Here we are. 2020, one of the most difficult years in recent memory has ended. And we survived. A global pandemic has made time obsolete, relocated us all to our home offices, and encouraged us all to bake our own bread. As we were practicing social distancing, we often used music to ease our anxiety, pain, sometimes even sorrow. But artists are people, too. They were also under lockdown, they also were coping with the same emotions as we did, and they often redirected them to make records to ease our pain, to try and comment on the current situation, or to share a glimpse of normalcy with their audiences. We also have to remember that a majority of artists struggled this year due to the cancellation of virtually all live performances. Since the current music industry’s income largely relies on streaming, which does not favor direct musician’s fees, live acts are what pay artists’ bills. Therefore, the pandemic was even more demanding for those, who rely on this source of income. And I’m talking about not only performers, but stagehands, club owners, promoters, security companies, stewards, merchandise vendors, and thousands of others. This is what the music industry really is.
But, even though we struggled, we were in this together, enjoying music, which often was our life raft, our sedative, our therapist, our cracks through which the light came pouring in. So now, as the year is over, we thank them. All music staff.
When it comes to music albums themselves, even though the format is steadily declining as I mentioned it a year ago, we got to enjoy a very solid set of LPs, very varied in style. We got new great records from music legends like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, some strikingly beautiful experimental stuff like the ones from the Microphones or Nine Inch Nails, lyrical wonderlands from Phoebe Bridgers or Taylor Swift, politically conscious releases from Run the Jewels and SAULT, etc. We did have a lot to go through, enjoy, savor, think about, and re-listen over and over. Was it as good as 2019? Pretty similar. But the character of the albums was radically different.
Each year I include a short explanation of the selection of the albums on the list, so, this time I think I’ll just copy and paste the one from 2019, since nothing has changed about my view of this list since then. So… The list I present you below consists of albums that I’ve found the most interesting, moving, thought-provoking, and left me with some kind of a bind to both the music itself and the period of time when they were released. I hope you’ll find that kind of connection as well. So, please, enjoy the list of 20 studio albums I’ve enjoyed the most in 2020. There are no compilation LPs, no live albums, no re-releases. Only newly-published studio releases.
20. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
I have a specific relation with Perfume Genius. I’m not a big fan of his music, but I always look forward to his releases. I really enjoyed No Shape LP, so I was excited to learn that Set My Heart… received such rave reviews. This is just a great collection of songs, well thought-through, a bit experimental, but still very enjoyable. Also, it has one of the best songs this year with its On the Floor.
19. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Sawayama’s debut self-titled album is one of those records that I want to see more on the market. It’s brave, it’s bold. She’s not afraid to take a chance and make something exciting, combining hyperpop with metal, creating strangely catchy tunes. In a long term, it’s a bit tiring, but in a good way. Recommended for all those who are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone and try something unusual.
18. Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts VI: Locusts
There is no way around this – it is a disturbing album. It’s creepy, frightening, and emotionally exhausting. But at the same time, it’s just this kind of quality you expect from Nine Inch Nails. I mean, you want this music to put you in discomfort, because that’s what NIN does. And in this case, it does it really good. A creepy twin brother of the more reflexive Together LP.
17. Ariana Grande – positions
We are witnessing a beautiful evolution of the biggest teen idol in the world, and one of the biggest singers of the last years. After a magnificent sweetener and great thank u, next, Grande released her third LP in three years, and it’s an illustration of the direction she’s guiding her artistic life. positions is an album full of delicacy, artistry, and power, which there’s plenty in the most subtle moments on the album. It’s not better than the other two from Grande’s trilogy, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth a spin. It’s a really solid album: the least commercial, the most artistic.
16. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
This is one of the best dance albums of the last years. It’s post-disco feel mixed with soothing vocals and stunningly catchy tunes, makes it one of the most pleasing and enjoyable LPs this year. What’s Your Please? is just pure fun. Save a Kiss is one of the best songs this year, but there are a few more here that will stay with me much longer. Listen for just some fun time on a dancefloor.
15. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
It’s no secret I’m Stevens’ fan. And each time he releases an album, I’m both ecstatic and terrified. However, sadly, this year was the first time I was just not that interested, especially since The Ascension is only great. It’s not stunning, not magnificent, not revolutionary. It’s more of a pop-ish version of The Age of Adz. An interesting evolution, but not exactly a thrilling one. Still, America is one of Stevens’ best songs, and the album itself is better with each listen. Maybe I just need to give it a little more time.
14. Deftones – Ohms
Rock is culturally dead, no doubt. But every now and then, an album is being released and it makes me think that this genre still has the potential to offer me something exciting or even thrilling. Ohms is exactly this kind of an album. I think it’s probably Deftones’ best. Yes, maybe even better than White Pony. Great energy, strong riffs, thrilling rides, massive sonic power. Yes, Ohms is an album that proves rock can still be enjoyable in 2020.
13. SAULT – Untitled (Rise)
Rise is an almost hour-long wild ride full of beauty, freedom of expression, conscious statements, trance-based ecstatic yet subtle dances, baked into a thrilling mixture of contemporary R&B and emotional jazz. If you have some time to sit down and just dive into this LP, please do. You can’t rush it. Just savor it. From SAULT’s dilogy with Untitled (Black Is), I slightly prefer this one from another one, but each has a distinctive feel. No matter which one you’ll choose. It’s a project you just have to listen to. Because it’s something new, and it’s thrilling.
12. Taylor Swift – folklore
Both 2020 LP’s by Taylor Swift were a huge positive surprise. They’re both a showcase of her skills as a lyricist and songwriter. Working together with the National’s Aaron Dessner, and Jack Antonoff made it a very bold statement, and truly an artistic achievement. I’m aware it’s probably just a two-off release, but it so good, it could be a full-blown side project. Like it or not, Swift is a ridiculously talented artist, and folklore proves it by stripping her from all this bombastic entourage. A must-listen this year, even if only for a cultural value.
11. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Pop soul of the future. Tumor presents an album you can dive into and lost yourself swimming through all those fascinating ideas. It’s not an easy listen, but if you like a bit of psychedelic feeling with a charming and powerful soulful message, it’s an album for you. Kerosene is one of the best songs of the year, which perfectly defines the whole album with the opening Gospel for a New Century. Striking from the first listen. Thunderously epic, blissfully subtle, and strangely psychedelic. Not an album I’ll get back to often, but the one I do not regret giving a chance.
10. Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
Marling enchants her listeners with the first verses of Alexandra, an absolutely beautiful opener, and it continues throughout the whole album. SfoD is a very solid continuation of her stunning 2017’s Semper Femina. While she does not meet the same heights, she showcases her talents in the same, charming yet powerful way. There are a lot of great songs here, not radio hits, not stadium anthems, but late-night soothing sonic balms. Ideal for 2020.
9. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
Springsteen’s twentieth album Letter to You is worth Boss’s anniversary. It’s his first with the E Street Band since 2014’s High Hopes, and oh my, it’s so good to hear them back. I was not surprised it was a good album, but I did not expect such a great one. Springsteen’s talent is present throughout each song, while lyrically the LP is just a stunner, highlighting a late stage of his career, and, well, life. But it’s not depressing – it’s full of wisdom, and talent, a testament to a truly magnificent career. Let’s just hope he’ll write several others because he’s not slowing down.
8. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
The best rap album of the year. Aggressive, politically conscious, powerful, experimental, it showcases what’s the best in this supreme project. Although it does not exceed the mastery of RTJ2, it comes in a close second as the album, which fits perfectly in the turbulent 2020. It’s so relevant, I even included it in my class on the history of American popular music as an obligatory LP to listen to. If you want to be up to date with what’s important in music, you have to take it for a spin. Such songs Ooh La La, Pulling the Pin, or the album’s best Walking in the Snow has the potential to become a modern classic.
7. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
A pandemic LP, an embodiment of how music can be made during the times of social distancing, but using such circumstances to create an electronic masterpiece. This Charli XCX’s opus magnum is a wild ride, which, similarly to SAWAYAMA, presents a very interesting experimental yet very catchy approach to contemporary electropop. Sure, the pandemic context of this album is important, but even as a stand-alone release, it is simply magnificent, epic, and very powerful. At least half a dozen songs here could be a contender of a song of the year.
6. Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V: Together
NIN made the best pandemic-related LP in 2020. Ghosts V: Together can be treated as an experimental project, or as a great stand-alone LP, but it shines when put into the context of a global pandemic. It’s an instrumental album, which creates such a stunning emotional sonic landscape, so disturbingly and startlingly relatable, it should be considered a monumental landmark in musical craftsmanship. It is the soundtrack of COVID-19’s world, with all of its fears, anxieties, but also solidarity, togetherness, and hope. Just press play, and let the music do its work. When I first heard it, I thought: “this is just how I feel”. Maybe you’ll think the same.
5. Moses Sumney – grae
Sumney’s new album is one of the most impressive and bold albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s an R&B masterpiece by an extremely talented musician, who goes all-out and sings his heart out. This two-disc epic is nothing short of magnificence. You can listen to it in the same way you read a book, which creates an engaging story, taking you on a surprising and extraordinary 20-song, one-hour long voyage. It reminds me of everything I love about Bjork, Solange, or Bobby Womack’s last LP. grae is powerful when it needs to be, but also subtle, delicate, and convincing. Artistic, yet accessible. You just cannot be indifferent to it. The only obstacle is that it’s not an easy listen, but if you aren’t afraid to take this step, you won’t regret it. Especially since it has such masterpieces as Virile, Gagarin, or Bless Me. What an album.
4. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Wow, I did not expect that. Bob Dylan has released his best album since 2006’s Modern Times, no doubt. Just when you thought he did everything you could’ve asked from him, he released an album, which matches the lyrical and musical heights of his best late-stage career albums. Nevermind the horrible cover art, and (if you are not familiar with his latest LPs) the specific way of singing and storytelling, because if you dig into these songs, they become as soul-wrenching, compelling, and engaging as ever. This is Bob Dylan at his best. Not the same as in the 1960s, but that a good thing. He evolved, he changed, and he continues to do so. Even if he still references events of the past, he puts them in a contemporary context, just like Leonard Cohen did in his last trilogy. And it works. Take a listen, you won’t regret it.
3. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
In most cases, this would be my LP of the year. Punisher didn’t make it only because it so happened that 2020 brought us an experimental masterpiece and a modern classic. Still, Bridgers managed to combine both elements and make an indie pop/low-fi/emo-folk masterpiece. Each song on Punisher creates a unique atmosphere, telling wonderfully crafted tales, coated in exquisite arrangements. And it’s only her second album! Something tells me she has the same potential as Mitski has. So, while we savor this genuinely dazzling release, let’s hope there’s Be the Cowboy after this Puberty 2. And oh, I Know the End is one of the best closing tracks I’ve heard on any album in years. Also probably the best song this year.
2. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020
It’s the first album by Phil Elverum’s project the Microphones in 17 years. And what a comeback it is. One song. 44 minutes. Pure introspective storytelling. It’s one of the most moving pieces of story-based music I’ve heard in years. Surprisingly, even though the album is a manifest of the author’s state of mind in 2020 as well as a retrospect of his band’s history, the LP is very much relatable. It is so, because of its deeply personal character and microhistorical approach to storytelling. We learn about Elverum’s life, we learn about his struggles after being hypnotized by the 7-minute introduction. Then we are confronted with the struggles of a person – an author, but then, maybe it’s us. And there’s no end to the story. After 44 minutes the song ergo life keeps going. Deeply touching, the song/LP leaves a mark. And it’s what makes an album memorable. Also, let’s not forget about the powerful arrangement with the specific mixture of acoustic and distorted guitars, which highlights the ups and downs of life, to which there’s no end.
1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
There wasn’t any competition this year, wasn’t it? Well, Fiona Apple released a modern classic. There’s little doubt about it, and practically everybody agreed to it. Why? Because it’s powerful, it’s convincing, it’s experimental yet accessible, it’s thought-through, it’s beautifully arranged, it’s impressive, it’s epic yet subtle, it’s prone to unambiguous, individual interpretations, it fits in a contemporary world full of uncertainty, it’s great. And what’s fascinating is that I can’t pinpoint any of the 13 songs to be the best one this year. Because the power of the album doesn’t lay in particular songs, but in the overall storytelling, both lyrical and musical, a contemporary incarnation of the classic approach to music LPs. It’s a rare breed nowadays, but in those scarce instances like Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it works so well. Just listen to it, read the lyrics, give it some time. I did, and I’m sure that when I look back at 2020 in music, I’ll surely think of this album. It may not be my favorite (Punisher!), but it is the best.
- Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
- The Microphones – Microphones in 2020
- Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
- Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
- Moses Sumney – grae
- Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V: Together
- Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
- Run the Jewels – RTJ4
- Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You
- Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter
- Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind
- Taylor Swift – folklore
- SAULT – Untitled (Rise)
- Deftones – Ohms
- Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension
- Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
- Ariana Grande – positions
- Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts VI: Locusts
- Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
- Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
- Caribou – Suddenly
- clipping – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
- Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
- Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
- Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels
- Makaya McCraven – We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven
- Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
- Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
- Taylor Swift – evermore
- Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud