5 Dec 2020

BEST OF 2020: RNZ Music's top 20 albums

From RNZ Music, 12:20 pm on 5 December 2020

It's finally here, RNZ Music's top 20 albums of 2020! Did your favourite make the cut?

20. Taylor Swift - Folklore 

Taylor Swift’s Folklore isn’t really a Taylor Swift album. It’s the work of a modern-day supergroup.  

There's something joyous about watching a pop star break free of their record label shackles, which is what Taylor Swift's done on her eighth studio album. 

She looked at herself and said, 'You know what, fuck it. Is another real *pop* album gonna make me happy? Is this really what I want to do, to keep churning this shit out, amassing a vast collection of Grammys, continuing to print cash? Is that going to be rewarding?' 

Folklore was her saying, 'NO. I want to do something for ME. I want to gain some credibility, to do something strange and off-brand. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. Sure, it’s a risk. But maybe it’s worth it.' 

It was a brave move making this album. It’s too long, sure, but she showed a willingness to change things up, to take a risk, and most importantly to COLLABORATE. 

Folklore is not a perfect album. It’s not even necessarily an album that will age well. But it’s brave and incongruous and shows Taylor Swift in a completely different light. 

- Emile Donovan (Host, The Detail) 

19. Diggy Dupe - That's Me, That's Team 

The first official album from the central Auckland rapper was a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. 

An all-star roster of local producers provided the backing for Diggy to tell the stories of his family and his people, and he weaved all their struggles and successes into twelve tracks that are bursting with life. It feels like the album equivalent of a party at the end of a hard-won victory. 

- Tony Stamp (Producer/Presenter, RNZ Music and Song Crush) 

18. Thundercat - It Is What it Is 

Thundercat finds the middle ground between Thundercat the bass player and Thundercat the lyricist in his fourth album It Is What It Is. 

It's a mark of self-confidence that Thundercat, aka Steve Bruner, can toss away, after a few bars, ideas that others would milk for all they were worth; he knows there are always more where they came from. Is that the problem with being too good? 

Perhaps. But for the best parts of this album, Bruner’s virtuosity comes together with thoughtful, soulful songwriting to make something that is beautiful in unexpected ways. As listeners, all we have to do is try and keep up. 

- Nick Bollinger (Host, The Sampler) 

17. Fontains DC - A Hero's Death 

A Dublin band who manage to sound unlike any Irish act that’s come before them, Fontaines DC's second album is scrappier and looser than the first, and all the better for it. Punk, Krautrock and gentle balladry are all part of the mix, with Grian Chatten’s poetic, political lyrics adding fuel to the furnace. 

- Tony Stamp (Producer/Presenter, RNZ Music and Song Crush) 

16. Benee - Hey U x 

This year, Benee's song ‘Supalonely’ vent viral on TikTok, topped charts around the world, and got played on radio in over 44 countries. She took home a massive four gongs at the Aotearoa Music Awards, and won the coveted Silver Scroll songwriting award for another single, 'Glitter'. 

With so much success, there was great interest in what her debut album would bring. 

Like many, I was expecting her debut album to be full of pop songs like 'Supalonely', but instead heard more depth, creativity, and riskiness. Lily Allen, Grimes and other cool artists feature. There are so many genres and influences from drum n bass, house, RnB, and indie. And it works. 

My whole family are fans, and Benee has been lovely every time I've had the opportunity to chat with and interview her.  

- Charlotte Ryan (Presenter, Music 101) 

15. The Strokes - The New Abnormal 

After somewhat disappointing releases in the last decade, you wouldn‘t be blamed for giving up on The Strokes. The New Abnormal provides stand-out singles and is a return to form for the band. 

The Strokes have never been shy about their influences, and the 80’s vibe throughout The New Abnormal is a welcome breath of fresh air. Although certain tracks ('Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus', 'At the Door') carry the punchy synths Julian Casablancas experimented with in his solo work, the tracks still sound like The Strokes. 

In fact, it sounds like the band have finally been able to consolidate their different personal styles into a concise, clean, and realized sound, something they haven’t been able to achieve since 2006’s First Impressions of Earth (arguably). 

The Strokes back in action BABY!!!!!!!!!!! After their last album sucked, they're all sober now and hate each other way less. Such a happy surprise that this album was brilliant from start to finish. 

- Evie Orpe (Producer, Music 101) 

14. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush 

Five years after the release of one of the decade’s most influential albums Currents, Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush was worth the wait. 

Kevin Parker conquers the balancing act between progressive psychedelic rock and pop sensibility to deliver another outstanding, uniquely mainstream-friendly album. Gone are the guitars from Currents, and in their place, The Slow Rush leans further into disco and pop, while hugging more repetitive lyrics which overall make the songs more catchy and upbeat. 

- Evie Orpe (Producer, Music 101) 

13. Gorillaz - Song Machine: Season One, Strange Timez 

The Gorillaz deliver music in a new way and maintain their reputation as some of the world’s best collaborators with Song Machine: Season One - Strange Timez. 

2020 was a strange year, and nobody does strange better than Gorillaz. 

This album was released as a series of music videos, released monthly alongside interlude skits called 'Machine Bitez' before dropping as a full-length album in October. 

Gorillaz do more of what they’re good at, getting the best out of a broad range of collaborators from a myriad of different genres. Song Machine includes contributions from ScHoolboy Q, Octavian, Robert Smith, St Vincent, Beck, 6lack, and even Elton John. 

- Evie Orpe (Producer, Music 101) 

12. Run The Jewels - RTJ4 

Is it too much to call Killer Mike and EL-P’s latest offering an instant classic? 

Not only does RTJ4 pack a social and political punch – perfect timing for what’s been a horror year in the U.S. on so many levels – it’s a masterful nod to the golden era of hip hop. With appearances from legendary producer DJ Premier of Gang Starr, 2 Chainz, and Greg Nice of Nice and Smooth, RTJ have made a conscious move to wear their influences on their sleeve. 

"We're people who love new music, we're not the type of rappers who think that everything was better back in the day,” EL-P told Charlotte Ryan in June, “We're 100 percent into new music but we're honest about what our influences are, what the spirit of the stuff we fell in love with in terms of what hip hop music is.” 

- Alice Murray (Digital Producer, RNZ Music) 

11. Cave Circles - Ships 

This quietly energetic collection of electronic grooves is the perfect soundtrack to a chilled out summer. 

Ships is a collaboration between local wunderkind Riki Gooch (Trinity Roots) and producer and engineer Brett Stanton. The pair have pulled in the talents of some of Wellington’s best including Samuel Lyndsay and Benny Salvador, the younger brother and son (respectively) of Joe Lyndsay of Fat Freddy’s drop, Luke Buda of Phoenix Foundation, award-winning composer and founding member of The Mutton Birds David Long, and many more. 

A combination of loungey dreamscapes, disco, and South Pacific-style bops, Ships is like a warm bath... in the best possible way. 

- Alice Murray (Digital Producer, RNZ Music) 

10. Nadia Reid - Out of My Province 

Nadia Reid’s fourth album Out of My Province secures her place as one of New Zealand’s best songwriters. 

She succeeds in providing her trademark intimate lyrics while upping the ante on production, arrangement, and vocals to deliver her best album yet. Out of My Province sees Nadia deal with life on the road, with a running theme of physical and emotional distance, loneliness, and the lucidity being away can bring. 

Nadia recorded the album at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond Virginia, rather than in Lyttelton where she recorded her previous albums. This change of scenery provided space for improvement and shows Nadia can only get better. 

- Evie Orpe (Producer, Music 101) 

9. Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways 

Bob Dylan’s still got it! 

It’s close to 60 years since Bob Dylan made his first recordings. And yet Dylan is still writing and recording new ones. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his first collection of new material in eight years, and he’s still doing things that no one has done before, not even him; at least not quite like this. 

- Nick Bollinger (Host, The Sampler) 

8. Tami Neilson - Chickaboom! 

When Tami Neilson teamed up with Delaney Davidson on her 2014 album Dynamite!, it marked the moment she left the straight furrow of mainstream country music and headed off into the much more interesting swamps of jukebox rockabilly, gospel, torch song and hillbilly twang. And there’s all of that on Chickaboom!: a lot of twangy guitar (most of it Delaney’s), and the unstoppable rhythms of the excellent Joe McCallum on drums. 

Mostly, though, what makes these durable old styles work for Tami so well is her ability to adapt them to things she really wants to say. In this case it’s the theme of female empowerment that runs right through the record, from the multi-tasking mother of ‘Queenie Queenie’ to the singer addressing a recalcitrant partner with withering irony in ‘Call your Mama’, the tough opener. 

Chickaboom! could well be the album to wake up listeners in North America. With No Depression magazine hailing this as “the first great album of the year” and Rolling Stone starting to take notice, we might be finding soon that we have to share Tami Neilson. Luckily, Chickaboom! has enough to go around. 

7. Ria Hall - Manawa Wera 

Tauranga Moana musician Ria Hall’s second album Manawa Wera is true to its name in approach, execution and intent. 

Manawa (heart), wera (hot) means “being fervent of heart and passionate”. For Ria (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whānau ā Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Waikato) the album name reflects what she sees as the increasingly urgent cries from indigenous movements around the world. 

Written during the time when indigenous land rights struggles were dominating the news, Ria says she and co-writer Laughton Kora were “in the thick of” Ihumātao and Hawaii’s Mauna Kea campaigns. 

Drawing influence from the likes of Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie and The Herbs, and with backing from an all-star reggae band - Ara Adams-Tamatea (L.A.B.), Wiremu Barriball (Katchafire), & Zane Graham (Sons of Zion, The Wailers) - Manawa Wera, most certainly lives up to its intent to “uphold the mana of Aotearoa reggae”. 

- Yadana Saw (Producer/Presenter, RNZ Music) 

6. SAULT - Untitled (Black Is) 

SAULT captured the complexity of a movement in Untitled (Black Is). 

This UK outfit is still shrouded in mystery (although a bit of web sleuthing will shine some light on its members). They’re also ridiculously prolific, releasing two albums in 2019 and a further two this year. The first of those is a direct response to the Black Live Matter movement and specifically the murder of George Floyd. It’s righteous, angry, sad, but somehow celebratory; a funk and soul-fueled exploration of the Black experience in all its complexity.  

- Tony Stamp (Producer/Presenter, RNZ Music and Song Crush) 

5. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher 

Phoebe Bridges is the shining star in a world and genre that’s all her own. 

Punisher is in many ways classic singer-songwriter stuff: a measured, melodic voice and the type of confessional lyrics that have always typified the genre. But if it all sounds very nice on the surface, you don’t have to dig very deep into this record to find that maybe things aren’t quite so nice after all. 

Punisher favours a murkier palette and shows off Phoebe’s dark-bordering-on-nasty sense of humour. There’s a voice in this album that Phoebe almost seems to be using against herself as if she knows that by making herself less likeable the songs will ultimately have more to say. And it’s one of the things that distinguishes Bridgers from less daring artists in this overflowing genre. 

- Nick Bollinger (Host, The Sampler) 

4. Reb Fountain - Reb Fountain 

Reb Fountain reintroduced herself through her ridiculously good fourth album Reb Fountain

It’s dark, mysterious music Reb Fountain makes; stark chords framing a voice that can switch from a whisper to a wail and does at various times during this brooding, slow-burner of an album. The songs seem to record a journey where both body and spirit are put to the test. And even if that journey is just to the end of the street, it can feel like the other side of the world. 

Reb has made bold musical choices throughout the record. There is no fat on these performances. The playing is lean and stealthy. 

Less is often more, and ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’, the album’s centrepiece, is proof of this. An intricate lyric that unfolds like a long riddle, and invites comparison to Nick Cave, only Cave is the more limited singer.

This album finds Reb Fountain streamlining both her songs and her production, and the effect is a sustained intensity. And yet like some of the best music, it doesn’t give up all its secrets at once. There are melodies and meanings here that only repeated listening will unlock. 

- Nick Bollinger (Host, The Sampler) 

3. Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters 

Fetch the Bolt Cutters provided the perfect soundtrack to a year full of bullshit. 

The title of this album says it all: it’s time to bust out of a bad situation. And over these thirteen songs Fiona Apple does just that, turning past abuses and career-long experience of a male-privileged music industry into a series of defiant broadsides. 

Yet even in her rage, she can deploy a perfect melody and a razor wit, and I didn’t hear another album this year that was as musically inventive, rhythmically compelling, willing to take risks or focused in its anger. 

- Nick Bollinger (Host, The Sampler) 

2. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers 

The Beths provide a masterclass on how to keep up momentum and top their previous work with Jump Rope Gazers

Their 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me arrived as a punch in the face to New Zealand music, catching the attention of just about everybody. Rolling Stone named it a “power-pop monument”, and Pitchfork rightly described it as “just really impressive”. 

Waiting for the follow-up to such an incredible debut was nail-biting, but The Beths nailed it. 

Jump Rope Gazers presents a more polished, sleeker version of the band. The simplistic energy that carried The Beths sound on their first album elevates them to even greater heights this time around, showing off their knack for brilliant guitar riffs and thoughtful self-deprecating lyrics that are somehow reminiscent of emo, girl groups, and Motown all at the same time. 

The album deals with themes of separation, isolation, longing, and sometimes regret. The Beths prove it’s possible to be vulnerable and have fun at the same time, and Jump Rope Gazers provides the perfect backing track to the strange and ever-surprising year that is 2020. 

- Evie Orpe (Producer, Music 101) 

1. Troy Kingi - The Ghost of Freddie Cesar 

The fourth album in Troy Kingi’s 10/10/10 series (ten albums, in ten different genres, across ten years) takes the top spot, and with good reason. 

The Ghost of Freddie Cesar is a funky slice of Blaxploitation era sounds - think Curtis Mayfield, War, The Meters - full of horns, slippery basslines, shimmery chimes and killer backing vocals all tied together with Troy’s soulful voice and guitar chops. 

But it’s the mysterious Freddie Cesar (credited as the album’s co-writer) that is as compelling as the music. Not even Troy knows who he is other than a name on a cassette tape that belonged to his missing Dad. The tape has also disappeared so what we’re treated to on The Ghost of Freddie Cesar are Troy’s recollections of it. 

The concept album has been Troy’s flex since his debut double album Guitar Party at Uncle’s Bach, followed by the intergalactic odyssey of Shake That Skinny Ass All The Way To Zygertron through to the Taite Prize-winning Holy Colony Burning Acres, which fused conscious roots reggae with the plight of Indigenous people around the world. 

The Ghost of Freddie Cesar fully fits into the high concept universe of Troy Kingi - the blistering opening track ‘Shake That Skinny Ass’ - a reference to album two -  shows how fully formed that world is, but this record is by far his most personal. 

Take album-closing ‘All Your Ships Have Sailed’ and behind the swagger of Freddie there’s a son trying to find his Dad as he’s raising his own family. 

Troy explained that writing The Ghost of Freddie Cesar was “a form of therapy” and that finishing his fourth album helped him be “at peace” with his Dad’s disappearance. 

With more six more albums to come, the tales of Troy Kingi and the fantastical music worlds he conjures around them will no doubt continue to delight and captivate. 

- Yadana Saw (Producer/Presenter, RNZ Music)

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