Listening to new music in 2020 has been tasking – with the developments of our chaotic and novel current affairs taking up every headline on every news platform, you’d be forgiven for deciding this year was not the one for trying new music.
If there was to be a fruit to blossom from this rotting tree of an annum, it would be the creative bravery that our new world order has instilled. With artists confined to their abodes for months, more complex journeys inward were inevitable, and the cojones to release tracks that push the boundary were bolstered.
Resultantly, 2020’s releases have been stunningly variant and exposing; music has been a lifeline this year – a reaching hand reassuring us that it’s okay to feel vulnerable in times of racial oppression and public health danger.
In light of this, we’ve picked out our favourite 30 albums from 2020.
30. Onipa – We Be No Machine
It’s difficult to say for certain without having played the game, but it seems a pretty safe bet that Onipa’s ‘Fire’ must be the best tune on this year’s FIFA 21 soundtrack. Plenty has been said and written about the confluence of video games and music, but perhaps it’s high time an article considered the impact that inclusion on EA playlists can have on an artist’s career.
If any gamers are switched onto Onipa’s glorious We No Be Machine as a result of FIFA… well, good result all round.
29. Romare – Home
Music and art often work together in reciprocal harmony – for centuries the two disciplines have danced and weaved together through history, with numerous incidents of sounds inspiring works of art (Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition 8 is an example of this) and vice versa (Don McLean’s song inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night). One such beneficiary of the latter symbiosis is UK producer Romare. Romare’s latest offering, ‘Home‘, is his third release on Ninja Tune. It’s his most dance-floor-ready material to date and reflects an artist who, despite the circumstances, has reasons to celebrate.
28. Chip Wickham – Blue To Red
An album that The Noise Narrative reviewed in June, the soothing and restorative powers of Blue to Red have been essential listening this year. At what point does a purple patch become something more, a trend rather than a flashpoint? The UK jazz scene has been in rude health for what seems like a long time now; Moses Boyd, Yazmin Lacey, Tenderlonius, Kamaal Williams and Zara McFarlane are just some of the names that have released albums this year, all with their own unique vision of what jazz means to them in 2020.
Wickham has been around the block a little more than some of those contemporaries (he originally appeared on Matthew Halsall’s debut Sending My Love in 2008), but Blue to Red condenses some of the finest moments of his career.
27. K-Lone – Cape Cira
Wisdom Teeth boss K-Lone continued to go from strength to strength this year, but it was the direction of his first full length release that surprised fans most. Back when we reviewed Cape Cira in May, our verdict was the record is “so light it feels like it could weightlessly take off at any moment.” Quite a gear change from the Idle Hands and Wych EPs that built his reputation.
You’ll find some of the album’s best tracks on the Wisdom Teeth Spotify playlist K-Lone and fellow label boss Facta have spent a bit of time crafting.
Read our full review here.
26. India Jordan – For You
One of 2020’s many quirks, it’s probably been easier in the last twelve months for new electronic music to fly under the radar. With clubs closed and festivals cancelled, in a parallel universe there are a whole host of tracks that would have been broken on dancefloors across the country. It speaks to the talent of India Jordan that even in the strangest of years, For You has had such success and resonated with so many.
Winning best breakthrough producer at the DJ Mag Awards a few weeks back cements what a brilliant few months this has been for Jordan individually. Spanning house, footwork, techno, breaks, hardcore, and released in lockdown, For You might well have gone on to another level in its intended environment.
25. Akai Solo – Eleventh Wind
Akai Solo is a rapper who delivers bars with earnest; it feels like he really means what he’s saying. This sincerity can often make the lyrics hit harder, and the Brooklyn rapper certainly achieves this on his latest album. The beats are introspective and experimental, the lines are pensive and complicated – Eleventh Wind is a thinking album from a criminally slept-on US rapper.
24. Navy Blue – Àdá Irin
Rap fans may know about Navy Blue from his appearance on Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs. Real name Sage Elsesser, the recording artist clearly grapples with multiple vices and troubles on his debut LP. The compositions need multiple listens, which may be a turn off for some, but the beauty of the album comes from its trickiness – Àdá Irin translates to ‘Iron Man’ in Hausa, a Chadic language spoken mainly within Niger and Nigeria – Navy Blue declares his stoicism here, and if you listen with the same patience, reward can often follow.
23. Setwun – In Search of the Butubutu
Setwun is one of Sydney’s best-kept secrets and a demon beat producer. Put simply, In Search of the Butubutu is a collection of beats that slaps in all times; morning, noon or night; car, club or afters; rain, wind, or shine. Setwun is capable of harnessing the power and potential that lies within the hallowed MPC with a mastery that may just make you think you’re listening to previously unreleased Dilla. Aggressive head bopping is non-negotiable.
22. Photay – Waking Hours
To the IDM fanatics that are adamant that pop elements don’t belong in this neck of the woods — Photay simply doesn’t care. The producer, who states this record is about “celebrating your existence” and “finding comfort in just being”, is exploring the lure and subsequent freedom of simply being grateful to be alive. This record is Photay dismissing the self-conscious pressure that we often feel to productively fill our waking hours.
21. Demae – Life Works Out… Usually
Beautifully uplifting neo-soul from South London’s burgeoning Touching Bass community. Demae celebrates black joy, self-empowerment and independence with a delicate and warming charm which should draw comparison to the likes of Erykah Badu. Production and contributions come from the Touching Bass extended family in Joe Armon-Jones, Wu-Lu, Jake Milliner and Eun, providing expertly crafted jazz-licked beats.
20. Matthew Halsall – Salute To The Sun
Spiritual jazz of the highest order from the Mancunian virtuoso on his own Gondwana Records. As with all his projects, Salute To The Sun has a soothing and therapeutic quality that is yet to be matched by any other contemporary composer. If a lazy Sunday could talk, this would be its language.
19. Wardown – Wardown
Technimatic’s Pete Rogers released his debut LP under new alias Wardown. The album, which shares the same name, offers 8 tracks rich with nostalgia, longing and bitter-sweetness. Rogers grew up in Luton, and this release appears more of an exploration of his emotions for his hometown rather than simply another album.
The LP consists of mixtape cuts recorded from his teens, recordings from deceased family, clips from forgotten documentaries about Bedfordshire’s rich free party heritage, recordings of brass bands and field recordings of the town-centre. The result is one of a kind of beauty tinged with unabashed personal melancholy and yearning.
18. upsammy – Zoom
Amsterdam-based producer upsammy’s debut LP offers a microscopic take on IDM, dub and electro. The over-riding feel of the record is that it sparkles – be it the swirling synths, the glitchy FX or the minty-fresh melodies, this LP is filled with technical prowess that shines cerebrally.
17. The Colours That Rise – Grey Doubt
Grey doubt is the debut full-length album from London duo Simeon Jones and Nathanael Williams. Released in early May on Rhythm Section, with features from Yussef Dayes, Yazmin Lacey and Andrew Ashong, the project is ambitious and accomplished in its entirety. Musically, the listener is treated to a fusion of broken beat, jazz, deep house with more than a little Afro-futuristic psychedelic funk akin to Parliament-Funkadelic. The latter influence is mirrored in the album’s narrative of the secret history of black people living on Mars in a world of creeping uncertainty of truth. Presciently, its release came only a few weeks before the death of George Floyd and the wave of global Black Lives Matter protests.
16. Bufiman – Albumsi
Bufiman’s latest LP is difficult to categorise; we went for ‘left-field club music composed with live and experimental instrumentation’. If music followed the left-right spectrum of politics, Albumsi would be acid communist. Infectious chugging grooves for the open-minded.
15. Pa Salieu – Send Them To Coventry
Just over a year ago, Pa Salieu had 20 gunshot pellets extracted from his head. The 23 year-old released ‘Frontline’ just 3 months later, and followed up with his statement debut LP Send Them To Coventry. The British-Gambian artist’s album is a powerful declaration of capability.
What makes this album unique is Salieu’s penchant for West African diction – his emphasis on the delivery of words and his homage paid to Gambian folk musicians make this rap album different from the others. It’s fiery, defiant and beautiful, all at once.
14. Destroyer – Have We Met
Dan Bejar’s latest LP is a creepy synth-pop-cum-soft-rock offering rife with emotional escapades. His unmistakeable voice dances and weaves from a distant place over post-groovy backing music, exploring notions of despair and alarm: “Just look at the world around you,” he demands at the start of ‘The Raven’ — “Actually, no, don’t look.”
13. Thomas Gray & Liam Ebbs – Recollection of Everything Beautiful
Recollection of Everything Beautiful will invite you to do just that – a truly beautiful and expertly-crafted arrangement of modern classical, ambience and experimental electronic music. It marks the second offering from the duo on Melbourne’s Analogue Attic, a label well worth getting to know if you’re searching for sonic transcendence.
12. Baxter Dury – Night Chancers
Baxter Dury leads the way for the oddball, profane, John Cooper-Clarke-inspired pop-rock artists of today. His latest, The Night Chancers, explores characters in varying love/dating dilemmas with stunning clarity – his poetic lyricism is hard-hitting and crude, revealing the nitty gritty of romance in the modern day. Akin to his father Ian, the late lead singer of The Blockheads, Baxter talks and deliberates his way through his songs, like he is the gatekeeper of the track and the listener is the intruder. Dury may not have intended for this to be a concept album, but it certainly sounds like one.
11. Lord Apex – Darkskies
Lord Apex has had a jam-packed 2020, releasing two albums and a scattering of singles and features. The London rapper is one of the most under-rated lyricists out there, and has been working with a plethora of talented producers since he started releasing music.
Darkskies was made with producer Bushi Vibes, and is littered with ingenious wordplay, vocal toying and emotive hooks. Apex’s sound is gully at its core; his hard and grimey flows will catch you bopping your head with a jovial grimace — but make no mistake, the UK rapper is a potent writer, and will undoubtedly assume a pivotal seat in hip-hop’s underground in the years to come.
10. MIKE – weight of the world
New York has fostered underground rap talent for generations, and MIKE is yet another undergraduate of the city’s sonic vessels. The artist’s flows are woozy, set to work over explorative and wistful lo-fi productions that symbolise his close ties to the likes of Earl Sweatshirt. Aside from obvious influences, weight of the world cites Jadasea and Earl as features, all of whom provide their own USP to the project.
This record is about grief, and its creation is MIKE’s attempt to further piece apart the complications and strifes of losing a loved one. Despite the inevitable pains of his mother’s death, 21 year-old MIKE seems sturdy in his musical delivery, and this steadfastness is what makes weight of the world a successfully bittersweet album.
What makes MIKE’s work so impactful is his frontal position in the new wave of US hip hop artists who are attempting to re-sketch the rules of the genre. This approach is adopted by MIKE’s sLUmz collective, which has homed artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Adé Hakim, Jodi.10k, King Carter, Standing On The Corner, Pink Siifu and Navy Blue. At its core, this movement is anti-production, focusing on the hip-hop song as a whole, paying careful attention to every part of it as if it were an important document. MIKE is at the forefront of this movement, and weight of the world is an impressive offering worth digging your teeth into.
9. Daytimers – DT001
In the 80s and 90s, the UK undertook a nightclub revolution, with disco, house, rave, acid house and hardcore finding its home in venues with powerful soundsystems. Equipped with MDMA pills from the latest import wave, ravers were privy to a new clubbing era which involved venues like Shoom, as well as illegal usage of spaces near the M25 and abandoned Warehouses in cities.
For thousands of young British Asians, this trajectory was a little more treacherous, oftentimes having conservative parents who would stand against the notion of late night parties, drugs and random sex hookups. This paved the path for a different sort of underground, where parties were held in the daytime. British Asian youths could now attend events, often listening to bhangra, and return home for dinner unscathed.
This explains the name of new South Asian collective under the same name, created out of a frustration in the lack of visibility of South Asians in creative spaces. Their debut project, DT001, is a revelation; containing laid-back R&B grooves, trip-hop soundscapes, rave-ready jungle rollers and grime instrumentals; this project seeks to showcase just how deep the talents of the community run. Yes, this is a compilation album, and so its consistency and sequencing are less cohesive – but this is a collection of work that reveals a uniquely talented community of creatives that deserves to be seen.
8. Lex Amor – Government Tropicana
In Government Tropicana, the North-London based RnB-Rapper/producer offers her deeply personal reflections on finding meaning and identity and the importance of community. Musically, Amor invokes a sense of powerful melancholy through eery soulful vocals, jazzy basslines and spooky piano – swanky guitar loops accompany bone-rattling drum kits and sound design merging boom-bap, garage and trap.
Amor’s distinctive voice is refreshing and simply cool – she slips seamlessly from rapping to singing, both equally as soothing and enchanting as the other. The underlying productions are varied and potent, including esteemed names like Maxwell Owin, Melo-Zed, Josette Joseph as well as Lex herself.
Government Tropicana is a sonic novella of Amor’s experiences growing up in London as part of a first generation working class family. It’s littered with musical innovation, emotional honesty and boom-bap swagger, culminating to present a pensive record that will stand the test of time.
7. Jerskin Fendrix – Winterreise
Jerskin Fendrix is, without a doubt, one of the most talented musicians around. He’s a Cambridge music graduate and classically-trained pianist and violinist, responsible for scoring an opera at the V&A — this CV that makes it more astonishing that, this year, he released one of pop’s most challenging yet rewarding records. Fendrix is one of the Brixton Windmill offspring (it’s at risk of closure – help out here), which includes the likes of Black Midi and Black Country, New Road – both of which Fendrix has collaborated with.
Winterreise is a manifesto of the polyptych; tracks like ‘Manhattan’, ‘Swamp’ and ‘Black Hair’ embark on starkly differing acts within themselves that reflect an artist who impatiently prefers to vary his sound within songs rather than between songs. Be it broody string repetitions, squelchy distorted synth lines or burps from abrasive FX, Winterreise is a buffet of moods.
What makes the album unique is its confusing ability to remain cohesive amidst the chaos. Ultimately, the minutiae within each cut keep us alert – we don’t know what’s coming next, and so it’s only natural that the listener is rendered hyper-aware. With your attention in his hands, Jerskin Fendrix employs his erudite strokes – try it for yourself: Fendrix only sings three notes on ‘Oh God’, yet it’s one of the most emotional tracks of the year. How can this be?
6. Against All Logic – 2017-2019
Nicolas Jaar is no stranger to these types of articles, and 2020 has been another fruitful one for the Chilean-American composer, who released experimental albums Cenzias and Telas. Like a musical chameleon, Jaar traverses with beautiful ease to his Against All Logic alias, which has been responsible for some of the most creative, joyous and explorative music in the last decade.
His latest under this moniker, 2017-2019, took a darker turn down the techno avenues, offering a collection of brash, hard-hitting tracks that once again push the boat out. Chopping up Beyoncé into a distorted and gritty techno tune has plenty of room to cock up, but he succeeds triumphantly in ‘Fantasy’. Jaar is a pioneer who not only rarely makes mistakes, but rarely produces albums that don’t taste-make and pioneer. 2017-2019 is no exception.
5. Adrianne Lenker – songs/instrumentals
As with all the bastion artists of acoustic folk, locking yourself away in a rural cabin to record your album is a rite of passage. Big Thief’s lead singer Adrianne Lenker set off on this journey this year, recording two stunning complimentary albums of utter enchantment. Recorded all on tape, the songs are so raw and close that the listener almost feels inside Lenker’s guitar. Her vivid lyrics explore notions of loss and regret in heart-slicing melodies that echo that of Dylan.
songs & innstrumentals are two glistening releases that synergise in perfect harmony. Lenker’s latest is the sound of a cold Winter’s walk, a bluebell attempting to grow, a bird learning to fly and a loved one leaving for the year. Let it carry you through these difficult winter months.
4. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas, AKA Perfume Genius, has been on a distinctive journey in music, with each release assuming a different form to the last. Ultimately, the correlation has been clear: Hadreas, once a sullen, withered and delicate recording artist using music as his diary, now presents as a powerful, confident and assertive musician who, with this album, is successfully carving new paths for pop music. Notably, Perfume Genius credits industry-leading session musicians including Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain and Pino Palladino on this record; these names can often be found in the credits of rock royalty such as Springsteen, Clapton or Keith Richards.
Ultimately, this record is sexy, defiant and vulnerable all at once. Hadreas’ vocals infer echoes of Morrissey, Evanescence and country greats across Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, whilst his tales include the confusion over the human body as well as raw debut sexual encounters followed closely by petty theft. The record’s inevitable immortality will be due to its melodies within – Hadreas’ vocal lines and micro-jingles are distinctive and catchy, yet refrain from that cheesiness you can often expect on the odd Beatles cut. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately will, much like the human body that Hadreas depicts, evolve as the years tick on.
3. Nubya Garcia – Source
Like an impromptu volcanic eruption, Source burst out of London into the ears of jazz, soul, ambient and Afrobeat listeners around the world. This stunning collection of songs was composed by Nubya Garcia, who has been floating across the London jazz scene for a number of years. Produced with Kwes, whose credits extend to the likes of Solange and Bobby Womack, Source is a powerful, jubilant and intricate collection of songs that merges Garcia’s beloved genres with precision and delicacy.
Raised by a Guyanese mother and Trinidadian father, the musician was exposed to reggae, soul, Latin and classical from a young age. Across the record, we are witness to glimpses of these influences, as Garcia both nods to jazz-classicist forefathers and paves new routes for future composers.
Now, more than ever, Source is our societal soundtrack: in these testing times, the power and draw of the collective is paramount, and Garcia’s compositions pay absolute respect to this notion. The majesty of this record lies with Garcia’s aptitude for this group philosophy: she is one of the most emotive and hard-hitting solo saxophonists in the circuit, yet never puts herself over the song itself. Source is an epic introduction from a young artist whose simultaneous penchant for heritage and ingenuity makes her a force to be reckoned with.
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Sometimes, what really makes an album stick is its ability to sound like it was made in our own home. Fiona Apple’s latest release, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, achieves this with absolute perfection, as she opens the door to her home, invites us in and reveals that she struggles with the same things we do. The New York-born artist hits tables, slams doors, claps hands and whacks walls, breathes, wails and jokes around, all of which to produce regular, everyday sounds to accompany her cuttingly raw piano and vocal performances.
The genius of Fetch The Bolt Cutters lies in its nonchalant and subtle commentary on patriarchy, the female experience and vulnerability. Apple never preaches here, but through jokes and blunt lyricism gets her messages across loud and clear. She dissects exes and critiques our status quo’s enslavement to social media with brash confidence — “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” Her defiance continues across the album: “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up”, revealing an artist whose troubles and grievances are now unabashedly public-facing.
In it’s entirety, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is a complete album, containing everything seen on the proverbial tick list of a generationally-savoured piece of music. This is an album for struggling women, for those looking to learn, for those feeling isolated and for those feeling free. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an album for everyone.
1. SAULT – Untitled (Black Is) & Untitled (Rise)
Aside from the pandemic, 2020 will be remembered for its wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The world took action against institutional racism, with demonstrations conducted en masse despite the virus wreaking havoc. What this reflected was a world that was willing to risk its life to correct the prejudicial wrongs of previous generations and attain racial equity right now.
When society moves like this, its musical commentators will always come calling, as the To Pimp A Butterflys and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hills portray what many of us cannot put into words. 2020’s iteration of this came from SAULT.
We were treated to a double release from the mysterious UK indie-soul group – both albums impeccable from start to finish, feeling very much like two movements of the same project rather than separate albums. The releases are R&B at their core, but touch on elements of funk, rap, soul and disco. The first, Untitled (Black Is), arrived 25 days after Floyd’s death, and is a manifesto into the beautiful intricacies of what it is to be Black. The second, Untitled (Rise), offers a more pacy, hopeful narrative that complements the first uncannily.
SAULT’s two albums this year swooned and wooed us with their stunning musicality, and this draw makes the direct and sober lyrics unavoidably poignant. In truth, the term ‘album’ seems sacrilege here; these records are masterpieces of sonic social commentary, capturing with unadulterated rawness the experience of blackness in 2020.
- Dan Kye – Small Moments (Rhythm Section)
- Tom Jarmey – Amber Glass (Lobster Theremin)
- Contours & Yadava – Cosmic Echoes (Flumo Recordings)
- Blue Note Reimagined – Various Artists (Blue Note Records)
- Yazmin Lacey – Morning Matters (Own Your Own Records)
- Sibusile Xaba – Ngiwu Shwabada (Komos)
- Khotin – Finds You Well (Ghostly International)
- Medhane – Cold Water (self-released)
- Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia)
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge Records)
- Surprise Chef – Daylight Savings (Mr Bongo)
- Cleo Sol – Rose In The Dark (Forever Living Originals)