//

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

As we grappled with what it means to shut down and rise up, music in 2020 gave us an outlet, a voice, and an escape.

Taylor Swift
Photo: Republic Records

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of 2020—some created prior to the crisis—reflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 50 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arca’s kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple’s prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels’s electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes’s boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, or—in the case of transportive disco-influenced albums from Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, and Kylie Minogue—a virtual escape. Sal Cinquemani



Melee

50. Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg’s Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, “Kawasaki Backflip,” bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group’s loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” he frantically yells at the explosive climax of “Fox.” Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on “Cannonball” splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while “Ender” closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Jordan Walsh



Savage Mode II

49. 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Savage Mode II

21 Savage is often the stabilizing force of Savage Mode II. As he frequently reminds us, the 27-year-old Atlanta MC has a real claim to legitimacy in his gangsta raps. “I grew up ‘round drugs, sex, and violence,” he tosses off on “Slidin.” 21’s dark, foreboding presence and tone are borne of an early acceptance of death’s omnipresence and randomness; he lays down spiky bars with a sneering swagger but also a pointed humbleness. It’s Metro Boomin, though, who elevates 21’s stories to something approaching greatness. He has a finesse for texture and atmosphere, employing the sound of a scratchy vinyl on “Runnin” and “Said N Done,” a static-y beat on “RIP Luv,” and the solemn piano riffs that were the driving instrument on the more minimalist Savage Mode. This sequel is a ratification of “bigger and better,” an example of steady improvement through impeccable craft. Charles Lyons-Burt



Petals for Armor

48. Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor

On Petals for Armor, Paramore singer Hayley Williams largely eschews guitar pop in favor of intricate songcraft influenced by artists as varied as Björk, Wilco, Dirty Projectors, even Phil Elverum. Though the album at times threatens to veer into adult contemporary, the highlights are among Williams’s most memorable and innovative work to date. Paramore’s widescreen sonic palette and shout-along choruses have often obscured Williams’s lyrical sharpness, but Petals for Armor’s more subdued sound allows her words to take center stage. A finely observed examination of grief, “Leave It Alone” is carried by a snaky bassline and shuffling drums, with Williams’s voice, mixed to sound close and conversational, doing most of the storytelling. Though it might not have a karaoke jam like “Misery Business,” Petals for Armor is a confident solo debut that suggests Williams has valences she’s just beginning to explore. Anna Richmond



Funeral

47. Lil Wayne, Funeral

Only a year and a half after an album that took the better portion of a decade to make good on its announced release, Lil Wayne’s Funeral arrived with little to no fanfare, casually staking its claim as one of the rapper’s best. Lower expectations could have something to do with it, as the return to form represented by 2018’s Tha Carter V was accompanied by a lot of handwringing. Funeral makes the case that Wayne doesn’t need that gestation period—just producers who can meet him on his level and inspire the kind of dazzlingly dizzy flows that once made his “best rapper alive” claims more than credible. The success of Mannie Fresh’s contribution is less throwback than understated innovation: Co-produced with Sarcastic Beats, “Mahogony” fuses together the smooth, New Orleans bounce of Wayne’s early sound with the rat-a-tat delivery of Weezy’s watershed “A Milli.” The early twofer of “Mahogany” and the squelching, PC Music-worthy “Mama Mia” may represent the album’s peak, but the 24-track Funeral is a party that never flatlines. Sam C. Mac



Disco

46. Kylie Minogue, Disco

Nothing on Kylie Minogue’s dance-floor comeback, Disco, reaches the high camp of 2001’s “Your Disco Needs You,” but the infectious “Monday Blues,” which boasts intertwining strands of disco DNA from both Chic and Kool & the Gang, makes a valiant attempt. Occasionally, Disco ventures into parody, but while the album might be a purely derivative work, its period arrangements—all sweeping disco strings, Nile Rodgers-esque guitar licks, and indiscriminately deployed cowbell—are executed with aplomb. Disco doesn’t attempt to adapt the classic titular sound in a contemporary context like those albums did, instead content to bask in unapologetic homage. It’s a sugar rush that’s worth the hangover. Cinquemani



I Disagree

45. Poppy, I Disagree

I Disagree marks a sonic rebirth for Poppy, the YouTube personality-cum-pop-cyborg portrayed by Moriah Rose Pereira. Poppy’s first two efforts were defined by bubble-gum pop filtered through the lens of J- and K-pop, which, in turn, are influenced by American music, resulting in a re-translated sound that felt at once familiar and alien. I Disagree is decidedly “post-genre,” tossing Poppy’s pop aesthetic into the shredder with heavy metal and industrial rock, previously only hinted at on the tail end of 2018’s Am I a Girl? “Concrete” shifts abruptly between tempos and genres, between commercial jingles and Beatles-esque chamber-pop, all shot through with roaring electric guitar riffs. That might sound incoherent, but it serves as a bold, deftly executed mission statement. Cinquemani



Walking Proof

44. Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she’s emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. Jeremy Winograd



Ultimate Success Today

43. Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today

Protomartyr’s sound is forged from the bones of punk and the blood of indie rock. The Detroit four-piece delivers heady lyrics with an ironic detachment in the vein of Destroyer and the Mountain Goats, while the blistering noise and distorted intensity of their music brings to mind Sonic Youth and early Sleater-Kinney. Their fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, continues this stylistic balancing act, with existentially oriented lyrics accompanied by ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety. References to philosophical concepts and pre-Enlightenment literature could be considered over-thought if Protomartyr’s sound didn’t possess such raw immediacy. The band’s catalog is strewn with such musings about life as a fulfillment of a disappointing fate, and they’ve perfected that obsession here. The restless punk spirit and flippant, downtrodden ethos that prevail over the album render Protomartyr’s painstaking intellectualizations as fuel for a visceral winding up and release of discontent. Lyons-Burt



Color Theory

42. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory is slicker than 2018’s Clean, and beefed up by Sophie Allison’s touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment. Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve. Though something deeper and darker has taken root in this indie-rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music. Winograd



Women in Music Pt. III

41. HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

While there’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—HAIM has created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM’s instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Winograd


Down in the Weeds

40. Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Bright Eyes’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was feels less like a monumental happening and more like a seamless continuation, the sound of a band shrugging off a long hiatus and simply getting back to work. They’re still making deeply emotional indie rock songs, still flirting with the same grandiosity that helped cement the legacies of albums like Lifted and Fevers and Mirrors, and the songs still revolve around Conor Oberst’s warbling search for the reasons we insist on continuing to exist when the world quite frankly seems to be crumbling all around us. No matter how much time has passed, Bright Eyes continues to be unmatched at tackling the biggest questions with a profound, heart-wrenching intimacy. Walsh



Energy

39. Disclosure, Energy

The cover art of Disclosure’s Energy depicts the electronic music duo’s signature masked silhouette embedded in a unified landmass that’s beginning to break apart. The album itself creates a diasporic sound that foregrounds the origins of a plethora of musical genres—and, by extension, the first record of human life. Collaborating with a guest list composed entirely of artists of color—most of them Black, two from Cameroon and Mali—and pulling from the long stylistic history of hip-hop, R&B, and West African pop-rock, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence apply their distinct brand of house music to these myriad styles, syncing everything up into a combustible, richly layered party record. Lyons-Burt



Lianne La Havas

38. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas

On her third album, Lianne La Havas settles into immediacy, positioning her guitar as the beating heart of the music. The eponymous album finds her again chronicling the course of a romance, but this time she quite intentionally does away with the glossy fuss of 2015’s blindingly polished Blood, subsisting throughout on her hard-earned wisdom. Lianne La Havas instantly feels more purposeful than its predecessor: Where Blood can feel labored over, perhaps too hungry for hits, this album isn’t seemingly beholden to such expectations. As she recounts the fate of a relationship from its onset to its demise, La Havas often prioritizes the passion of the moment over the logic of hindsight bias, leaving us with an empowering moral: that we possess the ability to revive our spirits after loss, and that it may well be boundless. Sophia Ordaz



Gaslighter

37. The Chicks, Gaslighter

In Slant’s review of the album, Jonathan Keefe called the Chicks’s Gaslighter “a fascinating, messy album that’s steeped in personal and political rage”—a characterization the trio chose to take as a compliment when Gayle King quoted it to them on CBS This Morning. And they should have. From the foot-stomping climax of the genre-defying “March March” to St. Vincent’s electrifying guitar riffs on “Texas Man,” the Chicks’s first album in 14 years features some of the most robustly crafted instrumentation of their careers. But lyrically, these songs, largely revolving around Natalie Maines’s split from ex-husband Adrian Pasdar, are at turns funny, poignant, and, yes, messy. An anthem for a woman scorned, filled with swooning strings and gently plucked banjo, “Sleep at Night” was shamefully slept on by country radio. “You’re only as sick as your secrets/So I’m telling everything,” Maines proclaims—a statement reflective of an ethos that may have alienated the Chicks from conservatives but which made them feminist folk heroes. Cinquemani



Microphones in 2020

36. The Microphones, Microphones in 2020

After more than a decade releasing music as Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum dusted off his moniker as the Microphones to release a single-song LP tracking a lifelong tension between his art and his enduring sense of smallness. The album or, as Elverum describes it, “This spooling-out, repetitive decades-long song string/This river coursing through my life,” is a droning dirge that expands the affecting tableaux of A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only into a nearly cradle-to-grave chronicle informed by years of travel and experiences of loss. The effect is hypnotic, as cascades of distortion nearly swallow Elverum’s voice, reminding us that he is not only an auteur of empathy, but also a humble messenger of mortality. Eric Mason



Græ

35. Moses Sumney, Græ

On his sophomore effort, Græ, soul singer Moses Sumney presides over a broad spectrum of sound, not once drowning in its grandiosity nor overpowering its delicacy. His sonic palette plays with proportion and space like an M.C. Escher drawing—at times symphonic and majestic (“Virile”), at others minimal and fragile (“Polly”). Throughout the lengthy double album, Sumney merges acoustic and synthetic instrumentals, blurring their boundaries as on the ethereal “Coloulour.” On the transcendent “also also also and and and,” he interpolates a monologue from Nigerian-Ghanaian author Taiye Selasi: “I really do insist that others recognize my inherent multiplicity/What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.” Assisted by collaborators such as James Blake, Thundercat, and Jill Scott, he disregards the definitions of any one genre and rejoices in the multiplicity of his sound and identity. Ordaz



My Turn

34. Lil Baby, My Turn

Lil Baby’s flow is a heat-seeking missile, single-minded and powerful, and it could be construed as monotonous if the material on his second album, My Turn, wasn’t so rich and his performances so magnetic. The rapper, a.k.a. Dominique Jones, spends the album locked in the present, acting like he indeed has “something to prove,” delivering tight, diamond-cut verses that are, to his benefit, more worked out than that of his trap peers. Some of these cronies (Gunna, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug) appear alongside him, but never extraneously. It helps that the album is equipped with punchy, top-shelf beats, insistent snares, and crystalline edges. In terms of subject matter, My Turn is Jones’s most romance- and family-focused effort to date, though the pull of intoxicants and sparkling jewelry is never too far off. Leave it to Lil Baby to make a gargantuan, blockbuster hip-hop album still feel like the work of an underdog. Lyons-Burt



Starmaker

33. Honey Harper, Starmaker

Honey Harper’s Starmaker, co-written with the singer’s wife, Alana Pagnutti, plays off the pun in its title to explore the risks inherent in having ambitions of stardom, speaking to the desperation of reaching for but not quite grasping something greater. Harper luxuriates in his songs’ heartfelt solemnity, letting their lush arrangements and lavish harmonies swirl like galaxies. The contrast between Harper’s twangy, processed vocals, acoustic guitar, and synthetic warbles on the opening track, “Green Shadows,” epitomizes his distinctive style of chamber-pop-inflected country, conjuring the image of a pickup truck taking off into space. From the plaintive orchestrations on “Suzuki Dreams” to a crying flute on “Vaguely Satisfied,” every dazzling element of Starmaker coalesces, and every moment is filled with awe. Mason



Empty Country

32. Empty Country, Empty Country

Empty Country is the first album from Joseph D’Agostino since the dissolution of his other project, Cymbals Eat Guitars, one of the most perennially underappreciated indie-rock bands in recent memory. The album lets D’Agostino’s unique songwriting and raspy voice take center stage: The gorgeous “Marion,” for instance, weaves a multigenerational epic through its spacious, slightly shambling indie rock, while “Ultrasound” finds D’Agostino yelping atop a thick wall of guitars and distortion. One of the most straightforward songs on the album is “Becca,” a seemingly jovial acoustic character sketch that tells the somewhat disturbing story of a woman selling fraudulent eclipse glasses to unsuspecting tourists. Empty Country thrives in its simplicity relative to the last few Cymbals albums, getting back to the heart of what makes D’Agostino such a compelling artist. Walsh



In a Dream

31. Troye Sivan, In a Dream

Troye Sivan’s music palette and reference points are so tasteful that it’s easy to discredit what the 25-year-old pop prodigy has to say. He sidesteps the crowd-pleasing ‘80s-indebted synth-pop of 2018’s Bloom for an EP that’s more contemporary and intimate, even claustrophobic. He’s at his most heartbroken on the restrained ballad “Easy” while elsewhere he uses harsh electronic dissonance (the experimental “Stud” and “Rager Teenager!”) to work through the push and pull of his more aggressive sexual and emotional fantasies. Finally, no one can say he’s just a twink with a good ear. Paul Schrodt


Rough and Rowdy Ways

30. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin



Kick I

29. Arca, Kick I

Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Lyons-Burt



Manic

28. Halsey, Manic

Manic’s shifting production style allows Halsey the space to inhabit different parts of her personality and even invite them into conversation with one another. Rarely does she let herself off the hook across the album’s 16 tracks, confronting even the most damaged parts of herself head on. The most arresting moments on Manic come via openhearted storytelling, as on the gorgeous closing track, “929,” which is composed of a series of vignettes as Halsey recounts the precise time of her birth, her teenage years in a “cheap apartment,” the most exploitative moments of her career, and the hope that her father will finally pick up the phone. It’s a welcome moment of quiet reflection after 15 tracks of shifting perspective, tone, and genre, as it sees Halsey expose herself with precision and purpose. Bearing your soul publicly is fraught with complications—“I should be living the dream/But I’m livin’ with a security team,” she sings ruefully on “Still Learning”—but it does seem, for Halsey, to be a truly productive way of figuring out what makes her complicated in the first place. Richmond



Songs

27. Adrianne Lenker, Songs

Written and recorded post-breakup and mid-pandemic in an Appalachian cabin, Songs uses crystal-clear binaural technology to capture Adrianne Lenker’s delicate guitar plucking and emotive singing. The album doesn’t grasp for meaning in its title nor in its track listing (which is stylized in all lowercase letters), instead diverting attention away from symbolism and back toward the musical experience. Songs continually lands on meaning as if by chance, in the way one might discover a bend in the river or a clearing in a forest. In the face of insurmountable grief and the emptiness it leaves behind, Lenker is stalwart and even droll, as on the sardonically titled “Not a Lot Just Forever.” Grappling with and integrating grief is a nonlinear process, and Lenker wanders across multiple stages of loss, her most heartrending songs originating in the stage of denial on “Anything,” where she attempts to preserve the beauty of a relationship as if in amber. Ordaz



Anyways

26. Young Nudy, Anyways

Young Nudy’s Anyways features 16 excellent diaristic street tales and, true to the album’s title, casually tangential narratives about the road to modest success. Nudy’s verses are denser than they’ve ever been, and they’re delivered with lightning speed that nonetheless seems tossed off and effortless. In his braying, soft-spoken cadence, Nudy makes violent imagery and chest-puffing sound downright affable and sweet, and his low-key approach is matched by the production, mostly handled by the otherwise untested upstarts COUPE and 20Rocket. Their water-logged, Zaytoven-influenced beats sound sad and forlorn, with prominent keys and synths that mimic an organ (“Deeper Than Rap”) or, delightfully, bagpipes (“Marathon”), but they’re ultimately deferent to Nudy’s stream-of-consciousness musings. Lyons-Burt



Printer’s Devil

25. Ratboys, Printer’s Devil

Ratboys have been quietly churning out folk-rock masterpieces over the last few years, but Printer’s Devil turns up the volume. Sharper, louder, and bolder than 2017’s GN, the album retains the band’s distinctive sensitivity to the world around them, telling empathetic stories with deft nuance and a lot of heart. “Looking toward the sky for something bona fide, I’m listening for it all,” Julia Steiner sings on the standout “Listening,” and that’s a good summation of the band’s approach. Printer’s Devil is full of characters fleshed out with the kind of detail that can only come from a writer who’s really paying attention—like the anxious, out-of-place extraterrestrial on the rousing opener “Alien with a Sleepmask On” or the memory of a loving babysitter on the ‘90s rock-indebted “Anj.” Walsh



Every Bad

24. Porridge Radio, Every Bad

In its depiction of upheaval and transition, Porridge Radio’s Every Bad swells and recedes, answering spidery guitar lines with disorienting distortion. Lead singer Dana Margolin utilizes the Pixies’s famed quiet-load approach to express the ambivalence of a fog of depression, uncertainty, and unrequited love. Often the unreliable narrator, Margolin repeats her lyrics over and over, with varying degrees of conviction so that what once seemed a confident declaration bleeds into self-delusion. On “Sweet,” Margolin prayerfully intones, “You will like me when you meet me,” willing her words into existence with last-ditch desperation. Throughout the album, the Brighton post-punk outfit bends meaning and sound so that each song plays out like a cinematic vignette. Ordaz



Man Alive!

23. King Krule, Man Alive!

Rock isn’t dead so much as desperate for artists who know how to push the genre forward. Luckily, King Krule is still doing his own weird thing. Man Alive! confidently blends punk, trip-hop, and jazz into a style that doesn’t sound like anything else. Yet the singer sounds more personally unraveled than ever before, staring down the existential dread of a TV on “Cellular” and the panic of forging adult relationships on “Stoned Again.” Momentary blasts of noise as on “Supermarche” allow him and us to feel something, anything, when the world otherwise around him otherwise registers as a terrifying blank. Schrodt



Every Sun, Every Moon

22. I’m Glad It’s You, Every Sun, Every Moon

Grief and loss hang heavily over every moment of Every Sun, Every Moon, the debut LP from California-based rock group I’m Glad It’s You. Written in the wake of a van accident that took the life of the band’s friend and mentor Chris Avis, the album is the product of a band still processing a profound tragedy. These may be heavy songs, but they’re approachable and immediate: ”Big Sound,” for instance, recounts the scene of the accident while sporting one of the biggest pop-rock hooks of the year. Later, “Silent Ceremony” wraps its emotional epiphanies in a scrappy pop-punk duet and “Myths” dreamily strums its way toward a stunning climax. Shades of Britpop and emo color in this beautiful and cathartic debut. Walsh



Notes on a Conditional Form

21. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form

The 1975’s fourth album, the 22-track, 80-minute opus Notes on a Conditional Form, is sprawling in every sense, jarringly and unapologetically moving from activist monologue to orchestral swells to jittery dubstep to emo to ‘80s soft-rock pastiche and back again. That the album works at all is a kind of miracle. While Healy has tended to hide behind an ironic postmodernist guise, he now lets his ambition and sincerity openly roam, sitting uncomfortably alongside more familiar sides of his personality. The sheer amount of daring on Notes on a Conditional Form solidifies the four guitar-wielding dudes of the 1975 as the biggest, boldest, and brashest purveyors of something resembling what we used to call rock ‘n’ roll, which, as Healy knows well, was always at least as much a pose as a sound. Schrodt


Brat

20. Nnamdï, Brat

As expansive as the album’s musical range is—from the confessional, acoustic “Flowers to My Demons,” to the bombastic math rock of “Perfect in My Mind,” to the woozy electro hip-hop of “Gimme Gimme”—Nnamdï’s Brat is equally eclectic in its emotional expression. Songs like “Glass Casket” float in a ruminative space as Nnamdï delivers a list of wishes and fantasies that are loaded with yearning: ”I wish I was a farmer/I wish I was an astronaut/So I could feed my family/And then take them somewhere very far away.” On the other side of the spectrum, “Semantics” builds up to an explosive release of frustration, with Nnamdï stretching his voice to be heard over a collapse of swirling synthesizers. But it’s the thoughtful and mystically sad closing track, “Salut,” that leaves possibly the biggest impression, as Nnamdï attempts to speak to a higher power he’s not sure is even there as the song blooms into a state of acceptance accompanied by a litany of chirping guitars. Walsh



Live Forever

19. Bartees Strange, Live Forever

On the heels of Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, a collection of covers of songs by the National, Bartees Strange carved out a space of his own with Live Forever, traversing several disparate styles with the ease and grace of a master. The track “Boomer” is a good representative of the D.C.-based artist’s eclectic sonic palette, with rapped verses mingling with jangly guitars and a Southern-rock chorus that gives Strange room to flex his powerful, stirring voice. From the exhilarating electro-rock of “Mustang” to the industrial hip-hop of “Mossblerd,” Live Forever is a shapeshifting and relentlessly creative album that maintains a unified and distinctive perspective throughout. Walsh



Shamir

18. Shamir, Shamir

Shamir embraces a balance between composure and restless dissatisfaction throughout his self-titled album. He vividly captures a Gen Z-specific angst and stewing inner conflict: “Smoke all the weed so I can cover my anxiety,” he confesses on “Paranoia.” Indeed, some of the best moments on the album explore the contradictions of the self and the paradoxical relationship between thoughts and behaviors. Stylistically, Shamir is a hodgepodge of the different approaches the artist has employed in the past, synthesized into a mostly satisfying pop-rock sound. Still, Shamir’s penchant for melody and introspection have proved adaptable to any genre that he fancies at any given moment, characterizing even his most lo-fi work with a pleading humanity. No matter how roomy or tight the mix is, or whether he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt or soaring confidence, he brings a sweet buoyancy to his music that carries Shamir, while also peeking into the torment of being inside his own head. Lyons-Burt



The Ascension

17. Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension

It was only a matter of time before the musical trickster in Sufjan Stevens returned after the stripped-down, soul-baring Carrie & Lowell. But while it may be overstuffed with ideas, The Ascension is far from the old precious orchestral ornamentation of Illinois. Stevens creates massive, complex soundscapes from electronic scraps of sound here—call it his digital orchestra. He isn’t interested in being clever (with the possible exception of the on-the-nose, Rx name-dropping “Ativan”), instead letting these sprawling tracks reflect simple emotions (the detachment of “Video Game,” the morose come-ons of “Sugar”) or pointed political commentary (the epic “America”). As usual, Christianity is never far from his mind (the title track is a kind of personal hymn), but Stevens isn’t trying to proselytize—he wants to take us deeper than ever into his own spiritual journey. Schrodt



Sawayama

16. Rina Sawayama, Sawayama

On her impressive debut, Rina Sawayama calls upon the glitz and glamor of early-aughts pop and subverts its sweetness and superficiality with heavy-metal flourishes (“Dynasty”) and thought-provoking cultural commentary (“XS”). The artist’s bid to meld the flair of pop music and the abrasion of hard rock might have resulted in a cacophonous wreck, but Sawayama succeeds thanks in large part to her sense of theatricality and Clarence Clarity’s inventive production. The album evokes the drama of glam rock and diva pop, as on the runway-ready “Commes Des Garcons,” the arena-worthy “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” and the frenzied “STFU!,” in which Sawayama shows off her dexterous vocal chops, transforming her impassioned belts into crazed laughter, all in the same breath. This last song exhibits her ability to channel a vast range of emotions and sound over the span of mere seconds. Ordaz



Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

15. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

The hushed and quivering first moments of Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, as Mike Hadreas emotes great sorrow over minimal instrumentation, sound all too familiar in the world of diaristic indie music. “Half of my whole life is gone,” goes the refrain of “Whole Life,” which itself seems to slink away from us as he chokes on the words. But then, about a minute in, things open up—a reminder that half gone also means half left. A waltz-time rhythm, swooning strings, and gorgeous tremolo guitar filigrees situate Hadreas in a long lineage of tuneful, lovelorn balladeers, drawing a straight line to the likes of Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers, artists who knew how to locate universality and shared pathos in their musical expressions. Which isn’t to say that the album is merely content channeling the past. Lead single “Describe” couldn’t sound more different from the opener, all grunge-griminess, distorted harmonies, and clattering, imperfect percussion, while “On the Floor” fully embraces ebullient, strutting indie pop. The dynamics of the drama here are different from what we’re used to from Hadreas, reveling in the flames of both ecstasy and pain, and drawing on a stunningly eclectic palette to describe them. Mac



Dark Hearts

14. Annie, Dark Hearts

Norwegian pop singer Annie’s Dark Hearts is, per the artist herself, “a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.” Throughout the album, her first in over a decade, Annie paints nostalgic, richly detailed narratives filled with road trips, fairgrounds, and idealistic young love—all set to jangly, atmospheric soundscapes that feel like they were lifted from some imaginary teen drama co-directed by John Hughes and David Lynch. The songs leap from genre to genre, sonically tied together by their connections to the past: “The Streets Where I Belong” suggests the small-town tributes of Springsteen as sung by an anonymous dream-pop chanteuse, while the poetic “Corridors of Time” and the deceptively jovial “It’s Finally Over” channel classic pop modes like doo-wop and ‘50s girl groups. In these dystopian times, it’s easy to long for the infectious dance-pop of Annie’s past releases, but Dark Hearts opts for a different kind of escape. Ten years on from her last full-length album, the singer is reckoning with the present by diving headlong into her past with equal parts regret and wonder. Cinquemani



Lament

13. Touché Amoré, Lament

Touché Amoré’s fifth album, Lament, is gutting, rearranging your understanding of anxiety, regret, and guilt before messily sewing you back up. Renowned metal producer Ross Robinson channels the post-hardcore/screamo outfit’s potent emotionalism throughout, but what threads these songs together is frontman Jeremy Bolms’s lucid, searingly honest lyricism. From the emo-pop of “Reminders” (“Is there a way to feel free without being someone else?”) to the charged uneasiness of “Deflector” (“I’ll test the water/I won’t dive right in/I’m not comfortable/I rarely am”), Bolms writes from a place of psychic chaos. More than any prior Touché Amoré album, Lament extracts the disorder of our inner states, daring to detail all their ugliness and helplessness. Ordaz



Saint Cloud

12. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield’s songs are personal, openhearted, and earnest, displaying keen pop sensibilities that starkly contrast the lo-fi sound of her work as Waxahatchee. With Saint Cloud, Crutchfield has at last formulated an approach that provides the ideal outlet for both her poetically confessional lyrics and her billowing, marbly voice. Crutchfield covers typical singer-songwriter territory like relationship strife and the mistakes of the past—she reportedly wrote the album after getting sober—but rarely succumbs to cliché. On “Lilacs,” she sings, “And the lilacs drank the water/And the lilacs died,” which is some kind of zen poetry. The album is full of similarly aesthetic lines that feel almost subversive in the context of usually more plainspoken country and folk songs. Adopting a free and easy Americana style marked by both twangy guitars and dreamy keys, the songs here are at once deeply intimate and broadly accessible, like selections from an alternative universe where modern mainstream country radio isn’t all pandering, homogenized slop. Winograd



Dedicated Side B

11. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B

A defining feature of last year’s Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen’s embrace of her sexuality—a topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime “Heartbeat” and the anthemic “Solo” were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. “I’m at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,” Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative “Comeback,” demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp


RTJ4

10. Run the Jewels, RTJ4

With their fourth album, Run the Jewels achieves a synergy and cohesion that heightens the moral clarity of their work as it fiercely meets the chaos of our current moment. Addressing racist social structures and the exploitative nature of late capitalism on “Walking in the Snow,” Killer Mike raps, “All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves.” What does a nation owe its citizens, and what does it say about America that the bulk of what we’re provided by our power structures is either the warehousing of bodies in schools and prisons or their destruction? On RTJ4, Killer Mike and El-P pose such thorny questions, advancing the thesis that the nature of modern life is inherently carceral. Structurally inventive, lyrically deft, passionate and heartbroken, the album positions Run the Jewels as the laureates of our collapsing era. Seth Wilson



After Hours

9. The Weeknd, After Hours

The Weeknd’s fourth album, After Hours, is reportedly a chronicle of Abel Tesfaye’s on-again, off-again relationship with model Bella Hadid, and he straight-facedly embraces vulnerability like never before, resulting is his most personal album to date. The first Weeknd album to feature no guest vocalists, After Hours isn’t completely divorced from Tesfaye’s usual themes, as he turns to substances to assuage his feelings. Lead single “Heartless” is a dark fantasy about driving too fast and engaging in joyless sex while experiencing amphetamine-driven nausea, while the chilling “Faith” chronicles a codependent relationship that leads to a drug-fueled emotional collapse. The song’s centerpiece is a ghoulish fantasy of two people enabling their worst impulses: “If I O.D., I want you to O.D. right beside me.” Tesfaye sings the line in a tone that can best be described as disastrously triumphant, which is also a fitting description for the album as a whole. Wilson



Punisher

8. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like “Chinese Satellite” and “I See You” evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. “I’ve been running in circles trying to be myself,” she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisher’s closing track, “I Know the End,” is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgers’s voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Walsh



YHLQMDLG

7. Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG

With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral “Safaera” is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s rightful place in the Urbano canon. Ordaz



How I’m Feeling Now

6. Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now

Written and recorded in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was shaped by the limited tools the singer-songwriter had access to at home. And Charli’s self-isolation imbues her fourth album, perhaps inevitably, with the confessional immediacy of bedroom-pop, even as the tracks reach for her signature brand of sonic maximalism. The result is a collection of songs that speaks to our current circumstances without being exclusively tethered to them. Heartbreak and despondency will always have a place in pop music, whether inflicted by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or the day-to-day vicissitudes of emotion. Though How I’m Feeling Now was born out of the former, it finds something interesting to say about the latter. Wilson



Future Nostalgia

5. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

When Dua Lipa decided to name her sophomore effort Future Nostalgia, she couldn’t have fathomed that the album would be released in the midst of a socially and economically devastating global pandemic. It’s unlikely that future generations will look back on 2020 with wistful nostalgia. Fortunately for us, Future Nostalgia leans into the latter half of its oxymoronic title, offering a well-timed escape hatch to pop music’s past. The album’s mix of past and present is best captured on two tracks that draw overtly from their sources: “Love Again” is a dizzying dance-floor filler that pairs lush orchestral swells with a sample of the canned strings from White Town’s 1997 single “Your Woman,” while the guitar hook from INXS’s “Need You Tonight” provides the melodic basis for “Break My Heart.” Both songs demonstrate Lipa’s knack for wringing pathos from everyday dating woes and pouring it into sublime dance-pop. It’s a role that once squarely belonged to Robyn, whose long sabbaticals Lipa seems more than willing to fill with kiss-offs like the nu-disco slow burner “Don’t Start Now.” At just 37 minutes, Future Nostalgia seems to understand that the best diversions are as fleeting as they are exhilarating, so we should enjoy them while we can. Cinquemani



Folklore

4. Taylor Swift, Folklore

Folklore is neither a culmination of Taylor Swift’s career to date nor a pivot in a new direction. She’s doing exactly what she’s always done: offering a collection of incisive, often provocative songs that incorporate authentic, first-person details and leaving others to argue over specific genre signifiers. Song for song, the album finds Swift at a new peak in her command of language. While tracks like “Cardigan” and “Invisible Strings” hinge on protracted metaphors, “Mad Woman” and “Peace” are blunt and plainspoken. In every instance, what’s noteworthy is Swift’s precision in communicating her exact intent. That she employs her long-established songwriting tropes in novel ways is truly the most significant development here. She’s mined this type of melancholy tone before, but never for the full length of an album and certainly never with such a range of perspectives. It isn’t the weight of the subject matter alone that makes Folklore feel so vital—it’s the exemplary caliber of her writing. The album finds Swift living up to all of the praise she earned for her songwriting earlier in career. Jonathan Keefe



What’s Your Pleasure?

3. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?

More than a dance album, Jessie Ware’s beat-driven What’s Your Pleasure? is a truly immersive experience, transporting listeners not just to pre-COVID days, but to a time and place much further back. Lyrically, the songs stick to common, if not completely frivolous, tropes like love, lust, and longing. But these themes take on even deeper meaning in a time where physical connection and communal experiences are few and far between. Depending on your level of caution fatigue, the album’s explicit invitation to indulge might seem sadistic. The thought of bumping up against a stranger on a dance floor these days feels forbidden, even dangerous. But when Ware croons, “Last night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,” on the rapturous “Mirage (Don’t Stop),” it’s a reminder that music and dancing remain universal forms of salvation. What’s Your Pleasure? is an album that, just a year ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure, but now feels like manna for the soul.
Cinquemani



Miss Anthropocene

2. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the album’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” On “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Richmond



Fetch the Bolt Cutters

1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple’s legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Wilson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The 50 Best Songs of 2020

Next Story

The 25 Best TV Shows of 2020