The 10 Best Albums of January 2020

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The 10 Best Albums of January 2020

The first month-long offering of 2020 albums has arrived, and like each month, we’re thrilled to share our favorites. Whether it’s Nashville folk, London dance music or French jangle-pop, this list has something for you. Many of the albums we were most excited about in January panned out and are on our regular rotation including TORRES, Frances Quinlan, Squirrel Flower and Andy Shauf. But others like En Attendant Ana and Okay Kaya took us by surprise. Scroll down for 10 of Paste’s favorite LPs from 2020 so far.

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

10. Mura Masa: R.Y.C

The U.K. has a great tradition of albums about youth. Acts like Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Arctic Monkeys and others released full-lengths that became eternally programmed into teenagers’ heads as soon as they rushed home from the record store. And Britain also has a robust electronic music history, too: Artists like The Chemical Brothers, Pet Shop Boys and Aphex Twin have inspired listeners across several generations, and they’re all still touring and making music. Enter Alex Crossan, the 23-year-old musician and producer behind Mura Masa whose 2017 self-titled debut LP was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the Grammy Awards. His first album featured appearances from A$AP Rocky, Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, Damon Albarn and more—pretty impressive for a baby-faced musician’s first solo album. R.Y.C (which stands for Raw Youth Collage) is meant to evoke the general and specific chaos of modern day youth, and per NME, he found musical inspiration from some of the fresh British faces that are shaking things up: slowthai, Squid, Stomrzy and black midi. If his debut showcased Britain’s more exotic sounds, then his second album taps into the country’s urgent newcomers. However, the escapism that pervaded his debut is still here, albeit packaged in a grittier, less heady way. —Lizzie Manno

9. The Big Moon: Walking Like We Do

“But dark matter and your naked body / Fill in the space between all I can explain,” sings Juliette Jackson in the first verse of “Love in the 4th Dimension” from The Big Moon’s Mercury Prize-nominated debut album of the same name. But she’s capable of explaining more than she thinks. The lead singer of the London rock quartet excels at depicting the fluctuating intimacy between people and the circumstances that determine that distance. On “Pull the Other One,” her significant other is trying to forcefully enter the door that separates them. Throughout “Cupid,” she’s dodging the arrows of potential suitors, and on “Zeds,” she’s losing sleep night after night from yearning for someone. While Jackson’s relationships come and go, the band’s sticky pop melodies and playful shared vocals become burned into your psyche like that brace-faced, zit-covered school portrait that will haunt you forever. On The Big Moon’s second album Walking Like We Do, their benevolent rock ‘n’ roll contains far more sonic possibilities. The Big Moon demonstrate both musical and lyrical versatility on Walking Like We Do. It might seem like a predictable move for a guitar band to unleash a keyboard-heavy album number two, but unlike other bands who have deployed this method, they don’t go so far down the wormhole that they lose their original appeal. Now that we know The Big Moon aren’t interested in trying to clone the tuneful guitar pop songs that brought them fans and acclaim, it seems that they want to be one of those acts that grows with their listeners—the best kind of band. —Lizzie Manno

8. 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

7. Andy Shauf: The Neon Skyline

Listening to an Andy Shauf album in full is akin to binging a particularly compelling TV show: Both pull you in with characters that feel just as real as you or me, who populate a world we’d like to escape to. It’s a world not unlike our own, but that’s part of the appeal, really. Shauf’s storytelling and uncanny realism have long been the linchpin of his appeal as an artist, though his previous release, The Party, showcased his talent on a whole other level. As a concept album, it documented the titular event, exploring vignettes about all of the party’s various attendees. Now, Shauf is following up his 2016 effort with The Neon Skyline, another concept album about a couple of friends on a night out at the pub. Every aspect of the central storyline—an ex randomly showing up after moving out of town, bad jokes, drunken ramblings—feels like it could be happening at your local dive just a couple blocks from your apartment. The intimacy of the story is bolstered by the album’s production and Shauf’s deft instrumentation. In comparison to the expansive sound of his recent work with indie four-piece Foxwarren, the woozy woodwind, warm piano and guitar (all played by Shauf himself) come across as if they are being played in the small back room of a bar. —Clare Martin

6. En Attendant Ana: Juillet

It only takes a few seconds of their single “In / Out” to realize that En Attendant Ana have something special. “Shred” isn’t a word you’d normally associate with jangle pop, but it can definitely be used to describe the chiming, pummeling riff that’s sprinkled throughout the Parisian band’s single. Margaux Bouchaudon’s vocals evoke Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier and Alvvays’ Molly Rankin—she was practically genetically engineered to sing perfect, hyper-melodic dream pop. It would be unfair to dub them a dream pop outfit—they tap into avant-pop, post-punk and college rock with similar ease. With their second album Juillet, they subvert listeners’ perception of them on nearly every track. “From My Bruise to an Island” is a soothing, horn-led ambient piece, “Flesh or Blood” is incisive post-punk at its best and “Words” drops a warped synth interlude alongside wailing brass. They approach familiarly blissful indie-pop (“Do You Understand?”) with as much care as they do their more complex, off-kilter moments. It’s rare to find such thoughtfulness in a record so unabashedly tuneful. —Lizzie Manno

5. Squirrel Flower: I Was Born Swimming

Squirrel Flower (aka Ella O’Connor Williams) will release this week her Polyvinyl debut, I Was Born Swimming. She made a splash with lead single “Red Shoulder,” a wrenching rock tune that pairs her poised vocals with scorching guitars, sounding astoundingly alive. “Headlights,” Williams’ second track from the record, is practically its opposite—a soft, shimmering track that proves she’s just as excellent in the realm of tender introspection. —Amanda Gersten

4. Hawktail: Formations

There’s so much a song can convey through notes that lyrics alone cannot. Movement, for instance, like the sensation of riding in a caravan, each bump in the road felt through plucks of a mandolin or the genial elastic hum of a bass; nature, couched either in one’s surroundings or in the mundane passing of weather; emotion, like joy at the sight of the sun rising or melancholy at the year’s first snowfall. (Or maybe snow brings joy, too, at least if you spend time at Ober Gatlinburg.) Formations, the sophomore album from Nashville folk powerhouse Hawktail, captures each of these experiences and all of these vibes effortlessly, or at least the effort feels lightweight. Making music as impeccable and polished as the seven tracks that comprise Formation’s whole takes years of training and practice. Marrying that level of mastery with the articulate communication of imagery and motifs through instruments alone requires something much more intangible. Nary a word is spoken or sung on Formations, and, yes, art being subject to interpretation, listeners will walk away with their own ideas of what the record is about and what it’s trying to say. But it remains true that whatever you think it’s saying, it’s nonetheless saying something, perhaps about Tennessee’s past, its ancestry, or the simple pleasure of a sled ride. —Andy Crump

3. Okay Kaya: Watch This Liquid Pour Itself

In the era of rising fascism, climate apocalypse, endless warfare, constant digital connection and omnipresent burnout, sometimes the best way to find relief is to tweet a sardonic one-liner. Kaya Wilkins knows this well: Throughout Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, her sophomore album (and first for Jagjaguwar) as Okay Kaya, the Brooklyn-via-Norway producer/songwriter makes the type of self-deprecating, often hyper-sexual jokes that might populate the average millennial’s Twitter feed. Instead of relying on memespeak, though (save mentions of “current mood” and “daddy” on the baritone-warped disco tune “Mother Nature’s Bitch”), she litters her lyrics with idiosyncrasies as social media era ironic as they are steadfastly earnest. In combining her equally sincere and sarcastic tales with her proclivity for ginormous hooks, her stunning, Sade-like croon and her disdain for genre boundaries, she’s crafted an infinitely quotable, profound and moving bedroom pop masterpiece. Most songs on Watch begin with Wilkins’ voice as she forgoes instrumental intros and directs all attention to her tales of mental illness, sexual prowess (or lack thereof), existential dread and bizarre romances. —Max Freedman

2. Frances Quinlan: Likewise

Joni Mitchell once said, “I’m a painter first. I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” You’ve heard her songs, but you’ve also seen her portraits, on the covers of Clouds, Both Sides Now and Taming The Tiger, to name a few places. Frances Quinlan, the frontwoman of esteemed Philadelphia punk outfit Hop Along, is a bit like Mitchell in that sense. She’s a lyricist, a writer, a singer (one of the most instantly recognizable in rock music, at that) and a talented painter. Her artwork appears on the three most recent Hop Along covers: 2018’s Bark Your Head Off, Dog, 2012’s Get Disowned and 2015’s Painted Shut, one of Paste’s favorite albums of the 2010s. Using someone else’s work for Hop Along visuals was always out of the question. Cut to now, and Quinlan is preparing to release her first solo album under her own name. Likewise is probably folksier than much of Hop Along’s more recent material, but only in the sense that the instrumentation is more bare and the storytelling takes center stage. For Likewise, Quinlan took inspiration from her own life (and other places, too—books, podcasts, etc.) and sculpted those moments into tight-knit little parables themselves. —Ellen Johnson

1. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman

What is a “bonny light horseman” anyways? Formally, it refers to the nimblest, most handsome rider in the calvary, but here it’s also the name of an age-old folk ballad. The song dates back to the early-1800s Napoleonic Wars, which carried on extensively with England during the era when Napoleon I wore the French crown. Irish, English and even American printers picked up the tune during that time, and since then leagues of folk singers, like Mary Ann Carolan, Nic Jones and Siobhan Miller, have covered it through the ages. Now there’s a new version of the song like you’ve never heard it before (maybe even because you’ve never heard it before) sung by a trio of modern folk/rock titans. The tune’s nomenclature is also what this group has decided to call themselves: Bonny Light Horseman, comprised of Anaïs Mitchell, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman (a producer who’s worked with Hiss Golden Messenger, Bob Weir, Josh Ritter and The National, among many others), released their self-titled debut album, and it’s a gold mine for historical musical references and twinkling folklore that feels familiar, but is often something entirely new. Bonny Light Horseman is a project where the past and present blur seamlessly, the old and the new dancing a soft, sly jig. —Ellen Johnson

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