The 40 Best Rock Albums of 2020

Featuring Jeff Rosenstock, Bob Mould, Deeper and more

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The 40 Best Rock Albums of 2020

In past iterations of this very list, we’ve touched on the nebulous idea of “indie rock,” a phrase ever-increasingly disconnected from its literal meaning: To make indie rock is to be an underdog, marshaling minimal resources to make noise that resonates far beyond earshot of your amps. But rooting for small acts shouldn’t preclude you from appreciating major artists who are creating a similarly powerful racket, should it? What matters, ultimately, is the “rock” bit—music that gets your head banging, your heart pounding and your ears ringing. While 2020 robbed us of the means of most viscerally experiencing rock music, this year reminds us that reports of the genre’s demise, as ever, are utterly ridiculous, and only serve to expose those who are out of the loop. 2020’s best rock releases came from grizzled veterans and bold upstarts, resurgent cult-favorites and critical darlings, bedroom acts and Bob goddamn Dylan. Rock is a spectrum, and wherever your individual tastes fall on it, you’ll find something to love below.

Listen to Paste’s Best Rock Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.

Activity: Unmask Whoever

Sinister and calming sounds might seem mutually exclusive, but New York City’s Activity beg to differ. The experimental quartet’s debut album, Unmask Whoever, which came out earlier this year via Western Vinyl, delights with its warm psych-pop bluster, but sufficiently would deter me from graveyard listening due to its ominous undercurrents. Its dark, understated melodies and hushed vocals make it feel like a fever dream, but one where you’re weirdly comforted by the surreal, slow-moving confusion. The witchy lead single “Calls Your Name” led me to believe the album would contain 10 songs of nightmarish, sacrificial moods, but it’s actually an outlier in that regard. Unmask Whoever is a beautiful, detailed LP of wonder. —Lizzie Manno

Andy Shauf: The Neon Skyline

Listening to an Andy Shauf album in full is akin to binging a particularly compelling TV show: Both pull you in with characters that feel just as real as you or me, who populate a world we’d like to escape to. It’s a world not unlike our own, but that’s part of the appeal, really. Shauf’s storytelling and uncanny realism have long been the linchpin of his appeal as an artist, though his previous release, The Party, showcased his talent on a whole other level. As a concept album, it documented the titular event, exploring vignettes about all of the party’s various attendees. Now, Shauf is following up his 2016 effort with The Neon Skyline, another concept album about a couple of friends on a night out at the pub. Every aspect of the central storyline—an ex randomly showing up after moving out of town, bad jokes, drunken ramblings—feels like it could be happening at your local dive just a couple blocks from your apartment. The intimacy of the story is bolstered by the album’s production and Shauf’s deft instrumentation. In comparison to the expansive sound of his recent work with indie four-piece Foxwarren, the woozy woodwind, warm piano and guitar (all played by Shauf himself) come across as if they are being played in the small back room of a bar. —Clare Martin

Bartees Strange: Live Forever

We live in an era when intersectionality is either fiercely celebrated or rejected, and Spotify playlists are the norm—especially for young music listeners. These conditions are perfect for an album like Live Forever by Bartees Strange, a Brooklyn musician whose work is a tapestry of traditions, ideas and sounds. Strange throws curveballs throughout Live Forever’s 11 tracks, but they never seem out of place. Atmospheric soul bookends the album, a style in which Strange excels, but there’s plenty to be surprised and delighted by in between. Promo singles “Mustang” and “Boomer” harness a visceral power, with the former diving into hooky synth-rock and sweltering punk, and the latter dishing out hip-hop verses and giddy blues-rock. Only three tracks in, it’s obvious that Strange’s good-natured charisma and vocal warmth are something special. You can hear the rootsy blues of Black Pumas, the genre-hopping grandeur and vocal dynamism of Moses Sumney, the Southern-rock cadence of Kings of Leon and the punky explosiveness of At The Drive In—and that’s only the beginning of Strange’s reference points. —Lizzie Manno

Ben Seretan: Youth Pastoral

“You will always be hungry / For something you can’t hold,” Ben Seretan sings in the opening minutes of his latest LP, an undeniably dynamic examination of how human beings seek meaning, whether in a higher power or in each other. The California-born, New York-based multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter longs for community on slow-blooming opener “1 Of”; “[prays] to the breeze / with asphalt in his knees” on the pedal steel-accented “Power Zone”; yearns to properly honor a lover and/or deity on stunning centerpiece “Am I Doing Right by You?”; harmonizes with his late friend, artist Devra Freelander, on the open-hearted “Shadow” (and others); and recalls being baptized on “Holding Up the Sun.” Youth Pastoral is a stunning album that draws its power from Seretan’s Neil Young-like vocals, his evocative, soul-baring songwriting, and a rustic, reverent hum befitting of its heavenward gaze. —Scott Russell

Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

It’s tempting to see Rough and Rowdy Ways as one of those late-career ruminations on mortality that often seem to come from musicians of a certain age, or a full-circle accounting that reconnects Bob Dylan, now 79, with his early days as a folk singer with a socially conscious bent. On the surface, the album could be either of those things, or both: After all, he gives over nearly 17 minutes of his 39th studio LP to a single song about the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, when the singer was 22. Yet the idea that he’s revisiting his youth, or settling his affairs, is too simple, too predictable, for a wily contrarian like Dylan. Since when has he ever done the obvious thing? Indeed, his latest comes after three albums spent rummaging around in the American songbook, an exercise that amounted to a gracious courtesy call from a guy who knows a few things about writing songs that endure. It’s hard to say what effect, if any, burrowing into those touchstone tunes has had on his own writing. Rough and Rowdy Ways simply sounds like Dylan, at his most Dylan-esque. These 10 tracks are steeped in American history, classical symbolism and biblical imagery, to say nothing of the literary asides, pop-culture references and musical allusions, from Shakespeare and William Blake to Ginsburg, Corso and Kerouac, Indiana Jones to Altamont, Chopin to Charlie Parker to “them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones,” as Dylan puts it on opener “I Contain Multitudes.” —Eric R. Danton

Bob Mould: Blue Hearts

Look, I get it. It’s not fun to think about how fucked up America is when you just want to listen to some songs in the car. Still, given how terrible pretty much everything has been for the last few years, it’s weird that there hasn’t been a larger resurgence in politically minded music. It’s fallen to older artists to address Trumpism and the toll it’s taken on the country. Bob Mould’s Blue Hearts is a furious broadside about the lies, hypocrisies and inhumane policies of the modern conservative movement, with “American Crisis” in particular reviving the pissed-off political consciousness of the early ‘80s hardcore scene Mould got his start in. Blue Hearts unites that “In a Free Land”-era anger with the pop songwriting of peak Husker Du and the crunch of Mould’s recent solo albums, resulting in one of the most powerful records of the year. —Garrett Martin

Bully: SUGAREGG

Bully are one of the most exciting punk bands of the past decade. 2015’s Feels Like and 2017’s Losing didn’t necessarily reinvent anything, but its fuzzy, melodic rock songs were consistently invigorating, with Alicia Bognanno’s raspy voice packing a major punch. Bognanno is behind the boards again for her new record SUGAREGG, but this time she’s joined by a producer for the first time, John Congleton—not the worst choice for your first co-producer! Even after just one spin, it’s clear that Bognanno hasn’t taken her foot off the punk gas pedal. Her third album and second for Sub Pop is empowering, unrelenting and utterly gripping, with a chance of raw explosiveness at any moment. Even the more subtle numbers like “What I Wanted” and “Prism” will leave a cloud of exhaust smoke and tread marks. —Lizzie Manno

Cafe Racer: Shadow Talk

Some psychedelic albums reach a hypnotic end cheaply. But Shadow Talk, the second album from Chicago experimental five-piece Cafe Racer, reaches heady emotional and sonic heights, not by leaning on overused effects or sprinkling meaningless, abstract imagery, but by expecting more out of a song and its lyrics. Shadow Talk is all about finesse and dynamics—melodies cascade with subtlety and spark with a euphoric glow. They’re also masters of grooves both meditative and invigorating, and they experiment with foreground and background sounds in mind-numbing ways. It’s an extremely calming album until it isn’t—the guitar and synth fury on “Faces” is life-affirming, the guitar solo in “Exile” is painfully emotive and its subsequent outro track creates blistering, ambient havoc. It’s a moody, empathetic album, bolstered by repetition and the palpable scenes they create, whether that’s an imagined, heavenly gorge or the melancholy urban landscapes you traverse every day. —Lizzie Manno

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, and 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

Chubby and The Gang: Speed Kills

Chubby and The Gang’s debut LP, Speed Kills, was released via independent British hardcore label Static Shock back in January, and critics raved about it, coming to a similar consensus that its hopped-up punk-pop is impossibly punchy and ridiculously fun. Charlie Manning-Walker and his fellow bandmates are all hardcore veterans—having played in bands like Violent Reaction, Abolition, Guidance and Gutter Knife—but somehow they’ve made one of the strongest stitchings of pub rock, classic pop, surf and punk in recent memory. “Chubby and The Gang Rule OK?” is both a statement of fact and their unruly lead album track that takes about 30 seconds to convince you that their breakneck rhythms and pop chops are the real deal. Like its colorful, cartoonish album cover, the album celebrates the vast characters of working-class London: the dubious, fun-loving rascals, the crass authority figures, the squares and the reckless brutes. But more than anything, Speed Kills is an ode to the “gang,” the fiercely loyal one that finds you when you’re young and makes grim circumstances much more bearable. —Lizzie Manno

David Nance: Staunch Honey

Guitar man David Nance continues his prodigious output of underground heartland rock with what might be his most accessible album yet. Staunch Honey sounds instantly timeless, but also as fresh and unique as any other rock album that came out this year. “My Love, The Dark and I” is probably the best union of Nance’s country-rock influences and his lo-fi aesthetic, without the confrontational squeal of his “Silver Wings” cover, but with just enough of a rough-hewn, homemade feel to please fans of Honey Radar or, well, Nance’s earlier, rougher records. Normally a White Light / White Heat kinda guy, “July Sunrise” and its loping guitar lines is more The Velvet Underground, but with Nance singing like Tony Joe White instead of Lou Reed. “Learn the Curve” is a slinky, bluesy vamp, while “If the Truth Shows Up” finishes the whole thing up with the stoned-out-of-its-mind psych chug of Endless Boogie. If you ever wanted to hear one of Dickey Betts’ almost saccharinely upbeat Allman Brothers songs turned into a smokey, hazy space journey, you’ll probably want to listen to “Gentle Traitor,” which starts off with the colorful, chiming guitars of Betts songs like “Blue Sky” and “Jessica,” before drifting off into the cosmos. Nance has been keeping up the good fight for years now and with Staunch Honey, he might finally win over your rock ‘n’ roll uncle. —Garrett Martin

Deeper: Auto-Pain

Deeper know tragedy better than most. While recording their sophomore album Auto-Pain, guitarist Mike Clawson left the band due to deteriorating relationships with the Chicago group’s other three members. Later, after their record was finished and the post-punk act was touring in Europe, they received the news that Clawson had taken his own life. Throughout this catastrophic period, Deeper decided not to let Clawson’s passing derail their tour and release schedule, instead using them as a way to pay tribute to his contributions to the band and speak out about mental health (as they did with Paste earlier this year). As lead singer and guitarist Nic Gohl mentioned in his interview with our own Lizzie Manno, Auto-Pain was completed prior to Clawson’s death, but the album’s lyrics, written as a stream of consciousness, took on a completely different meaning. And it’s hard to listen to them any other way: Some depict graphic images of self-harm and violence (“Forced to set yourself on fire tonight / You shouldn’t count on the sun” from “Run,” or “I just want you to feel sick / Cause you’re better as you’re lying on the bathroom floor” from “Lake Song”) while others are a bit more abstract (“Is it any wonder / I feel so gray” from “Esoteric”). Auto-Pain is an album built on hues of blacks and grays, depicting a shadowy, sinister world. Clawson’s suicide turns those already gloomy colors into something several shades darker. —Steven Edelstone

Dehd: Flower of Devotion

The twin masks of tragedy and comedy peering from the cover of Dehd’s third album are a fitting emblem of the band’s new songs themselves. On Flower of Devotion, the Chicago trio’s second Fire Talk full-length, songwriters Emily Kempf (bass) and Jason Balla (guitar), joined by drummer Eric McGrady, devote themselves to the sort of polarity symbolized by the so-called “sock and buskin”—joy and suffering, coming together and falling apart, bitter ends and new beginnings. They ride these emotional and existential seesaws throughout the record, rendering their efforts to hang on tight with both blunt candor and tongue-in-cheek humor. The result is Dehd’s best album to date, a significant upgrade on their sound that finds their Windy City DIY scene-honed amalgam of surf rock, shoegaze and dream pop at its most melodic and expressive. The trio demonstrate newfound levels of intensity and focus on Flower of Devotion, leaving minimalism behind in favor of glossier compositions. —Scott Russell

Empty Country: Empty Country

Joseph D’Agostino’s fifth full-length album—and his first following the dissolution of Cymbals Eat Guitars—dials down his former band’s explosively nervy sound, gravitating more towards rambling heartland rock that is downright literary in its emotional depth and detail. Written, arranged and produced by D’Agostino over a two-year period, Empty Country was a clear labor of love: The Philadelphia-based songwriter pays tribute to his grandmother (breathtaking opener “Marian”), father-in-law (“Chance,” a hallucinatory lullaby) and sister-in-law (the fraught shout-along of “Ultrasound”), and recruits his wife Rachel Browne (of Field Mouse), sister-in-law Zoë Browne, West Philly neighbor Zena Kay, and former CEG bandmate Anne Dole (plus her brother Pat) to contribute various vocals and instrumentals. D’Agostino’s nearest and dearest rub elbows with Empty Country’s unusual cast of characters: “Becca” tampers with solar eclipse glasses and hands them out in an effort to blind unsuspecting strangers, while the lush Americana of closer “SWIM” (short for “Someone Who Isn’t Me”) imagines “a blue-eyed sociopath” of an ex-con who suffers from temporal dysphoria. D’Agostino pours himself into Empty Country like it’s the last album he’ll ever make, crafting a nuanced and imaginative set of rock songs alongside the people who mean the most to him. —Scott Russell

En Attendant Ana: Juillet

It only takes a few seconds of their single “In / Out” to realize that En Attendant Ana have something special. “Shred” isn’t a word you’d normally associate with jangle pop, but it can definitely be used to describe the chiming, pummeling riff that’s sprinkled throughout the Parisian band’s single. Margaux Bouchaudon’s vocals evoke Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier and Alvvays’ Molly Rankin—she was practically genetically engineered to sing perfect, hyper-melodic dream pop. It would be unfair to dub them a dream pop outfit—they tap into avant-pop, post-punk and college rock with similar ease. With their second album Juillet, they subvert listeners’ perception of them on nearly every track. “From My Bruise to an Island” is a soothing, horn-led ambient piece, “Flesh or Blood” is incisive post-punk at its best and “Words” drops a warped synth interlude alongside wailing brass. They approach familiarly blissful indie-pop (“Do You Understand?”) with as much care as they do their more complex, off-kilter moments. It’s rare to find such thoughtfulness in a record so unabashedly tuneful. —Lizzie Manno

Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple engages our minds like no one else. Like every record before it, her latest album Fetch the Bolt Cutters taps into both the repulsive and the revolutionary. Apple has never been one to deliver approachable melodies or catchy choruses—she repeatedly serves us the abnormal, in all its twisted glory, with minor chords and off-kilter rhythms, often constructed with everyday objects rather than musical instruments. As a woman who lives mostly secluded from society and releases music so rarely, she’s frequently the object of speculation and even sexualization (see: the late ’90s). She doesn’t like to do what is expected of her. She’s said as much. So it’s funny that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is exactly what so many expected it to be: brilliant. In a surprise to probably no one, Apple is now five for five. Over the last 25 years, she has made five albums that have all—in due time—ascended to holy text status, even if it took some longer than others to come around to her genius. Her most recent, the staggeringly good The Idler Wheel… arrived in 2012. Before that: Extraordinary Machine, in 2005. But Apple isn’t just sitting on these songs during the long gaps between albums; she’s buffing them to perfection. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is finally here, and it’s another miraculous case of bottled lightning. Listening to Fiona Apple is often like bearing witness to a prophet speaking in tongues. It can be difficult, at times, to make out what exactly she’s getting at in any given verse, but there’s an overwhelming sensation that what she’s singing is vastly important. In Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ case, these psalms beam clearer than ever before. —Ellen Johnson

Fontaines D.C.: A Hero’s Death

Last year, five Irish 20-somethings became one of the most exciting rock bands on the planet. Their debut album Dogrel opened with a cymbal-clattering tune that repeatedly pontificated, “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big!” Though rock bands occasionally work their way up the industry ladder in a similar manner, not many also do so with universal critical acclaim. Fontaines D.C. received widespread praise and a Mercury Prize nomination for their gritty yet uplifting, literary-inspired rock tunes, which spanned post-punk, surf and classic rock ‘n’ roll. Quickly after Dogrel’s release, they began work on its follow-up A Hero’s Death. It’s hard for rock bands to build up the same amount of attention for their second albums, especially with a group that embraces styles of the past, but Fontaines D.C. chose an approach that many artists would find unthinkable—they deliberately attempted to destroy listeners’ original impression of the band. Fontaines D.C. sound far gloomier, both sonically and lyrically, but also more mature and pointed. Their gothic tendencies are heightened, and new reference points are introduced: Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen. You won’t find the giddy clamor of “Boys in the Better Land” or invigorating singalongs like “Sha Sha Sha”—instead, the average song pace is much slower, and they’re not as amused by observational poetry. A Hero’s Death is a reclamation of their identity as a band—after all, the refrain on the opening track is “I don’t belong to anyone.” —Lizzie Manno

Ganser: Just Look at That Sky

Just Look at That Sky is full of poetic recitations about maintaining one’s sanity while the world caves in. The Chicago outfit’s second album contains the wide-eyed glare and off-the-wall energy of someone who’s close to the final straw and searching for the best way to cope. Its on-edge nature is quelled by surreal humor and dark playfulness, though Ganser leave plenty of room for existential spiraling, too. Meshing noise, art rock and post-punk, there’s a palpable sense of forward motion and doom, but it’s not a resigned doom—it’s a contemplative, purposeful doom that wouldn’t dare waste space on nihilism. —Lizzie Manno

Gum Country: Somewhere

There’s nothing better than a band fully aware of their sound—not in the sense of knowing their limitations, but knowing their strengths so well that they can deliver as many satisfying moments as possible. Courtney Garvin and Connor Mayer know they have you wrapped around their finger with the steamy self-described “harsh twee” of their new project Gum Country—or at least it sounds like they do. Pulling from noise, avant pop, college rock and classic indie, it’s clear they know their stuff. After all, this isn’t Garvin’s first indie-pop outing. She played lead guitar in The Courtneys, a Vancouver trio who released two full-length albums of fuzzy power pop—most recently 2017’s The Courtneys II. Drawing on Flying Nun bands like 3Ds and The Bats (as well as Sarah Records groups like Brighter and Heavenly), they fittingly found themselves releasing music for the classic Kiwi indie label as well. While The Courtneys’ sound is centered primarily on driving, harmony-laced indie pop, Gum Country push this sound even further on their debut LP Somewhere. Front and center, Garvin ramps up the fuzz, and Mayer adds eccentric synth flourishes—making for a sound that’s more mature, but as equally carefree as before. —Lizzie Manno

HAIM: Women in Music Pt. III

Danielle Haim begins the third HAIM LP by bemoaning the city that built them. “Los Angeles, give me a miracle,” she sings after a flurry of saxophone starts the song. “I just want out from this.” She continues into the chorus as her sisters Alana and Este join in on backup, singing “These days I can’t win.” The City of Angels is also the city of sweaty, broken dreams, as any struggling actor, screenwriter or regular-person-stuck-in-traffic can tell you. Even Danielle—primary songwriter for the trio—who was born, raised and primed for rock stardom in the sprawling city, clearly can’t stand it some days. Danielle’s depression, which she has attributed to the struggles she and her partner/producer Ariel Rechtshaid faced upon his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2016, informs some of WIMPIII’s most specific and heartfelt lyrics. But her sisters’ struggles are just as important. Alana remembers her best friend who passed away at 20, while Este’s life has been full of ups and downs since her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis during her freshman year of high school. They all lean on each other, and that love is perhaps loudest in stirring folk number “Hallelujah.” Though outwardly carefree, WIMPIII finds HAIM exploring darker and more serious matters than ever before, which is one reason why it’s their most complete and forward-thinking release yet. Many of these songs find Danielle, Alana and Este flat on their backs, but it’s never long before they’ve returned to their default position: upright, strutting confidently through the streets of L.A. and life itself. —Ellen Johnson

Hum: Inlet

Space-rock cult favorites Hum made a triumphant return over the summer, releasing their fifth studio album—and their first in 22 years, following 1998’s Downward Is Heavenward—with little-to-no advance notice in June. The Champaign, Ill., quartet unleash “Waves” of intoxicating distortion, both on that tone-setting opener and throughout Inlet’s eight-track hour. Matt Talbott and Tim Lash’s dual guitar torrents are exceptional—powerful without being oppressive, they tap into nostalgia for the band’s mid-’90s heyday, yet don’t belong to any one time period. Meanwhile, Talbott’s vocals paint dark, imaginative portraits of an empty earth, “misplaced dreams” and “starlight fallen,” as if these songs are being beamed back in time from a near-future world where natural tranquility and humankind’s hopes are little more than distant memories. Inlet’s grit is like sandpaper for the mind, leaving it smoother and more serene than before. —Scott Russell

Illuminati Hotties: FREE I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For

Earlier this year, artists like Lucy Dacus, PUP and Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz shared a SoundCloud link to a self-titled album by a band called Occult Classic. With a solid black album cover and no credits to be found, buzz about the album started to swirl on social media—though that probably wouldn’t have happened if the album wasn’t so mind-numbingly good. Fans immediately began to speculate about whether this was a supergroup whose members included the indie artists tweeting the link, but a close ear would tell you that Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties is indeed on lead vocals, later spelling out her band name several times on track seven “Content / Bedtime.” It was later confirmed as a new Illuminati Hotties mixtape, and it’s a big step up from their 2018 debut Kiss Yr Frenemies. It’s bolder, punkier and has some of the best rock hooks in recent memory. On their 12 songs (with goofy, lowercase track titles) and less than half-hour run time, you’ll hear tinges of phat electro-rock, invigorating riot grrrl and delectable twee-pop. —Lizzie Manno

Jeff Rosenstock: NO DREAM

If anyone can sum up the anxiety that inherently comes with living in a year like 2020, it’s Jeff Rosenstock. It was a pleasant surprise when he randomly released this album during quarantine with no prior warning; it was much like a breath of fresh air after being stuck inside for so long. Or, more fittingly, like a great, sweaty pit at a punk show after not going to gigs for months. The opener “NO TIME” catapults the album straight into his brand of catchy, hyperspeed punk with anxious vocals. He shouts, “When you wake, does it feel like you have a purpose?” His humor is best on “***BNB,” where Rosenstock is narrating the life of someone who’s having an identity crisis in Airbnbs. It ends on a comically dark note: “I’ll black out on the plane / Mumbling in the dark and living vicariously / Through a photo album in a stranger’s BNB.” —Danielle Chelosky

Midwife: Forever

Denver multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston (also of Sister Grotto) shared her latest drone release Forever, which also serves as her debut for San Francisco experimental label The Flenser (Have a Nice Life, Deafheaven). Her self-described “heaven metal” is crushingly beautiful—it mixes slowcore, drone-pop and ambient music, and despite its dark sonic shades, it’s a hopeful album, especially in its context: The album was made while she was grieving the death of her friend and artistic inspiration, Colin Ward, and it’s now dedicated to his memory. One line from “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” a highlight from this six-track release, is particularly moving as Johnston sings wistfully over feedback-drenched guitars: “Anyone can fall in love / Anyone can play guitar / Anyone can say goodbye.” —Lizzie Manno

MOURN: Self Worth

Self Worth, out now via Captured Tracks, is the Barcelona trio’s fourth album, and it follows 2018’s Sopresa Familia, which was characterized by the seething anger MOURN felt after being manipulated by their previous record label. Self Worth is imbued with a similarly intoxicating vigor and celebration of each other, but it also has a cool confidence, and both melodic ease and intrigue. With an approach to rock and post-punk that’s both straightforward and unusual, MOURN remain one of the most underrated bands going. —Lizzie Manno

Nadine Shah: Kitchen Sink

Mercury Prize-nominated singer/songwriter Nadine Shah knows how to keep listeners wrapped around her finger. On her fourth album Kitchen Sink, Shah’s sensual post-punk vocals slowly unfurl, subtly caressing with their spooky intrigue and palpable wisdom, not too dissimilar from Fiona Apple or PJ Harvey. This jazzy art rock LP delves into the pressures of aging, marriage and motherhood, and by extension, wrestling with paranoia and vices. She’s scathing and coy, often within the same song, and her defiance radiates. “Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)” examines the subservient roles women are often placed into, “Trad” contemplates the harmful expectations that women will marry and if need be, freeze their eggs, and “Walk” bemoans the violent language strangers spew at women while walking down the street. —Lizzie Manno

Nothing: The Great Dismal

On their fourth album The Great Dismal, Philadelphia shoegaze outfit Nothing triumph with both bold and subtle sounds. The band have always excelled at details and dynamics, and they deliver here without fail. The final passages of opening track “A Fabricated Life” really cement the album’s prodigious and intimate themes: “Long before the fall / Did we have it all along? / Sing the same old songs / Beat the same old tired drum / But what else can I ask for? / I’m nauseous from the ride / Degeneration in the wind / A fabricated life.” These moods of erosion, numbness and uncertainty pervade the album, and their mythical soundscapes bolster the weight of these feelings and elevate their sense of urgency. The Great Dismal watches as humanity is put through the wringer and responds with godlike, pummeling guitars and metaphorical, emotionally revealing lyrics. One minute, they’re contemplating themes of love, reason, perception and death, on a grand scale and in simple terms, and the next, they’re marveling at people’s reactions to rain (“Isn’t it strange / Watching people / Try and outrun rain”). It’s a sweltering expulsion of anxieties and a thoughtful chronicling of our species’ downfall. —Lizzie Manno

Peel Dream Magazine: Agitprop Alterna

Peel Dream Magazine, the project of NYC musician Joe Stevens, began in 2018 with the release of their debut album Modern Meta Physic, 13 pacifying shoegaze tracks marked by background hisses and hushed vocals. The band’s 2020 follow-up Agitprop Alterna is much broader, thanks in part to the live members that appear here like vocalists Jo-Anne Hyun and Isabella Mingione and drummer Brian Alvarez, and also due to its emphasis on a more dynamic sound. It’s still minimal like its predecessor, but the droning is bolder, the pop melodies reach a higher peak and the avant-garde and electro-pop elements are more pronounced. It’s a caressing record with satisfying moments that are felt long after they pass—take for instance the innocent, fluttering keys that close “Brief Inner Mission,” which transition into the wonderfully filtered vocals and blown-out guitars of “NYC Illuminati.” Agitprop Alterna is a loungey, droning, space-age odyssey that might help even the most anxious among us escape for a bit. —Lizzie Manno

Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Perfume Genius is best known for centering his queerness in his experimental pop, but Mike Hadreas has also long explored how our bodies betray us. On 2014’s name-making Too Bright, his body was a “rotted peach,” and even the iconic, out-and-Capital-P-Proud protagonist of breakout single “Queen” was “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease.” (Hadreas has been vocal about his struggle with Crohn’s disease.) On 2017’s career-best Too Bright follow-up No Shape, he sang about death not as a feared end, but as liberation from our fragile, unreliable biological shells. When Hadreas took up modern dance last year, it seemed like a deliberate step to reclaim his body: To turn your movements into art is the polar opposite of feeling “rank, ragged, skin sewn on sheets.” His effort to overcome the body-brain gulf is more apparent than ever throughout No Shape follow-up Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, on which Hadreas loses control of not just his body, but his heart. As ever, his voice and music contort and warp in tandem with his anatomy. —Max Freedman

Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher

Her sophomore album Punisher cements what may be Phoebe Bridgers’ most understated gift of all: her seemingly innate ability to capture the mundanity of modern sadness in song. Tucked in among the record’s memorable melodies, clever arrangements and impressive guests are a steady stream of details that lend plainspoken perspective to Bridgers’ emotional highs and (mostly) lows. These kinds of details ground her work in the same way shading makes a still life painting pop. They make them feel not just sad, but real. As an example, look back to “Funeral,” one of the highlights of Bridgers’ 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps. It’s a devastating tune about death and depression, and if it ended at the three-minute mark, it would still be a stunner. But she tacks on an extra bit that contextualizes the rest of the song: “It’s 4 a.m. again,” she sings flatly, “and I’m doing nothing again.” And all of a sudden … you’re there. Because you’ve been there (probably), and because Bridgers has been there, too, and she knows how to make this song about a stranger’s overdose into a highly relatable moment. The story now has a place to sit—in a dark room, screen glowing, silence deafening, thoughts racing. Again. Those kinds of moments pop up all over Punisher, which is generally noisier and more upbeat than its predecessor. The album’s clear standout (and one of the year’s best songs), “Kyoto,” features Bridgers’ crunchiest guitar riffs yet, a soaring chorus and the travails of dealing with someone who can’t quite get their shit together juxtaposed with a wander through a 7-11 and trip to the suburbs to stare at chemtrails. “I don’t forgive you,” she sings as a horn arrangement crests over this mind-numbing scene, “but please don’t hold me to it.” Later, in “Moon Song,” Bridgers traces the blurry boundaries of a complicated relationship before laying it all out in the final verse: “You are sick and you’re married and you might be dying,” she sings over a small crescendo, “but you’re holding me like water in your hands.” —Ben Salmon

Porridge Radio: Every Bad

Emotions are not absolute. Interpreting your own while trying to navigate the emotions of others is one of the hardest parts of being a human. The things we want and need are always changing, and trying to communicate that to other people often leads to confusion or frustration. Plus, when you’re battling your own demons, it makes things even harder. How do we make things better and dig ourselves out of a hole—especially if we don’t see the hole or if that hole has become comfortable? Brighton, U.K. quartet Porridge Radio grapple with these questions on their new album Every Bad. It’s their first LP since signing with Secretly Canadian, and it follows their 2016 self-recorded debut Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers. Through scratchy indie rock (“Don’t Ask Me Twice,” “Give/Take”), grand punk (“Lilac”) and even auto-tuned pop (“Something”), Porridge Radio take pop songs much further than listeners might’ve thought possible. They want us to know that it’s okay to not have all the answers, and it’s okay to feel contradictory emotions. They shout repeated lines like they’re therapeutically screaming into the void, but surprisingly, listening to it is just as therapeutic. It’s one thing for a band to capture a world in chaos, but it’s much more difficult to accurately capture a mind in chaos—Porridge Radio make it look like a cakewalk. Every Bad is the nuanced album that indie rock has needed for years. —Lizzie Manno

Protomartyr: Ultimate Success Today

“Dull ache turned sharp / Short breath, never caught,” Joe Casey repeats through the closing minute of “Day Without End,” his voice turning from detachment to anger, struggling above the hammering drums, guitars and horns as they remain largely unchanged except in their steadily building, brutally indifferent noise. This begins Protomartyr’s fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, and in many respects encapsulates the mission of the Detroit post-punk veterans’ music. From their first LP No Passion All Technique to their latest release especially, Protomartyr have had a preoccupation with failure, the volcanic eruption of small, petty lives confronting the overwhelming forces, both external and internal, that bind them to their insignificance and vice versa. Ultimate Success Today places that theme on an apocalyptic and disturbingly prescient scale. These tracks paint sketches of authoritarianism creeping dully into everyday life, soulless populism rooting its way into confused masses, animals trapped between choosing death or the pain that comes with surviving, and above all, the illusory promise of success in a world collapsing in on itself. It is, to put it lightly, not a happy world for Protomartyr. —Jack Meyer

Samia: The Baby

“I only write songs about things that I’m scared of,” Samia Finnerty sings on the final track of her debut album The Baby. Finnerty, who records under her first name, maps these fears with such precision and openness that her songs will feel just as much a part of your world as they are hers. This 20-something singer/songwriter fills her songs with minute details and impassioned memories, each one plucked with a distinct purpose, whether it’s symbolism, humor or painful intimacy. One of her early songs, “Milk,” tracked her simultaneous battle with grief (“Goodnight to my namesake”) and an eating disorder (“I’m in the bathroom seeing how far my two fingers can fit around my thigh”), while another titled “The Night Josh Tillman Listened to My Song” imagined a disappointing encounter with one of her songwriting inspirations, Father John Misty. Like most of us, Finnerty has many fears, but a fear of vulnerability isn’t one of them. Her first full-length The Baby is intimate to the point where her feelings become your feelings. Samia not only identifies her fears, but also sprints towards them, searching for the source, the ways they manifest in reality and underlying lessons to be learned. Samia thrives on acuity and passion, which very well could carry her through a long, impactful career. —Lizzie Manno

Se So Neon: Nonadaptation

Hwang So-Yoon’s lead vocals on Se So Neon’s latest album are jaw-droppingly dynamic, to say the least. She simultaneously embodies a dream-pop goddess, a veteran soul singer, a hushed bedroom-rock act and a subversive pop star, as if each role is second nature to her. Though the Korean trio utilizes a familiar combination of indie rock, psych-pop and R&B, their end product is more remarkable than you might expect. Their dramatic crescendos, unexpected and skillful instrumental quirks, and So-Yoon’s ambitious vocal melodies put them above and beyond the sea of mediocre indie-pop bands who meld those genres. They float between moods with such style and sweetness: “Stranger” is a skittering, sparkling pop gem, “Go Back” is a delectable R&B-psych jaunt, and album highlight “Midnight Train” is both icy and fiery, with So-Yoon’s gauzy vocals and their cacophonous guitars culminating in a heady riptide. Getting caught in Se So Neon’s whirlpool is always a dream. —Lizzie Manno

Soccer Mommy: color theory

Although Soccer Mommy’s 2018 debut studio album Clean transformed her into a critical favorite, indie-rock leader and tour opener for Paramore, Kacey Musgraves and Vampire Weekend, anyone who’s grappled with mental illness knows that success isn’t a salve. Following Clean, Soccer Mommy (real name Sophie Allison) became especially vocal about her struggles with body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety. These challenges lay solely at the periphery of Clean’s tales about youthful, regretful romantic breakdowns and insecurities, but on her eagerly anticipated Clean follow-up color theory, Allison bravely pulls her mental illness from the sidelines to the forefront, and she also tackles a grave subject she’s spoken about far less frequently: her mother’s terminal cancer. Success neither curing mental illness nor reversing a parent’s medical death sentence is a lot for a 22-year-old to face, but Allison is more than up to the task. color theory is an astounding feat of lyricism as clever as it is devastating, and Allison’s songwriting, production and voice are likewise orders of magnitude stronger than they were on Clean, recalling ’90s alt radio while pushing Soccer Mommy in galvanizing new directions. —Max Freedman

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

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 (released 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

Westerman: Your Hero Is Not Dead

After British singer/songwriter Will Westerman released the exceptional folky electro-pop tune, “Confirmation,” two years ago, anticipation began to grow around his first album. Its gorgeous, artful nature and emotional maturity were impressive, but its pop effortlessness was even more impressive. He later signed to Partisan Records to release his debut Your Hero Is Not Dead, which brims with flowy synths and Westerman’s textured falsetto, fully justifying his hype. Westerman’s blend of soft rock and art-pop offers a treasure trove of sublime sounds. From exalted, yet down to earth (“Drawbridge”) and soothing and warm (“Blue Comanche”) to stylish and inspired (“Paper Dogs”), Your Hero Is Not Dead is an incredibly graceful listen. Though avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell is the one reference he’s tagged with most—given their similar voices—there are hints of Devon Welsh, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake mixed in, too. His musical instincts and wisdom are quite clear, and majesty emanates from his lyrics as well—there’s an appreciation for the vast and philosophical as well as the granular. The focus is largely on the arrangements as Westerman deliberately keeps his instrumentals sparse, but consistently thought-provoking. —Lizzie Manno

Young Jesus: Welcome to Conceptual Beach

Los Angeles-based band Young Jesus shared their new album, Welcome to Conceptual Beach, via Saddle Creek, which follows 2018’s The Whole Thing Is Just There. They do a lot with just seven tracks—their improvisational jams span jazz, math rock and haunting folk-rock, but nothing is set in stone. It’s blissfully conscious and unconscious, and at times, they sound more like conjurers than musicians. Their abstract, impressionistic lyrics heighten the beautiful recklessness of their music. —Lizzie Manno

Yves Tumor: Heaven To a Tortured Mind

Yves Tumor’s new album opens with Sean Bowie shouting, “I think I can solve it / I can be your all.” Later, on “Medicine Burn,” they claim “I can’t lift my own troubles,” then shout a reversal on single “Kerosene!”: “I can be anything / tell me what you need.” Heaven to a Tortured Mind is emphatically about what Tumor can and can’t do, because what else are pop anthems about? “Creep” is about how Radiohead are incapable of fitting in with mainstream society, while “I Will Always Love You” is a declaration of Whitney Houston’s enduring love amid crisis. Yves Tumor have long skirted the line between pop candor and experimental psychedelia, often landing somewhere far away from both in a wonderland of threatening, dagger-sharp guitar riffs and gossamer vocal production. In many ways, 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love was Tumor’s official rockstar moment. Listening to Heaven for a Tortured Mind will make you question your own memories of the singer, because they’ve never sounded more immediate, more relatable or more desirously messy. —Austin Jones

Listen to Paste’s Best Rock Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.