It would be a gross understatement to say this has been a difficult year for the arts. The industry has been disproportionately affected by the global pandemic, with live performances – many artists’ primary source of income – essentially postponed for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps, though, it has meant more time for musicians to be able to create; certainly there has been no shortage of wildly creative and surely, in future, seminal albums released throughout 2020 – both before the pandemic took hold and during.
Our pick of the best 2020 albums is only 20 long – which seemed an apt number – and therefore still omits plenty of LPs that we have enjoyed this year. It does cover a lot of ground, however, and proves that artistry is alive and well even in this most traumatic of years.
Articulation by Rival Consoles
Ryan Lee West's trademark ambient techno is perhaps at its most fluid on Articulation, trance-like at times and untethered from typical rhythms, which likely has a lot to do with his novel approach. During recording, he drew structures, shapes and patterns by hand to find new ways of thinking about music. "I think the goal of a lot of electronic composers is to find a balance between the vision of the idea and the power of possibilities on the computer," he says. "With a pen and paper sketch you can compose and rethink ideas without technology getting in the way."
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Big Conspiracy by J Hus
It says something about this year that we find it so unbelievable J Hus's Big Conspiracy is less than twelve months old. Everything on the album, from Hus’s lazy vocal to the way he shimmies between beats and genres, sounds effortless. A definite step forward from his acclaimed debut Common Sense, this is 45 minutes of crafted transitions, somewhat mellowed but still precise, that showcase his mastery of several styles across a series of cool rhythms. No wonder it has already featured on a number of our best album lists.
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Dark Matter by Moses Boyd
We fell in love immediately with Moses Boyd's first album as bandleader and producer, with Dark Matter fittingly getting its release on Valentine's Day this year. You'll find it in the jazz section of your local record shop, but so sprawling is its reach that it could easily sit among an electronic, Afrobeat, R&B or grime selection. The south London drummer draws on an eclectic musical upbringing to drive his genre forward in the fashion its spirit deserves.
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Edna by Headie One
Undoubtedly one of the year's most eagerly anticipated albums, Edna sees Headie One confirm himself as one of this nation's most progressive and enterprising artists – a master of drill but by no means confined by it. A long-yet-lean 20-song set with features from Skepta, Stormzy, AJ Tracey, Mahalia and Drake, its journey is a meandering one between the pensive and the aggressive, the playful and meditative. This is a record undoubtedly worthy of the wait.
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Eternal Atake by Lil Uzi Vert
But if Edna was hotly anticipated, Eternal Atake was an album at times we thought might never happen. Lil Uzi Vert even announced he was stepping away from music entirely during a tumultuous three years since the release of Luv Is Rage 2, but his otherworldly fusion of rap and melody is triumphant upon his return to help save a mightily turbulent year for the rest of the world.
folklore by Taylor Swift
Hardly shocking that it caused a stir when one of the world’s biggest artists announced she was releasing a new record imminently during lockdown, but it was one that transcended pop spheres when it was revealed The National’s Aaron Dessner had produced much of the album. In truth, Swift has frequently changed tack during her career – wearing new skins album-to-album, never merely imitating – so the least surprising thing about folklore is that she made this new partnership work. Dessner’s tracks make no secret of their parentage – sometimes we still expect to hear Matt Berninger’s baritone issuing the first line – but these are very much Swift’s melodies and her typically engaging storytelling.
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how i'm feeling now by Charli XCX
Charli XCX's fourth album was written and released during lockdown, encapsulating elegantly the confusion, loneliness and boredom of the time. But, though it will undoubtedly and rightly be used as a kind of sonic photograph in the years to come – both due to its subject matter, and how Charlotte Aitchison used social media to workshop the tracks – how i'm feeling now is a timeless triumph of the Cambridge-born songwriter's knack of finding an absorbing melody among some compelling DIY electronics.
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I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep by Ghostpoet
Though we were growing impatient, having hungered for Ghostpoet's fifth album since its first single Concrete Pony was released in January, really its arrival in May couldn't have been more apt. At a time when anxiety was at a national high, Obaro Ejimiwe's meditations on his own mental health became only more poignant, and are matched on I Grow Tired... by his ever-increasing mastery of composition, instrumentation and production.
Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens sets out her stall early on Inner Song, the Welsh artist’s second full-length album: it opens with an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s Arpeggi, with a dream-pop follow-up before a techno banger for track three. In short, this is a record not chained to any style – even for two tracks at a time. More than a musical tasting menu, though, this feels like a full, cohesive set thanks to Owens’s sturdy-yet-delicate songwriting that forms its spine.
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Live Forever by Bartees Strange
Most albums, even the favourites, have tracks you’ll skip every now and again. The best have those you repeat. Rarely does a record quadruple in length because you can’t bear to let the last song go. Bartees Strange is that artist who every five or ten years breathes new life into indie music. There is hip-hop influence in Kelly Rowland, minimal techno with Flagey God, but even the most familiarly indie, guitar-led tracks feel fresher than peppermint snow.
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Love + Light by Daniel Avery
Daniel Avery released his third full-length solo album Love + Light with no forewarning in June, only two weeks after recording its final note, representing another bewildering feat of creativity in the most difficult of times. Separated in two parts, apart yet intertwined, the record features some gorgeous slow-moving textures among driving techno that makes us pine for the return of communal listening.
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Positions by Ariana Grande
That Ariana Grande has the ability to release three chart-topping albums in just over two years is testament to the work ethic that has helped her climb to the industry’s summit. But that their mix of reflective, conscious pop and playful interludes has also yet to let up suggests this isn’t the end of the streak. Positions explores love and sex in Grande’s characteristically thoughtful manner while never losing sight of its sense of humour.
SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
It would take a fool to attempt confining Rina Sawayama to any particular genre, but suffice to say she proves on SAWAYAMA – the roots of which are in pop music, R&B, hip-hop and metal – that she is a master of many. This is an album heavy with experimentation, toying with the indelible hooks that are easily durable enough to carry that weight.
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Silver Ladders by Mary Lattimore
The soundscapes architected by Mary Lattimore with her harp can be nothing short of transcendental, and Silver Ladders is another 40-minute meditation that feels as though it could lift us up on a cloud. Produced by Slowdive’s Neal Halstead, there are guitar lines sewn into Lattimore’s looped, echoing harp melodies, and the conversations between the pair soon become some of the highlights of the record.
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Sixteen Oceans by Four Tet
Even now, listening to Kieran Hebden's tenth album as Four Tet leaves us bitter about the festivals of which we were robbed in 2020. We still weren't fully prepared for a summer spent indoors when Sixteen Oceans was released in March, and its infectious, airy house beats seemed to beckon us into the fields. It no doubt soundtracked many a garden party nonetheless, and stands tall despite some heavy rotation.
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SOURCE by Nubya Garcia
Having worked hard recording with other breakout artists over the past few years, and releasing a number of her own EPs, Nubya Garcia finally graced us with her debut studio album in August. Melding dub, cumbia and R&B with traditional jazz, SOURCE is evidence of a skilled saxophonist and bandleader placing her considerable voice within any setting she chooses and never missing a step as she leads the genre forward.
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Suddenly by Caribou
Though it had been six years since the release of Our Love, Dan Snaith’s last album as Caribou, there is an immediacy and directness to Suddenly – even its name – that feels as if the whole record were written in a heartbeat. The album’s more pensive moments are still full of movement, often on a journey between genres, and at its giddy heights this is a record nothing short of euphoric.
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The Don of Diamond Dreams by Shabazz Palaces
You can always count on Shabazz Palaces to deliver something that both reflects the current musical landscape and yet appears to be answering it from years into the future. The Don of Diamond Dreams is no different, awash with space-age synth sounds that take its undulating hip-hop rhythms, and R&B and trap influences, to another planet.
Viscerals by Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
Despite the band's moniker, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs's approach is far more elephantine as mammoth riffs tear through the speaker cone and plant their feet square in your gut. Playfully eccentric as much as it is colossal, Viscerals shares a Sabbath-like nous for using rhythm and pace as much as pure noise to achieve a truly British style of heaviness.
You Want by Omar S
There is a rawness to Omar S’s music that, while treading the line of functionality, lets you know exactly who produced it. You Want, the Detroit house composer’s sixth album among a stacked library of EPs, is no different in that regard. It is minimal in its instrumentation, but not in its soul or swagger, and its release in 2020 could not have been more welcome for those of us scratching at closed nightclub doors.