TYF’s Top 10 Albums of 2020 (So Far)

We’ve gotten through six months of one of the most cursed years in recent memory, and one of the few really good things about this first half of a year has been the music – at least, the stuff that wasn’t delayed until the fall.

The Young Folks asked its music staff to compile lists of their favorite albums of 2020 so far, which were then tallied up to create this cumulative mid-year list. In order for everyone to have the same records to choose while creating their lists, we chose to enact a cut-off for our list – only albums released before June 13, 2020 were eligible, which means our list does not feature records such as Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers or Women in Music Part III by Haim.

Before we get to our main list, here are a few honorable mentions that made some of our writers’ lists but did not make the top 10:

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

2020 has been such a bummer year that one would think a new Thundercat album might lighten the mood with his trademark spacey funk and self-deprecating lyrics. Surprisingly, the man with the big bass has been feeling the same dour aimlessness most of us felt so far this year. Hence It Is What It Is, a quick and understated hangout where Thundercat takes stock of what he’s lost as of late. He still knows how to vibe out in a fun way (the hilarious slow-jam “Dragonball Durag”), but Thundercat spends most of the record paranoid of his own success (“Black Qualls”) and drunkenly dumping his baggage on a girl at a club (“Funny Thing”). But the ghost of Mac Miller hovers over the back end of the album, with two heartfelt tributes to Thundercat’s late friend (“Fair Chance” and the title track) showing a man starting to realize the fragility of fame.  – Jon Winkler

Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald

In the midst of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of thousands, perhaps black metal is the one form of music that can make sense of these feelings of dread and apocalyptic expectations. Its dark themes and its emphasis of isolation make it the perfect encapsulation of this dumpster fire of a world we live in. But there’s one record that can truly be considered essential music. Paysage d’Hiver’s Im Wald – officially the Swiss project’s first album, after two decades of legendary demos and splits – offers a new gold standard for extreme metal. Throughout its astounding 120 minutes, the music takes you straight into an endtime scenario, skillfully using black metal’s typical lo-fi, low-tech production to build ambiances of decay, but also taking advantage of digital recording technologies to create a wider sound design space. It feels both anachronistic and otherworldly. Im Wald is an album to get lost in, and its naturalistic, freezing forest approach makes it a perfect refuge in these days of confinement. – Manzanares de la Rosa

Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats – Unlocked EP

With their first collaborative project, Curry and Beats created one of the most energetic hip-hop records out there, packing an hour of flavor in only seventeen minutes. Samples, voice distortions, and media references make up a majority of this album, reminiscent of artists like MF Doom and Deltron 3030. But even when they’re paying homage to their predecessors, they make it their own. Beats brings his influences twenty years into the future, while Curry focuses on how to add as much swagger as possible. The end result is an enjoyable revival of classic rap, with a great sample-based background. – Hunter Church

Shootergang Kony – Red Paint Reverend

Shootergang Kony’s newest project is plainspoken and sincere; playful yet still powerful. The Sacramento rapper flawlessly shifts between clamoring bangers (“Jungle”) and soulful self-examination (“A Sinner’s Story” and “Dearly Departed”) without ever sounding pompous or self-centered. If you’ve never listened to any of his albums before, Red Paint Reverend is a fantastic place to start. The production is sizable and boisterous but never bombastic, mainly because the artist orchestrating the narrative is so fearless. Whether he’s reflecting on past adversity, toiling with his own spiritualism, or searching for lotion to remedy the ash from his jewelry, Kony appears more accomplished than ever before. – Ryan Feyre

The Strokes – The New Abnormal

We’ve waited 7 years for The Strokes to release their latest album, The New Abnormal, and it was well worth the wait. When news circulated about the band’s album announcement, I like many others questioned if it’ll be on par with their previous work. Upon first listen, it’s as if we’re taken back to their earlier work and throughout the course of the album, you can clearly hear the growth developed within the band. The Strokes did not miss a beat and we’re welcoming them back with open arms. – Ashley Buyalo


The Top 10 List

10. The Weeknd – After Hours

The Weeknd has enticed fans with alluring ballads finding Beauty Behind the Madness since his debut. His fourth studio album, After Hours, continues building the personality he is known for, a sharp, smooth, and dangerous prince of the nightlife. He portrays a lost soul trying to find romance and getting lost in lust along the way. His songs are mostly told in the past tense, conveying memories from love affairs, excavating tenderness from these moments, with an ominous dread coating the edges of his poetry. Whether reminiscing on an old love through “Snowchild,” dreaming of a new future in “Escape From LA”, or speeding with adrenaline on “Blinding Lights”, The Weeknd is yet to be satisfied, and the conflict makes great music.On top of the high-quality lyricism is the top-notch production making each song of After Hours a potential hit. Frankly, the whole album could be left on at a club and the audience would be grateful for the groove. His voice is as smooth as silk, driven by an intense longing for love, or the late-night high that will suffice until then. There are no happy endings in his latest work, with each lullaby leaving listeners wanting more, as After Hours is for the restless. – Max Russell

9. Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

Perfectly titled, Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush comes five years after the record which catapulted Kevin Parker to fame, Currents. With just one listen, it’s apparent Parker meticulously crafted this album, and the five-year wait was incredibly worth it. The central theme of the record is time, and in his expert fashion, Parker produced another masterpiece to add to his impressive discography. As the album opens with the mantra of “One more year…” listeners are swept into Parker’s psychedelic, colorful, fantastical world of introspectiveness and reflection. Each track is chock full with awe-inspiring production and powerful imagery. Dual themes are present as Parker bounces back and forth between indulging in impulsive decisions and taking a moment to step back and reflect on one’s actions. Tracks like “Breathe Deeper” and “It Might Be Time” are impossible not to dance along to, while “Tomorrow’s Dust” and “One More Hour” are more somber, but equally invigorating tracks. Clashing cymbals, boom-bap drums, heavy synths and bright keys are just a few elements of Parker’s infectious, trademark production. If there was any fear of Parker’s ability to maintain his signature sound amidst newfound commercial success, it’s put to rest with The Slow Rush. – Khushi Ramlogun

8. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

The duo’s best album to date starts off with the cold motherfuckers Killer Mike and El-P on the run from the police, with just one bullet left, and like any good action movie it never lets the tension drop. El-P keeps the hard beats and busy production going with powerful momentum right up until the surprise saxophone solo that closes the epic “A Few Words for the Firing Squad”. And his raps aren’t bad either. But they’re eclipsed by Killer Mike’s on every song: Mike comes on hard and relentless, like a man on a mission to obliterate the apathy of a nation. As we know, America’s patience with its own apathy towards racism is starting to run out. And Killer Mike is the essential soundtrack to that time. – Oliver Hollander

7. The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form

The most polarizing album in a polarizing discography, Notes on a Conditional Form has gotten a wide variety of responses since it was finally released in May after nearly a year of waiting. For some, its 80 minute runtime feels bloated, while others point out that the extended time allows the band to run wild with their genre experimentations and craft some icy pop delights along the way. There’s a shoegazing blast of “Then Because She Goes”, the tropical house bounce of “What Should I Say”, the delicate jangle pop of “Me & You Together Song”, and the new wave Top 40 brilliance of “(If You’re Too Shy) Let Me Know”. All packed into an album that has its many conflicted emotions of loneliness, fragility and optimism in the face of worldwide disaster right at the forefront. Conditional Form isn’t the best 1975 album, but it’s certainly the most 1975 album, the album where all their strengths and weaknesses are right on the table for their devoted fans to sort out, and where they try on new genres on nearly every track as if they were changing costumes. At the end of their Music for Cars era, The 1975 have delivered what feels like their mission statement as millennial explorers of late 20th century musical styles and eras. – Ryan Gibbs


6. Lady Gaga – Chromatica

Chromatica is made for a hot nightclub, not for all of our childhood bedrooms. But maybe it’s better that this rain-soaked dance pop slice of Gaga’s world brings with it some element of frustration. Otherwise, Chromatica would be a little too precious for these frustrating times. Along with lyrics that are perfectly suited to the moral ambiguities of modernity (“living in a world where no one’s innocent / oh but at least we try,” coos the featured Ariana Grande on “Rain On Me”), Gaga’s vocal delivery brings strength to lines that would fall flat in the hands of another singer. Besides the transcendental “Rain on Me,” “Free Woman” reminds us of the liberation not just in art but in sweat: “this is my dancefloor I fought for.” There are more stories of conflicted liberation in the soaring “Sine from Above” (and in “1000 Doves,” which leans hard into its deep percussive undercurrent.) Chromatica tides us over while we’re alone and sad, saturating us in memories of what we’re going to treasure when we have it back. – Hero Magnus

5. Rina Sawayama – Sawayama

Rina Sawayama is nothing less than a musical superhero for the young and disenchanted. In 2017, she introduced the world to her socially conscious brand of pop with the Rina EP. Now she’s back with Sawayama, hands down the most iconic debut record of the year. The album clocks in at thirteen songs, and every one of them feels both unique and essential. Sometimes, Sawayama gets vulnerable—for example, when she ponders generational trauma on “Dynasty” and struggles with not living up to her own expectations on “Akasaka Sad.” Other times, she serves up satirical commentary—such as “XS,” which sounds like an ode to material wealth until she cries out, “Make me less so I want more”. Every step of the way, she thinks critically about her personal identities as well as large-scale world issues, voicing the concerns of countless millennial and Gen Z listeners who have found themselves losing sleep over such topics. Her lyrical grace would be impressive enough on its own, so the fact that the album is also musically remarkable elevates it to exceptional status. Sawayama plays with a variety of genres here, from theatrical, guitar-heavy rock (“Dynasty”) to ’00s-inspired throwbacks (“XS”) to major key electropop (“Paradisin’”) to heartfelt ballads (“Chosen Family”)—and no matter which style she’s singing in, her voice radiates power. With such a strong start and a cult following already growing, she’s set to be one of the biggest pop darlings of the next decade. – Brittany Menjivar

4. Mac Miller – Circles

Prophetic in both the best and worst ways, Circles by Mac Miller is the perfect sendoff for an artist gone much too soon. The first time I listened to this record was in the perfect situation, which happens rarely. I was walking to a park by my apartment, and the sun was out and there was a crisp wind that feels exactly how the instrumentals on this album feel when wound around Mac’s voice. This album is quiet and tender and understanding of you. Mac’s self-awareness is what makes it what so good; it truly feels like he had arrived somewhere new and real, in spite of, or maybe even because of his inner confusion. The world is full of imperfect things right now. Mac, as a person, on this album, is imperfect. He self-loathes and blames himself too much, yet he realizes that it’s all okay, and that it can mean lots of different things or it could mean nothing, if he wants it to. From Jon Brion’s handling of the initially unrefined work to the subsequent announcements and music videos, it makes me tremendously happy that this process was handled in such a perfect way. We’re left with Mac’s lessons and his now perpetual confusion; it’s up to us to fill in what’s left. – Thomas Holton

3. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is one prime example of what some of the best albums of the year are giving us: artists throwing off restrictions about what they can say and how they can say it. With Apple’s long-awaited follow up to her last release in 2012, she is showing us what a real artist with something to say can do even when working from home. With creative production arrangements, loose rhythms, and a few canine guest spots, Apple addresses the Time’s Up movement with songs examining powerful, manipulative men (“For Her,” “Newspaper”), the power of seeing your worth (“Shameika”) and the refusal to stay oppressed by restrictive systems (“Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” “Relay,” “Under the Table”). Despite her volleying between styles and moods on this album, everything coheres together wonderfully through the unifiers that are her voice and her lyrics. No one else could quite get away with invoking Oklahoma! while accusing a man of rape, but Apple pulls it off supremely well. Ultimately, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an empowering salve dropped early to help us through the pandemic and her powerful, one-of-a-kind voice is guiding us through the rest of this hellish year as we seek out our own bolt cutters – Beth Winchester


2. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

There was no song that had the run in 2017 like Dua Lipa’s “New Rules”. Not only was it the English singer’s breakout hit, but the track established Lipa as one of the freshest faces coming out of pop music. “Don’t Start Now”, which released a few short years later, evolved Dua Lipa’s sound from her debut and promised pure 80’s disco and 90’s club euphoria. Future Nostalgia delivers on this promise will wall-to-wall disco-laced jams with sticky choruses, club-infused beats, and incredibly groovy bass flourishes.By echoing the sounds of the past, Dua Lipa is able to update the themes to fit a 2020 environment. In the age of quarantine, the lyrical content on the record feels immediately present as Lipa covers the gamut from uncertainty, self-love, and tumultuous relationships. Future Nostalgia has a real physicality within it that encourages self-exploration through movement. “Physical”, another thrilling moment on the record, has a racing chorus that will definitely get you up and about. Club, house, and disco music have always been about liberation. Whether that is liberation from a past lover or your environment, there is no greater feeling than letting it all go on the dancefloor. Lipa is offering the opportunity to dance your worries away in our own respective homes. – Mark Wesley

1. Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

Few other albums released this year will perfectly embody the 2020 mindset than Charli XCX’s home produced how i’m feeling now does. From utilizing social media to create a sense of community and push collaboration be it from lyrics to album cover art, the singer took charge of quarantine and the isolation that came from it by bridging the space between her and fans and letting that feeling of despondency, loneliness and the itch to create produce some of her finest work to date. how i’m feeling now isn’t just a perfect time capsule for a year where artists had to relearn what it meant to connect with fans and how to inspire themselves to create with no real motivation but also, from start to finish, an excellent piece of pop-artistry. You’d be hard pressed to find a less than thrilling song from the first single released, “forever” which set the tone for the album with it’s synth heavy vocals and lyrical repetition to the sweet and bubbly “7 years” to the madness that is the album closer “visions” which is a swirl of dark dance pop, lyricism mania and switches of tone and atmosphere at such break neck speed that it shouldn’t work and comes so close to being “too much” that it’s in the end “just right.” Wild, carefree and abrasively romantic in its final product while still being maybe her most cohesive piece of work from start to finish, it’s an album of tireless ambition despite the glaring hurdles and one that’s all the greater due to it. – Allyson Johnson


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