The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far…)

2020 has been a nightmare. Between a pandemic with no apparent end in sight, the renewed fire behind Black Lives Matter protests, and a hellish presidential election on the horizon, 2020 has been a challenge at best. In spite of all of this, we have been blessed with some truly great music. Albums that provide escapism, grant us an unflinching look at marginalized experiences, and push the boundaries of genre. Here (in alphabetical order) are the best albums of 2020 so far:

1. A Muse In Her Feelings (dvsn)

OVO Sound

Dvsn really never misses. The R&B duo has consistently put out excellent albums, and A Muse In Her Feelings is yet another entry into their layered lexicon. Even though the album features guest appearances from R&B and hip-hop’s brightest stars (Future, Summer Walker, Ty Dolla $ign, etc.), the record never loses sight of that smooth sensuality that made us all fall in love with dvsn. Daniel Daley’s vocals are as pristine as ever, but it’s Nineteen85’s expanded production (he touches on classic soul, reggae, pop, hip-hop, trap&b, and more) that really seals the deal. Listen to: “So What (feat. Popcaan)” and “A Muse”

2. A Written Testimony (Jay Electronica)

Roc Nation

A decade in the making, Jay Electronica’s official debut album is easily one of the best of the year. The record essentially doubles as a Jay-Z collab tape as the rap legend has guest verses on the majority of the album’s tracks. Sure, Jay-Z sometimes outshines Jay Elec, but don’t be mistaken — he more than holds his own. With dense lyricism assessing religion, marriage, race, wealth, and life, this is “dad rap” that still delivers the bangers. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Flux Capacitor” and “Ghost of Soulja Slim”

3. After Hours (The Weeknd)

XO/Republic

Far and away the frontrunner for Album of the Year at next year’s Grammys, After Hours is yet another excellent record from The Weeknd. The album adds another layer to his damaged playboy persona as he explores toxic relationships and geography as a measure of sin and love, among other central themes. He seamlessly blends rousing pop anthems like “Blinding Lights” with more brooding trap&b confections like “Too Late” which finding new ways to level up his vocal performances. The Weeknd has been scarily consistent, and while each album since Kiss Land has felt familiar, the intricate storyline and attention to detail make each album better than the last. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Escape From LA” and “Scared To Live”

4. Circles (Mac Miller)

Warner

2020 has quickly morphed into a year shaped by death. Circles, one of two posthumous releases on this list, was as much a commemoration of Mac Miller’s brilliant artistry as it was a celebration of his quirkiness and candor. The atmospheric project, positioned as the companion piece to his excellent Swimming album, balanced soft synths, doo-wop stylings, and a delicate singing voice. Mac is easily one of the most intriguing and rewarding rappers to debut in the last decade and Circles just sounds magical. A completely solo venture, the project is the furthest Mac has ever strayed from rap music, and yet, this is, arguably, the most comfortable he has ever sounded on record. It’s beautiful. Listen to “Blue World” and “Woods”

5. Chromatica (Lady Gaga)

Interscope

All eyes were on Gaga to see if she could translate the commercial and critical success of A Star Is Born to her pop music, and boy did she deliver! For a summer devoid of dance floors and parties, Gaga gave us an album that was stacked to the brim with rousing choruses, thumping bass lines, and arresting synths. For all of the production triumphs, it’s the lyrics, some of the best Gaga has written in years, that seal the deal. Gaga colors in her bubbly and anthemic melodies with lyrics that detail PTSD, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, general past trauma, and more. This is some of her best straight pop music in a minute. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Replay” and “911”

6. Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert)

Atlantic

The urban legend that was Uzi’s sophomore album was finally made a reality through a remarkable double album. Eternal Atake is as cinematic and otherworldly as one would expect an album from Uzi to be. His rapid-fire flow is punctuated by laser beam sound effects and snippets of dialogue, while his multiple alter-egos conquer different sections of the record. The album works especially well because Uzi delivers on all fronts. He defies the constraints of the “mumble rapper” box that he is so often forced into. Eternal Atake features some of his most impressive rapping as well as some of his most tender ballads. It’s a moment of truth and a victory lap wrapped into one neat package. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Lo Mein” and “Urgency (feat. Syd)”

7. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)

Epic

There may not be an album this year that tops this one. Fiona’s glorious manifesto of liberation and empowerment is underscored by raw percussion, unexpected melodies, and lyrics so sharp that you have to run the songs back multiple times to begin to get the full effect. If the poppier end of the music spectrum granted us moments of escapism from the hellhole of 2020, Fetch the Bolt Cutters forced us to use art to reckon with and confront various systems of oppression and how they impact our collective and individual freedom. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Under the Table” and “For Her”

8. Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa)

Warner

Everyone loves a star-making moment, and Dua Lipa’s sophomore effort is exactly that. Future Nostalgia is a succinct and focused record that zeroes in on the grandiosity and glory of Europop and 80s synthpop. Her rich vocals provide the perfect color to the classic pop harmonies and sublime pre-choruses that rule the record. The album is anchored by her smoky rasp, an element that adds depth to the sometimes generic and formulaic lyrics. Future Nostalgia has remained fresh throughout these insane months because it’s a vehicle for escapism and euphoria: two things that we desperately need. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Love Again” and “Levitating”

9. Goldmine (Gabby Barrett)

Warner Nashville

Country music has been missing a big crossover star for a few years now, and Gabby Barrett just might be what they’re looking for. A third-place American Idol finalist, Gabby Barrett’s enormous vocals are the driving force behind her music. Her debut album, Goldmine, is largely a traditional country album with a swagger that it is distinctly anchored towards the mainstream. With a belt similar to Carrie Underwood’s, Gabby is not only armed with beautiful lyrics but also a voice that will breathe greatness and life into just about anything. Listen to: “Goldmine” and “Footprints On The Moon”

10. good to know (Jojo)

Warner

It’s always interesting watching child stars evolve from their younger music into full-fledged adults. Jojo practically came onto the scene as an adult with that soulful and skilled voice of hers. On good to know, however, she borrows a few pages from Janet Jackson to craft an endlessly sensual and endlessly rewarding R&B album. She leans into trap&b without letting it consume her or hide her gorgeous voice. Instead, she blends the subgenre with acoustic pop and classic soul-driven R&B to create songs about sex, sexual liberation, and a particularly memorable anthem about hangovers. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Pedialyte” and “Don’t Talk Me Down”

10. It Is What It Is (Thundercat)

Brainfeeder

Thundercat’s Drunk and “Them Changes” are often hailed as one of the best albums and songs of the past decade. In fact, the track made my list of the Top 75 Songs of the 2010s. On his latest record, Thundercat continues his exploration of the intersections of jazz, R&B, trap, and pop. The album’s soft soundscape is the perfect backdrop for his ruminations on grief, loss, and love. While there isn’t anything as instant as “Them Changes,” the beauty of this record lies in the languid nature of its story and, of course, Thundercat’s excellent bass playing skills. Listen to: “Fair Chance (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B)” and “Dragonball Durag”

11. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t (Kehlani)

Atlantic

Female R&B has been killing it recently, and Kehlani’s latest album is just further proof. In short, the album details Kehlani’s inner conflict between emotional intimacy and sex-based relationships and her struggle to come to terms with her own faults and the faults of her partners. Her cadence floats between rapping and singing as she delivers undeniable radio singles that still somehow fit in the larger narrative that she is trying to convey. One of the album’s biggest triumphs is how seamlessly she is able to incorporate the sounds and voices of the featured artists without losing the power of her own voice. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to “Open (Passionate)” and “Grieving (feat. James Blake)”

12. MANTIC (Ro James)

RCA

I mentioned that female R&B has been on a roll lately, but R&B, in general, has been on a quality run in 2002, in particular. Ro James, the German singer-songwriter behind the Grammy-nominated “Permission,” crafted one of the most carnal albums of the year. He let his Prince inspiration take full control as he dived into R&B midtempos and ballads shaped by the stylings of rock, gospel, and hip-hop. The album features gorgeous collaborations with Masego & Brandy as well as writing credits from Usher and Robin Thicke. Ro’s blend of programmed beats and analog instruments, particularly guitar, makes for a thrilling and fulfilling listen. For all those who whine about the alleged death of R&B, Ro James would like to have a few words. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to “Rain” and “Plan B (feat. Brandy)”

13. Map of the Soul: 7 (BTS)

Big Hit

In recent years BTS has become synonymous with the term “world domination.” With every release, they break more sales and streaming records across the world, and further solidify their support as the biggest group, and one of the biggest acts, in the world. Don’t be mistaken, however, the Bangtan Boys are successful, but they never compromise the quality of their music. Arguably their most ambitious venture yet, Map of the Soul: 7 is a both a reflection on the group’s meteoric rise and a testament to how they can jump from genre to genre with ease. The vocal line and rap line both deliver some of their best efforts yet. If nothing, the album is enjoyable; whether it’s the earnest ballads or the explosive dance numbers, BTS can sell pretty much any song. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Louder Than Bombs” and “Inner Child”

14. My Turn (Lil Baby)

Quality Control/Columbia

The premier rapper of 2020, Lil Baby has been effortlessly dominating with My Turn, his sophomore studio album. The aptly titled project sees Baby working at the height of his powers: nimble flows, disarmingly honest lyricism, and a knack for hooks and production quirks that set him apart from his peers. He delivers hooks that are catchier than that of most pop stars on “Sum 2 Prove” and “Woah,” and the whistle effect on “We Paid” has made the song an instant meme while also adding a layer of softness to the trap foundation of the track. Baby doesn’t necessarily unpack his trauma, but he uses it to provide context to his character in a way that feels authentic and revelatory. Listen to: “Emotionally Scarred” and “Commercial (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”

15. Petals For Armor (Hayley Williams)

Atlantic

Many have wondered what a solo album from Paramore’s Hayley Williams would sound like. Any expectations were exceeded by the intricate, layered, and soul-baring Petals For Armor. The album sees Hayley tackling depression and anxiety head-on with a narrative steeped in therapy metaphors. Petals moves away from the rousing pop-rock of Paramore’s greatest hits and pivots towards soft rock, synthpop, and alternative rock instead. Where you would expect a showstopping belt from Hayley, she makes the conscious choice to hold back and subvert that expectation into something a lot more personal and vulnerable. Petals For Armor is an excellent introduction to Hayley Williams: the solo artist. Read my full review here. Listen to: “Sudden Desire” and “Dead Horse”

16. Pray for Paris (Westside Gunn)

Griselda

The first of two Westside Gunn projects that 2020 has blessed us with, Pray for Paris is a stellar contrast of luxurious beats with narrative-driven raps about Westside’s time in federal prison and his thoughts on his roots and current fame. The album’s reliance on jazz and lounge stylings offers a welcome break from the trap beats that have continued to inundate the mainstream this year. In terms of rap skill, Westside had absolutely nothing prove; he’s part of Griselda after all, and skilled rappers are their brand. The New York native may have a youthful tone, but his wordplay and storytelling abilities prove that he’s lived a full life and has wisdom and talent far beyond his years. Read my full review here. Listen to: “George Bondo” and “French Toast”

17. RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)

BMG/Jewel Runners

It seems that everyone has been trying to put out a “protest” album since Trump was sworn into office. Run The Jewels actually achieved that distinction with RTJ4. The album is built around El-P’s top-notch production; string arrangements, saxophone, trap influences, and rock music giants add different layers of the legacy of protest music to the album. Guest stars include the legendary Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. Killer Mike tackles racist cops, consumerism, the media industrial complex, and more on this whirlwind and impassioned album. Listen to: “Walking in the Snow” and “JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)”

18. SAWAYAMA (Rina Sawayama)

Dirty Hit

If you’ve been on Twitter at all in recent months, you would know that people cannot shut up about this album — and for good reason. Rina Sawayama’s eclectic debut album takes on destructive tourism, generational trauma, immigration, capitalism, nihilism, and more. The album is deeply rooted in the 2000s with pop melodies dripping with Britney Spears glam and brash guitars that grunge heads would kill for. It’s truly remarkable how Rina can translate such specific experiences into universal feelings, but the trick is that she’s amplifying experiences that a massive amount of people share… they just haven’t been explored this thoroughly in mainstream pop before. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Tokyo Love Hotel” and “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”

19. Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon (Pop Smoke)

Republic/Victor Victor

Ah, Pop Smoke. The promising Brooklyn rapper, unfortunately, taken from us at just 20 years old, had so much in store. He exploded onto the scene with the enrapturing “Welcome to the Party,” a track that quickly grew from a street hit to a New York drill anthem. It was, “Dior,” however, that catapulted Pop to stardom; the lethal verses and catchy hook have soundtracked protests across New York this summer. On his first posthumous album, Pop displays the versatility and fearlessness of his artistry. Even though the album was packed with some unnecessary features (hello, King Combs, Karol G, Quavo, and DaBaby), nothing can dim Pop’s light. Whether he’s bringing New York full circle on the 50 Cent and Roddy Ricch-assisted “The Woo,” dissing 6ix9ine from Heaven on “Gangstas,” or rapping circles around many of his peers on “44 BullDog,” Pop just doesn’t let up. One of the best moments on the album is when Pop flexes his Top 40 muscle on “Enjoy Yourself” and “Something Special”; he’s literally beating pop stars at their own game from beyond the grave. Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon will be a seminal piece of New York music history. Bask in the glow of its glory and the brightness of Pop’s ever-shining star. Listen to: “Mood Swings (feat. Lil Tjay),” “Got It On Me,” and “Make It Rain (feat. Rowdy Rebel)”

20. Ungodly Hour (Chloe x Halle)

Columbia/Parkwood Entertainment

Chloe x Halle are incapable of making a bad song. They simply aren’t able to. To follow up their two-time Grammy-nominated debut album, The Kids Are Alright, the sister duo decided to get more explicit and focused on their sophomore album, Ungodly Hour. Notably shorter than their debut, there is absolutely no space or time for fillers. The girls draw from blues, trap, rock, and opera to create one of the most rewarding records of the year. Ungodly Hour tells the story of a young woman liberating herself from a rotten relationship and finding renewed strength and freedom in herself and her friends. Needless to say, the girls’ vocals are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but Chloe’s production tends to steal the show at times, as well. Read my full review of the album here. Listen to: “Forgive Me” and “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me”

21. What’s Your Pleasure? (Jessie Ware)

Interscope

2020 has gifted us some truly stellar pop records and Jessie Ware is behind one of the best ones. What’s Your Pleasure is an infectious 70s disco pop-influenced confection that thrives on sensual vocals and bubbly synths. It’s a smooth blend of pop that feels mature but not tired. Sonically, this record couldn’t be farther from the soulful adult contemporary of Glasshouse and Tough Love. This truly is a new start for Jessie’s career; she sounds rejuvenated and refreshed. This is easily one of the most well-crafted attempts at a disco album in the modern era. Listen to: “Remember Where You Are” and “What’s Your Pleasure”

22. Women in Music Pt. III (HAIM)

Polydor

Gone is the breezy summer pop-rock of HAIM’s past. The sister trio opted to look to hip-hop and spoken word, among other genres, to craft an album that’s truly a reflection of the times. Women in Music never really settles into one steady groove, and different production choices and quirks push the album to keep evolving and challenge the listener to stay engaged. It keeps you on your toes while allowing HAIM to showcase the breadth of their artistry and willingness to experiment. Listen to: “3 AM” and “Don’t Wanna”

23. YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)

Rimas

The first of two projects Bad Bunny dropped this year, the following being Las Que No Iban A Salir, YHLQMDLG may just be his strongest project yet. Remarkably, Benito was able to touch on, deconstruct, rebuild, and transform nearly every iteration and trope of Latin trap and reggaeton. His smooth singing voice and catchy flow are the perfect matches for beats that are both enticing and aggressive. He continues to champion consent in a genre that has mostly ignored the concept while still making music that, *gasp*, is sexy and fun. Listen to: “La Dífícil” and “Safaera (with Jowell & Randy & Ñengo Flow)

Honorable Mentions: City On Lock (City Girls), Manic (Halsey), WUNNA (Gunna), SOUTHSIDE (Sam Hunt), Lady Like (Ingrid Andress), Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers), The Album (Teyana Taylor) Alfredo (Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist), The Slow Rush (Tame Impala), græ (Moses Sumney), Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius), Rare Deluxe (Selena Gomez), Kiss 5 (K CAMP)

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