At the end of this annus horribilis, the Music and Clubs writers talk you through some of their favourite albums, EPs and mixtapes of 2020 – moments of hope and beauty found amid the chaos of a truly awful year.
Man Alive! by King Krule
King Krule’s Man Alive! grips you hard by the wrist, and walks you down into a dingy basement filled with despondent murk and vicious echoes of anguish. The album lays bare Marshall’s tortured psyche, each track dusting off a familiar personal demon that lurks eagerly at the backline of each track. The nightmarishly barren landscapes of noxious “chem trails” and rooms “bathed in grey” are given form by Marshall’s sleepy, laconic vocals, readily poised to erupt into a series of primal wails that ride atop a wave of greasy, emblazoned guitar static. Though impending angst is masterfully unbottled in tracks such as ‘Stoned Again’ and ‘Slinky’, the album ultimately resolves with hope. The ethereal passage of shimmering guitar licks on the concluding track, ‘Please Complete Thee’, plays out like a mantra for 2020; despite being bruised and beat down by a brutal and uncaring world, it pauses, stares back, and grins.
how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX
With the rise of a global pandemic, the pressure of productivity was well and truly on. Constant reminders that Shakespeare’s King Lear, Newton’s theory of gravity and Bocaccio’s Decameron were all developed in isolation plagued everybody’s social media feeds. Unsurprisingly, however, there is one woman who has stepped up to the challenge: boundary pushing pop star Charli XCX. Setting herself the mammoth task of writing, recording and mixing an album in just a six-week period, XCX gifted us sickly-sweet techno bangers and fabulously weird cyberpop in a record tinged with soul-baring vulnerability. how I’m feeling now is a boundary-pushing assault on the senses that beautifully captures the perturbed zeitgeist of a world in lockdown.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
When Pitchfork gave Fetch the Bolt Cutters a perfect 10 earlier this year, I was very hesitant to like this album because I didn’t want to think their opinion would have that much influence over me. However, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an undeniable feminist masterpiece, bristling with humour, imperfections and a staggeringly raw intimacy. Fiona speaks straight from her mind, reflecting upon the complex relationships that branch between women and the difficulties of finding freedom in this restrictive world. Listening makes you feel like you’re sitting alone with Fiona in her house, surrounded by dogs, banging pots and pans in the kitchen and playing blues piano.
Be Up a Hello by Squarepusher
Arriving at the beginning of this turbulent year was an album brimming with buoyancy. At times playful and always enthusiastic, Tom Jenkinson’s fifteenth studio album sees him return to familiar territory, blowing the dust off his Commodore VIC-20 (Google it!) and turning his virtuosic bass-playing to squelchy analogue acid basslines, complimented by skittering beats and chiptune-influenced melodies. From the heartfelt opener ‘Oberlove’, steadily waxing bittersweet toward the dramatic, unhinged energy of ‘Speedcrank’ and the abrasively waspish ‘Vortrack’, Be Up a Hello presents a breakneck pace which abates only for the rich swells of ‘Detroit People Mover’ and creepy closer ‘80 Ondula’. Squarepusher has produced a lush, yet focused soundscape which strikes a balance between the most approachable and sonically complex qualities of his work.
Return by Katy J Pearson
As this terrible, terrible year draws to a close, there has been a glimmer of joy in the form of Katy J Pearson’s debut album Return. Brimming with cheerful guitars and KJP’s hypnotic vocals, the line-dancing Bristolian has created a magnificent first album combining her poetic songwriting with country music influences and a cheeky hint of disco. The uplifting ‘Tonight’ opens the album as it rises up to greet you with lilting strings and groovy rhythm, and even those with an ingrained aversion to country & western (*ahem*) can’t help but feel pure delight when listening to it. ‘Take Back The Radio’ is by far away the stellar track of the album, featuring fellow Bristolians Squid’s Laurie Nankivell on trumpet and Boy Azooga’s Davey Newington on drums and backing vocals. Written during Covidian isolation, it is a truly joyous track, a realistic yet hopeful ode to moving forward, enjoying life, and carefreely dancing as much as possible.
Songs by Adrianne Lenker
This year was supposed to be so much different for Adrianne Lenker. Off the back of her band Big Thief releasing two astonishing albums last year, 2020 was supposed to herald the chance for U.F.O.F. and Two Hands to be played in their purest forms to swirling crowds across the globe. When quarantine hit, Adrianne was forced into isolation, recording this album in analogue fashion on 8-track tape whilst alone in a cabin in the woods. The result is a record of such fragile beauty – a precious jewel formed in the blazing chaos that was the year 2020.
100% Yes by Melt Yourself Down
Melt Yourself Down released their third studio album, 100% Yes, back in June on Decca Records and it remains without a doubt the greatest album I listened to this year. Blending kazz, punk, funk and soul to create a weird, unique and compelling sound, this album doesn’t lift off the accelerator for the whole 40-minute duration. Their trademark energy is at its peak on this album, yet 100% Yes is also perhaps the most mature and brilliant album they have released thus far. The horns on tracks like ‘Crocodile’ are just unreal, I have never heard anything like it. If I was pushed to give a favourite song from the album I would likely go with ‘It Is What It Is’ – which seemed particularly relevant given the events of this year. The sextet is set to play Brudenell Social Club next March (COVID-permitting) and I, for one, cannot wait to see how this album sounds live.
Working Men’s Club by Working Men’s Club
Hailing from the Northern mining town of Todmorden and named after the grimy, insular social clubs created for working class inhabitants of such towns, Working Men’s Club tempestuously burst onto the scene in 2020 with a self-titled debut album that seethes with pulsing beats, retro synths and frontman Syd Minsky-Sargeant’s menacing, monotonal vocals. A fusion of techno, EDM and post-punk, WMC are a band whose musical talent and pioneering electronic sound belie their youth, and who had already created a reputation for their raucous yet sublime live shows pre-lockdown. Opening track ‘Valleys’ perfectly encapsulates the brooding frustration of the small-town isolation, and is the perfect introduction to the album. Pounding beats jump against syncopated drums whilst Minsky-Sargeant perfectly articulates this suburban mundanity, familiar to many of us who yearned to escape to the bright lights of the big city: “Trapped inside a town / Inside my mind / Stuck with no ideas / I’m running out of time”.
Women in Music Pt. III by Haim
Where to start with Haim? I mean, I am absolutely, whole heartedly biased but this was one of the best albums of 2020. A melancholy tinge lingers throughout the whole of this rock, pop, folk creation but the album displays an elevation in both the sisters’ talent and artistic creativity. One notable addition is the use of jazzy brass and saxophone, bringing a soulful and, at points, ever so off-kilter element to the songs which tops off the piece delightfully and brings a full-bodied sound. There are powerful and empowering lyrics (a personal favourite is “everyday I wake up and I make money for myself” in ‘The Steps’) but the album doesn’t swamp the listener and there is a careful balance between upbeat and more acoustic, slow-paced tracks. This creation is masterful for many reasons and the sisters have provided an album that can accompany almost any mood… don’t get me started on the music videos. As they’ve always said, Go Haim or Go Home.
Monument by Molchat Doma
Molchat Doma’ third album, Monument, is another fresh breath of air, reviving my love of post-punk. The Belarusian trio have pared down on the ominous guitar drone, opting instead for a roomier sound, with the crisp bass of Ne Smeshno, and the ambient synth of Udalil Tvoy Nomer, breaking beyond the usual abrasively monotone fare. Evocative of the warehouse-echo of Connecticut duo Have a Nice Life, Monument pushes post-punk into new, experimental terrain.
Send Them to Coventry by Pa Salieu
The rise of Pa Salieu this year is almost unparalleled. His debut album, ‘Send Them to Coventry’ is a varied, complicated and incredibly advanced creation, involving mega production and a smooth interchange of vernaculars that results in a truly great LP. There is a mix between much harsher sounds like that of ‘Frontline’ and the more soulful and nurturing sound of ‘Energy ft. Mahalia’ but this really works and the ability to move between genres is impressive. It’s hard to say, but perhaps the best track of the album is ‘Black’, an expression of emotion surrounding racism and the exploitation of black culture, sentiments that can be found throughout the album. Not only are the production and lyrics truly fantastic, but the visual accompaniments to tracks such as ‘Black’ and ‘Betty’ showcase yet another element of Pa Salieu’s innovative and creative style. The 22 year-old has presented an artistic vision that is different to the norm but in such a good way. All this album needs is more listeners.
Twice as Tall by Burna Boy
A year after the success of African Giant, Burna Boy gifts us with Twice As Tall. I’m never one to form my opinion off a first listen but my primary thoughts on this LP varied greatly from my current position. I was anticipating bangers, anything I could gbese to, yet I don’t feel at all let down by this more laid back, reflective project, which in fact makes more sense in a world slowed down by a pandemic. This album is a Panafrican exploration of a sound dipping in Afrobeat, dancehall, afro fusion and hip hop, each song flowing like omi in one another, with verses in Pidgin and Yoruba woven in too. Burna Boy deserves all our respect.
LUV vs the World 2 by Lil Uzi Vert
Released just a week after the highly acclaimed ‘Eternal Atake’, Lil Uzi Vert shocked fans with the surprise drop of the long awaited LUV vs the World 2. Opening with ‘Myron’, a track fans have been anticipating since late 2018, Uzi’s undeniable presence dominates with a catchy flow layered on top of Oogie Mane’s 808’s heavy production. Uzi’s self-assurance in his distinct sound is prominent throughout, from the braggadocios ‘Yessirskii’ featuring 21 Savage to the aggressive ‘Strawberry Peels’, which sees Uzi go toe to toe with YSL members Gunna and Young Thug. However, the shining moment of the album is delivered on ‘Bean (Kobe)’ as Chief Keef’s autotuned, Yeezus inspired croons blend into Pi’erre Bourne’s outstanding synth centred production – creating the sensation of being in outer space. The Philly rapper does not fail to impress his audience, delivering the perfect sequel to the acclaimed 2016 mixtape, LUV vs the World.
SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
There is no doubt that, even in the face of worldwide calamity, Rina Sawayama has had a bumper year. Amid signing a record deal, performing across the pond on late-night talk shows and receiving acclaim from Sir Elton John himself, the British-Japanese up-and-comer released one of most sensational pop albums of the year. Her eponymous debut is a tribute to the best of early noughties music, from the nu metal thrash of ‘STFU!’ to the Britney-esque R&B flair of anti-capitalist banger ‘XS’. But is isn’t all showy glitter and grit for Sawayama as she still gives herself space to explore and celebrate her own queer in anthemic ballad ‘Chosen Family’. It’s quite frankly an outrage that the award nods were so thin on the ground but our girl Rina suits the moniker of underground pop iconic anyway.
C2c by KwolleM
A nostalgic and powerful ode to East London, this album is a must listen for any grime-head interested in listening to the very best of what mellow grime has to offer. Inspired by the wifey riddims and the more experimental side of grime that emerged in the early noughties, c2c takes us on a journey from the jazz influenced bop of ‘Basildon’ through to the hard-hitting finish of ‘Never Invited.’ However, what links all of the songs together on this album is the smoothness and lusciously melodic nature of KwolleMs production. It is difficult to find anything out there quite like it, and with vocal features from the likes of Joe James, Novelist, Crazy Titch and Manga Saint Hilare, the sonic diversity of c2c is really what makes it into such a banging album.
Made in Lagos by Wizkid
I don’t need my Spotify Wrapped to know that Made In Lagos is most definitely one of my top albums this year. Wizkid has not once missed with an album intro but ‘Reckless’ has to go down as great: a microcosm for the album as a whole. The features are perfect and solidify Starboy as a global star yet each track stands as a reminder that Nigerians simply do not carry last. I feel the level of cohesion on this project definitely reflects Wizkid’s personal maturity as an artist. Sonically sweet, smooth and sensual, he flirts with effortless melodies and rich instrumentation on this project. It’s the jazzy saxophone for me, and with the vocals are delicious there is just this enjoyable vibe with all Wizkid projects. Such a seamless body of work, I can’t help but hit the replay button.
Coriky by Coriky
Coriky is Fugazi all grown-up, but D.C punk legends Ian Mackaye, Joe Lally and Amy Farina haven’t strayed from the musical ethos of their previous post-punk projects.
Lally’s looming basslines colour Mackaye’s introspective guitar riffs, whilst his signature drill sergeant howls echo the compositions of his earlier experimental outfits – Embrace and the much-missed Fugazi. Coriky’s music is not as experimental, but still confrontational and engaging. Some tracks play as somewhat vague yet still present, whilst others impose themselves in an impenetrable rhythm carried by Farina’s steady drumming. Coriky’s muted melancholic arrangements like ‘Have a Cup of Tea’ achieve a mature and measured sound not so far from the Fugazi we know, whilst more confronting tracks like ‘Too Many Husbands’ embody a more pronounced, faster-paced post-punk rhythm.
Those who reminisce for earlier days are in the Waiting Room, and will be there indefinitely, but this is probably the closest we’ll get to a Fugazi reunion – and it’s great.
Big Conspiracy by J Hus
Released at the very beginning of the year, this album is laid-back, funky and artistically advanced. Up until November it had been my top album of the year but it may have just been pipped by Pa Salieu (though this is still under debate). Big Conspiracy brought us a new sound with stellar features and production including Jae5 and TSB. The production is perhaps one of the most impressive elements of this creation, its multi layered, fresh and very different to much of the current mainstream rap; ‘No Denying’ even evokes an almost Mexican/old Western sound through the use of brass and strings. Its laid-back not for lack of skill but for being understatedly impressive. This is not an overly flashy album, but it’s jam packed, and the music does the talking. Many of the lyrics are introspective and explore the need for systematic change within the UK whilst still retaining J Hus’ distinctly cheeky and upbeat character. J Hus has continued to blend sounds from across genres, with a strong afrobeat and Caribbean influence flowing throughout the album. Honestly, it’s a melting pot of greatness.
Spilligion by Spillage Village
Well this album, a careful blend of rap, gospel vocals, guitar and funky production, is definitely worth a listen and then another… and then another. Its well balanced, beautifully soulful and upbeat, and the collaboration between some of Atlanta’s finest, with multiple extra features, has resulted in a musical and creative success. Some of the tracks are very surprising. ‘Mecca’ and ‘Jupiter’, for example, involve harmonising vocals and acoustics that evoke the feeling of being by a campfire, whilst ‘Judas’ samples lyrics from ‘Hit the Road Jack’ by Ray Charles in a style I’ve never heard before. Despite the unusual mixing of styles, this album still retains a distinctly Hip-hop edge and the mix of tracks with heavier tones and those more acoustic works supremely well. This album is a fresh take on the Hip-hop genre and a standout piece in the current scene.
Supervision by La Roux
With her unjustly overlooked third studio album Supervision, the British synth-pop maverick serves up a slick slice soul electronica. Although only boasting 8 tracks that clock in at a speedy 41 minutes, Supervision packs a punch without racing the listener to a rushed conclusion. La Roux crafts a sound that follows on seamlessly from the sunny new-wave funk of 2014’s Trouble in Paradise with a delve into bright 1980s electronica and nods to Wham!, Nile Rodgers and Yazoo. Standout tracks include the unsurprisingly suave lead single ‘International Woman of Leisure’ and La Roux’s groovy ode to romantic miscommunication ‘Automatic Driver’.
Header image via neverendingchartrendering.org