This year saw the concept of collective listening dissolve. Listening habits shifted as people sought comfort or distraction in their own homes. But for every new release that suddenly felt at odds with our current condition – unlistenable even – there were countless albums that chimed just so with the vacillating emotions we were feeling in 2020. From escapist pop epics and lockdown opuses, to works that amplified Black voices when – long, long overdue – the world was listening. These are our top albums of 2020.
“I’m bored to death, let’s argue,” deadpans Dana Margolin in the opening bars of Born Confused, displaying impressive world-weariness considering this is also Every Bad’s opening line. It’s precisely this mercuriality that makes the Brighton-formed four-piece’s second album such a compelling proposition, finding Margolin enraged one moment and beaten down the next. “I don’t want to get bitter/ I want us to get better,” she pleads over John Cale-esque violin on Lilac, repeating the phrase with increased aggression until it shifts almost imperceptibly from an affirmation to an accusation. Released on the eve of the first lockdown, Every Bad feels specifically tailored for these disquieting times.
Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin
On Phoenix, Eartheater – aka Alexandra Drewchin – feels closer than ever. Recorded during a 10-week residency in Zaragoza, northeastern Spain, Drewchin finds her resurrection in a more stripped back, pop-leaning sound that places her vocals and guitar at the forefront. There’s still room for experimentalism and Drewchin retains her ethereal touch throughout, but this is her most assertive and intimate work to date. On the artwork, red wings protrude from her back and sparks shoot up to her fingertips and between her legs. Phoenix is about the rebirth after a breakup, and here, the loss of love couldn’t look more powerful.
Five years have passed since the release of Dream a Garden – enough time to forget how strange that album was coming off the back of Classical Curves’ cold minimalism. Pillowland betrays some of that creative restlessness while still somehow – again – sounding exactly like Jam City. This time, his intoxicating and fragmentary blend of references is pulled from the dressing room floor of pop music history: glam triplets meet noise on They Eat the Young while Baby Desert Nobody shimmers like M83 after a doom-scroll binge. A kind of bit-crushed emo is minted on I Don’t Want to Dream About It Anymore while Actor calls back to the Nightslugs era. An unexpected and fun new chapter from an artist we’ve given up second guessing.
Send Them To Coventry
Records that arrive amidst the clamour of anticipation often run the risk of falling that bit short. The debut mixtape from British-Gambian rapper Pa Salieu is a rare exception. Of course, hit singles like Frontline or Betty gave fair warning of the arrival of a singular new voice in UK rap, but it’s always intriguing to observe how a vision is built out, and whether those flashes of brilliance can be sustained across a wider project. Send Them to Coventry delivers easily – a decisive statement of intent that perfectly caps a breakthrough year for the 23-year old. “What’s your name? King Salieu / Where you from? C-O-V, hashtag City of Violence” Pa declares on the M1llionz-featuring Informa – as if you’re going to forget any time soon.
It’s so easy to forget how segregated music still is to this day until someone like Bartees Strange comes along. His debut LP, Live Forever, isn’t so much an indie rock album by a Black artist as it is a bubbling melting pot of every genre that has touched his life, ranging all the way from gospel to emo, trap to metal. It feels organic, raw, truthful and just. When Strange’s vocals turn to sandpaper on bombastic tracks like Mustang, he holds everything together perfectly, not just as a collection of songs but as a mirror image of his psyche bursting at the seams. It’s one of the most awe-inducing and urgent debuts in recent memory, and the only shame is that the world wasn’t ready for it sooner.
Haus of Altr
It’s fitting that MoMA Ready opted for an opulent purple hue for his Deep Technik cover art, as the music it represented shared a similarly rich and lustrous tone. The album was recorded in just a week by the prolific New York-based HAUS of ALTR founder and multidisciplinary artist – one of a string of releases he released in 2020 – it captures a buoyancy as it orbits around a deep house nucleus, upping the tempo while losing none of the mood. Deep Technik is a prime example of how spontaneous experimentation can result in standout material when coupled with an innate understanding of the forms of dance music.
Crabs in a Bucket
Crabs in a Bucket, Nines’ third studio album, is ambitious definitely, yet also richly symbolic when you consider the adversity the 30-year-old rapper from Harlesden has faced in his life. Over impeccable production, Nines takes stock of his journey, battling the temptations of his old life and walking the line between fame and the streets. There is something for every Nines fan here – epic storytelling (NIC), gritty confessionals (Energy) and turn-up anthems (Airplane Mode), but it’s the way he brings his narratives bursting to life that leaves the biggest impression. With his charisma, and his lyrical powers only increasing, Crabs in a Bucket signals Nines’ ascension into the pantheon of UK rap’s cult heroes.
Forever, Ya Girl
Forever, Ya Girl introduced the world to a new star, a singular talent whose vision we’re only just getting to know. The arresting debut album from the Chicago-born, New York City-based producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist plays out like a series of coming-of-age monologues set to her distinct and self-produced take on lo-fi R&B. Elevating the music still further is the mindful tapestry of pop culture references and samples of readings, performance and interviews. Through this outpouring of herself, KeiyaA held space for Black voices to be affirmed and uplifted, and it was absolutely essential.
In an interview with Crack Magazine, Angus Finlayson revealed, “I just like learning things”. Finlayson’s curiosity takes flight in Second Language, with inspiration springing from his own language studies, and the idea of breaking down structures and reforming anew (listen closely and you might catch soundbites from recordings of academics snatched from YouTube). More compelling still is how Finlayson transfers this approach to club music, twisting tropes into new abstractions. While Second Language cycles unpredictably through ideas – at around 170 BPM – Second Language never feels like a conceptual exercise. Instead, the effect is akin to a rollercoaster ride travelling at breakneck speed through every shift and hard turn.
Pray For Paris
Griselda Records knew no bounds in 2020, running away with the title of hip-hop’s most impactful label this year. Moulded in earnest by Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn, his curation skills are most pronounced on his first of three albums this calendar year. Pray for Paris packs in assists from Tyler, The Creator, Wale, Freddie Gibbs and Griselda brethren Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Boldy James. It sees Gunn in rare form as he opens up his expansive world of luxury, powered by the street life. After serious work in the underground for years, PFP marks Gunn as a major player.
Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
Written in direct response to the events that unfurled following the murder of George Floyd, Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry is the sound of America’s Black community hitting crisis point. Dark and frantic, the record presents a stark narrative: a relentless whirlwind of frenetic beats, interwoven with snapshots of police radio, ghostly piano, saxophone and spoken word. Clearly audible in the music’s DNA are the exploratory rhythms of free jazz, as well as the futurism of techno and the skittish rhythms of footwork. Here is an exploration of Black music as a result of “living in trauma within a prescribed future”, and it demands your immediate attention.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters
You know there’s still some hope left when Fiona Apple returns to speak her truth and everyone shuts up and listens. Fetch the Bolt Cutters felt like it was made specifically for quarantine, when, in truth, Apple had been working on it over the past five years. Recorded in the comfort of her Venice Beach home, each song on Fetch the Bolt Cutters captures an intimacy that, on its release, cut through the noise of early lockdown. An album for survivors, Apple challenges the listener to reexamine what they have control over – and act accordingly.
Written during a period of (pre-pandemic) solitude, Cenizas – the second of three releases released in quick succession between 2019 and 2020 – is an experiment in looking inwards. Unlike Jaar’s most famous work, there’s little concession to structure or forward movement. In its stead is a sense of suspension, of otherwise fleeting and opaque impressions being held in space. Jaar’s detailed sound design, always so tactile, becomes unsettlingly psychedelic here; the scrape of cello strings, the resigned exhalations of a solo clarinet, a muted piano, all left to marinate amidst synthetic chatter of noise and church-like reverb. The effect is questing, meditative, at times profound, and – like all great artworks – raises more questions than it could possibly answer.
It could feel like damning with faint praise to say that Danielle Balbuena’s contribution to Ghost Town was the best thing about Kanye’s last LP. And yet her debut as 070 Shake only served to further underscore the fact that, collectively, we still owe Ye for boosting the profile of such a talent. Modus Vivendi showcases Balbuena’s irreverent approach to genre, finding the New Jersey-singer/rapper settling on a mutant sound somewhere between psychedelic soul and emo rap, while expressing an emotional vulnerability that feels refreshingly at odds with output of many of her G.O.O.D. Music labelmates.
Saint Cloud is less a collection of songs and more the document of a complete life reset. Written after getting sober, and following her relocation from Philadelphia to Kansas City, Katie Crutchfield’s fifth album is in sharp contrast with 2017’s Out In the Storm, eschewing the dense layers of guitar distortion in favour of the sun-dappled Americana consistent with her Alabama roots. Crutchfield’s Southern vocal inflections have scarcely sounded more at home than here, interwoven through the timeless, country-rock shimmer of Lilacs, or delicately arranged, layer upon layer, in Fire’s exquisite harmonies. A revelation of a record, for both the author and the audience.
Pray 4 Love
Rod Wave is onto something special. On his second studio album, the Florida native rapped and crooned with the passion of four Marvin Gayes as he strove to be loved and understood in a cold world. He wears his heart on his sleeve as he speaks on his life and its twists and turns, with standout tracks such as Fuck the World and No Weakness melding raw emotion to the kind of narrative songwriting that makes the listener truly invested. This is the sound of a musician reaching the peak of his powers.
Ten Billion Angels
On the artwork for Ten Billion Angels, fluid shapes float across a nude figure with four arms. Designed by Zora Jones and Sinjin Hawke, it perfectly embodies the album itself: a suite of glossy, slippery electronics that were largely inspired by CGI tentacle erotica. On her debut LP, Jones masterfully demonstrates her skill in world building, and flies us to her cyborg fantasy realm. It’s one where post-club anthems are the soundtrack, and alien melodies are expressed through squeaky, pitch-shifted vocals. At the heart of Jones’ imagined world is a core of human emotion, filled with tenderness and longing.
Many of the styles touched on across Roza Terenzi’s debut LP – lush downtempo, electro, breaksy techno – may well be considered sounds du jour, but in the hands of the Melbourne producer they are given new life and personality. The melodies and textures on Modern Bliss warp and drift with a loose, painterly touch of psychedelia, and the beats manage at once to feel laid-back yet forceful. Throughout, we are invited to dance but also to slip away – a feeling that only the best dance music can achieve.
Streamline / Interscope
On Chromatica, Planet Earth is “cancelled”. In real life, it wasn’t far off, making the prospect of “looking for Wonderland” – as Gaga sings on Alice – far more appealing than bedding down with the New Normal. But this album isn’t entirely about escapism. There are monsters on Planet Chromatica, and Gaga examines her PTSD and history of sexual assault. The album’s unwavering focus on pain is braided into the libidinal pulse of 911, the dopamine-soaring Fun Tonight and the trance-y euphoria of Sine from Above. Unflinching in its embrace of “radical self-acceptance”, Chromatica delivers cathartic dance-pop we didn’t know we needed.
Untitled (Black Is)
Forever Living Originals
A lot of the time, releasing your music anonymously can be seen as a bit of a gimmick, but with SAULT’s new record (one of two the prolific collective released in 2020), their reason for keeping their identities a mystery is as clear as it will ever be. Untitled (Black Is) functions as a healing balm for a lot of the racial discourse that rightfully took over the media landscape this year. And by staying anonymous, SAULT have taken on the role of disembodied chorus – the album’s mantric swathes of R&B and lo-fi disco refused to be ignored, while centering both its soulful 70s instrumentation and powerful message squarely on the Black experience. A much-needed triumph.
Microphones in 2020
“one long song… recorded nowhere” reads the Bandcamp page for Microphones in 2020, the long awaited resurrection of Phil Elverum’s Microphones alias, in his signature notepad cynicism. Across 44 minutes Elverum drifts through ambient folk and absorbing rock textures in this reflection on self and memory. By presenting it as one piece, Elverum’s delicate compositions flow into one another in a natural, earthly current. While it might sound lofty and pretentious, there’s a clarity to these admissions of aimlessness and detachedness which chimes universally.
Lil Uzi Vert
Generation Now / Atlantic Records
Before its release, Eternal Atake had become the stuff of legend. For two years, Uzi and his label had been caught in a feedback loop – blaming one another for delays and pushing the record further and further into the ether. In January of 2019, Uzi even told his followers he was “done with music”. Then, in March, it landed. Out of this world in almost every possible sense, Eternal Atake sees Uzi soar through trippy P-funk, moonlit emo-rap and a small cosmos of eccentric, intergalactic bangers. In the end, this was a mission too important to be jeopardised.
“I feel my story is still untold,” begins Simulation, the opening track on Róisín Machine, Róisín Murphy’s simmering jacuzzi of a fifth studio album. There is truth to these lyrics: while Murphy has enjoyed perhaps one of the most eclectic and critically acclaimed pop careers of the past few decades, she remains in many ways a niche artist. This album seeks to change that, by alchemising the disco sass of her quintessential 90s act Moloko with the pointedly weirdo dancefloor intellect of her solo work up until now. In a year where the disco revival hit hard, Róisín Machine’s cream effortlessly rose to the top.
K-Lone’s output, in the past, has consisted of tracks purposefully built for the club. But to escape the gloom of one English winter, the producer pivoted away from dancefloor-oriented tracks, slowed down and turned his hand to ambient, tropical sounds. Inspired by Jon Hassell’s Fourth World, Cape Cira delves into ideas of the unknown and the imaginary. The natural world is represented through sumptuous sounds of ocean waves and bird song; acoustic instrumentation blur into digitised sounds. We may still be staying inside, but Cape Cira unspools like a daydream, telling us to imagine a world outside of our walls.
Ho, Why Is You Here?
Tamia Carter, aka Mobile, Alabama’s own Flo Milli, had one question to pose to every other upstart rapper in 2020: “Ho, why is you here?” And honestly, she was in her right to ask. By the time the mainstream caught up to her ultra-catchy, TikTok-famous breakout single, BeefFlow Mix, she had already been Gen-Z’s favourite rapper for months. There’s a certain kind of bravado that can only come from being a ridiculously talented teenager, and Flo Milli has it in spades – she rhymes like someone twice her age, or like Dionne from Clueless if she were Southern and not scared to drive on the freeway. Ho, Why is You Here? will rightfully be her calling card for years, the type of career-solidifying debut that most rappers can only dream of.
Originally conceived as a creative community, Vancouver collective Crack Cloud is largely made up of former addicts who also work in harm reduction. Perhaps this explains why their debut possesses a kind of unsentimental, unvarnished humanity. And while their strain of modern rage, self-destructive and otherwise, feels realer than most, it’s elevated by an ambitious musical inventiveness. The collective approach results in a freewheeling approach to styles, with Pain Olympics embracing punk rap, space-age pop choirs, sludgy orchestral rock and, in Oester Stew, an extended drum solo. A chaotic, cacophonous listen in places, sure, but it’s an album which vibrates with the kind of joy that can’t be synthesised.
Out of all England’s pioneering jazz new-school, few have a handle on texture and atmosphere quite like Moses Boyd. While live instrumentation (specifically percussion) sits at the heart of his living, breathing compositions, Dark Matter showcases an artist skilled in employing outside signals to achieve something greater. The album’s title is itself a reference to space, the invisible forces which guide and unite us. And the record bursts with this propulsion – kinetic electronic samples, moody production, expertly curated guest vocalists. Boyd is in full control, like an airbender in the eye of the storm.
CS + Kreme
Across a handful of EPs and now, one remarkable debut LP, Melbourne duo CS + Kreme have marked out a sound identifiably their own. Though the sonic palette of these narcotised vignettes is, at first glance, austere, there’s an emotional potency and level of detail that rises to the surface with time. And make no mistake, Snoopy is an album you’ll want to spend time with: from the scene-setting, organ-laced Saint, to the incantatory and Coil-reminiscent Blue Flu, through to the haunting closer Mount Warning. Rarely has desolation sounded so romantic.
Healing is a Miracle
Julianna Barwick could not have known that the title of her fourth studio album would emerge as a statement akin to defiance upon its arrival this summer. To forgive, to move past, to let go, now feel so unearthly as to border on the divine. Healing Is a Miracle is, firstly, a major benchmark in Barwick’s oeuvre, sanding down her borderless soundscapes into something resembling bona fide pop songs. And yet the record already feels burdened by the weight of something more intangible, as if by evoking the spirits of Sigur Rós and Vangelis, Barwick has forged a transcendent, humanist document of our collective will to better ourselves. The result is, truly, miraculous.
Archy Marshall has grown up a lot since he first broke through in the early aughts, skillfully refining his knack for oppression and dread into an artform. The intervening years between 2017’s insular, gunk-obsessed The OOZ and this year’s Man Alive! may have seen him become a father, but did fatherhood dispel the gloom? In a word, no. Man Alive! sees the 26-year-old tapping into something still darker, honing in on, and confronting his inner turmoil by drowning himself in a symphony of anxiety and despair. It’s what you would expect to hear while you’re walking down a dimly lit street after a rainy day, a hint of dampness hanging in the air. And it’s strangely beautiful.
A Written Testimony
This year will be remembered for much, but the long-awaited arrival of Jay Electronica’s first full-length album will live long in hip-hop’s psyche. Arriving ten years since Exhibit C shook the game to its core, not even the imposing presence of Jay-Z on seven of the album’s 10 tracks could distract from Jay Elec’s mind bending, Islam-influenced bars, most pronounced on Ghost Of Soulja Slim, The Blinding and Universal Soldier. Recorded, auspiciously, in 40 days and 40 nights, the rap game can rest easy, finally knowing what Jay Elec finally has to say.
On YHLQMDLG, the most exciting voice in Latin hip-hop stakes his claim to the throne. A 20-song barrage, Bad Bunny’s second full-length LP is an unabashed party album compared to audacious experimental debut X 100PRE. That said, if sprawling surrealist perreos like Safaera and rock-heavy penultimate track Hablamos Mañana are any indication, Puerto Rico’s finest hasn’t stopped letting his freak flag fly. His most collab-heavy record to date – featuring slick verses from mainstays like Daddy Yankee and MC Yaviah as well as newer voices Myke Towers and Nesi, who raps the hook on his biggest hit so far Yo Perreo Sola – Bad Bunny proves he can go toe-to-toe with the big dogs of Latin hip-hop with swagger and finesse; in other words, the man can truly do whatever he wants.
In depressingly predictable fashion, it felt like more energy was expended scrutinising Clare Boucher’s personal life than it was giving her music the time it so obviously deserved. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty to unpick on Miss Anthropocene, either. A concept album about climate change featuring a title that conflates “misanthropy” with the proposed scientific term for our current geological age, Boucher’s fifth album proved her most tonally cohesive, drawing on industrial and ambient textures to create crepuscular electronic-pop that she playfully termed “ethereal nu metal”. A brooding, brilliantly immersive listen.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately
A decade on from his debut album Learning, album number five found Mike Hadreas embarking on an ambitious project: rewriting the Great American Songbook from a queer perspective. Inspired by his work with choreographer Kate Wallich on 2019’s touring show The Sun Still Burns Here, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is often intensely physical in its subversion of macho musical conventions – see the seductive, slide guitar-driven Describe or the ethereal take on heartland rock during Nothing At All – while never once sacrificing intimacy. The result is Hadreas’ boldest and most brave collection yet.
Like all of Beatrice Dillon’s work, Workaround feels like an alien entity: referencing styles as disparate as jazz, grime and modern pop, but operating in a world entirely of its own. So distinct is Dillon’s approach to processing and positioning sound that, despite featuring a host of guest contributions (Batu, Laurel Halo, Untold), every moment of the record feels unmistakably her own. Her synths shine with a close, radiant glow, and her rhythms tumble to form wonderfully left-footed grooves. It’s the kind of deft experimentation that exists outside of time – sounding proto and future in equal measure.
To Feel Embraced
Temporary Residence Ltd
If there’s such a thing as future-jazz, it technically didn’t exist until Sparkle Division invented it this summer. The duo comprising ambient icon William Basinski and his longtime studio assistant Preston Wendel strike a quietly revolutionary tone on this, their years-in-the-making debut – refashioning the earthy rhythms of samba and bossa nova into the gelatinous, synth-modulated world of the future. The vast canyons of reverb and richly layered production, typical Basinski touches, may keep To Feel Embraced from ever contending as an outright party record, but even so, this microcosm of a pleasuredome is unmatched in the brilliance of its construction.
Chloe x Halle
Parkwood Entertainment / Columbia Records
From their early YouTube covers to today, sisters Chloe and Halle’s knack for making pop magic came through their lifelong connection – an ability to harmonise and riff with unrehearsed symmetry and authentic exuberance. On Ungodly Hour, they bring this formula into adulthood. Tales of longing, hedonism, empowerment and growing up are brought to life through lavish sophisti-pop production and razor-sharp R&B melodies. The entire record and accompanying visuals are executed to perfection, a level of diligence which could be credited to the sisters’ mentor Beyoncé. This is triple-distilled pop music, technically complex but made to look effortless.
Polaris Prize-winner Lido Pimienta’s follow-up to La Papessa maintains a spiritual slant, but Miss Columbia deals in so much more than ceremonials. An experimental work sandwiched between two invocations to the sun and moon, the Colombian-Canadian musician’s third record boldly moves through traditional drums and the sounds of her birth country with a floating voice that sings of queer desire. The record tackles her complicated relationship with Colombia by way of centering her Afro-Colombian and Wayuu roots, not just in the content of the record but in Quiero Que Me Salves, a pared-back collaboration with legendary traditional group Sexteto Tabalá. At its core, Miss Colombia is a bold proclamation of healing against heartbreak and colonial wounds, the sound of an artist seeking to find her place in the present context while honouring the past.
Citizen Boy and Mafia Boyz
From Avoca Hills to the World
Since the age of 13 – whether operating solo or alongside his Mafia Boyz crew – Durban producer Citizen Boy has been instrumental in developing the raw South African house music sound that is now recognised globally as gqom. From Avoca… collates the last eight years of his output, charting its development from a rough, adolescent sound through to its modern form. Early tracks like Uhuru and Ndanda feel beautifully bare-bone – like blueprints – while the Auto-tuned vocals and anthemic chords of 2019’s Mzansi hint at where things could be headed next. And when fans include Kode9 and Kanye West, there’s no limit to where that might be.
Nyege Nyege Tapes
In a year which saw many turning to ambient music as a mental balm, Metal Preyers’ disquieting atmospherics provided a different kind of thrill. The concept behind the audiovisual project was relatively simple: London producer Jesse Hackett and his Teeth Agency cohort Chicago artist Mariano Chavez join forces with underground veteran Lord Tusk, immersing themselves for six galaxy-braining weeks amongst Kampala’s nightlife. The result rotates on a refined horror sensibility clearly shared by all three artists; a hallucination of undulating textures, swampy ambience and uncanny drone. Assisted by a select force of Uganda musicians, the passages of rapid-fire polyrhythms, courtesy of storied drummer Omutaba, serve to complete an album that essays dread as catharsis.
More than most songwriters, Phoebe Bridgers understands how fine the line can be between the dull ache of depression and hysterical laughter. It’s a dichotomy that she explored on 2017’s Stranger In the Alps with exquisite results. With Punisher she upped the ante further, giving voice to an entire generation with her self-lacerating humour. “I’m too tired to have a pissing contest,” she sighs on Saviour Complex, before immediately picking a fight on ICU with the surly assertion, “I hate your mom”. Cynicism and candour co-exist harmoniously throughout, while Bridgers expands her musical horizons with lush arrangements featuring strings and muted brass. The poet laureate we deserve.
How I'm Feeling Now
When the world shut down, How I’m Feeling Now was the gentle push of motivation we so needed. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Charli XCX, arguably one of the most productive and inventive pop stars of our time, should use the isolation of lockdown to create a pop album that reflected on this very unique experience – and capture a moment in time. This suite of electro pop jams navigates the space between love and loneliness – and serves to remind us that, while crying in the club is temporarily cancelled, we can still have a party in our bedrooms. After all, the rave in your heart never dies.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist
Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs is hip-hop’s unofficial golden boy, dropping consistently brilliant projects for the best part of six years. Linking up with legendary producer The Alchemist in 2020 only made sense. With Alc’s smooth, soulful and cinematic production providing the soundboard, Gibbs digs deep into his own psyche and internal struggle as a former drug dealer (God Is Perfect, Skinny Suge), while paying dues to icons of Black gangsterdom (Look At Me, Frank Lucas). Lyrically mesmerising and sonically captivating, Alfredo is a short but sweet indication of a budding new partnership.
Nyege Nyege Tapes
Sam Karugu and Martin ‘Lord Spike Heart’ Khanja, the artists behind Duma, may have deep roots in Nairobi’s fertile metal scene, but their interest in extreme music goes beyond – while not discounting – blast beats and primordial howls. Encompassing the dystopian, machine-facilitated promise of electronic music, their self-titled debut is an intense listen, drawing on programmed polyrhythms, industrial techno of the head-cleaning variety and otherworldly synth textures which, in any other context, might aspire to beauty. Despite being a far cry from the dancefloor, the Nyege Nyege affiliation makes perfect sense: this is a thrilling, intriguing, visceral record as cathartic as anything the Kampala label have put out to date.
The UK Black music scene’s first major statement of 2020 still holds up as one of its best. Opening up a grittier side to himself, J Hus finds revolutionary fervour on his sophomore effort. Wrapping up a prison stint in 2019, he sounds revitalised and driven by a mission of self-improvement; see tracks like Reckless, Helicopter and Fight For Your Right. But the essence of J Hus remains – his melodies, one-liners and magnetic charm serve to add levity and entertain. It may not be littered with breakthrough hits like debut Common Sense, Big Conspiracy perfectly re-adjusts Hus’ focus, with compelling results.
Dua Lipa never really left us, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Future Nostalgia is anything but a homecoming. Has she refined and polished her irresistible dance-pop goodness into pure perfection? Yes, of course, but her sophomore album posits her as something far beyond the measures of the next great pop star, positioning her instead into a lineage of a distinctly British take on hedonism, forever toeing the line between being devilishly coy and disarmingly off-the-cuff. Calling to mind the mature maximalism of forebears like George Michael, Dua Lipa roared into 2020 with the defiant sense of having a good time on her own terms, defining the next generation of pop diva as a mere afterthought. The best we could do is hope to keep up.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Yves Tumor’s music always sounds like it’s coming at you through a thick fog, or a distorted radio signal beaming in from both the past and the future at the same time. It’s visceral and touching and a little unsettling, but it’s these qualities that have made him one of the most prescient experimental electronic artists of the past few years. While Heaven to a Tortured Mind, his fourth studio album, retains his air of mystique, it also positions him front and centre, in a way that his previous work didn’t – here, Tumor plays the rockstar, surfing waves of crunchy guitars and splashing drums. By stepping out of the shadows, Tumor has given us some of his best music to date.
DJ Python makes music to get wrapped up in. Much like immersive, open-world video games, there are a wealth of possibilities and surprises tucked away inside his records just waiting to be explored, and Mas Amable is no different. Once again, Python returns to his ‘deep reggaeton’ signature, a style that combines meditative elements both blissed-out and banging from reggaeton, house and ambient. This time, though, the record locks into its groove early, and stays there for the duration of the record. The effect is hypnotic. As the tracks shift imperceptibly beneath your feet, texture bleeding into texture, it’s impossible to resist the temptation to be enveloped into Python’s remarkable world.
We did a lot of listening by ourselves in 2020. Perhaps this was what made the idea of being transported elsewhere so inviting. E.M.M.A. has, of course, always had a knack for evoking mood, although it was usually grafted onto nimble drum programming optimised for dancefloors. Indigo Dream suggests the London producer’s parallel career composing for cinema – that other dimly-lit dreamspace – has only sharpened that instinct. There are few nods to the club here, with structure coming instead from recurring themes and a narrative plotted in tension and release. On the surface, tracks like Glitter and Ryan Gosling in Space, with their synth motifs and bit-crushed drums, may call to mind the hallucinogenic leer of cult cinema, but Indigo Dream wasn’t chasing instant gratification. Instead, Indigo Dream languished, casting an intoxicating spell for 34 minutes, before leaving us alone in the dark.
Urged to retreat indoors in response to Covid-19, this year has seen us all examining our surroundings a little closer, pondering the man-made and natural barriers around us. The concept of ‘home’, it’s revealed, is not always simple. Duval Timothy has been ruminating over ideas of home for some time, and it remains a central theme in his work.
For Timothy, home is both south London, where he was born and raised, and Sierra Leone, where his father migrated from, and where Timothy now spends a few months of every year. Caught between the tangled British-African axis, Timothy found comfort in exploring his heritage in Sierra Leone through various artistic practices: traditional weaving, oil painting and then later, through music.
Through every brush stroke, thread or field recording, Timothy dissects with razor-sharp precision matters that orbit members of the African diaspora. Zooming in on his identity, he explores the dichotomy of simultaneously being an insider and outsider in your own home(s), and of being caught between polar identities. Despite the multidisciplinary artist channelling this across multiple mediums – painting, photography, video, textiles – music is the medium where he can blend most of these practices into a singular, intimate project.
His previous two releases, 2018’s 2 Sim and 2017’s Sen Am, solidified Timothy’s propensity for storytelling. He weaved together personal Whatsapp voice notes from family members and conversations with friends of splintered upbringings divided between Africa and the UK, amongst the intimate soundscapes of cars honking in the busy streets of Freetown and the wandering, nomadic keys of his piano.
His new album Help is just as personal as its predecessors. But the voices are more fragmented – like Timothy has held up a mirror to himself and shattered it to pieces. Whilst he maintains a sense of both narrative and candor, Help reveals a turning point in his work where he leaves enough abstraction for the listener to lean in, piece it together anew, and reimagine the story. In a period of time where people crave escapism from reality as much as the raw truth, his work paradoxically offers both.
Help was conceived when Timothy was in a bad headspace, initially branding the project a mixtape and building it around a collage of self-help samples from YouTube. He removed those samples but the essence of that fragile state, and the album’s intention as a tool of catharsis and healing remains present.
The LP incorporates more instrumentation and synthetic sound design than his previous piano-focused work. Among distant metallic clangs and nebulous half-sung sentences, Timothy ties together the raw energy and flow of hip-hop (Groundnut), the soulful spirit and chord progressions of jazz (Alone) and the hypnotic drum loops of drum’n’bass (Next Tomorrow).
His collaborators are similarly unconstrained by genre. Working with Rodaidh McDonald, Twin Shadow and Melanie Faye for the first time and returning to partner with Lil Silva, Mr Mitch and Vegyn, Timothy brings out the more experimental sides of their craft.
His new partnership with Twin Shadow results in the album’s most powerful track, Slave. Through heavy keys, a whimpering electric guitar and the spiraling, child-like vocal refrain from his partner Ibiye Camp, Timothy explores the idea of ownership in music, and the systemic frameworks that work against Black artists through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade. By including a sample of Pharrell discussing the issue of artists owning their masters, and featuring plasticine likenesses of the late Nipsey Hussle and Prince in the stop-motion music video, Timothy presents himself in solidarity alongside these artists who have championed for more equitable business partnerships.
This is Timothy’s strong suit: his ability to bring intimacy to widespread cultural issues – examining agency, the diaspora, colonial structures – through the sound of a foot pushing on a piano pedal and a mutating vocal sample. His sonic abstraction doesn’t dictate how you should feel, but rather gently guides you, leaving room for the listener to draw their own conclusions.
This approach is best summed up on his track Look, where the minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly describes his artistic method, saying: “I don’t like decoration, ‘cos to me the painting has to really mean something. I mean it’s hard to say what it means except what you feel and what you can do with, say, looking… investigating.”
Nothing on Help is decorative. Each sudden piano stab or guitar lick adds emotional weight. The beauty in his minimalist, emotive-driven approach, is that it asks you to fill in the blanks, and to dig deeper beneath the surface to feel something. Approach his work with Ellsworth Kelly’s mentality, as you might an abstract painting. As you sit still with it, tilt your head to examine it from different angles, you’ll come to find something in it that wasn’t apparent at first glance or something that feels like it exists just for you.