From the Intercom: The 25 Best Albums of 2020
The 25 albums that we picked as the “Best of 2020” this year nearly all tap into a familiar running theme: the comfort of nostalgia.
Amidst a stressful hurricane of a year, many of us here at From the Intercom turned to albums that were inspired by simpler times, recapturing the magic of rumbling dancefloors, jazzy nightclubs, and wistful memories that we can never quite shake off. From indie rock to electronica to pop, the albums that we’ve selected here will transport you far, far away.
It’s nice to know that we can always turn to these 25 albums for a brief escape–even when the apocalypse is nigh.
Without further ado, here are From the Intercom’s 25 Best Albums of 2020.
– Li-Wei Chu
Special thanks to Karolyn Jaranilla and Jacob Ugalde for writing select blurbs and to K T for contributing their favorite albums to the list. Additional thanks to LeAnn Nguyen and Lexy Pang for their additional input and to Derrek Chow for designing the banner.
mxmtoon – dawn & dusk
In just a few short years, mxmtoon (Maia), has transcended from low-key indie darling making ukulele bedroom pop to full-on pop prodigy and social media personality, collaborating with artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and streaming on Twitch alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her biggest project to date, dawn & dusk, was released over the course of this year, and if this doesn’t cement her as a star worthy of recognition, I don’t know what will.
The project consists of two seven-track EPs, each reflecting a different side of the human experience. dawn is brightly produced, lyrically optimistic, and conjures a sense of hopefulness, while dusk is overwhelmingly nostalgic, emotionally mature, and openly bittersweet. As different as they may be, they form two sides of the same coin that we call humanity. You can’t have light without dark, you can’t have the happy without the sad, and you can’t have dawn without dusk. And, to Maia, both are just as beautiful. —Jacob Ugalde
OHYUNG – PROTECTOR
Throughout the 11 songs on PROTECTOR, it’s proven time and time again that OHYUNG isn’t afraid to push every musical boundary out there. There’s a volatile energy here that powers the highest of highs on PROTECTOR: bringing to the table a groundbreaking messiness that seems fitting given the state of the world, but unsurprisingly on-brand for OHYUNG in any other year (“shenme gui,” “spiral spiral”). The disorder is palpable, creating a ferocity which would undoubtedly be exciting to watch in a live setting. But nestled within PROTECTOR are also polished moments of clarity which further offer pockets of beauty amongst the distortion (“now i close my eyes the world i see is so beautiful,” “wrapped in floral sheets”). By combining elements of hip hop, rabid dance music, and even moving film compositions, PROTECTOR erupts with a deranged movement that only OHYUNG can truly capture. —Li-Wei Chu
Shinichi Atobe – Yes
Amongst electronic music aficionados, Japanese producer Shinichi Atobe is somewhat of a legend. Like, actually a living legend. Though Atobe and his identity remains shrouded in mystery, it’s not hard to see why he’s so talked about in certain music circles. His latest full-length album Yes, just goes to prove that point. A similarly exquisite showcase of minimalist techno, Yes and its rolling roster of electronic loops is dazzling–exercising the producer’s knack for finding just the right balance of space and noise in a single track. Next time you’re in the mood for an at-home quarantine dance party, spin any of the songs from Yes and you’ll be jamming all night long. —Li-Wei Chu
Jonah Yano – souvenir
It’s hard to pin down what exactly Jonah Yano’s music is (Is it alt pop? Jazz-infused neo-soul? Psychedelia, perhaps?), but it’s easy enough to break down what it can make you feel. souvenir, the artist’s debut album, drips with haunting memories–taking gleaming, emotional inspiration from the artist’s personal life. Brief musical vignettes disappear as quickly as they arrive, creating fleeting feelings that change from song to song. On certain parts of the album, swirling madness makes for robust musical soundscapes (“strawberry!,” “what i can do to help”). Ghostly echoes of the past inspire songs like the lived-in “congratulations you’re in first place” and “anywhere.” Elsewhere, that vigorous energy is quickly replaced by soft moments of introspection (“poor me,” the lo-fi recording of “shimonoseki interlude” and father-son duet “shoes”). souvenir is an interesting portrait of personal healing and acceptance, giving us a glimpse into a moving memory that lingers. —Li-Wei Chu
Okada Takuro – Morning Sun
Okada Takuro’s Morning Sun sounds exactly like what its intimate album art suggests. Cozy piano, surprisingly plump bass-lines, and soft vocal harmonies drench listeners in warm indie rock goodness. While there are moments that are evocative of Andy Shauf’s The Party (with the opening of Takuro’s “Nights” bearing an eerie resemblance to Shauf’s “The Magician”), Takuro’s swift and lightweight production provides a soundtrack more suitable for lazy and tranquil weekend mornings, providing a clear-eyed aural depiction of the twilight hours (“New Morning”). —Karolyn Jaranilla
((( O ))) – ((( 2 )))
Right in the middle of ((( 2 ))), the latest ethereal album by Sundrop Garden, there’s a song called “IDGAF.” “I don’t give a fuck / Bout ya hatin on me / Words they don’t mean a thing / Cause I will send my love anyways,” she sings, before sending some good vibes your way–just as she promised. Sundrop Garden, whose music is normally wispy and has a free-flowing, impromptu element to it, pretty much sums up the entirety of what she’s all about in her own words.
On ((( 2 ))), the gorgeously lush R&B follow-up to last year’s debut ((( 1 ))), Sundrop Garden similarly serves up some earthly beats thanks to a slew of collaborators like top notch producers FKJ, Please Wait, and Darius. But instead of sending you into a floaty headspace, the songs here are more hook-oriented and grounded, cutting through some of that blazing haze with a few more tangible offerings (“Pocahontas,” “Homie”). For 40 straight minutes, good vibes prevail. And if anything tries to get in the way of that, something tells me that Sundrop Garden doesn’t give a fuck. —Li-Wei Chu
White Boy Scream – BAKUNAWA
To truly appreciate the chilling debut album of White Boy Scream (the moniker of opera singer and composer Micaela Tobin), one has to learn about the Bakunawa, the mythological serpent from Philippine folklore that gives the album its name. Luckily for us, BAKUNAWA’s title track is itself a sonic retelling of that story–allowing its listener to envision the Bakunawa attempting to swallow the Earth’s seven moons and the audacious way that ancient Filipinos were able to fend off the beast. For eighteen minutes, Tobin conjures up a fantastical folklorish realm that bears the weight of the apocalypse, paying tribute to the beliefs of all those who came before her. Elsewhere, Tobin connects those experimental soundscapes with diasporic storytelling, teleporting us to the modern day. Blood-curdling, eerie, and terrifyingly beautiful, BAKUNAWA is sonic storytelling at its best–and it’s not for the faint-of-heart. —Li-Wei Chu
Xinxin – Xinxin
Billed as “music for healing inspired by the Tarot,” California-based band Xinxin’s self-titled debut is in its very own category of jazz-fusion art rock. Together, the four members of Xinxin (vocalist Janize Ablaza, keyboardist Jonah Huang, bassist Carlos Elias, and drummer Stephen Reed) work together to cast soothing cosmic spells to ease your soul. There’s something special in the way that Ablaza sings each and every line here to turn even the most self-conscious of lyrics into another magical texture (“Feeling Dumb,” “Star Spell”). That’s not to mention the many musical flourishes that accent each song, elevating Xinxin’s music to another level. That spirit of camaraderie–the effortless whimsical weaving of melody and freeform structure–is what makes Xinxin’s debut so instantly replayable. —Li-Wei Chu
Shawn Wasabi – MANGOTALE
Pack your mangoes, snacks, boba, and Nintendo Switches, because MANGOTALE has an adventure in store for you. Full of cute, pixelated, glitchy kawaii beats, the debut album from longtime producer and unconventional instrument maker Shawn Wasabi is stacked with sounds and samples that feel at once both silly, fun, and joyous. Not only that, but the album includes collaborations with a slew of other prominent Asian artists, including Chevy, SATICA, Sophia Black, and raychel jay. Impressive, to say the least.
There’s a unique noise pop quality that is signature to Shawn, which can be heard in all the different kinds of beats he’s making: whether it’s a sweeping ballad like “MARBLE TEA,” a hard trap beat like “tokyo tea” (feat. Spacegirl Gemmy), a bitter diss like “LEMONS” (feat. kennedi), or an unreserved personification of a crush like “HALO HALO” (feat. Chevy) or “LOVE POTION” (feat. raychel jay), the fun on this island never ends. —Jacob Ugalde
Raavi & The Houseplants – Don’t Hit Me Up
Boston-based outfit Raavi & The Houseplants concoct a tender blend of indie pop and math rock to make a distinct sound lauded by the group as “emo lounge.” While the group offered listeners a taste with 2018’s And I Miss You Already EP, Don’t Hit Me Up serves as a proper introduction. With some songs in the album dating as far back as 2016, there’s no question that more time was put into it.
So much of the charm behind Don’t Hit Me Up comes from a mix of old and new. The instrumental arrangements here feel more tightly composed and crisp. “Run Through,” for example, showcases a staccatoed opening reminiscent of a more laid back Hippo Campus. The switch up at the end of “In Tonight” is effortless. Their breakout hit, “Nora,” perhaps shows the band at their most cohesive. Raavi’s straightforward approach in navigating teenage vulnerabilities reads like intimate journal entries, but their clear and endearing delivery of lines like, “Truth is, I get nervous when I hear you say my name / But I hope that it’s worth it, and I hope that you’re feeling the same / And I hope that you’re feeling the same” exhibit a strength in pouring your heart out. —Karolyn Jaranilla
Yufu & The Velvet Impressionism – Is It Vain to Be Awake?
The debut album of Taipei-based band Yufu and the Velvet Impressionism, Is it Vain to Be Awake?, sounds like it’s plucked right out of another venomous reality: one accented by seedy nightclubs, untrustworthy characters, and deep dark-red blood. Fuzzy psych-rock and big band rock and roll arrangements show us a rockin’ good time throughout the album’s eleven songs–each one brash enough to carry the soundtrack of a Tarantino film on its own. As vocalist Yufu stylishly guides us through our journey through hell and back, one can’t shake the feeling that they’re listening to a cult album in the making. —Li-Wei Chu
Yaeji – WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던
Was there a musical project that I streamed more than Yaeji’s WHAT WE DREW this year? Honestly, probably not. On Kathy Yaeji Lee’s debut mixtape, there exists a wide spectrum of cloudy dancefloor dreams that successfully bridges the gap between wispy exploratory beats (“THESE DAYS”) and easily accessible hip-hop swag (“MONEY CAN’T BUY,” “FREE INTERLUDE,” “SPELL”). Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it has so much replay value: its off-kilter bravado makes it the perfect dance music for every situation (shout out to “WAKING UP DOWN,” the album’s self-improvement anthem). That’s not to mention the strong personal element to WHAT WE DREW which finds the DJ sampling voice memos and turning otherwise throwaway sketches into catchy bangers (“WHEN I GROW UP,” “WHAT WE DREW”). WHAT WE DREW is the first full-length example of just how cosmopolitan and alluring Yaeji’s music can be in her own sonic sandbox. —Li-Wei Chu
Pantayo – Pantayo
Toronto-based all-women kulintang ensemble Pantayo are here to make a statement. In their self-titled debut album, they mix kulintang music and lo-fi punk and electronic influences to create a sound that’s unapologetically unique. Kulintang instruments plays a prominent part in making their sound, with “Bronsé” showcasing the ensemble’s kulintang, agung, babendil, and dabakan in all their glory. Pantayo is not afraid to be confrontational as they roll their eyes at prim and proper behavior and proclaim resistance to all the bullshit, bigots and hypocrites that plague marginalized peoples (“VVV (They Lie)”, “Taranta”). The sound of resistance may be unconventional, as heard in the discordant blend of traditional and contemporary instruments, but it sure does rock. —Karolyn Jaranilla
Mark Redito – Natural Habitat
To say that Mark Redito’s Natural Habitat is an album about plants would be both an understatement and oversimplification. Specifically, the project is about what it means to exist and grow in the world, and what we can learn from our symbiotic relationship with the everyday nature that surrounds us. The sounds in this album are fully, expansively produced, with depth and care put into each and every sample and beat. The result is a tracklist that feels whole, nurtured, and almost otherworldly at times.
Slower, steady meditations like “So in luv with u” (ft. Reese Langangan)” and “Tropical Meditation” complement energetic, focused club and poolside bops like “Anne” and “Anthurium” (ft. Simone Vitale), offering a diverse perspective on what it means to enjoy your time fully and purposefully. With Natural Habitat, you can chill, dance, study, exercise, meditate, or whatever you’d like—as long as you remember to exist. —Jacob Ugalde
The Happy Fits – What Could Be Better
In a year that will be decidedly remembered for its many, many low points, What Could Be Better is perhaps one of the only positive things that truly brought me joy in 2020. As the name itself might suggest, The Happy Fits is a band that builds off of exuberant, jubilant energy–accenting their songs with sharp cello stabs, soaring harmonies, and an exciting pulse that knows no bounds. That hasn’t changed at all on What Could Be Better, the group’s infectious sophomore album. Throughout, the three members of The Happy Fits (Calvin Langman, Luke Davis, and Ross Monteith) tackle the trials of young adulthood with indie rock gusto, making catchy bangers in the process (“Go Dumb,” “No Instructions,” “Moving”).
But even on some of the album’s more self-reflective moments (“Sailing,” “What Could Be Better”), The Happy Fits never let that buzz disappear. Any of the album’s songs could easily soundtrack a coming of age film, and it’s easy enough to imagine the kinds of large crowds of people who would be jamming alongside them. What Could Be Better is a rare instance of earnest indie rock that captures all of the optimism and little anxieties of growing up, making for one of the most unexpectedly great surprises of the year. —Li-Wei Chu
LINION – Leisurely
Groovy vibes are out in full-force on Taiwanese R&B pop musician LINION’s sophomore album Leisurely. There’s a shining light that seems to come out of LINION’s songs, whether that’s on the endlessly replayable lead single “Oh Girl” or the charming singalong “Her.” That’s not to mention the album’s many stellar collaborations which feature many of Taiwan’s independent artists who adapt that cheerful groove along with him (“Cocoon,” “Day Off,” “Mountain Dude”). Despite everything that went on this year, Leisurely is a love letter to good times. Queue up Leisurely and you’ll forget about all your troubles. —Li-Wei Chu
Hiroshi Fujiwara – slumbers 2
In the West, the name Hiroshi Fujiwara might not raise any eyebrows, but back in Japan (and in fashion circles worldwide), he’s a big deal. Often dubbed “The Godfather of modern Japanese streetwear,” Fujiwara has been active in the culture scene for decades now, not only for fashion but also for playing a major role in bringing hip hop to Japan. It certainly helps that Fujiwara himself makes great music under his own name as well.
On this year’s slumbers 2, Fujiwara explores the world of electronic pop–this time bringing chic, modern pop cuts to the table. His sound heavily invokes the clean-cut polish of cosmopolitan city life, bringing a unique bounciness to his compositions (“SPRINGLIKE,” “BERLIN”) and, at other times, an umber-tinted funky touch (“新宝島,” “MAIとPAUL”). “TERRITORY,” on the other hand, is a sunny slice of Japanese pop that glistens with life. Meanwhile, songs like “みんな大好き みんな愛してる” acts as romping club music that you can just as easily walk down the catwalk to. slumbers 2 really is proof that Fujiwara can do it all.
Ana Roxanne – Because of a Flower
While we enjoyed Ana Roxanne’s expanding echoes that resonated throughout space and time in ~~~ EP, this year’s Because of a Flower transcends two additional dimensions: the nuances of intersectionality and identity.
On album opener “Unitiled,” a spoken word introduction from Lao Tzu provides context to what we’ll experience in the album: “One has produced Two, Two has produced Three. These words mean that One has been divided into Yin, the female principle, and Yang, the male principle. These two have joined, and out of their junction has come a third, Harmony.”
The way these phrases cascade on top of each other reflects how each song is built up: a drone to set the mood and a matching melody that properly begins the track–followed by the addition of indistinguishable vocals and eventually fully-fledged lyrics. This process holds a meditative aura, made more apparent in the second spoken section of “Venus,” where Roxanne describes the healing powers of water. (“Water accepts all who come its way. Water accepts all walks of life and we gratefully surrender and open to this healing element”). Although the record may have been recorded during simpler times, Because of a Flower is an exercise of being in the present. —Karolyn Jaranilla
yllwblly – Land Lover
Written and composed after the dissolution of an intimate relationship, Land Lover is a touching time capsule of raw feelings. The stunning debut album of singer-songwriter yllwblly (Mark Tseng-Putterman), Land Lover throws you into its pool of swirling thoughts with no remorse, bluntly allowing you to live in those memories alongside our pensive narrator. Armed mostly with a guitar and minimalist instrumentation, Tseng-Putterman is our charming guide to his past, spinning tales about nuanced emotions.
But unlike many artists who solely paint themselves in a positive light, Tseng-Putterman is fair to its listener, oftentimes pointing out his own personal shortcomings as well as his then-partner’s. That self-reflection brings out an interesting dynamic–balancing acerbic moments that sting as well as critical self-observations that fully fleshes out the true nature of his relationship. Although Land Lover is the artist’s final farewell to once-lovely times, one can’t help but revisit them again and again on these 13 careful songs. —Li-Wei Chu
Strawberry Generation – Afloat
There’s something about the twee-indie pop on Afloat that reminds me of my own college days–invoking rosy memories about a time when anything felt possible. Looking back, the highs outweighed the lows, covering each of my reveries with a fondness that I can’t quite shake off. Strawberry Generation, the delicate namesake of Luk Yean, Valerie Zhu, Alejandro Subiotto Marques, Dan Davis, and Max Naftol, is a group that taps directly into that wonder, stitching together ten songs that glow with a pastel nostalgia. Yean and Zhu, who trade off writing credits on Afloat, are able to capture that magic with remarkable accuracy. Whether it’s in the context of gallivanting with friends, young love, or a toast to new beginnings, Strawberry Generation successfully transports you to a comfortable headspace–one where you can experience those youthful feelings for the first time all over again. —Li-Wei Chu
Soft Blue Shimmer – Heaven Inches Away
Los Angeles-based dream pop/shoegaze/noise pop outfit Soft Blue Shimmer’s ambition in attaining perfection and disregard for being pinned under any one category allows them to break through stagnation and evolve into their most realized form in their debut album Heaven Inches Away.
Heaven Inches Away, in many ways, points at elements from their 2019 Nothing Happens Here EP to contextualize their growth in confidence as songwriters and a band as a whole. Of the most notable is “Chihiro,” named after the Spirited Away protagonist, which counters feelings of resignation in “Shinji” (of Neon Genesis Evangelion) from their debut by tapping into longing and a burning desire. There’s an unshakable sense of hope when listening to Heaven Inches Away, even as the album straddles the fine line between happiness and despair. Soft Blue Shimmer maintains that feeling throughout the album with their rhapsodic hooks and dreamy vocal work. Heaven Inches Away is that light at the end of the long tunnel–and if that’s any indication of what 2021 holds, we’re sprinting in that direction. —Karolyn Jaranilla
MAITA – Best Wishes
“Songwriting comes from a place of wanting to find the truth in life,” shares Maria Maita-Keppeler, the front-person of Portland-based indie rock group MAITA. “… Music has been a place for me to demand the free space to say what I want to say.”
That’s exactly the kind of profound songwriting that can be found all over MAITA’s debut album Best Wishes. From existential moments at house parties to detached nights in foreign cities, Best Wishes is a sobering look at life thanks to Maita-Keppeler’s ability to find that truth grounded in shifting life moments. Songs like “Japanese Waitress,” “Best Wishes, XO, Hugs and Kisses, Goodbye,” and “Pay to Play” show off that keen perception and sharp lyricism, carving out a specific space for Maita-Keppeler’s captivating stories. Even when she’s writing from other perspectives on other parts of the album (a Dust Bowl couple on “Darling, Don’t Take Me When You’re Ready to Go” and a troubled boyfriend on “Boy”), that meticulous eye for emotional detail comes through. Filled with thoughtful, introspective moments sprung from complicated situations, Best Wishes is a rare example of a gifted songwriter who can make even the most complex emotions come to life. —Li-Wei Chu
YUKIKA – SOUL LADY
While the 80s aesthetic made a huge return in Western mainstream pop production in recent years, a similar sea change was happening online as artists like Mariya Takeuchi and numerous throwback compilations started to pop up in recommendation algorithms all over. City pop, a glistening style of Japanese pop that was prominent in the 70s and 80s, was making a comeback. While some tried to capitalize on this rising trend to varying degrees of success, perhaps nobody pulled it off quite like pop star YUKIKA (Yukika Teramoto) did on this year’s vibrant SOUL LADY. Melding modern production with neon streaks of city pop vibes, SOUL LADY manages to refresh the once-tired genre and give it a modern-day makeover. That convergence is most apparent on singles “Cherries Jubiles,” “SOUL LADY,” and “Yesterday,” turning funky songs into truly inspired retro-bangers. Even on moments when she leaps into the modern day (“pit-a-pet”), YUKIKA proves that everything she touches turns into blazing brilliance. Even though city-pop is an era that is long gone, the spirit of it lives on in YUKIKA. —Li-Wei Chu
Meitei – Kofu
Meitei’s 2020 album Kofū wraps up a masterful trilogy that explores the rich histories of Japanese aesthetics. While 2018’s Kwaidan haunted us with the lost art of Japanese ghost story-telling and last year’s Komanchi revived the soul of a Japan that slept in darkness, Kofū is “a satire of old Japanese aesthetics.” Meitei’s signature lo-fi ambient sound mixed with dissected vocal recordings blur the lines between classic Japanese sounds and modern ambient ventures, making Kofū the most contemporary piece of the trio. It’s with this fresh feel that allows Meitei to fill the album with optimism. —Karolyn Jaranilla
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Years from now, when the scars of the pandemic have started to heal and a sense of normalcy has returned to the world, music aficionados will remember 2020 as the year that SAWAYAMA dropped.
Rina Sawayama’s debut album is one that is bold enough to bear her name, and for good reason. Fusing pop inspirations from the late 90s/early 2000s with her own exciting flair, SAWAYAMA audaciously ushers in a new era of pop that is quite unlike anything else in the scene right now. Nu-metal guitars slay on the empowering “STFU!” and capitalism-skewering anthem “XS.” “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” and “Dynasty” channel deviant arena energy that soar. “Comme de Garcons (Like the Boys)” and “Tokyo Love Hotel” bring chic electronica to the forefront. The songs on SAWAYAMA are also heavily influenced by Sawayama’s own identity–oftentimes courageously including elements of her own upbringing and her pansexuality into the heart of pop. It’s endlessly admirable that Sawayama never compromises about who she is as a person, making music that is not only true to herself but also able to be enjoyed by anyone. What results is an album filled with confident, self-assured bangers that can truly be labeled as one-as-a-kind. —Li-Wei Chu
Note: As of writing this article, Yufu & The Velvet Impressionism’s Is It Vain to Be Awake? is only available on Bandcamp.