The 14 best albums of 2020, so far

Hugo Comte/STILLZ/Duncan LoudonDua Lipa, Bad Bunny, and The Weeknd have all released some of the year’s best music.
  • We rounded up the best albums that 2020 has had to offer, so far.
  • Standout releases include Halsey’s “Manic,” Bad Bunny’s “YHLQMDLG,” The Weeknd’s “After Hours,” Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” and Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.”
  • Taylor Swift’s stunning eighth album “Folklore” is the newest addition to our list of the year’s essential music.
  • All 14 of our picks are listed below in chronological order.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Despite the setbacks that 2020 has brought the music industry, artists have still managed to bless us with some phenomenal albums.

After a few months, it’s already been an exemplary year for new music, with beloved artists like Halsey, Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, Childish Gambino, and Fiona Apple releasing the best records of their careers.

We rounded up the 14 best albums that 2020 has had to offer, so far. They’re listed below in chronological order.

“Manic” cements Halsey as one of pop music’s strongest and bravest songwriters.

Capitol Records‘Manic’ was released on January 17, 2020.

“Manic,” Halsey’s third and most polished 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.”

“Circles” is a worthy curtain call for Mac Miller, whose career was defined by self-exploration and unshakable ambition.

Warner Records‘Circles’ was released on January 17, 2020.

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.

Tame Impala’s “The Slow Rush” is the work of a shrewd musical genius.

Modular Recordings‘The Slow Rush’ was released on February 14, 2020.

“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.”

“Colour Theory” by Soccer Mummy is a stirring, indie-pop triumph.

Loma Vista Recordings‘Colour Theory’ was released on February 28, 2020.

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 undeniable 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 cohesive 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.

“YHLQMDLG” proves how indispensable Bad Bunny has become.

Rimas Entertainment LLC‘YHLQMDLG’ was released on February 29, 2020.

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.

Lil Uzi Vert’s long-awaited “Eternal Atake” is chaotic and thrilling.

Atlantic Recording Corporation‘Eternal Atake’ was released on March 6, 2020.

“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.”

Somehow, Jay Electronica’s debut album “A Written Testimony” didn’t disappoint after years of mounting hype.

Roc Nation‘A Written Testimony’ was released on March 13, 2020.

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.

“After Hours” is a masterful blend of The Weeknd’s woozy R&B and his sharp pop instincts.

XO Records/Republic Records‘After Hours’ was released on March 20, 2020.

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.

Dua Lipa’s vivid, disco-infused “Future Nostalgia” is an instant pop classic.

Warner‘Future Nostalgia’ was released on March 27, 2020.

As Insider’s music editor Courteney Larocca wrote in our “Future Nostalgia” review, Dua Lipa didn’t just avoid the sophomore slump: She decimated it.

This album 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 need right now.

“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.”

Read our first-listen review of “Future Nostalgia” here.

“3.15.20” is Childish Gambino’s most tenacious, intricate, and authentic album yet.

mcDJ Recording/RCA Records‘3.15.20’ was officially released to streaming services on March 22, 2020.

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.

That was intended to read as a massive compliment. But the deeper allure of “3.15.20” feels almost too complex to truly explain.

“3.15.20” finally feels like an authentic, honest reflection of Glover 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.

You’re either all-in or all-out, and I can’t help but think that’s exactly what Glover intended.

Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is an unfettered masterpiece.

Epic Records/Sony Music‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ was released on April 17, 2020.

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 once-in-a-generation stroke of unfettered genius. It’s the kind of piercing, emotive, uncompromising, weirdo album that, when we speak of its impact in 50 years, we will still have failed to adequately analyse or swallow. For me, only timeless classics like “The Wall,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Sgt. Pepper” come to mind as its peers.

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’s also the most immediately, universally 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 for the people.

Charli XCX’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ is a masterclass in experimental pop for the genre-less generation.

Warner Records UK‘How I’m Feeling Now’ was released on May 15, 2020.

As Larocca and I noted in our “How I’m Feeling” review, 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 cohesive 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.

Read our first-listen review of “How I’m Feeling Now” here.

The 1975’s “Notes on a Conditional Form” is an ambitious and thrilling journey through Matty Healy’s psyche.

Dirty Hit‘Notes on a Conditional Form’ was released on May 22, 2020.

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 review, “Notes on a Conditional Form” runs a touch too long at 22 tracks, 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.

Read our first-listen review of “Notes on a Conditional Form” here.

“Folklore” may be the best album of Taylor Swift’s entire career.

Taylor Swift/Republic Records‘Folklore’ was released on July 24, 2020.

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 songwriting of her career.

“Folklore” is cohesive, mature, tender, and stunningly understated. At its core, the album is a masterclass in nuanced storytelling.

In our official review, we only labelled one of its 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.

Read our first-listen review of “Folklore” here.

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