12 Essential Art Rock Songs From 2020 (So Far)

Nothing makes sense in 2020. Of course, there’s still meaning and authenticity in our feelings, but the current chaos is a constant threat to our well-being. Strangely, one thing I find cathartic during tumultuous times is listening to organized chaos by way of harsh, challenging music, and art rock is a great vehicle for that. Sure, other chaotic forms of music like punk, metal, hardcore or noise rock will also do the trick, but listening to something a bit more strange requires deeper attention, and that’s where art rock can help transport us out of our doomscrolling and emotional spirals. Like many genres, art rock is hard to define, but ultimately, it pulls from avant-garde traditions and orders sounds in ways they wouldn’t normally be ordered. If that sounds comforting, interesting or at least like a worthwhile distraction, scroll down for 12 of our favorite art rock tracks from the year so far.

1. Activity: “Earth Angel”

New York City’s Activity unleashed their debut album Unmask Whoever earlier this year, and it’s equal parts comforting and chilling. “Earth Angel” may be lacking some of the sinister textures that characterize the album, but it has an electrifying climax that gives it an emotional edge over the others. It opens with gentle vocalizations and closes with tortured screams. —Lizzie Manno

2. Cafe Racer: “Faces”

“Faces,” taken from Cafe Racer’s recent LP Shadow Talk, is led by immensely blustery vocal distortion and anchored with a steady, blissfully lulling beat. Then come the frenzied guitar whooshes, cutting through the monochromatic, meditative grooves and injecting radiant chaos. It’s both a graceful, psychedelic retreat and a hyperaware paradox of art rock sounds. —Lizzie Manno

3. Cave Sunrise: “Alone”

Hailing from Perm, Russia, Cave Sunrise know how to make enjoyable racket. Earlier this month, they released their debut album By The Touch, which was recorded during lockdown and mixed and mastered by Sasha Piankov of fellow Russian band Gnoomes. “Alone” is the sweltering highlight, mixing indie rock and no wave for a rambunctious guitar assault. —Lizzie Manno

4. Drab City: “Working for the Men”

Asia’s singing certainly didn’t lack dramatic flair before, but on “Working for the Men,” she manages to be more tuneful and commanding by leaps and bounds from the very first breath. “Down by the water,” she sings, almost whispering, “I work for the men / the straying men / They like to hand me a silver penny / and watch me cleaning / and walking the stairs.” Without saying much, Asia conveys an enormously rich subtext of feeling via the song’s implicit narrative of sex work, exploitation and mounting ire. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

5. Jehnny Beth: “I Am”

Savages’ Jehnny Beth opens her debut solo album To Love Is To Live with a grand half-spoken, half-sung piece titled “I Am.” “I’m a voice no one can hear / I am drifting through the years,” Beth declares in a muffled, monstrous tone. “I am the ocean / I am the moon / I’m dying far too soon,” she continues before the song takes off with dramatic urgency. Piano keys pound and strings swell as Beth battles an agonizing, introspective pain. Her debut album is full of these epic inner struggles, several of which she’d previously left to fester in the shadows, and there’s no better way to preface those than with the two dueling vocal tones and wailing echoes in this track. —Lizzie Manno

6. The Knees: “Itch”

Paste recently premiered “Itch,” a track from The Knees’ forthcoming debut EP Posture, out this Friday (Aug. 28) via Born Yesterday Records. “Itch” is driven by tempo-shifting, jangly guitars, which give the track both a chiming zip and transfixing drone. It’s got a bouncy post-punk side and a potent art rock one. “I’ve got an itch / I wanna scratch it / I’ve got an itch / It’s problematic,” they sing over the minimalistic, yet stimulating guitar interplay. —Lizzie Manno

7. Moses Sumney: “Conveyor”

Moses Sumney’s græ was a genre-bending experiment of a double album, attempting to capture parts of the human experience that can’t be contained by neat emotional boundaries or philosophies. On standout track “Conveyor,” Sumney explores the ways in which society can breed uniformity and even worse, inconsequential beings: “I will step on a belt, put my life on a shelf, one of many,” he sings. There’s an ominous march to the instrumentals, heightening the sense of dangerous obedience Sumney is alluding to: “The fire ants die for a chance at the queen.” —Lizzie Manno

8. Silverbacks: “Pink Tide”

Silverbacks’ 2020 LP Fad is one of the strongest debuts of the year so far. The Irish quintet makes sharp, detailed art-punk and indie rock, and one of their finest selections is “Pink Tide,” a track about generational differences (“The old heads clash and the youth mellow out”) and failed revolutions. Produced by Girl Band’s Daniel Fox, the song has an explosive refrain (“Make way for the guard!”) and an even more thrilling guitar solo. —Lizzie Manno

9. Sinead O’Brien: “Strangers in Danger”

Irish poet Sinead O’Brien recently announced her Dan Carey-produced (Speedy Wunderground) debut EP Drowning in Blessings, out on Sept. 16. O’Brien has released a number of stark, razor-sharp tunes over the years, but “Strangers in Danger” may be her best work yet. “I am not worried or certain / Because this is not my life / This is just the dust before the fall and the rise,” she sings with an assured, almost all-knowing aura. It’s a dark, tension-packed tune about cycles of time, history and philosophy, but more so our everyday relationship to those ideas which underlie even the most mundane interactions. O’Brien makes one question not just what things are meaningful and what aren’t, but what is “worth” itself. —Lizzie Manno

10. Still House Plants: “Pleasures”

London-based trio Still House Plants met at Glasgow School of Art back in 2013 and have been making experimental guitar music ever since. Their latest LP Fast Edit, out now via British indie label Bison Records, is a taxing listen to say the least, but rewarding if you surrender to it. The opening track “Pleasures” is marked by Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach’s fascinating, R&B-inflected vocals and their mangled, discordant guitars. If you like black midi, but think they’re a bit too easy to listen to, I’d recommend Still House Plants. —Lizzie Manno

11. Young Jesus: “Meditations”

California outfit Young Jesus just dropped their best album yet, Welcome to Conceptual Beach, a record filled with impressionistic lyrics and a beautiful recklessness spanning math rock, jazz and folk. One of the most triumphant moments sees vocalist/guitarist John Rossiter wildly and repeatedly proclaim, “I wanna be around and live it” on the flute-laden rock odyssey “Meditations.” It sounds like the work of a bumbling madman and a compassionate, spiritually in-tune prophet at the same time. —Lizzie Manno

12. Yves Tumor: “Gospel for a New Century”

Listening to Heaven To A Tortured Mind will make you question your own memories of Yves Tumor, because they’ve never sounded more immediate, more relatable or more desirously messy. Their trademark filth and trickster persona are still present, though they’ve graduated from demon to the devil himself. Album opener “Gospel For A New Century” is their most straightforward song to date, a playful horn-based rock song that channels the individual iconoclasms of Prince and Marilyn Manson. The Isamaya Ffrench-directed video offers the perfect visual for the familiar archetype Tumor plays throughout the album—a cloven-hoofed devil with diabolical cheekbones, not unlike Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness from Legend, with a legion of Soul Train-ready devils marching behind them. —Austin Jones