Top Albums of 2020

First week back at work of 2021 kind of drew all my mental energy, that’s why there’s a bit of a delay here. Today I’ve got my top four albums of 2020 for you. I know that last week I said that you could probably do a bingo card for my top albums list, and a lot of the albums from #12-5 were expected. However, the top four below are all new entries to my catalog, and really, surprises even for me.

My top four albums were albums by other thirty-somethings out there feeling the same things I was feeling in 2020. There’s a thread through all these albums – optimistic change. Maybe that’s what I was looking for last year? All things considered, my life was still pretty good, but man, the world as a whole just fucking sucked. Given the stories that you’d hear on the news every day – lockdown, death, fear, protest, revolution – maybe 2020 was just an inflection point? Maybe this generation is finally done with it all. The world needs to change. We need to change. Maybe they’re going to do something about it. At least they’re going to sing about it.

4. Touché Amoré – Lament

To open the album, you hear Touché Amoré’s vocalist, Jeremy Bolm, shout “From peaks of blue, come heroine!” as if summoning some sort of Wonder Woman-like figure from on high. However, you barely get a moment to process what’s happening before the album erupts with a wall of sound. This sets the pace for what you should expect from this album: an explosion. An explosion of melody and of emotion. It is raging fire, it is the ashes settling on the ground, and it is regrowth. It’s an album about reaching out in the face of tragedy, from personal to global, and how to find the support you need. If there was an album that 2020 needed, this is it. Largely written in light of Bolm’s struggles after losing his mother to cancer, the downsides of the pandemic seem to slot a bit too nicely into the open spaces of the album, making it still feel very relevant. The title track, “Lament”, puts you in the shoes of someone who is facing tragedy, and the spiral of numbness that is felt in that position. The album’s closing track, “A Forecast”, points a finger directly at the GOP as the cause for much of the strife and loss in the nation over the past four years.

Although the band’s previous album, Stage Four, was focused on his mother’s battle with cancer, he continues addressing those feelings in the wake of that album. Two songs, “I’ll Be Your Host” and “Deflector”, deal with how he has to relive his feelings as fans of the band share similar stories of loss with him. “I didn’t ask to lead this party,” he sings on “I’ll Be Your Host” in response to the fans, and backing it up on “Deflector” with “I’m not comfortable / I rarely am” in regards to these situations. Only for him to realize that he has no other choice but to be there for them: “I’m a vessel for last contact” & “I’ll be your host / against my will”

However, it’s not all grey skies and rain clouds on this album. The aforementioned opener, “Come Heroine,” talks about how we can find comfort and hope in the arms of someone we love, such as the song’s titular heroine. “Limelight”, on which Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra provides guest vocals, is a song about overcoming despair through love. Telling a story in the way it builds, the song takes a break from the breakneck pace of the preceding songs, starting a bit softer and singing about the miserable parts of a relationship as it alternates between the quiet-before-the-storm verses and a heavy call-and-response chorus. The bridge parts the seas to let Hull’s guest spot really shine, while guitars and vocals layer behind him to build back up to an explosive ending of the song, in which the strength of love overcomes that misery. This particular track is one of two masterpieces on the album.

The other track which helped elevate the album to this position on the list is “Reminders.” Clocking in at a beat over three minutes, this song doesn’t spare a second. When I said before if there was an album 2020 needed, it wasn’t because of all the songs about stress, anxiety, and loss. It was because of this track, and the way its positive message rang true with me. Sometimes you need to get out of your own head, stop looking at the things you can’t change, and look at what’s around you to be thankful for: the people and pups whose lives you touch every day.

With a head so beat and drained
I’m running on empty
As the world collapses with complacency
To knee-jerk takes and fantasy

I need reminders of the love I have
I need reminders, good or bad
I tilt my chin up in photographs
A subtle way to reinvent the past

The music video for “Reminders” is full of musicians, wrestlers, performers, artists, and more showing what reminds them of the love in their life. It’s goddamn adorable, and it will be the only music video I actually embed in all these posts.

It’s an albums about ups and downs, being mad at the world, frustrated with things you can’t change, and still finding the strength to overcome, whether it’s within yourself or from those around you. The melodies range from aggressively brutal to spacious and haunting, and nothing ever feels out of place. It’s a 35 minute ride through the mind of a soul that has been tortured, but is working every day to find peace. I don’t think I would have connected with the album as deeply as I did without the world at large in 2020 being a dumpster fire. I think this album was forged in those flames and came out better for it.

Bonus: The band did a livestream a few weeks ago to support the release of the record with some of their past songs and album tracks.

Standout Tracks: Come Heroine, Lament, Limelight, Reminders

3. Charmer – ivy

To echo some of my sentiments on my previous post, if you were to ask me at the beginning of the year “Which Michigan-based Midwest-emo band is going to have a top-four-ranking album in your list?” my answer would definitely not have been Marquette’s own Charmer. While their 2018 self-titled release was good, I felt like it was a little thin, maybe a bit too nostalgic, and stuck a little too close to the middle of the road. Kind of like a dish that is underseasoned – you’d eat it, but you know it could be better. After listening to their April 2020 release, ivy, I was surprised to see that they had made huge strides in growth in the ways I hoped Hot Mulligan would.

One of my favorite comments about Origami Angel’s 2019 release “Somewhere City” (which, I’ll admit, still got a lot of play this year) was that the album didn’t just pick one style of emo, it went through every style of emo, and I feel that can almost be said about Charmer’s take on the genre with this album as well. Instead of just riffing on tropes from throughout the genre, they weave it all together to make an album that brings in elements of early 2000s pop-punk, 2010s emo revival twinkly guitars, and even 1990s emotional hardcore. When you listen to this album, you can hear everything from Rites of Spring to The Get Up Kids to Jimmy Eat World to American Football to Tiny Moving Parts and anything in between, in both the music and the lyrics, and none of it sounds derivative. It legitimately feels like they are laying the groundwork for the next emo movement for the decade starting in 2020 and beyond.

Everything about ivy feels fresh and inspired, like you would hope from a young band looking to make their mark on the genre. It’s only appropriate that one of the common lyrical themes of the album is change, and dealing with it. Whether it is changing seasons, changing relationships, or changing who we are, the album is often looking at all this change and asking “why?” but never looking back too long before looking forward.

Clocking in at just over a half hour, it does not overstay it’s welcome either. When it was over, I would usually play through it again immediately. It’s such a fun listen, and has hooks for days. The guitar riffs and vocal melodies often got stuck in my head for hours, and since the best way to get something unstuck is to listen to it again, I’d put the album on, only to get another hook stuck in my head. It’s a shame that there wasn’t a tour this year to support the album, because these would have been great songs to hear live.

Standout Tracks: Slumber, Doom, Windbreaker, December, Track & Field

2. Ruston Kelly – Shape and Destroy

Ruston Kelly opens the track “Radio Cloud” with the lines “Call me a misfit, king of the crows / Out on the hills or the telephone poles / Hang in the silence, ’til I got something to say”, which is a line that tells you a lot about where he came from, where he is, and where he’s going to be. Simple storytelling is what drives this album, and what got it to this spot on my list.

I got into Ruston Kelly with his 2019 cover EP Dirt Emo, and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. Thanks to my wife’s interest in country music, I have a passing familiarity with the genre, and most of it is not my cup of tea. Ruston Kelly is a different story. The joke is that country music is usually about a broken truck, a dead dog, and a wife leaving, and you don’t find any of that here. He writes his own songs and co-produces his own records, and has a DIY spirit that isn’t often seen amongst country music’s elites. The modern country music industry is the pop music industry with a pair of boots on, with seven writers and four producers on a three minute song that is nothing but slick and shiny. This album has an indie spirit, driven by Kelly’s punk-rock soul.

Ruston Kelly is a heart-on-his-sleeve emo singer-songwriter masquerading as a country musician. He’s equal parts Dashboard Confessional, Green Day, Jackson Browne, and Johnny Cash, all of which he regularly cites as influences. In his music video for “Pressure”, he dons a sleeveless Misfits tee, and the music video set for “Radio Cloud” wouldn’t be out of place as the backdrop for the music video of an early 2000s pop-punk band’s ballad. He wears his influences front and center.

That’s the kind of no-bullshit honesty you get with Ruston Kelly. He is who he is, and you’re either going to like it or not. That’s the Midwesterner in him, and no amount of Nashville is going to keep that down. In “Radio Cloud,” my personal favorite from the album, he is playing the role of a figurative Moses, and his sermon is about guiding people to follow their own path, whatever the hell that may be. That wit and honesty is what what endears you to him as you listen to his sophomore album, Shape & Destroy. The title is also the theme of the album – you’ve sometimes got to destroy things you were to become who you are truly meant to be. With his days as a drug user and an addict in his past, he walks the walk and talks the talk.

Throughout the album you hear the story of a man who is intentionally tearing down the walls so that he can build himself back up better than before. He realizes that he needs to be flexible, even calling himself a “stretchy man” on “Rubber”, which invokes an image of a Stretch Armstrong-esque Ruston Kelly. On “Changes”, he sings “I’m just going through some changes, that don’t mean everything is rearranging, just give me time,” as if he’s trying to implore the listener to stay with him. Sometimes, he sings about the support he gets from those around him, like his wife. Lines about his then-wife Kacey Musgraves seem a little bittersweet, as the two announced their divorce during the album’s promotional cycle, even though they stated they remain friends and important parts of each other’s lives. It is probably pretty safe to assume the divorce going to be a theme on his third album.

The album often sounds more like a folksy singer-songwriter album more than a lamenting country musician. You begin to understand why he doesn’t call his music “country”, he calls it “dirt emo.” There’s no difference between what he does, or what (fellow Nashvillian) Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba does, or what Johnny Cash does. It’s music from the heart, with an acquired southern drawl and a bit of twang from the pedal steel that his father plays in his band. With the cover EP, I thought the “dirt emo” moniker was a clever bit to sell some well done crossover covers, but with the surprising amount I enjoyed this album, I realized that Kelly shows how a self-driven spirit, honest songwriting, and music with heart are able to transcend genres.

Standout Tracks: Radio Cloud, In The Blue, Changes, Rubber, Pressure

1. Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone

If there’s any album that matches the vibe that 2020 gave off early in the pandemic, this is the one. This album came out on February 7, and by the end of March I already knew this was going to be my album of the year. The Californian five-piece manages to weave starkly-real storytelling in and out of a diverse musical landscape, keeping you engaged as you doom-scroll through your social media feeds. 

The album starts as frontman Dylan Slocum sings “On any given day, I’m a six of ten / Bed, to desk, to bar, eyes on the floor” in his trademark warble, and you begin to think the album is taking a pessimistic tone, and many of the albums’ other lyrics seem to back that up. No song was able to capture my feelings about 2020 better than the line “Said ‘It’s the end of days’ / and we’re just hoping for beach front property” (from the album’s lead single, “Beach Front Property”), and that line on its own is a hell of a downer. 

As a millennial who has grown up seeing the world through the lenses of scandal, war, recession, terrorism, injustice, and social media, the lyric “It won’t be this bleak forever”, from “Self-Destruction (As a Sensible Career Choice)”, strikes a chord that rings all too true sometimes. I mean, hell, the album has songs titled “Losers” and “Losers 2”, as if they’re really trying to drive home the point. “Losers” even has a line that says “My bleak mind says it’s cheaper just to die / the prick inside my head’s laid off and daring me to try” and shortly follows it up with “It gets harder, doesn’t it?”

Upon first impression, when you’re just cherry-picking bits and pieces of the lyrics, it sounds like this is an album about depression, fear, anxiety, self-loathing, helplessness, and despair. It’s a millennial cocktail, and the band does an outstanding job of framing the world in this way. However, once you start to peel back the layers and dig deeper, you start to see what the album is really about. 

The aforementioned “Beach Front Property” is a great example. Yes, the band is singing about the end of days, but moments later they sing “If every city is the same / doom and gloom under a different name / maybe we should find our home in one”, as if they’ve decided we have to make the best of a bad situation. They sing about how hard it is to actually ask for help in the appropriately named “Optimism (As a Radical Life Choice)”, “Take me down in the landslide / help me weather this high tide / I’ll wear you out waiting for me to implode”.

The band sings about the struggles we all face, and are only amplified by the situations around the world with the pandemic, the protests, the lockdowns, and the elections. This year was fucking hard, and it never got easier, just like life. Everyone jokes that 2020 felt like it was a decade long on its own, like it’s trying to fit a lifetime of struggles into a year. With all that pressure, it’s hard to not feel defeated, but this album reminds us to just keep going. Pressure creates diamonds. The album ends once again signaling the importance of persistence: “We don’t have to fix everything at once / we were never broken, life’s just very long / brave faces, everyone.”

Standout Tracks: The entire album.

That’s it! Those are the top four! Thanks for sticking around and reading all these. Tomorrow we’ll wrap the whole thing up with a playlist from all of these albums and more, with some of my favorite songs of the year.