What to say about 2020 that hasn't already been said? Here's something about the pandemic, a little mention of Tiger King and a nod to the mental disquiet this year has brought. And now sincerely: to those who worked on the frontline of the pandemic, whatever their role, and to those who stood up for Black Lives Matter. Thank you.
Shall we talk about the good bits? Because there were some! 2020 brought triumph along with tribulation: think of all the babies born, the neighbours first spoken to, the families re-connected with, the projects started, abandoned or completed, the priorities reassessed.
Think of the music.
It was a slow start, what with so many records being pushed back. Nobody wants an album without a tour, right? Well it turns out labels weren't always right about that. Some of the most successful albums of the year (Future Nostalgia, Song For Our Daughter, Chromatica) thrived in isolation, perhaps because so many of us suddenly had so much time. Soon, LPs were coming at (almost) their usual pace, even as festivals folded around them. Soon, we had mesmerising projects coming out of our ears, making 2020 an impressive start to a new decade.
We hope you enjoyed your 2020, even if that joy only came at intervals. Here are 51 times when, for us, things started looking up.
51. Joe & The Shitboys - The Reson For Hardcore Vibes
Remember having fun? Maybe it's because The Faroe Islands have seen very few Covid cases from the start, but Joe & The Shitboys look like they haven't lost an inch of their capacity to have a great time. Their ten-minute long debut album The Reson For Hardcore Vibes is a whiplash punk rock trip with more quotable moments than there are tracks.
Good-natured, genuinely funny and a masterclass in thrashing punk sounds, this is a top debut. (Jessie Atkinson)
50. Pillow Queens - In Waiting
As far as debut records go, In Waiting is a flawless body of work. You could be mistaken for thinking this group had been around for quite some time because this record is an instant classic. The Irish music scene is brimming with some extraordinary talent, and Pillow Queens are near top of the pile as they question religious theories, speak proudly of being queer and call for more inclusivity and unity in society: apt, at a time when people are feeling disjointed from their peers and the systems that govern them more than ever.
'Liffey' is a stand-out, the line "God give me glory, or don't..." in particular ringing a certain level of poignancy towards the heartbeat of the record. Album opener 'Holy Show' and the brilliant 'Handsome Wife' are also noteable standouts. We'd urge anyone who reads this to add the LP to their collection. (Ryan McConnell)
49. Hinds - The Prettiest Curse
In a step away from their garage rock roots, Hinds have honed their girl-gang melodies and embraced their native Spanish, both in sound and lyrics – a first for the band - in their boldest move yet: The Prettiest Curse. The result? Dreamy, brilliant, unrestrained pop. The kind that will have you dancing around a room, singing along at the very top of your lungs – for anything less than the very top would be doing the album a disservice.
Completely fearless in its honesty as well as in its turn of sound, the pulse of this latest endeavour comes from that of the band’s first two records: that obstinate Hinds attitude. Incisive lyrics that cut to the bone, the satirically-sweet tone of vocal, sharp and biting against the fluorescent riffs. It’s wistful at times, but direct, to-the-point and no messing about: a fun and raucous ride that serves to amplify its anthems of solidarity and empowerment. Above all, it’s relatable. The Prettiest Curse is Hinds wearing their heart on their sleeve – and at the same time, raising one big, sarcastic, eye-rolling middle finger to all those who have undermined them over the years. (Paige Lambie)
48. The Wants - Container
The disco at the end of the world is the busiest venue of 2020, and NYC's The Wants are right by the exit waiting to bolt. Anxious, twisted and strobe-lit, their debut album Container is a metallic-flavoured shimmy through krautrock, techno and dance-rock with a good helping of playlist fodder included in the price. 'Fear My Society', 'The Motor' and 'Container' are all staples for the new wave disco, while the rest of the album morphs and squelches around them, the instrumental grouting to an album tiled with hits.
47. Jadu Heart - Hyper Romance
In the world of Hyper Romance, it is always Halloween. The moon wanes behind scuds of cloud and dark figures flit across your field of vision, the scene lit by a cavalcade of Jack'o'lanterns. It's through the lens of myriad guitar pedals and synths, played out in the empty halls of a church, that Jadu Heart make such sounds.
Alternatively dreamy and nightmarish, Hyper Romance never lets up the feeling of being watched. It's extraordinary how much the surrounds of Jadu Heart's Gothic studio inform the chilliness of this record, which is the duo's finest work to date. (Jessie Atkinson)
46. Georgia - Seeking Thrills
Brimming and bubbling with sheer energy and vivacity, Georgia’s 2020 release Seeking Thrills was an early highlight in a year packed full of quality music. Equal parts pop, disco and electro, the album has a personality and charm to it that is truly infectious. ‘About Work the Dancefloor’ is an anthem for the ages, whilst ‘Started Out’ is a melodic revelation.
‘Never Let You Go’, ’24 Hours’ and ‘The Thrill’ prove there is no shortage of floor-fillers, and ‘Honey Dripping Sky’ showcases Georgia’s supreme songwriting skills superbly. Unashamedly hedonistic and gorgeously animated, Seeking Thrills set a high standard that the rest of 2020 had the unfortunate task of living up to. (Cameron Sinclair-Harris)
45. Keaton Henson - Monument
What is it about sad music? Minor chords and melancholy get under your skin in a way that happy music often can't, and few people can make music quite so sad as Keaton Henson. Monument is a surprise return from the elusive frontman, and a tribute to his recently passed father. Throughout, Henson manages to find new ways to talk about his grief, skirting what you might normally expect from someone in the same situation.
On 'Ontario' he finds solace in the "benevolent cold" before drawing attention to his multi-hyphenated existence on the imposter syndrome ballad 'Career Day'. On all of the tracks we feel the loss and the love Henson feels for the death of his father, nowhere as much as on the winding 'Prayer'. Monument is a special album and a companion to the bereaved. (Jessie Atkinson)
44. Porridge Radio - Every Bad
"I'm bored to death, lets argue..." opens 'Bored and Confused' and Every Bad. Porrodge Radio grip you immediately, willing you to immerse yourself in the unfolding of this expressive and self-observant record as singer Dana Margolin gives us an insight into her psyche. Her vocal delivery is haunting yet utterly captivating and beautiful as she transcends through a wave of emotions on what feels like a crowning moment of discovering who she is as an artist and person.
'Pop Song' is one track which drew us in instantly with its brutal lyrical honesty - we find ourselves returning to the record time and time again for this one song alone. Meanwhile, "I'm stuck, I'm stuck, I'm stuck.." is a line of metaphorical brilliance on the track 'Lilac': it may have you questioning if your record has began stuttering as Dana struggles with the complexities of pushing forward with a faltering relationship. (Ryan McConnell)
43. J Hus - Big Conspiracy
Introspective and considered, Big Conspiracy is the restrained flipside to J Hus' Mercury-nominated Common Sense. "How do you sleep at night?" he asks on 'Fight for your Right', a dark, self-flagellating anthem with resolve. It's hard to ignore the fact that Hus spent 3 months in prison (for carrying a knife) during the hiatus between Common Sense and this record. The gravity of his jailtime comes through on bass-heavy, dark instrumentals, though there are lighter moments too, in particular on Koffee collab 'Repeat' and Burna Boy featuring 'Play Play'.
Whether black, or white, or a blend of the two, Big Conspiracy upholds J Hus' position as one of the UK's most exciting rap acts. (Jessie Atkinson)
42. Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You
Letter To You is a record that revitalises the E Street Band and their sound, while also being a testament to the timeless sound of Springsteen. It sees the legendary rocker tackle a subject he’s perhaps been afraid to face until now: mortality
The record spends time looking fondly back at their history, with wistful songs that ponder friends lost along the away such as the emotive and tender ‘One Minute You’re Here’ and touching ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’. There’s also the incorporation of material recorded even before his distant 70s debut album but you’d be hard-pressed to tell which as the whole record has a timeless quality. ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ meanwhile, is one of the greatest songs of Springsteen’s career, a tearjerker power ballad, with an impeccable composition that slowly builds in emotion and gravitas. It may be nearly fifty years since his debut, but Springsteen is still capable of creating influential records, Letter To You is a modern masterpiece that shouldn’t be missed out on. (Philip Giouras)
41. Adrianne Lenker - Songs
On Songs, Lenker captures death, fear and longing in her usual, beautifully melancholic fashion. Compared to the music of Big Thief, Songs is much more stripped back: gentle acoustic rhythms and scoldingly heart-wrenching vocals lay upon one another, holding each other through the songs darker moments. Unsurprisingly, this album was recorded in a cabin situated in the woods of Massachusetts, away from the spiraling chaos of 2020, and recovering from a bitter breakup.
Here, Lenker is truly herself. Unashamed of her vulnerabilities and placing them all on the table. It’s hard not to think that this album was made more for her than than it was her audience, power to that. The isolation of writing alone is prominent on this record, each track has a longing mourning to it, laced with an assuring beauty, providing almost instantaneous comfort, one that is often swiftly followed by a legion of tears, unexpected but very much needed. songs is a fantastic journey into the mind of Lenker, capturing insecurities and feelings so vulnerable we almost feel like we’re intruding into Lenkers innermost self. (Joe Smith)
40. Songhoy Blues - Optimisme
Across pattering basslines and noodling guitar rejoinders, Songhoy Blues communicate just what they mean, even though their lyrics are largely sung in their native language of Songhai. The four-piece heat up the blues with the venerable tones of the desert across eleven-tracks that rally the listener to lift themselves out of the dirt and face adversity.
The group continue to redefine the protest song with their complex, highly optimistic tales of resilience, as seen on the infectious 'Worry' and the anti-patriarchal 'Badala'. Songhoy Blues do not ignore adversity but, in a style that many of us could do with imitating, they aknowledge it and use their values to move through. Inspiring and impressive. (Jessie Atkinson)
39. Lewsberg - In This House
Following up last year’s brilliant debut record, Lewsberg provide more of the same brilliance on In This House. Cut from the same cloth as Parquet Courts with obvious nods to The Modern Lovers and The Velvet Underground, Lewsberg play purposefully detuned guitars with an almost nonchalant swagger alongside sparse and repetitive bass and drums. It’s all effortlessly cool but with a knowing glint. Frontman Arie Van Vliet’s mainly spoken vocals seem to give off a list of life’s imperfections throughout the 10 tracks with the record‘s centre piece ‘The Door’ full of brooding restraint.
“I always drink at lunchtime” intones Van Vliet at the end of ‘At Lunch’ after spending the last three minutes elucidating on the reasons for abstaining from alcohol. It’s a beautifully sweet and sour song with an ironic edge that once again provides a glimpse into the gloriously sardonic and seemingly louche world of Rotterdam’s coolest band. (Chris Horton)
38. Thundercat - It Is What It Is
It Is What It Is, the fourth studio album by bassist, singer-songwriter and artist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, arrived during the depths of the first lockdown back in April and was at the time a bit like a much-needed breeze of fresh air. Known for his acrobatic basslines and soft, almost dream-like vocals, Thundercat’s CV of musical collaborations is probably too long to list in full in any setting.
What should to be said in full though, is that It Is What Is is an album that showcases every bit of Thundercat’s vast set of musical skills, flowing fluently between genres and styles, creating what can only be described as a Thundercat-esque jazz-fusion soaked, disco-funk soundscape. Dedicated to his late friend and frequent collaborator, Mac Miller, the album is, in Bruner’s own words, “about love, loss, life and the ups and downs that come with that”. Personal and brutally honest one second and humorously light the next, It Is What It Is places itself as a clear staple piece in the discography of 2020. (Sofie Lindevall)
37. Cornershop - England is a Garden
For those who are under the impression that Cornershop remain footnotes in the wake of Britpop, England is a Garden could not prove them more wrong. Within the jangly guitars and old-school rock‘n’roll soundscape lie songs that directly address the nationalistic streak that intensified within the mushroom cloud of Brexit. It’s a topic that other artists haven’t shied away from covering, but Cornershop tackle it with such tact and sincerity.
Frontman Tjinder Singh has crafted a loving tribute to his own British-Indian heritage, his upbringing in the Midlands, and a pan-cultural set of songs with Hammond organs co-existing with tamboura. Despite the country’s overwhelming jingoism, England is a Garden is not an album of anger, rather an uplifting ride of toe-tappers that cement Cornershop’s reputation as national treasures. (Cameron Sinclair-Harris)
36. The Wytches - Three Mile Ditch
With its gritty, macabre crescendos and frenetic guitar, Three Mile Ditch is the closest we’ve come to the familiar haze of a sweat-drenched, sticky-floored venue in months. A sultry drawl runs throughout the whole LP; a backbone that mutates, distorts, transfigures for the whim of each track, at times agitated, heavy and thrashing, at others longing, forlorn, cathartic – but there unduly, intertwined throughout.
While tracks like 'Midnight Ride' and 'Silver Trees' test the evocative nature of simplicity, others - including the album’s namesake - delve deeper and deeper into that titular ditch, a spiralling frenzy led by hypnotic instrumentals, sinister, beckoning and murky. The brooding vocals grasp you back into reality, lifting you from the shadows – a full moon against a night sky. Almost Jekyll-and-Hyde in nature, the soundscape’s narrative is torment – raw, brazen and gloomy as ever before, albeit flecked with moments of tranquillity. This is a record to lose yourself in. (Paige Lambie)
35. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs - Viscerals
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs’s third album, Viscerals is a white knuckle ride from start to finish, the Geordie riff-merchants have created a record full of huge, sludgy, overdriven riffs which sounds absolutely colossal. Viscerals evokes memories of classic Sabbath, as well as Motorhead and Judas Priest.
The album doesn't let-up either, climbing from strength to strength, with songs that really immerse you in Pigs' world. The call and response backing vocals create tracks that are slow burners, but they evolve into monoliths that fill your earphones - or an entire room - with their breathtaking noise.
Pigs do well to maintain a sound that could easily become self indulgent, or down right silly. The talent of the musicians and Baty’s lyrics walk this line incredibly effectively, Viscerals is an all action thriller of an album from start to finish. (Charlie Brock)
34. Moses Sumney - Græ
There’s something utterly magical about the world that Moses Sumney constructs on his second studio album, grae. The world is not quite the utopia one might expect, but in all of its shades, it’s spiritual and otherworldly. Sumney’s incredibly unique voice certainly helps – it’s a voice that feels powerful enough to knock you over, but usually settles into his silky, trademark vibrato-laden falsetto.
His music is hard to pin down, but by the end of the album, Sumney helps you understand that his music has no genre categories. It’s not just genre that he’s fusing, either; Sumney deconstructs ideas of masculinity, blackness and gender at multiple points, too."Am I just your Friday dick?" he defiantly asks a polyamorous lover; on ‘also also also and and and’, the track opens with a sample from British American writer-photographer Taiye Selasi: "I insist upon my right to be multiple".
Ambitious and artful, Moses Sumney is a creative force who represents a new generation of indie musicians. Sumney is uninterested in the idea of subtlety or simplicity, and thank God for that: grae is one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking albums to come out this year. (Alex Rigotti)
33. Toots & The Maytals - Got To Be Tough
Toots Hibbert, who died this September, was nothing short of a reggae and ska legend, perhaps tied only with Bob Marley for the most recognisable and well-loved star of the genre. With the politically-charged Got to Be Tough, Hibbert showed the world why he is regarded as a legend.
Filled to the brim with big bass and classic dub sounds, the political stylings and calls for unity were as sharp as they perhaps have ever been. Stand out tracks such as ‘Stand Accused’, ‘Warning Warning’ and the titular ‘Got to Be Tough’ are some the finest examples of the genre, constructed by its godfather. Got to Be Tough is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak year, and is Hibbert’s best since 1972’s seminal Funky Kingston. (Tom Dibb)
32. Sorry - 925
Sorry’s unique and wildly innovative sound shines through on their outstanding debut 925. Taking inspiration from a wide variety of sounds such as trip-hop, 90s alt rock and early trap - the album is an absolute roller-coaster ride of experimentally blended genres causing the birth of such an interesting sound throughout the record.
With both Lorenz and O’Bryen contributing vocals, the lyrics touch upon such interesting topics of betrayal and heartbreak - sung with utter sarcasm that’s simultaneously thought provoking. Sorry steal a lot of sound from previous generations without giving a fuck, but at the same time the jarring combinations of these sounds have their own sense of beauty. 925 is truly a work of art and undoubtedly the most interesting sounding album of 2020. (Kieran Macadie)
31. Ghostpoet - I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep
As lyrically potent and soulful as ever, Ghostpoet (Obara Ejimiwe)’s fifth album I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is an album defined by a collective world-weariness. The mood is low and melancholic, yet the album is not affected by its downtempo nature. Intimate and tight instrumentals back Ejimiwe’s introspective and hazy vocals in his natural spoken-sung delivery.
In a world defined by the artificial light of smartphones, tablets, and televisions, Ejimiwie perfectly captures the mood of slowly losing your mind scrolling for hours and staring at the walls that keep you captive. And as with many albums this year, I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep joins the club of being astonishingly apt, yet unintentional, soundtracks to living in lockdown. It’s a witty and morose affair: undoubtedly another hit in the Ghostpoet pantheon. (Cameron Sinclair-Harris)
30. Charli XCX - how i'm feeling now
The last thing anyone expected this year was a Charli XCX album, yet despite only releasing the long-awaited Charli in September of last year, the beginning of lockdown saw Charli set herself a challenge: create a whole new record from scratch.
How I’m Feeling Now is a spontaneous and eccentric record opening with an explosion: ‘pink diamond’ is a mix of Dubstep, garage, and hip-hop slathered over experimental electric beats and bass drops. From that moment on, the album never lets up. Lead single ‘forever’ is euphoric and showcases what Charli does best: intoxicating pop anthems.
It's important to emphasise the whole experience of this album, from its unmatched level of fan input to all-encompassing personal video diaries, how i'm feeling now has outgrown the traditional album tag. No doubt fans and critics alike will remember where they were emotionally when they first pressed play, and will be transported back each time they return to this fantastic piece of pop magic. (Philip Giouras)
29. Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter
Laura Marling has been creating sublime and critically-acclaimed records for over a decade now, but we still didn't expect just how beautiful and exquisite her seventh record Song For Our Daughter would be. Whilst lost in the haze of a daunting first COVID lockdown, we found peace and tranquility in Marling’s soothing songs to her figurative daughter.
Over 10 cohesive tracks, Song For Our Daughter flows like a gripping novel you refuse to put down. Marling floats from defiant and strong on ‘Alexandria’ and ‘Hold On’, towards remorseful and pondering regrets on ‘Only The Strong’ and ‘Blow By Blow’. The record's focal point ‘Song For Our Daughter’ provokes deep feelings of emotion, unparalleled to any release this year with its sweeping and cinematic crescendo. Closer ‘For You’ meanwhile sees Marling let down all her guards and defenses with the purest of love songs: it's the sweetest of moments, dedicated to those we hold closest. No song nor album could be more poignant during these strange times. (Philip Giouras)
28. Bob Vylan - We Live Here
In its closing 1 minute and 10 seconds of silence alone, Bob Vylan's We Live Here has more creative clout than 99% of up-and-coming guitar bands of the moment. Biting and scorchingly angry, it's a ever-relevant mash-up of punk, metal and grime that caught a renewed wave of interest for its contents of Black pride, injustice and anger following the murder of George Floyd in May.
Racism, police brutality, socio-economic injustice and mental ill-health all get their turn on the stage that Bob Vylan have built with their own hands. A must-have 2020 album. (Jessie Atkinson)
27. Working Men's Club - Working Men's Club
With their reshuffle last year, Working Men’s Club have become, in our eyes, a mini indie-supergroup. Not only do the members make them so, but the songs feel steeped in experience, with clear influences ranging from New Order and Talking Heads to Acid House and perhaps some other groovy artist that managed to do something pretty special with a TB-303.
Frontman Sydney Minsky-Sargeant provides a great sense of charisma served with a side of undiluted authenticity that is evidenced in the strength of his lyric writing. Inspired by John Cooper-Clarke, Sydney does not sound out of place in the same breath as the poet. This should probably be the part where we recommend the best tracks, but scrap that - go through the whole album, then do it again, and resign yourself to a dad boogie. (Corey Keepence)
26. Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
On her fifth album Saint Cloud, Katie Crutchfield is so evocative that you can taste the music. You can smell it, too: it’s the warm scent of just-fallen rain, a pick-up full of flowers (as in the LP’s cover art), peaches growing in a field. Her first work following the beginning of her journey into sobriety, this is an endlessly sunny record, even through unrequited love on ‘Lilacs’, guilt on ‘Hell’ and self-acceptance on ‘Fire’. At every turn, Waxahatchee uses the disciplines of country and folk to light her songs from within: each of these eleven songs are fireflies in the dark on a heavy Alabama night. (Jessie Atkinson)
25. Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death
After the release of their masterpiece debut Dogrel in 2019, Fontaines D.C. returned this year with yet another outstanding record. This record is a perfect example of a band evolving their sound with skill: the post-punk sound of Dogrel is still present throughout, but now with added touches of new wave and dream-like psychedelic sounds.
The Dublin-bred band’s lead singer Grian Chatten continues with his lyrical poetry on album 2, containing themes of loneliness on ‘I Don’t Belong’, loss on the beautiful ‘Oh Such a Spring’ and anti-capitalism on ‘I Was Not Born’. Fontaines D.C. are undoubtedly one of the hottest rock bands around at the moment, proven by praise from legendary musician Johnny Marr and a nod from the Grammy's. It will be an exciting time when the band can get back out on the road and perform their second album live - and to see how they evolve with album 3. (Kieran Macadie)
24. Jehnny Beth - To Love Is To Live
A foray into themes of intimacy, innocence and integrity, Beth’s debut solo effort is a portrait of what it means to be alive. With its cinematic demeanour and harrowing synth, each listen breeds new sounds, new emotion, colliding between the electric simmer of 'Flower', the crash of 'I’m The Man', the chill-inducing 'We Will Sin Together' and the sincerity of 'The Rooms', letting it all burn with album closer 'Human'.
Glimmers of hope shine through the haunting and brutally honest narratives that form each track, with a vivacity that surges through your veins. It is both delicate and deliberate, with an intensity that will draw you in, twisting and echoing through every inch of your being; this is an album that will make you feel. It’s truly difficult to capture in words how devastatingly beautiful To Love Is To Live is, but it’s poetry will linger on long after your last listen. (Paige Lambie)
23. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard - K.G.
Australian rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard haven’t stopped since the release of their debut album 12 Bar Bruise in 2012 – yet they’re still teething with innovative ideas. This is proven with their new 16th studio album K.G. which serves as a sequel to their 2017 album Flying Microtonal Banana.
Recorded and produced remotely with the band scattered around Melbourne, K.G. shows that this band were built to swiftly adapt to new situations and not lose their creative spark. Not a drop of that unnamed alchemical something that makes King Gizz so special is missing on this album. Much like the album’s 2017 prequel, K.G. was recorded using a microtonal musical scale that is traditionally used in Turkish and Arabic music that requires quarter tone tunings on custom made instruments. It’s clear that King Gizz’s tireless effort over the past 8 years still has no end in sight as they release yet another radical and innovative album. (Kieran Macadie)
22. Denai Moore - Modern Dread
Denai Moore has seen the future and is reporting back through the medium of sound. Startlingly honest and otherworldly in its production, Modern Dread approaches and retreats from the brink over and over again as our protagonist feels each of her many emotions to the fullest of her capacity. She’s indignant on ‘Fake Sorry’, tender on ‘Grapefruit on the Porch’ and writer of pop bangers on single ‘Cascades’.
Modern Dread, like the phenomenon it is named for, never lets up for one minute: the 46-minute album snakes through a kaleidoscope of emotions in the skin of a widescreen, crisply finished masterpiece. (Jessie Atkinson)
21. Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence
On their debut, Nation of Language single-handedly saved the synth-pop genre, putting together ten incredibly polished tracks as nostalgic as they are refreshing. Although an almost celebration of frontman Ian Devaney’s youth spent listening to countless synth-pop artists, this record holds an almost forlorn aura.
Behind the upbeat sonic nature of the record are hundreds of scattered anxieties, subtle but present, giving this album a perfect gloomy overhang. These moments of pain give the album its insatiable character, a charm only really found in the likes of more gothic bands such as The Cure or Bauhaus. Nation of Language have masterfully sculpted the art of the gothic genre, intertwining it sublimely with the often brash notions of synth-pop. Introduction, Presence delivers in all it sets out to do. It’s an almost perfect synth-pop album, rife with the complexity and the ravenous gloom of the best of the gothic genre. (Joe Smith)
20. Poppy - I Disagree
One of this writer’s biggest disappointments of 2020 was the relatively last minute cancellation of Poppy’s scheduled London show at Heaven, just before lockdown was imposed. Her ‘X’ single, which came acorss as half cult recruitment song, half thrash metal, set a unique tone for the album that followed it – indeed, she said on these very pages that it was designed as a follow up.
Her third long player to date, I Disagree, pivots around the same kinds of contradictions – innocence and degrardation, pleasure and horror and pop and dischord rub shoulders on the likes of the sugar sweet ‘Concrete’, with its surreal lyrics about candy and ice cream, ‘Bloodmoney’ and the title track with its wonderfully nihilistic chorus “let it all burn down / burn it to the ground.” As life as we know collapsed in front of our eyes during 2020, it ended up sounding pretty prophetic. (Ben Willmott)
19. The Cribs - Night Network
After the toughest spell of their career, the Jarmans could have returned with a bitter record: instead they came back sounding like a band in love with what they do and grateful for the opportunity to do it. Often catchy, never cliché and always completely true to themselves, this album is the realisation of the potential demonstrated on 2009's Ignore the Ignorant.
For early album loyalists, glimpses of those rabble-rousing days exist on ‘In The Neon Night’, albeit without “wo-oh-oh” chants, whilst ‘The Weather Speaks Your Same’ prompts Be Safe flashbacks. Night Network contains songs that would have record companies salivating…if people still bought records. This should be the album to elevate The Cribs’ body of work to a peerless level compared with other mid-2000s British Indie scene survivors.
For those that love and have missed The Cribs, this album provides affirmation that they are everything that we remember, and excitement for what they can be from now on. (Jack Haydock)
18. Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Heaven To A Tortured Mind is a beautiful, frantic and experimental transition for Yves Tumor, leaving their previously ambient and noise heavy sound in the dust. Tumor takes on a new persona on this record, switching out the ambient artist for a swaggering and seductive rock icon, able to fuse alt-rock and swelling electronics with a fantastic ease, this LP offered 2020 a spirited and vigorous rock revival.
They’re a performer, not just an artist, and they want us to realise this. It’s an album rife with visceral imagery of pain and love, and sometimes combinations of the two, evoking emotions of joy and horror in a wonderfully devilish and guttural fashion. It feels like a live show, showing that there is no limit to what Tumor can do and no limits to what they want to do. Holding the effortless bravado of a thousand rock stars, Heaven To A Tortured Mind was a fantastic new direction for Tumor and a fantastic space of refuge in the emerging chaos of 2020. (Joe Smith)
17. Khruangbin - Mordechai
From deep warming basslines to perfectly placed drum beats intertwined with funky psychedelic riffs, Khruangbin are a standout act - and the finest at what they do. The group returned this year with their exceptional fourth record, Mordechai.
'First Class' is a chilled out welcoming with its smooth and soothing bassline, soon meeting the uplifting lead single 'Time (You and I)' which takes a more funk-like vibe that wouldn't sound out of place on any old school disco record. The following three tracks take you on somewhat of a peaceful soul cleanse, with 'Connaissais de Face' being the standout. 'Dearest Alfred' deserves a noteable mention before things are drawn to a close on final track 'Shida' which brings the record full circle, guiding you back down from whichever cloud you have drifted off to in your mind. Lay down, close your eyes, and allow this record to take its hold on you like a warm embrace. (Ryan McConnell)
16. Soccer Mommy - color theory
Sophie Allison AKA Soccer Mommy’s superb second album color theory masterfully waltzes amongst an arrangement of impressive guitar and lyrical work with an abundance of graphic but glorious portrayals of brave subjects ranging from depression, physical and mental illness to particularly bleak and bittersweet loss. The album, split into three sections each assigned a separate distinguishing colour on the physical vinyl release, offers rich lyrical narratives tackling the aforementioned weighty topics with an elegant rock accompaniment highlighting Soccer Mommy’s ingenuity in constructing melody and erratic soundscapes.
First track ‘bloodstream’ sets the tone of the album with a wave of counterpoint melodies and sprinklings of late 90’s indie. The raw ‘circle the drain’ and seven-minute triumph ‘yellow is the colour of her eyes’ (all lower case, I might add) compliment the albums contrasting characteristics; each drawing from a varying assortment of genres from acoustic rock to new wave. Color Theory successfully fuses familiar ground to Soccer Mommy with an openness for future experimentation and eccentricities. (Harrison Smith)
15. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Powerful, deeply personal, and haunting, Punisher grabs you from the first track and doesn’t let you go until its explosive and cathartic final moments. Lead single ‘Kyoto’ is the most ‘festival ready’ and traditional alternative anthem, but it’s just one example of what Punisher does so well: a mixture of brutal honesty and heart on sleeve lyricism that makes her songs so captivating, engaging, and emotionally devastating.
Punisher relishes in a dark ambience: the deceptively devastating title track, the yearning optimism yet bleakness of ‘Chinese Satellite’ or the surprising country stylings of ‘Graceland Too’. Each track is unique but no less mesmerising.
The record gradually builds towards an underlying emotional climax you don’t even sense coming. Six-minute finale ‘I Know The End’ opens isolated, slowly-paced, and stripped back, but then…those horns come in. The tempo rapidly builds to a frantic pace, Bridgers signals the end is near. Her delicate, angelic tone is replaced by a guttural punishing scream: a demonic expulsion of the album's pain and sorrow. By the time Bridgers lightly chuckles, you’re drained…but you’re pressing play to go through it all over again. (Philip Giouras)
14. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
There are many memories associated with Lockdown 1.0, and the impeccable timing of the release of Dua Lipa’s second album Future Nostalgia is one of them. Dropping mere days after we were instructed to stay home, for a little while it seemed to offer a musical diversion from the seas of uncertainty that planet Earth was resentfully sailing on. With its stunning lead single ‘Don’t Start Now’ and chart-topper INXS sampling ‘Break My Heart’, the gates were open for ‘Future Nostalgia’s disco influenced characteristics and uptempo groove to inject a perfect amount of distraction into topsy turvy world.
Future Nostalgia expertly mashes themes of looking back cautiously at times; joy at others, all whilst staying focused on what may lay ahead and rightfully secures Dua Lipa as one of the most engaging pop acts in recent times. (Harrison Smith)
13. Alexandra Savior - The Archer
It's hard to imagine an Alexandra Savior who isn't plagued by melancholy. Like Phoebe Bridgers, she's the perennial sad girl: someone who's talented enough to put the feeling of being not quite there into words, and then music, and then production. On The Archer, a record that Savior overcame depression, chronic imposter syndrome and sexism to make, she is as confident as on her Alex Turner co-written debut Belladonna of Sadness.
The spaghetti western guitars are still there, as are the disossicated lyrics of a wounded creature: the result is truly glorious. Phantoms crawl all over this LP, their tendrils reaching out from the past to slip the cold prescience of pain down your spine. Plus, there are more than a few longtime hits in there. (Jessie Atkinson)
12. Jessie Ware - What's Your Pleasure?
Jessie Ware’s fourth album What’s Your Pleasure? is simply the smooth and flirtatiously glitzy soundtrack to a 70s shindig you wish you were invited to. An artist completely comfortable in her own sound and personna, Ware has whipped up a gem with all the charisma to deem it a modern classic. The consistently funky ‘Ohh La La’ and ‘Read My Lips’ partner the steamy lyrical content with a seductive disco beat, boasting a maturity in sound and style.
Less reflective on the melancholy days of yesteryear and more driven by a passion for self-assurance and fun, Ware has herself remarked that she longs for the album to be played during intimate physical moments. This desire can clearly be heard, primarily on the title track and the Chic’esque ‘Step Into My Life’. What's Your Pleasure? is a pop record with real authenticity and deservedly champions Jessie Ware as a frontrunner of the ongoing resurgence of disco. (Harrison Smith)
11. Creeper - Sex, Death and the Infinite Void
When Southampton punks Creeper laid down their jackets at a London show in 2018, they made the Bowie-esque announcement that it would be the last show they ever performed. Thankfully, Creeper rose from the ashes this year with the release of Sex, Death & the Infinite Void, a magnificent concept album which embodies rock music at its most theatrical. Here, the band takes inspiration from glam, goth, punk and even country to create a record that stands out for its ambition as well as its impeccable sound.
Standout tracks ‘Cyanide’, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Born Cold’ are a testament to the band’s lyrical prowess. The album is rife with religious imagery and massive, belting choruses that will undoubtedly make an unforgettable live experience one day. Sex, Death & the Infinite Void amps up the drama with spoken word tracks that guide the narrative from beginning to end.
The album reached no.5 in the UK album charts, a beautiful sign of hope in the middle of a pandemic which brought the country’s alternative music scene to its knees. The album is not just musically flawless, but a showcase of everything that rock music has to offer. (Vicky Greer)
10. Baxter Dury - The Night Chancers
Dark, brooding and infinitely charming, The Night Chancers pulls the listener into its macabre world. Between Dury’s opening statement of not being, “your fucking friend” (‘I’m Not Your Dog’) and his closing cries of, “Baxter loves you” (‘Say Nothing’) the record takes you on a winding and juxtaposing journey that never feels fully comfortable.
Lyrically, the album is nothing short of a masterclass, with Dury expertly weaving his dark and seedy tales with not only a disturbingly unflinching manner, but a charm only he can produce. Chocked full of electronic beats, the album is one that will have you dancing to the recounting of a Slumlord life. The Night Chancers is perhaps best Dury’s best work to date. (Tom Dibb)
9. Mac Miller - Circles
It had only been a little more than a month since the release of his fifth studio album, Swimming, when Mac Miller tragically passed away from an accidental drug overdose in 2018. At the time he was already working on what was intended to be its companion piece, a contrasting yet complementing album entitled Circles.
Having been completed by composer and producer Jon Brion after Mac Miller’s death, Circles does very much pick us up where Swimming left us. The lyrical themes paint melodic and honest descriptions of Mac Miller’s struggles with depression, anxiety, drug addiction and heartbreak, all of which are themes returning from Swimming. Accompanied by a jazz-infused and electronica-tinted lo-fi production, Mac Miller pushes the boundaries of what can be done on a hip-hop record by only flirting with the idea of rapping on a couple occasions. Circles is an album about breaking a circle, but in a way the album also completes a circle and provides us with a sense of closure. (Sofie Lindevall)
8. Deftones - Ohms
Returning after a four-year hiatus, Deftones dropped their ninth studio album Ohms in September - and it exceeded all expectations. Stapling their sad, art-rock sound in their quintessential first three album releases, Deftones have since then shape-shifted their sound, playing with lighter, alternative tendencies.
Ohms, in a crystal-clear reference to their early sound, feels like the return of Deftones we’ve been waiting for. The lyrics are cryptic, and the tracks are gloomy with colossal instrumentals: across Ohms, Deftones thrash together ten of the filthiest, yet poetic tunes. Particular mentions for ‘The Spell of Mathematics,’ – an emotive tribute to former band member, Chi Cheng. We're itching to hear this album live. (Laviea Thomas)
7. Haim - Women in Music Pt. III
HAIM have never been as playful, as sincere or as generous with their music as they are on their third album, the sardonically-titled Women In Music Pt. III. The jazzier notes they presented on last year’s ‘Summer Girl’, to everyone's delight, get a look-in again, starting on the montage-ready ‘Los Angeles’. There’s country pop by way of Shania Twain, too, on single ‘The Steps’ and ‘Gasoline’. Blurred electronica, straight alt-rock and hip hop all get star turns across the 50-minute run-time as well, but WIMPIII feels effortless, like one cogent, splendid whole.
In their lyrics and delivery, HAIM are even more impressive. Their unapologetic humanity comes across on acerbic asides as strongly as on whispered confessionals, the sisters exploring all of the things that frighten and amuse them as one united whole. Women in Music Pt. III, with its sisterly humour and support, earworm melodies and candid lyrics, is perhaps the greatest rock album of the year. (Jessie Atkinson)
6. Megan Thee Stallion - Good News
"I could build a house with all the brick I got" Megan boasts on her latest single, ‘BODY’. Scratch that – the 25-year-old Houston native is well on her way to building so much more: an empire of whip-smart, socially-conscious hot girls.
Good News is full of simple, salacious bangers, evidenced by the bags of fun that Megan’s features have. You can practically hear SZA smile as she sings the vocal line on ‘Freaky Girls’, or the City Girls giggling as they record their verses for the sultry ‘Do It On The Tip’. And let’s not forget Thee Beyoncé remix of the TikTok supersmash ‘Savage’. That’s not to say Good News is all fun and smiles, though: the album starts with a damning indictment of He Who Will Not Be Named (who, instead of causing havoc to the wizarding world, shot Megan in both her feet).
What’s really the most incredible aspect to Good News is Megan’s unabashed confidence. It’s not a front, nor a mask: Megan truly believes in everything she puts out on this album. Once you hear the difference this makes, you’ll never want to go back to the empty braggadocio of today’s popstars. (Alex Rigotti)
5. Run The Jewels - RTJ4
Run The Jewels steam into the RTJ4 on ‘Yankee and The Brave (ep 4)’ with an intensity that very few artists can match. And the pace rarely lets up. RTJ are the standard-bearers in challenging the listener - the culture and society as a whole - while simultaneously engaging the audience with continuously captivating beats. ‘Walking in the snow’ ft Gangsta Boo is a near perfect example of this style.
On ‘The Ground Below’ RTJ are on classic form. Aggression, beats and punchlines are all present. In-keeping with the rest of the album, meaningful questions envelop the humour, this feels like ‘Nobody Speak’ once more, with feeling.
Packaged up in their distinctive yet ever inventive beats and bars, RTJ4 came as the Black Lives Matter movement reached one of several peaks. The fact that it was written and recorded before George Floyd ever met his end to killer cops says more about the world we live in than the prescience of Run The Jewels, but the style and the ingenuity of RTJ4 is all them. (Jack Haydock)
4. Sault - Untitled (Black Is)
One of the first results that comes up when typing SAULT into a Google search box is the question “Who is in Sault band?”. Even though the mysterious collective appeared out of nowhere in 2019 and have revealed close to nothing about their identities, their third studio album Untitled (Black Is) put their name on everyone’s lips when it was released back in July.
The album is, with its musical blend of soul, R&B and funk, a masterpiece all the way from the protest chant-like opening lines “The revolution has come (Out the lies) / Still won't put down the gun (Out the lies)”, through to the outro where the words “Pray up, stay up, pray up / (They wanna keep us down)” are echoing in soulful harmonies. Having arrived in a world full of anger and sorrow over systematic racism, police brutality, white privilege and injustice, the 20 songs that make up Untitled (Black Is) form a revolutionary soundtrack of pro-Black music, making the album not only one of the best albums of the year but also one of the most important. (Sofie Lindevall)
3. Taylor Swift - folklore
With just seventeen hours between its announcement and release, it is safe to say no other record released this year created more buzz than Taylor Swift’s folklore. Throwing caution to the wind and removing the pressure to make radio-friendly hits empowered Swift to embrace escapism, storytelling, and imagery differently. Equal parts poignant and profound, folklore represents a shift in her songwriting; gone are the themes that tied together earlier records, like enchanting dreamscapes, Romeo and Juliet love stories, and picturesque finales. Instead, Swift welcomes the realisation that sometimes even the dreamiest fairytales can't have happy endings.
The 17-track album is Swift's first venture into an alternative-leaning sound, the catalyst to a cohesive body of work that both showcases her evocative storytelling and knack for creating perfect melodic hooks while also giving an insight into where her mind travels when she’s daydreaming. Between allusions to the struggle to obtain her masters in ‘my tears ricochet’, the parallels connecting her story to socialite Rebekah Harkness in ‘the last great american dynasty’, and the quiet plea to her partner in 'peace' that, despite the media circus, she’ll try to bring them calmness, folklore is Swift’s best and most reflective album to date. (Kelsey Barnes)
2. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas – otherwise known as Perfume Genius – has been in this industry for ten years now, and he’s showing no signs of stopping. Balancing tender songwriting with his signature fragile vocals, Hadreas proves why he’s a staple in the indie pop scene with Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, an album which continues its sonic themes from 2017’s No Shape: reliable indie rock combined with throwback 80s genres.
Much of Hadreas’ material revolves around the complicated existence of being gay; on the ethereal ‘Jason’, for instance, Hadreas recalls the thorny tale of sleeping with a straight man. ‘Just A Touch’ reimagines a wartime farewell as a queer love story, whilst ‘On The Floor’ is a pop banger about longing for someone when you shouldn’t. Hadreas fuses genre after genre with ease, and his voice ranges from his typical ghostly falsetto to the reaches of his lower register.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a baroque-pop project that’s both digestible and full of depth, a balance rarely achieved. Whilst this album seems simple enough, the aftertaste of Hadreas’ oblique will be left in your mouth for days. (Alex Rigotti)
1. Rina Sawayama - SAWAYAMA
When your album is lauded by Elton John as one of two top albums of 2020, that’s when you know you’ve made it. SAWAYAMA is the wonderfully complex studio debut of the similarly multifaceted Rina Sawayama – a 30-year-old British-Japanese panexual woman. No one else could have made this album but Rina, who’s unafraid to do things like sandwich nu-rock riffs between bubbly Y2K pop, or purr ‘STFU!’ to her microaggressive haters on her lead single.
Brilliant and ballsy, SAWAYAMA intertwines culture clash and identity crises in one bombastic album. ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ is a synth-pop ode to the struggles of dating as a Japanese woman, whilst ‘Bad Friend’ sees Rina reminiscing about Carly Rae Jepsen karaokes with a former friendship. The best song on the album, however, is a booming anthem that’s an instant gay classic: ‘Chosen Family’, which stresses the importance of community in the face of familial rejection.
She might have gotten snubbed at the Grammys and the BRITs, but SAWAYAMA is a one-of-a-kind cocktail of intellect, wit and emotional honesty. It’s an album which will not only open doors for countless LGBT Asians to come; it’ll change the sound of pop forever. (Alex Rigotti)