The 10 Best Albums of June 2020

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The 10 Best Albums of June 2020

2020 is a year defined by pain, disease and a long overdue racial justice movement. There’s no doubting that now, and while there’s still six months of the year left, there’s no changing it. However we may remember June 2020 for its music in addition to its movements. And the two weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. This month, we received Run The Jewels’ fiery fourth LP, which our critic called the “unofficial soundtrack of the uprising.” It is truly an album of this moment. We also received the excellent new album from one of America’s finest musicians, Bob Dylan, in addition to career-best new records from Phoebe Bridgers, Hinds and HAIM. Don’t waste another moment without these records in your life. Dig into all the best music from June 2020 below.

10. Christian Lee Hutson: Beginners

The tradition of sad men singing beautifully about their pain runs deep through the folk genre as well as popular music as a whole. But there’s something especially tender about the music of artists like Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens and Jason Molina, all self-deprecating masters of the English language who, through their own perpetual battles with depression and heartbreak and life in general, each taught (or are still teaching) us something new about the preciousness of the human condition. Joining that lineage of great singer/songwriters is L.A.-based musician Christian Lee Hutson, who recently released his new album Beginners after a year or so of hype building. Hutson worked closely with Phoebe Bridgers, who produced the record, and he also co-wrote a song on Bridgers’ and Oberst’s Better Oblivion Community Center album from last year, plus opened/played guitar for them on that tour. Hutson sounds so much like Smith you have to wonder if it’s cosplay—like Smith, his voice is airy and strained, yet so soft, and his lyrics possess a similar noir, but funny mood—but he also sings like Bridgers. While the similarities to both his contemporaries and those who came before him are impossible to ignore, there are few musicians who could pull off singing about an aspiring building inspector and make it so equally funny and sweet—but Hutson possesses a rare balance of critical wit and soul. On album standout “Lose this Number,” he slips in anecdotal blips (“Bobby helped me track you down / ‘cause I just saw your name in the paper / You said, ’Of course that reminded you of me / Don’t you know that’s how a name works?’”) alongside vague, but vivid, imagery that will spark all one’s senses at once (“Where the whole time I’ve just been asleep here / Twenty years younger / Smell of sugar and seaweed / Indian summer.”). —Ellen Johnson

9. Jehnny Beth: To Love Is To Live

The debut album from Jehnny Beth is unlike anything we’ve heard from her previous band, the British-based post-punk powerhouse Savages. To Love Is To Live is her most vulnerable work as a musician thus far, as well as a mystifying genre-hopping affair. Produced by Flood, Atticus Ross and frequent collaborator Johnny Hostile, the album features dramatic textures and spans self-reflective piano ballads, sultry electro-pop numbers and industrial rock stompers. It also includes songwriting contributions from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, a spoken-word passage read by actor Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders (“A Place Above”) and a vigorous verse from IDLES’ Joe Talbot on the glitchy, dark pop tune “How Could You.” Beth reaches into the deepest corners of her being as she ponders desire, intimacy, power structures and self-doubt, and she delves into each topic with graceful poetry and stark imagery. —Lizzie Manno

8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Sideways to New Italy

Fans of Rolling Blackouts C.F.’s The Go-Betweens-indebted, jangle-pop-tinged guitar-rock will find themselves on familiar ground on Sideways to New Italy. The quintet—which comprises singer-songwriter-guitarist trio Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney, plus bassist Joe Russo and drummer Marcel Tussie—arrived essentially fully formed with 2016’s Talk Tight, and have remained remarkably consistent since, from 2017 EP The French Press to their acclaimed full-length debut, 2018 standout Hope Downs. Their second album’s roots run deep through their creative output to this point: The chords of b-side standout “Cameo” originally belonged to Hope Downs’ abandoned title track, while the chorus of closer “The Cool Change” first appeared in a song Tom Russo, White and Keaney performed in a previous band back in the 2000s. And from those roots, the band continues to grow, excelling at their characteristically propulsive rock while making room for more emotion-imbued softness and nuanced instrumentation to shine through, a natural progression that quietly slips an arm around the listener, rather than grabbing them by the lapels. —Scott Russell

7. Hum: Inlet

My first shoegaze phase took place during my late high school and early college years, and, at some point, after working my way through the staple bands (My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, etc.), I stumbled upon Hum—possibly through fellow ’90s Chicago bands Pinebender or Lovesliescrushing, but I can’t quite remember. Hum were more aggressive than many of the shoegaze bands I was listening to, thanks to their post-hardcore and metal roots, and their 1998 album, Downward Is Heavenward, left a big impression on me with its scorching riffs and heavy use of phasers. Two years after that album came out, they got dropped by their label and called it quits, but this week, 22 years after the release of that record, they surprise-released a new LP called Inlet. As expected, there are plenty of thick, driving and flat-out thundering guitar passages (“Waves” and “The Summoning” will blow your head off), and their sensitive, mystical sides come out too (“Desert Rambler,” “Shapeshifter”). It’ll take a while to explore all the nuances of their smouldering soundscapes, but this album is an instant winner. —Lizzie Manno

6. Hinds: The Prettiest Curse

There should be a law requiring Hinds to release all of their future albums during the summer season in perpetuity. Grant that their latest, The Prettiest Curse, drops this week out of a sober respect for the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a reschedule from its original April 3 date. Also grant that the tone baked into every Hinds record, from 2016’s Leave Me Alone to 2018’s I Don’t Run, pairs perfectly with warm, sunny days spent driving on beachside highways with the windows rolled down, even when they’re singing about loneliness, breakups and the neverending quest for hugs and cuddles. Hinds’ usual fuzzed-up rock aesthetic bridges the gap between The Prettiest Curse and I Don’t Run nicely. The latter plays strictly in the mode of garage rock. The former reads mostly the same, but occasionally brightened with layers of pop. Effervescence is a key ingredient in all their music, but The Prettiest Curse’s bubbliness is more pronounced, the froth that shapes the band’s rising to the surface in a slightly broader coating. It’s not unusual for musicians to try updating their sound with outside influences and unexpected genres, but too often the experiment falls apart; the unfamiliar elements clang against the details that give the group character, like eating chocolate cake baked with carob. Not so with The Prettiest Curse. Hinds—Carlotta Cosials, Ana Perrote, Amber Grimbergen, and Ade Martin—have a strong grip on their musical identity, and they’re not keen on a makeover. —Andy Crump

5. HAIM: Women In Music Pt. III

Danielle begins the third HAIM LP by bemoaning the city that built them. “Los Angeles, give me a miracle,” she sings after a flurry of saxophone starts the song. “I just want out from this.” She continues into the chorus as her sisters Alana and Este join in on backup, singing “These days I can’t win.” The City of Angels is also the city of sweaty, broken dreams, as any struggling actor, screenwriter or regular-person-stuck-in-traffic can tell you. Even Danielle—primary songwriter for the trio—who was born, raised and primed for rock stardom in the sprawling city clearly can’t stand it some days. Danielle’s depression, which she has attributed to the struggles she and her partner/producer Ariel Rechtshaid faced upon his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2016, informs some of WIMPIII’s most specific and heartfelt lyrics. But her sisters’ struggles are just as important. Alana remembers her best friend who passed away at 20, while Este’s life has been full of ups and downs since her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis during her freshman year of high school. They all lean on each other, and that love is perhaps loudest in stirring folk number “Hallelujah.” Though outwardly carefree, WIMPIII finds HAIM exploring darker and more serious matters than ever before, which is one reason why it’s their most complete and forward-thinking release yet. Many of these songs find Danielle, Alana and Este flat on their backs, but it’s never long before they’ve returned to their default position: upright, strutting confidently through the streets of L.A. and life itself. —Ellen Johnson

4. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

It’s tempting to see Rough and Rowdy Ways as one of those late-career ruminations on mortality that often seem to come from musicians of a certain age, or a full-circle accounting that reconnects Bob Dylan, now 79, with his early days as a folk singer with a socially conscious bent. On the surface, the album could be either of those things, or both: After all, he gives over nearly 17 minutes of his 39th studio LP to a single song about the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, when the singer was 22. Yet the idea that he’s revisiting his youth, or settling his affairs, is too simple, too predictable, for a wily contrarian like Dylan. Since when has he ever done the obvious thing? Indeed, his latest comes after three albums spent rummaging around in the American songbook, an exercise that amounted to a gracious courtesy call from a guy who knows a few things about writing songs that endure. It’s hard to say what effect, if any, burrowing into those touchstone tunes has had on his own writing. Rough and Rowdy Ways simply sounds like Dylan, at his most Dylan-esque. These 10 tracks are steeped in American history, classical symbolism and biblical imagery, to say nothing of the literary asides, pop-culture references and musical allusions, from Shakespeare and William Blake to Ginsburg, Corso and Kerouac, Indiana Jones to Altamont, Chopin to Charlie Parker to “them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones,” as Dylan puts it on opener “I Contain Multitudes.” —Eric R. Danton

3. Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher

Her sophomore album Punisher cements what may be Bridgers’ most understated gift of all: her seemingly innate ability to capture the mundanity of modern sadness in song. Tucked in among the record’s memorable melodies, clever arrangements and impressive guests are a steady stream of details that lend plainspoken perspective to Bridgers’ emotional highs and (mostly) lows. These kinds of details ground her work in the same way shading makes a still life painting pop. They make them feel not just sad, but real. As an example, look back to “Funeral,” one of the highlights of Bridgers’ 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps. It’s a devastating tune about death and depression, and if it ended at the three-minute mark, it would still be a stunner. But she tacks on an extra bit that contextualizes the rest of the song: “It’s 4 a.m. again,” she sings flatly, “and I’m doing nothing again.” And all of a sudden … you’re there. Because you’ve been there (probably), and because Bridgers has been there, too, and she knows how to make this song about a stranger’s overdose into a highly relatable moment. The story now has a place to sit—in a dark room, screen glowing, silence deafening, thoughts racing. Again. Those kinds of moments pop up all over Punisher, which is generally noisier and more upbeat than its predecessor. The album’s clear standout (and one of the year’s best songs), “Kyoto,” features Bridgers’ crunchiest guitar riffs yet, a soaring chorus and the travails of dealing with someone who can’t quite get their shit together juxtaposed with a wander through a 7-11 and trip to the suburbs to stare at chemtrails. “I don’t forgive you,” she sings as a horn arrangement crests over this mind-numbing scene, “but please don’t hold me to it.” Later, in “Moon Song,” Bridgers traces the blurry boundaries of a complicated relationship before laying it all out in the final verse: “You are sick and you’re married and you might be dying,” she sings over a small crescendo, “but you’re holding me like water in your hands.” —Ben Salmon

2. Sault: Untitled (Black Is)

“The revolution has come (out the lies!) / Still won’t put down the gun.” This is the first line of Sault’s new album Untitled (Black Is). It’s time to amend your album-of-the-year lists, because the album of the Movement has arrived—and every second of it is glorious. Last year, a mysterious soul group named Sault arrived out of nowhere with two albums, titled 5 and 7. No one knew the identities of its musicians, and the albums were released on an independent label, but they drew rapturous acclaim. 5 and 7 were feasts of rhythmic and exuberant Afrobeat, soul, funk and R&B—the songs are passionate, radiant, radical and rooted in rich Black musical traditions (which by extension, are the same roots of most popular genres). They were unexpected triumphs, but after releasing two albums in the same year, one might’ve figured they would go silent—at least for a little while. But last week, something incredible happened—they surprise-released another album, Untitled (Black Is). On June 12, they posted a square image of a Black power fist on socials with the caption: “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.” The languid synthesizers on “Eternal Life,” the fury-filled shared vocals on “Stop Dem,” the jazzy guitars on “This Generation” and the skittering beats on “Black” make up a rich tapestry of soul, funk and gospel music. While there are nods to Motown, these aren’t your parents’ classic soul records—you’re hearing the eccentricities, voices and personalities of today and tomorrow. —Lizzie Manno

1. Run the Jewels: RTJ4

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

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