One pleasure that wasn’t denied us in 2020 was listening to albums. Yes, many were delayed, and the usual promotional tactics of world tours and high concept videos had to be rethought completely, but great music still came. In a bad year, here are 12 of the best.
The Avalanches – We Will Always Love You
After blowing minds with the intricate sample collages of their debut, Since I Left You, in 2000, these Australian producers finally got around to releasing a third album this month. We Will Always Love You is less quirky and silly than some past work, inspired by the “Golden Records”, two recordings of eclectic earth sounds intended for aliens to play if they ever find them on board the Voyager spacecraft. The cast list is suitably stellar, ranging from Johnny Marr to Neneh Cherry, and the music is dazzling, covering a huge amount of ground across more than 70 minutes.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
LA singer-songwriter Bridgers’ second album reveals itself gradually. You might be drawn initially to her unbearably sad voice, or the soft production, which gives a shimmery underwater feel to her balladry. Then you start to hear specific lyrics, which find poetry in the tiny details of her life. She’s darkly funny: “The doctor put her hands over my liver/She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she sings on Garden Song. When she visits an Elvis shrine in Graceland Too, it’s not as poignant as Paul Simon’s trip. She’s on MDMA and at a far tackier attraction down the road. It’s fascinating stuff, delivered exquisitely.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Dua Lipa started one of music’s most welcome trends this year: cracking on with putting out an album bursting with bangers even though there’s nowhere to dance to it. Taylor Swift may have chosen to go the other way and don her cardigan and walking boots, but both Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue followed Dua’s lead and didn’t bother with ballads. Future Nostalgia is fantastic fun from start to finish, happy to be a bit ridiculous when she has a go at rapping on the title track or gets rude on Good in Bed, but generally packed with brilliant, air-punching pop.
Fleet Foxes – Shore
“I’ve been a rolling antique all my life,” Robin Pecknold sings on Young Man’s Game. Maybe the 34-year-old was feeling past it, given that it’s now 12 years since the world was so charmed by the bucolic harmonies of the debut Fleet Foxes album, which sounded like it was made by Amish farmers between barn raisings. The world had moved on, especially as his band’s subsequent albums had been colder and less appealing – until now. Shore is an astoundingly rich creation, overflowing with complex melodies and heavenly voices. It’s the band back to its best.
Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
Grian Chatten’s unvarnished Dublin accent has been the most recognisable new voice in indie rock this past couple of years. He yelled over punky songs that sounded like they were barely holding themselves together on last year’s fierce debut album, Dogrel. On the follow up, the music slowed down and the beautiful desolation of his words became far more apparent. A Hero’s Death is a moody masterpiece, clearly indebted to intense bands such as Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen but also fully evocative of its own time and place.
Haim – Women in Music Pt.III
The Haim sisters wrote some great songs on their first two albums, but perhaps weren’t a band to fall in love with until this third one. It saw them loosening up and experimenting, shooting out numerous singles during a long run-up which began almost a year before release with the breezy, Lou Reed-aping Summer Girl. The songs range from emotional synthpop on I Know Alone, to sweet reggae on Another Try, to the classic radio rock of Don’t Wanna, a tune that Christine McVie could add to her Fleetwood Mac catalogue.
J Hus – Big Conspiracy
The sound of the summer arrived in January this year. Stratford rapper Momodou Jallow had spent time in prison for knife possession in between his first album and this follow-up, which makes the triumphant tone of Big Conspiracy something of a surprise. Having pioneered the afrobeats sound before, he came back bigger and better here, jumping between genres to include mariachi horns on No Denying and dancehall reggae on Repeat. Lyrically he was cheeky on Cucumber but also political on Deeper Than Rap, which considered black history over languid piano.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
For a year that angered so many in so many different ways, you need angry music. The title of one song on the fourth album by Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and his New York producer El-P just about summed up 2020: Holy Calamafuck. Mike went viral with a tearful speech he made just after the murder of George Floyd by police, while his mix of the political and pugilistic on record sounded disturbingly of-the-moment. “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me,” he rapped on Walking in the Snow.
Sault – Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)
The Sault collective released two full albums last year and two more just three months apart this year. That’s an incredible 35 songs in 2020, a mix of classic soul, R&B and disco with a strong political message that earned huge acclaim despite zero promotion and no one owning up to being in the band. It turns out mainly to be a project from Dean Cover, aka Inflo, who has produced equally great albums for Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz. Cleopatra Nikolic, who has also released an excellent album as Cleo Sol, seems to be the main singer. The measured fury of Wildfires, inspired by George Floyd, is surely the song of the year.
Moses Sumney – græ
What a voice. Californian musician Moses Sumney’s second album was an expansive showcase for his swooning falsetto, with an abstract, mostly electronic backdrop giving him room to swoop and glide over the top. It appeared in February and was more than good enough, until he added eight more songs in May including the James Blake collaboration Lucky Me. Then there was And So I Come to Isolation, a timely interlude that made the link between the words isolation and island: “I’ve been islanded.”
Taylor Swift – Folklore
In a grim year, Taylor Swift was the gift that kept on giving. Of her two surprise albums – Folklore in July and Evermore last week – the former was the real shock, as she walked away from bombastic stadium pop and into the woods in the company of Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon from super-hip indie bands The National and Bon Iver. Instead of singing about her own love life, she turned to telling stories, exploring the life of socialite Rebekah Harkness on The Last Great American Dynasty and relationships from different perspectives on Cardigan and Betty. Without the need for arena fireworks, everything was beautifully crafted.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
In the boom and bust music world, where yesterday’s next big thing is forgotten by tomorrow, musicians don’t always get the space to get better over time. As Waxahatchee, Alabama’s Katie Crutchfield seems to have slowly come into focus across five albums. After lo-fi beginnings, her songwriting on Saint Cloud sounds mature and flawless. It’s an Americana album, a bit country, a bit Laurel Canyon. With its analogue keys, easygoing strumming and warm harmonies, it could have appeared at any time in the past 50 years. Lucky for us it ended up being one of the best things about 2020.