The best albums of 2020 so far

Clockwise from top left: Ratboys (Photo: Lorne Thomson/Getty Images), Thundercat (Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images), Grimes (Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images), Moses Sumney (Photo: Francois Guillot/Getty Images), Fiona Apple (Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images)
Clockwise from top left: Ratboys (Photo: Lorne Thomson/Getty Images), Thundercat (Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images), Grimes (Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images), Moses Sumney (Photo: Francois Guillot/Getty Images), Fiona Apple (Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The tidal wave of garbage that is 2020 continues to wash over us, keeping everyone masked and nervous. (And if you’re not masked, seriously, get on that, this isn’t hectoring, it’s trying to save lives.) Luckily, the one thing there might be more of this year than bad news is good music. As always, it’s impossible to keep up with the constant stream of amazing new singles, EPs, albums, mix tapes, reissues, remixes, and on and on—but some new music is simply too compelling to not call attention to itself. While this shouldn’t be considered a comprehensive assemblage of everything good coming out of speakers in the first half of 2020, it’s a solid place to start if you’re looking to check out the collections of musical work that moved us, inspired us, and sometimes pushed us to pump our fists in the air, bang our heads, or just smile a bit more widely under that mask.

For more of The A.V. Club’s favorite music, check out our list of the 25 best songs of 2020 so far. (To highlight as many artists as possible, we made sure there is no overlap between the two lists.)

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Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Forever ahead of the curve, Fiona Apple composed, performed, and recorded the entirety of Fetch The Bolt Cutters from home months before the rest of us went into lockdown. This is an introspective album reflecting on past wrongs and present desires, Apple’s voice unvarnished and direct as she screams out her trauma on “Heavy Balloon” and embraces being “difficult” on “Under The Table.” The pact between Apple and her collaborators is intimate and trusting as they eschew traditional pop forms, pulling in jazz, classical, ambient, and vaudeville sounds to express the inner life of a woman who’s seen some shit, and is determined to live all the more intensely for it. [Katie Rife]

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Run The Jewels, RTJ4

Run The Jewels, RTJ4

Run The Jewels, RTJ4

Killer Mike once told an interviewer that Run The Jewels succeeded by being unlike anything else on the market. Certainly, there’s nothing else on the Billboard albums chart that turns a Nice & Smooth riff from 1992 into a lead single, samples Gang Of Four, and features Mavis Staples and Josh Homme on the same track. RTJ4’s sonic eclecticism is matched by El-P and Killer Mike’s fervent performances: They decry political corruption, pay homage to loved ones, and generally talk shit. Like every past RTJ album, RTJ4 captures a moment when the world has shifted from angry despair to righteous self-determination. [Mosi Reeves]

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Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Of course it would be Grimes who most comprehensively addresses pop culture’s simmering climate anxiety, building a song cycle around goddesses that each represent a different signpost of the apocalypse. But divining Miss Anthropocene’s lore can feel a bit like piecing together the backstory of a Hidetaka Miyazaki game—rewarding, daunting, but ultimately unnecessary. The real revelation is Grimes’ stratospheric evolution as a producer, from the itchy Macbook anthems of her early work and the sheen of Art Angels into something like a Fragile-era Trent Reznor. The apocalyptic inspiration is inextricable from the IMAX-scale beauty she creates—which is probably why album denouement “Idoru” feels, counterintuitively, like a world being born. [Clayton Purdom]

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Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream

Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream

Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream

From the frenetic, minute-long “No Time” that kicks it off to the cathartic shout-along beauty of closer “Ohio Tpke,” the latest record from Jeff Rosenstock somehow manages to sound even more urgent and immediate than his previous work—no mean feat for a guy who continually surprise-releases albums with more raucous rock energy than a thousand mosh pits combined. Alternating the avowedly political with the nakedly personal, his fusion of punk rock, sing-along arena anthems, and loose basement-show sensibilities animates No Dream with the same inspiring, infectious spirit that drives all his best music—only more so. [Alex McLevy]

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Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

At this point, any forthcoming dance-pop efforts will have to work overtime to clear the very high bar that Dua Lipa has set with her second studio album, Future Nostalgia. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a disco-heavy concept—but armed with boisterous synths, sultry vocals, and powerful ambition, Lipa manages to cue up a brand new party with every track. It’s also not without its balming qualities: Released around the beginning of the global quarantine, part of Future Nostalgia’s resonance can definitely be attributed to a certain timely necessity, seemingly arriving when the world needed its bright melodies and unrelenting groove the most. [Shannon Miller]

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Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield’s been cleaning up her sound since launching Waxahatchee with the scratchy cassette folk of 2012’s American Weekend, the increasingly reflective polish of her subsequent albums correlating with the refinement of her songcraft. Saint Cloud, her fifth album in eight years, is positively pristine, a sparkling and sun-dappled collection that retains her grit while embracing the Americana of Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams. There’s a uniform warmth to its 11 tracks, diverse as they are; the light funk of “Fire” gorgeously drifts into the rollicking twang of “Lilacs,” while the title-track lullaby operates like a deep, stabilizing breath—a vessel for reflection. [Randall Colburn]

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Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

The fifth album from Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius is searing, intricate, and grand—a modern baroque masterpiece that often sounds far from the lo-fi ballads of his 2010 debut. But as the cosmos of Perfume Genius expands, the music remains bracingly intimate, tethered to the aching human at its core. Even as Hadreas recounts the emptiness of a one-night stand (“Jason”), or the pangs of an unrequited crush (“On The Floor”), he’s more at ease here, willing to draw from the world around him. Transcendent as ever, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is rooted in feeling that’s undeniably real. [Cameron Scheetz]

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Charli XCX, How I Feel Now

Charli XCX, How I Feel Now

Charli XCX, How I Feel Now

No album on this list is as of this moment as How I’m Feeling Now, a glitchy LP of ecstatic and vulnerable bedroom pop that Charli XCX assembled across six weeks of livestreams and Notes app screenshots. It might lack the star wattage of last year’s Charli, but vivid bangers like “Detonate” and “Enemy” should hold up as well as anything else in her oeuvre, even as they serve as hyper-specific snapshots of an anxious artist in lockdown—one who, like the rest of us, just wants to “go real hard.” [Randall Colburn]

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Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Plenty of people make music about getting loose in the club and meeting the love of your life (or just for the night). It Is What It Is is the soundtrack for wanting to do all that, but being so awkward about it that you end up spending the entire party in the corner cracking wise with your friends. On this equally funky followup to 2017’s Drunk, Thundercat zooms through love, lust, loneliness, and heartbreak like he’s speedrunning a video game, culminating with the gloriously silly sex jam “Dragonball Durag”—a song that includes the instantly classic lyric, “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”—before coming back down for the cosmic introspection of “Unrequited Love” the next morning. [Katie Rife]

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Ratboys, Printer’s Devil

Ratboys, Printer’s Devil

Ratboys, Printer’s Devil

It must be frustrating to have planned to roll out your new album and a massive months-long tour at what turned out to be the exact beginning of Lockdown 2020. But even if this disaster of a year stymied Ratboys’ hopes to conquer the open road, the band can take solace in knowing their new album is one of the year’s best, a barnburner that builds their appealing, folksy Americana into arena-ready anthems. Expanding their sound without losing the sweet, exposed heart of Julia Steiner’s humanistic vocals, tracks like “I Go Out At Night” expertly straddle the line between bombast and beauty, suggesting a group on the verge of something enormous. If only this damn virus would go away so they could get in front of everyone and prove it. [Alex McLevy]

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Leo Takami, Felis Catus And Silence

Leo Takami, Felis Catus And Silence

Leo Takami, Felis Catus And Silence

The third album from Tokyo composer and jazz guitarist Leo Takami is built on a single audacious gamble: that a mature listening audience might want to hear something sweet. When he released Felis Catus And Silence in January, he couldn’t have known just how greatly it would pay off. The pocket-sized worlds he creates on the album’s seven tracks beckon childlike exploration (not for nothing is one of the album’s best tracks called “Children On Their Birthdays”), recalling equally the fresh-faced clarity of Joe Hisaishi, the serene landscaping of Hiroshi Yoshimura, and the austere precision of John Abercrombie. [Marty Sartini Garner]

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Princess Nokia, Everything Is Beautiful and Everything Sucks

Princess Nokia, Everything Is Beautiful and Everything Sucks

Princess Nokia, Everything Is Beautiful and Everything Sucks

Princess Nokia—the alter ego of genre-hopping rapper-singer Destiny Frasqueri—first made waves back in 2014 with their experimental debut, Metallic Butterfly. With every subsequent album, they’ve reinvented themselves, growing from an underground DIY emcee to a multi-talented artist on the cusp of superstardom. Their double album—the warm, sun-kissed Everything Is Beautiful, and its grittier sibling, Everything Sucks—serves as their most wide-ranging project yet, encapsulating musical growth and eclectic tastes. Beautiful in particular is a brilliant showcase of that range, jumping from laid-back boom-bap (“Gemini”) to bright, melodic raps (“Green Eggs & Ham”) without ever feeling unwieldy. [Baraka Kaseko]

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Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor 

Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor 

Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor 

Hayley Williams’ early penchant for soul-baring wails and melodic anger was always a thing of beauty. But fans of Williams and her work with pop-rock centerpiece Paramore witnessed the beginnings of an evolution with her first major solo turn Petals For Armor, a mellifluous, kaleidoscopic deep dive into her post-divorce psyche. Intense and deeply introspective, the album signaled major growth from an artist who is forming a different sort of relationship with her emotions. Thanks to tracks like the eerily percolating “Simmer” and “Dead Horse”—a deceptively funky romp despite its view of a crumbling relationship—the honesty and reflection may register a little more softly than we’re used to, but her sound has only become more powerful. [Shannon Miller]

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Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

The arrival of A Written Testimony has been greeted with equal parts delight and bafflement. Why is Jay-Z on nearly every track, supporting Jay Electronica like a relay buddy? And where is the linguistic magician from the 2009 classic “Exhibit C,” who can dazzle with Biblical scripture and cultural iconography? Instead, there’s a vulnerable artist grappling with Blackness, fame, sundry addictions, and the loss of his mother—all with pained, soulful verses. Jay Elec is a self-proclaimed “god MC” that consistently thwarts our expectations; as a result, he exceeds them in the process. [Mosi Reeves]

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Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Strung between aimless introspection and cathartic bursts of humor, Punisher is a laugh and a sigh away from total existential collapse. “Why would somebody do this on purpose when they could do something else?” she asks on “Chinese Satellite,” posing the question that threatens to surface on every sleepless night. And there’s plenty of them on Punisher, but Bridgers leavens her musings with humor and wonder, setting them against arrangements that oscillate between feather-light (“Halloween,” “Moon Song”) and bombastic (“Kyoto”). It ends on a note of Oberstian abandon, with Bridgers longing to disappear amidst cacophony—the lone rasp she leaves us with is up for interpretation. [Randall Colburn]

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Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg, Melee

In the early oughts it often felt like emo-punk was crumbling under the weight of a million wannabe Get Up Kids and Fall Out Boys; ironically, that dissipation makes the raw, unadorned retro catharsis of Melee, the debut album from Dogleg, feel that much more refreshing. Time-traveling straight back to the heyday of churning guitars and hoarse, desperate vocals, the Detroit four-piece infuses just the right amount of edgy post-hardcore into its four-on-the-floor, shout-along choruses and pummeling verses. And after nine straight tracks that never let up the intensity, the aptly named “Ender” delivers a six-minute-plus odyssey that suggests even greater things to come. [Alex McLevy]

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Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

If you’ve only been passively aware of Chloe and Halle Bailey—their YouTube covers, their angelic harmonies, their stamp of approval from Beyoncé—then let Ungodly Hour be your proper introduction. Chloe x Halle’s second album, which they largely wrote and produced themselves, is an accomplished and unapologetic manifesto of young, Black womanhood, and a show-stopping pop/R&B opus in a standout year for both genres. Whether they’re channeling the breathy bravado of Aaliyah in the title track, or Motown in the swooning sing-along “Don’t Make It Harder On Me,” Ungodly Hour announces Chloe x Halle as the next great divas. [Cameron Scheetz]

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Moses Sumney, grae

Moses Sumney, grae

Moses Sumney, grae

Moses Sumney is nothing if not ambitious. Released in two parts over the course of several months, the resulting double album grae is a sprawling, 20-song exploration and deconstruction of boundaries—political, sexual, musical, and more—that morphs from genre to genre while still feeling of a piece thanks to Sumney’s mellifluous, moody falsetto. The restlessly inventive musician still retains his signature haunting melodies and balladry (“Me In 20 Years” feels ripped straight from David Lynch’s brain), but in shattering the genres and categories with which he was initially pigeonholed, Moses Sumney found his sound. [Alex McLevy]

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Yves Tumor, Heaven To A Tortured Mind 

Yves Tumor, Heaven To A Tortured Mind 

Yves Tumor, Heaven To A Tortured Mind 

Much has been made in the past year or so of mainstream pop’s move toward a sort of post-genre polyglot gumbo, but few artists are as in control of their moodboard as Yves Tumor. The ambient soundscapes of his early work coalesced with 2018’s astonishing Safe In The Hands Of Love, which infused Stones Throw beats with alt-rock anthemics, but Tumor pushes even further on the grand pop explosion of Heaven To A Tortured Mind. It’s all in here: sweat-drenched soul breakdowns (“Kerosene!”), DJ Premier brass loops (“Gospel For A New Century”), kinky Prince come-ons (“Super Stars”), the best drum programming this side of the Dust Brothers. Few have gone pop with such dazzling aplomb. [Clayton Purdom]

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Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways

“I sing the songs of experience, like William Blake,” sings Dylan on “I Contain Multitudes,” the elegiac opening track off Rough And Rowdy Ways, and the ensuing 70 minutes testify to the truth of the line. Ambling blues, jazzy barroom waltzes, soulful folk ballads—all of it building to the 17-minute opus of American tragedy, “Murder Most Foul”—America’s longtime unofficial poet laureate delivers on his first record of original music since 2012. Dylan sounds more inspired and invigorated than he has in years; he was always an old soul, but now that his age has caught up to his spirit, he’s stripped the enigmatic allusions from his words, and speaks straight from the heart. It’s a powerful and insistent call; attention must be paid. [Alex McLevy]

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Oranssi Pazuzu, Mestarin kynsi

Oranssi Pazuzu, Mestarin kynsi

Oranssi Pazuzu, Mestarin kynsi

Though named for the Babylonian demon that turns little Regan MacNeil into a soup-barfing hellion, the Finnish black metal outfit Oranssi Pazuzu tunes its genre dial past Satanic dread, landing on a more mind-melting science fiction variety. Augmented with spooky synths and distorted strings, Mestarin kynsi—the band’s latest and maybe greatest fantastic voyage—brings to mind a one-way trip into a black hole. There is a touch of ’70s horror, though, to these enveloping psychedelic freak-outs; if Suspiria soundtrackers Goblin were possessed by space vampires, they might orchestrate something like this glorious symphony of otherworldly blips and roaring guitar. [A.A. Dowd]

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Sam Gendel, Satin Doll

Sam Gendel, Satin Doll

Sam Gendel, Satin Doll

The L.A. saxophonist is the very best sort of jazz traditionalist, one as committed to preserving the genre’s history as he is to remaking it. While his work with Moses Sumney and Sam Wilkes proved the singularity of his voice—his artfully manipulated sax lines come out inverted and slippery, like liquid mercury refusing to be contained—Satin Doll’s thoughtful recreations of standards by Miles Davis, Lester Young, Charles Mingus, and more establish him as the latest in a long line of sax players whose experimentalism and deeply felt regard for songcraft are virtually inseparable. [Marty Sartini Garner]

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Katie Malco, Failures

Katie Malco, Failures

Katie Malco, Failures

Failures, the Malco’s debut album, keeps changing lanes on the listener. It can pull you in with the immediacy of a churning, addictive rocker like “Animal,” only to pull back to the slow-burn beauty of “Brooklyn,” before leaning in close to deliver stately folk like “Fractures.” But what unites all the music is an emotional and musical catharsis that erupts on nearly every track, quiet and loud numbers alike building to a payoff that electrifies the listener every time—especially when she embraces her rock-anthem tendencies, as on instant classic “Creatures.” (“Night Avenger,” with its minimalist restraint, is the lovely exception that proves the rule.) It’s thrilling to hear a new voice come right out of the gate with such a masterful command of songcraft; it’s even more exciting to realize she’s just getting started. [Alex McLevy]

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NCT 127, Neo Zone 

NCT 127, Neo Zone 

NCT 127, Neo Zone 

For years, Seoul-based pop outfit NCT 127 has cultivated a reputation for daring to experiment with sound, tonal color, and performance in ways that challenge the K-pop entertainment landscape. With their second full-length album Neo Zone, the nine-piece act expertly glides from genre to genre, melding their infamous garage-like beats with R&B, house, hip-hop, and funk. Finding a succinct way to encapsulate the entire collection proves as complex as the productions for soulful turn “Love Song” and the high-octane leading track “Kick It,” but the through line that ties together every single entry is the tangible maturity from a group that refuses to exist in a single box. [Shannon Miller]

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Little Simz, Drop 6 (EP)

Little Simz, Drop 6 (EP)

Little Simz, Drop 6 (EP)

Three years after her ungainly, overlong sophomore LP—2016’s Stillness In Wonderland—Little Simz proved with the Mercury-nominated Grey Area that she could showcase some restraint. Just a year later, the North London emcee turns in another tight, efficient record with the 12-minute lyrical assault of new EP Drop 6, five quick-fire tracks recorded over the course of a month in quarantine. Don’t mistake the record’s brevity for a lack of depth, though: Simz still manages to flex her lyrical prowess across the record, touching on her life growing up in London (“Inner city child / Inner city problems”) to reflecting on our current moment (“If this 2020 there ain’t no hindsight / If you see death is the next chapter, can you die twice?”). [Baraka Kaseko]

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Chika, Industry Games (EP)

Chika, Industry Games (EP)

Chika, Industry Games (EP)

Alabama-born rapper Chika poured all of her frustration with industry-wide complacency into Industry Games, a tightly rendered seven-track EP oozing with unfettered swagger and bounce. While “effortless” is a tempting descriptor for her tendency to seamlessly swing from devastating lyricism to sweet melodies, the effort is the major point here: Chika is none too subtle about her willingness to show up and show out in a way that more mainstream acts simply don’t. Industry Games is a sample platter from an artist that can serve up anything, from crushing indictments like the EP’s title track to warm, lovely proclamations of affection like “On My Way.” [Shannon Miller]

If your favorite artist wasn’t featured here, check out our list of best songs, which features 25 more acts worth knowing.

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