I’m not gonna talk about how bad the year has been. Too many writers have described it better than I ever could. What I can tell you though, is how great this year has been in terms of music.
Sure the pandemic delayed some hotly anticipated albums (dammit, Kendrick), but it did also make way for projects that were given their time to shine amidst a very slow-moving year. And without further ado, I’d like to turn that spotlight towards these 20 albums – bodies of work that blew everything else in 2020 our of the water.
- Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
- Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – What Kinda Music
- Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
20. Aminé – Limbo
Honing the sound he showed on ONEPOINTFIVE, Limbo is Aminé’s best album yet with bouncy pop rap tunes and heartfelt rap ballads in equal measure. It’s a product of an artist coming fully into his own lane, and an inviting look at his future can bring.
19. Sasha Sloan – Only Child
Genre: Singer-songwriter, Folk
There’s an inherent sadness in Sasha Sloan’s voice which I’m enamoured with, and my love of it is only exacerbated by her gut-wrenching songwriting. “House With No Mirrors” remains an affecting and infinitely relatable song that still breaks my heart.
18. Poppy – I Disagree (more)
When this album first dropped, I wasn’t blown away by it. I loved the pop-metal fusions but the more mellow tracks really took away most of I Disagree‘s momentum. The addition of 4 new tracks however, reignited the energy that I wanted more of and really gave the overall project a second life.
17. Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
H A R M O N I S I N G. That’s it. That’s what made me love this album. Chloe x Halle have always been a pretty one-note alt R&B act in my opinion, but the improvements they’ve made on Ungodly Hour is incredible. So much personality, energy and groove packed into an album.
16. Joji – NECTAR
A significant improvement over 2018’s BALLADS 1, the time Joji took to hone his vocals are very apparent here. Gone is the melancholic crooner that seemed stuck in a perpetual state of sorrow, replaced with an artist that’s much more confident in the versatility in his art. BALLADS 1 was the launch pad and Nectar is Joji surpassing the stratosphere.
Read the full review here.
15. NIKI – MOONCHILD
Genre: R&B, Pop
The best 88rising project of 2020. NIKI has always been the most accessible artist of the collective. Her pop sensibilities have led to a good amount of hits in her catalogue. On MOONCHILD she dials it up a notch, serving up her most cohesive and impressive body of work yet. It’s pretty standard pop affair but that doesn’t really matter when the music is this good.
Read the full review here.
14. Lous & The Yakuza – Gore
Genre: R&B, Rap
God bless YouTube algorithms. Lous and the Yakuza’s debut single “Dilemme” is a silky French fusion of trap, R&B and pop – a song that instantly hooked me onto the enigmatic artist. Gore is an album that builds upon the foundations of that song, delivering banger after banger that can be enticing while inviting you to groove along with her.
13. Ariana Grande – Positions
Genre: Pop, R&B
Positions isn’t an album that feels like it could play a significant role in the overall narrative of Ariana’s career. It is, however, a victory lap that celebrates the sounds and themes that she’s championed on Sweetener and Thank U, Next. A slick pop album with a heavy tinge of R&B influence, Positions is an album that’s meant to be unadulterated joy and with every listen, it does just that.
12. iri – Sparkle
Genre: Pop, Dance
I haven’t been listening to as much Japanese music as I’d hoped to this year, but I’m glad I was able at least experience iri’s Sparkle. Her 2019 album Shade was a unique blend of hip-hop, electronic and pop that showcased the variety in her sound.
Sparkle then forsakes diversity in favor of a singular sound that’s heavily inspired by 80s and 90s dance pop. There’s dashes of city pop influence as well, but the album is a largely carefree affair that sees iri crafting a joyous soundtrack for a bright, cool summer day.
11. Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Killer Mike’s verse on “Walking in the Snow” is so on-the-nose that you could have mistaken him for writing it hours after George Floyd’s murder. Learning that it was actually written a year ago based on Eric Garner instead makes it all the more harrowing.
RTJ4 finds Killer Mike and El-P doing what they do best, rapping their asses over thumping rock-rap beats while aiming their sights at a system that has failed its people time and time again. If any album can be representative of the collective anger and frustration in America (and much of Western civilization) right now, it’s RTJ4.
10. Benny The Butcher – Burden Of Proof
Benny the Butcher has always been slowly working his way up the Griselda hierarchy and, in my humble opinion, he’s finally reached the top with Burden of Proof. An album that showcases every bit of his lyrical prowess while expanding upon his usual sound palettes with the help of superstar producer Hit-Boy.
The versatility on display is a welcome breath of fresh air after the double whammy of Tana Talk 3 and The Plugs I’ve Met. They’re great albums but if he dropped another one in the same grimy vein, he would have ended up with a same case of Westside Gunn’s oversaturation. It’s the perfect merging of worlds between the usual Griselda flair and contemporary rap elements.
9. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
Genre: R&B, Jazz
Thundercat’s eccentric personality is only matched by his balls-to-the-wall bass playing that saw him gaining due credit after his showstopping turns on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead and his last LP Drunk.
Given that Flying Lotus serves as the executive producer of this record, it’s no surprise that It Is What It Is features some of the most densely layered solo material in Thundercat’s discography. Each element comes together to create an album that is bursting with ecstasy and life (despite sections of its lyrical content suggesting otherwise).
8. Bruno Major – To Let A Good Thing Die
Bruno Major’s 2017 debut was a sleepy affair that had a couple highlights but failed to really hold my attention. To Let A Good Thing Die, on the other hand, catches me off-guard from its opening track and never lets up over the course of its 10 songs.
The album still sounds stripped back but not skeletal like A Song For Every Moon was. With R&B and jazz influences sprinkled here and there, Bruno shines alongside the expressive production which gives the album a personality that supplements his subdued singing.
7. Troye Sivan – In A Dream
Yes, I know this is an EP but if 7 Kanye tracks are counted as album then so can this. Trading the maximalist pop for a more synth-heavy (though almost equally bombastic) sound, In A Dream almost feels like a natural progression for Troye as he continues to evolve as a songwriter.
The electronic beat drops and indie rock flair mixed with his melancholic performances paints the album as his most eccentric yet, though signs of his past stadium-filling pop star self still rears its head every now and then. It’s an incredibly exciting hint towards what his career will bring.
6. The Weeknd – After Hours
With every album since 2011’s House of Balloons, the moody R&B that used to define The Weeknd’s work slowly transformed into glitzy pop tunes that served as the perfect platform for his once-in-a-generation voice. On After Hours, he comes full circle and fuses these seemingly unrelated genres into a record that couldn’t have been pulled off by anyone else but The Weeknd.
Watching “Blinding Lights” and “After Hours” duke it out as the best song on a tracklist more stacked than most artists’ career highlights, only further proves how intricately crafted After Hours is as a culmination of Weeknd’s entire discography thus far.
5. Taylor Swift – folklore
Genre: Pop, Folk
It’s crazy to think that Taylor Swift would drop her best album 14 years into her career, yet here we are. Finally dropping the folk-pop album that I’d always dreamed she might, it’s the perfect vehicle that showcases how masterful she’s gotten in her songwriting.
The many narratives she weaves are intimate but hazy, encouraging as much investment as you’re willing to give it. Tales of failed relationships, growing up and quiet reflections made this the essential quarantine album; though it’s sure to live on in the hearts and minds of listeners long after we’re let out into the world again.
4. R.A.P Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages
Genre: Jazz Rap
R.A.P Ferreira has gone by many stage names, with my first introduction to him being 2017’s Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! under his Milo moniker. There was a gentle charm in Ferreira’s rapping that hooked me, and on Purple Moonlight Pages that gentleness is ever-present in every facet of the record.
From the obscure references that go over my head, to the awkward yet endearing singing on multiple tracks, to the luscious jazz production backed by The Jefferson Park Boys; the album has seeped its way into my life and transformed itself into a place of comfort.
3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
80s nostalgia is a prevalent trend in 2020 pop music, with recent releases from Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga ensuring the trend will likely continue into the near future. However, Future Nostalgia doesn’t solely bank on…well, nostalgia. Mixed in with the familiar dance tune sounds of that decade, Dua Lipa weaves in contemporary pop trends create an album that accurately reflects the title that its named after.
I’ve never been to a disco club, but if I were to end up in one in the any time soon, I’d imagine it’d sound like Future Nostalgia.
2. Mac Miller – Circles
Genre: Rap, R&B
Would I have loved Circles as much as I do if Mac hadn’t passed away? Probably not, but adding context to each of our listening experiences is what breathes life into the music we listen to. I have my grievances with the album: Mac’s singing isn’t the best, songs like “I Can See” and “Woods” sound too barebones to leave a lasting impression, and a couple more if I had to nitpick.
But these issues mean little when faced with the gravity of Circles‘ lyrical themes and content. This album breaks my heart and no matter what faults I may have with it, Mac Miller’s final statement on his mortality and life is a powerful message that transcends tangible criticism.
1. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
In my review of SAWAYAMA, I called the album “ambitious and manages to nearly perfectly nail its tightrope balancing act” as Rina juggles between her pop, nu-metal and pop punk influences which, in theory, should leave the album sounding all over the place.
However, what keeps the album cohesive (and also what keeps me coming back to the album, time and time again) is Rina’s excellent songwriting.
Exploring moments in her life and experiences around the world that led her to where she is today, from climate change to racial microaggressions to rekindled friendships. Paired with the assorted musical palette, SAWAYAMA is then anchored by Rina’s intimate, raw, chaotic and wholeheartedly genuine emotions.
A wonderous product of masterly songwriting, intricate yet accessible production, and assertive self-expression, SAWAYAMA is my 2020 album of the year.