Well, here we are, the end of 2020. As we say goodbye to the dumpster-fire of a year, there’s one thing we should all be grateful for; music. In a year in which we have been denied the electricity of live music, it seems as though bands and artists have understood our silent call to arms and produced some of the finest records in memory. It’s not often that a top 50 list of the year’s releases is so jam-packed with high quality work but 2020, in this instance at least, came through.
Some of the albums in this collection were written in lockdown while others were accelerated towards release as the clamour for art and escapism grew almost unbearable. The need for human connection was at its greatest, and many of our favourite musicians heeded the call, delivering work that is not only wholly personal and captivating but universal and welcoming.
Despite being shafted pretty ubiquitously across the map by governments, it is music that has defied the curse of 2020 and stood up, often lifting us from our knees along with it, standing tall to be the vital ally we’ve all needed. It feels only right, then, that as the year ends and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting increasingly bright, that we celebrate the best music of the year.
It’s been a bumper 12 months for music. Across the year we’ve found new artists, been enthralled by those who had only previously shown potential and even found ourselves rediscovering the beauty of some of our old favourites. Still, all of the records selected below moved us in some way, either grabbing us by the scruff of the neck or gently rocking us to sleep.
The 50 best albums of 2020:
50. OHMS – Deftones
OHMS arrived as the much-welcomed return from Deftones, a record marking their first release since 2016 effort Gore and, despite being nine records in, they are still as creative and fierce as ever. Tracks such as ‘Genesis’ and ‘Urantia’ offer a timely reminder as to why the band is regarded as one of the greatest metal outfits.
The album also saw the band reunite with producer Terry Date, the man who was previously at the helm for their self-titled 2003 masterpiece. It was Date who managed to unlock that spark within Chino Moreno and co. once more on the heavenly OHMS.
49. Women in Music Pt. III – HAIM
HAIM’s Women in Music Pt. III was one of the year’s most hotly-anticipated records but was met with unavoidable delays due to the global pandemic before finally arriving at the end of June. The record, which sees the group experiment with different genres in comparison to their past output, sees the band appear fully confident in their new and expansive sound.
They left fans waiting patiently for the album to be released, the first teaser from the record dropping last July when they shared the glorious ‘Summer Girl’, an effort which would end up featuring as a bonus track on Women in Music Pt. III.
With tracks like ‘The Steps’ and ‘Don’t Wanna’ on the record, there is no doubt that Haim sisters have been flexing their creative muscles.
48. Fooling Loving Spaces – Blossoms
Stockport sensations Blossoms released their third album, Foolish Loving Spaces, right at the very beginning of 2020 and saw them provide yet another indie-pop masterclass.
In what is undoubtedly their most adventurous album to date, the record saw the band link up again with The Coral’s James Skelly at Parr Street Studios who was also the producer for their first two albums. However, Foolish Loving Spaces is a clear progression from 2018 effort Cool Like You.
Stand out tracks from the record include the infectious ‘My Swimming Brain’ and the delightful album closer ‘Like Gravity’.
47. YHLQMDLG – Bad Bunny
The tricky second album syndrome can catch many artists unaware if they’re not paying attention. However, it appears that rapper Bad Bunny saw that coming a mile off. Rather than fall victim to the curse, he set up a party album that nobody could refuse.
It’s a big and bolshy affair with wall-to-wall bangers capable of turning a wake into a get down. In the LP, the past, present and future of reggaeton can be heard and, with more music to come in 2020, his first effort of the year suggests Bad Bunny is going to be around for a very long time.
46. Zeros – Declan McKenna
Declan McKenna was only 16-years-old when he emphatically arrived as the victor of the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition in 2015 and immediately had every major label fighting over his signature. From that moment, it was clear that there was a very bright future on ahead. His sophomore record Zeros confirms that McKenna is only going from strength to strength.
McKenna is not reinventing the wheel and the sound of glam-rock, that has been done by others on countless occasions. However, his touching, wholesome and genuine lyrics about life in the Tik-Tok era means the album isn’t reliant on its nostalgia-filled sound and, instead, suggests that the path for Declan McKenna is bright, dazzling and stretches as far as the eye can see.
45. Energy – Disclosure
There’s something captivating about the Lawrence brothers and their determination to maintain the status quo of UK dance music. While the heady days of chart-topping bliss may be behind them, this gritty disco-pop LP still has a lot to offer.
While there’s no doubt that the first half of ENERGY is far more robust than the second, the record as whole showcases that Disclosure are never truly going to change. In a world of constant turmoil and unpredictable moments, sometimes a bit of steady predictability can be all that is required need to get you through.
44. Song Machine – Gorillaz
Marking their 20th anniversary with a jam-packed new album was always going to be on the cards for Gorillaz — everyone’s favourite cartoon band. But what Damon Albarn and co. did exceptionally well on this LP was to somehow harness the outstanding talent that walked through the doors and create a holistic record.
Elton John, The Cure’s Robert Smith and St Vincent all contributed to the record amid the pandemic, and it offered up not only a sustainable way of working for the group but a reminder that art will always prevail. Naturally, the songs are an eclectic mix of funk-driven jams and groove-filled bops.
43. Night Network – The Cribs
Night Network is a delightfully exhilarating record which embodies the defiant spirit of The Cribs. The chances of this record even existing is a miracle in itself, but for it to be so upbeat is a testament to the sheer tenacity of the three Jarman brothers who also self-produced the record.
The album is very much a classic Cribs record; it’s a sound that they’ve mastered over the last couple of decades that is entirely unique to them, with twins Ryan and Gary Jarman sharing vocal duties which complement each other beautifully.
42. Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon – Pop Smoke
It’s not often that the word child prodigy is handed out to members of the hip-hop fraternity, less still when delving into the world of drill rap. However, there can be no doubt that when the late, great, Pop Smoke perished at the age of just 20, in any other field, he would be considered just that. His posthumous release this year is further proof of his brilliance.
His career may have only lasted a year, but for a moment he was the hottest artist in Brooklyn. Cocky, flashy and without reproach, Pop Smoke is one of hip-hop’s most significant losses in recent years. Though his penmanship was fierce, it was the vibe that Smoke delivered that captivated audiences.
41. Untitled (Rise) – SAULT
SAULT arrived in 2020 as a much-required breath of fresh air and some mystery to boot. With no face or name to attach to the project’s first album of they year Untitled (Black Is), the project returned in quick double time to unleash yet another flurry of unhookable grooves and sweet melodious escapism.
The central theme of the record falls along similar lines to their first effort, meaning that this LP is jam-packed with thought-provoking, empathy evoking and simply unstoppable protest anthems. The real joy is how seamlessly they are brought to us. Like silk, the visions of Black oppression are brought forward and left burning a hole in your brain and, one hopes, your determination to changes things.
40. Notes on a Confessional Form – The 1975
There aren’t many bands in modern rock that can come close to matching the fandom of The 1975. While a lot the hype is pinned on the pull of their enigmatic frontman Matty Healy and their near-perpetual plays on mainstream radio, on this record the band proved to be the kings of juxtaposition.
The LP is full of pop jams that would make a disco heave with sweat and the grinding crotches of university students but, aligned next to their bread and butter bops, is the squabbling tantrums of a punk band. Released in May, as the world finally came to terms with a new normal, the album provided a distraction that very few could. Constantly pushing themselves into a multitude of directions, this time it seemed we were all happy to be lost alongside them.
39. Letter To You – Bruce Springsteen
2020 wasn’t just a place for new music to come flying out of a new generation’s respective airwaves, it was also a safe space for the legacy acts of the rock ‘n’ roll world to make their position felt too. During a time of tumultuous upheaval, the return of a performer like Bruce Springsteen was more than welcomed by the masses. The fact he returned with a touching collection of ditties meant it was a warm safety blanket we could all get wrapped up in.
The album was recorded live and, because of it, the LP is imbued with a sense of veracious authenticity that is utterly compelling. Of course, as the name suggests, the record acts as a love letter and, as it appears, a bit of a goodbye note too. In the album, The Boss pens songs to his friends and family thanking them for their time and appreciating what they had done so he could live his dream. There’s euphoria, sadness and, being released in 2020, both of those emotions are needed and then some.
38. Miss Anthropocene – Grimes
A record that needs your complete compliance before it lands with devastating effect, it’s best we let Grimes herself share the synopsis of her new LP. “It’s a concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate Change,” wrote Grimes in a lengthy caption on social media. “A psychedelic, space-dwelling demon/ beauty-Queen who relishes the end of the world. She’s composed of Ivory and Oil.
“Each song will be a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through a Popstar Demonology,” she adds. “The first song ‘we appreciate power’, introduced the pro-AI-propaganda girl group who embody our potential enslavement/destruction at the hands of Artificial General intelligence.”
Take from that what you will and make sure you put this one on loud. Essential listening.
37. The New Abnormal – The Strokes
The last decade for The Strokes has been a strange one. Having decided against touring to support 2013 effort Comedown Machine, which, admittedly, wasn’t the bands finest hour, they then reunited in 2015 for a number of shows which included a mammoth show at London’s Hyde Park. Following their live-shows in 2015, The Strokes released a four-track EP titled Future Present Past, but have since taken time out to work out on solo projects since then such as Julian Casablancas’ second record with The Voidz in 2018.
The band had a helping hand from master producer Rick Rubin for The New Abnormal and it sees the New Yorkers create their finest work since 2006 effort First Impressions Of Earth. ‘Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus’ and ‘The Adults Are Talking’ offer up an example of the new sound of The Strokes that they have been edging towards for a decade, which pays off emphatically on The New Abnormal.
36. Walking Like We Do – The Big Moon
The Big Moon’s debut album, Love in the 4th Dimension, arrived in 2017 to euphoric acclaim and immediately made the band one of the most exciting indie acts that Britain has had in years. Following up a Mercury-nominated debut is always a daunting task but one that The Big Moon duly rose to with aplomb.
Walking Like We Do doesn’t have the same grungy edge to it that exists on its predecessor and is, instead, a sharpened version of The Big Moon. That said, the record still does have the band’s trademark brightness exerting out of it, but this is The Big Moon pulling themselves and their futures into focus.
35. Mordechai – Khruangbin
Khruangbin were a relatively unknown quantity before Leon Bridges invited his fellow Texans onto the road with him in 2018. Their collaboration with Bridges on ‘Texas Sun’ in 2020 brought even more eyes their way before they offered up their most delicate peaceful blend of Thai-inspired psychedelia yet on Mordechai.
The record transports the listener to a beach in Phuket and is probably the closest thing that’s possible to a holiday right now. The stand out track from Mordechai is the funky ‘Time (You and I)’, which sees Khruangbin deliver a disco classic and is full of ebullience. It’s an album that is simply made for background listening, Khruangbin rendering the palette of any dinner party with unerring accuracy.
34. Honeymoon – Beach Bunny
Whether it’s their joyously visceral live performance or their intensely vulnerable songs, Chicago’s own Beach Bunny are an open book from start to finish. Their debut record Honeymoon is just the first of many good reads.
Lili Trifilio, the lead singer of the band, has shared her soul on the LP and tried to express herself as authentically as possible: “I try to be as vulnerable and genuine as possible in my writing and usually write directly from my own experiences. So when I’m going through something sad I tend to talk about it in the song, regardless of how the melody sounds,” she said.
Adding: “Music is like therapy to me in a lot of ways so writing out my feelings really helps me to release any negative emotions I’m holding onto.”
It is an uncompromising attitude to musical wellbeing that has led to the album’s poignancy, coupled with some joyful moments of pop-punk splendour; it’s a hard concoction to deny.
33. Good News – Megan Thee Stallion
Chances are, if you create one of the biggest songs of the year, then your album will be up for the significant accolades at the end of the year. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B will undoubtedly pick up many awards for their landmark single ‘WAP’ but the former’s album Good News is all the proof you need that the rapper isn’t here to simply grab headlines.
Recovering from a gunshot wound in the middle of a global pandemic, Megan Thee Stallion rose highest to score one of the biggest hip-hop albums of the year. Glittered in the pop hue she adopted for ‘WAP’, in truth the record is all about MTS’ searing personality shining through. There are tight schemes and beats to make your eyes melt, but the real joy in the LP is in the artist behind it. Insightful and scything, Megan Thee Stallion is one of the most prominent artists in the world right now.
32. The Universal Want – Doves
Doves’ first album since 2009 effort Kingdom of Rust is the sound of a band revitalised. It is a euphoric return for an act who, for a while, many had assumed were dead in the water. The result of this decade long absence is the utterly delightful The Universal Want, an album which goes toe to toe with anything in their impressive repertoire.
Doves didn’t need to create this record, and they could have easily carried on riding the slower wave of being a reformed act and playing large venues. Instead, The Universal Want proves that they are not a ‘nostalgia’ act, and their level of creativity has thrived from taking a second off the hamster wheel. An impeccable return from a band who wear their heart on their sleeve and a record shrouded in genuine authenticity that makes for a stunning listen.
31. Death Of The Party – The Magic Gang
The Magic Gang’s sophomore album, Death Of The Party, sees the band become more serious than ever before and the brutally honest lyrics make the record a phenomenon. The authenticity on show makes tracks like ‘What Have You Got To Lose’ utterly uplifting and marks a giant leap forward from their 2018 self-titled debut, as their songwriting becomes sharper and more concise.
The delicious melody on ‘Take Back The Track’ makes the track an undeniably enjoyable number that you don’t want to end. The Magic Gang feel comfortable not hiding their vulnerabilities towards the end of the record, on ‘Fail Better’ and most pertinently, on ‘The World Outside My Door’ which makes Death Of The Party their best work to date.
30. Inner Song – Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens’ follow-up to her much-adored 2017 self-titled debut begins infectiously with a reimagining of Radiohead song ‘Arpeggi’ from In Rainbows. From there, the sonic journey that Inner Song takes the listener on is wild and feels like the truest form of escapism. In 2020, it was an essential moment of reprieve, a blissful escape from the world.
Inner Song sees Owens grow the courage to sing on the album, and this development to her artistry has paid off immensely. The record sees Owens find her voice, in both a literal and figurative sense. The collaboration with The Velvet Underground’s John Cale on ‘Corner Of My Sky’ is another highlight which sees two Welsh icons collide. In truth, this album deserves your attention and should be listened to with headphones on to fully immerse yourself in the soundscapes Owens is making with ease.
29. Petals For Armor – Hayley Williams
When Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams announced that she would be pursuing a series of solo projects and had a new record in the offing, there was a sincere degree of trepidation circulating the Far Out offices. As teenage fans of the pop-punk band, to have Williams ditch the group to fall flat on her face felt like a genuine possibility. Of course, we were dead wrong.
Instead, Petals for Armor became one of the most vital records of the year. That’s not to say that the songs included enjoy any alignment with 2020, of course. Instead, Williams chose her new record to open herself up for examination. To finally put her words, music and name to a project that she could call her own. The personal moments of the LP work best with standout songs ‘Simmer’ and ‘Dead Horse’ offering a window into one of the most famous brains on our list.
28. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – Oneohtrix Point Never
If the music lovers of the world united and demanded an escape in 2020, one artist who certainly heeded the call was Oneohtrix Point Never. Daniel Lopatin, the man behind the moniker, devised a thoroughly enthralling album for the year, as capable of twisting ones internal spiral to the heavens but equally as it is turning a house party into a rave, it captivated us from the very first play.
Lopatin does the most curious trick on this LP. He not only manages to sound fresh and engaging, but he does so by using his scalpal to expertly attach his old style with flecks of the future. It means at once the album is both a breath of fresh air and a comforting pat on the back form an old friend. Simply put, drop the needle on this one and say goodbye to the next hour of your life. You won’t miss it anyway.
27. After Hours – The Weeknd
Perhaps it was all a part of the ploy, but when The Weeknd recently voiced his anger that his record After Hours had not been rightly rewarded by the Grammys, there was a feeling that he was simply inhibiting the very villainous protagonist he created on the LP.
For any avid Weeknd fans, everything you love about the artist is here to enjoy; an enticing mix of dream pop, hip hop, bedroom wave and other fantastical elements. But for any non-fan of Abel Tesfaye, there’s more than enough to sink your teeth into. While it may feel a bit cheap to arrive at the finished article, there’s no doubt that you will enjoy the ride.
26. Gigaton – Pearl Jam
The year started out with so many legacy acts returning to the stage that it almost felt, dare we say it, hopeful. Of course, that flame of hope would be quickly extinguished by the surge of the global pandemic. But, before that ruined pretty much everybody’s life but Jeff Bezos, there was the return of the incredible Pearl Jam and their first new LP in seven years.
The group took things back to the nineties with their promotion of the LP, using a Gigaton Hotline to offer up 30-second previews of songs but their vision for the LP was anything but nostalgic. Instead, the group pushed themselves forward into a new musical direction, and with the lead single’ Dance of the Clairvoyants’, they announced that Pearl Jam were still a vital piece of the musical landscape, thirty years after they made it big.
25. Snapshot of a Beginner – Nap Eyes
When we first brought you the news of a brand new album from Nap Eyes things were a lot calmer in the world. Luckily, the new album Snapshot of a Beginner provides a safe, yet continuously shifting, refuge from the outside world. The band’s highly improvised new record further ensures the group’s title as a cult classic.
It’s a title we bestow with the utmost pleasure and respect. Nap Eyes have managed to carve out a niche in the market through a collection of honest and raw releases that use the simplicity of lo-fi arrangement to bring to the light far more complex poetry. On Snapshot of a Beginner, that’s all changed. On the new record, it feels as though the band have stepped up a gear. They’ve moved into unchartered territory, and as well as bolstering their arrangements, providing a far deeper and more luscious sound than before, they’ve employed a unique improvisation technique for recording nearly all the tracks on the album.
24. The Neon Skyline – Andy Shauf
Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf’s sixth studio record The Neon Skyline is a concept album and which sprawls out over one evening. It’s an impeccable lesson in songwriting and the art of storytelling with music.
Shauf truly poured his heart into this album, which sees him play every instrument on the record as well as taking up producing duties. President Barack Obama featured the title track, ‘Neon Skyline’, on his 2020 summer playlist and, if it’s good enough for Obama, then it’s good enough for you.
It follows the protagonist in Shauf’s tale taking a trip down to The Neon Skyline bar for a few lonesome drinks, with only the memory of his ex-girlfriend Judy occupying his mind. His night perks up when he bumps into some old friends, who soon let him know that Judy is back in town moments before she shows her face in The Neon Skyline and the story truly heats up.
23. It Is What It Is – Thundercat
Thundercat is an enigma, and few people can compete with his wildly eclectic career. It started when he was 15, and the boyband he was in had a minor hit in Germany. He then switched things up by joining thrash metallers Suicidal Tendencies for a decade before making the drastic decision to start playing with Snoop Dogg.
His crucial role on Kendrick Lamar’s seminal record, To Pimp A Butterfly, made the wider world take a closer look at Thundercat back in 2015. Since then, he was honed in on making the kind of music that his whole career has been leading up to and It Is What It Is offers the greatest look at precisely who Thundercat is. The record sees the jazz bassist extraordinaire channel his grief following the death of his close friend Mac Miller. The album allows Thundercat to show his versatility, not just from a musical perspective but also from a human standpoint with the album surfing through waves of contrasting emotions.
22. The Ascension – Sufjan Stevens
Anyone expecting a dramatic change of pace for indie hero Sufjan Stevens can be ready and willing to receive this bounty of electro-adjacent jams from one of lo-fi rock’s most integral voices. It’s one of Stevens’ most richly packed records, and pretty much all you need to know about the album can be gathered from the title track.
Stevens is always at his best when offering a stark reflection of the reality around him, but on this LP, he looks inward with such veracity amid dark and pulsing beats that it is hard not to be swept up for the ride, suddenly aligning your own experiences with that of a lonely indie traveller.
The entire record is built for constant relistening, so we suggest you get to it.
21. Eternal Atake – Lil Uzi Vert
It’s not often you will see Lil Uzi Vert crossing our pages, but the rapper delivered one of the albums of the year with the incredible Eternal Atake. It is this album that the Philly-born rapper ascended from his role as the de facto ‘Soundcloud rapper who made it’ to a bonafide pop prince.
The album had already developed some serious mythological leanings after it had seemingly been shelved for years, thanks to label hopping abyss. Meaning, when it did finally arrive, it landed with all the swagger of an alien rap star — Lil Stardust? Uzi has shown on this album that he is still able to wear the tropes of hip-hop around his neck like the plethora of jewels that usually adorn it, but this time he has delivered it with the pop sheen of an icon.
20. Sideways to New Italy – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s sophomore album Sideways To New Italy arrived in June, a time when it felt like there was a glimpse that the world was soon going to be alright again. Things were on the brink of returning to normality. The record oozes blissful feelings and is impossible to listen to without immediately gaining a spring in your step.
Sideways To New Italy sounds like the opposite of 2020, which is what makes it such a necessary tonic. It’s a record that deserves to be played at full blast whilst driving through the open roads in the middle of summer with the roof down and the sun beaming down. It’s impossible to ignore the feel-good energy of Sideways To New Italy and in a year when there’s been so little to feel good about, it’s a much-welcomed divine record.
19. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
2020 has been a year to forget for most artists, but Sawayama’s story is quite the opposite. The 30-year-old released her debut album in April, and the pop masterpiece provided the perfect distraction from the global pandemic. On the surface, releasing a debut album during a pandemic seems like a move destined to fail, but for Sawayama it was a masterstroke.
The record sees Sawayama create this eclectic mix of genre-bending tracks that help make her unique style and she fiercely injects new life into areas that previously dominated the musical landscape at the turn of the century. It took her seven years of grinding as an independent artist to get to this position, and if a shitstorm like 2020 wasn’t a big enough detriment to hold her back, 2021 seems destined to be the year that she explodes even further.
18. Fake It Flowers – Beabadoobee
Beabadoobee has been lauded as being the next big star of British music, an artist who has been awarded the YouTube Artist On The Rise, nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2020, as well as featuring on Spotify’s popular RADAR series. After all the attention she has received over the last twelve months, there was always the chance the LP could fail to meet the hype, luckily this record is a powerhouse pop jam.
The bedroom indie-pop songstress made the bold move to leave off the previously released singles that caught a train of underground excitement about her such as ‘She Plays Bass’, ‘I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus’, ‘Coffee’ and more. The artistic decision was rewarded and gives the album a fully coherent feel, a complete project rather than a muddled together number of singles that she has released over the last couple of years. It’s also an indictment of how music is now consumed and the growing demands to hear new music from artists frequently. Above all else, Fake It Flowers is a genuinely glowing listen.
17. Man Alive! – King Krule
King Krule’s Man Alive! arrived as the highly anticipated follow up to The Ooz, a record which was named as Far Out’s Best Album of 2017. Archy Marshall delivered once more on his latest effort and returned to give a fiercely honest account of impending fatherhood, which forces himself to take a look stare at his lifestyle in the mirror.
Anyone who is a fan of Krule knows that his records don’t make for easy-listening, they have a deliberate hostile edge to them which makes everything he does a captivating listen. Man Alive! is a slight departure from The Ooz and sees Marshall be less vitriolic at the world as he once, however, the record still retains that gritty edge that is symbiotic with his work.
16. Free Love – Sylvan Esso
During a tumultuous time when you need both the comfort of fluffy clouds floating harmlessly above you all while still feeling for the grounding of a gritty beat, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn have got you covered providing both a toast of escapism alongside a double-drop of reality. It’s existential excellence we can all enjoy.
The band’s third major LP shows that they are only now beginning to hit their stride, Free Love is perhaps the most potent distillation of their sound and creativity that they’ve put in place. One of the crystalline moments of the entire LP is the first song ‘What If?’, a spoken-word piece with Meath’s words front and centre that poses a series of wholly unanswerable questions. It’s backed by a beat Bon Iver would be proud of and takes on some rather large existential matters with the nonchalance of a teenager.
With the singer’s soon-to-be-iconic vocal kicking in, the album is set up for success and it never really disappoints form then on.
15. Color Theory – Soccer Mommy
The dreaded second album is an adage as old as time yet Sophie Allison—AKA Soccer Mommy—seems to have skipped that potentially hazardous moment and just gone straight ahead to ‘acclaimed artist’ as she delivers her sophomore record Color Theory with a heightened sense of self.
Moving into the world of semi-fame and the gruelling demands on indie artists these days means her material has become engulfed by the melancholy of modern society as displayed on ‘royal screw up’. When this sentiment is put together with singles such as ‘circle the drain’, ‘yellow is the color of her eyes’ and ‘lucy’ we have a far darker expression than we’ve ever seen from Allison.
Yet such is her talent that these moments don’t feel incomprehensible or conceited, in fact, the very opposite. Instead, they feel like authentic moments of sharing, of artistic expression in the place of therapy and the reaching hand of someone who may already understand. It’s not the inky black of the night but the first breaks of a deeply purple morning.
14. songs / instrumentals – Adrianne Lenker
2020 was rough. We all know it, we were there. But, thankfully, some albums arrived during the lockdown to not only offer us great music but a genuine escape from the terrors of the world around us. At one point in the summer, those terrors felt like legitimate boogiemen at our collective windows. Luckily, an album like Adrianne Lenker’s songs is capable of not only ending that nightmare but offering up some much dreamier scenarios too.
Spread across two records but forming one serious piece, the Big Thief singer delivers quite possibly the seminal moment of her entire career. Within the songs on the album, sometimes without even words, Lenker shares her feelings of loss, loneliness and regret all with the deft touch of an auteur. While the subject matter may not be the first things people think of when hoping for an escape from a desperate world, there’s something ethereal and romantic about Lenker’s acceptance of the world around her. Yes, there is darkness in the world, but the light surely makes up for it.
13. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist
Few artists have had a stronger last couple of years than Freddie Gibbs. A fearsome foe, the rapper has been the definition of prolific. Whilst, releasing music at such an intense rate would ordinarily harm the quality of output, but then again, Freddie Gibbs is no ordinary artist.
The record is the first full-length project between Gibbs and producer The Alchemist and, judging by the chemistry on show throughout Alfredo, it won’t be their last. Gibbs’ flow is one of the greatest joys in modern hip-hop, and in The Alchemist, he seems to have met his match as the gravel tone of Gibbs’ delivery marries effortlessly with the hazy grooves Alchemist has to offer.
The duos zestful 35-minute journey takes you through this wild journey looking at the life of Mafiosos and leaves the listener pining for Alfredo II.
12. Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
It would appear that Laura Marling welcomed herself home, her new album Song For Our Daughter was a warm, golden-hued gem in a dark time from of one of Britain’s finest songwriters. The follow-up to 2017 effort Semper Femina was always going to be difficult but, somehow, Marling has managed to gather every note of what has made her a landmark artist and deliver it in an inspiringly honest new way. Song For Our Daughter is the mark of an artist genuinely working from within.
It was an album which saw the singer take control of the arrangements and enact her vision intently: “I demoed everything really heavily, and re-edited loads of stuff,” she says. “So I did all of the arrangements, I knew all the musicians I wanted to work with. I mixed the record with Dom [Monks — who has engineered several Marling albums]. And all of the backing vocals on this album I did at home because I wanted no one else’s opinion.”
Despite this, the album is one of Marling’s most densely luscious—perhaps even the most ‘complete’ in her repertoire. The real trick with Song For Our Daughter is how she manages to marry this evolution of sound with her reconnection with herself.
11. Ultra Mono – IDLES
There simply couldn’t have been a year like 2020 without IDLES helping to prop us up. The Bristolian punks are legends in these parts thanks in no small part to their previous record Joy As An Act of Resistance which, despite angering a small section of the music scene, largely united a generation around the idea of positive punk rock. It may sound nauseating, but in reality, it’s just sick. Ultra Mono is just an extension of that sound but with a slightly darker turn.
Songs like ‘Mr Motivator’ and ‘Model Village’ were proof that the party wasn’t over and while there were some calls of the band deliberately attempting to play the moment in front of them. After all, positive punk rock is a pretty safe bet in a worldwide lockdown. Of course, there is one succinct answer: so what?
The band have never been afraid of perception and will likely have let the negativity wash off their backs as they instead revelled in the joy and comfort their fans took in the album. It’s another album that thunders with the heartbeat of a new generation of rockers unrepentant about their feelings and determined to spread the love.
10. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius
At this stage, we’re pretty sure that Mike Hadreas can do whatever he wants. The multi-instrumentalist and, dare we say, visionary behind Perfume Genius is now so adept at creating luscious soundscapes good enough to eat that it can be easy to forget that this is his fifth album. That’s because, even now, his music feels dripping in modernity and a freshness permeates the airwaves yet still it feels like a classic.
Hadreas is an expert at finding the glamour in the grim and the sublime in the salacious and, on this record, he does it all with the extra shine of a soon-to-be pop icon. If each album has seen the artist change somewhat, growing and evolving into a new space or sphere, then this album may well be the moment he emerged as the beautiful butterfly we all knew him to be.
The entire album feels like a slowly morphing now entity as it squeezes at moments before unleashing hell on others. It is the inner musings of a romantic poet of a bygone era and the beating heart of a new generation of songwriters. While best heard at once, singularly the songs all shine a different light on Hadreas revealing perhaps what we should have already known by now. Perfume Genius is one of the very best.
9. The Slow Rush – Tame Impala
The Slow Rush, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2015 effort Currents, has seen the Australian psyche band overcome repeated setbacks in its creation: “Part of the thing about me starting an album is that I have to feel kind of worthless again to want to make music,” frontman Kevin Parker said of the project. Whether that was the case for this album remains to be known, but it sure didn’t come out that way on the record.
Across 12 tracks, Parker delivers a masterclass in marrying the funk-laden grooves of the past with the hazy dissonance of the future. Naturally, the song is full of mammoth singles including ‘Patience’, ‘Borders’ and other top hits. While the first new Tame Impala album in five years was always going to be a winner, few expected Parker to hit so hard with this one.
In fact, we’d go as far as to say that with this album he confirmed himself as a musical icon. No longer held down by the rigmarole of chart-positioning or having to worry about selling out a tour, Parker is now carefree and able to create in his own vision entirely. When he does, the results are pure pop gold.
8. Rough and Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan
The great Bob Dylan made a sensational return to form with the release of his 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways. The album, which debuted at number two in the charts, once again delivered yet more records as for the iconic singer-songwriter as he became one of the first artists in history to have a charting album across six different decades.
Of course, when Dylan first arrived in the music industry he quickly made a name for himself with his quick wit and witty lyrics, it saw eight of his records make the top 40. In the seventies, 14 more followed, in the eighties it was another seven, then four in the 1990s and seven more in the noughties. After nine more charting albums in the 2010s, Dylan completed his feat with the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways this year.
In what arrived as Dylan’s first studio album of original songs since his 2012 album Tempest, the new record comes complete with one of the finest songs of his entire career, the meandering and marauding masterpiece ‘Murder Most Foul’, which clocks in at 17 minutes and was a clear indication that Dylan was back to his best.
7. Fetch the Boltcutters – Fiona Apple
2020 was a year when legacy acts returned to the stage, and while Fiona Apple would likely throw her copy of Brooklyn Vegan at us in disgust for such a moniker, it’s hard not to recognise the singer as from a different time. Her debut was released in 1996, and prior to this release, her previous album came out in 2012, meaning this one was likely to gather up a lot of fanfare when it was released — it could have tarnished an entire career.
Luckily, Apple is no klutz and she delivered a record that captivated not only her fans, gathered up since the ’90s, but a brand new generation of listeners. That’s because, on the whole, the album is an unadulterated masterpiece.
Full of wild imagery and focusing on the beauty and brutality of everyday life, Apple delivers a ream of songs that could quite easily trump anything she had put out prior. Despite the record being a significant return for the indie hero, Apple chose to follow the experiments which had brought herself joy rather than stick to a paint-by-numbers return. The album is richer and more robust for it and can rightly be considered one of the best of her entire career.
6. Untitled (Black Is) – SAULT
Nobody on this list deserves acclaim more than SAULT, yet, thanks to their intent to remain anonymous, they will not receive it in person, at least. The project is being left shrouded in mystery, not to gain followers or rack up a few more clicks, but to allow the message of the album ring true.
Ther songs arrive with no information and require none. They are instead intended to be received as singular visions of the world that People of Colour face every single day of their lives. In a year when the world was burning with racial division and, especially in America, felt on the edge of a full-blown civil war, these songs arrived as powerful moments of beautiful protest.
There is no muddying of values or media training put in place for these songs. The objective is clear, and the method is melodious pieces of performance art. It is derived from the world around SAULT, the world that had worked so hard to keep them and other POC down and the world they were refusing to accept any longer.
5. Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee is one of the most underrated artists of her generation. The songs on Katie Crutchfield’s fifth solo album should hopefully ensure her place at the top of the indie mantel, where she so rightly belongs. The mix of Americana and folk is intoxicating, but the real reason we’re sitting here, drunk on the fumes of her latest release, is within the album we get a hefty dose of the artist herself.
When the world was feeling incredibly weary, this LP not only offered a view at the softer and gentler moments in life but also provided a hand to hold along the way. Yes, it’s a similar offering to much of the artist’s previous work, but somehow, in 2020, it just landed with a little more grace and a lot more poignancy.
There are moments on the album where Crutchfield is reminiscent of a modern Bob Dylan, rambling and rollicking in equal measure. But, more often than not, those moments subside and let the perfumed perfection of Crutchfield’s inner workings shine through. We strongly suggest you listen to the album as an entire playthrough but, if you’re short of time, there’s no better song on the record than the brilliant ‘The Eye’ which typifies the effervescence of love better than most.
4. Shore – Fleet Foxes
The album was shared at 2.31pm BST on September 22nd to coincide with the beginning of the autumnal equinox. Fleet Foxes only began to tease the new record around Paris at the weekend, and Shore follows the band’s 2017 album Crack-Up. The group started the recording process which took them between New York, Paris, Hudson, Los Angeles and Long Island City started back in September 2018 and was only finished weeks before release. The record marked a change not only in the season but in Fleet Foxes iconography.
For too long the band had been relegated into the indie dustbin. Thought of as a moment in time, when the world was captivated by guitars and ripped jeans. However, with Shore, they completely changed that perception and provided a searing piece of conceptual art to do it.
That’s because the record is pure and unbridled autumnal joy. There’s no greater moment than to realise one of your past favourite bands was back on top form, and this LP is proof that Fleet Foxes have done just that.
“I see Shore as a place of safety on the edge of something uncertain, staring at Whitman’s waves reciting ‘death’,” frontman Robin Pecknold said of the new Fleet Foxes record. “Tempted by the adventure of the unknown at the same time you are relishing the comfort of the stable ground beneath you. This was the mindset I found, the fuel I found, for making this album,” the singer added.
It’s an absolute pleasure from start to finish.
3. RTJ4 – Run The Jewels
As the world continued to burn, Run The Jewels were bound to unleash a furious record. It would have been disrespectful not to, considering the political leanings of Killer Mike and El-P.
The duo didn’t disappoint and provided a simply scintillating piece of work aimed like a Molotov cocktail at the oppressors of the world. RTJ 4 was always going to be a brightly burning bomb, but nobody quite expected this kind of devastation.
The murder of George Floyd changed the world. The Black man who was choked to death in front of an audience of mobile phone cameras remains one of the most shameful acts of ‘policing’ the country has ever seen and, sadly, see regularly across the nation. It sparked not only a host of Black Lives Matter protest and perhaps the most substantial surge for racial equality in a generation, but they did it all while under the restrictions of a global pandemic. This is the album to soundtrack those very moments.
‘Walking in the Snow’ is about as visceral as it gets and the duo only heats things up from there. Their violent words are honest and authentic. They sound distraught and destructive, mirroring the people on the streets, left with no other option but to riot to be heard. Killer Mike and El-P were trying to amplify that voice, and through a plethora of blistering tracks, they did just that and created one of the zeitgeist albums of the year.
2. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
Punisher arrived at a critical time in the year. With Black Lives Matter protests raging through America and the thought of another four years of Donald Trump an inescapable nightmare, Bridgers landed a classic record — one that not only felt uniquely universal but entirely personal.
It’s no mean feat, having to deftly balance one’s own expression with those that others will enjoy but Bridgers pulled it all off without a hitch. Aside from being stylistically quite samey, the album is imbued with not only the power and strength Bridgers’ delicate vocal often belies, but it’s flecked with the genuine blood, sweat and tears of its creator.
The standout single is ‘Kyoto’. It is an undoubted alt-pop masterclass, pumping with the passion and promise of a new generation, it’s one of the more expansive tracks on the record and shows Bridgers is capable of walking the tight rope of commercial and credible without a second thought. Honest and reflective, ‘Garden Song’ is another shining example of Bridgers talent, as it champions moments of crystalline humanity over grandiose statements.
That’s the most impressive thing about this record. Bridgers is a vocal member of society, using her position to try and amplify the injustices around her. Being so outspoken could leave you thinking there wasn’t much more to discover about the artist, but you’d be so incredibly wrong. Punisher showed that despite having written songs since the age of eleven we’ve only just scratched the surface of who Bridgers truly is, and perhaps more excitingly, the talent she possesses.
1. A Hero’s Death – Fontaines D.C.
“Every now and again at my age, you think am I finished with that genre of music?” asks Britain’s poet laureate Simon Armitage when considering the Dublin band’s debut album. “You know, maybe I should be listening to Shostakovich this morning… Which I do. But then you hear that and you think, no, you know, this is this still gets me really revved up.” There’s perhaps no higher praise than reducing the country’s leading poet to a headbanging, foot-stomping fan and Fontaines D.C. can put that one in their trophy cabinet.
“It’s quite hard to define what it is. But, they’ve definitely got it.” It’s an assessment from an unlikely source but one that is as true as any other. Fontaines D.C. have that certain something that is unidentifiable. Their viewpoint is saturated and bleak at the same time, their touchpoints are varied yet feel local and attainable, their output is pure ferocious reality. It’s a combination which has made Fontaines D.C. one of the best bands around, and it’s a combination they put into play again on their sophomore record.
Any worries about the tricky second album were quickly thrown out the window when the band saddled up with this beauty. Born out of some of the worst socio-political years in memory, the band deliver a searing ream of tracks capable of turning a crowd into a heaving army. While the titular track is a standout, the band also excel on ‘A Lucid Dream’ and ‘Sunny’ which both land with the deft touch of a post-punk heavyweight.
The real beauty in this album, as it has been for many of the records on this list, is that it provided and still provides an escape from a world we cannot control. Sonically richer than the group’s debut LP, lyrically its expansive too, all while remaining focused on the everyday troubles that riddle our lives.
Fontaines D.C. are growing by the minute, bearing their soul through post punk menace and multiplying pockets of pure magic that make this album a triumph.