In a year of great tragedy and upheaval, where the word ‘unprecedented’ became a mantra spoken around the world, music has been a stabilising force for millions of us. It has been a consistent power for good at a time when many of us have struggled with unemployment, illness, and bereavement. Whether providing companionship during stretches of isolation, rallying us to fight for change when faced with corrupt political machinations, or even just handing us a convenient distraction from the horrors outside our window, never have I felt such a kinship with music and the people who dedicate their lives to the art.
But even putting aside the context of 2020 – which is almost impossible to do – this year must go down as one of the best for alternative music in almost a decade. And we’re not just talking about the calibre of musicianship on show this year, which has obviously been knockout. Rarely have I pulled together an EOY list and been so blown away by the number of records with something important to say.
When you look at the fabric of the year just gone, so much of it was marked by vital social and political activism. It would be downright irresponsible not to put the acerbic, essential records that were created in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police at the top of that list – as these have been among my favourite cuts from this year. From Zeal & Ardor’s unbelievably heartbreaking Vigil from the brilliant Wake of a Nation EP, through to Daveed Diggs spitting pure fury on clipping.’s Chapter 319, these records became the musical accompaniment to a summer of turmoil and anger at the depths of injustice. RTJ4 by Run the Jewels, recorded before the murder of Floyd, proved to be eerily prescient in its commentary on the inequalities ingrained into the political mechanisms of the USA. As a record that is clearly so admonishingly furious, it is to this hip-hop duo’s endless credit that it’s delivered in such a clever and often tongue-in-cheek way.
Over on this side of the Atlantic, the greatest statement of power and purpose came from Svalbard – who combined claustrophobic black metal aesthetics, floaty moments of atmospheric brilliance and razor-sharp lyrics to deliver one of 2020’s greatest and heaviest cuts. The greatest achievement of When I Die, Will I Get Better? is that it is so utterly fearless. Imagine writing a song called “Click Bait,” all about the metal media’s tasteless propensity to focus on gender over talent, knowing full well that you are essentially going to war with the people you usually want to keep on side. It is ferocious, and I love it.
This was also a year for excellent follow-ups. How did Code Orange top their jittery, genre-hopping monolith from 2017 Forever? Well, by creating Underneath – a masterful, slab-heavy callback to bouncy nu-metal brilliance, among other things. Would Deftones’ latest effort end their eight-album streak of writing 9/10s time after time? Well, no, of course not. Ohms is arguably their most daring record since Diamond Eyes, and it is supreme – shit hot riffs? Yup. Vangelis-inspired synth passages? Yuh-huh. Seagulls? Oh, you bet. Not only this, three bands who are well into their careers – cough Trivium, Paradise Lost, and Enslaved – released career-best records at a time when many other more mature bands have just chosen to relentless plough the same groove.
Greg Puciato – he of The Dillinger Escape Plan, Killer Be Killed and Black Queen – also released the best cut of his career this year (and yes, I mean across all of his projects/bands). Imagine Tears For Fears meets Nine Inch Nails by way of TalkTalk, and you’re sort of in the right ballpark with Child Soldier: Creator of God. It is equal parts crushing, transcendent, and dancey. Try reconciling that with the guy who wrote 43% Burnt.
Speaking of follow-ups, it would be impossible to ignore Touche Amore whose amazing Lament did extraordinary things in living up to the inestimable heights set by their last full-length. Stage Four, which came out in 2016, was an explosion of grief and catharsis following the death of singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother to cancer. For an album that is so painfully close to my heart, Lament came wrapped with unimaginably high hopes. It is a testament to the songwriting abilities of TA that it stands shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor, exploring the long-reach of grief, self-doubt and crumbling social foundations.
Finally, without getting all Nigel Farage about it, it would be totally remiss of me not to mention the unbelievable quality of music that came erupting out of these shores this year. Palm Reader’sSleepless is phenomenal. It literally hasn’t left my turntable in the four weeks since it arrived – in the space of one album, they’ve gone from being a top rung post-hardcore band to creating an unparalleled progressive and seething record that you must listen to.
Gold Key, formed by members of Gallows, Sikth and Krokodil, released Panic Machine, which sounds like OK Computer-era Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins – their new album is as good as that sounds. Phoxjaw are some Devon-based lads who just happened to drop the most interesting debut album all year – called Royal Swan. Dynamics that divebomb between softly-softly subtlety and off-kilter savagery that hits like a freight train. Cut from the same cloth as the brilliant Black Peaks and Heck, so well worth your time if that tickles your pickle.
Regardless of your own particular flavour of alternative music, it would be hard to deny the sheer talent on display this year. To the creators who’ve continued to make such purposeful, fun, incredible music in a year of endless difficulties – thank you for the distraction!
- Greg Puciato – Child Soldier: Creator of God
- Gold Key – Panic Machine
- Deftones – Ohms
- Run the Jewels – RTJ 4
- Phoxjaw – Royal Swan
- Touche Amore – Lament
- Creeper – Sex, Death and the Infinite Void
- Code Orange – Underneath
- Emma Ruth Rundle / Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
- Paradise Lost – Obsidian
- Jamie Lenman – King of Clubs
- Trivium – What the Dead Men Say
- Enslaved – Utgard
- Spanish Love Songs – Brave Faces Everyone
- Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
- clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
- Loathe – I Let It In and It Took Everything
- Katatonia – City Burials
- Nothing – The Great Dismal
- Ohhms – Close