Best Overlooked Albums of 2020
Credit: Illustration by Maressa Roberts

22 Essential Albums You May Have Missed in 2020

We highlight the scrappy, underdog releases that helped us get through this year, from Sen Morimoto to Bia.
JT
Chicago, US
KC
Queens, US
MR
illustrated by Maressa Roberts
December 16, 2020, 4:37pm

The best " albums of the year" lists don't look like the vast majority of the other lists. What's the point of reading several different 2020-in-review music roundups if they all have the same LPs dominating their top 10? We hope our annual blurb-a-thon The 100 Best Albums of 2020 stood out from the pack, subverting expectations and leading to some great new discoveries to close out the year. Like every time the VICE staff comes together to narrow down our favorite music, the hardest part about it was that there were so many deserving artists and albums that could've easily landed with the very best. 

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This list is for the scrappy underdogs who may not have had the heftiest PR budget, powerhouse label backing, or gotten considerable love by the major publications. Whatever reason these artists made the cut, the main criteria is that these are all fantastic albums that deserve your time and attention. These are the releases that got us through this year and made a significant impact on the VICE staff through some of the most trying times of 2020. From Sen Morimoto, Helena Deland, and Smino, here are some amazing releases that are worth your time and attention. Also, if you're wondering why your favorite 2020 release is missing on this list, check our overlooked roundup from this summer and our 100 Best Albums of 2020 post, which one Reddit user called "one of the most bizarre lists I've seen so far." 

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Shrines, the fourth album from Billy Woods and Euclid's Armand Hammer rap project, is both a scathing indictment of America's present and America's bloody history. The two approach this with humor, righteous anger, and darkly cryptic and virtuosic lyrical displays. The Orangeburg massacre of 1968 is reconstructed in vivid detail by Euclid on "Flavor Flav" while Woods raps, "Still waiting on that commencement speech invitation / cash strapped HBCU but I’ll take it / Plagiarized This Is Water, no Foster Wallace but I’ll fake it" on "King Tubby." Though Woods' booming baritone provides a perfect accent mark on Euclid's complex flow and makes Shrines a stunner on first play, there are layers of meaning to uncover with each repeat listen. —Josh Terry 

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Last year, Bia made us forget that "Best on Earth" was actually a Russ song. For Certain, her new EP, is a long time coming for anyone who watched her on Oxygen's 2014 reality show Sisterhood of Hip-Hop. In April, she released "Cover Girl" interpolating Lil Jon's "Bia Bia" as a subtle adlib, but it was really a clue that the Boston-born rapper would sample the original 2000 crunk anthem in full on For Certain. Although Bia has no problem matching Lil Jon's energy, her signature style is known for being more nonchalant than her peers. Bia's bread and butter is found in one-liners, like on "Same Hands," which features Lil Durk, where she says, "Crushing up drugs with the same hands that I fix to pray with." For Certain is proof that she's mastered the art of being extra but understated at the same time. —Kristin Corry 

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This is the kind of record that's best heard loud, preferably at a sweaty 21+ Chicago rock club where the headliner doesn't go on until midnight. While live music wasn't an option in most of 2020, this album from atmospheric indie rockers Cafe Racer had staying power throughout this miserable year. LP highlight "Seminal Art" is a searing stunner, where blistering lead guitar riffs careen into focus and snake around each other. There are a wealth of overwhelming moments like this throughout, but the best two come in the fuzzed-out penultimate track "Out the Window" and the sprawling, 10-minute closing title track. —JT

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Yes, we know Chloe x Halle's Ungodly Hour is Grammy-nominated, so it technically might be too big to be "overlooked," but 100 spots really just isn't enough space on a Best of 2020 list. "Do It" did make our Best Songs list this year, and the bubbly girls night out anthem was only one part of a stunning display of sophistication from the Beyoncé-endorsed sisters. At 22 and 20, Chloe x Halle are realizing that the freedom in newfound adulthood is asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Ungodly Hour even sounds rebellious. Their angelic voices against the album's mischievous, slinking production channel the flirtatious energy of your early twenties. And if there's anything we know about your early twenties, as proven in real life and every other show about a twenty-something, shit gets messy. When Chloe sings "You must got me fucked up" on "Forgive Me," and repeats it, it's an act of defiance. The girls are all grown up and  emotionally unavailable guys and cheap liquor aren't enough to sacrifice their peace. —KC

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Philadelphia trio Corey Flood expertly deal in soft melodies and unhurried jangle. While their first album Hanging Garden isn't a grandiose statement as it only clocks in at 20 minutes, it's damn good for the way it effortlessly jumps between indie pop and pop-punk. They pack an astounding of memorable hooks and ambling guitar theatrics through the tracklist (just listen to the too short but still sweet "Hive Mind,'' or the anthemic and aptly named "Honey").  Even though it isn't trying to one-up anyone, it's still one of the most assured debuts of the year. —JT

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At their very core, breakup albums are about grief: either the traumatic and difficult loss, or the long process of accepting that loss and starting over again. On Old Flowers, the seventh album from Arizona songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, she examines the dissolution of a long term relationship with scalpel-like introspection and also a hefty dose of grace. Unlike her last LP May Your Kindness Remain, the majority of these songs are sparse and were written on piano, allowing her powerhouse voice to fill the empty spaces. This works wonders when she sings, "Our love is gone" on the heart-wrenching title track, and "I hope that you find what it is you’re looking for / I’m just proud to have loved you enough to ask for more" on the equally devastating "Together or Alone." —JT

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Dandelion is one of nine great albums that Daniel Romano released in 2020. This almost superhuman prolificness underscores the Canadian songwriter's ceaseless curiosity and chameleon-like approach to genre. But here, Romano seems the most himself out of his comically large output this year. He told VICE this summer that the LP was the result of him sitting in a room for the day, playing every instrument, and "following [his] creativity somewhat blindly," and it shows. From the opening flute notes kickstarting the LP into throwback rock'n'roll bliss on "If You Don't or If You Do," to the Summerteeth synths on "Ain't That Enough For You," Romano proves he can expertly channel any mood.  —JT

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As Dr. Dog's longtime drummer, Eric Slick has played sideman to some charming, McCartney-inspired rock 'n' roll. But as a solo artist, he branches off in surprising directions. Much of Wiseacre is indebted to the sensibilities of Slick's late friend, the iconic producer and musician Richard Swift, because it translates classic melodies and careful production techniques into something instantly palatable and refreshing. You can also hear shades of Haruomi Hosono and Todd Rundgren in these songs, especially "Closer to Heaven," the orchestral duet he shares with his wife, Natalie Prass. The name of the record comes from the place the two got married, so if these classic sonic references aren't enough, there are a whole lot of optimistic and wholesome songs on here about being open to love. —JT

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Izzy Olive makes empathic and twangy songs about grief and getting stuck in your own thoughts as Half Gringa. Her band name comes as a nod to her bicultural experience growing up in a Venezuelan family "in the Midwest really into alternative rock, but heard a lot of country music in the supermarket,” and that charm comes through in her music. On her sophomore LP Force to Reckon, the Chicago alt-country songwriter hones in on the death of her grandmother who passed away while Olive was on tour. She sings on the gorgeous "Transitive Property," "And every sadness I have ever felt / it manifests as hunger." It's this drive that's the LP's propulsive energy that culminates in the cinematic, string-laced, and mournful closer "Forty," one of the most beautiful songs of the year. — JT 

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Helena Deland's Someone New is the kind of record that slowly unfolds surprises and epiphanies with each consecutive listen. There are few artists like the Montreal songwriter who can so subtly experiment with form, feeling, and texture. Songs like "Pale" take shocking turns into throbbing electronica, while the follow-up "Comfort, Edge" is simmering guitar pop. Despite the divergent whims this album follows, each track is expertly produced and arranged. But the real joy comes from Deland's thoughtful and evocative songwriting. On the brooding "Smoking at the Gas Station," she captures loneliness and tries to defy it, singing, "I need to get out of the house today / To try my face / Out on strangers." —JT

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Lawn's reverence for disparate indie rock signifiers is more than apparent on their thrilling LP Johnny. While it’s a record that you could call “jangly,” “nervy,” "slacker,” or any number of cliche adjectives often used to describe guitar music, the New Orleans band approaches the material with an enthusiasm and precision that makes it stand apart from the pack. Single "Nighttime Creatures" has the most memorable hook of the nine tracks but other songs like the bass-heavy "Jane Ryan" and the ambling opener "Playing Dumb" prove how dynamic and charming this band can be. —JT

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You could make an argument that any song on Mamalarky's self-titled debut deserves to be a single. What's more impressive is that no two tracks on it sound alike. The Atlanta-based band makes indie rock that can drastically switch between jagged and wonky to breezy and pop-minded. Mamalarky opens with the fuzz-punk of "Fury," which is off-the-rails and abrasive. But other songs like the delightful "Hero" and the dreamy "Cosine" take the album in dramatically different directions. There's a jazzy instrumental freakout in "Singalong" while highlight "Almighty Heat" evokes some of Stereolab's most hypnotic grooves. These divergent descriptions of the tracklist could go on and on, which is a testament to how confident and assured this debut really is. —JT

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When VICE interviewed Oceanator's Elise Okusami about how her songwriting has changed in quarantine, she said it probably won't shift much because her "songs were already about the end of the world, everything being terrible, and being alone." Though the songs on Things I Never Said are apocalyptic, like on "A Crack in the World," when she sings, "But it’s all as confusing as ever and each day adds something new / And some of those things are bad enough that they almost crush you," it's not all a downer. On the buoyant single "Heartbeat,"  shimmering guitars emphasize her lyrics about being in the honeymoon stage of a budding relationship. —JT

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Phabo speaks to us before we even hear his voice on his melodic EP, Free. "Free always comes with some bullshit," reads the cover, and it's just a glimpse into the mind of the Los Angeles singer. His R&B is not sung while wearing rose-colored glasses. There's as much pain as there is pleasure. It's why he can switch between lines like "I watched my grandma take her last breath over FaceTime," to "It don't hit the same if you don't moan," on "Phabo's Szn." We're still getting to know the singer whose tone and aesthetic is inspired by the male vocalists of the early-aughts like Case and Next's RL, but with the bravado of today, like when he mentions doing the obligatory internet search before meeting a woman. "You ain't on the 'gram or the 'book / You ain't got a Twitter, yeah I looked." Free is a tease of an introduction to a singer with a lot of promise. —KC

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There's always been a sense of urgency to Pool Holograph's indie rock. Listening to this Asheville and Chicago band is both intense and rewarding thanks to its their emotive lead singer and main songwriter Wyatt Grant. On Love Touched Time and Time Began to Sweat, guitars clash and clang into each other, Grant howls, and the songs explode with catharsis. It's an affecting and energizing combo, especially with songs as strong as "Deliverance" and the relatively understated "Asleep in Spain." In a year over-loaded with great releases from Chicago artists, Pool Holograph is worth as much of a look as their peers are getting. — JT

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FIXTAPE, an energetic 19-track project, stretches Popcaan as more than a dancehall traditionalist. Popcaan's charisma bounces between two extremes: a hypnotizing ladies man on tracks like "Mamakita," "Suh She Love It," and "Bruck Di Buddy," and a cold-blooded commander on "Unda Dirt" and "Any One of Dem." It's no surprise that the OVO Sound artist has a couple of features from Drake ("Twist & Turn" and "All I Need"), who has undoubtedly perfected his patois—no matter how diluted—just for this moment. But here, we don't mind Drake's vocals when sprinkled across an album as an appetizer, rather than an entree. The real star is Popcaan and his use of local talent, enlisting Kingston's five-member producer group Chromatic Sound, and dancehall artists from the island Jada Kingdom, Frahcess One, Dane Ray, and Masicka. Mainstream culture often has difficulty accepting that Blackness is not a monolith, and by extension, members of the diaspora are expected to fit neatly into one box. FIXTAPE, a project as authentically Jamaican as it can be, dispels the theory that Caribbean culture is one-dimensional. Jamaican music and dancehall's legacy does not have just one sound. —KC

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On the heels of the fourth anniversary of Ro James' debut album ELDORADO, MANTIC is a welcome homecoming for the dreamy R&B singer. His sound is a jigsaw puzzle of influences from his childhood growing up in a military family; country ends where rock begins, with reggae complementing his love for hip-hop and R&B. Although MANTIC is only his second album, James is far from a novice. His songwriting is on full display, lacing the album with innuendos that won't shake the tame but could ignite the adventurous. He's a thread from the once-overlooked tapestry of R&B artists wherein, a decade ago, singers like Melanie Fiona, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Miguel once had to cut through the limited attention span for the genre. Since then, the appetite for R&B has grown, proving that music like James' offerings spurred change and growth, and were not made in vain. —KC

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Like his fellow Sooper Records co-owner and labelmate NNAMDÏ, Sen Morimoto is unconcerned, if not totally defiant, of any traditional genre constraints. The songs on his self-titled LP are fluid, adventurous, and totally unclassifiable but contain hints of jazz, hip-hop, j-pop, and experimental rock. His songs are uniformly lush, layered with floating synths, programmed drums, and saxophone, of which the Kyoto-born and Chicago-based artist studied under the late Charles Neville. Though this is an LP best experienced as an immersive whole, songs like "Symbols, Tokens," the AAAMMYYY-assisted "Deep Down," and "The Box," which guests Joseph Chilliams show the multitudes Morimoto boasts.  —JT

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She Already Decided has all the makings of a traditional mixtape rollout. Smino is repurposing any song he wants, including the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You," and his jacking-for-beats technique is why you can only find the project on YouTube. By putting together an entire project that isn't allowed on streaming services, Smino makes mixtapes fun again. When the St. Louis artist says "Dot my i's and stretch my r's," on "Fronto Isley," it's not just a clever way to describe his hard Missouri accent, but an accurate way to describe how he stretches his voice like an instrument every chance he gets. "Cabbage" is his take on Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage," and "Jaime Boxx" is a rapid reinvention of Roddy Ricch's "The Box." In a stress-filled year, music is the last thing Smino is overthinking, as revealed by "Already's" outro. "Mother nature, she already decided what it's gon' be like / It ain't up to you no more, it's above me." —KC

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Spillage Village feels like a second coming of the Soulquarians, and the supergroup is coming out swinging. Together, Earthgang, 6lack, J.I.D, Mereba, Jurdan Bryant, Hollywood JB, and Benji, use Spilligion to bring religion back into hip-hop's landscape and use 2020 as a way to interrogate religious institutions. "They say don't question God / A nigga like me say I was questioning you niggas, not God," says famed Atlanta poet Big Rube on "Spill Vill," a skit and intro that is just one part of the thread the collective unravels throughout Spilligion. Songs like "Baptize," question the morality of a religion that was used to justify slavery. When they aren't grappling with religion, money, or the lack thereof, makes an interesting case study. In a world that glorifies Jeff Bezos's billion-dollar fortune, Spilligion wonders why Black people are expected to have a higher moral standard when it comes to money—although the wealth gap is the same as it was in 1968. Taking a break from his dad/husband bars, guest Chance The Rapper puts the dilemma pretty succinctly on his verse on "Judas:" "I know my freedom papers ain't my payment stubs / But how could you blame a nigga just for chasin' Tubs." —KC

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New Orleans' Video Age makes pitch-perfect 70s-and-80s inspired soft-rock that's danceable, airy, and full of good vibes. Songs like the funky "Aerostar" channel Prince and boast a chorus so delectable it would've rivaled the biggest blog rock earworms had it come out any other year than 2020, and the group occupies some moody yacht-rock territory on "Comic Relief." While Video Age never get knotty enough to get a full-throated, all-encompassing Steely Dan comparison, their music is just as effortlessly enjoyable as that band's biggest songs. —JT

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If Xavier Omär's if you feel was just an endless loop of "want/need," his brilliant flip of Dru Hill's "Tell Me," that would be enough to warrant a spot on this list. But the rest of Omär's if you feel is just as enjoyable as the nostalgic standout. Like the project's title suggests, the 11 tracks are a deep exploration of emotion, with songs like "So Much More" containing enough passion that we feel like we're standing at the altar with him and his wife. Omär isn't just leaving us swept off our feet, but he's providing food for thought. "Bon Iverre"'s most poignant words aren't even sung by the San Antonio native but said in a conversation with the listener. "We measure time with the word 'second," he starts. "My thought process is, you know, maybe this life is secondary, and there's something eternal, that's primary that we should be living for." —KC