The best albums of 2020… so far

The best albums of 2020… so far

It's [checks calendar] more than halfway into a year that already feels endless, which means it's time to look back at some of 2020's best albums. Tha

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It’s [checks calendar] more than halfway into a year that already feels endless, which means it’s time to look back at some of 2020’s best albums. Thankfully, there have been plenty of great ones. Below, EW staffers Sarah Rodman, Leah Greenblatt, and Alex Suskind run down a few favorites.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Like comets, Fiona albums only tend to come around about every seven years or so. And Fetch the Bolt Cutters, when it arrived this April, did feel like some kind of cosmic event: a paradigm-rattling explosion of joyful noise and pointed, poignant lyricism. It’s also pretty much the opposite of easy listening — the kind of record you have to soak your whole brainpan in for hours to even begin to get a sense of where Apple’s extraordinary machine is at. Once you get there, though, Fetch is more than its own reward; it’s a revelation. —Leah Greenblatt

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 4

Run the Jewels 4 was not written and recorded in the middle of our current hellscape, but it sure as s–t sounds like it was. Four years after their self-described “blue record,” Killer Mike and El-P return to slice and dice their way through charlatans, bigots, and anyone else who stood in their path.  “Pedophiles sponsor all these f—n’ racist bastards/And I told you once before that you should kill your masters,” raps Mike on “JU$T,” a track that features Pharrell calling out the “slave masters posing on your dollars.” More than just timely or urgent, RTJ4 is a full-breadth showcase for the super-duo — in all their humorous, blunt-truthed glory. —Alex Suskind

Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia

“You want a timeless song/I wanna change the game.” The first lines on Future Nostalgia work as both a warning and a promise for what follows: Eleven effervescent tracks that pulse with high-altitude synths and alpha-female energy, from the triumphant strobe-lit kiss-off “Don’t Stop Now” to the thrumming aerobic rush of “Physical” and bittersweet disco boogie “Break My Heart.” The actual future has never been more uncertain; Lipa makes living for the moment feel like more than enough. —LG

Lady Gaga – Chromatica

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and pretty much nobody feels fine. Enter Gaga with the evacuation plan: a planet called Chromatica where all the citizens are kindness punks, the forecast is sunny with a chance of rain (on me), and the soundtrack — deep house, hi-NRG, ecstatic disco — never stops. The mythology may be silly and the sounds she’s pulling from hardly new, but for pure pop escapism there may be no better spot this summer; book your SpaceX flight accordingly. —LG

The Weeknd – After Hours

Aside from an occasional bit of self-reflection — “Hardest to Love,” “Save Your Tears” — Abel’s tales of destruction, lost romance, and questionable decision making continue apace on his latest release. It’s also his most fully realized effort yet, packing enough anthemic hooks, glistening synthesizers, and neon-drenched bravado to fuel endless late-night drives. —AS

Westside Gunn – Pray for Paris

Fashion and art collide with noirish coke raps on the first of two (or more?) 2020 projects from the Griselda MC. Inspired by Gunn’s trip to Paris Fashion Week, Pray for Paris sees the Buffalo rapper doing what he does best: linking two seemingly disparate worlds and coming out the other side unscathed. “Ayo, on the cover of Vogue, just me and my stove,” he raps over the gospel-sampling “LE Djoliba.” “Party wit Pop Smoke,” which tells of a real-life meet-up Gunn had with the late Brooklyn drill rapper, is a gaudy and gory affair: ”Blood on the Salvatore Mundi, we rock cocaine/Tie-dye Dior floss, stickin’ n—s up at Christie’s.” Equal parts sinister and sumptuous, Pray for Paris has Gunn sounding sharper than ever. —AS

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

Rough and Rowdy WaysBob Dylan’s 39th studio release, is not a protest or political album in the traditional sense. With a few notable detours, the 79-year-old icon hasn’t embraced the role of a public activist in decades. However, like his best work, the element of protest still exists here, folded into broader views on life and death. More pertinently, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a clear reflection of America’s jagged landscape — one of romance and mystery, creativity and fortune, protestations and politicking, conquests and colonialism. It makes for an exquisite, haunting listen. —AS

Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Guitar-fuzz freak outs, torch-song balladry, swooning Brill Building dream pop: My Heart contains multitudes, and then some. Genius, a.k.a. 39-year-old Seattleite Mike Hadreas, has always defied easy categorization, but his latest — a wooly and wildly gorgeous collection of songs loosely organized around themes of love and sex and queer identity — feels like a new high. From the expansive orchestral beauty of album opener “My Whole Life” to the winding indie-rock stomp of “Describe” and the tender harpsichord ode to a one-night stand “Jason,” it’s a stone-cold stunner. —LG

Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

Trading pop-punk for art pop and evoking wisps of Kate Bush, the Paramore singer might seem like she’s applying a lighter touch on her dynamic debut solo album. But she’s still packing plenty of punch and attitude on this collection of sticky mini-dramas that offer rage and tenderness in equal measure. —Sarah Rodman

Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG

When Bad Bunny released YHLQMDLG in February, the leads practically wrote themselves. The album’s title — an acronym, “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana” — translates to “I Do Whatever I Want,” which is exactly what the Latin trapper does across these 20 tracks, honoring the sonics (and stars) of reggaeton past and present. On “Yo Perreo Sola,” Bunny bends and breaks gender stereotypes, while the multi-faceted “Safaera” takes a pleasantly dizzying run through numerous tempos and beats. It’s all a nod to the genre’s history — and a hopeful vision for its future. —AS

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Listening to Saint Cloud feels like opening a window on a sprawling, sun-drenched meadow, as Katie Crutchfield trades the darker corners of her early work for a brighter — and bolder — outlook. Her voice stretches out like a rubber band on the cheery love pledge “Can’t Do Much,” and an electric piano backs the loose and bouncy flow of lead single “Fire.” Meanwhile, the slow and meandering acoustic drawl of the title track is slight but powerful — a meditative folk fantasy about life and the end. —AS

Brandy Clark – Your Life Is a Record

The woman who has helped pen some of the best songs Nashville has had to offer in the last decade (including Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”) continues the winning ways of her previous solo albums with Record. Her magic trick remains taking the thoughts in your head — about love and life and laughter — and turning them into a song. —SR

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

The Seattle rockers roared back into business with a lot on their minds, the muscle to back it up, and a clearly refreshed sense of purpose to rock in the free world.  Eddie Vedder’s voice, whether a feathery falsetto or bracing howl, remains in fine form as the band tackles the personal and the political — and the intersection of the two. —SR

Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony 

An album that we all assumed was never arriving in the first place, Jay Electronica’s decade-delayed A Written Testimony not only hit its sky-high expectations when it arrived in February, it somehow surpassed them. This tightly wound, 10-track effort showcases what made the New Orleans MC such a commanding presence in the first place: triple entendres, bare-knuckle bars, and rhymes that double as history lessons (“What a time we livin’ in, just like the scripture says/Earthquakes, fires and plagues, the resurrection of the dead”). With guest star and mentor Jay-Z matching Electronica bar for bar, and superb production from the likes of Swizz Beatz, Hit-Boy, and the Alchemist, A Written Testimony proves that the myth of the great unreleased album occasionally comes true. —AS 

HAIM — Women in Music Pt. III

The nimble, pitch-perfect soft rock of the SoCal trio’s first two albums earned them critical praise and a devoted fan base. Their cheekily titled third effort — the band’s most ambitious project to date — builds on those plaudits by adding a fresh and freewheeling blend of hip-hop drums, reggae-inflected grooves, yawning synths, and wandering horns to its repertoire, then enveloping it all in a lo-fi haze. Even the artwork gets in on the action, with Women in Music trading the sunny environs of HAIM’s past two covers for a glaring portrait of the sisters behind the counter of L.A. establishment — and early HAIM-family concert venue — Canter’s Delicatessen. Their songwriting is as sharp and unpretentious as ever, with tales of crossed wires, longing for lost friends and lovers, and demoralizing bulls–t that female musicians often have to put up with. —AS

Butch Walker – American Love Story 

The critically beloved singer-songwriter and in-demand producer (Weezer, Taylor Swift, Green Day) manages a rare feat: A concept album with a clear storyline, a treasure trove of pop delights, and not a whiff pretension. Tracing the enlightenment of a man who was previously deaf and blind to the humanity of those outside his perceived tribe, Walker speaks volumes on the state of the world with compassion and hooks to spare. —SR

The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

On paper, Notes should be a bloated mess: 22 tracks, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to genre, that artwork. Funny, it ended up being the exact opposite. The British rockers somehow merged distorted guitars, ambient decay, folk singalongs, ‘90s pop rock, UK garage beats, church choirs, and an original Greta Thunberg speech to create the year’s most enjoyably outlandish album — one that mimics the seemingly limitless world of streaming.  —AS

Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

An intergalactic level of excitement surrounded Lil Uzi Vert’s second studio album, a fervor that increased the longer its star held out on releasing it. This March, after numerous false starts, delays, and an “I quit music” announcement, fans got what they asked for — and more. Split into three parts — each section is told through the eyes of a different Uzi alter ego — Atake sees the rapper upping the ante. “Louis my shoes, pull out my whip on 22’s/I saw your girl, I had to scoop/Just like a bird she gonna swoop/Neck is achoo, might catch the flu,” he raps on “You Better Move,” a song that, amazingly, samples the old Microsoft Windows game Space Cadet Pinball 3D. Quite simply, Eternal Atake is Lil Uzi in peak form. Hopefully he sticks around for good. —AS

Secret Sisters – Saturn Return

After going through some major life changes — having their first children, experiencing loss, running into financial difficulties — the Alabama siblings were not lacking for inspiration. They put it to good use on this house fire of an album produced by Brandi Carlile. Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle gorgeously harmonize their way through both tough and inviting — and eminently relatable — terrain. —SR

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