Capping off the year by taking a look back at the best records of the past 12 months.
Happy New Year and roll on 2021 - but just before we leave 2020 behind, let's cap it off by taking a look back at the best albums of a year that was jam packed with great releases from artists old and new.
Below you'll find my 25 favourite releases of the year along with some of my thoughts and favourite tracks, which I have conveniently listed together into a juicy Spotify playlist for your aural pleasure. If you like what you read below, please consider subscribing and stay tuned for more of the same next year here at Either/Or. If you're already subscribed, thanks so much for your support and for reading along this year - I hope you've discovered some good music and enjoyed the content this past half year, there's plenty more to come. Here's to a great 2021! Now let's get to the albums...
25. Remote Viewing - Postcard Versions
Perhaps the most pleasant discovery of 2020 for me, Postcard Versions brand of bedroom indie pop is quite literal in its approach - the Dublin based duo of Ross Hamer and Paddy Ormond proudly recorded their self-titled debut and this follow up in a Temple Bar bedroom (attracting just the one noise complaint so far, which by their own admission isn't ''very rock and roll''). It's a process that perfectly suits the blissed out, super chilled vibes of Remote Viewing, but if you were expecting a lo-fi sound to match the duo's laid back aesthetic, you'll be pleasantly surprised - there's an unmistakably clean, bright sheen to this mix, making for a delightfully breezy listen. Perhaps the most telling comparison for Postcard Versions would be Belle & Sebastian, with the soft anecdotal beauty of the Glaswegian idols buried in Hamer and Ormond's gift for subtly weaving in loftier lyrical themes than might be suggested by the sweet arrangements of these jaunty acoustic jams.
With its low-key soul searching and charming instrumentation, Remote Viewing marks a definite step up for Postcard Versions following their pleasurable 2019 debut. This contemplative and endlessly catchy sequel suggests a bright future ahead for the bedroom dwelling Dubliners.
Best Tracks: 'Do You Consider?'/'Learning to Talk'/'Relatively Safe Neighborhood'
24. Heavy Light - U.S. Girls
Meghan Remy followed up her highly acclaimed 2018 work In A Poem Unlimited with another sharp dose of experimental pop on Heavy Light, in which some of the most arresting music of Remy's career is ingeniously embedded amongst some painfully nostalgic sound collages interspersed throughout the record to poignantly pleasurable results.
Best Tracks: '4 American Dollars'/'Overtime'
23. Every Bad - Porridge Radio
''I'm bored to death/Let's argue'' snarls Dana Margolin to introduce us to Every Bad, before the Brighton quartet kick in with a startling post-punk wall of noise, thrashing their way through their second album with the kind of abandon and conviction of a band far beyond their years. Margolin is a woman possessed throughout, the undoubted focus of attention as she exorcises her demons over top of her sinister guitar lines and the drum, bass and keyboard assault courtesy of a tight backing trio, who you feel are more than happy to leave Margolin the spotlight she so fitfully demands.
Best Tracks: 'Born Confused'/'Sweet'/'Long'
22. Personal History - Ailbhe Reddy
The Irish debut of the year came from Ailbhe Reddy, whose poetic, confessional Personal History brought a level of intimacy and naked vulnerablity not heard nearly enough in the current music landscape around the country, while also laying down some superbly catchy guitar tracks that showcase the quiet power of the young Dublin based singer-songwriter's voice much more effectively than her early folk based EPs.
Best Tracks: 'Walk Away'/'Personal History'/Self Improvement'
21. Likewise - Frances Quinlan
''A band inherently carries more energy than a person does solo'' said Quinlan in 2015 as her noise rock quartet Hop Along were earning plaudits for their second album as a fully formed unit, but the New Jersey native goes a long way towards disproving her own theory on Likewise, a minimalist 9 track re-debut of sorts that highlights Quinlan's freaky vocal power and instrumental prowess on a dreamy, ruminative departure for the band leader.
Best Tracks: 'Your Reply'/'Went to LA'
20. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was - Bright Eyes
Down in the Weeds was as epic and grandiose as one would hope Bright Eyes would sound after a nine year gap in albums. Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott make their now considerable presences felt on the band's tenth outing with their consistently evolving instrumentation on full display across a variety of beautifully arranged symphonies throughout these fourteen tracks, and Conor Oberst has lost none of his lyrical prowess as he artfully navigates the treacherous waters of 2020 with a refreshingly positive outlook on humankind.
On an eloquent return, Bright Eyes were as refined and wise as they've ever been, delivering a strangely sweet, apocalyptic yet life-affirming soundtrack for modern times.
Best Tracks: 'Mariana Trench'/'Stairwell Song'/Forced Convalescence'
19. Color Theory - Soccer Mommy
Sophie Allison’s sophomore album sees the 22-year-old expand on the grunge pop sound of Soccer Mommy’s stunning 2018 debut with a deceptively bright, lo-fi pop sound. Allison’s meditations on depression and anxiety stand in sharp contrast to the band’s newfound warmer sound as the young frontwoman subtly weaves a set of darkly lyrical accounts together under the guise of the group's catchy guitar hooks. It's a style reminiscent of Alanis Morissette, no doubt a pillar of inspiration for the current generation of young female songwriters, and certainly not a bad comparison for Soccer Mommy's protagonist to be courting just two albums in.
Best Tracks: 'bloodstream'/'circle the drain'
18. After Hours - The Weeknd
Abel Tesfaye spent the 2010's becoming one of the biggest names in world music, yet it's fair to say that The Weeknd has never quite managed to recapture the groundbreaking, soul-searching R&B of debut mixtape House of Ballons and its ensuing Trilogy. It's hard to blame the Starboy for coasting on his immeasurable success, especially when he was still releasing some of the best singles of the decade, but 2018's six track My Dear Melancholy, suggested something deeper was still within Tesfaye's considerable capabilities.
It's plain to see now that the EP was a precursor for the main event of After Hours this past March, a striking amalgamation of Weeknd's mainstream pop power and the conscious hip-hop and souled out blues of his early years.
Best Tracks: 'Heartless'/'Blinding Lights'/'In Your Eyes'/'After Hours'
17. evermore - Taylor Swift
''To put it plainly, we just couldn't stop writing songs. To try and put it more poetically, it feels like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music. We chose to wander deeper in ...''
And so evermore came to life, a sequel and twin to folklore released this month on December 11th to ecstatic and unsuspecting fans. Following Swift's masterful songwriting journey on her eighth studio album, evermore developed its themes and dived deeper into the chamber pop and indie folk that defined the most productive year of Swift's career, while continuing to highlight Taylor's newfound talent for skillful collaborations and her own instinctive gift for storied melodies.
Best Tracks: 'willow'/'evermore (feat. Bon Iver)'
16. A Hero's Death - Fontaines D.C.
Just over a year removed from their explosive debut Dogrel, Fontaines D.C. returned with a sophomore album designed to curb expectations and challenge the very idea of who Fontaines truly are.
A Hero's Death is a more distilled and concentrated effort than the band's previous work, so while fans of the band's original, more accessible dynamic may find it difficult to connect with A Hero’s Death straight away for the lack of singalong, festival-ready hooks in the vein of 'Liberty Belle' and 'Boys in the Better Land', this is an album that rewards repeated listens and patience.
On A Hero’s Death, Fontaines develop a better sense of cohesion and flesh out themes that tie their second album together as a concept rather than a collection of tracks. Into the bargain, they deliver an ultra-focused and mature record, one that displays a considerable evolution for the young Dubliners and further establishes them as pioneers in the Irish music landscape and potentially beyond.
Best Tracks: 'I Don’t Belong'/'A Lucid Dream'/'No'
15. Whole New Mess - Angel Olsen
As a completely reimagined version of Olsen's stunning 2019 break-up opus All Mirrors, Whole New Mess takes one of last year's best albums and boldly reinvents it by throwing out the anthemic synth orchestration of its predecessor and presenting its tracks in a strikingly bare and intimate style. Originally recorded in 2018 across ten days in a converted church before these raw sketches evolved into All Mirrors, the echoes of Olsen's poignant vocals mixed with the tender acoustics of these newly envisioned ballads make for a freshly captivating, starkly different take on Olsen's sorrowful reflections on love and loss.
Whole New Mess stands as a fine record on its own and finds a way to breathe intoxicating new life into Olsen's finest album less than a year after its release, while perhaps introducing an intriguing concept for other artists to consider toying with in the coming years.
Best Tracks: 'Whole New Mess'/'(We Are All Mirrors)'/'What It Is (What It Is)'
14. RTJ4 - Run The Jewels
There couldn't have been a better time for Run The Jewels’ ferocious brand of hip-hop to hit the airwaves than June as the US imploded in on itself, and as such RTJ4 is the brashest political work in the duo's discography. The signature blend of Killer Mike's furious bars and El-P's visceral electro beats was as hard hitting as ever, yet these tracks took on a new life as protestors took to the streets across a fiercely divided nation. RTJ4 is not just another gem in a stunningly consistent catalogue and the hip-hop album of the year, but also a frightening snapshot of the year that was, and an all-important listen in modern times.
Best Tracks: 'ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)'/'JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)'
13. We Will Always Love You - The Avalanches
Another very recent addition to this list, The Avalanches third album provided a wealth of tunes this year with its five fantastic single releases since February but only dropped a couple of weeks back on 11th December along with my number 17 above.
The final product, a mammoth 25 track smorgasbord of psychedelic electronica and dance pop built through hundreds of samples mixed with original instrumentation and collaborations, did not disappoint in the slightest.
Best Tracks: 'We Will Always Love You (feat. Blood Orange)'/'Wherever You Go (feat. Jamie xx, Neneh Cherry, CLYPSO)'/'Music Makes Me High'
12. Song for Our Daughter - Laura Marling
Marling's seventh and best studio album was a gorgeously intimate ode to a fictional daughter, as the singer-songwriter gracefully poured her heart and soul into these ruminations on parenthood and the nature of love over top of an exquisitely arranged orchestra of piano, strings and acoustic guitar. Marling has quietly developed into one of the UK's most dependable songwriters, and as such Song for Our Daughter is one of the year's most underappreciated triumphs, a glorious celebration of family that is well timed and magnificently executed.
Best Tracks: 'Held Down'/'Song for Our Daughter'
11. songs/instrumentals - Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker distilled Big Thief's irresistible indie rock melodies down to their spine tingling essence with a majestic series of gently psychedelic, freak acoustic ballads on outstanding solo record songs, before taking a deep breath to explore some ambient blues and folk throughout two gorgeous soundscapes on twin album instrumentals.
Both records combined to highlight Lenker's immense (and seriously underrated) talent outside of her signature band work.
Best Tracks: 'anything'/'zombie girl'/'dragon eyes'
10. The New Abnormal - The Strokes
Who would have thought The Strokes had this in them?
The infighting and band politics that originally broke up the indie rock masters still seems as prevalent as ever, and if Julian Casablancas’ controversial performance at Electric Picnic 2019 is anything to go by, the frontman is still owning his bad boy persona for better or worse. Maybe it’s all an act, or maybe this kind of tension just works for The Strokes, who against all odds have pulled off their best album since 2003's Room on Fire with The New Abnormal, a ferocious collection of experimental, new wave post-punk that more than lives up to its title as the band deliver their oddest and most acidic collection of tracks ever.
It’s a wild ride that boldly embraces an electronica tinged, synth-soaked direction while making plenty of room for the kind of garage rock, lo-fi inspired riffs that scream Albert Hammond Jr. As for Casablancas, the man is still very much that same born showman, a dying breed of rockstar who delights in his weirdest (and possibly best) vocal performance ever while sounding as effortlessly cool and unfazed as he did in 2001.
The Strokes are truly back, and they are stranger than ever.
Best Tracks: 'The Adults Are Talking'/‘Selfless’/’Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’/’At The Door’
9. Miss Anthropocene - Grimes
Five years on from Grimes' ascension to the electropop throne on Art Angels, Claire Boucher returned with a vengeance. While her landmark 2015 album perfected Grimes' gift for combining pure pop melodies with a hardcore electronic aesthetic, Miss Anthropocene was a darker and more subtle affair, weaving a host of curious samples and sounds comprising everything between Bollywood musical outtakes to the banjo.
These kinds of seemingly disjointed styles could only find harmony when stealthily layered under Grimes’ unique brand of dreamy synthpop, which simultaneously explored soft and sinister territory throughout a swift forty four minutes. Boucher alternated between accessible and alienating as skillfully as ever across ten tracks – for all the chilled vibes of the euphonious 'Delete Forever', Miss Anthropocene retained the whalesong vocals and industrial ambience of Grimes' early years, best exemplified on ominous rave banger and lead single '4ÆM', a self-professed 'cyberpunk interpretation' of Indian historical epic Bajirao Mastani.
The idea of Miss Anthropocene as a concept album about climate change is loosely translated and thus up to your own interpretation, but musically there is no doubting Grimes' execution - this is the euphoric sound of a visionary artist in her prime.
Best Tracks: 'Delete Forever'/'Violence - Original Mix'/'4ÆM'/'My Name is Dark - Art Mix'
8. Shore - Fleet Foxes
"I wanted to make an album that celebrated life in the face of death... I wanted the album to exist in a liminal space outside of time, inhabiting both the future and the past, accessing something spiritual or personal that is untouchable by whatever the state of the world may be at a given moment, whatever our season."
The mission statement that accompanied Shore's release in September upon the Autumnal equinox carried an undeniably beautiful if wildly ambitious sentiment, one which would require an artist of considerable power to pull off a work of such calibre. Fortunately for us, Robin Pecknold is such a songwriter, and Shore is another wondrous gem of a record to add to Fleet Foxes' already astounding portfolio.
Pecknold described this record as a feeling of relief, and long time fans will relate to that sense of exhale at the conclusion of Shore, with its refreshingly bright spirit making for Fleet Foxes' easiest listen in years. The peaceful sound of Shore is so effortlessly enjoyable to wade in that the intricacies of its sublime songcraft and evocative imagery can go undetected, but its artists' reliably stunning quality of musicianship is ever present. Typically immaculate in its conception and craft, Fleet Foxes' timeless celebration of life and nature is a perfectly timed triumph.
Best Tracks: 'Sunblind'/'Can I Believe You'/'Jara'/'Young Man's Game'/'I'm Not My Season'
7. Women in Music Pt. III - HAIM
Alana, Este and Danielle Haim have always been a sensational trio of musicians, but on their third and best studio album, the sisters evolve their sound and songwriting while navigating a potential minefield of genres to wondrous effect.
It's a testament to Haim that they have pulled of a record of such ambition and abandon while packaging and delivering it with the kind of effortlessly accessible and undeniably addictive pop aesthetic the trio are renowned for. Put simply, Women in Music is a fantastic collection of tunes - but more than that it's a genre hopping, ingeniously executed leap into the unknown and easily the greatest moment of its creators' young careers.
Best Tracks: 'Los Angeles'/'The Steps'/'Summer Girl'
6. Rough and Rowdy Ways - Bob Dylan
The thirty ninth studio album from the iconic balladeer is his best work since 1997's Time Out of Mind, and befitting of a place in Dylan's album hall of fame alongside the greatest works of his storied journey. That's a big statement, and Rough and Rowdy Ways is big, bold testament to its poet's ever present genius, serving up a plethora of tales, legends and lore that feels more precious than ever, coming seven decades into the songwriter's career. Just when we think have him figured out, the seventy nine year old steps sideways again, always pursuing new life, new sounds and new stories.
As alive and inspired as he has ever sounded, Rough and Rowdy Ways is the sign of an artist still restlessly seeking evolution as much as absolution after all this time.
Best Tracks: 'I Contain Multitudes'/'False Prophet'/'Murder Most Foul'
5. Song Machine: Season One - Strange Timez - Gorillaz
Rolled out over the course of 2020 with monthly episodic installments dating back to January, Gorillaz' seventh studio album dropped as a full length LP at the tail end of October, arriving as part of the larger audiovisual project that Song Machine comprises.
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett somehow found a way to outdo themselves with a presentation of epic proportions to match the constant invention that Gorillaz have thrived on since 2D, Murdoc, Russell and Noodle were birthed into existence back in 1998, and the Song Machine project seemed to gift new life to Gorillaz' creators themselves.
The unique launch no doubt coincided with some of the band's most impressive singles since 2011's Plastic Beach, with tracks like 'Aries' and 'The Pink Phantom' boasting Albarn in his creative element - a most welcome return to full form from the fifty two year old Londoner.
The ultimate sum of Season One: Strange Timez's parts was a joyful celebration of collaboration and quite simply an outstanding assembly of great music, individually and collectively. Nearly each of these tracks was single worthy, yet Strange Timez still managed to pace itself to perfection and find a coherent quality that has been lacking in Gorillaz since their last great album in Plastic Beach. The event that is Song Machine paved bold new territory for a band renowned for breaking the mold, and gifted us the most inventive album of the year.
Best Tracks: 'The Valley of the Pagans (featuring Beck)'/'The Lost Chord (featuring Leee John)'/'The Pink Phantom (featuring Elton John & 6LACK'/'Aries (featuring Peter Hook & Georgia)'/'Momentary Bliss (featuring Slowthai and Slaves)'
4. folklore - Taylor Swift
In 2020 we got a version of Swift that felt like something approaching a final form - an artist that yearns for a more enduring, lyrical expression of the self, and with folklore the singer-songwriter achieved lasting greatness, lovingly crafting a record that both feels like a culmination of the past fifteen years and the start of a fiercely exciting period in an already storied career. The bombastic pop of the past decade that characterized both great (Red, 1989) and disjointed (reputation, Lover) albums in Swift's catalogue is non existent here on a stripped down, indie folk, country acoustic, chamber pop record that explores Swift's songwriting abilities with extraordinary poise and skill.
folklore feels like the truest expression of Taylor Swift's abilities to date, an album that presents its artist with no strings attached. After years of uncertain direction for one of the biggest stars in music, it's rewarding to hear the deepest, most lyrical journeys of Swift's career, layered on top of the wonderfully moody and eloquent production of Jack Antonoff and the immaculately crafted songwriting of Swift and Aaron Dessner, a most unlikely match made in music heaven.
A searingly intimate expression of her self and her musicianship, this is Taylor Swift's most fascinating work, and her grandest artistic statement yet.
Best Tracks: 'cardigan'/'the last great american dynasty'/'exile'/'my tears ricochet'/'invisible string'/'betty'
3. how i'm feeling now - Charli XCX
It’s Charli, baby. Conceived, written and recorded within a month during the UK lockdown this past April, how i’m feeling now was achievement in itself, a remarkable DIY collaboration built exclusively on its artist’s laptop, the product of Zoom calls and that maddening kind of boredom only self-isolation could produce. The unique process that birthed hifn isn’t the story though, this is a Charli XCX masterwork – the kind of album that can only be born of special circumstance and an exceptional mind.
Set to a crushing backdrop of heavily glitchy and red raw electronica, Charli vividly captured the acute anxiety and infuriating monotony of isolation while contemplating the silver linings of lockdown too, meditating on relationships, family and friends while also shouting out the relentless creativity that gave life to these breathless thirty seven minutes.
Completing a trilogy of outstanding albums following 2017’s Pop 2 and last year’s self-titled epic, Charli’s fourth studio album is stone cold proof (if it was even needed) that Charlotte Aitchison is the most creative and vital young artist working in pop music today. More than that though, how I’m feeling now is the most immediate and essential album of the year. This is the sound of 2020.
Best Tracks: ‘forever’/’claws’/’detonate’/’enemy’
2. Punisher - Phoebe Bridgers
Truly great songwriters can make you feel as though there's no one else in the world at times, just you and them in those moments when you feel a connection so deep that you're almost certain a song or lyric were written for you, as if the writer were making a confession meant for your ears only. ''What if I told you/I felt like I know you/But we never met'' Phoebe Bridgers sings to Elliott Smith on Punisher's mesmerizing, haunting title track, and it's one of those transcendent moments. You can see Bridgers as the same teenager so many have been, listening to Smith in her bedroom and dreaming of writing something close to Elliott, just to touch somebody the way that Smith touched so many with his incomparable gift for storytelling and songcraft.
The irony is that this is also the moment that Bridgers, and by proxy Punisher, ascend to a level of poetic majesty the like of which her idol could command any time he picked up a guitar or put pen to paper. Phoebe Bridgers isn't Elliott Smith, but moments and songs like this, of which Punisher boasts plenty, put forth the case that there is a comparison to be made, and that is a special thing in itself.
Bridgers' second album is such a monumental leap forward in terms of just about every aspect of her abilities as a songwriter that there is no ceiling for what the 25 year old can achieve over the next decade.
Best Tracks: 'Garden Song'/'Kyoto'/'Punisher'/'Savior Complex'/'Graceland Too'/'I Know The End'
1. Fetch The Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple's thirteen track tour de force is the rarest of albums - a seminal work of epic proportions, the magnum opus of an already legendary career. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the culmination of Apple's experimental trajectory on Extraordinary Machine and The Idler Wheel..., as Apple leans into her most animalistic instincts to create a visceral, transcendent masterpiece.
Populated by a series of spiritual, almost tribal symphonies that wield Apple's distinct voice as its own instrument, she yelps, trills, screeches and roars her way through this breathtaking, wholly unpredictable collection of experimental pop songs. Throughout fifty one flawless minutes, Apple explores themes of freedom, feminism, romance, abuse, society and the self, yet somehow this manages to be the forty two year old's most humorous album to boot, as these heavy concepts are contrasted with Apple's incomparable whimsy and wit.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is all these things and more - nontraditional, radical, cathartic, primal, perfect. More than anything, it's unparalleled in 2020 and probably will be unmatched for years to come.
Fiona Apple's fifth album is an instant classic, so listen to it, cherish it - in the words of the great woman herself, ''fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you're in''. This is the kind of music that will take you wherever you need to be.
Best Tracks: 'Shameika'/'Under the Table'/'Ladies'/'Heavy Balloon'/'Cosmonauts'/'For Her'
That's it from me for 2020 - thanks again to everyone for reading! I can't wait to hear what 2021 brings.