While 2020 has been just a dumpster fire of a year in every meaningful way, one of the only bright spots has come in the form of music.
This has been one of the best music years I can remember, at least six months in, with multiple genres bringing out standout projects that the 2010s rarely did at this rate, and it has made this hell hole of a time just a little bit better.
Here are 15 projects that have really stood out to me this year, in alphabetical order, as terrific pieces of a phenomenal six months of music to start off the decade.
After Hours – The Weeknd
I have certainly liked Weeknd projects in the past, specifically during his “Trilogy” run, but “After Hours” is truly my favorite from Abel to date. This is The Weeknd’s most realized sound, using a ton of 80s influence, as well as influence from “Uncut Gems,” a movie he had a supporting role in. The song highlights are endless, and this easily feels like the most complete work Abel has ever put out throughout his decade in the spotlight.
Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist
This surprise May release was Freddie Gibbs’ second in as many years, and once again he teamed up with a legendary producer. Gibbs and Alchemist combine here for a terrific rap record that is short, sweet and to the point. Gibbs’ delivery and lyricism is as solid as always, and Alchemist combines that with tremendous beats. When it’s not Gibbs, the features from Benny the Butcher, Rick Ross and Tyler, the Creator fill in perfectly in his place.
Circles – Mac Miller
When I heard there would be a posthumous Mac Miller album, I was terrified. So many of these feel like cash grabs, and it shows with unfinished material that never should have been shown to the public. This is not one of those cases. “Circles,” which was finished by producer Jon Brion feels as complete as any Mac album, and it might just be my favorite work he’s ever done. Mac’s voice fits perfectly over these sounds, and some of the topics that he dove into were absolutely haunting to hear.
Mac Miller’s death hit harder than nearly any, but his legacy was finished in the right way, and with the right amount of care, with this project.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple took eight years to release her new project, and she made damn sure that every single second was worth it. I thought “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” was a masterpiece when I first heard it, I thought it was a masterpiece when I reviewed it, and I think it’s a masterpiece now. For Apple to make something that sounds wholly unique within a crowded genre is remarkable, but she did exactly that and then some with this work of art.
Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa
This is an album I never expected to be here. Dua Lipa made catchy songs in the past, sure, but she blew me away with this album. “Future Nostalgia” is as solid an album as there has been this year with not a single miss on the tracklist. Lipa follows the album title through a variety of beats that mix the old with the new and makes them all ridiculously catchy. This was just one of those albums I could not stop listening to for months after its release, and for good reason.
how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX
Charli XCX released one of my favorite albums last year, and “how i’m feeling now” feels like a continuation of that sound in a lot of ways. Charli brings more of the techno, glitchy pop that she has made work so well, and does it in a way that still feels unique even when looking at her discography. This project leans more into the glitchiness than ever before, and the results are terrific.
Miss Anthropocene – Grimes
Speaking of electro pop, the queen of the genre released her first album in five years, and she delivered in a big way. Grimes’ music is not for everyone, but this project really resonated with me, and grew on me more and more as I continued to come back with it. The sounds are different, more atmospheric on this album for Grimes, and I think the change worked in her favor.
Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
“Punisher” might be what I would consider the most beautiful album of the year so far, and that has everything to do with Phoebe Bridgers’ vocals. Her voice, through songs that are certainly not about the happiest of topics, is a constant soothing piece that goes with the lush instrumentals on every track here. There’s a wide variety of sounds to enjoy here, including a stunner of a finale. Bridgers goes through grief and trauma here and portrays it in a powerful way, and followed up a terrific 2017 debut with another album that I adore.
RTJ4 – Run the Jewels
The fourth installment for the duo of El-P and Killer Mike is, somehow, the best installment yet. Right in the middle of the heat of protests, the pair dropped this politically charged bombshell that has the same quality of lyrics, verses and instrumentals, with all of those components seemingly taken up a notch to match the time we live in. The results is a hip-hop record for the ages, one that felt brutally necessary to have in 2020.
SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama is one of the more unique voices in alternative pop, and this debut album showed off why exactly that is. Sawayama’s voice effortlessly works across a variety of sounds on this project, each of which being as catchy as the next. The Japanese-British singer-songwriter has carved her own niche in the genre, and this album is a total blast to listen to front to back.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately – Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, has been one of the more consistent artists working, and he continued that with his newest release, one that feels possibly even more raw and to the heart than his other projects to date. Hadreas does what he does best in a lot of ways on this album, especially on the production side of things where it is all immaculately put together. This is a record that is an intoxicating experience, an experience that keeps you hooked in throughout its runtime, and one that made me come back on multiple occasions.
The New Abnormal – The Strokes
I will not lie to you: my experience with The Strokes prior to this album was extremely minimal. That said, this album absolutely slaps, my goodness does it slap. I guess this rock group has had a series of iffy albums ahead of this, but not that I’ll ever know because the grooves that were put down here are so damn entertaining to listen to. Julian Casablancas’ vocals are great, the instrumentals are great and the creative sound in a tired rock genre was just so so great. Congratulations Strokes, 20 years in, and you’ve officially made a fan out of me.
Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
Chloe x Halle are 22 and 20 years old and have done the majority of writing, production and performances on this wonderful R&B album that is as infectious as any. The beats are light and work well with the vocals of the sisters, and the song variety just makes this a thoroughly enjoyable project to turn on at any time of the day. These two have a remarkable amount of potential, and a lot of that is realized here.
UNLOCKED – Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats
While not an album, this EP from one of the best rappers and producers working today was well worth a mention on this list. At just eight songs and 18 minutes, this duo fits a world of energy and talent into this amazing little concept project that is truly one of my favorite rap works of the year. Denzel brings his usual catchy lines and phenomenal delivery, and Kenny continues to show how impressive, and creative, he can be on the beat.
Women in Music Pt. III – HAIM
The sisters return after a three-year hiatus with a bang, and with an album that I did not expect to fall in love with so quickly. This record has some folky undertones to go with the alternative pop song that HAIM has done in the past, and the payoff is phenomenal. It’s the newest release on this list so I don’t want to overhype it, but I believe that this is the trio’s best project to date, and shows just how much range and ability they possess. There is just so much charm and energy on display here that I adore, and it is the perfect late inclusion to wrap up the first six months of 2020.