At the end of last February, just before the world shut down, Bad Bunny stopped by the Rolling Stone offices to play some tracks from his new album, YHLQMDLG. The music was jubilant and daring, pushing reggaeton in radical, genre-defying new directions. Even the title, an acronym for Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana, or “I do whatever I want,” seemed to announce that 2020 was going to be a boundary-toppling year for pop music.
Of course, by the time YHLQMDLG had reached 1 billion streams (and Bad Bunny appeared on our cover, wearing a mask) in the spring, the world was a different place. The ways artists made music and the ways we listened changed with it. Music became more solitary, more intimate; discovering new music and revisiting old favorites became essential anchors in our daily lives. “For so many of us, music is key to how we connect with the outside world,” Rob Sheffield writes in his column about being a music fan last year. “But in 2020 music became the outside world.”
Perhaps no artist interpreted the moment as well as Taylor Swift, whose Folklore is the top album in our Year in Music issue. Folklore, rich with piano and acoustic guitar, is filled with quietly revealing moments meant for close listening, not the big stage, which of course wasn’t an option last year anyway. “Taylor’s a shape-shifter,” says reviews editor Jon Dolan. “She’s like Dylan or Bowie in the way she senses the moment and delivers something we need to hear.”
We were drawn to music that made sense of chaotic times — albums like the brilliantly apocalyptic agit-rap of Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 and Lucinda Williams’ crunchy, defiant Good Souls Better Angels, and new artists like Phoebe Bridgers, whose moody and precise Punisher came in at Number 10. Bob Dylan made a late-career masterpiece, Rough and Rowdy Ways, with its dark rumination on American decline, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” (our Number Two Song of the Year, after “WAP”), and a 17-minute historical epic, “Murder Most Foul,” which deputy music editor Simon Vozick-Levinson has noted, “is really about the ways that music can comfort us in times of national trauma.”
For me, one of the year’s toughest musical traumas was the loss of reggae master Toots Hibbert, who died due to complications from Covid-19 at age 77, just weeks after releasing his first LP in a decade, Got to Be Tough, which also made our Top 50 Albums list. Toots was a close friend, and a force of nature. The power of his new songs — gritty, soulful pleas for political revolution and spiritual redemption — hasn’t diminished a bit. But now it comes with a sense of heartbreak unimaginable a year ago.
“There was so much great music, from so many corners of the world,” says Dolan. “Even in such a terrible year, music kept us going. Whether the great albums were fighting against the times or making sense of the times or just escaping the times — there’s been so much great music to get us through.”