Periodically over the course of the new year, we will produce two lists to highlight a few of each month's new albums. This list spans multiple genres, with each album ordered best to worst – the first list is the former, the second is the latter. Of the 50 albums in both lists, these are the Ones You Can't Miss - - -
Bill Fay – Countless Braches
An absolutely gorgeous album, despite the songwriter’s age and distance from his previous work. The music has a unified mood, but each song’s nuance elevates its poetic meaning. Each song has excellent lyrics, plain yet elegant piano/guitar backing music, and melodies so simply perfect that you will be amazed you have never heard them before. A poignant unfolding of Fay’s masterful songwriting, and easily the best album of the new year so far.
Wire – Hive Mind
This one is definitely a grower more than anything. The dynamic elements of Wire’s post-punk approach show they are truly at the top of their game. The lyrics subtly hint at darker undertones, while the music sifts in hard-driving guitars, synth backgrounds, and simple melodies for maximum impact to the listener. Awesome!
En Attendant Ana – Juillet
This French lo-fi indie-pop band has only been around for a couple of years, but on Juillet, they sound fully cohesive. Decadent melodies combine with surf-like fuzz guitars and driving rhythms, coalescing thanks to a prevailing “cut-to-the-core” songwriting approach.
Kiwi Jr. – Football Money
Like the spiritual descendants of Pavement, Kiwi Jr. jams and jangles through this debut with so many catchy hooks. If you like indie, you will be singing along to each song by the end of your first listen.
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
The classic indie post-hardcore group sounds as vital and visceral as ever. Yes, they have transitioned into middle age with some less rocking tunes, but AYWKUBTTOF have always had a special musicality that extended beyond aggressive distorted guitars and furious drumming. Further, this dose of reflection only makes the emotional performances of “Children of the Sky” and “Don’t Look Down” more impactful, and there is plenty of room for the volatile rampage of songs like “The Godless Void.”
Algiers – There is No Year
The strange fusion of Algiers sound has made for a remarkably consistent career (for those who don’t know, it’s something like indie/gospel/blues). Their first album made that initial moving statement (one of my 2015 faves), and The Underside of Power started to evolve, coalesce their sound, and dig into something very powerful. This new release, album #3, expands their reach to even greater heights and keeps their sound fresh while once again tapping into the listener’s very core.
Poppy – I Disagree
Speaking of strange fusion, Poppy! On I Disagree, the “post-genre” extraordinaire doubles down on her metal influences, making an album with more passion and aggression than in the past. It takes a bit to adjust to the sheer range of sound she employs, but she makes it well worth the deep dive.
Bombay Bicycle Club – Everything Else Has Gone Wrong
Bombay Bicycle Club once again delivers with 11 great slices of indie rock, this time with the most pop acumen that they have ever displayed. Arguably their best album, the band never fails to more inspire enjoyment with each release.
Aoife Nessa Frances – Land of No Junction
One of the most thoroughly creative indie-folk albums I have heard in a while (at least since the new Aldous Harding record), Aoife Nessa Frances’ exceptional debut might not end up on many best of the year lists, but for January it is great. The dive into psychedelia lifts the organic drums and acoustic guitars into a transcendent overtone, layering various earthy instruments for a surprisingly refined yet idyllic sound.
Georgia – Seeking Thrills
An excellent dance album blending Georgia’s pop sound with classic house beats, you might be surprised that these tracks are coming from a 2020 artist and not from 15-20 years ago. There’s definitely a dash of disco as well, folding in sounds that span from early 80’s electronica to present trip-hop. Each song has a little something to show off, showing Georgia’s willingness to experiment will continue to pay off with each new release.
Caspian – On Circles
Heavy Massachusetts post-rock band that plays instrumentals (mostly) wavering between glistening peacefulness and hypnotic distorted power. Many of the songs feel extended in the classic post-rock vein, but the one vocal track (“Circles on Circles”) is actually quite concise.
Halsey – Manic
The variety of Halsey’s Manic makes it thrilling from start to finish. There’s pop, country, rock, and everything in between, with each song making a personal statement adding up to a true human image in all its singularity and flaws. Highly recommend listening to the whole album, the individual tracks do not quite give the full picture.
Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar
After three solid synth-pop songs in the opening of Mystic Familiar, Dan Deacon gives us the four-movement “Arp” suite, an epic single musical experience showing off everything great about his music. Three songs later, we get “Bumble Bee Crown King,” the indescribable 7-minute instrumental that closes the album. What an incredible journey.
Of Montreal – UR FUN
The weird pop created by Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes took some interesting turns beginning with 2016’s moderately unfocused Innocence Reaches. Now, Of Montreal have flipped the tables once again, making what might be their most focused album ever. Each track has a massively catchy pop hook, but not without the band’s famous quirks: for example, “Don’t Let Me Die in America” is led by fast-paced distorted guitars not often found outside their live shows, built around a repeated melody twisted by crunchy background harmonies and drenched with reverb.
Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot
Pet Shop Boys lost the critics’ attention after the early 90s, not able to capture the magic of their exceptional first five albums. But in 2013, the synth-pop duo jumped back into the heart of fans and critics with Electric (their 12th album), and they have been on a roll ever since. This is the third remarkably consistent album since Electric, and it’s another really good one.
Bohren & der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue
Eerie vibes with a relaxed (but quietly unsettling) jazz feel. A perfect soundtrack for a game of Eldritch Horror, or subtly spooking unwanted guests away.
Magnum – The Serpent Rings
This cheesy hard rock from the late 70s/early 80s is heartwarmingly vivacious, with each track finding space for orchestration, great melody, and of course, sick guitar riffs.
Field Music – Making a New World
An incredible conceptual feat, Field Music continue their hot streak by diving into the world’s changes post-World War I using each track as a tidbit of information, with topics ranging from early gender reassignment to the creation of sanitary napkins. With 19 tracks and a 42-minute runtime, the album is quite brisk, giving no excuse to skip this fascinatingly ambitious release from an already great band.
⭐⭐⭐ Pretty Solid
Francis Quinlan – Likewise
Bridging warm, intimate performances with a desire to experiment with new sounds, Francis Quinlan (singer of Hop Along) proves her solo career can reach the highs of her band’s quality music.
Squarepusher – Be Up a Hello
Jittery techno from the master himself. Be Up a Hello feels like it could fit in any time during Squarepusher’s career, melding in with his old and new sound as he approaches 25 years under this moniker.
Poliça – When We Stay Alive
The nuanced, ethereal atmosphere of When We Stay Alive adds darkness that the band has worked hard to make personal and collective. Above all, it feels authentic, and while the beginning seems a bit unfocused, the music and vocals of Channy Leaneagh increase its appeal with each track until the stunning finale.
TORRES – Silver Tongue
This indie singer/songwriter has such an emotive, powerful voice, the music aches of sorrow and pain. The music itself has a dynamic touch as well, ranging from light and acoustic (“Gracious Day”) to heavy and full-sounding (“Last Forest”).
Nicolas Godin – Concrete and Glass
Nicolas Godin is famous for being one-half of the French band Air, but on Concrete and Glass, the guest list alone is enough to impress. Kadhja Bonet, Kirin J Callinan, and Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor? All great, and the music itself holds up from this classic dude, even if it does not hit hard 100% of the time.
Andy Schauf – The Neon Skyline
After a couple of rustic releases that brought Canadian Andy Schauf’s music to public attention, The Neon Skyline finds a balance between his musical roots and increasing change. Sure enough, this album expertly blends intimacy and personal experience with universally applicable human interactions; the lyrics play like a transcript of a man’s thoughts and quotes, set in a small-town bar on a single evening. The only complaint is this conceptual focus leads to a slightly constricted musical appeal, but fans of modest singer/songwriters will absolutely eat this up.
Mac Miller – Circles
Mac Miller’s posthumous new album is something he’d be proud of. But mostly, it just makes the listener sad at what could have been.
Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling
The Unraveling finds the Drive-by Truckers in a particular, indescribable mood. The music is still upbeat with a light touch, but the lyrics and edge to the music give it a different vibe than their past few releases. They are still remarkably consistent, with this album marking their fifth release since switching to ATO Records; each has shown that the band can still hold a thematic strength to each album, even if they all fall far short of the legacy left by Southern Rock Opera.
Holy Fuck – Deleter
This Canadian electronica band released a promisingly potent third album in 2010, only to lose their building momentum with a six-year wait until the next release. Now 10 years after that Young Turks Records release, they are self-releasing Deleter, demonstrating a similar yet refined sound compared to Latin. Loyal fans will surely enjoy the continually cold dance sound, and they might even gain a few new fans as they continue to delve into electro-pop songwriting.
Blossoms – Foolish Loving Spaces
An enjoyable blend of modern psychedelia and classic U.K. indie rock à la Blur, Blossoms have no crafting fresh, hooky, and anthemic pop/rock songs, all while poking fun at their own genre with song titles like “Sunday Was a Friend of Mine.” They even include acoustic versions of all ten songs on the second disc, highlighting their amiable vibes through the lyrics and songwriting alone.
Kesha – High Road
Kesha is in classic form following a career-defining 2017 album, so those who were not big fans of “Tik Tok” might shy away from the party-minded High Road. Still, she has come a long way since that now decade-old song, and she can’t help but show it as much as she tries to uphold her live-in-the-now attitude.
Breaking Benjamin – Aurora
Breaking Benjamin have never been a great band, so they are definitely not the first one would expect to make a serviceable acoustic album work. Luckily, BB chose to “reimagine” their song choices rather than just acoustify them, and the result sounds a bit like Manchester Orchestra or mature AFI ballads. Also, a super good original song! Check out the debut of “Far Away” if nothing else.
Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
Another solid Wolf Parade album, this Sub Pop staple tries out more and more synth-driven sounds with mostly effective results (check: “Against the Day”). Trying out new sounds works great for the band, and it’s not too blasphemous as a departure from the past.
Loving – If I Am Only My Thoughts
Calm Canadian indie-pop for those who think the prevalence of synth-pop is too intense for them. Loving has plenty of solid work here for their debut, where many songs are awash in a peaceful glow while a select few demonstrate early songwriting mastery. These guys are definitely someone to watch out for in the future.
Pinegrove – Marigold
Picking the best Pinegrove album is no easy task, and this album continues that trend. Their signature earthy indie folk-rock sound is still fresh and intact, making Marigold exactly what we have come to expect from the band.
Selena Gomez – Rare
The highest highs of Rare are quite good, and the rest is only pretty good. The more she takes on a storytelling role in her songs (like on “Look at Her Now” and “Lose You to Love Me”), the stronger her musical persona becomes.