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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.

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Taylor Swift
Photo: Republic Records

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

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