This year might have been a substandard one for many of us, but it certainly wasn’t because of the music. Whether it was escapism to deal with an uncertain world, something to dance to through isolation, or the soundtrack to those cherished moments where we got to catch up with family and friends, there was something for every mood 2020 threw at us. This year saw some seasoned pros show that they can still do it as well as anyone, new faces owning the airwaves and Western Australian acts continuing to punch above their weight. These are the albums that X-Press writers chose as the highlights of their 2020:

20. Christian Lee Hutson Beginners

Los Angeles songwriter Christian Lee Hutson has been collaborating with Phoebe Bridgers since 2018. Bridgers produced this breakthrough record that finds the lanky and nerdy Hutson stripping things back to the bare essentials to let his delicate voice shine through. Much more folk-facing that his previous albums, Beginners set Hutson aside as one to watch.

19. Jay Electronica Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn)

Releasing his debut studio album, A Written Testimony, in March after an almost decade-long wait, the Jay Electronica faithful were slightly disheartened to find it wasn’t the mythical Act II album that had been teased all those years back. Yet just seven months and a crowd-funded internet leak later, the elusive project finally saw an official release. What was unveiled was a mystical celebration of hip hop’s artform, one that still sounds unlike much else that has been released since its shelved 2009 release date. At points, it barely resonates as a hip hop record, instead showing Jay’s distinctive ability to flow amidst the most obscure soundscapes and samples. It’s a minor miracle we ever got to hear these recordings, and seeing as it was abruptly removed from streaming platforms just last week, who knows if we ever will again.

18. The 1975 Notes on a Conditional Form

This ambitious release from The 1975 is a long, genre jumping journey that gives you a track for almost every mood, and features some of the band’s best work to date. Me & You Together Song and If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) are highlights, alongside People, which was a surprising side-step in a punk direction.

17. Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist Alfredo

The genre of hip hop may be ever-evolving, and blown wide open by social media, but Freddie Gibbs has stuck his ground. Gibbs combines the questionable morality of West Coast gangsta rap with the sultry and sophisticated production stylings of classic East Coast groups like Gang Starr. It doesn’t hurt any that he surrounds himself with the best producers in the industry. Alfredo may not be something new but it is something at its best – top-shelf gangsta rap with sophisticated beats and the kind of self-aware street-level commentary that makes you wonder whether this is glorifying the lifestyle or exposing it.

16. Hayley Williams Petals for Armor

Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams set a new expectation for solo departures with the career and soul defining Petals For Armor. From precise and experimental instrumentation to immense and jarring vulnerability, Williams strips bare and proves herself (as if it were even necessary) as one of the most well-rounded and inspiring musicians of a generation.

15. The Lemon Twigs Songs for the General Public

The D’Addario brothers make a case for themselves as the best “retro” band of the moment. This record spans all genres of 70s rock – rooted in power pop but with a heavy dose of glam, prog and psychedelia thrown in. It’s all churned up in the brothers’ magical blender to produce a scintillating musical frappé. Whereas previously The Lemon Twigs tackled too much, here they show a laser focus and deliver an album that has some of this year’s greatest rock songs, while not giving up their experimental edge.

14. Last Quokka Unconscious Drivers

Real and raw punk from right here in Perth that showed a lot of pretenders from the rest of the country up. Through a mixture of searing riffs and wry Aussie humour, the band were unafraid to reckon with the uncomfortable parts of the country’s history. Wake Up Geoff was a comical appraisal of the state of Australian politicians; Colony, unsurprisingly, was a fuming takedown of colonisation and British rule. If Last Quokka come by your way in 2021, make sure to witness their pointed punk where it belongs in a live setting.

13. Benee Hey U X

Young New Zealand star-on-the-rise Benee simply seems incapable of writing anything but irresistible pop hits. On top of the world beating anthems like Supalonely and Snail, her debut full-length showed a depth to her songwriting, bolstered by an A-List of guest appearances including Grimes, Lily Allen and Mallrat.

12. Ball Park Music Ball Park Music

The self-titled album by Ball Park Music demonstrated a shift away from their classic style and provided listeners with an eclectic and diverse track-list. Diving into emotional depths with this album proved a successful and adept move by the Australian band as they produced a heartfelt, visceral and complex record brimming with hit singles including Day and Age, Cherub and Head Like a Sieve.

11. Spacey Jane Sunlight

An emerging powerhouse in the Australian indie-pop scene, Spacey Jane’s long-awaited debut album demonstrated the four-piece’s penchant for crafting catchy melodies delivered with urgency and passion. Singles Booster Seat and Straightfaced rightly owned the airwaves this year, with the locals capturing youthful heartache in a way that is rarely so easy on the ears.

10. Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia

Sometimes the most popular is simply the best. In an era where hip hop leads the charts and a lot of pop is tinged with R&B, Dua Lipa took things back a decade with a slice of unabashedly fun pop tunes that owe more to disco, funk and Europop than anything else. A set of pop anthems that won’t soon be forgotten, the songwriting and production on Future Nostalgia makes for a flawless and inspired modern pop memento.

9. Bright Eyes Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

After nearly a decade on hiatus, Bright Eyes returned to capture the mood of 2020 perfectly with a turbulent, sometimes excessive album packed with so much drama that it was hard to look away. Despite all the grief and predictable gloom in the lyrics on the album, it still felt like a privilege viewing things through Conor Oberst’s fractured yet colourful collage of observation, where hope is always there to provide a vivid and necessary contrast.

8. Tame Impala The Slow Rush

Backing up an album as universally loved as Currents would be a daunting task for any musician, and yet Kevin Parker crafted a follow-up that not only delivered the psychedelic melodies that made the local act an international force, but combined them with maturity and thoughtfulness on a new level. The Slow Rush felt like a departure for Tame Impala in style but not in quality, enhancing Parker’s reputation as a musical genius for our time.

7. Run the Jewels RTJ4

It’s rare for a political record to enjoy commercial success, but El-P and Killer Mike broke through on RTJ4 with their first top 10 album in the U.S. Billboard 200. Crucially, this record was a fiery riposte to the despondent and desolate landscape that was their home country in 2020. Songs of thunder and revolution hit especially hard coming just weeks after the police murder of George Floyd, as arguably the finest hip hop pair since Outkast thankfully show no signs of slowing down.

6. The Weeknd After Hours

For many, After Hours was the soundtrack to the lockdown period. And what a fitting soundtrack it was. From the flashy synth-pop numbers such as Blinding Lights, to the swirling, pensive production of Snowchild, it was as if The Weeknd knew we’d be secluded in our own homes with these tracks cycling on repeat. Yet it wasn’t only an album fitting for 2020, it was the album we’d been waiting for since his genre-defining “Trilogy” era. After Hours is Tesfaye finally pinpointing the balance between the drug-induced narcissism of House of Balloons and the billboard-crushing pop prowess of Starboy, crafting a collection of songs beloved by critics and superfans alike. Despite what the Grammys will tell you, The Weeknd owned 2020 and After Hours will go down as one of the year’s saving graces.

5. Haim Women In Music Pt. III

It was a big year for the the Haim sisters who released a string of killer singles in the lead up to a third album that didn’t disappoint, also finding time to solidify their friendship with Taylor Swift along the way. Women In Music Pt III is bigger, bolder and brasher than previous efforts, without losing any of their offbeat humour and melodic chops. With each sister being blessed with a voice that could lead the band in its own right, three heads are certainly better than one!

4. The Strokes The New Abnormal

The New Abnormal wasn’t so much a comeback album as it was reminder of how good The Strokes have been all along. Whether it be the hypnotic drawl of To the Door, the strolling bass on The Adults are Talking, or the radio-ready bop of Bad Decisions, the band that set the agenda, and the standard, for guitar rock in the 21st century continue to lift the bar and surprise us.

3. Fiona Apple Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is ineffable; with Fiona Apple at her most charmingly poetic, critical, vulnerable and vengeful. An astounding yet not at all unexpected demonstration of why after all these years, Apple remains an inimitable force to be reckoned with.

2. Taylor Swift folklore

“I’m doing good/ I’m on some new shit.” From the very first line on folklore’s opener The 1, it was clear that we were encountering a side of Taylor Swift we hadn’t seen before. Amidst disputes with her record label and a global pandemic that kept her off the road, Swift stripped everything back to the essentials resulting in a record more honest, more delicate and somehow confident than anything she had put her hand to before. The stories, characters and melodies on this album are so vivid they’re sure to stay with listeners for a long time to come.

1. Phoebe Bridgers Punisher

It would be difficult to point out anyone whose star is rising at a greater rate than Phoebe Bridgers. After collaborations with Conor Oberst, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, Bridgers’ highly anticipated sophomore album Punisher was a product only made possible possible by the seemingly limitless factory of sadness at her disposal. When Bridgers’ voice breaks, you feel your heart breaking too, and the album’s centrepiece I Know The End felt like an anthem through the pandemic.

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