We rank the 50 most outstanding records of the worst year in recent history.
Despite not having not released an album in over a decade, Annie Strand has demonstrated a remarkable ability to stay on trend with Dark Hearts, and at the same time produced a shimmering, cinematic record.
Sounding both like a throwback to the '80s as well as a glimpse of the future, listening to Dark Hearts is akin to time travel. Strand paints a dystopian picture, with sparkling synths and throbbing basslines contrasted firmly against the Norwegian singer's honed vocals. It’s enough to make you believe that this could have been recorded at any time in the past - or indeed future - decade.
It begs the question “what next?” for the singer, whose career now spans more than two decades. With the transition from bubblegum pop on breakthrough 1999 debut The Greatest Hit to the more comprehensive offering here now complete, we hope we won’t have to wait so long for the next instalment. DAN CROMB
The central concept of Tottenham emcee Headie's debut EDNA is reflection; it's a record thats deal with the harsh realities of growing up on North London’s notorious Broadwater Farm estate, drug running, and spells inside. Displaying the tension between music and the roads, it presents a fine balance between the two, played out in real time, with a Drake seal of approval. It's a flagship moment not just for Headie but for the whole UK drill scene. CHRIS JOHNSON
Even the title of Haim's third album suggests the completion of a trilogy for the trio and if that's the case, Women in Music Pt III is a perfect example of how to take an established sound and perfect it. What warms the soul most about the record is its familiar, yet elevated feel - but a warm and inviting execution makes it stand out from the rest. It’s due in part to strong production, fashioning the album’s sharp, lovable tone and old school sound alongside what's definitely the peak of Haim’s songwriting talent. Round that off with driving grooves and even some tongue-in-cheek cuts in "3am" or "All That Ever Mattered", and you’ll be hard pressed to find another album this year as self-assured as this one. SARAH SHODIPE
While her 2016 album Joanne received mixed reviews, Lady Gaga’s sixth studio album Chromatica was the fastest selling record here in the UK in 2020. After winning an Oscar for "Shallow", Gaga returned to her ultra glossy dance-pop roots on this album, much to the delight of her fans.
With a sound that nods towards house, techno, and synthpop, punctuated by cinematic instrumentals, Chromatica has been designed to help listeners escape to the record's eponymous fictional world. The album hosts two UK chart-topping singles: “Stupid Love” and “Rain On Me”, a collaboration with Ariana Grande. The album credits include an eclectic, impressive mix of artists too: Elton John sings with Gaga on “Sine From Above”, Blackpink feature on “Sour Candy”, and Skrillex has a writing credit for “Plastic Doll”.
While the polished production and dancefloor beats make the record feel like one of Gaga’s most upbeat creations, the overarching lyrical themes of overcoming trauma and experiencing poor mental health means it is also her most personal release to date. KATE CRUDGINTON
The highs on The Prettiest Curse are euphoric, zigzagging through Hinds' well-hewn garage path and into an invigorating new space that feels like a blueprint for their future. Their much-loved formula hasn't been totally turned on its head, and the hallmarks of previous records Leave Me Alone and I Don't Run are easily found throughout, with raucous moments of freefalling fuzz, cheekily biting choruses, and a palpable sense of camaraderie, but thing are definitely different on the Madrid quartet's third outing. This is the first time we see the Madrid four-piece properly embracing pop - “Boy”, “Good Bad Times”, and “Just Like Kids (Miau)” in particular have hooks you'll be singing for days - as well as using their native Spanish in a big way, and they pull these changes (albeit pretty natural ones) off without missing a step.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, guitarist/singer Carlotta Cosials puts the newfound confidence down to the recording process in New York City with producer Jenn Decilveo (Bat for Lashes, Anne-Marie, Porridge Radio), where for the first time Hinds were able to slow down the creation of their music and let it unfold and evolve at a leisurely pace. The results are a candid missions statement for the band, with The Prettiest Curse sitting proudly as a turning point in their journey and as a thoroughly excellent collection guitar pop songs in itself. LARRY DAY
Khruangbin’s third album came as a little slice of sunshine in this dark drizzle of a year. The three piece have long demonstrated a knack for hypnotic groove, and deep appreciation for stateless subject matter - from Thai disco to Indian devotional music - but Mordechai fleshes out the sketches of a sound they are increasingly making their own.
A wider range of instrumentation, including steel pans and Brazilian cuícas, adds texture and authenticity. But most important is Laura Lee’s newfound confidence behind the microphone. Until now they’ve been a largely instrumental group, with Mark Speer’s guitar effectively replacing any lyrics. But vocals provide another focal point, allowing him to talk less but say more. It’s what turns Khruangbin’s raw material on “Time (You and I)” into a gleeful, childish hit.
It pays homage but doesn’t pass into pastiche, and the result is a host of songs you’ll find yourself whistling as you do the dishes: much appreciated postcards from far-away lands. JOHN PLATT
A rare posthumous release which exceeds much which came before it, Mac Miller’s Circles was not intended as a final testimony; it is instead a tantalising taste of a successful new direction cut tragically short. On the album Miller sings more than he raps, in an imperfect croon which is threadbare emotionally. With assistance from Rick Rubin and Fiona Apple’s producer Jon Brion, the record takes as many cues from Wilco and early '80s synthpop as it does Sounwave.
Singing candidly of his struggles with addiction and depression over bright synths and plucked strings, the songs range between the orchestral swing of “That’s On Me” and the bittersweet confessionality of “Surf”. Two songs steal the show though: a pitch-perfect cover of Arthur Lee’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live” and the bittersweet optimism of “Good News”, which sees Miller sing “hope I make it home from work / so tired of being so tired / why I gotta build something beautiful just to go set it on fire?”
Often his words are so predictive that they sound prophetic, but instead Circles is just a bright lesson in musical earnestness, delivered by an artist who had many more left to impart. LIAM INSCOE-JONES
Not seen solo since the early days of the last decade, Parisian songwriter Pauline De Lassus - aka Mina Tindle - returned with her third full-length album this October. Released by the ever-evolving Funkhouse Studio associated artist collective 37d03d (led, amongst others, by Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner), SISTER represents Tindle’s first new body of work in six years.
Featuring collaborations with Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, and produced by Thomas Bartlett (Joan As Police Woman, Yoko Ono, Florence + The Machine), SISTER marks both a return and a departure for Tindle. Sonically a shift from the shining alt-pop of 2012’s Taranta and 2014’s Parades, it moved towards more sophisticated, delicate, and serious compositions - particularly the 10-minute epic “Triptyque”. Littered with mythological imagery it’s transportive but firmly grounded in the present, Tindle’s storytelling is utterly captivating and oddly fitting for 2020 - where nostalgia can be toxic and worrying about the future is exhausting. It's is a beautiful, tender, and honest companion to this year’s long march. LAUREN DOWN
'Mixtape' was a label too liberally applied in 2020, but Giggs' Now and Never - which arrived unexpectedly last month minus any real fanfare - nails the format. This vault of miscellaneous treasures, from the soulful politics of “It's Hard” to the ghostly warehouse trap of “Hoochies”, features a curious cast of collaborators, including Jorja Smith, Obongjayar, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie.
It's a nod to his character that Giggs gives his features room to breathe: none of A Boogie wit da Hoodie's wrought intensity is compromised on “Changed Me”, and Dave is given the first three minutes of “Straight Murder” to, well, straight murder. Then again, the emcee knows his worth. Whether over industrial drill or low-slung dancehall, Giggs' dulcet delivery and sly punchlines solidify his legacy as one of UK rap's most dependable narrators - even what may possibly be this year's worst cover art cannot obscure him. KITTY RICHARDSON
How do you follow up an album that positioned you as a Grammy-nominated global superstar, the leading light in the new Afro-Fusion movement? That was the challenge faced by Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu - Burna Boy to you or I - after the critical and commercial success of 2019's African Giant. Luckily for us, Burna is not one to look back, and instead dug deeper; returning bolder, more thoughtful and vibrant than ever before, with this year's stunning Twice As Tall.
Having established his legend across his previous albums, Twice As Tall found Burna surveying the African diaspora: musically, politically, and with an eye to the social and cultural complexity of his Nigerian roots. Whilst once again showcasing collaborators from across the Afropop landscape - as well as a particularly poignant clip of his mother speaking at the BET Awards – Twice As Tall saw Burna broadening his international scope, with guests including Chris Martin, Anderson .Paak and Stormzy - not to mention an Executive Producer credit for P Diddy.
From the joyous optimism of lead single “Wonderful” - a rare ray of light in the depths of lockdown - to the ferocious consciousness of “Monsters You Made”, Twice As Tall is that rare feat: persuasive but never preachy, a rich riposte to anyone blinkered to the rewards of a global musical outlook. In a year that saw the power of globalism filtered through the surge in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the international response to a worldwide pandemic, it was the fitting soundtrack we couldn’t have known we’d desperately need. MAYA HAMBRO
Channelling the traces of those pop stars who have previously looked to disco for inspiration - the Gagas, the Arianas, the Rihannas - Future Nostalgia is as much a showcase of Dua Lipa’s vision as it is a portrait of the artist coming into her own. Lipa’s reverie for her music to sound like a “dancercise class” births a timeless romance, with tracks such as the lead single “Don’t Start Now” becoming a testament to her fusion of the ‘nostalgic’ with the modern.
Instant nu-disco staples seamlessly flow into roller disco anthems (“Levitating”), but, foremost, the sound is distinctly her own throughout. Future Nostalgia is anchored by snappy basslines, disco strings, and house-infused piano chords, all the while refusing to delegate itself to filler or features. We know the hits by now, and they deserve to be remembered in equal merit to the iconic pop albums that defined the '00s. It makes a persuasive case for Lipa as the pop powerhouse of this generation as she capitalises on effervescent retro vibes that should always feel this good. HANNAH BROWNE
Embracing poppier tendencies but fuelled by the same punk spirit, Dream Wife released their second album So When You Gonna... in July. The band's creative trio Alice Go, Rakel Mjöll, and Bella Podpadec took pride in releasing a record that was (at the time) the only album produced by a female-led team and released on an independent label in the UK charts - and was the number one selling album in indie retailers during the week of its release.
While tracks like "RH RN" and "So When You Gonna" recalled the raucous sounds on the band's 2018 self-titled debut, Dream Wife's second offering often leans towards a polished, poppier sound. From the buoyant riffs and chant-worthy choruses on "Sports!" and "Hasta La Vista", to the poignant reflections on women's reproductive rights on the emotive "After The Rain", So When You Gonna... brims with an infectious charm. Lead by Mjöll's distinctive vocals, Go's buzzing guitar riffs, and Popadec's snaking bass lines, it's a joyfully honest record, celebrating self-autonomy and embracing all that life throws your way. KATE CRUDGINTON
Stylistic shifts have been the norm for Sweden’s I Break Horses - from the traditional rock sound of Hearts, their debut from almost a decade ago, to the electronic synthpop of its follow up Chiaroscuro in 2014. Both commendable releases, they were always an act searching for a sound that truly fit their ambitions, a search this sepia-tinged, darkly cinematic release has concluded.
More than ever a solo vehicle for Maria Lindén, this is the most focused I Break Horses record to date and follows a troublesome gestation period with a back story of failed collaborations and music lost on broken harddrives. Initial sketches for the record were created as imaginary scores while watching her favourite films with the sound turned down, and these dramatic ambient pieces were used as a blueprint for the record. The original intention of an instrumental album is evident in its wide-reaching ambition and tricksy intricate detailing pushed to the fore by Lindén; her voice is used more as an atmosphere, a distant hush throughout.
Lyrically musing on love and loss, on opening track "Turn" she delivers one of the year’s most direct observations on the futility of keeping a broken relationship alive: “Maybe we’re fucking with absent minds / While our hearts are breaking.” Musically venturing into new areas such as thunderous trip-hop beats, propulsive arpeggiated basslines, swirling dreampop with hypnotic synth chords, introspective coldwave, and on highlight "Neon Lights" she takes the flatness of krautrock and sprinkles it with an '80s pop fizz, all done with a deft touch. CHRIS TODD
The eight-track debut album from dancer, actress and composer Keeley Forsyth - perhaps better known for her role in BBC's Happy Valley - revealed an incomparable vocal set to delicate but rousing songs. Debris maintains a sombre tone throughout as Forsyth explores depression, a concept that followed a period of mental and physical illness so severe that her tongue became paralysed. “Is this what madness feels like?,” she asks on album standout "Lost", an uncomfortable listen in its unrelenting honesty. At times devastating, Debris represents an incredible of body of work from an artist allowing her vulnerability to flourish. NARZA AHMED
Petals For Armor comes not only as Williams’ debut solo outing, but an intricately designed web of vulnerability. Rattling around echoes of sparse indie comes a vehement tongue that has something its been dying to say and is done sugarcoating, all without putting forward an oppressive wave. The opening hushed hurry of "Simmer" offers all you need in terms of expectation for the record. It wears brooding like a protective shell, but not to the point it closes itself off.
Yet Williams offers hope and understanding amidst the gentle indie and subtle pop sensibilities. Far from letting the negativity eddy and suffocate, Petals For Armor's grooves swell and burst, elevating the impassioned sentiments of reflection and empowerment, both Williams' own and whatever emerges from the delicately assured journey one may undertake. With the record, Williams has given the world a way of supporting themselves through the smoke and rubble, by offering up her own reflective, expressive experience. STEVEN LOFTIN
Thumping with shoulder-shrugging bass lines and shrieking with sharp strings, Jessie Ware's fourth studio album sounds like someone spiked the punch at one of Sophie Ellis-Bextor's bougee high-rise flat parties. The sometimes same-y but certainly underrated soul-pop sound she'd stuck with for her first two albums was replaced with raspy ballads and sweet symphonies on 2017's Glasshouse, but with What's Your Pleasure? Ware set out another genre to dominate by diving headfirst into disco and rarely coming up for air.
A decision born out of her musical partnership with James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco), the return of disco in pop music on songs such as Doja Cat's "Say So" and Dua Lipa's "Hallucinate" have been at the centre of the discussion. But Ware doesn't simply borrow from a classic sound, she decorates every familiar motif with her own flair. "Ooh La La" and "Soul Control" are at their core, disco bangers, but Ware's knack for hooks can't be ignored, nor can her heavenly voice. After listening to the album in full it's hard to believe this perfect match hadn't come to fruition sooner. MAX GAYLER
It's a long-running joke that Canadian artists don't get their dues, but the under-the-radar-ness of Donovan Woods seems baffling at this point. A songwriter with the pop chops of Ed Sheeran and the lyrical acuity of Paul Simon - topped off with cinematic, tear-teasing production - he's a decade into his career and still a relative unknown on the world stage. Here's hoping Without People, his fourth studio album, changes all that.
Woods' brand of folk-pop is both grand and unassuming. He has a knack - like the aforementioned Simon - of examining the minutiae of common tragedies: the wedding band in the pawn shop, the scraps of a shared life swept up on moving day. Most tracks on Without People tackle painfully human trials, from the static shock of seeing your ex after a break up (“The Last Time I Saw You”) to the shame of wheeling your emotional baggage into a new relationship (“Clean Slate”). And as a musician, Woods' lumberjack-esque stature belies him: his voice is feather-light and climbs octaves with ease, and his arrangements are soft, laying sweeping strings and shuffling drums over sad-eyed acoustics. Woods' decision to share his platform with those who aren't cishet white dudes is heartening, too. When the pandemic lay waste to many artists' incomes, Woods rewired the budget that would have gone on a billboard campaign for Without People to fund video collaborations with a diverse group of visual artists - evidence that his sensitivity extends far beyond his arrangements. KITTY RICHARDSON
Jazz has always been a story of rebellion and community with tight-knit groups railing against the status quo, and London-based saxophonist Nubya Garcia has found herself at the epicentre of an exhilarating UK scene. Inspired as much by OutKast as John Coltrane, rebellion for this new movement is in giving jazz back to the people, snatching it from the hands of the stuffy conservatoires and making it cool again.
Garcia’s debut, Source, proves why this is so vital; it’s a record that focuses on the community. Not a local Harlem or New Orleans community, but a panglobal one. In a time where we’re more connected than ever before, Source is a thrilling interrogation of heritage and exploration of identity with help from Garcia’s equally talented circle of friends. Calypso rhythms and funky R&B rubs alongside dub and soul jazz in a way that feels completely natural. Each thread in the tapestry of the scene’s history weaving together perfectly. Though the UK jazz scene already has plenty of exciting names, with Source, Garcia has managed to create something of a mission statement for them and established herself as the key figure in this ever-evolving story. CHRIS TAYLOR
Taylor Swift gave us perhaps the most unprecedented about-turn of any contemporary musical career this year. Known for her masterfully crafted, arena-ready, glitterbomb pop, the former country star ditched her trademark flashy outfits for comfy cardigans, and her usually slick, huge sound for an extraordinarily hushed and stripped-back one on her eighth album, folklore.
With the world in lockdown, and the prospect of touring and performing any new material for the foreseeable future unlikely, Swift found herself writing songs in a completely uninhibited way for the very first time. Seeking escape - as many of us have been throughout the year - and dialling down her usual self-referential tendencies, Swift let her imagination run wild, letting just fragments of her reality mingle with the worlds and stories of characters she’d conjured up.
As someone whose strength has always been vivid storytelling, she thrived in this state of reverie, weaving some of her finest heart-panging tales of love yet. To go with the stories of love triangles, American dynasties, and ricocheting tears, Swift - together with The National’s Aaron Dessner and regular collaborator Jack Antonoff - conceived a sound akin to a soft breeze that blows through the fallen leaves on a forest floor, a sound gently illuminated by candlelight and autumnal sunsets. Folky strumming and plucking nestles into the pitter-patter of a subtle electronica backdrop, putting Swift’s chronicling at front and centre like never before, and giving us a rich, textured tapestry of folklore to escape into at a time when we need it most. OLIVER KUSCHER
For Dirty Hit signees Blackstarkids, music is about fun and fantasy - in that order. In a burst of technicolour, the Kansas City trio have given the kiss-of-life to the sterile, all-too-white world of indie music with their third trailblazing record, Whatever, Man. They are experimental without pretence, dropping music simply in the name of not giving a fuck. So what if this is their second album this year alone? Their music is a canvas, and on Whatever, Man, they spatter it with reckless abandon: there are bold strokes of gorgeous synth on “BRITNEY BITCH” as they daydream about itty-bitty crop tops, flashing cameras, and living lavish, as well as flecks of hip-hop and washes of kinetic guitar-led melodies on “BEATRIX KIDDO”.
They really can do it all - it’s not a case of trying, or just having a laugh. Ty, Diondre, and Gabe are uncompromising in their individuality, in the collect ‘em all way that made your favourite '90s pop group so fun. Don’t be fooled by their bubblegum-sweet melodies, though. They hold no bars when it comes to how it really feels to be growing up right now, from generational trauma, summer heartbreak, and desperately wanting to step out of your own head. Whatever, Man is not only the soundtrack to their own coming-of-age - but yours, too. SOPHIE WALKER
If you’re well versed in Montreal-based singer/songwriter, Helena Deland’s electro-tinged EP series, Altogether Unaccompanied Volumes I, II, III, and IV, you might be a little surprised to hear sombre strums in her debut LP, Someone New. It's an album to cherish - a soundboard for validating your feelings and really figuring them out. Spending a lot of time with this album, you’ll find exquisite snippets of saccharine encased with lingering vulnerability.
"Truth Nugget", a highlight on the full-length, sees Deland considering a relationship, the distance in which engulfs it, despite efforts to be overtly honest. The starkness in the storytelling is balanced out by a captivating melody that ebbs and flows throughout. "Pale" is another standout which illustrates Deland’s attempts at understanding her person, as well as the struggles that come with trying to accept ourselves.
The record is an evaluation of the self. Sitting in the reflections of who you are - learning and unlearning certain tropes and traits. It eases the earbuds with each listen as we become more familiar with Deland’s thought processes, privy to the singer/songwriter’s most inner workings. CHARLOTTE CROFT
As masterful and career-defining as their 2017 magnum opus Crack-Up may have been, heaven knows its density and epic scale was not what this year needed. Its follow up Shore was for bandleader and songwriter Robin Pecknold a result of seeing that record through to its logical end; as its own title and that of its opener “Wading In Waist-High Water” illustrated,
Shore signalled a kind of vast and all-encompassing calmness. But for all of its smooth, breathy textures, to call it an ‘easy listening’ record belies the level of sophistication weaved into its backdrop of orchestration, its dynamism between hushed intimacy, soaring bursts of euphoria, and everything in between. There is still pertinent darkness beneath the surface of Shore, whether it's the longing for friends on “Maestranza” or facing the “Ocean of Time” that comes with each day on “Young Man’s Game”. But in each case Pecknold manages to find a way of acceptance that seeps back into the songs and captures as a whole this overwhelming feeling of resolution. JOHN BELL
The driving force behind some of the most seminal pop moments of the past decade, Victoria Monét was a reputable hitmaker in her own right well before her unveiling to the masses. Penning records for figures as disparate as Ariana Grande, Fifth Harmony, T.I., and Nas, Monét established herself as one of the quiet arbiters of popular music in the last decade, with a demonstrable ease and dexterity across styles and genres.
Such skills are abundant on her debut record, Jaguar - an album that is as much a document of Monét’s personal evolution as it is a meditation on the very concept of inner strength itself. A panoply of '80s-inspired funk, hip-hop-inflected quiet storm, and Y2K pop-soul, the record charts its narrative of acceptance and growth against the sonic history of contemporary R&B, a testament to the singer-songwriter’s various stylistic forebearers.
There is a quiet radicalism that underpins this approach, with tracks such as “Ass Like That” and the Motown-inspired “Dive” operating as paeans for self-love, transforming oft-used signifiers of objectification and fetishisation into vehicles for empowerment. For Monét, success isn’t determined through arbitrary measurements of pop stardom, but through internal, spiritual, and personal gratification - sentiments which run throughout Jaguar with forceful verve and stunning rhythm. UDIT MAHALINGAM
Maybe the speed with which Adrianne Lenker and her band Big Thief have risen to near universal adoration over the past few years is a good indication of the pace needed for them to thrive. In the midst of endless touring last year they managed to release two faultless full-lengths, U.F.O.F and Two Hands, and could still be found performing unreleased material at subsequent shows.
But this year we caught perhaps a one-off glimpse of Lenker, halted in her tracks like the rest of us, that proved that even in stasis the enigmatic songwriter could channel her ever-refining craft with powerful effect. Released at the height of Autumn with fittingly crisp hues of red and green painted by Lenker’s grandmother on its cover, songs made a huge and fast impact in spite of its humble title and production. Officially her fourth solo record, it was recorded with friend and engineer Philip Weinrobe onto tape, and this rough-around-the-edges, analogue method seemed to imprint the rustic, Massachusetts mountainside setting into its texture like an exposure burnt onto film.
Lenker’s universe on songs is built in concrete forms (“Show me pictures that hang in your house / Pictures that hang in your mouth / Candescent insects / Crosses and fishnecks”), but as always, is pieced purposefully out of place, welcoming in the beams of abstract powers that surround us and light up her songwriting. At a time when many of us were found facing the emotional forces that pull and guide us alone, this ambivalent embrace felt all the more lucid and stirring. JOHN BELL
When COVID officially cancelled dating this summer, no record made us mourn the possibility of making out with strangers quite like THEY.'s The Amanda Tape. On their sophomore effort, Drew Love and Dante Jones come equipped with a sophisticated set of bedroom bangers: rich, finely-tuned arrangements in one corner, and lyrics that'll make you hump the sofa in the other.
THEY.'s signature use of acoustic guitar gives the tape a unique silhouette: providing “Playfight” with Tinashe its Craig David-esque hook, glinting in the background of the sombre breakup ballad “On and On”, and driving the heart of “FWM”. Love is pretty free with his pen on the naughtier cuts (shout out to "Imma eat it like I don't know what it taste like," for being 2020's most confusing cunnilingus bar), but he also knows how to open a vein: see “On and On”, where his pleas to keep a relationship afloat - despite an endless list of failures - will catch your heart off-guard.
There's always a risk that such a homage to late '90s R&B - especially one this sincere - could be written off as parody. This is where Dante Jones' hyper-literate production comes in: he offsets Love's syrupy vocal arrangements and earnest bars about love-making with clean, hard drum breaks and the kind of sad-boy reverbs favoured by The Weeknd. The result is a record so switched-on and steeped in emotion you'll damn near forget that Love is singing about making his ex squirt. KITTY RICHARDSON
On paper, Fontaines D.C.'s second album could have gone as pear-shaped as the rest of the year did. Written during the endless tour for their debut Dogrel, recorded months after its release - and twice to boot, after they ditched the initial take made in a plush L.A. studio - it could have sounded rushed and ill-thought out. But the bands that matter simply carry on with the business of being exceptional and on A Hero’s Death, Fontaines got even better.
Where Dogrel found its inspiration in the nooks and crannies of Dublin, A Hero’s Death looked inward but pulled off the trick being neither insular nor self-pitying. Instead it aligned thematically with one of singer Grian Chatten’s favourite James Joyce quotes, “In the particular is contained the universal”, especially on the keystone track “You Said”, a hymn to dealing with the bewilderment of success and the nature of shifting relationships.
The closing line of the title song sums up the record perfectly: “That was the year of the sneer, now the real thing's here.” A Hero’s Death was the rock and roll record that 2020 needed. ED NASH
The music of 2020 is inevitably going be framed by the individual, collective, and cultural context of COVID-19, but with her second record Kelly Lee Owens presciently and unwittingly wrote a soundtrack of hope. Originally due for release in May, Owens - who worked in some of London's greatest record stores during her early years in music - held back its release until August in solidarity, so that people could buy the vinyl in stores.
Such a gesture is a testament to the Welsh artist’s belief in the collective, something that the world needs more than ever right now. Written over the three-year period following her self-titled debut, Inner Song sees Owens dig into her psyche to create a universal message of the effects of solitude, transition and the bittersweet joy of moving on. Whereas Kelly Lee Owens contained songs of innocence - the smitten “S.O” exalted in the bliss of new love - Inner Song deals with the reality of experience. Songs such as “L.I.N.E” reflected that “Love is not enough," but Inner Song is full of love - for music as well as her Welsh heritage, brilliantly celebrated on “Corner of My Sky”, a collaboration with John Cale.
The record lays out how much power lies in the collective, in storytelling, and that from the darkness comes the light. ED NASH
Not strictly a debut album, rising talent Amaarae categorises her recent release The Angel You Don’t Know as a 14-track project. “When my ideas are a bit more refined, and I feel like I can really communicate everything that I wanna say up here, and that I wanna hear sonically - that’s when I’ll call it an album," she told us earlier this year.
The Ghanaian-American artist, rapper, and producer was born in the Bronx and raised between Accra in Ghana and across the US, in Atlanta, Georgia and New Jersey. However, it was her school years in Ghana, seeing the innovation and tenacity of her classmates, which truly inspired her artistry.
She calls her music 'afrofusion' and The Angel You Don’t Know spans the genres with abandon and delicacy in equal measure. There are elements of afropop, western pop, R&B, rap, and rising Nigerian genre alté, which puts idiosyncrasy and rebellion at its core with true DIY ethics and a blurring of stylistic boundaries.
Some of the stars of alté feature on The Angel You Don’t Know. Sultry slow jam “Party Sad Face/Crazy Wurld” features scene leader Odunsi (The Engine), while on silky R&B cut “Jumping Ship” Cruel Santino guests alongside Amaarae’s cousin Kojey Radical, Radical returning the favour following last year’s “Sugar”.
It's a smooth and addictive ride of dizzy, slick production, and effortless delivery, Amaarae’s vocals gliding like syrup or rapping with inimitable cadence. Tracks like “Hellz Angel” captivate with quick wit and even quicker articulation, while “Sad Girlz Luv Money” is a falsetto slice of tongue-in-cheek afropop that shifts and slinks. JEN LONG
The past few years have produced some incredible country music, from the stoic classicism of Colter Wall to the sepia-toned nostalgia of Charley Crockett (not forgetting Lil Nas X) - but no artist has distinguished themselves as thrillingly, as utterly magnificently, as Canada’s newest queer icon Orville Peck. His 2019 debut, Pony, was loaded with beautiful, haunting gothic tunes that drew as much from Joy Division as they did from Roy Orbison, in the process creating a Lynchian chimera of a sound that was utterly his own, one of nostalgic doom and heartbroken bliss.
Thankfully, he wasn’t content to let another year pass by without blessing us with new material, and with this year’s mini-album Show Pony, he’s taken that same sound and pointed it skyward, resulting in a collection of songs that match and often better those found on his debut.
The biggest draw for newcomers is undoubtedly the appearance of another Canadian country star: Shania Twain. The fact that he’s landed Twain this early into his career only goes to show the diverse and potent appeal of his songwriting chops. Their duet, “Legends Never Die”, also proves that he isn’t a one-trick pony (sorry): the track, at once both muscular and sparkling, showed that Peck had serious rock-radio potential, drawing as it does on the kind of beefy country rock you might find on, say, a prime-era Bon Jovi record.
The other five tracks on the collection effortlessly pull at your heartstrings, with a stunning sense of tears-in-your-beer country classicism. There’s a heartstopping power ballad in “Summertime”; widescreen grandeur in “No Glory in the West”; glossy saturnine thrills in “Drive Me, Crazy” (which evokes both Chris Isaak and Bruce Springsteen in its sumptuous gloom) and a breathtaking cover of Bobby Gentry’s “Fever”.
Put simply, Show Pony is one of the finest collections released this year for a single, obvious reason: nobody else is doing anything remotely as unique as this. Not only is Orville Peck refashioning classic sounds to fit his relentlessly progressive approach, he’s doing it with such style, with such finesse, that it seems effortless. There’s not a single wasted moment on this thing, not a single second that isn’t filled with a luxurious intensity. ROSS HORTON
While her feature slot on Cardi B’s “WAP” will be touted as a defining moment of Megan Thee Stallion’s career, the Texan rapper’s debut LP Good News deserves not to be overshadowed. Globe-conquering single “Savage Remix” is a rightful standout, a side of Beyoncé providing the uninitiated with an easy entry point to Megan’s mellow self-possession. Her conversational flow shines even brighter in the percussive delivery of “Body”, introduced by whirring film and pornographic moans.
The 17-track record boasts a slew of features of its own, with SZA’s honeyed vocals a welcome addition to “Freaky Girls”. Whilst 2 Chainz and Big Sean offer some well-deserved clout to “Go Crazy”, the inclusion of Mustard and Popcaan on “Intercourse” feels at best superfluous.
Solo cuts like opening track “Shots Fired” allow Megan the space to showcase her talent at her best. The aforementioned opener sees Megan eschew the signature raucous self-confidence and embodied sexuality of her biggest hits. Instead, the record begins with an address to the deep-rooted misogynoir that has defined much of 2020, with Megan blending her personal experience of assault and other high-visibility issues - namely the murder of Breonna Taylor. Megan makes it clear that listeners who aren’t ready to confront this harsh reality shouldn’t feel entitled to her contrastingly fun and freaky side.
On “WAP” Megan made us bust before we ever met her, but the simultaneous breadth and cohesion of Good News show there’s more to be gained from a proper introduction. PIP WILLIAMS
On Beginners, the debut album from Los Angeles singer/songwriter Christian Lee Hutson, six or seven words may be enough to build an entire world of possibility, or to destroy it with a devastating gut punch.
On opening track “Atheist”, he conjures a childhood home glimpsed through the small oval of an airplane window, complete with memories of shirts in the microwave and trash in the sink. On the chorus of “Twin Soul”, he confesses a fundamental flaw to a would-be lover with unflinching self-reproach, promising “I’m gonna hurt you and myself too / ‘Cause that’s the only thing / That I know how to do.”
Towards the end of lead single and album standout “Northsiders”, after riffing nostalgically on the things that build fast friendships in high school, he describes the death of one of his fellow Northsiders in a car accident in a heartbreaking rush of syllables: “I read an article about the accident / probably reaching for cigarettes / And missed the brake lights up ahead / I hope it was an instant death.”
It’s not that Beginners is revolutionary: Hutson’s blend of fingerpicking and strumming has drawn comparisons to Paul Simon and John Prine, and the double-tracked vocals used throughout are reminiscent of Elliot Smith, an obvious (and admitted) influence here. At their core, these are simple songs, but Hutson’s writerly detail and effortless knack for melody imbue them with a depth that rewards repeat listens. On any given play through, you might focus in on the way Hutson’s voice threatens to break on “Keep You Down”, or delight in the way the melody seesaws between sugary and sour on the chorus of “Get The Old Band Back Together” before resolving in ascending steps on his promise to “let the magic happen”, or wonder who provides the roaring harmonica solo on the same song (Conor Oberst, it turns out).
And though he appeared to have arrived back in May fully formed, famous friends in tow, with just a few Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius writing credits to his name (he has since been credited with co-writing on five songs from Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, released in June this year), Hutson had apparently been not just performing, but recording many of the songs found on his debut for the last five years. It wasn’t until he got into the studio with friend, occasional bandmate, and Beginners producer Bridgers that he found versions of them that he actually liked.
Bridgers’ subtle touch can be heard throughout, whether in the keyboard line she plays in “Twin Soul” or in the contributions from friends like Nathaniel Walcott, the aforementioned Oberst, Meg Duffy, and Lucy Dacus. But in multiple interviews, Hutson has emphasized the role Bridgers played in giving him permission to be himself and let the songs be “good enough to exist”.
Perhaps that's the secret to Beginners; maybe it’s not just Katie and Charlie and Harry and the stories that grow out of the fragments planted around them, or the melodies that bring them to life. Maybe these songs are so easy to live in because they have been lived in for a long time; maybe hearing Hutson’s heart break and letting him break yours is so enticing because, at 29, he is finally, fully himself. MICHAEL MCANDREW
Art is rife with those that have used the time in various lockdowns or isolations to dig into their inner self, but few have used the time to be quite so honest and frank as Open Mike Eagle. Detailing what he professes to be the “worst year of his life” - pre-Coronavirus, mind you - wherein he found himself going through personal and professional troubles, Anime, Trauma and Divorce is an astonishingly candid affair, observing its protagonist reflecting upon how he got to this point - and what the remnants are.
Finding the strength, after encouragement from his therapist, to use his rap medium to truly pick apart his psychology is the most befitting signal that it’s okay to open up and own what’s happened to you. Life can be tough and throw you curveball after curveball, but if you express it in a way that's relatable and approachable to yourself then no hill is too large to climb. Open Mike Eagle's approach comes by incorporating elements of pop culture's toxic influences ("The Black Mirror Episode"), a smirking self-awareness ("Sweatpants Spiderman") and asking the important questions ("Wtf is Self Care"), all with an effortless flow that feels as cool as it does important.
The beats sway, often disappearing entirely to let Mike conduct the rhythm with his bars, all with no real urgency. When breaching into straight spoken word, it feels like you could be sat on a barstool, a few drinks in, sharing life stories with him and realising how much of your own house you need to get in order. Anime, Trauma and Divorce may have been born out of a hellish year for Open Mike Eagle, but what it has, in turn, gifted him - and us - is an example of how when things fall apart, an opportunity arises. Even when the future still appears to be a bit bleak and uncertain, at least comprehending what's happened will help prepare us for what's next. STEVEN LOFTIN
Last Halloween, Los Angeles’ premier purveyors of experimental hip-hop released There Existed an Addiction to Blood, a concept album that summoned the ghost of '90s horrorcore and reworked it for the current climate. So rich was the creative vein that clipping. tapped into in the process, they returned in time for 2020’s spooky season with Visions of Bodies Being Burned, a direct sequel that again cloaks a slickly-assembled, horror-heavy framework of smart cultural references in an oppressive atmosphere, thick with foreboding. Producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson seem to deal exclusively in monolithic menace, with aggressive beats and unnerving electronics providing a sinister backdrop over which frontman Daveed Diggs - an alum of the original Hamilton run, seen more recently in Black-ish, Velvet Buzzsaw, and Snowpiercer - spins razor-sharp, modern day ghost stories.
Visions of Bodies Being Burned’s evocative title nods directly to the origins of horrorcore - it’s lifted from a verse by Scarface, the Geto Boys MC who’s arguably the godfather of a sub-genre that remains misunderstood and unfairly maligned. clipping. get that; the record’s littered with respectful nods to the likes of Gravediggaz, Flatlinerz, and early Three 6 Mafia, and it’s hard to think of another hip-hop record in 2020 that has gone out of its way to demand a reappraisal of an under-appreciated niche the way this one does. That’s crucial, because contrary to what horrorcore’s detractors might have you believe, at its best the style never seeks to unsettle the listener for the sake of it - instead, it holds up a mirror to society and reflects what it sees sonically.
For all its clever nods to Scream (“’96 Neve Campbell”), Candyman (“Say the Name”) and H.P. Lovecraft (“Enlacing”), what lies at the jet-black heart of Visions of Bodies Being Burned is a profound discomfort, if not outright revulsion, with the state of America in 2020. That’s why we get a furious repudiation of the country’s gun culture on "Make Them Dead", a graphic, disturbing rejection of police brutality on "Body for the Pile", and an unhinged rebuttal of the veneer of respectability that so flimsily masks the nation’s racist foundations on "Something Underneath". There are no gimmicks to Visions of Bodies Being Burned - no novelty to its ouija-board resurrection of a hip-hop offshoot long thought buried. They’ve plundered horrorcore’s grave with a grim purpose - to paint an unflinching portrait of the world around them. In the process, they’ve maybe made 2020’s most politically vital record. JOE GOGGINS
As we inch toward the tail-end of a tumultuous, emotionally-fraught year filled with loss and trauma, we find ourselves now more than ever searching for moments of deep healing and centered reflection. Chicago-based producer/percussionist, Makaya McCraven, continues to prove his masterly skillset as he reacquaints his audience with how sacred the human experience can be through the simple act of music. Pursuing the daunting task of reworking Gil Scott-Heron’s final album, I’m New Here, McCraven’s take, We’re New Again, serves as a timeless celebration of the importance it takes in telling someone else’s story.
While McCraven was well aware of the immeasurable amount of pressure that landed in his lap when this tribute came to fruition, he not only seized the opportunity, but created an album on par with the original. With McCraven at the helm, we realize that while these songs stand as a testament to Scott-Heron’s genius, a bigger part of their message is to help reaffirm what it takes to unify and liberate in a severely divided time. McCraven highlights this idea with a labor of love unlike that of his peers. Like Scott-Heron’s ability to pull inspiration from any source, McCraven, too, gifts a melting pot of cultural reference and genre that checks off every box - from jazz, to funk, to blues for starters, We’re New Again is an album that gives Scott-Heron’s narrative bustling new life.
But even while these new versions dazzle us with personality and soul, a deep-rooted message beneath their brilliance comes a true definition of connectedness and how its message circles back around. McCraven doesn’t merely cover these songs, he memorializes them by confronting similarities that fueled the artistry behind Scott-Heron’s inspiration. Whether confronting themes of life or death or our existence in this world, these songs paint a vivid reality into the lives of two voices who helped shape a movement. EVAN LILLY
Lorely Rodriguez's third full-length offering as Empress Of is a stunning foray into deeply personal themes and ideas, backed by goosebump-inducing production. It scrapes past the 30-minute mark across a dozen tracks, and despite its relatively brief existence manages to draw you deep into a rich web of personal storytelling, with dizzying synthpop, intricate beats, and spacey, psychedelic electronica. It's a transformative listen, blasting through the gamut of emotion at a breakneck pace, but there's no sense of rush - it's a perfectly whole album.
“Love Is A Drug” is a standout moment, nodding to Rodriguez's highest pop points to date, standalone single “Go To Hell” and “Water Water” from debut Me, with a terrifyingly addictive melody and swelling bursts of vocal prowess, but I'm Your Empress Of is flush with high points. “Bit Of Rain”'s thwomping, floorfilling beat, the sparse “Should've” cascades, and the future R&B of Caribou-esque “Not This Time” all sit with you long after the final beat - and not just because of the stellar production.
I'm Your Empress Of fizzes with scraped-knee-raw thoughts and feelings, more so than anything else Rodriguez has put to tape before. It feels like a more fluid and diaristic than her previous work - it's still carefully thought out, of course, but the way she slips between sentiments and sonic styles over the record smacks of stream-of-consciousness...ness. It shifts subtly and suddenly, moving in three dimensions and never outstaying its welcome in any particular area. It's a mix, it's a sample platter, and it's a series of faded dreamscapes phasing between realities - ultimately it breaks a lot of her own conventions in surreptitious ways and works best as one entity. Bangers can easily be carved out of it, but this is an Album with a capital A that is greatly enhanced when treated to as such: sit back, stick the headphones on, and enjoy. LARRY DAY
Big Conspiracy is solid proof that J Hus’ status has only been strengthened on his second album. Picking up from where he was interrupted after a spell in prison, it’s a story of growth, incarceration and the toxicity of street culture. Smooth flowing “Helicopter”, a track about unclothed police officers, is tinged with paranoia. “Fight For Your Life” tells of confrontations and consequences set to a dark and menacing beat. There’s still the horny references to sex that were scattered around Common Sense - most evident on the playful “Cucumber” and '90s-dancehall infused “Fortune Teller”. And while Hus’ bars are not there to blow anyone out of the water, his charisma is demanding and authoritative: this is what he has to say, so just shut up and listen. HAYLEY MILROSS
Julianna Barwick’s fourth album is the result of major changes, both personal and creative. Haunted by past broken relationships she relocated from her longtime-Brooklyn base to LA to begin a new life chapter in 2016. The catharsis a change of environment can bring coincided with signing to Ninja Tune for her first record in four years.
While her previous albums, recorded on GarageBand, were sonically rich and full of intricate sound designing, there’s a fuller bodied sound on Healing Is A Miracle. The reverb on her word-free weightless soprano more glacial, the synths more luxurious, the act of a sudden shift more dramatic, such as the unexpected introduction of bass synth on "Inspirit" and the abrupt conclusion of the piece.
The reason for these advances could be the move from recording solely using headphones, to producing her music using monitor speakers - gifted to her by Jónsi - for the first time, or it could be the artists she's collaborated with here. The Sigur Ròs frontman agreed to collaborate on "In Light" if she wrote actual lyrics - a rarity for her - and his voice merges with hers with ease. Harpist Mary Lattimore, a kindred spirit who herself released an essential album this year with Silver Ladders, adds a delicate layer of aural fragility on "Oh Memory", while Nosaj Thing compliments Barwick's more electronic leanings on "Nod".
Or it could be none of those changes, but time itself that has moved on. With the external noise of normality suspended, we are afforded the space needed to truly immerse in her sound, the uncertainty of isolation an environ matched by the music which shuts the outside out as soon as it commences.
Healing Is A Miracle works as a mood piece, vocals are looped, processed, and multitracked into an electronic facsimile of the human voice, the freedom of working outside of the constraints of regular song structure results in freeform pieces, but always remains focussed. On the occasion percussive touches are applied, they abruptly crash in, only to disappear as rapidly. The way Barwick manipulates the space between the sound, while managing to be both nuanced and uncluttered is reminiscent of the more ambient work of Boards of Canada, or Talk Talk's Mark Hollis. CHRIS TODD
With a wizened acceptance of life and the tumultuous journey that can arise, one of this year's most pivotal voices comes from the important and inimitable Che Lingo. Sparring witty observation with cutting truth and a penchant for the poetic, his debut album, The Worst Generation, presents Lingo as a spokesperson, taking the responsibility to spread his view from the street.
Tallying his story through experience and a blossoming wisdom, from mental health to police brutality, his love, and family, Lingo's flow rarely relents. From a smooth river to a manic rush, above a generous dripping of beats and soft - often haunting - melodies, his ability to draw you in, to truly understand and evoke the emotion, is what gives The Worst Generation a timeless staying power.
Even the guest spots - including Ghetts ruminating on the psychology behind the chasing a life of crime ("Black Ones"), and Kojey Radical's lamentation ("Dark Days") - create an immersive feeling, developing the ideas from Lingo's sole perspective, and giving the twelve-song track list the weight it needs to fulfill the harsh reality The Worst Generation finds itself covering.
As a first foot forward, where hopefully the topics it languishes over will hopefully have long rotten away, the facts will remain. As this year has shown a call for change once again - it's never felt more important for someone with Lingo's masterful lyricism amidst an array of focused beats, or more reserved R&B and delicate sounds. The Worst Generation is not only incredibly powerful, but the perfect opener to a career that will surely blossom with its navigators potential. STEVEN LOFTIN
Katie Crutchfield's weirder, wonderfully messy, left-of-mainstream sound was born as a rebellion against her Southern country roots, but it was always a rebellion that still skirted the fringes of those roots. On this year's Saint Cloud she’s no longer fighting what’s in her musical DNA but she does detail the fight within herself - the fight with codependency and addiction which began in 2018 when she decided to get sober.
Embracing the softer side of her voice - and dropping, for the most part, that gravel-y edge we’d come to love - Saint Cloud is clean in many senses of the word. There is a self-assuredness to the record, a slower-paced considered approach, a reckoning of sorts with her previous self. Saint Cloud is special because it marks a new chapter in Crutchfield's life and her creative output as Waxahatchee.
It’s a beautiful record too, in which Crutchfield's songwriting opens up and finds a new directness - even though she still communicates in abstract poetic metaphors there are more literal lyrics weaved in. The record playfully and appropriately kicks off with the still ragged, leftfield “Oxbow” (which was written in Barcelona) which leaves listeners guessing about the journey they’re about to take. Those messy edges still exist on songs like “Fire” and “Arkadelphia” but the twanging guitars and swinging rhythms of “Can’t Do Much”, “Lilacs”, and almost every other track leave you in no doubt that this is a change for Crutchfield. LAUREN DOWN
In Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, the protagonist - teenage chess maverick Beth Harmon - poses an existential question to an opponent, which is a veiled question to herself. When the 13-year-old boy she is playing against tells her, with pride, that he will be the best player in the world in three years, she asks, “If you’re world champion at 16, what will you do with the rest of your life?”
Now 43 years old, Fiona Apple was once a teenage maverick too. She wrote “Criminal” when she was 17, sold almost three million copies of her debut album Tidal, released when she was 18, and had a Grammy award by 19. Before the age of 20, her achievements matched most young musician’s fantasies. What was she going to do with the rest of her life?
The answer reached its culmination in April this year, on release of her fifth album Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Although her previous four records all evidenced her singularity, here her artistry is fully realised, thanks in large part to the time that she allowed herself to complete the record. Apple worked in her Venice Beach home for over five years with no deadline, surrounded by her dogs and long-time collaborators, using GarageBand to record the results. The resulting record feels organic, unconstrained, and free of the pressure of expectations - from the world, the music industry, and the self.
Pitchfork noted that “no music has ever sounded quite like it” - which is right. It’s a contradictory thing: both the sound of a genius unbridled, and the result of a woman unshackling herself from the very idea of genius. Each song is wild with percussive sound, free-wheeling vocals, and assertiveness. The production captures all the music’s surroundings – every background clatter, every bark of a dog, every intake of breath before a sustained sung note - experimentation rooted in domesticity. The lyrics are deeply resonant, and are largely concerned with the unburdening of self; from bad situations, preconceptions, the anxieties of youth.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is startling, both as an artwork in itself, and as an aspirational example of what is possible when we are generous with ourselves: giving ourselves time, space and freedom to create with unshackled authenticity. CLAIRE BIDDLES
Killer Mike and El-P understand that fury is what love needs to fight hate - and hell hath no fury like Run The Jewels. A declaration of war, the fourth instalment of their truth-spitting saga came at a time when we needed it more than ever.
“You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper - ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV,” Killer Mike raps on the snarling “walking in the snow”, his voice grab-you-by-the-collar urgent. The lyric was originally inspired by the murder of Eric Garner, but now it’s about George Floyd, too - and his murder, in turn, belonged to an ugly mosaic of state-sanctioned slayings of people of colour by the very institution designed to protect its people. The Black Lives Matter movement gave RTJ4 gravitas like never before.
The record is their most evolved yet because, while their whip-smart, trash-talking lyrics still have an outlet, at last, they are channelled into a moment of living, breathing history. There are no artists better equipped for this moment than Run The Jewels - they’ve been waiting, but this record is all about action: a definitive call-to-arms.
Let it be said, Killer Mike and El-P know how to pick their collaborations. Those taking even the most passing interest in music will no doubt recognise the names the duo rally for this record. “pulling the pin” enlists civil rights activist and legendary R&B artist Mavis Staples and Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, to goosebump-inducing effect. Staples’ voice is like a wound, punctuated by the duo’s flow which deals more incisive blows than ever before. RTJ4 saw their skillset honed into a leaner, sharper beast.
While their lyricism tackling the spectres of systemic racism and capitalism plays centre-field, they don’t compromise for a minute on their beats. The Pharrell-featuring “JU$T” is the best weapon in their armoury. “The breath in me is weaponry”, Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha spits, over a skittering, bass-swelling instrumental. It’s the most kinetic protest anthem to be committed to record in decades. The battle lines are drawn on all fronts on RTJ4 and on this album, more than ever before, they are not be fucked with.
But, crucially, RTJ4 proves that Killer Mike and El-P still know how to have fun. The trash-talking wordplay carve them out as a Tarantino-type duo of blockbuster proportions. It’s packed with wisecracks primed to tease a smile amidst what would otherwise be a heavy record, like Killer Mike’s lyric on “ooh la la”: “Fuck a king or queen and all of their loyal subjects / I'll pull my penis out and I piss on their shoes in public.”
You almost forget they’re in their forties; their music is still over-brimming with vitality and immediacy. RTJ4 is a record that nods to the past, but keeps its sights fixed unshakably on the present - better still, the future. “It’s been 20-plus years, you think that’s a clue / Maybe this guy kinda kills what he do?” El-P sneers on the vitriolic “holy calmafuck”.
RTJ4 is one of the best records of the year - obviously. What doesn’t it do? It’s all killer, no filler; it’s a graduate of the old-school, and yet a thousand steps ahead with its radical production choices and cultural references. But above all, capturing not only the zeitgeist, but a historical milestone, careering towards a future they’ve been armed, ready, and waiting for. SOPHIE WALKER
“Don’t ever ask for permission / Ask for forgiveness,” is the statement of intent that comes at the start of Chloe x Halle’s second album Ungodly Hour. Engulfed in a symphony of choral harmonies and whirling strings; the sisters set out to sanctify their soundscape before diving into what life is really like as two twenty-somethings coming into their own.
Chloe and Halle Bailey have all but grown up in the public eye. After scoring some minor acting roles whilst living in Atlanta, Georgia, the pair moved to LA and set their sights on establishing themselves in the world of music. As was the rite of passage for any budding musician of the time, they began to upload videos of themselves singing onto YouTube and eventually found themselves performing on The Ellen Show. Next, came some cameos with Disney and a cover EP featuring songs by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and fellow Disney alumni Miley Cyrus, but it wasn’t until their cover of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” fell into the hands of Queen B herself, and she signed them to her management label Parkwood Entertainment in 2015, that things really began to take off.
Since the release of their debut EP Sugar Symphony in 2016, Chloe x Halle have been refining their writing and producing skills, with saccharine songs about fairy-tale crushes; electronic-tinged beats that bring sass to the notion of removing people from your life who don’t fulfil your needs; and straight-up R&B cuts about being caught up on an ex. Each release more nuanced than the last, and highlighting their knack for experimentation.
For those who had been following the duo since their YouTube days, Ungodly Hour might’ve come as somewhat of a surprise. In the visuals for the album, they were adorned in leather and latex, and embellished with silverware - unveiling a sumptuous new look and a sound with more intricate maturity to match. As they both said goodbye to their teenage years, shedding some of the outwardly unending innocence that came with growing up in the public eye, was simply a natural progression.
As such, the record is an exploration of the multitudes of love and companionship. Often depicted through the perspective of embracing your sexuality and understanding the plethora of emotions that can come to light as a result, Chloe x Halle express their evolution with just one message in mind: be completely unapologetic in what you do, but be empathetic of those around you. This message was made ever prominent in their decision to postpone the album’s release so that it would not interfere with the Black Lives Matter movement - an injustice that is a harsh reality that they face on a daily basis.
Channelling the feel-good nature of R&B, the young Black women have created a progressive body of work that draws from an endless pool of influences. With a flow of creativity that shows no signs of stopping, Ungodly Hour sees Chloe x Halle fast approaching the realms of musicians who are classed as avant-garde, and at a time where we’re forced to look inward, serves as a declaration of owning your independence whilst revelling in self-discovery. TYLER DAMARA KELLY
In 1818, a teenager named Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein. Written in a blaze of creativity over one stormy weekend, it told of the the trials and tribulations of a melodramatic Swiss scientist named Victor who, for all of his intellectual brilliance, makes the regrettable, fateful decision to reanimate the finest pieces of corpse he could dig up - carefully stitching the pieces together and electrifying them until they were forced back to life.
Miami-born, Tennessee-raised, Turin-residing experimentalist Yves Tumor (the recording alias of Sean Bowie) has achieved a similar feat on their stunning new album Heaven to a Tortured Mind - only it’s not a human corpse they’ve resurrected, but the long-dead rotten remains of what was once known as rock and roll. Bowie skillfully, effortlessly, seamlessly stitches together the very best aspects of decades worth of rock, soul, and funk music, in the process producing a deeply erotic, endlessly sensual experience not heard in aeons. This is the music of Prince, of George Clinton, of Lenny Kravitz, of Sly Stone… all together, blended and melted and electrified. This music is brilliantly Black, proudly Queer, and - most importantly - frighteningly good. Where their previous albums had attracted praise and critical acclaim for their somewhat difficult, eccentric take on avant-pop, Heaven... goes straight for the jugular. From the opening lock-step glitched-out industrial-soul of “Gospel for a New Century”, to the muscular sexadelic grooves of closer “A Greater Love”, Tumor takes you on a thrill-ride through the haunted house of their mind.
“Medicine Burn” is as intense as Funkadelic, and just as harrowing. The track invites you to immerse yourself in a migraine-inducing electronic funk squall that doesn’t let up until bits of grey matter are banging around inside your skull. The oddball skronk of “Identity Trade” sounds like a melted Isaac Hayes 45 played at the wrong speed, while “Kerosene!” (which features Diana Gordon) is a syrupy late-night banger that grows in intensity with each passing second. The true centrepiece of the record is “Super Stars”, with its kaleidoscopic guitars and glitter-dusted psych-soul vibes. Close behind is the bass-led brilliance of “Strawberry Privilege”, which blends both post-punk and funk with glorious results. As if those weren’t enough, “Asteroid Blues”, “Romanticist” and “Hasdallen Lights” all do weird, wonderful things to your auditory cortex too.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind isn’t just one of the best albums of the year, but one of the greatest statements of intent ever made in the rock genre. It belongs on the same shelf as Dirty Mind, Mothership Connection, Mama Said, and Fresh – and it holds its own against all of them. The moves Tumor makes on Heaven... are aggressive, and the results are mindblowing – proving, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that rock isn’t dead just yet. ROSS HORTON
The title of Perfume Genius' fifth album conjures up the exact sort of melodrama that has become part and parcel of 2020. As we take part in our 25th Zoom quiz, or swipe through dating apps knowing that an actual date is not exactly possible right now, the yearning to reach through the screen can send emotions sky high. And yet, despite the pitched-down growl Mike Hadreas lends to the title on “Leave”, this particular Perfume Genius record is a surprisingly considered piece of work. Emotions here are sometimes uncomfortably in check; an acceptance, however reticent, of the situation.
The Seattle-based singer/-songwriter has spent much of his career coming to terms with the body, whether he’s referring to its fragile nature, or simple trying to escape it altogether. But Set My Heart On Fire Immediately seems to be an acceptance of it in all its tangibility. Touch, after all, is just as vital in love as sight and Hadreas seems more willing than ever to surrender to it. To just let his body be and come to an understanding, such as on “Jason”, of the vulnerabilities he had, and others still do, face. The cry of “How long ’til this heart isn’t mine?” is now not an escape, but a willingness to give it to someone else.
It’s apt then, for an album so much about the body, that Set My Heart On Fire Immediately feels almost balletic in style. It’s no surprise also to learn that Hadreas has recently started to learn modern dance. His movements, both musical and lyrical, are intricately arranged. The baroque-sensibilities of 2017’s No Shape are still present, but used with much more intimate effect.
The starry cast of session musicians certainly helps add another dynamic to Hadreas’ sound. From Jim Keltner to Pino Palladino, better known for working with the likes of Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, the range of talent gives Hadreas the ability to skip around. From the disco chug of “On The Floor” to the beautifully sparse “Moonbend”, it’s an album of stark but effective contrast.
Much like the lyrics that form the album's title, the sounds are freer than they’ve ever felt. It’s as though Hadreas is unwilling to choose just one way of being, tired of giving up so much to find his place. As he asks on the ghostly “One More Try”, “Why’d we hide? / My life for one more try / Your hand in mine / I’d run straight to the light”.
Though obviously written without knowledge of what 2020 would bring, the intense longing is only heightened by the divide that now exists. We’ve become more acutely aware than ever what a lack of human contact feels like, and Hadreas has provided something of a soundtrack to that discovery. CHRIS TAYLOR
Winner of the Oscar for Best Original Song (2001) and the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Author of some of the most immortal songs and albums in existence. The originator of all good things we now associate with the term ‘songwriter’. Bob Dylan had nothing left to prove in 2020.
Even so, Rough and Rowdy Ways aimed for the lofty levels of inspiration and depth of the Minnesota-born genuine American legend’s most celebrated masterpieces -and succeeded. The first inkling that Dylan had been applying some proper elbow grease in his latest undertaking came in the form of “Murder Most Foul”, a hypnotic, elegiac epic set to a disembodied, eerie drone that suggested a wee small hours jazz club jam attended exclusively by ghosts (and was unlike anything else in the extensive Dylan catalogue), released as a surprise drop as the world was reeling from the first wave of COVID-19 in March. Ostensibly about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the track’s staggering, initially almost overwhelming 17-minute recital of powerful imagery and intimations of conspiracy and deceit appeared to hone in on the infamous 1963 murder as the point where the American dream permanently curdled. But there was more to it.
Although rooted in the specifics of 20th-century US history, the song’s themes of darkness overtaking light and glimmers of hope being ruthlessly snuffed out seemed almost supernaturally suited for a year when the American democratic process was again pushed to the ropes and a global pandemic ravaged the planet. The track’s palpable sense of loss sounded deeply, movingly personal, too, suggesting that the tragic events of 57 years ago in Dallas may have marked the point at which the idealism that fired up young folkie Dylan’s ‘protest’ classics á la “The Times They Are A-Changing” wilted and expired.
When it eventually emerged in June, the rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways proved equally fit to stand alongside the catalogue of assorted highlights from American popular song that Dylan reels off as balm and sustenance for a damaged nation and battered ideals during the breathtaking coda of “Murder Most Foul”. Throughout, there was a sense that the endlessly enigmatic Dylan was a bit less intent on donning disguises this time around. Although it is risky to read too much into the words of an endlessly over-analysed artist whose autobiography (2004’s Chronicles) reportedly didn’t always land on the actual facts of events, there is a sense the ‘I’ in songs such as the lilting swoon of “I Contain Multitudes” might just relate somewhat to the actual Bob Dylan, although the song’s vivid juxtapositions and internal conflicts could apply equally to US society, maybe even humanity at large.
Similar seamless transfers between the (possibly) personal and the universal, arcane history, and the urgently pulsating right now popped up throughout the album. Set to a particularly crackling take on the kind of gin-soaked juke joint 12-bar chug that Dylan’s 21st-century albums have fixated on - a rarity on a record that favors melody and lightness of touch, with guests such as Fiona Apple and Blake Mills adding to Dylan’s trusty touring band. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” could equally well be a tribute to the trials and tribulations of its titular, long-gone blues legend, or Dylan himself. The stunning “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” surely ranks amongst the most immeasurably affecting moments in a catalogue not exactly short of stunning devotionals.
Transmitted from the utmost reaches of a particularly vivid creative imagination, this multilayered richness and potential for rediscovery and re-interpretation over time is what made Dylan’s 37th studio album ideal listening in a year when many of us had more scope for digging in deep, what with the world having hit a more or less permanent pause.
The album gave Dylan his first US Number One single (for “Murder Most Foul”), hit the top of the charts in a number of countries, and deservedly reaped various plaudits. Not only did the 79-year-old Dylan craft an album that fit to stand the test of time just as well as his past peaks, but managed to wrench its vintage points of reference into the living, breathing, present tense. ‘’I’ve already outlived my life by far,’, he sighs on “Mother of Muses”, a wistful plea for enduring inspiration, one of the highlights on an album with no mediocre moments. On this evidence, there is plenty of life left in him yet. JANNE OINONEN
Moses Sumney wades through the grey areas in life, confronting and articulating its mystery with candour and breathless beauty and on second album græ he lays out a sprawling analysis of the self. Originally released as two parts, the first in February and its second chapter dropping in May, the pair are stitched seamlessly together by Sumney’s enrapturing falsetto - simultaneously uplifting and chillingly sombre.
“Isolation comes from ‘isole’, which means island”. The album’s opening statement is worn like a battle scar - highlighted by the solitary figure of Sumney draped across the crashing white water. The artwork is protecting its musical contents as Sumney’s face is shielded against the rock face - basking in the natural beauty of the sequestered spot. And so begins his most immersive body of work to date.
In a year where artists have found themselves constricted in terms of creative connections, græ is achingly personal. Stitched together with narrations from the Nigerian-Ghanaian author Taiye Selasi, ideas of multiplicity - whether these be a fractured cultural identity or reckoning with virility - run riot throughout the labyrinthian 20-track project. The son of Ghanian pastors, Sumney was born in California before moving to Ghana at 10 years old. Inspired by this shift and a sense of statelessness, his splintered identity is an overarching theme throughout the LP, one in which Sumney refuses to be classified. The same can be said for græ’s dizzying array of genres - a molten mass of jazz, rock, and soul.
His voice is a pleading hymn, heightened in græ’s most intimate moments when merely paired with soft acoustic accompaniments. “Polly”, the LP’s second single, is a masterful example of this vulnerability. Sumney is exploring every facet of himself, transforming the greys into a throbbing mass of technicolour. Again, it’s his voice that hooks beneath your skin, sinking its teeth into your jugular whilst simultaneously caressing your cheek.
The project’s ephemeral beauty shines in “Virile” - a standout on the record in its scathing analysis of the patriarchy’s limitations and obsession with sculptural identity (“Cheers to the patriarch”). A flurry of flutes and celestial harps, Sumney uses his body as an instrument - heightening the record with dramatic visuals. Ideas of decomposition and baseless vanity are tackled (“You want to fit right in / Amp up the masculine”), butting heads with the fragility of existence. BRYONY HOLDSWORTH
The most striking thing about Phoebe Bridgers’ second album Punisher is not her whimsical tone, nor the psychedelic, ethereal feel to the album as a whole - it is simply how it is delivered. All of the fleeting thoughts that would cross your mind or the things you would confide in with a close friend in a private room are exclaimed boldly and without hesitation on this record.
It might seem simple and commonplace to throw your feelings into a body of music - it’s a trait many artists claim to possess. However, what the Californian native masters here is sonically displaying experiences in plain sight. It’s the intricate yet banal explanations that portray Bridgers’ extensive worldview and intense self-awareness that drive the album and brought Bridgers to the forefront this year. (It is something we saw glimmers of on 2017 debut Stranger In The Alps but has since been expanded upon). On "Halloween", Bridgers tells us about living next to a hospital, hearing sirens at night and jokingly saying that if they woke her up that somebody better be dying, while "Moon Song" picks up on the minor detail of a nautical themed birthday party she attended in a dream. The thought processes draw in and out like waves, drawing out as one thing and coming back in with another thing to say (the second chorus of "Halloween" talks about the fan killed outside of the Dodgers stadium over a disagreement about John Lennon, for example).
The seamless words on this album leave you enthralled, but also heartbroken and ultimately sympathetic. Title track "Punisher" tells of Bridgers’ superfan status towards the late American singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, who it is clear that she still idolises both through her musical stylings today and the desire to write a tribute song to him. Woven in between details of walking by his house with the storybook tiles is the personal agony of Bridgers’ fear of being a punisher - someone Smith’s eyes would glaze over if they ever met. It is the common folklore that you should never meet your heroes but without the concrete evidence, just the assumption.
Musically, the album flows in a similar way to the words. The soft and dainty arrangement of "Garden Song" binds the telling of fantasies and nightmares in stark contrast and creates a song that feels like a flower in slow bloom. Meanwhile, the joyful horn that draws out the choruses of "Kyoto" acts as an exclamation of sadness and resentment. A song about imposter syndrome and always wanting to be somewhere you’re not, the upbeat percussion mars the true extent of the anguish.
Punisher is an album that sees Bridgers portray her darkest moments and most inner thoughts, in a way that is colourful. Through celestial production, we see Bridgers on the brink of collapse, whilst also simultaneously at her best. This album has cemented Bridgers’ status as a songwriter that writes exactly from experience. Whether it’s driven by a dream, or plucked from a candid self-observation, Punisher is a sonic diary, in every sense of the term. HAYLEY MILROSS
It would take some real clairvoyance only six years ago to predict the artist who just released "Boom Clap" would go on to create the genre-smashing and culture defining sounds on how i'm feeling now. The trippy chillwave of 2017's Pop 2 and electropop masterclass on last year's Charli gave glimpses of a glitchy avant-pop pioneer feigning as a pop artist. But how i'm feeling now is XCX visiting every room of the megaclub party she's been hosting for the past five years, jumping on the speakers and indulging in her and her fans' adoration of weird pop music.
When she announced the project back in April, it was in a manner totally unexpected of an artist of her stature or of the current climate of music releases. Surprise drops have become more common in recent years as a way to keep listeners as close as possible to finished songs. XCX's collaborative approach to the record, however, is something that brings her fans even closer.
Confined inside the space of her LA home, the album was written, recorded, and released in the space of two months during the first lockdown. Sharing the process with fans on Instagram, she asked for lyrical inspiration, sound suggestions, and even what kind of microphone she should buy. Beats were sent back and forth between different producers while the final masters were all finalised elsewhere too. A glimpse of the future of making records, this album is XCX acknowledging the scene she helped build and bringing her "angels" along for the autotune-laced, euphoric, and futuristic journey. Partystarters exist in the form of "pink diamond", "claws", and "anthems" - chaotic and heavy songs which act as love letters to the rave that welcomed, celebrated and helped shape a voice as important as XCX's.
A Mercury Prize nomination after a Minecraft release show only adds to the virality and subnormality of the album, sure. But what makes this album about more than the context of its release is the content of the songs. Navigating loneliness, falling in love and fleeting days of partying, this is an album made for now. A true sign of the times, how i'm feeling now is an album that couldn't have been made in any other year and will remain the consequential album of a music industry that had to adapt. MAX GAYLER
Entering your mid-twenties during the most confusing and extreme period of a generation is far from an easy feat. All the opportunity that was promised through childhood - the sunny days of a future predetermined through going to college, or starting a job, even of a world that wants to protect you - are all ideas that soon become far removed the more we live. But in the last four years, while learning to cope with the good, the bad and the ugly of norm, chuck in a pandemic, a right-wing government hellbent on tearing apart all that is good for a litany of unreason and things get a bit, well, helpless.
While all this is going on around her, 23-year-old Samia Finnerty has produced a debut album that relinquishes the need to struggle in the water and instead finds her floating, surrounded by revelation - exposing her intricate and intimate thoughts and ultimately letting go safe in the knowledge that it's okay to be The Baby.
Through the ethereal pop and twee indie comes a coming-of-age tale set in a world beyond uncertain, reminding us that while all these major events are happening, so is life. Predominantly based around Finnerty's own, in New York and on the road, the biographical elements are what give The Baby a consciousness that has often felt missing from this tremendously weighty year.
By finding most of the inspiration coming from her time touring and making a name for herself - the dingy motel rooms, failed romances, and exposure to the harsher realities of life - it’s the human aspects of her growth and journey that imprint throughout. It strikes through in the gentle rollick of “Big Wheel” where Finnerty “got bad news / I didn’t fight”, or the reflective “Fit N Full” where she “got prettier in Denver / phasing out this old fairy tale” - it’s all delivered with an airy, ethereal presence of understanding. Effortlessly swaying between driven folk-rock to twilight summoning acoustic, the highs and the lows are all tackled bluntly, with Samia refusing to water down any of the vulnerable aspects, after all, why should she given the world that's around her is a constant Twitter feed of brutal honesty?
The fact that Finnerty has managed to not only craft a debut that stands out while proffering a deep vulnerability, and using the catharsis to understand the ins and outs of her own life in a year that has the world in a flurry of indecision and uncertainty is testament to her abilities. Cutting through the noise with glimmering indie to deliver truth, The Baby is a lesson for all involved, while also forming a flowing listen with highs and lows for all occasions. STEVEN LOFTIN
There is something unsatisfying about the idea that some people are just 'born to do it'. Sure, it's thrilling when an unknown, doe-eyed teen rips up The Voice with a skill of a pop veteran - but it doesn't provide much hope for the rest of us, with the heaviness of our passion vastly outweighing our actual, God-given talent.
There's no question that Rina Sawayama is talented. But she's also transparent - and proud - of the herculean effort that she pours into her work. The self-styled “ordinary superstar” admits she spent over a year just reading, watching, and writing to 'fill the well' of ideas for her debut album. She flew out to Japan to interview her family about their personal trauma, including her parents' divorce. She spent three years road testing and refitting the tracks that would eventually make up SAWAYAMA - not keen to simply tail the hype of 2017's RINA EP.
Some of this effort likely stemmed from the anxiety Rina has made no attempt to conceal, judging by the many interviews quoting her surprise at each sell-out gig, each artists' cosign, each ravenous outpouring of fandom.
It's a hope that she can rest easy now that her debut has smashed all expectation. Rina's almost ruthless approach to self-discovery renders SAWAYAMA angry, agitated, cool, gauche, playful, serious ,and queer as hell... often all at the same time. And as she emerges a hard-relatable superstar, she also provides us with a Grade-A example of how to do hyperpop.
SAWAYAMA's attention to detail is mind-melting - from the way Rina paints the brightly-coloured ephemera of her childhood, to the twisting, theatrical nature of Clarence Clarity's arrangements. The tracks that transcend are arguably those with the most going on: “STFU”, for example, is a bitch-slap of a song that nails the exhaustion of experiencing racist micro-aggressions - each grinding, nu-metal verse set against a whispered chorus that harks back to Britney's Oops... era. Elsewhere, the juddering beat of “Akasaka Sad” contrasts filmic strings and trap hi-hats with arcade game samples and occasional screaming. And the manic “Paradisin'” - which charts Rina's wayward adolescence and her mother's desperate attempts to contain her - sounds like the best of Dance Dance Revolution.
Cushioning these rowdy mash-ups are the quieter - though no less ornate - cuts. The album centres around the solemn, tender ballad “Bad Friend” (the most heartrending song about platonic love you'll hear this year) and the woozy climate grief anthem “Fuck This World (Interlude)”. The melodrama is real - rooted in Rina's belting vocals and occasionally goofy poetry about her disaffection - but when you find yourself tearing up to “Chosen Family”'s squealing guitar solo, you know she's got you.
It is SAWAYAMA's commitment to embodying its protagonist and her personal history - no matter how raw or chaotic - that wins out. Its messy web of references, from Evanescence and Britney Spears to Final Fantasy, should not work, but for their common denominator, Rina herself. As hyperpop's crowning jewel, she's found the sticky-sweet spot between the genre's patchwork production, pristine songcraft, and die-hard approach to self-expression. KITTY RICHARDSON