Last year I did a list of my top 5 albums of the year and decided it might be fun to do so again for this year as well. Obviously the music landscape, much like everything, was affected pretty significantly by the still ongoing global pandemic so some albums I was really looking forward to got pushed back to 2021 at the earliest. This means that the pickings were pretty slim this year in terms of album releases I liked enough to talk about. I bought a lot of music this year but not a lot of it actually came out in 2020 so I really only listened to five albums that came out this year. So it’s still a ranked list, but nothing else was left out. I inevitably missed some good stuff (like I do every year) but these five stood out to me as worthy of discussion.
5. Lockdown – Gaz Brookfield
This one’s more interesting than outright good. As you probably gathered from the name, this is Gaz Brookfield’s way of processing his feelings and experiences in the pandemic, recorded in his own home instead of the studio he’s been using for his last few albums. The songwriting is as good as ever, as Brookfield takes the listener through his life and thoughts from the past year: be it his despair at the very fact that lockdown is happening, to the solace he found in his motorcycle rides, to his righteous and justified anger at the UK government. But the production leaves a lot to be desired for me. I totally understand that he couldn’t record in a studio because that would be unsafe, but that doesn’t change the fact that this sounds notably different and arguably worse than his previous albums.
I especially wonder how I’ll feel about this album in a few years. Will it be a powerful reminder to learn from the most collectively traumatic time in our generation so it doesn’t happen again? Or will the negative emotions still be too raw to make it an enjoyable listen? I really hope it’ll be the former but I fear it might be the latter. In the Bandcamp description for the album Brookfield says he’ll probably never tour this album, and I honestly don’t blame him. It’s been hard on all of us and I can’t hold it against anyone if they’d just rather not be reminded.
4. West Coast vs Wessex – NOFX and Frank Turner
Fun fact: I used to listen to NOFX back in high school. Not enough to really consider myself a fan, but at the very least enough to recognize what their deal is. So imagine my surprise when, about 8 years since I stopped listening to them, I bought another one of their albums. Admittedly it was mostly because it was a split album with my favorite artist of all time, but NOFX pulled their weight pretty well on their half as well. I was pretty unsure about it when it was announced, but the first two singles, Bob and Thatcher Fucked The Kids, were strong enough to make me pretty excited.
I bought it on release day, right as the lockdown here was getting loosened enough that I could consider making some actual plans again (with sufficient physical distancing of course), and I listened to it a lot in the weeks that followed. I’ll admit I found NOFX’s half to be weaker than Frank Turner’s half, as Fat Mike is kind of a flat singer and the arrangements (with the exception of Thatcher Fucked The Kids) were pretty standard skate punk stuff. Turner meanwhile, mixed it up a little more, with his version of Bob basically being a country song and Falling In Love being moody, slow, and atmospheric with some dark synth instrumentation. If the NOFX half was stronger this probably would have rated higher, but a few months after buying it I basically only listen to the Frank Turner half anymore.
3. Curse of the Crystal Coconut – Alestorm
Alestorm are the band on this list I’ve consistently been listening to the longest. Like NOFX I got into them in high school, but unlike NOFX I’ve kept listening to them since then. They’re one of the few metal bands I still regularly listen to, and I have to give them a lot of credit for staying entertaining enough to keep me listening for about 10 years now which is especially impressive for a band as gimmicky as they are. They’ve been active as Alestorm since 2007 and they show no signs of slowing down, as Curse of the Crystal Coconut was another mostly fun ride with some real highlights.
My initial impression was actually pretty negative. I saw the music videos for Tortuga and Treasure Chest Party Quest on YouTube and didn’t really like them at first. But the more I listened to them, the more they grew on me. I eventually did end up buying the album, and while it’s not my favorite of theirs, it was still a real bright point in this awful year. Tortuga is the real highlight of the album for me, as it’s the freshest they’ve sounded in a long time due to its hip hop influence. I get a real carefree vibe from this album. They’ve stopped worrying too much about how people perceive them and are just focused on making the music they want to make. Admittedly there are still some tracks on here that feel like generic filler, but the highs are high enough for me to sincerely recommend it. It’s just a good time.
2. In Sickness & in Flames – The Front Bottoms
The Front Bottoms are a new acquisition in my music library, having only discovered them this past September, but I’ve been very happy with their presence in my life since then. They’re a bit of an odd band: stylistically on the line between folk punk and emo, they feel like they would have been popular in the mid-2000’s along with Panic! At The Disco but here they are in 2020, probably the most successful they’ve ever been. They might not get on the pop charts but being on Fueled By Ramen records is a good enough sign that they’re going places.
In Sickness & in Flames is their seventh full-length album and maintains the traditions of occasionally clumsy but undeniably heartfelt lyrics and off-kilter singing that define their sound. Their earnesty may come off as a little goofy sometimes but it’s exactly that earnesty that drew me to them in the first place. I really appreciate honest attempts at genuine emotion in songwriting, and In Sickness & in Flames has it in spades. Highlights of the album include camouflage, montgomery forever, and bus beat but honestly there isn’t a bad song on this album. Their 2013 album Talon of the Hawk is also definitely worth your time.
1. Good Luck Everybody – AJJ
AJJ are another newcomer to my music collection as of this year but boy have they been welcome.Their blend of folk instruments with a little punk influence is something I’ve been a fan of for years, and now that I’ve gotten used to the vocals (that was a bit of a process, admittedly) I listen to them quite a bit. It’s gotten to the point where their 2020 release Good Luck Everybody is my favorite album of the year and 2011’s Knife Man is one of my favorite albums of all time. They’re such a fantastic band.
Released in January of 2020, this album is exactly what I needed to get through the year. The powerfully political lyrics are the main strength of the album, as they take the listener through the cynical feelings the band had about 2019 and the hope they have that the future might be better. It’s that shred of hope, small though it has been, that I’ve clung onto through this truly awful year. I have to hope that the future will be better, that we can finally start learning from our mistakes and try to make a better world out of the ashes of the old one. AJJ kept me going this year, and I sincerely hope that they’ll continue to do so for many years to come.