Our top 40 records of the year, voted for by our contributors
It’s that time of year again, when us and others like us (maybe even you) agonise over our favourite records released since January. Only this year is different, of course. Most of us spent a good chunk of 2020 listening to old albums we definitely knew we liked, just in case it was the last thing we heard. Against the odds, the pandemic was unable to kill off new releases, though, and after a few weeks of listening to Blonde and the first Jamie T album, new records soundtracked and saved our years with a heightened sense of connectivity; community clapping to the domestic theatrics of Fiona Apple, shuffling along Morrison’s grief conga to the horribly apt horrorcore of Clipping, finding a summer where there wasn’t one in Megan Thee Stallion’s mixtape of house party sex tunes.
There’s been something for every angle of 2020’s singular mood, from the records that seemed to predict social collapse and sound exactly like it (Protomartyr, Keeley Forsyth, Run the Jewels) to Hen Ogledd’s surreal adventures for a surreal time, to escapist pop masterpieces from Dua Lipa and Georgia, to the healing electronics of Kelly Lee Owens, Kate NV and Sparkle Division. They’ve all played their important roles through 2020, and now we’ve collected them all together.
12 of our selected albums feature in this month’s L&Q x DRIFT Records collection. All records have 10% off for existing and new Loud And Quiet members. Sign up here.
In her ninth decade, Shirley Collins keeps redefining the boundaries of her art. Heart’s Ease is a profoundly moving voyage through the folk traditions that have informed her extraordinary career.
Eccentric and expansive, Room For The Moon is a rich, allusive record from Moscow producer Kate NV.
Georgia Anne Muldrow returns to her Jyoti project – a name bestowed upon her by Alice Coltrane, no less – with another album of explorative free jazz and cosmic funk.
Retrospective compilations like this aren’t usually given much space in new music year-end lists, for obvious reasons – but this one is special. The new age pioneer and trans icon’s creative vision has been consistently groundbreaking for 50 years, and Transmissions does it justice.
Arguably the UK drill scene’s first true breakout star, Headie One was always going to deliver something special with his first LP; even with that expectation in mind, the introspective, brutally honest Edna is a massive achievement.
One of the country’s most abrasive, uncompromising groups returns with another album of pugilistic noise rock, replete with additional flourishes that elevate it even beyond their superb debut from 2016.
Having become a father since his last LP, Archie Marshall has had some growing up to do. Man Alive! is the result: a stern, atmospheric collage of vignettes from contemporary Britain, and the most contemplative King Krule record yet.
Released in the midst of the explosive uprisings that followed the police murder of George Floyd in May, RTJ4 doesn’t pull its punches: an irresistibly powerful and grimly necessary account of contemporary American life from Killer Mike and El-P.
Over the past decade, Mike Hadreas has established himself as one a uniquely incisive, cathartic songwriting talent, and Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is his most complete record yet. Somehow, it feels like he’s only just getting started.
Brilliant electro-rock from French-Canadian artist Marie Davidson and her newly-formed band – and a bold departure from her previous work.
Vulnerable and charming, Anime, Trauma and Divorce is a sardonic, endearingly nerdy meditation on personal shortcomings and impending middle age from Open Mike Eagle.
With endorsements from several of US R&B’s most respected voices, there’s a lot of hype surrounding Liv.e right now. Couldn’t Wait To Tell You… demonstrates why – she’s a potential icon-in-the-making.
John Dwyer never stops, does he? Between his several Oh Sees/Osees releases and a number of solo noodlings this year, he also found time to make this remarkable space-rock record with the newly-formed Bent Arcana. Whisper it – this might be his best work in ages.
Dan Snaith’s unique place in the history of 21st century electronic music has been assured for a while now, but Suddenly feels like a significant step forward for the Canadian polymath – his most complex, considered work yet.
UK rap’s had a big year, and Insomnia sums up exactly why. There’s always been cross-pollination between scenes – drill, grime, road rap, etc – but the sheer breadth of styles and textures that Skepta, Chip & Young Adz bring to the table here hints that we’re in a particularly fertile period right now.
The Big Thief mastermind escaped to the woods to create this record in the middle of lockdown, and even by her own lofty standards the results are astoundingly beautiful.
Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye’s knowing future-pop as Jockstrap took a massive step up this year, between Wicked City and its companion EP, Beavercore. Virtuosic production and a knack for earwormy hooks combined to make something very special – it feels like there’s much more to come from these two.
Over the course of a single 45-minute track, The Microphones in 2020 transports us into Phil Elverum’s inner life using little more than an insistent guitar loop, some whispered vocals, and the tiniest wisps of percussion. Somehow, it’s utterly engrossing.
Moses Sumney is more than a pretty voice – although his singing is pretty unbelievable. Græ is a sprawling, ambitious thing, anchored by artisanal songwriting and an eerie sense of timing.
Between this album and her linkup with Cardi B on ‘WAP’, 2020 has been a huge year for Megan Thee Stallion. And just listen to Suga – proper superstar stuff.
Vancouver-based multimedia collective Crack Cloud are evolving fast, and Pain Olympics, their debut album proper (their self-titled 2018 release has variously been billed as an EP, mixtape, mini-album and more), shows every side of their remarkable creative approach as it so far: compassionate, frenetic, and nigh-on irresistible.
There’s nobody quite like Yves Tumor operating right now. Part experimental auteur, part glittering rock star, part slinky R&B cult icon, few people defy categorisation with such style. Heaven To A Tortured Mind is a record that raises more questions than it answers, and all the more compelling for it.
A nuanced, clear-eyed examination of British-Asian culture, as one would expect from a figure like Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye demands and rewards your attention.
Notoriously restless and difficult to categorise, London alt-rock band Sorry show no signs of settling down on their uneasy, anxious debut 925, a convincing account of the insecurity of contemporary young adulthood.
Skeletal instrumentation, windswept atmospherics and a uniquely tremulous vocal: in Debris, Keeley Forsyth turned in one of the most haunting records of 2020. It’d be unlistenably bleak were it not so beautiful.
Katie Crutchfield’s latest as Waxahatchee is her most straightforward and country-tinged yet, a plaintive ode to her Southern upbringing that may just be her masterpiece.
True to horror tradition, experimental hip-hop trio Clipping follow up 2019’s gory There Existed An Addiction To Blood with a sequel that surpasses its remarkable predecessor. Terrifying, in a good way.
Lithe, ’80s-indebted disco combines with an up-to-the-minute instinct for cutting-edge hooks on the album that will cement Dua Lipa as one of the defining British pop stars of her generation.
The Californian songwriter has had a stratospheric rise since her 2017 debut Stranger In The Alps, and Punisher is packed tight with inch-perfect songwriting that deserves to propel her to even headier heights.
Hyperreal gloss and an awkward danceability combine to stunning effect on the superb debut LP from Minor Science, aka Berlin producer Angus Finlayson. When we can hear this stuff in its intended club context, that’ll be a moment to treasure.
Never too cool, never too serious, always just the right amount of sincere, lighthearted and full of massive hooks: Georgia’s ascent to the top echelons of UK alt-pop is complete with Seeking Thrills.
Another album of bleak, funny, heavy post-punk from the Detroit legends. It’s not a massive departure from their previous work, but it sees them fine-tune their craft even more than before.
Jazz, UK garage, Detroit electro and more collide on this mission statement-like debut LP from London drummer and producer Moses Boyd. Alchemical stuff from a unique talent.
The constantly-evolving collaboration of Richard Dawson, Sally Pilkington, Dawn Bothwell and Rhodri Davies, Hen Ogledd gesture towards an incredibly wide range of influences (ABBA, glam rock, C86) on their second LP while sounding like nobody other than themselves.
Every verse, every beat, every hook on Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 hits just right – Tkay Maidza doesn’t let a second go to waste on this EP. The Aussie rapper and singer deserves every bit of the cultish acclaim that’s coming her way.
You know that album that literally everyone said was incredible when it dropped in April? Yeah, it’s good.
Ambient icon William Basinski and his production assistant Preston Wendell collaborate on the last thing you’d expect from the experimental veteran – an album of dislocated, mirage-like lounge jazz, vaguely uncanny and blearily intoxicating.
Welsh techno/dream-pop extraordinaire Kelly Lee Owens has come a long way in the leadup to this album, and its masterful construction proves that the journey has been worth it.
The strangest, creepiest, and best pop album of the year. After many, many listens, we’re still not quite sure what’s happening on Winterreise; all we know is that it sounds fucking amazing.
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