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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

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

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