It was an interesting year for albums in 2020. Because of the pandemic a LOT of artists decided not to release albums (probably due to not being able to capitalize on a successful tour afterwards). In particular, a lot of rappers who I was almost sure would release something in 2021 like Kanye, J. Cole, Kendrick and Drake didn’t drop full projects. It also most likely delayed long-awaited comeback projects from Rihanna and Frank Ocean as well. It’s definitely a bummer, but there was a silver lining to weird music releases this year.
Not having these major album drops gave some underdogs the time to shine. If those big artists had dropped I probably wouldn’t have given Jay Electronica, Thundercat, Kota the Friend and Denzel Curry the attention they deserved, but I’m glad I did because they all put out amazing albums this year. It also gave way for more low key albums to come out, not ones that would be associated with stadium tours. Shore from Fleet Foxes is my favorite one of these, but albums like Taylor Swift’s folklore would probably not have come out this year either if she was doing a big tour. It let artists be more creative and take some risks without having too much to lose (like millions in ticket sales).
I think what I really enjoyed about the lack of big buzzworthy albums this year though is that it gave me time to explore other artists I hadn’t dove deep on yet but have enjoyed at the surface-level for a while. Paul Simon, Billy Joel, CSNY, Marvin Gaye, and the never-ending discography of the Grateful Dead I got to really experience this year and don’t think I would have put the time in to do that if Kanye, Rihanna, and Kendrick all dropped 22-song double-albums. Not to mention I was spending more time than ever with my comfort albums (like Blonde and Father of the Bride) because this year was trash.
The albums that did release in 2020 that I really enjoyed are listed below. This is a little bit lighter of a post than my Top Songs of 2020 blog (just so I’m not being repetitive) so check that out if you haven’t yet.
Top 15 Albums of 2020
15. Notes On A Conditional Form – The 1975
I was really excited for this album to come out because their last album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is one that I still regularly listen to and consider a masterpiece. So when I first heard NOACF I was like…ugh. My expectations were too high. So I listened to the songs I liked (If You’re Too Shy Let Me Know, Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, People, and Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied) and kinda forgot about it. Then I went back and listened in September-ish and realized I gave it too hard of a time. Other songs like Playing On My Mind, Tonight (I Wish I was Your Boy), and Guys are all brilliant too. I think this album only suffers from having too many songs (like a lot of other albums) but overrall it’s still really really good and a great addition to the 1975 catalog.
14. Man on the Moon 3: The Chosen – Kid Cudi
I’m really liking this album but it’s a little too early for me to give it the full Top 10 endorsement yet. One of my judgments on if an album is truly great is if I keep returning to it and don’t get sick of it, that’s yet to be seen. But this is a return to form for Kid Cudi who drops easily his best collection of songs in years. He collaborated with the right old and new people and came up with a bunch of new bangers with that classic cudi sound. I think it really rounded out an amazing trilogy of songs that will go down in rap history.
13. Niagara – Redveil
I found out about this album in December so haven’t spent too much time with it but I have had it in the rotation since then and I’m loving it. The production is unreal and something any fan of old school hip-hop, soul-samples, and Tyler/Earl Sweatshirt can get in to. The lyrics and flow work so well over the unique beats and perfectly blends story-telling with catchiness. If you’re a fan of lyrical rap this is a must-listen, or at least listen to Campbell, Weight, 5500, and Drown.
12. Everything – Kota the Friend
This was my go-to rap album over the summer when things were pretty dry. It’s the perfect summer, chill, hip-hop album. He has such a unique flow, it’s all good warm vibes, the beats are all amazing, and it’s a very coherent collection of songs all about focusing on the little things that make you happy. This album was truly the soundtrack to my summer and I highly recommend for anyone and I mean ANYONE (even non-rap fans) to check this out because I think you’ll find something you like.
11. Only For Dolphins – Action Bronson
I can’t believe this album didn’t make it on more Top Albums lists but I think that’s just the nature of Action Bronson. Either you love him or you don’t, and I love him. Action’s strength is that you can’t compare him to anyone else in the rap game. The beats on this are curated by the legends Harry Fraud and The Alchemist and I’m now convinced they only give Bronson their weirdest and best stuff. Action lays down some of his classic punchlines and really leans into the mythos of being a strong man and finding inner peace (whether from exercising, eating, or partaking in psychedelics). I had this on repeat for the majority of the early fall because every song packs it’s own kind of punch and is easily Action’s strongest project in a long time. If you skipped over this one, it’s time to go back and give it a shot.
10. Unlocked – Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
I felt conflicted about putting this on the Top Albums list because I think it’s technically just an EP but it’s too damn good to leave out. Kenny Beats is really doing something special with his production. He built a whole community by streaming “beat battles” on twitch this year that are awesome and all on Youtube for you to check out. But he’s also proved himself in the producer-game by creating some absolute bangers with the most exciting new talent, like Denzel Curry. This EP has some crazy out-of-the box beats that take wild turns and it works so well with Curry’s ability to rap like a homicidal maniac and also do smooth sing-songy flows. This album blends both their styles so well and is wildly impressive for what they considered to be a mixtape.
9. No Pressure – Logic
This was definitely the most feel-good album of 2020, not because of the songs but moreso just because it showed Logic returning to greatness. Logic dropped Under Pressure in 2014 and I spent a lot of my freshman year in college bumping that album. It was innovative and really excited me about his career. He dropped The Incredible True Story the year following and to this day it’s one of my favorite albums. A completely unique story that set up Logic to be a god-level rapper…then Everybody came out.
He hit a weird fake-positivity phase with that album, didn’t handle fame well and was too caught up with people trashing on him, and then spent his next 2-3 albums trying to recover by having repetitive lyrics about “the haters”, chasing trap music despite that not being his style at all, and having big names like Eminem on songs that were just cringey as hell. So when he dropped No Pressure and announced his retirement, it felt special. Kind of similar to Kid Cudi, this was easily his best project in years and brings him back to his old sound while incorporating the best aspects of his new self. The beats were all great (considering legendary producer No ID, mentor of Kanye and collaborator on Under Pressure executive produced) and Logic wasn’t using throwaway stupid corny lyrics. I was just very happy to see him exit on a high-note and deliver a project that reminded fans of Logic why he got so popular in the first place.
8. Shore – Fleet Foxes
This is maybe the most appropriately titled album of 2020. The entire thing sounds like you’re taking a pensive walk on the beach…and it’s amazing. Every song complements each other to create a great journey of indie/rock/folk vibes that brings peace to anyone who listens. The song-writing is some of the best this year, with A Long Way Past the Past, Jara, and Going-To-The-Sun Road being highlights. I think what makes this one of the best albums of the year specifically is that although there are songs that stand out, every song is necessary and creates its own story. It’s a really really cohesive project with awesome instrumentals, great lyrics, and a unique sound that made me want to dive more into them as a band. Highly recommend.
7. Women In Music Pt. 3 – HAIM
HAIM rocks super hard. Period. That’s it. I think they are going to be a part of this movement to bring back more traditional rock music while also giving it a new spin for the modern era (similar to Father of the Bride, which featured a lot of the same artists who worked on WIMPIII). Songs like Los Angeles, The Steps, Gasoline, Don’t Wanna, and Leaning On You really showcase how well they know their instruments, how much chemistry they have as musicians, and how experienced they are in song-writing. The guitar-playing alone on this album is legendary and the sisters vocals over it make for a rock record unlike any other this year. I think HAIM really hit something special with the vibe of this record and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
6. Cool Tape Volume 3 – Jaden
I’ve been a very vocal fan of Jaden Smith since he was like 15 dropping soundcloud freestyles. He has a great flow and a crazy lyrical mind. His first real-deal album SYRE I was a big fan of, but I think there was still a lot of room for potential. I think he took a few steps backwards following that project doing more sing-songy, autotuned, trap styles, but this album really feels like he fulfilled the potential I saw in him all along. This album is a beautiful collection of young, romantic, positive, summery tracks that all share a vibe but don’t seem redundant. Falling for You with Justin Bieber is bouncy and catchy as hell, Rainbow Bap is as well-rounded a song as you can find, Cabin Fever has a super-poppy sound without losing Jaden’s personality, and Endless Summer is a flex from both Jaden and Raury on how they can flow over these more simple beats. I think Jaden tapped into an original sound with this album and I think he can only get better moving forward.
5. It Is What It Is – Thundercat
This album shows what happens when you consistently prove your talent. Thundercat’s been producing some of the best music in the rap and R&B game for years now and this year he really popped off with this album and got some mainstream recognition (and I am one of the people who really dove in after hearing this project this year too). I mean, if you have the power to get Steve Lacy and Childish Gambino on the same song? That says something. That being said, this album totally shows off Thundercat’s unique sound and impeccable bass skills while having fun, making valid points, and experimenting with all kinds of jazz. Songs like Black Qualls, Dragonball Durag, I Love Louis Cole and Funny Thing keep the energy up while Overseas (featuring the hilarious Zack Fox), How I Feel, and Fair Chance (featuring Ty Dolla $ign) make you feel like you’re leisurely floating through space with your friends. All 15 songs share the same vibe, hold their own, and come together to form an album that is overstuffed with skill and was clearly put together with care and precision. I enjoyed Thundercat’s music before and liked songs he produced, but this album made me a real fan.
4.. 3.15.20 – Childish Gambino
It suuuuuuuuuuuuucks so hard that Gambino was so weird with the release of this album, because it sounds amazing, but it purposely is so annoying to the human brain. WHY IS THERE NO COVER ART. The album is just white with no words or anything! WHY DON’T THE SONGS HAVE NAMES? They’re almost all just time stamps of when they start in the album! WHY IS THE ALBUM JUST A DATE? You are a creative genius Donald Glover, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to create something cool for the cover, titles, and album rollout!?! So frustrating.
That aside though, this album is so cool. I mean Algorhythm is like an evil futuristic Michael Jackson song, he had a whole soulful song with Ariana Grande, he got a fire 21 Savage verse on the funky 12.38, 32.22 sounds like something off Yeezus, 35.31 was the fun free energy we all needed this year, 47.48 was vibey as all hell, and 53.49 was a fantastic example of how to close out an album. It SUCKS that he was so weird with all of this because I think this could’ve seriously swept up awards at the Grammy’s for being an experimental masterpiece but he was (as Tyler, the Creator describes) a “cryptic dickhead about it”. Please, if you listened to this once and were like “that was weird and I don’t remember the name of any of the songs I liked” GO BACK AND LISTEN. It’s so good and I want it to get the recognition it deserves.
3. A Written Testimony – Jay Electronica
I must’ve listened to this album like 50 times all the way through this year. When I’m putting albums on this list the idea of a project being cohesive and telling a story carries a ton of weight. If it’s just a collection of good songs, I’ll put the good songs on the top songs list, but the albums not gonna make it. This album is a story. Each song flows into the other and has a through-line. First of all, I can not understate how absolutely bonkers the production is on this thing. These beats are unlike anything you’ve heard on any other album this year. There’s wild adlibs, insane samples, weird patterns, and you almost don’t expect someone to be able to rap over it confidently, but Jay Elec delivers. Not to mention, Jay-Z is on like 80% of the songs. It really should be considered a collab album, but I don’t care who gets credit. Because both of the Jay’s drop legendary lyrics and throw verses back and forth effortlessly with the swagger someone can only achieve from being in the rap game as long as these two. If you are a fan of lyrical rap and are missing artists like Kendrick who haven’t dropped in years…listen to this immediately. Every song is good but Ghost of Soulja Slim and Flux Capacitor go UNBELIEVABLY hard and songs like The Neverending Story and Ezekiel’s Wheel just give Jay Elec the space he needs to show off how good he is at rapping. This is nominated for Rap Album of the Year and it needs to win.
2. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
It’s hit after hit after hit after hit with this album. Remember in 2015 when every song that Fetty Wap dropped blew up on the charts? Every one had billboard #1 energy? That’s this album. Dua obviously had star power before, but this album was a staircase that led her up to the levels of Taylor Swift and Ariana and said IT’S MY TURN BITCHES.
I mean, get out of here with this line-up. Don’t Start Now, Levitating, Pretty Please, Break My Heart, Love Again, Hallucinate…those are top of the chart disco-influenced bangers. Even the “supporting songs” I’d call them, are SO GOOD. “Good in Bed”? Catchy as hell. “Cool”? Vibey as hell. “Future Nostalgia”? An incredible intro to the project. I really can go on and on and on but this album is a miracle in the fact that every song is a certified slapper and yet no song sounds like the other. Each chorus, every verse, every bridge is written perfectly to become stuck in your head and deliver positive fun vibes. I’ve said it a billion times but it’s a damn shame we weren’t able to jam out to this in bars this year, but I think an album this flames will survive this pandemic and be played once things return to normal, and if not I will die personally making sure that it does happen. This is going down in the pop-music hall of fame, no doubt about it.
1. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
Look if you’ve read my Top Songs post, if you’ve followed me on Twitter or Instagram this year, you knew this was coming. I can not stop gushing over Phoebe Bridgers and this album. It’s a genuinely exciting album. Seeing a new artist like her come out with a project that transcends any other album to come out this year or in the past few years and create a wholly unique sound that resonates with so many people? Incredible. Punisher makes you laugh, cry, think, cry, cry again, and (to quote the song “ICU”) FEEL SOMETHING. No album made me think or feel more than this one this year. Let’s take “Garden Song” for example. That instrumental is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, the lyrics paint a beautifully dark dreamy picture and Phoebe chose to have someone on her security team sing the deep part of the chorus with her because she thought it sounded cool. These are just GENIUS choices that bring the album from good, to great, to godly. I’ve said enough about “Kyoto” and “I Know the End” on my songs post so I won’t say anything more than that they are unbelievably good, and all these other songs hold their own special value. “Moon Song” is a great song to stare at your ceiling to and question every decision you’ve ever made, “Savior Complex”‘s guitar strumming alone puts you in a trance (and the music video stars my boy from Normal People and was directed by Phoebe Waller Bridge) and “Graceland Too” is like old Taylor Swift if she was emo.
To answer your question, yes, I was very sad, a lot, this year. But also, what I can not stress enough is how unique this album is and how much of a legend Phoebe Bridgers is going to be. She wore a skeleton costume promoting the album, she has crazy creative videos for all the songs, she’s done awesome renditions of the songs on every show that would let her (I Know the End on Seth Meyer’s and the Kyoto from her Tiny Desk are must-listens) and her whole vibe and character is just so clear. I really think she’s going to take over. Insanely impressive lyrics, beautiful instrumental ability, and the courage to make creative choices that inspire and connect to a ton of people. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
That’s it folks! Like I said, if I missed any, my order was bad, or you want to yell at me for not putting either of Taylor Swift’s albums on her, just let me know!