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Review’s best albums of 2020

It may sound like a cliché by now, but 2020 truly has been a whirlwind. The start of the year feels like it was both ages ago and yet only yesterday. However, despite all the doom and gloom, we’ve also seen music push the boundaries of genre, and bring us solace in what feels like the darkest timeline. In trying to make a list of the best albums that have come out of 2020, I know I’ve missed out on tons of powerful, beautifully created albums from this year.

15. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a gorgeous, cinematic experience. After the bolder No Shape, Mike Hadreas refines his sound to create an experience that is grand in a different, grittier way. It’s on this album that we witness Hadreas’ full vocal range – from gritty lows to his signature falsetto, his voice is illuminated and heightened by the instrumentals. From the intense hook-up in “Your Body Changes Everything” to “Borrowed Light”, a tender song about watching everything burn around you, it’s an album that demands to be felt viscerally.

14. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension

Five years since his last solo album, Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan Stevens delivers an album that is detailed and expansive, returning to the sort of electronic sound that he’s refined over the course of his career. The Ascension is down-tempo and does not buzz the way that some of his other electronic work does. He layers and reworks synths to incorporate his own vocals and creates a sort of digital panorama throughout the album (which tots up to a 75 minute run time). Unlike his previous album, which was far more personal and centred on his own life, he focuses on themes of faith and hopelessness, looking at crises of faith and warnings of doomsday. The Ascension features some of the best songs Stevens has made, from the title track itself to “Goodbye to All That”, a bittersweet ode to returning to the road. While it’s certainly not Sufjan at his finest, it sees him returning to a sound that feels like his own. 

13. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

Heaven To A Tortured Mind sees Yves Tumor re-invent themselves as a rockstar for our current moment. Blending genres like glam rock, noise, and psych rock, the album is constructed around the persona of a star and a deviant. While the project features heady guitar solos and rumbling bass lines, it’s far more than that. Yves Tumor is able to create an album that is cohesive and conceptual. Both beauty and disgust are captured, from the gory imagery in “Medicine Burn” to the sexy, intense duet on “Kerosene!”. While it may seem like quite a shift from the more experimental work that they have created in the past, it’s definitely an album that showcases the full range of their artistry.

12. Soccer Mommy – color theory

In a year that has left us all struggling with our mental health in some way or the other, color theory looks at the gritty, dark parts of living with depression and anxiety. We see her move through significant colours to create something that is both evocative and stylistically brilliant. The album starts with the blues of “bloodstream” and “circle the drain”, songs about a deep depression, moving towards “yellow is the color of her eyes” and “up the walls”, where yellow denotes anxiety and physical sickness. It ends on the greys of “lucy” and “gray light”, songs about a sense of hopelessness and loss. The lo-fi and synth sounds on this album deepen this sense of a depression fuzz, the instrumentals being sparse but the melodies on each track incredibly resonant.

11. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

The British-Japanese artist truly comes into her own on SAWAYAMA, and is on her way to becoming one of the most important voices in the alternative/electro-pop scene. Sawayama subverts the traditional lyricism of pop music- writing about everything from climate grief to generational trauma. Central to the album is a sound that fuses Y2K sounds, nu-metal, and rock. SAWAYAMA also has its fair share of bops – with tracks like “STFU!” to “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”. Rina Sawayama is one of those rare gems who knows how to ride on the Y2K nostalgia wave in a way that isn’t cringey while being able to create something original and fresh in its own right.

10. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

A sexy, powerful album with some of the best bops of the year, Good News sees Megan Thee Stallion shine. From the inimitable “Body” to the anthem that is “Circles”, Megan switches up her flow at lightning speed with verses that are as sharp as ever. She’s more optimistic than usual, bouncing back from the events of summer 2020, and ready to put the record straight on “Shots Fired”. The album also has glowing features from stars like DaBaby and City Girls, but Meg shines the brightest on every track. Good News has cemented what we all already know – Megan is transforming the rap scene the way female rappers like Lil Kim and Missy Elliott did when they hit it. Real hot girl shit.

9. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure

On an album that makes disco cool again, Jessie Ware sparkles like a mirrorball. What’s Your Pleasure is an album where we see another side of her music – one that is far more playful and cheeky. It definitely shows, on a record as sexy as this one, with Ware sighing lyrics such as “Give into me, show what you’re feeling / In harmony, show me you need me, boy” on “Step Into My Life”. It’s also one of the best produced albums on this list, from the bass on “Ooh La La” to the electric beats on “Soul Control”. Jessie Ware’s voice whispers and croons, and is autotuned every now and then in a way that elevates each track, keeping things sleek and exciting. Alongside Chromatica (which I’m very sad to be unable to fit on this list), this is one album that I can’t wait to hear once we can hit the clubs again.

8. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers understands Yearning, like any self-respecting queer woman. On her second album, we see her elevate her soft indie rock sound, creating an experience that’s larger than that of her first album. She sings about a loss of faith and hope, a longing for home and safety. There’s a sardonic tone to her voice when she sings lyrics like “I wanna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it” on “Kyoto”, a sonically cheerful and upbeat song that almost makes you forget it’s about her complicated relationship with her father. That’s the beauty of her music – it is tender but also self aware enough to not fall into melodrama. In the wake of so much falling apart, from her faith in the world to her relationship, Bridgers finds a way to accept it all within the crashing of voices and instruments in the last track “I Know the End”. Punisher is cathartic in many ways, but it also shows us how the simple act of surviving is enough.

7. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Future Nostalgia, one of the most awaited releases of 2020, did not disappoint. It glitters and shines, with Lipa putting together a collection of pop-funk that is made for the dancefloor. Her sultry low tones and suggestive songwriting create an experience that is exciting and very, very sexy. Perhaps one of the best things about the album is that there’s far more range within it than you’d expect – from the rework of the riff from “Need You Tonight” by INXS to the synths on “Levitating”. I really didn’t expect much from the album, and at points the lyricism is definitely lacking. That said, Future Nostalgia has definitely been one of the most exciting and enjoyable releases we’ve had recently. In a year like 2020, we all need something to party in our rooms too. 

6. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene

The anthropocene – the idea that we are in an epoch where human activity is driving forward environmental change across the planet.

 In her latest album, Grimes anthropomorphizes climate change, turning the threat of the destruction of our civilization into a nihilistic villain. While this may seem way too high-concept for casual listening, Grimes definitely deserves credit for creating a record that may be dense and dark, but with moments of brilliance. Against a backdrop of shoegaze guitars and vocal trance, she sings of “plastic and pollution and plastic surgery and social media”, raging against the world order. I don’t think that we should be separating her art from her own celebrity – she’s still a product of immense privilege whilst also in a relationship with a man whose worth is at about $155 billion. If we’re mindful of this, the misanthropy and darkness of this album can come across as a little, well, insincere at points. That said, Miss Anthropocene is creative and as camp as ever, much like her previous music.

5. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Saint Cloud is a wonderful mix of indie folk and country music, with songwriting that is reminiscent of Dylan at some points. Instead of the early 2000s nostalgia that’s been ever-present in the music scene this year, Waxahatchee evokes the classic images and sounds of Americana. But it’s also an album about growing up and learning the difficult lessons that are part of the process. “And when I turn back around / Will you drain me back out?”, she sings on “Fire”, a song dedicated to herself, where she reflects on the longevity of her relationship with herself. She sings about addiction, codependency, and grappling with the fear of losing oneself, each song accompanied by the twanging country sound that completes the album. Saint Cloud is fresh and bright, and listening to it feels like watching the sunrise on the first day of spring.

4. Taylor Swift – evermore / folklore

We have a lot to say about evermore and folklore – check out our review of both. If you’re looking for a new spin on your favourite tracks from folklore, the long pond studio sessions have your back. 

3. Moses Sumney – græ

Moses Sumney’s second album is a stellar experience, often so intimate and intense that it’s as though you’re being sung too directly. Throughout græ, Sumney challenges binaries and  attempts to categorise our experiences of art, gender, and even intimacy. In challenging these constructs, he also defies genre, creating an album that is at times sensual, sad, and angry – sometimes all at once. On the first few tracks alone, the musical arrangements range from rock to an almost ethereal jazz, blending guitar with horn and string arrangements in a way that feels seamless. His falsetto almost blends into the instruments, creating a maelstrom of music that pulls you in without being overwhelming. I think that it’s safe to say that Sumney has created one of the most underrated albums of 2020.

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

I didn’t really think that I’d see another Dylan album any time soon, so this was an exciting listen for me. The raspy voice suits him well and helps build the atmosphere of what is a deeply introspective album. Rough and Rowdy Ways feels like an album made for the early hours of the morning, performed in a darkly-lit saloon. Dylan takes a look back at the history that he has witnessed and that he has created, crooning softly and weaving tales. With Rough and Rowdy Ways, he asks us to dig deeper and to turn within ourselves. It’s one of those fine albums, like Blood on the Tracks and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that will be a part of our shared cultural memory for a very long time. 

1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I admit that I’m biased – I’ve been listening to Fiona Apple for years and she’s been a big part of my Teen Angst(TM) years. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an album where we see her at her best – redefining what pop music is and envisioning what it can be. Aside from the more conventional piano arpeggios and drums, the album is tied together by its vast range of percussion sounds. A list of sounds you hear on FTBC: clapping, banging on walls, stomping on the ground, several barking sounds. In an album released during the pandemic that saw us all chained within our homes, the sounds of the mundane that is embedded in the album create a vibe that brings to life the sounds of everyday life.

It’s an album that serves as a meditation on trauma and healing and Apple sings with a vulnerability and emotion that you can feel in every lilt and rasp in her voice. She sings about high school bullies, the women who she’s been pitted against, and the patriarchy with both humour and feeling. In this album, I found a sense of comfort and solidarity that has been a guiding light throughout this year. “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long”, she sings, as a triumphant statement about learning to become yourself again.

In 2021, I hope we can all find the bolt cutters we need to escape the cages we have built around ourselves.

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