Year In Review: Rajan Lakhani's Top Ten Albums Of 2020

on Sunday, January 31, 2021

Words: Rajan Lakhani

It was so tempting given the challenges of 2020 to only listen to music that you know and love, to provide some comfort and reassurance while the pandemic was changing our daily lives. And that’s of course absolutely justified. But my favourite moments listening to music have been discovering something new, the first time hearing a record and how you can’t wait to hear it again. So here are my favourite albums of 2020, and hope you find something that you enjoy that you hadn’t heard before.

There’s also a Spotify playlist which features tracks from my top 20 albums at the start, followed by a mix of my favourite songs from the year that none of us will forget. (NB one of my favourite records - 'Microphones In 2020' by The Microphones - is not on Spotify but is available on Youtube.

10. Kelly Lee Owens - 'Inner Song'

Techno music isn’t really my jam. The monotony, the paucity of melody and the lack of lyrics mean I don’t particularly seek out albums from this genre. Yet Kelly Lee Owens’ record stands out. Perhaps it’s too ‘pop’ a record for techno purists but that’s no problem for me. It’s a healing, absorbing album that unfurls around you with its pretty synths in a way that often feels spiritual.

9. Margo Price - 'That’s How Rumors Get'

This is a brilliant country record from a songwriter whose confidence grows with each release. While that assuredness has led some to say it’s lacks the grit or the sting from her previous output, I like Price’s new sound. It’s evolved to encompass 80s new wave and gospel to deliver a quietly powerful album, packed full of melodies that are somehow both familiar and fresh.

8. Bruce Springsteen - 'Letter To You'

I’m a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen. His albums often fall between two extremes, the bombastic and the intimate. Letter To You is far more in the former camp, which comes as no surprise given the involvement of the E Street Band for the first time on a studio album since 2009. There is an inviting warmth and sense of camaraderie to the album that doesn’t stray into mawkishness, and no one delivers sincere, stirring rock n roll for the soul like Bruce Springsteen. While it doesn’t reach the heights of a 'Born To Run' or a 'Born In The USA' (and not many records by any artist have been as good as those), it’s arguably his best since his imperial phase in the 70s and 80s.

7. Adrianne Lenker - 'songs'

Big Thief’s bandleader Adrianne Lenker made this record while she took herself away to the woods of Massachusetts, isolating herself from the dangers of the pandemic that had taken hold in New York. As a result, songs has a special intimacy - you even hear some of the raindrops falling on the roof of the cabin that she was staying in. The songs are beautiful, as Lenker bares her pain and vulnerability having experienced what she calls ‘heartsick’ to make an affecting, absorbing listen.

6. Boy Pablo - 'Wachito Rico'

I love discovering new artists and Nicolas Muñoz's Boy Pablo was of my favourite finds of 2020. 'Wachico Rico' isn’t particularly innovative, layered or challenging. But its simplicity and directness make it a breezy, fun indie-pop record that’s crammed full of great hooks, transporting you to your carefree early 20s when the biggest choice you had to make was what coloured shirt to wear to the uni indie disco night.

5. Fleet Foxes - 'Shore'

Oh how much we needed in Fleet Foxes album in 2020. This is soothing stuff, a record that radiates light and hope. All the signatures of a Fleet Foxes album are there - the harmonies, the tranquility, the ambitious folk arrangements - but there is an immediacy that makes it a stronger record than ‘Crack Up’. Shore is a return to the brilliance of their first two records, being both graceful and uplifting. The album is an amazing testimony to being in the moment, that as Robin Pecknold himself put it, “celebrates life in the face of death”.

4. Dehd - 'Flower Of Devotion'

As well as Boy Pablo, the other artist i enjoyed discovering most was Dehd. The theme of a broken relationship flows through the album, but rather than focusing overly on anger or discord, it’s far more wistful, drawing on the positive of the experience and suggests forgiveness. Similar to 'Wachico Rico', 'Flower Of Devotion' isn’t necessarily original, drawing as it does on 50s rock n roll and 80s dream pop. But it’s a compelling, polished and lush indie-rock record nevertheless.

3. Phoebe Bridgers – 'Punisher'

'Punisher' is one of the most critically acclaimed records of 2020, and justifiably so. It’s a brutally honest album, underscored by a dry, sardonic humour that ensures that its darker themes don’t overwhelm the listener. And this folk-rock record features some of her catchiest music yet, with ‘Kyoto’ a pop standout. The album closes with 'I Know The End', a truly epic album closer that hints that Phoebe Bridgers’ best is yet to come.

2. Idles - 'Ultra Mono'

Tackling themes such as class struggle, toxic masculinity and racism, Idles are not afraid to take a stand and divide opinion. That’s led some to sneer at the band, accusing them of vacuous sloganeering. Instead of shying away from social issues, they’ve leant into it even more on 'Ultra Mono', using their self-awareness and wit to take their critics head on. Its directness, urgency and raw, punkish energy demands your attention, the album cover of a man being hit in the face with a giant ball a perfect encapsulation of the epic sonic assault that ’Ultra Mono’ delivers. This is a record truly for these times.

1. Deftones - 'Ohms'

My test for shortlisting a record of a year is typically if I can vividly remember when listening to it for the first time, and 'Ohms' is the record that i keep recalling. I don’t think Deftones have ever released a bad album, there’s always been something interesting and engaging about all their output, even among their weaker releases. Lazily labelled as ‘nu-metal’, they’ve been far more ambitious, risk-taking and substantial than that description, with elements of prog-rock, electronica and shoegaze in their sound.

'Ohms' is Deftones’ most focused and accessible record in years, with a perfect balance of intense, gnarly, heavy rock interspersed with moments of genuine beauty. Every track is compelling, with my favourite the title track, showcasing how this is band at the peak of their powers, using their experience spanning four decades to set a standard for rock music. All those reasons and more make 'Ohms' my album of 2020.

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