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The 50 Best Albums Of 2020

NPR's Best Albums Of 2020
Illustration: Rae Pozdro for NPR

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. (Find our 100 Best Songs of 2020 list here.)

The 50 Best Albums Of 2020:50-41 / 40-31 / 30-21 / 20-11 / 10-1

The Mavericks, En Espanol
/ Mono Mundo
Mono Mundo


The Mavericks

En Español

For decades, country and Americana fans have marveled at Mavericks frontman Raul Malo's ringing tenor, asking each other, "Where does it come from?" Here's one answer. Malo grew up bilingual in Miami, in a Cuban family, and throughout his career he's taken cues from a global array of Spanish-language music in honing his own sound. The band's first all-Spanish language album shows its mastery in many forms, from Mexican son jarocho to Cuban mambo and the Mexican-American Tejano sound. The Mavericks originated as a Florida party band, and brings its trademark verve and versatility to a set that persuades instead of posturing, expanding minds by melting hearts. —Ann Powers

Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA
/ Dirty Hit
Dirty Hit


Rina Sawayama


Rina Sawayama makes pristine pop about messy feelings. Her debut full-length album, SAWAYAMA, is an air-locked vessel of glossy Y2K pop and nu-metal drama, matching the weight of unresolved emotions with spot-on, glittering production at each emotional cue. On its most bombastic and quiet tracks alike, SAWAYAMA never falters in its emotional specificity. "STFU!" channels its righteous nu-metal rage against the racism Sawayama has experienced in her life and career, with exquisite payoff. "XS" is a hyper-packaged metacommentary on capitalist excess bubbling with anxiety on the long-term devastation of extraction in art and consumerism. "Bad Friend" explores the particular devastation of feeling like a failure in friendship through the memory of a night out in Tokyo. Sawayama never reduces these subjects — depression, navigating her Japanese and British identity, intergenerational trauma — to a digestible pop formula, instead detonating each one into songs whose strength lies in keeping every nerve ending bare. —Stefanie Fernández

BbyMutha, Muthaland
/ Self-Released




"Take a trip to Muthaland," BbyMutha raps over an energetic trap beat in "Cocaine Catwalk." You have to surrender to the suggestion; Muthaland is the ultimate vacation destination, a getaway into BbyMutha's life and rich interiority as she waxes poetic about sex, regretful baby daddies, gatekeeping Black culture and music, surveillance, crushing expectations from fans and the joys of raising her children. On her first official album, BbyMutha opts for bravado in the face of doubt and skepticism. At 25 tracks, it's a loaded project, but nothing feels extraneous. She spends just over an hour oscillating between the predatory nature of entertainment culture and living her life in earnest. Her Southern drawl commands attention, highlighting the versatility of her flows. With all of the album's whimsicality, it may be her most personal music to date. —LaTesha Harris

Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy • Rameau
/ Deutsche Grammophon
Deutsche Grammophon


Víkingur Ólafsson

Debussy • Rameau

In an album of kaleidoscopic color, light and shade, the Icelandic pianist sets up a fascinating musical "dialog" between two French radicals who lived some 200 years apart. The baroque-era Jean-Philippe Rameau literallywrote the book on French harmony, while Claude Debussy, in the early 20th century, threw its ideas out the window,as Ólafsson says. Pieces from each composer seem to be in conversation with each other. Debussy's respect for Rameau's keyboard style is found in "The Snow is Dancing." It sits beside Rameau's "Les tendres plaints," which unfolds in striking, almost Debussy-like harmonies. A highlight of this endlessly listenable album is "The Arts and the Hours," Ólafsson's own beautifully measured, transfixing arrangement of a scene from Rameau's final opera – sure to lower you blood pressure by at least 10 points. —Tom Huizenga

Brent Faiyaz, Fuck The World
/ Lost Kids
Lost Kids


Brent Faiyaz

F*** The World

During the last 25 seconds of the title track of Brent Faiyaz's second studio album, F*** the World, the singer-songwriter describes his audience as people who possibly engage in "empathetic narcissism." While Faiyaz may be projecting, he at least knows what his listeners want to hear. F*** the World is a journey, equally vulnerable and facetious, through Faiyaz's universe, one that has been turned upside down by fame and fortune. Songs like the contemplative "Clouded" speak directly to the infinite thoughts flooding Faiyaz's mind at any given moment, while the Timbaland-influenced "Been Away" is more simple and straight-forward — a vibe to cruise to. At 26 minutes long, F*** the World plays like a short peek into the life of one of R&B's rising stars. —Kiana Fitzgerald

Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
/ Matador


Perfume Genius

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately opens with an inhale, instantly reminding you that a physical human body is responsible for the music you're about to hear. Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas participated in a series of modern dance performances before making this album, which helped him connect the body and the mind. This is an album that you feel, that is designed to be danced to, full of sensuous drama and drumbeats that might as well be the sound of your heart pounding. Hadreas also takes physical leaps with his voice, soaring above the propulsive pop of "On The Floor," near-whisper tip-toeing over the grungey guitars of "Describe," stretching into the heights of his falsetto in "Jason" and pitched-down to the ground in "Leave." That physicality extends to the lyrics, too; themes like touch, movement, the human form and intimacy are made all the more exhilarating given the circumstances of the year it was released. In a time of social distancing Set My Heart on Fire Immediately feels like actual human connection. —Raina Douris (World Cafe)

Mary Lattimore, Silver Ladders
/ Ghostly International
Ghostly International


Mary Lattimore

Silver Ladders

Mary Lattimore plays the harp like the wind moves through leaves — in circles that slowly spiral outward, shifting the scenery in small gestures that open to wide vistas. Classically trained, but unmoored to classical figures, she builds small, looping worlds out of effects pedals and synthesizers. For Silver Ladders, she's joined by producer Neil Halstead. With more than 30 years of making pretty music that's just a little bit sad, he's a sympathetic companion, especially when he adds ambient guitar to a few tracks. But like Halstead's work with Slowdive and Mojave 3, Lattimore's music is what you bring to its reflective beauty, in melodic shades of mourning, quietude and peace. —Lars Gotrich

Jake Blount, Spider Tales
/ Free Dirt
Free Dirt


Jake Blount

Spider Tales

There could have been no better year for Spider Tales -- Jake Blount's exquisite exploration of Black and Indigenous Appalachia — than 2020, when everything seemed to go wrong and we were all sent home by the power of nature to think about what we've done. Joined by an all-star cast of string players, Blount titled his finest work yet for the creative spider god Anansi of Akan mythology. Then he leaned into the timeless pairing of fiddle and banjo for songs about hard times, rural life and mortality that highlight the impeccable, too-often overlooked styles and voices that have fueled folk music since before there was a name with which to categorize and sell it. —Kim Ruehl (Folk Alley)

Bartees Strange, Live Forever
/ Memory Music
Memory Music


Bartees Strange

Live Forever

"Come to a place where everything's everything," Bartees Strange sings on "Jealousy," an apt description of a debut album that grabs from emo breakdowns, hip-hop cadences, indie-rock riffs, glitchy production and gentle minimalism. Though many of the songs are about feeling hemmed in, Live Forever is purposefully expansive, grounded in a singular vision. "These songs make sense because I'm Black and because my voice ties these songs together," he told NPR Music. It takes conviction to gesture, as the title does, toward immortality, especially in a music industry that has never adequately valued Black musicians, that insists on categorization ("Genres keep us in our boxes," he bemoans on "Mossblerd"), that says putting all your chips on your art is too big a risk. Luckily for us, Bartees Strange has it. —Marissa Lorusso

Thundercat, It Is What It Is
/ Brainfeeder



It Is What It Is

Left savoring the tasty morsels of 2017's critically-acclaimed Drunk and 2018's Drank (its "chopped not slopped" remix album), it was an absolute pleasure to sink hungry ears into Thundercat's It Is What It Is this year. The bassist born Stephen Bruner blurs genre boundaries, dishing out dizzying acrobatics on "How Sway," beefy funk vibes on "Black Qualls" (featuring Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Childish Gambino) and cheeky R&B hilarity on "Dragonball Durag." Coproduced by longtime collaborator Flying Lotus, It Is What It Is drips with curtains of lush vocals. The album chronicles a broken heart's analysis of grief and its subsequent recovery by asking probing questions and finding joy where it can to survive pain, uncertainty, rejection and isolation. It's an enchanting tale of hope and growth in a year that served us heaping portions of gloom and melancholy. —Nikki Birch

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Corrected: December 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story identified the name of a song by Perfume Genius as "Desire." The name of the song is "Describe."