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10 December 2020

Albums of the year

The best records of 2020, as chosen by New Statesman staff.

By New Statesman

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

To say Fiona Apple released her first studio album for eight years in April is not quite right: Fetch the Bolt Cutters came crashing through. The American musician is known for her righteous indignation, and that’s audible here too – on “Under the Table” she speak-sings, “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you shush me” – and there are moments that are downright desolate (“Why did you take it all away?”, she asks, mournfully, on “Drumset”). But my very favourite parts of the album are the ones of quiet resolution. “Fetch the bolt cutters,” she sings. “I’ve been in here too long.” You know she’s getting out. To listen to this album is to have her take you along too. Emily Tamkin 

Arca – KiCk i

Expressing oneself openly and wholly can be a fraught process, especially when establishing a non-conformist identity. On her fourth album KiCk i, Arca is as alive to the freedoms of self-expression as she is to the prejudice it can expose you to. “I don’t give a fuck what you think about me”, declares the Venezuelan artist on “Nonbinary”, the opening track. Throughout, nimble percussion grazes alongside harsher, industrial sounds to create spaces of convergence, worlds that exist between worlds. Equal parts elegiac and intense, KiCk i is a glitched-out, avant-pop statement, one that defiantly ignores those who attempt to invalidate the lived experience of trans people everywhere. Elliot Hoste

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Not since Lizzo’s 2019 Cuz I Love You have I become so teenage discman-fond of a pop album – listening in the right order the whole way through, absorbing all the lyrics, playing it too loudly during that sweet slice of Saturday morning freedom – as I am Dua Lipa’s latest. Perhaps it’s taken on heightened intensity in a year that has prevented me from dangling my arms round my friends and hollering into their faces, but it really does feel like banger after banger. From disco anthem “Love Again”, which mixes classic Lady Gaga with old-school croon (sampling trumpets from a Thirties jazz track) to “Good In Bed”, a cheeky, piano-led jaunt through a doomed yet apparently very satisfying relationship, it’s a fun (and often feminist) commentary on relationships as well as a top-quality singalong fest. Even the delayed gratification implied in the album title makes it ideal listening for a year like this. Anoosh Chakelian 

Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans

Kieran Hebden’s 10th Four Tet album arrived, like a well-timed gift, on 13 March, three days before the UK went into lockdown. Its bright percussive melodies, sibilant hi-hats and trance-like grooves formed the perfect escape route. From “Teenage Birdsong”, with its combination of industrial rhythms and birdlike melody, to “Baby”, which samples real birdsong alongside a sliced-up Ellie Goulding vocal and the sort of subaquatic noises you’d hear on a mid-Nineties jungle record, and the lush reverie of “Mama Teaches Sanskrit” – this is a joyous, consoling record that evokes the innocence of youth and the wonders of the world outside. Tom Gatti

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Empress Of – I’m Your Empress Of

“I know love is a drug, I know money is a drug/I know sex can be a drug but I just wanna be touched.” Lorely Rodriguez’s lyrics stay with you. This record has a strong sense of exorcising frustration: it stomps around in technicolour electro-pop and hammers on the door of acid house as synths buzz and Rodriguez’s voice, contrastingly sweet and ethereal, demands our attention. There are moments of tenderness, too – Rodriguez’s mother, a first-generation Honduran immigrant to the US, opens the album speaking about otherness and womanhood: this album proves that reflection can be energising. Emily Bootle

Ariana Grande – Positions

Ariana Grande embodies all the excitement of youth: the courageous sexuality, the flirtation, the tears, the obsession, obsession, obsession. On Positions, the princess of pop has slow-jammed, Mariah-style, into R&B; it’s all sex, love and body rolls, a flavour of Craig David for the ever-teen millennials, a note of Whitney for the boomers. It’s so much fun. But there’s also an emotional maturity only glimpsed at in her previous albums, matched by the complexity of the vocal layering and production (the sound of crickets features throughout, a percussive memento of her late boyfriend Mac Miller, whose song “Crickets” was leaked posthumously this year). Sex and grief – that’s a lot of substance for a 20-something. Grande carries it. Katherine Cowles

Haim – Women in Music Pt. III

“Nights turn into days/That turn to grey/Keep turning over/Some things never grow/I know alone like no one else does.” It’s a perfect lyric for the pandemic, for being physically distanced, for feeling like life is standing still. It’s also the chorus of a great song. On Haim’s third album there are songs about loneliness (“I Know Alone”), feeling misunderstood (“The Steps”), missing someone (“Up From a Dream”), and crushing sadness (“Now I’m In It”), all thematically of this moment. But the LA sisters’ best album yet also transcends this time, hopping easily in and out of their usual Seventies-sounding rock into something that, like the saxophonist in the music video for “Summer Girl,” follows the listener wherever she goes, even after she’s done listening. Emily Tamkin

Sam Lee – Old Wow

There was a time when I often thought of folk songs as wistful whimsy: beautiful, yes; elegiac, yes  but not hard-hitting. Old Wow, the third album from 40 year-old Sam Lee, however, is a clarion call, albeit in the most seductively gentle of ways. In Lee’s lyrics lies an awareness that turtle doves are not just metaphors for lost love, but also Britain’s most endangered bird. The singer-songwriter has been a regular at Extinction Rebellion rallies and, this April, live-streamed nightingales straight into locked-down homes. Instead of simply mourning the past’s more connected relationship with landscape, Lee’s music is also fighting wildly to restore it  and us. India Bourke

Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter

What a privilege it has been to witness Laura Marling’s evolution from the preternaturally gifted 18-year-old of Alas, I Cannot Swim in 2008 to the worldly and well-travelled story-teller of Song for Our Daughter. On this, her seventh solo album, the acoustic guitar-led arrangements are loose and light-footed, and Marling’s voice, at times multi-tracked in self-harmonies, has never sounded more assured or affecting. There’s a feminist thread running through “Alexandra”, “Strange Girl” and the title track, addressed to an imaginary child (“Lately I’ve been thinking about our daughter growing old / All of the bullshit that she might be told”); there are hard-won tales of leavings and old highways, and, in the closing track, “For You”, one of the simplest and sweetest love songs she has ever written. Tom Gatti

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

“Real hot girl shit,” announces Megan Thee Stallion at the start of almost every track on her debut album. It’s a rallying cry, one that’s come to define the Houston rapper’s trademark playfulness, consolidating a legion of young and very online fans in the process. Over the course of Good News’ 50 minutes, Megan takes us on a lightning tour of her rhythmic prowess. At points a strong, staccato delivery effortlessly truncates entire phrases to fit a ferocious double time flow; elsewhere she languidly stretches vowels to showcase her skill and control. Her pacing and enunciation are particularly noteworthy, especially in an overcrowded scene in which her male counterparts favour melodious rap-singing over good old-fashioned bars. Good News demands to be heard among the limb-stacked euphoria of a crowded nightclub dancefloor. Alas, the general public must make do with solo twerking in bedroom mirrors for the foreseeable future. Real hot girl shit, indeed. Elliot Hoste

Off the Meds – Off the Meds 

According to different members of the South African-Swedish “techno boyband” Off the Meds, their debut self-titled record is “to listen to while taking a train down the coast of the French Riviera”, “a club album”, and for the “bar on Monday”, “rave on Friday” and “café on Sunday”. This mishmash of intent reflects the genre-defying style of the most intriguing and enjoyable album I’ve listened to in 2020. Lyrics in Zulu, Tsotsitaal, Sesotho and English bring out MC Kamo Khoaripe’s gravelly vocals and wit. He ad libs his apologies for even appearing on the mellow and pulsating stand-out single “Karlaplan” (because it’s already such a “big tune”), and devotes himself gamely to the shout-along hook of bonkers ode to heavy industry “Factory Workers” (“We make iron and steel/Metal and copper/PROPER”). Well worth a listen – even if, for the time being, it’s in your bedroom instead of the south of France. Anoosh Chakelian 

Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

It’s easy to forget that the latest album from Mike Hadreas, AKA Perfume Genius, was released in May this year, because it’s the sort of soul-bearing record that immediately feels painfully familiar. Hadreas addresses poignant themes: living in a dysfunctional body; aging; and, of course, love. Musically the album sparkles, bubbles and floats around ambient electro and complex baroque pop. While much material cuts close to the bone – the mesmerising “Jason” is blindingly intimate – there are open skies on “Describe” and lilting self-awareness on “On The Floor”. This album is, above all, beautifully uplifting. Emily Bootle 

Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

The most impressive thing about Sault is not that, four albums in, still no one knows who they are, but that no one cares anyway. The UK collective remain anonymous, and show no sign of wheeling out a face or frontman to play representative on Earth. They don’t need one: Untitled (Black Is) is so coherent that the music speaks for, stands up for, itself. And for others too – it was released as a free download on Juneteenth, amid global Black Lives Matter protests, with proceeds going to “charitable funds”. In the spirit of collectivism, no single genre rules: this 20-track tapestry weaves soul, hip-hop, Afrobeat, gospel, all brilliance and balladry and boogie; this is proper protest music, stuff you can sing and dance to, stuff that stirs you. “Take off your badge/we all know it was murder,” the vocalist challenges on “Wildfires”, as much a call to sing along and sway as to action; a movement through movement. Katherine Cowles 

Soccer Mommy – Color Theory

Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory was released in early February: retrospectively the quietest, calmest point in the year. I immediately associate it with walking through the freezing park near my flat in weak morning light, mist almost obscuring the trees and the bandstand. But this is an album for all seasons: Sophie Allison captures that hazy feeling of the days smudging into one another, months rolling by while all you can do is stare at the ceiling. The seasons are smuggled into the opening verse of lead single “Circle the Drain” – a song about feeling stuck in bed, mindlessly binge-watching TV – that is impossible to play just once. Pairing nostalgic, catchy melodies inspired by Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne with distant vocals and fuzzy, Nineties guitar, Allison’s songs about depression, anxiety and grief trap you with their addictive, circular musicality. Let me play it through just one more time. Anna Leszkiewicz

Moses Sumney – Græ

It is the way in which Moses Sumney combines vulnerability with a distinct, charming theatricality that makes his second album just as fun as it is intriguing. Here is a songwriter who knows he has his pick of the finest producers and instrumentalists working today – Thundercat, James Blake, Oneohtrix Point Never, Nubya Garcia, Adult Jazz and Shabaka Hutchings all feature – and yet the result is vehemently his own. His voice – which is at times reminiscent of Prince, at others of Thom Yorke – is the focal point, yet it delights too in giving way to the synths, harps and horns which fuel this glorious, sprawling riot of sound. Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

In the darkest days of lockdown it sometimes felt as though only pure pop could save us. From Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa, Sophie Ellis-Bextor to Kylie, this year there’s been plenty of unashamed musical glitter to keep us dancing on our own. Fresh from cheering me up every week with her mum on their excellent food podcast Table Manners, Jessie Ware dropped her addictive slice of silky pop bang in the middle of the summer to compensate for some of those shutdown dancefloors and forbidden festivals. A sparkling return to form for Ware, it is, with cheeky influences of Seventies disco, Nineties dance, and touches of Goldfrapp, Moloko and Robyn, an altogether grown-up modern disco gem. Thomas Calvocoressi

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

When I came to Saint Cloud in the early days of lockdown, I had no idea how imperative a record it would be for the rest of my year, how many hours I would go on to spend trawling Discogs for Katie Crutchfield’s back catalogue. I still marvel at the way the Alabama native’s tongue dances over the word “lilacs” in the song of the same name, how she stretches her voice into an unusually high register while retaining its innate graininess on the divine “Fire”. Saint Cloud, with its slick guitar lines and unrelentingly sublime lyrics, is flawless Americana. Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Fatima Yamaha – Spontaneous Order

It took almost 15 years for Fatima Yamaha, the pseudonym of Dutch producer Bas Bron, to rise to fame after the release of underground staple What’s a Girl to Do in 2001. Bron’s latest release, Spontaneous Order, is less subtle than the hit that brought him minor fame, with heavier basslines and EDM-adjacent drops (perhaps, after producing a hit that took over a decade to be recognised, Bron felt on this one that he should simply go all-in). But Bron’s signature tasteful synth melodies still shine through in tracks such as “Unwashed” and “Daio Alternate History”, which make the album worth the detour. Ido Vock


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