Home Music Music Lists

Rob Sheffield’s Top 20 Albums of 2020

Folklore, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and more

Rob Sheffield runs down the albums that kept him moving in 2020.

photographs in illustration by William Claxton, Beth Garrabrant, Parkwoord Entertainment, Fiona Apple

Music kept us moving this year. We depended on our favorite music like never before, to give us that jolt of human connection, to shake up our emotions, to keep us dancing on our own. These were the albums I loved best, the music that lifted me up, and pointed me forward. My favorites run all over the map stylistically, from pop gloss to indie rock, from rap to R&B to folk to disco. Some come from longtime heroes; some are by new kids; one is by Paul McCartney. But all these albums were something to celebrate in 2020 — and a reason to look ahead to the future. More than ever, “Have you heard this?” is the best way to begin any conversation.

From Rolling Stone US


Taylor Swift, ‘Folklore’

So what makes this Taylor Swift’s best album? It isn’t just “August.” Or even “Mirrorball.” It’s the way the songs keep giving up new secrets the longer you live with them. The way “This Is Me Trying” shrugs off the quarantine blues with the hilariously tight-lipped punch line, “I have a lot of regrets about that.” The way your ears perk up at the piano intro to “The Last Great American Dynasty,” then you realize this is the kind of album where the closest thing to a lighten-the-mood bop is the one about the lonesome widow who spends her nights pacing the rocks on the beach, after her party guests have drunk all her champagne and left her behind. The way you catch yourself letting out an “at least I’m tryyyying” too loud on the sidewalk but you don’t even give a shit because you’re wearing a mask. It’s the guitar on “Illicit Affair.” The strings on “Seven.” The Wordsworth trip of “The Lakes” — six years after “New Romantics,” she goes Old Romantic. All three “trys” in “All I do is try, try, try.” The way her usual stories about sneaking around and hiding secrets hit so different in a plague year when the shame of craving other people’s company felt like a scarlet letter. The way she enters her thirties with an album that dusts anything she did in her roaring twenties. But more than anything, it’s the giddy moment at the end of “August,” when it sounds like the song is over, and you think she’s finally going to drive away with her head held high, but she circles back for just one more “Get in the car!” OK, fine — maybe it is “August.”


Bob Dylan, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’

Light a candle for Leonard Cohen, who no longer holds the crown for the greatest album ever by a 79-year-old. Dylan flexes all the new creaks and croaks in his lowdown outlaw-blues growl, ready to stare some ghosts in the eye and make a deal. I loved his recent Sinatra tributes, crooning standards, but in retrospect, he was just using those vintage tunes to try out his new voice, as he did in his early-Nineties albums of folk and blues covers. “Murder Most Foul” is about JFK the way “Jokerman” was about Jesus, which means not really — it’s just the starting point for his ramble through the wreckage of the American dream. (With Fiona Apple on piano, no less.) Dylan sings about a country where all that’s left is a few late-night songs on the radio, and a crazed old man in the dark who won’t stop calling the DJ with more requests. Dylan has never sounded more ominous, whispering, “Play ‘Mystery Train’ for Mr. Mystery/The man who fell down like a rootless tree.”


Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’

Fiona brings a sense of adventure and delight to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, despite all the torment in her songs. In the early lockdown days, she dropped it with scarcely a warning, just stepping back into an abandoned conversation and picking right up in mid-sentence. There’s hardly a non-quotable song on the whole album, from the primal moan of “I Want You to Love Me” to the Vipassana chant of “On I Go.” But my favorite is “Ladies,” which starts with a dress left behind in an ex’s closet: “Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it, I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine, it belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine.” Fiona makes it sound like leaving relics behind in other people’s houses is a secret grapevine code for women to communicate across the years.


Chloe x Halle, ‘Ungodly Hour’

One of the year’s most joyful surprises, from Chloe and Halle Bailey, a pair of Atlanta sisters born in the peak R&B boom of the late 1990s / early 2000s. The day Chloe was born, the Number One song was “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy and Monica; for Halle, it was “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child. That gives just a hint of their soul-deep classicism. But on Ungodly Hour, their breakthrough second album, the sisters have their own sound, steeped in jazz, hip-hop, house, dub. The sisters meet the U.K. electro duo Disclosure for the shimmering house-of-mirrors title ballad, while aiming for the skies with the futuristic slink of  “Baby Girl” and “Do It.”


Taylor Swift, ‘Evermore’

She comes back stronger than a Nineties trend, just five months after Folklore, with an album equally full of heartbreak. And heartbreak is the one Nineties trend that always comes back stronger. Now that Taylor has figured out she never needs to bother with an album rollout again, her songwriting energy is raging fiercer than ever, not that anyone accused her of underdoing it before. She’s on a historic hot streak on the level of David Bowie in 1977 or Prince in 1987 or Lil Wayne in 2007. Evermore is a sister album to Folklore, but it’s got some of the same stories: “Coney Island,” her duet with the National, sounds like the “August” girl left her small town, forgot James and Betty, moved to New York, found a hipster boy, figured everything would be different in the big old city, then found herself stuck in the same old story all over again. When you’re a grown-up, they assume you know nothing.


Rina Sawayama, ‘Sawayama’

The British-Japanese art rebel blows up with a debut album that fuses the yin and yang of Y2K-vintage MTV pop, with both Mouseketeer Swede-disco bounce and freak-on-a-leash guitar. It’s like Rina dreamed up an alternate timeline where Woodstock ’99 ends with a queer-intensive nude dance-off. Her album might be the catchiest nu-metal hookfest since Fred Durst did it all for the nookie, even if Rina does practically none of it for the Durst.


Jessie Ware, ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’

Jessie Ware made the best of 2020’s many mirror-ball manifestos — Jessie, Dua Lipa, Róisín Murphy, Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue. What’s Your Pleasure? was a suite of shut-in disco fantasies for a world where all the clubs were closed. (How many times this year did I revisit that Studio 54 documentary? We all need a little “Bianca Jagger on a white horse plus Disco Sally” energy in our lives.) Jessica and beatmaster James Ford celebrate the dance floor as a time machine — they sashay across the universe to summon the spirits of stiletto queens from all over disco history, from Donna to Diana, from Stacey Q to Gina G to Kristine W to Company B. And just when you’re thinking “nothing could ruin this album except a goopy sincere love ballad,” she swerves into “Save a Kiss,” which turns out to be one of the highlights.


City Girls, ‘City on Lock’

“My wig cost more than what you fuck for” — now there’s a thesis statement. Yung Miami and JT get way down low in Florida on this feminist bass banger, doing their math in “Double CCs” and giving their multilingual lessons in “Pussy Talk.”


Lomelda, ‘Hannah’

Hannah Read follows her instincts as a songwriter, on her fifth and finest album as Lomelda — there’s always something breathily off-kilter about her confessions. She’s also got some of the year’s funniest guitar solos, especially the would-be theme song “It’s Lomelda.” At the end of “Hannah Sun,” she reaches her toughest truth — “I didn’t know how to be closer to you” — and stretches that last word until it rips a hole in her heart.


BTS, ‘Map of the Soul: 7’

BTS hit historic heights all year. The South Korean pop superheroes finally topped the U.S. charts with “Dynamite” — you know the year isn’t a total loss when BTS sing a hook from Bob Dylan in a Number One hit, the same summer Dylan comes back with his own hit record. (“Rolling on like a rolling stone,” indeed.) They ended the year strong with Be, with the timely self-esteem pep talk “Dis-Ease.” But Map of the Soul: 7 set the pace for their year, their most musically and conceptually ambitious work yet, from Suga’s space-rap “Interlude: Shadow” to Jin’s “Moon” to J-Hope’s “Outro: Ego.” It’s a supremely confident blockbuster from a group ready to conquer the world on their own terms, but without compromising a thing.


Stephen Malkmus, ‘Traditional Techniques’

Malkmus has a funny habit of dropping perfect summer albums in the winter, so naturally he released this winter pageant just in time for summer. He gets acoustic on Traditional Techniques, turning into the hippie-minstrel folk rogue of his dreams. “Brainwashed” is up there with “Middle America” and “Share the Red” among his most beautiful tunes, a rueful ballad about when you realize it’s not too late to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. (“I am ready to bail into a new modality/If it’s available.”) And for a chaser, there’s his November loosie “Juliefuckingette.” The album rolls with a bratty insouciance that’s one of his trademarks, but given that Mr. Fight This Generation has clocked 30 years of excellence without a single forced or phony moment—one of the most consistently inspired runs anywhere in pop-muzik history — the possibility that he might give a shit cannot be dismissed.


Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Punisher’

Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who directed the excellent “Savior Complex” video, Phoebe Bridgers is a master at turning the messiest emotions into dark comedy. Punisher is full of bad romance (“You pushed me in and now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you”), family trauma, road fatigue, and the apocalypse. She re-teams with her Boygenius mates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker for “Graceland Too,” asking if Elvis believed “songs can come true,” already knowing for a fact he did. But “Garden Song” is the showstopper — it’s the calm in her voice that makes it so scary, as one bad dream dissolves into the next, and the grass grows out of her skinhead neighbor’s grave.


Moses Sumney, ‘Græ’

A double-album autobiography from the Carolina poet Moses Sumney, meditating on erotic isolation. As he sings, “I fell in love with the in-between.” He peaks in “Polly,” where he dreams about being cotton candy in somebody’s mouth, dissolving on his lover’s tongue, overdubbing himself into a soul choir, somewhere between Thom Yorke and Prince. At the end, his falsetto seems to take off and float free in the sky.


Miley Cyrus, ‘Plastic Hearts’

Miley’s Eighties synth-rock neon-nightmare rebel-yell bombastigasm is pretty much perfect. In fact, Plastic Hearts got me thinking, “This would be the third-best Billy Idol album ever” — and that was before Billy himself showed up in their duet “Night Crawling,” adding a little flesh to her fantasy. Stevie Nicks, Dua Lipa, and Joan Jett put the pastel frosting on this sleaziest of cakes. The only flaw is Miley didn’t add her great “Doll Parts” cover to go with her “Heart of Glass” and “Zombie.” In the midnight hour, she wants more, more, more, and she gets it all.


Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Eternal Atake’

Uzi made it worth the wait for this one. The adventures of a hip-hop space cadet, floating through outer space, rising above the dystopian nocturnal haze, as if he’s using AutoTune to talk to sensual aliens.


Dua Lipa, ‘Future Nostalgia’

Whatever “New Rules” you brought into 2020, they didn’t take you very far. But Dua responds with the disco glitz of Future Nostalgia, bending a knee to Olivia Newton-John (“Physical”) or Gloria Gaynor (“Don’t Start Now”) or Madonna (“Hallucinate”). She dances through these songs with a pocketful of honey, and her eyes on a tomorrow where we might even look back with future nostalgia for right now. Bonus points for the viral video of Dua and Bernie Sanders discussing health care. I’d love to hear Bernie sing, “I can’t teach your man how to wear his pants.”


Jarvis Cocker and Jarv Is, ‘Beyond the Pale ‘

Like Winston Churchill during the Blitz, except a slightly better dancer, Jarvis rose to the crisis with the leadership we needed. The Britpop poet laureate returned with a new album of scathingly empathetic satires, Beyond the Pale, 25 years on from the Pulp classic Different Class. When his tour got axed, he took to social media to DJ his Domestic Disco parties and read bedtime stories. “House Music All Night Long” became an accidentally perfect lockdown anthem, a cabin-fever banger about sitting in the basement listening to disco (“Goddamn this claustrophobia/I should be disrobin’ ya”) when you’d rather be out on the floor, with the party chant, “One nation under a roof.”


75 Dollar Bill Little Big Band, ‘Live at Tubby’s’

The old-school live album made a huge comeback this year, filling the cosmic void in a 2020 when live music went 2112. 75 Dollar Bill recorded this show in early March, an ordinary night in the Hudson Valley, when nobody knew it was all about to crash; they put it up on Bandcamp in May, when nobody knew how long this would last. It’s a festive gig: power-drone guitar, plywood-crate percussion, friends sitting in on sax, bass, viola. The room crackles with energy, for modal trance grooves that stretch into double-digit minutes. You can lose yourself in this album, then return to the world recharged, maybe even a little less lonesome. Not the same as being there, but as close as we can get for now.


Waxahatchee, ‘Saint Cloud’

“I hope you can’t see what’s burning in me” is such a quietly effective line to sum up such a tempestuous album. It’s almost exactly 10 years since Katie Crutchfield wrote and recorded her first Waxahatchee album, American Weekend, a kid snowed in at her folks’ house in Alabama during a January 2011 blizzard. On Saint Cloud, she moves on down the road, as she ponders the passing of time, watches the lilacs drink the water, makes herself vows she can’t keep, and stumbles into moments of newfound clarity. Sad but true: “Real love don’t follow a straight line/It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine.”


Paul McCartney, ‘McCartney III’

Can you take me back where I came from? Brother, can you take me back? Paul McCartney wasn’t planning to cut an album this year, but he got stranded like the rest of us, quarantining on the farm, strumming his guitar to the sheep and chickens, until McCartney III spilled out. Made in lockdown — or “rockdown,” a very Paul thing to call it — it’s not as ambitious as his evergreen 2018 opus Egypt Station. (“Dominoes,” damn.) These songs are moments in time, captured to keep them from slipping away, because when you’re Paul, nothing redeems a lost day like singing a lazy song beneath the sun. Imagine being so in love with music you could write “The Kiss of Venus” with the same fingers you used to write “Blackbird,” 53 years later. Maybe even on the same guitar? An inspiration to us all.