Our 25 favorite albums: 1st quarter 2020
The whole world is out of whack in a way that's unprecedented for most if not all of us, and basically all people -- the music world included -- are still making changes to their lives and learning how to adjust. Basically every tour has been cancelled (and temporarily replaced by livestreams), and a lot of major album release dates have been pushed back as well (including Jarvis Cocker, Fugazi offshoot Coriky, The 1975, Margo Price, Lady Gaga, and several others), but thankfully there is still a lot of new music this year because right now we need music to lose ourselves in more than ever.
Given all of this, we'd like to take a moment and catch up on a lot of the albums we love that have been released in 2020 already, so here's our 25 favorite albums of the first quarter of the year (and one honorable mention from each editor). It feels a little too early to start ranking things, so the list is in alphabetical order. We hope you find something new to sink your ears into during these rough times, and we also probably haven’t even heard all the great albums released this year so far or spent enough time with some of them, so we won't be surprised if albums we missed here end up on our final best of 2020 list. What are your favorite albums so far this year? Let us know in the comments. Read on for the list.
OUR 25 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2020 SO FAR (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Bad Bunny - YHLQMDLG
We said: When X 100PRE first arrived, there was still some curiosity about whether or not the singles-oriented Bad Bunny's sound could translate to the length of a full album. At this point, we all know it can, and the semi-surprise drop of YHLQMDLG was like spraying gasoline at the fire that X 100PRE and Oasis started. It delivers exactly what you want from Bad Bunny, and it continues to reveal more and more gems with each listen.
Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman
What seemed at first like a fun side project has turned into one of the year's most replayable albums. Bonny Light Horseman -- the new supergroup of Anais Mitchell, Eric D Johnson (Fruit Bats), and The National/Craig Finn/Hiss Golden Messenger/Josh Ritter collaborator (and now member of Paul Banks' new band Muzz) Josh Kaufman -- is steeped in centuries-old tradition, but they sound like a breath of fresh air. Their debut album is a mix of traditional folk songs (including the one they're named after) and originals, and Bonny Light Horseman often drastically rework the traditionals and make them entirely their own. It's an album that could appeal to fans of classic folk rock like Fairport Convention as much as to more recent indie folk acts like Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver (whose Justin Vernon appears on the album and released it on 37d03d, the label he runs with The National's Aaron Dessner, who also played on the album), and it's one of the most refreshing albums in this style to be released in recent memory.
Caribou - Suddenly
We said: It’s been six years since Our Love, Dan Snaith’s last album as Caribou. He’s stayed busy, with tours, making records as Daphni, and some serious life stuff, but he’s also admitted new album Suddenly just took the longest to make. Snaith had made over 900 little loops, riffs and samples that he then poured through, combining, discarding, embellishing, to make this 12-song, 44 minute album. It seems like an insane, Eno-like amount of work, but Suddenly feels entirely effortless and, more than any previous record, connects the early psych-heavy Caribou (and Manitoba) records with the housey, electronic sound he surprised fans with on 2010’s Swim.
Cindy Lee - What's Tonight to Eternity
We said: As Cindy Lee, former Women singer/guitarist Patrick Flegel makes music that is eerie, beautiful, nostalgic, and sometimes a little disquieting, like the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead covering The Carpenters by way of Sonic Youth and The Radio Dept. The Carpenters, and the tragic story of Karen Carpenter in particular, were a direct influence on Cindy Lee’s fantastic fifth album, What’s Tonight To Eternity?, a record whose otherworldly pop is perfectly matched to its quizzical, somewhat nihilistic title.
Code Orange - Underneath
We said: Underneath is the most accessible album they've released yet, and it's one of their gnarliest and most experimental. [...] There are parts that can sound like Slipknot or even Linkin Park, but much more so than "Bleeding In The Blur," Underneath obscures the clean-sung hooks or blends them with some of the most desolate, gruesome sounds Code Orange have made to date.
Envy – The Fallen Crimson
Temporary Residence Ltd
We said: Envy are as musically relevant today as they were the day they released their 2001 classic All the Footprints You've Ever Left and the Fear Expecting Ahead, and their new music has continued to rival their classics. Their last album, 2015's Atheist's Cornea, rivaled any of the similar music coming out at that time, and now they're finally back with a followup to that album, and it's yet another triumph. Whether you're coming to this album as a longtime Envy fan or you've been pointed in its direction because you like the newer bands Envy influenced, The Fallen Crimson will deliver. Like its predecessor, it stands tall next to Envy's classics and it sounds as fresh and forward-thinking as anything happening today within screamo, emo, metal, post-rock, and beyond. It's got gorgeous, sweeping crescendos as well as moments of brute force.
Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats - UNLOCKED
We said: When UNLOCKED first arrived, I said its brevity, surprise release, carefree attitude, and the fact that it was recorded in three days shouldn't make it seem any less essential than the landmark albums Denzel Curry recently released, and that already feels like an understatement. Now that it's had time to settle in, it just feels like Denzel Curry has yet again made some of the best new rap music around. UNLOCKED pays obvious homage to a lot of turn-of-the-millennium rap music, from its Matt Doo-like artwork to the MF DOOM style production to the DMX style cadences, but Denzel and Kenny make it all their own.
Destroyer - Have We Met
We said: Have We Met is like a third cousin twice removed to 2011’s brilliant Kaputt (one of our favorite records of the last decade). This is a much different beast, though. Where Kaputt was warm, rainswept, neon-lit and thick with saxophones and flute, Have We Met is gleaming and sleek, like brushed steel in outer space. Boldly going where Destroyer hasn’t gone before, it’s colder, louder, more bizarre, but still sexy.
Empty Country - Empty Country
Get Better Records
We said: Empty Country, the new project of Cymbals Eat Guitars frontman Joe D'Agostino, is quieter than the Cymbals albums but just as vast, and fans of Joe's immediately recognizable singing and songwriting style will probably agree that this album nails a balance between the new and the familiar. (And despite being quieter, Joe does sometimes raise his voice to the roar that gained his previous band some associations with "emo.") Joe has a way with subtly off-kilter melodies that's on full display on Empty Country, and his words are so personal and specific that they feel like a window into his world, yet he writes in such a way that even the most specific details can feel relatable on a near-universal level.
Bill Fay - Countless Branches
We said: Like his last two albums, it was recorded with producer Joshua Henry, but they took a slightly more stripped-back approach this time, recording much of the album with just Bill, his piano, and "some rudimentary home recording equipment." Bill of course has the resources to make something much grander sounding at this point in his career, but he sounds best at his most intimate so it's a real treat that he chose to make the new album this way.
Godthrymm - Reflections
We said: Godthrymm is the new band of vocalist/guitarist Hamish Glencross (ex-My Dying Bride, Vallenfyre, Solstice), drummer Shaun Taylor-Steels (ex-My Dying Bride, Anathema), and bassist Bob Crolla, and as you'd probably expect from that lineup, they make death-doom in the style of classic My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost. Maybe you don't feel like you need this in a year where there are actual new My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost albums on the way, but Godthrymm are far from a pale imitation and they make for a nice counterpart with what those bands are up to today. Hamish brings with him a harsh growl that keeps Godthrymm from falling into the more alternative rock tendencies that clean-sung death-doom can fall into, and when he does sing clean, it's often in a brooding, Swans-like way that keeps this album sounding evil. And maybe most importantly of all, the riffs!
Grimes – Miss_Anthropocene
We said: Grimes has written yet another great record. She continues to excel at adventurous art pop that still — even in this era where radio pop is pretty adventurous — sounds too weird for the radio, but it’s never weird for weirdness’s sake and never inaccessible. It sounds unmistakably like Grimes, but not exactly like anything else she’s done previously. It’s kind of the middle ground between Visions and Art Angels, combining the bigger sounds of the latter with the focus of the former. Even on the one song that sounds like it could actually be kinda mainstream — the ’90s-style acoustic alt-rock ballad “Delete Forever” — Grimes sounds like she’s staying true to herself.
Higher Power - 27 Miles Underwater
We said: ...could be a new favorite for anyone who listens to loud rock music, hardcore or punk or metal or alternative rock or otherwise. On 27 Miles Underwater, Jimmy Wizard doesn't just sound a little like Perry Farrell; Higher Power have jam-packed the album with mountain-sized choruses that give Jane's Addiction a run for their money. They've got soaring, shoegaze-tinged alt-rock hooks that can recall anything from The Smashing Pumpkins to Deftones. They've got a knack for combining chugging hardcore with radio-friendly choruses in a way that recalls early 2000s Roadrunner faves Glassjaw.
Huntsmen - Mandala of Fear
We said: Huntsmen's 2018 debut album American Scrap is a killer mix of '70s-style hard rock, prog rock, and folk rock with modern-day sludge metal, which, if you trace it back far enough, has roots in all that stuff in the first place. For its new followup, Mandala of Fear -- a double album -- they're navigating the same terrain, but they're doing everything bigger and better. This time around, Aimee Bueno -- who sang guest vocals on American Scrap's closing track -- is a full time member, and her contributions give Huntsmen a lot more range, allowing them to work in more complex vocal harmonies and just pull off more stuff in general. The album is produced better (it was helmed by fellow Chicago musician Sanford Parker, who knows how to make bands sound gargantuan), and Huntsmen have just gotten better at everything they do. The heavy parts are heavier, the folky parts are prettier, the hooks are catchier, and the prog parts are more sprawling.
Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake & LUV vs. The World 2
We said: Uzi clearly struck some kind of creative goldmine and we should be very happy about that. Eternal Atake's only guest is Syd, while LUV vs. The World 2 does have a handful of big guests (Future, Young Thug, 21 Savage, Chief Keef, Young Nudy, Lil Durk, NAV), but both albums prove that Uzi has really come into his own as a guy who can remain the star of the show for a full album.
Nicolas Jaar – Cenizas
We said: ...a noticeably different album for Jaar. His solo material has never exactly been dance music, but it’s often a lot more beat-driven than Cenizas, which goes long stretches without any percussion at all. It’s overall his most somber and most eerie solo album. It probably qualifies as “ambient” but the sinister vibe is more Nick Cave than Brian Eno.
Stephen Malkmus - Traditional Techniques
We said: While associated with staunch indie rock snobbery, Stephen Malkmus has long dabbled in jam band territory, all the way back to Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight. (Before? Maybe.) So when he announced Traditional Techniques, his third album in three years, as “stoner folk” it wasn’t really as much of a stretch as Matador may have wanted you to believe. At least not in that way. It is, however, his quietest, most introspective and straight-from-the-heart record he’s ever made.
Pop Smoke - Meet the Woo 2
We said: Meet the Woo 2 is still cut from basically the same cloth [as its predecessor], but it's an improvement upon the form and it finds Pop joined by some famous guests like Quavo and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, further proving himself as someone who could fit right in with the pop-trap on the radio without sacrificing the style he won everyone over with last year. Not only did Meet the Woo 2 continue to prove "Welcome to the Party" was no fluke, it beat that song and Pop's first mixtape at their own game plenty of times. "Christopher Walking" is an even better single, and the run from that song through "Element" already feels like a mini greatest hits.
Porridge Radio - Every Bad
We said: Misery loves company — just look at arenas full of Cure, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails fans — and sometimes you just want to wallow with someone that’s down there too. Please welcome Porridge Radio to the stage. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dana Margolin is wallowing, stewing, obsessing and generally spending too much time in her own thoughts across the whole of Every Bad, the band’s brilliant new album. “I am waiting for you to get out of my mind,” she wails on “Don’t Ask Me Twice,” one of 11 visceral, memorable songs on the record that aims straight for the gut.
Frances Quinlan - Likewise
We said: ...going solo doesn't mean stripping back her sound in Frances' case. Just the opposite. She and Hop Along guitarist/producer Joe Reinhart made this record together, and they used all kinds of instruments -- including synths, drum machines, harps, strings, and more -- to achieve a sound that's just as grand as the recent Hop Along records. As ever, Frances remains a hell of a vocalist, with a larger-than-life voice that reels you in every time she opens her mouth.
R.A.P. Ferreira - Purple Moonlight Pages
We said: Purple Moonlight Pages is a substantial, immersive album that lends itself to repeated listens and reveals more each time, and it already feels on par with Rory's best work. Production wise, it varies between far-out psychedelia, real-deal jazz, and eerie atmospheric instrumentals (provided by the Jefferson Park Boys, aka Kenny Segal, Mike Parvizi, and Mr. Carmack), and Rory's raps vary between the unconventional flow and tongue-twisting lyricism that has been part of underground hip hop since the early '90s, spoken word, slam poetry, and flashes of the more conventional, accessible style of the boom bap era. And within all the off-kilter wordplay and oddball references, Rory always has a message or a story to tell.
Nadia Reid - Out of My Province
We said: Joining the Spacebomb family not only gave Nadia more visibility in the US, it also allowed her to work with the label's in-house production team of Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, who have earned themselves a reputation for their grand string arrangements thanks to their work on recent albums by Foxygen, Natalie Prass, Bedouine, and more. The strings do wonders for Out of My Province, which is a beautiful sounding record and the most massive sounding album Nadia has released yet. But as much of a sell as they are, Nadia never relies on any of the embellishments to drive these songs home. Just like her first two records, Out of My Province brings you to the edge of your seat with the power of Nadia's words and voice alone.
Moses Sumney - græ (part 1)
We said: ...græ is shaping up to be one of the most monumental albums released this year. It gracefully moves from classical-inspired chamber pop to militant art rock to shimmering jazz to acoustic singer/songwriter material and beyond, and Moses ties it all together with his soaring, often-falsetto voice that can rival anything from Frank Ocean's indie-soul croon to Thom Yorke's psychedelic mumble. And his lyrics can be poetic, personal, and political, and they're impactful whether he's being blunt or relying on imagery and metaphor.
Sweven - The Eternal Resonance
We said: Morbus Chron sadly aren't around anymore to benefit from all the hype [death metal] is getting, but fortunately frontman/founder/songwriter/guitarist Robert Andersson now has a new band named after that 2014 album, Sweven, and their own debut album The Eternal Resonance is very, very good. Morbus Chron fans will probably be very excited about how this album sounds, but it does more than just pick up where Morbus Chron left off. Sweven the band goes even further down the genre-blurring rabbit hole than Sweven the album did. It's almost a disservice to talk about this album in terms of "death metal" or any other subgenre for that matter. It's still a harsh album, vocally, but instrumentally it's even more prog/psych than Morbus Chron was.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
We said: ...a warm, well-produced, big-sounding album that's rooted in the long-running tradition of Americana. It's perhaps no coincidence that this is the album she wrote after penning a 20th anniversary essay on Lucinda Williams' alt-country classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and covering Lucinda's music at her shows at an increasingly frequent rate. Like Lucinda's music, Saint Cloud is earthy, weathered, and country-tinged but too universally appealing to get stuck in the "country" niche. [...] Lucinda Williams comparisons aside, though, this is unmistakably a Waxahatchee album. When Katie Crutchfield sings, you know immediately who you're listening to.
Activity - Unmask Whoever (Bill's pick)
Bombay Bicycle Club - Everything Else Has Gone Wrong (Andrew's pick)
Floral Tattoo - You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start (Dave's pick)
Ben Seretan - Youth Pastoral (Amanda's pick)
For more, see Bill’s Indie Basement: Favorite Albums of 2020 So Far.