2020 has been a year unlike anything else we've ever experienced.
The past 12 months have pushed us all to the brink, changing the role music plays in our lives in the process.
It's not exactly been a pleasant experience – we can say that with some certainty – but this year has also driven home a number of important factors.
Each of us, from freelance writers straight through to the Editor In Chief, are enormously grateful to have a platform with which to express ourselves, and also to support, showcase, and amplify the voices that stand out from the crowd.
It's been a hugely challenging year both for musicians and for the publications that write about them – our continuing role isn't something we take for granted.
So, to cap this truly remarkable year, we've assembled our 50 favourite albums from 2020.
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50. Nubya Garcia – Source
'Source' may be a solo debut but it has community and collective expression at its heart. Garcia allows these songs to ebb and flow without a clear end point in mind, allowing the interplay between her band-members to become this album’s primary draw. She has proven herself to be just as formidable a composer as she is a performer.
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49. Ariana Grande – Positions
While the album is pretty much removed from her usual major pop moments, it’s more refreshing that way, and there’s more of a connective-unit feel to Positions than much of her previous work. After all, Grande has always been an album artist, and this one is yet another to whistle home about.
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48. Ojerime – B4 I Breakdown
"On the day I released the tape I got the keys to my new space. I felt like that was a sign that things are going to be okay. It was on Friday the 13th but this time it was lucky!"
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47. Unknown T – Rise Above Hate
The 16-track project draws heavily on UK Drill sonics, but space is created for Unknown T to flex and flow over warmer soundscapes too. The variety is often facilitated by smartly placed guest spots from the likes of M Huncho and Young T & Bugsey. The project is not saturated with features; it’s elevated by them.
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46. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Mosaic Of Transformation
“Well, I like to think of creativity as a teacher, for me. And I guess in my experience of my relationship to creativity, it feels like there is a connection between each lesson, that each album offers to me. So that’s my personal relationship with it. But they also feel like their own subjects. It’s hard for me to say how others receive it, but I guess they feel connected, in my experience of it.”
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45. e.m.m.a. – Indigo Dream
A fantasy record that thrives on world building, ‘Indigo Dream’ is a gorgeous listen, its use of space forever inviting you to fill in the blanks, to allow your own sub-conscious to intermingle with her Pointillist electronics. Succinct but endlessly suggestive, e.m.m.a seems to invite you to walk down endless corridors, the restrictive palette of ‘Indigo Dream’ simply amplifying the intoxicating strangeness of her work.
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44. Cleo Sol – Rose In The Dark
If any positive can be found in the wreckage of 2020 then it's this: a dystopian year has been soundtracked by some of the best soul – vintage, future, neo or otherwise – made in a generation.
Cleo Sol is reputed to be the vocalist in Sault, but her own work is worth seeking out. Vital songwriting with a distinctly British feel, 'Rose In The Dark' just seemed to hit harder as the chaos of 2020 came into bloom. An artist quietly but emphatically tracing her own path.
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43. Mac Miller – Circles
Despite the sadness that clearly surrounds this project there is plenty of positivity: the production of the album is impeccable, and the overwhelming message that shines through is of hope for the future. That hopefulness seems an apt final legacy for an artist like Mac Miller, who in spite of life’s challenges always strived for improvement and progression.
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42. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
Boisterous, bright and brilliant, the world’s favourite rock ‘n’ roll band shine, sounding better than they have for years. Intimate, outward-looking and probing, it’s an illustrious effort, which should become an instant classic.
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41. Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
On listening to ‘Dark Matter’, it’s astonishing how many clever ideas Boyd manages to spin into earworms – the album is literally dripping with them. The next astonishing thing is how tight it feels: at just under and hour the album isn’t notably long nor short, but there are no parts that drag or feel out of place. This isn’t a hip-hop album, a jazz album, an electronica album… but something that will speak to fans of those genres who’ll take this as their album.
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40. Deftones – Ohms
Despite its potent nature, 'Ohms' still contains moments of beautiful melancholy, letting the songs breathe and Moreno serenade the listener. ‘Pompeji’ is the clearest example of this, a staggering number which sees a metal-as-you-like roar of “Jesus Christ” during the chorus before ending on a two-minute ambient outro, the calming sound of waves and gulls helping drift you away. The following 'The Link is Dead' ups the ante, Chino's unhinged delivery during the verses matching the ferocity of man on his debut album, not his ninth.
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39. KeiyaA – Forever Your Girl
KeiyaA deconstructs club tropes and re-builds them in potent, highly personalised fashion on her bold project 'Forever, Ya Girl'.
Infusing each song with a palpable sense of grit, her explicitly individualised songwriting refuses to play by anyone else's rules but her own. An emphatic debut statement.
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38. Working Men's Club – Working Men's Club
This rhythmically expansive body of work could pass as a mixtape, traversing through a medley of sounds, eras and genres. The one thing consistent throughout are the standout vocals of Minsky-Sergeant. His utterings on modern-day life fee truly iconic, representing a generation who have never quite felt as isolated and uncertain about what lies ahead.
It is during a pandemic, Brexit, and economical disharmony that Working Men’s Club emerge, with a boundless sense of energy and lyrical poignancy that we can’t wait to witness live.
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37. Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music
There’s a warmth from the guitar strings that echoes through following tracks ‘Nightmares’ and ‘Tidal’, while ‘Lift Off’ opens with a momentous build, its rise guided by a smooth leading bassline permeating the track. This highly effective combination of lead bass and drums nods to Mansur Brown's ‘Shiroi’.
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36. Wizkid – Made In Lagos
WizKid offers a cohesive collection of singles and there’s an intentionality in the production that has been seen across all of his albums to date. There’s a distinct thread throughout the tracks which allow for a seamlessness on the project. This sometimes blends so well, differentiation may not always be easy. Despite this, the album displays a maturity in WizKid and his growth can be heard as he marries easy listening and warm upbeat tempos across his fourth studio album.
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35. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Porridge Radio have not only written the album of their careers but possibly of the year too.
Their new project ‘Every Bad’ is full of the catchy songs that are overflowing with lo-fi ramshackle post-punk guitars and uplifting vocals. And if that wasn’t enough to make you fall in love with this rickety quartet wait until you hear the lyrics. Dana Margolin sings of love, loss, redemption, and most importantly, inclusion like no other.
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34. Fleet Foxes – Shore
It’s a record that sets its shoulder to the wheel, a blast of light in the darkest of times. Whether that’s the simple choral unison of Medieval miniature ‘Thymia’ or the agonised emotion of ‘Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman’ this is a collection of songs that dominate their role in emphatic fashion.
As natural and inviting as the curling of the leaves, ‘Shore’ is Fleet Foxes at their best. A voice of comfort for an atmomised generation, this is less album, and more treasure trove.
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33. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
‘Saint Cloud’ is the first Waxahatchee album since Katie Crutchfield became sober, and what’s resulted is a freshness in the eye of the songwriter. Having spent the last decade working in scruffy indie-rock, it’s somewhat shocking to hear the crystalline palette used on ‘Saint Cloud’, and even moreso to hear her perfect falsetto – shocking because it sounds so damn good and we had no idea she had it in her.
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32. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
“In a way, that’s kind of a blessing, because I don’t feel responsibility to be a part of any scene, or uphold any values of any kind of scene. Which I would imagine could be one of the most stifling things creatively; this idea that you have to please a certain demographic or a certain group of people. I could imagine being bogged down by that.”
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31. Actress – Karma And Desire
After listening to ‘Karma And Desire’ once this is apparent, Cunningham is probably one of the most vital and inspiring musicians working. The music is engaging, yet thought provoking. It sounds unlike his previous three releases, but there is a continuation of ideas throughout. It’s an album from an artist who doesn’t pander to trends and goes his own path.
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30. HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
Exploring the intricacies of relationships and mental health, the album hones in on Danielle’s experiences of depression and her partner’s battle with illness. It sounds macabre when observing the driving factors of these tracks, but instead we’re graced with upbeat music, the antidote for the negativity that surrounds us.
They speak out and speak up about the wrongs that surround them, like the patriarchal limitations placed on them ('Man In The Magazine'), but also explore the joy of the everyday ('Hallelujah').
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29. Nines – Crabs In A Bucket
Whilst greater experimentation would’ve been met with appreciation, one of Nines’ most notable characteristics is his ability to stay true to his experiences despite growing commercial success, so I can’t be disappointed with a tape that exudes such authenticity. Although the whole album has clear themes, each track tells a story of its own and here, Nines anchors himself as one of the UK’s best storytellers.
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28. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
Raw and ruthless, ‘Good News’ is the sound of Megan Thee Stallion pushing against the boundaries imposed on her until they break. Embracing some of the viral tropes that surround her, she’s able to own them, and transcend them, before moving on; she’s working at her own pace, owning her own destiny. The latest headlines are in: ‘Good News’ is a triumph, and a late contender for Album Of The Year.
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27. Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
Self-assured and unapologetic, 'Roisin Machine’s narrator is the star of the show here. But that doesn’t feel right – the intense and intelligent electronic beats that make up the majority of the album are also the star of the show.
The two don’t feel at war with one another, there is no sense of Roisin’s vocals fighting with the musical production like there often is in electronic records. There are thoughtful beats and thoughtful words here, complementing each other instead of overpowering one another.
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26. Jessy Lanza – All The Time
“Why do I do music? How am I feeling? What do I want to express in this? I just felt like…yeah, why not? I felt like being a little more brave about it. I definitely don't annunciate things very clearly, like I use effects and it's more fun that way. Doing the lyrics and liner notes was…it's not really being brave but, for me, this is a big step. I would never have done that on the last two [albums]”.
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25. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
‘RTJ4’ is a must listen. It is diverse enough to appeal to even the hardest crowds. Many genres are represented here, but lyrical hip-hop is at the forefront of all that Run The Jewels is. They stand out from the crowd, whilst invoking the people to stand up for themselves.
There is not a bad song on the entire album and the production and features are second to none. I kept rewinding the tracks, not just from a reviewer’s perspective, but to hear the how well combined Mike and El-P are.
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24. Moses Sumney – græ
Sumney’s versatile voice washes the latter half of the record portraying a delicate vision of the ambiguities and complexities surrounding self-identity. ‘Two Dogs’ greets us with hushed bass lines, multi-layered vocals, and a track which ponders morality in startling beauty.
‘Bystanders’ leans further into Sumney’s elegantly paced artistry, effortlessly pushing spoken word against pleasing composition. If anything, the song lends itself as a cautionary tale exploring the conflict of self and unrestrained self-expression: “What’s the use of confessing the truth / To an executioner in a booth?”
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23. beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
A real pearl of a record, ‘Fake It Flowers’ is a starting statement that runs on unmitigated confidence, a revealing, enthralling, enchanting debut record, one that finally finds beabadoobee throwing open the gates and letting the world into her life. It’s a joy to behold.
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22. Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma And Divorce
Art-rap pioneer Open Mike Eagle has been going through some emotional turbulence, and after being prompted by his therapist, has shaped his pain into a remarkable album. ‘Anime, Trauma And Divorce’ is an unapologetically honest, darkly humorous dispatch from what he terms his “own personal winter”.
The 12-track project explores the collapse of a marriage, financial turmoil, anxiety, self-doubt and self-care. A lesser rapper might sink in the mire, but Open Mike has always been dope on the mic, and ‘Anime, Trauma and Divorce’ find him at his best.
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21. Amaarae – The Angel You Didn't Know
"It’s been a long year, and I think it coming out as the year draws to a close gives people an emotional, mental and even physical escape. I want them to relate to all the different tracks in different ways. I want them to enjoy life with it, and not think too much about all the crazy shit that’s going on."
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20. Teyana Taylor – The Album
Following the release of her 2018 second studio album 'K.T.S.E.', 'THE ALBUM' is a vibrant and stalwart symbolism of Teyana’s unapologetic, bold blackness. From the hard-hitting ode to Grace Jones on the cover to the troupe of Black artists she recruited for the album, Teyana has delivered her most sonically solid album to date.
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19. Charli XCX – how i'm feeling now
‘how i’m feeling now’ is essentially a series of android love letters; to her relationship (and how it has grown throughout lockdown), to her fans (whom she has involved every step of the way), her friends and contributors, and to herself, as she has opened up about mental health during the lockdown, and the fear of how to continue once it is over, with lyrics pondering whether she is deserving of love.
This directly contrasts with boasting her rarity as a ‘pink diamond’ in the first track.
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18. Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
There might not be any break-out moments that will cause agnostics to sit up and finally pay attention, but Laura Marling didn’t make this album for them. It’s clear that this is a very meaningful album for the songwriter, and it is sure to have a great impact on many of her fans who have felt similar turmoil through their early adulthood, or are recent mothers worried for the future of their children.
In those respects, ‘Song For Our Daughter’ is a powerful and resounding success, and re-affirms Marling’s position as one of our most important feminist songwriters.
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17. Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind
The Warp Records artist returns with their new album… Spoiler alert: it's a phenomenal aesthetic statement. New song 'Romanticist/Dream Palette' leads the way, placing Yves amid a torrent of sound.
Dramatic and immersive, 'Romanticist/Dream Palette' finds Yves re-shaping sonic rules to suit their own purposes.
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16. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ feels like a seminal moment. Fiona Apple on a career of highs might just have produced her finest work yet. An album that we will surely look to as a cultural text, with its cutting commentary of contemporary culture and its feminist narratives.
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15. Lady Gaga – Chromatica
‘Chromatica’ doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before, including from Gaga herself, but it’s tough to think of a pop album of recent times that manages to sustain such a high level of quality, not to mention ridiculous energy, throughout. Just listening to it feels like an aerobic workout at times, but it also comes with the rewarding endorphin rush of intense cardio. When she sings, “This is my dancefloor I fought for,” on ‘Free Woman,’ it rings true.
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14. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Thundercat says his latest album is “about love, loss, life and the ups and downs that come with that”, and it’s definitely a project rich in contrasts. Take the infectious bump ‘n’ bounce and funky ‘70s stylings of ‘Black Quails’ ft. Steve Lacey, Childsih Gambino, and funk legend Steve Arrington, or at the opposite end of the tempo spectrum, the breakneck pace of ‘Miguel’s Happy Dance’ and ‘How Sway’, all head-spinning electronics and dreamy vocals.
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13. Taylor Swift – folklore
The devil is indeed in the details: 'folklore' unabashedly champions cinematic grace in a time of turbulent unease. It prioritizes the feelings that make themselves known in times of quiet reflection, in the tranquil darkness of the night, in between the longing stares of clandestine “meetings in parking lots”.
While in the past, Swift’s works have tended to sucker-punch with euphemisms rather than with blunt, bold statements, there is a refreshing directness to some of the songs here. Where she was once shaky with metaphors and a victim of “fake-deep” lyrics, she seems to smooth out the kinks of her lyrical composition, turning her already masterful storytelling into an even more deft game of saying the most with the least words.
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12. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero's Death
Subversive, non-conformist and melodious, this record has the credentials of a classic rock and roll album. The decision to take a radical approach only works for the few, the possession of ammunition that’s needed to master such a challenge is not for anyone. Fontaines D.C. have it, and it seems as though they are only just scratching the surface of what’s to come…
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11. Pa Salieu – Send Them To Coventry
Pa’s frontline is Hillfields, the neglected pocket of Coventry where he came up, after spending most of his early childhood in Gambia. It’s the backdrop for his stunning debut mixtape ‘Send Them To Coventry’. The 15-track project is a musical kaleidoscope, fusing elements of afro-swing, dancehall, grime, and rap.
Sonically, it speaks to the fluidity of Black sounds. Thematically, it addresses the importance of preserving our sense of self in unjust circumstances. Underpinning Pa’s lyricism is an unshakeable pride in his Gambian heritage, from which he draws strength throughout the project.
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10. Headie One – EDNA
The twenty-track project, dedicated to his late mother, features Headie’s strongest, most reflective writing to date. Distance offers clarity, and the further he navigates away from his past life, the more vivid the pictures he paints of it.
There is an impressive list of guests. Headie spins Drake over M1ontheBeat’s eerie Drill production and connects with Skepta on Tottenham link-up ‘Try Me’ while Ivorian Doll’s verse on the Kenny Beats produced bass-heavy ‘F U Pay Me’ is arguably the strongest feature of all.
But the true power of the album lies in Headie’s introspection, when he’s alone with the beat and his thoughts. Madara Beatz’s mournful keys on ‘Teach Me’ set the tone, as Headie builds to a powerful meditation on loss: “before I learned to love properly, they took away the only thing that belonged to me.” Grief shapes us, and such bold honesty deepens our understanding of him as a person.
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9. Jessie Ware – What's Your Pleasure?
“I made this record that’s concept was supposed to be us all sweaty, together, dancing in clubs…and that hasn’t happened. Part of disco is about togetherness, but it’s also about escapism, and people potentially needed that. People have told me ‘Remember Where You Are’ is their lockdown anthem, or they’ve played tracks off the album when they’ve finally been able to meet up with their friends after months apart.”
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8. Perfume Genius – Set Fire To My Heart Immediately
Exquisite arrangement is the golden thread that stitches it together. Baroque harpsichord on ‘Jason’ an ornate counterpoint to the unvarnished lyrics: “Jason undressed me, lying on his sheets / Even his boots were on… He ran his hands up me / Tears streaming down his face…”
Experimentation is deft and frequent too. There’s disorientation in overlapping time signatures, spectral slide guitars and shades of Liz Fraser in the vocalising. The Bjorky ‘Moonbend’ – the album’s most endearingly off-kilter moment, stalks the tightrope between askew and avant-garde.
Anthem-wise, does it deliver? When the self-conscious intro cracks, ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ exposes its true tenderness: “Can you feel my heart? Do you feel the same?” The playful switching of pronouns on ‘Nothing At All’ singing a glorious queer truth.
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7. Benny The Butcher – Burden Of Proof
Griselda’s remarkable run of form is one of Stateside hip-hop’s most remarkable upon 2020 phenomenons. With core members such as Conway The Machine aiming for God-status and Westside Gunn producing career best runs, the Buffalo stable is clearly riding the crest of a wave.
‘Burden Of Proof’ finds Benny The Butcher tapping into this seam of gold, and it’s a crisp, soulful exhibition from an MC with talent to burn. Executive produced by Hit-Boy – who also worked on the recent (excellent) Nas LP – it’s a diverse but succinct collection, one that drops street grit in favour of an emotional pull.
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6. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Her decision to release this album early could not be more perfectly timed. ‘Future Nostalgia’ is just what’s needed in this time of social distancing – whether it’s dancing around the house, answering emails or during your chosen outdoor exercise of the day, this record will uplift and power listeners through.
Dua Lipa has created a pop record that is equally perfect for being homebound alone, and for accompanying the endless jaeger bombs that’ll eventually be had when the bars and clubs reopen.
‘Future Nostalgia’ is exactly what this record conveys, chiming with the current collective consciousness, longing for past freedoms that we’ll be reacquainted with soon. It’ll keep us going in the meantime, and will surely be the soundtrack to a safer summer once this is (hopefully) all over.
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5. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Although ‘Sawayama’ is a deeply personal album, the range of emotions portrayed throughout can be felt and personalised by anyone. The use of heavy metal, theatrics, synth and pop each have their hand in portraying so many varied emotions – from anger to guilt, confusion to elation.
Each of these layers add to the melting pot, and these tough emotions have ultimately contributed to the creation of a flawless pop record. Raw artistry paired with rich heritage makes for a magnificent, spine-tingling first album for Rina Sawayama.
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4. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
Sault’s mystery has only served to pump adrenalin through the potency of their output. Two superb, soulful albums in 2020 alone raised the bar once more, with ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ just coming out in front in our poll.
Matching skeletal, almost post-punk style arrangements to those emphatic vocals, it seems to linger in the phantom zone between New York ‘81 and London 2020. Righteous experimentation, it matched an all-too-timely sense of purpose to incredible moments of soul music to create one of the defining aural experiences of this chaotic year.
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3. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
The dark emotional, hilarious observations of Phoebe Bridgers’ songs are well-documented. Reaching far, her material uncovers a quirky complexity that delves deep and unpicks the multiple layers of life’s absurdity. It lets poetry, self-narration, indie and folk music float freely with originality and cataclysmic elegance.
Known and admired for the ability to recognise the bitter-sweet, depicting the sadness of modern existence, she has the ability to take her contemporary folk currency and transform it with style and cleverness.
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2. J Hus – Big Conspiracy
‘Big Conspiracy’ is a record dogged by continual themes – the impact of warfare, both external and internal – but also fraught with contradictions. The palette J Hus draws on has never been more diverse, moving from fluid afrobeats leaning production through to the live guitar and bass which permeate ‘Helicopter’.
An album that moves from red-blooded braggadocio to intense self-doubt, ‘Big Conspiracy’ never fully sits in one place, this ever-evolving puzzle with J Hus at the core. He wears many masks, but it’s often when these slip that ‘Big Conspiracy’ is at its most viral, and revealing.
Recent single ‘No Denying’ seems to encapsulate these fluctuating moods, as he vows “the fisherman needs a bigger fish” before explaining “I'm on the roadside but I'm playing chess…”
Somewhere amid ‘Big Conspiracy’, J Hus throws down his defences to reveal his biggest gambit yet.
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1. Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
'Ungodly Hour' is a soothing salve for a world on fire. It’s an avowal of sisterhood and sorority, a projection of a generation of young black women galvanized by a collective willingness to enact efficacious change in the face of adversity.
Chloe x Halle are the prototypal embodiment of the “black girl magic” hashtag – never more prescient in a time when we need figures to aspire to.
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