The Soundboard’s Albums Of The Year 2020

Luke Nuttall (Editor / Writer)

Four Year Strong
Brain Pain

Yeah, it’s cooled a bit since February, but Four Year Strong remain one of modern pop-punk’s most enduringly worthwhile bands on Brain Pain. They’ve pretty much nailed the balance between brawny, shout-along melodies and a legitimate heaviness that feels fresh and exciting in almost every aspect, and even with a more insular lyrical focus this time, that punch hasn’t been dulled a single bit. On top of having some of this year’s prime hooks that have withstood pretty much since release, Brain Pain really does hit the sweet spot that Four Year Strong have more or less monopolised by now. Great stuff.

Sharptooth
Transitional Forms

Whereas Sharptooth’s Clever Girl was an out-and-out shock to the system for just how it came out of nowhere, Transitional Forms achieves the same effect by being a straight-up improvement in every sense. They took what was already a rock-solid template within modern hardcore, and made the riffs heavier, the commentary more caustic, but the lightness in execution a bit more pronounced. For their bleak subject matter, there isn’t a dourness to Sharptooth’s execution at all, and thus Transitional Forms stands as a surprisingly easy album to listen to – seriously, it just flies by – and also to like. That was never under any doubt, but the fact that Sharptooth have topped themselves to this extent is honestly mindblowing.

The Killers
Imploding The Mirage

Let’s get it out of the way early – this is The Killers’ best album. It’s an odd thing to say in 2020, but Imploding The Mirage defies expectations to such a degree that it really can’t be ignored. It might be the band playing to their strengths of vast American indie-rock, but rarely have they pulled it off with this level of panache or drive, only amplified by the inherent accessibility of a band with this much radio experience on their shoulders. All of that comes together for one of the best comfort food musical experiences of the year – it’s not going to change the world, but it has every ingredient to hit the right spot almost unfailingly.

Svalbard
When I Die, Will I Get Better?

Svalbard’s When I Die, Will I Get Better? was a grower, but only in the sense that it started off excellent and eventually wound up as the best hardcore album of the year. Though to call this a strict hardcore album would be to ignore that ornate, enormous presentation that’s always come from the implementation of black metal textures, now ramped up to their absolute extreme for a sound that’s equal parts gorgeous, intoxicating and harrowing. They’ve mastered how to give the viciousness of the lyrics their emotive punch without fail, in the relative slow burn that opens out more with each subsequent listen and only gets better. In short, it’s a triumph in intelligent heavy music that’s going to be hard for Svalbard to even approach beating.

Bring Me The Horizon
Post Human: Survival Horror

It’s not like Bring Me The Horizon offered a great deal more than they have previously with this release, but it’s the fact that they’ve zeroed in so tightly on what makes their modern incarnation great that makes it work so well. The step back to more forceful rock was always going to be a crowd-pleaser, but there’s still pliability here, in wide-reaching and unexpected collaborations and a sound that feels incredibly contemporary in the sources it pulls from. If there’s a band that fully fits the definition of ‘modern rock’ and wrings out every drop of potential that phrase has, it’s Bring Me The Horizon, with the sort of charged and restlessly creative material that consistently swings for the fences, and almost always hits.

Dua Lipa
Future Nostalgia

So remember how The Killers put of out one of the best comfort food musical experiences this year? Well this is the best, an album that so shamelessly cribs from classic synthpop at almost every turn, but has the self-assuredness and unabashed cool to make it all work. The last couple of tracks might feel a bit disconnected overall, but otherwise, it’s hard to find a song on Future Nostalgia that doesn’t trigger a flooding endorphin rush, as some of the catchiest, tightest pop music of this year from a performer who’s more than established her status as a real modern icon. Dua Lipa isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but she’s liberally greasing it up to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and on those terms, Future Nostalgia frequently feels unbeatable.

Creeper
Sex, Death & The Infinite Void

It feels like the furore of excitement that perpetually follows Creeper around hasn’t been as active in 2020, and that’s remarkably undeserved for a band who continue to push themselves and deliver great music while doing so. Sure, it mightn’t be quite to the level of their debut, but Sex, Death & The Infinite Void is the subsequent expansion of everything great about Creeper – the hooks; the theatrics; the bombast – and allowed to simmer and burn with a slower, but no less potent intensity. For a band on their career path, this is an expected next step, and another batch of wonderfully written songs steeped in gothic Americana bears exactly the sort of melodrama that this band are so great at pulling off. It’s long been established that Creeper can do no wrong, and a pivot like this only solidifies that notion even further.

Rina Sawayama
Sawayama

Modern pop music needs someone like Rina Sawayama. Hell, to call her strictly pop is underselling what this debut album does, but within that particular ecosystem, this is far and away one of the most creative and vibrant albums that could exist within a mainstream space. At its most straightforward pop foundation, Sawayama has an ear for razor-sharp melodies and dynamic ballads that artists with multiple years the experience wouldn’t be able to muster, and when factoring in elements of nu-metal, J-rock, synth-rock and even G-funk – all of which are perfectly complementary in their respective moments – it genuinely feels like her potential is limitless. It’s also unfailingly accessible despite its genre shifts, making Sawayama’s presence as a pop polymath all the stronger and more refined. In other words, a must-listen from a superstar-in-waiting.

Spanish Love Songs
Brave Faces Everyone

If there’s been one band that’s inexplicably used 2020 to launch themselves into real critical darling territory, it would be Spanish Love Songs. With the benefit of hindsight, the release of this album in February rings as eerily prophetic for the unending months of turbulence this year, but that’s only made what’s already an absolute triumph within modern punk work even more. They’ve got the grit and heart in their sound that’s a necessity within alt-punk like this, and they really do deliver a sense of crunch and weight that’s excellent on its own, but it’s the writing that really stands out and puts Spanish Love Songs in a true league of their own. There’s a reality to the poverty and destitution on display that feels so achingly potent, with a kernel of light at the centre that’s acknowledged, but never as a means of diminishing the torrents of hardship and struggle that it takes to get there. It’s pragmatic in a way that albums like this aren’t always, just one more thread in the elaborate tapestry of Spanish Love Songs that makes Brave Faces Everyone such an awe-inspiring album.

Enter Shikari
Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible

Enter Shikari’s Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible has always felt like the one to watch when it came to Album Of The Year. Even in the face of Spanish Love Songs or Rina Sawayama delivering great, pertinent music statements, there’s always been something about this album that’s just pipped them to the post. It’s hard to isolate specifically what it is, particularly when it encompasses the punk spirit of the former and ironclad pop songcraft of the latter, but it makes itself known across this album, and absolutely soars because of it. This has some of Enter Shikari’s most exciting ideas to date, while simultaneously feeling refined and measured, taking the scrappy what’s-a-genre? approach of their early material and mixing it with the cutting-edge arena-rock of their later work. And when song after song just seems to continually reinforce the idea of a band who’ve continued to push themselves on every release, that’s something special that’s lived up to on this album in spades. Moreover though, this is the album that felt like the most concise shot of adrenaline that 2020 could muster, holding itself in the maelstrom but looking to burst out in a white-hot beam of light regardless, and pulling that off is the sign of a truly transcendent band and album.


Georgia Jackson (Deputy Editor / Writer)

Hayley Williams
Petals For Armor

2020 saw the release of the Hayley Williams solo album many have wanted for years, but Petals For Armor wasn’t made to meet expectations. A vessel for visceral emotion rather than a showcase for what ‘the singer from Paramore’ can do, Petals For Armor sees Williams delve further into her depression and personal life, singing in often hushed tones over sprawling soundscapes. It’s much more experimental territory for an artist whose last release was largely vibrant, ’80s-inspired pop rock, and it makes every sensation all the more palpable. For every quietly bubbling track about uncomfortable, ugly emotions like Simmer or Leave It Alone there’s an eruption of celebration like Cinnamon or Over Yet that take you on just as much of a journey. Petals For Armor is Hayley Williams pushing herself in unforeseen but necessary ways that feel just as innate as Paramore’s technicolour, and it’s definitely the most interesting statement she’s made as an artist.

Lady Gaga
Chromatica

If there’s anything this year has called for it’s escapism, something Lady Gaga gave us unrestricted access to on Chromatica. A record of house-drenched joy, pulsing beats and zero ballads or lulls in pace, it’s completely over the top and theatrical, filling a void left by 2016’s more toned down Joanne. Lyrically, Gaga lays everything bare, and her honesty and the picture she paints of vulnerability and subsequent resilience through songs like 911 and Plastic Doll is the final piece of the puzzle, giving weight to lyrics that would sound cheesy and out-of-touch coming from some other artists. It’s a perfect concoction of factors that result in some of Gaga’s best songs in years – the oodles-of-fun Madonna homage Babylon, gargantuan Engima or the untouchable Rain On Me featuring Ariana Grande – and it’s a guise that suits her much more than anything more toned down and ‘grown up’ she’s tried over the years. Lady Gaga has created a real safe haven with Chromatica, tailor-made for both individual solace for the dark days and for dancefloor liberation when the time finally comes.

All Time Low
Wake Up, Sunshine

After 2017’s Last Young Renegade, the second big pandering lull in All Time Low’s career, plenty of people had them completely written off, exiled to the hall of fallen pop-punk greats. Wake Up, Sunshine saw guitars and huge anthems make a glorious return, some of the band’s best songs in years coming in the form of lead single Some Kind Of Disaster and Melancholy Kaleidoscope. The pop turns All Time Low have made previously have somewhat influenced everything going on here to a degree (Monsters featuring Blackbear is easily the most likeable step in such a direction they’ve ever made), but something about Getaway Green or January Gloom (Seasons, Pt. 1) feels like teenage pop-punk home. It feels good to have All Time Low back on form, even better to have them back with songs like this.

Enter Shikari
Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible

At this point, it doesn’t feel like it’s possible to be disappointed by an Enter Shikari album. They’re a comfort blanket of chaos and a voice of reason in trying times – something needed more than ever in this farce of a year – yet still push themselves further than anyone could have expected they even still could. Nothing Is True…showcases the seamless blend of industrial EDM and rock (and everything in-between) influences, but adding the new dimension of classical music. Instrumental symphony Elegy For Extinction fits just as well in Shikari’s repertoire as the garage and metal. Everything with Shikari works so well because of the care and pure immersion they put into all aspects of their sound – there’s an evident love for all genres but a clear knowledge of how to effectively reproduce them (this record being the first produced by singer Rou Reynolds certainly helping matters). The fact that Enter Shikari can still push themselves to this extent despite how all-encompassing they seem to be (all while writing gems like {The Dreamer’s Hotel} and satellites* *) makes them more than deserving of a place on this list.

Creeper
Sex, Death & The Infinite Void

Are any bands operating on anywhere near the same level as Creeper at the moment? Crafting sublime punk-tinged bangers inside narratively rich worlds at the drop of a hat is commonplace for them, all drenched in delicious drama. Sex, Death & The Infinite Void saw them branch out, seamlessly incorporating doo-wop, surf rock and endless nods to heroes like Bowie, T-Rex and Roy Orbison into songs made for a seedy, decadent LA. Though worlds away from 2017’s Eternity, In Your Arms on paper, none of what makes Creeper Creeper has been sacrificed, rather reshaped and renovated. Annabelle and Be My End still have the magic ability to make you want to scream at the top of your lungs no matter where you are, while Four Years Ago ups the game Crickets played in the ballad stakes with Hannah Greenwood providing more of a valued counterpoint to Will Gould than ever. Sex, Death & The Infinite Void is just a glorious and elevated slice of Creeper sorcery set to inspire and ignite a whole new generation of rock fans in a way that’s so far away from trend-hopping.

Halsey
Manic

Long pushed as a crossover artist between the alternative and pop worlds, Manic saw Halsey become just that on a massive, arena-headlining scale. It’s her most outwardly ambitious record, drawing on everything from country to synthpop to rock and every emotion on the spectrum. It’s also her most, and arguably first, real step into expressing who she really is instead of hiding behind a concept or fictional story. Forever…(is a long time) and the beautiful clementine and express stark emotions with Halsey’s trademark poetic lyrics, her writing style given more of a chance to shine than ever with this new, super personal perspective. Such flitting between genres would feel hollow with most other chart stars on this scale, but every song truly feels like an extension of Halsey conveyed through excellent pop songwriting. Elaborate concepts are impressive when done well, but for Halsey, Manic proves that just being herself is absolutely more than enough.

The Aces
Under My Influence

Irresistible guitar-pop anthems are pure bliss when they’re gotten right, and The Aces have made getting them right their M.O. since they started putting out music. This year’s Under My Influence saw them do some experimenting when it comes to their sound, ridding themselves of the sunkissed vibes of debut When My Heart Felt Volcanic and trying on reggae and dreamy synths like they’re in a shopping spree changing room. This is a band who’ve built themselves on relatability and this record is their most heart-on-sleeve yet, openly singing about queer relationships, growing up in a small, conservative state and being a young person in a social media-dominated society. All this with the earworm hooks of Daydream, New Emotion and Lost Angeles yet again show a pop force to be reckoned with, one who have a magic package as-is, but still room to grow and become an even more exciting prospect.

Gabrielle Aplin
Dear Happy

In pop, there’s definitely a pressure to be the boldest artist with the biggest showstopper of a 25-track concept album to get any scrap of attention from anyone. But Gabrielle Aplin showed you needn’t be too flashy to make an impact – Dear Happy doesn’t try to make some grand statement or attach everything together with some vague idea for a concept, it’s simply a showcase of one artist’s evolution into a more multi-faceted form. Aplin’s delicate, pretty vocal sounds magnificent against thick walls of synths like on Invisible, on quirkier, busier soundscapes like Kintsugi or Like You Say You Do or leading a sweeping, emotional ballad like My Mistake. You can practically hear the doors open for Gabrielle Aplin on Dear Happy, and it’s a heavenly record for her to start a new era of her career with.

Dua Lipa
Future Nostalgia

Everyone would have expected Dua Lipa, the leading candidate for Britain’s newest huge pop export, to play it safe on her second record – put out another New Rules and the deal would be sealed. Instead, she chose to do something far more inspired, combining her favourite music of decades past with that of today and calling it Future Nostalgia. This is such a perfectly contained record – everything present is a complete embodiment of the project’s title, using samples, disco breaks, rap-singing, funky bass lines, almost anything within reach to perfectly capture aspects of the ’70s or the ’90s while never feeling dated. Lipa herself is a through-and-through professional, selling every mood, musical swell and syllable with her slinky vocal, a voice that commands the listener to join her in her escapist clubland on songs like Levitating, Hallucinate or self-proclaimed “dance-crying” anthem Break My Heart, songs that entice you to swing your hips themselves after mere seconds. Future Nostalgia is a record with absolutely no let-up when it comes to energy or quality, proving Dua Lipa as not only Britain’s most exciting pop export, but a potential future pop auteur.

Taylor Swift
folklore / evermore

Yes, it might be cheating to have two albums at the number one spot, but it genuinely feels impossible to separate folklore and evermore. Sister albums, folklore the more serene and rose-tinted eldest, evermore more experimental and assured younger, these records represent the biggest musical shakeup of Taylor Swift’s career. Her glossy pop exterior is stripped back to a completely natural indie folk (with the help of collaborators Aaron Dessner of The National fame and Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon), telling fictional stories (instead of using Swift’s personal life as source material) evolving her already masterful lyricism to a whole new level. The amount of highlights across this collective body of work is unprecedented, especially in a time of overly long releases designed to rake in streaming revenue. champagne problems, exile, ‘tis the damn season or the last great american dynasty could all be a career-best song if released in any other era of her career – now they’re impossible to choose between. Something about these records just feels untouchably special – the lockdown circumstances in which they were created, the unlikely collaborators, the extent to which they both show off and push further Swift’s skills as an artist – and even though the future is uncertain when it comes to where Taylor Swift will go after this, folklore and evermore are masterpieces that will serve as snapshots of 2020 for as long as people listen to them.


Holly Royle (Writer)

Ad Infinitum
Chapter I: Monarchy

Haunting symphonic metal, the plague doctor imagery perfectly fits 2020, whether intentional or not! Melissa’s vocals are wonderful powerful and delicate, amongst the enticing music. The new symphonic metallers are a wonderful addition to the subgenre, and it will be wonderful to see them grow in the scene.  

Dark Tranquillity
Moment

The soundscape of the entire album feels immensely vast; there’s a powerful other worldly quality that creates a fascinating atmosphere to the music. The combination of style and metal subgenre influences create something very distinctive.

Skeletal Remains
The Entombment Of Chaos

This album is incredibly eerie and atmospheric throughout. The heaviness is intense with cleverly composed and arranged tracks that deliver something a bit different. Skeletal Remains have produced a powerful album that well and truly drags you into the depths and entombs you in chaos.

The Ocean Collective
Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic

Having released a number of critically acclaimed albums over the years, their 2020 album does not disappoint. The album is astonishing musically and deserves to have time spent on it, delving into the intricacies and details of each track. It’s an incredible addition to the progressive metal of this year.

Nightwish
Human. :||: Nature.

This is an incredibly unique album. Floor as usual delivers incredible vocals and her voice fits Tuomas’ intricate compositions. From start to finish the compositional ideas, performance and production are clearly of a ridiculously high standard. There are so many ideas packed into this album that it does feel a little chaotic and disjointed at times. But, the album focuses on human nature… in this respect, it’s conceptually apt.

Orbit Culture
Nija

There are so many dimensions to Orbit Culture’s dark sound; it’s great to see the wide range of soundscapes and genre influences explored on this album. Changes in their line up in recent years hasn’t impacted their sound. The metallers have woven together a sound that grounds them whilst allowing experimentation.

In This Moment
Mother

The industrial heavy aspect, power of Maria’s vocals and songwriting styles have continued to evolve with In This Moment. They’ve come a long way from the release of early hit Beautiful Tragedy but it’s nice to see their history referenced in the chorus lyrics of The In-Between.

Cabal
Drag Me Down

Dark and heavy AF. Stonking delicious guitar tones throughout the entire album (although possibly not too surprising considering Chris is an expert in this area!) Andreas’ epic vocals don’t falter and work so well in every track. This album in particular is so enjoyable as it has more variety on it. Having not heard their discography before hearing this album I had no idea what to expect. Going back through their previous releases, Cabal, have some incredibly dark and haunting tracks and it’s great seeing how they evolve with each release.

Delain
Apocalypse & Chill

Delain have developed their sound over their career with every release and their 2020 album is no different. The Dutch symphonic metallers took a new direction with their sound seeing Charlotte explore new vocal styles, as well as new compositional exploration with Martijn. The album also sees Timo contribute vocals, and an instrumental track showing off his guitar and Joey’s percussion. It’s not the heaviest album, nor the most symphonic but there is something unique about their sound that works so well. With such an apt album title for this year, it’s almost like they new the events that would unfold!

Oceans Of Slumber
Oceans Of Slumber

The US progressive metallers have created an entirely new level to aim for with this album. It’s beautiful raw, human, everything they are so good at but with more ‘muchness’. They have grown so much as an ensemble and it really shows.

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