Arts and Entertainment

The End of Days: 2020’s Best Albums

In a year as tumultuous as 2020, music has faced a unique challenge: helping people cope. Here are the best albums that got the world through the year.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

2020 has been a year to remember. Outside of the chaos and turmoil that plagued so much of the world this year, the music scene faced significant upheaval of its own, reviving genres, reckoning with race and identity, and responding to the world’s disarray in a number of distinct ways. A few albums, however, stood out as exceptional depictions of 2020’s musical potential and as markers for the future of music once the year comes to a close.

10) “Future Nostalgia” by Dua Lipa

With bright lights, bombastic synths, and punchy delivery, Dua Lipa has done the unthinkable: completely revamp the disco genre for a 2020 audience. Oozing with Lipa’s infectious personality and vintage flare, “Future Nostalgia” takes the listener on a trip through the cosmos with the novel pop star, immersing them in an old-school timbre and retro groove. Lipa, however, isn’t just calling back to the disco jams of decades past––she’s pushing the sound forward, as the name of the album suggests. Her music is undeniably TikTok-ready, spawning several trends, dances, and viral phenomena in recent months. “Future Nostalgia” has had an immeasurable cultural impact in 2020, drumming up some of the year's biggest hits without sacrificing any quality. The secret lies within Lipa’s delivery: it truly sounds like she’s having as much fun as her music invokes.

9.) “3.15.20” by Childish Gambino

In typical Childish Gambino fashion, “3.15.20” is an unpredictable series of events. The album consists of songs ranging anywhere from three to eight minutes, swapping genres and tones seamlessly like the outfits of a magician. Many of his songs feature repetitive phrases and lackluster lyrics, but the instrumentation and sonic creativity are what keep the listener engaged throughout the 57-minute album. He begins the roller coaster with “0.00,” a three-minute track with soft synths, cascading keys, and the simple phrase “we are” repeated 30 times. In “32.22,” Gambino panic-raps over a chaotic electric beat, overloading listeners with cacophony. The next track, “35.31,” is on the opposite side of the spectrum: Gambino croons over the sound of a spirited guitar, smooth drums, and tropical soundbites that leave listeners with a smile on their faces. Somehow, though, Gambino makes these songs work together. While this album takes a risky and experimental route, it’s characteristic of Gambino to face the challenge head-on and thrive under these unique conditions.

8) “It Is What It Is” by Thundercat

“It Is What It Is” is a clear development in contemporary funk artist Thundercat’s musical maturity. This album eloquently blends numerous genres, from jazz to rock to R&B, into one continuous flow of dreamy vocals and soulful beats, featuring Steve Lacy, Ty Dolla $ign, and more. Track four, “Black Qualls,” with Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Gambino, meshes a classic colorful jazz sound with modern R&B lyrics. “How Sway” only consists of two words: “ayy” and “yo,” yet displays Thundercat’s uncanny ability to gracefully move between genres and influences. The track begins with an electric beat but ends in a cascading riff that moves the album in a complete 180. “Funny Thing,” one of the few songs that gained mainstream recognition from this album, is another example of a one-minute transition piece that moves from dreamy soul to contemporary R&B. Thundercat does an incredible job of bringing classic pieces of jazz, rock, and R&B into a modern psychedelic sound, while maintaining his unique artistic style.

7) “Circles” by Mac Miller

“Circles” by Mac Miller arrived as a uniquely tragic album. Less than two years after the passing of Malcolm James McCormick (Mac Miller) due to an accidental overdose, his family and team released “Circles,” the artist’s final project. Listening to the album in the wake of this tragedy gives not only insight into the rapper’s final days, as he alludes to the mental health issues plaguing the end of his life, but also the joy and hope that was lost too soon. “Circles” thrives on its rich instrumentation, masterful lyricism, and deep emotional impact that comes with any posthumous product. “This is what it looks like, right before you fall,” Miller croons on the opening line of the album over beautifully layered keys, one of the many stark examples of foreshadowing that the artist uncannily delivers throughout. While other tracks show off more jovial or defeated sides of the artist, “Circles” has a tragic consistency that flows throughout the album, illuminating the rapper’s untimely demise.

6) “Ungodly Hour” by Chloe x Halle

Despite being in their early twenties, the sister duo, Chloe and Halle Bailey. has had a career nothing short of impressive: they’ve starred in the sitcom “grown-ish” (2018-present), performed at the 2019 Super Bowl, and opened for Beyoncé and JAY-Z on tour. Between all this craziness, they were still able to produce an album filled with energy and passion that puts a youthful twist on 2000s R&B. The duo displays variety in their sound throughout the album, switching between slower and faster beats, while still maintaining a classic R&B love story. In “Tipsy,” they sing, “I might be a little tipsy on your love / Makes me a little crazy but so what? / You're strumming on my heartstrings, don't be dumb.” This song, like the rest of the album, has a clear message of strength for women in relationships, good or bad. If shown anything less than respect, they will seek revenge. Chloe and Halle take a basic theme of empowerment and put their own youthful twist on it, creating a tone unlike any R&B album in 2020. Needless to say, their voices complement each other in a way only a sister duo could accomplish. With more albums like this, Chloe and Halle could be on track to become this generation’s Destiny’s Child, and for good reason.

5) “RTJ4” by Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P’s duo group, reunited in 2020 to denounce the country’s social state with their album “RTJ4.” Collaborating with iconic artists like 2 Chainz and Pharrell Williams, the duo provides listeners with a refreshing hip-hop call-back to the early 2000s. In a musical era oversaturated with monotonous rap, Run the Jewels connects with listeners seeking real substance within the lyrics, especially those who have been looking for new outlets to uplift their voice in accordance with the Black Lives Matter movement. In “walking in the snow,” Killer Mike raps, “And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, I can't breathe / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV,” frowning upon the tragedy of George Floyd’s death and the period of performative activism that followed. “JU$T,” featuring Williams and Zack de la Rocha, touches on America’s foundation built on racism, as Williams sings, “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar.” While each song on “RTJ4” boasts unique instrumentation and a compelling rhythm, this album stands out by virtue of its lyrical content and as a musical protest to America’s current political climate.

4) “Punisher” by Phoebe Bridgers

Phoebe Bridgers has been quietly creeping into the music scene for several years now, but she finally broke through with her sophomore effort “Punisher.” This project is truly one that knows its own worth; rarely does Bridgers raise her voice beyond a soft cry, yet she packs one of the biggest emotional wallops heard from an up-and-coming star in recent history. Psychedelic plucks and soft drum patterns elevate Bridger’s uniquely gentle voice and give the album a cosmic presence. Whether she’s breathing her wistful lyrics softly over a wispy groove or building to a triumphant, drum and guitar-packed climax, her impact is the same. She’s a born balladeer and gifted lyricist destined for more mainstream appeal in coming months, and “Punisher” is only our first taste of what Bridgers is truly capable of.

3) “After Hours” by The Weeknd

In his fourth studio album “After Hours,” The Weeknd transports listeners into the shoes of his alter ego, Tesfaye, a dysfunctional sinner looking to alleviate the despair and rage he feels after heartbreak. In this theatrical performance, he sets the scene with a suspenseful and electric introduction (in a similar lane as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), utilizing a long synth note to draw readers into the apex of the song, when the tone abruptly shifts and accelerates into a fast-paced hip-hop beat. In this foundational track, “Alone Again,” Tesfaye takes off his “disguise,” creating a dreamy sensation for the listener. The Weeknd continues this electrifying theme in songs like “Too Late” and “Faith,” but as the album progresses, he shifts focus to his musical specialty: an eclectic blend of R&B and pop. In “Escape From LA,” The Weeknd brings this fictitious album back to reality through his soulful voice as he sings, “Got everything I wanted / But I’d be nothing without you.” He boasts his range by jumping to pop with “Blinding Lights,” whose inclusion of a modern yet unique synthetic tempo makes it a radio stable hit one can’t help but tap a foot to. “After Hours” is The Weeknd’s most vulnerable performance, carrying a consistent theme of loneliness and regret. While hiding behind the mask of Tesfaye, The Weeknd unveils listeners’ own grim and fiery alter egos they never knew they had.

2) “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple’s 2020 comeback project “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the equivalent of a musical punch directly to the face. What separates Apple from so many of her peers, however, is that her punches land. Viciously tearing through ex-lovers and abusers alike, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” feels like a concentrated outlet for the tenured vocalist to let loose on record. Tracks like “For Her” and “Newspaper” rip into these manipulative men with a fervor and carry a sense of catharsis as Apple tears them down in the same way they did her. Other songs like “Cosmonauts,” “Rack of His,” and the titular “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” take more melodic routes but still build to a similar percussion-driven, grinding peak. The consistency of “Fetch” is remarkable and allows the project to bring a steady kick throughout the 51 minutes, drawing the listener in, and then setting them on fire. A rare project that received a 10/10 score from Pitchfork, this album is a truly once-in-a-generation trip down the psyche of a vocalist who’s been used one too many times.

1) “folklore” by Taylor Swift

Quickly emerging as the world’s quintessential quarantine album, “folklore” by Taylor Swift presents a brand new side to the weathered pop star. Maneuvering away from the glitz and glam of celebrity life, Swift presents “folklore” as a stripped-back antidote to the trappings of daily life in 2020. Filled with delicate strings, soft keys, and Swift’s classic Americana delivery, “folklore” managed to introduce a completely new audience to alternative indie stylings and succeeded at both maintaining quality and achieving rampant chart success. Swift interweaves several different narratives within the project, extending the storyline of “folklore” beyond her own experiences and creating a more universal album. In songs like “august” and “betty,” she describes the melodrama of a high-school love triangle, and on the clicking “the last great american dynasty,” she tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, a 1960s oil baroness whose life uncannily mirrors Swift’s in many ways. Whether she’s poetically describing her own experiences or immersing the listener in fictitious folktales, Swift’s quarantine-inspired project solidifies her place as one of the most versatile artists in the mainstream right now and provides an ethereal kick to a year that couldn’t have needed it more.

Honorable Mentions

“Alfredo” by Freddie Gibbs and Madlib

“YHLQMDLG” by Bad Bunny

“Gaslighter” by The Chicks

“evermore” by Taylor Swift

“Women in Music pt. III” by HAIM

“Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” by Kid Cudi

“Plastic Hearts” by Miley Cyrus

“Good News” by Megan Thee Stallion

“Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon” by Pop Smoke