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.