Best Alternative Rock Albums of 2020
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear right off the bat – there is no such thing as the “Best Alternative Rock Albums of 2020”. As with any art, beauty is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. Anybody who claims to have a definitive “best of” list of any music form is being arrogant or delusional, or both.
Another clarification – there is no defined thing called “alternative” rock, or even “indie” rock really. In the 80’s and 90’s it was a subjective term used to describe music that didn’t fit into the popular music genre’s. But yesterday’s alternative band is classic rock today, or at least you hear it plenty on the radio, if anyone listens to radio anymore. R.E.M. helped define alternative back in the early days, but they are mega-selling icons now – are they still “alternative”?
So what does alternative mean really when it comes to rock music? My definition has now become “you know it when you hear it”. When I hear most of the dreck in the Top 100 these days (auto-tune, trap beat Beiber cynical boredom), I know “that ain’t it”. Although the fading of grunge put the term into the background somewhat, there are still a lot of great artists putting out heartfelt, off-the-beaten path music.
GET TO THE POINT
So what is this list? Put simply, it’s my personal choices of the best alternative rock albums of 2020, as I define it. Last year was pretty awful in most ways, but it gave us a chance to listen to a lot of music while sitting in our houses. I have been accused of being stuck in the 90’s at times and not keeping up with newer music. However, while I don’t see a lot of new Soundgardens out there, there is no shortage of great albums to choose from that were put out last year. Good rock music preservers, even if you have to look a little harder to find it.
The rules :
- This list is in no particular order, I won’t even pretend to rank them.
- These are my choices, so I gravitate towards guitar-based rock bands.
- I don’t care much for electronic music, or at least music made mostly by computer (unless they are Radiohead).
- Taylor Swift is not alternative, although oddly I have seen her in a couple of other alternative lists.
- Since this site is mostly vinyl-based, I have mostly linked to vinyl versions of the albums listed.
As usual for our site, I don’t really adhere to these rules too well, exceptions have been made. Also, since I feel sometimes that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (yeah I stole that from someone), I will not try to do a thorough review of the album. Instead, thanks to the miracle of online music (BUY VINYL), the reader can decide for themselves whether it is their cup of tea.
HERE WE GO
Bartees Strange – Live Forever
What is their sound : Everything but the kitchen sink – in the best possible way. Rock, rap, folk, electronica, the artist veers effortlessly from genre to genre. It all gets tied together with a vocal style that would be at home in any contemporary hit rap or soul track. While eclectic, it still always feels grounded in both a southern folk rock and urban ethos. The sound is big while still being intimate – all the contradictions work together here in a creative whole.
Why do I like this album : This is a truly unique artistic statement, while being accessible to most listeners. There is something for everyone listening with an open mind and heart. While there may be touches of ‘Strangeness’ in the music, it all makes sense in the end. It took a few listens to take it all in, but it is possibly my favorite album of the last couple years.
All Time Low – Wake Up Sunshine
What is their sound : Imagine Lit with a better singer, a Third Eye Blind / Blink-182 hybrid – or a number of early 2000’s power-pop-punk skater bands. They have been around since that time and their influences are obvious. Mid-evolution Green Day with minimal punk, but just as melodic.
Why do I like this album : It’s damn catchy. Just enough power-chord guitar to keep me listening, with a undeniable beat. The vocals are slightly generic, but the harmonies are strong and soaring. This group would be the best band at your frat party or the neighborhood bar, while still being right at home on a pop chart.
Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream
What is their sound : Not quite hardcore, but punky as hell. With shouted vocals, spiky guitars and a frantic, sometimes ska, beat – this is the real deal. Politically motivated and oftentimes funny lyrics fit well with the loud, low-fi and yet very melodic aesthetic.
Why do I like this album : It’s real, with an authentic DIY feel throughout. Rosenstock has things to say, and knows how to make a point. The music connects – it feels like a 1980’s punk got pushed into the new millennium and is still angry about it.
Beach Bunny – Honeymoon
What is their sound : In keeping with the power pop-punk theme of many of the bands on this list, this young band from Chicago mixes straightforward guitar riffing with plaintive vocals. Think Sleater-Kinney with less snarl. Not ground-breaking, but the heartbreak lyrics and spiky rhythms make it a worthy debut and portends good things to come.
Why do I like this album : Good songwriting, a unique voice, often sunny without being too sweet.
Gleemer – Down Through
What is their sound : Atmospheric. Shoe-gazer guitar textures, somnolent vocals. Melancholy introspection. Emo waterfalls of sounds, broken occasionally by tasteful bursts of reverb. A more shimmery (is that a word?) and mellow version of Swervedriver or My Bloody Valentine.
Why do I like this album : A weakness for layered guitars over heavy percussion explains much of my love for bands like this. It is all about the atmospherics, the wave of sound taking you along on a ride. There is always room for pretty music, delivered with a thick beat and a little reverb on the guitars.
Disq – Collector
What is their sound : Melding rock, pop, and a touch of folk, Wisconsin native Disq have crafted a record that feels dipped in the 90s. Touches of Weezer, Eve 6, and Teenage Fanclub are evident. Meditative, introspective lyrics detail a melancholy perspective on everyday life events.
Why do I like this album : Although this is a young band, they are relatable to anyone who grew up in the Midwest on noisy indie bands and beer parties in an earlier era. Or today I guess, the pains of reaching adulthood are pretty universal. These are well crafted tunes about confusing times in life.
Dogleg – Melee
What is their sound : Breakneck guitar-bass-drums rock, raw-throated vocals speeding through car crash odes to over-indulgence. Pent-up aggression poured into melodic skater-punk hymns. There are few pauses for breath in these Detroit natives debut album. It’s liberation through power riffing.
Why do I like this album : It flat out rocks. There is enough melodic variation to keep things from getting too drone-y. Subtle this album is not, but it can motivate a workout or make your drive home a head banging catharsis.
Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
What is their sound : A punkier version of The Gaslight Anthem, slashing guitar riffs over a freight train beat. Vocally delivered with a bombastic, drama-filled warbling howl. The urgency of Rise Against delivering lyrical content filled with things broken beyond repair, or being too hopeless to try
Why do I like this album : While occasionally the insistent earnestness can become a little off-putting, and the wry negativity can wear down the listener. But there is no denying the cathartic power of the music itself. Everything may be fucked up, but at least we can head bang to it.
I’m Glad It’s You – Every Sun, Every Moon
What is their sound : On the upbeat songs, guitars swirl over a punchy, crisp beat, the polished sound highlighted by the keening vocals. The slower songs veer into dream pop, gauzy soundscapes reverberating behind the clearly highly personal lyrics.
Why do I like this album : A variety of sonic textures creates a unique mood for each song. The soundscape is not new territory – but it’s a well-crafted statement about loss and pain. It’s a beautiful record, introspective and wistful without an overload of angst.
Bob Mould – Blue Hearts
What is their sound : It’s Bob Mould, so it’s power chords over slashing power cords, careening aggressively over angrily snarled vocals. Much of the punk of the Husker Du years has been replaced by a more polished mature hard rock sound – but it’s still raw and emotional, that has never changed.
Why do I like this album : Even on his more pop-leaning efforts like File Under Easy Listening you never doubted Mould’s integrity – he does and says exactly what he wants. Still raging against the machine 40 years later, Mould was one of the original architects of meaningful alternative music.
Nothing – The Great Dismal
What is their sound : The obvious reference is My Bloody Valentine, layered guitars heavily turned to 11 on the reverb. Several tracks also have clear echoes of Smashing Pumpkins. In true shoe-gazer tradition, the vocals are deep in the mix, often overpowered by the bombastic wall of guitar sound.
Why do I like this album : Any fan of heavy and lush sonic landscapes would find a lot to like about this album. It feels – big. At times it bogs a little in it’s own weight, but then it breaks into a cathartic spasm of guitar fuzz and the music soars again. It’s dark and dismal, but in a good way.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
What is their sound : Low-fi and sweet, this is Americana at it’s finest. Katie Crutchfield’s grits and gravy vocals mix beautifully with traditional indie-folk instrumentation and rhythms. This is Loretta Lynn or Dolly after some time in the city.
Why do I like this album : The voice. The vocals feel almost conversational, a sharing of thoughts and emotions over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. And the music, while basic, is catchy and often bright, nicely contrasting with often downbeat lyrics. This is most certainly not a rock album but I felt compelled to include it anyway, it’s just that good.
Weave – The Sound II
What is their sound : The Japanese version of Jimmy Eat World with touches of Breaking Benjamin. The ‘sound’ is big, anthemic, power-chord emo rock. Would have fit well with the soundtrack of the turn of the millennium. Incorporating bucketfuls of the soft-loud dynamic, the earnestness may be a little over the top occasionally, but doesn’t feel false.
Why do I like this album : This clearly fits one of my musical weak spots – heavy, melodic rock that can fit the ‘alternative’ label while sounding right at home in arenas. This is ground trodden by many a post-Y2K rock band, but it is sincere and at times uplifting, a proper soundtrack to combat 2020 bad-news fatigue.
Hum – Inlet
What is their sound : More than 20 years after their last studio album, this album drops in 2020 and it was as if the last 2 decades didn’t exist for Hum. Droning, fuzzy guitars, deadpan vocals – check. Psychedelic, swirling textures – check. This is the soundtrack to space travel, an only slightly updated version of their 1995 classic “You’d Prefer An Astronaut”.
Why do I like this album : It would seem the lack of variation would get monotonous, but somehow it works throughout an entire album. And it’s long, with only 8 songs clocking in at over 55 minutes. You are going to get an experience, not songs. This is Smashing Pumpkins without the histrionics.
Ratboys – Printer’s Devil
What is their sound : Catchy as hell, pop-rock hooks galore. If the Breeders and Belly mind-melded and produced a mixed-influence spin-off, it might sound like this. It is not edgy, more quirky in a quiet way, and the vocals are rather slight. But the songwriting is solid and the music is engaging, shifting gears from power-pop to folk-indie introspection seamlessly.
Why do I like this album : This album engages from the start with the lead track “Alien With a Sleep Mask On”, then keeps you listening.
Pearl Jam – Gigaton
What is their sound : It’s Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder is still Eddie Vedder. The band still cranks out hard rock with a political and personal edginess. While labeled grunge in the early years, they marched on as a rock band, able to hit hard or dial it back. This album isn’t a drastic change in style, except maybe in the funk twists as exemplified in ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’. But it’s a return to angry form after the rather pedestrian efforts of their previous 2 releases. Whether driven by the current political climate or the pent-up creativity of the 6 year gap in albums, this work holds up to any of their other classics.
Why do I like this album : This wasn’t an album I was going to include here, because is Pearl Jam really alternative after becoming one of the most popular bands on the planet? But here is the thing. Even in the early world-conquering days, their authenticity and integrity was never in question. After 30 years, they are survivors, still waving the flag of the anti-establishment.
Real Estate – The Main Thing
What is their sound : A little outside my normal wheelhouse, these gentle, jangly but often dense odes to suburban angst is well crafted gauzy pop. Tuneful and tasteful, with lilting vocals floating over the swirling arrangements.
Why do I like this album : It fits a certain mood, with enough guitar and synth outbursts to prevent it falling into an indie version of overly mature ‘adult contemporary’.
Cafe Racer – Shadow Talk
What is their sound : On first listen, Cafe Racer sounds like a more atmospheric version of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Psychedelic swirls of guitar underpin droning vocals, often spiraling into heavier feedback-drenched crescendos. Fuzz driven sonic pastiches for the introspective listener.
Why do I like this album : Although the sound may fit neatly into the shoe-gazer category, there is enough unique lyrical and instrumental experimentation to hold my attention.
Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me?
What is their sound : While being slightly punky, the overall aesthetic is power pop. Think Veruca Salt with a little less guitar and a little more sugar. A duo from New York, the focus stays on the vulnerable vocals. The lyrical content is a wistful mixture of angst and relationship issues.
Why do I like this album : It fits a certain mood. Anyone can commiserate with the song stories presented here, with just enough edge to keep it interesting. When things slow down a little, they jump in with a punchier track, reminding you of their punkier side. The instrumentation is basic, the songs are conventional in structure, but they are done well.
Have A Good Season – Shapes I’ve Never Seen
What is their sound : Riffy, catchy and often heavy without losing a pop sheen, it’s college-radio music with a message for everyone. Although at heart a simple guitar-bass-drum sound palette, there are more than enough dynamic twists and tempo changes to keep things interesting. There are a couple of duds here, but the high-points outweigh the miss-fires.
Why do I like this album : Although I am quite sure this album would show up on no other critics top albums list, I put this record in my list for 2 key reasons. 1 – I’m a sucker for not-quite-emo melodic rock that features a thumping rhythm section. 2 – The unpretentious but strong vocal harmonies speak to my inner well-hidden sensitive side.
WHAT I DID NOT INCLUDE
There are a number of releases from 2020 that I did not list that would probably show up on many other’s picks for best of the year. Some of my reasons were based in the rules I listed above, some were arbitrary – I just didn’t like it enough or felt it was too obscure or too ‘popular’. Let’s just call these “honorable mentions” and leave it at that. Here are a few. Feel free to disagree, but be nice please.
Fiona Apple : Fetch the Bolt Cutters
This was many critic’s pick as album of the year, and maybe it deserved it. I just don’t get all the fuss. While I appreciate the artistic statement, I have always seen Apple as a little pretentious and precious in her presentation and lyrical bitterness.
That is a critique most don’t seem to share, so I am almost certainly wrong. Mostly it just doesn’t flow for me, and it’s definitely not rock.
Dikembe : Muck
Let’s call this album number 21 on my list, this was a favorite of mine as well. Common in tone and style to Weave, although vocally dissimilar. It also relies on the soaring, pounding guitar emo aesthetic, often with melodic, softer intros and interludes.
In the end I felt there was a little too much thematic weight on this type of sound in my summary. But I recommend you should get it anyway.
The Strokes : The New Abnormal
This is one of those bands where I really don’t get the reverence shown by some other critics in the past, or present. Maybe for me it’s the knowledge of the band member backgrounds, the feeling of ‘see how cool I am making this indie music’. It always seemed a little pretentious and overly artsy without soul.
Maybe I am just missing the point, but this new release doesn’t really change my opinion of the band, it seems more of the same. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good piece of music for those who already like their sound.
Hayley Williams : Petals for Armor
I liked Williams previous band Paramore from a distance. It seemed like honest angst, pop-rock songs from the perspective of a very young and sometimes confused and angry singer. It jut never struck me as particularly original or overly compelling musically.
That being said, this album is a different animal from Paramore. It is a mature, thoughtful and professional work. But it just seems to slot too neatly into a mainstream pop landscape to really capture my imagination.
Green Day : Father of All
I am a big Green Day fan normally, and have been since their first album. I have been with them throughout their evolution from snotty punk-pop band to critically acclaimed rock statement-makers. Few bands have followed their path so successfully while still retaining credibility and edginess.
However, I don’t see this as something new or different, despite the experiments in modern pop sounds. It’s good, just not feeling it this time.
There you have it – the best alternative rock albums of 2020. Or maybe not. Up to you. Obviously there are many more out there to choose from. The encouragement I get from this is that there are still so many new (or old) artists making music that speaks to me. “Popular” music is as vapid as it’s even been, but there are still diamonds in the coal bin, you just have to look a little harder.
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Hopefully you enjoyed this listing, or at least appreciated my effort. We have a lot of other recommendations for music worthy of your listen, feel free to browse our site. Once again, we encourage you, whenever possible, to BUY VINYL. It’s the best listening experience, in our opinion.