NPR Music's 25 Favorite Albums Of 2020 (So Far) How can it be possible that we're only halfway through the year? Here are 25 albums from 2020's first six months that are worth holding onto for the next six, and beyond.

NPR Music's 25 Favorite Albums Of 2020 (So Far)

Run The Jewels. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Run The Jewels.

Courtesy of the artist

How can it be possible that we're only halfway through the year? On its relentless whiplash toward the middle, the first six months of 2020 have reframed, redefined, shocked, torn down, confounded and crumbled our expectations, our priorities, our concepts of distance and closeness, of responsibility, of tragedy, of joy. They changed how we listened to music, too: so often alone, through wires and screens and glitches and delays. But in six full months packed with moments where we needed music to cope with challenges new and old, there was so much to see us through. These artists had their lives upended as well – it's amazing to look back on this six months of music and realize they made nearly all of it before the year even began. They'll give us so much more in the months to come, no doubt, as reckoning continues to rise to the surface of their songs. (Oh yeah, there's also a Beyoncé visual album on the way.)

Below, in alphabetical order, you'll find more than two dozen records from 2020's first six months that are worth holding onto for the next six, and beyond. We didn't vote on them. Each is the favorite of one member of the NPR Music team. You can find our favorite songs of the first half of 2020 here.

Ambrose Akinmusire, on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Blue Note Records

Ambrose Akinmusire
on the tender spot of every calloused moment

He calls it a blues album. But in order to grasp that designation, it helps to understand where trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is coming from: an oral tradition that connects West African griots to antebellum work songs to freestyling MCs; a jazz lineage of endless renewal and flux; a Black avant-garde ranging from rough-hewn to operatic; a tradition of calling out injustice, in personal and sociohistorical terms. Akinmusire manages to cover all these bases with a working band — an agile, intuitive quartet featuring Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums. The trumpet playing is scarily assured, and the compositions open up in surprising ways; consider the tensile unfolding of "Blues (we measure the heart with a fist)." Each of Akinmusire's albums has represented an advance while adding to the whole; on the tender spot is the most holistic statement he's made yet, which is saying something. —Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Les Amazones d'Afrique, Amazones Power
Real World Records

Les Amazones d'Afrique
Amazones Power

Six years ago, three beloved African artists Mamani Keïta, Oumou Sangaré and Mariam Doumbia conceived of Les Amazones d'Afrique in Bamako, Mali. They envisioned the project as a vehicle for empowerment: a women-led artistic collective that would land, by any and every measure, as a supergroup. Three years after releasing their lauded, electronically textured, traditionally rooted (and Obama-approved) debut album, Les Amazones d'Afrique returned this January with its follow-up, Amazones Power. Featuring contributions by 18 singers (mostly from Africa, but with Latin America and France also represented), the music's velocity has increased and its intensity has deepened. The album's Irish-French producer, Doctor L, gives his electronics a busier serration and heft, while its soaring singers beseech their varied communities and the world to end culturally and state-supported violence against women, and to recognize our shared humanity. On the album's closing song, "Power," they sing, "Wake up, scared man! Because times have changed." They certainly have. —Andrew Flanagan

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Epic Records

Fiona Apple
Fetch The Bolt Cutters

This past spring, as albums, movies and tours were delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Fiona Apple saw an opportunity to jump the line. Scheduled for October, Fetch the Bolt Cutters instead dropped in April, enlivening countless quarantines with songs that feel lived-in, hard-won and, above all, homegrown: Dogs bark in the background, the singer bangs on a chair, doors creak, friends weave in and out. There's a ramshackle quality to these shaggy, deeply human songs as Apple settles scores, reassesses her past and summons her own liberation from demons both internal and external. But as haunting as its songs can get, Fetch the Bolt Cutters still radiates playfulness as the singer serves up quotable statements of purpose — "Kick me under the table all you want / I won't shut up" — in propulsive, percussive, skillfully crafted songs that clatter and soar. She's made a masterwork that embodies the spirit and circumstances of 2020: the righteousness and rage, the cooped-up creativity, the unmistakable sense that a power surge is coming and we'd all best contribute to it or get out of the way. —Stephen Thompson

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Adès Conducts Adès
Deutsche Grammophon

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Adès Conducts Adès

With a wink to heart-on-sleeve Romantic piano concertos by Rachmaninov, British composer-conductor Thomas Adès unleashes perhaps the most pleasing concerto written yet this century. A jolt of sheer joie de vivre, the piece features flamboyant orchestration (a duet for xylophone and piccolo?), sizzling passages deftly navigated by pianist Kirill Gerstein and a central slow movement that pushes yearning to new emotional levels. Adès Conducts Adès dropped in February and I listened to its concerto nonstop, until the pandemic hit hard. Then I turned to the grim and masterful Totentanz (Dance of the Dead). Adès was inspired by a 15th-century frieze depicting the figure of death waltzing with representatives of each rung of society, from Pope to peasant and finally an infant. Baritone Mark Stone sings the role of death with self-assured devilry, while mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sensitively interprets his impotent victims. In orchestration that is massive, beautiful and frightening, Adès's music singularly underscores the inevitability of death in deadly times. —Tom Huizenga

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Moses Boyd, Dark Matter
Exodus Records

Moses Boyd
Dark Matter

The celestial, meditative start of Dark Matter, "Stranger Than Fiction," marked the beginning of my new pandemic-induced dystopian existence. Turns out, Boyd was feeling a similar discomfort months earlier while writing the album. He told the French music service Qubuz that "there was a lot going on in the U.K., politically and socially. With Dark Matter, it's like this force that binds us together that we can't really explain. But in those dark moments there was proactiveness, there was productivity, there were people coming together to unify, whether it was under an ideology, under a flag, under a social injustice." Today, with ongoing protests and an indefinite pandemic, Dark Matter is the perfect soundtrack for the times. Infused with electronic beats and jazz, grime and trip-hop, every song on the record fills the range of emotions I'm feeling right now. —Suraya Mohamed

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
Dead Oceans

Phoebe Bridgers

This album is a missive from alone time, whose parameters are wider and more fluid than common use of the term implies. Classic introvert Bridgers redefines alone time in scenes that enrapture the listener, they are so vivid and unforced: When your insides are dissolving but you keep cool, when you find yourself talking to a memory, when you stay quiet because, as she nearly cries, "I wouldn't know where to start, wouldn't know when to stop." The strings behind her in that last line, from her love letter to eternally lost muse Elliott Smith, form every connection Bridgers says she can't make. Sadness and hope are inseparable here. Alone time can be good, a source of growth: "Let the dystopian morning light pour in," she sings, walking away with her longing, learning to love it. There's also "alone with," the stops and starts of unfolding intimacy — the unbearable lightness of maybe being together: "You're sick and you're married and you might be dying, but you're holding me like water in your hands." The romance of such encounters, partly imagined, hits like a stomach drop. Punisher says so much about the half-said, about the life of the racing mind and the halting heart, because Bridgers did not make it alone — the community she's built at only 25, after three years of constant musical exploration, surrounds these songs like skin holding a body's organs in, organic, flexible, hardly noticed as everyone focuses on the music's central beating heart. —Ann Powers

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Drakeo, Thank You For Using GTL
Stinc Team

Drakeo The Ruler
Thank You For Using GTL

It's the long, hot summer of 2020 and the hardest album out is by an incarcerated rapper who recorded the whole thing over a prison phone. Meanwhile, protestors flood the streets by the millions with cries to abolish prisons and police as the crooked criminal justice system proves Black lives matter less and less in America. Call it irony. Call it tragedy. For Drakeo the Ruler, it's flat-out reality. L.A.'s self-styled "flu flammer" has been doing time at the Men's Central Jail for the last 30 months while awaiting a second trial on a pair of charges that left a jury hung in 2019 (he was acquitted of murder and attempted murder in that same trial). Prosecutors are hanging their case against Drakeo on his lyrics, which only proves how much he's killing the game. "It might sound real but it's fictional / I love that my imagination gets to you," he raps on the album closer, "Fictional." It's a stark reminder that suspended disbelief is a privilege off limits to artists in a genre where even Black creativity is criminalized. —Rodney Carmichael

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

MCA Nashville

Sam Hunt

It's fitting that Sam Hunt's a former college quarterback. Charismatic and winning, he's the kind of guy that can sell something as silly as the chorus of his massive 2017 hit "Body Like a Back Road" with a wink. An innovator, Hunt's already inspired a cohort of upstarts — the kind of guys who namecheck '90s country and 2010s hip-hop on the same track. But in the years since his game-changing 2014 debut Montevallo, Hunt more or less benched himself, even as the Billboard Hot Country chart showed demand for his sound at an all-time high. On long-awaited SOUTHSIDE, Hunt proves why he's QB 1 of the genre. Nuanced and deliberate, Hunt deploys his influences with dexterity — take the slick Webb Pierce sample on "Hard to Forget," or the of-the-moment update to the country anthem "Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90's," or the confessional apology "Drinkin' Too Much." SOUTHSIDE is an expertly executed redemption story that only Hunt could make. —Lyndsey McKenna

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Jason Isbell, Reunions
Southeastern Records

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

Reunions opens with Jason Isbell immediately asking a question: "What've I done to help?" His band, The 400 Unit, sustains the tension over nearly seven minutes, as he repeats the phrase until it becomes a mantra. That search for personal truth, for honesty and empathy persists throughout the album, whether he's singing songs that seem directly confessional, like the sobriety-anthem "It Gets Easier," or artfully blending bits of his own memories into the details of a childhood summertime in "Dreamsicle." Isbell doesn't shy away from confronting darker, weaker parts of himself in his songwriting, and ghosts (both literal and figurative) appear more than a few times – but it never feels like hope is lost. Instead, you're hearing a gifted songwriter looking at the Big Picture: how where you've been affects where you are, and where you might end up. Reunions is an album that, just like a real-life reunion, brings together the past and present, with an eye towards the future. —Raina Douris (World Cafe)

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Ka, Descendants of Cain
Iron Works Records

Descendants of Cain

Ka is Brownsville, N.Y.'s Homer, a firefighter by day, rapper by night who, for the last decade, has documented cyclical violence in his neighborhood through a string of vivid, writerly, self-released albums, each a world in itself. On previous records, he wove mythologies of samurai and chess and the ancient Greeks into his lived experience. His latest and best, Descendants Of Cain, finds him turning to the Old Testament for guidance through generational trauma.

You get the feeling listening to this that Ka might actually be peerless as a writer; so many of these lines could be the basis for another rapper's entire song. He can pull off technical brilliance — entendre is his bread and butter — but his most powerful, numbing lines feel less like acrobatic displays, more like proverbs told by a grizzled OG. At its core, Cain has a soulful, narratorial quality, one you might find in a noir film or in conversation with an older relative. It's capped off by album closer "I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev)," which ranks among the most touching rap songs about family ever. —Mano Sundaresan

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Lil Baby, My Turn
Capitol Records / Motown / Wolfpack Music Group / Quality Control Music

Lil Baby
My Turn

This time five years ago, Lil Baby didn't know how to structure a song. But with the right mentorship, the will to learn and raw rhyme scheme skills informed by his life experiences, the Atlanta stalwart with a subdued tone has managed to stand out among the first half of the year's releases and rise to the occasion as this moment's reluctant rap hero. Lil Baby's sophomore album, My Turn, was heavy on big hip-hop guest appearances, but the glitz never diluted the grit and sincerity of Baby's words. Nihilistic tracks like "Commercial" and "Woah" offset the introspective cuts like "Emotionally Scarred" to balance the artistic scales, showing the full shades of what trap game crusader has to fight for. —Sidney Madden

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Maria Jose Llergo, Sanación
Sony Music España

María José Llergo

When I first heard Sanación, I literally stopped what I was doing and sat through each track completely transfixed. The mix of María José Llergo's Romani roots in her vocal stylizations, the real deal flamenco guitar and the subtle but graceful electronic elements pressed all of my musical buttons in a way that I had not heard before. This music doesn't have the pop inclinations of Rosalía, and that is a big plus to me. It's not a work to reach as many people as possible; it's meant for us to meet María José Llergo on her terms. —Felix Contreras

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Gia Margaret, Mia Gargaret
Orindal Records

Gia Margaret
Mia Gargaret

Gia Margaret's 2019 album, There's Always Glimmer, opens with her singing the line, "It's safe to say it's been a hard year." But the year that was to come was even harder, so hard that Gia Margaret could barely sing about it. An illness left her unable to sing, and what we hear on Mia Gargaret are mostly instrumental meditations, sounds of comfort, a beautiful exercise in turning limitations into strengths. Some of the words we hear on the record include an excerpt from a lecture from writer and philosopher Alan Watts. His lectures online comforted Gia Margaret, and hearing him speak these words against her plaintive music feels comforting to me: "All that you see in front of you is how you feel inside your head." Mia Gargaret is a thoughtful album that loops on repeat in my apartment. At this moment in time, in this hard year, I need it. —Bob Boilen

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Siti Muharam, Siti Of Unguja
On The Corner

Siti Muharam
Siti Of Unguja (Romance Revolution On Zanzibar)

Slavery was still legal on the East African archipelago of Zanzibar when Siti Binti Saad was born in 1880. In fact, her given first name was Mtumwa, which literally means "slave" in Swahili. She rose from poverty to become the first woman to sing taarab, a cross-pollination of Arab and Indian music originally performed in the palaces of Zanzibar's Omani sultan. Thanks to a pair of lungs as powerful as the monsoon winds blowing in from the subcontinent and a voice that called attention to the islands' history of social injustice, Saad turned the tables on the royal court's music and became one of the region's first international stars. Now, 70 years after her death, Siti Binti Saad's taarab legacy has received a 21st century update thanks to her great-granddaughter, Siti Muharam, and Zanzibar's Dhow Countries Music Academy. Siti Of Unguja is a transfixing listen, full of deep bass, celestial strings and Muharam's virtuoso-in-the-making vocals. The loping grooves, whose roots stretch back more than 100 years, pulsate with a modern-day vibrancy that will appeal to anyone with a passing interest in jazz and electronic music. It's a stunning introduction to a music not quite like any other. —Otis Hart

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Jeff Parker, Suite For Max Brown
International Anthem

Jeff Parker
Suite for Max Brown

Parker might still be best known as the guitarist for the immortal Chicago post-rock group Tortoise, but he's got roots in that city's jazz scene that he's kept watered with collaborations, sideman gigs and solo projects through the years. His latest album as a bandleader, solo experimenter and multi-instrumentalist editor/tinkerer positions him as a steady center of a fluctuating family of inspired creative associates. This collection of ambient tracks, interludes, full-band workouts and focused jams includes contributions from prior partners Makaya McCraven and Rob Mazurek. Parker's 17-year-old daughter Ruby sings a lovely, hypnotic melody over the album's opening track, "Build a Nest." "Gnarciss" is a loping, laid-back track that recalls '70s funk and soul as well as its revival in '90s hip-hop samples. Both wiry and humidly ambient, "Fusion Swirl" is almost disorientingly immersive, built out of layers of drone, beats and melody played by Parker alone. It's both urgent and patient, and changes like weather coming in the open window of a small room. —Jacob Ganz

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
Anti- Records

Lido Pimienta
Miss Colombia

Years after leaving Barranquilla for Toronto, Lido Pimienta watched Steve Harvey erroneously give Miss Colombia the 2015 Miss Universe crown and witnessed the racist backlash unfold in Colombian media after Harvey corrected the mistake and awarded the title to Miss Philippines. "Am I even Colombian when I don't share the same feelings?" she told NPR in April. Pimienta's second album, Miss Colombia, explores the colonized premise of belonging to a country. Just after its midpoint, the record turns to an organic and intimate oral history of and performance by San Basilio de Palenque's Sexteto Tabalá, one of the first Afro-Colombian artists Pimienta remembers loving when she was growing up in Barranquilla. "Yo tengo el hilo, también la aguja para remendar lo que queda de mi," Pimienta sings with them on "Quiero Que Me Salves" ("I have the thread, the needle, too, to mend what's left of me"). Miss Colombia is the needle Pimienta uses to thread herself a Black and Indigenous Wayuu woman, a mother to the land upon which Colombia and its project of erasure was staked. —Stefanie Fernández

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Pink Siifu, NEGRO

Pink Siifu

Rage is a necessity. From writer Audre Lorde's "A Poem for Women in Rage" to Body Count's "Cop Killer" to Rihanna's short film for "Bitch Better Have My Money," Black artists illustrate their feelings, real-world experience and what Lorde called an "ancient nightmare" through revenge fantasies against white supremacy. (In turn, they are criticized for depicting the same kind of violence that can be found in any Hollywood movie by a white director.) Originally titled To Be Angry, the Alabama-born, L.A.-based rapper, singer and producer Pink Siifu looks to Sun Ra, Amiri Baraka, Ras G, Death and Bad Brains — radical expressionists of Black thought and sound — to create a blasted meditation on state brutality and systemic racism. The full extent of NEGRO's rage rattles through blown-out basement punk, feedbacking noise and liberation jazz; his laid-back raps become a serrated scream, weaponized blunt-force to combat the persistent trauma of police threats and violence. Pink Siifu does offer somber reflection, too, through warbled jazz and warped soul interludes, but in the final moments, he reminds us that this is righteous riot music for "black hands, scarred hands, I see the tear shed." —Lars Gotrich

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Quelle Chris & Chris Keys, Innocent Country 2
Mello Music Group

Quelle Chris & Chris Keys
Innocent Country 2

Five years removed from the release of the first installment of Innocent Country, Quelle Chris and the pianist and producer Chris Keys have upped the sonic, conceptual and emotional ante of an already fruitful musical relationship. Lyrically, Quelle Chris creates a madcap world of comedy, tragedy, joy, sadness, failed relationships and triumph. Chris Keys's production on the album is minimal but persistently rich and ear-pleasing, consisting, primarily of drums, bass and jazz- and soul-inspired piano, with some synths and electric piano. With its breezy soulful sound and hopeful timbre, Innocent Country 2 is a life-affirming and optimistic look at what it feels like to be Black in America. Much like guest artist MosEL's proclamation on "Black Twitter" ("Beautiful Black baby boy, the world is ours, beautiful Black baby girl all twinkling stars"), Innocent Country 2 sums up the hope and triumphant spirit of generations past, present and future. —John Morrison (WXPN)

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Frances Quinlan, Likewise
Saddle Creek

Frances Quinlan

The stories Frances Quinlan tells in her songs aren't simple, and she doesn't let you in straightforwardly. In her first solo album under her own name (after several records with her indie rock band, Hop Along), Quinlan sings about misrepresented archaeological artifacts, debated facts in an author's biography and dreamt-up conversations with her infant niece — and that's just in the first few songs. At its heart, though, Likewise is a collection of songs about empathy: about asking hard questions without expecting easy answers; about trying to understand ourselves and each other. While Quinlan's powerful voice is the driving force in Hop Along's discography, on Likewise it's gentler, surrounded by layers of keyboards, synthesizers and strings. So when she really howls – as she does memorably on "Went To LA," recalling "the humiliation of having been / perfectly understood" – the gut-punch of emotion lands with startling precision. Perfect understanding, humiliating as it might be, seems to be in short supply lately; I've returned to Quinlan's meticulously constructed songs to be reminded what it looks like to keep trying. —Marissa Lorusso

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Timothy Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist
Run The Jewels, RTJ4
Timothy Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels has built its reputation on a potent mix of satire and poignant social commentary, taking aim at everything from religious hypocrisy and economic injustice to systemic racism and the myriad ways we brutalize each other. It's been a reliably effective formula for music that's both gut-wrenching and disarmingly comical, with terrifying scenes of unflinching violence followed by cartoonish parodies. But on RTJ4, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P are less juvenile, a lot wiser and thread this fine needle more deftly than ever. In the album's most disturbing — and equally affecting — track, "walking in the snow," Killer Mike raps about the school-to-prison pipeline, Black death at the hands of police, and the media that exploit that violence for profitable murder porn. "And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me," he says as a siren rises and falls behind him, "Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper, 'I can't breathe.'" Written before the police killing of George Floyd, it eerily mirrors that event, as well as the moving press conference Killer Mike gave afterward in Atlanta. But there are also moments of vulnerability and tender beauty on RTJ4, like the epic closer, "a few words for the firing squad (radiation)," as El-P opens up about the love of his wife and living with anxiety, while Killer Mike reflects on the death of his mother and his own responsibilities as a father. These two have been ringing an alarm bell about the state of America for years, but it's never resonated more acutely or definitively than it does on RTJ4. —Robin Hilton

Listen: Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Forever Living Originals


(Black Is), by the covert ensemble SAULT, is the soundtrack to this moment in Black history. In just under an hour, the mysterious trio's third album in a year's time encapsulates the Black experience through song and spoken word. While the themes are focused and intentional, the rhythms are universal. —Bobby Carter

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Emily A. Sprague, Hill, Flower, Fog

Emily A. Sprague
Hill, Flower, Fog

In a 2018 interview with The Creative Independent, Emily Sprague was asked how she began her relationship with modular synthesis and sound design, especially given her established career as something closer to a singer-songwriter. The artist explained that after years feeling intimidated by a baroque technology with free-range rules, she took a chance on a few pieces of gear and couldn't believe what she'd been missing: "The first time I even turned it on and started making sounds with it, I was like, 'Yeah, this is the way that my brain works. This is gonna be good.'" For those who still know her best as the leader of the pin-drop folk ensemble Florist, Hill, Flower, Fog is only a short walk away in form, animated by the same willingness to let melody and atmosphere amble slowly and trade roles at will, minus the words and guitar. Built on glassy bell tones and filled out with a downright painterly use of the delay knob, it is a welcome reminder that a wandering mind can lead to bright places, even in dark times. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen

Listen: Bandcamp

Moses Sumney, græ

Moses Sumney

It's breathtaking to witness Moses Sumney use the expansiveness of his imagination as an instrument of artful resistance: against racially coded categories of genre; binaries of gender performance, identity and outsiderness/belonging; the choice between isolation and intimacy; mind-body dualism. On his double album grae, he auditions a language of fluidity with the playful but precise poeticism of his lyrics and the recitations of such guests as writer Taiye Selasi. "I feel in love with the in-between," Sumney rhapsodizes during "Neither/Nor," which morphs from West African folk into sleekly polyrhythmic jazz-soul. Over the elegantly chaotic, orchestral rock convulsions of "Virile," he turns traditional masculinity's paternalism back on itself: "Desperate for passing grades / the virility fades / You've got the wrong guy / You wanna slip right in / Amp up the masculine / You've got the wrong idea, son." But his manifesto on multiplicity is hardly confined to words. His compositions and arrangements form a sublime, metamorphic sprawl of sounds and styles, and his vocals, unbounded in their range and eloquence, trace the contours of a world of possibility. —Jewly Hight

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Thundercat, It Is What It Is

It Is What It Is

When Thundercat's It Is What It Is was released in April, it felt like the perfect soundtrack to the spooky, unsettling early days of coronavirus lockdown. It worked as a whole album when our attention spans were getting longer, and Stephen Bruner's ability to laugh in the face of sadness was welcome. Bruner's re-imagining of '70s jazz fusion and funk creates a loose, warm and charmingly goofy vibe driven by his inventive bass playing. The top shelf guests, including Kamasi Washington, Childish Gambino and funk legend Steve Arrington from Slave, are fully integrated into the mix. But now that we're several months into pandemic living, the album feels more like tenacious, hazy grief over lives lost. "Existential Dread," "Miguel's Happy Dance" and "It Is What It Is" paint a world where things are never going to go your way. In an interview with NPR, Bruner reflected on the importance of connection and creativity, despite loss and confusion: "Get out of your mind and come out here with everybody else and just be here. And I guess I would say just don't be afraid [even if] everything is lending itself to being afraid. Just keep creating fearlessly." —Lauren Onkey

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Merge Records

Saint Cloud

Back in January, I looked at the press images of Katie Crutchfield her signature, thick fringe grown out past her ears and said "That's a woman who's just transformed her life." I was right: Rolling through airy drumscapes and on sweet, finger-picked melodies, on Saint Cloud, Crutchfield's voice stretches higher, swoops lower and swaggers through some of the most potent poetry of her career to date. Breezy songs like "Can't Do Much" and "Lilacs" detail building love brick by brick while sounding like freedom and wind whipping your hair, like taking a deep breath for the first time in years and letting the past dissolve on the exhale. But Saint Cloud is also an album about facing your demons and Crutchfield gallops through fiercer tracks like "Hell" and "War" like a person kicking her own ass for getting swept into the slipstream instead of steering her own boat. It's a triumph both personal and professional. —Cyrena Touros

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify / Apple / Amazon / YouTube