It’d be an obvious understatement for us to say that the first half of 2020 is a stretch of human history that none of us on staff here at Billboard will ever forget. So much about this year has confronted us with unusual, difficult and oftentimes frightening circumstances that have challenged the way we’ve lived and thought about our lives for so long. And while we await a return to something that vaguely resembles normalcy, we also know that in many ways, the old sense of “normal” is already long gone, and that for better and worse, this period marks the beginning of a brand new future for all of us.
While it would be pat to suggest that our staff’s favorite albums of the year so far have been what’s gotten us through these times, it’d also be unfair to downplay the fundamental and undeniable role music has in giving our lives stability, comfort and joy during such an unprecedented period. These albums have distracted, they’ve confronted, they’ve enlightened, they’ve provided valuable solace and much-needed catharsis. They haven’t made the world outside a less scary place, but in their own small but significant ways, they’ve helped fortify us to face it day after day after day.
Here are our picks, presented alphabetically, for the Billboard staff’s 50 favorite albums of 2020 so far.
5 Seconds of Summer, CALM
Whether you initially viewed 5 Seconds of Summer as a boy band, a pop-punk group or both, you have to admit they’ve aged nicely into one of the world’s premier arena rock outfits. CALM builds expertly on both the sense of sonic scale and more adult storytelling from 2018’s Youngblood for a truly panoramic set of immaculately produced bangers about lust-driven, mostly toxic relationships. And not only has the band done their homework, but they’re willing to acknowledge their teachers: Everyone from New Order to Donna Lewis get co-write credits for the album’s thick web of nods to pop-rock history, which they expand into the 2020s as well as any other outfit right now. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
ALMA, Have U Seen Her
In between penning songs for Miley Cyrus and Charli XCX, Finnish artist Alma Miettinnen found the time to complete her own long-awaited debut album. Have U Seen Her? is a stunning array of smartly crafted pop songs that, for the first time, also showcase Miettinnen’s vulnerabilities. “I’m very proud that I was able to be so honest — it’s kinda like a therapy session,” Miettinnen previously told Billboard of introducing this new layer of herself. She still displays her badass, party-girl side (“Bad News Baby,” “Worst Behavior”), but there’s a new maturity, too (“LA Money,” “Mama”). When all of those facets meet, as they do on the 12-track set here, ALMA is unstoppable. — GAB GINSBERG
Andy Shauf, The Neon Skyline
A man walks into a bar, and his best friend tells him that his ex-girlfriend is back in town; the man considers the highs and lows of their relationship until she wanders in and he sees her again. Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf’s transfixing latest album is constructed around this narrative, but The Neon Skyline is also about the everyday details that we hold onto, that help define us, and which help us move on from loss. Fans of Sufjan Stevens and Jose Gonzalez should stumble into Shauf’s gorgeously rendered folk-pop storytelling with little hesitation. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Anuel AA, Emmanuel
Anuel’s much-expected Emmanuel is a 22-track tour de force that places the 27-year-old Puerto Rican bad boy of trap on a different level. From street-wise, raunchy fare to soulful, introspective ballads set to complex, acoustic arrangements, Emmanuel — produced mostly by Chris Jeday and Gaby Music — shows the full range of what is considered a Latin “urban” sound. More importantly, it puts to rest any doubts that could exist surrounding Anuel’s staying power, hit-making prowess and, perhaps more importantly, sheer musicality. The rapper dares to bare his soul in tracks like “Los Hombres No Lloran” (Men Don’t Cry) and “Mi vieja,” which tells the story of his cellmate, who lost his mother while behind bars. Then, he steps right into the disco with uptempo fare like “Así soy yo,” featuring Bad Bunny. If reggaetón is about competition, Emmanuel will give stars like Bunny and J Balvin something to sit up straight about. — LEILA COBO
Ashley McBryde, Never Will
After releasing one of 2018’s most compelling major-label debuts with Girl Going Nowhere, Ashley McBryde returned this year with a daring, confident release that moves her from country newcomer to mainstay, and proves she’s definitely going somewhere. From the rollicking, uplifting opener, “Hang in There, Girl,” to her first bonafide radio hit, the sultry “One Night Standards”; the feather-ruffling “Shut Up Sheila” (which puts Bible-thumpers in their place); and country-classic-in-the-making “The Last Thing I Need,” the gritty McBryde is a fearless traditionalist in the spirit of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings — for whom the greatest sin of all is watering down the truth. — MELINDA NEWMAN
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG
Bad Bunny’s record-breaking album YHLQMDLG will go down in history as the first all-Spanish-language album to reach No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and it will also go down as one of the best albums of the new decade regardless of genre or language — thanks to back-to-back perreo, trap and reggaetón hits like “Safaera” and “Yo Perreo Sola.” The sublime album, featuring hit-making producers like Tainy, Súbelo Neo and DJ Orma, finds El Conejo Malo exploring themes like heartbreak, female empowerment and unconditional love for his island Puerto Rico throughout the all-Spanish 20-track set. Collaborating with OG reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, Jowell & Randy and Ñengo Flow, Bad Bunny was able to take what was once considered underground reggaetón played at marquesinas (garage parties) to a global audience. It’s safe to say that YHLQMDLG is Bad Bunny’s best album yet and with it, he pushes the genre’s boundaries while taking it to the next level. — GRISELDA FLORES
Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman
One of the year’s best folk records is by a supergroup comprised of some of the most accomplished artists in music today. We’ve got Anaïs Mitchell, the force behind Hadestown, Eric D. Johnson, leader of the Fruit Bats, and Josh Kaufman, composer/writer/arranger who’s penned music for everyone from Bob Weir to The National. Their debut LP finds the trio reimagining centuries-old English, Irish and Appalachian tunes in a way that sounds modern and new. Take the set’s lead track “Bonny Light Horseman,” for example, a ballad about a soldier killed during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. The trio’s storytelling prowess is on full display here — let’s hope we see more of them together down the line. — XANDER ZELLNER
BTS, Map of the Soul: 7
As BTS continue to expand their global reach further than many doubters would have considered possible, the group’s music keeps growing with it — both in size and in ambition. Map of the Soul: 7 reprises five of the songs included on last year’s excellent Map of the Soul: Persona EP, but with an additional 14 songs on top of it, resulting in not only their best-performing album to date but their strongest and widest set as well. Anthemic mid-tempo march “On” gave the group their highest Hot 100 entry when it debuted at No. 4 earlier this year, but it’s exceeded by trap-pop power ballads like the haunting “Louder Than Bombs” and uproarious bangers like “Respect,” whose scratch effects and twangy samples probably earned a nod of respect from Sam Hunt. — A.U.
Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open
The struggle continues on Will Toledo’s latest effort. Id does battle with superego; fame seduces and repulses; and self-acceptance tangles with self-loathing. What’s evolved magnificently is the music: Toledo has stowed the seven-minute-plus rock operas for a collection of single-length songs that are crawling with earworms, such as the shimmying “Can’t Cool Me Down” and the stunning LP climax “There Must Be More Than Blood.” The songs are shorter but denser, a melding of driving guitar rock and euphoric EDM, with unexpected flourishes that range from white-boy hip-hop to prog rock. Toledo has credited drummer and his co-producer Andrew Katz with the album’s electronic direction — a direction related to their electro-comedy side project 1 Trait Danger, which has something to do with the gas mask that the frontman has been wearing in recent photos. Ignore the get-up, listen to the album. — FRANK DIGIACOMO
In a genre known for keeping its finger firmly pressed on the “party hard” button, Caribou has always been a master of more nuanced dance music moods. So it goes on Suddenly, the followup to his monumental 2014 LP, Our Love. The new album is prescient, as if Caribou’s Dan Snaith knew the world wouldn’t really feel like dancing in 2020. While Suddenly includes body-moving productions (“Sunny’s Time”, “Ravi”) it also masterfully and often gorgeously evokes emotions more contemplative and melancholic. Snaith told Billboard that the album was inspired by a tumultuous five years of life. Thus in this moment of global tumult, Suddenly feels both appropriate, and in many moments, gratefully soothing. — KATIE BAIN
Carlos Vives, Cumbiana
Carlos Vives reaches a new milestone with Cumbiana, his foray into the indigenous roots of Colombian music. Featuring duets with the likes of Jessie Reyez, Ruben Blades and Alejandro Sanz, the 10-track album is Vives at his finest: exuberant, soulful, beautiful and important without ever sounding overbearing, a very difficult balance to achieve. “I discovered a lost world. That’s the truth,” says Vives, adding that he found the “uplifting” elements of Colombian music came not only from Africa but from Andean, or indigenous music. “This album highlights the joy of the fusion of African, European and indigenous music.” Cumbiana mines rhythms like cumbia, played with traditional drums, but seamlessly fused with electronic loops and electric guitars. The core, as ever, comes from Vives’ beautiful melodies, and evocative lyrics that seek to bring to life that lost world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. — L.C.
Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now
The creative process for Charli XCX’s “quarantine album” was fast-paced and transparent in a way that was, among other things in 2020, unprecedented. She shared pieces of songs, bedroom photoshoots, and video ideas on Instagram, Twitch, and Zoom, inviting fans to provide feedback and participate in the formation of How I’m Feeling Now. But despite the unique circumstances, it’s classic Charli — lyrics that combine deep confessions and carefree party starting and music that balances club-kid experimentation with impossibly sticky hooks. Channeling all of the anxiety, fear, and cautious optimism of lockdown living into 11 sweaty electro-pop gems, the reigning queen of “future-pop” uses all the tools at her disposal to create an incredible marker of our quarantined present. — ERIC FRANKENBERG
Chika, Industry Games
With her lyrical cogency and outstanding delivery, rising star Chika could have released multiple albums worth of technically perfect rap by now. But as she proves on her major label debut Industry Games, the 23-year-old rapper is all about message and intention. Throughout her excellent EP, Chika aims her focus at the music business itself, offering up a meta commentary on the failings of modern-hip hop — in a set that is itself a stunning and masterful work of modern hip-hop. She sets her objectives early, telling the listener, “If I don’t accomplish nothing/ I hope this music make you think.” By the time the album’s final track closes, it’s hard to deny that Chika’s achieved her goal. — STEPHEN DAW
Conan Gray, Kid Krow
The 21-year-old Texan’s full-length debut Kid Krow flaunts a songwriting savvy and studio precision his avowed inspiration Taylor Swift would be proud of (and in fact, she very much is). From 1989‘s copycat kid brother “Maniac” to the playfully loud-quiet-loud rocker “Checkmate” to the skittering electro-pop “Wish You Were Sober” to contemplative strummer “The Story,” Krow flies as a irresistibly charming coming of age story that isn’t afraid to confront everything less-than-thrilling about growing up with your heart on your sleeve. – JOE LYNCH
Drake, Dark Lane Demo Tapes
While Drake keyed in his fans about the impending release of highly anticipated dance track and eventual No. 1 hit “Toosie Slide,” the song’s parent mixtape dropped more spontaneously on May 1. Dark Lane Demo Tapes loosely ties together a 14-song package of leaks, one-offs and a number of new tracks, with the veteran star pairing up with familiar collaborators and paying homage to hip-hop subsects (Brooklyn drill, U.K. grime) along the way. Boosted by the Bobby Glenn-sampling “When To Say When,” the mixtape serves as an appetizer — for which Young Thug ordered calamari — before the full entrée of an album arrives this summer. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
From the moment Future Nostalgia begins with the whispered word “future,” it immediately draws listeners into a world of Dua Lipa’s own creation — and offers a much needed escape to a place that’s pandemic-free and dance-pop filled. Not only did Future Nostalgia arrive at a time when music fans craved, if not needed, an album of uptempo ’80s-inspired tracks, but Lipa’s second full-length also cemented her global superstar status. Future Nostalgia peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, and has stayed in the chart’s top 20 since; meanwhile, lead single “Don’t Start Now” topped the Mainstream Pop Songs listing, while landing at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Lipa’s highest placement on the chart to date. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
After an eight-year hiatus, Fiona Apple returned this April with a new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a percussive record that finds the incisive singer-songwriter evaluating life’s moments with both gravity and humor. She is, as she says on the spidery piano romp of “Shameika,” “pissed off, funny and warm,” singing through gritted teeth one minute and melting into thick piano plunks the next. A range of percussion sounds, from drums to wood blocks and bells and even barking dogs, often trumps the melodies, making for a challenging (though obviously rewarding) listen. But her words rule over everything, and on her sixth album, she is sharp as ever, refusing as always to look away or go quietly: “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
Future, High Off Life
Future’s reunion with Drake on the vibey “Life Is Good” sets the tone for Future’s 21-track opus (and seventh No. 1 album), about appreciating life no matter what. With cameos from Lil Durk, Young Thug, Travis Scott, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Lil Uzi Vert and more, Atlanta’s trap master remains adept at keeping fans satisfied — and intrigued. He retraces his roots on the road to stardom via cinematic opener “Trapped in the Sun,” talks perseverance with YoungBoy on “Trillionaire,” dons his ladies’ man persona on “Hard to Choose One” and swaps success stories with Travis Scott on the cheeky “Solitaires” — then powers down to humble on introspective closer “Accepting My Flaws.” — GAIL MITCHELL
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
It’s been a busy and newsworthy 2020 for Grimes, but amidst the birth of her first child (and much publicity over the baby’s name), she released Miss Anthropocene, a concept album about an “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change.” The high-concept mythology might sound overwhelming but at the center of it all are some of the best and most efficient songs in her catalog. The vocal melodies throughout “Violence” are intoxicating and there’s an industrial pulse to tracks like “Darkseid,” “4aem,” and “My Name is Dark” that keep the album from ever losing its spark. — E.F.
The goal of every pop star is basically to get to the place where Halsey is with Manic. With any remaining questions about her bonafides as a top-level hitmaker long answered — 2019 Hot 100 topper “Without Me” is here as proof, even with a congratulatory lead-in from John Mayer — the New Jersey-born singer-songwriter was guaranteed a mass audience for her extremely personal songs of love, heartbreak, anxiety and rage. Those range here from the music box-like delicacy of “Clementine” to the post-grunge last-call fury of “3AM,” and call on special guests as wide-reaching as Alanis Morissette and Suga from BTS. But it’s all unmistakably Halsey, and given the album’s stellar performance (moving over 200k units in its first week of release) that’s what listeners really want from her anyway. — A.U.
Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
Hayley Williams signed to Atlantic Records as a teenage solo artist in 2003 before quickly pivoting to become the frontwoman of Paramore. Almost two decades later, Williams finally released a solo album with the label, the highly personal, funky, experimental pop record Petals For Amor. The album, made up of two previously released EPs plus five additional tracks, has a confessional tone, with Williams touching on depression and death on the gently swaying “Leave It Alone” but also self-love and rebuilding on the springy “Watch Me While I Bloom.” It may be a solo record, but her Paramore bandmates are close by, with Taylor York handling production, Zac Farro drumming on a couple of songs and touring bassist Joey Howard nabbing some songwriting credits — calming any fears that Williams’ stellar solo effort would mark the end of the band. — C.W.
J Balvin, Colores
After having doubts about whether he should postpone the release of his new album due to the coronavirus outbreak, J Balvin dropped Colores, his seventh studio album on March 19 via Universal Music. Home to 10 fresh tracks, including the head-bopping bass-tinged urban single “Blanco,” Colores is a conceptual set where each song is named after a color and is an intimate look at who Balvin is as a person and an artist. By releasing the album in the middle of a global health crisis, Balvin hoped to bring joy to his fans during these challenging times. “I decided to release Colores because I felt the world needed it,” he told Billboard of the album. “I wanted to forget about the charts and being a competitive artist — I wanted to release it from the heart.” — JESSICA ROIZ
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions
Heady comparisons to legends like John Prine and Bruce Springsteen have swirled around Isbell for years for good reason: The singer/songwriter has similarly tapped into their ability to speak cinematically yet unsentimentally about life’s smaller moments that often reveal themselves to have bigger consequences down the road. On Reunions, Isbell faces the ghosts of his past — from a 14-year old watching his parents’ marriage disintegrate on the gorgeous “Dreamsicle” to his own struggle with sobriety on “It Gets Easier.” There’s a bracing economy to Isbell’s lyrics that allows him to tell an entire story in one poignant line, as he does on “Overseas” with “This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out.” Southern gothic at its finest. — M.N.
Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony
With a title like A Written Testimony, reclusive Roc Nation MC Jay Electronica immediately acknowledges the expectation to get every letter right on his decade-in-the-making debut album. He answers with a text of encyclopedic breadth delivered in a purposeful, unhurried flow that belies its sudden 40-day construction and half-hour runtime. Jay Elec’s eternally eclectic taste is complemented here by an equally eye-raising group of multi-generational talent led by “Saint Hov” on an astounding 8 tracks, along with featured players like Travis Scott and Khruangbin whose careers existed exclusively in the era of his absence up to this point. No matter the delay, “Mr. Headlines, who signed every contract and missed the deadlines” is finally on the record. — BRYAN KRESS
Jessie Reyez, Before Love Came to Kill Us
Reyez has been a budding star for a few years now, and even earned a Grammy nomination in 2020 for her EP Being Human in Public in the best urban contemporary album category. But Before Love Came To Kill Us, a bitter breakup album that alternates gorgeous, wistful laments with brash, indignant cockiness, serves as her proper full-length debut, and encapsulates the rollercoaster of emotions that signify the end of a meaningful relationship. The 6lack collaboration “Imported” is a particular highlight, but it’s the way Reyez uses her voice to somehow convey three emotions at once — see the way she snaps the word “F–K” on album closer “Figures,” originally released in 2016 — that sticks with you long after the LP fades out. — DAN RYS
Jhené Aiko, Chilombo
For her third album Chilombo, R&B’s resident spiritual guide Jhené Aiko drew from a series of freestyles recorded amongst the volcanic terrain of Hawaii. The set embodies the fluid and fiery process that helped form “this beautiful land where there’s new life,” as Aiko described to Billboard in February. She induces the healing effects with her typically warm, practiced effortlessness — and an embrace of crystal alchemy sound bowls that permeate each track with a nourishing mystique, from the disarming directness of “P*$$Y Fairy (OTW),” to the downright entrancing “Surrender.” — B.K.
Justin Bieber, Changes
Justin Bieber was 21 when he released his blockbuster 2015 album Purpose, and on the edge of 26 when he released Changes earlier this year. A lot of growing-up can take place in that period of one’s existence, but Bieber appears to have dived headfirst into adulthood during the second half of the 2010s — settling down, getting married, and recording a relatively muted, R&B-heavy album about the healing power of love. Changes is too at peace to be concerned with collecting No. 1 hits the way that Purpose did, but songs like “Come Around Me,” the Quavo hook-up “Intentions” and “Forever” (with Post Malone and Clever) find Bieber slinging hooks with a newfound self-assuredness. — J. Lipshutz
Kehlani, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Handily sidestepping the sophomore slump, Kehlani delivers her most fearless — and seamless — project to date (a No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200). She’s working here against a sparser, more tranquil R&B backdrop than 2017’s pop-infused SweetSexySavage, but the raw lyrical honesty that first beckoned fans is even more on point. So is the depth of Kehlani’s tender-yet-tough vocals as she sings, raps and even doubles on backgrounds. From the sultry come-on of “Can I” featuring Tory Lanez, to confronting heartbreak on “Grieving” with James Blake to taking haters to task on the candid “Everybody Business,” Kehlani winningly discourses on love in all of its nuances: the good, the bad, the ugly. — G.M.
Lady Gaga, Chromatica
In many ways, the first half of 2020 felt like it was leading up to Chromatica — with up-tempo, even disco-leaning dance-pop storming top 40 for the first time in many years, and an entire globe of pop fans increasingly desperate for club music powerful enough to make them forget that any actual clubgoing was still a ways away. Chromatica delivered on that promise and much more with its eventual late-May release, presenting Little Monsters with 16 tracks of door-kicking, floor-filling electro-pop slammers. It’s Gaga’s most cohesive and transportive set in a decade, allowing listeners blessed escape to an alternate universe where the rains are purifying, Elton John is a disco don, and life’s sour exterior is still always candy at its core. — A.U.
Lido Pimienta, Miss Colombia
Colombia-born and Toronto-based singer-songwriter Lido Pimienta’s Miss Colombia navigates through the rich textures of Afro-Latin and electro-cumbia with the broad harmonic overtones of the Caribbean steel pan, honeyed flurries of the flute and tropi-folky swells. Her third studio album Miss Colombia — named after the Steve Harvey blunder at the 2015 Miss Universe contest — is a steadfast dive into Pimienta’s indigenous heritage, sung almost entirely in Spanish, co-produced alongside Torontonian Prince Nifty. Grappling with the complexities of her experiences, “Quiero Que Me Salves” (I Want You To Save Me) features the legendary Palenque group Sexteto Tabalá, while in “Te Quería,” Pimienta wallows in the self-analysis of a nonreciprocal relationship with her country with optimistic, nostalgic vocals. Meanwhile, the ethereal mysticism of “Eso Que Tú Haces” puts Pimienta’s vocals to the fore, a song bursting with porro and cumbia beats. — PAMELA BUSTIOS
Lil Baby, My Turn
Lil Baby burst on the scene alongside Gunna with their Drip Harder mixtape in 2018, and on his sophomore album he initially seems more comfortable alongside his partner in crime on “Heatin Up” and with Future on “Live Off My Closet.” But he’s increasingly becoming more confident as a solo artist, too, and there’s something about his voice and delivery — which comes through most on songs like “Emotionally Scarred” and “Sum 2 Prove” — that suggests an underlying vulnerability in his music that none of his peers can touch, and sets him apart in an increasingly crowded rap game. — D.R.
Lil Uzi Vert, Eternal Atake
Building on hip-hop’s low-key long-running sci-fi fixation with Eternal Atake, Lil Uzi Vert arrives as an undeniable album artist even the harshest “XO Tour Llif3” haters have to give it up for. Uzi’s relaxed but relentless flow confidently carries the intricately produced galactic trap of “Celebration Station” while his inter-dimensional crooning on tracks like the Syd-featuring “Urgency” has gained an emotional resonance in the interim since his previous album. The star-studded deluxe edition (with the added 14-track LUV vs. The World 2 bonus set) helped keep him atop the Billboard 200 for two weeks, but this restless explorer sounds best when he’s making the jump to lightspeed solo. — J. Lynch
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels
The most explicitly political effort from an Americana singer-songwriter who’s always championed the forgotten, Lucinda Williams’ Good Souls Better Angels is also the first LP where her in-studio instrumental ferocity matches what she’s been bringing to the road for decades. The growling “Man Without a Soul” is about exactly who you think, “You Can’t Rule Me” is a garage rock Memphis Minnie revamp for the fed up, and the simmering anger of “Bone of Contention” dates back more than a decade but feels tailor-made for these times. – J. Lynch
Mac Miller, Circles
Released posthumously as the conceptual follow-up to 2018’s Swimming, Mac Miller’s Circles is the epilogue for a kind-hearted star gone too soon, solidifying his artistic growth over warm, melodic instrumentals (mostly from full-album collaborator Jon Brion). Though Miller was the first to admit to his inner demons, the album feels more like an optimistic navigation through the difficult healing process. With lyrics that now sting a little extra — “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side/ I’m always wondering, if it’ll feel like summer”– Mac’s final musical thoughts express a genuine desire to break the cycle and simply be happy. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s the closure fans needed. — RANIA ANIFTOS
Megan Thee Stallion, Suga
If we learned anything about Megan Thee Stallion in her breakout 2019, it’s that she wasn’t more than one project away from superstardom. Though the nine-track effort Suga doesn’t serve as her proper debut album, her magnetic confidence makes this petite collection a hearty entrée. Not only does she callously slay her haters with her sharp tongue on the piercing intro “Ain’t Equal,” but she slings out instant party-starters such as “Captain Hook” and her newly-minted Hot 100 No. 1 record “Savage” for those longing for a good night out. — CARL LAMARRE
Monsta X, All About Luv
What would turn-of-the-century teenybopper pop — specifically the boy band stylings of Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and 98 Degrees — sound like if re-created 20 years later with modern artists and production? South Korea’s Monsta X succinctly answered that question with All About Luv, an effective and often charming throwback to the harmonizing and hook construction of a bygone era. The French Montana-featuring “Who Do U Love?” fills the top 40 radio role, and tracks like “Got My Number” and “Someone’s Someone” inspire tummy butterflies; fortunately, Monsta X’s approach comes across as more reverential than formulaic, and All About Luv has been a time machine worth returning to in recent months. — J. Lipshutz
Niall Horan, Heartbreak Weather
Horan’s 2017 solo debut album Flicker deservedly spawned two top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, “This Town” and “Slow Hands.” By contrast, none of the singles from his sophomore album Heartbreak Weather have cracked the top 40. It’s hard to know why: The jaunty lead single, “Nice to Meet Ya,” deserved to climb much higher than its No. 63 peak, while the vibrant fourth single, “Black and White,” has the pulsing energy of Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.” Horan’s affability and charm come across in his music, and while his album might not be riding the same kind of forward momentum as fellow 1Der Harry Styles, there should be room for both artists on pop playlists. – PAUL GREIN
Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man
Ozzy Osbourne is already recording a new album, which is a bit of a surprise, because in some ways this year’s Ordinary Man feels like a goodbye — or at least the exclamation point on a long chapter of work. Not that Ozzy sounds tired; on high-octane single “Straight to Hell” and the manic, Post Malone-featuring “It’s a Raid,” he appears invigorated, replenished by a nearly 10-year gap between solo records. But when he sings “I don’t wanna die an ordinary man” alongside fellow aging rocker Elton John, he sounds as though he knows the writing’s on the wall – and if so, Ordinary Man is a hell of a way to go out. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, the fifth studio album by Perfume Genius, boasts the best album title of 2020. There’s a visceral quality to it that not only paints a picture, but beautifully marries the urgent earnestness and theatrical camp that has defined his decade-long career. The album contains some typically transcendent musings on love and self and acceptance, this time painted with colors of rock and country – two traditionally hyper-masculine genres, confidently embodied and beautifully muddied by one of the most enigmatic artists working right now. — E.F.
Polo G, The GOAT
Pretentious or intuitive? Polo G’s quest for best rapper of all-time status began when he unveiled the name of his sophomore album, The GOAT. Known for his gut-wrenching street tales, Polo softened his stance and bloomed into a versatile MC on this go-round. On “Martin & Gina,” he ruminates on his ride-or-die relationship, while also playing the role of a lovestruck romantic on “Beautiful Pain.” Still, Polo’s brazen mentality and dedication to the streets remains his calling card, most notably on the Tupac-inspired outro “Wishing For a Hero.” — C.L.
Pop Smoke, Meet the Woo 2
Meet The Woo Vol. 2 was released on Feb. 7, 2020; 12 days later, Pop Smoke was gone, shot and killed during a home invasion, in an act that remains a devastating loss not just for the New York rap scene but for popular music as a whole. His voice steeped in grit and his beats often recalling U.K. grime (British producer 808Melo was a key collaborator), Pop Smoke had become a singular voice with singles like “Welcome To The Party” and “Dior.” Meet The Woo Vol. 2 — containing such new gems as the cinematic “Christopher Walking” and the queasy, Quavo-featuring “Shake the Room” — let that formula coalesce into a thrilling full-length, one that primed the MC for a major national breakthrough. Tragically, Pop Smoke’s rising stardom has been cut short, but the final release before his death has become an essential listen. — J. Lipshutz
Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
In these genre-fluid times, even the most adventurous pop stars would have trouble pulling off Rina Sawayama’s range. Before her debut hits the halfway point, she’s already rolled from the raging nu-metal of “STFU!” to the strut-worthy synth-pop of “Commes Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” to “Akasaka Sad,” which coats the hydraulic bounce of early-2000s Timbaland productions with a PC Music-like sheen. Yet the Japan-born, U.K.-bred star applies the TRL-era nostalgia carefully, and her soul-searching lyrics — about growing up caught between two cultures — will keep you from thinking about anyone else, past or present. — NOLAN FEENEY
Sam Hunt, Southside
Six years have passed since Hunt’s acclaimed 2014 debut album Montevallo, but his songs on Southside are so exquisitely crafted and performed that he could barely have wasted a day since. Indeed, the album’s sexy, hip-hop-tinged lead single “Body Like a Back Road,” released way back in 2017, affirmed Hunt’s stature as one of Nashville’s premiere genre-mixing storytellers, with a little help from songwriting friends Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne — yet the heart-rending voice here is Hunt’s alone. And on “Hard To Forget,” as Hunt samples Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit “There Stands The Glass,” he nods to country music’s rich past while leading the way to its musical future. — THOM DUFFY
Selena Gomez, Rare
In recent years, Selena Gomez has proved her prowess not just as a celebrity pop force, but as an artist willing to take risks with new and unique swerves in production and songwriting (see: “Bad Liar,” “Fetish”). Likewise, there isn’t one bit of filler on Gomez’s masterful third solo album, which is as diaristic as it is danceable — and which birthed the singer’s first Hot 100 No. 1 in “Lose You to Love Me,” a devastating anthem of finding self-worth in the midst of a breakup. Indeed, Rare can be summed up in the words of the stuttering second single (which might just be one of the bops of the century): “Wow, look at her now.” — G.G.
The Strokes, The New Abnormal
“The ’80s bands, where did they go?” frontman Julian Casablancas ponders in “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” a retro-tinged (and arguably at least slightly sarcastic) yearning for the good old days that spans throughout The Strokes’ first album in seven years. With a title like The New Abnormal feeling more relevant than usual given the global pandemic, nostalgia for a simpler time is higher than ever — and almost 20 years since their debut album, which arrived in the United States just weeks after 9/11, the NYC band’s signature melodies always strike the right chord, while Casablancas’ breezy falsetto still proves to be a much-needed exhale amid dark times. — R.A.
Tame Impala, The Slow Rush
It took Kevin Parker five years to perfect Tame Impala’s follow-up to the massively-successful Currents. Listening to The Slow Rush, it’s easy to see where that time went — on his project’s fourth studio album, Parker plays the part of perfectionist, with every synth note, guitar riff and drum beat intricately placed to be as sonically pristine as possible. The album gives Currents fans plenty of the danceable prog-rock music they’ve come to love (“Lost In Yesterday,” “Breathe Deeper,” etc.), while also expanding outward into smooth, groovy new territory (“On Track,” “One More Hour”). Parker’s pure musicianship shines through with his latest offering, proving once again why the superstar likes of Travis Scott, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and more are clamoring to work with him. — S.D.
Thundercat, It Is What It Is
Following up on critically acclaimed 2017 effort Drunk, Thundercat (born Stephen Bruner) returned in April with his most emotionally vulnerable record to date. Dedicated to his close friend and late rapper Mac Miller — the album name pulls from a lyric on Miller’s 2018 LP, Swimming — Bruner mourns openly, particularly on the project’s title track: “I tried to make it work / My best just wasn’t enough.” But It Is What It Is still showcases Thundercat’s ethereal funk-jazz guitar grooves and manages to slip in plenty of lyrics to smile at as well, as he does on “Dragonball Durag”: “I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.” — J.G.
Various Artists, The Turning Original Soundtrack
The Turning? A bit of a disappointment. Its original soundtrack? A pleasant surprise. Then again, perhaps its quality should have been expected; after all, a guestlist that includes Courtney Love, Girl in Red, Mitski, Soccer Mommy and many more is bound to please. Of particular note, Mitski’s ominous, brooding “Cop Car” is a dastardly effective horror movie scene-setter, and the return of St. Louis punk rockers Living Things on the Sunflower Bean-assisted “Take No Prisoners,” their first release in over a decade, is a howling good time. — K.R.
The Weeknd, After Hours
Abel Tesfaye finally sells the heartbroken bad boy persona he has spent nearly a decade crafting with After Hours. A thrilling blend of his early R&B influences and Starboy-era pop sheen, every song is about feeling either everything or nothing at all. While singles like the clubby “Heartless” and Jazzercise jam “Blinding Lights” explore overindulgence and hedonism, others delve into self-loathing and remorse with new tenderness for Tesfaye — like the elegant “Snowchild,” a nod to his past drug vices and speedy come-up which opens with a reference to suicidal thoughts. Some moments feel lethargic (“L.A. girls all look the same,” he laments on the snoozy “Escape From LA”) but as a whole, here, his artistic vision comes to fruition, somehow as bleak as it is beautiful. — T.C.
Yaeji, What We Drew
Korean-American producer Yaeji first generated buzz in New York for throwing a dinner-party-turned-DJ-set called “Curry in No Hurry.” Five years later, she bottles up that warm, social energy for her XL Recordings debut, a party’s worth of skittering house, glossy pop, Odd Future-esque lyrical doodles and synth gossamer, with lyrics in both English and Korean. The project is also introspective, but in a way that adds to its sense of togetherness. On “Spell,” she compares songwriting to reading her diary aloud, and on “Waking Up Down,” she ticks off mundane items on a to-do list before admitting that “there’s no such thing as easy.” The result is equally laid-back, charming and mysterious, as if each song is Yaeji telling you a secret. — T.C.