Music

The Best Albums Of 2020, So Far

The first half of 2020 has been complete chaos - but the music has been better than ever.

best albums 2020 so far photo

How do you even begin to describe the first six months of 2020?

Dozens of words come to mind — ‘tumultuous’, ‘horrifying’, ‘anxious’, ‘colossal’, ‘chaos’. The world is still very much in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, and the impact will be felt for years and years to come. Put simply, it has changed the world, and we won’t know exactly how for a long time.

The music industry has been thrown off a cliff, with full scale tours potentially off the table for the foreseeable future. Festivals have been cancelled, albums delayed, and record labels have been scrambling to find a way through the confusion.

But music hasn’t stopped, or has been in any way weakened. In fact, the first six months of 2020 have seen some of the finest albums (and EPs) of recent years — from veterans making their long-awaited return, to emerging acts cementing their status.

Dive in.


Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?

“If this is the last hurrah, fine,” Jessie Ware told Music Junkee shortly before the release of What’s Your Pleasure?. “But at least I made a record that I really enjoyed.”

It might only have been released a few days ago, but it’s already safe to say that Ware’s fourth album won’t be her last hurrah — in fact, it’s arguably her most acclaimed, garnering glowing reviews from NME, The Guardian, and Pitchfork, who crowned it Best New Music.

It’s completely deserved: What’s Your Pleasure? is a sophisticated and gorgeous listen, with Ware leaning back heavily into the dance-driven pop of her early career. The production — Ware was aided by James Ford and Joe Mount of Metronomy — is deft and inspired, with orchestral flourishes, synths, and acid house beats weaved together.

‘Save A Kiss’ is one of its many peaks, a thudding dancefloor moment that sounds like it was unearthed from a time capsule buried in a London club in the ’90s.

— Jules LeFevre


Torres — Silver Tongue

In the lead-up to the release of Torres’ Silver Tongue, the musician — real name Mackenzie Scott — announced that it was her first album about love. To longtime fans, that might have been somewhat surprising to hear. After all, Scott’s music is not often romantic, and her best singles resemble ten miles of bad road: ‘Helen in the Woods’, her miniature masterpiece, is a throttled piece of sustained cruelty.

The magic trick of Silver Tongue then is that the record really is about love, while still containing the loping horror of Torres’ best work. ‘Gracious Day’, the most heartbreaking song of the year, details the anxious moment when you ask someone to move in with you; ‘Good Grief’ deconstructs the shaking fear that comes from being perceived by someone who takes you seriously. These songs are genuinely scary in a way that indie pop usually isn’t.

But they’re also hopeful, trembling with their own sense of catharsis, and rushing at listeners with their arms open wide, ready for embrace. There have been few more ambitious masterpieces released this year.

— Joseph Earp


Fiona Apple — Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple fans are used to long, long, waits. But it was a mere matter of months between the announcement of Fetch The Bolt Cutterss and the thing dropping in full, Apple having pulled the release date up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

That might explain why it feels like the dust is yet to settle on the record. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is so strange, so patchwork and pained, that it still feels like something that happened to us, rather than something we consumed ourselves. ‘Ladies’ is the closest thing the album has to a breakout pop single, and even that is a jumbled collection of confused and confusing melodies and a half-formed chorus.

So much of the album is still submerged in shadow. Who knows whether it’s the best album of Apple’s career, or of the year? Only time will tell. But until the thing settles into one stable shape, we’ll be sitting here with it, letting its odd textures flutter around us like ash after a house fire.

— Joseph Earp


The McClymonts — Mayhem To Madness

On 2017’s Endless, the sisters from Grafton pushed open the door to pop with the help of Vera Blue and Winterbourne producer Andy Mak.

On Mayhem To Madness, they’ve stepped fully through, delivering an album of pristine country pop that could be carved from the early years of Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves.

Mak is again helping with production, and his deft touch lends their distinctive vocals a new power — on tracks like ‘Free Fall’, their harmonies drift gently and gorgeously, while in their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’, they’re punched through to the foreground. Lead single ‘I Got This’, meanwhile, is pure stadium filler.

— Jules LeFevre


Jack Colwell — SWANDREAM

Jack Colwell’s SWANDREAM is an album of transformation. Sometimes that transformation is mythical; almost religious in nature, like the mutations that make up Ovid’s Metamorphosis. ‘PTSD’, the biggest and loudest song of Colwell’s entire career, feels like the Earth crashing down on your head.

But just as often, Colwell knows to go smaller. A newly-recorded version of ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’, the track that first put Colwell on the map, takes that song’s pleasures and makes them more nuanced and surprising. And ‘A Spell’, a duet recorded with Sarah Blasko, might be one of the most gently devastating songs of the year.

It’s an album that creeps up on you, that winds up and down your legs and arms, holding you up against a memory and then attaching you there. It might well be one of the most sumptuous debuts in modern Australian musical history. When touring resumes, we better see this record as it was designed to be heard: in some intimate space, perhaps a church, with Colwell’s voice gliding us upwards, into the rafters.

— Joseph Earp


Laura Marling — Song For Our Daughter

Laura Marling could have sat on Song For Our Daughter. After all, the record hadn’t even been announced by the time the coronavirus pandemic unfurled around the world, disrupting the touring industry and shackling Marling to her home. But instead, for reasons that came naturally, intuitively, she decided to drop it, giving her fans little more than a week’s notice to prepare for the thing.

The entire album has that sense of impressionistic, spur of the moment life. Nothing about it is overly thought-out, or belaboured. ‘Only the Strong’ goes sad just as you’re expecting it to go mighty; ‘The End of the Affair’ does the opposite. On ‘Fortune’, Marling’s voice flattens itself like a coin crushed on a freeway, and ‘For You’, a long, patchwork medley, might be one of the best songs of her career.

Marling has made a career out of sounding effortless, like she’s the kind of person who can just pick choruses out of the air. But here, perhaps for the first time, she sounds totally free, too. Not just sonically; creatively. But as a person. We deserve to sit in the warm glow of this record for many years to come.

— Joseph Earp


Rina Sawayama — Sawayama

Rina Sawayama eats up influences and styles at a speed that pop hasn’t seen since Madonna. Actually, scratch that. Madonna traded in musical genres over the course of albums. Sawayama does it over the course of songs. Her self-titled debut record is like a crack of lightning, moving so fast and thick with such intelligence that it makes every other modern pop songwriter look positively geriatric by comparison.

‘STFU!’ opens with a nu-metal riff before eventually morphing into a series of curses, drenched in reverb and surrounded by glittering synths. ‘Love Me 4 Me’ finds the intersection between yacht rock and R’n’B and somehow makes it sing, while ‘Chosen Family’ turns the twee prettiness of the Postal Service inside out.

It’s hard to imagine a more inventive or exciting record being released this year — or maybe this decade. Who knows what Sawayama does next. But all it would take is one more record of this calibre and she could emerge as one of the most important artists in the entire pop pantheon.

— Joseph Earp


Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

The sadness of Phoebe Bridgers’ music has become something of a joke, the fodder for thousands of memes dropped every day. That’s one helluva form of marketing, but it also obscures some of the things that make Bridgers special.

Sure, a song like ‘Kyoto’ is sad, but that’s a little bit like saying some of Van Gogh’s paintings are about flowers. Bridgers goes beyond the sad sack flatness that defines the indie singer-songwriters that have gone before her, telling stories of pain and catharsis that rattle with a singular intelligence and skill.

After all, which other modern songwriter could pen something as at once devastating and beautiful as ‘I Know The End’, Punisher‘ last track and a meditation on horror and grief that eventually becomes a series of gasped screams? It’s a glittering crown of hurt placed on top of a record that goes deeper than the memes. Turn it on, lay back on your bed, and let it overwhelm you.

— Joseph Earp


Party Dozen — Pray For Party Dozen

A joyfully abrasive two-piece, Party Dozen make music that sounds like one long itch. ‘The Great Ape’, one of the highlights of their new record Pray For Party Dozen is a wailing saxophone solo surrounded by David Lynch-style fuzz and doomed romance, while ‘Play The Truth’ builds itself from a wail to what sounds like the end of the entire world.

In that way, Pray For Party Dozen is a record designed for the entirety of your attention. It’s too abrasive to have on when friends are around, or to settle into the background while you’re working.

Instead, you have to let the thing grab you by the shoulders and hold you in place. Only then will it reveal its stranger pleasures; the delicate things that happen to you after ‘Gun Control’ has broken apart into a drum line and a shrieky, hummed melody, and silence horribly descends.

— Joseph Earp


Hayley Mary — The Piss, The Perfume (EP)

As the lead singer of The Jezabels, Hayley Mary brought power and range to the band’s soaring indie rock. Now, as the master of her own domain, she’s serving up perfect slices of ’80s-inspired pop.

Tracks like ‘Like A Woman Should’ ‘The Piss, The Perfume’, are big, ballsy, and downright fun, with Mary grinning her way through curtains of ringing guitars and galloping drums.

At the time of its release, Mary told Music Junkee she had been thinking about giving up music before writing The Piss, The Perfume. Thank god she didn’t, as her emerging solo career burns bright.

— Jules LeFevre


RVG — Feral

The first RVG record, A Quality of Mercy, was something of a mystery — arriving on the scene with little in the way of promotion, and almost no advanced fanfare. The band’s follow-up, Feral, was a different proposition, released through an indie label and announced months ahead of time with the all-time great single ‘Alexandra’.

But somehow, despite that change in release method, Feral still feels as magic and as giddily inexplicable as its predecessor. To borrow a phrase from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, it’s an angel, flung out of space, a work of genius the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in a long, long time. ‘Christian Neurosurgeon’ calls to mind the best work of Echo & The Bunnymen without ever feeling reductive or recycled, and ‘Perfect Day’ hums with a heart entirely of its own.

Feral had the misfortune of making its way into the world just as the coronavirus pandemic kicked off. But to be honest, this is a record that could withstand any of fortune’s slings and arrows. Give it ten years, and the cult of RVG will be taking over the world.

–Joseph Earp


Miiesha — Nyaaringu

In the press, Miiesha’s Nyaaringu has sometimes been referred to as a “collection” rather than an album, compiled from the game-changing singles that the musician has been quietly dropping over the last year or so. Consider it a testament to Miiesha’s skill as a writer and performer then that this record has more energy and life than the work some musicians release decades into their career.

‘Drowning’, an aching ballad that opens with Tony Abbott’s infamous claim that remote communities are “lifestyle choices”, might be one of the most essential and urgent songs of the year, while ‘Hold Strong’ is an iron-wrought ballad about fortifying yourself against the horrors of modern systemic oppression. These are dizzyingly smart songs, with lyrics that translate entire perspectives into song.

But they’re far from cerebral treatises. They are, first and foremost, works of considerable musical wit and heart; the sound of a young singer, describing the entire universe as they see it.

— Joseph Earp


Ninajirachi — Blumiere (EP)

Since she began dropping singles back in 2017, Central Coast producer Ninajirachi has consistently proven she is one of the country’s most talented — and hardest working — producers.

Blumiere is yet another assertion of her skills and intuition — tracks like the exhilarating ‘Cut The Rope’ are begging to find a place on dark festival dancefloors, while the title track and ‘Alight’ showcase her knack for carving indelible melodies.

Put simply, to listen to Blumiere is to hear a hitmaker in the making. Ignore it at your peril.

— Jules LeFevre


 

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