It’s difficult to fully grasp the devastation that this year wrought on music: the artists lost to the pandemic, the local venues forced to close their doors for good, the independent musicians and crews left stranded and exposed without shows. That there was any new music to listen to and fall in love with by the fall, after the pre-lockdown albums had been mastered and released into an unfamiliar world, was a marvel in itself. Creating and releasing art in the middle of a plague is hard work.
But we did get new music. Loads of it. Enough to argue about as we put together this list of our favorite albums, enough to have some records we fought for lose out, definitely enough to make these wretched days seem bearable. And while it would be neat to say that the albums we held closest this year were all linked in some way, that we gravitated towards the introspective or the anxious or the angry to pull us through, that would be a lie. Music still surprised and challenged us. Ambitious, beat-driven albums like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall connected even without dancefloors to share them on. Dextrous hip-hop the world over, from Pink Siifu in Los Angeles to Headie One in London, sounded incendiary and gave voice to the moment. Punks as disparate as Gulch and Jeff Rosenstock kept tearing the world to shreds; HAIM, Helena Deland, and Hayley Williams delivered prismatic, idiosyncratic takes on indie rock; unclassifiable artists like Bartees Strange and Yves Tumor still managed to confound and thrill.
Hopefully a few months from now we’ll be able to listen to some of this music in re-opened DIY spaces, lush concert halls, or living rooms populated by at least a half-dozen people. In the meantime, here’s a selection of albums that transcended the year they were born into. — Alex Robert Ross, Editorial Director
50. Shabason, Krgovich & Harris, Philadelphia
The intermittently Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Nicholas Krgovich has spent the better part of the past decade refining a talent for wry understatement. When he set out to write about the glitz and glare of a long-dead Los Angeles on The Hills six years ago, his focus landed on the lonely B-listers leaving Oscars night empty-handed, the aspiring actors choking on smog in drop-tops. When he tackled heartbreak for the first time in earnest on his last solo album, the plainly titled OUCH, he exposed his bitterness and grief with terrifying shrugs (“Everything’s fine I guess / But I wish I were dead”). On Philadelphia, a Japanese New Age-inspired collaboration with the prolific saxophonist Joseph Shabason and multi-instrumentalist Chris Harris, he frees himself almost completely from the pressures of writing about anything at all. In fact, at one point, he gazes at a coffee cup for a while just in case it offers up a philosophical breakthrough. The languid keys and synths here are all one breath away from whalesong, allowing Krgovich to drift off into bliss utterly unburdened: “A dusty minivan with the hood flipped up / A frazzled woman / A pretty sunset / Wrap your loving arms around it.” Philadelphia was conceived of and recorded before lockdown, but, in the midst of a million anxieties, it provided a much needed pause. — ARR
49. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
The two-year hiatus that Lil Uzi Vert spent in career limbo, punctuated only by the occasional feature or song berating his label, finally broke like a vicious fever with the release of Eternal Atake. Uzi had already transcended mumble-rap and given its sibling subgenre emo-rap a definitive track in “XO Tour Llif3”. The big question Uzi faced with his latest album was momentum: could its music live up to the title’s lofty promise and recapture the fickle ears of the rap world?
Eternal Atake succeeded in both respects while remaining unconcerned with skeptics, a feature that allows Uzi to more fully explore the different angles of his rap persona. He can unleash speedy bars sourced from the Philly streets (“Silly Watch”), find affecting melodies in a rave-inspired beat (“Celebration Station”), or embrace the pop star inside him (the Backstreet Boys-sampling “That Way”). No matter the style, Uzi treats his songs like he’s an Olympic track runner, covering similar ground with entertaining pace. He is a titan of flexing, fighting, and fucking, a diamond-encrusted kaiju with a glowing vulnerability pulsing from his heart. Eternal Atake was re-released as a deluxe album with a tracklist partially crowdsourced on Twitter, but the one song from the standard edition had already hinted at how creatively Uzi handles fan service: placed near the end of the album, “P2”, with its refix of “XO Tour Llif3, gave fans what they wanted in a way they didn’t know they needed. It’s something Uzi never struggles with, even if he can’t always deliver when he wants. — Jordan Darville, News Editor
48. Madeline Kenney, Sucker’s Lunch
The fourth album from the mostly Oakland-based singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney is a meditation on the trope of the idiot, a literary character who, she told The FADER, “can truly be wise, because they're free of logic [and] can experience things in a pure, untainted, unfettered sort of way.” And though Sucker’s Lunch isn’t an unbridled serotonin rush, there is a quiet joy beneath these deftly controlled songs, a placidness that wasn’t present on Kenney’s previous records. It’s clearest on “Sucker,” which bobs forward on little more than a wobbling bass, two unadorned guitar motifs, and a mix of vocals from Lambchop, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wanser (who co-produced the album), and Kenney herself. “But when it's all said and done / I'll make another / Pour myself a cup of coffee” she sings gently, resolving to take a little pleasure from an unforgiving day and a life less “fun” than it used to be. She’s less forgiving of herself, though, on “Sweet Coffee,” which pushes the artful jazz-pop that animates much of the album bashfully into the spotlight, insisting that she’ll simply “stop breathing” if anxiety wins out. Idiocy, apparently, isn’t all that easy. — ARR
Read our interview with Madeline Kenney about Sucker's Lunch here.
47. Gulch, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
The 16-minute-long Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress has the duration and intensity of a thorough ass-kicking. An ostensible hardcore band that remains indebted to death metal, Gulch refuses to be filed away, their brief, brutal songs descend upon you from all possible escape routes, an omnidirectional flank maneuver you never saw coming.
Gulch may sound frenzied, but they’re in total control of their powers. Each word of Elliot Morrow’s scorched vocals sounds as if it has clawed its way up his throat from the blackest recesses of his heart, egged on by the hellacious riffing of guitarist and principal songwriter Cole Kakimoto. A showcase of the band’s deft management of tension can be found in the album’s opening track: the song arrives with a wail and Sam Shereck’s machine gun drums, only to pull back slightly and observe the damage before diving in again. There’s dimension across the album, too, an element that’s brought into sharp relief thanks to the closing track “Sin In My Heart,” a Siouxsie & The Banshees cover emphasizing bleakness and fast-boiling vulnerability. Kakimoto may believe that an ironic Sanrio hoodie the Santa Cruz band sold was a significant force behind Gulch’s ascent, but their music blasts through the flimsy veil of public image. — JD
46. The 1975, Notes On A Conditional Form
Notes On A Conditional Form is a curious beast, featuring some of The 1975’s best work while, at 22 tracks long, doing little to dismiss the idea that they can be self-indulgent. For their army of die-hard fans, of course, this is just the band luxuriating in musical experiments, lyrical easter eggs, and smart subtext. NOACF’s roll-out began in mid-2019 with the punkish “People” and Greta Thunberg-featuring “The 1975,” which became staples of that summer’s festival sets. In the run up to the release of the album Matty Healy hinted that this would be The 1975's last, and song titles such as “The End (Music For Cars)” certainly suggest a band approaching, if not the end of their story, then the closing of a chapter. Elsewhere, however, Healy’s brazen ambition to be a generational rockstar shines through in the form of the joyous and sax-heavy “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know).” Surely he’s not ready to let that go just yet? Where else would he be able to reference Pinegrove and Barack Obama in front of an adoring public? Destined to be a cult classic, if not a best-seller, NOACF has The 1975 still journeying into uncomfortable territory and pulling pop gems from their travels. — David Renshaw, Contributing Writer
45. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
The lead-up to Grimes’ long-delayed Art Angels follow-up Miss Anthropocene was confusing and controversial, a handful of arguably misrepresented quotes casting the DIY-hero-turned-pop-star as a class traitor who had willingly immersed herself in some kind of casual villainy. It was an easy mistake to make: the quotes about villainy and making climate change fun seemed to suggest some kind of neo-conservative turn. As it turns out, those ideas were entirely unfounded, and Miss Anthropocene is about as self-explanatory as a pop record can be: far from a defence of climate change, Grimes’ dark, lush fifth album is an appeal to look towards light in the face of overwhelming corruption.
The songs on Miss Anthropocene don’t excuse villainy as much as they recontextualize it. Perhaps due to her newfound celebrity status, there is an overwhelming sense on this record that Grimes is asking for an end to the tyranny of snap judgements and moral simplicity. Songs like “Darkseid” and “New Gods” position moral rot as a kind of response to a lack of physical and natural connection, while “Delete Forever,” perhaps Grimes’ most nakedly emotional song ever, begs for an end to America’s horrific opioid crisis, channeling the fugue state she found herself in after losing numerous friends to drug abuse. Starry-eyed closer “IDORU” makes a convincing case for true love as a solution to any number of problems. Throughout there’s some of Grimes most varied, sophisticated production — featuring bhangra drums and industrial droning as well as guitars, screams, and shoegaze-y synth loops — as well as a couple of her finest pop songs. In a cultural landscape seemingly bereft of nuance, Grimes dropped an album that called for empathy and complexity without resorting to cheap tricks. In the process, she emerged as one of the year’s unlikely heroes. — Shaad D’Souza, Contributing Writer
44. Soccer Mommy, color theory
For all of its conceptual smarts, pop inclinations, and intriguing influences (Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne), color theory, the sophomore record by Soccer Mommy, aka Sophie Allison, remains one of this year’s most devastating listens, the sound of an artist simultaneously figuring out her precocious talent and grappling with grief because she has no other choice. Allison’s blues are muted like arteries beneath thick skin; the yellows are pale and jaundiced; the greys are concrete slabs. She sings sharply about depression and disaster over halos of reverb and melancholy choruses, but she’s really piercing when singing about illness — in this case, her mother’s. One line in particular, at the end of “yellow is the color of her eyes,” delivered with an almost cold clarity through a nursery rhyme melody, is hard to wash off even months later: “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.” — ARR
43. Armani Caesar, The Liz
From its opening skit, a scene from 1993 classic CB4, Armani Caesar’s The Liz makes it clear that Griselda Records’ first lady is more than willing to play the game in order to enjoy the spoils of excess. Often over piano trills and dusty drums, Armani seems primed to battle at a moment’s notice, with enough conviction to know she’d knock down whoever you put in front of her. “Let me get on my slick shit / Y'all niggas been on some bitch shit / I'm blankin' out on all of these dipshits,” she raps on the DJ Premier-produced “Simply Done.”
Guest verses from her label’s founding trio, Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn, play off her sophisticated wordplay without ever overshadowing her. Or rather, they don’t really get the chance to. Her flow is straightforward and versatile, going from the warning shots on “Countdown,” the album’s opener, to the purrs over analog warmth of “Palm Angels.”
When Caesar's commanding flow and crime saga bars nestle perfectly into the project’s golden age production, tracks like “Yum Yum” and “Drill a RaMa” offer short breaks from its East Coast roots, giving Caesar the chance to flex her lyrical prowess in new ways. Where much of Griselda’s output is committed to honoring rap’s illustrious past, Caesar’s equal love of grit and glamour pulls the collective firmly into the present. — Sajae Elder, Contributing Writer
42. Giveon, Take Time
Anyone who knows what it’s like to experience the intense highs and aching lows of romance will instantly recognize that rollercoaster ride of a sonic journey in Take Time, Los Angeles singer Giveon’s dazzling debut EP. At the core of the project is Giveon’s smoldering baritone, a departure from the bulk of modern R&B’s breathier voices, layered over warm, hazy production. The project is a portrait of self-awareness, vulnerability and longing, its lyrics tracking how we fall in, out of, and back into love over the course of its eight songs. “Balloons are deflated / Guess they look lifeless like me / We miss you on your side of the bed,” he sings on “Heartbreak Anniversary.” Take Time is strong in its relatability, each of the songs playing out like a perfectly-crafted text exchange between old flames, ripe with subtlety, intrigue, and the urge to share the things we can’t quite say out loud. Whether channelling the warmth of songs like “World We Created” or the yearning of standout “Like I Want You,” Giveon’s voice is a balm for broken hearts ready to try all over again. — SE
41. Frances Quinlan, Likewise
Spend enough time with Frances Quinlan’s Likewise and you’ll end up with reams of dog-eared A4, pages-on-pages of allusions identifiable only by the tiniest details. Take, for example, “Your Reply.” It opens with an oblique nod to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s post-war novel Closely Watched Trains, and leads Quinlan on a journey through obscure nature documentaries, the New Testament, and a dinner she might have ruined by bringing up these bleak topics. All this competing ephemera drags her away from (and reinforces) the question she keeps asking, which never really gets an answer: ”To what do I cling and think is mine?”
As with everything on Likewise, these digressions are not really digressions at all, each reference faithfully serving the song. But do away with Likewise’s footnotes and you’ll still find, unblemished, the marks of an inventive, affecting musician, who’s as comfortable over country-edged rock as she is over mellow acoustics and synths. The melodies here — in turns buoyant, grandiose, languid — sound natural after a couple of listens, but really they’re oddly shaped things, careening up at unlikely angles and playfully returning to the earth in fits and starts. Her ability to pull them off could partially be down to her voice, a crackling and rangey instrument that can flicker into a shattering howl in an instant. But in truth, Likewise succeeds because it proves that Quinlan has mastered her own talents: fully in control of her voice, playfully experimenting with her lyrics, unique in her melodic sensibility. It’s an exciting prospect. — ARR
40. Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers
No one is doing the late-90s rock revival quite like Beabadoobee. The Londoner’s debut album, Fake It Flowers, is a tribute to the soft-grunge romance dreams of her youth, the type of record that would have played on MTV right before Daria. It’d be easy to expect Bea, who was rocketed to notoriety by the viral TikTok success of her song “Coffee”, to fall into a gimmick meant to emulate that model. Instead, Fake It Flowers forges its own path, colored by unmistakable early alt-rock chord progressions, sweet, soft vocals, and a refreshing air of emotional rebellion.
At just 20 years old, tender songs like “How Was Your Day?” and “Back To Mars” come as no surprise, and allow Bea to showcase a softer side of her writing: in a love letter to her beau, she sings softly “You are the song that I need for my mental state / You are the bus that stayed when I thought I was late.” More notable, though, are the moments where Bea anoints herself as a true rockstar on the rise — like when she shreds on “Charlie Brown” or solos on the grunge-indebted “Sorry.” Beabadoobee is not just here to be the cute girl at the rock show, and she’s armed with the spirit of those in the genre before her. “Kiss my ass, you don't know jack,” she sings on “Dye It Red,” “and if you say you understand, you don't.” — Nalae Anais White, Social Media Manager
39. Caribou, Suddenly
Whittled down from some 900 demos into a concise 43-minute expedition, Dan Snaith’s fifth LP as Caribou conceptually reckons with family and aging: the placidity, the abrupt disturbances, and the all-embracing beauty. Loosely narrated by his honeyed vocals — present throughout most of the record — Suddenly is a dreamscape ultimately defined by its twists and turns, such as when he first hits you with the minced bars of “Sunny’s Tune,” or when the ground gives out beneath “Lime,” dropping you feet-first into a windspun incantation. Don’t be fooled by its deceptively monochromatic cover: Suddenly proves Snaith is incapable of delivering anything less than unadulterated technicolor. — Salvatore Maicki, Contributing Writer
38. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
“We'll go to sleep when we're dead / And I'll quit when I'm 25 / But now I'm feeling indestructible / Aimlessly alive,” Katie Crutchfield sang on P.S. Eliot’s “Tennessee” a little over a decade ago. Crutchfield’s career as Waxahatchee since then has in many ways been an attempt to peer through the holes that time has punched in that line. Saint Cloud, her fifth solo album, finds her beautifully articulating what happens when those last vestiges of careless adolescent hubris vanish. Inspired by the country music she grew up with (Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and particularly Lucinda Williams), Saint Cloud is a lush record stripped of all extraneous noise, rooted in the Alabama of her childhood, the Texas where she recorded, and the Kansas City she now calls home.
Written up against the excruciating challenges of new sobriety, the album is as authentic an expression of uncomfortable personal growth as any of her heroes could muster. “I'm wiser and slow and attuned / And I am down on my knees,” she sings on the perfectly measured “Fire” before making peace with herself moments later on “Lilacs”: “If I'm a broken record, write it in the dust, babe.” Grief underpins many of these songs, not least the resolutely devastating “Ruby Falls” with its eulogy for an old friend, but there’s always a strength, a hard-earned warmth, to Crutchfield’s delivery. On “Witches,” a joyful song about her three best friends, she sings “We do stupid things in the right way” and sounds, more than ever, purposefully alive. — ARR
Read our interview with Waxahatchee about the songs that shaped her here.
37. keiyaA, Forever, Ya Girl
keiyaA’s debut album opens with a quandary that you’ve almost certainly heard before: “Why won’t you love me? I’m so damn easy to love.” It’s nearly identical to a Beyoncé lyric from a decade back, but removed from that context, it elicits a new question: when the song is over, where do the words go? If lyrics can be lessons, they’re fundamental to the tapestry that the Brooklyn-via-Chicago musician weaves on Forever, Ya Girl, one in which love and survival are entwined in overcast psychedelic soul. Equally as compelling as how she meditates on her words is how she stitches them together with a production style that feels warm and familiar, but entirely of her own making. Expect nothing less from a “Leo who prefers to cook with high heat.” — SM
36. Yves Jarvis, Sundry Rock Song Stock
A balmy, almost circadian hum runs through Yves Jarvis’s third album. Where the Montreal songwriter’s first two records opted for synesthetic evocations of yellows and blues, he paints Sundry Rock Song Stock with rich green tones, lending an earthy tranquility to the whole experience. But here, his composure is a Trojan horse for frustrated lyrics that touch on a pandering ruling class (“For Props”) and sanctimonious behavior (“Semula”). Midway through the album he even admits that he’s “a vitriolic mass of dynamite just bound to ignite.” If he is in fact combusting, it sounds more like a bloom than a boom. — SM
35. Lady Gaga, Chromatica
At some point over the past few years, Lady Gaga got lost. The surreal, nonsensical ballsiness that made her best music so electric suddenly vanished, replaced by concepts that were either too heady or too traditional. Her music was still pretty good — between Artpop, Joanne, and A Star Is Born, you still have a lot of great pop tracks, as will always be the case when the raw material is so strong — but it wasn’t, well, Gaga.
That changed markedly with Chromatica, Gaga’s first non-soundtrack album since Joanne four years ago. Not too long, not too conceptual, not too abrasive, Chromatica is Gaga’s Goldilocks album, the record where all the outsized parts of her music settle into a position that’s just right. Tracks like “Rain On Me” and “Sine From Above” channel the trauma excavation of Joanne without labouring the point, while a banger like “911” pulls Gaga’s music back under club lights without exhuming Artpop’s jagged edges. Collaborations work here too, for the first time since she duetted with Beyoncé way back when: Ariana Grande and Elton John are possibly the only two people in the world who can commit to camp theatrics as much as Gaga does, while BLACKPINK add a modern edge to a largely past-indebted album. Iconoclastic and essential, Chromatica proved that when it comes to the insane, the inane, the surreal, and, above all, the cathartic, there’s still nobody who does it better. — SD
34. Chloe X Halle, Ungodly Hour
The Grammys often get things wrong, but it feels especially egregious that Chloe Bailey, one half of Chloe X Halle with her sister Halle, didn’t get a Producer of the Year nod in this year’s nominations. On the pair’s sophomore record Ungodly Hour, Chloe makes a strong case for herself as one of the year’s strongest pop producers, crafting woozy, sophisticated, and stylistically omnivorous beats to strengthen and elevate her and Halle’s tales of drunken DMs, fickle fuckboys, and wild nights out, evoking ornate showtunes (in a good way) and the fluttering, bass-heavy work of Jai Paul in equal measure.
The Chloe-produced songs on Ungodly Hour are, more often than not, the ones where she and her sister are allowed to flex the full power of their vocal ranges. Their choral parts on the moonlit “Intro” slip from sweet to unnerving in a second; “Baby Girl,” one of the album’s most minimal tracks, allows them to reach into a deep, resonant register; on the single “Forgive Me,” produced with Sounwave and Jake One, their voices sound shiny and elastic, hiccuping like a rubber band snapping back into place. That’s to say nothing of “Tipsy,” the album’s bombastic, sing-song-y peak, which features a whirring, stuttering beat that could be sold to any top-tier star. It’s a good thing Chloe X Halle kept it, though: it’s the kind of song illustrious careers are built on. — SD
33. Wizkid, Made In Lagos
Since coming into mainstream pop’s consciousness five years ago with his show-stopping turn on Drake’s “One Dance,” WizKid has enjoyed success without borders. On his new album Made In Lagos, the Nigerian star is squarely in tune with his home base.
Made In Lagos is notable for how seamlessly it switches moods: tracks like “Smile” and “Essence,” featuring H.E.R. and rising Nigerian star Tems, feel like falling in love on a warm night, while “Mighty Wine” and “No Stress” evoke sweat drips and fogged up club windows. Where WizKid’s last project, 2017’s Sounds from the Other Side, sought to court further his commercial success by way of North American pop sensibilities, Made In Lagos asks listeners to make that journey in reverse, its lush production and thoughtful, romantic lyrics helping Wiz trace a path back to the bright, bustling Nigerian capital. — SE
32. Blake Mills, Mutable Set
It was no real surprise to learn that Blake Mills had played on Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways; Mills had already set himself up as one of the most sought-after guitarists in the world even before producing landmark albums for artists like Perfume Genius and Alabama Shakes. But it’s clear on Mutable Set, Mills’s fourth solo album, that the 33-year-old is a marvellous composer in his own right, one who should be called on by the old guard not just for his technical mastery, but for the richness of the self-contained worlds he can build. This is an intimate album in the truest sense. You hear the pads of Mills’s fingers manipulating the strings of a Spanish guitar on “May Later,” his breath on the microphone as he sings “I hear a pin drop” at the top of “Vanishing Twin.” The strings that encroach on, and suddenly recede from, the seven-minute “Money Is The One True God” sound for a moment like the walls of his small room creaking. The delicate interplay of muffled woodwind, upright bass, and melancholy piano on “Window Facing a Window” conjure images of doomed balladeers in dead-end bars at the end of the world. There’s something of Elliott Smith in Mills’s voice — the oblivion, the fragility. But the tactile nature of these songs feels utterly distinct. — ARR
31. Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream
Over the course of the past four years and three solo albums, Jeff Rosenstock has been the punk everyman (he hates the President, he misses his girlfriend, so on) with an ability to tell stories from both lofty and up-close perspectives. No Dream utilises this skill to great effect, both from song to song and, sometimes, within the sub-three minute bombs themselves. Take “***BNB,” for example. On the one hand, it’s a hilarious takedown of a gig economy that has transformed people’s homes into overnight stays for travelling bands. (“Sam, your mom has secretly / Been renting out your home / I used the shower sponge when you went to Spain alone” will never not be funny.) But Rosenstock pushes beyond the obvious, lamenting a lifestyle that has him living vicariously through others (“Don't wanna lay in bed and stare at the ceiling / While chasing the fleeting”). When he’s not in a tragicomic mood, Rosenstock might be trying (and failing) to find common ground with those on the wrong side of history. Other times he’s just buying a new pair of Nikes to dull his anxiety. The one constant on No Dream is an unbridled sense of momentum — these songs practically gallop to a finish and boast choruses built to hit the back walls of scuzzy local venues. Hopefully by the time that becomes a possibility again Rosenstock finds a way of coping with the bullshit, big and small, life throws at him. God knows he deserves some peace. — DR
30. Headie One, EDNA
U.K. drill enjoyed another stellar year in 2020, with many of the scene’s biggest figures, like Loski and Unknown T, making the crossover from local heroes to charting stars. Nobody stands taller right now though than Headie One, the Tottenham-based MC who dropped two of the year’s most exciting projects. GANG, which features collaborations with Jamie xx and FKA twigs, is a refreshing listen that opened Headie to new worlds, but it perhaps works best as an act of positioning him in front of new audiences. EDNA is the blockbuster album his day one fans were waiting for. Over 20 tracks Headie flexes his street credentials and international connections (including inevitable Drake and Future features) while broadening his pop appeal (“Princess Cuts” is a song cruelly denied its perfect setting in a year with no Notting Hill Carnival). But, named for his late mother who passed away when he was a toddler, EDNA shines brightest when Headie looks inward. On “Psalm 35” he raps about reading the bible while locked up on a weapons charge at the start of 2020, the sound of faith and conviction meeting the cold reality of the cell door locking for the night. Meanwhile “Therapy” threads flutes and 808s with the album’s core statement: “Edna you motivate me, this is all you.” Drill’s musical ambition has been a joy to hear in 2020. Headie One has led the charge. — DR
29. Sinai Vessel, Ground Aswim
The soft-focus feedback on “Ringing,” tucked into the middle of Ground Aswim, mimics the frequencies that Sinai Vessel’s Caleb Cordes has been hearing since his tinnitus really set in three years ago. Cordes was, by his own admission, not the type of person who could calmly accept such a diagnosis when he started writing the record, and that discomfort comes through cold and clean: “It reminds me in all silence / That anything can break / Break beyond being replaced / Beyond repair by being explained.” Ground Aswim is a startling about-turn from Cordes, who’d been building Sinai Vessel’s reputation on busy lo-fi emo since the release of Labor Pains almost a decade ago. These songs instead have been reduced to their core elements, all muffled half-riffs and three-note melodies, leaving him acres of space in which to grapple with the passing of time and the futility of finding meaning in the day-to-day. He doesn’t come up with any ironclad answers to those impossible questions — “The hoops that I jump through / Just not to feel / The weight of making each day deserve / The setting sun,” he sings on “All Days Just End” — but he’s clearly built the right space in which to keep asking. — ARR
28. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s first album in a eight years, is a dizzying world unto itself, glittering with complex, captivating rhythms, layered instrumentation, improvied percussion, and, as always, sublime storytelling. Apple undertakes a tumultuous journey, attempting to understand and heal from the cumulative effect of the trauma she’s endured. “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long,” she sings on the title track, speaking to the revolution of self needed to earn a release from external pressures.
Elsewhere, this revolution of self manifests as mischievous rebellion: “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up,” she sings on “Under the Table,” where she could be speaking from any point in her life. On “Shameika,” an energetic epic lead by chaotic, swirling pianos, she digs deep into the recesses of her memory to turn an offhanded comment from a classmate into a life-changing affirmation. With the power of a woman “pissed off, funny, and warm,” Apple comes out at the end of Fetch The Bolt Cutters determined to face all she’s been repressing dead on, ready for the most daunting challenge of all: “On I go, not toward or away.” — NAW
27. William Tyler, New Vanitas
New Vanitas is William Tyler’s first release since scoring Kelly Reichardt’s gentle pastoral First Cow, an experience that apparently had a profound impact on the composer and guitarist. Reichardt told Tyler to confront the “sentimentality” of his previous work when writing the film’s music, to account for change and space and spontaneity. ”Be open to the moment,” as Reichardt put it to him. New Vanitas takes that advice and turns it into a mantra. Each song here is warbling and gently warped, unhurried guitar motifs floating into earshot only to be consumed by static a few minutes later. The two songs performed on acoustic guitar, “Time Indefinite” and “She Swims in Hidden Water,” radiate such stillness that they seem like artefacts discovered in the middle of a long walk, observed for a moment, and then left untouched. The more somnambulant songs, like the 12-minute “Slow Night’s Static” and Basinski-indebted closer “Pisces Backroads,” give the impression that the natural world is overwhelming Tyler, his guitar buried in the mix, eyes closed in the wilderness. Tyler has written about taking a more “hopeful” approach to the vanitas movement in art, which emphasized the impermanence of things, and the inescapability of death, by pairing symbols of death with ephemeral objects. In opening himself up to the moment, he has improbably succeeded. — ARR
26. Bbymutha, muthaland
On her first, and supposedly final, studio album, Bbymutha strikes a deft balance between talking frankly about sex, working through trauma, and putting men in their place. On Muthaland, Bbymutha’s signature Southern drawl bounds over eerie, bass-heavy production, reclaiming terms like “baby mama,” “hoodrat,” and “slut” through her boisterous and unbridled bars along the way.
Much of the production on Muthaland is slow, brooding, and industrial, playing perfectly to the rapper’s fascination with the occult, a recurring theme across the album’s 25 tracks. They make for the perfect base for Bbymutha’s laid-back delivery, but it’s on songs like “Cocaine Cakewalk,” “Pink Poop Emoji,” and the Yung Baby Tate-assisted “Nice Guy,” that we see Bbymutha break character a bit. Her flow quickens, but just enough to prove she can do it all.
The connective tissue of this album is Bbymutha’s freedom, her brashness, and her willingness to broach topics and imagery otherwise deemed off limits for Black women, particularly those with children. But such is her M.O.: Bbymutha does what she wants, when she wants. — SE
25. Good Sad Happy Bad, Shades
With Mica Levi stepping back as their frontperson, the band formerly known as Micachu and The Shapes has received a circuit-breaking reset as Good Sad Happy Bad. On prior records they were a funhouse mirror of noisy pop delivered with the rough-edged frenzy of a first draft, but Shades brings a new polish to the sound with keyboardist Raisa Khan as the band’s new vocalist. The results are finely crafted but never overly calculated, retaining the group’s distinctive crookedness as they explore the frontiers of jangle-pop and punk (newcomer CJ Calderwood fits right in with his dreamy electronic textures and wailing ghost of a saxophone). Such impulsiveness underscores the warm humanity in Khan’s plain-spoken lyrics, by turns thoughtful (“Blessed,”) rambunctious (“Pyro,”) and dripping with irony (“Shades”). Heirs to Broadcast and Beat Happening, Good Sad Happy Bad daisychain their songs together with a rare and infectious spontaneity. Reboots are rarely this fulfilling. — JD
24. Khruangbin, Mordechai
Texan trio Khruangbin’s far-reaching influences continue to evolve and converge on their fourth album Mordechai, with Indian folk, dub, and Iranian rock making their way into the band’s sound. This time around, Mordechai incorporates more vocals from members Laura Lee, Mark Speer, and DJ Johnson than their previous albums. This added narrative layer makes room for moving moments like “Dearest Alfred,” inspired by letters sent by Lee’s grandfather to his twin brother. “We hardly speak anymore / Your letter is the best gift,” the group sings in unison. “Pelota” sees Lee take the lead in Spanish over a chorus of strings, claps, and cowbells, while her wistful harmonies on “So We Won’t Forget” beg the listener to commit love to memory. Mordechai is much more than the sum of its influences, turning Khruangbin’s crate-digging tendencies into a fully-formed sound. — SE
23. Burna Boy, Twice As Tall
Burna Boy’s fourth album, African Giant, was every bit as titanic as its title promised, a vast record that vaulted him to stardom and fully realized his vision of Afro-fusion, tying together Nigerian dance music, pop, hip-hop, dancehall, R&B, and rock. So why, he asks at the beginning of follow-up Twice As Tall, did it not win either of the Grammys for which it was nominated? “I remember when I couldn't level up / 'Cause the Grammys had me feeling sick as fuck / Throwing up and shit.” It’s a moment of naked self-doubt, but not one that Burna — the superhero star of his own comic book bundled with the album — will dwell on. This is just the dimly-lit opening shot of a multi-million-dollar blockbuster. The next song is called “Alarm Clock” and, inevitably, it has our hero sitting bolt upright, ready for action: “God made us / He made them magical beings / It's important how you look at yourself.”
There’s titanium-eyed ambition here, a steadfast belief that music can bring the African diaspora together in new and powerful ways. There’s a fury at colonialism and its refusal to die, a sense that the bigger the production and catchier the melodies the better the message will catch. So strong is Burna’s conviction in the clarity of his vision that among the guests here — the Kenyan pop group Sauti Sol, veteran New Jersey hip-hop trio Naughty by Nature, grime icon Stormzy — is Coldplay’s Chris Martin. His chorus on “Monsters You Made” is, of course, breathlessly overrun by Burna: “Fuck the classes in school / Fuck Mungo Park and the fool / That said they found river Niger / They've been lying to you.” But above all there’s the palpable confidence of a superstar who’s already seeing the results of his work, as he makes clear on the luminous, carefree, shamelessly poppy “Wonderful.” “I'm feeling it in my soul / Something is changing / Right in your face,” he sings. That’s bigger than anything the Recording Academy can offer. — ARR
22. Dehd, Flower of Devotion
If Dehd’s previous album Water had torn off the Band-Aid — recorded in the trenches of members Emily Kempf and Jason Balla’s breakup — then Flower of Devotion tends to the scars, the misshapen and mangled feelings that remain. “When will this hoping feel like a win?” Kempf mutters on the opening track, just before howling at desire to emancipate her from its clutches. Her voice is a staggering force throughout, especially when it feels like its tiptoeing to the edge of hysteria. But the Chicago trio’s biggest strength lies in keeping their emotions in conversation with one another with a camp sincerity borrowed from The B-52s. By the time Dehd have made it to the soaring finale, “Flying,” they’re the ones keeping each other in air. — SM
21. Off The Meds, Off The Meds
The genesis of Off The Meds dates back to a house party in Stockholm at which Kamohelo Khoaripe drunkenly freestyled over a beat thrown down by Måns Glaeser, manifesting in their first single, “Geraas.” True to its origin, the motley Swedish-South African crew’s self-titled debut album packs in all the makings of a totally gonzo night, mashing Khoaripe’s deadpan flow with heavyweight, often carnavalesque production from Glaeser, Carli Löf, and Adrian Lux. From the high-flying kicks of “Fani Madida” to the industrial chug of “Factory Workers,” their chemistry feels kinetic enough to liven up even the most stagnant of years — if only for an hour. — SM
Read our interview with Off The Meds about their debut album here.
20. Spillage Village, Spilligon
What started as a solo project for Dreamville rapper JID morphed organically into Spilligion, the soulful fourth album from Spillage Village, the Atlanta and Baltimore-based supergroup he joined a decade ago. Across Spilligion’s 12 chaotic tracks, the diverse collective — featuring founding members EARTHGANG alongside JID, Mereba, 6LACK, Hollywood JB, Jurdan Bryant, and Benji — tackles soul, trap, gospel, and even reggae. The project’s name is an amalgamation of “spillage” and “religion”, and, fittingly, it plays like a spiritual journey through the cosmos: tracks like “Ea’alah (Family)” see JID praying for peace and prosperity, while standout “Psalmsing” see Mereba’s smooth lead vocals soar over choir-like harmonies. Each member of Spillage Village is a solo juggernaut in their own right, but on Spilligion, they all play comfortably to each other’s strengths — and hold their own in the process. — SE
19. Drakeo The Ruler, Thank You For Using GTL
Like just about every triumph-over-adversity story in America, this one shouldn’t have to exist. Drakeo The Ruler shouldn’t have been in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He shouldn’t have been forced to sit in court while state prosecutors tried to convince a jury that his songs and videos were damning confessions. Thank You For Using GTL, an album recorded over a sputtering phone line from the Men’s County Jail in L.A. and pieced together impressively by Stinc Team producer JoogSZN, is inescapably a result of that miserable and unnecessary story. But between the dispassionate interjections from a pre-recorded voice that give the album its title and recur so often they sound like tags, Drakeo is the same dextrous, hyper-assured, renegade lyricist who long ago set himself apart as one of California’s most talented living rappers. On the closer, “Fictional,” he finally stares down his trial, smartly suggesting the DA’s case was built on his own genius: “It might sound real, but it's fictional / I love that my imagination gets to you.” Finally free, hopefully Drakeo can offer up that trademark vividness without fear of reprisal. — ARR
18. Helena Deland, Someone New
Québécois singer-songwriter Helena Deland’s debut record is built like an electronic album: hit play on the drums, let the guitars loop, and proceed to fuck with absolutely everything else. Foreground static crackle like it’s a lead vocal; multi-track your voice just so to give it the resonance of an internal monologue; invoke your own violent death on an upbeat ode to friendship. Immaculate, fuzzed-out singles like “Truth Nugget” and “Someone New” seem to be led more by vibe and haze than hook or rhythm. They’re songs to be stepped into, not viewed from afar — more like rooms or vaults than paintings or vistas. Throughout, Deland delivers truism after scathing truism about human relationships: ruminations on the way bodies cease to be ours in the company of a lover, the ways in which love can be a tool of manipulation, the terrors of being inside someone else’s head. Deland’s collaborator JPEGMAFIA refers to her as “the Young Thug of indie rock.” Someone New, with its freewheeling approach to form, makes good on that title. — SD
17. Oklou, Galore
There’s a distinctly mythological glow emanating from Marylou Maniel’s debut mixtape Galore. Perhaps it’s the stories of chariots, phoenixes, enthroned goddesses, and warriors shooting bullets from a white horse. Maybe it’s the synths that trumpet outward into the heavens, or the rustling sounds of the Spanish mountains where she and Toronto-based producer Casey MQ recorded and produced the record. The title track, gorgeous and skeletal, ponders whether love just an LED figment: “I pull my phone so close to my chest just to feel closer to you.” It sounds like the iCloud meeting the forest floor, instantly illuminating that these are the kind of fables that only a classically-trained student of the internet could spin up. And while Galore’s pleasures are often fleeting (see “asturias,”) the project never relinquishes hope that there’s something even better out there, even if you have to wait another night for it. — SM
16. Róisín Murphy, Róisín Machine
There are few things more valuable in this world than knowing yourself truly. Róisín Murphy, the Irish siren who was once half of the 90s band Moloko, seems to understand that idea, having lived the better part of two decades by it, evading and avoiding trends in service of an oeuvre that’s as distinctive as it is underappreciated. On Róisín Machine, her fifth album and most commercially successful solo record yet, she strikes through the curse of being overlooked, demanding your time, your attention, and your devotion: “I feel my story is still untold,” she booms on two separate occasions. “But I’ll make my own happy ending.”
Across this tight, impeccably paced record, that’s exactly what Murphy does. Róisín Machine is a dance album, but it doesn’t look to one particular style or scene. Instead, it’s an impressionistic self-portrait that seeks to connect Murphy’s foundational, explorative early experiences attending Sheffield nightclubs with the more urbane and avant-garde sounds she would one day come to master on her solo records. In the nightclub Murphy conjures on Róisín Machine, the heady doesn’t take precedence over the horny, and vice-versa: the camp, “Bad Girls”-aping disco of “Murphy’s Law” and “Narcissus” can coexist alongside wiry acid techno (“Simulation”) and a song that invokes theorist Mark Fisher’s treatises on the decline of capitalism. Throughout, Murphy screams, belts, warbles, whispers, reprising modes she had previously left behind and trying on styles she’ll probably never return to. “You are stuck with the way you were brought up,” Murphy told The FADER earlier this year, “But if there’s anything you can claw for yourself, do it. There’s constraints, and there’s freedoms, and somewhere in-between, you can make something of yourself.” On Róisín Machine, Murphy — in spectacular, unforgettable fashion — does exactly that. — SD
Read our interview with Róisín Murphy about Róisín Machine here.
15. Freddie Gibbs x The Alchemist, Alfredo
“The revolution is the genocide / Look, your execution will be televised.” This line, from Freddie Gibbs’ collaboration with The Alchemist, Alfredo, might not arrive until the album’s third track, but it sets the stage perfectly for an album defined by Gibbs’ dark, incisive observations.
Alfredo plays out like a vintage mob flick with Gibbs as its self-aware anti-hero, embracing rap’s mafia obsession while tearing it down at the same time. The Alchemist’s cinematic, soul-sampled production is in rare form alongside Gibbs’ lyrical precision, elevating the rapper’s storytelling and gut-punch one liners with ease. The pairing works so well, in fact, it almost sounds like the beats were crafted around Gibbs’ high-flying bars, and not the other way around. Featuring guest verses from Rick Ross, Tyler, The Creator, and Griselda’s Benny the Butcher and Conway The Machine, the album is a succinct and impactful vision of Gibbs and Alchemist at their best. — SE
14. Rina Sawayama, SAWAYAMA
Grimes and Poppy both experimented with nu-metal this year, but nobody has pushed harder to reclaim a genre synonymous with Fred Durst and wallet chains than Rina Sawayama. SAWAYAMA is an album that cherry-picks its influences with glee — a little of Evanescence’s riffs and melodrama here, some Britney-style early Auto-Tune pop there. Subverting both the comically masculine energy of metal’s early 2000s period (itself highly commercialised) and the cartoonish femininity of the TRL era, SAWAYAMA occupies a space that is equal parts crunchy and soft. “STFU” is full of big riffs, Sawayama backing that energy up by raging against the many microaggressions she’s faced coming from a Japanese-British background. “Dynasty,” meanwhile, is an epic goth ballad custom built to ruin the perfect Kohl eye and get Gerard Way raging with envy. “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)” combines clear U.S. hip-hop drum breaks with playful lyrics referencing judo and Shibuya while “Chosen Family,” a tribute to queer communities everywhere, is a heartfelt tear-jerker. “We don't need to be related to relate,” Sawayama sings, an idea she clearly applies as much to music as life. — DR
13. Bartees Strange, Live Forever
No square inch of the space Bartees Strange creates on Live Forever feels wasted. Rather than trying to conform to any strict definition of style, Strange pieces together wildly different sounds in favor of something modern and new, upending expectations. The driven and soulful “Mustang” is delivered with the same widescreen energy of TV On The Radio; “Far” is sparse, fragile, and folky, showcasing a tenderness beneath the bluster; “Kelly Rowland” jumps the other way, flipping a chopped up vocal into a loop over which Strange raps about being broke with “Versace dreams.” Sometimes Strange pulls from two apparently divergent spaces in one song, like “Boomer,” which makes Young Thug-esque hashtag bars and a stadium rock chorus sound like natural bedfellows. Live Forever lands a tricky jump with ease, deftly marking Strange out as a rare talent in control of his own destiny. — DR
12. Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
Hayley Williams was fearful that after more than 15 years fronting Paramore, the band’s most devoted fans would hold a solo venture against her. She was led to Petals For Armor by an endeavor to create something that belonged only to her, borne out of instruction from her therapist. The result is a gorgeous, three-part exploration of Williams’ attempt to overcome the hurdles between herself and her healing. Recovery is an ever-present them, even in its name, the reinvigoration of self achieved when we afford ourselves tenderness. “I am in the garden, tending to my own, so what do I care?” Williams sings on “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” a mysterious, swirling track about femininity and strength of self.
It’s this commitment to vulnerability and self-exploration that allows Williams to look beyond the pop-punk and synth-rock that defined her past projects. Some moments feel familiar: the fascination with 80’s synth-pop that shined on her band’s 2017 album After Laughter is still there, and her affection for gospel still rings in her voice at times. But Petals for Armor really gains its strength from Williams’s honesty. “Becoming friends with a noose that I made / And I keep tryin' to untie it / Make it into something useful / Or maybe hang it through a window pane / Turn it into a fire escape,” she sings on “Leave It Alone,'' a lyrical push and pull between cynicism and the intention to overcome it. That commitment to the truth of her experiences — despite the pain, and the uncertainty that comes with addressing them — carries throughout Petals For Armor. It’s the sort of thing that needs to come before any real healing, and, in that sense, Petals for Armor is an honest exercise in self-repair. — NAW
11. Pink Siifu, NEGRO
You might mistake the first noise on NEGRO for the distorted simulacrum of an agonized human scream. It eventually transforms into a caterwauling saxophone, but the disconcerting impression remains. This blurring of man and music for a common purpose — the manifestation of the unique horrors of Black American life — is the perfect opening statement. The album is a searing collage brimming with uncontestable rage, incandescent grief, and righteous contempt, the only audience for which is made up of those who understand these feelings.
NEGRO pulls from noise, jazz, hardcore punk, and rap, melding its songs into one another like a pirate radio signal. But it does more than broadcast: it burrows, deeply, in search of the warm, healing terrain of an empathetic heart. “You're supposed to be angry,” Siifu hisses on the slam-poetry of “Run Pig Run.” “Human? No, no, no, no / Black, black, black, black.” The remarkable dismantling of genre lines allows Siifu to launch a fusillade against the abhorrent structures his project emerges from: white supremacy, police violence, and the foundations of a country that lionizes both. The album courses with a venom you cheer for, embodied on “SMD,” led by the hardcore of early ‘80s New York: “Pigs trying to rob us / White boys trying to rob us / Scared of some niggas.” Inspired by Afrofuturism, NEGRO is an Afro-apocalypse. In a hopeless sky full of long-dead stars, Pink Siifu has hurled a molotov cocktail, glinting in the moonlight as it sails towards a precinct window. — JD
10. Popcaan, FIXTAPE
No matter where you first met Popcaan, FIXTAPE is the first time every version of him, from homebase hero to crossover star, converges. FIXTAPE is Poppy at his best: across the course of the album, the 32-year-old goes from gyal tunes to street tales to uplifting ballads about boundless blessings. “We used to suffer, now ah everyday we celebrate / Nuh money cyah ever mek we segregate / Dawg man ah come from sardine, but nowadays ah steak,” he spits on closing track “My Way.” Where his last few releases saw the dancehall star grappling with how the world and people around him had changed, FIXTAPE finds him coming to terms with how he’s changed, too.
It’s impossible to separate Popcaan from his musical beginnings, which is why the best way to experience FIXTAPE is in the form of the continuous, Chromatic-helmed mixtape on his SoundCloud. While an official 19-track version exists across streaming platforms, the mixtape version plays like a proper nod to his past and present, bouncing between shoutouts from mentors-turned-peers like Vybz Kartel, who introduces Poppy all over again like he did in the early aughts, and reworks of songs from outside the dancehall world, like Diddy’s “Hate Me Now,” N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’,” and DaBaby’s “Rockstar.”
While it’s clear Poppy has global pop reach, evidenced on tracks like “Twist & Turn” and “All I Need,” Fixtape is remarkable for the way it shows his ability to bring fans right to his doorstep. — SE
9. Moses Sumney, græ
Moses Sumney seems both burdened and exceedingly powerful on his second album græ, his Atlas-like falsetto supporting an impossible weight. These kinds of contrasts are key to Sumney’s genre-ambiguous project, a double album embodying both the ecstasy of a blurred life and the search for self-determination. It brings in soul, folk, experimental electronics, and mid-noughties indie to converse with a world where liminal spaces seem increasingly anachronistic. “I fell in love with the in-between, coloring in the margins,” Sumney sings on “Neither/Nor,” over guitars that trill like heavenly lutes. “Yet the romance of the undefined was a threatening lie in their eyes.”
Few albums in 2020 mapped multiple sonic paths to an epicenter as adroitly as græ. The first half of the album, released in February, is immediately defiant. On “Virile,” Sumney warns against finding self-worth in traditional masculinity; instead, he issues a battle cry for us to embrace our own mortality. On the first 12 songs of græ, poetry is spun like silk as Sumney decries the toxicity of the hive mind (“Conveyor”) and vaulting ambition (“Gagarin.”) Sumney spends the second half more subdued, reckoning with the isolation that permeates the entire album. On hand are a slate of contributors from across genre and artistic disciplines like Oneohtrix Point Never, Adult Jazz, Jill Scott, James Blake, and Michaela Coel, a motley crew keeping with the album’s dismissal of definitions. græ doesn’t show us who Moses Sumney is as much as the how of him, and the album’s glimpse of that multiplicity is as refreshing and vital as an oasis. — JD
8. Charli XCX, how i’m feeling now
Grand, world-beating love has never really been of much concern to Charli XCX. Her past few albums have always seemed to focus on the stuff that happens around true romance: partying, crying, screaming, driving fast cars, listening to pop music, having drinks with the girls, ignoring advances from the boys. So what happens when pop’s queen of burning the candle at both ends — gasp — falls in love?
Although billed primarily as an experimental concept record — an album written and recorded entirely in quarantine — that question is largely what animates how i’m feeling now, Charli’s sixth album and fourth produced by PC Music’s A. G. Cook. Although it was written entirely over the course of the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, how i’m feeling now is also Charli’s first since settling down with the on-again, off-again partner who inspired some of the more heartbroken ballads on her 2019 record Charli. It zeroes in on all the complicated feelings that linger once contentment is found. A song rarely goes by on how i’m feeling now without Charli wondering whether love can really last forever, or if someone is going to fuck it up.
That might seem heavy, but how i’m feeling now is anything but a downer. In Charli’s world, emotional stability is rendered in textures softer and more enticing than anything she’s put to tape before: synths disintegrate like crashing waves on the rose-tinted “forever,” gurgle like arcade games on horny-as-hell love letter “claws,” crackle and fizz like sparkling wine on “7 years,” the record’s nostalgic, profoundly contented highlight. Although there are no breakup ballads here, that doesn’t mean how i’m feeling now is bereft of tension, either: songs like “detonate” and “enemy” turn day-to-day stresses and emotional knots into moody nailbiters. A short-turnaround, concept-driven album like this probably should have been a low-stakes curio, to be consumed a couple of times and forgotten. Instead, it’s a collection of some of the warmest, most indelible songs Charli has ever written. — SD
7. Dogleg, Melee
Dogleg frontman Alex Stoitsiadis likes to cartwheel on stage, which, if you’re cynical, might seem deeply uncool. But Melee, the Michigan band’s debut, flattens those suspicions immediately. It’s an album with all the muted energy of the flame-throwing guitarist from Mad Max: Fury Road. Melee is a sort of rorschach test for angsty punks — depending on your age and energy levels, it might remind you of PUP’s uber-honest lyricism, Japandroids’ dive bar singalongs, or the sound of At The Drive-In winding themselves up and letting loose. Unquestionably universal, though, are the album’s themes of broken hearts, crippling self-doubt, and feeling so frustrated you might just disintegrate on the spot. This is a band that pin their dumb-but-lovable credentials to the wall with a Twitter bio that quotes Andy Samberg movie Hot Rod (“punch-dancing out our rage”) and challenges fans to take them on at N64 after shows. And on record, Stoitsiadis howls his way through the existential moments in life as his bandmates drive him on, sprinting from one explosive transition to another. He has more than enough heart to account for all the bruises he’s picking up. — DR
6. Yves Tumor, Heaven To A Tortured Mind
Rock n’roll has been sorely missing its space aliens. The supersonic prophets, the decadent demi-gods who understood the potential of the human sensory experience. Yves Tumor may have debuted publicly in 2015 as an experimental noise artist, but their childhood musical education began with a guitar and albums by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Tumor dipped their toes into the rock god persona on 2018’s Safe In the Hands Of Love, and, two years later, has submerged themself completely. Heaven To A Tortured Mind harkens back to a bygone musical era without sounding anything like it, a hyperactive wonder as eagerly receptive to pleasure as a lightning rod to bolts of heaven-sent energy.
Tumor’s outsider spirit is to thank, and it reveals itself immediately. On the opening track “Gospel For A New Century,” Tumor unleashes beastly power chords, quotes Jim Morrison, and lets loose pitched-down horn samples to signal their own arrival like an old-fashioned despot. But Tumor isn’t some stuffy monarch short on soul. The circuitous poetry in “Gospel” sends Tumor pinballing around the emotional turmoil that comes with bonding with another person. Helping shape the amorous atmosphere are the women vocalists who guest throughout the album and match Tumor’s energy: Diana Gordon on the shred-happy free-for-all “Kerosene!” sounds fresh off three rounds of Russian Roulette; Kelsey Lu’s harmonies are the spark that light the fireworks at the heart of the psychedelic, soulful “Romanticist”; Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming traces around the edges of Tumor’s silhouette on the dreamy, despairingly funky “Strawberry Privilege.” Taken together, the songs on Heaven To A Tortured Mind create a vision of the future without obvious nods to the past, a glamorous odyssey of feeling that embraces and makes stadium-conquering rock music seem like nothing less than Tumor’s birthright. — JD
5. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
The last two minutes of Punisher comprise a My Chemical Romance-inspired arena-rock cacophony, a gang of collaborators chanting “The end is here!,” and eventually Phoebe Bridgers herself, alone, mimicking a screaming crowd in a whisper, giggling to herself involuntarily. It’s a fitting way for the L.A.-born-and-bred singer-songwriter’s second album to burn out: exhausted, unresolved, amused at the futile search for meaning in messy emotions. Across Punisher, Bridgers fails to find answers: Life as a touring musician leaves her as numb as life in her bedroom (“I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind”) and she can’t will herself into religion (“I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing”). Falling in love with people who hate themselves has worn her out. MDMA, sunshine, and long drives up the coast are temporary fixes at best, and she knows that. “You are sick and you're married / And you might be dying,” she sings on “Moon Song” before landing on something even bleaker: “But you're holding me like water in your hands.”
Bridgers expands her world on Punisher, placing a greater emphasis on texture and inviting a dozen or so friends — among them Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Conor Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and Blake Mills — to join her. When Bridgers seems to be at her lowest, when her lyrics are at their most hopeless and desolate, those contributions feel like buffers at the end of an elevator shaft. They’re sorely needed reminders that, in the absence of God, extraterrestrial life, grand narratives, and neat conclusions, there are always people nearby asking the same unanswerable questions, scared of what comes next, laughing involuntarily at the farce. — ARR
4. Flo Milli, Ho, why is you here ?
This is how it feels to be cyberbullied for 30 minutes straight. Ho, why is you here ?, the debut mixtape by Mobile, Alabama's Flo Milli is less a collection of verses, choruses, and hooks than it is a list of Instagram comments to pull out when you want to ether someone. Songs like “Pussycat Doll” and “In The Party,” with their surreal, motor-mouthed streams of unfiltered insult comedy, are nimble demonstrations of how to step on necks without even looking up from your phone screen. Unless whoever you’re bodying isn’t paying attention, in which case “Scuse me,” with its incessant chorus of “‘Scuse me bitch, ‘scuse me bitch!” holds your solution.
Flo revolutionizes the insult as an art form. Some personal favorites: “You got my leftovers, my crumbs, how do my pussy taste on your tongue?”; “Save his number under ‘We gon’ see’”; “In a crowd full of pussies, I see that you blending”; “Actin' light with that beef, I didn't know that you exist.” Flo Milli knows it's better to be hated than ignored, which is why so many of her most callous disses hinge on a cutting obliviousness to your existence. This is half an hour of the most uncaringly aggressive and aggressively uncaring music to be released in recent memory.
Even when Flo is addressing herself, it sounds like a vicious burn on someone else: At one point, she sighs, “I’m tryna ball like I’m a job” and sounds exhausted before she’s even finished the flex. What’s the point of trying to keep someone’s attention when they’ll never be on your level? The beats on Ho, why is you here ? are ready to push aside the unworthy, too: “May I,” an intense, minimal bombshell towards the end of the set, clacks and clatters like nails on a keyboard. Were there not a production credit on the song, it would be easy to assume the beat was just the sound of Flo tweeting her verses as insults straight from the booth.
Flo wanted to be famous by 18. At 20, she’s gone one better: Ho, why is you here ? is a debut project that, like her hero Nicki Minaj’s debut Pink Friday did a decade ago, feels destined to inspire a generation of young girls to look outside, take a deep breath, and start breaking necks. Flo Milli shit! — SD
3. HAIM, Women In Music Pt. III
With their first two albums, Este, Danielle and Alana Haim built a stadium-sized name for themselves by hitting all the right notes with precision. So what gives when chronic dissatisfaction still feels inescapable? Right from the jump on Women In Music, Pt. III, Danielle admits her hometown is killing her. “Los Angeles,” the album’s opener, is as snappy and bright as what we’ve come to expect from HAIM, but keeping that demeanor in spite of the oppressive Californian smog is hard. “I’m breaking, losing faith these days,” she wails on the first chorus, as her sisters and a saxophone bounce behind her.
There are immense frustrations baked into the framework of the Haim sisters’ third record — depression, anxiety, illness, and a society callous enough to even warrant a “women in music” conversation, for starters. Whole packs are smoked, booty calls are answered, chauvinist music journalists get their comeuppance. But it’s the way in which HAIM strut through all the malaise that makes WIMPIII stuff of champions. On “Don’t Wanna,” admitting to waking up in a stranger’s bed is just as important as the track’s elastic guitar licks and crisp-as-all-hell LinnDrum. The grit and the groove are inseparable.
In spite of the often tense subject matter, each song on WIMPIII feels breathable, ready to be grown with. That extra space gives way to some wicked fun experimentation: here, the sisters body scuzzy pseudo-garage (“I Know Alone,”) dip their toes into “Red Red Wine” reggae-lite (“Another Try,”) and even nail a torch ballad (“F.U.B.T”). That isn’t to say their patented synchronicity has gone anywhere — in fact, it’s at its sharpest on a song like “Now I’m In It,” an absolute lightning bolt of neurotic pop. But this time around, it comes with the sisterly understanding that when you do inevitably miss a beat, somebody’s gonna be there to pick you back up. — SM
Read our interview with HAIM about WIMPIII here.
2. SAULT, Untitled (Black Is)
There are some battles that are never truly over even if, to an outsider looking in, they seem resolved. The question over who is worthy of humanity — full, vibrant, lush humanity — is one that can always split a society in two if it is never truly reckoned with. The struggles for that real humanity, and salvations found in receiving it from those who love us, are the focus of Untitled (Black Is), a love letter to the magic and resilience of Blackness using music from across the diaspora. Not much is known about SAULT, and the band’s mystery has the rare effect of enhancing the urgency of the music; the anonymity shrouding the songs delivers them like transmissions from a clear, uncompromised conscience.
“We all know Black is beautiful / You know, well now you do.” The narrator on “Black Is,” one of several spoken word interludes offering affirmations, is quiet and steadfast, full of unforced wonder. Her statement is backed up by the music all around her, in sounds that belong as much to SAULT as their ancestors. The slow, loping, funereal funk of “Wildfires” bears the burden of authoritarian violence with heartbreaking dignity and grace, and the Michael Kiwanuka-featuring “Bow” channels Fela Kuti, the original Afrobeats revolutionary, to call for a united Africa. There is seething anger reverberating in the dubby, post-punk production of “Don’t Shoot Guns Down,” a fearsome contrast to the crystalline “Eternal Life,” a glorious synth devotional. Untitled is soul music in every sense the dictionary affords, made for times when unwitting martyrs are many and victory seems perpetually out of reach. “We win without trying,” the narrator murmurs on “X.” “We win while we are dying / Mommy's tears fall and still we win.” SAULT believes that certain ideals transcend our own existence, and the group has managed to create music that captures this strain of the infinite. — JD
1. J Hus, Big Conspiracy
Everyone is watching J Hus. He looks over his shoulder while he raps, justifiably paranoid, keeping an eye out for police, rival opps, and the ghosts of his past. “I'm on the roadside, but I'm playing chess,” he raps on “No Denying.” He’s unafraid of death, too, but unimpressed by those who wish it on him.
The creation of Big Conspiracy, the Stratford-born artist’s introspective second album, was interrupted by an eight-month prison sentence in late-2018 on weapons charges, the latest enforced break in a career that’s been halted too often. He’s understandably furious. “I live a street life and I sing a melody / They wan' see me go mad and lose my sanity,” he sings on the hook to “Love, Peace, and Prosperity.” On “Helicopter” he sees gun-toting undercover officers and the history that still animates them: “They enslaved my ancestor, no remorse.” The personal and political are inseparable for Hus, a kid raised in Britain by Gambian and Ghanaian immigrants, a police target in a country following its worst instincts.
Britain’s nastiness peppers songs like gangland drama “Must Be” (“You're guilty, say you’re guilty by association”) and sparse closer “Deeper Than Rap” (“No Blacks, no dogs, we were segregated,” a reference to racist signs in the windows of pubs and B&Bs in post-war Britain.) This all calls for a more muted musical palette than the mixture of grime, rave, and carnival vibes that lit up his debut, Common Sense, three years ago. But producers Jae5 and iO work in dancehall and afrobeats rhythms at choice moments, including Burna Boy collaboration “Play Play” and the indelible “Fortune Teller,” a light amid the murkiness. These moments add a softness to record shaped by its harder edges, showcasing Hus’s versatility and ensuring that the self-styled “Bouff Daddy”’s libidinous side comes through too.
By facing down his trials, Hus has emerged more well-rounded, more confident in himself, at once able to brag about his talent and rip into a country that “took our history” and “went and erased it” before lecturing him on morality. All of these strands, when pulled together, show that Hus is more than capable of bypassing the characterization of him set out in the courts. Only he can relay his story with perfect clarity. — DR
Stream a playlist of our favorite albums of 2020 on Spotify and Apple Music.