In case you haven’t seen any prior posts in this series, here’s a rundown of what I looked for in albums as I was 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?
Additionally, I want to point out that the “if you’re only going to listen to ONE” songs aren’t. necessarily my personal favorite tracks, but they are the tracks that I think best exemplify the sounds, themes and positive attributes of the entire album. It’s my hope that listening to this one song for each pick can help you figure out if the entire album is worth your time or not.
Okay, without further ado, here they are. My Top Albums of 2020.
5. After Hours by The Weeknd
Best time to listen to it: When you’re sad AF but also feel like dancing.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to…. : “Faith”
What makes it special: I don’t know that there’s any artist working today who knows how to blend experimental and mainstream quite as flawlessly as The Weeknd. After Hours offers soaring radio anthems like “Blinding Lights” as well as less commercial, more introspective work like “Faith” and “Snowchild.” Somehow, both of these extremes feel 100% authentic. That’s why this album took the world by storm: it could appeal to scores of pop fans who never paid attention to The Weeknd’s earlier work without feeling like a betrayal of the longtime fans who did. It’s like he found a way to sell out without actually selling out.
The Weeknd’s mastery of both of these moods allows After Hours to have peaks and valleys that keep things interesting, yet each track is still exploring the central theme of a heartbroken man who can’t be comforted by any amount of money, fame, or illicit substances. It has that timeless Great Gatsby-esque exploration of how hollow one can feel in spite of how successful they look on paper. What’s particularly fascinating is how well the music conveys this: oftentimes covered in a thin veneer of glossy production, but anyone who’s actually paying attention can feel the sadness just below the surface. After Hours is now an album I’ve listened to countless times, and yet I’m not bored with it. If anything, the complexity of it is seductive, inviting more listens just in case there’s something I missed last time.
4. Imploding the Mirage by The Killers
Best time to listen to it: When you need to pretend you’re in an ‘80s dance movie montage.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… : “Lightning Fields” (ft. k.d. lang)
What makes it special: Imploding the Mirage is simultaneously everything a Killers fan could possibly ask for in a Killers album, yet it incorporates just enough modern trendiness to feel fresh. Like many 2020 albums, it’s drawing a lot of influence from ‘80s pop but yet all the same things people love about “Mr. Brightside” or “Somebody Told Me” still shine through. The drama is still here. The anthemic, sing-along nature of the songwriting is still here. It never feels like the Killers are trying to recreate a bygone heyday, nor does it feel like they’re disingenuously grasping at modern trends in a desperate attempt for relevance. Instead, they’ve taken the best of both worlds and channeled it into a practically flawless album.
It says a lot that my two most-frequently-listened-to songs of 2020 are both from this album (read the full 100 here). For a while, I wondered if I was letting my love for “Lightning Fields” (ft. k.d. lang) and “My God” (ft. Weyes Blood) distort my views on the whole album, but when I revisited it I felt validated. Virtually every new track came with a rush of ‘oh yeah I knew this song is great, but also it’s better than I remembered!” The “filler tracks” of Imploding the Mirage could’ve been hit singles on hundreds of lesser albums. It was great when I was playing it on repeat back when it came out, and it’s still fantastic after taking a break from it for a few months.
3. folklore by Taylor Swift
Genre: Alternative folksy synthpop. Or maybe poppy alternative folk? Ya’all probably know this album well enough by now, I don’t need to say too much.
Best time to listen to it: On a walk, preferably through nature.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to…: “exile” (ft. Bon Iver)
What makes it special: folklore is simultaneously folk music in a way no other folk artist does it, and pop music in a way no other pop artist does it. Again, it’s an album that I binged the hell out of when it first came out, yet I can still go back and LOVE listening to it in its entirety.
Sure, I have my favorite songs, but yet as each track ends, I’m still excited for what the next one has in store. That’s saying a lot for an artist who, prior to this year, consistently ruined the full-album experience with her inconsistency. Lyrically, we get songs about love, heartbreak, and everything in between, but we also get totally unexpected concepts too. One song tells the story of the woman who once owned Miss Swift’s Rhode Island estate. Another features musings about being 7-years-old in rural Pennsylvania. In another, Swift sings from the perspective of a mirrorball above a dance floor, seemingly comparing it to her own role as an entertainer. Then there’s one about being a soldier in a war, which draws parallels between that and healthcare workers fighting Covid-19.
This variety also extends to the music. There are guitar songs. There are piano songs. There are synth songs. Sometimes Taylor sings high, sometimes she sings low. Some build into what feels like large scale productions, (“my tears ricochet”) whereas others are gorgeous precisely because they don’t (“illicit affairs”). Each song here offers something slightly different from any other, both lyrically and musically, yet the vision that ties everything together is unmistakable. Call it an “invisible string” if you will.
P.S. I never shared full Evermore thoughts because I was in a deep hole of Figuring Out the Best Albums of 2020, but if you want me to, I could. My full folklore review is available here. Let me know in the comments!
2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama
Best time to listen to it: When you need a break from the norm but aren’t quite ready to dive into “experimental” either.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… : “XS”
What makes it special: This is one of those pieces of art that’s thrilling precisely because it really shouldn’t work. There’s pop that feels very on-trend right now, such as “Akasaka Sad” or “Fuck This World (Interlude).” Then there’s other pop that has more of a throwback feel to it, such as the saccharine “Paradisin’” or ‘90s R&B-esque “Love Me 4 Me.” Then there’s OTHER songs that have a hard rock, dare I say metal vibe to them, such as “Dynasty” and “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” Some songs, like “XS” unify these moods into a single song.
Usually with albums this eclectic, I find that my favorites are all the same general vibe because the artist is just better at that vibe. Here, Rina Sawayama exhibits such mastery of everything she attempts that my top 5 tracks would be just as eclectic as the whole album. “Paradisin’” is a darn near perfect pop song and I yearn for a Dance Dance Revolution version of it. Other highpoints include SAWAYAMA’s profound, heartfelt ballads such as “Bad Friend” and “Chosen Family.” Rock tracks such as “Dynasty” and “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” are exactly the surge of energy they’re trying to be.
In spite of the variety, there’s really no track I can point to and say “this doesn’t belong here.” The songs are all great. They all feel like equally authentic facets of Rina Sawayama and her artistry. That’s why this album is so beautiful and special: it’s a collection of songs that seemingly shouldn’t be able to coexist in the perfect harmony in which they do. It pushes boundaries, yet there’s an appealing familiarity to it at the same time. It’s the kind of album that not only gets me excited about Rina Sawayama, but about where all of pop music could go in the future.
1. Chromatica by Lady Gaga
Best time to listen to it: Anytime, really. There’s never a bad time for Lady Gaga’s Chromatica.
If you’re only going to listen to ONE song you should listen to… : “Fun Tonight”
What makes it special: Chromatica is crowd-pleasing pop music of the highest quality, but it’s also the sort of grandiose concept album that not enough mainstream pop acts are doing. The album explores the duality of Lady Gaga the Human Being and Lady Gaga the Larger-Than-Life Pop Persona, asking if these two sides can coexist in a healthy way.
It brilliantly uses different musical choices to drive this point home: in ACT 1, which describes Gaga’s rise to fame, we have mostly clean vocals. In ACT 2, we hear a lot more added effects to the vocals giving it a more robotic feel. The ACT 2 intro song, “911” is perhaps the best exemplifier. Gaga makes the music feel less human right as she starts describing how she’s lost her humanity to the so-called Fame Monster she created. As we segue into ACT 3, and Gaga’s reconciliation with her own fame, the music becomes a hybrid of these two sounds with one of its high points, “Sine From Above” (ft. Elton John).
Yet in spite of all these very smart choices musically, Chromatica never feels too experimental or avant-garde. It’s 13 songs (plus 3 instrumental interludes) that are all pretty fun to listen to. It’s pop, but sometimes it’s more ‘70s disco-flavored pop, other times it’s ‘90s house-flavored pop. You get moments of “wait… is that a pan flute?” and “Huh. Bongos. Okay Gaga, I see you.” It’s easily digestible, but never predictable. Lyrically, there’s some complex themes happening, but it’s not hard to wrap your head around it either. All of this adds up to an album that’s easy to love the first time you hear it that’s ALSO an album where you can find new things to love the tenth time you hear it.
It’s interesting to revisit the earlier tracks that initially felt like shallow radio anthems and reinterpret them through the lens of Chromatica. For example, when “Stupid Love” dropped as a single, I thought it was a solid track, but nothing particularly gripping. After I got more acquainted with Chromatica and started interpreting this song as Gaga’s desire to be loved by her fans rather than the desire for a romantic relationship, it became more interesting. Both interpretations make sense, and neither is wrong. That’s just the magic of Chromatica. Like all great albums, it’s more than just a collection of songs that sound good. It’s a carefully orchestrated tapestry of music where every track is made stronger because it’s part of that tapestry.
So that’s it. My Top Albums of 2020.