Okay, okay: we know the drill by now. The past twelve months have been - ahem - interesting to say the very least, but if 2020 has supplied us with anything positive, it’s a slew of incredible albums. Yes, release schedules were scuppered and live shows non-existent, but we were still offered the gift of new music, and now, it’s about time we celebrated that.
From incendiary debuts from the likes of Sorry and Rina Sawayama, through to unexpected returns (Bright Eyes, The Strokes - we’re looking at you!), via all manner of amazing records in between, we asked our contributor friends to help Team DIY pool together the best of 2020.
So, here are DIY’s 20 favourite albums from across the past year!
20. Katy J Pearson - Return
Country music might be America’s oldest genre, but over here on UK shores, Bristolian Katy J Pearson spent 2020 nudging it into smart, subtle new territory. ‘Return’ was country but not in the pigtails and plaid shirts way; instead, Katy took the gentle melancholy and emotive yearning at its heart and injected it with modern alternative sensibilities, the resulting record emerging as a heartfelt and perhaps surprisingly fresh-sounding thing.
19. Willie J Healey - Twin Heavy
Though Oxford boy Willie J Healey’s 2017 debut ‘People and Their Dogs’ made casual ripples in the indie-sphere, it was with this year’s ‘Twin Heavy’ - a rich, nostalgia-infused barrel of warmth that nodded to George Harrison, Neil Young and the true greats of the field - that the singer really upped the ante. Notching up the famous followers (Alex Turner and Jamie T are both fully paid-up fans), and proving that his knack for romance-filled classic songwriting could send him into far bigger waters than his current semi-niche pool, Willie’s second was a huge leap - don’t be surprised if you see his name cropping up on some much bigger credits soon.
18. Moses Sumney - grae
Fortunately with its first part not falling until February 2020, ‘grae’ avoided being lost in the Great Double Album Avalanche of 2019. Moses Sumney’s second (and third, depending on how you’re counting) full-length is a sprawling, sonically complex odyssey, helmed - and anchored - by the singer’s impeccable, shape-shifting vocal. What’s more, it boasts a guest list more dazzling than any party this (or any regular) year could’ve conjured up: James Blake, Thundercat, Jill Scott… and even the year’s biggest name in TV, THAT Michaela Coel.
17. The Strokes - The New Abnormal
Everyone’s favourite leather jacket-wearing indie rock legends returned to outstanding form this year with the oddly prophetically-titled ‘The New Abnormal’. Harking back to the glory days of 2001 debut ‘Is This It’, The Strokes’ sixth outing was rife with catchy riffs, effortlessly cool vibes, and all the ingredients that saw them conjuring up the magic of their most classic hits. From Julian’s soaring vocals over ‘Bad Decisions’’ guitar licks and ‘Ode To Mets’’ melodic synth-sounds, to Albert Hammond Jr.’s fretwork on opener ‘The Adults Are Talking’ and the anthemic ‘At The Door’, ‘The New Abnormal’ shined with the excellence that shows just why the New Yorkers are the indie rock OGs.
16. Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song
Few records could match the undulating mood of 2020 quite like ‘Inner Song’. Emotionally delicate and sonically persistent in equal measures, Kelly Lee Owens’ second is in some ways the year’s perfect release. It shows off her dual-threat status of singer-songwriter and producer impeccably, with echoes of the dancefloor (remember those!) fed through a contemplative, headphone-friendly lens. Plus, the boldness of opening with her take on a Radiohead number is balanced brilliantly with a guest turn from compatriot John Cale.
15. Porridge Radio - Every Bad
If Hallmark made movies about indie bands, Porridge Radio’s would be a classic Bandcamp-to-international acclaim story. March’s ‘Every Bad’ was the blossoming of what was once vocalist Dana Margolin’s open-mic-playing solo project. Take the full-throttle snarl of highlight ‘Sweet’, the resigned howl of ‘Nephews’ or the curveball of Auto-Tune cropping up on ‘(Something)’; it’s a record not afraid of trying it all, tied together by one of the year’s most visceral breakthrough voices.
14. Lady Gaga - Chromatica
When you’re one of the best pop stars of all time, with five chart-smashing albums, enough awards to fill a mansion and a legion of Little Monsters at your disposal, you’ve got to have a little shake up for your sixth LP. So why not create a dystopian planet where “equality rules” and get some of the biggest stars in the world to join you? With ‘Chromatica’, Lady Gaga pulled out all the stops, returning to the club-filling electro-pop dance bangers that made her a star in the first place, and creating a euphoric and thrilling listen from start to finish. Lead single ‘Stupid Love’ quickly established itself as a huge pop anthem, while ‘Rain On Me’ - with Ariana Grande - is set to be a go-to karaoke belter for the rest of time: ‘Chromatica’ is Gaga doing what she does best.
13. Crack Cloud - Pain Olympics
A collective born from a Vancouver addiction recovery programme and designed as a multi-faceted artistic outlet, Crack Cloud’s first proper studio debut (following 2018’s self-titled two-EP release) was never going to be a plug-in-and-play simplistic effort. Instead, ‘Pain Olympics’ arrived as a dense, wildly intense offering that packed more into its eight tracks than most do in 80. Tackling trauma head on, and stitching together a self-described “narrative of chaos”, the group’s ethos seemed designed to offer a stark, purposeful alternative to a world fuelled by streaming playlists and casual listening: an album in which absolutely nothing was casual, and apocalyptic fire was the order of the day.
12. Fontaines DC - A Hero’s Death
Following up a Mercury Prize-shortlisted debut in just over a year is no mean feat, yet somehow Fontaines DC made it look rather easy. An album that saw the Dublin quintet take a sidestep away from the rabble-rousing mantras that so defined ‘Dogrel’, ‘A Hero’s Death’ shows the band shifting into headier realms. Defined by self-reflection and smoky atmospherics, there’s a real sense of claustrophobia lurking within the record, a vein of black comedy its dark bedfellow. Stark but vivid in its bleakness, ‘A Hero’s Death’ feels accomplished and bold, in an entirely different way to its predecessor; and, as we said, they managed to make it look effortless.
11. Perfume Genius - Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
There are few artists who could pull off an album that places baroque falsetto (‘Jason’), ‘80s alt-pop perfection (‘On The Floor’), devastating, magisterial starkness (‘Moonbend’) and gruff, intimate whispers (‘Leave’) next to each other as if they’re natural bedfellows. But, as Perfume Genius’ career-peak fifth album proved, there are few artists quite like Mike Hadreas. Strong and unrecognisable on its hot-under-the-collar cover from the quiet man that first emerged way back when, ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ was a confident, assured set piece of a record - one that showed its author’s multitudes, and revelled in its varying colours.
10. Bright Eyes - Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
In a year in which the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unexpected’ began to lose all meaning, the shock of new music from Bright Eyes may have been a little tempered - but it hadn’t been something we were anticipating. Their path to ‘Down In the Weeds…’ was as tumultuous as it was long, and in a classic case of transforming the citrus fruit sent one’s way, the record - and band’s regrouping - followed a tough period in frontman Conor Oberst’s life. Sonically, his reunification with Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis is a comforting hug; the songs here are nothing short of lush. Pair them with the, at times, wincingly bleak vignettes painted by Conor’s iconic vocal, and the group’s first album in nearly a decade was definitely one worth the wait.
9. Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Packed with an in-your-face attitude that threatens to burst through its the seams, ‘Heaven to a Tortured Mind’ marks Yves Tumor out as a truly modern kind of rock star. A potent and powerful record which packs in squalling guitars and swaggering vocals - playfully dancing with the sleazy troupes of rock music gone by - there’s a carnal ferocity at play here which feels retro but vital. Glammed-up and slick, this is a sexy, bold album that demands to be listened to.
8. Rina Sawayama - SAWAYAMA
As soon as Rina Sawayama unleashed nu-metal infused smasher ‘STFU!’ in November last year, it was clear that she was here to shake up the pop landscape, and when her debut ‘SAWAYAMA’ arrived in April it did just that. Exploring the singer’s personal struggles across 13 tracks of irresistible pop smashes - from her ode to the queer community in twinkling penultimate track ‘Chosen Family’, to self-reflecting on toxic friendships in the electro-infused ‘Bad Friend’, via mocking capitalism in R&B-tinged standout ‘XS’ - ’SAWAYAMA’ finds Rina taking us on her personal journey, soundtracking each twist and turn with glossy and bold pop hooks.
7. Taylor Swift - folklore
“Most of the things I had planned for this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, ‘folklore’. Surprise!” tweeted Taylor Swift back in July. And the megastar didn’t just stop the surprises there, and she transformed from stadium-filling pop phenomenon into an introspective indie musician, joining forces with The National’s Aaron Dessner, and proving that her strength lies in her delicate storytelling. A modern folk stunner, with gems lying in the country-tinged ‘the last great american dynasty’ and the gorgeous Bon Iver-featuring ‘exile’, she even finished 2020 by dropping sister record ‘evermore’ less than six months later (and slightly after deadline for our December issue - cheers Tay!). The devil works hard, but Taylor works harder, and we love her for it.
6. Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor
When Hayley Williams opened ‘Simmer’, the first track from her debut solo offering, with a deep breath, it was clear that what was set to follow was going to leave a mark. And with ‘Petals For Armor’, the Paramore frontwoman did that and more. A mesmerising but eclectic journey through the grief, pain, anxiety and joy of being a woman in the modern world, it’s a powerful album that both celebrates relationships - with ourselves, friends, other women - and ruminates on failures openly. Cathartic and ambitious, this is a record which transforms vulnerability into strength and remembers to have a good time doing it: a liberating lesson in learning to self-love.
5. Sorry - 925
Think back a few years, and the idea that South London’s Sorry - a band who favoured the more obstinate, idiosyncratic end of the musical spectrum - could go on to produce one of 2020’s standout albums might seem quite implausible. And yet with their infectiously grotty debut ‘925’, they’ve done just that. A melding pot of seedy guitars, choppy time signatures and earwormy choruses, it’s a record which comes packed with unusual ideas, Bold, multi-faceted and intriguing to the last drop, with ‘925’, the band skilfully traversed the lines of accessibility and experimentation, without compromising either one.
4. HAIM - Women In Music pt. 3
Remarking on the mere existence of women in music is several decades overdone. Discussions of Women in Music have long been tiresome. You’ve got to wonder at what nth time the members of Haim were collectively asked about the subject before they snapped and opted for this title, a kind of take on Stewart Lee’s drag-the-joke-out-until-it-works-again manner. Of course it wouldn’t have worked if they’d not smashed it, incorporating new sounds and structures into their sun-soaked ‘70s-indebted style. And with last month’s Grammy nominations reaction - the trio’s knickers reading “Women make the best rock music” in response to an all-female Best Rock Performance shortlist - the Californians have helped draw that line in the sand this year.
3. Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Some albums wedge in your mind because of their immediate, obvious hits (hello Dua!), others because their struggles and pains are infinitely relatable (hello Phoebe!). Fiona Apple’s latest, however, came as a reminder after eight years away that the singer really makes music like no other: ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ is an album that shines through its sheer, gleeful innovation. At its core, the record uses surprisingly few ingredients - mostly vocals, piano, and an emphasis on unusual percussion. Yet at every turn Apple manages to consistently find ingenious, playful, surprising ways to make those ideas sing - from purposefully naive, playground rhymes to moments that cut to the core of the human, female condition.
2. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
Back when we were in the midst of Lockdown One and needed some joy brought into our lives, Dua Lipa stepped up to the pop plate, releasing her second album ‘Future Nostalgia’ a week early - and it’s delivered consistent peak moments all year. Packed with huge hits that haven’t left the airwaves since they dropped, ‘Future Nostalgia’ has become the bar to reach for pop albums, chock-a-block with bangers (‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Physical’, ‘Levitating’, ‘Hallucinate’, pretty much all of them tbh), empowering anthems (‘Boys Will Be Boys’), and hypnotising, shimmering ‘80s-leaning beats that you can’t get out of your head. Name a pop star who’s smashed it more than Dua this year - we’ll wait…
1. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
In the three years following the release of her critically acclaimed debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’, Phoebe Bridgers remained pretty busy. Having worked with Conor Oberst - on their project Better Oblivion Community Center - and Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus for their collaboration boygenius, the anticipation for her next solo offering had been undeniably heightened by the time of its release. And yet ‘Punisher’ - DIY’s album of the year - still managed to live up to the hype and then some. A nimble but powerful album, it sees Phoebe explore elements of her previous projects and blend them subtly with the stark soul of her debut. While her lyrics remain candid and open, it’s on her second record that they’re allowed to bloom into something even more vivid, more devastating. Poignant and unfiltered, ‘Punisher’ is an intoxicating album of darkness and nostalgia, making it a perfect companion for a year like the one we’ve just lived through.
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