Despite, or perhaps because of, the tumultuous and emotionally taxing behemoth that has been 2020, this year has actually been pretty good for music. In the wake of a global pandemic, a reckoning of racial justice reform, a slogging American presidential election, and a dozen more grievances, musicians found themselves affected by 2020 in multitude of ways. If their output this year didn’t directly address current events or their own journey through the year, their work was still affected by the multitudes of challenges that creating music in the middle of a lockdown presents. Projects recorded predominantly before the pandemic were suddenly thematically recontextualized during a 2020 release, and those created in the midst of it all drew up the pain of our current situation to be all the more poignant.
Music, one of the many uniting elements of human culture, found its way to infiltrate our conversations as strongly as ever, with LPs ranging from empowering, confrontational, escapist, introspective, frightening to just plain heartbreaking. In no particular order, here are our top picks for the best albums 2020 had to offer.
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
With only five full-length LPs to Fiona Apple’s name since 1996, when she does release an album, it’s an event. And it’s easy to see why Fetch the Bolt Cutters has topped so many year-end lists in 2020. Showcasing the fruitful results that come from meticulously crafting and recrafting each and every track over the course of over half a decade, Bolt Cutters reminds us why Fiona Apple is indie royalty. The album doesn’t sound like anything Fiona Apple, or for that matter anyone, has presented before, with a primal percussive sound that is both completely guttural and exceptionally polished. The fact that it is a remarkably pointed MeToo album only adds to it poignancy.
The Chicks, Gaslighter
Perhaps the only album this year as hotly anticipated as Fetch the Bolt Cutters (albeit by different crowds) was The Chicks’ Gaslighter. After essentially being blacklisted from the country music scene in the mid-2000s, Gaslighter is the band’s first full-length effort in 14 years, and it hits just as hard as we hoped it would. It is truly incredible how The Chicks have managed to retain their edge in the last decade, name change aside, and the biting criticism of Gaslighter brings them squarely into the present day with even more to say than before. What makes Gaslighter so special is how versatile it is; it’s a breakup album, it’s a political statement, whatever you decide. But however you view it, it is still a defiant statement of relevance for the trio that proves they were never really all that long time gone.
SAULT, Untitled (Black Is)
Appropriately released on Juneteenth, elusive British collective SAULT’s third LP, Untitled (Black Is), is everything the world needs to hear in 2020. With the group very intentionally making a concerted effort to shirk media attention, our focus can lie squarely with the music. Sonically, it is curated mix of smooth R&B and seductive soul. Bluntly confronting the racism that exists in many of our current institutions, as well as poetically waxing on the beauty of blackness, Untitled (Black Is) is one of the quintessential listening experiences of the Black Lives Matter revolution, and makes not only for incredible protest music, but also ideal listening for anyone looking to revel in the collective strength of those on the right side of history in 2020.
Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA
SAWAYAMA achieves the seemingly impossible by being so intensely nostalgic for the music of years past while simultaneously sounding innovative and fresh. If you still mentally live in the Y2K era of Top 40, SAWAYAMA will instantly take you back to jamming out on your CD Walkman or iPod Shuffle in your room to peak Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and even Linkin Park. But it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia for the Japanese-British singer. Underneath the glossy production is a potent combination of capitalistic indictment, self-deprecation, and the frustration of a woman done dealing with microagressions. Nothing feels knee-jerk or impulsive; SAWAYAMA knows exactly the statement it wants to make. With an incredibly ranged voice and seductive demeanor, Rina Sawayama is the future of pop music, and we can’t wait.
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
The perplexing fact aside that Phoebe Bridgers scored a Best New Artist Grammy nom in 2020 despite deserving one over half a decade ago when she was properly new, we certainly won’t complain about the newfound acclaim Punisher has raked in for the young artist. Chock full of the open lyricism and uncomfortable self-reflection so endemic to the folk-rock genre, Punisher takes it all a step further by creating a world so vivid that it is hard not to get lost in the downcast atmosphere of Bridgers’ psyche. At times psychedelic, at times chilled out, and always candid, Punisher will make you forget about your surroundings and sink you back into your seat will no intention of surfacing.
Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor
It’s a wonder that Hayley Williams, lead singer of pop-punk mainstay Paramore, hadn’t released a solo album sooner. Released in three parts over the course of four months, Petals for Armor is a major departure from the more blunt trappings of Paramore and established Williams as a visionary in her own right. Switching rapidly from the lo-fi lead single “Simmer” to the tongue-in-cheek “Dead Horse” to the ‘80s-inspired groovy track “Sugar on the Rim,” Petals for Armor is certainly not the most cohesive album of the year, but damned it it isn’t one of the most enjoyable.
Kylie Minogue, DISCO
If you are looking for pure, unadulterated pop music polished to the nth degree, look no further than DISCO. Kylie Minogue, the superstar from down under, has been consistently churning out gleaming pop records at a regular pace for over three decades now, but not since 2001’s Fever has she embraced her Studio 54 influences so directly and with the same amount of success. Of every album on this list, if all you really need is a brief escape from the hardships of the year, DISCO is your absolute best bet. The bright “Magic,” slick “Real Groove” and clubby “Where Does the DJ Go?” will flood your home with all the serotonin you need given a free hour and bottle of wine. It’s an all around good time, which in 2020 is worth preserving.
clipping.,Visions of Bodies Being Burned
A horror album in every sense of the word, Visions of Bodies Being Burned strikes the delicate balance of being a Halloween album without being an exercise in camp. This one is creepy to its core. The brainchild of Hamilton superstar David Diggs, clipping. has always been a fiercely visionary project, and the sequel to 2019’s There Existed an Addiction to Blood only builds on the incredibly dense atmosphere it succeeded in crafting. While certain tracks like the chilling “Say the Name” dabble in more traditional sample-based hip-hop, the majority of the album, like the jittery “Something Underneath” manage to feel like pure stream of consciousness while remaining incredibly polished.
Poppy, I Disagree
How indie pop-turned-rock star Poppy (aka Moriah Rose Pereira) has gone so far under everyone’s radar this year is frankly beyond us. After dabbling in the metalsphere on previous effort Am I a Girl? with tracks like “X,” Poppy transitions to full-on industrial metal with I Disagree. Released at the top of the year right before COVID-19 began infiltrating our radars, I Disagree feels almost like it could have actually been written last week. Pereira rages against everyone she titularly disagrees with, from past men in her life to internet trolls to the president to herself, all with the snarling voice of a seasoned professional. With a Nine Inch Nails-style industrial core, Poppy hits on notes of electronica, J-pop, art-rock, and dream-pop without feeling muddled or incoherent. Never has anger felt so, well, poppy.
Miley Cyrus, Plastic Hearts
Miley Cyrus really has proved herself to be the current reigning queen of reinvention. Like Madonna and David Bowie before her, Miley continues her pattern of releasing projects in stark contrast to what came before. Unlike the Nashville-infused twang of Younger Now or the psychedelic mess of Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, Plastic Hearts is Miley’s most cohesive and well-curated project to date. It speaks volumes that she has garnered the respect of rock icons like Wayne Coyne, Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Steve Nicks, so it was only natural to take that to the logical conclusion of a full-fledged ‘80s rock album. But there are plenty of modern sensibilities to counteract the nostalgia, ensuring a fresh take with massive tracks like “Night Crawling,” “WTF Do I know?” and the anthemic title track. But a cheesy influence does not equal a lack of heart, and the emotional power ballads like “Hate Me” bring it all back to the present, and we are along for the whole ride.