2020 has been a hell of a year, to say the least. Among other things, the COVID pandemic shut down the concert industry, and many venues were forced to shut their door, including the beloved Dive Bar & Lounge in Austin, where for the last eight years Scratched Vinyl and Hip Hop Hooray had thrown our annual SXSW showcase. Artists were forced to be creative, and many turned to the internet to find the next best thing, streaming live concerts on a myriad of platforms. It also meant that a lot of artists just went to work in their home studios, as a lot more acts had multiple releases in 2020. It was also a year of confrontation, whether it be with political and racial unrest across the country, or the world of indie hip hop having to face up to the knowledge that a lot of celebrated artists were actually abusers of women. There was a lot to process, but as always, brilliant music helped us through every step of it. It’s hard every year to make the final list, but this year was especially tough, with so many musicians making brilliant albums in 2020. This is also a good time to remind you that streaming does not pay musicians bills, so if you like any of these albums, please buy merch directly from the artists or through sites like Bandcamp. With that said, here are the releases we returned to the most.

20. Marlowe – 2 – Mello Music Group

Two years ago, producer L’Orange teamed up with emcee Solemn Brigham to form the group Marlowe. Now in 2020, they not only proved that the first album wasn’t just a one-off, they built upon that foundation and came back better than ever. L’Orange’s beats have never bumped this hard as he comes with some of his best vintage sample flips, and Brigham is putting on a clinic on how to pack information into your verses and still make them accessible – at first you might just think he’s talking some shit, but then when you start to listen a little more closely, you realize he’s sneaking in pieces of his autobiography, he’s making keen social observations, and he’s got some sharp political criticism. Their chemistry is second to none, and 2 is just one of the most fun albums to listen to in 2020.

19. Rhys Langston – Language Arts Unit – POW Recordings

Los Angeles artist Rhys Langston had been hinting at a major project for the last couple of years, but things finally came to fruition with Language Arts Unit. Langston described the album as “a rap textbook of textbook raps coloring outside the lines,” and to drive that point home, he also released a 100-page companion book to go with it. Together, they form this dense and purposeful project that is there to simultaneously let Langston express some personal feelings about race and ethnic identity, politics, technology, Los Angeles, and hip hop, just to name a few, but to also challenge you as a listener on several levels. On top of all of the complicated lyrical work on the album, Langston is producing the majority of the album, along with a couple of assists from alexanderrrowland, kató, and LXMONGRAB, who come together to find this sweet spot that balances between this laidback soulful vibe and some paranoid and eerie synth-based production which matches the lyrics perfectly.

18. mr. hong & pastels – café a.m./café p.m. – Jazz Hop Café

mr. hong has been making music out of the Bay Area for the last five years, and he’s shown a tremendous amount of growth in that time period. For his latest project, he teamed with Melbourne musician pastels to create a two volume series of EPs called café a.m. and café p.m. Over the course of these two volumes, they take us on an instrumental journey that soundtracks a couple meeting at the elevator in their apartment building, going to get a cup of coffee together, and then hitting it off so well that they spend to whole day and night together. mr. hong and pastels are consummate musicians that create some really beautiful cool jazz-inspired down tempo music, but more than anything on this project, they just do a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and butterflies of taking a chance on new love.

17. Love Moor – Motions – Self-Released

Love Moor is a neo-soul artist from Birmingham who has really been putting in the work since her last album, Simp Girl, came out in 2017, playing live and just honing her craft. On Motions, she’s really coming into her own as both a songwriter and vocalist. The real test here is that Moor never has a big moment vocally, and she doesn’t tackle any subject material outside of your everyday sort of “life and love,” and yet she manages to make the entire album compelling from start to finish. She is giving you a really honest look at herself as she tries to find love and make a career for herself as an artist and to make her family proud. Moor has a great ear for hooks, and she’s really clever with her phrasing to create a few earworms that will stick with you after the album is over. Moor has a really strong voice, even if it isn’t a “big” voice, and she has a great sense of melody, injecting her R&B with touches of jazz and reggae voicings, finding this balance between subverting your expectations with the melody but still creating something memorable that you could sing along to. This all adds up to an album that will sneak up on you, but it’s so smart musically and so emotionally honest, it will really find its way into your heart and mind.

16. Zebra Katz – Less is Moor – ZFK Records

Chances are that if you know Zebra Katz, it’s because the Brooklyn artist went viral back in 2012 with a single called “Ima Read.” It was fun, but in 2020, Zebra Katz is moving away from any sort of novelty and instead is giving you some of his most urgent work. For Less is Moor, he works with producers to combine the New York ballroom scene and infuse it with drum and bass and jungle. The result is an album that immediately hits you with a pulsing urgent energy and doesn’t let up until you get to the end. It feels like a dark and sweaty dance floor, in all the best ways possible, where everybody is feeding off the energy of the music and then each other as you all move to the rhythm. Katz has a delivery on the mic that sounds like he’s trying to have a very serious conversation with you while you’re at the club, with a very clear low voice and direct cadence that lets the lyrics slide right over the booming bass and drums straight into your ears. And yes, there are times when Katz is just having fun and letting loose, but there is also room for serious discussions about race and sexuality as well. It’s an album where rage and celebration live so close to each other, the line starts to blur, and you being to see the dance floor as the revolutionary space that it is.

15. Small Bills – Don’t Play It Straight – Mello Music Group

Small Bills is the new duo featuring New York emcee ELUCID and Michigan producer The Lasso. While ELUCID has been part of several different projects over the years, he has never worked with a producer like Lasso, who’s wild and varied approach to music pushes ELUCID to switch up his flow and delivery in ways that he’s never had to before. Lasso is throwing everything at the wall, from Suicide-esque synth-punk to dub to reggae to free jazz to psychedelic rock to experimental electronic music, somehow all reigned in under the umbrella of hip hop. Throughout the journey of these fourteen tracks, ELUCID is creating intelligent discussion around issues of race, capitalism, politics, religion, and philosophy. Everything comes together to make an album that is really progressive and strange and challenging, but it still finds a way to be just accessible enough that you won’t run away when you first press play. It was an exciting collaboration on paper, but it’s even better in practice.

14. Serengeti – AJAI/With Greg From Deerhoof – Fake Four/Joyful Noise

A lot of artists found time to work on multiple projects this year, but few gave us such distinct projects like Chicago emcee Serengeti that also worked on such high levels. On AJAI, he worked with Kenny Segal to open up the world of his beloved character Kenny Dennis to bring in a new character, Ajai, who is obsessed with the world of hip hop street fashion. Over the course of the album, we get a deep dive into the consumer-driven world and look at how chasing the next hot fashion can become an addiction. If that wasn’t enough, Serengeti also gave us With Greg From Deerhoof, which found him working with Greg Saunier from the band Deerhoof. Giving himself a new challenge, Greg would email Serengeti new tracks, and then Serengeti would hit record before listening to anything and just jump in and start rhyming. The result is an abstract album, both musically and lyrically, that is wildly different than anything else you’ll hear this year.

13. Moor Mother & billy woods – BRASS – Backwoodz Studioz

Back in June of this year, billy woods recorded an album as part of the group Armand Hammer alongside ELUCID, Shrines. On that album, Philly artist Moor Mother guested on one track, which then led to her working with woods on a single for Adult Swim. With nothing else announced, most people thought that was it for their collaboration, but secretly they were working on an album together, BRASS, which came out just under the wire to make it onto this list. The album is just as challenging as you might expect coming from these two artists, as they bring in elements of free jazz, psychedelic rock, and experimental electronic music all in the name of hip hop. With songs like “Blues Remembers Everything The Country Forgot,” “Arkeology,” and “Mom’s Gold,” the two artists on the mic are giving you history and philosophy lessons through stream-of-consciousness poetry, making you work for the knowledge, but rewarding greatly when you meet them on their level.

12. K1NG ELJAY & Inkline – Kintsugi – Self-Released

Nerves Baddington member Inkline might have recently moved from Birmingham to Denver, but he stay connected to the city he came up in by reaching out to K1NG ELJAY to work on Kintsugi. The project takes its title from a Japanese word that refers to the “art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.” What this means in practical terms is that not only did ELJAY and Inkline just bond over a love of hip hop, they bonded over their ability to overcome some struggles, whether they be mental health issues, addiction, or anything else. They don’t want to hide those scars, but to be proud that they have made it through to the other side, and by talking about it, we can hopefully start more conversations and make people realize that these shouldn’t be stigmatized issues. Of course, none of this would matter if they didn’t also just come with some dope bars and rhymes – which they have in abundance. While both artists work as emcees and producers, for this project ELJAY is handling the rhymes and Inkline is dropping the beats. The two have amazing chemistry together, with Inkline coming at you with incredibly funky and inventive beats that then encourage ELJAY to hit you with some of his most acrobatic and varied flows, dropping in clever punchlines and pop culture references, while never losing sight of these bigger picture issues. If that wasn’t all, they come back with a bonus posse cut featuring Erthling., OZU, ChriStyle, Inkline (on the mic), and D Gut, giving you a taste of how deep and talented the bench is in the Magic City. Oh, and did I mention that they get this all done in just seven tracks?

11. Shrimpnose – A Ghost From A Memory/Before It’s Too Late – Friends of Friends/DOMEOFDOOM

Minneapolis producer Shrimpnose has been on the come up for a few years, but 2020 is the year where he reached the next level by dropping not one, but two instrumental LPs. He manages to do this by aligning the experimental nature of his downtempo music with some deep emotional content as he uses these albums as a way to express with grief, loss, angst, and ultimately healing and comfort. Shrimpnose is experimenting with source material, never satisfied to ride out the same boom bap rhythms or string samples you’ve heard a thousand times before, but even though he’s switching things up and trying unusual sounds, it’s always done with a purpose, and he’s always making sure that it lines up with the emotional journey of the albums.

10. Third Root – Passion of the Poets – Self-Released

San Antonio group Third Root was built on the Black and Brown alliance of emcees Easy Lee and MexStep, along with DJ Chicken George. Over the years, they’ve been working to create hip hop that represents the unique heritage of Texas and to educate the masses along the way about the issues effecting their communities. It’s the type of music that you get when your dope emcees are also passionate educators during the day. On Passion of the Poets, the group made the album that they had been building toward. Working with their secret weapon, producer Adrian Quesada, they hit on everything from the blues to Tejano to screw to boom bap, all while dropping a ton of knowledge about the history and culture of Texas that so often gets brushed aside. It all comes together with amazing chemistry, feels so distinctly Texan, and above all else, it BUMPS.

9. NNAMDI – BRAT – Sooper Records

Chicago artist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya stepped into the spotlight in 2017, when he released his solo album, DROOL. Since that time, the multi-instrumentalist/producer/vocalist/emcee dropped his last name and came back with an even more challenging and adventurous album in BRAT. Where Ogbonnaya really outdoes himself on BRAT is that while this anything goes approach is still there, what you won’t realize until after you listen to it all the way through is that he’s learned to further hone his skills as a songwriter. He has figured out how to corral himself in such a way that while you get the excitement of jumping from drill to punk to jazz to post-rock in just a few short steps, you also get an album that has been carefully composed to build from the first second you press play all the way until the album finishes twelve tracks later. Over the course of the album, Ogbonnaya is rapping and singing about everything from mental health to religion to race relations in his city to his personal relationships with friends and family. As he’s doing all of this, Ogbonnaya is dealing with the heavy subject matter by cutting the tension with a sarcastic and absurd sense of humor, one with a penchant for pop culture references. It’s wildly inventive as he defies all genre classification and just throws all of the different musical ideas into the pool, but it’s also incredibly thoughtful in the way everything unfolds and speaks alongside these important personal issues. BRAT is a moving and heartfelt piece of art that has few peers. NNAMDÏ has elevated the game with this one.

8. RoyKinsey – Kinsey: A Memoir – Self-Released

RoyKinsey is a Chicago artist who first made a splash in the early 2010s, releasing three albums by 2013. He then took some time off and remained quiet until 2018, when he came back with Blackie: A Story By Roy Kinsey. He followed that up in 2020 with his most personal album to date, KINSEY: A Memoir. What immediately grabbed my attention before I even got to Kinsey’s powerful words was the interesting production style across the album, courtesy of Wildersee. It’s never something that’s easily classified as drill, boom bap, or whatever. It exists in this modern in-between space, where these sharp drum machine beats combine with beautiful soul and jazz to create this introspective sound, but it also retains an edge to it. This sets the stage for Kinsey perfectly, who really takes not just this album, but his career to the next level with his lyricism. Kinsey pulls off the challenging feat of creating an emotionally charged and personal album without ever giving over to the emotion. He gives you enough information to let you walk in his shoes and see how he learned to navigate different familial and social spaces, how he crafted his identity, and he takes you through the highs and the lows of the journey. In doing so, he never goes too deep on the feeling, because he doesn’t just want this to be an appeal to your emotion, and he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. Instead, he balances this personal tale with steps back to look at the bigger picture, and how systemic issues like race and religion affected his journey. While doing all of this, Kinsey also achieves the rare feat of making an album that’s accessible, with some pop hooks that you can sink your teeth into, that also serves as this teachable narrative.

7. See’J Foster – HiSonGreWings – Self-Released

These days, Mobile artist See’J Foster is best known as one-third of the group Basshead Jazz, but when his father passed away unexpectedly in March of 2019, he knew he had to dust off this solo project that he had been working on and see it to fruition. Over the course of the album, Foster is not only exploring the complicated relationship he had with his father, but also taking stock of his own personal journey as an artist over the last few years – moving to New York to shoot his shot, and then realizing that he was better off building with those he loved back home in Alabama. It’s an album that is distinctly Southern, with a lineage that can be traced back to the Dungeon Family, but it remains mostly on the mellow side as Foster reflects on the ups and downs of his life and what his friends and family have meant to him. It’s an album that is best listened from start to finish so that you can go on this journey with Foster and appreciate what he’s been through.

6. Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet! – SomeOthaShip Connect

Back in 2010, Los Angeles artist Georgia Anne Muldrow introduced us to an alias known as Jyoti with the album Ocotea, bringing us into the world of avant-garde jazz. As it turns out, this name was bestowed upon her than none other than Alice Coltrane herself. Jyoti is a Sanskrit word meaning “light.” She returned once again to this name in 2013 with the album Denderah. While she’s been prolific and creative in all the years in between, she hadn’t returned to Jyoti until now. Superficially, the big differences on this album compared to previous Jyoti albums are the addition of Muldrow’s vocals, and a guest appearance from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. That said, it’s not like the addition of vocals means you’re getting any pop songs on this album. This is still an avant-garde jazz project, and when Muldrow is deploying her vocals here, she’s usually doing one of two things – either using her voice as an instrument and layering syllables much in the way she’s voicing chords on the piano, or she’s reciting some abstract poetry that’s going to make you want to listen very closely so that you can absorb the lyrics and meditate on their meaning. Musically, while Muldrow is jumping around to different instruments and making herself sound like a really tight jazz ensemble, you also get a sense that piano is where she’s doing most of her composition, as it leads the way on most songs on the album. Where this album really carries on the foundation from the first two Jyoti albums is that this is a spiritual and mental exercise in music that requires some really deep and attentive listening.

5. The Visionaries – V – Self-Released

It’s been fourteen years since the last time the Los Angeles supergroup of Key-Kool, Dannu, Lord Zen, LMNO, 2Mex, and DJ Rhettmatic came together like Voltron to bless our ears with an LP. Now that everything has finally lined up for them, they’re making it count. From the introduction to the album, delivered by hip hop activist Harry Allen, The Visionaries make sure you understand what this group is all about, and that’s six men of different ethnic and religious backgrounds coming together over a love of hip hop and each other. This isn’t just a group, it’s a brotherhood. From that bond, it was easy for them to get back together and trust each other to make this album right. It starts with them not trying to reinvent themselves in 2020, but instead just sticking to the hip hop that they love and came up on and making it as dope as possible. This means that Rhettmatic is handling production and scratching duties, with a couple of assists from Adrian Younge and Slopfunkdust on the beats, and DJ Ghost and Kiefer adding some additional bass. The beats are big, fat West Coast soul-sampling boom bap, the kind that will sound great pumping out of your car speakers or bumping your backyard cookout (when we can safely have those again). On the mic, these emcees are coming at you with their trademark hopeful vision, spreading messages of love and togetherness, tempered with an eye on the real world, and acknowledging the very real struggles they’ve all had to go through, and all the work they know we all have to do.

4. Big $ilky – Big $ilky Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 – Self-Released

In a lot of ways, 2020 can be summed up with a tale of two EPs, Big $ilky Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. When Psalm One ang Angel Davanport came together in April to drop their first EP under this new name, it was mostly about saying goodbye to the past, specifically to Henny B, one of the founding members of Rapper Chicks who unexpectedly passed away, but also about re-establishing themselves as a duo and looking forward. Fast forward a couple of months, and not only was their current hometown of Minneapolis reeling from the murder of George Floyd, but the Twin Cities hip hop scene was facing the music as multiple allegations of harassment and abuse against a number of artists came to light. People began to look to Psalm One, who had already been through the ringer with Rhymesayers, for leadership, and when Big $ilky Vol. 2 dropped, she and Angel rose to the occasion and spoke to all of the anger and frustration that fell at their feet. Nowhere does it hit harder than on the closing track, “Eat Your Veggies,” which sums up 2020 pretty nicely when Psalm rhymes, “They gone kill me if I say it/I’m gone kill me if I don’t/Everybody ain’t that fuckin woke/Just drink ya whiskey/Read a book and eat your veggies/And when a real bitch speaking/Can’t nobody check me.” Name a more iconic duo than Big $ilky. I’ll wait.

3. Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma, and Divorce – Auto Reverse Records

Few artists can fuck with Open Mike Eagle’s run through the 2010s. Starting with Unapologetic Art Rap in 2010 and working his way through Brickbody Kids Still Daydream in 2017, he established himself as a unique and creative voice in an ever crowded field. Eagle followed that album up with an EP, but then focused on a TV show for comedy central with Baron Vaughn, The New Negroes. Every seemed well on the surface, but things are always different behind closed doors. He channeled all of his personal troubles of the last year or two into Anime, Trauma, and Divorce. It’s weird listening to the album, because it’s not like Eagle hasn’t been open and personal on his albums before. However, in the past, while he’s been open about dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and day to day things like changing his son’s diapers, and he has talked about societal issues like racism and the economy, this is the first time that the album feels like it never even really leaves the house. In this way, it can feel a bit like a claustrophobic listening experience, but I mean that in a good way, because this is an album that is about ripping the band aid off and cleaning the wound so that it can heal properly. The anime is there as a coping mechanism, to try to relate to a piece of pop culture to help process the major life changes and the trauma involved, but you don’t necessarily need to be up on the particular series Eagle is referencing to understand the bigger picture of these songs. For the album, Eagle is able to piece together a soundscape that ranges from meditative and reflexive to eerie and unsettling to urgent and frustrated. This fits Eagle to a tee, as he tries to make sense of everything that had been happening behind the scenes while everything seemed peachy on the outside. This can include everything from the anxiety of getting close to forty and wondering about his relevance and the state of his career in hip hop, to the ways in which money and business can mess up personal relationships, to yes, divorce, and all the anxieties that came baked within, everything from finding a new apartment to focusing on the moment when you knew your marriage was over. While this isn’t a happy album to listen to, Eagle is able to strike a tone that is fairly even-handed, all things considered. He allows himself to feel sad and angry, but he doesn’t ask for your pity and he doesn’t try to start any new fights. He even finds some room for humor without sounding tasteless, with songs like “wtf is self care,” where he takes a moment to laugh at the suggestions that people and society at large offer up as ways to take care of yourself. So while this isn’t a “fun” album like other Eagle albums are, it is an incredibly mature and therapeutic listening experience.

2. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)/Untitled (Rise) – Forever Living Originals

Most of the time, when you come across a new artist, they want you to all about them. Anything to pique your interest. When they don’t, it’s usually a sign that it’s a young independent artist who doesn’t have their stuff together. Every so often, though, you come across a group like London group SAULT, who are making some amazing music that is so intense and well-planned that you are only left to assume their anonymity is on purpose, leaving you to only discuss the music. Well, with not one, but two brilliant albums out this year in Untitled (Black Is) and Unittled (Rise). Using an avantgarde, collective approach to the music, they bring in elements of hip hop, soul, Afrobeat, R&B, gospel, rock, blues, jazz, and electronic music as they work their way through intelligent discussions that range from love and religion to police brutality and protesting and fighting for your rights. Over the course of both albums, you move from angry protest songs to slow laments to celebratory dance numbers. The musicianship is top notch, the messaging is on point, and it all comes together to make for two of the most compelling listens of the year.

1. Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle – Don Giovanni

Mourning [A] BLKstar is group from Clevend founded about five years ago by poet/activist Ra Washington. After releasing their first album, The Possible, the group expanded into the lineup that remains today. The group began touring the Midwest and East Coast as they released their next album, which then led them to Don Giovanni Records, who signed them and released their 2019 album, The Reckoning. In 2020, they released their strongest album to date with The Cycle. It’s not very often that I get caught off guard and blown away by an album at the same time, but that’s exactly what happened with The Cycle. There are a few reasons for that, but mainly it was a combination of the just the raw power, energy, and emotion that comes blaring through on the opening track, “If I Can If I May,” all the way through the closing of “4 Days,” combined with a blend of styles that comes through in a completely distinct and unique artistic voice. The group features three vocalists, who are all powerhouses on the mic, along with horns, guitar, and drums, who all give the album that live energy they were seeking to capture, but the group is also experimenting with electronic and hip hop beats to push their sound into some interesting places. In this experimentation, Ra Washington played around with some effects pedals and ending up adding this hissing bass tone as almost a constant presence throughout the album. Not only does this sonically give the album some body, but Washington also saw it as a metaphor for the ways that people of color in America constantly have to rise above the noise to create something beautiful and life affirming. As the album plays out, you get neo-soul, jazz, blues, gospel, indie rock, hip hop, and electronic elements, all mixed up into their own unique concoction. You’ve got three vocalists in James Long, LaToya Kent, and Kyle Kidd who can all belt out some soulful and heart wrenching songs that will knock your hat back, but they are also delivering some really vivid and thought provoking lyrics speaking on the state of race, gender, and politics in the country. On top of that, you’ve got trumpet and trombone matching these vocalists power and providing the melodic balance, but also often taking the music into soul/jazz territory informed by the likes of Sun Ra or Donald Byrd, but also into the raw funk of Sly and the Family Stone. Round it out with an incredible rhythm section, and you’ve got an album that sits somewhere in between Shabazz Palaces, Erykah Badu and TV on the Radio, but it’s all their own. The Cycle is an album that completely knocked me on my ass, because I was not prepared for the incredible vision and passion of Mourning [A] BLKstar. It’s an album that is at once completely exciting and engaging to listen to, but also so densely packed with thought-provoking lyricism and complex arrangements. No album spoke more to the experience of living through 2020, and it’s an album I will still be unpacking for years to come.