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At least once a year, some artist comes out of relative obscurity to reignite my love for a particular sound and genre and becomes a complete obsession: 2017 – Jlin; 2018 – Amen Dunes; 2019 – Helado Negro. For 2020, that artist is Amaarae. Even with the good r&b music nowadays, much of it refuses to break the mold exactly; it’s still drawn from the same sounds and themes that have defined the genre for decades. The Ghanaian-American Amaarae is here to revolutionize the pop charts with some Afrobeat and hip-hop elements fused seamlessly into some r&b staple sounds. Beyond the stellar beat construction, the most prominent feature of THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW is Amaarae’s soft high-pitched vocals like a cross between SZA and Yaeji. Many voices populate the album and most of them come from Ghana & Nigeria which offers a collective African voice. Amaarae will eventually find a massive audience and probably with just these songs alone. A song like “FEEL A WAY” would be on every radio station across America if Rihanna performed it. She’s going to be a big deal and already is for those that have discovered her already. — Andrew Cox

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9. HAIM – Women in Music Pt. III 

Could HAIM make a great album like Days Are Gone that wasn’t a carbon copy of it? Well, yes. Women in Music Pt. III might actually be the better album front-to-back thanks to some experimental production tinkering in every song. “The Steps” is the most standard HAIM hit here, but the dueling guitar riffs are distinctly tuned into breezy surf rock territory. “I Know Alone” is built upon an electronica backbeat that their alt-pop equals Christine and the Queens and The 1975 often employ. Days Are Gone is a modern-day classic, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the first four tracks carry much of the load. Women in Music Pt. III has no issue scrambling up the standard HAIM sound at every turn. The chorus to “Gasoline” is as pleasant and Summer-y as Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” but everything else surrounding it is jittery, percussive, and purposefully-muddled. “3 AM” expands the West Coast influence with some ’90s G-Funk callbacks. Calling this the mature HAIM album is passé; we’re witnessing the evolution of pop savants. — Andrew Cox

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8. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways 

Bob Dylan was one of the very few Western artists that were passed down to me from my Baba. Before coming into my own Nashville musical reckoning, Dylan played in the corners of our little apartment. Recently Baba wrote a Bengali biography on Zimmerman himself and his rebuttal of meaning, the demystifying and deprophetyzing of his image, all recently riffed about in “False Prophet.” In India, it sold out as it was released. Dylan certainly was not a god, but his desperate stabs at not taking himself too seriously all but fail in the face of universal acclaim. Everyone knows the “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” college coffeeshop cover but few know Dylan’s preoccupation with death of image. Even fewer know Tarantula. But it does not matter. Dylan understands landscape, down to some immeasurable immediacy yet history, too. History, time, decay, preservation. Before he sold out his whole catalog to Universal, Rough and Rowdy Ways felt like a prelude before his own fear of absolute death. The record is an ode to hard times ending in an uncertain albeit final way. He has traded in all the tricks of the music business for another triumph of poetry, regardless of his claim against that hat. Rough and Rowdy Ways as if human culture, multitudes, almost no musical arrangements at all. It is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday, too / The flowers are dying like all things do.” It is something we all understand: that with each passing day and quick remark, we have all already outlived our own lives by far. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay

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7. Moses Sumney – græ 

While everybody is busy talking about Harry Styles, Moses Sumney, in the two-part græ, is in a world of their own: islanded, ignored, yet beaming still. With a falsetto like coming from afar, isolation, solitude manifested in unearthly language, for fear of melodrama, springs forth spontaneous eyes-closed emptiness that fills the room. As “a lot of creation stories begin with separation,” Sumney teaches us how to build with nothing, how to cut and bloom, and how we tend to pick our own prisons; he sings in “Virile.” A manifesto on masculinity, desire, the right to multiplicity, an ocean swallowing body whole—the ache of their outstretched fingers—the record proclaims if not “neither/nor,” then nobody. The record asks itself what were the binaries again? Listening blurs any sense of the concept—boxes upon boxes to cages, “also also also and and and.” The musical range on this album, also as if to say it cannot be contained or neatly labeled, but rather a practice of expansiveness and liminal identity. No boxes here. Not even the quick jump to r&b or hip-hop that the industry automatically assigns black artists to. But a gray in-between love, wanting to kiss your friends, the tension and drama of that pull. Then the second half relaxes, almost affirms the singularity of identity in the end—to exist within composites, to be at peace with multitudes. But an island unto itself. — Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay


6. The 1975 – Notes on a Conditional Form 

Beginning with a harrowing yet realistic delivery from climate activist Greta Thunberg, The 1975’s fourth studio album holds some of their most pulsating, symphonic, and unquestionably great music yet. It’s all over the place and you will feel a bit drained after sitting through the 80-minute record, but it’ll be worth it – not only is it beautifully written music, it sounds exceptional. Grand, euphonious works like “The End (Music For Cars),” follow songs like “People,” which is an aggressively raw wake-up call that many of us need. Their pop-leaning tendencies aren’t all gone on this album, however; these can be found on songs like “Me & You Together Song,” a song going back to their roots about an unrequited love from a friend. “Don’t Worry” is a standout from the album as well – a song that Matt Healy’s father wrote that finally got to see a studio recording, and he even sang backing vocals on it. Altogether, Notes on a Conditional Form is another triumph from The 1975. It’s an album that is sprawling with so many contrasts that come together to form an incredible, cohesive recording. — Happy Haugen

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5. Yves Tumor – Heaven to a Tortured Mind 

The ever genre-defying genius Sean Bowie, otherwise known as Yves Tumor, broadens that nameless genre they’ve claimed as their own on Heaven to a Tortured Mind, their fourth album. Throughout the project, they’re not only showcasing a brilliant understanding of the multiple genres they pull influence from, they’re showing off their own incredible talent – claiming credits for vocals, writing, composing, producing, and performing. The fourth track, “Kerosene!” is the standout song off of the album. It has stunning vocal delivery from contributor Diana Gordon, and a very Prince-esque guitar solo that ties the whole song together. Heaven to a Tortured Mind is truly a no-holding back album that finds Tumor doing whatever they think sounds best – and they have a knack for knowing what sounds great. Truly one of, if not the best, albums to come out in 2020. — Happy Haugen

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4. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud 

On her fifth studio album, indie folk songstress Katie Crutchfield, frontwoman of American music project Waxahatchee, embraces change both in her songwriting and instrumentation. Where her previous efforts featured stinging lyrics that dig deep accompanied by minimalist acoustics, Saint Cloud is all about self-knowledge and discovery, employing a full backing band to further convey a newfound sense of wonder. This shift may come from Crutchfield’s decision to get sober in 2018, with the tone of her music now mirroring a new lifestyle and perspective. Tracks like “Fire” and “Lilacs” give off a certain hopefulness, sharing stories of lifting herself up after past mistakes and realizing the dangers of depending too much on others. Throughout the album, Crutchfield taps into her emotions more than ever. “Hell” is an intense, country-tinged song of self-reckoning, while “Ruby Falls” is a somber retelling of a friend who died from a drug overdose. She also has time to craft an ode to her three best friends on “Witches,” reimagining them as a coven brought together by shared frustrations. Saint Cloud’s biggest highlight, however, is “Can’t Do Much,” an extremely relatable tune that describes the experience of being simultaneously annoyed and smitten with someone paired with a euphoric folk-rock accompaniment. — Drew Pearce

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3. Bad Bunny – YHLQMDLG 

When did you realize that Bad Bunny belongs in the conversation for being the most important and exciting pop act going? Was it after his 2018 classic X 100PRE? His 2020 Super Bowl performance appearance? At some point this year when he had three albums all dominate the streaming charts? YHLQMDLG, the highest-charting all-Spanish album to-date until he would break it again later this year, flipped the switch for this writer. Listen to the heartbreak in his voice on songs like “Si Veo a Tu Mamá” and “La Santa” or that husky drawl on songs like “Bichiyal” and “25/8.” Then there’s “Safaera” which is an overwhelming barrage of pace changes and choruses that results in one of the most impressive pop hits in quite some time.

YHLQMDLG is possibly the greatest collection of Latin trap hits ever because Bad Bunny can succeed in a litany of different facets. He can morph his style into whatever each of these magnificent beats requires, much like how a former child actor from Toronto was able to do. One would hope that this album solidifies Bad Bunny’s icon status much like Take Care did for Drake back in 2011. On both albums, a young star throws everything at the wall, and it all sticks. — Andrew Cox

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2. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher 

Phoebe Bridgers should be a household name – when she’s not co-fronting boygenius, she’s co-fronting Better Oblivion Community Center; when she’s not singing on a Bright Eyes song, she’s singing a Goo Goo Dolls cover with Maggie Rogers. If not for all these reasons, her second album Punisher should cement herself in the household title, if she isn’t already. With a raw ability to explain feelings that can’t typically be explained, Bridgers’ bravery to tap into places in our mind where most of us don’t dare go gifts us all an album that puts us on the perfect amount of edge. She sings about sundry worldviews, hatred for sitting idly, and ends with an apocalyptic road trip, making it the perfect album for the entirety of 2020 thus far. All in all, Phoebe Bridgers’ incredible songwriting talent grows further on Punisher, securing her position as one of the most interesting and hard-working musicians out there. — Happy Haugen

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1. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters 

Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an extraordinary return to music – unknowingly the perfect soundtrack for a year stuck inside the house. The insightful nature of the album is enough for anyone to seek relation to her off-kilter songs. Fetch the Bolt Cutters was recorded at her home in California, and features loads of samples from around her house: dogs barking, banging on the walls and the ground, and other various sounds and sampling that can be created from the comfort of one’s home. It’s truly an experimental masterpiece due to its unorthodox recording process; and yet, it’s impossible to find yourself bored while listening to this record. There’s always something new every time you listen, but you’ll be hanging onto Apple’s commanding vocal delivery especially – you’ll find yourself constantly wondering, “What could possibly come next?” Throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters, there’s always something waiting to blow you away. — Happy Haugen