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The 10 best albums of 2020: Taylor Swift, Fiona Apple, Waxahatchee, more

Albums recorded in quarantine ranked as some of the best of this or any other year.
Waxahatchee released "Saint Cloud" on March 27.
Waxahatchee released "Saint Cloud" on March 27. [ Molly Matalon ]
Published Dec. 21, 2020
Updated Dec. 23, 2020

Has there ever been a better year to let an album sweep you away?

If there’s one thing we had in 2020, it was time to kill, 40 minutes or an hour here or there to stop hitting shuffle and let a long-player wash over us. It’s still a singles culture, but the year of the coronavirus pandemic showed that works that take time to digest are just as meaningful as ever, if not more.

Artists, too, were locked in quarantine, figuring out how to produce full albums on their own, long distance, without a studio full of collaborators at the ready. We’ll look back at these “quarantine albums” for years down the line, as we study how musicians reacted to the pandemic. For now, a few of those albums already rank among the best of the year.

Here are our top 10 albums of 2020.

10. Chris Stapleton, ‘Starting Over’

Chris Stapleton took the world by storm with 2015′s Traveller, but his 2017 From a Room series felt flat. With Starting Over, Stapleton did exactly that. The album is a true and worthy successor to Traveller, fiery and confessional and painful and joyous, with folk and blues and Southern rock and, of course, classic outlaw country rushing through its veins. It may be heresy to say it out loud, but it’s as good as Traveller, and might even be better.

Chris Stapleton released "Starting Over" on Nov. 13.
Chris Stapleton released "Starting Over" on Nov. 13. [ Becky Fluke ]

9. Juice WRLD, ‘Legends Never Die’

This year saw several memorable posthumous albums by rappers who died too young: Mac Miller, Pop Smoke, and especially Juice WRLD, who had just turned 21 when he died from a drug-induced seizure last December. Legends Never Die puts his slurry but expressive emo-rap voice on a pedestal, as he sang about falling and failing and dealing with “anxiety the size of a planet” alongside A-list collaborators like the Weeknd and Halsey. It’s an album full of potential that, sadly, won’t be realized.

Juice WRLD performs in concert during his "Death Race for Love Tour" in May 2019 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.
Juice WRLD performs in concert during his "Death Race for Love Tour" in May 2019 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. [ OWEN SWEENEY | Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP ]

8. Perfume Genius, ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is a work of deep sensitivity and simmering desire, a mix of ethereal melodies and Gothic, almost industrial textures. Mike Hadreas goes full alt-pop on songs like On the Floor, but almost every track has an abrasive tension below the surface. And when it comes out — as on Nothing at All or Some Dream — it’s intimidating and immersive.

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Perfume Genius released "Set My Heart on Fire Immediately" on May 15.
Perfume Genius released "Set My Heart on Fire Immediately" on May 15. [ Camille Vivier ]

7. Beabadoobee, ‘Fake It Flowers’

You can picture Beabadoobee behind the counter at Empire Records, sorting CDs by Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield and Belly and the Breeders. The album is crunchy, clashy ’90s nostalgia through and through, a shoegaze haze of grungy guitars, lush production and Beabadoobee’s dreamlike voice. Break out the flannel when you listen.

Beabadoobee performed on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on Nov. 18.
Beabadoobee performed on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on Nov. 18. [ ABC | ABC ]

6. Devon Gilfillian, ‘Black Hole Rainbow’

Black Hole Rainbow offers plenty of traditional soul and R&B songs that make grand use of Gilfillian’s smoky, cracking croon, particularly The Good Life and Thank Me Later. But the Pennsylvania singer goes beyond retro-soul tropes, splicing in percussion, orchestration and chord progressions that lean alternative, experimental, almost trip-hoppy. It’s new-school soul for people who still love the old school.

Devon Gilfillian released "Black Hole Rainbow" on Jan. 10.
Devon Gilfillian released "Black Hole Rainbow" on Jan. 10. [ Jennifer Elrod ]

5. Taylor Swift, ‘Evermore’

Putting Taylor Swift, one of the world’s best pop songwriters, together with a Bonnaroo’s worth of indie rock talent was bound to yield a lush, warm and intimate album, even if at times it felt too safe. Impressively, Swift had not one but two such albums up her sleeve in 2020. Both Folklore and Evermore lull you in close, and both have deep benches that reward repeated listenings. They’ll forever be compared to one another, and everyone will have their favorite — for me, the folksier, more subdued Evermore stands slightly taller — but whether you like your Taylor with a dash of the National or a splash of Bon Iver, you can’t call her quarantine experiment a flop.

In this Jan. 23 photo, Taylor Swift attends the premiere of "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana" at the Eccles Theater during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
In this Jan. 23 photo, Taylor Swift attends the premiere of "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana" at the Eccles Theater during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. [ CHARLES SYKES | Charles Sykes/Invision/AP ]

4. Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’

You hesitate to use the word “manic,” but there is a frenetic, all-over-the-place energy to Apple’s fifth album, a wild, electric trip through her mind and memory and doggie-filled house in L.A. Percussive and pulse-pounding, it pulls no sonic punches, particularly on cacophonous piano-rock tracks like Shameika and Relay. Pop melodies take a backseat to pure power, but it’s still hard to shake the album’s sounds once they rock you.

Fiona Apple released "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" on April 17.
Fiona Apple released "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" on April 17. [ Fiona Apple ]

3. Charli XCX, ‘How I’m Feeling Now’

Lots of artists made albums in quarantine, but Charli XCX’s was among the first, and remains the best. There’s an urgency in its mix of futuristic pop and electronic sounds, a sense Charli was racing to do something forceful and creative at the start of the lockdown. She captured the apocalyptic feeling of forced distance, of connection filtered through technology. “I’ll love you forever,” she sings, “even when we’re not together.”

Charli XCX released "How I'm Feeling Now" on May 15.
Charli XCX released "How I'm Feeling Now" on May 15. [ Atlantic Records ]

2. Terrace Martin/Dinner Party

Taylor Swift dropped two surprise albums and a couple of streaming films, but 2020′s most impressive overall catalog belonged to hip-hop and jazz multi-instrumentalist and producer Terrace Martin. In between February’s experimental Sinthesize and December’s celebratory Village Days, Martin dropped a string of great but short EPs, including two with his supergroup Dinner Party, featuring Kamasi Washington, 9th Wonder and Robert Glasper. Somehow none of these EPs included Pig Feet, one of the year’s top songs, a searing screed on racial unrest featuring Washington, Denzel Curry, G Perico and Daylyt. It’s hard to pull a single Martin project that stands above the rest, so let’s cheat a bit: Make a playlist of your favorite Martin and Dinner Party tracks from 2020 — there are dozens, but be sure to include Pig Feet — and let’s call that one of the year’s finest albums. Everything he touched was that good.

Terrace Martin was part of the hip-hop/jazz supergroup Dinner Party, which released a pair of albums in 2020.
Terrace Martin was part of the hip-hop/jazz supergroup Dinner Party, which released a pair of albums in 2020. [ VAN CAMPOS | Van Campos/Fotoarena via ZUMA Press ]

1. Waxahatchee, ‘Saint Cloud’

Waxahatchee is ostensibly an indie act, but Saint Cloud is a fuzzy hug of messy Americana, loose and hopeful, the sound of singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield untangling the knots in her soul. It’s an album about getting clean, finding redemption, understanding oneself; the sort of album that invites you to step off the front porch and walk the property line, thinking your thoughts, letting your palms graze the tips of the tall grass around you. Crutchfield’s Alabama twang reverberates throughout songs that are a little Uncle Tupelo, a little Lucinda Williams, all written and produced with great care. “I nurture the one track taking flight / let it surround me like a starry night,” she sings on Hell. Actually, she did that for all 11 tracks on Saint Cloud. As a whole, the album soars.

Waxahatchee released "Saint Cloud" on March 27.
Waxahatchee released "Saint Cloud" on March 27. [ Molly Matalon ]