We’re a quarter of the way through 2020 already – that’s 25% of the year gone – which almost seems as unbelievable as what’s happened in those three short months.
Despite the clearly tragic events, and the uncertainty ahead, there’s still plenty to be positive about, and music is definitely up one of those shining lights.
From Antipodean psychedelics to Leeds hardcore, US rap collectives to UK grime collaborations, experimental jazz to cosmic country (not to mention some sheer pop bangers), 2020 has already been a brilliant year in terms of releases.
Here’s a round-up of 25 of the best albums of the year so far, something positive to focus on during these strange days…
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James Righton – The Performer // REVIEW
‘The Performer’ effortlessly schmoozes around a retro smoke-filled lounge with an array of sumptuous grooves like ‘Edie’, candy-coated melodies such as ‘Start’ and woozy numbers like ‘Heavy Heart’.
James Righton paints the perfect picture of his inner thoughts as he embarks on a cinematic journey with poignant lyricism, exquisite production and charismatically seductive soundscapes reminiscent of Roxy Music.
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Tame Impala – The Slow Rush // REVIEW
If Kevin Parker appears relaxed, then perhaps that’s because he is. The epitome of zen when onstage with Tame Impala, he’s somehow managed to locate the fine balance between success and individual passion, able to please a global audience of millions while also – most importantly – pleasing himself.
The Antipodean psychedelic wanderer pushes the group into some fresh areas, while ‘The Slow Rush’ is essentially held together by that stellar mid-section, a finely honed compendium of space rock, shoegaze, and electronic inflections.
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Jordan Mackampa – Foreigner // REVIEW
After teasing fans with singles, Jordan Mackampa brings his soulful voice to a full body of work, as he releases ‘Foreigner’. The album is a snapshot of Mackampa – a confident, honest modern soul singer with a certain swagger about him.
Combining deeply personal, inward-looking lyrics with toe-tapping beats, he’s created a fantastic debut album.
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Honey Harper – Starmaker // REVIEW
The profound quality of Honey Harper’s cosmic country is engrossing. Full of self-reflection and insight, there is plenty of contradiction and complexity, but everything is smoothly held together in lyrics, sound and composition.
His debut album ‘Starmaker’ embraces dichotomy in new original and wonderful ways, and the Atlanta artist signifies a fresh, idiosyncratic voice with this debut album. Inspired by Joni Mitchell’s ‘Free Man in Paris’, the title refers to the stresses of having to play the game of the music industry. Written with his wife, the project deals with similar ideas about fame, fortune and failure.
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Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony // REVIEW
'A Written Testimony’ begins with a speech from Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. It immediately gives the album a cinematic feel, with the soaring strings adding a real sense of grandeur to the occasion.
Towards the end is where the album really soars. ‘Fruits of the Spirit’ is incredible, with NO I.D delivering some typically beautiful production, while the final track ‘A.P.I.D.T.A’ is sensational. It illustrates the humanity of two rappers that are revered as God-like, brought down to earth by the desperation of grief. It’s the most insight we get into Jay Electronica as a person throughout the record, away from the doctrinal (but still poetic) side we see most. ‘A Written Testimony’ is a biblical album for biblical times, with enough human flaws to make it imperfect.
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J Hus – Big Conspiracy // REVIEW
‘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.
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V/A – JACKBOYS // REVIEW
After Travis Scott teased the release of the compilation album back in October, ‘JACKBOYS’ has come upon us by surprise, with an adventure into the collective thoughts of the Cactus Jack label, one that includes Don Toliver, Travis Scott, Sheck Wes, Octavian, and Chase B.
All the tracks on the EP take you to a different realm of music, with samples that have the feel of different cultures and eras of music throughout time. ‘HAD ENOUGH’ is a song delivered by Don Toliver, which features verses from Quavo and Offset, takes you on a journey of serenity and peace, with the subtle flow of all the artists, the trap rappers take a different approach to this song, and treat with delicacy, showing their wide range of musical understanding.
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Georgia – Seeking Thrills // REVIEW
The youthful, thrill-seeking (much like the title suggests) exploits of Georgia Barnes position her as an unwittingly and encouragingly confident new face of the British music scene.
Early singles from this album – most notably 'About Work The Dancefloor' signalled that something different, something bold, something exciting was on the way on her sophomore full length and, for the most part, these assumptions are realised.
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Denzel Curry And Kenny Beats – Unlocked // REVIEW
Denzel Curry, who built his name on trap-style beats and heavy hitting lyrics, showcases his talent throughout ‘Unlocked’ – tackling incredibly versatile beats and rap styles. Meanwhile Kenny Beats – known for tailoring his beat production to the artists requests, making him arguably one of the most unique producers to date – flexes his production nous, rolling out beat after beat, each totally unique and different to what’s come before.
This is a playful project, not afraid to dabble with creativity but also showcasing both Denzel’s lyrical ability and Kenny’s creative dexterity, both artists’ visions. It’s as if they created a glitch in the hip-hop matrix, and one that would be welcome again soon.
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The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do // REVIEW
Walking Like We Do’ presents a sense of musical fearlessness from The Big Moon. Lyrically defined and musically characteristic, it is an emotionally provocative, empowering listening experience.
By considering themes such as love, social injustice and all round perseverance, it is both mature and engaging. The Big Moon are constantly breathing new life into a genre which sometimes runs stale. For that we should be eternally grateful.
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Mac Miller – Circles // REVIEW
The posthumous studio album ‘Circles’ by the late Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, produced and completed by Jon Brion, is a beautiful symphony with which to bid farewell to one hip-hop‘s sweetest voices.
This project plays less as a hip-hop album and more of a mixed-genre compilation, each song telling a tale of how Miller felt before his passing. 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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Big Cheese – Punishment Park
After a series of demos and EPs over recent years, and becoming one of the bigger names to emerge from the Leeds hardcore scene, Big Cheese have released their debut full-length, ‘Punishment Park’.
It’s a blistering, take-no-prisoners record, dealing in “unapologetic balls-to-the-wall hardcore” according to Dead Press. Just the shot in the arm you need for that state-approved daily exercise session.
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Moses Boyd – Dark Matter // REVIEW
Listening to ‘Dark Matter’ it’s astonishing how many clever ideas Moses 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.
In recent years jazz has undergone a massive overhaul. A new generation of musicians have burst through, delivering innovative, forward-thinking music on a regular basis. His latest project ‘Dark Matter’ is another step in this journey, feeling more like a truer assessment of what Boyd is about: he’s broadened his sound with electronic motifs and expresses his love of dank basslines and fidgety synths, all underpinned by a jazz sensibility of the highest pedigree.
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Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud // REVIEW
‘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.
‘Saint Cloud’ is the refreshed, reformed and matured Waxahatchee – and it’s glorious.
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King Krule – Man Alive! // REVIEW
His third album as King Krule, it’s at times more concise and energised than his previous projects but there is a certain continuity with the past. Krule is still angsty; unsurprisingly, he runs with the recurring themes of loneliness, almost nihilistic self-doubt, miscommunication, misconnections and missed connections.
Marshall shines when he has more space to breathe and when there’s more space between his words. He fills this with all manner of buzzy synths, whirring, snatches of dialogue and city noise. After the snarl of the first four tracks, what follows is romantic, woozy, melancholy and twistedly contented in unequal, jagged measure, woven loosely together by some common threads. ‘Man Alive!’ is an absorbing consolidation of Marshall’s inimitable sound.
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Young Adz, Chip, Skepta – Insomnia // REVIEW
While 2020 keeps hitting us with surprises, not all of them are unwanted: an unexpected album from three titans of UK rap is what fans needed right now.
These three work well as a collective: Chip provides the cut-throat and fresh bars, Adz comes with the melody and Skepta is free to experiment throughout. The beats stand up too, consonantly switching patterns and breaks and bringing the best out of each artist. Keep the surprises coming 2020, the good ones at least.
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Grimes – Miss Anthropocene // REVIEW
For years now, the voice of Claire Boucher aka Grimes has evoked a feeling unparalleled by anything else – like a sense of artificial etherealism. The soft, almost ecclesiastic nature of these vocals lends her music the otherworldly vibe that has been associated with Grimes as an artist since the very beginning, and 'Miss Anthropocene' is very much in-keeping with that legacy.
During her fifth album, we’re brought to the tip of an iceberg through the lens of her own making, invited on an adventure alongside the Goddess of Climate Change…and what an adventure it is. This piece of work is a constant tug-of-war between humanity, nature, and technology, and our complex relationship with the place we call home.
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Christine And The Queens – La vita nuova // REVIEW
Christine and the Queens delves into her emotions once more on intriguing new EP ‘La vita nuova’. Kicking off a nuanced, multi-lingual new EP, ‘People, I’ve been sad’ is Chris at her most direct, a sharply poetic account of ennui that smothers you in sound. Barbed, muscular production drives ‘Je disparais dans tes bras’, amplifying the machine funk evident on ‘Chris’ while adding something distorted, almost industrial.
A surprise drop, the EP is completed with bonus cut ‘I disappear in your arms’, a song that returns Chris to the industrial-leaning techno-pop which marks the project as a whole. A potent climax, it underlines the self-contained creativity at work across ‘La vita nuova’, a rich, rewarding, and extremely direct return, one worth observing on its own terms.
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BTS – Map Of The Soul: 7 // REVIEW
‘Map Of The Soul: 7’ has officially been released approximately 10 months after its equally highly anticipated predecessor, ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’. ‘My Time’ is performed by the group’s maknae (youngest member), JungKook. The track has a Justin Bieber-esque R&B sound that recalls younger JungKook before all the fame and accolades. ‘Friends’ is one of the more playful songs on the album featuring high school friends, V and Jimin.
Although the sound of the album is wide-ranging, it holds continuity through its lyrics and general sentiment. K-Pop after all is an inherently genre-blending style of music, so it’s no surprise. There was a lot of melancholy and emo lyrics, but in general the album is about introspection as people and a band which can sometimes bring up painful feelings.
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Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia // REVIEW
On her sophomore album, Dua Lipa taps into a newfound fire in her belly, and throws out banger after banger. Her power resides in a winning combination of pithy lyrics, catchy choruses and music that makes you get up and groove – a power she has undoubtedly harnessed for the entirety of this record. The result is liberating, intoxicating and punchy.
‘Future Nostalgia’ is an empowering, dynamic pop cavort from start to finish. Dua’s compelling vocals, hooks and beats are a force to be reckoned with, daring you not to boogie around your bedroom. She’s ferocious in her execution of hard-hitting anthems like ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Cool’ and ‘Physical’, successfully putting her own feminist spin on the formulaic themes of break-ups, sex, love and ‘girl power’.
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Porridge Radio – Every Bad // REVIEW
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. ‘Every Bad’ is a war cry to be compassionate, especially with ourselves.
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Caribou – Suddenly
Confronting grief and family, this fifth Caribou album (Dan Snaith’s tenth album overall) sees the Canadian musician pivot away from the dance floor towards the personal, and swinging from pop and house to beat-less ballads.
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Sufjan Stevens & Lowell Brams – Aporia // REVIEW
With his step-father and label co-founder Lowell Brams by his side, Sufjan Stevens has created a sort of mini-electronic opera on ‘Aporia’, a record comprising 21 tracks of nearly-voiceless, new-age compositions, manufactured from their own jam sessions.
At its best – ‘Agathon’, ‘Afterworld Alliance’, ‘Captain Praxis’ – the tracks are about as essential as any new-age music one could wish to hear, a feeling that grows stronger upon re-listens. ‘Aporia’ certainly asks a degree of patience from its listener – the kind often reserved for previously-existing fans of Stevens – to realise its full potential, but over the last few decades the number of listeners able to give this patience has grown exponentially, just in time for Stevens to push boundaries that bit further once again.
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The Weeknd – After Hours // REVIEW
‘After Hours’ is a completely different sound to the one we’re accustomed to hearing from The Weeknd, but it’s welcomed.
A mature ballad delving into the hardships of the loss of a lover, exploding with beautiful vocals, lyrics and bringing us back to the ‘80s era of synths, which is enjoyable and sets his sound apart from the current direction of music. Production-wise especially, this is The Weeknd’s strongest project yet, and deserves all the recognition.
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Sorry – 925 // REVIEW
An authentic and contemporary guitar sound, ‘925’ is a snappy and raw blend that bounces the listener into the more unexpected edges of the imagination. While Sorry’s reference points seem to derive from the 90s punk-rock and grunge movement, this is not about delivering a bland copy of it. They understand how to own their sound and manage to create something fascinating with it, a dreamscape where the idyllic and hellish interact, and the question of what is real and what isn’t, becomes inevitable.
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