The most mysterious act to properly get going in 2020, nobody knows quite who SAULT are, just that they are a collective of musicians that has producer Inflo involved to some capacity. It doesn’t really matter who they are, the music they’ve produced feels timeless and yet so relevant to right now. Most people have opted for the first of the two albums they released this year, the also brilliant Untitled (Black Is), as the best of the year, but I was muc more drawn to the more hopeful and inspiring Untitled (Rise). Songs exploring what it actually means to be black in 2020, told across some of the most beautifully written music of the year.
Far from a revolution, Starting Over is instead yet another fantastic collection of songs from the greatest voice in Country music. Chris sounds incredible on every moment here, from a song about a dog, to a venomous message to the Las Vegas shooter; Starting Over is full of soul and sheer talent. I especially love the rocking Arkansas and emotive closer Nashville, TN.
‘Oh look, Sam is trying to see cool and left field by picking a Jazz album for his end of year list what a Vinyl-loving-hipster thing to do.’ That’s 100% accurate, but even still Dark Matter was such an unexpected joy for me this year. The biggest surprise of the Mercury Prize shortlist, this is an exhilarating listen jumping between genres within a single song like on BTB or the electronic drum machines on 2 Far Gone. There’s adventure on every song here and it’s a thrill to hear.
My first time listening to a Phoebe Bridgers record was earlier this year and I was pleasantly surprised, her style of alternative rock with folk sensibilities reminded me so much of Bon Iver’s early records and that’s a comparison that you can hear across Punisher. This is so much more of a complete artistic statement than her debut though, the instrumentation on Kyoto and dramatic finale I Know The End is gorgeous, while the more introspective and honest middle section of the record really stood out this year.
My memories of Seeking Thrills are so intrinsically linked to seeing Georgia perform songs from this album twice in 2020. Actual real life gigs in a room with other people singing along to About Work The Dancefloor together is exactly where this album shines. Whether it works as well sat in your kitchen when you’ve seen Georgia drumming her parts of Started Out with one arm and the other wrapped in bandages I don’t know, but it’s tracks like that, I Can’t Wait and Till I Own It that I kept going back to this year.
In an alternative universe where JoJo was allowed to follow up Too Little Too Late with yet more pop smashes, perhaps things would have worked out very differently for her. That said, I doubt we’d have gotten such a brilliant RnB record like Good to Know had she not been through the ringer with label issues for decades. This album is vocally outstanding, her control on songs like don’t Talk Me Down and Small Things is next level, while the steaminess of songs like Man and Comeback lets you know exactly what JoJo needs; don’t make her wait any longer for it. The greatest moment for one of Pop and RnB’s greatest voices.
TWO Jazz Albums. I must admit now I am taking the piss a bit, but Pick Me Up Off The Floor caught me completely off guard. I refuse to believe that the most consistently great and well structured Norah Jones album since her debut was creating out of off cuts from her last record. This is a true return to form and is full of interesting and diverse arrangements and musicianship. Her voice feels more alive than ever on opened How I Weep, while I’m Alive is flecked with a welcome country twang. Not a comeback record, but it sounds like one.
I am so glad that the over long and predictable Delirium was an anomaly and not a new downward direction for Ellie Goulding, who had delivered two of my favourite pop records of the last decade. Brightest Blue doesn’t return to the ‘sound’ of Halcyon, but it returns to that sort of album structure and ebb and flow. It allows for moments like Love I’m Given and Power to hit even harder while the starkness of opener Start and Cyan feel like a revolution in her sound. Ellie has never sounded this honest and to the point, reflecting on her own career, her relationships and allowing her truth to come through in these tracks. The choice of putting her set of good, but not artistically exciting collaborations as bonus tracks was an inspired choice.
folklore is the sort of album I saw Taylor Swift making 10 or 20 years from now, her status as a Legend solidified and allowing her to collaborate with whoever she wanted and stripping everything down to just great songwriting again. The fact she made the move so soon after Lover and shared not only one, but two albums worth of Alt-Folk inspired pop records (Evermore very nearly made the list too) is incredible. It’s a truly collaborative sounding album too, everything filled with the warmth of a studio of musicians just playing together as they create such dynamic and memorable music. Exile is gorgeous, Justin Vernon’s verse one of the year’s most gut wrenching moments, while August is pure Taylor Swift magic joining All You Had To Do Was Stay, All Too Well and Blank Space among her all time greatest songs. Her most exciting album in years.
Nothing Breaks Like A Heart completely changed the expectations for Miley Cyrus music. Why bother with the stuff from Bangerz or Younger Now if we know she can deliver pop music like that. After many false starts of EPs and previews we got Midnight Sky, a song so good that it probably would have carried this album into this list all by itself. Thankfully the rest of Plastic Hearts is just as thrilling and most importantly sounds like Miley Cyrus from start to finish. She can be trading verses with Billy Idol, Joan Jett or even Stevie Nicks, but she’s always Miley. The best vocals of her career and even more F You attitude than ever before it’s the definitive album of her career. As her best friend Leslie once said ‘She’s just being Miley’.
Chromatica is so far ahead as my most listened album of 2020 that it’s already in my top 50 of all time on Last.fm. That means I’ve listened to it more than Star is Born, Joanne and Artpop and it has the most listens in a single year than anything else since I started tracking my plays. The reason? Chromatica was the album we all needed. An everything but the kitchen sink Pop Dance tour de force that’s hardly a revolution, but revels in its predictability. It’s actually a contrast to the albums that she’s supposed to have ‘returned’ to, which were bonkers genre bending unexpected change the face of music kind of pop records. Chromatica has nothing on Born This Way or The Fame, but instead it’s the most straightforward dance record of her career. ‘This is my dancefloor I fought for’ on Free Woman feels the most appropriate moment. She came to dance and my god I needed to as well.
I don’t know what happened, but Rap music kind of passed me by in 2020. RTJ4 is the only hip hop record I connected with this year, but what an album it is. walking in the snow and JU$T go hard and take zero prisoners as the duo dismantle the systematic racism that continues to be worryingly relevant. El-P and Killer Mike seem to rap with more conviction than ever before on songs like out of sight and pulling the pin every moment is so dynamic and full of depth that I get something new on every listen. RTJ4 is surely Run The Jewels’ best record to date.
The vocal production on That’s How Rumors Get Started somehow makes Margo Price’s vocal performance sound timeless. Like an archive recording from a classic album on the outstanding closer I’d Die for You or like a legend returning to perform an all time standard on Twinkle Twinkle. I can’t explain how they managed it, but Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson’s production on this record is some of the most delicate I’ve ever heard. What Happened To Our Love? is heartbreaking and soars in its final third, every song on here is brilliant, full of country storytelling and rock n roll attitude.
I could listen to Lianne sing all day. I have done quite a lot this year, her self titled third album continuing her streak of brilliant albums. Things feel a bit more reserved at times on this than previous album Blood’s genre-bending dramatic moments but it makes for a super consistent thematic record. You can really hear the journey through each track building to climax on the rising Sour Flower. Opener Bittersweet is soulful and smooth, while even the Radiohead cover at the centre of the record feels completely natural.
SAWAYAMA is a pop album and yet placing it in a single genre feels ridiculous. This is an artistic statement that’s comes off like Rina Swayama’s ultimate playlist. Britney style electro pop on XS; new jack swing on Love Me 4 Me; Evanescence opera-metal on Dynasty; Videogame J-Pop on Paradisin’; Queer Euro-Pop on Comme Des Garcons; stadium rock on Who’s Gonna Save You Now?. It’s an exhausting album, but Rina does exactly what she wants to do and it’s incredible to witness.
Some may be pissed off that a full length album has missed out on my top 10 for this 6 track EP, but La vita nuova was such an integral part of my year that I’ve treated it like a full album release anyway. The title track is Christine and the Queens pop perfection with Caroline Polachek delivering a star turn of her own. Both the French and English version of I dissapear in your arms are begging to be danced to surrounded by thousands of fans at a gig. Mountains (We Met) features some of my favourite vocals on a Christine and the Queens record, while People, I’ve Been Sad is a song of healing that just bout all of us related to in 2020. I’ve returned to this collection of songs so much this year that it’s amazing just 20 minutes of new music from one of my favourite artists can have such longevity.
Song For Our Daughter feels like the first Laura Marling record in a long time that hasn’t been trying to prove or say something. In some ways this has helped to create some of her most intriguing and dynamic music of her career, but in others it feels like the magic of her first few records has been missing for a while. This isn’t her ‘getting that back’ in fact it’s more like Laura fully understands her voice and has reflected on her journey enough that she’s able to look forward instead. Speaking to a child that doesn’t even exist yet may seem awkward and clunky as a concept, but it allows for songs like the title track to have a knowing quality to them, filled with experience and memories. The End of the Affair is pure drama but told in such a small and delicate way. Laura Marling delivers an incredible album in the least shocking moment of 2020.
I was absolutely not well versed in music from Dixie Chicks. I had plenty of people telling me I’d love their albums and I have given some of them a listen or two, but nothing truly grabbed me. This year the group returning with a new name and a new album for the first time in 14 years I gave it a listen out of nothing more than mild curiosity (And a wonder at how a band can release an album cover THAT BAD). Thank god I did listen. Gaslighter is an astounding record front to back, full of the most cutting and direct lyrics I have ever heard. Songs like Julianna Calm Down, Sleep at Night and the title track hold nothing back, while Tights On My Boat had pretty much all of us wanting to know exactly what happened on Natalie’s boat. It’s a break up record from start to end, but one that dives into not only the relationship, but the effects that has on family and friends and trying to be a creative person through this. For me The Chicks feel like a new artist, full of ambition and completely unapologetic. Gaslighter is brilliant.
The poppiest of pop albums in 2020 Strangers/Lovers sounds more like a greatest hits record than a debut album. Every single song is effervescent and infectious synth pop that reaches everyone’s high expectations of danceable heartbreak songs from Europe. Paris is a subtle building banger, while Bye Bye Baby features one of the best ‘vocals as the rest of the song drops out before crashing back in’ moments of the year. Coulda Woulda Shoulda was very nearly thrown in as a Non-Single into my Songs list as arguably the most addictive chorus of the year. This album is pure joy and Dagny delivers every moment with a shining personality and performance.
My favourite country album of the year and the best of Brandy Clark’s career so far. Your Life Is A Record has felt like my moment to calm down a bit after all of the high energy and thumping music that surrounds it on this list. Her songwriting has never been more on point than on Apologies or Who You Thought I Was. The self reflection on those tracks and opener I’ll Be The Sad Song is so refreshing in country, Brandy has always been the frank to the point woman of the genre and never more so than on Long Walk or Bigger Boat. All 11 of these songs feel real, like they have been lived through and lived in. It’s the sort of body of work that country songwriters must dream to be a part of, showcasing the song above all else as Brandy delivers them plainly and effortlessly. I’m certain than nobody reading this will have heard this record, so please give it a go it’s tremendous.
The biggest moment of 2020 for me was when we closed on buying our first house here in Stockport just weeks after Blossoms released their third album. By law I now have to become a Blossoms promotional account as a prerequisite of living here. Of course I’m joking, but honestly they wouldn’t need to pay me to tell everyone how brilliant this album is. Like Gravity and The Keeper are so expansive in their sound, while Oh No (I Think I’m In Love) and Your Girlfriend are impossibly catchy and full of snarky wit. Blossoms came out of the gate with such a well rounded and confident sound on their debut, but it’s like this is the first time they’ve been able to hone in on their sound as full body of work and not just individual tracks. They wear their influences on their sleeves, Blondie, Arctic Monkeys, Abba, Oasis you hear glimpses of them all here, but Foolish Loving Spaces is the first time music has sounded like Blossoms first and foremost.
You know when there’s an artist that you obsess over, you tell everyone to listen to their music, that their album was the best of the year, that their songs were consistently some of the best records of the decade? That has been me with Jessie Ware for the last 8 years. Finally it feels like the world has listened and honestly nobody deserves it more than Jessie. What’s Your Pleasure? is so consistently brilliant but most impressively it has this ability to peak and drift away over and over again. Jessie Ware is one of the UK’s greatest vocalists, but here it’s how she controls the performance that’s breathtaking, it makes every belting moment hit harder and every smooth section steeped in soul. Step Into My Life, Read My Lips and Ooh La La are ACTUALLY DISCO and no song that claimed to be Disco in 2020 achieves what closer Remember Where You Are does. Like an Earth Wind and Fire track playing over the credits of a 70s movie the production here is otherworldly. Jessie Ware has been delivering music of this caliber for a while, but What’s Your Pleasure? somehow managed to outdo even my lofty expectations.
There were two artists that rose to become the biggest artists in music during 2020. One might just be about to appear on this list, but the other is Dua Lipa. There’s a reason she’s pretty much dominated streaming for the last few years and yet for every single that has achieved immense popularity in that time it wasn’t until the day that Future Nostalgia dropped that we truly knew what Dua was about to unleash. If someone asked me to share what 2020 sounded like I would play this album front to back. Every song is steeped in 90s dance stylings but it so recognizable for music right now. Physical, Levitating, Don’t Start Now, Hallucinate, Cool, Love Again and Break My Heart. Literally nobody else had a hit rate like Dua Lipa did here, everything comes together as a singular vision with the details in each of those songs emerging on every listen. I genuinely did not think Dua could reach the heights she does here, a genuine superstar and probably destined to be THE popstar of her generation.
The top 5 albums in this list all share a similar reaction from me when I heard them. All five are artists I love, it’s no surprise that I would like their albums, but all five surpassed even my own lofty expectations. None more so than the HAIM sisters. They released my #1 song of last year! How could you surpass that especially when Now I’m In It only appears here as a Bonus Track?! Women In Music Pt III is a monumental achievement and by far their best album. Every word that comes out of Danielle Haim’s mouth of this album is believable and performed in such a distinctive and raw way. On I Know Alone she fights with her loneliness, on The Steps and Don’t Wanna the rock sensibilities of the group come through, while Man From The Magazine is a frank explanation of what it feels like ‘to be the cunt’ when dealing with sexist men. The instrumentation on this album is so good, the bass playing from Este shines on I Know Alone and Gasoline, while the guitar and drums from Alana and Danielle on Up From a Dream sound exactly like they do at their live gigs. Every song brings something new to the table, unexpected directions like All That Ever Mattered and closer FUBT, but HAIM have never sounded more in control of their own sound. This is the album they were always going to make.
Ever since I started writing about music way more than I used to, it feels like I’ve written everything I could possibly write about the albums near the top of this list. That said, as I write this I’m still hearing new things that I love about After Hours which is the album of 2020 from the artist of 2020. I said back in 2017 that The Weeknd hasn’t released a bad album yet in my opinion and I stand by that. What all of those full length albums have struggled with though is bringing together The Weeknd’s conflicted persona and music style into a cohesive record. House of Balloons his debut mixtape remained the closest singular moment that felt right for me; until After Hours. The way this album develops in narrative, in production style and lyrically gives it this sense of purpose and journey from start to end. There’s absolutely no other artist who could release an album that goes from an Elton John interpolation into the brooding Snowchild, or the sex fueled Escape from LA before emerging the other side for the biggest hit of the year. Blinding Lights is somehow even more impactful at the centre of this album than it is as a Tik Tok featuring dance bop, here it’s the crest of the wave that crashes down again with In Your Eyes and Save Your Tears. Three Max Martin assisted co-writes that end up as the pop records of the year. That’s without mentioning the driving pace of the title track, or the bassy dance of Too Late, After Hours goes to so many places, but it always feels like it’s one journey and one singular vision. No album in 2020 captured my attention like this did, one of my all time favourite artists delivering on the immense promise that I and many others have placed on their shoulders for so many years. It’s The Weeknd’s industry now, we are just here to listen to the incredible music.