Top 25 albums of 2020

 Top 25 albums of 2020

I know everyone’s been saying it – including me, hourly – but WHAT a YEAR for pop music!! And what a year specifically for pop albums!! I’m looking back at my Top 25 lists from the last couple of years (2019 in particular) and there are records from those that would barely even be considered in 2k20.

As such, there are a LOT of honourable mentions this time around. For a start, I’d never have thought that Kylie Minogue – one of my favourite artists of all time – would release an album with the name Disco (DISCO, for Christ’s sake!!!) and not make my year-end Top 25. Unprecedented times indeed! (oh boy – see below update). Shout-outs also to Kesha, Annie, Louise, Niall Horan, HAIM, Paloma Faith and Melanie C for releasing top-notch collections that were extremely good, but didn’t quite chime with me as much as the below.

For what it’s worth, here are my past year-end No1 albums (the blogs from 2010-2014 are on now-deleted sites, because I’m an idiot):
2010: Lights – Ellie Goulding
2011: 21 – Adele
2012: Electra Heart – Marina and the Diamonds
2013: Salute – Little Mix
2014: 1989 – Taylor Swift
2015: Breathe In Breathe Out – Hilary Duff [blog]
2016: Lemonade – Beyonce [blog]
2017: About U – Muna [blog]
2018: Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves [blog]
2019: thank u, next – Ariana Grande [blog]

All art is subjective and I’ve tried to strike a balance between ‘critically brilliant’ and ‘gave me what I wanted’, so, er, some of the rankings might seem a bit wild!! But last year, for example, I put Lana Del Rey quite high out of sheer peer pressure and whilst I appreciate that record holds a special place in many peoples’ hearts, one year later I couldn’t hum you a single song from it. So I’ve just tried to be true to ME, ya know?

So with that in mind… strap in, here we go…

[Oh, and if you missed my year-end singles list, you can read that here].

UPDATE: Kylie’s Disco was not originally in this list because… I don’t know, maybe I was having a stroke whilst writing it. But after seeing Infinite Disco on New Year’s Eve, I am making an URGENT addendum, and squeezing her in:


=25. Disco – Kylie Minogue

Release date: November 6
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 72

When this list was first published, Disco was an ‘honourable mention’ rather than a legit Top 25 entrant because, though I did really like it, it just didn’t leave a mark on me like I thought it would – and if anything, I found some of the songs actively boring and/or irritating. I KNOW, I KNOW. But watching the Infinite Disco gig kind of made the record, as a whole body of work, ~click for me. It’s not a go-out-and-dance kind of disco album, it’s a stay-in-and-fondly-think-about-going-out-to-dance kind of disco album, and actually – in 2020, of all years – there’s something quite lovely about that. So it’s being added to the list as a last-minute correction, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of anything else to make room for it – ergo it is joint twenty-fifth, ‘lol’.


=25. Dear Happy – Gabrielle Aplin

Release date: January 17
UK chart peak: 24
Metacritic score: n/a

Gabrielle properly turned my head with the incredible Waking Up Slow from the Avalon EP a few years ago, and she continues down that same path of singer-songwriter-with-a-dreamy-synth-poppy-twist here. While nothing quite matches the sheer rush of that song in particular, there’s plenty of great stuff, from the rousing Invisible to the loooovely Nothing Really Matters.


24. Love Goes – Sam Smith

Release date: October 30
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: 64

Here, Sam picks up the tempo a tiny bit and shifts the mood from ‘wallowy’ to ‘fiery’ – making for a more engaging and lively listen than their last two records combined. Excellent singles Dancing With A Stranger and I’m Ready are pushed right to the back, but Love Goes is a thoughtful, kinda triumphant experience – and, for me, Sam’s best album by a long shot.


23. Only Child – Sasha Sloan

Release date: October 16
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: n/a

This was a word-of-mouth discovery; I would never have sought it out it if I hadn’t seen #tastemakers singing its praises over on twitter dot com. It’s the sort of music that would sound spot-on under an emotive scene on Brothers And Sisters or This Is Us; quiet, considered, stripped-back pop with unshowy vocals and thoughtful lyrics.


22. JAGUAR (EP) – Victoria Monét

Release date: August 7
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 82

I’ve generally avoided EPs here because it doesn’t seem like a fair fight, but the 9-track JAGUAR could easily be classed as an album – interludes and all. The title track is sublime, and the glistening Experience (produced by SG Lewis and adding a guest vocal from Khalid) is simply one of the best tracks of the year. Give Victoria her things in 2021!


21. Brightest Blue – Ellie Goulding

Release date: July 17
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 74

I listened to this when it came out and, er, totally forgot about it a few days later. But!!! I rediscovered it a few weeks ago and I’ve fully gone through a whole-ass ~phase~ with it ever since. It’s less hooky and radio-y than Ellie’s previous work, which I know is often code for “boring”, but luckily that isn’t the case here. And on the gorgeous Woman she proves that even when she’s not gunning for big hit singles, no-one does a ballad quite like her.


20. What The Future Holds – Steps

Release date: November 27
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: n/a

The lead single left me a bit cold and the instant grat songs had me outright worried; but luckily WTFH comes together super-well; full of tour-ready delights that fit these vintage hitmakers like a glove. Compared side-by-side with 2017’s incredible Tears On The Dancefloor, I accept that it feels a bit “same again, then?” – but for a legacy act like this, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Obvious highlights are To The Beat Of My Heart, To The One, Heartbreak In This City and sparky second single Something In Your Eyes.


19. Gaslighter – The Chicks

Release date: July 17
UK chart peak: 5
Metacritic score: 82

Fiery, honest, reflective… Gaslighter is one hell of a break-up album, produced to perfection by Jack Antonoff. Natalie Maines is on sensational form; confronting the ugliness of her divorce with bravery, nerve and – at times – disarming vulnerability. Sleep At Night is the best moment for me, but damn, there’s something about the petty glee of Tights On My Boat that’s so delicious it warrants a massive honourable mention.


18. Positions – Ariana Grande

Release date: October 30
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 72

Have you noticed that every time an Ariana Grande album comes out (with the exception of thank u, next), there are a load of gays who declare it boring/a flop/disappointingly patchy – and then time passes and they’re still talking about it months later? I have! I’m not sure if Positions will have the same longtail impact as the initially divisive Sweetener, Dangerous Woman and My Everything (full disclosure, I was one of the people shrugging their shoulders at the former) – but it’s still a fab record. It’s let down a little by the fact that she doesn’t do anything especially new and fresh with it, but she does give us more of what she’s very good at: elegant, sparkling R&B/pop hybrids that flit between sexed-up, heartfelt and introspective.


17. Plastic Hearts – Miley Cyrus

Release date: November 27
UK chart peak: 4
Metacritic score: 75

Younger Now veered between ‘dull’ and ‘bad’, so I was extremely happy to give Plastic Hearts a spin and find Lesley’s one-time BFF back on her absolute A-game. This is the sound of someone who’s taken a while to figure out what kind of artist she feels most comfortable being, and letting loose accordingly. The glam-rock-pop lane she’s made for herself is a great fit, and though the album isn’t without its dips, A+ stuff like Gimme What I Want, Bad Karma and the mega Midnight Sky really bring it home.


16. After Hours – The Weeknd

Release date: March 20
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 80

One of few albums in 2020 to boast some Max Martin production, After Hours is yet another slam-dunk for The Weeknd; a moody, cohesive record with a bit more emotion and vulnerability than much of his earlier work. The runtime is almost Swiftian (over an hour in its 17-track Deluxe form) and could do with a little trim in its few fuggy, less engaging moments – but there’s no denying the artistry and talent.


15. Seeking Thrills – Georgia

Release date: January 10
UK chart peak: 24
Metacritic score: 78

Singer-songwriter-drummer Georgia earned a well-deserved Mercury nomination for this electric album of hedonistic but razor-sharp electropop; led by the likes of About Work The Dancefloor, 24 Hours and the slightly calmer Till I Own It. She supported Carly Rae Jepsen in concert at the start of the year and it was brilliant to hear some of it played for an enthusiastic crowd.


14. CALM – 5 Seconds of Summer

Release date: March 27
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 70

Famously angering the gays when it beat Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia to No1 on both albums’ first week of release, CALM got a bit of a bad rep right out the gate – despite being another strong collection from a deceptively enduring and under-rated band. It’s an emotionally complex set, this: we’re taking jabs at social media on No Shame, finding hope in carnage on (my personal fave) Best Years, and enjoying a rare moment of pure feelgood lust on Wildflower. Bottom line, all of it slaps!!


13. modern anxiety – Josef Salvat

Release date: May 15
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 75

After the title track became one of my favourite singles of 2019, I was treyc_cohen_im_ready.gif for this album – and it did not disappoint. Ten tracks of gay, heartfelt, emotionally LaYeReD pop music. A dream!!


12. Euphoric Sad Songs – Raye

Release date: November 20
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: n/a

This is technically classed as a “mini-album” apparently, but – at nine songs long – it counts for me! Everything here lives up to the title; not least the slept-on singles Natalie Don’t and Please Don’t Touch, plus the aaaaabsolutely breathtaking Change Your Mind. Dance collaborations have kept her streaming numbers topped-up, but I’m desperately hoping for some solo superstardom in the very near future.


11. Rare – Selena Gomez

Release date: January 10
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: 76

Honestly I’ve rarely(!) had as strange a relationship with an album as I do with Rare. Sometimes I listen to it and think it’s the most underwhelming set of featherweight air I’ve ever heard; other times it gives me absolutely everything I need and then some. Make it make sense! The latter feeling is far more prominent, though; and with stuff like Fun, Dance Again, Rare and Boyfriend, Selena is on captivating form at all times – even if my mind occasionally craves something with more firepower.


10. Chromatica – Lady Gaga

Release date: May 29
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 79

This era obviously didn’t blaze a groundbreaking new trail in quite the way that, say, The Fame did – but after a few years away from this sort of adrenaline-pumping enormopop, it was just so, so heartening to hear Gaga back in this lane again. Chromatica finds hope and power in trauma; whether it’s in that Ariana collab, the utterly wild Elton duet Sine From Above, or pace-setting opener Alice. There’s a lot of fun to be had too: you only need to listen to a minute or so of Babylon to understand the comparisons to Vogue, and that segue from Chromatica II into 911? Add it to the Religious Education syllabus!!


9. Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle

Release date: June 12
UK chart peak: 80
Metacritic score: 81

It says a lot that Do It – one of the year’s best singles – doesn’t rank as one of the greatest tracks on this album. Chloe x Halle take themselves up a gear on this; an R&B record so watertight and confident it’s… well, ungodly. The title track – as performed at the MTV VMAs – is my favourite, but it’s got tough competition: Lonely is a late-album highlight, second single Forgive Me sees the girls properly let rip vocally, and Tipsy is a reaaaal catchy earworm. A triumph!


8. Crave – Kiesza

Release date: August 14
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 77

From the strut-a-long opening bars of Run Renegade to the slightly bizarre 90s-esque closer Dance With Your Best Friend, Crave is MAGNIFICENT; a spunky pop album throbbing with thick synths and gorgeous big vocals. The almighty title track is in my Top 10 singles of the year, and All Of The Feelings and Can’t Be Saved similarly flirt with perfection. Get Kiesza back to the top of the charts where she belongs, and do it now!


7. Black Country Disco – Tom Aspaul

Release date: September 14
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: n/a

Tom’s been putting out top-drawer pop for a few years now, so it was no real shock to learn that his first full album is a skipless wonder. His West Midlands routes are obviously a recurring theme (one song’s even brilliantly named after a Wolverhampton area code), and the explorations of complex emotional ~feelings~ are really bloody affecting; particularly on the heartbreaking Tender and my personal fave, the deceptively bouncy Traces. Production, melodies, lyrics… everything’s at 100!


6. Strangers/Lovers – Dagny

Release date: October 2
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: n/a

The rollout of this was a bit confusing – I thought the first half was a standalone EP when it was released in the first half of the year, before suddenly another few songs appeared in Q4 and apparently we had a full album. But however it came to be, Strangers/Lovers is pop excellence; a charming set of luminous songs that range from subdued (Paris, Coast To Coast) to hands-in-the-air uplifting (Somebody, Come Over, Bye Bye Baby). I love it all, and I can’t wait to see it performed live.


5. What’s Your Pleasure? – Jessie Ware

Release date: June 26
UK chart peak: 3
Metacritic score: 84

Jessie’s always been great, but she really took herself up a notch with this slinky, shimmering, shoulder-shimmy-y album; deservedly her highest-charting release to date. Her airy vocals are perfectly matched to the early-hours-of-the-morning club beats; the likes of Save A Kiss, Soul Control and What’s Your Pleasure? exhilarating enough to make you physically weep over the fact you can’t writhe to them in your nearest sweaty gay bar.


4. Confetti – Little Mix

Release date: November 6
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: 74

It obviously hasn’t been the smoothest year for Little Mix, but in terms of the actual music, they’ve got their mojo back and then some. If it felt like the excitement and smash-hit-potential started to drop a bit mid- and post-LM5, Confetti brings it all surging back; the trio of 10/10 singles (Break Up Song, Holiday, Sweet Melody) all ranking among the year’s best, and songs like A Mess (Happy 4 U), Happiness, Breathe and Nothing But My Feelings dripping with Repeat One potential. Long story short, it’s nothing more and nothing less than a mainstream commercial pop album that’s all killer, no filler. My Love Won’t Let You Down hits a bit too hard after Jesy’s departure, not gonna lie; but I’m extremely excited to see the rest of it come to life on tour – whenever that may be.


3. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa

Release date: March 27
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 88

Late last year, Don’t Start Now hinted that Dua could be a massive player in 2020… and she certainly fuckin’ was. Future Nostalgia may as well be retitled NOW! DUA – it’s bursting with blockbusters; from Hallucinate and Levitating to grade-A deep cuts like Cool and Love Again. Physical is clearly its ace, though; bursting as it is with gay-baiting euphoria and the kind of power-pop excitement that tickles the top end of the Richter scale. The album’s not totally skipless – I’d argue that the last two tracks bring the quality down juuuust a tad – but the highs are beyond stratospheric enough to compensate.


2. Folklore (and Evermore) – Taylor Swift

Release date: July 24
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 88

I went into Folklore ready to be a naysayer (perhaps I’m still salty that Lover highlights like Cruel Summer and I Think He Knows never got their shining moments), but fuck it, it’s an incredibly smart and natural move for Taylor; and really not that much of a curveball when you look back on her journey up to this point. If anything, it’s a culmination of everything she’s been doing since day one; she’s just not as laser-focussed on coming up with radio-ready hit singles anymore (looking at Me! and You Need To Calm Down, maybe that’s for the best).

Her trademark country-influenced storytelling has never been better: August, My Tears Ricochet, This Is Me Trying, Peace and Epiphany are 10/10 cases-in-point; the bridge of that first one in particular is one of my favourite moments of the whole year. As for Evermore, in my opinion it works best when viewed as an expansion pack or a sort of ‘Side B’-type situation: Ivy, Long Story Short, ‘Tis The Damn Season and the title track are currently hitting hardest for me. Overall, I really didn’t think I’d be here for Taylor taking a step in this direction; but I absolutely unequivocally am.


1. Sawayama – Rina Sawayama

Release date: April 17
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 89

Trailblazing singles STFU!, Comme Des Garçons and XS are just the start: on Sawayama, the year’s most exciting popstar explores notions of identity, belonging, friendship, and the general fucked-up-ness of our binfire world – accompanying it all with big melodies, sharp lyrics and relentlessly infectious energy.

It’s an album unafraid to take big swings: it’s pop with flashes of nu-metal, of early-2000s album-three-era Britney, of EDM, of R&B, of trap… and it all works so well; it just comes together perfectly as one gloriously thrilling package that – despite its vast range of influences – sounds like absolutely nothing else.

Bad Friend! Tokyo Love Hotel! Dynasty! Every single track is richly written and stunningly produced; and the recently-released deluxe version – with BloodPop banger Lucid and almost Samantha Mumba-meets-LittleMix–like We Out Here – only extends the fun (that 1975 cover? UGH!!!). A total masterpiece.

Shaun Kitchener

http://www.shaunkitchener.com

Scriptwriter for the theatre and TV (currently Hollyoaks) and freelance entertainment ~reportage.