Welcome back to the second installment of my Top 20 albums of 2020. If you didn’t see Part 1, I’ll link that here.
If you don’t want to read all that here’s a quick refresher on what I look for in albums as I’m building the list:
Is the album special? Is it making interesting choices that set it apart from other 2020 releases or music in general?
Do all songs reach a high standard of quality or are some tracks forgettable filler?
Can I listen to the whole album in order without losing interest?
Does the album hold up to repeat listens? Is it something I’ll still reach for years from now?
Does this album make me excited to hear the artist’s next release?
So… here are the next five albums in my list.
15. Gaslighter by The Chicks
Genre: Pop Country
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to…. “Sleep at Night”
The best time to listen to it: When you’re dying for a good tea spill.
What makes it special: Gaslighter does a great job of capturing the heartbreak of divorce as well as the resilience it takes to pick up the pieces and move on. It’s an album where the moments of vulnerability serve to make the moments of strength all the more empowering. It also does a great job of incorporating pop elements into country music without sounding like every other artist trying to incorporate pop elements into country music. It’s a fine case study in how glossier production doesn’t have to come at the expense of emotional rawness. (Read my full Gaslighter review here.)
14. Manic by Halsey
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to…. “Graveyard”
The best time to listen to it: When you’re sad and feel like nobody understands you. In such moments, Halsey understands you.
What makes it special: Manic is a fascinating exploration of what happens when someone’s desperate need to be loved is paired with self-sabotaging tendencies that are fundamentally incompatible with steady relationships. Perhaps no lyric illustrates this better than the emphatic chorus of Track 2, “clementine.” Halsey insists that she doesn’t need anyone, she just needs “everyone and then some.” Our protagonist cannot stand to be alone, so she runs to whoever will have her. She consistently sacrifices long-lasting love for short-term attention, sometimes unable to tell the difference. The result? She always ends up feeling more alone than before, and no amount of self-awareness seems to save her.
Perhaps what sets Manic apart from other millenial-who’s-bad-at-relationships pop music is that it’s not actually focusing on Halsey’s interpersonal relationships at all. Instead, it’s about the internal struggle of seeing those patterns of destructive behavior, but not knowing how to correct them. Halsey is not as concerned with passing the blame of failed relationships onto ex-lovers as she is with exploring her own role in why they went wrong: either by falling for the wrong person, staying when she should’ve left, not enforcing high enough standards, or letting her own insecurities prevent her from emotional intimacy.
Manic knows how to juxtopose those moments of anger and self-loathing with more gentle bouts of optimism such as “finally // beautiful stranger” and the result is a rounded out character that’s flawed, yet sympathetic and relatable.
13. Kid Krow by Conan Gray
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… “Maniac”
The best time to listen to it: When you need some good synthpop, but want enough variety to keep things mixed up.
What makes it special: It’s rare for an album to be this good at upbeat bops about being glad your ex is gone (“Maniac” and “Checkmate”) that’s ALSO this good at sad guitar ballads (“Heather” and “The Story”). Conan Gray can do it all. Throughout Kid Krow he juxtoposes more personal stories of heartbreak with big picture social commentary, and songs like “Little League” which are somewhere in between. It’s an album that doesn’t just make me want more music from Conan, but an album that makes me want to know more about Conan’s perspective on life in general. Kid Krow was infectious enough to steal my heart fairly quickly, but yet still had enough nuance to hold up long after many pop albums get boring. (Read my full Kid Krow review here).
12. BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US by Jessie Reyez
Genre: An interesting amalgamation of R&B, hip hop, and pop.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… “DO YOU LOVE HER”
The best time to listen to it: When you either a) have just had your heart broken or b) are not feeling anything and need to be reminded of just how badly hearts can break.
What makes it special: BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US kind of feels like a love child of Billie Eilish and Camila Cabello… yet I love it more than either of those artists. It’s dark and demented at some points, yet other moments make you feel like crying alone curled up in the fetal position. It also has what might be the most gripping opening track I’ve heard on any 2020 album in “DO YOU LOVE HER.” It has this twisted, intoxicating quality, drawing you into this downward spiral of feels that the rest of the album has in store for you.
Reyez also knows how to draw from a lot of influences without necessarily feeling derivative. There’s Latin flair. There’s bluesy anthems. There’s rap. The result is a dark tragedy of epic proportions that sounds like no other breakup album I’ve heard, and frankly if I’m in the mood for this album nothing else can come close to scratching the same itch.
11. Zeros by Declan McKenna
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… “The Key to Life on Earth”
The best time to listen to it: When you need to escape into a fantasy and ponder reality at the same time.
What makes it special: Zeros feels like the album that the Beatles might’ve made if they were just bursting on the scene for the first time in 2020. It’s fascinating to me how well Declan can pull inspiration from the psychadelic rock of the 1960s, yet it never feels like a cheap knock-off of an artist you’d rather be listening to.
Zeros has the grandiose vision of a proper concept album, while still having enough memorable hooks to be approachable. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t sure there was much here beyond a rock album that’s fun to listen to. Yet with every new listen, it felt like there was some other layer beneath the surface begging for me to discover it. Are the lyrics literally about a trip to space? Are they a criticism of our real-life broken political and economic systems? Could they possibly be both? Zeros works the way a good novel does: fun at first, and only gets better the more you think about it.