With the meteoric rise of streaming platforms as the primary means of discovering and consuming music, the notion of “genre” has become almost obsolete. That leaves writers compiling year-end best-of lists in a bit of a quandary. How to define an “indie rock” album if the scene is constantly changing and evolving, as it borrows and incorporates sounds from all kinds of genres?
One thing does seem clear this year: guitar-driven rock music is making a comeback. Mind you, it never disappeared, but it seems it has been placed in the background in favor of pop, electronic and minimalist R&B experimentations for years. The majority of this year’s best indie rock albums feature guitars at the forefront. Whether influenced by 1970s folk and soft rock, 1980s post-punk, 1990s alternative and grunge music, or indie rock from the 2000s, guitars are all over this list. It’s been a difficult year, to say the least, but we hope that these carefully curated albums will serve as an escape and provide much-needed solace.
10. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers [Dirty Hit]
Fake It Flowers, the debut from the British singer-songwriter Bea Kristi, is such an earnest homage to the 1990s that it’s hard to find fault with it. To say the album is derivative is to miss the point. You know that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery from someone who named one of her early songs “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus” (from the 2019 EP, Space Cadet) and told the NME in an interview, “I want to live in the ’90s.” Fake It Flowers is full of grungey guitars and lovesick lyrics (sung in Kristi’s syrupy vocals) that call to mind L7, Hole, the Breeders, Elastica, and all of the above. Lead single “Care” is loud, pretty, and catchy and seems destined to soundtrack a cool romcom. As someone who grew up in the late ’90s, consuming a heavy dose of MTV, Fake It Flowers’ unabashed love of a forgotten and oft-maligned era makes me smile. – Linnete Manrique
9. Hypoluxo – Hypoluxo [Flexible Distribution]
1980s nostalgia seems to be an ever-present fixture in the indie rock scene. From new wave to goth to post-punk, the past’s sounds continue to influence countless modern indie rock bands. The Brooklyn-based quartet Hypoluxo mine their sound from the post-punk era but are more punk than post-punk, never taking themselves too seriously in their third self-titled album. At an economical 27 minutes, Hypoluxo speed through ten tracks with frantic energy and a whole lot of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Accompanied by jittery guitars and propulsive drums, lead singer Samuel Cogen sings and snarls with a manic intensity that never lets up, whether he’s tearing a new one to meteorologists for their inconsistent weather reports in “Nimbus” (“You can never trust / You can never trust / What they say”), or chronicling their fallout with their previous record label that almost killed the band in “Ridden” (I, I feel, I feel I’m stronger than that / I, I feel, I feel I’m better than that”). Hypoluxo doesn’t redefine the genre. It’s just a fun record that makes you want to shake your head and play some air guitar and drums. And sometimes, that’s all you need. – Linnete Manrique
8. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher [Dead Oceans]
Like more than one legendary American songwriter before her, [Phoebe] Bridgers is documenting the present in its vernacular. For 2020, that means the language of the scattershot — snapshots and sound bites, quick bursts, and clickbait.
I won’t be surprised if Punisher‘s final track, “I Know the End”, is used as a primary source for what it was like to witness 2020. The track details a dystopian America that’s eerily recognizable. “Windows down, scream along / To some ‘America First’ rap-country song,” she sings. “A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall / Slot machines, fear of God…” But Bridgers isn’t concerned: “No, I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said, ‘The End Is Near’ / I turned around, there was nothing there / Yeah, I guess the end is here.”
It’s a shrug that morphs into an anthem, as group vocals take that final line to the album’s end. It’s not hard to imagine arenas singing those lines at a deafening volume under different circumstances. And in those closing moments, Bridgers encapsulates everything that’s so successful on Punisher. Other writers might look to the past or towards the future to make sense of the disturbing present, but Bridgers is determined to embrace the moment on its own terms. It may sound bleak and illogical, but at least it’s honest. – Kevin Kearney
7. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III [Columbia]
One of Women in Music Pt. III‘s standout strengths is its discussion of mental health and illness, reflected best on “I’ve Been Down”, a somewhat sequel to “Now I’m In It”, as both explore Danielle’s experiences with depression. “You say there’s no stupid questions / Only stupid people / Well I’ve been feeling pretty foolish / Trying to get myself through this / And I’ve been watching too much TV / Looking up at the ceiling / It’s been making me feel creepy / I’m just trying to shake this feeling.” Even in our current era, which likes to pride itself on being more open to discussing mental health issues and eliminating the stigma therein, there is a lot of work to be done. So music that openly discusses depression is still nothing short of revolutionary.
With Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM have learned the power of turning inward and inviting others on the journey to self-discovery. As pop singer Marina Diamandis once said, “Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless.” Our flaws are what make us more experienced, relatable individuals, so by learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, HAIM have created their best work to date. – Jeffrey Davies
6. Bartees Strange – Live Forever [Memory Music]
Bartees Strange (the moniker of Washington DC-based musician Bartees Cox Jr.) gained instant critical acclaim with his debut EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, where he reimagined various songs of the National and was inspired by his experience of being a Black artist in a largely white indie rock scene. As Bartees said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “A big part of why I make music is so that people who look like me can feel like they can do it, too.”
His first LP, Live Forever, is an energetic and genre-hopping album that blends folk, indie rock, rap, gospel, and dance-punk to showcase the frustration of being pigeonholed and being denied the space to belong and be seen. In “Mossblerd” – a minimalist hip-hop track that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Brainfeeder catalogue – Bartees sharply notes, “Genres keep us in our boxes / Keep us from our commas / Keep us n****s hopeless / Keep us from our options.” In addition to its evocative lyrics, one of the more notable aspects of Live Forever is Bartees’s incredible vocal range. He croons, wails, howls, and sing-speaks with passion and moving vulnerability.
From the rocking “Mustang”, to the anthemic “Boomer”, to the infectious “Flagey God”, to the delicate “Far”, Live Forever is a self-assured debut that sounds like an amalgamation of its influences (Bon Iver, the National, TV on the Radio) at the same time that it is a wholly original, unique and exciting addition to the indie rock scene. – Linnete Manrique