Published on May 31st, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)
Noah ranks the ten best albums of the year so far. Genres included punk, folk rock, EDM, and whatever the hell you call Fiona Apple’s latest.
This year has been a clusterfuck for the music industry. And its going to stay a clusterfuck for a while. But we can consider ourselves blessed to have these albums to crank when we’re feeling the 2020 blues.
If you have the means, buy these albums!! Artists need your support more now than ever.
10. Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter
Laura Marling had a pretty busy decade in the 2010’s, releasing six studio albums and being nominated for multiple Mercury Prizes and a Grammy. The Berkshire-born folk musician has been wallowing in her brand of smooth melancholia for a while now, but with her latest LP, she sounds clearer and more focused. The songs, while bearing notably vague titles like “Held Down,” “Hope We Meet Again,” and “For You,” play as quite specific and pointed. Marling has never been at a loss for things to say, but now it feels that she has someone to say them to. The record is coated in the kind of obtuse eulogizing we often give to lost loves and expired relationships. Even the title commemorates a daughter never had—a potential that was vetoed.
The production is dense and ornate when it needs to, but also finds moments of minimalism. It’s a tight 36 minutes, wasting no time with its pace. The record just flies by yet has enough to grab hold of. Marling parses out the biggest emotional hits so that they come when they are least expected but most necessary. And at the end of the day, her voice reaches grand enough heights of expression that one vocal fry or key change or melodic run can stop you dead in your tracks. She’s always had that power, but now she has a target. And we are lucky just to witness it and collect small pieces of shrapnel for ourselves.
Fave track: “The End of the Affair”
9. Wolf Parade – Thin Mind
I already wrote a full review for the Montreal indie band’s latest record, which you can read here. So I’ll keep this brief. What I will say is that this thing has gotten even better over time. Its uproarious anthems are well balanced with the band’s weirder and more personal lamentations. Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner gel really well on Thin Mind, matching the inward, existential, this-heart’s-on-fire passion with an exasperated satirical lens on the world at large.
It’s a record about getting older and watching all that youthful idealism about the world die away. It’s about finding meaning in between all the jaded sentiments humans are known to indulge themselves with. The guitars, synths, drums fire on Wolf Parade’s typical cylinders. The songs are catchy and warbly and patently loose in structure. But for the first time in a while, that looseness really feels like it has a purpose, instead of the band dressing up in their old hand-me-downs.
Fave Track: “Static Age”
8. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Ah, the pre-determined, certified “Album of the Year” by almost every music critic. And it’s only May. With Pitchfork’s Perfect 10 out of 10 to add to its many enshrinements, Apple’s album seems too good to be true. And worst of all, it finds itself in the unfortunate position of being impossible to divorce from the hype (especially when it fell into our laps out of nowhere). It’s a shame because it probably would be higher on this list if it wasn’t for everyone screaming about how great it is.
It is great. Apple has pretty much never made an album that wasn’t great. Her brand of…I guess you could call it pop…is daring and intrepid and never settles. The production always chooses the path least taken, yet mostly proves its adventurous decisions to be justified. “Shameika” and “Under the Table” are stand outs, existing in this uncanny valley that is catchy but also experimental. It’s a hard balance to pull off but Apple somehow makes it feel timely and memorable. And the uncanniness just works in her favor as it illustrates just what kind of zany auteur she really is.
However, she’s probably one of the last artists I’d choose to suffer such hyperbolic acclaim. Her music doesn’t hit immediately in the sense of true unconditional affection. For me, it’s a slow burn that grows more than it shows. It feels as though Pitchfork’s critic loved it and the rest of the world just simply acknowledged that she was well entitled to that love. I also think everyone was jonesing for a masterpiece during the height of the pandemic. That being said, its impossible not to acknowledge such an original and inventive voice in music.
Fave Track: “Shameika”
7. Moses Sumney – Grae
When people say a singer has “the voice of an angel,” they mean it figuratively. A rhetorical tool to convince someone that listening to that singer’s music is akin to some kind of divine experience. I’m here to tell you that Moses Sumney, in about as literal a way as one can be, has the voice of an angel. What I mean by that is that the California native sounds as close to what one would imagine an angel sounds like. He is factually angelic in whatever sense of the word humans could conjure up. He pushes his falsetto to the limit just until it threatens to crack under the weight of his angst and fervor.
With Grae, he uses that voice as one of many tools in her arsenal. His previous record Aromanticism was beautiful but ultimately a down-to-Earth showcase for his raw talent. The new album, which he released in two parts, is not satisfied with showing off a great voice. Sumney sacrifices showmanship for fleshed out and instrumentally ambitious song-design, making the music rest curiously and excitingly in the space where R&B ends and Alternative begins. It’s guitar music at its core, and Sumney is brilliant in as an instrumentalist as well. Yet, with songs like “Cut Me” and “Colouour,” he get just adventurous enough with other instrumentation (specifically wind instruments like horns and saxophone) to add growth into the equation without forgetting about his roots. It’s aching and atmospheric. And most importantly, its lengthy showmanship is worth the effort. Is it just me or are sophomore slumps a thing of the past?
Fave Track: “Me in 20 Years”
6. Frances Quinlan – Likewise
Frances Quinlan has been angling toward this direction for a while now with her band Hop Along. What started out as a post-hardcore emo project with sort of homespun, Janis Joplin vocals has very naturally settled into tempered but substantial indie rock. Hop Along’s guitars got sleeker and the noise-factor slimmed down greatly over the course of their three albums. But what has made the band’s evolution avoid missing any steps is Quinlan’s vocals, which forge a clear identity for them.
I was worried initially that her solo debut would be another Hop Along album just without the support of a well-rounded band. However, Quinlan really surprised me by releasing, by most standards, a very light-weight and accessible pop record. She still utilizes those heavy-rock influences, but channels them into a unique and memorable sound. One might ask, “How has no one really done this before?” The guitars are weighty yet very punchy and unobtrusive. Keys and even some synths round out the record as the kind of folk pop of yesteryear, the kind we need more of (if you ask me). Her voice still fucking rocks and she gives herself plenty of opportunities to flex her impressive set of pipes. But what’s incredible about this record is her confidence in remodelling her approach to song-writing so she can lighten up the mood yet still hang on to that top-of-her-lungs yearning. It’s a totally new look that feels oddly familiar. And in this case, the ambition lies in how simple she could keep it.
Fave Track: “Rare Thing”
5. The Strokes – The New Abnormal
I also reviewed this one at greater length, and you can check it out here. The Strokes have always been this staple of indie rock in the 21st Century. In fact, you could say they provided an early and very influential definition for what that sounds like. But hipsters are a hard crowd to please, and what The Strokes did so well became such a norm that they kind of played themselves out of relevance.
Their return after almost a decade hiatus is well-earned. It seems like they left just long enough to remind everyone of why we fell in love with them in the first place. Plus, the fact that the band members are all entering their 40s imbues the songs with the sophistication of thoughtful old sages, or at the very least, that cool dad wisdom. They seem world-weary, yet heavily motivated to pick up where the band left off. The results feel just familiar enough while still asserting a personal ennui in living through this modern world. Songs like “Ode to the Mets” and “At the Door” really illustrate how the band can stretch their sound to newer, more prescient heights. But they never lose sight of what makes them The Strokes. That is something for which they could never be found at fault in their 20 year history (for better or worse).
Fave Track: “Selfless”
4. Destroyer – Have We Met?
Another Canadian member of the indie rock old guard, Dan Bejar’s new record is, like, his fucking hundredth. The prolific songwriter never seems to take a break. And just when I thought he was losing steam with his sort of okay but not great Ken, he goes and delivers Have We Met. This is his most assured and focused songwriting since Kaputt or Destroyer’s Rubies.
There’s just no fat on this thing. It’s just crisp and direct the entire time. Yet, in typical Destroyer fashion, it touts dense and overwhelmingly pithy lyricism. I just keep expecting his brand of absurd, obtuse poetry to get old. But instead, it just seems to get smarter and more sophisticated with its timing. On this record, Dan takes just enough of that synth-pop charm from Kaputt and matches it with his folk roots. “Crimson Tide” and “It Just Doesn’t Happen” would be borderline club tracks if it weren’t for Bejar’s strung-out lyrical antics. But then with a song like “The Raven,” he reminds everyone of the warmth and sweetness he so consistently channels. It’s typical on-point Destroyer. And its slim, toned layout really helps punctuate the moments of brilliance that have become easy to take for granted with him.
Fave Track: “Kinda Dark”
3. Dogleg – Melee
Detroit punk rockers unleashed what I can only describe as a delightful gut punch of a record this year with Melee. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such raw and guttural emotional so cleverly put on display. Their hooks are the kind shouted at the top of your lungs, bloody knuckles to the sky. Yet, they constantly find interesting and unpredictable ways of shaking things up just when you think the songs will diverge into punk rock genericism.
I don’t really have much else to say about this. It’s the kind of album that seems relatively conventional on paper. God knows, there’s a thousand heart-on-your-sleeve post-hardcore emo bands out there. But this band just captures something ineffable. They seem to take the realest, most humiliating, and frustrating parts of being a twenty-something and put it right on the record, as unmediated as punk can get. That, coupled with fantastic musicianship, equals a big win for a genre that keeps getting written off. Newsflash: it’s fucking alive as ever.
Fave track: “Kawasaki Backflip”
2. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
My rave from a few weeks ago should suffice to say that Mike Hadreas has once again proven himself as a one-of-a-kind voice in this strange, intoxicatingly messy world we live in. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately has all the heartache that the title evokes in spades. Yet, here he moves on from the cinematic, ornate production of No Shape to something a bit more old school and pastiche-driven. It takes a lot of its cues from disco, EDM, and even grunge. Hadreas seems so assured of himself as an artist that the surface level clashes those influences may indicate just don’t matter. He unites them into his aura of introspective, fist-clenching pop. In doing so, he solidifies what many, including myself, always sensed about him: that he is a one-of-a-kind auteur who can make every vibe his own. Catchy, thoughtful, and never tolerant of “good enough,” every note of this album feels immaculate.
Fave Track: “Jason” or “Describe”
1. Caribou – Suddenly
Hey, another Canadian on the list named Dan! Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, has been quietly producing some of the best and most effortlessly modern sounding music for quite some time now. Suddenly is far from his coming out party. That honor probably goes to his 2010 album Swim. But what his new album illustrates is just how much he has harnessed the aura and the zeitgeist of the modern world, channeling it into infectious indie-tronica.
Smith makes EDM music that will make you cry. Or one could say that he makes sad R&B/indie pop that makes you dance. His faint but endlessly charming voice coolly unravels such shockingly simple hooks that it almost feels too good to be true when they coalesce with his 808s and samplers. On Suddenly, he doubles down on those samples, finding precisely what makes them so infectious without running that style into the ground. At 43 minutes, the record feels like a perfect synthesis of everything he represents philosophically about music. From the complex and weighty samples of “New Jade” and “Home” to the sugary chimes that complement the upbeat synths on “You and I”—every idea, inspiration and emotion that he believes music can achieve is captured. The album is so incredibly satisfying, yet it still leaves you wanting more.
While listening to it, I got the sense that Smith himself was blissfully unaware of how well the album was working. I got the feeling that every song was a place that he went to in his mind, and that precisely that form of escapism which his music provides means more to him than it ever could to me or any other listener. That being said, he lets us into those places he goes in his mind. We are tourists in the splendid imagination of Dan Snaith. He epitomizes the purest reasons for making art—the total joy in capturing that which thoughts and words and actions never can. Every song is made with that joy and it rubs off. It made me want to make electronic music. And I wouldn’t even know the first thing about it.
Fave Track: “Never Come Back” or “Ravi”