- Insider ranked the 20 best albums of 2020, weighing factors like critical acclaim, cultural impact, and listenability.
- “Folkore” by Taylor Swift took the top spot.
- Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” The Weeknd’s “After Hours,” Phoebe Bridgers’ “Punisher,” and Halsey’s “Manic” rounded out the top five.
It feels weird to celebrate anything in 2020. The pandemic forced many of us to stay home, excise social interactions, and grapple with a certain void â€” whether it was date night at the local cinema or weekly happy hour at your favourite bar.
But taking a walk to listen to that new album, donning over-the-ear headphones and a mask to match, has never felt so gratifying.
There has never been a better time to embrace the escapist magic of a cohesive tracklist. I’ve felt positively spoiled with options this year â€” sharp and detailed sonic worlds ready to swallow me, whenever I’ve had an hour or so to spare.
Of course, there are innumerable ways to evaluate the “best” albums of any year. Here, I aspired to measure impact (critical acclaim, commercial performance, context, sheer skill) equally alongside my personal fondness (lyrical quality, listenability, every time I closed my eyes and sighed appreciatively).
Keep reading to see Insider’s 20 best albums of 2020, listed in descending order.
20. Jay Electronica’s debut album “A Written Testimony” didn’t disappoint, even after years of mounting hype.
It’s been 13 years since a mysterious figure rapped for 15 minutes – expertly, poignantly – over Jon Brion’s haunting movie score for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Ever since the 2007 release of Jay Electronica’s mixtape, “Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge),” feverish hype has been building around him, like an ever-thickening fog. It could’ve been enough to make anyone choke. And for a while, it looked like he might have. “The Pledge” was released for free on MySpace.That’s how long ago it was.
In those 13 years, Jay has only appeared sparingly to deliver a tantalising guest verse, alongside artists like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and J. Cole. Naturally, this only led to more speculation surrounding his official debut. Fans had already fallen in love with his clever rhymes and intricate wordplay; expectations were absurdly high.
Then, “A Written Testimony” arrived – in the middle of a global crisis, no less. How could it possibly satisfy his ravenous cult following?
Somehow, Jay delivered. His debut album is quietly exhilarating and ornate from start to finish, hardly wasting a single second in its tight, 10-song tracklist. It’s elegant, resplendent, almost mythical, but utterly devoid of pretension or unearned swagger. It’s packed with Jay’s famous lyrical dexterity, but it’s also scattered with shrewdly chosen features – including multiple appearances from Jay-Z, who sounds more commanding than he has in years.
19. The 1975’s “Notes on a Conditional Form” is an ambitious journey through Matty Healy’s psyche.
As usual, The 1975 are Doing The Most on their most recent album. Luckily for them, they have gotten pretty damn good at it.
As we noted in our first-listen review, “Notes on a Conditional Form” runs a touch too long at 22 tracks – one hour and 20 minutes, to be precise. But the sprawling and winding journey also heralds some of the brightest moments in the band’s discography.
Album highlights like “The Birthday Party,” “Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy),” and “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” are some of The 1975’s best songs to date, which makes the overall effect of “Notes” truly triumphant.
18. “Limbo” shows off Aminé’s growth, verve, and lyrical wit.
Following a breakout debut album tends to come with pressure to prove maturity. Thankfully, Aminé’s “sophomore-ish” LP is more than a thoughtful display of growth; it’s easily one of the most engaging and genuinely enjoyable rap albums of the year.
The Portland rapper originally struck gold in 2016 with his delightful single “Caroline.” In addition to a deeply infectious beat, Aminé’s bright wit and charisma cemented the song as a modern classic.
That same charm is threaded throughout “Limbo,” allowing Aminé to escape the sophomore trap of self-seriousness and false depth.
The album does boast moody beats, spacious production, meditations on manhood (“Kobe”), race (“Becky”), and the world’s “evil will” (“Foetus”) – but it’s also sprinkled with irresistible hooks and a uniquely bracing energy. “Compensating” and “Pressure In My Palms” are two such examples, and two of the year’s best songs.
This combination makes Aminé sound a lot like Drake’s heir apparent. Indeed, the rap-sung “Riri” might have come straight from the 6 God’s catalogue, even if it hadn’t been named for his longtime muse.
However, “Limbo” also escapes the trap of a bloated, streaming-focused tracklist – embodied by Drake’s latest, “Scorpion.”
Instead, “Limbo” is focused and lean, clocking in at just 44 minutes and fuelling a steady head-bob the whole time.
Aminé might not be a decade-defining artist just yet, but he has the flair and finesse to get there.
17. Miley Cyrus’ “Plastic Hearts” is a testament to the power of doing whatever you want.
Miley Cyrus has been through plenty of evolutions. She’ll tell you so herself.
On “Plastic Hearts,” the lifelong pop star takes turns shrugging, scowling, and smirking. From the top, Cyrus admits she doesn’t have a solid identity and “maybe all the chaos is for your amusement” (“WTF Do I Know”). Later, she calls herself a “liar” (“Bad Karma”) and flat-out refuses to be “stable” (“Never Be Me”).
Conversely, however, this feels like the most self-possessed Cyrus has ever been. She struts through this 38-minute tracklist, never ceding an ounce of power. Glam-rock music suits her beautifully; her vocal control is remarkable, and her lyrics betray a multifaceted rainbow of emotion.
“The album may be called ‘Plastic Hearts’ but Cyrus’ own heart is pliable and distinctly human, pulsing with intensity and passion on all 12 tracks,” Insider’s music editor Courteney Larocca wrote in our first-listen review.
“There’s no facade here. She’s being unforgivingly Miley, and this version of her shines brighter than all the rest.”
16. Childish Gambino’s “3.15.20” is his most tenacious, intricate, and authentic album yet.
The most straightforward, practical review I can write for “3.15.20,” Donald Glover’s fourth studio album as Childish Gambino, is that it sounds like a darker, futuristic version of his 2014 mixtape “Kauai” – a concise, seven-song collection that features some of his best work.
But the deeper allure of “3.15.20” feels almost too complex to truly explain.
It’s difficult to say, given Glover’s intentionally ambiguous alter-ego – but “3.15.20” finally feels like an honest reflection of him as a musician, as an artist with a personality and a vision.
This is not Childish Gambino: Comedian-Turned-Rapper, as seen on “Camp.” This is not Childish Gambino: Rap’s Experimental Black Sheep, as seen on “Because the Internet.”
Nor is this Childish Gambino: Musical Polymath With Something To Prove, as seen on “Awaken, My Love!” – a deeply unexpected, Prince-indebted, ambitious statement of musical sincerity, which may or may not have sprung from the poor critical reception of his previous albums, lingering scepticism from snobby hip-hop fans, and Glover’s disdain for both.
By contrast, this album does not feel bound by genre, reputation, fan expectations, or even something as enduring as traditional song titles. By design, it resists a lazy listening experience. It’s much harder to skip around or cherry-pick tracks for playlists when they blend together as a nonsensical mix of numbers. This album demands to be embraced as a whole.
For a man who’s become famous for being multi-talented as much as he’s famous for the actual products of those talents, this feels essential: presenting an album that cannot be broadly defined or easily boiled down.
It’s risky, certainly, and there’s a lot happening within its 57 minutes – from jarring sonic textures and moments of “Redbone” falsetto to horror-movie screeches and farm animal noises – but you can’t really dislike any small piece of this tracklist without disliking the final product.
It’s not immediately listenable, but you’re either all-in or all-out, and I can’t help but think that’s exactly what Glover intended.
15. “The Slow Rush” by Tame Impala is the work of a shrewd musical genius.
“The Slow Rush” is not exactly the psych-rock we’ve grown to expect from Kevin Parker – aka the one-man force behind Tame Impala – nor is it the hook-heavy, Max Martin-adjacent album he has said he aspires to make.
That’s a good thing. Every time Parker ventures deeper into the arcane caverns of his own mind, he emerges with something unexpected, something that no one else could’ve made, and it always feels like an exhale you didn’t know you needed.
His new set of technically perfect, painstakingly produced songs is a glimmering tracklist of transcendent disco-funk. There are fewer buildups, swells, and overt moments of catharsis than on its predecessor, 2015’s “Currents,” but this album has a technicolor sheen that strikes a difficult balance of seamless and tantalising.
“The Slow Rush” sounds like 30 different music nerds, all with different interests and skill sets, working in perfect harmony – but instead, the album credits read, “All music written, performed, and mixed by Kevin Parker.”
“This is a 57-minute flex of every musical muscle in Parker’s body,” Thomas Smith wrote for NME. “Crunchy guitars are largely absent, but we’re left with something far more intriguing – a pop record bearing masterful electronic strokes. If ‘Currents’ soundtracked the glorious come-up, ‘The Slow Rush’ is the wobbly morning after, with everything and everyone under question.”
14. Charli XCX’s “How I’m Feeling Now” is experimental pop for the genre-less generation.
Charli XCX is a one-of-a-kind musical innovator with killer instincts – which makes her uniquely suited to thrive during a quarantine-induced creative flurry.
Within her self-imposed two-month deadline, Charli wrote and recorded a tenacious tracklist that includes some of her best songs ever, like “Party 4 U” and “Enemy.”
“How I’m Feeling Now” is the culmination of years of quiet trailblazing and a truly unique album that only Charli could make.
13. “Circles” is a worthy curtain call for Mac Miller, whose career was defined by self-exploration and expansion.
It’s always tempting to romanticize the talent and legacy of an artist when they die prematurely, but it’s not an understatement to say that “Circles” is Mac Miller’s best work. In fact, Miller’s entire discography plays like he was scaling a mountain.
It’s painful to think that “Circles” may not have been his summit, but it certainly sits much higher than many artists ever climb.
Miller often rapped about his demons – addiction, depression, existentialism, loss – but never quite so tenderly. On “Circles,” every moment of heartrending self-scrutiny, every poignant musing about his own mortality, is lovingly shaded with optimism.
This is the work of a man who recognised the healing powers of honesty and intimacy, and who envisioned blue skies ahead. It’s also the work of a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who loved frenzied rap verses as much as he loved lo-fi indie-rock.
“Circles” is the most coherent fusion of Miller’s manifold interests, and the most enchanting experience born of his starry-eyed instincts.
12. “Colour Theory” by Soccer Mummy is a stirring, indie-pop triumph.
Sophie Allison, aka Soccer Mummy, has clearly outgrown her home-recordings and BandCamp roots. On her sophomore album, “Colour Theory,” the indie-pop wunderkind flexes some newfound technical prowess with spacious sonic structures and brighter flourishes.
The overall effect is lustrous and polished, without sounding overly buffed or perfected. She’s on the verge of stardom, but still wielding the glitchy, emotive nature of her homegrown genre.
By signing to a bigger label, Allison has been able to execute a unified vision more intentionally and effectively than before. As noted by the New York Times, the album is “meticulously conceived as a three-movement cycle divided by mood and theme.”
But more importantly, she hasn’t surrendered the blunt vulnerability that made her music feel so necessary in the first place.
Allison often sounds both wise and uneasy, making painfully mature observations that feel both inherently true and impossible to swallow: “I am a liar and my truths are shackled in my dungeon of fire,” she sings on “Royal Screw Up.” “And you save pretty girls like me, but I’m not so pretty when I’m naked.”
Her lyricism is guttural, the kind of diary entry that you write and then rip out immediately. Most of us are scared to be so honest with ourselves, let alone the world. But Allison is fearless, and her continual growth is also her gift to us.
11. Lil Uzi Vert’s long-awaited “Eternal Atake” is chaotic and thrilling.
“Eternal Atake” is exactly what you’d hope from a 25-year-old Marilyn Manson disciple, anime enthusiast, and self-professed rock star who happened to create the defining SoundCloud rap hit of our time.
As Craig Jenkins notes for Vulture, Lil Uzi Vert’s sophomore album is “reminiscent at once of Lil Wayne at his peak.” His youthful jubilance, vampiric voice, and motley reference points – he draws storytelling cues from Greek mythology, rhapsodizes about alien abduction, and samples the Backstreet Boys – make for a chaotic and singularly thrilling experience. You might get dizzy, but you’ll never be bored.
“It’s bratty, flighty, and funny, a laundry list of romantic capers and brand-name items Uzi knows you can’t afford. He’ll say anything to make a rhyme work, and – here’s where Lil Wayne comes in – there’s a gravity-defying success at the end of most every line,” Jenkins writes. “If you can yell the same word 15 times in a row and manage to make it an instant quotable, as Uzi does in the third verse of ‘POP,’ you have the juice.”
10. “Positions” is the horniest and happiest that Ariana Grande has ever sounded.
As I wrote for Insider’s first-listen review, “Positions” is lithe and incredibly cohesive. Grande glides from song to song like a figure skater nailing jump after jump; she flings her body into the air, colours whipping around her, and lands so gracefully that you forget how thin the blade is.
Grande has shapeshifted, metabolized trauma, and explored new sounds. She has opened her chest and let her own guts spill out.
Now, she wants to soundtrack moments of joy and warmth, to guide us towards unselfconscious sexual liberation, her ponytail glinting like a lighthouse. Who wouldn’t follow her?
The prolific pop star has been licking her wounds, moving through fear, and having plenty of sex – and frankly, she’s earned that right. Her most recent albums felt either meticulous or urgent or both. “Positions” feels free.
9. “Ungodly Hour” by Chloe x Halle is confident, captivating, and emphatically cool.
As expected, Chloe and Halle Bailey sound divine throughout their new album. And I mean that literally, since I doubt those intricate vocal harmonies are earthbound.
But if you’re expecting a set of stripped-down ballads or traditional R&B croonings, upon which many talented singers understandably rely, then you’re underestimating the sheer coolness of these sisters.
“Ungodly Hour” sounds like an entirely different planet – not that it exists elsewhere, but that it is elsewhere, creating its own third space between reality and surreality.
This terrain is ruled by two women whose voices could act simultaneously as lullaby and curse.
Each song is uniquely weird and striking. And yet, “Ungodly Hour” remains sleek and distinctly uncluttered. Chloe x Halle graciously allow their planet’s new visitors to absorb its culture comfortably, and to spend as much time there as we like.
8. Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut sounds nostalgic, but feels like the future of pop music.
Throughout Rina Sawayama’s studio debut, she revels in her own audacity and relishes her contradictions.
On “Dynasty,” the album opener, the Japanese-British singer boils down generational trauma (“The pain in my vein is hereditary”) and then gulps the essence like an elixir (“I’m gonna take the throne this time”). “Akasaka Sad” calls back to this theme, with Sawayama fuming she’s doomed to suffer “just like my mother.”
She writes an anti-capitalism anthem so catchy and shiny, you might think it’s the second coming of “Material Girl.” She spends a whole song beating herself up, wailing “I’m a bad friend” – then, four songs later, she serenades her “chosen family” with pink cheeks and heart-eyes.
This is the essential strength and glory of “Sawayama.” Complexity isn’t feared, but embraced.
The surrealist, post-genre production matches Sawayama’s fearless lyrical energy. There are shades of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, NSYNC, Carly Rae Jepsen, Korn, and Evanescence; maximalist pop, mosh-pit-worthy rock, and early-aughts R&B; “Paradisin'” has the arcade-game energy of a “Hannah Montana” hit; “Snakeskin” literally samples Beethoven.
There’s no way this should work. But the effect is breathless, electric, and astoundingly fluid.
Sawayama blends fickle emotions, conflicting vibes, and clashing flavours with the ease of a seasoned mixologist; you’ll get to the end of the tracklist feeling a little enlightened and a little f—ed up.
7. “YHLQMDLG” proves how indispensable and dominant Bad Bunny has become.
Bad Bunny, our savviest purveyor of Latin trap-pop, is at the top of his form with his sophomore album – not just on certain songs or in fleeting moments, but absolutely unrelentingly.
Listening to “YHLQMDLG” is to experience an urgent, essential musical experience for an entire hour straight through. Bad Bunny didn’t have to prove how deeply he’s studying and affecting the future of pop music, but with this album, he did it anyway.
The best thing about “YHLQMDLG” is that it doesn’t feel urgent and essential, even though it is; it feels fun. It’s one of the freest, most self-assured party records in recent memory.
Bad Bunny offers acute observations throughout the album, but he does so while rapping over bright, thumping reggaetón beats and joyfully shedding his inhibitions on the dance floor. Cast in point: He tackles sexual harassment and pays tribute to Alexa Negrón Luciano, a transgender woman who was murdered in Puerto Rico, with the song “Yo Perreo Sola,” which literally means “I twerk alone.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting album title: “YHLQMDLG” is an acronym for “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” which translates to, “I do whatever I want.” Bad Bunny is in total control, and we can only hope it stays that way.
6. Dua Lipa’s vivid, disco-infused “Future Nostalgia” is an instant pop classic.
As Larocca previously wrote in our first-listen review, Dua Lipa didn’t just avoid the sophomore slump: She decimated it.
“Future Nostalgia” is a focused, polished, 11-song package of irresistible dance anthems. There’s barely a misstep to speak of. Lipa drew inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s with astonishingly successful results, and it’s exactly the kind of vivid, super-fun, Studio 54 pop that we needed this year.
“I have a feeling this album will only continue to age gracefully upon repeated listens, and mark a pivotal moment in Lipa’s career,” Larocca wrote. “She’s levitated to superstar heights with this one.”
5. “Manic” cements Halsey as one of pop music’s strongest and bravest songwriters.
“Manic,” Halsey’s third and arguably best album, is deliciously indecisive.
“You Should Be Sad” makes a good case for her to move to Nashville and never take off her cowboy boots. The three-song story of “Forever … (Is a Long Time),” “Dominic’s Interlude,” and “I Hate Everybody” flows so seamlessly that it feels like the sparkly soundtrack of an indie rom-com, flinching and grinning in equal measure.
Then comes the adrenaline rush of “3am,” a glorious combination of late ’90s kitsch rock, mid ’00s pop, and modern grit. Later, “Killing Boys” brings a scary-chill blend of synths and strings.
But if you spend a bit more time letting these songs sink into your skin, the album’s most important strength becomes quite clear: Halsey is a born songwriter; a poet in her prime.
That’s what makes “Manic” so convincing as a multi-coloured portrait of a modern woman in flux. Halsey is lucid, relentlessly probing, refusing to be watered down; she constantly lands direct emotional hits with keen and powerful confessions, from her confrontation with mortality (“Ashley”) to her aching ode to motherhood (“More”).
In fact, on her most personal song yet (“929”), the album bids farewell with her best set of lyrics to date: “I’ve got a long way to go until self-preservation / Think my moral compass is on a vacation / And I can’t believe I still feed my f—ing temptation / I’m still looking for my salvation.”
4. Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album “Punisher” is an exquisite tapestry of emotions.
Phoebe Bridgers is known for putting words to pain, boredom, stress, and anxiety – and she allows these emotions to feel both piercing and conquerable. Like, if you can describe the experience accurately, or at least tenderly, then you can hold it in your hands and decide what to do with it.
Much in that way, her second album “Punisher” feels momentous. Her penchant for almost-casual gut-punch couplets, in particular, is unmatched.
She manifests goodness on “Garden Song” (“The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller”); delivers mini emotional apocalypses on “Moon Song” (I will wait for the next time you want me / Like a dog with a bird at your door”); screams and seethes on “I Know The End” (“Went looking for a creation myth / Ended up with a pair of cracked lips”).
The current that courses through this tracklist is not defeatist. The whole point is the current itself.
Bridgers builds an altar to the very concept of forward-motion, regardless of what the process looks like. She doesn’t care about making it look easy; she just cares about making it.
“Punisher” glistens and gleams with that effort, and the hope it naturally fosters. The album feels like a best friend holding your hand, and the most cleansing heart-to-heart you’ve ever had on their bedroom floor.
3. “After Hours” is a masterful blend of The Weeknd’s woozy R&B and sharp pop instincts.
While The Weeknd may never recreate the enigmatic magic of “House of Balloons,” “Thursday,” and “Echoes of Silence” – known collectively as “Trilogy” – he’s finally proven that he can stop his bright spotlight from washing out his music.
The Weeknd is a global pop star now. He never needed to recreate the brooding, overindulgent, drug-fuelled capers of “Trilogy,” per se – but to become truly great, he did need to integrate those avant-garde instincts into his brighter pop landscape. He tried on “Starboy,” with mixed results. He has finally succeeded on “After Hours.”
This album is a cohesive, cinematic marriage of The Weeknd, pre- and post-fame. Those polished hooks are still here, but there’s a texture, an edge, that makes “After Hours” both accessible and darkly artful.
This is the definition of a no-skip album because you become so immersed in the world he’s created, you forget you even have that option.
2. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is an unfettered masterpiece.
New music from Fiona Apple is, by default, something to celebrate. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the singer-songwriter’s first album since 2012, is also the best of her career. But somehow, incredibly, it’s even more than that.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a devastating, visceral, uncompromising stroke of genius.
This is not the sort of polished, meticulously executed vision that exists elsewhere on this list. Rather, Apple presents a dissection of her psyche that pulses and stings, like feeling your heartbeat when you press your finger to an exposed wound.
As Jenn Pelly wrote for Pitchfork, which gave “Bolt Cutters” an almost-unheard-of perfect score of 10: “No music has ever sounded quite like it… It’s not pretty. It’s free.” Rolling Stone called it “a triumphant statement of self-discovery and solidarity.” Various New York Times critics hailed Apple for her “casually wise,” “feral,” “fearless,” “artfully unguarded anthology.”
Though critical consensus is rare, critics can be wrong. But “Bolt Cutters” isn’t just the best-reviewed album of the year; it also became immediately beloved. Just look at how Twitter suddenly exploded with gleeful memes, deafening applause, and thoughtful introspection.
This isn’t an album for the radio, or even for easy consumption – but it is an album that makes you cringe, cheer, and feel feel feel.
1. “Folklore” has emerged as the best album of Taylor Swift’s entire career.
When Taylor Swift surprised the world by announcing the release of her eighth studio album, just one day in advance, few could have predicted it would yield some of the most poetic and poignant music of her career.
“In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result,” she explained. “I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.”
Indeed, “Folklore” is Swift’s songwriting opus. She builds a haunted house in Pennsylvania (“Seven”), turns the “other woman” trope into a tragic hero (“August”), salutes the smallest victories in a time of crisis (“This Is Me Trying”), and confesses her own desires for stability and motherhood (“Peace”).
Each song is a tableauvivant that’s carefully posed and lavishly costumed, but neither contrived nor static. These images wink and sigh, sometimes snarl, sometimes smirk; always, they breathe.
And all of this is somehow achieved within a cohesive, perfectly paced tracklist. These stories, however dissimilar, are interwoven with Swift’s unique blend of empathy and self-awareness, packaged with confidently delicate folk-pop arrangements.
Plenty of artists managed to remain creative and productive at home this year. But “Folklore” will go down as lockdown’s one true masterpiece.
In our first-listen review, Insider’s music team only labelled one of its original 16 songs as “background music,” and not one was ruled as a “skip.” In fact, with a whopping score of 9.7 out of 10, “Folklore” is the highest-rated album we’ve ever analysed for Insider, by far.
More than four months later, and the album has only become more affecting and rewarding over time.
Wielding auroras and sad prose, Swift has written herself ever-more intimately into literary and musical history.