Updated: Dec 31, 2020
A lot of things happened this year. Obviously, the most significant was Spotify removing their cap on albums that can be saved to your library. A combination of that fact, my habitual reliance on music as a boredom anaesthetic and a genuine abundance of incredible albums has made this a standout year for music from my perspective. Even with big names like Kendrick, Frank and Rihanna choosing to hold back on planned album releases, all kinds of artists came through to make sure that if everything’s going to suck, at least it can suck to an astounding soundtrack.
Clearly, I’m a big advocate for album-listening. But to make this list a little more digestible, I’ve made a playlist with one track from each of the albums mentioned in ranked order (plus a bunch of ‘honourable mentions’):
If you hear a track you like, I’d strongly recommend the album it comes from because each one in this list is a great listen. Alright, that’s enough album-listening evangelism.
Let me preface this list by saying the picks and rankings are completely subjective, and that I’m absolutely going to change my mind about them / discover albums released this year that really should have been on here. Having said that, feel free to beef me if I've disrespected your album of the year. Most impassioned conversations about music are good ones. Okay, here it is...
I’m cheating at spot 100 and calling it a tie between 5 albums:
100.What Kinda Music – Tom Misch; Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers; Twice As Tall – Burna Boy; Ho, why is you here? – Flo Milli; It Was Good Until It Wasn’t – Kehlani
Spots 99-51 in ascending rank order from top left:
99. Run the Jewels 4 – Run the Jewels
98. King’s Disease – Nas
97. Rise above the hate – Unknown T
96. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
95. Circles – Mac Miller
94. Serpentine Prison – Matt Berninger
93. The Rated Legend – Cadet
92. Trapped on Cleveland 3 – Lil Keed
91. Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (Crater Speak) – Slauson Malone
90. Eyes Wide Open – TWICE
89. Send Them To Coventry – Pa Salieu
88. What’s Your Pleasure? – Jessie Ware
87. The New Abnormal – The Strokes
86. 2000AND4EVA – Bree Runaway
85. Cold Water – Medhane
84. Folklore – Taylor Swift
83. Dutch From The 5th – dutchavelli
82. FULL CIRCLE – Medhane
81. WHAT WE DREW – Yaeji
80. Innocent Country 2 – Quelle Chris & Chris Keys
79. Heavy Light – U.S. Girls
78. Visions of Bodies Being Burned – Clipping.
77. New Beginnings – REASON
76. Fuck the World – Brent Faiyaz
75. EDNA – Headie One
74. The Long Goodbye – Riz Ahmed
73. Government Tropicana – Lex Amor
72. Savage Mode 2 – 21 Savage
71. Dreamland – Glass Animals
70. Featuring Ty Dolla Sign – Ty Dolla Sign
69. Cataclysm – Shamir
68. Street Side Effects – K-Trap
67. Cult Survivor – Sofie
66. A Doctor, Painter and An Alchemist Walk Into A Bar – The Alchemist
65. TAKE TIME – Giveon
64. Weight of the world – MIKE
63. I’m Your Empress Of – Empress Of
62. GANG – Headie One
61. UNLOCKED – Denzel Curry
60. KIKI – Kiana Lede
59. Sixteen Oceans – Four Tet
58. The Familiar Stranger – Frisco
57. Live Forever – Bartees Strange
56. Shamir – Shamir
55. Free Love – Sylvan Esso
54. E3AF – Dizzee Rascal
53. Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
52. Is It Real – Dinamarca & La Favi
51. LULU – Conway the Machine
Okay, we’re getting into the top 50 so headphone listening is essential. Full credit to Nicolas Geiseler for these dope graphics – check out @picassomadecomics on Insta.
50. INDUSTRY GAMES – CHIKA
49. how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX
48. The Recession 2 – Jeezy
47. Ei8ht Mile – Digdat
46. Limbo – Amine
45. A Written Testimony – Jay Electronica
44. Suddenly – Caribou
43. Ultra Mono – IDLES
42. Mukta vs. Mukta – BackRoad Gee
41. Spilligion – Spillage Village
40. Everything Else Has Gone Wrong – Bombay Bicycle Club
39. She Already Decided – Smino
38. Burden of Proof – Benny the Butcher (check out my review: https://cutt.ly/yhIWO3U)
37. Forever, Ya Girl – keiyaA
36. Wu Hen – Kamaal Williams
35. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 – Tkay Maidza
34. Sin Miedo – Kali Uchis
33. Maya – John Frusciante
32. Anime, Trauma and Divorce – Open Mike Eagle
31. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius
30. It Is What It Is – Thundercat
29. The Slow Rush – Tame Impala
28. Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs
27. BETTER – Diante' Hitchcock
26. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
25. Only For Dolphins – Action Bronson
24. Women in Music Pt. III – HAIM
23. Man Alive! – King Krule (check out my review: https://cutt.ly/qhIWSxR)
22. The Worst Generation – Che Lingo
21. The Ascension – Sufjian Stevens
20. The Don of Diamond Dreams – Shabazz Palaces
19. Glass 2.0 – Meyhem Lauren
18. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
17. Nectar – Joji
16. The Price of Tea in China – Boldy James
15. Big Conspiracy – J Hus
14. Shore – Fleet Foxes
13. Grime MC – JME
12. Descendants of Cain – Ka
11. Houses – Steve Spacek
And now, what you been waiting on like the vaccine: the top ten albums of 2020, with my thoughts on each:
10. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez – Gorillaz
This project was originally imagined as a free stream of standalone singles made with guest artists during open-door studio sessions and released upon their creation. Though that plan was slightly adapted because of the whole everything of this year, it meant that we were blessed with this bundled and wrapped collection of those tunes – appropriately presented as a season of episodes rather than a typical album. I say "appropriately" not for a lack of cohesiveness or substance - the project is packed with well-conceived, multi-layered tracks, and a few of their entire discography's most stunning. Maybe it's because of a firm rooting in the rich imagined world that defines Gorillaz, or maybe it’s because of an extensive experience of collaboration, but the recording process has lent this album an impressively immediate, diverse and symbiotic sound; an honest dialogue with the dynamic characters, ideas and environments comprising the "episodes".
9. Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able – Black Thought
We haven't needed a Streams of Thought instalment like we have this year. Probably the most fully realised out of the trilogy, Vol. 3 combines Thought's distinctive, complex, yet resounding flow with bold, clean production. Portugal The Man introduce surprising chemistry on their three feature spots, while Thought loosens up his bars slightly, striking a perfect balance between technical and accessible. The typical witty, intellectual, pertinent commentary in his lyrics touches on Biblical prophecies, relationships, social media addiction, his legendary status in hip hop, oppressive capitalism and collective black consciousness in the face of white supremacy.
8. Couldn't Wait to Tell You... – Liv.e
On Couldn't Wait to Tell You..., Liv.e delivers us a window into an intimate, indica-induced lucid dream. Taking no pains to explain itself, the album feels elusive yet vulnerable, constantly revealing glimpses of depths untamed, unsettling and coyly self-studying. The instrumentals and Liv.e's layered delivery blend together, diffusively inking a canvas to paint a sensitive, seductive, abstract mural that's undeniably organic. The escaping lyrics, that animate cloudy encounters with L.ive's own thoughts on self-love, ageing, healing and more, are always laden with coded wisdom.
7. 2017-2019 – Against All Logic
2017-2019 goes beyond an experimental album. The album instead feels like an actual experiment. Constantly unpredictable and genre-defying (taking inspiration from the far corners of house, ambient, techno and industrial) the album feels like an investigative study into musical entropy. The Beyoncé vocal sample-led 'Fantasy' evokes an artificial intelligence imitating organic beauty, the trancey drum breaks and whirring synths of 'With An Addict' are a surrendering hypnosis, and tracks four through six are a straight up Stanford prison experiment.
6. Whole New Mess – Angel Olsen
Last year, Angel Olsen released All Mirrors, a grand yet vulnerable neon grey reflection on the heartache that permeated the duration and ending of a toxic relationship. Whole New Mess is the stripped back original version of that album, reminiscent of her early-career works. If All Mirrors was a harbinger of this year’s solitude and quietness, shimmering with an air of melancholic romanticism, Whole New Mess is the whispering, haunting actualisation of the experience. A bare, acoustic guitar is the only companion to the warbling, flinching whistle of Olsen’s pained vocals. The lyrics convey a gut-wrenching hollowness, an enduring familiarity with loneliness. Yet through it all, Olsen’s assured, truthing conviction impossibly glimmers through: “I like the air that I breathe / I like the thoughts that I think / I like the life that I live / Without you”, she quivers like a feather on ‘Tonight (Without You)’.
5. After Hours – The Weeknd
The Weeknd dropped his best album this year – a trap, synth pop and rnb infused immersion into materialism and lust. The emotional attachment to temporary, fleeting pleasure and infatuation is so undeniable that even as a listener, it’s easy to lose sight of the toxicity and instability infesting its foundations – “If I held you back at least I held you close” Abel croons on ‘Scared To Live’. The heavy inspiration the album draws from the world of Uncut Gems following Abel’s self-starring cameo is unmissable – it makes perfect sense that the hazy hollowness of fast-living expertly captured in the film struck a chord with one of the world’s biggest and most sentimental pop stars. At points, like on ‘Heartless’ or ‘Repeat After Me’, the line between self-aware method acting and sincere arrogance gets blurred, but the lyrics throughout the album deliberately convey the “blinding lights” of materialism – a prism of greed, envy, insecurity and dependence. I must mention the production too, which is brimming and immaculate. The transitions, the layering, the mixing with the vocals – the attention to detail is audible in even the smaller details (those hi-hats on ‘Snowchild’ are just so so good).
4. Dinner Party – Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, Kamasi Washington
There's a scene in the children's Christmas classic, The Snowman shelved safely in the depths of my nostalgia, where the snowman leads the child protagonist on a flight through a snowy Winter night's sky. The sense that scene conveyed, of being led on a beautiful, metaphysical journey by a warm, guiding force immediately worthy of your full trust, is captured exactly by Dinner Party. Just put this album on, this 23-minute jazz time warp, and let these four legendary pilots steer you on a trip so potent, pristine and heartfelt, you'll feel it in your bones.
3. Heaven To A Tortured Mind – Yves Tumor
“Carry me away into your spirit / I can't lift my own troubles / I've got nothing left to fear but the wilderness”, Yves Tumor exclaims on ‘Medicine Burn’. The track, one of the most disorienting and psychedelic of the album, becomes a tranced, incessant cry over an effervescent yet sluggish, noise-hurricane of an instrumental, as Yves unintelligibly describes a vision of some kind of monster with seven heads and six hundred scarlet coloured teeth. The album title effectively describes this foreign nebula that the dense, surreal, yet soul-baring twelve tracks drop the listener into. The abstract world that Yves imagines is characterised by bizarre, often contradicting motifs and impulses, growing from a harrowing darkness. Still, part of what makes this album so uniquely fascinating is the torrential desire for love that shines through. At its most potent, it even causes the complex murkiness of the instrumentals to break through into simple, infectious euphoria like on ‘Super Stars’, which happens to be one of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
2. grae – Moses Sumney
grae is the fierce yet delicate purple-blue at the core of a tender-sweet bruise. The double album is a world where the internal is the eternal, where all that exists beyond must be shaded in dubiety as an act of self-protection, and self-preservation. Sumney makes a habitat for himself in the “ache”, where ethereal florae are always swelling, warm and abstruse. He meditates on masochism, masculinity, multiplicity, unrequitedness, depression and non-conformity. Most of all, his contorting vocals express the asphyxiation and decay of love and identity that is synonymous with isolation – something we’ve all learnt a thing or two about this year. The ginormous yet intimate, landscaping instrumentals are profound, from the BFG bass on ‘Cut Me’ and lumbering drum and synth hypnosis on ‘Gagarin’, to the impossibly dense hurricanes that brew on ‘Virile’ and ‘Neither/Nor’, to the heart-haltingly angelic ‘Bystanders’ and ‘Me in 20 Years’.
1. From King To A GOD – Conway the Machine
What kind of Hip Hop Soc founder would I be if this album didn't top my list. If you aren't aware of how Griselda absolutely bullied 2020, your finger's off the pulse. The trio started the year with a scorching Fire in the Booth, before going on to collectively put out 8 albums. For me, Conway is the standout Griselda member, melding Benny's lyricism and technicality with Westside's personality and distinctiveness, and this album has cemented his spot as my current favourite rapper. The production is consistently outstanding and matches Conway's masterful ability to combine the raw with the rich, the quintessential with the progressive, the reflective with the relentless. 'Front Lines' is a vexed and exasperated ultimatum response to police brutality over a grimy, screw face-inducing beat, while 'Forever Dropping Tears' and 'Seen Everything But Jesus' are heartfelt dedications to lost friends and the mark their absence has left on Conway. Meanwhile, tracks like 'Fear Of God', 'Juvenile Hell' and 'Anza', are flashy, authoritative hustler campaign statements. In this way, Machine not only defies but repurposes the "dope dealer rapper" box critics dismissively place him in. Simply put, From King To A GOD has all the markings of a hip hop classic.