1. ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ — Fiona Apple
Is there anything else to say about an album so beloved, so acclaimed, so christened as the praiseworthy, critic-coalescing perfection of our time?
Yes, and no. In many ways, Fetch The Bolt Cutters speaks for itself — and dear God, does it have a lot to say. Fiona Apple’s long-awaited fifth album features her fiercest, wisest, messiest and most tremendous music to date, but its power is, ultimately, much simpler than that.
Bolt Cutters is an album of pure, unadulterated freedom, both in purpose and production. Of course, that freeness can not and will never be separated from its arrival, which paired Apple’s personal freedom with the collective realization that things everywhere were about to become really, really, really, bad. In the end, that coincidence might be the album’s lasting legacy — which, isn’t such bad thing. It’s exactly what we needed.
2. ‘Saint Cloud’ — Waxahatchee
There’s almost no way to talk about music — or TV, or the weather, or literally anything — in 2020 without discussing its meaning. Everything, whether it wants to be or not, is a reaction to, or a reprieve from, our new state of being.
Somehow, Saint Cloud, the fifth album by musician Katie Crutchfield, feels entirely devoid of those attachments. Crutchfield’s songwriting is unanchored, and as a result, more liberating and more invigorating than anything else this year. It’s a falling in love record, and a mood-setting. record, sounding so of a place and season that its songs have the ability to transport us away, if only for a minute.
If Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the masterpiece of our horrid, protracted status quo, then Saint Cloud is its counterweight. Although, to be clear, that weight is a feather-light: Crutchfield’s songwriting, which has never been better, peaks at moments of unfiltered bliss — particularly on “Fire,” the unbound eruption of love and fulfillment that doubles as the year’s most near-perfect track.
3. ‘RTJ4’ — Run the Jewels
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Run The Jewels made the album of our political moment; they’ve been doing it for nearly a decade now. That’s both a testament to the duo — which has, in just four albums, positioned itself as rap’s active old guard — and more importantly, it’s an indictment of the world in which Killer Mike and El-P base their songwriting.
That’s to say, reality. Run The Jewels has long centered itself as a project of revolution; the brainchild of two men filled with the passion and rage of their youth, plus the wisdom and deftness of middle age. That impossible balance is never more true than on the group’s fourth, and possibly best, album yet.
Of course, the resounding, horrible truth of RTJ4 is that nothing about it is prescient. The record, which arrived within weeks of George Floyd’s death and features lyrics that feel rooted in the realities to his tragic death, was written months beforehand. RTJ4 came exactly when we needed it, but to understand that, we have to acknowledge the album for what it really is — a response.
4. ‘Folklore’ — Taylor Swift
The album that will now be complicated — and depending who you ask — enhanced, by a second quarantine record is a piece in and of itself, no matter how you see it. Whether Folklore is Taylor Swift’s best album is a matter of taste, but, even if you rank the record near the bottom of her catalog, its boldness rings true,
Swift’s eight album is so many thing: Stripped down, indied-up, a departure, a return to form, a lyrical left turn, the culmination of a 15-year superstar reign. It’s also, simply put, the most lyrically interesting record of her career. Songs like “Invisible String” and “Peace” shimmer with self-awareness and a level of emotional reflection that, at its best, can literally knock you off your seat.
Yes, it’s playing to the crowd (or at least, a certain type of crowd). Sure, it has a Bon Iver feature and a woodsy album cover. But, as Swift admits on the remarkable standout, “Mirrorball,” all she does is “try, try, try.” On Folklore, she’s trying a lot, and while not everything works, what does work is so compelling, so triumphant and so, so, so fascinating.
5. ‘Punisher’ — Phoebe Bridgers
Almost everyone — critics, music Twitter, the Internet At Large — have pegged Punisher, rightly, as an announcement. Grammy-Nominated Artist Phoebe Bridgers (now her legal name), has become every bit the singular talent her early work predicted, and then some.
Still, somewhere in the deluge of well-deserved praise, Bridgers’ career achievements have come to overshadow her creative ones. Punisher isn’t just an announcement, it’s one of the best indie rock albums in years and years; a generational work that defines and soundtracks a Hubble-sized view of the millennial experience.
6. ‘Eternal Atake’ — Lil Uzi Vert
Life moves fast in the SoundCloud rap era. That’s why the return of Lil Uzi Vert, perhaps the artist who personifies the very best of hip-hop’s current sophomore class, feels so long-awaited.
And so needed. Uzi, who in 2019 announced what felt like the end of his musical career, returned from retirement not like Roger Murtaugh, but like John Wick; an older-but-savvier 2.0 version with a full grasp of his old tricks, plus plenty of new ones. The outcome of that return is Eternal Atake, the most energetic, and most purely fun, album of 2020.
7. ‘Heaven To A Tortured Mind’ — Yves Tumor
In the tradition of the glam rock virtuosos before them, Yves Tumor is dialing in from another planet. The Tennessee-raised, Italy-based singer made 2020’s brashest, bizarrest album; a hard-rocking astroid field of horns, chorus-drenched guitars and stark left turns.
At the center of it all, Yves Tumor is an icon; a lovestruck explorer moving through their endless sea of sound, and reaching their full creative power in the process.
8. ‘Shore’ — Fleet Foxes
More than 14 years after Fleet Foxes’ debut EP, Shore finds frontman Robin Pecknold in a state of rare optimism. The once-shaggy-haired folk singer is clean shaven these days; and, as his latest album will tell you, he’s taken up surfing and swimming.
Shore is a heroic, incandescent beacon of that new perspective. It’s the band’s brightest, warmest output to date, and a record that, for all its sunniness, doesn’t lose an ounce of the substance that has made Fleet Foxes so great.
9. ‘Women In Music Pt. III’ — HAIM
Are we sure HAIM isn’t the best rock band in the world? On Women In Music Pt. III, the Haim sisters certainly make the case for themselves — and in the meantime, the case against any rocker dude, music critic or Twitter feed misogynist who would doubt them.
The group’s third album is far-and-above their best yet, and not only because it’s their most skilled. It’s a heartbreak record, an L.A. record and, most emphatically, a damn good rock record.
10. ‘Apolonio’ — Omar Apollo
Debut albums can often be mistaken for mission statements. And on Apololnio, Omar Apollo certainly has a lot to say; about love, about sexuality, about his generation, about nostalgia.
The difference, and the reason it would be so terribly limiting to define the 23-year-old’s debut to a statement, is because he’s not trying to do anything. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of skill on Apolonio, an album that fizzles with creative energy and R&B instincts. At its core, though, the record is a mirror. It’s an open and honest portrayal of its creator.
11. ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’ — Jessie Ware
Jessie Ware, a married mother of two, became 2020’s most unexpected sex symbol. The British singer’s fourth record, which is easily her grooviest, is also her steamiest.
What’s Your Pleasure? is unapologetically horny, yet, in its honesty, it presents a set of relatable, fully attainable feelings. The narrative Ware composes is exactly what so many of us have spent the year dreaming about — a night where we can dance, sweat and desire, without thinking of a single other thing.
12. ‘The New Abnormal’ — The Strokes
Few bands this millennium have defined a city like The Strokes. New York, and the vital, immediate, up-til-dawn energy of its streets, is inextricably tied to the now-middle-aged rockers.
That’s why it only makes sense that the band’s return (its first album in seven, long years) arrived at one of its city’s most perilous moments. With the country — and in its own specific ways, New York — in total jeopardy, The Strokes renounced themselves in with an album that’s wise, knowing and, most importantly, accepting. Few resources were more valuable this year than catharsis, and thank God, The Strokes had it; for themselves, their city and everyone else.
13. ‘Ho, why is you here?’ — Flo Milli
The year’s best pure rap record is full of newcomer energy. Flo Milli, who won’t turn 21 until January, is the year’s freshest, most exciting talent — and an artist who could only exist in her exact place and time. The Alabama-based rapper emerged from a wave of TikTok vitality, a success story commandeered and drove 100 miles per hour, headfirst into an album of mind-boggling confidence.
14. ‘Dreamland’ — Glass Animals
Dave Bayley is world-building again. The singer-songwriter, who, along with a group of his childhood friends, performs as Glass Animals, has always placed aesthetics on a pedestal. On the group’s third album, the result is a literal Dreamland — a landscape of waxed-over, sugar-sweet summer glaze; where Bayley’s lyrics are as lethargic and sleepily insightful as the boredom of an open, empty summer.
15. ‘Djesse Vol. 3’ — Jacob Collier
No album in 2020 was more full of ideas than Djesse Vol. 3 , the fourth album by 26-year-old wunderkind Jacob Collier. The English-born singer/compose/multi-instrumentalist is a bonafide musical genius, which with the wrong sensibilities, can present some problems.
Collier, who can play, write and a cappella his way through anything, and in less adventurous hands, that would be a crutch. On Djesse, though, it’s a spaceship: The record is bubbling (sometimes literally) with trial and experimentation, the results of which range from 100 Gecs-ian genre hopping to pitch-perfect R&B classics.