Music, normally one of America’s biggest, splashiest productions, took on a strangely sedate tone in 2020. Big artists were largely silent, and when they weren’t, their work was often more subdued, introspective and even meaningful. It’s probably not surprising that being trapped inside leads to some more interesting art, but what is surprising was how good it was. Many artists discovered previously unexplored depths and showed a willingness to try new things that might have felt strange in any other year except this one. So, in a very different kind of year, our favorite albums feel different than in years past.
Here are RELEVANT’s top 10 albums of 2020.
10. Haim: Women in Music, Pt III
In some ways, Women In Music, Pt III feels like the album the Haim sisters have been building towards. It blends the sunniness of their debut album with their sophomore record’s maturity for a project that flows from joy to sorrow to rage and back again as easily as you change your mind. The sister’s haven’t lost their cheeky humor or pop sensibilities, but the music still felt imbued with a subtle gravitas that suddenly made three of the coolest girls in LA feel like they might be here to stay.
9. Moses Sumney: Grae
A gifted auteur we’ll be hearing about for years, Moses Sumney has the ability to channel his emotions directly into your soul. To hear him sing is to feel what he’s feeling, in all its pain, splendor and beauty. It’s an incredible super power, and Sumney wields it with a surgeon’s precision on Grae.
8. Social Club Misfits: Feared By Hell
Social Club Misfits have a complicated relationship with the world around them. They love the Church, but they’re frustrated by its self-imposed limitations. They enjoy their community, but deeply believe it can rise higher than it has. The duo channeled all that tension into one cracker jack album this year with Feared By Hell, a joyful slap in the face of the devil and a wake up call to Christians just trying to coast until the Rapture.
7. BENEE: Hey u x
Stella Rose Bennett — aka BENEE — is at her best when she’s thumbing her nose at the type of pop music expected from 2o-year-olds like her. A TikTok sensation from New Zealand who leveraged a viral hit into a record deal, BENEE is surprisingly sincere and thrillingly creative. Hey u x pulls from influences as disparate as Radiohead and Grimes and tackles everything from suicide to manipulative boyfriends. One of the year’s very best debuts.
6. Maverick City Music: Maverick City Vol 3, Pt 1
Maverick City Music flipped the worship scene upside down by being themselves, which is far more revolutionary than one might think. The collective of songwriters, musicians and worship leaders came by their community organically, and the music they made with it is absolutely heavenly. Listening to Maverick City Music, you realize how rare their combination of talent, purpose and anointing really is, and why new worship music is still such a vital element of church worship.
5. Soccer Mommy: color theory
The casual listener might describe Sophie Allison’s voice as childlike. They’d be wrong. Listen closely to Soccer Mommy’s music and you’ll hear a far more emotional complex landscape than the initial blush might reveal. color theory charts Allison’s journey through depression, physical illness and frank grappling with her own mortality. Heavy subject matter, to be sure, but the musical energy balances it with winsome sweetness. It’s a daring balancing act.
4. Taylor Swift: Folklore
In the end, Swifties were right all along. Taylor Swift is one of her generation’s better songwriters. There always was more depth to her pop songwriting than detractors gave her credit for. And the woman is gifted with one of the most diligent work ethics in the industry, churning out not one but two pandemic albums in the time it took most of us to figure out how to set up our Zoom background. Folklore is the better of the two, finding new sides to Swift’s persona by coming at it askew. Although the album sounds like the indie folk of the mid ’00s, it’s closer in spirit to storytellers like Bruce Springsteen and Miranda Lambert, who soundtracked their own lives by writing American fables. Swift is becoming an American fable of her own now.
3. Fleet Foxes: Shore
Speaking of indie folk from the mid ’00s, few would have guessed that Fleet Foxes would be back so comparatively soon with such a comparatively terrific project. Over the course of his long career, Lead Fox Robin Pecknold has done wide-eyed youth and disillusioned cynic, but Shore finds him in more mature, contented grounds, assessing the world around him with simple honesty — appreciating its beauty while not turning away from its faults. Few would have guessed in 2008 that we’d get to watch the “Mykonos” guy grow up before our eyes. Fewer still would have guessed just how satisfying the journey would be.
2. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple doesn’t record very often so when she does, people tend to pay attention. It’s strange to watch an artist who would have once been considered a contemporary of, say, Mariah Carey now have some firmly and boldly charted her own artistic journey. And Fetch the Bolt Cutters is as excellent as she’s ever been — as excellent as almost any artist in her generation has ever been. The emotions herein are deep and raw, sometimes shuddering with fury, sometimes overflowing with love and gratitude. While “Under the Table” faces down the complications that come with being a woman society deems “difficult,” the standout track “Shameika” is a clattering, incredibly moving tribute to a childhood friend. There is hardly an element in the human experience untouched on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It’s hard to imagine a better album.
1. Tobe Nwigwe: The Pandemic Project
Nobody seemed better prepared for the present moment than Tobe Nwigwe. He knew exactly what we needed because he was deeply in touch with what he needed. Nwige’s music both floated deeper into our emotional need than many of us even knew was possible and found the ferocity and fire to tackle real events with an astonishing force. Whether issuing a clarion call to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor (“I NEED YOU TO”) or issuing a sanctified take on Mr. T’s “I pity the fool” speech (“TRY JESUS”), Nwigwe both anticipated and stayed on top of the year with masterful intensity. We don’t know what lies ahead for 2021, but we’re glad Tobe Nwige will be there to give us the soundtrack.
Justin Bieber: Changes
A huge swing from the pop king that shows his most interesting days may yet lie ahead.
Cory Asbury: To Love a Fool
Asbury’s welcome return from a self-imposed hiatus comes with some terrific, moving stories plucked straight from the heart of life.
The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form
The 1975 topped our 2019 best of list (for good reason) and this year’s huge follow-up was nearly as good.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's executive editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.