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Okayplayer's Best Albums of 2020

If you just listened to these albums you would never ask the question, “is the concept of the album dead?” Here are Okayplayer's 20 best albums of 2020.

If the album was ever to make a comeback, it would have happened this year. Americans spent a good portion of the year in quarantine with ample free time. Being alone, in your room, listening to music while doing a task that is rudimentary and repetitive is the optional way to fully engage with an album. And yet, there were mostly complaints about the album. Listeners talked about how exhausting an artist's album could be in 2020. An album was once a specialized, curated experience. But, in 2020, we saw artists use albums as a venue to promote some partnership or as a data dump to game streaming numbers. (The trend of deluxe edition rap and R&B albums has been particularly grueling.) Add that to the fact some of the specificity around albums is gone: artists no longer release EPs or mixtapes or albums. They are just projects, with the fear that we're just a year away from artists just releasing "content." 

But just because complaints were high that doesn't mean that there weren't artists who didn't care about putting out albums — impactful, full-body-of-works that were meant to be engaged with as a whole. Looking back at 2020, it was a banner year creatively for middle-class artists. With no touring and festival money coming up, the big dogs were largely absent, leaving space for smaller, extremely gifted artists to release their albums.

And our list portrays this. The majority of our favorite albums of 2020 came from supremely gifted underdogs who always didn't have infrastructural support. If you just listened to these albums you would never ask the question, "is the album dead?"

Here Okayplayer's 20 best albums of 2020.

20. Liv.e — Couldn’t Wait

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Embracing her Southern origins, Dallas darling Liv.e is unapologetically raw and understated on her debut album Couldn’t Wait to Tell You. With various tonal pitches and a deep rasp that expresses her old soul, the album nearly replicates diary entries through concentrated, lo-fi appeal. Liv.e contemplates love and indecision in her early-20s, pouring over soulful loops co-produced by Oakland-native producers mejiwahn and Daoud Anthony. Prior to the release of Couldn’t Wait to Tell You in July, Liv.e hosted an interactive album release event on Erykah Badu’s Badu World Market website. While the pandemic has halted live concerts, Liv.e has continued to introduce herself on her own terms in intimate settings, even performing virtually on Bandcamp in November. — Jaelani Turner-Williams

19. bbymutha — Muthaland

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Back in August, Chattanooga, Tennessee rapper bbymutha announced that she was retiring from making music, saying she wanted to focus on her family and her online business. She also left a parting gift, the double album Muthaland. Now, historically, rappers don't really retire —  and there's already been some indication that rapper bbymutha will be back — but Muthaland is one hell of a high note. Muthaland is an epic, often hilarious album that sees bbymutha airing out countless scoundrel men — including her baby father — over moody, off-center production that crawls all over your skin. — Dimas Sanfiorenzo

18. Victoria Monét — Jaguar

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Victoria Monét’s funk-centric album Jaguar could have easily been released in the ‘70s. Arriving back in August, the enjoyable release features an assortment of sexy, well-written tracks. Mainly known for her songwriting for acts Ariana Grande and Diddy, Monét’s newest album features her standing in her true power. There’s an innate sense of fearlessness heard on every single track, especially on “Jaguar,” “Touch Me,” and “Experience.”  — Robyn Mowatt

17. Pink Siifu — Negro

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In between the release of Bag Talk and FlySiifu's came Negro, a disorienting and jarring soundtrack that perfectly captured the tension and unease of this year. Pink Siifu is raw and unflinching throughout, the artist's frantic screams and yelps a contrast from the calm and unhurried vocal delivery that's often on display in his projects. He's channeling the intensity of Black punk forefathers like Bad Brains' H.R., and Death's Bobby Hackney on standouts like "DEADMEAT" and "steal from the ENEMY," burning through the tracks with an intensity made all the more chaotic by the production. — Elijah Watson

16. Jahari Massamba Unit — Jahari Massamba Unit

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It's fitting how nearly every track on Pardon My French suggests a pairing with a revered bottle of natural wine. Much like a landmark vintage, the debut full-length joint album from Madlib and Karriem Riggins, took its time to grow into a rich and complex body. Toasting to far-reaching pioneers and a shared love of good-ass grapes, two of hip-hop's most decorated producers revived a dormant collaborative moniker to forge a riveting cosmic jazz opus. Equal parts instrumental concept album and high-altitude beat tape, Pardon My French finds the producers tapping in, with remarkable fidelity, to the spiritual strains of jazz that would otherwise be set aside as source material for the seasoned samplers. Studious, experimental, and displacing-by-design, Pardon My French salutes the guidance of Strata East, mid-'70s Donald Byrd, and post-On The Corner Miles Davis, without ever getting too cheesy or on the nose.  — Zo

15. Knxwledge — 1988

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It may be hard to draw the line between Knxwledge’s home and studio output. But anyone trying to divvy up a catalog as extensive and consistent as the one he’s assembled over the last 11 years might just be missing the point. After all, by the time we got to 1988, his heavyset and quick-shifting sophomore album for Stones Throw, the 32-year-old producer’s themed Bandcamp drops had already eclipsed the century mark. Which is to say, it’s probably more useful to look at 1988 as a chapter divider for Knx, turning the page to a new saga in which a workflow has been seemingly perfected and a sonic aesthetic outright mastered. On his second album proper with the venerable hip-hop indie, the sources are decentralized but tediously stacked. The sequence is seamless and immersive. And the tracks rarely breach the two-minute mark but feel unending in the best possible way. — Zo

14. Freddie Gibbs & Alchemist — Alfredo

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Let’s be perfectly clear: stepping into 2020, Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist had absolutely nothing to prove. Both have already solidified, beyond any reasonable doubt, a best-in-class position amongst their respective generations and disciplines. Which might just be why Alfredo hits so damn hard. An ascendant MC and a legendary producer, each at a milestone moment in their careers, crafting a lean, lux, and lavish celebration of the distance they’ve covered is as much a continuation of a proven and polished formula as it is a victory lap.  — Z0

13. Teyana Taylor — The Album 

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The Album is met with intense, yet complex moments of sexual fantasies with enough vivid detail to make your palms sweat and your heartbeat race. The project’s strengths come from Teyana’s versatility, her growth as a songwriter, and her ability to have fun. On tracks like “Morning” which features Kehlani, and “Let’s Build” featuring Quavo, Teyana is unhinged, free-spirited, and released from the artistic restrictions that plagued her previous effort with Kanye West. The Album is not only one of the best albums this year, it’s one of the most necessary modern R&B experiences available. — Anthony Malone 

12. DVSN — A Muse In Her Feelings

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There are few things that I love more than an album that is sure of its place in a rotation, chief amongst them is an album with a non-cheesy running theme that ties it all nicely together. dvsn’s A Muse In Her Feelings does just that. dvsn is aware of their place in the market and is even more aware of what their fans came for. A Muse in Her Feelings is a no-skip exploration of feels as they drift you from the club to the pole  to a breezy summer jaunt. The generous sprinkle of features is just enough to capture some of the best artists of the year, including Summer Walker, Snoh Aalegra, Popcann, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and the legend Buju Banton.  — Rachel Hislop

11. Kehlani — It Was Good Until It Wasn’t

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On It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani plays the hopeless romantic, addicted to the closeness but afraid of the commitment that comes with love and its potential toxicity. During the 39-minute sophomore effort, Kehlani utilizes piano ballads, trap-soul composition, and sultry lyricism to explore themes of loneliness and the constant desire for companionship. Through messy breakups, and heartbreaking revelations, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t showcases Kehlani’s bouts of insecurity, but breaking through the surface is a newfound strength and maturity that will continue to blossom. — AM

10. Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas

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Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album is arguably the most emotional release of 2020. On it, she lays her soul bare and recants periods of heartbreak and love lost. But, she also picks up the pieces of herself she thought she let falter. On “Bittersweet,” La Havas digs into the lack of self-awareness that once had a hold on her. “Sour Flower” is the type of song you keep going back to when you need an escape. And in “Courage” Lianne’s ethereal voice reigns gloriously. This song is an example of her innate ability to fixate her focus on emotional topics, driving the point home that love is the only way out.  — RM

9.  Lil Baby — My Turn

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If you weren’t already a Lil Baby fan, My Turn probably won’t make you one. Compared to his 2017 breakout, Harder than Ever, his latest could definitely do without a few tracks. But the album is five singles deep at this point, and no other rap release has come close to that sort of replay value. Beating out global acts like Bad Bunny, Lady Gaga, and BTS in the process is just icing on the cake. In a year where rap’s usual titans were quieter than usual, Lil Baby stepped into the forefront. After spending most of 2019 doing guest appearances, he put out three platinum and two gold singles as a lead artist, not to mention guest appearances on two platinum and three gold records. Stop the count — it’s safe to say we all witnessed a coronation this year. — Torry Threadcraft

8. Jhené Aiko — Chilombo

Okp album12The title Chilombo is a reference to Jhené Aiko's last name, which means “wild beast” in the Bantu language of Chewa. True to the title, Jhene sounds more empowered and confident than ever. Her trademark emotional honesty is on full display on highlights such as “Triggered Freestyle” and “PUSSY Fairy (OTW).” Recorded on Hawaii’s Big Island, the album is intended to take listeners on a healing journey; every song features crystal alchemy singing bowls meant to properly align the chakras. — Daniel Kerry

7. keiyaA — Forever, Ya Girl

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keiyaA recorded much of her debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, by her self. She wrote the lyrics, produced most of the songs, and even flipped the samples. This one-woman approach is one of the reasons why this album, which was released just weeks into quarantine, has been able to stick when others from around the time haven't. Despite the murky, lo-fi nature to the album, and political nature to some of the tracks — like "Negus Poem 1 & 2" — Forever, Ya Girl is largely aspirational album that never stops leaving you in awe. "Every nigga is a star, yes, that includes me and you. Your moms, dad, cousin, sisters, they, and them too." — DS

6. Giveon — Take Time

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Giveon's Take Timeis intimate, emotionally riveting, and crafted for those who are fans of true vocalists. “This Ain’t Love” showcases Giveon’s spectacular vocal range whilst painting an accurate picture of a toxic partnership. “Like I Want You,” is a modern love song that’s outfitted with a remarkable chorus. Giveon’s expansiveness as an artist is displayed on Take Time. His lush baritone voice paired with the EP’s vulnerable songwriting allows listeners to experience his trials firsthand. — RM

5. $ilkMoney — Attack of the Future Shocked, Flesh Covered, Meatbags of the 85

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Being Black in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of laughter. For years, Black people have used laughter to mask their rage. This year was a particularly tragic one for Black people. Which also meant it was a funny year. It's a perspective that only really one rapper was able to completely get right: $ilkMoney. His brilliant 2020 album, Attack of the Future Shocked, Flesh Covered, Meatbags of the 85, came out shortly before the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprisings. But he nailed the mix of anger, disbelief, and incredulous laughter that Black people felt throughout 2020. This album largely flew under the radar, even as if a lot of inferior underground rap got lots of attention this year. And if you haven't listened to this yet please change that. This is one of the best rap albums to come out in 2020, with $ilkMoney rapping with a reckless abandonment that MCs obsessed with wordplay and similies can't match. — DS

4. Lil Uzi Vert — Eternal Atake

Okp album 6 Complete with Full Tilt! Pinball soundbites and UFO abduction acts, Eternal Atake straddles between Lil Uzi Vert running lyrical relays and finding amusement in it. A three-suite album (“Baby Pluto,” “Renji” and “Lil Uzi Vert”), Uzi’s development inclines gradually, without relying on a tracklist overrun with featured guests. (His only collaboration is with Syd, frontwoman of alt-R&B outfit The Internet on “Urgency.”) Forgoing his extraterrestrial antics towards the end of Eternal Atake, Uzi reaches full pop heartthrob status on viral TikTok anthem “Futsal Shuffle 2020” and the Backstreet Boys-interpolating “That Way.” — JTW

3. Thundercat — It Is What It Is

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Finding solace through humor on his fourth studio album, It Is What It Is, Thundercat is in a league of his own. Dedicated to his friend Mac Miller,It Is What It Is was a linchpin between Thundercat’s rumination of his existence and a celebration of his oddities. In the home-video styled visual for “Dragonball Durag,” Thundercat gallivants through his neighborhood, unsuccessfully charming Kali Uchis, Haim, and comedian Quinta Brunson. — JTW

2. Chloe x Halle — Ungodly Hour

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Chloe x Halle's sophomore album, Ungodly Hour, packs melodies, complex (but concise) vocals, and young adult meanderings neatly into virtually skip-free delight with strong lyrics, solid production, and a standout Disclosure produced title track that makes me mourn pre-covid nights at the club. The true magic of Ungodly Hour is how the individualism of each performer shines while always having a path right back to the unison that makes Chloe x Halle brilliant. — RM

1. Boldy James — The Price of Tea in China

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Yet another album bolstered by Alchemist’s exemplary crate-digging, The Price of Tea in China is as much a product of the producer’s surgical chops as Boldy James’ blunted penmanship. Teaming up for their second full-length collaborative album — the first being My 1st Chemistry Set in 2013 — the seasoned producer and breakout Detroit rapper bring the best of their bags to the booth, sparking a stellar four-album-run from Boldy and extending a decade-long heat-streak for Al. Like many of the projects the producer has helmed in just the last few years, the backdrops are dangerously intoxicating and tailor-made, fitting his partner with a smattering of excavated soul rarities and sinisterly minimal trap blotted with mind-bending psychedelia. And Boldy proves he might just be one of Al’s best pairings, lacing the legend’s loops with cold gospels and Mafioso motifs that beg for a big-screen treatment. — ZO

Honorable mention: Khruangbin — Mordechai; Polo G — The Goat; Jay Electronica — Written Testimony; Navy Blue — Ada Irin; Nick Hakim — Will This Make Me Good;  Ty Dolla $ign — Featuring Ty Dolla $ign;  Mike — Weight of the World; Armani Cesar — The Liz; Conway the Machine — From King to a God; Brandy — B7