The 75 Best Albums of 2020 + The Alt Music Awards

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As a year, 2020 has been bad, and not bad like it didn’t live up to our expectations, bad like it was the worst pandemic in US history with spiraling unemployment, live music shut down, and our awful president trying to overturn an election because he is going to be replaced by a slightly less awful president. Many of us lost jobs, some of us lost loved ones, and all of us lost a lot of time spent with each other, and that sucks. It sucks! I think we can say that one more time, IT. SUCKS.

And yet, despite all that, The Alternative has managed to continue to grow, as a staff, as a site, and as a community of music fans! This year we were able to pay our contributors for the first time and did so with a fair pay structure that gives each contributor a proportional share of our revenue based on their work each month. Many of our Patreon supporters were forced to limit their donations due to 2020 difficulties, but new supporters stepped up to fill the gap and kept us going. I’m proud to say that we are set to pay out nearly $7500 across our staff this year, a sum that provided much needed help during a tough year to our staff, who are the best in the world.

Our writers and editors have consistently released great music writing and recommendations every single week in 2020, despite dealing with a frantic time at their day jobs, plus COVID stress. This year we launched our New Music Friday playlist (headed by Lindsy) and updated it every single week, and our new Streaming Sundays concert series on Twitch  (organized by Harrison, Brett, and Olivia) allowed us to make up for cancelled shows with over 75 incredible performances from artists like Bartees Strange, Ratboys, Oceanator, Skatune Network, Prince Daddy, and Mikey Erg. We also published nearly 50 interviews with unbelievable artists including Jeff Rosenstock, Motion City Soundtrack, Kississippi, Dogleg, The BethsSpanish Love Songs, The Front Bottoms, and Mansions. Maybe The Alt didn’t thrive in 2020, but we survived, and we kept promoting the music that we love, which we hope helped you through this year. To us, that is a huge victory.

So here we are, at the end of the journey, hoping for a better and luckier 2021, and finishing up 2020 with the best music of the worst year. Below are our staff’s picks for the 75 best releases of 2020, followed by the winners of our 4 yearly awards: Album of the Year, Best Debut Album, Most Underrated Release, and Best Non-LP. We are very proud of the quality and diversity of our selections. On the bottom of page 3 are the Award Winners and a playlist with all of these great releases.

We hope that you enjoy our list, and that you will find at least 4 or 5 great records that you missed. If you value what we do, please consider supporting us on Patreon, buying a shirt, or just telling some people about our site, so that we can continue to grow and build the inclusive, creative, progressive music site that is our goal. Stay safe out there, and keep on organizing and pushing the governments where you live to better support people. We can build a better world if we try. – Henderson


PAGE 1 (#75 – #51) – PAGE 2 (#50 – #26) – PAGE 3 (#25 – #1 + Playlist & Awards)

75) AJJ – Good Luck Everybody

AJJ avoids all the overdone cringey aspects of folk punk, and instead makes music that is poignant, funny, and most of all – interesting. On their most recent album, Good Luck Everybody, they discuss Trump, and the ineffective corporate government of the United States, and our capitalist hellscape. Some songs, written far before the pandemic, are especially on point, particularly “Body Terror Song” which is all about the fear of death, our hatred of our human forms, and features a Beatles-esque delivery and lyrics like “I’m sorry that you have to have a body, filled with infections, 100 scabs singing in unison, and sometimes bullets, uninvited, passing through us.” The album also features a song called “Mega Guillotine” which explicitly says that we should chop off the heads of all the rich people who oppress us. Yeah, I think we can use a little more music willing to make satire like that. – Henderson Cole

74) Kicksie – All My Friends

All My Friends sounds like cruising down a highway in a car packed full of close friends with Kicksie in the passenger seat documenting it all. It’s carefree, reflective, and full of upbeat moments. This record is a lesson in honing your craft, with all vocals, instruments (aside from bass and piano), recording, mixing, and mastering done by 20-year-old Giuliana Mormile herself. She has an expert ear for writing catchy hooks and she creates a cohesive multi-genre blend that spans influences from synth-pop to emo-inflected rock. Even when Kicksie dips into self-doubt with darker tinged songs, her support system is there to lift her back up. Once you hit play, you’ll only want to hit repeat. – Lindsy Carrasquillo

73) Lil Baby – My Turn

There’s nothing Lil Baby does that’s particularly new, but the way he does it feels fresh every single time. The Atlanta star has a masterful sense of melodic control and an instinctive relationship with auto-tune. He can swerve through breathless flows with the accuracy of a Formula 1 racer, and he can carefully draw out a word, bend a melodic phrase, or add a subtle yet vital breath with a detail-oriented craftsmanship that sounds learned but is probably just second nature. He can brag about women, cars, and money and then vulnerably reflect on his newfound fame and the complicated relationship that creates between him and his home. He’s often exhibiting all of those strengths in tandem, packing complex flows, earworm hooks, self-assertive flexes, and introspective wisdom under the hood of a single song—and then doing it again, 20 times over. Despite its bloat toward the end of the tracklist (an ailment most marquee rap albums suffer from today), My Turn is one of the most enduring hip-hop albums of 2020. – Eli Enis

72) Princess Nokia – Everything is Beautiful / Everything Sucks

Ever since Princess Nokia made herself known in 2017 with her unexpectedly entrancing debut album, 1992: Deluxe, the anticipation and frenzy that has culminated with every release after feels warranted. With her newest release, Everything is Beautiful/Everything Sucks, the double album shows the rapper at her strongest and most vulnerable. The two projects tell a complementary story that ricochets back and forth off of each other as she uncovers more and more of herself and her struggles over a mellow beats. Whether it be her letting her guard down about her sexual orientation, surviving trauma, social media culture, body positivity, or taking the listener down a self-reflecting journey about her roots, there’s a complex display of her personality throughout the two records. One side highlights her slick pop production while the other chomps at gritty and rumbling hip-hop. There’s so much to enjoy from the project that it’s difficult not to revisit it time and time again to find new aspects and commentary to digest while cheering on everything Princess Nokia is and isn’t—making it her most commanding record to date. – Hope Ankney

71) Modern Color – From the Leaves of Your Garden

Modern Color is a band that managed to pull me in with a single song on a random Spotify-generated playlist. To give you context, I’m the type to choose my “Daily Mix” for some spice, then skip what I don’t know. That song was “Jacaranda,” which had been released on a split in 2018, and would later be re-released on From the Leaves of Your Garden. Time travel to this July, when that album was released – around this time, I was starting to get back into music after feeling disillusioned by it once the pandemic hit. It’s one of the first full album releases I’d listened to in a while, and it stuck with me just like “Jacaranda” did in the first round. Modern Color is a reminder that genre isn’t fucking real, and you can weave around every tone and emotion you want to in one record and expand sonically to match it. The insane introduction of that high pitched riff in the chorus of “Head Change,” the most badass buildup and come down over the course of “X51,” the purely gut-punching lyrics of “Alone”… There’s so many moments that could get you into the album, so just give it a go and I hope you get clocked like I did. – Olivia Keasling

70) Riverby –  Smart Mouth

Smart Mouth is the record that everyone needs in their search to understand themselves. Playful, charming, witty, and clever, Riverby delivers pop-inflected energy with songs that aren’t afraid to be a little vulnerable. It’s this openness that makes titular track “Smart Mouth” feel so raw and rich, and it keeps building throughout the record. Songwriter Sophia Greenberg wears their heart on their sleeve, and the results are stunning. From opener “Nose to Nose” tackling confronting the self to broken-hearted ballad “Giving Tree,” Sophia lays it all out and leaves us with gorgeous, thought-provoking lens back into their songs and our own memories. Smart Mouth is all about embracing all aspects of self, and growing a little through it. Hopefully 2021 brings the next chapter in the band’s incredible songwriting. – Amanda Starling

69) The Big Easy – A Long Year

Released in October, The Big Easy’s debut full-length, A Long Year, is a masterpiece of lonely stoner punk. It’s pure rock through and through with a range of dynamics – from the bombastic “It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt” and “If I Knew It Was The Last Time,” to the more subdued moments on “Something To Do” and “Fake It Till I Make It.” Singer/guitarist’s Stephen Berthomieux’s lyrics fit the brooding, heavy punk as he drops lines like “my heroes are dead in the ground / And I like that ‘cause I’m always looking down,” and turns “I always feel like shit / It always ends like this” into a shoutalong chorus. A Long Year is a fantastic debut that cements The Big Easy as a band to keep an eye on. – Aaron Eisenreich

68) Stay Inside –  Viewing

Viewing draws its intensity from a volatile restlessness. Although Stay Inside’s debut album draws firmly from the sounds of early-2000s post hardcore, there’s a sense throughout the record that it could twist in any direction at any moment. The album’s opening trio encapsulates this best—from the seething opener “Revisionist” to the caustic frustration of “Void” and the knockout hook on “Ivy,” Stay Inside show that they’re particularly adept at manipulating the impact of a doomy vibe. Following the threads of scene classics like Thursday’s Full Collapse and Balance and Composure’s Separation, they stitch together dramatic spoken-word passages, breathless screaming, and wearied clean vocals to bring unexpected layers to their bursting and contracting rock music. All the while, the lyrics bring an eerie element to a relentless, grueling disappointment. “You’ll find a way to leak battery acid/ through your temporal glands/ and forget it happened,” vocalist Chris Johns sings at the end of “Ivy,” and Viewing reflects this desire for a superhuman exorcism of the darkness. – Jordan Walsh

67) PHONY – Knock Yourself Out

While it was recorded well before his move to the West Coast, PHONY’s Knock Yourself Out sounds exactly how you’d imagine an emo album that came out of Los Angeles. The state-hopping songwriter’s sophomore record blends themes of clever pessimism, Alex G-ish guitar parts, and War On Drugs synth lines to craft an album that sounds like the work of a house show headliner in a well made indie movie. “Waffle House” is a morbidly humorous track about failing to quit smoking, unrequited love, and panicking while eating breakfast food in the state of Oklahoma. “The Shots” is a downtrodden drinking song that doesn’t quite make me stoked to fill up my cup, but does make me appreciate PHONY’s knack for writing creative descending melodies. “Relax” rhythmically evokes Transatlanticism-era Death Cab For Cutie, while melodically harkening Philly up-and-comers The Obsessives. Knock Yourself Out is a record that wallows in its own sadness, but does so while sporting a coy smirk. It’s a promising and impressive record that marks another step forward for Neil Berthier. – Ted Davis

66) NOVA ONE – lovable

Nova One’s debut EP, Secret Princess—an eclectic mix of ‘60s-girl-group sweet, lush dream wave that introduced Roz Raskin as a creative undertaker—went under the radar. It was one of the most underrated debuts of 2018. Fast-forward to April 2020: Raskin’s debut full-length, lovable, culminates the soundscape that billowed throughout Secret Princes, forming a more defined, electric haze spanning 27 minutes. By taking a glowing indie-pop journey through stances on gender identity and self-image, lovable focuses the spotlight on Raskin’s celestial songwriting that waxes and wanes with dark imagery, dense emotions, and lingering questions that is only elevated, not hindered, by the quintessential lo-fi production. The project’s ability to tackle relatable explorations of love and vulnerability without appearing hokey gives lovable a breath of openness and empathy. – Hope Ankney

65) 2nd Grade – Hit to Hit

The twenty four (yes, 24) songs that make up the Philly band’s latest release feel like a power-pop anthology of short stories. Only one song hits the 3 minute mark, but each is distilled and concentrated into a distinct, fizzy punch. Sunny ‘60s harmonies and sticky hooks play along with fuzzy riffs and toe-tapping drums to make what’s possibly the most fun album 2020 could allow. Come for their upbeat, earnest songcrafting; stay for their Sunkist jingle.  – Jami Fowler

64) Waveform* – Last Room

Mirrored by the album’s artwork, Waveform*’s new record is what I can only describe as warm. Listening to “Favorite Song” is like being eased into the day by the sun peeking through curtains while wrapped in a warm blanket: gentle, comforting, and familiar. The Connecticut-based duo has crafted an intimate yet spacious sound with bright guitar tones and driving hooks. It’s a record carried by confessional lyricism and only gets better with each listen.- Lindsy Carrasquillo

63) Lomelda – Hannah

There’s a delicacy and intimacy that lingers over every single moment on Hannah, boiling the music of Lomelda down to its purest form. Recorded in the same Silsbee, Texas studio where Sinai Vessel created Ground Aswim, Hannah is leaps and bounds ahead of songwriter Hannah Read’s early work, documenting an inward journey that explores even the smallest of ideas until they become something earth-shattering. The music of Hannah erupts with quiet force—“Wonder” is a dizzying and hypnotic tune built upon a simple riff that gradually burrows its way into your head, while songs like “It’s Infinite” and “Reach” are more steadfast and unwavering in their performance. The record showcases the many sides of Lomelda’s universe with careful consideration and an appreciation for life itself. – Michael Brooks

62) Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress

I am a clown: I was late to hop on the Gulch bandwagon. I discovered the band through their legendary, chaotic This Is Hardcore 2019 set via Hate5Six. I recommended their 2020 release Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress to a friend when he had an hour walk home earlier this fall, exclaiming via text “WELL, listen to it four times, goddammit!” It’s fifteen minutes long. That’s all the Santa Cruz hardcore outfit needs to get the point across. The point? Pummel the nickel-sized space between your eyes right in the middle of where your brain should be with ugly, metallic riffs, four on the floor drum beats that beg for violent Running Man dance, and frontman Elliott Morrow’s savage, murderous yowls and screams. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is pure violence mixed with the strange beauty of a band that seems to be incapable of missing a beat. – Adam Parshall

61) Bacchae – Pleasure Vision

2020 is without a doubt the year of introspection, and Bacchae mastered that in their songwriting for Pleasure Vision. The album that tackled perspective of self and growing in better versions of self truly showed how this DC act has continued to level up as songwriters and performers. Pleasure Vision acts as an analysis on happiness and the ways it’s contorted by what we consume and experience, as seen by cutting social media attack track “Life Online.” From start to finish, Bacchae blasts thoughtful, reflective lyricism alongside shredding guitars. Whether hitting back with “Hammer” or “Older I Get,” Bacchae has delivered an unforgettable record. – Amanda Starling

60) Food House – Food House 

2020 was the year of hyperpop. The Gen-Z-fueled mish-mash of auto-tuned pop, SoundCloud-bred rap, and gaudy EDM came up in the image of 100 gecs and has already expanded into a whole ecosystem of unclassifiable zaniness. Trying to keep up with all of the acts who are giving the DIY style a go is impossible, but Food House, the duo of Chicago singer/songwriter Fraxiom and California producer Gupi, are one of its undeniable champions. Their self-titled debut is a beautifully chaotic blend of squelchy, gooey, and colorful instrumentals; internet-poisoned lyrics about kissing Skrillex, shoplifting from Walmart, and deleting Twitter; and some of the most innovative auto-tune melodies in contemporary music. Keeping the energy at four-Redbulls-deep levels of wired would get exhausting for some artists, but Food House strike an addicting balance between eccentric pop wizardry and mind-melting bass parties. Music has never sounded this unabashedly fun. – Eli Enis

59) Barely Civil — I’ll Figure This Out

Barely Civil showed that they can make a compelling and classically emo record with their 2018 debut We Can Live Here Forever, but this year’s I’ll Figure This Out is more than just any emo record. On this release, Barely Civil emerge with a sound that’s distinctly theirs, full of chilly and somewhat downtrodden rock songs that producer Chris Teti (a member of The World is a Beautiful Place) helps bring to a new level of seriousness. Songs like “Graves Avenue” sound a gritty in their wash of guitar screeches and distortion, but every element here is crystal clear and complex, with Conor Erickson’s plaintive vocals shining through the mix to create a stirring dynamic. “North Newhall” is perhaps the best evidence of the band’s big step up, a quiet, noodling song in which Erickson’s cyclical but serenely delivered lyrics build meaning as the band eventually breaks into a full-force finale. This is the kind of hard-won excitement that makes I’ll Figure This Out one of the best cold-weather rock records of the year, and cements Barely Civil’s status as one of the best young bands around. — Jordan Walsh

58) Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour

One of my more strange experiences of 2020 was shopping in a thrift store while the music alternated between Blink 182 and Chloe x Halle. Here was the pop-punk music I was made fun of for liking in high school, rehabbed for the era of Ancient Aliens, right next to these ethereal scions of R&B hipness. For some reason, I can’t imagine Mark x Tom harmonizing quite like that. Much of Ungodly Hour is forward-thinking, like the gnarly bent bass note in the runaway hit “Do It”, or the glitched-out sounds that interject in “Forgive Me.” See also: their hyper-stylized look for a recent video, extraterrestrial among blooming flowers. The album succeeds as contemporary pop, but it also looks backwards. “Busy Boy” is a companion piece to “Creep” by TLC, while the bass line on “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” recalls the Motown legend James Jamerson. The whole album oozes with confidence. How do they make virtuosity seem so fun? Is that a vibraslap? And they’re barely older than teenagers? Damn. – Harrison Thurman

57) Wednesday –  I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone

When I first listened to this record, I immediately got the haunting chorus of “condemned I am, I am condemned, I am” in “Love Has No Pride” stuck in my head for days. Aptly titled I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, the record reaches into what’s left when you dig into your memory to process the good parts of past relationships, no matter the type, along with what still stings. The lyrics are full of incredibly descriptive imagery that accompanies the dark, lush sounds of layered guitars and sweeping melodies. With quiet yet commanding vocals, it’s a record that deserves one’s full attention to pick up on all of its intricate moments. – Lindsy Carrasquillo

56) Deftones – Ohms

The new record by Deftones, Ohms, soundtracked my manic bike rides around Boston this past summer. Due to the pandemic, I was searching for the hint of physical euphoria mixed with aggression that the Sacramento alt-metal kings are somehow always able to deliver. If their previous record Gore was a toned-down trip into more shoegazy territory (Stephen Carpenter’s guitar work really dominates the mix on that bad boy), then Ohms is the band’s return to their riff-laden roots. Where Gore seemed suffocated by their insistence on constant waves of sound, Chino Moreno’s scream-singing on Ohms bounces off of Carpenter’s lowest tuned riffs and prettiest leads, with even the heaviest tracks allowing space. There’s something more ominous about this record, something that grips, pushes, pulls, and dunks you under the waves. Equal parts dancing and moshing would be welcome on the majority of this record (if live music were anything more than a swiftly fading memory), especially “Radiant City,” while the title track, “Genesis,” and “Error” beg to be blasted from a speaker while pedaling down a packed street, dodging cars and pedestrians and disregarding stop signs (sorry, Mom and the good people of Boston). – Adam Parshall

55) Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline

This album was my true introduction to the world of Andy Shauf. Of course, I had heard about the accolades he received for his 2016 album The Party, but I never really gave him a chance – which, I’ll admit, was a mistake. When I first listened to Neon Skyline, which came out all those years ago in January, I finally understood the hype. Shauf is as compelling a songwriter as I’ve ever heard. The journey he takes the listener on throughout his latest release was, at first, casual and intriguing, then as 2020 stumbled along, became incredibly comforting with each passing listen. You can tell he’s meticulous – whether through his soft-spoken delivery or light touch on the piano, he wants to invite you into his world. The concept involves Shauf narrating various chance encounters with a cast of well-drawn characters over the course of a night out. That’s what I find so comforting about the whole album: it takes me back to those bar-hopping nights out, running into and interacting with old friends. Obviously, Shauf had no idea what was to come this year, but just having that chance to reminisce is what gives me the encouragement that things will, in fact, eventually get better. – Steven Lalonde

54) Flung – Shaky But My Hair Is Grown

Multi-instrumentalist Janak JP has made an electronic album that feels as intimate and organic as if they were using an acoustic guitar. They collect sounds and create the aural version of found object art, stitching and gluing samples together with hypnotic loops, polyrhythms, glitchy vocals, and electronic keys. JP feels like a collaborator with these sounds, never forcing them together, but allowing each bit and bobble to shine. This album is frenetic, full of twists and turns, and manages to feel as personal looking at someone’s childhood pictures. There is something new to find in every listen. – Jami Fowler

53) Halsey – Manic

In 2019, I probably strayed more from Halsey than I ever had in the past six or seven years of being a fan. But that woman gets me every time, and she snatched me back into her hands in 2020. I’ve written about Halsey numerous times for The Alternative, and I’ve never run out of things to say. Manic came at the beginning of a new year, a time where I was trying to renew myself and aiming to be an independent, confident person. And this album is a representation of a return-to-self in a way that is more personalized and humanized than any of Halsey’s other work. It’s not really a concept album like the rest of her discography—rather, the record is a lovingly crafted exploration of the different genres and influences that turned Ashley Frangipane into Halsey. If you haven’t given it a try, that’s okay. But maybe, at least give the tracks “Ashley,” “Forever… is a long time,” and “929” a chance. They’re my favorites. – Olivia Keasling

52) Young Jesus— Welcome to Conceptual Beach

So much contemporary indie-rock sounds in conversation with itself. It sounds trapped in a sense of workplace professionalism with its musical and lyrical boundaries, and feels reluctantly committed to doing a fine job at what it’s supposed to do—no more, no less. Young Jesus, on the other hand, write songs with their hands off the wheel. The L.A. band’s fifth album Welcome To Conceptual Beach only operates within the context of indie-rock about a third of the time, which is the perfect ratio for actually moving the genre forward. To set the scene: large portions of the record are improvised, they thank Sun Ra in the liner notes, and they write lyrics like, “What if living wasn’t of the mind?” All of that sounds incredibly pretentious, but the record never veers into navel-gazing pomp. Instead, Conceptual Beach is a flourishing tide pool of some of the most spacious, patient, exciting, profound, and gratifying rock songs you’ll hear all year. – Eli Enis

51) Fleet Foxes – Shore

Fleet Foxes are a band that has kept pushing further and becoming stronger with each release, and Shore is no exception. With this being a surprise drop, my expectations were met by curiosity. Upon my first listen, I thought to myself, “They’ve done it again.” Shore takes everything that Fleet Foxes did on Crack-Up and amplifies it. They imbue the flavorful and unique folk-rock spirit that Fleet Foxes has developed over the years with a sense of wisdom and maturity that only comes with a band that has been around for as long as they have. Opening track “Wading In High-Waist Water” gives a signature slow open, then picks up the tempo a bit as the band introduces more complex instrumentation. Shore proves that Fleet Foxes are not afraid to experiment. The records is filled with arrangements that are borderline orchestral, yet have a sense of familiarity and calmness to them. “Featherweight” is fondly reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, but Fleet Foxes do more than harken back to the sounds of older folk music. Shore is a folk-rock contemporary masterpiece—a mature, well-written, and well-crafted album that is warm and comforting. – Sarah Knoll


PAGE 1 (#75 – #51) – PAGE 2 (#50 – #26) – PAGE 3 (#25 – #1 + Playlist & Awards)

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