The best albums of a great half year. Y'know... musically, at least.
Seven months into 2020, there is no shortage of great music to dissect. As ever, it has been a year of hits (everything below) and misses (two of my favourite bands of recent years miss the cut in The 1975 and Car Seat Headrest), and there is plenty more to come - we've got Fontaines DC dropping today, Bright Eyes in just a few weeks (!) and a countless list on the way with Sufjan Stevens, Lana Del Rey, The Killers and many more to come. They'll all be covered here through the rest of 2020 so hit that subscribe button if you haven't already. For now though, let's take a look at the many highlights of an already fantastic year in music, and if you like the sound of the twenty albums below (technically twenty one?), then follow my official Spotify playlist with all the best tracks from every one of these excellent records.
Now, without further ado....
925 - Sorry
My current frontrunner for debut of the year (and somehow only one of two debuts on this list) comes from North London as Sorry unleash their oddball concoction of neo-Gothic post-punk on the wonderfully warped 925. Best friends Asha Lorenz and Louis O Brien don't duet so much as argue, cut across and butt in on each other throughout 925's trippy forty three minutes and it's their unconventionally alluring dynamic that carries their first record to such heights. An organic, spontaneous hybrid that pulls no punches and never looks back. Best Tracks: 'Starstruck'/'Perfect'
After Hours - The Weeknd
Sex, drugs and self loathing - it must be 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.
Tracks like lead single 'Call Out My Name' and especially confessional closer 'Privilege' hinted at a return to the dark side for Abel following a public split with Selena Gomez, and it's plain to see now that the EP was a precursor for the main event of After Hours, a striking amalgamation of Weeknd's mainstream pop power and the conscious hip-hop and souled out blues of his early years.
Without a doubt, this is Tesfaye's best work since his debut, as the singer gets introspective while playing off a wicked mix of silky smooth funk and disco beats, dual-playing his classic charismatic dark loner against the devilish playboy persona of Starboy. Broken-hearted or just plain heartless? With The Weeknd at his best, it's never just about the night before, there's always a morning after.
Best Tracks: 'Heartless'/'In Your Eyes'/'After Hours'
Agitprop Alterna - Peel Dream Magazine
Shoegaze, how I’ve missed you.
The blissed out, endlessly distorted guitar work of New York’s Joe Stevens and his lovingly crooned harmonies with Jo-Anne Hyun will bring you back to the pinnacle of 90s dream pop, warmly welcoming you back into the fuzzy, ethereal world ruled by My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride.
Peel Dream Magazine’s lush second record is so evocative of MBV (and Loveless particularly) that at times it can feel like Stevens is cosplaying as Kevin Shields, but Agitprop Alterna is such a faithful tribute that it’s hard to care. Sure, Stevens is wearing his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his influences, but Peel Dream Magazine’s abstract dreamscapes are great shoegaze works in their own right, with enough quirky individual touches to escape the shadow of their monumental idols.
Best Tracks: 'Pill'/'Up and Up'
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'
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'
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. Honestly, we can wait until December but this was already album of the year on April 17th, and if you haven't heard it yet you are doing yourself a disservice.
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'
folklore - Taylor Swift
Read the original review here.
folklore is the truest expression of Taylor Swift's abilities to date, an album that presents its artist with no strings or shackles attached. In turn we are rewarded with 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'
Ghosts V-VI: Together / Locusts - Nine Inch Nails
"Anybody out there? Ghosts V–VI. Hours and hours of music. Free. Some of it kind of happy, some not so much." Trent Reznor released Nine Inch Nails' fifth and sixth edition of the Ghosts instrumental series as a free download in March, encouraging fans to appreciate the ''power and need for CONNECTION''. Together and Locusts seemed to go under the radar, yet this duo of ambient pandemic soundtracks are the most engrossing work NIN have released in quite a while, simultaneously soothing and unsettling meditations for the times we are in.
The two parts act as yin and yang to each other, Together (the strongest of the pair) calmly providing gentle, synth shined waves of optimism and peace before Locusts takes the more characteristically NIN approach of fucking you up with its mind altering, nightmarish industrial environment. Taken as a whole, Ghosts V-VI are Reznor and Atticus Ross' most confrontational, direct work in some time, without a guitar in sight.
Best Tracks: 'Letting Go While Holding On'/'Together'/'Your Touch'/'The Worriment Waltz'/'Run Like Hell'
Honeymoon - Beach Bunny
A scintillating blast of emo punk-pop, Beach Bunny’s irresistible debut clocks in at just twenty-five minutes and doesn’t waste of second of it. Lili Trifilio’s band originally exploded online last year when single ‘Prom Queen’ went viral thanks to a Tik-Tok dance challenge, and Honeymoon will surely win over social media followers and newcomers alike with its charming, kickass brand of indie pop-rock.
Best Tracks: ‘Rearview’/’Ms. California’/’Dream Boy’
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 is 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 captures 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’
Likewise - Frances Quinlan
Likewise is Frances Quinlan's first solo album since forming Hop Along as a full band over a decade ago, having spent her formative music years as a solo act (then known as Hop Along, Queen Ansleis) ''out of necessity'' according to herself. ''A band inherently carries more energy than a person does solo'' said Quinlan in 2015 as her noise rock quartet 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'
Miss Anthropocene - Grimes
Five years on from Grimes' ascension to the electropop throne on Art Angels, Claire Boucher is back with a vengeance. While her landmark 2015 album perfected Grimes' gift for combining pure pop melodies with a hardcore electronic aesthetic, Miss Anthropocene is 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 explores soft and sinister territory throughout a swift forty four minutes. Boucher alternates between accessible and alienating as skillfully as ever across ten tracks – for all the chilled vibes of the euphonious 'Delete Forever', Miss Anthropocene retains 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'
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'/'Graceland Too'/'I Know The End'
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'
RTJ4 - Run The Jewels
There has never been a better time for Run The Jewels’ ferocious brand of hip-hop to hit the airwaves, 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 is as hard hitting as ever, yet these tracks take on a new life in modern times. RTJ4 is not just another gem in a stunningly consistent catalogue, but an all-important listen right now.
Best Tracks: 'ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)'/'JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)'
Sideways to New Italy - Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
‘’Stand at ceremony while the ship sinks/Put the iceberg in my tall drink’’ is the kind of line that distills Rolling Blackouts second album to a tee – sure, there’s a lot of bad shit happening in the world right now, but you could always be listening to Rolling Blackouts instead. Fran Kearney said he wanted to write a ‘’bedrock of hopefulness’’ on Sideways to New Italy and as such these ten tracks are a perfect dose of laid back, feel good summer rock, the kind that sometimes feels in short supply at the moment.
Don’t be fooled by the band’s chilled stoner vibes, RBCF’s distinctive radio rock come jangle pop guitar jams may go down smooth like summer wine but the Australian five piece are a deceptively talented gang led by an exceptional trio of singer-guitarists in Kearney (acoustic), Tom Russo (rythym) and Joe White (lead). With Sideways to New Italy, Rolling Blackouts continue their unmistakably upward trajectory.
Best Tracks: ‘Falling Thunder’/’The Only One’/’Cameo’
Song for Our Daughter - Laura Marling
Marling's seventh and best studio album is a gorgeously intimate ode to a fictional daughter, as the singer-songwriter gracefully pours 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'
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: ‘Selfless’/’Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus’/’At The Door’
The Slow Rush - Tame Impala
The cult audience amassed by Tame Impala over the past decade is the rarest of things in modern rock, yet The Slow Rush finds Kevin Parker ready to evolve as he adapts the band’s sound for a mainstream audience. The result is a psychedelic pop dreamscape, lushly tinged with disco and funk elements.
While perhaps lacking the arresting nature of Lonerism and Currents, Parker's typically glorious production ensures fans old and new will be deeply satisfied by The Slow Rush.
Best Tracks: 'Borderline'/'Lost in Yesterday'
Women in Music, Pt.III - Haim
Read the original review here.
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'/'Don't Wanna'/'Summer Girl'
That's it, folks! Thank you for reading, if you enjoyed this list please don't forget to subscribe and share.
I'll be back with plenty more reviews throughout the rest of the year and a full review of the year in December with best of lists for songs and albums. I can't wait to hear them all.