The 10 Best Albums of 2020

12 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Despite—or perhaps because of—everything, 2020 has been the ultimate year for albums. The one thing many of us were newly blessed with, amid all of the difficulties of this year, was stretches of time: to sit, to think, to listen. And artists delivered, with projects rich in subtext, excising anger, pain and loneliness. Some helped us to find joy, offering up celebration, creativity and sensuality. Whether released before the world changed or after, the albums that stuck with us—from Afrobeat projects to dystopian fantasies to the long-awaited return of a beloved American trio—hit their mark as worlds into which to disappear when we most needed refuge.

Below, the 10 albums we’ve loved living with in 2020. Also read TIME’s lists of the 10 best fiction books, nonfiction books, YA and children’s books, podcasts, songs, TV shows, movies and video games of 2020.

10. Celia, Tiwa Savage

The latest album from Savage, a Nigerian singer-songwriter who many call the “Queen of Afrobeats,” is characterized by an infectious buoyancy. A veteran of the American, British and Nigerian music industries, Savage has an innate understanding of how various strains of music from the Black diaspora fit together, so R&B, rap, Afrobeats, and global pop coalesce seamlessly on the record. Savage’s featherweight and precise voice flips fluidly between English and Yoruba, while bright horn sections drift in and out. She also shows off an alluring chemistry with an array of artists, from Sam Smith to Davido to Naira Marley. Their inspired contributions make Celia a Nigerian standout in a year of creative excellence from the country, with other releases coming from Burna Boy, Davido, Fireboy DML, Olamide and Wizkid.—Andrew R. Chow

9. Miss Anthropocene, Grimes

Grimes occupies an alternate timeline. Always a cyberpunk innovator, on Miss Anthropocene she envisions a different universe entirely, one where she embodies a dystopian anti-goddess of the climate crisis. (Yes, really.) But the music tells a slightly different story, in which her creative impulses—toward destruction, esoteric noise and unexpected collaboration—coalesce into a surprising, cohesive harmony. This is clearest on “Delete Forever,” the closest she comes to a ballad, a sweet rock ‘n’ roll lullaby about addiction. And it’s most revelatory on “4AEM,” a rave opera with dramatically different acts, mixing the electronic with the exotic. Her lyrics are challenging to parse, often just single lines repeated throughout a song: they could be about sex, or self-denial, or despair. But clear throughout is a deep commitment to experimentation and futurism. Miss Anthropocene is also playful: Grimes has a light touch, delivering every nihilistic line with a wink. And while some tracks deliver screeching walls of sound, they resolve into catchy melodies—now on her fifth album, they’re some of her best yet. “You’ll miss me when I’m not around,” from a song of the same name, is both a traditional pop lyric and a mantra: Grimes may be a controversial figure in today’s pop culture, but as her music pushes buttons, so too does it push the industry forward.—Raisa Bruner

8. We’re New Again – A Reimagining, Makaya McCraven

After a few spins of Makaya McCraven’s reconceptualization of Gil Scott Heron’s final album from 2010, it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t the towering poet’s original co-conspirator in the first place. McCraven, a jazz drummer, is the third artist to attempt the daunting task of laying sonic architecture around Heron’s gravelly musings: Richard Russell and Jamie xx preceded him on the acclaimed albums I’m New Here and We’re New Here, respectively. But McCraven matches Heron’s gruff compassion, lurching cadences and probing intellectual curiosity to create something that sounds both wholly invigorating and like Heron’s aesthetic home. And while McCraven’s all-star band creates a cacophonous and diasporic collage of experimental Black music—J Dilla breakbeats, free jazz brambles, Afro Latin grooves—the spotlight remains squarely on Heron and his breathtaking narratives of insomnia, alienation and family.—ARC

7. Agüita, Gabriel Garzón-Montano

The sonic trademarks that have defined the bilingual casanova Gabriel Garzón-Montano since 2014’s Bishouné: Alma del Huila are all present on his latest offering, Agüita: there are brooding funk jams, Fender Rhodes swells, psychedelic orchestral vignettes and exquisite use of blank space. (The slithering “Moonless” is a particularly vintage example of these strengths.) But Garzón-Montano also leaps toward the center of the pop world by trying his hand at reggaeton and Latin trap on songs like “Muñeca,” “Mira My Look” and “Agüita.” While such ventures could come off as cheap streaming ploys or condescension in the hands of such an accomplished and experimental musician, Garzón-Montano genuinely revels in the genre’s bombast, injecting his usually serious or sensuous lyrics with doses of humor: “Me pongo tacones me duelen/ Hoy me tocaron los tenis” (I wore high heels and they hurt/ today I had to wear my sneakers”), he recounts dryly. Taken as a whole, Garzón-Montano’s third album shows an artist who understands his expertise while also pushing his bounds.—ARC

6. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately begins with a gasp and then, in its 13-track run, feels like a long, ragged exhale of relief. Musician and performer Mike Hadreas has spent his career taking glittering shards of sound and turning them into unexpected compositions, songs in which you can almost see the cracks, gilded by his rich, ornate orchestrations. They’re all the more beautiful for their complexity. His take on pop is ethereal but grounded, whether in the gritty pseudo-punk of “Describe” or haunting synth twangs of “Jason.” He even veers into glam rock, as on the operatic “Nothing At All,” burnishing its intensity with whisper-light vocals. There are also moments, like on “On the Floor,” where the cheeriness of a mid-century pop chorus belies the hunger of his lyrics. Now on his fourth album, Perfume Genius has always nodded at the pain of self-discovery in his music, mining identity for art. Here, he’s at his most joyful and also his most opaque, letting the listener decide whether that first breath is one of pain or release. Perhaps it’s both.—RB

5. Eternal Atake, Lil Uzi Vert

The Philadelphia rapper teased the release of Eternal Atake for years, and the final result did not disappoint: the album is as colorful, ambitious, silly and extraterrestrial as its album art suggests. Uzi is a more technically adept rapper than he perhaps gets credit for—he proves his chops on the rapidfire “Homecoming”—but his foremost strengths are his incandescent melodicism, elastic sonic palette and giddy sense of absurdism. “Multi, multi, multi, multi, multi-grain on my granola bar/ Got a multi, multi, bow tie when I rock my Dior,” he yelps on the standout “Pop,” later breathlessly screaming the word fragment “Balenci” 15 times in a row like some kind of incantation. You can practically see his childlike smile through your headphones.—ARC

4. Gaslighter, The Chicks

It had been 14 years since The Chicks, who dropped the “Dixie” from their name earlier this year, released an album. On Gaslighter, the beloved trio of musicians returned with a vengeance. Quite literally: Gaslighter seethes with righteous rage (“Sleep at Night”), conveys a desire for comeuppance and change (“March March”) and—in its most heart-wrenching moments—celebrates the wholesome, soothing glory of female solidarity (“Julianna Calm Down”). That the Chicks have been classified as a “country” act for years has never sat right with them. Gaslighter shows why; while it has twangs of bluegrass, sweet vocal harmonies and the signature sound of Martie Maguire’s fiddle and Emily Strayer’s banjo, the project is about storytelling more than form, allowing three artists at the peak of their powers the chance to show off their hard-won maturity. It’s been a long and often hard road, both professionally and personally, for the Chicks—and for women more broadly. (The album’s title is a knowing wink at gender relations and politics.) But when they sing together, delighted and free to be themselves, it sounds like some kind of healing.—RB

3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple

The first track on Fetch the Bolt Cutters is titled “I Want You To Love Me.” But Apple, it turns out, has ditched any desire for public approval. Rightly so: decades into a career during which she’s been both hailed as a critical darling and regarded with confusion, this album displays the art of a woman shedding preconceptions, baring her teeth—and her insecurities—and finding catharsis in the process of creation. Recorded entirely in her Venice Beach home with a small circle of trusted friends and collaborators, there is a homegrown intimacy and sense of discovery in each track, whether it’s the bark of a dog or a handclap or the rattle of percussion banged out on items found around the house. Over its course, Apple trades in steely irony, glittering resentment and musical experimentation, wielding humor as she levels her gaze on friends, exes and long-lost acquaintances alike. The freedom she’s unlocked is potent—as is her rage, targeted here at the people and structures that made her life as a celebrity untenable and her experience of womanhood punishing. But no longer. “Kick me under the table all that you want, I won’t shut up,” she insists brightly on “Under the Table,” a line that’s both a refusal to be silenced and a rallying cry for any listener who needs the reminder. Apple wrote an album of love songs to strength and self-determination, sharpening her own voice in the process.—RB

2. Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle

Sometimes they would don thigh-high metallic boots and dance through strobing orbs of light; sometimes they’d perform brisk routines on tennis courts; sometimes they’d strum acoustic guitars. Every live performance that the sister act Chloe x Halle delivered this summer was wholly unique, but the source material—songs from their album Ungodly Hourwas uniformly strong. While many pop stars have recently chosen to release increasingly baggy albums to maximize streaming numbers, the Bailey sisters took the opposite route, crafting 13 unimpeachable songs, each with inventive production flourishes and endless replay value. For the most part, the Beyoncé proteges don’t rely too heavily on their voices, instead focusing on crafting a modern and cohesive brand of R&B that borrows from the best aspects of several eras of the genre. But toward the end of the album, they unleash their pipes to their full torrential power on “Wonder What She Thinks of Me,” a blistering letter written to a romantic rival, belted in hair-raising cascading harmony.—ARC

1. Folklore, Taylor Swift

Folklore is best listened to alone, on a long walk at sunset, as the wind picks up and the memories and feelings rush in. You have to presume that was Swift’s intention. After exploring the upper reaches of pop maximalism on her recent projects, she makes a powerful about-face on Folklore, an album that’s as much an experiment with emotional delicacy as it is a lush take on the intersection of folksy storytelling and contemporary pop. Swift has been a public figure for well over a decade, but never before has she sounded so consistently vulnerable, so at home in her voice and so willing to play with sounds: hypnotic string plucks, angelic chorus hums, the unexpected gruffness of Bon Iver’s vocals on “Exile.” Her lyrics, meanwhile, are sharp and tinged with layered bittersweetness. Some trade on the nostalgia of adolescence, others on an imagined American mythology, but the best offer hazy, intimate glimpses into the messiness of relationships and their frayed endings: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” she sings on “My Tears Ricochet.” “No other sadness in the world would do,” she laments on “Hoax.” Folklore is Swift finding the beauty—and pop power—in stillness and reflection. Perhaps that’s the most we could hope to achieve in quarantine.—RB

Read the rest of TIME’s best-of 2020 coverage:

  • The 10 Best Fiction Books of 2020
  • The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020
  • The 10 Best YA and Children’s Books of 2020
  • The 100 Must-Read Books of 2020
  • The 10 Best Movies of 2020
  • The 10 Best Movie Performances of 2020
  • The 10 Best TV Shows of 2020
  • The 10 Best Songs of 2020
  • The 10 Best Podcasts of 2020
  • The 10 Best Video Games of 2020
  • Correction, Nov. 28

    The original version of this story misstated the English-language translation of “Hoy me tocaron los tenis.” The phrase translates to “today I had to wear my sneakers,” not “today I played tennis.”

    More Must-Reads from TIME

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