best of 2020

The Best Albums of the Year (So Far)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Courtesy of Studios

This list has been updated with September releases.

The theme of 2020’s albums — or at least the ones we’ll get to hear barring any further coronavirus-related interruption — seems to be career comebacks and career liftoffs, with plenty of the big dogs closing long gaps between albums (Fiona Apple, Jay Electronica, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Tame Impala, Lady Gaga, and … eventually???Rihanna), while the newer and nascent continue to shake things up (Flo Milli, Soccer Mommy, Chloe x Halle, Bad Bunny). Has 2020 already seen its best album? Below, New York music critic Craig Jenkins rounds up the standout albums the year has had to offer so far, to be updated monthly.

Big Sean, Detroit 2

Big Sean was a punch-line rapper for so long that a lot of people started to take him for a joke, but his art has gotten a little smarter and tighter every year. Albums that had a few highlights slowly became albums full of highlights. This summer’s Detroit 2, the sequel to the Motor City rapper’s 2012 ode to his hometown, is the result of time spent improving himself as a rapper and as a human being. His timing is better, and his verses are more personal. He might give you a trap jam extolling the virtues of Zen philosophy; he might tell a story about the heart condition that almost took him out before he turned 20. Sean is far from perfect, but Detroit 2 is about coming to peace with his strengths and limitations. His next album will be even better.

Fleet Foxes, Shore

Seattle’s Fleet Foxes make gorgeous, rustic folk designed to lift the listener up out of whatever place and time they’re settled in and drop them off in a world of misty mountains and windy plains. Announced and released abruptly at September’s autumn equinox, Shore, the fourth Fleet Foxes album, is feel-good music for feel-bad times, from the sunny opening invocation of “Wading in Waist-Deep Water” on through the bustling rock and roll of “Can I Believe You,” all of it guided by singer-songwriter and principal studio musician Robin Pecknold, whose lyrics strike a delicate balance between poetry and mystery, and whose vast skill set imbues each Fleet Foxes release with the awe-struck excitement of a trip to a new country.

The Deftones, Ohms

Sacramento metal vets the Deftones march into each new decade with batteries fully charged. 2000 was the year of White Pony, a crowning achievement of the rap-rock era. 2010’s Diamond Eyes fused metal and shoegaze sounds into an exquisite attack. Ohms repeats the trick with bright and catchy hooks, but its guitars are thick and crunchy. Songs are snaking, unpredictable beasts; a ripping math-metal riff might explode into a perfect alt-rock chorus. A loud song might shock you by winding down to a moment of unexpected quiet. Twenty-five years after their 1995 debut, Adrenaline, it seems this band is still finding new tricks.

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Listening to Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers feels like eavesdropping on a heart-to-heart you weren’t supposed to hear. Her songs are brutally honest and conversational in their directness, like a public breakup or an eventful diary entry. “You asked to walk me home,” she sings on “Moon Song,” from her brilliant sophomore album Punisher, “but I had to carry you.” It’s evocative phrasing she never deeply explains. You either feel it or stick around to see where it goes, and it always goes somewhere lacerating and intense but also endearing and relatable. She achieves a lot using just a sweet wisp of a voice and a handful of acoustic instruments (spiced by the odd blast of electric guitar). Punisher feels informed by old country-emo songs with production that’s light but never sleepy. The blend is familiar but always fresh.

The Killers, Imploding the Mirage

The Killers broke through among the early aughts dance-rock wave and the overarching post-punk revival, but the Las Vegas quartet always seemed like a band out of time, particularly on records like 2006’s Sam’s Town, which carried more than a hint of the bombast of Bruce Springsteen. On Imploding the Mirage, the Killers’ sixth album, lead singer Brandon Flowers & Co. stand strongly in their time-displaced rock-and-roll excellence, penning tunes that pull from new wave, synth-pop, and heartland rock alongside a list of esteemed guests that includes former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, pop and country hybridist k.d. lang, and indie folk luminary Weyes Blood. Mirage is the strongest batch of Killers tunes in many moons; it’s a delight to see the group’s nostalgic interests buttressed by writing as consistently strong as the band’s sound is stylish.

The Microphones, Microphones in 2020

Microphones in 2020, Seattle singer-songwriter and Mount Eerie ringleader Phil Elverum’s first album under the moniker since the 2003 Microphones album called Mount Eerie — confusing, yes — is a long, winding memoir taking the form of a single 45-minute song. There’s a lot of ground to cover. Elverum is a Northwest indie-rock legend who had a rough couple of years after his first wife and longtime collaborator Geneviève Castrée succumbed to cancer, and he split with his second wife, actress Michelle Williams, last spring. Like the recent Eerie albums, Microphones in 2020 is honest to an almost unnerving degree; like the Microphones classics, breezy acoustic passages are punctuated by unexpected blasts of electric guitar. The constant is Elverum’s plaintive vocal and diaristic lyrics about perseverance: “I will never stop singing this song / It goes on forever / I started when I was a kid, and I still want to hold it lightly.”

KeiyaA, Forever, Ya Girl

KeiyaA is a singer and producer from Brooklyn via Chicago whose debut album, Forever, Ya Girl, deals in deep introspection, abstract melodies, and soulful grooves that split the difference between the fractious sampling of modern independent rap and the syrupy instrumentation and vocalization of neo-soul. The blend is versatile. On “Hvnli,” she soars over lowly braying synths; her cover of Prince’s darkly peppy ’80s B-side “Do Yourself a Favor” serves the breakup tune over soothing keys and bass. There’s a homespun, personal feel thanks in part to the fact that Forever, Ya Girl is in large part a solo effort, with KeiyaA writing, singing, playing, and producing everything with a few assists from Bronx rapper/producer MIKE. The album feels like a world unto itself where the dominant sounds of this one don’t necessarily exist.

Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here?

Alabama rapper Flo Milli grew up watching stars like Nicki Minaj on TV and dreaming of a rap career of her own. The 20-year-old’s debut mixtape, Ho, Why Is You Here?, is a strong start and a half-hour blast of youthful exuberance and white-hot trash talk, from the role-reversed love song “Weak,” which samples the SWV hit of the same name as Milli runs through a list of emotional suitors nagging her for attention, to “Scuse Me,” which sounds like a fight in a crowded club set to music. Ho, Why’s gift is minimalism. Beats get by on sparse drum patterns and a sliver of melody, and the flows are tight but never stuffy or showy.

Taylor Swift, folklore

In her pure pop phase, Taylor Swift made brash, cluttered songs that seemed anxious to close the gap between hip-hop, R&B, dance music, and mainstream pop, once daring to schedule Ed Sheeran and Future for the same track and succeeding against everyone’s better judgment. But busier tunes crowded her natural abilities as a melodicist and a writer of biting lyrics. This summer’s surprise-released folklore strips away the gloss and the chipper mood of last year’s Lover and, taking inspiration from Swift’s ’90s alt-pop precursors, nods graciously to Hope Sandoval and the Cranberries in its gossamer unpacking of bad times and moods. A wealth of great music has been made during quarantine, but the wistful, sighing sadness of folklore actually feels like it.

Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death

Irish post-punk quintet Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore album A Hero’s Death lifts its title from The Hostage, a play by Dublin author Brendan Behan about an IRA unit’s plot to free a jailed compatriot by kidnapping a British solider. Like Behan, Fontaines is trying to make the most out of a sticky situation in songs like “I Was Not Born” and “I Don’t Belong,” both rejections of the weight of others’ expectations, or “Televised Mind,” which seems to poke fun at a world too glued to phone, TV, and computer screens to feel anything. Fontaines’ sound is slippery, all catchy grooves that reference ’70s punk, ’90s lad rock, aughts post-punk revivalism, and modern indie-rock without ever coming across as unoriginal.

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour

As breakout stars of Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment collective, Atlanta sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey enjoy fantastic beats, videos, and promotion the same way signees to artists’ imprints like John Legend have always made the most of resources trickling down from talented benefactors. Chloe x Halle deserve it; they’re great performers and solid actresses, as anyone who listened to 2018’s The Kids Are Alright or watches Grownish can attest. On the surface, this year’s Ungodly Hour is a textbook “all grown up now” sophomore album from an act we met when they were teenagers. But that tag undersells the effortless smoothness of the album and the buoyancy of the grooves, which carry a whiff of Yonce’s progressive, often operatic approach to soul and otherwise evoke great forward-thinking groups through R&B history.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, lifelong poet and student of the American myth in all its rolling hills and destinies manifested, is a man out of time who’s somehow always on time. He blew up in the ‘60s tossing the dread of creepy old traditional folk songs back in everyone’s faces, inviting the question of why it’s taking decades and centuries for us to get our collective shit together. Almost 60 years later, as once more we find ourselves stuck at the same impasse, Bob comes traipsing back down whatever mountainside with a trove of new songs, his first in eight years, in the middle of a global crisis, about death and how to prepare for it. The message is the same: Get right while there’s time left to get.

Haim, Women in Music Pt. III

Haim’s sticky, anachronistic guitar-pop pulls inspiration from disparate corners of rock and roll history and reassembles the pieces into new structures that are referential but rarely unoriginal. The trio’s 2013 debut album Days Are Gone drew comparisons to pop-rock acts like Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar; the 2017 followup Something to Tell You brought more of the same. This summer’s new Women in Music, Pt. III is a wistful batch of versatile tunes. “The Steps” imagines what might’ve gone down if George Harrison had played slide on Sheryl Crow’s roots-pop bangers, while “Up from a Dream” tries on the guttural glam-rock grooves of T. Rex’s “Jeepster. “3 AM” dabbles in ‘90s R&B; “I Know Alone” is a perfect indietronica throwback. With help from Rostam Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid, the Haim sisters have crafted the breakthrough album they’ve been headed toward all along. Like Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, Women in Music, Pt. III lures you into a world of prickly, intense feelings with big, carefree hooks.

Teyana Taylor, The Album

Harlem singer-songwriter, dancer, mom, wife, and sometime reality TV star Teyana Taylor’s 2018 album K.T.S.E. released in the overwhelming rush of G.O.O.D. Music albums made during Kanye’s Wyoming sessions and perhaps got overlooked in the fray, which is unfortunate, since it telegraphed the current old school revivalism in new R&B, a trend Taylor embraces on her excellent followup, matter-of-factly titled The Album. The Album breathes in ways the Wyoming experiment’s constrictive seven-song limit didn’t allow. It’s brimming with ideas, melodies, guests, and familiar samples. “Lowkey” samples a Baduizm cut, then summons Queen Erykah herself. “Boomin” invokes Blaque’s “808,” calling Future and Missy Elliott in to bounce vocals off Taylor’s lead. The Album invites and invokes the legends, and these introspective hooks and verses are more than worth it.

Run the Jewels, RTJ4

Run the Jewels is like if the Alien sequels kept getting slowly and progressively better instead of going the other way around. The Brooklyn/Atlanta duo’s quadrilogy of self-titled full lengths starts out smart, grim, and ultraviolent and continues at each turn to get a little purer in its expression of the original idea. RTJ4 opens to the same scene as RTJs 1-3: America’s selling people a dream of prosperity 80 percent of them can’t attain, and former Def Jux founder El-P and Dungeon Family alum Killer Mike are here to protest the lie with chilly, post-genre, post-generational boom bap. Love is the message; haters can snack on grenades. Come for El and Mike’s advice for these divided times and stay for 2 Chainz, Zack De La Rocha, Gangsta Boo, and Pharrell.

Freddie Gibbs, Alfredo

Freddie Gibbs raps are hearty and sinewy, tough chunks of protein best served alongside something light and hydrous. His best work links him with producers that let his perfect timing play metronome, focusing on luxurious melodies instead of crowding him with loud drums. Following last year’s exquisite Bandana, his second team-up with West Coast beat legend Madlib, Gibbs dropped Alfredo, a ten-song collaboration with boom bap icon the Alchemist, king of quiet drums and elaborate sample loops. Like the pasta dish on the cover art, Alfredo is a satisfying no-brainer of a pairing; guest appearances from Rick Ross, Tyler, the Creator, and members of Griselda Records add flavor without overpowering the main ingredients.

Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now

Faced with an unexpected abundance of time at home as COVID-19 forced people into quarantine from L.A. to London, pop futurist Charli XCX took matters into her own hands. How I’m Feeling Now is the first major label studio album completely conceived in quarantine and an open-arm embrace of the noisy, glitchy electronics of Charli’s pals in PC Music and 100 gecs. It’s both sweet and abrasive, a little bit rosy and a little bit thorny. When the other pop girls get here in a few years’ time, as many glommed onto the sleek synthpop of her 2014 album True Romance across the mid-2010s, remember who was first at bat.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Reunions is an album about growing pains and the many different strains of heartbreak you encounter along the pathway to adulthood. From the jarring juxtaposition of childhood innocence and family turmoil in “Dreamsicle” to the heartbreaking loss of a friend to drug use detailed in “Only Children” to the father-daughter powwow of “Letting You Go” and the relationship ups and downs of “Running with Our Eyes Closed,” the Alabama singer-songwriter and guitarist and his band explore life’s sharp turns and disorienting twists through lush, emotive Americana tunes and tender folk-rock ballads.

Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor

Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams’s debut solo album Petals for Armor is a break from the slick, tropical pop-rock the Tennessee band discovered with 2013’s self-titled album and 2017’s After Laughter. Petals is, by turns, brooding, quiet, sunny, and celebratory in its chronicle of the singer-songwriter’s journey out of a bad headspace in the wake of the end of her marriage. The range it displays shatters the listener’s sense of what Hayley’s capable of, the same way Paramore did. Petals is an adventurous gumbo piling funk, disco, indie rock, and easy listening sounds into the same bowl, serving a surprise in every bite.

Ka, Descendants of Cain

Like a real life hip-hop superhero, Brooklyn rapper Ka is a firefighter by day and a talented rhymer and producer by night. He works wonders with a dearth of sounds; every note and every word is charged with purpose. Songs unfold like mythic poems. His last release, 2018’s Orpheus vs. the Sirens, was a concept album that drew parallels between Greek mythology and New York City street life. This spring’s surprise album Descendants of Cain uses minimalist beats and terse, expressive lines to trace the roots of modern inner-city violence back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, asking why we always hurt the ones closest to us.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the album that most resembles 2020 so far. Like all the TikTok videos, Zoom meetings, and Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram livestreams filling up our afternoons and evenings of late, Bolt Cutters is a work-from-home endeavor where the home is an unwitting character. Fiona Apple’s emotive vocals, intensive self-reflection, and lilting piano melodies are still center stage, but room noise and found percussion instruments give it a whiff of DIY. It’s a good fit for this collection of stories about breaking free from peer pressure and the prescribed roles for women in America (and in the American entertainment industry). Apple comes out of it looking like a survivor, a voice no amount of negativity from elementary-school bullies, industry onlookers, and controlling men could quell, every bit the fighter she told us she was since “Shadowboxer.”

Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake

Lil Uzi Vert contains multitudes. To illustrate the point, he spends the whole of his second album, Eternal Atake, juggling three personas, each with distinct styles and quirks. Fans of Uzi’s early mixtapes and SoundCloud loosies get showstopping rap performances like “POP” and “You Better Move”; if you joined the bandwagon on “XO Tour Llif3,” there are big melodies in “Futsal Shuffle 2020” and “That Way.” If you’re looking for something you haven’t heard from him before, there are borderline gospel songs like “Chrome Heart Tags” and “Bust Me.” For extra credit, Atake’s deluxe edition packs an even newer album, Luv vs. the World 2, full of effortless cuts like “Yessirkiii,” “Strawberry Peels,” “Wassup,” and “Moon Relate” with guest spots from 21 Savage, Future, and Young Thug that add flavors without overpowering the base.

Thundercat, It Is What It Is

Thundercat albums are tiny planetary systems where funk, hip-hop, rock, disco, jazz, and comedy revolve around the bassist’s soulful but playful songwriting. This year’s It Is What It Is is a dispatch from the edge of worldwide disorder and a quest to find inner peace amid that which we can’t control. It’s also, by turns, a warm collection of odes to crushes and a string of killer collaborations with the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, Zack Fox, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and more connected by wordless passages where Thundercat lets his bass do the talking. Between “Unrequited Love” and “Existential Dread,” there’s a tune for every feel.

Sam Hunt, Southside

People treat country and hip-hop like water and sodium metal, a mixture liable to reward your efforts to combine the two with a hot plume of fire to the face. Really, they’re more like pretzels and chocolate, different flavors that complement each other in the hands of the right auteur. Sam Hunt is that guy. His debut album Montevallo, along with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” is one of the high-water marks of the dalliance between pop-country and rap music in the 2010s. This spring’s Southside raises the stakes a little, introducing trap drums to “Let It Down” and “Hard to Forget,” tightening up pure country foundations on “2016,” and blending both sides beautifully on “Kinfolks,” “Young Once,” and “Drinking Too Much.”

Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Over a decade after the first promise of a Jay Electronica studio album, it finally materialized, not with the big splash we envisioned a decade ago, but with a suitably biblical early February announcement that the man had holed up for 40 days and nights since December and finished his long-awaited debut. A Written Testimony is the best-case scenario for a work people have been waiting a decade to hear. The marquee artist’s skills haven’t rusted since “Exhibit C” first called its shot. He’s aided by Jay-Z, who appears in the same capacity Ghostface Killah did on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, as an elite lyricist who provides support and occasionally steals the show. Much has been made of the quality of Jay-Z’s raps here, for good reason. He’s back on the wise, bemused, conceited bars that helped put his Beyoncé collaboration Everything Is Love over the top, this time with a spiritual twist. You don’t get him in philosopher mode without a push; Elec is the rare rap scribe and mystic sharp enough to get the Roc Nation titan out of his comfort zone.

The Weeknd, After Hours

After Hours is the album where the Weeknd finally figures out what to do with his dueling tastes for dance music and dour R&B. Instead of ping-ponging between obvious dance-floor fodder and dewy makeup-and-breakup songs, as he did on 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and 2016’s Starboy, After Hours follows up on the idea put forth in the 2018 mini album My Dear Melancholy and fuses both sounds. The median between Weeknd’s Max Martin and Illangelo modes is gorgeous, glistening synths over trap drums, with delightful deviations like the New Wave cut “Save Your Tears” and the power ballad “Scared to Live.” The writing’s just as tight, and there’s a cohesion of sound and vision we haven’t seen since his mixtape days.

Bill Fay, Countless Branches

British singer-songwriter Bill Fay wrote a chillingly great but criminally underappreciated folk-rock concept album about the New Testament apocalypse in 1971’s Time of the Last Persecution that summarily got him dropped from his label, ushering in a long period of recording music he didn’t release until a critical reappraisal happened in the 21st century, thanks in part to famous admirers like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Bill Fay is still a force in his 70s. This year’s Countless Branches is a selection of brief but breathtaking piano ballads and stark folk songs about appreciating small joys and remembering forgotten people, feelings he knows too well as a tremendous talent who waited 30 years for the rest of the world to catch up with him.

Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

In the five years following 2015’s Currents, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker became a festival headliner and a husband. This year’s The Slow Rush imparts wisdom learned in both endeavors. The music retools Tame’s kitchen-sink psych-rock as booming dance music, leaning confidently into the sprightly step of Currents opener “Let It Happen” without coming off like an artist trying to bottle lightning in trippy tracks like “One More Year” and “Breathe Deep.” On “Instant Destiny” and “It Might Be Time,” Parker speaks to aging gracefully and shacking up, to knowing exactly when to duck out of the party and head home. It’s the rare album about maturity that doesn’t make it sound like giving up, the rare follow-up to a commercial breakthrough structured to bowl over stadium crowds at no cost to what made the band a blast before the masses came around.

Mac Miller, Circles

It’s tempting to call the posthumous Circles Mac Miller’s long-awaited rock album, but that undersells the extent to which the rapper, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist mixed genres throughout his back catalog. What the new album is, is the most cohesive amalgamation of the interests in rock, soul, rap, jazz, and folk the late Pittsburgh star pursued in his lifetime. With the help of the legendary producer, session player, and film score closer Jon Brion, Mac stepped out into his versatility as a writer and a musician and was rewarded, and rewarded us in turn, with a work that ranks among his personal finest. Songs like “Good News” and “I Can See” fuse the melancholic moods and promises of perseverance warring in Miller’s music. What comes out is a ragged glory that makes losing him feel fresh, that makes the speed at which he got to this brutal self-awareness from the happy-go-lucky teen dreams of 2011’s Blue Slide Park seem all the more impossible. What could he have done with another seven years?

Soccer Mommy, Color Theory

On her brilliant second studio full-length as Soccer Mommy, singer-songwriter Sophia Allison traverses stress and family illness, closely capturing the bleak hollowness of depression through weaponized slacker rock. Color Theory is both impossibly catchy and deceptively downcast. “Bloodstream” and “Circle the Drain” are summery tunes about the elusiveness of happiness and the knuckle-busting difficulty of putting up a strong front in the face of adversity. At 22, Allison is sort of like the alt-rock songbook made flesh. You hear shades of the neat, autumnal sadness of early Death Cab for Cutie, the rawness of peak Lou Barlow, and the fearless adventurousness of Blur, but even though the touchstones can feel familiar, the writing is always original, personal, and tuneful. This isn’t rock and roll revivalism; it’s proof the real thing can never die.

Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling

Georgia country-rockers the Drive-By Truckers are poets of American disorder, from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which used the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the ’70s as a window into a difficult time in the history of the South, to 2016’s American Band, which spoke similarly to modern ills. This year’s The Unraveling catches us four years later, still trying to put the pieces back together. Scathing political commentary from chief songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley is whittled to a sharp point on the rock tunes and bolstered by emotive musicianship on the folk and blues tunes. “Heroin Again” is a rock historian’s furious realization that the bad drugs that killed the legends are back in circulation. “Thoughts and Prayers” rages against the gun lobby, while “Babies in Cages” presents the nightmare at the nation’s southern border as a betrayal of our stated ideals. This band was born ready for this moment in history.

King Krule, Man Alive!

As King Krule, British singer-songwriter, producer, and guitarist Archy Marshall makes songs about love and danger and the infinite possibilities of cities, where it’s possible to walk down a street and find either death or lifetime companionship and not know which until it meets you. Man Alive!, the third Krule album, carries this duality in its title; it’s an exclamation we use when we’re mortified and a word about Marshall finding new joy in life as a father. The music lives along the same fault line. There’s coarse punk rock and gritty sludge on one end and weightless songs about drifting and flying on the other. Life, it seems to say, is the time we spend between the gutter and the stars.

The Best Albums of the Year (So Far)