2020 was full of releases, whether it was in mainstream hip hop, pop, UK rap and many more scenes. Some artists chose to save their best work for the following year, but many opted to pivot and make the best out of a difficult year. Massive albums came from the likes of Lil Baby, Dua Lipa, and Headie One. Newcomers such as Knucks and Rina Sawayama took centre-stage in their respective fields. Critical acclaim was in place for the posthumous releases by Pop Smoke and Mac Miller. It was a busy year, but the music delivered.
Here are the top 20 best albums of 2020, plus honourable mentions.
20. 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”
19. Gunna, Wunna
Trap is often a misunderstood genre, with the greatest of trap albums expected to be conceptual and expansive set by albums such as Rodeo. Gunna’s Wunna is like trap ASMR, taking a simple approach and succeeding in what it’s meant to do; set a mood. With a Gunna project, it is all about the production. The beats on Wunna are like feathers that Gunna’s vocals tip-toe over, personifying the idea of being on cloud nine.
Best tracks: “Met Gala”, “MOTW”, “Wunna”, “Argentina”, “Sun Came Out”, “Addys”
📌 Read the review to ‘Wunna‘
18. 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
17. 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’
16. Unknown T, Rise Above Hate
Unknown T proves why he is the best in drill right now. On Rise Above Hate, the Homerton rapper charges through his skippy flows and dark drill production. It is also a statement that he can do more than create aggressive drill songs, dotting surprises across the 16 tracks.
Best tracks: “Deh Deh”, “AVEN9ERS”, “Squeeze & Buss”, “Tug Boy”, “Prison”, “Fresh Home”, “LV”
15. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
The Philly native’s long-awaited album is a youthful intergalactic adventure. Frontlined by the Working on Dying production team, Eternal Atake thrives off its galactic sound. Uzi showcases a desire to rap in the first third before swerving into tropical trap. With endless rapid raps and melodies to its name, Eternal Atake is a long-awaited win for artist and fan.
Best tracks: “Celebration Station”, “Venetia”, “Bigger Than Life”, “Baby Pluto”, “I’m Sorry”, “Urgency”, “Bust Me”
📌 Read the review to ‘Eternal Atake’
14. Benny the Butcher, Burden of Proof
Griselda’s finest export has been releasing projects since 2004, and has finally seen the fruits of his labour over the past couple years. His second studio album, Burden of Proof, is his most accessible project to date. It feels like a renewed form of energy, maintaining the brilliant rap skills of Benny the Butcher to combine with Hit-Boy’s befitting beats. Burden of Proof keeps it short and simple; good beats, great raps.
Best tracks: “Famous”, “Legend”, “Sly Green”, “Over the Limit”, “One Way Flight”, “Burden of Proof”
📌 Read the review to ‘Burden of Proof’ on Instagram
13. Pop Smoke, Meet the Woo 2
In 2019, Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke forged a formidable partnership with UK drill producer, 808Melo. The rapper soon sprinted to the pinnacle of hip hop, flipping the sound by adding a New York twist for some of the addictive hits we’ve heard in years. His second project, Meet the Woo 2, is an explosive dose of drill anthems, charging through booming 808s with his iconic voice and flows. Pop Smoke’s life was cut short soon after the mixtape’s release, but he managed to create a timeless legacy in the process.
Best tracks: “Mannequin”, “Invincible”, “Christopher Walking”, “Foreigner”, “Get Back”, “She Got a Thing”
12. Blu & Exile, Miles
Underground hip hop had a spectacular year. It was particularly supported by the reunion of the scene’s favourite producer-rapper duo, Blu & Exile. Miles runs for a colossal 95 minutes, but matches the quantity with the quality. Smooth jazz production is supplied by Exile and Blu brings immaculate rapping to the table as he flurries through gripping subjects. The essence of hip hop breathes within Miles.
Best tracks: “Miles Away”, “The Feeling”, ‘The American Dream”, “True & Livin”, “Troubled Water”
11. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas
British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas provided a blissful experience with her self-titled album. The neo-soul record flexes her immaculate vocals track by track, creating intimate moments as she sings over live instrumentation. Her lyrics and poetic and the melodies are butter-smooth. Even a narrative of romantic troubles are weaved through the record in a considered fashion. The album sounds like it would be a lauded classic if released in the 90s, as it manages to capture the feel of that era in every element.
Best tracks: “Bittersweet”, “Sour Flower”, “Weird Fishes”, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry”, “Courage”, “Read My Mind”
10. 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”
9. Future, High Off Life
The trap titan is once again in his untouchable element, endorsing the vices of the world without ever taking his foot off the gas. High Off Life is Future’s best full-length trap offering since 2017’s self-titled FUTURE. Except this time round the inflated volume is traded for a seasonal tempo without sacrifice the consistency. In fact, High Off Life barely even provides skippable moments; a testament to its 21-track consistency.
Best tracks: “Accepting My Flaws”, “Pray for a Key”, “100 Shooters”, “Too Comfortable”, “Touch the Sky”, “Life Is Good”
📌 Read the review to ‘High Off Life’
8. 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”, “A6586AM”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Purpose”, “When I Was Little”, “Beggars & Choosers”, “Frank White”
7. 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 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.
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’
6. The Weeknd, After Hours
The Weeknd unlocks a cinematic vision on his return to the spotlight. After Hours is Abel’s best effort at fusing radio-friendly hits with his desolated pen, forging one of the most compelling records of the year. The direction is clear as ever on After Hours, possessing an uninterrupted musical and thematic identity. Themes of celebrity lifestyle are borrowed from Starboy but refined in a cohesive, consistent manner, fleshed out to its full potential.
Best tracks: “After Hours”, “Faith”, “In Your Eyes”, “Heartless”, “Alone Again”, “Blinding Lights”, “Until I Bleed Out” (+ “Nothing Compares”)
📌 Read the review to ‘After Hours’
5. 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’
4. Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony
Assisted by its co-star Jay Z, A Written Testimony is an alluring body of work that delicately tours the significance of religion with the rappers’ pens in fine form. Bars like “The Lord is my rock, I speed dial through salat” are the crux of the album’s message, simple statements packed with wordplay. Jay Electronica waited thirteen years to be picked apart. In those thirteen years, he was still picked apart. With A Written Testimony, his mystique continues to exist, but not without reminding the world he is still a capable MC when he chooses to be.
Best tracks: “A.P.I.D.T.A.”, “Ghost of Soulja Slim”, “The Blinding”, “Fruits of the Spirit”
📌 Read the review to ‘A Written Testimony’
3. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
Few hip hop albums in 2020 check boxes the way Man on the Moon III does. The conscious focus on rapping leaves no room to disappoint, as Cudi sharpens his pen and leaves the corny bars behind. But the melodies remain in abundance, with no single song forgetting to leave an infectious hook. The raps, vocals and hums are all there, presenting exactly what is expected of Kid Cudi and more. Man on the Moon III completely embodies the meaning of a trilogy, modernising yet maintaining textbook Cudi for one of the best albums of 2020.
Best tracks: “Sept. 16”, “The Void”, “Show Out”, “Rockstar Knights”, “Sad People”, “Lovin’ Me”, “Mr. Solo Dolo III”, “Tequila Shots”, “Lord I Know”
📌 Read the review to ‘Man on the Moon III: The Chosen‘
2. 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’
1. 070 Shake, Modus Vivendi
Star power can be manufactured, but it can also exist naturally. 070 Shake is a natural star, and she proves her worth on the debut album, Modus Vivendi. On Modus Vivendi, 070 Shake pours her lovesick soul track-by-track to fashion a blissful utopia of music inspired by the delicacy of romance and emotion. For Shake it clearly runs deeper than music, which is what makes the songs seem so genuine. Through brilliant songwriting and gorgeous production, Modus Vivendi captures human complications and learning how to accept these situations. The production can often be futuristic through its embellishment in synths, but also deliver natural instrumentation.
Shake’s boyish voice is what separates her from every emerging hip hop vocalist. She can rap when she chooses to, like on the turbulent “Daydreamin”, but prefers to sing through Auto-Tune to serve as an accessory to her uniquely addictive harmonies.
The most attractive quality about Modus Vivendi is the way it is able to create a blissful atmosphere. From the production down to the vocals and songwriting, every piece is meticulous, all achieved while able to carry the entire album by herself. 070 Shake’s debut is one to be remembered not just for 2020 but the decade to come.
Best tracks: “Terminal B”, “Divorce”, “Guilty Conscience”, “Come Around”, “Under the Moon”, “Morrow”, “Microdosing”, “Daydreamin”
📌 Read the review to ‘Modus Vivendi’