The Top 20 Best Albums of 2020

In a year of unexpected surprises and horrors, these artists stepped up to the plate more than any other. But which of these talented musicians offered up the best album of 2020? Click here and read on to find out!

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Courtesy of Partisan

No. 20 Idles – “Ultra Mono”
Punk, Rock

The junior release of British rock band Idles may lack some of the nuanced ideologies that drove other albums on this list, but it’s no less poignant. Talbot’s vocals, eerily reminiscent of the over-the-top British accent for The Boys’ Billy Butcher, cut through the rebellious instrumentations with words as clear as the ideas behind them. “Kill Them With Kindness” isn’t a sentiment often found in a notably rambunctious genre, and may not even be agreeable to an alarming many, but its inclusion here keeps the album from sliding too far into the morbid.

Courtesy of 1501 Certified

No. 19 Megan Thee Stallion – “Good News”
Rap, Trap

2020’s it girl successfully backs up her overwhelming hype on her debut studio album. Her productions maintain the quintessential sound of Southern hip-hop, with relatively sparse instrumentation and universally loved rhythms allowing her lyricism to shine. Of course, Stallion’s sensual songs are where she shines brightest, and she makes it clear that her sexual fulfillment is her own and not something any man could give or take away from her.

Courtesy of Columbia

No. 18 The Chicks – “Gaslighter”
Country, Power Pop

Largely stepping away from the political scene that has defined their careers since that moment in 2003, the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks ended a fourteen-year hiatus with, inarguably, one of the best Country records of the year. Maguire’s pen is in top form now, and her penchant for the dramatic is almost prescient, leaving the internet to wonder “what did he do on that boat?” in the grueling weeks that followed the title track’s release in March.

Gaslighter is a relatively straight forward but masterfully executed break up album, seamlessly segueing from the discovery of infidelity to finding new love, the tribulations of seeing an ex out in public, and her final plea for her former lover to “Set Me Free.” All the while there’s never a moment where the subject matter feels overdone or repetitive, as the Chicks’ have no need to fluff their stories with exaggeration, allowing the story of heartbreak to unfold naturally and explosively.

Courtesy of Atlantic

No. 17 Charli XCX – “How I’m Feeling Now”
Hyperpop, Synthpop

How I’m Feeling Now tells the still-nascent historical story of quarantine in a way that no quarantine record yet has, which makes its drop in May of this year all the more impressive. Opening with “Pink Diamond”, the listener is instantly thrown into a dissonant electronic arrangement that resembles the chaos and rapidity of the COVID lockdowns. Throughout “How I’m Feeling,” XCX explores themes of loneliness and isolation, self-doubt, and longing for normalcy. By the end of the album, she reflects on the state of the quarantine and her own artistic visions, which ultimately result in the album the listener is just then finishing. While the record may not sound timeless, as it is unmistakably modern, it is an unparalleled snapshot of a world – and an artist – in disarray. It will surely prove to be a perennial artwork that outlives the history surrounding it.

Courtesy of Jewel Runners/BMG

No. 16 Run the Jewels – “RTJ4”
Hip-Hop, Rap

It’s unfortunate that with every Run the Jewels release it seemingly speaks to the needs and inequities of the present moment. The wit and insight of El-P and Killer Mike into American society is just as razor-sharp as it was when their first LP dropped in 2013, making them one of the most consistently jaw-dropping musical acts of the last decade. For RTJ4, they only continue to hone their formula.

In spite of the morbid thematics that come from discussing race and capitalistic exploitation, the music remains remarkably inspiring and hopeful, capable of wide appeal. The rap duo doesn’t create mythical celebrity personas like their contemporaries, and that puts the onus on the listener to make meaningful change.

Courtesy of Terrible

No. 15 Empress Of – “I’m Your Empress Of”
Dance, Electronic

Dance and club music often take power from anonymity; to be able to keep a distance from personal struggles and identity to simply enjoy the catharsis of the dancefloor. Here, Lorely Rogriguez flips that expectation on its head, using dance music to explore her story and struggles instead.

Repeated audio snippets from her mother – a Honduran immigrant – are sprinkled throughout the album’s tracks, reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s poem across “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Her narrative shapes her daughter’s, and instead of running away from that, the younger Rodriguez embraces it. As a result, the club beats are made more cerebral, and Rodriguez’s vision of herself and her narrative becomes clear to the listener. This album is hers, but you are more than welcome to join her for the odyssey.

Courtesy of Columbia

No. 14 HAIM – “Women in Music Pt. III”
Indie Pop, Soft Rock

HAIM’s “Pt. III” of their career is aptly represented by its retro artwork. The peppy, pop-driven sound of their debut and it’s on the nose Instagram-ready cover have now matured, as the group reaches further back in time to create its sound. Opening and closing with smoky saxophone solos, HAIM buck the sound of the Strokes in favor of bluesier, funkier riffs and arrangements. While the three sisters still struggle with the ins and outs of modern romance, the wisdom and insight that comes with crossing from one’s 20s to 30s cuts through on tracks “I Know Alone” and “Now I’m In It”. The result is an album that’s just as confident as their previous, but also one that feels more purposeful.

Courtesy of XL

No. 13 Arca – “KiCk i”
Avant-Garde, Electronica

Arca has quickly emerged as a generation-defining producer, and though her resume with Kanye, Bjork, and Frank Ocean certainly pops out, fortunately, it is her own work that represents her best. The cover art, with Arca adorned in frightening battle armor, highlights the album’s eclectic electronic sounds and exaggerated combative personality. The opener “Nonbinary” spitefully kicks off the record with this dramatic dynamic, snarling: “I don’t give a fuck what you think… you’ll never know me.”

Her existence as a non-binary, latinx trans woman leads an unfortunate many to view her as a threat. On the highlight “Mequetrefe,” she vacillates between confidence in her non-conformity and anxiety, before deciding on the former. There’s space in the production to breathe and relax the shoulders in these moments, but only before she jolts you into the space of her world once again.

Courtesy of Warner

No. 12 Dua Lipa – “Future Nostalgia”
Dance-Pop, Synthpop

In a year with towering pop releases from icons like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, it was Dua Lipa’s sophomore release that excited and exploded like none of the others in her vicinity. Whereas her debut felt icy and distant, Future Nostalgia is a finely tuned Delorean, zipping between the hypnotic dancefloor sounds of the 80s and today to deliver a thrilling and astral sound to its audience.

The album’s thesis statement clearly lies in its funky and cinematic title track, which oozes the swagger and sexuality of early Prince. His influence permeates any 80s record, and that is certainly true here, but Lipa’s forwardness on issues of feminism and romance pushes the record out of anyone else’s shadow but her own and adds another excellent addition to the still-nascent pantheon of pop classics.

Courtesy of Century Media

No. 11 Imperial Triumphant – “Alphaville”
Metal, Avant Garde

Imperial Triumphant’s fourth studio album is terrifyingly poignant in the year of its release; as congregated urban life is questioned in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alphaville twists the knife in deeper, exploring themes of class conflict in “City Swine” to blatant nihilism in the descendant “Atomic Age.” In all of this, the album manages the unprecedented feat of critiquing American society and capitalism in an election year while somehow maintaining the allure of the apolitical.

While the most rebellious rock stars seem to blend seamlessly into the establishment that they critique, Imperial Triumphant continues to drive a wedge between this vision of rock and themselves. The American trio pushes the limits of their sound and the genres they pull from, incorporating a conglomeration of instruments that all co-operate astonishingly well in creating the bleak and dystopian streets of Alphaville.

Courtesy of Warp

No. 10 Yves Tumor – “Heaven to a Tortured Mind”
Psychedelia, Rock

The album’s title beautifully encapsulates the sound of the album from beginning to end. The clattered sounds of the opening track, “Gospel for a New Century,” is paradoxically stressful and cathartic, before giving into the will of the demented on “Medicine Burn.” When Tumor turns to sex, the sound is pleasant on a visceral level, but there are still pieces of the background that signal that something is still awry. The fantasy of romance provides an escapist fantasy, but not a solution for the narrator, rendering “Heaven” unobtainable.

Courtesy of Warner

No. 9 Lianne La Havas – “Lianne La Havas
R&B, Soul

Lianne La Havas continues to see her star steadily rise, with 11 songs that establish her air-tight artistry. Her first LP since her work with Prince ended prematurely is one that sees her blossom the most. Even in her recordings, she manages to exude more stage presence than ever before, and feels comfortable in moments of intense vulnerability like “Paper Thin.” Her exceptional talent as a vocalist, a musician, and a songwriter individually are all formidable here; to have those talents all under one name makes this particular album worthy of bearing it alone.

Courtesy of Republic Records

No. 8 Taylor Swift – “folklore”
Chamber Pop, Indie Rock

Folklore is the magnum opus Taylor Allison Swift was always capable of creating but needed the right culmination of events to be realized properly. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the global superstar off of stadium stages and into isolation, this spring was as perfect a time as ever for Swift to fully devote herself to stitching together the compelling narratives found woven into the album’s lyrics instead of being drained by self-preservation.

After largely phoning in 2019’s Lover, “Folklore” represents another sonic shift for Pop’s musical chameleon, one that strikes a new balance between her origins as a Country starlet and a now burgeoning Pop iconoclast. Never one to shy away from the requirements of a genre (from the dubstep breakdowns in “I Knew You Were Trouble” to a Future feature on the trap pop “End Game”), Swift immerses herself in the sleek, alternative-indie sound popularized by Bon Iver and the National by enlisting them for contributions. The final product is one that will surely be one of her legacy records, as well as one that establishes her as one of America’s finest songwriters.

Courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty

No. 7 Sufjan Stevens – “The Ascension”
Singer-Songwriter, Electronica

Stevens took a risk with his first LP in half a decade, and he somewhat polarized fans as these records often do. While it may not be his legacy record, it is a welcome addition to his discography that shows his not only versatility in performance but diversity in taste. Carrie & Lowell was a haunting and somber record, and while those themes and sounds are still present here, Stevens returns to playing with levity once more. “Video Game” is a blatant pop song, but muted and approachable from different angles. The productions throughout – notably on “Ursa Major” and “Gilgamesh” – take cues straight from Bjork’s volcanic Homogenic, which might have been unthinkable for him just a few years ago. The electronic altering of his voice elevates his productions and vice-versa, and The Ascension proves his attention to the details.

Courtesy of Dirty Hit

No. 6 Rina Sawayama – “Sawayama”
NuPop, Pop-Rock

Sawayama represents the emergence of one of the most exciting artists in indie-pop to mainstream prominence, providing a soundtrack to those who live outside the radius of hetero-anglo society without a drop of sap.

Sawayama synthesizes some of the most exciting trends in various genres and periods of music in a way that many pop stars like her might shy away from. From start to finish, Sawayama never plays down or safe, instead, it reaches for and incorporates sounds from unexpected places. While “XS” clearly draws influence from tourmate Charli XCX’s cutting edge pop in its unpredictable structure, the chorus is a dead ringer for the ethereal guitar-driven pop hits from 2000s icons like JoJo, Natasha Bedingfield, and Britney Spears. For an Avant-Pop record like this one, it was a risk to incorporate a sound so aggressively pop, but it’s difficult to contend that any of it doesn’t work.

Courtesy of Dead Oceans

No. 5 Phoebe Bridgers – “Punisher”
Singer-Songwriter, Soft Rock

In her various interviews this album cycle, Bridgers has insisted that she doesn’t want to be a “punisher,” yet it’s hard to hear this album as anything other than merciless. While it has its charming moments from a “garden” to “Kyoto,” the record is defined by its melancholy and somber tones. Bridgers’ lyrical style rarely relishes in grandiose imagery or metaphor, but shines in its insistence to share every colorless detail with the listener (how did she make the lyric “I will never be your vegetable” sound anything other than ridiculous?). Her Billie Eilish-like whisper caresses the album’s softest moments like a mother’s arms, disarming and frail, which her audience will desperately need by “The End.”

Courtesy of Matador

No. 4 Perfume Genius – “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”
Baroque Pop, Indie Rock

Where his previous records were brutal and uncompromising in their sheer pain, “Fire” is driven to go once more. He again leaves his heart bare on his sleeve, from the record’s opening line “half of my whole life is gone”, frontman Mike Hadreas wallops the audience. He writhes in self-pity on “Jason”, agonizing over its broken bassline and haunting harmonies. What his deliveries lack in sheer vocal power he makes up for in grit; the minor distortions in his voice echoed in the metallic twangs of the acoustic guitar or the earthy cry of the synthesizer. Even when wounded, he’s still fearless.

Courtesy of Empire

No. 3 Busta Rhymes – “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God”
Hip-Hop, Rap

Rhymes continues to solidify his legacy as one of the most underrated rappers of his generation. He has the truly athletic potential to rap circles around his features with mind blowing speed and proficiency, but the anxiety of sharing a track with him often pushes his features to punch above their weight. On “Where I Belong,” Rhymes shows that is comfortable toning down his artistic fireworks by relaxing over a smooth R&B beat with Mariah Carey, before pushing her to match his rapid fire lyricism in harmony.

Beyond this, ELE2 is an event in and of itself of the most grandiose proportions. Featuring a strung together narrative by comedian Chris Rock, the cast list for the album includes legends spanning generations, from the aforementioned Mariah Carey and ‘Ol Dirty Bastard to Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak. The productions often sit back and allow the stars to shine, providing an eclectic and scintillating mix of the old and new.

Courtesy of Interscope Records

No. 2 Jessie Ware – “What’s Your Pleasure?”
Dance, Post-Disco

“I just want to stay / In the moonlight / This is our time / In the Spotlight” Ware croons on the sensual opener “Spotlight.” Her desire to capture the ephemeral permeates her fourth studio album, from her that yearning to preserve a moonlit summer evening, to her request for a lover to “Save A Kiss”, or for the club that she surely illuminates to not “stop moving together.” It’s this proclivity for the fantastical that differentiates the record from her previous offerings.

What’s Your Pleasure? represents a golden and shimmering collection of the finest, most decadent pieces of Post-Disco produced in years. It captures an imaginative, elegant atmosphere of socialite gatherings in 1980s New York City with all of the grandeur but less of the self-importance. And if there’s any justice in this world, it will at least become a Pop cult staple in the vein of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion for its ability to transcend.

Courtesy of Jagjaguwar

No. 1 Moses Sumney – “Græ”
Baroque Pop, Artpop

Grae is an artistic triumph for the ages, one that demonstrates jaw-dropping mastery of his craft in almost every imaginable facet. The album’s lyrics flow like poetry, unsurprising, given Sumney’s background as a poet, but nevertheless breathtaking in their imagery:

Cupid has it out for me

Gave me crooked alchemy

Eros, oh god of flings

Sees the beauty in all things

As stupid’s as stupid does

I grasp your cloak because

Maybe you’ll grant me wings

If I cling

– “Bless Me”

The music swells, builds, and probes, with shades of jazz, R&B, pop blending together in a dazzling avant-garde, artpop sound palette. It unfolds in a vast, ambient soundscape, riddled with haunting, vibrant instrumentation. Sumney’s vocal performances are as thrilling as they are intimate, his falsetto deftly and delicately flowing through each melisma with frightening ease, while the spoken word inclusions guide the listener through the recesses of his mind without inhibition. It is a journey unlike any other provided this year and a testament to the seemingly limitless possibilities of his artistry.

No. 20 Idles – “Ultra Mono”

No. 19 Megan Thee Stallion – “Good News”

No. 18 The Chicks – “Gaslighter”

No. 17 Charli XCX – “How I’m Feeling Now”

No. 16 Run The Jewels – “RTJ4”

No. 15 Empress Of – “I’m Your Empress Of”

No. 14 Haim – “Women in Music Pt. III”

No. 13 Arca – “Kick i”

No. 12 Dua Lipa – “Future Nostaglia”

No. 11 Imperial Triumphant – “Alphaville”

No. 10 Yves Tumor – “Heaven to a Tortured Mind”

No. 9 Lianne La Havas – “Lianne La Havas”

No. 8 Taylor Swift – “Folklore”

No. 7 Sufjan Stevens – “The Ascension”

No. 6 Rina Sawayama – “Sawayama”

No. 5 Phoebe Bridgers – “Punisher”

No. 4 Perfume Genius – “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”

No. 3 Busta Rhymes – “Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God”

No. 2 Jessie Ware – “What’s Your Pleasure?”

No. 1 Moses Sumney – “Græ”

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