It feels strange to point this out during a year in which so many bad, no good, completely awful things have happened. But! 2020 has been a really excellent year for music so far.
When it comes to picking my favorites from the first half of 2020, I initially planned on sticking with a succinct Top 10. But I was leaving so many records that I love off the table. So I opted for 20. (Though even then I’ve left off some really good releases from the likes of Dogleg, Melkbelly, Grimes, and Pearl Jam.) There are a number of great records that seem to have been made about 2020, even though they obviously weren’t. And there are records that feel like antidotes to the madness we’re experiencing each and every day via our social media feeds and front windows.
Music can be a mirror, and it can also be a balm. This year abounds with examples of both. Here are my favorites, listed in alphabetical order.
Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters
How perfect is it that the defining album of 2020’s first half was made by a reclusive genius who rarely leaves her house? In both its rattling, raw sound and scathing, perceptive lyrics, Fetch The Bolt Cutters feels like a record made specifically to address our time of quarantine. It’s depressive, claustrophobic, clattering, cathartic, and loaded with stinging gallows humor. The twist is that for Apple — a droll misanthrope who rails against the awfulness of dinner parties in the brilliantly funny “Under The Table” — escaping into exile has always been the goal. As she sings on the title track, most people “don’t know shit” anyway.
Armand Hammer — Shrines
If Fetch The Bolt Cutters takes you inside the interior life of a solitary eccentric willfully sequestered from the world, Armand Hammer’s head-swimming, psychedelic hip-hop fantasia Shrines feels like an appropriately surreal snapshot of a larger world that’s rapidly deteriorating. Everything about this album is confounding and yet undeniably true — football players lose their minds, ancient Egyptian pharaohs rise to power once again, wild tigers lurk inside dilapidated apartments. Rappers Billy Woods and Elucid wield evocative metaphors about urban decay and then conjure them into a kind of weird dream-logic reality, against a backdrop of punch-drunk drum machines and swirling synths that move freely between waking and sleeping nightmares.
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman
So many great albums from the first half of 2020 somehow intuited the frayed emotional landscape of this time well in advance. In the case of the self-titled debut by Bonny Light Horseman, this occurred by counterintuitively dipping into a deep well of timeless folk and gospel standards. A supergroup of sorts featuring a who’s-who of musician’s musicians and singers — including Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, Hadestown‘s Anaïs Mitchell, and noted indie-folk multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman — Bonny Light Horseman recalls the disarmingly informal Mermaid Avenue albums made by Billy Bragg and Wilco, who similarly reconnected with a dormant spirit of American music and infused it with a younger, vital energy, producing incredible, necessary beauty for a year when our very national fabric is coming undone.
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
On the title track of her stunning second album, Phoebe Bridgers imagines herself as a needy, abusive fan stalking her idol, the late Elliott Smith. Just as Smith once specialized in writing heartfelt pop-folk tunes that moved listeners to the point of fanaticism, Bridgers now functions in that role for a current generation steeped in trauma and dread over the future. Though Bridgers’ delicate, emotionally numb vocals and doleful lyrics shouldn’t completely obscure the very real wit on display in Punisher, which is loaded with lines that will make you laugh (like the “Tears In Heaven” diss in the middle of “Moon Song”) even as you’re ugly-crying over yet another vividly evoked heartbreak.
Drive-By Truckers — The Unraveling
Back in January, the world’s greatest post-modern Southern rock band put out their 12th album, The Unraveling, and unwittingly created an overture for a very strange year. All around us, things are truly unraveling, and you can hear many of the reasons why on this exceedingly bleak record, a sequel of sorts to DBT’s 2016 effort, American Band. On The Unraveling, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley once again explore the moral and spiritual disasters currently ravaging America, including political insincerity (“Thoughts And Prayers”), inherently racist systems (“Babies In Cages”), shameless demagoguery (“Grievance Merchants”), and hopeless drug dependency (“Heroin Again”).
Bob Dylan — Rough And Rowdy Ways
At the age of 79, Bob Dylan seems to have realized that being a living legend who has accomplished everything that anyone could ever hope for in music gives you license to make the most perverse and idiosyncratic album you want. His latest, Rough And Rowdy Ways, is precisely that — you won’t find another record this year that mixes the profound and the silly with so much brazen bravado. In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan plumbs the depths of American darkness while also shouting out Don Henley and Glenn Frey. In “Black Rider,” he ponders death while also making a dick joke. In “I Contain Multitudes,” he wonders about the duality of man while bragging about his love of fast food. A million books and documentaries have been made about this guy and he’s still an utter mystery to us. How wonderful.
Empty Country — Empty Country
As the frontman of the ’10s era prog-emo band Cymbals Eat Guitars, Joseph D’Agostino made epic rock songs that unfolded like sequences of movements building to overwhelming crescendos. His new band Empty Country feels like a more mature project, pivoting from punk and emo to grander soundscapes drawn from ’80s classic rock and contemporary Americana. But D’Agostino hasn’t tamped down his ambition, but rather focused it, letting his songs breathe a little easier so the finely crafted narratives of his insightful, cinematic lyrics can really shine through. You won’t find many albums (or even TV shows and movies) that create worlds as fully realized as Empty Country, a place populated by self-destructive psychics, sociopathic 9/11 obsessives, and other fascinating iconoclasts.
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit — Reunions
Ever since he cleaned up his personal life, Jason Isbell has seen his professional and artistic fortunes skyrocket, easing into arena headliner status as his songwriting has become increasingly refined and literary. His latest album Reunions isn’t quite the dramatic leap forward that his 2013 breakthrough Southeastern was, though only because he has already risen so far. Rather, Isbell’s latest is yet another refinement, finding him writing about this pet themes — sobriety, the relationships between parents and children, the universal need for redemption — with as much elegance as he ever has. More than ever, his songs feel like fully formed stories, whether it’s the child who must transcend his parents’ flaws in “Dreamsicle” or the man in “River” who isn’t quite as good or remorseful as he initially lets on.
Stephen Malkmus — Traditional Techniques
For nearly 30 years, Stephen Malkmus has been saddled with a “slacker” reputation that belies his steady output with both Pavement and his winding and thriving solo career. The past several years have been especially productive, including a really good rock album with his stalwart backing band the Jicks, Sparkle Hard, his sorta electronic experiment Groove Denied, and the best LP of the bunch, this year’s Traditional Techniques. On this album, Malkmus works in the idiom of West Coast folk music and in the process produces some of his loveliest and most layered songs, including “The Greatest Own In Legal History,” a first-person con job that unexpectedly unfolds against a tender, finger-picked musical backdrop.
Jeff Parker — Suite For Max Brown
You might know the name Jeff Parker if you’ve followed the excellent Chicago indie band Tortoise, or (less likely) a bevy of other experimental groups from the Windy City. But if you’re looking for an introduction to this guitarist and composer’s wide-ranging catalogue — which bridges rock, jazz, R&B, and electronic music — it might as well be his latest release, the gorgeously funky Suite For Max Brown. Parker lays down clean, incisive guitar lines amid hot-buttered soundscapes that have the feel of ’60s avant-jazz while remaining unexpectedly accessible. It’s a record that’s rooted as much in the primacy of classic southern soul as it is in free-form sonic explorations, and it never fails to feel like tonic whenever I put it on.
Phish — Sigma Oasis
The quarantine has been onerous for all touring bands, but it must be especially crippling for the most popular jamband in America, which thrives on in-the-moment improvisation and a close connection with a large fanbase. But Phish responded to our current crisis in exceedingly surprising fashion — by releasing its best studio album in about 20 years. As free and thrilling as the band sounds on stage, they’ve often been encumbered by stiff and thin production on their records. Sigma Oasis answers this problem with an obvious but nonetheless effective solution: They simply jam, man, allowing epics like “Everything’s Right” and “Thread” to sprawl well past the 10-minute mark.
Ratboys — Printer’s Devil
As the Chicago folk-rock duo Ratboys, Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan make slow-burn strummers that marry rustic instrumentation with incisive lyrics about the pitfalls of millennial life, a genre they’ve jokingly dubbed “post-country.” On their third album, Printer’s Devil, they make a decisive turn toward big-sounding rock, a shift inspired by touring with boisterous punk bands like Pup. While Ratboys remain as tuneful as ever, the extra muscle pushes them toward a ’90s pop-punk sound, specifically the salty-sweet bands that appeared on the soundtrack to 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s a grungy, gleefully riff-y blast of sugar.
Rose City Band — Summerlong
As a member of the Bay Area psych-rock band Wooden Shjips, Ripley Johnson dwells on the lingering menace of the long lost hippie dream, a dreamscape where biker gangs bully hippies while the Rolling Stones soundtrack the violent end of the ’60s. Johnson’s latest project, Rose City Band, is that band’s surprisingly sunny and hopeful counterpart, an easygoing outfit content to play ambling guitar jams that sparkle like a sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Rose City Band’s latest, Summerlong, has relatively modest aims compared with some of the music on this list — it seeks merely to soothe with an ample dose of warm-hearted choogle. But given how hard it is to come by a little soothing these days, I’m awfully appreciative of the effort.
Jeff Rosenstock — No Dream
Speaking of warm-hearted people, Jeff Rosenstock has one of the best souls in the punk scene. On his recent run of albums, including his 2016 breakthrough Worry., he’s been as committed to fairness and social justice as he is to ensuring that anyone within earshot of his shout-y, triumphant anthems is having a good time. (He’s also fighting the good fight to redeem ska, which is thankless work indeed.) While Rosenstock’s intentions have always been pure, what truly distinguishes No Dream is how canny Rosenstock has gotten at goosing his anxious, politically charged songs with zesty pop touches like squealing synths, power-pop guitar jangle, and infectiously danceable rhythms. Rosenstock confirms every suspicion you have about how the system is corrupt and must be destroyed, and then his music reminds you that being alive still deserves to be celebrated.
Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline
Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf works in a tradition of wistful, story-oriented pop-rock most associated with giants like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. While Shauf has a long way to go before he can exist in that kind of company, you have to admire the literary ambitions of an album like The Neon Skyline. A song cycle that traces a night in the life of a man suffering from a personal crisis while sinking into the lonely barstool at his neighborhood dive, The Neon Skyline is like an old ’70s comedy-drama set to luminous folk-rock recorded with some of the most lovingly retro guitar, drum, and bass tones in recent memory.
The Strokes — The New Abnormal
The Strokes for so long have been haunted by comparisons to their instant classic 2001 debut Is This It that it’s easy to overlook how strange, dark, and enduring their other albums are. While aughts-era nostalgists will find plenty to appreciate on The New Abnormal — particularly the opening track “The Adults Are Talking,” which sounds like it was written by an Is This It algorithm — this album will be most appreciated by those enjoy The Strokes’ wiggy later period work as well as Julian Casablancas’ output with The Voidz. As they reach middle age, The Strokes aren’t afraid to be dark, depressive, or (here’s a new one) vulnerable.
Tame Impala — The Slow Rush
For the fourth Tame Impala album, The Slow Rush, Kevin Parker found a way to incorporate everything he learned about studio craft on the previous three masterful records. The Slow Rush carries forward the space-funk sound of Currents, while also indulging in the vintage instrumentation and spacey soundscapes of InnerSpeaker and Lonerism. The result is an album that would have — in a normal year — made Tame Impala the unquestioned rock champions of the outdoor summer festival circuit. The fact that Parker never had that chance in 2020 is the indie-rock equivalent of Michael Jordan briefly retiring in the middle of the Chicago Bulls’ championship run in the ’90s. Hopefully, Tame Impala will have the chance to claim their rightful prize in the near future.
Wares — Survival
Few records this year have made me miss the unique excitement of seeing and hearing a feral rock band positively explode inside a small club like Survival. While Wares initially started out as a noisier and more stripped back outfit, Canadian singer-songwriter Cassia Hardy has apparently studied the curriculum of messianic rock closely, evoking everything from Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream to Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor in her dynamic, shamelessly aspirational music. As her songs surge, you feel her fighting back against personal and political demons.
Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield has spent much of her musical career — which has lasted for about half of her life, stretching back to her teens — running away from her southern heritage, preferring punk rock and the Velvet Underground to country and Americana music. But after making her loudest rock album yet with 2017’s Out In The Storm, Crutchfield opted to make a dramatic 180 toward the sort of lived-in, down-home music associated with one of her great heroes, Lucinda Williams. The resulting album, Saint Cloud, is her most stunning work yet, filled with gripping travelogues set to warm and invigorating country rock.
Yves Tumor — Heaven To A Tortured Mind
On their previous albums, Yves Tumor brazenly disregarded genre boundaries. They were commonly associated with experimental electronic music, but those records also had plenty of gooey, catchy pop appeal. Heaven To A Tortured Mind continues this fearless eclecticism by re-envisioning the sort of sexy, guitar-heavy funk rock that was once synonymous with Prince and Sly and the Family Stone. Though those comparisons might be too limiting for Yves Tumor — Heaven To A Tortured Mind isn’t a nostalgic trip through funk’s past, but rather a thoroughly modern evocation of pleasure and fear through the lens of murky riffage and chunky, druggy rhythms. Listening to it feels like being quarantined inside the filthiest club with a lifetime supply of molly, a proposition as enticing as it is terrifying.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.