The 15 best albums of 2020
"Best of" lists are subjective. Calling this year horrifying is not. Thankfully, there were plenty of really good albums to keep us occupied while we were all stuck inside sewing masks and searching Amazon for bottles of off-brand Germ-X. Even though our 15 choices below don't reflect the full breadth of great 2020 releases (ones that just missed the cut: Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher, Waxhatchee's Saint Cloud, Lil Uzi Vert's Eternal Atake, and the Strokes' The New Abnormal), we believe they are the best of the best — a collection of projects that we'll be playing long after this wretched time in history is over.
15. Petals for Armor — Hayley Williams
Trading pop-punk for art pop and evoking wisps of Kate Bush, Bjork, and Bowie, the Paramore singer opens up whole new avenues for her powerful vocals. Her vulnerability goes hand in hand with steely-eyed epiphanies about what it means to be strong (and sexy, "Watch Me While I Bloom," indeed). And while the burbling electronics and trilling might make it seem like she's applying a lighter touch on her dynamic debut solo album. she's still packing plenty of punch and oozing attitude on this collection of sticky mini-dramas that offer rage and tenderness in equal measure. —Sarah Rodman
14. Your Life is a Record — Brandy Clark
She's become a go-to songwriter in Nashville, helping write some of the best, funniest, smartest tunes to come out of Music City in the last decade (including Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" and Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow"). Fortunately, the Washington native has been wise enough to keep a bunch of good ones for herself too. She continues to grow and deepen as a solo artist and vocalist on her third album, getting rawer than she ever has in examining heartbreak, healing, life and love. —S.R.
13. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — Perfume Genius
Whoever decided indie rock had to sound small never met Mike Hadreas, the intrepid mastermind behind Perfume. The reach of the Seattle native's sublimely wide-ranging fifth studio album includes but is hardly limited to orchestral pop (on the swanning opener "Whole Life"), fuzzed-up guitar pomp ("Describe"), rococo balladry ("Jason") and tender, shuffling R&B boogie ("On the Floor"). — Leah Greenblatt
12. American Love Story — Butch Walker
It may have been recorded two years ago but this dynamite pop-rock concept album about bigotry and the sins of the father (eventually) bypassing the son, redemption and the power of love, was released in the perfect moment. Remarkably, because the in-demand singer-songwriter-producer (Green Day, Weezer, Pink, Taylor Swift) is ever the poptimist, he makes songs about our divided states of America catchy as all get out. Without didacticism or even judgement, the Georgia native deploys brawny guitar rock, tender piano ballads, massive pop hooks and ambling southern soul in service of the idea that emotional evolution is possible. —S.R.
11. Future Nostalgia — Dua Lipa
In a year where the present was the last place we wanted to be, Future Nostalgia felt exactly right: Thirteen tracks of squelchy, squiggly pop designed for a dream world of beach-day carpools and glitter-bombed discotheques, but weirdly amenable to the solo dance-offs in house pants that were our 2020 reality. —L.G.
10. Untitled (Black Is) — Sault
This mysterious British collective — collected by Michael Kiwanuka, we think — truly overachieved in 2020, releasing not one, but two albums of music so mesmerizing that the moment the albums ended pressing play again felt like medicine. Both Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) brewed a beguiling mélange of soul, dub, funk, reggae, trip-hop, folk, and hazy psychedelia. Of the pair, Black Is vibrated on a higher plane, at once transporting and grounding, speaking to this moment of, with and about Black voices in way that felt like an authentic soundtrack for the season of reckoning. —S.R.
9. YHLQMDLG — Bad Bunny
The Latin trap star's first of three projects in 2020 made good on its title (the letters are an acronym — Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana — that translates to "I do whatever I want") by breaking gender stereotypes, sampling "The Girl From Ipanema," and combining the many flavors of reggaeton past (Daddy Yankee, Jowell & Randy, and Yaviah all guest) and present. —Alex Suskind
8. A Written Testimony — Jay Electronica
If you're going to make fans wait 13 years for your first studio album, you better bring the goods. Electronica came fully stocked on Testimony, which overflows with the type of philosophical yarns and triple entendres that once made him rap's Next Great Hope. A decade on, the title still holds. —A.S.
7. Women in Music Pt. III — HAIM
The family trio removed the clean edges from their first two albums and emerged with the kind of dusty, riffy rock record you might hear blasting out of your neighbor's window on a humid summer day. In a year filled with backbreaking news cycles, WIMPIII delivered a necessary escape. —A.S.
6. Gaslighter — The Chicks
The perfect album title for 2020. The perfect soundtrack for annihilating liars, cheats, cowards, tyrants, racists, homophobes... and people dumb enough to leave tights on boats. The perfect polyamorous marriage of pop sheen, flinty sass, country flights, heavenly harmonies, and righteous rage. It was both lovely, and deeply cathartic, to welcome Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer back just when we needed anthems to exorcise our own demons — both personal and collective — the most. If a rage cry, a cleansing scream, a homemade salve, and a good talk with a close friend could be an album, it would be Gaslighter. —S.R.
Read more: The Chicks' Gaslighter is all fire and nerve
5. Folklore — Taylor Swift
Please, picture me, sitting in a seaside cottage listening to Taylor Swift's quietly devastating eighth album on repeat. Folklore broke all the rules the pop star had written for herself, arriving with little fanfare, zero stadium singles, and captivating tales of dead socialites ("The Last Great American Dynasty"), war heroes ("Epiphany"), and fictional love triangles ("Betty," "August," and "Cardigan"). —A.S.
4. Rough and Rowdy Ways — Bob Dylan
Dylan's best album in 14 years is a deadly affair — one of JFK's murder, of spare body parts at the morgue, of people tossed into graves, of revenge (from "I Contain Multitudes": "Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe/Got skeletons in the walls of people you know"). His vocals are as dark and sturdy as his lyrics sung with a lingering, bloodcurdling delivery as they rumble across 12-bar-blues numbers and shuffle beats. —A.S.
Read more: Death, Dylan, and the American way
3. Run the Jewels — RTJ4
"F--- it, why wait," wrote Killer Mike and El-P after dropping their fourth album two days early. Why indeed. Black Lives Matter protests had reached a boiling point, fascism was on the rise, and people were screaming for change. RTJ4 provided the moment with the bruising, brutal soundtrack it was looking for. To quote Mike on the record's closing track, "For the truth tellers tied to the whippin' post, left beaten, battered, bruised/For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit/Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, 'F--- you too.'" —A.S.
2. After Hours — The Weeknd
After Hour's title feels more than fitting for the artist born Abel Tesfaye, whose reign as the brooding Sith Lord of modern pop finds its apex on this sleek nocturnal mood piece: glassy, gorgeously falsettoed reflections on loneliness and lust and alienation designed for dancing in the dark (though they looked great under strobe lights, too). If the Grammys nominating committee infamously couldn't recognize the album's commercial and critical impact, let him wear that as a badge of honor — or fuel, at least, for the next round of desolate anthems. — L.G.
1. Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple
"Blast the music/Bang it, bite it, bruise it," Apple commands over the clattering piano chords and thunderous drums of Fetch the Bolt Cutters' frenzied opener. "Whenever you want to begin, begin/We don't have to go back to where we been." Moving music forward has become a sort of speciality for the singer, whose scarce output — she's released only four albums since her touchstone 1996 debut, Tidal — tends to be met with the kind of dazzled awe that usually only attends a rare comet or solar eclipse. And what a cosmic wonder she is on Fetch, churning through dense sonic experiments, tricky time signatures, and lyrical pirouettes in a wild mosaic that feels both playful and urgent, melodic and chaotic — and always, indubitably Fiona, down to the last fantastic note. —L.G.
For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.