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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

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

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