The 10 Best Albums of April 2020

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The 10 Best Albums of April 2020

April 2020 has unceremoniously come and gone. Spring is here, the pandemic rages on and there’s not much else to say other than that. It can be a bittersweet time for many as canceled dates for live music, weddings and graduations pass by, but, thankfully, there’s still a lot to celebrate—including these 10 incredible releases. April brought us great new albums from artists like Hamilton Leithauser, Ashley McBryde and Thundercat, as well as the current frontrunner for album of the year: Fiona Apple and her Bolt Cutters. So fetch your own pair, and start listening. Find the best songs of April right here. Find the month’s best albums below.

Here are the 10 best albums of April, according to Paste’s music critics:

10. Rina Sawayama: Sawayama

We’ve been inching towards an early Max Martin-esque maximalist pop revival for several years now, between artists like Liz, Kero Kero Bonito, Holiday Sidewinder, and, in a strange way, 100 gecs, but Sawayama solidifies the notion that bubblegum pop is back, fully self-aware and ready to conquer. With the help of longtime-producer Clarence Clarity, Rina Sawayama modernizes a sound made famous by Britney Spears, *NSYNC and all who reigned supreme on Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 countdown around the turn of the last millennia. More importantly, however, she upholds the integrity of the genre, gently reminding us why we all, deep down, truly love pop music. Right off the bat, Sawayama is powerful. The first three songs are insanely dynamic, stringing together two vibrant pop songs (the first about standing up on your own, the second about excessive wealth) into what can only be described as Gwen Stefani-meets-nu-metal. As far as the meaning of this record goes, Sawayama sums it up herself in a recent interview: “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.” —Annie Black

9. Midwife: Forever

Denver multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston (also of Sister Grotto) this month shared her latest drone release Forever, which also serves as her debut for San Francisco experimental label The Flenser (Have a Nice Life, Deafheaven). Her self-described “heaven metal” is crushingly beautiful—it mixes slowcore, drone-pop and ambient music, and despite its dark sonic shades, it’s a hopeful album, especially in its context: The album was made while she was grieving the death of her friend and artistic inspiration, Colin Ward, and it’s now dedicated to his memory. One line from “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” a highlight from this six-track release, is particularly moving as Johnston sings wistfully over feedback-drenched guitars: “Anyone can fall in love / Anyone can play guitar / Anyone can say goodbye.” —Lizzie Manno

8. Ashley McBryde: Never Will

Ashley McBryde has—and has had for a long time—the makings of a huge country star. That couldn’t be more clear on Never Will, her latest album, which has something for every type of country fan. “First Thing I Reach For” is an honest honky-tonk ode to vices that spares no details. On album closer “Styrofoam,” she dedicates three minutes of spoken-word sweet nothings to the creators of the impossible-to-decompose material that was miraculously chilling liquids of all varieties well before Yetis were on the market. The mandolin takes center stage on the bluegrass-indebted “Voodoo Doll,” which is one of the most impressive songs on the album, if only for its light flirtation with pure, unadulterated black magic. “Martha Divine,” another single that earned McBryde a place on several “most anticipated releases of 2020” lists, is the album’s other highlight and the eternal damnation of a serial homewrecker. If radio execs and DJs have any sense at all, they’ll play Ashley McBryde until we’re beggin’ them to stop. Few are as deserving of mainstream genre stardom as her, and Never Will is all the proof we need. —Ellen Johnson

7. Thundercat: It Is What It Is

While the cat noises and fart sounds on his last album, 2017’s Drunk, offended one prominent music critic so much he nearly crashed his car in a fit of frustration, Bassist Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) didn’t actually need to tame his prodigious appetite for variety. On previous Thundercat albums, he revelled in his own zaniness, but he also showed a knack for going right to the edge of incoherence while maintaining just enough of a consistent thread. Listening to a player with a range that rivals the late bass giant Jaco Pastorius—and, arguably, the chops to match—part of the appeal comes from just watching the ideas roam free. That makes it all the more remarkable that Bruner has decided to rein in his wanderlust on his fourth solo LP, It Is What It Is. It’s not that It Is What It Is lacks variety. Much like on his other output, Bruner once again draws freely from the wells of funk, soul, disco, jazz, rock, hip-hop and lo-fi experimentation. The crucial difference this time is that he shoehorns those influences into a startlingly smooth flow that somehow accommodates dazzling technical proficiency. On It Is What It Is, Bruner brings ’70s-style R&B balladeering (“Overseas,” “How I Feel”) and fusion (“Interstellar Love,” “How Sway”) to the forefront as other styles recede into supportive roles. In terms of the impact of the record as a complete listening experience, the payoff is tremendous. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

6. Scott Hardware: Engel

Engel, the sophomore album from Toronto singer/songwriter Scott Hardware, was inspired by Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, which follows angels in pre-unified Berlin as they listen to the thoughts of humans and comfort them. “I sought with this album to capture the film’s velvety feeling—funny, depressing, dark and mundane—in LP form,” Hardware says. “These songs imagine Wenders’ angels buzzing around my friends, my family and I. Writing from their point of view allowed me unfettered access to my own thoughts about them and myself.” Engel is filled with touching, elegant art-pop that evokes the flaws and triumphs of everyday people. Plush strings and piano are perfectly suited to this brush with angels while the occasionally jarring electronic textures that adorn this LP point to the world’s beautiful yet cruel disarray. Hardware’s rich vocals are so gorgeous that they embody the noble, supernatural and biblical qualities of these winged healers. —Lizzie Manno

5. Yves Tumor: Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Yves Tumor’s new album opens with Sean Bowie shouting “I think I can solve it / I can be your all.” Later, on “Medicine Burn,” they claim “I can’t lift my own troubles,” then shout a reversal on single “Kerosene!”: “I can be anything / tell me what you need.” Heaven to a Tortured Mind is emphatically about what Tumor can and can’t do, because what else are pop anthems about? “Creep” is about how Radiohead is incapable of fitting in with mainstream society, while “I Will Always Love You” is a declaration of Whitney Houston’s enduring love amid crisis. Yves Tumor have long skirted the line between pop candor and experimental psychedelia, often landing somewhere far away from both in a wonderland of threatening, dagger-sharp guitar riffs and gossamer vocal production. In many ways, 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love was Tumor’s official rockstar moment. Listening to Heaven for a Tortured Mind will make you question your own memories of the singer, because they’ve never sounded more immediate, more relatable or more desirously messy. —Austin Jones

4. Hamilton Leithauser: The Loves of Your Life

With The Loves of Your Life, former The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser expands his scope in a searching spirit, satiating his hunger for connection with the stories of others. Written about real individuals, some old friends and others strangers, the songs are as manifold as the human lives they encapsulate, with Leithauser often stepping aside to speak in his subjects’ own words. Written, recorded, produced and mixed in Leithauser’s cramped, DIY New York City studio The Struggle Hut, the album achieves a powerful sense of place, capturing the city and its innumerable narratives—NYC is well-trod creative territory, to say the least, and could have easily made for a mundane effort in the hands of a lesser songwriter. But Leithauser has spent his entire career on its wavelength, and dedicates The Loves of Your Life to the people who make the metropolis what it is, bringing all of his skills (he plays most of the instruments on the album) to bear on rendering their stories in poignant detail. —Scott Russell

3. Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter

Midway through “Held Down,” the lead single from Laura Marling’s surprise-released seventh album, the English singer/songwriter gives a cheeky little hint for anyone considering writing about her: “You sent me your book which I gave half a look / But I just don’t care for and I cannot get through / But you’re writing again and I’m glad, old friend / Now make sure you write me out of where you get to.” It’s an interesting inclusion here as Marling has made a career of ever-so-subtly writing about own personal relationships and breakups, be them about famous exes or not, but cloaking any autobiographical details underneath multiple levels of metaphor or imagery. She always writes from an extreme approach, either from the perspective of a character of her own invention or an obscure one deep in literature, rarely, if ever, giving any hints to what is real life or not, sometimes frustratingly so. As a result, her albums are centered around specific characters—Once I Was An Eagle’s Rosie, A Creature I Don’t Know’s The Beast and Sophia (the Greek goddess of wisdom)—or around a looser subject (Semper Femina’s look at femininity or societal gender roles on I Speak Because I Can). Perhaps that’s why Marling isn’t seen as the legendary singer/songwriter that she truly is: It’s hard to latch onto her albums because she hides herself under handfuls of different characters and perspectives, never truly allowing herself to shine through. But, like Bob Dylan before her, this is also her greatest strength, as impenetrable as her lyrics may be. —Steven Edelstone

2. Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels

The songs on Good Souls, while a perfect snapshot of enlightened anger, aren’t all brand new. The sludgy blues tune “Bone Of Contention” dates back to 2005, just missing the cutoff for the alt-country troubadour’s 2007 album West. “You’re the splinter in my finger / you’re the knife in my back / you’re the bone of contention,” Williams sings in her signature snarl that has made her a legend in the eyes of so many, sounding more furious than she ever has before. That fury is what makes this album, even the songs that were written a few years earlier, so topical. Similar to the way Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters resonated so fiercely just a week ahead of Williams’ Good Souls Better Angels, these songs weren’t written about our current state of frenzied pandemic panic, but their arrival during spring 2020 gives them an especially clairvoyant air. A rebellious spirit is certainly seeping out from every angle on Good Souls Better Angels. “You can’t rule me,” Williams declares right out of the gate. She also bemoans the relentless news cycle on “Bad News Blues,” laments the content of those news cycles on “Big Rotator,” mourns the paralyzation that comes with depression on “Big Black Train” and scorns evil men “of hate, envy and doubt” over a swirling vortex of guitar feedback on “Man Without A Soul.” While there’s one “man” in particular who lyrics like “You bring nothing good to this world / Beyond a web of cheating and stealing / You hide behind your wall of lies” may call to mind, it’s not necessarily a slam of POTUS specifically—but it sure does work well as one. —Ellen Johnson

1. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple engages our minds like no one else. Like every record before it, her latest album Fetch the Bolt Cutters taps into both the repulsive and the revolutionary. Apple has never been one to deliver approachable melodies or catchy choruses—she repeatedly serves us the abnormal, in all its twisted glory, with minor chords and off-kilter rhythms, often constructed with everyday objects rather than musical instruments. As a woman who lives mostly secluded from society and releases music so rarely, she’s frequently the object of speculation and even sexualization (see: the late ’90s). She doesn’t like to do what is expected of her. She’s said as much. So it’s funny that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is exactly what so many expected it to be: brilliant. In a surprise to probably no one, Fiona Apple is now five for five. Over the last 25 years, she has made five albums that have all—in due time—ascended to holy text status, even if it took some longer than others to come around to her genius. Her most recent, the staggeringly good The Idler Wheel… arrived in 2012. Before that: Extraordinary Machine, in 2005. But Apple isn’t just sitting on these songs during the long gaps between albums; she’s buffing them to perfection. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is finally here, and it’s another miraculous case of bottled lightning. Listening to Fiona Apple is often like bearing witness to a prophet speaking in tongues. It can be difficult, at times, to make out what exactly she’s getting at in any given verse, but there’s an overwhelming sensation that what she’s singing is vastly important. In Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ case, these psalms beam clearer than ever before. —Ellen Johnson

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