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Top 50 Albums of 2020

on December 01, 2020, 10:30am
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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

sufjan stevens ascension album artwork cover Top 50 Albums of 2020

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

bad bunny yhlqmdlg rimas entertainment Top 50 Albums of 2020

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.

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