You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

My 25 favorite albums of 2020 so far, ranked

NJ.com logo NJ.com 7/10/2020 By Bobby Olivier, nj.com

I’d all but given up writing those exhaustive “best of” album lists.

I’d much rather discover one stellar new record at a time, seek out that artist’s next local concert and then review the show, in turn providing my double-barreled take on a single album: how it plays on stage versus how it plays in your headphones. That’d been my workflow for years now.

But then the live music industry collapsed under the weight of pandemic restrictions. I had to readjust.

So here we are again, reckoning with a pile of albums representing what has been a very strong first six months of music in 2020, despite the surrounding chaos. And I am recharged — the list is back and better than ever!

Here are my 25 favorite releases so far this year, ranked. A Spotify playlist with a couple songs from each album can be found here. Happy listening!

25. Halsey, “Manic”

Halsey, the Jersey-native mainstream powerhouse, threw all her emotional spaghetti at the wall with “Manic,” her third and certainly most explorative album to date. The sonically sprawling record, which was supposed to be supported by a huge summer tour, includes the 2019 pure-pop chart topper “Without Me,” but listeners should stick around for the more daring cuts like countrified “You Should Be Sad” and the candid and reflective “Finally // Beautiful Stranger.”

24. Bartees Strange, “Say Goodbye to Prettyboy”

Talk about a courageous debut. Strange, an Oklahoma-bred musician and Black man, chose to populate most of his first record with covers from indie-rock icons The National in efforts not only to pay homage to the group he adores, but to subvert white artists’ encompassing grip on the genre, largely at the expense of Black artists’ contributions, he has said. Strange will not be undersold, however, and his takes are far from rote renditions. His soul-awakening, fully reimagined interpretations of tracks like “About Today” and “Lemonworld” provide the weight, undoing whatever kitsch may accompany such an endeavor.

23. Brian Fallon, “Local Honey”

Now three solo LPs removed from his Gaslight Anthem heyday, Garden State troubadour Brian Fallon has further established himself as a worthy folk-rock frontman with “Local Honey,” a soft-treading project born from his 2018 solo tour with co-headliner Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady). While fans of the more raucous Gaslight sound may be underwhelmed, the attention to vivid songwriting here is some of Fallon’s finest. “21 Days” spins a poignant tale of love addiction and “You Have Stolen My Heart” is destined for many a wedding playlist.

22. Khruangbin, “Mordecai”

The melty psych-funk trio from Houston has over the last few years become a bonafide buzz-band for music heads across the country — no trendy 2018 pool party was complete without the group’s terrific “Con Todo El Mundo” LP. Now with “Mordecai,” the band further grounds its globe-trotting sound — more transparent vocal hooks, like on the addicting “Time (You and I),” boosting melodies still inspired by Thai and Iranian influences as well as U.S. soul and indie-rock. If you make it to the beach this summer, “Mordecai” is a playlist must.

21. Jay Electronica, “A Written Testimony”

Remember how rock fans waited an agonizing 13 years before Tool’s endlessly rumored new album finally surfaced last year? Well, hip-hop diehards spent just as long anticipating the “debut” album from Jay Electronica, the mythic New Orleans rapper who blew folks away with a mixtape in 2007 and then largely vanished (minus the occasional featured verse and many storied ghostwriting sessions). The 43-year-old artist signed to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation label finally dropped his LP in March and it’s relentlessly good, loaded with features from JAY-Z himself, Travis Scott and The-Dream, all bolstering Jay Elec’s explosive, spiritual flow.

20. Serengeti, “Ajai”

David Cohn, aka the labyrinthian Chicago rapper Serengeti is ... something else. Over nearly two decades the prolific emcee has released dozens of meticulously sculpted, typically character-focused projects and “Ajai” is one of his strangest yet: a sneaker-obsessed Indian man who eventually meets up with a character from a past Serengeti narrative — you know what, it’s not important. The rhythms are sharp and highly listenable, even if you lose track of the story. Much respect to the meticulousness.

19. 070 Shake, “Modus Vivendi”

Back to New Jersey we go! After a handful of standout features on Kanye West’s Wyoming projects in 2018, the North Bergen rhymer 070 Shake (Danielle Balbuena) unleashed her promising debut LP “Modus Vivendi” in January, instantly notching one of the finest Garden State hip-hop albums in a decade. Mimicking the volatility of young love, the 14-track record is a wild journey across the emotional spectrum, merging shimmer and shine with the bleak vulnerability that trails a relationship that must clearly end, but hasn’t yet reached its final act. Fragility breeds menace breeds reflection throughout.

18. Frances Quinlan, “Likewise”

Pound-for-pound, Philly’s rock scene has been among the country’s best for some time now — The Menzingers, The War on Drugs, The Wonder Years, Beach Slang, Modern Baseball, Circa Survive — and Hop Along, the highly acclaimed indie group fronted by vocal acrobat Frances Quinlan. “Likewise,” the singer/guitarist’s first solo LP, is decidedly quieter than her band’s usual howling fury and therein lies some new acoustic grace, which began to emerge on Hop Along’s last record but plays more fully realized here.

17. Soccer Mommy, “Color Theory”

For further proof of Gen Z’s obsession with the ’90s — a decade they never experienced firsthand — check out 22-year-old Nashville indie-rocker Soccer Mommy, whose new album plays like a cassette tape plucked from a Sam Goody Best New Music rack. “Color Theory,” which shifts from blue to yellow to gray as emotions hinge on depression and the artist’s mother’s illness is a worthy, full-band sequel to the singer born Sophie Allison’s buzzy 2018 debut “Clean.” Think Sheryl Crow having a very, very bad day. Joking aside, the jangly cut “Circle The Drain” is a knockout single.

16. Grimes, “Miss Anthropocene”

Let’s forget about what Grimes and her partner Elon Musk did or did not name their child and talk about the Canadian artist’s most exciting solo effort to date: a daring, experimental trip through industrial rock, pop and electronica. Bounding off the acclaim from her previous two LPs, the artist known for her cosmic vocal manipulations pushes the boundary further, blaring opaque synth around a voice that even when mechanized remains ethereal. But then there’s outliers like “Delete Forever,” which relies on an acoustic guitar backbone. “Miss Anthropocene” is a rabbit hole album worth the fall.

15. Childish Gambino, “3.15.20”

I’ll forever associate Childish Gambino’s surprise album drop with the week coronavirus panic reached a fever pitch (in my house, at least). I was on my couch, in the midst of a mild terror spiral when I saw the new album pop up online. I poured a glass of wine, put in the earbuds and tried to decompress. The follow-up to Donald Glover’s heavily lauded “Awaken, My Love!” LP tends to be easier on the listener; his larger-than-life pop track “Time” featuring Ariana Grande is maybe his most overtly anthemic cut to date. Elsewhere, the record is more challenging; breaking from traditional hip-hop conventions at nearly every turn, venturing further into pop, soul and R&B.

14. Andy Shauf, “The Neon Skyline”

Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf is impeccably good at morphing ordinary moments — buttering a piece of bread to eat before heading out to the bar, for example — into a vast patchwork of comedic yet somber songs spinning a larger story about life and love. Much like its well-reviewed predecessor “The Party,” “The Neon Skyline” is one long night’s tale highlighted by Shauf’s emotive ramble-singing. This is easy, captivating pop-rock at its finest, with hooks you didn’t even realize were hooks until you can’t dislodge them from your brain.

13. U.S. Girls, “Heavy Light”

Let’s stay north of the border with Toronto’s U.S. Girls (experimental artist Meghan Remy’s ongoing project) and its mesmerizing new indie-pop record, which I admit is difficult to summarize. Led by Remy’s vivid yet kaleidoscopic songwriting style, the album splatters from balmy disco-funk to songs David Bowie would likely cheer for as she sings of trauma, loss and existential emptiness. But the mastery here lies in the subversion of her own themes — the major-key melodies, especially on “4 American Dollars” and “Overtime,” will force your body to dance even as your mind is lost in melancholy.

12. Hayley Williams, “Petals for Armor”

With the titanic success of her pop-punk-transcendent group Paramore landing almost entirely on her slight shoulders, its a wonder Hayley Williams took so long to release her first solo album. Perhaps it was even more unlikely that Williams’ debut swerved toward experimental bedroom pop, which only rarely hints at her past arena-ready songbook. But “Petals” invites us into a new world of skittering beats and drum samples orbiting the singer’s furious lyricism. Some of the overcast tone, as with highlights “Simmer” and “Dead Horse,” is surely founded by Williams’ recent divorce from New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, which took a severe mental toll, she said.

11. Tame Impala, “The Slow Rush”

After the critical success of 2015 1/4 u2032s “Currents” LP and the arena appearances that followed, fans of Tame Impala — Australian artist and producer Kevin Parker’s psychedelic pop endeavor — had to wait nearly five years for “The Slow Rush.” It was worth the wait. The grooves here, especially on “Borderline” and “Lost In Yesterday,” are so smooth — callbacks to The Bee Gees and Hall and Oates — but I urge you to hang around for the seven-minute conclusion “One More Hour,” a sprawling, bombastic opus and a true highlight of Parker’s career as both a frontman and studio guru (the album is self-produced).

10. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia”

While we were all stuck at home, Dua Lipa commandeered the world of dance-pop with her wildly fun sophomore LP “Future Nostalgia.” The U.K. songstress (by way of Kosovo) climbed all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the album’s punchy lead single “Don’t Start Now,” but this retro-tinged winner booms much further, from bass-y bounce of “Cool” to the incendiary dance track “Physical,” which samples Olivia Newton John’s eponymous ’80s hit. When concerts eventually return, Lipa’s tour supporting this beast of a pop record should be epic.

9. Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud”

With the release of “Saint Cloud,” a breezy yet contemplative work of folk-rock peppered with bits of Americana, it seems impossible now that Katie Crutchfield ever fronted P.S. Eliot, the late ’00s pop-punk cult-favorite. Even on her last Waxahatchee record, the sensationally gifted Alabama songwriter still injected some distortion into her melodies, but this new LP — a collection of songs about healing and getting sober — allows for more open air and light-treading drums. The result is, against the odds, her most arresting work to date.

8. Perfume Genius, “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately”

Indie-pop stalwart Perfume Genius has unveiled so much of himself over the last decade, particularly the fear and struggle that accompanies being an openly gay man in America. But the Seattle artist’s fifth LP pushes a bit further, in several directions. Inspired by his recent contributions to a live dance piece, “Set My Heart” unfurls more visceral feelings about simply being human — what it means to live and breathe on this weird, beautiful planet. The show-stopping “Your Body Changes Everything” and sonically lighter “Without You” and “On The Floor” are all banner examples of how the 38-year-old artist has morphed from something of an art-pop outlier to a vital voice that easily transcends pop, rock and soul.

7. Spanish Love Songs, “Brave Faces Everyone”

Spanish Love Songs, a blooming punk band from Los Angeles, hit the emo mother-load with its latest heart-wrenching release, which dives headlong into battles with depression, anxiety and addiction. This is very much a “hurts so good” album that I do not recommend trying out if you’re already having a great, productive morning. But bleak days call for bleak tunes and the anguish that pours from frontman Dylan Slocum on “Routine Pain” and “Losers” is palpable. I first listened to “Brave Faces” in February during a long, lonely drive to Atlantic City to cover a Celine Dion concert — it was a night of mixed emotions, to say the least.

6. Lady Gaga, “Chromatica”

Maybe I’m biased, but the single greatest tragedy of this lost summer concert season is that Lady Gaga will not be able to perform her gigantic new dance-pop album at MetLife Stadium, the sheer bass from which would have summoned a swamp tsunami in the Meadlowlands. After thematically ambitious efforts on past LPs, like the avant-garde “Artpop” (2013) and twangy “Joanne,” “Chromatica” is very much a crowd-pleaser. The explosive club hooks that made Gaga famous are back and bigger than ever, comprising an album that’s highly listenable and loads of fun, if not too uniform in its magenta party tone. Her collaborations with Ariana Grande (”Rain On Me”), Elton John (”Sine From Above”) and the K-pop supergroup BLACKPINK (”Sour Candy”) are clear highlights.

5. Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher”

Since her widely favored 2017 debut “Stranger in the Alps,” Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has become an unparalleled darling of the indie-rock and emo scenes, teaming up with The 1975, The National and Julien Baker for further acclaimed projects, as well as her stellar duet album “Better Oblivion Community Center” with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst last year (my album of 2019). Now Bridgers’ feverishly anticipated sophomore LP “Punisher” is finally out and it’s as good as advertised — a dive into the artists’ world of non-sequiturs and ethereal vocals backed by the lushest instrumentation of her career so far. “Kyoto” is easily one of my favorite tracks of the year, full stop.

4. Moses Sumney, “Grae”

What can’t Moses Sumney do? The Los Angeles indie chameleon’s sophomore double-album “Grae” achieves a sort of sonic zenith where thrilling art-rock, soul, folk, jazz and orchestral flourishes all meld for a sound that rewards close listening. The 65-minute release is somewhat top-heavy — Part One winners “Cut Me” and “Virile” seem more fully released or at least more explorative than the later released back half. But “Grae” is uniformly bolder than anything the singer has produced before. It’s louder, more exciting and contains one of the year’s most propulsive lyrics: “I insist upon my right to be multiple,” he sings on “Also Also Also And And And.” “Even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity. What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.”

3. Run the Jewels, “RTJ4”

How’s this for tragic coincidence? The bombastic New York/Atlanta hip-hop duo Run The Jewels dropped its long-awaited “RTJ4 1/4 u2033 album June 3 — just as protests over the killing of George Floyd were reaching a fever pitch — and included a song called “Walking in the Snow,” written months earlier. The furious track furiously condemns police brutality, “I can’t breathe” line and all, and may just be the best protest song to come out of this stretch of unrest. It was meant to have nothing to do with Floyd yet it still rang hauntingly true. Elsewhere, the “thank the music gods these guys found each other” pairing of El-P and Killer Mike remains a searing, fearless combination. As with all “RTJ” albums, the pure railing against authority, haters and everyone else begins to repeat itself by the album’s end, but the high points are just so, so high. Featured spots, by 2 Chainz on “Out of Sight” and Pharrell Williams and Zach de la Rocha on “JU$T,” are major pluses.

2. Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

No album released during this frightening, bizarre time has so perfectly encapsulated the unease and anxiety of our homebound isolation as Apple’s momentous return. “Bolt Cutters,” the alternative songstress’s first record in eight years, sounds like it was recorded in her living room because it was recorded in her living room, with dogs barking and birds chirping for ambiance. The stark symphonic pop created here is brilliant in its singularity, not only regarding Apple’s rasp but her true-to-life tales — from her childhood bullies and the sexual assault she endured at age 12 all the way to 2020, where she stands as a woman who declaratively “won’t shut up.” Stand-outs include “I Want You To Love Me” and “Shameika” and “Newspaper” but this very much an album meant to be heard in full. Find the time.

1. Dogleg, “Melee”

Hey, once a headbanger always a headbanger and if there was ever a time to pound your skull against the wall in despair, disgust and dissatisfaction for all that we’ve endured over the last six months, it’s now. Dogleg, an incendiary outfit from Detroit — a highly underrated city, by the way — unleashed a debut so perfectly serrated and telling of the last decade of post-hardcore and emo that it seemed to become every punk fan’s favorite new band overnight. I include myself in that list; it’s one of those lightning-in-a-bottle albums; no lulls, no fat. “Melee” reminds me of the first time I heard The Replacements and reveled in their perfect imperfections. It’s that good. I beseech you, fellow music lover, to check this album out immediately — “Kawasaki Backflip” and “Fox” are both flawless — and feel a little better about the world.

Bobby Olivier may be reached at bolivier@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyOlivier and Facebook. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

———

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

Visit NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. at www.nj.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From NJ.com

AdChoices
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon