MDR’s Top Artists of 2020

In a year that has been undoubtedly treacherous for many artists, it didn’t stop them from shining bright. If anything, the global pandemic of 2020 has brought many musicians much closer to their fans.

We were given a sneak peek into their ‘real lives’ – we’ve seen their bedrooms, what they were eating, what they were listening to… We were even treated to a number of live performances right from their own front rooms. And so, we thought it fitting to cast the net out to our Melodic Distraction family to see which artists kept them sane throughout this year. From hip-hop royalty The Alchemist through to the illustrious supergroup on almost EVERYONE’S lips, SAULT, we’ve found ourselves turning to our icons now more than ever.

Kush Jones
Chosen by Benny Maths (Black Beacon Sound)

Big shouts to Anz, who’s exceptional bass-heavy production and DJ skills have seen her enjoy a phenomenal year, as well as Sherelle, who’s marvellous, genre-traversing talent on the turntables have thrust her into well-deserved prominence. And a massive shout to the entire Juke Bounce Werk crew, who have consistently put out some of the best music and mixes this year that you can treat yourself to. If you’re not already on to any of these people, then you need to get to know!

Whilst it’s hard to pick an artist of the year from a collection of so many amazing heads, I’ve got to pick one, and that has to be Kush Jones. A member of the aforementioned JBW collective, he’s been nothing short of prolific, with 12 solo releases, 1 collaboration and 9 singles coming out in 2020. Each has demonstrated his incredible ability to excel in a musical range that encompasses pure bangers to intriguingly enchanting wonders, whilst also exemplifying his love and passion for Chicago footwork.

His ‘Strictly For My CDJz’ series is a vital listen for any DJ out there, providing enough ammunition to slay any club, and his final release of the year, the ‘Nice Day’ LP, is a fine display of the Brooklyn producer’s unquestionable talents. Add to this his magnificent show on Rinse FM, the wealth of phenomenal mixes he’s put out and the way he supports and champions those around him, it’s clear that Kush Jones has stood astride 2020 like the electronic music colossus he is. 

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Charli XCX
Chosen by Kate Hazeldine (LUNA/MDR Producer)

If you’d have told me back in 2013 that my favourite artist of 2020 was going to be Charli XCX, I’d have laughed in your face. You mean the girl who wears a school uniform on stage and screams at her fans? Nah, far too ‘cool’ for that (or so the little indie kid in a tie-dye crop-top thought)… 

However, it’s the incredible evolution Charli has undergone since debut album ‘True Romance’ through to this year’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ that makes her so. I began liking Charli XCX when she launched her label Vroom Vroom Recordings in 2016. The lead single, also called ‘Vroom Vroom’, really hit the spot – thanks to collaborations with the likes of SOPHIE and BloodPop, her new glistening and glitchy sound sure yanked my attention. Fast forward 4 years and the deconstructed hyper-pop sounds of her latest record have totally saved me during lockdown. She soundtracked every single run I went on (which eventually led me to competing in a global running race – thanks Charli, really don’t think I could’ve done it without you). ‘party 4 u’ got me through any sorrow, ‘pink diamond’ through anger, and ‘forever’ through the nice squishy parts.

Not only did she make the whole thing during lockdown whilst documenting the process with her fans, she also used artwork submitted by us AND THEN shared ALL of the stems with us. Making a remix of ‘claws’ kept me sane for about three weeks. It’s a truly personal connection she builds and makes you feel like you’re with her every step of the way. I LOVE YOU, CHARLI.

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The Alchemist
Chosen by General Jimmy (Check The Rhime)

When The Alchemist first rocked up in the late nineties, his identity owed more to his peers like DJ Premier and Havoc. These days, he’s completely in his own lane and it’s hard to think of another hip-hop producer with not just the same longevity, but who has actually got better.

If Black thought’s career has been about steady progression to the GOAT MC, Al is pretty much the same. His collab with Freddie Gibbs, ‘Alfredo’, is one of the best-produced hip-hop albums of the century. He’s also made some bangers with Conway the Machine, as well as two solo albums this year. The best hip-hop beats are as descriptive as the best verses, and the depth to this guy’s sound is akin to a Shakespearan vocabulary. 

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Chosen by Jordan Swales (TWGX)

An artist I’ve somewhat recently stumbled across but am totally intrigued by, Berlin-based (obviously) Perila falls into this new emerging wave of ambient producers affiliated with a record label, which has become something of an insta-buy for me; Experience Ltd. The music from the label has this cold/warm, intimate/distant quality to it that I find really intriguing. A delightful marriage of digital (often a little glitchy) and analogue sounds as well as a solid serving of deep sub-bass, which is always pleasing to this child of the mid-2000s dubstep scene. We’ll be serving up a selection of tracks from the label on our December show on MD if this sounds interesting to you!

Admittedly, I’ve only listened to one and a half Perila releases. Her album on my much loved Documenting Sound series by Boomkat entitled ‘Everything Is Already There’, and her collab album with Ulla (another recent TWGX fav of this year) under the name LOG, titled ‘LOG ET3RNAL’. The former was penned into weeks as a lockdown project and moves between several moods and instrument choices. It has this sort of vague emptiness to it with a sort of warm human core lurking in there, for those willing to hone in on the music. I’ve yet to properly sink my teeth into the LOG record, but so far it feels like an exploration of dub techno, a genre I would claim to love if I didn’t find it so… Derivative? Anyway, as such I’m digging this record, it sounds like someone’s playing a dub techno vinyl which has been played to near death over countless years on a broken record player that can only play at half speed. What’s not to love?

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Chosen by Snoodman Deejay (Good For The Soul/MDR Producer)

After their dramatic arrival last year, one steeped in anonymity and mystery, Sault cemented their status as one of the most exciting acts around, whilst simultaneously serving up a poignant reminder of the centrality of Black artists and the politics of resistance to dance music.  

Very little is known about the group – rumours abound over the group’s membership and production team, whilst a number of high profile names (including the likes of Mercury Prize winner Michael Kiwanuka) have received guest artist credits. 

Rumours aside, the musicianship on show is staggeringly good. From the emotive, soulful R&B of tracks such as ‘Wildfires’ (my own personal highlight), to the swirling, Philly-soul inspired orchestration and afrobeat infused percussion featured on ‘Strong’, the results are compelling throughout. Perhaps what makes Sault such an outstanding and pertinent group though, is that this musical dynamism is matched by a powerful lyricism detailing the experience of Blackness, combining pain and sorrow with images of resistance, liberation and hope.

Both ‘Untitled (Black Is)’ & ‘Untitled (Rise)’ are not only brilliant albums, but also powerful acts of cultural resistance. They serve as a timely reminder that much of the music that we enjoy has been created and produced by those who have, more often than not, been subject to oppression both directly and indirectly by our society, even to this day. We should not only enjoy their music, but heed their words, their celebration of Blackness, their outrage at injustices, and apply them to our day to day lives.

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Chosen by Mo Ayoub (Voice of Channel 4 & Sounds Like Mo)

I couldn’t even begin to tell you my apathy to describing this year for the sake of dramatic affect again…not enough hyphens or patience’ll make me do it. Our regular tracking of the sun’s appearance and lack of’s been broken by the dread loop of indoor time and screen addiction.

On air, new music’s essential for radio hosts yet, in Zoom and WhatsApp-funnelled conversations away from the mic, our longing to see smiles sans screens and float through the bass-laden clouds of clubland, we craved trances of comfort; something to power down senses and allow you to show how you feel honestly.

Every Budgie release this year’s matched each splintering of emotion pound-for-pound as the days unwound. Brazil got the Panty Soakers treatment for a fifth edition that took us on both bittersweet ride through pre-Pan Ipanema and Ilhabela and helped fans of the LA-Based producer soak in the endless orange skies of Spring/Summer through our window. September tried to cut the sun off, but not without doubling down on that eternal feeling of West Coast warmth found on Late Summer Soakers with an added production credit via Action Bronson’s mid-glow up project Only For Dolphins.

The faith stress test is eternal – often manifesting itself in gospel music aimed at the religiously inclined, however, Budgie’s Billboard Award-certified production draws all ears to listen for hope and tap into it’s positivity that’s equally as powerful a set opener in our IMVU-ified world as it is a downtime soundtrack on it’s millionth replay. The perfect round-off to it all being Holy Ghost Zone II.

There’s a reason why he will never tell you the sample. His talent’s beyond comparison.

Basically, Budgie saved me from 2020.

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