The early months of the pandemic took away sports and big-ticket movie releases. At first, it seemed as though major albums would go the same way. Shortly after large swaths of the U.S. went into lockdown, artists like the Chicks (née Dixie), Lady Gaga, Haim, and Kehlani punted their album release dates. Suddenly, we were left with no major culture releases on the calendar—even ones that could be enjoyed within the comforts of our home.
This, of course, would change. Those albums would all come out—as would projects by Drake, BTS, and other mega-selling artists. Taylor Swift was particularly productive during her quarantine: She released two chart-toppers, Folklore and this past Friday’s Evermore. Musicians may be unable to tour, but the album is alive and well.
You won’t find most of those major albums mentioned above on The Ringer’s best-of list, which is presented below alongside some honorable mentions. Most of them were fine. Some were even great. But in a year when movie theaters all but disappeared and we fretted over whether we’d run out of TV, there was a bounty of great new music to wade through. We believe the albums presented below are a true indication of the music that mattered this year. Some speak to isolation, others to the racial reckoning America faced following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. There are independent releases we identify with on a personal level and a few big projects that we believe we’ll look back on as pivotal moments for their genre.
As always, these are just opinions. You are free to yell in the Twitter replies. That doesn’t mean we’ll change ours, however. —Justin Sayles
100 Gecs, 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues
Most remix albums are utter garbage. Their existence seems engineered to give artists, their labels, and numerous hang-ons a buffer between the big-ticket items, while keeping the lights on in an increasingly empty house. 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues subverts those expectations by employing a litany of talented and off-kilter hosts to take the jagged and abrasive sounds of 2019’s 1000 Gecs and either sand, sharpen, or distort them further. A.G. Cook’s “Money Machine” rework turns the chipmunk banger into a soft, electronic lullaby. Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump gives one of the great vocal performances of the year on “Hand Crushed by a Mallet (Remix),” and it lasts for less than 30 seconds. Umru explodes “Ringtone” from its sweet and tender origins into a rapid form of ecstasy that endlessly pivots, builds, breaks, and ups the ante. 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues is a testament to what happens when a solid foundation meets a bunch of talented architects looking to cause some chaos. —Charles Holmes
Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
A small, insignificant tragedy of 2020: There were many great dance records released, but few places to dance in public. With apologies to Dua Lipa and Roisin Murphy, Jessie Ware had the best of the bunch. What’s Your Pleasure? is one part disco (“Oh La La”), one part Prince-lite funk (“Soul Control”), and one part propulsive house (“Save a Kiss”). But it’s all movement. If only we had a place to move. —Sayles
Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA
Pop had a rough 2020. The major-label music we were supposed to care about was either boring, sexless, or pandering (often all at the same time). We knew too much about these stars—their marriages, breakups, quarantine horniness levels, and bids for chart dominance that mostly eluded them—and still their music felt hollow. Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA was anything but. The 13-song project is the rare album I had the blessing of going into completely cold. I knew nothing about Rina’s background, reason for being, or the where, why, and how for why this album existed. Instead, I hit play and the camp and the winking grandeur of the hooks made me pine for a bygone era of the top-40 charts. “XS” is sleek and biting. “Akasa Sad” is so off-kilter, months later I’m no closer to understanding why it works. “Bad Friend,” with beautiful processed vocals that help kick off the song’s first hook, is hauntingly catchy. In a year when her musical peers went muted, Sawayama decided to go bigger, and she’s better for it. —Holmes
Serengeti + Kenny Segal, Ajai
There are concept albums and then there is Ajai, the idiosyncratic LP by Chicago rapper Serengeti and L.A. producer Kenny Segal that tells the tale of the Jordans-rocking, Supreme-obsessed titular character whose Off-White 1s get delivered to the wrong address. That may sound too insignificant to carry an entire album, but that’s just the beginning of the story: Along the way, there are domestic disputes, an embarrassing incident at a company softball game, a fistfight involving a firefighter who loses his wife, and a bizarre therapy session. The plot also ensnares Kenny Dennis, the alter ego that Serengeti has developed over the past decade. It’s a lot to track, but it’s laid out in gripping detail. And with Segal’s excellent production providing the road map, it’s worth sticking around to see how the story plays out. —Sayles
Porridge Radio, Every Bad
Every Bad is a breathtaking display of songwriting and self-reflection, loaded with lyrics that double as mantras. (“Thank you for leaving me / Thank you for making me happy,” “You will like me when you meet me,” “You’re wasting my time.”) It also contains some of the most infectious melodies found on any indie record this year. (“Give/Take” may be the cheeriest song ever centered on a narrator learning how to say no.) Frontwoman Dana Margolin told Apple Music earlier this year that much of Every Bad is focused on working through frustrations and figuring things out. The album certainly has a nervous edge to it—PJ Harvey is an obvious reference point for some of its heaviest moments—but Margolin and her bandmates have already figured out how to make a great record. —Sayles
Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen
Nostalgia is an infectious disease. In 2020, the IP is endless, the reboots get reboots, and the most talented artists of a generation are forced to recycle metaphorical plastic to appease faceless shareholders. But here’s the thing about nostalgia—it’s always a little less dumb when the thing you adore is what’s getting a second life. I am not too proud to admit, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen was the sentimental salve my lizard brain needed.
Show me a person impervious to a Kid Cudi hum or one of his sweet, sweet melodies and I’ll show you someone devoid of a heart. Every year, the critical masses heap praise upon albums and songs that were forgettable the moment they arrived or try to plant flags upon scenes and trends that are even less interesting. Despite—or maybe because of—his divisiveness, Kid Cudi has survived among a small but vocal contingent. And Man on the Moon III marks the moment his current deification became undeniable. Instead of remaking the hits that enraptured a generation (“Day ‘n’ Nite,” “Pursuit of Happiness”), MOTM III sees Cudi updating his sound to compete with his various sons (with Travis Scott the obvious leader). Alongside Dot da Genius and Take a Daytrip, Cudi ad-libs, Auto-Tunes, and hums his way through the pressure. “Tequila Shots” is among the best album openers of the year, and the run Cudi goes on after it (from “Another Day” through his collab with Skepta and Pop Smoke, “Show Out”) is impressive for an artist not known for his cohesive albums.
It’s rare that any sequel, let alone the last installment of a trilogy, lives up to the hype. For once the nostalgia was on my side. —Holmes
Run the Jewels, RTJ4
Society if El-P and Killer Mike were in charge:
Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here?
You may have heard that 2020 was the year of the female MC. Arguably no one—man or woman—had a stronger introduction to the genre this year than Flo Milli. She’s undeniably charismatic—her flow is nimble but ferocious playful, but nasty when she needs it to be. Clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes, Ho, Why Is You Here? is likely just an appetizer to whatever main course Flo Milli eventually serves up, but it feels like an opening shot fired by one of rap’s next great stars. —Sayles
The Ringer’s Top 10 Albums of 2020
10. Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon
There are some albums that by virtue of merely existing come to define an artist. The collective effort, emotions, and struggle that go into ushering a body of work into the world become inextricable from the project. In February, Pop Smoke was murdered in the Hollywood Hills before he could ever see his major label debut through. Released five months after his death, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon was cobbled together by Pop’s key collaborators. It is in no way a perfect album or even his best, but it’s undoubtedly the most interesting for what it tries and ultimately achieves.
Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon is meant to convey where Pop was going, which in his estimation was chart dominance. The features list is a cavalcade of Rap Caviar mainstays (Future, Swae Lee, DaBaby). There are bizarre clunkers (“West Coast Shit” featuring Tyga and Quavo) and daring risks (“Enjoy Yourself” featuring Karol G). Pop contorts the bass of his gargoyle voice to fit within the strictures of hits that are supposed to dominate Hot 97 as much as the Hot 100. “Got It on Me,” Pop Smoke’s flip of 50 Cent’s “Many Men” should sound sacrilegious, but instead arrives like a gothic banger. “Yea Yea” is peak 106 & Park–core with Pop humorously trying to make the sandpaper quality of his vocals sound seductive. The Brooklyn rapper’s debut album went no. 1 upon its release, and three months later returned to its perch. Pop Smoke and Co. knew where he was headed, and the world was happy to invest in the ride. —Holmes
9. Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream
When considering the message of Jeff Rosenstock’s music, it’s worth considering the messenger: Rosenstock is a 38-year-old industry veteran who’s been putting out albums since before some of his punk contemporaries were born. So when he sings “Looking down the barrel of a shitty future,” he’s not doing so as an anxious teen with a full life ahead of him. He’s a nearly middle-aged man who has seen some shitty futures become the shitty past. But he’s also been around long enough to know how to make a great record.
No Dream arrived in May 2020 without warning, seemingly like it was written specifically for this specific time. (It wasn’t exactly; the album was completed in February, before we knew how shitty things would get.) Across 13 tracks, Rosenstock documents our terrible political discourse (On “Scram!”: “I’ve been told for most my life, ‘Try to see the other side’ / By people who have never tried to see the other side”) and the weird artifacts of late-stage capitalism (“***BNB” will make you reconsider ever renting a room in a stranger’s home again). The album builds to the explosive finale, “Ohio Tpke,” a perfect piece of heartland mall-punk and the best driving song of 2020. (Seriously, get on an open freeway, crank “Ohio Tpke” to 11, and thank me later.) The future may have never seemed shittier, but in Rosenstock’s hands, that shitty future has never sounded better, either. —Sayles
8. Machine Gun Kelly, Tickets to My Downfall
There’s an entire major-label graveyard for white rappers who abandoned hip-hop to hawk their wares in Caucasian-friendly genres (Kid Rock, Yelawolf) or fused the two from the outset (Limp Bizkit, Korn). So when Machine Gun Kelly finally took his bad-boy rock aesthetic to its logical conclusion on Tickets to My Downfall, it was predictable and eye-roll inducing. There’s one complicating factor, however: His pop-punk pivot was better than it had any right to be. In fact, the 15-song project was among the best rock records of the year.
Earnest, glossy, and absurd, Tickets to My Downfall finds Kelly trying way too hard in a multitude of aspects. But it’s because Kelly commits to the bit that the grand experiment succeeds. The hooks on “Kiss Kiss” and “My Ex’s Best Friend” sound like they were manufactured to go up in a Hot Topic or get loving write-ups between the pages of Alternative Press. “Forget Me Too” fashions Halsey and Kelly as Bonnie-and-Clyde lovers in the style of the Fueled by Ramen stars of yore. On the deluxe version of the album, Kelly even releases a cover of Paramore’s “Misery Business” despite possessing none of the vocal chops of Hayley Williams, and while the gamble doesn’t pay off, it’s one of the most interesting gambles of the year to hear unfold. In a year where most artists played it safe, Kelly was the rare musician willing to truly act like a rock star. —Holmes
7. Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma and Divorce
You have to feel for Open Mike Eagle, who centered his excellent new album on the most traumatic year of his life: In every appearance he made or interview he gave to promote the project—including at this very website—he had to recount his divorce, the dissolution of his Hellfyre Club rap crew, and the cancellation of his Comedy Central show. And that was before the pandemic, which brought a new kind of anxiety for independent musicians. But Mike’s affable—you never get the sense he enjoys talking about these things, but he’s introspective, willing to mine his emotions to explore how it relates to his art specifically and the human condition overall. That approach extends to his music, and it’s what makes Anime, Trauma and Divorce one of the best albums of the year—and the finest of his career.
Mike grapples with the cyclical nature of trauma openly on the album’s first cut, “Death Parade,” which becomes something of a thesis for the project. Throughout ATD’s 12 tracks, he revisits the theme—most poetically on songs like “I’m a Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)” and “Bucciarati,” which use anime to tell stories of pain and triumph. But even as he goes deeper into this psyche than he ever has before on record, Mike never loses his trademark humor. “Sweatpants Spiderman” is a manifesto for any freshly single 40-year-old man, while the darkly comedic “The Black Mirror Episode” may be scarier than any episode of the sci-fi anthology series. The heart of the album comes one track before “Black Mirror,” however: On “Everything Ends Last Year,” Mike drops the humor and metaphors to plainly discuss his recent experiences. “It’s October, and I’m tired,” goes the song’s refrain. After a rough few years, one can only hope Mike feels better by the time next fall rolls around. —Sayles
6. Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist, Alfredo
Let’s begin with a fact so obvious it barely requires stating: The Grammys are an out-of-touch institution. You need look no further than the list of this year’s nominations for Best Rap Album for proof. The Recording Academy shunned major releases by the likes of Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, and Lil Baby for backpack-friendly (and admittedly pretty decent) fare from Royce Da 5′9″ and Jay Electronica, plus an absolute stinker from Nas. One album that snuck in, however, truly deserved its place: Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist’s Alfredo, a 35-minute salvo that distilled everything great the two artists had done separately over the past decade into 10 excellent songs.
The 38-year-old Gibbs—who has a reasonable claim as the best rapper of his generation still working today—has never been better than he is here. He melds with the beats, firing off rapid flows and dropping some of the year’s most memorable lines. (“Michael Jordan, 1985, bitch, I travel with a cocaine circus” is nearly as great as any scene in The Last Dance.) For Alchemist, the album is another bullet point alongside Boldy James’s The Price of Tea in China and his work with Griselda in his Rap Producer of the Year résumé. Alfredo is the culmination of many things: the postmodern boom-bap sound Alchemist helped create, the renewed attention paid recently to cerebral street rap, the work Gibbs has put into redefining his career the past half-decade. Now it may culminate in a Grammy. The awards ceremony may be beyond fixing, but if it allows projects like Alfredo to collect hardware, there are some parts that aren’t fully broken. —Sayles
5. Lil Baby, My Turn
My Turn is a culmination and coronation. Rap moves faster than any other musical genre—relevance is never promised, and hundreds of upstarts are willing to take their predecessors’ spots at the first sign of weakness. Atlanta artists thrive within this framework, as the city has launched more rap stars into the stratosphere than any other region over the past 15 years. As the title of Lil Baby’s latest album suggests, he is well aware his time on the throne is now. Between 2017 and 2018, the Quality Control rapper dropped six solo projects and one collaborative album with Gunna. With each successive collection, his talents grew past his peers’. At 20 songs, My Turn was the last salvo of this barrage, and it turned Baby into a commercial behemoth.
Throughout the album, Baby does a little of everything. He gave high schoolers a reprieve from 2018’s couples song of the year, “Close Friends,” with the equally emo “Emotionally Scarred.” “We Paid” was the clunkiest hit of the spring and took on such a life of its own that Baby threw it on My Turn’s deluxe edition. Across the album, Lil Baby raps with a speed and dexterity that almost threatens to topple at any minute. After years of watching his friends and mentors—Future, Young Thug, Migos—reign supreme, My Turn is a needed changing of the guard. —Holmes
4. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
By virtue of, well, all of this, 2020 has been the year of the self-isolation album. Ever the visionary, Fiona Apple had planned an album centered on her time in her Venice Beach home long before the phrase “social distancing” entered the zeitgeist. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the singer-songwriter’s fifth album released this past April, makes use of her surroundings—she bangs on pans, uses space to create echoes, and mics up her own dog plus a few pals’. (Shouts to Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Little, and Alfie, all of whom are credited on Fetch and probably got really excited when they heard the first word of the title.) Some of the album’s more indelible moments were created by Fiona and her collaborators marching through her home, chanting. Months into quarantine, I’m sure many of us can relate to that feeling, even if no one wants to hear our stomps and shouts.
The result of that domestic calamity is Apple’s best album in 20 years. Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ songs are immediate, but intimate as she explores bullying, manipulation, and trauma. On some songs, she speaks in raw, direct language. On others, she uses brilliant wordplay. (Take “For Her,” for example: “Look at how feathered his cocks are / See how seamless his frocks are / Look at his paper-beating over that rockstar / Look at how long she walks and how far.”) There’s a small but not insignificant chance that Fetch the Bolt Cutters will be mostly remembered as the first album Pitchfork awarded a 10.0 to in a decade, which would be a shame for such a revelatory album. Either way, I suspect Fiona and Mercy will be comfortable within the confines of their home. —Sayles
3. Sault, Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)
Little is known about Sault, a British music collective who has avoided press, social media, or even listing most of its members. That secrecy, however, hasn’t stopped the group from releasing two of the most fully formed, richest albums of 2020: June’s Untitled (Black Is) and September’s Untitled (Rise). The former arrived seemingly out of nowhere at the peak of the civil unrest stemming from the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It felt like a radical act of defiance. Mining musical ground indebted to Parliament, Sly Stone, and Earth, Wind & Fire, Untitled (Black Is) spoke to the rage of the moment—“Don’t Shoot Guns Down” and “X” play like direct responses to the protests—while also trying to soothe (the coda of “Hard Life,” when a chorus sings “Everything is going to be all right / Because God is on your side” is the most cathartic musical breakdown of the year).
Released a scant three months later, Untitled (Rise) may be even more stunning than its predecessor. Sault’s second LP of the year leans heavily on dance and African rhythms in its first act before moving to quieter pieces on its back end, as pianos and orchestral arrangements come to the forefront. The album’s closer—“Little Boy,” in which an older narrator promises to tell the subject that she’ll one day share the truths “about the boys in blue” and “those that look like you”—is a staggeringly beautiful song; it’s both heartbreaking and relentlessly optimistic at once. Sault may not want you to know the finer details of who’s making the songs, but the group never loses sight of its identity. And as a result, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) are among the most human pieces of art this year. —Sayles
2. Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
Some artists are so singular in their performance they can transcend any number of borders—language, culture, geography. Bad Bunny—with his froggy singing voice and rapid-fire rapping—is one such artist. The Puerto Rican musician and I do not speak the same language. There are levels of February’s YHLQMDLG I will never understand, because of that inherent gap, and yet none of that detracts from the feeling that you’re listening to a generational talent performing at the height of their powers. “Pero Ya No” is among the most hypnotic songs of 2020 as Bunny’s voice swirls into a falsetto that soon turns into a merciless rap in which he says something about Pokémon. This cursed year was robbed of a dancefloor-demolishing song in “Yo Perreo Sola.” There are so many sonic turns on “Safaera” featuring Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow that there should be a map specifically created for it. At a time when so many other artists took their foot off the gas, Bad Bunny never did. YHLQMDLG was the first of three records he’s released during this pandemic year, and without a doubt his best. —Holmes
1. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
Lil Uzi Vert was left for dead. A long and intense fight with his label bosses, DJ Drama and Don Cannon, contractually hobbled him. The generation of anarchic, prolific, melodically inclined rappers he birthed were moving past him commercially. His inability to drop new music after 2017’s Luv Is Rage 2 left the world clamoring for an artist whose sonic footprint was fading day by day. Eventually, Roc Nation intervened, the Instagram squabbles diminished, and on an unassuming Friday morning in March the long-awaited Eternal Atake was finally delivered to the masses.
Eternal Atake operates like a divine purge. For 18 tracks, the Philadelphia native releases a creative torrent that feels like a rebuke of the music-industry cogs that almost denied his birthright. Uzi’s rapping is craggy and borderless, with the tempo of each beat feeling like mere suggestions. “Baby Pluto” is a cacophonous assault of ad-libs crashing against the blinks and beeps of a kaleidoscopic beat. Deep album cuts like “Venetia” sound like they were honed in deep and dank rave basements. Uzi’s tender singing voice on the trifecta of “I’m Sorry,” “Bigger Than Life,” and “Urgency” belies an insanely horny rapper who needs to take a cold shower. Eternal Atake has enough ideas, genres, melodies, and bars for an entire career. (The loose space narratively is roughly the eighth most interesting part of the album.)
Across 2020, Uzi has ran a quarter-mile past being prolific. He released two solo albums within a week of each other and followed that up with his recent collaboration with Future. Over the past three years, the major critical establishments have gawked and praised pop stars like Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift for adopting release schedules indebted to decades of Black artists bucking a major-label system and feeding a ravenous audience. Uzi is of this lineage, and while none of his follow-ups were as intensely brilliant as Eternal Atake, they did speak to an artist who was momentarily deferred. The myriad forces that held Uzi back only made him more powerful. —Holmes