I think for most of us, 2020 felt like a year that things might turn around, from what, naively, felt like the worst year in memory: 2019. But then 2020 popped up like a Randy Orton sneak attack and RKO’d us all of out of nowhere. We don’t need to rehash the specifics here, but one positive of this year is that the music has been great. Just a banner year for recorded sounds. And we don’t mean that facetiously: our list here of the 20 best albums of the year so far was hard to agree on, because every member of the VMP staff who contributed here could have listed at least 20 more albums that are worthy of recognition as 2020 hits its midway marker. But in our collective estimation, these 20 albums speak to where music is in 2020, and are the best albums of the year so far.
And while we have you: please, wear a damn mask. And donate to bail funds.
It feels trite to suggest that a jazz album--or any album, for that matter--was “made for these times” but Ambrose Akinmusire’s sixth LP comes at a relevant time. His jazz has always been about speaking to the Black experience, and this album specifically is a set of blues compositions that addresses death, inspiration, brutality, sorrow, and paying honor to people killed for the crime of a different skin color. A quiet, devastating record, on the tender spot can make you mad and take your breath away, often in the same song.--Andrew Winistorfer
It’s impossible to feel alive right now, let alone triumphant, but Fetch the Bolt Cutters is boiling with both sensations at every turn, without sacrificing any of its anger or truth. This album growls and glows and sings in your chest as it unfolds. Leave it to Fiona Apple to go incognito for eight years and then come back hot with a singular, cohesive, endlessly affecting album — just in time for the sham that is American society to uncloak itself and public unrest to come to a head! Brilliant. Fetch the fucking bolt cutters, baby.— Amileah Sutliff
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Listen… don’t you understand every year Armand Hammer drops places them on a list for that year? Can’t you figure they’d find another avenue to mainline their truth, even if it took shorter than you anticipated? I can’t say I guessed how summery this one would feel, and I still can’t tell you everything it means, but woods and Elucid are clearing the ballpark, hellbent on mashing out through the apocalypse. This is another primer for survival, built from memories and dirt and powered by a Friday fish fry. The lines have been drawn, and it’s time to choose one’s allegiances. --Michael Penn II
ARTHUR’s work is a funhouse of nightmares, located in the vortex of one’s cortex. It’s challenging, yet deeply rewarding if one’s willing to traverse the sharp lefts and trapdoors. His sophomore album’s just as brief and loaded as its predecessor, but dives deeper into the sludge in service of facing whichever feelings can make him weather the moment. (I know now that he’s unconcerned with forever, and unfazed by what cannot be understood.) The morose and whimsical wrangle in the darkness, ARTHUR shifting between the code of his universe and the direct impact of his catharsis. In under 30 minutes, it’s difficult not to emulate his process within oneself, hopefully leaving with a clarity that covers one like a blanket would.--Michael Penn II
“Like a diary about your crush during the apocalypse,” Bridgers told Apple Music, referring to cognitive dissonance that Punisher encapsulates, the feeling that occurs when you obsess over seemingly frivolous personal drama while the world implodes around you. But in 2020, our crushes didn’t get any less cute, our inner turmoil any quieter, or our relationships any easier, and on Punisher Bridgers spins hers into soul-stirring melodies and chilling ambience. Tense and jarringly dissociative one second, a floodgate release the next, it’s by far her most multi-dimensional and lush work to date.— Amileah Sutliff
How I’m Feeling Now is the first of a now-growing collection of albums to be conceptualized and made entirely in quarantine, created in collaboration with her fans through Zoom during its breakneck production process. While imperfect, it’s remained an electrifying pop artifact. Whether Charli’s physically aching to dance among sweaty bodies or quarantining with her lover or falling into a spiralling fantasy of self-doubt brought on too much time alone, every jarring or tender or manic or moving moment on the album feels like a unique snapshot into this uncanny, unprecedented, and ever-changing, yet painfully-the-same stage in time. — Amileah Sutliff
Noah Cyrus has been sporadically putting out singles since she was 16 years old, and after much trial, error, and exploration, it seems as though she’s coming into her own. THE END OF EVERYTHING is the first comprehensive release from the singer, and serves as an exciting shift from darkly tinged hip-hop leaning Soundcloud pop to straightforward pop songs backed by acoustic guitar and piano - which somehow feels more forward thinking and refreshing than ever before. There’s a palpable catharsis evident in every song on the EP - it’s a shedding of expectations and a break-up letter to the many versions of herself the public had an opinion on as she grew up in the spotlight due to her famous family.--Alex Berenson
I can’t believe Disq dropped “Daily Routine” and “Loneliness” and forecasted the global hell we’d all wade through mere months after. Their white indie rock minds are powerful, and this debut album’s evidence of that: the stylistic range, the earworm songwriting, and the familiar young adult dread permeating off the pavement. Such familiarity only proves endearing, and an asset to the way this album pinpoints tension in plain speak as a soundtrack to not knowin’ what the fuck’s goin’ on right now. It’s described like a mixtape of experiences and emotions; in time, it’ll live on as a document of angst from the fringes of confusing generations. --Michael Penn II
Y’all know precisely why we’re here: Gangsta Gibbs and Alc in late-career rare form, droppin’ premium work off as the seasons change. While Gibbs has walked this road many times before, there’s a different confidence lingering under the brick fare; he’s really walking like he’s earned it. These ten songs are but another speed record in the victory lap of his life, and Alchemist gives it his trademark cinematic glow, evoking insidious grit and meditative joy with equal highs. It’s another step in deepening the texture of both artists’ oeuvre; there’s humility and humor, but humble don’t live on this dock... Benny said that’s y’all moves!--Michael Penn II
In the nearly six years since his genre-and-chart-busting debut LP, Montevallo, Sam Hunt has seen country music roughly alter itself around his vision of the music, which incorporated flourishes of modern R&B, rock, and the sonics of hip-hop to create maybe the most thoroughly modern version of country that has existed. While many pretenders formed in his wake, Hunt is still country’s most sonically pushing adventurer, as his sophomore LP SOUTHSIDE proves; he knew there was a whole generation of listeners who like George Strait and Drake, and SOUTHSIDE is their album. If it weren’t for COVID-19, this would be the album that would go platinum at cookouts this summer. It’ll have to take that throne in 2021.--Andrew Winistorfer
It’s rare for an album to build a world that functions on its own, but keiyaA found a way to use her solitude and bear such a gift as her debut album. She’s a one-woman worldbuilder, rooted in history and steeped in her community. The Chicago-NYC connection spills out through the elements of improvisation, her every move standing on the shoulders of jazz and R&B pushing towards the future. In a sense, the songs move like strides toward freedom, keiyaA surrounding us with the way she’s attuned to curating a vibe via voice and loops. We rock out, we dance, we get weary of everything. Bask in the divinity. --Michael Penn II
First of all, this is one of the most Milwaukee rap albums I’ve heard in a cool minute: the landmarks, the slang, the fit descriptions of bygone eras. Lik’s equal-part poet and documentarian, a product of the Northside primed to push for better things. His debut’s a coming-of-age flick dropped deep in the thick of this push, his tender youth proving no barrier for his immense talent as a storyteller. He’s got neo-soul tints, moshpit inducers, and rider music that sounds like the best and worst of times. I see no reason for him to remain an underground secret for long, and I put that on a cup of JJ’s lemon pepper. --Michael Penn II
Hazy definition aside, Blake Mills is a “musician’s musician.” He could easily rest on a decade of laurels earned helming production for career-defining albums, but he instead chose the path of “that and,” quietly releasing a string of increasingly magnificent albums under his own name. Mutable Set, his current apex, is an exercise of equal parts composure and restraint. Mills the lyricist, emerges again as the starriest of his personae here, imbuing details as minute as waiting in line for a small cup of coffee with a profound sense of significance. Despite his bona fide six string chops, he never lets his own virtuosity overwhelm the compositions, as on the album’s smoldering centerpiece, “Vanishing Twin;” currents of dark tones – some placeable, others less so – writhe gently beneath his graceful coos, finally giving way to a gnawing guitar solo that underpins the song’s air of spectral lonesomeness. Taken as a whole, Mutable Set is the confluence of Mills’ numerous, sharply-honed talents, a feather in a cap already quill-brimmed.--Stephen Anderson
Russian experimental pop artist Kate NV has created something that both transcends language and genre, and places itself in conversation with an array of each. Allowing the synthesizers that dominated her sophomore album to step away from the spotlight, she took on a more collaborative process, turning to a cast of fellow musicians, and resulting in a untouchable, joyous pop dreamscape that’s varied, textured, and shifts from one boundless track to the next. Her whispering vocals weave through whirlwind instrumentals, inviting you to lean in, and she takes on the role of a whimsical guide through a fever dream you never want to leave.— Amileah Sutliff
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When referring to the phrase “Immediately” in his album title, Mike Hadreas told VMP, “I realized I can be here and be in this body and be with these people and I can have some more warmth to it. And once I realized that, I wanted that to be permanent and sustained and be in full euphoria and have all that good stuff right away. I didn’t want to have it portioned out to me.” In the same sense, Set My Heart On Fire, Immediately sounds like both pain and euphoria of choosing to feel it all — dark and ambient, fragile and euphoric all at once — but eternally uncompromising and beautiful.--Amileah Sutliff
The fourth LP from VMP-favorite Caroline Rose begins with a mysterious phone call, where an unnamed protagonist--played by Rose--is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to be a superstar. It sounds like the beginning of A Star Is Born, but that concept is really the framework for the incredibly buoyant, impeccably crafted pop-rock songs Rose delivers here. There are few musical pleasures this year greater than air-drumming to the final minute of “Do You Think You’ll Last Forever,” and slapping the bass to “Feel The Way I Want,” and playing air organ to “I Took A Ride.” Superstar is Rose’s finest achievement so far, and one that leaves us excited for what’s next.--Andrew Winistorfer
Get the VMP edition of this album right here.
The third LP in a little over a year from the anonymous group SAULT, Untitled (Black Is) is a righteous, powerful album that incorporates scraps of gospel, protest chants, R&B, funk, soul, and prog-rock to explore the experience and trauma and under-celebrated history of Black people around the world. It’s one of 2020’s most adventurous albums, and one of its most emotionally wrenching, another album that comes at an unfortunately perfect time, from the perfect band.--Andrew Winistorfer
Conceived and recorded in one week — specifically March 9th-16th, seven days marked by ratcheting dread and capped by near-global quarantine — and released digitally on Bandcamp within days of completion, Hill, Flower, Fog emerges as the rare bit of early COVID-era art with the ability to endure into a coming age in which an offered embrace isn’t met with hesitation. Sprague, otherwise known as the songwriting force behind the kindly Brooklyn-based bedroom folk unit Florist, revisits her moonlit role as modular synthesist for a third album-length go-round. Where other ambient composers opt for ambiguity in their desired interpretations — if any at all — Sprague is explicit in her desired ends: “[Hill, Flower, Fog] is meant as a soundtrack to these new days, practices, distances, losses, ends, and beginnings.” The five selections that make up Hill are a patchwork of twilit twinkles and gossamer droplets, threaded together by an underlying sense of calm. It is music borne of the troubles of our times, to be sure, but will last as a balm for times and troubles yet to come.--Stephen Anderson
Of all the directions Yves Tumor could have taken their sound, I’m not sure anyone would have guessed “glam rock god” would be at the top of the list; after a series of obfuscating electronic albums--the finest among them being 2018’s Safe In The Hands Of Love--Yves Tumor’s fourth LP stomps and struts. With its heavy guitar lines, it plays like a gnarly, heavy modern T-Rex album, but viewed through Yves Tumor’s fractured lens. It’s a shame we won’t be able to see songs like “Gospel For A New Century” and the power ballad “Kerosene!” onstage for some time. We’re raising lighters in quarantine, though.--Andrew Winistorfer
Jessie Ware blessed us with this gem of an album just last week - and it has rightfully earned it’s spot on this list. On her fourth album, Ware has delivers a hazy disco record that ranges from dance jams to minimalist electronic vibes. Every single one of these tracks is both sing-along-able and introspective - moody and dancey - the perfect album if you’re that friend that’s constantly being asked to put on something more upbeat.--Alex Berenson
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