Welcome to the top 20 of this year’s top 40 album countdown. Warning: pleasure lies ahead.
As I said yesterday in kicking off the top 40 with albums 40 to 21 this list is not all the good albums of this year, let alone all the albums released this year, but it’s a fine start. Take a look at these beauties and you’ll see there are many genuinely stunning and – history will confirm - potentially great records in this list.
Wherever possible I’ve included a link to my review of the album, or if I didn’t do one, someone else’s – click on the album title to go to the review - and today you’ll also find a link to a playlist spotlighting each of these albums. Find it here.
Then at the end I’ve thrown in a few artists discovered this year, in some cases belatedly, who I intend following closely from now, and I recommend you do too. Again, if I reviewed them, you’ll get a link.
(You will notice one artist has two albums in one spot. I decided they’re a pair, a double disc of the one project. You may not think it legit, but you can’t stop me!)
Come back Monday for a playlist-to-end-playlists of the songs of 2020. It’s a corker.
And remember, buy music, don’t just stream it. It’s good for the artists and good for your soul.
So, finally, the top 20 albums of 2020 from 20 to 1 …
“It feels unleashed now, a heady mix of swagger, drama, classicism and big, big tunes wanting to run free.”
“The fact is, before you even get to Letting You Go, the album’s final track, there’s been so much already about the questions we ask ourselves, and the way we dream our way out of the, here and now, that Isbell seems to throb with the energy of it all.”
“Its most obvious constituent parts are Matt Berninger’s concurrent positions as wearied, aware observer, and self-reflective, partially-crushed, confessor; his slow, intimate and measured delivery (no exclamations in the vein of Mr November here) in a baritone that sometimes arcs higher into suggestions of tension or release; and the sense that these stories are in theory minor but in practice etched themselves on the characters.”
“In all of these songs, whether she’s certain of the past or troubled by what it might portend, glad to have been in that love or scared of going there again, Andrews has a way of vocally bringing everything to the table without ever showboating. It just feels right.”
“If you thought Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks or Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear were hurt and hard. If you thought Phil Collins’ Face Value was bitter, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… unflinching and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours frank, you’re about to be shown they can all be matched and then topped for brutal and direct.”
“Sandcastles springs from a similar nervy, prickly, but never leaden, base as The Slits with the snub-nosed push of fellow Melbournians, The Peep Tempel: Brown, fast and nimble but unerring, leading the pack into a hailstorm with McKechnie zig-zagging around him and Boyle head down/bum up being the motor.”
“It’s not raw but it is close-quarters. Which puts so much of the weight on the songwriting and the singing: if either were to falter across these 47 minutes there’s little to “rescue” the material. Spoiler alert – neither falter.”
“The relentlessness of drummer Tom Coll and bassist Conor Deegan in tracks like the foreboding Living In America, the prickling Televised Mind and the grafittied bus seats edginess of I Was Not Born, feels like the scudding clouds of tension coalescing, changing the tenor of everything around them like light disappearing and moving shadows into more imposing darkness.”
“Principally with co-writer Matt Hales, La Havas nails an indeterminate mood, a flexible one, that means the songs seemingly react like light sensors on your screens, shifting between day and night, interior and exterior, hopeful and weary, without changing structure.”
“So Happy Apart builds and opens out like The Turtles at their sunshine afternoon best (and when the brass arrives two minutes in it’s like the space had always had them there – how is that possible?), while Waiting is a prototype power ballad that exists without need for bombast and yet seems to fill the space.”
“With principal co-writer and co-producer, Aaron Dessner, of indie rock’s own monarchs of adult pain, The National, Swift builds a soundscape of shimmer and shadows, of murmuring rhythms and back-of-the-room guitars, of upfront voice unadorned and (on one track) counter voice of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sounding like a month of lost days, of acoustic piano and electronic drums, of Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens, of The Sundays and Mark Lanegan, of Allison Krause and, well, The National.”
“Another way of looking at this really satisfying new album from Jessie Ware is just imagine sounds from the ultimate nightclub for adults on the move, maybe on the make, but in control. No gauche passes made, no unsightly sweat, but an irresistible lure to the floor, and the sense that you would just close your eyes and let it all happen inside your head, gut and feet rather than depend on someone else.”
“Although every section in the band featured exceptional performers, much of the wonderful sense of movement on this album was thanks to the beautiful playing and interplay of the Keller/Carbo/Anning/Vanderwal rhythm section team. Vanessa’s writing is already vibrant and energetic in itself but the dynamic playing of these always creative performers brought additional life and depth to the considered and well-crafted compositions.”
“It is in the way Swift moulds these songs to her naturally melancholic timbre, the way she deepens the moments of love and twists the more ambiguous sentiments further, and the way the lines directed at a woman resonate so starkly in the voice of a woman, that remakes your relationship to these songs.”
“Remember the way you felt at the beginning of lockdown: that sense of unified action and refusal to give in to gloom, the adventure of a new, temporary, existence. That’s Music For Indigo. Now, remember how you felt weeks in, or worse still, at the announcement of a second lockdown: that creeping dread and slowly crumbling resolve, ending in a countdown to escape that never moved any closer to zero. That’s Mostly Chimes.”
“Gold Record, which seemingly snuck out into the world at the end of last month but needs to be shouted about for months to come, expands Callahan’s remit – the scope of his ‘happiness’ – to a wider world. This is quite unexpected. And rather wonderful.”
“What I was not expecting, what I am still not dealing with completely, was to be moved, and moved so comprehensively. Not physically – or not just physically - but emotionally. We Will Always Love You is an album that gets you in the feels and resolutely refuses to let go.”
“These songs are elegant songs on the corner of rock and pop, on the line between The National and Elliott Smith, and the appeal is evident, abundant even. But the stories come in packages, and eventually in an album, which create the impression of lines dissolving - between instruments, between voices, between tracks, and eventually between us.”
“Yes, that voice, sounding quietly stunning. She’s singing with such depth and clarity, retaining that slight distance which has always characterised her coolly observational style but yet touching emotions more freely and consistently than she has ever let herself do before.”
“In a record which trawls through contemporary times like it was already the second or third draft of history, and dives into a longer past like it was fresh as this morning’s tweet, Dylan has also found a way to be both sage and participant, critic and consoler, with all those fragments of stories we tell ourselves to explain ourselves.”
ANOTHER END OF YEAR BONUS: DISCOVERIES
Here are some artists, with histories of varying lengths, I discovered or stumbled across or belatedly learnt had been making great music, this year. I’ve begun exploring back catalogues and/or settling in for future pursuit. You might be interested too.
The Anchoress (aka Catherine Anne Davies – see above): previous album - Confessions Of A Romance Novelist; next album, in 2021 – The Art Of Losing
Zephaniah Ohora: previous album – This Highway; current album, Listening To The Music. Read an interview with him here.
A Girl Called Eddy (aka Erin Moran): previous album, The Last Detail; current album – Been Around
Nadine Shah: previous album – Holiday Destination; current album – Kitchen Sink
Death Valley Girls: previous album – Darkness Rains; current album – Under The Spell Of Joy
My Darling Clementine: previous album – Still Testifying; current album – Country Darkness
RVG: previous album – A Quality Of Music; current album – Feral
On Monday: a hefty playlist of the songs of 2020. Come for the hooks and biff, stay for the party.