best albums 2020 photo

The 25 Best Albums Of 2020  

From long-awaited returns to assured and confident debuts, these are the albums that got us through 2020. Words by Music Junkee

By Music Junkee, 17/12/2020

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We could dedicate hundreds of words to this introduction, trying to sum up the chaos and horror that was 2020, but we won’t.

We all lived through it, we all watched it unfold, and as the end of the year draws closer and the vaccine creeps over the horizon, we’ll all slowly begin the process of reckoning with the upheaval.

The music industry was forced to the brink in probably its worst year in recent history, but 2020 also delivered us some incredibly good albums. Whether they were long-awaited returns from music legends like Fiona Apple, or bright and shining debuts from the likes of Spacey Jane, or career-defining efforts from Jessie Ware and Laura Marling — music was a rare bright spot in the 2020 abyss.

So here are the best albums to come out of The Year That Was, presented in no particular order.

— Jules LeFevre, Music Junkee editor 

Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?

“If this is the last hurrah, fine,” Jessie Ware told Music Junkee shortly before the release of What’s Your Pleasure?. “But at least I made a record that I really enjoyed.”

It might only have been released a few days ago, but it’s already safe to say that Ware’s fourth album won’t be her last hurrah — in fact, it’s arguably her most acclaimed, garnering glowing reviews from NME, The Guardian, and Pitchfork, who crowned it Best New Music.

It’s completely deserved: What’s Your Pleasure? is a sophisticated and gorgeous listen, with Ware leaning back heavily into the dance-driven pop of her early career. The production — Ware was aided by James Ford and Joe Mount of Metronomy — is deft and inspired, with orchestral flourishes, synths, and acid house beats weaved together.

‘Save A Kiss’ is one of its many peaks, a thudding dancefloor moment that sounds like it was unearthed from a time capsule buried in a London club in the ’90s.

— Jules LeFevre

Torres — Silver Tongue

In the lead-up to the release of Torres’ Silver Tongue, the musician — real name Mackenzie Scott — announced that it was her first album about love. To longtime fans, that might have been somewhat surprising to hear. After all, Scott’s music is not often romantic, and her best singles resemble ten miles of bad road: ‘Helen in the Woods’, her miniature masterpiece, is a throttled piece of sustained cruelty.

The magic trick of Silver Tongue then is that the record really is about love, while still containing the loping horror of Torres’ best work. ‘Gracious Day’, the most heartbreaking song of the year, details the anxious moment when you ask someone to move in with you; ‘Good Grief’ deconstructs the shaking fear that comes from being perceived by someone who takes you seriously. These songs are genuinely scary in a way that indie pop usually isn’t.

But they’re also hopeful, trembling with their own sense of catharsis, and rushing at listeners with their arms open wide, ready for embrace. There have been few more ambitious masterpieces released this year.

— Joseph Earp

Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple fans are used to long, long, waits. But it was a mere matter of months between the announcement of Fetch The Bolt Cutters and the thing dropping in full, Apple having pulled the release date up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

That might explain why it feels like the dust is yet to settle on the record. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is so strange, so patchwork and pained, that it still feels like something that happened to us, rather than something we consumed ourselves. ‘Ladies’ is the closest thing the album has to a breakout pop single, and even that is a jumbled collection of confused and confusing melodies and a half-formed chorus.

So much of the album is still submerged in shadow. Who knows whether it’s the best album of Apple’s career, or of the year? Only time will tell. But until the thing settles into one stable shape, we’ll be sitting here with it, letting its odd textures flutter around us like ash after a house fire.

— Joseph Earp

Spacey Jane — Sunlight

Given the constant glut of middling Australian indie rock/pop acts, you’d be forgiven for almost gliding past Spacey Jane’s quietly astonishing Sunlight. 

Yes, it’s sunny, it’s jangly, it’s summery — it’s all of those descriptors that have become inextricably tied to Aussie indie. But within the languid, ringing guitar strums and slowly booming drums Spacey Jane have etched a confronting portrait of youthful hope, fear, and anxiety.

“You must feel that you wasted your life for me/Well I know I feel the same/I’m not the man I wish I was/Not even half of him”, singer and songwriter Caleb Harper admits simply on ‘Wasted On Me’.

‘Booster Seat’, a slow a steady dismantling of the stomach flipping feelings of a panic attack, is the album’s brilliant high point.

— Jules LeFevre

Jack Colwell — SWANDREAM

Jack Colwell’s SWANDREAM is an album of transformation. Sometimes that transformation is mythical; almost religious in nature, like the mutations that make up Ovid’s Metamorphosis. ‘PTSD’, the biggest and loudest song of Colwell’s entire career, feels like the Earth crashing down on your head.

But just as often, Colwell knows to go smaller. A newly recorded version of ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’, the track that first put Colwell on the map, takes that song’s pleasures and makes them more nuanced and surprising. And ‘A Spell’, a duet recorded with Sarah Blasko, might be one of the most gently devastating songs of the year.

It’s an album that creeps up on you, that winds up and down your legs and arms, holding you up against a memory and then attaching you there. It might well be one of the most sumptuous debuts in modern Australian musical history. When touring resumes, we better see this record as it was designed to be heard: in some intimate space, perhaps a church, with Colwell’s voice gliding us upwards, into the rafters.

— Joseph Earp

Megan Thee Stallion — Good News

In a year filled with negativity, Megan Thee Stallion brought us Good News. Before she released her debut album, Megan Thee Stallion had created a viral movement, she had the biggest TikTok dance craze and she had two number one hits. Where on earth do you go from here?

Taking a leaf from Cuz I Love You’s book, Megan Thee Stallion’s debut is a collection of (sometimes) incoherent bangers that mainly hits and rarely miss. There’s everything from old-school hip-hop instrumentals to glitchy PC music beats, which ultimately leave Megan Thee Stallion with an array of pathways in front of her.

Sure, I’m hoping for a more coherent project for her sophomore effort, but at the end of the day, Megan Thee Stallion is a superstar in the TikTok age; I’m surprised we got an album at all.

— Haydn Hickson

Laura Marling — Song For Our Daughter

Laura Marling could have sat on Song For Our Daughter. After all, the record hadn’t even been announced by the time the pandemic unfurled around the world, disrupting the touring industry and shackling Marling to her home. But instead, for reasons that came naturally, intuitively, she decided to drop it, giving her fans little more than a week’s notice to prepare for the thing.

The entire album has that sense of impressionistic, spur of the moment life. Nothing about it is overly thought-out, or belaboured. ‘Only the Strong’ goes sad just as you’re expecting it to go mighty; ‘The End of the Affair’ does the opposite. On ‘Fortune’, Marling’s voice flattens itself like a coin crushed on a freeway, and ‘For You’, a long, patchwork medley, might be one of the best songs of her career.

Marling has made a career out of sounding effortless, like she’s the kind of person who can just pick choruses out of the air. But here, perhaps for the first time, she sounds totally free, too. Not just sonically; creatively. But as a person. We deserve to sit in the warm glow of this record for many years to come.

— Joseph Earp

Rina Sawayama — Sawayama

Rina Sawayama eats up influences and styles at a speed that pop hasn’t seen since Madonna. Actually, scratch that. Madonna traded in musical genres over the course of albums. Sawayama does it over the course of songs. Her self-titled debut record is like a crack of lightning, moving so fast and thick with such intelligence that it makes every other modern pop songwriter look positively geriatric by comparison.

‘STFU!’ opens with a nu-metal riff before eventually morphing into a series of curses, drenched in reverb and surrounded by glittering synths. ‘Love Me 4 Me’ finds the intersection between yacht rock and R’n’B and somehow makes it sing, while ‘Chosen Family’ turns the twee prettiness of the Postal Service inside out.

It’s hard to imagine a more inventive or exciting record being released this year — or maybe this decade. Who knows what Sawayama does next. But all it would take is one more record of this calibre and she could emerge as one of the most important artists in the entire pop pantheon.

— Joseph Earp

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

The sadness of Phoebe Bridgers’ music has become something of a joke, the fodder for thousands of memes dropped every day. That’s one helluva form of marketing, but it also obscures some of the things that make Bridgers special.

Sure, a song like ‘Kyoto’ is sad, but that’s a little bit like saying some of Van Gogh’s paintings are of flowers. Bridgers goes beyond the sad sack flatness that defines the indie singer-songwriters that have gone before her, telling stories of pain and catharsis that rattle with a singular intelligence and skill.

After all, which other modern songwriter could pen something as at once devastating and beautiful as ‘I Know The End’, Punisher‘s last track and a meditation on horror and grief that eventually becomes a series of gasped screams? It’s a glittering crown of hurt placed on top of a record that goes deeper than the memes. Turn it on, lay back on your bed, and let it overwhelm you.

— Joseph Earp

RVG — Feral

The first RVG record, A Quality of Mercy, was something of a mystery — arriving on the scene with little in the way of promotion, and almost no advanced fanfare. The band’s follow-up, Feral, was a different proposition, released through an indie label and announced months ahead of time with the all-time great single ‘Alexandra’.

But somehow, despite that change in release method, Feral still feels as magic and as giddily inexplicable as its predecessor. To borrow a phrase from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, it’s an angel, flung out of space, a work of genius the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in a long, long time. ‘Christian Neurosurgeon’ calls to mind the best work of Echo & The Bunnymen without ever feeling reductive or recycled, and ‘Perfect Day’ hums with a heart entirely of its own.

Feral had the misfortune of making its way into the world just as the pandemic kicked off. But to be honest, this is a record that could withstand any of fortune’s slings and arrows. Give it 10 years, and the cult of RVG will be taking over the world.

— Joseph Earp

Lady Gaga — Chromatica 

According to producer Bloodpop, ballads are illegal on planet Chromatica. Instead, Gaga’s sixth album is built around ’90s house, a decidedly off-trend reference in a year where disco reigned. The unwritten law is that poptimism is out, too, though you’d be forgiven for at first thinking that Gaga’s return to maximalist, all-in music and out-of-this-world aesthetics is an ecstatic escape.

But even its biggest single, ‘Rain On Me’, is about survival, not thriving. With Ariana Grande in hand, the two reach for euphoria in just existing — how could anything but “I might not be dry/but at least I’m alive” be the lyric of 2020?

Matching Gaga’s many traumas — fame, mental anguish, chronic pain — with ’90s house is an attempt to sweat it out, but one that knows music can only do so much. Listen closer, and the album is characterised by disappointment and depersonalisation:  ‘Free Woman’ and ‘Fun Tonight’ sound cold and decidedly simplistic, ‘911’ turns Gaga’s experience with psychosis into a sellable, sexy synth track, and ‘Replay’ is a fun-house horror of being used.

Chromatica is Gaga’s most complicated treatise on fame yet, a deeply layered album where underneath all the quirks — the return to the theatrical pronunciations and aggressively odd pop — is a surprisingly subtle pang of pain. It’s the most relatable she’s ever been.

— Jared Richards

Troye Sivan — Take Yourself Home

Two years ago, Troye Sivan released his sophomore album Bloom. It was a high point for the Australian ex-YouTuber, another startling collection of pristine pop. As wonderful as it must have been for the artist, the pressure must have mounted.

But, now we’ve arrived at Take Yourself Home, a seven-track EP that sees Sivan completely relax into the genre. Never has Troye felt so comfortable in the words that he’s singing and the instrumentals he’s singing over.

He’s also leaning much more heavily into explicit imagery, which he flirted with on Bloom. ‘STUD’ sees Sivan as a drunk and horny hot mess: “Hey stud, what’s it like to be so big and strong and so buff,” Troye purrs, summing up what we’ve all wanted to say to a stranger but never had the courage to actually do so.

Take Yourself Home is our first taste of Troye doing exactly what he wants, with no pressure, and he’s never sounded better.

— Haydn Hickson

Miiesha — Nyaaringu

In the press, Miiesha’s Nyaaringu has sometimes been referred to as a “collection” rather than an album, compiled from the game-changing singles that the musician has been quietly dropping over the last year or so. Consider it a testament to Miiesha’s skill as a writer and performer then that this record has more energy and life than the work some musicians release decades into their career.

‘Drowning’, an aching ballad that opens with Tony Abbott’s infamous claim that remote communities are “lifestyle choices”, might be one of the most essential and urgent songs of the year, while ‘Hold Strong’ is an iron-wrought ballad about fortifying yourself against the horrors of modern systemic oppression. These are dizzyingly smart songs, with lyrics that translate entire perspectives into song.

But they’re far from cerebral treatises. They are, first and foremost, works of considerable musical wit and heart; the sound of a young singer, describing the entire universe as they see it.

— Joseph Earp

Blake Scott — Niscitam

Dropping a solo record after years spent as the frontperson of one of the most successful and inventive bands in Australia is a certain kind of self-sabotage — critics will only ever judge your new work against your past successes, no matter how much you try and break the mould, and there will always be those fans who will grumble despairingly about the good old days.

Consider it one more sign of Blake Scott’s extraordinary talents then that Niscitam, his first album without his band The Peep Tempel, feels as though it operates in a world entirely of its own.

There are comparisons to be made, of course — choruses have the burnt-out beauty of the work of author Gerald Murnane, and some of those shrieking guitar lines call to mind Tempel hits — but they never quite pin the work down in its entirety.

This is bold, inventive songwriting from one of our most talented and original performers. Hop on the Blake Scott train now — when he’s finally recognised as the titan that he is in a few short years, you can say you got in early.

— Joseph Earp

Tia Gostelow — CHRYSALIS 

It doesn’t take long for Tia Gostelow’s CHRYSALIS to completely grip you. After a second of cassette scratching, and a few bars of the Tears For Fears inspired verse, there’s a second of suspension, a feeling of your stomach falling out of your body.

Gostelow only lets it linger for a second before the ‘TWO LOVERS’ chorus hits like a gut punch — a shimmering, synth-soaked pop gut punch, that is.

There might not be a more rewarding album in 2020 than CHRYSALIS. The album’s 11 tracks unfurl a little more on every listen, revealing razor sharp production — courtesy of Holy Holy’s Oscar Dawson — and Gostelow’s rapidly maturing songwriting chops.

It also just sounds completely and utterly lush — Gostelow couches her lyrics of loneliness and anxiety within gorgeous beds of ’80s instrumentation and 2000s pop rock, reminiscent of Jack River’s 2018 Sugar Mountain. Let it absorb you.

— Jules LeFevre

California Girls — Beat Boy

Beat Boy is like crawling across 10 miles of bad road on your knotted, bulging arms; a work of considerable beauty that is constantly undercut by pain, lust, and so much reddened flesh. There are few records released this year that feel quite so embodied, as though the music is always in the process of straining and stiffening around itself.

Wilder still, it’s also something of a pop record. Opening track ‘Pairing’ might contain lyrics about screaming oneself hoarse, but underneath singer Gus McGrath’s warping drone, there’s a set of iron-wrought pop hooks that work on your gut before they ever work on your brain.

Even when the record becomes its most existential and tortured, it’s always a good time; a rave thrown in an abattoir.

— Joseph Earp

H.C. McEntire — Eno Axis

The first time I saw American singer-songwriter H.C. McEntire perform live, she was the guitarist in Angel Olsen’s band, bopping about onstage at Fairgrounds Festival in Berry underneath a burning sun.

Olsen herself was dressed in a sleeveless silky number. McEntire, by contrast, was clad in a deeply unseasonable suit and pants, complete with bolo tie and tall leather boots. The whole time, I worried about her getting heatstroke. But McEntire didn’t even break a sweat. She just stood there, smiling, and spun something beautiful.

That same single-minded sense of purpose is all across McEntire’s new solo album, Eno Axis. Folding from gentle, beautiful country singles about love to blaring anthems of pain, it’s one of the genuine surprises of the year. Whichever way you think that McEntire is going to go, she always darts in the opposite direction, creating a cohesive and knotted sequence of left turns. There’s nothing quite like it.

— Joseph Earp

Chloe x Halle — Ungodly Hour

From YouTube to Disney, Chloe x Halle’s transition into mainstream success has been a steady and predictable climb. Still, it took the release of their second album Ungodly Hour for everyone to full shake off their scepticism. And thank god we all did, because Ungodly Hour is polished and gleaming.

While the most notable track on the LP takes the form of the TikTok-approved ‘Do It’,  the real high-points can be found when Ungodly Hour loosens up. ‘Tipsy’ is appropriately woozy and intoxicating, as the duo stagger that line between control and chaos. It’s enthralling.

— Haydn Hickson

Mrs. Piss — Self-Surgery

Chelsea Wolfe sometimes gets overlooked by metal snobs, accused of dressing up gothic folk songs in the trappings of head-banging violence in order to….I dunno, pretend she’s harder than she is?

Which is nonsense. Wolfe’s been one of the dark lights of the metal scene for years now, pushing the genre in strange and unusual directions while making her contemporaries look like they’re staying still. Denying her work is metal just makes metal look less daring.

Which is what makes the record she released with her new supergroup, Mrs. Piss, that much more unusual. This is no genre-bending work of radical creation — it’s a straight up and down metal record. Prior Wolfe albums have been scalpels; this one is a chainsaw.

Insistently hitting the same dark terrors over and over again, it’s also shot through with a vein of jet black humour; if that band name didn’t give it away, not everything that Wolfe or her bandmate Jess Gowrie do is for real. Start with ‘Knelt’, and sit still while your brain turns to porridge.

–Joseph Earp

Waxahatchee — St. Cloud

St. Cloud, the new record from Waxahatchee — AKA Katie Crutchfield — dropped precisely when we needed it. The coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to spread; we were all locked down and afraid; the future looked bleak. And then in came this breath of fresh air, an unabashedly heartfelt — some may say “corny” — work of pop from a musician who had spent her career mostly exploring the shadows.

And St. Cloud wasn’t just a brief injection of serotonin, either. If anything, at the tail end of the year, it seems only more impressive. There’s just so much heart and intelligence to these songs — ‘Witches’, a trembling tribute to sisterhood, spells out a whole way of living with a few brief, strummed chords.

And yeah, sure, Crutchfield wears her heart on her sleeve across this thing in a way that some might consider daggy. But that’s precisely the joy of the piece. Instead of darting away from her happiness and her wistfulness, Crutchfield stares at it right in the glinting eye. It’s the best thing she’s ever done, by far.

— Joseph Earp

Ziggy Ramo — Black Thoughts

Ziggy Ramo Burrmuruk Fatnowna actually completed his debut album Black Thoughts five long years ago, but made the decision to sit on it for a while — he wasn’t sure whether the white Australian public was ready his earth-shaking songs about trauma and dispossession.

But this year, in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests, Ramo decided it was time for the reckoning. He released the record in June, following it up with one of the most outstanding performances the Sydney Opera House has ever seen.

“When I wrote this album, I didn’t think I’d be alive to see it released. It’s surreal to think that I’ll now get to put this message on such an iconic stage,” he said of the performance. “I’m humbled to be allowed to share my story on Gadigal Country. I hope this performance can create further conversations that Australia needs to have. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.”

— Jules LeFevre 

The Microphones — The Microphones in 2020

Phil Elverum, he of The Microphones and Mount Eerie fame, has become known for his emotional honesty — following the tragic passing of his wife, he wrote one of the most blunt and direct records about death ever released, A Crow Looked at Me.

The Microphones in 2020, his new release, is just as sage and unobstructed, but in a markedly different way. Rather than the short, sharp stories of A Crow Looked at MeMicrophones in 2020 is an almost hour-long stroll through Elverum’s thoughts on music, the era of streaming, purpose and nostalgia.

It’s more like an essay than a song, the guitar behind Elverum’s thin voice staying still for minutes at a time. Perhaps if someone less skilled than he had tried to pull this off it would be boring. Instead, it’s one of the most astonishing and varied listens of the year; the sound of an all-time great songwriter speaking truths precisely as they come to him.

— Joseph Earp

Tkay Maidza — Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2

Once, Tkay Maidza’s bread and butter was summery, pop-inflected dance and hip-hop tracks — now, she’s opting for some twisted and sophisticated hip-hop.

In the 2nd instalment of her Last Year Was Weird EP trilogy, Tkay Maidza trades in sunlight for sunset. Tkay serves up eight distinct-yet-cohesive tracks that trace Tkay’s mindset throughout a restless evening. In this project, Tkay can’t seem to sleep, she can’t seem to get off her phone — and she can’t seem to make a bad song.

Dynamic, versatile, enthralling — it’s just another Tkay release, after all.

— Haydn Hickson

The Weeknd — After Hours

No one was more shocked at his Grammy snub than The Weeknd himself. After all — how did the Grammys fuck up so badly to exclude arguably the biggest song of the year, in ‘Blinding Lights’? Or, for that matter, After Hours, his assertive and brilliant pop record.

Where his previous studio-albums felt like Abel Tesfaye was trying to prove he could play around in the pop genre, After Hours showcases The Weekend navigating it with ease. It’s far and away the most consistent Weeknd studio-album we’ve received.

While ‘Heartless’ is an outstanding lead single (and one that sneakily nods to his greatest feature), it’s the run from the TikTok-approved ‘Blinding Lights’ to the head-bop-inducing ‘Save Your Tears’ that will make you run to pick up the Urban Outfitters exclusive vinyl.

Haydn Hickson

The Kid LAROI — F*ck Love

Australia isn’t always excellent at recognising its rising stars until the rest of the world has already caught on. So it went with the Kid LAROI, a young hip-hop powerhouse who became known to those in the States thanks to his friendship with the late rapper Juice WRLD rather than any work done by those in these parts.

And what a shame it would have been if the young prodigy hadn’t have been recognised. He is something of a musical polymath, able to shred through genres, tones and styles at astonishing speed, combining a late ’90s curiosity with a thrillingly modern sense of play.

‘Addison Rae’, a ballad dedicated to a TikTok star, is more complex and nuanced than anything released by some stars a couple of decades older than him. The future is Kid LAROI, and boy is it bright.

— Joseph Earp

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