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The 10 best albums of 2020 (so far)

Run the Jewels' El-P, right, and Killer Mike perform on day three of the Austin City Limits Music Festival's first weekend on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: INVW

Run the Jewels' El-P, right, and Killer Mike perform on day three of the Austin City Limits Music Festival's first weekend on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: INVW Jack Plunkett

Well, it’s that time of year when I habitually check in with the best of what I’ve heard in the past six months—maybe a week or two late, but cut me some slack. Apologies for siding with the consensus for my top picks. Sometimes critics are right, you know.

10. Waxahatchee Saint Cloud (Merge)

The drums divide time into coherent increments, the guitars fall into place with crisp precision, the melodies resolve neatly according to preordained patterns—in other words, Katie Crutchfield clearly wrote these 11 songs for a world that made a whole lot more sense than the one you woke up to this morning. If the folksy jangle here doesn’t soar like the forthright alt-rock of 2017’s Out in the Storm, it does flatter Crutchfield’s Alabama drawl and lyrical self-scrutinizing—even as her voice aches toward sanity, the onetime poet of unkempt emotion chafes against its imagined constraints. “When dreams become concrete, they may feel trite,” she observes and/or frets and/or warns on the first track here, and just one song later love has rendered her mind “useless and”—that word again—”trite.” Yet Crutchfield seems to acknowledge that clarity isn’t a limitation—that the act of rendering your sensitivity to the world around you legible to others actually deepens your understanding of how you feel. And let’s face it, we could all use a little structure in our lives just about now.

9. Sam Hunt – Southside (MCA Nashville)

As with any fantasy hunk, the fun’s in hearing this college QB turned country-pop heartthrob get away with corny yet kind flattery no mortal man could ever. “Body Like a Back Road” you should already know. But “Now you know I ain’t ever had a type, having a type takes two/But I know what I like, and you’re the only one of you”? “Funny how you haven’t changed a bit but you’re twice as pretty”? As a wise man once said, if you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.

8. Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake (Generation Now/Atlantic)

Hooks, skills, flow, wordplay—all accounted for, all essential, none alone sufficient to explain why this once morose MC has ascended to that state of grace where nearly every syllable he rat-a-tats glistens with creative exuberance, whether he’s turning his Glock into a “chopstick” that “came with a large lo mein,” pairing “use a thumb a lot” and “cum a lot,” or vaulting into falsetto for every rhyming word in “You Better Move.”

7. Naeem – Startisha (37d03d)

The former Spank Rock reincarnates himself under his birth name, moving between musical styles in a manner that’s often surprising but always graceful. He recasts the opening track, the Silver Apples ’60s psychedelic chestnut “You and I,” in a voice idiosyncratically human and expressive, and collaborates with soul eccentric Swamp Dogg, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who has named a song after him), stylistically like-minded local Velvet Negroni, and, on a truly filthy track, Amanda Blank and Micah James. But maybe the standout cut here is the title song, a wistful, emotionally nuanced look back at a girl Naeem grew up with in Baltimore that’s linked to a melody I haven’t been able to shake since I first heard it.

6. Poppy - I Disagree (Sumerian)

Trent Reznor as Powerpuff Girl, or maybe the lost 101st Gec, Moriah Rose Pereira-Whitney chirps lines like “Bury me six feet deep/Cover me in concrete/Turn me into a street” with murderously cute menace over a mashup of J-Pop, mallrat dubstep, Queen, metal subgenres of varying degrees of uncoolness, and numerous other forthrightly phony and sensational styles. No way she could have guessed how ominous the title “Don’t Go Outside” would sound by March—or how deeply the chorus of ”Burn it to the ground/We’ll be safe and sound/When it all burns down” would resonate by June. I mean, could she?

5. Dua Saleh – ROSETTA (Against Giants)

N ū r ’s charm lay in hearing simpatico musical partners feel each other out; on these six new tracks the relaxed pairing of Saleh and Psymun (aided on a cut apiece by Sir Dylan and Andrew Broder) settle into a more familiar give-and-take. Though details like the warped guitar of “cat scratch” make themselves heard, the groove’s slightly more atmospheric, which gives Saleh more space to show off the sound of their voice, which sharpens and softens as it explores language as a sensory delight, while displaying some subtle conceptual smarts: On “Smut,” they spit three verses with each final syllable grounded on a short “u” sound.

4. Mac Miller – Circles (Warner)

From its very first crushingly forlorn introductory “well,” Miller’s soulful slur repeatedly reaches for plateaus of moderate contentment and slides back into exhausted resignation. This wouldn’t be an easy listen even if he’d lived to see its release; with Miller gone before he reached 27 it’s as hard to process posthumously as David Berman’s Purple Mountains, its moments of fatalism leavened by Jon Brion’s production colors, which glow like one of those overcast dusks when the sun refracts into otherworldly pastels and reminds you why it’s worth making it through another day. 

3. Nnamdi - Brat (Sooper)

“I wish I was a farmer/I wish I was an astronaut/So I could feed my family/And then take them somewhere far away” nails both the broad scope of this Chicago singer(?)/rapper(?)’s ambition and the humble scale of his desires. When he loops up into an unexpected falsetto and then drops a low-end boom on “Glass Casket” he’s not showing off, just tracing the contours of his voice, which often modulates along a continuum between Frank Ocean and Bon Iver without succumbing to the temptations of self-absorbed electro-sensualism. He’s not above making too much of his too-much-ness, as when “Everything I Love” busts open mid-way through like John Hurt’s chest to reveal a piano concerto, and his gifts are so self-evident I can understand why his refusal to snap into focus frustrated a generally impressed Pitchfork reviewer into hearing “a malfunctioning fountain of ideas spraying in every direction” here. But his rhythmic jerks and melodic shifts and vocal fillips are impatient but not willful, slippery but never evasive, each making sense on its own terms. And anyway, I think it’s fun to run through the sprinklers in the summertime.

2. Fiona Apple - Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic)

“A sound is still a sound around no one,” the apprehensive perfectionist reassures herself at the start of a bracing trust fall of an album she tinkered with and set aside for five years, vamping and clattering forward till her faith that she’ll find melody and rhythm everywhere she listens for it is rewarded. But Apple has never seemed more aware of her audience, and she’s never sung this much to or about other women. She relishes the backhanded childhood compliment “Shameika said I had potential,” regrets that her ex’s new lover will never be her friend in “Newspaper,” insistently reaches out to the “Ladies” “to whom I won’t get through”—but they’re listening, they adore her, and, by flaunting her individuality all these years, she brought them together

1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4 (BMG Rights Management)

The hell with catharsis—you don’t need to purge your anger, you need to cultivate it as a source of strength. Never dummies to begin with, El-P and Killer Mike sharpen their political analysis here, which focuses their rage, and embrace righteousness, which justifies their aggression. Art this eerily of its moment often gets mis-credited with prophecy, but you don’t need a crystal ball to recognize encroaching fascism, homegrown racism, and murderous police as perpetually trending topics. Figure instead that history is finally catching up with these guys.