It’s that time of year that the 25YL Music team bring you their Top 5 albums of 2020.
And what a year 2020 has been. Everyone is physically and mentally exhausted from all the stuff [gesticulates everywhere] that has happened across the world. From COVID-19, which has led to global social and economic disruption, mass cancellations and postponements of events, worldwide lockdowns, worldwide protests, and the largest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.One of the only good things to happen this year was some really, really great music.
Take it away Julia…
Julia Mason’s Top 5 Albums of 2020
Oh, the irony. In this the toughest of years, I seriously struggled to put just 5 albums on this list. It could easily have been 25. It has turned out to be a phenomenal year for music. A heart-breaking situation for bands, venues and all the associated support crews and services has seen a wealth of creativity in both producing music, releasing music and interacting with fans. Who would have thought that I would be double-booked on a Saturday night with online streamed gigs! Here are my top 5 albums:
5) Working Men’s Club by Working Men’s Club
I love it when you hear an album and you love all of it. Yes, of course, there will normally be some songs you prefer more than others and perhaps skip through, but this album delivers all the way through. A labour of love plus heartache with personnel changes in the band but the debut self-titled album finally made it out. There is no doubt that Working Men’s Club is the vision of Sydney Minsky-Sargeant, and the personnel shuffle has created a more electronic sound. Indeed the final track on the album is over 12 minutes long, and it works! In October I travelled from Edinburgh to Manchester for my only gig since March to see Working Men’s Club. And, yes, it was 100% worth the effort.
4) So When You Gonna by Dream Wife
An album I bought and listened to from the beginning all the way through to the end, non-stop. And that is how I still listen to So When You Gonna. The trio provided an album full of punk, beauty, thought, confidence on this their second album and I loved it all. I first saw them live at Indietracks festival in 2018 and they are the real deal. Looking forward to hearing this live.
3) Say The Word by The Allergies
In this year of all years, I needed music that puts a smile on my face and some funk in my step. The Allergies did not disappoint. Released on Jalapeno Records this album kept me going through lockdown, and when I needed the funk, The Allergies magic worked every time. This is music that makes your worries float away. It is full of life and has one heck of a groovy hip-hop vibe. I have literally danced on some of my walks this year listening to this album.
2) Dream Nails by Dream Nails
The self-proclaimed “Punk Witches” of Dream Nails and their self-titled debut album is another labour of love if ever there was one. It took five years to get to this point for one of the ultimate DIY bands. They have stuck to their principles of social justice and feminism but with a punk ethic. The music is full of fire and energy, with messages of empowerment and positivity. There is also humour and originality, with live skits sprinkled throughout the album. Their online streams and actual “gigs in a box” have been a highlight of the year for me.
1) A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.
Fontaines D.C.s debut album Dogrel released in the spring of 2019 simply stopped me in my tracks. I had it on repeat continuously when I bought it. Its energy and attitude grabbed me. Nothing had had such an impact on me for years. So like many others, I was slightly nervous about the release of their second album A Hero’s Death on Partisan Records just 15 months later. The title track plus singles “Televised Mind” and “A Lucid Dream” had already made their way into the bands live sets before lockdown hit.
The anticipation for fans reached fever pitch and come album release date we devoured A Hero’s Death. Yes, a very different album to Dogrel. Fontaines D.C. write from experience and the heart. They have inevitably moved on from the Dublin inspired Dogrel to produce a more introspective album which while perhaps not having the immediacy of Dogrel absolutely moves the soul. A Hero’s Death has everything, and with a Grammy nomination under their belt, it seems that others agree.
Hal Kitchen’s Top 5 Albums of 2020
5) West of Eden by HMLTD
I had a tough time picking my fifth spot. The top four really jumped out at me, while there were at least ten more that could easily have merited the final spot. Among many others, it could’ve gone to Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama, Poppy’s I Disagree or Black Dresses Peaceful as Hell, but in the end, I went with HMLTD and their fantastic debut West of Eden, a timely, cathartic and explosive genre-melding glam-rock revival album three years in the making.
4)Spirit World Field Guide by Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock surpassed himself with this dense and rewarding release, stacked with copious volumes of potent and evocative imagery, exploring a transcendental mental and emotional landscape. His peerless rapping ability is supported by his groovy and psychedelic instrumentals with phenomenal basslines and head-bobbing flow patterns, ensuring that as obtuse and inaccessible as his lyricism may first appear, he’s never less than captivating, even on a surface level.
3) RTJ4 by Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels have a strong claim at one of the most consistently fantastic catalogues in modern rap music. Over the last decade, since the project was founded the duo has released four albums, each one seemingly better than the last. The pair surpassed themselves again with RTJ4, an album not only full of the best beats and rapping to be found anywhere, with hilarious punch lines and ferocious deliveries, but also a timely and urgent dissection of an indifferent and authoritarian political landscape. Touching on racism and police brutality with a ferocity, directness and virtuosity that has been desperately needed in recent times.
2) Brave Faces Everyone by Spanish Love Songs
Spanish Love Songs’ third studio album is a sterling distillment of modern emo-punk energy, with a vintage and raw emotional expression. The playing is superb, and the elastic and dynamic vocals have an unparalleled punch and directness, but what really sets the California rock band apart is the album’s phenomenal songwriting, with overwhelming regret, disappointment and compromise surging over the listener, with riffs and hooks that immediately and lastingly catch under your skin.
1) Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa
My favourite album of the year though, and easily my most replayed, is Dua Lipa’s sophomore release, Future Nostalgia. From the opening title track, the album presents a seamless and glamorous melding of trusty pop formulae and an excitingly modern punch. The album delivers the year’s most purely catchy collection of pop songs, airbrushed to perfection by her producers, with the album’s aesthetics throwing back to a time when the future was somewhere we couldn’t get to fast enough, radiating sex, style and confidence.
Lipa’s never shy about her intentions or influences with Future Nostalgia, with the Carly Rae Jepsen-styled “Cool” featuring the most gorgeously crisp synth-pop vocals and the hilariously sexual “Good in Bed” is exactly the kind of song Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse would have released at their peaks, with drawn-out vowels and a springy piano. However, at every turn, Dua puts her forerunners to shame on the performances and production, with the most impeccably constructed, glamorous and anthemic singles to hit mainstream radio since Taylor Swift’s 1989.
The album tracks are every bit the dance-pop masterpieces the pre-release singles were, without a single, even momentary, lull across the album’s eleven tracks. The two central pillars of the lyrics are coy relationship drama and winsome pop feminist shade, casting Dua in the throes of passion and desire, while her own magnetism always keeps the power in her corner, belting out her soaring and seductive grooves on tracks like “Pretty Please” or “Love Again”.
Since the album’s release, many remixes have been offered, but none have managed to improve on the original solo versions, which are simply unimprovable, and the remixes only served to throw more momentum behind Dua’s unstoppable rise. Equally, many other artists in 2020 have thrown back to a more vintage dance-pop sound, some like Jessie Ware, quite successfully, but Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia eclipsed them all in its sheer dazzling perfection. It may seem like a frivolous pick compared to some of the year’s more avant-garde pop releases. Still, at a time that had many desperate for any kind of brief, escapist, feelgood interlude, nothing the entire year felt quite so faultlessly pleasurable or endlessly gratifying as Future Nostalgia.
Matthew Mansell’s Top 5 Albums of 2020
5) Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz
If there was ever a time for a virtual band, it’s when all the venues are shut. Song Machine brought a plethora of artists together for a gig we are all invited to. Highlights were plentiful: Leee John swooping vocals on “The Lost Chord”, the clash of Elton John’s overwrought vocals with 6LACK’s auto-tuned voice on “Pink Phantom”, the wistful life outside the train window melancholy of “Aries”, the rousing four-on-the-floor beats of “Opium”, JPEGMAFIA’s carefree flow on “MLS”. The lights may temporarily be out for live music, but on Song Machine the party goes on.
4) Underneath by Code Orange
The perfect soundtrack to deserted cities and supermarket queues: Code Orange’s fourth album ricocheted between thrash, nu-metal and mathcore, all unified by Reba Meyers heavily-processed guitar and glitchy programming. When all these elements come together, the result is sublime. The stuttering beats of “Cold.Metal.Place” makes the squeaking riff more pleasurable every time it drops.
3) Every Bad by Porridge Radio
The Brighton band’s second album sounds high on caffeine pills, drowsy from too little sleep and overworked from one too many studio takes. That work pays dividends, as the album is full of beautiful nuances: the opener “Born Confused” could be carried away by its own dark, rumbling undertow, while the catchy simplistic hook of the new-wave “Give/Take” belies the fact it’s about the difficulties of refusing an unwanted sexual advance. At it’s best, Every Bad sounds like songs caught from the ether and caught on tape before they got away.
2) Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
With an already impressive back catalogue behind her, Bridgers’ brand of narcoleptic indie hits new heights here. The psychedelic Spectoresque production of “ICU”, the soft balm of mariachi trumpets on “Kyoto” and the light dub of “Halloween” all heighten the queasy unease that runs through all her songs. Bridgers often casts herself in her songs as difficult and unlovable; Punisher is the exact opposite.
1) RTJ4 by Run the Jewels
No other verse this year spoke to the moment more than this bombshell: “So every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free, and you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me. Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper saying I can’t breathe”. A social and political activist—as well as a formidable rapper— Killer Mike wrote the line months before George Floyd’s death, and it’s shiver-inducing. Yet for all RTJ4’s justified anger, the album doesn’t forget that nothing brings down barriers like humour.
On the mic, RTJ are unbeatable company: Mike’s alliterative and staccato flow contrasts neatly with EL-P’s unhurried insolence, and for every incisive bit of political commentary, there’s normally a dick joke waiting to pounce not long after. This clash of incendiary and fun also extends to the music: the mix is thick with throbbing bass, jagged guitars, ragga and phat old-skool beats. It’s music built for moshing in dark and dank clubs with your hands in the air. Moving effortlessly from 70s TV pastiche to teary-eyed tributes to family members to pin-sharp critiques of capitalism, RTJ4 casts it’s net wide; mixing civil right icons with nerdish film references to create a rich masterwork that also happens to be a protest album.
Laura Stewart’s Top 5 Albums of 2020
5) Stray by Bambara
For those of you who watched True Blood, remember when “Sookeh!” first saw Bill, when he walked into Bellefleur’s Bar and Grill, sat down in a booth and the pair locked eyes? Everything went dark behind him and she felt like it was just the two of them in the room, mesmerised by his dark eyes, pale skin and Southern goth swagger. She knew danger had come to Bon Temps, and it was sexy as hell. Well, that’s exactly how I felt when I first heard Bambara’s new album, Stray.
Stray flourishes with dreamlike backing vocals fused with Reid’s smoky and at times, sinister low-tone (think Bill from True Blood again, with more than a hint of Nick Cave) it is truly mesmerising. It is a dark and furious record, full of snarling guitars, thundering drums, humming bass and feral vocals. When the band is not trying to break your neck with sonic speed (“Serafina”, “Heat Lightning”), they will slow down to what can only be described as a crawl through a dark alley in the dead of night. Bambara paints their blackest pictures with the use of the instruments at their disposal and eerie backing vocals, reminiscent of a ghostly gospel choir.
4) Atlas Vending by METZ
Covering contrasting themes such as paternity, crushing social anxiety, addiction, isolation, media-induced paranoia, and the restless urge to leave everything behind, each of Atlas Vending’s ten songs offers a snapshot of today’s modern life, and the result is a record that sounds colossal, eloquent, and sincere. The band have managed to tap into the conflicted relationship between rebellion and revelry with the album’s balance of their signature fury with shoegaze-y melodic tenacity.
3) Untitled (Black Is) by SAULT
SAULT’s album, Untitled (Black Is), arrived out of thin air, and with little information. Yet it’s the group’s most timely release, a robust collection of funk, soul, meditative spoken-word and protest chants. It comes to a world of pissed-off Black people who’ll no longer tolerate police brutality and systemic racism, where, in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and in cities and small towns across America, protesters fight the continued killings of unarmed Black people by law enforcement.
This album asks tough questions that criticise society. On “Wildfires,” SAULT wonders how police brutality can be so widely accepted. “You should be ashamed,” the singer scolds. “The bloodshed on your hands … take off your badge, we all know it was murder.” A record that funnels rage and sorrow into contemplative streams of thought, over equally brooding music meant to slow your heart rate. Untitled (Black Is) is just as militant as any old Public Enemy record, but somehow even more poignant and powerful in its beauty.
2) Ohms by Deftones
Deftones’ Ohms, the ninth studio album from the Sacramento rock legends, completely blew everything out of the water for me this year. The sauntering and sonically devastating rock that the band have worked decades to pioneer is perfected on this album. Crushing guitar riffs and heart-pounding percussion, paired with Chino Moreno’s sublimely haunting vocals, secured the group’s place in modern music history.
Ohms is simply a reminder of their greatness. They have finally found the perfect balance between heavy and haunting. Flip-flopping between light and dark, yin and yang, peril and hope, Ohms is a gigantic undertaking, which is apt for the band who have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves.
In any other year, Ohms would have been at the top spot without a doubt.
1) Ultra Mono by IDLES
Of course I was always going to pick Ultra Mono for my album of the year. Yes, because I love IDLES, and because it is a really great album. But it’s personal for me too.
2020 has been weird as hell and devastating for millions of people across the world, and so I feel almost embarrassed to say that for me, it has been one of my most fulfilling years. Given all this free time to be at home with my son, watch him grow and develop both physically and mentally has been a blessing. Having all this free time to write and listen to loads of new music has been therapeutic and invigorating. I may have been stuck indoors for 90% of the year, but my social life has been the busiest since I was in my twenties. With Zoom chats, Facebook groups, the creation of the Goth Kitchen, virtual gigs, interactive interviews with my favourite artists—I have experienced a lot of joy this year with the people I love.
And IDLES have been there with me every step of the way. The UK initially went into lockdown in March, and the boys from Bristol seemed to release new music for every month we had to stay at home. The weather was glorious and “Mr Motivator” brought extra sunshine, encouraging to get up off our seats and exercise while telling us to keep f*cking going. Yes, I do like them cliches.
“Grounds” was released in June, just as the world was reeling over the murder of George Floyd. With everyone glued to 24-hour news anyway, this time police brutality was not going to be swept under the carpet. “Grounds” felt like a battle song in support of people of colour all over the world.
Indeed, 2020 revealed some harsh truths about people we thought we knew. Social media has shown many of their true colours; those who consider the right to bear arms more important than the right to life, those who consider property damage an excuse to kill, those who believe that a person’s alleged petty criminal history a reason not to care about their murder. 2020 allowed us to rid ourselves of the toxic people in our lives, those filled with hatred and ignorance of their own privilege. IDLES sang us a “Hymn”, poked fun at the gammons living in the UK’s “Model Village” and then declared “War” but reminded us to “Kill Them With Kindness”.
IDLES bossed every day of 2020 and won the Number One album spot for their efforts and rightly so.
The nineteen albums listed above are a perfect snapshot of this weird year, but clear evidence of how music gives you strength, empowers you to fight for what you believe in and reaches you in a way that no other medium can. Music has saved lives this year; being for some people the only thing that kept them going, preventing them from total isolation and bringing joy where there was so little. May we remember this when the pandemic is under control by giving back to the artists who played their part this year. If you have the cash, buy the tickets and the merch and support your local small venues. 2021, we are so ready to party in you.