The 50 Best Albums of 2020: Staff Picks
We don’t need to talk a lot about 2020 here, right? We all know what the year was, and we all know what the year wasn’t, and what we all hope carries over as little as possible into 2021. No need to recap the greatest hits here.
Nonetheless, whatever worries we might’ve had that 2020 would sap the music world’s capacity to make transformative, culture-leading and profoundly powerful music — or our capacity to properly enjoy and appreciate it — were thankfully proven unfounded. The year in music was an erratic one, no doubt, one full of delays and false starts and outright cancellations. But the 2020 albums that did make their way to our streaming services, to our digital collections, and (eventually) to our record players often proved transportive, cathartic, and blessedly escapist.
Whether they were reflecting our current condition or providing much-needed respite from it, they helped us get to December, and to the point where we’re able to present a list like this recapping the very best of the bunch. Maybe we’ll look back on them fondly many years from now, or maybe we’ll pack them all in a crate and bury them in the backyard to never think about them again. Either way, their service was appreciated. Here are our staff’s 50 favorite albums from this year.
1. Taylor Swift, Folklore
On July 23, Taylor Swift came to save us from our socially distanced monotony — announcing an eighth studio album that would drop the next day. The news blindsided the pop music world; Swift was on some new shit, and she was gonna make it count. Teaming up with The National’s Aaron Dessner and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, Swift made a surprise record for the ages — and she did it in isolation, including producers, writers, mixers, duet partners and engineers scattered across the country. Pandemic or not, Folklore quickly proved that it transcended These Unprecedented Times and will be remembered as one of Swift’s seminal albums. The tranquil voices, the soft piano riffs and the pristine production come together to create just over an hour of cathartic and escapist listening. Here, past influences and daring risks add up to something that feels fresh — but still familiar, like oh maybe an old cardigan.
With writing skill and vocal talents honed over her decade-plus of stardom and an impressive continued willingness to evolve, she blended the best of her previous efforts into one work that at times is a little bit country, but always alternative rock and roll. (Who had Swift becoming one of the first artists to top Billboard’s New Hot Rock & Alternative Songs Listing on their 2020 Bingo card?) Fans of her previous Antonoff collabs will hear shades of 1989’s “Wildest Dreams” and Reputation’s “Getaway Car” in “Mirrorball” and “August” respectively, while the country-tinged “Betty” brings us back to the days of Red, when she first began to experiment outside of her comfort zone. The trinity of “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” also evokes the storytelling of Swift’s youth — this time with a more mature perspective on relationships, love and growing older.
It’s the Dessner tracks, however, that shine brightest. The serene music and poetic-yet-powerful lyrics allow her to grow beyond the Nashville sweetheart turned pop goddess we’ve come to adore. She cheekily pulls an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist with “The Last Great American Dynasty.” She contemplates past lives and pain in “Invisible String.” She’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore on “Mad Woman.” The set’s unexpected swerves make it clear that Swift has reached the point in her career where she’s making music how she wants to, without regards to critical or commercial accolades — although unsurprisingly, she earned both with Folklore, including five Grammy nominations (along with a sixth for her work on Cats) and eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Clearly, she had a marvelous time brightening our quarantine. — DENISE WARNER