50. Naima Bock, Giant Palm
Featuring over 30 musicians, including her close collaborator Joel Burton, Giant Palm is an ambitious, richly arranged, and eclectic-sounding debut from Naima Bock. But the record’s elegant, often expansive arrangements neither disguise nor distract from the bones of Bock’s idiosyncratic songwriting, only seeking to elevate its stirring, conversational intimacy. As much as the album draws from a deep pool of influences, it consistently grounds itself in the present moment, so much so that it almost feels like a small miracle that her emotional reflections have been so carefully preserved over the years that she spent writing them. In its current form, the weight of her voice evoking both exhaustion and understated power, Giant Palm easily serves as a source of comfort, an invitation to slow down and rise up.
49. Zola Jesus, Arkhon
Existential angst, fear, uncertainty: these are all forces that have crept into Zola Jesus’ gothic art-pop in the past, particularly on 2017’s crushingly beautiful Okovi. On Arkhon, which emerged from a period of intense reckoning and growth, Nika Roza Danilova channels them with a similar combination of empathy and conviction, but the struggles that pervade it feel personal as well as political, intimate and vast, urgent and ancient. Made in collaboration with co-producer Randall Dunn and percussionist/drummer Matt Chamberlain, the album is one of the most gripping, fully-realized, and transcendent efforts of her career, a fearless dive into the unknown that never settles in one place. It makes liberation and healing sound less like a distant dream than goals worth pursuing, creating a space where no form of darkness is suppressed.
48. Skullcrusher, Quiet the Room
Skullcrusher’s first two EPs, 2020’s self-titled debut and last year’s Storm in Summer, showcased her unique fusion of ethereal, introspective folk and haunting ambient music. Hellen Ballentine’s first full-length under the moniker, the Andrew Sarlo-produced Quiet the Room, oscillates between musical styles as well as time periods, drawing inspiration from her childhood home in Mount Vernon to explore the edges of her youth: precious memories, recurring nightmares, and fraught dynamics that exist just out of focus but continue to hang over her life. Despite the gentle, almost fragile atmosphere of her music, Ballentine rejects the notion of childhood as a symbol of innocence, engaging with a complex inner world through rich, immersive layers of sound. “It’s like a secret,” she sings about halfway through, “And in order to share it/ I’ll have to bring you within/ And see it all through your eyes.”
47. Let’s Eat Grandma, Two Ribbons
Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth have been friends since kindergarten, and they’ve described their bond growing up as “telepathic.” But things changed following the release of their landmark 2018 LP I’m All Ears. Hollingworth’s boyfriend, the musician Bryan Clayton, died of a rare form of bone cancer in March 2019. As they prepared for a US tour that was eventually canceled, the pair realized their relationship was starting to fray. There was nothing childlike or metaphysical about it; they no longer finished each other’s sentences. Two Ribbons finds the duo writing separately for the first time, and though the sequencing and production cleverly make the whole thing sound like a conversation between close friends, the separation also allows them to express themselves with greater vulnerability and maturity. The resulting album is generally more focused, intimate, and direct, but no less dynamic than their earlier work. Together, they seek no answers, simply welcoming the tides as they come.
46. Bartees Strange, Farm to Table
When Bartees Strange sings, “I don’t believe in the bullshit/ Of wondering when we die,” you’re inclined to trust him. It’s one of the many declarations he throws our way on Farm to Table, his sophomore LP and first for 4AD, delivered with the kind of self-assurance that made his 2019 album Live Forever such an exhilarating debut. His lyrics are incisive but far from impersonal – like his take on genre, the stream of thoughts and emotions that glide through his music can be sharply defined or intentionally blurry. While it may not be his masterpiece, the record finds him relaxing into different modes of songwriting in a way that’s compelling and resonant. If 2020’s Live Forever proved that Bartees Strange is capable of doing anything, Farm to Table asserts that no one can do everything quite like Bartees Strange.
45. Mitski, Laurel Hell
If Mitski’s Be the Cowboy twisted pop structures into something forlorn and introspective, Laurel Hell’s biggest, most straightforward moments aren’t so much an attempt to break through the mainstream as they are about making it out of a self-perpetuating cycle. “Who will I be tonight? Who will I become tonight?” Mitski sings on the opening track, and the rest of the album alternates between upbeat, danceable synthpop and slow, ethereal ballads – a clear dichotomy compared to her earlier work’s distinctly dynamic fusion of styles. As the songs oscillate between futility and hope, the singer restlessly contemplating which path to take, the two roads start to look eerily similar. “I’ll have to learn/ To be somebody else,” she concedes on ‘I Guess’, less an ending than a resignation. But as she trails through Laurel Hell, it’s clear that no one can know or trace the movement of her own feelings like she does; no one can make the same dance. And when that strange calm washes over these mountains, naturally, she holds it.
44. Earl Sweatshirt, SICK!
Earl Sweatshirt may not be the kind of rapper to lay it all out on the table, but he has a way of immersing you into his insular world through a knack for poetic detail and unpredictable songwriting. His thoughts remain codified and mostly inscrutable on SICK!, but the record feels more attuned to the present moment than any of Earl’s previous releases, perhaps in part because it was recorded during the pandemic. What’s more intriguing is the nuance with which Earl confronts both his surroundings and the demons of his past as they blur together, and with his voice higher up in the mix, it sounds like he’s sifting through the fog rather than easing into it. Like his other recent projects, SICK! breezes by in less than half an hour, but there’s something liberating about how it sucks you into its orbit. You wouldn’t say he’s keeping to himself – just finding new ways to be.
43. Pool Kids, Pool Kids
Following 2018’s Music to Practice Safe Sex To, a debut equal parts forceful and contemplative, Pool Kids’ sophomore outing finds them polishing up their sound and dialing up the dynamics. Pool Kids balances technical virtuosity with tight hooks, explosive choruses and nuanced, evocative lyricism in a way that few bands can pull off with such infectious confidence. Emotionally and otherwise, it wasn’t an easy process: not just because the songs touch on childhood trauma and the dissolution of a long-term relationship – the ferocity of the music sweeps away any negativity that comes up – but because an actual flood hit the studio just days before the record was completed. Knowing that they powered through and managed to save Pool Kids only makes it more of a triumph.
42. black midi, Hellfire
No less confounding or frenetic than black midi’s earlier material, Hellfire finds the group combining the juvenile intensity and restless experimentation of Schlagenheim with Cavalcade’s melodic dynamism and dramatic presentation. Still, it’s hard not to register it as something entirely new and outlandish, or at least a wild left turn for a band that may not take itself too seriously but is definitely very serious about not falling into stasis. It’s not exactly an album you’re meant to make sense of, its ceaseless, militaristic pace circling on a primordial emptiness rather than any hidden or explicit truth. While Cavalcade’s dynamic shifts were spread throughout the album, here they are often integrated into the structure of each song, yet every element of it is crafted with such meticulous precision and intentionality that it remarkably never flies off the rails.
41. Knifeplay, Animal Drowning
The atmosphere that permeates a lot of the songs on Animal Drowning, the outstanding sophomore LP from Philadelphia’s Knifeplay, is one of bleak desolation, grappling with themes of death, abuse, and self-destruction that unfold against a grim political landscape. But bandleader Tj Strohmer’s songwriting immerses us in this murky world through the lens of empathy rather than disaffection, teaming up with producer Jeff Zeigler for an album that swells with beauty and longing more than it tumbles into oblivion, with layers of lush, eerie instrumentation strung across its stunning highs and crushing lows. Any time it sounds nearly broken, like in the cathartic climax of ‘Promise’, it also sounds reborn.
40. MJ Lenderman, Boat Songs
MJ Lenderman’s warm, fuzzed-out alt-country and irreverent sense of humour make it incredibly easy to slip into his worldview on Boat Songs, whether or not you have any investment in the particular references that are peppered throughout. Sure, it helps if you’d take a line like “Jackass is funny like the earth is round” as the irrefutable truth, or if you share his fascination with sports, but you don’t need to align yourself with the character Lenderman plays on these songs to find genuine enjoyment in his everyday observations. But the more time you spend with it, the more Boat Songs proves to be a thrilling, even disarming ride rather than simply a charming one. Though they may not have the literary bent of those by his Wednesday bandmate Karly Hartzman, his lyrics are poetic in a ghostly yet unassuming kind of way, and his melodies carry an entrancing magnetism more than just an immediate hookiness. Dive in and you might be surprised by how much heart you end up pouring into it.
39. Maria BC, Hyaline
Maria BC treats music as both an unguarded space of intimacy and a tool for emotional discovery. Growing up, the Ohio-born, California-based artist, who was classically trained as a mezzo-soprano while their father played music in the church, came to associate singing with strong religious feeling – euphoria, adoration, forgiveness. Though this kind of faithful reverence is absent from the music they compose, its hushed, contemplative atmosphere retains a quiet intensity as they explore, conjure, and transmute memories and feelings that are deeply rooted in the self and its interaction with the environment. The follow-up to last year’s Devil’s Rain EP presents these interconnected snapshots through sparse, mesmerizing arrangements and lyrics whose poetic resonance can be both evocative and abstract, untangling itself from personal experience. Hyaline is at once haunting and inviting, a remarkable work that revels in the magic of the moment but travels far beyond it.
38. Porridge Radio, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
If 2020’s Every Bad was proof of anything, it’s that nobody summons catharsis like Porridge Radio. Having reached what’s surely the purest form of collective release with the climax of ‘Lilac’, you might expect the Brighton band to shift their focus entirely; either its torrent of hope was enough to sweep away all the uncertainty, or the time had come to consider a different path altogether. Judging from the feverish emotions Dana Margolin obsesses over throughout Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky, that’s not what ended up happening. The band just seems more acutely aware of their ability to turn a crescendo into not just a source of uplift but its own disorienting journey. Rather than wallowing in self-pity and despair, they do what they do best – try turning it into a mantra – and lean into it with more intention than before. The result is an album every bit as captivating and even more fully realized than Every Bad.
37. Beth Orton, Weather Alive
Beth Orton’s first full-length in six years and Partisan Records debut is as moving as it is enveloping, soothing yet downcast. Despite its occasionally ominous sentiments and dark themes, Weather Alive feels like a gentle outpouring of emotion. The singer-songwriter self-produced the album, which opens with the poignant image of her attempting to reach out to an outside world whose richness seems impossible to grasp; every song that follows makes some effort to gather and hold it closer. It almost makes me wanna cry/ The weather’s so beautiful outside,” she intones on the title track, having already evoked the scene with her vivid poetry and instrumental flourishes. Whether you’re listening to it alone in the dark or with a circle of people in broad daylight, it’s an astonishing, boundless body of work that transports you to a different plane.
36. Destroyer, Labyrinthitis
You don’t connect with Destroyer songs so much as you’re inexplicably drawn to them. Whether you’re a longtime fan or have just discovered Dan Bejar’s music, you’ve probably already given up on relating to his writing, and the title of his 113th album, Labyrinthitis, doesn’t exactly his art seem more approachable. Starting down one path and then going in a few different directions is an apt metaphor for the album, which Bejar and his frequent collaborator John Collins began working on during lockdown in 2020 with the intention of making a straightforward techno album. In the grander scheme of Destroyer’s catalog, it fits right in with 2017’s Ken and 2020’s Have We Met as the final in a trilogy of albums that have generally leaned more towards pop. But it’s a testament to Bejar’s uniquely eccentric voice as an artist that he can make his most accessible record to date and still sound profoundly strange, at once hopeful and haunted.
35. The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention
If you’re a Radiohead fan, you don’t need to be persuaded to listen to A Light for Attracting Attention. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the response to the Smile’s debut isn’t that everyone seems to agree that it’s the best album by a Radiohead side project, but the fact that it sounds the most like Radiohead. But this is a great record because it reaches for more than the kind of beautiful complexity its members normally excel at; the songs are as knotty and layered as you’d expect, but they also sound refreshingly looser and spikier than they would in a different context. It’d be unfair to describe the album as a lifeless attempt to recreate a specific era or aesthetic associated with Radiohead – if anything, it’s about injecting those sounds with a new sense of vitality and fluidity, about seeing what happens when you let the connections emerge naturally.
34. Soccer Mommy, Sometimes, Forever
The emotions that course through Soccer Mommy’s music have always been dizzying in their intensity. From their earliest lo-fi recordings to the poignant indie rock of their 2018 studio debut Clean to 2020’s color theory, the band has experimented with new ways of expanding and colouring the edges of their songs, but it’s all about amplifying what simmers at their core; an essence that feels eerily similar each time but never quite the same. Sometimes, Forever finds Sophie Allison teaming up with Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin, an unexpected pairing in theory but more than effective in practice. Lopatin’s production sharpens the nuances of the songs while building on, rather than diverging from, the distinctive palette Soccer Mommy began carving out with color theory: darker, grungier, and more dynamic, mutating in different directions but held together by Allison’s creative vision, one that’s powerful, captivating, and achingly real.
33. Gang of Youths, angel in realtime.
On their first two albums, Gang of Youths channeled a kind of intense emotionality – spirituality, even – in songs that felt as grand as life’s biggest, most inescapable questions. But unlike many bands with similarly outsized ambitions, they make stadium-ready indie rock that’s earnest and anthemic without veering into self-indulgence. angel in realtime. eliminates any fear that this secret magic will be lost if they so much as go on raising the stakes. It’s as cinematic and majestic as you’d expect a band with a consistently growing international audience to sound, with lush orchestral sections and intricately detailed arrangements complementing frontman Dave Le’aupepe’s rich, poetic songwriting and soaring singles like ‘the angel of 8th ave.’ and ‘in the wake of your leave’. Experienced as a whole, however, the album reveals the true scale and complexity of the band’s music, their ability to evoke personal tragedy in terms both raw and profoundly universal.
32. Grace Ives, Janky Star
The spaces in Grace Ives’ music can be both restless and quiet, claustrophobic and introspective. Throughout her first releases, the Brooklyn-based singer developed a style of lo-fi pop that somehow felt both nervy and laid-back, but always irrepressibly fun. Though she began making demos for her sophomore effort at home with her favourite synth, she eventually enlisted producer Justin Raisen, whose work melds pop with the avant-garde. In less than 30 minutes, Janky Star shifts along a wide spectrum of sound without diluting its core message. And while it doesn’t adhere to a conventional narrative, Ives and her collaborator bring the songs to life so that each individual story feels potent and hypnotic, brimming with more than just quirky ideas. More than mirroring the busyness of modern life, her songs capture the luminous chaos of trying, day after day, to simply stand still.
31. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth
Hurray for the Riff Raff has continuously evolved in the past ten years, finding ways to repurpose the American folk traditions that Alynda Segarra spent years studying before arriving at a singular sound on 2017’s The Navigator, a powerful record that saw them wrestling with their Puerto Rican heritage. Yet the spirit of defiance that has marked their best work has remained not only a constant, but the guiding force behind the band’s expanding sonic palette. With production from Brad Cook, Life on Earth can sound buoyant and devastating at the same time, tackling political and personal concerns without separating the two. These “nature punk” songs, as Segarra has described them, embrace a philosophy that argues for a connection with nature and aspires towards its ability to adapt in the face of disaster.
30. Angel Olsen, Big Time
Foregoing the dark synth-pop and orchestral elegance that made All Mirrors soar, Angel Olsen’s latest LP hews closer to alt-country, utilizing organic instrumentation that matches the tenderness and warmth of expression her songs zero in on. The album may not share its predecessor’s grand vision, nor is it as cohesive or revelatory as My Woman. But like its title, Big Time is multifaceted; and like every Angel Olsen album, it is complex and full of contradictions. The towering expanse of ‘Go Home’ doesn’t come off as a retread of her older material but rather contrasts, and in effect magnifies, the simple longing that burns at its core: “I wanna go home/ Go back to small things.” More than ever, Olsen yearns for the mundane, for genuine human connection, yet her music is no less sweeping in its impact. Like the love that blossoms on Big Time, you couldn’t imagine it any other way.
29. Chat Pile, God’s Country
“It’s the sound of your world collapsing,” Raygun Busch repeats on the mid-paced ‘Anywhere’, somehow one of the few moments on God’s Country where his voice doesn’t sound incurably unhinged. Dumped right in the middle of all the filth that plagues the debut album from Oklahoma sludge metal trio Chat Pile, it’s a refrain that has no right being this catchy but that offers absolutely no reprieve from the unrelenting chaos the band has built their name on, using its hypnotic power only to drag you back in. Plenty of noise acts have learned to sound like they’re playing in an abandoned factory; few portray what’s happening inside it with such ruthless precision. “You weren’t supposed to see this,” Busch howls on the nightmarish nine-minute closing track, ‘grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg’, which could apply to any one of the abominable tragedies that unfold in God’s Country. “But here it is.” It’s too late now to turn a blind eye.
28. Fontaines D.C., Skinty Fia
On 2020’s A Hero’s Death, Fontaines D.C. managed to retain some of the raw, driving energy of their debut Dogrel while adding in more space and deepening their sound to fit its relentlessly brooding atmosphere. With their latest effort, Skinty Fia, the band takes this approach to the next level. The mood is more solemn and gothic than before, reaching for a pervasive melancholy where others might react with aggression – but it also embraces their melodic sensibilities in ways that were only hinted at by its predecessor, matching the maturity and nuance that has slowly seeped into the band’s music with a penchant for simplicity. “The world has changed beyond our doorstep/ People talk and dress so strange,” singer Grian Chatten sings at one point. That kind of strangeness is ever-present – and yet, with each weary, careful step, Fontaines D.C. make it feel familiar.
27. Aldous Harding, Warm Chris
As rich and mesmerizing as it is, Warm Chris isn’t really heavy with meaning. Aldous Harding’s lyricism is as oblique as ever, and trying to tie a narrative around it is a futile effort; yet the music is also direct and sparse in a way that almost fits a conventional notion of musical intimacy, with enough choruses that worm themselves into your brain to satisfy even casual fans. Working around the foundations of chamber pop and freak folk, the songs are dreamlike and airy in a way that Harding’s have rarely been, right from the opening chords of ‘Ennui’. You might not be able to tell what they’re about – or where they’re about to go – but there’s something beguiling about how Harding and her collaborators, including longtime producer John Parish and multi-instrumentalist H. Hawkline, keep venturing into new territory over deceptively simple backdrops, the kind that for any other artist might quickly prove unengaging.
26. Empath, Visitor
Empath have been conjuring some breathless combination of beauty and chaos since the very beginning. The band’s 2019 debut album, Active Listening: Night on Earth, showcased their uniquely defiant, downright anarchic approach to fusing harsh noise with frantically high-speed rhythms and ambient meditations, but an unmistakable catchiness and clarity somehow always shone through the mix. Those qualities are heightened on Visitor, a phenomenal sophomore effort that reflects the unpredictable ways in which Empath construct a song as well as how it continues to evolve in the mind of the listener. Its fervent evocations of the past can feel as poignant as they are disorienting, but any feelings of displacement and disorder are balanced out by the indelible, ecstatic energy that drives the songs forward.
25. Rachika Nayar, Heaven Come Crashing
In her music, Brooklyn-based composer and producer Rachika Nayar oscillates between the extremities of emotion as much as she’s capable of exploring the vast, abstracted space that’s in between. Her debut album, Our Hands Against the Dusk, was a haunting meditation that showcased her ability to use the guitar in ways that could be warm, playful, ghostly, and enveloping, imagining beyond the expressive potential that’s normally assigned to the instrument. Her sophomore full-length leaps all the way to the other end of the spectrum, approaching something revelatory and transcendent by merging yearning guitar, sweeping ambience, and dancefloor euphoria. Even at their most ecstatic, the songs on Heaven Come Crashing bend and transform with a visceral fluidity: no amount of burning light can exist without darkness. The thrill lies not in the explosion itself, necessarily, but in sifting through the debris.
24. The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field
With each release, the Beths have found ways to not only energize their signature formula of driving, incisive guitar pop, but also widen their scope. The follow-up to 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers proves they’ve gotten increasingly more adept at infusing their own personality into all kinds of songs, resulting in their most riveting and dynamic record yet. It’s home to indelible hooks that crystallize and explode off the constant turmoil of the verses; fiery instrumentals that rush along the anxious rhythm of Stokes’ thoughts and others that offset and antagonize them; and immediate production that’s also rich with detail. On ‘Change in the Weather’, Stokes sings of being “frozen in an avalanche of doubt”, and as it careens between joy, fear, hope, and trepidation, the music melts away some of those negative instincts. Mostly, though, it brings everything up to its bright, messy surface.
23. Björk, Fossora
Fossora, in Björk’s own terms, means “she who digs.” The Icelandic iconoclast’s tenth album has been framed as her return back to solid ground, anchoring itself in earthy beats and dark, muddy textures after the kaleidoscopic fantasia of 2017’s Utopia. Naturally, however, any attempt to describe the album through a single lens is likely to fall flat; Fossora is a particularly challenging and beguiling listen, and anyone anticipating a relatively “grounded” experience will find that Björk is more interested in the thorny implications of the verb “digging.” Fossora‘s 13 tracks might feel disparate at first, both fizzy with curiosity and heavy with desire, unbound yet not entirely disconnected from the shadow of grief that hung over her previous albums. But it’s hard not to be enraptured by the discoveries that come alive as Björk and her collaborators burrow deep beneath the surface, unraveling in an underground network punctuated by bass clarinets and gabber beats.
22. Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B
On I Love You Jennifer B, Jockstrap embrace the chaos of imagination. Over a string of EPs, the London duo of Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye showcased their whimsical, genuinely innovative brand of art-pop, integrating a wide range of influences without coming off as overly referential or shallow. Theirs is deeply evocative music with a penchant for abstract surrealism and unexpected sonic shifts, and the shorter format seemed like the ideal fit for their exhaustive, at times disorienting approach. But their first full-length finds them smartly reining in their chaotic tendencies while still offering a uniquely dynamic experience, igniting a whole different kind of magic. Jockstrap’s truest identity may remain obscured, but rather than plunging further into the abyss, they’re more than adept at using their tricks to swim closer to the surface.
21. Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
Building on the hallucinatory style that ran through 2019’s excellent Reward and imbuing it with a new sense of purpose, Pompeii explores the liberating possibilities of isolation. Cate Le Bon wrote the album primarily on bass in an “uninterrupted vacuum” before recording it largely by herself with longtime collaborator Samur Khouja in Cardiff, giving herself permission to “annihilate identity.” While the tone of her voice oscillates between cool, melancholy, and playful, her bass lines are the animating force behind a lot of the songs, intermingling with wistful saxophones and Stella Mozgawa’s unwavering drums. As she continues to cultivate her gift for oblique imagery and heady soundscapes, Le Bon revels in the fluidity and physicality of stretching yourself beyond the bounds of the ordinary, realizing the surprising pleasures that lurk in the emptiest of places.
20. yeule, Glitch Princess
On their second album, yeule recalibrates their stylistic framework while remaining committed to yielding purity out of chaos. Glitch Princess is raw yet carefully crafted, to the point where some of the errors that are integrated may not be accidental, but actually manufactured. Glitch Princess distorts some of the airy dreaminess of 2019’s Serotonin II by injecting it with a language of violence, eroticism, obsession, and disassociation – elements that have been present in yeule’s music in the past, but never so uncompromisingly brought to the fore. As challenging as it is infectious and as introspective as it is majestic, the record blurs the line between what is unsettling and exhilarating as a means of interrogating what it means to feel – to transcend the limits of both the digital and embodied self and achieve a boundless sense of freedom.
19. Soul Glo, Diaspora Problems
It’s rare that an album is immediately declared a landmark release in its genre, but seemingly everyone who cared enough to listen to Diaspora Problems agreed there hasn’t been a record like it in the world of hardcore punk in a long time. The Philadelphia quartet make the kind of boundlessly innovative music you could say transcends genre, and their latest pushes those limits even further by blending in elements of hip-hop, funk, death metal, and electronic music – not to mention the fact that it’s double the length of their average project and not a single track on it is under two minutes. Its musical dynamism is augmented by a thematic complexity that rewards close listening, but the record retains that visceral quality that can only be registered as punk.
18. Nilüfer Yanya, PAINLESS
When you’re feeling lost, most music is pretty good at taking you someplace else; not much of it can shine a light on exactly where you’re at. Nilüfer Yanya’s sophomore album, PAINLESS, homes in on feelings of numbness and alienation that tend to take up a whole lot of mental space; but rather than registering as listless or unaffecting, the London singer-songwriter delivers a thrilling and mesmerizing experience by tracing all the subtle movements and repressed emotions that make up this disquieting environment – of being in your own head and surrendering yourself to the passage of time, going nowhere yet watching it all happen at the same time. Simultaneously paring back and building on the eclecticism of her debut, PAINLESS is subdued in tone, rich in texture, and distinct in personality, even as disparate moods bleed into one another. If you can’t help or name the feeling, you might as well try to communicate what it’s like to be swallowed up in the haze.
17. The Weeknd, Dawn FM
When the Weekend released Dawn FM the same week he revealed its cover art back in January, it seemed like the world was still getting to know the bloodied, red-jacketed character that led to the blockbuster success of After Hours. From its sonic palette to its lyrical motifs, there are a lot of things that are familiar about the Weeknd’s latest effort. But the framing of Dawn FM is ambitious and conceptual in a way that presents those moments of debauchery and nihilism as part of a cohesive and cathartically revealing journey, rendering it his most accessible full-length to date. As much as it embraces easy listening tropes and a retro aesthetic you can mindlessly slip into, the album pulls off a tight balancing act between the opposing tendencies of its two executive producers – pop powerhouse Max Martin and experimental electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never – resulting in a record that’s as grand and direct as it is absurd and layered.
16. Perfume Genius, Ugly Season
Each album in Perfume Genius’ body of work deviates from its predecessor, spiraling into increasingly ambitious territory. Nonetheless, Ugly Season still feels unexpected. The album is an acrobatic menagerie of sounds, something of an amorphous mystery. Like Scott Walker announcing his out-of-left-field reinvention with the brooding opening of ‘Farmer in the City’, Ugly Season begins with a foreboding orchestral passage which instantly evokes an all-consuming abyss. The album, never stagnant, moves beyond its menacing interlude into an invigorating and unpredictable work, casting a disorienting spell. Ugly Season is both a welcome evolution for Perfume Genius and an experimental pop triumph, championing all things defiant and beastly.
15. Alex G, God Save the Animals
God Save the Animals circles around a lot of the same themes that have percolated in Alex G’s music in the past – morality, innocence, hope – but rarely with such vivid clarity and wholeheartedness. Mirroring the sweet psychedelia of 2019’s House of Sugar but inching closer to pop, it stands as his most approachable set of songs to date without diluting his eccentric personality. Catchy melodies abound, especially in the album’s pre-release singles, but Alex G renders them distinct not just through his left-field production choices, but by stripping them of their nostalgic potential and weaving them into the sonic fabric of the album. The songs aren’t exactly contemplative, but their wondrous demeanor does reflect the openness that comes with a certain kind of soul-searching, which is reinforced by the more pristine quality of the recording. It paints devotion as a possible antidote to horrifying dread, no matter how you come across it.
14. Beach House, Once Twice Melody
Once Twice Melody is a sprawling, phenomenal album that neither overwhelms nor overstays its welcome. What’s most impressive isn’t how epic or ambitious it is, however, but how restrained, meditative, and even unfocused it can be without sacrificing any of its emotional weight. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s music has always had the hushed, mystical intimacy of two people in a room together, and as the first Beach House album produced entirely by themselves, this 18-track collection is no different. At the same time, they take the grand theatricality of their performances to a new level, enlisting a live string ensemble to accentuate the sense of melodrama permeating many of the songs. For what feels like the first time in their discography, they mess with time and scale: Instead of letting the magic of a spell linger in the mind of the listener, it seems to ask, what if we made the dream last longer?
13. billy woods & Preservation, Aethiopes
Aethiopes is a frayed tapestry of cultural narratives. woods is a master storyteller at his apex, and he fills the album with vivid characters and haunted spaces. His meter is unpredictable, and his focus is fluid. Throughout the album, woods shuffles between spaces and perspectives, making drastic temporal leaps. He moves across continents and shifts from the eyes of children to adults. Preservation’s production goes beyond mere re-purposing, integrating archaic sounds within hip-hop conventions positions the record outside of time. It’s a haunted project, deeply rooted in the past, yet beyond mere nostalgia. Over these last few years, woods has continuously proven himself as one of the most talented and original working rappers. Aethiopes – his boldest and most lyrical tango with history – just may be his masterpiece.
12. Florist, Florist
In June 2019, Florist convened in a rented house in the Hudson Valley, where they lived together for a full month. The process behind their self-titled LP was intensely collaborative in a way that seems antithetical to 2019’s Emily Alone, an album Emily Sprague wrote and recorded in isolation following her mother’s death, but it’s not hard to understand why it’s billed as a companion. Rather than merely reflecting on the idea of opening yourself up in the wake of loss and personal turmoil, the almost hour-long album captures the intimacy, wonder, and darkness that permeates a certain space in time. It achieves an impeccable balance, paying attention to both internal changes and external details, leaving room between them while also letting them bleed into one another. On the standout ‘Sci-Fi Silence’, the band sings with inexplicable joy of the miraculous revelation that rings through it all: “You’re not what I have but what I love.”
11. Rosalía, MOTOMAMI
Right out of the gate, MOTOMAMI promises not only the continued evolution of Rosalía’s dizzying sound, but an expansive self-portrait that’s unlike anything she’s delivered before. It’s not really her approach that’s shifted, but how much further she’s willing to take it – and how much more of herself she’s willing to show. The album brings forward Rosalía’s kaleidoscopic vision as well as her eclectic taste, borrowing from genres such as reggaeton and bachata as much as it does hip-hop, electropop, and avant-garde. Rosalía uses the album’s hybridized palette to broaden her avenues for artistic expression, and far from sounding like a complete mess, it ends up offering a more intimate and nuanced view of her idiosyncratic personality. MOTOMAMI‘s structure points to its focus on duality, with MOTO implying strength and aggression and MAMI bringing to mind vulnerability and nature. Whatever path Rosalía chooses to take, though, it’s a sense of restlessness that lights the way.
10. Special Interest, Endure
Special Interest’s first two albums, 2018’s Spiraling and 2020’s The Passion Of, showcased an impressive fusion of punk, ambient, techno, and industrial music. Endure, the New Orleans band’s excellent Rough Trade debut, retains the intense physicality that marked the group’s prior work while injecting a whole new dynamism into what was already a radically inventive vision. By further embracing the possibilities of pop and disco, the album plunges into sometimes ambiguous but always pure expressions of joy, rage, solace, and grief, wielding them as weapons of resistance against a ruthless capitalist system that feeds on violence; whether it pulses with euphoria or seethes in desperation, that reality remains an inescapable backdrop. But even with the certainty that society is hurtling towards an inevitable collapse, Special Interest are too energized in their communion to stay in one place.
9. Weyes Blood, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
On And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, Natalie Mering no longer paints herself as an observer of impending catastrophe, as she did on her magnificent 2019 LP Titanic Rising, but rather “in the thick of it.” Yet even though much of it sounds notably more subdued, grounding itself in simple, everyday realities, her eyes are just as wide open. Experiencing the cycle of a relationship offers a glimpse of what it’s like to stand powerless at the precipice of change: love songs like ‘Hearts Aglow’ and ‘Grapevine’ are doomed by the feeling the ship might sink into oblivion at any moment, no matter who’s steering the wheel, but underneath their dazzling, ghostly energy is a more earthly drama. Again and again, Mering seeks solace in the knowledge that she’s not alone in her suffering. And while she has promised the final part of the trilogy will be about hope, she can’t help but find flickers of it here, in the wreckage.
8. Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen
“I got big plans for this home I made,” Brittney Parks’ second album proclaims on the opening track of her sophomore album as Sudan Archives. The cinematic scope of her work has clearly expanded since her full-length debut, Athena, itself a forward-thinking fusion of pop, R&B, and hip-hop, and on Natural Brown Prom Queen, she finds startling new ways to apply her frenetic, genreless approach. The narrative framework, which centers on a Cincinnati girl’s journey to Hollywood, allows her to dissect personal struggles without necessarily attaching them to her own self: an exploration that’s as complex and puzzling as it is, for the first time in Sudan’s career, revealing. In the landscape of her disorienting yet expertly arranged music, messiness is not only a crucial part of the mix, but the only place where it starts to make sense. Sudan Archives sounds at home through all of it.
7. Black Country, New Road, Ants From Up There
Black Country, New Road’s final album with Isaac Wood bears its weight by operating within extremes. This is a group known in part for their wry humour, but the vulnerability – even sentimentality – that pervades Ants From Up There is what makes it a bold and devastating statement. Specific references stand alongside abstract imagery, while the pristine warmth of the arrangements counteracts their unconventional structure. More than anything, the crippling self-doubt that Wood sings of comes into contrast with the growing conviction in his vocals, the turbulent axis around which many of the songs here revolve. Whenever the band reaches momentous heights that hint towards a climactic finale, as in the phenomenal final stretch of songs, they brace themselves for another one, as if not quite ready to turn the engine off. Ants From Up There shines through the tension and darkness that surrounds its moment, channeling it into a sweeping, grand epic we can look up to for years to come.
6. Alvvays, Blue Rev
In following up their exuberant 2017 album Antisocialities, Alvvays have simultaneously roughened and brightened up their approach. As their focus grows sharper and sharper, it only illuminates the raw edge that was both amplified and muffled in their earlier recordings, exposing the nervy detail that might have otherwise been lost in its discordant glow. Aided by producer Shawn Everett, Alvvays’ longest project to date ends up a thrilling ride that takes their uproarious sound and incisive storytelling to new heights. Even in its most propulsive, sugary moments, the weight of the past hangs heavy over these songs. Molly Rankin doesn’t allow herself to dwell in nostalgia, but she can’t escape it, either. “How do I gauge whether this is stasis or change?” she asks on ‘Easy on Your Own?’. But maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe the goal isn’t to find yourself in a new place. If you manage to crawl through the muck of time and still stay pretty much the same person, Blue Rev suggests, that, in itself, is something of a miracle.
5. Tomberlin, i don’t know who needs to hear this…
There’s something spellbinding about the way Tomerlin’s music opens up a space for whatever passes through it, no matter how big or small, and makes it feel sacred. Filled with impeccable, subtly moving arrangements, i don’t know who needs to hear this… expands her palette just enough for us to follow her stream of thoughts as she untangles them, like turning conversations into movie scenes and then replaying them in your mind. Sometimes, even she’s surprised by the role she’s cast herself in: “I’m not a singer, I’m just someone who’s guilty,” she sings on ‘tap’. “Remind me that I don’t have to be anything.” It’s one of the many revelations that come naturally on idkwntht, a record built with enormous and palpable trust, care, and patience, one whose resonance echoes through and beyond the tentative hope of its title.
4. Beyoncé, Renaissance
The pop luminary’s first solo album of new material in six years sounds expansive even when you consider it’s only part of a teased trilogy. Renaissance is a Beyoncé project through and through, but the way she moves beyond the conventions of her prior output can have a dizzying effect. Though she remains equally committed to the themes of liberation and self-empowerment as well as her role as an archivist, it’s the first time it so boldly extends beyond her own legacy-building: the 16-track album is a celebration of and a journey through various dance genres made mostly by and for Black and queer people, from New Orleans bounce to disco and house music, paying tribute to both the unique characteristics of each style and their radical entanglement. There is both sharpness and breadth to its approach, rendering it an exhilarating listen despite its hour-long runtime: a marvel of synthesis that successfully interpolates a single, unified vision.
3. Wild Pink, ILYSM
When John Ross started writing songs for his latest Wild Pink album, many themes that have cropped up throughout his discography, like ghosts and love and dreams, were already swirling in his mind. Then, halfway through the process, he was diagnosed with cancer. Though ILYSM avoids being exclusively about illness, it reflects the ways in which it imbued his life with urgency and meaning. There’s a surprising heft and at times deafening beauty to the arrangements, which are balanced out by moments of understated candor and intimacy. Ross’ dreamlike lyricism, meanwhile, oscillates between wonderment and confusion, burrowing inward as much as it marvels at the world. There’s earnest simplicity and bleak humour, jarring transitions and quietly anthemic choruses, whispered confessions that land like a gut punch. Yet as deeply moving and transcendent as the album can be, Ross doesn’t push things too far in either direction, finding genuine revelations in the vast space in between.
2. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
In pitching the idea for Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia, who also produced the double LP, asked the question: “How do we maintain focus while recording and yet allow ourselves the freedom to explore dozens of songs without getting lost in the process?” Part of the answer came in recording the album in four different locations with four different engineers – and while you can point out the aesthetic variation between each session, the group has smartly disorganized the tracklist, so what’s mesmerizing is not some false narrative but the mystical quality that binds them together. The closer you listen, the more the album’s wild, sweeping gestures – the playful country rock of ‘Red Moon’, the patient contemplation of ‘Heavy Bend’, the intense yearning of ‘Love Love Love’ – seem connected by the band’s collaborative instincts, a willingness to stretch the homespun intimacy and openness that might have marked a single track across a wide range of moods. The result is nothing short of astounding.
1. Ethel Cain, Preacher’s Daughter
Ethel Cain may be haunted by the past, but her eyes are set on the future. She realizes there’s no escape: “The fate’s already fucked me sideways,” she confesses on the introductory track to her masterful debut album, which encapsulates many of the themes she later homes in on: religious trauma, repression, the shadows of a fraught American family. Preacher’s Daughter begins to carve out Cain’s legacy in ways that her prior work couldn’t, and it reveals a much wider scope. The music – brooding, visceral, brutal, and dramatic – seems to respond to the demands of the narrative more than any nostalgic signifiers, unfolding as a gripping and fully-realized collection all its own. Hayden Anhedönia has already teased future projects spanning three generations of women; the story of Preacher’s Daughter is clearly a cyclical one. Cain might have succeeded in creating her own world, but one can only imagine her universe expanding further as she digs into her personal history and uses everything at her disposal to reach far beyond it.