The 25 Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Music Lists Best Albums
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 25 Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

For many of us, this has been the most tumultuous year of our lifetimes. To start the decade on such a tragic note is truly soul-crushing, and there’s no sense in dressing it up. But we simply have no choice but to persevere. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, people have been connecting with each other and making meaningful art—two things that are integral to the human soul. We’ve experienced an onslaught of live-streamed performances and home-recorded albums—churned out at a time when artists have lost most of their revenue streams. Many of the albums we were excited to hear this year got delayed, and some of them arrived just when we needed them. The albums we did end up hearing in the first half of 2020 were hugely important in keeping us sane. From Fiona Apple’s giant comeback record to Moses Sumney’s mystifying double album to Run the Jewels’ sadly timely LP about systemic oppression, listeners were still blessed with a solid haul of albums. We hope you found something to love this year, but whether you’ve completely checked out or you’ve been along for the ride this whole time, we present to you our favorite albums for the first half of an unprecedented year.

Here are the 25 Best Albums of 2020 (So Far):

25. The Strokes: The New Abnormal

Let’s face it: In 2020, nobody is expecting a new Strokes album to compete with the band’s classic, essentially perfect first two albums. When the seminal, ’70s-inspired garage rock group dropped the latter of those albums, 2003’s Room on Fire, some fans and critics complained that it sounded too similar to 2001’s groundbreaking Is This It. Seemingly in direct response to those criticisms, Julian Casablancas and co. have avoided anything resembling musical consistency on every Strokes release since. Angles’ “Taken for a Fool,” Comedown Machine’s “All the Time” and a handful of Impressions songs suggested that our leather-clad early-aughts heroes might still possess a flicker of their initial spark. That magic reappears in flashes on The New Abnormal—the first Strokes release since Future Present Past and their first full-length in seven years—but even if the album’s strong songs are among the liveliest, most effortless music the band has made in over a decade, their bursting energy only modestly offsets the LP’s many sharp lows. —Max Freedman

24. Nation of Language: Introduction, Presence

It’s no secret that 1980s nostalgia has been prevalent in indie rock for years now. From Future Islands and Interpol to The 1975 and TOPS, countless bands from the last two decades have found success filtering their music through distinctly ’80s lenses. Still to this day, you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting an indie band with one or more of these elements: interstellar synths, bass-driven songs, rich production and melodramatic vocals. To join these ranks is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, there’s a huge demand for music that sounds like it came from the era of big hair and goths, but on the other hand, it’s hard to stand out in such a saturated market—and even harder to make lasting, impactful songs that transcend its revivalist label. New York City band Nation of Language approach this weighty task with more grace and far better songwriting chops than the vast majority of bands who attempt retro pastiches or something close to them. For starters, lead singer and songwriter Ian Devaney (formerly of Static Jacks) has a low-pitched, aching voice that just screams classic new wave, but more crucially, he has an ear for awe-inspiring melodies and synth lines that go above and beyond mere cinematic uplift. Nearly every one of his songs prompts a mental highlight reel of one’s own life, but without the stylish, candy-coated nostalgia that’s fetishized nowadays—it’s the profound kind that allows you to view yourself at your lowest and highest moments and see the beauty in having a finite amount of time to live. —Lizzie Manno

23. Frances Quinlan: Likewise

The whole idea behind releasing or performing a cover is to add your own spin to it: Otherwise, what’s the point? But rarely does an artist deconstruct and completely transform a beloved song to the extent that Frances Quinlan does with “Carry the Zero,” the Built to Spill classic that landed at number two on Paste’s best songs of 1999 list. It’s quite incredible that Quinlan managed to make the song so unrecognizable that I listened to the whole thing without even realizing it was a cover of the legendary Boise, Idaho indie band’s biggest hit. The words “I’m not knocking,” even when spoken out of context, will get “Carry the Zero” stuck in one’s head for hours. Quinlan’s ability to bend the track to her will—featuring a bouncy synth later complemented by twisted, harsh guitar screeches—is ingenious and indicative of Quinlan’s ability to experiment outside of her main sound. It’s one of many moments on Likewise that prove not only that her solo career deserves to exist, but also that she’s able to thrive without her longtime bandmates (or at least without them in their full roles). Hop Along actually began as a solo project in the mid-2000s, but by the time the band started to take off with 2012’s Get Disowned, it was a full outfit, complete with Quinlan’s brother Mark on drums, bassist Tyler Long and multi-instrumentalist Joe Reinhart, who has produced each of their records since. With each Hop Along release, as Quinlan mentioned in her recent Paste session, the four members act as a collective, workshopping the songs together after the demo stage. But on Likewise, Quinlan hashed everything out with just Reinhart in the studio, giving the tracks more space to breathe than ever before. Most of the songs here feel a bit rougher around the edges, which is partly what gives them so much charm. Quinlan has long had one of the best voices in indie rock, so why not essentially subtract everything else and give it 100 percent of the spotlight? —Steven Edelstone

22. Hailey Whitters: The Dream

Last year, the Iowa-raised, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Hailey Whitters released “Ten Year Town,” a number about something country artists have been moaning about for the entirety of the genre’s existence: small towns, how they trap us and how they’re always there waiting, even if you’re lucky enough to make it out. But “Ten Year Town,” now the opener on Whitters’ new album The Dream—which she fully funded herself with money she earned waiting tables and plucked from her savings—doesn’t feel sorry for itself, or bemoan a geographical situation. Her outlook remains overwhelmingly positive. “Dreams come true and I think mine will,” Whitters sings. With this album, she graduates from Dream-er to doer. But the real “dream,” for many, that is, is “a paycheck at the end of the week,” an indulgent cigarette, the miracle of the earth’s rotation and some people to accompany you on the long ride. “We’re all just livin’ the dream,” Whitters sings on the record’s final song. The Dream cherishes working-class triumphs and even failures, as country music always has. You won’t find a radical change where that content is concerned. But Hailey Whitters’ heartfelt manner of describing those ups and downs is what makes her dream so damn charming. —Ellen Johnson

21. Deeper: Auto-Pain

Deeper know tragedy better than most. While recording their sophomore album Auto-Pain, guitarist Mike Clawson left the band due to deteriorating relationships with the Chicago group’s other three members. Later, after their record was finished and the post-punk act was touring in Europe, they received the news that Clawson had taken his own life. Throughout this catastrophic period, Deeper decided not to let Clawson’s passing derail their tour and release schedule, instead using them as a way to pay tribute to his contributions to the band and speak out about mental health (as they did with Paste earlier this year). As lead singer and guitarist Nic Gohl mentioned in his interview with our own Lizzie Manno, Auto-Pain was completed prior to Clawson’s death, but the album’s lyrics, written as a stream of consciousness, took on a completely different meaning. And it’s hard to listen to them any other way: Some depict graphic images of self-harm and violence (“Forced to set yourself on fire tonight / You shouldn’t count on the sun” from “Run,” or “I just want you to feel sick / Cause you’re better as you’re lying on the bathroom floor” from “Lake Song”) while others are a bit more abstract (“Is it any wonder / I feel so gray” from “Esoteric”). Auto-Pain is an album built on hues of blacks and grays, depicting a shadowy, sinister world. Clawson’s suicide turns those already gloomy colors into something several shades darker. —Steven Edelstone

20. Charli XCX: how i’m feeling now

When Charli announced she would be recording how i’m feeling now from her home studio with remote assistance from A.G. Cook (who supposedly was working from Montana with an awful wi-fi signal) and BJ Burton, the result—something fun, experimental, and a bit contemplative—was more or less expected. What came as a surprise was the album’s heavy nostalgia. As opposed to Charli’s future-forward self-titled album from last year, how i’m feeling now reflects on her DIY past and preternatural obsession with the dancefloor. how i’m feeling now’s narrative is defined partially by Charli’s interactive video diaries through Instagram Live and Zoom, which served both as real-time documentation of her creative process and an opportunity for fans to offer input on lyrics, production choices and beats. There is no “Vroom Vroom’’ on how i’m feeling now, and certainly no “I Got It,” but here Charli still brings the glowstick mania and crunchy bedroom beats of the past, complete with antique waveforms and over-processed vocals. While how i’m feeling now is by no means Charli’s most genre-pushing work, nor an indication of the creative potential she has left, it will be remembered as a quintessential 2020 album—not just because of its unique recording constraints, but because of the passion, authenticity and work ethic interwoven in every fuzzy beat and every sprightly, lovelorn lilt of Charli’s most intimate vocal work to date. —Austin Jones

19. Chubby and the Gang: Speed Kills

Chubby and The Gang’s debut LP, Speed Kills, was released via independent British hardcore label Static Shock back in January, and critics raved about it, coming to a similar consensus that its hopped-up punk-pop is impossibly punchy and ridiculously fun. Charlie Manning-Walker and his fellow band mates are all hardcore veterans—having played in bands like Violent Reaction, Abolition, Guidance and Gutter Knife—but somehow they’ve made one of the strongest stitchings of pub rock, classic pop, surf and punk in recent memory. “Chubby and The Gang Rule OK?” is both a statement of fact and their unruly lead album track that takes about 30 seconds to convince you that their breakneck rhythms and pop chops are the real deal. Like their colorful, cartoonish album cover, the album celebrates the vast characters of working-class London: the dubious, fun-loving rascals, the crass authority figures, the squares and the reckless brutes. But more than anything, Speed Kills is an ode to the “gang,” the fiercely loyal one that finds you when you’re young and makes grim circumstances much more bearable. —Lizzie Manno

18. TORRES: Silver Tongue

In April 2018, Mackenzie Scott, the preternaturally talented songwriter who records under the name TORRES, announced on Twitter that her storied label, 4AD, had dropped her from a planned three-album deal “for not being commercially successful enough.” It was an upsetting blow, particularly given the strength of TORRES’ third album, Three Futures, an alluring art-pop concept album examining bodily pleasure with Kraftwerk and CAN as aural reference points. Scott tumbled into self-doubt. “I was in a really bad place,” she reflected in a more recent interview SPIN. She considered leaving music altogether. Instead, she started writing, and didn’t stop for months. Silver Tongue, TORRES’ excellent fourth album—and first for Merge—is the result of that defiant burst. It’s not a set of sugary hooks designed to crack the Discover Weekly algorithm: The record, which is self-produced, sacrifices no ounce of Scott’s sharp-angled, emotionally explosive songcraft. It leans into the electro-pop atmosphere of Three Futures, but the textures are so unsettling and lonely that it would never scan as a bid for crossover appeal. Scott remains an improbably vivid writer both lyrically and melodically; throughout Silver Tongue, she takes desire and infatuation as her subject and icy synthesizers as her instrument of choice. —Zach Schonfeld

17. 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

16. Lilly Hiatt: Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt’s new album Walking Proof may prove to one of 2020’s most universally relatable thanks to a single line on the chorus of “P-Town”: “Don’t you hate when people say it is what it is?” Unless you’re Joe Pesci in The Irishman and you’re adding in a contraction, there’s never a time when “it is what it is” benefits the person you’re saying it to: You’re better off with either a shrug (or a shrug emoji). They’re useless gestures, but at least they’re transparently useless. Think about the last time you had a shitty day and an acquaintance told you that you were fated to have a shitty day, so you might as well accept the shit; you’ll find yourself wishing “P-Town” had existed at the time so you could shake off that flaccid old bromide with big, swaggering guitar riffs and swelling electric organ. This is music to liberate yourself to-music that reminds listeners of Americana’s versatility as a genre and the palliative effects a good, expressive rock song can have on the soul. We’ve all taken a road trip that wound up going wrong, whether the kind of wrong where everything goes off the rails or the sort where everyone’s out of sync and nothing’s as fun as it’s supposed to be. That’s the heart of “P-Town” specifically, but the spiritual relief derived from rock ’n’ roll and Americana makes up Walking Proof’s whole. It’s baked into the record from start to finish: “I throw caution to the wind, and don’t give a damn,” Hiatt chimes on the record’s opener “Rae,” a twangy tune about the dual pleasures of pretending to be someone other than who you are and having someone in your life who knows you on a molecular level. There’s a caution to “Rae” in its first 45 or so seconds that belies Walking Proof’s prevailing confidence: Hiatt’s voice rings so quietly, so meekly, that for but a moment it feels like she’s tricking her audience. Walking Proof is, after all, neither quiet nor meek, though it does have its share of hushed tracks. —Andy Crump

15. 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

14. 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

13. 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

12. 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

11. U.S. Girls: Heavy Light

If Heavy Light were released five years ago, it wouldn’t be considered a political album. Thankfully (or unfortunately) not even a casual listener in 2020 would miss Meghan Remy’s cutting commentary, a convention of her music that’s become quintessential in her over 10-year musical career. Her most referential work to date, Heavy Light is defined by an inward-facing well of civic unrest, with Remy foregoing the prescriptive style of her manifesto-like 2018 album In a Poem Unlimited. The record’s name is itself a reference to Franz Kafka (“Faith, like a guillotine. As heavy as light.”), and Remy merges the ideals of the realist movement with narratives of experiential, hometown frustration. There’s a clear reference to Bruce Springsteen (instead of being “Born to Run,” Remy would say she’s “Born to Lose”) throughout Heavy Light, with Springsteen’s current E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons interjecting a soul-rousing solo in lead single “Overtime.” It’s here, after the only two songs on Heavy Light that even slightly resemble Poem (“4 American Dollars” and “Overtime”), that Remy begins to build the conscience-focused rhetoric of the record. Largely, the album is a move to activism of consent: She isn’t making assumptions about what people want or how they feel; they have to want it too, and need to get there in their own right. —Austin Jones

10. Caribou: Suddenly

The weight of mortality permeates throughout Suddenly, Dan Snaith’s latest album under his Caribou moniker. Between the death of a close relative, the birth of a second child and the possibility that the world will collapse under the weight of its own hubris, it’s hard to fault Snaith for ruminating about the big beyond. “I can’t do it all on my own,” he sighs contemplatively on “Sister” over a spectral synth and the sound of his mother singing a lullaby. The subject of his admission is unclear, but it’s a thesis statement that recurs throughout his career, most overtly in Our Love’s “Can’t Do Without You,” the euphoric record and single that brought him big-font festival lineup placements and conservative talk radio airplay. Suddenly unspools itself more easily than any of his past work, in part thanks to how sharp and pert the sound itself is, but that belies the continued intricacy of Snaith’s handiwork. When he finds lulls in grooves, moments of seeming complacency, he discovers new ways to insert additional stimuli: the split-second breakbeat in the chorus of propellent garage jam “New Jade” or the guitar loop that sours ever so slightly to match its lyrical conceit on “Like I Loved You,” a song that itself sounds like it shares mutant DNA with a Neptunes-produced joint. —Joshua Bote

9. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman

If you Google “oldest known musical instrument,” you’ll find that the answer is the flute: 42,000-year-old fragments of the instrument carved from bird bone and mammoth ivory were discovered in a German cave a decade ago. But the cheekier, less scientific answer to that query, though, is the human voice. It makes logical sense: As long as there have been humans, they’ve surely used their voice to sing. In other words, it’s not just the material that’s timeless on the new self-titled album from folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman. It’s the voices—of decorated singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and Fruit Bats leader Eric D. Johnson, especially—that make Bonny Light Horseman more than just another rehash of traditional songs. The trio, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (The National, Josh Ritter), came together during two 2018 festivals connected to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner—Eaux Claires in Wisconsin and the 37d03d Festival in Berlin. There, Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman zeroed in on their goal: to give ancient songs a contemporary twist, and to surround the timeless feelings expressed in those songs with drop-dead gorgeous string and vocal arrangements. —Ben Salmon

8. Soccer Mommy: color theory

Although Soccer Mommy’s 2018 debut studio album Clean transformed her into a critical favorite, indie-rock leader and tour opener for Paramore, Kacey Musgraves and Vampire Weekend, anyone who’s grappled with mental illness knows that success isn’t a salve. Following Clean, Soccer Mommy (real name Sophie Allison) became especially vocal about her struggles with body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety. These challenges lied solely at the periphery of Clean’s tales about youthful, regretful romantic breakdowns and insecurities, but on her eagerly anticipated Clean follow-up color theory, Allison bravely pulls her mental illness from the sidelines to the forefront, and she also tackles a grave subject she’s spoken about far less frequently: her mother’s terminal cancer. Success neither curing mental illness nor reversing a parent’s medical death sentence is a lot for a 22-year-old to face, but Allison is more than up to the task. color theory is an astounding feat of lyricism as clever as it is devastating, and Allison’s songwriting, production and voice are likewise orders of magnitude stronger than they were on Clean, recalling ’90s alt radio while pushing Soccer Mommy in galvanizing new directions. To call it an early contender for the year’s best indie rock album wouldn’t be an exaggeration. —Max Freedman

7. Run the Jewels: RTJ4

runthejewels_rtj4_albumart.jpeg At this time, political rap heroes Run the Jewels and Rage Against the Machine were supposed to be on taking a break in the middle of their co-headlining international tour, but it was postponed due to COVID-19. Now, in the midst of economic turmoil, a pandemic and altogether uncertainty, the tragic death of Minneapolis’ George Floyd has sparked nationwide protests against police violence. “Fuck it, why wait.” was the cathartic boom written in neon pink letters that signaled RTJ4’s arrival two days early, for free, in standard Run the Jewels fashion. Both the album’s accessibility and message are intended to highlight the ongoing revolution, which is clearly a cause the duo readily supports. RTJ4 serves as a loving ode to the old school more so than on any of their other albums, with a Greg Nice and DJ Premier feature, Killer Mike’s references to 2 Live Crew on “never look back” (“Uncle Luke don’t stop, get it get it Magic City”), and a brilliantly manipulated Gang of Four sample on “the ground below.” This hodgepodge of styles and references emphasize what their music is all about. El-P’s New York roots meshed with Killer Mike’s Dirty South origins seem strange at first, but it’s their shared love of hip- hop’s history and politics that make the duo unlike anyone else. They treat hip- hop as a universal and political language that transcends identity, relying on the mechanics of the genre as a vehicle to tell meaningful stories, even if it means driving that vehicle directly into the building. RTJ4 is the perfect soundtrack to the revolution, especially the one not televised. —Jade Gomez

6. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions

Jason Isbell isn’t the kind of guy you’d think of as haunted, but he’s surrounded by ghosts on his new album. Some of them are the literal shades of people he (or his narrators) once knew who are gone now. Others are figurative: past selves, maybe, lingering in the shadows that memory casts. Together, they’re the spirits that comprise Reunions, Isbell’s latest LP with his band the 400 Unit, and the follow-up to his 2017 release The Nashville Sound. It’s not surprising that Isbell would find himself in the company of spectres. It’s a function of getting older and realizing how much you, and the world around you, have changed over time, of discovering that parts of life that once loomed large in your mind aren’t as big you seem to remember. Isbell turned 41 this year, young enough that his formative years still seem closer than they really are, and old enough for the Alabama-born singer to have discovered that taking the longer view helps ease the sting of all those hard-learned lessons that can pile up in early adulthood. That is, if you’re lucky enough to come through it with your wits intact and with enough perspective to see the journey as something more than a bumpy ride over rough terrain. Isbell has both smarts and perspective, and each seems to increase a little bit more from one album to the next. He’s always been an empathetic songwriter with a distinctive willingness to see the world from a point of view other than his own. Like any good storyteller, Isbell creates characters, and he has a storyteller’s ability to bring them to life by infusing them with enough of his own experiences, be it sobriety or fatherhood, to make their struggles and small triumphs resonate. —Eric R. Danton

5. Moses Sumney: grae

It’s a special thing to watch a promising artist rise to meet the moment in front of them. Some never quite get there. They retreat from the pressure or they run into a ceiling that’s lower than expected. Sometimes bad timing or unlucky circumstances prove insurmountable. And then there’s folks like Moses Sumney, the prodigiously talented and artistically ambitious American singer-songwriter who has relentlessly resisted the shortest path to stardom over the past several years. With a stunning voice, a striking figure and a lot of famous friends on his side, he could’ve at any point submitted himself to the hit machine and made a straightforward pop/R&B record that likely would’ve fast-tracked Sumney to household-name status. Instead, he has taken an omnivorous approach to his music, absorbing folk, soul, jazz, ambient and classical music into his unique sound. Still, his debut full-length—2017’s Aromanticism, an intimate exploration of lovelessness—sparked a fire that even Sumney couldn’t sidestep. Anticipation for a follow-up has run high in recent months, stoked by a series of gorgeous singles and an unconventional roll-out: Sumney released part one of his sophomore album, græ, in February, and part two arrived this month. Now that all 20 songs are out, it’s clear Moses Sumney has taken one giant step forward from Aromanticism, and in doing so has bounded off the precipice of expectation into a dazzling unknown. Clocking in at just over an hour long, the album is a vast landscape of words and sounds that stretch far across the artistic spectrum, but at the same time feel very much like members of the same extended family. Each shares a certain amount of DNA, but their inherent individualism is what gives Sumney his increasingly singular style. —Ben Salmon

4. Porridge Radio: Every Bad

Emotions are not absolute. Interpreting your own while trying to navigate the emotions of others is one of the hardest parts of being a human. The things we want and need are always changing, and trying to communicate that to other people often leads to confusion or frustration. Plus, when you’re battling your own demons, it makes things even harder. How do we make things better and dig ourselves out of a hole—especially if we don’t see the hole or if that hole has become comfortable? Brighton, U.K. quartet Porridge Radio grapple with these questions on their new album Every Bad. It’s their first LP since signing with Secretly Canadian, and it follows their 2016 self-recorded debut Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers. Through scratchy indie rock (“Don’t Ask Me Twice,” “Give/Take”), grand punk (“Lilac”) and even auto-tuned pop (“Something”), Porridge Radio take pop songs much further than listeners might’ve thought possible. They want us to know that it’s okay to not have all the answers, and it’s okay to feel contradictory emotions. They shout repeated lines like they’re therapeutically screaming into the void, but surprisingly, listening to it is just as therapeutic. It’s one thing for a band to capture a world in chaos, but it’s much more difficult to accurately capture a mind in chaos—Porridge Radio make it look like a cakewalk. Every Bad is the nuanced album that indie rock has needed for years. —Lizzie Manno

3. Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Perfume Genius is best known for centering his queerness in his experimental pop, but Mike Hadreas has also long explored how our bodies betray us. On 2014’s name-making Too Bright, his body was a “rotted peach,” and even the iconic, out-and-Capital-P-Proud protagonist of breakout single “Queen” was “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease.” (Hadreas has been vocal about his struggle with Crohn’s disease.) On 2017’s career-best Too Bright follow-up No Shape, he sang about death not as a feared end, but as liberation from our fragile, unreliable biological shells. When Hadreas took up modern dance last year, it seemed like a deliberate step to reclaim his body: To turn your movements into art is the polar opposite of feeling “rank, ragged, skin sewn on sheets.” His effort to overcome the body-brain gulf is more apparent than ever throughout No Shape follow-up Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, on which Hadreas loses control of not just his body, but his heart. As ever, his voice and music contort and warp in tandem with his anatomy. —Max Freedman

2. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud

In 2017, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeld quite literally blew the music world away. Her record Out in the Storm, which we named one of the best albums of that year, displayed a whole new side of the singer. Gone were the fortified bedroom pop of 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the rock-tinged freak-folk musings of her 2013 stunner Cerulean Salt and the brainy lo-fi recordings of her 2012 debut American Weekend. Out in the Storm sounds like its title suggests: loud, windy, chaotic and emotionally intense—a tried-and-true breakup album and a throwback to Crutchfield’s punk roots. If Out in the Storm was a tornado of sound and emotion, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s fifth album under the Waxahatchee alias (out Friday, March 27 on Merge Records) is the calm that comes afterwards. In some ways, it possesses little pieces of all the musical lives Crutchfield has lived before: punk-y vocals à la her once-upon-a-time rock band with Allison, P.S. Eliot, searing, Dylan-esque vocal delivery, chiming guitars straight off Out in the Storm, pastoral folk not unlike that of her 2018 EP Great Thunder. The songwriting remains impeccable. Within 10 seconds, you know—without a doubt—it’s a Waxahatchee album. Yet, it’s different from anything she’s ever released before. Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s country/Americana record. It runs on twang, jangle, truth and wide open spaces; on the album cover, Crutchfield, dressed in a billowy baby-blue frock, sprawls across an old Ford truck bearing a license plate from her native Alabama. “Can’t Do Much,” a single released ahead of the record, possesses that old-time lilt and a head-over-heels chorus that sounds like something Lucinda Williams may have spat out on Essence. Saint Cloud is a whole new world. —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

Also in Music