As far as music created by women is concerned, 2020 was a resounding success. Women came through (don’t they always?) with albums that offered respite from 2020’s chaos, reminded us why feminism is a necessity and encouraged us to have a good sob, scream or smile when we needed it most.
This far-from-all-inclusive list represents just 20 standouts from the past year, ranked in (very) rough order according to their placements on other year-end lists as well as my personal preferences. On these albums, artists blend genres, take risks and salute previous generations of powerful women musicians who paved the way. In 2020, veteran artists returned to the spotlight stronger than ever (welcome back, Fiona Apple and The Chicks), while fresh faces like Megan Thee Stallion, Rina Sawayama and beabadoobee dropped their debut albums. Sisters also crushed it this year, from Chloe x Halle to the HAIM siblings, and—as if to embody resilience in the face of international turmoil—many women artists crafted the most ambitious, authentic and remarkable music of their careers.
- folklore & evermore – Taylor Swift
For the eighth album in a row, Taylor Swift outdid herself. She wrote that stripped-down indie record she’s been meaning to make since ‘06, dropping folklore with 14 hours’ notice—a first for the verifiable Queen of Easter eggs and four-month promo cycles. The polar opposite of its buoyant pop predecessor (2019’s Lover), folklore finds Swift weaving tales of characters suffering through their bleakest moments. Among them: a childhood friend hiding in the closet from her angry father, a “mad woman” shunned by her misogynistic town, a recovering alcoholic staring down the edge of a lookout, Taylor’s own grandfather (a WWII Veteran) arriving at Guadalcanal in 1942, an ICU nurse holding a patient’s hand through plastic in 2020… Yet every folklore moment feels like a warmhearted bear hug from a woman who has, over the past decade-and-a-half, emerged as one of music’s most empathic and prolific storytellers.
And then, less than five months later, Taylor Swift outdid herself again. She dropped another 17-track magnum opus with 14 hours’ notice, explaining that folklore and evermore are “sister albums.” Some of the stories intersect (for anyone keeping score, Swift confirmed that evermore’s Dorothea attends the same high school as folklore’s Betty-James-Augustine-Inez crew), but every one of these lo-fi indie-folk-pop songs is an intricate world unto itself. Taylor Swift packs narratives into sentences, spouting off lyric after lyric that would be the line of a lifetime for another artist; the bridge of “champagne problems” alone could be an album’s epic climax, but on evermore, it’s just the warm-up act. This record dazzles, whether Taylor is eulogizing her opera singer grandmother, who left “closets of backlogged dreams” to Taylor (“marjorie”), or penning a devastating ballad—and then titling it “happiness.” We’ll be discovering, decoding and discussing nooks and crannies in evermore’s stories for years to come. Their author, who sings with a gorgeous ache in her voice, wouldn’t have it any other way. On “gold rush,” Taylor declares, “My mind turns your life into folklore.” Exactly.
2. Good News – Megan Thee Stallion
If you got through 2020 without hearing “Savage”—nevermind, you didn’t. And thank the hood Mona Lisa for that. “Savage” is an unapologetic(ally catchy) expression of Black female multidimensionality and general badassery, made even more classy, bougie, ratchet, sassy, moody and nasty by Queen Bey’s feature on the Good News Remix. But “Savage” is just one of Good News’ 17 hip-hop/rap bangers. The opener (“Shots Fired”) addresses America’s sexist and racist response to Megan’s being shot in the foot by rapper Tory Lanez in July, and connects her experience to violence against women of color nationwide (“We still ain’t got no fuckin’ justice for Breonna Taylor”). She spends the rest of her debut LP celebrating Black women’s confidence, sexual freedom and beauty with quick-witted nods to the present moment (“Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business”), delightful giggles, addictive choruses and zero patience for men who “don’t even make a bitch feel like she pretty.” In 2020, we all needed good news and Good News.
3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
About every seven-and-a-half years, Fiona Apple drops a meticulously crafted gem that blows virtually every other album released that year (or ever) out of the water. 2020 was one of those years. On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which scored Pitchfork’s first “10” in a decade, the 43-year-old went DIY before COVID-19 necessitated DIY. She wrote, recorded and produced her fifth LP over a five-year stretch from her home. The result? Innovative alt-rock-industrial music crafted from found objects, including oil cans, an unfastened stovetop discovered roadside, a decorative metal butterfly, her deceased dog’s bones and her current pup’s barks. Fiona fixates on her relationships with other women, from middle-school popular girls and friends (“Shameika”) to boyfriends’ exes. In “Newspaper,” she insists, “When I learned what he did, I felt close to you / In my own way, I fell in love with you,” and on “Ladies,” Apple gifts her ex’s new lover her dress, passed down from another ex’s former wife, explaining, “Nobody can replace anybody else / So it would be a shame to make it a competition.” She delivers it all with rough and throaty Fiona Apple-level intensity. There’s fierce and inventive, and then there’s Fiona Apple.
- Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
On Ungodly Hour, sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey settle scores with every man who’s wronged them while embracing their sexuality over smooth melodies and flawless production, in which both members of the R&B duo have a hand. Yet the best moments of the former Disney stars’ coming-of-age album (which they executive produced alongside Beyoncé Knowles, their mentor) have precious little to do with ex-boyfriends and everything to do with female solidarity, Black sisterhood and girl power. “Wonder What She Thinks of Me” finds both Chloe and Halle playing the role of the “other woman,” but their voices harmonize so naturally that the love triangle’s man fades away. On the anthemic “Baby Girl,” they sing “Do it for the girls / All around the world,” and conclude “Don’t you forget about / The little girl…that’s in your spirit / She’s still got your back.” Yes she does, Bailey sisters, and she’d be damn proud.
- Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
Punisher cemented Phoebe Bridgers as one of the biggest names in indie music. Emo-folk ballads like “Garden Song,” “Halloween” and the title track are classic Phoebe Bridgers: soft-spoken, hyper-specific and poignant. But at other moments, Bridgers’ emotion erupts into a barrage of drums, electric guitars and horns. She carries her subtle humor, cynicism and love of the mundane into rock ballads like “Kyoto” (“I don’t forgive you / But please don’t hold me to it,” she tells her absent, semi-sober father) and the turbulent “I See You,” a breakup song she co-wrote with her drummer—who is the ex-boyfriend in question. It culminates in the apocalyptic album-ender “I Know the End” (co-written with Conor Oberst), which finds Phoebe driving into oblivion, chasing tornadoes as lightning bolts crash dangerously close to her open car windows. She contemplates creation myths and God, only to throw up her hands and conclude, “Yeah, I guess the end is here.” Then the album disintegrates into a cacophony of instruments and screams. It’s very 2020, and also very Phoebe Bridgers.
- Manic – Halsey
Manic is a wild ride. From the country love song and K-pop interlude to the John Mayer voicemail cameo, it’s all over the place. But what ties together the artistic chaos, including a ballad about Halsey’s recurrent miscarriages and an LGBTQIA+ pride duet with Alanis Morissette, is Ashley Frangipane’s insistence on maximalism and emotional honesty. Was Manic nominated for a Grammy? No. Should some snob on the Grammy Committee lose their job over that? Probably. Halsey paints a candid, congruous picture of a young woman grappling with a sexist industry, heterosexism, heartbreak, personal tragedy and mental illness—and forging ahead with heart and hope, one perfectly placed syllable at a time.
- Women in Music Pt. III – HAIM
The HAIM sisters—Este, Danielle and Alana Haim—have always been a great band, but they’ve never made anything this impressive. The genre-blending Women in Music Pt. III (abbreviated WIMPIIl, pronounced wimpy; leave it to HAIM to laugh in the face of sexism) is the product of sisterly solidarity during personal adversity. Este struggled with Type 1 Diabetes while Danielle, whose partner was diagnosed with cancer, battled depression (directly addressed in “I’ve Been Down” and “I Know Alone”). Through it all, the L.A. trio had each other—plus generations of powerhouse women in music before them. You can hear Joni Mitchell in “Man From the Magazine‘” and Sheryl Crow in “I’ve Been Down.” And they do their foresisters proud, whether weaving together HAIM-sian quirkiness and theatrics with subtle sophistication, writing a love song for each other (“Hallelujah”) or going straight for the (male) jugular. “You don’t know how it feels / to be the cunt,” they spit at men who patronize and sexualize them—including a real-life reporter who made a sexist pass at Este—in “Man from the Magazine,” where sly poetry meets patriarchy smashing. Aren’t women in music the best?
- SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama was the pop star of 2020. One listen to a song like “XS” or “STFU!” and the London-based superstar’s unbridled confidence will make you feel like you’re in a packed stadium, even if you’re listening alone in your bedroom during quarantine. Rina Sawayama’s raw star power slaps hard. Beneath the pure pop perfection, Rina writes sharp and honest lyrics that explore intergenerational pain (“Dynasty”), throw serious shade at capitalism (“XS”), tackle double standards (“Comme des Garçons”), address depression and feelings of familial alienation (“Akasaka Sad”) and celebrate the bond she’s formed with her LGBTQIA+ siblings (“Chosen Family”). On the opener, she announces, “I’m gonna take the throne this time / All the words all mine, all mine.” But one minute and 16 seconds in, she’s already snatched the throne and the words. And the world of popular music will forever be the better for it.
- Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas is a quadruple threat. The British folk-soul artist brings elegant and powerful vocals to her eponymous third record. where she also rocks the deft guitar work and the down-to-earth lyrics and the serene production. Wise, worldly and self-assured, Lianne chronicles the pangs of falling in and out of love. “Bittersweet summer rain / I’m born again,” she croons on the stirring opener (“Bittersweet”), which is a mission statement for the other 10 tracks, released following a five-year hiatus. Lianne embarks on a journey of self-discovery that culminates in the six-and-a-half-minute “Sour Flower,” based on an expression her grandmother said: “That’s your sour flower, that’s your problem, you deal with it.” “Deal with it” Lianne does, belting “When I’m hot, when I’m blue / I’m not crying over you / When I cry, now I’m free / Sour flower, it’s on me.” It’s a cathartic and anthemic ending to an invigorating album.
- Gaslighter – The Chicks
The Chicks’ (formerly Dixie Chicks) first album in 14 years is a socially conscious love letter to Gen Z that doubles as a middle finger to Natalie Maines’ ex-husband (Adrian Pasdar)—and all men who gaslight. Besides shittalking Adrian, who raised concerns about whether Gaslighter violated a prenup privacy clause because it’s so hyper-specific and unfiltered, Maines and bandmates/sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer vow to “stand with” youth against injustice, including racial inequality, and push for female solidarity in the next generation. On the showstopping “Julianna Calm Down,” the esteemed country girl group namechecks each of their daughters and nieces (Julianna, Harper, Katie, Eva…), shepherding them toward resilience and self-love in the face of an unjust world and less-than-stellar dudes: “Put on your best shoes / And strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothin’ to lose.” The Chicks are old pros at rocking feminist anthems (see: 2003’s inimitable “Not Ready to Make Nice”), but now they’re empowering the women (and men) of Gen Z.
- ALICIA – Alicia Keys
On her eponymous seventh album, the legendary Alicia Keys blends contemporary R&B, soul, hip-hop, Afrobeats and pop, creating a sound that’s satisfying, smooth and soothing. She stands with society’s most marginalized, from people of color killed by racist police (“Perfect Way to Die”) to asylum seekers and the homeless (“Underdog”), and leaves room for self-discovery and romance. The 15-time Grammy winner articulates the fundamental human need to love and be loved, and then provides a little bit of that love with lyrics like “from the silence of my sisters / to the violence of my brother / we can rage / Against the river…I have a voice.” ALICIA, which boasts big-name features on over half the tracks, makes for an uplifting, comforting and essential listen in 2020—or any year.
- Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee
Down-to-earth country meets lyrical poetry on this masterpiece of an alt/indie record. “You watch me like I’m a jet stream / A scientific cryptogram lit up behind the sunbeam / You paint my body like a rose / A depth of beauty in repose,” Katie Crutchfield, sole architect of the Waxahatchee project, sings in her Southern twang. For her fifth studio album—and the first she’s made sober—Crutchfield knits tales of worn-out Americana and messy human emotion, digging deep into her Southern roots and drawing from country music legends like Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams and Tammy Wynette. Katie Crutchfield’s name will live on among theirs for generations to come, if Saint Cloud is any indication.
- Petals for Armor – Hayley Williams
From your favorite emo pop punk frontwoman of the past decade-and-a-half comes a surprising and sophisticated debut solo album. On Petals for Armor, which a recently-divorced Hayley started writing at the suggestion of her therapist, the former Paramore lead grapples with depression, loss and her relationship to femininity. Hayley Williams’ candor is not sanitized, but vulnerable, authentic and bold. “Eat my breakfast in the nude / lemon water, living room / home is where I’m feminine / smells like citrus and cinnamon” she sings on “Cinnamon” which, like most songs on the genre-blending record, sounds effortlessly poetic. The deeper you dig into the experimental soil of Petals for Armor, the more you discover about the former Paramore frontwoman—and her intrepid artistry.
- Fake It Flowers – beabadoobee
The debut album of 20-year-old Beatrice Laus is early 2000s pop-rock but edgier and with a ’90s indie rock twist; I don’t recall Vanessa Carlton or Michelle Branch ever spouting off a lyric quite as blunt as “Fuck me, only when I’m keen / Not according to your beer.” All 12 tracks sound like their author is not a day over age 20, and that’s what makes the music of beabadoobee so lovable. Case in point: The final track’s chorus. “I think I wanna marry him / But I really don’t wanna freak him out / I picked all our children’s names, they’re called / Yoshimi, Forest, Magdalene,” she announces, proceeding to whisper, and then full throttle punk scream, her hypothetical children’s names no less than 26 times. He’ll be thoroughly freaked. But if he’s anything like the rest of us, he’ll also be enamored for years to come.
- Miss Anthropocene – Grimes
If this was a list of the most bizarre albums released by women in 2020, Miss Anthropocene would take the top spot. I say that with the utmost respect. Miss Anthropocene is an otherworldly concept album about an earthly crisis, namely, climate change; the record loosely personifies “Miss Anthropocene” (derived from “misanthrope” and “Anthropocene”), a Climate Change Goddess who celebrates humans’ self-inflicted demise. Blending electro-pop and nu metal, the nihilistic Miss Anthropocene also explores womanhood, most notably in “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” which cryptically describes the moment a woman decides to become pregnant. To borrow a quote from the second-to-last track (“Before the fever”), Miss Anthropocene is equal parts “madness, intellect, audacity”—just like its visionary creator.
- Plastic Hearts – Miley Cyrus
If, in 2013, you’d asked me what was more likely—a global pandemic or me including a Miley Cyrus record on a year-end top 20 album list—I would have assumed we’d all succumbed to Ebola. Call me a cynic, but I thought we’d see the last of Miley after the “Wrecking Ball” era.
Then Rolling Stone gave Plastic Hearts a four-star review, and Pitchfork said it places “music first, headlines second.” Lo and behold, Plastic Hearts pays tribute to classic rockers of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, from Blondie to The Mamas & the Papas. Miley even crushes a gutsy mashup of “Edge of Seventeen” with her own “Midnight Sky” (“Edge of Midnight”), complete with a Stevie Nicks cameo. When the likes of Joan Jett (!) and Billy Idol (!) aren’t making feature appearances, Miley gets introspective with tracks like “Golden G String,” where 2020 Miley explains what 2013 Miley was thinking and spits at cynics like me, “You dare to call me crazy, have you looked around this place?” Touché.
- Bridges – Mickey Guyton
Bridges is technically an EP, but these six country-pop tracks cover so much ground that the Texas native’s third EP feels like her first LP. Mickey, who recently became the first solo Black woman to perform at the ACM Awards and secure a Grammy nomination in the country category (which speaks to both Mickey’s talent and the racism of country, despite the genre’s roots in Black music), makes country clichés like drinking and praying sound brand new with her self-awareness, empathy and polished voice. Other times, she veers from clichés entirely, instead creating socially conscious country music that tackles systemic injustice. On the personal-is-political showstopper finale, Mickey belts, “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try to be Black like me.” That might be 2020’s truest lyric.
- I Disagree – Poppy
When she’s not posting shrewd, minute-long YouTube videos that prompt debate over whether she’s a human or AI robot, Poppy—who began her music career as a pop artist and is up for her first-ever Grammy—dominates the heavy metal scene. She spits cutthroat lyrics like “Your soul can’t be saved from the sins you’ve ignored / And the devil is well aware he is adored” over an intuitive blend of industrial music, 90s-esque soft rock, bubblegum pop and, of course, hard metal. Just when you’re ready to say, “You’re white, wealthy, successful… What’s your damage, Poppy?” (even for 2020, “I need the taste of young blood in my teeth” is a little much), she clarifies, “I’m sick of the sun / it burns everyone / I want it to go away,” and honestly, that’s all the explanation you need. I’m so here for Poppy—and women in general—making apocalyptic metal.
- THE ALBUM – BLACKPINK
The universe’s biggest K-pop girl group (and, arguably, biggest K-pop group period) just dropped the first LP of their career, and it’s every bit as hook-heavy, gloriously in-your-face and perfectly produced as expected. All eight tracks could fly to #1 on pop radio, in part thanks to writing and production assists from hitmakers like Teddy, Danny Chung and Ryan Tedder, as well as cameos from Selena Gomez and Cardi B. What makes THE ALBUM really shine is bandmates Jennie, Rosé, Lisa and Jisoo’s radiant confidence, rapping prowess and girl-power attitude in a genre and industry fraught with double standards.
- I’M TOO SENSITIVE FOR THIS SHIT – Hayley Kiyoko
Hayley Kiyoko’s ambitiously titled EP is ear candy with emotional integrity. In these five irresistibly catchy tracks, released between July 2019 and January 2020, pop’s “Lesbian Jesus” (as Hayley stans affectionately refer to their idol) dives headfirst into the messiness of mental health, heterosexism and young romance, baring her soul before the cute girls who give mixed signals—and the rest of the world.
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).