Through six months, 2020 has been the year of the unexpected. From the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the economy to racial protests beginning to bring change to local communities, our lives have been shaken up. But while we can’t cover live shows right now, a constant still remains: new music. We’ve been blessed with a lot of it so far this year, even tunes created from the boredom of quarantine (we see you, Charli XCX).
Across the indie, punk, metal, and hip-hop spectrums, there’s been a lot to chew on through the end of June: impressive comebacks, laudable debuts, and everything in between. Most importantly, new music has given us an inkling of normal in a time that is anything but. Let’s break down some of the best albums from the first half of 2020 with these honorary midway point awards.
Best Depiction of Millennial Burnout
Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
Constantly compared to The Menzingers, Spanish Love Songs has earned their own individuality through an expression of ruthless generational instability. Brave Faces Everyone turns a corner into more melodic territory, yet continues with the aching voice that brought them notability within the punk scene. It’s a voice that’s exhausted from one too many mass shootings, as well as an opioid crisis that’s seeped into our cultural conscience. The band speaks to the social and financial issues affecting 20-somethings with a timeless energy, assuring their imprint will remain by the time our country turns a corner.
Best Comeback (Tie)
The Ghost Inside – The Ghost Inside
Circa 2014, hardcore scenesters The Ghost Inside seemed impenetrable — until a bus crash killed their driver and severely injured all five members. It took over a half-decade to recover and get back on track as a band, but in 2020, the Los Angeles natives sound better than ever. Their self-titled release encapsulates the tragedy, the triumph, and everything in between. Crushing guitars, tight songwriting, and seamless production by a familiar face (Jeremy McKinnon) and a legendary newcomer (Will Putney) set the stage for TGI’s signature high-octane metalcore.
Hum – Inlet
It took Hum 23 years to craft the follow-up to Downward Is Heavenward, a cult classic within the ‘90s alternative rock realm. The group doesn’t seem to have missed a beat, despite being mostly inactive from 2000 to 2015. They spent a good chunk of the past four years on Inlet, a record that doesn’t merely recreate their shoegaze-soaked rock form but in fact builds on it. That means thicker production, a denser atmosphere, and more grandiose compositions (four of the eight tracks clock in at over eight minutes). You won’t find anything as genre-defining as “Stars,” but that doesn’t matter: This is Hum at their strongest.
Best Slaying of the Sophomore Slump
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Stranger in the Alps was a moment in time for modern indie music. It found Phoebe Bridgers picking up where Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes left off, her folk style brimming with luscious textures and downcast lyrics. Fortunately for those taken aback by this magnificent debut, Punisher proves it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan. Bridgers neither retreads the familiar nor loses her luster, as she brings fresh, inviting soundscapes to the table. Whether it’s the full-band romp of “Kyoto” or vocal spots from the other two-thirds of Boygenius (Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus), Punisher holds you close for its entire runtime.
Most Impressive Genre Bending
Poppy – I Disagree
Once a cult-like YouTube figure, Poppy transitioned to the music world à la synthpop soundwaves. But all of that has changed once again in 2020, with the artistic virtuoso testing her hand with much heavier sonic tendencies. That’s where the intrigue of I Disagree begins, and it hits right away in the sweet-meets-sour “Concrete.” Heavy chugs give way to sugary hooks, with eerie whispers and Beach Boys-styled dreamscapes also thrown into the mix. It’s ambitious, invigorating, and fun. While not all musical decisions work, Poppy sure maximizes the enjoyment of this pop-metal oddity.
Balls to the Wall Heavy Award
END – Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face
Who wouldn’t want to see an Avengers-styled team-up between their favorite musicians? But a supergroup’s final product can easily be overshadowed by the sheer genius behind the instruments, which is why the songs have a higher threshold to meet. END (featuring Counterparts’ Brendan Murphy, Fit for An Autopsy’s Will Putney, and others from foundational metal groups) avoids that problem by bringing potency to a fervent metallic hardcore base. Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face overwhelms with the power of deathcore, but speeds along with the urgency of hardcore. It’s a lethal combination.
Cheers for Consistency Award
Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream
How does Jeff Rosenstock maintain his pace? No Dream is his fourth album in six years, and it’s yet another no-frills punk affair. While POST- was Rosenstock’s downtrodden depiction of the 2016 election’s brutal aftermath, No Dream is his forward movement — his problems still intact but now veiled by high-energy punk anthems. Unlike his predecessor’s tactical approach, this album finds Rosenstock wasting no time getting to the point. He hits you in the face with speed-punk romps (“NO TIME”), thunderous sing-alongs (“Scram!”), and a highly resonant jamfest of a closer (“Ohio Tpke”).
Message for the Masses Award
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Run the Jewels’ fourth full-length came at the perfect time, but that wasn’t necessarily by design. The LP’s release coincided with protests of racial injustice that raged across the United States. In fact, Killer Mike and El-P put it out for free a few days early to give those in the movement the perfect soundtrack. The music itself is as incendiary as ever, attacking the ills of police brutality (“Walking in the Snow”), capitalism (“Ju$t”), and more. The duo takes things up a notch, enlisting the help of Pharrell Williams, Zack de la Roche, Josh Homme, and more to diversify an already masterful hip-hop mix.
Best Debut Full-Length
Dogleg – Melee
Triple Crown Records keeps emo revival in its clutches, and its newest offering, Dogleg’s Melee, has some teeth to it. Despite being the band’s sole full-length, the Detroit natives garnered quite a bit of hype around it from bombastic live performances and incessant touring. As a relentless blend of emo, punk, and post-hardcore, the outfit’s high-flying first album impressively lives up to the hype, too. It’s a shame we can’t jump around to songs like “Kawasaki Backflip” and “Prom Hell” at live shows for a while. But it’ll be well worth the wait when Dogleg packs out basement shows to support this kinetic set of songs.
Biggest Surprise Gem
All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine
You’d expect difficulty taking an All Time Low album seriously in 2020, with fellow pop-punk trendsetters like Blink-182 still writing juvenile anthems in their 40s. But Wake Up, Sunshine takes after Blink’s self-titled maturations in an attempt to move forward. Armed with soaring choruses and an ample amount of guitar flange, the quartet grows with its once-teenage fans as they take the time to reevaluate their identity (frontman Alex Gaskarth is now in his 30s). The result is a set of brazen and articulate ideas, driven home with the same power-pop spirit.