by Ryan O’Connell, Giselle Libby, Jacob Hafley, & India McCarty
Foreword by Ryan O’Connell
2020 has been far from a great year. With a worldwide pandemic taking the world by storm and refusing to slow down, there has been little to celebrate, and even less opportunity to celebrate those small pockets of joy. However, for all its terror, 2020 has been an incredible year for music, producing some of the finest work in recent memory. From pre-COVID brilliance to self-isolation masterpieces, 2020’s slate of music was truly wild and wonderful. Here are Alternatively Pop’s picks for the best albums of 2020.
1. Follkore – Taylor Swift
All Taylor Swift albums are great, but some are greater than others. With this summer’s folklore, Swift may have created her greatest to date. Born in isolation under the heat of the cruelest of summers, folklore saw Swift take risks she had been avoiding since she jumped off the fence and ran full sprint into pop stardom. Dismissing the self-imposed creative fences that come with being a pop star, Swift expanded her musical palette far beyond the blush synths of 2019’s Lover. Her lyrics have never been sharper, her stories more wistful or her sound more inspired, proving folklore opened a whole new world of possibility for an artist whose creative side has always fought for dominance with the businesswoman within, allowing it free to journey through the woods – and what a wonderful journey it is.
Essential Tracks: ‘Cardigan’, ‘My Tears Ricochet’, ‘Seven’, ‘Hoax’
2. How I’m Feelin’ Now – Charli XCX
Announced three weeks into the beginning of lockdown, how i’m feeling now delivered a bold statement – Charli XCX was going to create an album, she was going to be transparent, and she was going to do it all in 40 days. After a month of collaborative Instagram lives and Twitter polls, the fourth studio album from XCX dropped and defined the beginning of quarantine as we know it. Allowing Charli to become explicitly emotionally vulnerable for the first time in her career, the album shines through with its glitchy continuations of old favourites, brand new pop bangers, and reworked versions of leaks from years earlier in her career. how i’m feeling now not only defines XCX’s artistry, the emergence of PC music in the mainstream, and the concept of a “quarantine record” overall but quite frankly, it defines how we are all feeling now, as well.
Essential Tracks: ‘party 4 u’, ‘claws’, ‘forever’, ‘anthems’
3. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
Let it be said right now: Dua Lipa is a star. Her debut album, while a strong start, wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. With Future Nostalgia, Lipa boldly stepped into the light as a princess of pop. The album blends current production styles with the glittering disco beats of the 70s. Songs like ‘Levitating’ sounds like something that the Studio 54 set would’ve danced to all night long, while ‘Break My Heart’ has provided the soundtrack to many a TikTok dance. Lipa has become the master of blending old and new in a way that feels completely one-of-a-kind. The album sounds like a party from start to finish and cements Lipa’s status as a true pop star.
Essential Tracks: ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Levitating’, ‘Break My Heart’, ‘Physical’
4. Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
The highly anticipated sophomore album from Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour makes a number of things clear from its opening notes: they are not the same girls who dropped their debut album a mere two years ago, they are not just Beyoncé’s “mentees”, and they refuse to hold back. The sisters weave themes of female empowerment and self-prowess into the record while branching out themselves sonically – shedding the illusion of a “clean image” from their debut in order to portray more simple truths in their lyrics (“It’s four o’clock / You sendin’ me too many pictures of your… oh”). The most acclaimed R&B album of the year, Ungodly Hour has undeniably allowed the sister duo to truly make their mark on the industry.
Essential Tracks: ‘Do It’, ‘Forgive Me’, ‘Tipsy’, ‘Ungodly Hour’
5. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
With her second solo album, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers solidified her spot as an indie rock household name. With lyrics so specific you can’t help but get swept away in detail and sonic cohesion , it’s no surprise that Bridgers has racked up 4 Grammy nominations including Best New Artist. Although Punisher is folk to the core, there are influences of other genres like country-western in “Graceland Too” and even some experimental sonics in “I Know The End.” The magic of Phoebe Bridgers, and Punisher especially, is that it takes a moment to understand the depth of her embellished lyricism, but once it clicks you’re under her spell.
Essential Tracks: ‘Garden Song’, ‘Graceland Too’, ‘I Know The End’
6. Gaslighter – The Chicks
Thirteen years after The Chicks swept the 2007 Grammys for their previous record, Taking The Long Way, they are back to bite. Working with pop production mogul Jack Antonoff, the most controversial trio in country music spared no expense or thought as they were creating their most critically acclaimed body of work. Appropriately titled Gaslighter, the album handles a divorce, and the repercussions of it. With stunning lyrics worthy of an exposé – “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m done?” – The Chicks cover every aspect of a broken marriage, from songs dedicated to their children to songs dedicated to the other woman. While the explanations of the album’s tracks have been sparse (you can thank lead vocalist Natalie Maines’ messy prenuptial with ex Adrian Pasdar for that), you almost don’t need any – Gaslighter will have you feeling the ache of a love ripped apart, even if you have never experienced it.
Essential Tracks: ‘Everybody Loves You’, ‘Gaslighter’, ‘Sleep at Night’, ‘Set Me Free’
7. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama has been beloved in the hyper-pop community for a while now, but in 2020 she caught widespread attention with her debut album SAWAYAMA. The album is a complete rollercoaster, bringing you everything from heavy metal to early 2000’s bubble-gum pop. It is simply the most dynamic body of work put out during this tumultuous year. Lyrically, Sawayama opens up about her Japanese heritage and feeling out of place in Britain, where she grew up, resulting in a record that is daring, vulnerable, and just downright fun to listen to.
Essential Tracks: ‘XS’, ‘Bad Friend’, ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’
8. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius
Though he has always been on of indie’s most interesting artists, Michael Hadreas reaches new levels of brilliance on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately. Wading his way through the complex waters of human nature, our bodies and our desires. Buoyed by the wonderful production of Blake Mills and Hadreas’ incomparable voice, which flickers from sublime sky-born falsettos to grimy guttural lower registers, the exploration of misery and isolation has never sounded so welcoming.
Essential Tracks: ‘Whole Life’, ‘Jason’, ‘On The Floor’
9. Plastic Hearts – Miley Cyrus
Even in her early days of stardom as Disney’s Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus told us that she “might even be a rockstar.” With this year’s Plastic Hearts, she makes good on that promise. After teasing us with hardcore covers of hits by Blondie and the Cranberries, Cyrus finally dropped the rock and roll album of our dreams, complete with feature vocals from rock royalty like Billy Idol and Joan Jett. Even though Cyrus goes hard on tracks like ‘Gimme What I Want’ and ‘Night Crawling,’ she still finds time for moments of vulnerability; ‘Golden G String’ sees Cyrus ruminating on her life in the spotlight: “I was trying to own my power / Still, I’m trying to work it out / and at least it gives the papers / something they can write about.” With Plastic Hearts, Cyrus is showing the world what has been clear for years: she’s a true talent.
Essential Tracks: ‘Night Crawling’, ‘Never Be Me’, ‘Hate Me’, ‘Bad Karma’
10. Women In Music, Pt III – Haim
The Haim sisters are tired of being referred to as “women in music” – unless it’s on their terms. Their third album is a collection of songs that cover vast subject matters like their relationships, struggles with success and being taken seriously, and their enduring love for Los Angeles. Songs like ‘The Steps’ and ‘Don’t Wanna’ are a continuation of the band’s Laurel Canyon circa-1976 sound, while ‘Gasoline’ and ‘Another Try’ see the group experimenting with different sounds and styles. A standout track is ‘Man From the Magazine,’ an account of the casual sexism they still face in the music industry: “Oh, what’s left to prove?” they ask. In my opinion? Nothing.
Essential Tracks: ‘Man from The Magazine’, ‘The Steps’, ‘Don’t Wanna’, ‘Los Angeles’
11. Manic – Halsey
Listening to Manic is like watching someone truly live for the first time. After years of talking about making great music, Halsey finally got out of her own head and made some, resulting in what is easily her best work to date. Stripped and raw, the record removes all the convoluted concepts that dragged down her previous efforts to show the vulnerable human beneath the surface. Blended genres and playing with lyrical structures, Manic is as experimental and incredible as the artist who made it has always claimed to be.
Essential Tracks: ‘You Should Be Sad’, ‘I Hate Everybody’, ‘3AM’, ‘Finally//Beautiful Stranger’
12. In A Dream – Troye Sivan
After the release of his previous album Bloom, Troye Sivan went through a few things: “an emotional rollercoaster period in [his] life when feelings and thoughts were shockingly fresh”, as he puts it. The resulting EP holds a stark difference to Sivan’s previous works, not only lyrically, where he publicly addresses himself without pause, admitting to cheating (“I went astray to make it okay / And he made it easy, darlin’”), but also sonically, notably in the sense that In A Dream pushes toward something he has never tried at before, electrifying dance-pop that borders on the line of house music. Sivan wasn’t wrong about this work being an emotionally reckless part of his life – whether it be the heart-wrenching ‘Easy’, or the intended gay club anthem ‘STUD’, listening to In A Dream is an experience full of perfectly in perfect extremities.
Essential Tracks: ‘Easy’, ‘Rager teenager!’, ‘STUD’
13. Before Love Came to Kill Us – Jessie Reyez
It’s hard to make a great debut album, never mind to make a debut album that doesn’t box you into a genre. On Before Love Came to Kill Us, Jessie Reyez makes it look easy. Reyez dances between genres like no one’s business doo-wop to trap to R&B to pop ballads, perfecting each and every singular one before moving on as swiftly. Every aspect of the record is impressive – from the writing, the production, and Reyez’ vocal performance – but it’s the sheer ground she manages to cover and how well she manages to do it that makes this a debut for the ages.
Essential Tracks: ‘Do You Love Her’, ‘Imported’, ‘ Ankles’, ‘Love In The Dark’
14. Fetch The Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
Despite being largely written before the pandemic truly set in, Fetch The Bolt Cutters will be remembered as one of the essential pandemic pieces. For this album, Fiona Apple not only broke the rules but purposefully strayed as far away from normalcy as possible. It summed up the pandemic experience, using symphonies of barking dogs, pounding of walls, and other everyday household sounds to create music that touches on deep human emotion. The lyrics are brutally honest, nothing is romanticized, and the pain is palpable. In all her anti-conformist glory, Apple created a record that transcends genre and expectation, rooted in reality.
Essential Tracks: ‘Relay’, ‘Ladies’, ‘For Her’
15. Petals for Armor – Hayley Williams
Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams finally made her solo debut with Petals For Armor. Originally released as three separate EPs, the songs on this album show Williams at her most vulnerable. She explores her complicated feelings about the band that made her, the dissolution of her ten-year relationship with musician Chad Gilbert and the contrast of rage and femininity. “If you know how to love // Best prepare to grieve,” Williams sings on ‘Leave It Alone’, one of the first songs written for the project. It’s a beautiful – thought heartbreaking – reminder of the cost of love.
Essential Tracks: ‘Simmer’, ‘Cinnamon’, ‘Dead Horse’, ‘Leave Me Alone’
16. Good News – Megan Thee Stallion
Even if 2020 hadn’t been the mess it was, you would still be hard pushed to find anyone who had anywhere close to the year Megan Thee Stallion had. Transitioning from viral success to megastardom with ease, one would think having two of the most successful and acclaimed tracks of the year would be enough. However, Megan refused to rest on her laurels, delivering a debut record that marks her as the standard to which her peers should be held, rewriting rap in her own image, and looking incredible while doing it. That’s some Real Hot Girl Shit right there.
Essential Tracks: ‘Shots Fired’, ‘Sugar Baby’, ‘Body’, ‘Girls In The Hood’
17. Dedicated Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen
We are living through a truly glorious age of humanity: the Carly Rae Jepsen-assaince. Long past the ‘Call Me Maybe’ days (although that song remains a classic); Carly Rae Jepsen is now an indie-pop darling. She released Dedicated in 2019, but kept the disco-inspired hits coming with 2020’s Dedicated Side B, a collection of songs that didn’t make the first album. What makes Side B so much fun is its unapologetic weirdness; Jepsen swings from glittering declarations that “this is what they say // falling in love’s supposed to feel like” to slinky reminisces of “the night we painted over your fake Mona Lisa.” Even when she doesn’t quite hit the mark, Jepsen still delivers: her B-sides are better than some artists’ A-sides.
Essential Tracks: ‘This is What They Say’, ‘Window’, ‘Fake Mona Lisa’, ‘Comeback’
18. Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again? – Kacy Hill
Kacy Hill’s second studio album, her first project in over three years, is a perfect example of what the future of music may look like. With its intoxicating synths and compelling 808s, Is It Selfish proves itself to be a spotlight in the echo chamber of releases of the year with its blunt and open lyricism (see: “Life feels fast and forever feels like a sin / All this time and I’ve gotta get over it”) combined with its ethereal production. Shining bright on songs like ‘Palladium’ and the pre-release ‘Porsche’, Hill’s versatility is evident, while ultimately coming together to create a flawlessly cohesive body of work. All in all, if it is selfish for Hill to talk about herself again, we heavily encourage it.
Essential Tracks: ‘Porsche’, ‘Unkind’, ‘I Believe In You’, ‘Dinner’
19. Ho, Why is You Here? – Flo Milli
2020 was a year of newcomers making their mark in culture. At only 20 years old, Alabama rapper Flo Milli’s debut album gave listeners something to celebrate during such a bleak time. Ho, Why Is You Here?” is unapologetically playful, catty, and energetic. In addition to going viral on Tik Tok multiple times (a true sign of the makings of a star these days), Flo Milli cultivated a community of fans who share her bubbly spirit and defiant attitude. In one of the most cohesive projects of the year, this rising star filled the nightclub sized hole in our hearts.
Essential Tracks: ‘Beef FloMix’, ‘Pussycat Doll’
20. Songs – Adrianne Lenker
While the lead singer from Big Thief didn’t plan to create a “quarantine record”, Adrianne Lenker found herself inspired by the sounds of her guitar in the cabin she was living in during the peak of lockdown. Recorded on an Otari 8-track, free of anything other than bare vocals and an acoustic guitar, Lenker allows herself to dive into a first-person description of heartbreak for the first time in her career with lyrics like “I don’t wanna be the owner of your fantasy / I just wanna be a part of your family.” Accompanied by the 2-track, 40-minute-long album instrumentals, songs’ willingness to bare its soul cements itself as one of the frankest, impactful records of the year.
Essential Tracks: ‘anything’, ‘zombie girl’, ‘come’, ‘dragon eyes’
21. A Hero’s Death – Fontaines D.C.
Some albums are made purely for the music, and that is all over Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore effort, A Hero’s Death. Full of passion and guts, the record is unapologetic, racing through with soul and one of the most relatable lyrics of 2020: “I wished I could go back to spring again”. It’s pure, unfiltered, and old-school rock, all dressed up in an Irish accent and sensibilities – what more could you want?
Essential Tracks: ‘I Don’t Belong’, ‘Oh Such A Spring’, ‘ Living In America’
22. Kid Krow – Conan Gray
What makes Conan Gray’s debut album so delightful is the swing from high to low. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions; he goes from taunting a no-good lover, sneering “You may think you’re winning but / checkmate,” to daydreaming about being the person his crush has eyes for: “I wish I were Heather.” What makes this seesawing of emotions work is Gray’s total sincerity. This album encapsulates the out-of-control way you feel when you’re young; one second you’re declaring your psycho ex is a “maniac,” the next you’re wistfully wondering “why did we ever have to leave / Little League?” It’s a strong debut, with clever lyrics and the throwback 80s production that’s been a hallmark of 2020 pop. Expect to hear more from Gray in the coming years; Kid Krow is proof that he has the potential to go far.
Essential Tracks: ‘Wish You Were Sober’, ‘Maniac’, ‘Fight or Flight’, ‘Heather’
23. Apart – LÉON
In her sophomore album, LÉON paints a vibrant but melancholy picture of the experience of true heartbreak. Apart stems from a love song and ends with the agonizing title track, a vulnerable depiction of how the course of one’s life changes with the end of a relationship. Tracks like ‘Seventeen’ make the record a true highlight, with gorgeous synths and a truly nostalgic sensation. Apart is the full package, complete with a coming of age atmosphere, LÉON’s memorable raspy vocals, and universal lyricism.
Essential Tracks: ‘Seventeen’, ‘Apart’, ‘Crazy/Stupid’
24. Falling Asleep At The Wheel – Holly Humberstone
Despite being only a six-track EP, Holly Humberstone’s first full project is a memorable moment of 2020’s releases. The combination of mellow guitar riffs, lyrics that embody the Gen Z experience, and Humberstone’s dynamic vocal performance make it a satisfying listening experience all around. Highlights include ‘Vanilla,’ a moody but upbeat moment, and ‘Overkill,’ a track all about the shared experience in Holly’s generation of feeling a bit too much sometimes. The EP is sharp, relatable, and has sonic interesting elements laced throughout, all surely solidifying her as a musician to watch in the future.
Essential Tracks: ‘Vanilla’, ‘Overkill’
25. After Hours – The Weeknd
Some albums are truly too big to ignore, and The Weeknd’s After Hours certainly one of them. Thankfully, it’s worthy of our attention. Developing the sonic landscape from his 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy, After Hours slowly burns from R&B and trap into huge synth-pop and disco, exploding with life, and danceability. The record shows The Weeknd in a new light, and it’s a light that suits him perfectly.
Essential Tracks: ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘In Your Eyes’, ‘Save Your Tears’