The 100 Best Albums of 2020

2020 may have taken away live music, but it couldn't stop artists from putting out great albums. Here are the best records this year had to offer, handpicked by the Noisey staff.

Dec 8 2020, 3:29pm

We don't need to tell you how bad this year has been. Instead, we're going to focus on the music that got us through it. These 100 albums, all from this year, show just how resilient, creative, and essential artists continue to be in 2020. The list was selected and then ranked through an extensive voting process among Noisey writers and editors in the U.S. and the U.K. There are groundbreaking debuts from electric innovators like Bartees Strange, Rina Sawayama, and the enigmatic U.K. group SAULT. Also included are career-best LPs from veteran acts like Waxahatchee, Fleet Foxes, and Fiona Apple, as well as surprising but needed returns from Hum and Salem.

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As you wait for live music to return, look at this list as a way to either find something new or confirm your undeniably great taste—maybe it'll even inspire you to support some of these artists directly as musicians continue to grapple with the tough economic conditions caused by the pandemic. Either way, we hope something on here comforts and sustains you the way it did the VICE staff these past 12 months.


KentheMan made an album for the hoes—no, really. The project's title is an ode to the numeric codes used on calculators long before smartphones became ubiquitous. The Houston rapper doesn't lose her energy once over the 10-track project, boldly rapping over big bass productions from Bigg Cuz and DJ Chose that make each song fitting for an impromptu twerk session. She flips classic rap samples on "IDGAF" and "Dime," sprinkling her no-nonsense bars across the bodacious project. "Ask me to see them, I tell them a lie / Time ain't free, I'm upping the price," she raps on "Like A Hoe." Everything is bigger in Texas, and if you want a shot at Ken, that means the bag has to be bigger, too. —Kristin Corry    

Dougie Poole makes country music for underdogs. The characters that populate the Brooklyn songwriter's excellent second album, The Freelancer's Blues, are aimless, ambling, and generally down on their luck—"Vaping on the Job" or becoming "Buddhist for a Couple Days," to quote a couple of the song titles. He's an excellent storyteller who peppers his lyrics with both winking jokes and deep emotional insights. "How sweet it would be to not have a brain," he croons on "To Not Have a Brain." It's a funny line, but it takes on a darker meaning when he sings directly about his depression later in the song: "There is a single rain cloud the size of a compact sedan that follows behind me wherever I walk." It's heavy and hilarious in equal measure. —Josh Terry

Sacramento rapper Mozzy's two 2020 projects hold weight in different ways. Beyond Bulletproof, the first, was his best-selling project to date, home to hits like "Body Count," featuring King Von and G Herbo, and "I Ain't Perfect," featuring Blxst. September's Occupational Hazard is its newer, messier, and more immediate counterpart. Across the record, he's both extremely funny and emotionally incisive. He shows off a lot of sides of himself—offering to let his dealer keep the change, ignoring death knocking at his door, and extending a hand to friends in need—which demonstrates how much he's still evolving. Mozzy reaches new heights as a writer with every release. —Jaime Silano

Was this the year we were hoping for Taylor Swift to make her first foray into the indie scene with a Bon Iver collaboration? No, but 2020 is nothing if not unpredictable. Co-produced by Jack Antonoff and The National's Aaron Dessner, Swift's eighth album takes us a cardigan deeper into her world—a place that feels at once softer, stronger, and woodsier. folklore is dreamy, grounded, and a little like standing in the middle of a forest alone, and it includes all the Taylor tropes fans typically fawn over: suburban love, heartbreak, and myth-building. "There goes the last great American dynasty," she sings on a song inspired by a previous owner of her Rhode Island mansion.

Unlike Swift's past efforts, there are no bangers to dance to, but there are some ballads for crying in the dark. "I think I've seen this film before / And I didn't like the ending," she harmonizes with Vernon on tearjerker "exile," which has since gone viral on TikTok. Folklore puts us smack-dab in the middle of the Swift storybook, where she's traded fairytales for a cottagecore fantasy. It might be an artistic departure for Swift, but the themes haven't changed—they're just wrapped in a sweater. —Dessie Jackson

Listening to new Autechre records over the last few years has become an endurance test. For the last decade, each album has been more ugly and atonal than the last, culminating in 2018's 8-hour behemoth NTS Sessions, a barrage of digitalist turbulence that sounded kinda like their previous material playing back from a corrupted hard drive. On their new record, Sign, they still draw on a similar "tonal vocabulary," as they call it, to the crushing recordings they've made of late, while prizing coherence, melody, and even beauty. Though they're built around prickly, pointillist electronics, tracks like "gl4" are among the most placid Autreche have released in their decades at the vanguard of electronic music. Instead of trading in pain and chaos, they offer rest to a world that really needs it.—Colin Joyce

It's rare that you come out of the other side of a relationship with something profound to say. But on her self-titled album, Lianne La Havas has perfected the art of dissecting a breakup. From the very first moments of opener "Bittersweet," La Havas realizes that the relationship is coming to a head: "Please stop asking, do you still love me? / Don't have much to say, let's speak in the morning." By the last track, "Sour Flower," the autopsy is complete: "I'm not crying over you / When I cry, now I'm free." She arises, reborn. —Nana Baah

There's a lot of music that didn't get its moment in 2020. Music benefits from community interaction, and not being able to hear certain songs go off at a party or concert altered the listening experience. But there were some that got more familiar over time because we heard them being blasted from cars, sidewalk family cookouts, and while our neighbors were lighting fireworks in front of our building at 5 p.m. when the sun was still out (for some reason). And many of them were from El Alfa's album El Androide

The record remains faithful to the Dominican star's bread-and-butter dembow beats, while also offering him an opportunity to demonstrate his range as a writer and a performer over other urbano sounds. Songs like "Recogelo" and "Singapur" would have been catalysts at any function during a regular summer, but they kept the energy going at more than a few park gatherings just fine. —Trey Smith

Code Orange's thesis on Underneath, more or less, is that staring at the screens has resulted in a splitting of our personalities, our minds, and ourselves. If you've witnessed the way people act on Twitter—either fuming or sycophantic—the Pittsburgh punk band's take is a little much, sure, but not a wild reach. Following the modern hardcore of their last two albums, this one reads like a legitimate attempt to create a new micro-genre mash-up, construed as a "psychological experience." Your enjoyment of this record will largely come down to how much you wish to revisit the theatrical rock of Avenged Sevenfold, or the industrial drama of Tool or Fear Factory. But Underneath's undeniable experimentalism—the way it perverts these influences and takes them into the future—is commendable. Fitful and frightening, this album sounds like the dying cry of the modern world. —Hannah Ewens

Jeremy Cunningham's brother was murdered in 2008 after armed gunmen attempted to rob his roommate. The tragedy and Cunningham's grief serves as the basis for the drummer and Chicago jazz mainstay's cathartic full-length The Weather Up There. The stunning and brutally raw LP boasts emotionally charged and expansive jazz compositions that are interspersed with snippets of phone call audio from the deceased's loved ones. Backed by a revolving cast of local jazz musicians like Jeff Parker, McKaya McCraven, and Ben Lamar Gay to name a few, Cunningham's personal and righteous anti-gun vision shines throughout each song. —Josh Terry

Duckwrth's debut album is seamless from top to bottom, which only adds to the trippy world he's created for the listener. Much of the album feels like funk's rambunctious grandchild, with production that outfits itself in lofty guitar strings but with the defiant drum patterns of rap. But SuperGood's production is just one way Duckwrth makes the 16-track project worth our while. He isn't afraid to use his voice in as many ways as he can, shapeshifting so much that most of the songs seem like Duckwrth featuring Duckwrth. His fast-paced delivery on "Say What U Mean" and "Tuesday" is a different dimension than the drawn-out vocals on "Kiss U Right Now" and "Did U Notice?" and that in-the-clouds, vertigo-inducing feeling is exactly what SuperGood is designed to make you feel. It's the high you never want to come down from. —Kristin Corry

Immersion is a swaying, sharp-toothed beast of a doom metal record, one that forgoes speed or solos in favor of pure caveman ignorance. This level of grim nihilism feels like a release, and there is plenty of that to be found in the chilling muck of "Entity" and the merciless abyss of "The Lifer." Guitarist and vocalist Ethan Lee McCarthy has a voice straight out of a puddle of black sludge in the least friendly circle of Hades, or whatever part of the deep sea those really fucked-up fish come out of, and I mean that as a compliment—there is truly nothing quite like it. Those therapeutic retreats where they make everyone go outside and scream as loud as they can are for babies. Just listen to Primitive Man. —Hilary Pollack

With its deep ties to the country's culture, Mexican regional music has experienced an extraordinary renewal in recent years as younger artists build upon the format with hip-hop influences and a greater collective understanding of life on both sides of the border. This teenage trio from California was part of the movement's vanguard in 2020, with breakout record Tu Veneno Mortal and this Billboard Latin chart-topping follow-up for DEL Records. Recorded during quarantine, Vibras De Noche makes for an instantly accessible mix of modern corridos and lovestruck baladas that speak to multiple generations. —Gary Suarez

Announcing himself as a solo artist for the first time this year, PC Music boss and cool uncle of hyperpop A.G. Cook released not one but two albums. There was Apple, a ten-track pop album with influences ranging from (Sandy) Alex G to foam parties. But more interesting by half was 7G, a 2-hour, 49-minute tome split across seven "discs," each celebrating a different musical instrument. What lies within is a trove of knowing stupidity, ingenuity, and, frequently, brilliance, as Cook diarizes years' worth of creativity, including covers (see: his take on Taylor Swift's "The Best Day"), live versions, and this one song called "Illuminated Biker Gang," which approximates what the music for Mario Kart would sound like if the Switch were melting. —Lauren O'Neill 

There's a palpable sense of dread throughout Just Look At That Sky, the breathtaking LP from Chicago post-punks Ganser. Bassist Alicia Gaines and keyboardist Nadia Garofalo swap lead vocal duties and anchor these abrasive and stunning songs with divergent approaches between Garofalo's biting punk delivery and Gaines' ethereal alto. Tracks like "Shadowcasting" boast brooding atmospherics and foreboding lyrics from Gaines, where she sings, "The more I look at it / the worse it gets." Elsewhere, the vibe gets more aggressive on the jagged single "Lucky," where Garofalo shrieks, "You thought you'd be more than this / Thought you'd be OK" over screeching riffs. It's everything you'd want in a post-punk LP. —Josh Terry

When Fantastic Negrito's Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? dropped over the summer, the album's title was inadvertently asking the same question all of us had been asking ourselves since March. The record showcases the songwriter's restlessness and manages to fuse rock, blues, and an appearance from fellow Bay Area artist E-40 into a cohesive project that processes his own internal conflicts in a way that everyone can relate to. On the album's final track "Platypus Disaster" when he sings "All the crazy people that you ever knew / All along they were reflections of you," it feels like your own breakthrough moment. Fantastic Negrito managed to make something in this hell year that provides assurance and relief, and that alone is a feat worth praising. —Trey Smith

The second album from Waylon Payne is a defiant account of addiction, trauma, and recovery. It's the first effort in 13 years from Payne, a gay Nashville-based country songwriter, and it tells the story of his past decade overcoming drug abuse, homelessness, and the loss of his parents in four breathtaking acts. He confronts his demons on the gorgeous "Dangerous Criminal," and comes out on the other side on the rollicking "Back From the Grave," which was co-written by country heavyweights Brandy Clark and Clint Lagerberg. It's a masterpiece of humanist storytelling and there's something close to closure on the closing act highlight "Santa Ana Winds." —Josh Terry 

Staying true to the freestyles that found her rapping cozily on other people's beats, Megan Thee Stallion demonstrates a stellar knack for sampling. Opening your long-awaited debut album by sampling Biggie's "Who Shot Ya" after actually being shot is a boss move. And who else could turn Jazmine Sullivan's "Circles" into something you can shake your ass to? Good News is a party—with a packed crowd of friends and collaborators like DaBaby, Young Thug, and 2 Chainz—but Megan shines the most when she shares the track with other women. "Freaky Girls," which features SZA, and "Do It On the Tip," a collaboration with City Girls, recall the drunken banter in the girls' restroom at 2 a.m. "Before I pick the wrong nigga, make sure your friends tagged," Megan raps on the latter track. She's just rapping what we're all thinking. —Kristin Corry

Cult rap hero Ka links his life story to history's ultimate sibling betrayal throughout the 11-track project, Descendants of Cain. In most MCs' repertoires, an insight like "whoever held a hammer had the hand of God" from "Brother's Keeper" would be wielded as a melodramatic boast. But for Ka, a weary narrator, it's a matter-of-fact glimpse of peril in neighborhoods where "people I love blood is in the soil that I walk," as he laments on "Every Now and Then." Ka reflects while stacking biblical wordplay atop doleful production, resulting in one of 2020's most thoughtful offerings. Behind the awe-inspiring lines like "feeling weak for being in love, like a moor/amour shouldn't" is a harrowing story that has to end. —Andre Gee

U.K. road rapper Nines named his debut album One Foot Out as a nod to his first mixtape One Foot In, expressing the journey he's taken by signing huge record deals for his increasingly slick U.K/ street anthems. Crabs In A Bucket continues this personal mythology, with luxurious, swirling production as a bedrock for tales of life in and around the Church Road estate where he grew up. Shouting out his self-created record label, clothing line and soon-to-be book company Ice City on afro-swing tinged, NSG-featuring single "Airplane Mode", this poppy, dynamic release is the pinnacle of Nines' journey so far. He nabbed his first U.K. number one album in the process, proving he's one of the most popular—if not best—U.K. acts of the year. —Ryan Bassil 

Just when you think 2Chainz can't get any better, he does. At 43, he realizes that although he may not be the youngest rapper in the game, he's definitely one of the rappers having the most fun. "Old enough to be your daddy, young enough to fuck your mama," he raps on "Grey Area."  But the most fun is had on his production, like the bounce-inspired "Save Me" and the Hall & Oates and Cameo sample on "Can't Go For That." In a sea of music trying to document the craziness of 2020, 2Chainz might have encapsulated it best on "Quarantine Thick," which features Atlanta rapper Mulatto. "She said, 'All the gyms closed,' so she been feelin' lazy / She been late-night snackin, but shawty still my baby." We would let out a collective sigh of relief for feeling so seen, but our jeans don't fit anymore. —Kristin Corry

Honey Harper—born William Fussell—grew up by a swamp in Georgia, and his father was an Elvis impersonator, which gave him a childhood rich with strange memories that shaped his gentle, romantic country songs. Harper describes them as "celestial cosmic country music" or "glam country," in the vein of Gram Parsons or a lamé-wrapped Townes Van Zandt. His debut full-length, Starmaker, isn't made for tailgating or cranking from an F150; it's for psilocybic camping trips in Joshua Tree, stargazing, and reflecting on bygone days. Twirling, misty tracks like "Suzuki Dreams" and "Strawberry Lite'' sound like they're messages from long ago, just now reaching us after a long journey through time and space. —Hilary Pollack

The best album of the Haim sisters' collective career is a smorgasbord of genres. From the R&B worship of "3AM" and "Gasoline" to the Paul Simon-referencing "Up From a Dream"—via "Man From the Magazine"'s raw-edged raised eyebrow—the record broadens the band's horizons while also holding onto the core pop-rock sensibility beloved by their fans. Establishing them even further as the current torchbearers of long-haired California guitar music, Women In Music Pt. III is the record that believers have long known HAIM had in them. —Lauren O'Neill 

Tkay Maidza's versatility—her strength—has also made her difficult to categorize. Emerging from Adelaide at just 17 years old, she signed to Universal for her acclaimed debut in 2016 before releasing Last Year Was Weird, Vol 1 on a subsidiary, and eventually finding a home in 4AD among similarly eclectic artists like Grimes and Holly Herndon. Her first release on the U.K. indie label, LYWWV2 is the second in a three-mixtape project that sees her grappling with courage and doubt, angels and devils, in a demolished futuristic setting. It's an extended mic drop moment, drawing on a wide range of references from soul to bubblegum pop to experimental hip-hop. But whether she's channeling Missy Elliot ("Shook") or trading bars with JPEGMAFIA ("Awake"), what comes through most is her own tenacity. This is the work of someone with bones to pick and points to prove. If the world was just, Tkay would be an international star by now, but the best are always a step ahead. —Emma Garland

Austin, Texas indie rockers Pure X haven't put out an album since 2014 but their self-titled comeback this year is well worth the wait. They make loud and languid guitar-based jams that while heavy, always unfold in pretty and cathartic ways. Opener "Middle America" serves as a mission statement for the record with co-lead vocalist Nate Grace singing, "Fuck this I'm leaving / Going back to where I'm from / Gonna start back to singing / Gonna quit this living on the run." In an interview with NME, they said the album is about "this American… tragedy, I guess. It's exactly what's happening now." While these songs are relaxed and gorgeous, they beg for deeper listens to find its darker truths. —Josh Terry

Giveon has the type of voice you can't forget. While most of his peers are disguising melodic rap as alternative R&B, the Long Beach singer's tone has often been compared to an unexpected traditionalist: Frank Sinatra. Take Time is a glowing debut of the raw relatability of Giveon's songwriting, which he owes in part to the text messages he turns into songs. We follow Giveon through the cycle of a relationship, as seen in the lofty universe he dreams up in "WORLD WE CREATED," down to the moment on "HEARTBREAK ANNIVERSARY" where he's left reminiscing about how that world crumbled. Giveon's brooding voice is the right choice to narrate the rom-com that you're masquerading as your love life.  —Kristin Corry

A disembodied voice introduces a demon in the opening moments of Machine Girl's U-Void Synthesizer, a characteristic and telling beginning from two of Pittsburgh's premier prophets of pandemonium. For the next half hour or so, vocalist Matt Stephenson growls, raps, squelches, and screams like a person possessed, writhing with the anguish of an overwhelming world. Together with drummer Sean Kelly, he smashes together the most evil undercurrents of techno, grindcore, and industrial. The result is a chaotic, corrosive, and singular sort of music that feels dangerous yet ecstatic—a dance with the devil in a crowded club. —Colin Joyce  

Joy has been in short supply during the pandemic, but WizKid's fourth album is overflowing with it. Although Made in Lagos is feature-heavy—including appearances from Damian Marley, Ella Mai, and H.E.R.—WizKid manages to prove, once again, that he can infuse his sound with anything and come out with a body of work that's begging to be played on repeat. "Ginger," a collaboration with Nigerian artist Burna Boy that was destined to be a banger, transports you to the hustle and bustle of Lagos, the two artists' home city. And laidback "Longtime," which features Skepta, sounds just like cool summer evenings in London. —Nana Baah

While we were all busy adjusting to the homebound life this spring, Berlin electronic duo Amnesia Scanner released a video that captured what life feels like when social media is your only window to the world. Over an infectious-but-scorched-sounding vocal melody from Brazilian producer and singer Lyzza, a succession of faces appears—each confined to the same rectangular frame, screaming and spinning and contorting itself into the most ghastly of grimaces as though it's trying to break free. Though the Finland-born Martti Kalliala and Ville Haimala finished Tearless before the pandemic started, its punishing rhythms, aggressively distressed textures, robotic voices, and loose themes of climate change and information overload certainly feel right on time. Not unlike 100 Gecs across the pond, though, they lean into the clear-eyed melodic lines and emotional maximalism of EDM and nu-Metal just enough (or some "in quotes" version of those genres) that the sensory overwhelm never feels oppressive; instead, we catch a whiff of what it once felt like to process our collective disenchantment in person, in a foggy black room at peak time. —Emilie Friedlander 

Bino Rideaux is a rapper out of South Central Los Angeles who credits Nipsey Hussle—with whom he recorded a memorable mixtape in 2017—for laying out the blueprint for his career. You can hear Nipsey's warming influence on Rideaux's Def Jam debut, Outside, and over the years, Rideaux has refined his craft in the company of other West Coast MCs like Casey Veggies and G Perico. Outside holds only five features, all of which are from California-born artists, including Fredo Bang, BlueBucksClan, and Blxst. The songs take a meticulous approach to Auto-Tune, using it to sharpen rather than smooth the corners. With a roster of producers spanning from Hit Boy to rising Georgia heavyweight, Drumdummie, Outside is a timely album from a focused and hard-working voice in West Coast hip-hop. —Jaime Silano

Chicago trio Deeper finished writing and recording their unrelenting sophomore album Auto-Pain before they found out their former bandmate Michael Clawson had died by suicide. When they returned to the material, they found new resonance and catharsis in these songs, many of which Clawson helped write. The resulting songs make for urgent and kinetic indie rock like the aggressive opener "Esoteric" and the screeching "Helena's Flowers," a song loosely inspired by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Few indie rock records this year contained as much nervous and empathic energy as this one.—Josh Terry  

Still grappling with the grief that's clouded his life following the death of his mother, MIKE sounds as burdened as the title of this record suggests. Searching for meaning in a confusing world, he clings to family, rapping about the worry he sees in the eyes of his father on "alert*," and the comfort of memory, reflecting on the knowledge gleaned from life's mistakes on "what's home." It's a record of intense pain and vibrant personal growth, the natural result of a year that's afforded many the time to have tough conversations with themselves. —Colin Joyce 

In the video for "Delete Forever," Grimes sits and swoons atop a stone throne under the heavens, the classical ruins around her illuminated by a vast system of nebulae and moons in the colorful skies above. It's an appropriate visual metaphor for the end-times pop prognostication on Miss Anthropocene. Sitting at the nexus of the here and the hereafter, she surveys the vibrant rubble of pop's past, attempting to divine meaning from the collapsing industry that she's been fascinated with since she was a child. It's apocalyptic, overwhelming, doomed, and somehow fun in spite of it all. From her perch out there in the Milky Way, Grimes looks down upon the world's tumult and laughs, wondering when everything got so strange. —Colin Joyce

The self-proclaimed "General" of Brooklyn drill proves he's still one of the genre's most affecting rappers on the full-length mixtape Growth and Development. Weighted by the burdens of a tough decade—in an interview with Complex he recalled, for example, the heaviness of seeing his own face on wanted posters— 22Gz delivers tales of woe and impossible confidence over a series of mutant beats by the U.K. producer Ghosty. It's crushing by design, full of the sort of songs that hit you like a sledgehammer to the heart. —Colin Joyce 

The second album from Kaya Wilkins hosts a twisted collection of songs that is both sardonic and nurturing, weaving between nightmares and fantasies. The album sweetly strings together tales of alter egos, muses, psych wards, and sleep paralysis within songs that are part disco and part folk. Wilkins' poetry has grit and humor, summoning the forlorn drama of 60s girl groups, the punchlines of Amy Winehouse, and the seductive speak-singing of Lou Reed. From whispering, sparse falsettos to brooding, guttural sounds, Watch This Liquid Pour Itself is a gentle hypnosis from a stellar songwriter who walks the line between light and darkness with calculated grace. —Jaime Silano

Teenagers got such a raw deal in 2020, all cooped up and claustrophobic on Zoom. Sorry, kids, but while all of us are missing various social engagements, you're really missing out. Your adolescent years should be all about getting into mischief, sneering at the perceived stupidity of authority, and finding a lookout point in your hometown where you can make out and smoke weed with your friends. This tension between youth and adulthood is the axis of Narrow Head's 12th House Rock, a love letter to 90s alternative rock and the angsty feelings that inspired it. While nostalgia for that decade abounds in contemporary rock music, Narrow Head really nails the era when grunge, FM radio, and the underground converged into guitar music that was huge-sounding, but still satisfyingly edgy. "Yer' Song" is pure Siamese Dream—fuzzy, anthemic, and sneering—while tracks like "Emmadazey" and "Night Tryst" conjure memories of blissfully headbanging to Deftones and Silverchair back when we all had chain wallets. The album is a meditative homage to teen angst so potent that it might even make you miss the suburbs. —Hilary Pollack

If you practically ground your teeth into dust this year, you're not alone. In the times we most needed a deep-tissue massage, it was unsafe to get one. But the next best thing is probably Julianna Barwick's latest, Healing Is a Miracle, a sound bath for our souls, a weighted blanket for our brains, and most of all a record that will make you feel serene and tranquil whether you like it or not. Barwick uses technology (mainly electronic loops) to create the ethereal, hymn-like vocal weaves in her music, but the effect is distinctly human. Sometimes it's church-choir-like, as on opener "Inspirit," interrupted only by a beam of deep, synthesized bass; other times it's otherworldly and strange, as on the futuristic, pulsing "Flowers." It's self-care for the burnt-out denizens of 2020. —Hilary Pollack

On "Sine From Above," the 14th song on Lady Gaga's Chromatica, Mother Monster enlists Elton John for a piano ballad that morphs into something that sounds like a high-octane Eurovision entry. This unbridled maximalism informs the entire project, Gaga's best and most personal in years. Not a song is wasted as she frankly discusses trauma, drug dependency, and depression, while simultaneously reminding you that when it comes to bangers, there are still few in pop music who can do it better than her. Influenced in particular by the sounds of house music—the pianos on "Free Woman," "Replay"'s commanding vocal—Chromatica culminates gloriously with "Babylon," which became an instant entry into the upper echelons of Lady Gaga's output the second she said "Serve it ancient city style," a lyric so delightfully camp and bordering on nonsensical, it could only be Gaga. —Lauren O'Neill

If you're talking spitters, you're talking Conway, who's been destroying every beat he's come across to the degree that revered lyricists like Eminem and Jay Z have sought proximity to the wave he's created. Once an artist reaches that plateau, they're entitled to delve into the kind of meta-boasting that Conway did on "Spurs 3," where he noticed, "lotta albums are suddenly startin' to feel a lil' more Griselda-esque." Ironically, he said this on a project that successfully bolstered the Griselda Records blueprint, supplementing the brooding loops and face-wrenching piano melodies with polished production that allows him to reaffirm his versatility. He gave purists their fix on tracks like "Nothin Less," "Fear Of God", and "Lemon" with Method Man, but the swagger of "Anza" with Armani Caesar and the sensitivity of "Forever Dropping Tears" demonstrate different facets of his game that help vault the project near the top of the Griselda canon. Conway isn't content to be the cipher killer. That would be just fine, but he's capable of exploring other chambers—the spectacular From A King To A God exemplifies that. —Andre Gee 

From DIY venues in Brighton to the shortlist for Britain's biggest music award, the Mercury Prize, Porridge Radio have enjoyed one of most significant and well-deserved rises in recent indie rock memory. After the release of their second full-length record Every Bad, this year was supposed to be the band's victory lap, but 2020 had other plans—the U.K. entered lockdown less than two weeks after the album came out. While listeners sadly missed out on a summer of live dates, Every Bad turned out to pair pretty well with this mercurial year, from the topsy-turvy unease of "Circling" to band leader Dana Margolin's emotionally up-and-down lyrics: "I don't know what I want but I know what I want," she wails on "Don't Ask Me Twice," evoking the giant mood swing that 2020 has been. —Lauren O'Neill 

After two acclaimed EPs of hip-house anthems, Yaeji's full-length mixtape What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 shows a more insular, sensitive side of the producer and songwriter. She builds ballads around meditative, dubby loops, often singing solely in Korean in an effort, she says, to show off the beauty of the language. "[Korean is] so beautiful texturally," she told Mixmag. "It has so many more mountains, and hills, and rivers, and angles." Her whispery vocals only magnify the deep placidity of these tracks—appropriate energy at a time when club doors around the world remain closed. —Colin Joyce

Finding your balance in a Hook song can be tough. Between trying to process the beat's patterns and not knowing exactly what's the verse and what's an ad lib, it can be a challenging endeavor. But it's worth the effort, because once you get your bearings you realize that you're listening to a wildly talented and earnest lyricist who is pushing her craft in a bold and exciting direction. I Love You 2, Hook is a perfect manifestation of her unique approach. Songs like "BRB" and "4:47am" showcase her lyrical dexterity while making you think of past romantic relationships and what you did wrong in them. The lyrical content pairs perfectly with the soft emo sounds provided by producers like Nedarb, Tony Seltzer, and 2thousan9 to provide a listening experience that feels like waking up from a dream you know you enjoyed but can't quite remember. —Trey Smith

Unknown T's debut track "Homerton B" brought a bumpy, dancier side to U.K. drill when it was released in 2018. His career should have accelerated immediately, but by the time summer 2019 rolled around he'd been accused of murder. T was eventually cleared of the charges and found not guilty, but his experience in the U.K.'s (frequently unfair) justice system had a profound effect. He discusses it all on Rise Above Hate, while pushing his sound into new sonic territories ("SS Interlude" is an incredibly smooth tune about struggling mentally that sees T singing alongside R&B singer Kali Claire). It's an eclectic record that stands apart from much of the country's drill scene. —Ryan Bassil 

Posthumous records are tricky. How do you stay true to an artist's vision when they can't give their input? Circles works, because it was intended to be released as a companion album to Mac's 2018 album Swimming, the last music the rapper released before he died. Logistics aside, it's also just a very solid record. One album highlight is a striking cover of Arthur Lee's charismatic 1974 single "Everybody's Gotta Live." Across the whole album, Mac Miller and composer Jon Brion create a rich, vivid world awash with lush instrumentation that belies the incredibly vulnerable subject matter. —Ryan Bassil 

Venezuelan experimental producer Arca has said that she named KiCk i after the thump a mother feels inside her belly when a baby starts moving of her own accord. "A prenatal kick is the first instance in which parents realize there is a consciousness distinct and separate from their own," she told Pitchfork in May. "I see it as a metaphor for individuation, for choosing to differentiate yourself." Appropriately, her joyous fourth album plays like one long unapologetic declaration of self—not just in the literal sense of the barbs she throws on stone-faced opener "Nonbinary"—"I don't give a fuck what you think / You don't know me / You might owe me"—but also on the level of form, alternating between English and Spanish, showcasing the elasticity of her vocal range (both clean and effects-warped), and building moody love songs and no-nonsense reggaeton bangers on an ecstatically teetering architecture of blips and static crunches.

No matter that it's probably the closest she has come producing a true-blue pop record, while also veering occasionally into harsh noise, while also earning her a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance album. It feels like a celebration of multitudinousness—a gleeful boot-in-the-face to the boundary-lines that divide us against each other, even against ourselves. —Emilie Friedlander

If there's one thing dvsn and the rest of the OVO camp excels at, it's drumming up the opportunity for you to text your ex. For that reason, "Still Pray For You" and "Miss Me" should be played with caution if you don't want to be that person using the holidays to check up on old flames. Across the record dvsn also offers other moods, just in case your text message ends up left on read. "Dangerous City," featuring Buju Banton, and "So What," featuring Popcaan, hoists you out of your feelings and drops you in the middle of a Jamaican basement party, just before exploring the club energies of "Keep It Going" and "Flawless." A duet with Snoh Aalegra puts us back at the eye of the storm, and despite the emotional whiplash, we're made better in the end. —Kristin Corry

Seven years after their debut collaboration, My 1st Chemistry Set, Detroit's Boldy James and producer The Alchemist are back with more of their "left-handed, unorthodox" music. It's a dense 12-track project with key assists from Evidence, Benny the Butcher, Vince Staples, and Freddie Gibbs. The brooding production is an ideal backdrop for James to tell stories of his past life. "Scrape the Bowl" is a standout, as James and Benny the Butcher exchange bars about ducking the cops over a sparse piano sample and a kick drum that hits like a hurried knock on the door. —Ashwin Rodrigues

Natanael Cano, the undisputed king of corridos tumbados, got one of the biggest co-signs in the world in 2019 when Bad Bunny unexpectedly hopped on a remix of the singer's "Soy El Diablo." Even before that, the fresh-faced kid from Hermosillo, Sonora, was racking up viral singles and amassing a fanbase who, like him, embraced a fusion of trap lyricism and regional instrumentation. After a string of Billboard Latin hits, his second installment in a series for the Rancho Humilde imprint serves both as an album and a showcase, with the lead artist collaborating with labelmates like Junior H and Ovi. Of the tracks on which he doesn't appear, the standout comes from Ivonne Galaz and Natalie López, who provide welcome contrast on "La Rueda" with the rarely heard voices of women in a genre prone to male prevalence. —Gary Suarez

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is a full-circle moment for Daniel Lopatin. Though his recent stints collaborating with The Weeknd, scoring Safdie Brothers movies, and playing on late-night TV have a touch of the glitch-in-the-matrix quality that has defined so much of this year, the pandemic found the Massachusetts-born experimental musician back where he started, sitting alone in his room and listening to the radio. For an artist who took his nom de plume from the Boston-area FM station he grew up listening to as a kid, there's something extremely fitting about his choice of source material for many of these songs: Archival audio capturing radio announcers doing a final farewell before handing over the airwaves to a new sound and a new format. Even where he ventures into a bit of straightforward-but-gauzy pop songwriting—with guest vocals from the likes Caroline Polachek, Arca, and The Weeknd, who executive-produced Magic—the concept feels like the perfect canvas for showcasing what Lopatin does best: diving into the delirium of a world where taste is fickle, nothing feels permanent, and out-of-context musical signifiers are flying at us from all sides, and finding little pockets of sound that feel like home. —Emilie Friedlander

One of the most outrageous elements of French black metal outfit Esoctrilihum's highly dynamic new record Eternity of Shaog—and there are many, since it sounds like the symphonic church music of a malevolent alien race—is that it's all one guy. Of course, he isn't the first black metal artist to do this kind of thing, from Burzum to Botanist, but this record sounds like a whole damn orchestra was assembled. All that violently shredding guitar, those soaring strings, that eerie piano, and galloping drums are the doing of the project's mysterious creator, Asthagul. Freaky and fantastical, Eternity of Shaog is Esoctrilihum's fifth release in just three years, and certainly the best of the bunch. While this collection of songs constructs a characteristically folkloric and psychedelic take on symphonic black metal, tracks like "Exh-Enî Söph" and "Amenthlys" reveal a more accessible melodicism that will appeal to metalheads far and wide, even those who are bored of the whole miserable-guy-in-corpse-paint-standing-in-a-Scandinavian-forest thing. —Hilary Pollack

Griselda Records' Benny the Butcher joined forces with one of the busiest producers, Hit-Boy, to make a vintage twelve-track hip-hop record. Complete with skits from The Madd Rapper and Pain in Da Ass and warm, looped soul samples, the album is an homage to 90's rap albums like Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt. The project is a full-circle moment for Benny. In 2018, the Buffalo rapper gained attention with "'97 Hov." Two years and a Roc Nation management deal later, Benny is commenting on the art inside Jay Z's house on "One Way Flight." It's the best Griselda release of the year. —Ashwin Rodrigues

Paramore fans tend to use words like "strong" and "vulnerable" to describe fiery-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams, and on her first solo full-length, Petals for Armor, we see her reflecting back on her twenties with both perseverance and nuance. Created with all her dearest friends and collaborators—including Paramore's Taylor York and Joey Howard, and best friend and creative director Lindsey Byrnes—the record feels like a safe house she has built for herself. Over the course of the last decade with her band, her marriage eroded, but choosing to move on from it has clearly been a source of therapy, friendship, and personal authenticity. Petals for Armor traces that journey from start to finish via gloomy synth-pop, mournful ballads, and joyous, calypso-inflected anthems. The blossoms of her personal story had to be grown alone, but we now have a bouquet of songs that beautifully demonstrate what the long-awaited Hayley Williams solo album looks like, feels like, and has to say. —Hannah Ewens

Common Prayers is a balm for the soul—a comfort blanket of an album that quiets your mind, melts away your anxiety, and lulls you into a state of pure, impenetrable calm. It's made up of gentle, soothing songs, arranged simply. There's not much more to them than the soft plucking or strumming of an acoustic guitar, subdued stand-up bass lines, the occasional tinkle of bells and piano keys, and Martin's folksy, textured voice. The Walkmen and Jonathan Fire*Eater co-founder's songwriting is, as always, disarmingly candid and unaffected. As he sings about being in love, getting old, and trying to find joy in a world that's falling apart, you feel like you get to know him—and you find yourself grateful for the company of someone who can make you feel a little better about things, even if only for a moment. —Drew Schwartz

England is in terminal retrograde; austerity, rampant classism, and cartoonishly evil market politics abound. What better sound to tackle these issues than that of the late 70s? Enter West London punk troupe Chubby and the Gang. Opening with a 1956 clip of Jimmie Rodgers Snow preaching about the moral rot of rock n' roll before dropping into a 28-minute whirlwind of pummeling riffs, gang vocals, and full-chord piano slides, Speed Kills is a timeless debut about a specific time and place: London, right now. Facilitated by production from Fucked Up's Jonah Falco, pub rock, heartache blues, and politically driven hardcore punk come together under one roof. Here, it feels like any probem can be solved with a pint or ten. But catharsis and grief are rarely mutually exclusive, and the physicality of hardcore often represents a frustration beyond words. Ultimately Speed Kills ends with a pained reflection on the Grenfell Tower Tragedy, as vocalist Charlie Manning-Walker delivers the most definitive line of the album: "I have nothing left to… I have nothing left to say." —Emma Garland

Tupac Shakur once implored rap fans to not just "bob their head to the beat," but actually "peep the game" of what rappers are conveying lyrically. For that, look to Polo G, a young Chicago rhymer with a knack for melodic cadences that meld into the contours of his production. That dynamic is prevalent throughout his aspirationally titled The GOAT album. But beyond the subwoofer fodder and earworm melodies are reflections on his experiences in the city that deconstruct the idea of "senseless violence." "Happiness and depression, I'm stuck inside the middle," he admits on "Heartless," dropping idle threats while still having the heart to send "condolences to your family." The project has its fun, Rap Caviar-appeasing moments, but he also explores the toll of grief, self-medicating, and how "them streets'll turn a good kid into a cold lil' savage." The GOAT is uncompromising Chicago Drill 2.0, but Polo G's introspection, along with the hope of the Tupac-sampling "Wishing For A Hero," display the versatility that GOAT-status requires. —Andre Gee

If there's one album that captures the fire-and-brimstone nature of 2020, it's this one. The fourth full-length from Queens-based experimental artist Alexandra Drewchin, Phoenix was written in relative isolation during an artistic residency in Zaragoza, in north-eastern Spain, and it shows. This is an ethereal world built on rugged terrain—the sound of the earth's core clashing with the heavens.

Some of the more vocal-heavy cuts, like "Below The Clavicle" and "How To Fight," owe a debt toSoap&Skin in terms of their sparse arrangements and unnerving harmonies, but overall, Phoenix is a work of originality and of extremes. Between the ripples of acoustic guitar, the blasts of heavy metal, and the medieval melodies interrupted by glitchy noises, like a Diablo III cinematic on the fritz, Phoenix does a lot with a little. Drewchin even manages to pack in some pop culture easter eggs—like on "Goodbye Diamond," where she sings those words in the same cadence as Alice in Wonderlandbidding farewell to her cat as she falls down the rabbit hole, presumably on her own journey of rebirth. —Emma Garland

Prior to Bad Bunny's landmark reggaetón album YHLQMDLG, the duo of Jowell & Randy were widely known in perreo circles for singles like 2007's "Un Poco Loca" and 2010's "Loco," but largely lacked visibility outside of those spaces. Their appearance on the Bad Bunny record's nostalgic smash hit "Safaera" introduced them to a new generation of fans, which sets the stage nicely for this thumping nonstop joyride of an album. Executive produced by El Conejo Malo himself, Viva El Perreo links the genre's past and present through collabs with contemporary hitmakers like J Balvin and reunions with old friends like De La Ghetto and Don Omar. Dancehall roots crop up on tracks like "Bien Arrebatao" and "Tóxicos," while Balvin collaboration "Anaranjado" and the Dominican dembow of "Se Acabó La Cuarentena" show off an undeniably modern polish. —Gary Suarez

Pricks—as in jerks, but more descriptive—are everywhere. Jme knows this more than most, and he has a song about them on his fourth LP, Grime MC. Specifically, "Pricks" fires at the music industry bores who asked for non-naughty versions of his songs earlier in his career. "You can't ask Denzel for a clean version of Training Day / Take what you're given […] There ain't no clean version of Michelangelo's artwork with a penis hidden," he chides. The track, like the majority of Grime MC, re-solidifies Jme's as a one-man tour-de-force, only this time with the perspective of being in his mid-30s, married, and reflective. "Got no manager, never had one / Got no stylist, never had one / Got no publisher, never had one / Got no P.A, never had one / Got no P.R., never had one," he boasts. Yes, this got a physical release in December 2019, but it didn't appear on streaming services until June 2020—so suck your mum! —Ryan Bassil 

For the last few years, the Italian composer Lorenzo Senni has described his music as a sort of  "rave voyeurism"—staring at the dancefloor from a distance, finding a way to his own strange ecstasy. His new LP Scacco Matto is, he says, his most "structured and song-oriented" version of the idea yet, which means it's also his most focused and direct, full of piercing blasts of dizzying synthetics and distorted club constructions. "The Power of Failing" is like a dance track spun through a particle accelerator, broken up into its basest elements, whipping by at unimaginable speed. —Colin Joyce

Featuring Ty Dolla $ign is a fitting name for an album from an artist who frequently appears on other people's music, whether he's writing, producing, playing bass, or performing any combination of his many musical talents. Indeed, Ty does it all, and the concept of Featuring Ty Dolla $ign turns that expertise on its head to invite a few of his friends—from Post Malone to Kehlani to the heavily featured Mustard to the unfortunate Kanye of it all—to be the featured artist on his record for a change. It's a funky, repeatable 25-tracker that at just an hour, feels breezier than that, with seamless, careful production that deftly connects one track to the next. For that reason, it's hard to pick a handful of highlights, but look to the "Tyrone 2021," an interpolation of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone"' "Track 6," the talkbox flourishes of which will tickle your brain. The Jhene Aiko feature, "By Yourself" begs to be belted out in the car with the windows down, just like the rest of the album. —Leslie Horn 

For his debut album, rapper and skater Navy Blue looked way into the past. Its title, Àdá Irin, is the name of a sword from the ancient Yoruba story of Ogun, the god of war and iron, who used it to make a way and forge a path for his people. Navy Blue dedicated the record to his father and to the ancestors stretching back through the annals of history who made the way for him to be the person he's become. The bars are abstract at points, but honest, expressing confusion about and gratitude for the road that led him to where he is. Over swirling, slippery beats, he expresses a weary knowledge that life is long, but that if we focus on the lessons of those who came before us, we might make it through too. —Colin Joyce

In one of the few bright spots of 2020, as of November 4, Drakeo the Ruler is a free man. Earlier this year, while awaiting trial in Los Angeles Men's Central Jail, the Ruler managed to rap an entire album over Global Tel Link (GTL) phone calls to his engineer, Navin Upamaka, and producer Joog. The album features tinny-sounding vocals, tweaked to compliment the spacious, slamming sounds he's at home on. Recorded in the wake of prosecutors using his lyrics against him, Thank You For Using GTL is a time capsule of one of the most unique and prolific LA rappers demonstrating his commitment to his craft, even while incarcerated. —Ashwin Rodrigues

Arguably the hardest working person in porcelain-delicate indie-folk, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker graced listeners with two new records this year: songs and instrumentals. Both are triumphs, but coming from an artist with a voice and lyrical touch like Lenker's, it's only natural that songs would appeal most. The album's 11 tracks prove once again that she is a gifted and articulate observer of the world around her as she finds timelessness in scattered memories—a shirt sleeve, a dead horse. The record feels like a balm for listeners who've spent the last 12 months facing down the disquieting banality of a tragic year. "Everything eats and is eaten," Lenker sings on "ingydar," her voice wavering like a helicopter seed in the wind. The world spins. These things, like everything else, will pass. —Lauren O'Neill 

King Von knows how to command a song in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Whether he's talking about street shit or getting romantic, he sounds like he's going to combust at any moment. On Welcome to O Block, Von shows how much he's honed his craft over the past couple of years. Boisterous Chicago Drill anthems like "The Code," featuring fellow Chicagoan Polo G, make up a fair share of the project, but Von really shines when he's telling dark tales on songs like "How It Go" and "Wayne's Story," bringing you into vivid and haunting realities as engrossing as any mob movie. Sadly, Von was killed a week after the album's release, and while he probably has enough material for a posthumous release or two, Welcome to O Block stands as a more than suitable legacy. —Trey Smith

Philadelphia rock band Nothing has a way of putting words and sounds to the rock-bottom moments in life. Consider the title of their wide-eyed and beautiful fourth album—The Great Dismal—and see if you can think of a better way to sum up the combination of slow heartbreak, frustrated ambition, and deadening boredom that took up so much of our emotional bandwidth this year. In their best moments, Nothing does us one better, taking these states of psychic purgatory and blowing them up widescreen, so that they feel pregnant with a significance that is hard to put into language but also darkly addicting. 

On The Great Dismal, which they recorded during the first few weeks of the pandemic, they let the guitars do a lot of the talking; from the wailing bends on the "April Ha Ha" to the shimmering, oceanic tones on "Blue Mecca," the shoegaze influence is more apparent than ever, rendered with a clarity of signal that makes every texture pop. Even frontman Domenic "Nicky" Palermo's voice sounds more feathery than usual, which somehow makes his words cut even closer to the bone when he startles us with a line like "Trapped / In skin that fits me / But never fit me / Was never mine." —Emilie Friedlander 

J Hus makes the kind of songs you want to hear at a summer house party, causing damp bodies to collide, and Big Conspiracy, his second album, is full of them. On "Fortune Teller," he raps about being able to take your girl; tracks like "Must Be" and "Repeat," a collaboration with Jamaican singer Koffee, are begging to be rinsed again and again. Released in January, Big Conspiracy was destined to be a record that was synonymous with summer, but thanks to a worldwide lockdown, that was sadly taken away from us. —Nana Baah

A lot has changed since the City Girls released 2018's Girl Code. Yung Miami gave birth to her second child, and JT completed a 15-month prison sentence. 2020 was their chance to dominate the stage together for the first time in over a year, but then the world shut down. For a duo that makes energetic strip club soundtracks, City on Lock turned out to be more than a cheeky way of saying they were running their Miami hometown. Every city was on lock, but we adjusted, twerking to "Jobs" and "Pussy Talk" on our couches at home. JT and Miami's cash-only mantra continues to piss off the frugal, and it doesn't bother the duo one bit. Instead of doubling down on their expensive standards, they're providing free game. "Post up the food, but don't post the nigga / Post up the bag, but don't post the spender / Kiss and you tell, I'ma suspend you," JT raps. Funny how rap tries to regulate transactional interactions the minute women start wanting a piece of the pie. —Kristin Corry

Prior to 2020, Dua Lipa was a blindingly successful but somewhat faceless name in the British pop culture landscape. She was known as the singer behind "New Rules," but her self-titled debut album sounded like it could have been delivered by any pop star of the past decade. With a commitment to making her album as "concise" and "cohesive as possible," Future Nostalgia showed Lipa's playfulness and ability to provide a singular swagger and disco-inspired flair, gaining comparisons to Kylie Minogue. This album was made to be enjoyed on the dancefloor, but she moved the release date up to boost morale early in the U.K.'s first lockdown, so it became the soundtrack for early quarantine runs and YouTube workouts. With its 80s pop synths and house-style piano chords, she celebrated sex, freedom, and good living. This was her year to command ears in America, and with Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa legitimized herself as a worldwide pop presence. —Hannah Ewens

Upon the release of their long-awaited sophomore album, Fires in Heaven, vocalist and producer Jack Donoghue offered a characteristically cryptic explanation of the band's decade-long absence: "It's all a war with ourselves over here." They haven't really explained much beyond that, but the ghostly Fires in Heaven reflects the sort of internal struggle that quote hints at. Full of garbled raps, mysterious mantras, and a murky melancholia, Fires in Heaven is a document of the band's turbulent mental states. The opener, "Capulets," provides a thesis for the whole record: "Ask me what I'm doing with my life / Ain't shit to tell y'all." Rarely has apathy felt so anthemic. —Colin Joyce

After a summer of protests against police violence and systematic racism, releasing an album titled Rich Slave in the middle of August was a clear statement. Dolph still shows up with the club hits and bass-heavy trap beats he's known for, from "RNB ft. Megan the Stallion" (in which she performs her most underrated verse of the year) to shit-talking masterpieces like "I See $." But on album standout "The Land," produced by Sosa 808 and Hunnit Band Yung, he begins to display another dimension, sharing a story about an encounter with the police while asking many of the questions we all had this summer. Dolph is officially an elder statesman at this point, and on Rich Slave, we see him balancing humor with social consciousness better than many of his veteran peers. —Trey Smith

Soccer Mommy mastermind Sophie Allison's musicianship takes a step up on her second album, Color Theory, which she wrote while touring her 2018 debut, Clean. As she builds crunchy, soundtrack-ready indie rock around themes of depression, family illness, and loss, Allison's lyrics function as a journal, helping her to accept the thesis she arrives at on the album's slacker-pop zenith, "circle the drain." "Things feel that low sometimes / Even when everything is fine," she sings. And she's right: That's life, for a lot of people. Color Theory acknowledges that fact, and makes something beautiful out of it anyway. —Lauren O'Neill

Cinematic pop mastermind Mike Hadreas opened the curtain on his fifth studio album singing "Half of my whole life is gone," and closed it with the line, "I thought the sea would make some pattern known and swim us safely home, but there's no secret, just an undertow." Set My Heart on Fire Immediately sounds like an album born of gentle sadness and disillusionment, but it's full of mesmerizing detours and moments of ferocious joy. Hadreas meets pain and pleasure with equal astonishment on songs like "Describe" and "Your Body Changes Everything." Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a canvas of pop, grunge, alternative, baroque, and classical music—an exquisite display of the musical imagination of Perfume Genius. —Jaime Silano

When Jay Electronica's A Written Testimony arrived in March, it felt both late and timely, as though rap's prophet really had been waiting to drop his debut when the world ended. He'd introduced himself as an enigmatic ronin and returned as such 10 years later, with scandalous tales ("I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar"), knotty divine logic ("My mathematical theology of rhymin' a touch the soul"), and apocalyptic visions ("What a time we livin' in, just like the scripture says / Earthquakes, fires, and plagues, the resurrection of the dead"). Jay Z—the album's surprise co-star, essentially making this Watch the Throne 1.5—sounds laser-focused, gifting us with one of his immortal triple entendres. The two Jays close with the grieving "A.P.I.D.T.A." "I got numbers on my phone that'll never ring again" is an ache many have known, and as the months passed, many learned. —Brian Josephs 

Grief is a real motherfucker. When coupled with profound remorse and the self-reproach of believing you could have done more for the person you've lost, it creates a mountain of weight that sits on your chest. On Lament, LA post-hardcore outfit Touché Amoré explores this humanizing and painful experience with stomach-kicking, knife-twisting, throat-destroying fervor. After losing his mother to breast cancer and missing her final moments because he was away playing a show, frontman Jeremy Bolm unleashed that enormous weight on the band's fifth album. From opener "Come Heroine" to the melancholic closer "A Forecast," it's heart-wrenching in its guttural emotion, glorious in its raw professions of love, anger, and regret. When Bolm screams, "It's not what I would have chosen / It's not what I want at all / I'm a shell of my former self" on "I'll Be Your Host, you can't help but feel it in your bones. —Alex Zaragoza

In January 2019, after years of legal battles with Generation Now and Atlantic Record, Lil Uzi Vert was ready to retire from rap. He wasn't even 25. But ten months after announcing that his sophomore album was complete, Uzi emerged victorious with Eternal Atake two years after Luv Is Rage 2—contradicting any rhetoric about the limited shelf life of mumble rap. Starved Lil Uzi fans could've lived off 14 new tracks if need be, but a week later, he released the deluxe version, including Luv vs. The World 2, a second project with 18 more songs. Uzi's energy is palpable for almost two hours as he bounces across notable features with Chief Keef, 21 Savage, and Young Thug, and he's still animated enough to be center stage on songs like "Baby Pluto" and "Silly Watch." If you remove the braggadocious bars and charisma, Uzi is still the emo rapper we met years ago, healing from the scars of his sketchy record deal. "But I don't wanna go out bad, wanna go out sad, wanna go out that way / I'm with the winnin' team, they make sure I'm not in last place," he raps on "That Way," a reimagining of Backstreet Boys' 1999 hit. Eternal Atake and Luv vs. The World 2 are evidence that there's not much that can stop Lil Uzi Vert. —Kristin Corry

Brooklyn R&B songwriter KeiyaA spends a lot of time pondering the big questions. In an interview with Pitchfork, shortly after the release of her stunning debut album Forever, Ya Girl, she contemplated the nature of truth, the mutability of existence, and the relief that justice offers to the lonely. It's heavy subject matter for an afternoon chat in the park, but not unexpected for the maker of an album as thematically dense, emotionally careful, and genuinely illuminating as this one. Forever, Ya Girl uses fractured R&B and distended soul songs as the canvas for meditations on the nature of more or less everything. KeiyaA is a searcher, and a surprisingly self-assured one, with a gift for making songs that offer comfort to those grappling with similar questions. —Colin Joyce

In a year that's even warped our perception of time, Freddie Gibbs' status as our most consistent rapper still feels like an undisputed fact. Every Gibbs release has an eventful flair; he's endlessly malleable but never formless. On Alfredo, Alchemist's production gives that charm a sharpened lucidity. Whether he's throwing astral effects on sampled dialogue, abruptly puncturing them with whirs, or melting them altogether, they always work in near-lockstep with Gibbs' unpredictable whims. Gibbs doesn't switch flows so much as he phases and slips through them (see: "Frank Lucas," where he does so nearly a dozen times), even as he treads through drug spoils and trauma in a matter of seconds ("Skinny Suge"). Gibbs is about at the age where the athletes he namechecks retire. On Alfredo, the points-per-game average is still pretty strong. —Brian Josephs

It doesn't seem like a good idea for any band from the 90s to reemerge now, in 2020, with their first record in over two decades. So much has changed. But one incredible thing that happened this very strange year was that Hum—yes, "Stars" Hum—dropped with an absolute banger of an album, their first in 22 years. In their earlier days, Hum were outsiders, never fully fitting into the boxes of alt-rock or shoegaze or grunge. But they influenced so many contemporary bands that now, they somehow feel more modern. Sculptural, exploratory, and meditative, Inlet is a continuation of a concept (perhaps most succinctly put, "space rock") and an ambitious reexamination of the possibilities of texture. Proggy without being nerdy, hard without being not angry, and vast without being hollow, it's a mushroom trip through the cosmos, from the oceanic opener "Waves" to the swirling "Step Into You," which offers an escape to "a desert that blooms in our darkest days." "I'm lost," sighs singer and guitarist Matt Talbott. That's fine; just take us with you.—Hilary Pollack

With her debut album, Rina Sawayama shows that she is one of the most interesting pop artists about right now. SAWAYAMA contains multitudes, lifting the best parts of different genres like electropop, R&B, and metal so that listening never gets boring. Discussing how she put together the album's tracklist in an interview at Foundry Fest, Sawayama revealed that she sat down to construct a narrative so that you don't "end up quite lost." She clearly succeeds at that, going from railing against the extravagant lives of the elite over an angry metal guitar riff on "XS" ("Cartiers and Tesla X's / Calabasas, I deserve it") to opening up about her deepest secrets with a friend on the stripped-back ballad "Chosen Family." —Nana Baah

Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher is a stunner of an album that reminds you that it's possible to fear for the future while also feeling glimmers of hope. It also makes solitude and anonymity sound alluring. "I love a good place to hide in plain sight," she sings on the title track. After four years of Trump and nine months into a pandemic, who hasn't wanted to disappear at some point? But as enticing as that is, there has to be some optimism—even if you have no faith at all. "I want to believe / That if I go outside, I'll see a tractor beam / Coming to take me to where I'm from," she sings on "Chinese Satellite." There's a chance of a better world, and listening to this album makes the sadness and anxiety of waiting for it feel okay. —Leslie Horn

Burna Boy is committed to using music to connect global audiences; this is the clear and consistent intention powering all of his projects. His fifth studio album, Twice As Tall, sees him humbly recounting his journey up to this point. The record shifts gears repeatedly over its 15 tracks, putting the Nigerian singer and rapper's range and agility on display. Half the songs were produced by Telz, the elusive heavyweight behind the tag "funkula"; the rest were crafted with the help of Rexxie, Timbaland, and DJDS. Even on the brightest instrumentals (see: "Time Flies," featuring Kenyan afro-pop band Sauti Sol, and "Wonderful"), his lyrics offer profound meditations on time, humanity, and the ways music is understood and experienced. —Jaime Silano

Natanael Cano's rising star has lifted the newest generation of Mexican regional practitioners in a major way, and the artist who seems to have benefited the most from that lift is Junior H. The two singers landed a Billboard Latin hit with "Ella," their joint single from the first Corridos Tumbados compilation, and the teen from Guanajuato kept that momentum going in 2020 with three solo projects of his own. One of two simultaneous album releases from this past September, Cruisin with Junior H contains a dozen moody corridos flush with cash, shadowed by violence, and teeming with raw emotion. He sings these spare acoustic songs with a world-weariness that belies his 19 years—sounding downright bereft on the heartbroken "La Vi Llorar," and faded off kush and purp on "Ojos Colorados." —Gary Suarez

Brent Faiyaz's pillowy, luxuriant R&B has always been comforting to listen to—full of misty melodies that invite you to drift away and dream of a better world. He continues to explore this soothing sound on Fuck the World, but as its title suggests, it feels darker than much of what he's made before. He arrives with knives out, ready to lie and cheat and steal the heart of anyone who's unprepared to encounter his charms. The title track showcases Faiyaz at his most flagrant, proclaiming himself a "walking erection"—a crass but vivid way of casting himself as an architect of infidelity. On "Rehab (Winter In Paris)," he contemplates the intertwined nature of lust and addiction, aching over a love he can't let go in spite of himself. He knows better than to do bad, but he can't seem to help himself, a complicated emotion to bring to songs as beautiful as these. —Colin Joyce

If there's anyone restless enough to create a time capsule of early lockdown, it's Charli XCX. Although it opens true-to-form, with explosive club banger "pink diamond," how i'm feeling now is unique. Never before has she shared so much of the creation process with fans and followers, from album artwork to deadline anxieties—and this time around, she gets personal. Instead of rebellion and partying, this one centers her 7-year relationship with her boyfriend—although she does lament the former's absence. Each track manages, improbably, to sound both futuristic and hyper-present. You'd be resentful of her very Charli level of productivity if the album didn't cement her status as a pop genius. —Hannah Ewens

Fleet Foxes' entire discography has felt like frontman Robin Pecknold responding to his own art. After the group found initial success with its self-titled debut and got pigeonholed as mountain-man folkies, Pecknold returned with two strikingly knotty and experimental albums in 2011's Helplessness Blues and 2017's Crack-Up. While those follow-ups were both successful, Pecknold strikes the perfect balance with the masterful Shore, a meticulously constructed LP that's both as dense and as accessible as anything he's ever released. "Sunblind" is a joyous celebration of the lives and careers of Pecknold's influences, while songs like "Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman" boast grand, sweeping arrangements. This is an album brimming with life, curiosity, and the best songwriting of Pecknold's already stacked career. —Josh Terry

In a year where it was impossible to get to the club, Bradford's Bad Boy Chiller Crew did the noble thing and brought the club to us, via their first full-length mixtape Full Wack No Brakes. For 37 minutes, MCs Kane, GK and Clive, with the help of sometime collaborator S Dog, rap breathlessly over Eurodance-style beats, continuing West Yorkshire's legacy as the home of bassline, while also creating something maddeningly exciting, and entirely their own. Musically, Full Wack No Brakes is the most irresistible fun you can have in your own home, spiritually it's the sound of drinking alcohol that glows in the dark, and honestly if you can listen to "Loco" without thinking "Mentally I'm here," then my friend, we've had very different experiences in 2020. —Lauren O'Neill

With Pa Salieu's mutant blend of afrobeats, grime, and drill—all with an 80s flavor—the 22-year-old rapper from Coventry has brought a new perspective to a scene that typically revolves around London. Though he was initially hesitant to drop his breakout single, "Frontline"—which he wrote in half an hour two years ago—it became an instant U.K. favorite, racking up over 3 million views on YouTube and receiving constant radio play since its release back in January. Send Them To Coventry, which takes its name from an idiom meaning to ostracize someone as a form of punishment, tells stories from the streets of Hillfields. It's dark and strange, menacing but occasionally euphoric. Mostly, it reflects the claustrophobia and violence that defines life in the U.K. for so many, but also the sense of unity and hope that music can provide when it's rooted in community. —Emma Garland

Bad Bunny stayed busy this year, releasing three albums as a pandemic impeded us from engaging in perreo intenso in sweaty, packed clubs. Some might see this as a cruel endeavor—giving us so much to clap our ass to when there's no safe place outside of our kitchens to do so. But I see it as a gift, especially when it comes to his first release of 2020, YHLQMDLG. Any other year, "Safaera" and "Yo Perreo Sola" would have blown up rooftop parties all summer along; instead, they became meme sensations, and the entire album became a soundtrack for extremely lit apartment cleanings. Considering that El Conejo Malo was the most streamed artist globally on Spotify (8.3 billion streams), and YHLQMDLG topped the platform as the most-streamed album of 2020, it seems like we were all on the same page. Bless Benito for this. —Alex Zaragoza

Something about the dystopian, tumultuous Trump years really brought out the industrial revivalist in all of us, whether it was the renewed Nine Inch Nails worship or the continued rise of newer acts like Author & Punisher, HIDE, and, of course, Uniform, who really hit their stride with this year's Shame. Opening with the swaggering headbanger "Delco," the eight-track album charts a course through a succession of dark passages, crawling through claustrophobic moments of guilt, swaying with rage, and howling into caves of isolation. "This Won't End Well," especially, feels like a sludgy crawl through the quicksand of doom that seemed to surround us this whole damn year. Yet despite its icy, brutalist patina, Shame has a warmth to it, too—one feels most palpable when the band suddenly shapeshifts into moments of energetic punk and more traditional forms of metal. Underneath it all, Uniform just wants to rock. —Hilary Pollack

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is a Chicago institution, known for his career as a sideman in many influential local bands and for his genre-defying and virtuosic solo work as NNAMDÏ. On Brat, his first album under the moniker, he stretches the borders of math-rock, hip-hop, and experimental music to create an incredibly idiosyncratic collection of songs. But more than its divergent sonic whims (take the psychedelic raps on "Bullseye," compared to the mathy riffs in "Perfect In My Mind"), the LP's heart is what stands out. Brooding single "Glass Casket" deals with how Ogbonnaya, the child of Nigerian immigrants, feels selfish pursuing music full-time as he sings, "I wish I was a farmer / I wish I was an astronaut / So I could feed my family / And then take them somewhere very far away." It's a small moment, but one that ultimately shows how selfless this immense talent is. —Josh Terry 

Pop Smoke's posthumous Shoot for the Moon was a disappointment because it sounded vaguely "industry"—who among us heard hits like "Welcome to the Party," glowered inwardly, and prayed for a Swae Lee collab? The project awkwardly framed the late Bashar Jackson's pop potential as something that necessarily transcended New York. And that's wrong: Pop Smoke was Pop Smoke because Pop Smoke is New York. Meet the Woo 2 is the most potent distillation of that truth, and naturally, it's the most essential Pop Smoke album. It sticks with the drill formula without becoming formulaic: "Dreaming" is a war song, and the indignation of "Christopher Walking"'s hook took on a new meaning when we literally weren't supposed to be outside. Meet the Woo 2 had promise; now it's a tragic testament. —Brian Josephs

For years, Victoria Monet was R&B and pop's secret ingredient, adding her colorful metaphors to projects like Ariana Grande's thank u, next and Chloe x Halle's Grammy-nominated anthem "Do It." Her work behind the scenes, however great, was only a fraction of her potential. The world already knew Monet's words, but Jaguar, her psychedelic 9-track project with lofty horns and a 70s groove, is a chance for us to hear them directly from her. "So fuck a fantasy, this your motherfuckin' moment," she sings on the project's expansive opener. As much as Jaguar is riddled with Monet's manifestations, it's also a realm where she explores her sexuality on songs like "Dive" and "Touch Me," a sensual song about a woman Monet once loved, later confirmed to be Kehlani, with Janet Jackson-inspired harmonies. Jaguar had all the makings to be a Grammy-nominated album, and this year's Best R&B Album category, featuring all male vocalists, is an indicator that the award show has no intention of getting it right. —Kristin Corry

Katie Crutchfield made Saint Cloud, her fifth record as Waxahatchee, while getting sober. It's a mature, optimistic album, and even while it takes a more mellow turn than previous Waxahatchee releases—its production is more open and outdoorsy, its melodies sparklier—it embraces and elevates everything that the project is best loved for. Vocally, Saint Cloud sees Crutchfield at the top of her game, as she leans into a country-lite lilt on tracks like "Can't Do Much" and "Lilacs," while lyrically, she is vivid and almost painterly. On "Fire," the record's first single, she sings "If I could love you unconditionally, I / Could iron out the edges of the darkest sky," a pair of lines directed towards herself.

The musical equivalent of feeling sunshine on your skin, this is a heartening album about self-acceptance and moving forward. If you want to be more utilitarian about it, it's also 11 basically faultless songs by a beloved songwriter showing us a thrilling new side of herself. Whichever way you come at it, however, the conclusion is the same: Saint Cloud is a career-best for Waxahatchee. —Lauren O'Neill

Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a rock album, through and through. It opens with a burst of brass—chopped and magisterial—and enters the room, as any seasoned seducer would, eyes first. "I think I can solve it / I can be your all, ain't no problem, baby," Yves Tumor promises right off the bat, sweeping you off your feet before you've even had a chance to find them. From there, like a charming stranger leading you to an after-party, they drag you on a journey of decadence and desire; you're never quite sure where you're going, but delighted to be along for the ride. Yves Tumor's most direct flirtation with the mainstream to date, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a shape-shifting and gripping body of work from an artist who has, as both an individual and a musician, consistently evaded definition. —Emma Garland

The title of Lil Baby's February album, My Turn, was a statement: Here was Lil Baby's time in the spotlight. Songs like "Forget That," featuring Rylo Rodriguez; "Live Off My Closet," with Future; and "Heating Up," co-starring Gunna could be heard buzzing car trunks across the country—and the record went double platinum. When the deluxe version dropped in May, the world was different: Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the world in response to the killing of George Floyd. We were living—and still are—through a global pandemic. Lil Baby saw it as his turn to speak up, updating the album with "The Bigger Picture," a Grammy-nominated anthem about race, protest, and police brutality. —Ashwin Rodrigues

Bartees Strange's debut EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, saw him covering songs by his favorite band, The National, after he didn't see any other people of color at their shows. He made the material his own, and on his debut album, Live Forever, he elevates his mid-aughts indie rock and hip-hop influences into something vibrant, defiant, and distinctly his. Southern rock-tinged single "Mustang" combines a reference to the Antlers with lyrics about feeling out of place as a Black man in his small, conservative hometown of Mustang, Oklahoma. Elsewhere, "Boomer" dreams up a fun fusion of rap and pop-punk that's authentic and perfectly executed. Though the singles are stellar, the real joy in the LP comes through on the less-heralded album tracks, which include electronic experiments like the bass-heavy "Flagey God" and the lo-fi beatmaking on "Mossblerd." —Josh Terry

Fiona Apple's music has always been out of step with pop music's trends and unconcerned with setting them. Instead, she's spent the past quarter-century making music that is wholly free, uncompromising, and raw, culminating in this year's Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It's an album defined first and foremost by its emotional openness, its songs driven by confessions of vulnerability ("Fetch the Bolt Cutters") and resentment ("Relay")—and, in one case, a kind but influential gesture of support from a childhood classmate ("Shameika"). On opener "I Want You to Love Me," she sings what has arguably been the thesis statement for her entire career: "And I know none of this will matter in the long run / But I know a sound is still a sound around no one." Apple's lyrical genius matches her unorthodox and thrilling approach to pop songwriting. No one is quite on her level. —Josh Terry

As the world locked down in March, U.K. driller Headie One was once again banged up in Her Majesty's prison system. This was his fourth offense—police had stopped and searched his vehicle in August 2019 and found a knife—and followed on from previous prison stints, including one for possession of nearly £30,000 worth of heroin and cocaine in 2014, when he was in his teens. He'd released post-jail music in 2017, but when he returned from prison in April this year—in a helicopter, no less—his music had renewed focus. 

His first full-length project of 2020 was GANG, a collaborative mixtape with Brit producer Fred Again that brought a broader, experimental sound to U.K. drill and included guest spots from FKA twigs, Sampha, and Jamie xx. Ambient godfather Brain Eno even remixed a song. Next came a Drake feature in the summer, and then Headie announced that he was releasing his debut album, Edna. Named after his late mother, the record sees him reflecting on his past while incorporating the best bits from his previous mixtapes (the beat selection, the crossover appeal, the experimentation) into one, large, rounded whole. It has many tones—somber ("Teach Me") and poppy ("Ain't It Different"), pensive and boastful, feel-good ("Princess Cuts") and futuristic ("Try Me")—helping wipe away the idea of U.K. drill being a monolithic entity. Also, it samples Red Hot Chilli Peppers' on its lead single, which is sick. —Ryan Bassil

For years, Stephen Bruner made magical music in plain sight, weaving his bass wizardry into works by Erykah Badu, John Legend, and Miguel, among others. On his collaborations with Flying Lotus and his own releases for the Brainfeeder label, his masterful performances seemed to exist both within and beyond jazz—a game of three-dimensional chess he played with feverish, even fretless, abandon. Coming after the critical success of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington's The Epic, two seminal albums on which he appeared, Thundercat's Drunk saw him grow in notoriety beyond the seemingly niche and quirky fare that had become his signature. For listeners who understood the in-jokes and gentle genius of that album, its 2020 successor, It Is What It Is, offers even greater rewards. Once again, Bruner delves into the cosmic slop of Adult Swim anime, 1970s fusion, and modern-day hip-hop to yield another extraordinary offering. "Dragonball Durag" and "Funny Thing" convey his mindstate with falsetto grace, while collabs with living legends like Steve Arrington and Lil B reflect his incredible range. —Gary Suarez

We fell in love with Flo Milli the moment she said, "I like cash and my hair to my ass." On Ho, Why Is You Here? the 20-year-old serves up red-cup raps—a soundtrack to young adulthood that is more about fun than anything else. Known for her rambunctious energy, the Mobile, Alabama rapper is far from a one-trick pony. "Like That Bitch" is just one example of how easily she can switch flows without thinking twice—while also making sure every listener feels represented. Instead of haphazardly sampling 90s favorites like Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" and SWV's "Weak," she remakes those songs in the image of her bossy bars, finding a happy medium between old and new. Even a pandemic couldn't dim the light of Ho, Why Is You Here?, and we can only guess how much more ubiquitous "Flo Milli Shit" would've been in a "normal" world. —Kristin Corry

SAULT's two albums from this year are basically like an all-you-can-eat buffet, but for music genres based around the dancefloor. You get flashes of 80s disco, neo-soul grooves, late-night boogie music, and post-punk funk. They're extremely to-the-point and massively fun. Some might say they're spiritual.

Sault's origin story is shrouded in mystery: The group supposedly comprises U.K. producer InFlo (who you'll recognize from the credits for records by Little Simz and 2020 Mercury Prize winner Michael Kiwanuka), R&B singer Cleo Sol, and Chicago musician Kid Sister—but also maybe none of them at all. All online sleuths have had to go by are nods in album credits (Inflo, for example, is credited as a producer on (Black Is)) and the fact that the group's label, Forever Living Originals, has counted Cleo Sol and Kid Sister as part of its groovy cohort. 

Rather than banging out music videos, conducting interviews, and playing the PR game, the crew zeroed on the music, releasing (Black Is) and (Rise) within 12 weeks of each other. (Black Is) dropped on Juneteenth, with the following message: "We present our first 'Untitled' album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening… We are focused." (Rise) followed in September, uploaded and promoted to the group's socials with a piece of striking artwork: Black hands raised like a prayer emoji.

These are dancefloor-oriented albums, but they're also the sound of protest, resistance, expression. Tracks wobble, then burst. They feel alive as if they're breathing. Anxious but joyful, psychedelic but real, they are the sound of 2020. —Ryan Bassil

Tagged:

thundercat, Waxahatchee, best albums, lil baby, Headie One, flo milli, Sault, best albums of 2020

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