So here we are at the end of 2020, a year that opened up this new decade in ways that are sure to be talked about for generations to come. Despite huge stories in our national discourse regarding Black Lives Matter protests and police brutality, or the election of Joseph Robinette (why we don’t talk about his middle name more is beyond me) Biden and the failure to secure a second term by our current president and their subsequent ongoing attempts to delegitimize the election, the unifying story will always surround the COVID pandemic and the ways it has impacted everyone across the planet. When faced with an invisible adversary and its discombobulating and disorienting effects on various societal structures, be it the economy or education or entertainment, any aspect of our lives that exists in purely recreational means can start to feel less significant. And yet without these things, it seems the chutzpah in our lives can deplete quickly.
At a turning point during the pandemic in St. Louis, I found myself at the last show of The Wonder Years suddenly cut short Burst and Decay vol II tour (read and see more here) and I probably wouldn’t grasp what that show would mean to me in the months to come. I’m not sure I would understand what music would mean to me in the months to come. Consciously or not, this past year I’ve been more intentional, to explore new music and fight my hardened biases and preferences, and while I’m still by no means the most well listened, I’ve had the privilege of enjoying releases from a wide variety of genres, from rap and hip-hop (Lecrae, Logic, JUICE WRLD, The Kid LAROI, Kid Cudi), to indie (Sufjan Stevens, The 1975, Bartees Strange, Owen) to my beloved punk, emo, and hardcore (Touche Amore, Knuckle Puck, Jeff Rosenstock).
Nostalgia played a bit of a factor into my tastes this year with Tooth and Nail in the midst of a revival with stellar releases from Anchor and Braille, Acceptance, Slick Shoes, Idle Threat, and others I’ll talk about later, while people of color got viral attention in pop punk with bands like Meet Me @ the Altar and Pinkshift. And the limit to incredible releases by female artists is almost nonexistent, with albums from Hayley Williams, Laura Jane Grace, Caroline Rose, Dixie Chicks, Angel Olsen, and Poppy. Yet these artists represent merely the tip of the iceberg of music that wasn’t just above average, but fuel to withstand and survive the loneliness and dischord of these tumultuous times. Here’s to the artists that keep us going through it all.
10. Melee – Dogleg (Triple Crown Records)
The debut from Detroit punk band Dogleg is one of the most explosive and authentic debuts I’ve heard in a long while. While emo has been circling back to its roots over the last fifteen years, these 10 songs may harken it’s return with heavy Cap’n Jazz similarities. That doesn’t prevent Dogleg from creating a distinct impression, as its hard to not bob your head along to the hooks, melodies, and gang vocals that populate the album.
9. you’ll be fine – Hot Mulligan (No Sleep Records)
Hot Mulligan’s debut, Pilot, showed incredible potential from a band that had an penchant for catchiness and energy (lead singer Nathan “Tades” Sanville is energy incarnate when he takes the stage) but with their sophomore album they bring the polish necessary to cement their status as pop punk and emo heavyweights. The dueling guitar melodies are reminiscent of Transit, while Tades’s tendency to show absolutely ZERO restraint with his blistering vocals gives off heavy Lazarra vibes. But while this was common place on their previous album, the slick production and the band playing with extremes in tempo and tone add momentum to a band that shows no signs of slowing down.
8. Nothing is For You – Tigerwine (Tooth and Nail Records)
From the opening arpeggio of the album it is evident that you’ll be in store for an entrancing album from Colorado post-hardcore quartet Tigerwine. Indeed, the album is elevated and atmospheric while being devastating and brutal at the same time. With similarities to Underoath, Thrice, and My Epic the group only builds on the atmosphere while balancing softer lullaby-like moments with soaring interludes and crushing sonic blasts.
7. Fake It Flowers – Beabadoobee (Dirty Hit)
It’s baffling that an album that is chock full of 90’s female alt-rock anthems is by an artist who just barely missed being born in that decade. But don’t use Beautrice Laus’s age or the fact that this is her debut full length to discount her, the 20 year old singer songwriter has four EPs to her name prior to releasing Fake It Flowers, and the maturity of her sound is immediately apparent. No song feels incomplete or lacking, rather each one is perfectly full and fleshed out, with lush accompanying instrumentation and incredible production by Pete Robertson. Such a solid release from such a young artist can only mean greater things are on the horizon for Laus.
6. Brave Faces Everyone – Spanish Love Songs (Pure Noise Records)
Really if there was a better album to sum up and close out such a batshit crazy and devastating year, Brave Faces Everyone would be it. The national and global environment of unrest and distrust are enough on their own without considering the weight of living with the personal demons of depression, anxiety, and addiction. With Brave Faces Everyone, Dylan Slocum and company provide an unrelentingly honest and vulnerable assault of anthemic meditations on modern fears and worries for the aging young adult. With a voice that soars and wavers, akin to Dan Campbell and Christian Holden, and melodies that liken to The Menzingers dialed to eleven, Slocum exorcizes all of his and his generations’ demons. Such a journey through modern seemingly insurmountable obstacles to survival might seem like a downer of an exercise, but maybe it’s only after we’ve fully processed our own grief and trauma that we can arrive at the truth. Slocum does on the album’s title track and closer: “We don’t have to fix everything at once / We were never broken, life’s just very long / Brave faces, everyone.”
5. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers (Dead Oceans)
For those of us who have been following her for a while now, the New Artist Grammy nod this year to Phoebe Bridgers for her second album (third if you count Better Oblivion Community Center) seems quite laughable: indeed Punisher continues everything that made her debut Stranger in the Alps fantastic. Bridgers still serves up sometimes muted, sometimes moody, and sometimes dismal sad gurl indie folk. And yet despite the dour lyrical content, you can’t help but feel like Bridgers is still singing in that ethereal and airy tone with a sly smile as she drops such witticisms as “I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face”. That tongue in cheek demeanor and honest story telling coupled with some more experimental and varied instrumentation are what make Punisher leave its mark on the listener.
“What if we all woke up on a spaceship?” bandleader Joshua Diaz croons on opener “Arrival” on the second release and first for Tooth and Nail from the Florida indie pop outfit. What follows is a cinematic and galactic journey through love, defeat, and faith in an album that beams you up among the stars. The concept of a space indie rock record is fully accomplished here; while I jammed this album while preparing Thanksgiving dishes for me and my roommate in my landlord’s kitchen, I never quite felt in suburban St. Louis but rather floating and dancing through a celestial vehicle or marching on otherworldly terrains or rocketing through space. The collective vocals, instrumentation, and melodies vary enough to capture all of these atmospheres and matching emotional landscapes. Several songs on the first third are playful and lighthearted, and then the album transitions into some of its more moodier numbers. “The Mourn” is menacing and treacherous, while “Ruins” is contemplative and more somber. They never lose the ability to make you dance, lead single “All Smoke, No Fire” sounds like a straight Passion Pit b-side. Indeed several of these songs have larger than life feeling that fluctuate between feeling right at home at some big outdoor music festival or filling the space of large concert halls with some elaborate light spectacle. Regardless, the songs on Lost Cities make KIDS an act not to miss when in person concerts return.
Listen, yes, it’s true, Taylor Swift made an album that I don’t just casually like, but deeply appreciate, respect, and adore and I wrote exhaustively about it and my previous grievances with her and how this album practically makes up for all of that in what I think is the best thing I’ve ever written, or atleast my favorite thing I’ve ever written so read that here, but honestly her sheer presence on my top four should speak volumes, so, like, maybe let that fact or this run on sentence speak for themselves, okay?
In the wake of national protests regarding police brutality and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Jaime Meline and Mike Render dropped their fourth album as a rap collective early, with Meline sharing the following message to Instagram:
“Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime + Mike.”
It’s an understatement to say that the 11 songs featured on RTJ4 constructed by El-P and Killer Mike are the most streamlined and focused offerings they’ve released, rapid-fire rallying cries against injustice filled with biting takedowns of oppressive structures and systems. The album bops and bounces leading to the climatic closer “a few words for the firing squad” which will leave you with chills running down your spine. No other album could capture the spirit and fire of the past year’s protests for racial justice as appropriately.
This spot was secured before the year even ended.
It may as well become gospel truth at this point: if Brian Fallon puts out a record, it will be my album of the year.
I may lose all credibility for such brash transparency of my bias, but I hardly care at this point. Fallon followed up two already stellar solo releases with a third that will solidify him as one of the best voices and songwriters of his generation. At surface level it might seem like he returned to the influences that gave us 2016’s Painkillers, but further listens reveals a more layered and distinct release. Never does the tempo rise above a jaunt, Fallon seems more interested in melodies that you can fall into and be engulfed by than propelled by at breakneck speed. This contemplative atmosphere allows for him to embrace more country, folk, Americana elements with piano and guitar finger picking featuring more prominently on these tracks. It’s a testament to the strength of these songs that they are equally as impactful and resonant whether they’re with the lush layers of background instrumentation vocals as on the album, or sparse acoustic renditions, which Fallon has recently been showcasing from his own home, with just himself, a guitar, or a piano. The fact that any version will have just as much efficacy in taking your emotions captive again proves Fallon to be a formidable songwriter and lyricist.
And the lyrical content remains one of the strongest yet continually evolving aspects of Fallon’s music. Themes of love and loss persist, whether he’s adopting clever metaphor (“21 Days”) or fictional storytelling (“Vincent”). And yet the universality of his lyrical content and theme remains one of the most endearing parts of Fallon’s songwriting; he easily find ways to connect to anyone’s experience and emotions through the way he exposes his own.
Case in point: album opener “When You’re Ready”, an obvious serenade to Fallon’s children. Fallon has avoided fatherhood as song content up until this point, but his perspective as a father conveying their affection for their children is one that can pull at the heartstrings of anyone. Then consider the music video:
Feeling the commonality of that emotion is one thing, seeing it reflected through the representation of different families, made with people of different experiences and backgrounds is another (I admittedly break down every time I see the older mother and daughter and the South Asian family that so eerily mirrors a younger version of mine). And sure, maybe it’s unfair to bring up a music video in a discussion about my favorite albums of the year, but again I really don’t care anymore. Through every expression of his artistry Fallon touches on the human experience in ways that give listeners the space to feel encouraged, feel comforted, feel grief, feel gratitude, just freaking feel. And that’s a sign of an artist whose impact will endure way beyond their years.
Listen to both my most played and selections from the previously mentioned albums below.
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Happy New Year!