- Ian Heft
The Top 10 Albums of 2020, Ranked
Cover Art: Alex Chen
In the truly memorable year of 2020, music releases have been, well, strangely normal. Strong projects came throughout the year, in numerous genres. While 2020 may have lacked in top tier, truly memorable projects (see 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! and Igor), the year brought an impressive number of quality works. For these rankings, I tried to listen to as many albums as possible. I considered my personal listening taste, while simultaneously viewing albums as a music critic would. Most albums took multiple listens to digest, and others I wish I had more time to listen to. And while this article will be set in stone, my rankings will certainly not be. Without further ado, the top ten albums of 2020 (with a few honorable mentions)...
The Weeknd, After Hours
21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Savage Mode 2
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
Playboi Carti, Whole Lotta Red
10. Pop Smoke, Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon (Deluxe)
Genre: Hip-Hop, Drill, Trap, R&B
Favorite Tracks: For the Night, Make It Rain, Snitching, Diana, Got It On Me, Be Clearr, Hello
When Pop Smoke was tragically shot dead in February, I knew him only for his two hit singles, “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party''. To me, nearly all of his other songs sounded the same. But after strong reviews, I listened to his debut (and unfortunately, final) album, Shoot For the Stars, Aim For the Moon, and was pleasantly surprised. Over 19 tracks, and 15 more on the deluxe, the Brooklyn native showcases his impressive versatility. On one track, he croons over an R&B sample, on the next, he interpolates a 50 Cent song. And on the next he returns to his Brooklyn drill roots. Admittedly, his deep voice, and 808-filled street anthems have grown on me, but its other tracks that propelled this project into the top 10.
9. Spillage Village, Spillagion
Genre: Hip-Hop, R&B, Neo-Soul
Favorite Tracks: Baptize, Mecca, Judas, Hapi, Jupiter
Listening to this project is like witnessing a campfire sing-along of some of the most talented musical acts today. The Spillage Village collective, a rap/R&B group consisting of numerous members (most notably JID, 6lack, EarthGang and Meraba) gels nearly fluently on this collaboration. Themes of religion, spirituality and racial injustice are present throughout, and each member gets adequate time to speak their mind. Highlights include the flat out banger “Baptize”, the funk groove “Mecca”, and the spiritual sing-alongs “Hapi” and “Jupiter”. One of my favorite moments, however, on “Ea’alah (Family)”, where member Johnny Venus raps in a verse directed to God, “I don't mean to bother you, well yeah, I kinda do / see we've been wrestlin' with this nasty plague, that's kinda like the flu / I ain't a doctor, I don't know, but I know rich folks dyin' too / and I know they gon' get their treatment first, when that shit gets approved”. Wise words from the Atlanta MC.
8. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake (Deluxe)
Genre: Hip-Hop, Trap
Favorite Tracks: Silly Watch, Prices, Venetia, That Way, Myron, Bean (Kobe), Yessirskiii
I will always remember where I was when Lil Uzi Vert released his long awaited album Eternal Atake–I was in math class. After excusing myself to the bathroom, I sat in a stall and pressed play on the long awaited project. I was amazed by what I heard. For me, this album is a reminder of simpler times. The Philadelphia rapper goes all out on the nearly three-dozen tracks, weaving in impressive wordplay in his melodic verses and hooks. “Myron” has one of the catchiest hooks of the year, while “That Way” flips the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” into an emo trap anthem. Due to the sheer amount of material, there are a fair share of misfires, and a handful of unnecessary features. But this album provides an appropriate amount of cheer and flat-out wackiness in a difficult year.
7. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letter to You
Favorite Tracks: One Minute You’re Here, Burnin' Train, Last Man Standing, Ghosts, I'll See You In My Dreams
Bruce Springsteen is back for his 20th studio album. After 2019’s mildly successful foray into country-rock Western Stars, “The Boss” returns to his rock-and-roll roots. This record provides nearly everything a classing Springsteen album does: witty lyricism, solid vocals, and, perhaps most importantly, backing from the E Street Band. In fact, one of my only problems with Letter to You is how Springsteen-esque it is. Ultimately, though, aside from a few unmemorable tracks, the album has a strong theme throughout (many tracks focus on life and death), and is a fun listen. Tracks like “Burnin' Train”, “Ghosts”, “Last Man Standing”, “I'll See You In My Dreams” are all excellent, making this Bruce’s finets record of the last fifteen-odd years.“The Boss” is going strong long past his glory days, but sometimes sticking with what works is the way to go.
6. Thundercat, It Is What It Is
Genre: R&B, Neo-Soul, Jazz, Funk
Favorite Tracks: Interstellar Love, I Am Louis Cole, Black Qualls, Overseas, Dragonball Durag, It Is What It Is
The reasons why Stephen Lee Brune, known by his stage name Thundercat, flies under the radar are truly unknown. Brune has influenced and featured on some of the biggest hip-hop records of the last decade (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Travis Scott’s Astroworld, to name two) and has a TikTok hit under his belt, but his 2020 album It Is What It Is peaked at a lowly 38 on the Billboard charts. Brune expresses his emotions gracefully on this record, even when he sings of his depression or the loss of his colleagues (the album is dedicated to friend and collaborator Mac Miller). While The Weeknd and Childish Gambino may have released more heralded R+B projects in 2020, It Is What It Is is more expressive, immersive and emotional. This is one of the finer projects of the year.
5. Paul McCartney, McCartney III
Genre: Rock, Art-Pop
Favorite Tracks: Find My Way, Deep Deep Feeling, Seize The Day, Deep Down
Paul McCartney was in a similar place as Bruce Springsteen when making this record. As two of rock-and-roll’s oldest statesmen, no music was needed from either of them to solidify their places among the genre’s greats (in fact, neither of the two have needed to add to their reputations at all over the past few decades). However, both artists took some time (McCartney in self-isolation, Springsteen prior to the COVID pandemic) to write, produce and record full length albums that are their finest in years. McCartney plays nearly all instruments on McCartney III, ranging from guitar and drums to synthesizer and harpsichord, just as he did on 1970’s stripped back McCartney I and 1980’s synth-pop McCartney II. McCartney III is less innovative than its predecessors, but allows McCartney to display his full range of skills. Songs range from “Long Tailed Winter Bird”, a lovely five minute nearly-instrumental jam, to “Lavatory Lil”, which is as weird as its name suggests. Even at 78 years old, McCartney is still evolving, as evident on “Find My Way”, where his vocals are looped over two different octaves at once. McCartney III’s success among albums from artists in their prime only adds to the case that McCartney is the most accomplished musician alive.
4. Haim, Women in Music Part III
Genre: Soft Rock, Indie-Pop, Alternative
Favorite Tracks: Los Angeles, Gasoline, I've Been Down, FUBT, Summer Girl
It took some time to grow on me, but Women in Music Part III is a unique and diverse record that cracks the top four of 2020. Sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim, all of whom are multi-talented vocalists and instrumentalists, fuse soft rock, pop, and alternative genres on this record. Often compared to Fleetwood Mac, Haim adds flairs of modern R&B, hip-hop and even reggae on this album. “Los Angeles” is a fantastic intro track, and “I’ve Been Down” stands out as one of my favorites with its saxophone solo ending. Take a listen if you haven’t already.
3. Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist, “Alfredo”
Genre: Hip-Hop, Gangsta Rap
Favorite Tracks: 1985, God Is Perfect, Baby $Hit, Skinny Suge
A great gauge for determining whether someone is a true fan of modern hip-hop is if they are a Freddie Gibbs fan. Despite being a step or two away from the spotlight, Gibbs has been on top of the rap game for the last three years. Only recently have I begun to get into his music, starting with the exceptional collaboration with producer The Alchemist, Alfredo. Simply put, this album goes hard. Gibbs brings a ton of energy and strong flows, and what he lacks in versatility he makes but with his lyricism. The beats are sharp (especially the guitar loops on “1985” and “Skinny Suge”), and the guest list is impressive (Rick Ross, Tyler, the Creator, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine). While Gibbs’ hard hitting, boom-bap raps are not for everyone, this album is clearly the strongest true hip-hop project of the year.
2. Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon III: The Chosen”
Genre: Hip-Hop, Psychedelic, Trap, Trip-Hop
Favorite Tracks: Tequila Shots, Another Day, Heaven on Earth, Sad People, Sept. 16, The Void, Lord I Know
Nearly four years have passed since Kid Cudi’s previous solo album (the criminally underrated Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin'), and over a decade since the previous Man on the Moon album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, but Man on the Moon III: The Chosen could not have come at a better time. Filled from start to finish with Cudder’s trademark hums and croons, this long awaited album has exceeded expectations. On the first half of the album, Cudi ventures into trap, taking cues from his protegé Travis Scott. “Tequila Shots” is a fantastic opening track, and tracks like “Heaven on Earth” and “Show Out” allow Cudi to showcase his bars over eerie beats with booming 808s. It’s the second half of the album, however, where Cudi really shines, displaying emotional vulnerability and profound song writing. For a project with astronomical expectations, The Chosen is a huge success.
1. Mac Miller, “Circles (Deluxe)”
Genre: Hip-Hop, R&B, Alternative, Funk, Pop
Favorite Tracks: Complicated, Blue World, Good News, Woods, Surf, Right
This album serves as a bittersweet capo to Mac Miller’s fascinating musical career, and comes a year and half after his tragic passing due to a drug overdose. Over the last decade the Pittsburgh artist has transitioned from frat rap (notably 2011’s Blue Slide Park), into jazz infused hip-hop (2016’s The Divine Feminine) and finally to the unique synthesis of rap, R&B, pop and funk present on Circles. Songs range from the melancholy yet hopeful lead single “Good News”, to the laid-back, Jack Johnson-esque jam “Surf”, to the synth-pop “Complicated”. And while there is not much rapping done on this record, tracks like “Blue World” and “Hands” allow Miller to flex his lyrical muscles. But what is most notable about this project is witnessing Miller’s growth. Circles isn’t perfect; the album slows around the middle, has a few duds and some overly tacky bars. But all in all, Mac Miller’s final album provides a perfect companion to the rollercoaster of a year that we have experienced.