I don't think anybody wants to dwell for too long on the hellish year that was 2020, but the fact remains it was still a great year for artistic expression. I had a blast playing some of the outstanding indie rock released this year. Here's my top 5 list and a bunch of honorable mentions.
5. Coriky - s/t (Dischord)
What the world needs now, among other things, is a Fugazi reunion. But since that's unlikely to ever happen, the new album from Coriky is a decent substitute. Featuring Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina teamed up with Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, Coriky sounds like the midway point between Fugazi and the Evens, the band with whom MacKaye and Farina previously released two albums. MacKaye's strident vocals are unmistakable as he rails against military drone use and our authoritarian government. But it's Farina's lead vocals on songs like "Say Yes" and "Too Many Husbands" that really shake things up and add a welcome perspective to Coriky's worldview. Musically, the band is tight and powerful. They're not Fugazi, but they don't have to be.
4. Greg Dulli - Random Desire (Royal Cream/BMG)
Since the Afghan Whigs first split up in the late '90s, Greg Dulli has been consistently producing great music, even if it wasn't always noticed. Whether as the Twilight Singers, the Gutter Twins, the reunited Whigs or solo, he's been an incisive and cinematic observer of relationships good, bad and ugly. And even though he's calling this his first true solo album, every album he's made has been driven by Dulli. Random Desire features his patented piano-driven sweeping rockers, but there's more of an R&B feel to songs like "Scorpio" and "Lockless," which even includes a little electronic vocal tweaking. But you always know this is a Dulli album, devilishly exploring the dark side of romance and sexuality. And that's never a bad thing.
3. Bob Mould - Blue Hearts (Merge)
Bob Mould has been kicking ass since the early '80s and judging by this latest album, he's not about to start slowing down. Much was made of lead single "American Crisis" because of its all-out rage at the state of affairs in this country, even though it was recorded before the racial and class turmoil that exploded this summer. Last year's Sunshine Rock was an uncharacteristically upbeat record, but Mould returns to the dark territory that much of his earlier work embraced. He's pissed out and he doesn't care who knows it. Backed once again by the ace rhythm section of Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, Mould tears through a decidedly angry set of songs with the energy of a man 30 years younger. He draws on the anger of his younger self back in the '80s when AIDS was decimating his community, but focuses it now on different issues that are clearly devastating the country. And when Bob Mould speaks (or shouts), you'd better listen.2. Protomartyr - Ultimate Success Today (Domino)
Ever since they emerged on the national indie rock scene with their second album Under Color of Official Right in 2014, Protomartyr has made top-notch post punk music. With their third album since then, the Detroit act presciently (it was recorded in 2019) calls out fascistic government actions, predicts riots in the streets and even describes a virus causing public panic. Frontman Joe Casey's vocal style evokes Mark E. Smith at times, but this ain't no Fall cover band. Protomartyr can play mid-tempo one moment and rip into thrashing high gear the next. Nandi Rose Plunkett provides guest vocals on "June 21," offering an interesting counterpoint to Casey's ragged stylings. They've never been a party band, and they dig deep into the existential mire on this one. Sure, it's apocalyptic and foreboding, but Ultimate Success Today is still extremely entertaining.1. Run the Jewels - RTJ4 (Jewel Runners/BMG)
2020 has been a fucked up year, and Run the Jewels was prepared for it. The album was made last year, but it targets the same thing that had the country on fire this summer: Racial strife and the role of government/police in fomenting that unrest. Killer Mike and El-P have traversed this territory on their previous three albums, but RTJ4 amps it up to the next level here. "Yankee and the Brave" opens the album with a punch to the face through a fictional tale of the duo escaping from police, but it's on songs like "Walking in the Snow"(written about the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police but with clear parallels to the George Floyd killing this year) and "Goonies vs. ET" where they prove to be social critics of the highest order. There are some compelling guest appearances, including Pharrel and Zach de la Rocha on "Ju$t", 2 Chainz on "Out of Sight" and Mavis Staples and Josh Homme on the haunting "Pulling the Pin." And major props for the Gang of Four sample on "The Ground Below." But ultimately, RTJ4 comes down to Killer Mike and El-P, who just burn it all down on the most explosive album of the year. The fact that the album didn't get a single Grammy nomination illustrates how out of touch that organization is.
Sad13 - Haunted Painting
Eldridge Rodriguez - Slightest of Treason
Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM
METZ - Atlas Vending
Destroyer - Have We Met
IDLES - Ultra Mono
Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death
Kestrels - Dream or Don't Dream
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Sideways to New Italy
Drakulas - Terminal Amusements
Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Car Seat Headrest - Making a Door Less Open
Hum - Inlet
Pearl Jam - Gigaton
Drive-By Truckers - The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers - The New OK
Jason Isbell - Reunions
The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers
Bully - SUGAREGG
Lo Tom - LP2