Drowned in Sound’s 50 Favourite Albums of 2020
The records that were stuck on repeat on our ghost-ship.
Welcome to our annual guide to some albums Drowned in Sound recommends from the year gone by.
Firstly, this isn’t a staff poll nor a traditional “best” “top” list. This is more a summation of the records I’ve listened to most in this year of isolation and collective grief, rage, and disbelief…
Wait! Who’s this? Hi, I’m Sean, who founded DiS twenty years ago and now the lone voice of the site (now a newsletter - subscribe below to get a weekly album recommendation from me), its monthly radio show (listen here), playlist compiler (bookmark our best of 2020 playlist here), and keeping the hugely popular forums online (join in here).
As ever with our year-end coverage, I really hope you find something to love from this selection of records... that’s the point of these lists isn’t it?
Before we begin, one caveat… in a year that’s felt like everything was afire, many of us have been in search of safety flames and a balm for the burn. If year-end lists elsewhere are anything to go by, ambient music has really soothed many of us, and as you’ll see from this list, I’m no different. “Mood” has played a major part in my listening habits (and obsessions!). There are definitely some records I’ve admired like newies from Deftones and Run the Jewels, that I just haven’t found the right frame of mind to dive into, and this list kinda reflects that.
Anyway, with apologies to people who prefer their lists as a countdown, let’s - deep sigh - go!
1) Gia Margaret - Mia Gargaret
There’s no fire in the belly of this, just the freshly-baked warmth of its plaited-pastry heart. It’s a record that’s hard to shout about because loudness feels anathema to it, but here goes…
When eulogising about it to friends, I’ve been describing Gia Margaret’s second album as having the pale blues and the wooze of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s incredible soundtrack.
The body of the record (and that Jon Brion score) is a loosely-stitched patchwork of undulating synths, flickering melodies, and glistening, half-sunken Sparklehorse-y pianos.
Music often inhabits these familiar, barely-lit filmscapes in the cinemas of our minds (at least it does in mine). As a “music critic” in the whoosh of the attention economy, these collective touch points are helpful for tugging some horses to water but what they can’t do is colour in a silhouette.
However, shorthand comparisons and long fingers pointing toward a familiar landscape don’t begin to do justice to this almost voiceless follow-up to There’s Always Glimmer, a debut that sung you to a place of wonder.
Mia Gargaret has a genuine magic. Not because of any sleight of hand or obfuscation of the truth, but because it feels like slowly putting on a cloak of invisibility. Its real trick is how it leaves magnificent spaces for your imagination to stretch into. And for the finale, if you listen enough, there’s the illusion of hope beginning to bloom.
Perhaps this is a year of isolation speaking but throughout the album there’s the sound of healing in a room. It’s houseplants cleaning your air. It is afternoon naps dredging up grainy memories of worms being chopped in half but still wriggling.
Rather than a film score, it’s the perfect soundtrack to hanging over the end of your bed, planes gliding across the sky.
Mia Gargaret is humble and gentle music that slowly makes you feel a little less invisible with every spoken word sample blown along by little gusts of synth.
Take it for a walk in the winter sun and I promise you it’ll slowly make something happen behind your mask... it’s called a smile, remember those?!
2) Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor
Late night, sad snacks from vending machines: a silhouette cranes down and is photographed with a little film grain for the gram. Keep scrolling. There’s a 15 second video collage of road signs blurring out of focus as they drift by. Pinks and blues and red-orange-whatever hues become bokeh dots and lens flares as your heels drag from one grey afternoon to another twilit morning. Mattress to chair to sofa, and back again...
There’s a certain neon-lit melancholy to the modern worlds we’ve constructed and it’s within this club-to-hotel-tub of nocturnal numbness, phones lighting up our faces, that Hayley Williams writhes and her music thrives.
As she tosses and turns, our saviour for the broken, the beaten and the damned kicks up a cloud of glitter from the shadows on this collection of red-eyed Pop. They’re ear worms gnawing at your brain stem as you stare into the middle distance. Glistening jewels in a dark-dark-dark cave.
Synths and drum machines may bubble up but rather than make you slow dance on autopilot, they’re songs that retrace steps, wishing everything would rewind in slow motion. The rolling waves of bass and restless drum grooves often feel like a friend shoving your shoulders to make your body dance - your limbs joining a Weekend at Bernie’s-style conga-line. Rather than Robyn-y sad-bangers that become euphoric^ or a Phoenix ditty that puts LA Gear lights in your heels, throughout Petals for Armor there’s this feeling of snuffed candles. As the smoke trails spiral and wick-ember fades, you’re left with that familiar aroma of lonely baths and lovers of yore.
That’s not to say it’s a miserable record by any means. For instance, there’s a moment where the depths of the Daughter-ish ‘Why We Ever’ gives way to ‘Pure Love’ with a Jessie Ware air-kiss of a chorus, and you feel yourself rising out of the half-pipe of sadness, only to 720° spin back in as ‘Taken’ falls away to a spacious verse. It’s these glints of levity that’s part of the album’s moreishness.
Petals For Armor is a record riddled with a familiar ennui (that’s a grown up word for “emo”, kids) of the shaken and stirred emotions that are ‘very relatable’ to anyone who’s ridden the unicorn of grief with a sullen smirk and a barely raised fist for far longer than they intended... And it’s for all these reasons and more that this is one of the most perfect albums of the 21st century.
^ = ‘Sugar on the Rim’ is pretty euphoric tbf, and it feels like this year’s most perfect sad-disco anthem that will likely have been stuck on repeat for anyone who adored Kylie’s ‘Slow’ or Kelis’ ‘Acapella’.
3) Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter
The decision to release this early, as the world felt like it was slowly imploding was smart but hardly surprising given the oracle-like understanding of the human spirit contained within all of Laura Marling’s work to date. She knew we needed it.
It’s the insight of someone drawing on past lives that rides in the front seat of her seventh album. This knowledge feels simultaneously everyday and exhumed from lost civilisations. Like great literature, the lyrics feel like truths that are universal and timeless, which is perhaps befitting of a year when our individual and collective perception of time stretched and folded into a muddle of confusion like never before.
This record is the perfect companion for that moment when your heart becomes a blue wisp of smoke. It’s a collection of songs that leave you buoyant, floating, and lost at sea... It stares you in the eye, giving you bad news, but the way it’s done is so glorious that you don’t truly begin to process what’s being said.
Everything about Song For Our Daughter is extraordinary: the songwriting and Marling’s voice (still ponds filled with quivering swans), the delicious use of expletives, the reflections upon words unsent, the half-spoken moments leaning on the third wall, the mulch of memories...
The one constant, the acoustic guitar, combines with the intricate nest of words in such a way that each strum begins to leave another paper cut reminder of lives unlived, of nullified agreements, village secrets, everlasting hope in early morning light, and too few promises kept.
Mostly, it’s a record of towering songs that are nourishing and restorative; an open sandwich in a land of soup.
4) I Break Horses - Warnings
Warnings has a desaturated gloom. A feeling of colour rushing from you and filling the sky. Its long halls of reverb and empty spaceships of delay somehow encapsulates the stillness you get before a panic attack and that calm as you faint.
It’s probably 2020 dysphoria talking but this was my soundtrack to being an onlooker to everyday tragedies but being too locked in and trapped in a cage of emotions to change the rhythm. And yet what might sound like a heavy record, ends up strangely euphoric as the drones lengthen and rhythms cascade.
At times, it’s a record that luxuriates in wondering what if you had wandered up a crumbling path to a parallel world. A place that’s now just out of reach.
In almost any other year, this would be my album of the year and it was definitely my salvation for many weeks of it. Maybe the only reason it isn’t top of the tree is because the 500% slowed grooves matched my mood almost too well... and I wish it didn’t resonate so deeply.
5) Agnes Obel - Myopia
There’s a pitch bending backing-vocals-as-alien-instrument thing that The Knife and Fever Ray often deploy that I can’t get enough of. These electronic hinterlands sit wonderfully adrift from Agnes Obel’s soaring voice that rises from her whirlpool compositions.
For the most part, you could describe the strings and glorious pianos of Myopia as a soundtrack to the dance of mythical creatures. It’s also a record with its own weather system and gravity. A place where clocks stop and dead fish rise from the murky waters. And yet, when this pandemic is over, I’m still going to want a one way ticket to the ‘Island of Doom’, which I presume is an uninhabited 20 metres of dirt in the middle of a mountainous Fjord.
6) Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Can not put it into words.
How about: Hollywood sigh, Pinkyoto-ton (lulz), obsessional listening, creaks, quagmire, quick sand, swamp of sadness, osmosis, gracefully swerves brass bandcamp, our smeared initials in still drying cement, childhood ceilings covered in stars, trash fires on the horizon, (femme) fetal on assorted bedroom floors, 6am paper rounds gently pedalling up a never ending hill, headphones on, hum along, the same 3 songs over and over, reversed guitars circling clogged drains, sunburst missing posters, empty showrooms, pelicans, strings, another intake of breath... heater on, windows down, then the wunderkind whispers, and howls, viscerally, at the end.
For the billboard: “An album of a year, just wish it wasn’t this one.” Or as former DiS contributor Anna Byrne perfectly put it: “it makes you nostalgic for memories that aren’t yours.”
7) Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders
Harps that stop time. Harps that lift lily pads to reveal a friendly crocodile.
Produced by Slowdive’s Neil Halstead, the pair have created the perfect aural antidote to the year that wasn’t.
I have a tendency to prefer knowing nothing about instrumental records so I can form my own worlds from them. In writing this AotY blurb, I’ve done my duty and read up about this album. In doing so, I discovered the LA-based harpist recorded it in Cornwall, in winter. The desolation of a seaside town that’s pretty much closed down and ravaged by Atlantic storms is something only locals usually see. Yet, I can now hear Halstead’s grey sky guitars ominously shadowing changing seas where even the biggest waves of harp have a grace.
8) Julianna Barwick - Healing Is A Miracle
This ambient sound sculptor has always had a knack for making records that plume and sound as if there’s a cathedral inside your skull. With Barwick’s latest album, it’s more of a full out of body experience. You may find yourself sliding into an emerald fissure or when Jonsi from Sigur Ròs arrives, inside an igloo atop a mountain.
As the title suggests, this is - and don’t let this S-word put you off - spiritual music. Whilst it may sound like Barwick’s singing in tongues, this isn’t some record for the elf-curious nor people who eat nothing but bark. It’s an album that if you let it, will seep into your corner of the universe and remind you to crane the very core of your being.
9) Perfume Genius - Set Fire To My Heart Immediately
Like an oil puddle rainbow, it shimmers. He shimmies. Hope seems to be a waking dream. It simmers. Elongates. Reverberates. You’re cradled by sumptuous arrangements, whilst sadness slow dances in the shadows.
There are glimmers that you can’t quite discern. Björk? Eno’s ambient chambers? Soap&Skin? Zola Jesus? John Grant’s molten disco? There’s a sensation of the weight of the world being lifted and, just for a moment, the pins and needles leave you frozen. It’s murmurations of doves scattering to the four corners, bright white wings flapping gracefully against an ominous sky. It’s some kind of wonderful.
10) Moses Sumney - græ
Somewhere between James Blake remixing Whitney, Gaika producing Brittany Howard, and Rufus Wainwright & Janelle Monáe singing to the apocalyptic dawn light. An overflowing goblet of harmonies with a splash of blood and patchouli oil. Let this erupt all over you.
11) Juanita Stein - Snapshot
Good grief... is there such a thing? Snapshot has that unexpected warmth that bubbles up at a wake. It’s a record that contains gently rising waves of kindness amongst the cold fug of mortality. Juanita’s at the top of her game on all fronts, and tracks like ‘Hey Mama’ will crack your heart before smooshing it back together.
12) Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Swinging from a chandelier that could fall at any moment, Fiona Apple looks on as a party descends into a civil war. As she dangles, precariously, each rimshot punctuates vivid tales of raw and roaring days gone by. These ideas of delightful and evil people seem so vivid as they blur into focus before a limb brushes their traces away.... or rather, it’s another masterclass in songwriting and sisterhood from a modern master.
At times, it’s a lot. You’re going to need to take a seat the table. Pull up a chair. Wait, not there, that’s Shameika’s throne...
13) Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini - Illusion of Time
In the static there’s a face. No, it’s a car. No, left a bit, squint a bit, wait, is it tuning into th… woah…
Daniel Avery released two of the albums of the year but this one with Alessandro from Nine Inch Nails was the bath I kept longing to clamber into.
At the right volume, everything pulses as synths surge and disperse. When the tension releases, well, it’s like that moment when you realise you’ve been clenching your jaw for weeks. (Yes, you should also unclench your jaw, now.)
14) Sarah Davachi - Cantus, Descant
There’s a certain texture to some ambient albums that can devour you. The long, slow fog horn of an organ that opens this record (one of 3 she released this year) makes everything pause. In a year many of us spent indoors, Davachi has created an inner vista to truly get lost in.
15) The Big Moon - Walking Like We Do
If self-care needed an official soundtrack, The Big Moon have written it. It sounds like a paracetamol for our feverish souls featuring some of the classiest, warm breeziest, riffiest, most sulk-stompingest songs of twenty-twenty-eh-eh-eh.
16) Polly Scattergood - In This Moment
You wake up in a black room and lights from synths flicker. You’re not sure if you’ve been kidnapped or arrived at a surprise party. Meanwhile, Polly Scattergood manages to mix ominous and sinister with an intimacy that feels almost too close for comfort.
17) Kate NV - Room for The Moon
A paradise of satisfying wood, brass and synth textures. A little like someone renovated Eno & Byrne’s My Life In A Bush of Ghosts... but it ends up more like a robot made of ancient oak living in a VR lodge. That’s a very good thing.
18) Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts V: Together & Ghosts VI: Locusts
If 2020 didn’t already feel like living in an episode of Black Mirror, Trent Reznor released more parts to the film score to your life’s strife. And it was beautifully bleak. Obvs.
19) Princess Nokia - Everything is Beautiful
Just can’t get enough of the restless spirit in these staring into the fridge meditations on the endless scroll of modern life set to party beats. If there was any justice, Princess Nokia would have had a Lizzo moment at Glastonbury this summer but alas...
20) Angel Olsen - Whole New Mess
To take some of the gorgeousity of All Mirrors and char its edges, fray its seams, throw its strings in the river and distort its vision, may seem like a destructive act. However, no matter how many times you cook, deep freeze it and re-fry it, everything Angel Olsen’s voice touches ends up having a Michelin star. A majesty. A serpentine splendour... Raw and well done, Whole New Mess has an air of Roy Orbison making a record in a studio powered by lightning. Hot mics and distortion pedals seemingly covered in warm tears and spilt Rioja just adds to the tesla-coil energy.
21) Jehnny Beth - To Love Is To Live
“A full mood” as the kidz say, sprawling from numb to menacing. Transmutations of Army of Me’s spoken fury and I’m Afraid of American’s exaltations. A sonic feast that’ll pin you down leaving you waiting for a headbutt or a kiss and getting both in quick succession.
If you’ve not seen it, here’s Jehnny’s TV show for ARTE:
29 More Albums
In no particular order, these are more records I really enjoyed but given my obsessions with the above, didn’t spend as much time with. Thought if you had head all of the above, a few of these would be worth dipping into.
Torres - Silver Tongue
Anna Von Hausswolff - All Thoughts Fly
Jessy Lanza - All The Time
Kehlani - It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Max Richter - VOICES (Full disclosure: I’ll be working with Max next year, so it felt weird write about how much I love this record)
Catherine Anne Davies & Bernard Butler - In Memory of My Feelings (keep an eye out for Catherine’s album as The Anchoress in 2021)
Deftones - Ohms
Caroline Rose - Superstar
Yves Tumor - Heaven To A Tortured Mind
Emily A. Sprague - Hill, Flower, Fog
Run the Jewels - RTJ4
HEALTH - DISCO4::PART 2
Lanterns on the Lake - Spook The Herd
Sylvan Esso - Free Love
Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud
Bright Eyes - Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Sorry - 925
The 1975 - Notes On A Conditional Form
HMLTD - West of Eden
Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song
Noveller - Arrow
Soccer Mommy - Color Theory
Sondre Lerche - Patience
Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans
Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension
Sault - Untitled (Black Is)
Annie - Dark Hearts
Keaton Henson - Monument
Hilary Woods - Birthmarks
Thank you if you read to the end. You can discuss this list, if you so wish, on our forums here.
All that’s left to say is a very merry listmas to one and all. Here’s to more great records in 2021.