For a year that felt like gloom and doom, so many Kenyan music projects were released in 2020. Too many in fact.
So which ones should you listen to?
In the spirit of resilience, most Kenyan musicians did not let this unprecedented year mess their plans up. As Tetu Shani once said, I got plans for 2020… Corona will not stop me.
The lack of live gigs only seemed to fuel their creative fire. Instead of rocking stages, they were busy cooking in the music kitchen.
And every other week, another Kenyan artist would announce on Instagram they have a new project out. Meaning more music to chill with as we worked (and played) at home.
Because of this, I sampled plenty of new Kenyan albums and EPs in 2020. And there are many more I haven’t listened to – yet.
If I were to name them all, this article would turn into a book.
So let’s cut to the chase. The following albums and EPs impressed me from the first listen. Here are my top 10 – in order of release date.
This one came as a big surprise. After churning hits after hits, the biggest comeback in Kenyan music history gave us something we never expected.
Lucky You is melodic, dance-worthy and infused with Nyashinski’s legendary lyricism. Simply revolutionary. This Lucky You album review by Sanaa kwa Sana says it all.
Favourites: Lucky You, Traveler, Sweet Aroma
2. KUWE – Serro
The first thing that enticed me to this Kenyan album was the Voguesque black and white cover art. Serro was determined to release her debut album with a bang. (no pun intended)
3 years in the making, KUWE is a clear display of Serro’s versatility as an Afrofusion artist. Whether it’s sampling benga, bango, reggae, Afrosoul, or singing in 5 different African languages, Serro has done it all.
And yes, Mutoriah produced it.
Favourites: Okello, Hey Baby, Mama
Mwanzo might still be our favourite Sauti Sol album but Midnight Train pulled up in 2020 to steal the show. The globe-trotting Kenyan band have cemented themselves as African legends with this classic Kenyan album which pays homage to the past while looking forward towards Babylon.
Between tantalizing Afropop and rhumba trap records, surprise international features, and even putting Luhya on an Afro-house record, what’s not to love about Midnight Train.
Favourites: Insecure, Nenda Lote, Rhumba Japani
After an electrifying opening performance at Kilifi New Year 2020, The Kaya Collective translated their explosive energy into the studio. Their eponymous debut album is a mchuzi mix of punk rock, benga, jazz, reggae, and everything in between. It feels like listening to the Kenyan-British band live for the first time.
Favourites: Nairobeat, Tell Me, The Beast Was Slain
I first knew about this female Kenyan musician through a Reform Radio Nairobi Connect mix by DJ Lasta. And after hearing the chakacha laden Mwana wa Gorofa, I was hooked!
You will be lured in by Nabalayo’s honey vocals, Swahili lyricism, and wild experimentation with all kinds of sounds that will surely changanya you.
Favourites: Mwana wa Gorofa, Cry me a river, Gari ya moshi
What a blessing we got from Bensoul while we were dealing with constricting curfews and being locked down at home. Qwarantunes was made during the quarantine season and it includes everything we love about Papa Soul: soulful ballads, 420 anthems, and naughty references from the big Dzaddy of the year.
Favourite: Forget You
After a whole year of releasing one song a month in his OSAM challenge, Tetu Shani finally released his debut EP in 2020.
JBWFDMWB is the epitome of Kenyan alternative rock that might remind you of those X FM days – with a touch of AfroLatin. It was recorded at Fadhilee Itulya’s Nairobi penthouse, where the Omutibo King also recorded his second album Shindu Shi.
Favourite: Just Because We Fight Doesn’t Mean We’re Broken
Now, this is what you call music therapy for the soul. Njoki Karu’s heavenly voice and ethereal melodies swept me away from planet earth and took me to bliss in 22 minutes. This autobiography of her heart will do the same for you.
FIRE is that project we never knew we needed. Ayrosh seduces both you and your lover in Gikuyu while DJ Mura lays down the most sensual R&B and lo-fi beats ever. Basically, this 4-track bedroom EP is absolute fire!
Sazile EP by Gondwana Ke label closes the year as the golden sunset does to a glorious day. Winyo’s sweet voice, Kato Change’s signature guitars, and Suraj’s superb production combine to create authentic Kenyan house music that will make you dance!
What else do you expect from the musicians who made the Kenyan house anthem Abiro?
Since these couldn’t fit in this top 10 list, here are some special mentions:
- My Way by Wendy Kay – Four tracks, four producers, one lead singer. My Way is our official introduction to the soulful songstress who keeps on reinventing herself.
- Nairobass by XPRSO – The NuNairobi producer collective gave us an eclectic and bass-driven project in 2020. From the club popping Party to the conscious track Thinking, it has something for every youngin.
- Odes by Queens and BLK2541 by Waithaka – In 2020, the US-based prolific producer broke a record: two albums in one year. While Odes is an all-female Kenyan album, BLK2541 features both boys and girls from Afrika and the diaspora.
- Vikky Secrets by Steph Kapela – Steph’s sultry R&B side comes out to play on his debut album. Expect plenty of Trey Songz’ Trigga vibes on this one.
- Njaa ya Nai by RIZE – They say there’s a certain hunger for success when you’re living in the fast and furious city of Nairobi. Rising star RIZE puts it out there in Gikuyu, Swahili, and English while featuring Steph the rapper (who also released her own Change EP in 2020).
I know I have barely scratched the surface with this list. They are too many gems lying underneath.
If your favourite project isn’t mentioned here, please share it in the comments with a short and sweet synopsis.
So, which 2020 Kenyan album or EP took you through this gloomy year?
P.S. If you want some more Kenyan magic, then check out the best Kenyan albums and EPs of 2021 here.