The Soundboard’s Biggest Surprises Of 2020

Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)

Machine Gun Kelly
Tickets To My Downfall and its reaction

It isn’t the fact that Tickets To My Downfall was released that’s surprising. Hell, with everything that Machine Gun Kelly represents within modern music – part fresh-faced unit-shifter; part scene hanger-on; part impeccable clout-chaser – he was always going to release a pop-punk album at some point. Rather, the surprise comes in how it’s been received, and how it’s somehow bypassed 2020’s vacuum of musical memorability to stick around. Because really, the album isn’t that good; it’s hardly offensive and it’s easy to imagine it being fun live, but some of the praise that’s been heaved onto it (from sources who should know far better, no less) would lead anyone to believe that this is the most exciting and game-changing thing the genre has seen in years. In reality, it’s a series of blink-182 pastiches that, had some no-name been attached to it, no one would care about even a fraction as much. Even worse, it’s seemingly validated Machine Gun Kelly as a musician, which is something that shouldn’t happen under any circumstances. The fact that it’s given him such an enormous saviour complex when it comes to determining what suitable rock music is is baffling enough, especially when that video of him dancing on the table at the board meeting should’ve been the clear warning shot that the worst was yet to come.

The Killers
Imploding The Mirage

The Killers have reached the point where they can reliably crank out an album every couple of years with no thought given to its quality, and they’d still do absolutely fine. That’s exactly what Wonderful, Wonderful seemed to herald a couple of years ago, especially in what felt like the ‘more is more’ approach that indie bands tend to land on when making their efforts more convoluted and ‘intelligent’. And that’s part of the reason why Imploding The Mirage caught off guard in the way it did, as it represented everything that its predecessor was. It was quintessentially The Killers in how tight and unwavering from its focus it was, but the maximalism of the presentation and the enormous size of the thing felt like a true face-turn in the best possible way. There was effort made to sound this towering, while sticking to a workable path that, here, has been refined to a science in the best possible way. Imploding The Mirage mightn’t do anything new for The Killers, but instead it does what’s good for them, and that counts more than anything.

The 1975
Notes On A Conditional Form and its lack of impact

So as we’ve mentioned before in these lists (and will presumably mention more going forward), the music of 2020 has felt weirdly ephemeral on all fronts, with so much being put out but not a lot going in, regardless of how strong it might be. And yet, there isn’t an example of how widespread that affliction was that says more about it than The 1975’s Notes On A Conditional Form. Sure, it was a terrible album, as The 1975 revert deeper into themselves than ever while simultaneously tossing aside the pop sensibilities that actually made any of it work, but for one of the biggest bands around with a fanbase will never shut up about how life-changing and smart they believe this band (wrongly) is, it’s been a pretty quiet front when it comes to the noise around this particular effort. Maybe they’ve seen sense and realised that Matty Healy’s anaemic Radiohead impressions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, but even so, an album like this should’ve made a lot more noise from both sides of the dial than it ever did. For the sort of band The 1975 can be though, it’s not worth complaining about too much.

Halsey
Manic

A few years ago, an album like Manic from Halsey would’ve been inconceivable. On a good day, she might’ve been capable of a solid feature, but generally, her music reeked of the most stylised, insubstantial version of angst imaginable, used as a vehicle for marketing campaigns rather than anything truly meaningful. But not only was Manic actually a good album, it felt like the real version of Halsey that had only been captured in very fleeting glimpses. It felt more daring in terms of alt-pop sonically, and while it could be a bit all over the place (and Halsey’s warbling voice still wasn’t the greatest on it), it’s hard to deny that it contains some of her best ever songs, and as a means of coming to terms with herself and her own inner thoughts, it was exponentially more believable than the schlock she’d put out previously. This was an album that felt as lived-in as it rightfully should, and if there was a moment that could swing an opinion on Halsey and see the perception of her become one of a legitimate artist capable of real quality, Manic felt like that moment and then some.

Alanis Morissette
Such Pretty Forks In The Road

At the end of the day, a big surprise doesn’t have to be something with a lot of unexpected flash or big statements made, but something that sticks so much more than could’ve ever been anticipated, and in 2020, nothing encapsulates that more than Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks In The Road. It’s weird that this one popped up on the radar at all, given how Morissette has spent a long time moving through adult alternative waters with little impact made elsewhere, but there was something so stark and achingly potent about Such Pretty Forks In The Road that really brought into perspective how excellent of an artist Morissette still is. It feels raw and undeniably personal, stemming from a sense of real tiredness and burnout that comes from being older in an industry that she grew up in, and yet still feels that it can model her and bend her over backwards to fit whatever definition of her is seen as ‘right’. And for as understated as the overall sound is, it’s beautifully written in Morissette’s very recognisable style, and just manages to really capture what a late-period release from an artist like this could and should be. To put it another way, it was a contender for this writer’s Albums Of The Year list for a long time; if that doesn’t say how much of an unexpected treat this was, nothing will.


Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)

Miley Cyrus
Plastic Hearts

A Miley Cyrus album actually being consistent is arguably a bigger surprise than any headline-grabbing stunt from her Bangerz era or the whole Dead Petz debacle, this surprise being a refreshingly welcome one. While Plastic Hearts isn’t a full-on, balls-to-the-wall rock record, Cyrus’ take on such a vibe results in her most personal record yet with a sound that actually feels true to her, drawing from pop, country and of course, rock, giving her moments to showcase her brilliant voice. Because this is Miley Cyrus we’re talking about, there’s an almost definite chance that she’ll be pushing something completely different this time next album cycle. But Plastic Hearts is proof that Cyrus does know how to stay consistent, and all we can do is hope that she’ll carry that through with future projects.

Boston Manor
Glue

After showing their anthem-writing prowess and making their arena-sized ambitions known on Welcome To The Neighbourhood, evolving things to a heavier, more experimental level on follow-up Glue feels almost out of left field. While most bands would probably seek to replicate the kind of song that earned them bigger stages, Boston Manor chose to develop the vibe they’d established further in the other direction, turning up the grit, the beef and the audible snarls that were perhaps a bit toned down on Welcome To The Neighbourhood in retrospect. It’s hard not to respect a band that makes such a decision – who decide to push boundaries further instead of following the money – particularly one who came from the samey crop of British pop-punk bands, Glue showing why Boston Manor are the ones who seem to have stuck around.

Selena Gomez
Rare

Something about Selena Gomez’s career as a musician has always felt slightly detached, like she was a blank canvas other artists and writers to project their trendy ideas onto. This year’s Rare felt like Gomez’s first big step as an artist with something to say. Rare isn’t a flashy record and seems musically crafted specifically with the singer’s quieter alto in mind. It’s much more tailored to her own experiences with heartbreak and self-acceptance instead of more general to ensnare relatability. The second half might tail off and the attention of the listener might not be held the whole way through, but it’s by far Selena Gomez’s most engaging listen as a full project. If she keeps following this path, a career best that’s loved by fans and critics alike could well be in Gomez’s future.

All Time Low
Wake Up, Sunshine

2020 saw All Time Low come back from their second almost-career-ending album cycle with Wake Up, Sunshine. It’s an album drenched in optimism that pulls from all parts of the band’s history, most importantly the guitars and pop-punk that made them. While Monsters with a guest spot from blackbear crops up (which for the record, has a better chorus and more crunch than anything from Last Young Renegade), some of All Time Low’s best pop-punk songs of their career are also present. It feels like the four members are in equal stead again, the production actually seeking to highlight the contributions from everyone (especially good since everyone seems to have upped their game from last time). All Time Low have shown that consistency isn’t exactly their game when it comes to their discography, but it’s nice to be able to appreciate them being in a phase of quality again.

Taylor Swift
folklore & evermore

After 2019’s uber-pop Lover, no one (least of all the singer herself) expected not one, but two indie folk projects from Taylor Swift. Sister albums folklore and evermore mark a lot of changes in the way Swift does things – the extensive planning and sophisticated dropping of Easter eggs preceding the record’s releases were cut down massively and the expected two or three-year album cycle halted not even a year in. The sonic change is the most notable though, replacing sparkly, genre-hopping pop tunes with more bare-bones tracks fitting in more with collaborators The National and Bon Iver than with pop-girl stadium headliners. folklore and evermore serve as not only the best art to come out of this pandemic, but a refreshing reminder to never put pop artists in a box, especially ones with songwriting talents as excellent as Taylor Swift’s.

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