The Skinny's Top 10 Albums of 2020
We polled our music team to find out what albums have helped them get through 2020, and it's a dizzying mix of disco, hip-hop, dance and pop, taking on the political, tackling racism, misogyny, toxic masculinity and more. Sounds about right!
#10: Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine
[2 Oct, Skint Records]
After a legendary career flirting with the outskirts of pop and disco, Roísín Murphy has fully embraced the diva archetype. Pop music has been dominated by disco this year, from the lavish sensuality of What’s Your Pleasure? to the escapism of Future Nostalgia – but Roísín Machine offers a darker, more unhinged approach to dance catharsis.
The grooves are here of course, but they’re colder and more foreboding, songs stretched into euphoric, introspective jams. What keeps it anchored are Murphy’s stunning performances, which range from effortlessly cool to surprisingly intense. These interconnected tracks come together to make what might be her boldest collection yet, without sacrificing any of the fun. [Skye Butchard]
#9: Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song
[28 Aug, Smalltown Supersound]
Inner Song is the sound of Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens encountering writer’s block, and finding the best way to break it to pieces. It begins disarmingly with Arpeggi, a slow-blossoming reconfiguration of a Radiohead song, which later leads Owens into earnest meditations on humanity’s relationship with the planet and the primal joy of love through propulsive house, celestial deep techno and sultry R'n'B.
Owens’ rediscovered back-to-basics approach reaches the summit on Corner of My Sky, the album’s seven-minute centrepiece, in which fellow countryman John Cale delivers laconic lyricisms in Welsh as if emerging from a cryptic dream, hoping for meaning to surface in the waking realm. As Inner Song shows, your gut instinct is often the right one. [Dafydd Jenkins]
#8: Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
[27 Mar, Warner Records]
There’s an irony to Future Nostalgia making this list considering Dua Lipa's sophomore release came out the very month the world came to a standstill. Spending time with the record does feel nostalgic – for sweaty club throngs and, further back, to the pure ecstasy of early disco. Dark synths and Gaga greatness douse Physical, while Levitating taps into the feels of Katy Perry luxuriating in a daisy field with Calvin Harris.
The flip side looks to the future as the songwriter challenges an ageing lads' club mentality in string-led send-off Boys Will Be Boys: 'I know there will be a man around to save the day / And that was sarcasm, in case you needed it mansplained'. Future Nostalgia then sees out a humdinger of a year in the only way we know how (and Dua Lipa’s forte) – “dance-crying”. [Cheri Amour]
#7: Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
[26 Jun, PMR/EMI Records]
Disco never died, but it had a serious revival in 2020. From Dua Lipa's nostalgic rampage culminating in a recreation of the infamous Studio 54 with her very own Studio 2054, to Kylie literally naming her latest album DISCO, it seems pop’s leading ladies have all caught the right kind of fever this year.
None have done it better than Jessie Ware, who grabbed the disco ball with both hands and sent herself swinging back into our lives with her latest release, What’s Your Pleasure? The album finds Ware in her absolute element, sounding more alive than ever, and leaving us praying for the moment we get to dance to Save a Kiss on an actual club dancefloor. [Nadia Younes]
#6: Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
[27 Mar, Merge Records]
It sometimes feels like this year began around mid-March. Those first two, pre-lockdown months are difficult to associate with what followed, as if there needs to be a chapter break of sorts to acknowledge the contrast. Katie Crutchfield's fifth record as Waxahatchee, released at the beginning of 2020, has in a sense acted as a companion to – and tonic for – this turbulent and claustrophobic year.
Saint Cloud is charged with possibility throughout. Warm, vibrant, playful and strikingly assured songs like Arkadelphia find lightness in the wake of uncertainty, and offer a distinctly American sense of big-hearted adventure that is impossible to resist. 'You know you got a friend in me', Crutchfield sings in standout track among standout tracks, Ruby Falls. [Fraser MacIntyre]
#5: Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
[17 Apr, Dirty Hit]
Rina Sawayama switches genre like a rally driver changes gear: at full speed and in complete control. Sarcastic, sexy and serious when it counts, her self-titled debut is an exhilarating, risk-taking triumph.
XS splices seductive R'n'B late capitalism ('Cartier set, Tesla Xs / Calabasas, I deserve it') with a dystopian nu-metal riff, fused together by her versatile, theatrical vocals. STFU! is glamorous and punishing, with the year’s most cathartic chorus, and the epic guitar solo on Who’s Gonna Save U Now? could fill five arenas at once. The album’s softest tracks hit just as hard: both Bad Friend and Chosen Family contrast silky pop production with raw, painful stories. SAWAYAMA is the boldest British pop album in years – who else has the range? [Katie Hawthorne]
#4: Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
[3 Apr, Warp]
Yves Tumor went from safe in the hands of love, to the sonic equivalent of what my friend recently referred to as ‘the filth emoji’. Its swirling, cacophonous rock is pure heat – electrically-charged, blood-quickening, maxed out, uncompromisingly virile, begging to combust. 'Tell me, what do you crave?', 'I can live in your dreams', 'I wanna give you every piece of me'.
But it’s not only throwaway lust. This energy is manic, desperate – deeply, intensely-felt desire. 'Our hearts are in danger'. Fireworks and sirens and howls – of pleasure, of nightmares? – are as internal to its sound as guitars and drums. The music itself sweats and writhes and wants. Make no mistake – this record fucks. [Tony Inglis]
#3: Run the Jewels – RTJ4
[3 Jun, Jewel Runners/BMG]
The year 2020 is going to be defined by three things: the COVID-19 pandemic, the democratic defeat of Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement. The brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police shook the world, and with it came a tsunami of anti-racist activism.
In the midst of this, El-P & Killer Mike released their fourth Run the Jewels album at the perfect time. In lieu of their more jovial previous output, RTJ4 is full of justified anger at western society falling apart and during the summer, soundtracked that collapse. More than mere tokenism, RTJ4 is their most focused yet, filled with vicious bars, old-school production and killer tunes. [Adam Turner-Heffer]
#2: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
[18 Jun, Dead Oceans]
Nobody does melancholy quite like Phoebe Bridgers. Amongst its more unwelcome offerings, 2020 gave us Punisher – an exquisite, sharply contemporary and truly original follow-up to Bridgers’ 2017 debut. Simultaneously sweet and sardonic, Bridgers’ vocals soften the blow of her dry and often bleak lyrics, giving the feeling of being tenderly held as the world crumbles.
No mood overstays its welcome; just as the restlessness of Garden Song starts to overwhelm, we’re hit with the synth-laden earworm Kyoto to which you can’t help but numbly nod your head. Bridgers’ songwriting feels limitless, carefully refined to achieve an off-kilter perfection that surprises even on the fiftieth listen. In a year that’s felt as apocalyptic as this one, Punisher seems to capture the zeitgeist in a way that even Bridgers couldn’t have imagined. [Katie Cutforth]
#1: Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
[17 Apr, Epic]
Never has the modern world been so divided, and the need to speak truth to power has been sorely needed in 2020, a year that has laid bare social, moral and economic inequities. To say that a piece of art has become prescient during these COVID times is boringly simplistic (almost every artist became a soothsayer post-lockdown). This could be argued for Fetch the Bolt Cutters (home recording, themes of trauma and coping etc.), but the truth is that these songs address much more insidious and long-standing power imbalances – they feel timeless because the issues are so depressingly entrenched, but they yearn to be future relics.
It’s one thing to make a profound political statement, but still another to make it sound good. And this is the abundant genius of Fetch... – the songs are as catchy as anything Fiona Apple has ever made, while its themes come through with a sparkling clarity that has sometimes been absent in favour of enigmatic murk (see: Extraordinary Machine). Under the Table and Rack of His show off her subversive wit, while For Her rips apart toxic masculinity with a conversational candour at odds with such a blunt reckoning.
The title track is a true masterpiece that centres around Apple’s struggles with self-image and criticism, the titular refrain delivered with a measured strength that can't help but be inspiring. The song unspools and contracts with little regard for conventional structure, managing to tie up dog barks, references to Kate Bush and Ram Dass, some Cara Delevingne backing vocals and a freewheeling narrative into something immaculately cohesive in just five minutes.
These are songs of defiance and strength; they may be written from a place of trauma and vulnerability, with lashings of misogyny to boot, but the overarching theme is one of not only perseverance, but a determination to overcome and flourish. There’s a unifying intimacy throughout that makes this album a perfect reconciliation of personal and political, now so hopelessly entangled; an urgent call to arms and a whispered message of solidarity.
As the light at the end of the tunnel dawns on this shitbag of a year, this was the album that helped us get through it, and the one to lead us, hopefully defiant, into the next. [Lewis Wade]