The 10 Best Albums of March 2020

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The 10 Best Albums of March 2020

For obvious reasons, the beginning of March feels like an entire year ago. But somehow, some way, we’ve arrived at the end of this truly horrid month. If there’s even a single new album from the past 31 days that you can remember, we salute you. If you’ve been busy trying to come to terms with the news lately, we’d like to invite you back into the world of music, even just for 45 minutes, to unwind by listening to one of these great albums. March saw the release of breakout records from bands like Porridge Radio, Dogleg and Disq as well as potential career bests from veterans Waxahatchee and Caribou. Whether you’re a fan of country, electro-pop, punk, indie or art-pop, you deserve some good, old-fashioned escapism.

Here are the 10 best albums of March, according to Paste’s music critics:

10. Dogleg: Melee

As song titles go, “Kawasaki Backflip” rolls off the tongue quite nicely. It has a certain rhythm—you can imagine it as a punchline delivered by Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. Somehow, it evokes a carefree thrill and a display of skill, both at the same time. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that those descriptors can also be applied to “Kawasaki Backflip,” the opening track on Detroit rock quartet Dogleg’s debut album. A powder keg packed into just under two and a half minutes, the song is a bundle of heavy artillery snare cracks, buzzsaw guitars and singer Alex Stoitsiadis’ demolition dreams, delivered with a perfect balance of throat-shredding desperation and melodic know-how. More or less, those sonic qualities course through Melee’s 10 tracks, and they’re the reason Dogleg has built considerable buzz within the punk and emo communities. Formed in 2016, the band is brawny enough for the former and catchy enough for the latter, walking a line previously mastered by bands like ’90s Midwestern heroes Braid or more recent emo-revival flagship The Hotelier. At this point in their career, at least, Dogleg go faster than both those bands. In fact, they very rarely reach for the brake pedal on Melee, choosing instead to approach a thrash pace on standout songs like “Fox,” where drummer Parker Grissom and bassist Chase Macinski establish themselves as solid, speedy foundation-layers and a group of 11 people expertly provide backing gang-vocals. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” Stoitsiadis barks as the din swirls around him. “You’ll make your move and I will fade out.” Here, Dogleg sounds a lot like another band of Rust Belt scorchers: Cloud Nothings. —Ben Salmon

9. Caroline Rose: Superstar

“We’re gonna put you in the movies and our TV / All you’ve got to do is put on this little bikini,” indie rock chameleon Caroline Rose sang on “Bikini” off her breakout 2018 record Loner. Rose pithily skewered the objectification women must put up with when they enter the limelight and further criticizes the music industry in the accompanying video. She shakes and shimmies as a smarmy male singer, while bikini-clad babes dance behind her or unconvincingly “play” instruments. Their half-hearted performance brought to mind the women in the background of Robert Palmer videos, who serve as ornamentation at best. On Loner, Rose placed the system surrounding fame and celebrity squarely in her crosshairs. Now, though, as her star is rising, Rose has turned that critical eye inward. Superstar tells a fictionalized, though autobiographically-inspired, story about an up-and-comer seeking a life of stardom, critiquing the protagonist’s self-centered aspirations. It’s an astute pivot for Rose, and an indicator that she is anything but your typical ascendant artist. Superstar proves itself a tightly knit satire of celebrity, effective thanks to Rose’s sharp storytelling and her calculated use of distortion, which highlights the artificial quality of the protagonist’s new surroundings. —Clare Martin

8. Deeper: Auto-Pain

Deeper were and are a band of brothers. They’re not related by blood, but the young Chicago group lights up most when they bring up the goofy or heartfelt moments they’ve shared together. The four-piece band, made up of singer and guitarist Nic Gohl, guitarist Mike Clawson, bassist Drew McBride and drummer Shiraz Bhatti, arose from Chicago’s rich DIY scene, and like many from those communities, they found refuge in each other. Deeper released their self-titled debut album in 2018, and it melded frantic, abstract lyrics with nimble guitar work that bordered on indie rock and post-punk—in turn, making them a staple band in the city’s altruistic music scene. Auto-Pain does ultimately push their spring-loaded sound even further, adding buoyant synths into the mix and even stickier riffs than before, but more than that, it depicts shades of despair that aren’t always easy to articulate. Their guitarist Mike Clawson’s death puts their stream-of-consciousness lyrics of inner turmoil into an entirely new context, and though the songs were written before his passing, listeners may hear them through this especially poignant lens. —Lizzie Manno

7. Disq: Collector

Even when they were young teens, it was obvious that Disq knew how to write great pop songs. Starting out as a duo of Isaac deBroux-Slone and Raina Bock in Madison, Wisc., the band self-recorded their first release—an EP titled Disq 1—in deBroux-Slone’s basement and released it in 2016. Its sweet psych and power-pop weren’t fully cooked, but it had palpable charisma and contained seeds of the wide range of sounds they’d explore in the future. After recruiting three more full-time members—Shannon Connor (guitar, keys), Logan Severson (guitar/backing vocals) and Brendan Manley (drums)—and signing to Saddle Creek for their debut album, Disq were fully equipped to bring their distinct charm and varying influences to life. While earning their stripes as an opening band, playing with acts like Shame, Jay Som and Girlpool, it was hard to determine which direction they would go since their shows were much punkier than any of their recordings up until that point. Now that their Rob Schnapf-produced (Beck, Elliott Smith) first album Collector has arrived, we have an answer: It’s perhaps more uniform in sound than their debut EP and live shows would suggest, but it shows off their dynamic guitar triple-threat, down-to-earth lyrics and instantaneous pop know-how that made them so enjoyable and relatable in the first place. —Lizzie Manno

6. Half Waif: The Caretaker

Over the course of Half Waif’s discography, Nandi Rose’s music has expanded from bucolic soundscapes into icier portraits. On 2014’s KOTEKAN and 2016’s Probable Depths, Rose’s strings, pianos and powerful mezzo-soprano provided an appropriately plaintive background for her ruminations on distance and personal growth. For 2017’s boxy form/a EP and 2018’s grief-stricken Lavender, she embraced synths that resembled icicles falling onto a patio and shattering—an element previously scattered, but not placed front and center, throughout her work—in service of songs as thoughtfully composed as they were towering and immediate. Rose’s Lavender follow-up The Caretaker is smaller in scale. The album often resembles a reversion to her sparser early work and away from the cavernous jolts of her more recent output. As Rose embraces her craft’s most hermit-like aspects, she consolidates her longtime fascinations with change and disconnectedness into grim portraits of whom she becomes when she doesn’t maintain her closest relationships and properly tend to (the ever-marketable art of) self-care. Understandably, The Caretaker’s stories are often not pretty sights, even if the music always is. On “Blinking Light,” a synth-pop ballad that flows like a gentle stream, Rose describes circling the drain and leaving texts unread, and though the image of a neglectful Rose is bleak, the song’s slow glide toward her belting away her agony is equally somber and invigorating. Throughout “In August,” she looks back despondently on the fallout of a once-strong companionship: “I have lost your friendship / What does that say about me?” As pillowy synths burst into a mournful geyser of sound, the track takes on a rejuvenating air. —Max Freedman

5. Catholic Action: Celebrated By Strangers

It’s not very zeitgeisty for bands to unironically shred these days. It’s a welcome shakeup when bands revolt against the simplistic, reverb-drenched plucks that characterize much of the popular indie world—as long as they’re not swapping them for something much worse, like insufferable classic rock revivalism or the radio rock wasteland of “whoa-oh-oh’s,” embodied by bands like Imagine Dragons or Bastille. Glasgow’s Catholic Action are a case study in how to subvert those conventions, while simultaneously making something seemingly fresh. They stitch together pop, punk, indie, glam and garage rock, always with bold guitars at the center, but most crucially, there’s a contagious bounciness to their music. The four-piece band released their debut album, In Memory Of, back in 2017, and it was a frequently amusing, occasionally dark collection of hopped-up pop songs with knobby guitar tones. It was also one of those records that made you remember what it was like to actually hear irresistibly hummable basslines in guitar songs that are decidedly not funky indie-pop or stark post-punk. On their 2020 follow-up Celebrated By Strangers, the four-piece led by singer, guitarist and producer Chris McCrory, are firing on all cylinders again, ready to remind you that guitar solos still rule—if they’re as interesting and well-executed as these, that is. While their debut album delivered its fair share of peculiarities, Celebrated By Strangers is peppered with even more moments of unexpected zest. —Lizzie Manno

4. U.S. Girls: Heavy Light

If Heavy Light were released five years ago, it wouldn’t be considered a political album. Thankfully (or unfortunately) not even a casual listener in 2020 would miss Meghan Remy’s cutting commentary, a convention of her music that’s become quintessential in her over 10-year musical career. Her most referential work to date, Heavy Light is defined by an inward-facing well of civic unrest, with Remy foregoing the prescriptive style of her manifesto-like 2018 album In a Poem Unlimited. The record’s name is itself a reference to Franz Kafka (“Faith, like a guillotine. As heavy as light.”), and Remy merges the ideals of the realist movement with narratives of experiential, hometown frustration. There’s a clear reference to Bruce Springsteen (instead of being “Born to Run,” Remy would say she’s “Born to Lose”) throughout Heavy Light, with Springsteen’s current E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons interjecting a soul-rousing solo in lead single “Overtime.” It’s here, after the only two songs on Heavy Light that even slightly resemble Poem (“4 American Dollars” and “Overtime”), that Remy begins to build the conscience-focused rhetoric of the record. Largely, the album is a move to activism of consent: She isn’t making assumptions about what people want or how they feel; they have to want it too, and need to get there in their own right. —Austin Jones

3. Caribou: Suddenly

The weight of mortality permeates throughout Suddenly, Dan Snaith’s latest album under his Caribou moniker. Between the death of a close relative, the birth of a second child and the possibility that the world will collapse under the weight of its own hubris, it’s hard to fault Snaith for ruminating about the big beyond. “I can’t do it all on my own,” he sighs contemplatively on “Sister” over a spectral synth and the sound of his mother singing a lullaby. The subject of his admission is unclear, but it’s a thesis statement that recurs throughout his career, most overtly in Our Love’s “Can’t Do Without You,” the euphoric record and single that brought him big-font festival lineup placements and conservative talk radio airplay. Suddenly unspools itself more easily than any of his past work, in part thanks to how sharp and pert the sound itself is, but that belies the continued intricacy of Snaith’s handiwork. When he finds lulls in grooves, moments of seeming complacency, he discovers new ways to insert additional stimuli: the split-second breakbeat in the chorus of propellent garage jam “New Jade” or the guitar loop that sours ever so slightly to match its lyrical conceit on “Like I Loved You,” a song that itself sounds like it shares mutant DNA with a Neptunes-produced joint. —Joshua Bote

2. Porridge Radio: Every Bad

Tension-building holds a whole new meaning when Dana Margolin utilizes it. As lead singer of Brighton quartet Porridge Radio, Margolin emotes such unbridled theatricality that every song becomes a vigorous hurricane. Her raw vocal oscillations are menacing, compassionate and sultry—often at the same time. There’s a fire burning underneath their raucous guitar-pop, and it’s made of desire—a desire to understand and be understood, to love and be loved and to cast aside bitterness, cynicism and judgment. That sentiment coupled with Margolin’s animalistic vocals and majestic yet unhinged strings on “Lilac,” and we’re not only presented with the album’s pièce de résistance, but a modern-day anthem of radical kindness. Following the band’s compelling 2016 self-recorded debut Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers and their recent signing to Secretly Canadian, their bold, tantalizing new LP Every Bad makes them one of the most exciting new bands on the planet. —Lizzie Manno

1. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud

In 2017, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeld quite literally blew the music world away. Her record Out in the Storm, which we named one of the best albums of that year, displayed a whole new side of the singer. Gone were the fortified bedroom pop of 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the rock-tinged freak-folk musings of her 2013 stunner Cerulean Salt and the brainy lo-fi recordings of her 2012 debut American Weekend. Out in the Storm sounds like its title suggests: loud, windy, chaotic and emotionally intense—a tried-and-true breakup album and a throwback to Crutchfield’s punk roots. If Out in the Storm was a tornado of sound and emotion, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s fifth album under the Waxahatchee alias (out Friday, March 27 on Merge Records) is the calm that comes afterwards. In some ways, it possesses little pieces of all the musical lives Crutchfield has lived before: punk-y vocals à la her once-upon-a-time rock band with Allison, P.S. Eliot, searing, Dylan-esque vocal delivery, chiming guitars straight off Out in the Storm, pastoral folk not unlike that of her 2018 EP Great Thunder. The songwriting remains impeccable. Within 10 seconds, you know—without a doubt—it’s a Waxahatchee album. Yet, it’s different from anything she’s ever released before. Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s country/Americana record. It runs on twang, jangle, truth and wide open spaces; on the album cover, Crutchfield, dressed in a billowy baby-blue frock, sprawls across an old Ford truck bearing a license plate from her native Alabama. “Can’t Do Much,” a single released ahead of the record, possesses that old-time lilt and a head-over-heels chorus that sounds like something Lucinda Williams may have spat out on Essence. Saint Cloud is a whole new world. —Ellen Johnson

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