30. Quasi – Breaking the Balls of History (Sub Pop)
Quasi’s Breaking the Balls of History updates the production value a notch with results that sound more polished than in preceding efforts. It is a COVID-19 album, conceived and written while under lockdown and recorded in five days. A magpie sensibility rules as with their previous releases, revealing a diverse set of influences across the rock spectrum. “Last Long Laugh” possesses a soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic that betrays their 1990s roots. Less coy but with the same sound, it is an excellent reminder of where recent bands like Wet Leg and their hit single “Chaise Longue” owe their livelihoods. Soul/blues-driven songs like “Back in Your Tree” and “Queen of Ears” convey a latent affinity with the Black Keys circa Brothers by updating the Muscle Shoals Sound for present-day listeners. Meanwhile, “Gravity” has an orchestral, David Bowie-esque, “Space Oddity” vibe. – Christopher J. Lee
29. Purling Hiss – Drag on Girard (Drag City)
The comparison has been made that the sound of Purling Hiss is akin to that of Dinosaur Jr. This analogy hits you immediately with the opening track “Yer All in My Dreams” from Purling Hiss’ new album Drag on Girard. The fuzzed-out lead guitar, the languid vocals, and the unbridled backbeat that keeps it all together nail this resemblance down. The album continues the artistic momentum established by Valdez and Long Lost Solace Find in different ways. Musically situated between the two, it employs the high-decibel approach of Birds of Maya while retaining moments of the self-conscious vulnerability found in Polizze’s solo outing.
The record carries on a long-standing tradition of revisiting and updating the garage rock canon to extend that genre’s legacies to the next level. Mike Polizze seems unconcerned about recording a breakthrough album and instead just blissing out on the sounds you can make with a guitar and Marshall stack. He’s as much a fan as you. – Christopher J. Lee
28. The Clientele – I Am Not There Anymore (Merge)
It’s always exciting to hear a band at the height of their powers far into their career. A certain depth of talent and artistic commitment are needed to attain this kind of amplitude. The Clientele have achieved this with their seventh studio album, I Am Not There Anymore. Premised on the death of Alasdair MacLean’s mother in 1997, this 19-song, hour-long LP is more than a requiem. It is a complex meditation on memory, mortality, childhood, nocturnal dreamscapes, and the possibilities of music to negotiate and narrate these essential elements of life. The eight-and-a-half minute opening track “Fables of the Silverlink” contains entire worlds in the manner of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. The remainder of the album digresses in different directions (or “radials”), incorporating different genres, field recordings, and instrumental interludes. From the cover to the lyrics, everything has been thought out with care and grace. – Christopher J. Lee
27. Code Orange – The Above (Blue Grape Music)
Code Orange have long embraced a myriad of musical styles, but nowhere is that as apparent as in The Above. It embraces brutal metallic hardcore (“A Drone Opting Out of the Hive”), Korn-worshipping nu-metal (“Splinter the Soul”), glitch and shoegaze (“Theatre of Cruelty”), emotional power ballads and indie folk (“Mirror”), breakbeat and horror movie soundtracks (“Snapshot”), industrial rock (“Take Shape”), alternative rock (“Circle Through”) and lots of noise, feedback, and effects. It almost feels like switching back and forth between different radio stations, although that isn’t done as effectively here as it is on other similar albums like The Shape of Punk to Come or I Let It In and It Took Everything.
While the current level of attention that hardcore is receiving is unprecedented, Code Orange’s The Above proves why that’s the case. Its genre-fluidity and accessibility, while at times being as heavy as any of their old material, portrays much of what makes the genre so thriving even outside the mainstream eye. – Ethan Stewart
26. Indigo de Souza – All of This Will End (Saddle Creek)
Despite its fatalistic title, Asheville, North Carolina’s Indigo De Souza’s third full-length is oddly peaceful. It’s all about acceptance, about acknowledging where you are at that particular moment and time, seeing the bigger picture, and how pieces come together to shape and define us.
Despite it being her most insular recording process to date, All of This Will Pass finds De Souza stepping into a big, bold, anthemic sound. She’s always flirted with dance-pop, but she embraces it with her whole soul here, making for one of her most joyous and exuberant recordings so far. Club pop is just one thread in this beautiful jeweled tapestry, though. Over the span of 11 songs, De Souza does just about anything you could think to do with a 4/4 guitar anthem. The bedroom pop she’s known for is still there, but so is industrial music, slacker rock, and even a brief flash of black metal. Whatever flavor of indie you favor, you’ll find it on All of This Will Pass. – J Simpson
25. Protomartyr – Formal Growth in the Desert (Domino)
On Formal Growth in the Desert, Protomartyr have ever-so-subtly evolved their sound into something not quite mellow and not quite as expansive as its titular reference – and yet also not as claustrophobically volatile as previous efforts. It’s something gloriously in between. One would think that an album informed by and formed in the Western desert might have a “sunnier” sound (whatever that means) or maybe even some desolate expanses in the tunes. But solar-infused sonics aren’t quite there, though you can hear nuanced intonations of levity. However, the music is indeed less impenetrable than previous efforts. There’s more room for the instruments to breathe and a true sense of space, at times invoking a feeling of being surrounded by the sky as you contemplate the stars. – Alison Ross
24. Sprain – The Lamb As Effigy (The Flenser)
There’s no question that Alex Kent is the mastermind behind Sprain between the dense verses and the 17 instruments he’s credited for playing, from the obscure hammer dulcimer and singing saw to regular instruments like piano and guitar. For the patient listener, The Effigy As Lamb is thrilling, but not everyone has the patience to stay tuned through the emotional diatribes and intensely biting noise. Overall, Kent and Sprain’s performance here is spectacular, and their aim at a masterpiece finds an exhaustive, immersive, and ambitious work of post-rock, noise, and poetry that self-proclaimed intellectuals will lust after. – Brandon Miller
23. The Church – The Hypnogogue (Communicating Vessels)
The Hypnogogue is remarkable in a couple of different ways. One is that, despite featuring a revamped lineup with vocalist/bassist Steve Kilbey as the only remaining member from the band’s major label era, the album is the most perfectly Churchy Church album imaginable, full of sharp, interlocking guitar licks, metaphysical wordplay, and far-out moods. The other is that The Hypnogogue is so strong as to make it a touchstone album in a career that has spanned 40-plus years and countless releases. That has less to do with the overarching sci-fi lyrical concept and more to do with Kilbey’s and longtime drummer/producer Tim Powles’ commitment to the Church aesthetic. Interpreted by the new lineup, it sounds as fresh and inimitable as ever. – John Bergstrom
22. Yo La Tengo – This Stupid World (Matador)
It’s not easy to remain relevant in underground music for nearly 40 years. It’s even harder to deliver one of your best albums nearly four decades in your career. On This Stupid World, Yo La Tengo have done exactly that, delivering an album of driving motorik beats, noisy guitars, and warm, cozy vocals that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of their most cherished albums like I Can Hear the Hearts Beating As One and And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
That dichotomy between intimacy and unease is the dynamo that drives This Stupid World. Songs like album opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” are fairly standard futurist indie rock, mining a familiar assemblage of chiming guitars and motorik beats. It occasionally breaks down into steely squalls of atonal noise and unheimlich echoes, like a baleful, radioactive sun burning through a blanket of clouds. This Stupid World feels like carrying on in the face of adversity, living your life, and focusing on the good while terror, anxiety, and uncertainty cavort in the peripheries. – J Simpson
21. The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein (4AD)
The National‘s First Two Pages of Frankenstein shifts away from malaise for the sake of it and toward the heart. This is not to say that there hasn’t been emotion in their work; it’s full of grand crescendos, urgent percussion, searing guitar parts, and the trademark Matt Berninger Scream. But the the National have been trending further toward abstraction since the Alligator days, culminating in 2019’s gorgeous-albeit-obtuse I Am Easy to Find. We’ve been left to spelunk through increasingly windy compositions to figure out what we’re supposed to be sad about. First Two Pages of Frankenstein is not the cliché late-career-return-to-form record. The National wield each of their main elements to drill down to their heart. This is still obviously the National’s work and sound, but it wants to reach out more than they ever have. – Jeremy Levine