What are the best albums of 2020? How could we ever pick? It is an impossible task. You could make a list of 1,000 and leave 1,000 of the best albums out. But, 2020 was a great year for indie and unsigned/underground music. So, I took on the feat of picking just five from the hundreds of great candidates, spanning all kinds of indie genres. I wanted to pick at least one from the hip hop, electronic (trance, really), and indie rock genres. These are, according to a music industry entrepreneur (me), the absolute best albums of 2020. I am not a music critic or musically apt at all--so don’t expect a Rolling Stone-level review. Instead, get a laymen’s take on what sounds good.
- Legends Never Die - Juice World
The only mainstream release to make this list, Legends Never Die gave me all the feels. And they were not comfortable feelings. His lyrics seem written for the millennial and younger generations, straightforward complaints about mental illness (“takin’ medicine to fix all of the damage, my anxiety the size of a planet”). There’s not a lot of classical, 16-bar style -- it’s sad words packaged for popular music, more catchy in quick verses of 4-8 lines, rich in hooks and choruses. The music, to me, is underrated. It is at once mellow and upbeat, simple and complex. And of course, it fits the lyrics in its catchy feel.
“I can't breathe, I'm waiting for the exhale
Toss my pain with my wishes in a wishing well
Still no luck, but oh, well
I still try even though I know I'm gon' fail
Stress on my shoulders like a anvil
Perky got me itching like a ant-hill
Drugs killing me softly, Lauryn Hill
Sometimes I don't know how to feel”
- Wildflower - The National Parks
The National Parks are indie [alternative] rock incarnate, hands down one of the best albums of the year. Their chords always take you on a journey, and Wildflower is consistent with that. They start soft and strumming, the accompanying vocals following their lead. More instruments join in, we approach a crescendo, and the vocals get more impassioned. This may sound like I’m just describing music in general, as any old song could do this. But the way The National Parks on Wildflower build toward that crescendo, and then execute that climax, is unique and beautiful. What’s more interesting about Wildflower is that there are a tracks that don’t follow this pattern, but the Parks’ musicality and style are still readily apparent in them. They still rise and fall, just more subtly.
“Well you've got me in this trance
And I need your hand to win
If I have to leave this up to chance
You're a gamble and I'm all in”
- THE LASERS - Gareth Emery
Once again, Gareth Emery proved he gets trance in 2020. Unlike previous works, there are no 9-minute songs, no 2-minute intros. Instead you get classic-as-can-be vocal trance (which I secretly call EDM-Trance). (I want to preface the following sentence by reminding you I am just a fan and can’t describe music technically.) Melodic piano is a motif found throughout the album, and pounding, thumping build-ups lead to unique drops that prove this EDM artist can read music. So much of EDM these days is produced by people who don’t understand music. Gareth Emery demonstrates that if you do understand music, you can make any genre beautiful. The best part? There are still elements of classic trance in the production.
“When the words run out
Nothing more to say
I'll still love you to the end of days
You can break my heart in a thousand ways
But I'll still love you
To the end of days”
- Horizons - Surfaces
Surfaces simply rocks. Horizons is graceful simplicity, with downtempo beats that make you want to sway back and forth. It keeps its musical themes and motifs consistent in every track. The music is “chillwave” and the lyrics are just chill, all about finding your center, letting go, and chilling out, which is one of its top qualifications for one of the best albums of the year with me. This album is the feeling of having nothing to do--the feeling of Summer as a kid--personified.
“Oh, no surprise, just open your eyes
Come right in take off your disguise
Leave your worries right at the door
Watch them as they drop to the floor
Oh, I wouldn't (Yeah) have it any other way
I left the room for better days
Your life is sweet like Minute Maid
You shouldn't (Mmm)
Feel the need to lose your faith
The seasons come and go and change
I just hope you hear me say"
- Mariposa - Felly
Felly gives white rappers a better name. His flows are melodic and restrained, his beats varied and bouncy. Mariposa is the apex of these descriptors, of his style, of him feeling himself. Felly’s been on the scene for years and remains relatively unknown with an impressive cult following. You won’t get a barrage of perfectly structured, 16-bar raps, but you will get relatable and the kind of clever lyrics that make you crack an almost-imperceptible grin. The lyrics are not a sonnet, they’re a song. Free flowing, no pattern or form. He’ll do six lines then pivot into 16, throw in a hook, do eight more lines, and before you know it it’s over--and you want more.
“Blowin’ loud till there’s no emotion
Everybody wanna blow their fortune
Gram keep prayin and keep believing
God gets lost, only claim misfortune
This shit gets annoying, fuck
I’m my own employer
I got Godly style with it
Lying to my girl lik politicians
Brain like Harvard, Lord I’m vicious”