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The 10 Best Indie Rock Albums of 2020

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.

5. Nothing – The Great Dismal [Relapse]


The temptation with a band like Nothing is to describe their music by rattling off a list of whom it sounds like. Indeed, with a few changes in tempo and effects pedals, most of the ten songs on The Great Dismal could have been performed by most of the excellent, loud guitar-based alternative bands of the 1990s. That’s not a knock; it is a testament to the quality and confidence of [frontman Domenic] Palermo’s songwriting and artistic vision.

The guitar-only opener “A Fabricated Life” is super-pretty, but more doomy than romantic, as Palermo observes a society who “sing the same songs / Beat the same old tired drums.” The uptempo, drum machine-driven clatter of the single “Say Less” is probably the first Nothing song that could credibly be described as “danceable.” Any danger of The Great Dismal getting lost in its nihilistic black hole is put off by the melodious, almost sweet power-pop of “Catch a Fade” and the surging, hand-in-the-air rush of the magnificent “Famine Asylum”. Overall, The Great Dismal is Nothing’s sharpest, most concise, and most consistent album to date. – John Bergstrom

4. Nation of Language – Introduction, Presence [Nation of Language]


Inspired by the sounds and sentiment of the synthpop classics, OMD’s “Electricity” and LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, songwriter Ian Devaney formed Nation of Language in 2016 after his rock band Static Jacks hit a brick wall. Mining the 1980s as much as the 2000s for inspiration, Nation of Language’s Introduction, Presence is a remarkably confident and fully formed debut album. Singing in a forlorn baritone that calls to mind Matt Berninger (The National) or Paul Banks (Interpol), Devaney laments the passage of time, reminisces of romantic failures and feels crushed by the weight of expectations (“I’m wasting away / I took the long road home / And it never paid off for me,” he croons in the opening track, “Tournament”), the monotony of life and a general existential dread (“I say, how can people find what I can never find?” he ponders in the euphoric “Rush & Fever”). But despite its gloomy lyrics, Introduction, Presence is a fun, danceable and cathartic record. With its shimmering synths, pulsing basslines and melodic guitars, Nation of Language has created a record that makes ’80s nostalgia feel essential. – Linnete Manrique

3. Porridge Radio – Every Bad [Secretly Canadian]


The vulnerability of struggling to know yourself and others is a key theme throughout (the Mercury Prize-nominated) Every Bad. But more than just a piece of “sadcore sadfishing”, this album feels much more like a concept album. Each song is a three-minute chapter building a rich and alluring character profile. There is a gravity to each of these 11 songs. While you listen and piece together the profile of the lost misanthrope and their various ills, you cannot help but be drawn in. You want to know the narrator of each song; you want to befriend and know them. They are damaged, but they are desirable. Like a siren, they call you to the rocks, forcing you to acknowledge your destructive insatiable desire. Every Bad is fragile and robust, confidently flawed, and above all evidence that Porridge Radio is in their ascendancy. They are a real force to be reckoned with. – B. Sassons

2. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush [Modular/Interscope]


Tame Impala‘s The Slow Rush is as much a self-reflective open letter to the world as it is a beautifully obfuscating, transmuting, rippling piece of music. On the 12-track album, the band’s fourth, Kevin Parker reminisces, offers notes on where he’s come from, where he’s been, and what the future might hold for his psyche, all amidst Tame Impala’s signature dreamy, 1960s-retro-through-a-million-pedals sound.

You know it’s the band the instant the music begins, and yet the album feels both new and necessary. The record is the mark of rare talent, and yet also someone who lives in both doubt and curiosity amidst his talent and success. The record is unique, and it’s also connected to very American and British musical lineages, from Grandmaster Flash to Kanye West to the Beatles. The Slow Rush is an investigation into how to survive, even when there’s so much abundance around and it should otherwise be so easy. – Jacob Uitti

1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters [Epic]


When Emily Nussbaum’s superlative profile of Fiona Apple appeared in The New Yorker in March of 2020, a lot of attention was centered on a downright shocking line, included in the song “For Her” off Apple‘s fifth full-length, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” On record, the lyric is nearly screamed, Apple’s voice sizzling with rare, powerful fury.

It’s a startling thing to hear, especially in the context of a song that begins as a multi-tracked cheerleader routine, all rapid rhyming words and clapping percussion. We hear a tale of a woman upset with her partner’s behavior, noting that “Maybe she got tired of watching him / Sniff white off a starlet’s breast”, heavily implying this is a man in the media and one who has gotten away with far worse for far, far too long. This is not Apple’s tale to tell, but that of another woman who has suffered and may continue to suffer under the shadow of a tasteless, feckless partner.

What makes Fetch the Bolt Cutters such an extraordinary, surprising, and downright essential record is how it isn’t about Apple so much as it’s about other women: their friendships, their hangups, and the relationships they end up trapped in, mixed with Apple’s pathos and gravity. It is a thundering, angry, and pointed album that feels liberated by the fact that the target of her wit and barbs isn’t mainly herself or her lingering insecurities, no. This time around, she sets aim at the men who have never had to face any consequences for their actions — and then proceeds to go for the jugular. – Evan Sawdey