Top 50 Albums of 2020

These are the records we leaned on during what's been the strangest year in our lifetimes

Top 50 Albums Main
Top 50 Albums of 2020

    As we return from Thanksgiving and head into December, our Annual Report will spend the next few weeks looking back upon the strange year that was 2020 and the music, film, and television that came with it. We begin today with our Top 50 Albums of 2020.

    You’ve heard it from me dozens of times already: 2020 has not been a normal year. And by that, I mean absolutely nothing has been normal. The music world hasn’t been immune, of course. I’ve spent more time cancelling flights and accommodations and trying to get tickets refunded than I actually did watching live music this year. Instragram became a concert venue, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions had no performances, and livestreams (which are pre-taped) seem to be the often-underwhelming future of live music at least for the forseeable future.

    I’ve also never spent so little time in a record store as an adult. And when I have shopped and browsed, it’s been sporting a mask, eyeballing my fellow customers like they’re Patient Zero, and all of this usually after having waited in line to get into my small, hole-in-the-wall, go-to record shop like a Tuesday afternoon was Record Store Day morning in a normal year. I also have to admit that times have been tough. The vaunted collection of vinyl that sits in my living room has actually shrunk this year because, well, I needed a buck. It’s also the first year of my adult life where I sold off my record collection instead of adding to it.


    Stuck at home, I figured, if nothing else, I’d finally get a chance to listen to music more than ever, discover a million new bands, and finally put a serious dent in that bucket list of albums to listen to and live with before I die. And that didn’t really happen either. Truth is, that was our biggest discovery while piecing together our top albums list over the previous weeks. While nothing was normal about the music industry or the world around us in 2020, we all kinda used music in the same ways that we normally do. We looked for the same distractions, comforts, understanding, and inspiration. And we got them … maybe when we needed it most.

    Despite the strangeness of 2020, the year has been full of first-class artistry. We’ve seen tomorrow’s stars emerge, yesterday’s heroes return triumphantly, and the most hyped acts of today back up that excitement with records that seem both timeless and so of the time as to be almost prophetic. To all those who’ve grieved the loss of a loved one this year, felt the pain of racial injustice create fresh wounds and open old ones, or lost sleep not knowing how they would be able to protect and care for their loved ones in these uncertain times, we can only hope that music had their back in some small way like it did ours.

    Here are 50 albums we leaned on in 2020. Be safe and take care.

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director

    Editor’s Note: If you enjoy this list and our other content, consider supporting Consequence of Sound by purchasing an item at our web store. Additionally, a portion of all proceeds are being donated to MusiCares’ COVID-19 Artist Relief Fund supporting independent musicians.


    50. Beach Bunny – Honeymoon

    Beach Bunny Honeymoon Album Cover Stream Track by Track

    Origin: Chicago, Illinois

    The Gist: Following a quartet of EPs and some unexpected TikTok popularity, Beach Bunny were big enough to land spots at their hometown’s Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. Not long after, the band signed with beloved indie label Mom + Pop and booked time in Steve Albini’s Electric Audio studios. Led by Lili Trifilio, the group’s full-length debut, Honeymoon, dropped appropriately on Valentine’s Day, instantly winning our hearts.

    Why It Rules: Looking at the rest of this list, it’s clear — and understandable — that there’s a certain “type” of album that really sticks out in 2020. Honeymoon isn’t the charged, soul-searching effort that dominates the current conversation. It is instead a relatively simple, sincere recounting of the highs and lows of young romance. And it nails those feelings to the wall with flawlessly aimed pop punk. The insecurity of self-worth (“Rearview”), the agony of unrequited affection (“Ms. California”), the bliss of proper love (“Cloud 9”) — the full gamut is run with such perfect sweetness that re-listening to even the most “emo” moments is a joy. February seems like such an innocent time compared to now, but there’s a reason we named Beach Bunny our Artist of the Month back then, and we haven’t forgotten it. —Ben Kaye

    Essential Tracks: “Dream Boy”, “Rearview”, and “Promises”

    Pick up the album here.

    49. Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

    megan thee stallion good news debut album cover artwork

    Origin: Houston, Texas

    The Gist: Megan Thee Stallion’s 2020 was one of turbulence with moments of immense triumph thrown in, and the release of her debut album, Good News, seems like the rapper’s perfect send-off to a tumultuous year. She has always been an adept lyricist; three mixtapes and three EPs later, her talent has been all but cemented. However, listeners still eagerly await each and every one of her projects because she always has something relevant to say.


    Why It Rules: Good News showcases Megan the Stallion’s creative depth, her euphonious inventiveness, and libidinous wordplay. She completely demolishes any track she appears on. Meg’s first album encapsulates her reality as a Black woman artist — especially since that means the world feels like it’s against you for simply existing. Good News is a sonic representation of resilience. The 25-year-old emcee has been through a lot in her brief career but still finds the resolve to channel her pain into song. We are more than familiar with Megan’s brilliance, but her debut album expands on it and reminds us that the charismatic artist can outrap your favorite in the game any day of the week. –Candace McDuffie

    Essential Tracks: “Shots Fired”, “Freaky Girls”, and “Intercourse”

    Pick up the album here.

    48. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline


    Origin: Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

    The Gist: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A man walks into a bar and some time later his former lover walks through the door. It’s really not much of an intriguing plot, but it’s the story Andy Shauf builds atop that simple setup that makes The Neon Skyline such a gratifying listen. The follow-up to the Canadian singer-songwriter’s The Party is once again a concept album centered on a singular location during a singular night. This time, however, Shauf makes it far more personal, and thus even more rewarding.

    Why It Rules: There are plenty of examples of ordinary stories becoming enthralling thanks to the details of the telling. The Old Man and the Sea is literally about one guy catching one fish — but it’s so much more than that. What Shauf does with one night at the eponymous bar of his sixth album so candidly reveals minor moments that it similarly outgrows its confines. The smell of a “Clove Cigarette” triggers an emotional deflation, or an aside about a kid meeting his mother in the “Living Room” forces a reexamination of the “Things I Do”. Our narrator is hard to cheer for, the literary definition of pathetic, tortured by mundanely self-defeating bad habits and jealousy. Yet his fumbling attempts at humor (“Try Again”) and utterly relatable failures (“The Moon”) end up comforting when he’s finally dancing in the ashes of his relationship (“Fire Truck”) and looking towards the future (“Changer”). Concept albums often challenge listeners to find the story buried in the lyrics; The Neon Skyline lays it out with plain poignancy. It pays off as one the most charming and subtly powerful entries in the form. —Ben Kaye


    Essential Tracks: “Neon Skyline”, “Fire Truck”, and “The Moon”

    Pick up the album here.

    47. The Flaming Lips – American Head

    The Flaming Lips - American Head

    Origin: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

    The Gist: Looking back now, it feels safe to say that the ’10s represent something of a lost decade in the long, strange journey of The Flaming Lips. After ushering in the new millennium with a pair of unlikely mid-career classics (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) and closing out the ’00s with unexpectedly muscular rock fanfare (2009’s Embryonic), Wayne Coyne and his merrymakers spent most of the next 10 years getting into tabloid feuds, recording scattershot side projects, and cosplaying as Miley Cyrus’ acid-casualty uncles. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to see why this quote from frontman Wayne Coyne in American Head’s press materials warranted intrigue: “For the first time in our musical life, we began to think of ourselves as ‘an American band.'” After a decade lost in space, The Flaming Lips were headed back to Earth. How would they feel about what they found?

    Why It Rules: The best records in The Flaming Lips catalog are the ones that find the balance between the band’s penchant for fried psychedelic whimsy and the uncanny tenderness that underpins Coyne’s songwriting. For the first time in nearly two decades, they’ve rediscovered this winning formula. As a result, American Head stands alongside The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as one of the very best records The Flaming Lips have recorded and should be required listening for anyone who’s gone on their own quarantine-induced walk down memory lane in search of a way to survive this year. –Tyler Clark

    Essential Tracks: “Will You Return / When You Come Down”, “Dinosaurs on the Mountain”, and “Brother Eye”

    Pick up the album here.

    46. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene

    Grimes Miss Anthropocene artwork Grimes Miss Anthropocene artwork

    Origin: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

    The Gist: It’s been five years since Grimes delivered Art Angels and recalibrated alternative pop for the better of humankind. Since then, it’s been a Byzantine story for the Canadian singer-songwriter (and for anyone who’s been interested enough to follow), one full of teases, snippets, collaborations, disagreements, love, and, ultimately, new life. Now, here we are, some five years later, and Grimes is with Elon Musk, has a child, and a fifth studio album in Miss Anthropocene.


    Why It Rules: Grimes thrives in the complexities. Like Art Angels, each track demands a subreddit of its own to detail its melange of genres and sounds, all of which demand repeat listens from now until the sun becomes as black as sack cloth and the moon turns to blood. Speak of the devil, Miss Anthropocene is similarly dark, pushing Grimes into apocalyptic territory as she ruminates on human extinction. Hey, gimme death any day if it sounds this good. –Michael Roffman

    Essential Tracks: “Delete Forever”, “Violence”, and “4ÆM”

    Pick up the album here.

    45. Armani Caesar – The Liz 

    Armani Caesar - The Liz

    Origin: Buffalo, New York

    The Gist: The story of hip-hop in 2020 is inexorably tied to the ascension of Griselda Records. While the label dropped stellar albums by founder Westside Gunn and the core group of Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, some of the best releases came from less well-known names. Armani Caesar has run in the same circles as the Griselda crew since their early days in Buffalo, New York, and last year she became the first woman that WG brought on board. The Liz is hardly her first musical release, but it’s the first to be heard on the national stage.

    Why It Rules: Armani Caesar has the usual Griselda ear for grimy, throwback beats. She approaches her jazzy flows with a conversational tone, preferring a simmer to a boil. She’s not the kind of MC to set off sparklers around her best lines or triple-underline her own jokes, and you’ll never catch her breaking a sweat. The Liz is mostly a solo effort, with guest features used like jalapeños, sparingly and to great effect. The album reaches its zenith with “Drill a RaMA” and “Simply Done”, two Benny the Butcher bangers in a row. But her easy chemistry with WG and zippy give-and-take with Conway bodes well for future Griselda collaborations. After The Liz, it’s fair to wonder if she’s the best rapper on the roster, period. –Wren Graves


    Essential Tracks: “Mac 10s for Everybody”, “Drill a RaMA” , and “Simply Done”

    Pick up the album here.

    44. AC/DC – Power Up

    AC/DC Power Up

    Origin: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

    The Gist: This year AC/DC celebrated the 40th anniversary of Back in Black. Little did we know that the hard rock legends were poised to unleash another classic record in the bleak year of 2020. The band’s 17th studio album, Power Up, arrives like an antidote to the malaise and a triumphant statement that rock ‘n’ roll knows no time and no age. AC/DC have a new set of anthems for a vastly different world.

    Why It Rules: The album sees the return of classic members Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Cliff Williams — all of whom had been out of the band by the time AC/DC’s last tour wrapped up in 2016 — alongside ever-present guitarist Angus Young. Guitarist Stevie Young rounds out the lineup, replacing the late great Malcolm Young, who shares a songwriting credit on every track on Power Up. As Angus tells it, Power Up is a tribute to his brother Malcolm, just like Back in Black was a tribute to Bon Scott. When it comes to hard rock, nobody does it better. AC/DC have once again proven that they’re masters of their craft. Not that they needed to, it’s just inherent in the band to produce epic riffs and huge anthemic hooks, which Power Up has in abundance. Simply put, AC/DC went in and kicked out the proverbial jams, crafting their best album in years and igniting a spark of joy into the stark timeline that is 2020. –Jon Hadusek

    Essential Tracks: “Shot in the Dark”, “Kick You When You’re Down”, and “Systems Down”

    Pick up the album here.

    43. Becca Mancari – The Greatest Part

    becca mancari the greatest part artist of the month album cover artwork

    Origin: Nashville, Tennessee

    The Gist: Becca Mancari released Good Woman, a well-received indie folk debut, in 2017. That same year, she joined Brittany Howard and Jesse Lafser in Bermuda Triangle. Big steps for any developing artist, and yet not quite in the direction Mancari wanted or, perhaps more accurately, needed to go. For her second solo effort, she brought on her friend Zac Farro (drummer for Paramore) as producer to get closer to the indie sounds on which she’d first based her artistic identity. At the same time, she pushed herself to confront her personal identity: A queer woman still haunted by her fundamentalist Christian family’s reaction to her coming out.


    Why It Rules: Writing a coming-out record a decade after the act could put “too much” distance between the feelings and the expression. Not the case with The Greatest Part, the writing for which began with Mancari penning the opening line of “First Time”: “I remember the first time my dad didn’t hug me back.” There are deep, deep scars all over this wonderfully open album (“I’m Sorry”, “Forgiveness”), and any artist’s willingness to put them under the microscope so many years later would be worthy enough of admiration. Mancari’s examination rises to greater success, though, by rewarding repeat listens. That’s when you uncover the inventiveness in the arrangements (performed largely by Mancari and Farro themselves) and the complexity of the lyrics. What at first seems like an easy-listening LP anchored at the center by a song about a sad puppy (“Lonely Boy”) is revealed as a powerful seizing of self-actualization in the face of all that tries to “Tear Us Apart”. —Ben Kaye

    Essential Tracks: “First Time”, “Stay with Me”, and “I’m Sorry”

    Pick up the album here.

    42. Bartees Strange – Live Forever

    Bartees Strange - Live Forever

    Origin: Mustang, Oklahoma

    The Gist: With an opera-singer mother and a military father, Bartees Strange spent his early childhood criss-crossing America and Europe. He eventually landed in Mustang, Oklahoma, receiving a classical music education from mom and learning DIY recording methods with his friends. Live Forever is his debut album, and it boasts a fresh take on indie rock with jazz and hip-hop influences.

    Why It Rules: Live Forever is focused yet eclectic, and you might almost mistake it for a well-curated playlist except that Strange’s voice is so singular. His tenor rings out with rock and roll aggression, but his pinpoint control and heartfelt emotionality are pure opera. He wails through the anthemic choruses of “Mustang” and “Stone Meadows”, vibes like a soulful Bon Iver on the ballad “Far”, and busts out the whole toolkit on standout cut “Boomer”, rapping, crooning, and shouting his way through a tour de force performance. –Wren Graves


    Essential Tracks: “Mustang”, “Boomer”, and “Stone Meadows”

    Pick up the album here.

    41. Westside Gunn – Pray for Paris

    westside gunn - prayforparis

    Origin: Buffalo, New York

    The Gist: It sounds criminally reductive to say it’s been an insanely prolific and fabulous five years for Westside Gunn since he dropped his first commercial album, Flygod, because that notice pays no notice to the decade of mixtapes and honing his craft that came before a national spotlight began to shine on the Buffalo native and Griselda Records founder. Since “turning pro,” Gunn has signed deals with the likes of Eminem and Jay-Z, dropped some of the grimiest east coast hip-hop around, and brought his Griselda family and seemingly the entire city of Buffalo along with him (August 28th was named “Westside Gunn Day” in his hometown) on a ride that’s led to arguably his best release yet, Pray for Paris.

    Why It Rules: In a year that saw Griselda drop solid album after album — and Gunn himself release two acclaimed records (see also: WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE) and a mixtape — Pray for Paris might be most emblematic of the collective’s recent rise in the rap world. Heaped in an old-school taste for melody and beats, Paris spins smooth and gritty all at the same time with marquee names like Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, The Creator on-hand to round out the features alongside usual Griselda suspects like family Conway the Machine and Bennie the Butcher and regulars Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs. More accessible than other Westside Gunn releases, Paris feels like a well-deserved victory lap with the like-minded brethren that have always had his back. And now it’s back to work. –Regan Bexler

    Essential Tracks: “George Bondo”, “327”, and “$500 Ounces”

    Pick up the album here.

    40. Lamb of God – Lamb of God

    Lamb of God st

    Origin: Richmond, Virginia

    The Gist: Along with bringing in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, Lamb of God have been one of music’s most important acts over the past 20 years. From their phenomenal instrumentation to the potency of their sociopolitical lyricism, they remain titans of the genre, continuing to craft remarkable works of thrilling and captivating adrenaline. After a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lamb of God finally unveiled their self-titled latest opus in June. Not only is the album an amazing addition to the band’s discography, but it also proves to be a profound work of heavy metal.

    Why It Rules: Lamb of God is a fantastic mesh of hard-hitting metal meets insightful depth. The exploration and craft put into Randy Blythe’s lyrics, along with the stunning musicianship of each member, allows for an exhilarating work of pure heavy metal. This album isn’t just an awesome release from Lamb of God, but a perfect record to unite metalheads as one. –Michael Pementel

    Essential Tracks: “Memento Mori”, “Reality Bath”, and “New Colossal Hate”

    Pick up the album here.

    39. Shamir – Shamir

    Shamir - Shamir Album cover

    Origin: Las Vegas, Nevada

    The Gist: In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shamir referred to their new album as “definitely a COVID record.” The Philadelphia-based nonbinary artist, born Shamir Bailey, has cited influences all over the map for the album recorded entirely in quarantine, from Gwen Stefani and Miranda Lambert to Unsolved Mysteries and My Friend Dahmer, and you can hear it in the music. Despite being only 25, Shamir has already released a prolific number of albums and EPs, all of them experimenting boldly with indie rock, electronics, R&B, and pop styles branching back through several decades. Their self-titled album is a sure-handed invention that finds their myriad influences colliding and coalescing more smoothly than ever before and ultimately crystallizing into something new.


    Why It Rules: Shamir’s music makes the listener want to wake up. Listening to it is like being shaken awake, blinds thrown open. And it’s not like learning that anything sad or dull or particular was a dream all along; it’s like being made to consider that large-scale, consuming things, things like understanding and religion and love and nationality, have maybe been things worth thinking around and outside of all along. “Lose my religion, lose my sight, running with you through the night,” they sing on “Running”, and this in many ways is what the album feels like: running, flying, traveling through and between confrontations with mental health, with drug use, with friends and partners and the self that has to keep track of all these journeys. It’s quite a lot to balance and even more to balance in ways that feel original, and yet on this album, Shamir keeps track of it all. –Laura Dzubay

    Essential Tracks: “On My Own”, “Running”, and “Diet”

    Pick up the album here.

    38. The Chicks – Gaslighter

    the chicks dixie gaslighter album cover artwork art

    Origin: Dallas, Texas

    The Gist: Gaslighter marks the trio’s official return, and a lot has changed, both in the surrounding world and in the sound of The Chicks’ music. But some crucial elements remain the same: their attention is firmly focused ahead of them and on the things they care for. The album bears some natural similarities to Taylor Swift’s Lover from last year, not only because they share Jack Antonoff as a producer — which you can hear, in the way the songs are built out from their interiors, in the lushness of sound that ebbs and flows between particular tracks — but also because it asserts a pop sound of its own. The journey of Gaslighter is bolstered by the same strong group dynamic that put The Chicks on the map years ago, all through a lush but often dialed-back, new sound that ventures further into the pop realm.

    Why It Rules: The Chicks’ 14-year hiatus was largely due to parenting, and in many ways, Gaslighter is a parenting album. That is to say, it’s music that wants to reassure us and untangle our conflicts for us, but understands also the evil and reckless corners of the world. It knows that there are battles we will have to inherit or learn to wage completely on our own, and it tries also to arm us for these. There are some enemies in the world who will never give us peace on their own, not even if we prompt or entreat them, not even if they once loved or claimed to love us. This could be true of an ex-husband, or it could be true of a government. The album doesn’t pretend to resolve these conflicts, because they are ongoing in our lives. When a wound is still there, it’s still there. But it does give voice to them, which feels like the whole point. –Laura Dzubay


    Essential Tracks: “Gaslighter”, “For Her”, and “Julianna Calm Down”

    Pick up the album here.

    37. Burna Boy – Twice as Tall

    Burna Boy - Twice as Tall

    Origin: Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria

    The Gist: Burna Boy leads with his globe-trotting ear. He’s as comfortable with American hip-hop and trans-Atlantic pop as he is with dancehall and afrobeats, and his music synthesizes these cosmopolitan interests. He’s been dominating the scene in his native Nigeria since 2012’s “Like to Party”, and his 2019 effort, African Giant, brought his particular twist on African music to the world. Where that album wrestled with politics, its follow-up, Twice as Tall, finds Burna Boy wrestling with himself.

    Why It Rules: The album opens with “Level Up (Twice as Tall)”, which picks up in the aftermath of the 2020 Grammy awards. He’d just lost the statue for Best World Music Album to Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, and as he sings, the experience had left him feeling “sick as fuck.” From that point forward, the album finds this global superstar oscillating between humility and bravado, questioning his goals and hardening his resolve. The tracklist smoothly transitions from song to song, and the whole listen goes down like a cold beer on a hot day. –Wren Graves

    Essential Tracks: “Way Too Big”, “Naughty by Nature”, and “Level Up (Twice as Tall)”

    Pick up the album here.

    36. Anjimile – Giver Taker


    Origin: Boston, Massachusetts

    The Gist: Giver Taker is an album about rebirth in an almost literal sense. The debut full-length from Anjimile, it finds the Boston-based songwriter introducing the world to his non-binary trans identity using tender, reflective orchestral folk that’s inspired by the music of his Malawian ancestors, as well as contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens.


    Why It Rules: Giver Taker is not only a proud statement of identity; it’s also an album that deftly navigates the nuances of identity itself — simply being and existing in this very new chapter. What does it mean to be trans? To live authentically? To forgive and be kind to oneself for past transgressions? All while rebuilding bonds that were broken as a result of addiction? Anjimile has no easy, clear-cut answers to these questions. But he’s willing to meditate on, engage with, and confront them nonetheless, and for the very first time — a triumph worth celebrating in and of itself, as it indicates a growth like no other. –Lake Schatz

    Essential Tracks: “1978” and “Not Another Word”

    Pick up the album here.

    35. Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

    Margo Price That's How Rumors Get Started album cover artwork

    Origin: Los Angeles, California

    The Gist: It seems Margo Price’s narrative from the very start was going to be The One Who Changed Country from Within. Signing to Third Man Records for her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter solo debut was a good early sign, and the political turn on the ironically named All American Made kept her following that road. Each effort sounded at times like vintage outlaw country, but Price’s lyrical stances always made it clear she was redefining such categorization for a liberal 21st century. On her third full-length, she pushes the genre once again with the help of a producer who knows something about such trajectories.

    Why It Rules: That’s How Rumors Get Started is Price taking the leap she’s threatened traditionalists with the entire time. With Sturgill Simpson, himself a country star who stands outside the norms, behind the boards and a move from Tennessee studios to one in Los Angeles, Price makes no bones about her desire to push once more. The album makes a strong case for itself as a rock country effort as opposed to vice versa: “Heartless Mind” lights up with ’80s riffs, “Twinkle Twinkle” burns with modern blues, and “What Happened to Our Love?” spirals out of the psychedelic pop of long-haired bands from the ’70s. There’s plenty for classic country fans to hang their hats on, as well, and it’s Price’s clear knack for twisting country to fit her view without ostracizing others that makes her such a force in the genre. That is, unless you disagree with the health care laments (“I’d Die for You”) and her slamming of the CMAs. –Ben Kaye


    Essential Tracks: “I’d Die for You”, “Prisoner of the Highway”, and “Hey Child”

    Pick up the album here.

    34. Boldy James and The Alchemist – The Price of Tea in China


    Origin: Detroit, Michigan, and Beverly Hills, California

    The Gist: After previously working together on 2013’s My 1st Chemistry Set, these two veterans are having the best years of their careers. Detroit’s Boldy James is a 38-year-old rising star, and when Real Bad Boldy drops in December, it will be his fourth album of 2020. As for The Alchemist, the one time Mobb Deep associate has developed into a revered solo musician and collaborator. He is the only artist to have two albums on this list, which is both a testament to his own abilities and an indication of how sought-after his beats have become.

    Why It Rules: The Alchemist attracts a certain kind of MC. His moody, atmospheric soundscapes have wide-open grooves that can accommodate an infinite variety of flows. He doesn’t hold the rapper’s hand, and that’s perfectly fine for a flowmaster like Boldy James. Here, BJ often works as a second percussion track. Sometimes he rattles off consonants like he’s snapping off a drum solo, but more often his vowels are round and loose, his phrasing twirling balletically across the track. The Price of Tea in China has one of the best three-song runs of any album this year, with the anxious syncopations of “Surf & Turf” giving way to the heavenly sprint of “Run-Ins” and a trap-off with Benny the Butcher on “Scrape the Bowl”. –Wren Graves

    Essential Tracks: “Run-Ins”, “Surf & Turf”, and “Scrape the Bowl”

    Pick up the album here.

    33. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You


    Origin: Long Branch, New Jersey

    The Gist: Even bosses get writers’ block sometimes. Such was the case for Bruce Springsteen in early 2019. Facing down 70 and preparing to release Western Stars (his best-reviewed record in nearly a decade and one of our top 50 albums of 2019), Springsteen wasn’t totally sure what might come next. On his 20th studio album, he answers that question on both a micro and a macro level. Much like Western Stars found Springsteen exploring bygone California sounds from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Letter to You also discovered its inspiration in the not-yet-faded past. In addition to a newly vital set of songs devoted to aging, death, and legacy, Springsteen also resurrected three tracks written before his 1975 debut and reconvened the E Street Band for their first full-length studio collaboration since 2014’s High Hopes. Recorded live in the studio in just four days without overdubs, Letter to You finds Springsteen asking and answering the big questions: How do we remember the dead? What are we leaving behind? Five decades into a career in music, what more is there left to say, and how can we best say it while we still have the chance?


    Why It Rules: As the final strains of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” fade to a close, you might be struck with the following thought: if Letter to You was the swan song, if there were no more Springsteen albums after this one, this would be a mighty fine way to go out. That’s not the plan, of course. Springsteen still has more music to play, both live and in the studio. However, it does speak to the quality of Letter to You, both as a record within an already loaded catalog and a summation of a five-decade career spent translating hopes, fears, and dreams into life-changing rock songs. Not many artists reach 20 albums, and even fewer do it with such aplomb. Or, to put it another way: here’s to 20 more. –Tyler Clark

    Essential Tracks: “One Minute You’re Here”, “If I Was the Priest”, and “Ghosts”

    Pick up the album here.

    32. Fleet Foxes – Shore

    Shore by Fleet Foxes album artwork cover art

    Origin: Seattle, Washington

    The Gist: Although frontman Robin Pecknold began writing Shore just a year after 2017’s Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes’ fourth full-length wasn’t fully completed until a few months into the coronavirus pandemic. Pecknold’s usual existential anxieties find a home here on the folk outfit’s first album for ANTI- Records, but they feel all the more urgent given the looming gloom of the global health crisis.

    Why It Rules: Life and death are often seen in very stark terms, as two opposite ends of a spectrum. On Shore, Pecknold engages with both, unafraid to explore them and their nuances in one singular conversation. He’s previously described the record as “a celebration of life in the face of death,” and the dual nature of such an undertaking is handled with grace, patience, and, best of all, open curiosity. The album’s title right away is a solid example of this, a reference to a very scary surfing incident in California that’s left Pecknold traumatized but ever grateful for having survived. One of the Shore essentials, “Sunblind”, also simultaneously mourns and extols some of the frontman’s biggest musical heroes, such as Elliott Smith, John Prine, David Berman, and Jeff Buckley. The execution of Pecknold’s reflections only works, of course, thanks to the varied and richly layered musical arrangements, as well as contributions from delightful outsiders like Uwade Akhere, Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear, and the 400-500 voices (!) on “Can I Believe You”, all of whom were submitted by the group’s Instagram followers. Altogether grand, sobering, and inspiring, Shore flows much like Fleet Foxes’ everlasting early work and might just be their best album since those days. –Lake Schatz


    Essential Tracks: “Sunblind” and “Can I Believe You”

    Pick up the album here.

    31. Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

    Magic Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

    Origin: Wayland, Massachusetts

    The Gist: Recorded in lockdown between March and July of this year, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never sees Daniel Lopatin continuing to emphasize his voice alongside contributions from The Weeknd, DJ/singer Arca, singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek, and rapper Nolanberollin. Its title is an overt nod to Boston station WMJX (also known as Magic 106.7), and it’s designed to evoke the chilled-out vibes and chaotic transitions of popular radio. Furthermore, Lopatin’s aptly described it as “collaging maximalist baroque-pop within atmospheric glitter” that aims to achieve relatively autobiographical and introspective observations. True, some of it goes for style over substance, but it’s almost always intriguingly innovative, if not outright moving and substantive.

    Why It Rules: Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is another example of why its creator is such an in-demand and celebrated part of the genre. There’s a powerful cohesion to the collection that makes it feel greater than the sum of its parts, with several standout fusions of singing and instrumentation/production as only Lopatin could yield. Even its least agreeable selections demonstrate his characteristic and commendable vision, if nothing else, so the record is thoroughly adventurous and interesting. It doesn’t always sparkle as much as it could, but when it does, it illuminates a true talent in the realm of electronic/experimental music. –Jordan Blum

    Essential Tracks: “Long Road Home”, “Lost But Never Alone”, and “No Nightmares”

    Pick up the album here.

    30. Future Islands – As Long as You Are

    Future Islands As Long As you Are album cover artwork track by track

    Origin: Baltimore, Maryland

    The Gist: When you’ve built your career on underground passion over four albums, sudden success can pose an challenging proposition: What now? Future Islands remained solid on 2017’s The Far Field, the follow-up to 2014’s Singles breakthrough, but also pressured to maintain their momentum. Skip ahead another three years, the buzz has settled, and touring drummer Michael Lowry has been promoted to a full-time member. Perhaps both factored into the revitalized sound of As Long as You Are, as it finds the now-four-piece in top form once more.

    Why It Rules: Everything that made Singles such an intriguing late-stage introduction is stronger on the band’s sixth full-length. Gerrit Welmers’ programming — as much a Future Island hallmark as Samuel T. Herring’s divine growl — shines brighter than ever as the centerpiece of the group’s crystalline soundscapes. It’s a buoyant backdrop for Herring as he contemplates love, self, and the existential struggles of simply existing. Familiar territory for the expressive songwriter, to be sure, but his intangibles imbue the poetics with such heartfelt truth that they transcend. “Hit the Coast” would be a bloodless escapist fantasy coming from anyone else. Few could layer “Plastic Beach”, a rare male examination of body dysmorphia, with such earnest love of self and other. It’s possible no one has ever tackled toxic masculinity with the compassion of “Born in a War”. Elevated to the surface by his impeccable band, Herring is constantly mining beauty out of sorrowful depths, something that was sorely needed during this pit of a year. —Ben Kaye

    Essential Tracks: “For Sure”, “Born in a War”, and “Waking”

    Pick up the album here.

    29. Princess Nokia – Everything Is Beautiful

    Princess Nokia Everything Is Beautiful Album Artwork

    Origin: New York, New York

    The Gist: It’s hard for a single album to capture the entirety of some artists, even if it stretches into the 20-track range. In searching for new ways to express all sides of her admittedly “weird” identity, Princess Nokia’s solution was to release two records simultaneously: Everything Sucks and Everything Is Beautiful. The former is the “brash, ruthless” counterpart to the “sensitive, feminine side” of the latter. While it’s almost unfair, then, to consider the projects separately, the world itself is defined by this dichotomy; it’s usually best when we focus on the beautiful, and it’s no different here.


    Why It Rules: Which isn’t to say Everything Is Beautiful is in any way one-dimensional. Princess Nokia battles insecurities on “Heart” and expresses their willingness to throw down (“on racists, bigots, and scum”) on the funky gospel of “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”. While they explore the hallmark warmth of the modern independent hip-hop scene throughout, throwback flows like “Gemini” align them astrologically with artists like André 3000, Tupac, and Anne Frank. Whatever style they adopt, Princess Nokia finds ways to elevate above the harsher realities of Everything Sucks. It all comes to a clear-cut, well, conclusion on the contemplative closer “The Conclusion”: “Hi, my name is Destiny, and I’m a good person/ I see that you’re mean to me, and I did not deserve it/ I survived from trauma, and I’m living out my purpose/ And I’m sure you are, too, we’re really not that different.” We should all be able to embrace our multitudes with Princess Nokia’s candor. —Ben Kaye

    Essential Tracks: “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”, “Wash & Sets”, and “Gemini”

    Pick up the album here.

    28. Caribou – Suddenly


    Origin: Dundas, Hamilton, Canada

    The Gist: Caribou, aka Dan Snaith, has been on the electronic music radar for the vast majority of the last two decades, but it had been about five years since we’d heard from him last. The Merge Records mainstay dropped Suddenly at the end of February, and well, suddenly, Caribou is right at the front of our brains again.

    Why It Rules: Caribou’s Suddenly starts out slowly and eerily, almost Sufjan Stevens-like in the vocals, but quickly ramps up with the second track, “You and I”, which, oddly enough, might have been a good fit on Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories. From then on, the album takes a dive into pure electronic groove with unexpected, delightful instrumentals and samples, like the piano on “Sunny’s Time” and the use of Gloria Barnes’ 1973 hit “Home” on Caribou’s track sharing the same name. It’s impossible to listen to this record and stay still at the same time, so good luck if you decide to give it a try. —Annie Black


    Essential Tracks: “You and I”, “Never Come Back”, and “Ravi”

    Pick up the album here.

    27. Taylor Swift – folklore

    Taylor Swift folklore

    Origin: Nashville, Tennessee

    The Gist: Born of isolation, Taylor Swift’s eighth album, folklore, interrogates the pop star’s self-mythologizing and turns her gaze outward. Created during the ongoing pandemic, Swift collaborated remotely on 11 songs with Aaron Dessner of The National, who shared orchestrations composed inside his own quarantine. The results lean toward modern folk and glitchy experimentation, abandoning pop bombast but not the drama of swelling strings or anxious percussion. The accompanying visuals depict a gloomy summer, and listeners can imagine Swift watching storms barrel across the Atlantic horizon and wandering old-growth forests in half-done braids, alone or with a companion socially distanced beyond the frame. Dropped on 24 hours’ notice without her typically painstaking roll-out, the 16 moody songs delve into “fantasy, history, memory” and find Swift roaming her past loves with fresh, if tired, eyes — but also writing complex fictional scenes beyond her own experience. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s arguably Swift’s most contemplative, ambivalent, and expansive work yet.

    Why It Rules: On folklore, Swift has come of age, emotionally and sonically, and proven herself — not that she needed to — as not only an exceptionally autonomous auteur but a nimble collaborator with an ever-broadening palate. We live in an era when Americans are examining and dismantling national myths on a grand scale. Swift, too, is expanding her perspective yet starting at home, evaluating ongoing struggles, failures, and choices, weaving larger themes into her well-worn tapestries of bittersweet, young love. The songs of folklore show Swift piercing holes in her own narrative and persona and seem to ask: What’s the account we give to ourselves and to others? Can we look more closely? Can we change the story and survive? –Katie Moulton

    Essential Tracks: “cardigan”, “mirrorball”, and “invisible string”

    Pick up the album here.

    26. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days

    Pallbearer - Forgotten Days

    Origin: Little Rock, Arkansas

    The Gist: Pallbearer have ascended the arduous music industry ladder like many metal bands before them. They released a strong demo in 2010, got indie label attention, and released a string of successful underground doom albums. Now, the band is freshly signed to storied metal label Nuclear Blast Records for their fourth studio LP, Forgotten Days. The album marks that proverbial turning point in their career. There are expectations from thousands of fans the band has built over a decade of touring and releasing music — much of it among the finest doom metal money can buy. Not to mention Forgotten Days arrives amidst a global pandemic that delayed the album’s release for months and renders it currently un-tourable. As Pallbearer bassist Joseph D. Roland told Heavy Consequence, a world without new music is bleak indeed, and new Pallbearer seem like just the cure for dark days. Despite the sense that there was added pressure on the band surrounding their fourth album and Nuclear Blast debut, you can’t tell from hearing it.


    Why It Rules: Forgotten Days is arguably the best doom metal album of 2020 and an impressive label debut. Thanks to Dunn’s minimalist production, the album is a sonic pleasure, and it’s instantly more listenable and accessible than Heartless. The new songs have that soaring emotional quality that’s patently Pallbearer, and the band sounds unfazed by any new distractions or expectations introduced by the increased exposure of being a successful band. Most importantly, the album offers 53-minutes of reprieve for a deprived fan base that can only watch, listen, and wait as the pandemic tragically keeps bands like Pallbearer off the live stage. –Jon Hadusek

    Essential Tracks: “Forgotten Days”, “Riverbed”, and “Rite of Passage”

    Pick up the album here.

    25. IDLES – Ultra Mono


    Origin: Bristol, England

    The Gist: Boy, wouldn’t it have been weird if 2020 came and went without an IDLES record? The Bristol punks thrashed their way to the front of the zeitgeist’s latest march towards socio-political justice with their previous two records. With the world in the grips of protests and uprisings, it would have been a complete denial of their own passion had they not put out an album this year. Unfortunately, the flip of that activism coin is that the five-piece is also now a well-regarded band, which carries with it the weight of critics. Ultra Mono faced the tough task of sustaining their rallying cry while also muting the smears.

    Why It Rules: Ultra Mono handles the scene by bringing in backup: Kenny Beats sharpens the menace with his programming while Savages’ Jehnny Beth, The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow, and The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis amplify Joe Talbot’s barking defiance with their own vocals. As for the politics of it all, the trick is IDLES didn’t have as much to prove as everyone wanted them to. They’ve stated their case furiously enough, and requiring them to continuously validate themselves in absolute artistic eloquence is, frankly, not worth their time. “Fuck you, I’m a lover,” Talbot states bluntly. The lines have already been well drawn, and heels were dug in painfully deep in 2020. We didn’t need another call to arms: We needed a cathartic release. IDLES still let the bigots and the classists and the predators have it with both barrels, but sustained resistance is allowed moments to self-motivate. It needs a chance to sneer sarcastically at the haters or dance in a safe space before taking back the streets. Even when it’s indulgent, it’s necessary. IDLES unapologetically take that time on Ultra Mono. —Ben Kaye


    Essential Tracks: “War”, “Model Village”, and “Grounds”

    Pick up the album here.

    24. Frances Quinlan – Likewise

    Likewise by Frances Quinlan solo album artwork

    Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    The Gist: Frances Quinlan is a name you might not know right off the bat, but you probably know her band, Hop Along. Likewise is her first release under her own name, released by Saddle Creek Records at the end of January.

    Why It Rules: Quinlan strips it all down for us on Likewise. The album as a whole is earnest, raw, and absolutely sparkling with sincerity as we hear Frances sing in her signature, inimitable rasp over beautiful instrumentals. While the standout track on the album is “Rare Thing”, a song that features Hop Along as backup, that doesn’t mean Quinlan needs her usual crew of boys with her to make a great album. Quinlan does it all on her own, right down to the album cover, which is a work of art in itself. —Annie Black

    Essential Tracks: “Rare Thing”, “A Secret”, and “Went to LA”

    Pick up the album here.

    23. Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers

    Fake It Flowers by beabadoobee album artwork cover art

    Origin: London, England

    The Gist: The first song beabadoobee ever learned on guitar was Sixpence None the Richer’s 1997 hit “Kiss Me”. From there, the young Filipino-British songwriter diligently studied the decade from front to back, resulting in the precise ‘90s time capsule-like nostalgia felt throughout debut album Fake It Flowers.


    Why It Rules: Prior to becoming a TikTok sensation, Bea Kristi helmed lo-fi bedroom pop musings inspired by Pavement and The Moldy Peaches (see her smash hit “Coffee”, Space Cadet and Loveworm EPs). Her music has since evolved to be more era-inclusive, with numerous Fake It Flowers tracks nodding to the grunge and alternative rock distortion of early Smashing Pumpkins and even Nirvana. Both dream pop and power pop also make their way into the beabadoobee sound palette, at times closely recalling Mazzy Star and The Cardigans, as well as Avril Lavigne — one of her beloved favorites. An obsession with yesteryear doesn’t always work for an artist for one reason or another, but for beabadoobee, it’s a vehicle for refining her sound and finding her voice. And we’d be straight-up lying if we said it hasn’t been a fun ride witnessing her growth. –Lake Schatz

    Essential Tracks: “Care” and “Dye It Red”

    Pick up the album here.

    22. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

    Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony

    Origin: New Orleans, Louisiana

    The Gist: For some, 13 is an unlucky number, but not for Jay Electronica, aka Elpadaro F. Electronica Allah. Who knew it would take that many years for the MC to follow up his 2007 diamond mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)? Certainly not him, nor his fans, nor Jay-Z, who signed him to Roc Nation way, way back in 2010. Alas, A Written Testimony finally arrived in Spring 2020 after 40 days of recording, a biblical number made all the more prescient amid our end times.

    Why It Rules: All too often, we’re justified in not believing the hype, but we’d be so wrong to doubt Jay Electronica. A Written Testimony is exactly as the title implies, a sacred document in the Electronica mythos with page after page of ingenuity. At a brilliantly lean 40 minutes, Jay brings everything to the mic — his anxieties, his beliefs, his philosophies — over landscapes that prove he hasn’t lost his cinematic touch. Even better, he resurrects Hova in the process. –Michael Roffman


    Essential Tracks: “The Neverending Story”, “The Blinding”, and “Ghost of Soulja Slim”

    Pick up the album here.

    21. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

    Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor

    Origin: Meridian, Mississippi

    The Gist: Everyone needs a break, particularly Hayley Williams. After touring aggressively behind Paramore’s 2017 fifth studio album, After Laughter — an effort literally born out of exhaustion — the singer-songwriter walked away even more exhausted. Rather wisely, she closed the door behind her and ventured into the dark to find some inner peace. It’s here she created Petals for Armor, her debut solo album that finds her exhaling with self-assurance and grace.

    Why It Rules: The great thing about being a vocalist is trying on new clothes. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Petals for Armor, the silky alternative beats nurture Williams’ vocals. There’s a post-modern wash to her cadence that builds upon the new wave synth pop that fueled After Laughter. She’s always been a vulnerable songwriter, but by her lonesome, Williams is stripped of any of the pretense that comes with being in a band for over 10 years. No, Petals… is an intrepid effort for an artist who continues to write new chapters for herself, and the beauty is the feeling that there’s no end in sight. –Michael Roffman

    Essential Tracks: “Simmer”, “Dead Horse”, and “Watch Me While I Bloom”

    Pick up the album here.

    20. Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

    Lil Uzi Vert - Eternal Atake

    Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    The Gist: Lil Uzi Vert cultivated a cult-like following after his first two mixtapes, and the third, Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World, vaulted him onto rap radio. His 2017 debut album, Luv Is Rage 2, was led by the career-altering smash hit “XO Tour Llif3” and established him as one of the most exciting voices of his generation. Eternal Atake is the highly-anticipated follow-up.

    Why It Rules: It starts with the beats, which sound as cosmic and luxe as a Balenciaga spaceship. From there, Lil Uzi Vert takes a maximalist approach to his flows, and on songs like “Baby Pluto” and “Lo Mein”, he crams in five or more rhythmic ideas in the span of a few minutes. Then there’s the stickiness of his melodies, the tendency for hooks such as “Celebration Station” and “Homecoming” to echo around the brain long after you’ve stopped listening. He also returns to old themes with fresh perspective; “P2” is a more self-reflective take on “XO Tour Llif3”. Throughout, Uzi keeps up a steady spray of wry observations and legitimately funny punchlines. While the deluxe edition of Eternal Atake has a second album’s worth of new material and one legitimate banger in “Myron”, it’s a slack, meandering listen. The original version is long enough at just over an hour, and it still offers a clean, no-skip experience. –Wren Graves

    Essential Tracks: “Baby Pluto”, “Lo Mein”, and “Celebration Station”

    Pick up the album here.

    19. Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension


    Origin: Detroit, Michigan

    The Gist: Sufjan Stevens made us wait five long years for another solo album, but The Ascension, in all of its electronic, deeply pensive splendor, is absolutely worth it. Clocking in at about the length of a Disney classic, the songwriter’s eighth solo studio album shows a different side from what we’re used to, one that is remarkably relatable, particularly in the midst of the pandemic. He takes us on a sonic journey through anxiety, questioning his steadfast embracement of religion, and, in total Stevens fashion, death, and though none of it is particularly joyful, it’s beautiful from start to finish.


    Why It Rules: The Ascension is the type of album that is made for vinyl, a double LP that begs you to listen from start to finish. The lyrics are the star of the show here, forcing you to contemplate the sorrow and despondency we’ve all lived through over the last 8-9 months. It’s the musical equivalent of watching a film that sticks with you for hours after; it forces you into the mindset to address your feelings. This album is not an easy listen, but that’s truly what makes it excellent. –Annie Black

    Essential Tracks: “Video Game”, “Run Away with Me”, and “America”

    Pick up the album here.

    18. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

    Charli XCX coronavirus quarantine album how i'm feeling now album artwork

    Origin: Cambridge, England

    The Gist: how i’m feeling now came less than a year after Charli, one of our favorite albums of 2019. Not only that, Charli XCX wrote and recorded it in just a six-week period while entirely in quarantine, channeling her own pandemic-induced anxieties as well as those of her fans, who offered creative input nearly every step of the way. Although there are no big-name guests to be found here, Charli did gather assistance from futurist pop purveyors like producers PC Music leader A. G. Cook and BJ Burton, Dylan Brady of 100 gecs, Dijon, and Danny L Harle.

    Why It Rules: Whereas her previous album focused on polished, experimental club pop and the pizzazz of friendly collaborations, how i’m feeling now is concerned with the unprecedented present and all the raw feelings that come with this coronavirus era. There’s a vulnerability, exposure, and stream-of-consciousness outpouring of emotions never before heard from Charli, the weight of the world weighing down on her in real time, forcing her to reimagine love and life from the confines of a lockdown. “I’ve been reeling for 12 days, when I start to see fear it gets real bad,” she sings on the instantly relatable “detonate”. We’ve always considered Charli an artist making pop for the future, but this time around her music documents the here and now, our messy and scared selves, like a perfect time capsule. –Lake Schatz


    Essential Tracks: “claws”, “forever”, and “party 4 u”

    Pick up the album here.

    17. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind

    Heaven to a Tortured Mind by Yves Tumor artwork

    Origin: Miami, Florida

    The Gist: Sean Bowie (aka Yves Tumor) came onto our radars in 2018 with Safe in the Hands of Love and a couple singles, “Noid” and “Licking an Orchid”, that we couldn’t extract from our collective headspace. Two years later, they stood no chance of sneaking up on us again. Heaven to a Tortured Mind takes the artist’s hypnotic looping to all new levels of addictiveness with more vocal hooks and even richer tapestries.

    Why It Rules: If you grew up on good, old-fashioned verse-chorus-verse rock or even fairly conventional pop, the world of “experimental” music can leave you scratching your head. The genius of Yves Tumor is their knack for taking both old-school and unfamiliar sounds and creating a groove that’s so infectious that you forget about genre altogether. Tracks like the pining “Gospel for a New Century” and sexy “Kerosene!” are irresistible jams that feel as at home blasting from a car stereo as they would pulsing through a club on Saturday night. –Matt Melis

    Essential Tracks: “Gospel for a New Century”, “Kerosene!”, and “Dream Palette”

    Pick up the album here.

    16. Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG


    Origin: Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

    The Gist: Arriving just weeks after his Super Bowl Halftime performance with Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and J Balvin, sophomore album YHLQMDLG is the quintessential Bad Bunny effort — a release that not only captures the Puerto Rican artist at his best, but shows us exactly what it’s taken for him to reach star status.


    Why It Rules: On the follow-up to 2018’s X 100pre, Bad Bunny amplifies his true self and holds nothing back — a pure embodiment of the album’s title, YHLQMDLG, which stands for Yo hago lo que ma de la gana (Spanish for “I do whatever I want”). That means there’s double the party anthems and double the sad boy aesthetics, the two elements that put the Latin trap icon on the map in the first place. Bad Bunny acknowledges his past by tapping into the classic reggaeton of yesteryear with help from legends like Daddy Yankee, but he’s also always firmly looking forward, envisioning the evolution of the genre. Between dressing up in full drag in his video for “Yo Perreo Sola” and calling attention to a slain Puerto Rican trans woman while on The Tonight Show, as an LGBTQ+ ally, he’s carefully dismantling bits of Latin culture’s deep-seated machismo one release at a time. –Lake Schatz

    Essential Tracks: “Safaera”, “Yo Perreo Sola”, and “Está Cabrón Ser Yo”

    Pick up the album here.

    15. The Weeknd – After Hours

    The Weeknd - After Hours

    Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    The Gist: After exorcising his inner demons on 2018’s cruelly underrated My Dear Melancholy EP, The Weeknd announced a proper follow-up to 2016’s Starboy by the end of that year. Not surprisingly, it took another 365 days for the Canadian sensation to deliver — and for good reason. After Hours is an unprecedented odyssey for the singer, a tour de force in poetry and production that disengages from the expectations set upon him — by his fans, by his critics, and certainly by himself.

    Why It Rules: No doubt inspired by the pawn shop, hologram glaze that ensconces the Safdies’ filmography — after all, he did appear in their magnum opus, Uncut Gems — The Weeknd returns not as a starboy but a starman. After Hours wastes zero time making that point clear with opener “Alone Again” warping right into his soul. Yet, it’s not exactly a torturous space anymore; instead, his introspections are laced with an adventurous spirit that’s as affecting as it is addicting. –Michael Roffman


    Essential Tracks: “Blinding Lights”, “Alone Again”, and “Save Your Tears”

    Pick up the album here.

    14. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

    Thundercat - It Is What It Is

    Origin: Los Angeles, California

    The Gist: The fourth album from Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) follows the excellent Drunk from 2017. While the 15-track collection looks inward to pose existential questions — especially in the wake of the death of close friend Mac Miller — the bass maestro doesn’t go it alone, bringing together one of the year’s most impressive lists of special guests.

    Why It Rules: It Is What It Is features heavy-hitters in Childish Gambino, Kamasi Washington, BADBADNOTGOOD, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil B, and Flying Lotus, who also serves as executive producer alongside Thundercat. The all-star contributions provide extra support to Thundercat’s usual whimsical humor, as well as bolster the jazz fusion artist’s more serious inquiries, many of which have to do with mortality, grief, and the unknown. The album is Thundercat’s first since Miller’s passing in 2018, and much of it feels like an homage to him in some way, with “Fair Chance” being directly inspired by the late rapper. –Lake Schatz

    Essential Tracks: “Fair Chance”, ” Black Qualls”, and “Dragonball Durag”

    Pick up the album here.

    13. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

    Rina Sawayama - Sawayama

    Origin: London, England

    The Gist: Rina Sawayama has been on the pop circuit for a while, but her self-titled 2020 release is her official debut album. Thanks to her frequent collaboration with producer Clarence Clarity, Sawayama’s style has tended to skew towards the kind of maximalist, bubblegum pop that was all over Top 40 in the late ‘90s, but with her own unique twist.


    Why It Rules: Sawayama, our April Artist of the Month, knocked it out of the park on her debut. Elton John is even saying it’s his favorite album of the year, which is possibly one of the highest compliments you can get as a new(ish) pop artist. From opener “Dynasty” down to the very last track, “Snakeskin”, we’re taken for a thoroughly wild ride, hitting the unexpectedly metal “STFU!”, a theatrical, Circus-era Britney Spears-esque track “Akasaka Sad”, and the sweet, feelgood “Chosen Family” along the way. No two songs are alike, but somehow they all fit seamlessly together. Sawayama is an artist to watch closely, because she’s not stopping anytime soon. —Annie Black

    Essential Tracks: “XS”, “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”, and “Bad Friend”

    Pick up the album here.

    12. BTS – Map of the Soul: 7

    BTS - Map of the Soul 7

    Origin: Seoul, South Korea

    The Gist: Hopefully, we’re past the cultural point of wondering how BTS became the biggest pop group in the world and ready to look more closely at why they are so deserving of that title and what it means to be in that position. These are some of the ideas the group themselves are working out on their earlier 2020 full-length release, Map of the Soul: 7. Following last year’s EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, the group continue to borrow their album titles from psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of the self. This time around, the group are incorporating ideas of the Ego and Shadow throughout the album. The first five songs before “Interlude : Shadow” are tracks from Persona, but the 15 songs that follow are new to fans, spanning the wide variety of genres and influences — from trap and R&B to pop ballads and hip-hop — that the group have become known for.

    Why It Rules: BTS are both the world’s biggest and most interesting act in pop music right now: 7 solidifies this position and smartly looks towards the future. Their cultural impact is undeniable, and their work continues to push forward conversations about genre, language, and much more. With 7 and November’s BE (not to mention the latter’s year-topping cuts “Dynamite” and “Dis-ease”), there’s no telling what BTS will do next, but that’s what’s so compelling. –Hanna Zwick


    Essential Tracks: “Interlude : Shadow”, “Black Swan”, and “UGH!”

    Pick up the album here.

    11. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

    Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions

    Origin: Nashville, Tennessee

    The Gist: On his fourth album with The 400 Unit — and seventh overall — Jason Isbell is at his most haunted. Whether alcoholism (“It Gets Easier”), divorce (“Dreamsicle”), or distance from a loved one (“Overseas”), the Alabama-born, Nashville-based songwriter gathers all his ghosts together on Reunions. Like a modern Southern Gothic master, he doesn’t always find ways to lay his past to rest, but listening to him commune with its specter is some of the most superb soul searching we’ve heard this year.

    Why It Rules: Isbell’s growth as a solo artist has been remarkably steady, and you can hear him pushing himself with each new effort. On Reunions, it perhaps for the first time sounds truly effortless. Not to say there isn’t clear, loving labor in the songwriting, only that there’s a sense it’s materializing more naturally than ever before. It’s what makes tracks like the mournful remembrance of “Only Children” feel so open and the gauntlet toss of “Be Afraid” a daring challenge rather than pomposity. Unanswered questions on standout single “What’ve I Done to Help” work simultaneously as self-admonishing introspection and keen moral commentary. This is what happens when a gifted artist is confident enough in their identity and craft that the songs come through them, not to them. And Isbell has the perspective not to question it, which allows Reunions to contain his most powerful songs to date. –Ben Kaye

    Essential Tracks: “What’ve I Done to Help”, “Be Afraid”, and “Dreamsicle”

    Pick up the album here.