How much music have you listened to this year? Without festivals, commuting and clubs, the shift in our daily, monthly or annual routines has meant new things – podcasts to help us sleep, more Netflix than we’d care to admit, bread baking, portrait painting and walking, lots and lots of walking. But where did music fit in?
There’s no shame in admitting that perhaps it didn’t, really – not as much as normal. But as 2020 winds to a close and you will hopefully get a little downtime from studying and work, maybe now is the time to dig into to some of the year’s best releases.
Our albums of the year were voted for by The Forty-Five’s team of very talented critics and all are definitely worth your time. From the people changing the face of pop to new work from our old favourites, it’s an expansive list that crosses genres and generations of artists. The internet has been loud and disruptive this year – a lifeline for many, a revolution starter – but I think we could all use a little break from it. Of course, most of you will stream these on your choice of streaming platform, but if you can afford to buy the physical version, or ask for it for Christmas, then you’d be doing your bit to make sure the creators we love, will still be there once COVID fucks off for good.
Until that glorious day, we leave you with our list of the best albums of 2020. We hope you love them as much as we do.
Words: Charlie Gunn, Emma Holbrook, El Hunt, Katherine Rogers, Jemima Skala, Alison Craig.
45Jarv Is – ‘Beyond The Pale’
Originally assembled at short notice for a 2017 show supporting Sigur Rós, JARV IS is now a fully collaborative six-piece featuring acclaimed harpist/singer-songwriter Serafina Steer and her Bas Jan-bandmate Emma Smith, plus members of the All Seeing I and Three Trapped Tigers. Sneaking in a first run of live shows before the world collapsed, Jarv Is’ debut arrived several months later, a reimagining of seven tracks penned on the road. And though the tracks are crying out for an audience, Jarvis Cocker’s pathos-packed lyricism still resonated with a world slowed down. GC/CG
44Declan McKenna – ‘Zeros’
It’s quickly evident that Declan McKenna had a blast making ‘Zero’ – though the big ticket issues of his debut album remain, his musings on capitalism and climate change were given the glitter-soaked glam rock treatment this time around. The sense of joy at its heart was infectious. “I’m off out to buy a bag of Quavers and Nike trainers,” he sung morosely atop the Queen-ish piano pounds of ‘You Better Believe!!!’. “Comfort you can feel.” El Hunt.
43The Weeknd – ‘After Hours’
Sonically, ‘After Hours’ sounded like The Weeknd’s standard, super-slick sex jams. But if you listened a little closer, something like remorse had begun to creep in: “I don’t know if I can be alone again“, Tesfaye yearned on the cinematic (and pandemic-appropriate) ‘Alone Again’, while ‘Hardest To Love’ is a twinkly, garage-inflected ode to a relationship gone wrong. KR.
42Mac Miller – ‘Circles’
The high points on ‘Circles’ are exceptionally difficult to listen to. That’s not due to the lush, melancholic soundscape or Jon Brion’s sublime production, but rather the context of this posthumous release: that Mac Miller’s most fully-realised project was one he never got to see. It’s not a record designed to be prophetic but when we lose artists too soon, interrogating their words for a deeper meaning is often the first instinct. In Mac’s case, his final testament is a heartbreakingly dissatisfied one: he frets that he’ll “just fade like those before” and yet, ‘Circles’ is a poignant reminder of his music’s longevity. EH
41Nubya Garcia – ‘Source’
‘Source’, Nubya Garcia’s debut solo LP weaved together strands of nu-jazz, dub, call and response and cumbia to create an album that felt expansive, reaching out tendrils of community and strength to far corners of the earth. While debuts can often feel tentative, Garcia wonderfully self-assured attitude built a shared sense of purpose amongst those listening. JS.
40SAULT – ‘Untitled/Rise’
It’s been a busy year for mysterious British R&B collective SAULT. 2020 saw them drop two albums within weeks of each other: ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ was an urgent tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, and saw the group channeling their anger through a kaleidoscopic range of musical textures, while ‘Untitled (Rise)’, released during the lockdown heatwave, found the group in a revelatory mood, spanning house, funk and slick, sunsoaked disco. KR.
39Fontaines D.C. – ‘A Hero’s Death’
Uncomfortable with the fame and narrative around their band, 2019 success story Fontaines D.C. were determined to kill off every notion of what you believed them to be with album number two. First heading to LA, then – on realising the Hollywood thing wasn’t for them – ending up in Dan Carey’s South London studio, the result was an album that marked a new sound and a new direction from the Dubliners, setting them aside from their post-punk scenemates. CG.
38Jehnny Beth – ‘To Love Is To Live’
Jehnny Beth’s first record away from Savages wasn’t quite a solo album, roping in collaborators from Cillian Murphy to IDLES’ Joe Talbot to bring her “personal project” to life. From the ferocious single ‘I’m The Man’ to the tender ‘French Countryside’, Beth took us on a journey into her psyche. “If it’s uncomfortable, I’m doing something right.” she said, of the process. And this album, is very very right. CG
37Waxahatchee – ‘Saint Cloud’
Waxahatchee might wear Alabama on her billowing sleeves but ’Saint Cloud’ is the unmistakable sound of the open road. As Katie Crutchfield’s pick-up truck rushes past “fireworks at the old trailer park” with only gentle Americana melodies on an FM radio for company, an introspective road trip of a record is left in its wake. “If I could love you unconditionally, I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky”, she sings on ‘Fire’ with a glorious, raspy trill, and in the pursuit of self-assurance, unconditional self-love and sobriety, Waxahatchee has produced something as transcendent as the West Memphis sunset. EH
36The Big Moon – ‘Walking Like We Do’
On The Big Moon’s Mercury-nominated 2017 debut, the quartet staked their place in indie’s great tradition of lovable gangs: a group of pals with soaring, big-hearted hits for days who you’d give your right arm for a night down the pub with. Follow-up ‘Walking Like We Do’, however, showed that Jules Jackson and co weren’t just exciteable young whipper-snappers; taking the melodic nouse of their first and giving it some added emotional maturity and room to breathe, it showed how you do a ‘grown-up second album’ without losing any sparkle. AC
35Glass Animals – ‘Dreamland’
When drummer Joe Seaward was hospitalised following a dramatic bike accident in 2018, it changed everything for Glass Animals; though Seaward thankfully made a full recovery, heading into their third album songwriter Dave Bayley decided to tell a more personal tale, digging inward to the memories and moments that shaped him. As such, ‘Dreamland’ arrived as a shape-shifting memoir of pop cultural reference points, genre-fluid throwbacks and more poignant moments than the band had ever allowed themselves. Still propelled by their customary indie/ funk/ hip hop hybrid, it showed Glass Animals as a group with heart as well as smarts. AC.
34Ariana Grande – ‘Positions’
Created in the spirit of everyone’s manic Hinge-swiping summer, ‘Positions’ took the brief of ‘pop banger’ very literally – and Ari’s low-key horny bops were the ideal balm for a year in which saw sex outside your household being made *gasp* illegal. “Got the neighbors yellin’ ‘Earthquake,’ 4.5 when I make the bed shake,” she sings on ‘34+35’. Not ideal for lockdown relations, but good on you gal. El Hunt.
33Laura Marling – ‘Song For Our Daughter’
Laura Marling’s instant classic ‘Song for Our Daughter’ contains more candour than many mothers would ever choose to give. Marling dances elegantly between irreverent wit and gutting sincerity, in the hopes that her imagined daughter – and perhaps herself – will heed the advice. This legacy of collective female trauma is woven into the very fabric of the record but heavenly vocals and Rob Moose’s exquisite string arrangements command the reverence of the most soothing lullabies. EH
32Conan Gray – ‘Kid Krow’
At the beginning of this year, YouTuber-turned-popstar-in waiting Conan Gray caught much-deserved buzz for his slightly lo-fi spin on pop; which captured the mundanity of teenagedom in suburbia with savvy precision. And with his debut proper ‘Kid Krow’ Gray makes good on the hype. Much of the record is inspired by moving to California for college and feeling like a misfit far away from Texas – an artful isolation album with some killer choruses. El Hunt.
31Bully – ‘Sugaregg’
Alicia Bognanno went solo for Bully’s latest album. With a new-found freedom found from a mental health diagnosis and confidence in her own abilities she gave up production duties for the first time. As a result, the sound was a freer, more exploratory Bully who made one of the year’s best indie-rock albums. Tired comparisons to Bognanno’s nineties heroes continue to follow her around, but on ‘Sugaregg‘, Bully really cut their own path.
30J Hus – ‘Big Conspiracy’
One of the UK’s most promising young rappers, ‘Big Conspiracy’ found J Hus dealing with some heavy stuff. His first album after his release from prison in April 2019, ‘Big Conspiracy’ was a more muted affair than 2018’s ‘Common Sense’, with J Hus processing incarceration, colonialism and alienation over dark, shifting beats. KR.
29Laura Jane Grace – ‘Stay Alive’
Stay Alive was intended as an Against Me! release, but then the pandemic happened. Released as a surprise acoustic album, ‘Stay Alive‘ is a super earnest affair. It’s not lacking in energy, though – Grace embodied the same brand of rousing introspection John Darnielle has perfected, throwing out lines like “this only feels like the death of everything!” over spirited strumming. KR.
28Kehlani – ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’
With her second album, Oakland’s Kehlani takes a step away from storytelling and instead delves into the painful particulars of a relationship slowly crumbling to pieces – and all the while, a dry-ice mist of twisted R&B hangs in the air. And despite the emotional rawness at its core, ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’ also handles the trials of heartbreak with a cracking sense of humour. “Last so long, bae, you a trooper,” Kehlani quips on ‘Can I’ summoning up a bizarre yet evocative sexual stamina metaphor out of the 2014 movie American Sniper. “Sniper gang, no Bradley Cooper.” Shots fired. El Hunt.
27Roisin Murphy – ‘Roisin Machine’
Having made her name as the singer of early-’00s electronic duo Moloko, Roisin Murphy is mainly known for a couple of crossover hits and the fact she’s a bit of a lovable oddball. ‘Roisin Machine’ – her fifth solo album and a collaboration with Sheffield house DJ Richard Barratt – however, went some way to reintroducing her as a dance-pop cult star worthy of merit. Full of character, heady, disco-influenced beats and crescendos that would have found a happy home in a lot of 3am festival tents, it was Roisin’s finest moment (and highest-charting album) in more than a decade. AC.
26Denai Moore – ‘Modern Dread’
Denai Moore has come a long way from those early, bassy collaborations with SBTRKT – carving out a name for herself when it comes to fusing spare electronica with the warm heart of folk. And on ‘Modern Dread’ these two threads knotted together into an atmospheric, genre-slippy record that grappled with the constraints of constantly wired-in modern life, and never quite escapes it. El Hunt.
25Kelly Lee Owens – ‘Inner Song’
In the time between her 2017 self-titled debut and this year’s follow-up, Welsh-born Kelly Lee Owens has gone from something of a niche name to drop in electronic circles to an artist resonating in far wider ones, with collaboration with Björk, St Vincent and John Cale under her belt. ‘Inner Song’, with its clever fusion of the mechanical and the human, the warm and the cold, showed why; though tracks like ‘Melt!’ could easily go off in the club, Owens’ second had way more textures to its patchwork, and thrived accordingly. AC.
24KeiyaA – ‘Forever, Ya Girl’
On this most DIY of albums, Chicago native KeiyaA’s homegrown R&B leant fully into her loneliness. Created almost entirely solo, the multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer, explored themes of hurt and belonging through experimental use of synths, horns and nods to female artists who came before her (its title, reference to Paula Abdul’s debut). ‘Forever, Ya Girl’ was an incredibly promising debut from an artist with that special ability to translate emotion into art. CG.
23Lianne La Havas – ‘Lianne La Havas’
The decision to self-title a record, three albums in, is one that speaks volumes, and Lianne La Havas’ 2020 addition to that lineage was no exception. From the opening declarations of ‘Bittersweet’ (“I’m born again”) to the cohesive, stripped-back, jazz-flecked atmosphere that populated the album – largely a collection that leans on guitar, sparse percussion and the singer’s strength of vocal – the Londoner seemed more confident in her own skin and sound than ever. No longer just Prince’s mate, ‘Lianne La Havas’ saw its author fully harnessing her own star power. AC.
22Soccer Mommy – ‘Color Theory’
Centering itself around the idea of colours as moods – blue for depression, yellow for physical and emotional illness, and grey for emptiness and loss – Sophie Allison’s second album was, unsurprisingly, a lyrically weighty affair. Musically, however, it saw Soccer Mommy stepping up to her newfound larger platform – embracing the possibilities of the studio and adding a brightness that belied the trauma within. AC
21The Killers – ‘Imploding the Mirage’
There’s always been an element of silliness about The Killers. ‘Imploding The Mirage’ found them giving up on taking themselves seriously, and leaning into their theatrical proclivities: it’s all synthy, star-spangled choruses, cheesy guitar licks, and Brandon Flowers’ theatre-kid drawl. As flashy and fun as a night in the casino. KR.
20Georgia – ‘Seeking Thrills’
Having laid some groundwork with her self-titled 2015 debut, and landed a hit in last year’s ‘About Work The Dancefloor’, Georgia’s second was teed up as an album set to inherit Robyn’s emotive pop crown. And, while ‘Seeking Thrills’ may have been somewhat tripped up by the lack of clubs available in 2020 (you can imagine many tipsy hands-aloft moments to opener ‘Started Out’), it did manage to come good on much of that promise: fusing old school Chicago house with more modern open-hearted charm, and finding many musical thrills along the way. AC.
19Tame Impala – ‘The Slow Rush’
At this point, four albums in and having essentially invented a sub-genre of his own replete with a legion of imposters, it’s sort of impossible to imagine Kevin Parker making a bad album. What made ‘The Slow Rush’ so great, however, was not just the familiar giddiness of Tame Impala’s signature mesmeric psych-pop shimmer, but the fact that Parker is still finding new ways to push it. With a heavy sense of the passage of time throughout, ‘The Slow Rush’ steered into personal melancholy (‘Posthumous Forgiveness’) and insatiable hooks (‘Borderline’) with equal charm; 10 years since his debut, everyone still can’t stop talking about Kevin. AC.
18Hayley Williams – ‘Petals For Armor’
Already a hero to many, Paramore singer Hayley Williams’ foray into solo territory this year will probably have won her a lot of new fans rather than merely pandering to the old. Yes, Williams has never been short on feelings, but on ‘Petals For Armour’ they were channelled in new, mature ways – ones that embraced ideas of femininity and power, and allowed vulnerability to manifest as its biggest strength. Written in the wake of a period of personal turbulence, it found the singer steeling herself and emerging with a record blooming with resolve. AC.
17Jessie Ware – ‘What’s Your Pleasure’
Encompassing smooth disco, a sprinkling of euro-pop, and joyful flourishes of synthetic dance-strings, Jessie Ware’s latest LP reminded us all that she’s more than just a podcast host – she’s a versatile artist capable of creating truly hypnotic dance-pop. Her most effortless work to date, ‘What’s Your Pleasure’ is shoulder-shimmies above anything she’s has done before. El Hunt.
16Lady Gaga – ‘Chromatica’
Following on from 2016’s stripped-back ‘Joanne’ and a suitably star turn in ‘A Star Is Born’, it’s with no small burst of thanks that Lady Gaga picked this most joy-sucking of years to re-emerge in all her maximalist glory. The fictional planet of ‘Chromatica’, where kindness and equality reigns supreme, is one we could all do with a trip to in 2020, and, thankfully, it’s one where solid gold pop slammers were the order of the day too. ‘Stupid Love’ landed as everything a big, frivolous pop hit should be, while Ariana collab ‘Rain On Me’ (and its fittingly damp video) delivered on all the promise of this most superstar of duets. AC.
15Porridge Radio – ‘Every Bad’
Nestled on the Mercury Prize shortlist between Dua Lipa and Charli XCX, Brighton’s Porridge Radio might have ended up keeping unexpected company this year, but their debut landed as one of the surest, purest statements of 2020. Helmed by singer Dana Margolin’s desperately visceral vocals, ‘Every Bad’ used tried-and-tested tricks (repeated, mantra-like lyrics; quiet-loud dynamics) but breathed new life into them, turning standout ‘Sweet’ into a scream for clarity, allowing the wryly-titled ‘Pop Song’ to unfurl like a moment of heartbreaking quiet, and sending ‘Lilac’’s repetitions of “I’m kind” into the heavens. A record to be held close. AC.
14Run the Jewels – ‘RTJ4’
“Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all,” wrote El-P as he dropped RTJ4 early, less than a week after the brutal murder of George Floyd. Run The Jewels’ fourth album proved to be the protest record the world needed. Recorded before the BLM movement gained its 2020 momentum, it was a prophetic – or painfully inevitable – portrait of a disjointed America. One where police brutality reigned and the people were demanding change. 2020 will be remembered for two things and Run The Jewels’ album, more than any this year, soundtracks the unrest felt on a global scale. CG
13Megan Thee Stallion – ‘Good News’
Having dominated the rap discourse since last year’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’, and with ‘WAP’ still twerking high, Megan Thee Stallion’s debut finally arrived this month with the aura of a victory lap rather than an album with something to prove. Hailed as the next in line (and inserting herself into rap history via ‘Girls In The Hood’ and more just to prove it), ‘Good News’ managed to casually chuck in a Beyonce feature (on ‘Savage Remix’) and make that only about the fifth most exciting thing on the album. And that’s how you do it. AC.
12Bright Eyes – ‘Down In The Weeds, Where the World Once Was’
Nearly a full decade on from their last outing, OG emo-folk posterboy Conor Oberst’s decision to get the band back together for this, their tenth LP, seemed rooted in the need to process his own personal trials of recent years – the loss of his brother, and breakdown of his marriage. As such, ‘Down In The Weeds…’ made for a sort of extravagant, theatrical ode to sadness. Incorporating Spanish spoken word openings (‘Pageturner’s Rag’), big, soaring set-pieces (‘Dance and Sing’), bagpipes (‘Persona Non Grata’) and more into a far-reaching opus, it managed to weave personal trauma and expansive ideas with customary aplomb. AC.
11Yves Tumor – ‘Heaven to a Tortured Mind’
Following 2018’s game-changing surprise drop ‘Safe In The Hands of Love’ (Yves Tumor’s third LP and first for Warp), ‘Heaven To A Tortured Mind’ found the chameleonic artist exploding their own palette out yet again – this time emerging as a completely unrecognisable, sexually-charged butterfly from the ambient chrysalis of their early releases. Whether in the Prince-esque duet of ‘Kerosene!’ (replete with peeling guitar solo) or the sleazy undulations of ‘Medicine Burn’ – full of unsettling images of “scarlet-coloured teeth” and “severed heads” – Tumor’s fourth created a fully sensory, tactile world to get lost in. AC.
10Sorry – ‘925’
First emerging under the name Fish from the prolific Brixton Windmill scene that also birthed the likes of Shame, Goat Girl and more, by the time Sorry had changed their title, signed to Domino and arrived at this year’s ‘925’, they’d already grown by infinite amounts. What we still didn’t expect, however, was a record as perversely catchy as the debut they delivered. Taking the slightly awkward, crotchety energy of their live shows, but adding hooks (‘Right Around The Clock’, ‘Perfect’) and sweetness (‘Heather’, ‘As The Sun Sets’) to the mix, Sorry proved themselves to not just be a niche concern, but a band with more strings to their bow than anyone might have guessed. AC.
9Perfume Genius – ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’
Mike Hadreas’ journey from timid pianist to theatrical performer has been a slow and steady one over the course of a decade, but on his fifth as Perfume Genius, the Seattle singer delivered a record that’s nothing short of a masterpiece. An album that confidently dips and weaves between devastating frailty and determined strength, ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’ burned as brightly as its title suggests, underlining its author as the powerful talent that he always threatened to be. AC.
8Rina Sawayama – ‘SAWAYAMA’
Addressing her experience within the Asian diaspora, Japan-born, London-based Rina’s debut was a lesson in pop smarts. Taking in everything from gnarly, Poppy-esque moments (‘STFU!’) to the slick, ’90s strut of ‘Comme Des Garcons’, ‘Sawayama’ was an album that could slay the dancefloor, but clearly wanted – and succeeded – in meaning far more than that. AC.
7Grimes – ‘Miss Anthropocene’
As she prepared to birth the spectacularly named X Æ A-Xii, Grimes blessed us with Miss Anthropocene: album number five and the first since she became celebrity fodder as Elon Musk’s other half. What was pitched as a concept album about climate change, instead tackled destruction on a more human level. From the campy drum n’ bass raver, ‘4AEM’ to a poignant reflection on addiction on ‘Delete Forever’, Grimes grappled with new-found fame, her internal battle between love and career, manifesting itself on one of the year’s best records. CG.
6Moses Sumney – ‘grae’
Tired of life’s stifling binaries, Moses Sumney instead decided to look towards humanity’s grey areas for his latest LP – a sumptuous two-part release that deployed the California singer’s lustrous falsetto to spine-tingling effect. Thematically and sonically rich, it tipped its hat to jazz, baroque pop, R&B and more, painting a deft landscape on every track. As Moses states on ‘also also also and and and’: “I insist upon my right to be multiple”. AC.
5Dua Lipa – ‘Future Nostalgia’
Released a week early as a motivational lockdown gift to the world, Dua’s second arrived with all the sass and swagger of an album that genuinely could help us all press pause on the pandemic, for a joyful hour at least. Every song on ‘Future Nostalgia’ could be a single – from pre-summer anthem ‘Don’t Start Now’ to the eyerolling kiss-off of closer ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. Pure pop perfection. AC.
4Taylor Swift –’Folklore’
Taylor Swift knows the limits of crafting your own mythology all too well. On the surface, ‘Folklore‘ is Taylor’s least self-referential album – from imagined love triangles (‘betty’) to historical socialites (‘the last great american dynasty’) – but its inspired look at the subjective nature of storytelling and perspective is a deeply introspective one, consolidating her position as one of the greatest songwriters of her generation. Swapping chart pop for soft, piano-driven melodies and sepia-toned ambiance, this peaceful collection is destined to be ‘passed down like folk songs’ one day. EH.
3Haim – ‘Women In Music Pt III’
“What’s left to prove?” Danielle Haim sighs as she’s handed a starter guitar on ‘Man From The Magazine’ – a raw and jagged folk-rock cut that bites like Joni on an acerbic whim. What do Haim have left to prove? They’re a band who have sold out prestigious venues and won over critics and fans alike, but are still demeaned on account of their gender. ‘Women in Music Part III’, then, is both proud reclamation and sly dig: a record that sneers at garden-variety misogyny (‘Man from the Magazine’), despairs at the inexplicable charm of fuckboys (‘3am’), and bares its soul lyrically in ways Haim never have before (‘Now I’m In It’, ‘FUBT’). Bookended by soulful saxophones and with a deli counter chock-full of musical styles, Haim’s third album is experimental, liberated and quite simply, the best they’ve ever sounded. EH.
2Fiona Apple – ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
The acclaimed singer’s first album in eight years, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ found Fiona Apple breaking away from all constraints: of genre, traditional instrumentation and, lyrically, the often-oppressive assumptions of society. Experimental, wildly original and bursting with a defiant, palpable lack of inhibition, it re-cemented Apple as a songwriter of true singularity. AC.
1Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Punisher’
The year belongs to Phoebe Bridgers. In an age where a healthy sense of humour seems not only a plus, but a must for getting through these strange times, Bridgers’ ability to overwhelm you with emotion and just as quickly – with the smallest detail – make you smile, is her kryptonite. From the up-beat indie of ‘Kyoto’ to cinematic closer ‘I Know The End’, Bridgers drew us into her world, her charm and astute observations on Gen Z life making it a place where, just for a minute, we all felt less alone. CG.