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The Best Albums of January 2020: Selena Gomez, Kesha, Halsey, and More

Here are the best albums of the month, from pop blockbusters to indie gems

Each month, the editors and critics at Rolling Stone will compile a list of our favorite new albums. January’s picks include pop blockbusters (Halsey, Kesha, Selena Gomez), hip-hop trailblazers (the late Mac Miller, 070 Shake), indie gems (Torres, Frances Quinlan, Destroyer) and much more. You can find all of our recent album reviews here.

Halsey, Manic 

Manic is Halsey’s raw autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young mess, craving her share of love and tenderness in a hostile world. Yet Halsey’s Ashley Frangipane is a mess who’s a hungrily ambitious artist seeing herself as a mirror for her entire generation. As she told Rolling Stone last summer, Manic is “hip-hop, rock, country, fucking everything.” Who else but Halsey would get stellar guest shots from Alanis Morissette and Suga from BTS on the same album?

Kesha, High Road 

On the excellent High Road, Kesha fuses all her passions together — the road she’s traveling in the title is a spiritual path, but it’s also “high” in the earthier sense. On High Road, Kesha wants to have it both ways: She sings about her therapist and Tarot readings and her aura, but she’s also back to clubbing with a vengeance.

Selena Gomez, Rare

Given how how publicly and privately painful Gomez’s last few years have been — worsening struggles with lupus, a kidney transplant, stays in mental health treatment centers, high-profile break-ups — Rare is shockingly, and beautifully, upbeat. Selena Gomez told us she would learn to take better care of herself on 2015’s Revival. On Rare, she puts that promise into action. Her third solo album is an act of divine ruthlessness: She dances out the toxins weighing her down and breathes in loads of post-Lizzo “fuck you, I love me” energy.

Mac Miller, Circles 

Before he died of an accidental drug overdose in September 2018 at age 26, Miller put out the two most complete albums of his career: The Divine Feminine, an ornate jazz-rap record, and Swimming, a profoundly bittersweet portrayal of his attempts to come to terms with depression and heartbreak. Circles doesn’t build on Swimming so much as riff off it. It’s not a fresh chapter that gestures towards Miller’s untold future, but rather a genuine companion piece, a time capsule to be placed alongside Swimming.

070 Shake, Modus Vivendi 

Born to a Dominican immigrant mom, Shake grew up on Lauryn Hill and My Chemical Romance. The flows come hard and soft, in English and Spanish, with verses suggesting a fierce, strong, proud, brave, spiritual being who’s also hungry, searching, scared, self-loathing, and self-destructive — just like plenty of humans, especially in their early twenties. Shake’s enveloping debut LP, Modus Vivendi, charts desire and space — outer and inner. It’s an emo-rap Dark Side of the Moon.

Destroyer, Have We Met 

Dan Bejar has been making weirdly revelatory records for over 20 years. His music took a surprising turn into plush Eighties sounds about a decade ago, and he continues in that vein with Have We Met. His lyrics can be at once wry, absurd, poignant, and epigrammatic (“Just look at the world around you,” he offers. “Actually, no, don’t look!”), his neon-tinged tunes jaded yet at the same strangely poignant. Fitting an artist who’s become expert at diagonally channeling pop history from a passionate sophisticate’s remove, the best moments here (“Cue Synthesizer,” “The Raven,” “The Television Music Supervisor”) deal with the art-making process itself — something Bejar proves himself a master of again and again.

Frances Quinlan, Likewise

As the lead singer of Philly’s Hop Along, Frances Quinlan has a peerless way of stopping you in your tracks with just a few choice words. On her own here, without the band’s clean classic-rock crunch to buoy her, she’s quieter but no less arresting. Some songs dance with Postal Service synths (“Rare Thing”), others stick with soft acoustic chords (“A Secret”), but all of them draw their power from Quinlan’s writerly vision, spinning fragments of dream, memory, and conversation into gnomic indie-pop gold.

Wire, Mind Hive 

More than four decades after turning punk on its ear with their rumba rhythms, quirky melodies, and ridiculously short songs, Wire have slowly become their own brand of maximalists. Although the songs on their latest album, Mind Hive, aren’t symphonic, 45-minute “epics,” they uncoil with drones, quivering synths, and the sort of rumbling guitar riffs that were their original calling card around the time they became a breakout punk group.

Torres, Silver Tongue 

One of this decade’s great unheralded songwriters returns with another sturdy collection of supremely crafted electro-folk rockers. On the self-produced Silver Tongue, the Georgia singer merges her background in traditional narrative songwriting with the industrial harshness of her most recent effort, 2017’s Three Futures. “If you stayed to find out, I’d write you only love songs,” Mackenzie Scott sings, as she makes falling hard for a new lover sound more goth than ever.

Carly Pearce, Carly Pearce 

Carly Pearce delivered one of 2017’s most indelible country singles with “Every Little Thing,” a penetrating ballad that meditated on memory. Three years later, she’s back with her self-titled follow-up, which finds Pearce teaming up with the finest writers on Music Row (Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally) for stately mid-tempo musings on growing up (“It Won’t Always Be Like This”) and the relentlessness of heartbreak (“Love Has No Heart”).

Pet Shop Boys, Hotspot 

14 albums into their run, the Petties haven’t lost a step in their ability to summon dance-pop elation while summoning the mixed emotions that churn beneath dance music’s glassy surfaces. “Happy People” and “Monkey Business” are as catchy as their classic Eighties synth-pop hits, and the sense of acerbic resignation in Neil Tennant’s vocals always comes with an empathetic aftertaste, as these club lifers continue navigating the ups and downs of a nightlife landscape they love and helped invent.

Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling

On the eve of their 25th year as a band, the Drive-By Truckers’ 12th record is less a creative high peak than a sturdy reminder of the band’s admirable persistence. And like every Truckers record, the plentiful moments of middle American reportage (“21st Century USA”) and fractured underdog beauty (“Armageddon’s Back in Town”) make The Unraveling, at the very least, another sturdy addition to the band’s almost peerless discography.

J Hus, Big Conspiracy 

The London rapper’s second album confirms what J Hus’ 2017 debut, Common Sense, suggested — that in an era when many artists are making diaspora-spanning pop music, few traverse genre so effortlessly. Big Conspiracy swings between warm strains of afrobeats, hip hop, and R&B, as J Hus showcases a stylistic range that covers conversational rapping, whispered singing, or lagging behind the beat before snapping into a heavily syncopated flow. While he most often appears a mischievous, silver-tongued ladies’ man, he doesn’t shy away from inner turmoil.

Greg Dulli, Random Desire 

As one of the alt-rock era’s preeminent tortured poets, prone to overly romantic midnight confessions, Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli cultivated a sort of dusky persona. On Random Desire, his first solo album in more than a decade, he sounds more like a reflective Elvis Costello, taking stock of his life. Some of the songs even sound oddly upbeat (“Desolation, come and get it,” he sings on the otherwise poppy “Pantomima”) and hopeful (“Lockless” sports an 808 beat and new-wave synths). He never sounds totally happy — even one of the most hopeful tracks is titled “Black Moon” — but that’s what makes Dulli’s music so enchanting.

Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman 

For her first project following the runaway success of her Broadway musical Hadestown, Anais Mitchell joined forces with Eric Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (The National, Craig Finn) for an understated collection of reimagined folk standards. Bonny Light Horseman  is anything but a conventional throwback covers record: The trio’s murky debut recontextualizes centuries-old English ballads and nursery rhymes like “The Roving” and “Jane Jane,” arranging them with a dignified modernity that resists all nostalgia or folk fetishism.

Kirk Windstein, Dream in Motion

Even at their most raging, New Orleans metal institution Crowbar have always radiated pure emotion, tackling weighty topics like depression, betrayal, and addiction head-on. On his first solo LP, bandleader Kirk Windstein —who recently rejoined NOLA supergroup Down — strips back some of the distortion and softens his signature bellow to a mournful croon, making the elegiac beauty underneath that much more clear. The results are every bit as convincing as Crowbar’s sturdy near-three-decade catalog, proving that Weinstein never needed textbook metal heaviness to lend his songs real weight.

Chubby and the Gang, Speed Kills 

The debut album from these London punks is all buzzsaw riffs and drums that barrel forward like an 18-wheeler twisting around a cliff-edge switchback at top speed. But the tension between mayhem and heart, fury and fun, is always there. Certainly on the most rabid rippers (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Moscow,” “Blue Ain’t My Colour”), but even more impressively in the way Chubby and the Gang deftly switch gears on the lovelorn “Trouble” and closer “Grenfell Forever,” a tribute to victims of the Grenfell Tower fire victims that’s hopelessness, rage, exhaustion, and grief all at once.

Sarah Mary Chadwick, Please Daddy

Nobody’s voice aches quite like Sarah Mary Chadwick’s as she mourns publicly for the loss of her father over gorgeous, sparse tapestries made of piano, horns, and drums. This album’s dark tone recalls the best of PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Serge Gainsbourg, but the untamed grief in her voice, especially on a song like “Please Daddy,” is all her own. She moves her way into each mood, like tone poems, and you can’t help but rejoice when she finds a fleeting moment of hope — but even then, her sadness is intoxicating.