15 Great '80s-Inspired Albums From 2020

Featuring HAIM, Thundercat, Choir Boy and more

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15 Great '80s-Inspired Albums From 2020

Musical nostalgia often comes in cycles. Some people argue it’s a period of 20, 30 or 40 years, but most agree on the cyclical nature of music trends. There are great albums from this year that sound like the 2000s, the ’60s, the ’90s and so on, but in this list, we’re going to focus on the ones that sound like the era of perms, arcades and Reaganomics: the 1980s. Some of this year’s most-talked-about albums were inspired by the decade, like Dua Lipa’s pop juggernaut Future Nostalgia, La Roux’s comeback album Supervision and Washed Out’s electro-pop LP Purple Noon. Though those three records were enjoyable enough, we wanted to highlight a few others that really blew us away. Here are 15 ’80s-inspired albums from 2020 that Paste recommends.

AURAGRAPH: Memory Tracer

This glorious synthwave album will remind you of sensations you forgot about. There’s a numbness to sitting inside all day, far removed from the daily hustle and bustle and vibrant nightlife of the city. Memory Tracer, the new album from Los Angeles experimental artist AURAGRAPH, will reacquaint you with those bewitching textures, helping you reconnect with your exhilarated side while tapping into your current blurry state. Minimal synths trickle in, building to dramatic ’80s soundscapes and wisps of moody vaporwave. —Lizzie Manno

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

Choir Boy: Gathering Swans

Gathering Swans is Choir Boy’s sophomore album, following 2016’s Passive with Desire, where we were introduced to singer Adam Klopp’s alarmingly sincere vocals, which are legitimately difficult to describe without the overused adage “voice of an angel.” Klopp impressed on the debut, but on Gathering Swans he is absolutely hypnotizing. Tracks like opener “It’s Over” and single “Nites Like This” prove his worth as one of the best vocalists working. His voice is on full display, keeping the record afloat through even the most experimental tracks. The highlight of Gathering Swans is the buoyant, sparkling single “Complainer.” Klopp sings, “But it’s not that bad, I never really had it worse, I’m just a complainer,” a feeling many of us understand when we stop to realize we’re actually doing just fine. Relatable lyrics paired with bright synths and a post-punk bassline make this song joyous and dance-worthy, bringing to mind other unexpected beacons of positivity—the IDLES effect, if you will. The story goes that, while growing up in Ohio, Klopp was called “choir boy” as a dig, for what could be read as intense jealousy for his inimitable vocals, while also poking fun at his religious upbringing. But Klopp reclaimed the epithet, and rightfully so. If Gathering Swans shows us anything, it’s that Choir Boy deserve praise, not mockery. —Annie Black

Cold Beat: Mother

Earlier this year, Cold Beat made their DFA label debut with Mother. It’s gentler than your average synth-pop album, and it’s all the better for it. Maybe it sounds that way because the darker post-punk of their previous releases didn’t suit the mood of lead singer Hannah Lew (also of Grass Widow), who wrote this album while she was pregnant. “I found myself trying to describe our earth to a new human who had never been here,” Lew says. “It was a bleak year to be pregnant, but I was simultaneously filled with so much love and hope at the same time. I remember feeling a sense of wanting to show my whole range of self to this new person I was about to meet.” The sense of wonder and awe that comes with bringing a new person into the world can definitely be felt on standout track “Double Sided Mirror.” Lew asks, “Will it be over if there’s no sound?” with a reverent coo over stimulating synths, and you’re immediately transported to a blissful void—just hovering and reveling in the magic of your own existence. —Lizzie Manno

HAIM: Women In Music Pt. III

Danielle 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

Jaga Jazzist: Pyramid

Have you ever imagined a parallel reality where jazz music never lost its foothold in pop-culture? In some senses, that reality already exists in Scandinavia, where jazz has continued to evolve as a contemporary medium that retains a strong connection with young listeners—at least when compared to the preservationist ethic that surrounds jazz music in the States. For an alternate example of the strange and beautiful shapes jazz can morph into when freed of the highbrow airs that, for better or worse, define its avant-garde permutations in the States, you would do well to start with Jaga Jazzist, whose sprawling brand of krautrock/post-rock fusion wears its jazz roots on its sleeve while at times also rendering them unrecognizable. Pyramid, the Norwegian eight-piece’s ninth studio album and first for Flying Lotus’ label Brainfeeder, begins with sublime exhalations of tenor saxophone that rise into the air like campfire smoke against a richly colored sky at sunrise. Piano chords and wispy synth twirls drift upwards alongside the central horn melody, the music resting for over three minutes in the serene, transcendent spirit that introduces fusion-era classics like Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Where those records functioned as showcases for musical chops (either teetering on the edge of busy, note-heavy outbursts or flat-out diving right into them), Pyramid spends its entire runtime—four instrumentals that don’t so much build as hover for nearly two-thirds of an hour—in a tentative gear. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

M!R!M: The Visionary

On The Visionary, Jack Milwaukee (aka M!R!M) makes dark synth-pop and post-punk that’s infinitely more interesting and luxuriant than his contemporaries—even if his reference points are similar. Between the lush, oddball glimmer of “Superstitions” or the synthetic, muffled vocals and melancholy saxophone on “Survive,” this is an album that thrives on textures, but not obvious ones. Some recall gorgeously decadent ’80s sounds, but others sound weird enough to come from a PC Music record. One particular moment of dense glory arrives when his unpredictable, winding textures and heavily-delayed vocals meet a heady swell of violin on “Crucifix And Roses”—if we’re not met by similarly joyous sounds at the pearly gates, consider us disappointed. —Lizzie Manno

Nation of Language: Introduction, Presence

It’s no secret that 1980s nostalgia has been prevalent in indie rock for years now. From Future Islands and Interpol to The 1975 and TOPS, countless bands from the last two decades have found success filtering their music through distinctly ’80s lenses. Still to this day, you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting an indie band with one or more of these elements: interstellar synths, bass-driven songs, rich production and melodramatic vocals. To join these ranks is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, there’s a huge demand for music that sounds like it came from the era of big hair and goths, but on the other hand, it’s hard to stand out in such a saturated market—and even harder to make lasting, impactful songs that transcend its revivalist label. New York City band Nation of Language approach this weighty task with more grace and far better songwriting chops than the vast majority of bands who attempt retro pastiches or something close to them. For starters, lead singer and songwriter Ian Devaney (formerly of Static Jacks) has a low-pitched, aching voice that just screams classic new wave, but more crucially, he has an ear for awe-inspiring melodies and synth lines that go above and beyond mere cinematic uplift. Nearly every one of his songs prompts a mental highlight reel of one’s own life, but without the stylish, candy-coated nostalgia that’s fetishized nowadays—it’s the profound kind that allows you to view yourself at your lowest and highest moments and see the beauty in having a finite amount of time to live. —Lizzie Manno

Ric Wilson & Terrace Martin: They Call Me Disco

Following 2017’s Negrow Disco and 2018’s BANBA, Chicago funk/disco rapper Ric Wilson has shared a collaborative EP with jazz musician and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin (Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg). The pair began work on the EP last year, which continued into 2020. The EP also features appearances from Corbin Dallas, BJ The Chicago Kid, Malaya and Kiela Adira. They Call Me Disco is smooth, fun-loving and charismatic, blending retro funk-pop, playful hip-hop, exuberant disco and even psych-tinged R&B. “The disco-inspired funk never stops,” says Wilson. “Me and Terrace wanted to make something people can move to and free themselves.” Martin adds, “This record is a beautiful reminder the disco never stops. Keep smiling, keep dancing, and keep loving.” —Lizzie Manno

RVG: Feral

Feral comes from the same literary pop tradition as the Go-Betweens and the Bats, two comparisons that I hate to make but absolutely have to because of how accurate they are. Yes, like those two bands, RVG is from down under, namely Australia. (Just for clarity’s sake, and to prevent kicking up any ancient rivalries, I gotta point out that the Bats were from New Zealand, unlike the other two.) Their songs have intricate, chiming guitars that play off of each other, and straightforward rhythms, and sound like they’re ripped straight from ’80s college radio. More importantly, like those two bands, RVG’s songwriter Romy Vager writes songs that feel like well-observed short stories—brief, tender vignettes that capture the everyday joys and, more often, pains of life. Take the first song, “Alexandra,” and its lines about disapproving family members, the singer’s almost nonchalant anticipation of a violent death, and how others “set fire to people like you / just for looking them in the eye.” It quickly sketches the risks assumed by the song’s character—who, like Vager herself, is trans—while showing how those risks need to be taken so they can live as who they are. Elsewhere, the aching love song “Perfect Day” is about shielding your loved one from the kind of minor, everyday bad news that could ruin a good mood—from grey skies to bad songs on the radio. The chipper music and Vager’s upbeat delivery makes it sound like an uplifting pop song, and in a way it is—there’s not much harm in trying to prevent others from learning about relatively inconsequential bad news. There’s an undercurrent of darkness here, though—the singer is willing to elide the truth to keep their partner happy, and how far would they be willing to take that kind of deception? The “perfect day” of the song is built on dishonesty, which isn’t a good foundation for any relationship. Vager’s songs are deceptively deep like that—they might sound like breezy pop songs, but there’s a lot to chew on within. That’s true of Feral as a whole, and why it’s such a great record. —Garrett Martin

Spectres: Nostalgia

If you dig the sensitive, longing qualities of classic post-punk, Spectres are right up your alley. This Vancouver five-piece has been putting out albums since 2010 (three of which were reissued last year), and their latest album, Nostalgia, is another touching, towering release. You’ll find skittering goth-pop (“Fate”), melodic, Smiths-esque gloom (“Pictures From Occupied Europe”), forceful punk and coldwave (“Insurgence”) and everything in between. Moments like the vocal melodies of “Dreams” or “The Call,” sung in a soaring baritone, will open the floodgates of those ’80s bands you haven’t cried to in a while. —Lizzie Manno

Tennis: Swimmer

Rarely when uttering the words “for better or for worse” on their wedding day do couples really consider the latter half of that sentiment. Most of life’s darkest days often occur after two people have committed themselves to one another: Loved ones fall ill or die, responsibilities mount and any number of unexpected catastrophes may land on your doorstep. You’re not seeking a partner for a pleasure cruise, but rather for an intrepid, Magellan-style circumnavigation, in which sailors get scurvy or fall overboard because they mistook a manatee for a mermaid. There are moments of wonder and discovery, but often those are bookended by rough seas. Married duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, better known as Tennis, have recently endured one of the most difficult stages of their life, but found solace in each other throughout. Following the commercial success of Yours Conditionally in 2017, Moore wound up in the hospital with a bad bout of the flu, Riley’s father Edward died of cancer and his mother Karen was hospitalized “on the brink of a stroke,” Moore recalls. Swimmer was borne from this heart wrenching period of time, a fitting name considering the sailing motif in Tennis’ discography (Cape Dory recounts their post-college sailing trip along the East Coast, and most of Yours Conditionally was written during their journey at sea from San Diego to the Sea of Cortez). Moore herself never learned to swim, just as most of us are not taught how to navigate the choppy waters of grief and strife. —Clare Martin

Thundercat: It Is What It Is

While the cat noises and fart sounds on his last album, 2017’s Drunk, offended one prominent music critic so much he nearly crashed his car in a fit of frustration, Bassist Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) didn’t actually need to tame his prodigious appetite for variety. On previous Thundercat albums, he revelled in his own zaniness, but he also showed a knack for going right to the edge of incoherence while maintaining just enough of a consistent thread. Listening to a player with a range that rivals the late bass giant Jaco Pastorius—and, arguably, the chops to match—part of the appeal comes from just watching the ideas roam free. That makes it all the more remarkable that Bruner has decided to rein in his wanderlust on his fourth solo LP, It Is What It Is. It’s not that It Is What It Is lacks variety. Much like on his other output, Bruner once again draws freely from the wells of funk, soul, disco, jazz, rock, hip-hop and lo-fi experimentation. The crucial difference this time is that he shoehorns those influences into a startlingly smooth flow that somehow accommodates dazzling technical proficiency. On It Is What It Is, Bruner brings ’70s-style R&B balladeering (“Overseas,” “How I Feel”) and fusion (“Interstellar Love,” “How Sway”) to the forefront as other styles recede into supportive roles. In terms of the impact of the record as a complete listening experience, the payoff is tremendous. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

TOPS: I Feel Alive

I’m finding that the music I need most right now falls into one of two categories: Nostalgia (we’re talking anything pre-2020 that takes me back to louder, busier, less-quarantined times!) or something brand spankin’ new, preferably a newborn that’s also danceable. Canadian indie-pop group TOPS’ newest album I Feel Alive arrived just recently in April—PLUS it’s a prime soundtrack for taking a dance break in your kitchen or going on one of those quick daily jogs/walks we’re all doing now to get fresh air—so it definitely falls into the latter camp. While I Feel Alive may not hit home as rapidly as some of their earlier releases (The tracklist of 2017’s Sugar at the Gate is a toppling of bops), it really feels like they’re more comfortable in their own skin here. The singles (particularly “Direct Sunlight” and the title track) are some of the best, grooviest tunes on the album, but the entire 35 minutes will have you bouncing around the room, dancing for no one but your cat or partner who’s begging you not to play the same album again (If it’s this record on repeat, too bad for them!). This music is comparable to another indie-pop outfit on this list, Tennis, full of retro angles and disco-inspired breakdowns, as well as a few dreamy synth-pop moments, but TOPS are doing their own stylish thing entirely. If you need an album to move to (or just feel something to), look no further than this 2020 bloom. —Ellen Johnson

Vundabar: Either Light

Boston indie rockers Vundabar are four albums deep, but Either Light marks the first time they’ve worked with a producer—and not just any producer. They brought on Patrick Hyland, who produced the last three Mitski albums—all modern indie classics—and the result is their best album to date. Vundabar are still largely an indie band, but Either Light sees them embrace their new wave and post-punk leanings more than ever before. It’s a groovy, heartfelt record with danceable rhythms and theatrical vocal performances, and it blends modern indie-pop influences with all your favorite new wave staple bands. “Petty Crime” is one microcosm of their irresistible, vivacious charm. “Caroline I think we might be cursed / We’ve been rolling round this town in a hearse,” Brandon Hagen sings before diving into a playful, bubbly chorus. —Lizzie Manno

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