Luckily for us all music didn’t follow the same trajectory as the rest of the planet in 2020. There were so many new faces and great releases that made for a surprisingly dense year of high-quality listens. With such standout releases it’s fair to say no one was absent of fresh bangers to play during their zoom quizzes and socially distanced gatherings. This was the first year in which I made the largest effort to keep up with releases the music community was raving about, I managed to take my music taste to its limits and came out of the yea with so many noteworthy projects I can’t wait to see dig my teeth into more. Just to implement this at the start of the article, all views expressed are my own opinion, I wanted to include albums that are unfamiliar with the majority and stick to what peaks my interest instead of trying to create a ranking that will please everyone. With each spot, I’ll present you with a theme and address my thoughts on music in ten different ways, giving honourable mentions for each spot, helping me share as many artists as I can. That being said I will write a list of albums I haven’t cited throughout the article that could well be album of the year contenders, but I haven’t got round to listening to them as much as I’d hoped for one reason or another. That list will be at the end of the as well as a link to a Best of 2020 playlist I made. With all that out of the way lets dive into the list.
Rap Album of the Year
Rap has always been the most comfortable genre for me to listen to, the lyricism and the infectiousness of the right beat can put me in a trance and I feel it’s the best genre of music to perceive the artists’ personality. While that may have become more troublesome with the saturation of rap and trap music over the last few years, 2020 brought us some incredible beats and great lyricism that hip hop has had to offer over the last few years.
Blu & Exile returned in monstrous form with the jazz-fuelled Miles, filled with witty punchlines and conscious bars demonstrating the magnificence of Blu on the mic. Quelle Chris came through with yet another quirky contemporary rap album, teaming up with Chris Keys for Innocent Country 2. Slauson Malone released Vergangenheitsbewältigung; an EP expanding upon last year’s A Quiet Farwell 2016-18 that holds up to the original with its compelling lyricism and lo-fi and eery production. Run The Jewels returned hotter than ever with RTJ 4; amazing beats from El-P and great performances from Killer Mike producing banger after banger. And Jay Electronica finally released his debut album after ten long years with A Written Testimony; an album which disappointed many but I think Jay-Z is unbelievable on this project and Jay Electronica performs as I’d imagined anyway. I also want to commend Dutchavelli’s Dutch From The 5th; I don’t usually listen to UK drill it often appears very one dimensional and bland to me but Dutch proved me wrong coming out with a gritty and grimy LP that to me showcases the darker and realistic side to gang life in the UK.
But I believe rap album of the year needs to be given to one of my favourite sub-genres that has been returning to fruition over the past five or so years; that being cocaine rap. Freddie Gibbs teamed up with yet another legendary producer for Alfredo with the Alchemist, with such luscious beats, complex flows, and gritty lyricism. But no one does coke rap in today’s age like the Griselda trio, and they’ve dominated the rap industry this year. Benny The Butcher released Burden of Proof, Westside Gunn dropped Pray for Paris and Who Made the Sunshine, meanwhile Conway the Machine came through with the Alchemist yet again on LULU. But it’s his solo release that clinches top spot for me.
#10: Conway the Machine – From King to A GOD
I believe Westside Gunn is the more flamboyant side to Griselda, while Benny appears grittier and highlights the roughness of Buffalo where the trio grew up. While I never felt Conway had a definitive identity like the other two, I think that’s what makes this album better than all the others. The problem I have with a majority of Griselda records is the songs blend into one, nothing stands out, there’s only so much I can take of Benny the Butcher rapping continuously about street life and the drug game. Whereas Conway offers everything on this album, and still maintains the grimy atmosphere from a typical Griselda Record. It feels so rooted and personal, focusing on Conway’s desires to be one of the standout figures in the rap game, while maintaining his Buffalo roots.
The production on the record features lots of boom bap influence with just a little something that separates it from a traditional rap beat. Especially on “Spurs 3”, that’ll have you bobbing your head to what sounds like wind chimes continuously colliding. And the features bring that cocky and unique energy tailored to every Griselda track. That being said all features on this album are fantastic. Dej Loaf’s verse is so infectious, Method Man dropped the best rap verse of the year in my opinion, Armani Caesar and Elcamino do well in complementing Conway’s performances, Freddie Gibbs takes a melodic turn in his contribution and the posse cut “Juvenile Hell” epitomises the gang activity and the desired position Conway wants to achieve. With New York rap legends Havoc and Lloyd Banks putting in great contributions.
The main reason why I think From King to a God stands out amongst other rap albums of the year is the way it encapsulates that raw, unopposed grit from a traditional Griselda record while managing to keep the listener hooked. The songs differ from grimy beats and repetitive bars about drug slinging, bragging and killings, opting for different musical avenues but not outgrowing that influence. I mean Conway sings on this album, and he does a good job, I never thought it’d be possible, and as well he got Murda Beatz producing one of the cuts which feels like such an odd combination but, again, it works really well. On top of all of this there’s a lot more sentiment on this record, speaking honestly on the pain he’s seen and why he raps and strives to be the best at his craft. I love how genuine the record feels, you hear about the loss he’s experienced and the drive he has, the interludes showcase how much the rap game means to Conway and he’s done the rap game a massive favour by dropping this project.
Favourite Tracks: Fear of God, Lemon, Spurs 3
A Chilled Record
With the bedlam that is 2020, I reaped the benefits of the monstrous amount of time that could be spent absorbing different musical elements of new releases. Branching out into new territories, which we’ll explore later, but also taking the time to relax and reconvene. This year was tough on everyone but from difficult times we can utilise that to help us grow as people. And many relaxed albums helped me through this process.
Fleet Foxes’ Shore was monumental to me in the way it felt like a helping hand throughout all the problems 2020 threw at me. The production of the album really incorporated the instrumentals to complement the lamentation spread throughout the project. Nicolas Jaar released Cenizas that truly felt like an open void you just submerge into; the eeriness of the entire album makes for a truly contemplative experience that allows you to be with yourself and your thoughts; distancing yourself from everything else. The final album I want to mention in this category is Adrianne Lenker’s songs; an album more comforting than Shore to the point where every track feels like something you can lay your head on, the intimacy of the project really makes for an inviting listen and provides you with a relationship you never knew you needed. But after a 5-year absence, the album I continuously keep returning to and hence lands at the ninth spot is:
#9: Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
British singer/songwriter Lianne La Havas waited 5 years to drop her sophomore project, and in my eyes that wait paid off because there are so many admirable qualities to this project that make it one of the best the year has to offer. Throughout this period Lianne wanted to live her life and grow as a person, and you can feel this transformation in the journey of the album, from energetic highs to more introspective lows. The album keeps you engaged throughout as you feel you know Lianne and who she is after listening through the tracklist.
To begin with, the production on this album from front to back is stellar; every single track on here feels so crisp and so layered. This allows the whole experience to feel so concentrated and focused as there’s no filler or nothing that can distract the listener from the intimacy of the project. You can’t listen to it without feeling somewhat rejuvenated, it feels so personal as a result of Lianne’s consistently perfect voice. When layered with the intricate instrumentation it creates such an immersive experience as you genuinely connect with the music and revel in its authenticity. The neo soul elements also add a groove to the tracks that maintains the listeners attention, meanwhile the elegance of the whole project arrives in the form of these slow and reflective tracks that really demonstrate Lianne’s growth.
The record starts with such a vibrant energy that gets you hooked on the intro Bittersweet, in which these beautiful piano keys and the passion in Lianne’s voice foreshadow how she can switch the mood of a song from energetic to solemn in an instant. The more solemn side is prevalent in tracks such as Courage and Green Papaya, the latter of which still maintains catchy elements meanwhile the former feels a lot more reflective. The way Lianne incorporates anthemic tracks that make you feel good about yourself while also including more reflective tracks that help you grow as a person. One track I had to mention though was the Weird Fishes cover, as it incorporates all the components that make this album so appealing. The first half of the track feels so intimate and groovy, Lianne’s voice feels so comforting and soft, mixed with a very subtle and minimalist instrumental. This progresses into a more energetic song, as the drums build and the bass becomes more prominent while her voice is magnificent in creating such a grand climax and really does the original song justice.
This demonstrates the two sides to this project: the one side that immerses the listener in its energy and groove, while the other places them in a cathartic mind frame, benefitting from the intimacy of the project. The diversity of this chilled and laid-back approach while still maintaining consistently pristine production really makes for an unforgettable listen.
Favourite Tracks: Bittersweet, Green Papaya, Weird Fishes
Something You’ve Never Heard Before
One of the things I love about music is that it’s constantly evolving, artists have more liberties and the more you explore the underground of music the further artists stretch the boundaries of genre. These projects always intrigue me, I just admire someone’s capability to really find something innovative and make it a reality. This may result in some disturbing music or somewhat weird experiences but that’s what makes them so admirable as without this, music would just be the same recycled formula used to benefit labels and money hungry executives.
People pushing the boundary in this way are Jessy Lanza, who came back after four years to release All the Time, a synth heavy and trippy pop album that’s so infectious. Similarly, Yaeji released her synth infused, hip hop influenced house debut What We Drew which is such a mesmerising experience. Arca returned with KiCk i, maintaining her more industrial club sound while continuing to create odd yet catchy tracks that are awe-inspiring, nonetheless. While Magic Oneohtrix Point Never certified Daniel Lopartin’s genius with his ability to merge pop influences with electronic music and even elements of plunderphonics to create an immersive and unforgettable encounter from a record that benefits from the many influences incorporated into its creation. On that note, the album in which I will give the next spot to, benefits from the popularity of hyperpop, while fusing multiple other influence that result in an indescribable listen.
#8: Black Dresses – Peaceful As Hell
Where Lianne La Havas is more polished and elegant, this album is brutal, distorted and so random in places but that’s what makes it so much fun. Ada Rook and Devi McCallion’s final project as Black Dresses before they disbanded earlier this year. This album merges elements of metal and punk with the autotune and synth heavy aspects of hyperpop and pop music. While also included distorted aspects familiarly used in noise rock. This blend culminates in “noise pop” but the record contains so many different influences you can’t really narrow it down to one genre.
The topics the album embodies are as broad as the multiple realms of music incorporated into the project. Covering friendship, faith in humanity and gender anxiety which make for very captivating listens even if the instrumentation hasn’t caught your ear already. The attitude carried over by the girls is fairly light-hearted, in comparison to some of the screams and the punk infused guitars and distorted aesthetic infused throughout the album. Demonstrating how the fact the project strays away from typical pop tropes there is a lot of purpose and meaning behind the songs. That being said some of the best features of this album are the catchy hooks that are present on LEFT ARM OF LIFE and PLEASE BE NICE. Giving the album an infectious nature that will have you singing along to tracks you first felt were repulsive and uncomfortable.
But that’s what makes this album so refreshing, on the one hand you have the calmer tracks, enveloped in autotune and thick synths like MAYBE THIS WORLD IS ANOTHER PLANETS HELL? That come across as reflective and a breath of fresh air, amongst the sheer chaos of tracks like SCARED 2 DEATH that leave you guessing where the track’s going to go next after you hear the distorted electric guitars mixed in with weird 808s and drum patterns that create for an extremely overwhelming time. This album is, in a word, indescribable and incomparable to anything else you will hear from any album released in 2020 or even beforehand.
The shock of going into this album expecting something different to what you’ve heard before and still being able to blow your expectations out of the water is testament to Black Dresses’ capabilities as musicians. The fact they managed to create so many interesting concepts, complex distorted and layered instrumentation while including catchy refrains and hooks shows this to the highest degree and it’s spread out across this whole project. It is a shame they’re unable to release new material but they left us with one of the most enthralling and jaw-dropping albums ever, you’ll never hear anything like this album, and because of that, it’s definitely worth checking it out.
Favourite Tracks: DAMAGE SUPRESSOR, SCARED 2 DEATH, CREEP U
What Classifies as Rock Nowadays?
Rock seems like such an amazing genre, there are so many directions and avenues in which acts can incorporate different influences and still fall into the rock category by some stretch. For this spot I wanted to collect all artists I thought were fantastic this year that somehow lie underneath the rock umbrella. IDLES came through once again with their relentless and politically driven post punk sound in Ultra Mono, The Garden released an unpredictable experimental punk album in Kiss My Super Bowl Ring. While Jeff Rosenstock kept to his witty ways in NO DREAM, Touché Amoré created a gorgeous yet riveting post hardcore project that emotionally invests the listener in such an awe-inspiring way on Lament. But it was art rock that drew my attention most throughout the year, Everything Everything’s RE-ANIMATOR deserves a nod for it’s gorgeous production and futuristic sound. King Krule delivered more of his gruelling sound on Man Alive! However my choice sways more into the realm of art pop, which I feel isn’t giving the rest of these albums the credit they deserve, but this project is phenomenal and I didn’t know how else to categorize it.
#7: Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’ gorgeous fifth entry into the Perfume Genius catalogue blends minimalist instrumentation with his trademark complex lyrics centring around love, existence, and humanity in general. Making for one of his most consistent and intimate listens, which is incredible considering his astounding back catalogue, but Set My Heart On Fire Immediately separates itself from previous releases. The simplistic use of synths and gentle instrumentation really heighten the focus on Mike’s emotional capacity here, the album feels more personal and all sensations are elevated as a result of this. His voice is unsurprisingly comforting yet impactful and the songs manage to adhere to you with their density intertwined with real experiences.
The introductory track Whole Life doesn’t shy away from this, with Mike contemplating on how he’s halfway through his life, lamenting on the experiences he’s had as he realises their true value. The lack of instrumentation, beginning solely with synths and Mike’s vocals, building into the use of piano keys and the use of strings really encapsulating the complexity of his thoughts and lyricism. This minimalism is also utilised on the track Jason, a track detailing a sexual encounter but told from a point of retrospect. The track benefits from the soft but luscious background vocals and lack of instrumentation that builds into a wall of cellos, violas and synths that maximise the heavy subject matter of the song and really bring to life the intricacy of Mike’s encounters. The album also benefits from more conventional formulas, on tracks like Describe and On The Floor, that have more of a rhythm and balladry to them with the gorgeous electric guitars really captivating you on the latter.
It is the final leg of the album that resonates with me the most, Nothing At All really envelops you in the same way the narrator is enveloped by their lover. The chorus is so infectious meanwhile those synth notes are gorgeous and make you honestly feel like you’re flying. Some Dream centres around all Mike has sacrificed for music, the lack of humanity resulted from his unyielding drive and how it has affected him. The change in tone on the track is one of the best switch-ups I’ve ever heard, going into those clunky piano notes and that distorted guitar really catches your attention and brings you into Mike’s reality as a pose to the introspective nature of the rest of the album. Final track Borrowed Light captures the beauty of the album while also epitomising the character of Mike as well as he sings over an organ in such a pessimistic light. He dwells on whether his creative capabilities are all for nothing, which really emphasises the emotional potency of the project. Making you reconsider yourself what’s meaningful to you and I think Mike’s ability to do that showcases his astounding artistic capabilities.
Favourite Tracks: Nothing at All, Some Dream, Borrowed Light
The Indie Album of the Year
I don’t have a lot of honourable mentions for this category because I feel there are so many of them that can fit into so many sections of this list. But it simply shows how many fantastic indie releases came out this year and how prevalent the genre is in today’s music atmosphere. Albums that haven’t been mentioned yet that deserve a nod: I loved HAIM’s Women In Music Pt. III I really loved the subtleties on this album and I could really see a lot of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground influences that made me appreciate the album even more. I also loved Pinegrove’s Marigold, displaying how intimate the band really is and how their music continues to be so comforting and elegant to the point where you can’t help but smile throughout the whole experience. But my choice goes to the album that deserves every bit of hype it got and I will be backing this artist all the way at the Grammys because this album is fantastic.
#6: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
I regret every day I slept on this album, I don’t know why it was never in my best interest, even after my first listen I felt it was good but didn’t see the true value. And on that second listen it just blew me out of the water. Drawing heavily from Elliott Smith with the more lo–fi elements on the album as well as its soft and subtle atmosphere. It creates this melancholic tone that is persistent throughout the project as Phoebe’s emotion is on full display, complemented by her amazing writing and the instrumentation is phenomenal.
At some point the instrumentals are more sombre and allow Phoebe’s personal and touching lyrics to take the forefront. Such as on the track Garden Song in which Phoebe details a recurring dream she had on tour. I don’t know why this song gets to me as there are others that are more emotionally potent but Phoebe’s smooth timbre and soft tone really just catches me off guard and I feel I can really connect with this song. The same also occurs on the track Halloween, the simple use of guitar strings make for an empathic experience and one that really sticks with you.
On the other hand you get slightly more energetic tracks utilising a broad use of instrumentation. I love the violins and horns on many of the tracks it really makes for a unique experience while still maintaining the melancholy of the entire album. Kyoto is the album’s most enjoyable song, due to the catchier guitar chords and basslines. Yet the lyrical content centres around her complicated relationship with her father and the confusion that comes with that and her loneliness. Another example of the amplified instrumentation comes from the track ICU; centring around her attitudes towards an ex-lover post break up and the complexity of feelings that arise in that scenario. The drums sound heavy and become more impactful and it heightens the poignant essence of the album. This is further exemplified on the final track I Know The End, which feels like two separate tracks blended together perfectly. The first half continues along the themes of the album, a very spaced out, melancholic and empathic ballad utilising Phoebe’s voice and emotional capabilities before a gorgeous violin interlude. The second half consists of a sole verse that slowly progresses in intensity and culminates in this wall of horns and crashing drums with the chant “The end is here” relentlessly repeated. It ultimately feels like the speculative nature of the album and the complex range of emotion heavily embedded within the project has erupted in such an impactful way. You feel a sense of catharsis as you and Phoebe are somewhat relieved of all the issues addressed throughout the album. You’ve vented all pressing feelings and you’re now ready to reap the benefits of the newfound self-acceptance.
Favourite Tracks: Garden Song, Kyoto, I Know The End
A Personal Album
While I have touched upon more personal releases over the last few placements. I think that there has been an interesting selection of albums that feel more autobiographical before taking into consideration the genre in which the album falls into. The first of which being Laura Marling’s Song for our Daughter, a gorgeous record that serves as a message to Marling’s fictional daughter. Derived from Maya Angelou’s poem Letter to my Daughter, the album’s stripped back nature allows it to feel extremely personal, feeling more like a guidance from your guardian angel rather than a run-of-the-mill folk album. Meanwhile Chris Stapleton’s Starting Over strips back the production and focuses more on the personal and raw aspect of his lyricism. Making for a country album that really enhances the emotions of the listener and makes for a more passionate experience displaying what makes country music so great. But the most personal album of the year in my opinion comes from a posthumous release, quite possibly this artists’ best album yet, really displaying the true talent he had, RIP Mac Miller.
#5: Mac Miller – Circles
I would categorise this as a rap album but there’s no instances here where I feel like Malcolm is rapping. It feels more like a singer/songwriter record in its intimacy and personality. And it serves the artist so well. You could tell through his music before he passed that he was trying to prioritise his singing ability more than his rapping prowess. This is physically evident when comparing his album Swimming to that of Watching Movies With The Sound Off, a five-year gap but a complete change in soundscapes and artistic merit.
Mac Miller’s family laid the responsibility of his posthumous release in the hands of Jon Brion, an extremely talented musician who befriended Malcolm in the final few years of his life. What surprised me about him was how he truly believed in Mac’s singing ability and with that knowledge it makes sense that the album showcases how musically gifted he truly was. Circles is a sequel to the aforementioned Swimming, showcasing how Mac has beaten his demons and truly encompassed his desire to restore his quality and appreciation of life. This makes for a more personal listen as I believe there’s no filter on this project and all thoughts are genuine.
This shines through on Good News, the lead single, the lyrics and the chorus make for a truly empathetic experience as Mac lays out his true thoughts and ultimately what triggers his mental health issues. The lyric “there’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side” truly strikes a nerve with the knowledge of the artists’ death. The instrumentation on the track is gorgeous with the simplistic bass plucks and the piano chords that create a more ethereal aura for the track that adds to the authenticity of it.
The luscious production is on full show with the track Hand Me Downs, the sole feature from Baro Sura feels other worldly as the guitar line, gorgeous synths and the more simplistic drums make for such a warming song. Touching upon Mac’s desires to one day start a family while incorporating the ways in which he copes with his struggles and how he’s more inclined and better prepared to help himself. The instrumentation stays in this realm throughout the album, this guitar is on full display on tracks like That’s On Me and Surf. While others incorporate more of synths and different effects to give it a thick atmosphere that makes you feel like you experience the clarity that Malcolm’s feeling. Showcased on I Can See, Blue World and Woods. The writing and hooks are consistently fantastic throughout, but I wanted to mention the way the album bookends with two very sentimental and personal ballads. The simple acoustic guitar on Circles and the layered thick synths on Once A Day allow Mac’s headspace and personal experiences to take the reins and show who he truly was and how he’d really transformed before his untimely death.
Favourite Tracks: Blue World, Hand Me Downs, Once A Day
Experimentation in an Album
As mentioned previously I do love when records sound completely different to anything you’ve heard before. And while this category may seem similar to my number 8 spot, I think these albums are different as they push what their respective genre can be rather than create music that benefits from different effects and specific niches. But that’s just my opinion. Liturgy’s Origin of the Alimonies does this in the way it blends metal with aspects of Hip-Hop and Opera for a mesmerising experience, one albeit expected from Liturgy but nevertheless will blow you away. Clown Core’s Van uses elements of hyperpop and fuses them more with jazz that will make for an experience that will have you questioning everything you’re hearing. Sevdaliza released a Trip-Hop and R&B infused album with Shabrang, the subject matter on the album also making for a purely unique experience and one that demands a listen. But I want to give this spot to another rap album, but one that blends elements of noise and horrorcore that make the experience better than 80% of horror movies you can see, for the second year in a row I have to include:
#4: clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Last year’s There Existed An Addiction to Blood was one of my favourite releases ever. Daveed Diggs and the clipping gang’s ability to blend horror movie aesthetics with their trademark experimentalism, complex storytelling and flows made for a unique experience and one which is incomparable to any rap project you’ll hear. Once I caught wind of extra material from the album being embodied onto a second project it got me so excited because I felt there’s only good that can come out of this, and I was more than right.
Even from the Intro, you get Daveed in his most intimidating fashion, the bars are quick, frightening, and intense before you arrive at the patented “it’s clipping…” met with this wall of noise that’ll shock you more than any horror movie ever could. Although these tracks don’t feel as dense in terms of its production as clipping’s previous effort, they all follow along the same path. Encompassing more of a club aesthetic whereas on the previous project the tracks felt genuinely scary and really enveloped the horror movie tropes. But that only makes this album feel more concise and focused, with a more enjoyable experience as the tracks at least appear more fun and hence are more palatable.
The opening tracks to the album are the best in my opinion. Say the Name has that catchy Geto Boys sample that engulfs the track as it progresses into those bells and heavy synths. Giving the track such an infectious rhythm you can’t help but dance along to with a concerned look on your face. Can’t say I’ve ever felt so energetic listening a song based around the concept of the horror movie Candyman, but now I sure can. The fourth track ’96 Neve Campbell features an amazing appearance from Cam and China, the jerkin influence really makes the track so intimidating and the instrumental adds a spookiness to it. Matching the concept of being the final character left alive in your traditional slasher flick.
The concepts of all the tracks are unparalleled and when matched with the instrumentation throughout the project, the album really stands out. The outro to Pain Everyday includes a wall of violins and noise that make for a haunting listen and one that really draws you in. One of my personal favourites is the penultimate track Enlacing, the atmosphere created by the backing vocals and slight distortion make for an incredible track that I highly recommend. On top of this, the interludes serve as walls of noise and more experimental soundscapes that are quite subtle but ultimately add to the overall tension of the album. This whole thing is best experienced in a dark room with the speakers on full blast, such a great album and a truly unique and captivating listen.
Favourite Tracks: Say the Name, ’96 Neve Campbell, Enlacing
A Spot for Hyperpop, Bubble-gum Bass, Glitch Pop or Whatever You Want to Call It
One of my favourite genres in general coming into this year; I love the scene of Hyperpop and the multiple unique and amazing personalities that have stemmed from it. Regardless of if their releases make the honourable mentions, I just want everyone to check out Tommy Cash, Kim Petras, Caroline Polachek, Dorian Electra, A.G. Cook and SOPHIE because they all make amazing music regardless of if I haven’t included it in this segment. Albums from this year that I did love were Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA and 100 Gecs’ remix project 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues. Both are consistently infectious listens that really take pop clichés and catchy hooks mixed with their unique brand of experimentalism and create two astounding projects that’ll leave you in awe. But I had to give top spot to one of the pioneers of the genre, releasing in my opinion the one true lockdown album and that has to be:
#3: Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
With lockdown in full affect Charli XCX employed her heightened relationship with fans and co–collaborators to make a uniquely raw and personal album. Talking to fans on Instagram live to help her round out tracks and benefitting from Dylan Brady and 100 Gecs’ more industrial twist on hyperpop. The album covered topics of love and mental health, to Charli’s longing to see her friends and go out clubbing again. Encapsulating everyone’s mood throughout 2020 and developing it with her unique sound and production that, while varied from the more polished sound of Charli, still maintained the glitch pop exterior. The album added in more dance elements to give it an energetic and intriguing sound that truly envelops the listener.
The album showcases this straight from the intro, the club banger Pink Diamond serves as a message. Instantly separating the sound of the project from Charli’s previous efforts and setting up a more personal and industrial project. This coincides with the rough aesthetic of the album due to the limitations as Charli was faced with a lack of studio time and face to face interactions that would’ve refined the album’s production. The first leg of the album centres around Charli’s relationship as she decided to spend lockdown with her boyfriend. Claws is my favourite from this group of tracks although 7 years and forever are both phenomenal in their own way. But Brady’s production on the track allow the effects on Charli’s voice and the more rigged and experimental side of the album to shine through. The hook is amazingly catchy and Charli’s verses maintain that pop appeal and infectiousness.
The next leg of tracklist focuses more on Charli’s mental health, her outlook on her surroundings and how lockdown is ultimately triggering these feelings. Detonate, i finally understand and enemy are definitely more personal and reveal the character to which Charli genuinely is behind the pop songs and personality she reveals on stage. Which engages me even more as I feel the true extent of lockdown in these tracks through the insecurities and the way she’s feeling. The fact that the tracks can be so personal and maintain that pop aesthetic and the catchiness of her previous work is really testament to Charli’s ability as an artist, and even more so with the limitations at hand.
The final section of the album focuses more on the physical limitations of lockdown, not being able to see friends or go clubbing and how Charli truly misses this experience. My favourite here is party 4 u, a track that epitomises what it’s like to throw a party but from an emotionally reminiscent perspective. The production feels more lavish, the background vocals that lead up into the relentless chanting of “party on you” really just feels like a sea of nostalgia as we go into lockdown not knowing when we’ll truly be able to experience this type of energy again.
Favourite Tracks: claws, c2.0, party 4 u
An Artists’ Return to form in 2020
One thing that really struck me about the music released in 2020 was the amount of well-known and critically acclaimed artists that returned to the spotlight and in a major way. Many well-regarded artists maintained their deserved accolades with their releases from this year. One major standout was Fiona Apple with Fetch the Bolt Cutters that has been doing the rounds throughout the year, The Strokes returned with the magnificent and more abstract sounding The New Abnormal, benefitting from Rick Rubin’s production. Deftones and The Flaming Lips returned to full form after disappointing releases throughout the 2010s with Ohms and American Head, respectively. Yet one artist that didn’t necessarily return to music this year was Phil Elverum, operating under the Mount Eerie moniker for the last 17 years but in 2020 decided to dig up one of the most-acclaimed musical projects and one of my personal favourites.
#2: The Microphones – Microphones in 2020
The Microphones released two of the most impressive and acclaimed lo-fi indie rock albums in The Glow Pt. 2 and Mount Eerie in the early 2000s. Before Phil moved onto his new project, and while I love his creativity and poetic essence of his music Mount Eerie never resonated with me in the same way The Microphones does. This is what made me so excited for this album and I was far from disappointed. Consisting of one 44-minute track that recollects Phil’s youth and his unique outlook on life from a completely different era. The motif of the album: “the true state of all things” is one of many things that leave you pondering throughout its entirety.
This is a result of the repetitive, soft acoustic guitar chords that are prominent throughout the full 44 minutes. Allowing the listener to ease into the project with the 7-minute intro, representing the years that have gone by since the release of Mount Eerie back in 2003. The instrumentation throughout the track is very simplistic. But because of its familiarity it allows the listener to benefit from the lyrics as they are very personal, Phil’s ability to present them in a poetic form allows the experience to be relatable and beneficial. Affecting your character as you feel you’ve been on a nostalgic journey alongside Phil. The instrumentation becomes more intense and ultimately heightens the emotional potency of the album. There are instances where the guitars turn more distorted and when the synths come in after 27 minutes it enables you to just sit in an ocean of reflection and it’s a truly mesmerising experience. You definitely aren’t the same person coming out of this album as you are going into it.
One major reason for that is the way Phil writes his lyrics and the magical way in which he expresses them. He manages to evoke such personal details and personal thoughts, incorporating them into his projects so effortlessly. The topics he covers make the project feel more like an autobiography; it enhances the artistic value as this is as raw as an album can get. He reminisces on his youth and his outlook on the world in the early 2000s compared to the way he feels now. Encompassing the perspective he has attained after the troubles he’s faced over the last two decades. He also touches on how he created The Microphones and the little nods he gives to classic lyrics from The Glow Pt. 2 really warms my heart. The multiple memories he recollects on just augments Phil’s relatability; you feel like you know him by the end of the project. His soft, melancholic tone strengthens the albums ability to benefit you and your character as you’re basically reminiscing on someone’s life as he recounts it in a retrospective fashion. With a lot of introspective lyrics that get you questioning life and all there is that comes with it.
The Year’s Popular Releases
Popular music in general doesn’t sit well with me, being who I am I often ignore the majority of it and believe it to be saturated with a lack of artistic value. But this year brought out many popular albums that I believe can hold their own throughout the upcoming years and I’ll be disappointed I wasn’t on the hype train as early as I should’ve been. Again, there is a list of albums I believe could be in contention for at least honourable mentions at the bottom of the article, projects regardless of my engagement I believe everyone should give a try. But the most popular release that stuck with me was The Weeknd’s After Hours. I was never really a fan of Abel, his music never really resonated with me but this project feels so concise and so focused it’s impossible to ignore. The heavy use of synths and the luscious production with his already incredible voice make for such a great experience as you journey with him through his many struggles. The album that takes the number one spot has been on my radar since January when they dropped the first single and with every continuous drop I became increasingly excited until the full project dropped. And that takes us to number 1.
#1: Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Damon Albarn is a creative genius for what he did for this album. With a shift in focus from an album’s overall concept into the art of the single really made for an amalgamation of high-quality tracks with stellar production, fantastic guest features and an amazing listen. Many people believe that the lack of cohesion between tracks makes for an incoherent listen that feels disjointed in the many influences and directions littered throughout the project. But this is what makes the album stand out to me, it’s evident that an extreme amount of effort has gone into each individual track and the fact they sound so different makes the album so fun in its unpredictability.
Robert Smith’s fantastic contribution to the title track Strange Timez adds to its spooky nature and abstract concept. Foreshadowing what is to come throughout the album. The pianos in the first leg of the song inevitably build into a dance anthem, while maintaining that stellar instrumentation. The rise and progressive build of the track is a trait present on many of the following tracks. Aries is a great example; with the bassline of Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order fame being so prominent and catchy that builds into the gorgeous layering of 2D’s vocals making for such an infectious track. Pac-Man utilises this in the way the track is constantly progressing towards the fantastic ScHoolboy Q verse that is so unrelenting in the delivery and never lets up. The final chorus of Momentary Bliss creates such an amazing climax as the more energetic drums and guitar from Slaves incorporated with Slowthai’s punk delivery make for in some ways an uplifting and charismatic track that makes the most of the features at its disposal. My views on this album can be encapsulated in my personal favourite track from the record, The Pink Phantom. After seeing the listed features of 6lack and Elton John I felt that the track couldn’t work. In the way I feel many people viewed Gorillaz in 2020 after their previous two releases being somewhat disappointing. However once you get into the track and hear the irresistible piano along with 2D’s vocals, before 6lack arrives with such a relaxed, autotune–laced delivery as the piano becomes more prominent, layered with luscious synths. Before Elton John with his trademarked charismatic and overstated delivery that blend in so well with the songs atmosphere that make for such a sensational listen that I believe is the song of the year.
Albarn’s ability to blend different features that, on first glance, don’t correlate in any way. As well as the broad range of influences littered throughout the tracklist certify the true extent of the Gorillaz imprint. No song can be too abstract and no concept can be too eccentric. Every track is densely layered and consistent in its gorgeous production and vocal delivery, I can’t find a weak link out of any of the songs. And the fact there are so many tracks that differ from another the album feels somewhat cohesive in its abstract nature. Enhancing the experience and making for the best album released this year.
Favourite Tracks: Pac-Man, The Pink Phantom, Aries
If you’ve made it to the end thank you for reading, hopefully 2021 will bring us back to normality but also bring even more great music. I’ve left a link to a best of 2020 Spotify playlist below as well as a list of albums from the year that I recommend to anyone who’s made it through the article.
Best of 2020 Playlist on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6z2qT5hGDvB5CSwli4z41W?si=vp8GjShDQnC5tX3EkF6BCQ
100 Gecs – 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues
A.G. Cook – Apple & 7G
Adrienne Lenker – songs
Aminé – Limbo
Anna Von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
Arca – KiCk i
Autechre – Sign
The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You
Against All Logic – 2017-2019
Backxwash – God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It
Big Sean – Detroit 2
Boldy James & Sterling Toles – Manager on McNichols
Boris – No
Boris & Merzbow – 2R0IP20
Black Dresses – Peaceful As Hell
Black Wing – No Moon
Blu & Exile – Miles
Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Clown Core – Van
Code Orange – Underneath
Conway the Machine – From King to A GOD
Deerhoof – Future Teenage Cave Artists
Deftones – Ohms
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED
Disclosure – Energy
Dorian Electra – My Agenda
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Duma – Duma
Dutchavelli – Dutch From The 5th
Everything Everything – RE-ANIMATOR
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
The Flaming Lips – American Head
Fleet Foxes – Shore
Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
The Garden – Kiss My Super Bowl Ring
Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
HAIM – Women in Music pt. III
Hayley Williams – Petal for Armor
HMLTD – West of Eden
IDLES – Ultra Mono
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
Jean Dawson – Pixel Bath
Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM
Jesse Ware – What’s Your Pleasure
Jessy Lanza – All the Time
Ka – Descendants of Cain
Kali Uchis – Sin Miedo
Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
Kid Cudi – Man On The Moon III: The Chosen
King Krule – Man Alive!
The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominique’s Nosebleed
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia
Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies
Mac Miller – Circles
Matmos – The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form
Metro Boomin & 21 Savage – Savage Mode II
The Microphones – Microphones In 2020
Moses Sumney – græ
Mura Masa – R.Y.C.
Natalia Lafourcade – Un Canto por Mexico Vol. 1
Nicolas Jaar – Cenizas & Telas
Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma & Divorce
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Pinegrove – Marigold
Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red
Poppy – I Disagree
Quelle Chris and Chris Keys – Innocent Country 2
R.A.P. Fereirra – Purple Moonlight
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Run the Jewels – RTJ 4
Sevdaliza – Shabrang
The Strokes – The New Abnormal
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
Taylor Swift – Evermore & Folklore
Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Touché Amoré – Lament
The Weeknd – After Hours
Yaeji – Whatever We Drew
Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Bring Me The Horizon – Post Human: Survival Horror
JPEGMAFIA – EP!
Slauson Malone – Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak)
Tkay Maidza – Last Year Was Weird vol. 2