2020 hasn’t shaped up to be the futuristic year we all thought it would be, although it has brought fantastic music — and we’re only halfway in! Here are some of my favorite albums from the first half of 2020, unranked and complete with some must-listen songs from each one.
Poppy, “I Disagree,” (Jan. 10)
Gone is the Poppy centered around kitschy, parody-like pop, and here is a fresh new start stemming from the nu-metal last three tracks of her sophomore album, “Am I A Girl?” The production on this is intense and heavy, but with each song Poppy flips it around and adds a bridge calling back to her old sound. The juxtaposition between pop and metal makes this record dynamic and explosive, and features some of her best songwriting to date (“Never forget the excess of a man/Because the grabbing hands always grab what they can” on “BLOODMONEY”).
Must-listens: “Concrete,” “I Disagree,” “BLOODMONEY,” “Anything Like Me”
Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia,” (March 27)
After a solid pop debut with her 2017 self-titled album, “Don’t Start Now” arrived in the fall of 2019 as a clean, disco-oriented single to kickstart her new — and more personality-driven — era. Three further songs (the title track which serves as a mission statement for the record, “Physical,” a massive 80s throwback, and “Break My Heart,” a groovy song that seems to never get old) led up to the release of the album, which was brought forward a week because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Though we were all in our houses, this time-bending album is perfect for a future dancefloor.
Must-Listens: “Future Nostalgia,” “Don’t Start Now,” “Physical,” “Levitating,” “Break My Heart”
Laura Marling, “Song For Our Daughter,” (April 10)
With this album, Marling sounds like a minimalist; the bare and stripped down instrumentation shows that sometimes less is more when paired with her soft vocals. Songwriting this simple but effective reminds me of Kacey Musgraves — like it simply comes too easily for them. The album has highs (“Strange Girl” is the most upbeat and joyful) and lows (the lyrics to “Fortune” are particularly devastating, especially “I had to release us from this unbearable pain/And promise we won’t come here again”) and eventually is a satisfying listen, one for a summer morning with the windows open.
Must-listens: “Alexandra,” “Held Down,” “Strange Girl,” “Fortune”
Rina Sawayama, “SAWAYAMA,” (April 17)
If the first four tracks are not enough to motivate you to keep listening, you might be the type of listener who enjoys the same type of music on repeat. With these 13 tracks, Sawayama takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions, genres, attitudes, and sounds, and does it effortlessly (the slinky disco of “Comme Des Garçons” and deep melancholy of “Akasaka Sad” don’t seem jarring when heard back to back). She tackles exuberant consumerism on “XS,” relationships and self-love on “Bad Friend” and “Love Me 4 Me,” and mental health stemming from familial issues with “Dynasty” and “Snakeskin.” The only time she pauses to give you a break is after the final track is done, and in that time you begin to realize how spectacular this album is.
Must-listens: “Dynasty,” “XS,” “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” “Akasaka Sad,” “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” “Snakeskin”
Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” (April 17)
Apple’s aptly written title track perfectly describes the emotion, feeling, and moment humanity was in when it arrived: “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long.” This record is heavy, not just with the vast percussion-based instrumentals but also with its lyrical content: “Heavy Balloon,” “Cosmonauts,” and “For Her” make up a tight trio of negative emotions, ending with the jaw-dropping bridge in “For Her.” “Shameika,” “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” and “Under The Table” play out more like spoken-word stories, a testament to Apple’s finely-tuned songwriting. It’s a hazy project with intense, vibrant feelings, but on display is incredible talent.
Must-listens: “I Want You To Love Me,” “Shameika,” “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” “Heavy Balloon,” “Cosmonauts”
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Dedicated Side B” (May 21)
It’s clear pop mastermind Carly Rae Jepsen writes for her fans, not the charts anymore. This was clear when she dropped “E•MO•TION: Side B,” a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut from her sophomore album. She continued this tradition with “Dedicated Side B,” with some of her finest songs to date — some of which I’m shocked didn’t make it onto the already brilliant “Dedicated,” but I’m glad we got them anyway. Short and sweet, “Fake Mona Lisa” has Jepsen comparing sex to art, and continues the theme with “Summer Love,” with a style she hasn’t attempted before. It’s clear sometimes that these are the B-sides (“Stay Away” and “Felt This Way” are basically the same song), but there are really special moments, like with “Comeback,” which features production expert Jack Antonoff. Is this a full album? A fun side project? Either way, there is no question Jepsen is truly dedicated to her fans.
Must-listens: “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” “Summer Love,” “Fake Mona Lisa,” “Comeback,” “Now I Don’t Hate California After All”
Lady Gaga, “Chromatica,” (May 29)
After a brief stumble with the country/folk oriented “Joanne,” Gaga launched back into the public eye with “A Star Is Born.” Earning her 4th №1 hit, “Shallow,” she was ready to start a brand new era — this time going back to her electropop roots. “Stupid Love” was an explosive, catchy lead single, and the following “Rain On Me” with superstar Ariana Grande was an anthemic house anthem with a near-flawless music video. Collaborating with such different characters like Elton John and K-Pop group BLACKPINK, you’d expect “Chromatica” to be an all-over-the-place record, but the songs are all homogenous in their dark, pop-driven structures. Songs like “Free Woman” and “Plastic Doll” mention the industry she’s been at the forefront of, including the declaration “This is my dance floor/I fought for” on the former. “Replay” and “Fun Tonight” showcase the album’s improved lyricism as well. Overall, this is guilty-pleasure pop music everyone enjoys once in a while.
Must-Listens: “Stupid Love,” “Rain On Me,” “Replay,” “Babylon”
Chloe x Halle, “Ungodly Hour,” (June 12)
Some of my favorite music lies in the trifecta of pop, R&B, and trap, and Chloe and Halle Bailey execute this flawlessly on their sophomore album. This is a tight, exquisitely produced collection of songs that highlight their versatility — in some aspects they show off their humor (“Tipsy” and “Busy Boy”), but also write poignantly on “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” and the title track. The addicting lead single “Do It” keeps getting stuck in my head, as well as the mature ideas of tracks like “Lonely” (“Are you afraid of the silence?/Are you afraid of what you’ll find in it?). Although they’re known for their heavenly singing abilities, the production and writing (they have co-writing credits on every track) shows the sisters are far more talented than we know.
Must-listens: “Do It,” “Ungodly Hour,” “Lonely,” “Don’t Make It Harder On Me,” “Wonder What She Thinks of Me”
HAIM, “Women In Music Pt. III” (June 26)
The Haim sisters have had a rocky road leading up to their third album, from a boyfriend’s cancer diagnosis to dealing with the grief of a best friend passing. On this album, Haim takes these events and spins sadness into light with breezy, sunny production and a bright tracklist. There are sad moments, but they’re written about so beautifully and with such hope you know they’ll be okay (“Hallelujah,” “Summer Girl,” “I Know Alone”). But between these moments, there are spots where their talent as producers comes through, like on the bass-heavy “Up From A Dream,” smooth “3AM,” and the growing “Don’t Wanna.” Relationship issues, feminism, sisterhood and more are addressed here, proving that they’re masters of the pen.
Must-listens: “I Know Alone,” “Up From A Dream,” “3AM,” “Now I’m In It”
Jessie Ware, “What’s Your Pleasure?” (June 26)
After a year filled with hits that called back to sounds of the 70s and 80s (“Blinding Lights,” “Don’t Start Now,” “Say So”), it seems fitting that one of the best albums this year does the same. This album is filled with high energy moments (the slinky “Spotlight” and catchy “Soul Control” are made for a dancefloor), and lights-down-low valleys that showcase Ware’s excellent and sometimes poetic writing (“In Your Eyes” and “The Kill”). The production is immaculate, and culminates in a grand, Janelle Monáe-like closer “Remember Where You Are,” a confidence booster about recognizing your positive situations. With this record and “Future Nostalgia,” the past has never been closer, but it’s been brought back in a fantastic way.
Must-listens: “Spotlight,” “Soul Control,” “Read My Lips, “Remember Where You Are”