Best Albums of 2020

Image Credit: Blocks

Now that the finish line of 2020 is in sight, at RouteNote we’re looking back over this endless year and pulling together some of the highlights from the music world. These albums made a big impact.

For the album as a format, the chaos of 2020 was perfect. In a swerve away from the modern listening vogue of skipped-through playlists and TikTok hits suddenly the world had time to sit down and listen to a whole record, from start to finish. Artists had a chance to indulge their creative whims and record their dream albums. 2020 was a year of huge pop albums like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and rap anthems from the likes of Megan Thee Stallion. It was a year of protest records; a year of introspective ballads. This year also saw the triumphant and unexpected re-emergence of disco, perfectly timed with a moment when we truly could dance like nobody was watching, because there’s no place for snobbery in an isolated household. This collection of albums is a jumping-off point to explore the records that were released in 2020.

Fleet Foxes – Shore

This year we’ve craved stability, and the indie-folk band helped with that by releasing an album that sounds… exactly like a Fleet Foxes album. Familiar music to curl up to, beautifully played by talented musicians.

Run The Jewels – RTJ4

Wit and fury. Run the Jewels’ fourth album was a surprise drop two days before schedule, at the height of the BLM protests. On ‘Walking in the Snow’ Killer Mike raps ‘And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”’ references the 2014 death of Eric Garner, but is chillingly prescient in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. 

Mac Miller – Circles

The final album from the late rapper is a heartbreaking example of what could have been. Miller feels his way through genres, blurring rap, pop, funk and soft-rock in his typical unhurried, languid style. An emotionally bare yet confident portrait of a musician who was just starting to touch on his true potential.

Raleigh Ritchie – Andy

As soon as Jacob Anderson’s confident second album begins you forget he ever starred in Game of Thrones. Performing as Raleigh Ritchie he lays out personal insecurities and worries – ‘I’m too hard on myself’, he admits on opener ‘Pressure’, ‘I should seek real help’. Despite the searching lyrics musically the mood is bubbly, a mix of exciting retro sounds and jaunty beats, as Ritchie switches between rapping with a playful flow to soulful singing voice with impressive poise.

Taylor Swift – folklore/evermore

For many fans Swift’s surprise albums must have felt like an offering to help through lockdown. And for Swift herself, the process of creating music free from commercial pressures must have been a creative oasis. From the gentle piano chords at the beginning of ‘The 1’ and Swift confiding ‘I’m feeling good, I’m on some new shit’, it’s territory in which the singer hasn’t been able to tread before. folklore features neither folk music nor folktales, but stripped back tales of love and loss, whilst evermore has a more polished feel. Would Swift have made those records anyway, without the privileged option of being able to hide and make music in a pandemic? This was the year that Swift stepped away from orchestrating the commercial success of gargantuan singles in favour of a quieter, more winding path.

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Bridgers is a master of atmosphere, and the songs collected on her second album tell a seemingly gentle story with a bite. Lyrical genius overlays immersive indie-rock sorcery, as darkness builds throughout disguised under pretty, upbeat indie-rock music.

Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas

La Havas lurked just above the radar on two previous albums, but the third sees her step fully into the light. The new confidence suggested by the self-title is clear with assured production and a voice which soars from tenderness to defiance. ‘I’m born again’, La Havas sings on opener ‘Bittersweet’, letting her voice fly, and the listener believes it.

The Chicks – Gaslighter

The newly renamed Chicks return, perhaps for the final time, with their first album in 14 years. It’s a merciless break-up record. Taking furious aim at exes and politicians, the close country harmonies form a cocoon around the cathartic release from the lyrics. ‘March, March’ calls for protest – ‘our youth have to solve our problems’ – and elsewhere barely-contained rage at the brushing aside of female struggles twirls out through melodious country-pop.

J Hus – Big Conspiracy

The east London rapper shows a deft musicality on his second album. Genres flicker by – Afrobeats, trap, horn lines darting in and out on tracks like ‘Must Be’ and ‘No Denying’, and other times there are echoes of big, atmospheric ‘90’s rap.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Lipa’s second album is a prize collection of classic dance tracks that begs to be played to a packed, shimmying dancefloor lit by soaring spotlights. Yes, disco had a moment in 2020, with Lipa and Kylie Minogue leading the way. Popping basslines, ‘80s synth lines and electronic claps swirl together to form an album of pop bliss, squarely aimed at encouraging listeners to have a good time.

Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter

Beautifully produced. Addressing a fictional daughter, Marling seems to be looking back over her own life, analysing past exploits and emotions with the benefit of hindsight and a wry shake of her head. The record’s release was brought forward due to the pandemic.

Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music

The joyous union of virtuoso drummer Dayes and jazz guitarist and singer Misch; pushing each other to new musical highs, exploring their instruments and new grooves, perfectly in step together and sounding like they’re having a blast. The atmospheric ‘Tidal Wave’ swells from a groove to a menacing chorus, whilst the psychedelic sonic explorations of ‘The Real’ bubble along enigmatically.  

HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III

Featuring the familiar retro sound and harmonies, HAIM’s third album however is lyrically darker than their previous offerings. Writing together is a form of therapy for the sisters and this album sees them exercising demons in a far less guarded way than previously, audible too in the looser production. The title is a middle finger to the misogynistic questions the group have been asked by journalists – always seen as ‘girls in a band’ first, never solely a band made up of gifted musicians.

Paul McCartney – McCartney III

McCartney’s response to the pandemic was to hole up in a Sussex farmhouse and experiment, emerging with this, his third solo record. The result sees the Beatles legend unexpectedly sidestepping through different musical styles, from early Gomez lo-fi to jangling folk and wherever else his meandering mind takes him, having some creative fun. Forty years since McCartney II the ex-Beatle can still write a lovely melody, and still surprise.

Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

The jazz saxophonist’s debut album hums with character and energy. The dub reggae title track is anchored by tramping keys and frenetic drums. Other tracks see Garcia revelling in Afro-Carribean jazz, confidently playing with rhythm and space. Garcia never shoulders the band aside, at times almost accompanying rather than leading the expert musicians who fill the album but then bursting out with a rippling solo in reply. Music to set sparks off in your brain.

SAULT – Untitled (Black Is)

SAULT are an anonymous collective from the UK and ‘Black Is’ is the companion to ‘Rise’, the other album released by the group this year. Musically the album takes 1970s influences as a foundation: disco and soul, RnB and Afrobeats. But historical throwback it is not. ‘Don’t shoot, racist policeman’, voices chant on ‘Don’t Shoot Guns Down’, furiously pointing to the current crisis that the BLM protests highlighted back in June 2020. Haunting tracks ‘X’, ‘Black Is’ and opener ‘Out The Lies’ lay out the land – the project is a celebration of Blackness, encompassing joy and pain, encouraging unity – expressed through glorious melodies.

IDLES – Ultra Mono

IDLES’ latest album is 42 minutes of fury at the state of the world, with open-hearted expressions of male vulnerability spewed out through screeching guitar, hammering drums and yowling vocals. Standout track ‘Grounds’ is the kind of howling rallying cry that IDLES specialise in. The whole record begs to be blasted live to a sweaty crowd. Maybe next year.

Schedule your own album for release through RouteNote to start 2021 with a bang. Happy New Year!

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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