Simmering Emotions, Louder Explosions
In a year of distancing, anxiety, protests and polarization, musicians were separated from audiences and, often, each other. Some 2020 albums were already well underway before the pandemic; others were made under quarantine, with long-distance collaborations or none. On release, they were heard privately. It was a good year for the most personal, idiosyncratic statements.
1. Sufjan Stevens, ‘The Ascension’
Phalanxes of synthesizers, programmed beats and sturdy pop melodies fortify Sufjan Stevens and his gentle voice as he contemplates America in turmoil. He tries to summon a moral compass and enough faith to overcome wholesale confusion, lies and fear. Victory is not assured. (Read the review.)
2. Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
A triumph of willfulness, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is Fiona Apple proclaiming she “won’t shut up” amid a percussive clatter she created at her home: banging on pots and pans, pushing her voice to extremes, letting her dog bark. The songs avenge and exorcise all sorts of slights and traumas, distant and recent, mixing spite with amusement. And they mutate as they go, mingling spoken words and melody and drawing at whim on rock, jazz, show tunes, choir harmonies, chants and cheers. Apple doesn’t forget or forgive; she just moves ahead. (Read the round table; hear the Popcast.)
3. Moses Sumney, ‘Grae’
“Grae” demands to be heard as a rhapsodic whole, a suite of songs and fragments continually dissolving and rematerializing around Moses Sumney’s otherworldly voice. The music touches down in slow-motion R&B, but moves toward abstractions — orchestral, jazzy, electronic — as Sumney ponders solitude and connection, masculinity and identity, self-doubt and self-realization, existence and transcendence. (Read the review.)
4. Taylor Swift, ‘Folklore’
On “Folklore,” Taylor Swift puts away childish things like pure pop clarity and scoring easy points. Her unexpected quarantine-era alliance with Aaron Dessner of the National deliberately and gorgeously blurs the crisp contours of her past songwriting. On “Folklore” she is swathed in acoustic instruments and Minimalistic patterns within patterns. And when she sings about lost love, she now admits that she shares both blame and regrets. (Read the review; hear the Popcast.)
5. Bob Dylan, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’
Mortality looms on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” but it only makes Bob Dylan, 79, more ornery. The songs switch off between stoic ballads and late-night roadhouse blues as he sings about history, legends, theology, art, gallows-humored paradoxes and, occasionally, his own cultural role. It’s autumnal, yet anything but mellow. (Read the interview; read the review.)
6. Lianne La Havas, ‘Lianne La Havas’
The third album by the English songwriter Lianne La Havas cycles through a failed romance — starting and ending with a break — in songs brimming with poised musicality. Graceful melodies, supple guitar syncopations, sophisticated harmonies and a voice that can sparkle with anticipation or cry out in pain capture all the hope and heartache of her narrative. (Read the review.)
7. Burna Boy, ‘Twice as Tall’
The Nigerian songwriter Burna Boy calls his music Afro-fusion, not the more specifically Nigerian term Afrobeats, and “Twice as Tall” lives up to that broader mandate with a profusion of sleek, diverse, constantly inventive grooves that traverse Africa and its diaspora. Through its 15 songs, Burna Boy is by turns exuberant, pensive, confessional and political. The bitter, furious single he released soon after nonviolent anti-corruption protesters were killed by soldiers, “20 10 20,” made a compelling postscript. (Read the interview.)
8. Run the Jewels, ‘RTJ4’
Run the Jewels — Killer Mike and El-P — uphold a worthy, now-vintage style of hip-hop, with densely and aggressively produced tracks and rhymes that are declaimed rather than moaned, for songs that address broader issues between boasts. The momentum hardly ever lets up on “RTJ4”; the problems it targets have been all too vivid in 2020. (Read the profile; hear the Popcast.)
9. Jyoti, ‘Mama, You Can Bet!’
The songwriter and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow calls herself Jyoti — a name bestowed on her by Alice Coltrane — for her forays into jazz. On “Mama, You Can Bet!,” she created the music by herself — playing or looping all the instruments, overdubbing her vocals in rich harmonies — yet somehow simulates the spontaneous interplay of a live jazz group. She remakes Charles Mingus, the earthiest jazz avant-gardist, on a few tracks, nodding toward an inspiration.
10. Autechre, ‘SIGN’
The ever cryptic, ever exploratory electronic duo Autechre greeted 2020 with something approaching moderation and introspection, releasing a single CD (as opposed to the marathon “NTS Sessions” from 2018) with 11 tracks that usually accept the regularity of a beat. The general tone is thoughtful and consonant but with jittery undercurrents, fitting for a year of quarantine. Yet moment to moment in Autechre’s algorithmic realm, anything can happen. And less than two weeks after “SIGN” appeared, Autechre suddenly released another hour of music on the more aggressively disorienting “PLUS.” (Read the interview.)
The Art of Taking One’s Time
Perhaps a year of isolation made two particular kinds of albums more appealing: ones that were deeply steeped in the past, and ones that sounded like a person working on no one’s calendar but their own.
1. Sam Hunt, ‘Southside’
What if the most innovative mainstream Nashville performer was also the most reverent of tradition? What if the guy who wrote great, smart party songs also excelled at devastating heartbreak anthems? What if careful, syllable-by-syllable songwriting held hands with clever concepts and intuitive, sticky melodies? What if the soft-focus blur preferred by the rest of the town didn’t make an album like this such a shock? (Read the profile; watch the Diary of a Song.)
2. Rina Sawayama, ‘Sawayama’
The year’s most audacious pop statement is ecstatic, knowing, wry and arch, an album that is somehow both a sendup of excess and also a commitment to the most excessive approach imaginable. Sawayama mines shimmery and chaotic early 2000s pop and also rap-rock and nu-metal on songs that would resonate in front of a raging crowd of 100,000 people or a chin-stroking gaggle of 100.
3. Rod Wave, ‘Pray 4 Love’
In recent years the default manner of rapping has become very much like singing, but what Rod Wave does is one step beyond: He is a potent R&B crooner working with familiar hip-hop subject matter, but his blend is closer to mournful blues. These songs are fresh-air triumphs of the downtrodden. (Read the review.)
4. Jay Electronica, ‘A Written Testimony’
The debut album by Jay Electronica, a connoisseur favorite better known for the idea of his potential than for his actual output, has a satisfying heft to it: the raps feel as if they emanate from the Earth itself. And it’s a welcome and frankly astonishing bonus that Jay-Z is riding shotgun on most of these songs, invigorating his 1990s flows with 2020 perspective.
5. Run the Jewels, ‘RTJ4’
The agitators. The rhyme raiders. The anarcho-futurist comfort takers. The grinning-all-the-while anxiety makers. The grizzled vets. The puffed chests. The outwardly aggrieved introspects. The diligent duo that never rests. (Read the profile; hear the Popcast.)
6. Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
That howl heard ’round quarantine was the return of Fiona Apple, making a righteous, rowdy rumble right when the world was holding its breath. Her fifth album is loose and uproarious, veering from reverent art-pop to tone poetry to cabaret to scream therapy. (Read the round table; hear the Popcast.)
7. Pop Smoke, ‘Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon’
Pop Smoke, who was killed in February, was moving away from drill music toward a sound that was melodic but still gruff, long the winning formula for New York rappers with big dreams. His full-length debut album nailed the transition — it’s mischievous, sinister and loose. That it’s also his career capstone is enraging. (Read the feature.)
8. Flo Milli, ‘Ho, Why Is You Here?’
The debut album from the Alabama rapper Flo Milli is a fusillade of bratty taunts and bratty flirts over beats so ornery and wobbly they sound like they’ve been assembled from Tinkertoys.
9. Powfu, ‘Poems of the Past’
Powfu’s debut major-label EP pulses with hopelessness. It’s filled with unerringly sad songs made up of notebook-scrawl lyrics with deep-exhale melodies; you can almost hear the downcast eyes and sloped shoulders. But the sturdiness of Powfu’s singing and rapping (and sing-rapping) telegraphs the depths of his perseverance and resilience. (Read the review.)
10. Justin Bieber, ‘Changes’
For a decade, Justin Bieber has been a heartthrob, a bad boy, a reluctant pop superstar, a megacelebrity without much of a musical mandate. But he has never been the thing he is in fact best suited to, which is a singer of dewy R&B. On this understated album, he finally arrives at his sweet spot. (Read the review.)
11. Chris Stapleton, ‘Starting Over’
Chris Stapleton’s roar isn’t designed to scare you off. It’s regal, an announcement of an alpha figure asserting his primacy. Sometimes it’s been bigger than his songs, but on this, his fourth album, the thrill is back.
12. Bad Bunny, ‘YHLQMDLG’
It’s not uncommon for music superstars, after decades atop their scenes, to try to demonstrate fluency in the music of prior generations to bolster their claims to contemporary authority. Bad Bunny only waited about four years. This album delves into the sounds of reggaeton’s past but doesn’t feel dry — rather, it underscores the legacy of his outré approach, marking him just as much a historian as a history-maker. (Read the review.)
13. Beach Bunny, ‘Honeymoon’
Lili Trifilio writes chirpy songs about awful sadness. She fronts Beach Bunny, a Chicago band that toys with flickers of garage rock, pop-punk and indie rock. But the unifier is Trifilio’s voice: sweetly pleading, sweetly exasperated, sweetly resigned, sweetly vengeful.
And 27 more for a chaotic year:
21 Savage and Metro Boomin, “Savage Mode II”; Benny the Butcher, “Burden of Proof”; Natanael Cano, “Trap Tumbado”; The Chicks, “Gaslighter”; City Girls, “City on Lock”; Code Orange, “Underneath”; Conway the Machine, “From King to a God”; Drake, “Dark Lane Demo Tapes”; Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, “Alfredo”; Ariana Grande, “Positions”; Hardy, “A Rock”; Haux, “Violence in a Quiet Mind”; Ian Isiah, “Auntie”; Junior H, “Atrapado en un Sueño”; King Von, “Levon James”; Lil Durk, “Just Cause Y’all Waited 2”; Lauren Mascitti, “God Made a Woman”; John Moreland, “LP5”; Jessie Reyez, “Before Love Came to Kill Us”; Dua Saleh, “Rosetta”; Sunday Service Choir, “Jesus Is Born”; Myke Towers, “Easy Money Baby”; Jessie Ware, “What’s Your Pleasure?”; Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud”; The Weeknd, “After Hours”; Hailey Whitters, “The Dream”; YoungBoy Never Broke Again, “Top”
Rebel Yells, of Passion and Fury
Intensely personal work swelled into large-scale statements this year, and women often led the way, revealing scars left by different kinds of emotional and political skirmishes, and reinforcing that their voices must be heard.
1. Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’
Like a distant planet unhurried in its orbit, Fiona Apple returns every seven or eight years to present whatever wisdom she’s gleaned from another trip around the sun. But even the emotional and aesthetic derring-do of her four previous albums could not prepare listeners for the shock of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” an achievement of bracing intensity recorded over several years, mostly in the seclusion of her Los Angeles home. Dancing nimbly between complex, jazzlike arrangements and the crude beauty of playground chants, Apple narrates a vivid journey about confronting and finally transcending past trauma — the schoolyard bullies of “Shameika”; the music-industry gaslighting described on the title track; the sexual assault addressed so searingly on the unforgettable “Newspaper” and “For Her.” Apple’s voice is a muscular instrument, heaving and surging under the weight of all she’s excavating before fluttering away, light as a butterfly. Any time you try to lock her in to any one genre, narrative or state of being, you can already feel her eyeing her toolbox. (Read the round table; hear the Popcast.)
2. Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Punisher’
“Someday, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” Phoebe Bridgers vows wryly on “Garden Song.” A few tracks later, she tries it out and remains unimpressed: “I want to believe, instead I look to the sky and feel nothing.” But oh, the miracles she’s able to mine from the vast space between those two extremes: a memory of sneaking behind a truck’s wheel as a child; a heartfelt hallucination of a conversation with her musical hero Elliott Smith; a final, fearless stare into the face of the apocalypse. Bridgers’s previous work showed promise, but “Punisher” finds her blooming into her full potential as a voice-of-a-generation songwriter. “What if I told you I feel like I know you, but we never met?” she wonders on the flickering title track. Her listeners will understand. (Read the review.)
3. Waxahatchee, ‘Saint Cloud’
The song titles on Waxahatchee’s “Saint Cloud” are stark, blunt, almost elemental: “War,” “Hell,” “Fire,” “Witches,” “Oxbow.” Katie Crutchfield is not interested in mincing words or couching ideas in superfluous metaphors — these songs are about rolling up your sleeves and getting down to the hard, direct work of personal introspection. “If I could love you unconditionally,” she sings to herself in her charred Alabama twang, “I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky.” Written after Crutchfield decided to quit drinking, the songs of “Saint Cloud” are unflinchingly cleareyed, their arrangements as loose and broken-in as an old favorite shirt. (Read the review.)
4. Haim, ‘Women in Music Pt. III’
Haim’s playfully acronym-ed “WIMP III” feels like a trip through the radio dial during one of those fleeting years in the mid-90s when — by some sort of clerical error or rip in the space-time continuum — the airwaves were dominated by an eclectic variety of female musicians. “The Steps” and “Gasoline” are stomping rockers worthy of vintage Sheryl Crow, “3 AM” recasts the Haim sisters as a sassy R&B girl group, the rootsy “I’ve Been Down” would have killed as an encore at Lilith Fair. On their previous albums, Este, Danielle and Alana Haim could sometimes feel hemmed in by their pristine, showy chops. “WIMP III” has freed them up to experiment, embrace imperfection and discover promising new corners of their evolving sound. (Read the review.)
5. Yves Tumor, ‘Heaven to a Tortured Mind’
Yves Tumor struts and slithers like the most famous rock star on an as-yet-undiscovered planet. “Heaven to a Tortured Mind,” the most straightforwardly tuneful album from the Knoxville, Tenn.-raised art-rocker, combines the glam sneer of Marc Bolan with the forward-thinking shape-shifting of Tricky, plus a bit of Yves Tumor’s own special sparkle. (Their real name, appropriately enough: Sean Bowie.) On duets like the soaring “Kerosene!” and the slinky “Strawberry Privilege,” masculine and feminine energies mingle and detach from their earthbound bodies, their eventual combustion giving way to plenty more interesting byproducts. (Read the feature.)
6. Charli XCX, ‘How I’m Feeling Now’
The weirdo-pop futurist Charli XCX got to the quarantine album before it became a cliché, and elevated it to something far more expansive and searching than thematic gimmickry. Sure, there are timely allusions to stir-crazy anxiety (“Anthems”) and video chatting (“in real life, could the club even handle us?” she wonders on the corrosive opener “Pink Diamond”), but these circumstances have also made Charli extra attuned to her emotions, lending the depth of genuine introspection to many of these songs. Featuring winning collaborations with such avant-trash producers as A.G. Cook of PC Music and Dylan Brady of 100 gecs, “How I’m Feeling Now” is hyper-carbonated pop of the highest order — like a can of seltzer that’s so stingingly fizzy it makes you tear up a little on the way down.
7. Jessie Ware, ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’
The most sumptuous offering from a year accidentally obsessed with disco (Dua Lipa’s sleek “Future Nostalgia,” Róisín Murphy’s bold “Róisín Machine,” and Lady Gaga’s otherworldly “Chromatica” being the runners-up), the British singer and songwriter Jessie Ware’s “What’s Your Pleasure?” is a lusty feat of dance-floor escapism — an affable podcaster and happily married mother of two Cinderella-ing herself into a club vixen for a night. Ware revels in the textures of the producer James Ferraro’s showroom of vintage synths, conjuring the no-wave cool of ESG as deftly as the glimmer of Minneapolis funk. (Read the feature.)
8. Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Eternal Atake’
The alien-abduction skits are redundant: From the opening notes of the bouncing “Baby Pluto” we’ve been transported directly to Uzi’s universe. If the sticky-icky hooks of the 2017 album “Luv Is Rage 2” established Lil Uzi Vert as a melodically savvy hip-hop crooner, the long-gestating “Eternal Atake” is a sharp assertion of his skills as a rapper — combining the influences of his forebears Chief Keef and Future (both of whom he also collaborated with this year) into a unique style that could be mistaken for no one else. Seamlessly shifting gears from flow to breathless flow, “Eternal Atake” is a breakneck joy ride through the cosmos of Uzi’s own brain. (Read the review.)
9. Jeff Rosenstock, ‘No Dream’
Every song on the Long Island punk lifer Jeff Rosenstock’s pummeling “No Dream” goes to 11, and then somehow finds a 12. “It’s not a dream, it’s not a dream!” he hollers at himself with increasing ferocity on the title track, screaming guitars and unrelenting drumming providing the sonic equivalent of cold water to the face. “No Dream” is a frayed manual for how to be an independently thinking and not-completely-jaded person in a world of faceless sans-serif corporations (exemplary song title: “***BNB”), anesthetizing bad news and all manner of everyday late-capitalist insanity. So unsparing is his inquiry, though, that Rosenstock’s occasional flashes of tenderness feel refreshingly (if obscenely) hopeful. “All these other [expletive] can bite me,” he concludes at the end of the record, “’cause you’re the only person that I wanted to like me.”
10. Perfume Genius, ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’
Mike Hadreas continues his decade-long hot streak on “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” a record that places baroque-pop frames around the sort of emotions, experiences and people not traditionally honored in baroque-pop songs. The harpsichord-kissed “Jason” is a gently heartbreaking tale of a man’s hesitant exploration and ultimate rejection of his own desires (“clumsy, shakily, he ran his hands up me”), while the melody to the upbeat, yearning “On the Floor” has a retro-60s feel. Sometimes Hadreas and his producer Blake Mills seem to be updating the earthy rumbles of ’80s goth rock; at other times, their layered arrangements queer the Wall of Sound. (Read the feature.)
11. Taylor Swift, ‘Folklore’
“When you are young they assume you know nothing,” quoth Taylor Swift, age 31. What follows, on “Folklore,” is a lyrical exploration of that culturally denigrated commodity that is young-girl wisdom, this time viewed through the artful distance of Swift’s adulthood. “Picture me in the trees, before I learned civility,” she invites on the memory-scape “Seven,” a sophisticated piano bringing gravitas to the childlike playfulness of her lyrics. “Folklore” isn’t a perfect album (though to be fair, neither was “Red”), nor is it Swift’s best (which is “Red”), but its focus on craft and emotional world-building feels like a perfect move for her right now — an eternally sharp songwriter returning to the whetstone. “I knew everything when I was young,” Swift sings. The exciting thing to think about is how young she still is. (Read the review; hear the Popcast.)