Most Anticipated of 2021: Travis Scott Blasts Off

It’s crazy to think that we’re over two years separated from Astroworld, the album that transformed Travis Scott from a rapper on the fringe of the zeitgeist to one of the biggest and most exciting voices in hip hop. It’s an album that somehow still feels underrated, despite its influence and omnipresence as a new summer staple. Scott has seized the opportunity to transform from musician to cultural icon. Did that McDonald’s thing actually happen? Yes, it did.

We do have an idea of what comes next, we just don’t know the exact time it will arrive. Scott announced Utopia last October, which has already seen singles in the form of “Highest in the Room” and “Franchise” featuring M.I.A. and Young Thug – one of the most unsung tracks of 2020. We can expect that Scott will bring the house down with Utopia, but what are we to expect in terms of tone? Astroworld dazzled in its theme park presentation and could easily exist as a standalone effort in that regard. Could Utopia trend darker?

We’ll have to wait to see, but hopefully not too long. Although we’re just in the beginning of the cold winter season, we’ll soon be looking for some spring and summer soundtracks when we’re all hopefully be able to, like, go outside and do things again. And when it happens, I can’t wait to play Travis Scott at full blast.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Most Anticipated of 2021: Panic! At the Disco Claim the Dancefloor

Check out our podcast episode breaking down our most anticipated music of 2021!

It’s been almost three years since Panic! At the Disco released the absolutely stellar Pray For The Wicked, but Brendon Urie isn’t one to sit idle for too long. Coming off the high of what is arguably Panic’s best record, it’s hard to imagine that anything can top Pray For The Wicked. 

Fortunately though, Brendon Urie is full of surprises. Having brought Panic! back from the brink of collapse, expanded the band’s sound in unimaginable ways and lifted the group to become one of the world’s biggest acts over the last decade, he isn’t one to take lightly. With each album carrying a distinct and unique persona and sound, it’s hard not to be excited for whatever comes next.

Panic! At the Disco is a band that universally delivers in a way that almost no other musical act can. Whatever Urie has planned for the band’s seventh album, it’s destined to once again push the band’s boundaries and force other pop acts to up their game just to keep up.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and sneezed, then his cat sneezed, then he sneezed again. A sign of the end times or just exceptional timing between man and beast? The answer, is yes.

Most Anticipated of 2021: Julien Baker Brings Healing

Phoebe Bridgers gave me my album of 2020, so her friend Julien Baker has some shoes to fill with Little Oblivions, slated for February 26th. Her gentle instrumentation and grating lyricism in the first single, “Faith Healer” is a great first taste of what we can expect from her third studio album. She plays almost every instrument this time around and I’m interested in hearing her perspective with a richer sound.

Having recently been thrown into an unexpected time of loss, I’m excited for the balm I know Julien’s album will be. Her juxtaposition of religion and reality has always been grounding and a good reminder that it will get better, whatever “better” ends up meaning.

Her music, while deeply personal for her, has been a great source of what I think of as “responsible escapism” — the idea that leaning into media and art that that highlights our emotional state is paramount to healing.

by Nadia Alves

kiel_hauckNadia Alves has been a music enthusiast since she can remember. Going to shows is her main pastime. The other is being upset when she can’t go to shows. This is her first official venture into writing about music. You can follow her on Twitter.

Most Anticipated of 2021: AFI Step Out of the Shadows

After a decade of almost yearly releases of some type, it would be reasonable to expect AFI’s Davey Havok and Jade Puget to run out of ideas at some point. However, since it has been two years since AFI’s last new music, the duo’s main band was due for a release. With the arrival of the new year, the band have already released a statement that new music was on the way.

With the four year mark approaching since the release of AFI’s last album proper, AFI (The Blood Album), the group has taken one of the longest breaks between record releases since 2009, with only 2018’s stellar The Missing Man EP tiding fans over in the meantime. However, Havok has expanded his songwriting considerably since The Blood Album, having released Dreamcar’s debut album and two Blaqk Audio albums in the meantime.

Each new album over the last decade has somehow managed to expand AFI’s sound while simultaneously reverberating the dark punk aesthetic that launched the group into cult superstars. But with each new album carrying the air of a unique style and theme, the time between albums has given the band ample time to deliver once again.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and just ate what can only be described as “too much ghost pepper queso.”….. or not enough?

Most Anticipated of 2021: Underoath Provide Another Fix

Tampa, Florida, rock act Underoath didn’t let 2020 slow them down. Booked to support Slipknot on a massive summer tour that went up in smoke, the band launched a weekly Twitch show breaking down their catalogue track-by-track with a constant stream of guests. But it all led up to the big announcement: A live streamed concert event held over three nights called Underoath: Observatory. And it was incredible.

Not only did Underoath use the expertly executed Observatory series to set the bar for the litany of live-streamed concerts that came after, it turned out to be pretty profitable according to an article published by Forbes in July. While the Observatory series certainly won’t mark the end of Underoath’s time on the road, it opened a new door of possibilities for what it might look like for fans to experience their favorite band.

But throughout the band’s fascinating summer adventures, there was an undercurrent that there was more to come. Given that five of the six band members all still reside in the Florida area, it’s probably safe to presume that some collaboration and writing took place in 2020. Following Underoath’s successful comeback album, Erase Me, coupled with the tour opportunities that followed, now is certainly the time to strike while the iron is still hot.

If 2020 offered longtime fans of the band to re-experience Underoath’s old albums and classic material, 2021 could very well present us with something new. Whether you enjoyed the sonic evolution found on Erase Me or not, the band’s trajectory has always been one of exploration and change. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for another dose.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Most Anticipated of 2021: Kacey Musgraves Shines Bright

We’re coming up on two years since the release of Golden Hour, the country pop masterpiece from Kacey Musgraves. Met with acclaim from almost every angle, Golden Hour was an album whose warmth and hope was a much needed respite at the time. Honestly, its tone would have felt out of place in 2020, and I only recently returned it in the past month as we prepare to (hopefully) come up for air in the coming spring.

And if the chips fall right, 2021 could be the perfect time for a follow up. Fans were treated to a very vague but straightforward tease last August when Musgraves chose to entertain a fan’s questioning on Twitter:

Since the release of Golden Hour, Musgraves has not only become a welcome voice for progress on every platform she graces, but has become an unexpected feature guest across tracks by everyone from The Flaming Lips to Troye Sivan. Once an outsider amidst the curmudgeonly country crowd, Musgraves has not only won over many a country music gatekeeper, but has become one of the most exciting voices in all of pop.

So what comes next? 2021 will be interesting in its artistic output from every angle, to say the least, but the world is Musgraves’ oyster at this point. Will she dive deeper into the disco influence that peeked through the cracks on Golden Hour? Return to her more traditional country roots that were displayed on her early work? Something else entirely? Time will tell. And we can’t wait to find out.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

The Best Songs of 2020

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2020 here.

For many of us, our music listening experience in 2020 was vastly different from any other year. I honestly have no memories of jamming to songs in my car, hearing music over the loud speaker at a bar, or enjoying live music with a crowd of people on a warm, summer night. In 2020, my memories are mostly indoors, and very often, alone.

So what songs do we turn to in those moments? What tracks kept us company through the ups and mostly downs of a year lived largely in quarantine? We did our best to build a list of songs that captured the emotional highs and lows we felt, along with tracks that spoke something meaningful or something new. Take a look – and a listen – and let us know your favorite tracks in the replies!

15. AJR – “Bang!”

Here’s a real wild card. I was supposed to see AJR play this spring but then quarantine started. They’re a recent addition to my Spotify, but my brother is a big fan and has been trying to get me to listen to them for about a year or so now (Hi Nick!). He was largely unsuccessful in his attempts, but their radio single “Bang!” was when I hopped on the train. I’m not generally a Top 40 gal, but this song is refreshing. It’s radio friendly but original. Lyrically, it’s about growing up and how difficult that is, but sonically we’re at a party. It’s a promising single for the band’s fourth album and I’m excited to see how it fits in with the rest of it (We can expect that project early next year.) – Nadia Alves

14. The Bombpops – “Double Arrows Down”

“Double Arrows Down” is a raging punk song that focuses on guitarist/vocalist Poli Van Dam’s struggle with diabetes. Focused around an incident of passing out at a gas station due to complications from the disease, the song is equal parts terrifying and filled with rage (“I’m sitting there, in another cold pharmacy chair / Standing by while they suck my veins and wallet dry / I can write all these defiant songs, but my life is still reliant on machines”). The Bombpops portray the terror of this disease against a blazing punk riff and an electrifying pop chorus. The full horror and frustration of the disease is played out against the sound of rebellion, and hope to ultimately battle diabetes to the end. – Kyle Schultz

13. Juice Wrld – “Righteous”

Juice Wrld’s posthumous 2020 album Legends Never Die is a breathtaking view of what was to come from the emo rapper before his tragic passing last December from a drug-induced seizure. “Righteous”, the album’s lead single, serves as a haunting reflection on his mental health struggles and self-medication in an attempt to ease the pain. His words float gently atop the melancholy beat as he ponders on death and the cyclical nature of his addiction. “Taking medicine to fix all of the damage / My anxiety the size of a planet”, he confesses as his voice begins to rise. It’s a track that encapsulates the heart of a gifted artist gone far too soon. – Kiel Hauck

12. Twenty One Pilots – “Level of Concern”

For only releasing one song in 2020, Twenty One Pilots have had quite the impact this year. They released “Level of Concern” in April, when quarantine was only a two week affair and we all were baking sourdough and blending our coffee. Ah, simpler times. Personally, the guys have had a lot going on as well — Josh got married at the end of December, and Tyler and Jenna had their baby. They still found time to give us the perfect song about the absolute stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic, and it’s easily the most on-the-nose song of the year, which is why it makes my top songs for 2020. Plus it’s a bop. – Nadia Alves

11. All Time Low – “Sleeping In”

“Sleeping In” is the best song All Time Low have written in a decade. Seamlessly blending the pop direction of recent albums and the Warped Tour mosh pits of albums past, the song is the personification of the band’s career. All at once oozing in swagger and sexiness, “Sleeping In” is the song that All Time Low were always meant to write. The song manages to find restraint in the verses with a pop-funk mesh (“We got shit to do, you got work / But we fall right back into bed, like it’s all just a game / And we can’t help that, no we can’t help that”) and an all-out punk rock chorus that rivals All Time Low’s best (“If I said ‘I want your body,’ would you hold it against me?”). – Kyle Schultz

10. The 1975 – “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”

I’ve long held that The 1975 are at their best when their songs are stripped down to an elemental level, which is what makes “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” one of their best. A painful, folksy track about secret loves forbidden by religion reaches unexpected heights thanks to contributions from Phoebe Bridgers. Could anyone else on the planet make lines as simple as, “I’m in love with the girl next door / Her name is Claire” sound as emotional and meaningful through cracking, whispered vocals? When Bridgers and Matt Healy come together during the song’s final chorus, their song of love just beyond their reach becomes magic – and tragic: “Fortunately I believe / Lucky me”. – Kiel Hauck

9. Phoebe Bridgers – “Moon Song”

Though not released as one of the singles from Punisher, this track from the album is my favorite. I mentioned the raw emotion of it in my album review. Generally the freshness of a song will influence how much it sticks in my mind before I toss it aside for something shinier I get distracted by, but this one is a true jewel on the album, Phoebe’s discography, and the year in music. It’s rumored to be inspired by Conor Oberst, but lines like “You’re holding me like water in your hands” is all too relatable in a year where almost all of us have experienced intense loss and a redefining of priorities. I could have chosen any one of the songs from Punisher as one of my top songs this year — the album is truly that great — but “Moon Song” just has a little something extra that takes it all the way to the top for me. – Nadia Alves

8. KennyHoopla – “how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//”

The title track from KennyHoopla’s debut EP is a renaissance song of genre, mashing new wave rock with garage punk and creating a modern dance track with the sensibilities of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The song is an energetic track that sounds ripped from the early 2000’s indie scene. However, the track is also a commentary on the uncomfortable nature of conforming to looking acceptable in society (“Culture is so claustrophobic / Claws to prove it hurts so good / And the party’s over / I’m still on your couch now, love”). The speed at which society moves and changes its opinion is a damaging thing (“How can I rest in peace if I’m buried by a highway? / Pain on the keys, is everybody still breathing? / Weight of my shadow, it gets more heavy, and it scares me, yeah”). The song turns the anxiety of the quickly changing world into a song that works equally on the dance floor as it does on a Midwestern emo playlist. – Kyle Schultz

7. Halsey – “you should be sad”

For the country ballad entry to the genre melting pot that is Manic, Halsey penned “you should be sad”, one of the rawest and most personal tracks of the year. It’s easy to mistake it as a break-up song (that was last year’s “Without Me”), but this is what you write when you’re on the other side, looking back at your ex with a smirk. Halsey tees things up mightily on the pre-chorus with the lines of, “No, you’re not half the man you think that you are / And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, drugs, and cars”, before bringing down the hammer with, “I’m so glad I never, ever had a baby with you / ‘Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you”. Ouch. It just might be the most empowered sad country song you’ll ever hear. – Kiel Hauck

6. Hayley Williams – “Crystal Clear”

In Hayley Williams’ solo project, Petals for Armor, she gave us songs about mental health, loss, femininity and new beginnings. Having the album since May really gave me a chance to pick through every track and I can confidently say “Crystal Clear” deserves a place on my top track list for the year. It’s the best closer I heard this year, and the way it brings the album full circle was necessary for something that began in such a dark and spiteful place. Hayley really took the time to truly process the past few years of her life and the decisions she’d made. Finishing it all off with a powerful song about forgiveness and clarity is a great lesson for all of us. – Nadia Alves

5. Taylor Swift – “Mad Woman”

One of the few venomous songs on Swift’s folklore, “Mad Woman” makes use of every line to fight back against an oppressive industry. On a base level, the song acts as a spiritual successor to Lover’s “The Man”, but there is much more to the song than the theme of “a woman scorned.” The song is at least partially a commentary against Scooter Braun, the music producer who bought all of Swift’s master recordings (“What do you sing on your drive home? / Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? / Does she smile? Or does she mouth, ‘Fuck you forever?’”). One of Swift’s few rage-imbued songs, “Mad Woman” describes the toll taken on women who see themselves being taken advantage of by anyone (“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy / What about that? / And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”). – Kyle Schultz

4. The Weeknd – “Faith”

The most exciting stretch of After Hours belongs to the three consecutive songs featuring production from Metro Boomin, culminating with “Faith”. Here, Abel Tesfaye’s vocals become an instrument in the mix as he circles the drain and loses his religion, confessing, “When I’m coming down is the most I feel alone”. It’s a startling lament to an addiction that creates a chasm between himself and others, but the song reaches its thematic and sonically thrilling climax in the final minutes as the entire tone of the song shifts. “I ended up in the back of a flashing car”, he sings as he gently describes the shimmering lights of the cityscape and ambulance siren. The song fades into “Blinding Lights” – the biggest pop hit of the year, which takes on a sinister new meaning in this context. Truly, no one has mastered this sleight of hand trick better than The Weeknd. – Kiel Hauck

3. Marina – “Man’s World”

This has been one heck of a year regarding social justice and reform. Historic protests against police brutality, and in the America election, the choice of our first female vice president —  just to name a couple. Marina has come swooping in from her break after 2019’s Love + Fear to bring us “Man’s World,” a scathing track about gender equality, one of many women to release commentary on the issue. As a woman, the time for artists to talk about important issues plaguing my demographic are always welcome, and Marina has dropped a truth bomb on us in this track. She also put her money where her mouth is by choosing an all-gal team for the track’s production. It’s absolutely my track of the year, with its drop in November completely upending any idea I had of my ranking. – Nadia Alves

2. MxPx – “Worries”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, MXPX were one of the first bands to release an original song about the new reality we all faced. “Worries” managed to melt away much of the anxiety that I felt living through the height of Chicago’s lockdowns and inspired me to leave the quarantine I had been in and venture home for the first time in two months.

“Worries” managed to bypass fears of the disease at the height of the lockdowns in big cities, and express the emotional resonance of a classic MXPX song while inspiring listeners to persevere with enigmatic skate punk verses and a raging punk guitar chorus/bridge (“I’m not worried, I’ll be fine / Just want you to know you’re on my mind / I’m not worried, just worried sick, a little dose of you might do the trick / You’re the cure for worried sick”).

It’s almost solely because of this song that I began to gather myself again and prepare for the rest of the year in Chicago’s early May. Even now, in December, I give this song credit for inspiring me to cast off the fear of the Spring lockdowns and prepare for the return of the every day. It’s also been a constant soundtrack throughout the year as infections seemed to surge again, reminding me that a return to “normal life” is only a matter of time away. – Kyle Schultz

1. Dua Lipa – “Break My Heart”

It’s difficult to choose just one song from Future Nostalgia that fully encapsulates Dua Lipa’s thrilling breakthrough this year, but if “Don’t Start Now” was fan service for the general audience, “Break My Heart” represents Dua’s alt-pop queen potential. Featuring an irresistible interpolation of INXS’ “Need You Tonight”, this dance/disco track feels less like an 80’s homage and more like a doorway into the future of pop music. In short, it’s the most fully realized track of the Future Nostalgia concept.

But as you’re dancing, take a listen to Dua’s growth as a songwriter. “Break My Heart” is about those moments in an exciting new relationship when you’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Is it safe to jump? Who could ever know? “I’m indecisive, but this time I know for sure”, she sings on the opening verse before crooning, “It’s you in my reflection, I’m afraid of all the things you could do to me”, on the pre-chorus. It’s a giddy uncertainty we’ve all experienced set to the most electric soundtrack you could imagine. And in a year as dark as this, it’s a refreshing dose of light and innocence. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Run the Jewels – “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)”
Billie Eilish – “No Time to Die”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Comeback”
Ariana Grande – “Positions”
Childish Gambino – “Algorhythm”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Albums of 2020

Mercifully, 2020 is winding to an end. Not that a simple turn of the calendar will solve all of our problems, but as we reach the end of the year, there is a lot to process and reflect on – and maybe even learn from. One thing that has been a constant for the team at It’s All Dead this year is music. Music as a reprieve, music as a distraction, music as a friend. So we take a moment away from the dread to focus on some albums that brought us joy and helped us through the toughest moments of the past year.

A quick note before we dive into the list: Our goal each year is to give a clear representation of the music that mattered to us the most while also reflecting the music that simply mattered. The larger the area in the middle of that Venn diagram, the higher it ranks on the list. Noticeably absent on this year’s list is the album that arguably mattered the most: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

During our team conversations as we began working on our end-of-the-year features, we realized that none of us had spent enough time with the album to warrant it making the list without it feeling extremely disingenuous. Right or wrong, we made the call to leave it off while acknowledging the impact of the album. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen.

So here we go. Take a look – and as always – let us know your favorite albums of the year in the replies!

15. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine

I feel like I often end up pulling some wild cards into our year-end lists, and this year my wild card is You’ll Be Fine. I meant to write about it when it released in March, but this year took a lot out of me which translated to a lot more listening than writing. For me, that meant returning to this Hot Mulligan album again and again, especially over the summer. It’s quintessential pop punk, which is both right up my alley and easy to get into. They explored more thoughtful songwriting on this album compared to their previous projects, moving closer to a Wonder Years level of consideration in their production. Even though I enjoyed their first album Pilot, this album makes me truly excited for the trajectory of this band: Up. – Nadia Alves

14. Knuckle Puck – 20/20

Though Knuckle Puck have been a growing force within the scene for years, the ominously named 20/20 is their most cohesive and well-structured album to date. Somehow finding the magic of normalcy, the album stands in contrast to the year it was released in and breathes fresh life into a genre that can quickly sound redundant—the midwest pop punk scene. 20/20 reminds the listener not to back away from the problems in their life, but instead reflect and learn on the experiences. Weaving traditional emo punk against some experimental tracks on the band’s signature sound, 20/20 finds Knuckle Puck forging ahead with a fire behind them that can only see the good even when it stares into the everyday horrors we all face.  – Kyle Schultz

13. Stand Atlantic – Pink Elephant

When pop punk is at its best, it allows us to lower our inhibitions, feel our feelings, and join a safe community chorus of fellow voices caught in the fray. Depending on who you ask, it’s been a while since that experience rang true, but Sydney, Australia, act Stand Atlantic are intent on reviving the spirit. Pink Elephant, the band’s sophomore effort, is everything a great pop punk release should be while constantly stretching its wings into new territory. Vocalist Bonnie Fraser unravels the tangles that hold her back, singing “My guts keep falling out / And I’m starting to disintegrate / I’ll carry on / Yeah, it’s just like that” on the album’s opener. Call it a lament if you want, but it works better as a thesis statement on forging ahead. – Kiel Hauck

12. Neck Deep – All Distortions Are Intentional

This is the first and only album on my list that is truly escapist. A concept album about fulfilling our emo dreams in a world where we truly care about others is a necessary course of action that could make true change if we implemented it in the real world. Easily one of the most positive and thought-provoking albums to come from the pop-punk genre this year, All Distortions Are Intentional is another addition to Neck Deep’s maturing discography, and a project by a band that has truly come into their own form of activism and wave-making. – Nadia Alves

11. New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity

New Found Glory albums are mostly easy to predict: loud, catchy and filled with easy sing-along choruses. Forever + Ever x Infinity excels in that it acts as an album filled with fairy tales. The band lean heavily on their roots of writing songs about relationships, but through a lens of maturity and humor. The result is an album that both reflects on the band’s roots in pop punk, as well as presses forward with an easycore crunch and shining pop choruses (“Greatest of all Time”). Sometimes cheesy, sometimes hopelessly romantic, New Found Glory’s 10th album acts as a perfect followup to the much celebrated Self-Titled album by reflecting on the themes of that record with a middle-aged point of view and the sobering reality that only time can grant. – Kyle Schultz

10. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Hip hop fans waited patiently for the fourth installment from rap duo Run the Jewels, but RTJ4 actually arrived early. With the release date suddenly pushed forward in the midst of protests against police brutality due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, Run the Jewels owned the moment and captured the national outrage. Like all previous Run the Jewels albums, RTJ4 is rife with rattling bass-lines and rapid fire lyrics from Killer Mike and El-P, but this installment feels like pointed protest music right from the jump (“Yankee and the Brave”). Maybe revolution music is a more apt descriptor. – Kiel Hauck

9. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine

Wake Up, Sunshine is All Time Low’s best album in a decade, perfectly balancing the pop sensibilities the band have been striving for with the punk rock buzz that earned them an adoring audience. The album is mature and reflective, but also looks confidently forward with a style that hopefully comes to define the band moving forward. A thematic sister album to fan favorite Nothing Personal, Wake Up, Sunshine highlights the growth of the band (“Some Kind of Disaster”), as well as emphasizes their storytelling ability (“Wake Up, Sunshine”) and features the best song the band has written in years (“Sleeping In”). – Kyle Schultz

8. Halsey – Manic

Manic shouldn’t work. The third full-length album from Halsey is a mess. But like paint crawling itself across the canvas, the idiosyncrasies begin to intertwine, giving unique views of mental illness and the weight of fame as you zoom in and out of the portrait. Halsey’s greatest strength as an artist has always been her vulnerability and willingness to display her deepest fears in a way that feels more than relatable. With Manic, she somehow delivers her most cohesive work despite there being no clear genre. Simply change tracks to switch between country, rock, R&B, and more. The navigation of it all feels as honest and messy as any great therapy session should. – Kiel Hauck

7. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory

Many of the albums that ended up sticking out to me this year dealt with the heavy things. That is in part because I’m a heck of a pessimist, and also because the year we’ve had has been made for us pessimists. With Color Theory, Sophia Allison showed us contrast. With the color triad of yellow, blue and grey, she artfully wove a true story about loss, illness and grief – something too many of us have experienced in some way or another this year. I’m a sucker for her lo-fi sound, and it definitely added some variety to my music this year. Hopefully, Sophia Allison should be in for a great next couple of years as she rises in the indie pop sphere. – Nadia Alves

6. The Weeknd – After Hours

We were merely one week into quarantine and fear when The Weeknd dropped After Hours, an album that eerily captured the feelings of isolation so many of us were (and still are) feeling. On surface level, the album reads like textbook Tesfaye, but closer examination reveals deep and fascinating artistic maturity. After Hours studies remorse and self-reflection on the other side of a hedonistic ride. Here, the blinding lights and shimmering boulevard are blurry and distant – something to long for, but not before a winding back road of questioning and self-loathing. – Kiel Hauck

5. KennyHoopla – how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//

KennyHoopla is the type of artist all musicians dream of being. His newest EP,  how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//, perfectly blends elements of R&B, emo, new wave and pop, among other genres, to create a bridge across the realm of music. Although just a few songs in length, KennyHoopla takes advantage of each moment by weaving an intensely honest record filled with admissions of inadequacy and fantasticism (“dust//”). Delivered with emotional depth and the intensity of a superstar, KennyHoopla sounds vibrantly original and deeply nostalgic. In just six songs, his EP accomplishes more with its time than some musicians do in their entire careers. – Kyle Schultz

4. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

When I preordered my copy of Petals for Armor on vinyl, I did so with the expectation that it would be both a great album and my top album of the year. While it didn’t quite top my list, it felt like an album that truly mattered – an album she wrote for herself rather than for a mainstream audience. I love Petals, and I think it’s the most important project to come from Hayley Williams. She truly explored and processed a lot of things through the album, and she took us along for the ride and prompted us to be more introspective and openminded when it comes to taking care of our mental health. She brought up a lot of personal feelings regarding loss for me, and in turn, I ended up dealing with some of the things I had pushed away. I’m grateful for that. – Nadia Alves

3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

English singer and songwriter Dua Lipa showed flashes of what was to come with her 2017 self-titled debut, but chose to shed away any preconceived notions of powerhouse pop with Future Nostalgia, an album bubbling with disco and dance spirit. Everything about it works, specifically because Dua Lipa takes full control of her art in every way without the slightest hint of restraint. 

The album never slows down, even as it veers between lanes, blurring the lines between its influences and Dua’s own original, melodic concoctions. “You want a timeless song / I want to change the game”, she tells us mere seconds into the album. A factory-made pop star she is not. What a fabulous invitation to lean into the experience and dance away the aches of the shittiest year in recent memory. – Kiel Hauck

2. Taylor Swift – folklore

Releasing one career-best album is a crowning achievement for any artist, but to deliver two within a year is something special. Swift’s surprise album folklore perfects her ability to tell a story by blending personal stories and fictional characters in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. Folklore excels as the perfect representation of who Swift is as an artist by stripping away everything that we thought made a Taylor Swift album—the glamorized production values, over-the-top choruses and the electrifying pop elements that have punctuated her recent albums. At its base level, folklore is an indie album of sweet songs (“mirrorball”), but the songs are intimate, intricate pieces of art with as much depth and scope as a fleshed-out pop hit.

Unafraid of the silence between notes, folklore puts the melody and story first and foremost. The album strips away all expectations fans had of who Swift is as an artist by showing them something better. Soft, sincere and honest even when fictional, Swift has reinvented her career by stripping her music to its essentials and finding just as much, if not more, meaning in each song (“mad woman”, “betty”). – Kyle Schultz

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This year’s top album was actually quite a difficult and personal debate for me, but after a lot of reflection and back and forth, the bell rang and I lifted Phoebe Bridgers’ hand as Punisher was declared the winner. Her gentle delivery and poignant writing was a welcome break for me this year, a year when I’ve been so up in arms about — well, just about everything. It gave listeners something to direct their sadness and confusion at for 40 minutes and 37 seconds.

Phoebe didn’t shy away from the harsh reality of her life and her past in Punisher, and the raw honesty is what has kept me coming back throughout the latter half of the year. It takes a lot for me to consider an album as the best, and not only is it the best album of the year, it’s the best in Phoebe’s discography. She’s showed her maturity and individuality here, and that counts for everything in my book. – Nadia Alves

Honorable Mention

PVRIS – Use Me
Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Blaqk Audio – Beneath the Black Palms
The Bombpops – Death in Venice Beach

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Complicated Feelings on the 10th Anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It literally slipped my mind that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was turning 10 years old until I saw people tweeting about it. And if you’ve followed this website since our early days, you’ll understand how strange that is. Up until around 2017, It’s All Dead’s side project was that of a Kanye West fanzine. And then, well…you know. You live long enough to see yourself become the villain or whatever.

I gritted my teeth as I listed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #1 on our 30 Best Albums of the Decade list last year. No matter how bad things have gotten, the fact remains. It’s one of those albums that I vividly remember where I was the first time I heard it. I literally remember my emotions hearing “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, and “Hell of a Life” for the first time. I remember how it was the only thing that mattered to me for a year, or at least until Watch the Throne dropped. It was the magnum opus from an artist that I revered more than anyone.

As a music critic, I’ve written and spoken more words about Kanye West than any other artist. I stopped a few years ago because it felt like there was nothing left to say. And it’s true. I have nothing new to add to the conversation on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today. I listened to it again as recently as a few weeks ago. I’m torn between the memories of those feelings I felt and the feelings I feel now. It makes the music forever complicated and impossible to parse out.

This summer, I played The College Dropout for my daughter for the first time. She’s much too young to process anything about it, but I pondered aloud how I would talk about the album when she was old enough. Would I be able to articulate how important this artist was to me for a time – to my musical tastes, to my politics, to my life? Would I be able to explain why his seeming abandonment of all of the things that attracted me to him caused me such frustration and anger? Does it even matter?

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is 10 years old, and it’s a shame we can’t celebrate it more. But honestly, we’ve talked about it enough. And there’s enough brilliant art in the world to put our energy into, and I can’t wait to talk about the great music this hell of a year has given us in a few weeks when we release our end-of-the-year lists. Until then, happy anniversary, I guess. Here’s a toast to the douchebag.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Reflecting On: Underoath – Ø (Disambiguation)

I’ve often said that Underoath’s sonic evolution has mirrored that of my own musical tastes. Maybe that’s just an easy way of explaining why the Tampa, Florida, sextet is my favorite band, but at a minimum, it showcases why Underoath has been so foundational in my understanding and enjoyment of heavy music. 

By 2010, I was three albums into my obsession with the band, who had originally opened my heart’s door to the screamo explosion before quickly expanding my palate to post-hardcore leanings with Define the Great Line and Lost in the Sound of Separation. I was ready for something new, but like many fans, had no idea what to expect.

You can buy or stream Ø (Disambiguation) on Apple Music.

That’s mostly due to the fact that by the fall of 2010, I was still wrapping my head around the departure of drummer, vocalist, and founding member Aaron Gillespie. The band’s inner turmoil and fractured relationships were no secret, but it was that tension that seemed to drive the band creatively, at least until the chasm was too severe. Nevertheless, any Tooth & Nail/Solid State fan understood the impact and possibilities with the addition of former Norma Jean drummer Daniel Davison. Whatever happened next stood to not only be the band’s heaviest work to date, but to determine the fate and future of the band.

Even 10 years later, there are times when I listen to Ø (Disambiguation) and ponder whether it is the best work the band has released. The album serves as the moment when Spencer Chamberlain became a full-fledged creative and vocal force. It showcases the band’s ability to graft new industrial and metal stylings into a familiar sound, led by guitarist Tim McTague and the brooding electronics from Chris Dudley. It also seems to be a relative footnote in the band’s history.

During the album cycle for Ø (Disambiguation), I had the chance to see the band live on two occasions. First, I saw them as openers for A Day to Remember, an experience that never set right with me and still feels hard to swallow. Months later, I saw them on their headlining Illuminatour in Louisville, Kentucky, in front of the smallest crowd I’ve ever seen at an Underoath show. The popularity of a band still at the top of its game was waning before our eyes. It almost seemed predestined in 2012 when the band announced their plans to disband.

Ø (Disambiguation) had accompanied me through a tumultuous time in my life, something that makes it feel even more personal and special in my memory. But the scene had changed, for better or for worse, and so had the tastes of heavy music listeners – at least in the circuit with which Underoath was most recognized. Be that as it may, it’s still hard to pinpoint what exactly led to the flame out.

When Underoath embarked on their farewell tour in 2012, I saw them play The Metro in Chicago in front of an energized sellout crowd. But something was off. As much as I love and respect Davison, the absence of Gillespie at the time felt palpable, especially for a band taking one final victory lap that included playing a large swath of songs that felt hollow without Aaron.

And thus lies the peculiar no-man’s land in which Ø (Disambiguation) resides. Upon the band’s reunion – with Gillespie behind the drum kit – it only made sense to return to those early works like They’re Only Chasing Safety and Define the Great Line. When I attended the band’s No Fix Tour after the release of Erase Me, the band included “Paper Lung” in the setlist – one of Ø (Disambiguation)’s signature songs and one of the band’s best. But again, something didn’t feel right. Those songs belong to a lost time in the band’s history.

It’s a weird thing to think about. There will be no 10 year anniversary tour for Ø (Disambiguation) for a variety of reasons. And while it makes sense as to why the album feels so forgotten in the conversation around one of modern heavy music’s most important bands, it’s also a shame. Because it is a damn good album from a band that simultaneously had nothing and everything to prove. And, as always, Underoath came through.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.