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The List: Stereoboard's Best Albums of 2020

Monday, 14 December 2020 Written by Stereoboard

Well, that was weird, wasn't it? 2020 will not be fondly remembered (aside from one particular bloke losing a big job) and 2021 is starting its race with some ground to make up, but as we locked down and stayed home the soundtrack was excellent at least. So much good music made its way into the world over the past 12 months, reminding us of what we have to cherish and also what we potentially have to lose. Here's our pick of the best of the best with a reminder: the artistic and creative industries cannot be allowed to wither and die. Support your local record shop. Support your local venues. Keep going.

 

DUA LIPA // FUTURE NOSTALGIA

Like most of us, Dua Lipa spent the majority of 2020 yearning for a collective return to the dancefloor. When the electrifying follow up to her 2018 self-titled debut dropped in March, it arrived precisely on cue: the world had just been plunged into the first, fractious coronavirus-enforced lockdown, but ‘Future Nostalgia’ held the ability to briefly reverse all of the newfound worry. Shiny and immaculate, these striking, strobe-lit songs of sex and empowerment showcased an artist in electric, ascendant form who brought a much-needed heap of far-flung escapism when we needed it most. A triumphant effort from the people’s popstar. // Sophie Williams

Listen: Physical


 

JAY ELECTRONICA // A WRITTEN TESTIMONY

The fact that Jay Electronica’s debut album existed at all will have been enough for some. But ‘A Written Testimony’ flipped everything we thought we were waiting for. We ended up getting that too when ‘Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn)’ leaked and was released in October, but here Jay Elec worked quickly and pressed reset. In under 40 minutes he weaved a spell of meticulous flows, ethereal spirituality and smashy percussion, with JAY-Z waiting around every bend with verses that jabbed back at his protege, pushing the pace, and pushing a sense of genial competition that ends with a split decision. // Huw Baines

Listen: A.P.I.D.T.A.


 

TAYLOR SWIFT // FOLKLORE

“Cold was the steel of my axe to grind, for the boys who broke my heart,” Taylor Swift sings on Invisible String. It’s a subtle acknowledgement of her once black and white view of relationships, one that dealt in love and hate, trust and betrayal, but now encompasses the grey found in between. It’s a lyrical maturity that belies her 30 years and leaves behind the vivid romanticism her past material was draped in. With the aid of the National guitarist Aaron Dessner and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, Swift also ditched slick production and earworm choruses in favour of beautifully lo-fi and delicate soundscapes that showcased her storytelling chops beyond surface level. ‘Folklore’ is a tour de force. And that's before we've even acknowledged the recently-landed 'Evermore'. // Laura Johnson

Listen: Cardigan


 

JEFF ROSENSTOCK // NO DREAM

Punk’s great polymath returned with another surprise album this year and, surprising nobody, it was a flat out rager. Tuning into the creeping sense of dread and anxiety that walked the streets of America during the penultimate months of the Trump presidency, Jeff Rosenstock harnessed that fidgety energy into songs that crackled with melodic verve and blown-out fuzz. Backed by his hyper-tight Death Rosenstock band, he blew through these tracks largely live as producer Jack Shirley captured each exhausted roar and firecracker drum fill, adding heft and grit to songs that matched ‘Post-’ and ‘Worry’ punch for punch. // Huw Baines

Listen: Scram


 

CODE ORANGE // UNDERNEATH

The Pittsburgh firebrands continued to carve out their own niche in aggressive music on ‘Underneath’, arguably the most accessible album they've released yet. Still heavily experimental, the record is a testament to the band’s unwavering dedication to pushing boundaries while not losing sight of their hardcore origins. This time around, they’ve injected a lot more digital and industrial influences into the songs’ twists and turns, and you’ll find yourself headbanging to a gnarly chug-fest one moment before being jolted into harsh, glitchy electronics the next. A thrilling listen that elevates the genre entirely. // Jon Stickler

Listen: Underneath


 

FIONA APPLE // FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS

With an eccentric sort of flair, Fiona Apple rose to new heights on her highly anticipated return ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’. Strengthening her ardent cult following, and intriguing new listeners, the singer-songwriter utilised her beloved piano along with an array of homemade instruments to create a musical genre entirely her own. In its varied vocal pitches and vibrant tempos, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ thrived within a beautifully turbulent sense of chaos. Sparked by fierce femininity and free-spirited energy, Apple’s is a creativity without borders. Revelling in some bold lyrical truths, and Apple’s ever exuberant delivery, this is music that bites right through to our very core. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: I Want You To Love Me


 

THE BETHS // JUMP ROPE GAZERS

Liz Stokes returned with more pitch-perfect power-pop songs in a weird summer that needed a little escapism. The Beths—completed by guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck—are a truly electric band, playing apparently simple songs with a sense of virtuoso poise and nailing harmony-laden melody after harmony-laden melody. Stokes also added a helping of gauzy dream-pop to the running order, finding space away from the buzzsaw riffs to pause and figure out a new way to investigate the structural elements of a killer hook. A quieter, more reflective cousin of their debut LP ‘Future Me Hates Me’, ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ remained entirely magnetic. // Huw Baines

Listen: Jump Rope Gazers


 

FONTAINES D.C. // A HERO'S DEATH

Fontaines D.C. pulled zero punches on their second album ‘A Hero’s Death’. Quickly becoming infamous for their raw, gritty sound, here lead singer Grian Chatten cut through with sharp vocals and a distinctively muted tone. Their bravado has been abandoned, lurking only like a ghost from their incredible debut album ‘Dogrel’, and ‘A Hero’s Death’ is a far darker offering from the quintet. Tackling depressive thoughts, long nights on the road, curtain falls, and brawls, the album's entire process, from writing to recording, transported Fontaines D.C. to a new realm on the cusp of fame, while charting a heady rise to the pinnacle of indie rock. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: Televised Mind


 

RIZ AHMED // THE LONG GOODBYE

Riz Ahmed's The Long Goodbye delivers a furious narrative, dissecting the marginalisation of British Asians through the motif of a toxic, abusive relationship. Here producer Redinho’s maximalist drum and bass-blended landscapes build beneath Riz's incensed, provocative lyrics. “I spit my truth, and it's brown,” he rages on Fast Lava. A concept piece dotted with skits from Mindy Kaling, Mahershala Ali and Asim Chaudhry in character as Chabuddy G, ‘The Long Goodbye’ matches scope with fury. On The Breakup (Shikwa), Riz spits “Britain's broken up with me, we had our ups but now it's broken down,” before adding: “I was a guest unwanted in my own house.” This album is a call to arms, a work of art and a profoundly important listen. // Milly McMahon

Listen: The Breakup (Shikwa)


 

RINA SAWAYAMA // SAWAYAMA

What does it take to break out as a pop star in 2020? A viral TikTok hit? A little disco shimmy? An unbreakable star-fan dynamic? Rina Sawayama has it all. Theatrical and freaky, the triumphant debut LP from the Dirty Hit signee channelled the ripsnorting energy of nu-metal and dressed it to the nines, splicing distorted, crunching guitars with spiky electro-pop structures. The Japanese-British vocalist made headlines this year when she righteously called the Mercury Prize out over her ineligibility to enter—despite having lived in London for over 25 years—and in doing so, proved that she is not just an extraordinary talent, but one of the most vital voices in pop. // Sophie Williams

Listen: XS


 

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN // LETTER TO YOU

Recorded live in just four days, ‘Letter To You’ is a testament to the inimitable chemistry that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are working with. Lyrically, it finds the Boss flicking through his scrapbook, while also reflecting inward for further personal exploration. Stylistically, the record nods to past eras with its expansive instrumentation, yet with just a reverberating guitar riff and gravelly vocal line he can put you in that New Jersey Legion Hall alongside him and his departed Castiles bandmates. But this is by no means the backwash of past triumphs. ‘Letter To You’ rubber stamps Springsteen as a singer-songwriter-storyteller who continues to operate outside of generational confines. // Laura Johnson

Listen: Ghosts


 

TOUCHÉ AMORÉ // LAMENT

Following up ‘Stage Four’ was a monumentally difficult task, but one that Touché Amoré approached with their usual candour and creativity. Jeremy Bolm documented the bits and pieces of his life as he moved on from the loss of his mother, finding love and hope amid jagged grief and reluctant recrimination. In collaboration with producer Ross Robinson and notable guests including Julien Baker and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, his bandmates conjured hardcore masterworks that balanced feral outpourings of emotion with a level of melodic cut and thrust that they’ve only occasionally flirted with in the past, pushing Touché Amoré to fresh heights. // Huw Baines

Listen: Reminders


 

GREGORY PORTER // ALL RISE

In a year that hasn’t exactly showered us with reasons to feel cheerful, Gregory Porter produced a heartwarming sonic counterbalance to the relentless shitstorm. Expanding his jazzy, soulful repertoire to include gospel, blues, R&B and more, ‘All Rise’ features a glorious rainbow of instrumentally lush, supremely melodic and beautifully picturesque compositions powered by the singer-supreme’s unshakeable belief love will conquer all. Far from an over sentimental cheese-fest, whether tackling racism, heartache or abandonment, these songs rise from the depths of unpleasantness to create a shimmering sky full of optimistic sunshine. We can but hope 2021 follows suit. // Simon Ramsay

Listen: Concorde


 

KELLY LEE OWENS // INNER SONG

On her second album, ‘Inner Song’, Welsh electro-pop musician Kelly Lee Owens ventured further into structural analysis, assembling songs that functioned equally adeptly as immediate shots of melody and long-form club explorations. Underpinning it all were Owens’ gossamer, dextrous vocals and the understanding that bass comes first, whether it’s deployed as a flashy building block (Jeanette), woozy sub hit (Re-Wild) or runaway heartbeat (Melt!). Capable of lulling you into a meditative trance, conjuring dancefloor bliss or weirding you out with a creeping synth line, ‘Inner Song’ had it all. // Huw Baines

Listen: Melt!


 

BULLY // SUGAREGG

‘SUGAREGG’ found Alicia Bognanno letting go and challenging herself in a number of ways: by relinquishing a share of the production duties to John Congleton, by operating as a solo artist, and by delving into her battle with bipolar II disorder, which were all firsts for her. Despite the latter being a tough topic to broach, Bognanno managed to mould her narrative into 12 accessible tracks that fused grunge, punk and rock alongside some indelible melodies. “I’m not angry anymore, I’m not holding on to that,” she sings on the record’s penultimate song Hours and Hours. We believe her. // Laura Johnson

Listen: Where to Start


 

LAURA MARLING // SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER

‘Song For Our Daughter’ is mesmerising and mystifying in equal measure. An immersive tale of heart and soul, dedicated to a fictitious child, here Laura Marling’s performances are spectacular and uninhibited. A period of closure, including severing ties with her label and management following 2017’s ‘Semper Femina’, opened the door for this newfound freedom, which culminated in a gem of serenely simple instrumental arrangements and confessional vocals. Marling is soft but fearless, brave yet beautiful. Wielding emotion, while relinquishing control of it in a gorgeous cascade of truths and unwavering honesty, this is an album that truly stands out in her career. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: Held Down


 

FLEET FOXES // SHORE

The return of Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes was one of those gentle surprises that causes laughter to bubble up involuntarily. Released on the cusp of autumn, ‘Shore’ is a beautiful record that’s as much a celebration of craftsmanship as it is an easygoing, sunlit wander into old-fashioned indie-pop. With his voice bolstering timeless hooks and playing off shimmering instrumentation, Pecknold combined with engineer and mixer Beatriz Artola to fill each frame with Easter eggs: whirring percussion or subtle/not so subtle nods to his heroes. The majority of the latter fall during Sunblind, an excavation of high-technique ‘70s soft-rock that is practically perfect. // Huw Baines

Listen: Sublind


 

EMPRESS OF // I’M YOUR EMPRESS OF

There’s a bittersweet dancefloor appeal to Lorely Rodriguez’s third album. It’s characteristically expressive, with Rodriguez drawing on heartbreak and sexual desire. She also interpolates her mother’s powerful messages on womanhood, a clear influence on how Rodriguez carries herself. Throughout the record, her vocals are beautifully layered, intertwined with wobbly synths and Balearic beats. Her Honduran heritage is worn on her sleeve, as is her individuality both as a person and as a musician, having largely written and produced these tracks solo. A more mature effort than previous projects, ‘I’m Your Empress Of’ is a seriously impressive electro-pop album, created by an artist with a demonstrative sense of authenticity. // Alex Myles

Listen: Give Me Another Chance


 

PERFUME GENIUS // SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY

Mike Hadreas is one of the most innovative, exciting songwriters operating anywhere, and on ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’ he pushed the envelope with diversions into sludgy indie-pop (Describe) and ELO-style pomp rock (On the Floor). His taste for baroque sadness and turns of phrase to cut the listener in half remained undimmed, but with a killer crew of collaborators and session musicians (Blake Mills, Phoebe Bridgers, Pino Palladino etc etc) in his employ he brooked no argument in bringing the ambitious nature of these songs to life. A complete triumph.// Huw Baines

Listen: Describe


 

NADINE SHAH // KITCHEN SINK

Tongue-in-cheek yet self-aware, Nadine Shah’s serene, awe-inducing ‘Kitchen Sink’ explored the peaks and valleys of womanhood, lust and growing older, alongside her identity as a British Muslim, without ever taking it all too seriously. Here, fidgety vignettes of domesticity are propelled by arch humour and orchestral swells, and Shah nails a conflicted blend of comical wit and quiet introspection with enviable confidence. Forget the surprise, earthshaking release of Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’, the fact that this gorgeous collection was wholly snubbed by the Mercury Prize stands as one of the most shocking music moments of 2020. // Sophie Williams

Listen: Trad


 

MOSES SUMNEY // Græ

Almost three years along the line from ‘Aromanticism’, Moses Sumney went really, really big on ‘Græ’. Running to 20 tracks and 65 minutes, his second album felt like a failed attempt to contain an almost boundless stream of ideas. From mechanical, insistent percussion to crunching guitar lines and moments of absolute, decadent calm, the record is a textural masterclass knitted together by a fabulous series of vocal performances. ‘Græ’ is home to a number of high-profile guests, among them Thundercat, Michaela Coel, James Blake and Oneohtrix Point Never, but they are all locked in Sumney’s orbit. Getting lost rarely felt so good. // Huw Baines

Listen: Virile


 

BOB DYLAN // ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS

At this point in his career, Bob Dylan has been through so many musical iterations that you could be forgiven for feeling a little lost and alienated by the sound that he has honed over the past 10 years: a kind of trad-pop shuffle. Except that the quality of the music making has remained so very high. ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways' is the Minnesotan icon’s 39th studio album—and first of original songs since 2012—and is great value from start to end with the rasping Dylan remaining as elusive and cantankerous as ever. Listen out for Murder Most Foul, his 17-minute free flowing treatise on the Kennedy assasination. He’s still an iconoclast at 79. // Jacob Brookman

Listen: Murder Most Foul


 

LIL UZI VERT // ETERNAL ATAKE

Delayed, hyped, destined to fail...but it didn’t. Three years on from ‘Luv Is Rage 2’, amid label wrangling, career pit stops and heightened expectations, ‘Eternal Atake’ arrived fully formed, packed with swagger and wild melodic energy. At turns eye-wateringly braggadocious and grimly introspective, the record was a technical marvel that ran off Uzi’s supremely sculpted verses and production that felt like it had its finger on the pulse of hip hop past, present and future. At an hour in length ‘Eternal Atake’ should feel like a monster, but it’s actually sleek and nimble (before you add in the ‘LUV vs. The World 2’ drop). That’s a rare commodity these days. // Huw Baines

Listen: P2


 

DEFTONES // OHMS

Now 32 years into their career, Deftones have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. This career-defining reunion with producer Terry Date found the Sacramento titans balancing their broad array of influences with a heightened metallic sound compared to the plodding pace of its 2016 predecessor ‘Gore’. The haunting, emotional clout conjured by Chino Moreno’s voice was paired with sludgy, surprisingly mosh-friendly riffs from guitarist Stephen Carpenter for an accumulation of everything that has made the alt-metal icons such a vital force over the course of their eight previous records. // Jon Stickler

Listen: Ohms


 

HAIM // WOMEN IN MUSIC PT.III

Haim's earlier records were fun and confident (‘Days Are Gone’) and surprisingly underrated (‘Something To Tell You’). But ‘Women in Music Pt. III’ pushed that sense of fun and confidence to a point where it was impossible not to bow to the sisters Haim as a truly special band. Emotionally involving, stylistically daring and performed with the sort of abandon that suggests an alchemical balance between chops and shit-eating bravado, it might end up being remembered as their masterpiece. Not that such questions will trouble you while it’s spinning. You’re in this one from the drop. // Huw Baines

Listen: The Steps


 

IDLES // ULTRA MONO

Dichotomies are the name of the game on Idles’ third album, with the band transitioning effortlessly between love and hate, confidence and anxiety, endearing and off-putting. They tackle mental health, politics and the issue of consent, but offer a refreshingly direct take on topics that are rarely covered so candidly by those with their sort of platform. Hip hop energy has been introduced courtesy of producer Kenny Beats, riffs that would have once been left ragged have been explored more fully and the rhythm section has consolidated itself even further into an insurmountable driving force. Idles are not fucking around.// Laura Johnson

Listen: Grounds


 

FREDDIE GIBBS + THE ALCHEMIST // ALFREDO

Taking its Mario Puzo-style artwork seriously, Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist’s ‘Alfredo’ shot stately, piano-led instrumentals full of Mafioso grit to sculpt a grubby, frightening reality that remained enticing thanks to Gibbs’ authoritative, faultless flow. Alternating between patient scene-setting and lurid, rapid-fire bars that hold nothing back, the rapper is a magnetic presence who (following similar tie ups with Curren$y and Madlib) remains an empathetic, savvy collaborator. The record’s guests—Rick Ross, Tyler, The Creator, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine—fall into step with its aesthetic quickly, backing Gibbs up and providing some simmering counterpoints. // Huw Baines

Listen: 1985


 

DIZZEE RASCAL // E3 AF

A perfectly-formed love letter to east London’s E3 borough and his Ghanian and Nigerian heritage, this compelling, clearly realised album marked a true return to form for a veteran grime MC. With a Chip team-up, alongside features from Ghetts, Kano and Frisco, ‘E3 AF’ delved into a steadfast commitment to bringing his notoriously skittish flow back to life, and harkened back to Dizzee’s early noughties golden period. Having found his way back to grime’s top table, his elongated foray into mainstream chart-pop, which only ended with 2017’s ‘Raskit’, now finally feels like a distant memory. // Sophie Williams

Listen: Body Loose


 

ROISIN MURPHY // ROISIN MACHINE

Another journey into the mind of Róisín Murphy that was both cerebral and completely animal in its pursuit of dancefloor bliss. In tandem with regular collaborator DJ Parrot (also known as Crooked Man or Richard Barratt) Murphy disappeared into a world of unrelenting, slow burn grooves and sleek melodies, revelling in her ability to butt in on the disco renaissance with something that spoke to mechanical precision as much as it did thudding bass and sweat droplets. Every song here would make a killer white label remix, and every song here could have been a hit at some point in the past 30 years. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit back and watch a master at work. // Huw Baines

Listen: Simulation


 

DISCLOSURE // ENERGY

Exuding a gritty, raw aura, Disclosure’s ‘Energy’ is peppered with a non-conformist edge that works for the brothers Lawrence. Pairing with controversial rapper Slowthai, on one of the most memorable tracks of this year, My High, is a gutsy move that sets the standard for the entire album. Featuring charismatic turns from Kelis, Kehlani and Mick Jenkins, among others, ‘Energy’ fidgets and experiments with varying BPMs and makes all of them work. Here Disclosure are flexing hard, proving that there's much more to their repertoire than pop-house workouts.// Milly McMahon

Listen: My High


 

ANGEL OLSEN // WHOLE NEW MESS

Upon the release of the maximalist, uber-shiny ‘All Mirrors’, Angel Olsen promised us that there was a flipside to the coin—one that spoke to the music’s origins as a dialogue between vocals and guitar. But ‘Whole New Mess’ is no mere collection of demos. Recorded with engineer Michael Harris at the Unknown, the converted church studio operated by producer Nicholas Wilbur and Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum, the record foregrounds atmosphere and Olsen’s remarkable power as a performer. At times the songs feel cavernous, at others they feel like conversations whispered in the dead of night. They’re always arresting and satisfying in a defiantly old school melodic sense. // Huw Baines

Listen: Whole New Mess


 

DOVES // THE UNIVERSAL WANT

Doves had been away for so long (since 2009’s ‘Kingdom of Rust’) that hopes of a return were increasingly fading. So when ‘The Universal Want’ emerged hopes were high and, crucially, fans weren’t disappointed. Lead single Carousels was pure class, immediately sitting on a level with their best work and bearing all the hallmarks of classic Doves, as was its follow up Prisoners. Elsewhere, mesmerising melodies washed over us like a wave of euphoria. Working outside of record company pressures, this sense of freedom showed up in a more relaxed approach saw the band carve out a chiselled piece of fine art from start to finish. Welcome back. // Graeme Marsh

Listen: Carousels


 

CHARLI XCX // HOW I’M FEELING NOW

For most of us, initial lockdown conditions prompted a few days of necessary respite. Not for Charli XCX, who plunged into the studio and, with the help of her fans and frequent team of producers, made one of the year’s great pop albums. Naturally, the beats on ‘how I’m feeling now’ are bombastic and abrasive, with Charli’s voice serving as an instrument in itself—heavily sampled and smothered in autotune. The production is diverse, as are the lyrical themes. There is a hopeless romantic in Charli, just as there is an unrelenting desire for hedonistic release. With jarring synths and unbelievably catchy hooks, ‘how I’m feeling now’ is accessible pop on one hand and a risky but fruitful experimentation on the other. // Alex Myles

Listen: Claws


 

U.S. GIRLS // HEAVY LIGHT

It’s one thing to adopt a style, to try on the clothes and maybe learn a few new dance moves, but it’s another to inhabit it so completely that ideas of homage or pastiche fall by the wayside. On ‘Heavy Light’ Meg Remy and U.S. Girls fell headfirst into the gilded, high-technique world of 1970s pop and effortlessly stuck the landing thanks to a masterful grasp of melody and an approach to instrumentation that fell just on the right side of extravagant, melding silky strings with grandstanding piano, slyly funky guitar lines and skronky organs. Following the majestic ‘In a Poem Unlimited’, this record made U.S. Girls a genuine can’t miss attraction. More please. And soon. // Huw Baines

Listen: 4 American Dollars


 

FUTURE ISLANDS // AS LONG AS YOU ARE

In a year that panned out as catastrophic at best, the soul-soothing music of Future Islands was needed more than ever. ‘As Long As You Are’ deepened the Baltimore group’s already established sound by piecing together a collection of slick, Day-Glo synth-pop sequences that possess the ability to set your heart alight and the butterflies in your stomach fluttering. Throughout 2020, a violently turbulent maelstrom of unrest, trauma and confusion, these deeply moving, atmospheric reflections on love and hope continued to offer true comfort and respite in the strangest of times. // Sophie Williams

Listen: For Sure


 

TRIVIUM // WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY

The Florida metallers’ ninth studio album showed a band comfortable in its own skin. Expanding on their signature fusion of metalcore and thrash over the course of 10 tracks in a relatively lean 45 minutes, the quartet were happy to showcase everything that they’ve become. ‘What The Dead Men Say’ is a complex, technically adept offering, though it’s in their knack for writing a towering chorus where the Grammy-nominees truly shine. Stadium-ready songs such as The Defiant and Catastrophist put Trivium among a new breed of heavy bands ready to replace metal’s old guard as festival headliners. // Jon Stickler

Listen: What The Dead Men Say


 

ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER // SIDEWAYS TO NEW ITALY

This year has been light on cool, summery diversions. But ‘Sideways To New Italy’ scratched that itch in a big way. By adding a few psych-pop flecks and a sense of longing to the driving indie-rock of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s superb debut ‘Hope Downs’, the record piled yet more intrigue onto the interplay between guitarist-vocalists Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney. Over rock-solid foundations provided by Joe Russo and Marcel Tussie they spun majestic surf-rock lead lines and spiralling hooks. There were few more exhilarating moments in 2020 than when The Second of the First kicks into high gear at the top of the order. Magic. // Huw Baines

Listen: Cameo


 

MAC MILLER // CIRCLES

The first posthumous release from Mac Miller served as a poignant reminder of an exceptional talent lost. Breathtakingly introspective, many songs on this inward-looking, funk-filled album exhibited a proclivity to examine the things that plagued Miller’s life: predominantly, a wavering mental state. His breezy voice swirls around sweet slatherings of distortion throughout, and a tender falsetto even makes a welcome appearance. Above all else, though, this increasingly emotional send-off transmitted a deep longing for better days, which sadly never came. The effects of Miller’s tragic, untimely death are still felt deeply, but his legacy will forever remain indisputable. // Sophie Williams

Listen: Complicated


 

BARTEES STRANGE // LIVE FOREVER

A few months on from the excellent ‘Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy’, an EP comprising covers of songs by the National, Bartees Strange flung open the doors to ‘Live Forever’, a wild, totally thrilling mash up of indie-rock, pop-punk, hip hop and immersive electronica. Focusing on his youth in Mustang, Oklahoma, “an overwhelmingly white and racist sundown town”, Bartees celebrated the relationship with music he fostered during this time, taking to each genre flourish like an artist whose influences are part of the fabric of who they are. A little masterpiece. // Huw Baines

Listen: Boomer


 

SELENA GOMEZ // RARE

Selena Gomez’s reinvention of self through her music resonated with affecting vulnerability on her third album ‘Rare’. Candidly detailing her physical, spiritual and romantic struggles throughout this coming of age body of work, a proud, brave woman stands centre stage, singing her truth—the need for healing and self-acceptance underpinning her lyrics. Gomez co-wrote the entirety of this album, taking control of her creative output as an artist, and staying true to her pop-centric roots she keeps her choruses catchy and charged with drama. A natural progression from her earlier releases, on ‘Rare’ Gomez shifts her energy to a place of purpose and compassion.// Milly McMahon

Listen: Boyfriend


 

PHOEBE BRIDGERS // PUNISHER

The second album from Phoebe Bridgers hit a little differently to ‘Stranger in the Alps’. Following a couple of years spent proving herself to be the most adept of collaborators (with Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center), ‘Punisher’ felt like someone putting accumulated knowledge into action. The hooks were a little more forceful, and she leaned into the wicked, pitch black humour that so often stands alongside her investigations into personal recesses and pinpoint character studies. The vivid nature of her writing is matched beat for beat by a palette that weaves between grungy indie-pop, psych flecks, and pride of place for Bridgers’ one in a million voice. // Huw Baines

Listen: Kyoto


 

THE FLAMING LIPS // AMERICAN HEAD

A psychedelic indulgence for the soul. ‘American Head’ is the 16th studio album from the Flaming Lips, spearheaded by prolific frontman Wayne Coyne, and one that underlines the art-rock survivors’ potency after all these years. Coyne’s confessional vocal honesty and gorgeously eccentric instrumental flourishes underpin a colourful burst of melodic tracks, entwined among a brooding sort of lyrical nostalgia. The Flaming Lips smash together woozy distorted vocals with jangling guitars to craft an album that will both inspire and enthral the listener. ‘American Head’ is a kaleidoscopic trip of emotions that you certainly won’t want to miss. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: Will You Return / When You Come Down


 

LOMA // DON’T SHY AWAY

Reuniting Emily Cross, Dan Duszynski, and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg following a period of gnawing uncertainty about the band’s future, ‘Don’t Shy Away’ took a nudge in the right direction from Brian Eno and ran with it. Following the legendary producer’s endorsement (and eventual contribution of a mix) Loma returned to their well of richly atmospheric, stately alt-pop songs, conjuring colourful mood pieces and moments of piercing quiet. The trio have an ability to make reflective passages feel overwhelmingly intimate and exciting, like a fireworks display on the back of your eyelids.// Huw Baines

Listen: Don’t Shy Away


 

HAYLEY WILLIAMS // PETALS FOR ARMOR

The age-old proverb “quietness should never be mistaken for weakness” rang true in the case of the debut solo LP from Hayley Williams. Scathing and deeply confessional, opener Simmer set the Paramore vocalist’s record straight. “Rage is a quiet thing / You think that you've tamed it / But it's just lying in wait,” she sneers over percussive beats. Across 15 thrilling dark-pop tracks, a dogged, fearless Williams delivers a searingly honest, and at times devastating, exploration of divorce, trauma and depression that found relief in its declarations of resilience. The record’s yearning for a fresh start came to feel like an extension of Williams herself: still growing, still healing. // Sophie Williams

Listen: Simmer


 

BOB MOULD // BLUE HEARTS

With the fired up ‘Blue Hearts’ Bob Mould returned with a renewed sense of rage for an unfiltered follow-up to 2019’s ‘Sunshine Rock’. It was his 14th solo offering to date and perhaps his most confrontational, with the 59-year-old’s anger towards the faltering American machine undoubtedly the beating heart of the record. Forget the upbeat, wide-eyed optimism heard on its predecessor, this time around Mould went all out with mostly sub three-minute blasts of blistering fury delivered with a degree of intensity not witnessed from him in 30 years. Longtime fans have compared the gritty, red-faced rager to material from his Hüsker Dü years and although it rushes past quickly the underpinning messages will ring on. // Jon Stickler

Listen: American Crisis


 

TRICKY // FALL TO PIECES

On Tricky’s 14th album, the Bristloian trip-hop pioneer partnered with Polish singer Marta Złakowska to deliver a short album of dark, brooding pop. One of Tricky’s strengths as a producer has always been an ability to find extraordinary balance in the audio mix, despite musical elements with wildly different volumes and timbres, and here that skill is on full display. Despite only running to 28 minutes, the relaxant tone of ‘Fall to Pieces’ is established very quickly and the record is highly immersive, meditative, even. But this is no easy-listening muzak—there is too much going on behind the scenes. There is too much complexity, trauma and figuring out that lives in the album's large spaces for this to ever feel lightweight. // Jacob Brookman

Listen: Fall Please


 

WAXAHATCHEE // SAINT CLOUD

Katie Crutchfield’s music has meant different things at different times, taking in scratchy indie-punk, grunge-pop hook-fests and acoustic singer-songwriter fare. But there is a sense of scope to ‘Saint Cloud’ that is all its own. As she winds her way through a vivid slate of Americana songs, Crutchfield hits upon some of the most classically brilliant writing of her career. There is a patience to the melodies matched by the warmth of the instrumentation, and it’s hard to escape the idea that this record would be best enjoyed on a quiet porch during a summer’s evening, the sun dropping towards the horizon as it pleases. // Huw Baines

Listen: Fire


 

LADY GAGA // CHROMATICA

Determined to dominate the dance floor, Lady Gaga soared on her sixth studio album, ‘Chromatica’. An electro-pop masterpiece that fizzes with bass-driven beats and those unmistakable powerhouse vocals, ‘Chromatica’ stands out for its unashamed nods to the singer’s roots, coupled with Earth-shattering ambition to propel Gaga even further into pop’s stratosphere. We feel echoes in sound and style from her early ‘The Fame’ days, yet ‘Chromatica’ is as much of a new-age fantasy as it is a flamboyant celebration of her roots. Here, Gaga crafted another new galaxy to surround her creative imagination. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: Rain on Me


 

OPEN MIKE EAGLE // ANIME, TRAUMA, AND DIVORCE

A musing on escapism, misery and humour from someone who understands the desperation inherent in all three things. At turns wince-inducingly funny, at others fantastical and absurdly grim, ‘Anime, Trauma, and Divorce’ is a deceptively complex record that exists on surface level as a selection of witty, downbeat jams. Interrogating the end of his marriage and the fizzling of a creative outlet through the medium of dad-bods, supine beats, weepy strings and pitch-perfect observational writing, Eagle succeeds in making us see his pain while also stepping outside himself to join in the post-mortem. Life is moving on, and he’s a man deciding if he can keep up. // Huw Baines

Listen: Bucciarati


 

DESTROYER // HAVE WE MET

Dan Bejar—the chief creative force behind Destroyer—is a Canadian musician of wonderful versatility and rare verve. His 12th studio album, ‘Have We Met’, is a spacey tapestry of often low slung melodies held together by lyrics that are dark, immersive and satirical. While the songwriting is a little inconsistent at times the album will likely age well due to thematic cogency and an encased, record defining persona. Like a less mawkish and gothic Nick Cave, Bejar’s vocals spill across the record like a horny ghost. // Jacob Brookman

Listen: Crimson Tide


 

SOCCER MOMMY // COLOR THEORY

On her second album as Soccer Mommy, Sophie Allison walked a razor-thin wire between emotionally fraught concept piece and straight up indie-rock goodness. ‘Color Theory’ was divided into three segments (blue, yellow, and grey) representing depression, illness, both physical and mental, and death. But Allison’s clever writing and melodic smarts allowed the listener multiple access points to the subject matter, framing difficult conversations in a manner that made them feel accessible, even exciting. Surrounded by scratchy synths and an ocean of reverb, Allison refused to take the easy way out, instead showing us the messy complexity of being human. // Huw Baines

Listen: Circle the Drain


 

KVELERTAK // SPLID

Changing vocalists can be detrimental for a band, but Kvelertak’s enormously fun, hyper-hooky fourth LP was a prime example of how a shake-up in the vocal department can lead to better things. The arrival of Ivar Nikolaisen brought a rejuvenated party-ready spirit to the group and the freewheeling twists and turns displayed on this Kurt Ballou-produced rock ‘n’ roll rager were accessible enough to satisfy casual rockers while also luring in diehards with moments of extreme and black metal. Be sure to check out the stunning artwork from Baroness frontman John Dyer Baizley, and the Troy Sanders-assisted Crack of Doom for one of the best heavy songs of 2020. // Jon Stickler

Listen: Bråtebrann


 

PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS // VISCERALS

Doom-like riffage and earworm melodies rarely go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, and the proof is in the pudding on Pigsx7’s follow-up to 2018's 'King Of Cowards'. There’s an undeniable Black Sabbath-esque energy to proceedings that expertly escapes being derivative due to the band’s unique experimental approach to rock and metal tropes. What also sets the quintet apart is the humour in their lyrics. On the demonically anthemic Hell’s Teeth vocalist Matt Batty delivers their mission statement: “Let’s rock, in peace!” // Laura Johnson

Listen: Rubbernecker


 

I LIKE TRAINS // KOMPROMAT

Only very occasionally does an album come along that takes your breath away. After an absence of eight years, I LIKE TRAINS accomplished exactly that feat with the hard-hitting, Trump-bashing ‘Kompromat’. Marking a considerable shift for the Leeds band, a sense of post-punk political pessimism took over, pushing guitar jangle to the side and replacing it with pulsating synths and beats. This is one of those rare records that sees the listener regularly picking a new favourite track with each listen, whether that’s the Fall-esque The Truth, ominous opener Steady Hand or the Joy Division-influenced Patience is a Virtue. With several songs also impressively melding qualities boasted by the National and Editors, ‘Kompromat’ is simply superb. // Graeme Marsh

Listen: The Truth


 

RUN THE JEWELS // RTJ4

Run The Jewels are true rebels. They operate on their own terms, releasing records for free and without notice, no compromise. They spit about breaking down cultural barriers over beats that stamp, sneer and overwhelm. Among a wide range of guests, 'RTJ4’ shook things up further thanks to collaborations with 2 Chainz, Pharrell Williams and Zack De La Rocha, and Mavis Staples and Josh Homme. From the get go they’ve got their foot on the throttle here, pumping out scathing, insightful and eloquent commentary on police brutality and systemic racism with vitality that refuses to relent. ‘RTJ4’ was their first album to enter the top 10 on the Billboard 200. About time. // Laura Johnson

Listen: Out of Sight


 

GRIMES // MISS ANTHROPOCENE

With each concept flourish and stylistic contortion, Grimes’ music appears to become more unknowable. Where ‘Art Angels’ was accessible on a pop level, toying with artifice and the idea of producer as all-knowing hitmaker, ‘Miss Anthropocene’ was happier to lean into the web of personas and thematic threads that Claire Boucher has long cloaked her music in. Here it was climate change parable via dystopian hellscape, but that’s not to say that it didn’t deliver the goods in an immediate sense: songs like 4ÆM and Violence are peak Grimes, rolling out sly, quirkily indelible melodies over cyberpunk synths. // Huw Baines

Listen: Darkseid


 

THUNDERCAT // IT IS WHAT IT IS

Stephen Bruner (a.k.a Thundercat) is a peculiar man. On ‘It Is What It Is’, there are boundless idiosyncrasies and eccentricities contained within his musicianship, production and lyrical themes, which encompass space travel, fashion, and knowingly ridiculous sexual fantasies. While his virtuoso bass playing is the record’s most impressive element, there’s plenty more to enjoy about its many twists and turns, ending on a poignant tribute to late friend Mac Miller. Production-wise, there’s atmospheric prog, speed jazz that could soundtrack a high-octane Nintendo game, and some lo-fi R&B sensibilities. An unrefined yet shorter album than its predecessor, ‘Drunk’, this is Thundercat at his playful and charming best. // Alex Myles

Listen: Dragonball Durag


 

DIET CIG // DO YOU WONDER ABOUT ME?

Diet Cig emerged almost fully formed a few years back, but that doesn’t mean that their formula was set in stone. On ‘Do You Wonder About Me?’ their grunge-pop was given added sparkle by synth splashes and dense guitar textures, while guitarist-vocalist Alex Luciano delved into what it means to grow as a person while acknowledging that your former selves will always be part of who you are. Backed by drummer Noah Bowman, Luciano luxuriated in massive hooks and raucous distortion, and at times you could almost picture the high-kicking riot these songs might have sparked live. Maybe next year. // Huw Baines

Listen: Who Are You


 

PORRIDGE RADIO // EVERY BAD

Charged with frantic energy, the Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Every Bad’ from Porridge Radio fuelled many a fire this year. Delighting both audiences and industry alike, it was an album coolly championed by all those who fell under the spell of the quirky Brighton band. Led by eclectic powerhouse Dana Margolin, Porridge Radio boldly expressed fragile emotions and battled mental adversity with a sense of screaming vengeance. Drawing largely on personal experience, Margolin crafted ‘Every Bad’ to stir and slowly unhinge each of our senses. Thought provoking, intentionally uncomfortable, and so incredibly beautiful, this album exists as an expression of human emotion in its rawest form. // Rebecca Llewellyn

Listen: Lilac


 

JESSIE WARE // WHAT'S YOUR PLEASURE?

This year's overbearing cruel streak extended to the fact that we were not able to experience music together. That loss was felt most keenly with records like Jessie Ware's 'What's Your Pleasure?', a synth-pop floor-filler of rare quality that was denied its chance to shine by the shuttering of nightclubs worldwide. But the follow up to the excellent 'Glasshouse' could not be ignored. Circumstances be damned, here Ware again proved herself to be a modern master of mood and melody, turning to disco in search of dancing, sex and all that good shit. A treasure. // Huw Baines

Listen: What’s Your Pleasure?


 

MEGAN THEE STALLION // GOOD NEWS

Megan Thee Stallion operates on her own terms.  The Texan rapper set the defiant, self-assured tone for her debut album with opener Shots Fired: “I be so content 'cause I know I'm a real bitch, and anything I say, I'm never scared to repeat it.” It’s not just that she’s bold lyrically, though. She takes plenty of risks with the instrumentals her candid words sit atop. Alongside some off-kilter beats and sharp samples, playful synth-driven riffs dominate on Sugar Baby, while elsewhere there are ‘90s R&B influences and au courant flashes of reggaeton creeping in. Whether she’s talking about self-love metaphorically or literally, or any other topic, Megan Thee Stallion is unapologetically herself. // Laura Johnson

Listen: Savage Remix (feat. Beyoncé)


 



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