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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

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

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