Music has always been important - Audioxide is derived from such passion - but this year it really was essential. It's easy to become consumed by 2020's bleakness, but it really has been a quite brilliant year for new music. Some records have engaged with us emotionally, on a personal level, whereas others have connected us to social and cultural movements. Even the rubbish ones showed us that not everything had come to a complete halt.
So without further ado, here are our favourite records of 2020. These records have given us strength when we've needed it the most. Now let's never speak of this year again.
10. Purple Moonlight Pages // R.A.P. Ferreira
Purple Moonlight Pages was my first experience of R.A.P. Ferreira and I found it a totally spellbinding listen. Ferreira, previously known under the moniker milo, has created a diverting jazz/hip-hop record that expertly pays homage to the genres’ shared origins.
The album, which comes in at just over 50 minutes long, has a total of 18 tracks. Each is distinct and relatively short, giving Ferreira plenty of scope for experimentation and playfulness. On “NONCIPHER” the spoken-word vocals and lyricism are complemented by whimsical call-and-response brass instrumentation, funky snares, and hi-hats and playful piano. Ferreira is philosophising on the ‘true meanings’ of music, adopting a nihilistic mindset that, ultimately, meaning doesn’t matter. This ideology is carried throughout the entire album by the dissonant but gratifying instrumentation.
“LAUNDRY” brings ’90s record-scratching repetition, “DOLDRUMS” has a laid-back monotony with biting labial plosives, and “MYTHICAL” offers big-band brass and smooth jazz percussion. The vocal flows focus on phonaesthetics, combining intricate metaphors with diction that’s more for sound than substance. Ferreira uses assonance and dissonance poetically to complement the jazz instrumentation, making his vocals as much an instrument as they are a storytelling device.
It’s an album about freedom; freedom to experiment, freedom to play, freedom to reinvent yourself. It’s unlike anything else I’d heard this year, shifting rhythms complemented by twinkling keys, smooth jazz percussion, and phonaesthetic rap flows. Interesting enough to hold your attention, relaxing enough to play in the background, and delightfully unique. I’m so glad I stumbled upon Purple Moonlight Pages, it’s real food for the soul.
9. Punisher // Phoebe Bridgers
From the first melodically discordant notes of “DVD Menu” it’s clear what Phoebe Bridgers set out to do with her second studio album. Comforting and melancholic in equal measures, the record is best described as ‘emo-folk’, though I encourage you to disregard any negative preconceptions you might have of either of those genres. Punisher brings out the best of both of them in a surreal, anxious but warming record full of dark metaphors, a permeating sense of dread and deliciously soothing folk production.
Aspects of the album that one could reasonably expect to be totally jarring, such as the way the upbeat pop instrumentation on “Kyoto” is followed up by the dark, melancholic and haunting “Punisher” are nimbly handled by Bridgers to create a contradictory but complementary sound. Bridgers’ conflicted mental state is candidly laid bare throughout the album, both lyrically and sonically. On “ICU”, lyrics like ‘I get this feeling whenever I feel good it’ll be the last time’ show the apprehension that accompanies any sort of happiness when you’re in the grips of anxiety or depression. On “Chinese Satellite” the dominant theme of the album is captured in the opening lyrics ‘I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself’: a feeling of stasis combined with a pervasive anxiety about what the future holds and, for want of a less trite turn of phrase, the meaning of life.
I’d be remiss not to mention the closing track, “I Know The End”, which gives me goosebumps on every listen. The haunting chorus of ‘the end is here,’ accompanied by heavy, choking breathing sounds leaves you enveloped in the fear that Bridgers has been battling throughout the album.
I found a real affinity with the emotions expressed by Bridgers in Punisher this year: an anxious itch for self-improvement and change while being trapped in a static world, a world where it seems everything has fallen apart in a very mundane, anticlimactic apocalypse. It’s a coming-of-age album which holds a mirror to a world equally full of terror and opportunity, thoughtfully philosophising on a personal past and a collective future, and a true delight to listen to.
8. Making a Door Less Open // Car Seat Headrest
Indie rock often feels stagnant and non-descript, trapped in a cycle of post-00s nostalgia, but Toledo’s vocal similarities to Julian Casablancas belie the inventiveness across the Car Seat Headrest discography. Making a Door Less Open is perhaps the band’s boldest attempt at delivering something novel and, messy as it is, I can’t help but enjoy and admire the attempt.
Infusions of electronica and EDM might seem like a cheap avenue for broadening the band’s touchingly naive sound, but plenty of the results here are so moreish and impassioned that it’s easy to glaze over its lower moments. “Deadlines (Thoughtful)”’s bar-long synth notes that smoothly glide between pitches sound nothing like the CSH we’re familiar with, and yet they’re absolutely in step with the band’s compositional approach — an emotive, ascendant, and slightly understated means of grabbing the listener and holding tight as the instrumentation builds in complexity.
The glitched vocal hook in “Hymn (Remix)”, the near-screams on “Hollywood”, the hollowed-out piano notes of “Can’t Cool Me Down”, and the acoustic stop-off at “What’s With You Lately” all seem intent on being jarring and sort-of-unpleasant, but the rough edges of CSH have always been their most addictive quality.
7. Nothing as the Ideal // All Them Witches
Something I’ve learned about myself while doing Audioxide is that I love me some slow, heavy, brooding post rock. Just love it. Nothing as the Ideal isn’t quite that, but it was the closest I got to my annual fix. I was plenty content with it.
All Them Witches carry themselves with a marvellous southern twang — a little eccentric, a little downtrodden, a little swampy, and hard as nails. “See You Next Fall” has been on constant rotation this year and will probably remain so until next fall, while I’d trust “Saturnine & Iron Jaw” to stand toe to toe with the dustiest, most sunburnt Queens of the Stone Age tracks going.
The formula is not to everyone’s taste (even I’m worn down by the end) but Nothing as the Ideal delivered a foggy rock concoction quite unlike anything else in 2020. Not so much desert rock as it is voodoo swamp rock, the album is a mighty fine time.
6. Inner Song // Kelly Lee Owens
Gorgeous, sweeping electronica. Just what the doctor ordered. Kelly Lee Owens strikes a lovely balance on Inner Song, with contagious dance tunes sandwiched between beautiful dream pop ballads, all produced with prestigious care and detail. Not too dissimilar to Jon Hopkins, or even Thom Yorke, Owens approaches dance music in a more nuanced way than most. It means Inner Song is just as enjoyable with headphones as it is on the dance-floor. Presumably.
It's refreshing to hear an electronic album with a genuine sense of purpose and direction. I’m the most avid fan of nerdy IDM you'll likely find, but I take great pleasure in hearing Owens take certain elements of electronic music and unfolding them in such a focused and cohesive manner. Just when Inner Song needs softening up, Owens takes the edge off. Like all the best DJs, she knows the value of relief, and this results in an exquisitely-paced record. A wonderfully stylish one at that.
There have been countless nights (or, more accurately, early mornings) where I have been absorbed by the lush sonics of Inner Song. Kelly Lee Owens provided an essential tonic for me to turn to during the past few months - this year of the Unprecedented Times™ - and she has my eternal gratitude.
5. Ultra Mono // IDLES
This rhetoric may be echoed throughout many publications at this time, not least of all our own at Audioxide, but 2020 has no doubt been a terrible year, one we’d like to but won’t easily forget. That’s what made IDLES’ 2020 release, Ultra Mono such a joy.
Following up in a very much similar tonality to Joy As An Act of Resistance, Ultra Mono keeps IDLES’ signature riff heavy, lyrically bombastic song writing. This however, is not to their detriment. IDLES take enough of a leap here to sound evolved, with slower tracks like “A Hymn”, but they maintain the raucous crashing riffs they’re known for in tracks like “Grounds”.
Ultra Mono doesn’t falter with the superb lyrics either. Charged with irony, politics, and twisted imagery they create anthem-like vocals, best shown in tracks like “Reigns”. This time around IDLES get self-referential with the lyricism, even mentioning the anthem-like nature of songs in tracks like “Model Village”. Even more so do IDLES do this in the track “Mr. Motivator”, commenting ‘How’d you like them clichés?’, coincidentally one of my favourite songs on the album.
Without intending to be overly earnest, IDLES manage to instil a sort of hope and power. A sense that if we shout loud enough, we might just kill them with kindness. And in the ‘gas leak’ year that has been 2020, that is a welcomed feeling.
4. Græ // Moses Sumney
Moses Sumney followed up his 2017 debut this year, and he didn't take any half measures in doing so. With Græ, Sumney retains the powerful vocal performances that first turned my attention to him, and builds on the already lush instrumentation we saw in Aromanticism.
This double album is a grander affair in many ways, and it uses its 60+ minutes playtime to travel around a musical landscape. Back in May all three of us drew comparisons: Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas and, my favourite, ‘Thom Yorke with steroids and a few hallucinogens in his belly.’ Returning to it, I could probably add a few more to the list, but Græ doesn't trade character for eclecticism, and instead solidifies Sumney's absorbing formula of soulful electronic music.
It's hard not to retread covered ground, having gushed about the entire tracklist back in May, but I can't help but give one notable mention. After some time away from it, the rollercoaster that "Colouour" sends me on hasn't diminished. Opening with a horn section that flies and flutters around a cavern of reverb, Sumney's vocals enter delicately, as the rest of the track falls away for a moment, holding the listener in silence before dropping them back into a rippling, warm pool of lush chords. It's a real experience, and it's a track that missed out on my favourites list at the time.
With André's cracking write-up of "Me in 20 Years" last week and our original review on Græ, we've had a lot of praise for this album. Sumney has produced an enchanting, overwhelming hour of music that I'm delighted to see in our listing this year.
3. Visions of Bodies Being Burned // clipping.
Few projects are as inventive, bold, and focused as clipping.’s Visions of Bodies Being Burned, the second part of a dual-album project that began with There Existed An Addiction to Blood in 2019. Through sides E to H of the project, Diggs, Huston, and Snipes build upon and perfect their horrorcore motifs in what I consider to be a masterpiece. The development of Diggs’ deliveries, the willingness to warp any and all aspects of the composition into gothic, uncanny, and oftentimes miserable new modes, and the loosely-defined storytelling combine into an expansive and addictive listening experience that grows in grandeur with every listen.
I’ve waxed lyrical about this album enough already, so I’ll close by noting that Enlacing’s ability to dive between its life-affirming choruses and dread-inspiring verses ought to be enough to convince anyone that clipping. are at the forefront of pushing and cracking hip-hop’s ever-flexible boundaries.
2. Song for Our Daughter // Laura Marling
Thank god for Laura Marling. With the world unravelling she glided in with Song for Our Daughter to cradle us in her cardiganed arms and tell us, well, not that it's ok exactly but at least not all that bad. I wouldn’t say I’ve grown to love the album, but boy am I grateful for it.
Marling’s eloquence and intricacy is well represented, as you’d expect, but there is also a softness to the music that doesn’t necessarily come through on previous records like Semper Femina. The songs have the gentle drift and unshakeable moral core of bedtime stories, with the titular track probably showing that best of all.
In truth I can’t think of a better singer/songwriter around right now than Laura Marling. Having only just turned 30 she already carries herself like a sage. A turtleneck jumper-wearing sage. Song for Our Daughter is possibly her best album yet, and that in itself takes some doing.
1. RTJ4 // Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels have always operated on the miraculous alchemy of Killer Mike and El-P, and each record’s growth in confidence from the duo is as astounding as it is impressive. On RTJ4, it feels like the underlying theme of improbably successful combinations has been ratcheted to another level — represented best, perhaps, by the coupling of Zach de la Rocha and Pharrell Williams on “JU$T”. Sticking a pitbull and a rabbit in a pen together seems like a terrible idea, and yet it comes off with aplomb.
On “pulling the pin”, Mavis Staples’ haunting vocals are married impeccably to the trademark spookiness of Josh Homme’s instrumentation, such that I’m staggered the idea hasn’t been broached before. In these fraught times, this coming together of opposing sonic forces — going above and beyond the well-established synchronicity of Render and Meline — is as powerful as the predictably brilliant writing, not only in how great it all sounds but in its projection of RTJ’s overarching focus on solidarity against oppression.
I'm glad this got top spot. RTJ4 was an album that connected with all of us. It had something to say and belted it out with the bombastic swagger typical of Killer Mike and El-P. The album may not have had the best hooks or choruses or ear worms of the year, but it had an unstoppable sense of purpose, of getting some hard truths off of its chest. There is a restless, righteous anger throughout RTJ4 that I expect will resonate for years to come. I found it bizarre to hear the press crediting Bob Dylan’s dirges about the 1960s as capturing the current zeitgeist when Run the Jewels were standing up to be counted in the here and now. (No shade at Dylan, I like his dirges.)
RTJ4 is not just a great rap album, but a vital protest record. Much of the best music released is as culturally critical as it is satisfying. Listening to RTJ4 makes me angry. It causes me to look deeper and start asking questions of myself. It inspires me to make personal changes, however small, to help improve the wider picture. I'm certainly not alone in this. I'll say with some confidence that, throughout the entirety of 2020, Run the Jewels have helped galvanised the younger generation more than most politicians. This is highly significant when you look back upon the year: severe racial conflict, incompetent management of a pandemic, and Trump (eventually) being booted out of office. Protest music makes a difference.
El-P and Killer Mike are a singular voice. Their chemistry has excelled anything we've seen in hip-hop for a number of years. Whilst the banter remains, the duo clearly realise the platform they stand upon. By sacrificing some of the absurd humour seen on previous albums, they further cement their commitment to social justice. Mike's verse on “walking in the snow” had people wondering how recent these songs were written. It didn't take long to realise that, unfortunately, this is simply history repeating itself.
I don't think RTJ4 is perfect. I'm not sure it's even the best RTJ album. However, you can forgive flaws when the rage feels so sincere and heartfelt. Emotion can overwhelm anything and everything else. Closing track “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” finds the duo reflecting upon their privileged positions. Of course, money and fame do not eradicate pain and suffering. More importantly, stardom should never eliminate compassion. Mike and El-P strive for equality, at a time where so many are eager to dismiss others based on race or gender.
RTJ4 is protest without the preachiness. It feels like a triumphant pursuit for unity. The music hits hard, and the message hits even harder. The poignancy of “JU$T” wouldn't land nearly as well if it wasn't such a bouncing banger. RTJ4 is essential listening. If it takes good music for people to realise capitalism is bad, so be it. I'm rarely an optimist, but I feel like moments like these could result in the start of a brighter future. At least, I sincerely fucking hope so.
They may not have topped our singles list last week, but they made up a fifth of it. This week, Run The Jewels bettered that by taking our top album of the year. RTJ4 follows the trend set by the hip hop duo with previous releases, bringing something fresh to the table packaged in a familiar sound.
Written in a time of growing tension and released at its flashpoint during the protests against police brutality in June 2020, RTJ4 swapped some bravado to make more of their impactful statement. Sure, the likes of “ooh la la” and “holy calmafuck” bring brazen beats and puffed chests. But the guts of this album, “walking in the snow”, “JU$T”, “pulling the pin”, wear politicism and activism on its sleeve.
There's a laundry list of familiar names in the credits too, many of whom aren't known for pulling punches when it comes to opinionated lyrics either. These collaborations, particularly those towards the back of the album, touch on social injustices from modern slavery to capitalist evils, calling for change through personal action. It makes for a charged listen that the duo intends to inspire and motivate listeners with, and it's hard to feel any other way by its climatic, six-minute closing epic.
It's been a chaotic cavalcade of a year, but we've seen incredible music come out of it. Whether it's offered catharsis, called to action, or just been bloody good listening, we couldn't have done without it, and I'm thrilled to see Run The Jewels take the top spot with RTJ4.