The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 50 Albums of 2020

More than any other year in living memory, music has felt incredibly important in 2020. Not just as a structural means for idling away lockdown boredom (for those of us lucky enough to be merely bored) but as a spiritual means of sustainment and hope. In the five years that The Student Playlist has been operating, this end-of-year list has genuinely been harder to put together than any other. A pretty significant number of established artists and newcomers have missed out on our final fifty – not least, the editor’s favourite band, The Cribs. 2020 has clearly, for all its hellish realities, been a very good year for music. Without further ado, we present the best albums of 2020!

50) Okay Kaya – Watch This Liquid Pour Itself (Jagjaguwar)

Wrapped up somewhere between downbeat rock and a reserved folk style, Kaya Wilkins took us on an intimate journey with Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, an album which acts like a mental cleansing for both the artist and the listener. With Wilkins’s humour bleeding through, songs on this record tease over moments of desire, memories past and a trip to the psychiatric hospital, all holding a sense of importance and realness. (Rebecca Corbett) (LISTEN)

49) Taylor Swift – Folklore (Republic)

Folklore is not just Taylor Swift’s best album in years, but by subverting all our expectations about where she was heading next, particularly in electing to work with The National’s Aaron Dessner, it became her most sobering, reflective, honest and heartbreaking record. It experimented with soft guitar strums on ‘cardigan’, a heartbreaking duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on ‘exile’ and whirring dream pop on ‘mirrorball’, and it culminated in one of the best Taylor Swift tracks of all time with ‘betty’. It marked an astonishing and triumphant return to form. (Harrison Kirby) (LISTEN)

48) Låpsley – Through Water (XL)

Lapsley Through Water

Taking a step back from the overwhelming success of her debut release, Holly Lapsley Fletcher needed to look inwards once again to produce a record which would sound authentic and unique to her. Through Water turned out to be a mesmerising album, something of a soothing therapy. Full of ethereal vocals and artful synths, it explores many sonic textures, but not without haunting, almost post-apocalyptic elements, which at the end make it so captivating. (Alicja Rutkowska) (LISTEN)

47) Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind (Warp)

Sean Bowie’s third Yves Tumor album is best described as the sonic equivalent to contortionism in the way it constantly reshapes the listener’s expectations of what type of album they are listening to. However, Bowie’s traversals of musical genre does not at all water down the album’s unique sound. Instead, the melding of everything from glam to psychedelia to noise-rock is seamless. Heaven To A Tortured Mind coheres in its commitment to pushing the boundaries of what can be stylistically fused together in music today. (Joss Lambert) (LISTEN)

46) U.S. Girls – Heavy Light (4AD)

U.S. Girls Heavy Light

Meg Remy is a master at marrying opposites, such as glitzy, catchy disco with anti-capitalist critique, and Heavy Light is yet another exercise in trying to crack the code of reality amongst the historical consumerism of Western culture. Sonically, Heavy Light feels disjointed, but thematically it nails down on aspects of modern life through a film noir lens, asking questions about the relationship between ‘now’ and ‘then’. Heavy Light moves at a glacial pace, but is fuelled by raging concern. (Aiste Samuchovaite) (LISTEN)

45) Cabbage – Amanita Pantherina (Brassica)

Cabbage Amanita Pantherina

Amanita Pantherina effectively and ruthlessly displays Cabbage’s psych-punk sound through an eclectic set of eleven tracks that exude chaos and have a great DIY/garage band feel. The Manchester-based group appear to have honed their sound, but not lost any of that gritty punk feel from their previous releases. Some elements of dark psychedelia are certainly more prominent this time out, as evidenced by the swirling modulation on leading single ‘Get Outta My Brain’, and the distorted, eerie vocals on ‘Piles Of Smiles’, to name but two examples. A shift towards the strange might be the direction Cabbage find themselves heading in in the not-so-distant future, as their sound continues to encompass more elements of psychedelia. (Jacob Kendrew) (LISTEN)

44) Soccer Mommy – color theory (Loma Vista)

Soccer Mommy Color Theory

Sophie Allison was unflinching in her examination of the darker recesses of her mind, touching upon grief, depression, ill health, loneliness and anxiety over a succinct, economical collection. On ‘bloodstream’, she likened happiness to a firefly escaping from between her fingers, and she declared herself the “princess of screwing up” on ‘royal screw up’. Uncompromising as color theory was, however, Allison captured that existential dread and angst that people who don’t feel at home in the world are all too familiar with, and expressed it warmly and empathetically. (Ed Biggs) (LISTEN)

43) Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor (Atlantic)

Hayley Williams Petals For Armor

Petals For Armor shines a light on Hayley Williams, illuminating a strong, healing woman pushing through feelings of hurt, anger and frustration. With this album, we were invited to get to know Williams outside of Paramore, as vulnerabilities were showcased through a collection of honest and captivating songs, we learn about a battle with depression and a wrecked marriage but are assured that Williams is moving forward and is getting better. (RC) (LISTEN)

42) The Microphones – Microphones In 2020 (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)

The Microphones In 2020

A lot has been said of Phil Elverum’s decision to return to The Microphones moniker, but ultimately none of that matters. Microphones In 2020 is a record that is bigger than name alone; it’s an individual’s holistic answer to some of life’s biggest questions pulled off in such an unassuming manner. Musically, the record continues to show why Elverum is a modern-day legend of the lo-fi scene. There’s an assurance to the finger-plucked guitars, the flourishes of drones and electric guitars are unassuming, but also delicate and fascinating. On The Microphones In 2020, Elverum discusses the past, present and future in a beautifully beguiling manner that should come as no surprise (this is what he’s done for over two decades now), but the diaphanous nature of the record is such that it does shock you with its transcendence – it’s a true flash of beauty in the doom of 2020 and one we all deserve. (John Tindale)

41) Lady Gaga – Chromatica (Interscope)

Lady Gaga Chromatica

Following some major stylistic detours with 2016’s stripped-down Joanne and the intimate singer-songwriter material on her soundtrack to A Star Is Born, Gaga went back to basics on Chromatica. Adopting a sleek, direct approach – only one of its 16 tracks tips the four-minute mark – the results seem expertly machine-tooled for maximum impact, but the force of Gaga’s personality holds the collection together, making something cathartic and triumphant which, in lesser hands, could have seemed over-calculated. (EB) (LISTEN)

40) Lanterns On The Lake – Spook The Herd (Bella Union)

Lanterns On The Lake Spook The Herd

Spook The Herd was the first studio album by the Newcastle outfit Lanterns On The Lakein five years, where we see the band at their darkest with a focus on polarising issues like politics, social media, addiction, grief, and climate change. On songs like ‘Blue Screen Beams’, ‘Secrets And Medicine’ and ‘When It All Comes True’, singer Hazel Wilde gives star performances with her immaculate and introspective songwriting and enervating vocals that still has a romantic streak to it. A hopeful shaft of light into the darkness. (Aryan Agarwal) (LISTEN)

39) Algiers – There Is No Year (Matador)

Algiers There Is No Year

Ratcheting up the tension between the industrious, propulsive drumming of former Bloc Party member Matt Tong and Franklin James Fisher’s soulful yet urgent vocals, Algiers pushed their dystopian soul template into even more ambitious territory with third record There Is No Year. A tense listening experience that sounded like storm clouds gathering overhead, it felt blackly appropriate for the first weeks of 2020. (EB) (LISTEN)

38) Joji – Nectar (88rising / 12Tone)

Joji Nectar

Known for his lo-fi, melodic and alt-R&B tunes, Joji takes a slightly different direction on Nectar, embracing a more sleek and pristine musical identity. Featuring some of his best vocal performances to date, the mostly self-produced record also presents beautiful, lush instrumentals, buzzing synths and passionate, vulnerable lyrics. (AR) (LISTEN)

37) The Weeknd – After Hours (XO / Republic)

The Weeknd After Hours

After Hours sees Abel Tesfaye in his best form as he adopts a mysterious and gritty personality, one finessed from that heard in his previous work. He continues to merge R&B, hip-hop and pop in this dark and druggy aesthetic and remains one of the key voices of R&B. Tesfaye opens and narrates the chapter about his love life of the past and present, and the drug-fuelled benders he went on, presenting his mistakes and vulnerabilities open to review. He continues to break records with tracks like ‘Heartless’ and ‘Blinding Lights’, and many more – safe to say, then, that After Hours is a fruitful reinvention of The Weeknd. (AA) (LISTEN)

36) Yaeji – What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 (XL)

Compared to previous releases like 2017’s hits ‘raingirl’ and ‘drink I’m sippin’ on’, What We Drew is more stripped back. It has a kind of subtlety to it and somehow feels more meaningful. Yaeji sings in cute, calming whispers in both Korean and English over soft electronic sounds, with the occasional hard beat. Refreshing and down to earth, What We Drew is just as catchy and engrossing as previous works but bears a striking difference to the party girl vibe from 2017. (RC) (LISTEN)

35) The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do (Fiction)

The Big Moon Walking Like We Do

Trying to avoid clichés of a breakout rock band, while at the same time following through with the success of their Mercury Prize-nominated debut, The Big Moon embarked on a journey to record a fresh and unforced second album. Walking Like We Do sounds confident and more polished, combining elements of darkness with the breezy effortlessness of the best late ‘90s-early ‘00s pop, making it one of our favourite indie-rock albums of the year. (AR) (LISTEN)

34) Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music (Beyond The Groove)

Tom Misch found comfort in collaboration this year, and on this album with jazz drummer and producer Yussef Dayes he also delivered the most adventurous and engaging music of his career to date. Misch stretches his sonic ambitions far beyond his previous work, while Dayes’ contributions on drums and production represent an impressive return for the first time since 2016 cult hit Black Focus. The smooth blend of jazz, hip-hop and electronica, as well as beautifully engineered instrumentation, are at the heart of everything great about What Kinda Music. Misch and Dayes deliver a project powered by fluid collaboration and inspired improvisation to reach new heights in their respective musical journeys. (JL) (LISTEN)

33) Future Islands – As Long As You Are (4AD)

Future Islands As Long As You Are

While that breakout moment may be an increasingly long way behind them, Future Islands doubled down on the elements that gained them their reputation in the first place on As Long As You Are. Emotionally unshackled, Samuel T. Herring’s anguished vocals communicating existential dread poignantly contrasted with the pristine musical surroundings engineered by his bandmates. There were moments of uplift and optimism amid the gloom, importantly, meaning the experience was an emotional rollercoaster. (EB) (LISTEN)

32) Pottery – Welcome To Bobby’s Motel (Partisan)

Pottery Welcome To Bobby's Motel

Pottery’s debut album, Welcome To Bobby’s Motel is a fantastic demonstration of what this Montreal-based five-piece can do. Pottery blend funk with post-punk, resulting in an album of high-paced yet danceable material that excites and surprises. This band are not afraid of testing the limits of their musical abilities, with some of the material on this album almost veering on Zappa-esque at times, specifically the frantic call-and-response motifs heard on ‘Bobby’s Forecast’ and ‘Texas Drums, Pt. I & II’. Welcome To Bobby’s Motel does an excellent job as a debut album, as it shows Pottery’s diverse influences and their musical strengths, and opens the door for the group to further develop their hectic, funky sound. (JK) (LISTEN)

31) Baxter Dury – The Night Chancers (Le Label / P.I.A.S.)

Baxter Dury The Night Chancers

A series of character studies of assorted misfits and down-on-their-luck outsiders as they navigate their way through the modern dating scene, The Night Chancers drew out Baxter Dury’s barely disguised romantic side out completely. His Leonard Cohen-esque purr – if Laughing Len had been given to red wine, second-hand suits and late-night dive bars – suited these lushly orchestrated nocturnes and chamber pop vignettes perfectly. (EB) (LISTEN)

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