Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: Rina Sawayama (Photo: Greg Lin Jiajie), Moses Sumney (Photo: Alexander Black), Run The Jewels (Photo: Timothy Saccenti), Jeff Rosenstock (Photo: Christine Mackie), Soccer Mommy (Photo: Brian Ziff)

The 20 best albums of 2020

Clockwise from top left: Rina Sawayama (Photo: Greg Lin Jiajie), Moses Sumney (Photo: Alexander Black), Run The Jewels (Photo: Timothy Saccenti), Jeff Rosenstock (Photo: Christine Mackie), Soccer Mommy (Photo: Brian Ziff)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Yes, it’s been a hard year, and yes, we’re also tired of confronting that fact. But the bizarrely repetitive and numbing hermetic existence most of us have endured this past year has made for a strange experience, one thankfully made more tolerable by all the art and pop culture streamed, downloaded, mailed, and delivered into our homes. A lot of the music that ended up on our list of the 20 best albums of the year already made an appearance at 2020’s halfway point, showing up on the list of our favorite music thus far. Most of those records were made before lockdown began, but there’s more than a couple here—Charli XCX, Taylor Swift—that drew inspiration from the same wellspring of hardship that created our present circumstances.

It’s also not a shock that most of these are familiar faces; in times of trouble, going with what you know is understandable, and the degree of comfort our favorite artists can bring is incalculable. (That being said, there’s a couple newcomers among them, ready to shake things up.) We know there will be something you can’t believe is missing, something that is so good, it’s a crime against taste that it hasn’t been included here. So let us assure you, that album definitely almost made the cut, it was only a few votes short. But here are the 20 best albums we heard in 2020, as voted upon by The A.V. Club’s music critics. (You can find the ballots here.) And if you’re curious, the contest for the top spot wasn’t even close.

20. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is Perfume Genius’ most vivid work to date, a sweeping record that feels as alive as the musicians that poured their heart and soul into it. On this bracing fifth album, the branches of Mike Hadreas’ soul-bearing musical endeavor have never been so far-reaching—culling inspiration from baroque pop, bluesy Americana, and beyond—but it’s clear that his roots have grown deeper too. Assured and intensely intimate, the record excavates a past of queer shame and pain (the stunning “Jason” and its tale of a one-night-stand gone wrong comes to mind) in order to build a future that feels remarkably warm and inviting. Through its sorrow and its ecstasy, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately sounds like a burden lifted. [Cameron Scheetz]

19. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

After nine months sitting with Saint Cloud, a single lyric resonates more than the others: “When you get back on the M train, watch the city mutate.” Waxahatchee’s fifth studio LP is an album in motion, simultaneously reflective and anticipatory. It’s an album of departures, of the open roads and crowded trains that led us here. Katie Crutchfield recorded Saint Cloud in the wake of a cross-country move, a transition that coincided with her newfound sobriety, and the internal struggles coloring her words speak to that renewed perspective. It’s appropriate, then, that Saint Cloud is the best showcase yet for Crutchfield’s rich and robust voice, shades of which she still appears to be discovering. The city mutates, and so do we. [Randall Colburn]

18. Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor

It’s not often that an already beloved mainstay finds a way to exceed the public’s expectations, especially when you’re the frontwoman of pop-punk lions Paramore. With her debut solo effort Petals For Armor, Hayley Williams not only tapped into her long-heralded handle of her righteous rage, she refined it. “Simmer” and “Dead Horse” were simpering badges of a woman who has grown significantly, trading roaring refrains for slightly quieter introspection. And yet, free-wheeling cries like “Sudden Desire” and “Pure Love” still bring the untethered emotion that has rendered Williams such a beacon of raw emotion. Experimental and incredibly vulnerable, Petals For Armor mines sweet melodies from previously open wounds, synthesizing hurt, healing, and intimacy in one fortuitous, mellifluous therapy session. [Shannon Miller]

17. Dogleg, Melee 

If anyone was solely responsible for tiding us over to next year for that feeling of a sold-out venue collectively losing its mind, it’s Dogleg. The Detroit emo group’s debut album, Melee, is overflowing with unrepentant power chords, full-force drum fills, and blistering guitar riffs you can sing along to. Live, it would have prompted mosh pits and rhythmic stage-diving on par with that of the hometown crowd seen in the band’s “Fox” video. Instead, it served an equally noble and much needed purpose: soundtracking at-home workouts and feverish gaming streaks during quarantine. (The latter is inherently endorsed through lyrical nods to Pokémon, Star Fox, and Super Smash Bros.) Despite canceled tours, Dogleg managed to have a breakout year thanks to the timelessness of their pent-up punk and anxious hollering, an outlet that everyone, not just emo fans, needed. [Nina Corcoran]

16. Oneohtrix Point Never, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Is there a partnership in music more exciting than the one between The Weeknd and Oneohtrix Point Never? Emerging from the amniotic void of Uncut Gems, the duo first banged out the low-key highlights of the former’s best album in almost a decade, then turned to OPN’s oeuvre, which Tesfaye executive produced thusly: “Burn it down! This is an OPN record.” Well, then: How about the whole OPN saga as a dying radio station, a journey to the center of the mind, and also the discography—some sort of rock-radio afterlife, all-static, where soft-rock and schmaltz and those starbursts of synthesizer all coexist peacefully? You wanted the hits, baby! Even the song titles nod toward this delirious self-mythologizing. It’s vapor-vaporwave, a dream within a dream, the sound of a year spent inside, talking to yourself until your selves start to talk back. [Clayton Purdom]

15. Jeff Rosenstock, NO DREAM

The more time passes, the stronger Jeff Rosenstock’s distillation of pop-punk, ska, and folk-punk sounds. On NO DREAM, his latest full-length with his Death Rosenstock bandmates, the DIY icon recounts impulse internet buys in the pursuit of happiness, breathing exercises as a mental bottomless pit, and the desperate sacrifices of parents-turned-reluctant Airbnb hosts—the type of astute observations that are depressingly bleak. A year like 2020 should theoretically feel even worse with someone pointing out your existential, capitalist, socially stunted problems in songs while you experience them in real time. And yet, in classic Rosenstock fashion, NO DREAM is the exact type of album you need to bear it at all. As a cathartic group chant in “f a m e” puts it, at least you’re still in control of who you are. [Nina Corcoran]

14. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Post-Millennium Tension would be an apt alternate title for Miss Anthropocene, Grimes’ latest bold and transportive album, and not just because the Massive Attack-like grooves and soundscapes littering the record mark her as the real heir to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style of avant-pop music-making. It’s also the steady churn of her lyrical obsessions—fear, death, apocalyptic visions, and the fragile, ethereal nature of love and the human condition—marking the record’s dark themes and creating a cohesive framework to structure her restless musical muse. Yet amid the sturm und drang, moments of organic beauty, like “Delete Forever”’s guitar strumming or the soaring, lush pop of “IDORU,” remind the listener that beneath the layers of complex arrangements and orchestration lie the gifts of a truly inspired songwriter. [Alex McLevy]

13. Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now

Hyper-pop meets hyper self-awareness on Charli XCX’s exhilarating fourth album, How I’m Feeling Now, one of the first to be conceived of and produced in lockdown, and one of the year’s enduring odes to our elemental need for connection. An artist who thrives off the energy of live shows and ecstatic fans, Charli used quarantine as an opportunity to invite them into her process, collaboratively crafting the record over six weeks of livestreams. The end result is every bit as fun and frenetic as her previous work—from the sweetly tempered “Forever” to the cathartic cry opening “Anthems”—but with a vulnerable through line highlighting the unique sense of community found through music and our shared longing to return to late nights at bars with our closest friends. [Cameron Scheetz]

12. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas

Though its narrative is centered around a doomed personal relationship, Lianne La Havas’ self-titled third record isn’t really a breakup album. Rather, it charts the British singer-songwriter’s journey of emotional and artistic reawakening. The basic building blocks of her sound are still here—mesmerizing vocals, muted guitar melodies, vibrant instrumentals—but she’s more in control this time around. It’s evident on the soulful ballad “Paper Thin,” where she’s reached her breaking point, singing “You understand the pain I’m in / Slippin’ in and out of such confidence / And overwhelming doubt.” Or the album’s opener, “Bittersweet,” where she flashes forward to the end of the breakup, stoutly proclaiming “I’m born again,” as if to reassure listeners that the ensuing story isn’t really a tragedy. Those moments of quiet intimacy cover the album, lending it an air of self-assurance. [Baraka Kaseko]

11. Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica’s decade-in-the-making debut is a wonderfully perplexing work. It sounds contemplative and dream-like, sidestepping expectations (after his classic 2009 single “Exhibit C”) that this would be a big, booming epic. When Jay explains his myth, like on “The Neverending Story,” he opts to deepen his portrait as well as exaggerate his own powers. (He asks, “Have you ever heard the tale of the noblest of gentlemen that rose up from squalor?”) Then there’s the fact that the first voice you hear after a Louis Farrakhan recording is Jay-Z, and that the album is couched in controversial Nation Of Islam symbology. But save for the mournful “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” no one can plumb ego and pathos quite like Jay Electronica. Even with Jay-Z assisting him, this is his moment. [Mosi Reeves]

10. Thundercat, It Is What It Is

In an alternate universe, Thundercat followed up the crusty otaku-gone-supernova opus Drunk with some sort of “return to form,” by a certain perspective at least—a triple-LP opus with a colon in its title, say. Instead, after a brief detour into Screwcraft country, he reemerged, resplendent in cat hair, but still smelling good, with this: It Is What It Is. And if that title seems tautological, well, it is, right? This is not an album of identity crisis, it is an album of identity assured: those gliding pop-funk bass-lines on “Black Qualls,” the David Axelrod mise-en-scene of “King Of The Hill,” the instant-classic Feeling Of One’s Self of “Dragonball Durag.” It’s euphoric even after it crash-lands into existential dread: an album pulsing with light and life. Instructive, honestly. [Clayton Purdom]

9. Moses Sumney, græ

“I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity.” This unshakable assertion arrives halfway through Moses Sumney’s sophomore LP, on the spoken-word interlude “also also also and and and.” In the wake of his debut, Aromanticism, Sumney lost some control of his narrative, with fans and critics thrusting the “R&B singer” label upon the multi-faceted artist. Rather than let that derail him, he doubles down with græ, expanding his sonic palette while taking aim at those man-made identity constructs. On the propulsive lead single, “Virile,” he rages against traditional masculine notions, his angelic tenor contrasting sublimely with booming percussion. The devastatingly intimate “Polly” sees him mourn an unrequited love over plucking acoustic guitar. Across a dense but sprawling hour, græ shifts from art-pop to indie rock to jazz, never getting weighed down by its ambition. Instead, it feels as free-forming and light as Sumney’s otherworldly falsetto. [Baraka Kaseko]

8. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

In a year when joy is such a precious commodity, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia served as a necessary balm, thanks to a hearty confection of Europop and disco. Yes, there are multiple opportunities to dance—and you will definitely dance, if retro hits “Physical” and “Hallucinate” have anything to say on the matter—but more than that, the British performer’s second album showed such a command and appreciation of the timeless luminaries like Kylie Minogue and Donna Summer without sacrificing her specific voice. That’s a good thing: Between the honey-toned sensuality that fueled “Pretty Please” and the raucous spin on low-key ’90s classics like White Town’s “Your Woman” in the funky “Love Again,” Dua Lipa is particularly skilled at bridging the past and future of pop music. [Shannon Miller]

7. Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA

On her star-making debut album, Japanese-British pop experimenter Rina Sawayama traverses as many profound memories as she does invigorating sonic styles. “Dynasty,” “Akasaka Sad,” and “Paradisin’” all detail family trauma, but they respectively resemble metal-sprinkled cinematics, jolting synthpop, and city pop turned arena-ready. Other than its sarcastically cheery chorus, “STFU!” is a straight-up nu-metal manifesto against anti-Asian microaggressions, while “Chosen Family” is the total opposite, a mega-ballad about the ineffable bonds that queer people form outside their bloodlines. “Bad Friend” is a radio-destined anthem full of regret and, among other memories, Sawayama belting along to her beloved Carly Rae Jepsen. What she didn’t know then is that her debut LP would place her firmly on her idol’s level. [Max Freedman]

6. Taylor Swift, folklore

It’s entirely unsurprising that a restless creative soul like Taylor Swift would release an ambitious album like folklore during a period when live music wasn’t possible. It also makes sense that the sparse indie-folk record, which she conceptualized with The National’s Aaron Dessner and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, is a rich, elegant affair. Yet what’s most exciting is the way Swift used creative isolation to expand the scope of her songwriting outward. The album’s best songs scan like intertwined short-fiction stories—specifically the quiet power of “betty,” starring a character who’s coming into her own after a messy affair that’s detailed in the painful, vivid “august.” Best of all is “the last great american dynasty,” about a real-life heiress with a colorful backstory that turns at the end to reflect insights about Swift herself. [Annie Zaleski]

5. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

Chloe x Halle absolutely flexed on quarantine. Even amidst social distancing, nothing stopped the Bailey sisters from making immaculately produced, fashion-forward, internet-breaking “live” videos for the BET Awards, the VMAs, the GLAAD Awards—the kinds of places you don’t usually get invited unless you’re making truly astounding pop music. Ungodly Hour, the Beyoncé protégés’ second album, is exactly that. Chloe’s co-production, which is as indebted to Grimes as to Missy Elliott, pulses thrillingly wobbly bass through highlights including “Forgive Me” and “Tipsy,” the most mischievous, taunting pop song in recent memory. “Do It” is the viral TikTok hit, and for good reason: Its ode to friendship and self-made confidence makes for an anthemic, bottom-heavy pop balm in this awful year, a vivid fantasy of girls’ night out rendered from a distance. Chloe x Halle were everywhere this year, even as people couldn’t go anywhere—Bey really knows how to choose ’em. [Max Freedman]

4. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

Soccer Mommy’s second full-length arrived right on the cusp of the spring COVID-19 lockdown, and although the album was recorded well before the pandemic, its themes felt entirely relatable to this fraught, uncertain year. Bandleader and songwriter Sophie Allison confronts depression, self-doubt, and anxiety with complete vulnerability, whether she’s confessing to relationship insecurity (“Up The Walls”) or trying to get to the root of self-sabotage (“Bloodstream” and its prescient lyrics, “I guess the lesson’s learned, I’ve barely left my room in the past week / And I’ve got my guard up trying all the time to stay clean”). Musically, Color Theory echoes multiple kinds of laconic, melodic ’90s alternative rock, including the sweet pop side (“Circle The Drain,” the Liz Phair-esque “Crawling In My Skin”) and electrified folk-grunge era (“Lucy”). However, on stripped-back tunes such as “Royal Screw Up,” Allison’s bold, honesty delivery cements her as one of 2020’s most inspiring voices. [Annie Zaleski]

3. Run The Jewels, RTJ4

RTJ4 benefited from a dearth in major rap events this year—with fans split between drowning in iHeartRadio-marketed melodic rap or navigating Bandcamp-approved indie-rap—while addressing the political unrest, antiracist protests and mass death that marked a hellish 2020 with impressive angst. By now, El-P and Killer Mike’s frenetic and noisy formula is well established, and both engage in the kind of punchy back-and-forth that can feel both anachronistic and innovative. However, the duo cannily ups the ante: There’s a renewed focus on samples and disparate electronic tones, from Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth’s “Dwyck” (“Ooh La La”) and Gang Of Four’s “Ether” (“The Ground Below”) to dread bass, rave, and other ear-twisting sounds. Dad jokes from 2 Chainz (“I buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryin’ to be frank”) and frequent collaborators Zach de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo add sizzle to the affair. Social-media rap purists may blanch at Run The Jewels’ gleeful kitchen-sink approach, but, as Killer Mike warns on “walking in the snow”: “I promise I’m honest / They comin’ for you the day after they comin’ for me.” [Mosi Reeves]

2. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

It’s been a banner year for Phoebe Bridgers, who not only skirted the sophomore slump with her soul-piercing Punisher but managed to milk it for more beauty with Copycat Killer’s string-heavy reinterpretations. Lovely as those are, though, Bridgers’ restless musings shine brightest when bathed in the original’s gauzy arrangements, like moonlight through smudged glass. Punisher sounds like a sleepless night, after all, Bridgers’ delicate vocals trading between self-reflection, relationship anxiety, national tragedy, and dark humor, often within a single verse. It’s the online brain, the one that scrolls to stop thinking and encounters a dozen different apocalypses in the process—so much to worry about and so little to believe in. It’s hard not to relate when Bridgers longs for a UFO to “take me to where I’m from.” It’s nice sometimes to imagine what another world might teach us about ourselves. [Randall Colburn]

1. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters

It’s not just the immediacy of Apple’s signature vocals, tremulous and note-perfect and raw and sweet and raspy all at the same time. It’s not just the expansive nature of the songs, where the silence between notes and the pauses between grooves are as impactful as the sounds themselves, with tempos and melodies shifting and switching via unpredictable virtuosity. It’s not simply the endlessly inventive production and instrumentation, already the stuff of legend from the musician recounting tales of pushing around furniture and banging on kitchen implements to create the noises she envisioned in her head. And it’s not just the razor-blade-sharp wit and evocative intimacy that has come to define her singular lyricism, where couplets like “No love is like any other love / So, it would be insane to make a comparison with you” and “I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m bursting at the seams” flow one into the next and the listener always feels like they know exactly what she means. No, what makes Fetch The Bolt Cutters great isn’t any one of those things. It’s all of those things, working in tandem, a record that feels just as thrillingly authentic and alive the hundredth time it’s played as the first. Sure, there are other artists that can create such vibrant art—but let’s be honest: It would be insane to make a comparison with Fiona Apple. [Alex McLevy]