Home Music Music Lists

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

From Taylor’s folk surprise to Bob Dylan’s best album in 20 years to cathartic country, indie-rock and pop releases, these great albums helped us power through a lonely year.

The phrase “Life sucked, but great records got us through” could apply to any number of recent years. But, in 2020, music was hit especially hard, with clubs closed and tours canceled. Out of necessity, this became a year about turning inward, listening deep and looking for solace.

Our top album of the year, Taylor Swift’s Folklore, reflected that feeling in its stark, elegant intimacy. Other artists — from Run the Jewels to Lucinda Williams — came through with albums steeped in the year’s explosive political climate. At the same time, it was also fun to party vicariously with fantastic dance-pop albums by Dua LipaJessie Ware, house-music producer Kareem Ali, Bad Bunny‘s expansive reggaeton blowout, and rapper Lil Uzi Vert‘s spaced-out-yet-hard-hitting opus. Meanwhile, new artists like Kelly Lee Owens, Soccer Mommy, Beach Bunny, and Fontaines D.C. pointed the way toward a future that’s going to get better.

From Rolling Stone US


BTS, ‘Map of the Soul: 7’

Seven years on top of the world, and yet BTS still make it all sound like they’ve only just begun to shine. The South Korean pop kings didn’t water down their style (or language) to conquer America — they just won the audience on their own terms. On Map of the Soul: 7, their most complex and personal album yet, they keep pursuing their loftiest creative ambitions. Map lives up to its title with heartfelt individual confessions like Suga’s rap-star space fantasy “Interlude: Shadow.” But the high point is “Moon,” Jin’s wonderstruck love song to the audience, where he pledges his devotion over jangling guitars. —R.S.


Flo Milli, ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’

Flo Milli’s first full-length mixtape is almost Ramones-ian in its brash efficiency: 12 songs, 30 minutes, zero filler or guest spots. Milli is a 20-year-old from Alabama whose rise was aided by TikTok, but here she shows she’s mastered the needling taunts of classic East Coast rap. Her targets — dudes who won’t stop texting her, haters of all kinds, other unfortunate souls — are dismissed with casual glee. (“Actin like we got beef/I didn’t know that you exist” is the hip-hop version of Don Draper’s “I don’t think about you at all.”) Along the way, she proves a dexterous rhymer, compares herself to an Obama daughter, and makes good use of an SWV song from well before she was born. It all adds up to one of the most fun albums in a year sorely lacking in good times. —C.H.


Haim, ‘Women in Music Pt. III’

Vivid pop satisfaction and razor-sharp songwriting are packed into every square inch of Women in Music Pt. III, the pointedly titled third album from L.A.’s Haim sisters. Here, you’ll find Haim’s trademark sonic throwbacks to Fleetwood Mac and Nineties R&B, but weirder and more daring than they’ve ever been before, thanks to Rostam’s innovative production and Haim’s ability to seemingly master any musical instrument or pop-rock style. What really takes center stage is a newfound emotional and artistic maturity, with songs that tackle the complexities of depression (“I Know Alone”), codependency (“FUBT”), and sisterly friendship (“Hallelujah”). —C.S.


City Girls, ‘City on Lock’

“Enough is enough, bitch/City Girls with the fuck shit,” Yung Miami of City Girls informs us on the duo’s audacious second LP. Over forehead-rattling South Florida beats, she and her pal JT crush their enemies and fend off unworthy men, delivering every snap with authoritative glee, whether they’re celebrating their success on “Winnin” or partying with Doja Cat on “Pussy Talk.” Along with the body-slamming sense of command, there’s struggle here, too. “I really used to sleep on pallets/Now I’m sittin’ in the condo like it’s a palace,” JT raps, and that sense of sisterly resilience makes the record hit even harder. —J.D.


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Letter to You’

Young Bruces of old mingle freely with the modern-day icon on the introspective Letter to You, a particularly revealing record for Springsteen that finds him hopscotching around key eras of his career. He fronts the ghost of his teenage rock group the Castiles in the elegiac “Last Man Standing,” leads a long-gone version of the E Street Band on the lost Seventies track “Janey Needs a Shooter,” and confronts the autumn of his years — he’s 71 now — on the throttling “Ghosts.” But this isn’t Springsteen powering down — it’s a letter of intent to keep on rocking, as long as the spirit in the night is able. —J.H.


Lady Gaga, ‘Chromatica’

A callback of sorts to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” origins, Chromatica nimbly and reverently touched on sleek house and electro-pop grooves, packing the songs full of delectable hooks in “Stupid Love,” “Enigma,” and “Rain on Me,” the latter a winning duet with Ariana Grande. The angular “911” swerved into chilly Italo disco territory, while K-pop stars Blackpink rode a deep house riff on “Sour Candy.” Running through the album was a thread of struggle, resilience, and healing, culminating in the euphoric, trance-influenced numbers “Sine From Above” (featuring Elton John) and “1000 Doves.” It was a message many of us needed to hear on repeat throughout 2020. —J.F.


Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Punisher’

After Phoebe Bridgers released 2018’s Boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker and 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst, the anticipation was high for the indie singer-songwriter’s second full-length album. She delivered more, and then some. Every track sparks an emotional charge, as her sharp songwriting spins tales of nautical-themed birthday parties (“Moon Song”), shedding crocodile tears in a car (“Savior Complex”), and feeling, well, nothing (“Chinese Satellite”). Only Bridgers would place a stunning folk song like “Graceland Too” next to the epic Wizard of Oz tornado that is “I Know the End,” but that kind of mad genius energy is her hallmark. —A.M.


Jessie Ware, ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’

This fantastic dance-pop record came out when none of us could make it to the club, but no matter — that’s what bedrooms are for. On her fourth album, the London singer cranked up the Studio 54 glamour while making sure everyone would be permitted beyond the velvet rope. The first three tracks alone act like a suite best heard late at night, one disco-ball stunner after another: the lovestruck “Spotlight,” the synth-heavy title track, and the highly enjoyable “Ooh La La,” which kicks off with a car honking. If there’s anything we want in 2021, it’s for Ware to release this gem on gold vinyl. —A.M.


Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Eternal Atake’

The Philadelphia rapper’s hugely anticipated second LP is shattering one moment and slippery the next, a place where a jarringly saccharine sample of the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 hit “I Want It That Way” coexists with a jittery track built around the music from Microsoft Windows’ videogame Space Cadet 3D Pinball. Few artists can match Lil Uzi Vert’s steamrolling force — “Homecoming” channels the skeletal pugnacity of late-Eighties hip-hop, and “Lo Mein” has all the frills of a battering ram. Impressively, the rapper brings the same brick-through-the-window energy to ballads like “I’m Sorry,” a contrite track that apologizes for “everything I ever said.” —E.L.


Waxahatchee, ‘Saint Cloud’

On Saint Cloud, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield delved into her Alabama roots to create a stripped-back Americana sound, drawing on influences like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. (Just look at the album cover of Crutchfield perched on a pickup truck with red roses in its bed, and you’ll get the idea.) Newly sober, Crutchfield’s songwriting is pure and hits you like a gut punch — whether she’s likening love to honey on a spoon (“Can’t Do Much”) or reflecting on picked flowers in a Topo Chico bottle (“Lilacs”). Released the month the pandemic was declared a national emergency, it’s the kind of country comfort we didn’t know we’d need so badly. —A.M.


Run the Jewels, ‘RTJ4’

Run the Jewels have long been Public Enemy’s heirs apparent, making deft jams out of left-leaning politics, zany tangents, and iconoclastic hip-hop production. But the connection has never been more evident than on RTJ4, released at the height of the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd. In between sharp rhymes about disadvantaged black youth and racist cops (“Walking in the Snow”) and “silly guys” like Trump on Twitter (“Goonies vs. E.T.”), Killer Mike and El-P crafted a soundtrack for a revolution. On nearly every track, the duo speak perfectly to the most turbulent year in living memory, reassuring listeners along the way that if they can make it, you can too. —K.G.


Dua Lipa, ‘Future Nostalgia’

Lipa’s second album would have been a magnificent disco trip, even in the best of all possible years. But Future Nostalgia was crucial for a year when these beats were as close to the club as fans could get. It’s a rush of uptempo dance glitz, with Lipa twirling the night away in the stilettos of queens like Madonna (“Hallucinate”) or Gloria Gaynor (“Don’t Start Now”) or Olivia Newton-John (“Physical”). “Baby, keep on dancing like you ain’t got a choice,” she commands in “Physical,” and as long as Future Nostalgia keeps playing, you can’t even imagine slowing down. —R.S.


Bob Dylan, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’

When Dylan returned from the shadow realms this year, nearly a decade had gone by since his last album of original songs (2012’s cantankerous Tempest). During that time, he’d crooned some sweet pop nothings, won a Nobel Prize, and sharpened his blade. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a lyrical tour-de-force, teeming with outrageous jokes (“My Own Version of You”), playful boasts (“I Contain Multitudes”), and irreverent tributes to the greats who came before him (“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”). He’s haunted by the ghosts of the 20th century and hopped up on the absurdity of surviving into the 21st. Underneath it all, there’s a sense of melancholy that peaks on the sublime end-of-the-road ballad “Key West.” Stunners in themselves, these songs add up to Dylan’s funniest, most surprising, and most multidimensional album since Love and Theft. —S.V.L.


Bad Bunny, ‘YHLQMDLG’

Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana is both more varied and more focused than Bad Bunny’s excellent 2018 debut album, X 100pre, with reckless stylistic shifts — the many-songs-in-one “Safaera,” the hard-rock swerve on “Hablamos Mañana” — next to some of his sharpest, most insistent hits. “La Santa” merges a handsome, elegiac melody, Bad Bunny’s shout-at-the-heavens vocals, and a stern, clipped reggaeton beat to great effect, while the star coaxes the seldom-heard reggaeton veteran Yaviah into delivering a spine-stiffening verse on “Bichiyal.” Bad Bunny released two more albums in 2020, but neither outdid YHLQMDLG‘s relentless firepower. —E.L.


Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’

Fiona Apple has always thrived on defying expectations, from telling pop stans that the world was bullshit to taking years (and years) to perfect her alt-rock operettas. But no one could have expected the audacity of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, or the way Apple expresses her independent spirit over an orchestra of drums, percussion, barks, and meows. She leaps ahead of the “VIPs, PYTs, and wannabes” on the title track (“I’ve always been too smart for that”), seeks friendship with a woman dating her ex (“Ladies”), and reflects on how one person telling her she had potential was the spark she needed as a kid (“Shameika”). When she sings, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” on “Under the Table,” she means it, because this is potential fulfilled. —K.G.


Taylor Swift, ‘Folklore’

It’s not a stretch to say that Taylor Swift’s Folklore may go down in history as the definitive quarantine album, and not just because of the record’s homespun, folksy presentation. Without the pressure of having to write radio hits or build up her usual prolonged album-release schedule — full of music videos, Easter eggs, and Good Morning America performances — Swift shed the über-pop trappings of her previous album, Lover, for a project that put her once-in-a-generation songwriting talent front and center. Regardless of what you think of the album’s “indie” cred, with contributions from the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Folklore’s 16 tales of lost love, coming-of-age, and redemption provided us with solace and catharsis just when we needed it most. Songs like “August” and “Mirrorball” will persevere long after this pandemic is over — and so, evidently, will Taylor Swift. —C.S.