The best albums and songs of 2020
(Image credit: Beth Garrabrant)
In a confounding and overwhelming year, music has allowed us both to reflect on the state of the world and escape from it with equal brilliance, writes Nick Levine.
This year has been incredibly challenging for the music world. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, artists found themselves unable to tour and – in some cases – unsure whether to release albums that were completed and ready to drop. Then over the summer, the Black Lives Matter movement prompted long-overdue conversations about systemic racial oppression that the music industry had to confront head-on. In June, the Grammys finally decided to remove the reductive word ‘urban’ from their awards categories.
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Fittingly enough for such a confounding and overwhelming year, there’s no unifying theme to this year’s best albums. Some seem to reflect or comment on these turbulent times; others serve as a very welcome distraction. Along with five tracks that dominated radio and streaming platforms, here’s a guide to the best LPs that this testing year had to offer.
Best albums of 2020:
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The inspired use of Apple’s early single Criminal in last year’s hit crime film Hustlers primed the world for a Fiona Apple comeback, but Fetch the Bolt Cutters would have been rapturously received anyway. Named after a line delivered by Gillian Anderson in BBC miniseries The Fall, it’s a thrillingly idiosyncratic art-pop album that Apple mostly recorded at home; she even uses the bones of her dead dog for percussion. Her beguiling songwriting explores thorny issues such as depression, sexual violence and bullying, but Apple never loses her humour. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she sings on Under the Table, a song about a terrible dinner party. “I will never shut up.” For that, we should all be thankful.
Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
The second album from twin sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey offers modern R&B at its most sleek and serene. Executive produced by Beyoncé, who discovered the duo on YouTube and signed them to her Parkwood Entertainment label, it’s a coolly self-confident affair that doesn’t confuse restraint with monotony: amid the syncopated beats and seamless vocal harmonies, you’ll find winks to classic blues and UK garage. Most excitingly of all, Ungodly Hour signposts a stunningly bright future for the Bailey sisters: Chloe especially shows off serious production chops here, while Hailey has been cast as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Dylan’s first album of original songs in eight years is a richly poetic meditation on life, death and his own mythology. Though it includes the 17-minute epic Murder Most Foul, on which he intricately explores the cultural impact of JFK’s assassination, there are also moments of levity. On opening salvo I Contain Multitudes, Dylan even compares himself to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and “them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones”. He makes no attempt to disguise the weariness in his 79-year-old voice, which only heightens the power of his beautifully wrought laments: these songs are sometimes folky, sometimes bluesy, and often downright transcendent.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Released in March as pandemic panic tightened its grip, this stellar pop album helped fans to party the pain away – within the socially distanced safety of their own homes, of course. Where Lipa’s 2017 debut was a creditable attempt to cover all the bases, this follow-up benefited from a strong overarching concept and sharp execution. The title track’s name-check for modernist architect John Lautner isn’t the only smart touch: Break My Heart cleverly lifts the guitar riff from INXS’s Need You Tonight, while Physical’s thumping power-pop sounds like the greatest 1980s movie song you’ve never heard.
(Credit: Good Machine PR)
Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
One half of eccentric electronic duo Moloko until 2004, Ireland’s Róisín Murphy has since proven herself to be a consistently inventive solo artist. This album is her best and most accessible since 2007’s Overpowered – and possibly ever – because every beat is driven by Murphy’s deep-rooted love for and innate understanding of club culture. From the lavish disco of Murphy’s Law to the banging acid house of We Got Together, she and producer Richard Barratt create an electrifying, sweat-drenched headrush that never lets up. This year more than ever, it feels desperately needed.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
A week after Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike delivered an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in Atlanta, the hip-hop duo dropped this year’s essential protest album. Featuring well-judged cameos from Pharrell Williams and legendary singer-activist Mavis Staples, RTJ4 is an incendiary call-to-arms that rails against ingrained racism, police brutality and America’s rigged class system. To call the results timely and vital feels like an understatement. When Walking in the Snow references the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, who was placed in a lethal chokehold by a policeman, it tragically foreshadows the barbaric murder of George Floyd just nine days before this album came out.
Rina Sawayama – Sawayama
This Japanese-born British musician who studied politics, psychology and sociology at Cambridge University is responsible for 2020’s most dazzling debut. Equally inspired by Sawayama’s pop heroines Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit, it’s a hard-hitting, genre-hopping delight that’s teeming with ideas. Whether she’s calling out racial microaggressions on STFU!, celebrating her queer support network on Chosen Family, or subverting traditional gender roles on Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys), Sawayama is a uniquely captivating artist who demands (and deserves) your full attention.
Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink
Previous albums from this British singer-songwriter have explored mental health issues and the Syrian refugee crisis, but Kitchen Sink feels like her most righteous work yet. Partly inspired by conversations with her female friends, it’s a spiky and insightful indictment of the reductive assumptions that society imposes on women as they reach their thirties. “Shave my legs, freeze my eggs, will you want me when I am old?” she sings savagely on Trad. From the clattering post-punk of Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love) to the melancholy atmospherics of Prayer Mat, Shah’s music is as compelling as her lyrics. The result: an uncommonly thought-provoking and rewarding listen.
(Credit: Beth Garrabrant)
Taylor Swift – Folklore
It’s not difficult to tell that Swift wrote and recorded her eighth album in Covid-19 isolation. Where previous LPs from 2012’s Red to 2019’s Lover saw her embrace pop and grapple with a fluctuating public image, Folklore feels more self-contained and introspective. Largely produced by Aaron Dessner of popular rock band The National, it’s a wistful indie-folk record that features some of Swift’s most wrenching melodies and poignant lyrics. “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart,” she sings knowingly on Invisible String. “Now I send their babies presents.” A stunning album that surely seals her status as an all-time great songwriter.
Best tracks of 2020:
Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion – WAP
This year’s most talked-about single is an X-rated celebration of female sexual agency. Half-a-billion streams later, WAP continues to pack a massive punch because rap superstars Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion outline their desires in a way that’s not just unapologetic, but also staggeringly graphic. When Cardi B brags “I don’t cook, I don’t clean, but let me tell you how I got this ring,” it’s one of the few printable couplets. WAP’s naggingly catchy hook already sounds built to last, so let’s hope its chart-topping success creates space for many more female artists to write unselfconsciously about what they want.
Miley Cyrus – Midnight Sky
In the past, Cyrus has recorded everything from party-time R&B to psychedelic rock, but Midnight Sky ranks among her best reinventions yet. Driven by shimmering synths and ‘80s new wave beats, it’s a brilliantly defiant break-up song that shows off the full dramatic power of Cyrus’s husky voice. When she sings “I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone,” you really believe her. Cyrus has since cannily acknowledged the song’s obvious debt to Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen by releasing an Edge of Midnight Remix featuring the Fleetwood Mac legend herself. It’s a classy accompaniment to the super-addictive original.
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande – Rain on Me
Collaborations between A-list artists have become more commonplace in the streaming era, but Rain on Me still feels like an event record. Described by Lady Gaga as a “celebration of tears”, its barnstorming house beats are charged with emotion. When Gaga sings “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive”, she’s nodding to a period of her life when she used alcohol to “numb” herself. Grande’s angelic vocals complement Gaga’s grittier tones exquisitely, making Rain on Me a perfect pop song about accepting life’s less than perfect moments.
Arlo Parks – Black Dog
Inspired by a close friend’s experience with depression, Black Dog could be this year’s most tender and affecting song. Accompanied by a gently strummed acoustic guitar, 20-year-old Parks extends a musical hug that’s both winningly specific – she name-checks The Cure’s Robert Smith – and universally moving. “Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit,” Parks sings on the twinkly chorus. “I would do anything to get you out your room.” No wonder it struck a chord during a year when feelings of loneliness and isolation were increasingly tough to suppress.
RAYE – Natalie Don’t
When you describe your latest track as a “modern-day Jolene”, it’s got to sparkle like one of Dolly Parton’s rhinestones. Thankfully, this deceptively peppy disco-pop song lives up to its billing. Showing off the songwriting chops that have already been tapped by Beyoncé and Ellie Goulding, the British rising star makes us root for her over a romantic rival who “walks in like a model”. In fact, Natalie Don’t is executed with such self-confidence that Raye even slips in the canny line “like Dolly begged Jolene…” On this evidence, she’s definitely an artist to bookmark.
Harry Styles – Watermelon Sugar
This highlight from Styles’ second album Fine Line shows exactly why he’s managed to leave One Direction behind. Languid and lightly funky, it’s instantly infectious and doesn’t really sound like anything else on the radio. Watermelon Sugar’s sultry breeziness was enormously appealing when the album arrived in December 2019, but became even more soothing as global stress levels rose throughout 2020. While some of his peers chase TikTok trends to reaffirm their relevance, Styles is going his own way, making effortless-sounding bops that really stand out.
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights
Though it dropped at the end of 2019, Blinding Lights would go on to dominate 2020, eventually spending a record 33 weeks in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100. Co-written and co-produced with Swedish songwriting genius Max Martin, its synth-pop shimmer manages to feel retro and contemporary at the same time – a tricky thing to pull off. Still, the key to its enduring popularity could lie in its ambiguity. Though Blinding Lights’ explosive chorus is one of the year’s most familiar and uplifting, there’s a dash of darkness baked in that keeps things interesting.
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