The 40 Best Albums of 2020

We’re all painfully aware of how terrible of a year 2020 was. There’s no need to dwell on all of the negativity. Every year, ranking the best of the best feels like a futile task. Regardless of how expansive the list may be, some artist or song or movie or television show or play or book or album is bound to be left out. Ranking the best of the best in a year of absolute worsts, however? It feels impossible, but also, absolutely necessary. What better way to squeeze some last drops of light out of this hellhole of a year than reflecting on the best albums that artists have gifted us this year? Some of these records were marred by the pandemic and some were completely recorded and released during quarantine, but all of these albums showcase the diversity, honesty, and overall excellence of music in 2020. From indie rock bands to powerhouse pop stars and from R&B titans to afrobeats superstars, here are the 40 best albums of 2020:

#40. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t (Kehlani)

Atlantic

Kehlani has been a stalwart of the new generation of R&B songstresses. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, her second proper studio album, is Kehlani’s most well-balanced blend of shining radio hits and deeply personal explorations of lust and loss. Often, they come in the form of the same song. Kehlani’s voice is explicitly informed by the stylings of 90s R&B and that influence grounds her sound as she experiments with trap, jazz, and acoustic pop throughout the album. The James Blake-assisted “Grieving” is the crux of the album — a somber ballad about loss that offers the album a bit of contrast to sultrier moments like “Change Your Life” and “Toxic.” Sex has been the driving force of a significant portion of Kehlani’s discography, but she expands on the toxicity, complications, and hurt that come as a result of sex and its impact on relationships. It’s not exactly a concept album, but the way It Was Good adheres to its theme is more effective than any Kehlani project thus far. With guest appearances from Masego, Jhené Aiko, Lucky Daye, and more, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is more than good. It’s an exceptional effort from an artist is who is arguably the most consistent in her field. Read my full review of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t here. Listen to: “Grieving” and “Hate The Club”

#39. how i’m feeling now (Charli XCX)

Asylum/Atlantic

Recorded in just over a month during the height of lockdown, Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now is a hyperpop gem. Charli is a fascinating pop star. After crafting one of the best soundtrack-song-turned-Top-40-smash-hit with “Boom Clap,” Charli could have very easily gone the standard pop star route and ended up amongst the likes of Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift. Instead, Charli sprinted in the opposite direction. Over the past few years, she’s diligently honed this blend of hyperpop, electropop, and PC music that consistently puts her ahead of the curve. This new album fuses the crunchy pop hooks of Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel to create this hyperactive soundscape of glitches, eurotrance, and aggressive synths. From the robotic splendor of “Claws” to the relatively more minimalist “I Finally Understand,” Charli delivered yet again with how i’m feeling now. Listen to: “I Finally Understand” and “Forever”

#38. Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert)

Generation Now/Atlantic

There likely isn’t an album on this list, or of 2020 for that matter, that was more anticipated than Eternal Atake. By the time of its release, the album was nothing short of an urban legend. With that level of anticipation, it seemed impossible that Eternal Atake could live up to the hype. If we’ve learned anything over the past few years: never doubt Uzi. The Philadelphia rapper’s sophomore studio album is an intergalactic affair of the highest pedigree. Complete with laser sound effects and skits set on a spaceship, Eternal Atake is grander than anything Uzi has ever done before. Split into three chapters, each named after and inspired by a different one of his alter egos, the album sees Uzi effortlessly transitioning from rapid-fire bangers to emotional R&B ballads. His versatility has never been more effectively showcased than it has been here. Of course, the album was not without its viral moments (see “POP” and “Futsal Shuffle 2020”), but it’s the moments where Uzi is rapping his face off that really make the album click. Uzi is somewhat of an enigma and, honestly, Eternal Atake doesn’t even attempt to part the clouds in any way. Instead, the album is an hour-long rollercoaster that celebrates Uzi’s ambitious take on hip-hop. He’s singing a lot, rapping a lot, and talking a lot, but all of it is pretty damn great. Read my full review of Eternal Atake here. Listen to: “Lo Mein” and “Urgency”

#37. Circles (Mac Miller)

REMember Music/Warner

2020 was the year of many things — including the year of the posthumous album. Mac, Juice WRLD, Pop Smoke (who is also on this list), Chester Bennington, and more all “released” albums posthumously this year. Mac, who we tragically lost in 2018 shortly after the release of his magnificent Swimming album, is an irreplaceable artist and Circles is just another reminder. With each new album, Mac moved away from rapping and into this beautifully murky combination of singing, rapping, and spoken word. Circles is almost completely absent of rap, instead Mac delicately sings over pensive instrumentals. Presented as a companion to Swimming, Circles is a sonic juxtaposition to Mac’s previous album in how quiet it is. Swimming favored the more uptempo moments of the convergence of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Circles ponders its way through lo-fi beats, soft (but still catchy) hooks, and somber ruminations on life, love, lust, and existence. It’s a stunning record that truly has to be digested as one full body of work. Mac was a pure soul and true artist; Circles is a terrific, and heavy, reminder that he was a talent that we lost entirely too soon. Listen to: “Woods” and “Everybody”

#36. A Muse In Her Feelings (dvsn)

OVO Sound

Do we talk about dvsn enough? I don’t think so. The R&B duo has been one of the most consistent acts in R&B and A Muse In Her Feelings is yet another excellent addition to their discography. The expansive record sees the duo drawing influence from myriad genres including dancehall, rap, reggae, and pop, but everything is held together by Daniel Daley’s gorgeous vocal. With a stacked roster of guest artists (Summer Walker, Future, Popcaan, Jessie Reyez, Buju Banton, etc.), the chances of the record crumbling under its own weight were admittedly high. Nevertheless, Nineteen85’s smart production would have never allowed that to happen. This duo works because they truly understand each other. Whether it’s the harp-inflected “No Good” or the dance-influenced breakdown in “Flawless (Do It Well Pt. 3),” Nineteen85 knows exactly how to play to Daley’s vocal strengths — the sincerity and tenderness that he exudes with every note. A Muse In Her Feelings is an enthralling listen from top to bottom. Listen to: “Between Us” and “A Muse”

#35. Take Time & When It’s All Said And Done (Giveon)

Not So Fast/Epic

Yes, this entry is technically two separate EPs instead of one album, but can you blame me? Giveon may be the greatest gift of 2020. His striking baritone effortlessly stole the show on Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes, but we really got to hear his voice across these two EPs. On Take Time, Giveon struck a brilliant balance between his gentle falsetto and robust mixed voice. He offered nuanced takes on infidelity, heartbreak, and love on a project that was so tight and polished it seemed unbelievable that it was his debut. What’s so intriguing about Giveon is that he feels fresh in two primary ways: he’s not forcing every song to sit as high as possible and his takes on overdone lyrical tropes feel fresh. On “Heartbreak Anniversary” he sets the scene of a twisted party that celebrates a breakup rather than romance. “Still Your Best” sees Giveon getting cocky and relishing the fact that his ex-lover still can’t top the time spent with him. With just ten tracks between the two projects, there is obviously so much more that Giveon has to offer. Nonetheless, these projects were outstanding. Listen to: “Still Your Best” and “Heartbreak Anniversary”

#34. The Wild Card (Ledisi)

Listen Black

For two decades, Ledisi has been one of the most valuable voices in R&B, and in music, in general. Her sublime timbre and incredible vocal control make every album a true listening experience. On The Wild Card, her first independent release with Listen Black Entertainment, Ledisi channels the golden eras of R&B and soul to create a gorgeous soundscape. Above all, it is Ledisi’s intention that makes The Wild Card the record that it is. Every note is perfectly placed and the harmonies and arrangements for each song are strikingly intricate. The gospel foundation of her voice is apparent throughout the record, but when she really starts belting it makes for some of the album’s greatest moments. While the jazzy backbone of The Wild Card is far removed from the atmospheric trap base of current R&B, the album doesn’t lack the meticulousness and the sincerity that makes a good record a great record. Listen to: “Anything For You” and “What Kinda Love Is That”

#33. Celia (Tiwa Savage)

Motown/Island Records/UMG/Capitol

Tiwa was introduced to a brand new audience when she briefly stole the show on The Lion King: The Gift and in Black Is King with “Keys To The Kingdom.” Her jaw-droppingly gorgeous tone and thoughtful songwriting helped launch her to fame, and on her third album, Celia, Tiwa has delivered the best project of her career so far. Named after her mother, Celia is a dedication to womanhood, independence, and love. She floats over infectious duets with Sam Smith on “Temptation” and bares her heart on “Celia’s Song,” but it’s Tiwa’s self-assuredness that holds the record together. She blends afrobeats and R&B to create one of the most heartfelt (and most danceable) albums of the year. It’s a formidable album that marks Tiwa’s growth as a songwriter and vocalist. Even the songs that aren’t self-penned are still delivered with all the necessary urgency and intensity. Listen to: “FWMM” and “Ole”

#32. Petals For Armor (Hayley Williams)

Atlantic

It’s always a *thing* when an artist goes solo and puts out their own album when they were a part of a vocal group or a band. Hayley Williams has one of the best and most beloved voices in the industry and she also happened to be a part of one of the most beloved rock bands in recent memory, Paramore. Her big voice carried them to Grammy-winning hits like “Ain’t It Fun” and classics like “That’s What You Get” and “Misery Business.” On her debut solo record, however, Hayley opts for more subdued vocal stylings. She digs into the ugliness and complexity of anxiety, depression, and grief with songs that are bubbling with raw emotion. Her songwriting has never been sharper and more stinging than it is on Petals for Armor. Whether she’s leaning into 80s pop influences or going full alternative on us, Petals for Armor never stops being an arresting record in spite of its heaviness. Read my full review of Petals for Armor here. Listen to: “Simmer” and “Over Yet”

#31. The Slow Rush (Tame Impala)

Interscope

Everyone is a Tame Impala fan, they just don’t know it yet. Kevin Parker has been making the best trippy-alternative-electro-rock&b music for a little over a decade now and he has shown no signs of slowing down. Yet another immersive record, The Slow Rush is a lush combination of psychedelic rock, acid house, alternative R&B, and more that’s covered in this unmistakably glossy pop sheen. The album is meticulous in the way that it pulls from and references the most disparate eras and genres of music and combines them into one of the most enrapturing listens of the year. Despite the crowd of influences and the wide variety of instruments and studio sounds, The Slow Rush is quite personal and vulnerable. From the opening line of the album, “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago,” Kevin invites us into a world that doesn’t feel like it was built for us. Nevertheless, he grants us permission and entry into this bewitching universe of love and longing that we should be lucky to be a part of. Listen to: “One More Year” and “Borderline”

#30. Mantic (Ro James)

ByStorm/RCA

One of the unsung heroes of 2010s male R&B, Ro James delivered a fantastic album this year. The record devotes itself to exploring the intricacies of romance. Ro doesn’t shy away from exploring sex, manipulation, devotion, hatred, and more on this terrific record. His love of Prince and Purple Rain was instrumental to his origin story, and those influences ground the vast majority of Mantic. Brash guitar and a smart blend of gospel and rock color most of the album’s greatest moments. There are also the songs that are clearly built for radio but still fit well in the context of the full album. “Touchy Feely” and “Last Time” evoke the best of smooth late 2000s Usher and collaborations with Masego and Miguel keep Ro in conversation with his peers. This is a carnal album, one that gets explicit and specific but still treats its subject matter with respect, almost reverence. It’s one of the many shames of 2020 that this wasn’t a bigger album, but sometimes it’s nice to have a hidden gem. Read my full review of Mantic here. Listen to: “Plan B” and “Rain”

#29. Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa)

Warner

Dua Lipa was one of the few winners of 2020. The British pop star put up a giant middle finger to the phenomenon of the sophomore slump and put out her most successful album to date. Future Nostalgia is exactly that — a futuristic interpretation of the greatest moments of 80s synthpop, disco, and Europop. Her singing voice sits lower than most of her peers which gives her a unique and rich blend of raspiness and smokiness. Her intriguing vocal texture is what makes Future Nostalgia so great. The album has remarkable highpoints that nail the pastiche she’s going for while still feeling new and special. In a year that seemed absolutely hellbent on drowning us in darkness, Dua made it her mission to bring some light (and the dancefloor) to our lives. Whether she’s kissing off old flames on the instant classic “Don’t Start Now” or interpolating Olivia Newton-John on the flirtatious “Physical,” Future Nostalgia almost never lets the energy dip. It’s fun all the way through and a much-needed moment of escapism for us all. Read my full review of Future Nostalgia here. Listen to: “Pretty Please” and “Love Again”

#28. Shore (Fleet Foxes)

Anti-

With their second post-hiatus album, Fleet Foxes crafted what is arguably their best record. On Shore, they beautifully bridge the gap between the grittiest of folk music and the shiniest of pop music. Sweet harmonies and soaring melodies color most of the album, but it’s really the engineering that seals the deal. The mixing on this record feels like a warm hug. The sound envelops you with a sense of comfort that is much appreciated in a time of such turmoil and terror. This is intentional. Lyrically, most of Shore is concerned with mortality and the sacredness and triumph of living and pushing forward in the face of death. The album evokes the soul and candor, both lyrically and sonically, of artists who have recently passed like Bill Withers, Richard Swift, John Prine, and more. Robin Pecknold’s voice cuts through the tender guitars and drums to really drive home the intense emotion that grounds the album. Shore is one of the most rewarding listens of the year. Listen to: “Shore” and “Sunblind”

#27. Plastic Hearts (Miley Cyrus)

RCA

Over quarantine, some of us cut our hair. Some of us dyed our hair, tried out nail polish, picked up a new hobby, and tried making sourdough bread and Dalgona coffee. It was a period of reinvention and experimentation for many of us, but no one nailed their reinvention more than Miley Cyrus. The illustrious pop icon turned to 80s glam rock and synthpop to craft the best album of her career. Her voice has settled into this singular mixture of country and rock with a gravelly tone and a healthy dose of rasp. It’s this enrapturing voice that anchors the most honest songwriting of her career and some of her tightest melodies yet. Whether she’s flexing her Top 40 muscle on “Midnight Sky” and “Prisoner” or collaborating with 80s icons on “Night Crawling” and “Bad Karma,” Plastic Hearts is never boring and doesn’t have a single bad song on its 15 song tracklist. And those covers? *Chef’s kiss.* Read my full review of Plastic Hearts here. Listen to: “WTF Do I Know” and “Angels Like You”

#26. My Turn (Lil Baby)

Capitol/Motown/Wolfpack/Quality Control

The biggest album of 2020 is also one of the best. Utterly disrespected by The Grammys, Lil Baby’s My Turn is one of the strongest offerings from rap’s new generation. At just over an hour on the standard edition, and six additional tracks on the deluxe, My Turn is a journey, a lengthy one at that. Baby flaunts his status as one of the best pure rappers of his class with nimble flows that float between a slightly whiny sing-rapping and stream-of-consciousness tracks. He takes notes from Future with his introspective look at his life and the trauma that has been a part of it. My Turn isn’t so much an exploration of Baby’s youth and trauma as it is an album that pulls from those concepts to add depth to a collection of tracks that celebrate his wealth and success while being aware of the work it took to get there. The radio hits still sound just as catchy as they did last winter, and they fit properly in the context of the full record. Is My Turn too long? Maybe, yeah. But even the “filler” is enjoyable, so it’s hard to complain. Listen to: “Consistent” and “Emotionally Scarred”

#25. YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)

Rimas

Bad Bunny may just have been the busiest man of 2020. With three full-length projects this year (YHLQMDLG, Las Que No Iban A Salir, and El Último Tour Del Mundo), Benito has been around the world and back this year. Although El Último Tour Del Mundo may be his ambitious album yet, YHLQMDLG is still his best offering of 2020. Lengthy albums have been nothing short of a plague in the streaming era, but, somehow, Bad Bunny is able to turn twenty tracks and a 65-minute longtime into one endless party that never ever slows down. His interpretation of reggaeton, complete with dips into Latin trap, rock, and dance, is one of the most visionary that the genre has to offer. Lyrically, he centers consent in a way that few male artists in the genre do. It is this focus and attention to detail that make YHLQMDLG so great. With every synth and drop of an 808, Bad Bunny takes us on an adventure marked with themes of sexual agency, women empowerment, independence, and more. There’s a reason the songs from this record have soundtracked the year even in the face of two more albums from the music titan. Listen to: “Yo Perreo Sola” and “A Tu Merced”

#24. Positions (Ariana Grande)

Republic

When we first entered 2020, we were still eating good off of Grande’s seismic thank u, next. It wasn’t long before she treated us to two massive collaborations that both hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: “Stuck With U” with Justin Bieber and “Rain On Me” with Lady Gaga. The two pop collaborations earned her Video Music Awards and Grammy nominations, but it was the pseudo-surprise release of her sixth studio album that really grabbed our attention. Featuring production from London on da Track, Murda Beatz, and Tommy Brown, Positions sees Ariana skating through fourteen tracks while making the music she truly wants to make. Gone are the blaring horns of “Problem” or the garage house of “no tears left to cry.” Instead, Ariana delivers her sleekest mixture of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and jazz into an album that traces her upwards trajectory since her traumatic past two years. There’s an inner peace that grounds songs like “just like magic” which helps the tracks feel more sincere. Ariana’s inimitable voice sings entire choruses in her whistle register on one track (“my hair”) and effortlessly raps verses on another (“34+35”). Did I mention that her songwriting has never been better? Her most sexually explicit album yet, Positions also ties Sweetener as her most sonically cohesive and ambitious project yet. It’s a fitting conclusion to a three-album run that has cemented her in history as an indisputable pop music and pop culture icon. Read my full review of Positions here. Listen to: “off the table” and “pov”

#23. græ (Moses Sumney)

Jagjaguwar

Alternative R&B has sort of become a catch-all phrase, but if I were to attempt to define the category, I would point you in the direction of Moses Sumney. The North Carolina artist’s sophomore album is a relentless mélange of genres. Art rock, folk, electronica, jazz, and classical music are present throughout the project. It is Moses’ soul, however, that really grounds the album. Raw and wise beyond his years, Moses’ inquisitive lyricism is the perfect quiet and introspective foil to the album’s robust and bold production. He leaves no stones unturned on this dazzling patchwork of an album. Released in two parts, græ, simultaneously lives in and expands on the sonic and thematic foundations of his debut, Aromanticism. Moses Sumney is one of the most ingenious artists of our day, and, somehow, it feels like he’s just getting started. Listen to: “Virile” and “Jill/Jack”

#22. Pray for Paris (Westside Gunn)

Griselda

Like Bad Bunny, Westside Gunn also put out three projects this year. Pray for Paris, Flygod Is An Awesome God 2, and Who Made The Sunshine all displayed different shades of the Buffalo rapper, but his first project of the year remains his best. Pray for Paris is anchored by an impressive blend of the griminess of coke rap with incredibly soulful production courtesy of The Alchemist, Jay Versace, DJ Premier, Tyler, The Creator, and more. Westside recalls hip-hop’s golden era. His traditionalist narrative-driven lyricism will please old heads, but his supple flows and smart ear make him accessible for a wider variety of listeners. It’s a testament to Westside’s ear that Pray for Paris sounds so cohesive without there being an executive producer. He’s put together this collection of tracks grounded by jazz and lounge musical stylings to evoke the opulence of Paris and juxtapose it against his gritty storytelling. Griselda ran 2020, ask about it. Read my full review of Pray for Paris here. Listen to: “Euro Step” and “French Toast”

#21. Made In Lagos (Wizkid)

Starboy/RCA/Sony

He granted Drake one of the most streamed songs of all time on Spotify with “One Dance” and he assisted Beyoncé on the Grammy-nominated “Brown Skin Girl,” but Wizkid is a star musician in his own right, and has been for sometime. On his fourth studio album, Made In Lagos, Wizkid delivers an exceptionally smooth record that glides through fourteen tracks and 52 minutes like its nothing. The sleek blend of afrobeats, reggae, and R&B, courtesy of executive producer P2J, provides the perfect backdrop for Wizkid to alternate between big pop numbers and more introspective moments about his roots and his personal and professional journey. Afrobeats has been having a moment recently with music markets worldwide becoming more receptive to the genre’s sounds and premier artists. In light of this, it’s even more impressive that Made In Lagos doesn’t sound like Wizkid’s attempt to water down afrobeats to sell it across the world. Instead, it’s an honest reflection of his relationship with the music and the culture, and that honesty is what makes it such a beautiful record. Listen to: “Ginger” and “Mighty Wine”

#20. Limbo (Aminé)

CLBN/Republic

If Aminé is anything, he’s consistent. Since he first exploded onto most of our radars with “Caroline” back in 2017, Aminé has put out some of the best music of each year that he’s decided to release in. With Limbo, he’s crafted an incredibly cohesive and subty complex collection of songs that soundtrack his existential post-fame queries. He sounds different on this album, grown-up even. On his previous two records, he was more concerned with having fun and basking in what seemed to be eternal youth. On Limbo, he explores the fear of sustaining his career, the complexities of his platonic and romantic relationships post-fame, and more. The album includes guest appearances from the likes of Summer Walker, Young Thug, and Charlie Wilson. In addition, Daniel Caesar and Bree Runway appear in the credits as songwriters and background vocalists. There’s a heavy R&B influence on Limbo that pairs well with the slight trap influences and Aminé’s eclectic trademark sound. Possibly the smoothest hip-hop record of the year, Limbo is excellent. Listen to: “Woodlawn” and “Roots”

#19. It Is What It Is (Thundercat)

Brainfeeder

There are some artists that don’t feel like they’re from this planet; they’re almost magical. Thundercat is one of those artists. His fourth studio album couldn’t be more aptly titled. The phrase “it is what it is” evokes a sense of apathy, but that couldn’t be further from the reality of this record. Dedicated to the late Mac Miller, Thundercat explores a vast range of emotions on this sprawling LP. Although it’s just 35 minutes, It Is What It Is covers more emotional and thematic ground than albums double its length. There’s an overarching sentiment of grief, but the album isn’t without its flirtatious moments like on “Dragonball Durag” or its straight-up hilarious moments like the Zack Fox-featuring “Overseas.” The album’s transitions are utterly seamless and Thundercat’s bass playing, is of course, excellent. The rapidity with which he moves through emotions helps the album vary its pacing in its journey through different fusions of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. It Is What It Is is the perfect musical capsule of 2020 in all of its intense and varying emotions. Listen to: “Fair Chance” and “Unrequited Love”

#18. Women In Music Pt. III (HAIM)

Columbia

Many were surprised to hear this album’s title called during the announcement of the 2021 Grammy nominees for Album of the Year, but a sizable amount of us were rooting hard for this record — and for good reason. The sister trio’s third studio album is their most expansive yet. After creating a distinct, and acclaimed, sound in soft rock and indie pop, the ladies branched out to more straightforward pop melodies and R&B and hip-hop influences on this record. They inject their breezy summer rock foundation with horns, spoken word bridges, and a brand new swaggering attitude that we haven’t really heard from them before. With all three members experiencing pivotal tragic moments in their personal lives, Women In Music Pt. III is a stark and intimate look at depression and living through, and alongside, pain. It’s the trio’s strongest record yet. Listen to: “Don’t Wanna” and “3 AM”

#17. Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas)

Nonesuch/Warner

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter’s third album is a marvel. The eponymous album strikes the perfect balance between soul and rock; Lianne’s voice cuts through the instruments with as much potency as her excellent guitar playing. It’s a soul-baring record that unflinchingly looks at a relationship gone south and the journey that Lianne goes on to put her life, and her ability to love, back together. Confessional lyricism and folksy melodies dominate the album, but it is her piercing voice that makes the record so singular. Too often, artists self-title albums that tell little to nothing about them. Lianne La Havas almost gets too personal with its multiple chapters and narratives. Lianne’s willingness to really take it there and her commitment to writing, covering, and placing songs in the right way to effectively share her truth is inspiring. The album is colored by splashes of flamenco and jazz, but its neo-soul stylings give it a solid foundation to stand upon. This is one of the most earnest records of the year. Read my full review of Lianne La Havas here. Listen to: “Bittersweet” and “Weird Fishes”

#16. Gaslighter (The Chicks)

Columbia

Fourteen years is a long time. Time has never felt more conceptual than it has in 2020, but a fourteen-year break between albums is hard to beat. Gaslighter, The Chicks’ (f.k.a The Dixie Chicks) eighth studio album and first in fourteen years, is a raging fire of an album. From the gentle embers of ballads that reflect on parenting through a divorce (“Young Man”) to the monstrous forest fire of the title track and everything in between, Gaslighter, sonically and lyrically, uses the metaphor of fire to craft one of the most thrilling albums of 2020. The group has, perhaps, never been more balanced than they are on Gaslighter. They recruited Jack Antonoff to update their sound with glitchy pop beats and militant drums on “March March” and “Julianna Calm Down,” but the quieter classic Chicks moments like “My Best Friend’s Weddings” are still sublime. The best thing about Gaslighter is that it’s a reminder of how effortlessly The Chicks can incorporate politics into their lyrics. In a year where everyone was gunning for the next “protest anthem” or great “politically charged” song, The Chicks tackle climate change, women’s rights, school shootings, and more in the context of family and parenthood. Read my full review of Gaslighter here. Listen to: “Young Man” and “Sleep At Night”

#15. RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)

Jewel Runners/BMH

Like other duos on this list (dvsn, Chloe x Halle, etc.), El-P and Killer Mike truly understand each other. Their synergy is off the charts on their latest LP, RTJ4. El-P opts for a bouncy and lighter production to play off the intensity and heft of Killer Mike’s vicious lyricism. He rips into the state-sanctioned murder of Black folk at the hands of white police officers, the prison industrial complex, empty politicians, climate change, and corporate media with a ferocity and intellect unmatched by any rapper this year. With features from the likes of the legendary Mavis Staples and Zack de la Rocha OF Rage Against the Machine, RTJ4 is undoubtedly a protest album. Neither the production, lyricism, nor the rapping shy away from confrontation and aggression, but there are an underlying tenderness and yearning for peace that makes its fiery pleas for change so layered and arresting. Listen to: “JU$T” and “the ground below”

#14. DUR& (Durand Bernarr)

DSing

Durand Bernarr sings with his chest and all of his range. Like the blessing that was Giveon in 2020, Durand Bernarr openly rejects the shackles of falsetto for male artists in R&B on his latest album, DUR&. The record is a sharp collection of tracks that displays remarkable vocal control and mastery. Durand is a singer that truly knows his voice inside and out. He uses intricate harmonies to add further character to his lyrical explorations of romance and lust. On “Stuck,” the breakout song from the album, he duets with Ari Lennox and sings, “You gon’ end up somewhere the sun don’t ever come up/And I would hate for you to go where you cain’t get back from.” The language isn’t flowery. It’s his pointed approach to songwriting that makes it so effective. There’s no mistaking what he means and his honesty and straightforwardness, in turn, elicits the same response from his lover and his listeners. Durand is an intelligent artist and DUR& feels like just the first look at where his potential and talent can take him. Listen to: “Company” and “Relocate”

#13. Savage Mode II (21 Savage & Metro Boomin)

Slaughter Gang/Epic Boominati/Republic

Album sequels are hard to get right, especially when the original is so beloved and genuinely great. With both of their careers having exploded since the release of the first Savage Mode mixtape back in 2016, 21 and Metro prove that sometimes bigger is better. The sonic evolution between the first and second Savage Mode is reflective of the increased opulence of both stars. Complete with lush orchestral arrangements and cinematic narration from none other than the iconic Morgan Freeman, Savage Mode II is almost obscene in how grand it is. The album seeks to be bigger than its predecessor not only sonically, but also lyrically. Savage’s lyrics are tighter and his punchlines are smarter on this album. He and Metro dip into West Coast funk, smooth R&B, and their classic trap sound to find new ways to implement the macabre drawl of 21’s voice and delivery. Issa movie, truly. Read my full review of Savage Mode II here. Listen to: “Steppin On Niggas” and “RIP Luv”

#12. After Hours (The Weeknd)

XO/Republic

It’s still mind-boggling to think about the historic snub that this album faced during this year’s Grammy nominations. Nevertheless, we move. With a song as gargantuan as “Blinding Lights,” it’s understandable that the parent album was somewhat overshadowed. After Hours is The Weeknd’s best studio album. He’s finally reached the perfect combination of his darkest mixtape cuts and his most polished pop anthems. He soars on Top 40 gems like “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears,” but he also revels in his cold apathy and dejectedness on “Snowchild” and “Repeat After Me.” The concept album uses geography to place itself in the larger context of The Weeknd’s discography; he struggles with the concept of celebrity and the impact of fame on his own psyche as well as his romantic and sexual relationships. His first completely solo studio album, After Hours is the most fearless and confident The Weeknd has ever been. Conceptually, the album’s story of a drug-fueled near-fatal car crash is indicative of its collision of genres and influences. 1980s synthpop, psychedelic rock, soul, dreampop, and new wave all converge on this incredible album from one of music’s brightest stars. Read my full review of After Hours here. Listen to: “Faith” and “Scared To Live”

#11. What’s Your Pleasure? (Jessie Ware)

Inerscope

Miley, Dua, The Weeknd, 5SOS, Little Mix, Kylie, Lady Gaga — everybody tried their hand at some tribute to the heyday of disco or synthpop (or both!) in 2020. Out of all the attempts, Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure, her fourth album, was the best. A departure from the soulful pop of her previous records, What’s Your Pleasure plays like a playlist for an Upper East Side house party inspired by the disco greats. The influence of Donna Summer and Diana Ross is all over the record. Jessie reigns in her big voice and opts for a soft flirtatious tone that ends each line with a smoldering wink and a sultry smirk. The production is particularly incredible because it never drowns under the weight of its inspiration. Jessie doesn’t sound like she’s remaking the disco era as much as she is making it her own and blending her own sly lyricism and seductive tone into the foundation laid by the disco greats. At just under an hour, this was the perfect playlist for a solo quarantine house party in 2020. Listen to: “Adore You” and “Remember Who You Are”

#10. Starting Over (Chris Stapleton)

Mercury Nashville

While some artists took some time to reinvent themselves this year, Chris went back to basics. After one awards show performance catapulted him to the top of the world, Nashville’s most soulful voice took several steps back on his fourth album. On Starting Over, Chris takes some time to reflect on his struggles with temptation, his tenure in Nashville, and what matters most to him in life. As he’s done on his previous records, Chris hits the sweet spot of soul, rock, and country, to deliver some of the most rollicking anthems of the year. He growls through the Ozarks on “Arkansas” and gets nostalgic and gentle on the title track and “Nashville, TN.” It’s “Watch You Burn,” however, a biting reflection on the 2018 Las Vegas shooting, that sees Chris getting political. His vocal performances are already incredibly emotive, but his voice is literally straining from the fire and grief that weighs on his soul in this song. Starting Over is a poignant and reflective record. It’s not without its high-energy moments, but when Chris really digs into using vices as coping mechanisms and existential questions of mortality and true love, he truly delivers. Read my full review of Starting Over here. Listen to: “Maggie’s Song” and “Whiskey Sunrise”

#9. Send Them To Coventry (Pa Salieu)

Warner

Although the lines between album, mixtape, EP, compilation, and project are becoming increasingly blurred in the streaming era, there still seems to be some difference in the level of regard people hold for mixtapes vs. albums. Mixtapes are generally expected to be rougher and less polished. Pa Salieu’s debut mixtape, Send Them To Coventry, is a good argument for and against this expectation. The mixtape is rough in the sense that it doesn’t shy away from gritty lyrical themes and menacing delivery. Nevertheless, the project is remarkably clean. It flows together better than most proper albums this year and the tape is incredibly focused conceptually and sonically. I can almost guarantee that Send Them To Coventry sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. At the same time, it sounds eerily familiar. The Gambian-British rapper blends elements of grime, African pop, dancehall, Afrobeats, and UK grime into one monster of a debut. However, the act of blending genres isn’t as innovative as Pa Salieu’s arresting charisma. In “They Don’t Know,” he gets real about the depression that consumed him when his friends got locked up. This soul-baring interlude is a nice compliment to “Over There” where he evokes Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, and Busta Rhymes in the way that he changes the pitch of his voice to shape different characters. Send Them To Coventry presents an artist who is acutely aware of what they want to give to the world and a young man with an acute understanding of his purpose. Listen to: “B***k” and “More Paper”

#8. 2000AND4EVA (Bree Runway)

EMI/UMG

What does the future sound like? No one can know for sure, but Bree Runway is probably the closest to whatever that sound may be. A rollicking concoction of 00s pop, grunge, reggae, and hip-hop, 2000AND4EVA is perhaps the most innovative record of the year. Along with a few others on this list, with this mixtape, Bree has positioned herself to be one of the quintessential pop stars of the 2020s. “Apeshit” is a brash opener complete with brutish guitars and a pointed not-so-tongue-in-cheek hook. When Bree links up with fellow forward-thinking female rappers (Missy Elliott, Yung Baby Tate, Maliibu Miitch, and Rico Nasty) they craft an electric and charismatic synergy that elevates the whole record. From the gun clicks on “Rolls Royce” to the 90s R&B mood on the “Damn Daniel” bridge, in just 22 minutes and 9 songs, Bree covers an absurd amount of sonic ground. What’s more? This is one of the tightest rap projects in recent memory; every song serves its purpose and it would be to the detriment of the record if any of the songs were to be removed. This is how you make an artistic statement that simply cannot and must not be ignored. Read my full review of 2000AND4EVA here. Listen To: “No Sir” and “Damn Daniel”

#7. Ungodly Hour (Chloe x Halle)

Parkwood/Columbia

Chloe x Halle are one of the most precious acts in the music industry right now. Overflowing with talent, the sister duo consistently makes some of the best music today. With their sophomore album, Ungodly Hour, the ladies laugh in the face of the “sophomore slump.” They build on the indie pop/alternative R&B base of their impressive debut (The Kids Are Alright) by recruiting super producers and songwriters like Nija Charles, Victoria Monét, and Scott Storch. Don’t be mistaken, though, Chloe x Halle are still the driving force behind their excellent music. Whether it’s Halle’s stunning lead vocal on the gorgeous Grammy-nominated “Wonder What She Thinks of Me” or Chloe’s genius production on “Tipsy,” the girls are manning their own ship on Ungodly Hour. The record is fascinating because, theoretically, some of these songs shouldn’t work together at all. The striking alt-pop-rock of “ROYL” next to the 90s R&B-influenced “Busy Boy” should sound more disjointed than it does on the album. It’s Chloe x Halle’s otherworldly voices that hold everything together. Their labyrinthine harmonies and melodies that are fine-tuned for mainstream listeners (but still singularly Chloe x Halle) make Ungodly Hour a stunning showcase of their musicianship. It’s hard to believe they’ve matured so much and made an album this great just two records in. Read my full review of Ungodly Hour here. Listen to: “Forgive Me” and “Wonder What She Thinks Of Me”

#6. Alfredo (Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist)

ESGN/ALC/Empire

There really is only one rightful winner for Best Rap Album at the Grammys next year, and it’s this one. The first collaborative project between the two artists, Alfredo is nothing short of a masterclass in rap. The record is 35 minutes of the sharpest bars and production of the year. It’s insane to think about Freddie Gibbs’ talent and the rate at which he puts out music. Bandana was one of the best albums of 2019, and while Alfredo doesn’t quite reach those (admittedly incredibly high) highs, the album excels in how effortless it all feels. Freddie glides over The Alchemist’s ornate production with grace and finesse. The production interpolates influences from soft rock, boom bap, and soul to give Freddie the proper soundscape to share his explorations of the media, race, and more. Alfredo lives and breathes hip-hop. There are a genuine appreciation and reverence for the art that grounds the album and that is what makes it so impressive. Listen to: “Scottie Beam” and “Babies & Fools”

#5. B7 (Brandy)

Brand Nu/eOne

Has anyone had a better 2020 than Brandy? With Moesha‘s reemergence on Netflix and an album like this one, Brandy owned the year. Lauded as the Vocal Bible by many and named as a primary vocal influence by a slew of artists, Brandy delivered one of the best albums of her career with B7. The inventive and transformative record features guest appearances by Daniel Caesar, Chance the Rapper, and more, but it is Brandy’s tender, smoky, and ever-so-slightly raspy voice that is the star of the show. Her soulful tone adds beautiful texture to some of the disarmingly honest and heartbreaking songwriting on the album. From the underlying darkness of “Borderline” to the soul-baring candidness of “Bye Bipolar,” Brandy truly opens up her heart on this record. B7 isn’t as concerned with big radio singles (although it did end up having a few) as it is with parsing through Brandy’s history and growth with her mental health struggles and her lessons learned from past toxic relationships. DJ Camper handles most of the album’s immersive production and he and Brandy prove themselves to be R&B’s newest superteam. They have a synergy that just works on this album. He understands her voice and the stories she wants to tell with her harmonies in a way that few producers can. B7 will take a few listens to sink in, but once it does, it’s one of the most rewarding listens of the year. Listen to: “Rather Be” and “Bye Bipolar”

#4. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)

Clean Slate/Epic

When this album dropped back in April, many thought it would be a shoo-in for next year’s Grammys. While it was recognized in the Rock and Alternative categories, Fetch the Bolt Cutters was ignored in the General Field. That’s just another loss for the Academy. Fiona Apple’s latest record, her fifth and first in almost a decade, is her best. An outstanding epic that journeys through explorations of various systems of oppression, sexual assault, and freedom, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is somehow as humorous as it is heavy. Apple utilizes unorthodox instrumentation and harsh percussion to soundtrack her almost militant chants of repetition and manifestation. There are two distinct narrative threads, one personal and one political, that converge at various points throughout the album. Herein lies Fetch the Bolt Cutters‘, and Apple’s, primary message: political freedom from these interlocking systems of oppression is not possible without the personal freedom of our minds, souls, and bodies. Released during the height of lockdown, there was not a more well-timed album than this one in 2020. At a little over 50 minutes, the album basks in every second of its runtime with all of Apple’s eccentricities and lyrical revelations. Read my full review of Fetch the Bolt Cutters here. Listen to: “For Her” and “Under The Table”

#3. Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon (Pop Smoke)

Victor Victor/Republic

It’s still hard to write about Pop without getting a bit emotional. The late Brooklyn rapper was one of the defining voices of 2020 and he wasn’t even here to witness any of it. After two Meet The Woo mixtapes, Pop’s debut studio album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, was posthumously released in July. The dilatant record sees Pop branching out from the drill sound that he helped popularize Stateside and branching out into the nastiest of NYC slow jams (“Mood Swings”), pop songs all but destined to conquer Top 40 (“What You Know Bout Love” and “Something Special”), and poignant autobiographical numbers (“Gangstas,” “Got It On Me,” “Make It Rain”). The album’s standard edition is just under an hour, but its deluxe edition tops out at 34 tracks at 101 minutes. Normally this amount of music on one record would be obscene, but in this case, it works. If ever there was an album that truly reflected its title, it was this one. Pop really does shoot for the stars with each of the album’s tracks. Every song is bursting with the hunger and energy and passion that set him apart from his peers. Even if he wasn’t here to curate the tracklist himself, Pop is laser-focused on Shoot for the Stars; he’s committed to showing off his versatility and proving his rap prowess to any naysayers. Sure, the lyrics get repetitive at times, but those unpolished moments only add to the charm and charisma of this great record. Pop may have been aiming for the moon, but he reached far beyond that. Read my full reflections on Pop and this album here. Listen to: “Make It Rain” and “Got It On Me”

#2. folklore (Taylor Swift)

Republic

Never count out Taylor Swift. After the less than enthusiastic reception of Lover and reputation, Taylor went back to basics and put out the best album of her career by far. Assisted by Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner of The National, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, folklore is a nearly immaculate record. Taylor’s eighth album features songwriting explicitly informed by her country music roots and a warm soundscape shaped by the sounds of folk, soft rock, and indie pop. Conceptually, the album functions as a tapestry of multiple folk tales. Taylor expertly fits the life of Rebekah Harkness into a single song on the excellent “the last great american dynasty,” but she also uses that song, and “mad woman” as well, to explore another folk tale — the story of her life as a woman in the public eye and her years-long relationship with a notoriously sexist media industrial complex. She also uses a triad of songs, “august,” “betty,” and “cardigan,” to tell a completely separate love triangle story that spans twenty years. It’s this lyrical ambition that makes folklore so impressive. The album never fumbles over the course of its sixteen tracks. The songwriting is smart, introspective, and sharp. The production is also particularly great because of the way the simple guitar and drum foundation plays off of Taylor’s voice. She’s always sounded better on analog instrumentation, so to have an album full of that is an instant winner. Eight albums in and she’s still pushing herself to create something bigger and better — and this time it really paid off. Listen to: “seven” and “peace”

#1. SAWAYAMA (Rina Sawayama)

Dirty Hit

Debut albums are really really hard to get right. The pressure that surrounds a debut album can lead to catastrophe, but when you nail your debut album and it’s the best album of its respective year? You’re dangerous. Rina Sawayama is very dangerous. The Japanese-British singer-songwriter has crafted a masterpiece with her debut. A pop album devoid of love songs feels almost impossible to come by, but here is SAWAYAMA: a vast and inquisitive album that explores the fluid concept of family, the trauma of immigration, and critiques of capitalism. The album shifts through 00’s pop, arena rock, trap, classical music, J-pop, and electronica absolutely seamlessly. Not many artists or albums can handle the jump from nu-metal (“STFU!”) to effervescent pure pop (“Love Me For Me”), but Rina makes it look like light work. SAWAYAMA isn’t an escapist record as it explicitly tackles some of our most destructive global issues, but it also isn’t a depressing listen. It’s actually a really fun album. Rina’s voice soars over some of the catchiest melodies of the year, but it’s the emotion in each vocal performance that really makes each song pop. Even in the midst of the vocal effects on “Bad Friend” you can hear the guilt and shame ringing in every note, for example. SAWAYAMA has something for everyone without sounding like a grab-all mixed bag of the latest Top 40 trends. Why? Because Rina is intentional in her references and she truly knows the sounds she is going for. This is how she can channel Britney Spears on one song (“XS”) and Travis Scott on another (“Akasaka Sad”) and still sound distinctly like Rina Sawayama and nobody else. Clarence Clarity’s production is some of the most innovative and addictive of the year, and he and Rina only make each other better. Released in April of this year, SAWAYAMA has yet to feel old, and it likely never will. Listen to: “Dynasty” and “Fuck This World (Interlude)”

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