10. Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna [Slumberland]
Fully in dream-pop/soft shoegaze mode, the New York-based band
Peel Dream Magazine’s second album further expands their sound until it’s big-sky, widescreen-epic big. Their synths are clearly Stereolab-influenced, the noisy guitars beg for My Bloody Valentine comparisons, but those are perfect inspirations to build dreamy music around (in 2020 I’d much rather have them than yet another Beatles or Beach Boys-influenced pop-rock band). The vocals and tunes within the swirling mix are steady and graceful. The lyrics, when you pick up on them, are cryptic challenges, adding to the air of abstract act, of pastiche. Yet they’re not without resonance. “The 21st century will kill me one day” — indeed.
9. The Very Most – Needs Help [Lost Sound Tapes/Kocliko]
Since the early 2000s, Jeremy Jensen’s the Very Most have created light, melodic, multi-instrumental pop with emotionally searching lyrics. Needs Help cuts deeper with the self-questioning, suited for 2020. And while the songs are personal expressions of doubt and compassion, the album also resembles a musical variety show, in part from his recruiting various fine female pop singers, from across the globe, to share the lead vocals on a majority of the songs. It was a brilliant move; he did something similar with male vocalists for 2016’s synthy Syntherely Yours. Here, within more of a ’60ish/Belle & Sebastianish sound, it again yields rewards, diversifying the personality, sound and emotional impact of the songs. Wearing music devotion on his sleeves, Jensen titles the last song, “Songs You Skipped 25 Years Ago (Say So Much)”.
8. The Legends – The Legends [Golden Islands]
The number of “features” listed on the tracklist make it look like hip-hop, and perhaps that’s the idea. The seventh album from Johan Angergård’s always-changing the Legends project feels like a victory lap, basking in the luxury and power of stripped-down, unlabored-over tunes. Its brashness also resembles a fresh start. The songs and album are short (ten songs in 20 minutes) and the arrangements spare, making for a rush of melody and harmony, with simple, infectious grooves. Sometimes a couple minutes of a beat, a little repeated melody line, and bright/lusty pop vocals, is all you need.
7. Pia Fraus – Empty Parks [SekSound]
Empty Parks, the sixth album from Estonian dream-pop stalwarts Pia Fraus is one of their loveliest. At this point, the group have perfected their sound/approach, which is altogether clean, composed, and dynamic. On each track, they strike a balance between dark and light, quiet and loud, worried and relaxed. The music is filled with a sense of optimism and awareness of struggle, making ultimately for an inspirational soundtrack to living within the everyday sorrow of modern life. Specific ideas and phrases (“love / it’s inside of you”) jump out within the swirl of sound and feeling. Each idea they grasp at lives within a stylish, attractive musical demeanor.
6. Thibault – Or Not Thibault [Chapter Music]
Synthesizers are what you hear first, on the Australian band Thibault’s debut. These are not blippy, bright new-wave synth sounds. They remind me more of folk-horror soundtracks, experimental compositions, and art-pop with a ’60s psych side (think Broadcast). Named after singer/musician Nicole Thibault, the musical project called Thibault marks her return 13 years after the end of Minimum Chips. The songs on Or Not Thibault carry a musical sense of meandering, like a fairy-tale voyage gone nightmarish or some kind of psychedelic nature hike. Yet there’s a persistent pop sensibility to the whole affair. The autobiographical songs give detailed, frank glimpses into real-life human struggles, which creates a compelling back-and-forth with the more fantastical music.
5. Terry vs Tori – Heathers [El Genio Equivocado]
Any year wouldn’t be complete without a fresh take on the comfort food that is ‘jangle pop’, guitar-driven indie-pop, whatever you want to call it. Terry vs Tori, a quartet from Seville, Spain, play daydreamy music with lovely hushed vocals. The songs feel familiar and new at the same time. Their debut album is short and sweet – ten beautiful, poetic songs focused on the transient, illusory, hard-to-grasp aspects of being alive (memory, love, meaning). “It was all in a rush,” the last track declares. The album ends and I want it to begin again; trying myself to hold onto something ineffable.
4. Tan Cologne – Cave Vaults on the Moon in New Mexico [Labrador]
There’s heavy, and heady, UFO vibes on this New Mexico-centric debut album from a duo of multi-discipline artists, Lauren Green and Marissa Macias, who tackle pop music as one of several artistic outlets. The music creeps along in a slow-motion daze, not lost from our world but entranced by both it and its overlapping pathways to potential worlds beyond (new and old, real and imagined). Much of the album was recorded in a historic adobe fortress, and they seem intent on tapping into whatever ancient-world vibes and spirits emanate from that setting. It’s trippy music, focused on both melody and mood, which journeys into hidden places not just sonically but emotionally.
3. Koney – Koney [High Dive]
Since the mid-2000s, Kansas Citian Konnor Ervin, aka Koney, has written and performed sly, sort-of fragile bubblegum pop-rock with his band the ACBS, and played in the offshoot band Shy Boys. Sweetness and a wise-ass casualness have always walked together in his songs. It’s the same here, but the playful, sometimes quietly breathtaking music deepens that quality. It’s less of a rock album than a minimalist playground for sounds and approaches.
There are deep soft-pop vibes and a continual sense that power-pop has been transfigured into synth-driven lullabies. The infectious melodies are humane and gorgeous, as Ervin casually expresses uncertainty about life and one person’s place in it. If this album seems like it’s been dropped into the universe unceremoniously, without fanfare, it suits his whole approach to music, which is humble and casual almost to a fault, disguising a thoughtful studiousness about, and curiosity towards, the craft of pop music.
2. Fenne Lily – Breach [Dead Oceans]
Fenne Lily’s first album was often filed as folk, yet on Breach it’s clear how expansive her vision for music is. This is one of the most gorgeous albums of the year, with a layered pop sound that amplifies the level of deep yearning in the songs. These are lonely songs about dealing with anxiety, isolation, and the memory of past bad times — essentially the world we’ll all living in right now. But there’s also the clear sentiment of embracing all that’s uncomfortable (“focus on a foreign feeling”, she sings at one point) while calling out mistreatment and injustice. She approaches rough experiences with a sense of humor and a no BS attitude that carries over into every aspect of this uncompromising, ambitious new pop classic.
1. Cindy – Free Advice [Paisley Shirt / Mt. St. Mtn / Tough Love]
The San Francisco-based band Cindy might have the simplest, even most “amateur” approach to pop music on this list. So much beauty and strength can come from a good idea, lived out in a unique way. Cindy’s second album Free Advice is a masterful example of how much impact can be built from the sparest of building blocks. In this case, it’s Karina Gill’s almost-spoken, not quite-monotone singing, organ-generated mood, and a rhythm section minimalist and sometimes glacial enough to evoke “slowcore” as a description by some. I’m not sure I detect many of the bands that have been mentioned as obvious touchpoints (except maybe the third Velvet Underground album, in parts).
To my ears, they’re building their own means of expression through disparate pop elements. Theirs is a beauteous type of art-pop that carries within it so much: wordplay, storytelling, connection, mood, and mystery. A song like “Seeing Double” or “April Magazine” is waiting to be fully figured out. I’m not sure we’ll ever quite get there, which is why Free Advice feels so special, an instant treasure of the sort music fans wear as a badge.
15 honorable mentions (alphabetical):
2nd Grade – Hit to Hit [Double Double Whammy]
Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part [Captured Tracks]
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers [Carpark]
Dead Famous People – Harry [Fire]
Emma Kupa – It Will Come Easier [Fika]
Gary Olson – Gary Olson [Tapete]
Gum Country – Somewhere [Dinosaur City]
H. Moon – Trustblood [Welfare Sounds]
The High Water Marks – Ecstasy Rhymes [Minty Fresh]
Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony [Shelflife/Kleine Untergrund Schallplatten]
Nana Grizol – South Somewhere Else [Arrowhawk / Don Giovanni]
The Reds, Pinks & Purples – You Might Be Happy Someday [Tough Love]
Stutter Steps – Reeling [Blue Arrow]
Sweet Whirl – How Much Works [Chapter]
Wednesday – I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone [Orindal]