The Best Albums of October 2020: Ariana Grande, Bruce Springsteen, and More

Angie Martoccio, Jon Dolan, Kory Grow, Jonathan Bernstein, Tim Chan, Daniel Kreps, David Browne, Danny Schwartz, Hank Shteamer and Simon Vozick-Levinson
·20 min read

Each month, the editors and critics at Rolling Stone compile a list of our favorite new albums. Our picks for October include Bruce Springsteen’s first new album with the E Street Band in six years, the highly anticipated debut from K-pop group Blackpink, and a new archive release from Joni Mitchell.

Ariana Grande, Positions

How does someone like Ariana Grande follow one of pop’s greatest, boldest break-up albums? With a horny, campy collection of R&B slow jams, of course. In all its naughty glory, Positions doesn’t teach us anything new about Grande: She’s always had a penchant for both subtle (“Imagine”) and not-so-subtle (“Side to Side”) sexual innuendos and come-ons, delivered sweetly from that Broadway-born voice of hers. Her theater-kid side adds an extra dose of lightness to the project, a now-signature element of all her albums. Positions is not the Ariana Grande Wheel reinvented; its biggest risk is that in a sea of constant pop reinvention, Grande has hunkered down more confidently and astutely on her core musical identity, one that she has very rarely swayed from. Thank U, Next perfected that formula, straddling a new line between pop standards, traditional R&B, and modern rap production. Positions is minor growth, major strength, and a solid step forward in the right direction for one pop’s most exciting stars. — Brittany Spanos

Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You

Over the past half a century, Bruce Springsteen has played down-on-their-luck working men, wide-eyed youngsters growing up too quickly, local-circuit rockers who can only dream of playing stadiums, Cadillac ranchers tearin’ up the highway for cheap kicks, and on and on in his songs. Although he was playing roles in his songs, the same sense of hope for the future and desire to live a simpler life have connected his characters since the beginning, and those threads have only become more apparent as time has gone on. Now on his 20th album, and at age 71, Springsteen seems to be making sense of all of his brilliant disguises for himself. These are songs that demand real-world action; perhaps Springsteen doesn’t believe he can leave everything up to the power of prayer. — Kory Grow

Gorillaz, Song Machine: Season One — Strange Timez

The latest release from Damon Albarn’s ever-evolving project Gorillaz is one of the most diverse, wide-open, and free-flowing LPs the cartoon band has released in its 20-year history. That’s saying something; Albarn has always proposed Gorillaz as a space beyond and between pop music’s borders, and over the decades everyone from Mark E. Smith to Bobby Womack to Pusha T has felt at home swinging by to chill. It’s a project that feels especially worthwhile in the era of Brexit and hyper-nationalism, even if the albums it produces can often be so intentionally all-over-the place as to sometimes seem nowhere at all. As always, Albarn’s ability to create dubby, drifting synthetic beauty — a kind of futurist pastoralism — remains a key ingredient to his music’s distracted wonder. “I’ve been standing on a beach in the distance,” he sings on “Aries,” “and even though I’m far away, can you see my red light waiting to turn green?” Finding unlikely connections across wide chasms, conversation out of global pop’s babble, is what his music does well. — Jon Dolan

Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)

On The Early Years — a collection of folk club tapes, radio broadcasts, and home-made demos from her pre-recording-artist years — Mitchell’s saga sticks to the script, at least initially. Gently strumming a guitar and singing in an austere soprano, the 20-year-old Mitchell gives herself over to folk story-songs like “John Hardy” or the contemporary murder ballad “The Long Black Rifle” in the set’s earliest offerings. But by the time the five-disc box wraps up, Mitchell is singing her own words–waxing philosophical, sifting through her neuroses and analyzing the end of her first marriage — and using unconventional tunings that lend her guitar its distinctive wide-screen sound, its rustling-leaves beauty. In just a few very compact years, compared to her peers, she’s transformed from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell. The Early Years lays out the road map she would follow for decades to come. It’s a route many subsequent songwriters, male and female, would also try to navigate, and many still haven’t caught up. — David Browne

Tom Petty, Wildflowers & All the Rest

“Sometimes you gotta trust yourself,” Tom Petty sings on “California,” one of the many alternative tracks that never made the original release of Petty’s 1994 masterpiece Wildflowers. “California” is no new revelation: It’s one of several songs from the Wildflowers sessions that, strangely enough, would appear two years later on the She’s the One soundtrack. But knowing that we should always trust Petty’s artistic vision is, nevertheless, one of the foremost takeaways from the sprawling five-CD expanded Wildflowers & All The Rest, an immaculately curated version of Petty’s original plan to make a double album (an idea that his label, Warner Bros, shot down for a variety of reasons), plus several extra albums’ worth of outtakes, live performances, and home recordings. It’s a definitive artistic statement that newly illuminates one of the most fruitful, inspired periods of the American legend’s career. — Jonathan Bernstein

Jeff Tweedy, Love Is the King

When the pandemic scuttled Wilco’s tour this spring, Jeff Tweedy shrugged and got to work on a new solo album with his sons, Spencer and Sammy, on drums and backing vocals. Lucky us: It’s some of his finest recent work with or without a band, with sly, easeful country lopes (“Opaline”), genuinely sweet declarations of love (“Even I Can See”), and his zingiest Midwestern-Neil guitar leads since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. “Gwendolyn” is a rocker you’d give your left arm to see him stretch out in concert; “Bad Day Lately” is a consolation for the fact that you probably won’t be able to for a long while. Here’s to silver linings. —Simon Vozick-Levinson

Ty Dolla $ign, Featuring Ty Dolla $ign

Ty Dolla $ign is the musical equivalent of hot sauce — he goes on everything. With his new album Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, Ty acknowledges and leans into his reputation as an absurdly prolific and highly dependable guest star. Like so many streaming era tracklists that have ballooned to grotesque proportions, Featuring Ty$ is long. It contains 25 tracks, nearly as many as the deluxe edition of his excellent 2017 album Beach House 3. And yet, Featuring Ty$ is his sleekest solo album to date, a carefully sequenced collection of songs that invites ordered listening and showcases his finesse as a first-time executive producer. Ty has earned his reputation as the most ubiquitous feature artist in pop, but his solo work deserves just as much recognition. — D. Schwartz

Mountain Goats, Getting Into Knives

The burst of creativity from John Darnielle, the word-swilling frontman and piercing singer-songwriter behind the North Carolina-based Mountain Goats, has not receded one bit in recent years. Quite the opposite: After successive full band triumphs with the noir-roots of 2017’s Goths and the wizardly wistfulness of 2018’s In League With Dragons, Darnielle is now entering the fourth decade of his recording career with a pair of 2020 albums. If this year’s earlier Songs For Pierre Chuvin harkened back to Darnielle’s early All Hail West Texas-era days as a solo boombox savant, his latest album, Getting Into Knives, is a delightful representation of the band’s latter day off-kilter indie roots warmth. Darnielle shows that the Mountain Goats’ toolkit is always expanding, and his tools are getting sharper all the same. — J. Bernstein

Undeath, Lesions of a Different Kind

The cover art for the first full-length by Rochester, New York, metal outfit Undeath is a marvel of gruesome pulp: a crude yet vivid rendering — by the band’s drummer, Matt Browning — of a beheading inside a cave of horrors. Like the album itself, the image isn’t merely disgusting; it’s also packed with odd, unsettling touches that prove hard to shake. For example, the sickly neon-green hue that accents the image and draws in the eye functions much like the spare, choppy breakdowns that suddenly erupt out of more conventional death-metal riffage on tracks here like “Acidic Twilight Visions” and “Entranced by the Pendulum.” Overall, the trio, also featuring mad-scientist guitarist Kyle Beam and charismatic growler Alexander Jones, proves remarkably adept at bridging thudding primitivism and delirious weirdness, yielding a record that feels like a gift for metalheads tired of settling for one or the other. The lean, rocking, improbably catchy title track, which sounds like a lost Headbanger’s Ball hit from the early Nineties, tops off what just might be the most addictive underground metal release of 2020. — Hank Shteamer

Beabadoobee, Fake It Flowers

Beabadoobee’s full-length debut is less like a Nineties indie release than the kind of major-label debut that bands released after their underground buzz turned into real career possibilities. If this came out in 1994, some indie-rock fans might bristle at this youngster turning lo-fi guitar dazzle into something that could slide into MTV rotation. At its best, Fake It Flowers is right up there with the first Veruca Salt record or That Dog’s Totally Crushed Out in its ability to fuse pensive elation, sugary guitar charge, and sweet pop melodies. Throughout all these songs, Kristi leverages her rockcraft gifts to create an album about finding a distinct voice and discovering her own happiness: “Fuck me when I’m keen, not according to your beer,” she sings on “Dye it Red,” then adds “So let me be what I’ve always wanted to be.” — J. Dolan

Matt Berninger, Serpentine Prison

“I’m near the bottom/Name the blues, I’ve got ‘em,” the National frontman Matt Berninger sings on the delicately despondent “Oh, Dearie,” from his debut solo LP. It’s a song about being completely asphyxiated by fear and doubt — certainly a message for our times. But don’t call the crisis hotline just yet. The music is more reassuringly cozy than last-ditch dire, with the singer pouring his enveloping, care-worn baritone over softly illuminating piano and a “Dust in the Wind” acoustic figure. The sound is par for the course for a guy whose band has often specialized in pairing depression and anxiety with artfully pleasant indie-rock. By the time he arrives at the slight lyrical twist, “I don’t see no brightness/I’m kinda startin’ to like this,” you’re almost ready to curl up next to him in his warmly welcoming shame shed. It’s the work of an artist who has all but invented his own uniquely affecting idiom of overwrought overreaching. — J. Dolan

Brothers Osbourne, Skeletons

For the last five years, Brothers Osborne have been one of the more compelling acts operating squarely within the confines of commercial country music. The Maryland brother duo has built a strong live following (and earned a pair of Top Twenty hits) based on their no-nonsense balance of crisp country-rock and crooning slow-jams. The group’s last album, Port Saint Joe, was an elegant display of that honky-tonk yin-yang that leaned slightly towards the group’s slower, more contemplative material. The band’s third and latest album, Skeletons, shifts the balance firmly in the opposite direction. This is their first fully unabashed rock record, a collection of songs clearly meant as a rough draft of what they will, one day, sound like in front of a large audience. For the most part, though, Skeletons, is a remarkably engaging country-leaning rock record that shows off what the duo does best. — J. Bernstein

Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me box set

1987’s Pleased to Meet Me was the sound of the Replacements trying for once. The band’s previous five LPs were snarky slacker masterpieces full of chintzy songs about hating music ’cause it’s got too many notes, ironic Kiss covers, and the occasional tender ballad, and their concerts were more like drunken hootenannies; all of this sloppiness was what won them their legend. This new box set shows how the album that came next could have been even better. The Replacements recorded a lot of music around Pleased to Meet Me, much of which came out on various singles and compilations, as well as demos, alternate versions of songs, and tunes that for whatever reason were forgotten in the back of the beer fridge. Taken as a whole — along with Replacements biographer Bob Mehr’s ever-excellent liner notes (which shed some light on Bob Stinson’s departure) — the holistic skyway-view of the album shows a band that was a little looser than they would want to let on. The ache in Westerberg’s voice feels deeper on several of the songs, and the way the group could settle into a jam, whether as a four-or three–piece, sounds easier. Now you can finally hear how they tried and where they succeeded. — K. Grow

21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Savage Mode II

With Savage Mode II, 21 and Metro have created a near-perfect sequel that revisits the moods of its predecessor while simultaneously carving out its own distinctive identity as tribute to the music they grew up on. Morgan Freeman’s over-the-top cinematic narration is not a one-off gimmick, but the connective tissue of the project. Though 21 takes time to celebrate his rise from long trips on MARTA to Rolls-Royce roadhead, and his refusal to wear any watch that cost less than $100,000, Savage Mode II is rooted in the same grim source material as SM1. The most overt homage of Savage Mode II, though, is Metro’s outfit in the “Runnin” music video, in which he wears a Three 6 shirt and a hat that reads, “Make DJ Paul and Juicy J Three 6 Mafia Again.” This gesture encapsulates the difference between the two installments of Savage Mode, which now seems destined to go down as one of rap’s all-time classic series. While SM1 was ineffable and mystic, Savage Mode II spells out its influences and its place in the canon of Southern rap. — Danny Schwartz

Machine Gun Kelly, Tickets to My Downfall

Machine Gun Kelly made his name as a Cleveland rapper known for his high-adrenaline rhyming style and occasional beefs with Eminem. But on Tickets To My Downfall he tries a new gambit that works surprisingly well: switching to late-Nineties/early-2000s pop punk, with Blink 182’s Travis Barker producing and playing drums. Trashily lachrymose and full of easily digestible angst, it’s a record festooned with indie-signifying titles like “Bloody Valentine” and “Jawbreaker,” though its cover photo of Kelly looking defiant and tortured holding a pink guitar by an empty pool gets close to its emotional center and musical appeal. Despite its I’m-a-big-drunk-mess lyrical monomania, the record never gets bogged down. Even the 21-song deluxe edition keeps the energy going, capped off with an ace, genuflecting cover of Paramore’s classic “Misery Business.” Clearly, this is the work of a guy who’s found a fresh lease on life by inserting himself inside a new musical tradition. — J. Dolan

Blackpink, The Album

Simply titled The Album, this eight-song set is a slick, confident and wildly entertaining release from the biggest girl group in the world. Written and recorded in Korea while much of the country was quarantining under Covid, the album is at once an instant adrenaline shot for 2020 and a rallying cry for everyone to party again once the pandemic is over. Blackpink excel at leaving their audience wanting more, and if The Album is any indication, they’ll likely have plenty of schemes and surprises in store for us. — Tim Chan

Sam Smith, Love Goes

Sam Smith’s latest late-night raid on Heartbreak Mountain opens in the very wee small hours with “Young,” an a cappella ode to loving, crying, drinking, and kissing boys, consequences be damned. Love Goes is all about giving too much in a world that never has the heart to give back in return. Smith wanted to call it To Die For, but changed the title because it seemed insensitive during the pandemic. It’s a battlefield of lost loves, broken hearts, affairs that end badly, memories that linger, wounds that never heal. As always, Smith’s voice is lustrous and versatile, swooping into the husky depths of the LP’s darker, reflective passages and skylarking over the more upbeat moments, displaying a rich, androgynous athleticism. Love Goes doesn’t quite have overwhelming moments to match the titanic power of signature hits like “Latch,” Smith’s career-making hit with house duo Disclosure, or 2017’s “Him.” In some ways, that’s OK. There’s a gracious ease to even the most sweeping song, like the way “Diamonds” begins as heavy breakup grieving and turns into a dance floor glide, or how the forget-me-not “Kids Again” salves an anthem of lost innocence with soft country-rock. It makes for a record full of healing sounds to pull you past sorrow. — J. Dolan

Adrianne Lenker, Songs

There are few singer-songwriters who can claim a more prolific peak creative period than Adrianne Lenker’s past five years. Since 2016, she’s helmed four albums with her band Big Thief as well as several solo outings, including her informatively-titled recent twin releases Songs and Instrumentals. Unlike the skeletal meandering of her last solo album, 2018’s Abysskiss, which contained a haunting, if occasionally closed off, beauty, Lenker’s latest is a razor-focused collection, unsparing in its naked vulnerability and unceasing in its steady supply of her trademark sing-song nursery rhyme schemes. Songs is being billed as a breakup album, and it surely is that, with Lenker processing her own heart-poking memories in real time. She’s hardly the first person to escape to a cabin to record a bunch of sad songs after a relationship gone sour, but you wouldn’t know it from her latest record, the best moments of which feel so piercing and immediate that they feel like Lenker is discovering the concept of a breakup album for herself in real time. —J. Bernstein

Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche, I Can Still Hear You

Although Maggie Roche passed away in 2017, the legacy of the singing sisters from New Jersey endures: The Avalanches sampled “Hammond Song” in “We Will Always Love You” earlier this year, and family traditions old and new are renewed on Suzzy’s third and strongest album with daughter Lucy (her dad is Loudon Wainwright III). Softly padding beauties like the title song and “I Think I Am a Soul” are imbued with a sense of loss and longing, as is a version of Maggie’s never-recorded “Jane.” The heartbreaking depiction of humanity’s cruelty in “Ruins” feels chillingly relevant. Recorded partly during the early months of the lockdown, the album has a hushed, muted melancholy about it: the goofy joy of classic Roches may be missing, but the family vocal blend and wry intelligence are, thankfully, being passed to the next generation. — D. Browne

Loma, Don’t Shy Away

Loma — a rural Texas-based indie rock outfit featuring members of Shearwater and Cross Record — was originally meant to be a one-off project, but the band’s 2018 self-titled LP contained a song so hauntingly good (“Black Willow”) that it caught the attention of Brian Eno. The trio opted to return to the studio, and on Don’t Shy Away — Loma’s just-released second LP on Sub Pop — Eno makes an increasingly rare non-ambient appearance to produce the album’s sonorous closer “Homing.” Don’t Shy Away itself is a stronger, fully realized collection than its predecessor, kicking off with the absorbing opening trio — “I Fix My Gaze,” “Ocotillo,” and “Half Silences,” each elevated by singer Emily Cross’ bewitching vocals — and never letting up from there. The Eno-produced “Homing” recalls that giant’s own “Taking Tiger Mountain” and “Deep Blue Day.” Don’t Shy Away’s moody, autumnal vibes make the album essential pre-Election Day listening, but the songs are resilient enough to weather whatever result November 3rd brings. — Daniel Kreps

Wizkid, Made in Lagos

The Nigerian singer-songwriter’s new album is dedicated to the people of his homeland, and their struggles against police brutality (on October 20th, 12 people were killed when riot squads fired on protestors, an act that drew international condemnation). The album features appearances by Burna Boy (on the sunny, smooth “Ginger”) and H.E.R. (on the deep-grooved “Smile”), as well as Ella Mai, Skepta, and Damian Marley. The album is a seamless synthesis of American, Caribbean, and African music, and Wizkid’s singing is warm and supple, a unifying balm amidst fractious times. — J. Dolan

Low Cut Connie, Private Lives

It must be painful for Low Cut Connie mastermind Adam Weiner to keep himself from going overboard. The group’s sixth and latest album, Private Lives, is a double album, featuring 17 songs that Weiner recorded with nearly 40 of his closest friends. They indulge gospel-choir sing-alongs, channel classic-sounding soul horn arrangements, and generally cut loose and lose themselves in Weiner’s grooves. The record’s only failing is Weiner’s instinct for maximalism. Many of Private Lives’ 17 tracks are one-or two-minute segues that don’t sound so much like intervals as undercooked songs; they feel like songs that Low Cut Connie could have developed, but just felt they had to release to fill two albums. But these are easily skippable, and there’s enough top-shelf Connie here that a few speed bumps don’t slow it down too much. — K. Grow

Mr. Bungle, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo

The members of Mr. Bungle have spent so many years attacking metal from all sorts of oblique angles that it’s easy to forget how much reverence they have for the genre. That all changes with The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo — technically the first album in 21 years from the genre-mashing weirdos but actually a re-recording of their little-heard cassette release from 1986. What fans had only heard in blown-out tape-trader lo-fi explodes into the present here, via a gorgeously crisp and full production job. Also upping the ante is the presence of Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, metal legends who inspired then-teenage core Mr. Bungle members Mike Patton, Trey Spruance, and Trevor Dunn when they wrote the original demo. The sonic makeover drives home just how much musical intrigue there was in these pieces to begin with: Even then, Spruance, Dunn, and Patton were more composers than songwriters, and they approached thrash metal with the epic scale and architectural intrigue of prog. Their reboot is a feast of ingenious riffs, unexpected tempo shifts, and pure manic energy, not to mention a couple of complementary covers and even a Rhea Perlman cameo — the perfect antidote to the torpor and malaise of our current moment. — H. Shteamer

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