Scene’s Best Albums of 2020
Scene writers made their lists; they checked them twice. The albums from January were reexamined; the soundtrack to the summer was played in December. Everyone’s votes were tallied and the final ticket of 20 records — those which we most cherished, fell deepest into and held closest to our hearts and ears in 2020 — emerged.
Years from now when we look back on 2020 albums — both albums that were released in 2020 and albums that capture the vibes of this awfully memorable year — Phoebe Bridgers’ “Punisher” will perhaps be the definitive choice. On her 11-track sophomore work, Bridgers manages to capture the quiet pain and loss — and elusive, subtle hope — of 2020 in just 40 minutes. The tracks and lyrics balance the tenuous line between hope and despair, healing and grief — she’s traveling through “Kyoto” and contemplating her own mortality on “Garden Song,” falling in love on “Moon Song” and wandering through Memphis on “Graceland Too.” “ICU” and “Savior Complex” both examine the experience of being in a toxic relationship without being derivative or exploitative, and by putting those cathartic emotions to song, Bridgers helps us — and herself — start to heal.
On the stellar closing track “I Know The End,” Bridgers sings about a somewhat familiar sight: a giant billboard proclaiming “THE END IS NEAR.” As she processes the apocalypse for five minutes and 45 seconds, the music gradually swells to a dramatic end, as Bridgers proclaims “I guess the end is here,” screaming, out of breath. None of us really know the end, but hopefully, Phoebe Bridgers will be singing when it comes. — Claire Rafford, Assistant Managing Editor
Haim can be anything a 20-something-year-old needs on the satirically titled “Women in Music, Pt. III.” The sisters step into new waters with their best record yet, keeping us both on our toes and wondering if we should still make that therapy appointment (yes).
They are sexy-R&B on “3 A.M.” and reflective on soured relationships on “All That Ever Mattered.” They return to pop rock with “Summer Girl” and give us ruminations on depression and traumas on “Hallelujah” and “I Know Alone.” Somehow, they can do almost all of it at once — see the dizzyingly therapeutic “Now I’m In It,” “The Steps” and “Another Try” for songs that create a hybrid of musical gold which will remain fresh past 2020’s hell. The trio offer all the feelings in this introspective and deeply personal record, plus the promise of the perfect soundtrack to dance out all your troubles. Do Haim and I know the same boys? Scary if true! Do our mental illnesses manifest in similar ways? Perhaps. All I know is it’s a mark of greatness to make the loneliest feelings into a shared experience. Dance — or power walk — 2020 out with these women in music. — Mariah Rush, Managing Editor
Looking back on 2020, one album seems to stand out from the rest. Instead of the year’s other LPs — which may end up seeming like elevator music for the TikTok set or nouveau-riche odes to the joys of glamping — Fiona Apple’s confounding, endlessly rewarding “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” is the right album for the right time, an inadvertent lockdown memoir about the necessity of breaking free.
Apple’s piano playing and idiosyncratic vocals take center stage. Early highlight “Shameika” features a rollicking piano part that splits the difference between barrelhouse and slaughterhouse. The veteran singer-songwriter nevertheless finds room for her own carefully penned lyrics; “I would beg to disagree / but begging disagrees with me,” from the track “Under The Table,” is as funny as it is empowering.
Dropped in April and becoming more powerful with each passing month, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” isn’t only one of the best albums of the year, it could very well end up being the defining pop culture document of the COVID era. In a year marked by anxiety and isolation, Apple’s album recognized the chains of injustice holding us down. You know what makes quick work of those chains? A pair of bolt cutters. — Jake Winningham, Associate Scene Editor
Taylor Swift revealed to us how she spent the early months of quarantine when she announced her surprise eighth album “folklore.” An expert of evolution, Swift adopted a new sound for “folklore,” stripping her songs of the pop fluff she normally includes. The instruments are still layered, but more simply and intentionally. Her voice shines through as it has in the past when she performed acoustic versions of her finished songs.
“folklore” is yet another example of the powerful storytelling that Swift has built her career on. From the deftly reported tale of Rebekah Harkness to the love triangle between Inez, Betty and James, Swift really does prove that the devil is in the details. One of the best parts of “folklore” is guessing which songs are fictional and which may be autobiographical. She continues to outdo herself, and the “folklore” story continues with sister album “evermore,” released just days ago. Her music brought some “happiness” and “peace” to my 2020. — Dessi Gomez, Scene Writer
To reach “Saint Cloud,” Katie Crutchfield — punk rocker, indie rocker, Waxahatchee — got sober, settled in Kansas City and leaned into the folk, Americana and country music of her youth. The “Saint Cloud” she discovers is well-worn and familiar; it is the open landscape, the scenic vista. There, Crutchfield turns over every rock, leaves nothing untouched. Matter-of-fact love overwhelms “Can’t Do Much;” the Mississippi River propels “Fire;” drinking the water, like the “Lilcas,” Crutchfield reaches hope — “I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do.” She drives out of “Saint Cloud” kicking up dust in a Ford pickup truck, flowers in the bed. — Ryan Israel, Scene Editor
Dua Lipa’s second studio album does not disappoint. The British model turned singer brings catchy hooks and clever quips to “Future Nostalgia,” particularly on the title track and “Boys Will Be Boys.” She’s not all sass though, with heartfelt songs like “Cool” and the incredibly bouncy “Levitating” filling out ”Future Nostalgia.” And some tracks are true earworms; listen to “Don’t Start Now,” “Hallucinate,” “Love Again” and “Break My Heart” at your own risk. Both playful and passionate, Lipa’s spacey sophomore album can elevate moods and put spring in one’s step. She empowers listeners with her confidence and honesty; whether singing about independence or being in a relationship, she knows what she’s doing. — Dessi Gomez, Scene Writer
First things first: Yes, The Weeknd, you were robbed. But who the hell cares about the Grammys? All my homies hate the Grammys! The important part is that Scene sees you; Scene recognizes you; Scene Cares™.
“After Hours” is the Canadian R&B singer’s fourth studio album, and while it definitely sounds like The Weeknd, it’s nonetheless a subtle evolution for the artist. Still as mature and moody as ever, the album is his most consistent and cohesive to date. Megahits like “Blinding Lights” and “Heartless” don’t have to do the heavy lifting when they’re punctuated by bangers like “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears.” And with somber songs like “Snowchild” and “Escape From LA” in between, “After Hours” represents a clear departure. Infused with a dream pop sound, the Weeknd is still sad — only now, he’s a little less mad. — Aidan O’Malley, Scene Writer
The Chicks are back in town, and they have not arrived quietly. The country-pop girl band’s newest release takes its inspiration from lead singer Natalie Maines’ difficult divorce and starts off blazing with the title track, an anthem for angry women everywhere that was pretty much made for you to scream with in the car, windows down — and that’s just the beginning. The album teems with righteous anger, from “Sleep at Night,” which literally asks “How can you sleep at night?,” to “Tights on my Boat,” which proclaims “I hope you never find a sock to match the other one” — who hasn’t wished that on an ex? But it’s not all about anger; The Chicks are here to remind you that your girls have your back, especially when you’re suffering from a broken heart. Standout anthem “Julianna Calm Down” tells us to “put on your best shoes / And strut the f— around like you’ve got nothing to lose,” even when life — or men — get you down.
“March, march to my own drum,” Maines sings on the aptly titled “March March,” an ode to individuality and activism. Even after almost 15 years, The Chicks are certainly still marching to the beat of their own drum, and for that, we’re all exceedingly grateful. — Claire Rafford, Assistant Managing Editor
Lady Gaga returns to the imaginative artistry unique to her performances and persona with “Chromatica.” “Joanne” and “A Star Is Born” showed us her softer and more serious side while “Chromatica” communicates similar themes but with more creativity and metaphor, some found on “Alice,” “Plastic Doll” and “Sour Candy” featuring K-pop girl group BLACKPINK. Other powerful collaborations include “Rain on Me” with Ariana Grande and “Sine from Above” with Elton John. “Fun Tonight” and “1000 Doves” showcase Gaga’s vocals as well as her resilience and strength. She ends the project with a classic dance anthem that stretches way out there to “Babylon.” — Dessi Gomez, Scene Writer
Chevy, apple pie and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen offers yet another album that perfectly sums up the American experience. He capitalizes on what he does best, keeping his signature sound during his live studio performances, and continues to offer an empathetic account of the lives of working-class Americans. The album is relentless for the listener mimicking his character’s outlooks on life.
Here’s to hoping a day will come where a kid picks up a Bruce Springsteen album and can’t relate to the feelings of hopelessness against the relentless world America has handed them. Until then, we can find solace in both Springsteen’s uncanny ability to combine despair and optimism and his voice, which we have been singing with and dancing to since the day we were born. — Colleen Fischer, Scene Writer
If you’re going to specialize in pop music pastiches, you may as well do it right. “Plastic Hearts,” the latest from Top 40-chameleon Miley Cyrus, is one of the most purely enjoyable albums of 2020. Cyrus has made a career of jumping from genre to genre, and “Plastic Hearts,” a tribute to glam rock and new wave, is the latest and most fully-realized of Cyrus’ post-”Bangerz” LPs.
Opening track “WTF Do I Know” is the best reinvention of the “Pyromania” formula in years; later, the Joan Jett collab “Bad Karma” coasts on the strength of its two singers’ considerable chemistry. Cyrus’ vocal talents carry her through the album — until she runs into her covers of “Heart of Glass” and “Zombie.” Those two cuts are the worst part of the LP, as the misplaced fire of Cyrus’ voice on the former track establishes just how essential Debbie Harry’s affected insouciance was to Blondie’s reign; on the latter, similarly, Cyrus’ attempt to replicate the immensity of “Zombie” falls flat. Missteps like these are few and far in between, however, as the grimy heights of “Plastic Hearts” rival those of almost any other album released in 2020. — Jake Winningham, Associate Scene Editor
When I wrote about Sufjan Stevens’ eighth studio album “The Ascension” earlier this year, I gave it an overall positive review, with some asterisks. And while I stand by (most of) what I said in September, I have to admit that “The Ascension” has really grown on me in the months since its initial release — and so, too, has it grown on Scene.
“The Ascension” is an ambitious, intricate album that is somehow cynical and hopeful at the same time. Truth be told, it’s full of contradictions like that. Whirring techno flourishes give way to soft piano and strings, like a wave beating the shoreline before it rolls back to the sea. It’s about the very identity of our country, but it’s also about Sufjan himself. It’s about you; it’s about me. It’s about 2020. — Aidan O’Malley, Scene Writer
“Well, this is what it looks like,” opens the late Mac Miller on his final studio album, “right before you fall.” On “Circles,” as on his previous album “Swimming,” Miller raps in an arresting present tense, emotions raw, thoughts turning. He falls; he rises. He drowns; he swims. He moves forward; he circles back. Yet, as the lush production underscores, “Circles” is just as much an album about coming to peace with the world. It’s on the fourth song, “Good News,” that this becomes apparent. “Good news, good news, good news / that’s all they want to hear,” the rapper complains in the chorus. But then, in the final verse, he changes his perspective: “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side.” It’s an inadvertent, but fitting, final word. — Matthew Kellenberg, Scene Writer
Car Seat Headrest returns after four years; they release a single song, “Can’t Cool Me Down.” We put on our headphones; we listen. They’ve picked up something new, the synthesizer; they’ve made things electronic, sleek, almost danceable. Will Toledo — now “Trait — sings. We still listen. The music is not as loud as it once was; it strikes a different chord.
Album twelve arrives. They’ve met their “Deadlines (Thoughtful);” they’ve explored the human condition for seven minutes because “there must be more than blood / To hold us together.” Car Seat Headrest opened a door in 2020, “Making A Door Less Open.” — Ryan Israel, Scene Editor
On “Good News,” her debut studio album following a string of singles and EPs, Megan Thee Stallion addresses partying, sex, success and her own expectations. True to form, she’s explicit in meaning and wording, leaving little to the imagination about her life (in the streets and under the sheets). “Unapologetic” is a word frequently used — almost overused — in describing young, ambitious female rappers who turn the tables on a male-dominated industry. Though redundant, Megan offers no apologies on this album, and in fact, demands more, specifically from the men in her life.
Sitting high up in the family tree, Nicki Minaj serves as an important matriarch for the most recent wave of Black women in rap, giving way to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, and later a group of rowdy granddaughters including Saweetie, City Girls, Flo Milli, Rico Nasty and others. Megan is making quick work of establishing herself in the space dedicated to emerging female rappers, and continues to use her success to expand the boundaries that define that space.
She’s fun and flirty, but she’s specific in her message: Megan Thee Stallion is booked and busy doing hot girl sh-t, and will stay that way for years to come. — Maeve Filbin, Assistant Managing Editor
Ariana Grande is taking care of herself. She opens lead track “shut up” with a self-manifesting mantra and statement of fact — “My presence sweet and my aura bright” — before later adding “All them demons helped me see sh—t differently / So don’t be sad for me.” The demons — self doubt, grief — are addressed on songs like “six thirty,” but because she is feeling good, “drinking coffee” and “eating healthy,” she’s able to enjoy herself — see “34+35,” “my hair” and “nasty,” a series of sleek sex jams. She doesn’t move into a new stance, sonically or lyrically, on “Positions.” Instead, she finds the space and comfort in her current position. — Ryan Israel, Scene Editor
Folk music will never be new and it never gets old, but neither does Bob Dylan. His latest album reveals his mastery of time; in one breath he sounds like an aging prophet and in the next he’s a 20-year-old kid speeding across the world. Seeing his name on this list gives him a father like quality. He may not be at the top of the list, but his influence on these musicians, from Springsteen to Bridgers and Hawke, is immeasurable. He mentions a couple of the beat poets on “Key West” and is often regarded as the last “beat poet,” but the level of lyricism it took and takes to compete in a post-Dylan world is evident throughout 2020’s best songs. Lyrics being valued as poetry was not a given before Dylan. He offered an example of how to bend and switch through genre, deal with the press, create a persona and combine the personal with the political. His album is the kind of genius we have come to expect from Dylan, as the first installment of his final act is combined with the recent sale of his songwriting catalogue. — Colleen Fischer, Scene Writer
When the mechanisms of Hollywood nepotism work like they’re supposed to, propelling the beautiful children of celebrity parents into fame and fortune, our first reaction is to close our eyes as they ride the rocket ship of their famous surname into perfume endorsements and drug addictions. But when it comes to Maya Hawke, it’s hard to look away. The daughter of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, Maya is a model, actress and new singer-songwriter, and shows no signs of losing herself among the stars.
“Blush” is an experimental first album woven together with honest writing and earnest delivery. Playing with themes of forgiveness, loneliness, love and yearning, there’s a fine layer of tenderness over all 12 tracks. Maya’s blush feels less like someone who is embarrassed, and more like the rush of blood that accompanies an admittance of feelings held for a long time. It’s pretty and promising, like a pink sun rising over a young music career. — Maeve Filbin, Assistant Managing Editor
The creative process for Charli XCX’s “how i’m feeling now” was unusually transparent, with the enigmatic alt-pop singer inviting fans to take a look at the production and songwriting process for her latest album through livestreams. Along with boyfriend/collaborator/lockdown partner Huck Kwong, Charli XCX made one of the year’s best dance albums from within the confines of her Los Angeles home. Where “how i’m feeling now” differs from similar albums released this year is in its outlook; Dua Lipa’s spotless “Future Nostalgia,” for example, viewed the now-obsolete notion of the dance floor as a shimmering oasis at the end of our current pandemic. Charli’s album is altogether more anxious, a mood reflected in its skittering production and breathless vocals. Standout track “Anthems” finds Charli rattling off a rapid-fire list of the things she misses most over a glimmering beat from producers Dylan Brady and Danny Harle: “I want anthems / Late nights, my friends, New York.” We may not be able to (responsibly) return to clubs just yet, but Charli XCX gave us an album custom-built to party right in our rooms. — Jake Winningham, Associate Scene Editor
Similar to a band’s first record, one that comes after a long hiatus embodies years of unfulfilled creativity. The music industry traditionally demands that a successful band release albums every two to three years. The tracks that typically make the cut are those that the group happens to think up first, not necessarily the best music they can make. Yet, when a band, whether through its own choice or force, happens to take a break from making music, the creative process is allowed to start over — quality can be focused on without the restraints of time.
“Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” marks Bright Eyes’ first group effort since the release of “The People’s Key” nine years earlier. During this time, frontman Connor Oberst and his peers aged into their forties, married, divorced, started families, pursued solo projects and, in many ways, sought to create sounds that the band which gave them fame had not been known for. Despite the age of its creators, “Down in the Weeds” sounds like the music they made in their twenties: unique, undressed and youthful.
Grapes are best right off the vine and years later, aged, out of a bottle. — Charlie Kenney, Scene Writer
Honorable mentions: “Alfredo” by Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist, “RTJ4” by Run The Jewels, “The Slow Rush” by Tame Impala, “Shore” by Fleet Foxes, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately” by Perfume Genius, “1000 gecs and The Tree of Clues” by 100 gecs and “Dedicated Side B” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Check out Scene‘s 2020 playlist which includes one song from every album on our personal lists.