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The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Including Bob Dylan, Lil Uzi Vert, Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, and more

This year has already given us an emo-pop opus from Halsey, a welcome comeback from the Strokes, killer country from the Secret Sisters, an optimistic Future record, and great releases from up-and-coming artists like Moses Sumney, Beach Bunny, and 070 Shake. Here’s our unranked rundown of the year’s most noteworthy releases.

Pearl Jam, ‘Gigaton’

On the first record Pearl Jam has mustered during the Trump administration, the group has blended the miasmic angst of “Jeremy” and “Alive” with a sense of tenderness and even flashes of hope. Although Trump is not the sole focus of the record, Eddie Vedder gives the president (“a tragedy of errors,” in EdVed’s words) plenty of airtime. Yet where the Vedder of 20 years ago might have hollered (or hooted) his blues, he mostly keeps his cool on Gigaton. Album opener “Who Ever Said” doubles as his mantra for hope, as he sings, “Whoever said, ‘It’s all been said,’ gave up on satisfaction,” between Pete Townshend-inspired licks and a New Wave-style guitar solo. K.G. 

Kesha, ‘High Road’

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. She recently said, “To quote one of my favorite songs of all time, I’ve decided to ‘fight for my right to party!’” “Tonight” begins as an earnest hymn, with Elton John-style piano and 2010-vintage AutoTune. (It sounds a nostalgic trick at this point, like John Lennon using his “Elvis echo” to resemble his Fifties rockabilly heroes.) Then Kesha turns down the piano, cranks up the beatbox, and starts to rap: “I don’t give a fuck ‘cause I am so high/Me and all my girls are looking so fly.” Damn, it’s good to have this Kesha back. We missed her, right? R.S. 

Ashley McBryde, ‘Never Will’

In 2018, Arkansas native Ashley McBryde released one of the most striking country LPs in recent memory with Girl Going Nowhere; her music honored Townes Van Zandt and John Mellencamp, and she sang with plainspoken vulnerability about everyday stuff, like her platonic roommate, or the folks back home who told her she’d never make a living from her art, delivering each song with a conviction that felt mythically down-to-earth. McBryde’s second major-label release, Never Will, is just as daring and deep, sometimes deceptively so. J. Bernstein 

Hayley Williams, ‘Petals for Armor’

Released in three parts over the course of this spring, Petals for Armor can be viewed as a trilogy of five songs each, where Hayley Williams explores her changing coping mechanisms in the midst of hardship. Her path leads through seething rage, spontaneous revelation, and, eventually, new romance. Sonically, there are hints of the disco-funk grooves explored on Paramore’s last album, 2017’s After Laughter, which paired Williams’ musings on anxiety and depression with a twinkling Eighties pastiche. But whereas After Laughter was a geyser of anthemic choruses and bright emotionalism, Petals for Armor’s moodiness stays just below the surface. It’s murkier, more eclectic, and much less predictable. C.S. 

Grimes, ‘Miss Anthropocene’

After spending the better part of the past decade gravitating toward a state of pop auteurism, Claire Boucher’s climate-change-themed album finds her returning to primordial, nu-metal ooze. Poisoned smog seeps through the air on tracks like the stunning six-minute opener, “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” While Boucher’s vocals soar above the stratosphere, a handful of well-placed rumbling synths bring her sinking back down into the Earth’s core. The album wallows in this dread of imminent destruction before learning to embrace it and, eventually, become one with it. C.S.

EOB, ‘Earth’

Ed O’Brien has been an underappreciated but crucial part of Radiohead ever since the band formed in 1985. It’s taken some time, but O’Brien has finally stepped out from the shadows with the release of his exceptional solo debut, under the moniker EOB. He’s noted in interviews that he felt he had to release the record, that part of him would “die” if he didn’t. That sense of urgency is felt all over Earth.  The opener, “Shangri-La,” is a triumphant scorcher sprinkled with percussion as O’Brien acknowledges feelings he didn’t realize he had before finding the song’s titular mystical harmonious place. Never has his voice sounded so prominent — so recognizable — until now. A.M. 

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, ‘Sideways to New Italy’

On their excellent 2018 debut LP, Hope Downs, these Australian guitar romantics proved themselves to be must-hear masters of Eighties college-rock scholarship. They’ve upped their game even further on Sideways to New Italy, and the result is a perfect summertime indie-rock record. With three guitarists who all write songs, Rolling Blackouts’ music could feel cluttered or disconnected, but it never does. The band is in love with the hypnotic rush of a nice sunny jangle, but they never settle for catchy drones, and no matter which genre they touch on, it’s always done at its brightest and most optimistic-sounding. J.D. 

Code Orange, ‘Underneath’

The Pittsburgh hardcore band give their melodic bark more bite in the glitchy horror thrash of Underneath. It’s an all-out assault on the panopticon that is the internet: Augmented with creeping electro-tremors by Eric “Shade” Balderose, “Swallowing the Rabbit Hole” sees drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan step to the fore, slamming naysayers emboldened by the shelter of anonymity. If you hear echoes of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, it’s no coincidence — Nine Inch Nails alumnus Chris Vrenna serves as co-programmer on Underneath, passing the torch to Code Orange as they forge an industrial-metal renaissance. S.E. 

Thundercat, ‘It Is What It Is’

It Is What It Is is daring in its musical reach — and in its pairing of goofy and gutting. The record finds bass-player-singer-songwriter-producer Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner continuing to parse the existential crises of everyday life, especially the void left by the death of his friend Mac Miller. With Thundercat once again working with psychedelic-minded beatmaker Flying Lotus, It Is What It Is finds its groove in headier spaces. Thundercat’s bass anchors and propels his sonic fancies, beating a head-spinning pulse on “I Love Louis Cole” and “How Sway,” tracks that add a dash of eight-bit video-game delirium to the fusion stew. J. Blistein 

Lucinda Williams, ‘Good Souls Better Angels’

Over the years, Lucinda Williams’ drawl has thickened, making every vowel its own sumptuously rolling river to cross and lending her songs a heavier tug of sensual hunger, which is saying something for someone whose been writing almost impossibly intense tracks of love (and other afflictions) for decades. On Good Souls Better Angels, that couples powerfully with a visceral urgency that seems striking even for her: the defiant, stomping political rocker “You Can’t Rule Me,” the scathing “Wakin’ Up,” a tumultuous song about moving past a violent relationship, or more tender moments like the lovely, empathetic “When the Way Gets Dark.” J.D. 

Car Seat Headrest, ‘Making a Door Less Open’

A big part of frontman Will Toledo’s charm is his ability to craft sweeping epics that explore unified themes, sometimes across whole albums. He’s described Teens of Denial and Twin Fantasy as a bildungsroman and a romance, respectively. MADLO wasn’t built with any such narrative arc. It’s still concerned with the Big Stuff — “anger with society, sickness, loneliness, love,” Toledo wrote in a statement — but there’s a quotidian feel to it, a mundanity that fits the understated hum of his singing voice, which he’s able to use in thrilling and unexpected ways. J. Blistein

Charli XCX, ‘How I’m Feeling Now’

The adventurous pop singer’s latest was conceived and written during quarantine. “I’m so bored/Wake up late, eat some cereal/Try my best to be physical/Lose myself in a TV show/Staring out to oblivion/All my friends are invisible,” she sings. It’s definitely a sentiment for our times. But while songs like “Detonate” channel our fearful and confused mood, the album is no depressed lonely wallow. “Pink Diamond” is a pure dance-club banger, while “Party 4 u” combines intimacy, isolation, and longing as she sings, “I only threw this party for you/For you, for you, for you.”

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. S.V.L.

Chloe x Halle, ‘Ungodly Hour’

Now in their twenties, the R&B sister duo move into decidedly adultish lyrical territory on their second LP. Mostly, though, the signs of maturity come through in their music. Chloe’s layered beat on “Baby Girl” is submerged but insistent, perfect for lyrics about going out into a worrying new world of adventure and independence. There’s a moving sense of strength through togetherness on the whole album, in the way their voices agilely glide through the songs but always end up finding each other. J.D. 

Neil Young, ‘Homegrown’

It’s taken 45 years since Neil Young was originally going to release Homegrown, an album he shelved because he felt it was too personal, but he’s finally ready to let us hear it. Of the album’s 12 songs, seven have never been released, making this the most revelatory of Young’s recent run of Archives releases. Homegrown was written during his split with Carrie Snodgress, an actress who was the mother of his first child, Zeke. Young channeled his pain into songs full of vulnerability, insecurity, and self-doubt, often suggesting a more ragged version of his country-rock landmark Harvest. A.M. 

Caribou, ‘Suddenly’

After the festival-ready R&B-house peaks of 2014’s Our Love, Dan Snaith steers back toward the weird and woolly, packing a triple album’s worth of twisted disco, sample-drunk collage, and psychedelic warmth into one 45-minute thrill ride. The highs (“Home,” “You and I,” “Never Come Back”) are as euphoric as any he’s hit in his two-decade career, but Snaith’s unusually forthright lyrics about love and grief give the album its staying power. It adds up to a rewarding payoff for anyone who’s been following Caribou since he was Manitoba — proof that an artist making their most “mature” album can still turn and face the strange. S.V.L.

Steve Earle and the Dukes, ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’

From a narrative standpoint, Earle’s latest record, Ghosts of West Virginia, is likely the most tightly focused and thematically driven collection of the songwriter’s career. Its inspiration was the horrific 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 miners, and the album took shape as Earle signed on to provide music for a theater production called Coal Country. The songs on Ghosts feel mostly like a summation of the sounds and styles Earle has made his trademark since edging away from the country marketplace and toward singer-songwriter folk in the late Nineties. J. Bernstein 

Jehnny Beth, ‘To Love Is to Live’

Inspired by David Bowie’s Blackstar, Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth set out to make her own defining statement with To Love Is to Live with open-diary lyrics and extraterrestrial electronic soundscapes that seem to blend together. The music transforms from sweet and cinematic to harsh and claustrophobic, and Beth’s voice similarly vacillates between acidic and lush, recalling everything from Nine Inch Nails to Patti Smith. Her lyrics are often uncomfortably revealing, as she examines her feelings about love, sex, sin, and violence, and how they define her. She’s a rare artist who thrives on overthinking everything (hey, she is French), and the album’s general grandiosity never feels obnoxious. K.G. 

Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela, ‘Rejoice’

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Nigerian drummer Tony Allen — the man who gave Afrobeat its inimitable pulse — first met through Fela Kuti in the Seventies, but they didn’t record together until 2010. Following Masekela’s death in 2018, Allen and producer Nick Gold went back to the tapes, adding a few extra touches. The results, heard on Rejoice, are spare yet riveting, as Maskela’s plush lines dance over Allen’s hypnotic beats. There’s a chemistry and camaraderie here that’s impossible to miss. Allen passed away this April, which gives us even more reason to listen and appreciate his work here. H.S. 

X, ‘Alphabetland’

The iconic Los Angeles punk band’s eighth album overall and first with virtuoso rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!, is a rare animal among comeback records — it both feels like a continuance of the band’s classic Eighties sound and is actually good. They’re still obsessed with the same themes vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervenka have detailed eloquently in the past — freedom, fearlessness, and fun (and not always in that order) — in typically poetic lyrics. K.G.