The AU Review’s 20 best albums of 2020 (so far…)

2020 has surely been a weird year, and you’d be forgiven for being a bit taken aback when we remind you that we’re halfway through it already. Since at least mid-March, many have largely been in lockdown, economies have threatened collapse, bushfires have devastated, systemic racism has been confronted head-on, and we have been rightfully tasked with asking existential questions about modern history and how to reconcile that with the need for change. It’s been a complicated six months, and as always, music has been with us every step of the way.

Lucky for us then, that there has been some incredible records released this year, from the return of stately poet Bob Dylan and the triumph of a fully-realised Fiona Apple, to a soft ghostly wail eminating from the Faroe Islands and the makings of a pop legend. Below, you’ll find the AU review’s top 20 albums, hopefully capturing the scope of just how much good music has been released so far.

20. Hayley Mary | The Piss, The Perfume

As the debut from the dynamic frontwoman of The Jezebels, The Piss, The Perfume is as brilliant a solo showcase we could have hoped for from the reliable Hayley Mary. Though it’s only five songs, there’s more than enough content in that short runtime to remind us just how diverse and brilliant her musicianship is.

Check out our full review of the project here.

19. Heiðrik | Illusions

Ethereal and often so painfully heart breaking it should come with a warning, Illusions has the kind of contemplative palate that could only be born on somewhere as remote as the Faroe Islands. Isolation flows throughout this project, subtle and always soulful as Heiðrik follows his 2016’s widely acclaimed Funeral with an even stronger performance.

18. Yumi Zouma | Truth or Consequences

New Zealand’s Yumi Zouma continue their exploration of expressive dream pop all throughout the wonderful Truth or Consequences. Although they aren’t straying too far from what we’ve known in the past, it’s hard to deny just how good they are at building rich, realised worlds brimming with sentimentality and the kind of optimism which violently rips the listener from an era in which it’s much easier to be nihilistic.

17. Jeremy Neale | We Were Trying to Make It Out

The energy coursing through each cut on We Were Trying to Make It Out is at odds with Jeremy Neale’s lyrical content, yet the marriage works brilliantly as he muses on uncertainty and existentialism. As his solo career ventures deeper into pop, Neale turns in some of his finest, and most interesting, work to date.

Read our interview with Jeremy Neale here.

16. Thundercat | It Is What It Is

It’s become somewhat of a requisite to mention Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly when writing about Thundercat. Stephen Bruner’s proximity to the 2015 hit is often used as evidence of his shape-shifting talent, but his output since is strong enough to stand on its own, without any name-drops. It Is What It Is is proof enough of that, echoing Thundercat’s uncanny ability to string together so many disparate styles and still manage to keep it focused and steady. Each song here is as inventive as anything he’s put out in the past, and that’s more than enough to position it as one of the year’s best records.

15. Jack Garratt | Love, Death and Dancing

On Love, Death and Dancing, Jack Garratt takes us on a personal journey of self-acceptance, absorbing listeners into his mind with vivid imagery and diverse soundscapes. You can clearly see the darkness this album comes from, enveloping and suffocating at first but liberating and at times irresistibly playful. What Jack Garratt has done here reflects the depth of his artistry, and his willingness to allow us to see him flourishing as he digs deep and bears his soul.

Read our full review of the album here.

14. Josef Salvat | modern anxiety

When London-based Sydney artist Josef Salvat helps a friend out with addiction he really involves you in the moment. When he’s out in the sunshine, he makes sure you feel the rays beaming down upon your skin. There’s a texture and quality of this pop artist’s voice that instantly draws you deep into the album’s contemplative soundscape.

You can read our full review here.

13. Donny Benet | Mr Experience

Is sleep the new sex? Donny Benet is certainly suave enough to convince us of the new fact on Mr Experience, an endlessly charming collection of deep grooves and enlivened 80’s disco accents. The Australian multi-instrumentalist does his best to rebuild vintage Miami Vice, highlighting the synth as the most violent and potent of all instruments, one capable of convincing us that that mouldy piece of aged cheddar is actually lush Siberian caviar.

12. Tame Impala | The Slow Rush

The deep-soaking technicolour environment Kevin Parker draws his might from is all over The Slow Rush, but there’s something more polished about it that separates the album from previous Tame Impala releases. With the album hinged on the concept of time, it feels appropriate that it also sounds like the production of time. Time spent collaborating with various artists over the years, dabbling in sounds from hip-hop to house and bringing them back to interpret them in his own unique way. It’s the multitude of influence that ends up strengthening The Slow Rush, validating the patience of Tame Impala’s considerable fandom with a project that feels as highly considered as a perfectionist’s will, but as spontaneous as a dramatic and carefully chosen hip hop sample.

11. Jaguar Jonze | Diamonds & Liquid Gold

From it’s bond-esque title track to the scintillating “Kill Me With Your Love”, Jaguar Jonze has managed to turn in a highly complex, cerebral package with dense soundscapes and a constant beat of urgency and chaos. Although it’s only an EP, Diamonds & Liquid Gold is big enough to easily best most studio albums this year, reiterating Deena Lynch’s strong grip on how to construct engaging, memorable tunes.

10. Moses Sumney | græ

The mood changes so much on this two-disc stunner from Moses Sumney that it’s almost impossible to pick out the high-point. It’s the biggest, most boundless project the North Carolina artist has ever put his name to, drawing energy from a formidable roundtable of guests like Jill Scott, Thundercat and FKJ and channelling that into an idiosyncratic whole.

9. Caribou | Suddenly

The one where Caribou masters the art of brevity. It’s often taken far longer for Dan Snaith to build wrap you in the atmosphere of his consistently warm and welcoming pieces, but with Suddenly it seems that the acclaimed Canadian artist doesn’t need to be nearly as patient with his own material. The songs in this incredibly rewarding package are sharper than his usual forays into audio hypnotics, reflecting an astute understanding of how to involve the listener without ensnaring them with crescendos and slow-burns.

8. Northeast Party House | Shelf Life

Working with The Presets’ Kim Moyes has given Northeast Party House the turn they needed to launch completely and whole-heartedly into a pulsating, party-minded medley of nightclubs, house parties and late nights. Following a form of raucous, stadium-ready beats, the shape-shifting band still manage to turn in spacious and vulnerable material that betrays all those fiery choruses and dirty basslines for quieter, more intimate moments. It’s a thrilling listen from end-to-end and is one of their finest records to date.

You can read our review here.

7. Medhane | Cold Water

The steady re-blend of off-kilter New York mafiaso rap over lo-fi production bested by the likes of Ka and Roc Marciano is very much alive all throughout the brilliant Cold Water from Brooklyn emcee Medhane. Through the dizzying free-association lyrics, this incredibly focused rapper maintains the slickness of Big Daddy Kane and the wordplay of Kool G Rap, reaching back to pioneers and bringing back the kind of wisdom and skill the art was built on. It’s not only an overdue slap for anyone who dares use the irrelevant and cringe-inducingly out-of-touch phrase “old head”, it’s an assured expression of knowledge and action from one of the East Coast’s most promising voices.

6. Bob Dylan | Rough and Rowdy Ways

Not that there was any doubt one of the greatest songwriters of all time still had it in him, but Rough and Rowdy Ways is a surprisingly big album for such a veteran. Dylan is as coherent as he has ever been while he reaches ambitiously into the well of modern history and reimagines, recounts and reassembles stories with wit and a singular ability to make the macabre sound charming. If there was any doubt that Bob Dylan could successfully sustain a 17-minute song about the course of modern American politics, sit down, turn on “Murder Most Foul” and watch as he expertly turns a history book into a pure poetry.

5. Laura Marling | Song For Our Daughter

Full of enigmatic characters and poignant laments, Song For Our Daughter has Laura Marling using her comforting vocals to protest us from herself, gently coddling the listener while singing of profound pain and powerlessness. Such an ethereal voice can be a dangerous thing at times, especially when coupled with the kind of songwriting that stings far more than she realises. Marling has always had a special knack for teasing out deeper emotions, and it’s clear she’s only gotten better at it.

4. Run The Jewels | RTJ4

Fist held high, Killer Mike and El-P stomp across what is easily their best album to date. There’s no mistaking how powerful Run The Jewels have become when their slamming this hard, making even the most potent of hardcore hip hop look like it was produced by a bunch of skittle-haired copycats.

3. Waxahatchee | Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield has created a modern classic in the world of folk. Five albums in, and the artist widely known as Waxahatchee has never sounded more engaged and focused, zoning in on the kind of clear and uncluttered sound that leaves enough room for her to truly showcase how strong of a songwriter she has become.

2. Fiona Apple | Fetch The Bolt Cutters

The precision of Fiona Apple’s lyrics has always been the recipe of her tremendous success in the music industry. Her cogent, pragmatic songwriting and unwavering dedication to detail has long been admired by peers and fans alike, and on Fetch The Bolt Cutters it has never been more obvious that Apple is in a league of her own. The unpredictable musicianship, from found-sounds to oddly shaped riffs, seems to reflect Apple’s steady control over her own performance. Where previous material may have indulged in chaos, the legendary artist has never sounded more at peace with herself, even when dealing with trauma and resentment.

1. Perfume Genius | Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Mike Hadreas’s experimental pop has reached a point of grandeur few would have expected based on his previous material. While there’s never a dull moment of Perfume Genius’ decades-long discography, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately exposes how constrained he was. This new record is what true artistic freedom sounds like, brilliantly choreographed by a staggering list of collaborators (including Blake Mills, who also produced his prior work) all working together as Hadreas discovers new dimensions to his remarkable voice. The urgency of the album’s title is not just for show; Perfume Genius has simply never sounded more vital than now.

Honourable Mentions:

Sondre Lerche “Patience”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “Reunions”
Sports Team “Deep Down Happy”
Party Dozen “Pray for Party Dozen”
Brian Fallon “Local Honey”
Annie Hamilton “Annie Hamilton EP”
Mac Miller “Circles”
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever “Sideways to New Italy”
Orkesta Mendoza “Curandero”
Michael Dunstan “In The Grand Scheme”

List chosen by Chris Singh, Larry Heath, Simon Clark and Dylan Marshall.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.