On one hand, who can think about stuff as trivial as this? On the other, what else is there to do? If art was made to fill a cultural vacuum, well… now’s the fucking time, buddy. Hopefully, you’ve been binging every show, reading every book, repainting every bathroom you’ve been putting off. Hopefully, when (and if) we make it out of quarantine alive, we’ll be able to look forward to better things. For now, we still have music.
Some of the great albums and EPs below demand your full and undivided attention. Some of them demand to intensify your workout or gaming session. Mostly they just sound good, and you should pair them with whatever activities music enhances for you. Even sleep; lord knows that could be improved upon. Others will keep you wide awake. If any of these albums make you think, sing-along, scream, laugh, or dance, this list will have done its job. But judging by these titles, music is healthier than ever, even if little else is. Fire it up.
AceMoMa, A New Dawn (Haus of Altr)
Jazzy, frenetic, soulful, Adrian Mojica and Wyatt Stevens’s first LP as a duo mines the rawest energies of ’90s house and techno on a 12-track collection that should make their TR-909 ancestors proud. Mining their club roots in tribute of the African-American and Latinx producers that came before them, AceMoMa’s very first full-length both honors the lineage and adds a strong new link to the chain. It also slaps. Close your eyes and get transported to warehouses of yore. We swear you can taste the smoke machine. — Kat Bein
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic)
Bitter and sweet, fragile and tough, the percussive Fetch the Bolt Cutters finds Fiona Apple concluding a raw journey of self-discovery. Apple’s fifth studio album — her first since 2012’s The Idler Wheel… — is her most liberating. Full of free-form melodies and jazzy piano bars, it’s Apple’s most full-bodied work yet, ironically without a studio orchestra. Spending time alone has left the singer to reflect on everything from the evil of entitlement (“Relay”) to her complicated relationship with fame as a teen (“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”) and how the power imbalance sadly entwined the two. As she jaggedly rips apart her own layers, her mantric repetition of phrases (“Like you know you should know, but you don’t know where it’s at,” “Shameika said I had potential”) is as jarring as it is a balm for life. Made at home in isolation and released during a pandemic, it’s undeniable how eerily prescient she was. “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long,” Apple whispers over her own barking dogs. She’s not wrong. She’s all of us. — Ilana Kaplan
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLB (Rimas)
“Yo hago lo que me da la gana” means “I do whatever I want,” just like “urbano” means “for lack of a better term.” It beats “world music” though, and if any artist requires a big stylistic umbrella, it’s Benito Ocasio, whose cosmopolitan approach to genre and gender has won him universal acclaim and sales even before this sprawling artistic breakthrough made him reggaeton’s most indispensable melodist. For 20 straight winners, Bad Bunny corners and captures every stray tunelet out of thin air, whether it’s the gargled hook of “P FKN R” or the soaring refrain of “Soliá” or the sparkling emeralds that comprise the gorgeous backdrop to “Pero Ya No.” In fact, its front end is rather gorgeous, too. — Dan Weiss
Beauty Pill, Please Advise (Northern Spy)
Washington D.C.’s Beauty Pill started out two decades ago as far and away the most futuristic and electronic band on Dischord Records. And bandleader Chad Clark, producing under the playfully aggrandizing but fitting alias ‘Brown Eno,’ continues to assemble soundscapes that are at once forward-thinking and dreamily psychedelic on this four-song EP, their first new music since 2015’s rapturously received masterwork Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. New vocalist Erin Nelson serenely intones verbiage recycled from Prince and Donald Trump among other public figures in the surreal cut-and-paste incantation “Pardon Our Dust,” while Clark offers a raspy, broken-beat take on the polyrhythmic Pretenders classic “Tattooed Love Boys.” If only this amazing title (the words of Miles Davis’ A&R upon learning he was about to call something Bitches Brew) was paired with a full-length. — Al Shipley
Black Dresses, Peaceful as Hell (Blacksquares)
Like Blade Runner, which takes place one year earlier, Peaceful as Hell opens with police sirens, imperious synth pads, and exposition; but unlike Blade Runner, it picks up speed from there, like it’s getting used to life in flames. Devi McCallion and Ada Rook’s frankly bleak handbook for life as a scared animal amidst collapse embraces noise, chaos, and glitch the way you have to with your habitat. Here the duo behind 2019’s Love and Affection for Stupid Little Bitches dice brittle, depressive vocals into skittering beats unto themselves and layer them atop ultra-compressed guitars, making a home of this flattened, bloodsoaked, always-on-fire landscape, “like a pearl / Formed from the pressure.” — Theon Weber
Chubby and the Gang, Speed Kills (Static Shock)
“Gang” as in gang vocals, every word quadrupled or quintupled in a time when togetherness is fleeting. And it’s a throwback for sure; you don’t hear the words “juvenile delinquency” much in #okboomer times. They’re all in other bands, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll make this a priority. But the perfectly fine Sham 69 didn’t have this many tunes, this much locomotive propulsion for 25 warmly pummeling minutes, or the empathy to muster up something like the closing tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire after the particularly uplifting guitar solo in “Blue Ain’t My Colour.” It’s remarkable how many punk bands sound like this but not really. Just like Nirvana. — D.W.
Denzel Curry x Kenny Beats, Unlocked (Loma Vista)
A slap-shot patchwork of samples, beats, and gunfire verses in just 17 minutes, Unlocked is one of the meanest rap releases you’ll hear this year. Denzel Curry’s smart, snarling punchlines hit like spit in the face, even when they’re as goofy as “fire flows like I’m red and white Mario.” And they’re backed by dark, sharp little head-knockers courtesy of star Rico Nasty collaborator and The Cave host Kenny Beats. It’s brutally addictive for those who can keep up, a tight mix of ’90s NYC grit and unbridled futurism from two of the most tireless monsters in the game. And the references to Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks hint that he’s thinking bigger already. — K.B.
Dogleg, Melee (Triple Crown)
From the first riff of “Kawasaki Backflip” through the symphonic coda of the appropriately titled “Ender,” the debut album from this Detroit emo unit could have had whole basements of kids singing or moshing along at almost any point in the last two decades. Sprinkled with references from their not-too-distant childhood (even the album’s title stems from their love of Super Smash Bros.) and doused heavily in the anxiety and emotional trauma that’s inspired gut-wrenching classics from their forebears, Melee is one of the most complete post-hardcore experiences of the past decade. And it’s only Dogleg’s first try. — Josh Chesler
Fake Names, Fake Names (Epitaph)
When did supergroups get so disciplined? Modeled after Ex Hex’s Rips, wherein Mary Timony retconned her whole career to see how “Fox on the Run,” “Hot Child in the City” and “Baby Baby” (The Vibrators, remember?) would sound Frankenstein’d together, Fake Names is a bunch of beloved punks’ 27-minute glam-rock session. Dennis Lyxzén was never this tight or tuneful in Refused, but in Minor Threat and Bad Religion, respectively, Brian Baker sure was. Embrace’s Michael Hampton and Girls Against Boys’ Johnny Temple are just happy to go along for the ride, which includes several dynamite guitar ideas (“This Is Nothing,” “All for Sale”), a synth on “Heavy Feather,” and rarely sounds like the key members of moderately legendary acts. But that’s why Fake Names is the side-project moniker to end them all: The desire to play regular guys rocking out without preconceptions. And like Ex Hex, it’s accidentally the best thing these fellas have ever done. — D.W.
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene (4AD)
If climate change was a Goddess it would be Miss Anthropocene — weird, terrifying, and radiant, at least according to Claire Boucher. Mixing fantasy and villainy, Grimes rails against her nearly mainstream pop stardom and tabloid-tweet celebrity with dark synth-work, nü-metal overtones, and an overall embrace of impending doom. It’s more somber than 2015’s audaciously sugary Art Angels, but Miss Anthropocene still encapsulates the camp flourishes of her last record as her looped, layered, celestial vocals overtake the songs. However, the standout emerges when she ditches the frills and sings as one direct voice. With its Oasis-inspired strums, “Delete Forever” is a stunning tribute to Lil Peep and others lost to the opioid crisis. It’s nothing fancy, just a reminder that her talent and heart still remain when you strip away the futuristic tech-worlds her music, visuals, and weapons-grade trolling have built. — I.K.
Boldy James & Alchemist, The Price of Tea in China (ALC)
The 36-year-old Boldy James belies the misconception that rap is a young man’s game. Over a decade into his career, the Detroit rapper is adding new cadences to his arsenal and penning his sharpest verses ever. On The Price of Tea in China, his second Alchemist-produced album, James still raps directly, almost conversationally, about the realities of drug dealing. But he also employs more figurative diction, delivering metaphors about bricks via extended rhyme schemes and fluid run-ons (or should we say “Run-Ins”). Meanwhile, Alchemist remains the Scorsese of street rap, an auteur whose alternately skeletal and lush beats thump and knock like they echo from the corners of grimy bodegas. Like Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s excellent Bandana, The Price of Tea in China is a sequel with greater potency, the raw elements combined in a refined formula. — Max Bell
Ka, Descendants of Cain (Iron Works)
Ka is defined by his most strenuous times. Every album is another attempt to process the horrors he experienced in his native Brownsville. The gaunt faces of fiends smoked to husks of bone-taut skin. Fathers sent upstate indefinitely for minor offenses. Third-world poverty in a first-world country. In the past, he has mapped those traumas onto feudal Japan (Honor Killed the Samurai) and Greek mythological epics (Orpheus vs. The Sirens). On Descendants of Cain, quite possibly Ka’s best album yet, he uses Old Testament analogies to get biblical about “yogis [who] did stretches upstate” (“Patron Saints”). Over grim suites with few (or no) drums, he retreads his genesis one artfully scripted and soft-spoken couplet at a time. One day, maybe he’ll be free of the pain, as he puts plainly in “Solitude of Enoch,” of watching “brothers killing brothers.” — M.B.
KeiyaA, Forever, Ya Girl (Forever)
Bedroom R&B, but not in the way you’re thinking. This is that Car Seat Headrest shit: Exquisitely layered lo-fi from a multi-instrumental whizkid who prefers 1999 to Sign ‘O’ the Times. Unlike Frank Ocean, she does not have Coachella money (“I can barely afford to eat much more red meat”), partly because she spent it on Korg synths (same song, the astounding “Hvnli”), and yes, she’s also bedroom R&B too: “Before I put this pussy on your sideburns / I need to check in with my heart and mind.” And if that’s Nicki Minaj by way of Noname, “As long as you respect me I could care less if you like me” is Meshell Ndegeocello by way of To Pimp a Butterfly. — D.W.
Kehlani, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t (Atlantic)
The most natural presence in R&B has abandoned the formal distinction between songs where she’s your cool best friend, songs where she’s time-to-get-serious wifey material, songs where she’s a hookup and you shouldn’t catch feelings, songs where she’s a swaggering pop star and you’re a sulking hater, songs where she’s a tirelessly filthy sex-jam imagineer, and songs where she’s a swaggering pop star and you’re a beloved fan she couldn’t do without. Instead, she’s all of them at once, just like you might be — and she still has your number with the embarrassing precision of a good friend or worse. — T.W.
Kiana Ledé, Kiki (Republic)
Only 23, singer/actress Kiana Ledé Brown got her first record deal through a Kidz Bop talent search nearly a decade ago. But it was the 2019 radio hit “EX” that established Ledé as a subtle vocalist who can deliver a nuanced lyric about platonic friendship. And her strong top-to-bottom debut album proves that she can hang with the new school R&B elite like Ari Lennox and Lucky Daye, both of whom guest on Kiki. The production team Rice N’ Peas throw in some nostalgic interpolations of Biggie’s “Juicy” and OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” but they’re even better when their lush tracks take left turns, like the jazzy instrumental coda on “Plenty More.” Expect plenty more. — A.S.
Machine Girl, U-Void Synthesizer (Machine Girl)
Between Ms. Apple’s magnum opus and these Pittsburgh mutants’ finest album, 2020 was poised to be a big year for barking dog recordings even before we all became our pets’ 24/7 roommate. Not sure if it makes it better or worse to hear living, unprocessed things howling from inside the mainframe but at least it breaks up the melting-vibrator insanity. Machine Girl’s hyperventilating industrial recalls some serious dollar-bin din: Pitchshifter anyone? Or Mindless Self Indulgence sans Lenny Bruce ambitions? There’s even some stray ear candy; check the synth riff spliced throughout “Scroll of Sorrow.” But for the most part they sound like a best-case scenario from inside Robert Pattinson’s microwave. Call them Hitachi Teenage Riot. — D.W.
Ashley McBryde, Never Will (Warner Nashville)
Tough and tattooed country singer Ashley McBryde writes vividly about the kinds of dive bars she played in for a decade before she was discovered by Eric Church and included on a list of President Obama’s favorite songs. So her second major-label album rocks harder than 2018’s Grammy-nominated Girl Going Nowhere, and the vindictive “Voodoo Doll” could pass for Heart. But the hard exterior can’t disguise the poignance and poetry all over Never Will, even in “One Night Standards,” an unsentimental paean to hotel room hookups: “How it goes is, the bar closes / There’s no king bed covered in roses / Just a room without a view.” — A.S.
Pearl Jam, Gigaton (Monkeywrench/Republic)
Pearl Jam’s 11th LP will be forever linked to its apocalyptic era. This is partly due to the pandemic that halted its touring cycle, but also its numerous references to the climate crisis (check the melting glaciers adorning the cover) and the U.S. president who did nothing to help stop it (see: the seething “Quick Escape”). But Gigaton should also be remembered as a bold creative reboot: “Dance of the Clairvoyants” lumbers into paranoid, Talking Heads-styled art-funk, while the ambient “Alright” transcends into a secular prayer. Three decades deep, Pearl Jam are still searching. — Ryan Reed
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Matador)
On the early lo-fi Perfume Genius recordings, you can hear the grand ambition of Mike Hadreas yearning to break through the scratchy fidelity. And it’s been a gradual evolution, each successive project inching him closer to the kaleidoscopic sprawl of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, his fifth and most expansive LP. Aided by producer Blake Mills and a crew of A-list session pros (including bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Jim Keltner), he commands every style he attempts, which are more numerous than ever: “Describe” is fuzzy dream-pop country, and “On the Floor” is funk-washed grind, complete with organ straight out of the Maytals. — R.R.
Poppy, I Disagree (Sumerian)
She’s not a girl, not yet a Cylon. Here, the chirping, medicated melancholy of Poppy’s earlier albums gives way to violent rage with the suddenness of a software crash. There’s a neat fractal correspondence between the lurching, K-pop-inspired melodrama of the songs here — the way the razorblade guitars turn them on a dime — and the replenishing destruction the album itself inflicts on its creator’s previous persona, which wanted you less than 100% sure this was a human being and not an affectless nihilist algorithm. I Disagree’s hooky fury is the sound of rupture: either the algorithm’s been force-fed something poisonous it can’t help but vengefully regurgitate, or Poppy’s gone from somebody’s project to real girl. Or one is a metaphor for the other. — T.W.
Princess Nokia, Everything Is Beautiful/Everything Sucks (Platoon)
The horrorcore on Everything Sucks is more like seasonal-Halloween-store-core, which is just perfect for Destiny Frasqueri’s Korn impression on “Crazy House” (“mmm…da da da boom dah”) and boasts like “I am grosser than you hoes and it shows.” Never undervalue a rapper who gleefully tries on costumes like she’s playing Nicki in the high-school musical version of Kanye West’s “Monster” video, though that hardly means the equally excellent, happy-place flipside Everything Is Beautiful is any more the “real” Princess Nokia. Never undervalue a rapper who repeats the “fuck these cops” line 3x or makes a beat from dialing someone’s landline either. And when she talks about family, she tells, in detail, how good they’re eating. — D.W.
Serengeti, AJAI (Cohn Corporation)
David Cohn’s catalog is filled with narratives of obsession. He invents characters with real desires, grudges, and regrets; complexities so overwhelming they require albums to explore. Kenny Dennis, the nasal and mustachioed Chicagoan whom Serengeti is most well-known for portraying, has an ax to grind with Shaq (yep, that one) and a wife (deceased as of Serengeti’s album Dennis 6e) who casts a shadow over every facet of his life. AJAI, the newest chapter in rap’s greatest serial, finds Kenny crossing paths with the title character, a young Indian man consumed with purchasing rare sneakers and premium streetwear collabs, sometimes to the detriment of his marriage. Produced by Kenny Segal (billy woods, Hemlock Ernst), whose somber beats bump around organic textures and live instruments, AJAI is so much more than a commentary on consumerism. It’s about broken men and the obsessions that move them — and it may be the richest narrative you hear in music all year. — M.B.
Kalie Shorr, Open Book (Kalianne Frances Shorr)
Country is so far back in Taylor Swift’s rearview that she’s left a vacancy for some time now in the twang/spunk/massive-chorus continuum. But what if someone came along who did that even better? Maine-to-Nashville 25-year-old Shorr has a dirtier mouth (don’t buy pills from a “piece of shit named Phil,” kids), trickier power-rock payoffs (“Alice in Wonderland” is the best Cars siphon since “Stacy’s Mom”), and a bigger, brighter guitar attack (“The One” takes Sunny Day Real Estate’s “In Circles” to CMT). All told, her target demo is older than Swift’s ever was, i.e. “I’ve been taking advice from my vices,” “I don’t really like dating assholes / But I do it ’cause I have a weird relationship with my dad.” But if Swift wore engagement rings on her middle finger she would’ve dodged quite a few messes in the first place. — D.W.
Soakie, Soakie (La Vida Es Un Mus Discos)
Hardcore blossomed during Reagan, so it’s hard to imagine what we’d do without its necessary cleanse in the time of Mitch McConnell. This Melbourne/Brooklyn summit updates the medium accordingly; sometimes “I don’t care what you say / I wish you would go away” or “There’s too many fucking boys” is all that need be shrieked. Sometimes warp-speed sarcastic rage for 13 minutes isn’t just the move, it’s a health plan. — D.W.
Soccer Mommy, Color Theory (Loma Vista)
Since the release of her 2018 debut studio album Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison has mastered the art of unraveling herself. With Color Theory, Allison dissects her complex emotions refreshingly, sequencing groups of songs by color: blue for sadness, yellow for mental and physical illness, and gray, for fear of death. There’s the obvious influence of Liz Phair, Allison’s onetime tourmate, as she leans into the raw angst and dream-fuzz guitars of the ‘90s artists before her. But while Clean fixated on young love, Color Theory sees the 22-year-old confronting the harsh realities of growing up — dealing with her mom’s cancer and her artistic rise — while further asserting herself as a skilled songwriter in total command of her creative gifts. — I.K.
The Soft Pink Truth, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (Thrill Jockey)
Drew Daniel’s previous outings as the Soft Pink Truth were wild whippet hits with jagged, conceptual edges. There was the sense that we were listening along as this Matmos co-proprietor and provocateur got away with murder. Hoary punk-rock riots could be reinterpreted as prickly house bangers as certainly as black metal chestnuts could be defanged or rewired. (The bizarre, sampladelic Why Pay More? is less discussed, but brilliant in its own odd right.) Comparatively speaking, Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? is the soundtrack to some rave’s well-managed chillout Quonset hut. Voices — not Daniel’s, this time — pipe in and out of dreamy, ambient swirls and sticky 12K-esque pitch shifts. The vibe shifts, almost imperceptibly, from secondhand Soul II Soul to Steve Reich drift to Soulquarian uplift to the Microphones’ cosmic, awestruck Mount Eerie. Nothing clever here; it’s all welcome nourishment. — Raymond Cummings
Emily A. Sprague, Hill, Flower, Fog (self-released)
Modular synthesizer LPs tend to favor endless, excessive drones or piled-up chords. While these courses of action are fine most of the time, there are risks: You tune out or the music scatters you. Hill, Flower, Fog is a coronavirus quarantine album rushed out to prepare us for that very catastrophe; “i hope it helps calm find a way” read the Bandcamp-only album’s notes. It is perfect quarantine listening because Emily A. Sprague plays her instrument with the nimbleness of a dancer stalking crossing a minefield. She seems to be making premeditated tonal choices intuitively and cautiously here, her distinct scales and creamy note-sprays grounding us in themselves. This handful of pastoral reveries are paths for us to follow, away from our devices and the chaos therein, towards the sublime. For a little while, anyway — long enough for pulses to unquicken, and tight jaws to fall slack. — R.C.
Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor (Atlantic)
“Roads,” Doc Brown said to Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” With Paramore’s frontwoman quickly becoming as iconic as that line herself, it perfectly captures the imagination of the direction-changing, eye-opening, deep-diving triumph of Hayley Williams’ solo debut. On Petals for Armor, the singer turns therapy-induced journaling into a three-act tour de force that first explores rage (the dancey-dark “Simmer”), home observations (the Björk-meets-Beta-Band “Cinnamon”), and shame (“Dead Horse” and its perfect harmonies). Then it takes ’80s R&B for a spin on “Pure Love” and never quite returns. By year’s end, scientists may still be discovering new genres-inside-genres this album tucked in just as easter eggs. — Jolie Lash
X, Alphabetland (Fat Possum)
What’s more punk than dropping one of your best albums in your late 60s, by bringing back your 72-year-old guitarist no less? The last time X and Billy Zoom were together on an album, crack was rampant, Ronald Reagan was president and this publication was two months old. Despite a lapse nearly as long as this writer’s been alive, Alphabetland has the surprise and shock of a Mike Tyson right uppercut. John Doe once again matches the same urgent anxiousness in Exene Cervenka’s lyrics, and they apparently didn’t have to reach far to conjure up old tricks: two onetime throwaways remade into killers (one with sax!), Zoom’s revved-up Chuck Berry riffs like he never left, John and Exene harmonizing damn near every line. Firmly back in this wheelhouse that they call home, why’d they ever leave? — Daniel Kohn
Yaeji, What We Drew (XL)
Cast off the cares of the day and wade slowly into the warm waters of Yaeji’s mood. The NYC songwriter-producer evolves from darling beatmaker to fully realized artist on this album-length mixtape, even taking up painting, design, and animation to flesh out her vision. What We Drew incorporates R&B, drum ‘n’ bass, classic house, jazz, and traditional sounds of South Korea into a muted tapestry of midnight hues. You might even call it pop. — K.B.