I’ve said that certain albums have been ‘like a best friend’ in the past. In the absence of physical friends over the past year, that wasn’t just a compliment, it was an entry level requirement.
That’s probably why I spent so much time with albums I already knew and loved. I devoured every inch and detail of Clairo’s Immunity, 2019’s most enduring (and unexpected) musical legacy. I criminally ranked it 14th on my 2019 list. I’d say that was shockingly short sighted, but what else do you expect from a list intended to assess things in a single year? The listening longevity of an album is really what sets the best from the rest.
Speaking of, 2020 also reunited me with some older favourites: Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged 2.0 (ahead of its time and misunderstood), Skunk Anansie’s Stoosh (Skin’s voice and message are still gifts)… and Brandy’s Afrodisiac (a timeless overlooked classic).
It’s normally agonising to whittle down to a top 20, but this year I’m doing a top 10. If it wasn’t low investment/maximum return, I wasn’t havin’ it. Brutal and short sighted? Maybe. But very simple? Definitely.
There are a deserving few who could feel justifiably cheated (Laura Marling, Grimes, Kehlani) but there were clear front runners in the race to be one of my musical BFFs this year.
Music has always been a companion and more than just a soundtrack to me and my life. But through this strangest, isolating of years I relied on it more heavily than ever and these are the albums that really delivered: my favourite 10 albums of 2020 #BMFFs.
Ok, that’s enough context. Let’s get down to business. Ps. Singles and playlists coming shortly too.
10. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
I’ve caught Rina twice live – both times supporting Charli XCX at two of my most loved gigs in memory. The first was a ‘blink and miss it’ as part of the Pop 2 crew at the Village Underground. Then she opened for Charli in 2019 at the Brixton Academy. I don’t usually focus too much on support acts but the quality of the songs, polish in Rina’s performance and her undeniable knack for some contemporary avant garde 90s pop revision (complete with choreography) caught me.
SAWAYAMA is all that and even more, literally. Hyper pop, R&B, gothic balladry and even some rock and metal vibes thrown in. Might look messy as hell on paper, but sounds high end and heavenly in stereo. Rina’s meticulous panoramic vision is not just in her music – the videos are also spectacular. The future of pop looks brave and bright, and yes, full of XS:
9. How I’m Feeling Now – Charli XCX
Charli doing Charli. It’s the only way she rolls. Only this time it was truer and more extra than ever before. Giving herself six weeks to make – and document – an album in lockdown brought out all her idiosyncratic feels and turned them into a journey that was as delicate as it was erratic. Like when I talked about FKA Twigs’ Magdalene last year, I am so grateful for artists like Twigs and Charli, who bare their vulnerable, imperfect souls to us through their music.
Charli gives us every version of herself. How I’m Feeling Now is like her version of Kylie Minogue’s Did It Again across an album: emo Charli, raver Charli, loved up Charli, insecure Charli – it wouldn’t be a party without any of them. In some ways, this emotional roller coaster was a turbocharged version of our own. I can’t wait to see her live again and feel all the feels. She’s an icon and an all time favourite.
8. Ho, why is you here? – Flo Milli
This is one time you can judge an album by its title. Flo Milli raps like the beats are a red carpet rolled out for her to own and walk all over “like that bitch”. Animated like Tierra Whack with the straight talking swag of Azealia Banks, Flo Milli is her own force, strong and playful. This album is a ride, with some of the best bars over beats I heard this year. Even when she makes an official album, I hope she stays in this unfiltered mixtape mode.
It’s decades overdue, but it feels like women in rap are finally getting their dues and taking what’s theirs. That rappers like Flo Milli are making music so good that it’s impossible to deny them probably helps too.
7. The Album – Teyana Taylor
Praise thy LAWD for Teyana Taylor this year, because I needed this so much. It was like a vaccine for my soul. Or at the very least a musical Xanax. Some inventive but faithful sampling of a few of the greatest music/artists of our generation – Alicia Keys, Aaliyah and Erykah Badu, who features on the standout Lowkey – this is pretty close to the album Teyana Taylor has been threatening for years, particularly the best bits of K.T.S.E (like this).
At nearly 1 hour 20 and a list of collaborators possibly only outdone by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s not consistently perfect. But it’s grand sweeping ambition and Teyana’s vocal skills and eclectic sensibilities delivers way more good shit than most other albums.
6. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
My kitchen was a one man disco for just about all of April and May this year. It also seamlessly converted into a silent disco across a handful of shops that sold those all-essential items. The best bit about this album was … all of it. There’s something so damn satisfying about a straight up pop album that’s as exquisitely executed as this. There may have been about 8 singles in their own right on this album but they all sounded even better side by side. That’s usually a pretty good sign of an excellent album.
If anyone thought Dua Lipa was any one trick pony, they need only to listen to her episode on the Song Exploder podcast, her interview with Rolling Stone’s Music Now podcast or her effortlessly blissful Tiny Desk Concert. I would personally recommend all of the above. The line in Pretty Please: “Exactly where I want me/ Underneath your body” tells us that she’s the rightful boss of her own body. She’s also the boss of her own music.
My goal for 2021: dance to this album … with people. And get vaccinated. Not in that order, but only by necessity.
5. I’m Your Empress Of – Empress Of
In Thailand two years ago (a torturous reference given we can barely leave the house at the mo’) a friend and I were swapping favourite songs of the year. Mine? Robyn’s Honey. His? Empress Of’s When I’m With Him. Sorry, what? I didn’t know it and that did make me feel dirty. But I also felt amazing because we were in Thailand, so moved on pretty quick. Then a couple of months later, I heard her break down that same track on Song Exploder and fell in god damned LOVE with it.
That just laid the foundation for what was to come this April. I’m Your Empress Of arrived like more than a breath of fresh air – it was a full body blast of spine tingling, heart warming and brain malfunctioning sunshine (even with a bit of rain). It’s really like she created her own genre with this album. But maybe her Mum says it best. “Look at ‘errrr”, yes, but more importantly, listen to her.
4. Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
Yerrrsss, the hot streak of new age R&B came through once again (see Summer Walker in 2019), only this time it was laced in shimmering soul and pop. To quote that classic phrase from ye olden days, it’s a FULL BOP dammit. Chloe x Halle talk every bit like early 20-somethings but sound like two people well beyond their lived years. They have the voices of angels. But angels who don’t take any shit, with a grin and wink along the way.
This album is a joy and every single one of their performances this year, like Billboard and this one on a tennis court took no prisoners, only new fans who are in awe of – and more than slightly intimidated by – their ungodly talent. Guilty. If this VMAs performance is any indication, their next stop is intergalactic domination.
3. What’s Your Pleasure? – Jessie Ware
After moving into ‘safer’ spaces on her last two albums, I had assumed Jessie Ware’s debut album, Devotion, would be her legacy. Then one day earlier this year, I played What’s Your Pleasure? on a summer’s day in June. The moment that persistent thumping bass line kicks in on the title track, I felt parts of my body I didn’t know existed and still not sure I can identify.
WYP? and Devotion share similar qualities: soulful, deeply romantic and faithfully indebted to decades past. But where Devotion’s emotions were tumultuous and uncertain, WYP? knows exactly what it wants and dives all-in, every body part first, pulling you into its intoxicating late night disco. It’s a glamorous sexy romp. My sweet tooth has been properly over catered for this year and has upped its threshold for satisfaction. Even still, delicious doesn’t even do this indulgence justice.
2. Folklore (and yes, Evermore) – Taylor Swift
When I heard the announcement of Folklore, on the same day it was both announced and released, I sent a very fan-girly, red faced, even slightly teary WhatsApp video to some friends. You see, there’s been a hope among certain corners of the Taylorverse and Swiftisphere that she would release a sparse folky, singer-songwriter-y album full of lush, romantic imagery and stories full of breathtaking bars and bridges.
Folklore wasn’t exactly it, but god damn it was close. Some of her best songwriting and storytelling in years was allowed to breathe and show itself rather than being hidden in pop anthems or stadium bangers (for the record, I love Reputation). I actually think Jessie Ware’s album is better than this, but in terms of listening, Folklore found a gap over the summer and stole the show. People think this is Taylor’s indie record. It’s actually much truer to her beginnings and strengths than anything after RED.
Coming in the same year as her Netflix documentary (watch it) and her Long Pond Sessions (watch them) we got to know Taylor as an adult and, almost ironically given her polished brand of years gone by, seemingly living her actual best life … for real.
1..Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
It might have taken 8 years, but Fiona Apple returned just when the world needed her most. To be a Fiona Apple fan is a practise of patience and it’s always worth the wait.
Fiona Apple is my longest and most enduring musical relationship and one that I have treasured in a unique way. We’ve grown up together in many ways and her idiosyncratic way with words and approach to music has expanded my own sensibilities immeasurably over the last almost 25 years.
Still, even I was in shock and awe at the profound brilliance of this album, which realised a potential I had assumed she’d already fulfilled four times over. In hindsight, how can you reach your potential when you feel trapped. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a nod to escaping and being freed of shackles, those imposed by both self and society.
More than freedom on this album, I hear peace. Not in the calm way we traditionally imagine, but a peace of mind that helps you see clearly and direct your empathy – and your anger – to the right places.
This album feels like the final stage of a blueprint for doing things your own way, in your own time. It’s also one of the most empowering listens I’ve ever known and grabs me in parts of my soul that genuinely feel real and expansive. I won’t say much more because i want to write about Fiona Apple and give her all the space she has earned. But there is no question or doubt in my mind about any part of this album. It’s as good as perfect.