Every year I usually top out at 30 recommendations but this year I decided after much wine that 40 is going to be the new ceiling. If it is good enough for the UK charts, it is good enough for me. This year has seen some amazing EP’s and singles as well as live releases to try to make up for lost touring revenue but you won’t find them in this list. Here is my personal top 40 albums of the year and they won’t directly match scores from individual reviews. There is a heavy pull this year towards female folk and dreamy folk music as I think I embraced music as a way to calm down in response to everything else in the world going on. There are still a few good rock albums though and the odd bit of classical and synth too. I hope you enjoy it and remember – music is subjective – go with it!
40 – Johanna Warren – Chaotic Good (Review)
Faun folk songstress Johanna Warren has long been creating gentle rock to cry to. With Chaotic Good she got a bit angrier with some bigger bruisers but her ability to call out your coping mechanisms stays strong. Sometimes simplicity in riffs and intent shines through and Johanna takes that idea and runs with it.
39 – Ixchel Prisma – Soul Codes
Whilst probably classed as spiritual music, its the healing lyrics and Ixchel Prisma’s voice mixed with the luscious worldly instruments that make Soul Codes such a warm and inviting experience. Dance to flutes, kalimbas, cello, handpan, didgeridoo and an army of percussion in an ethereal forest pop classic. A delight from start to finish and uplifting in a way that you can take on a variety of levels – Ixchel Prisma deserves to be known across the new age music scene as a star.
38 – Heinali – Madrigals (Review)
Containing only four tracks but still clocking in at 40 minutes, Madrigals is my modular synth album of 2020. Heinali’s use of science, maths and music to create evolving bleeps and wooshes never fails to impress me. This album sees a concept of medieval harmonies being given the synth treatment and whilst it doesn’t quite hit the heights of his flawless Iridescent, this is still a fantastic album to lose yourself in.
37 – Ásgeir – Bury the Moon
Ásgeir’s third album is a return to his folk roots as he created a lot of the album holed up in the Icelandic countryside. The result is yet another fantastic tour de force of introspective thoughts, catchy riffs and plenty of heart. His voice is rich and the warm acoustics embrace you like an Icelandic cocoon. How does that country have such a pantheon of musicians?!
36 – Glass Museum – Reykjavik (Review)
Whilst many will think of GoGo Penguins as their go-to new jazz band, duo Glass Museum continue to show that they should not be overlooked with their stunning album ‘Reykjavik’. Mixing heady piano and drums together but with a focus on more cinematic synths at times, they often crossover into synthwave only to pull themselves back from the brink. There are so many flavours of new jazz and Glass Museum are at the forefront of a merger with synthwave on this evidence.
35 – Austin Wintory – The Pathless / The Pathless Meditations
Fourth in an unofficial series for me with FlOw, Journey and Abzu – The Pathless feels like it belongs but is far more sinister and foreboding than anything that trilogy before channelled. Here, Wintory revels in tribal percussion, deep throat singing and a solemn hurdy-gurdy and string arrangements. As a soundtrack and a story, it flows perfectly and when paired with the two-hour meditations album which provides melodic field music too – you have over three hours of some of the best game music of 2020.
34 – Erland Cooper – Hether Blether (Review)
Concluding his trilogy of albums about Orkney – a small archipelago in Scotland – Hether Blether weaves together local stories, Scottish talent as guests, rousing piano and devastating piano melodies to great effect. The whole trilogy is stunning and as each album focuses on different parts of Orkney, this album feels the most majestic of the trio – and the most whimsical too. A love letter to be sure.
33 – Chouk Bwa & The Angstromers – Vodou Ale (Review)
In one of the best collaborations I’ve heard in years, Chouk Bwa & The Angstromers merge Haiti Afro-Caribbean beats and vocals with Belgian electronica. The stars are Chouk Bwa and their chants and polyrhythmic beats as they slam rhythms at you like there is no tomorrow. It is simply impossible to not be energised by the album.
32 – Johanna Glaza – Exile (Review)
Falling somewhere between Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush but with an increasing love of celestial synths and smashing drum machines, ‘Exile’ is a phenomenal album if you are new to Glaza’s work. Her ability to weave quirky vocal phrases over something both creepy and beautiful makes every song a surprise and a rollercoaster ride. The only reason this is isn’t further up is that a chunk of the album’s strongest tracks were also included on the previous EP ‘Albion’ which lessened its initial impact for me.
31 – Sarah Walk – Another Me (Review)
Deeply personal, Sarah Walk’s second album is a much calmer and reflective album than her debut but it contains a personal inner strength and resolution. The piano-based pop-rock melodies are strong and the coming out narrative is lyrically vague enough for you to apply it to becoming yourself regardless of what you want to be. In a year of chaos outside the door, this was a little harbour of resolve to help me steer my path through 2020.
30 – Georgia – Seeking Thrills (Review)
In a year where I expected several electro-pop albums to really sweep me away, Georgia’s released back in January was probably the high point for me. With the 80’s nostalgia still raging hard, Seeking Thrills taps into that side of synth-based pop and the opening quartet of tracks are some of the best catchy pop made this year. From there, Georgia embraces her more artistic side with some beautiful homages to Kate Bush – something she wears proudly as an influence. I’m not complaining one bit.
29 – Natalie Jane Hill – Azalea (Review)
Easily the most stripped down album on this list but also one of the most mesmerising too. Azalea captivated me in one listen and I only discovered the album late last month. Natalie’s voice commands your attention with its sharp power and quiver. Behind her voice, she weaves a finger picked guitar like its doing harp glissandos. Seemingly unknown online, you need to check Natalie Jane Hill out and spread the word! She is a truly hidden gem.
28 – Helena Deland – Something New
Smooth and delectable – that’s how I’d describe Helena Deland and her new album Something New. Her whispy voice reminds me a little of Emiliana Torrini or The Cardigans and she plays slow devastating rock. Happy with keeping things down low and chill, she’ll twist the knife with her lyrics and hazy background effects to create a vintage atmosphere to brood to.
26 – Hania Rani – Home (Review)
The biggest shock reveal from piano composer Hania Rani is that not only can she command the piano as a maestro possessed but she can also sing like an angel on a mission too! Adding her own voice and moving from pure classical into a singer/songwriter chamber-classical world made me see Rani in a totally new light and it was just as awesome as her debut. Add in some symphonic strings and a splash of electronics and you have possibly my favourite modern classical album of 2020.
25 – Ayla Schafer – Silent Voices (Review)
The album has only been out for three weeks but Ayla Schafer has delivered another stunning new age collection of music. Much like Prisma earlier in the list, you can interpret these songs with a religious or spiritual message but I choose to pull from the world folk aspect of the songs. Indigenous influences are strong here and South America feels like your neighbour throughout. Ayla’s voice shines too but its in the wax and wane of the melodies that I find peace in Silent Voices most. Some songs are reworked I believe, but I’m starting at the new end of her work and working backwards so forgive me on that!
24 – GoGo Penguin – GoGo Penguin (Review)
Several albums in, GoGo Penguin continue to push the boundaries of new jazz. Just a piano, a drum set and a double bass. Yet they make so many incredible sounds with it. All three members are virtuosos in their own right and this album continued to let each of them spearhead certain songs. This lets each member have moments in the spotlight. The result is almost always a kaleidoscope of groovy flourishes and moments of magic.
23 – Sea Wolf – Through A Dark Wood (Review)
Sea Wolf is able to pull so much distress from his voice that when he adds it to his often quite straight forward rock, he is able to lift up a song and make it much more than the sum of its parts. This is true of Through A Dark Wood too but here Sea Wolf is brooding darker and deeper than usual, adding more drama and electricity to his guitar flair. It is my favourite album of his to date. Sounding world-weary and knackered never suited a music style so well.
22 – Tom Vek – New Symbols (Review)
Released without warning or fanfare, Tom Vek’s New Symbols is a chaotic riot of lo-fi anthems. Taking a step back to his debut and sounding a bit like The Go Team! at the same time, everything sounds like its tape recorded at home. It adds to Tom Vek’s charm and his ability to pump out uplifting blood pumping anthems is never in doubt. This one is a little rockier and I am here for it.
21 – Seeming – The Birdwatchers Guide to Atocity / Monster (Review)
Released as a dual album as well as separately, Seeming revels in the shitshow that is 2020 but reminding us all that humans simply can’t help themselves but destroy everything they touch. To celebrate this, we have some of the best goth synthwave committed to sound in 2020. Perfectly miserable, dancing to the apocalypse and letting you collapse in on yourself for a minutes before you recover – Seeming (Alex Reed) knew exactly what I needed in the dark times.
20 – This Is The Kit – Off Off On (Review)
Banjo pop is here to stay as This Is The Kit’s fifth album continues to expand on its initially rootsy… roots. As Kate Stables adds more elements into her sound, she is slowly becoming more psych-folk over time and it suits her writing style and voice perfectly. The album itself is a pointed ask for the listener to hold hope in their space which is a wonderful thing to have during testing times. Although written largely pre-COVID, the album sounds like it was designed to fuel the fire of hope in 2020. Uncanny!
19 – Yae – On The Border (Review)
Over a decade I had waited for a new Yae album and ‘On The Border’ became the only album I couldn’t get digitally and had to import in from another country, making it my most expensive album purchase of the year. I didn’t care and I still don’t. Yae has a timeless quality to her voice that works so well with ancient folk, J-folk and for this album specifically, heartfelt ballads of love. Whilst I prefer the tracks that fully embrace the folk end of Yae’s work, she can still write stunning ballads too. Please, don’t leave us for so long next time.
18 – Narrow Head – 12th House Rock (Review)
I am very picky about what works for me when it comes to grunge. Weened on chonky rock as a youngster, I naturally gravitate towards messy full on grunge rather than thinner productions. That;s where Narrow Head reside. It is pure 1993 and I cannot get enough of it. It transports me back to when MTV was good music TV and expressing yourself was a rite of passage. The riffs are harsh, the vocals rough and moany and the wall of sound is high. More of this in 2021 please.
17 – Gracie & Rachel – Hello Weakness, You Make Me Strong (Review)
Calmer and dare I say poppier than their debut, Gracie & Rachel moved from their alt-pop side to a moodier Dido sound. It utterly works with smooth vocals, beats and strings leading the way through a symphonic purge of negativity and songs of empowerment are abound. It feels like they are on the verge of breaking into a mainstream hit and this album should help crack that nut. It is chock full of would be singles for BBC6.
16 – Brendan Perry – Songs for the Disenchanted: Music from the Greek Underground (Review)
As surprises go, Brendan Perry’s new solo album was a truly delightful one. I’ve often said I would listen to him croon about any old thing and I’d enjoy it and now I can say that is true. Translating Rebetiko songs into English and giving them lush Greek infused arrangements that would delight the Dead Can Dance crowd, Brendan created a unique and curious album about hookers and hookahs. The arrangements are a delight and whilst the lyrics are suitably dated due to the material, Perry gives them plenty of drunken conviction.
15 – Torres – Silver Tongue (Review)
Easily my favourite Torres album to date, SIlver Tongue is a battered and bruised ‘I’ll do what I want’ retort at the music business. Straying further away from pure guitar based rock into more ethereal and muddied ground suits her writing style tremendously. Torres likes to create songs that either smash a riff until its dead or refuse to go near one at all and this album merges those two worlds together in her most cohesive and emotionally engrossing work to date.
14 – Minuk – Aurora (Review)
Minuk created my favourite new age / world hybrid album of 2020. The duality of Alejandra and Marcus works so well as they play off each other melodically and vocally. Wonderfully hippy, infused with South American and Latin vibes, this is my go-to album for relaxation and peace.
13 – Heran Soun – Undeaf (Review)
One of the most unique albums on this list comes from previously deaf Heran Soun who has been able to experience sound again. This translates into a uniquely produced album that audibly channels muffled and distorted sound frequencies as Heran would have heard them during sound rehab. Every noise is carefully placed around chamber-folk ditties that often are structured in unusual ways. Undeaf is an album that gives upon every listen.
12 – Emaline Delapaix – With Every Beat (Review)
Chamber pop songstress Emaline Delapaix has been building up to unleashing a stunning album after several EP’s and With Every Beat is exactly that. Crammed with moments of tenderness, love, nature and witchy sage advice. What always speaks to me with Emaline is that you feel like you are a few candles away from mixing some potions on one hand, whilst enjoying a folk festival on the other.
11 – Ultraista – Sister (Review)
The grooviest album on this list belongs to Ultraista. The London trio took a long gap between records but Sister is well worth the wait. Effortlessly rhythmic and melodic like you are tumbling down a staircase of rubbery synths, no one does electronica quite like Ultraista. Every song is a hypnotic trance spiral that you never want to leave.
10 – Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Pure utter chaos, bloodletting cathartic release and stood feet stood firmly. These are three emotions I have when riding the rollercoaster of Fiona Apple’ Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Its harsh, demo-like, unhinged – like a punk rocker smashing up a piano instead of a national monument. It will be an album that will garner unabashed admiration or will just baffle you. For me, it was a grower that has earned its place in my collection for when I need to run around the living room screaming to let off steam.
09 – Illuminati Hotties – FREE IH – This is not the one you’ve been waiting for (Review)
The shortest album on the list but slaps you round the face with its grungy punk rock anti-anthems, Illuminati Hotties bites not just musically but with clever observational lyrics that make you smile wryly. Socially political and cleverly mucked up, the attention to detail to make everything sound like a royal dumpster fire shows just how much IH really cares. I hope this album becomes a cult classic in years to come as it has all the ingredients to be one.
08 – Dijf Sanders – Puja (Review)
Puja is an electronic mashup of all kinds of musical heritage from Nepal. Puja is more melodic than Dijf Sanders’ previous work and covers such a vast display of musical tangents no one song or single can showcase the album. Expect quirky melodies, Nepalese chants and instrumentation and a mix from the devotional grandeur of temple worship to jungle ambience. It is the musical equivalent of a travel programme but remixed tastefully into an electronica set.
07 – Lupa J – To Breathe Underwater (Review)
After bagging album of the year last year with Swallow Me Whole, Lupa J continues to make some of the best industrial-tinged goth-pop out there. To Breathe Underwater moves course towards a dancier techno feel throughout its duration and Lupa J has said this is more of a mini-album than a full release. Still, each of the 8 tracks are absolutely stonking and Supermarket Riots is easily one of my tracks of the year.
06 – Tunng – Tunng Presents…Dead Club (Review)
Releasing an album all about death is brave in 2020 but the timing couldn’t have been better. The English folk band paired this album with an 8 part podcast interviewing different people about various aspects of death and grieving from different cultures. It is a fascinating topic and Tunng moves from the sentimental to the painful through comedy and cynicism to offer a full 360 view on the topic. Add to that some of their strongest melodies to date and a wave of emotions to contend with and you have one of the most important releases in 2020. It’s like an alt-folk education in how to process the end of life.
05 – Brudini – For Darkness, Light (Review)
Sounding wise beyond his years, Brudini’s debut album is the perfect example of knowing how to command space in music. Using sparse drum machines, piano, guitar, bass, synths and vocals – you’ll feel trapped in a timeless dreamy void of thought and processing. The album is largely a positive one too as it speaks of growing into your own skin and to find the good out of a bad situation. There is also a healthy amount of organs and psychedelic synths to add an otherworldly sense to the album too.
Brudini is my favourite new solo artist discovery of 2020.
04 – Sylvette – Stiller Than Still (Review)
Sylvette is my favourite new band discovery of 2020 although Stiller Than Still is their second album. Like no other rock band out there, Sylvette produce their albums with the kitchen sink approach to not just sound design but songwriting too. This means songs veer dramatically off course from traditional tropes and instruments fly in from nowhere to surprise you. What is remarkable is that each surprise is a great one – never feeling artsy for artsy sake. Sylvette is easily one of the most original musical acts out there today and I have become a huge fan.
03 – Clock Opera – Carousel (Review)
Synth rockers Clock Opera returned with their new album Carousel and crammed it with a poppier version of their previous selves. Catchy riffs, huge choruses and songs that get stuck in your head for days without getting on your nerves – Clock Opera nailed the pivot. Whilst I loved their rockier side on ‘Venn’, there is still more than enough grit and miserable melancholy between the anthems to make you really appreciate the superb songwriting and emotional delivery.
02 – Lido Pimienta – Miss Columbia (Review)
Lido Pimienta’s second album is an absolute tour de force. Delivering a day/night song cycle on Columbia’s history and the triumphs and battles Lido and her nation have faced, she brings her voice and her countries sound to the big stage. As the album progresses, it is as if Lido goes back in time too as the arrangements get increasingly more tribal and spiritual as the synths and huge production slips away. Clever, powerful, political and defiant – Miss Columbia shows every colour on the peacock feather as glorious and deserving – no matter how hard the fight is to survive.
01 – Hydelic – Tetris Effect Soundtrack
Much delayed, Hydelic’s final version of the Tetris Effect soundtrack is my album of the year. It may seem strange to give the title to the soundtrack of a computer game but this 40 track, near three-hour collection, holds a very special place in my heart. The soundtrack evolves as you play the game so you never hear a definitive version of the music in-game but through your sense, you feel it pulsating at you play and that feeling transfers over to the soundtrack as a standalone piece of art. Tracks vary in genre, location, instrumentation, feel and tempo but they all provide an uplifting, euphoric throughline to an explosive finale. You get pumped up as each track does so to then hit that high and calm down for the next piece. The album’s message is to embrace each other and the world we live in – an eco-warrior lyrical thread runs throughout and the message is that of love and support. It radiates through the soundtrack like glitter. The size and scope of the project Hydelic undertook and kept so fresh for every listen is a real testament to sound design and game music. This is worldly electronica at its finest. Ignore the game music tag and get stuck in – this is a music collection for the ages.
So that is it for the best albums of 2020. Please take a listen to these artists and I hope you find something you enjoy and fall in love with. Music is eternal so I’ll be back in the new year to kick off a new cycle of musical joy. I wish you all the very best.
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