Pop Culturing: The 5 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Sunday July 5, 2020

Chloe Bailey, left, and her sister Halle Bailey, of the R&B duo Chloe X Halle, pose for a portrait in their backyard in Los Angeles to promote their latest release, "Ungodly Hour."
Chloe Bailey, left, and her sister Halle Bailey, of the R&B duo Chloe X Halle, pose for a portrait in their backyard in Los Angeles to promote their latest release, "Ungodly Hour."  (Source:AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Despite the state of the world, 2020 has been an unbelievable year for music, with several artists putting out some of their career-defining albums during this time. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some artists to rethink their music, pushing them in new directions. Musicians are working under limited resources, making them to become more creative. Some bigger pop stars postponed their music in hopes things would get better so they could launch a massive tour and others have leaned into the state of things.

Below is a list of just five outstanding albums that were released in 2020.

The Weeknd — "After Hours"

Since crossing over and becoming a pop star with his "first" official album "Kiss Land" in 2013, Abel Tesfaye a.k.a. the Weeknd has been better known as a singles artist. His albums have been spotty at best despite having songs that explode on the charts, where he fuses Michael Jackson, Daft Punk and other dance elements with his lyrics about drug use and wild nights. But that's changed on his fourth studio album "After Hours," a considered and cohesive effort and his best since his mixtape days early in his career. He gets help from all-time producer Max Martin on "Blinding Lights," a Billboard No. 1 hit that continues to dominate streaming. What sends "After Hours" over the top isn't its glossiness. Here, Tesfaye leans into his bad boy persona; he's meta and knowingly playing pop music's cheesy evil villain. But the new album, where he weaves hip hop; disco; synthpop; and the cinematic elegance of Chromatics, is so good, you can't help but root for the bad guy.

Charli XCX — "how I'm feeling now"

Charli XCX's latest album "how I'm feeling now" marks a turning-point for the musician. She was once set on a path to be in the same conversation as Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa. But she chose a different, and ten times more interesting, route. Instead of going big, she stayed online and under lockdown earlier this year she created her best album to date. "HIFN" is raw and emotional with some of the most interesting production of the last few years. She reunites with A.G. Cook, the ringleader of the music group/label PC Music, as well as 100 gecs (the logical progression of PC Music) and BJ Burton. The result is a complex album where Charli soars and pushes herself as an artist, uniting all of her ideas into a tight, 37-minute album that nears perfection.

Lady Gaga — "Chromatica"

Lady Gaga's highly anticipated sixth album "Chromatica" was worth its long wait. On it, Gaga returns to her dance floor roots that launched her career with "The Fame" and "The Fame Monster," which spawned career-defining singles "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance" respectively. But "Chromatica" isn't a retread where she puts out clever pop tunes. Here, Gaga is at her most personal and vulnerable, sharing about her personal trauma ("Rain on Me," featuring Ariana Grande — a singer who has undergone trauma in the public eye), while creating vibrant and pulsating music that is ultimately uplifting and spiritual. "Chromatica" is her best work in years, a signal that Gaga may be entering a new phase of her career but is transforming into a better artist.

HAIM — "Women in Music Pt. III"

Last year, HAIM, the California-based trio of sisters (Danielle, Alana and Este Haim), released a string of singles including a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." But it wasn't until their second single of 2020, "I Know Alone," did the band click into something interesting. It's one of their most complex songs they've made (its theme is about being lonely in quarantine) — and that's saying something considering the multi-instrumentalists weave Fleetwood Mac-esque harmonies within pop music structures. Their third album "Women in Music Pt. III" is easily the band's best, finding the trio bouncing from genre-to-genre (and micro-genre-to-micro-genre). Sometimes they sound like Joni Mitchell ("Man from the Magazine"), other times they sound like Bob Dylan ("I've Been Down") and some songs sound like TLC ("3 AM"). "WIMPIII" is an accomplished album finding HAIM in a new mode that fans haven't heard before.

Chloe x Halle — "Ungodly Hour"

On their sophomore album "Ungodly Hour," sisters Chloe x Halle push themselves by creating a sexy and mischievous record. It's a tight R&B album that sounds mature while still sounding incredibly youthful. Their single "Do It" is one of the best songs of 2020; a slinky and addictive song about getting ready to go out for the night. The title track, too, is a banger with its thumping production and the sisters' ethereal vocals. It's an impressive and modern album (the sister sing about drinking, unwanted dick pics and cheaters) that positions Chloe and Halle as an act to keep your eye on.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.