The 25 best albums of the year, so far

2020 has been very strange. At some point, the coronavirus took hold and the world was plunged into total lockdown. Still, live music hasn’t quite returned, and the arts industry will likely be feeling the effects of this pandemic for years to come. But that hasn’t stopped people from releasing some killer new tunes.

In fact, the musical output throughout the pandemic has been just as strong as ever. So we’ve rounded up 25 of the best albums to be released this year.

2020, for all its faults, has been responsible for some killer new albums. Here are 25 of the best.

Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple’s career has unfolded in cycles. Upon releasing her debut full-length album Tidal in 1996, the American singer-songwriter was thrust into the public eye, quickly gaining a legion of fans, as well as a legion of critics. To deal with this new-found attention, she retreated for three years, piecing together another highly-debated collection of songs, When The Pawn. In another six years, she released Extraordinary Machine. In another seven years, The Idler Wheel. And in another eight years, Fetch The Bolt Cutters.

Due to the large periods of silence between albums, each release has enraptured a new generation of listeners. Her fifth album has undoubtedly been the most enrapturing of all. For a world plunged into lockdown, Fetch The Bolt Cutters couldn’t have been more timely. This was, after all, a record created within Apple’s Venice Beach abode, using the structure itself as an instrument. Her walls and floorboards both play vital roles in the final sound of this album, illuminating the endless creative possibilities that lay inside any given home. With this album’s release, self-isolation suddenly didn’t feel so restrictive. Fetch The Bolt Cutters was Fiona Apple’s gift to a world trapped indoors.

Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

While Fetch The Bolt Cutters opened up completely new avenues of creativity within one’s own home, Tame Impala’s fourth album The Slow Rush is capable of transporting listeners to entirely new worlds. Many have criticised the actual songwriting on this album, but that’s not what Tame Impala has ever been about. Kevin Parker is not Max Martin, nor will he ever be. The sounds Parker is able to pull, however, are incomparable.

While 2015’s Currents is still largely considered Parker’s masterpiece, The Slow Rush is undoubtedly a sonic step forward. Here, Parker reaches further outwards, incorporating more trance and dance-focused sounds. From the warped chants of One More Year to the looped grooves of Lost In Yesterday, The Slow Rush is a boundless plane of time-bending rhythms. If at any point over the past couple of months, the world has felt too claustrophobic, this album has been a portal elsewhere.

Perfume Genius – Set My Heart Fire On Immediately

While Fetch The Bolt Cutters and The Slow Rush are built on concepts of place, both homely and otherworldly, Perfume Genius’ latest album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is built on concepts of body and self. Like a body undergoing an exorcism, the album contorts and shapeshifts, unveiling each little intricacy and idiosyncrasy that lies within its creator. On the album’s cover, Mike Hadreas stands bare-chested, exposed to his audience, prepared to share all his self-discoveries.

In turn, listeners are invited to discover new sides of themselves. With the image of Hadreas’ burning heart hanging at its doorway, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately requests you shed your own pre-held ideas of self upon entering. In doing so, Hadreas’ breakthroughs become shared experiences. With grand instrumental arrangements and blissful melodies, you’ll be swept into the sky; with vulnerable, gut-wrenching lyricism, you’ll be brought right back down to Earth.

King Krule – Man Alive!

For his third album under the King Krule moniker, Archy Marshall delivered his bleakest release to date. It’s as if Marshall looked back at the chaotic neo-jazz sounds of The Ooz and thought “nah, that’s too accessible”. Whatever remnants of pop music lingered in the South London musician’s music were well-and-truly stomped out on Man Alive!. There’s not a hook to be found in this sprawling labyrinth of an album. Having recently become a father, Man Alive! oozes with tormented drawls about fatherhood and anguished internal conflicts.

It’s dark, sure, but there’s also an undeniable sense of hope weaved subtly throughout the record. Marshall has always maintained a sense of romanticism in his music, and his partner Charlotte Patmore’s presence is more prevalent than ever on this album. “She was like / ‘Nothing ever made me feel the way you do’… I lay down on the empty streets / The roads seem to lead me to you,” he bellows on Underclass. Due to the sometimes-overwhelming desolation that surrounds them, these moments hit with an extra bit of force.

Party Dozen – Pray For Party Dozen

Pray For Party Dozen, the second album from one of Australia’s most unique and boundary-pushing bands, Party Dozen, is an assault of sonic experimentation. This 10-track, 35-minute album is bursting at the seams with imagination and inventiveness, propelling each of the duo’s musical characteristics to new extremes. And it’s in extreme territories that Party Dozen prosper. Made up of saxophonist Kirsty Tickle and percussionist Jonathan Boulet, the outfit have refined their balls-to-the-wall sound into something (a little bit) more palatable.

But that’s not to say that Pray For Party Dozen is a watered-down version of their debut, The Living Man. It’s not. In fact, this second record feels even more insane, but it also feels a lot more thought out. The soft parts are softer, and the crazy parts are crazier — just look at the album’s opening track World Prayer, probably their wildest track to date.

Moses Sumney – Græ

On his second album, Græ, Moses Sumney offers a sprawling study of identity, examining his own experience of race, gender, relationships, experience, and existence. Encased in a sonic landscape which is as equally malleable and far-reaching, græ offers a truly gripping ride, peering between the confines of black and white, male and female, monogamy and polyamory, truth and lies, and life and death, searching for something human in the space between.

The release of græ was divided into two parts, with the first, græ: Part 1, dropping in February of this year, and the second released in late May. As a body of work, the 20-track album feels very much like a sonic epic – both musically and conceptually. Sumney has described how the idea of breaking the album into two parts came from wanting the album’s release to be as experimental as the album itself.

Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

Moving away from the experimental ambience of their previous albums, Yves Tumor’s third full-length LP Heaven To A Tortured Mind is an intricate and untamed rock album. It pulls you through savage concoctions of soul and noise; through endless sonic transformations and shifting personalities. Just as you begin to get a grip on this seven-headed beast of a record, it spits you into a completely new lake of fire. The result is an endlessly enjoyable and unpredictable listen.

Although they explore completely new soundscapes on this record, it’s the balance of infectious melodies and explosions of noise that makes Tumor’s music so satisfying. When it hits, it hits hard, and this album is full of nothing but hits. “I only want to make hits,” they said in a 2016 interview. “What else would I want to make?”

Run The Jewels – RTJ4

RTJ4, the fourth record from Killer Mike and El-P (aka Run The Jewels), borders on being prophetic. Although it was written and recorded over the past number of years, the themes tackled throughout the album are so pointedly relevant, it’s scary. On Walking In The Snow, for example, Mike gasps for air while a racist policeman chokes him out. At this point, he wheezes the line “I can’t breathe”. While this is a reference to the killing of Eric Garner, the line became the rallying cry of a global movement after the death of George Floyd.

Here, on an album released in the midst of global protests and riots, the line takes on a particularly defiant tone. RTJ4 is the soundtrack to a movement; an explosive call to arms. It’s also the Atlanta duo’s best release to date, flaunting some of their best lyricism and most ferocious beats.

RVG – Feral

Feral, the second album from loveable Melbourne outfit RVG, traverses far-reaching metaphorical ground, all while remaining anchored by the unencumbered realism of Australian punk rock. Here, vocalist Romy Vager conjures the mindsets of individuals whose views she might not necessarily agree with; a series of performances that play out as a plea for common ground. Vager exists in the stories she tells and within the characters she portrays, each of them containing some emotion she has once felt.

Vager reminds us that sometimes stories can tell us more about ourselves than anything else. She forces us to appreciate the beauty of storytelling, but for all its fantasy, listening to Feral is a very grounding experience. With dry, jangly instrumentation and direct, compassionate vocal performances, this record goes straight for the heart; a perpetual yearning for empathy, inclusivity, and love

Grimes – Miss Anthropocene

On her fifth album, Grimes ascends to goddess-like heights, casting herself as an omnipresent creator. Drawing inspiration from nu-metal and ethereal wave, she harnesses the full powers of production to create something timeless. A stunning concept album, Miss Anthropocene traces otherworldly terrain, a post-apocalyptic landscape, which, in the end, is just as internal as it is external. Grimes infamously called her 2015 LP Art Angels a stain on her life, disillusioned by how the record was received. Critics framed it as a ‘pop’ record, a label the singer found painfully reductive.

It’s taken five years for Grimes to follow up on Art Angels. It’s well worth the wait. On Miss Anthropocene, it feels as though Grimes has come into her own. In many ways, the album is the perfect storm between its two predecessors, reverting to the darkness of Visions, whilst elevating the production to a whole new level.

Kate NV – Room For The Moon

Kate NV’s third album For The Moon is one of the most original and exuberant albums of the year so far. The Russian pop artist, real name Ekaterina Shilonosova, creates music that bursts unexpectedly with vibrant grooves and sugary vocal hooks. As a member of both the post-punk group ΓШ (Glintshake) and the Moscow Scratch Orchestra, Shilonosova’s output under the Kate NV name is something of a meeting point between the two.

With the wiry, jagged rhythms of Glintshake and the unbound experimentation of the Moscow Scratch Orchestra, Room For The Moon is an auditory feast. The album expands and contracts, pulling you in and out of otherworldly sonic wormholes.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To Italy

There’s an addictive quality to Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever that seems best attributed to the fact that they manage to craft such credible worlds with expert precision. It’s easy to recall the dust of rural Australia between the sunburnt strums of their poetic jangle rock, and on their second album Sideways To New Italy, the Melbourne-five piece retain all their magic, all the while reaching for something to hold on to. In a world perpetually changing, it seems RBCF’s mission to capture the magic of fleeting moments.

Album opener The Second Of The First is a prime example of this. Packed with the kind of interwoven guitar hooks that are so quintessential of the band, the chorus beats with the subtle melancholy that Rolling Blackouts pull off so well, captured somewhere between the exchange of harmonised vocal melodies and sinuous guitar lines. The song’s climax comes in the form of a spoken-word bridge, whose voices eventually cross paths intelligibly, reinforcing the surrealism of the experience depicted: “Nothing is the same, the street hasn’t changed/There’s a light feeling in the back of my head/And my mind is somersaulting/I’ve gone out of myself, as if I’m lying in a cloud/And way down there below me is the body I used to have.”

Destroyer – Have We Met

In one of the year’s earliest great releases, Canadian cult rock group Destroyer released their 13th album, Have We Met. Fronted by Dan Bejar (also of New Pornographers), and produced by bandmember John Collins, the album breathes proof into the band’s reputation for constant evolution. This time drawing from a palette of 1980s new pop/new wave influences, Have We Met serves a study in human experience. Led by Bejar’s idiosyncratic lyricism, the record finds harmony between self-reflection and absurdity.

“I was like the laziest river, a vulture predisposed to eating off floors / No, wait, I take that back, I was more like an ocean stuck inside hospital corridors.” This is the first line of album opener Crimson Tide, a quintessentially Bejar lyric, and a pitch-perfect signal of the deranged poeticism which is yet to unfold. Have We Met is a journey, one you won’t regret taking.

Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield’s fifth solo album, Saint Cloud, feels like the beginning of a new season. It feels as though she, as an artist, is beginning anew. The gloomier indie-rock of Out In The Storm is behind her; sun-drenched, Americana-influenced songs about meadows and love lay ahead. On her previous few records, Crutchfield dug deep within her own psyche, exploring all the conflicts that lay within her, but now it feels as though she’s made some revelations.

Saint Cloud is a lively album full of hard-earned wisdom. Instead of mulling too hard over past experiences, she takes them in her stride and shares her lessons openly with all-comers. Almost a decade into her career as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield is at the top of her game.

Cold Meat – Hot And Flustered

On their debut full-length LP Hot And Flustered, Perth punks Cold Meat swing with some real fucking vigour. Right now, as (most of) the world unites in kicking the patriarchy in the balls, this kind of music really lands. It’s unrelenting and bold; a 10-track, 23-minute explosion of brutal post-punk rhythms and angular guitar lines. Vocalist Ashley Ramsey doesn’t let up for a moment; nor does any member of the band, for that matter.

What separates Cold Meat from the many other Australian punk bands making similar music, however, is their ability to take the piss. Hot And Flustered is, at its core, a very funny album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s unapologetic to any kind of societal bullshit, but it’s still very funny. For this reason, I imagine this record will be frequently revisited for years to come.

The Necks – Three

On their 21st album (!), Australian jazz cult-heroes The Necks are just as inventive as ever. As reflective, minimalist arrangements grow into expansive and complex soundscapes, Three will leave you in awe. While each three of the album’s tracks have distinct tones, they all exist within the same universe. Bloom—as its title suggests—is a living organism, flourishing further with each moment. Lovelock (a song dedicated to Celibate Rifles’ legendary late frontman Damien Lovelock) is a dark and formless maze, while Further is a buoyant spiritual jazz number.

The Necks are a trio who, after 30 years of making music, still refuse to conform to any expectations. For that reason, they’ll endure as one of our country’s most iconic and important bands.

Lady Gaga – Chromatica

On her sixth studio album, Lady Gaga has returned home. Pitched as the hyper-fictionalised utopia of equality, Chromatica delivers the singer back to her Manhattan club scene roots; a colossal legacy, re-invigorated creative vision, and career’s worth of agony all in tow.

Following the moderate success of 2013’s Artpop, Gaga moulded herself into every possible artistic guise: jazz, country, and musical drama – all as a means to armour herself against the persistent criticism she faced from the music industry. Now, Chromatica is her victory cry. It’s vulnerable, it’s free, and it’s undeniably Gaga.

Makaya McCraven/Gil Scott-Heron – We’re New Again

Gil Scott-Heron released I’m New Here in 2010. It may seem strange for an artist considered so influential – he’s often thought to be the first MC – to release an album with such a title. But in the end, that was the point. I’m New Here was a kind of coming full circle, an ending to begin again. An artistic ouroboros, if you like. “And you may come full circle / And be new here again,” he professes in the title track. Scott-Heron died the next year.

This year, I’m New Here came to life once more. This time in the form of a reimagining by American musician, Makaya McCraven. Predominantly a jazz drummer and producer, McCraven has released numerous albums under his own name, including 2018’s Universal Beings. Reworking I’m New Here doesn’t seem like an easy job. A poly-genred record, it has long wrestled against categorisation – much like the man who created it. Yet on We’re New Again, McCraven proves he is worthy of the task.

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

how i’m feeling now is a very 2020 album. The whole thing—writing, recording, production—was completed within a few weeks during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. The internet also played a key role in shaping this record; throughout its entire construction, Charlotte Aitchison opened herself up to criticism via social media. The result is an album that perfectly captures an era of physical distancing and online connection.

“I’m so bored/Wake up late, eat some cereal/Try my best to be physical/Lose myself in a TV show/Staring out to oblivion/All my friend are invisible,” she sings on Anthems. And yes, for many of us, this likely still resembles a daily routine; for many again, friends are still invisible. But at least we’ve got new Charli XCX music.

Real Estate – The Main Thing

On their existential fifth album, The Main Thing, Real Estate relinquish control and find peace. Sonically the album is clearer, more concise than we’ve ever heard, and by the end, the band achieve the meaning they so singularly set out to discover. In speaking to the band, it became clear the mission of this album was to find the point of making another Real Estate album. Did they find it? Yes. But it took the process of making the album to find it.

“We talk about the lyrics collectively as a band, and what ‘the main thing’ means and all that,” Alex Bleeker told us. “Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that when everything feels overwhelming, it’s important to lead by example, to find something which feeds your soul, and share that with the people around you.” Perhaps, the point is only ever to keep going. To find something that’s important to you, and to have the courage to continue in the face of the unknown. That’s the main thing.

Cable Ties – Far Enough

For the past number of years, Cable Ties have built themselves as one of Melbourne’s best punk bands. But they can’t exactly be limited to the punk genre. On their second album, Far Enough, the trio—made up of Jenny McKechnie, Nick Brown, and Shauna Boyle—incorporate elements of noise and pop far more effectively, delivering something that can’t be so easily categorised. On top of the evolution in sound, the album is also packed full poignant, sharp lyricism.

McKechnie is as witty as ever here, easily tearing apart any toxic behaviour. Far Enough is a fearless album; the kind that makes you feel a little more bold having listened to it.

Car Seat Headrest – How To Make A Door Less Open

More electronic, refined, and restrained than ever before, on their twelfth album, it feels as though we’ve caught Car Seat Headrest in an unlikely moment of transformation, wings half unfurled. And yet somehow, the whole thing is still as sprawling as ever. Even the title, Making a Door Less Open, refuses to commit to a single certainty, ultimately proving that it is within the realm of the abstract and ambiguous that Car Seat Headrest most thrive.

Refusing to be any one thing, the album exists in numerous manifestations. Whilst Car Seat Headrest continue to evolve towards a more refined sonic palette, this prevailing ambiguity points to the very heart of what makes the band what it is. If you can submit yourself to it, it’s kind of a beautiful metaphor for being human – endless, ever-changing, and impossible to quite pin down.

e4444e – Coldstream Road

After treating fans to a stream of gorgeous singles, 22-year-old e4444e (aka Romy Church) has finally dropped his debut album Coldstream Road. Harking from Newcastle, the singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist is crafting soundscapes that will melt your heart, and soak your daily experiences in a much-needed dose of spirituality.

Coldstream Road moves like watercolour; swirling, cascading through life’s sparkling notes. Each song brings a new stroke or tone to the image Church is creating. Thematically, the album captures the holiness of the everyday in its most sensory, elemental form. If a bushwalk on a cool Autumn day could be projected through music, it would be this record. It is a 47-minute sojourn overflowing with curiosity and the nervous energy of unknown potential. What Church has created is a refreshing audioscape feels both familiar, and enigmatic.

Donny Benet – Mr Experience

On his fifth studio album, The Don is as slick and sleazy as ever. Behind one of the greatest album covers ever put to print, Donny Benét presents an album of bleeding-heart ballads and slimy dancefloor fillers; he flips between hilarious one-liners (“I could touch my toes once, could make love all night, but these days it’s eating that gives me all my delight”) and genuine moments of heartfelt romance (“You are the girl of my dreams, you make me complete”).

Mr Experience, ultimately, is an album best enjoyed atop a pair of satin sheets, enjoying a bottle of shiraz with your lover, cool spring breeze blowin’ through the curtains.

Sarah Mary Chadwick – Please Daddy

Sarah Mary Chadwick doesn’t waste any time releasing music. Her third album in three years, Please Daddy, is humorous and dense; a deep dive into themes of grief; a confrontation of mortality; a thoughtful and endlessly giving album. Its opening track, When Will Death Come, immediately sets a bleak tone, but with lines like “I guess we’re in this together,” it also introduces a sense of hope that permeates the record.

It’s the balance of hope and melancholy that makes Chadwick’s music so rich. Here, we receive 10 tracks of biting melancholy, made enjoyable by a kind of unspoken humour.