Don’t bother with those other lists. Here it is, the best, the top 35, unranked and just for you. If you like what you hear, please consider supporting the artists directly through Bandcamp (if they’ve made it available). Apple Music does pay slightly better than Spotify per stream, but streaming royalties are very slim, especially during COVID-19 when artists are really hurting.
Ariana Grande – Positions
Ariana Grande’s recent album trajectory has been a tale of three producers. While the lyrics have remained thematically the same, the sound has been led by Pharrell Williams (Sweetener), Max Martin (Thank U, Next), and now Tommy “TBHits” Brown. Positions may seem as if it lacks mega-hits like the previous No. 1’s “God is a Woman” or “Break Up with Your Girlfriend,” but Brown proves that all of his sleeper hits from the last two records, such as “Better Off,” “Needy,” and “NASA,” better represent what separates Grande’s music over that of Martin’s 20-year-old, formulaic work with Britney, Katy, and Taylor. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG
The rise of Spanish-language music over the past two years, and Bad Bunny seemingly centering himself as the movement’s public face, has been one of the biggest mainstream industry shifts of the past two years. Sadly, it is also constantly overlooked in terms of coverage.
Music journalist Gary Suarez recently commented on Rolling Stone and Pitchfork lists’ choice to only have Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG represented, citing that, “The tokenism of including Bad Bunny’s album–to the detriment of all other Spanish-language LPs–on these site’s year-end lists should be a source of embarrassment in 2020.”
He’s 100% right, and while I have only one more Spanish-language record below, music journalism should be doing more work in non-English music. Bad Bunny definitely has the star power, though, and YHLQMDLG‘s use of video game bit tones, bouncy melodies like “Pero Ya No,” and big name collaborations made it feel special for even unlearned listeners like me. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
I would hate to think that most people found Beabadoobee from a sample on Powfu’s “death bed,” a popular song on Tik Tok that incorporated the singer’s 2017 song “Coffee,” but I would also be glad to know that she’s at least getting visible somehow.
“Death bed” proved that her great sense for melody on “Coffee” could live on three years after its release, and her debut record, Fake It Flowers, showcases this ability even further. Personally attuned and full of ’90s nostalgia, Beabadoobee channels the indie rock of yesterday on tracks like “Together” and “Worth It”–hopeful new favorites for “death bed” streamers. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
BLACKPINK – THE ALBUM
The BTS boys may dominate K-Pop coverage, but if anyone has given them a run for their money in 2020 it’s the female quartet, Blackpink. Racking up features with Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and Cardi B, the Blackpink girls have been on a roll, switching from anthems like “How You Like That” to radio singles like “Lovesick Girls.” (Apple Music | Spotify)
Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now
The quintessential quarantine album, how i’m feeling now by Charli XCX arrived in May, just two months into virus world. Though only a little over a half-hour, the record expressed the kind of fear and loneliness felt under lockdown better than any album that sought to incapsulate the global catastrophe.
No shade to Taylor Swift’s folklore (which is also here on the list), but songs about women wed-locked to oil barons do not reflect the times at even a fraction’s worth of Charli XCX’s:
“I’m so bored/Wake up late, eat some cereal/Try my best to be physical/lose myself in a TV show/Staring out to oblivion/All my friends are invisible/Twenty-four seven, miss ’em all/I might cry like a waterfall/I feel afraid when I feel alone.”
The industrial soundscape only adds to the anxiety, and despite putting it all together in just two quarantined months, how i’m feeling right now feels like another pop barrier broken, and an potential new course for a genre only artists like Charli XCX (or 100 gecs) are apt enough to even tackle. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour
This summer in lockdown, the Beyoncé proteges Chloe x Halle took to the digital BET Award live-feed to perform in the brightest white outfits I’ve ever seen with a lush red velvet backdrop.
Conway the Machine – From King to a God
For a crew that has swamped 2020 with releases, Conway rightfully called it out when he said that, “lotta albums are suddenly startin’ to feel a lil’ more Griselda-esque” on “Spurs 3.”
Technically a “debut record” despite appearances from Method Man, DJ Premier, Freddie Gibbs, and features from label mates Westside Gunn and Benny the Butcher, the star-studded emcee lifts old-school New York stylings and attitude, spitting on “Dough & Domani,” “I see their lists and I personally get offended/‘cause every single verse is a verse of the year contender.” (Apple Music | Spotify)
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED
If you’ve ever watched a great The Cave episode and thought, ‘man, these two have to do a project together,’ then UNLOCKED is that dream.
Curry proved on 2018’s TA13OO that he was one of the most talented rappers alive, and Kenny Beats’ history with fellow growlers like Rico Nasty perfectly complimented his vocals. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Destroyer – Have We Met
I listened to a lot of Destroyer in March as the virus sent everyone in lockdown. Walking around an empty New York City, with fear and uncertainty in the air, Have We Met‘s dream world seemed to be seeping into reality.
Songs like “It Just Doesn’t Happen” and “Crimson Tide” boasted lyrics that not only unintentionally connected with the pandemic, but perfectly fit the loneliness as well. “Stuck inside hospital corridors,” he sings, “My condition in general, despite what they say, improves/So I could care less on a night like this/I’m on the lookout for anything that moves.” (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Fionna Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
If the dogs barking at the end of the title track don’t give away that Fionna Apple recorded Fetch the Bolt Cutters in her isolated California home, maybe the banging of pots and pans, handclaps, and minimal instrumentation had listeners catch on (had they not already read that Pitchfork granted the record a 10/10).
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, named after a line uttered by a character in the television show The Fall in order to free a tortured woman, gnarls out themes of abuse, oppression, and #MeToo through simple, yet thoughtfully crafted songwriting. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Flo Milli – ho, why is you here?
My first taste of ho, why is you here? was through “Like That Bitch” featuring stellar produced from J. White Did It (Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”). But, it was Flo Milli’s entrance confidentially repeating “I walk around like that bitch!” that completely sold me over.
Effortlessly switching flows and rapping lines like, “Dicks up when I walk in the party” and “I walk in the room, they get low self esteem,” the 20 year-old Alabama rapper not only assumes dominance on her debut project, but turns us into simps with her rapping prowess as well. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo
If Freddie Gibbs puts out a record, it is more often than not going to be the best rap album of the year. 2015 had Shadow of a Doubt, 2019 saw Bandana, his second collaboration with Madlib, and 2020 had Alfredo with The Alchemist.
Featuring two-thirds of Griselda, Tyler, the Creator, and an excellent Rick Ross on “Scottie Beam,” Alfredo bathes in hip-hop nostalgia as one of the top 5 rappers alive today waxes poetic gangster over top. “Microphone check, one, two, mic checka/Still pack that bladadah, Subhan’Allah, I pray to Mecca,” Gibbs raps on “God Is Perfect,” “All this gang shit in my vein, I got the rank, I got the blessin’/Take some extras out the brick, we press a brick, it ain’t no pressure.” (Apple Music | Spotify)
Future – High Off Life
Last June, Future released Save Me, a 20-minute project that ended with “Love Thy Enemies,” one of the most personal tracks from the influential Atlanta rapper in years.
It was a theme continued on High Off Life‘s “Accepting My Flaws,” as the now-clean rapper set out to prove that it wasn’t the heavy drug use in his music that made him a rockstar, he was always a rockstar. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Ivy Sole – Southpaw – EP
Repping Philadelphia and Charlotte, Ivy Sole broke through on 2018’s Overgrown, adding her voice to the talent of Black queer women finally getting the attention they deserve in a male-dominated industry.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony
In hip-hop, Jay Electronica was a legend, as in, a forgotten myth. Like Dr. Dre’s Detox or Outkast’s 10 the Hard Way, this album was 13 years in the making, never thought to see the light of day, yet even exist at all.
The enigmatic rapper randomly showed up on just a handful of joints by Chance the Rapper, Curren$y and PRhyme since 2009, but in 2020 the Dead Sea Scrolls were unleashed, and every track featured Jay-Z. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
I’ve been a passive fan of Jessie Ware since her 2011 appearance on SBTRKT, an electronic record by an English musician of the same name, featuring similar early appearances from artists like Sampha and Little Dragon. I enjoyed her voice but aside from songs like “Wildest Moments” or “Tough Love,” I wasn’t completely sold.
However, on What’s Your Pleasure?, her fourth album to date and one of the best of the year, Ware transports us back to the age of disco. It is a revival far more cohesive and complete than those similarly praised in 2020 like Dua Lipa or Lady Gaga. Fit with Giorgio Moroder-esque synths and simple, catchy melodies, nothing in 2020 made me want to dance more than What’s Your Pleasure? (Apple Music | Spotify)
King Krule – Man Alive!
I’m sure everyone is tired of this thought, but that Man Alive! was released pre-pandemic is insane. On tracks like “Cellular” and especially “Stoned Again,” the blaring guitar distortion and guttural vocals mixed with themes of depression, isolation, and self-loathing just really cut through. This record was powerful as hell, and angsty in a real honest way. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Kipp Stone – HOMME
Working as a healthcare worker in East Cleveland by day, Kipp Stone wrote and produced HOMME by himself at night, detailing poverty, local violence, and growing comfortable in your own skin. Stone isn’t without his humor, however, telling his story through tracks such as “People Be Trash,” “Jobs Be Trash,” and “World Be Trash.” (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia
When Lido Pimienta won the Polaris Prize, Canada’s most prestigious music award, in 2017, the Spanish-language singer called for more Latin representation in music. On Miss Colombia, she does just that, by continuing to include the roots of Colombian music while also evolving the over-appropriated dancehall rhythms of the American pop world.
Named after the 2015 Steve Harvey gaffe at the Miss Universe Pageant when he accidentally called Miss Colombia the winner even though the contestant from the Philippines won, Miss Colombia, written and co-produced in her home studio, is her way of reclaiming the throne. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Medhane – Cold Water
Like Earl Sweatshirt and MIKE before him, Medhane’s dreamy Brooklyn production is both gritty and honest. Of the most self-made sounding advancements in hip-hop of the past couple of years, Brooklyn Drill, and whatever sub-genre this will be called, surely take the cake. Full of no-chorus tracks barely exceeding the two-minute mark, Cold Water sounds like a project made in a burst of artistic fervor, and probably the most overlooked album of the year. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Megan Thee Stallion – Good News
If the boldness of “WAP” with Cardi B didn’t already have the media scrambling, Tory Lanez accidentally shooting Megan Thee Stallion in the foot and then recklessly denying it certainly did. To go on naming her album Good News and opening with a track like “Shot Fired” was somehow even bolder. Accompanied by hits like “Circles,” “Body,” “What’s New?,” and “Work That,” Good News only adds to Megan’s run of nothing but bangers since first catching the Fever in the Summer of 2019. (Apple Music | Spotify)
MINO – TAKE
The best K-Pop album of the year, and featuring one of the Top 10 songs, TAKE by Winner’s MINO was an exciting solo-venture surprise.
Incredibly involved visually and audibly, MINO not only crafts great choruses like on “Love and a Boy” and “Run Away,” but he can also rap at break-neck speeds. Repped by YG, alongside Blackpink and Lee Suhyen, I can only hope that TAKE is getting the same attention. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Moses Sumney – græ
Moses Sumney destroyed genre in 2020 with græ. Partnering with Brooklyn Uncut Gems composer Oneohtrix Point Never and inspirations like R&B legend Jill Scott, Sumney created a new space at home with fans of Sufjan Stevens, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, James Blake, and ethereal jazz.
Featuring his beautiful falsetto, nothing else sounds like Moses Sumney, and that’s a very good thing. Sonically, it’s most definitely the largest sounding record on the list, and with such introspective themes of identity and romance, it’s only fittingly for it feel so huge. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Omar Apollo – Apolonio
A bedroom pop artist garnering similarities to Frank Ocean, Prince, and Khalid, Omar Apollo is settling into his own on Apolonio.
He goes full D’Angelo on “Want You Around,” and channels Swae Lee on “Bi Fren.” On tracks like “I’m Amazing” and “Kamikaze,” Apollo displays all that he’s taken in and compressed into his, from Spanish-language inclusion to groovy choruses and dreamy guitar fades. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce
Like anyone cool, intensely watching anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Fruits Basket, Haikyu!!, and Dragon Ball Z has messed us up for good. Nothing has ever cared about emotional intention more, and Open Mike Eagle has long been the great siphon to bring characters like Sinji and Joseph Joestar to meaningful hip-hop.
Discussing themes of his recent divorce through connecting with his son, Asa (who appears on two of the twelve tracks), the aptly named Anime, Trauma and Divorce taps into 2017’s excellent Brick Body Kids and inventively elevates even further. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers is probably the most honest person in music today. No one has shared more about her experience or songwriting with her fans more than Bridgers over the past couple of years, from how “Kyoto” is about both feeling frustrated by her relationship with her father and feeling imposter syndrome on tour in Japan, to how “Garden Song” is about a joke a crush of hers used to have about murdering their Nazi-affiliated neighbor and making out on top of the garden they would plant over his grave.
And that’s just the first two songs on Punisher, a somber and contemplative record from a young singer-songwriter that shares her heart with every new song, and can make a track called “Halloween” about the struggles of a relationship where both parties feel like they’re hiding their emotions like wearing masks and costumes. (Apple Music | Spotify | Bandcamp)
Playboi Carti – Whole Lotta Red
Good thing I waited so long to slowly write this list up because I would have missed Whole Lotta Red, Playboi Carti’s surprise late-December release.
This record is so angry, and while repetitive phrases may not display the best songwriting, it’s really powerful to hear Carti say “When I go to sleep, I dream ’bout murder” over and over again. America might have connected with Killer Mike’s excellent lyricism on RTJ4 tracks like “walking in the snow,” but Playboi Carti’s anger feels so much more visceral and artful. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Pop Smoke – Meet the Woo 2
Released just a week before the Brooklyn rapper’s untimely death, Pop Smoke’s Meet the Woo 2, a genre defining album, eerily opens with “Invincible,” one of his most powerful songs.
His breakout 2019 single “Welcome to the Party” might have gotten the attention of A-listers like Nicki Minaj, Quavo, and UK’s Skepta, but on Meet the Woo 2, Pop Smoke pays it back to his hometown of Brooklyn, including artists like Boogie wit da Hoodie, Lil Tjay, and fellow drill rapper Fivio Foreign. He was the champion of New York, even after his death through the pandemic and #BlackLivesMatter protests, as “Dior” blared out of car speakers and became an unconventional rallying anthem. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
The most eclectic artist on the list, the British-Japanese singer wavers between power-pop (“Dynasty”), nu-metal (“STFU”), runway (“Comme Des Garcons”), Taylor Swift (“Bad Friend”), new jack swing (“Love Me 4 Me”), and JPEGMAFIA (“Akasaka Sad”).
RMR – Drug Dealing is a Lost Art
The industry not treating RMR with respect when co-signs like Westside Gunn, Future, Timbaland, Young Thug, and Lil Baby did, is one of the biggest missed opportunities of 2020. Clearly, the masked singer has it, and it’s clear from the first second of “Rascal.”
RMR may exist in a post-Lil Nas X world, where country and rap combined has an air of novelty surrounding it, but RMR is certainly more learned and concentrated in its vision. Tracks like “Dealer” not only display how seamlessly he can utilize A-listers into his sound, but how confident he is in what he’s creating–and that’s genius. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Sleepy Hallow – Sleepy for President
Coming up with Sheff G in the first blast of Brooklyn Drill, Sleepy Hallow went solo on Sleepy for President, a much underrated project of 2020.
On tracks like “Water,” “Baddie Betty Boop” with Fivio Foreign, and the opener “Deep End Freestyle,” Sleepy melodizes the gritty, bass-heavy production to craft some of the most energetic and memorable material of the year. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Taylor Swift – folklore
Charli XCX’s record might be the definitive quarantine album, but that doesn’t mean that folklore wasn’t also a good record. “Album of the Year” like on most lists you’ve seen? No, I don’t think so. I think there are other artists more defining of what’s happening outside in 2020 that deserve the recognition over Taylor Swift, but that’s not to say that folklore isn’t still one of her best records yet, and even my personal favorite of hers.
Sure, there’s some bias since she worked with The National guitarist Aaron Dessner, a long-time favorite band of mine. The “Drunk under a streetlight, I-I-I,” vocals from the chorus of “Cardigan” may be the best Matt Berninger impression I’ve ever heard, and Bon Iver’s natural voice on “exile” is, to use a music writer cliche, “hauntingly beautiful.” But folklore is Swift in pure, masterful form. It’s a reinvention from the days of reputation and Lover that proves the songwriter’s talent by bearing her at her most authentic. (Apple Music | Spotify)
Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington – Dinner Party
Out of the blue in the Summer of 2020, a supergroup of talent composed of Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington announced Dinner Party, an EP formed from the belief that all of their signature styles could create a new kind of music. While forces like 9th Wonder seem to the most in control here, partnerships with Phoelix and short-but-sweet songs like “Love You Bad” display that while they each have unique talent, the legacy of MF DOOM (R.I.P!) lives on through them all. (Apple Music | Spotify)
The Weeknd – After Hours
On Starboy, the dark and brooding Weeknd of House of Balloons was no more, and a phoenix rose out of our creation. “Look what you’ve done,” he sang. He was a “starboy”–one who danced (albeit badly) for our enjoyment, and sang upbeat pop songs like Beauty Behind the Madness’ temperature test “Can’t Feel My Face” instead of original downers like “Glass Tables.”
On After Hours, an album of “Can’t Feel My Face” takes hold through hits like “Save Your Tears” and Max Martin’s “Blinding Lights,” as The Weeknd physically alters and distorts himself into a global megastar. As Spongebob once asked his idol, “Do you want it to hurt me Kevin?” (Apple Music | Spotify)
21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode II
Like any good sequel, Savage Mode II has everything that made the original tape noteworthy plus bigger names and bigger action. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, who muses on the definitions of “snitching” and “savage,” Savage Mode II features Drake, Young Thug, and 21 Savage & Metro Boomin back in full form, with a new drive and menacing beats. (Apple Music | Spotify)
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.