This list is drawn from votes by Guardian music critics – each critic votes for their top 20 albums, with points allocated for each placing, and those points tallied to create this order.
Clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
Rapper Daveed Diggs is best known for playing Jefferson and Lafayette in Hamilton, surveying the violent chaos at the outset of the US – here, he seems to survey the same thing at its end. This is horrorcore hip-hop, but deadly serious rather than cartoonish, an apocalyptic world filled with blood, petrol, drugs and rust where “core snap like yolk, floor crack like joke / More cat eye opens, sky racked like coat”. Producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes use “electronic voice phenomenon” ghost recordings, corroded signals and electroshock bursts of bass and noise to keep you constantly choosing fight or flight. BBT
Destroyer – Have We Met
Soft rock’s poet laureate returned with one of his strongest sets yet, with the coldwave chill that arrived on Ken (2017) now getting right into his bones. His lyrics are surrealism of the kind André Breton originally intended for the movement back in 1924, “an absolute reality, a super-reality”: bizarre imagery that nevertheless feels true to life, and in thrall to it. Humanity, for example, is “a room of pit ponies / Drowning forever in a sea of love”. BBT Read the full review.
Soccer Mommy – Color Theory
The recent craze for bedroom pop had a further boost this year as so many of us were increasingly confined to our bedrooms, although there’s a sneaking suspicion this term can undersell the ambition of these (often female) artists. Like Beabadoobee, Clairo and other recent breakthroughs, Soccer Mommy actually makes full-bodied, melodically strong indie rock – at times you can draw lines towards Real Estate or Deerhunter, but the drowsy yet determined vocals are inimitably hers. BBT Read the full review.
Teyana Taylor – The Album
Across 23 tracks, the American R&B star builds a deep, rounded portrait of the highs and lows of a romantic relationship. There are frequent pleas for better communication and reciprocity, likely to comfort anyone gaslighted into thinking, “Is it just me?” But when the connection works, it really works, as evinced by the numerous rapturous slow jams. Taylor shows how sex itself is communication, adding up to one of the hottest, most emotionally astute albums of the year. BBT Read the review.
The Necks – Three
The bustle of pre-Covid life seems to be evoked by Tony Buck’s drumming in the latest release by the veteran Australian avant-jazz trio, particularly on the opening track Bloom, which clatters and rustles with ferrety industry. The second of these 20-plus-minute pieces, Lovelock, turns anxious and distracted, before Further closes the set out with one of their most purely gorgeous compositions, a lush rainmaking groove anchored around a two-note organ motif. BBT Read the review.
Selena Gomez – Rare
Considering the dramatic origins of her third album – lupus, a kidney transplant, splitting from Justin Bieber and the Weeknd, rehab for her mental health – Gomez could justifiably have released an hour of equally high-intensity bloodletting, but Rare abides by the maxim “when it’s hot, write it cold”. Aside from the wrecking ballad Lose You to Love Me, it’s confidently unruffled, taking the Talking Heads-aided oddness of her 2017 single Bad Liar as her template. The often very funny Gomez excels at nimble vocal kiss-offs, which she layers into satisfyingly percussive patterns: the chorus of People You Know seems to fold in on itself like origami; you’d expect Vulnerable to burst into gaudy EDM, but it pares back to Gomez caressing every syllable of the word, as if putting her own seams on show. LS
Jessy Lanza – All the Time
It is testament to the allure of her sweet club-pop visions that Jessy Lanza’s breakout stemmed from her most insular work yet. When she sings, the effect is of catching someone unwittingly mumbling along to Janet Jackson through their headphones; her quicksilver vocal intimacy allows for flirtation and hurt to flicker through like electrical surges. The tenderness of Jam and Lewis, west coast hip-hop at its sugariest and the innocence of Japanese city pop are fractured by shivering dubstep and even the exuberant chatter of UK garage. Like a sky laced with pastel cirrus, it is effervescent and awe-inspiring. LS Read the full review.
Wizkid – Made in Lagos
Nigerian pop continued to establish itself more firmly on the international stage in 2020 with successful albums by Burna Boy, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Tems and more. The best of them all was this lilting, versatile record by Wizkid. Guest stars from across the Black Atlantic – Skepta and Ella Mai from the UK, HER from the US, Damian Marley and Projexx from Jamaica – create the sense of a diasporic dialogue, where reggae, dancehall, rap and Afro-swing seamlessly and sensually intertwine. BBT Read the full review.
Kylie Minogue – Disco
The uber-Kylie album thunders through the genre’s history, from the Voulez-Vous-ing of Last Chance and sly references to Gloria Gaynor and Earth, Wind & Fire to its stylish 90s French touch reincarnation. More than simply disco literate, it is also a wonderfully meta exposition of Kylie’s pop identity, how she has embodied hope and joy and lived in service of the perfect pop song – its own bid for immortality. She had spent a few years off the pulse with try-hard Kiss Me Once (2014) and Nashville-inspired, retirement-tempting Golden (2018). But Disco didn’t just compete with this year’s surprisingly widespread revival of the genre; Kylie’s fantastical dancefloor, one of catharsis and community, resonated precisely with these weird times. LS Read the full review.
Actress – Karma & Desire
Darren Cunningham cements his place as one of the great poets of club culture, spanning glacial ambient, UK garage, Larry Heard-ish deep house, bumping techno and high-speed rave, all rendered in monochrome, dirtied watercolours. Guest vocals can be either gnomic (“destiny is stuck in heaven blowing nitro”, Zsela intones) or collapsing (Sampha’s corrupted cries), though Loveless’s chorus of “don’t you want to know me better?” makes for his best earworm since 2010’s Maze.
Ariana Grande – Positions
Thirty years after the invention of the “parental advisory: explicit content” sticker, pop celebrated Tipper Gore’s prudish legacy with its filthiest year in recent memory. Ariana Grande’s sixth album made no bones about its primary concern – namely bones every which way until Tuesday, upholstered by slinky, lavish R&B. Often, young women who sprang from kids’ entertainment have used sex to assert their outrageousness and maturity. But Grande’s horniness has been part of her artistic identity for years – on Positions, it offered a safe retreat from headlines about heartbreak and tragedy. It’s also a great smokescreen: the album’s implicit content, about grief and anxiety, is far more revealing than the raunchy stuff. LS Read the full review.
Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
The guitarist with jazz-rockers Tortoise, who has released numerous solo records and played sideman to Meshell Ndegeocello, Makaya McCraven and more, was in personal and crowdpleasing form on this LP, which breezes between funk, hip-hop rhythms and cosmic jazz in honour of his mother (named in the title). By sampling, editing and chopping together his own recordings, and folding in various collaborators, including his teenage daughter Ruby, he gives it an impulsively impressionist feel. BBT Read more.
Kassa Overall – I Think I’m Good
This is a blessedly uncategorisable record by the New York drummer and hyphenate talent, spanning Frank Ocean-ic romantic R&B lamentations, autobiographical improv, bumping neo-soul, flute fantasies, trip-hop and more, with guest stars ranging from Vijay Iyer to Angela Davis. The effect is like clambering inside a single particular mind, one that is – as the brilliantly unreadable title suggests – jangled by anxiety but also fumbling towards happiness. BBT
21 Savage and Metro Boomin – Savage Mode II
The Atlanta rapper-producer power duo follow their hit 2016 tape with another trap masterclass. Metro’s usual atmospheric snares, chords and nighthawk mood are offset with some gloriously cute flourishes, such as the dreamy backwards tones of Mr Right Now or the classic electro of Steppin’ on Niggas. Savage’s voice is still one of the best in contemporary rap: withering, jaded, but slicked with dark humour. It’s all tied together with oracular pronouncements from Morgan Freeman, who muses on the nature of snitches with a twinkling gimlet eye. BBT
The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
After disaffected candour swept literature, many critics asked whether self-awareness had gone too far in fiction. There’s not much between the 1975’s Matty Healy and the creations of Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney: across the band’s fourth album, Healy is acutely aware of his flaws, satirising and shrugging at his ego, his horniness, his political flakiness – and, yes, his overwhelming self-awareness. But where his fictional counterparts were criticised for declining to delve beyond surface recognition, Healy’s frustration at the social dynamics that affirm such behaviour is all over Notes on a Conditional Form. Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied sighs at life spent on the defensive; I Think There’s Something You Should Know sets Healy’s self-alienation to fractured two-step. Sincerity and connection, he suggests, are the only tonic: it’s there in the album’s guileless evocations of American soft-rock and emo (at 31, Healy comes from the last generation to experience an unmediated adolescence and with it unselfconscious teenage tastes) and its yearning for true devotion. Me & You Together Song vibrates with naivety, a vision of uncomplicated romance and unrelentingly Tiggerish indie-pop that remains insistently in the moment, swapping introspection for admiration. LS Read the full review.
Working Men’s Club – Working Men’s Club
Their widely beloved 2019 debut single Bad Blood suggested the Yorkshire quartet could go in any number of directions – vintage new wave, jangly indiepop – but they headed for the club, using the industrial synth pulsations of Depeche Mode and early Ministry, and guitars that nodded to various legendary Mancunians – Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr, Vini Reilly. From the singsong chorus of Tomorrow to the twanging riff of John Cooper Clarke, the melodies are insistent and prodding, set to unleash a poorly coordinated army of robot dancers when indie discos reopen. BBT Read the full review.
Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist – Alfredo
With two classic albums alongside Madlib, Gibbs continues his other dream producer partnership with the Alchemist (a veteran whose credits include Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Nas and tens of others) following 2018’s Fetti. As with Madlib, Gibbs pairs well with crackly soul samples, giving him the lofty statesmanlike air he needs when regarding everyone with such alpha-male hauteur, but he never sounds old. His tales of drugs and women are delivered in a hungry flow that is deceptively brilliant: conversational even when at a high technical difficulty. BBT
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
The title of Charli XCX’s lockdown album might be read as business as usual: she is, after all, our most hyper-present and reactive pop star, one obsessed with stimulation. Frustrated by its absence this year, the self-professed workaholic made an album of sugary obliteration that signalled her fierce hunger for the highs: “I’m so BORED,” she spat on Anthems, a bratty shriek to scare off disassociation. But keeping still forced Charli to actually sit with her feelings – a much harder job than simply acting on them – and her fourth album contains moments of dawning horror at what that stillness revealed. How I’m Feeling Now was awash with static interference, a familiar sound to anyone who’s battled through video calling in 2020 – but it also mirrored an interior conflict between signal and noise, distraction and fulfilment. LS Read the full review.
KeiyaA – Forever, Ya Girl
Chicago artist KeiyaA’s self-produced debut took you swimming inside her head. Calling to mind the insularity of John Carroll Kirby’s work with Solange and Eddie Chacon, Forever, Ya Girl spirals around murky thickets of R&B, harmonised incantations and stilted beats that mustered a sense of off-kilter propulsion. In contrast to that dreamlike haze was KeiyaA’s clarity of thought. She sang with an intimacy that conveyed the real-time growth of thoughts from instinct to decision, her hurt at the hands of bad men and racists calcifying into defiance. The music sounds like escapism; KeiyaA’s lyrical philosophy lays out a path by which one might truly escape. LS Read more.
US Girls – Heavy Light
Heavy Light surveys life and finds a rigged game at every step, from birth to work and ultimately death at the hands of environmental apocalypse. Meg Remy is pictured with a little kid on the cover – a symbol of hope, you might think, but then biological and natural maternal relationships turn out to be corrupted, too. Interludes where people recall the colour of their bedroom wall are next to songs about the insignificance of human history in the grand scheme of the universe. Yet Heavy Light made good on both halves of its name, contrasting those crushingly depressing perspectives with loose, sun-streaked funk and soul and strutting choruses – the sound of people in a room, finding hope where they can. LS Read the full review.
Fleet Foxes – Shore
It’s been a year of letting go, a prospect more comforting for some than others. In the former camp was Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, flying essentially solo on the group’s fourth album. The clenched fussiness of 2017’s Crack-Up abated for more subtly detailed, openhearted arrangements – padded and cottony on Featherweight, earnest and loving on Sunblind, a tribute to departed songwriters such as Richard Swift and Arthur Russell – as Pecknold resolved to accept the things he cannot change, to surrender to contentment and honour community in divided times: “We’ve only made it together, feel some change in the weather.” LS Read the full review.
Mac Miller – Circles
Released after his death from an accidental drug overdose, Miller’s final album showed the evolution of his artistry. The rapper had already been stretching out into the role of a Bruno Mars-ish funk singer, and here he tries that out at a lower tempo, seeming to really enjoy letting his voice reach for longer notes or more fragile types of song: psychedelic balladry, indie-folk, white soul. It’s tough to consider how much further he might have wandered next. BBT Read the full review.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Stephen Bruner’s fourth album caught some flak for lacking the finesse of his earlier work: spattered with sub-two-minute ideas that seemed to constrict and slacken his six-stringed bass excursions; his louche falsetto barely concealing his existential anxiety and fear of loss. But this album was made following the death of Bruner’s close friend, rapper Mac Miller; its telescoping focus and subaquatic funk perfectly mirrored the tides of grief. And so harebrained odes to partying sit next to deeper contemplations of what it means to thrive: on Miguel’s Happy Dance, Bruner is frustrated by advice to dance the pain away, yet accepts that sometimes superficial relief is all there is; the compact drums and fizzing synths never peak, confining him to purgatory – until How Sway, a skittish 75-second blast of fusion, blows out the cobwebs. LS Read the full review.
Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
Rushed forward by four months to give people something to enjoy during the first UK coronavirus lockdown, Song for Our Daughter sounded like bubbling with Marling herself: the gorgeously recorded vocals sit at the front of the mix, perched at the lip of your ear, and the arrangements sound as if they’ve been made from instruments that happened to be lying around a room (deceptively so, given their depth). Many of her best-ever songs are here: the sniping and sexiness of the toxic relationship in Held Down; the scirocco that seems to blow through Strange Girl; the stillness and bald vulnerability in the moment sketched on The End of the Affair. BBT Read the full review.
Bill Callahan – Gold Record
On Bill Callahan’s 2013 album Dream River, he compared finding love to mastering flight, registering his surprise at the ease of it all. His two subsequent albums set their gaze on an ever-widening horizon, and on the strikingly pared-back Gold Record he appoints himself universal co-pilot, inviting you on to his wavelength. He’s an evangelist for marriage, even with its wrinkles; a Zen advocate for finding everyday transcendence in neighbourly interactions and breakfast rituals; resistant to dogma – his horror at the young male protest singer he sees on a late-night talk show is hilarious – and open to connection wherever he might find it. “It’s all one river crossing,” he sings, inviting you to stop resisting and step right in. LS Read the full review.
Sault – Untitled (Rise)
Twelve weeks on from one classic Sault album, Untitled (Black Is), came another, winnowing classic Black musical forms into one another: psychedelic soul, Afrobeat, electro-funk, performance poetry, trip-hop, jazz and more. You can identify the collectivism that also charged up the Black Lives Matter movement this year in these songs of solidarity, hope, pain and catharsis, filled as they are with chants and swelling vocal harmonies; the anonymity of the group’s members itself suggests a goal bigger than any one individual. But there are so many particular musical voices across these songs, such as the witheringly hilarious woman on You Know It Ain’t, that it’s never monolithic but rather a collection of personalities. BBT Read the full review.
Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
Among a huge cohort of artists finding hard-won inner peace this year, the Welsh producer cast off limiting relationships and superficial pleasures on her second album. “Less of who I am for you in case I offend you,” she rued on the song LINE, pledging to be alone instead. With that resolve came an expansion of Owens’ sound: encouraged by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, she sang more and counterbalanced her emotionally astute songwriting with increasingly daring production – on Melt!, puckered rapids of minimal techno traced the cracking of an ice cap. Both sides combined gorgeously on Re-Wild, where frost seemed to sprawl forth from Owens’ voice as she recognised “the power in me”. LS Read the full review.
Caribou – Suddenly
A sense of emotional overload permeated Caribou’s 10th album, a response to several years of death and divorce in Dan Snaith’s family. The album surged forth and pulled back, often within the same song. Sunny’s Time pitched a slurping piano refrain against a rap sample smashed into terrazzo; a spiralling synth seemed to make the whole uncanny confection levitate. Snaith’s plaintive voice, reminiscent of Arthur Russell, contrasted soulful samples to particular effect on Home, as if contrasting reality and desire. And although Suddenly was less club-facing than Caribou’s previous albums Our Love and Swim, Snaith’s pleasure centres remained satisfyingly intact on the understated house of Never Come Back, and the filtered giddiness of Ravi. LS Read the full review.
Beatrice Dillon – Workaround
There’s been a loose school of electronic producers to emerge in recent years including Objekt, Laurel Halo, Call Super and Minor Science, who, informed by jazz, dub, techno, jungle and ambient, create a kind of maximal minimalism: richly detailed productions that nevertheless drape elegantly. Beatrice Dillon is another, whose sense of rhythm is so trim, balletic and playful. Her debut solo album is actually highly collaborative, with tabla, cello, pedal steel and kora players alongside dance producer peers such as Batu and Untold. The resulting arrangements are a spring clean for the mind. BBT Read the full review.
Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Anyone longing for a pop star in the tradition of Prince or David Bowie – someone so sexually intoxicating, musically flexible and supernaturally individual they remind you how bland and mortal you really are – should make haste towards Yves Tumor. This album pinged from ecstatic Lenny Kravitz shredding (Kerosene!) to carnal vintage funk (Super Stars), Ariel Pinkish psych pop (Strawberry Privilege), and a really blockbuster lead single in Gospel for a New Century. This was the biggest and best statement yet from the sort of irreverent, box-resistant talent that makes pop culture truly pop. BBT Read the full review.
Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
Claire Boucher – AKA Grimes – intended Miss Anthropocene as a concept album about a personified, demonic climate crisis. But in execution, her fifth record seemed consumed by the spectre of another scapegoated woman: Boucher herself, following another year of high-drama headlines. The polar opposite of her hyper-saturated album Art Angels (2015), it sailed a Stygian tide as Boucher navigated the possibility of redemption and destruction, the latter embodied by mockingly catchy choruses that seethed through the murk, contrasting her muted, forlorn verses. It was bleak, touching on addiction and death, yet carried a sense of triumph. The often bad-faith assaults on Boucher’s personal life couldn’t touch her art – the calling that may have been her real-life salvation. LS Read the full review.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
If there were ever a year for Gaga to get back to basics, this was it. The concept of Chromatica was unusually light for her: a planet of kindness punks? Sure! Plus it quickly fulfilled its promise by offering escape when it arrived in the darkest days of the pandemic. The dominant mode was strafing house. Towering choruses burst with relief for the simple fact of survival. And after the unconvincing authenticity of her album Joanne (2016), Gaga was at her most potent, roaring about being “LUVAHS even just tonight”, and concluding the defiant chorus of Free Woman with a tart finger-wagging “uh-uh”. LS Read the full review.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Marching through tracks with a “mind on a mission on the road to perdition”, the rap duo leave a wake of flame streaked across each one. El-P fills his lyrics with funny Burroughsian grot and non sequiturs that somehow make perfect sense, while Killer Mike dispenses scorn like ticker tape on some of his most proficient bars yet. Authority figures from warmongers to the Twitterati are dispensed with as the duo seem to embrace chaos as a means of making change. The beats feel a part with classic hip-hop, but churn with cyberpunk heaviness. The pair will get their wish: “May our tombstones read: they were nothing to fuck with.” BBT Read the full review.
Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death
The Dublin band’s second album is so evocative, and produced in such a way you can feel the echo and space in a room, that it conjures a sense-memory of what gigs were once like: the jostling that glee turns into slam-dancing, the “mm” of agreement when a ballad ends. The mood is more downbeat than their debut and their growing pains are clear: frontman Grian Chatten furrows his brow, his heart and mind shifting as he ages, picking up wisdom and trying on identities. But his bandmates’ dynamism and energy, and his own quiet resilience, bears them all aloft. Quite simply one of the best bands in the world right now, who have something to say and the means to say it. BBT Read the full review.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers’ trademark skeleton outfit underscores the Halloweeny feeling of her music. The suburban iconography in her songs takes on a supernatural aura – going to the store “for nothing” while high on speed; being wasted on someone’s front lawn – and her keen sense of irony is undercut by the yearning to believe in something. Transcendence rarely arrives in the superb songwriting of Punisher, a record spooked by Bridgers’ tremulous vocals and self-produced, celestial indie-rock hum. When it does, it’s not to recalibrate the fractured relationships with helpless lovers and fathers, but in more fleeting escapes: the tender country hum of Graceland Too narrates a story taking MDMA, looking at the moon and driving to Graceland, finding salvation in the illusion. LS Read the full review.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
The rapper released this debut album 13 years after his first mixtape – it had to be very good to warrant the wait, and it was even better. In collaboration with a supreme court of rap producers including The-Dream, the Alchemist, Hit-Boy and No ID (plus curveballs James Blake and Khruangbin), Jay’s production is astounding, with dial-scrolling samples from Vashti Bunyan, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, John Williams’ Valley of the Dolls soundtrack and Louis Farrakhan. The peak is the ecstatic chaos of Flux Capacitor and its use of Rihanna at full tilt. Jay-Z appears uncredited on nearly every track, rangy and creative, but Jay himself is riveting as he ruminates on his artistry and circuitous path with plenty of religiosity: “The prodigal son who went from his own vomit / To the top of the mountain with five pillars and a sonnet”. BBT
Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
Ware’s fourth album was highly flammable. Its plush disco setting evoked the era’s velvet, feathers and static-crackled polyester – cinders at the drop of a lit Vogue. Moreover, as she served up dispatches from a fantasy dancefloor, her gasped vocals suggested how a subtle shift in touch or movement might ignite suggestion into full-blown ecstasy: “We touch and it feels like woo!” she trilled on Soul Control. That sense of promise, half danger, half flirtation, torched the memory of her previous album’s commercial hedge-betting, Ware’s finest record yet rising from the ashes. LS Read the full review.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
For his return to original songwriting after eight years away, Dylan was showing his age in the best way possible: these songs are reflective, wise and slow. On the exquisite Key West (Philosopher Pirate), he’s an old rogue hymning the last of his life at the far end of America, afternoon beer palpably in hand. Left alone by a departed friend or lover (“I wish you’d’ve taken me with you wherever you went”) on the funny, phantasmagoric My Own Version of You, a truculent nursing home inmate cobbles together a companion like Frankenstein. On Murder Most Foul, his longest song ever – and one of his very best – he’s like Walt Whitman spilling his thoughts on a meme page for Facebook boomers: a sublime epic of conspiracy theorising, American history and rock’n’roll nostalgia. He even eases off down to the blues joint for a couple of classic 12-bar stomps, though at a geriatric pace. Dylan turns 80 next year, but he’s still raising the bar for American song. BBT Read the full review.
Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
Shedding the careful precocity of their debut, the Bailey sisters’ second album skipped the traditionally salacious we’re-grown-now stage of pop evolution to paint in complex emotional shades. While they hark back to the heyday of Destiny’s Child with Busy Boy – their heavenly vocal harmonies heavy with knowing as they catch a guy plying several women with his trade – there’s also the striking Wonder What She Thinks of Me, a pained dispatch from the other woman who longs to be the only woman. A mix of innocence and sophistication distinguishes this R&B gem, their vocal rhapsodies catching on coy bass lines and barbed percussion. LS Read the full review.
Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
A voracious hunger seethes through Murphy’s most club-facing record. She yearns for something more, feels frustrated by a lover who’d rather microdose than indulge – plus she knows that even desire fulfilled simply seeds more desire: “There’s nothing left for us to gain,” she cries against the chill wind of Kingdom of Ends, the nihilistic second track. And so Róisín Machine turns the thrill of the chase into a generator for self-sufficiency. It takes a good 20 minutes to offer its first bout of release (the flirtatious boogie of Shellfish Mademoiselle), priming the pumps for Murphy to enter her formidable euphoric stride: industrial funk trailing seedy lounge fantasies, pizzicato strings and screaming disco house. The stakes become entirely her own. LS Read the full review.
Moses Sumney – Græ
Where Moses Sumney’s debut, Aromanticism, was a forlorn testimony to vulnerability, Græ brings in the whole mess of living itself: from the playful oppositions of its track titles – Jill/Jack, Neither/Nor – to Sumney’s genre-splicing between R&B, folk, jazz and ambient electronics, Græ inhabits his swaying moods and transmutes his wranglings with identity into music without losing its sense of precarity. Like Marvin Gaye, another great purveyor of intimacy, Sumney shores up the solipsism of standout ballads Me in 20 Years and Bless Me with the whispers of multitracked harmonies constructed solely from his voice. It doesn’t feel egocentric, but proof of a messy and complicated psychological exploration. Ammar Kalia Read more.
Taylor Swift – Folklore
A year of cancelled tour dates allowed Swift to make an album without having to consider the nosebleed seats. The result is wistful, romantic and adorned with entrancing melodies. Making few references to the lockdown that brought about its existence, Folklore expands Swift’s focus from her personal relationships to imagined characters, widening the emotional and narrative range of her already considerable songwriting. Occasionally, reality intrudes as she sings about the final moments of a person’s life, and her own battle to gain ownership of her back catalogue. Yet Folklore found a moment of stillness in the turmoil, turning even the darkest musings into something sparkling and beautiful. Kathryn Bromwich Read more.
J Hus – Big Conspiracy
Pushing into new introspective territory, J Hus’s second album would become oddly fitting for a year where carnival was swapped for dancing alone. The lithe buoyancy of Hus’s vocals remained, accompanied by flourishes of sax, piano, guitar and strings. And his swaggering libido was still apparent – you can hear his grin on the icy slickness of Cucumber as he implores: “Say ah J Hus make your pum-pum sore.” But dig deeper and you hear a young man navigating self-doubt in a world made to exclude him: “No blacks, no dogs, we were segregated,” he reflects on Deeper Than Rap. “They took our history then they went and erased it.” As the year progressed, the exquisite Big Conspiracy came to reflect more of 2020, mapping out his personal journey within the wider context of being young, Black and British. Tara Joshi Read more.
Haim – Women in Music Pt III
On their third album and first masterpiece, Haim sound like a band who took their eyes off the prize and found it at their feet. It should be underlined that the sororal US trio’s first two albums, Days Are Gone (2013) and Something to Tell You (2017) are very good: slick without smoothing too much over. But WIMPIII is much looser. The breeziness feels like a warm draft off the Pacific, the warmer, messier swirl of sound in the mix truer to life. They sound natural playing hip-hop breakbeats, neo-soul and even reggae, while also bringing country moods to their metropolitan pop, and the extra space throws more light on the lyrics and refined melodies: sustained strengths that make WIMPIII a truly classic record. BBT Read more.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield cited alt-country pioneer Lucinda Williams as a crucial influence on Saint Cloud, but the spectre of a more conventional giant is equally hard to ignore. These songs truly deserve the descriptor Dylanesque, not just for their stylistic nods but for their quality. There is something profoundly restorative about Saint Cloud’s back-to-basics, largely analogue approach; its reliance on subtle, wending melodies and guitar licks that resound with dog-eared familiarity. And Crutchfield’s acceptance of the inevitable seems spookily prescient given that she made the album last year. Saint Cloud provides no tritely optimistic spin on this state of affairs, yet still radiates a soothing, cathartic and bittersweet joy. Rachel Aroesti Read more.
Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
Sault’s new album is weapons-grade R&B: rugged, soulful and unapologetically Black. The group’s music oscillates to all corners of Black culture’s past: from defiant breakbeats and spoken word to high-life guitar lines and mutated gospel. Lyrically, it’s steeped in imagery drawn from the present moment. The standout track, the anthemic Wildfire, is pulled from the headlines – with George Floyd’s death and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests haunting every line. The first thing that hits you is the quality of the songwriting and production; then the message of the song falls like a feather, not a brick. Lanre Bakare Read more.
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’s work has always dealt with heavy themes including abuse and bullying, but with the opener of his new album, he asks to be relinquished of his trauma. “Let it drift and wash away,” he sings on Whole Life. Yet absolution prompts a tug of war, and the spectre of shame looms, although it’s now dressed in the rollicking chug of On the Floor, the poppiest Hadreas has ever sounded. The record doesn’t conclude in rebirth. “I thought the sea would make some pattern known / And swim us safely home,” Hadreas laments on sparse closer Borrowed Light. Yet this is not weary resignation: for an artist who has been in constant metamorphosis, such acceptance feels revelatory. Alim Kheraj Read more.
Rina Sawayama – Sawayama
If you were forced to describe Rina Sawayama’s debut as succinctly as possible, you’d probably opt for a pop/R&B/nu-metal hybrid with a dose of stadium-rock bombast, which sounds like the most appalling generic fusion in musical history. But that doesn’t account for the skill with which Sawayama picks her way through her formative musical loves, and how adept she is at arranging them as dynamically explosive contrasts. It turns out to be one of 2020’s most striking and unique pop albums, the kind of risk-taking debut that gets you excited at what the artist behind it might come up with next. Alexis Petridis Read more.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
The track that gives the album its name contains the brassy line: “You want what now looks like, let me give you a taste.” It’s true, but it’s also not – Future Nostalgia owes a great debt to the musical past, nostalgic itself for the costume jewelled glitz of disco and the Day-Glo of 80s powerpop and those who have gone before. It references Olivia Newton-John, turn-of-the millennium Madonna, 1930s Lew Stone (and by extension, 90s White Town), 80s INXS, Lily Allen and the Who. Deftly cajoling these disparate sounds into a lithe 43 minutes of pristine club-pop music that does sound incredibly “now” is nothing short of alchemy. Kate Solomon Read more.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Recorded over a five-year spell in her California home, Fetch the Bolt Cutters encompasses every euphoric rush and hopeless roar as Fiona Apple telescopes between historic incidents that once diminished her to find their common thread. Its homespun rhythms, swaggering and souring piano, and sweet harmonies laced with industrial clatter provide the mercurial force for her to break open the codes of silence and mistrust that exploitative men use to divide women. She breaks free of constrictions, skewers and then undresses the affectations used by the powerful to conceal their abuses, and interrogates her own part in these structures. Filled with a lifetime’s worth of compassion, Fetch the Bolt Cutters isn’t just the album of 2020 but a future classic, a rare combination of innovation and profound deep feeling. Read more.