It's been a tough year. Thankfully, music exists.
Whenever life gets too hard or the world is too much, I know that I retreat into the comfort of my headphones and escape to a different universe for three or four minutes. Spotify says that I listened to 90,000 minutes of music in 2020, and I know some other Street staffers have me beat by a wide margin. Like I said: It's been a tough year.
Without further ado, here are the ten best albums that Street listened to in 2020—the albums that kept us going in the wake of a pandemic, overdue reckonings with racial justice, a tumultuous election cycle, and everything in between.
-Kyle Whiting, Music Editor
Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle
Top tracks: "Busy Boy," "Forgive Me"
The music industry lost something when it got over its boy and girl band phase. Perhaps these groups were seen as too juvenile or too sugary to appeal to a generation so keen on maturity. But maybe it was the bubble–gum pop genre that was holding these artists back.
Enter Chloe x Halle: an R&B sister duo whose sophomore EP Ungodly Hour brings sensuality, colorful lyricism, and relatability together to create a contemporary R&B experience.
Moving away from their squeaky–clean images, which include three seasons on Grown–ish, performances at the Super Bowl, and casting in the live–action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Chloe and Halle curse, talk about sex, make drunken mistakes, and deal with unsolicited dick pics—just like any other 20–somethings. With raw earnestness, the duo brings back an essential piece that girl bands of the 2010s lost: lyrical sex appeal. “Forgive Me” is another standout track. Showcasing the duo’s vocal prowess, this unapologetic self–empowerment anthem with ear–catching production compliments the sisters’ emergence into the sultriness of adulthood.
Ungodly Hour doesn't just symbolize that the girl band isn’t dead—it’s an homage to maturity, self–empowerment, and owning your sexuality.
SAWAYAMA, Rina Sawayama
Top tracks: "XS," "Commes Des Garcons (Like the Boys)," "Bad Friend"
From pop rock singles like “XS,” which indulge in the highs of unfettered consumerism, to the raging nu–metal of "STFU!," which radiates raw feminine rage, Rina Sawayama brings range to SAWAYAMA. There are softer sides, too: “Chosen Family” takes on a more mellow tone, reflecting on the sense of belonging in queer spaces. Sawayama demonstrates impeccable skill as an artist beyond only music—the “STFU!” music video addresses microaggressions faced by artists of color. Indeed, the debut of “XS” on Jimmy Fallon is worth infinite replays: the set, choreography, and cinematography have the same quality as a music video—and she does it all in one take. Overall, the eclectic genius of SAWAYAMA lies in her ability to bring depth to our identities as citizens, friends, and lovers.
positions, Ariana Grande
Top tracks: "34+35," "my hair," "love language"
Ariana Grande’s sixth studio album positions does not stray away from her brand of typical, confectionary romance—it dives right into the cheekiness of it. Grande doesn't abandon her usual production. Rather she fuses it together with notes of R&B as she croons about the physical and emotional intimacy of true love across every song. The title track demonstrates the indulgent pleasure of being one half of a whole in an unapologetic manner; that ethos similarly colors “34+35.” Her lyricism is illustrative yet playful, displaying a wit that her past work lacked. The project is coquettish and clever but also pleads for self–love, like when Grande wishes to view herself through her lover’s eyes in "pov." These themes, although not novel, still shine through as the greatest accomplishment of positions, especially when paired with the most impressive vocals yet by the artist. Just as 2020 has confined the world to its bedroom, Grande implores us to share ours with a lover.
Suga, Megan Thee Stallion
Top tracks: “B. I. T. C. H.," “Captain Hook," “Savage”
The release date for Megan Thee Stallion’s Suga was originally in May. Meg intended to go public with a full album, but became ensnared in a legal battle with her label over the right to release her own music. Initial rulings in Megan’s favor allowed her to drop the EP on March 6, 2020, which also happened to be the last day Penn held on–campus classes.
In the monotony of the new lockdown, Suga reverberated across the suddenly quarantined population. TikTok dances to "Savage" and "Captain Hook," popular in March and April, now occupy permanent places in the halls of internet history. Hot Girl Meg became a household name—often along with her famed lyrical descriptors—“Classy, bougie, ratchet / Sassy, moody, nasty."
But apart from the memes, Megan’s third, twenty–four–and–a–half minute EP is a snapshot of a rapper in metamorphosis. Megan opens with a reference to her own trauma on "Ain’t Equal" (“I lost my mommy and my granny in the same month”), but relinquishes none of her trademark self–empowerment as she follows with "Savage" and later "B.I.T.C.H."
Just like the rest of us, Meg had a complicated 2020. After being shot in the foot then publicly dissed by Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, she went on to pen an Op-Ed in The New York Times, release her debut full–length album, and receive multiple Grammy nominations. Suga stands at the precipice of one of hip–hop's most exciting new acts, the peaking tidal wave of a cultural behemoth just moments before it envelops everyone in its wake.
Circles, Mac Miller
Top tracks: "Woods," "Hand Me Downs," "Circles"
Mac Miller’s first posthumous album Circles is a thoughtful epilogue to his life and career as an artist. At once chilling and chilled–out, the album references his struggles with drugs, recovery, and mental health through lo–fi beats and Miller’s gentle voice. He never lived to see 2020, but Circles is a perfect accompaniment to long days stuck at home when it seems like the world is crumbling. On “Circles," Miller softly assures, “We're doing well, sittin', watchin' the world fallin' down, its decline / And I can keep you safe, I can keep you safe.” "Hand Me Downs," featuring Baro Sura, feels like a hug. With a slow comforting beat, light synths, and smooth guitar, he sings about anxiety, “And half the time the wheels that's in the back of my mind / Just keep on turning 'til the tires flat and burn until the fire crack.” Circles is a validating and soothing album.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius
Top tracks: "On the Floor," "Jason," "Some Dream"
Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Michael Hadreas) has always made music that's deeply personal and deeply queer. Across all of his releases, he has looked inward for inspiration, singing about his own love, loss, and life. But on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, that inward examination is no longer metaphorical: Hadreas rips himself wide open, examining every muscle, vein, every nerve. Nothing is left untouched.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a remarkably physical record, full of vivid, sensual imagery. He sings about "the rise and fall of his chest," and begs his lover to "set [his] heart on fire, immediately" with an aching fervor. Still, Hadreas finds wisdom in the mundane: After the rousing guitar breakdown of "Some Dream," he sings "I know you called me and I didn't pick up / I was busy freaking out." Or, the plain observation that dominates "Nothing At All": "I got what you want, babe / I got what you need, son / Nothing, nothing at all."
Regardless of whether Perfume Genius is describing ephemeral hookups, bountiful love, or devastating heartbreak, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a visceral testament to the wonder and beauty found in ordinary bodies, living ordinary lives.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple
Top tracks: “Shameika,” “I Want You To Love Me,” “Rack of His”
Back in those uncertain months of early quarantine, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters burst into the world as sure as a wailing newborn, kicking and screaming with the first breath of life. Of all of Apple's albums to date, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the one that feels most alive. Dogs bark. Humans howl and yelp. There’s even a little “meow” buried in the title track, courtesy of Cara Delevingne.
Apple whispers, humming to herself as breathless as a schoolgirl skipping down the sidewalk. She draws the listener closer to her searing indictments of lovers, other women, herself, and society in equal measure. Then there’s the Venice Beach home studio in which Fetch the Bolt Cutters was created, which Apple and her collaborators banged their instruments and hands against, making an instrument of the house itself. With all of this, the record teems with the ferocity of hard–won strength: Apple processes her trauma and her triumphs in real time, giving a pulse to this extraordinary album.
After Hours, The Weeknd
Top tracks: "Too Late," "Heartless," "In Your Eyes"
When The Weeknd goes through a breakup (in this case, with Bella Hadid), his fandom rejoices at the prospect of new music, in all its sultry, dark, and deeply psychological glory.
After Hours certainly exceeded this selfish expectation: It’s a masterful blend of '80s synth pop and haunting melodrama that shattered records and topped charts. Best enjoyed at full volume under the intensity of LED lights, this tour de force invites listeners to experience Abel Tesfaye’s drugged–out exploration of doomed love, desperation, loneliness, and violence. After Hours lands somewhere between The Weeknd’s ominously sexy early mixtapes like House of Balloons and his upbeat, melodious radio station hits from Starboy, making its tracklist a uniquely potent combination of the acclaimed musician’s strengths.
In “Snowchild,” the Weeknd says the only thing he’s “phobic of is failing,” but the immense success After Hours has enjoyed should more than assuage that fear. Forget about the Grammys—After Hours is one of the best projects of the year.
Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
Top tracks: "Chinese Satellite," "Savior Complex," "I Know The End"
Phoebe Bridgers’ second studio album creates a wondrous emo–folk dystopia of grief and solitude. From reflection on Bridgers’ complex relationship with her father on Grammy–nominated "Kyoto" to the raw contemplation of belief and faith on "Chinese Satellite," Punisher is gloriously honest and deeply personal. Each song is simultaneously a whispered confession and a viscerally screamed revelation, tucking away universal truths of existence, identity, and love within the depths of Bridgers’ own experiences.
With stark, self–aware lyrical musings and seamlessly winding melodies, Punisher is addictive in its authenticity and musical mastery. Closing with "I Know the End," Punisher finishes with a cacophony of screams, encapsulating the spiritual catharsis that Bridgers so deeply yearns for. Yet throughout Bridgers’ haunting journey to the edges of her emotional hell, she pushes forward to personal recovery with hope and determination, leaving listeners with a sense of divine epiphanic finality.
folklore, Taylor Swift
Top tracks: "mirrorball," "the lakes," "august"
To pull from a prolific Swiftie tweet, “taylor swift writing folklore during COVID quarantine is the modern day equivalent of shakespeare writing king lear during the plague...” As far–fetched as it sounds, Swift’s surprise eighth studio album bears resemblance to a literary masterwork. It plants short story characters into songs that twang with the angst of a mid–2000s indie folk album, full of the delightfully gloomy acoustics we’d sooner associate with Bon Iver than the brains behind tracks like "22." There’s the love triangle that comes to a head in “betty,” where you can feel the teenaged regret of an adolescent cheater most palpably in the chorus. Then there’s the winding tale of Rebekah Harkness that comes in the sparkling ditty “last great american dynasty” and the bright romanticism of soulmates finding each other in “invisible string.” Folklore is great because it’s distinctly Swift and anything but. She uses all of her signatures—melodramatic bridges, potent imagery, Easter eggs—to write outside of herself, creating a storybook world we can all escape to as quarantine bores on.