The Music of 2020 felt like divine intervention. In a year so universally challenging, Music rose to the occasion and presented a vast array of unforgettable records that will long outlive this pandemic.
As usual I listened to about 500 albums this year, reviewed about 200 of them, and now I have distilled from those my Top 100.
And it really was an amazing year for Music. This year’s top 25 albums, for example, share a standard of quality on par with most years’ Top 10. I love 50 albums this year as much as I loved my top 20 last year. And while I usually say that I wish the best 3 or 4 albums of the year could be Album Of The Year, this year I’d extend that to at least the top 7.
As always, these are favorites, rather than a judgment on what is “best.” I’m one human being — not a magazine staff — so this list reflects my own tastes. These were the albums I had to keep coming back to. They insisted.
It was a great year for older bands. It was a strong year for women singer/songwriters. Indie rock took the lion’s share, but as usual there’s a little bit of almost everything here. I listened to more jazz this year, more rap, a lot more experimental pop, and less traditional folk.
All 100 favorites are listed below, with brief descriptions, and a master list at the end. All of these albums are great — even those at the bottom.
- Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
The songcraft and soulful voice of Alabama native Katie Crutchfield make her 5th solo album the highlight of my music year. Waxahatchee has eschewed the punk grit of her history for an alt-country record, though frankly genre is incidental here. Each song on Saint Cloud creates its own rich, distinctive world and inhabits it beautifully. A perfect album. Highlights: “Oxbow,” “Can’t Do Much,” “War”
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Her 24-year recording career is defined by an arc into ever more experimental territory, and Fiona Apple’s most undisputable masterpiece is a jazz-kissed, percussive thrill ride full of odd time signatures, speed changes and syncopation, whose thematic center is feminist solidarity and liberation. Highlights: “Under The Table,” “Relay,” “Heavy Balloon”
3. Run The Jewels, RTJ4
A surprise release timed perfectly to meet the cultural groundswell of Black Lives Matter, El-P and Killer Mike’s 4th collaboration starts strong and builds momentum throughout, with hyper-dramatic beats endowing a mythical quality to a rap album that keeps getting more meaningful and powerful as it goes. Highlights: “Walking in the Snow,” “JU$T,” “Pulling The Pin”
4. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, K.G.
Having played many different styles over the course of their 15 previous albums, the band blends a couple of its strongest aesthetics here, as exotic, microtonal psych rock mixes with mind-expanding prog rock and more on the year’s most interesting and exhilarating guitar-driven rock album. Highlights: “Ontology,” “Straws in the Wind,” “Honey”
5. Sa-Roc, The Sharecropper’s Daughter
The best hip hop album of 2020’s second half comes from the DC-born, Atlanta-based conscious rapper Assata Perkins. It’s got a dizzying flow, high-vocab verbal gymnastics and infectious beats too, and every single song is ablaze with wisdom and passion. Highlights: “Gold Leaf,” “The Black Renaissance,” “Forever,” “Something Real”
6. Dehd, Flower of Devotion
Rich and emotionally direct, the Chicago trio’s third album uses the cool, casual sound of their surf/garage rock instrumentation as lubrication for the passionate lyrics and vocal delivery of its lead singers. Highlights: “Desire,” “No Time,” “Disappear”
7. Adrianne Lenker, Songs
The Big Thief frontwoman made the most of the pandemic with an intricately woven, shadowy but warm and intimate, largely finger-plucked acoustic third solo record that ranks amongst her most engaging work yet. Highlights: “Dragon Eyes,” “Anything,” “Zombie Girl”
8. Pearl Jam, Gigaton
The band returns to the feverish urgency that long defined them, without losing the sense of free-wheeling fun they discovered later in life. Eddie Vedder’s voice is back at the center of the sound, and the whole band fires on all cylinders. Highlights: “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” “Comes Then Goes,” “Retrograde”
9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions
Personal, socially conscious and soaked with emotion, Alabama’s most prominent progressive alt-country frontman delivers his strongest work to date, and a beacon of compassion in troubled times. Highlights: “What’ve I Done To Help,” “Be Afraid,” “Letting You Go”
10. Ray LaMontagne, Monovision
A warm, soothing folk-record of reminiscent of 60s and early 70s folk-rock, Ray LaMontagne’s first completely self-recorded album pulls back on vocal intensity to focus on melody and songcraft, and wins big. Highlights: “Roll me Mama, Roll Me,” “Misty Morning Rain,” “We’ll Make It Through”
11. Another Sky, I Slept On The Floor
Lush, atmospheric indie rock defined by elegant post-rock guitar work, clever percussion and Catrin Vincent’s spectacular voice soaring evocatively throughout. An immersive, ever-deepening experience. Highlights: “Fell in Love with the City,” “The Cracks,” “Avalanche”
12. Angelica Garcia, Cha Cha Palace
A powerful voice in all senses, this half-Salvadoran, half-Mexican Los Angelina deftly transcends her indie rock background as she celebrates her Latin roots both lyrically and musically. Highlights: “Karma The Knife,” “It Don’t Hinder Me,” “Jícama Pt. Dos”
13. Jessica Smucker, Lucid Stories, Tentative Lies
As a rule I don’t rank albums by musicians that I know personally, but I’m making an exception cause this one has been a big part of my year: Always musically enchanting and lyrically bewitching, Jessica Smucker’s 3rd album benefits from an expanded sonic palate and lots of smart production choices. Highlights: “When I Was The Weather,” “Beautiful Sin,” “The Sea”
14. Idles, Ultra Mono
The Bristol, UK band’s third album is full of progressive, inclusive anthems, indictments of fascists and classists both British and international, and the gospel of self-love. The sheer force of this album is staggering. Highlights: “Model Village,” “Grounds,” “Danke”
15. Fontaines DC, A Hero’s Death
This Dublin post-punk band made the best album of 2019; they’ve followed it up with a very different sophomore record, teaching us something new about themselves with each song. It’s slower, softer and darker — and the lyrics are somehow even stronger. Highlights: “A Hero’s Death,” “No,” “I Don’t Belong”
16. Songhoy Blues, Optimisme
While retaining the rhythms and kaleidoscopic flavor of traditional Malian music, the band’s high-energy third album newly establishes them at the more guitar-driven and dynamic edge of the Saharan desert rock scene. Highlights: “Barre,” “Fey Fey,” “Dournia”
17. Chemtrails, The Peculiar Smell of the Inevitable
Fronted by romantic partners Mia Lust and Laura Orlova, this UK band offers bright, vigorous noise pop powered by irresistible guitar hooks, exultant melodies and eccentric vocal stylings. Highlights: “Frightful in the Sunlight,” “Saint Vitus,” “Blurred Visions”
18. Keleketla!, Keleketla!
A collaboration between South African musicians, largely from the jazz world, Keleketla!’s multifarious, multi-lingual debut was the brainchild of charity organization In Place of War, and it’s produced by Coldcut. Highlights: “Future Toyi Toyi,” “Shepherd Song,” “Crystallise”
19. Denai Moore, Modern Dread
This Jamaican-English artist centers her sound in a tuneful, punchy blend of electro-pop and alternative R&B on her third full-length studio album, with infectious choruses aplenty. Highlights: “Cascades,” “Fake Sorry,” “Slate”
20. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
On a powerfully personal sophomore album, the indie singer/songwriter augments her intricate, slow burn folk-rock with rich production values that showcase her songwriting chops all the more. Highlights: “Halloween,” “Chinese Satellite,” “I Know The End”
21. The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers
The New Zealand band’s third album is more emotionally direct, more melodically nimble and features juicier guitar work, interspersed with softer, subtler moments than we’ve seen from them before. Highlights: “I’m Not Getting Excited,” “You Are A Beam Of Light,” “Dying To Believe”
22. Fleet Foxes, Shore
Robin Pecknold and company’s surprise 4th LP is an intentionally bright, comforting record for tough times — still adventurous, but smoother and less challenging than 2017’s Crack-Up. Highlights: “A Long Way Past The Past,” “Quiet Air/Gioia,” “Thymia”
23. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately
MIke Hadreas’s 5th album takes a more direct and visceral turn, while retaining much of the delicate elegance of his previous work. Chamber pop, pulsing synth pop, electric guitars and more. Highlights: “Nothing At All,” “Without You,” “Your Body Changes Everything”
24. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20
A hip-hop record with plenty of soul, pop and funk in the mix, Donald Glover’s fifth and purportedly final album flows seamlessly and playfully from one vastly different set of ideas to another but still feels effortlessly cohesive. Highlights: “Algorhythm,” “24:19,” “47:48”
25. Sylvan Esso, Free Love
The (now) married Brooklyn duo continue to experiment sonically while remaining irresistibly danceable on their third album. It somehow comes off both as catchy as What Now and as brave as their debut. Highlights: “Ferris Wheel,” “Runaway,” “Ring”
26. Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open
Still ultimately guitar-driven, Will Toledo and company embrace a much cleaner, expansive sonic palate here than their traditionally rough-hewn indie rock, and add synths for a broader range of sound. Highlights: “Weightlifters,” “Can’t Cool Me Down,” “Hollywood”
27. Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
A mixture of cumbia, Latin jazz and pop, electronica and Afro-indigenous folk, the Canadian-Colombian’s third album is hard to pin down but you won’t spend much time trying, as her soaring vocals carry you away. Highlights: “Eso Que Tu Haces,” “Resisto Y Ya,” “Te Queria”
28. Osees, Protean Threat
The now renamed prolific Californian band Thee Oh Sees pulls way back on the prog-metal and trades for dynamic, staccato avant-punk in the 1st half and delicious easy-going psych in the 2nd. Highlights: “Dreary Nonsense,” “If I Had My Way,” “Gong of Catastrophe”
29. Bruce Springsteen, Letter To You
The Boss reconvenes the E Street Band for his 19th album, a return to form replete with anthemic rockers reminiscent of the best of his 80s catalogue, and some duskier singer/songwriter moments too. Highlights: “House of a Thousand Guitars,” “Rainmaker,” “Ghosts”
30. Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
While familiar folk and blues sounds are well within his wheelhouse, the old master has learned some new tricks. Both Dylan’s lyrics and vocal delivery seem newly direct, in a way that feels fresh and classic at once. Highlights: “I Contain Multitudes,” “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” “Crossing The Rubicon”
31. Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project
Australia’s greatest rock band returns after 18 years for an EP in collaboration with indigenous voices, with sovereignty and reparations at the center of their message. Highlights: “Wind in my Head,” “Change the Date,” “Uluru Statement from the Heart / Come On Down”
32. Jyoti, Mama, You Can Bet!
Her third free jazz album as Jyoti, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s latest is a delightfully meandering avant-garde affair made mostly with piano, bass, drums, some vocals, and glimpses of electronica. Highlights: “Ra’s Noise (Thukumbado),” “Orgone,” “This Walk”
33. Afel Bocoum, Lindé
The 65-year-old stalwart of Mali’s desert-blues scene’s new solo album of polyrhythmic, rolling, lilting, often hypnotic protest music benefits from clever production by Damon Albarn. Highlights: “Dakamana,” “Fari Njungu,” “Kakilena”
…Or, check out my Highlights of 2020 playlist!