Complex UK’s Best Albums Of 2020

Did your favourite make the cut?

best uk albums of 2020
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best uk albums of 2020

As we wave goodbye to another year in the terrordome and try not to think about what 2021 will bring, we can at least be grateful that British musicians somehow managed to top the year before—no mean feat, given the blockbuster works 2019 gave us. Established dons like Footsie, Manga and Potter Payper all released some of the best work of their careers, which again, we don’t say lightly. Elsewhere, it was a time for new voices to rise up and make themselves heard. 

Pa Salieu became the runaway hero we all needed with a flawless run of singles that led to Send Them To Coventry, an album that will still be revealing its true brilliance for years to come; Bree Runway took everything she’d learned from Missy Elliott, flipped it into overdrive and then put a massive UK stamp on it to give us 2000AND4EVA; and Headie One, Loski, Unknown T, and M24 each used their wildly different approaches to create projects that proved there is so much more to drill than controversial YouTube videos. It’s been a year of unfathomable pain, confusion and hurt—for so many reasons—but, at least culturally, the year just passed has also offered some much-needed solace.

Here are the albums we loved the most in 2020.

15. Footsie, ‘No Favours’

Footsie   'No Favours'

Label: Studio 55

Released: May 22

At this point in Footsie’s career, an album wasn’t necessarily a necessity given the endless material he has from the past twenty years. However, No Favours gave us a window into where the Newham General is musically at and has been since 2017, when the album was in its early stages. The timing of the release wasn’t accidental either; it came at a time where conversations were being had about grime’s declining relevance as drill has emerged in recent years. A project like No Favours not only shows the timelessness of Footsie’s sound but also the expansive range of sounds over the past twenty years that have been the foundation of British electronic music. One thing’s for certain: grime can always rely on Foots. —Jesse Bernard


14. Ojerime, ‘B4 I Breakdown’

Ojerime   'B4 I Breakdown'

Label: FANG

Released: March 13

Few musicians are brave enough to release something they don’t see as perfect, or polished. Ojerime’s B4 I Breakdown is a collection of lustful and subdued songs that she recorded before and slightly after she was sectioned due to her mental health. This is such an important piece of artistry that has contributed to a strong catalogue of UK R&B in 2020. Ojerime is a proud Peckham girl, one who takes inspiration from grime, house, and UK garage. But ‘90s R&B—SWV, Aaliyah and 702—is her match, sonically and aesthetically. “Give It Up 2 Me”, one of the project’s highlights, is a psychedelic, saxophone-layered treat: “Give it up to me/You know I’ve been waiting for too long,” she sings on repeat, inducing a dream-like state. On “Whiskey”, she delivers a skilful rap-singing flow and exposes herself as a true triple-threat artist. You might not know it yet, but Ojerime is the future. —Chanté Joseph


13. M24, ‘Drip N Drill’

M24   'Dril N Drill'

Label: M24 x Big Business Entertainment

Released: August 21

M24’s Drip N Drill was made almost entirely during lockdown, with recording completed in just four weeks. Having spent much of the year dropping collabs with the likes of iLL BLU, Unknown T, Morrisson and Tion Wayne, when it came to his own project, the Brixton driller pared all of that back, insisting on just a select few features and resisting the lure of big name team-ups (Sneakbo being the most high-profile guest) in favour of those that made the most sense. A deft balance of polished production—thanks to Chris Rich, Nyge, Lekaa Beats, Rymez, Sillkey, and Hargo—and a refusal to compromise on drill’s underground credentials, the gruff-toned rhymer doesn’t miss a step on Drip N Drill; twelve tracks stitched together with cinematic darkness (“The Hood”), club leanings (“Come Again”), touches of trap influence (“Passion”), and on the opening and closing tracks, some uncomfortable truths that most of society would rather ignore. —James Keith


12. Bree Runway, ‘2000AND4EVA’

Bree Runway   '2000AND4EVA'

Label: EMI

Released: November 6

Without Black women, pop music would simply not exist. They are crucial to its inception and its evolution, and their art is paramount to the innovation of the genre. Though there is a desire to flatten Black women’s contribution to the sound through genre mislabelling, Hackney-born Bree Runway is adamant that she is a pop star. Her experimental sound is authentically East London with an international reach and 2000AND4EVA—her debut mixtape—has been an empowering soundtrack to finish what feels like a chaotic year with guest spots from Rico Nasty and her idol, Missy Elliott. “GUCCI”, featuring Maliibu Miitch, is a domineering girls’ anthem, emblematic of the melodic grunge-pop that Bree does so well on 2000AND4EVA. This year, she reached new audiences and gained new fans who are now impatiently waiting on where she takes them next. —Chanté Joseph


11. Manga Saint Hilare, ‘Make It Out Alive’

Manga Saint Hilare   'Make It Out Alive'

Label: Self-released

Released: April 3

Manga Saint Hilaire is an easy-listening MC, an illustrative storyteller who can make you both laugh and ponder with his words. 2018’s Outsiders Live Forever was a hopeful and inspiring body of work that brought so much joy with tracks like “Men Are Trash” and “We Fall”, so excitement for Make It Out Alive was high and all expectations were met. “Black Man Timing”, produced by Wiley and featuring Murkage Dave, is a chatty and humorous song that perfectly summarises the premise of the album: “However long things take, call it Black Man Timing/I refuse to watch face, I’m in a race with just myself,” Murkage Dave sings during the chorus. The 15-tracker assembles a roster of pioneering MCs such as P Money, Jammer and Novelist, but features a newer generation of artists such as Izzie Gibbs, Snowy, SBK and IRAH. The biggest takeaway from Make It Out Alive: “Not giving a f*ck is my skincare routine.” —Chanté Joseph


10. Unknown T, ‘Rise Above Hate’

Unknown T   'Rise Above Hate'

Label: Island Records

Released: July 17

Unknown T’s commanding, intense vocal tone will remain something only he possesses in the ever-growing UK drill scene. This signature style shines brightly across his debut project, Rise Above Hate, which sees him team up with the likes of Young Adz, AJ Tracey, M Huncho and V9. Twisting and bending his ghostly flow over deft production from Remedee, 169, 800 Hertz and more, the rapper gives us stories from his time behind bars (“Prison”) to relationships (“Main Squeeze”) and dominates every instrumental he jumps on with complete ease. Showcasing his jovial personality a lot more online recently, Unknown T really is a one of one. —Minou Itseli


9. Loski, ‘Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story’

Loski   'Music, Trial & Trauma   A Drill Story'

Label: Since ‘93

Released: November 20

Loski—the South London “Cool Kid”—is all grown up on Music, Trial & Trauma: A Drill Story, his debut LP. Whilst still sticking to the drill code of crud on cuts like “Teddy Bruckshot 2”, “Captain Hook”, and “Basil Brush” with OFB, we see growth in Loski’s artistry on songs like “Blinded” with garage-rap don Mike Skinner, and “Naija Man” with Afropop icon Davido. He even recruits rapper-turned-speaker Akala for an interlude, in which he states some hard facts on how a lot of young Black men are treated in this country, before reworking Bashy’s “Black Boys” on “Black”. 21-year-old Los’ has found his stride, and he’s going all the way. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson

8. Che Lingo, ‘The Worst Generation’

Che Lingo   'The Worst Generation'

Label: 7Wallace

Released: October 23

As difficult as this is to believe, with the exception of 2018’s Charisma eight-tracker, Che Lingo (aka The Wizard of Wandsworth) only released his debut album this year. It’s hard to believe, not because of the pandemic or anything like that, but because he’s been raising the bar in UK rap for the better part of a decade. Still, good things come to those who wait and The Worst Generation was more than worth it.

As terrifying, depressing and chaotic as 2020 has been, UK music has risen to the occasion with art that held a mirror up to the horrors and, at times, brought us catharsis. However, where some dealt in abstract terms, Che Lingo discussed issues of Blackness, police brutality, and life growing up in South London in personal terms. “My Block” tied that all together with the sad case of Che’s close friend, Julian Cole, who was left with a broken neck and severe spinal injuries by nightclub bouncers and Bedfordshire police. A harrowing tale for sure, but one that Che relayed to us with profound sensitivity. Cleverly, that was balanced against youthful exuberance, beautifully soulful moments and some expertly-chosen features including Ghetts, Samm Henshaw and woman-of-the-moment Rachel Chinouriri. —James Keith


7. Pa Salieu, ‘Send Them To Coventry’

Pa Salieu   'Send Them To Coventry'

Label: Warner Records

Released: November 13

It’s said that artists spend their whole life writing their first album (which is why the second is so difficult). If that’s the case, then Pa Salieu has lived one hell of a life! Even the last two years have been filled with more spills and thrills than most experience in a whole lifetime. In 2019, Pa was shot and seriously wounded, yet twelve months later and he was the toast of the UK rap and drill scenes—straddling both worlds with a sound that scorched any perceived boundary between the two. It began with “Frontline” and gathered pace with each successive release until the release of his astonishing debut album Send Them To Coventry.

The title is a reference to a relatively obscure idiom which means to ostracise someone by not talking about them, a clever parallel to Pa Salieu’s status as an artistic outsider and maverick. The release of “Betty” in May gave us the first major indicator of what a Pa Salieu project would sound like: dark, cinematic and expertly-crafted. A big part of that was down to producers AOD and Felix Joseph sampling UK band Japan’s avant-pop melodrama “Ghosts” from 1992, but that was just the beginning. What the rest of the album brought was dancefloor fireworks (“Block Boy”), Gambia-focused Afro-funk (“Active”), grime-drill-rap mosh-pit fuel (“My Family”), and defiant Black pride (“B***K”). However, on the Mahalia-assisted closer “Energy”, any anger felt up until that point was washed away with the self-care mantra of “Why you keep wastin' your energy? / Nеver let them draw out the energy”, licked with a soothing jazz instrumental. Uplifting and devastating in equal measure, Send Them To Coventry stands as an unforgettable debut from a peerless new talent. —James Keith


6. SAULT, ‘Untitled (Rise)’

Sault   'Untitled (Rise)'

Label: Forever Living Originals

Released: September 18

A lot’s been made about SAULT’s Untitled projects this year, but its strongest element has to be the way in which the gospel traditions employed throughout gave both (Rise) and (Black Is) that backbone. Given the themes of Black resistance, joy, love, and death in a collectively tragic year, SAULT galvanised all of those feelings, pouring them into a cauldron of gospel-derived soul and conjuring a tonic laced with Cleo Sol’s vocals and Inflo’s arrangement. Personally, the beauty lies in the anonymity among all of the set’s contributors, allowing it to feel as though it belongs to us all. One for the history books, Untitled is a globalised testimony that’s made to feel localised by the way our own stories are reflected in its sound and messages. —Jesse Bernard


5. Cleo Sol, ‘Rose In The Dark’

Cleo Sol   'Rose In The Dark'

Label: Forever Living Originals

Released: March 27

Cleo Sol might be a new name to some in 2020, but the singer/songwriter from West London has been around since the late-2000s. Some of her earliest work includes a feature on Tinie Tempah’s “Tears” in 2008—a Channel U favourite—and on DaVinChe’s “Riding For Love” with Bashy a year later. An R&B-soul vocalist through and through, her runs and layered harmonies are impeccable, and that’s saying nothing of her empowering and uplifting songwriting. On debut LP Rose In The Dark—which features jazz, reggae and neo-soul production—Cleo Sol leaves her mark as one of British music’s brightest talents, an R&B icon-in-waiting. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson


4. Potter Payper, ‘Training Day 3’

Potter Payper   'Training Day 3'

Label: Self-released

Released: September 18

“I’m the best rapper in the world,” Potter Payper told us earlier this year, and this confidence in his craft can be heard throughout Training Day 3. Written during his most recent stint in prison, TD3—which entered the charts at No. 3, and is the third part of a legendary mixtape series—is a project UK rap needed in 2020. Taking us into his vivid world, Essex-raised Potter tackles topics such as addiction, domestic abuse, death, violence, mental health, imprisonment, and even love, underpinning superb production (and sampling) from the likes Sevaqk, 5ive Beatz, Chucks, RXR Music and more. What attracts people to Potter Payper is his brutal honesty on wax, which was brought to light when he was nominated for Best Hip-Hop at this year’s MOBO Awards. You should expect nothing but greatness from this point forward. —Minou Itseli

3. Headie One, ‘EDNA’

Headie One   'EDNA'

Label: Relentless Records

Released: October 9

EDNA is named after Headie One’s late mother, and something tells us she’d be super proud of what her son has achieved over the years. Since “Know Better” landed in 2018, a track alongside best friend RV that addressed the haters, Headie’s career has skyrocketed to heights even he can’t believe. On EDNA—his debut album—the MOBO-winning drill star lets the listener in, unlike on previous EPs and mixtapes: here, Headie opens up about losing his mum, jail life, redemption, and his past relationships with women. Featuring everyone from newcomers Kaash Paige and Ivorian Doll to Skepta and Future, EDNA isn’t a drill album as such, more an evolution of its biggest star whose style and flow will always to keep the genre alive. —Minou Itseli


2. J Hus, ‘Big Conspiracy’

J Hus   'Big Conspiracy'

Label: Black Butter Records

Released: January 24

J Hus is proof that affirmations and manifestations exist and can have real value in our lives. Big Conspiracy felt like an elevated experience for a number of reasons: sonically, there was far more cohesiveness in this album’s overall sound—with rich textures in the jazz-inspired tones—and for Hus himself, the party after Common Sense was halted briefly following a stint in prison but Big Conspiracy felt much like the rapper had finally manifested the life of spiritual freedom he’d been yearning for. The strength here is in the writing itself, which is as sharp and concise as ever, but subtly, the 25-year-old musician has moved far away from individualism and has found strength in collectivism and community. It’s no longer about just wanting the “Goodies” and settling for scraps but the “Fight Your Right” whilst triumphing. —Jesse Bernard


1. Nines, ‘Crabs In A Bucket’

Nines   'Crabs In A Bucket'

Label: Warner Records

Released: August 28

Every album Nines puts out into the ether is met with excitement because you just know you’re about to enjoy an exquisitely-produced listen. In a scene dominated by the rapid-paced rough of drill, Nines is here to remind us to slow it all the way down, much like his smooth-but-lazy flow. With a beat selection that could rival that of Rick Ross and MMG, the Church Road rapper gave us a 2020 stress-reliever in Crabs In A Bucket, a 17-track offering that—even with the flexin’, trappin’ and clappin’—you could put on and zone out from the world. From the trap lean of “Realist” with Nafe Smallz and Fundz, to the Afroswing of “Airplane Mode” with NSG, Nines showed that he can roll with the times, too, while still remaining his authentically laid-back self. Having scooped up at the MOBO Awards recently, and after Crabs... hit No. 1, Nines is getting all his flowers and we love to see it. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson


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