At the risk of beating a dead horse, I think it’s fair to say that this year has been a challenge for many. While people’s lives have been disrupted, music has offered a place of solace for those to escape to. And that’s what we are here to talk about. 2020 has seen some huge releases, from the anticipated debut of 070 Shake to the returns of Bob Dylan and Lil Uzi Vert. We may be a solid few weeks past the official halfway point of the year, but now is always a good time for a good ole fashioned list. And without further ado, here is our top ten albums of the year, so far.
“It Is What It Is” - Thundercat
Kicking off our list is the fourth studio album by BRAINDEEDER’s bass-playing extraordinaire. Dedicated to his good friend, the late Mac Miller, “It is What it Is” finds Thundercat at his most emotionally salient, without sacrificing the humor and goofiness that has defined his catalogue up until this point. Thundercat weaves hip-hop, jazz, and funk elements together with ease while simultaneously singing odes to his cats or his newly found confidence (thanks to his anime-inspired durag). Thundercat continues to showcase his immense gift for songwriting and composition on this record without sacrificing the goofiness and personality that won over most of his fans.
When Thundercat isn’t ripping slick bass lines and funky tunes, he allows himself to be vulnerable, expressing the grief and confusion in the aftermath of his good friend’s death. One moment you can be swinging your hips, intoxicated by the album’s pure funkiness before quickly diving deep into lamentations and musings about life and death. “It is What it is” is truly an album about highs and lows, and deserves your time.
“Punisher” – Phoebe Bridgers
Bridgers’ second album is a moody listen that earns a spot on our list for its raw emotional intensity. Her introspection and honesty puts the listener right in the room with her as we share her pain and her triumphs. The indie star’s incisive lyrics and knack for crafting emotionally vivid songs lend themselves to the dreamy atmosphere of one of the best indie releases of the year so far.
While the album is generally slow, there are moments where Bridgers picks up the pace, weaving clever narratives and pop culture references as she comments on the erupting hell-scape this year has provided. “Punisher” is a terrific album that illustrates the budding star’s songwriting chops.
“What’s Your Pleasure?” – Jessie Ware
Disco is in vogue, apparently. Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga both channeled the retro energy of disco on their respective 2020 LPs, thrusting the sound back into mainstream pop. Both of these albums deserve our love and attention, but nobody brought the funk back quite like UK singer-songwriter Jessie Ware did on her fourth studio LP.
The album feels like a time capsule holding everything that is great about the genre. Each track is fun and intoxicating, forcing all who listen to dance and jump in rhythmic unity. The instrumentation throughout the album is catchy and tight, and never lets you free from its grasp. “What’s Your Pleasure?” asks a simple question, and answers with the most fun album of 2020 (so far).
“Ungodly Hour” – Chloe x Halle
The sophomore album for the R&B duo under Beyoncé’s tutelage reflects on their growth since their debut album released when they were teenagers. Since their debut, Chloe x Halle have opened for Beyonce and Jay-Z’s tour while also acting for three seasons on the television show Grown-ish. It isn’t an effort for the group to demand to be taken seriously; rather, it feels like a place to voice their insights on early adulthood.
Chloe x Halle are extremely talented and “Ungodly Hour” is chalk full of evidence of their songwriting ability. Tracks like “Do it” and “Forgive Me” paint a picture of the duo leaving behind their image of adolescence with tact and sweet, clean melodies. Of all the high profile R&B releases of the year so far, “Ungodly Hour” is one of the most beautiful and memorable.
“Women in Music Pt. III” – Haim
The trio of L.A. pop-rocking sisters has always been terrific, which is why it is significant that their third album is far and away their best effort to date. The album features some of the group’s cleverest and most eclectic song writing, resulting in some of their most unforgettable songs. Elements of jazz, reggae, and electronic music make their way into the framework of the album without the trio losing sight of their knack for composing beautiful melodies and ear-grabbing tracks.
The album also reads as a love-letter to their city. The trio explores their youth and lives in L.A. while also channeling the rich musical history of their hometown. It is an album with lots of nuance in its craft and subject matter. “Women in Music Pt. III” is the group’s most intimate and finest work to date.
“Mystic Familiar” – Dan Deacon
Landing at the number five spot is the fifth studio album by Baltimore’s very own, Dan Deacon. The psychedelic synth-popper is at his most tranquil and peaceful on his latest project, featuring beautifully composed tracks that possess, as the album title suggests, an almost mystical quality to them. Deacon’s music has always captured the psychedelic aesthetic of new age spirituality, but with this new batch of songs we find him at his most profound and empowering.
Deacon’s insights might border on the half-baked wisdom of your stoned roommate in college, but it never reaches that level of drudgery. Deacon just wants you to see the beauty and unity of all things, and will gladly give you a taste as his music gently lifts you up into space. Tracks such as “Become a Mountain” are gentle and endearing as Deacon implores you to just take a step back and absorb yourself in the world. It is a beautiful track on a beautiful album.
“Alfredo” – Freddie Gibbs
This is the second collaboration between Gary Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and hip-hop producing legend The Alchemists in two years. 2018’s “Fetti”, with the help of New Orleans based MC Curen$$y, was a stylish display of the abilities of two of the underground’s most prolific rappers. Gibbs, then and now, proves his exceptional ability to spit rapid-fire bars over slick and cool instrumentals. While both Gibbs and The Alchemist have proven their status as the cream of the crop years ago, the two virtuoso’s styles and approaches compliment the others nicely, rather than getting in the way.
Alfredo is packed with mafia imagery, a seemingly fascinating topic among rappers of all generations. The brutality of organized crime as a means to a life of obscene luxury is explored thoughtfully by Gibbs, who himself speaks on his criminal past. It’s not an album about repentance, but every moment where the life of crime depicted becomes glamorized and enticing Gibbs reminds us of the darkness that lies underneath.
If you are a lover of hip-hop, “Alfredo” is a must listen.
“Fetch the Bolt-Cutters” – Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years marks her triumphant return to the world of music and our hearts. The album is a stripped down masterpiece that finds the 42 year old songwriter at her most vulnerable. Beautiful guitar plucking and piano melodies are combined with powerful stomps, screams, and dog barks that complement the intimacy and emotional intensity of the album.
The album can be both fun and beautiful, but there are plenty of moments on the album that are tough to swallow. Apple laments on traumatic events that forged her world view on tracks that tell tales of her younger self, events and people that shaped her and made her the woman she is today. It is not always easy, but it is unforgettable.
“SAWAYAMA” – Rina Sawayama
There is a good chance that if I told you about an album that blended the sounds of nu-metal with Y2K pop, it would send you spiraling into a cringe-induced fever dream. While that would be an understandable and justified reaction, I am here to tell you that not only does Rina Sawayama make this nostalgic genre-blending work, she makes it cool.
It’s refreshing to hear pop music that embraces ornate and lavish production in lieu of the vapid chill that seems to be all the rage in music. Tracks like “XS” and “STFU!” pivot from aggression to catchy melodies on a dime while oozing with Sawayama’s charisma. The album isn’t just catharsis for the singer-songwriter, however, and features classic pop ballads and love songs that aren’t just nods to a different time in music, but unforgettable tracks in their own right. I could go on for hours about what makes SAWAYAMA wonderful, but you should just go and listen; it is undoubtedly the best pop album to bless our ears so far this year.
“RTJ4” – Run the Jewels
Clocking in at number one is the fourth consecutive eponymous LP by hip-hop super duo Run the Jewels. It feels like this album dropped at just the right time, with Killer Mike and El-P’s trademark dense and politically salient lyricism voicing many of the frustrations the country has been feeling this year. Killer Mike is one of rap’s most widely-respected and talented MCs, while El-P is one of its most influential producers. Their collaborative efforts have resulted in three albums worth of high-octane, stylized hip-hop, seemingly operating ten levels higher than any rapper currently in the mainstream.
Their fourth album is arguably their best. Killer Mike and El-P never miss a step on the record and deliver some of their punchiest, most memorable bars to date. The raps never get too preachy, and when you add a couple of hard-hitting features with 2Chainz and Zack De La Rocha, you get an album oozing with rebellious energy. The charisma and talent are on full display as the duo delivers the best album of the year so far.