The following are the standout albums of the year, the runners-up, and notable singles that appeared on other albums. LGBTQ artists were well in the mix.
Gaika: “Seguridad” (NAAFI) Recorded by a British rapper in Mexico City with a collective of Latin American producers, “Seguridad” rejects the usual national confines. Based in hip-hop but drawing more on the sounds it has inspired around the world (“Maria” dabbles in reggaetón), the album uses Autotune to make Gaika’s accent more ambiguous. Paranoid, gothic production treats synthesizers like Viking horns of war. Out of all the albums on this list, “Seguridad” feels most like the future.
Rina Sawayama: “Sawayama” (Dirty Hit) 2000s nostalgia is an easy direction. But it’s not exactly what pansexual singer Rina Sawayama’s debut album does. She benefited from having 29 years of experience to draw on when she wrote it, remembering the details of a youth spent between Japan and the UK on songs like “Akasaka Sad” and “Paradisin’.” She takes inspiration from the music that was popular when she was living through the stories she sings about. She also trashes the rules of cool to great effect: “STFU!” and “Dynasty” take the toxic masculinity out of nü-metal and turn it toward maximalist pop, while other songs draw on R&B and house music. The deluxe edition released in December is surprisingly worthy, with the new single “Lucid” and passionate acoustic versions of several songs.
Taylor Swift: “Folklore” (Republic) It’s easy to be cynical about “Folklore.” After the relative flops of the singles from her last two albums, Swift has pivoted toward an album-oriented sound influenced by the NPR-core of The National and Bon Iver instead of begging for top 40 airplay. (“Cardigan” still debuted at #1.) She approaches folk music and the singer/ songwriter tradition from a contemporary pop perspective, and the synthesis sparkles like crazy here. “The Last Great American Dynasty,” “Mad Woman,” and “Illicit Affairs” bring out her gift for bright melodies (while “Taste” bases an entire song around one looped piano note) and emotional vocals. Her second album of the year, “Evermore,” pursued the same sound to slightly lesser impact.
Ashley McBryde: “Never Will” (Warner Records) The second album by country singer McBryde, “Never Will” shows off her sharp songwriting and storytelling, closing with the title track’s declaration of searching for success only on her own terms. While many songs are grounded in blues and Southern rock, haunting ballads like “Stone” and “Sparrow” are the standouts. McBryde explores similar situations from different angles: her hit “One-Night Standards” celebrates sleeping with a man the narrator doesn’t know, but “Martha Devine,” a vicious declaration of revenge against the woman the narrator’s cheating father slept with, might be its flipside.
Polo G: “The Goat” (Columbia) Polo G’s chosen lane — depressive, half-sung hip-hop with lyrics about trauma caused by poverty, drug abuse, and violence — is fully occupied these days. But “The Goat” proves he’s not a one-album pony. Expanding on the simple, beautiful melodies and personal stories of last year’s “Die a Legend,” he branches out into love songs and conscious rap (“Wishing For A Hero” is a timely reworking of 2Pac’s “Changes”), with guitars supplementing the keyboards. Not every song works, but “21,” “33,” and “DND” show how much more he can mine from his troubled life, and the joyful posse cut “Go Stupid,” which alternates between piano- and synthesizer-based beats, suggests a new direction.
Fiona Apple: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” (Epic) It feels obligatory to include this album on a 2020 top 10 list. Anointed a classic the day of its release, it was the first new album in a decade to which Pitchfork gave its highest possible rating. I must confess that I admire it more than I listen to it constantly. But when I do play it, I wonder how it was possible to write. Apple uses her entire band as percussion, with some songs changing rhythm three or four times, yet it still works as a kind of pop music. It’s extremely sharp post-Me Too music, with two songs about rape and others about the many forms of shitty male behavior that stop short of sexual assault. Her lyrics are pointedly addressed to other women. Including Apple’s previous four albums, I’ve never heard music that sounds exactly like this.
Backxwash: “God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It” (Grimalkin) Transgender Zambian-Canadian rapper suddenly hit a new level of buzz with her brief album “God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It.” Its first sound is Ozzy Osbourne screaming, sampled from Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” and she relies on further heavy metal samples (as well as ministers and Christian choirs), occult references, and horror movie imagery. But she’s not kidding around. “Into the Void,” one of the best examples of rap-metal I’ve ever heard, describes a fit of paranoia that’s entirely justified for a Black trans women, while she uses Ozzy’s voice to express her own suicidal thoughts. In only 23 minutes, the album traces a path toward self-acceptance and hope.
Menzi: “Impazamo” (Hakuna Kulala) South Africa has the world’s highest percentage of HIV-positive people and a severe problem with violent crime. No wonder that its dance music genre gqom sounds so cold, with harsh rhythms played over minimal chords and a notable absence of melody even at its poppiest. Menzi’s music oozes menace — on the title track, distorted vocals and drums emerge as though creeping out of fog — making the perfect soundtrack for a year where the world seemed to turn to shit.
Ambrose Akinmusire: “on the tender spot of every calloused moment” (Blue Note) Jazz trumpet player Akinmusire leads his quartet on a varied 49-minute excursion. This is volatile music, made to express the emotions of a Black man living through 2020, frequently changing tone on a dime. Akinmusire’s collaborators aren’t just a backing band; they take charge rhythmically and support his smeared textures. The final track “Hooded procession (read the names out loud)” gets explicitly political, with Akinmusire alone on electric piano and pouring out his sadness over racist violence into a mournful dirge.
Yves Tumor: “Heaven to a Tortured Mind” (Warp) The non-binary singer has moved from experimental electronic noise to funky glam-rock. “Kerosene!,” their duet with Diana Gordon, could’ve gotten an arena of fans to hold up their lighters in the ‘80s. Yet Tumor’s reluctance to be pinned down persists. Their carnal “gospel for a new century” is more complex than it first seems. The commercial decline of rock music into a niche led to rappers being more likely to get hit singles with songs in the genre (the late Juice WRLD’s “Come and Go,” Machine Gun Kelly’s “My Ex’s Best Friend” and “Bloody Valentine”) this year than rock bands. It’s also opened up space for a Black, queer performer to take the crown of rock stardom.
Check out a playlist of this year’s music, “Roll Up 2020,” on Spotify at tinyurl.com/y722zbb5.
Runners-up (with LGBTQ artists identified with asterisks): Julianna Barwick: “Music Is a Healing Miracle” (Ninja Tune), *Black Dresses: “Peaceful as Hell” (Blacksquares); Carla Bley, Andy Shepherd & Steve Swallow: “Life Goes On” (ECM); Moses Boyd: “Exodus” (self-released); *Phoebe Bridgers: “Punisher” and Phoebe Bridgers featuring Rob Moose: “Copycat Killer” (Dead Oceans): Oliver Coates: “skins n slime” (RVNG Intl); Denzel Curry: “13lood In + 13lood Out” (Loma Vista); Lucrecia Dalt: “No Era Sólida,” (RVNG Intl); Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger: “Force Majeure” (International Anthem); Drive-By Truckers: “The Unraveling” (ATO); Eternal Champion: “Ravening Iron” (self-released), *Feminazgul: “No Dawn For Men” (self-released); Scúuru Fitchádu: “Un Kuza Runhu” (self-released); Nubya Garcia-“Source” (Concord); Imperial Triumphant: “Alphaville” (Century Media); Juice WRLD: “Legends Never Die” (Interscope); *Kehlani: “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” (Atlantic); The Killers: “Imploding the Mirage” (Island); Loma: “Don’t Shy Away” (Sub Pop); Paul Marmota: “Zona II” (La Vendición); Carlos Niño and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: “Chicago Waves” (International Anthem); *Perfume Genius: “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” (Matador); Pongo: “Uwa” (Caroline); Poppy: “I Disagree” (Sumerian); Run the Jewels: “RTJ4” (BMG); Pa Salieu: “Send Them To Coventry” (Warner Records); *Bartees Strange: “Live Forever” (Memory Music); U.S. Girls: “Heavy Light” (4AD).
40 Notable Singles (not including songs on the projects above and with LGBTQ artists asterisked): *Arca featuring Rosalia: “Klk” (XL); Bad Bunny & Jhay Cortez: “Dakiti” (Rimas); *Julien Baker: “Faith Healer” (Matador); Bat For Lashes: “The Boys of Summer’ (AWAL); *Phoebe Bridgers: “If We Make It Through December” (Dead Oceans); Burna Boy: “20 10 20” (Atlantic); *Cakes Da Killa & Proper Villains: “Don Dada” (Classic Music Company); Caribou: “Home” (Merge); Luke Combs featuring Eric Church: “Does To Me” (Capitol Nashville); Destroyer: “Crimson Tide” (Merge); Brent Faiyaz: “Fuck the World (Summer in London)” (Lost Kids); Georgia: “24 Hours” (Domino); *Girl in Red: “Kate’s Not Here” (KRO); *Grimes: “Delete Forever” (4AD); Lingua Ignota: “Kim” and “O Ruthless Great Divine Director” (Sargent House); Inter Arma: “Southern Man” (Relapse); *Kehlani: “Valentine’s Day (Shameful)” (Atlantic); Khruangbin & Leon Bridges: “Texas Sun” (Dead Oceans); Lil Baby: “Emotionally Scarred” (Quality Control); Lil Durk featuring Polo G & Lil Baby: “3 Headed Goat” (Alamo); Dua Lipa: “Don’t Start Now” (Warner Records); Machine Gun Kelly: “Bloody Valentine” (Bad Boy); Paul Marmota featuring Rosella: “Doble Cara” (La Vendición); Megan Thee Stallion: “Girls In the Hood” and Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé: “Savage (remix)” (300); *Bob Mould: “American Crisis” (Merge); The 1975: “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” (Interscope/ Dirty Hit); *070 Shake: “Guilty Conscience” (G.O.O.D. Music); *OMB Bloodbath featuring Maxo Kream: “Dropout” (Interscope); Pale Blue: “I Walk Alone With Acid” (2MR); Rico Nasty: “iPhone” (Atlantic); Roddy Ricch: “The Box” (Atlantic); RMR: “Dealer” (Warner Records); SAINt JHN: “Roses (Imanbek remix)” (Hitco); Simmy featuring Sino Msolo: “Ngihamba Nawe” (Sony Music Entertainment Africa); Jessie Ware: “Spotlight” (Virgin EMI); Tierra Whack: “feel good” and “Peppers and Onions” (Interscope); Hayley Williams: “Simmer” (Atlantic); *Yaeji: “Waking Up Down” (XL).