I’m restricting my top 10 to records released this year, and which I have purchased on vinyl, which means both of the excellent SAULT albums are excluded because they are tricky to get hold of, and one of my favourite albums, Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka was officially released in 2019 so can’t be included either. In no particular order then:
Soccer Mommy – color theory. It was a fine year for dreamy, ethereal, cool female singer-songwriters. Phoebe Bridgers released the also amazing Punisher, which was an almost include, but in this ‘category’ I’ve opted for Nashville’s Sophia Allison whose second album was chill, slacker, edgy pop.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. A classic breakup album from the American country singer, which was full of heartbreak. Perfect for drinking whisky and bawling to. Margo Price’s That’s How Rumours Get Started was also a much listened to country album this year.
Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison. The National’s front man followed up last year’s near perfect I Am Easy To Find with a solo album that could have been taken from the same sessions. Produced by Booker T of MGs fame there are some occasional organ flourishes and overall his influence lifts the tracks out from Berninger’s tendency to mumbling and sentimentality. It also had a beautiful cover.
Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas. The British soul singer-songwriter’s follow up to 2015’s Blood combined R&B, acoustic, indie and rock. Her luxuriant vocals and surprising changes in each track (including a cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes) are all realised with aplomb. She’s not exactly unknown, but if she was North American, La Havas would be HUGE.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Angry, feisty, funny, quirky, touching, tuneful and experimental. Apple’s fifth album defied categorisation and constantly shifted direction and surprised the listener. It was a perfect 2020 album. Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud is also a worthy mention.
Jason Isbell and the 400 unit – Reunions. Isbell is one of those artists who has found his groove and now seemingly puts out a blinder every year and we just shrug and go “oh yeah, another one”. Any one of his four releases from 2013 would count as a career high for anyone else. So it is with Reunions. Is it as good as Something More Than Free? No, but it’s better than nearly everything else released this year.
Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter. I seem to have mostly listened to female singer-songwriters this year. Perhaps it’s a 2020 thing, and Marling released this album early in the pandemic. It’s beautiful and the perfect accompaniment to sitting in your house, staring wistfully outside and trying to remember the Before Time. Laura Viers My Echo was also a strong contender here.
Zara McFarlane – Songs of an Unknown Tongue. There is a thriving British jazz scene which I don’t know enough about but occasionally dip into. McFarlane is one of its real stars and in this album she explores her Jamaican-British identity through personal lyrics and a range of styles. It’s a very smart, but also accessible album.
El Goodo – Zombie. The Welsh psychedelic band produced a cracking album which sounds both as though it would have been a solid 1968 release but is also purely 2020. Loads of good tunes, and my favourite cover of the year. Well done lads, well done. If you prefer your (partly) Welsh artists slightly more bonkers, prog-rock and about Space Golf, then Hen Ogledd’s Free Humans is for you.
Thundercat – It Is What It Is. The bassist and pitch perfect singer produced a laid back, breezy album this year which wasn’t quite as epic as Drunk, but felt like you had spent an afternoon sipping gin at the house of the most talented musician in the world while his mates breezed in and out and collaborated on tunes and you kept thinking “how did I get to be so lucky to hear this?”
[Edit: At Scott Leslie’s suggestion I’ve created a Spotify playlist with a couple of tracks from each of these: