I know it’s obligatory to insert a comment here about how terrible a year 2020 was. Down in New Zealand, however, we were well insulated from the coronavirus pandemic and life was relatively normal. From the list below, I’d only characterise one album (Taylor Swift’s Folklore) as a pandemic album – I’m sure most of the others albums were in progress before coronavirus hit.
Here are my ten favourite albums of 2020, drawn from five different continents. As always on this site, this list is a one person operation and it’s impossible to keep up with everything – I have very little idea what’s happening in contemporary jazz and I failed to keep up with acclaimed releases from veterans like Dylan, Springsteen, and Nick Cave.
Regardless 2020 was a very strong year musically – albums like Ichiko Aoba’s Windswept Adan, Kelly Lee Owen’s Inner Song, Fleet Foxes’ Shore, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and Hayley Williams’ Petals for Armor would have all cruised into my top ten for 2019. There was also no space for British collective Sault, who released two worthy and topical albums as well as a solo debut from lead singer Cleo Sol.
10 Best Albums of 2020
#10: Tiwa Savage – Celia
Nigeria’s Tiwa Savage named her fourth album for her mother. It’s a grab bag, veering from commercial fare like the Sam Smith duet ‘Temptation’ to deeply personal songs like the hymn-like ‘Celia’s Song’. It’s easily the least consistent record on this list, but highlights like ‘Koroba’, ‘Dangerous Love’, and ‘Glory’ kept me coming back.
#9: Ela Minus – Acts of Rebellion
Bogotá-born Ela Minus released her full length debut in 2020, after previously serving as a drummer in a hardcore punk band and as a synthesizer designer. Acts of Rebellion adds a human element to electronica with gorgeous songs like ‘They Told Us It Was Hard But They Were Wrong’. Minus’ stilted English on songs like ‘Dominique’ recalls Kraftwerk, while instrumentals like ‘Pocket Piano’ are ambient and lovely.
#8: Taylor Swift – Folklore
Genre: Indie folk
At a loose end during lockdown, Swift reinvented herself as a indie-folk artist. Collaborating with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner, she recorded two surprise albums of low key material, showcasing her skills as a melodicist and lyricist. The first volume, Folklore, is the stronger, with gorgeous songs like ‘August’ and ‘Invisible String’. Her boyfriend Joe Alwyn co-wrote ‘Exile’, on which Bon Iver guests.
#7: Gillian Welch – Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs (Volumes 1, 2, and 3)
In late 2002, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings recorded 48 songs in a weekend to fulfill a publishing deal. After the tapes were nearly destroyed by a tornado earlier this year, they released them over three volumes. Some of these songs showcase a looser and more playful side of Welch that differs from her tightly constructed studio albums. It’s pleasing that terrific Welch material like ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Picasso’ have finally seen the light of day.
#6: Katie Pruitt – Expectations
The best debut album of the year came from Georgia’s Katie Pruitt, a stunning collection of songs about growing up gay in the conservative south. Her voice is powerful and her guitar playing is strong, imbuing her uncluttered songs with meaning. The title track recalls vintage Fleetwood Mac, but the heart of the record is on the slow burning ballads that utilise Pruitt’s vocal prowess like ‘My Mind’s A Ship That’s Going Down’ and ‘It’s Always Been You’.
#5: HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III
The first two records from this L.A. trio of sisters were charming. Their third is a huge step forward, adding personality to their lovely harmonies and slick L.A. sound. Women In Music Part III is impressively diverse, from the R&B throwback of ‘3am’ to the raw and acoustic ‘Man From The Magazine’. The three impressive singles from 2019, ‘Now I’m In It’, ‘Summer Girl’, and ‘Hallelujah’, are held back as bonus tracks – the rest of the album stands proudly without them.
#4: Owen Pallett – Island
Genre: Chamber pop
Canadian composer Owen Pallett returns from a six year wait after 2014’s In Conflict. The finger-picked guitar and grand orchestration of Island recalls the records that Nick Drake made half a century earlier, and the story picks up the narrative about “ultra-violent” farmer Lewis. Songs like ‘Fire-Mare’, ‘Paragon of Order’, and ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ soar with their beautiful arrangements.
#3: Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
Disco revival provided escapism from a bizarre 2020. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was brilliant for its first nine tracks and Roisin Murphy’s quirky Róisín Machine was fun. But the best nu-disco came from eminently likeable Londoner Jessie Ware, who brings a refreshing normalcy to the table. Sophisticated and sumptuous tracks like ‘Adore You’ and ‘Remember Where You Are’ share space with quirky dance tracks like ‘The Kill’ and ‘Ooh La La’.
#2: The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
The 1975 flourish when they defy the usual rules of record-making – their best records are long and sprawling. Notes on a Conditional Form is eclectic and immersive, as the Manchester quarter barrel through everything from hardcore punk to acoustic folk. Expert mimics, The 1975 try everything from dub to 1990s shoegaze, although shiny 1980s pop songs like ‘If You’re Too Shy’ are still their calling card.
#1: Tricot – Makkuro and 10
Genre: Math pop
One of my pet music theories is that bands produce their best work on their fourth and fifth albums. This Japanese quartet released both their fourth and fifth albums during 2020, and both were great, bridging the gap between complex math rock virtuosity and pop sweetness on songs like ‘Warp’ and ‘真っ黒’.
Agree? Disagree? What are your favourite albums of 2020?