So far, the music of 2020 has been defined by its absences. Tours have been postponed; festivals have been canceled. Many high-profile artists, including The Dixie Chicks, Sam Smith and Alanis Morissette, have scrapped their albums for the time being, leaving immense holes in the year’s release calendar.
But plenty of excellent music has been released anyway; some of it seems to address the fragile state of the world directly, while other albums act as welcome reprieves. From Fiona Apple’s return to Lil Uzi Vert’s ascendance, here are the best albums of the year up to this point.
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
It’s bold for a young pop star to title her album Future Nostalgia; it suggests a claim to timelessness, the kind of music that will represent an era and bring fans rushing back to that moment in their lives whenever it plays. Lucky for Britain’s Dua Lipa, that boldness paid off on her sleek, disco-leaning sophomore project. Lipa has a knack for earworms; her breakthrough came on 2017’s inescapable “New Rules.” Future Nostalgia, on which she has songwriting contributions on every track, has several: the kiss-off anthem “Don’t Start Now,” the passionate dance track “Break My Heart,” the winking, lusty “Physical.” It takes a masterful artist to sing lyrics like “My sugar boo, I’m levitating” and sell them. But Lipa is on top of her game, flavoring her rich soprano voice with a warm sense of humor in songs that rely on juicy, sticky beats. By the end of the album, a term of endearment like “honey boo” sounds timeless, too.—Raisa Bruner
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is what happened when Fiona Apple, now decades into a career during which she’s been both a critical darling and subject of controversy, let go of any last shred of her need for approval. Apple recorded this album entirely in her home in Venice Beach with trusted friends and collaborators; you can hear her and her friends’ dogs barking in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” and the percussion is often crafted from found items around the house. But in its 13 wry, witheringly honest tracks, Apple’s newfound musical freedom has also drawn up some of her most powerful indictments of both other people and the shackles that accompany celebrity and womanhood. The album feels potent, like something Apple had to get off her chest. There’s the unmodulated yodeling at the end of “I Want You to Love Me,” the rush of “Shameika,” the comic delivery of “Ladies, ladies, ladies.” “Kick me under the table all that you want, I won’t shut up,” she intones on “Under the Table,” and it’s both both a statement of resilience and a reminder that music can offer us much more than love stories. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about friends, acquaintances, bosses, lovers, exes, societal forces: every kind of relationship, put under Apple’s microscope and unleashed as an anthem of individuality.—Raisa Bruner
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
The recent headlines about Grimes have covered everything but the music—her baby’s name, her Twitter feuds, the labor politics of her boyfriend Elon Musk. It’s a shame, because her latest album Miss Anthropocene rivals anything she’s released over her decade-long career. At first glance, its muddled electro-pop aesthetic and lyrics might seem to obscure Grimes’ lofty stated goal of creating a “death god” representing climate change. But each melody is an earworm, and terrifying themes gradually unfold in mantras: “Cross my heart and hope to fly”; “I wanna play a beautiful game even though we’re gonna lose”; “I hear they’re calling my name/ I’m not gonna sleep anymore.” Grimes might be a controversy magnet, but she’s also still one of the most compelling and ambitious pop artists of the ‘00s.—Andrew R. Chow
Jeremy Cunningham, The Weather Up There
The Weather Up There grapples with one of the most painful topics imaginable: the murder of a loved one. Twelve years ago, the Chicago jazz drummer Jeremy Cunningham’s younger brother Andrew was shot to death at home by two men who mistook him for someone else. On this album, Andrew’s death is confronted in direct ways—voice message tributes from family members and friends, spoken word poems—as well as in musical form. And while the subject matter is anguished, the album is far from a difficult listen: Cunningham recruits some of the world’s best jazz musicians—like the guitarist Jeff Parker and the cellist Tomeka Reid—to create gorgeous textures and probing melodies.—Andrew R. Chow
Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
In March, while much the world’s population was cocooning in their homes, an impish 25-year-old iconoclast from Philadelphia erupted back into the cultural stratosphere riding a UFO and three alter egos. Eternal Atake, Lil Uzi Vert’s second studio album, is not just a streaming juggernaut—it racked up 400 million streams in its first week—but a classic of the streaming era, filled with incandescent melodies and an elastic sonic palette. Over 18 songs, Uzi shows off his array of approaches: he flips an overexposed Backstreet Boys song (“I Want It That Way”) into something genuinely new (“That Way”); stretches his voice to its highest and lowest registers (“You Better Move”); turns the word fragment “Balenci” into some kind of inexorable incantation (“Pop”); and proves he can rap with the best with them (on the turbo-charged “Homecoming”). A few years ago, Uzi was a distracted challenger to hip-hop’s royalty; now, he’s the center of the world, or possibly the universe.—Andrew R. Chow
Makaya McCraven, We’re New Again: A Reimagining
Since Gil Scott-Heron’s death in 2011, the poet and musician’s legacy has only grown in stature, as more and more people become aware of his impact on modern protest rhetoric and the origins of hip-hop. In February, the jazz drummer Makaya McCraven released We’re New Again: A Reimagining, which is not just a tribute to Scott-Heron but a reinvigoration. The album is the third major conceptualization of vocal fragments delivered by Heron in the years before his death: The first, Richard Russell’s I’m New Here, was sparse and industrial, while the second, Jamie xx’s We’re New Here, recast Scott-Heron as a dance-floor prophet.
This version by McCraven—one of the leaders of jazz’s new global vanguard—perhaps comes closest to Scott-Heron’s own aesthetic and avant-garde approach. McCraven brings together an all-star band to create a diasporic collage of experimental black music: J Dilla breakbeats, free jazz brambles, Afro Latin grooves, neo soul. And while Scott-Heron’s lyrics address addiction, insomnia and alienation, McCraven finds a communal warmth in them—and perhaps a blueprint to overcoming isolation and oppression.—Andrew R. Chow
The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
At 22 tracks, Notes on a Conditional Form can feel more like a long, meandering stroll through the eclectic mind of lead singer Matty Healy than a concentrated artistic statement. That, perhaps, is the point. What does the duet ballad “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” utterly tender and minimal, have in common with a Greta Thunberg spoken-word track on climate change, or the angsty punk rock of “People,” or the slow country swing of “Roadkill,” or the purely atmospheric glow of “Having No Head”? Just the source. The 1975 have never boxed themselves in; this mix of jazz production, experimental instrumentation and unusual song structures is par for the course over the British band’s nearly-two-decade career together. But Notes on a Conditional Form feels even more like a grab-bag of ideas than usual. They say Millennials are easily distracted, but here’s an argument in favor of being comfortable with constant tonal switching, because there’s beauty in the unexpected. It sounds like the group is trying new things in real-time, unfettered by the need to over-edit. Is it all performance, or is it authentic playfulness? Does it matter, when it sounds good?—Raisa Bruner
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately starts with a ragged intake of breath. It’s a good idea to inhale along with Mike Hadreas, who performs as the alt-pop creator Perfume Genius, because the uncompromising album about to begin holds a lengthy, emotionally vibrant journey in store. Now on his fourth album, Perfume Genius proves he’s equally comfortable with off-kilter indie rock, shimmering synth-pop and any shade of genre in between. His songs work a bit like paintings, in which he transforms sweetly-textured melodies into sheets of echoing, punk-inflected sound (“Whole Life”), or spackles flecks of glitter over a grimy base (“Leave”). Or, as on “Without You,” he can make a rock tune that twinkles, full of color. Perfume Genius has regularly plumbed his experiences of identity, relationships and pain for lyrical content. Here, he’s more opaque than ever. But pay close attention, and he’s also found new points of relating. “Take this wildness away,” he pleads over the bright swing of “On the Floor.” Listeners might beg to disagree.—Raisa Bruner
Yaeji, What We Drew
Over last few years, the bilingual Korean-American artist Yaeji has been throwing low-burning dance parties across the globe, linking up with local artists to create music that transgresses genres and cultures. Her mixtape What We Drew is an extension of this expansive vision: it includes producers from London and Tokyo and rappers from Oakland and North Carolina and pulls from trap, footwork, industrial music and even ASMR. The result is a simmering 40-minute recreation of a sweaty Brooklyn warehouse dance party. Throughout the project, Yaeji’s exploration of contrasting opposites—local and global, mythical and mundane, euphoric and depressive—keeps the project fresh listen after listen.—Andrew R. Chow
Correction, June 8
The original version of this story misstated the name of a guitarist on Jeremy Cunningham’s The Weather Up There. He is Jeff Parker, not Ben Parker.