2020 is a year for the history books. When I started this blog, Covid-19 was a flu bug in China making bottom billing on international news. Now as I write up my end of year lists it has dominated and changed our lives in ways only dystopian fiction could have previously imagined. I sit in a freshly locked down London as many friends are facing Christmas on their own, having been cut off from their intended journeys to see their loved ones for Christmas – in some cases for the first time this year.
It has been a tough year for everyone. Health issues directly related to the plague or indirectly inflamed by the stress and restrictions to our lifestyles. This has meant that finding the energy and time coinciding to write regularly on here has been a trial at times. Album reviews fell away but the Friday Five persisted. All things told, I’d have loved to have shared more album reviews – many sit half written in the drafts right now – but it was not to be.
The list below summarises my listening this year. As my Spotify Unwrapped revealed, my preference as outlined below does not necessarily translate to listening quantity. It seldom does. As bad as 2020 has been in many ways, one way in which it has been an undoubted success is in music releases. The industry may be reeling as the live circuit along with all hospitality and events has all but evaporated. Artists and their crews have found innovative ways to keep busy and make money but nothing approaching the decent living that 2019 and all other years normally provide for these hard working folks. The wonders of the modern era though mean that music can still be made and released. In this we have been spoiled and in my small way of supporting, my shelves are groaning from over 40 new records and an ever growing list of titles yet to join them.
So to the list. I feels wrong to rank some of these but format is format. Here is the top 20 records of the year according to Musikigai. I hope you agree with some of it, find some missed gems among the titles and also that you won’t be shy in airing your outrage that I miss-treated or missed entirely your favourite album. Find me on IG and we can bask in the fallacy of our opinions and share some great tunes.
One more note before we get stuck in. I’m only 100% certain of rank order for the top two. Beyond that the each set of 5 albums could be easily shuffled at random and still be roughly accurate. (i.e. 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20). It’s a fluid list. One thing is absolutely true though, 2020 has had me enjoying music more than I have in a long time. I’ve felt more connected to it. The albums here are the ones that attracted my attention budget and that on reflection deserve to be immortalised in this snapshot of music taste, awkwardly stratified into some form of subjectively meritocratic order.
1. Gorillaz – Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez
The episodic delivery throughout the year, focussing on the single rather than the album concept has paid dividends many times over for the cartoon fronted musical collective. Song Machine finds Gorillaz on their best form in 10 years (since Plastic Beach) to produce something pretty remarkable that could even move above PB in the ranking once it has matured. It seems like the season and episode approach will continue in future years. If what we have seen in 2020 is any indication of what this approach can produce, I’m excited to see all that comes next.
2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
The audio hug we all needed this year. Dark and syrupy in its depths and euphoric and free in its highs, this album is a masterpiece in both concept and execution and dropped at a fortuitous time. It seems to have come second on a lot of mainstream outlet lists this year. Given the erratic nature of their number one records (Fiona Apple or literally anything else – we fit in the latter category here) it could be deduced that Punisher is the agreed album of the year through its consistently high rating.
3. Caribou – Suddenly
When this album dropped, Covid was a distant vague threat and a summer of festivals caching Dan Snaith as many times as possible lay ahead. After a 6-year break from the moniker, Caribou returned with the next evolution in his sound taking all that was wonderful on prior records and pushing through the production lens on the last half decade to further push the boundaries. The album of the summer we didn’t get to enjoy.
4. Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music
The surprise discovery for me this year. I have started to engage with the insurgent British jazz scene a little more seriously this year and the headliner this year for me is not Shabaka but Tom Misch. This album is a wonderful journey, a masterful play with song formation and a virtuoso display of musicianship from two artists enjoying their craft and building an audio world.
5. Sports Team – Deep Down Happy
Guitar music and indie bands are not dead. Sports Team take the indie guitar pop punk stylings and make you dance while enjoying incisive observation through the lyrics. The wry wit and sneering at parts of life make me smile and the music behind lifts me up. This album was due for review before life took over. The draft is still there. We will see how this year pans out as to whether it gets released. Suffice to say though my view is overwhelmingly positive and it was on path to be number one before Gorillaz landed in final form and the others had gestated.
6. JARV IS… – Beyond the Pale
Jarvis Cocker is on fiery typical Jarvis form here mixing social observation and commentary with storytelling and blunt sexual innuendo. The remarkable thing about this record of course was that it was never meant to exist. JARV IS… was intended to be a live-only project but they got talked into releasing an album proper (before the pandemic) and I’m so glad Cocker agreed. As much as I still want to see them live, having a record to set the expectation of what we may experience is always helpful and the nature of the songs is such that the live evolution and interpretation is as exciting as the very idea of a live show right now.
7. Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison
The National have been a slow burn new favourite obsession over the last few years, one that is still developing and I’m enjoying the slow reveal of each track and record as I slowly work through their catalogue. While the brothers Dessner were working with Taylor Swift, Matt broke loose to do his own thing and it is familiar to National listeners of course but ploughs it’s own furrow. This has been a record of real comfort this year and one I’m sure I will return to very frequently.
8. The Avalanches – We Will Always Love you
The late entry in the year that too many outlets did not wait for to publish their year end lists. Not so here! There is a chance it would be a lot higher here if it had been out earlier. It is my current obsession. I really hope this ranking ages well. I risked Tourist Wild at the last moment last year so how badly could this go? The Australian duo have returned for another album proper that still has the hallmarks of the plunder-pop that made them famous. It is a wonderfully produced tome that takes you out across the solar system and marvel at the magnificence of it all through its mix of blended tracks and singles.
9. IDLES – Ultra Mono
Joe Talbot and co were quick to follow up their modern classic Joy with this just-as-raw and explosive rock and punk record. Some messages are slightly more on the nose where they need to be and their signature sense of humour runs throughout. A sure-fire complement to the back catalogue that will only support their rise to victory.
10. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure
This was the best produced record of the year until Avalanches turned up. It is so. damn. beautiful. Also a good fun record. Shameless disco pop from start to finish but wrapped up in luxurious glamour. It sounds great. It’s good to listen to. It’s like an ear massage but with a dance beat.
11. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
We’re no pop-snobs round here. I was surprised by the this record when listening as part of the Mercury nominations but it captured me entirely. It is a rock solid pop record that should be held in the same esteem as early Gaga. I don’t often do pop music, but when I do, I like this. The particular genius here is in how the music reflects its title by being reminiscent of bygone pop eras – including those that your curator grew up with – but drags them kicking and screaming into the present and future. I think this record will age very well.
12. Doves – The Universal Want
Doves were always a band a felt I should like but could never get into when they were at their most busy and prominent. This decade later return hit all the right notes for me and possibly deserves to be higher up the list numerically but it’s been a strong year!
13. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Haim have always compelled and impressed. Their live show is something to admire (though oddly I’ve not been present at one yet) and of course ‘bass face’. Their third record is their strongest and cements them as one of the most interesting all-female rock bands around. Lots to enjoy here!
14. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
I love Wolf Alice. This band is very similar to Wolf Alice. This comparison is a complement. They are similar but not derivative. That said I have more often thought Lilac was actually on Wolf Alice’s second record this year than not. I see great things for this band when the live circuit returns as long as they’ve got the chops.
15. Everything Everything – Re-Animator
EE let their guard down for this record and it shows for better and worse. They let their Radiohead influence show a little to much in places leaving some tracks sounding like In Rainbows B-sides but where they hold themselves to their differences to their favourite band they shine as brightly as ever. Indie-dance math-rock continues to thrive with these guys.
16. EOB – Earth
A solo project that one wonders why it didn’t happen sooner. Ed O’Brien (of Radiohead) as finally struck out alone and for all intents and purposes it has paid off. Shangri-La is one of the best guitar-pop tracks of the year and Brazil still compels me to this day to mention just two tracks. Worth your time whether you like Radiohead or not.
17. The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do
Early out the gates in 2020 this record now feels like an old friend filled with sunny indie pop. An all round feel-good affair and one that fits alongside the Haim record if you’re looking for some sunshine in these dark months and times. Your Light can put a smile on anyone’s face for sure.
18. Disclosure – ENERGY
Isn’t it nice when artists you like stop faffing about aiming for the charts or being more commercially friendly and just do what they do well instead? Exactly the case here and the only mis-step is the single Birthday which is sounding very Radio 1 friendly but nonetheless makes my point as the VIP remix (read: what Disclosure would do to it if they weren’t faffing about) is a better fit. Great to see they guys back on form.
19. Georgia – Seeking Thrills
This record released this year right? It’s been such a long year. Back in January in the innocent days, this sophomore from Georgia slapped hard and it still does. Re-engineered following acclaim on singles released in 2019 it is a wall to wall dance pop totem.
20. Bombay Bicycle Club – Everything Else Has Gone Wrong
Also from the before times. This makes the top 20 cut out of nostalgia more than anything and the delight in seeing them produce a record that got me very excited about the indie-rock/pop genre that dominated my teenage years (landfill indie, anyone?). Doing what they do best and good to see them back on such form. If you like their first few records back in the day, don’t miss this one.
Also of note and in no particular order, these records also entertained my ears in one way or another this year (not always for very long or for good reasons in all cases, but all are worth a glance:
- Tim Minchin – Apart Together
- Keleketla – Keleketla
- Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
- Faithless – All Blessed
- Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
- Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – Viscerals
- Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death
- Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today
- Go Go Penguin – Go Go Penguin
- Taylor Swift – folklore
- Taylor Swift – evermore
- Against All Logic – 2018-2019
- The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form
- Khruangbin – Mordechai
- R.A.P Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Papers
- Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
- Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
- Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink
- Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy
- Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open
- Moses Boyd – Dark Matter
- Eminem – Music to be Murdered By
Additional special mention for Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA. I have only just started listening to this while pulling this post together (after pics and order and everything was done). Controversially excluded from the Mercury Prize 2020 nominations on a rules technicality that is now being changed to stop it from being an issue in future. On first listen it is brilliant, worthy of Mercury and would find itself mid-table in the top 20 I would think but too late now. There are always one or two late discoveries in the following year – this is my first.
So that’s it for 2020 folks. Hopefully 2021 brings us just as many musical delights to keep us sane while the vaccine gets rolled out around the world. Fingers crossed for a mosh pit this year. Whatever it bring you, Musikigai wishes you all health and happiness in the new year.