#5EUK Top 20 Albums of 2020 (20-11)
Here we are, ladies & gentlemen. We have made it to the end. Just over the horizon is a new year and hopefully more blessings.
Whilst the year 2020 can be described with many a word, the music output has been an interesting one. This year has had a healthy diet of great work, mainstream & underground, up-and-coming. But for me personally, there has been work that I have liked, enjoyed, very worthy of praise.
But none have been on the level of my Top 5 from last year where I can genuinely say I'll love those records forever. Whereupon first spin they either ripped my heart out, got me floating, headbanging or all three. Maybe that's due to my listening diet. Maybe I need to relax a little and learn to sit with projects more.
Whatever the reason is, it has, funny enough, made this year's Top 20 the hardest to rank. It was so hard that I originally wanted to keep the list at 15 but there were too many amazing projects missing out, so like a weakling, I caved and stretched to 20.
So I guess while last year was very top-heavy for me, this list is much more consistent in (subjective) quality. Of which, I am very grateful for.
So without further ado, let's begin with 20-11!
20. Shingai - Too Bold
We begin with British-Zimbabwean vocalist/bassist Shingai (pronounced Shin-GHY, not Shin-GUY, as I have embarrassingly been saying for all this time.) who has been very quiet for nearly a decade. With the last Noisettes album being in 2012, I personally forgot about how great Shingai is.
But in some way, the hiatus was a blessing in disguise, because when I got word that Shingai was dropping her debut solo album "Too Bold", I went into it with practically no expectations. I didn't know what to expect and I wanted to go in completely blank. I didn't spin any Noisettes, I didn't even spin her singles.
With that, all said, "Too Bold" is liberating. The freeness that Shingai emotes through her performance, the lyrics, the themes & production comes through with such force. It feels like an album that the artist wanted to make. You know how sometimes you listen to an album and there's something about it that seems forced? Or it doesn't fit? This is the opposite of that. By every metric. The authenticity is front & centre.
The African-based production throughout is wonderful, Shingai's range is silly and she somehow has this ability, on a track like "South London Safari", to smoothly go from her traditional singing to her London accent, it just gives the album that personal flavour.
Hopefully, I'm not overstretching when I say this is quintessential Shingai. By that I mean, if you want to know who she is and what she cares about, "Too Bold" is the first place you should go to.
Favourite Tracks: South London Safari, Too Bold, War Drums
19. Sa-Roc - The Sharecropper's Daughter
There was a time a few years ago where I made it a personal mission to listen to more females in Hip-Hop. At that point in time, I was finally getting comfortable with where I was listening to Hip-Hop, after a few years of playing catch up, (and I still am) I finally felt good.
But as we all know, getting comfortable means you're not testing yourself. So I realised that my diet lacked the female voice.
Amongst the many I looked up, one that stuck out to me was Sa-Roc. I always find it fascinating discovering someone who has been dropping heat for a while (For Sa-Roc, since 2010 but she's been rapping since '02.) and somehow, I had to discover her first hand.
And whilst I sometimes feel sad about that fact, I'm fully aware that not everyone can have their moment immediately, sometimes you got to build in the dark and Sa-Roc, along with her long-time producer Sol Messiah, have built something truly worth attention.
"The Sharecropper's Daughter" is an album with so much passion, so much ferocity and a body of work that makes me proud as someone that has been listening to her for a few years. The personal anecdotes of songs like the title track with Ledisi & "Forever" pose as pillars to the rest of the album where Sa-Roc just goes in with her MC craft. Going bar-for-bar with the likes of Styles P & Black Thought is no mean feat, but Roc just bosses it.
The Sol Messiah beats are of such great taste, but knowing that these two are basically one mind creatively at this point, just gives everything a bespoke quality. They were for this album & just this album. I hope this is a flashpoint for Sa-Roc and you guys start to recognise her top-tier skills.
Favourite Tracks - Something Real, The Sharecropper's Daughter, Dark Horse
18. The Leonard Simpson Duo - LSD
In a globetrotting partnership, Detroit veteran MC Guilty Simpson and producer hailing from New Zealand, Leonard Charles team up for an album I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed upon listening a couple more times!
Whilst I haven't tried LSD myself, the first thing you gauge from this album is Charles' production that just doesn't want to relax. Whilst you get these off-kilter beats, they somehow ride between being dark/Grimey but also have a lightness to them. Analog, but also digital. It's sometimes unnerving but one thing it doesn't do is be uninteresting.
And then we have Guilty Simpson, whose deep vocals and authentic lyrics, whilst doesn't explicitly talk about the LSD-style of the project's sonics, provides a safe place that kind of holds your hand through the project as everything around you goes into a tailspin. Talking classic Guilty Simpson rap ish, sounding like a corner of his lip is pinned to the top of his gums.
The two styles of these two are one of those things that really shouldn't match, but somehow it does and makes for a replayable listen where you'll catch something new every time.
Favourite Tracks: My Inspiration, Friends, Nobody.
17. DEACON - Polaroid Nudes
It's been a couple of years since I first interviewed #FriendOf5E DEACON. And something that I gleaned from him the first time I saw him, which was when he supported Akala in Southampton's Engine Rooms, was that he has a flair for performance.
It's something you don't fully see until you see him live, but just know it's borderline theatrical.
But with that knowledge, and then interviewing him again during the first Lockdown in mid-April, I realised that performance for him is merely a tool. The real USP that DEACON has, is his range of picture painting with words.
"Polaroid Nudes", in one word, is meditative. The majority of songs are ones of storytelling and great storytelling at that. You will be hard-pressed not to relate to at least one of these tracks. Themes of relationships & internal growth come through often in different skins & situations.
But zooming out, I love DEACON's ability to reflect. The introspection in this project is so unique. And the production, mostly done by frequent collaborator Freemonk, sets understated but emotional tones for every track and always serve as an assistant to the DEACON lyrics. He's not afraid to end the track as the bad guy, the way he raps is how he sounds day-to-day. Nothing is forced and everything is worth hearing again and again.
Favourite Tracks: "tomika, pt.1", "family.", "blue papers."
16. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
Five years since the excellent "Blood" came out and after clearly living some life, Lianne La Havas comes through with a self-titled album that was apparently a day 1 decision for her.
And with all the time passed, Lianne La Havas does it again, cementing her place as one of the best singer-songwriters the UK has to offer. (With a Hall of Fame smile to match.)
This self-titled is so nice to listen to. Her ability to just change register mid-word ("Read My Mind" for example) is so satisfying and frankly, gives me goosebumps. It's so easy to just get lost in her voice and not even clock what she is actually saying. But when you eventually listen to the lyrics, you hear a woman allowing things to be imperfectly perfect.
The album splits into two halves, internal lessons and then taking those lessons out to the world. In the middle of it all, is "Weird Fishes", a Radiohead cover. Whilst it initially went over my head and honestly jarred me when I first listened, I now understand why she threw a song like that in the middle.
The inspirations of 90s/00s R&B with her own personal flavour and good 'ol guitar-led numbers just make this album worthy of being a self-titled album. Like reading one long diary entry from a friend you haven't linked up with in a while. A breath of fresh air.
Favourite Tracks: Bittersweet, Read My Mind, Sour Flower
15. Marlowe - Marlowe 2
1 Producer-1 MC albums are having a renaissance in recent years. Everyone is starting to recognise how great it can be to have two people that are great in their respective crafts can mould gold.
Marlowe, comprised of two North Carolina talents L'Orange & Solemn Brigham, is a concept, now in its sequel, all about, as explained on the 1st Marlowe album:
"... the fictional protagonist’s search for the truth towards different ends. His crimes are existential yet specific, rooted in the injustices of the past and the attempt to redress them in the present. He’s an artist perennially seeking something to fight for, channelling energy from the music of the civic rights era, stealing timeless rhythms and inflection from classic funk and soul."
Now I actually didn't know about the first Marlowe album before I got into the second, but regardless of that, this album is so damn unique.
Starting with L'Orange, his production style comprises of, but not limited to, very classic Jazz samples, mixed with top tier Hip-Hop beat making. The hits on every track just catch that sweet spot when you're listening. But the thing that makes this album pop is his use of vintage radio broadcasts. They're never too long, but they just help create this vivid world, gives it that time-travelling feel.
Which brings me to Brigham who is firstly, highly underrated. Where the hell is the love for this guy?! Secondly, he is the colour to fill in the L'Orange line outs. I mean that in the most literal way because the way Brigham just flips his flow at nearly every possible chance is something to marvel. His pocket hunting is absurd. Not even mentioning the dense lyrical ability and pitch change. The dude is the full package.
This album is incredibly dense, as you would imagine from a record under the Mello Music Group, but the difference here is that the whole thing is very memorable. When I played this again after not listening to it for a couple of months, I was surprised at how quickly I remembered everything!
High-quality Hip-Hop, with a concept & world, that, at this point, seems endless.
Favourite Tracks: Small Business, Paydirt, O.G. Funk Rock
14. Zara McFarlane - Songs of an Unknown Tongue
I can't believe it has taken me until this album for me to discover Zara McFarlane. What a freaking gem this woman is.
On the face, you see a Jazz/Soul singer that has been valued highly for the past decade amongst her circles and has worked with many Jazz artists I have also listened for the first time this year.
But looking deeper, using this album only, is someone that commands the ear in ways that some artists just simply cannot with me. Regardless if you know what she's singing about specifically, her raw talent is more than enough.
And for "Songs of an Unknown Tongue", it gains more depth as every track passes. From the celebration of Black-British womanhood in "Black Treasure", to the consistent theme of water in tracks "Broken Water & "Saltwater", (which is convenient since some of this album makes me feel I'm floating in the water.) all wrapped in an Electronic-infused Jazz soundscape, rooted in Jamaican Folk, McFarlane's artistic decisions comes clearer after every spin.
It's once I got to the final two tracks, "Roots of Freedom" & "Future Echoes" that really elevated this project for me. The themes of race & identity in the backdrop of colonialism make this album timeless for me if the music & her performance didn't do that already. This album is excellent music, headed by one of the best voices I've heard in a while.
Favourite Tracks: Black Treasure, Saltwater, Roots of Freedom
13. Voodoo Black - Sitting At The Table
A real underground gem this one. Manchester-based Voodoo Black's debut album "Sitting At The Table" is a super subjective pick. (Like all of these.) There are many Hip-Hop albums of this ilk, with very traditional beats and great bars throughout.
But apart from the fact that I just enjoy listening to it. It's the fact that this is only 10 tracks, but 40 minutes long. Do you understand how rare it is to listen to a Hip-Hop album that dropped in 2020 and it has 10 tracks spanning 40 minutes?! For a loose comparison, my No.1 Album of 2019, Little Simz "GREY Area", is 10 tracks, 35 minutes.
I just respect this album and this foursome just for creating great UK Hip-Hop that doesn't get in and get out.
Come in! Take a seat. Would you like a cup of tea?
Moving on from that. The production is so nice. Calm, Jazzy Boom-Bap influenced beats that just keep your head bobbing at a smooth rhythmic pace, great features from Layfullstop, Leaf Dog, EVABEE & Jehst. But it really is the foursome of Sparkz, Ellis Meade, Dubbul O & Cutterz that give me, and I have to be honest, Slum Village vibes from start to finish. The flows are plentiful, the lyrics are clean. This is just a top tier UK Hip-Hop album.
Favourite Tracks: In the Mood, My Medicine, Abracadamting
12. Ric Flo - Rebirth of The Phoenix
Sometimes knowing the person's story in some genuine capacity just makes the experience that much better. This is one of those cases that I can say that unequivocally.
But even with that said, I would like to think I would magnetise to this album in the way I did upon first listen and beyond.
Ric Flo's "Rebirth of The Phoenix" is his best solo work so far. And do you want to know something interesting? The majority of beats on this album came from Ric outsourcing to people from Beat Stars! That blows my mind because every track sounds so bespoke. It's just a real W for that side of independent music.
But don't get it twisted, this is a Ric Flo album through and through. And the way you know that is because of the subject matter. A mixture of autobiography and affirmations, this album has a distinct feel track by track. "Before I'm 25", for example, is one of many things. From artistic philosophy to meeting his biological father in South Africa.
And that's another thing. If you don't know Ric's story, you get plenty of it here. Not just about himself, but his values as well. "Forbidden Games" gives homage to the story of Justin Fashanu, both of whom are products of the little-documented "Farming" system.
Bookended with one of my favourite songs of 2020, "Acceptance". It gives this essence of ending movie credits where the protagonist looks out to the horizon, optimistic about the future.
This album stands its ground in a confident and assured way. And sometimes, especially in a year such as this, you need something like that.
11. Seba Kaapstad - Konke
My favourite Afro-European quartet comes in with an album that builds upon their 2019 sophomore effort "Thina" and boy did they make strides with this one.
"Konke" is an album that brings me so many flavours that I just so happen to like. You get Hip-Hop beat patterns, Jazz/Soul elements and a few other flavours. All in this multicultural package that bursts at the seams with colour.
With Philip Schreibel & Sebastian Schuster helming the production, Ndumiso Manana & Zoe Modiga take care of the lyrics & vocals. The harmony between the four is so refreshing and with all their individual knowledge & varied life experience, it's made "Konke" and any of their work worth listening to, just to see where they go with it.
An overriding theme I gained with this album, in particular, is the naivete of some of the subject matter. The title track, for example, is all about wanting. Money is the main one of course, but below that, in the verses, you get things like 10 days in Ibiza, a house on the moon, 'unnecessary' shoes, white horse and even Raheem Sterling's pace! It comes across so childlike. And take "Fred" which is literally all about a dinosaur named Fred.
I just love the nature of this record, throw in amazing features from Quelle Chris, Odissee & Georgia Anne Muldrow and you have yourself a fascinating body of work that'll make you feel with every fibre of it. Whether it's the lyrical battle of "The Kingdom", the riveting "Home" and the many language changes throughout. This is a warm embrace of a listen, rooted on a relaxed musical foundation.
Favourite Tracks: The Kingdom, Konke, Peace of Mind
And that, ladies & gentleman, is the first half of my Top 20 Albums of 2020. A little 'behind the curtain' for you. I switched this list up dramatically mid-writing. All of these albums could be 11 or 20, the quality is so damn consistent throughout. If you haven't peeped any of these albums I implore you to go give them a spin.
Part 2, from 10 to 1, coming next...