2020 has been one hell of a year. This statement is true in many ways, but one of the only possible senses in which it is a positive is when it comes to describing the music of this surreal time, which has been sublime. A decade-long process of liberation and cross-pollination means we begin this new decade in a culture where the most commercial of releases, with millions in their budgets, sit right alongside the most niche underground debuts. They’re all right there for the taking taking: on Apple Music, on Spotify, on YouTube, on BandCamp. These services cue up a Tkay Maidza song right after an Ariana Grande smash; one is worth millions, one doesn’t even have a label, but it doesn’t matter.
The biggest popstars on the planet are also increasingly influenced by the innovations of the digital underground, and often boast fascinating collaborations. The Weeknd’s new album features IDM darling and vaporwave pioneer Oneohtrix Point Never, and then Abel features on his! The Weeknd, on a Oneohtrix Point Never album. This year is strange indeed.
This melding of the underground and the mainstream has meant that the watermark keeps rising higher and higher, with alternative music continuing to innovate at the fringes, while pop stars no longer feel confined to one set rulebook to obtain their necessary chart success. As a result, there has been an unprecedented amount of fantastic music this year, just when we needed it the most. The ranked below is arbitrary, there has been enough great music that even the alums on the back-end of this list are thoroughly worth you time. In the 50th slot is harpist Mary Lattimore’s latest album, which is a fantastic record. Hell, just below these words at 100. is the Meridian Brothers’ Cumbia Siglo XXI, and that album slaps.
In the pandemic age, the liberating effect of the internet has brought us albums which wouldn’t have existed without it. Charli XCX made an entire record in lockdown, and the Gorillaz endlessly entertaining Song Machine kept on cranking new tunes made via Zoom. Even more traditional, statelier LPs were altered by the pandemic: Robin Pecknold began 2020 with the Fleet Foxes’ 4th album stuck in arrested development, but a suddenly-empty summer meant that we were able to hear Shore on the Autumn equinox this year. Ambient and instrumental jazz albums have been a calming ointment throughout, while world-weary records like Childish Gambino’s 4th album were suddenly made to appear outrageously prophetic. Online live-shows like Nick Cave’s Alexandra Place performance – sat alone in the emptied chamber at a grand piano – showed not only the resilience of music in these unprecedented times (TM) but also their ability to connect emotionally in spit of the digital realm.
Little of this translates to wealth however. With the live shows which keep the music industry alive justifiably halted, small venues fear closure and musicians from Kanye West to Taylor Swift have openly begun to tear at the structures of power which mean only some of their money is made from the actual music they make. With utilitarian arguments abound, and conservative governments in power internationally, we have seen the UK government openly question the value of artists at all, suggesting that in these dire economic times they may simply have to quit and retrain. The 100 albums which follow, from this year alone, tell a different story. By being one of the years’ sole sources of joy and inspiration, they show that music is thoroughly, and irrefutably, invaluable.
This list was compiled by music fans based only the albums they heard this year. It is instead based solely on the music which impacted us, and which we enjoyed and listened to the most. From top to bottom, we consider all of these albums to be produced by incredibly talented individuals whose music will provide pleasure and inspiration for many more years to come.
100. Cumbia Siglo XXI – Meridian Brothers
99. Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon – Pop Smoke
98. West of Eden – HMLTD
97. The Mother Stone – Caleb Landry Jones
96. Positions – Ariana Grande
95. Such Pretty Forks in the Road – Alanis Morissette
94. Legends Never Die – Juice WRLD
93. Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee
92. A Hero’s Death – Fontaines D.C.
91. UNLOCKED – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
90. Supervision – La Roux
89. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 – Tkay Maidza
88. The Ascension – Sufjan Stevens
87. TAKEN AWAY – Moodymann
86. I Disagree – Poppy
85. Thank God, The Plague Is Over – Charles Spearing & Josefin Runsteen
84. Empty – Nils Frahm
83. Likewise – Francis Quinlan
82. Pray For Paris – Westside Gunn
81. Descendants of Cain – KA
80. Modus Vivendi – 070 Shake
79. Big Conspiracy – J Hus
78. Future Teen Cave Artists – Deerhoof
77. The End of Their World is Coming – Dead Meat
76. Marigold – Pinegrove
75. Cages – The Milk
74. Burden of Proof – Benny The Butcher
73. THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW – Amaarae
72. RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer – Peter Zinovieff & Lucy Ratton
71. Debris – Keeley Forsyth
70. From King to a GOD – Conway The Machine
69. Universal Being E & F Sides – Makaya McCraven
68. Orcorara 2010 – Elysia Crampton
67. After Hours – The Weeknd
66. Gold Record – Bill Callahan
65. As Long As You Are – Future Islands
64. Suite for Max Brown – Jeff Parker
63. Lina_Raül Refree – Lina & Raül Refree
62. Universal Want – Doves
61. Extinction Level Event 2 – Busta Rhymes
60. Sixteen Oceans – Four Tet
59. American Head – Flaming Lips
58. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – Oneohtrix Point Never
57. We Will Always Love You – The Avalanches
56. Starting Over – Chris Stapleton
55. Manger On McNichols – Boldy James & Sterling Toles
54. The Common Task – Horse Lords
53. The New Abnormal – The Strokes
52. Colour Theory – Soccer Mommy
51. Mystic Familiar – Dan Deacon
50. Silver Ladders – Mary Lattimore
49. Have We Met – Destroyer
48. Fountain – Lyra Pramuk
47. Honesty Without Compassion is Brutality – Soho Rezanejad
46. Notes On A Conditional Form – The 1975
45. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace Can Increase? – The Soft Pink Truth
44. YHLQMDLG – Bad Bunny
43. Letter To You – Bruce Springsteen
42. Your Hero Is Not Dead – Westerman
41. Mutable Set – Blake Mills
40. Kaloli – Nihiloxica
39. What’s Your Pleasure? – Jesse Ware
38. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez – Gorillaz
37. Every Bad – Porridge Radio
36. Workaround – Beatrice Dillon
35. Un Canto Por Mexico Vol. 1 – Natalia Lafourcade
34. Heavy Light – US Girls
33. NEGRO – Pink Siifu
32. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist
31. Shabrang – Sevdaliza
30. Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
29. Kitchen Sink – Nadine Shah
28. Rough & Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan
27. Send Them To Coventry – Pa Selieu
26. Microphones in 2020 – The Microphones
25. Sin Miedo (Del Amor y Otros Demonios) – Kali Uchis
Since we first heard the dreamy, Damon-Albarn produced “In My Dreams” from Columbian/American singer Kali Uchis’ debut album Isolation, we know that she has her heads stuck firmly in the clouds. Existing in a hinterland between a hazy, hispanic-take on 60s Americana, queerness and outright debauchery, Uchis’ music has always felt as if it was been broadcast from another time; her pristine presentation falling somewhere between the zeitgeist-y and the Lynchian. Nostalgia, childhood and sensuality come together on her second album Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios). Largely sung in Spanish for the first time, it is a tribute to the music of her youth: washed-out with a familiar sun kissed glow, and interspersed with the sound of a cassette tapes unspooling, Uchis journeys between R&B, baroque pop and reggaeton. Her voice and a dozen sharp hooks make each tune feel like a forgotten hit, while the Rico Nasty featuring rager “Aquí Yo Mando” feels like a song which surely will be one soon. Other moments, such as “La Luna Enamorada”, see Uchis producing pop music more sincerely beautiful than many of her contemporaries dare to. The result is an eclectic and woozy road trip through the mixtape of her mind.
24. Circles – Mac Miller
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, Mac sings more than he raps, in an imperfect croon which is threadbare emotionally. With assistance from Rick Rubin and Fiona Apple’s one-time producer Jon Brion, the record takes as many cues from Wilco and early 80s synth-pop 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 Mac 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 Miller’s words are so predictive that they sound prophetic, but Circles is really just a bright lesson in musical earnestness, delivered by an artist who had many more left to impart.
23. Miss Colombia – Lido Pimineta
Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta was dependent on her producer-husband when she began making music, he mastered her songs and refused to show her how. Years later, she now has absolute ownership over her work. Resplendent with defiance, Miss Colombia is sonically triumphant and proudly on the offensive. On the sinister “Nada” she proclaims “I’m a woman and carrying pain is what I do”, while on “Pelo Cucu” the narrator demands that her “nappy-haired” daughter marry “a white boy with that good hair… to improve our race”. For those who come to these words by reading them (the record is sung almost entirely in Spanish), the story is in Pimientos characterful voice and songs filled with clattering percussion, chanted vocals and bright bursts sound. The remarkable “Eso Que Tu Haces” erupts with howled vocals and triumphant horns, while “Quiero Que Me Salves” runs long, as an extended and percussive jam. The title means “the chance has arrived to fix our past” and indeed the music casts Pimiento as a force of nature.
22. Purple Moonlight Pages – R.A.P. Ferreira
As Milo, dorky backpack-rapper Rory Allen Philip Ferreira had been traversing the hip-hop underground for a decade, spitting reference-laden, metaphysical bars with one eye on the suburbs and another on the cosmos. “Milo” is retired now, and Ferreira returns as R.A.P. Ferreira, accompanied by a jazz trio and channeling his favourite themes with a new flair which tips a hat towards Digable Planets and even Gil Scott-Heron. The addition of the Jefferson Park Boys is the shot in the arm Ferreira’s music had been waiting for, bringing instrumentals as colourful as his rhymes. The two fit like a glove, and the MC nestles his polysyllabic bars amongst clattering percussion and shots of sax. “This beat sound like a long walk to the dumpster” he spits “funk like nostrils of muenster/made myself an apostle of wonder”, words which remind why his is such a unique voice in rap: from Milo, to now.
21. Healing Is A Miracle – Julianna Barwick
On her fourth album, new age new-ager Julianna Barwick crafts a soundscape every bit as sparkling as the oasis on the album’s cover. Built upon the foundation of her familiar beds of looped ambience, Barwick layers her vocals (alongside those of guest features Jonsi of Sigur Ros and harpist Mary Lattimore) to create a serene voyage through the human body and mind, exploring as it does the process of healing; both physical and psychological. Tranquil, yes, but far from timid, there’s an unannounced grandeur to these songs; building layers of vocals until they’re filled with bright and cacophonous sound. The album is an unashamedly beautiful one, with songs such as “Safe” seemingly pulling the listener through long caverns of choral vocals, with a mood of calm assuredness as the destination.
20. Women In Music Pt. III – HAIM
California rock ‘n’ roll is not dead. It may feel that way: the work of Joni Mitchell and Warren Zevon have long become legend; documented, codified and sorted in the least rockin’ resting place imaginable: the dusty drawer marked History. The magic trick of HAIM’s new album is existing and thriving in that sonic world in 2020. Some of this is through the eclecticism the three sisters mix with the guitars and drums: from the rap-worship of “3AM” to the dance-pop of “I Know Alone”. But from the sumptuous sax which begins “Los Angeles”, to the stomping drums of “The Steps”, what grounds the album is a rich exploration of growth and decay, filled with songs which explore paralysing depression and cautious optimism. Sublimely produced and packed with songs which are as pretty as they are hip-thrusting, it’s a document of resilience and reinvention, which just happens to rock too.
19. Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
It took three albums for Lianne La Havas to settle into herself. Despite the excellence of her first two LPs, it’s on her new self-titled album that the London singer sounds most assured, and relaxed. Taught pop songs are replaced with loose jams which are given the space to ride out, and gives Lianne the room to showcase her significant vocal talent. Her cover of Radioheads “Weird Fishes” transforms the song into a slow-jam, but the fierce rhythm of the propulsive climax of the song actually goes even harder than the original. Meanwhile, a song like “Can’t Fight” is typical of the charms of this record, beginning as a low-key acoustic cut and ending with an intoxicating groove which summons Questlove and Erykah Badu alike.
18. Live Forever – Bartees Strange
The myth of the sophomore-slump tells us that an artist’s second album often flounders in the shadow of their first, where a lifetime musical consumption and lived experience was poured into songs they’ve waited their whole life to write. For every artist this is true of, there’s another where it’s total bunk. We don’t know what Bartees Strange’s second LP will sound like yet, but the adage about his debut album seems unusually true for him. Live Forever pours every disparate element of its creators musical taste into one 35 minute album, and the miracle is… it works. “Mustang” is a classic indie anthem – the kind produced by Bloc Party – and represents here an element of very White music which Strange explored his relationship to on this year’s EP of National covers. There are campfire acoustic ballads, and there are also nods towards Altanta rap on “Boomer” and his roots in gospel on “Flagey God”. The truth is, rarely does it actually feel like you know someone as well from their debut album as you do with Bartees Strange’s here.
17. 5EPs – Dirty Projectors
Many associate Dirty Projectors with difficulty. Although his music is often sweet and harmonic, Dave Longstreth’s compositions can also be deliberately evasive. With the project being an amorphous cast of revolving bandmates and styles which span baroque pop, Brazilian folk, alt-R&B and classical composition, it’s no wonder some have found them too slippery to get a hold of. 5EPs draws a clear line in the sand. Once a solo project, Dirty Projectors are now a band-band with the five individual EPs showcasing a different member, eventually released as this anthology. Far removed from the trickiness of Dirty Projectors old, “Search For Life” revs with some glowing choral harmonies, like an old Peggy Lee 7”, and ends with a sweep of shimmering violin and cello. Through so many of these songs, a great deal is achieved in less than three minutes, and the result makes these miniature collections feel far grander. There’s a great proclivity for prettiness throughout, from the rich nylon guitar which opens the record to the harmonies Longstreth has been infatuated with since 2002. Sharing themes of discovery, liminality and transition, the EPs come together with a sense of cohesiveness. The series has yielded an LP which pulls off what Dirty Projectors have been circling around since 2009’s Bitte Orca: dense in concept, intricate in composition, yet nimble and bright in delivery. This album is fun to listen to. The songs breeze by. It’s a 20 track record which feels half the length, and the Dirty Projectors are now resolutely a band, and a band reborn.
16. To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 – Alabaster Deplume
Reinvention has been the defining trait of Gus Fairbarn’s career so far, usually out of necessity: he began making music in Manchester at the start of the century as part of their thriving band-scene, but found little success, so he picked up the sax in 2007. He arrived in London in 2015 looking for reinvention, and found it in the city’s burgeoning jazz scene and the Total Refreshment Centre studios. Five years later he recorded these 11 soft and vibrant jazz cuts there, and it feels like he’s finally arrived. Reclusive as they are, Fairbarn didn’t expect this album to be his breakthrough, but the music’s etherealness is what is so seductive. Deplume’s music is slow and contemplative, and between the vast spaces left in the compositions are elegant slithers of sound which hint at influences which stretch in thirty different directions. There are references to Japanese Min’yo folk, Celtic folk, Ethio-jazz and hints of the ‘ancient music’ that sat underneath Arthur Russell’s melodies on First Thought, Best Thought. All of them brought together under a musical umbrella that aims for contemplation rather than revelation.
15. アダンの風 (Windswept Adan) – Ichiko Aoba
Chiba-born multi-instrumentalist Ichiko Aoba has been releasing albums for a decade now, but only this year seems to have caught most Western ears. Inspired by Disney and Studio Gibhli, and written about her dreams, Aoba’s music sounds fragile enough to break. It sounds bizarre to say that an LP as subtle as アダンの風 is her most ornate, but it’s true; usually perfuming only with the barest acoustic guitar, here she adds her others talents for the piano, clarinet, accordion and flute to create an album which is sonically rich, but subtle in approach. To a non-Japanese speaker, Aoba’s voice is just another incredibly emotive instrument, and its power removes language as a barrier to understanding. Channeling the folkloric stylings of Joanna Newsom and the off-kilter structures of Vashti Bunyan, Aoba now makes music which is ornately designed, but seems to mask a barely-contained scream.
14. Visions of Bodies Being Burned – Clipping.
Long since leaving behind easy comparisons to Death Grips, LA hip-hop group Clipping. now exist to remind us of the pleasures of genre in music, not in the sense or Rap or Rock, but in the way of cinema: this is horror, through and through. With Daveed Diggs’ rhymes ranging from the ominous to the terrifying, and turning their signature dissonance to a storytelling advantage, it’s a joy to hear music so committed to one idea. It’s not everyday a song like “She Bad” is released: a female empowerment anthem from the perspective of a folkloric witch, or tributes to classic pulp horror like Eaten Alive or Candyman. Diggs (yes, the guy from Hamilton) proves he’s one of the most complex spitters in the game, and he finds pockets in songs other MCs wouldn’t touch, from ambient field-recordings to a guest appearance from knotty Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker. Unlike much released around Halloween each year, this one is genuinely creepy.
13. Songs/Instrumentals – Adrianne Lenker
From the first ascending guitar notes of “Two Reverse”, Songs conjures the kind of liberated openness we associate with the tranquility of nature, and a peaceful state of mind. Each song shuffles along with the steady patience of a current, and the recordings are immaculate and warm. Nature is constantly evoked lyrically, with a familiarity wrought only through extended time at its whim, such as on the haunting second tune “Ingyar” where she hums that “everything eats and is eaten, time is fed”. Its not only Lenker’s luscious playing which is calming, but the naked emotion she exudes throughout. On lead single “Anything” the unreservedness of her commitment is striking: “I don’t wanna talk about anyone / I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving / lay in your lap when I’m crying” she sings “I don’t wanna talk about anything / I don’t wanna talk about anything”. Her words repeat in a hypnotic cycle. The album is consistent from song to song. Some, such as the uptempo “Anyone”, boast strong melodies, while gentler cuts sweep by on rhythm and charm alone. These simple songs evoke the bare folk of Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan and, for all the impressiveness of popular music’s pioneers, it is perhaps even harder to nail something in an established and well-trodden style. There are almost no fantastic classic rock albums these days, but Lenker has produced a folk album which could sit amongst the best from her forebears.
12. We Are Sent Here By History – Shabaka & The Ancestors
This album Shabaka Hutchings third release for his Impulse record label, and it’s testament to the breadth of his talents that each of them has arrived under a different one of his acts. Last year saw albums from The Comet is Coming and the remarkable Sons of Kemet, and now comes the second album from his majoratively-South African sextet The Ancestors. Mthunzi Mvubu’s alto sax trades bars with Hutchings’ taut tenor and clarinet, and the band’s chemistry is the root of the fiery energy that grips the album in a vice. A State of the Nation piece released during a reckoning for the West’s race relations and a global pandemic, the music is predictably imposing and ominous. Despite the band members being clear virtuosos, the album’s appeal is in moments such as the primal horns of “The Beasts Too Spoke of Suffering”, where the music matches the subject matter in ferocity. South African performance artist Siyabonga Mthembu verbalises much of this, with many of the songs here laced with his poetry. When speaking of the album’s despairing tone, Hutchings remarked that “for those lives lost and cultures dismantled by centuries of Western expansionism, capitalist thought and white supremacist structural hegemony, the end days have long been heralded as present”. This album feels like an elegy for those who experience the colonialist impact we like to think of as of the past in the present.
11. Miles: From an Interlude Called Life – Blu & Exile
Ever since the release of 2007’s Below the Heavens, an album which truly took internet rap blogs and forums by storm (an era which feels like it may as well be the Stone Age today), the pairing of LA MC Blu and producer Exile feels like the stuff of legend. The idea of them releasing a 95 minute album together in those days would have sent some fans into hospital, but in 2020 the release barely made a ripple. The internet was right the first time round. A long way removed from his energy as The Next Big thing in 2007, instead Blu appears here as a stately sage, reaching back through the history of African American music to paint a sweeping and definitive portrait of the cultural forces which have arrived at rap, and the personal trials which meant Blu never fully arrived in the way which seemed inevitable when Below The Heavens came out. Exile is now a true master, and his loops and chops feel like original compositions, alive with jazz and gospel. Named after Miles Davis, there are references to his music abound, alongside heartbreaking bars about family and legacy. The nine-minute epic “Roots of Blue” tells the tale of civilisation from the cradle of life to the arrival of Africans in America. Remarkably, neither songs like this nor the other 85 minutes of the album sound anything less than energised, joyful and free.
10. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
A maximalist and eclectic pinnacle of this year’s pop music, Rina Sawayama builds off the grandeur of her RINA EP to create a homage to early 2000s pop music with flecks heavy metal riffs and k-pop. Sawayama does for the sound of Britney and Avril Lavigne what Alex Cameron does for 80s cocaine-pop; making kick-drum fronted jams about feminism on “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)” and an ironic consumerist anthem in the shape of “XS”. The album is ridden with ear-worms, but Sawayama largely drops the ironic wall of her debut EP, replacing it with intensely personal confessionals about her dual-heritage on songs “Akasaka Sad” and “Tokyo Love Hotel”, and the best and worse of her friendships on “Bad Friend” and “Chosen Family”. The unashamed youthfulness of these concerns, combined with the extended-adolescence which is a staple of Japanese girl groups makes Sawayama a joyous new addition to mainstream pop.
9.The Consuming Flame – Matmos
Three hour albums are intimidating as hell. They’re also bittersweet: there is no greater evidence of technical accomplishment than the ability to go this long, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot because most people aren’t going to listen to the thing. By making their latest album such a marathon, many won’t even attempt to listen to Matmos’ finest work to date. Length is one of the album’s finest characteristics actually; this is a unique and expansive work which feels like an odyssey through sound, morphing between slide-guitar country, cosmic rock (a la Spiritualized) and a remix of the Netflix intro sound, without breaking a sweat. Like previous albums made only from the sounds of plastic or a washing machine cycle, this time duo M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel asked 99 musicians to record anything they wanted, provided it was in the signature of 99bpm. The end result rarely sounds anything like the human voice at all, but the likes of clipping., Yo La Tengo and Pig Destroyer are warped and soothed with new instrumentation into three hour long songs which are as psychedelic and expansive as any prog-rock record.
8. RTJ4 – Run The Jewels
The arrival of a stellar new album by hip-hop‘s finest duo Run The Jewels every few years is now as guaranteed as the clock striking midnight. This, their fourth, is their most colourful and political to date, filled with unabashedly revolutionary sentiments which leave their past political tunes looking timid in comparison. El-P’s beats are ferocious, proving his eclecticism by shaping straight-shooting bangers “Ooh La La” and “JU$T” alongside the sinister end-of-days closer “A Few Words For The Firing Squad” and the stunning “Walking In The Snow”, made twice as potent by arriving, as the album did, during the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “They predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest” Killer Mike spits “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”.
7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius
Mike Hadreas has spent his career so far unabashedly committed to himself. Without a hit song to his name, his ever-expanding following has come like Haruki Murakami or Laurie Anderson: by forging a style entirely his own and letting that do the talking. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is another evolution for Perfume Genius; flirting with Americana and packed with older session musicians who’ve played for Dylan, Springsteen and The Who. But unlike their work, this is an enigmatic, murky record; sonically diverse but emotionally oblique. Hadreas takes classic rock archetypes and bathes them in mist. Buddy Holly would have been in his element amongst the bright, plucked strings of “Without You”, but Hadreas’ love song is hesitant: “it’s the strangest feeling / unknown even, almost good / it’s a blurry shape / a jumbled tape”. Despite Hadreas’ growth as an artist and as a man, the fifth Perfume Genius album functions in a similar way to his second, Put UR Back N 2 It; a singular and complete photograph of a mindset and time, with a strain of sadness at its core. Hadreas may be uncompromising but stubbornness has its rewards: few albums feel as distinct or as complete as his.
6. Source – Nubya Garcia
Appearing on Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is A Reptile, Moses Sumney’s Grae and Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings, Nubya Garcia’s sax has encircled some of the finest jazz music of recent years, but few knew her name until this year. They know it now. Source is the fieriest jazz album in another strong year for Britian’s now notorious jazz resurgence. Like many of these albums, rhythm and percussion sit at the forefront, with a brass-playing band leader sitting up front, winding between clattering cymbals and drums. The same is true on Garcia’s breakout album; just listen to the stormy surge of twelve-minute epic “Source”. Hailing from Camden, and born of Trinidadian and Guyanan parents, Garcia’s music is rich with themes of heritage and community, and she calls the LP a story “about my heritage, my ancestry, exploring those places and those stories from my parents and my grandparents”. Indeed her sounds are truly international, switching between classic balladic form to cumbia and dub reggae, while “Inner Game” hints at Ethio-jazz, painting her life and music as a rich tapestry.
5. 3.15.2020 – Childish Gambino
Just like there is no scene in Atlanta where Earn turns to the camera to eulogise about race in America, there are no protest songs on Childish Gambino’s fourth studio album, but this music is very much a product of the world as it stands in 2020. Each song is captivatingly performed and joyously produced, and yet like Prince’s “Paisley Park”, each is haunted by a concern we see in the news daily. There’s a 21 Savage-featuring ode to psilocybin, “39.28” is an acapella exploration of isolation, then there’s previously-released bop “Feels Like Summer”; a sweaty climate change panic-button in disguise. “19.10” is a deliciously grimy jam with some incredibly tasteful keyboard embellishments but its chorus, “to be beautiful is to be hunted”, effortlessly taps into a whole culture predicated on that most valuable commodity: your image, your own personal brand.
Most of these songs run past five minutes, and aren’t afraid to explore deep inside their grooves – but this is still the man who made “Sober”, “3005” and “Redbone”, and indeed the album is covered in bright, pop hooks. Prince is an obvious reference point, but more so is the Hot Buttered Soul of Isaac Hayes, whose towering songs could run a dozen minutes in length. Amongst these jams come moments of personal and political insight. The opening lines of “47.48” speak of a “little girl, thirteen, broke down the violence”. This word, violence, is a sentiment which spans all of these songs: an unspecified threat, maybe not physical, but present nonetheless. With stock markets tanking and an unstoppable virus working its way through our species came this strange, bright music, which refuses to stop dancing even with anxiety cooked into its very DNA. It’s not revolutionary or even that political, it’s just the first album of our new normal.
4. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
Played on drums, on a wurlitzer, on the walls of her house, with her sister by her side, played from her living room, with her hands and feet, played alone and with friends, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years, arrived this year. An experience which spans fidelities – the record’s style is often as uncomplicated as the album’s cover, filled with rhythms which sound like field recordings and lashing of percussion which give the songs unsteady, freewheeling foundations. An obvious reference point is Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones, music which sometimes sound like it’s about to break apart, filled with chants and stamped feet.
What keeps them grounded is Apple herself, crystal clear in fidelity and intent: sounding like Joanna Newsom on the bridge of “Ladies” and like Lingua Ignota by the end of “Cosmonauts”. She sings of female solidarity, pushy lovers and the weight of depression with a wit which cuts through the chaos. She treats songs like therapy, at one point spitting “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure!”. Fetch The Bolt Cutters runs the gamut: Apple is angrier than ever but softer too, she sings sweetly and in yelps. She is surely the musician most aggressively crammed into the archetype of the eccentric female recluse but, to the contrary, these songs are some of the most liberated in recent memory.
3. Shore – Fleet Foxes
By releasing their fourth album on the Autumn the equinox, the Fleet Foxes owned their lane in a way more bands should. It’s easy to see that choice was made: Shore is refreshing in a way not unlike the third season. While 2017’s Crack-Up was a literary and often-beautiful release, it was a complicated listen by design, and that is not the case for Shore. With four more songs but exactly the same run-time, this collection is direct: the vast scope of the previous release traded in for a set of sharp songs, written solely by Pecknold. The album is bright and colourful, with sweetness brought by moments like the Laurie Anderson-aping scales which open “Jara”, or the dainty organ which dances around “Featherweight”. The band’s last two albums were about transitions – Helplessness Blues was a classic of the genre in fact, charting the shift from adolescence into adulthood – but Shore is about arrival. Its songs are bold, bright and direct: gone is the tentativeness of their third album’s reticent moments of tense quiet and lyrically, Pecknold seems to have found a firm sense of direction here: stood facing the sea, looking out.
2. Untitled (Rise) / Untitled (Black Is) – Sault
The height of musical showoff-ness here: firstly, releasing not one but two of the finest albums of the year for the second year running, but doing so anonymously. Aside from a few hints and collaborators, nobody knows who Sault – who’ve released four stellar albums in two years – are. That’s irrelevant to the music though, which has a sense of identity firmer than most records with their maker’s face splattered across the cover. An unabashed celebration of British blackness, of righteous anger and also, crucially, unabashed hope. From the soulful balladry of pop songs like “Wildfires” to dance-floor fillers like “Fearless”, there is a focus of intent and absolutely schizophrenic approach to musicianship. The music ranges from rap to soulful R&B to dance cuts which pull from unexpected sources, from early 80s New Wave, the supple keys of Bill Evans and the motorik drumming of 70s Krautrock. “Strong” breaks into the Nottinghill Carnival at the most unexpected moment, and the doo-wop balladry of “Miracles” dives the album headfirst into the 1960s by channelling the Northern Soul of the group’s generational roots. These two LPs distill the essence of 2020s conversations about race into statements of intent, perpetually bristling with creativeness and purpose which went almost unmatched by their peers, even if we don’t know their names.
1. 2017-2019 / Cenzias / Telás – Nicolás Jaar
Few aside from Chilean-American producer Nicolás Jaar can claim to be true pioneers, creating a sound and style entire to themselves. A note left on his website confirmed something remarkable: that the three albums he released this year, from the furious 2017-2019 to the delicate Cenzias, were made during one period of isolation, where Jaar holed up himself on the other side of the world for months on end. He hoped for a period of transcendent focus but instead found that “the more I tried to get away from negativity, the more it kept piling up in a dark room, but as shards of sound”. His experience chimes with Karl Jung’s assertion that the brain has a compensatory effect, so attempts to escape darkness will just reap more of it.
2017-2019, it transpires, was the unhinged result of Jaar’s attempt to flee. Jaar has fun wearing the clothes of his moniker Against All Logic, but we’ve rarely heard his music as energised or militaristic as this. It’s hard to recall the last time an album underlined its own tonal shift harder than Jaar chopping Lydia Lunch venomously proclaiming “because if you can’t beat ’em, kill ’em/If you can’t kill ’em, fuck ’em” on fourth track “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard”. From here on out, it’s lift off. “Alarm” kills the previous cut with a stone-cold electro-synth which sounds like Boys Noize playing with their decks on fire. “Deeeeeeefers” is a further escalation, a track which takes the concept of an EDM build and stretches it across five minutes, until it’s just a cacophony of sirens, swirling noise and deep, Knife-indebted vamps. It’s grin inducing stuff, and in three songs Jaar turns Against All Logic from a place where he relaxes to the place where he rages.
On Cenzias, Jaar tried to tame instead. The resulting music is slow and contemplative, and defined by the kind of sound-play which makes him special. Instruments press against the ambience of these songs: “Agosto” boasts a mournful saxophone, whipped into shape by lashings of synths, while the miraculous “Gocce” is built around what sounds like a falling ping-pong ball; its menacing creak countered by luscious walls of harp and piano. The weight of earth is present on the heavy bass of the title track and “Rubble”, making the eventual bright pianos on “Garden” sound as freeing as that song’s title.
Telas is yet another different beast, and the most masterful of the 2020 trilogy: four long songs which cement Jaar’s status a peerless sonic architect uniquely able to evoke specific cultures and physical environments with sound alone. Striking examples include the midway point of “Telencima”, where dainty piano chords are drowned in lolloping sequences of synths and swamped again in dense ambience. It’s the sound of coral swaying beneath an ocean’s surface; a subterranean vignette shot through with sunlight. Jaar’s compositions evoke architecture, deserts and the breeze; landscapes painted with sounds so vivid that it’s easy to forget that nothing is sign-posted: there are no sound clips or field recordings to orientate the songs, he does it with instruments alone.
A common debate surrounds the Sound of the Future: a sonic palette which could shape music in years to come. Looking back a decade, we can see that it was the progenitors of trap hi-hats and the rubber-bass of maximalist pop which would come to define much of today’s music. Since Pomegranates, today’s Chief-Keef and PC Music has been sounding like Nicolás Jaar, whose nimble craftsmanship can sculpt visages out of sound. Through collaborations with more popular musicians such as FKA Twigs, his style can already be found in the mainstream. Telas merges futurism with a deep well of culture and history; reserving a space for the past in whatever the future of sound may be.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones