As this limbo year finally burns itself out, let’s make clear what a best-music-of-the-past-365-days list should do. I think it should tell the story of the listmaker’s annual listening experience, with the recordings ranked, not to establish a hierarchy, but because music criticism is a time-management tool (among other things). I encourage you to prioritize the stuff at the top, then work your way down. Easy, right? Fun, too, I hope. In that spirit, my 2020 list ignores format — albums and songs are mixed in with compilations and serialized bundles of techno music that I’d be happy to continue receiving on a weekly basis into 2021 and beyond.
1. Theo Parrish, ‘Wuddaji’
The only place to go dancing in 2020 was inside your own body, so good thing this veteran Detroit producer-DJ makes music for exactly that. Parrish’s carefully studied, profoundly physical approach to rhythm can teach you new ways to move. It might even teach you new ways to live.
2. Noname, ‘Song 33’
The backstory is longer than the song: In June, this Chicago rapper tweeted her disappointment in “top selling rappers” for failing to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and while she didn’t name names, J. Cole felt targeted and recorded a diss track that nobody asked for. Noname replied with “Song 33,” a 70-second sotto voce demolition job and a blueprint for how tomorrow’s protest anthems (and/or rap beef) might feel exponentially humane.
3. Pop Smoke, ‘Meet the Woo 2’
Whether it was pouring from the windows of passing cars or boiling over on the loudspeakers at Black Lives Matter protests, this Brooklyn rapper’s deeper-than-God voice was ubiquitous in 2020 — which means we’ve been mourning him on a daily basis. Twelve days after the release of this billowing, juggernaut album, Pop Smoke was killed in Los Angeles.
4. Hailey Whitters, ‘The Dream’
Fame-thirsty country singers can be a desperate bunch, but this well-hydrated Iowa songwriter never chases after authenticity, probably because her songs feel so inherently lifelike — plain and simple on the surface, but with layers of human complexity roiling quietly beneath.
5. Sir E.U, ‘Rare Issue’
Spend five minutes tumbling through this District rapper’s swirl of consciousness and you’ll encounter Kristi Yamaguchi and Wynton Marsalis, Hewlett-Packard printers and drone strike missiles, and Sir E.U himself, of course, “an all-girl band in a one lone man,” stanned by God, and “like the Iraq War . . . older than Billie Eilish” — all of this delivered in a visionary sigh.
6. Caetano Veloso and Ivan Sacerdote, ‘Caetano Veloso and Ivan Sacerdote’
The fact that this gentle colossus of Brazilian song released this modest little album — a series of tidy duets with the young clarinetist Sacerdote — to zero fanfare only underscores its humility and elegance.
7. Playboi Carti, ‘@ MEH’
One of rap’s wildest stylists continues to advance his dazzling flows, but on this masterpiece tune, listen to how Carti seeps, sinking his liquid rhymes into the music until his voice becomes one with the cyclone of digital confetti twisting around him. Forgive the mixed metaphor, I’m dizzy.
8. Various artists, ‘HOA010’
“In these trying times, we come together to stake claim on the roots of techno and its potential future.” So goes the manifesto of 20-odd Black dance-music producers who assembled for this righteous compilation album on the burgeoning HAUS of ALTR label. Released on Juneteenth, it felt like a statement and a celebration.
9. Drakeo the Ruler, ‘We Know the Truth’
After spending nearly three years in jail on charges he was never found guilty of, the great Los Angeles rapper is finally free, resuming his pathfinding career with meticulous rhymes and charismatic smirks.
10. Anna von Hausswolff, ‘All Thoughts Fly’
Think about the term “background music” in a very literal sense and you’re talking about a sound as vast as the world around you. That’s how this album of ambient pipe organ drones feels after a few spins: deeply immersive, incomprehensibly big.
11. Lil Baby, ‘My Turn (Deluxe)’
Rapping in extroverted smears that sound as immediate as interior thoughts, this year’s breakout rap star knows where he stands in a system that asks us to transpose our humanity into content: “I done put my heart inside a box and tried to sell it to ’em.”
12. Ulla, ‘Tumbling Towards a Wall’
Ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Have we worn that ancient Brian Eno maxim out yet? If so, this Philadelphia soundscaper seems to be proposing a new one: Ambient music must do as much as possible while making us feel like it’s not doing anything at all.
13. Bergsonist, all 2020 recordings on Bandcamp
This year, the Morocco-born producer seemed to be approaching rhythm as a diaristic practice, releasing fresh techno jottings on the streaming platform Bandcamp nearly every Friday of the pandemic. Eavesdropping on her weekly routine allowed her music to become a part of yours.
14. Makaya McCraven, ‘Universal Beings E&F Sides’
The fact that this Chicago jazz drummer’s most mesmerizing album was culled from the leftovers of his 2018 record, “Universal Beings,” should make us wonder what else is hiding in the fridge.
15. Beatrice Dillon, ‘Workaround’
The British producer’s pristine electronic rhythms sound as if they were recorded in the sterility of an airless void, but her music still finds a way to feel teeming, funky and alive. Yes, germaphobes have every right to be stressed right now, but not here. It’s music.