Words by Elly Savva, Indigo Jones, Josh Ong, Georgia Glenn, Daisy Gaunt, Sam Portillo, Emily Jade Ricalton, Lewis Empson, Rubie Barker, Maja Metera, Kate Waldock, James Allen and Alex Payne
Graphic by Jasmine Snow
Wow, what a year! That ever present sense that the world could suddenly let out one final splutter and give up was hardly conducive to making and releasing music, but there’s been a wealth of brilliant releases nonetheless. They say go big or go home, and seeing as we’ve been nowhere but home for about nine months now, we decided to go big for this year’s End of Year list. As a result, we polled the several dozen staff members here at Quench, to pick their brains and find out which albums they thought deserved a spot on the list, the way they do it at Pitchfork and NME. Combined with a couple of brilliant reviews from contributors, this list has been truly a collaborative project, and we’re grateful for everyone who helped. Without further ado, here are Quench’s favourite albums that were released this year. None of the links in this article benefit Quench financially.
Put simply by one of her producers, Phoebe Bridgers has found a way to make music that tells “heartbreaking stuff in an alluring way”. As 2020 has been a year characterised by suffering and isolation, the LA-based singer-songwriter’s second album couldn’t have arrived at a more fitting time. Punisher sees her songwriting develop into a mature place that juxtaposes supernatural themes with fairy tale metaphors, soundtracked by twisting melodies and wistful double-layered vocals.
Whilst the album’s sound soothes, the lyricism unsettles. In Moon Song, Bridgers laments on being “held like water in your hands”, then reveals that the object of her affections has been sticking their “tongue down the throat of somebody” else. By laying details of the sentimental right next to the coarse, the harsh reality of heartache is reflected. Inspired in part by the writer Joan Didion and her musings on Californian destruction, Bridgers paints a bleak portrait of contemporary America; reflecting on the changing landscape with “I grew up here, till it all went up in flames” in Garden Song.
Although dystopia permeates the album, with its tales of doomsday road trips and a neo-Nazi buried under a lawn, its prevailing sentiment is one of hope. Perhaps the most fitting anthem for the year is the closing number – I Know The End. Bridgers explained that the track is about peacefully accepting the apocalypse, living through heartbreak by not giving up, and taking it one day at a time. Holding onto this overarching theme in Punisher will help tide you through in our nightmare world, and when things feel too much, you can always join in with Phoebe’s outro screams for catharsis. – Elly Savva.
It’s fair to say 2020 has been a rather dull year and the initial lockdown feels like a thing of the past, when in reality it was only 9 months ago. During this time, I faced one of my biggest challenges, completing my undergraduate dissertations, something that filled me with dread and angst. That’s when my saving grace came along. Dua Lipa released what can only be described as one of my favourite albums of the last decade.
I’m unashamed to admit that Future Nostalgia was on constant repeat during the first lockdown, keeping my spirits high and the noise complaints from parents higher. It’s clear why the album is called Future Nostalgia, as it is reminiscent of early 00s pop artists like Britney or Kylie. It could easily be used on the soundtracks to our favourite romcoms, whereas the current elements of the album is what makes it so unique to other artists. The songs create a sense of power and independence in a way which empowers its listeners in the same way her previous album has. I for one have added the likes of Don’t start now and Break my Heart to my Bad Bitch playlist, for whenever I need to hype myself up! In a year as grey as this, no wonder Dua Lipa has decided to reflect the colourful world of the early 00s in her music! – Indigo Jones.
Truth be told, there aren’t any radio friendly hits on this album. There’s no exuberant cheese-pop that you could belt out with your best friends at 2 A.M on a sticky club floor surrounded by strangers and assorted disco lights. But nobody’s doing that at the moment anyways. Having been stuck inside for the last few months alone with thoughts and the emotional baggage attached, Swift found her escapism through exploring these narratives, both old and entirely fabricated, to settle her past. Her move into the soundscape of dreamy indie and softer ballads was a near perfect match for this introspective lyricism. As the splendour and effervescence of the Lover has been stripped down to haunting melodies void of any intrusive sound, what remains is a clear reminder of Swift’s ability as a songwriter above all else. As remains true from my review of Lover, there does remain something mystifying beautiful about her music; but now more than ever, it seems as though her success in transforming widely felt emotions into music is about as eloquent as it gets. Read Josh Ong’s full review here.
Miley Cyrus, the previous Disney superstar, released her 7th album entitled Plastic Hearts earlier this year. From the album cover alone, her recent bout of music isn’t for tweens or those who like soft, pop music. Each song intertwines an element of rock, whilst Cyrus sticks to her country roots; her country twang is prevalent throughout and pays homage to who she truly is. Midnight Sky and Prisoner have both been used in TikToks, allowing her music to reach other platforms. Her songs are pop and rock and country and almost everything in between; she masters the art of using different genres and merging them to create her own unique style. Cyrus’ rasp and soulful voice shines throughout and it is clear that the Miley she wants to be is emerging. Her cover of Heart of Glass, in particular, entices her audiences into exploring different genres and bands; Blondie’s cover is iconic, yes, but a star as relevant as Cyrus brings these songs back into circulation for others to enjoy. Midnight Sky, I must say, isn’t a typical rock ballad (in fact, it’s more pop) but it’s incredibly catchy and I can’t help but dance along. It’s dynamic, catchy and empowering; it’s everything Cyrus, I presume, wants to be. A singer who has constantly been debated since her Disney days needs an anthem to show people she isn’t that Disney, innocent child anymore. Plastic Hearts does exactly that and more. – Georgia Glenn.
After a four year musical hiatus, little monsters world wide were itching for a fresh dose of Gaga. Since her debut Just Dance in 2008, her music has become religion to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond. This new album’s plethora of electric, anthemic choruses such as that in Free Woman and Stupid Love are reminiscent of her Fame era that brought a comforting nostalgia. The iconography of Lady Gaga can only be compared to that of the eighties obsession with Madonna, this summer, even though we were locked in our homes, she was everywhere. Chromatica’s pop-resurgence anthems could be heard blaring out of car windows, on someones bleeding headphones in the seat next to you on the bus, or the cashier humming it as she scans your second lidl bakery of the day. What Gaga did with Chromatica was give us solace. The synth-pop nostalgia of each track transported us all back to the club dance floor at 3am when you are with your closest friends without a care in the world, when all we have at the moment is our bedrooms. Lady Gaga created, from the beginning, a community with hope, and Chromatica was a reminder of this. – Daisy Gaunt.
The Weeknd could have never anticipated his fourth studio album would release in the midst of a global pandemic, where the clubbers, ravers and festival-goers that usually enjoy his work were refined to LFH (listening from home). Lucky for us, the Canadian artist produced such a versatile record so as to contain something for every lockdown occasion. Dancing in the kitchen, head-bopping with headphones… crying into your pillows: After Hours does it all.
Straying from the norm of his recent work, the Weeknd’s latest album spurns any commercially-inspired collaborations in favour of an introspective and vulnerable story, one that is narrated by one honest voice: his own. Tesfaye glides over hard-hitting basslines (Heartless, After Hours), modern-day ballads (Hardest to Love, Scared to Live) and airy pop synths (Blinding Lights, In Your Eyes) with ease, not just complementing the instrumentals behind him but building on them with a satisfying variety of falsettos, murmurs and flows.
On a surface level, After Hours is sonically pleasing, complete with a rollercoaster range of tempos (see Repeat After Me and Until I Bleed Out for slower reposes) and critically-shunned-but-publicly-acknowledged song of the year Blinding Lights. At the same time, Tesfaye and his producers have managed to build the beats on such emotional depth that every listen – the second, the fifth, the seventy-fifth – feels like a personal confession. Not all confessions sound this good, and for that, After Hours should be applauded. – Sam Portillo.
7. Chilombo by Jhené Aiko
Listen/Buy: Spotify |
Thematically based around reflecting on failed relationships, Aiko’s third album is saccharine, spiky and sultry in equal parts. The luscious and stripped back r&b production leaves plenty of room for Aiko to weave her deeply personal narratives, while the crop of solid features from the likes of Big Sean, Ab-Soul and Nas play nicely off of her delicate vocals. – Alex Payne.
After being one of my favourite bands since the release of Sweater Weather back in 2014, it was without a doubt that The Neighbourhood’s 2020 release of Chip Chrome and The Monotones was going to be one of my favourite albums of the year. What I admire about this particular band is that their sound is ever-changing and constantly developing, something of which is shown throughout this album. Unlike their 2018 release Hard To Imagine the Neighbourhood Ever Changing, Chip Chrome and The Monotones reflects upon the American glamorization of music, using this 11-track discography as a way to attack and undermine the music industry. As a whole, the album is a reflection of the band’s sudden fame of 2014, showing their decline in popularity within more recent years. We see this through tracks, such as Stargazing, which helps to add a level of personal depth and development to their fourth album release. Furthermore, through tracks like Cherry Flavoured, Devil’s Advocate and Lost in Translation, we see a sophisticated development in The Neighbourhood’s sound, making these three tracks one of their best to date. I would definitely count this album as one of the best to date within 2020. – Emily Jade Ricalton.
After bringing us teen-angst personified in her 2018 album, which contained cult classics like Your Dog and Cool no less was expected when Soccer Mommy, or Sophia Regina Allison’s latest collection Colour Theory in February was announced. This album is perfect Sunday afternoon background noise, and perfect for when you need a good cry all at the same time. The laid back strums of guitar strings and almost whimsical voice is accompanied by deceptively emotive lyrics that pull at your heartstrings. Whilst most songs on the album are quiet, it does become reminiscent of her old albums with crawling in my skin. This album is a perfect summer romance album. However, I may be biased as this album holds a strangely special place in my heart, it was my go to on nights where I was trying to figure out my place in the world and navigate changes that were bittersweet. I don’t know if it is my own late-night delirium, or the fact that for me, this album encapsulates a time in my life where I felt incredibly lost, but it is so beautifully tinged with sadness. It is raw and honest and calm, an album in which we all can seek solace. – Daisy Gaunt.
10. Confetti by Little Mix
Finally liberated from the clutches of Simon Cowell after nine years, Little Mix are free to craft their own sound on their 6th studio album. The result? Not much different, in all honesty, but if you’re already a fan of their glossy, radio friendly pop bangers then you can breathe a sigh of relief – Confetti is chock full of them, and they sound sharper than ever. – Alex Payne.
For years I listened to what I assumed would be Bombay Bicycle Club’s final studio album ironically titled “So Long, See You Tomorrow” with a sense of melancholy due to the band going on an indefinite hiatus in 2016. I’d always enjoy their music but in the back of my mind I’d remind myself that no matter how upbeat the music was, this was the end for Bombay Bicycle Club. However, January provided one of 2020’s immensely scarce miracles for us fans of their indie pop bangers with a brand-new comeback album that is drenched with upbeat guitar riffs and catchy lyrics that became the glimmer of hope before the storm that was 2020. The album covers all bases from synth filled Is It Real that is irresistible to bop along too, more melancholic and thought-provoking tunes like Racing Stripes that let you get right into your feels, as well as Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You) and Everything Else Has Gone Wrong which both returned to the band’s indie pop roots with infectious guitar riffs and apocalyptic lyrics that I’m sure predicted the state of 2020. A personal favourite of mine would have to be Good Day which is the perfectly simplistic tune to vibe too that combines some pretty depressing lyrics with a contrasting summery guitar which is confusing as it is catchy. Overall, Everything Else Has Gone Wrong may not have saved us from the 2020 apocalypse, but it gave us both the symbolic revival of Bombay Bicycle Club and some catchy and comforting tracks that kept me hopeful in times where hope was scarce. – Lewis Empson.
11. Fight On by The Lathums
Listen/Buy: Spotify |
Wigan won’t be the first place that comes to mind when you think of emerging musicians, but The Lathums are determined to put it on the map with their latest EP of jangly indie-poetry. Acclaimed by the likes of Tim Burgess and Jools Holland, the band’s prospects seem to be rising fast, and this project serves as a good reason why. Nuanced songwriting and rich lyrics are carefully balanced to bring the same sun-drenched listenability as the Kooks and Courteeners. The Lathums are ones to keep an eye on next year! – Alex Payne.
Historically a black metal project, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun decided to steer Mykur’s third studio album in a cleaner and softer direction that leans heavily on traditional Nordic folk. Brunn’s hypnotic vocals soar above string-driven drones and richly textured instrumentation, and possess a powerfully elegical quality despite being mostly sung in her native tongue. Sure, it’ll get you a few funny looks if you play it on aux (my then-partner can testify to that after she was subjected to it mid-holiday), but if you’re looking for an introduction into Nordic folk that’s not too twee, or simply want to hear what Midsommar would sound like if it was an album, then Folkensange is the project for you. – Alex Payne.
Conceptualised, written, produced and released in just a month and a half, Charli set the bar high for the newly emerging genre of “lockdown albums”. Drenched in her aggressively acrylic brand of dance pop, the project manages to blend the catchiness of her more commercial bangers with anxiety-fuelled intimate lyrics. Intimacy is the key word here, for Charli shared the majority of the creative process with her fans, even letting them name the track claws. The uneasy mix of introspection and bouncy fun makes for a brilliant experimental pop album that manages to capture the Zeitgeist of 2020. – Alex Payne.
For something released at the start of the year, Easy life managed to match the tone of 2020 incredibly well. It leaves you wondering if they knew what was coming… Junk Food is their third mixtape, with just 7 tracks totalling 19 minutes.
For those unaware of the group from Leicester, it is hard to fit them into one genre but they are often compared to Rex Orange County, colliding rap vocals with jazz to create an indie sound. Murray Matravers, the lead singer, talks of seasonal depression in LS6 and the dangers of the LA lifestyle in Dead Celebrities. But they also aren’t afraid to shy away from wider issues as seen on Earth. Despair at the state of the climate is shown in the line ‘and we breathe in the fumes, fill the oceans with plastic’. Despite the other issues that have dominated our lives in 2020, climate change remains a real issue that the group highlight.
LS6 also touches on homesickness, a feeling that seems more prominent this year than ever before. As many of us were “100 miles away” from those we love and care about, the world seemed bleaker. The situation “is bound to get better” though as Murray sings. There is definitely comfort in this mixtape that we needed this year. This third mixtape undoubtedly leaves high expectations for what will be a highly anticipated debut album. – Rubie Barker.
As with most reviews of ambient music, prepare yourself for a healthy dose of pretentiousness. Where other genres use melody and structure as the basic building blocks of their art, Basinski’s ambient instead relies almost exclusively on deep sonic textures created by tape loops that let listeners project, paint and draw upon powerful emotions. Lamentations, as the name suggests, is intensely sorrowful, but each track is individual and soused in various shades of grief. With most tracks sitting comfortably under the ten minute mark, and with relatively little degeneration to the sound, this is Basinski’s most accessible release yet, but it sacrifices very little nuance in order to achieve that quality. – Alex Payne.
16. Last Year Was Weird, Vol.2 by Tkay Maidza
Listen/Buy: Spotify |
A relative newcomer to the music industry, Maidza demonstrates her versatility on her third release. Dabbling with influences that include gospel, reggae and dance-pop, she folds them all into her eclectic, wonky brand of r&b with the competency of an industry veteran. – Alex Payne.
Halsey fulfilled her promise that this album will not be anything that anyone could have expected. It is a powerful mix of styles and genres that gives strength to everyone struggling after break-up and much more. Halsey put herself in the role of a guide through a path to self-acceptance. For example, Still learning asks a question – how others are supposed to fall in love with you, if you do not love yourself? Because after all – life is what we made of it and we should not rely on the world to make us happy. – Read Maja Metera’s full review here.
Grimes’ album release of the year Miss Anthropocene promotes a sound that is unique to her previous albums. Unlike Art Angels, which was released just over five years ago now, Miss Anthropocene reflects upon a softer sound that draws comparisons to the harsh depressive imagery of Visions. As suggested throughout her first studio album, which used tracks such as Be A Body to symbolise Grimes’ past with sexual abuse, the song So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth comments upon her connections to the toxic power dynamics between men and women; and personally, even though she can be quite a controversial artist in general, I believe that this can be empowering for her fans, raising awareness of the difficulties for women within music by making it an increasingly discussed topic. As a whole, the aesthetics of this album are beautiful. The soft beats, building tensions and lyrical discussions of Miss Anthropocene make this album one of my favourites for 2020. It’s a style that we haven’t seen from Grimes before, allowing the new mum to undermine the heavy pop of which she is commonly known for releasing within today’s music industry. – Emily Jade Ricalton.
On his third full-length release, ex-Youtube funny man George Miller continues to cement his own brand of understated lo-fi r&b. Strong, melancholic beats and contemplative lyrics drive the project with a sense of urgency, and the smattering of features that pepper the tracks prevents Miller’s consistent sound from becoming monotonous. – Alex Payne.
After the release of possibly one of my favourite albums of all time, A Brief Enquiry Into Online Relationships (ABEIOR), The 1975 decided to release their follow-up album, Notes On a Conditional Form (NOACF), during the depth of this year’s pandemic. Unlike ‘ABEIOR’, which encompassed a glamorous sound due to its recording location of Los Angeles, California, ‘NOACF’ suggests an aesthetic that connotes a raw style similar to the music that is produced within Britain; creating an artistic appeal that both attracts their U.K. fans and brings homage to the place that produced the band’s fame. The album itself can be a bit hit and miss in some areas, especially in terms of their country sounding tracks, but as a whole ‘NOACF’ is an experimental masterpiece. The combinations of the different sounding genres have allowed The 1975 to break away from their cheesy tunes and create something that is unique to their previous sounds. Even though I don’t believe it’s their best album to date, I do believe that it has incredible potential to allow the Manchester boys to create a new sound for themselves; I just can’t wait to see what The 1975 release next. – Emily Jade Ricalton.
Between the tragic Manchester bombing in 2017, and the painfully public implosion of her relationship with comedian Pete Davidson, Grande has had a rough few years. Her sixth album Positions tries to leave the heavy stuff behind, and instead delivers a slew of sultry, sexually charged pop bangers. Her effervescent vocals slink over moody beats as she details how she’s been quarantining with her new partner, but there’s still room for introspection between the raunchiness. On Safety Net she wrestles with the idea of falling in love again, while she ponders integrating herself into her new partner’s life on Positions. As the name suggests however, these reflective moments are firmly sandwiched between the more carnal bangers that are the bread and butter of the project. – Alex Payne.
Despite being hotly tipped for a couple of years, Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut album blindsided the industry this year. Confident and punchy, she wields nostalgia like a weapon, peppering key tracks such as XS, STFU! and Love Me 4 Me with bright bursts of nu-metal, emo and y2k pop. The record’s brilliance comes from its ability to balance the effervescence of pop with variation and self-awareness. It’s intelligent pop done fun, and combined with her recent Mercury Prize nomination, proves that Sawayama is one to watch. – Alex Payne.
I have been following Samia Finnerty since she released Someone Tell The Boys in 2017. The song has become somewhat of an anthem in my uni house: 3 minutes of pure empowerment. Finnerty has a large range when it comes to both music and pitch; she can reach the highest notes as easily as she can switch between songs about joy and sadness. The Baby is the musical manifestation of her talents. Uncertainty, nostalgia and pain has ruled many of our lives this year, and Samia navigates these themes well. The best track for me must be Big Wheel, third on the album. My advice for anyone that plans to listen to it: put your speaker on and turn the volume up as high as it will go; it’s a challenge not to get goosebumps as the drums come in. Does Not Heal is a haunting flex for just how wide Samia’s range is, and if you prefer your tunes a bit more optimistic, Minnesota is infectiously joyous. Whilst electronic music is favoured more often than the beat of a real drum is favoured in the mainstream at the moment, you can’t beat the indie DIY feel that Samia encapsulates in this full-length. The Baby is easily one of the best albums of 2020: the moment you listen it will be hard to get those earworms out of your mind. – Kate Waldock.
Since I first came across Machine Gun Kelly I preferred the guitar solos and screaming out the lyrics over his raps – so this album is a perfect focus on my favourite version of Colson Baker. MGK’s fifth studio album release in three version – original, Target Exclusive and [SOLD OUT Deluxe] is a sort of teenage angst pop-punk release I needed this year – being so angry at the universe during COVID as a lot of people has shown that they give a damn about other. They are just here to see our downfall. This awful perception of the reality put me back a few years to the time in my life full of My Chemical Romance.
Whereas this classic often plays the crying-in-bed-background-tune role, MGK managed to get me out of my PJs to jump and dance on the street to kiss kiss, show the world full of expectation my middle finger to concert for aliens and do my own thing. And during this difficult year, we all need a reminder that it is okay to fail at adulting and have no idea what we are supposed to do. All I know (feat. Trippie Redd) is a permission to be lost.
Additionally, his love songs like bloody valentine are very much not about love in a Taylor Swift way. He does not sugar-coat the ugly side of life, addiction and loneliness in a room full of people. Nonetheless he seems to get the feeling of holding yourself and your emotion back – calling the crush your girlfriend but only in your head, while falling down the rabbit hole of love-hate relationships. The collaborations with Halsey, Yungblud, blackbear and Travis Barker are just a cherry on top of that delicious muffin of an album. – Maja Metera.
25. Wake Up, Sunshine by All Time Low
Listen/Buy: Spotify |
When the world is in turmoil, there’s nothing more comforting than familiarity. Enter All Time Low. For what they lack in originality, they make up for in spades with polish, as you’d expect from an act on their eighth full length release. It’s glossy, guitar pop with all the emotional nuance of a teenagers diary, but if you’re looking for the musical equivalent of comfort food, this is it. The Maryland four piece knows where their strengths lie, and it looks like they’re happy to keep playing to them. – Alex Payne.
After the overwhelming success of their 2017 debut, it would have been easy for the London four piece to churn out another rock album. Instead, Jules Jackson, the driving force behind the band’s songwriting, turned to classic dance and rock for inspiration for their sophomore release. The inclusion of a handful of retro sensibilities, like the viscous synths and ponderous piano lines, form the backbone of the project, and synergise seamlessly with the groups established sound. But it’s the rich harmonies and fantastic lyrics that make their welcome return that have allowed The Big Moon to attract such a strong following. Jackson ruminates on heavy topics like womanhood, friends moving away and breakups, but never strays to self-pity and tracks like Don’t Think and Barcelona are masterclasses on how to imbue sensitive indie-rock with spiky energy in a manner not dissimilar to acts like Sleigh Bells and The Long Blondes. It’s modern pop soaked in sepia and self-assurance, and is perhaps the most relatable project to come from the genre this year. – Alex Payne.
Weird! is an excellent album, although the diverse genres and messy style could be interpreted as lacking cohesion. But to me, that is exactly the point, Weird! and Yungblud is all about not caring about what anybody thinks, just be yourself and someone will love you for you. It is not hard to see why Dave Grohl recently dubbed Yungblud as an “unstoppable force” and the reason why “Rock and Roll isn’t dead”, and now with this latest release, Yungblud’s domination is unlikely to stop anytime soon. – Read Joshua Allen’s full review here.