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The Top 20 Records of 2020

Our favorite releases of this year—featuring Yaeji, Nazar, HAUS of ALTR, and more.

In 2020, our relationship to music changed. While we’ve undoubtedly missed listening to dance tracks emanating at borderline oppressive volumes from the speaker stacks of our favorite clubs, 2020 has, for a lot of us, been the year for deep listening.

In the past few months, it’s become far more important to find a perfect soundtrack for the more intimate, often solitary moments of a lockdown reality. Some of us stuck to a steady diet of high-energy club music, meanwhile, others turned down different avenues, into the calm of ambient music, the uplifting nature of electro-pop, or even feel-good rap mixtapes.

Instead of presenting a list of the “biggest” releases of the year, or even the ones that garnered the most attention, we’re giving you our personal favorites. These are the records that meant the most to us, whether they hit us on a visceral, nostalgic-for-the-dancefloor level, a more heady, conceptual level, or gave us a much-needed mental break from the whirlwind that this year has been. According to our staff, these are the must-listens of 2020.

 

The Wheel of Time – Ange Halliwell

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French artist Ange Halliwell makes transportive music from field recordings, choral vocals, delicate synths, and his own virtuosic harp playing. Overwhelming and often trance-inducing, his debut album—released by Parisian label High Heal and featuring guest appearances from Oklou and Malibu—was an early revelation this year and has continued to soundtrack several of my tranquil moments since. His follow up EP, Kiss Me (but in my dreams, to not be seen), is also another more than worthy listen. —Zach Tippitt

Listen and buy here.

 

Ork Muzik 20K – DJ David Goblin & The Horde

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DJ David Goblin isn’t a person; he’s an idea, in the same way that “goblin core” isn’t so much a genre as it is a feeling. It’s that sinister guttural howl that echoes inside of you, that crucial medley of ugliness, cheesiness, and futuristic, fantastical polish that makes Goblin’s output (and that of everyone associated with his label PRR! PRR!) so captivating. Ork Muzik 20k is a family album by a team of producers and musicians who understand goblin core’s grostesque power. Animalistic screams sampled from Korn’s Jonathan Davis, bouncing crunk, and searing hardstyle leads await. It’s a load of beautiful, beautiful garbage. —Z.T.

Listen and buy here.

 

Atlantic Avenue – Demuja

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For me, the purpose of playing house music was always to set a muted background ambiance. It’s never been the genre to get hyped up to a dancing frenzy or to release an emotional catharsis. Techno, on the other hand, was the tried and true go-to. But with Demuja’s Atlantic Avenue, this order started to crumble. The Salzburg local incorporates a crafty dynamic of folding breaks, filtered vocals, and laid-back funk into its pounding four-to-the-floor beat—a potent recipe to raise my spirits and loosen my limbs on the train platform more than a few times. Favorite tracks: “On The Road,” “The Return,” “Onyx,” and “Specialist.” —Laurenz Niemeyer

Listen and buy here.

 

ORCORARA 2010 – Elysia Crampton

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Elysia Crampton’s ORCORARA 2010 sounds like 2020, with traces of the apocalypse caused by human destruction looming large on this striking body of work. It is, in fact, a concept album dedicated to a friend of Crampton’s who purportedly, while incarcerated, worked years as an inmate firefighter across the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Despite the gravitas of its subject matter, the record’s lush melodies and strikingly poetic vocal performances by feature artists Jeremy Rojas, Embaci, and Shannon Funchess offer a calm, albeit brief, respite. —Caroline Whiteley

Listen and buy here.

 

HOA010 – HAUS of ALTR

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Released on June 19th, otherwise known as Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the United States, HOA010 is a compilation featuring a proud alliance of all Black producers. In a summer when the global Black Lives Matter protests spurred long-overdue discussions on the Black origins of dance music, MoMa Ready and AceMo’s HAUS of ALTR label presented their ambitious take on Afrofuturism. In their self-released statement to coincide with the release and companion mix, HAUS of ALTR wrote, “In these trying times, we come together to stake claim on the roots of techno and its potential future” —a resolute declaration that has incontrovertibly shaken up the bedrock of the music industry. —C.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Bxtch Släp – Jasmine Infiniti

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When this album was released at the end of March 2020, many countries were dealing with lockdowns, contact bans, and an overwhelm of existential uncertainty. What we needed the most was a soundtrack to cope, filled with escapist bangers that could make us forget everything for a moment and give us a chance to dance by ourselves at home. Jasmine Infiniti’s Bxtch Släp is exactly that: An transgressive work that pulls together all of her influences from ballroom and New York’s queer underground nightlife scene into a one-hour-and-17-minute masterpiece. —Nicolo Fischer

Listen and buy here.

 

I Am The King of Amapiano: Sweet & Dust – Kabza de Small

Amapiano, a genre born in South Africa, characterized by deep, thrumming house basslines and lilting piano keys, found its footing in the global music scene this year thanks to its self-appointed figurehead, Kabza de Small. Recently nominated for the 2020 MTV European Music Awards for ‘Best African Act’ alongside his frequent collaborator DJ Maphorisa, de Small takes on his commander-in-chief role with a laidback bravura. As per his album’s title, the producer strikes a delicate balance between the two opposing faces of the genre. “’Dust’ is mainly the hardcore drum pattern; the kwaito influenced sound,” he told Mixmag, “and ‘sweet’ is the more soulful and jazzy amapiano.” His efforts, alongside those of superstar feature vocalists Burna Boy, WizKid, among others, coalesce in a work that’s as much heartfelt and contemplative as it is unwaveringly effulgent. —Whitney Wei

Listen to it on Spotify here.

 

Sensei – KG

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Karen Nyame AKA KG is London’s UK funky OG, and she’s unafraid to school everyone in the game. Cue up Sensei, a masterclass EP on ebullient dancefloor rhythms, full of tracks meant to be played under a roving spotlight. The record sashays with a sort of confident swagger that’s brought to life by a symphonic palette of playful rattles, brass crescendos, and plucked strings. KG doesn’t shy away from her maximalist tendencies, and her willingness to fold in touches of eccentricity while bringing heat to the party results in a record that’s full of unapologetically fun crowd-pleasers, while never veering into the derivative. —W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Reduction Pt. 2 – Marcal

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There’s an automated sense of urgency that Brazilian producer Marcal has perfected on his second release for the Berlin label Rekids Special Projects. Aptly named, the release Reduction Pt. 2 pares four-on-the-floor techno to a set of five tightly-coiled grooves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t playful moments to keep an ear out for, though. “Angry Teleprinter,” for instance, chugs merrily along until an interjection of whirrs, beeps, and glitches interrupts the repetitive business-as-usual machinery, like a minor electromechanical defect that’s turned the entire operation haywire, but in a surprisingly jocular fashion. Raw in its overall atmospherics, Reduction Pt. 2 has just enough verve and hypnosis to evoke an eerie sense of déjà vu at first listen. —Gabriel Senise, W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Conservatory of Flowers – Maria Teriaeva

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Maria Teriaeva’s Conservatory of Flowers is a delicate ambient-pop opus that unfolds into new dimensions with each listen. The album’s unconventional rhythms and modular computations were composed in her dacha (Russian for country home) outside Moscow, and touches of these idyllic surroundings are immediately evident in her music . Released in April, the record may be seen in hindsight as a sleeper record, but it will hopefully will receive its time in the sun once Teriaeva is able to perform its eight beautiful songs as part of a tour in the near future. —C.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Automatic – Mildlife

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The four-piece brand Mildlife from Melbourne, Australia, made up of Adam Halliwell, Kevin McDowell, Jim Rindfleish, and Tomas Shanahan aren’t afraid to fold subtle touches of jazz, disco, and psychedelic into a classic indie rock formula, an approach that rewards them swimmingly. On “Automatic, the title track of their mini-LP, the sound of which they self-describe as “Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock on quarantined lockdown in Bob Moog’s Trumansburg workshop,” fat thrums of the bass guitar and steady hi-hats interweave with lead singer McDowell’s placid vocals to sprawling, kaleidoscopic effect. “Memory Palace,” another buoyant toe-tapper, shyly chirps open before diving right into the vim and vigor of a seemingly inexhaustible joie de vivre. —Pilar Rashad, W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

How Does It Feel? – Moodrich

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Although the Berlin-based DJ and producer Moodrich begs the question on his EP title, he doesn’t leave much room to reflect and respond. On second track “I Know You Feel It,” through the slow build of filtered bass and ricocheting kicks (the instrumentation of which a disembodied vocalist goes to great lengths to explain), he insists, “Feel the drums/ lose control/ lose complete control.” No doubt, there’s a weird irony in trying to cut loose under the song’s strict, low-pitched directives, but dance music has always needed to take itself less seriously. Don’t worry—Moodrich also sneaks in a few balmy lo-fi house rollers like “Sunset Spliff” and “When I’m Alone,” which offer plenty of space for listeners to do whatever the hell they want. —Mitch Wingendorf, W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Guerilla – Nazar

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On Guerilla, Nazar’s first full-length for venerated London label Hyperdub, the Manchester-based artist gives an account of wartime Angola through his metallic and distorted “rough kuduro” sound. Composed while consulting Memorias de Um Guerrilheiro, the journal published by his father (who served as the Foreign Affairs Secretary for anti-communist party UNITA), the record’s heaving drums, cocked guns, spoken word passages, and desolate cinematic atmospherics combine to form a document that proves club music’s ability to comment on human struggle, strength, and resilience. Absolutely essential listening. —Z.T.

Listen and buy here.

 

Off The Meds – Off The Meds

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Off the Meds are a South African-Swedish band comprised of DJ and producers Adrian Lux, Carli Löf, Måns Glaeser, and Kamohelo Khoaripe. After making their debut on the Stockholm-based house music institution Studio Barnhus in 2018 with their Ethio-jazz sampling hip-house gem “Currency Low,” the group returned this year with their self-titled debut album. Off The Meds cruises joyfully cross-genre, dropping into “stone-cold Scandi-grime” to “straight-up Eurovision,” and dives head-first into Khoaripe’s melodic Zulu-Tsotsitaal-English flow. Highlights include the exalting lead single “Wena” and the anthemic “Voice of Meds,” but every track on Off The Meds sounds uniquely fresh. —C.W.

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Yeo-Neun – Okkyung Lee

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Largely known for her uncompromising compositions on cello, Okkyung Lee’s Yeo-Neun marks a departure from her career of steadfast experimentalism. Released in spring, the album’s gentle poise felt like the calm at the eye of the storm. That said, Yeo-Neun is not without its expressions of frustration. On the track “in stardust (for kang kyung-ok),” Lee scratches her cello in a churning motion, a sound which imparts a feeling of being split wide open, to symbolize her inner turmoil as an individual caught between South Korea and the United States. —CW

Listen and buy here.

 

The City Rings – Perko

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Scottish producer Perko knows how to make music that chirps, skips, and glides along with icy composure. As referenced in its name, his mini-LP off the Glaswegian label Numbers is an urban sound tour of his expatriate home in Copenhagen, rife with field recordings of neighborhoods throughout the Scandinavian capital. Tracks like “Stutter,” which slowly blinks awake before shaking off its haze to transform into an upbeat roller, “Grounds,” marked by distant sirens within a desolate ambiance, and “The Reason,” a lively rhythm clad with crepuscular allure, all capture a certain abstracted yearning many city-dwellers experience, only to be obscured by the hustle and bustle around them. —W.W.

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Swandive – Sully

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In the world of jungle, UK bass veteran Jack Stevens, better known as Sully, has made a name for himself refining his personal take on saw-toothed percussion. His take-no-prisoners approach to drums on this EP results in a largely confrontational output, but not without crucial moments of restraint. “I work a lot with synths and I like to paint moods rather than just pure bass and attack on the drums,” Sully told DJ Mag in 2018. His artistic statement holds true here on Swandive, which jumps off with “Werk” and “Poison,” two rollicking workouts that thrust forward as if delivering multiple roundhouse kicks through the speakers. Closing track “Memories,” meanwhile, contains an evocative breakdown with sparse tin can patters, demonstrating that Stevens’ best moments may also be his most introspective. —W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Suggested Forms – Tristan Arp

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New York-based multimedia artist Tristan Arp has a penchant for unconventional rhythmic structures and sly syncopations. Listen to the lively electronic brio of “Coil” and notice how the drums transform through various chameleonic forms to adjust to the surrounding composition. As Arp’s first album on his own co-founded label Human Pitch, Suggested Forms brings his artistry full circle by pulling key tracks from his previous EPs and re-sequencing them to fit into his grand, pointillistic vision. —N.F.

Listen and buy here.

 

WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던 – Yaeji

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On the title track of Yaeji’s April release, the Korean-American artist samples her grandfather’s gentle murmurs before her own filtered soprano vocals drop in. Although she may be known for her flirtations with R&B, like her cover of “Passionfruit,” or jocular deep house club-pleasers like “Raingurl” on her breakout EP, a large part of Yaeji’s appeal (alongside her sharp earworm productions) remains her relatability—a strength she leans into on her XL Recordings mixtape. She loves her family, she feels growing pains, she exercises mechanical self-discipline by checking off quotidian tasks, but all her hopes and worries never weigh heavily on listeners, instead they’re packaged into a hushed, reflective delivery, as if implying, “This too shall pass.” —W.W.

Listen and buy here.

 

Savage Mode II – 21 Savage and Metro Boomin

No one expected that, midway through 2020, we’d be listening to Morgan Freeman discuss the difference between snitches and rats in a rap mixtape skit, but here we are. If this year has a silver lining, it might be that we finally got a sequel to 2016’s Savage Mode, the album that arguably put both rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin on the map. Now that both are at the top of the industry, one might assume they’d drop a lazy victory lap of an album, but Savage Mode II is an incredibly consistent record that injects the dark vibe of the original with mixtape-era playfulness—like its cover that looks like it was designed by Pen & Pixel, and the omnipresence of the voice of god himself. Definitely worth a start-to-finish listen, but if we have to choose, it’s “Runnin,” “Slidin,” and “Steppin” for us. Oh, and check out the chopped and screwed versions, too. —Elena Schröder, Z.T.

Listen to it on Spotify here.

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Published December 18, 2020. Words by EB Team.