There’s a famous “Peanuts” cartoon panel, long circulated as a meme among music nerds, in which the Schroeder character, bearing armloads of LP, explains to Lucy, “Buying records cheers me up… Whenever I feel low, I buy some new records.” We knew just how Schroeder felt in 2020 — even if “…I create a new playlist” would be the era-appropriate update for most of us. And it was recorded music we counted on, since the live element was cruelly taken away less than a fourth of a way into the year. Music was really the only art form that was effectively halved — taken away in toto on the performance side, leaving us, and Schroeder, more dependent on the sound of transformation coming through our hi-fis and smartphones than ever.
But if live music was crippled by quarantine in a way that films or TV weren’t, it had its advantages: It is only music, free to rush to work its way on you immediately, with no need for a narrative setup, that can be an instant mood-transformer, in 30 seconds or less. Sometimes in this pandemic year, a spontaneous pick-me-up was what the doctor ordered, and in other moments, we might’ve wanted music to take us even deeper into our feels. And lot of the best music that came to the fore this year combined at least a little bit of both. That was true of the sudden late rush of records recorded during this new stay-at-home era as well as the many that were recorded just prior, all destined to be deemed as prophetic if they had the premonitory power of feeling supalonely.
Here are Variety music writers’ picks for the best albums of 2020, from Taylor Swift quieting down to Run the Jewels raging ever more loudly against the machine. The Weeknd is not conspicuously absent in this roundup, but neither is the diva even the Grammys can agree on, Dua Lipa, who had pop fans levitating even as stay-at-home orders put a ceiling on just how high we could fly.