British music was at an all-time high this year. Rap dominated the charts, while numerous pop artists artistically delivered catchy anthems. Multiple musicians released their debut albums after years of mixtape output. Others were fresh out of prison stints and unlocked a new chapter in their careers. To celebrate the output of these artists, it is only right to break down the best releases of the year by the finest musicians of the country.
Here are the fifteen best UK projects of 2020, plus honourable mentions.
15. 98s, Class of 98s
The Homerton 9ers are ready to take the spot as the relevant drill collective. Consisting of Unknown T, V9, KO, Billy Billions, Jimmy, Stally, and more, Class of 98s provides consistent thumping energy while also experimenting with their sound for the odd track. It gives a special glimpse at the next exciting drill group emerging from the country.
Best tracks: “Pay Attention”, “98 Degrees”, “Tie Up My Face”, “9:08AM”, “Family”, “Ultra Attack”, “98%”
14. V9, Yūdokuna
Another 9ers placement comes courtesy of V9. At an airtight eleven tracks and 33 minutes, Yūdokuna flips the drill formula to make it extra interesting. V9 is a breath of fresh air in a saturated lane. Multiple tracks evolve the drill sound to not make it your ordinary drill mixtape.
Best tracks: “Hello Hi”, “Telly”, “Right or Wrong”, “Drip Drip”
13. Youngs Teflon, Call of Duty 3
One of the most iconic UK mixtape series’ finally received its third instalment. Call of Duty 3 is the most airtight edition, focusing entirely on Youngs Teflon’s energetic persona. Uptempo drill pops up on “The Gulag” and “Bally Bop”, but classic storytelling Teflon is also on show on tracks like “Top Boy”. It is another body of proof that the South London rapper never misses.
Best tracks: “Rule of Two”, “Top Boy”, “Bally Bop”, “The Gulag”, “Alley”
12. Loski, Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story
The drill prince’s legal cases continue, but he ensured he told his tale on his debut album. Segmented into his ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’, the stages are clear as day, beginning with straight drill bangers before transitioning into the commercial records. The album ends with the most artistic Loski has ever been, a great taster for what is in store for the beloved rapper.
Best tracks: “Blinded”, “Anglo Saxon”, “Black”, “Basil Brush”, “Flavour”, “Life So Deep”
11. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Simply one of the catchiest pop records of the year. Every song of Future Nostalgia is well-produced with a memorable chorus, with every track sounding like single material. The disco-synth backdrop is very fitting for the album’s title, with futuristic pop songs showing up across the tight tracklist. It may be a guilty pleasure but is for sure a catchy one.
Best tracks: “Levitating”, “Love Again”, “Don’t Start Now”, “Break My Heart”
📌 Read the review to ‘Future Nostalgia’ on Instagram
10. Knucks, London Class
London rapper Knucks is certainly in a class of his own. Delivering a vintage yet modern hip hop sound to his output, London Class sets Knucks apart from his contemporaries. At a length of 24 minutes and eight songs, the mixtape concisely presents the best up and coming rapper in the country who has a glittering career ahead of him.
Best tracks: “Standout”, “Thames”, “Fxcked Up”, “Muva’s Life”
9. Pa Salieu, Send Them to Coventry
Maybe Pa Salieu feels like an outsider. It is not easy blowing up as an artist outside of London, but Salieu managed to make the necessary noise. His debut mixtape proves just exactly the talent that underlines his ascent, heaving through sharp flows, versatile production and memorable hooks. The stars are aligned for Pa Salieu to have an outstanding 2021.
Best tracks: “My Family”, “Block Boy”, “Frontline”, “More Paper”
8. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas
While rap may dominate this list, other genres in the UK do exist. Singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas’s self-titled album should not go under the radar. The neo-soul record is a blissful experience, flexing her immaculate vocals track by track. Her lyrics are poetic, the melodies are butter-smooth and the production is heavenly.
Best tracks: “Bittersweet”, “Read My Mind”, “Weird Fishes”, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry”, “Courage”, “Sour Flower”
7. Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
Dua Lipa was close, but it is Rina Sawayama who takes the crown for best pop record of the year. The British-Japanese vocalist has rightfully broke out of the underground pop scene with her debut album. Sawayama is an absolute journey for the senses, incorporating elements of 2000s throwback pop, nu-metal, and stadium rock to forge an album that shouldn’t work on paper. But it absolutely does. Sawayama bursts with melody and is a must-listen record.
Best tracks: “XS”, “Dynasty”, “Tokyo Love Hotel”, “STFU!”, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”
📌 Read the review to ‘Sawayama’
6. Nines, Crabs in a Bucket
Nines returns with resilience on his third album, dictating the trap tales of Church Road through newfound clarity. As stated by Nines, “I ain’t a rapper, I’m a drug dealer that raps.” But when Nines does rap it is worth our attention. Crabs in a Bucket continues to display why Nines is one of the most celebrated artists to grace the UK rap scene.
Best tracks: “NIC”, “Airplane Mode”, “Don’t Change”, “Intro”, “Movie Knights”, “Energy”, “Flex”
📌 Read the review to ‘Crabs in a Bucket’
5. Unknown T, Rise Above Hate
One of four rappers on this list that came out of jail and took over the year, Unknown T proves why he is the best in drill right now. On Rise Above Hate, the Homerton rapper charges through his skippy flows for a top 5 project of 2020.
Best tracks: “Deh Deh”, “AVEN9ERS”, “Squeeze & Buss”, “Tug Boy”, “Prison”, “Fresh Home”, “LV”
4. Potter Payper, Training Day 3
When it comes to straight raps, few UK rappers are better than Potter Payper. Another rapper that exited the penitentiary this year, it was a swift path to revive his career. Although a mixtape, Training Day 3 is another instalment to a legendary series. Potter’s raps are consistently compelling, weaving through outstanding rhyme schemes over carefully selected beats. There is not much else to it; this is a rap fan’s goldmine.
Best tracks: “Trapstar Memoirs”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Purpose”, “When I Was Little”, “Beggars & Choosers”, “Frank White”
3. Headie One & Fred Again…, Gang
Upon release, GANG confused UK drill listeners left right and centre. It is easily the most polarising UK record of the year. But once expanding from the comfort zone of typical drill, GANG is one of Headie’s best projects to date. Experimentation is avoided in the UK rap scene for this very reason; listeners struggle to accustom to new sounds. With the help of production by Fred again…, GANG masterfully evolves One’s drill sound and expands it into an alternative lane. The production is strategically lifeless to convey the tale of Headie confronting a judge, being sentenced, and coming out on top. A struggle is heard on this tape, and it has the music made to match it.
Best tracks: “Charades”, “Soldiers”, “GANG”, “Smoke”
2. Headie One, EDNA
It is safe to say Headie One outdone himself this year. If GANG was not enough for fans, his debut album Edna was sure to satisfy. Edna is here to make statements of authority and development. The former arrive in tune with the aptly prescribed drill tracks, leaving the legroom for Headie to surprise listeners in the album themes and musical detours. The curation on Edna makes it clear Headie knew it was album time. In its 20 tracks lies a conscious blend of styles – drill, hip hop, trap, R&B, afroswing – that converge cohesively. In essence there is something for everyone here, but nothing is shoehorned in; a testament to Headie One’s musical bravery and ability to find a harmonious balance.
Insight into a drill artist’s spirit is rare. After multiple mixtapes, Headie One understands the introspection and cohesion needed for a debut album. With Edna, Headie One completes his artistic voyage to the pinnacle of UK rap, taking the risks necessary to elevate from local star to worldwide notoriety.
Best tracks: “Only You Freestyle”, “Princess Cuts”, “Hear No Evil”, “Parlez-Vous Anglais”, “Teach Me”, “Five Figures”, “Cold”, “The Light”, “Triple Science”
📌 Read the review to ‘Edna’
1. J Hus, Big Conspiracy
Since 2017, fans made up their mind: Common Sense is the best UK debut of all-time, and Hus will never top it. It is thus a moment to smirk for those that had faith in the nation’s finest generational talent. Released right at the start of the year, the sophomore album Big Conspiracy triumphs its predecessor for the most cohesive and artistic effort by the rapper so far in his career. Big Conspiracy condenses the sound he pioneered in 40 minutes, delivering slick food for thought over darker production (“Fight for Your Right”), while also providing listeners with the summer hits that fans adore Common Sense for (“Repeat”, “Play Play”, “One and Only”).
Hus’ bars are more engaging than ever before, articulated with a conviction that’s reflective of the album title. Even the rapper’s hook game is sharper than ever. As expected, Big Conspiracy is not short of addictive melodies, but the way they are balanced with improved lyricism refines a formula that was already faultless to begin with.
By the end of the record, there is a welcoming feeling of satisfaction as a listener. Big Conspiracy provides the whole package. Whether it is the boundary-pushing production, addictive melodies or Hus’ words of wisdom, Hus is now two for two in modern British rap classics. If one thing is for certain, it is to keep quiet when Hus is preaching.
Best tracks: “Deeper Than Rap”, “Big Conspiracy”, “Must Be”, “No Denying”, “Helicopter”, “Fight for Your Right”, “Love, Peace & Prosperity”, “Fortune Teller”
📌 Read the review to ‘Big Conspiracy’