The Best Music of 2020

It seems safe to assume that 2020 is a year that not many of us are eager to linger over. At the start of the pandemic, there were vague hopes of an artistic flourishing—that hoary and ultimately specious “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ in quarantine!” trope—but for me, at least, it was difficult to focus on much more than the ways in which my friends and neighbors were suffering. I did wonder what sort of music this period would produce. I’ve always believed that some amount of optimism, conscious or unconscious, is inherent to the art-making impulse—that to dedicate oneself to something as difficult and thankless as creative work, one has to believe that the world is still good enough and open enough to be transformed, even briefly, by beauty. The musicians who managed to hold onto that feeling—to go on believing in the essential decency of humankind and the various ways in which art can elevate us—kept me afloat through some strange days. To all the musicians, both amateur and professional, who found the energy and faith to broadcast from their bedrooms or bathtubs or back yards: thank you.

<a aria-label="2020 in Review” class=”external-link external-link-embed__hed-link button” data-event-click=”{"element":"ExternalLink","outgoingURL":""}” href=”” rel=”nofollow noopener” target=”_blank”>2020 in Review

New Yorker writers reflect on the year’s highs and lows.

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I never feel very confident that my year-end list actually represents the best records released in a given period—whatever that even means—but this year, I found myself especially uninterested in indulging anything other than what immediately sounded meaningful to me. I tend to think of my listening process as partly cerebral (chewing over precedents, context, ingenuity, craftsmanship) and partly instinctive (a little gasp or a flutter in my belly). By June, I was operating chiefly on feeling. This meant a return to certain comforts (I listened to all four sides of Bill Withers’s “Live at Carnegie Hall” at least a million times) and a lower tolerance for anything that felt too cynical, calculated, or mercenary. Usually, I genuinely savor the process of learning how to like something, but in 2020 I wanted only to be felled instantaneously. Maybe in another year I would have bucked against that impulse. In this one, it felt wise to cling to whatever got me grinning.

Here are my ten favorite albums of 2020, with honorable mention extended to Taylor Swift’s “folklore,” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Good News,” Natalia Lafourcade’s “Un Canto por México Vol. 1,” Kehlani’s “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t,” Jay Electronica’s “A Written Testimony,” The Strokes’s “The New Abnormal,” and Waxahatchee’s “Saint Cloud,” any of which could have made it onto this list on a different day.

10. Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher”

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I was in the midst of reporting a Profile of Bridgers when the pandemic took hold in the U.S. (We started with lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and ended with her mother giving me a gloved and masked FaceTime tour of Bridgers’s childhood bedroom, in Pasadena.) During those increasingly tense weeks, “Punisher,” Bridgers’s second solo album, came to feel like a definitive statement on her generation’s particular anxieties, and also a prescient meditation on the precariousness of the world at large. The closing verse from “I Know the End,” which finishes the record, became a perfect coda for the spring and summer:

I’ll find a new place to be from
A haunted house with a picket fence
To float around and ghost my friends
No, I’m not afraid to disappear
The billboard said the end is near

Standout track: “I Know the End

9. Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, “Alfredo”

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“Alfredo” isn’t the first time that Gibbs, a rapper from Gary, Indiana, has worked with the Alchemist, a producer and d.j. known for his collaborations with Mobb Deep, but both artists reach a kind of creative apex here. The Alchemist seems to instinctively understand the sort of bold musical canvas that Gibbs’s lyrics—which are potent, heavy, and uncompromising—require. “Alfredo” is the sound of two masters in uncanny lockstep.

Standout track: “Scottie Beam

8. Fleet Foxes, “Shore”

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At some point in the last decade—perhaps concurrent with the rise of the #blessed hashtag—the notion of espousing boundless gratitude became vaguely treacly. But on “Shore,” Fleet Foxes’s fourth LP, the singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold reclaims the idea of thankfulness in the face of grief, giving the practice real dignity and grace: “I could worry through each night / Find something unique to say / I could pass as erudite / But it’s a young man’s game,” he sings on “Young Man’s Game.” I can’t overstate how good it feels to hear Pecknold pay earnest homage to the songwriters he loves and has lost (Richard Swift, John Prine, Bill Withers, Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, David Berman, and Arthur Russell) on “Sunblind”; I, too, owe them—and Pecknold—so much.

Standout track: “Sunblind

7. Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”

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When “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was first released, back in June, I found it startlingly germane to the national predicament. And yet, as surreal and shocking as this year has been, these songs continue to feel relevant, if not prophetic. Dylan might be six decades into an extraordinary career, but he nonetheless manages to keep surprising me; I suspect I’ll spend the next several years finding new ways to hear and understand this batch of wild and unruly songs.

Standout track: “Murder Most Foul

6. Jyoti, “Mama, You Can Bet!”

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Jyoti is the periodic sobriquet of the producer, songwriter, and musician Georgia Anne Muldrow, whose singular and entrancing work places her in a lineage that includes Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Erykah Badu, Gil Scott-Heron, and Pharoah Sanders. “Mama, You Can Bet!” is the third installment in the Jyoti project, and the most entrancing. Muldrow deftly incorporates elements of jazz, experimental music, hip-hop, and soul in a way that makes it easy to forget few artists can master such a dynamic palette.

Standout track: “Ra’s Noise (Thukumbado)

5. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

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Describing “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Apple’s fifth album, as achingly personal feels almost dumb—plenty of artists write songs that are reflective of their own experience, and perform them with real vulnerability. But the way in which Apple fully and completely inhabits these songs is incredible; it feels as if she’s right there in the room, telling you everything she knows about herself. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is bold, devastating, strange, immediate, noisy, and beautiful.

Standout track: “I Want You to Love Me

4. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia”

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Lipa, who was born in London but spent much of her childhood in Kosovo, is responsible for my favorite pop release of the year—and she released it in late March, just as Americans were grappling with the fact that none of us would be sweating on a dance floor again anytime soon. For me, these songs hit like a sunbeam in the midst of a thunderstorm. “Future Nostalgia” is muscular, retro-leaning disco-pop, expertly produced and embodied. Lipa can be a coolly distant performer, but her voice—which contains just a bit of unexpected texture—is precise and intoxicating.

Standout track: “Levitating

3. Mary Lattimore, “Silver Ladders”

The Best Music of 2020

Lattimore, a Los Angeles-based harpist, partnered with the producer Neil Halstead, of the English dream-pop band Slowdive, for this gorgeous, meditative collection. It’s tempting to describe Lattimore’s music as hypnotic—I find that it relaxes muscles in my body I didn’t even know existed—but I worry that the characterization discounts her boldness and ingenuity. “Silver Ladders” is dissonant and surreal, apt and welcome company for a year that felt the same.


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