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Maura Johnston

Top 12 best pop albums of 2020

Brandy's 2020 album, "B7," is one of the year's best.
Brandy's 2020 album, "B7," is one of the year's best.Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

“DARK HEARTS” Annie

Norwegian DJ and producer Annie’s bubbly synthpop defined a certain strand of 2000s indie-disco, its insouciance only outpaced by its bouncy beats — then she went mostly quiet for the 2010s. She’s shrouded in gloom on her first album in 11 years, with poppier tracks like the plush “The Streets Where I Belong” and the starlit ballad “Miracle Mile” serving as the ballast for mini-epics like the glittering “Mermaid Dreams” and the cavernous title track. Annie’s return was in the works before lockdown, but the brooding vibe of “Dark Hearts” made for ideal post-nightfall listening.

“B7” Brandy

Since her first solo album in 1994, Brandy Norwood has been at the forefront of R&B, her husky voice sounding preternaturally suited to any mold-breaking beat. On her seventh album, songs like the quivering “Borderline” and the up-to-here “Say Something” proved the ways in which her career paved the way for modern-day soul singers like H.E.R. and duet partner Daniel Caesar; elsewhere, like on the gently minimalist “No Tomorrow” or the pillowy “Rather Be,” she gave modern R&B’s boundaries yet another nudge.

From left: Jonathan Snipes, Daveed Diggs, and William Hutson of Clipping.
From left: Jonathan Snipes, Daveed Diggs, and William Hutson of Clipping.KAYLA REEFER/NYT

“VISIONS OF BODIES BEING BURNED” Clipping

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Part journey to noise’s harshest realms, part master class in fast-talking rhymes, and part spine-rattling horror anthology, the fourth full-length by the Los Angeles-based trio Clipping takes on the dread of 21st century life by projecting it onto funhouse mirrors. Producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes set the mood with unsettling soundscapes that push samplers and synthesizers to their limit; Daveed Diggs’s precision-grade raps narrate the action up close, their hyper-specificity only adding to the feeling of inevitable doom.

“THE COOL GREENHOUSE” The Cool Greenhouse

The Cool Greenhouse leader Tom Greenhouse has an eye for absurdist detail; paired with his dryly sardonic voice, which sounds constantly on the verge of a disappointed sigh, he could turn even a description of paint drying into a hilarious commentary on modern life’s woes. The first full-length by his semi-eponymous band pairs his observations on job hunting, men telling women to smile, and other reasons for 21st-century malaise with spiky, propulsive music that updates post-punk’s drums-and-wires ideal.

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Fiona Apple
Fiona AppleCHAD BATKA/NYT

“FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS” Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple’s fifth album, which came out semi-unexpectedly in April, managed to capture the spirit of early quarantine with its homegrown feel (a lot of it was recorded in her house, with found household objects doubling as percussion and barking dogs making themselves heard) and say-anything lyrics. Apple’s career has been defined by calling things as she sees them since at least her nervous outburst at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, and “Fetch” ups the stakes with clattering arrangements, idiosyncratically insistent melodies, and Apple’s poetic, yet pointed lyrics.

“MAMALARKEY” Mamalarky

As someone who’s old enough to remember when “indie” meant fuzzed-out instead of fussy, I went bananas for the spunky, distortion-soaked debut from this LA-via-Austin quartet. Singer-guitarist Livvy Bennett has a wandering-in-the-woods coo that adds sparkle to slower tracks like the dreamy “Hero” and the swirling “You Make Me Smile”; her bandmates have an impish approach to making music that electrifies the marauding opener “Fury” and makes the snappy “Drug Store Model” sound even better during its half-speed coda.

“THINGS I NEVER SAID” Oceanator

Elise Okusami’s first full-length as Oceanator compresses the stresses of twentysomething life into gleaming guitar pop that uses nervous energy to make its hooks sound even more massive. “A Crack in the World” is one of the best pure power-pop songs of recent memory, Okusami’s singsong vocal matched by a chugging riff, while “I Would Find You” could fit right in with a New Wave dance party playlist, its anything-for-love lyrics coloring its downcast synths with just enough hope.

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Poppy
PoppyCHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

“I DISAGREE” Poppy

In retrospect, the third full-length by Poppy — which came out all the way back in January — could be seen as something of an omen for the year that would follow; thankfully, “I Disagree” provided edge-of-everything catharsis even if you took this year’s events out of the picture. Melding metal’s harsh riffs and barreling drums with painstakingly arranged pop and post-apocalyptic lyrics delivered in Poppy’s airy soprano, “I Disagree” was a hyper-speed ride through chaos, from the chant of “Bury me six feet deep” on the whiplashing opener “Concrete” to the haunting (and unnervingly prescient) closer “Don’t Go Outside.”

“UNTITLED (BLACK IS)”/“UNTITLED (RISE)” Sault

The mysterious British collective Sault emerged last year with a pair of albums made to get people on the dance floor. This year, they put out two more full-lengths that showed their goal was to soundtrack dances at the revolution: “Untitled (Black Is),” released on Juneteenth, uplifted and embraced Black culture around the world to the sounds of gospel, funk, and synthpop, while “Untitled (Rise),” which came out three months later, pumped up the rhythms while keeping its lyrical focus steady. In less than two years, Sault has amassed a discography that should make even classic-rock purists blush.

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“FOLKLORE”/“EVERMORE” Taylor Swift

Taken together, Taylor Swift’s two surprise-released albums represented a leap forward for the pop superstar. “Folklore,” which came out in July, represented a new chapter in Swift’s already-lengthy songbook, with songs like the humming “The Last Great American Dynasty” and the simmering “Mad Woman” populated by curious characters; “Evermore,” released earlier this month, found her expanding her universe and cracking open her rhythms on tracks like the devastating divorce song “Tolerate It” and the modern murder ballad “No Body, No Crime.”