Music in 2020 was a remedy for everything that went wrong in the year. A pandemic has killed over a 1.7 million people (and counting) around the world, shutting down the world as we know it, including the music business. With more time at home and on our own, we had more opportunities to absorb albums in full, not dissected into playlists for consumption on the go. That led to some incredible works across genres from electronic, to hip-hop, rock, jazz, indie, classical, pop, disco, funk, soul and everything in between.
Trying to come up with a list of what is best is always subjective and kind of nonsense, but we are a music publication so it is kind of our job to indulge that nonsense. We have recapped the 30 “best” or favorite albums of the year. These range from the psychedelic disco of Tame Impala, to effortless rhymes of Benny The Butcher or Freddie Gibbs, the revolutionary sounds of Run The Jewels or SAULT, or the wonderful experimental ambient and electronica from Sophia Loizou and Andrea. This year was another great year for albums, so dive right into this list.
These are in no particular order, they are just listed at random. The numbers are just to help guide you through the list.
1. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush
Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush was released what feels like a million years ago in February. Coronavirus in the Western world only was starting to bubble up in certain hot spots and didn’t seem like the all encompassing, deadly and crippling global threat it has become. What was supposed to be the year of Tame Impala was instead something much, much worse. However, we are still left with an outstanding album that explored some new territory for Kevin Parker and co.
The Slow Rush doesn’t break from precedent as much as Currents did from Lonerism. It certainly evolves into more refined pop that leans on psychadelica, soul, funk, rock and touches of R&B and hip-hop. This is much less of a stoner album (though it doesn’t completely run away from that) and more towards the stages and live shows Tame Impala normally play. A life on the road for the past three or four years could have made an indelible impact on Parker who wanted music that would make people dance more and be less hypnotized.
It is an evolution into a new era for the band without completely ditching the past. It is luxurious, fun and relentlessly creative. The Slow Rush stood out from the moment it was released and has remained one of the best all year.
2. Machinedrum - A View Of U
Every year there seems to be a bass album that is released to near universal acclaim. Critics, fellow DJs and producers and most importantly, fans love it. This was the case when Machinedrum’s A View Of U was released at the beginning of November and it remains as such as the year comes to a close. Traversing genres like a rock skipping on a still lake, it meshes drum and bass, dubstep, hip-hop, electro, lo-fi and even house with a soulful and elegant shine on top. Though the album is a compilation of songs from the past decade that never exactly fit with other projects, but were still great individually, and needed a home, they all still work well together. Despite the scattershot idea behind this, it still all fits together with features like Freddie Gibbs, Chrome Sparks and Sub Focus.
He has also been meditating daily now and he credits that process for giving him clarity for selecting the songs on A View Of U. He would sometimes have out of body experiences during those sessions, which became an overall theme for the record.
Read our in-depth Director’s Cut feature about the album.
3. Run The Jewels - RTJ4
It is rare that we get the perfect album for the right moment, but RTJ4 was that. Right after the murder of George Floyd, El-P & Killer Mike dropped their long-awaited Run The Jewels album. The LP which didn’t speak directly to the events that led to the summer of unrest, protests and general upheaval that rocked the United States in a reckoning of police violence, racism amidst a pandemic, but it might as well have.
Those problems weren’t new (nor have they been solved) and that was the point. The issues of police brutality, state-monopoly on violence “never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state,” as Killer Mike reminds us, and racism are centuries old. This became an album for the times just when we needed it with the right features and the right people. If there was a protest album with the right anger and power behind it in 2020, RTJ4 was it.
4. Jessy Lanza - All The Time
Canadian singer, songwriter and producer Jessy Lanza released her album All The Time over the summer. The LP was her moving closer into the mainstream, combining alt-pop, 80’s influences and alluring R&B, all with an experimental edge and shimmering touch to it. It had a carefree feel to it, allowing the listener to escape the dredges of what has been an awful year. It brings us into a world of bubbly melodies, soft vocals, love and at times pensive fun. It feels colorful and well-crafted, with a kaleidoscopic sheen that makes this feel like a warm summer day.
5. Caribou - Suddenly
Dan Snaith released his first Caribou album in nearly six years back in February when we were still brimming with optimism that 2020 might still be good, though there were storm clouds on the horizon. Suddenly felt that optimism with its cheery melodies, vocals and drums like on “Home” or “Never Come Back.” When it came out, it was an album of the year contender and it has remained true all the way through the year. It is also one of his most sonically diverse albums.
The record constantly ping-pongs between different sounds and styles like soul, breakbeats, ambient electronica and even disco. Suddenly is all over the place, but in the best way, offering new twists and turns with each song, while still staying on a thin, wavering line that connects the full record. Despite all of this, it still sounds cohesive in the most Caribou way. It is fun, danceable and tender all at the same time. The record sounds better with each listen and has held up easily as one of this year’s best.
6. Four Tet - Sixteen Oceans
Just when the world was starting to spiral out of control, Four Tet released his new album Sixteen Oceans. For a brief moment, it felt like things might be ok. Sixteen Oceans is a lush and beautiful exploration of how house, ambient and melodic electronic music all comes together. There are his harpsichords, fluttering synths, guitars and soft percussion that all mesh together elegantly and effortlessly.
In a time when clubbing has been pretty much halted and electronic music fans are being told to stay largely indoors, an album like this seemed perfect. Four Tet is outstanding at building great albums and Sixteen Oceans is another example of that. It is an hour that you can get lost in and that is what we needed this year. He has released loads of music this year, but it is Sixteen Oceans that holds up the best.
7. Yaeji - What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던
Yaeji cemented her status as a star in 2020 with her debut full-length project What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 that showed the influences she can bring together. WHAT WE DREW plays like a celebration of life and the vibrancy that music can offer. The album weaves together music across various traditions and cultures from her own Korean-American background, to house music, quirky jazz motifs and hip-hop (globally), all wrapped up in a fun pop presentation. Yaeji said she drew on inspiration from Korean indie rock, electronica, and the hip-hop and R&B of the late ’90s and early aughts for this record.
Despite all of these various influences, this mixtape has an uncanny ability to remain cohesive. It is like a club night that bounces all over the place between genres and sounds, but in the end, the musical thread makes complete sense. This album should help make us all feel more connected for a dancefloor not too far in the future. Her production continues to improve with charming vocals, quirky and fun beats and a variety of different sounds woven together. Yaeji’s music has so much to offer and can bring us together when we need it most.
8. Bronson - Bronson
2020 was a year of twists and turns, largely for the worse, but it also gave us this unexpected collaboration between Odesza and Golden Features called BRONSON. Largely created over Facetime calls and email, but cemented during a 2018 trip to Berry, Australia, this album is not the glittering electronic music that has allowed Odesza to soar to the festival headlining heights they now occupy, but rather is gritty like Golden Features’ electro.
Some intricate melodies are woven into this project, notably on tracks like “CALL OUT, which feels like one of the most “ODESZA” track on here next to “HEART ATTACK,” but it is primarily tougher electro that is similar to what Golden Features has done. It is hard enough to work on the dancefloor and the darkness to represent the year, but still has some hope that feels like an Odesza project. It was good to get BRONSON this year.
9. Actress - Karma & Desire
Actress has been quite busy this year, releasing three different projects, two free mixtapes and one official full-length album Karma & Desire, out on Ninja Tune in October. The album feels carefully constructed and well-crafted, built around yet another intriguing chapter in the constantly evolving sonic universe that is Actress. There are three collaborations with Sampha that all provide something different and have cemented a powerful working partnership.
There are plenty of the brooding, murky and atmospheric productions that are a staple of the Actress discography. However, this album is much more than that. Sample-led deep house and uptempo club records are sprinkled throughout like “Loveless” with Aura T-09 and “Loose,” which starts slow and then picks up tempo and energy. Karma & Desire was one of Actress’ most complete projects in years and one of this year’s best.
10. Krust - The Edge Of Everything
The LP blurs musical and genre lines effortlessly, bringing together drum and bass, jungle, garage, house and some industrial noise with a cinematic feel, immersing you in a visual world without ever needing to show you what it is. The central theme is around space and a journey into the universe. Like a director, he uses clips from movies and his own skittering, low growling drum and bass and jungle to take out into the stars on our space odyssey.
Krust helped pioneer drum and bass and jungle from the outset and 14 years after his LP Hidden Knowledge, he has emerged with a new project to show the limits of what it can be again. Blurring genres, musical expressions and the types of themes and samples that can be applied to an album, The Edge Of Everything finds those limits and bursts right through them.
11. Arca - KiCk I
After helping to define a new experimental sound in the past decade, Arca plotted a new path in 2020 with her album KiCk i. Her heavy, stretched and mind-bending productions have gotten more refined over time, but on KiCk i, she went with an even more adept approach. KiCk i distills that even more with the help of her biggest collaborations to date alongside Björk, Shygirl, SOPHIE and Rosalía.
The album provides something that she has worked on in the past, but never fully leaned into when she collaborates with ROSALÍA for a blend of Latin trap, reggaeton and the experimental electronic music that has made Arca so great. It is their two worlds combining in a weird and great way.
The new album is Arca’s strongest move towards a more accessible sound thus far. It still remains on the bleeding edge of where pop, electronic, Latin and experimental music might intersect – a milieu that very few occupy.
12. Yves Tumor - Heaven For A Tortured Mind
Yves Tumor released their new album Heaven To A Tortured Mind earlier this year. It marked a shift from the blend of noise, industrial sounds and grinding electronics with ambient electronica into something more organic and bombastic, built around fuzzy and booming guitars, with vocals that change between soft whispering and yelling.
This is at its core a rock album, but with a rawness you don’t see anywhere mainstream alternative radio. There are long periods of just instrumentals like on “Asteroid Blues” or songs mixing together such as the double single “Romanticist” into “Dream Palette” that sounds like part one of a song into part two. But there are moments of soulful R&B influenced tracks like “A Greater Love.”
Yves Tumor bridges the gap between psych rock and his past experimental and industrial tendencies with this album. There are the occasional walls of sound with some more subdued, soulful and funky sections.
13. Tycho - Simulcast
Tycho released his album Weather in the summer of 2019. It marked a new chapter in his career, moving on from the trilogy of albums Dive, Awake & Epoch that has cemented his cult status in the ambient / post rock community. Weather introduced vocals to his music in the most meaningful way yet, partnering with Saint Sinner on four tracks. Simulcast then strips the vocals away, except for a few moments on “Easy” and the end of “Stress” for the smooth, instrumental ride that Tycho fans are used to. Much of the structure from these are still there, but it feels as effortless and polished as anything that he has done so far.
14. Against All Logic - 2017-2019
This year, Nicolas Jaar released three albums -- two as Nicolas Jaar and one as Against All Logic. His July LP Telas was the most experimental and least album formatted, so we considered it last. Thus, it came down to Against All Logic and Cenizas. Either could have made the list since they were both great records, but the AAL album 2017-2019 had just that little bit extra leftfield edge that makes his music special.
The Against All Logic project started out somewhat anonymously, dropping one of 2018’s best LPs 2012-2017 out of the blue and he continued making more music under it over the next few years, dropping more music in the same album format for this year. 2012-2017 was fun and buoyant with an exploration of house and disco.
2017-2019 has some of the roots in house and soul, but it is very different from his two earlier projects. There are moments of chugging electro and drone music on tracks like “Alarm” or “If You Can't Do It Good, Do It Hard.” Samples are still an important part of this record as he takes a likely difficult-to-clear Beyoncé song and chops it up on “Fantasy." However, the LP settles into easy-listening ambient house for a good portion that can be found in some Nicolas Jaar productions, but remains unique to this portion of Against All Logic.
15. Benny The Butcher - Burden Of Proof
2020 was the year of Griselda. The Buffalo rap label cemented their place in the independent rap pantheon by having their artists all put out albums this year and they were all damn good. We have a few of them on here, but they could all be selected for best of the year. Benny The Butcher’s Burden Of Proof was the final record to drop in October with a bit of a wobbly rollout, but the final product was worth the wait. Benny’s effortless flow and rhyming make the album one of the best this year. The beats are flawless and combining with Benny’s raps, give it a top down, luxurious feel. The skits can be pretty hilarious as well. Benny The Butcher got some big name features in Rick Ross, Freddie Gibbs, Lil Wayne and of course Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine, who all match the energy on this album.
16. Moodymann - Taken Away
The enigmatic Detroit producer and DJ Moodymann released a new album Taken Away back in May around Memorial Day, when Movement might have been, but along with all other festivals this summer, that was also cancelled. As expected with Moodymann, the album is soulful, funky and danceable. There are few artists like Moodymann in electronic music who use spoken word and playful rhythms to help craft his songs. There is a blend of soul, funk, house bassanova and even blues as he grapples with the temptations of women and the need to remain connected to god. Moodymann’s charisma and lighthearted ad-libs help to give the album and his music in general the unique touch it has.
17. Westside Gunn - Pray For Paris
Westside Gunn released two albums in 2020, Pray For Paris in April and Who Made The Sunshine In October. Both could have been included, but Pray For Paris on his home label Griselda felt like the strongest statement from the Buffalo rapper. Sometimes albums take years to craft, over sessions that happen in cities around the world. Ideas are made and scrapped, the LP takes on various forms over a long period of time. Pray For Paris was not that. It was largely made over two days in Paris, but it doesn’t sound rushed. The frenetic pacing fits Westside Gunn’s flow and voice.
Despite this album having the sheen of opulence and examining fuck you money at the outset, it remains grounded with an ear to the streets. Elaborate cocaine raps are woven into the fabric of the album that is banked on Gunn’s high-pitched voice and start and stop flow. The album feels at its best when it is Benny, Westside and Conway all together like the rap three musketeers. These three all had great records this year and sounded great together on this LP.
18. Beatrice Dillon - Workaround
Released back in February on PAN, Beatrice Dillon’s Workaround was a revelation. The London-based experimental techno producer, DJ, and composer delivered an album that appeals not just to the chin-strokers, but to a wider audience. Workaround is fun, weird and good, combining disparate drums and fleeting melodies. The album covers a lot of ground, but is grounded in quirky, staggering melodies and dubby percussion. Many experimental albums can be quite jarring to listen to and that is often the point. Workaround seems to fly by and parts from one song often subtly bleed into the next. Various elements are used with surgical precision, using the empty space to contrast differing percussion.
19. Kid Cudi - Man On The Moon III: The Chosen
Albums like this are why I don’t like posting “best of” lists the first day of December. There is still so much good music that can be released in December. Last year Kaytranada released his LP BUBBA the second week of the month and now Kid Cudi with another outstanding record. He completes the Man On The Moon album trilogy that he started back in 2009 with Man On The Moon: The End Of Day. The End Of Day was the breakout LP for the Cleveland rapper and helped bring depression and anxiety out into the wider consciousness for a new generation of rap fans.
After Man On The Moon: The Rager in 2010, he returned to the LP concept in outer space a decade later with Man on The Moon: The Chosen. The growth over the past 10 years was evident as a lyricist and a writer, going for an all out rap track with Pop Smoke and Skepta, plus some "hmmmmmms" that the fans need. It somehow lived up to the expectations and then some. We are back on the moon with Kid Cudi.
20. Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song
Welsh producer, composer and vocalist, Kelly Lee Owens released her sophomore album Inner Song in August. After a few months delay, the record was released, blending house and ambient with a strong synthetic feel. The LP has a meditative, subtle but powerful effect that empowers the soul, notably when she uses her own voice to elevate the listener.
One of the central themes of the album was accepting yourself and her own struggle with trauma and depression. We were able to talk to her about how Inner Song empowered her to accept that it's ok to be alone through an abysmal time in her life crippled with trauma and depression. As a health professional she healed herself through the production of this album and helped us all in a small way as well.
21. Ital Tek - Outland
English electronic music producer Ital Tek released his new album Outland back in May. It tells the story of a world far out in the universe, beautiful and unspoiled by the destructive reach of man. The album is as complete and smooth a record you will hear this year. Cohesion may be an overused word from me, but it captures what Ital Tek has done here. The songs glide effortlessly from one song to the next, guiding us along this journey through time and space beyond the reaches of what humans know. It feels like we are traveling into different dimensions and realities that start to fall away and fold into one another.
Outland is often dreamy, but there are moments where it clashes with glitchy electro and trip-hop. Ital Tek has distilled the best of his music all onto this album, calming and channeling the early glitch-electro and composing the beautiful melodies that have been an essential part of his music over the past several years.
22. Sophia Loizou - Untold
Doctoral researcher, music lecturer, producer and artist Sophia Loizou released her new album Untold towards the end of September on Houndstooth. Deep, meditative and powerful, the record is the combination of organic and electronic – a collection of her experiences at raves and her explorations into nature. The movement of waves, sounds of insects, vultures and lion roars were used with skittering breakbeats, flickering signals, deep, ambient pads and swirling synths. It was one of the best ambient, experimental albums of the year, using her deep knowledge of science, music and nature around us to craft a cohesive, rich and fascinating musical world that reveals itself in new ways with each listen.
23. Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist - Alfredo
One of the rap albums of the year, Freddie Gibbs teamed up with Alchemist on a joint album Alfredo. While only lasting 35 minutes, Alfredo easily holds up as a main course that stands with anything that came out in 2020.
Hip-hop has a long history of producer / emcee duos and when it clicks just right you get timeless music. That's what has happened here between Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist. Add in features from heavy hitters such as Tyler The Creator, Rick Ross, and Benny The Butcher and it's clear that you have a complete project that we won't soon forget. After dropping two nearly perfect albums with Madlib, it's great to see Freddie continue to showcase his lyrical craft over another top tier producer in Alchemist who has been cooking up classics with some of the best rappers in the game for quite some time now.
The beat switches, movie samples and different flows all allow the listener to travel with Alchemist and Gibbs on the type of rap journey you don't get too often. They have been a winning combo in the past and this one was one of their best. It is luxurious and potent with some of the best and well-timed raps of Gibbs’ career as well.
- Ben Houston
24. Daniel Avery - Love + Light
Daniel Avery released a lot of very good music in 2020, from his Daniel Weatherall tribute track “Lone Swordsman” to his collaborative album with Alessandro Cortini Illusion Of Time. That album could have made the cut here, but instead we chose his LP Love + Light. As the title suggests, it is split into two complimenting halves.
The first half is built for the club or the image of what it was. The songs are darker, more intense and purposeful. Some like “Searing Light, Forward Motion” can slap you right in the face with relentless drums, dark ambiance and a frenetic pace. Others like “Darlinnn” are slightly more subdued, drawing the listener in to a drawn out and hypnotic dance. Light takes you to the warm embrace of the dancefloor with soft ambiance, gentle melodies and swirling synths. Avery was able to build a concept album that took the listener on a journey like a night out without their needing to be the night. It was cathartic and necessary this year.
Read his break-down of the album here.
25. Andrea - Ritorno
Italian for return, Turin-native Andrea released his album Ritorno on Ilan Tape back in April during the worst and most traumatic moments of the pandemic in Northern Italy. Combining house, breaks, techno, jungle and a bit of trip-hop, the album moves from one sound to the next with the ease of Juventus collecting Scudettos these days (maybe not this season?). There are moments where it can feel weighty with low sub bass rattling and skittering percussion dominating a track before giving way to bright and cheery melodies on the next record. It is one of the better instrumental electronic albums of the year that combines various genres into one whole and seamless record. Just as the title would suggest, this is one of those albums you will feel the need to return to over and over.
26. Speaker Music - Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry
Back in the middle of June, Planet Mu released what it said was one of its most important albums of the year. DeForrest Brown Jr. aka Speaker Music released a surprise new album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry with all proceeds from the record go to Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM) and the Movement 4 Black Lives.
In the midst of the largest protest movement the US has ever seen, record was an urgent call to action with skittering drums and harsh and modern rhythms, exploring poet Tsitsi Ella JajiI’s concept of “stereomodernism.” The album is gritty, harsh and jarring. The drums race around you in a dizzying blend of techno, free jazz, experimental and industrial rhythms. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable and soothing. It challenges the status quo and the current white capitalist system, including techno dominated by white dudes. It is designed to make you feel uncomfortable.
27. Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2
What will most likely be hip-hop's most influential album of the year, Meet The Woo 2 will forever carry the legend that is Pop Smoke. The songs were different, his voice was unique and the sound was authentic. Living in Los Angeles you could not deny the energy that Pop was building as his singles came out and for the first time in a while it really felt like New York was doing something crazy on a mainstream level in hip-hop. In Brooklyn, his music was the sound of the borough from every car and radio. Dropping a few months after his death, Meet The Woo 2 elevated Pop Smoke to a level of super stardom he would never get to experience. His spot on this list is well deserved.
- Ben Houston
28. Sault - Untitled (Rise)
Mysterious British soul, funk and R&B group Sault released two of the most potent and important albums of the year Untitled (Black Is) and its follow up a few months later (Rise). They both could be on this list and you might as well consider both of them here since they work together and offer a similar message about the black experience and struggle. The group has released music in the shadows, emphasizing the collective, rather than the individual. According to song credits and various publications, they are songwriters, producers and singers who have worked with some star artists, but now come together to create their most ambitious project yet.
Rise delivers on funk, soul, R&B and much more with a timely mix of beautiful melodies and rhythms that draw you into their messages of revolution and racism. It is uncompromising and unflinching, forcing the listeners to re-examine their own way of looking at the world. In a year of unrest where the world tried to come to terms with racist pasts, this album felt as prescient as any.
29. Spillage Village - Spilligion
I've always been a big fan of super groups when it comes to rap and Spillage Village has it all. Spilligion is the first official release from the crew (consisting of JID, EarthGang, Jurdan Bryant, Mereba & Hollywood JB) since 2016, making it all the more hyped as fans were dying to sink their teeth into the new project. What we got was a complete album. Strong lyrics and bouncy beats that touch everything from soul to funk and r&b. There is a lot of Atlanta energy on this project and everyone involved shines all the way through.
- Ben Houston
30. Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - Unlocked
Both Kenny Beats and Denzel Curry have been featured religiously on our hip-hop chart over the years for a variety of different projects in their own right, so it is no surprise to see Unlocked on this list as the album really brings the best out of both artists. My only real issue with the project is that it's so short. While just 20 minutes long, Unlocked feels like a tease of what this duo could really do together but at the same time still delivers a clever concept album based on an album leaking. What it lacks in length it surely makes up for in creativity.
- Ben Houston