Not every album released in 2020 was made during the pandemic. But every one of them was heard during it — context that couldn’t help but shape the way music sounded or what it seemed to say. Here are the 10 that stood out, along with 10 runners-up from a year with more listening time than most.
1. Taylor Swift, “Folklore”
Pop’s most closely scrutinized diarist used a season of isolation to dream beyond herself. Yet for all its experimentation with point of view, “Folklore” — recorded remotely in quarantine with fresh collaborators including Bon Iver and the National’s Aaron Dessner — retains the intimate air of introspection, a songwriter’s trick as enchanting as Swift’s newly complicated melodies.
2. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”
It takes a master of texture to make a record that sounds like it’s falling apart — and a person of extreme emotional fortitude to make one that digs up so much trauma. After an eight-year break during which her legend only grew, Apple returned right as the world was tipping into chaos; nothing about the music suggests she was surprised.
3. The Chicks, “Gaslighter”
President Trump, a cheating ex-husband, spineless country-radio programmers — the Chicks’ thrilling comeback (minus the “Dixie” but with vocal harmonies intact) accommodated all comers in vivid, funny songs about the varied systems that enable men to claim positions for which they’re not cut out.
4. Thundercat, “It Is What It Is”
“I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good,” this L.A.-based funkateer sings over the type of plasmatic bass line that’s made him a go-to collaborator for Kendrick Lamar and Michael McDonald. On his fourth solo record, which addresses the 2018 death of his close friend Mac Miller, Thundercat keeps finding ways to personalize a trippy philosophy of healing.
“The Bigger Picture” elevated Lil Baby from streaming champ to voice for a generation. But like everyone else, he just wants life to get back to normal.
5. Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways”
Split between bloodthirsty rockers and so-pretty-they-hurt ballads, Dylan’s 39th studio album showcases a lifelong tunesmith who’s only found more things to write about — from sex and violence to history and botany (!) — as he’s aged. At 79, he’s precisely the snowbird you want telling you about the bougainvillea blooming in Key West.
6. Ariana Grande, “Positions”
No large gatherings here: Grande sings almost exclusively about a quar-pod of two on this tender yet raunchy meditation on the only safe contact sport left in the age of COVID. Limiting? Not with her voice (or imagination).
7. Moses Sumney, “Grae”
As kaleidoscopic in style as Sumney’s view is of identity — “I insist upon my right to be multiple,” one interlude declares — this sprawling double album moves between R&B, pop, indie rock and electronic music as Sumney thinks through what it means to be a person with his skin, his background and his desires.
Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.
8. The Strokes, “The New Abnormal”
Nobody expected the beautiful princes of New York’s early-’00s retro-garage scene to still be around two decades later. Yet here they are greeting middle age with an album of gorgeous and empathetic sad-dad jams about what happens when the party ends. “Use me like an oar, and get yourself to shore,” Julian Casablancas moans — a cautionary tale destined to be ignored by some kid in a $2,000 leather jacket.
9. Kali Uchis, “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞”
The Spanish-language follow-up to Uchis’ English-language debut feels like a mixtape cataloging her loves and influences, from the boleros she heard growing up to the reggaeton and hip-hop that keep Latin pop moving today. Whatever the setting, her wonderful singing — airy, pleading, tinged with just the right amount of scorn — puts Uchis in the center of the music.
10. Megan Thee Stallion, “Good News”
Debate all you want about whether “Good News,” which follows several mixtapes and a mini-LP, represents Megan’s official debut. What’s clear from this nonstop barrage of hooks and boasts and punchlines is that the 25-year-old rapper knows the world’s eyes are finally on her.
Plus 10 more not to be missed:
Haim, “Women in Music Pt. III”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher”
Justin Bieber, “Changes”
Childish Gambino, “3.15.20”
The Weeknd, “After Hours”
Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”
Beach Bunny, “Honeymoon”
Tame Impala, “The Slow Rush”
Dua Lipa and the Blessed Madonna, “Club Future Nostalgia”
The 1975, “Notes on a Conditional Form”