Listening to new music is part of everyone’s daily life at Rolling Stone, from the writers and editors in the music department to photographers, designers, researchers, copy editors, and more. That might have been truer than ever in 2020, a year when music became an essential source of comfort and distraction when we needed it most. The choices on these personal Top 10s range from the biggest albums of the year — Taylor Swift’s Folklore was playing in many a living room, as were Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, and other popular picks — to more idiosyncratic selections across a wide spectrum of genres. Read on for a glimpse of the many sounds that filled more than 25 Rolling Stone staffers’ headphones in 2020.
Jonathan Bernstein, Research Editor
“I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next” went the chorus of the very last song I heard performed live in a music venue (Drive-By Truckers’ “Angels and Fuselage”). The music that’s meant the most to me in this year of scared-shitless sorrow are records that either embraced such catastrophe head-on or helped imagine a safer tomorrow. Just about all of these albums share a deep sense of loss, whether of childhood innocence (Christian Lee Hutson), a lifelong companion (Swamp Dogg), spoiled marriage (Lydia Loveless), or black lives destroyed by police violence (Spillage Village). Some sounds couldn’t help but prophesize a future where music returns to loud, cramped spaces: the euphoric guitar solo that concludes Trace Mountains’ “Rock and Roll,” the handclaps that arrive during Benji’s verse on Spillage Village’s “Hapi,” the swirling synth line on Chicano Batman’s “Blank Slate.” Others, from Samantha Crain, Stephanie Lambring, and Bonny Light Horseman, felt like necessary, contemplative retreats into bedroom isolation. “This world is big and ending soon,” as James Keegan, who records as Kitchen, puts it in his gorgeous end-times soliloquy, Halloween in August. “I wanna spend my time with you.”
Emily Blake, Director of Charts
If there’s anything I missed most in 2020, it was the dance floor — the energy that moves through you and all the strangers around you, the running into bodies and other people running into yours. When you listen to good dance music when you’re stuck at home with your cats, it can make you miss it so much it hurts, like on Roisin Murphy’s Roisin Machine and Romare’s Home. (Cats don’t exactly like it when you run into them.) Then there were the albums that soundtracked the existential introspection that tends to happen when it’s just you and your cats and your mind for nine months, like Perfume Genius’ Set My Heart on Fire Immediately and Mosey Sumney’s grae. And then there was Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song, which managed to pack all of that — angst and reflection and dance-floor beats — into one.
Jon Blistein, Staff Writer
The first album I loved this year was Chubby and the Gang’s Speed Kills, and the last concert I got to see before lockdown was Chubby and the Gang playing Speed Kills. Even at under 30 minutes, listening to that album was like being sucked up and spat out on some random London street (the eye-popping, R. Crumb-inspired milieu on the cover certainly added to the experience). But when it became clear none of us could actually go anywhere this year, that kind of immersive conveyance is what I craved most in music. Often it was specific places: Haim’s Women in Music, Pt. III dropped me in languid Los Angeles; Burna Boy’s Twice as Tallrooted me in Lagos, then took me around the African diaspora; Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s Full Wack No Brakes had me, of all places, in the grounds of council estates in Bradford, England. Other times, the trip was more nebulous: a vast prairie expanse listening to Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, or some anonymous, bungalow-lined block late at night with Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher. With Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware, it was simply about remembering what it feels like to dance in a dark, packed room. But the most profound records I loved this year took me somewhere unexpected. Bartees Strange’s Live Forever opened up a staggering new front for what rock music can be, and Anjimile’s Giver Taker led me through a dalliance with forces far more spiritual than I’d opened myself up to in a long while. In a year that dragged like each day was stuck to the next and the one behind it, transcendence of any kind was a treat to cherish.
David Browne, Senior Writer
2020 felt like a year when music didn’t need to be relentlessly innovative or forward-thinking; it merely had to be reassuring, since reassurance, in our system and our sanity, was what we desperately needed. And in that way, both new and old guards came through. It was heartening to hear Dua Lipa revive glorious electro-pop of yore, unafraid to revel in hooks, just as it was to hear Chloe x Halle reanimate R&B or a newish troubadour like Bridgers reboot the singer-songwriter genre. Of the veterans, it was reassuring to hear Springsteen make his most retro yet most alive album in years, or to hear approaching-80 Dylan find new ways to express himself (more pensive than ever) or even to hear a now old-school EDM act like the Avalanches move beyond samples and cheekiness and go deeper. And if one had to tap into the zeitgeist, there were no better ways than Halsey’s roiling pop or the mournful electro of The Ascension, which found Stevens chastising God, begging for meds, and dissing social media. As far as the first true release of Sonic Youth’s blazing ’93 Portuguese show, part of their massive Bandcamp archival rollout: Well, sometimes it just felt good to hear feedback again.
Rick Carp, Research Editor
Sprain, As Lost Through Collision
Guitar Fight From Fooly Cooly, Soak
Nuvolascura, As We Suffer From Memory and Imagination
Infant Island, Beneath
Oolong, About Your Imaginary Friend
Gulch, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
Respire, Black Line
2020 started off great: I went to shows by bands on my list from 2019 (Short Fictions and Pinocchio) and acts that I’ve loved for a while but had never gotten to see live prior (Soul Glo and Control Top). There’s probably nothing profound to say about what happened next that hasn’t already been said countless times. Many of the records released this year were largely written prior to Covid-19; maybe circa 2022 we will get some amazing material that musicians put together entirely while stuck at home. Or not — plenty of folks were depressed and unmotivated, which is also completely natural and fine. This list has no real order of favorites, so there are no numbers, but all of them are fun. I hope people have held up all right and continue to stay healthy — can’t wait to scream gang vox with you at concerts again!
Tim Chan, Director of Products and Commerce
In a year where it seemed like everything was suddenly put on pause, music was the thing that shook us out of our slumber, giving us something to celebrate and look forward to in the midst of an ever-extending quarantine. Whether it was a long-awaited release or a surprise drop, these albums resonated beyond their melodies and lyrics, serving as rallying cries for fans old and new alike. They brought us together — in torrid debates on social media, and makeshift FaceTime listening sessions at home — as we obsessed over every emotional lyric and easter egg to find hidden meanings and inspiration behind each song. In doing so, these albums helped us tap into a little inspiration, too, soundtracking our late-night writing sessions or setting the stage for karaoke with our quarantine pod. From the stripped-down honesty of Folklore to the pumped-up disco pop of Chromatica, these albums made us dance and cry and sing and dance some more. The days may have all blurred together in 2020, but when it came to music, these were the artists and albums we didn’t mind having on repeat.
Jon Dolan, Reviews Editor
“Are there still beautiful things?” Swift asked, and Folklore proved there could be, matching sublime lyrics to sublime melodies and subtly brightening the darkest summer of our lives with a record about love and heartbreak, trauma and memory, “time, curious time,” and the way music can unlock it and shape it and heal it too. When Dylan’s latest masterpiece came out, it felt right away like his best since Love and Theft, but now I wonder if it’s his best since maybe even Blonde on Blonde. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever match the propulsion of early R.E.M. with the poetry of the Go-Betweens, two Eighties college-rock tastes that go so well together. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters was confrontational, challenging, very funny, and, most importantly, empathetic. Chicago garage-pop twentysomethings Beach Bunny made emo feel new again. Jessie Ware made dance-pop full of elation but tinged with ambiguity and longing. Lil Uzi Vert’s epic Eternal Atake was dazzlingly spaced out and explosive, an album that takes you out to the farther reaches of the galaxy and knocks your skull in. Stephen Malkmus unplugged and zoned out for a sweet fireside folk LP. Katie Crutchfield made roots-rock that was warm, real, and gorgeously detailed. And Run the Jewels came with a vision of radical lefty rap that fit the times so perfectly it was like they had a crystal ball in the studio while they were making it.
Patrick Doyle, Senior Editor
Bruce Springsteen recently told Jimmy Fallon about the sound he was aiming for when he recorded his new album, Letter to You. “I always liked music where the singer sounded happy and sad simultaneously. I always loved the Drifters’ ‘Saturday Night at the Movies,’ ‘Up On the Roof,’ ‘Under the Boardwalk.’ For some reason, the singer always sounds hopefully resigned – like he had his spirit, but sad at the same time.” That emotion reflects a lot of the music that came out this year, from the “cozy sadness” of Taylor’s Folklore to Phish’s Sigma Oasis, where Trey Anastasio provided great advice for looking out for others during trying time: “While you’re on this lonely trip, keep an eye on other ships,” he sang. 2020 was a time when artists could throw out their plans and take new chances. Tyler Childers learned the fiddle for Long Violent History, creating cinematic images with almost no words at all; Sturgill Simpson re-recorded his best songs as bluegrass tracks; best of all, Bob Dylan wrote a 17-minute epic about JFK that captured the senselessness of this year (“Murder Most Foul”).
Brenna Ehrlich, News Editor
This year was all about songwriting and nostalgia for me — from Neil Young’s long-awaited 1975 album Homegrown to Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ remake of 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman. Taylor Swift, Jason Isbell, and Bill Callahan all delivered when it came to story-song-esque lyricism, while Destroyer, Sad13, and Man Man kept me sated with weird and wonderful turns of phrase. Then there were the Jayhawks and Laura Jane Grace, who not only nailed it with the words, but also provided tunes to dance, thrash, and scream along to. Catharsis was the name of the game.
Andrew Firriolo, Data Quality Analyst
This was a year of surprises. Seemingly out of nowhere, Taylor Swift dropped one of the best albums of her career, a stunning acoustic collection with some of her deepest songwriting to date. I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of excellent releases from newer artists, such as Conan Gray’s debut album, Kid Krow, and Dua Lipa’s excellent sophomore release, Future Nostalgia, which picked up multiple Grammy nominations. Some standout songs from this list are “Rest,” from Kari Jobe’s live album, The Blessing; “Dancing in the Dark,” from SVRCINA’s masterful Elysian Fields; and “Written In The Sky,” an ambient pop ballad from Jennette Elizabeth’s From, Me. Even with everything going on, 2020 proved to be a standout year for pop music.
Jon Freeman, Deputy Editor, Rolling Stone Country
In times of crisis, I tend to turn to music that feels like an escape, hence my repeated enjoyment of the many ecstatic moments on Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Lady Gaga’s albums. But for country and folk storytelling, Ashley McBryde, Waxahatchee, Waylon Payne, and Katie Pruitt all wrote exceptional narrative-driven collections. Then, of course, I played Run the Jewels 4 again at some point in the fall, when it felt like the world was about to explode, and it felt like the polar opposite of my dance-pop reveries: music for the apocalypse.
Dewayne Gage, Social Media Editor
It’s almost like Brent Faiyaz prematurely chose the title for the year when he dropped his album F*ck The World in early February. While the planet as we knew it was slowly burning this year, music was the only flame that I was excited about. From Verzuz battles to almost an album dropping every week, I think we can all agree that music helped us get through quarantine. Whether it was Partynextdoor and Bryson when I was “in my feelings,” or Lil Uzi and Gunna to start my Friday night turn-up in the house, I thank Apple Music for making this selection process so easy.
Kory Grow, Senior Writer
I’ve always been attracted to anxious, pensive music, so one positive aspect of 2020 is that with everyone feeling anxious and pensive, there was a lot to choose from. Jehnny Beth’s To Love Is to Live became my favorite record of the year after I listened to it two or three times. It’s not an LP to be taken in chunks; it’s the kind of album you need to focus on. Start it at the beginning, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by anything, and just submit. Although the singles she released were great, they’re even better in the context of an album. Of the nine runners-up, Ozzy Obourne’s Ordinary Man was a late-career best for the Prince of Darkness (“Today Is the End” was a fitting 2020 song that stayed with me); Bob Mould’s Blue Hearts may be punk album of the year; Idles proved that you could play heavy but also be funny and positive; and Christine and the Queens notched a place simply because of “People, I’ve Been Sad.” Although all the albums here are great, I want to point out that NIN’s Ghosts V is almost as good as Ghosts VI; “locusts” just seemed like a more fitting theme for the year. I can’t wait to see what next year brings.
Christian Hoard, Music Editor
I’ve admired Katie Crutchfield’s music for years, and it was gratifying to see her make her best record five albums into Waxahatchee’s existence. Saint Cloud is the kind of straightforward, rock-ish record that makes it all seem so simple, even though it’s anything but. It was also gratifying to hear a great album inspired by quitting drinking, another stab in the heart of the old canard that getting clean hurts your art. Veterans at the top of their game was a theme for me: RTJ4 is my favorite Run the Jewels album by a mile; Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters kept revealing surprises on each listen; I don’t know what it means that Low Cut Connie, easily one of rock’s best live bands, made a killer record in a year where touring was impossible, but they did. (Public Enemy’s What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? isn’t their best, but don’t sleep on it.) Bad Bunny and Lil Uzi Vert offered different visions that feel like the future; Buffalo’s Westside Gunn kept popping up with excellent singles and albums all year long while recovering from coronavirus; Dua Lipa and Flo Milli offered different versions of how to make music ridiculously fun.
Joseph Hudak, Editor, Rolling Stone Country
When I wasn’t bitching about how divided we’ve become as a country this year, I was listening to an album…about how divided we’ve become as a country. In less capable hands, Butch Walker’s concept record about a fractured U.S. of A. could have been a MAGA-nificent disaster. But American Love Story is a nimble, smartly conceived opus with pop hooks so irresistible it nearly made me write in Butch’s name on my ballot. It’s also cathartic, underpinned by tales of redemption, forgiveness, and understanding. Butch produced my Number Two album this year, too: Elizabeth Cook’s ripping Aftermath. It’s a monster. So is Sadler Vaden’s Anybody Out There?, in which he distills the best of Roger & Pete and Liam & Noel into one tight album. Nashville-by-way-of-Australia duo the Scent tap into some similar classic-rock sounds on their debut EP, my favorite discovery of the year. Their glammy anthem “Dry Sherry” is still the first thing I cue up to start my day.
Jeff Ihaza, Senior Editor
Listening to music this year served as both a balm and a trigger, at once offering an escape from reality’s bleakness, and a reminder of the parties cancelled, the nights postponed. It’s exhausting to imagine what the year 2020 could have been, but some records turned the malaise into something hopeful. Popcaan’s excellent FIXTAPE surely would have set summer 2020 off in a different direction had there been no pandemic, and yet it still turned my living room up on days when I needed to just pretend that fun was still an option.
Daniel Kreps, Staff Writer
In the year 2020, an EP is an album. Between lockdowns, Zoom calls, remote learning and shuttered preschools, closed record stores and no concerts, family FaceTime calls and the 24/7 news cycle of an election year, it was nearly impossible to carve out time to sit and listen to music. Rides in the car, a longtime source for music discovery, were reduced to short trips to the grocery store and takeout (although one ride did, thankfully, introduce me to Westerman). During too-brief windows of solitude, I most frequently turned to Christine and the Queens’ La Vita Nuova EP, 23 minutes of bliss spanning six songs (five if you discount the English version of “Je disparais dans tes bras”) as well as the best song of 2020, “People, I’ve been sad.” Just as the coronavirus saps some sufferers of their sense of taste, the ongoing pandemic numbed my ability to simply enjoy things, but these are the 10 albums that made my 2020 slightly less awful, like space rockers Hum’s long-awaited and incredible follow-up to Downward Is Heavenward and Loma’s excellent second LP.
Sacha Lecca, Deputy Photo Editor
I was really impressed with so many albums this year, like Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple, Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers, and Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, but the 10 on this list are the ones I couldn’t get enough of. Without live music much of this past year, I leaned even harder on the at-home remedies of vinyl (and some streaming). These albums stood out for me, cutting through months of wistfulness, fatigue, and uncertainty. Each one offers different solutions to a life under lockdown — from Habibi’s dreamy harmonies to Bambara’s gloomy thunder to Working Men’s Club’s ’80s post-punk electronic dance vibe — all forms of pre-2020 nostalgia. Remove this global pandemic from the equation and my picks might still have been the same, though.
Angie Martoccio, Staff Writer
I’m known for gravitating towards sad indie music, which explains why Spotify tells me I listened to 1,208 minutes of Phoebe Bridgers this year. But there were some sunny moments in my rotation, like Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud and Taylor Swift’s Folklore: two records that made me want to crawl upstate and sit on a cozy porch while eating jam out of a Mason jar. Jessie Ware and Dua Lipa brought the disco to my apartment — which would have happened even without a pandemic, because I’m a homebody. The only male artist to make my list is Bob Dylan, who delivered a devastatingly great record that includes the stunner “Key West.” Are my South Florida roots making me biased? You bet.
Ethan Millman, Staff Writer
In this heavy, horrible year, I found myself reaching for my longtime security blanket records over new releases far more often than usual. I’ve always looked to music as my escape, and I suppose there’s no easier way to run from 2020 than to listen to some music released long before now. That said, I found just as much comfort through Waxahatchee’s exceptional Saint Cloud, whose folk-tinged vocals and warm, bright guitar sounds have been in my heavy rotation since the album dropped in March. That likely won’t change any time soon. And forget the Weeknd — RJT4 took the biggest Grammy snub this year, and deserved much more of the music community’s collective outrage. It was the best hip-hop album of 2020, and in a year defined as much by racism and police brutality as by a pandemic, no album more succinctly took apart our broken system. There isn’t much I can say about most of the rest of this year’s music (or my listed albums) that hasn’t already been said a million times over, but I’ll fervently call Aminé’s Limbo the most underrated rap album of the year, and a must-listen worthy of far more love and press than it’s been given.
Steven Pearl, Copy Editor
2020 was definitely a year in which I leaned on the classics — which, for me, meant listening to Stephen Merritt’s “What a Fucking Lovely Day” nearly every morning after lockdowns began this spring, saluting Little Richard with “Freedom Blues” throughout the long, hot, contentious summer, and hell-yeah partying after voting to YG (feat. Nipsey Hussle)’s “FDT” this fall. It was also another year I kept listening to singles more than albums. That’s not always good. I miss albums the same way I miss reading more books instead of just consuming massive volumes of news du jour. But for the most part, these songs come from some damn solid LPs. They’re my favorite left-of-center releases this year.
Jerry Portwood, Digital Director
Kyle Rice, Designer
It’s been a tumultuous year, both politically and musically. As a result, my list is a bit tumultuous, spanning hot artists like reggaeton sensation Bad Bunny, whose Rolling Stone cover was a major milestone, all the way to Rina Sawayama, whose electro-pop came to me as a recommendation and now lives rent-free in my head. We also can’t forget about the Chicks, who had me playing their new album on repeat and spiraling into classics like “Goodbye Earl,” or Toni Braxton with her deep alto tones and heartbreak lyrics on Spell My Name. Undoubtedly, though, the album that got me through the year was Chloe x Halle’s Ungodly Hour. The voices on these two women are unlike any others, and the way they interweave half-step chords into their music is incredible. Although the album came at such a hard time in America, it was the perfect distraction from reality that listeners needed. It’s very hard for young artists to grow into their own, but these women are a force to be reckoned with. It’s no wonder they have become part of the Yoncé dynasty.
Claire Shaffer, Staff Writer
Thoughts and prayers to all the artists who market their music as “bedroom pop,” because this year, every artist was…well, you get the point. Music is the one constant solace through the worst of times, and the pandemic was no different, but the thing that amazes me the most about the past 10 months is that we’ve still managed to experience music collectively. I’ll never forget logging onto Twitter the day that Fetch the Bolt Cutters was released, or holding a Slack seance with a few Rolling Stone coworkers when Folklore dropped, or watching every damn TikTok fancam set to “Beef FloMix.” I still miss live venues so much, but Zoom raving to Caribou and Taking Back Sunday will have to do for now.
Rob Sheffield, Contributing Editor
Music kept us moving this year. We depended on our favorite music like never before, to give us that jolt of human connection, to shake up our emotions, to keep us dancing on our own. These were the albums I loved best, the music that lifted me up, and pointed me forward. My favorites run all over the map stylistically, from pop gloss to indie rock, from rap to R&B to folk to disco. Some come from longtime heroes; some are by new kids; one is by Paul McCartney. But all these albums were something to celebrate in 2020 — and a reason to look ahead to the future. More than ever, “Have you heard this?” is the best way to begin any conversation. (For even more great music, see Rob Sheffield’s full lists of the top albums and songs of 2020.)
Hank Shteamer, Senior Editor
Bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger’s album of intimate, quietly radiant quarantine duets arrived like a balm at the end of an unrelenting year. Elsewhere, I took comfort in household names staying the course (AC/DC, Bob Dylan) and newer faces approaching established styles from unexpected angles (Rochester metal crew Undeath, L.A. jazz saxophonist Josh Johnson). I also loved hearing songwriters known for their work in louder contexts strip things back (Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein, RVIVR’s Erica Freas), and artists embracing both gutsy optimism and seething nihilism — avant-jazz survivor Alan Braufman and hardcore madmen Gulch, respectively — in ways that seemed to perfectly complement the mood of the moment. Meanwhile, a reanimated Mr. Bungle provided pure escapist thrills, with a hint of maniacal laughter.
Brittany Spanos, Senior Writer
A year I’d rather erase has, oddly enough, been rich in rather unforgettable albums. My year in listening to music has been marked primarily by what I can’t wait to enjoy “when this is all over.” Albums I want to dance to, karaoke, and see performed live. They have been a balm and a sign of hope, though sometimes that means they have been a painful reminder of what we’ve lost. I’ve relied heavily on upbeat music, something I have always done when I feel particularly dejected. Thankfully there’s been a disco revival, as well as lots of raunchy anthems that make me yearn for nights screaming out the windows of packed cabs with my best friends. The ones that have left me in my feelings, like my Number One pick, have offered the type of extreme, emotional catharsis I didn’t realize I wanted but am thankful for in the end.
Simon Vozick-Levinson, Deputy Music Editor
I would have loved to spend this month in the afterglow of one of Bob Dylan’s annual late-November shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre, which have become a ritual for me in recent years as the old master has hit a new hot streak with his band. Instead here I am at home, counting my blessings and wondering for the 115th time whether “Mirrorball” deserves a spot on the cosmic playlist from “Murder Most Foul.” Rough and Rowdy Ways is the finest album in many years from that salty, inscrutable American original — a darkly hilarious stand-up routine about art and mortality, with some real pathos underneath those wild punchlines. As for the others: Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, and Caribou gave us immaculate grooves for a night out that never came; Katie Crutchfield, Robin Pecknold, and Sadie Dupuis looked within and found new clarity. Some of my favorite songwriters ever showed they can still surprise me, and rookie of the year Flo Milli made me smile every time I pressed play. Will any of these records sound the same in a crowded room? I can’t say, but I’m thankful for each of them and the solace they provided this year.
Amy X. Wang, Senior Music Business Editor
In the basement of my New York City apartment building sits a lone treadmill, wedged between three mirror-paneled walls. The visual effect of exercising in this “gym” is one of total comic dissonance; it’s also where I’ve spent most of the pandemic — alone, out of breath, literally and fruitlessly running toward three of myself — so my favorite albums of the year, which I looped on repeat as I ran for hours to nowhere, are naturally just as unhinged. To soundtrack this very eerie year, I wanted sweeping instrumental emotion and a lack of lyrical distraction — but lo-fi beats got predictable fast and movie scores didn’t feel up to the task, with their commercial entrails and their overly scripted pathos. That’s how I ended up in the land of clashing cellos, trilling clarinets, and really, really lovely grace notes, which I present to you now. Go ahead, tell me you find classical music boring; now queue up “DANCE: II. If you’ve torn the bandage off” for your next quarantine jog around the block and come back and try to say it again, I dare you.
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