The best albums of 2020

Sam Davies 26 December 2020

Through the bad and rare pockets of good this year has provided, some albums in particular have clear places on 2020's soundtrack

Never go back, they say. In much the way that many of us returned to the comforting familiarity of an ex-lover in 2020, many of us spent the year listening to music we’d heard before, preferring the consolation of stuff we used to like to the challenge of discovery. But all of us experienced a melange of new, unprecedented feelings this year. To match those feelings, only new music would do. 

Because rather than being escapist, the best art helps us to understand and deal with the world around us. That might mean violent, nihilistic rap, a fitting soundtrack for the bleak society we live in; it could be music of African origin, reminding us where all popular music can be traced back to; or it could mean music with no words at all, itself a comment on the impossibility of explaining our present situation. 

There will be no apology for the writing of this list. The music released this year will be of great interest to future generations, so much so that books may one day be written about it. Decades from now, telling a friend that an album was released in 2020 will add extra layers of intrigue as they listen. So here’s the story of a turbulent year in ten albums. 

 

Moses Boyd Dark Matter

“Let's stop pretending that everything’s okay,” sings Obongjayar midway through Dark Matter. Though jazz drummer, producer and composer Moses Boyd’s second album was released in February, many of its ephemeral lyrics became starkly relevant following the death of George Floyd three months later. Dark Matter paints images of the Black experience through reference to a myriad of Black musicians, from jazz to blues to dancehall to garage to grime. Boyd was rewarded with a Mercury nomination.

 

Priscilla Ermel Origens da Luz

Brazilian composer Priscilla Ermel wrote much of her music after a series of fires had devastated the Amazon in the late 1980s. “Out of the smoke and ashes, I vowed to plant again, to sow again, and to compose,” she said. This year, as more fires burned and an environmental crisis reached a critical point, her work was made widely available to Western listeners for the first time in Origens da Luz, a new collection compiled by reissue label Music From Memory. Influenced by music from China, India and the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, the album is densely psychedelic. It plays like a hopeful soundtrack to a planet in turmoil.

 

Grimes Miss Anthropocene

Thanks to 2020, it’s no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of human interaction now takes place online. Miss Anthropocene, the fifth album from Canadian anti-star Grimes, is a pop record befitting of this once-imagined digital future. Imagine playing The Sims, having your characters throw week-long parties that set the kitchen on fire, then waking up to find yourself inside the game: this album is the soundtrack to that. In roughly the 11,876th-weirdest news story of the year, Grimes and her evil-genius husband Elon Musk welcomed their first child into the world in May, naming it X Æ A-12.

 

Yves Tumor Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Few of us experienced any live music this year beyond our own bedroom karaoke sessions. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is like spying on your most mysterious and talented friend as they sing into a hair brush, impersonating their favourite pop stars in front of the mirror. “You’re my super star,” croons Yves Tumor on the terrific “Super Stars”, a pop strut worthy of Prince or Bowie. “Folie Imposée” sounds like a dreamy, half-remembered version of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”. In “Kerosene!” there’s even a shade of Tricky, with the brilliant Diana Gordon as Tumor’s Martina Topley-Bird. “I can be anything,” goes the refrain. They’re not wrong.
 

Moses Sumney græ

“Isolation comes from ‘insula’, which means island,” says the author Taiye Selasi, at the very beginning of græ. Moses Sumney probably wrote his second album about his own, pre-lockdown isolation, about feeling apart from his peers, society and his musical contemporaries. 

But between the release of græ part 1, in February, and part 2, in March, its lyrics would become a time capsule for the collective isolated experience of 2020. It’s not a work of despairing in loneliness, however, but a eulogy to individualism, an album that, played from start to finish, will fill you with confidence. Sumney sounds like no other artist in the world.

 

Chris Korda Polymeter

“The music industry has poured money into developing sophisticated sound design tools, but neglected the development of music itself.” What is the next step in musical evolution? Chris Korda’s Polymeter asks and answers that question with a bold step into the future. 

It’s written in what the artist calls “complex polymeter”, a rhythmic system involving algorithms and prime numbers. Its instruments—piano, guitar—sound human, but are played by a machine. The result is disorienting, unsettling and uncanny. Incidentally Korda is also concerned with slowing the overpopulation of the Earth, “through suicide, sodomy, abortion and cannibalism”.

 

Drakeo the Ruler Thank You For Using GTL

Spending most of your year indoors is one thing. Try recording an entire album over a payphone, rapping to a beat on another line with a two-second delay, while serving jail time for what most people believe to be a false charge. With commentary on America’s prison industrial complex, dub reggae basslines befitting of King Tubby, and one of the most original rapping styles since E-40, West-Coast rapper Drakeo the Ruler’s Thank You For Using GTL will go down in history.

 

City Girls City on Lock

We’ve all been forced to move relationships online this year, in many cases not speaking to loved ones except over shaky Zoom calls. City Girls were already experts. JT, one half of the rap duo, went to prison for credit card fraud the day after she and partner Yung Miami had broken into the mainstream via Drake’s enormous single “In My Feelings”. 

As the Girls blew up, their only communication was through video link. Hearing City on Lock, their first album since JT’s release, it’s no surprise their relationship survived. Trading bars about finances and fornicating (“I make him grow like Pinocchio”), their chemistry makes them the hottest duo in contemporary rap. 

 

Oliver Coates Skins n Slime

If 2020 has left you unsure of how to feel, what to do, or what to listen to, try Oliver Coates. From his maniacally strange 2018 house track “Charlev” to his work with Jonny Greenwood, David Lynch and Mica Levi, Coates’s wizardry with the cello makes him a 21st-century successor to Arthur Russel. Skins n Slime is his best album yet, a work of metallic drone, blustery shoegaze, dreamy ambient and utterly unhinged contemporary classical. It’s as fraught and wild as your mind.

 

WizKid Made in Lagos

One of 2020’s most shocking news stories took place in October when Nigerian security forces opened fire on hundreds of protestors who were marching against the brutality of the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Alicia Keys, Chance the Rapper, Noname and Kanye West are among those who have supported the EndSARS movement, a reminder of how much popular music owes to Nigeria. 

Essential 2020 releases from Burna Boy, Tems and Obongjayar ensure Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti’s legacy lives on. WizKid’s Made In Lagos is the pick of the lot, from the Skepta feature on “Longtime” to the interpolation of Amerie’s classic R&B hit “1 Thing” in “No Stress”.

 

K-Trap Street Side Effects

As you walk through the streets with your head down and your face covered, not getting too close to anyone out of fear for your life, there’s no better sound for your earphones than UK drill. South-London rapper K-Trap is something of an under-appreciated figure in the scene, rarely given the mainstream coverage afforded to some of his peers. But he’s loved by those who know, as evidenced by the collaborators on Street Side Effects, from forebears of the sound like Giggs and Blade Brown to ascendant stars-to-be Abra Cadabra and M1llionz. The Burial-esque nightscapes conjured on “Pour It Up” are devastating. 

 

Off the Meds Off the Meds

Sweden did 2020 a bit differently to the rest of us. As the country kept its clubs open all year (eventually restricting them to 50 people per night in October), it makes sense that possibly the year’s best club album is Swedish. Producers Adrian Lux, Carli Löf and Måns Glaeser make vibrant, party-starting techno—or “George Michael trying to do drum and bass,” as they’ve described it in interviews. But the star of the show is South-African MC Kamohelo Khoaripe, who narrates the action in Zulu and Tsotsitaal, a slang vernacular from his homeland. It’s as weird as it sounds.

 

Rico Nasty Nightmare Vacation

Rico Nasty released her major-label debut less than a month after hero-of-the-year contender Megan Thee Stallion had dropped hers. There’s no need to choose between them: one is a Hollywood blockbuster catering to everyone from chart-attentive pop fans to old-school hip-hop heads, while the other is an oddball rap record for freaks and misfits. But Rico’s is better, weirder, more thrilling. If nothing else, the debate shows how women have risen to dominate hip-hop this year. And Nightmare Vacation is wild. 

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