The 50 Best Albums Of 2020 So Far

You’ve seen the memes. It’s only been five months and 2020 has already been a historical shitshow of a year. Thousands and thousands died while the rest of us slowly lost our minds in lockdown. And then, just as things finally seemed to be returning to some shattered semblance of normalcy, cities all over the world erupted in justified anger over the murder of black citizens at the hands of police. Remember early January when all we had to worry about was little stuff, like impeaching our president and nuclear war with Iran? Those were the days.

It might be corny, but it’s true: Times like these are when we need music more than ever, whether to escape our feelings or to feel them as much as possible. But the music industry hasn’t been spared the pandemic either. The future of live music is very much up in the air right now. Livestreams, drive-in concerts, fan pods, N95 festival vape suits — is that what we have to look forward to for the rest of the year? At this point, no one even knows.

What we do know is that this terrible year has given us plenty of great music. We’ve gotten soothing albums and seething albums. We’ve already gotten a few quarantine albums, transmissions from artists trying to make sense of the world from within their own little fortresses of solitude. We’re almost certainly going to get a whole lot more of these in the months and years to come.

As always, your humble Stereogum staff has listened and argued, proselytized and compromised, and come up with a list of our 50 favorite albums released between 1/1 and 6/30 of this year. These are the albums that moved us. Maybe they’ll move you too. And maybe, just maybe, when we do this again in six months, the world will look a little less dark. Let’s listen to these albums and work to make that happen. —Peter Helman

50 Frail Hands – parted/departed/apart (Twelve Gauge)

Ten songs in 20 minutes, each one a minefield that explodes into violence at the slightest spark: This is how a screamo band throttles you thoroughly yet leaves you craving more. Nova Scotia’s Frail Hands have mastered the art of the cataclysmic shit fit. They know how to wield dynamics without actually pausing to be quiet that often. Their recent parted/departed/apart is all visceral force and unhinged rage — the sound of winding up so tightly that your tension becomes a weapon to be deployed like a flamethrower. —Chris DeVille

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49 Kehlani – It Was Good Until It Wasn’t (Atlantic)

Trap&B sounds good on Kehlani. Pivoting from SweetSexySavage’s neon ’90s revivalism, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t leans into shadowy, low-slung grooves and minor-key chord progressions. It’s an album with a strong sonic identity and a narrative point of view to match, Oakland’s reigning R&B MVP processing the fallout from a romance gone sour in fluttering, conversational flourishes. She sounds incredible whether coyly flirting atop Masego’s jazzy trumpet riffs, boldly encouraging life change alongside Jhené Aiko, or grieving love lost in tandem with James Blake. —Chris

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48 Yaeji – WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던 (XL)

“We sit in a circle and look at each other and reminisce how we got to meet each other,” Kathy Lee chants on “Money Can’t Buy,” a hypnotic cut from her first full-length project as Yaeji. On WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던, Yaeji invites us to a party with all her friends — mostly a collection of fellow New York City oddballs — and we’re along for the ride. It’s both for us and not. Yaeji’s music is insular and slow; it takes a few listens to really lock in to what she’s doing. But once you get settled in her groove, her mumblings blossom into sturdy hooks, and her songs become comforting celebrations of friendship and creation. —James Rettig

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47 Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake (Atlantic)

After a prolonged cold war with his own record label, Lil Uzi Vert swung back into the spotlight channeling the free-associative glee of peak Lil Wayne, over some cartoonishly twisted trap beats, on a spaced-out wavelength all his own. As its deluxe companion album demonstrates, Eternal Atake could have taken a lot of lesser forms, bogged down by the usual parade of guest stars. Instead, hip-hop’s devilish rockstar delivered a singular emotional and aesthetic expression, rapping his ass off for an hour and tacking a nasally Backstreet Boys tribute on the end for good measure. —Chris

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46 Chubby And The Gang – Speed Kills (Static Shock)

Charlie Manning-Walker, lead barker of London face-stompers Chubby And The Gang, comes from the exploding world of UK hardcore, and he’s done time with moshpit revivalists like Violent Reaction and Arms Race. But now Manning-Walker has reinvented himself as Chubby Charles, and he’s put together a band that draws on a rich historical strain of British working-class rock: glam, pub-rock, street-punk. Chubby And The Gang, in other words, make a supremely British version of bar-rock, turning knucklehead soccer-hooligan chants into poetry. And even when they’re bashing out power-pop hooks, or playing rinky-dink organs, or offering a sincere acoustic tribute to the people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, the Gang bring the urgency of the best hardcore. —Tom

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45 Amnesia Scanner – Tearless (PAN)

The album artwork for Amnesia Scanner’s Tearless looks like something gone horribly wrong. That’s what the world feels like right now, too. The electronic duo formerly and anagrammatically known as Renaissance Man have called the LP “a breakup album with the planet,” but it’s less an elegy for the past than an expressionistic embrace of the chaos, channeling dance music and metal and noise into a potent new strain of mutant-pop. As they say in the closing track: “You will be fine, if we can help you lose your mind.” —Peter

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44 Ashley McBryde – Never Will (Warner Music Nashville)

Two years ago, Ashley McBryde was Nashville’s new avatar of authenticity. She’d been putting indie albums out since 2006, but McBryde made her big splash with 2018’s Girl Going Nowhere, a powerful piece of tough blue-collar country music. With her follow-up, though, McBryde shows us just how much she can do: blazing Southern-rock rippers, tenderly gospel-inflected ballads, a weirdly charming album closer about the history of styrofoam. She writes tremendous hooks and delivers them in a honeyed seen-it-all drawl. But she’s also a restless, fiery talent and a true explorer. She’s too real to be a simple symbol of realness. —Tom

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43 Moodymann – Taken Away (KDJ)

Last year, Highland Park police dragged the Detroit deep-house legend Moodymann from his van, which was parked outside his apartment building, and arrested him at gunpoint; someone had apparently called the police to report someone acting suspicious. Moodymann’s album Taken Away, recorded in part as an attempt to process that trauma, is about as downbeat and introspective as Detroit house gets. Taken Away is full of syncopated thumps and bluesy murmurs and echoes of sirens. If you don’t know the story behind it, it’s still a warm and gorgeous party record. But released into the world four days before George Floyd’s murder, it takes on a whole new dimension. —Tom

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42 Destroyer – Have We Met (Merge)

Have We Met caps off an arc begun almost a decade ago, when Dan Bejar released his landmark album Kaputt and entered the most accessible, acclaimed, yet no less eccentric chapter of his career. Informed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of our times, Have We Met is cerebral and absurd even by Bejar’s standards. Bizarre scenes and non-sequiturs abound. Bejar often sounds like a man slowly unraveling over greyscale, icy synth backdrops. But in the epic swell of “Crimson Tide,” the new wave pulse of “It Doesn’t Just Happen,” or the sneakily catchy refrains of “The Man In Black’s Blues,” Bejar crafted apocalypse music that’s every bit as transporting as it is discomfiting. —Ryan Leas

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41 I Break Horses – Warnings (Bella Union)

Six long years have passed since I Break Horses’ sophomore album Chiaroscuro. The world has changed, and so has Maria Lindén’s life. Across Warnings, Lindén grapples with crumbling relationships and nearly losing friends; she sifts through wreckages and specters. The dense dreamscapes of I Break Horses are a fitting backdrop. Whether in the shimmering “I’ll Be The Death Of You” and “Neon Lights” or the empathetic catharses of “Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love In Your Eyes” and “Death Engine,” Lindén returned from a long, searching passage in life with the most realized, gorgeous, and ultimately reinvigorating work of her career. —Ryan

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40 Code Orange – Underneath (Roadrunner)

Pittsburgh’s Code Orange have been making frantic, math-damaged hardcore for more than a decade, since they were literal children operating under the name Code Orange Kids. With each album, they’ve been getting bigger and heavier, to the point where they’ve now been playing metal festivals in stadiums and collaborating with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. On Underneath, they’ve embraced the challenge of making grand, cathartic big-tent rock music without losing their punishing harshness. They’ve succeeded. Underneath has soaring choruses, jittery IDM drill-beats, scuzzed-out nu-metal groove-attacks, and riffs hard enough to clothesline the skin right off of your skull. —Tom

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39 Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna (Slumberland)

From the first guttural guitar haze of “Pill,” you think you know what you’re getting. There have been lots of bands with that one perfect song capturing the bygone heyday of dream-pop and shoegaze. But across Peel Dream Magazine’s sophomore outing, the hits keep coming and the reference points keep collapsing in on each other. “Emotional Devotion Creator,” “Do It,” “Too Dumb” — each song finds Peel Dream exploring different iterations of psychedelic music and blurring the boundaries between them. The hooks, history, and philosophy all become detritus swirling together into a kaleidoscopic reinterpretation you can’t look away from. —Ryan

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38 Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony (Roc Nation)

Jay Electronica actually, finally released a full-length debut, and then that debut turned out to really be an unofficial album-length collab with Jay-Z. The whole thing still sounds implausible, like a hazily recalled dream you had 10 years ago. Fittingly, A Written Testimony is itself a fuzzy mirage of sorts, a series of gravel-voiced meditations over airy, impressionistic production. Nothing could really live up to the feverish hype that once surrounded Jay Electronica and A Written Testimony doesn’t even try. But it’s all the better for it — an idiosyncratic, psychedelic drift released right at the beginning of an era when we all spent a whole lot of time inside rifling through our own minds. —Ryan

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37 Nation Of Language – Introduction, Prescence (Self-released)

How’s this for some truth in advertising: Introduction, Presence is a hell of an introduction with presence to spare. Nation Of Language mine the sounds of ’80s synth-pop and new wave to work through decidedly current feelings of listlessness and discontent, frontman Ian Devaney’s deep, rich baritone splitting the difference between your favorite post-punkers and the National’s chief brooder Matt Berninger. Every interlocking keyboard squiggle, every drum machine rhythm, every bass groove — they all come together perfectly in a mercilessly efficient hook delivery system that sounds like an old classic and feels like a new one. —Peter

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36 Frances Quinlan – Likewise (Saddle Creek)

Frances Quinlan is one of our finest songwriters, and Likewise, her first solo album after almost a decade in Hop Along, is a showcase for her many talents. Her songs are impressionistic fragments — they feel unmoored in time, like “Went To LA,” or they settle for indeterminate endings, like “Your Reply” and “Rare Thing.” Her arrangements on Likewise are light and weightless, but Quinlan brings a gravity and emotional acuity to everything that she does. It’s an album that ponders big questions but doesn’t get tripped up on the answers; it savors the unknowing. —James

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35 Envy – The Fallen Crimson (Temporary Residence)

Imagine you’re climbing a mountain in a raging windstorm to fight a dragon. You look down and see the whole world — miles of earth stretching out before you, lives reduced to tiny ant-like specks. That’s the scale that Envy are working on, and that’s what listening to The Fallen Crimson feels like. The Japanese band are the OG kings of matching sweepingly grand post-rock peaks and valleys with heavy shoegaze beauty and hardcore’s howling intensity, combining it all into a tidal wave of pure emotion. Let it wash you away. —Peter

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34 Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (Interscope)

How does a psychedelic loner turned lover reckon with time’s relentless forward march? By plunging backward into an analog dance party where everything glows like a disco ball reflecting off puffy-haired monsters of rock. Kevin Parker built his legend crafting vivid alternate histories of classic rock and big-tent dance music. If 2015’s Currents blurred together the sounds of the modern festival scene, The Slow Rush sounds darker, more interior, more retro — a hallucinogenic swirl bridging the gap between Studio 54 and the Midwest arenas of the same era. —Chris

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33 Sam Hunt – Southside (MCA Nashville)

With his 2014 debut album Montevallo, Sam Hunt conquered the bro-country mountain. A heart-wreckingly handsome ex-college quarterback who broke the code on subtly integrating Drake-wave rap internalism into bright, gleaming mainstream country, Hunt seemed poised to dominate for the foreseeable future. Instead, he disappeared. He married the high-school ex he’d sung about so often on Montevallo, quit drinking, and spent years tinkering with his sound. Then he reemerged with Southside, a slippery and gorgeous piece of music. Southside transforms bluegrass samples into trap beats, casually flirts with clever abandon, and makes its personal epiphanies register as full-throated arena pop. Six-year break or no, Hunt might still fuck around and dominate. —Tom

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32 Grimes – Miss Anthropocene (4AD)

Forget Elon Musk. Forget the baby name jokes. Honestly, you can even forget the convoluted narrative about climate change personified as a goddess or whatever. Let all of the extraneous bullshit fall away and just listen to the dang music. Yes, Grimes is a lot, but that’s part of what makes her songs special. On Miss Anthropocene, she takes the deeply uncool influence of edgy, nihilistic nu-metal, fuses it with pop and electronic dance music, and uses it to capture the paranoid, freaked-out headspace of live-tweeting your own panic attack at 4AM. Whatever you might think of Grimes’ public persona, the music speaks for itself. —Peter

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31 Boldy James – The Price Of Tea In China (ALC)

The husky-voiced Detroit rapper Boldy James writes like a great crime novelist, laying out the stresses and dangers of living out life on the wrong side of the law. When he talks about bloodstained concrete and bricks chipped from bullet ricochets, you can practically see the scene he’s describing. On The Price Of Tea In China, he teams up with producer the Alchemist, an old comrade who instinctively knows how to surround James’ deadpan darkness with shivery, ominous boom-bap. Together, they’ve made a tense, coiled, artful meditation on hard realities. —Tom

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30 Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open (Matador)

On Making A Door Less Open‘s opening track, Will Toledo attests, “I believe that thoughts can change your body.” What follows is the result of much hard thinking about how to alter the substance of Car Seat Headrest. Often Toledo and his bandmates do so by building an electronic exoskeleton into the hearty alternative rock that made them indie-famous, lending a different sort of oomph to all the howling choruses and clever, sardonic observations. The sum total of their efforts is a thrilling left turn from a deeply consistent yet wildly unpredictable band. —Chris

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29 Empty Country – Empty Country (Get Better)

With Cymbals Eat Guitars, Joseph D’Agostino trafficked in indie-minded iterations of classic rock, from epic Built To Spill freakouts to neon Springsteen worship. So it only follows that his new project would plow headfirst into the great wide open. D’Agostino’s debut album as Empty Country plays like a drive through the heartland, except instead of coast to coast it takes you to the 1980s and back. Along the way it connects the dots between “Pink Houses,” Red House Painters, and the houses on all those memorable emo album covers. —Chris

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28 Braids – Shadow Offering (Secret City)

On Braids’ fourth album, Shadow Offering, the Montreal art-pop trio is at its cleanest and most refined. They teamed up with producer Chris Walla, who teases out the rockier side of their tunes, turning the group’s taut synth reveries into glistening and forceful songs that tackle topics like abuse and desire and self-hatred. Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s voice is dizzying; she presents her fears not as a persistent dull ache but as something that is going to rip her apart from the inside out. —James

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27 Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline (Anti-)

All singer-songwriters are storytellers of a sort, but neither term does justice to what Andy Shauf accomplishes on The Neon Skyline. Each of its 11 tracks are chapters from the same narrative, vignettes that cohere into something like a novel or an indie film. The arc is simple: guy runs into his ex at the bar, flashes back on falling in and out of love, awkwardly flirts for a while, and heads home. But Shauf ties those scenes together with emotional insight and an artful touch, soundtracked by luscious retro pop-rock arrangements that make the story feel timeless despite its meticulous sense of place. —Chris

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26 Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo (ESGN / ALC / EMPIRE)

After two albums with Madlib, Freddie Gibbs — once a bone-hard street-rap prospect — has embraced his inner nerd, understanding that he’s at his best when rapping over misty, dissolving stoner-rap instrumentals. For Alfredo, Gibbs teams up with the Alchemist, who, just like Madlib, is a master of the form. The result is a solid 35 minutes of laid-back zone-out psychedelia and breathtakingly twisty and intricate tough-talk. Gibbs radiates charisma even when he’s flexing his absolute mastery, and guest stars like Rick Ross and Tyler, The Creator bring their A-game, happy just for the opportunity to rap with a master. —Tom

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25 Against All Logic – 2017-2019 (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar has been good to us this year. He released a new solo album, Cenizas, and there’s a promise of more albums on the horizon. He kicked off the year with a new album from Against All Logic, his side project that approaches the dancefloor reverentially and with an ecstatic glee. The songs on 2017-2019 are constantly clanging and anxious and spilling forward. “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard,” Jaar’s latest collaboration with Lydia Lunch, has turned into an enduring mantra for 2020, a reminder to keep on moving even when it feels hopeless. —James

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24 Moses Sumney – græ (Jagjaguwar)

Moses Sumney had so much to say that he had to split it in half. grae, his ambitious double album, was parceled out in two separate parts over a few months — taken as a whole, it’s simply overwhelming. It’s overflowing with ideas and dense arrangements, and Sumney is able to move between disparate sounds through the sheer will of his voice alone. “Virile,” the album’s stunning lead single and towering achievement, is a grandly operatic song about masculinity and vulnerability that uses both as a shield, armor that holds together opposing forces with iron-clad bonds and suggests that maybe they’re not so opposing after all. —James

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23 Westerman – Your Hero Is Not Dead (Partisan)

It almost seems tongue-in-cheek: Whipping up a bit of internet fervor with the immaculate single “Confirmation,” refining the aesthetic over a handful more, then finally delivering an anticipated full-length debut called… Your Hero Is Not Dead. And then Westerman manages to balance ruminations over abstract moral and existential concerns with music that is strikingly beautiful throughout. Aided by Bullion’s crystalline electronic textures, Westerman uses his transfixing voice and serpentine guitar to perfect his singular sound, reaching for the horizon in “Waiting On Design” or conjuring yet another sublime, glimmering vision of a pop song in “Blue Comanche.” Your hero is indeed far from dead — he’s just now assuming the mantle. —Ryan

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22 Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

Just when it looked like Bob Dylan was settling into a semi-retirement of regular touring punctuated by strangely reverent standards collections, he comes careening back into the spotlight like SOY BOMB with his best album in a decade, if not two. Bracketed by deeply referential mirage-like epics “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul,” Rough And Rowdy Ways fills out its run time with a career-spanning assortment of sounds, from stately ballads to stomping roadhouse blues. He also proclaims, “Key West is the place to be if you’re looking for immortality” — and if anyone could speak authoritatively on that subject, it’s Bob. —Chris

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21 Arca – KicK i (XL)

Arca spent three years not releasing anything, but she has been hard at work. KicK i is meant to be the start of a quartet of releases — this one is the “pop” version of what’s been clanging around her head these last few years, and it’s certainly the most accessible material she’s ever put out. It’s crisp and concise; her music remains beguilingly odd, but KicK i is compulsively relistenable. She recruited Björk, Rosalía, and SOPHIE for the effort, joining in a lineage of forward-thinking auteurs. These are pop songs from other dimensions, a plugged-in radio dial of gooey decay. KicK i feels like her breakout moment, a well-deserved coronation. —James

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20 Sada Baby – Skuba Sada 2 (Asylum)

Detroit rap annihilator Sada Baby spent the first few months of 2020 on an absolute rampage. Every day, it seemed like there was a new Sada Baby video up on YouTube. There he was, again and again, in all his loud and ferocious glory, his gigantic beard immediately standing out in every mob scene. For a long time, those frantically funky songs were YouTube-only. Skuba Sada 2 — incredibly, Sada’s second full-length of the year — collected many of those songs, transforming them into a feverish rap marathon that never lets up. These tracks were only weeks old when it came out, but Skuba Sada 2 already played like a readymade greatest-hits collection for an internet cult hero. —Tom

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19 Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter (Partisan / Chrysalis)

When Laura Marling moved Song For Our Daughter up from August, it became a semi-surprise release meant to, hopefully, provide an anchor for people in confusing, traumatizing times. Not that this album is purely comforting, being a series of missives to an unborn child warning of how this warped world would challenge her. Despite coming from turmoil, Marling’s songs — the lilting sigh “Held Down,” the catchy “Alexandra” and “Strange Girl,” the raw and sparse “For You” — are able to harness beauty hidden within the ugliness surrounding us. In the end, it was the exact kind of salve we needed, just when we needed it. —Ryan

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18 Higher Power – 27 Miles Underwater (Roadrunner)

The Leeds band Higher Power come from the world of breakdown-heavy mosh-music hardcore. But they also have sticky, soaring choruses and big arena-rock riffs and a singer, Jimmy Wizard, who sounds like what might’ve happened if circa-1990 Perry Farrell got really into lifting weights. For their second album and big-label debut, Higher Power teamed up with Pixies/Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton to make their chunky hardcore sound like mid-’90s alt-rock radio-bait. This probably should be the cheesiest thing in the world, and maybe it is. But it also rules. If regular rock bands aren’t going to do anthemic reaching-for-infinity stompers anymore, maybe it makes sense for hardcore bands to start. —Tom

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17 Caribou – Suddenly (Merge)

Call it EIDM: emotionally intelligent dance music. Over the course of his career, Caribou’s Dan Snaith has been steadily moving towards more personal singer-songwriter territory without losing his crate-digging experimentalist spirit. And on Suddenly, he fully sheds his academic persona to shoot straight for the heart, externalizing life’s sudden tragedies and joys into deeply felt, deeply melodic electronic music more suited to soul-searching than floor-filling. Anchored by his own nakedly human voice, he’s crafted an album of swerves and left turns for navigating a world full of them. —Peter

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16 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy (Sub Pop)

Following their 2018 debut Hope Downs, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever saw the world. But they also learned about dislocation, depletion — the endless blur of life on the road, and the way home can blur upon returning, too. Instead of writing about that feeling, they drew on different places, from southern Italy to the tropical reaches of their native Australia, to make an album that sounds like it has sunlight running through its veins. From the dazzling guitar interplay of “Cars In Space” to the sparkling dream of “The Only One” to the gigantic chorus of “Cameo,” RBCF corralled impressions from their new lives, and took their sound to even more vivid heights. —Ryan

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15 Thundercat – It Is What It Is (Brainfeeder)

What is It Is What It Is? Such an idiosyncratic vision is better experienced than blurbed, but how about: a funky jazz-fusion space odyssey informed by grief, romantic dejection, and existential dread, but also cartoons, video games, and old Kanye interview rants. Breezy despite its density, Thundercat’s fourth album is as fun as it is deep. There’s room in there for AM gold about durags, a Ty Dolla $ign/Lil B pairing, and a frenetic rhythmic onslaught bridging the gap between bop, thrash, and drum ‘n’ bass. Our man may be covered in cat hair, but he still smells good. —Chris

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14 Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM (Polyvinyl / Quote Unquote)

“They were separating families carelessly under the guise of protecting you and me,” Jeff Rosenstock wails. The Long Island-bred Rosenstock is a master of strident uncertainty, and his version of pop-punk has a way of articulating what it’s like to try to live life in no-hope capitalist dystopia. Most of NO DREAM is about stumbling along, being in love, dealing with guilt. But all of Rosenstock’s electro-shock hooks and searching lyrics work against a backdrop of intolerable widespread injustice, and he never loses sight of that. When NO DREAM dropped without warning, it worked as a forceful reassurance. Even if none of us know how to process this shit, we are not alone. —Tom

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13 Porridge Radio – Every Bad (Secretly Canadian)

By the end of the first song on Every Bad, singer Dana Margolin’s voice breaks into a ragged elemental wail as she repeats two lines over and over again: “Thank you for leaving me/ Thank you for making me happy.” That’s how Porridge Radio operate — setting the relentless mantras of a spiraling mind to simmering indie rock with a tendency to flare up into climactic squalls of cathartic noise at just the right moment. It’s an exorcism of big, bruised feelings purged into big, bruised songs. —Peter

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12 Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia (Warner)

Turns out future nostalgia sounds a whole lot like regular nostalgia. After the success of her breakout hit “New Rules” and its tropical house pulse, Dua Lipa began burrowing further and further back into pop music history, moving from ’90s diva-house to ’80s Giorgio Moroder-inspired disco. And on Future Nostalgia, she collects four decades of club music, of accumulated knowledge of ways to make people move, into an album of immaculate dancefloor bangers. Just wait till dancefloors are a thing again. —Peter

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11 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions (Southeastern)

“This used to be a ghost town/ But even the ghosts got out.” That’s Jason Isbell on the churning “Overseas,” a couple songs into Reunions, the new album he described as having a whole lot of ghosts in it. They come in many forms: an old friend who’s no longer here in “Only Children,” a now long-sober Isbell reflecting on his troubled past in “It Gets Easier.” The stories have a brutal economy to them, able to crush you instantly with glimpses of not just the ghost town and those who escaped, but those who didn’t. On Reunions, Isbell tries to reconcile all that past with who he is today, and in the process reminds us that who he is today is one of the most masterful songwriters of our time. —Ryan

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10 Ka – Descendants Of Cain (Iron Works)

“If he ain’t from the maelstrom, I never felt him,” says Ka. Ka is from the maelstrom — ’80s Brooklyn. For years, Ka has been making muttery and mystical rap music, working full-time as a Brooklyn fire chief and releasing albums when the spirit moves him. On those albums, Ka chants wise incantations over sparse, meditative music that he usually produces himself. With Descendents Of Cain, he digs deep into Biblical imagery to properly describe the trauma that comes with growing up in a violent place, in a violent time. The music flickers and throbs like a deep-space quasar, stripping New York boom-bap to ominous atmosphere, while Ka ponders the questions of the universe. You feel him. —Tom

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9 Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind (Warp)

The way Yves Tumor renders heaven sounds more like hell. Heaven For A Tortured Mind certainly feels tortured enough when the cocky rock bravado gives way to stark vulnerability. “Gospel For A New Century,” the opening track on the experimental pop artist’s latest album, is one heck of an introduction to this new era of Yves Tumor: all over the place in the best possible way, with blown-out guitars and guttural noises and a catchy, insistent beat. Yves Tumor runs through decades of glamorous macho energy on Heaven To A Tortured Mind to come up with a pantheon all his own. —James

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8 Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now (Atlantic)

It was just a crazy enough idea to work. The hyper-productive Charli XCX forced herself to concentrate on one task during quarantine: Make an album. And make one she did. How I’m Feeling Now is spontaneous and effervescent, a time capsule that feels like it will endure. Its itchy, bombastic tracks are a way for Charli to bounce off the walls of her own mind and feel fulfilled while doing so. The album contains some of Charli’s most vulnerable songs ever, her chaotic take on pop music spilling over into something that can help bring us all together while we’re all apart. —James

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7 Sorry – 925 (Domino)

Sorry are hard to figure out. The London group’s beguiling songs unfold with a curious dream-world logic, saxophone blurts and keyboard tinkles piercing through the all-encompassing haze of seductively moody indie rock. Even when they’re detailing the hedonistic excesses of the rockstar lifestyle, the core duo of Asha Lorenz and Louis O’Bryen sings with a winking ironic detachment, their drawling, disinterested voices circling playfully and finishing each other’s sentences. It’s hard to know just what to make of them, but it’s even harder not to fall under their spell. —Peter

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6 Soccer Mommy – color theory (Loma Vista)

All of color theory‘s shades are gloomy: blue for depression, yellow for illness, gray for loss. But the album is also the boldest and brightest that Soccer Mommy has ever sounded, refracting the homespun indie rock of Sophie Allison’s 2018 debut Clean through the nostalgic ’90s and ’00s pop anthems of her youth and emerging with a polished new sound. This music, just like Allison herself, lives in the darkness without ever fully succumbing to it. —Peter

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5 The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form (Dirty Hit / Interscope)

Notes On A Conditional Form is like getting five albums in one. That’s not a quip about its staggering runtime; it’s just the nature of the album, an unruly restlessness suggesting the more contained, logical roads-not-taken. If this indeed marks the conclusion of one era of the 1975, it’s a high note to end on, though not a very triumphant one. Truthfully, it’s not even exactly indulgent. The bleary scope is part of story: Wrangling with relationships, and technology, and self-reflexivity, and everything else, Notes is one more sprawling, scattered attempt — not just to showcase the 1975’s malleability, but to filter crowded backlogs of ideas and sounds and melodies into a portrait of the anxious millennial mind. —Ryan

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4 Run The Jewels – RTJ4 (BMG)

El-P and Killer Mike took their time with the fourth installment in the Run The Jewels saga — and, as usual, the album seemed to arrive exactly when it was supposed to. There’s all the same shit talk and underdog charm and humor that fueled RTJ’s early ascension, but their hearts (and crowns) are heavier now. Even in the space of one song, like opener and lead single “Yankee And The Brave,” a partially light-hearted action movie setup is tinged with the real-life horror movie scenery of the America RTJ4 arrived into — which, of course, was really the America these two have been grappling with for years. That’ll always define how we first heard RTJ4: released amidst a week of nationwide (and then worldwide) protests, songs like “Walking In The Snow” and “JU$T” sounding equal parts righteous, fiery, and reflective. —Ryan

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3 Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately (Matador)

Mike Hadreas, like Angel Olsen, is one of the few singers and songwriters gifted and ambitious and history-minded enough to take ancient forms of rock ‘n’ roll melodrama and turn them into personal koans. On his latest, he starts by lamenting that half of his whole life is finished over an organ-sustain dirge that turns into a music-box prom waltz. From there, Hadreas soars over baroque psychedelia and euphoric drones. Producer Blake Mills and old session-musician geniuses like Pino Palladino and Jim Keltner create soft, luxuriant noise-lullabies, and Hadreas uses them as interdimensional portals to take us inside his soul. In dreams, he walks with us. In dreams, he talks with us. In dreams, we’re his all of the time. —Tom

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2 Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge)

Katie Crutchfield always sounded wise beyond her years, even when she was a teenager fronting P.S. Eliot. Now that she’s entering her thirties, sobered up and madly in love, her music as Waxahatchee brims with perspective and grace. Saint Cloud is the work of a songwriter confident enough to let the listener approach at their leisure, patient and unflashy but rich with rewards for those who lean in close and soak it all in. Listening through is refreshing, like taking a peaceful stroll by a riverside and having your brain unscrambled. —Chris

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1 Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Epic)

Listening to Fetch The Bolt Cutters is like meeting up with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. They invite you over to their house, and maybe it’s a little awkward and cramped — there’s clothes folded up on the couch and you’re sinking into the cushions. Fiona Apple has been through a lot and she wants to tell you about it. You have to listen.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an invitation to an interior world. It’s a homey album, which makes sense given that it was made entirely at home. Banging pots and pans, barking dogs, and the hum of casual existence are all instruments in Apple’s hands. She uses the textures of everyday life to construct sing-songy hymns that sound like macaroni art. The songs play in opposition to themselves: they’re cacophonous and quiet, familiar and disorienting, feral and soothing. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is meant to completely overtake you, and it does. It’s a monumental achievement that feels so simple and complicated at the same time — the mark of a true classic. —James

HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album (except Moodymann, which isn’t on Spotify) here.

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