Pin It
Albums-of-the-Year

The 20 best albums of 2020

From Arca to A. G. Cook, Rina Sawayama and Rico Nasty, we look back on our favourite albums of the year

It goes without saying, but 2020 was a weird year for music. Weird for fans, who needed music to act as a respite from events outside of their control. Weird for artists, who saw release schedules upended by the pandemic and touring revenue streams dry up overnight. But it was also a chance for those in music communities to begin thinking of alternative, more sustainable models to support new music in future; an opportunity for scenes and industries to confront whether they’re doing enough to address racial inequality; and a time to reassess what it is we even want out of new music. With no clubs or venues to go to, and an abundance of free time on our hands, it was also a good year to sink into the album as a front-to-back listening experience. Here are Dazed’s top 20 albums of 2020.

20. SALEM, FIRES IN HEAVEN

To the month, two SALEM records bookend a decade dominated by fringe impossibilities; the darkness at the edge of town. Viruses, Brexits, Pepes, Terfs, creepy clowns, and proud boys – 2010-2020 was a naked lunch of unexpected horror. Just as DJ Screw sent his hip hop into the swamp to explore his addictions, Fires in Heaven is SALEM slowed way down, the sound of a band milling about in the depths. Gone are the craning, detuned symphonies and the gorgeous witch house – on opener “Capulets”, vocalist Jack Donoghue sings like he’s been shot with an elephant tranquiliser. John Holland’s synths in “Starfall” sound equally sluggish, before the fireworks: an exaltation (or an exorcism), in chorus form. The end of a seemingly endless chapter, and the possibility of renewal. (Jack Mills)

19. UNKNOWN T, RISE ABOVE HATE

“Homerton B” was the song of 2018. The drill anthem exploded within days of its release and dominated streets, stages at Carnival and car stereos – a ubiquitous track that seemed to mark a moment when drill moved on to the dancefloor. Following it up became harder when Unknown T was sent to prison, charged with murder, but even from behind bars, his impact reverberated through the UK scene, with a comedy rapper called Unknown P emerging, “Homerton B” continuing to rack up millions of views on YouTube, and fans mourning his disappearance. Subsequently acquitted, the rapper was released in February 2020, sparked a dance called the T-bop on Twitter, and released his fierce mixtape debut Rise Above Hate. He embraces the darkness of drill on “Deh Deh”, references his experience in prison on “Fresh Home”, and calls on regular collaborators KO and V9 for the banging quasi-medieval rap tune “AVEN9ERS”. He’s an incredibly skilled vocalist, with an ear for melody that marks him out from his peers. Rise Above Hate is a triumphant arrival, as well as a return. (Thomas Gorton)

18. KAMIXLO, CICATRIZ

Back in October, heavyweight wrestler Kenta tweeted to his 200K followers that Kamixlo had sampled his entrance music on his debut album, Cicatriz. It was a circular moment for Kamixlo, whose former collective Bala Club is named after Kenta’s wrestling team, Bullet Club. Aggressive and bracing, the British-Chilean producer’s music lands like a flying clothesline to the face, but Cicatriz details the emotional pain and loss he experienced over a dark chapter in his life. “The Coldest Hello (Live From the Russian Spiral)” is an ouroboros of sound, lurching drone and distorted vocal samples looped like a revolving door that won’t stop spinning. “Demonic Y”, a collaboration with London producer Felix Lee, is slow but energetic, and chugs with mechanical lustre. And the bright and melodic kosmische-reggaeton of “Azucar”, produced with Swedish cloud-rap producer Woesum, makes for an atmospheric closer. Like its namesake – Cicatriz translates to ‘scar’ in Spanish – the album leaves its mark. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)

17. MOSES SUMNEY, GRAE

While Moses Sumney’s 2017 debut, Aromanticism, was a largely intimate affair, its follow-up, grae, is far greater in sound and scale. There’s a wider variety of moods, sounds and emotions, not to mention a bigger cast of collaborators: writing credits from James Blake, production from Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, basslines from Thundercat, sax from UK jazz star Shabaka Hutchings, horn arrangements from avant-pop group Adult Jazz, and many more. Still, it’s Sumney and his voice that are at the heart of the record. Insisting upon the “right to be multiple” (a sentiment voiced not directly by Sumney, but spoken by author Taiye Selasi on “also also also and and and”), the singer-songwriter can sometimes be a distant protagonist, but the wall he puts between himself and the listener is not impenetrable, with moments of great beauty breaking through. (Selim Bulut)

16. GRIMES, MISS ANTHROPOCENE

With humanity’s grip on the planet made ever-more precarious by looming climate catastrophe, Grimes’ fifth album Miss Anthropocene makes anthropomorphic figures of the things that threaten our annihilation. “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” is a sinister but entrancing symphony about relationship dynamics and control. “Violence”, her most vital performance on the record, invokes humanity’s dire treatment of the Earth and its resources: “You feed off hurting me,” she sings, its accompanying video a call for anarchy with a sword-fighting sequence, facemasks and a dance breakdown framed like a tableau from a Greek tragedy – a total end-times package. Altogether, it’s a head-melting narrative, but Boucher is assured in the havoc she wreaks. (Anna Cafolla)

15. BLACKPINK, THE ALBUM

It’s hard to believe this is only BLACKPINK’s debut album. At a svelte eight tracks long, THE ALBUM provides a mere 24 minutes of music, but it was enough to cement the all-conquering K-pop group’s position as masters of the perfect pop composition. While BTS went soulful and academic, the BLACKPINK girls have doubled down on sass, PG-rated sexy times, and hooks that go on for days. From its opening rise-of-the-empire strings to its abrupt ending, THE ALBUM batters you with top-tier pop, invoking everything from abrasive EDM beats to winding cross-continental sounds and rhythms inspired by the romance of Bollywood. You get the impression that every second of sound was laboured over, precision-engineered to eke the most earworm for your money. Even seemingly random meme-gleaned lines like “Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane” are given a verve that makes them eminently shoutable. If nothing else, THE ALBUM is notable for Cardi B’s biggest challenge to date: writing an entirely clean verse for a song that refers to sex as a “big hug all night”. (Kate Solomon)

14. A. G. COOK, APPLE

When electronic producer and PC Music founder A. G. Cook released his debut album, 7G, in August, it was surprising to see it take the form of a 49-track, seven-disc marathon of sketches and experiments. But 7G turned out to be a precursor to his ‘second’ debut album, Apple, released just a month later, which fine-tuned these ideas into a more succinct and highly polished work. Opener “Oh Yeah” is a bittersweet love song presenting loss and acceptance (“I know that it’s over”) in an upbeat pop package; as is often the case with the musician’s work, the track drifts into surreal atmospherics in its latter stages, allowing Cook’s technical prowess as a producer to shine through. Other album highlights include a cover of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Animals”, taking form here as a glistening mash of metallic synthesisers and quivering robotic vocals, and a feature from producer Ö on the equally unconventional and glitchy “Jumper”. While its glossy surface can be hard to penetrate at first, Apple is a highly original work with bite. (Patrick Benjamin)

13. RICO NASTY, NIGHTMARE VACATION

On a dark and stormy night / I don’t blend in, bitch, I shine bright,” declares Rico Nasty on the opening track of her debut album Nightmare Vacation. The Maryland rapper is known for her distinct style of ‘sugar trap’ – a mix of raspy, crushing vocals and grungy hooks with softer, computerised beats. On Nightmare Vacation, Rico expands her high-voltage sound with the genre-hopping futurism of 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, who produced the hyperpop-infused tracks “OHFR?” and “iPhone”, while distorted guitar riffs courtesy of New York duo Take a Daytrip bolster the rapper’s gruff vocals. Much of the album is a departure from the primal scream therapy of previous hits like “Smack a Bitch” and “Rage”. “Don’t Like Me”, a collaboration with Don Toliver and Gucci Mane, sees a return to the rapper’s softer side with her alter-ego Tacobella, while “Pussy Poppin” and “Back and Forth” are sensual bops about sex. She does, however, return to old tricks on “Let It Out”, as she says, “If you wanna rage, let it out” before letting out a blood-curdling scream. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions that perfectly captures the nightmare of 2020. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)

12. LOUS AND THE YAKUZA, GORE

Having built a star-studded international fanbase, modelled for the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chloe, and released one of the most exciting debut albums of the year in Gore, Brussels-based artist Lous and the Yakuza has been a force to behold in 2020. Blending her Congolese and Rwandan roots with the British and American music she was raised on, Lous’s music on the record morphs genres and influences (trap, R&B, pop, hip hop and everything in between) with her own distinctive mix of rap and song, abetted by production from Rosalía collaborator El Guincho. And for the francophones among us, the subject matter of Gore is as vivid and varied as the sonic landscape it’s embedded in. In fact, the two often thrive in direct contrast, as Lous sings sweetly while unpacking concepts of Blackness (“Solo”), solitude (“Dilemme”) and betrayal (“Messes basses”). (Natty Kasambala)

11. BEABADOOBEE, FAKE IT FLOWERS

From the beginning, beabadoobee has had a knack for writing songs that are at once deeply personal yet universal in their resonance. The first song she ever wrote, “Coffee” (now heard in millions of whipped coffee TikToks made in lockdown), is not just about making the coffee, but the act of learning the specific way to make it for someone that tells the real story of how you love them. Three years later, her debut album Fake It Flowers is this sentiment writ large, a poetically plain-spoken collection of songs that play like the diary of a teenage girl – probably because that’s what they are. As the singer-songwriter, who turned 20 this year, told fans in her Dazed 100 workshop, she writes everything down, using journals to process her emotions and inform her songwriting. The result is a complex, layered insight into the many moods that come with the usual growing pains, from the accusatory “You don’t really care” refrains on “Care” to the Disney-scale daydreams that come with first love on “Horen Sarrison”. “It’s been a while since I talked about it,” Bea sings on the opening lines to the album, pulling you into her room to scream (“Charlie Brown”), dance (“Together”), laugh (“Yoshimi, Forest, Magdalene”) and cry (“Emo Song”/“Sorry”) along with her. Synthesised through nostalgic nods to the 90s movies and music heroes that made her, beabadoobee is able to articulate her teen angst with a surprising optimism – and she’s only just begun. (Vanessa Hsieh)

10. CHARLI XCX, HOW I’M FEELING NOW

In real life, could the club even handle us?” the world’s hardest working pop star asks on her lockdown album how i’m feeling now. It’ll be some time before we find out, but the carnage of album opener “Pink Diamond” makes me genuinely fear for us all when we are finally let loose in the world’s clubs. The rest of the album, which was created in a matter of weeks in the early days of the pandemic, finds her in a more reflective mood. Not known for her ability to stop and take stock, the workaholic Charli gives herself space to look inward, translating contemplative thoughts into winding, circular tunes that have the insomniac feel of lying awake unable to switch your brain off at 4am. Where Charli’s previous releases had been jam-packed with features, How I’m Feeling Now swaps the supporting cast for collaborations with fans, who were asked to feed back on Charli’s work over a series of Zoom chats during the record’s making. For an album that Charli described as “Pop2’s frantic emo younger sister”, How I’m Feeling Now certainly retains the press-all-the-buttons soundscapes and skittish PC Music production, but she weaves the paranoia of the time into something vaguely approaching optimism. (Kate Solomon)

9. EARTHEATER, PHOENIX: FLAMES ARE DEW UPON MY SKIN

The most elemental stories are usually the most captivating, and the force of Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin, like its ancient namesake, stems from its simplicity. Exploring themes of renewal and rebirth, Alexandra Drewchin’s fourth Eartheater album combines elements of psychedelic folk, experimental noise, cloud rap, and techno with stripped-back yet evocative lyrics. “The meaning hasn’t come up yet,” she announces on “Below the Clavicle”, her voice sharp like splintered glass, “it’s still under the surface.” On “Volcano”, she sinks into her lower register, as she declares: “I’m obsessed with this grain of salt / I’m fixated on a grain of sand”, while “Mercurial Nerve” is a disjointed tune bolstered by chopped-up choral arrangements. Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin is an introverted addition to Drewchin’s sonic universe, but it burns bright all the same. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)

8. DUA LIPA, FUTURE NOSTALGIA

Usually my music taste leans in the direction of eardrum-shattering reverb, tinnitus-inducing white noise and weird, glitchy sounds. But in 2020 that, like so many things, changed. Out of the window went anything even mildly aurally challenging, and in its place came pure, unadulterated pop. As the world shut down and my anxiety levels hit never-before-reached heights, I dove briefly back into the safety of the trashy chart hits of my mid-00s teen years, before March rolled around and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia appeared like a glowing beacon on the horizon. From the unrelenting adrenaline rush of “Physical” and shimmering pseudo-ballad “Cool” to the immaculate slice of disco “Hallucinate” offers up, the album’s polished pop and transcendent house soundtracked government-mandated walks and grocery-bleaching sessions, seeing me through the early days of lockdown and into the summer, when restrictions lifted and long rosé-fuelled park days with friends blurred into nights. It’s just a shame a dancefloor didn’t figure in there somewhere. (Emma Elizabeth Davidson)

7. FIONA APPLE, FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS

On the fourth track of Fiona Apple’s phenomenal fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the musician sings, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up.” It’s a line that epitomises the defiance imbuing the record’s 13 tracks – composed over almost a decade and arriving at exactly the right moment in time. Apple’s album was for many the soundtrack to the spring lockdown, manifesting the resilience that we all needed to show. Its creation also mirrored people’s at-home state, with the album’s sounds literally formed using household objects, as well as the affectionate purrs and barks of Apple’s pets, all established via “jam sessions” at the singer’s California home. Combining chaotic percussion, sing-speak vocals, accidental ad-libs (“Aw, fuck, shit”), and – of course – the thunderous piano and raw lyricism Apple is renowned for, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a revolutionary record of self-discovery. (Brit Dawson)

6. CHLOE X HALLE, UNGODLY HOUR

A sophisticated follow-up to their 2018 debut The Kids Are Alright, Chloe x Halle’s second album is best described by Beyoncé (whose management company Parkwood released it), who simply called it “flawless”. Showering your ears with heavenly harmonies right from the first track, the album slinks through slick R&B beats that take you on a journey from the club straight to the boudoir. Reaching its peak on singles “Do It” and the title track, the album is a far cry from the teen stars you might have known. Now grown women, they’ve expanded their colourful universe to include powerful ballads and bops about receiving unsolicited dick pics. (Dominic Cadogan)

5. SEGA BODEGA, SALVADOR

Sega Bodega released Salvador on Valentine’s Day 2020, capturing the embryonic and open-hearted, bitterly ambivalent and self-effacing moments of romance. Where 2018’s self*care EP was billed as a portrait of an artist in creative flux, Salvador is an excavation of the artist’s inner unrest, exhilarating in its twists and turns. There are abrasive club beats, R&B crescendos and industrial clanging that melts ever so fluidly into sparse piano, but Salvador also centres Bodega’s vocals for the first time, stretching and glitching them out to their extremes. The lyrics, meanwhile, are at their most deliciously plain-spoken and potent, exposing romantic missteps, neuroses, self-doubts and struggles with sobriety and mental health. “I’ll drink until my liver surely pops,” Bodega hisses on “Masochism”, which runs from punk-rock riffs to softy, bassy pads. “Don’t feel guilty leaving me behind.” On “Kuvasz in Snow” he sings, “Masking is all that we know / We hide in plain sight like Kuvasz in snow,” reaching a trance-like, arena-tour high. Combining the unrelenting honesty of 00s emo with bold, future-facing pop, Salvador is for riding out the darkest moments of the simulation and emerging bleary-eyed, but fiercely alive, on the other side. (Anna Cafolla)

4. LADY GAGA, CHROMATICA

Much like her pop peers (see: Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue), Lady Gaga’s antidote to 2020 was to get us to dance. It’s a return to what Gaga does best, after a brief change in direction on the foot-tapping country sounds of 2016’s Joanne. As she sings on the atmospheric “Free Woman”: This is my dancefloor / I fought for. Bouncing through house, disco, synth-pop, EDM and even a surprising drum’n’bass segue (in the final 30 seconds of a track with Elton John, no less), it’s almost homophobic that Chromatica landed in a year in which gay clubs have mostly been closed. Whenever life returns to ‘normal’, it’s without a doubt that DJs will have us rushing back to the dancefloor with any one of the album’s tracks (excluding “1000 Doves”, the only skip – sorry!) especially for highlights like techno-funky “911” and the infectious euphoria of Ariana Grande collab “Rain on Me”. (Dominic Cadogan)

3. ARCA, KICK I

Arca has said that while making KiCk i, she wanted to provide the space for every side of herself to be expressed, and to allow for a spontaneous modulation between each one. This is clear in the fluctuating vocal ranges running through the record: Arca takes on differing registers from track to track, delivering deep timbres, cutting falsetto and clean mid-tones with soaring operatic precision. All the while, the machinery of her industrial electronic production churns and chokes underneath, sputtering out glitchy beats and oil-slick synthesisers. As with all of Arca’s music, there are moments of beauty in the darkness, with features from an all-star supporting cast (Björk, Rosalía, Shygirl, SOPHIE) helping to illuminate and add a rich diversity to one the most striking albums of 2020. (Patrick Benjamin)

2. RINA SAWAYAMA, SAWAYAMA

Was Priti Patel secretly a judge on the Brit Awards panel this year? How else to explain the monumental injustice that was Rina Sawayama’s debut being snubbed for best album at both the Brits and the Mercury Music Prize, on account of its author not being in possession of a British passport? (Sawayama has lived in the UK for 25 years.) It was a sorry episode that left a nasty aftertaste of Brexit Britain in the mouth, though a fan-led Twitter campaign backed by Sir Elton John at least forced the BPI ruling body to review its entry criteria for future competitions. And ultimately, Rina had the last laugh, because Sawayama is hands-down the pop record of the year, turning the post-millennial pop of the Neptunes and “Dirrty”-era Xtina inside-out and welding it to enormous nu-metal riffs that’d have Korn clutching at the smelling salts. That she did all of this while offering clear-eyed – and often laugh-out-loud funny – takedowns of consumer culture (“XS”), mansplainers (“STFU”) and carpet-bagging weeaboos (“Tokyo Love Hotel”) only shows what a treasure she is, reprogramming pop as a vehicle for unfettered self-expression. (Alex Denney)

1. PA SALIEU, SEND THEM TO COVENTRY

2020 was the year of King Salieu. The Gambia-via-Coventry talent turned heads with a couple of drill bangers, “Dem a Lie” and “Frontline”, before releasing the year’s most exhilarating collaboration in “My Family” with BackRoad Gee. Then he capped off the year with his debut mixtape Send Them to Coventry, which confirmed the rapper as one of the most captivating voices in the UK right now. Send Them to Coventry recounts Salieu’s tales of block life, hardship, loyalty and learning to protect his peace while growing up in C.O.V. (“AKA City of Violence”), all told with an unmistakably Gambian-tinged tongue. It’s an arresting listen, twinning Salieu’s imaginative cadence with innovative production that constructs a real and ominous sense of drama on tracks like the rumbling “No Warnin’”, featuring dancehall artist Boy Boy, or industrial opener “Block Boy”. Salieu has succeeded in creating something truly hybrid, exciting and individual on this record. Hail to the king. (Natty Kasambala)