Indie Basement: Top 40 Albums of 2020
It's a given that 2020 has been a year unlike any that most of us have ever experienced. Time seemed to fold in on itself (for me at least), and March to December seemed to go by in an instant but also in slow motion. If felt this way for music, too. Albums I thought were last year were this year and vice versa. Looking through the months, though, it was a bit shocking how many records I really liked were released and how many of these groups I wish I had gotten to see live this year.
Below are my 40 favorite records of 2020. Technically it's 41 as I counted two records by a single artist as one release. (Surprisingly it was neither Osees or Guided by Voices who each put out three records this year.) Rankings below 20 are fairly arbitrary, and I think they're all worth checking out. Your mileage will surely vary and this isn't meant to be a definitive list, just one person's opinion.
Check out the Indie Basement list, as well as a playlist featuring songs from all 40 albums, below.
See you in 2021.
Need more? Check out our Best of 2020 tag.
INDIE BASEMENT BEST ALBUMS OF 2020
40. Jim Bob - Pop Up Jim Bob (Cherry Red)
The former Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine frontman's first album in seven years was a very welcome return. His wry, observant wit, way with big riffs and bigger puns was just what we needed to help make sense of this very messed-up year.
BEST BIT: "2020 WTF!" condenses this year into 26 seconds of shouty, punky, profane perfection.
39. Matt Berry - Phantom Birds (Acid Jazz)
You may only know Matt Berry as the funny British guy with the voice on What We Do in the Shadows and Toast of London, but he's also the talented British musician with the voice who makes excellent baroque, '70s-style singer-songwriter music. Especially good songs and a crack backing band including pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole make Phantom Birds especially enticing.
BEST BIT: Berry does minor-key melancholia very well and "In My Mind" sounds like a rainy autumn day in England, 1973.
38. FACS - Void Moments (Trouble In Mind) [Buy vinyl]
Chicago's awesome makers of dread-and-paranoia-fueled nightmare rock get better with very record, and they cave in the walls on LP#3. Towering, pummelling and disquieting, and with songs titled "Teenage Hive" and "Lifelike," Void Moments is the post-punk post-rock score to a visceral body-horror film that has yet to be made.
BEST BIT: The rippling, forceful "Teenage Hive" is a showcase of everything FACS does so well.
37. Osees - Protean Threat (Castle Face) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Protean Threat condenses the doomy prog of 2018's Smote Reverser and the skronky excess of Face Stabber into one lean, ripper of an album that has John Dwyer and the double drummer lineup of the band dabbling heavily in electronics and krautrock grooves.
BEST BIT: Osees have never made anything as outright groovy and funky as "Said the Shovel" but let's have more of this.
36. Kevin Morby - Sundowner (Secretly Canadian) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Kevin Morby is at his best when it sounds like he's not trying so hard, and after the high concept, ambitious Oh My God, he came back down to earth for this gorgeous, moving album set at twilight. Happy/sad vibes abound.
BEST BIT: "Wander" is stirring heartland rock in the signature Morby style.
35. Kelley Stoltz - Ah! (Etc) (Agitated)
Both the records Kelley Stoltz released this year were great, but Ah! (Etc) has the edge over the pub rock-inspired Hard Feelings. This one has no high concept, just 12 unbelievable catchy songs performed in Stoltz's sweet spot -- somewhere between '60s garage pop and '80s new wave, though heavier on the latter this time around, with Echo & The Bunnymen's Will Sergeant showing up to work his guitar magic on a few tracks. Also: Album Title of the Year.
BEST BIT: "Never Change Enough" wears its Bunnymen influence on its sleeve, by way of Nick Lowe.
34. Honey Harper - Starmaker (ATO) [Buy on CD or vinyl]
William Fussell has been in a number of dreampop bands over the last 10 years (Mood Rings, Promise Keeper) but really found his voice as cosmic country crooner Honey Harper. Starmaker has one boot in the '70s (Glen Campbell, The Carpenters) and the other in the '90s (Slowdive, Cocteau Twins) and with great songs, perfectly swoony production and his heartbreaking voice, it's a magic combination.
BEST BIT: Starmaker's title track is brilliantly weepy, featuring great pedal steel and Sebastien Tellier.
33. A Girl Called Eddy - Been Around (Elefant)
Erin Moran's second A Girl Called Eddy album came 15 years after the first. Where had she been? Around, the title coyly answers, but it doesn't really matter with songs this perfectly crafted (shades of Burt Bacharach and Rickie Lee Jones) and wonderfully sung. But glad you're back.
BEST BIT: "Two Hearts" is majestic pop whose swelling chorus will have you verklempt.
32. Cold Beat - Mother (DFA) [Buy on CD or vinyl]
Hannah Lew wrote the songs for Cold Beat's fourth album while pregnant with her first child. Lyrically, she wonders what kind of scary world she's bringing her daughter into, but the music on Mother makes you feel safe -- it's the warmest, most appealing she's made yet. Motherhood suits her.
BEST BIT: The bubbling "Pearl" could've been a hit in 1981, but the soaring, beautiful "Double Sided Mirror" is the best thing Cold Beat have done to date.
31. Melenas - Dias Raros (Trouble in Mind) [Buy CD]
Pamplona, Spain may unfortunately be best known for the running of the bulls, but Melenas are doing their best to put the city on the map for something else. Their second album, Dias Raros, is full of driving and bright songs powered by strummy guitars, vintage organ, motorik rhythms and ethereal harmonies.
BEST BIT: The slashing "No puedo pensar" falls somewhere between Electrelane and The Bats.
30. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark) [Buy LP or CD]
Liz Stokes and the rest of The Beths avoid the Sophomore Slump entirely with another wonderful record of crunchy guitar pop that tops their debut. There are more right ideas in any one of these songs -- they are especially good at middle eighths and concise, ripping leads -- than a lot of bands manage across an entire album.
BEST BIT: Too many to count, but "Dying to Believe" -- the hooks are undeniable.
29. Juniore - Un Deux Trois (Le Phonographe)
If you have a soft spot for retro-groovy sexy-cool bachelor pad pop with irrésistible basslines and dryly cooed vocals, Parisian band Juniore's patented "yé-yé noir" is impossible not to like. Turn up Un Deux Trois and imagine yourself in a technicolor spy film.
BEST BIT: Add "Bizarre" to the short list of songs that make great use of whistling.
28. Pottery - Welcome to Bobby's Motel (Partisan) [Buy CD or LP]
Montreal's Pottery might give you whiplash as they manically change lanes, swerving from new wavey funk to jangly pop to soulful psychedelia with glee. Even the styles that don't quite fit, they're good at them. Pottery clearly having a blast, and if you can't keep up with them, that's your fault. Just let them drive.
BEST BIT: Pottery are at their best when really going for it, and "Texas Drums Pt I & II" really goes for it.
27. Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Kelly Lee Owens takes everything that was great about her excellent debut album (waves of arpeggiated synths, deep techno beats, ethereal vocals) and condenses it, then expands it further into the heavens. Transcendent and trance-inducing, whether making you dance or lifting you off the floor.
BEST BIT: The vividly psychedelic "The Colour of My Sky" features fellow Welshman John Cale and the amazing video features another, Michael Sheen, and some mysterious toast.
26. Tan Cologne - Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico (Labrador) [Buy vinyl]
Hailing from Taos, duo Tan Cologne channel all the mystic, alien energy of their hometown into their dreampop debut that has the sweep of painted desert topography at sunset. Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico is a total vibe record and one that really sticks with you.
BEST BIT: "Alien" gives you all the Taos psych dreaminess with an earworm chorus.
25. Tricky - Fall To Pieces (False Idols) [Buy CD or vinyl]
“I feel like I’m back,” Tricky said of his new album Fall To Pieces and while he's been on a hot streak the past few years, the trip hop icon sounds especially dialed-in on his 14th album. It's his first since losing Mazie Mina, his daughter with Martina Topley-Bird, and he channels the pain, often nakedly, into a powerful record.
BEST BIT: "Fall Please," which Tricky says is the closest he's ever come to pop, is fantastic and an area he should explore further.
24. Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death (Partisan) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Dublin's Fontaines D.C. better last year's debut album in every way. The nervous claustrophobia of Dogrel gives way to a wide expanse; the walls may have been closing in but here they've kicked through to the wild blue yonder.
BEST BIT: "Life ain't always empty" frontman Grian Chatten sings on A Hero's Death's blistering title track which encapsulates the whole record.
23. Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today (Domino) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Joe Casey has been observing the world with a bleak, wry eye since Protomartyr began but his worldview and the zeitgeist aligned in 2020, offering pitch-black catharsis for many people's darkest year ever. Ultimate Success Today is Protomartyr's heaviest, weirdest, most-ambitious record yet.
BEST BIT: "Worm in Heaven," that Casey jokes he wrote to be used at his funeral, is both cynical and sincere and one of Protomartyr's best-ever songs.
22. BC Camplight - Shortly After Takeoff (Bella Union) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Brian Christinzio channels '70s singer-songwriters (Nilsson, Newman) in a very postmodern way on his sad, witty, and very tuneful fifth album. The amazing one-liners are too many to count on this unique, wonderful "examination of madness and loss" that's his best yet.
BEST BIT: "Shortly After Takeoff" is the catchiest song you'll ever hear about totally losing it on a plane.
21. Destroyer - Have We Met (Merge) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Like a computer simulated android version of his classic 2011 album, Kaputt, Have We Met offers up sleek, synthetic "sound design" pop for Dan Bejar to deliver his out-there poetry that you don't so much understand as absorb. Dan does it again.
BEST BIT: "Cue Synthesizer" is sultry '80s funk where Dan duets with a ripping guitar lick, dropping lines like "We are a room of pit ponies drowning forever in a sea of love."
20. Doves - The Universal Want (Heavenly/EMI) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Manchester's Doves came out of retirement for a few reunion shows and stuck around to make this, their first album in 11 years and one of their best. The band's signature, soaring style sounds great as ever, and the songwriting, performances and production are all inspired. A triumph.
BEST BIT: Powered by a sampled drum loop of the late, great Tony Allen, "Carousels" is an instant classic.
19. Working Men's Club - Working Men's Club (Heavenly) [Buy CD or vinyl]
"We just want to confuse the fuck out of people, in a good way," said Working Men's Club frontman Sydney Minsky-Sargeant. Mission accomplished. The band's self-titled debut draws from a large swath of danceable '79-'83 post punk and second-gen '00s groups, with great songs, infectious beat-heavy production and a clear love for The Fall.
BEST BIT: "Valleys" is brilliant, gothy synthpop that lets those acid-house 303s fly free.
18. Stephen Malkmus - Traditional Techniques (Matador)
For his third record in as many years, the sometimes Pavement frontman chills out, unplugs and delivers a record of stoner folk-inspired songs that are among his most direct, affecting to date. For a guy who's been known for 30 years primarily as a musician who is, at times, too clever for his own good, Malkmus shows real heart here.
BEST BIT: "What Kind of Person" is Malkmus at his sweetest, prettiest and most sincere.
17. Activity - Unmask Whoever (Western Vinyl) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Rising from the ashes of Brooklyn's Grooms, Activity tred a similar dark, unsettling groove with krautrock rhythms, slashing guitars and creepy, surreal atmosphere. Unmask Whoever is doppelganger music for a parallel universe.
BEST BIT: "Earth Angel" is both sinister and sensuous and when singer Travis Johnson sings "I wanna fuck around" barely above a whisper, danger lurks.
16. The Innocence Mission - See You Tomorrow (Bella Union)
Lancaster, PA's Innocence Mission have been making delicate dreampop for longer than that descriptor has existed, with Kerin Peris' heartbreaking voice forever the star of the show. Draped in aching melancholy, See You Tomorrow is among the group's finest in a 30+ year career.
BEST BIT: With wistful strings and distant acoustic guitar, "On Your Side" sounds like the first chill of autumn.
15. Drab City - Good Songs for Bad People (Bella Union) [Buy CD]
Witch house survivor oOoOO and Islamiq Grrrls combine forces on their beguiling debut as Drab City, that plays like Sade on the wrong side of town. Low key beats and groovy samples color these charcoal gray tales of "social alienation, violent revenge, and (perhaps) romantic love as salvation."
BEST BIT: "Troubled Girl" makes a very good case for a trip hop revival.
14. Dougie Poole - The Freelancer's Blues (Wharf Cat) [Buy CD]
Dougie Pool understands that country music is as much a state of mind as it is slide guitar or a snap-up shirt, and that any subject matter is fair game as long as it's true to you. He also knows that your troubles make the best country songs, in this case tales of urban ennui, app-based dating, and simple pleasures like vaping on the job.
BEST BIT: "Los Angeles" liberally borrows from Dolly's "Jolene" but is about a guy who decides to leave NYC and move to the West Coast, but never makes it further than New Jersey.
13. Public Practice - Gentle Grip (Wharf Cat) [Buy vinyl]
Post-punk is not all black eyeliner and rainy days, and Brooklyn's Public Practice pull from the side of the genre that wasn't afraid to have fun (The Slits, Pylon, Talking Heads). On their debut album, they know all the cool moves but haven't forgotten to write great songs.
BEST BIT: "My Head" is joyous, string-laden reggae pop that will instantly lighten your mood.
12. Billy Nomates - Billy Nomates (Invada) [Buy vinyl]
Equal parts hooks and attitude, the debut album by Billy Nomates presents a singular vision by an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed. It's peak Reba McEntire by way of Sleaford Mods (who guest here), all brash working class attitude and big poppy choruses.
BEST BIT: "No" is Billy's calling card and manifesto set to a killer bassline: "No I won't fit in your pocket!"
11. The Flaming Lips - American Head (Warner Bros) [Buy CD or LP]
Wayne Coyne looks back into his druggy adolescence for lyrical inspiration on The Flaming Lips' most emotionally direct, personal album ever. Musically, they're still in outer space, but American Head is in Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi melodic psych territory. Their most satisfying album in ages.
BEST BIT: "Flowers of Neptune 6" is prime technicolor Flaming Lips pop, with help from Kacey Musgraves.
10. Cindy Lee - What's Tonight to Eternity? (W. 25th)
Former Women member Patrick Flegel has created a genuinely eerie world of sound on Cindy Lee's What's Tonight to Eternity? that's part nostalgia and part dementia, part Karen Carpenter and part The Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead. Beautiful and frightening.
BEST BIT: "I Want You to Suffer" is a Crystals song whose dreamlike atmosphere turns into a full-on nightmare.
9. Sweeping Promises - Hunger for a Way Out (Feel It)
Boston's Sweeping Promises make urgent, ultra-hooky post-punk inspired pop that draws from groups like ESG, Sleater-Kinney and Liliput but sounded confident and assured on their fantastic debut. This record is all hits.
BEST BIT: Featuring irresistible bassline, "An Appetite" is a post-punk banger just begging to be played loud, but just about every song here is as good.
8. Crack Cloud - Pain Olympics (Meat Machine Records) [Buy CD]
Vancouver's Crack Cloud look like they were formed by a bunch of extras on the set of a Mad Max movie and kind of sound like it too. (Actually: they met at rehab and see the group as part of their recovery program.) Pain Olympics is grand guignol, phantasmagoric, and post-apocalyptic. And you can dance to it.
BEST BIT: "The Next Fix" rides a slinky groove and pulls heavily from rap while working in robotic vocoder, jazz fusion trumpet and a chorus of chanted vocals.
7. Cut Worms - Nobody Lives Here Anymore (Jagjaguwar) [Buy vinyl]
Max Clark is a man out of time with a sound rooted in The Everly Brothers, Marty Robbins and The Byrds but as the album's title makes intimates, it's not 1963 anymore. On this double album he reckons the American dream didn't die so much as never existed and his existential ache runs deep throughout.
BEST BIT: "Baby Come On" sets a tale of unfulfilled wishes set to a classic early-'60s beat. "Paradise is full / Ah but don't it look just how you dreamed it would?"
6. Sault - Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise) (Forever Living Originals) [Buy CD]
In a year loaded with records that seemed to be the perfect soundtrack to the madness of 2020, this enigmatic UK group dropped two of them, weaving '70s funk and soul, dub, afrobeat, jazz, gospel and other styles with direct, no-nonsense lyrics that express anger and sadness but also hope at "a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives."
BEST BIT: Both of Sault's Untitled albums work best as full records, but "Hard Life" from Black Is is an undeniable standout.
5. Caribou - Suddenly (Merge) [Buy vinyl]
Dan Snaith built Suddenly out of over 900 short, loopable snippets. It sounds like a lot of meticulous work, but listening to this album of often joyous, sometimes melancholy dance music is effortless.
BEST BIT: "Never Come Back" may be the best Caribou song to date.
4. Loma - Don't Shy Away (Sub Pop) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Texas trio Loma had no plans of making a second record. Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski had broken up during the making of it, but the pull of their unique chemistry with Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg kept them together. Good thing too: Don't Shy Away is an absolutely gorgeous record -- hypnotic, haunting, mysterious and comforting.
BEST BIT: "Half Silences" pulses like Fleetwood Mac through a half-remembered dream.
3. JARV IS... Beyond the Pale (Rough Trade) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Jarvis Cocker is still the lanky, bespectacled Brit who can somehow make the mundane sexy, but his new band -- featuring Serafina Steer and Emma Smith who act as a greek chorus on many of these songs -- are taking him into uncharted territory, while still delivering what fans want...short of a Pulp reunion.
BEST BIT: Closing track "Children of the Echo" is a spaced-out groover where Jarvis ponders his place in the universe.
2. Roisin Murphy - Roisin Machine (Skint) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Forever the iconoclast, Roisin Murphy has often felt like she's purposefully fighting against what people think she's supposed to be doing. This time though, working with old mate DJ Parrot (All Seeing I's Richard Barat), her desires seem to have lined up with fans. Roisin Machine is brilliantly glittery disco, informed by Giorgio Moroder and Cabaret Voltaire, and delivering the highest banger quotient of her career.
BEST BIT: Too many to count but: "Murphy's Law" is the theme song she was destined to make: "Shellfish Mademoiselle" is pure sex appeal; and "We Got Together" is an unstoppable disco freight train.
1. Porridge Radio - Every Bad (Secretly Canadian) [Buy CD or vinyl]
Brighton, UK's Porridge Radio delivered a gut-punch with their incredible second record, taking a variety of post-punk, indie and alt-rock moves and refashioning them as something entirely their own. Dana Margolin is an intense frontperson and her repeated refrain style dominates Every Bad, but the record succeeds thanks to the hooky songwriting, inventive arrangements, stellar performances and big (but not slick) production. It's a knockout.
BEST BIT: Very hard to pick, but the intense, swirling "Lilac" is probably Every Bad in a single song.
Holy crap, here's another 50 records I liked a lot in 2020:
Adulkt Life - Book Of Curses (What's Your Rupture?)
Bambara - Stray (Wharf Cat)
The Bats - Foothills (Flying Nun)
bdrmm - Bedroom (Sonic Cathedral)
Andy Bell - View from the Way Down (Sonic Cathedral)
Bent - Up in the Air (Godlike & Electric)
BOAT - Tread Lightly (Magic Marker)
Cindy - Free Advice (Mt. St. Mtn.)
Julian Cope - Self Civil War (Head Heritage)
Cornershop - England is a Garden (Ample Play)
The Chap - Digital Technology (Lo REcordings)
The Cribs - Night Network (Sonic Blew)
Brigid Dawson and The Mothers Network - Ballet of Apes (Castle Face)
Deeper - Auto-Pain (Fire Talk)
Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles In Allem (Potomak)
En Attendant Ana - Juillet (Trouble in Mind)
Art Feynman - Half Price at 3:30 (Western Vinyl)
Ganser - Just Look at That Sky (Felte)
Helena Deland - Someone New (Luminelle Recordings)
Baxter Dury - Night Chancers (Heavenly)
Lars Finberg - Tinnitus Tonight (Mt. St. Mtn)
The Green Child - Shimmering Bassett (Upset the Rhythm)
Guided by Voices - The Styles We Paid For / Mirrored Aztec (Guided by Voices Inc)
Luke Haines & Peter Buck - Beat Poetry For Survivalists (Cherry Red)
King Hannah - Tell Me Your Mind and I'll Tell You Mine (City Slang)
Le Couleur - Concorde (Lisbon Lux)
The Lovely Eggs - I Am Moron (The Lovely Eggs)
The Magnetic Fields - Quickies (Nonesuch)
Mini Skirt - CASINO (self-released)
Ela Minus - acts of rebellion (Domino)
Modern Nature - Annual (Bella Union)
Molchat Doma - Monument (Sacred Bones)
No Joy - Motherhood (Joyful Noise)
Once and Future Band - Deleted Scenes (Castle Face)
The Orielles - Disco Volador (Heavenly)
Peel Dream Magazine - Agitprop Alterna (Slumberland)
Pictish Trail - Thumb World (Fire)
Pure X - S/T (Fire Talk)
Real Estate - The Main Thing (Domino)
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Sideways to New Italy (Sub Pop)
RVG - Feral (Fire)
SAVAK - Rotting Teeth In The Horse's Mouth (Ernest Jenning Recording Co.)
Shopping - All or Nothing (FatCat)
Sonic Boom - All Things Being Equal (Carpark)
Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (BMG)
Kelley Stoltz - Hard Feelings (Chuffed)
Tunng Presents...DEAD CLUB (Full Time Hobby)
Wire - Mind Hive (Pink Flag)
Woods - Strange to Explain (Woodsist)
Young Knives - Barbarians (Gadzook)
Here's a playlist with all the "Best Bit" songs from each album in the Indie Basement Top 40: