The 100 Best Albums of 2020

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

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99. Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon – Pop Smoke

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98. West of Eden – HMLTD

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97. The Mother Stone – Caleb Landry Jones

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50 Songs for the Black Lives Matter Movement

This week I wrote about the gratitude I feel for having received such an education on systemic racism in America and the UK simply through to having an interest in music. Exploring new music as a teenager, I sought out the songs rather than the political and emotional understanding yet gained both at the same time, and now I would like to return the favour to those who are coming at things from the opposite perspective: abruptly awakened to the state of race relations in modern America and seeking to expand the depth of their understanding. Alongside myriad feature films, documentaries and books (fictional and academic), I believe one of the finest ways to do so is by exploring eighty years of black music from America and the UK.

Let’s not beat around the bush: black people invented popular music. From blues to jazz, from rock ‘n’ roll to rap, from disco to house, from soul to R&B: myriad white musicians have released fantastic music in what is ultimately a black form. It’s no coincidence; when black people in America couldn’t express themselves at the ballot box, they could express themselves in song. This is a playlist of fifty songs from across the past eighty years of African American musicianship. Many of them are well known, some have been overlooked or are simply too old to be remembered by most. They’re largely listed in chronological order with some exceptions, and are mostly American with a handful of songs from the UK.

Jim Crow Blues – Lead Belly

Recorded sometime in the 1930s, this song by blues icon Lead Belly – a man born on a plantation on 1888 – is a small window into the life of African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century; a response to the segregationist laws enforced until 1965 in the Southern United States. Jim Crow laws made black American’s second class citizens in their own country, forcing segregation in all public services and removing the few political and economic gains made by African Americans in the wake of the abolition of slavery in 1865. Hullie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter urges in his rumbling baritone to “get together, break up this old Jim Crow”, and the reference to Bunk Johnson, a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, is testament to the unifying power of song for a uniquely disenfranchised population.

Black, Brown & Beige Part IV (Aka ‘Come Sunday’) – Duke Ellington & His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson

The pioneering pianist and composer’s Black, Brown & Beige suite debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. Ellington’s most ambitious symphony was introduced as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America” and contained three titular movements, with each part broken into different periods of African American history; from the 700 Haitians who came to the aid of African Americans during the Revolutionary War to the influence of West Indians, the emancipation and the contemporary Blues period. The enchanting vocals of Mahalia Jackson – who later performed at the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s funeral – elevate this portion of the music, which went on to become a traditional spiritual on its own terms. It captures the healing power of Christianity for many disenfranchised African Americans, including Ellington’s own faith. William McClain has noted the importance of Sunday to black Americans, even in secular music: “To the Christian, Sunday is, or should be, another Easter, in which God’s victory in Christ over sin and death are celebrated in work, word, song, prayer, and preaching. After all, even [slave] masters and owners tried to be more human on Sunday”.

Fables of Faubus – Charles Mingus

Written in 1959 in direct reaction to the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus – who sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black teenagers – “Fables of Faubus” is the both one of bassist and jazz composer Charles Mingus’ most strikingly political songs, and testament to sweeping censorship enacted by white label bosses against their black musicians. Columbia Records refused to include the lyrics Mingus wrote for the song, forcing the classic album Mingus Ah Um to be released with only the instrumental version included. When the version of the song featuring call-and-response vocals by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond was finally released, it became apparent what the label bosses were so scared of: “Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie / Governor Faubus! / Why is he so sick and ridiculous? / He won’t permit integrated schools / Then he’s a fool! Nazi fascist supremists!” They may have been silenced, but they weren’t wrong.

Strange Fruit – Nina Simone

Recorded originally in 1939 by Billie Holliday, this haunting ballad compares lynched African Americans to fruit on a tree, and in doing so declared war against the perpetrators of these pubic executions, and in effect began the civil rights movement in earnest. The words were written by Abel Meerpol, in reaction to the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Equally iconic is Nina Simone’s cover of the song, released on her 1965 album Pastel Blues in the midst of the same movement. Simone’s incredible barritone gives the song the same twisted darkness of it’s subject matter, the moment when the instrumental falls to silence as Simone howls the line “strange and bitter crop” surely being one of the most shocking in modern music.

A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke

Blessed both with one of the finest voices of the original soul era and soaring string orchestration, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights era, taking all the nuance and division of the first post-war movement for the fight for equitable rights of black Americans and placing them in their plainest and most hopeful terms: “there have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will”. Upon the election of the first black President, Barack Obama, in 2008, the song was played widely in the nation’s capital, however the failings of the President to create the manner of society Cooke sung of over half a century earlier show the extent to which racism is ingrained in every American system and institution.

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Continue reading “50 Songs for the Black Lives Matter Movement”

“How It Feels To Be Free”: Learning About Race Through Music

Like the Star Trek geek and the stamp collector, I’m often self-conscious about my obsession with music. I know that I’m far from the only one. Music is surely the most popular medium art comes in, and even though I know friends who could barely name a song, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t listen to music ever. But for me it’s most of what I do. I get bored attempting almost any task without it, it’s all I write about, read about, listen to podcasts about, and most of what I post on social media is about music. At times it leaves me worried; worried about looking like a hipster, worried about being a snob and nervous about the thought of boring people by ranting on about something I truly feel would improve their lives in the way the music I love enriches mine.

But then at a time like this – in the midst of a genuine historical reckoning – I’m also very grateful. While some white people were hearing Rodney King’s name for the first time, and becoming newly incensed at injustices perpetrated by systems of authority in America and worldwide now impossible to ignore, I found myself feeling bizarrely familiar with a struggle which has in fact been raging for decades, to which I have no physical connection. I was aware of the history of oppression lasting long past slavery and Jim Crow; in the prison-industrial complex, the war on drugs, racial profiling and economic disenfranchisement up until this very day. For a white 24 year old from rural Shropshire, who went to a Grammar school and studied nothing but a few very cursory lessons on the Civil Rights movement in class – told through a passivising, reductive lens no less – it made no sense. I’ve come to realise that it was all thanks to the music.

I had an unusually good foundation for avoiding ignorance, being born in Wolverhampton – one of the most racially diverse cities in the UK – and my father being an anti-racist campaigner as far back at the late 1960s – but I still came to much of this learning accidentally. One of the first African American pieces of music I sought out was Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, after hearing it at the end of an episode of the BBC drama Life On Mars when I was a kid. I fell in love with her music, and by extension 1960s and 70s soul, and as a result I eagerly consumed “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, Liz Garbus’ phenomenal documentary on the singer’s life, when it arrived on Netflix in 2015.

Simone was one of the most talented performers in modern American history but it’s impossible to watch the documentary about her life without being made incredibly aware of how race impacted upon every aspect of it. She was one of the most proficient classical pianists in the country, and yet was still rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music. She became involved in the Black Panther movement, and it almost cost her her career. I only watched to discover more about her music, but I learnt so much more. 

My interest in music grew exponentially, and likewise you can’t become a fan of Marvin Gaye and A Tribe Called Quest without being aware of police brutality in the inner-cities of America, listen to Archie Shepp and Nina Simone and remain ignorant to the worst violence and murders perpetrated against black citizens in the 1960s or listen to Run The Jewels and Erykah Badu and be blind to the incarceration rates which recreate slavery still, in 21st century America.

I will never understand what it’s like to be somebody living on the receiving end of these systems of ingrained and explicit prejudice and oppression, but I am grateful that by happenstance I fell in love with an art-form which can help me learn about the historical precedents and political forces which inform African American music. It is also one of the most rewarding lessons a person can receive: learning about painful injustice through songs which are emotionally charged, brave, pioneering, liberating and fun.

In a year when many people are approaching from the other side – looking to understand systemic racism in a way our schools and our circles fail to do – I would like to share some of the music and musicians I have encountered over the course of ten years of listening to music fanatically: 50 Songs For The Black Lives Matter Movement, stretching from Lead Belly in the 1930s to Run The Jewels fourth album, released last week. It is available on Spotify and Apple Music, and it comes with a companion article with in-depth analysis of all fifty songs exploring the musicians behind them and their historical and political context. I hope that it helps those looking to learn more about race-relations in America do so, and shines a light on some overlooked or undiscovered African American musicians which people can also fall in love with, enriching their lives more ways than one.

The playlist:

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Apple Music Link

A MASTER DOCUMENT OF SOURCES PERTAINING TO THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT CAN BE FOUND HERE. Including equational resources, charitable causes, advice to protestors and much more. I have chosen to donate to Black Lives Matter UK and the Bail Project in the US. 

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones.