The 50 Best Albums Of 2020

The 50 Best Albums Of 2020

If the musicians of the world had decided to take 2020 off — or if they all went out and found different jobs — everyone would’ve understood. Touring, the chief way most full-time musicians make their money, was simply not a possibility this year, and it’ll be a long time before we fully understand the effects of the entire live-music economy grinding to a sudden halt. But the music never stopped. It didn’t even slow down. The constant flood of new music remained as strong as ever. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.

Many of 2020’s best albums came from the time before the pandemic, and they were made by musicians who had no idea they’d be unable to get out into the world and sell what they’d made. Plenty of this year’s best were quarantine albums, recorded in isolation and dropped as delightful surprises. (Our #1 album was basically both of those things.) The albums on our year-end list come from all across the spectrum — tender DIY indie-pop, bomb-throwing agit-rap, tidal shoegaze, sparkling country-pop, feral hardcore, everything in between. The people who made these albums weren’t necessarily responding to a radically reshaped world, but they all made it a whole lot more pleasurable to be stuck at home. We owe them for that.

The Stereogum staff, as well a a few key contributors, argued and haggled over the albums on this year’s list. We all voted, and then we argued and haggled some more. Lists like this are always subjective, and none of our ballots really looked anything like one another. We don’t agree with each other, and we don’t expect you to agree with us, either. But the albums on this list still represent a kind of miracle — a year where the great music never stopped. —Tom Breihan

50

Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia (Warner)

Dua Lipa makes a strong case for the disco pop revival. Future Nostalgia is cheeky and groovy. Thematically it’s stationed in the ’70s, but with ’80s electro-synth influence, turn-of-the-century pop attitude, and sleek contemporary production. She embodies a turbo-charged Olivia Newton-John on “Physical” and treats “My sugaboo, I’m levitating” like a throwaway line on “Levitating.” Rubbery basslines bounce from jazzercise class to the club. Dua is the Studio 54 “It Girl,” a magnet for good times, long nights, and free quaaludes. —Julia Gray

49

Nuvolascura - As We Suffer From Memory And Imagination (Zegema Beach Records/Dog Knights Productions)

The relentless angst of Nuvolascura seethes with pain and revenge. The Los Angeles quartet elevates screamo to terrifying new peaks, combining the thrashing riffs of metalcore with experimental flourishes — a Morse code interlude on “Irreversible Crying Spell,” backmasking on “In Consequence Of Coincidence” — and its lyrics rise to the anxiety wrought by Dom Larocca’s fretboard freakouts. Body horror plays a central role: Humans are drugged, damaged, used for experiments. Nuvolascura push physical limits, crushing 13 songs and twice as many time signatures into 21 minutes. After her body’s turned against her, As We Suffer From Memory And Imagination is Erica Schultz’s grasp at regaining control.  —Arielle Gordon

48

Kehlani - It Was Good Until It Wasn't (Atlantic)

A recent Billboard cover story spotlighted Kehlani as part of an R&B renaissance alongside Jhené Aiko, Teyana Taylor, and Summer Walker. It’s true: The genre had a banner year, its women in particular, and no release shined as brightly as It Was Good Until It Wasn’t — even if the album seem to take place under mood lighting. Forgoing the ’90s retromania of SweetSexySavage, Kehlani gracefully slips into a twilit world of trap beats, Drake-style sonic opulence, and earthy acoustic jazz. Chronicling the pain and pleasure of a tumultuous love life, she doesn’t mince words. —Chris DeVille

47

Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones)

Last year, the organizers of the Netherlands’ Roadburn Festival had the idea to commission a joint performance from Emma Ruth Rundle, the stark and intense goth-folk singer-songwriter, and Thou, the restless and experimental Louisiana sludge band. A year later, Rundle and Thou expanded on that unlikely collaboration and made a whole LP out of it. Rundle and Thou find common ground in the melodic catharsis of ’90s grunge, and they join forces to push those sounds toward doomy staring-into-the-abyss majesty. Rundle wails. Thou’s Bryan Funck screams. Together, they make something oddly beautiful. —Tom

46

Couch Slut - Take A Chance On Rock 'N' Roll (Gilead Media)

Extreme metal often cordons off the grotesque into the realm of fantasy. Couch Slut don’t invent imaginary terrors: Take A Chance On Rock ‘N’ Roll is diaristic, a cautionary tale. Forget primordial ooze — Couch Slut write about clit piercings, addiction, rape, and self-harm. Megan Osztrosits screams about cum and dirt, about wishing for death, barking until she gasps for air. A cacophony of trumpet blasts from Amy Mills and sludged-out guitars from Kevin Wunderlich throw oil on the fire that is Osztrosits’s curdled vocals, their squealing interludes meeting her chaos. —Arielle

45

Illuminati Hotties - FREE I.H.: This Is Not The One You've Been Waiting For (Self-Released)

When Tiny Engines began its slow demise, Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin bought out her contract and granted the label her next project’s royalties. Little did they know, that would be FREE I.H., a self-described “mixtape” where the Berklee-trained engineer/producer/mixer/songwriter puts them on blast. Armed with fuzzed-out rock and snotty power-pop, Tudzin goes full Be Your Own Pet while hurling insults at industry bros, sticking toothpicks into her thigh, and sobbing over a Denny’s Grand Slam. She gleefully declares herself a disappointment on “freequent letdown,” but listening to FREE I.H., you can’t help but wish you were more like her: someone who turns a career dumpster fire into a revenge party and experiences the total euphoria of giving no fucks. —Nina Corcoran

44

Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death (Partisan)

Fontaines D.C., Grammy nominees. The Irish band followed up their much-loved 2019 debut with an album darker, subtler, and weirder — and, somehow, it made them even bigger. While Grian Chatten still barks and sings in his heavy Irish brogue and the band still occasionally surrounds his bruised poetry with tangled maelstroms of post-punk noise, A Hero’s Death is very intentionally not Dogrel Part Two. Instead, it’s a whole new chapter, a maturation that moves past that album’s youthful exuberance without sacrificing any of its vitality, a gathering storm cloud that hints at even more greatness on the horizon. —Peter Helman

43

Nation Of Language - Introduction, Presence (Self-Released)

Now and then a debut comes along that feels more like a greatest hits collection. Introduction, Presence is a portrait of Nation Of Language’s first few years — singles trying out different iterations of a sound and attacking various ideas, but fully-formed even within that process of early discovery. Climactic moments abound: the twin “where is my life going” catharses of album bookends “Tournament” and “The Wall & I,” the digital wormhole of political screed “Indignities,” reclaimed awe in the city lights of “On Division St.” Eventually the vignettes form a whole story, tracing the listlessness and yearning of being not-quite-young-anymore in precarious times. —Ryan Leas

42

Ka - Descendants Of Cain (Iron Works)

Muttering rap philosopher Ka likes to build his albums around themes: chess, bushido, Greek mythology. He’s carved out his own quiet, reflective corner of the underground rap universe by staying strictly independent, producing and releasing his music on his own when he isn’t working as a Brooklyn fire chief. For Descendants Of Cain, Ka finds wisdom and resonance in biblical imagery, hearing echoes of Cain and Abel in the way that institutional racism has pitted Black Americans against each other. Descendants Of Cain is a heavy, meditative listen full of echoing mesmeric music and lines that stick with you. —Tom

41

Sam Hunt - Southside (MCA Nashville)

Sam Hunt spent more than half a decade crafting the follow-up to his star-making, genre-shifting 2014 debut Montevallo while rebuilding his life with the woman who inspired many of its songs. That time was well spent. Southside finds country’s foremost sing-rapping ex-quarterback at the peak of his powers, whether throwing a twangy Webb Pierce sample under a trap beat on the endlessly charming “Hard To Forget” or pouring his heart out over unvarnished acoustic guitar on the tear-jerking album opener “2016.” Innovating from within the mainstream Nashville template, he continues to be more sophisticated than your average bro. —Chris

40

Moses Sumney – græ (Jagjaguwar)

Just as Moses Sumney’s work can’t be summed up with an easy genre tag, his ambition can’t be contained by one disc. On græ, Sumney doesn’t shift shapes so much as sparkle from several dozen angles, revealing the beauty and complexity of his own essence. His songs move with a rare grace and splendor, even when he steers into the more aggressive and tumultuous corners of his soul. “I fell in love with the in-between, coloring in the margins,” he explains on the epic “Neither/Nor,” one of many offerings that make græ feel less like an album than a musical manifesto. —Chris

39

Porridge Radio - Every Bad (Secretly Canadian)

“Maybe I was born confused,” Dana Margolin sings on the opening track of Every Bad, the first of many inescapable mantras that dot the songs on Porridge Radio’s sophomore album. She sticks on these phrases like glue and lets the rest of the Brighton band build and break against her. That confusion expressed in its very first lines plays out again and again throughout the album, a constant spiral of anxiety and relief doled out in all-encompassing swells whose only anchor is Margolin’s quivering resolve. —James Rettig

38

Autechre - SIGN (Warp)

On their first proper album in seven years, Autechre lean into the human elements of transition. All 11 songs have beginnings, middles, and ends — a form that’s not radical by any means, but episodic, giving the album’s flow an earthy quality. “si00” opens like a troubled Röyksopp remix before turning into drone swells. “Metaz form8” substitutes beats for overarching tones that test how far they can stretch. Even closer “r cazt” rises and falls with a sense of vulnerability. Coding is an art form, and on SIGN, Autechre elevate it by allowing their human touch to come through. —Nina

37

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions (Southeastern)

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have spent most of 2020 in their Nashville attic, playing half-improvised cover songs and telling charmingly rambling stories to their webcam. This isn’t how things were supposed to go. Isbell, along with Shires and the rest of his 400 Unit band, had just come out with Reunions, one more album of crowd-pleasing country-rockers and quietly devastating laments. They should be playing big outdoor amphitheaters, where they thrive. But maybe it’s better this way. This way, you can sob to yourself while hearing a wrenching fatherhood song like “Letting You Go” without worrying about anyone else in the crowd seeing you. —Tom

36

Caribou - Suddenly (Merge)

In the long five-and-a-half years between Our Love and Suddenly, Dan Snaith lived a lot of life, surrounded by birth and death and other upheavals. Each Caribou album is culled from a daunting amount of musical ideas, and Suddenly is perhaps the densest and most frantic we’ve heard Snaith in a long time. Sampled and warped voices, beat changes, and snapshots all collide together in some retrospective effort to make sense of life’s surprises, chaos, and flickers of hope. As a result, Suddenly also becomes one of Snaith’s warmest releases, a deeply personal work that resonates that much more thanks to its openness. —Ryan

35

Boldy James & The Alchemist - The Price Of Tea In China (ALC)

Boldy James is on a hell of a run right now. It’s not even over yet — he still has another album, his fourth of the year, coming out next week. Based on empirical evidence, it will probably be very good. But The Price Of Tea In China, his full-length team-up with veteran rap producer the Alchemist, is a near-perfect display of his considerable gifts. James raps with a cold, methodical control. He writes evocatively and economically, with a specificity that never descends into glamorization. He sounds like he was practically born world-weary and grizzled. And with The Price Of Tea In China, he shows us exactly the kind of life that made him that way. —Peter

34

Andy Shauf - The Neon Skyline (ANTI-)

Andy Shauf has a knack for narrative arcs. If only his love life was equally as sharp. The Neon Skyline, his latest concept album, follows Shauf over the course of one night where he bumps into, and once again parts ways with, his ex. Like Paul Simon reading a mumblecore script, Shauf is all soft-spoken coos and resolution-free ambiance on The Neon Skyline, weaving piano hooks through the title-track and clarinet melodies in “Thirteen Hours” while he captures life’s tiniest moments. It’s pure movie magic, and it also boasts the most casually swoon-worthy oboe run you’ll hear all year. —Nina

33

Against All Logic - 2017-2019 (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar’s last album as Against All Logic, his dance music alter ego, was the end product after five years of experimenting with mid-tempo house and soul samples. On 2017-2019, Jaar trades feel-good funk for tweaky techno. Canned hi-hats crash against lo-fi bass distortions. Mellower tracks like “Penny” fizzle and bump like sleeping with insomnia. Over two years, he composed a soundtrack for a post-apocalyptic nightclub, or post-pandemic dancefloors. —Julia

32

Arca - KiCk i (XL)

“I do what I want to do when I want to do it.” Arca is not fucking around on KiCk i. Billed as the first in a series of four albums, it succinctly flattens a decade’s worth of boundary-pushing experimentation into an accessible but still thrillingly weird collection of mutated pop songs that explore discomfort and dysphoria. With guest appearances from Björk, Rosalía, SOPHIE, and Shygirl, it’s a celebration of the in-roads that Alejandra Ghersi has made over the years and a coronation of Arca as a pop star. —James

31

The Microphones - Microphones In 2020 (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Once upon a time, Phil Elverum sang about swimming to the bottom of the ocean and finding beauty there. On Microphones In 2020, he plunged deep into his own personal history and discovered something arguably more profound. Eschewing nostalgia and solipsism as much as possible, the Mount Eerie mastermind revived his long-dormant Microphones moniker to scour that era of his life for wisdom. He came away with epiphanies about meaning, impermanence, and “the true state of all things,” wrapped up in a staggering 43-minute recording that defies categorization. —Chris

30

Gulch - Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (Closed Casket Activities)

The full-length debut from the Santa Cruz hardcore band Gulch jams eight songs into 16 minutes; it’s shorter than your average Godspeed You! Black Emperor track. But Gulch do so much with those 16 minutes. Gulch’s style of hardcore is frantic expressionism — a raw, chaotic, grinding lurch that uses death-metal riffage and tortured barf-screams to capture rage and fear and anxiety. It all ends with an ominous, grinding take on the Siouxsie & The Banshees goth-rock classic “Sin In My Heart,” a bad-faith guilt anthem as graceful as the rest of the album is ugly. —Tom

29

Stay Inside - Viewing (No Sleep)

“I heard you speaking several languages,” Chris John sings on “Monuments,” a towering single from Stay Inside’s debut album. It’s fitting for a Brooklyn four-piece with three vocalists. From the moment a cassette tape clicks on album opener “Revisionist,” Viewing fills mixed metaphors with crowded whispers and practical foley. Bryn Nieboer is especially flexible, unleashing sweet nothings and bloodcurdling mayhem in the span of a single track. The fingerpicking of “Ivy,” the multi-episodic epics of “Monuments,” and the grated screams of “Silt” might be the most cathartic three-song run of the year, but it’s balanced by the brighter riffs of “Divide.” After years of releasing scattered EPs, Stay Inside command surround-sound focus with stunning confidence. —Arielle

28

Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher (Dead Oceans)

Phoebe Bridgers is known for her candid, self-aware songwriting, lyrics that can sear your skin and swaddle you. On Punisher, her sophomore full-length album, she veers away from soft, folk-tinged acoustics toward something closer to melodrama. The album is colored by brilliantly simple quips and details: the saltines that aided an ecstasy trip, a tainted storybook house next to a scientology church, “a slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of god.” Violins and banjos swell, a chorus shouts into the void, a horn section plays her out. —Julia

27

Thundercat - It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder)

Stephen Bruner has always been a virtuosic musician, but over the course of his career under the moniker Thundercat he’s grown more and more adept at turning his technical prowess towards a particular aim, pushing up against the outer reaches of our minds. It Is What It Is arises from darkness — the death of Bruner’s friend Mac Miller, Bruner’s struggle with alcoholism — but finds solace in humor (“Dragonball Durag”), the release of a pure groove (“Black Qualls”), and an aqueous space-funk that carries Thundercat’s voracious artistic search to, perhaps, new answers hidden in deeper corners of the cosmos. —Ryan

26

Jessie Ware - What's Your Pleasure? (PMR/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope)

There’s a breathless moment halfway into What’s Your Pleasure when the dancefloor sweat clears. The locomotive beats evaporate and Jessie Ware’s velveteen vocals step in to command the air: “Save a kiss.” It’s an apt directive when physical touch feels taboo, “high anticipation” subbing in for instant gratification. What’s Your Pleasure embodies the machismo of disco without losing Ware’s lyrical forthrightness. From the rubbery bass of “Ooh La La” to the syncopated electro-funk of “Read My Lips,” its directness commands attention at every turn. In a year with no shortage of cringe-inducing innuendos, What’s Your Pleasure grabs you by the collar and drags you straight to the bedroom. —Arielle

25

Laura Marling - Song For Our Daughter (Partisan/Chrysalis)

Having a child is, in essence, an act of optimism. You’re rolling the dice and betting on the arc of the moral universe, on a better world, or at least the prospect that humanity won’t destroy the planet before one more generation can grow old. Laura Marling doesn’t have a child — yet — but she does have that optimism. Song For Our Daughter is framed as a series of lessons for her imagined offspring, warm, intimate folk-rock meditations that acknowledge the messiness of our world while still managing to find the glimmers of beauty and hope throughout. Forget hypothetical progeny; we can all learn a thing or two from Marling. —Peter

24

Jeff Rosenstock - No Dream (Polyvinyl)

For many years, Long Island DIY pop-punker Jeff Rosenstock has been writing urgent, biting, extremely catchy songs about smart-phone anxiety and late-capitalist collapse. The message hasn’t changed, but the substance seems to get more urgent all the time, and so does the music. Rosenstock and his furious Death Rosenstock band recorded No Dream live to tape, all the better to capture the euphoric energy of their live shows, and the album bursts with hooks and ideas. It ends with “Ohio Tpke,” a masterfully Springsteenian six-minute lament about how road life can destroy you. I bet Rosenstock misses it so bad right now. —Tom

23

Mil-Spec - World House (Lockin' Out)

When people talk about melodic hardcore, the word “melodic” is relative. On their full-length debut, the Toronto band Mil-Spec aren’t exactly busting out Beach Boys harmonies. But within their roiling, passionate attack, Mil-Spec add little grace notes — a softly textured guitar part here, a campfire-singalong moment there — that give their sound a real dynamic flexibility. When the band does flare up and go full-bore, you feel it. Mil-Spec’s sound draws on the desperate fury of youth crew and the thoughtful clangor of DC post-hardcore, and they’ve made a poignant, heavy, full-realized piece of work. It’ll stick with you. —Tom

22

Bob Dylan - Rough And Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

Bob Dylan contains multitudes. We know this, and yet the guy continues to surprise us well into his eighth decade. In some capacity, Rough And Rowdy Ways is your typical late-career Dylan release, a set of bluesy stompers and stately ballads that almost seem to flicker in and out of existence. In another sense, there’s no such thing as a typical Bob Dylan album, and this one throws us curveballs like a 17-minute Boomer memory mirage, a 10-minute tribute to Key West, and a promise that “the size of your cock will get you nowhere.” See? Multitudes. —Chris

21

Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song (Smalltown Supersound)

Kelly Lee Owens has a way of using icy, theoretically cerebral electronic music as means for personal exploration, digital mechanisms excavating abstract emotions and bleary dreamscapes. As the title Inner Song suggests, she’s perfected the approach on her sophomore outing. The album is transporting: an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” dancefloor throbs in “Melt!” and “Night,” the faraway places and lost times suggested by “Wake-Up” or “Corner Of My Sky.” In the end, each drift out to sea becomes a meditation, a spiritual grounding: embracing aloneness, looking deep inside oneself, and locating a fragile sense of clarity. —Ryan

20

Sorry - 925 (Domino)

You never know exactly where Sorry are going to go next. 925, the London band’s full-length debut following a long series of singles and mixtapes, is a shadowy amalgamation of decades worth of rock and pop music. Their songs blend and bleed into each other, a soupy recreation of nights half-remembered featuring hooks that might have been popular in an alternate-reality timeline. Asha Lorenz and Louis O’Bryen operate as ringleaders for the group’s wild shifts, their vocals intertwining and fighting against each other with a beguiling push-and-pull tension. —James

19

Charli XCX - How I'm Feeling Now (Atlantic/Asylum)

The “quarantine album” feels both necessary and prematurely played out. We want art that captures our global trauma, but good art requires time and distance. How I’m Feeling Now is the exception to the rule. Charli XCX recorded and released the album during the months that felt like years at the start of the pandemic, her experimental fervor and community of collaborators even more dynamic under lockdown. Charli calls out to invisible friends through glitch earthquakes and warped cries. She fluctuates from the monotony of online shopping to the intensity and unconventional romance of quarantining with her significant other. HIFN resonates beyond COVID isolation. It speaks to a restless, lonely generation, adults feeling like grounded teenagers in the year 2020. —Julia

18

Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo (ESGN/ALC/Empire)

Freddie Gibbs has figured it out. He’s found his lane. As it turns out, his hard, technical virtuosity just sings against the backdrop of psychedelic rap fantasias, and it seems like all he has to do to keep cranking out precise street-rap masterpieces is find the right collaborators. That could be, say, Madlib, his partner on last year’s Bandana. Or it could be the Alchemist, another crate-digging beatmaker at the top of his game. Alfredo, like Bandana, is two master craftsmen doing what they do best, continually raising the bar for each other and everyone else and making it look downright easy. —Peter

17

The 1975 - Notes On A Conditional Form (Dirty Hit/Interscope)

It starts with a five-minute speech about the climate crisis and ends with a mushy tribute to Matty Healy’s bandmates. In between, Notes On A Conditional Form finds the 1975 once again excelling at being the 1975: trying on genres like costumes, attempting to parse an extremely online social landscape, building up and puncturing their own mythology, letting their feelings be their guide. No blurb could begin to sum up the highlights of an album so jam-packed with ideas; just know this band continues to be extra talented, extra savvy, and just plain extra. —Chris

16

Bartees Strange - Live Forever (Memory Music)

On his astonishing debut album Live Forever, Bartees Strange shapeshifts across songs with grace and charm, winning over even the most jaded listeners. In the album’s first section alone, the Washington, DC-based musician gallops through gut-wrenching indie rock on “Mustang,” floats airy rap over post-punk on “Boomer,” and waxes R&B dreams-turned-poetics on “Kelly Rowland” — the juxtaposition of which turns Live Forever into a revitalizing expanse. In many ways, it’s the sound of Bartees Strange building the world he’s always wanted without realizing it was even possible to do so, or that so many listeners want to join him there. —Nina

15

Perfume Genius - Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (Matador)

Mike Hadreas introduced his fifth Perfume Genius album with a song that sounded nothing like anything he’d done before: The caustic, overwhelming distortion of “Describe” mimicked the weight of a depression so enveloping you forget what the world is supposed to feel like. But then, that’s always been one point of this project, a refutation of preordained forms and strictures. Shapeshifting, or, no shape at all. Across Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Hadreas reflects on past wounds and the shelter of love; he crafts songs that are barely-there confessional tendrils and songs that are viscerally physical. He becomes more versions of himself than ever before. —Ryan

14

Fleet Foxes - Shore (ANTI-)

Fleet Foxes went out to sea on Crack-Up, but now they can see the shore. Robin Pecknold’s most difficult album has given way to what is perhaps his easiest to love, the calming and assured and sweepingly sweet Shore. Pecknold and his songs are bursting with feeling this time around — it sounds like he’s looked up from the darkness to see the dawn, and the complex textures Pecknold manages on Shore make that journey feel hard-won. “I’m gonna swim for a week in warm American water with dear friends,” he sings on the ebullient “Sunblind,” referencing one of his favorite musicians while reaffirming his own place in rock music’s canon. —James

13

Yves Tumor - Heaven To A Tortured Mind (Warp)

Not many people can make the leap from experimental electronic producer to slithering glammed-out rock star. Yves Tumor isn’t many people. Or maybe Yves Tumor is many people, Prince and David Bowie and Oneohtrix Point Never all at once, shedding skins like disposable masks. “I can be anything,” they sing on standout track “Kerosene!,” and Heaven To A Tortured Mind proves it. This is pop music that’s not afraid to be weird and weird music that’s not afraid to be pop, a freaky new brand of transgression for a freaky new age. —Peter

12

Lomelda - Hannah (Double Double Whammy)

Hannah Read’s songs have never sounded bigger, brighter, or more alive than they do on Hannah. But whether sneaking up on you like “Hannah Sun” or loudly announcing themselves like “Wonder,” they remain as bracingly intimate as ever. Read has a knack for taking a single line and spinning it out into a mantra, and her voice sounds incredible whether whimpering with fragility or wailing to the high heavens. “It’s Low/ It’s Yo La Tengo/ It’s the Innocence Mission/ Frank Ocean/ Frankie Cosmos,” she sings on “It’s Lomelda,” and by now it’s clear she holds her own within that lineage. —Chris

11

Hum - Inlet (Earth Analog)

When an album this thick drops out of nowhere, it’s bound to reverberate. For years, Hum had been providing regular updates on their first album since 1998’s Downward Is Heavenward. Yet when Inlet emerged without an official announcement or rollout in June, it was the best kind of startling. An even better surprise: The album holds its own with the Illinois space-rockers’ best. Inlet is monolithic in its splendor, its dense, churning power-chord riffs glazed over with a faint hypnotic glimmer. Few artists measured up to its heaviness or its prettiness in 2020. —Chris

10

Soccer Mommy - color theory (Loma Vista)

color theory is a deeply interior album, released right before interiority became this year’s default mode. Sophie Allison is stuck in her head, imagining her own death and the gradual slipping away of everyone around her, and she can’t snap out of it. She’s watching her heart go around and around, circling a drain that has no bottom. color theory is an album about passive moods, but Allison and her band take action by writing songs that so perfectly capture depression and existential angst that their very existence suggests that there might be a productive way out. —James

09

SAULT - Untitled (Rise) (Forever Living Originals)

We still know barely anything about the mysterious British collective SAULT, but their prolific streak gave us two Untitled albums that tapped into the grief and resilience that coursed through this year’s wave of BLM protests. Untitled (Rise), like its predecessor (Black Is), weaves together a vast spectrum of Black history and art, wielding jazz and funk and Afrobeat with a fluid, precise orchestration. With the details of SAULT’s personnel remaining obscured, (Rise) becomes the work of a collective voice even with all its different angles and timbres. Dizzyingly creative, mournful yet hopeful, effortlessly catchy and impeccably crafted, it’s an album equal parts rousing and cleansing for the traumas of 2020. —Ryan

08

Touché Amoré - Lament (Epitaph)

After extensively grieving his mother on 2016’s Stage Four, Touché Amoré singer Jeremy Bolm just wanted to move on. As Lament makes clear, though, it wasn’t that easy. “It’s not how it was, but it’s not getting lighter,” he yells on “Limelight,” the album’s soaring lead single. Bolstered by an extensive recording session with legendary nü-metal producer Ross Robinson, Touché Amoré fine-tune their trademark brand of post-hardcore on Lament and make every note serve a purpose, from the enormous “Deflector” to the tenderhearted “I’ll Be Your Host.” Bolm may not feel like he’s basking in sunshine just yet, but by the sound of Lament, he’s found the next best thing: the promising warmth of a sunrise and the glimmer of determination that comes with it. —Nina

07

Oneohtrix Point Never - Magic Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp)

The Boston-based station Magic 106.7 describes itself as “Today’s Hits, Yesterday’s Favorites.” The slogan is emblematic of American FM radio, where, much like Daniel Lopatin’s oeuvre, the past meets the present discomfitingly. Lopatin named Oneohtrix Point Never after mishearing the station’s name; fittingly, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is his ode to the format. “I Don’t Love Me Anymore” combines the snap of electro-pop with yacht rock’s schmaltz. “No Nightmares” is Lopatin at his most self-serious, a love song driven by cascading melodies. But there’s plenty of static: pitch-shifted DJs, wooden marimbas. Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is a receiver traveling through different frequencies, picking up calling cards of Lopatin’s discography along its route. —Arielle

06

Boldy James & Sterling Toles - Manger On McNichols (Sector 7-G)

Boldy James recorded a lot of albums in 2020. Manger On McNichols isn’t one of them. Instead, the Detroit producer Sterling Toles, the first person ever to record James, spent a decade working on James vocals that he’d recorded from 2007 to 2010. Those vocals were already hardbitten, worn, and well-observed, and James sounded old beyond his years. Toles layered symphonic beauty all over those vocals — synths, choirs, harmoniums, cellos, cornets. James’ voice is concrete-rough, but Toles uses it to spin off into astral psychedelic journeys, creating a series of sad and beautiful homespun epiphanies. —Tom

05

Taylor Swift - folklore (Republic)

Taylor Swift has always loved fairytales, and on folklore, she builds out her own mythology. She gives a history lesson about her mansion in Rhode Island, she imagines her Pennsylvanian childhood as a precarious leap over a creek, she spins a narrative of three teens swirling around romance and heartbreak. All these stories act as foils for her own current mood. She’s a reflective surface, a mirrorball that turns everything around her into fodder for songs. “I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” she sings, and indeed she does. Over these 17 tracks she sounds like a ghost in her own songs, haunting the memories that shaped her and trying to figure out where it all went wrong or right — she’s still not sure which one it is yet. —James

04

HAIM - Women In Music Pt. III (Columbia)

In 2017, the New York Times declared, “Rock’s not dead, it’s ruled by women.” Iterations of this thesis, equal parts tone-deaf and impressed with itself, have proliferated over the last several years, as the word “women” has been whittled down to a buzzword. Women have created complicated, vulnerable, muscular music since the dawn of rock, yet every few months, someone discovers it for the first time.

On Women In Music Pt. III, Haim poke fun at the trope and prove its validity. They drift from boundless joy into hazy dream states, skipping around the vibrant streets of LA and then going through the motions in a fog. WIMPIII‘s sound is similarly layered; R&B slow jams, country crooners, and melodic indie-pop build on HAIM’s soft rock foundation. Some of the album’s best one-liners and biting salvos confront the experience of being othered by men — during interviews, booty calls, relationships — but there’s no mistaking who’s in control. —Julia

03

Run The Jewels - RTJ4 (Jewel Runners/BMG)

After a three-album burst in three and a half years and a subsequent break that lasted about as long, RTJ4 is rebirth, reclamation, and reminder all in one. Once more, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P arrived when we needed them most: Amidst 2020’s relentlessness, RTJ4 was a righteous firestorm. Once more, RTJ grappled with injustice (“Walking In The Snow,” “JU$T”). Once more, RTJ infused their brand of revolution with the pure joy of their friendship, self-mythologizing in “Yankee And The Brave” and leaning into the breeziest, hookiest iteration of their sound yet with “Ooh La La.” Bombastic, furious, funny in the face of darkness while engaging with the world’s ills more aggressively than ever before, RTJ4 became something to hold onto in 2020, something to cherish. —Ryan

02

Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud (Merge)

Katie Crutchfield has come out on the other side of her twenties sober, in love, and making some of the best music of her exceptional career. But as she details on Saint Cloud, with the hard-won grace and wisdom of lived experience, you never really come out on the other side of anything. Real growth and change is a messy process that you’re always right in the middle of, a never-ending series of steps forward and missteps back. It takes patience. And with Saint Cloud, she’s made an album positively full of the stuff, a beautiful marvel of Americana songwriting that’ll blow you away while taking its sweet time. —Peter

01

Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Epic)

When people say that Mariah Carey can sing like a dolphin, they’re talking about her whistle register — a helium squeak that happens to be the highest note that a human voice can reach. Fiona Apple, on the other hand, really sings like a dolphin. At the end of “I Want You To Love Me,” the first song from her fifth album, Apple lets loose with a series of wobbling chitter-clicks. She sounds less like a musician, more like an aquatic mammal using echolocation.

That’s the way things go on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. It’s the sound of one of her generation’s most gifted studio-pop musicians, someone who could’ve once been considered a peer of Mariah Carey, getting explosively insular, navigating a perilous emotional landscape with a joyous sense of exploration. The mercurial and sometimes reclusive Apple made Fetch The Bolt Cutters at home, working with a small circle and expressively soaring through resentment and anger and depression without letting any of those feelings weigh down her giddy creativity. When the album arrived in the early days of quarantine, it felt like a blessed cosmic gift from someone who had already figured this stuck-at-home shit out. —Tom

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