Favourite albums of 2020 (a personal list by SSP)

Did you catch our list of favourite songs earlier this month? We couldn’t end the year without showcasing some of our favourite albums for you too. Not every album ranked, but a few that helped get us through an impossibly rough year. If you see us covering more 2020 music next year after crawling out of isolation and discovering what we missed, no you didn’t.

Bri Rodriguez: Halsey’s Manic

Halsey - Manic album artwork

While 2020 has been the most challenging year I’ve endured, my chosen album of the year reminds me to not give up in these difficult times, no matter how weary I may feel; just focus on my personal journey, remain steadfast, and keep working towards my dreams amongst the hardships.

Manic brilliantly shines as Halsey’s strongest work to date. This record is a brutally honest collection of songs that strips away the Halsey persona, as Ashley Frangipane lays her soul bare and openly expresses her true self. The album feels like a personal diary — sharing one’s most inner thoughts and emotions. The theme of the album centrally focuses on the search to find yourself; embarking on a whirlwind journey as you strive to figure out who you are and determine how you fit into this world. The truth is that Ashley is just taking life one day at a time and still embracing who she is.

Vulnerable, honest, and introspective. Manic really is the most-fitting title for this work of art; a beautiful, cathartic experience that highlights the message of growth, self-discovery, and evolving — chasing after your dreams, while refusing to let others change you and being your true authentic self. 

“Now, if I figure this out, apart from my beating heart. / It’s a muscle, but it’s still not strong enough to carry the weight of the choices I’ve made.”

Zhenzhen Yu: Protomartyr’s Ultimate Success Today

Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today album artwork

Long ago, Joe Casey offhandedly promised to write a happy Protomartyr record, and he’s been regretting it ever since. (My Protomartyr interview bingo card making fun of this was, amusingly, even quoted in a German review.) 2017’s Relatives in Descent briefly toyed with an uncharacteristic beam of hope, concluding with the assurance that their titular character of truth was repeatedly “trying to reach you”. At the time, the album played coy with the outcome, depicting neither failure or success on part of their mysterious half sister’s inexorable task. But Ultimate Success Today violently discards that pretense with its opening lines: “I could not be reached / no matter how many times she repeats”. Misanthropic Protomartyr, back in business.

This band continues to completely fascinate me: they are a classically misanthropic punk group, while still operating in a brand of pessimism that none of their peers quite reach. The fear and anger embroiled in their music never feels contrived; it knows where to masquerade under facetiousness, and it knows when to briefly, blindingly reveal itself. Listening to Joe Casey’s brutal delivery of the line “I was frightened, always frightened” on closer “Worm in Heaven”, you’re struck with the realization that there’s hardly any other vocalists– maybe none at all– who could pull off that line with the same candor. The line isn’t emotional theatre for him; it’s a frank admission. They’re not vulnerable for the aesthetic of being vulnerable, but vulnerable out of necessity.

And though Protomartyr’s often covered death (as post-punk groups are, you know, wont to do), this album seems to hover obsessively over the theme. I had the chance to talk with him this past December, and I asked him– like most everyone else who’d ever had the chance to talk with Joe Casey– for some book recommendations. “I read Cioran’s On Decay,” he said, before adding: “Which is probably too on the nose.” A Short History of Decay in question is a thin, dense set of essays from 1949 ruminating on the decline of Western civilization. After picking up Arcade Publishing’s English translation a few weeks later and managing to tread through its terribly advanced, deeply cynical prose (my fault for asking the guy from Protomartyr for a book rec), I noticed one particular quote:

If the Roman historians never fail to describe the agony of their emperors, it is in order to place within them a sentence or an exclamation which the latter uttered or were supposed to have uttered. This is true for all deathbeds, even the most ordinary. That life signifies nothing, everyone knows or suspects; let it at least be saved by a turn of phrase! A sentence at the corners of their life—that is about all we ask of the great—and of the small.

Joe Casey is, by his own admission, fond of things “falling apart”. Almost every interview from Ultimate Success Today’s press cycle centers around mortality. Not necessarily his mortality (and Casey’s tired of reviewers talking about that: just take the lyrics to unreleased track “Spectators”), but the mortality of the band, or of the legacy of his words. There’s always a song about writing songs on every Protomartyr record, and for good reason: at decade’s end, Casey is left wondering what will happen to these pieces of himself he’s left scattered across various streaming services and shuttered independent record stores. A sentence at the corners of their life, indeed. And so, fittingly, the record circles obsessively around decay, reflected physically in its discordant, almost no wave influences. At this point, it’s lazy to describe any Protomartyr record as “paranoid”, but when the first horns kick in on “Day Without End”, building into a cacophonous font of dread until you can’t truly think of any other word. There is literally almost nothing for me to criticize here, musically. Maybe I could do with a faster intro to “Bridge & Crown”, and maybe the mixing could be a little cleaner, but that’s more or less all I can think of. Right from No Passion All Technique, the other three fourths of Protomartyr has gone full throttle at pitch-perfect punk songwriting. In the wonderful Greg Ahee, this band has what many other guitar groups are missing: clear-eyed ambition. With every passing year, he knows exactly where the band needs to go, and they take the music there in perfectly measured steps. They build and build with every record, adding synths and strings and various members of The Breeders, until they can translate Casey’s soothsayer-like reckonings into pure musical form.

But death and paranoia aside, there’s a mature, grander acceptance in this record, too. “Grass has grown over me,” Casey says on “Worm in Heaven”, the quiet resignation of the line drawing a parallel to Consolation E.P.‘s brash “pull that sheet right over me”. The bridge of “Michigan Hammers” is one of the most profoundly moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Very rarely would you ever describe Protomartyr as calm or reassuring, yet this bridge is the eye in the aggressive art punk hurricane of the full song, beautifully contradicted by the fact that Casey’s singing about something apocalyptic as usual: “Off the coast of Veracruz, they threw them overboard / some made it to shore”. And he opens standout “The Aphorist” with another wordy mouthful: “We’re all mowing esoteric patterns in the grass, a fast and fading echo of ancient Nazca man, who carved his lines upon the desert floor in hopes to catch the eye of some forgotten god, to delight a passing thunderbird, or win patronage of a sky-jaguar knit of stars.” Another song about writing songs, then, but this one is tinged in the hope he’d supposedly excised with this record’s opening lines. Maybe there was never a god, a thunderbird, a sky jaguar. Most of us will never know. But the wondrous lines that man left behind still fascinate us to this day; we’re just not the witnesses he was expecting.

And if anything, the record ends with the opposite of decay: blackout, with no further answers. Casey is cut off mid sentence. The guitars and percussion fall off. And in some beautiful way, it’s an apt conclusion to the five-act play that has been Protomartyr’s profound, unerring influence on the strange and lonely world of post-punk in the 2010s.

Paige Williams: The OBGMs’ The Ends

The OBGMs - The Ends album artwork

I love finding albums that get me excited all over again for a genre I’ve become comfortable with. The OBGMs floored me this year with The Ends. I’m so thankful it arrived when it did. It feels like a collage of every punk and punk-adjacent band I’ve ever loved, without sounding specifically like any of them. I hear glimmers of PUP, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billy Talent, but the entire album is wholly theirs. My standout tracks have changed often, but the throne is currently held by “Triggered” and “All My Friends.”

Chatting with Denz about the album in our interview added another layer to it. Hearing his thoughts on what pieces a label added to the chess board for them, and the long road between their last release and this one… knowing more about the process makes me appreciate it even more. They warned me The Ends would be unlike any other punk album I’ve heard in recent years, and they didn’t let me down.

Zhenzhen Yu

Zhen is a music writer specializing in post-punk, though she listens to just about everything new. She is working on an English Literature degree at New York University, and is a moderator at /r/indieheads. Her other recreational interests include wasps, burning things behind Asian supermarkets, and wasps again.

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