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

71UYuzXoDcL._AC_SL1200_ Continue reading “The 100 Best Albums of 2020”

Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Shore

In the week before the autumn equinox of this strange year, I was in the small fishing town of Beer in Devon, England, spending the first week with my family and away from stagnant city air since lockdown began in March. I was born in the Midlands, with a hundred miles of industrial towns between us and the sea to the east and the entire country of Wales to the west: in Beer I was reminded of the enigma of a sea I was used to seeing rarely; the oddity of nothing on horizon, the refreshing crispness of sea-salt and offensive crispness of the wind. The waves of an encroaching tide don’t ever lose their novelty; we spent each evening watching the cusped hands of the sea fold the pebbled beach back over itself. (Also, most of the pubs were shut).

It’s a shame that the Fleet Foxes missed me by one week; it would have been perfect to hear their fourth album there, rather than lying in Clissold Park in central London with an accidentally-purchased alcohol-free beer and the sight of some teens nicking a park-keeper’s buggy for accompaniment. The music took me back to the water regardless. Titled Shore, and with a gorgeous photograph by Hrisohi Hamaya as it’s cover, it’s an album which sort of shimmers – like the sea when the sun hits it just right – propelled by waves of intricate instrumentation and pockmarked by birdsong and a kind of delicate tonality indebted to Phillip Glass.

Eschewing the arbitrary industry-standard Friday release-date, the album was dropped on Tuesday September 22nd, the day of the autumn equinox, and it’s easy to see why: Shore is refreshing in a way not unlike the new 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 before and during the pandemic. 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 other contributor to the album’s freshness comes from a theme of humility which runs through the music. The band was once home to folk-rock’s most entertaining narcissist, but Pecknold takes a different tact: opening song “Wading In Waist-High Water” is sung entirely by Uwade Akhere, a 19 year old student from Oxford who Pecknold discovered when she posted a cover of one of his songs to YouTube. The second song “Sunblind” is dedicated entirely to his influences, describing the liberating feeling of accepting your work to be eternally in the shadow of your heroes: “And in your rarified air I feel sunblind / I’m looking up at you there high in my mind / Only way that I made it for a long time / But I’m loud and alive, singing you all night”. Indeed Pecknold claims to have only been able to make the album by making playlists filled with Arthur Russell, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Michael Nau, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and more and simply bathing in them, learning from their use of simplicity and warmth. You can certainly hear Sam Cooke in the sweet melancholy of “A Long Way Past The Past”, and you can literally hear Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys’ voice on “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman”, a sample from behind the boards of Pet Sounds.

With these nerdy little references to music history and song titles Pecknold himself admits he isn’t clear on, the Fleet Foxes’ music retains an air of sophistication. For those of us of a certain age, the sound of orchestral, acoustic guitar-thrashing folk acts like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers became commonplace, so these songs are timely reminders that, although Fleet Foxes deploy a similar sound, they are the opposite of conservative. Paying homage to the propulsive funk of Stevie Wonder with the staples of 70s folk on “Maestranza” is actually pretty weird, as is the climax of “Quiet Air / Gioia”, a shapeshifting climate-change rager which sees Pecknold hollering call and response vocals decrying “oh devil walk by / I never wanna die, I never wanna die” over some lolloping scales in a way which sounds more like The Knife than Crosby, Stills & Nash, or whoever.

Even though these songs are more direct than their predecessors, it’s hard to call fans who have called this clearer direction “too pop-y” anything other than massive hipsters. Despite their melodiousness, Shore’s ear-worms are little vocal inflections and soaring instrumentation, not bar-room choruses. Sometimes the denseness of the recordings are actually too much: but thankfully “For A Week Or Two” and “I’m Not My Season” redress the balance with patient tempos, the latter being perhaps my favourite cut off the record; an elegant and mournful slice of winter poetry which paints depression as a monolithic state, unchanged by sunshine or rain.

Shore then is the sort of decluttering which can feel anti-climatic in the wake of Crack-Up’s complexities, but the approach is a necessary one. Marvin Gaye followed the densely political What’s Going On with the simply horny Let’s Get It On, and Kendrick Lamar released the hit-yielding DAMN in the wake of To Pimp A Butterfly. Sometimes, when you release a 75 minute jazz epic tied together by performance poetry, there’s really nowhere else to go. Shore certainly seems to be a similar response to the ornate and elusive Crack-Up, with Pecknold even commenting on the physical toll of crafting such a dense work: “living for that long inside Crack-Up’s dense compositions, and touring that relentlessly, left me in a quandary: I didn’t want to take another long break from music… but I needed to find a new, brighter way of making songs if I was going to go straight into something large and ambitious again”.

By releasing on the equinox, the Fleet Foxes owned their lane in a way more bands should. Much is made of the band being ‘autumnal’, but it’s normally take as given without much rumination on what that actually means. For me it’s about balance: Pecknold’s powerful voice lends a touch of melancholy to bright instrumentals which make a rock band sound like an orchestra, and likewise autumn is a in-between period in our planet’s slingshot around the sun. It helps that their last two albums were about transitions too: Helplessness Blues was a classic of the genre in fact – about the shift from adolescence into adulthood – and Crack-Up was about finding footing in this new state of being. 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.

Liam Inscoe – Jones

“How Could It All Fall In One Day?” – Fleet Foxes ‘Crack-Up’ Album Review

Fleet Foxes did not suffer the sophomore slump. In fact, their second LP Helplessness Blues was so well received that they seemed to found a different phenomenon: the sophomore peak, where after a six-year absence expectations for their third record were at fever pitch, and a similar level of rapturous acclaim was inevitably unattainable, especially for an album like this. Frontman Robin Pecknold, who’s singular voice defines the third of the band’s records in a way it hasn’t previously, posted on his (very wry) Instagram account a list of ‘inclinations’ for this cycle of music which largely comprise of defiance against the most celebrated characteristics of Helplessness Blues: “avoid singy-songy theatrical vocals” and “establish expectations, subvert expectations”. As a result, Crack-Up is more obtuse than even the subtler moments on Fleet Foxes’ debut, built instead on refused assertions, and contrasts. Continue reading ““How Could It All Fall In One Day?” – Fleet Foxes ‘Crack-Up’ Album Review”