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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


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.