The coronavirus pandemic brought the concert industry to a halt in March. Trade publication Pollstar had projected that this would be a record-setting, $12.2 billion year; instead the industry lost $9.7 billion.
But even as musicians were denied the means to make their living, 2020 was a good year for new music as sidelined acts busied themselves at home. Taylor Swift, Drive-By Truckers, and the mysterious British collective Sault were among many who released multiple albums.
Context mattered: Much of the music on this best-albums list was recorded before the pandemic hit, and before protesters filled the streets to demand racial justice. But the impact it made resonated in a world that has been transformed by this tumultuous year.
Top pop music albums
1. Sault, “Untitled (Black Is)” and “Untitled (Rise)” (Forever Living Originals). Sault gets extra points for maintaining an air of mystery. Little is known about the Black British collective other than it revolves around producer Dean “Inflo” Wynton Josiah. But the sinuous, entrancing music the group been releasing at an astonishing rate speaks for itself. (Black Is) and (Rise) are the third and fourth albums the group put out in 16 months. They’re uniformly excellent, and (Black Is) is the best. A proud, resilient statement of faith in the face of racial injustice, it astutely updates 1970s and 1980s soul and funk and is steadfast in its determination that, as “Hard Life” insists, “things are gonna change.”
2. Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud” (Merge). Katie Crutchfield had to leave Philadelphia to make her best music. The singer who records as Waxahatchee had released three sterling albums while living in West Philly over the last decade. For Saint Cloud, she returned home to Alabama to explore her Southern roots and embrace the country-flavored narratives of heroes like Lucinda Williams. Embracing sobriety, the tight, catchy songs like “Can’t Do Much” hit their targets precisely, rising above Crutchfield’s perfectly good previous work.
3. Run the Jewels, “RTJ4″ (BMG). The fourth and best of the hard-hitting albums by Killer Mike and his rapping and producing partner El-P challenges America to face up to a history of racism and address it with appropriate empathy and anger. “You so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me,” Mike rhymes on “Walkin’ in the Snow.” “Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper: ‘I can’t breathe.’ ” RTJ4 arrived just as the streets filled with marchers protesting the police killing of George Floyd.
4. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” (Epic). The title track to Fiona Apple’s fifth album (and first in eight years) comes from a line spoken by Gillian Anderson in the Belfast crime series The Fall. In Apple’s case, the bolt cutters were fetched because the time had come to get out of self-imposed isolation and release this gloriously clattering, funny, angry, bighearted and free-spirited music into the world. Anticipation was keen, and expectations were met.
5. Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (Columbia). Only a pandemic could stop the Never Ending Tour. “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake,” Bob Dylan whispers in “I Contain Multitudes,” evoking Walt Whitman, while name-dropping Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, and the Rolling Stones. Rough and Rowdy Ways is playful and profound, shimmying and swaggering as it dispenses decades of accrued wisdom.
6. Taylor Swift, “Folklore” and “Evermore” (Republic). Unable to tour stadiums for last year’s Lover — one of the strongest albums of her stupendously successful career — Taylor Swift gifted fans with two surprises composed in quarantine. Both team Swift with producer-arranger Aaron Dessner of The National as she steps off the superstar treadmill to make “cottagecore” music with a no-gloss feel. Is the indie-friendly sound necessarily better than her pure pop approach? No. But it’s exciting to hear her stretch her formidable songwriting skills as she pushes forward creatively.
7. Lil Uzi Vert, “Eternal Atake” (Generation Now / Atlantic). The North Philly-born rapper topped the charts in March with his second album, which draws interstellar inspiration from the UFO religious cult Heaven’s Gate and casts him as a space alien (”Baby Pluto”) in the Afro-futurist tradition of Sun Ra. Eternal refined Uzi’s emo rap approach on the sensitive “I’m Sorry” and interpolated the Backstreet Boys on the hit “That Way.” In collaboration with the Philadelphia beatmakers collective Working on Dying, it’s the best work yet from one of the most wildly creative figures in hip-hop, and all of pop music.
8. Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band, “Just Like Moby Dick” (Paradise of Bachelors). What good is a Top Ten list without a sleeper? Mine is by the 77-year-old Lubbock, Texas, pianist and visual artist Allen, whose “Abandonitis” was my third most played song on Spotify this year (after “On My Own,” by Philadelphia indie mastermind Shamir, and “A Hero’s Death,” by Irish rockers Fontaines D.C.). Just Like Moby Dick, which features Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, steel guitar great Lloyd Maines, and singer Shannon McNally, is full of wry, loose-limbed songs about ghost ships, Herman Melville, vampires — and dreamers hoping to shake a pain that just won’t go away.
9. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia” (Warner). The stuck-at-home dance party album of the year. British singer Dua Lipa — who grew up in Kosovo, the daughter of a rock star — consciously draws on 1970s and 1980s pop-funk, from disco producer Giorgio Moroder to Madonna. It would be underselling Future Nostalgia to call it mindless fun. The songs are too intelligently constructed. Mindful fun is more like it, keenly aware that in anxious times, the value of a good dance is substantial.
10, Bruce Springsteen, “Letter to You” (Columbia). Pandemic listening has been about finding comfort in remembrance, bringing up the vinyl from the basement, metaphorically or otherwise. On Letter to You, Springsteen reaches back to his beginnings, drawing inspiration from the death of the leader of his first band. The songs are sturdy and self-referential, taking into account what’s been lost with the passage of time while appreciating the good fortune of still being able to lead a rock-and-roll band in pursuit of communal catharsis. All that and the promise of one more tour with the E Street Band — it doesn’t get much more comforting than that.
Honorable Mentions: The Avalanches, “We Will Always Love You.” Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher.” Lianne La Havas, “Lianne La Havas.” Low Cut Connie, “Private Lives.” Megan The Stallion, “Good News.” Mac Miller, “Circles.” Waylon Payne, “Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me.” Dougie Poole, “The Freelancer’s Blues.” Bartees Strange, “Live Forever.” Sun Ra Arkestra, “Swirling.”
Top Country/Roots Albums
These are Nick Cristiano’s selections, in the artist’s alphabetical order, for 2020′s best of the genre.
Frank Bey, “All My Dues Are Paid” (Nola Blue). The Philadelphia-based soul-blues singer died after the release of this sublime album, which capped a stirring comeback.
Shemekia Copeland, “Uncivil War” (Alligator). A powerhouse singer born into the blues transcends her musical roots with another searing statement that addresses the moment and more.
Jesse Daniel, “Rollin’ On” (Die True). The Texan sounds as if he’s coming by way of Bakersfield on this thrilling set of rocking country.
Dedicated Men of Zion, “Can’t Turn Me Around” (Bible & Tire). These young singers deliver spirit- and roof-raising gospel-soul out of Memphis, with labelmates the Sensational Barnes Brothers not far behind.
Dion, “Blues With Friends” (Keeping the Blues Alive). At 81, “The Wanderer” has lost none of his Bronx swagger and sounds as vital as ever on this guest-laden set of new originals.
Bob Dylan, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (Columbia). “I contain multitudes,” the Bard declares, and this mesmerizing collection, with some deliciously dirty blues, backs up that understatement.
Steve Earle, “Ghosts of West Virginia” (New West). The veteran country-rocker vividly captures the human toll of a real-life mining disaster.
Dan Montgomery, “Smoke and Mirrors (A Phonographic Memory)” (Fantastic Yes). An audacious concept album from the Memphis-based South Jersey native about his complex relationship with his one-time drug dealer, framed in a rootsy amalgam of sounds.
Heidi Newfield, “The Barfly Sessions, Vol. 1″ (Notfamousenough). The former Trick Pony singer comes on like Tanya Tucker channeling fellow harmonica player Delbert McClinton — one of her guests here — on a rousing set of mostly originals.
Aubrie Sellers, “Far From Home” (Soundly Music). The daughter of country/Americana star Lee Ann Womack continues to shift masterfully between brash and beguiling, urban and rural.
Honorable Mention: Eric Brace and Last Train Home, “Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows.” Brandy Clark, “Your Life Is as Record.” Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Co-Starring.” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Reunions.” Ashley Ray, “Pauline.”