Insomuch as traditional album rollouts still existed, 2020 has destroyed them. At the top of the music industry food chain, megawatt stars including Lady Gaga and the Dixie Chicks (sorry, the Chicks) moved their release dates as the typical platforms they used to promote their music—video shoots, press appearances, and record store appearances—slowed to a crawl or disappeared amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, midtier and emerging indie acts have been forced to drop albums without the ability to tour behind them. And forget about finding new fans as a smaller band playing at festivals—Coachella, SXSW, Bonnaroo, and essentially every other big-tent concert event has been put on hold or outright canceled.
But that doesn’t mean the music industry has shuttered completely. The intimate, at-home performance has become a staple of quarantine, often producing stunning results. A handful of artists have found new, more powerful voices by responding to the nationwide uprising following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And despite the inability to promote them properly, a slew of excellent albums did drop in the first half of 2020.
With apologies to the great new LPs from Phoebe Bridgers, Drakeo the Ruler, Haim, Bob Dylan, and many others, here are our 10 favorite releases from the first six months of the year. Check back tomorrow, when Micah Peters, Shea Serrano, and Andrew Gruttadaro count down the best songs of 2020 so far. —Justin Sayles
To read the rest of The Ringer’s Best of 2020 (So Far) lists, click here.
10. Westside Gunn, Pray for Paris
Westside Gunn doesn’t say anything on his fourth studio album that he hasn’t rapped about before: Take the opening song, “No Vacancy,” where he’s sporting three-quarter-length minks, name-dropping Bruno Sammartino, and throwing up from the smell of cooking too much coke. This is standard fare for the Buffalo MC, who built his name rapping alongside his brother Conway the Machine and cousin Benny the Butcher as part of the Griselda collective. But Pray for Paris adds an extra layer of luxury, and as a result, his songs feel more essential than ever.
Westside’s output since 2015 has been staggering—25 releases, counting mixtapes, collaborations, and compilations—but even though the projects ranged from good to great, there was little differentiating their chilly, postmodern boom-bap. On Pray for Paris, however, the surrounding pieces match his blend of street rap and high-art designs better than ever before. That starts with the cover, designed by Virgil Abloh (in what may be the high point of his 2020), and runs through the breezy production on tracks like “327” and “French Toast” (both handled by Camoflauge Monk) and “Party Wit Pop Smoke” (helmed by Tyler, the Creator, who also turns in a guest verse on the album). Closing track “LE Djoliba” doubles down on the grandeur, bringing in Cartier Williams to tap dance. Nothing here marks a total reinvention—there are still shout-outs to Rick Owens, Dolce & Gabbana, and a rusty .45 on Paris’s standout, “$500 Ounces”—but it feels like the beginning of a new era, in which Westside’s dreams of austerity may line up with his reality. —Sayles
9. Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
If a new Tame Impala record drops in a year with no Coachella, does it even exist? One-man psych-pop whirlwind Kevin Parker has spent the past decade mutating from a defiant headphone-album loner into an exuberant mega-festival headliner with a military-industrial complex of a light show. The Slow Rush debuted on Valentine’s Day as an audacious bombardment of gargantuan hooks (dig the keyboard riff of “Breathe Deeper”) that thrill even at their most cutting. (“It might be time to face it … you ain’t as young as you used to be,” notes the chorus to another tune with a monster keyboard riff.) But then, a couple weeks later, we all found ourselves back indoors, alone or awfully close to it, watching festival season melt away. The bad news is you won’t get to hear a tune as slinky and sumptuous as “Lost in Yesterday” in its natural habitat—outdoors and surrounded by a billion people—anytime soon. The good news: This is also one hell of a headphone album. —Harvilla
8. Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
It’s nice to hear Uzi in a relatively good place. His biggest hit, 2017’s universe-conquering “XO Tour Llif3,” sounded like a kiss-off to this planet and several others thanks to its harrowing refrain: “Push me to edge / all my friends are dead.” Two years later, it sounded like he was done with music, ready to retire at the age of 23 after the industry had beaten him down. But Eternal Atake—released nearly three years after his last project, Luv Is Rage 2—finds Uzi in a much different head space. Look no further than album closer “P2,” where he borrows the “XO Tour Llif3” melody, but this time doesn’t sound like he’s on the proverbial edge. Instead, he’s ready to move on.
Uzi raps like a man possessed on the first half of Eternal Atake, which arrived one week before his collab-heavy Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2. His flows on songs like “You Better Move” and “Lo Mein” are as pummeling and precise as anything he’s ever committed to wax. On “Pop,” he shouts the word “Balenci” 18 times in the course of six lines, seemingly picking up steam with each mention; it’s somehow one of the most gripping bits of verbal gymnastics to appear on a record in 2020. But Atake isn’t just bars for the sake of bars; in its back half, Uzi settles into the melodic gear that’s produced his biggest hits. (The late-album three-song run of “Prices,” “Urgency,” and “Venetia” is infectious and sneakily beautiful in the way early-career highlights “Grab the Wheel” and “Erase Your Social” are.) Lil Uzi Vert may never have another song as big as “XO,” but if that means he’s in a better place and releasing music like this, we should consider ourselves fortunate. —Sayles
7. Sam Hunt, Southside
While much of mainstream country is still mired in toothless “Most People Are Good”–type tonal confusion and some of Nashville’s biggest names are apologetically scrambling to change those very stupid names (shout-out Lady A and the Chicks), reclusive genre savior Sam Hunt finally followed up his blockbuster 2014 debut, Montevallo, with a beguiling mixture of shrewd ambition and rakish nonchalance. The 67-year-old Webb Pierce sample on “Hard to Forget” is a fizzy time-warp marvel; he purrs and negs and humblebrags like a modern R&B disruptor, but drops weepy one-liners (“Someday we’re gonna know too much to know it all”) like an old-guard Music Row pro. The future-nostalgia drum-machine-and-banjo combo on “Let It Down” will take you wherever you need to go, and hopefully guide his wayward fellow superstars to wherever they need to be. —Harvilla
6. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
There’s been plenty of Grimes to talk about in 2020: “Global Warming Is Good” billboards. The “War Nymph” mixup. And, most prominently, the unpronounceable name of her son with Elon Musk, X Æ A-Xii, and the many memes that accompanied its announcement. This all has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing her new excellent album, Miss Anthropocene. Grimes’s fifth LP largely does away with the upbeat, futuristic pop of 2015’s Art Angels and 2012’s whimsical Visions in favor of what she’s dubbed “ethereal nu metal.” That aesthetic shines through on songs like “Violence” and “You’ll miss me when I’m not around,” which are as cynical and dark as anything she’s released since her humbler, noisier beginnings. Elsewhere, she pushes her sound in new directions with “Darkseid,” which she cedes almost entirely to Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and the Bollywood-meets–drum ’n’ bass raver “4ÆM.” But the album’s centerpiece sheds the industrial scraps covering most of Miss Anthropocene: Built on a bright acoustic riff, “Delete Forever” is superficially one of the prettiest songs in Grimes’s entire catalog. Lyrically, it tackles opioid addiction and overdose death among her friends. “Cannot comprehend, lost so many men / Lately, all their ghosts turn into reasons and excuses,” she sings. Twitter may be having conversations about everything else that surrounds Grimes, but when she speaks for herself, she still has a lot of powerful things to say. —Sayles
5. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
In a parallel-universe 2020 where absolutely none of this happens, the second album from lascivious English pop star Dua Lipa is the soundtrack to the carefree and medium-horny and most importantly totally communal summer we’re all supposed to be having: the BBQs, the neighborhood pools, the dance parties we’d all kill to attend right now even if some of us have never actually attended a dance party in our lives. Lipa’s cheery video-conference version of bubble-disco jam “Don’t Start Now” for James Corden in late March is a master class in Making the Best of It, but this record’s hooky verve and astounding greatest-hits consistency deserves to transcend reality entirely. Unburdened by the past and undaunted by the future, it’s a celebration of an ecstatic present we never quite got to enjoy. Plus the ’80s exercise video for “Physical” is the exact right shade of ridiculous. —Harvilla
4. Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, Alfredo
Freddie Gibbs spent part of quarantine just like you did: On Alfredo’s mesmerizing opening salvo, “1985,” Gibbs name-drops Joe Exotic and returns to the line “Michael Jordan, bitch, I travel with a cocaine circus” a few times, which of course references an indelible moment from The Last Dance. But while Gangsta Gibbs spent his self-isolation taking in the two biggest TV events of these fraught times, he also did something this spring you almost certainly did not: He dropped one of the year’s best albums.
This isn’t the first time Gibbs and Alchemist have teamed up; they worked together on the producer’s 2011 collab with Curren$y, and the trio released the excellent LP Fetti in 2018. But Alfredo is the high point of Gibbs and Al’s musical partnership. Alchemist’s bare-bones loops provide the perfect backdrop for Gibbs, who has evolved into one of the finest MCs of his (any?) generation. Listen to the way he cycles through flows on “God Is Perfect” or “Baby $hit” or the aforementioned “1985”—there may not be a rapper alive better at hitting the pocket of a beat. That he does it while unfurling stories like he does on “Skinny Suge” or wordplay and one-liners on “Babies & Fools” is something to marvel at. We should all strive to make such great use of our suddenly abundant free time. —Sayles
3. Jeff Rosenstock, No Dream
Jeff Rosenstock is an exultant punk-rock lifer who radiates a goofy, anthemic joy but also happens to be royally fuckin’ pissed at the state of the world and his powerlessness within it. Except there’s an enormous power to the surprise-released No Dream, which is electrifying even at its most exasperated (“I’ve been told for most my life / ‘Try to see the other side’ / By people who have never tried to see the other side”) and triumphant even at its most troubled. (“The Beauty of Breathing” is an alarmingly soothing song about paralyzing anxiety.) The all-universe highlight here is “Ohio Tpke,” a yearning road anthem that makes a line like “All you other motherfuckin’ dipshits can bite me” sound like the most romantic series of words anybody ever spit through gritted teeth. Get in the van and you’ll never want to leave. —Harvilla
2. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
“And I know none of this will matter in the long run,” Fiona Apple bellows, her resolve already hardening and her vulnerability deepening 90 seconds into her first album in nearly eight years, and the first real-time Pitchfork 10.0 review in nearly a decade, and the first masterpiece of the Self-Quarantine Era. “But I know a sound is still a sound around no one.” The song is called “I Want You to Love Me,” and you feel that, even if you’re still hesitant to even touch anybody.
On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, everything is a drum and a deadly weapon: her piano, her shuddering voice, her various pots and pans and large hunks of industrial machinery. There are yearning quasi-lullabies and seething avant-jazz exorcisms; there are wry pleas for unity (“Ladies”) and joyous howls of anger and defiance (“Under the Table”), whereas the thrilling and harrowing “Newspaper” is a little bit of both. No artist was better equipped to channel the loneliness, the messiness, the noisiness, the fury, and the catharsis of this chaotic and terrible year, and thereby, if only for a moment, redeem it. —Harvilla
1. Run the Jewels, RTJ4
When I spoke to El-P in April, he was focused on the idea of people thinking his ideas spoke to a specific moment instead of something evergreen and universal. We talked about the reaction to his 2002 clattering solo debut, Fantastic Damage, which was completed before the September 11 terrorist attacks but was treated in the press as a reaction to them. We spoke about the video for “Ooh La La,” the second single off of his and Killer Mike’s fourth collaboration as Run the Jewels. In it, he and Mike throw a large post-capitalism dance party. The video was shot in early March; by the time it was released later that month, large gatherings had largely been outlawed. “This video was not supposed to mean this much,” El-P said in the interview. “We were supposed to be referencing a concept that had existed way before any of this bullshit.”
By the time RTJ4 was released on June 3, America was facing another crisis: The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had sparked yet another conversation about the brutality Black people suffer at the hands of the police. In the 10 days before the album’s release, hundreds of thousands of Americans had taken to the streets to voice their frustrations. One of their rallying cries was Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” This phrase also appears on the Run the Jewels song “Walking in the Snow.” “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me,” Mike raps. “And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’” Mike recorded his verse in November. This was supposed to reference a concept that had existed way before any of this.
Mike and El-P felt like an unlikely duo when they first worked together on the former’s R.A.P. Music in 2012. Since then, they’ve become one of this era’s most essential rap groups. Their last three albums have all arrived at crucial points in the country’s history: 2014’s Run the Jewels 2 came in the midst of a year marked by high-profile incidents of police killings of Black people; its follow-up was released mere weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration; and now this. The chorus on the Pharrell and Zack De La Rocha–assisted “JU$T” (“Look at all those slave masters posin’ on your dollars”) feels like a part of the conversation the country is currently having about its monuments and statues. El-P’s verse on “Never Look Back” references a brutal summer in Brooklyn, which isn’t new territory, but feels prescient as protestors clash with police throughout the city. And then there’s “Walking in the Snow,” on which Mike references not only Eric Garner’s death at the hands of an officer, but the racism embedded in the education system and the media. These ideas aren’t new; Mike and El-P are tapping into societal ills that existed long before Memorial Day, or before the growing horror of the coronavirus took hold in America. It makes their music more vital than ever. But it’s a tragedy that it has to be. —Sayles