Worldwide icon-chevron-right The 15 best albums of 2020: new music that pulled us through
Charli XCX
Courtesy of Charli XCX

The 15 best albums of 2020: new music that pulled us through

This year’s best new albums include escapist pop, nostalgic indie and plenty of ambient – just what we needed during the shitshow of 2020

By Time Out editors and Huw Oliver

It’s been a peculiar year for the music industry. Gigs and festivals have been basically off the cards since March (though drive-in and socially distanced concerts made a good effort). Many major releases were pushed back as a result. And while we’ve all been stuck at home, our listening habits appear to have changed too. Way back in 2019, we might not have felt we had the time to play full albums right the way through, instead opting for the easy thrill of a curated playlist stacked with back-to-back bangers. But this year, it felt way more acceptable to just kick back and enjoy records the old-fashioned way: from start to finish.

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In 2020, many of us have turned to old comforts: the albums we grew up with, the music we usually seek solace in during tough times. But there’s also been a great deal of new stuff that’s felt either incredibly timely, incredibly nostalgic, incredibly chill – or just really, really, really good.

So, need some new listening? In no particular order, here are 15 of the best albums of 2020, packed with tunes which got Time Out staff around the world through some dark times this year.

Best albums of 2020

Chromatica by Lady Gaga
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‘Chromatica’ – Lady Gaga

A euphoric lance of a pop album that pierced the misery-bloated boil that was 2020 with rebelliously silly lyrics, OTT Elton John vocals, a drum ’n’ bass drop and more bangers than any other record on this list. (Don’t @ me, Bad Bunny fans.) ‘Chromatica’ has been a pretty constant soundtrack to my entire year. In fact, my favourite memory of summer 2020 goes like this: I’m at a seated, socially distanced queer cabaret night in north London. The DJ puts on ‘Rain on Me’. Suddenly everyone is singing and dancing and security is telling people to sit back down, but they all love the song far too much to be seated. Even on your hundredth listen, it’s impossible to keep still. Kate Lloyd

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
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‘Punisher’ – Phoebe Bridgers

You don’t turn on Phoebe Bridgers to put yourself in a good mood. Admittedly, plenty of her songs sound upbeat enough, but it’s the lyrics – those goddamn brilliant lyrics – that have you staring out your window, silently crying and feeling heartbroken for a love that wasn’t even yours. ‘Punisher’ could be my favourite album of the year, and it’s wild to think it was written and produced before our world chewed us up and spat us out again. You’re probably wondering why you’d want to feel even more depressed in 2020, but I promise you, there was something so fortuitous about singing ‘I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face’ during lockdown that made everything feel just that teensy bit better. Rebecca Russo

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius
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‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’ – Perfume Genius

Mid-lockdown, here was my reminder that the world out there is vast and oppressive, beautiful and foul, almost psychedelically diverse and yet the very definition of mundane; sometimes fun, sometimes shit, always confusing. Perfume Genius has a way of capturing what feels like the whole human experience in a single album – heck, even a single song. Gone are the minimalist confessionals that made his name. On ‘Set My Heart on Fire Immediately’, grand, melodramatic laments on earthly fragility and the passage of time rub up against snatched reminiscences of hook-ups. It’s a sprawling, detailed masterpiece, shot through with typical Mike Hadreas yearning, that embodies just how rich and radiant and fucked up life can be. Huw Oliver

Origin of the Alimonies by Liturgy
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‘Origin of the Alimonies’ – Liturgy

A black metal opera about the origins of humanity by a transgender philosophy grad? Sounds complex. And pretentious. And it is, but it’s also brilliant. Liturgy have always mashed up modern classical, searing blast beats, haunted screams and electronic textures, but this is them doing it better than ever: grander, more melodic, more complex, more absorbing and more, well, Liturgy, than Liturgy have ever been. It’s the ultimate mind-stretching soundtrack for a year in which we’ve all had way too much time to just thinkEddy Frankel

As Long As You Are by Future Islands
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‘As Long As You Are’ – Future Islands

The sixth studio album by Future Islands sounds very much of-the-times yet also intensely familiar. In 2020, longtime fans will have missed seeing Samuel T. Herring and the gang pump out these bangers in person. Having watched the band progress from playing to only a few dozen fans in their hometown of Baltimore to worldwide festival headliner status, I’ll always associate Future Islands with jam-packed, intensely communal shows. Alas, this year, we’ve had to settle for the music, fuelling memories of past shows and visions of future ones. Eric Grossman

Folklore by Taylor Swift
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‘folklore’ – Taylor Swift

When Taylor dropped ‘folklore’ back in July, it felt to me like the ultimate lockdown soundtrack. Written and recorded in isolation, it spoke to my 2020-addled soul. There are no classic Swift bangers, just pure storytelling – all dreamy imagery and drowsy, melancholy escapism. The lyrics are simple, but evocative. Swift herself has talked about how she often started with an image – ‘a cardigan that still bears the scent of loss 20 years later… the tree swing in the woods of my childhood’ – and then just ran with it. I could feel that. It was the way all our imaginations were working after months sat inside: loose, trippy, unexpected lockdown dreams reigned. Suddenly, out of nowhere, here were more. Ellie Walker-Arnott

A Hero’s Death by Fontaines DC
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‘A Hero’s Death’ – Fontaines D.C.

We had a family holiday in Wales in August – back when you could do such madcap, exotic things. Annoyingly, in the dizzying rush of escape we left half our stuff in London and I had to turn around and fetch it. This six hours of bonus travel was endured almost solely thanks to Fontaines D.C.’s second album. It’s a grab bag full of minor-key epics and motorik thrum that’s a) a blistering follow-up to the raucous pub poetry of their debut, ‘Dogrel’, and b) surprisingly perfect for a half-deserted motorway. Hands down my album of the year, too. Phil de Semlyen

American Head by the Flaming Lips
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‘American Head’ – The Flaming Lips

I love The Flaming Lips for many reasons, one of which is that they’re constantly innovating – this is the band that, to play live in the age of social distancing, put on a gig where everyone on stage and in the crowd was encased in plastic bubbles. I admire their sonic experimentation, but often don’t actually want to listen to the results. Yet on ‘American Head’, the Lips are in blissed-out, melodic mode, a state achieved with some help, according to song titles such as ‘At the Movies on Quaaludes’ and ‘Mother I’ve Taken LSD’. The lyrics are as bonkers as ever, but the tunes are sweet – a trippy balm for 2020. Sarah Cohen

Green by Hiroshi Yoshimura
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‘Green’ – Hiroshi Yoshimura

At the risk of sounding like the worst person you've ever met: ambient music has been a big part of my 2020. Something about calming, minimal soundscapes is very appealing right now. As a result, I have been playing reissued masterpiece ‘Green’ by genre overlord Hiroshi Yoshimura a lot. This soothing 1986 album was famous for repeatedly sending its recording engineer to sleep during the production process. That’s how damn ambient this record is. And, at the risk of sounding like an even worse person: I have of course been playing it on vinyl. I hate me too. Joe Mackertich

Roisin Machine by Roisin Murphy
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‘Roísín Machine’ – Roísín Murphy

Oh to be in a field in a foreign country, entertainingly but not embarrassingly drunk, expensive lager in hand, facing a stage decked out in disco balls and sequins and feather boas, the whole crowd’s gaze set on a shapeshifting, perennially underrated pop star who in that very moment holds your full attention: dancing, singing theatrically, changing from immaculate outfit to immaculate outfit. That was my favourite memory of last summer. The sharp, glossy, brilliantly inventive and occasionally funny ‘Roísín Machine’ takes me back there every time I put it on (at least once a day, bass on full and turned up very, very loud). Huw Oliver

bdrmm by Bedroom
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‘Bedroom’ – bdrmm

Nostalgia is one hell of a drug, and in a year of terrifying unfamiliarity, I’ve mostly been seeking out sounds from the past – usually the classic goth and shoegaze albums put out in the ’80s and ’90s by indie labels like 4AD and Creation. (Hey, I thought: if they got me through my teens, 2020 shouldn’t be a challenge.) But the thing I love about this debut album by bdrmm, released in July, is that it slots right in alongside the magnificent thrash, drone and echo of Slowdive and early Ride, as well as latter-day gazers such as Diiv. Honestly, I didn’t expect to be nominating an all-white, all-male indie band from the north of England for my ‘album of 2020’ pick. Then again, in a year when we’ve all spent so much time in our bedrooms, this is the only kind of music I’ve wanted to hear: pure, intimate and straight to the heart. James Manning

YHLQMDLG by Bad Bunny
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‘YHLQMDLG’ – Bad Bunny

It sure took me a while to get into Bad Bunny, but the immaculate ‘YHLQMDLG’ lives on repeat. I lost count of the miles I ran listening to ‘Ignorantes’ or the many Friday nights spent singing along to ‘Yo Perreo Sola’. It also may or may not have inspired me to take a virtual perreo class. I love his irreverence and that he’s unapologetically himself, and appreciate all he’s done for the Latinx LGBTQ+ community. Also: his YouTube concert atop a double-decker bus driving through New York was one of the streaming events of the year. Virginia Gil

Untitled (Black Is) by SAULT
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‘Untitled (Black Is)’ – SAULT

In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement very loudly returned, now even bigger and more global in scope, this timely record appeared pretty much out of nowhere, humming with positive political energy. Tunes like ‘Wildfire’ and ‘Miracles’ never fail to get me jigging around my living room, and I’ve particularly appreciated it as a winddown album to go with a Sunday-afternoon roast. Pure bliss. Oh, and who are these guys? No one really knows. They avoid all media opps and it’s still a bit of mystery – though there is some Michael Kiwanuka connection; he gets a guest credit on this album. Charlie Woods

How I'm Feeling Now by Charli XCX
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‘How I’m Feeling Now’ – Charli XCX

No pop star is making music as complex and challenging and cutting edge as Charli XCX right now. That’s probably because she’s such a massive workaholic – proven by the fact she wrote, produced and released this album during goddamn lockdown. The result is a record that’s so intense you can feel it buzzing through every part of your body, kind of in the same way as really hard techno or metal. It’s angry and sad and romantic and light and heavy all at the same time. It may not be an easy listen, but when I'm in the mood, listening to it feels like being in a crowded nightclub at 4am. Kate Lloyd

Voices by Max Richter
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‘Voices’ – Max Richter

Like all Max Richter albums, ‘Voices’ whisks you to new, unfamiliar yet strangely comforting places. It helped me to drift off countless times during lockdown, and also chill out during the day. Impressively, it made a small dent in the loss of office chatter – weirdly thanks to ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, parts of which feature on this record, read by a diverse bunch of people from across the globe. All those languages I couldn’t really understand were a tantalising suggestion of the world outside. Benjamin Allen

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