There’s an excellent photo wherein a man is washing his car in the midst of a rainstorm — a redundant and pointless activity that is likely a signal of an impending downward spiral. If 2020 was good for anything, it’s the amount of inspiring indie music that has served as a glimmer of hope and kept us from that place of washing our car during a rainstorm. There were a lot of these bright moments in the indie rock canon this year, even when the world at large felt dark.
With many artists incorporating everything from jazz to R&B to folk to punk into the span of a single album, the term “genre-defiant” has lost all meaning, and much of what was released has instead implored the music world at large to take a step back and simply widen the definition of what “indie” music can be. Whether it be breakout debuts from Blackstarkids, Bartees Strange, and Dogleg, or defining statements from veteran acts like Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, and The Killers, 2020 had a lot to offer, musically.
It’s never too late to try and find the silver linings of a difficult time, so check out our ranking of the year’s 30 best indie albums below.
30. Sault – Untitled (Rise)
To tell the truth, it’s hard to know exactly what genre list to slot Sault into. Weaving together elements of jazz, soul, R&B, and funk, this mysterious duo offered up two game-changing albums in 2020, without really letting the world know much at all about them. But it’s the kind of music that needs no context besides the world that it’s released into, sounding like the sound of revolution as it appeared on the cusp of happening around us.–Philip Cosores
29. Ratboys – Printer’s Devil
On their previous releases, this excellent Chicago band functioned as a duo backed by a revolving cast of musicians. But on Printer’s Devil, Ratboys have morphed into a big-sounding rock band, with guitarist Dave Sagan’s fattened riffs pushing singer-songwriter Julia Steiner out of her introspective comfort zone and toward something more aggressive and commanding, evoking the glory days of super-catchy late-’90s pop-punk.–Steven Hyden
28. Samia – The Baby
After several short-form projects over the last few years, Samia’s long-awaited debut album The Baby showcases her most focused and refined work to date. Across its eleven tracks, The Baby creates a world that is lush and ambient, filled with biting lyrics delivered across a spectrum of different vocal stylings that revel in the process of learning how to be yourself, with nobody’s help but your own.–Zac Gelfand
27. Kevin Morby – Sundowner
After leaving his comfortable life in the big city, Kevin Morby returned home to the suburbs of his Kansas City hometown. The change was jarring in more ways than one. He was suddenly faced with differing political opinions as well as a sense of longing nostalgia during sunset. Pouring all these emotions into a 4-track Tascam in a shed on his property, Morby successfully captured the vastness of the American landscape (political and otherwise) in his serene album Sundowner.–Carolyn Droke
26. Blackstarkids – Whatever, Man
Blackstarkids got signed to Dirty Hit (The 1975, Beabadoobee) just a few days after sending the label a cold email. Just out of high school, the signing story is a testament to the young group’s versatility, one that is reinforced on Whatever Man, an album that is impressive in its scope, incorporating each member’s wide-ranging influences into one coherent and focused piece of work.–Zac Gelfand
25. Young Jesus – Welcome To Conceptual Beach
At a time when many artists seem content to mine the same relatively narrow sonic and thematic terrains of long-established archetypes — “the punk band,” “the confessional singer-songwriter,” “the indie-pop star” — this Los Angeles band strikes out with an uncommonly bold sound that aspires to the overpowering emotional directness of indie’s grandest classics from the ’90s and ’00s, while also exploring experimental, even esoteric instrumental textures deriving from jazz-inspired improvisations that often push their songs past the 10-minute mark.–S.H.
24. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
The Canadian favorite earned a Polaris Prize nomination for his previous album, 2016’s The Party, and his new release from the top of the year, The Neon Skyline, has earned similar acclaim. In a time when attention spans are dead goldfish short, Shauf uses his album as an impactful storytelling device that shows off his exemplary abilities both musical and narrative.–Derrick Rossignol
23. Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream
While Jeff Rosenstock’s intentions have always been pure, what sets his fourth album apart is how good he has gotten at sweetening his politically charged songs with irresistible pop touches like squealing synths, power-pop guitar jangle, and infectiously danceable rhythms. Rosenstock confirms every suspicion you have about how the system is corrupt and must be destroyed, and then his music reminds you that being alive still deserves to be celebrated.–S.H.
22. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
On his 2017 breakout album Drunk, LA jazz panjandrum Thundercat held back little, exposing all the goofy, gross, and horny thoughts on his mind. I hesitate to say he grew up on It Is What It Is, but the concerns are a little more farsighted and forward-looking. They’re also a little sad; in the years since Drunk, ‘Cat’s gotten a little older, he’s seen his close friend Mac Miller overdose, he’s gone through the same insane downward news spiral we all have and he’s emerged more or less intact, but not unchanged. He can still be a little silly — “Dragonball Durag” is a damn delight — but songs like “Black Qualls” show the cracks just under the surface. There’s a smile in his eyes but tears building in the corners — held back only by his acceptance of the hand he’s been dealt which, dammit, he’s going to play. –Aaron Williams
21. Jason Isbell – Reunions
Back in the aughts, Jason Isbell was a hard-drinking malcontent who struggled — against himself more than anything — to realize his potential. Over time, however, he would become one of the most respected songwriters in the game. His seventh album, Reunions, feels like the culmination of this evolution, with a collection of songs that feature some of his finest writing yet on the struggles to be good in a trying world, set to sturdy-as-ever classic-rock melodies.–S.H.
20. Jean Dawson – Pixel Bath
Jean Dawson grew up going back and forth between Mexico and the US, which led to a lot of musical exposure for the artist, which has resulted in a truly diverse new album in 2020. That descriptor gets thrown around a lot in music when an artist does two or more things well, but Pixel Bath has both indie rock and an ASAP Rocky guest spot.–D.R.
19. Grimes – Miss Antropocene
Whether she’s surviving on spaghetti for two years, unsuccessfully naming her first child X Æ A-12, or creating a sleep lullaby app, Grimes consistently proves she’s in a lane of her own. Her fifth studio album Miss Anthropocene reflects the same newfangled approach to pop by bridging dark synths with brooding lyrics and AI futurism while taking some surprisingly personal turns.–C.D.
18. Dogleg – Melee
Dogleg is a young band that thrives on stage, but even though they haven’t been able to tour behind their debut album, Melee is still clearly some of the best (punk) music 2020 has to offer. It’s an in-your-face album that also takes listeners inside the head of Alex Stoitsiadis, who tackles some personal issues with his full force.–D.R.
17. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
When it was announced that The Strokes were working with Rick Rubin, it was natural to assume that The New Abnormal would be a deliberate evocation of Is This It. But The New Abnormal, thankfully, is not that. It sounds, in fact, like an amalgam of the ’80s synth-pop and stoner-experimental chicanery of the previous two Strokes albums, but with stronger songs, like “The Adults Are Talking” and “At The Door.”–Steven Hyden
16. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
The debut effort from Beabadoobee sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a teen movie, and that’s exactly what 20-year-old Bea Kristi was going for. Taking equal inspiration from the biggest grunge acts and lo-fi indie staples, Fake It Flowers is an epic film score for growing up, with moments ripe for a party, and others that beg for introspection. — Z.G.
15. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Although it might feel like decades at this point, the latest effort from Kevin Parker was released only a few months ago. Awash in blissful soundscapes and dissonant reverb-soaked guitars, The Slow Rush boasts Parker’s refined and increasingly undeniable pop hooks that make Tame Impala one of the most revered acts in modern indie.–Z.G.
14. Adrianne Lenker – Songs
It’s no secret that Big Thief vocalist Adrianne Lenker is an incredibly prolific artist but the past year has confirmed the notion. After the lockdown put the band’s two-album tour plans on hold, Lenker retreated to an isolated cabin in western Massachusetts. Her time in quarantine resulted in the tender album Songs, which showcases Lenker’s poetic songwriting while bringing her wooded surroundings to life through samples of babbling creeks and chirping birds.–C.D.
13. The Killers – Imploding The Mirage
The Killers have never been a band to be recognized by critics in the moment, with their albums gaining more esteem with each passing year. But the fans have always seen through that, with the Vegas rockers now showing more of a cultural footprint and influence than many of their “cooler” peers. So it’s nice to see their return to anthemic form, Imploding The Mirage, getting its deserved due from both sides of the aisle, as the band smartly looked to both collaborators and their own history to craft one of the most delightful and sturdy efforts of 2020.–Philip Cosores
12. Khruangbin – Mordechai
Khruangbin tried something different this year by linking up with Leon Bridges for the collaborative Texas Sun EP, but they had another project that was more in their traditional wheelhouse. Their wheelhouse isn’t exactly traditional, though, as they continued to develop their increasingly successful incorporation of disparate rock influences.–Derrick Rossignol
11. Perfume Genius – Set Me On Fire Immediately
As the album title vividly suggests, Mike Hadreas’ latest Perfume Genius album is dramatic in an in-your-face way. That is territory he has navigated successfully throughout his career, but he chases it here perhaps more strongly than he ever has. He previously told Uproxx of the title, “It’s almost like a greediness for fuller feelings.”–D.R.
10. Bartees Strange – Live Forever
The debut album from Bartees Strange is also one of the most innovative and exciting LPs of 2020. Taking cues from alternative rock, hip hop, jazz, and everything in between, the eleven track effort is what Steven Hyden calls “a showcase for an artist who seems equally capable of sounding like The National, Frank Ocean, James Blake, or the dozens of artists that fit in the wide-open space between those reference points.” — Z.G.
9. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
Following the massive success of Soccer Mommy’s debut album Clean, the pressure was on for the 23-year-old to pen a compelling follow-up. Color Theory took on the challenge and then some by honing Soccer Mommy’s moody sound with layered production while using colors as lyrical and sonic inspiration. The album touches on themes of blue depression, yellow illness, and gray mourning through the lens of a 20-something still learning to find herself.–C.D.
8. Yaeji – What We Drew
“I’ve got waking up down,” Yaeji deadpans on her frenetic lead-off single, setting the tone for how muted her 2020 mixtape, What We Drew, will be. Singing and rapping in both Korean and English over foggy house production and jittering beats, she establishes herself as one of the year’s underrated pop stars, potentially a blueprint for how restrained voices might infiltrate the genre from the inside out. Leaning more into the producer role, but never backing off fantastic vocals and a flair for the dramatic, Yaeji is only just beginning to peel back her layers.–C.W.
7. Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
As Sturgill Simpson made clear speaking with Uproxx, his 2019 record Sound & Fury took that title to heart, with maybe an emphasis on the latter. But 2020 saw a Covid diagnosis and a canceled tour, with Simpson somewhat surprisingly sounding more at peace than ever on Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions). The songs may not be new — they are bluegrass renditions of past favorites — but the spirit of them is something fresh, as Simpson finds a perfect marriage for his classic country croon. The resulting record was a beacon during a particularly rough year for his audience, with Simpson playing the role of steadfast captain with particular grace.–P.C.
6. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
Yves Tumor spent the past few years establishing himself as a compelling enough creative force to join the esteemed ranks of Warp Records artists. 2020 brought the experimental artist’s second album for the label, Heaven To A Tortured Mind, and it saw him present his adventurous tendencies in more accessible ways. As Uproxx’s Philip Cosores previously noted, though, “As much as this is the most accessible album in Tumor’s career, it’s by no means easy.”–D.R.
5. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
After the debut album Stranger In The Alps catapulted her into the mainstream, fans were curious to see where Phoebe Bridgers would take her eloquent indie music next. Proving her knack for stirring lyricism, Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher is a collection of contemporary ballads for those coping with heartsick nostalgia, expertly striking a balance between soulful musings and refreshingly up-tempo tunes.–C.D.
4. Fleet Foxes – Shore
Though the album opens with a never-before-heard vocalist, Uwade Akhere, the surprise guest only makes the return of Robin Pecknold’s signature tenor all the more sweet a song later. On “Sunblind,” the strongest song of Fleet Foxes’ storied career, he celebrates and mourns, yearns and rejoices, replete with the harmonies and meticulously constructed melodies that have carried this Seattle band from warm, bedroom folk to songwriting legacies. Shore is a gigantic step forward for Pecknold and his mates, and more proof that the best bands only get better, and more believable, with time.–C.W.
3. Haim – Women In Music Pt. III
With a debut that put them firmly on the indie-pop map and a sophomore album that found some of that acclaim recede, the Los Angeles Haim sisters rolled into their third album with milder expectations from both fans and critics. And maybe that’s part of the reason why Women In Music Pt. III feels so titanic, as it not only eclipses the trio’s previous highs, it shows that we never really knew their potential at all. Some of the classic rock and ’90s pop touchstones that they’ve always cited are still there, but so is a firm identity that exists beyond the scope of their influences. Haim have truly arrived.–P.C.
2. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
A full-180 from the alt-rock revivalism of Waxahatchee’s 2017 LP Out In The Storm, Saint Cloud evokes the lived-in, earthy Americana of Katie Crutchfield’s hero, Lucinda Williams, whose 1998 classic LP Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is an obvious thematic and sonic touchstone. Sparking acoustic guitars and soulful keyboard tones echo through every track, with Crutchfield’s high, lonesome vocals positioned squarely at the heart of an understated country-rock mix. Her best album.–S.H.
1. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
What makes Fetch The Bolt Cutters feel like a new high-water mark for Fiona Apple — is it possible to rank all five of her albums as tied for her best? — is how she has pared her music down to the barest essentials, while also deepening and broadening her lyrics, finding fresh nuances that eschew easy answers or reductions. This is her rawest record, but also her funniest, distinguished by sparse yet eccentrically detailed soundscapes that provide a backdrop for Apple to fully explore every aspect of her (and perhaps your) highly contradictory inner life. She’s furious and forgiving, full of love and hate, and capable of both eviscerating and soothing her subjects.–S.H.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.