Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

These are the records we've leaned on during the last six tumultuous months

Mid-Year Report

Welcome to our Mid-Year Report. All week long we’ll be sharing the music, movies, and television that have helped us survive a strange and confusing six months. We start today with our Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far).

It’d be fatuous to pretend that the first six months of 2020 have been like any other. All of us are facing difficult realities: the pain of injustice, the loss of a loved one, or even just the despair of looking out the window and not knowing what tomorrow will bring or when it will come. For the purposes of this list, then, maybe it’s equally foolish to think music impacted us the same way it always does. Then again, perhaps that’s what makes music so integral to our lives: that no matter what the world or our individual lives look like, music has the magical knack of providing the very thing needed.

I like to believe that. I like to believe that Charli XCX helped us feel less alone with her quarantine album. I like to believe that Lady Gaga returned to her pop roots because she knew we really needed to dance right about now. I like to believe that Run the Jewels put out the very soundtrack we need to keep the protests and calls for justice and reform going. Maybe that’s too naive a way of looking at art, but it helps me to know that no matter what I need to feel in a time when the world seems completely unfeeling, there’s probably an album, old or new, that has my back.

Here are 25 records that we have leaned on through the first six tumultuous months of 2020.

Boy, do we appreciate the support.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

25. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene

Grimes - Miss Antropocene

Origin: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

The Gist: It’s been five years since Grimes delivered Art Angels and recalibrated alternative pop for the better of humankind. Since then, it’s been a Byzantine story for the Canadian singer-songwriter (and for anyone who’s been interested enough to follow), one full of teases, snippets, collaborations, disagreements, love, and, ultimately, new life. Now, here we are, some five years later, and Grimes is with Elon Musk, has a child, and a fifth studio album in Miss Anthropocene.

Why It Rocks: Grimes thrives in the complexities. Like Art Angels, each track demands a subreddit of its own to detail its melange of genres and sounds, all of which demand repeat listens from now until the sun becomes as black as sack cloth and the moon turns to blood. Speak of the devil, Miss Anthropocene is similarly dark, pushing Grimes into apocalyptic territory as she ruminates on human extinction. Hey, gimme death any day if it sounds this good. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Delete Forever”, “Violence”, and “4ÆM”

Pick up the album here.

24. Jeff Rosenstock – NO DREAM

Jeff Rosenstock No Dream Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Long Island, New York

The Gist: Jeff Rosenstock released No Dream via Polyvinyl Records smack dab in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, a complete surprise to just about everyone. This isn’t out of the ordinary for Rosenstock; he did the exact same thing with his last record in 2018, sans pandemic, of course.

Why It Rocks: No Dream, as a whole, is pure, unadulterated fun. Rosenstock’s raucous, hyper energy shines, reminiscent of early-2000’s pop punk on tracks like opener “NO TIME” and “***BNB”, a sound that has proven to be timeless, and for good reason. The lead single, “Scram!” is, quite frankly, catchy as hell and would be a blast to sing along to at a live show. Hopefully, we can all do that one day, preferably sooner than later. –Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “Scram!”, “f a m e”, and “State Line”

Pick up the album here.

23. BTS – Map of the Soul: 7

BTS - Map of the Soul 7

Origin: Seoul, South Korea

The Gist: Hopefully, we’re past the cultural point of wondering how BTS became the biggest pop group in the world and ready to look more closely at why they are so deserving of that title and what it means to be in that position. These are some of the ideas the group themselves are working out on their latest full-length release, Map of the Soul: 7. Following last year’s EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, the group continue to borrow their album titles from psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of the self. This time around, the group are incorporating ideas of the Ego and Shadow throughout the album. The first five songs before “Interlude : Shadow” are tracks from Persona, but the 15 songs that follow are new to fans, spanning the wide variety of genres and influences — from trap and R&B to pop ballads and hip-hop — that the group have become known for.

Why It Rocks: BTS are both the world’s biggest and most interesting act in pop music right now: 7 solidifies this position and smartly looks towards the future. Their cultural impact is undeniable, and their work continues to push forward conversations about genre, language, and much more. There’s no telling what BTS will do next, but that’s what’s so compelling. –Hanna Zwick

Essential Tracks: “Interlude : Shadow”, “Black Swan”, and “UGH!”

Pick up the album here.

22. Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist – Alfredo

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist Alfredo Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Gary, Indiana, and Beverly Hills, California

The Gist: It was just a short year ago that Freddie Gibbs found himself riding high off Bandana, his second major collaboration with producer Madlib and arguably his finest output yet. Less than a calendar year later, he threatens to top that masterpiece with yet another, this time teaming up with The Alchemist, whom Gibbs partnered with on Fetti, a 2018 split album with Curren$y.

Why It Rocks: In a year where a lot of hip-hop headlines have chased names like Eminem, Run the Jewels, Jay Electronica, and even a late Mac Miller (R.I.P.) — and not without good reason — it’s important to remember that workmanlike names like Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist keep doing what they do with or without the fanfare. Alfredo finds Gibbs bruising over ominous beats (“God Is Perfect”) and more soulful arrangements (“Something to Rap About”) alike, flexing his many muscles as an emcee while occasionally swapping verses with names like Tyler, The Creator, Rick Ross, and Benny the Butcher. While Gibbs and The Alchemist may not get the same ink as others, the quality they inject into track after track continues to outshine flashier contemporaries. –Matt Melis 

Essential Tracks: “Something to Rap About” (ft. Tyler, the Creator), “God Is Perfect”, and “Scottie Beam”

Pick up the album here.

21. Beach Bunny – Honeymoon

Beach Bunny Honeymoon Album Cover Stream Track by Track

Origin: Chicago, Illinois

The Gist: Following a quartet of EPs and some unexpected TikTok popularity, Beach Bunny were big enough to land spots at their hometown’s Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. Not long after, the band signed with beloved indie label Mom + Pop and booked time in Steve Albini’s Electric Audio studios. Led by Lili Trifilio, the group’s full-length debut, Honeymoon, dropped appropriately on Valentine’s Day, instantly winning our hearts.

Why It Rocks: Looking at the rest of this list, it’s clear — and understandable — that there’s a certain “type” of album that really sticks out in 2020. Honeymoon isn’t the charged, soul-searching effort that dominates the current conversation. It is instead a relatively simple, sincere recounting of the highs and lows of young romance. And it nails those feelings to the wall with flawlessly aimed pop punk. The insecurity of self-worth (“Rearview”), the agony of unrequited affection (“Ms. California”), the bliss of proper love (“Cloud 9”) — the full gamut is run with such perfect sweetness that re-listening to even the most “emo” moments is a joy. February seems like such an innocent time compared to June, but there’s a reason we named Beach Bunny our Artist of the Month back then, and we haven’t forgotten it. — Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “Dream Boy”, “Rearview”, and “Promises”

Pick up the album here.

20. Princess Nokia – Everything Is Beautiful

Princess Nokia Everything Is Beautiful Album Artwork

Origin: New York, New York

The Gist: It’s hard for a single album to capture the entirety of some artists, even if it stretches into the 20-track range. In searching for new ways to express all sides of her admittedly “weird” identity, Princess Nokia’s solution was to release two records simultaneously: Everything Sucks and Everything Is Beautiful. The former is the “brash, ruthless” counterpart to the “sensitive, feminine side” of the latter. While it’s almost unfair, then, to consider the projects separately, the world itself is defined by this dichotomy; it’s usually best when we focus on the beautiful, and it’s no different here.

Why It Rocks: Which isn’t to say Everything Is Beautiful is in any way one-dimensional. Princess Nokia battles insecurities on “Heart” and express their willingness to throw down (“on racists, bigots, and scum”) on the funky gospel of “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”. While they explore the hallmark warmth of the modern independent hip-hop scene throughout, throwback flows like “Gemini” align them astrologically with artists like André 3000, Tupac, and Anne Frank. Whatever style they adopt, Princess Nokia finds ways to elevate above the harsher realities of Everything Sucks. It all comes to a clear-cut, well, conclusion on the contemplative closer “The Conclusion”: “Hi, my name is Destiny, and I’m a good person/ I see that you’re mean to me, and I did not deserve it/ I survived from trauma, and I’m living out my purpose/ And I’m sure you are, too, we’re really not that different.” We should all be able to embrace our multitudes with Princess Nokia’s candor. —Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”, “Wash & Sets”, and “Gemini”

Pick up the album here.

19. Caribou – Suddenly

caribou suddenly album artwork cover Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Dundas, Hamilton, Canada

The Gist: Caribou, aka Dan Snaith, has been on the electronic music radar for the vast majority of the last two decades, but it had been about five years since we’d heard from him last. The Merge Records mainstay dropped Suddenly at the end of February, and well, suddenly, Caribou is right at the front of our brains again.

Why It Rocks: Caribou’s Suddenly starts out slowly and eerily, almost Sufjan Stevens-like in the vocals, but quickly ramps up with the second track, “You and I”, which, oddly enough might have been a good fit on Daft Punk’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories. From then on, the album takes a dive into pure electronic groove with unexpected, delightful instrumentals and samples, like the piano on “Sunny’s Time” and the use of Gloria Barnes’ 1973 hit “Home” on Caribou’s track sharing the same name. It’s impossible to listen to this record and stay still at the same time, so good luck if you decide to give it a try. —Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “You and I”, “Never Come Back”, and “Ravi”

Pick up the album here.

18. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now

Charli XCX coronavirus quarantine album how i'm feeling now album artwork

Origin: Cambridge, England

The Gist: How I’m Feeling Now came less than a year after Charli, one of our favorite albums of 2019. Not only that, Charli XCX wrote and recorded it in just a six-week period while entirely in quarantine, channeling her own pandemic-induced anxieties as well as those of her fans, who offered creative input nearly every step of the way. Although there are no big-name guests to be found here, Charli did gather assistance from futurist pop purveyors like producers PC Music leader A. G. Cook and BJ Burton, Dylan Brady of 100 gecs, Dijon, and Danny L Harle.

Why It Rocks: Whereas her previous album focused on polished, experimental club pop and the pizzazz of friendly collaborations, how i’m feeling now is concerned with the unprecedented present and all the raw feelings that come with this coronavirus era. There’s a vulnerability, exposure, and stream-of-consciousness outpouring of emotions never-before-heard from Charli, the weight of the world weighing down on her in real time, forcing her to reimagine love and life from the confines of a lockdown. “I’ve been reeling for 12 days, when I start to see fear it gets real bad,” she sings on the instantly relatable “detonate”. We’ve always considered Charli an artist making pop for the future, but this time around her music documents the here and now, our messy and scared selves, like a perfect time capsule. –Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “claws”, forever”, and “party 4 u”

Pick up the album here.

17. Frances Quinlan – Likewise

Likewise by Frances Quinlan solo album artwork

Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Gist: Frances Quinlan is a name you might not know right off the bat, but you probably know her band, Hop Along. Likewise is her first release under her own name, released by Saddle Creek Records at the end of January.

Why It Rocks: Quinlan strips it all down for us on Likewise. The album as a whole is earnest, raw and absolutely sparkling with sincerity as we hear Frances sing in her signature, inimitable rasp over beautiful instrumentals. While the standout track on the album is “Rare Thing”, a song that features Hop Along as backup, that doesn’t mean Quinlan needs her usual crew of boys with her to make a great album. Quinlan does it all on her own, right down to the album cover, which is a work of art in itself. —Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “Rare Thing”, “A Secret”, and “Went to LA”

Pick up the album here.

16. The Weeknd – After Hours

 Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The Gist: After exorcising his inner demons on 2018’s cruelly underrated My Dear Melancholy EP, The Weeknd announced a proper follow-up to 2016’s Starboy by the end of that year. Not surprisingly, it took another 365 days for the Canadian sensation to deliver — and for good reason. After Hours is an unprecedented odyssey for the singer, a tour de force in poetry and production that disengages from the expectations set upon him — by his fans, by his critics, and certainly by himself.

Why It Rocks: No doubt inspired by the pawn shop, hologram glaze that ensconces the Safdies’ filmography — after all, he did appear in their magnum opus, Uncut Gems — The Weeknd returns not as a starboy but a starman. After Hours wastes zero time making that point clear with opener “Alone Again” warping right into his soul. Yet, it’s not exactly a torturous space anymore; instead, his introspections are laced with an adventurous spirit that’s as affecting as it is addicting. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Blinding Lights”, “Alone Again”, and “Save Your Tears”

Pick up the album here.

15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is

Thundercat - It Is What It Is

Origin: Los Angeles, California

The Gist: The fourth album from Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) follows the excellent Drunkfrom 2017. While the 15-track collection looks inward to pose existential questions — especially in the wake of the death of close friend Mac Miller — the bass maestro doesn’t go it alone, bringing together one of the year’s most impressive lists of special guests.

Why It Rocks: It Is What It Is features heavy-hitters in Childish Gambino, Kamasi Washington, BADBADNOTGOOD, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil B, and Flying Lotus, who also serves as executive producer alongside Thundercat. The all-star contributions provide extra support to Thundercat’s usual whimsical humor, as well as bolster the jazz fusion artist’s more serious inquiries, many of which have to do with mortality, grief, and the unknown. The album is Thundercat’s first since Miller’s passing in 2018 and much of it feels like an homage to him in some way, with “Fair Chance” being directly inspired by the late rapper.–Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “Fair Chance”, ” Black Qualls”, and “Dragonball Durag”

Pick up the album here.

14. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

Rina Sawayama - Sawayama

Origin: London, England

The Gist: Rina Sawayama has been on the pop circuit for a while, but her self-titled 2020 release is her official debut album. Thanks to her frequent collaboration with producer Clarence Clarity, Sawayama’s style has tended to skew towards the kind of maximalist, bubblegum pop that was all over Top 40 in the late ‘90s, but with her own unique twist.

Why It Rocks: Sawayama, our April Artist of the Month, knocked it out of the park on her debut. Elton John is even saying it’s his favorite album of the year, which is possibly one of the highest compliments you can get as a new(ish) pop artist. From opener “Dynasty” down to the very last track, “Snakeskin”, we’re taken for a thoroughly wild ride, hitting the unexpectedly metal “STFU!”, a theatrical, Circus-era Britney Spears-esque track “Akasaka Sad”, and the sweet, feelgood “Chosen Family” along the way. No two songs are alike, but somehow they all fit seamlessly together. Sawayama is an artist to watch closely, because she’s not stopping anytime soon. —Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “XS”, “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)”, and “Bad Friend”

Pick up the album here.

13. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Heaven to a Tortured Mind by Yves Tumor artwork

Origin: Miami, Florida

The Gist: Sean Bowie (aka Yves Tumor) came onto our radars in 2018 with Safe in the Hands of Love and a couple singles, “Noid” and “Licking an Orchid”, that we couldn’t extract from our collective headspace. Two years later, they stood no chance of sneaking up on us again. Heaven to a Tortured Mind takes the artist’s hypnotic looping to all new levels of addictiveness with more vocal hooks and even richer tapestries.

Why It Rocks: If you grew up on good, old-fashioned verse-chorus-verse rock or even fairly conventional pop, the world of “experimental” music can leave you scratching your head. The genius of Yves Tumor is their knack for taking both old-school and unfamiliar sounds and creating a groove that’s so infectious that you forget about genre altogether. Tracks like the pining “Gospel for a New Century” and sexy “Kerosene!” are irresistable jams that feel as at home blasting from a car stereo as they would pulsing through a club on Saturday night. –Matt Melis

Essential Tracks: “Gospel for a New Century”, “Kerosene!”, and “Dream Palette”

Pick up the album here.

12. Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG

bad bunny yhlqmdlg rimas entertainment Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

The Gist: Arriving just weeks after his Super Bowl Halftime performance with Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and J Balvin, sophomore album YHLQMDLG is the quintessential Bad Bunny effort — a release that not only captures the Puerto Rican artist at his best, but shows us exactly what it’s taken for him to reach star status.

Why It Rocks: On the follow-up to 2018’s X 100pre, Bad Bunny amplifies his true self and holds nothing back — a pure embodiment of the album’s title, YHLQMDLG, which stands for Yo hago lo que ma de la gana (Spanish for “I do whatever I want”). That means there’s double the party anthems and double the sad boy aesthetics, the two elements that put the Latin trap icon on the map in the first place. Bad Bunny acknowledges his past by tapping into the classic reggaeton of yesteryear with help from legends like Daddy Yankee, but he’s also always firmly looking forward, envisioning the evolution of the genre. Between dressing up in full drag in his video for “Yo Perreo Sola” and calling attention to a slain Puerto Rican trans woman while on The Tonight Show, as an LGBTQ+ ally, he’s carefully dismantling bits of Latin culture’s deep-seated machismo one release at a time. –Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “Safaera”, “Yo Perreo Sola”, and “Está Cabrón Ser Yo”

Pick up the album here.

11. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions

Origin: Nashville, Tennessee

The Gist: On his fourth album with The 400 Unit — and seventh overall — Jason Isbell is at his most haunted. Whether alcoholism (“It Gets Easier”), divorce (“Dreamsicle”), or distance from a loved one (“Overseas”), the Alabama-born, Nashville-based songwriter gathers all his ghosts together on Reunions. Like a modern Southern Gothic master, he doesn’t always find ways to lay his past to rest, but listening to him commune with its specter is some of the most superb soul searching we’ve heard this year.

Why It Rocks: Isbell’s growth as a solo artist has been remarkably steady, and you can hear him pushing himself with each new effort. On Reunions, it perhaps for the first time sounds truly effortless. Not to say there isn’t clear, loving labor in the songwriting, only that there’s a sense it’s materializing more naturally than ever before. It’s what makes tracks like the mournful remembrance of “Only Children” feel so open and the gauntlet toss of “Be Afraid” a daring challenge rather than pomposity. Unanswered questions on standout single “What’ve I Done to Help” work simultaneously as self-admonishing introspection and keen moral commentary. This is what happens when a gifted artist is confident enough in their identity and craft that the songs come through them, not to them. And Isbell has the perspective not to question it, which allows Reunions to contain his most powerful songs to date. –Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “What’ve I Done to Help”, “Be Afraid”, and “Only Children”

Pick up the album here.

10. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

phoebe bridgers punisher album artwork cover Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Los Angeles, California

The Gist: With a debut as phenomenal as Stranger in the Alps, plenty of artists would be content sitting back for a few years and riding its waive of critical acclaim, but not Phoebe Bridgers. In the three years between her debut and her new record, Punisher, the Los Angeles native joined Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker to form indie supergroup boygenius and wrote and released a folk-rock album with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst under the name Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers is one of the more unique artists currently releasing music, so it’s no surprise Punisher is already one of the best records of the year thus far.

Why It Rocks: Bridgers is a master of curating her innermost thoughts into clever, and at times devastating, one-liners, and Punisher is full of them. The songs are specific, sometimes incredibly specific (See: “We fought about John Lennon/ Until I cried/ And then went to bed upset” on “Moon Song”), and yet every song’s meaning stands solid outside of its individual story. Punisher is so many things; it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s dreamy and reflective, and yet remains rooted in Bridgers’ experience as someone in her twenties with insight beyond her years. Punisher broke the curse of the debut follow-up and cemented Bridgers’ place as the indie-rock poet for twentysomethings who continue to date people they don’t actually like. –Jennifer Irving

Essential Tracks: “Kyoto”, “Garden Song”, and “Chinese Satellite”

Pick up the album here.

09. Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Pearl Jam - Gigaton

Origin: Seattle, Washington

The Gist: For years, Pearl Jam teased a follow-up to 2013’s Lighting Bolt, and really, the fans were totally OK waiting. Reason being, the Seattle rockers know how to make the wait feel great. As long as they hit the road and do their thing on stage, Eddie Vedder could take as long as he wants to write a new album. That’s why every delay was ultimately met with a shrug, quickly followed by a search for “Pearl Jam new tour dates” on Google. Again, no biggie.

Why It Rocks: Without sounding too negative, Lightning Bolt was a major letdown, a blemish in an otherwise rosy discography, chock-full of duds and maybe one gem (see: “Sirens”). Gigaton is a complete 180, a rock ‘n’ roll renewal for the gang as they embrace sugary hooks again. Not hyperbole: There are earworms and melodies in nearly every song on Gigaton — did anyone think they had “Superblood Wolfmoon” in ’em still? — and now the joke’s on us: They can’t tour. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Superblood Wolfmoon”, “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, and “Who Ever Said”

Pick up the album here.

08. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor

Origin: Meridian, Mississippi

The Gist: Everyone needs a break, particularly Hayley Williams. After touring aggressively behind Paramore’s 2017 fifth studio album, After Laughter — an effort literally born out of exhaustion — the singer-songwriter walked away even more exhausted. Rather wisely, she closed the door behind her and ventured into the dark to find some inner peace. It’s here she created Petals for Armor, her debut solo album that finds her exhaling with self-assurance and grace.

Why It Rocks: The great thing about being a vocalist is trying on new clothes. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Petals for Armor, the silky alternative beats nurture Williams’ vocals. There’s a post-modern wash to her cadence that builds upon the new wave synth pop that fueled After Laughter. She’s always been a vulnerable songwriter, but by her lonesome, Williams is stripped of any of the pretense that comes with being in a band for over 10 years. No, Petals… is an intrepid effort for an artist who continues to write new chapters for herself, and the beauty is the feeling that there’s no end in sight. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “Simmer”, “Dead Horse”, and “Watch Me While I Bloom”

Pick up the album here.

07. Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony

Origin: New Orleans, Louisiana

The Gist: For some, 13 is an unlucky number, but not for Jay Electronica, aka Elpadaro F. Electronica Allah. Who knew it would take that many years for the MC to follow up his 2007 diamond mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Certainly not him, nor his fans, nor Jay-Z, who signed him to Roc Nation way, way back in 2010. Alas, A Written Testimony finally arrived in Spring 2020 after 40 days of recording, a biblical number made all the more prescient amid our end times.

Why It Rocks: All too often, we’re justified in not believing the hype, but we’d be so wrong to doubt Jay Electronica. A Written Testimony is exactly as the title implies, a sacred document in the Electronica mythos with page after page of ingenuity. At a brilliantly lean 40 minutes, Jay brings everything to the mic — his anxieties, his beliefs, his philosophies — over landscapes that prove he hasn’t lost his cinematic touch. Even better, he resurrects Hova in the process. –Michael Roffman

Essential Tracks: “The Neverending Story”, “The Blinding”, and “Ghost of Soulja Slim”

Pick up the album here.

06. Lady Gaga – Chromatica

Lady Gaga - Chromatica

Origin: New York, New York

The Gist: Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) is back with her first pop-centric album since 2013, and it lives up to the long-awaited hype. There’s not much to say about Gaga that isn’t already known to the public, but she took some time off pop music to try a bit of country twang on Joanne in 2016, made a little, not-popular-at-all movie that you’ve definitely never heard of called A Star Is Born, had a full-blown Las Vegas residency … she’s been busy. But she’s back to her roots, and that’s all that matters.

Why It Rocks: Maybe it’s the pandemic and how it’s made us all feel, well, some type of way, but this might have been the best time in history for Gaga to re-emerge and reclaim her throne as the Pop Queen. The world is burning down, so, in the words of Bowie, let’s dance. Lady Gaga proved to us back in 2008 with her debut, The Fame, that she was a force to be reckoned with, and now, more than a decade later she’s reminding us that not only is she still that same 5’2” force, but now she can do it on a lengthy concept album that, from start to finish, is just banger after banger with a few dramatic transitions. She uses her resources wisely on Chromatica, between enlisting other pop gurus like Ariana Grande and freakin’ Sir Elton John to guest on tracks, highlighting the singles with already-iconic music videos, and even adding some K-pop flair with a BLACKPINK feature. This album toes the line into house music territory, which is new for Gaga, but as with the vast majority of what she does, she does it with extreme success. –Annie Black

Essential Tracks: “911”, “Sour Candy”, and “Rain on Me”

Pick up the album here.

05. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee - Saint Cloud

Origin: Birmingham, Alabama

The Gist: Katie Crutchfield has spent the better part of the last decade touring. Whether with her twin sister, Allison, as P.S. Eliot (or the lesser known Ackleys) or as solo project Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s early, anxiety-ridden music takes you on a lo-fi, reverb-soaked journey through both her fluctuating life and psyche. Tracks on American Weekend and Cerulean Salt are fuzzy vignettes of getting high and routinely getting left in the wind. Later records Ivy Tripp and Out in the Storm find Crutchfield backed by a full band with tighter and more dynamic production. But she’s still fatigued — both physically and mentally. Yet, with new record, Saint Cloud, she’s looking at the world with stars in her eyes. After sobering up and moving to Kansas City with partner Kevin Morby, she sings with a newfound conviction and just outright optimism. Ditching grunge for the Americana country twang she grew up with in Birmingham, Alabama, she delivers some of the most impressive songwriting in her catalog.

Why It Rocks: One must assume that with sobriety comes a sense of clarity. But for Crutchfield it wasn’t an immediate discovery. At first, her writing initially felt blurred. But for this reason the songs feel all the more tender, as if each line was delicately molded into place. It’s Saint Cloud’s genuine storytelling about traveling across the world and making repeated mistakes that allows you to easily view all the crosses she’s removed, reexamined, and replaced. It’s soft and sunny, without being deceitfully utopian. But more importantly, it’s a replanting of Crutchfield’s roots. She’s removed all the weeds and decided to let herself bloom. With a folksy, gentle backbeat, Saint Cloud becomes the soundtrack for new beginnings. –Samantha Small

Essential Tracks: “Can’t Do Much”, “St. Cloud”, and “Lilacs”

Pick up the album here.

04. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

Origin: London, England

The Gist: After releasing her 2017 self-titled debut, Dua Lipa dove head first into the sounds of nostalgic, classic dance-pop, borrowing a page from legends like Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Olivia Newton-John. Between that reference point and her collaborations with producers who built their careers on such retro palettes (Mark Ronson), Future Nostalgia was bound to be an explosive marrying of the best of the past, present, and future.

Why It Rules: Lipa wanted her sophomore album to “feel like a dancercise class,” and that’s exactly what she accomplished. From start to finish, each track pulses and sweats with both fun and purpose — especially as it powers through clubby waves of disco, house, new wave, and funk. Hell, there’s even a bit of ABBA’s pristine Europop in there, too. What holds everything together at the end of the day is Lipa herself; she’s a cool, confident presence that moves with the choreography and spirit of the music, rather than over it. That’s restraint at work, but she also knows he doesn’t need to try all that hard: “No matter what you do, I’m gonna get it without ya/ I know you ain’t used to a female alpha,” she sings on the title track. –Lake Schatz

Essential Tracks: “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical”, and “Future Nostalgia”

Pick up the album here.

03. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

run the jewels 4 rtj4 album cover artwork

Origin: Atlanta, Georgia, and New York, New York

The Gist: Two years after it was initially announced, Run the Jewels delivered RTJ4 right when the world needed it most. That meant dropping it for free (as they’ve done with all their albums) two days before it was officially scheduled for release. Packed with tracks that work equally as bangers and raw eviscerations of America’s sociopolitical landscape, it quickly became the hip-hop album of the year.

Why It Rocks: Sometimes an album meets a moment, and sometimes the moment meets the album. With RTJ4, it was both. “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” would have lost none of their righteousness had the Black Lives Movement not resurged, but fate has made their prescience that much more urgent. This is the same acid-tongued scrutiny Run the Jewels have been supplying from the start, spit with a dexterous fury that makes it a merciless score for the revolution. Yet, listen to the passion of “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”, the ungodly collaboration with Josh Homme and Mavis Staples (who does that?!) on “pulling the pin”, or the Greg Nice- and DJ Premier-featuring smash “ooh la la”, and somehow RTJ4 even transcends its inextricable moment. Killer Mike and El-P long ago cemented themselves among hip-hop’s hardest lyrical combos, with the latter a maestro of hardcore sci-fi punk production; this time around, the fist and gun have become carved into history. –Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “ooh la la”, “walking in the snow”, and “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”

Pick up the album here.

02. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

perfume genius set my heart fire album cover art Top 25 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

Origin: Seattle, Washington

The Gist: Just three years ago, Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) wanted nothing more than to be rid of his corporeal flesh prison once and for all. “Burn off every trace/ I wanna hover with no shape,” he declared. The ethos evidenced by the first half of this lyric — one of urgency, of radical change by immolation — hasn’t gone anywhere. Hadreas’ longing for freedom from physicality, however, has given way to a full-body feeling resonant with the grounding power that comes with actively living in every corner of one’s body. At the center of this shift lies The Sun Still Burns Here, Hadreas’ collaboration with choreographer Kate Wallich and the YC dance company. Working in a direction inspired by a new connectedness with his body, an accomplished cast of musicians, along with No Shape producer Blake Mills, joined Hadreas in the studio.

Why It Rocks: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately builds on No Shape’s alt-pop foundation while pushing further in every single direction: baroque harpsichord flourishes on “Jason”, the outright synth-pop of “On the Floor”, “Describe”’s chunky guitar tone, and the agonizingly spare creep of “Moonbend”. Meanwhile, Hadreas’ voice explores new, grating lows alongside familiar gossamer highs. The way he routinely and naturally raises the bar from record to record makes you wonder whether he already knows where he’s going next. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but as long as he keeps burning, we’ll watch in awe, reflections of the flames dancing in our eyes. –Sean Lang

Essential Tracks: “Jason”, “On the Floor”, and “Some Dream”

Pick up the album here.

01. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Origin: Los Angeles, California

The Gist: Eight years after Fiona Apple’s last full-length, Fetch the Bolt Cutters arrived just as the pandemic lockdown was really sinking in. Perhaps overmuch documented as a “recluse,” Apple had recorded most of the LP in her own Venice Beach home, before the “self-isolated album” was vogue. As we sat wrestling with our newly restricted freedom, here came an artist with a furious, funny, frank cry of liberation from every last creative and personal fuck.

Why It Rocks: It’s rare, but it happens: A work of art arrives that is so universally acknowledged as a masterpiece that there is barely need for debate, only praise. Last year, it was Parasite; this year it’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It’s raw with snarls, whispers, harmonies, and dog barks; ragged with found percussive instruments and GarageBand recordings; withering with impassioned lyrics about bullies, women, depression, relationships, rape … a list that actually stretches well beyond its 13 tracks. Best of all, Apple no longer sounds consumed by insecurities — she’s cut the bolts, you see — which makes her confrontations here acts of amelioration more than agony. In a time where everything is chaos, that’s the sort of shoulder-shaking we need. Apple has always created on a different level, so it’s not all that surprising she was able to deliver another captivating opus. We’re just glad she “won’t shut up.” –Ben Kaye

Essential Tracks: “Under the Table”, “Shameika”, and “Heavy Balloon”

Pick up the album here.