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The 50 Best Albums Of 2020

NPR's Best Albums Of 2020.

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.

The 50 Best Albums Of 2020:
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Waylon Payne, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
/ Carnival Recording Company

10.

Waylon Payne

Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

In interviews this year, Waylon Payne spoke of the songs on his second album, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, as though they were works of unfiltered emotional purging. In fact, his intimate sharing about the warping of pivotal relationships in his life abounds in a thoroughly earthy kind of profundity. From his gusts of ruefulness during "High Horse" — about his father's death preventing a reckoning — to his elegant pining during the orchestrated pop tune "Old Blue Eyes" — for a companion he lost to shared addiction — and his terse but deeply felt desperation during the churning country-blues of "All the Trouble," his range as a personalized storyteller is riveting. —Jewly Hight ()


Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
/ Generation Now/Atlantic

9.

Lil Uzi Vert

Eternal Atake

Few make rapping sound as purely fun as Lil Uzi Vert. His second album, Eternal Atake, arrived on the heels of a nearly three-year label dispute, yet it still sounds unburdened. The songs traffic in abundant imagination — words and syllables are deconstructed and restacked to form breathless cadences that explode across beats as funky as they are futuristic. When he chants "Balenci" enough times to void it of any meaning on "POP" or when he spits out a multibar hook that skirts repetition altogether (or, really, any qualities that usually make up a hook) as on "Homecoming," it's the chutzpah, but it's also the musicality of it all, the way the melodies are both instrument and a vehicle for lyrics. One of rap's most precise technicians, Uzi has been perfecting this craft since he began his career ascent in 2015, but Eternal Atake prompted us to hear the extraterrestrial — a world within worlds that's all his own. —Briana Younger


Nubya Garcia, Source
/ Concord Jazz

8.

Nubya Garcia

Source

The justly celebrated major-label debut by tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia is more than a statement of arrival from across the pond. As its title implies, Source is also a nod to Garcia's heritage — her parents came to London from Trinidad and Guyana — and an acknowledgment of the root systems behind the musical tradition she embraces as her own. Her performance on the album is hale, unequivocally self-assured and she has an effortless hookup with her band, whether they're working in a horizon-scanning post-bop mode or hunkering down with dub rhythm. The lasting impression Garcia leaves here is an air of cresting possibility, crossed with that most precious and least cynical of qualities, which is hope. —Nate Chinen ()


Bad Bunny, 'YHLQMDLG'
/ Rimas Entertainment

7.

Bad Bunny

YHLQMDLG

From the moment Bad Bunny's sophomore album begins, over a synthesized interpolation of bossa nova staple "The Girl From Ipanema," the Puerto Rican superstar leans heavily on past classics to breathe new life into Latin trap. El Conejo is, for the most part, done missing his ex jeva for now — instead he's dressing up as his female alter ego to call out creeps at the club, de-stigmatizing a particular romantic pursuit on a perreo-fueled symphony, and rocking out to his own success on an emo-trap anthem. YHLQMDLG is an homage to the reggaeton bangers that raised Bunny, complete with collabs from some of the greatest vets in the game, including Daddy Yankee, Ñengo Flow and Jowell & Randy. It's an album steeped in nostalgia for the garage-party-perreo of the early-aughts, but with a modernity that forecasts a bright future for urbano — even one that may find Bad Bunny (if you believe the album title) permanently tapping out. He does what he wants, and he gets away with it, too. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento


Boston Symphony Orchestra, Adès Conducts Adès
/ Deutsche Grammophon

6.

Thomas Adès

Adès Conducts Adès

This extraordinary album, which features the Boston Symphony Orchestra in debut recordings of an effervescent piano concerto and a dark, massive work for voices and orchestra, represents for me, the joy and horror of its late February release date. I binged on Adès' rambunctious concerto, performed with extroverted virtuosity by Kirill Gerstein, for weeks. It wasn't until the grim statistics of the pandemic began piling up that the Totentanz (Dance of Death) came knocking. A complex and macabre cantata, the 35-minute work stars the ghostly figure of death who dances, in turn, with all strata of society, from the pope on down to an innocent infant. The Concerto for Piano, with its intoxicating joie de vivre, might be the most delightful such work so far this century. On the other hand, Totentanz, awesome in its ferocious grandeur, simultaneously offers a great work of art and bleak reminder of our impermanence. —Tom Huizenga


Spillage Village, Spilligion
/ Dreamville/Interscope

5.

Spillage Village

Spilligion

When folk ask me what it was like covering Atlanta hip-hop in the last decade, it ain't the get-it-out-the-mud trap originators or the city's second-gen innovators that come to mind. Naw. Instead, I think of a wild bunch of hometown heroes whose fame almost never stretched past I-285. Spillage Village is the spiritual inheritance of that era's most valuable prayers. And apparently being inhabitants of such an insular, otherwise ignored scene prepared them well for this national lockdown. The collective — consisting of the duo EarthGang, J.I.D., 6lack, Mereba, Jurdan Bryant and producers Hollywood JB and Benji — hunkered down in a crib on the city's westside and went to work. Or church. 'Cause Spilligion is just that: A vaccine for lost souls living through the pandemic long before coronavirus hit.—Rodney Carmichael


Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
/ Dead Oceans

4.

Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher

In just four years, Phoebe Bridgers has launched three different major projects — a solo career, plus the bands Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius — while perfecting a distinct sound palette and songwriting voice. But from the beginning, Bridgers' sensibility has been instantly identifiable: dark, swirling, interior, morbid but playful, unnervingly specific in its narrative details. As a result, her songs feel like transmissions from a ruefully funny friend; they're warm and inviting, even when she's reflecting on hospital traffic and serial killers. On Punisher, Bridgers works at the height of her powers in dense, swirling, often remarkably pretty songs about obsession, depression, alienation and the apocalypse. At every turn, she's quotable — not only in richly explanatory turns of phrase, but also in simple statements that stuff massive feelings into blunt, concise moments: "You hold me just like water in your hands." "After a while / You went quiet / And I got mean." Throughout, Punisher is a rich, roiling stunner. —Stephen Thompson


Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
/ ANTI-

3.

Lido Pimienta

Miss Colombia

"Welcome to Miss Colombia: quinceañera," Lido Pimienta announces as an introduction to her Tiny Desk (home) concert. Pimienta's performance is often playful, and here, she is the emcee of her own quinceañera, a celebration she was never able to celebrate with her mother in her youth. Pimienta's subversion of pageantry is always accompanied by a deep sense of its costs. Miss Colombia dissects what national hierarchies are engineered to value; its reference point is the singular 2015 debacle when Steve Harvey mistakenly awarded the Miss Universe crown to Miss Colombia instead of Miss Philippines. Bookended by orchestral "transcriptions," Miss Colombia records the non-linear natures of healing and belonging as they inform the fluid edges of a self when nationality is constantly weaponized against Black and Indigenous womanhood. Pimienta's pageant ranges from Toronto, where she has lived for over a decade, to the historic San Basilio de Palenque, home of her beloved Sexteto Tabalá, featured on "Quiero Que Me Salves." As she affirms on the tectonic "Eso Que Tu Haces," her work is a ceremony that names violence so that it can not call itself love. —Stefanie Fernández


Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
/ Epic

2.

Fiona Apple

Fetch The Bolt Cutters

The international symbol for the year 2020 was the surprise emoji. News-induced emotional whiplash became a daily affliction; equally profound was the common experience, in isolation, of people continually startling themselves. Weird tics and rashes shook the confidence of the casually healthy. Anxiety and rage ran a red line through daily experience. With time on our hands, we all discovered the damnedest things inside our brains – squashed demons, inappropriate desires. There was no better time for the return of pop's most determined ugly-truth teller, the woman with a dagger voice and a switchblade mind, Fiona Apple.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters arrived without too much warning in mid-April and startled listeners into instant adoration. Five albums into her visionary career, Apple remained deeply committed to pushing herself lyrically and vocally. This new release was all about the beat: Like Joni Mitchell with Hejira or Kate Bush on The Dreaming, throughout Bolt Cutters Apple explored and refined her relationship to rhythm, bolstering her poetic expressiveness. Over several years, she'd invited a small inventive band into her home to bang on walls and pots and her dead dog's bones. Carried by these noisy grooves, Apple could say even more than she'd ever said before, about putting up with bad men, romantic abjection and self-abandonment; about being bullied by girls and being taught to hate other women; about living with depression and nearly dying from the hunger for love. Apple faced it all. "Up until now in a rush to prove," she chanted, "but now I only move to move." Her unexpected steps form a new path for any listener to follow toward self-awareness. —Ann Powers


SAULT, Untitled (Black Is)
/ Forever Living Originals

1.

SAULT

Untitled (Black Is)

SAULT, an enigmatic collective that shrouds itself in mystery, produced the year's most viscerally direct album at the exact moment it was needed. Created in the midst of a global reckoning, and released on Juneteenth, Untitled (Black Is) was intentionally made to uplift Black people during a calamitous period, one marked by jarring recurrences of police brutality, and the unveiling of deeply entrenched systemic racism. In its mission to cover the gamut of emotions that come with the Black experience in 2020, SAULT runs wild sonically; in some places, you'll find lo-fi hip-hop ("Stop Dem"), in others, moving soul ("Wildfires") or spaced-out electro funk ("Bow"). The 56-minute album plays like a mixtape, moving from track to track with an urgent, yet free-flowing momentum. By weaving spoken-word interludes with fully developed songs, SAULT ensures listeners are feeling every possible level of the revolutionary messaging embedded in the project.

The heaviness of the very need for the album is countered by an outpouring of motivational words and mantras. "It don't matter how high," a singer reassures us in "Miracles," an album highlight. "I will rise. We will rise." Untitled is made to comfort and empower Black people, and to unsettle anyone who's against their liberation. It is as encouraging as it is combative, as invigorating as it is cathartic. —Kiana Fitzgerald


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