The Best Albums of 2020— Si Sharp -
Taylor Swift - folklore
News of this album didn’t fill me the usual excitement with which I usually greet her releases. The title and idea seemed like a clumsy attempt to be “taken seriously” by pandering to an older audience who need their music shaded in familiar hues in order to connect. The names attached to it (The National and Bon Iver) also seemed like such safe territory for such a project. I was braced for a cynical album that would outstay its welcome. Worse than that I thought it would be boring.
What I underestimated is just how consistent the songwriting would be and how suited it would be to these arrangements. There’s all the variety usually found on her albums - they’re just tied to acoustic, more contemplative sounds. Lyrically, it’s full of engaging third person narrative and does that wonderful thing that great albums do - develops with repeat listens and has you returning again and again. If I go for a week without listening to Folklore, it leaves an itch waiting to be scratched. I was less enamoured with its sister album, Evermore which sounded like the result of long distance collaboration in a way that Folklore avoided despite them both being mainly co-written by Swift and The National’s Aaron Dessner. However, its looser arrangements found their own audience - it has its own identity rather than sounding like cuts that didn’t make it onto folklore.
Kesha - High Road
2017’s Rainbow was Kesha drawing a line under her past, acknowledging the abuse, while looking hopefully to the horizon. When she was sounding empowered it was like a mantra she was repeating to herself so she could find the good-time girl that had been hiding in the shadows. High Road is every bit a sequel. Scene two of her second act is bigger and better.
Lyrically she finds the old party Kesha (to the degree that one song features ‘ke$ha’, the nom de plume from her Tik Tok days) but without losing some of the darker themes that made Rainbow so satisfying. Musically it’s just beautifully batshit. So little of this should work on paper - piano ballads. reggaeton, gospel, edm, country, 8bit, pop, and hip hop all fight for space, often in the same song but somehow this mess of influences doesn’t just get away with it, it soars to an explosion of life-affirming moments and introspection, all of it underpinned with Kesha’s particular brand of total self-awareness and foul mouthed flourishes of wit.
Much of your enjoyment of High Road is going to depend on how much you’ve bought into her, but this is true of any personal perspective pop music. If you approach it with an open mind it’s like a friend opening their heart to you before being dragged to the dancefloor for a dance every bit as cathartic as the soul-baring talk that preceded it. All of which seems perfectly suited to a year in which so many have had to make peace with difficulty while remaining optimistic.
Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans
Kieron Hebden may not make bad albums but over the last few years, it’s in his remix repertoire where genius has been found. His uncanny knack for knowing just what an artist’s song needs has led to a catalogue of songs as consistent in quality as they’ve been diverse in sound. It’s also in those remixes that his most dancefloor-friendly sound has been concentrated.
His particular take on house - mid-tempo four-to-the-floor beats over gentle instrumentals - equally suited to headphones and club nights has during that time, become a dominant sub-genre. Sixteen Oceans is the first time he’s committed to that sound quote so much in album form. There’s plenty of familiar Four Tet tropes - acoustic instruments, traditional percussion, and cut-up vocal samples but he’s never before assembled so many bangers expertly sequenced with ambient pieces and every song’s individuality shines through. Four Tet’s 10th album could be his best so far - how great is that?
Against All Logic - 2017-2019
Chilean-American producer Nicolas Jaar didn’t just sit around in 2020. In addition to releasing two albums under his own name he also gave us this, his second album under the AAL moniker. Like its predecessor, it’s full of brilliantly deployed samples but while it’s recognisably the same artist, this is tonally very different. The vocal snippets are crunched under analogue tank tracks and the warm house sound has been replaced by abrasive synths and a sound, if not techno, certainly reaching for industrial, teutonic textures.
Georgia - Seeking Thrills
In a year where nostalgia has seemed not an indulgence but a sensible coping mechanism, Seeking Thrills should be available on prescription. Georgia Barnes’ second album is a homage to dancefloors which borrows equally from 80s synthpop and 90s dance. Inevitably, given the inspiration and method, it’s reminiscent of other modern artists who have used a similar approach. Robyn casts a shadow over Seeking Thrills as she does over much pop but who cares. Georgia has own voice lyrically and so many of these songs land perfectly. They have mood, hooks and they sound incredible - these are pop songs but the production is pure dance music.
It’s an album of correct choices in terms of structure and melody. In a year of staying away from crowds, Seeking Thrills is a well timed and intoxicating yearning for sweat and strangers.
Haim - Women in Rock pt III
You might think 2020 might not be suited to a new album by Haim. It’s hard to enjoy Californian sunshine when you’re not supposed to leave your apartment, but closing your eyes and looking forward to better times needs a soundtrack. There was a sense with the band’s second Something to Tell You, that perhaps their time had passed through no fault of their own - some bands don’t drop off in quality - they simply have a sound that captures a moment perfectly and when the moment passes, the band are cut adrift.
Women in Rock doesn’t represent a leap forward musically, their songs are still Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac style pop-rock but the arrangements and production are just different enough and more importantly, the songwriting is brilliant. After one listen, Women in Rock hooks you, after two listens it feels like you’ve always known and loved it.
Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
Since Katie Critchfield’s charming lo-fi debut under the Waxahatchee moniker, her sound has been getting gradually more accessible but seemed to lack the magic of that first album. On her fifth she finally manages to find a way of capturing the charm of that early work and applying it to a broader canvass.
IDLES - Ultra Mono
I get why IDLES can be divisive. They can be on the nose lyrically, but it’s hard to avoid the nose when you’re punching the face. “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers?” comes closest to summing up the appeal of IDLES. If you’ve ever stood in one of their crowds and felt the feeling of lone voices joined together, then you’ll appreciate their potency. This is the politics of compassion not just making its case but fighting back. Ultra Mono is IDLES not only at their most explicit but at their most anthemic. The echoes of ‘oi’ punk which stopped me from truly embracing Joy is an Act of Resistance has been replaced by a mixture of hooks and the noise-rock of their debut. Ultra Mono is the album I wanted IDLES to make but thought they wouldn’t.
Run the Jewels - RTJ4
After partnering with indie labels for the first three, the boys finally decide to open the door to the suits and release their fourth album through BMG - a move the band saw as a necessity to help them expand their reach, and frankly the world needs RTJ more than ever. It’s a tragedy that Run the Jewels have never sounded so relevant. Tragic, because political and sociological events have required the counterweight that they provide.
“The way I see it, you’re probably freest from the ages one to four Around the age of five you’re shipped away for your body to be stored They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free And 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 The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically Fast forward the future so then you can face it And see how fucked up it’ll be”
Wow. Depressingly the “I can’t breathe” lyric from ‘Walking in the Snow’ was written before George Floyd’s murder, of course referring to Eric Garner’s murder 6 years earlier but the timing was uncanny and it demonstrates that RTJ are more than just a rap group now, and it feels like their work has only just begun.
They’re old enough to know how to use this platform. Their success doesn’t just allow them to play where they want with whoever they want - it also allows Killer Mike to make TV shows and to speak at the mayoral press conference during the Atlanta protests.
RTJ4 also sees them with the biggest gap between albums and it sounds like it. It’s too early to rank it in their discography but it’s every inch the album you would want them to make at this point.
The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form
Has there ever been a band that’s experimented so wildly and been so over-indulged by their record company and still manage to be such a bonafide commercial prospect. When they appeared on the scene they managed, through singles Sex and Chocolate, to establish a sound which still dominates pop. They were an indie-rock band that seemed so at ease with being a pop band that was completely modern or at least hadn’t been seen since the early 80s. Since that first album, every album has got to number one, each has been overlong, absurdly patchy and over ambitious… but… I have a soft spot for artists with no idea of their limitations because it’s that exact trait that can result in the kind of accidental brilliance that the highly trained spend their lives aspiring to.
Finally, my investment in the 1975 has paid off. True to form it’s incredibly long and sees the band trying their hand at everything but they absolutely pull it off and given the quantity of genres, that’s no mean feat. There’s wistful indie pop, two-step, house, americana, noise rock, classical and rock ballads but the band’s identity stays intact throughout.
Octo Octa and Eris Drew - fabric presents…
2020 has done nothing to dampen the spirit of dance music which has, like many of us, sought escapism in nostalgia. The world’s dancefloors might be gathering dust but there’s been millions of club nights and festivals in the imagination of DJs, artists and punters. Octo Octa explored the sound of house music’s past on her brilliant 2019 Resonant Body. Here she, with her partner Eris Drew produce an optimistic reaction to this difficult year. Their DJ set takes in four to the floor, breaks, and even a bit of jungle interspersed with (subtle) positive vocal samples. Enormously accessible and covering a vast time period, this will appeal to any dance fan.
Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension
You never know what a new Sufjan record will sound like. Since his last proper album, 2015’s acoustic Carrie and Lowell, he’s collaborated with Bryce Dessner on the classical/digital space opera Planetarium,with Timo Andres on the soundtract to a ballet, The Decalogue, and with his stepfather on new age synth-wave album Aporia.
The Ascension is an album worth taking your time with. In fact at 1hr 20mins you don’t really have much choice. The combinations of ambient synths and Sufjan’s soft vocals means it take a few listens for the songs to be revealed. It’s not as esoteric as his last solo foray into electronics on the abrasive Age of Adz. That album was full of sharp edges and dissonant note changes whereas The Ascension flows gently.
Bookashade - Dear Future Self
Frankfurt’s house/techno veterans don’t always hit the mark but both 2018’s Cut the Strings and this see them nailing their particular brand of stadium house sound. There’s variety (tribal, techno, jazz) but what’s consistent are the grooves.
Rival Consoles - Articulation
Ryan Lee West continues to develop. His early stuff were experiments marrying organic to synthetic sounds. Articulation feels a long way from that. Articulation is an exercise in music you can see in your head while you listen. Staccato percussive synths bounce around like a box of bleeps being shaken about.
Denzel Curry - Unlocked
Kenny Beats seems to specialise in making artists get to the point. He did it with Rico Nasty on 2019’s Anger Management and here he pulls off the same trick. It’s only 17 minutes long but there’s so much going on. Chopped up samples, synth stabs and beats that seems a far cry from Kenny’s previous trap production. Meanwhile Denzel seems to be channelling the shouty rappers of the late 90s but there’s more than just attention-grabbing delivery. He works his flow around Kenny’s hectic production skillfully, and lyrically the braggadocious battle rhyming is great fun.
it’s fun even if most of it sticks to
Charli XCX - How I’m Feeling Now
No-one expected Charli to follow up to her last album (and our album of 2019) so soon. Charli and how i’m feeling now couldn’t be more different in their construction and release. Charli was recorded over 18 mths with the first single, preceding it by a year.
How i’m feeling now (her 4th album, or 9th if you include mixtapes) on the other hand was recorded over 6 weeks at home during the first lockdown. This is a record born from isolation and is her least collaborative in terms of songwriting. That’s not to say it’s not collaborative at all. Far from it. Throughout the making of it, she asked fans for input on everything from the songs to the artwork and that relationship was a central part of it.
Charli has a habit of absolutely nailing the current mood like on 1999 which captured the need for nostalgia for a generation with a pessimistic future, making it the perfect counterpoint to Prince’s optimistic view of the same year but from the other side of it. So it’s no surprise that she’s made this. It was heralded as a lockdown album and certainly, in terms of inspiration and creation, it’s an interesting capsule of the time. Isolation just kind of sits in the background informing the emotions of it.
It’s not lyrically about quarantine explicitly, which is a good thing. Loads of people made records about lockdown in 2020 and they’re uniformly terrible (if in doubt check out Quaranqueen by the usually great Lady Leshurr with its cringey on-the-nose rhymes about social distancing and toilet roll).
Halsey - Manic
Along with her bi-polar diagnosis Manic presumably refers to the range of sounds on here. That being said, Manic doesn’t sound all over the place. Sure, alt rock, pop and hip hop rub shoulders but she uses them all to paint the same emotional textures. Manic is not a happy album. It’s a whole bunch of autobiographical material about her being a set of contradictions and she manages to articulate those contradictions in a way that is engaging and affecting.
Okay, there’s something occasionally trying about Halsey’s insistence on reminding you quite how complex she is that veers into self-indulgence. She seems to struggle with the idea that she’s complicated in a world where she’s supposed to create and maintain a simplistic and impossible brand. However there is a whole generation of people that she speaks for in that regard.
Helena Hauff - Kern Vol 5
The Kern albums are a series of DJ mixes produced by Berlin nightclub and record label Tresor and for their 5th edition features Hamburg’s Helena Hauff.
Helena’s artistic output has been widely feted although it’s a little too dark for my tastes. This mix however is absolute gold though. Sure, at 2 hrs it’s not going to convert the uninitiated but if you like your techno clanky and hard you’ll love this. Helena lets songs play for their running length. It goes through moods but this isn’t a journey by DJ sticking as it does to fast tempos but if you’re into your industrial, acid and electro then it’s a safe bet you’ll dig this.
Coin - Dreamland
Crazily enjoyable 80s tinged indie-pop from Nashville. Musically, Dreamland isn’t breaking new ground - there’s nothing here Foster the People weren’t doing a decade ago, but Foster never had these hooks. There’s 14 tracks and the album is so catchy, it could actually do with a respite from the number of hooks it contains - what a wonderful complaint. This is great pop songwriting and rewards repeat listening.
Holy Apes - Listen to the Ape
Not for Ange Dolittle (Eat, Big Yoga Muffin, weknowwhereyoulive, Dolittle) the life of the singer-songwriter - he’s always thrived within the dynamics of a band and I don’t think he’s ever sounded like he’s having quite so much fun as he is here with his new band. Some of the lyrical themes such as the seductive corruption of the city and the battle against self destruction will be familiar to fans - but musically it’s the rockiest album both he and ex-Wonder Stuff guitarist Malc Treece have been involved in - bases covered include psych-rock (Pocketful of Solitude) and chugging stoner rock (their cover of Don Fardon’s Indian Reservation). It’s all about riffy grooves. This is a band indulging themselves for our pleasure.
Be Charlotte - Dreaming with the Lights Off
6 track EP from Dundee’s Charlotte Brimner. Piano and electronic led pop with charismatic accented vocal. Everything she s is interesting but this is an EP where every song could be a single in its own right.
Róisín Murphy - RóisínMachine
Fifth’s solo album from the peerless dancefloor diva and she has never sounded more soulful. There’s been plenty spoken about disco being the sound of 2020 and this is the album above all others that does something really interesting with it. Slow building long house music tracks that definitely come from a disco place but this is built for the club, not the radio. Whether it’s been lockdown walks or background sounds, Roisin Machine has a way of sounding fresh on every listen.
Denham Audio - Clouds Across the Stars (ft Borai) EP / Feel the Panic EP
Sheffield trio Denham Audio have been prolifically releasing over the last three years. Whether exploring retro-house vibes or breaks they’re always listenable and this year two of their EPs really hit a nerve. On their collaboration with Bristol’s Borai they take it back to 92. The five tracks take different sounds from the past to similar effect. Whether it’s Oldboy’s retro synth riffs and jungle basslines or Euphoria’s breaks and trancey-space sounds, this stuff would have sounded at home at a Megadog rave. And it’s superb throughout.
Feel the Panic is a slightly different beast - it still looks to the past for inspiration - the title track and Volt sound like early big beat before it got cartoony while the rest of the tracks sound like nu-skool breaks and are slightly more reflective of their normal output. It’s danceable, moody and EPs are the perfect place for them to be releasing this stuff.
Tricky - Fall to Pieces
I wish this album didn’t exist, but sadly it has to. This is Tricky forced to express grief for his daughter who took her own life in 2019. Fall to Pieces isn’t the sound of someone coming to terms with trauma or even screaming out their suffering. Tricky struggles to even articulate his feelings. He’s just drifting. It’s neither philosophical nor insightful - it’s just unfiltered moments. It’s not unusual for artists to use music to find a way from this particular experience to a place of healing but Tricky sounds like he’s started too soon, and in doing so he’s found a particular truth. It’s also not upsetting or bleak - just full of ideas which aren’t always fleshed out into whole songs but don’t sound underdeveloped as such - it’s a surprisingly easy listen, given the subject matter.
Ólafur Arnalds - some kind of peace
I got turned on to Arnaulds with 2018’s re:member. Some Kind of Peace betters it. Falling somewhere between the ambience of Max Cooper and the neoclassical minimalism of Nils Frahm, Arnaulds uses a mix of piano, strings and electronics to create something contemplative but never over-indulgent. Yes, there is a theme, most explicitly expressed by the late Lhasa de Sela at the start of closing track Undone, of finding a sense of meaning during times of difficulty that is presumably a reaction to what the world is going through, but this isn’t just another lockdown album.
Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Bridgers’ profile was raised over the last 18 months for her role in outing Ryan Adams’ unpleasant behaviour towards women. While her stand on this and other issues has been admirable it would have been a shame for her artist output to be eclipsed by it. With hindsight that was never going to be the case. Her debut Stranger in the Alps and the collaborative boygenius EP and Better Oblivion Community Center were all strong records with starkly honest moments of sadness articulated with a turn of phrase that made you have to pause songs to let lines sink in. Punisher is certainly not a happy record, but it has an end of chapter 1 feel to it. If she’s reliving bad memories, it’s mainly so she can move past them. Musically, it’s rockier than her debut but is still a quiet record - it feels like a set of songs that have been refined to subtlety.
Mella Dee - Ridgewood EP/Sidney Street EP
Doncaster’s Ryan Aitcheson aka Mella Dee first came to our attention on 2015’s Trellick - a minimalist badboy breakbeat monster with massive dubby basslines reminiscent of Point Blank-era Dub Pistols. Since then we’ve followed him with interest as he’s hopped about sounds settling mainly on techno. In 2020 he released 2 EPs that really worked for me - Ridgewood’s title track is really hooky techno and represents much of what has made the genre really interesting over the last few years. The whole EP seems to explore similar textures - low-end synths filtering in and out. Making this kind of vibey techno plays with a repetition that risks being boring but not here. Every track keeps it going - even when he lets someone else remix (in this case - Yoofy), it still fits in with the rest of the EP.
Sidney Street is very different - more bassline driven. Indebted to speed garage and rave. It’s not quite the beast that Ridgewood is, and while neither are albums, between them, this stuff just seems too good to ignore and sometimes EPs are the only way to get certain genres into these lists.
Keaton Henson - Monument
Henson returns to his skeletal acoustic balladry after 2019’s classical work Six Lethargies this time. Anyone familiar with Henson knows that the sadness at the core of his work never makes for an easy listen and this is certainly true of Monument, written as a reaction to his father’s illness and passing.
Four Tet - Parallels
The second of his three albums released in 2020, Parallels mainly consists of pseudonymous releases over the last three years. It sounds like a collection rather than a cohesive album but when that collection contains the 26 minutes beatless ambient opener Parallel 1, the shuffling breaks of Parallel 4 or Parallel 6’s return to Four Tet’s folktronica sound that’s just fine.
Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
Is Future Nostalgia the disco-pop masterpiece people are suggesting? Not for me, it feels a little too devoid of a central personality for that. It’s no Confessions On a Dance Floor - it’s more Kylie than Madonna. However, it is end-to-end well written pop where every song feels familiar as it hits all the notes you’re craving.
For me, it was the moments where Lipa takes the reins to make a lyrical point where it gets interesting. IDGAF on her debut or Boys Will be Boys on this album. Perhaps I’m being contrarian for not putting it higher. Maybe the relentless river of remixes coming out every week wore me down. Either way, over exposure rubbed some of the shine off and consequently I’ve not revisited it much since.
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