Hopefully, by now, you've checked out Street's Favorite Albums of 2020. This list is a little different: It's a collection of my favorite albums of the year that either went unnoticed or were underappreciated in some way. This list skews pretty heavily toward dream pop–type bands, but there's some post–rock, some synthpop, and some country mixed in as well. Each entry is also accompanied by some similar bands that you've probably heard of (or listened to) before, so hopefully one of these entries aligns with an artist you know and love.
Alright—here's the best records of the year that you probably haven't listened to (yet!).
Warnings, I Break Horses
Recommended for fans of: Beach House,
Top Tracks: "Turn," "Neon Lights," "Death Engine"
Warnings is a gargantuan album. I Break Horses, aka Maria Lindén, conjures scene after scene of unease or dissatisfaction, delivered in honeyed, soothing soundscapes: unpleasant pills choked down with a spoonful of liquor. Some songs detail an unfulfilling relationship: The waltz–like "Turn," opens with a transcendent bliss, before Lindén bittersweetly declares, "I will escape your so–called affection / And walk out on your semi–erection." Others deal with heavier topics: "Death Engine" details a friend's recent suicide attempt with aching compassion.
"Neon Lights" closes with Lindén almost ritualistically chanting, "In my neon light, you're all dark signs," while fireworks of synth lines explode around her. She's right: For all its dour subject matter, Warnings radiates with the fervor of a supernova.
Bleached Wavves, Zoon
Recommended for fans of: My Bloody Valentine
Top Tracks: "Vibrant Colours," "Brokenhead," "Light Prism"
Although there have been many attempts to approximate the genre–defining sound created by My Bloody Valentine on Loveless, few have come as close as Zoon. While other shoegaze acts have focused solely on texture, losing themselves in an endless battle for distortion, My Bloody Valentine's music is—behind the layers of noise—quite tender. So too is Bleached Wavves, Ontario–based Daniel Monkman's first album as Zoon.
Regardless of the similarities, Bleached Wavves isn't solely a My Bloody Valentine clone. Monkman uses influences from First Nations music to drive some of the melodic and percussive elements, like on the droning "Was & Always Will Be." "Brokenhead" is also a direct reference to Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, the reserve where Monkman spent most of his childhood.
Bleached Wavves seems to refract sound in the same way a prism refracts light. Beautiful ribbons of noise stream through Zoon's music, gently supported by achingly sweet lyrics. "I can hear his laugh at night / Memories always slip away," he sings wistfully on "Vibrant Colours," barely audible over rotating fractals of guitar pedals. Bleached Wavves is stunning, with a warm, inviting beauty.
Born Again, Ellis
Recommended for fans of: Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker
Top Tracks: "Pringle Creek," "Saturn Return," "Shame"
Women in indie rock have dominated the latter half of the 2010s. No need to debate that point; the meteoric rise of Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Mitski, and the dozens of other talented female rockers more than proves it. Ellis is the latest newcomer in that vein, providing a refreshing amount of instrumental edge to balance the razor–sharp writing that cuts through Born Again. Aggressive guitar solos angrily crash through her verses, and drum breaks shatter the foggy mixes, but every song still feels tender, delicate, and gentle. Maybe it's the lo–fi aesthetic that dominates the album, maybe it's that Ellis is just a wonderful songwriter. Either way, Born Again is beautiful in its quiet, tired sadness.
Recommended for fans of: Cocteau Twins, Bon Iver
Top Tracks: "Teko," "Claus," "En oo tän enempää"
Karina is a Finnish dream pop duo, and, even though I can't understand a single word they're saying, I've been obsessed with their music for the past few months. Their latest album, 2, is boundless: They move from tender folk ballads to explosive, searing rock riffs, carrying a constant, ethereal beauty throughout. With its throbbing drums and ebullient cheers, "Teko," is inspirational. Even after the track suddenly cuts to silence, I can hear my own pulse thudding into my ears, echoing the all–too–familiar beat of life.
Nuestros mejores deseos, Ramper
Recommended for fans of: Sigur Rós' Kveikur
Top Tracks: "Pánico en las calles," "Nuestros mejores deseos," "Amalola"
Ramper's debut album, Nuestros mejores deseos, is bold, to say the least. Opening with three and a half minutes of frenzied free jazz and distorted guitar tones, it's almost inaccessible. But after the chaos of trumpet flourishes and clarinet glissandos, Ramper wipes the slate clean, paving the way for a simple, gloomy, meditative melody. Over the course of the album, they open the gates of hell again and again, constantly framed and reframed by sparse moments of beauty. They scream "hay pánico en las calles," but I can feel the bile of anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead.
Horse, Holy Motors
Recommended for fans of: Mazzy Star, Faye Webster, Mojave 3
Top Tracks: "Country Church," "Midnight Cowboy," "Matador"
In a genre overloaded with songs quick to deify F–150s and Natty Lights, it's easy to forget country's roots: honest, raw, stripped–back, folk music. Enter Holy Motors, an Estonian band with a better grip on Americana than the majority of Nashville. Their latest collection of laid–back country ballads, Horse, is full of simple melodies, confessional lyrics, and beautiful production. As a native Texan, I'm all too familiar with the intoxicating scent of the open night air, with miles of empty highway unfurling over thin yellow headlights: Horse perfectly captures that same sense of yearning, burgeoning freedom.
Mirage on the Meadow, Pine Barons
Recommended for fans of: The Killers, The Flaming Lips
Top Tracks: "Keeping Off the Road," "Colette," "Little Spain"
Pine Barons' latest album, Mirage on the Meadow, is a searing pop record, crafted with utmost care. The Philly–based psychedelic pop band wears its influences on its sleeves in the best way, a combination of The Killers' unrestrained, free–spirited energy and The Flaming Lips' woozy acid trips. Tracks like "Keeping off the Road" set ear–worm hooks against roaring guitars, only for "Colette" and "Clique Bait" to lay down some of the best New Wave beats of the year. Mirage on the Meadow feels instantly familiar and brand new, a fuzzy sort of nostalgia that's instantly comforting in a tumultuous year.
Notre–Dame–des–Sept-Douleurs, Klô Pelgag
Recommended for fans of: Kate Bush, Perfume Genius, Françoise Hardy
Top Tracks: "Rémora," J'aurai les cheveux longs," Mélamine"
Klô Pelgag isn't just a singer/songwriter—she's an arranger and composer, too. Notre–Dame–des–Sept–Douleurs is a lush work of orchestral pop, with soaring strings propelling swooping vocals to magnificent heights. Tracks like "Remora" take sudden left turns, opening up into expansive symphonies. Others, like "Soleil," are equally as stunning, yet rely more on the strength of the chamber ensemble. Pelgag's latest is a slick, stylish album, which constantly oscillates between moving orchestral performances and quirky synthpop, woven together by Pelgag's acrobatic voice and soothing arrangements.
Motherhood, No Joy
Recommended for fans of: Sweet Trip, A.R. Kane, Primal Scream
Top Tracks: "Four," "Happy Bleeding," "Nothing Will Hurt"
On Motherhood, Montreal–based No Joy finally answers the question music nerds have been asking since the '90's: "What if shoegaze was cool?" By fusing club–ready dance beats with overwhelming instrumentals, No Joy's latest album enters the rare echelon of music that can be appreciated on uppers or downers. No need to choose whether this album makes the pre–game or post–game playlist: Motherhood is the come–up, the high, and a smooth ride back down.