The old adage is that times of unrest lead to great art. Never has this been truer than in 2020. The first six months of this year have been unlike anything any of us have seen before, but if there's any consolation to be found it's that we've been consistently inundated with great albums to listen to and study during lockdown.
There have been truly inspiring offerings from seemingly all popular genres, which reinforces the power and versatility of music as an art form. We've gotten albums to help us vent and articulate our frustrations at systemic inequalities, albums highlighting the experiences of vulnerable populations, and deeply personal and honest showcases of emotion, but we've also gotten albums that highlight the possibilities of what we can accomplish when we work together, reminders that love and community are still as prevalent as ever, and albums that help us step outside of our daily anxiety-inducing narratives and just enjoy existence.
Here are our picks for the best albums of 2020 at the halfway mark of the year.
J Hus - Big Conspiracy
Released: 24 January
Top Tracks: 'Big Conspiracy', 'Triumph', 'Love, Peace and Prosperity'
It might sound like an overstatement, but in the second half to the last decade J Hus genuinely changed the landscape of British music for a generation of artists, predominantly those from African and Caribbean backgrounds – and 2017's debut album Common Sense was a triumphant celebration of this blossoming musical career and creative talent.
Big Conspiracy essentially picks up where Common Sense left off, again bringing together elements of Afrobeats, hip hop, jazz, bashment, dancehall, UK rap, drill, R&B and more. And yet with such a varied musical palette, the album still feels cohesive - perhaps even mores than his debut – tied together by the irrepressible charm and charisma of its central figure, something of an anti-hero who seems to find himself frustrated with his situation and how he is perceived by others.
The usual sexual boasts, harsh realities of an adolescence spent on the roads, and tales of run-ins with the law (that ultimately saw him spend time in prison after the success of his debut) are balanced with an introspection that add to the full package, and maintain J Hus' place at the top of the game.
Against All Logic - 2017-2019
Released: 7 February
Top Tracks: 'Fantasy', 'Penny', 'Faith'
The last year or so seems to have been pretty busy for Nicolas Jaar – what with the release of his hypnotic fourth album Cenizas in March, a follow-up due in mid-July, a film score for Chilean movie Ema, and co-production credits on the latest FKA twigs record towards the back-end of 2019. And yet, the most impressive project of all is one created not under his own name; instead coming, as it did a couple of years ago, under his Against All Logic moniker.
Where previous offering 2012-2017 took its cues from more accessible, dancefloor friendly disco, soul and house – each given their own interpretation and experimental spin – the latest offering leans more towards harder-hitting aspects of techno and experimental club music, packed with distortion, industrial sounds, and a punk spirit encapsulated by the aggression of Lydia Lunch's vocal offering on 'If You Can't Do It Good, Do It Hard'.
And yet, this is an album on which the opening track heavily samples Beyoncé and Sean Paul's global chart hit 'Baby Boy', with Bowie and a Luther Ingram soul classic sampled elsewhere, highlighting Jaar's willingness to take inspiration from wherever he finds it, and package it in a way that he does better than almost anyone else.
King Krule - Man Alive!
Released: 21 February
Top Tracks: 'Stoned Again', 'Comet Face', '(Don't Let The Dragon) Draag On'
Archy Marshall's third album as King Krule shares the same woozy, meandering path as its predecessor, The Ooz, and yet even with the 20 minute decrease in runtime and arguably clearer distinctions between songs, somehow manages to be (deliberately) less accessible in terms of tone.
The sense of gloom and despondence is intense, and it's hard to disagree with some of the more negative reviews of this album that it can feel a little overbearing. But amid the despair there are frequent reminders of Archy Marshall's immense talent, one that has made him one of the most recognisable voices (both literally and figuratively) of his generation and spawned no small number of copycats.
Caribou - Suddenly
Released: 28 February
Top Tracks: 'Never Come Back', 'Home', 'Ravi'
No album this year has made me yearn more for the absent summer, the one in a parallel timeline spent among friends in clubs and in festival fields, sharing in the collective euphoria that so much of this record invokes (rather than being limited to the confines of my flat and its immediate surroundings).
At its heart, Suddenly is an utterly captivating collage of sounds – the almost melancholic synth pop verses of 'You & I' that give way to a Bollywood inspired trap chorus, the bouncy filter house of 'Ravi', the mashup of melodic piano and chopped hip-hop vocal on 'Sunny's Theme', the soul-sampling boom-bap stylings of 'Home', the acid jazz of 'Lime', and unabashed piano house on 'Never Come Back'.
It's an album that doesn't take itself too seriously, one that revels in its pop sensibilities as much as its experimental leanings, and yet one that amid sheer joy has genuinely tender and reflective moments.
R.A.P. Ferreira - Purple Moonlight Pages
Released: 6 March
Top Tracks: 'Omens & Totems', 'U.D.I.G (United Defenders of International Goodwill)', 'Ro Talk'
At the end of opening track 'Decorum', R.A.P. Ferreira (fka milo) states "This transmission is addressed to the fence building nihilists / Your soul writes, 'come home' / Abandon them outdated strategies, namely hatred". These lines sum up not only the album's raison d'etre, but act as a mantra to confront the current circumstances in his native United States and beyond in 2020.
In an age where the loudest voices are the ones most heard, Purple Moonlight Pages goes the other way. The album is a contemporary take on the early 90s golden age of rap, bringing it back to a time where thoughtful meditations and reason where where it was at.
With so much content at our fingertips, music these days often feels like it's fighting to keep your attention, switching sounds and styles continuously to appease an ADD fanbase. Songs on this project feel more like continuous wavelengths that require you to actively hop on in order to get the full experience. The airy and creative instrumentals here allow R.A.P. Ferreira ample space to speak his truth and he doesn't squander the opportunity. The album's lyrical content feels simultaneously very now and timeless, and I have not come across another album this year that rewards repeated listens more than this one.
Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter
Released: 10 April
Top Tracks: 'Only The Strong', 'Song For Our Daughter', 'Hope We Meet Again'
In a recent interview, Laura Marling explained how 'maturity' is a word that has always been associated with her, from before her first teenage forays into music which saw her Mercury Prize nominated twice before she turned 20, through to the present day. And while it seems like an occasional source of frustration for the immensely talented singer-songwriter, it's easy to see why that word is so frequently used to describe her art.
On this, her seventh solo album (despite only recently having turned 30), Marling hits heights that she may never have previously reached – tapping into her almost unparalleled talent for subtly devastating lyrics, which are allowed to shine through on an album perfectly balanced in terms of its composition. Occasionally orchestral and cinematic, Marling's voice remains the focus throughout, allowing the engaging themes to come to the fore – innocence, circumstance, agency, love, grief – all framed through the idea of writing for an imagined daughter.
Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Released: 17 April
Top Tracks: 'Shameika', 'Ladies', 'Heavy Balloon'
From the opening track 'I Want You To Love Me' it's apparent that this album is not going to be like the majority of music you're going to hear in 2020. Fetch The Bolt Cutters features much more acoustic instrumentation than is the norm these days and the striped back approach on this side of things allows for the vocal to sit right in the centre of the mix and communicate as directly as possible to the listener.
Direct communication is the name of the game here, with Fiona Apple singing almost unnervingly personal lyrics confronting everything from her much publicised sexual assault as a teenager to her rocky experience in the limelight in the late 90s and early 2000s to her ongoing struggle with OCD. The album feels that we're getting an unadulterated glimpse into how her brain works, like we've been given a copy of her diary and the authentic Fiona Apple is laid bare.
The confessional nature of the album gives it an unrivalled intensity which, in combination with themes of struggle and living through trauma, instil a dark, unsettling feeling throughout the project. Or rather, Fetch The Bolt Cutters sounds like the thoughts of a person who has gone through a long period of self-doubt and questioning but has finally come out the other side, unsure if they've actually grow more confident or just too tired to care anymore. Either route ends with the same result: letting it all hang out for everyone to see.
Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes - What Kinda Music
Released: 24 April
Top Tracks: 'Festival', 'I Did It For You', 'Last 100'
At this point I hope you're at least tangentially aware of the deep jazz scene in London these days. Artists like Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Ezra Collective, and Sons of Kemet, to name only a few, have proven beyond a doubt that they are worthy of your attention. To reductively describe a quite varied stable of artists, the scene can be defined by the mixing of a variety of genres such as traditional jazz, dance music, and dub into something wholly new and full of energy.
I think the health of a scene can be at least partially gauged by the amount of collaboration and influence flowing between artists, and that is something the current London jazz scene has in spades, with various players bringing their talents and perspectives to a number of different groups, recordings, and shows concurrently.
Following 2016's Black Focus from Yussef Kamaal and 2018's Your Queen Is A Reptile from Sons of Kemet, the latest masterpiece album to come out of the British capital's jazz scene is the collaborate project from Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes. Both south Londoners, their project What Kinda Music is a perfect primer for the scene that birthed it.
Tom Misch is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist whose solo outputs are smooth funk grooves with solid song structures, while Yussef Dayes is a powerhouse drummer who is based more in the jazz jam world. Perhaps not a pair of artists you'd immediately think to pair together, their distinct approaches blend perfectly on this project. Dayes pulls Misch in a more free-formed, improvisational direction and Misch provides pop sensibilities, structure and vocals, instilling a best of both worlds feeling into What Kinda Music.
Run The Jewels - RTJ4
Released: 2 June
Top Tracks: 'holy calamafuck', 'JU$T', 'never look back'
If there's one album that represents the overarching feeling of 2020 so far it's this one. In typical Run The Jewels fashion, the album is laser-focussed on calling out the inadequacies and inequalities of our societies and institutions, and coming out at the height of this year's Black Lives Matter protests, the album felt almost nauseatingly prescient and appropriate for the times.
Overall RTJ4 is a little more in the pocket than Killer Mike and El-P's previous efforts together, with the duo trading their patented all-out attack for a more consistent listening experience that envelops you more and more the further you make it down the track list. Their first two albums felt like intruders busting down the door, this one is more of a precision job. Add in one of Pharrell's grittiest hooks and a powerful verse from Zack de la Rocha on 'JU$T' and you've got another truly killer album from one of hip hop's leading acts.
Hinds - The Prettiest Curse
Released: 5 June
Top Tracks: 'Just Like Kids (Miau)', 'Come Back and Love Me <3', 'Waiting For You'
The difference in approach and experience between RTJ4 and The Prettiest Curse is what makes music, and the arts more broadly, so great. While Run The Jewels are unabashedly political, Spanish pop punk outfit Hinds are more of an escape from an ever increasingly politicised world. That's not to say the group doesn't tackle issues of today on their latest album, themes of misogyny and isolation pervade the project, but the overarching feeling here is one of a much needed summertime distraction.
This is the Madrid foursome's third LP and easily their boldest and best yet. The hooks are bigger, stadium-sized riffs and sing-a-longs abound, classic punk guitar tones are utilised expertly, and the drums border on Bonham-esque spaciousness. While still anchored in the group's love of punk rock, The Prettiest Curse sees more sonic influences seep in, with pop sensibilities and Spanish guitar exemplifying a broadening of the band's sound, helping to keep the listener dialled in for the album's all-killer-no-filler 33 minute run time.
Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways
Moses Boyd - Dark Matter
Gil Scott Heron & Makaya McCraven - We’re New Again
Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans
Kehlani - It Was Good Until It Wasn't
Tame Impala - The Slow Rush
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo
Deerhoof - Future Teenage Cave Artists
Roy Ayers - JID002
Nicolas Jaar - Cenizas
Red Axes - Red Axes