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The 25 Best Rock Albums of 2020: Staff Picks

In a year mostly absent of live music, full-length rock albums felt more crucial than ever in giving us that kind of immersive, escapist experience so many of us have come to rely on. Whether spinning their black circles on our record players or simply pre-saving them to our Spotify accounts, they allowed us to feel some sort of connection to the larger musical universe out there -- pumping our fists to the pop-punk sets, raising our lighters and/or cell phones to the indie epics, getting phantom neck stiffness imagining the headbanging to the metal ragers.

Hopefully they'll still feel worth touring for their respective acts if and when live music returns in 2021. Regardless, these are the 25 rock albums that have best tided us over until then.

25. Pearl Jam, Gigaton

As its heavy title sort of suggests, Pearl Jam have spent the better part of the past three decades releasing stadium alternative albums that feel somewhat monolithically massive -- and at times somewhat rigid and overwhelming. That's what makes it so much fun to hear how loose and limber the grunge survivors sound on Gigaton, with the quintet going full garage-rock for the borderline-schlocky "Superblood Wolfmoon," and frontman Eddie Vedder even channeling the nervous funk energy of David Byrne on lead single "Dance of the Clairvoyyants." -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

24. Khruangbin, Mordechai

For Khruangbin's third album, the trio not only leaned into its love of disco but reimagined how it would sound in more open, airy spaces -- best heard on breezy lead single "Time (You and I)." The track, which chronicles the what-ifs of having time enough at last, wasn't the only one eerily representative of its release period; the slinky and bare-boned "If There is No Question" assures "Broken, and laughing ... You're not crazy," while the glimmering and droning "So We Won't Forget" is about trying to hold onto a moment in time. Something surely everyone tried to do this year. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

23. Dream Wife, So When You Gonna

Anyone who has witnessed the ferocity of Dream Wife in concert has surely lamented that the Brighton-based band released their sophomore album So When You Gonna just months before touring came to halt across the world. The group went out of their way to work with an all-female production team to deliver tracks that sway from the in-your-face "Sports!" that starts the album (with the memorable "F--k sorry/ F--k please/ Will you so kindly start again" opening) to the tender melody of "Temporary," which showcases lead singer Rakel Mjöll's softer side. -- TAYLOR MIMS

22. Higher Power, 27 Miles Underwater

Higher Power’s 27 Miles Underwater represents a creative breakthrough for the British hardcore band, a polishing of the aesthetic they sent out on their 2017 debut Soul Structure into a more gleefully pummeling product. Producer Gil Norton has helped the group uncover their identity, which falls somewhere between post-grunge and classic punk -- a throwback, to be sure, but one that feels exciting and sounds fresh. -- JASON LIPSHUTZ

21. The Killers, Imploding the Mirage

It doesn’t take long for the Killers to return to the familiar with Imploding the Mirage's opening track "My Own Soul’s Warning," as frontman Brandon Flowers' ethereal opening quickly finds its beat through building drums, hard pounding guitars and unanswerable questions: "If you could see through the banner of the sun/  Into eternity's eyes/ Like a vision reaching down to you/ Would you turn away?” The album that follows seems to exist outside of any one musical moment for the band, absent any particularly defining features besides being noticeably louder. But that's fine, -- while the band will always be associated with the mid-'00s synth-rock reset, Imploding the Mirage feels timeless simply by sounding like classic Killers. -- DAVE BROOKS

20. Spanish Love Songs, Brave Faces Everyone

"Let me ruin my guts tonight,” goes the chorus of "Routine Pain," opening track on Brave Faces Everyone. Spanish Love Songs’ latest misery-loves-company opus showcases singer-guitarist Dylan Slocum’s voice, trembling through darkness in search of a dawn. Fans of punk and emo will savor every last gut-ruining refrain though, as the group offers unadulterated catharsis with an eye on salvation and sweaty mosh pits. -- J. Lipshutz

19. Bartees Strange, Live Forever

One of the year's most exciting new voices in rock belonged to D.C. singer/songwriter/producer Bartees Strange. His debut full length pointed to the limited-by-comparison sonic palette of other 2020 alt-rock releases, with dips into hip-hop, R&B and electronic textures, and ballads that just sorta dissolve between your fingers as you listen. But make no mistake: Live Forever also kicked out the indie jams better than just about any set this year, with the galloping "Mustang" and explosive "Boomer" giving you flashbacks to peak early National and TV on the Radio. -- A.U.

18. Declan McKenna, Zeros

Isn’t it exciting to witness when a rock star becomes of age? On his sophomore album, it’s clear that Declan McKenna has leveled up: The British singer-songwriter’s hooks have never sounded bigger, as they do on lead single “Beautiful Faces” and the Kooks-esque "The Key to Life on Earth," or his vocals more seasoned, like when he wails "Ah, is it all worthwhile?" during the chorus on "Daniel, You’re Still a Child.” Unlike the fictional Daniel, McKenna is now 21 and very much no longer a child, and we look forward to watching him ascend further. -- GAB GINSBERG

17. Code Orange, Underneath

When the opening week for Code Orange's much-anticipated fourth album Underneath was overwhelmed by the global COVID shutdown, the alt-metal favorites did what they always do: They adapted, making a triumphant empty-venue livestream gig out of what should have been a full release party. The band's greatest strength remains that unpredictability, with the crushing jams of Underneath unexpectedly mutating or even short-circuiting at a moment's notice, keeping you forever on your toes (when it's not making you leave your feet altogether). And greater audiences are following their twists and turns than ever, with Underneath cracking the Billboard 200 albums chart, and earning the band a best metal performance nod at the Grammys for its title cut. -- A.U.

16. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee's fifth studio album St. Cloud is a far cry from her previous work, 2017's Out in the Storm, where singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield howled and raged. For her 2020 LP, Crutchfield creates more space in her songs, which feel more stripped-back and light. But while the melodies on St. Cloud could fool a passive listener into hearing soothing guitar, the album tackles the artist's difficult decision to get sober, and on tracks like "Witches," re-examines critical relationships in her life -- something many of us have had to do in 2020. -- T.M.

15. Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open

The title to acclaimed indie outfit Car Seat Headrest's latest proved sadly prophetic, as the set largely reversed the critical and commercial momentum of their last few titles, confusing fans and media with its knottier lyrics, electro-pop excursions and, uh, high-concept promotional campaign. Too bad, because the album was still one of singer-songwriter Will Toledo's best, as his musical and lyrical anxiety proves just as adaptable to alt-funk shimmies ("Can't Cool Me Down") and jagged, Beck-like maybe-satires ("Hollywood") as the indie grandiosity of albums passed -- and there's a doozy or two from that category here, too ("There Must Be More Than Blood"). Start writing your "you know what album was underrated?" ten-year anniversary pieces now. -- A.U.

14. Various Artists, The Turning Soundtrack

"I don't think about the past, it's always there anyway," Mitski coos on "Cop Car," from the soundtrack to January horror flop The Turning. Especially true with this soundtrack, which assembled an all-star alt-rock lineup for the musical accompaniment to a movie you otherwise would've forgotten about by April -- just like a dozen such sets that littered the Alternative Nation landscape yearly back in the '90s. Curated by Lawrence and Yves Rothman, the soundtrack is practically its own best-of-2020 list, collecting new gems by indie darlings like Soccer Mommy, girl in red, Vagabon and Empress Of -- but leading off the set is a rare new solo appearance by Courtney Love, showing up to give the new generation her blessing and let 'em know how they played the randomly boss soundtrack game back in her day.  -- A.U.

13. Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

Following up a career-defining electro-psych masterwork like 2015's Currents is tough stuff, so no surprise that Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker took a half-decade to do so. Thankfully -- and perhaps somewhat surprisingly -- The Slow Rush was well worth the wait, simultaneously both more sublime and more nerve-racking than its predecessor on blissed-out worrywort anthems like "One More Year" and "Breathe Deeper." Parker confronts his own seemingly inevitable irrelevance on the late-set highlight "It Might Be Time," but hell, if he's gonna keep coming back this hard, feel free to take 10 years next time. -- A.U.

12. Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels

Like its release year of 2020, Lucinda Williams' new record Good Souls Better Angels is meant to be experienced, rather than explained. Co-produced by Ray Kennedy -- who previously worked on Williams' universally acclaimed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road 1998 LP -- Good Souls Better Angels is a reflection on this moment with fire and finesse. Starting with the blues-driven declaration track  "You Can't Rule Me,” the set is made deeply personal through tracks like "When The Way Gets Dark," which details her personal struggles with depression. The deeply soulful "Good Souls” closes the album with a simple, yet hopeful reminder: "If it wasn't for the good souls/ Life would not matter." -- D.B.

11. Shamir, Shamir

Not as much a return to earlier sounds as it is a bright collage of the moods and sounds he's explored over the course of five expectation-flaunting years, Shamir's self-titled is 27 minutes of punchy indie rock that hits like a pulse-racing double shot of espresso. "On My Own" is a crunchy swirl of '90s guitars and stomping drums, "Paranoia" is a fuzzy, sly commentary on anxiety and "Other Side" shuffles along with a bouncy twang. Come back for second and third helpings of "Diet," which finds Shamir pulling off the miraculous task of writing a song about attraction from a fresh angle. -- JOE LYNCH

10. Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor

“Rage is a quiet thing/ Ooh, you think that you've tamed it/ But it's just lying in wait,” Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams growls on “Simmer,” marking her debut release as a solo artist. The album that followed pulled even fewer punches, as Williams opened up about years of apprehension, depression, her imploded relationship with fellow Warped Tour alum Chad Gilbert -- and bottling her anger over it all. Williams has explained that Petals For Armor “gave me a place to put some haunted thoughts I’d carried for far too long." The effort was worth it: “I'm alive in spite of me!” -- G.G.

9. The Strokes, The New Abnormal

It took nearly two decades, but The Strokes finally put out an album that nails a formula as well as their classic Is This It? debut. A mix of '80s-borrowed vocal hooks, New Wave-via-New-York synth-rock boogies, and a steely (or Steely) dose of middle-aged malevolence resulted in the strongest set of alt-rock rippers the band has released since they were appearing on rock magazine covers every other week. The loaded titles ("Why Are Sundays So Depressing," "Ode to the Mets") carry most of the weight of thematic expression, so the songs themselves can focus on reflecting the Strokes' uniquely lockstep chemistry, even (perhaps especially) when they can't seem to be in the same room with one another, let alone the same band. If we didn't appreciate how lucky we were to still have them around, we do now. -- A.U.

8. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers is a solo artist, but she is never alone as she shares personal, sometimes painful, scenes on her sophomore album, Punisher. Boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker harmonize on the folky “Graceland Too,” while the other half of Better Oblivion Community Center, Conor Oberst, sings and writes on a handful of tracks. Drummer and close collaborator Marshall Vore is onhand, with writing credits on six of the 11 songs, and Stranger in the Alps producers Ethan Gruska and Tony Berg return, cloaking Bridgers' quietly beautiful vocals in darkly ethereal, slightly psychedelic sounds. Though she often wields it as a delicate instrument, her voice reaches a full-throttle, therapeutic scream by the end of the apocalyptic closer “I Know the End,” where she and a chorus of voices bellow out “The end is near!" If you’re going to face the end of the world, might as well do it surrounded by friends. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN

7. Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man

After a half-century-long, Hall of Fame-ordained career that's been iconic in entirely different ways to the '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s, you could forgive yourself for chuckling over Ozzy Osbourne audibly worrying, "I don't want to die an ordinary man." But impending mortality will scare anyone into a little legacy re-evaluation, and just in case anyone out there needed the reminder, Ozzy gave us one more phenomenal album with February's Ordinary Man. Enlisting the help not only of '10s super-producers Louis Bell and Andrew Watt but their most regular hitmaker collaborator, Post Malone, the album could've felt a naked stab for contemporary relevance if the collaborators didn't obviously revere Osbourne so much -- and if Ozzy himself didn't come with some of his most scorching riffers and harrowing ballads in decades. It's proof that rock's Prince of Darkness will stay vital for so long as forces above and below allow. -- A.U.

6. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

If Clean, Sophie Allison’s 2018 debut as Soccer Mommy, showcased her potential as a songwriter, follow-up Color Theory actualized that promise with more robust production and confessional lines that clang around in your brain. And if the set's title Color Theory contrasts with the full-length’s lyrical darkness -- Allison is focused on depression, romantic tumult and her mother’s battle with cancer -- the slick indie-pop arrangements let in the light and encourage return visits to Soccer Mommy’s world. -- J. Lipshutz

5. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form

The 1975's albums aren't meant for interlopers, as is made abundantly clear from the opening trio to fifth LP Notes on a Conditional Form -- a five-minute spoken-word environmental screed, an abrasive garage-punk rave-up, and a lilting 2:30 theme instrumental. But as always, it's worth the investment: "Frail State of Mind" is a glitch-stepping anxiety anthem of eerie prescience ("Go outside? Seems unlikely"), "Me & You Together Song" breaks out the baggy pants for a jangle-rock love song to make the Stone Roses swoon, and "If You're Too Shy (Let Me Know)" is a classic-but-modern rom-com that's likely getting adapted by Netflix as we speak. Best of all is set closer "Guys," in which oft-megalomaniacal frontman Matty Healy gives it up for his titular mates, with a sentiment disarming enough to make you forget about all that came before: "The moment that we started a band/ Was the best thing that ever happened." -- A.U.

4. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Mike Hadreas is the type of artist who rewards longtime fans: since Perfume Genius’ debut album a decade ago, each new project has showcased richer textures and more confident song construction, as if his creative arrow is only capable of pointing upward. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is ostensibly an album about unrequited love, but Hadreas sounds blissful in his ambition, whether on the sprightly indie-pop of “On the Floor,” the fuzzed-out chug of “Describe” or the lilting, balladic “Jason." It’s a new career high, and one can’t help but wonder what might come next. -- J. Lipshutz

3. Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers

"I don't want you to feel comfortable/ And I want you to know that I'm in love," sings Beatrice Laus at the end of the lush ballad "Horen Sarrison," a spoonerised ode to her IRL significant other. That juxtaposition neatly summarizes much of the Filipino-born British singer-songwriter's debut LP, Fake It Flowers -- a mix of crunching riffs and confrontational lyrics ("Kiss my ass, you don't know jack" she begins "Dye It Red") that nonetheless carries an undeniable core sweetness beneath its surface prickliness. It was a mix that propelled countless songwriters and performers of Beabadoobee's caliber to superstardom in the mid-'90s, and with a growing fanbase, a fluke appearance on one of the year's most omnipresent TikTok hits, and an LP bow this sparkling, we can only hope it launches her to a similar stratosphere in the 2020s. -- A.U.

2. Machine Gun Kelly, Tickets to My Downfall

Going into 2020, few would have predicted that the first rock album to top the Billboard 200 this year would come from Machine Gun Kelly -- the Bad Boy-signed rapper who had only released one rock single to date, the 2019 Yungblud and Travis Barker collab "I Think I'm OKAY." But not only did the set debut atop the chart (MGK's first in any genre to do so), it breathed new life into alt rock on a mainstream pop scale, the likes of which no veteran rockers have been able to do in many years. It helped that MGK already had the rock star look and rep, but it helped much more that he actually had the songs: three-chord killers that turned you into a 12-year-old thrashing around your bedroom again, or a 20-year-old crushing beer cans with friends in your college dorm. And thanks to its production edge, mental health-focused lyrics and timeless melodies, it wasn't just a throwback -- affording 12- and 20-year-olds going through those experiences for the first time their proper soundtrack as well. -- A.U.

1. Haim, Women in Music Pt. III

Este, Danielle and Alana Haim released their debut EP eight years ago, and songs like “Forever” and “Don’t Save Me” immediately demonstrated an ability to conjure pop-rock hooks out of thin air. Haim have spent years giving us more of them, and their first two full-lengths had zero true missteps; the consistency of their songwriting became a calling card. Women in Music Pt. III goes beyond consistent, however, and reaches the sublime: not only do the choruses dependably land, but the group’s third full-length is marked by an emotional baldness that deepens their hummable effect. Love songs carry new complexities, self-reflections pick up new details on personal depression and battles against misogyny; there’s not a bum track in the bunch, but with more piercing authenticity, Women in Music Pt. III finds an already-great band becoming even more special. -- J. Lipshutz