So far, 2020 has been a year unparalleled in modern history. In times of recession, disease and crisis, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At Natural Music, we find consolation in the work of artists we love. We've compiled that work into a list of our top 50 albums released this year, so far.
A few of the albums on this list are in direct response to the coronavirus-induced quarantine, Some are rebellious calls for change in response to the political and social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Others are intimate, quiet reflections. However you're feeling in 2020, we hope some of these selections speak to you. As we look forward to covering the rest of the year in music, these are the albums we'll lean on for comfort, relief, and hope.
Here are some of our contributor’s favorite albums and EP’s from 2020 that didn’t make our midyear list.
An impressive solo debut album under the Cecile Believe moniker from Caila Thompson-Hannant who co-wrote and recorded vocals for many songs on Sophie’s Oil Of Every Pearl's Un-Insides. With its fragile moments and sparing moments of PC maximalism, Made in Heaven is peculiar and surprising in a way pop rarely is these days.
The latest project from Porches is a short but sweet grouping of synthy art-pop songs. Short tracks connect the stellar singles that really buoy the album. From straightforward pop songs like “Do U Wanna” to quirky tracks like “Fuck_3”, this album has its footing in a lot of different genres and executes on most of them successfully.
Quelle Chris and Chris Keys team up on this cerebral, jazzy hip hop project featuring a slew of quick-witted collaborators like Earl Sweatshirt, billy woods, and Homeboy Sandman.
Clams Casino has compactly collected some of his best work into an easy-to-stream package. Every bold and shimmering hip-hop instrumental gracing Instrumental Relics would be a towering achievement for most producers, but for Casino, creating these ethereal bangers comes across as effortless. Spanning the early period of work with artists like Lil B and A$AP Rocky, this compilation provides the perfect entry point into one of the most influential producers of the 2010s.
Panopticon! is a sonic journey through uniquely re-envisioned musical terrain. Feedback and noise are carefully applied and "played" like instruments in counterpoint to melody and rhythms. Presenting the album as one 38-minute track, dreamcrusher brings purpose to power noise.
Jeff Rosenstock is going on 40, but No Dream shows he can still harness the teenaged emo angst that makes pop punk so fun. NO DREAM is catchy guitar rock that sees the longtime DIY warrior giving it all he’s got on vocals.
The final album from the late Mac Miller is mellow and reflective. Miller’s pairing with producer Jon Brion brings out a neo-soul sound that reflects the honest and occasionally painful lyricism. It’s a great album to think about life to, and provides perfect closure on a life that turned into unexpected tragedy.
Manchester duo Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid compile new work and extractions from their recent NTS Radio Transmission that seek to lay a soundtrack to the current revolt against institutional racsim and brutality across the globe.
Chicago-based experimental artist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is a self-proclaimed brat — “I definitely know I have polarizing qualities, and I embrace them whole-heartedly.” BRAT is a slight departure from the absurdist abstract hip-hop of 2017 album DROOL, a strand of art pop that’s hard to compare to anything else.
We find the particularly poetic songwriting of the young woman in this beautiful album. Poetic but without bullshit, beware that it is 2020, Laura Marling is not a pastoral country singer anymore. Her stories are always touching, the words chosen are those that make you lift your nose from the book you read to just listen. She talks to her future daughter, defends her, wants to protect her innocence. She questions without judging the small marital prisons of our mothers.
Dogleg snarls with adolescent anger and angst on this post-hardcore record, trudging through a mire of crises related to specific formative relationships that permanently scar and shape.
With lush arrangements and cavernous production flourishes, the Brooklyn songwriter’s second full-length is an ambitious record drawing sonic influence from the sounds of Cate Le Bon, Melody’s Echo Chamber, U.S. Girls and Half Waif.
“What Kinda Music?” is a good question that this album doesn’t provide a clear answer to, sounding like In Rainbows-era Radiohead at times and pure jazz at others. This LP is a departure from Tom Misch’s poppy debut Geography, but it still features his dulcet vocals and virtuosic funk guitar.Yussef Dayes is the perfect teammate to bring Misch’s guitar and production into abstract territory, as the London drummer centers the atmospheric cloud with tight, complex rhythms that are as entertaining as any of the rich textures on the album.
2019’s Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace) announced Fire-Toolz as a band that was unlike any other. Their unique combination of metal shrieks, power electronics and vaporwave was enticing for reasons that weren’t readily understandable. In truth, there is little on that album, or Rainbow Bridge for that matter, that should work. But through some incredible combination of production trickery and sheer confidence, Fire-Toolz makes Rainbow Bridge sound like the result of an obvious combination.
Room for the Moon, Kate Shilonosova’s third album as her solo alter ego Kate NV, is a whimsical, meandering dream of a record. Breezy woodwinds, rippling 80s synths, and steady percussion create a magical atmosphere that feels equally calming and adventurous, like a spontaneous midnight stroll through your suburban neighborhood. Made during “the loneliest period of [her] life,” it reads very much as Shilonosova making the joy she wants to feel.
Desire by South African Desire Marea is the refined character of expression in constant exploration, spiritual and reflective, but at the same time concrete, aimed at pulling apart the divine from an earthly, deeply human perspective. Liturgical openings, ecstatic drones, noise catharsis, articulated rhythmic impulses define an album of refined personality, as intoxicated by the most daring structures as animated by fervent pop glimmers, with which to outline new poignant landscapes of the soul.
Metal may be overlooked by most, but even the most ardent denier of extreme music will have a hard time turning away from Mestarin Kynsi. This psychedelic black metal record blends various metal styles into something that is compelling by virtue of its sheer energy. Of course, energy isn’t the only thing Ornassi Pazuzu brings to the table. Mestarin Kynsi is deliriously inventive and refuses to stay in a single lane for more than half a song. The resulting record keeps even the most seasoned metalhead on their toes, but is still welcoming to those who are curious about the genre.
BLQLYTE is a culmination of Zeroh’s many years of experimentation. Created over a six-year span and entirely self-produced, it’s an album that pushes at the very edges of hip-hop and R&B. Sounds fight for breath on BLQLYTE, with beats pushing to the front of the mix as if emerging from a swamp before they are dragged back into the depths. Tracks bleed into one another, and conventional structures are ditched in favour of impressionistic, abstract ruminations.
The boundaries of pop music are being pushed further and further with each passing year and That Kid is another standout in this effort. Following a string of singles, he dropped his debut mixtape which is a sometimes heartfelt, sometimes raunchy, but always fun collection of songs. Whether he’s covering a 2008 Soulja Boy hit, or singing about getting fucked in a Taco Bell, That Kid keeps the energy high and the listener dancing along.
The undefinable @@@@@ — released as a roughly hour long single —is another new, exciting installment in the melodic body horror that is Arca’s discography.
Rare is an album that can cross over between Top 40 and critics so deftly. Future Nostalgia is a joyous cavalcade of punchy arrangements and disco aesthetics. Dua Lipa has concocted a synthpop album that is chock full of hooks and light on filler, and if nothing else, has some of the best basslines you will hear on an album this year.
A triumphant EP led by the comforting and infectious single “People, I’ve been sad”. Christine captures the modern fomo and makes it common ground. She finds what we believe divides us and uses it to unite. This album is danceable, thoughtful, and relatable in a way that pop has failed to deliver for its audience.
Yung Lean refines his unique brand of melodrama, continuing to deliver heartfelt emo rap accompanied by spacey trap beats, delivered with his signature fragmentary vocal style that feels more polished, more purposeful, than ever.
In our nostalgia-driven industry, many eras have cannibalized and regurgitated. That’s why albums like Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA are a necessary reminder of the joy found in transforming nostalgic influences. This debut swiftly blends Britney Spears’ swagger, nu-metal detours, and mind-melting production from the likes of Clarence Clarity and Danny L Harle. Rina ascends as one of pop music’s new electrifying auteurs.
Recorded at London’s infamous Abbey Road Studios with the help of the London Contemporary Orchestra, Island is all-enveloping and all-consuming – filled to the brim with strings and sonic twists and turns. Pallett refuses to do the expected; and chords are rarely resolved, but roll off into new directions instead.
A midnight stroll on the beach. Mas Amable is hypnotic yet smooth, spacey yet steady. DJ Python sends out a message of inner peace with an angelic, echoing voice: “Where was the place where you felt okay? Go to this place.”
On his third full length, Medhane looks inward, where there's no shortage of ideas to unpack. Nearly all of the fifteen tracks on Cold Water are under three minutes, like quick poetic sketches in a notebook packed with rhymes. The artist brings cerebral raps in spades, delivered in the tough-but-cool timbre that’s only born out of Brooklyn.
Despite surfing beneath most people’s radar, HMLTD came out of the gates swinging with this modern post-punk masterpiece. Everything about West of Eden is turned up to 11, resulting in a deliriously enjoyable album that is dark without being overwhelming and theatrical without being kitschy. Given that this is just the group's debut record, we can expect plenty of great things from HMLTD in the future.
Phoebe Bridgers comes through yet again with another guitar driven indie masterpiece. In an impressive turn of events, Punisher even surpasses her previous album A Stranger in the Alps. Much like records from the National or Boygenius bandmate Julien Baker, the songs are sad without being treachly. To top it off, her lyrics and narrative prowess are at their most potent on this wonderful record.
Soccer Mommy’s releases have consistently upped their quality and Color Theory is no exception. The music is gentle and moody, with simple but catchy melodies that take everything that was great about 2018’s Clean and make it better. Sophia Allison’s songwriting on this record is impressive, with metaphors that fold into one another giving a deep dive into her psyche. Overall, a strong collection of introspective indie pop songs.
Bringing together art rap pioneers Billy Woods and Elucid, along with a powerful bunch of features like Earl, Pink Siifu, and R.A.P. Ferreira, Shrines culminates in subtle but powerful abstract hip hop perfectly attuned to the grim political and societal realities of the current moment.
After 5 years away from the Caribou moniker Suddenly finds Dan Snaith in his element, writing beautifully endearing tunes and setting them to multi-layered production in a way only he can, and the results are spectacular. Suddenly forgoes some of the easy listening pop melodies of “Our Love” for a slightly more experimental but still accessible record with absolutely stunning production.
After 10 years of rumors and false starts, Jay Electronica’s debut album does not disappoint. A Written Testimony is a densely-constructed album, full of subtle nuances and top-notch sampling (much of which Jay himself is responsible for) along with features by Travis Scott, James Blake, Khruangbin and, most notably, Roc Nation boss Jay-Z, who spits some of his best bars in years.
Nicolas Jaar seems to have roamed just about everywhere and nowhere - and most of all in seclusion, based on a statement about Cenizas in recent years. However, that loneliness has become oppressive and indispensable in recent months, making the album feel like a journey that comprehensively completes the circle of the work of the American-Chilean sound engineer. Musically, we may say that this album is Jaar's most experimental and risky to date. The album consists of a mix of distinctive and well-grounded sounds. It is obvious that it is a masterfully prepared composition.
If Lil Wayne is the king of punchline rap, then he best be ready to defend the crown. This brisk collaboration between rapper Denzel Curry and producer Kenny Beats showcases the best that both parties have to offer. Kenny delivers a dense, sample laden production style that constantly tinkers with Curry’s voice, while Curry puts out some of the best lines of his career. Every track features at least two stank face worthy lines and dozens of quotables. Though it may lack the serious nature of Curry’s more recent efforts, it’s a compelling bit of evidence in the case for Curry as one of today’s best rappers.
With After Hours, The Weeknd returns to the foundations of his early career, embodying a drug-tinged crooner navigating the highs and lows of stardom. But rather than stay in the nocturnal shadows of his moody brand of R&B, he deftly plays into 80s pastiches. Synthesizers,drum machines, and the biggest hooks of The Weeknd’s career launch After Hours into a new stratosphere, one where the blinding lights and longest nights seem to last forever.
Archy Marshall a.k.a. King Krule retains much of the brooding attitude and cynical lyrics he's come to be known for on Man Alive! Still, Krule is softer and more structured, laying down most of the instruments himself behind his emotive, yet singular vocal.
Ultraclub4k, is a collaborative effort of Døves and GothBoiClique co-founder Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. The 60 minute DJ Set/Album is a beautifully crafted combination of genres you never thought would play as well together as they do. A relentless blend of trance, cloud rap, hard dance, and trap feels at the same time fresh and incredibly nostalgic.
Following a successful string of seemingly effortless dance cuts and extended plays, UK producer India Jordan returns with their most refined effort yet. These fast-paced, woozy house tracks are constructed with one part pure euphoria, one part thoughtful introspection. On the titular “You,” India brings to the table a daring combination of careful cogitation and care-free movement.
Taking its name from a biblical quote in Romans, this electronic project from Drew Daniel of Matmos blurs the line between house and ambient soundscape. The album’s chimes, bells, piano and chanty choir vocals give it an ethereal quality, almost to the point of being eerie. One track flows seamlessly into the next, shaping a sonic pilgrimage that will intrigue active and passive listeners alike.
RTJ's fourth album is the reckoning of hip-hop’s new elder statesmen, artists who have been raging their entire careers finally reaching an apex of creative and political precision. El-P and Killer Mike are at the center of the protest, megaphone equipped, directing the energy of a righteous mob at specific targets — cops, capitalism, right-wing objectivists, the school-to-prison pipeline are just a few.
Somewhere between a scrapbook and a puzzle, Material Girl finds himself not only cutting and pasting samples and genres onto Tangram, but emotions and turmoil—a gorgeous and unparalleled listening experience.
2017-2019 is the second album by Nicholas Jaar under the moniker Against All Logic. Under his own name, Jaar is renowned for his experimental electronic music production. Against All Logic’s sophomore LP is darker and more introspective with beat-driven edge that makes you want to move. Techno melodies, tribal rhythms, sirens, and industrial sounds are all cut up and reassembled with irreverent tact.
This album from the rapper formerly known as Milo is a stunning manifesto for independent rap in the 2020. Backed up by the inventive, jazz-infused production of Kenny Segal’s Jefferson Park Boys, R.A.P. Ferreira makes his most complex and well-developed case for psychic freedom yet, folding in gas station graffiti, existentialist wisdom, and doing his son’s laundry into his rich artistic tapestry., Rory’s raps on Purple Moonlight Pages are more naturalistic and free-flowing than ever, In fact, his delivery reflects the album’s ambitious conceptual framework; he sounds utterly free.
Tinkling piano, rippling strings, and bleeping synths wash over the listener on Mystic Familiar, accompanied by existential pondering that reassures and lifts. Deacon expresses the beauty found in the swirling dichotomy between life and death on his wonderful new record.
Tumor always seems to find beauty in chaos. On the artist’s latest, manic breakdowns pass into polished pop and moments of melancholy, making for peculiar art rock rooted in the experimental. Yves Tumor emerges as a full-blown rock star, raising almost every bar set on their incredible 2018 album.
Sumney explores uncertainty and ambiguity in græ, which he self describes as "a concept album about grayness.” The album balances personal and public messages working to directly address people’s emotionality. Asking questions about unexplainable phenomena in society, græ is a musically and lyrically demanding work that once again proves Sumney's creative genius.
Perfume Genius has manifested himself as a celebrated queer icon on the margins of the art pop mainstream. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is pop made better, an album straight from the heart of the artist that embraces versatility and experimentation in ingenious fashion.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is alive in the way previous Fiona Apple records only hinted at. The lo-fi production and odd percussion give the record an organic feeling that suits Apple’s searing lyrics in the best way. It’s that rare type of album that draws you in with its bubbling tension and never lets go. An essential listen.
Charli has used her time in quarantine to create one of the best pop records of the year, fully rooted in the context in which it was created. The pandemic and its accompanying isolation provide the thematic backdrop for introspective ballads and cathartic bangers. With forward-thinking production by AG Cook and a number of PC music-adjacent producers, how i'm feeling now gives us plenty to dance along to, even if it’s by ourselves for a while.