Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists
Postcards’ second studio album was one of the first releases of 2020. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 January 2021

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists

Underground sounds: The best records of 2020 by alternative Arab artists
  • Records from Lebanon, Tunisia, Kuwait, Palestine, Morocco and the UAE made our list this year


‘The Good Soldier’

The Lebanese trio’s second studio album was one of the first releases of 2020, hitting the shelves in early January and ahead of several planned tours that were eventually called off for obvious reasons. The record was a prescient opener to a year that would not only see the world descend into pandemic pandemonium, but also the band’s hometown of Beirut — already crippled by economic collapse and civil unrest — succumb to widespread destruction. “The Good Soldier” is a fitting soundtrack to the city’s painful ordeal, weaving shoegaze-y, melancholic instrumental landscapes and memorable vocal hooks into a sonic sculpture that turns catharsis into an art form.



Flugen is a one-woman musical army led by the multi-instrumental musical genius of Maya Aghniadis. With “Poupayee,” she has fashioned a stunning alchemy of mostly instrumental pieces that take the listener on a wildly fascinating journey. Mesmerizing tribal beats punctuate passages stepped in dreamy piano and flute-driven melodies, never once letting up in their command of one’s attention. Aghniadis’ music has been labeled as ‘ethno-electro jazz,’ but her latest record makes it strikingly obvious that she’s an artist who will continue to elude categorization with her passion for experimentation.

Sons of Yusuf

‘Shaykh the World’

Kuwaiti brothers Ya’koob and Abdul Rahman Al-Refaie started hip-hop outfit Sons of Yusuf in 2011, and after a string of gripping singles and last year’s EP collaboration with Shafiq Husayn, the siblings finally dropped their first full-length album. Released at the height of the pandemic in April, the two rhyme-slingers offered a much-needed dose of positivity and culturally incisive wit to music fans in a world justifiably enveloped by doom and gloom. “Shaykh the World” is a major achievement for the region’s hip-hop scene, and absolutely essential listening.

Emel Mathlouthi 

‘The Tunis Diaries’

The singer was about to depart her native Tunis and fly back home to New York City when the international travel ban took hold. She capitalized on being stranded by borrowing a classical guitar and laptop, and taking to the rooftop of the building she was staying in. The fruits of her labor became a captivating double album that sees the critically acclaimed songwriter offer up solo renditions of some of her best-known tracks, as well as compelling covers including Nirvana’s “Something in the Way,” System of a Down’s “Aerials,” and David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” In stark contrast to last year’s theatrical, electronica-laden masterpiece “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning,” Mathlouthi’s haunting vocal performances this time around draw the listener in with their quiet intensity, as the guitarist’s delicate but deliberate plucking keeps the intimate aura of the proceedings on track at all times.

Faraj Suleiman

‘Better Than Berlin’

The indefatigable Palestinian composer and pianist found form and sense in a chaotic year with a riveting new LP, building on a fast-growing musical legacy of successful releases that earned him an artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, where he lives. Suleiman balances emotion and instrumental mastery in an alluring, seamless whirlwind of Western jazz interspersed with Eastern musical influences, playful Arabic lyrics and hints of his penchant for rock music. “Better Than Berlin” is a spellbinding showcase that hits all the right notes and captures the musical ability of an innovative instrumentalist firing on all cylinders.

Bab L’Bluz 


This Moroccan-French quartet plays with such intent and cohesion that it’s hard to believe they’ve been together for only two short years. This debut LP is a powerful declaration of the band’s intention to “reclaim the blues for North Africa.” The enchanting vocal lines delivered by charismatic singer Yousra Mansour are expertly navigated by the delectable grooves of the three musicians that accompany her with hypnotic mélanges of percussion and guembri — the three-stringed bass-lute. Bab L’Bluz (Arabic for ‘Door to Blues’) have emerged as torchbearers for the ‘nayda’ youth movement of artists that sing in the Moroccan-Arabic dialect of darija and are deeply inspired by local heritage.

El Rass

‘Bab Al Doukhoul’

El Rass (Arabic for ‘the head’) is Mazen El-Sayed, rapper and music producer from Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. His razor-sharp verses and politically charged lyrical diatribes have been the hallmark of his many collaborations and growing repertoire of imaginative, infectiously rhythmic LPs. The specter of economic and societal calamity in his native Lebanon understandably hangs over “Bab Al Doukhoul” with even more urgency than on his earlier releases. This record sees the inventive talent truly at the top of his game while finding new and intriguing ways to elevate his craft.



Dubai-born Sobhhï has largely been a man of mystery as his legend continues to grow in the regional R&B scene and beyond. The singer and songwriter has crafted a cryptic persona around his prolific release schedule for the past few years: He doesn’t perform live (although he reportedly plans to), his promotional photography rarely shows his face, and he has repeatedly stated his admirable preference for letting the tunes do all the talking. “RED III” was, in fact, his second 2020 EP (following “PLEASURES” earlier in the year) and it’s a thrilling addition to his catalog of magnetic beats and sultry vocal displays that the artist himself has aptly dubbed “music for late nights.”

Various artists

‘Beirut Remixed’

Featuring remixes of tracks from five luminaries of the Lebanese indie scene  — Mashrou’ Leila, Adonis, Who Killed Bruce Lee, Lumi, and The Bunny Tylers — by veteran EDM maestros Jade and Jad Taleb and acclaimed producer ETYEN, “Beirut Remixed” is an engaging electronic reimagining of some of the artists’ most-celebrated songs. Released by Etyen’s Thawra Records as a tribute to the Lebanese capital in light of this year’s cataclysmic August 4th explosion, the record is a testament to the creative energy that Beirut has regularly summoned throughout the past decade to produce jewels such as this one.