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The Best Albums of August 2020: The Killers, Maluma, Angel Olsen, Katy Perry, and More

Here are the best albums of last month, from pop-star reinventions to stripped-back indie rock

Jeff Kravitz/MTV VMAs 2020/Getty Images; Cameron McCool; Olivia Bee

Each month, the editors and critics at Rolling Stone compile a list of our favorite new albums. Our picks from August include a bold return from the Killers, a return to reggaetón from Colombian star Maluma, a stripped-back sound from singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, and Katy Perry’s latest pop-star reinvention.

Angel Olsen, Whole New Mess
Olsen’s latest album presents last year’s All Mirrors material in its original form, which the singer-songwriter laid down in the fall of 2018 inside the Unknown, Phil Elverum’s church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington. The cinematic, grandiose arrangements are gone, allowing Olsen and her guitar the space to explore a raw and emotional intensity as she grapples with the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Whole New Mess evokes both her 2010 debut EP Strange Cacti and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska — this is Olsen radiating her vulnerability from a mansion on the hill. —Angie Martoccio

Kathleen Edwards, Total Freedom
On her first album in eight years, the Canadian singer-songwriter hero turns her journey of the last decade (quitting music, opening up a coffee shop) into a profound lesson in gratitude, compassion, and mid-life reinvention. On an album about childhood best friends, toxic partners, and rescue pups (“dogs and exes,” as co-producer Jim Bryson put it), Edwards channels the War on Drugs (“Hard on Everyone”), rediscovers her beginnings as a late-Nineties folkie (“Birds on a Feeder”), embraces her FM-pop leanings (“Options Open”), and offers up gorgeous post-Golden Hour roots-rock breeziness (“Glenfern”). “We toured the world and we played on TV,” she sings on the latter, a remembrance of alt-country careers and marriages past. “We met some of our heroes/It almost killed me.” But, as the song’s chorus stunningly simple chorus puts it, Total Freedom, ultimately, is an album about how someone one can only move forward after they’ve reckoned with their past: “I am so thankful for it.” —Jonathan Bernstein

Katy Perry, Smile
It’s been 10 years since Katy Perry’s mega-blockbuster Teenage Dream set an almost stratospherically high bar for Californicated pop bliss in the 21st century, becoming the first album to land five songs at the top of the charts since Michael Jackson’s Bad. That’s a tough act to follow, and like Jackson in the post-Bad era, Perry has struggled to come up with the right second act, failing to keep pace with an increasingly ambitious and arty pop world as she tried genre-leaping introspection on 2013’s Prism and therapeutic wokeness on 2017’s Witness. On Smile, she stops trying to keep up with the Halseys and happily defaults to the fizzy bombast that is her stadium-size safety zone. “I’m ready for a shameless summer/Champagne on ice only makes you stronger,” she sings on “Cry About It Later.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Katy Perry joint without some resplendently goofy cringe-core lyrics, and the lady doth not disappoint in that regard. For the most part, though, this is the sound of ably inching back to pop heaven. —Jon Dolan

Lil Keed, Trapped on Cleveland 3
Lil Keed’s Trapped on Cleveland 3 is a moment of growth for the emerging Atlanta rapper. The 19-song mixtape is full of witty punchlines and melodies that would make his mentor, Young Thug, envious — but this has always been Keed’s identity. Whether its the rock-infused gloss of “Here” or the trap native sounds of “Fox 5” featuring Gunna, Keed is the latest mutation of Atlanta’s homegrown sound. Thankfully, the Trapped on Cleveland series shows no signs of losing steam. —Dewayne Gage

Dua Lipa, Club Future Nostalgia 
As if Future Nostalgia wasn’t making people pining for the dance floor enough, Dua Lipa partnered with veteran club DJ/producer the Blessed Madonna to make a 50-minute dance mixtape based off her album. Club Future Nostalgia is meant to be listened to like an old-school house mix, running an urgent and heated 50 minutes straight. The Blessed Madonna stepped into a curatorial role, putting together a stellar roster of her peers (Mark Ronson, Jacques Lu Cont, Horse Meat Disco, and more) to re-imagine songs off Future Nostalgia (and a couple previously unreleased demos) as the ideal party. In between are snippets of classic songs from Jamiroquai, Stevie Nicks, and Neneh Cherry to really make you feel like you’re sweating it out at your nearest all-night rave. —Brittany Spanos

Ruston Kelly, Shape & Destroy
On his second full-length album, the Nashville songwriter offers up 13 crisp folk-pop meditations on self-betterment, restlessness, and sobriety. If Kelly’s gutpunch debut, Dying Star — with its tales of sad, stumbling, starry nights in East Nashville — was a midnight cry for salvation, Shape & Destroy sounds like a 7 a.m. grappling with grace (there’s even a song called “Mid-Morning Lament”). Kelly finds plenty of turmoil on the better side of rock bottom: “My, my, my,” he apologizes early on, “I’m just going through some changes.” He deepens his emotional palette on Shape & Destroy, recognizing daily self-improvement as a topic just as worthy of a three-minute song as far more sexy Nashville tropes. On “Brave,” the album’s stark centerpiece, he turns recovery aphorisms into moving emo declarations: “I didn’t give up to the darkness/I fought with all my might,” he sings, “And I never took for granted/All the love in my life.” —J.B.

Maluma, Papi Juancho
Since breaking out five years ago with his major-label debut, Pretty Boy, Dirty Boy, Maluma has cosplayed both inamorato and lothario, picking and choosing which side to whip out on any given track. In practice, though, he’s rarely as convincing as the wounded romantic of “El Préstamo” and “Tengo Un Amor” as he is when he’s the polyamorous lech behind “Cuatro Babys” and “Felices Los 4.” As such, it seems somewhat disingenuous for Maluma to trot out his latest full-length, Papi Juancho, as the work of an alter ego, when last year’s comparably chaste 11:11 was the real outlier in his catalog. Despite whatever he learned from that short-lived, if satisfying, dalliance with arena-pop, Maluma’s surprise return to libertine reggaetón suits him far better. —Gary Suarez

The Killers, Imploding the Mirage
The Las Vegas band’s first new album without guitarist Dave Keuning proved to be challenging, but sometimes the strongest records are born out of strenuous hours in the studio — particularly when Lindsey Buckingham comes to the rescue. The Fleetwood Mac legend lent a hand on the Eighties stomper “Caution,” while California songbird Weyes Blood appears on the shimmering “My God” and k.d. lang guests on “Lightning Fields.” Nearly two decades after we first heard Brandon Flowers belt the power-pop magic of “Mr. Brightside,” Imploding the Mirage shows the band coming full-circle, returning to their earlier sound of synthesizers and blazing guitar riffs. “A bullet train will get you there fast/But it won’t guarantee a long last,” Flowers observes on the closing title track. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of courage and doubt/To push your boundaries out beyond your imagining.” —A.M.

Old 97’s, Twelfth
Old 97’s are at their ramshackle best on Twelfth, a collection of scrappy rockers, underdog anthems, and the thrashing drinking songs for which they’ve become known. But this time, those boozy dissertations are informed by singer Rhett Miller’s sobriety. He scoffs at his past of living “like a lush” in the self-referential “Confessional Boxing” and reprioritizes his life in “I Like You Better,” declaring, “I like you better than beer.” The album is also testament to the 97’s’ longevity: Twelfth is their 12th studio LP with the same lineup since forming way back in 1992. While some past albums were less than entirely satisfying, the band sounds cohesive and focused here. “Belmont Hotel,” named after a restored Dallas landmark, is a metaphor for that return to glory. “Our love is like the old Belmont Hotel/restored to the grace from which it fell,” Miller sings, testifying to a lasting love and, in the case of him and his bandmates, an enduring brotherhood. —Joseph Hudak

Disclosure, Energy
With Energy, Disclosure continue the refined, radio-friendly takes on house, U.K. garage, and more that made them stars in the early 2010s, but find plenty of room to expand into new territory. As with their debut, Settle, and its slower, more R&B-influenced follow-up, Caracal, this album boasts an impressive list of guest stars whose talents help make these dance floor anthems into all-embracing global pop. It wraps up with a surprising appearance by Common, who spouts his philosophy of positivity backed by a dreamy, new-age funk jam of bongos and watery droplets of synth. It’s a lovely, palate-cleansing comedown from the party that precedes it, and evidence that, three albums in, Disclosure still have a keen understanding of the dance floor’s ebbs and flows. —Jon Freeman

Bright Eyes, Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Bright Eyes’ first new album in nine years fits in just fine in today’s world. Apart from the LP’s nonsense high-concept opening track, this is as close to a compact, cohesive pop record as Conor Oberst has ever made, crafted with longtime bandmates Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott. Oberst draws on pulsing New Wave (“Mariana Trench”), wee-small-hours torch singing (“Comet Song”), and sharp turn-of-the-century pop rock (“Calais to Dover”). At its heart, Down in the Weeds is a wounded, hopeful take on the Los Angeles midlife-crisis record (he moved there a few years ago). It’s a topic well-suited for Oberst’s abstract cynicism, as he tackles crumbling SoCal interstates, Malibu beach disasters, and, of course, yoga. Flea even shows up to play bass. “Vacuumed up all of the fairy dust/Held Savasana on the floor/Just felt like dying,” he sings. Musically, though, he’s found a new life. —J.B.

Aminé, Limbo
Portland rapper Aminé takes a welcome leap on his sophomore LP Limbo, quietly delivering one of the year’s stronger hip-hop records. Aminé’s flow is smooth and melodic, and he’s got more than a handful of quips and outlandish bars throughout the album, particularly on standout track “Pressure in my Palms.” Aminé’s delivery is bolstered with exceptional beats and production on fellow highlights like “Burden,” and “Woodlawn.” “Palms” features a great guest verse from Vince Staples, and Aminé also gets some help throughout the album from Young Thug, Summer Walker, JID, Charlie Wilson, Slowthai, and Injury Reserve. Limbo is a deeper record than what the “Caroline” rapper has released in the past, with a track dedicated to NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who died in January, and another to Aminé’s mother on “Mama,” which he says he wrote to give her a smile when she misses him. Limbo drags slightly in its latter half, but it’s still a welcome temporary reprieve in a much heavier year. —Ethan Millman

Nubya Garcia, Source
If you’ve been following the new crop of jazz that’s been flowing out of London in recent years, you already know saxophonist Nubya Garcia as a key presence on records by tuba player Theon Cross, drummer Moses Boyd, and the collective band Nérija. But either way, her new debut LP, Source, is now the definitive place to hear how she applies a gorgeously refined tone — a burnished old-school cry that’s as muscular as it is romantic— toward contemporary ends. You’ll hear hints of sparkling R&B, buoyant reggae, and layered Latin rhythms in these highly listenable tunes, along with plenty of post-bop fire. It’s Garcia’s riveting, beacon-like lines that keep the eclectic and roomy album feeling lively and focused. —Hank Shteamer

Bully, Sugaregg
Bully’s Alicia Bognanno credits the creation of her new record, Sugeregg, in part to finding proper treatment for her Bipolar II disorder. Fellow perfectionists have long felt a kinship with Bognanno, about whom former boss Steve Albini once said: “If everybody worked as hard as Alicia, then everybody’s records would be Number One hits.” Bully has long been compared to Nirvana, and they don’t wander far from that Nineties rock sound here. Sugaregg starts off wild and wooly with “Add It On,” a headbanger of a track that sees her running her voice ragged over sprightly yet searing guitars: “I’m angry and I want someone to blame,” she barks, echoing the collective feelings of most of the U.S. at present. Whatever the subject matter, whatever the tempo, each track finds Bognanno full-throated, wild and free. —Brenna Ehrlich 

Duckwrth, Supergood
Duckwrth’s major-label debut is a refreshing eruption of positivity in a time of great unease. The 32-year-old L.A. rapper has been waiting for this moment for a few years, and he sounds like a bottle of champagne ready to pop: When he raps fervently through “Say What U Mean,” he tells listeners to say what’s really on their minds, because “we’re running out of time.” He asks the world to look out for him after turning nothing into something, and fears the feds coming after him if he says everything. Metaphorically, that story could be about the difficulties of staying sane during his climb towards stardom as much as it could be about the fight against racism in America — particularly when you catch the bits of production reminiscent of Kanye’s “Black Skinhead.” He’s skilled at lyrical wordplay, but he also makes sure to touch directly on important topics like self-acceptance, student debt, and the injustice of weed-related incarceration. It’s an easy listen, though: Duckwrth melds together elements of pop, dance music, and hip-hop, while continuously basking in the glow of righteous funk. —Samantha Hissong

From Rolling Stone US