10 Best Albums of 2020

I know it’s obligatory to insert a comment here about how terrible the year 2020 was. Down in New Zealand, however, we were well insulated from the coronavirus pandemic and life was relatively normal. From the list below, I’d only characterise one album (Taylor Swift’s Folklore) as a pandemic album – I assume most of the other albums on my list were in progress before coronavirus hit.

Here are my ten favourite albums of 2020, drawn from five different continents. As always on this site, this list is a one-person operation and it’s impossible to keep up with everything – I have very little idea what’s happening in contemporary jazz and I failed to keep up with acclaimed releases from veterans like Dylan, Springsteen, and Nick Cave.

Regardless 2020 was a very strong year musically – albums like Ichiko Aoba’s Windswept Adan, Kelly Lee Owen’s Inner Song, Fleet Foxes’ Shore, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and Hayley Williams’ Petals for Armor would have all cruised into my top ten for 2019. There was also no space for British collective Sault, who released two worthy and topical albums as well as a solo debut from lead singer Cleo Sol.

To show where my choices register among general critical consensus, I’ve included each album’s rankings from the end-of-year-list aggregator Album of the Year. This year I agreed with critical consensus less than usual, with a lot of my choices not on their radar.

10 Best Albums of 2020

#10 Tiwa Savage – Celia

Genre: Afrobeats
Nigeria’s Tiwa Savage named her fourth album for her mother. It’s a grab bag, veering from commercial fare like the Sam Smith duet ‘Temptation’ to deeply personal songs like the hymn-like ‘Celia’s Song’. It’s easily the least consistent record on this list, but highlights like ‘Koroba’, ‘Dangerous Love’, and ‘Glory’ kept me coming back.
my 2019 best-of-list. It was a taut, tight little record
AotY Position: not listed

#9 Ela Minus – Acts of Rebellion

Genre: Electropop
Bogotá-born Ela Minus released her full-length debut in 2020, after previously serving as a drummer in a hardcore punk band and as a synthesizer designer. Acts of Rebellion adds a human element to electronica with gorgeous songs like ‘They Told Us It Was Hard But They Were Wrong’. Minus’ stilted English on songs like ‘Dominique’ recalls Kraftwerk, while instrumentals like ‘Pocket Piano’ are ambient and lovely.
AotY Position: not listed

#8 Taylor Swift – Folklore

Genre: Indie folk
At a loose end during the Covid lockdown, Taylor Swift reinvented herself as an indie-folk artist. Collaborating with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner, she recorded two surprise albums of low key material, showcasing her skills as a melodicist and lyricist. The first volume, Folklore, is the stronger, with gorgeous songs like ‘August’ and ‘Invisible String’. Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn co-wrote ‘Exile’, on which Bon Iver guests.
AotY Position: #4

#7 Gillian Welch – Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs (Volumes 1, 2, and 3)

Genre: Americana
In late 2002, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings recorded 48 songs in a weekend to fulfil a publishing deal. After the tapes were nearly destroyed by a tornado earlier this year, they released them over three volumes. Some of these songs showcase a looser and more playful side of Welch that differs from her tightly constructed studio albums. It’s pleasing that terrific Welch material like ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Picasso’ have finally seen the light of day.
AotY Position: not listed

#6 Katie Pruitt – Expectations

Genre: Singer/songwriter
The best debut album of the year came from Georgia’s Katie Pruitt, a stunning collection of songs about growing up gay in the conservative south. Her voice is powerful and her guitar playing is strong, imbuing her uncluttered songs with meaning. The title track recalls Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac, but the heart of the record is on the slow-burning ballads that utilise Pruitt’s vocal prowess like ‘My Mind’s A Ship That’s Going Down’ and ‘It’s Always Been You’.
AotY Position: not listed

#5 HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III

Genre: Pop/rock
The first two records from L.A. trio of sisters HAIM were charming. Their third is a huge step forward, adding personality to their lovely harmonies and slick L.A. sound. Women In Music Part III is impressively diverse, from the R&B throwback of ‘3am’ to the raw and acoustic ‘Man From The Magazine’. The three impressive singles from 2019, ‘Now I’m In It’, ‘Summer Girl’, and ‘Hallelujah’, are held back as bonus tracks – the rest of the album stands proudly without them.
AotY Position: #9

#4 Owen Pallett – Island

Genre: Chamber pop
Canadian composer Owen Pallett returns from a six-year wait after 2014’s In Conflict. The finger-picked guitar and grand orchestration of Island recall the records that Nick Drake made half a century earlier, and the story picks up the narrative about “ultra-violent” farmer Lewis. Songs like ‘Fire-Mare’, ‘Paragon of Order’, and ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ soar with their beautiful arrangements.
AotY Position: not listed

#3 Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?

Genre: Disco
Disco revival provided escapism from a bizarre 2020. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was brilliant for its first nine tracks and Roisin Murphy’s quirky Róisín Machine was fun. But the best nu-disco came from eminently likeable Londoner Jessie Ware, who brings refreshing normalcy to the table. Sophisticated and sumptuous tracks like ‘Adore You’ and ‘Remember Where You Are’ share space with quirky dance tracks like ‘The Kill’ and ‘Ooh La La’.
AotY Position: #15

#2 The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

Genre: Pop/rock
The 1975 flourish when they defy the usual rules of record-making – their best records are long and sprawling. Notes on a Conditional Form is eclectic and immersive, as the Manchester quarter barrel through everything from hardcore punk to acoustic folk. Expert mimics, The 1975 take on everything from dub to 1990s shoegaze, although shiny 1980s pop songs like ‘If You’re Too Shy’ are still their calling card.
AotY Position: Honourable mention

#1 Tricot – Makkuro and 10

Genre: Math pop
One of my pet music theories is that bands produce their best work on their fourth and fifth albums. This Japanese quartet Tricot released both their fourth and fifth albums during 2020, and both were great, bridging the gap between complex math-rock virtuosity and pop sweetness on songs like ‘Warp’ and ‘真っ黒’.
AotY Position: Not listed

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  1. “Boots 1” was beautiful in its simplicity and soulful wisdom of the acoustic songs. I also like “Boots 2” but I can’t say that this albums lets you perceive Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with completely new ears.

  2. I only know of these albums well… and that is Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings…and I still listen to it.
    Out of the ones not in your top ten…the Dylan and Neil Young album would be at my top.

    • I liked the Young, but it felt like a solid 1970s Neil Young album to me. The way my site works, I’m never that keen to hear late period albums – I think, I’ve covered every Springsteen album from 1972 to 2006, but if I write about the latest one I’ll suddenly have a 14 year gap that will look weird.

      • I got you…yea that Neil album could drop in the 70s time frame easily…because it was.
        I haven’t listened to the Springsteen album much at all. I should but the last one I really liked…is Tunnel of Love but I did buy Lucky Town and Human Touch.

          • I have heard some of that one.
            Of topic: when you do a top ten favorite list…lets say your Petty album list for just a random example. Do you do it as your personal favorite Petty list or what you think are the best?
            I thought about doing a Stones album list…

          • Ok…I thought that is the way you do it but wasn’t sure. My Stones list…I know in my heart and mind that Sticky Fingers is the best…but personally I like Beggars Banquet more.
            I appreciate it Graham…I thought of that during our Album Draft but just went with my albums that I liked…same with the movie one now.

          • I often like to look at an aggregator like Rate Your Music (after I make my own mind up) to see how my opinion varies from the norm. I tend to conflate best with favourite, but at the same time I recognise it’s one person’s opinion and not objective.

          • I don’t know if I ever went there…but I get what you are saying….thanks. That helps to see where you are.

  3. It’s really fascinating to me that even after a conscious and ongoing effort to pay more attention to newly released music, I don’t know anything about the majority of your picks.
    Of course, “looking at newly released music” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going beyond my core wheelhouse. For example, I’m not paying any attention to electronic music and very little to none to hip hop.
    I’m also including new music from “old artists” like Dylan and Springsteen, which is actually something I’ve always done.

    • New music is a huge field, and it’s interesting to see what will stand the test of time. I have my zone, which is generally kind of middlebrow – a little bit weird, but not too weird. I don’t dip into hip hop that much, but I have been finding electronica I like – normally the kind that has vocals and a human facade.
      From my list, I would say:
      Jessie Ware, Taylor Swift, HAIM, and Gillian Welch are all common fixtures on 2020 end of year lists, although Welch is a reissue.
      Tiwa Savage, Ela Minus, Katie Pruitt, Owen Pallett, and Tricot are all critically respected but a bit more niche. All of them are non-American and/or on their first album.
      The 1975 are commercially huge – their album was #1 in the UK and #4 in the US – but don’t always enjoy critical respect.

  4. An interesting selection here – and most of them new I only know the Jesse Ware and Taylor Swift albums, the former the result of your site. I completely missed the Welch Boots release, so I’ll need to check that out quick smart (and add the others to the list to explore)!

  5. Not surprisingly have heard of the American ones on your list – will have to check the others out, broaden my horizons! Have heard several from the 1975 and liked them all. I think we’ve talked about HAIM before.
    Re: Springsteen, I would recommend checking out Letter to You – I think its his best in 20 years, and his reworking of the several songs he originally wrote in the early 70s are great, esp If I Was The Priest.

  6. Such a diverse list. I can’t believe I completely missed all of Gillian Welch’s release last year. Travesty on my part. I’ll have to test your theory about musicals producing their best work around the 4th or 5th album. In fact, I took a quick look at Pearl Jam for instance. ‘No Code’ and ‘Yield’ as album 4 and 5 are pretty close to your theory of being their best work.

    • There are some other patterns too – a bunch of bands peak on their first album and never beat it. And in the 1960s, bands tended to release a couple of albums a year, short and padded with covers. So bands like The Beach Boys and The Beatles didn’t peak until a bit later.

  7. Wonderful post and very interesting list! Thank you for sharing! Definitely agree with Taylor Swift’s album, certainly a surprise but a good surprise! I have recently written an article on my blog where I count down my top 25 albums of the year. If you have time, it would be awesome if you could check out my post and let me know your thoughts! Thank you very much and I look forward to following you!

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