Albums of the Year 2020

Albums of the Year 2020

If you’re looking for a new listen – any of these Albums of the Year comes recommended from editor Sarah Lay (there’s no-one else here at Popoptica right now so the choice was always going to be subjective).

Albums of the Year 2020In what has been an unusual (yes, unprecedented if you must) year there has continued to be a stream of amazing new releases from artists trying to navigate a turbulent world into which to put their art. We could have gone on longer (in 2019 we picked a Top 60) but have kept this year’s list to a Top 40.

There’s no individual ranking for the albums we’ve picked as we feel they could all, on any given day, be the best thing we’ve heard this year. To make some compromise toward the standard way these lists run we have given you a Top 20 within the fuller list – albums which really resonated with us and showed incredibly musicianship.

And full disclosure as ever: the list includes releases from Reckless Yes – the label Popoptica editor Sarah Lay co-founded – but as with all coverage of these bands she wouldn’t be putting their music out if she didn’t rate it so highly.

Albums of the Year 2020 – Top 20

Nova Twins - Who Are The Girls Nova Twins – Who Are The Girls (Nova Twins Ltd / 333 Wreckord Crew)

Long-awaited debut album from duo Nova Twins continues to thrill and engage with each listen. Blending huge industrial riffs and rhythms, with punk attitude, and screamo vocals this is a record which challenges expectations and more than proves the duo are well ahead in their musicality and creative vision. One of the most exciting and vital bands around right now.

We said: “Nova Twins have exceeded their peers with this release and shown how heavy, how fun, and how authentic a sparse set-up can be. A vitally important release you mustn’t let pass you by.”

Read our review of single Play Fair.

Cornershop – England Is A Garden (Ample Play)

Cornershop England Is A Garden album coverTheir first full length release in a few years sees Cornershop have lost none of their vitality, wit, or defiance. 

We said: “Protest and defiance don’t always have to be presented with blunt aggression and this album, in all its stomp and shimmy, leads the way calling us together in songs and dances which wake our thinking as well as stir our feet. It’s the proof, that no matter how hard they try to pave over and make dull and uniform this place the flowers will determinedly and with hope break through the cracks.”

Oceanator – Things I Never Said (Plastic Miracles)

Oceanator Things I Never Said album artwork

A debut which grabbed us with a mix of ’80s synth pop and ’90s alt-rock to be the winning sort of honest and emotional guitar-driven indie which has become sadly drowned out by the rising tide of average-at-best bands.

We said: “an album which brilliantly reflects the itchy insistence of a busy brain faced with the anxieties of a world falling apart, and turns bombastic rock into something altogether more considered but no less immediate.”

Read our review of single I Would Find You.

Bugeye – Ready Steady Bang (Reckless Yes)

Bugeye Ready Steady Bang album cover artA debut 20 years in the making, fusing disco and punk in a Paul Tipler-produced party at the end of the world.

We said: “With agitated guitars rubbing up against melodic synths, and bouncing rhythms punctuating the distinctive vocals, there is much depth to the songs on offer here musically and lyrically. Exploring some dark and difficult themes the songs are far from downturned introspection and rather blast defiance with every chord, owning personal faults while making no mis-steps in the music.”

Read our interview with frontperson Angela Martin.

Sink Ya Teeth – Two (Hey Buffalo)

Sink Ya Teeth

The second album from the Norfolk duo didn’t disappoint. Building on their debut the album was delightfully unconstrained by genre, skilfully blending sounds and rhythms.

We said: “Sounding like the offspring of Skunk Anansie and Massive Attack…an exploration of a soundscape where post-punk, euphoric disco, melancholia, and deep house merge. One of the most understated yet innovative acts around, with ‘Two’ the band continue to be as immersive, engaging and downright exciting as ever.”

Paper Birch – MORNINGHAIRWATER (TakuRoku)

Paper Birch - MORNINGHAIRWATERCollaborated on at a distance during lockdown by Dee Sada (NEUMES and An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump) and Fergus Lawrie (Urusei Yatsura) this was a layered album where experimental noise perfectly met with pop sensibilities.

We said: “Shoegazey, indiepoppish, noise rocking this album draws not only on the influence on both Lawrie and Sada’s own back catalogues but which at times echoes with everything from Heavenly to Joy Division. For a record so quickly conceived and released it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say this may well be a contender for album of the year.”

This album had a limited release from TakuRoku with a full released planned through Reckless Yes in 2021.

Tugboat Captain – Rut (Double-A Side Records)

Tugboat Captain RutExperiencing much turmoil in this cursed year Tugboat Captain saw their planned SXSW showcase whipped away, and released their debut into the murky waters of lockdown. Don’t let it sink – this is a beaut of a record you must seek out.

We said of single Day To Day: “Day To Day is heartbreaking, and beautiful. Amid the everyday lyrics it brings comfort with the warmth of brass and the ascension of strings. A stunner of a single, it will resonate with Gen-Z in a way which raises a familiar smirk of knowing with Gen-X, and apart from bringing hope in its own lyrical surrender should make us all very excited for the album to come.”

Read our review of single Day To Day.

Duck – There Are No Normal Conversations Any More (Hell Hath No Fury Records / Reckless Yes)

Duck There Are No Normal Conversations Any MoreGetting a limited release on CD and digital just before the world locked down this record got a second bite with a vinyl release later in the year – and just as well as it’s a great slab of industrial-tinged electropop that more people need to hear.

We said: “There is a raw, dark, energy which underpins the tracks here and while synth and guitar feature heavily across the album there’s a surprising amount of variety on offer. Duck are a band starting to come into their own.”

Laura Fell – Safe From Me (Balloon Machine)

Laura Fell

A debut release from artist and label blending Alison Moyet-esque vocals with layers of instrumentation and deeply explored emotional themes.

We said: “A psychotherapist by day, Fell’s dedication to this journey of self-discovery was unquestionable from the off, so much so that her peers questioned her sanity. Holding down three jobs to fund debut record Safe From Me, Fell was determined that the songs would go far beyond their acoustic guitar genesis, assembling classically trained musicians and their flugelhorns, cellos, saxophones and double bass to fully realise her vision. The album is a search for answers from a woman always expected to have them to hand, and the self-punishing frustration that assumption brings.”

Read our reviews of singles Cold and Bone of Contention. Initially a digital release for 2020 Balloon Machine has teamed up with for a vinyl release due in January 2021.

sweetbellechobaby -Though We Are Many We Are One Body Because We All Share In One Bread (Amateur Pop Incorporated)

sweetbellechobaby album cover

From one of our favourite labels Amateur Pop Incorporated came the haunting, beautiful, and at times uncomfortable (but brilliantly so) listen.

We said: “This debut release from sweetbellechobaby is really quite something, haunting you long after the last note has rung out, as uncomfortable and longed for as that dream fading away on waking. Rich with manipulated and found sounds this remains a sparse release, never over-loaded but balanced perfectly to surface what is hidden deep, dividing by a fine line intimate and introspective moments with the memory of togetherness and belonging.”

Order of the Toad – Re-Order of the Toad (Gringo Records / Reckless Yes)

Order of the Toad Re-Order of the Toad album cover by Raissa Pardini

There is nothing quite like Order of the Toad around at the moment – blending ’70s folk, Baroque, ’80s pop, and surreal flights of fancy they prove indie doesn’t have to be bland.

We said: “While earlier single Lady’s Mantle was firmly planted in the magic of the natural world, and the healing properties of plants, Do It With Feeling evokes the smoke and shadow filled corners of some long-ago ’60s nightclub. As soon as it lulls you into relaxed reverie it demands your attention again with those pointed passages. And that attention is well-deserved – you won’t want to miss a single detail in the lush world created for you to explore here.

Read our reviews of singles Lady’s Mantle and Do It With Feeling.

Bartees Strange – Live Forever (Memory Music)

Bartees Strange

Gloriously genre-hopping this collection from Bartees Strange takes in jazz rap, soul and more while covering themes of racism, identity, and acceptance.

We said: “sharp synths and guitars into big rolling riffs, clipped beats and shimmering percussion into thundering runs, and a stream of consciousness vocal into soaring sing-a-long choruses. The simmering frustration spills over, a quickening to a screaming emo-esque conclusion.”

Read our review of single Mustang.

Chemtrails – The Peculiar Smell of the Inevitable (PNKSLM Recordings)

Chemtrails The Peculiar Smell of the Inevitable

With a fresh line-up in place Chemtrails released their second LP of acid-tinged rock n roll via PNKSLM.

We said: “It’s quite the thing to add production sheen to lo-fi pop without smoothing the edges too far, without nudging the raw energy too close to clinical, and in doing so lose all the charm. The good news is that Chemtrails have walked that line brilliantly on their new album to find them still gloriously scrappy, still sassy, and sashaying between touchpoints from The Stooges to Supergrass.”

Grawl!x – Peeps (Reckless Yes)

Grawl!x Peeps album art workThe fourth album from prolific creative Grawl!x saw the orchestrated dreampop sound get an electro touch and the thematically a beautiful exploration of platonic love and identity.

We said: “Knowing when to hold back as much as when to step on the throttle Grawl!x once again show they have a quiet but firm magic. An album of stunning togetherness, shimmering with melodic detail and bringing in beautiful contributions from others to realise the singluar vision of Grawl!x. An artist you definitely want to get in to if you haven’t found them yet.”

Read our interview with Grawl!x and collaborator Umbilica.

Taylor Swift – Folklore (self-released)

Taylor Swift FolkloreSwift has surprised with two album drops in 2020 with Folklore being the first. A natural successor to 1989 it moves on from synths and the poignancy of that first lost love and the freedom of independence, toward a more mature sound and deeper exploration of love and self.

We said: “Proving that pop can be mature (but that lots of people still find it easy to dismiss as a genre) this album makes perfect sense in the Swift canon and feels like both the most obvious collection of songs to be coming from her now, as well as a delicate surprise of an album. Enough hooks, and just enough depth to keep you returning. Ignore the hype and the critics who suddenly get her when nothing was right before and find yourself a gently melodic and sweepingly romantic album.”

Gordian Stimm – Your Body In On Itself (Amateur Pop Incorporated)

Gordian Stimm Your Body In On Itself cover artA stunning collection exploring bodily autonomy ranging in style from raw and sparse arrangements to gleefully melodic soundscapes. A must hear from a vital artist.

We said: “Evocative of modern electronica such as Baths, this collection of tracks recorded over time since 2013 brings together samples, glitch-and-scratch, haunting refrains, and processed vocal-thought-fragments. It hovers in those darkest moments, the shadowy corners of self, to be at once vulnerable and stark. Like being lost in the endless tangle of The Great Wood of time forgotten, snagged and boxed in while threat hovers inside as much as out, this album is a spiralling noir-fused wonderland. Nothing is as it seems yet everything is exactly as it is. Essential listening.”

Slum of Legs – Slum of Legs (Spurge Recordings)

Slum of Legs LP cover art

‘Queer, feminist, noise pop’ on this debut album from the Brighton sextet.

We said: “A detached delivery draws a soft line so you feel you’re being allowed to listen in for a moment rather than given something fully, but that glimpse is enough for the magic to course through you in a way you never quite stop feeling and leaves you forever haunted. Ultimately any album which evokes Bella in the Wych Elm is deserving of being classed essential, and the depth within these songs – as women, as melody, as stories to be told – blows away any last doubt you might hold.”

Charmpit – Cause A Stir (Specialist Subject)

Charmpit Cause A Stir album artworkAlumni of the First Timers Festival the self-proclaimed ‘Anarcuties’ Charmpit mixed pure sugary pop with femme power and big catchy riffs on Cause A Stir.

We said: “Terming themselves ‘anarcuties’ Charmpit’s debut is straight-down the sound of the golden-glowing-open-road-cruising Californian summer of our collective dreams tinged with the street-heat-rising-dirty-edged reality of our British days. It’s quintessential pop-punk, with everything you’d expect of the genre without ever feeling clichéd.”

Dream Nails – Dream Nails (Alcopop! Records)

Dream Nails artworkA debut which has felt a long-time coming found its moment in the midst of 2020. Full of positive activism, affirmation, and the power of the individual and the collective Dream Nails lived up to their promise of being the DIY punk-pop band we all need right now.

We said: “These are songs with heart, and bite, and which don’t shy away from things needing to be said and making visible that which is so often conveniently ignored. That is does so without taking the fun out of making music, with bubbling rhythms and intricate beauty behind each blast is testament to a band who have made their own path and are as worthy as a place in musical history as The Slits and Bikini Kill.”

Read our review of singles Jillian and This Is The Summer.

The Crystal Furs – Beautiful and True (Subjangle)

The Crystal Furs

The band’s third album but their most personal work yet which remarkably blends ’60s Girl Group sounds with harder-edged ’80s indie. Sonically uplifting, catchy, and danceable thematically this album is at times darker but, as the name suggest, a beautiful and true affirmation of self.

Based in Portland, USA, the trio have also released tracks for Halloween and Christmas, plus a Cure cover, in 2020 and with work underway on a fourth album they show no signs of slowing down now they’ve found their voice and leant fully into their sound.

Beautiful and True was released on limited formats by Subjangle this year, with a vinyl release planned by Reckless Yes in 2021.

Albums of the Year 2020 – 20 more we loved

  • Bill Fisher – Mass Hypnosis and the Dark Triad (Septaphonic Records)
  • Jeremy Tuplin – Violet Waves (Trapped Animal)
  • Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Epic)
  • Catherine Anne Davies and Bernard Butler – In Memory Of My Feelings (Needle Mythology)
  • Byenary – Byenary (Hell Hath No Fury Records)
  • Juanita Stein – Snapshot (Nude Records)
  • Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound)
  • Lady Di / Mega Emotion – I Know You Know I’m Perfect / Move, Motherfucker (Fake Feelings)
  • CLT DRP – Without the Eyes (Small Pond)
  • Happy Accidents – Sprawling (self-released)
  • Carla J Easton – Weirdo (Olive Grove Records)
  • Pillow Queens – In Waiting (Stargazer)
  • Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Volume 1 (Lost Map)
  • The Winter Passing – New Ways of Living (Big Scary Monsters)
  • Dystopian Future Movies – Inviolate (Lasairfhíona Records)
  • Winter – Endless Space (Between You & I) (Bar None Records)
  • Diet Cig – Do You Wonder About Me? (Frenchkiss Records)
  • Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink (Infectious Music/BMG/Warner)
  • Crywank – Fist Me ‘Til Your Hand Comes Out My Mouth (self-released)
  • PINS – Hot Slick (Haus of PINS).

Listen to our New Music 2020 playlist

Throughout the year we’ve been adding notable tracks to our New Music 2020 playlist which you can find on Spotify.

With more than 15 hours of music we ask if you find something you love you seek out the artist on Bandcamp or elsewhere and support them however you can – be it paying for a download, physical copy, merch or sharing your love on social media to help them find a new audience.

Find me...

Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
Find me...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *