The best albums of 2020 so far

There’s shaken-up pop from Rina Sawayama, searching rap by J Hus and Jay Electronica, and invention everywhere from KeiyaA’s soul to Beatrice Dillon’s electronics

Fiona Apple Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Apple’s prettily meandering piano can at first seem benign, even whimsical, but this album – already being regarded by many as her masterpiece thus far – is full of thrilling nicks and cuts. She yelps, murmurs, lets notes outstay their welcome and generally lets things get awkward, all over a complex rhythm section.

What we said: “Not so much an album as a sudden glorious eruption; after eight long years, an urgent desire to be heard.” Read the full review.

BC Camplight Shortly After Takeoff

Long a hero to indie heads, BC Camplight is justly getting wider attention with this rich and entertaining record, one of the best reviewed of the year. An American living in Manchester, there are workaday references to Nando’s, Rachel Riley, Crewe and a smoothie stand in the Arndale Centre, summoning bathos that chafes against acute emotional struggles.

What we said: “A marvel … this album is a masterpiece.” Read the full review.

Carla Bley Trio Life Goes On

At 82, Bley is playing with a spryness and intention that younger musicians could learn a lot from. This set, with lungfuls of air in the spaces between Bley, bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, is witty and warm with just a hint of bossa nova at times, plus a quiet political fervour in its presumably ironic snatch of Hail to the Chief.

What we said: “Does what all good jazz does; it carries on a musical discourse which it invites you to follow. Here, it’s warm, spirited and even funny.” Read the full review.

Code Orange
Heaviness … Code Orange. Photograph: Atlantic Records

Code Orange Underneath

The Pittsburgh hardcore/metal band leveraged a glossy yet fiendishly intricate kind of production for this masterpiece of heaviness, where big triumphant choruses are pummelled into tiny slivers of digital sound.

What we said: “In rock, technical brilliance can sometimes impede immediacy, but Code Orange use it to achieve total and thrilling omnipotence.” Read the full review.

Beatrice Dillon Workaround

The London producer threads – and there really is no other word for the delicacy of her craft – a string of globe-spanning instruments like tabla, kora and pedal steel through dub-techno arrangements, resulting in elegant and visionary music.

What we said: “Workaround is effervescent, full of swing and full of heart, and Dillon never compromises on the emotion and soul stemming from its dub roots.” Read the full review.

J Hus.
Soul-searching … J Hus. Photograph: Crowns & Owls

J Hus Big Conspiracy

Working in perfect symbiosis with producer Jae5, J Hus returned for more cocky yet self-deprecating dances through a British-African pop sound he has come to define. His libido remains rampant, but he searches his soul more deeply than ever.

What we said: “The charts are currently packed with British rappers, but not all of them have their own niche quite as clearly delineated as his.” Read the full review.

Jay Electronica A Written Testimony

Thirteen years after his breakthrough, Jay Electronica’s debut album was worth the wait, and then some. He goes toe to toe with starry guest producers like the Alchemist, Hit-Boy and No ID with his own beats – Flux Capacitor’s Rihanna sample deserves special mention – and an uncredited Jay-Z sounds young and hungry on the mic, while Jay’s own ruminations are droll and authoritative throughout.

Hamilton Leithauser The Loves of Your Life

The former frontman of the Walkmen still has one of the best voices around, in a white-blues lineage with Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart. It sits at the heart of these rackety character studies, which surge and balloon into beautiful anthems under the steam of his vocals.

What we said: “Leithauser performs with his customary passion, and this marks a pleasing new direction for a singular talent.” Read the full review.

Future-facing … Dua Lipa.
Future-facing … Dua Lipa Photograph: PR

Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia

The mood enhancer the nation needed in lockdown. The nostalgia was triggered by the funk basslines and synths, while Dua Lipa faced to the future with her confidently horny/disdainful/celebratory pop patter.

What we said: “Makes a strident case for Lipa as a pop visionary.” Read the full review.

KeiyaA Forever, Ya Girl

A soul album that uses impressionism with great focus – one of the toughest paradoxes to conjure in music – and is coloured throughout with bright snatches of melody. The result is a stunningly rich, beautiful tableau of personal and social liberation, that just keeps on unspooling. Fans of J Dilla and Erykah Badu will fall in love with it, though the New Yorker very much has her own particular voice.

Laura Marling Song for Our Daughter

Marling’s songwriting just gets deeper, more confident and better with every release: here, she shares Joni Mitchell and Cat Power’s poetically observational powers over warm-boned arrangements.

What we said: “A warm, fresh intimacy that feels welcome in a world of Zoom meetings and FaceTime catch-ups.” Read the full review.

Jeff Parker Suite for Max Brown

Named after and dedicated to the Tortoise guitarist’s mother, and with his daughter on guest vocals, this wide-ranging fusion record is relaxed in the way you can only be around your family. As well as post-bop and spiritual jazz, there are boom-bap beats, Tortoise-y doodles and various other singular moods.

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Viscerals

With Matt Baty’s vocals echoing like a benediction from an altar built from burning tyres, the Newcastle band channel the righteous heavy metal thunder of Black Sabbath, with even deeper notes of sludge and doom underneath. The riffs will have you closing your eyes in sheer bliss.

Porridge Radio.
Acute disquiet … Porridge Radio. Photograph: El Hardwick

Porridge Radio Every Bad

Cher from Clueless would probably file this under “complaint rock”: there is such acute disquiet to singer-guitarist Dana Margolin’s voice. But it’s put to such superbly squalling ends, resulting in the breakthrough of one of the best British indie-rock bands in ages.

What we said: “From a resolutely uncommercial background, they’ve somehow ended up making something that could be – and certainly deserves to be – big. But without losing their strangeness.” Read the full review.

Rina Sawayama
Blockbuster … Rina Sawayama. Photograph: Hendrik Schneider

Rina Sawayama Sawayama

This Japanese-British pop singer throws everything she has into this summer tentpole blockbuster of a record: hair-metal guitar solos, neo-Moroder synths, new jack swing, video-game mania, and melodies that demand a wind machine with variable settings. The lyrics, meanwhile, triangulate the tension between her expectations, ambitions and reality, as well as confronting age, identity, family and friendship.

Lorenzo Senni Scacco Matto

The most ambitiously melodic work yet from the Italian “pointillist trance” producer, who keeps the headiest moments of raves – the blissed-out breakdowns and energetic builds – constantly going until you’re dumb on dopamine.

What we said: “We’re all waiting for the beat to come back in, and Senni’s work inadvertently hymns this sad moment while encouraging us to look for the poignancy in it.” Read the full review.

Skepta, Chip & Young Adz Insomnia

There is so much repeat-button enjoyment to be derived from this UK rap supergroup, not only in the atmospheric trap backing them, but in how each of them is nimble in different ways: Young Adz is the appealingly plaintive foil to the front-foot confidence of grime stalwarts Chip and Skepta.

What we said: “A distinctive, sharp record that only these three UK voices could have made.” Read the full review.

True originality … Yves Tumor.
True originality … Yves Tumor. Photograph: Warp

Yves Tumor Heaven to a Tortured Mind

In a world of bland or – even worse – studiously oddball music, Yves Tumor is a foghorn blare of true originality. Having previously essayed pristine ambient, techno, and noise all while circling around pop, they get closer to it than ever with this funky, celebratory fishtail through its outer limits.

What we said: “It is punchy and concise; its stylistic leaps and short-circuits always feel intended … In the best sense of the phrase, Yves Tumor is off in a world of their own.” Read the full review.

US Girls Heavy Light

Anxiety, the evils of inherited wealth and the destruction of the human race to environmental catastrophe, but make it fun. As ever, you simply can’t take your ears off Meg Remy’s starkly poetic vocals, and her big arrangements, played by a 20-strong band, slink and shimmy with tiki-bar glamour.

What we said: “Heavy Light confirms a major talent.” Read the full review.

Clear light … Waxahatchee. Photograph: Christopher Good

Waxahatchee Saint Cloud

Katie Crutchfield calms the indie-rock squall of earlier albums to ponder her life in the bright, clear light on the other side of rain, and, leaning more towards Americana, creates an instant classic of US songwriting.

What we said: “The best album of the year so far.” Read the full review.

• Which albums have you loved so far in 2020? Share them in the comments below.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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