You certainly were the strangest of years, 2020! And while the music industry was among the hardest hit sectors during this pandemic, there was also wonderful creativity on display from musicians the world over.
Looking back on record releases, the striking thing about many of the albums that made our list is the titles – just how aptly they seem to capture something essential about this peculiar year (even though most of these names would have been settled well before the outbreak).
So here’s the Upside list of the top 30 albums of 2020. And whatever your picks were, we would encourage you to support your favourite musicians by buying physical copies of their records or tickets to their shows (if and when that becomes possible).
- Alex the Astronaut – The Theory of Absolutely Nothing
Our album of the year is Alex Lynn’s The Theory of Absolutely Nothing. After a string of excellent singles and EPs since 2016, we finally got to hear her debut LP – and it is a piece of songwriting brilliance from start to finish. Woven together with a thread of affecting narratives and character sketches, Alex the Astronaut has a disarming talent for crafting an immediately engaging song. It’s a record that is beautiful, wistful and life-affirming. No wonder there are comparisons being made to Paul Kelly. Get absolutely lost in The Theory of Absolutely Nothing.
- The Strokes – The New Abnormal
The award for the most prescient title of the year goes to The Strokes (although the band had no idea they would be co-opting one of the defining phrases of 2020 – it was an initially intended as a reference to the prevalence of bushfires). After a lengthy absence, The New Abnormal is an outstanding return to form from the New York outfit. Two decades after being tagged as the future of rock’n’roll, the band appear finally free of having to carry that hefty burden and are just making great music for the joy of it – producing this heady blend of garage rock, disco and eighties pop.
- Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death
Last year’s Dogrel was a first-rate debut (making number 24 on our 2019 list), but the Dublin lads have outdone that effort with their gripping follow up, A Hero’s Death. This is visceral, angular post-rock; it’s a collection that manages to feel both chaotic and measured, with songs that move between brash, earnest and comic. Fontaines D.C. demand your attention and want to take you somewhere. Settle in for the ride – it’s well worth your while.
- Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan delivered the album we didn’t know we needed. Out of the blue, and at the height of the worldwide COVID lockdown, he dropped the feverish 17-minute epic ‘Murder Most Foul’, with the full album following soon after. Dripping with delightfully dense lyrical phrasing, Rough and Rowdy Ways is Dylan’s best work in years. And if this is to be his final statement, it would make a brilliant exclamation mark on an outstanding career.
- Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
As well as contributing the haunting piano at the heart of Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’, Fiona Apple gave us her own masterpiece to capture the brutal mood of 2020 in Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It is not always a comfortable listen, but it’s completely arresting. Apple is a unique and uncompromising artist who consistently defies conventional songwriting structures to startling effect. Her first album in eight years is a most welcome return.
- Khruangbin – Mordechai
Khruangbin hit the sweet spot with their third album, Mordechai. While the instrumental soundscape remains at the heart of the trio’s craft, there’s a more liberal use of vocals this time around and it works perfectly. As always, what makes Khruangbin so unique is the eclectic blend of sounds. Listening to Mordechai feels like taking a trip around the world from your lounge-room – and in 2020, we needed that more than ever!
- Something for Kate – The Modern Medieval
Something for Kate make their case for being the most consistent band Australia has produced, offering yet another first-class album with The Modern Medieval. Paul Dempsey is also one of our finest songwriters, and while he now also has a very fertile solo career, the three-piece bring a signature edge to the compositions. An instant classic, this record has that rare characteristic of being instantly recognisable after the first listen. And Adelaide audiences will have the rare honour of being able to hear the material debuted live when the band plays Bonython Park in January for Summer Sounds.
- Taylor Swift – Folklore
In true 2020 style, Taylor Swift took herself to a cabin in the woods and returned with her best work to date. It was a move straight out of the Bon Iver playbook, and it’s fitting that the album highlight is ‘Exile’, a collaboration with Justin Vernon. But the brilliance here goes much deeper than the main single; Folklore is an hour of excellent songcraft, packaged up with the exquisite production of Jack Antonoff (who worked similar magic on Lana Del Rey’s 2019 album) and The National’s Aaron Dessner.
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Of course 2020 wasn’t just about COVID. RTJ4 is a very important album, confronting the racism that stirred the Black Lives Matter movement this year (the release date was even brought forward in response). This is the protest music we need, but it doesn’t begin and end with the duo merely taking on racial prejudice – as they go on to tackle poverty, the media and Trump’s America across the course of the album. There are also some excellent collaborations, including Mavis Staples, Josh Homme and Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine), pushing the work well beyond conventional hip hop boundaries. RTJ4 is one powerful statement.
- Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Is there any other artist quite like Thundercat? A unique talent, it’s as though he is the sole occupant of his very own genre: making up his own rules and where a dizzying array of musical ideas collide. The listener just has to strap in for the ride. The next time you worry that music has become too formulaic, just sit back and have a listen to the genius of It Is What It Is.
- Dream Wife – So When You Gonna…
The fun of their first album remains, but here the British/Icelandic trio are also more assured in covering weightier issues: so we jump from a party pash in one song to deal with misogyny and miscarriage in others. It all works because they have a talent for wrapping things up in the perfect three-minute punk song. And to echo the refrain from the opening track, Dream Wife put their money where their mouths are – backing up the feminist creed of their songs with an all-female production team for the album (in recognition of under-representation in the music industry).
- Songhoy Blues – Optimisme
Channelling seventies hard rock icons such as Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Kiss – just with infectious Malian desert rhythms – Songhoy Blues are one of the most exciting bands in the world and a pure joy for the listener! Optimisme is an apt title, as this music really has the power to blast your blues away (not bad for a band that formed as refugees in exile after music was banned by a fundamentalist regime in Northern Mali). The spirit of rock’n’roll is alive and well – and it lives in West Africa.
- Lime Cordiale – 14 Steps to Better You
Last year’s single ‘Robbery’ was quite a calling card for 14 Steps to Better You, an album that definitively announces that Lime Cordiale has arrived. “Blending an energizing array of sounds and traversing genres, the album is packaged up in first-rate production. Across the record you hear a mix of guitars, brass, Casio-style keys and even a kazoo solo. And it all works really well, due mainly to the act’s confident songwriting skills and penchant for the irresistible hook.” Read our full review here.
- HAIM – Women in Music Pt.III
Women in Music Pt.III is the best album this trio of sisters has produced. The songwriting and melodies are consistently brilliant, while a more experimental palette of sounds is added to their breezy so-cal Fleetwood Mac vibe (there are some Vampire Weekend connections here that are discernible in the mix). And once you finish listening, you just want to go back and hear it all over again. Providing an insightful snapshot of just what it’s like for women in the music industry, this record’s spiritual centre is ‘Man from the Magazine’, taking aim at the sexism of journalists and dudes in music stores (while also claiming ownership of the C word).
- Badly Drawn Boy – Banana Skin Shoes
Badly Drawn Boy was a songwriting phenomenon back in the early 2000s, with a string of excellent albums and movie soundtracks. But following the relatively disappointing It’s What I’m Thinking (Pt. 1), Damon Gough has kept quiet since 2010 (with the exception of one soundtrack). Banana Skin Shoes represents quite a return to form with the signature songcraft and production attention to detail that first defined his talent. Gough trades best in the heartfelt and the nostalgic, reflecting on relationships past and present, musical antecedents and his beloved Manchester. And, in contrast to the previous downbeat offering of ten years ago, everything here is sparkling and upbeat – and presented with an arresting mix of sounds. Welcome back Badly Drawn Boy, you’ve been missed!
- Emma Donovan & the Putbacks – Crossover
The powerful soul of Emma Donovan’s vocals are back on display with Crossover, along with excellent instrumental backing from the Putbacks. There’s a lot of Motown to be heard across this record, but with some singing in indigenous language and Australian stories to tell, Crossover is also firmly rooted in Donovan’s own space. A consistently excellent record from start to finish.
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
For most of this year we have been denied the pure joy of musical performance. Into this context, Springsteen grants us a rock’n’roll album recorded live with the full E Street band. This comes close on the heels of the more measured Western Stars of 2019 (also making our best albums list), which was a west coast / country offering where Springsteen went it alone without the help of his celebrated backing band. With its acoustic finger-picking, the opening track of Letter to You tricks us into thinking the Boss is still in the same, intimate territory as last year, before unleashing the full E Street experience on track 2 and never looking back. Springsteen may be getting older (and he reflects on this in several songs here), but his work remains vital, attesting to the transformative power of music.
- Josh Pyke – Rome
Here is what Upside review Ken Grady had to say about the new album from this renowned Australian singer/songwriter: “During these strange and unnerving days of world empires in crisis it seems apt that Josh Pyke would call his latest album Rome. It’s an album of its time, imperiously rich in its sonic grandeur, and full of insightful philosophical reflections on mortality and exploring a world struggling to find a sense of equilibrium. There are no weak songs here.” Read the full review here.
- Midnight Oil – The Makarrata Project
The Oils return with a new record (styled as a seven-track mini-album) that’s quite different from anything they have done before. The iconic outfit always operated very much as a band, sharing songwriting royalties and always collaborating from within – but they never really invited any others in. That all changes with The Makarrata Project, where the reformed act combine with a range of indigenous artists to create a powerful piece based on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The first few tracks feel like classic Oils, while others, such as ‘Terror Australia’ (a final songwriting contribution from the late Bones Hillman) are unrecognisable. A more conventional band album is on the way in 2021, but this is an excellent re-introduction to one of our most important acts. And we can catch them in two very special WOMADelaide performances this March – details here!
- Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
Speaking of WOMADelaide, it seems so long ago now that we could sit on the grass in Adelaide Botanic Park and listen to the folk magic of Laura Marling. Song for Our Daughter is an intimate listening experience, with stripped back arrangements that draw our focus to Marling’s beautiful melodies and harmonies as she directs this work to an imaginary child.
- The Avalanches – We Will Always Love you
We thank the Avalanches for their love – and that the four year gap between albums two and three was only a fraction of the sixteen years of waiting for the second record. Inventive as always, the outfit delivers a unique mix of sounds, samples and production ideas, while making judicious use of collaborations.
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Kevin Parker has been doing Tame Impala since he was scarcely out of his teens (when I saw the act play to a mostly empty room at the now defunct Big Day Out). But now Parker is in his mid-thirties, has become parent and has conquered the world, winning countless awards in the process. Accordingly, Tame Impala continues to evolve, delivering one of the most polished works to date with The Slow Rush. The title is perhaps an apt representation of Parker’s meticulous approach to production craft that always seems to deliver the goods.
- Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts
Given her larger-than-life profile, it can be easy to forget just how good Miley Cyrus’ voice really is. And Plastic Hearts provides strong evidence that this voice is perhaps best showcased via rock music. There is still enough pop here, though, to keep long-term fans happy. The album highlight, ‘Midnight Sky’, borrows its sound from Stevie Nicks and lyrics from Springsteen – and Miley has the swagger to pull it all off.
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield has such a beautiful voice with a superb sense of melody, and this is served well by the honest and intimate songwriting on Saint Cloud, the fifth Waxahatchee album – a work that’s littered with lyrical observations that just stick with you. Musically, the record indicates a shift from her lo-fi indie material towards Americana while maintaining the integrity of the song-craft. This is a moving work with the capacity to be both solemn and hopeful.
- Rufus Wainwright – Unfollow the Rules
Rufus Wainwright has been busy with a number of projects over recent years (including ones that have brought him to Adelaide). But it’s been a while since his considerable skills in contemporary songwriting have been on display. Unfollow the Rules, therefore, marks a welcome return (of sorts) for one of the very best voices in the business. The pairing with Crowded House’s Mitchell Froom as producer works perfectly, making the most of the grand song arrangements.
- Violent Soho – Everything is A-OK
The Queensland band give us one of the year’s great rock records with Everything is A-OK. Things might not actually be A-OK right now, but on the upside, there has been some fantastic music like this to enjoy. While the band still rocks hard, they have also added a little more light and shade, which works to make this a highly accomplished effort. Also the film clip for ‘Pick it Up Again’ is, hands-down, the best video of 2020.
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Following on from her fine work on last year’s Better Oblivion Community Center album, Phoebe Bridgers returns with this solo work of stark beauty. Ruminating on disconnection and, at times, the traumatic, Punisher is not always an easily listen, but it’s an album that drawn the listener in and is perfectly suited to the times.
- Sparta – Trust the River
Sparta are back after a 14-year break, and with maturity comes a more restrained and measured offering than expected. Trust the River is, nevertheless, a great collection of songs that’s not afraid to mix genres and uses dynamics to excellent effect. This is more anthemic indie rock (with some nods to Americana) than the post-hardcore / prog-punk you might expect, but it really works.
- Kingswood – Juveniles
From Queen to Queens of the Stone Age, Kingswood wear their influences proudly on their sleeves. Juveniles is another fine record from the Melbourne rockers in a year where they put out three albums (adding an alt-country re-imagining of Juveniles and a surprisingly earnest Christmas album). Some of us were quite productive during lockdown!
- Beabadoebee – Fake It Flowers
A great 2020 find! Filipino-British singer / songwriter / guitarist Beabadoebee effortlessly channels 90s rock and makes it shiny and new again. She certainly knows how to wield a musical hook and also has the best moniker in the business.
Written by Matthew Trainor