2020 was obviously a whirlwind year for tons of reasons. It'll be remembered as the year we were met with a worldwide pandemic that put so many plans on hold and changed the way we live our daily lives, the year that saw protests against racism and police brutality go down in all 50 states at once, and the tumultuous election year that ended with the US thankfully voting Trump out of office. These things were inseparable from the music world, which looked drastically different this year. Concerts disappeared and livestreams became the new normal. Some albums were delayed and others were put on hold indefinitely, but there was also music that was written because of the limitations of quarantine that we may not have ever gotten otherwise.

As easy as it is to focus on the bad parts of 2020, there was still a lot to be thankful for this year, and one of the things we were very thankful for was all the excellent music released this year. Without concerts, we experienced music a lot differently than usual, but with all the extra time at home, we think we might've actually listened to even more music than usual. We just couldn't narrow down our collective favorites to 50 this year, so we made a list of 55, and even with 55 we still had to leave off so many albums we truly loved. You can find even more of our 2020 faves in our lists of rap, punk/hardcore/emo/etc, metal, screamo, ska, reggae, jazz, "lost" classic rock, and the Indie Basement list, and we've included a few honorable mentions from our individual staff members below.

We'd also like to give a big thank you to all the BrooklynVegan readers, and we look forward to seeing you all (and hopefully some concerts!) in 2021. Read on for our list...

  • 55

    Moses Boyd - Dark Matter

    Exodus

    Jazz gets (wrongly) criticized as a style of music that's become something academic, something where the goal is to learn and mirror the traditions of the past. If you still need proof that innovative, modern-sounding jazz comes out today, look no further than drummer/composer Moses Boyd's sophomore solo album Dark Matter. Its futuristic production has more in common with what's currently happening within hip hop and electronic music than with what jazz sounded like half a century ago, and these aren't songs that you need to be a music scholar to appreciate; these are songs you can get up and dance to (as was once commonly the case for jazz). Standout moments come when UK soul singer Poppy Ajudha and Afropop singers Obongjayar and Nonku Phiri take the mic, and many of the instrumental songs hit just as hard. Contributing instrumentalists such as Sons of Kemet’s Theon Cross, Erza Collective’s Joe Armon-Jones, and Nubya Garcia shine throughout the album as much as Moses does with his frenetic rhythms, reminding you that electronic production can go hand in hand with live-band jazz instrumentation. Moses is far from the only person bridging this gap -- recent years have seen Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and others achieve similar feats -- but with Dark Matter, he established himself alongside all of those artists as one of today's greats. [Andrew Sacher]

  • 54

    Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland

    Transgressive

    An underrated legend who is finally getting his due, Beverly Glenn-Copeland -- by the artists' own admissions -- has influenced not one, but at least two of the other albums on this very end-of-year list. “I was listening to Glenn a lot when I was writing græ," Moses Sumney told wepresent. "I love the use of his vocal range and the poeticism of the lyrics; it sounds like there are two different people singing at different points, the ability to embody this duality. I do think that Glenn’s identity really speaks to this moment when people are understanding gender in a more complex way than they did in the ‘70s. I think of trans people as a blueprint for what life should be, just understanding nuance and understanding beyond the binary. Musically, Glenn has been doing that for so long."

    Glenn is "someone that I talk about any chance that I can and somebody who had a huge influence not only on [Suddenly], but also just in my life over the last five or six years," Caribou's Dan Snaith told NPR.

    Though this year's release is considered a career-spanning compilation, it also includes new and archival unreleased tracks and live versions. Collectively, Transmissions is a great starting point for those just discovering this magical artist whose debut album was released 50 years ago, and who, like Dan Snaith, we want to take any chance -- like this one -- to keep talking about. [Dave]

  • 53

    Billy Nomates - Billy Nomates

    Invada

    Having spent time in a few indie groups that went nowhere, Tor Maries was ready to quit the biz when she caught a Sleaford Mods show and left newly inspired to A) speak her mind and B) do it herself. Rechristening herself Billy Nomates, she began recording spare, sharp songs on her laptop with no shortage of hooks or attitude. Sleaford Mods became early fans, as did Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Beak>, who signed her to his label, Invada, and produced her fantastic debut album. (The Mods show up here, too.) "No, I won't fit in your pocket," Tor snarls over a punky bassline on "No," her fantastic debut single as Billy which plays like a manifesto to not conform to anyone's preconceived notions. Billy Nomates backs that up with an unpidgeonholable album that pulls ideas from all over the musical spectrum (country, pub rock, post-punk, hip hop, UK garage) with a take-no-shit attitude all her own. [Bill Pearis]

  • 52

    Protoje - In Search Of Lost Time

    In.Digg.Nation Collective/RCA

    Protoje is one of the original leaders of the reggae revival, and he remains one of the most prolific. A lot of his peers are on their first or second full-length album; he's on his fifth, and it sounds just as fresh and inspired as anything he's done in the past. If you want proof that new and exciting things are happening within reggae right now, look no further than this album's opening track "Switch It Up," which sees Protoje teaming up with the genre's brightest new star, Koffee. It's a hypnotic, infectious, endlessly replayable song, and I don't know (or care) what genre you would call it. It's sorta reggae, sorta dancehall, but mostly it sounds like something totally new. It's the best song on In Search Of Lost Time, but the hits don't stop coming. Protoje trades lines with dancehall auto-tunester Popcaan on the equally hard-to-pin-down "Like Royalty," he fuses reggae with soul/R&B on "Same So" and the Lila Iké-featuring "In Bloom," he half-raps on songs like "Deliverance" and the Wiz Khalifa-featuring "A Vibe," and he goes full psychedelia on the trippy ode to marijuana, "Weed & Ting." He sounds like a natural throughout the whole album, and as he expertly blurs the lines between genre, he never forgets the importance of a good hook. These songs just do not leave your head. [A.S.]

  • 51

    Flo Milli - Ho, why is you here?

    RCA

    No matter what mood you're in, as soon as you hear "Flo Milli shit!", you know you're in for some of the most irresistible rap of 2020. The 20-year-old Alabama rapper broke on TikTok with her 2019 singles "Beef FloMix" and "In The Party," and she followed that up this year with her debut project Ho, why is you here?, featuring those two songs and ten others cut from the same energetic cloth. She's got the charisma, confidence, uniqueness, and catchiness that you usually don't hear until an artist's second or third project, and she's already beating some of her forebears at their own game. [A.S.]

  • 50

    Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still

    Debemur Morti Productions

    There's no band quite like New Zealand's Ulcerate. Their latest LP embraces melody through death metal with open arms, all while riding the line between mind-blowing instrumental prowess and pitch black ambiance. Ulcerate executes with proficiency and in service of the song– dazzling throughout the duration of the offering but making sure technicality never takes priority. All of this is to say that Stare Into Death and Be Still may be Ulcerate's best offering, a balanced mix of menace and musicality that never sacrifices one for the other. In the battle between melody and brutality, Ulcerate win on all fronts with Stare Into Death. And so do we. [Fred Pessaro]

  • 49

    Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

    Warner

    "You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game," begins the title track to Dua Lipa's sophomore LP, Future Nostalgia. The song's lyrics, in which Lipa aims to blur the lines between the classic and modern, serve as a thesis for the record itself. Following the success of her self-titled album three years prior (which spawned the omnipresent hit "New Rules"), Future Nostalgia is a complete sonic shift from often-generic pop towards tasteful homages to both '70s disco/funk and early 2000s synthpop, while not sounding out of place within the 2020 radio pop landscape. The album often takes cues from dance music giants of past and present, with the pounding bass of "Hallucinate" recalling early Daft Punk, while the funky, swaggering refrain of "Levitating" resembling choruses Chic or Donna Summer would've created during their prime. While the album's influences are often clear, Future Nostalgia rarely relies on them too heavily, and instead strives towards a comfortable middle ground between the new and familiar. Lipa herself sounds much more confident on the album vocally; her distinct lower register lends itself well to many of the album's groovier cuts, like the sparse "Pretty Please," or the synth-driven, summery "Cool." From top to bottom, Future Nostalgia is packed with memorable hooks, irresistible rhythms, and unflinching swagger. Nearly every song could've been a single, and it's no surprise that about half of them already were. [Jeremy Nifras]

  • 48

    Sweven - The Eternal Resonance

    Ván

    Morbus Chron's Sweven, released in 2014, is one of the very best metal records of the decade, one of the very best death metal records of all time, and any other superlative you want to throw at it. That the band broke up afterwards has only served to deepen its mystique, as has the fact that -- for all the great new death metal bands that have sprung up or continued to release new material in the past few years -- none of them really scratch the same itch that that record did (although Horrendous comes closest). But like manna from heaven, The Eternal Resonance appeared this year from a new band, fronted by the same guy (Robert Andersson, convincingly making the case that he was the principal creative force all along), named after that already-canonized classic. And it feels like Andersson hasn't missed a beat as we're plunged once again into this lush sonic landscape. One doesn't often think of death metal as pretty, but that's often the descriptor that comes to mind here. The Eternal Resonance delves even deeper into proggy dreamscapes, but while that description might conjure noisy cacophony or trippy psychedelia, Sweven's great strength is their gestural clarity. It's full of harmonic complexity without sacrificing direct emotional hits. There are times when it rolls into post-rock or black metal, but it's never fully one thing, morphing unpredictably as soon as we think we have a handle on its sound. It has plenty of fist-pumping, riff-tastic moments, and its more plaintive passages are often driven by jazzy arpeggiation which keep things constantly engaging, avoiding an over-reliance on ambience or slowness that can bog down proggy work from lesser bands. When the album-closer "Sanctum Santorum" bursts, with shocking beauty, into a choral outro, it feels completely appropriate: for the past hour, we've been in metal church. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]

  • 47

    Mary Lattimore - Silver Ladders

    Ghostly

    If you listen to current indie rock, you've probably heard Mary Lattimore's gorgeous harp playing (she's been on albums by Jonsi, Julianna Barwick, Kevin Morby, Soccer Mommy, Hop Along, Marissa Nadler, Kurt Vile, and others), but she also makes gorgeous music on her own. Her latest solo album, Silver Ladders, was produced by Slowdive's Neil Halstead and features guitar by him, and it's yet another fine offering of the textural beauty that we've come to expect from Mary Lattimore. The album features little more than Mary's harp, Neil's guitar, and some electronics and effects, but that's all this duo needed to make one of the most compelling ambient albums of 2020. Even when the music on this album feels like it's barely there, it sucks you in. [A.S.]

  • 46

    Code Orange - Underneath (and Under The Skin)

    Roadrunner

    Sometimes a great live show makes you fall even more in love with an album, and even though these are album of the year lists, we'd be lying if we said live shows didn't sway us at all. This year, there were almost no live shows to sway us in either direction, but there were livestreams, and on that front, Code Orange pretty much perfected the form. They did three major livestreams, all of which were inventive and concert film-quality, and one of which was an MTV Unplugged-style stream that became the unplugged album Under The Skin. Every Code Orange stream felt like an event, but none of it could have happened the way it did without the excellent new album Underneath. It's easily their best yet, their most experimental and their most accessible, with a shapeshifting blend of industrial rock, metalcore, nu metal, glitch, and more. It sounds like Slipknot jamming with Garbage, or Converge covering Nine Inch Nails, or a handful of other "X meets Y" combinations that you really don't hear everyday. It's an album that yearns for the days when MTV played heavy bands, but has its sights set on the future. It singlehandedly makes the case that loud, guitar-based rock music can still be both populist and innovative. [A.S.]

  • 45

    Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi

    Nuclear Blast

    Finland's Oranssi Pazuzu push psych-metal to ecstatic heights and evil depths on this year's rip-roaring Mestarin Kynsi. The year's pre-eminent metal headphone listen, these long-gestating freakouts are draped in experimental electronics and effects, using hypnotic repetition to build towards explosive passages of heaviness. Opener "Ilmestys" exemplifies this approach as minor-key guitar figures and and stuttering synths swirl around an ominous bassline, only to erupt into a swaggering, head-bobbing doom groove. They've moved away from black metal (the album-closer "Taivaan Porti" is the only thing here that recognizably falls into that category), which used to be a much bigger part of their sound. What they've kept are the Satan's-croak vocals, which enhance the feeling that we're participating in some kind of unholy rite. There's also a palpable sense of fun; some of this stuff is even dancey. The industrial "Kuulen Aania Maan Alta" is like an evil club song (it's reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song"), built around an unctuous synth-bass and stuttering, grimey drums before going full death metal. It's an album of apocalyptic party music. It's unlike a lot of contemporary psych in that it isn't content to rehash old sounds, but rather seeks to move the druggy spirit of the genre in new sonic directions. It's an absolute blast. [R.S.F.]

  • 44

    Svalbard - When I Die, Will It Get Better?

    Translation Loss/Church Road

    On their third full-length, Bristol's Svalbard have evolved from a pummeling hardcore band into a band that swirls together anything from dream pop to black metal. It's not just post-hardcore but also post-rock, post-metal, post-everything. It's a gorgeous, futuristic rock record, and though it might shimmer sonically, its lyrics are full of scars. The songs address domestic abuse, sexual assault, depression, and other real-life issues, and Serena Cherry tackles them with incisiveness and fury. [A.S.]

  • 43

    Touche Amore - Lament

    Epitaph

    A lot's changed since Touche Amore first hit the scene just over a decade ago. Once part of the "new wave of post-hardcore," Touche are now elder statesmen themselves and influential on a ton of the younger post-hardcore bands that have emerged in recent years. They could easily have started plateauing and coasting on past successes, but instead they've pushed the envelope once again. Lament is their most musically varied album, with longer, more climactic songs, slower tempos, twangy pedal steel, melodic choruses, dual vocals with Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull, piano ballads, and more, and Jeremy Bolm continues to expand the scope of his vocal delivery, making his most drastic departure yet on the hushed talk-singing of album closer "A Forecast." There are still plenty of classic Touche Amore rippers nestled within the album too, making for a record that draws you in with familiar sounds and then takes you into the unknown. [A.S.]

  • 42

    Destroyer - Have We Met

    Merge

    "The Grand Ole Opry of Death is breathless." It's the kind of instantly memorable, entirely inscrutable lyric that could only come from Dan Bejar, but the album that the song "The Raven" is from is unlike any Destroyer record he's ever made. Bejar made demos, just guitar and keyboards, in GarageBand and then sent the files to longtime collaborator and New Pornographers member John Collins, giving him carte blanche to reshape them as he pleased -- though his concept for Have We Met was "computer music," inspired by the "sound design" in things like "shitty David Fincher movies." Songs like "Crimson Tide," "It Just Doesn't Happen to Anyone" and "Cue Synthesizer" are gleaming, synthetic creations with Big '80s drums and even bigger '80s guitar soloing, but also modern and alien. Dan is in whisper mode, in the eye of this storm, sounding wonderfully bemused at these creations he only somewhat knew were coming but still only sounds like Destroyer. [B.P.]

  • 41

    Nubya Garcia - Source

    Concord Jazz

    Nubya Garcia was already a household name within the UK jazz scene thanks to playing on modern classics like Ezra Collective's Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, Makaya McCraven's Universal Beings, and Sons of Kemet's Your Queen Is A Reptile; playing in the bands Maisha and Nérija; and releasing a couple well-liked EPs; but with Source -- her first full-length album as a bandleader -- she's made her grandest statement yet. As a London-based musician with immigrant parents from Guyana and Trinidad, Nubya's life has always been rooted in diaspora, and that comes across in the music on Source, which ties spiritual jazz to dub, cumbia, Afrobeat, soul, and more across nine deep, bold songs. Produced by Solange collaborator Kwes and featuring members of Ezra Collective, KOKOROKO, Nérija, and others, Source has an impressive cast, and Nubya knows when to hand the spotlight over to a guest vocalist or another musician and when to take it for one of her stirring sax solos. But no matter who's center stage at any given moment, the vision is all Nubya's, and that vision led to one of the year's most simultaneously dizzying and heartwarming records. [A.S.]

  • 40

    Lido Pimienta - Miss Colombia

    ANTI-

    On her sophomore album, Colombian-born, Toronto-based musician Lido Pimienta combines the electronic with the acoustic, the pop with the traditional, and the personal with the political. Her lyrics -- which are sung mostly in Spanish -- range from songs about self-love and loss to songs about Indigenous inequality and racism, and the music mixes cumbia and porro with synth-fueled art pop and what Lido calls "industrial reggaeton." It's a warm, multi-layered, lively album that constantly changes shape but never loses focus. It has songs that rival Lido's radio-pop influences like Cardi B and SZA ("Nada"), as well as songs that faithfully honor Colombian folk music ("Quiero Que Me Salves"), and Lido ties it all together in a way that feels stunningly unique. Few albums in 2020 broke down boundaries this seamlessly and felt this powerful and inspiring in the process. [A.S.]

  • 39

    Kelly Lee Owens - Inner Song

    Smalltown Supersound

    Kelly Lee Owens had carved out a distinctive style -- a mix of Berlin techno, trip hop, ambient textures and elements from her shoegazer past -- by the time of her 2017 debut album. With Inner Song, she refines that sound while expanding its horizons. It's a confident album that finds her growing as a musician but also as a singer. Look no further than single "On," which starts as a vulnerable ballad about moving past a bad relationship until the zippy synth hook eventually pulls the song out of the doldrums and into joyous, danceable freedom. The album swings between ethereal mood pieces and serious club music, with wonderful side trips to Wales (the woozy, psychedelic "The Corner of My Sky" with John Cale) and an instrumental cover of Radiohead's "Arpeggi," all with KLO's signature pinging synth leads and gossamer voice holding it together like delicate, silken web. [B.P.]

  • 38

    Record Setter - I Owe You Nothing

    Topshelf

    Denton, Texas' Record Setter have been gradually rising and expanding their sound since their 2014 debut Dim, and their Topshelf debut I Owe You Nothing is their best and most honest record yet. It fully embraces the screamo direction that Record Setter began going in on 2017's Purge without fully abandoning their more melodic emo roots, and it's a towering, intense album where almost every song segues directly into the next, making for an ambitious piece of art that needs to be listened to from start to finish. Judy Mitchell's scream is as throat-shredding as it is emotive and accessible, and her powerful lyrics touch on themes of gender dysphoria and self-worth in a way that leaves you hanging on every word. [A.S.]

  • 37

    Caribou - Suddenly

    Merge

    Dan Snaith pulled from over 900 snippets -- beats, hooks, samples and other loopables -- to stitch together the 12 tracks on Caribou's Suddenly. As complex as this seems on paper (and surely was), the result sounds entirely effortless. It's also a record that sounds like a distillation of everything he had done up to this point, from the rhythmically propulsive psychedelic records he made as Manitoba, to the dance music pivot he made with Caribou's Swim and the sample/edit grooves he does under his Daphne alter-ego. Suddenly is all highs of various shapes, sizes and moods: there's ecstatic dancefloor fillers "Never Come Back," "Ravi," and the Gloria Barnes-sampling "Home"; moving and moody tracks "Sister" and "Magpie"; and "Sunny's Time" and "New Jade" which dip into neo-R&B. Caribou's swirling, liquid sound -- that mirrors the blue ripples of its cover art -- is teaming with life that goes far below the surface, whether you're here for a quick dip or a deep dive. [B.P.]

  • 36

    The 1975 - Notes on a Conditional Form

    Dirty Hit/Polydor/Interscope

    Sometimes your best music comes when you aren't trying as hard to impress anyone, and that was very much the case for The 1975, who -- as one of the most popular critically acclaimed rock bands of the last decade -- felt like they had nothing to lose when they wrote Notes on a Conditional Form. It's the sound of an arena rock band writing songs that aren't really meant to be played in arenas, whether it's the emo-folk of the Phoebe Bridgers duet "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America" or the shoegaze of "Then Because She Goes" or the jangle pop of "Me & You Together Song" or the jagged post-punk of "People" or the future garage of "Frail State of Mind" or the deep house of "What Should I Say." The 1975 have long been a band where anything goes, but this is their most anything-goes album yet. It doesn't always make sense, but when the songs are this good, it doesn't have to. [A.S.]

  • 35

    Hayley Williams - Petals For Armor

    Atlantic

    Paramore's last album (2017's After Laughter) traded in their pop punk roots for futuristic new wave and some of the band's best songs yet. It was a peak in Paramore's already-great discography, and it turns out it was just a stop on the road of Hayley Williams' creative progression. On her debut solo album Petals For Armor, she pushes herself to go in even more new directions, echoing anything from Kate Bush to Bjork to Kid A to Prince to Madonna throughout its 15 musically diverse tracks. She has a knack for all of it, and she uses the genre-defying backdrop to deliver some of her most personal songs yet. Even the album's most wildly ambitious moments succeed; not that we'd expect anything less from an artist who spent the past 15 years constantly reinventing herself. [A.S.]

  • 34

    The Microphones - Microphones In 2020

    P.W. Elverum & Sun

    The single-track, director's cut length Microphones in 2020 sets aside Phil Elverum's periodically-documented mourning in favor of a different longing. Playing the bard for himself this time, the rebirth of The Microphones (but don't concentrate too much on the name) shows Elverum looking inward and telling his own story. Minimally presented, the album is instead accented musically (like illuminated text) to weave his autobiography in real time. Longtime fans will revel in Elverum's self-referential humor, and the compelling (at least for existing fans) story he weaves across the album's 44 minutes creates an aura of peace and calm. Microphones in 2020 ultimately feels more like a book than a piece of music -- slowly building upon itself, the album maintains its plot throughout its relatively lengthy existence through multidisciplinary ingenuity and a continually creative spirit. [Jon Rosenthal]

  • 33

    Gulch - Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress

    Closed Casket Activities

    If you've heard anything about Gulch, you've probably heard that they're known for quickly selling out of limited-edition merch -- designed by guitarist Cole Kakimoto, who's responsible for their artwork, songwriting, and overall vibe -- which then gets flipped online for insane prices like a Supreme hoodie. It's a strange phenomenon that the band aren't even necessarily proud of, and it caused some people to criticize the Gulch hype for being more about merch than music, but when Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress came out, it silenced the haters. You don't need to know a thing about Gulch to know that Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is one of the most adrenaline-rush-inducing albums of the year. Drummer Sam Ciaramitaro always sounds like he's about two beats ahead of the rest of the band, vocalist Elliot Morrow's scream is nasty as all hell, and Cole Kakimoto shakes up their hardcore sound with the evil riffage of black and death metal. Part of what makes Gulch so refreshing, though, is that when so many other bands turn music into homework, Cole will be the first to tell you he doesn't actually listen to the bands people think Gulch sound like. "I didn’t listen to Madball or Terror or Breakdown or any of the staple hardcore bands, and I also didn’t listen to Entombed or Obituary, and I also didn’t listen to Darkthrone or any of that stuff," he told Bandcamp. "It’s funny, because some guy will be like, ‘This is total Repulsion worship,’ and I don’t even listen to that fuckin’ band." The similarities exist for one reason or another, but Gulch sound so fresh because they weren't trying to emulate their heroes, they were trying to recreate the music they were hearing in their heads. Judging by how distinct Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress sounds, it worked. [A.S.]

  • 32

    Fleet Foxes - Shore

    ANTI-

    This past summer, while coming up with the lyrics to Fleet Foxes' fourth LP Shore, frontman and songwriter Robin Pecknold was, like most, confined indoors with a lack of inspiration. With a chunk of the album's instrumentals finished, yet struggling to find lyrics worth putting to tape, Pecknold took several drives to upstate New York, where he suddenly felt a burst of inspiration. "The lyrics I had been searching for all year began to come to me, seemingly from nowhere," Pecknold wrote in a statement upon the album's release. "I couldn’t believe it." Emerging from the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, this sudden inspiration is evident upon listening to Shore, perhaps the band's most vibrant and accessible work yet. In contrast to the dark and sprawling compositions that dominated 2017's Crack-Up, the song structures on Shore are far more focused and verse-chorus reliant, which proves to be one of the album's strengths. The album graciously walks a fine line between pop sensibilities and the band's usual grandeur; "Sunblind" and "Maestranza" feature some of Fleet Foxes' most memorable melodies, while songs like "Featherweight" and "For A Week or Two" show the band at their most haunting. One of the album's crowning achievements, however, is "Can I Believe You," which was born out of a project Pecknold created through Instagram, in which he asked hundreds of fans to send in vocal harmonies. The result works far better than one would think, with the chorus of voices sounding wonderfully arranged alongside the track's soaring guitar leads. Moments like these are what make Shore a compelling listen, and a warm statement of escapism among all the world's anxieties. [J.N.]

  • 31

    Napalm Death - Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism

    Century Media

    Over 30 years since releasing the genre-defining grindcore classic Scum, Napalm Death are still pushing boundaries. Lesser bands start losing stream by the fourth or fifth album; Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is Napalm Death's 16th album, and it sounds as energized and inspired as this band ever has. It pulls from grindcore, death metal, punk, post-punk, industrial, and more, and some even lighter music that you might not hear on first listen like My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins. "I kind of twist [those influences], make it more abrasive," Barney says. Throes sounds almost nothing like classic ND, and it barely even sounds like their last album, yet you'd never mistake this for the work of any other band. It's no small feat to be able to reinvent yourself over and over while remaining so distinct. [A.S.]

  • 30

    Stay Inside - Viewing

    No Sleep

    We're over a decade into the "emo revival," and just when you might think the genre's latest wave has reached its saturation point, a band like Stay Inside comes along and breathes new life into it. They pull from all throughout emo's history, from raw '90s screamo to the cathartic choruses of the mid 2000s to the indie rock-adjacent vibe of the "revival" era, and they stir it all together and deliver it in a way that could only happen right now. They make connections between all of the various eras and subgenres of emo that you can only see with hindsight, and they write undeniable songs in the process. [A.S.]

  • 29

    Armand Hammer - Shrines

    Backwoodz Studioz

    billy woods and Elucid remain two of the most prolific, consistently great artists in the world of underground abstract rap, both separately and also together as Armand Hammer. Shrines is the duo's latest album and one of their best. With contributions from Earl Sweatshirt, Moor Mother, R.A.P. Ferreira, Quelle Chris, KeiyaA, Pink Siifu, Fielded, Akai Solo, Curly Castro, Navy Blue, Kenny Segal, and others, Shrines is an ornate, spacious album that manages to sound abstract and direct at the same time. It favors hazy production and dizzying metaphors, but it makes as much of a point about the societal and political landscape as this year's more militant protest albums. It's an album that takes several listens to reveal itself, and it just gets more rewarding each time. [A.S.]

  • 28

    Infant Island - Beneath

    Dog Knights

    Virginia's Infant Island put out two records this year, the mini-LP Sepulcher and the full-length Beneath, both of which are very good, but it's Beneath that turns Infant Island from a great band into an extraordinary one. It's the kind of album that you can only hear start to finish, as it functions more as one grand piece of work than as a collection of songs. Each individual song is so different -- throughout the record, Infant Island touch on screamo, black metal, sludge metal, post-rock, noise, ambience, and more -- and they make the most sense when you hear them in succession. At various points, the album finds Infant Island at their most metallic ("Here We Are"), their catchiest ("Stare Spells"), and their most avant-garde ("Signed In Blood"), really scratching every itch you could've thought of this band scratching, and a few you'd never expect them to. It's a record that doesn't fit easily into any pre-established category, while being able to appeal to fans of all different types of punk, metal, and experimental music at once. That's a sign of a genuinely great record. [A.S.]

  • 27

    Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

    Columbia

    From the moment the needle drops on Rough and Rowdy Ways, we feel that old Dylan gravity envelop us more than it has on any Bob Dylan album in years. We hang on every word, the rasp in his unmistakable voice deployed with articulate, expressive perfection as he spins a tangled poetic web of history, fantasy, and hard reality. Among other things, Dylan has always been interested in death, and here death hangs like a spectral presence over everything, sometimes an old friend, sometimes a potent nemesis. There's a "Ballad of a Thin Man" quality to a lot of the songs here, which flow together so that the album at times resembles one epic poem made of many disparate parts, like one of the science experiments he describes on "My Own Version of You." The lyrics balance stream-of-consciousness absurdity and everything-in-its-right-place grand design with a grace and humor worthy of the greatest living American songwriter. It all comes together on album closer "Murder Most Foul," an epic about the JFK assassination that finds Dylan returning to the primal scene of the '60s, the decade that birthed his career and rock and roll as an idiom and much of the modern popular culture that we're still sifting through and feeling the effects of today. Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album freighted by history, by a historical institution in himself, and it's in every way worthy of his singular status in American music. [R.S.F.]

  • 26

    Pop Smoke - Meet The Woo 2

    Republic

    One of the biggest tragedies in rap this year was the murder of Pop Smoke at just 20 years old. Any young life being taken is awful, but Pop Smoke's death shook the rap world especially hard because he was one of the genre's most promising new stars. He was putting the Brooklyn drill scene on the map, thanks to a unique, undeniable sound that combined the innovative production of UK drill with the kind of booming delivery that has dominated New York rap since the late '80s. Pop was distinctly New York without sounding like anyone who came before him, and he packed Meet The Woo 2 -- the last release of his lifetime -- with a barrage of songs that begged to be played again and again. As good as the album is, it sounds like an artist on the cusp of something even greater. (Another album, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, was completed and released after his death, but it's a little too overcrowded with guests and Pop didn't have the final say in it.) Still, Meet The Woo 2 would've been 2020's best rap albums even if Pop Smoke was still here. When he declared himself "the king of New York" on its single "Christopher Walking" in January, he already sounded believable. [A.S.]

  • 25

    JARV IS... Beyond the Pale

    Rough Trade

    "Do something new," sings Jarvis Cocker on "Am I Missing Something?," before adding, "Or do something else." The former Pulp frontman takes his own advice on Beyond the Pale, in a having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too kind of way. The "new" is a brand new band, JARV IS..., who he took on the road (and into some caves) to work out his first batch of new songs in a decade before recording them. The musicians, including harpist Serafina Steer and his Relaxed Muscle/All Seeing I collaborator Jason Buckle, took the songs in directions Jarvis hadn't imagined. For example: Steer and violinist Emma Smith provide response vocals on most songs that offer a second vantage point for Cocker's typically witty tales of love, death and the occasional badger. The process worked out so well, the bones of Beyond were recorded at those intimate 2018/2019 shows, then spiffed up in the studio. This is still the lanky, bespeckled Brit we remember but Beyond the Pale finds him especially energized and evolved for his best album since Pulp's This is Hardcore. Something else, indeed. [B.P.]

  • 24

    Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud

    Merge

    On the best album of her career yet, Katie Crutchfield let the country in. The lilt and twang of the backwoods was always there in her delivery of simple, gorgeous pop-punk songs shrunk down to singer-songwriter size, but here it's foregrounded and embraced, resulting in a record that feels like a warm autumn day out by the lake. Or, in its sadder moments, like we're remembering those better days along with her. There's the sun-dappled country-rock of "Can't Do Much," the explosive, effusive love-song chorus of "Lilacs," the driving "ramble of a sigh" of "Hell." It's all impossibly catchy and sweetly sad, which we've come to expect, but there's also a palpable sense of fun, even joy in Katie's songs, which are as open-hearted as the arrangements are breezy and seemingly effortless. The album's centerpiece is "Fire," which is for my money the best song she's ever written, a showcase for her quietly amazing vocal range and her ability to tear-jerk with opaque lyrical phrasing that conjures vivid standalone images ("I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky"), and comes with a vocal performance that conjures bottomless emotion. It's a beauty on a record full of such quiet marvels. [R.S.F.]

  • 23

    Megan Thee Stallion - Good News

    1051 Certified/300

    2019 was the year Megan Thee Stallion made her mark, and 2020 was the year she took the world by storm. She was involved in two of the year's biggest and best songs ("WAP" with Cardi B, and her own "Savage" remix featuring Beyonce), and when she suffered a shot to the foot (allegedly by Tory Lanez, who has been charged with the shooting), she turned the awful situation into a chance to speak out about protecting Black women, criticizing the Breonna Taylor case in the process. Her whole whirlwind year is reflected in Good News which opens with a diss track against her shooter, displays the New York Times op-ed she wrote about Black women on the cover art, and houses the "Savage" remix alongside three other hits and a handful of songs that should be hits (and still might be). Megan's story would've dominated this year no matter what Good News sounded like, but Megan released a collection of songs that back up how much of a celebrity she's become. Good News reminds you that Megan got to where she is by being a genuinely great rapper; it's her strongest, most cohesive statement yet. [A.S.]

  • 22

    Deftones - Ohms

    Reprise

    When it comes to bands with such established legacies like Deftones, sometimes staying in your comfort zone can be rewarding. On their ninth LP, the band sticks to their trademark sound, which blends heavy metal aggression with elements of dream pop and shoegaze, while managing to remain just as refreshing all these years later. While on 2016's Gore, it seemed the band was almost treading water creatively, Ohms improves leaps and bounds above its predecessor, thanks to hard-hitting production from producer Terry Date (who worked on some of the band's most celebrated albums), as well as extremely memorable riffs and a concise tracklist. Songs such as the title track, "This Link Is Dead" and "Genesis" contain the band's most sinister and addictive melodies in years, and frontman Chino Moreno's vocals continue to soar above each track with incredible ease. The album often feels familiar, but it still exhibits moments of evolution for the band (guitarist Stephen Carpenter has upgraded to a nine-string guitar, for starters). It's a record that draws in both old and new fans alike, and its intricacies reveal themselves more with each listen. [J.N.]

  • 21

    Benny the Butcher - Burden of Proof

    Griselda/EMPIRE

    While Benny the Butcher's Griselda groupmate Westside Gunn spent 2020 perfecting Griselda's unique take on '90s-style New York rap (more on him in a minute), Benny jumped ahead a few years with his own rap revival. His latest album Burden of Proof was entirely produced by Hit-Boy, who blesses Benny with the kind of rich, soulful production that you might've heard Jay-Z, Cam'ron or Jadakiss rap over in the early 2000s. The beats are less gritty than you're used to hearing Benny rap over, but he has not softened his blow one bit. He stuffs the album with hard-hitting come-up stories and knockout punchlines, and he's not only one of the most skilled MCs around but he's got the memorable songs to back it up. Burden of Proof has his catchiest hooks and biggest guest spots (Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Rick Ross, etc) yet, and if the added accessibility means this was the first Benny the Butcher album that a lot of people heard, that's not a bad thing at all. It's both a victory lap and a fine introduction. [A.S.]

  • 20

    Teenage Halloween - Teenage Halloween

    Don Giovanni

    Teenage Halloween may sound like a raw, scrappy punk band on the surface, but the songs on their self-titled debut album are bursting at the seams with ambition, ready to be played at stadiums despite maintaining the aesthetic of a small DIY space. The album's a seamless fusion of heartland rock, folk punk, emo, and skate punk, and it finds time for everything from classic rock solos to triumphant horns, all while singer/guitarist Luke Henderiks tells real-life tales of growing up queer in the New Jersey suburbs. The album is so personal that it feels like Luke is speaking directly to you, and it's so catchy that you feel like you've known it your whole life after just a few listens. [A.S.]

  • 19

    Bartees Strange - Live Forever

    Memory Music

    A lot of people like to say they "listen to everything," but Bartees means it. His debut album bridges the rap between art rock, emo, folk, rap, R&B, blues, country, dance beats, and more, and he does it in a way that just makes sense. He doesn't seem like he's trying to make the craziest sounding music possible; he sounds like he's being himself, and this is who he is: a multi-faceted artist with a ton of different interests and a knack for writing strong, powerful music. [A.S.]

  • 18

    Boldy James - The Price of Tea In China / Manger On McNichols

    ALC / Sector 7-G

    Detroit rapper Boldy James released four albums in 2020. All of them were good, but The Price of Tea In China (produced entirely by The Alchemist) and Manger On McNichols (produced entirely by Sterling Toles) were exceptional, and in entirely different ways. The Price of Tea In China is Boldy's third project with The Alchemist, and those two have a chemistry that clicked more than ever on this album. The Alchemist had a landmark year, blessing Freddie Gibbs, members of Griselda (who Boldy is now signed to) and others with some of the finest smoky, jazzy production in his catalog, and The Price of Tea In China is no exception. It's hypnotizing from start to finish, and Boldy sounds calm but menacing as his voice casually cuts through the mix, making for a deadly counterpart to The Alchemist's beats. Guest verses come from Freddie Gibbs, Benny the Butcher, Vince Staples, and Evidence, all of whom sound carefully curated into the mix.

    On the other hand, Manger On McNichols is a multi-layered, live-band jazz-rap album, as immersive as modern jazz-rap classics like To Pimp A Butterfly and Room 25. It's an album that was in the making for over a decade (and includes an appearance by DeJ Loaf, recorded before her career took off) that Sterling and Boldy kept going back to and kept tweaking. It was worth all that work; not only is it nothing like any of the other albums Boldy released this year, it's really not much like any other rap album released this year. The instrumentation is genuinely breathtaking, and Boldy supplied Manger On McNichols with some of his most remarkable verses. [A.S.]

  • 17

    Porridge Radio - Every Bad

    Secretly Canadian

    Every Bad is an inner monologue of a record, the kind where in your darkest hour you might obsess over a single thought. "I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck," Dana Margolin repeats over and over on "Lilac," while on "Circling" it's the phrase "everything's fine," when clearly everything is not. The album is full of such mental roundabouts and while Margolin's lyrics and impassioned delivery -- she can really belt it out -- are always front and center, they wouldn't be anywhere near as effective without the incredibly hooky, inventive indie rock they're set to. There are jagged ragers ("Sweet," "Long"), bright poppy moments ("Give/Take," "Born Confused") and mascara-smeared mope-a-thons Robert Smith would be proud of ("Pop Song," "Homecoming Song"). Even when white dwarf heavy, the songs are engaging, and peppered with self-effacing humor and cathartic moments as well. Every Bad is miserablism at its most empathetic, melodic, and memorable. [B.P.]

  • 16

    Conway the Machine - From King to a GOD

    Griselda/Drumwork/EMPIRE

    2020 was Griselda's biggest year yet, and it was also a very big year for group member Conway, who released two very good EPs -- LULU (produced by The Alchemist) and No One Mourns the Wicked (produced by Big Ghost Ltd) -- and the even better full-length From King to a GOD. Instead of sticking to one producer like he did on the EPs, FKTG was made with a slew of producers (Alchemist, Hit-Boy, DJ Premier, Havoc, Beat Butcha, Daringer, Murda Beatz, etc) and it features an array of throwback rap sounds that blend together smoothly. Conway also brings a lot of different ideas to the table himself, from instant-classic street-rap anthems ("Lemon") to cyphers ("Juvenile Hell" with Flee Lord, Havoc & Lloyd Banks; "Spurs 3" with Benny the Butcher and Westside Gunn) to one of 2020's most powerful protest songs ("Front Lines") to one of 2020's most heartbreaking ruminations on grief ("Forever Droppin Tears," which pays tribute to the late Griselda producer DJ Shay). Conway's earlier releases proved he could rap, but FKTG proves he can craft an in-depth album that takes you on a journey with all kinds of thrilling, unexpected twists and turns. [A.S.]

  • 15

    Bonny Light Horseman - Bonny Light Horseman

    37d03d

    Even as our ever-changing technology helps rapidly push music forward, sometimes the best ideas come from looking backwards. Bonny Light Horseman -- the trio of Anais Mitchell, Eric D Johnson (Fruit Bats), and Josh Kaufman -- found their inspiration in traditional folk songs, and these decades- or even centuries-old tunes informed one of the most unique albums of the year. Folk rock bands reworking traditional music is not a new idea, but Bonny Light Horseman reinvent the art, sounding more like the atmospheric folk of Bon Iver (whose Justin Vernon appears on this album) or Fleet Foxes than Fairport Convention. Their arrangements of these songs are usually drastically different than any other version you've heard, and the album also has original material worked in so seamlessly that you can barely remember which parts they wrote from scratch and which parts they didn't. [A.S.]

  • 14

    Westside Gunn - Pray For Paris

    Griselda

    Griselda were no oversight success. They had been grinding for years by the time they released their major label debut and first crew album (WWCD) in late 2019, and that album proved to be a breakthrough and helped turn 2020 into their biggest year yet by a longshot. They began the year with a highly-publicized Fallon appearance, all three core members (Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher) went on to release landmark solo albums, they recruited crucial new members, and they now regularly collaborate with some of the biggest rappers and producers around. The album that kickstarted their prolific 2020 output was Pray For Paris, the first of like a dozen Griselda-related releases in 2020, first of three Westside Gunn albums in 2020, and one of the best projects to ever come from the Griselda camp. Westside Gunn is a visionary, and he mapped out this album expertly. The crackling, psychedelic production (courtesy of The Alchemist, DJ Premier, Camoflauge Monk, Beat Butcha, Daringer, Jay Versace, and others) is hypnotic throughout, the guest verses are perfectly placed -- from usual suspects like Conway, Benny, Keisha Plum, Boldy James, Roc Marciano, and Freddie Gibbs to bigger names like Tyler, the Creator and Joey Bada$$ -- and both WSG and his guests filled the album with hooks and lyricism that keep you coming back for more. For years, the Griselda team has been tapping into a sound that hearkens back to '90s NYC rap but feels totally new and fresh, and Pray For Paris took that sound to the next level. [A.S.]

  • 13

    Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions

    Southeastern

    Jason Isbell might be making the dictionary definition of dad-rock right now, and he wears his middle-age beautifully. More than any of his records with the 400 Unit, this feels like an album of adulthood; a steady, subtle suite of songs that grows with each listen. There's nothing as immediate here as "If We Were Vampires" or "Cumberland Gap," but that melodrama is replaced with a stark, bracing sound that showcases the beautiful weariness of Isbell's voice, which conjures vivid tales of life lived. "Dreamsicle" and "Only Children" are both lovely, bittersweet slices of nostalgia for the bad-old-days, a young man's impressions filtered through the sensibilities of an older one into moving, fragmented images: "New sneakers on a high school court and you swore you'd be there." "Be Afraid" and "Running With Our Eyes Closed" are as close as things get to anthemic, the latter finding Isbell faithfully channelling mid-career Bruce Springsteen, who's always been a potent influence on his songwriting. "St. Peter's Autograph" is a heartbreaking missive to a friend who went too soon, and Isbell's knack for finding beauty in tragedy aligns him with some of the country greats on whose shoulders his career stands. It's yet another record of finely wrought Americana from Isbell, one of our most consistently great songwriters, filled with memorable hooks and images that will stay with you long after you're done listening. [R.S.F.]

  • 12

    Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind

    Warp

    Yves Tumor has been taking their experimental music in an increasingly pop direction for a few years, but it still felt unexpected when they came roaring into 2020 with a song as thunderous as the loud, brash glam rock of "Gospel For A New Century." "Gospel" is the best song of its kind this year, and others on this album aren't far behind ("Kerosene!," "Medicine Burn," "Romanticist/Dream Palette"). It's arena rock with a psychedelic, art pop twist that you won't hear from almost any contemporary rock band who can actually play stadiums. It might seem a little front-loaded with the crowdpleasers, but the calmer back half of the album is the comedown that this head-trip needs. [A.S.]

  • 11

    Adrianne Lenker - songs and instrumentals

    4AD

    When the pandemic hit, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker left the big city for a cabin in the woods, and there -- far away from the everyday mania of 2020 -- the songs just started pouring out of her. A lot of music that was born out of the pandemic sounds directly inspired by the pandemic, but songs and its accompanying instrumental album instrumentals sound like they came from another world, one Adrianne was able to transport herself to amidst this tumultuous year. Like many of Adrianne's songs -- both solo and in Big Thief -- the music on these albums is bare-bones and quiet but it never fades into the background. She has a way with finger-picked arpeggios and gently soaring vocal melodies that latch onto you from the first few notes. [A.S.]

  • 10

    Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM

    Polyvinyl

    Jeff Rosenstock's a true punk lifer who's been writing and releasing great music for over two decades, and each album he puts out feels as new and exciting as the last. He sounds as hungry on NO DREAM -- his fourth proper solo album -- as a young band who's vying for the world's attention, and the songs are as thrilling and fired-up as any good punk record should be. It's the fastest, most straight-up punk album of his solo career thus far, but Jeff remains a musician who can casually and expertly defy genre, and NO DREAM incorporates bits of indie pop and acoustic folk as naturally as it incorporates hardcore and pop punk. It's a blast to listen to, and it's as purposeful as Jeff's music has always been. Some songs are personal and mental health-conscious ("The Beauty of Breathing") and others look outwards, like the title track - a lament for the families that were separated at the border by the Trump administration. In a year that will be remembered for both civil unrest and widespread anxiety, NO DREAM was an album that mirrored real life at every turn. [A.S.]

  • 9

    Róisín Murphy - Róisín Machine

    Skint

    An iconoclast dance music maven who cites seeing Sonic Youth at 15 as one of her most formative experiences, Róisín Murphy has been doing it her way ever since her group Moloko fizzled out in the early '00s. She's eschewed obvious commercial pop (and left Calvin Harris collabs on the cutting room floor) in favor more eccentric fare, such as chopped up jazzy funk with Matthew Herbert and Italo disco in Italian. For Róisín Machine, however, she teamed with old friend DJ Parrot (aka Richard Barratt of '90s hitmakers All Seeing I) for a suave, sophisticated ode to disco and house music that is as distinctive as anything else in her solo discography, but delivers the highest count of undeniable bangers of any of her post-Moloko records, maybe her entire career. "I feel my story's still untold," she sings on "Murphy's Law," very much in the driver's seat, as usual, and hinting that the best is yet to come. [B.P.]

  • 8

    Hum - Inlet

    Earth Analog

    Having gone under-appreciated during their initial '90s run, Hum went on to influence the entire shoegazy punk movement of the 2010s (and Deftones), and they returned after a 22-year break with an album that might actually be better than their classics. The shoegazy parts are shoegazier, the heavy parts are heavier, the songs are varied but focused, and the whole album is their most airtight collection yet. It scratches the itch that you want Hum to scratch, but it feels forward-thinking and modern, almost effortlessly surpassing so many of the buzzy punkgaze bands who took after them. If only every reunion album could be this good. [A.S.]

  • 7

    Sault - Untitled (Black Is) & Untitled (Rise)

    Forever Living Originals

    So many records released in 2020 seemed to mirror the global mood set ablaze by the hot cocktail of the pandemic, politics and racial injustice.Untitled (Black Is) by enigmatic UK collective SAULT arrived -- like Run the Jewels two weeks earlier -- at just the right time, unannounced only a month after the killing of George Floyd. "We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives," they wrote, announcing the album. "RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused." While SAULT's identity is bit murky -- for sure producer and Michael Kiwanuka collaborator Inflo (Dean Josiah Cover) and probably Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic) and Melisa "Kid Sister" Young -- there is no doubt to the power of music that seamlessly weaves '70s funk and soul, dub, afrobeat, jazz, gospel and other styles with direct, no-nonsense lyrics that express the anger and sadness many are feeling, along with some positive affirmations sprinkled in to keep heads up. As 2020 dragged on and got worse, SAULT seemed to feel a boost was needed and dropped their second Untitled double album of the year in September. Rise is a decidedly more uplifting, hopeful record set more to a disco and funk beat. But even with the somewhat lighter mood, SAULT remain focused -- joyous dancefloor track "I Just Want to Dance" asks "why do my people always die?" [B.P.]

  • 6

    Moses Sumney - græ

    Jagjaguwar

    A double album really needs to earn its length, and Moses Sumney does this on græ, stuffing the album with a wider variety of ideas than some artists ever display. It weaves between loud art rock, soaring art pop, fresh spins on classic soul, real-deal jazz, bedroom folk, and so much more, and Moses is an expert at all of it. His approach to songwriting is startlingly unique, with melodic movements and lyrical turns of phrase that seem to appear out of thin air, and he ties it all together with his versatile, breathtaking voice. When he opens his mouth to sing, he draws you in immediately. There's nothing else like it. [A.S.]

  • 5

    Perfume Genius - Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

    Matador

    Every Perfume Genius album has been a leap forward from the one before it, and if you thought there wasn't any further he could leap after 2017's maximalist No Shape, you'd have been very wrong. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately finds Mike Hadreas moving forward by reeling it in, resetting, and embarking on a variety of new paths. Heart has some of the most minimal, ethereal songs in Perfume Genius' discography, but it also has his most pure pop moment since "Queen" ("On The Floor"), a uniquely fuzzed-out approach to alt-country ("Describe"), a song that envisions the bare-bones style of his earliest work through a baroque pop lens ("Jason"), and a whole lot more. It's the most ambitious Perfume Genius album, and quite possibly the best, which is saying a lot for an artist with a back catalog as stunning as Perfume Genius'. [A.S.]

  • 4

    Run The Jewels - RTJ4

    Jewel Runners/BMG

    Run the Jewels feel like an institution at this point. Back in 2012, when El-P and Killer Mike -- two respected veterans who were nonetheless still more or less underground figures -- linked up for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, it seemed like a match made in heaven, and the creative synergy that fueled that masterpiece hasn't waned in the slightest. Each new RTJ joint reliably delivers raucous mayhem, tongue-in-cheek humor, righteous fury, and El-P's over-the-top, trunk-rattling cartoon-rap production that still doesn't sound remotely like anything else. RTJ4 dropped at a time when it felt like we really needed it, in the midst of the George Floyd protests that were gripping the nation, and as such it feels like a particularly potent entry in their catalog. The bangers that make up the opening of this album--"Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)," "Ooh La La," "Out of Sight," and "Holy Calamafuck" already feel like classics, songs that seem tailor-made to score action movies and turn up parties for years to come. And the second half, as is their custom, is where things get real, with Killer Mike's verses on "Walking in the Snow" hitting with particular force as he cooly diagnoses and then brutally excoriates the fucked-up totality of American life that leads to a tragedy like the George Floyd murder. Like a lot of great protest art, Run the Jewels understand that anger and joy often go hand and hand, and RTJ4 delivers a cathartic truckload of both. [R.S.F.]

  • 3

    Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

    Dead Oceans

    Punisher has so many great hooks, it almost feels like we don't deserve it. Surrounded by an army of studio legends (Jim Keltner!) and indie-rock royalty, who bathe these songs in an atmosphere of carefully calibrated melancholy, Phoebe delivers catchy melody as gut-punch over and over again. There's the soaring "I'm gonna kill you, if you don't beat me to it" of "Kyoto," the yearning of "I want to believe, instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing" on "Chinese Satellite," the mournful "you are sick, and you're married, and you might be dying" of "Moon Song." These moments are reliable emotion-generators, with lyrics that toe the line between cheeky irony and bare-faced realism and arena-ready melodies that rival the most anthemic '90s indie and emo you want to cite. After a promising debut and a suite of amazing collaborations, Punisher represents Phoebe's most fleshed-out statement yet, a step forward compositionally and sonically that stands as a gleaming argument for indie's continued relevance. My favorite moment is the two-song run on the b-side, where "ICU," the best proper rock song here, bleeds into the lilting banjo-and-fiddle picaresque of "Graceland Too." It sums up Phoebe's particular songwriting gifts perfectly, as well as this album's fantastic production that synthesizes disparate modes into something indisputably cohesive. The transition is breathtaking, which is as good a word as any to describe this whole album if you had to settle on just one. [R.S.F.]

  • 2

    Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist - Alfredo

    ESGN/ALC/EMPIRE

    Freddie Gibbs has one of the great voices in rap, an instrument whose gravelly punch can dance effortlessly over luxurious piano and strings as easily as it can thump with tangible venom over menacing bass drum hits. On Alfredo, The Alchemist provides him with a rich sonic tapestry over which to deploy his best-in-the-game dexterity and power. There's the groovy, shoulder-shaking rat-a-tat of "God Is Perfect," the driving, queasy bassline-as-gun-to-the-head boom-bap of "Frank Lucas," the laconic, loungey smoothness of "Something to Rap About." It's simultaneously a throwback to the East Coast rap of the '90s and something greater than mere nostalgia, the Alchemist's production combining with Freddie's distinct delivery to produce the ineffable thrill of the new. Freddie has always been great at adapting his style to different producers, and here the Alchemist feels like the perfect match for his old-school ethos and new-school power, resulting in that rare producer-rapper union where, when you're listening, you can't imagine one without the other. [R.S.F.]

  • 1

    Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters

    Epic/Clean Slate

    Fiona Apple's long-awaited follow up to her 2012 triumph, The Idler Wheel..., starts off with one of the year's most gorgeous bits of piano balladry on "I Want You to Love Me," that explodes upon completion in a cacophony of percussion, chanting vocalizations, barking and a stray meow. It's a fitting introduction to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which is unlike anything Fiona has released before; in retrospect, only Idler Wheel-closer "Hot Knife" contains the slightest hint of what would follow it. On Bolt Cutters, Fiona embraces mistakes; she won't be disrespected by men or pit against other women; she proliferates over the earth, digging in roots, but she's ready all the while to call for the bolt-cutters to free herself from the enmeshing snarls that seek to hold her back. She sounds entirely like herself in a bigger and more potent way than ever before, yet one is left with the sense that she's still climbing. Bolt Cutters' title track recounts Fiona's career up until this point, a Kate Bush-invoking need to run up that hill included; with this album it's clear she's made it a long way, but hasn't peaked yet. One of our most gifted songwriters, Fiona's albums are always slightly rare and very anticipated events, and this time she's delivered her greatest feat yet. [Amanda Hatfield]