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We’ve covered our favourite Irish records of 2020 and now it’s time for the final list of the year—the best albums of 2020. From much-needed pop escapism to doom-laden indie folk, with a few lockdown recordings thrown in for good measure, it’s all here. Below you’ll find the ten best albums of 2020, as chosen by the music writers here at HeadStuff, and, if you scroll all the way to the end, an accompanying Spotify playlist.
Adrianne Lenker | songs/instrumentals
From the moment I heard ‘anything’, the first single from songs/instrumentals, I had a feeling that it was going to be a special record. Thankfully, my inkling was correct. Listening to Lenker’s songs/instrumentals feels almost invasive, such is the intimacy of her songwriting. You hear Lenker strumming her way into the melody, wind chimes and birds in the background, as if you’d been dropped right into the remote cabin where she recorded the album. songs/instrumentals is teeming with life, from the earthy atmosphere permeating each song, to the sheer depth of Lenker’s lyrical exploration throughout. Nothing is left unsaid here, with Lenker mourning the loss of a relationship right out in the open of the West Massachusetts mountains.
After two exceptional releases with Big Thief last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), and now the immaculate songs/instrumentals, Adrianne Lenker has firmly established herself as one of the foremost songwriters of her generation.
Highlights: ‘anything’/’zombie girl’/’not a lot, just forever’
Andy Shauf | The Neon Skyline
Using one of my favourite narrative frameworks, the events of The Neon Skyline occur over the course of a single night. Our protagonist, out on the town with his friends, encounters his ex-girlfriend, Judy, leading to an examination of heartbreak and memory across eleven tracks. Beginning the evening at the titular bar, The Neon Skyline, Shauf, channelling Paul Simon with his vocal delivery, introduces us to some of the key players, inviting the listener to go for a drink with him.
It’s a relatively simple premise for a concept album, but Shauf’s lyrical prowess is such that he elevates the night-on-the-town narrative into something greater than the sum of its parts. The lyrical specificity lends a personal feel to Shauf’s songs, but the overall narrative is a universal one—who hasn’t been in the protagonist’s position? Maybe a little bit tipsy, ruminating on a broken heart, traversing a familiar nightscape imprinted with memories of your lost relationship. The Neon Skyline is funny, tragic, and comforting.
Highlights: ‘Neon Skyline’/’Where Are You Judy’/’Living Room’
Charli XCX | how i’m feeling now
It’s Charli, baby. Conceived, written and recorded within a month during the UK lockdown this past April, how i’m feeling now is an achievement in itself, a remarkable DIY collaboration built exclusively on its artist’s laptop, the product of Zoom calls and that maddening kind of boredom only self-isolation could produce. The unique process that birthed hifn isn’t the story though, this is a Charli XCX masterwork—the kind of album that can only be born of special circumstance and an exceptional mind.
Set to a crushing backdrop of heavily glitchy and red raw electronica, Charli vividly captures the acute anxiety and infuriating monotony of isolation while contemplating the silver linings of lockdown too, meditating on relationships, family and friends while also shouting out the relentless creativity that gave life to these breathless thirty-seven minutes. Completing a trilogy of outstanding albums following 2017’s Pop 2 and last year’s self-titled epic, Charli’s fourth studio album is stone cold proof (if it was even needed) that Charlotte Aitchison is the most creative and vital young artist working in pop music today. More than that though, how i’m feeling now is the most immediate and essential album of the year. This is the sound of 2020.
Deftones | Ohms
On Ohms, Deftones cut back the bloated soundscapes and flesh out the sparse arrangements heard on more recent material to produce their long-sought natural successor to White Pony, their reunion with long-time producer Terry Date helping the band to refocus and re-energise. Striking the perfect balance between guitarist Steph Carpenter’s heavy metal leanings and frontman Chino Moreno’s Gothic post-punk background, the album is brimming with the band’s signature thick tones and textures, matching it all with plenty of literate subject matter, from the Biblical iconography of ‘Error’ to the arresting ‘Spell of Mathematics’.
Dua Lipa | Future Nostalgia
If you told me back in January that Dua Lipa would feature on my end-of-year list, I probably wouldn’t have believed you—then again, a lot of things happened in 2020 that I might have scoffed at a year ago. Thankfully, I’ve been proven extremely wrong on this one. Future Nostalgia is, simply put, full of absolute bangers. In terms of sheer fun and escapism, I can’t think of another 2020 release to top this.
The title track is a bit of a false start, but once the funky bassline of ‘Don’t Start Now’ kicks into gear, it’s a nonstop delight. Dua Lipa is a pop alchemist, channelling decades of influence from disco, funk, and synth pop to craft a strikingly modern sound. As the title suggests, she pays homage to these beloved influences, while also employing a progressive approach to her own songwriting—and the quality of the songwriting here is exceptional. There are memorable hooks on virtually every track, and Dua Lipa’s captivating vocal presence is adorned with neat ad libs and clever inflections. Future Nostalgia is the musical antidote to the year we’ve had.
Highlights: ‘Don’t Start Now’/’Cool’/’Levitating’
Fiona Apple | Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s thirteen-track tour de force is the rarest of albums—a seminal work of epic proportions, the magnum opus of an already legendary career. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the culmination of Apple’s experimental trajectory on Extraordinary Machine and The Idler Wheel…, as she leans into her most animalistic instincts to create a visceral, transcendent masterpiece. Populated by a series of spiritual, almost tribal symphonies that wield Apple’s distinct voice as its own instrument, she yelps, trills, screeches and roars her way through this breathtaking, wholly unpredictable collection of experimental pop songs. Throughout fifty-one flawless minutes, Apple explores themes of freedom, feminism, romance, abuse, society and the self, yet somehow this manages to be the forty-two-year-old’s most humorous album to boot, as these heavy concepts are contrasted with Apple’s incomparable whimsy and wit. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is all these things and more—nontraditional, radical, cathartic, primal, perfect.
Highlights: ‘Ladies’/’Heavy Balloon’/’Cosmonauts’
Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher
Her second album Punisher showcases best what makes Bridgers so special—her uncanny ability to encapsulate the monotony of modern malaise in her music. Amongst the album’s earworm melodies, masterful arrangements and ensemble cast of feature guests is a thread of details that contextualise her emotional peaks and troughs. The grungy ‘Kyoto’ boasts a soaring chorus and details the maintenance of a relationship with a total fuck up, with whom she is content to meander around a local convenience chain and sit and watch chemtrails. Elsewhere, on ‘Moon Song’, she draws the outline of a tumultuous relationship before laying it all bare for the world to see as the song reaches a muted crescendo.
Highlights: ‘Garden Song’/‘Kyoto’/‘Halloween’
Run The Jewels | RTJ4
Released during a break from an ill-fated world tour with Rage Against the Machine against the backdrop of economic turbulence, a global pandemic and protests ignited across the United States by the tragic death of George Floyd, RTJ4 was a bold statement of solidarity. Infectious and incendiary, RTJ4 pays homage to predecessors more so than any of the conscious rap iconoclasts’ output to date, with a Greg Nice and DJ Premier feature, references to 2 Live Crew on ‘Never Look Back’ and a fantastic interpolation of Gang of Four’s ‘Ether’ on ‘The Ground Below’. Style blending has always been the basis of what makes Run The Jewels tick, El-P’s dystopian, New York underground background having long since found a suitable foil in Killer Mike’s Dirty South roots. It’s their undeniable chemistry and unified social and political outlook that sets them apart from the rest.
Highlights: ‘Goonies vs. E.T.’/‘Walking in the Snow’/‘JU$T’
Taylor Swift | folklore
folklore is the truest expression of Taylor Swift’s abilities to date, an album that presents its artist with no strings or shackles attached. In turn, we are rewarded with the deepest, most lyrical journey of Swift’s career, layered on top of the wonderfully moody and eloquent production of Jack Antonoff and the immaculately crafted songwriting of Swift and Aaron Dessner, a most unlikely match made in music heaven. A searingly intimate expression of herself and her musicianship, this is Taylor Swift’s most fascinating work, and her grandest artistic statement yet.
Highlights: ‘the last great american dynasty’/’exile’/’betty’
Waxahatchee | Saint Cloud
Written and recorded by a freshly-sober Katie Crutchfield, Saint Cloud is a melodic masterpiece of Americana-infused indie folk. While previous Waxahatchee records leaned into a heavier alt rock sound, Saint Cloud is far removed from the raucous noise of these past efforts. This album exists in great big open spaces, with clear influence from Crutchfield’s Alabama roots for the first time in her career, and self-confessed inspiration from the likes of Lucinda Williams.
It’s a pared-back, cathartic record, and the focus on recovery and self-acceptance is clear throughout. On ‘Ruby Falls’, one of the strongest tracks on the album, Crutchfield sings, “Real love doesn’t follow a straight line/It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine.” This is the truth of Saint Cloud, that sobriety and the accompanying self-examination are difficult, messy processes, but even in the cold light of day it’s possible to find some warmth to cling to.
Highlights: ‘Can’t Do Much’/’Fire’/’Ruby Falls’