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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


Jeff Tweedy, ‘Love Is the King’

When the pandemic scuttled Wilco’s tour this spring, Jeff Tweedy shrugged and got to work on a new solo album with his sons, Spencer and Sammy, on drums and backing vocals. Lucky us: It’s some of his finest work with or without a band, with sly, easeful country lopes (“Opaline”), genuinely sweet declarations of love (“Even I Can See”), and his zingiest Midwestern-Neil guitar leads since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. “Gwendolyn” is a rocker you’d give your left arm to see him stretch out in concert; “Bad Day Lately” is a consolation for the fact that you won’t be able to for a long while. Here’s to silver linings. —S.V.L.


Kareem Ali, ‘Growth’

Growth opens with “Take Me Higher,” a breathing, grooving house jam about our relationship to drugs: “All these substances are doing is tapping into these chemicals … that God already created within us.” This attention to what’s natural, to what’s within, courses throughout Kareem Ali’s music. He’s released captivating house tracks at an unfathomable pace over the past year, his grooves seeming to flow out of his head like language, and it’s all there on the sprawling Growth. Songs like “The Pain Inside,” “Changed My Life,” and “Growth” marry intelligent, layered build and propulsions that come off effortless, showcasing the casual expertise of someone who’s just getting started. —E.B.


Lucinda Williams, ‘Good Souls Better Angels’

One of America’s greatest living songwriters, Lucinda Williams dissects political, societal, and personal dysfunction on this focused, rock-forward record. Setting aside the blues detours of past efforts, she turns up the amps and gets down to business, eviscerating a now-loser president on “Man Without a Soul,” taking 2020 to task in “Bad News Blues,” and threatening a perennial “thorn in my side” in the ferocious “Bone of Contention.” The performances are all vibrant and intense — a cover of Greg Garing’s “Down Past the Bottom” is simply terrifying — putting Williams’ famously breathy voice right in your ear. She reunited with co-producer Ray Kennedy for the first time since the 1998 watershed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It was worth the wait. —J.H.


Boldy James and the Alchemist, ‘The Price of Tea in China’

Boldy James is quietly becoming an expert at eliciting emotion without betraying any — his tone is flinty and unwavering as he raps about a world where “friends came and went, but most of them was murder victims” and “everything you ever love you lost to the gun.” “Giant Slide” and “Scrape the Bowl” are similarly chilling tales delivered with all the flash of a morning commute. The relentlessly even-keeled tone heightens the focus on James’ underworld tales and the Alchemist’s calmly riveting production on The Price of Tea in China. “My witness ain’t show up to court, the judge, he had to weigh the trial,” James raps. “They say I got a morbid sense of humor, but that made me smile.” From his voice, you’d never know it. —E.L.


AC/DC, ‘Power Up’

Aside from a few flourishes — the sleek riffing on opening track “Realize,” a poignant Brian Johnson hook on “Through the Mists of Time” — AC/DC’s 17th studio LP traded in exactly the same swaggering, arena-ready hard rock that Angus Young and Co. perfected 40 years ago on Back in Black. As with that record, a death-defying triumph following the loss of original singer Bon Scott, this one showed that recent hardships including the passing of co-founder/mastermind Malcolm Young and Johnson’s temporary exit due to hearing issues haven’t left as much as a dent. Standout tracks like “Shot in the Dark” and “Witch’s Spell” delivered that old AC/DC thrill — and drove home yet again that no other rock band has ever done more with less. —H.S.


Chris Stapleton, ‘Starting Over’

The country troubadour’s last release — the 2017 two-album set From A Room — was ambitious but unwieldy. On the aptly titled Starting Over, Chris Stapleton distills what he does best over 14 tracks. There’s blues (“Devil Always Made Me Think Twice”), rock (“Watch You Burn”), R&B (“You Should Probably Leave”), and, on the title track, the old-school country he’s been credited with helping revive. Stapleton also benefits from the addition of a pair of rock legends: Heartbreakers-for-life Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell pop up throughout, adding a classic-rock vibe to the record, specifically on the roadhouse barnburner “Arkansas.” —J.H.


Elizabeth Cook, ‘Aftermath’

With some of the best songs of her career, her band Gravy at her side, and producer Butch Walker behind the console, Nashville singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook headed to L.A. to make a banger of an album. While it may be more West Coast shine than Tennessee dirt, the country livin’ in the lyrics is unmistakable. She writes of playing loose with the truth in “Two Chords and a Lie,” drops redneck bon mots like “Don’t go selling crazy/We’re stocked up here” in “These Days,” and puts you right in the room with her and her ailing father in “Daddy I Got Love for You.” Egged on by Walker in brawny tracks like “Bones,” Cook even reveals her inner rock goddess. The results are glorious. —J.H.


X, ‘Alphabetland’

Thirty years evaporate like sweat in the mosh pit with L.A. punk legends X’s first album since 1985 with their OG lineup. Seamlessly stitching together great new recordings of older tracks like “Delta 88 Nightmare,” “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” and “I Gotta Fever” with new cuts, the band deftly bridges the gap between the Eighties and 2020 with plenty of full-body yelps from frontwoman Exene Cervenka, rollicking guitar solos from Billy Zoom, and heart-attack drums from D.J. Bonebrake. A record that feels like a punk show, it’s all over in less than 30 minutes, leaving listeners exhausted and grinning. —B.E.


Sad13, ‘Haunted Painting’

Making music is a lot like possession, a concept Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz took literally with her second solo release as Sad13, Haunted Painting. A horror story written with a glittery gel pen, the album traverses themes as diverse as cancel culture and comedians (“Hysterical”), isolation (“Ghost (of a Good Time”)), and a right-wing coup d’état that overthrew Argentina’s government in 1976 (“Into the Catacombs”). Dupuis, who is also a published poet, has the uncanny ability to make the sacred profane and the profane sacred; an album that could have been a spooky pastiche in a lesser writer’s hands is just as uniquely haunting as its title promises. —B.E.


Paul McCartney, ‘McCartney III’

Restless in lockdown, Paul McCartney started visiting his U.K. studio and getting to work. Without a band, McCartney had to lean on himself: playing drums, guitar, bass, piano, and more, even layering the tracks himself. The result is his most adventurous solo album since 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. McCartney channels the back-porch charm of 1970’s McCartney on “The Kiss of Venus” (which he wrote after browsing through a book about constellations) and “Lavatory Lil,” a rowdy blues stomper that follows in the literary tradition of “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard.” At 78, McCartney still sounds vital and comfortable taking new chances, especially on “Deep Deep Feeling”; he twists knobs and layers tape loops to create a psychedelic epic. —P.D.


Beabadoobee, ‘Fake It Flowers’

Bea Kristi, a.k.a. Beabadoobee, was still in her teens when she made this delightful guitar rom-com, the sound of a self-assured bedroom-pop singer-songwriter navigating her way into the outside world. The London Filipina just turned 20, but tunes like “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus” won her fans (including Malkmus), with her fresh Gen Z take on Pavement-style guitar hooks. Fake It Flowers is full of flannel hooks and Sassy-era sarcasm: There’s even a straightforward love song where she muses, “You are the smell of pavement after the rain/You are the last empty seat on a train.” —R.S.


Kelly Lee Owens, ‘Inner Song’

Welsh electronic producer Kelly Lee Owens is a master of mixing soft things and hard things. Her voice whispers in your ear and her beats ricochet in your head, coming together to form electronic music that makes you feel, makes you move, makes you think. Never has all this sounded so beautiful than on Owens’ sophomore album, Inner Song. Songs that start inward, about heartbreak (“On”) or the trap of the internet (“Wake-up”), end in an outward-facing euphoria, whether in the form of throbbing dance-floor beats or the cries of strings and arpeggiated synth. Even at their hardest (“Jeanette,” “Night,” “Melt!” ) the emotions are just as instant, the release just as cathartic. —E.B.


Soccer Mommy, ‘Color Theory’

Nashville-born indie rocker Sophie Allison reaches deep inside herself with her second album, Color Theory, building on the emotional honesty of her 2018 breakthrough, Clean. Born in 1997, Allison is a proudly Nineties-fueled songwriter, with a little Liz Phair in her guitar and just a touch of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe in her vocals. (Not to mention the way she sings about “Night Swimming.”) Color Theory has some of the year’s loneliest songs, taking on depression, insecurity, and illness — as she admits in “Royal Screw-Up,” “I am ‘fake it till you make it’ in a can.” Yet she always keeps you rooting for her to make it. —R.S.


Stephen Malkmus, ‘Traditional Techniques’

To call Stephen Malkmus’ Traditional Techniques an “acoustic record” wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it doesn’t quite capture the sonic expanse of this midcareer gem. “ACC Kirtan,” “Xian Man,” and “Brainwashed” unfurl into psychedelic sprawl, while elsewhere Malkmus takes his 12-string toward country-rock, or classic folk, or surrounds it with woodwinds, drums, and string instruments from Africa and the Middle East. Traditional Techniques revels in the gray space between frank and enigmatic, whether exploring love and friendship, or in yarns about propane smugglers or the extremely online. “May the word be spread via cracked emoji,” Malkmus sings on “Shadowbanned” — it’s unclear what exactly that may mean, but like the best, inscrutable Malkmus lines, it rings true. —J. Blistein


Toots and the Maytals, ‘Got to Be Tough’

Toots Hibbert, one of the most beloved and revered voices in the history of Jamaican music, died this year at age 77, but he left us the marvelous Got to Be Tough, his first LP in over a decade. Co-produced by Zak Starkey, with contributions from Ziggy Marley, Jamacain rhythm king Sly Dunbar, Meters drummer Cyril Neville, and Starkey’s dad, Ringo Starr, it’s a perfect distillation of Toots’ signature mix of reggae, soul, and funk, insurrectionary spirit, and bighearted down-home grit. “Just Brutal” makes resistance feel like a party, while “Freedom Train” travels from from Kingston to Memphis, gathering revolutionary energy along the way, and “Three Little Birds,” with Ziggy Marley, turns Bob Marley’s beloved melodic gem into a horn-driven barnburner. Though not intended as such, Got to Be Tough is a moving farewell to one of reggae’s true fathers. —J.D. 


Low Cut Connie, ‘Private Lives’

Adam Weiner, Philly’s patron saint of ass-shakers, let his ambitions run wild on his band’s Private Lives, a 17-song double album that somehow doesn’t drag. Like Low Cut Connie‘s live shows, it’s a sweaty — Weiner would say “schvitzin’” — listen, full of cathartic anthems (“Help Me”), gritty character studies (“Charyse”), and red-faced songs about fucking (“The Fuckin You Get for the Fuckin You Got”). The title track, a raucous collection of dirty secrets, and the piano ballad “Look What They Did” stand as the record’s yin and yang, with Weiner celebrating lovable freaks in the former and lamenting the abandonment of kids in the latter. —J.H.


Fontaines D.C., ‘A Hero’s Death’

In a world full of bands straining to be good enough, Fontaines D.C. aim for the skies — these Dublin punk lads flat-out want to be your favorite band, nothing less. Result: The year’s most full-throated, stouthearted, old-school-guitar rabble-rousing. Irish to the core (the “D.C.” stands for “Dublin City”), they rush through their second album, A Hero’s Death, with a Clash-y spirit, a slashing Gang of Four guitar attack, and Pogues-worthy humor. When Grian Chatten snarls “I Was Not Born,” he’s throwing down the gauntlet to challenge all other bands on both sides of the Atlantic. —R.S. 


The Weeknd, ‘After Hours’

Abel Tesfaye is at best when he follows his moody impulses through sleek sounds, and he did that brilliantly on his 2020 synth-pop smash “Blinding Lights.” The rest of After Hours is his best version yet of his go-to lachrymose lushness, splitting the difference between glowering self-indulgence and Top 40 smoothness on post-breakup purges like “Hardest to Love” and “Too Late,” as well as the Elton John-interpolating “Scared to Live,” and his vocal flexes throughout the LP prove once again that he’s one of the most gifted R&B crooners to hit the radio this century. Hard to love? Perhaps. But on After Hours, he’s never been easier to like. —J.D.


Hayley Williams, ‘Petals for Armor’

Hayley Williams has been an emo-pop elder statesman for years now. Her solo debut (built from three EPs released throughout the spring) bursts with ideas. You can her band Paramore’s hungry-hearted neo-New Wave sparkle here, but she takes her sound to new places, from Bjorkian dreaminess to Eighties R&B and jagged art pop à la Tune-Yards, without leaving behind sharp hooks and big-chorus payoffs she gets so naturally. “Got a lot inside of me,” she sings on the Janet Jackson-esque “Watch Me While I Bloom,” one of many moments here where experimentation, freedom, and fun all blossom at once. —J.D.


Four Tet, ‘Sixteen Oceans’

Four Tet collapses the distance between hard-charging floor-fillers and languid, hypermelodic electronics on Sixteen Oceans. The album opens by encouraging movement: “School” is high-stepping house with a glassy instrumental hook, and “Baby” is zippy even as it stutters forward, slicing and dicing an Ellie Goulding vocal. On the other end of the spectrum is “Harpsichord,” a drumless, serene beauty, and “Romantics,” which sounds like the mating call of a Sonar machine. The routes are different, but they both lead to the same beatific ending. —E.L.


Shamir, ‘Shamir’

Shamir called this his “most commercial-sounding” album since his 2015 debut, but whatever mainstream leanings it might have did not compromise how vibrant or creative he could get. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter performs synth-pop, Gun Club country punk, and shoegaze all with the same confidence and charisma, in a voice that can transform any anxious misgivings into reassurance. “I prefer to be alone, but you can join if you like/I’ll stay strong for you ’cause I don’t want to be seen when I cry,” he sings on “Running,” speaking as much to his audience as he is to himself. —C.S.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ‘Reunions’

Isbell continued to stake his claim as Nashville’s most empathetic wordsmith with his seventh album. A slightly more subdued production than 2018’s stormy The Nashville Sound, the LP still cuts deep lyrically with ballads like “Only Children” and “Dreamsicle” — “New sneakers on a high school court/And you swore you’d be there,” he sings in the latter. The impassioned “Be Afraid” takes aim at silence in the wake of injustice, with Isbell proclaiming, “If your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice.” Isbell’s keen self-awareness has always been a core component of his work, and like the hard-fought sobriety he chronicled in “It Gets Easier,” he doesn’t always have the answers. On Reunions, he is willing to keep pushing forward anyway. —J.F.


Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Good News’

Megan went from a rising rapper reveling in her own endless hot-girl summer to a superstar and powerful voice for social justice. After being shot in the foot, she confronted misogynist violence, became a New York Times op-ed columnist, and proudly displayed a “Protect Black Women” sign on SNL. She topped off her year bringing us Good News, demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, flowing effortlessly over booty-bouncing tracks, and celebrating her own awesomeness with lines like, “If I wasn’t me and I would’ve seen myself/I would have bought me a drink/Took me home, did me long, ate it with the panties on.” Hard to argue with that logic. —J.D.


Jehnny Beth, ‘To Love Is to Live’

To Love Is to Live starts and ends the same way, with Jehnny Beth declaring her vulnerability, as she sings, “I am naked all the time.” Beth, who is best known as the powerful singer for the art-punk group Savages, explores the dusky corners of her id throughout the record, questioning her sexuality, gender, religion, and her own fragility in a way that recalls both Nine Inch Nails and PJ Harvey. The violent “I’m the Man” convulses with electro-shock synths, while the ballad “French Countryside” shows rare tenderness as she sings lyrics she wrote on a flight she thought was crashing. It’s like a self-portrait in which layer after layer disintegrates until you see which ingredients make Beth the artist she is. —K.G.


Halsey, ‘Manic’

Halsey has no inhibitions when it comes to getting raw emotionally — and Manic is her most fearless move yet. She chases her darkest anxieties all over the spectrum, from hip-hop to rock to country, in hits like “Without You” and “Graveyard” — the kind of album where you can find Alanis Morissette, Suga from BTS, Jennifer’s Body samples or a voicemail pep talk from John Mayer. Halsey has the too-much too-young celebrity blues: as she sings, “I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met/But I forget half the people I’ve gotten in bed.” Yet she wrestles with her issues in her own unmistakably real voice. —R.S.


Selena Gomez, ‘Rare’

It’s been five years since Selena Gomez dropped Revival, one of the past decade’s sharpest breakup albums. On Rare, she goes even harder with a more acerbic adult perspective, raging about all the hours of her youth she wasted babysitting for emotional parasites. (Surely fictional, of course.) Even in playful kiss-offs like “Cut You Off” or “Rare,” it’s cathartic to hear Gomez dump out the bad years like they’re just burned toast. Rare was just one of her 2020 highlights — she became a Julia Child for our time with her quarantine cooking show, Selena + Chef. —R.S.


Miley Cyrus, ‘Plastic Hearts’

Cyrus has gone through more career changes before she turns 30 than most artists do in a lifetime. Her latest new moment is her finest, a splashy swerve into glammy throwback rock that’s more fun than anything she’s ever done. As her many much-beloved covers have long attested, the singer’s powerhouse chops can fit pretty much any style, from serpentine industrial disco grind to rhinestone-cowgirl Seventies balladry to Steve Nicks-nicking synth grandeur. But this is more than just a fun night of karaoke; Cyrus breathes her own story into these songs, making for a more personal album than any of her previous reinventions. —J.D.


Ariana Grande, ‘Positions’

Remember when Ariana Grande appeared in her “God Is a Woman” video as a benevolent deity, sexually fingering the Earth? Positions is the album this goddess made when she looked down and saw the planet was in even more pitiful shape. It’s Grande’s R&B concept album about having rampant round-the-clock sex, to the point where it makes her other records sound tame by comparison — she knew the world needed it. She throws down with Doja Cat, the Weeknd, and Ty Dolla Sign, but she hits her peak in “34+35,” where she lays it right on the line: “If I put it quite plainly/Just gimme them babies.” —R.S.


Beach Bunny, ‘Honeymoon’

Emo garage-rock becomes thrillingly new on this Chicago band’s debut, driven by the bracingly real songwriting of singer-guitarist Lili Trifilio. Pop-punk torpedoes like “Promises” and “Colorblind” power through self-doubt in a way that makes post-teen romantic angst seem at once archetypal yet wholly original; Beach Bunny are college-age kids who’ve been playing together for years, so there’s a surprisingly amount of songwriting chops and musical precision here, and when Trifilio gets what she deserves on “Cloud 9,” singing “I don’t want to seem the way I do/but I’m confident when I’m with you,” you can’t help but want to jump up and high-five her. —J.D.


Ashley McBryde, ‘Never Will’

Never Will was this year’s most adventurous mainstream country album, drawing on everything from old-timey mountain music (“Velvet Red”) and storming country rock (“Martha Divine”) to the Fleetwood Mac-indebted glimmer of the title track. On “Voodoo Doll” and “One Night Standards,” McBryde firmly establishes herself as a razor-sharp chronicler of forbidden pleasure and hardboiled lust. “You’d think a girl on fire,” she sings, “would stay away from gasoline.” Never Will is an extraordinary document that chronicles — with empathy, grace, and humor — what happens when men and women pour gasoline onto their own bad decisions. —J. Bernstein


Chloe x Halle, ‘Ungodly Hour’

This flawless R&B gem comes from the sister duo of Chloe and Halle Bailey, born in Atlanta in the summer of 1998 and the spring of 2000. Ungodly Hour is way past the teen vibe of their debut, The Kids Are Alright — the sisters show off as sophisticated writers, producers, and (most of all) singers. Chloe x Halle seem to worship Southern Nineties R&B, yet you can hear jazz, techno, indie rock, even doo-wop in their game. They team up with the U.K. house duo Disclosure for the gorgeously kaleidoscopic title ballad, while testifying to their twentysomething grit with the world-beating confidence of “Do It” and “Baby Girl.” —R.S.


Moses Sumney, ‘Græ’

Released in two parts throughout the first half of 2020, this double-LP opus from North Carolina singer-songwriter Moses Sumney was a bold exploration of the murky middle spaces: between rootsy plainspokenness and deconstructed futurism, pop melody and experimentation, minimalism and maximalism. Along the way, Sumney littered his second album with dark humor and his sharpest singles to date — from the folksy “Polly” to the naked torch song “Me in 20 Years” to his BDSM-tinged homage to Aretha Franklin, “Cut Me.” Grae is the type of conceptual work as untailored to streaming-era attention spans as it is endlessly rewarding for those willing to spend the time reveling in its multitudes. —J. Bernstein 


Fleet Foxes, ‘Shore’

Robin Pecknold spent a long time struggling to make Fleet Foxes’ latest, before convening a few indie-rock buddies to create a pandemic-steeped meditation on the search for community, meaning, and beauty amid turmoil and change. It may be the prettiest version yet of his finely wrought soft-rock pastoralism — from the sky-kissing sweep of “Young Man’s Game” to the sublime acoustic tune “I’m Not My Season.” The most moving moments pay tribute to departed musical heroes, from David Berman of the Silver Jews to Nick Drake and Otis Redding, and time and again Shore believably connects Pecknold’s own musical vision with the eternal. —J.D. 


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.