Although time no longer exists in our turbulent world, we are now past the traditional halfway point in the year. That means it’s time for HeadStuff’s best albums of 2020 so far.
2020 has seen massive upheaval for the music industry, but it’s been a strong year for new releases nonetheless. From Aoife Nessa Frances to Killer Mike and El-P, read on for our favourites thus far.
Aoife Nessa Frances | Land of No Junction
Land of No Junction is the debut album from Dubliner Aoife Nessa Frances. It was co-produced with Cian Nugent and the songs are infused with Frances’ misty and echoing voice. The nine tracks here are accompanied by a soft sounding bed of electric guitar chords that lie gently under the vocal line. The electronic drum samples give songs like ‘Geranium’ an upbeat feel, although the lyrics are quite morose. There is an added element of strings with the beautiful sound of the cello in ‘Blow Up’. Frances is going through something personal and, as a listener, you are ready to escape into her world and relive her memories. Reminiscent of pop duo Beach House, there is something dreamy about this album. You can feel it in the slow, hypnotic vocals, the soothing, minimal instrumentation, and the poetic lyrics.
Code Orange | Underneath
There is an undeniable duality to Code Orange’s fourth full-length release. The genre-defying Pittsburgh, PA band—hardcore punks, groove metalheads and sleek, industrial rockers in equal measure—inject their contemporary style with dead-eyed social criticisms and existential dread. Underneath takes us down a rabbit hole of anxiety, fear, regret, and pain, accurately depicting the all-consuming feedback loop of anger, disappointment and despondency we are faced with, and try to overcome, on a daily basis. A rule-breaking, game-changing industrial hardcore album, Underneath will certainly be the standard bearer for metalcore in the decade ahead.
Fiona Apple | Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a supremely confident return from the iconoclastic New Yorker. Apple uses a diverse palette of sounds throughout, building off-kilter rhythms around some of her most direct lyrics thus far. While this palette of sounds sometimes stretches too far (Cara Delevingne meowing on the title track for example), the songwriting is invigorating across all thirteen tracks—a real slap to the senses. Apple’s confrontational songwriting finds its thesis in ‘Under The Table’, with the wonderful declaration:
“Kick me under the table all you want
I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up”
Fiona Apple won’t be silenced, or confined to any role. Throughout the record, she questions the societal roles assigned to women, the undercurrent of misogyny prevalent in the way women are expected to relate to one another, and the barriers to her own career. Musically, percussion is the album’s driving force, with Apple’s unique voice delivering striking moments of passion and anger. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is dark and funny and razor sharp. Several months and countless listens after release, I’m still unpacking it.
Nicolas Jaar | Cenizas
Nicolas Jaar’s third album, Cenizas, is his first release under the moniker since Sirens in 2016. Jaar started releasing experimental electronic music back in 2009. Between self-titled projects, he has been keeping active by releasing more dance floor leaning work under the name Against All Logic. The Chilean-American producer has spent the last number of years honing his craft, culminating in the creation of his most arresting work to date. He uses ambient electronics blended with his trademark field recordings and found sound percussion to create an intense and immersive listening experience.
Jaar started out making house and techno, but this album is a lot more abstract than his earlier work. The stark electronics create a dark and ominous soundscape, but the injection of Jaar’s distinctive vocals etch at the surface, piercing a light, somewhat brightening the tone of the songs, and adding to the dense texture of the album.
Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher
With Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers retains the tragicomic lyricism that set Stranger in the Alps apart from other indie folk records, while also pushing her songwriting beyond the confines of that genre. There’s an overarching sense of dread throughout, perhaps reflective of the world at large, but Bridgers conveys this on the micro level with the wit and specificity of her lyrics. The music itself is often atmospheric, less direct than SitA, but held together by the throughline of Bridgers’ voice—a poignant, affecting anchor against a swirling sonic backdrop. Collaborators like Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Conor Oberst pop up across the album, complementing Bridgers’ whispery falsetto without overpowering anything.
It all builds to the catharsis of ‘I Know The End’, featuring the aforementioned collaborators and some Sufjan-esque instrumentation. The song takes Punisher to its emotional apex and then blows the whole thing up. At the very end, we’re left alone with a self-deprecating Bridgers, laughing at herself, at the world, at the lingering apocalypse.
Rina Sawayama | SAWAYAMA
The debut album from Japanese-British artist Rina Sawayama is a genre-melding burst of sonic joy. Sawayama makes no attempt to conceal the influences behind this record, breathing fresh life into turn of the century bubblegum pop and nu metal by flinging the disparate genres together. The soaring heights of ‘Dynasty’ set the tone for the rest of the album, with Sawayama flaunting the elasticity of her voice. Her vocal delivery shifts effortlessly between keys, ranging from whispery to anthemic, often in a single track. The production throughout is immaculate too, merging genres so effectively it’s as if they’d never existed separately.
It’s not just about genre crossover, however. Sawayama also inserts her own character into these songs, exploring ideas of belonging and identity. She shines in these in-between spaces, harnessing the tension of her existence between genres and cultures. For now at least, SAWAYAMA is the most exhilarating pop record of the year.
Run the Jewels | RTJ4
Released amidst the backdrop of a nation in turmoil, as civilians fought back against police brutality, illustrious hip-hop duo Run the Jewels use the righteous anger of old-school hip hop to challenge an explosive present day. Returning with a more awesome blast and roar than ever before, Killer Mike and El-P unleash their might against a murderous police force, warmongers, surveillance capitalism and the prison-industrial complex. RTJ4 is an album for rap purists—brimming with braggadociousness and a contemporary take on Bomb Squad-style production, yet sounding entirely its own. Relentless and merciless until the album’s penultimate track, ‘pulling the pin’ (which features an introspective hook from the legendary Mavis Staples), RTJ4 is indispensable, incidental music for these ugly times.
Soccer Mommy | color theory
On color theory, the straightforward indie rock songs of predecessor Clean give way to a more expansive brand of alt-rock. This is immediately clear from album opener ‘bloodstream’, with its crunchy guitar intro and raggedy solo. Sophie Allison retains her knack for hooky songwriting, however, while delving further into her own emotional turmoil for lyrical inspiration. This darker thematic exploration is clearest on album centrepiece ‘yellow is the color of her eyes’, a song about her mother’s terminal illness. On this track, Allison plays with the blue/yellow/grey color motif of the record, crafting images that are equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Elsewhere, ‘circle the drain’ is sonically bright, but its lyrical content is anything but. It’s an incisive exploration of depression under the sunny haze:
“And I think there’s a mold in my brain
Spreading down all the way
Through my heart and my body”
On color theory, Sophie Allison drags her songs up from the depths, delivering them with deft songwriting and bright hooks.
Waxahatchee | Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield leans into her newfound sobriety on the best Waxahatchee record yet, delivering a cleansing collection of Americana-infused folk songs. It’s obvious from the album’s opening run of ‘Oxbow’ through to ‘Lilacs’ that the raucous energy of Out in the Storm has given way to a more refined songwriting sensibility. There’s the country twang of Crutchfield’s southern roots, clear-eyed lyricism, vocal clarity, and inspiration from the likes of Lucinda Williams. Penultimate track, and album highpoint, ‘Ruby Falls’ delivers a lyrical summation of Saint Cloud, “Real love doesn’t follow a straight line/It breaks your neck, it builds you a delicate shrine.” Crutchfield’s newfound commitment to herself and her sobriety has given us a deeply reflective listening experience—and her strongest record yet.