The best albums and songs of 2020

What a year it's been for music. Concerts might have been completely wiped out, but artists have responded with powerful, career-defining, albums and songs.

And, because working from home means fewer phone calls and meetings, I've been able to listen to more new music than ever before. That's one of the reasons I'm not looking forward to going back to an open-plan, headphones-only office environment.

Anyway, enough preamble. Here are the records that got the most airplay around our house in 2020.

The best albums 

1) Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

"I made this album to get away from any pressures and anxieties from the outside world," Dua told me in March. "Yes, it was made to be listened to out in the clubs and festivals... but maybe it had to just come out now."

Never has an album felt so in opposition to the times, while being so vital to surviving them. But, pandemic or not, Future Nostalgia would have gone down as a classic. 37 minutes of uninterrupted, unadulterated pop genius. And the remix album was superb, too.

2) Haim – Women In Music, Pt. III

"Women make the best rock music," exclaimed Haim in an Instagram message, delivered via the medium of underpants. And they had a point. 

Their third album is a musical and melodic tour de force, hoovering up decades of rock, pop and R&B influences and creating 17 songs that are simultaneously brand new and utterly timeless. 

3) Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

Kevin Parker's dreamy, psychedelic soundscapes were the perfect escape from the doldrums of 2020. Best listened to on headphones, while imagining yourself on a Venutian beach holiday.

4) Childish Gambino – 3.15.20

Donald Glover's surprise album had been percolating for several years, with songs written, reworked and remoulded several times, in the pursuit of making something idiosyncratic and audacious.

"I always say the album felt like a global journey," producer DJ Dahi told Rolling Stone. "You’re on a magic carpet, flying over different parts of the world. You listen to someone’s conversation - 'ok, cool, let me fly over to this country.' Then you go here. Then you go back in time."

It's hugely ambitious, hopping between beautiful a-capella harmonies to anxiety-inducing white noise, often in the space of a single song. But it's never less than compelling; and marks a new chapter in Donald Glover's musical career.

5) Selena Gomez - Rare

Unfairly overlooked in a lot of year-end lists, Selena Gomez's deeply personal, musically alluring third album was full of low-key pop bangers. An album so good that a modern classic like Bad Liar was demoted to bonus track status.

The highlight was Lose You To Love Me - one of the most vulnerable break-up songs in living memory. But the quality control never dropped, from the flirtatious Latin beats of Ring, to the middle-finger-flipping Cut You Off. 

6) Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

Smart, sad, funny, elegant. Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher was an album about apocalypse - both personal and global - that starts with a song about fighting back evil thoughts, and finishes with a song about the end of the world.

Her murmured, multi-tracked vocals draw you closer, all the better to hear killer lyrics like Kyoto's take-down of Bridgers' estranged father, and his attempts to connect with her brother: "You called on his birthday / You were off by like 10 days / But you get a few points for trying."

It's one of those albums where you think, "OK, I get this," the first time you hear it - only to find yourself blindsided by a sardonic quip or unexpected harmony on the 100th listen.

7) Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple's fifth topped the BBC's "poll of polls" to find the ultimate album of the year - and deservedly so. Rambunctious and unfiltered, it's the sound of an artist batting away her demons with whatever comes to hand - a bashed-up old piano, the back of a chair, pots, pans and even the bones of her dead dog.

It's an uncompromising listen at first - Apple's raw vocals and overextended vowels take a bit of getting used to - but the gorgeous melodies of Ladies, and the sarcastic bite of Under The Table will keep you coming back for more.

8) Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour

Atlanta duo Chloe and Halle Bailey are precociously talented sisters, whose devilishly intricate harmonies and offbeat R&B arrangements conjure up images of a twisted, dark-side Destiny's Child.

While their first album was all about female empowerment and self-love, their second is more morally ambiguous. On Wonder What She Thinks Of Me, they take on the role the "other woman" breaking up a marriage; while Tipsy sees them (playfully?) threatening to murder a boyfriend who messes around.

"We wanted to challenge the idea of us being these perfect angels that everybody has [as] this image of us in their head," Halle told Zane Lowe. Mission accomplished.

9) Rina Sawayama - Sawayama

Sure, mashing up nu metal and pop and R&B and power ballads and stadium rock sounds easy - but, in the hands of most artists, it would be an absolute car crash.

Rina Sawayama pulls it off with panache. Her debut album is a whirlwind of musical juxtapositions - most notably on the racist-baiting lead single STFU, whose gut-punching metal riff gives way to the nursery rhyme chorus: "Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut? Because I have many times."

That's just one of many highlights: From the anti-consumer anthem XS to the LGBTQ anthem Chosen Family. An astonishingly assured debut that would, in a just world, be up for 300 Brit Awards next year.

10) U.S. Girls – Heavy Light

Meghan Remy's perfectly-crafted, theatrically-delivered alt-pop songs were recorded live in Montreal with 20 session musicians - and there's a loose, spontaneous feel to this album that's utterly irresistable.

The lyrics encompass everything from global warming and domestic abuse to the evils of accumulated wealth - but it's the sweet, almost old-fashioned melodies of songs like 4 American Dollars and Woodstock '99 that kept me coming back time and time again.

The best singles 

Watch a playlist of all 25 songs

1) Dua Lipa - Levitating
2) Dua Lipa - Physical
3) Haim - The Steps
4) Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto
5) Megan Thee Stallion ft Beyoncé - Savage (Remix)
6) The Weeknd - Blinding Lights
7) Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande - Rain On Me
8) Rina Sawayama - XS
9) Christine & The Queens - People, I've Been Sad
10) Harry Styles - Watermelon Sugar
11) Selena Gomez - Feel Me
12) Arlo Parks - Black Dog
13) Regard & Raye - Secrets
14) Little Mix - Holiday
15) Dua Lipa - Hallucinate
16) Doja Cat - Say So
17) The Weeknd - In Your Eyes
18) Chloe x Halle - Do It
19) Joel Corry x MNEK - Head and Heart
20) Tate McRae - You Broke Me First
21) Hayley Williams - Simmer
22) Joy Crookes - Anyone But Me
23) Billie Eilish - Therefore I Am
24) Beabadoobee - Care
25) Ariana Grande - Positions


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