At certain moments, 2020 felt like a year that might not ever come to an end. Now that it's mostly in our rear view, can a retrospective give a shape to that swarm of weeks and months? Can we make sense of layer upon layer of fear, anger, frustration, confusion, exhilaration and exhaustion that piled up like soil falling over our heads? Sometimes art breaks through. Better to think of the best music of 2020 as an urgent cacophony of distinct voices rather than a chorus with a single melody. Many voices, with many stories to tell. Here are the 50 best albums of a year unlike any we can remember.
Lil Baby was arguably the biggest and best rapper of 2020, but it took him releasing a protest song in the wake of George Floyd's killing for hip-hop outsiders and mainstream outlets (including this one!) to give him his flowers. Consider this praise overdue, then. My Turn (the deluxe version in particular) showcases a star out of Atlanta coming into form, a feature-length argument for Baby as the year's rapper to beat. Despite its length, the record has the singleminded quality of a sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble. Baby powers through the familiar hi-hats and hues of contemporary trap with muscle and confidence, placing his cars and clothes in conversation with his family, area code and former street life. He may have only started rapping a few years ago, but his past informs his writing in ways that no amount of Young Thug tutelage could have provided him. This is a world-conquering timestamp of a record, a capsule of Atlanta rap, and maybe hip-hop at large, in 2020. —Mano Sundaresan
As a solo artist or with her band Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker has been at or near the top of my year-end lists for the past five years, more so than any other artist. The simultaneous strength and frailty in her voice attract me to her music. Earlier this year, she told NPR's All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly, "I was really sad, and I hit a wall — I kind of hit the bottom of myself and went to a pretty dark and sad space for a while. And the music itself, and writing these songs, was a thing that was getting me through it." The songs on songs were birthed in a one-room cabin in Western Massachusetts' mountains and recorded on an old Otari 8-track. We hear acoustic guitar, her voice, the sound of the cabin and whatever bugs and birds happen to be in the background of the poetic paintings she sings. The intimacy is magnetic. —Bob Boilen
More than 100 years ago, on the African archipelago of Zanzibar, three traditional styles of music — Arabic, Indian and East African — blended together to form a new kind of popular music: taarab. That's in part due to the island's location along the Indian Ocean trade routes, but the genre's rise had more to do with its first star, Siti bint Saad, the first woman from her region to record an album. Now her great-granddaughter, Siti Muharam, is taking up the family business and reviving taarab in the process. Her debut album, Siti of Unguja (Romance Revolution on Zanzibar), is full of pristinely recorded taarab jam sessions (courtesy of the Dhow Countries Music Academy, the only music school on Zanzibar, and London-based label On The Corner), which have garnered international interest from African music fans and crate diggers alike. The world may be flatter than ever, but you simply don't encounter organic grooves featuring ouds, qanuns, violins and bass clarinets everyday. Add Muharam's voice to the mix and you have a truly distinct concoction. —Otis Hart
Reviewers did Georgia Anne Muldrow a disservice when they tagged Mama, You Can Bet!, her third solo project under the moniker Jyoti, as "jazz." The term is too confining for a freakishly prolific producer, songwriter, singer and seeker whose work challenges such categorical thinking — not only from tune to tune, but measure by measure. Muldrow's loose, theatrical vignettes connect elements from all over Black American music: ancestral chants rise out of halting, defiantly syncopated R&B grooves; jittery loops swerve into deep-backbeat evocations of Mingus melodies; piano-trio fantasias dissolve into synthy Afro-futuristic soundscapes. Though sometimes maddeningly brief, these episodes follow Muldrow through free-spirited and spontaneous-sounding explorations; listening from start to finish is like paging through the first-draft sketchbook of a visionary. —Tom Moon
Ashley Ray is not a household name, but she's no newcomer: As a songwriter with a Grammy nomination under her belt, she's written for big acts (Little Big Town's "The Daughters") and earned co-signs from industry veterans (Lori McKenna). But on "Pauline," the opening track of her breakthrough album of the same name, the Kansas native defines herself not by what she's built, but by what she's been bequeathed: her grandmother's name. Declared with force, it's a fitting statement of purpose for a deeply personal album that reckons with what we pass down and where we call home. —Lyndsey McKenna
"I can't say the things I need to," Samantha Crain frets during "Echo," the opening track of her song cycle, A Small Death. In fact, that song and the 10 that follow it are works of stunning poetic economy and clarity. The Oklahoma-based Choctaw singer-songwriter offers impossibly perceptive vignettes of shedding toxic friendship ("Constructive Eviction"), the mutual embarrassment of high school reunions ("Reunion"), the strangeness of receding memory ("Joey") and the perverse valor of children trying to be what they think adults require ("Tough For You"). That's all the more striking considering that Crain started the writing process during a pre-COVID period of profound disruption; a series of car accidents had aggravated a nerve injury and left her without use of her hands. Crain worked her way back to functionality and produced the album herself, arriving at beguiling arrangements, sculpted with woodwinds, horns, synthesizers, piano, pedal steel and tape loops, without ever allowing herself the easy out of a guitar solo. —Jewly Hight (WNXP 91.ONE)
During a year when everything seemed to go wrong, the gauzy layers of synths and guitars on Tame Impala's The Slow Rush swathed me like a comforting cocoon. The project is more pop-oriented than the sprawling, psychedelic rock that first brought singer-producer-bandleader Kevin Parker fame, and its light touch was needed amid 2020's constant grief. With its slow sway and airy falsetto, "On Track" became a mantra for being OK with doing your best given the circumstances, even if your best isn't perfect. The funky backbeat of "Breathe Deeper" pulsed along with a reminder to accept and let go. And on the tense, blues rock-tinged ballad "Posthumous Forgiveness," Parker opens up about the complex process of grieving a father figure who wasn't there for him as a child. Throughout The Slow Rush, Parker delves into sometimes painful memories but leaves his listeners with inspiration to keep dreaming. —Nastia Voynovskaya (KQED)
If it wasn't already clear from their numerous tennis court performances, Chloe x Halle mastered the art of innovation in 2020. Ungodly Hour, a cohesive sophomore album, sharply deviates from previous releases — a natural transition as they mature into young womanhood. In under 40 minutes, the sisters deliver an ethereal collection of R&B ballads about self-doubt and imposter syndrome, the euphoria of a pre-game, even pursuing a lame dude despite knowing full well he ain't the one. It's commanding and honest, unafraid and vulnerable. And it highlights the duo's ability and eagerness to animate themselves: talented musicians who are also producers, lovers, storytellers and healers. With Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle invite us into their lives and allow us to share their laughter, triumphs and lessons learned throughout a seamless, no-skip album. —LaTesha Harris
This revival of William Dawson's 1934 Negro Folk Symphony came in June, just as American cities erupted in protest against ages-old racist violence. The piece is a musical declaration that Black lives matter, saturated with fragments of spirituals and West African rhythms that elegize what Dawson called the lives "of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born." This expansive performance by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Fagen brings home the present-day urgency in this music and its message. This was Dawson's first and only symphony; soon after its triumphant premiere, it was buried in the pile of "forgotten voices" where we find the music of many game-changing Black composers, including neoclassicist-with-a-twist Ulysses Kay, whose contrasting Fantasy Variations and Umbrian Scene complete this recording. Timely, and a long time coming. —Lara Downes (NPR's Amplify)
Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle are the husband-and-wife team behind Buscabulla, whose sweetly whirring, chilled-out electro-pop comes freighted with melancholy. The two left New York for their birthplace of Puerto Rico in 2017, shortly after the territory was hit by a pair of devastating hurricanes; their journey is implied in the album's title. The songs reflect on complex and shifting ideas of home, but the canvas on which their lyrics hang couldn't be breezier or more swoonily alluring, thanks in part to Berrios' soft, sweetly approachable vocals. —Stephen Thompson
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