The 10 Best Albums of May 2020

Featuring Perfume Genius, Moses Sumney, Jason Isbell and more

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The 10 Best Albums of May 2020

Whether you have no recollection of the music that came out at the beginning, middle or end of May (and we wouldn’t blame you), or you have a detailed memory of it and a list of your most-cherished records, we want to share our 10 favorite albums from the past month with you. May saw the release of some of the best LPs of 2020 so far, like Perfume Genius’ grand album about physicality and Jason Isbell’s beautifully-written Reunions, and it also brought compelling records from artists that might be brand new to you like Puerto Rican pop duo Buscabulla and Brooklyn synth-pop band Nation of Language. If you’re in search of new music to dance to, get lost in or just calm yourself down, look no further than these 10 albums.

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

10. Buscabulla: Regresa

Regresa, the title of Buscabulla’s debut, references duo Raquel and Luis Alfredo’s 2018 return to their native Puerto Rico after living in New York. Together, they make organic electronica with reggaeton inflections that is equal parts tense and starkly immediate. Through the drumline beat of “Vámono” and the tribal shimmer of “NTE,” Buscabulla ruminate on coming back to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, amidst growing income inequality and steadfast Boriqua traditions that persevere. Nothing sounds like this right now and it’s informed by a unique journey and distinct musical reconnaissance that begs for your ears. —Adrian Spinelli

9. Choir Boy: Gathering Swans

Gathering Swans is Choir Boy’s sophomore album, following 2016’s Passive with Desire, where we were introduced to singer Adam Klopp’s alarmingly sincere vocals, which are legitimately difficult to describe without the overused adage “voice of an angel.” Klopp impressed on the debut, but on Gathering Swans he is absolutely hypnotizing. Tracks like opener “It’s Over” and single “Nites Like This” prove his worth as one of the best vocalists working. His voice is on full display, keeping the record afloat through even the most experimental tracks. The highlight of Gathering Swans is the buoyant, sparkling single “Complainer.” Klopp sings, “But it’s not that bad, I never really had it worse, I’m just a complainer,” a feeling many of us understand when we stop to realize we’re actually doing just fine. Relatable lyrics paired with bright synths and a post-punk bassline make this song joyous and dance-worthy, bringing to mind other unexpected beacons of positivity—the IDLES effect, if you will. The story goes that, while growing up in Ohio, Klopp was called “choir boy” as a dig, for what could be read as intense jealousy for his inimitable vocals, while also poking fun at his religious upbringing. But Klopp reclaimed the epithet, and rightfully so. If Gathering Swans shows us anything, it’s that Choir Boy deserve praise, not mockery. —Annie Black

8. Jess Williamson: Sorceress

About two-thirds of the way through the title track on her new album, Jess Williamson sings, “Yes, there’s a little magic in my hat / But I’m no sorceress.” Agree to disagree. Williamson is, at the very least, bewitching on Sorceress, her fourth album. It’s a blend of folk and country, with a dash of psychedelic rock, that brings together the strongest elements of her previous work—all the hints and glimpses of something deeper musically, and vocally, that never felt completely explored—into a fully realized collection of 11 songs that are at once polished, precise and visceral. Williamson could not sound more in control, or less concerned about it. The effect is, well, enchanting as she breezes through tunes that pull you into the center of rich musical arrangements so unobtrusively that you’re sometimes not quite sure how you got there. The musical emphasis shifts from song to song, with pedal steel guitar here or synthesizer string parts there, but Williamson’s voice—at once dusky and sweet—is a constant. —Eric R. Danton

7. Cafe Racer: Shadow Talk

Some psychedelic albums reach a hypnotic end cheaply. But Shadow Talk, the second album from Chicago experimental five-piece Cafe Racer, reaches heady emotional and sonic heights, not by leaning on overused effects or sprinkling meaningless, abstract imagery, but by expecting more out of a song and its lyrics. Shadow Talk is all about finesse and dynamics—Melodies cascade with subtlety and spark with a euphoric glow. They’re also masters of grooves both meditative and invigorating, and they experiment with foreground and background sounds in mind-numbing ways. It’s an extremely calming album until it isn’t—the guitar and synth fury on “Faces” is life-affirming, the guitar solo in “Exile” is painfully emotive and its subsequent outro track creates blistering, ambient havoc. It’s a moody, empathetic album, bolstered by repetition and the palpable scenes they create, whether that’s an imagined, heavenly gorge or the melancholy urban landscapes you traverse every day. —Lizzie Manno

6. Hayley Williams: Petals for Armor

After her decade-long relationship and highly publicized divorce with New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, the now 31-year old Hayley Williams took to her solo work as a way to open up about her struggles with mental health and romance. While Williams used Paramore’s later efforts as an opportunity to express herself without the constraints of sticking to their original pop-punk roots, Petals For Armor feels like a true liberation made not out of frustration, but out of realization. The opening track “Simmer” uses vocal loops and delicate percussion to create a tense yet atmospheric introduction to this new world that Petals For Armor builds. Williams pushes the limits of her vocals as she dances between sensual whispers and expertly constrained high notes. It’s a humble reintroduction to her in many ways, showcasing her true range. Throughout Petals For Armor, I could not help but feel enamored with Williams all over again. Her vulnerability is not slathered in metaphors, nor is it too plain for assumptions. On her solo debut, Williams forgoes all expectations to create an experimental and multifaceted picture of pain as she opens up a new door into a new decade of her life. It’s an earnest reflection of her life and evolution in the spotlight, which she has been in since she was 16. Petals For Armor is the bridge she built into her own womanhood, and maybe we can learn something from it. —Jade Gomez

5. 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

4. Nation of Language: Introduction, Presence

Sometimes a synth-pop song’s only purpose is to make you feel alive on the dance floor, and that’s fine. You can still feel a deep emotional connection as you latch onto its pulse and forget your worries. But the kind of life-affirming synth-pop that makes you cry—think giants like Robyn or LCD Soundsystem—are the artists that will ruin your life (in the best possible way). New York City’s Nation of Language have been releasing singles since 2016, and their lead singer and songwriter Ian Devaney recently collaborated with Strokes drummer Fab Moretti on a project called machinegum for an album last year. It was obvious, even several years ago, that Devaney was an unusually consistent songwriter—every song was capable of making you pull over your car for a quick sob or triumphantly stick your head out of the sunroof with outstretched arms. His ’80s-indebted electro-pop meshed beautifully with the dance-punk sounds of the city’s yesteryear, and his songs had an emotional immediacy that was unrivaled. Now, having finally unveiled their debut full-length, which contains some of those incredible early singles, it feels like Nation of Language have more of a right to claim the “soaring synth-pop” mantle than anyone else right now. —Lizzie Manno

3. 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

2. Moses Sumney: græ (Part Two)

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

1. 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

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