Hidden Gems: 2020’s best underground albums

Record shelf with headphones

2020 has seen stellar releases from big names including Taylor Swift, Tame Impala and Run the Jewels – but off the beaten track lie some excellent indie records, and fantastic underground oddities.

2020 has been a year where we have consumed more art than ever before. Being locked inside during lockdowns, with pubs, clubs and restaurants closed for long stretches of the year left us with more time than usual to sink our teeth into media, with some huge cultural moments rooted in the works of art we’ve consumed together, despite being kept apart by Coronavirus. Netflix blessed us with the chaotic and genuinely jaw-dropping Tiger King, whilst shows like The Crown and Bly Manor enraptured audiences up and down the UK. Film was hit harder by the pandemic as cinemas closed across the world, but we still got to experience the devastatingly strange I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the star-studded Tenet and the well-received Suicide Squad spinoff, Birds of Prey. Music was where 2020 really shone, though. Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 was a bombastic display of hardcore hip-hop dynamite in the wake of the shooting of George Floyd, whilst Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters was an incredible addition to the singer-songwriter’s discography. Indie darlings like Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Fontaines D.C. and Tame Impala also released some of the best rock and alternative records of the year, to name just a few of the bigger names to drop new projects. In this year of isolation and seemingly never-ending crisis, these works of art have been a reassuring warmth; a gentle reminder that we are pushing through the trials of modern life together.

Beyond the big hitters though, there have been some utter works of art that have flown under the radar this year that deserve your attention. In a year where artists like Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, Joji and HAIM have released some fantastic records, it could be easy to not feel a great need to dig into the underground, but 2020 has some undiscovered gems waiting just under the surface. Most of the picks below are a little off the beaten track; some more accessible than others, but all are worth a listen, especially if you are looking for something a little different. Without further ado, here are a handful of some of the best albums of 2020 that perhaps flew under the radar.

Ho99o9 – Blurr (mixtape)

Kicking off this list is one of the meaner releases of the year, from New Jersey punk/hip-hop band Ho99o9 (pronounced Horror). Though it is a collection of unreleased and now unavailable tracks, make no mistake – this is no lazy B-sides album. Blending the aggro tendencies of 80s hardcore punk with modern trap and experimental hip hop, the duo’s work is unashamedly abrasive, icy beats contrasted by the DMX-like vocal performance of frontman theOGM. Though not a full release, Blurr is arguably the band’s finest work, pushing both the more extreme and more melodic ends of their sound. ‘Hardcore’ is a smooth, spacy R&B influenced cut that wouldn’t feel out of place on Tyler, The Creator’s Igor, whilst the extremity of tracks like ‘Dog S**t’ and ‘Firefly Family’ prove that the band still know how to reinvent old punk staples and give them a dark, modern twist. Whilst not a record for the faint hearted, Blurr is a truly excellent combination of punk and rap music, switching between the two so seamlessly that it’s as if the dividing line between the genres doesn’t exist.

For Fans Of: Death Grips, Denzel Curry, Bad Brains, Ghostemane.

Madeline Kenney – Sucker’s Lunch

Sucker’s Lunch is an album that takes a current vogue, and twists it just a little, in a way that makes the record a real standout in a crowded indie underground. Madeline Kenney’s sound is easily comparable to bigger names like Phoebe Bridgers or Faye Webster, but infuses a slightly odd, almost jazzy use of melody that makes for a very compelling reworking of an established sound. The production here is lush, detailed, and bright, with layers of synths, guitars and Kenney’s distinct vocal style mingling to create a gorgeous soundscape, typified by tracks like the serene ‘Jenny’. ‘Double Hearted’ sees a pull in a slightly stranger direction, the infectious lyrical refrain of “I wanna f**k up a garden” a genuine earworm amongst the track’s cyclical melodies and shimmering guitar leads. Other highlights include the delicate ‘White Window Light’, the nostalgic, winding melodies of ‘Picture of You’, and the poignant piano-led closer, ‘Sweet’, as Kenney’s low-key but undeniably brilliant song writing leads the listener through a glittering dreampop experience. A dreamlike record, it’s a wonder Madeline Kenney hasn’t yet hit the heights of her more famous counterparts.

For Fans Of: Phoebe Bridgers, Wolf Alice, Slowdive.

Field Medic – Floral Prince

From the opening chords of the first track, ‘housekeys’, to the final note of the mournful closer ‘TRANQUILIZED’, Field Medic’s blend of emo, country and folk is more compelling than it has any right to be. There’s an honesty to Floral Prince that defies articulation, something so warm and sweet about the hooks that makes each track instantly deserving of its own place on a 90s coming-of-age movie soundtrack. A surprisingly prolific artist, Field Medic aka Kevin Patrick Sullivan has released 11 Eps and Albums since he began making music in 2009, but Floral Prince is arguably his best work, combining his trademark mournful lyricism and mastery of melody to produce a bittersweet masterpiece. From the bright and empowering ‘i will not mourn who i was that has gone away’, to the delicate slow burn of ‘better way’, we see Sullivan at his both vulnerable and optimistic. This duality of emotions has never been more appropriate than now, it seems, echoing what most people have likely felt through a year marked by a yearning for improvement in an increasingly difficult world.

For Fans Of: First Aid Kit, Kacey Musgraves, having a little cry whilst looking out of a rainy window.

Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

Jeff Rosenstock is a bit of an underground punk legend. The former frontman of cult favourites Bomb the Music Industry!, Rosenstock’s solo career has since surpassed his 2000s work, carving out an immediately recognisable niche making snotty, honest and thoroughly entertaining records marked by his very confessional lyrical style. NO DREAM is no different, but perhaps is the purest distillation of what Rosenstock’s music does. An unabashedly political and often uncomfortably frank record, the record is an energetic expression of existential angst, echoing frustrations that months of sitting inside this year likely induced in many of us. As the Long Island-born musician blasts through title track ‘N o d r e a m’, looking at the state of the world as it is, and seeing no other way to express himself than repeating ‘It’s not a dream’, you are left with the unavoidable impression that Rosenstock is struggling in a way that’s uncomfortably relatable. The song writing is excellent, the scrappy and snotty brand of melodic punk as compelling as Green Day in their heyday, but music aside, the record feels like a cry for help that resonates with how many of us have felt for much of this year.

For Fans Of: Green Day, Weezer, Blink-182.

Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction

By far the least accessible record on this list, Holocene Extinction undoubtedly holds the least mainstream appeal. For those with an appreciation for the nastier end of metal music, however, Terminal Nation are one of the most invigorating and raw prospects to emerge this year. Combining elements of hardcore punk and death metal, this is an actively hostile listen, a knuckle-dragging beast of an album capable of switching tempo on a dime, favouring pace and power over precision. A deeply political record, Holocene Extinction pulls no punches on the lyrical front either. Take the end of ‘Master Plan’, for example, which sees the band repeat the grimly pessimistic statement of “The system is not broken, this is exactly what it was always meant to be”, a statement speaking to the entrenched inequality of modern society. If that was a little too subtle, the latter half of the record contains tracks like ‘Death for Profit’ and ‘Caskets of the Poor’, which speak for themselves, decrying the deepening issues of poverty and social tension in the US. At the end of a year where the world’s problems seem to be crystallising in an evermore unavoidable and insurmountable way, the meatheaded, grinding power of Terminal Nation feels only too fitting; a catharsis as ugly as the twelve months we’ve just endured.

FFO: Slayer, Bolt Thrower, Obituary.

Dorian Electra – My Agenda

From the sublimely aggressive to the ridiculous, Dorian Electra has produced some of the very best music to emerge from the increasingly popular yet utterly bizarre hyperpop subgenre. Whilst names like Ashnikko and 100 Gecs might be better known faces in a genre that incorporates elements of dubstep, hip hop, early 2010s mainstream pop, industrial music and elements of metal, it is Dorian Electra’s genderbending theatrics that shine through as the underrated gem of the year. With a feature list including The Village People of YMCA fame, Pussy Riot and Rebecca Black (yes, that Rebecca Black), Electra effortlessly hops between sounds that should be equal parts hilarious and unlistenable, carrying them off with such tongue in cheek bombast that it is impossible to hate. Songs like the eponymous rager ‘My Agenda’, or the neoclassical-R&B-metal banger ‘Ram it Down’, go so far in to the depths of unbearable stylistic fusions, that they come all the way back round to being unironically very enjoyable. This is not a record for everyone to say the least, and sits firmly in the Not Safe For Work category of lyrical expression, holding back nothing at all. That said, there’s something addictive about Electra’s latest project that’s hard to deny, and if something unexpected tickles your fancy, then this study of the “crisis of modern masculinity” is a fantastic place to start.

FFO: Rico Nasty, 100 Gecs, Charli XCX.

Narrow Head – 12th House Rock

From the hyper-modern to something undeniably rooted in the past, 2020 has been a great year for alternative rock music. Narrow Head’s sophomore record, 12th House Rock, is arguably the best of a great bunch, a grungey revival of 90s alt-rock that sticks so faithfully to its roots that you’d be surprised to know the band never, in fact, toured with Pearl Jam, and only formed in 2013. Blending the sounds of icons like Sunny Day Real Estate, Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins, the album creates a hazy dreamscape of laid-back riffs and sugary-sweet harmonies, drenched in distortion. When the Texan quintet want to grab your attention though, they are more than capable of it. The dense, bouncy bass riffs on ‘Night Tryst’ and ‘Bulma’ are driving, energetic highlights, whilst the serene closer ‘Evangeline Dream’ cuts much of the fuzz for a bright, floaty love letter to 90s college rock. An uncommon example of when pure 90s revivalism doesn’t just work, but truly shines, Narrow Head’s career shows a lot of promise if they can keep up the high standards set by 12th House Rock.

FFO: Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chain.

Theo Katzman –  Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in The Age of Vibe

Written by Francesco Guerritore (@guerritorefrancesco)

After his 2017 success Heartbreak Hits, the singer of Vulfpeck pulls out an incredible ace out of his sleeve and shows how song writing is done in 2020, with 51 minutes of groovy, melodic storytelling! Growing up in a band like Vulfpeck, Theo Katzman decided to go solo in 2017 where he managed to blend a majestic sense of groove with simple but intricate lyrics and broken-hearted, sweet melodies. With his new record entitled ‘Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe’ Theo makes us appreciate pop music without any guilt. Writing about love is a minefield, and it’s so easy to fall under the same clichés that have been sung and have made songs the same for decades. But listening to Mr Katzman is a completely different experience, as his lyrics are never banal, and truly give back to the concept of love in music. Give the song ‘What Did You Mean (When You Said Love)’ a listen and you’ll know what I mean. But love is not the only archetype in Katzman’s music as he leaves enough space for social critiques all the same, like on ‘(I Don’t Want to Be A) Billionaire’, where he criticises capitalistic endeavours and aspirations of today’s society. All in all, an easy and worthy listen!

FFO: Vulfpeck, Big Thief.

Varsity – Fine Forever

Varsity’s third full length record is one of the finest examples of indie pop that 2020 has to offer. A cheeky and glistening collection of tightly written songs, the record has something of the essence of a Fleetwood Mac release to it, and not just because Varsity too have a female vocalist. Stephanie Smith’s vocals, floating over the band’s smooth and peppy instrumentals on tracks like ‘Runaway’ and ‘Wrecking Line’, fuse the 80s rock legends’ dreamlike melodies with compositions that owe a lot to the indie and dreampop of the early 2000s. It’s not all serenity, however – ‘Shaking Hands’, the LP’s standout track, feels like a chimera of a Courtney Barnett single and a Beach Fossils track, with tongue-in-cheek lyricism interplaying with detailed offbeat guitar work, before the track gives way into a psychedelic closing passage. This motif returns on ‘The Memphis Group’, a bouncing pop track that gives way to a gorgeous, saxophone-laden outro, whilst ‘Sicko World’s chromatic introduction breaks out into an expansive, almost beachy closer. Rarely going much beyond a casual saunter, Varsity’s brand of indie is both compelling and charming, and makes for one of the year’s more laid-back, listens. There’s so much detail packed into the 40-minute run time, however that Fine Forever is much more than just a ‘vibe’ record, reaching soring peaks on ‘Reason to Run’ that grab your attention and pull you on board for Varsity’s excellent psychedelic ride.

FFO: Fleetwood Mac, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy.

Zeal & Ardor – Wake of a Nation

Slave spirituals and the dark, noisy aesthetics of black metal might be an unusual pairing, especially given the latter genre’s reputation for producing some unsavoury far-right figures, but Zeal & Ardor’s dark, soulful concoction is undeniably striking. In a year where police violence against black people reached an unavoidably horrific new height, an EP like this becomes one of the most important releases in avant-garde metal, as current events lend the band’s music even greater significance. Hellish screams and sledgehammer guitars mingling with buttery smooth, blues-influenced lead vocals on tracks like ‘Trust No One’ and ‘Tuskegee’ embody a satanistic catharsis, as Manuel Gagneaux and co. batter down boundaries in the name of highlighting the black struggle in a society where systemic racism feels utterly unavoidable. It is not all brimstone and venom, however. ‘Vigil’ is a powerful, rousing, soul track, beautiful choral lines intertwining over delicate piano lines, whilst the stark rhythmic tension of ‘Wake of a Nation’ embodies the kind of revolutionary energy that pulled down statues of slave owners earlier this year. This five track EP is by no means just for metalheads; it is an experimental expression of pain and anger built up over generations that transcends genre, making this unlikely fusion one of the most essential releases of 2020.

FFO: Black Sabbath, Liturgy.

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Harry Higginson

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