All things considered, 2020 has been an entertaining year for music—and honestly, thank the heavens, because I’m really not sure where I or anyone else would be without the ability to stay nice and distracted with some headphones and an excellent album. (On a walk, of course.) Insert here that meme of Chandler Bing holding your favorite album from this year, because at this point, the power of music is one of the only things we can always count on.
From Mandy Moore’s musical comeback to Dua Lipa’s postmodern pop masterpiece, here are my picks for the 10 best albums of 2020.
Louis Tomlinson, Walls
Every once in a while a certain album comes along that unexpectedly becomes a warm hug that keeps on giving—and Walls was certainly that album this year. The last ex-One Direction member to release a debut solo album, Louis Tomlinson was once known for his witty personality and for co-writing many of the group’s best songs, so it feels only natural that it would have taken him longer to grow past his boyband self. Addressing some more mature subjects on such as anxiety, mortality, and self-integrity—ideas that aren’t always taken seriously in a pop music world that prioritizes groundbreaking sounds and more provocative themes—Walls stands out by stressing the importance of taking your time, honoring yourself and your self-worth, feeling your feelings and finding your footing as you go.
Best songs: “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,” “Two of Us,” “We Made It,” “Too Young,” “Walls,” and “Habit”
Mandy Moore, Silver Landings
“Not all pain is black and blue / Strongest people come unglued.” Eleven years since her last album, Mandy Moore returned to music this year at long last with a comforting record made up of folk, soft rock, and country. On Silver Landings, Moore is her most honest and unapologetic self. If you only remember the bubblegum pop Mandy Moore from the early ‘00s, she is very much a thing of the past. The album is an invitation to join Moore on this ride of emotions, which encompasses everything from growing up, finding your voice, reclaiming that voice, dismissing negativity, and living authentically—because life is too short. Silver Landings is an intimate portrait of adulthood and a look at life on the other side of achieving fame at a young age. For audiences who grew up listening to artists like Moore, it’s an absolute privilege to get to experience this glimpse into who she is now and how she got there.
Best songs: “I’d Rather Lose,” “Save A Little For Yourself,” “Fifteen,” “Tryin’ My Best, Los Angeles,” “When I Wasn’t Watching,” “Forgiveness,” and “Silver Landings”
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
The lines “I don’t wanna live another life / ‘Cause this one’s pretty nice” were most certainly written before the arrival of a certain global pandemic, but Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia nonetheless became a shining beacon of hope for countless listeners during an immensely dark time. Released a week early following an unexpected leak, the album arrived quite literally during the worst of an unprecedented health crisis and was suddenly tasked with providing a space to dance the tears away—and it more than delivered. Described by Lipa as a “future of infinite possibilities while tapping into the sound and mood of some older music,” the singer managed to create a flawless postmodern pop masterpiece that not only brought nu-disco to the forefront of 2020 but also captures our current era’s perceptions of girl power and patriarchal misogyny, heard best on songs like the title track and “Boys Will Be Boys.” Perfect in length and timelessly cohesive in structure, Future Nostalgia will likely go down as just that a few decades from now.
Best songs: “Future Nostalgia,” “Don’t Start Now,” “Cool,” “Physical,” “Levitating,” “Hallucinate,” “Love Again,” “Break My Heart,” and “Boys Will Be Boys”
Selena Gomez, Rare (Deluxe)
At the beginning of this year (so, a decade ago), Selena Gomez’s long-awaited third solo album was a stripped, welcoming look at a woman embracing all the things that make her human on her best pop record yet. Then, in April, she re-released Rare in a new deluxe edition, including several new songs in a new (and better) track listing. Above all, we can’t deny that most dance-pop albums are just better when they’re longer, and with Rare undoubtedly being her most personal and autobiographical work to date, Gomez has proven that we are at our most powerful when we are vulnerable. It (still) might be awhile before we’re all dancing again, but in the meantime, the deluxe edition of Rare wants us to hold out hope that all the drama will soon be in remission.
Best songs: “Boyfriend,” “Lose You to Love Me,” “Rare,” “Look At Her Now,” “Vulnerable,” “Dance Again,” “People You Know,” and “Feel Me”
Lady Gaga, Chromatica
“My mood’s shifting to manic places / Wish I laughed and kept the good friendships / Watch life, here I go again.” Lady Gaga, who has been vocal over the last few years about her struggles with mental health, addiction, and the trauma of recovery from sexual assault, didn’t feel free to start dancing again until she had fully dealt with the weight of those demons. Chromatica is the end result of her processing trauma through music, an eclectic, liberating journey back to the dance floor. The album is Artpop’s distant first cousin: an excessively hyperactive dance album by an artist who knows that pop music is most interesting when it’s campy and over-the-top. The difference now is that we’ve already had the privilege of getting to know Lady Gaga a little better on her last studio album as well as in her feature film debut, both of which softened her image. You can hear the liberation in Gaga’s voice on Chromatica, whether she’s telling us about the dance floor she fought for on “Free Woman” or how she’d rather be dry but at least she’s alive on “Rain On Me.” While her return to dance-pop would have fit much better during any other year but this one, Chromatica is Gaga’s best work yet.
Best songs: “Alice,” “Stupid Love,” “Rain On Me,” “Free Woman,” “911,” “Plastic Doll,” “1000 Doves,” and “Babylon”
Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
2020 didn’t have much going for it, but nu-disco was thriving this year aided in large part by Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Kylie Minogue’s DISCO. But no disco offering this year was quite as sophisticated as Jessie Ware’s seminal fourth studio album What’s Your Pleasure?, whose own house influences were a delightful throwback to the days when Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer were the reigning disco divas. While modern pop listeners have come to expect the limiting confines of the three-minute radio single, this slow-burning disco in particular is the kind of expertly crafted, mature pop that listeners have come to expect from Ware, but with an elegant and alluring nod to the legions of female disco artists who came before her. Ware has the tendency to add a soulful touch to everything she touches and What’s Your Pleasure? is no exception—from the understated, sultry vocals to the low-key pulsing beats, making an homage to a past era sound so fresh and current is a grand achievement on every scale. If 2020 had a version of Sylvester’s “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” Ware’s “Spotlight” would surely be it.
Best songs: “Spotlight,” “What’s Your Pleasure?,” “Soul Control,” “Save A Kiss,” and “Step Into My Life”
Taylor Swift, Folklore
Still not over the fact that Ms. Swift dropped her most autumn-themed album yet in the heat of July and said, “We’re all gonna be even sadder now, deal with it.” The singer’s first “alternative” record doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a gentle, spontaneous collection of lyric poetry—thus the basis of its strong appeal. Unlike the Max Martin-infused Top 40 electropop of 1989 or Reputation, Folklore ventures out into almost completely new territory for Swift genre-wise. In fact, it’s probably her most off-the-map record ever, because even when she was singing country, her pop aspirations were still front and centre. The album saw Swift reunite with her longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff as well as new collaborations with The National’s Aaron Dessner, songwriter William Bowery, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The end result is something that Swift has never quite created before, showcasing her profound ability as a lyricist and storyteller. In doing that, she’s created an effortlessly beautiful record to remind us all not to turn a blind eye to the silent films playing out in our own imaginations.
Best songs: “The 1,” “Cardigan,” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” “Exile,” “Seven,” “August,” “This Is Me Trying,” “Illicit Affairs,” and “Betty”
Alanis Morissette, Such Pretty Forks in the Road
“This is the sound of me hitting bottom / This, my surrender, if that’s what you call it.” On her first album in eight years, Alanis Morissette returns with a compelling case of fame, motherhood, femininity, and mental illness. Morissette, who began working on Such Pretty Forks in the Road as early as 2017, is done trying to adhere to other people’s standards or play by the rules—as if she ever did that to begin with. For the woman who became the poster child for feminine anger in the mid-1990s, it seems as though her journey has come full circle as she continues to speak loudly about issues for which women have faced harsh stigmas. The singer ceases to stay quiet about other stigmatized issues as well, such as the simple fact that life is hard. Ripping off the band-aid on one’s mental health struggles is still nothing short of revolutionary, even in our current era that likes to pride itself on being more aware of the stigma, and especially for the eternally angry but still enlightened Morissette. Nothing short of the Canadian legend’s best work in years, Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exciting and liberating new chapter, one that also promises to continue fighting the silent battles that need to be screamed from the rooftops.
Best songs: “Smiling,” “Ablaze,” “Reasons I Drink,” “Diagnosis,” and “Nemesis”
Ava Max, Heaven & Hell
I had never intended to include this album on this list, but no other new pop record has been played on repeat in my music library as much as Ava Max’s highly anticipated debut studio effort Heaven & Hell. While the album shows little concern for originality, Max’s comfortingly familiar stage presence is sure to trigger nostalgia for early 21st century pop. Those who think this kind of pop isn’t real music may be skeptical of Max. But beneath the surface, Heaven & Hell is much more than just Top 40 earworms: yes, it lacks originality, but maybe that’s part of its charm. Max recalls Paula Abdul or Taylor Dayne, both of whom were not taken very seriously in their era since all they wanted to do was sing and dance. While Max’s Christina Aguilera-like growl and penchant for outrageous costumes a la Lady Gaga does offer much potential beyond singing and dancing, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with making a pop album that is just that: music that allows us to be our unapologetic selves, original or not.
Best songs: “Naked,” “Tattoo,” “OMG What’s Happening,” “Born to the Night,” “Torn,” “Who’s Laughing Now,” “Rumors,” “So Am I,” “Salt,” and “Sweet But Psycho”
“I know I’m better off solo / Shouldn’t have to be this hard.” Much like all of us, the Swedish singer—born Lotta Lindgren—has been grappling with both the social and emotional effects of the isolation that this year has brought, and in some ways, this record was born from that. But in others, Apart articulates the comedown from being out in the grand uncertainty of the world, and attempting to heal from those wounds. While the melancholy and nostalgia-infused lyrics that have brought her a passionate fanbase remain, her second album surely proves that the vulnerability present on her first album and previous EPs was not performative—LÉON is someone who just genuinely feels passionately and intensely, especially during a year like this one, and it’s this quality that attracts listeners into a comforting atmosphere where we also feel free to feel intensely.
Best songs: “And It Breaks My Heart,” “In a Stranger’s Arms,” “Chasing a Feeling,” “Falling Apart,” “Who You Lovin,” and “Seventeen”
What were your favorite albums from this year?
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