It feels strange, given the state of the world, to try to recap the year in music by talking about the latest trends or tomorrow’s biggest stars. Instead of what happened in the world of music, the more pressing question seems to be what happened to the world of music – the coronavirus pandemic has not only had a devastating impact on many artists’ livelihoods, but has also significantly changed the ways in which we engage with the art form itself. But some of pop’s biggest stars, from Charli XCX and Taylor Swift, were able to use this time to push their creative boundaries, releasing the first of what has come to be known as the “quarantine album”. Others saw their work take on a new resonance, be it political, social, emotional, or – in the case of more than a few albums on this list – all of the above. The fact that we’ve gotten so much great music in the last 12 months might feel like somewhat of a miracle, but what’s more reassuring is that music continues to play a fundamental role in our lives: providing comfort when needed, company during times of isolation, and hope in the face of unrelenting uncertainty.
50. Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor
A candid yet defiant exploration of the interminable lows that come with battling depression, Hayley Williams’ debut solo album – originally released as a three-part EP – affords the Paramore singer the necessary space to not only delve into but also mirror the complexities of recovery, the depths of which her band’s 2017 record After Laughter could merely hint at. Drawing from a similar pool of 80s-inspired synthpop but expanding her palette in ways some longtime fans might find challenging, Petals for Armor blossoms into its own multi-faceted flower as Williams chronicles her mental health journey with a delicate mix of poignancy and fervour. Given how much of a personal triumph the album undoubtedly is, the fact that it sets out the stage for Williams as a dynamically compelling solo artist in her own right feels almost like an afterthought.
49. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats, Unlocked
In this brief but playfully exhilarating collaborative effort, Denzel Curry diversifies his musical palette beyond that of his Miami roots, while Kenny Beats adeptly tailors his production style to accommodate the Florida rapper’s gritty but impressively versatile delivery. Overflowing with tension and personality, tracks like the infectiously catchy ‘Lay_Up.m4a’ embody the project’s quirkily cartoonish nature, which lends its way perfectly to the Adult Swim-esque animated short film that accompanies the 20-minute LP. Though it may lack the depth and inventiveness that has characterised much of Curry’s output so far, Unlocked is an imminently enjoyable project that adds another hit to his increasingly consistent creative streak, while also further cementing Beats’ status as one of the most competent hip-hop producers in the game.
48. NIIKA, Close But Not Too Close
NIIKA, the moniker of singer-songwriter Nika Nemirovsky, has a knack for blending elements of jazz, R&B, and folk music in a way that’s not just seamless but also uniquely affecting. Evoking the eclectic songwriting of artists like Kate Bush and heavily inspired by Solange’s A Seat at the Table, NIIKA’s debut project, Close But Not Too Close, ushers in a mesmerising whirlwind of emotion, with Nika’s dynamic, serpentine vocal delivery delicately unfurling atop minimalist, slow-burning instrumentals. From tracks like the hypnotic ‘The Cage’ to the sensual ‘Blue Smoke’, it’s a wondrously ethereal musical journey you’ll find yourself wanting to get lost in again and again.
47. Jehnny Beth, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE
Anchored by a whirlwind of ambient synths, ominous strings, and industrial noise, Jehnny Beth’s debut solo album sees her widening her artistic scope without sacrificing the pummelling intensity that has been the hallmark of her music in the past as leader of Savages. TO LOVE IS TO LIVE spans the full spectrum of emotions that come with pondering the impermanence of life, from searing displays of power to a sincere embrace of vulnerability, with the uncompromising force of tracks like the voraciously dramatic ‘I’m The Man’ or the thunderous ‘How Could You’ balanced out by heartfelt piano ballads like the stand-out ‘French Countryside’. For all its contradictions, however, it’s a record that bursts with life.
46. Caribou, Suddenly
Dan Snaith’s fifth studio album under the Caribou moniker is one of his sharpest and most personal efforts yet. Following the stunning intimacy of 2014’s Our Love, Suddenly sees the producer widening his sonic palette while delivering some of his most anthemic and economical songs to date as he attempts to extract meaning out of chaos. It’s that sense of warmth and clarity that makes the album such an inviting listen for those new to Caribou’s music, but longtime fans will also appreciate the way Snaith has once again managed to stitch together a slew of dizzyingly layered arrangements that effortlessly swoon from one genre to the next. With his vocals more prominently at the forefront than ever before, the growth in the artist’s songwriting is evident, too, each note of vulnerability as resonant as the music is strikingly rendered.
45. Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death
If the plan was for A Hero’s Death to lead Fontaines D.C. back into obscurity by leaning into a sound less tailored to the mainstream, this obviously didn’t work – A Hero’s Death not only catapulted to the top of the U.K. charts, but also earned the Irish post-punk outfit their first Grammy nomination. If, on the other hand, the goal was to create a work that’s a bit more fragmented and mature while anchoring in the same kind of directness that characterized their debut, Fontaines D.C have more than delivered. The album is downcast and atmospheric without sacrificing the band’s dynamic energy, but it’s also filled with some of their most memorable hooks – mantras like “I don’t wanna belong to anyone” and “Life ain’t always empty” that get lodged into your head less like a catchy pop song than a nightmare you can’t quite shake.
44. Loma, Don’t Shy Away
There’s an elemental beauty to Loma’s sophomore album, Don’t Shy Away, that reveals itself slowly but surely. The group started out as a serendipitous collaboration between Emily Cross, musician and recording engineer Dan Duszynski, and Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg, who went on to work on separate projects after releasing their self-titled debut until they decided to reconvene at Duszynski’s home in rural Texas to record new material. Unfurling with a patient and solitary kind of splendour, Don’t Shy Away distils the elements that were present in their debut – the songs seem to be in constant motion, brimming with textures that feel vaporous yet vividly drawn – to a more refined form, resulting in something even more mesmerizing and rewarding. Though the album favours abstract modes of expression, some part of its essence still lingers after the final track, the Brian Eno-assisted ‘Home’, like the smell of petrichor after the rain.
43. Bill Callahan, Gold Record
Bill Calllahan’s music has been by turns idiosyncratic, personal, witty, and heartfelt. To quote a song from his new album: “Lonesome in a pleasant way.” But throughout his career, Callahan’s uniquely intimate approach to songwriting – not always in terms of sound, but the way it emanates an overarching sense of solitude – has meant that whatever stylistic turn he makes, it always feels like you’re following the same artist’s personal trajectory. For the most part, Gold Record sees Callahan shifting away from the personal framing of last year’s unassuming yet emotionally profound Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest to tell stories about seemingly ordinary people finding themselves in seemingly ordinary situations, which of course reveal themselves to be anything but. Where his previous album was an hour-long meditation on the nature of domesticity, his latest finds him broadening his narrative scope while offering something a bit more focused lyrically and easygoing musically, but certainly no less rewarding.
42. Julianna Barwick, Healing Is a Miracle
Healing is a Miracle, Julianna Barwick’s fourth and most accessible studio album to date, is not so much music for healing as much as an attempt to map the never-ending journey toward it. The only two lines on the mostly-ambient album that are profound enough to encapsulate that emotional experience arrive on opener ‘Inspirit’: “Open your heart,” she sings, “It’s in your head.” It’s a simple mantra, one that’s at the very core of Barwick’s gorgeously evocative music. Expanding her palette with guest appearances from harpist Mary Lattimore, Sigur Rós’ Jónsi, and experimental hip-hop producer Nosaj Thing, the album might not hold the key to the gates to heaven, but it might just open your heart – and that’s nothing short of a miracle.
41. U.S. Girls, Heavy Light
Following 2018’s critically acclaimed, genre-blending In a Poem Unlimited, Meghan Remy’s project has grown ever larger, recruiting more backing vocalists and musicians; a fitting move considering the multiplicity of perspectives that make up her latest album. Foregrounding Heavy Light are three sound collages featuring overlapping voices that intimate memories from their youth – ‘Advice to a Teenage Self’, ‘The Most Hurtful Thing’, and ‘The Colour of Your Bedroom’ – suggesting that Remy is not only interested in exploring our shared collective past but also how our individual pasts connect and define us (that common thread, more often than not, is existential dread). While it may not be fuelled by the same fervent musical energy as its predecessor, the album still has plenty of riveting highlights, from the swaggering ‘4 American Dollars’ to the groovy disco-latin fusion of ‘And Yet it Moves/ Y Se Mueve’. But it’s the when the album retreats into a reflective mode that it resonates the most, shedding light on the darkest corners of the human soul as it attempts to guide us through it.
40. Hum, Inlet
Inlet, space-rock outfit Hum’s first new material in over 20 years, dropped with practically no warning one Tuesday in June, as if it’d fallen straight through the atmosphere. If the band was known for doing their own thing before, they’ve pulled their esoteric qualities further into focus here, refining their sound and letting the music speak for itself; not since fellow shoegazers Slowdive made their big comeback in 2017 has an act so influential and emblematic of their time returned with such a clear artistic vision. Except that Inlet doesn’t just reaffirm Hum’s status as experts at creating mood, nor does it simply remind listeners just how much their genre-blending approach has echoed through the alternative music landscape of the 21st century. It’s also their most solid collection of songs yet, in the literal sense of the word more than anything: earth-shatteringly dense, strapped firmly to the ground, but never oppressive.
39. Kevin Morby, Sundowner
Kevin Morby started writing Sundowner after moving back to his hometown from Los Angeles in 2017, reflecting on his time away from the city he left at 18 and working on new music with a fresh perspective and a newly bought Four Track Tascam 424. Emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation that brought him closer to nature as well as himself, the follow-up to 2019’s pretty but directionless Oh My God is an exquisite record dripping with warmth that conjures memories so vivid you almost forget they’re not yours. Its descriptions of middle American scenery – golden valleys, picturesque sunsets, vast stretches of highway – has a way of evoking a certain kind of nostalgia for places you’ve never been as well as a fondness for those you hold dear. Though Morby has proven himself to be a skilled and incisive storyteller in the past, his latest proves that nothing speaks to the wilderness of the heart better than a resounding “bum-bum”.
38. Haux, Violence in a Quiet Mind
Haux’s debut album opens with the tremble of Woodson Black’s voice, straining to make each word travel from the knot in his throat to the vast expanse of wavy, distant synths. “Shiver in your parents bed/ Whisper words left unsaid,” the Massachusetts songwriter sings in a hushed tone, evoking the early work of Perfume Genius in its stark vulnerability. Following two EPs, 2016’s All We’ve Known and 2018’s Something to Remember, Violence in a Quiet Mind is a devastatingly beautiful record, one in which Black lays his soul bare as he attempts to confront traumatic childhood experiences and unpack the lasting impact they’ve left on his mental health. Death, addiction, illness: they all weigh heavy here, but as soon as the album’s over, a feeling of catharsis seeps through, like seeing the light for the first time after hiding in the shadows for as long as you can remember.
37. Touché Amoré, Lament
Arriving four years after Stage Four, Touché Amoré’s gut-wrenchingly powerful record detailing the passing of vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mother from cancer while he was “on stage living the dream”, it’d be natural to expect their follow-up to be about the journey of finding some inkling of hope in the midst all the pain and grief. But Lament is ultimately less about the grieving process than grappling with Bolm’s own self-prescribed role as a conduit for grief and figuring out where that leads him. To capture the intensity of their bracingly melodic post-hardcore, the L.A. post-hardcore outfit enlisted famed heavy metal producer Ross Robinson, who not only helped distill their approach but also allowed them to go ever so slightly beyond what they’ve already proven themselves to be capable of. Their most accessible and solid collection of songs yet, the album feels like a natural culmination of what band have been honing for more than a decade now.
36. Blake Mills, Mutable Set
Bringing the talent that’s often kept behind the scenes to the forefront, the latest solo LP from Blake Mills – who, this year alone, has contributed to albums by Bob Dylan, Phoebe Bridgers, Perfume Genius, and more – stands out as the California musician’s most refined and cohesive yet, presenting an artistic vision that’s both wondrously amiable and disquietingly compelling. Multiple layers of nuance are tucked inside the album’s impeccable compositions and poetic songwriting, but this defining body of work also captivates with the sheer elegance and warmth of its recordings. Τhere’s a strange kind of comfort to be found on Mutable Set; it’s a record that acknowledges the direness of things even as it does everything in its power to create something more than just a pleasant distraction, a place to bask in, even if only for a little while. Except that “a little while” turned out to be the better part of the year.
35. Mac Miller, Circles
Posthumous albums are notoriously hard to get right – labels will do everything in their power to cash into the popularity of artists gone too soon by exploiting whatever bits and pieces they left behind. Thankfully, the final album by Mac Miller does not fall into that trap. Completed by versatile producer Jon Brion after the rapper passed away in 2018 at the age of 26, Circles is filled with contemplative, inward-looking songs built around spare, wonderfully organic production that makes Miller’s voice sound uncannily more present than it did on some of his more reverb-drenched efforts. The end result is not just respectful of Miller’s work, but also at times painfully revealing.
34. Katie Malco, Failures
Following the release of her 2013 EP Tearing Ventricles, a collection of starkly honest, piano-based compositions in the same vein as those of former label mate Julien Baker, Katie Malco took some time off to reflect. And it paid off: seven years later, the singer-songwriter returned with a debut solo outing whose core strength lies in the same kind of confessional songwriting, but whose sound reaches for a more diverse and dynamic palette, from the soaring heights of ‘September’ and the crushing balladry of ‘Fractures’ to faster-paced cuts like ‘Animal’ and ‘Creatures’. Reminiscent of contemporary artists like Lucy Dacus and Mitski as much as it harkens back to a different musical era, Failures is a riveting coming-of-age album that delves into themes of addiction, identity, and death with a searing combination of vulnerability and self-determination.
33. Johanna Warren, Chaotic Good
If you need any confirmation that Johanna Warren’s fifth studio album is her boldest and most striking yet, look no further than the moment on ‘Twisted’ where her hushed delivery cascades into an ear-piercing crescendo as she howls, “I will not be displaced/ By how much I love you.” But while this might be the album’s angriest and most memorable highlight, the rest of the aptly titled Chaotic Good has plenty more to offer, from the haunting, Elliott Smith-esque ballad ‘Bed of Nails’ to the dynamic ‘Part of It’. Throughout the album, Warren hones her penchant for combining poetic, incisive lyrics with hypnotic, dreamy melodies that coarse through your veins like medicine, striking just the right balance between chaos and harmony.
32. Fenne Lily, BREACH
Fenne Lily started writing BREACH following a period of self-imposed isolation way before there was any sign of a pandemic that would come hand in hand with an epidemic of loneliness. But the Bristol-based singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort and Dead Oceans debut engages with the idea of loneliness as something that perennially pervades our lives, a reminder that it’s less a consequence of a crisis than simply an ineluctable part of being human. Navigating the difference between being lonely and being alone, the album maps out the artist’s growth as she learns to be comfortable in her own presence. There’s a sense of peaceful resolve as Lily recognizes that she can live with her demons without allowing them to fully take over, just as she can reflect on past relationships without getting lost in a perpetual cycle of guilt and frustration. “It’s not hard to be alone anymore,” she repeats on ‘Berlin’.
31. 070 Shake, Modus Vivendi
Following her 2018 EP Glitter and the high-profile contribution to Kanye West’s ‘Ghost Town’ that put her on the map, 070 Shake graced us with a remarkably ambitious and cohesive debut that hasn’t lost any of its relevance since it dropped in January – an especially admirable feat in 2020. Modus Vivendi navigates the messiness of relationships with a complicated mix of defiance and sincerity while also boasting a unique fusion of styles, from the raucously anthemic ‘Come Around’ and the ethereal ‘Rocketship’ to the the infectious, 80s-inspired ‘Guilty Conscience’. Though a lot of work evidently went into the making of these songs, what’s more impressive is that Modus Vivendi presents a vision that’s grand and polished without feeling overproduced. With a voice that commands attention and a fearless spirit that can seemingly transcend space and time, 070 Shake proved she’s more than ready to claim her own place in the music landscape. And rest assured: there ain’t nobody stopping this rocket ship.
30. Carla J. Easton, Weirdo
No, Carly Rae Jepsen did not suddenly release an album under a brand new moniker. This is Carla J. Easton, the Glasgow singer formerly known as Ette, and though she might not yet have been crowned the queen of literally everything, the pulsating synths and soaring, breathy chorus on the opening track of her third album call right back to the pure pop escapism of Carly Rae Jepsen’s classic ‘Run Away with Me’, even presenting us with a similar proposition: “Let me take you far away.” The follow-up to 2018’s critically acclaimed Impossible Stuff, Weirdo carries with it that same euphoric feeling throughout, but Easton augments it with a touch of those darker influences that have yet to fully materialize in Jepsen’s music: the pounding drums on the otherwise sugary ‘Heart So Hard’, the wobbly synths on the entrancing ‘Beautiful Boy’, the distorted guitars on the thrilling, Honeyblood-featuring title track. But such inventive flourishes only make the bubblegum sweetness of ‘Never Knew You’ or the exuberant maximalism of ‘Over You’ all the more irresistible; at the end of the day, the strangest thing about Weirdo is that not everyone in the entire world is listening to it – yet.
29. clipping., Visions of Bodies Being Burned
In case the near–identical album covers weren’t already a dead giveaway, clipping.’s new record is clearly cut from the same cloth as last year’s excellent There Existed an Addiction to Blood. Releasing an album inspired by all things horror right before Halloween might have seemed like an obvious strategic move, but Visions of Bodies Being Burned – less a sequel than part two of the same project – was originally supposed to come out just months after its predecessor before being pushed back due the coronavirus pandemic. More than just a collection of outtakes from those original sessions, Visions is a fully realized, bloodcurdling extension of the experimental hip-hop trio’s foray into horrorcore, fuelled by rapper Daveed Diggs’ masterfully crafted flows and mood-setting, borderline brain-melting production from Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson.
28. The Microphones, Microphones in 2020
Over a two-chord, double-tracked acoustic progression that seems to stretch on forever, Phil Elverum excavates memories from his youth in his first album as The Microphones in 17 years, an engrossingly introspective 44-minute track/poem that oscillates between the meaninglessness of life and its potential for infinite, devastating beauty. Imbued with subtle instrumental flourishes in just the right places, the music follows the singer-songwriter’s train of thought and fills the space around it, making it feel more like a fully-fleshed piece of work than a purely reflexive one. Ultimately, Elverum clings to the romantic idea of art persisting through time, marvelling at and inspired by the endlessness rather than the impermanence of things. There are really no endings, he seems to say, only the present: constantly shifting, permeable, and above all, true.
27. Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter
On the follow-up to her Grammy-nominated 2017 LP Semper Femina, Laura Marling’s ruminations on love, life, and femininity radiate against spare, wonderfully organic folk instrumentals. As mature as ever but more peaceful and direct than usual, Marling’s evocative songwriting shines as much for the literary depth of her narratives as well as its emotional resonance. Addressed to an imaginary daughter but often reflecting on her own self and past, her seventh solo LP is an album of rare and striking beauty that benefits from Bob Moose’s mellifluous string arrangements, infusing each cautionary tale with a strange and tender intimacy. “Lately I’ve been thinking about our daughter growing old/ All of the bullshit that she might be told,” she sings on the title track, “There’s blood on the floor/ Maybe now you’ll believe her for sure.”
26. Soccer Mommy, color theory
With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy – the moniker behind singer-songwriter Sophie Allison – recalibrated her sound to offer a punchy yet strikingly vulnerable slice of infectious indie rock. Its follow-up sees her further expanding her stylistic approach, though this time a huge cloud hangs over the album, colouring it in darker hues; the themes of self-doubt and depression that were present on her previous album weigh heavy here. If Clean was a spark of light marked by tight, hooky arrangements, color theory looms like a shadow spreading across the album through patiently-unfolding mid-tempo arrangements and piercingly honest lyrics, resulting in a more mature album that beautifully reflects its bleak subject matter.
25. Gordi, Our Two Skins
The project of Australian singer-songwriter Sophie Payten, Gordi’s music is powered by the kind of stark emotional honesty that lies at the center of any great ballad; ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’, the track that properly starts off her sophomore studio album, still stands out as one of the most soul-crushing piano ballads of the year. Stripping down a lot of the layers that ran through her 2017 debut Reservoir, her latest manages to carry the sense of intimacy that’s implied in the album’s title with help from previous collaborators Chris Messina and Zach Hanson. The equally wrenching vulnerability of tracks like ‘Volcanic’ and ‘Radiator’ make the record’s more hopeful moments feel all the more earned, while the slow-burning ‘Free Association’ is the kind of cinematic closer an album like this deserves: Our Two Skins is not just a stunning achievement, but one full of emotional revelations.
24. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
You can certainly argue about the tangled narrative within and surrounding Grimes’ first full-length album in five years, but the songs on Miss Anthropocene still stand out as some of the most creatively inspired of the artist’s career. Bringing together the upbeat (sort of), straightforward (kinda) pop of 2015’s Art Angels and the experimental stylings of its predecessor Visions, the album traverses through the darkly ethereal atmosphere of tracks like opener ‘So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth’ to the infectious industrial pop fusion of ‘My Name is Dark’ and the feverishly catchy ‘Violence’. Her most thematically and sonically ambitious project to date, Miss Anthropocene ultimately finds less clarity in its own conceptual trappings than the artistic versatility of its creator, always more interested in imagining a different future than simply being a part of it.
23. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Bubbling with angelic vocal harmonies and slick production, Chloe x Halle’s sophomore album sees the R&B sister duo, now in their twenties, fleshing out their charismatic sound and displaying more signs of maturity. With the Baileys handling much of the songwriting and production here, Ungodly Hour is not just a testament to the their versatility as artists, but also serves as a joyful celebration of sisterly solidarity. Across the album’s lavish tracks, Chloe x Halle’s deceptively clean palette gives way to frequently audacious lyrics that lean into more adultish territory than their promising debut two years ago, while also rising above with poignant observations about growing up. Easy on the ears but chock full of personality, Ungodly Hour quickly became lilting antidote to these turbulent times.
22. Lomelda, Hannah
On the opening track of Lomelda’s fourth LP, Hannah Read’s words barely come through; her voice is audible, but the singer-songwriter seems more interested in using it as a conduit to her inner world, another way of mirroring the sentiments so intricately expressed in her music. Adorned with plush, delicate pianos so wonderfully organic you might as well be present in the studio at the time of recording, her vocals center around an unusual affirmation: “I’m light like kisses”. Read is always careful with her choice of words, and “light” happens to be a perfect descriptor for the nature of the album itself: radiant yet soft, like a feather floating through the sky on a warm summer day. But beneath its gentle exterior, there’s a quiet storm raging on; Hannah takes us on a personal journey that’s genuinely illuminating as it reflects on questions of identity with both subtle intimacy and unbridled emotion.
21. The Weeknd, After Hours
Ever since his commercial breakthrough with 2013’s Kiss Land, Abel Tesfaye has struggled to combine the transfixing quality of his early mixtapes with the massive success of his chart-topping singles. But the R&B crooner’s follow-up to the 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy marks his most successful reinvention yet, revealing a softer, more vulnerable side of his multi-faceted persona while remaining as elusive as ever. From the nuanced, warped textures of ‘Alone Again’ to the sheer infectiousness of the Max Martin-produced ‘Blinding Lights’, After Hours remains a recklessly intoxicating and surprisingly cohesive listen that hints at an exciting new chapter in The Weeknd’s career.
20. Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Built on the foundations of 2018’s exultant Safe in the Hands of Love, Sean Bowie’s fourth album under the name Yves Tumor is a testament not just to their versatility as an artist but also their dynamic capabilities as a performer. More than just an effective bricolage of glam rock, experimental psychedelia, soul, and a host of other styles, Heaven to a Tortured Mind finds Tumor inhabiting the role of a rock star and delivering their most accessible and coherent record to date. But there’s an elusiveness to that performativity, too, as Tumor shifts back and forth between contradictory ideals and genres, equally fascinated by expressions of disgust as well as desire. When they sing “I can be anything” on highlight ‘Kerosene!’, it’s damn near impossible not to believe them.
19. Fleet Foxes, Shore
In a lengthy press release, Robin Pecknold explained that making Shore involved making “playlists of hundreds of warm songs to immerse myself in.” It should comes as no surprise, then, that the album teems with a sense of warmth and gratitude; Pecknold seems intent on absorbing all the beauty of the world around him and using that energy to craft richly textured, gloriously beautiful folk music that’s as personal as it is universal. If the lush walls of sound and ear-pleasing melodies on early Fleet Foxes records acted as a means of masking the post-adolescent fears and anxieties that lurked underneath, here they serve as a genuine expression of newfound joy and hope in the face of a similar kind of existential dread. And if 2017’s long-awaited Crack-Up felt like riding along a wild and unpredictable wave, the deeply empathetic Shore flows peacefully from one song to the next, leading quietly into its natural point of conclusion.
18. Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song
Kelly Lee Owens’ sophomore album following her 2017 self-titled debut is a testament to the electronic artist’s personal and creative growth. Combining her penchant for evocative songwriting with her knack for crafting intricate grooves brimming with texture and feeling, Owens weaves her compositions around a tighter thematic thread this time around, focusing on finding strength in one’s self rather than succumbing to outer forces. The undulating, cyclical structure of the songs here seem to function as a way of actively carving out that path forward. Though Owens beautifully utilizes her vocals a fair bit more throughout Inner Song compared to previous releases, she continues to be more than adept at building rich emotional worlds through just her dream-like instrumentals.
17. Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA
Following her promising 2017 EP RINA, Rina Sawayama came through with a bold and ambitious full-length debut that places her at the forefront of this exciting new era of pop. Taking styles that were popular around the turn of the millennium and running them all through an extremely high-powered blender, SAWAYAMA combines the now-refreshing maximalism of early 2000s pop and alternative rock and augments it with detailed, left-field production courtesy of co-producer Clarence Clarity as well as critical reflections on cultural identity and belonging. From infectious cuts like the dynamic, nu-metal inspired ‘STFU!’ to heartfelt ballads like ‘Bad Friend’ and ‘Chosen Family’, the singer commits full-heartedly to whatever style she chooses to take on, and nothing comes off as mere pastiche. It’s in the title: this is all Rina Sawayama.
16. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
It’s hard to call What’s Your Pleasure a throwback when it feels so unmistakably present. On her fourth studio album, the UK singer-songwriter doesn’t just recreate the sounds of disco as much as she does everything in her power to relive them, offering a necessary form of escape by bringing the club closer to our homes. But there’s a fearlessness to be found on the more frivolous sides of What’s Your Pleasure?, coupled with a kind of full-hearted devotion in Ware’s delivery that makes it feel like she isn’t trying to escape anything; instead, Ware and her team of collaborators nail the communal feeling that renders these dance songs so infectiously fun. “Last night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,” she sings on the anthemic ‘Mirage (Don’t Stop)’. She doesn’t just deliver these tracks as if her life depends on it; she sings as if our lives depend on it, too.
15. Samia, The Baby
Throughout her debut album The Baby, Samia’s songwriting brims with personality. The New York-based singer-songwriter captures the complicated process of coming-of-age with a unique mix of self-assurance and vulnerability, painting scenes that can be at once intimate and surreal as they unpack the emotional weight of a particular moment or place. From the heart-wrenching earnestness of ‘Pool’ to the playfully self-aware ‘Fit N Full’ and the stunning ‘Is There Something in the Movies?’, Samia has a knack for taking something ephemeral and locking it in time through music. “I only write songs about things that I’m scared of,” she sings, less an admission of weakness than a recognition of her greatest weapon: “So here, now you’re deathless in art.”
14. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
From its very first notes, Waxahatchee’s fifth studio album feels like the calm after the storm. Gone is the grungy, distorted indie rock of 2017’s Out in the Storm, and in its place has bloomed an altogether different flower, its roots planted firmly at the core of American country music. With the skies having opened up, seemingly by sheer force of human will, Katie Crutchfield approaches the familiar subjects of love and heartache with a newfound sense of clarity and self-acceptance. Accompanied by Brad Cook’s warm, spare production, Crutchfield’s songwriting is as poetic and resonant as ever, but it somehow also feels more simple and effortless, from rousing highlights like ‘Fire’ to the delicate, heart-wrenching closer. With Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee has crafted a modern Americana classic we won’t soon forget.
13. Charli XCX, how i’m feeling now
Charli XCX is not the kind of artist you ever really know what to expect from, but how i’m feeling now certainly isn’t something anyone could’ve foreseen a year ago. A record made entirely during lockdown, the first true “quarantine album” is a testament not just to the 27-year-old Charlotte Aitchison’s unceasing creative drive, but also her ability to build a community around and creatively engage with both her fans and her circle of collaborators, here including A.G. Cook and 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady. Though how i’m feeling now doesn’t stray too far from the glitchy, futuristic brand of pop she’s associated herself with since her 2016 Vroom Vroom EP, it reveals a more intimate and vulnerable side of her songwriting than last year’s grand, expansive Charli, reflecting on how lockdown has magnified the personal spaces that give meaning to our day-to-day lives. While the album is unmistakably of its time, though, the themes that permeate its shiny exterior are no doubt timeless: love, friendship, and of course, partying.
12. HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
Their boldest and most experimental album to date, Women in Music Pt. III showcases HAIM’s knack for nuanced and emotive songwriting without sacrificing the effortless cool and catchy hooks of their previous releases. Danielle, Alana, and Este don’t just step into a wide range of styles here; they prove they can pull off each and every one of them without losing focus or character. “Laughing together like our thoughts are harmonized/ Been that way since ’95,” they sing on the bonus cut ‘Hallelujah’. Perhaps that sense of togetherness is part of what makes WIMPIII such an inviting journey – no matter how many different paths the album takes, the Haim sisters are always in sync with one another.
11. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Dua Lipa has been building up momentum for years, but Future Nostalgia saw her fully claiming her place in the pop landscape. Where her long-in-the-works 2017 debut felt overstuffed and, ironically for a self-titled effort, often lacking in personality, her latest stands out as a tight, confident sophomore outing that’s packed with one dance-pop banger after another. “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game,” she proclaims on the opening track, and with an effortless blend of 70s- and 80s-inspired disco and modern production, she doesn’t really fall short. Throughout the album’s stylish, self-assured 11 tracks, Lipa sounds not just in love, but in total command, showcasing her natural ability to carry an infectious tune that can be as sophisticated as it is pure fun.
10. Run the Jewels, RTJ4
Despite being released amid widespread civil unrest of the killing of George Floyd, the fourth LP from Run the Jewels doesn’t feel so much like a reflection on the current political moment as much as a pertinent reminder of a long-standing pattern of abuse at the hands of a racist police state. The show Mike and El-P put on here isn’t that different from their previous outings; it’s still raucously fun, virulent, and bombastic all at the same time, but the stage has certainly changed – and with more people watching than ever, the duo’s sharp observations hit all that much harder. With blistering production and lyrics that can be at once boastful and sobering – not to mention the Mike and El-P’s effortless chemistry, which has only gotten better with time – RTJ4 is as consistently rapturous as it is uncompromisingly fierce, managing to stay true to its playful, self-mythologizing spirit without minimising the impact of its political message.
9. Bartees Strange, Live Forever
By the time Bartees Strange makes the poignant assertion that “genres keep us in our boxes” on track eight of his debut studio album, it’s already clear his music defies categorization – the D.C.-via-Oklahoma songwriter and producer does more in the span of half an hour to showcase his eclectic, genre-bending approach than most artists do across their entire discography. Ambitious without feeling bloated or painfully self-indulgent, Live Forever blends elements of rock, rap, and electronic music in a way that feels both effortless and refreshing, gliding through the hooky indie rock of ‘Mustang’ and anthemic post-punk of ‘Boomer’ to the warped electronics of ‘Kelly Rowland’ and the intimate folk melodies of ‘Far’. The result is quite simply one of the most versatile and compelling debuts in recent memory, and one that, as its title suggests, is bound to leave a lasting impact well into the future.
8. Porridge Radio, Every Bad
Coming from a band that hails from the seaside town of Brighton, it’s fitting that Porridge Radio’s sophomore album feels like it’s been dredged right out of a stormy sea. Following their relatively unimposing debut Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers, the post-punk four-piece’s latest feels like an unstoppable torrent of emotion that demonstrates each member’s unique strengths as well as the electric dynamism of the band as a whole. Though the album dives into a few disparate musical territories ranging from dream pop to indie rock, the driving force of Dana Margolin’s voice pulls it all together, each one of her personal outbursts etching itself into your brain until her personal demons become your own. From the explosive, grungy ‘Sweet’ to the transcendent ‘Lilac’, Every Bad feels like a tide that’s ultimately more uplifting than it is destructive.
7. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan contains multitudes, but he is also one of the few songwriters who can make that claim about himself without being accused of arrogance. Rough and Rowdy Ways, the bard’s 39th studio album and first collection of original songs since 2012’s The Tempest, is also full of contradictions. The songs here are heavily loaded with cultural allusions, but they can also be interpreted, as single ‘False Prophet’ simply puts it, as “songs of love” and “songs of betrayal” – a set of ballads and traditional blues numbers that are both gorgeously refined and frequently ambitious, and yet also stand out as some of his most immediate compositions to date. Blending fact and fiction, ‘Murder Most Foul’, the album’s apocalyptic 17-minute closing track, starts as a take on the JFK assassination but slowly unfolds into a kaleidoscopic rumination that sprawls through the entirety of 20th century American culture. As much as the record ponders on mortality and death, it also serves as tangible proof of what Dylan so sincerely proclaims on ‘Mother of Muses’: “Man, I could tell their stories all day.”
6. Moses Sumney, græ
In his intimately sprawling, artful sophomore double-album, Moses Sumney deconstructs notions of identity, race, and sexuality in ways that are both emotionally transfixing and intellectually stimulating. With an ambitious fusion of progressive R&B, art rock, soul, and jazz serving as a backdrop for his stunning vocal acrobatics, Sumney not only continues to prove his versatility as an artist, but also delves into the complexities of his own self. “Etymologically, isolation comes from ‘insula’, which means island,” a female voice explains on one of the album’s spoken word passages, before arriving at the stirring realization: “That’s exactly what I’ve been my whole life/ I’ve been islanded.” More than just a splendid tour de force, græ is an island in and of itself, one whose inner beauty is as unmistakable as it is revelatory.
5. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Ever since 2014’s revelatory Too Bright, every Perfume Genius record has felt like a giant leap. But after the resolution brought forth by his expansive 2018 record No Shape, Mike Hadreas seems to have found his footing, and Set My Heart on Fire Immediately stands out as his most assured and emotionally direct project yet. Once again delving into the complexities of queer identity and desire in an intelligent yet affecting manner, it’s a transfixing and immaculately produced record that finds Hadreas in a place where he can finally see outside of himself with clarity. Though looser in structure than some of his previous projects, it’s suffused with subtly gorgeous instrumentals and layers of poetic nuance that envelop you in all their fullness, then proceeds to untangle them into something that can be moulded into an altogether different shape. Even at its most delicate, there’s still a fire burning inside it.
4. Taylor Swift, folklore / evermore
If surprise releasing folklore in the middle of the summer was Taylor Swift’s way of avoiding the most superficial aspects of a traditional album cycle, then surprise releasing evermore in the middle of December – when most publications had already placed the former on their year-end lists – could be seen as another attempt to disrupt the workings of the music industry. But the move proved more than just the fact that Swift can put out an album nearly just as good as its predecessor in a matter of months while at the same time rerecording all of the material from her first six albums; it’s a testament to her dedication to whatever sound, aesthetic, and narrative world she chooses to pursue. One of the pure joys of listening to both folklore and evermore is seeing how Swift and her collaborators – including The National’s Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, and Bon Iver – are less concerned with figuring out what her next reinvention should be than simply delving further into the folklorian woods. If folklore conjured a wintry fantasy land as a way of taking our minds off an especially cruel summer, the fireplace intimacy of evermore feels less like an escape than a warm companion – it’s hard to imagine one album existing without the other.
3. Adrianne Lenker, songs / instrumentals
After Big Thief’s tour was cut short due to the pandemic, Adrianne Lenker rented a one-room pine cabin in western Massachusetts that “felt like the inside of an acoustic guitar.” She speaks of the joy she found “hear[ing] the notes reverberate in the space,” and the ways in which she captures that joy throughout her new pair of albums, songs and instrumentals, is nothing short of exquisite. songs might be an album about heartbreak, but it feels more like a reaction to it, an attempt to create something raw and beautiful to fill that unshakable emptiness rather than wallowing in it. For a record so steeped in melancholy, it’s astounding how much of a comforting presence it really is, how it keeps pulling you back in its warm embrace. But as Lenker slides further and further into the background on instrumentals, leaving behind her mostly ambient space on the final 11 minutes of ‘mostly chimes’, it’s like she wants you to be comfortable in that absence, too, the solitude she’s learned to live with.
2. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers doesn’t need much more than a guitar and her voice to bring tears to your eyes – anyone who’s listened to her stunning 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps can attest to that. But her sophomore album Punisher carves out a bigger space for her wrenching compositions to sink into, dragging the listener along with them as they waver between dream worlds and reality. Bridgers might occasionally look to space for answers, but her feet are placed firmly on the ground, digging into both the small marvels and untold tragedies she finds herself surrounded by. This is the soundtrack to the apocalypse as experienced by those who are faced with feelings of existential dread and loneliness on the regular, who “romanticize a quiet life” and have “been playing dead” all their lives, those who know what the end feels like. And yet, it doesn’t romanticize death or the apocalypse as much as it yields up to it, and with searing force.
1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Nothing shook the cultural landscape in 2020 quite like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. A tour de force from start to finish, the follow-up to 2012’s The Idler Wheel… sees the singer-songwriter taking aim at the outside world as much as it pulls her introverted qualities further into focus, presenting itself both as a biting indictment of modern society as much as an honest reflection on her own life and career. Aided by a few trusted collaborators (and surrounded by plenty of dogs), Apple relies on deceptively simple, ever-evolving piano arrangements that accentuate the pure dynamism of her voice, which coils around the album’s thrusting, ramshackle percussion. Imperfect by nature but no less revolutionary, Fetch the Bolt Cutters redefines what a masterpiece can sound like – intimate, fractured, unapologetically authentic.