The 60 Best Albums of 2020

Despite a global pandemic, an economic crash, and the shut-down of international touring, 2020 bestowed an embarrassment of musical riches upon us.

40. Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela – We’ve Landed [World Circuit]


In 2010, legendary drummer and Afrobeat co-founder Tony Allen and legendary trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist Hugh Masekela crossed paths in London and sat down to record together for the first and last time under the supervision of World Circuit’s Nick Gold. The resulting session, supplemented by recordings done after Masekela’s 2018 death, exists in the form of the aptly-titled Rejoice! At the time of Tony Allen’s death in April of this year, the two artists had over a century of professional music-making between them; now, their single documented encounter is a sonic celebration of both artists’ careers.

Allen’s signature polyrhythms meet the golden warmth of Masekela’s jazzy horns in a glorious blend of their respective well-honed skills on eight fluid jam sessions crafted carefully into cohesive tracks. It’s hard to imagine a cooler, more impactful pair, just as it’s hard to imagine a world without the two consistently making cameo appearances on other artists’ albums in between solo work – but their partnership here proves their individual legacies. There can be no finer tribute to both than what they’ve given each other as one-time collaborators on Rejoice! — Adriane Pontecorvo


39. Doves – The Universal Want [Rough Trade]


You’d be forgiven for thinking that Doves’ “Broken Eyes” was one of the British indie band’s classic singles from the noughties, holding up as it does against the likes of “Pounding”, “There Goes the Fear” and “Black and White Town”. But it’s actually one of many excellent tracks on their fifth album, The Universal Want, released an incredible ten years after the promotional hubbub of their last effort, Kingdom of Rust. A decade in the solo-project wilderness has clearly not diminished the power of this three-piece to create epic, lush and melodic music of the highest order, particularly their ability to come up with a compelling guitar riff, an all-conquering chorus, and lyrical content that is deeply affecting.

If anything’s changed, it’s that singer Jimi Goodwin sounds even more downcast and world-weary on this collection of songs than ever before. Yes, he’s now 50, but he’s also talked lately of “a lot of casualties in my past” and how “we shouldn’t be afraid to reference the damage that life can do.” He certainly does this on “Broken Eyes”, where he sings plaintively of love turned sour: “I can’t help it if you don’t feel satisfied.” He does it on the acoustically driven and urgent “Prisoners”, too, where he laments: “We’re just prisoners of this life.” But don’t think there’s any slack in the musical ambition as a result. “Carousels”, for one, builds from a drum sample of Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen into a densely layered and atmospheric piece with growling basslines and electronics to reflect the scary experience of going to a fair as a kid. Few bands have ever come back from a lengthy hiatus sounding as magnificent as this. — Adam Mason


38. The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form [Polydor]


The initial reviews for the 1975’s
Notes on a Conditional Form presented damning arguments: the band’s pretentiousness had consumed them, there were no major hits, and the album was just simply too long and unfocused. However, this album being a flop was always too tidy of a narrative from a band that is hellbent on exceeding expectations. Starting with a somber plea to fight climate change from activist Greta Thunberg, Notes on a Conditional Form is proud to be a grandiose slab of thoughtful, oft-impenetrable pop music.

Now it’s been true for a while, but the 1975 really are the best-produced act going; it’s best displayed on the polarizing instrumentals and the IDM-influenced tracks like “Yeah I Know.” Pick any track here and there are multiple technical flourishes that’ll make any sound engineer jealous. A song like “Shiny Collarbone” sounds more like Jamie xx than your standard alt-pop act they’re often compared with. Critics of the 1975 mostly need to accept the band’s ambitions as justifiable – yes, they shoot for the moon, but they put in the work behind the scenes to actually get there. —
Andrew Cox


37. The Microphones – The Microphones in 2020 [P. W. Elverum & Sun]


It’s especially easy in 2020 to feel a sense of shame when our problems come from “overthinking” rather than “the real world”—a notion Phil Elverum describes here as “this luxurious privilege to sit around, frowning and wondering what it means…. set apart from this life where people wake and work and don’t self-uproot each day”. But the feelings he puts to words are universal, every bit as real and intense as the relentlessly rising sun.

In the late ’90s, Elverum began recording lo-fi folk as The Microphones. In 2002, he abandoned the moniker to embark on his solo project, Mount Eerie, whose recent work has polarized audiences with its raw expressions of grief. Elverum has now exhumed The Microphones with the 44:44 opus Microphones in 2020—a title that sounds more like a think piece about the album than the album itself. The artist’s in on the joke, and it’s perhaps the only one he tells.

Elverum has always grappled with time and existence, but as he enters midlife, he accepts the void with more grace than ever before. The loneliness has softened. Even crushing lines like “I probably won’t find shelter in the arms of any other person” come across as more empty than dark. Elverum employs poetic turns of phrase in service of greater truth, but just as often, his words come out disarmingly literal, cutting deeper than metaphor could.

Musically, very little happens. The song rides a single, churning guitar line—briefly tinged by black metal riffs, off-key piano and lush organ—then wanders into a tundra of drone, and melts into its softest moments. Crucially, it’s set to a lyric video / hand-operated slideshow-autobiography, in which Elverum drops photograph after photograph to the beat in a stream of nows 800 strong. The emergent web of detail and self-reference makes the audiovisual experience almost essential.

There’s no way of knowing whether Microphones in 2020 will evoke despair, warmth or nothing at all. So soft and slow, you get the feeling that if you look away, you may never find it again. The song ends: “Anyway, every song I’ve ever sung is about the same thing…. And if there have to be words, they could just be: ‘Now only’ and ‘There’s no end’.” In this slippery ouroboros of eternity, all we ever have is this momentary view from our window. — A Noa Harrison


36. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle [Don Giovanni]


The Cycle is the latest from Mourning [A] BLKstar, an Ohio-based collective boasting three lead singers, horns, and insistent, portending grooves, There’s no way not to recognize this band’s roots in Afrofuturism; it’s also impossible to hear them as anything other than starkly original. And for anyone who’s kept up with them since their debut, the mood has gotten noticeably darker, something The Cycle makes clear.

This album’s spring 2020 release exposes music that can’t help but seem like a reaction to the current moment. It demands an end to systemic racism and its representative monuments, alongside the inequalities brought to center stage by COVID-19, render this country once and for all as a nation forced to finally take a look at the rotten stench of economic and racial apartheid. Part of The Cycle‘s in-the-moment feel also comes from the fact that this is largely a live-to-tape record, capturing the buzz and hum of their Cleveland, Ohio studio and using that undercurrent to fantastic, vibrating effect. The Cycle is necessary, secular gospel for the healing of a truly damaged nation. — Brice Miller


35. Roísín Murphy – Roísín Machine [Skint/BMG]


While 2015’s Hairless Toys and 2016’s Take Her Up to Monto were attracting plenty of critical praise, Roísín Murphy had something percolating in the background that took years to complete, but the end result would end up being the best work of her career so far. Murphy’s longtime creative partnership with Richard Barratt yielded the stellar dance single “Simulation” in 2012 followed by the equally great “Jealousy” in 2015, and the two kept collaborating over the next few years crafting what would become a masterful mix of disco, house, funk, dub, and electropop, all anchored by the Irish singer’s distinct, husky voice.

Roísín Machine is a spellbinding, non-stop dance journey that carries on for nearly an hour, her impassioned singing matched step for step by Barratt’s eclectic yet tasteful arrangements. Going back to 2007’s wonderful Overpowered, not to mention her days as part of Moloko, Murphy has always been an extraordinary talent, but when we hear her commanding presence on “Kingdom of Ends”, “Something More”, and “Murphy’s Law”, she sounds truly iconic. This is an instant dance classic. — Adrien Begrand


34. Jessie Reyez – BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US [FMLY/Island]


If BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US is any indication, Jessie Reyez gets out of bed in the morning and immediately dials every emotional dial in her brain up to 11. We should all be so lucky. This kind of deeply vulnerable goth-pop intensity is what made Reyez such a captivating songwriter on her previous releases, but on her debut album, it comes across as a concerted act of defiance. BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US is a devastating testament to the wreckage left behind when love falls apart, an acutely painful exploration of losing and rescuing yourself in the storm of a toxic relationship. It might be an unsubtle album, but Reyez is more willing to admit than many songwriters that heartbreak and the rage that comes with it are unsubtle things.

It doesn’t hurt that Reyez’s ability to whiplash between genres and sounds, from her imperious swagger on “DEAF (who are you)” and “DOPE” to the tragic balladry of the title track, marks her as one of the more deliriously entertaining performers currently working. Her bullseye lyricism and her singularly wrenching voice dig out ample room for the most jagged feelings she can muster, resulting in a surprisingly gentle and nuanced portrait of healing, as the flawed and gorgeous process it truly is. — Matthew Apadula


33. Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of [Terrible/XL]


Lorely Rodriguez’s albums surprise with every listen as one appreciates the flutter of her voice or gets sucked into one of her hooks. I’m Your Empress Of arrived at the start of the US shutdown and stayed a reflection of the time throughout: impatient, restless, regretful – I don’t want to take it easy/ Take my mind on the road.” Lorely Rodriguez spins pain into gold – the unaffected way she chants “Give me another chance” sounds nothing like begging and everything like magic, conjured by some beautifully held notes.

Even for her, struggles seem much less tiresome and more dramatic – she admits to a hollowness on “Void”, but she sings as if it’s made her weightless. There, too, is an emptiness to a song like “What’s the Point”, where barren moments in the beat become points for Rodriguez to cut through with frank admissions: “It’s confusing the way you touch me.” She reveals bits of herself the way her music reveals its many facets with each listen. But unlike most rulers, with every side she reveals, Empress Of grows more powerful. — Mick Jacobs


32. Porridge Radio – Every Bad [Secretly Canadian]


The vulnerability of struggling to know yourself and others is a key theme throughout (the Mercury Prize-nominated) Every Bad. But more than just a piece of “sadcore sadfishing”, this album feels much more like a concept album. Each song is a three-minute chapter building a rich and alluring character profile. There is a gravity to each of these 11 songs. While you listen and piece together the profile of the lost misanthrope and their various ills, you cannot help but be drawn in. You want to know the narrator of each song; you want to befriend and know them. They are damaged, but they are desirable. Like a siren, they call you to the rocks, forcing you to acknowledge your destructive insatiable desire. Every Bad is fragile and robust, confidently flawed, and above all evidence that Porridge Radio is in their ascendancy. They are a real force to be reckoned with. – B. Sassons


31. Georgia – Seeking Thrills [Domino]


Inclusivity, love, unity, and, most importantly, having a bloody good time. They’re the things that lure us back to the dancefloor time and time again. At its all-embracing, life-defining peak, the clubbing experience should be a euphoric, coming together of like-minded souls under dazzling strobe lights. On her second album, British producer Georgia has bottled that feeling as she joyously celebrates the dancefloor and all who inhabit it.

Musically on Seeking Thrills, Georgia distills her various influences, pulling in synthpop, disco, Chicago House, and 1980s Detroit techno with sprinklings of UK garage, dancehall, and even post-punk. It’s a heady, energetic fusion of sounds with Georgia taking things back to basics as she constructs sounds from analogue synths and simple drum machine beats. The whole thing is designed to take you back to the comforting, sticky floors of the dancefloor, where the only thing that matters is you and the music. — Paul Carr