We don’t need to talk a lot about 2020 here, right? We all know what the year was, and we all know what the year wasn’t, and what we all hope carries over as little as possible into 2021. No need to recap the greatest hits here.
Nonetheless, whatever worries we might’ve had that 2020 would sap the music world’s capacity to make transformative, culture-leading and profoundly powerful music — or our capacity to properly enjoy and appreciate it — were thankfully proven unfounded. The year in music was an erratic one, no doubt, one full of delays and false starts and outright cancellations. But the 2020 albums that did make their way to our streaming services, to our digital collections, and (eventually) to our record players often proved transportive, cathartic, and blessedly escapist.
Whether they were reflecting our current condition or providing much-needed respite from it, they helped us get to December, and to the point where we’re able to present a list like this recapping the very best of the bunch. Maybe we’ll look back on them fondly many years from now, or maybe we’ll pack them all in a crate and bury them in the backyard to never think about them again. Either way, their service was appreciated. Here are our staff’s 50 favorite albums from this year.
50. DaBaby, Blame It on Baby
Billboard Baby took the successful formula of his 2019 twin releases Baby on Baby and Kirk — collections of succinct, effective punches to the mouth — and combined them into one overarching project with April’s Blame It on Baby. Along the way he refines his breakneck, relentless approach and layers one-liners atop one another better than just about anyone in the game (“$300K in cash, probably still pull out a Visa/ Ain’t goin on a date, tell a b–ch to order a pizza”). But it’s no surprise that it’s the places where he takes his foot off the gas a bit and lets his songs breathe — most notably with the breezy mega-smash “ROCKSTAR” with Roddy Ricch, and the laid back, Young Thug-assisted “Blind,” one of 11 new tracks added to the set’s August deluxe edition — that he really flexes, adding new classics to a burgeoning catalog full of them. — DAN RYS
49. Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony
After surfacing with verbose mini-masterworks “Exhibit A (Transformations)” and “Exhibit C” in the late 2000s, fans penciled in Jay Electronica to become one of rap’s most revered scribes of the next decade. A decade after hiccups and pushbacks, Jay Elect’s debut album A Written Testimony finally crossed the finish line in March, and proved well worth the wait. The rapper enlisted Jay-Z as his second-in-command on the 39-minute expedition, to prove that father time can’t stop the God MC. With a novel’s worth of metaphors on display, Jay Elect’s most sparkling bar comes with “Shiny Suit Theory”: “Me and Puff, we was chilling in Miami/ He said, “N—a f–k the underground, you need to win a Grammy.” We’ll see about that last part in January, when A Written Testimony is up for best rap album. — CARL LAMARRE
48. Alejandro Fernández, Hecho en Mexico
Leaning on mariachi and norteño sounds to honor Mexican ranchera music, Alejandro Fernández re-visits his musical roots in the heartfelt Hecho En México. With mariacheño (a fusion of mariachi and norteño) songs like “Caballero,” “Decepciones” and “Mentí — an extraordinary collaboration with his father, the legendary Vicente Fernández — the Mexican singer revitalizes traditional regional Mexican music, but adds a contemporary twist, thanks to the contributions of young songwriters like Joss Favela, Eden Muñoz and Christian Nodal. The Grammy-nominated album scored Fernández his seventh No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart, and became the first regional Mexican album to top the tally in over three years. — GRISELDA FLORES
47. Conan Gray, Kid Krow
With his debut album, 21-year-old Conan Gray transcended the teenage minutiae of his 2018 EP Sunset Season to take his rightful place as one of Gen Z’s most evocative pop prodigies. Built on a pair of breakout singles — giddy post-breakup clapback “Maniac” and creeping folk ballad “Heather” — Kid Krow effectively crystallized all the angst, insecurity and turmoil of coming of age in the year 2020 into a dozen story-driven, top 40-ready confections filled with strikingly diaristic lyrics. Bowing at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, Kid Krow earned the singer-songwriter one the highest debuts of the year for a new artist on the Billboard 200, and signaled Gray as a musical force to watch in the decade to come. — GLENN ROWLEY
46. Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels
After a 2019 tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Williams tapped the co-producer of that Americana classic, Ray Kennedy; her songwriting partner (and husband) Tom Overby, and her touring band to cut the magnificent Good Souls Better Angels. This album is a blues-driven tour de force: You can dwell on how current events inspired the haunting “Man Without A Soul” or “Pray The Devil Back To Hell,” or just dive into the gritty waves of Stuart Mathis’ guitar and Williams’ drawling, angry, aching vocals. — THOM DUFFY
45. 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Savage Mode II
“Are things better or worse the second time around?” Morgan Freeman wonders at the end of “Runnin’,” proper kickoff to 21 Savage & Metro Boomin’s second Savage Mode teamup. Really, “better or worse” doesn’t even really enter into it — SMII is simply bigger than its predecessor, as evidenced by the fact that they got the friggin’ president from Deep Impact to be their Greek chorus. You can hear that gleeful largesse throughout the LP, whether it’s Savage quoting 50 Cent on “Many Men” and then letting the man’s own hook see the track out, or the biggest artist in the world popping by for a quick guest verse with a very rude SZA namedrop, or Freeman getting a full track just to expound upon the key difference between snitches and rats. No spoilers here, you’ll have to catch this one for yourself. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
44. Kany García, Mesa Para Dos
Instead of looking inward during lockdown with a homespun, acoustic set, Kany García went all out, with an all-duets album featuring an eclectic cast of characters — from blind Argentine guitarist Nauel Pennisi to Mexican pop star Carlos Rivera. Mesa is best at its most specific: “Se portaba mal (She misbehaved),” a tale of domestic abuse told with Chilean rebel Mon Laferte, is harrowing and beautiful. Meanwhile, the joyful “Búscame” with Carlos Vives is a delight, and the militant “Acompáñame” (alongside Goyo and Catalina García) is a call for universal equality set to a cumbia beat, one you can dance to while pumping your fists in support. — LEILA COBO
43. Sam Hunt, Southside
Coming six years after breakthrough debut LP Montevallo, Sam Hunt’s long-awaited sophomore LP is a glimpse into the country music antihero’s broken heart as he processes a life-changing breakup through his own unique 12 steps of grief. There’s failed attempts to move on (“As long as you’re still in my head, there ain’t a way that I can paint a ghost town red,” from “Downtown’s Dead”), Instagram stalking (“Got on that phone on the way home, ended up down the rabbit hole again” he jaws on “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s”), and plenty of drinking-to-distraction (the classic “There Stands the Glass” sample on “Hard to Forget”), with each song playing out over a jigsaw of bluegrass hooks, trap backbeats and spacey synths. Southside is both manic and approachable, its sadness lifted in its final moments with a surprisingly candid admission: “Hannah Lee, I’m on my way to you/ Nobody can love you like I do.” — DAVE BROOKS
42. Brandy, B7
With women dominating R&B this year, it’s not a total surprise that ‘90s superstar Brandy would re-emerge on the scene with her first album in eight years. B7 is the singer-songwriter’s manifesto of how she tended to her years-long pain with poise, as she confronts her past toxic relationships and mental health issues on “Borderline” and “Bye BiPolar,” while proudly reclaiming the title “Baby Mama” on her Chance the Rapper collaboration of the same name. Meanwhile, the electro-soul sound of B7 — which she co-wrote and co-produced top to bottom for the first time — puts the bounce back in Brandy’s step. — HERAN MAMO
41. Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
Hayley Williams opens Petals For Armor standout “Dead Horse” with a fittingly vulnerable voice memo. “Sorry, I was in a depression,” she explains, sheepishly apologizing for a musical delay, “Trying to come out of it now.” The former Paramore frontwoman’s cathartic debut solo project follows her journey through that often-dark side of healing, allowing her former band-centric persona and personal traumas to wilt before telling those around her to “Watch Me While I Bloom.” — RANIA ANIFTOS
40. Caribou, Suddenly
It’s sadly fortunate that one of the best dance albums of the year isn’t really made for dancing. Rather, Suddenly, Caribou’s fifth studio LP, is electronic music to live with, to play in the background during your Zoom gatherings, to soundtrack your solitary walks around the neighborhood, to enjoy quietly and at home. (Released just weeks before COVID hit the U.S., the album’s warmly lo-fi lead single is even in fact called “Home.”) Although the Canadian producer certainly didn’t intend Suddenly to reflect the collective mood of 2020, this occasionally joyous, largely low-key and often melancholic collection of tracks hit differently this year anyways. — KATIE BAIN
39. Sam Smith, Love Goes
Smith’s first album in three years was originally set for release in May, but was pushed back to October because of the pandemic — by which point, six songs on the album, (including the 2019 smash “Dancing with a Stranger,” a silky collab with Normani) had already hit the Hot 100. Smith is often at their best while wallowing in misery, as they do on many Love Goes highlights — including “Diamonds,” about a lover who was just in it for things, and “For the Lover That I Lost,” a ballad that they co-wrote for Celine Dion’s Courage album in 2019 and reclaim here. (A duet by these two would be heaven.) Smith’s falsetto is unmatched at capturing heartbreak — let’s hope that someday they’re in a place to put it in service of songs about finding joy and contentment. — PAUL GREIN
38. Anuel AA, Emmanuel
Anuel’s 22-track opus set out to dispel any doubts about his musicianship or gravitas. There’s raunch and party tracks, of course — but overwhelmingly, this is an ambitious album, one that goes from the deeply personal (“Mi Vieja” recounts the death of his cellmate’s mother), to lyrical (“No Llores Mujer,” a tasteful, Travis Barker-assisted adaptation of “No Woman No Cry”), to real tales from the hood told with bravado but also a tinge of regret (“Somos o No Somos” and “Antes y Después,” featuring Kendo Kaponi and Yandel). Emmanuel ends with “China,” the mega-hit tour de force that features Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Ozuna and girlfriend Karol G and cements his cred as well as his commercial appeal. Anuel made his bones with music that was aggressive and in-your-face — now, he’s shown the craft beneath. — L.C.
37. Flo Milli, Ho, why is you here?
“It took me a while to come up out my shell,” Alabama rapper Flo Milli quips on “Beef FloMix,” the pummeling 2018 hit which fueled her rise after it went viral on social media. But you wouldn’t guess it from the rest of her magnetic debut set — or “Beef FloMix” for that matter, which opens with the indelible announcement “I like cash and my hair to my ass!” Ho, why is you here? similarly finds the 20-year-old talking herself up, with both the catty attitude of a teenager and the posh confidence of a veteran rapper, adding up to an album that feels like a shot of pure caffeine and clocks in at a breezy 30 minutes. It’s just enough time to burn her “Flo Milli shit” tagline straight onto your brain, and to fully obliterate whatever shell ever existed around this soon-to-be-star. — TATIANA CIRISANO
36. Teyana Taylor, The Album
Glistening with sensuous self-assurance, The Album feels like the best distillation so far of Teyana Taylor’s comforting, confident R&B. The multi-hyphenate keeps the BPMs steady while sharing the mic with everyone from fellow contemporary genre star Kehlani to reclusive icons like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu – but she’s always center stage. Credit the detailed, lush production and Taylor’s expressive vocal performances for making The Album worthy of its definitive title. – JOE LYNCH
35. Junior H, Atrapado en un Sueño
Atrapado en un Sueño (Trapped in a Dream), released via Rancho Humilde in March, brings singer-songwriter Junior H’s promise to the forefront of the Regional Mexican scene. As a self-taught guitarist, who hails from Guanajuato, Mexico, Junior pours his heart out on Atrapado en un Sueño, including his infectious corridos tumbados, mesmerizing requintos, and lyrics about ambition, optimism, the street life, and more. On the Top Latin Albums chart, the seven-song set debuted at No. 5, making Junior the youngest act since Natanael Cano to score a top 10 on the listing. — JESSICA ROIZ
34. Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
Springsteen recorded Letter to You before the pandemic, collaborating with the E Street Band at maximum power last winter at his home studio in New Jersey. But more than just about any album released in 2020, Letter to You speaks to the heartbreaking losses of this endless year — in the meditative “One Minute You’re Here,” the howling “Ghosts” or the elegiac “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Still, grief is tempered here with sweet memories: “I run my fingers through your sun streaked hair,” he sings. As the man says, baby, that’s the power of prayer — and the power of Letter to You. — THOM DUFFY
33. BTS, Map of the Soul: 7
Released in February, Map of the Soul: 7 marked the beginning of BTS’ most historic year yet. The 20-track album skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard 200 — without any major assists from U.S. radio — the first of two chart-toppers the group would notch this year. For many American listeners, the lead track “Boy with Luv” featuring Halsey was their introduction to the colorful world of K-pop. The release was then followed by the single “ON,” its accompanying music video(s), and subsequent late night performances, as it followed “Boy” to the Hot 100’s top 10. While the two hit singles won over new fans — paving the way for the group to score a whopping three Hot 100 No. 1s later in the year — tracks like the more reflective “Moon” and the edgier “Louder Than Bombs” delighted music critics and ARMY soldiers alike. — MIA NAZARENO
32. Kehlani, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Throughout her eventful career, Kehlani has been compared to just about every female R&B singer available — be it her own contemporaries like SZA or Teyana Taylor, or forebearers of her sultry soul sound like Aaliyah or Ashanti. But with It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani made a record that is unequivocally her own, blending heart-rending personal writing with her cleanest production to date to make a stunning and unforgettable album. Kehlani weaves in and out of love-laced confessionals, taking R&B’s musical tropes and spinning them into original, pop-facing melodies that push themselves above the noise. The killer “Serial Lover” makes ample use of hip-hop 808s, while a song like “F&MU” utilizes pop vocoders and synth pianos to get the point across, all boosting the 25-year-old star to new personal heights. — STEPHEN DAW
31. Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers
Dressed in a Depop-curated wardrobe, singer-songwriter beabadoobee pulls from 90’s alt rock, a hint of Original Pinoy Music (OPM), and lots and lots of feelings. In 12 songs, the 20-year-old writes about growing up and the mistakes we make along the way. Bea doesn’t beat around the bush: according to her commentary on the album’s digital version, “Dye it Red” is “about the horrible men in your life” and “the frustration you feel when you can’t be yourself.” Yep, been there, done that. Other tracks, like the spiteful “Care” and nostalgic “How Was Your Day?,” continue along the same theme — ultimately reminding us of young love all over again. — M. Nazareno
30. Jason Isbell, Reunions
Jason Isbell’s Southern drawl takes listeners on a long, hard journey of self-reflection on Reunions, as he contemplates fatherhood, childhood memories and losing friends to drugs. The veteran singer-songwriter touches on his more self-sabotaging tendencies on album opener “What Have I Done to Help,” and grapples with the never-ending battle to stay sober on the supportive but realistic “It Gets Easier.” But Isbell has a thoughtful way of singing fraught lines with compassion, concluding Reunions with a hopeful note directed at his daughter: “It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going.” — TAYLOR MIMS
29. The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
Initially intended as a swift follow-up to 2018 LP A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, Notes ultimately took an extra 18 months and 16 different studios to record — and it sounds like it. After opening with a stirring speech from 17-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, it bounces all the way from shoegaze (“Frail State of Mind”) to punk rock (“People”) to folk (“Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”), the whole thing tied together by some of the group’s most immaculate production and slick songwriting to date. At 80 minutes, it’s The 1975’s longest studio album, but there are more than enough captivating highlights and enticing experiments to keep their Notes easily digestible. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
28. Jessie Reyez, Before Love Came to Kill Us
After a pair of appetizing EP’s, Toronto singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez served a Michelin-rated main course this year with her debut album. Her penchant for penning did-she-really-say-that lyrics — “I should’ve f–ked your friends / It would’ve been the best revenge,” she taunts in “Do You Love Her” — vividly illustrates the album’s raw-yet-relatable discourse on romantic relationships. Against a backdrop mixing musical influences from the worlds of R&B, rap, trap-pop, doo-wop and bossanova, Reyez deftly shifts from soft to sultry to seething — putting an exclamation point on one of the strongest years in recent R&B. — GAIL MITCHELL
27. Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
Aussie Kevin Parker’s fourth studio album The Slow Rush certainly lived up to its name — it took him approximately five years to create, but then fans flocked to it in its first week of release, giving Parker his highest-charting album in the U.S. to date, with a No. 3 debut on the Billboard 200. The space-pop opus was led by incandescent singles like “Borderline,” a total groove about standing at the bridge between the known world and a strange one, and the nostalgia-laced “Lost in Yesterday,” which earned Tame Impala their first airplay No. 1 when it topped Adult Alternative Songs. The set further positioned Parker as the psychedelic disco-rock god we know him to be, and ensured that all of those headliner slots will be waiting for him once festivals return. — GAB GINSBERG
26. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’s music as Perfume Genius has crescendoed over the last decade from a whisper to a roar. What started as a quiet piano project has evolved into an intricate, genre-crossing tapestry, with as many whimsical pop threads as there are muscly rock wires. On his fifth album, produced by Blake Mills, Hadreas maintains perfect balance, pairing a delicate harpsichord with a meaty bass line on “Jason,” a crunchy electric guitar and his quavering voice on “Describe.” The jaunty “On the Floor” shines with Hadreas’s dazzling pop instincts, while the gentle flute on “Moonbend” shows him equally capable of balletic grace, though the lyrics hide a darker side in plain sight: “Carving his lung/ Ribs fold like fabric/ Moon sketch the line/ Moon bend the knife.” — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
25. Blackpink, The Album
On their long-awaited full-length debut, the appropriately titled The Album, Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa and Rosé offer up eight thrilling doses of grade-A K-pop perfection, from the hip-hop swagger of thunderous lead single “How You Like That” to the infectious shout-along dance-pop of “Lovesick Girls.” Add in a pair of high-profile collaborations with stateside superstars Selena Gomez (“Ice Cream”) and Cardi B (“Bet You Wanna”) and The Album not only builds on the foursome’s string of hits since their 2016 debut, it also provides the perfect entry point for soon-to-be Blinks to embrace the girls as they continue their meteoric rise. Blackpink is the revolution, indeed. — G.R.
24. J Balvin, Colores
This 10-track set is J Balvin’s most ambitious album yet, musically and visually. Packed with back-to-back hits such as the edgy, futurisitc pop anthem “Blanco,” heart-wrenching ballad “Rojo” and hard-hitting reggaetón track “Negro” — the three tracks on the album that also best showcase Balvin’s versatility as an artist — this album proved he’s not just a go-to collaborator, but can deliver hits on his own. Released in March, Colores won best urban album at the 2020 Latin Grammys, and scored the Colombian superstar a No. 2 peak on the Top Latin Albums chart. — G.F.
23. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
Be honest: you missed him. It had been three years since Uzi released a full-length project, having kept fans interested with one-offs and leaks (“New Patek,” “Sanguine Paradise”) that kept him on the radar while he bided his time in the background. So by the time Eternal Atake finally arrived out of the blue in March, expectations were sky high — and the rapper delivered, offering a little something for every kind of Uzi fan. He’s on point throughout, switching his flows, offering lines that really only a mind like his could deliver (“I’m an iPod, you more like a Zune”). For fans of Emotional Uzi, “I’m Sorry” is a worthy next entry in that canon, picking up where emo-rap pioneers like “The Way Life Goes” left off. Most importantly, he sounds like he’s having a blast getting back in the driver’s seat. — D.R.
22. Selena Gomez, Rare
Selena Gomez never seemed to be in a rush to make her third solo album — since 2015’s chart-conquering Revival, she’s balanced her screen projects with one-off singles and collaborations. Yet it’s that unhurried approach that makes Rare feel like a luxury: a low-key, lived-in pop album that finds strength in subtlety, whether on stripped-back piano ballads (“Lose You to Love Me,” her first Hot 100 No. 1) or woozy uptempo numbers (“Let Me Get Me”). In a year when many pop stars tried to turn your living room into a discotheque, Gomez sounds at home making music perfect for being at home — just when we need it most. — NOLAN FEENEY
21. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Miss Anthropocene, an album inspired by media snipers targeting a lightning-rod singer’s romantic choices, is almost like Reputation’s Wicca-dabbling cousin. But whereas Taylor Swift’s villainous alter ego sipped whisky at Lower East Side bars, Grimes’ alter ego hits the rave circuit and goes LARP-ing — while welcoming the impending climate change apocalypse — all over a bubbling brew of nu metal, ambient electronica, industrial dance and, um, banjo. Grimes might be disgusted with the world, but she’s not exhausted by it, and Miss Anthropocene is an irresistible companion to slam dance with as we’re all turning in the widening gyre. – J. Lynch
20. Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
On paper, Rina Sawayama’s debut album shouldn’t work; a TRL-infused pop-meets-nu-metal self-portrait that sounds like Britney Spears getting remixed by Korn is not what pop die-hards are expecting in 2020. But it’s that kind of creative ingenuity that makes Sawayama one of the best albums of this year — the 30-year-old alternative pop star commands your attention from its opening notes. Sawayama paints a vivid portrait of familial discord and coming-of-age in the 21st century: On album opener “Dynasty,” the singer questions the pain she’s inherited through the generations of her family, while standout track “Bad Friend” follows her as she questions her own ability to be there for those she loves. From beginning to end, Sawayama provides you with production, vocals and lyrics that will worm their way into your brain, refusing to “STFU!” — S.D.
19. Machine Gun Kelly, Tickets to My Downfall
Doubters may have been willing to spend top dollar to witness the flopping of Machine Gun Kelly upon his pivot to rock — but as MGK himself says, joke’s on them, because there was no downfall. Quite the opposite, in fact: Tickets to My Downfall not only became his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200, it proved the reborn rocker’s pop-punk bonafides to be exceedingly legit. Whether he’s quoting Op Ivy with Trippie Redd, having a loud cafeteria break up with Halsey or invoking Blink-182 (alongside Travis Barker himself) with an even more cathartic “in my ‘yed” chorus, MGK not only revives the genre’s greatest moments but transcends them, with his own blistering riffs and KO choruses ensuring that paying customers might not get the Greek tragedy they anticipated, but a hell of a f–king show regardless. — A.U.
18. Halsey, Manic
Halsey has always been an open book, but she takes that transparency to a new level on the uber-personal Manic, inviting listeners to be a fly on the wall in her alt-pop therapy session. But beyond the candid lyrics about owning her bisexuality and enduring toxic relationships, Halsey takes thrilling sonic leaps on the project — from the country-inspired twang of “You Should Be Sad” to the syncopated handclaps of “Graveyard” — proving she can have the best of both worlds by pairing painfully earnest, yearning sentiments with radio-ready beats. — KATIE ATKINSON
17. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Chloe x Halle may have released their debut album two years ago, but the sister duo arrived in 2020. Strutting onto a stage set up by R&B’s top performers this year — from Kehlani to Jhené Aiko — the pair’s Ungodly Hour stood out for its themes of maturation, which Chloe (22) and Halle (20) are exploring in real time with songs like the title track about not settling (“I don’t have the time/To teach you how to love all over again”) and single “Do It,” an R&B ode to the girls night out. With a series of stellar at-home performances, Chloe x Halle also promoted their second album through a pandemic like pros, delivering richer harmonies (and more fierce ‘fits) with each one. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
16. Mac Miller, Circles
Released nine days after its Jan. 8 announcement, Circles serves as a perfect example of just how much the late Mac Miller still had left to accomplish. Guided by producer, composer and singer-songwriter Jon Brion, Miller raps less frequently than ever on the posthumous album, instead further fleshing out the more melodic direction he’d been experimenting with on recent works The Divine Feminine (2016) and Swimming (2018). It’s everything fans had come to expect from Mac prior to his tragic passing: ambitious, vulnerable, and in many ways, healing. But for all the speculation offered about his mindstate during and after his lifetime, poignant tracks like the album’s namesake and “Good News” evidence that no one ever understood Mac Miller better than himself. — J.G.
15. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
There are no bells or whistles to what makes Phoebe Bridgers’ second solo album one of the year’s best — no grandiose gestures or guest stars, no whiplash-inducing tempo changes. It’s a testament to Bridgers’ songwriting — wry, confessional, often devastating and always with a keen sense of pop melodicism — that Punisher remains so captivating, with both lyrical puzzles that beg for repeated listens to be unpacked and turns of phrase (“From the window, it’s not a bad show/ If your favorite thing is Dianetics or stucco,” she sings on the title track) that leave you awestruck upon first encounter. For as vulnerable as Bridgers becomes on Punisher, no other indie artist sounded as confident in their work this year. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
14. Run the Jewels, RTJ4
“Ain’t no revolution is televised or digitized,” Killer Mike spits on “goonies vs. E.T.,” updating Gil Scott-Heron for the social media age. Fighting back against the often racially motivated betrayals and atrocities of the last four years requires action, and Run the Jewels’ fourth album, which dropped just nine days after George Floyd’s May 25 death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis cop, served as an electrifying motivational soundtrack for the protests that erupted in the tragedy’s wake. Driven by soul-shaking bass and El-P and Mike’s prescience — the latter wrote the “I can’t breathe” line from “Walking in the Snow” months before Floyd’s death — the album delivers an uppercut to the nation’s racists, hypocrites, armchair activists and sleepwalkers. At a time when Mike declares, even “woke folk be playin’” and the news media “make sure you ill-advised,” RTJ4 demands that we wake up — and face the music. — FRANK DIGIACOMO
13. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
On his first album since 2017’s chart-topping From A Room: Volume 2, Stapleton leads an exhilarating physical and emotional journey through middle age that is all substance, no filler. He bookends the well-sequenced 14-tune set with the title track, which addresses heading for a new life out west, and ends with “Nashville, TN,” a look at leaving his adopted hometown. But his movement isn’t limited to settling down someplace new: On “Arkansas,” his gruff vocals deliver the most jubilant geographic escape since Bob Seger’s “Katmandu.” Though Stapleton’s talent is anything but ordinary, he evinces the common man better than any singer/songwriter since Merle Haggard on songs like “When I’m With You,” which embraces his partner’s love, but admits, that at 40, it “looks like the end of the rainbow is no pot of gold.” Maybe not, but Starting Over certainly is a musical treasure, and sometimes that’s enough. — MELINDA NEWMAN
12. Megan Thee Stallion, Good News
Megan Thee Stallion knows how long you’ve been waiting for her debut studio album, so Good News doesn’t waste time with warm-ups. On track one, she’s roasting Tory Lanez to the tune of Biggie Smalls’s “Who Shot Ya?” On track two, she’s dancing you in “Circles” on the song of the same name with a warp-speed sample of Jazmine Sullivan. By three and four, she’s already teamed up with some of the hottest names in hip-hop — DaBaby and City Girls — and she’s still got 13 more to go. The November release, which entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2, is a veritable buffet of Megan’s talents, offering taunting sing-song on “What’s New” and making the old school new again on the Eazy-E-sampling “Girls in the Hood.” And while the songs might be bouncier than those on her previous releases, after this tumultuous year, Megan’s joy is a triumph: “People say I’m way too full of myself,” she says on the set’s closer, “Don’t Stop.” “You’re right, and I ain’t even made it to dessert.” — C.W.
11. Ariana Grande, Positions
After years of heartbreak, 2020 is when Ariana Grande puts the pieces back together. Falling deeply in love probably helped. The pop superstar channeled the giddiness, vulnerability and hesitancy that come with a new romance into Positions, her third album in just over two years. Laced with cheeky innuendos and intimate moments in which she (literally) lets that signature ponytail down, Grande is re-learning to trust herself and those around her on the Billboard 200-chart topping album. We’re also left with the reassurance that, this time, it will all work out for the singer, as she optimistically proclaims in “Just Like Magic”: “I get everything I want ’cause I attract it.” — R.A.
10. Haim, Women in Music Pt. III
As Haim began rolling out singles off their third studio album — aptly named Women in Music Part III — one thing became instantly clear: no two songs would be exactly alike. From the R&B slow jam “3am” that lands itself smack-dab in the middle of the 16-song collection to the Joni Mitchell-influenced rebuke of male-driven music criticism on “Man From The Magazine,” Haim hit their stride through an exhibition of their expanding capabilities. Without losing sight of their joyful sound, WIMPIII takes inspiration from an abundance of Haim favorites including Sheryl Crow, Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed and Prince to create their most eclectic album yet. While their hybrid album may have been too unclassifiable to land them nods for any of the genre-based awards at the Grammys, their varied approach to WIMPIII was rightfully recognized in the all-genre album of the year category. — T.M.
9. Pop Smoke, Meet the Woo 2
Just 12 days passed between the Feb. 7 release of Pop Smoke’s breakthrough mixtape, Meet The Woo 2, and his tragic death on Feb. 19. While the rest of 2020 was spent mourning that loss and piecing together what might have been for the Brooklyn rapper’s career — Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon, his first posthumous LP, became one of the biggest albums of the year upon its July release — Meet The Woo 2 was absolutely electrifying from the day it was released, the work of a burgeoning star that only gained new resonance upon his passing. The opening salvo of “Invincible” and the Quavo-assisted “Shake The Room” remain indomitable, while “Christopher Walking” and “Element” continue to demonstrate Pop’s knack for booming hooks after “Dior,” included here as a bonus track, became a defining hip-hop single of the turn of the decade. More Pop Smoke music will be released in the future, no doubt, but as the high-powered final statement of his lifetime, Meet The Woo 2 will always be special. — J. Lipshutz
8. The Chicks, Gaslighter
There isn’t a great word to succinctly define getting something you didn’t even know you needed “Revelation,” maybe, or “epiphany.” The Chicks’ Gaslighter is both, arriving in July when the world seemed so dark that the most effective coping method was to just kind of go numb whenever the news came on. But the music Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer delivered on their first studio album in 14 years was alive in all the ways we needed it to be — seething with rage, sick with heartbreak and soothing with humor. (“Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m done?” Maines inquires on “Tights On My Boat.”) Equally buoyant and melancholic, with a pop lean courtesy of producer Jack Antonoff, Gaslighter possesses the same magic of the trio’s 1999 smash Fly, but now outfitted with 20 years experience and the hard-won wisdom that comes with it. It’s a mother of a break-up album, in ways the country parallel to Lemonade – but in this case with a happy ending less about healing a romance and more about healing your own damn self. Maybe we didn’t know we needed it. We needed it. — K.B.
7. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
In a finale episode of crime drama The Fall, the detective protagonist deadpans “fetch the bolt cutters” before entering a house where a girl has been tortured. It’s not outlandish that the line moved Fiona Apple enough to title her fifth album after it: Since her brilliant 1996 debut Tidal, the venerated singer-songwriter has been ridiculed nearly as much as she’s been praised for her image, her age, the vulnerability of her lyrics and her refusal to take anyone’s bulls–t. But Apple fetches the damn bolt cutters herself on her first album since 2012, tackling all her old demons with a new sense of levity — tracing her own past from the rollicking “Shameika,” in which she recalls a schoolmate telling her she “had potential,” to the woozy “Ladies,” an olive branch extended to the exes of her exes which verges on laugh-out-loud funny. It’s all delivered with an intricate patchwork of textures, the result of Apple using unusual objects (including a dead dog’s bones) as instruments, and leaving random background noises in her recordings. It’s the loose title track which lays her message bare, with lyricism as precise and vivid as ever: “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/ Shoes that were not made for running up that hill… Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long.” — T.C.
6. Lil Baby, My Turn
In February, Lil Baby graduated into rap’s top tier when he released his second album, My Turn. Alongside partners-in-rhyme 42 Dugg and Gunna (“Grace” and “Heatin Up,” respectively), Baby makes a quantum leap lyrically. “Emotionally Scarred” is the perfect snapshot of Baby’s mental space as an emerging superstar, while in the heat of police brutality, “The Bigger Picture” — a highlight added to the album’s deluxe edition in June — became the lead protest song for Blacks in America after the death of George Floyd. Though Baby relishes his role as hip-hop’s reigning trap master, My Turn is an excellent showcase of versatility from the ever-improving rapper, and it spent five weeks atop of the Billboard 200, proving its title was no idle boast. — C.L.
5. Lady Gaga, Chromatica
Leave it to the stans to say it best: “Interesting that #Chromatica is arguably @ladygaga’s most personal album to date and also her very first without any ballads,” tweeted go-to news source Gaga Daily on the day of its release. By then, the world was craving relief from a challenging year, and a heart-pumping return to form following the detours of Joanne and A Star Is Born. But when it finally crashed in from outer space, Chromatica proved to be no retread. It was certainly extravagant — there are orchestral suites, unplaceable accents, invitations to serve it ancient-city style — but also more focused than ever. You don’t have to look far beneath the hissing house beats to find a songwriter working through her traumas and preoccupations with devastating clarity on songs like “Fun Tonight” and “1000 Doves.” Previously in the Gaga Cinematic Universe, every look had a story, every song had a double meaning, every performance was a parable. Maybe we’ll get some of that when she tours in 2021 — but for now, pop’s supreme shape-shifter has created something rarer: A world where she doesn’t have to explain herself. — N.F.
4. Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
This Leap Day, Bad Bunny surprised all of his fans with the release of his sophomore album YHLQMDLQ — short and sweet for “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” a.k.a. “I do whatever I want.” And in true Bad Bunny fashion, the Puerto Rican artist indeed does just that, dropping an innovative, daring, and edgy 20-song set that includes collaborations with Daddy Yankee, Jowell & Randy, Sech, and many more. YHLQMDLG — which made history on the Billboard charts, debuting at No. 1 on Top Latin Albums and No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — is home to old-school perreo, romantic reggaeton, and Latin trap bangers with a global appeal. Even though the set officially kicked off Bad Bunny’s successful year — including countless hits, accolades and even the release of two other studio LPs, Las Que No Iban a Salir and El Ultimo Tour Del Mundo – it’s YHLQMDLG that most become a staple for 2020 pop music in any language. — J.R.
3. The Weeknd, After Hours
Despite promoting his fourth album with the message “Let music heal us” during quarantine, The Weeknd doesn’t exactly heed his own advice on the spellbinding After Hours. Instead, the ‘80s-inspired disco and synth-pop heard in his smash hits “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” fuel hazy, yet unforgettable nights in the Las Vegas backdrop of his damaging, debaucherous cycle. But once the party’s over, The Weeknd feels alone again with his self-deprecating thoughts (“‘Cause I lost my faith/ So I cut away the pain/ Got it swimming in my veins/ Now my mind is outta place”) echoed throughout moody introspective tracks like “Snowchild” and “Faith.” Sonically, After Hours hits the sweet spot between the soul-corroding decadence of his Trilogy mixtapes, the melancholic, garbled melodies of My Dear Melancholy and the futuristic frenetic pop rhythms of Starboy, projecting a gleefully basking The Weeknd directly into the bright luminescence of international superstardom. — H.M.
2. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
It’s all there in the title: Dua Lipa’s dancefloor-commanding sophomore album makes listeners nostalgic for the sequined days of Studio 54, while piloting the recently revived disco sound into the future. Yes, there are callbacks to bygone eras of dance-pop — “Love Again” borrows from White Town’s ’90s one-off “Your Woman” (via Al Bowlly) and “Break My Heart” interpolates INXS’ ’80s chart-topper “Need You Tonight” — but merging all these classic inspirations is far from derivative; in fact, it makes for something wholly fresh when paired with Dua’s cheeky lyrics and confident vocals. And while there are far more heartbreaking reasons to bemoan 2020, robbing Future Nostalgia and its countless standout cuts (Is lead single “Don’t Start Now” best? Or maybe it’s the would-be ’80s dystopian soundtracker “Physical”? Or effortlessly ebullient latest single “Levitating”?) of being played in a nightclub is a damn shame. Perhaps the way the album has created its own constantly expanding universe since its March release — from August’s transportive Club Future Nostalgia remix album to November’s polished Studio 2054 livestream concert — is proof that we’ll still be dancing to these pulsing beats when we can all be shoulder-to-shoulder at a club once more. — K.A.
1. Taylor Swift, Folklore
On July 23, Taylor Swift came to save us from our socially distanced monotony — announcing an eighth studio album that would drop the next day. The news blindsided the pop music world; Swift was on some new shit, and she was gonna make it count. Teaming up with The National’s Aaron Dessner and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, Swift made a surprise record for the ages — and she did it in isolation, including producers, writers, mixers, duet partners and engineers scattered across the country. Pandemic or not, Folklore quickly proved that it transcended These Unprecedented Times and will be remembered as one of Swift’s seminal albums. The tranquil voices, the soft piano riffs and the pristine production come together to create just over an hour of cathartic and escapist listening. Here, past influences and daring risks add up to something that feels fresh — but still familiar, like oh maybe an old cardigan.
With writing skill and vocal talents honed over her decade-plus of stardom and an impressive continued willingness to evolve, she blended the best of her previous efforts into one work that at times is a little bit country, but always alternative rock and roll. (Who had Swift becoming one of the first artists to top Billboard’s New Hot Rock & Alternative Songs Listing on their 2020 Bingo card?) Fans of her previous Antonoff collabs will hear shades of 1989’s “Wildest Dreams” and Reputation’s “Getaway Car” in “Mirrorball” and “August” respectively, while the country-tinged “Betty” brings us back to the days of Red, when she first began to experiment outside of her comfort zone. The trinity of “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” also evokes the storytelling of Swift’s youth — this time with a more mature perspective on relationships, love and growing older.
It’s the Dessner tracks, however, that shine brightest. The serene music and poetic-yet-powerful lyrics allow her to grow beyond the Nashville sweetheart turned pop goddess we’ve come to adore. She cheekily pulls an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist with “The Last Great American Dynasty.” She contemplates past lives and pain in “Invisible String.” She’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore on “Mad Woman.” The set’s unexpected swerves make it clear that Swift has reached the point in her career where she’s making music how she wants to, without regards to critical or commercial accolades — although unsurprisingly, she earned both with Folklore, including five Grammy nominations (along with a sixth for her work on Cats) and eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Clearly, she had a marvelous time brightening our quarantine. — DENISE WARNER