. Code Orange made lemonade out of lemons though using the year to fully explore the album through visual heavy streaming performances, acoustic reimaginings, and enough merch to plug any hole in your closet that this year's lack of shows might've caused. Any fan of extreme heavy music should appreciate the genuine aural chaos that is Underneath
which brought the band a Grammy nomination.
I got super into heavy records this year and spent a lot of time exploring the catalogues of extreme music mainstays. This is in part due to Philadelphia's Sit and Spin Records being one of the few places I got out to visit regularly while not coincidentally nearly tripling my own record collection this year. While I've never listened to Napalm Death much previously, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
immediately connected. It's abrasive while melodic, relentless while still focused, and because of this was approachable to me in the way past listens of Napalm Death haven't been. I don't know how this album compares to the rest of their catalogue for longtime fans, but if you've never given them a listen, this was a great start for me.
15. Moor Mother: Circuit City
The first words delivered on Moor Mother's Circuit City
are, 'There's been so much trauma / I don't even know where to start.' The line is so gripping that it commands attention as the avant-garde jazz begins to fall apart in the uncomfortable introduction to the album. Moor Mother's poetry exploring racism and all the ways it manifests itself as the collective trauma of Black America on Circuit City
is certainly that, but its truths have never been so necessary. Circuit City
is an anxiety drenched listen that is as maximalist in its movements as any heavy record on my list, but in entirely different ways.
14. Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle
The pandemic induced isolation, exhausting avoidance of an invisible pathogen, and daily climbing death totals has been one of the biggest mental health challenges in my life. My normally moderated anxiety turned into some of the worst panic attacks I've ever experienced. With my usual methods to work through that anxiety unavailable, I turned to at home yoga in a way that I have previously never practiced. Everyday I hit the mat and tried to escape the hell around me. Healing Is A Miracle
spent much of this year as my soundtrack to that escape. The calming atmospherics softly caressing Julianna Barwick's dreamy vocals were a welcome relief from the noise all around us.
13. Peace'd Out: Feelings Blade
Umbrella Man Records
When I was first getting into punk rock, two of my favorite bands were The Movielife and RX Bandits. It's only fitting two of the driving creative forces in those bands would join together for something new that would have immediate appeal to me. In total rejection of their Drive Thru Records beginnings and in clear evolution of their debut despite only playing a smattering of shows ever in their existence, Peace'd Out's Feelings Blade
is one of the most gnarliest records released this year. It's not quite stoner metal. It's not quite hardcore. But it totally fucking rocks and I'm here for it.
Bad Time Records
In large part due to Bad Time Records and the social media presence of Skatune Network, ska saw a slew of high profile releases that proved the genre was in the midst of creative renaissance. I refuse to say revival because you can't revive what never left my soul to begin with. Kill Lincoln's Can't Complain
might be the most high profile of those releases and for good reasons. It's serious ska music for modern times. From the immediate easycore introduction of 'Greetings From Outerspace' to the horn laden breakdowns of 'Civil Surgery' to the Paint It Black cover, Can't Complain
delivers on all fronts.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, but I wouldn't be the person I am without Anti-Flag. The band which is now an organizing institution in itself has been spreading their message of resistance, empathy, and justice long before Donald Trump took office. 20/20 Vision
is one of their most direct call outs addressing both the causes and symptoms of the Trump presidency, many of which pre-date his administration. This album was a social justice reminder of why I became the person I did in a year that I needed it. Whenever I felt burnout with the work I'm involved in, Anti-Flag were there, as they've always been, to remind me not to let the bastards get me down.
10. Moses Sumney: græ
As mentioned in my Julianna Barwick blurb, I spent most of the year getting deeper into my yoga practice. On weekends in particular, I would dive into some of the longer practices available online and really try to intentionally focus. græ
was another album that served as background music for many of those moments. The album on its own is an exploration of the innermost feelings of Moses Sumney touching on all aspects of his relationship with gender, race, and self. græ
excels equally as a post-rock and neo-soul album with flourishes of jazz throughout. The double album and hour long plus running time makes this a perfect Sunday morning listen for when the sunlight is beaming into your living room with promise and you're deep into your morning coffee.
I was immediately sold on the Get Dead album with the release of its first single 'Disruption' without even having to hear the rest of it. The rooftop graffiti scenery mixed with the simple band performance had me hooked. The song serves as the perfect summation of why Dancing With The Curse
works. It's an inspired mix of crack rock, dub, and punk that is given additional flavors through the unique vocal delivery of Sam King. Lucky for me, I didn't have to eat those feelings upon the release because the whole album delivers. It's as if Dead To Me and Sublime spent the night together huffing spray paint.
Not too long after releasing his first LP of the year, Shamir dropped 'On My Own' as a stand alone single with a premonition that he was on the verge of releasing something special. A few months later, he made good on that premonition with this self-titled record. Embracing his indie-pop beginnings, collaboration with additional Philadelphia-based artists, and resolving his lo-fi explorations, Shamir
is the sparkling pop record that has been fighting its way to tape throughout his discography. For me, this album was certainly the prettiest thing I've heard all year. I enjoyed getting lost in the skittish percussion, glitzy aesthetics, and hooks that skipped my eardrums to land directly in my brain.
7. Undeath: Lesions of a Different Kind
Undeath's appearance on this list is certainly a product of my deep dive into heavier music this year and the aforementioned Sit and Spin Records even though they are a new band and I did not purchase their album from said shop. I stumbled onto this release after reading a blurb online hyping the release of Lesions of a Different Kind
and made a note to listen to it. I threw it on the day it came out while walking my dog Archie and by the time the brief hardcore influenced riffs in 'Acidic Twilight Visions' kicked in as we entered a dog park, I was sold. I sat in the park listening to this album till the end while watching Archie frantically chase tennis balls and immediately hit replay. There's so much layered heaviness here that it demands repeated listens to uncover its deep grooves, occasional proggy guitar leads, and unrelenting death metal.
If you were to have asked what my favorite bands were at one point as a pre-teen punk, I would've mentioned The Suicide Machines alongisde bands like Mest and Good Charlotte. Interestingly, my first exposure to them was through their contribution to the SLC Punk
soundtrack and not their classic first two albums. In part because of that timing, I still hold their panned self-titled effort and Steal This Record
in high regard, particularly the latter. Revolution Spring
hits me like a more honest follow up to those records than their previous two intervening releases. With a slew of standout songs like 'Bully In Blue,' 'Flint Hostage Crisis,' 'Well Whiskey Wishes,' and 'Potter's Song,' Revolution Spring
was a welcomed surprise and a frequent repeat listen throughout 2020.
is a record that will always remind me of the punk rock community even if it's not a punk rock album per se. I came across this record after a tweet by Maxwell Stern highlighted the release noting he shared a bill with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya previously and was impressed. BRAT
is impossible to pin down besides being uniquely NNAMDÏ. It's part emo, trap, math rock, hip-hop, and so much more. Despite being genre agnostic, it pulls the best from each of those musical communities creating a sound unto its own. It also sounds fucking awesome vinyl.
The uprisings for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police were one of the most consequential moments in America's history. It is still a question of what will become of those expressions because they've flared in the past only to be ignored. NEGRO
, released months before those uprisings, is the product of that trauma. It's both an expression of the manic anger caused by the silence of white people in the face of constant, oppressive state violence towards Black Americans and the joy that cannot be taken from the Black community no matter how often White America has tried. Influenced by bands like Death, Bad Brains, and the similarly minded Ho99o9, NEGRO
is one of the most potent punk rock records released in 2020.
Anytime a band like The Lawrence Arms' add an additional album to their cannon, it's a risky proposition. They're a legacy band at this point, but still with enough to say that it makes coasting on that legacy sort of pointless. I was fortunate enough to interview Brendan Kelley for Punknews in the lead up to this album. This is something he readily admitted while also comparing this type of musical obsession to a bunch of dudes sitting around sniffing their own farts. Fair enough, but for my best friends and I, The Lawrence Arms are one of the binding institutions of our friendship and any new album could risk that reputation. Fortunately for us, Skeleton Coast
is not just a worthy addition to the band's legacy, but possibly one of their best records ever.
Get Better Records
Bacchae's Pleasure Vision
was one of my personal breakout releases for the year. I knew of the band because of their ties to Philadelphia, but was not familiar with them in any real way. That all changed with the release of Pleasure Vision
. So many shades of alternative rock shine through on the album. Bacchae competently executes punk rock, post-punk, new wave, and indie pop influences that there's an entry point for any fan of alternative music here. The compositions are complemented by co-vocalists Katie McD and Rena Hagins ability to channel every emotion from riot grrrl anger to modern day anxiety to saccharine melody. If Pleasure Vision
is only a taste of what's to come for Bacchae, it's only a matter of time before more people discover them.
I Surrender Records
I Am The Avalanche made their triumphant return after a six year absence with DIVE
. Perhaps the most quintessential I Am The Avalanche release and a bit of return to form with the original lineup fully participating in its recording, DIVE
is my album of the year. It's perfect mix of punk, hardcore, and grunge was the pick me up at the end of this dark fucking year that I needed. DIVE
pulls equally from the band's first two records while still feeling fully realized on its own. Its release also happened to coincide with a very personal moment for me. This was the first album I was able to put on and walk around South Philly listening to after a draining fight with COVID-19. By the time DIVE
closed out with the opening lines of 'The Morning,' I was in tears thinking about making it through this horrible fucking year. I cannot wait to scream these songs alongside my best friends.