2020 has been a strange, stunted year for music, as it has for all art forms. Nevertheless, several exceptional albums had been released or recorded even before the terms ‘self-isolation’ or ‘social distancing’ had been coined, and coronavirus-induced lockdowns seem to have sparked a new productivity in certain key figures of the pop world. Here are ten albums that Cherwell’s music contributors have judged to be among the best of this weird, weird year so far:

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

To say that Charli has her finger on the beating pulse of the current global situation would not be enough. The album accurately describes the thing that we’re all struggling with right now, trying to create something amongst the current madness. how i’m feeling now is a direct product of winning that battle with boredom and procrastination. It is, paradoxically, a professional rendition of a DIY art project. It is personal, genuine, polished, unpolished, and covered in PVA and glitter. Words like ‘unpolished’, ‘crunchy’, and ‘sickening’ wouldn’t typically be used to describe a ‘Masterpiece’ album. Yet, that’s kind of the point. Hyper-Pop walks the tightrope of cheesy trash and truly boundary pushing music production with such subtle finesse that the ‘ironic hipster’ mindset is necessary to really appreciate it. Adam Hewitt

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Read the rest of Adam’s review here.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa’s sophomore album Future Nostalgia is pop escapism at its best, just when we need it most. She succeeds in building on the successes of her chart-topping first album by layering her well-established vocals and commanding lyrics with new sounds in pursuit of a cohesive and innovative follow-up that certainly tops its predecessor. The singer belts her way through break-ups, new love and female empowerment, all whilst remaining upbeat, optimistic and, ultimately, fun. Catchy, bright and enthusiastic, the album leaves the listener with no option but to dance along and be pulled into its worry-free world, if only for a few minutes. The album marks a turning point in her own career, as well as marking Lipa out from her pop peers. Future Nostalgia is completely its own, refusing to fade into the background of the crowded field of contemporary pop music. Emily Cope

Read the rest of Emily’s review here.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple astonishes on her fifth full-length outing, a record that will likely be talked about for years. She weaves a rich musical tapestry of sounds and images. What is patently clear from this record is how intuitive Apple’s music can feel; in the same way as it works itself beneath your skin, Apple herself works from the ground up, raising rhythm from every sonic crack and gulf. It is perhaps through this vertical movement that Apple manages to escape her confines and float forever upwards. This reminds the listener that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work with the refined knowledge of the escape artist, the wire-walker, the trapeze artist: that winning elixir of muscle memory and self-knowledge. You can’t knock her off-balance. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she says, “I won’t shut up.” Lukas Lacey-Hughes

Read the rest of Lukas’ review here.

Julianna Barwick – Healing is a Miracle

At the time of writing, two singles have been released from Julianna Barwick’s upcoming album Healing Is A Miracle, releasing on 10th July. So far, it seems like this album is exactly what is needed at the moment. She began recording the songs last year, with the sole motivation of “making something for myself, just for the love of it […] I was recording music that was just from the heart”. Especially right now, as many of us reassess what is important in our lives, I think that is a beautiful sentiment.

And both singles reflect this goal. ‘Inspirit’ begins solely with layered voices in a soaring and fading soundscape – this is heavenly on its own, but when the droning electronic bass comes in partway through, the song takes on a transcendent and meditative feel. ‘In Light’, the second single, released in collaboration with Sigur Rós’s Jónsi, moves away from this reflective nature with percussion and pulsing vocals, adding dynamic motion and an uplifting sense of hope. With more songs on the way with collaborators such as harpist Mary Lattimore and electronic artist Nosaj Thing, and the known ability of Barwick to create both stunning and haunting works, it looks like my next few days are going to be enlightening. Adam Kavanagh

(Quotation from statement at https://ninjatune.net/release/julianna-barwick/healing-is-a-miracle/)

Jerskin Fendrix – Winterreise

The album’s title, translating as ‘winter’s journey’ in German, is a name fit for an opera. And an opera it is – Winterreise is meticulously arranged, its songs flowing into each other in congruent movements, despite the fact that most of them have had single releases at some point over the last few years. The precocious Fendrix is at centre stage, a natural performer who embodies personas with ease; what else do you expect from someone whose stage name is itself rockstar material, equal parts legendary guitarist reference and bizarre sexual innuendo? Fred Waine

Read the rest of Fred’s review here.

Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter

[Song for Our Daughter] is a quietly powerful album, with moments of softness interspersed with more upbeat folk-rock. Her lyrics are introspective and wise, and, set against her characteristically clear vocals, make you feel like you’re being offered advice by an old-soul kind of sister or friend. Building from 2017’s Semper Femina, Marling explores femininity in all its facets, this time directing her wisdom to an imagined daughter, a figure she describes as ‘The Girl’. It is this universalized listener that she feels she can now guide through life, or, as she describes it, “the chaos of living”. Exactly as she says, the album is like a ‘whisper’ – gentle, brooding snippets of advice that drift into your consciousness through Marling’s clear and soulful voice. Florine Lips

Read the rest of Florine’s review here.

Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot

With the release of their fourteenth studio album, and 35 years after their first number one ‘West End Girls’, Pet Shop Boys could be forgiven for sliding into middle-aged mediocrity or, worse, becoming their own tribute band. Their album Hotspot demonstrates neither. From the instantly-identifiable opening song ‘Will-o-the-wisp’, incorporating typically catchy keyboard riffs in the time-honoured tradition, to ‘Wedding in Berlin’, the closing satirisation of marriage which pairs the Wedding March with a pulsating dance beat, the album remains lively and varied. More playful songs such as ‘Monkey business’ act in contrast to quietly reflective songs, the products of a career in music which has now spanned five decades. The latter is exemplified by ‘Burning the heather’, a sombre and melancholic account of solitude which is a product of singer Neil Tennant’s time living on the moors of County Durham.

The highlight has to be the lead single ‘Dreamland’, a refreshing collaboration between two generations of queer synth-pop icons in Neil Tennant and Olly Alexander, who had previously described Pet Shops Boys as “two of my heroes”. Harking back to the 1987 number one ‘It’s a Sin’, ‘Dreamland’ seeks a more general escape from the modern political climate, with the eponymous location being a place where “you don’t need a Visa, you can come and go and still be here”. The urgent feel is combined with a catchy chorus and toe-tapping beat, typical of the philosophy of a lead singer who once said “we do politics through satire”. Yet this is not to detract from the relevancy of the album. Released in an uncertain time, it is little wonder that Tennant and Alexander sing in ‘Dreamland’ that they “don’t wanna wake up”. Joe Hyland Deeson

Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

Rina Sawayama emerges shimmering on her debut LP, SAWAYAMA. It’s clear that emulating Y2K has become her signature brand, and it’s one which is increasingly popular with the emerging generation of young people who grew up in that era. Alongside fresh ideas, as she thematically intertwines critiques of capitalism and patriarchy with an exploration of her experience as a British-Japanese woman, Sawayama successfully takes inspiration from the music of her childhood to craft an album that feels authentically her. She has already crafted her own pop persona, and now artfully plays on a generation’s memories of childhood, while offering fresh subject material to encapsulate the mood of her late twenties. She’s angry at the world, reflecting on the choices of her younger self, as she attempts to put the pieces of her current identity together. And that’s why it works so well – aren’t we all? Sofia Henderson

Read the rest of Sofia’s review here.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

It Is What It Is, the latest album of American artist Thundercat, is both far from and close to the previous port of call. In terms of genre, it’s all over the place: hip hop, funk, disco, and ambient all vie for position in this album, creating a wonderful mixture of songs with Thundercat’s characteristic falsetto, warping bass and odd harmonies. Artists such as Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and BadBadNotGood make their appearance and add to the joy of listening, but Thundercat shines through to steal the show.

It is, of course, his creation, and, in this regard, it is close to the messages of (Julianna Barwick’s) Healing Is A Miracle. The album is a labour of love for Thundercat: it tackles the complex emotions and philosophical musings surrounding the loss of the late Mac Miller (to whom this album is dedicated). But then again, some of the tracks are just downright hilarious.

The lines “I may be covered in cat hair/but I still smell good” are one of the many reasons why ‘Dragonball Durag’ is my favourite track. It’s so chill and friendly and has a tune that I couldn’t get out of my head for days. ‘Overseas’, featuring Zack Fox, also carries this comedic vibe, with the setting of an aeroplane and the smooth bass and vocals creating just a fun time. More expressive tracks include the cosmic ‘King of the Hill’ with its wondering voices, the calming ‘Unrequited Love’ (featuring Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B) with its fluttering guitar, the introspective ‘Innerstellar Space’ with the virtuosic Kamasi Washington on saxophone, and the classic funk “Black Qualls” with a whole roster of talent to check out.

The album comes to an end with a sombre tone with the titular ‘It Is What It Is’, a reflection on mistakes and things that don’t end as wanted. It begins purely with vocals and guitar, to focus on the sentiment of the song. Slowly, the bass, harmony, guitars, strings, and unrelenting percussion build to the crest of the song – and then simply fade away to nothing, in an ending that makes you stop and just listen. It Is What It Is is an album tinged with melancholy but also a celebration and, simply put, one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. Adam Kavanagh

Tricot – 真っ黒 (Makkuro)

As a genre, math rock has travelled a long way. This particularly ‘intellectual’ variant of rock music, which mixes rapid time signature shifts with angular polyrhythmic melodies, is most closely associated in Western culture with late-20th century US groups such as Slint and Don Caballero. But the math rock tradition has long been a prominent part of Asian music, since at least the mid-80s, and is given an exhilarating twist on the latest album by Kyoto-based band Tricot.

From about four seconds in, everything on Makkuro (meaning ‘pitch black’ in Japanese) is done at absolutely breakneck speed. Tricot combine J-Pop tropes (the sugar coated vocals, the colour-coordinated outfits) with virtuosic musicianship, while simultaneously sounding like they’ve just drunk 20 Red Bulls between the four of them. The band fly out of the traps on opener ‘Mazeruna Kiken’ (‘mixing danger’, a nod to the theme tune of the Japanese manga show Ushio to Tora) with a staccato riff that recalls Black Midi’s ‘953’, before finding their groove on ‘Unou Sanou’ and ‘Mitete’, tracks driven by Hirohiro Sagane’s syncopated basslines. Other stand-out moments include the (slightly) more serene ‘Abunakunakunai Machi e’, which at times sounds more Snail Mail than Slint, and the album-closing double whammy of ‘Masshiro’ (‘pure white’) and ‘Makkuro’ (‘pitch black’). These two final tracks interact more than their juxtaposed titles might suggest, identical riffs and drum fills subtly re-emerging in both, in a way that highlights the improvisational ingenuity of the group.

Fronted by the all-female trio of vocalist Ikkyu Nakajima, bassist Hirohiro and guitarist Motifour Kida, Tricot have released a math rock album to rival any of the critically acclaimed offerings of their (predominantly male) predecessors. There’s no denying it, Makkuro is a kick-ass record. Fred Waine

Listen to our Spotify playlist featuring stand-out tracks from each of our albums of the year so far: