Exclaim!'s 33 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Jun 24, 2020

We've all heard it a million times before: six months ago, at the start of the calendar year, who could have predicted what 2020 had in store for society at large? But the issues and ideas that have dominated the year so far — isolation, paranoia, self-love, a long overdue need for all-encompassing change — are front and centre in 2020's best albums, most of which were completed long before the year began. It speaks to how we probably should have seen all this coming, and there's actually nothing that surprising about 2020... except for maybe the murder hornets.

Here are Exclaim!'s 33 Best Albums of 2020 So Far:

33. Jon McKiel
Bobby Joe Hope
(You've Changed)

A mysterious cross between indie, folk and psychedelic, Jon McKiel's Bobby Joe Hope is a nine-track collaboration between the Canadian artist and distorted samples found in the reel of a recorder he purchased in 2015. McKiel's hazy vocals soundtrack the yellowed, churning reel — and through its anonymity, something special is born anew, something bright emerging from the dark. 
Allie Gregory

32. Cleo Sol
Rose in the Dark
(Forever Living Originals)

British singer Cleo Sol bursts with soul on Rose in the Dark, a soothing and uplifting effort that plays like a balm for the spirit. While her pensive lyrics can easily apply to current times, Rose has a serene, timeless groove that will never grow old.
A. Harmony

31. Wares

At its surface a visceral rock record brimming with confrontational punk energy, the second album from Edmonton-based Wares transcends when vocalist Cassia Hardy bursts free from her arrangements for moments of pure, revelatory catharsis, as she sings about her transition with gripping candour amid heart-pumping instrumentation.
Matt Bobkin

30. Okkyung Lee
(Shelter Press)

Avant-garde giant Okkyung Lee abandons her ferocious bow-scraping attack on the cello in favour of a focused fragility on Yeo-Neun, an ensemble record inspired by traditional music and popular ballads from Korea. Her accompanying quartet follow her expertly through 10 movements rich in resplendent melancholia and, every once in a while, give in to the odd free jazz inclination like a flirtatious wink.
Aaron Scholz

29. Andy Shauf
The Neon Skyline
(Arts & Crafts)

The Neon Skyline tells the story of  a night out in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood at one of its iconic hangout spots, the Skyline Restaurant. A revolving door of characters gives Andy Shauf room to tell an array of personal stories, with his wide palette of charming wind instruments, playful keys and assorted guitars underscoring his nimble arrangements.
Anthony Augustine

28. Owen Pallett
(Secret City)

Trading acrobatic violin melodies and electronic flourishes for gentle guitar and piano, Owen Pallett's Island basks in sheer beauty. The latest solo effort from the Arcade Fire collaborator rolls in and out like a tide, deliberately allowing tasteful orchestral passages to linger, heartfelt lines to soak in. It's a deliberate, sparse work from an unmistakable voice, and Pallett's most inviting record yet.
Sam Boer

27. Nap Eyes
Snapshot of a Beginner
(Royal Mountain)

Snapshot of a Beginner is a deep dive into the restless, free-flowing mind of Nap Eyes frontman Nigel Chapman. His stream of consciousness goes from wondering if Facebook's fearless leader is a ghost to musing about The Legend of Zelda and openly rambling about procrastinating. It's deeply charming, humorous, and supported by evocative guitars that shimmer and bend with Chapman's imagination.
Chris Gee

26. Westside Gunn
Pray for Paris

Recapturing the spirit of hip-hop's glory days, Pray for Paris is Westside Gunn's first charting album and possibly his best so far. Galvanized by his trip to this year's Paris Fashion Week, the Griselda member and Buffalo-born rapper delivers some of his best rhymes, complete with ample features and intricate production — placing Gunn and Griselda at an apex nobody could have expected.
Michelle Ramos

25. Boniface
(Royal Mountain)

Boniface does what many of the best pop artists do: takes small moments of intimacy and blows them up widescreen, turning private confessions into universal anthems. The self-titled debut from Winnipeg's Micah Visser is full of the kind of timeless songwriting that would sound equally good as electro bangers or stripped-down ballads — and if you don't believe me, just listen to the subsequent Acoustic EP.
Alex Hudson

24. Mac Miller

Posthumous releases tend to be hit or miss. Circles, however, is a definite home run. Following Mac Miller's tragic death in September 2018, the album showcases brilliant production and the rapper's well-crafted, emotional rhymes. Flirting with emo rap but still featuring Miller's unique brand of songwriting, Circles is a powerful release that begs to be listened to deeply.
Sofie Mikhaylova

23. Code Orange

With their third album, Pennsylvania hardcore kids Code Orange have solidified themselves as an unstoppable rising force in the world of heavy music. Taking their innovative, modern musical approach to a new extreme, the now-sextet unleashed a record as diverse as it is unrelentingly crushing, making themselves impossible to ignore in the process. 
Manus Hopkins

22. Charli XCX
how i'm feeling now

Following last year's commercially viable Charli, Charli XCX has returned to her experimental approach with how i'm feeling now. Recorded during COVID-19 lockdown over the course of six weeks, how i'm feeling now is a vibrant and timely affair, but what's more notable is that it's just as catchy as anything else she's done.
Josiah Hughes

21. Jay Electronica
A Written Testimony
(Roc Nation)

Thirteen years after his debut mixtape, Jay Electronica finally dropped one of hip-hop's most long-awaited projects. A Written Testimony is complete with conscious rhymes, spiritual merit, and substantial collaboration from rap legend and label boss Jay-Z. The doctrinal album offers fans a peek into the enigma that is Jay Electronica.
Michelle Ramos

20. Wake
Devouring Ruin
(Translation Loss)

Devouring Ruin is ugly yet deceptively beautiful, the latter not often used to describe grindcore's raw sound. On their third album, Calgarians Wake have swallowed death metal and black metal whole, breaking down their tenets using their longtime genre's acidic vitriol and adding to their DNA.
Bradley Zorgdrager

19. Waxahatchee
Saint Cloud

Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield paraphrases her disposition on Saint Cloud when, on "Fire," she sings, "I'm wiser and slow and attuned." Crutchfield wrote Saint Cloud after getting sober and the album, in turn, is marked by profound clarity. The songs also twang warmly, which will make you browse Kijiji for the truck that Crutchfield sits atop of on the album cover.
Laura Stanley

18. William Prince
(Six Shooter)

On sophomore album Reliever, William Prince's rich, husky baritone is a deeply soothing sound, and it's framed more beautifully than ever by warm, elegant arrangements. Filled equally with hurt and hope, these songs are palpably personal while exuding a sense of empathy and togetherness. The weight of the world doesn't seem quite as heavy when you realize it's everyone's burden to share; Reliever is a reminder of that.
Adam Feibel

17. Dua Lipa
Future Nostalgia

Tapping into sentimental yearning for the carefree, beat-driven dancefloors of the 1970s, Dua Lipa's sophomore album shines bright as a disco ball. Future Nostalgia delivers one of the fresher takes on modern pop music in recent memory, deeply rooted in the sheer abundance of funk, pulse and energy of the disco era.
Dylan Barnabe

16. The Weeknd
After Hours

After Hours presents an intricate universe of sound, with layers of electronic rhythm and melody. Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, uses his smooth voice to soar over this constructed soundscape and connect with emotions that are deep and raw. After Hours is both impossibly surreal and heartbreakingly honest.
Sarah Chodos

15. Lido Pimienta
Miss Colombia

Harnessing currents of reggaeton, cumbia and electroclash, Lido Pimienta soars to new heights on Miss Colombia. Her voice is powerful in its versatility, bringing immense sorrow ("Nada," "Pelo Cucu") and blistering triumph ("Eso Que Tu Haces") to direct and intimate accounts of continuing legacies of sexism and colonialism.
Matthew Blenkarn

14. Destroyer
Have We Met
(Merge/Dead Oceans)

Dan Bejar has mastered his musical dreamscape. In Have We Met he traverses its synthy slopes and streams of consciousness with wonder, making much-visited spots new again. At once ruminating and riffing off of moment-to-moment revelations, Bejar twists and turns through existential tunnels without ever seeming to lose his way.
Safiya Hopfe

13. U.S. Girls
Heavy Light
(Royal Mountain)

U.S. Girls' Heavy Light opens with swirling strings and a disco groove, moving adeptly through pop styles. But when everything drops out, leaving Meg Remy alone with nothing but a piano, she really shines. With layers of voices, a wide range of instruments and a tackle box of hooks, it's another standout statement.
Roz Milner

12. Soccer Mommy
Color Theory
(Loma Vista)

On Soccer Mommy's sophomore album, Color Theory, Sophie Allison's distorted state of mind deepens with a grainy '90s indie rock sound reminiscent of Liz Phair or early Avril Lavigne as she experiences depression, loss, and seeing the past and present through a wistful lens. It's a record equally as bright as it is bleak.
Jordan Currie

11. Porridge Radio
Every Bad
(Secretly Canadian)

Every Bad, Porridge Radio's second full-length release, is an emotionally complex statement piece. Lead vocalist Dana Margolin demands to be heard as she tears her voice apart, conveying her vigorous intensity. Even if indie rock may have declined in favour, Every Bad can be appreciated by absolutely anyone who wants to feel something.
Kaitlin Irving

10. Aquakultre
(Black Buffalo)

Celebrating Black love while tracing systemic racism back to its capitalist roots and namechecking Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Floetry and Jill Scott along the way, this first expression of Lance Sampson's freshly reimagined Aquakultre project is planted firmly in an infinite river of creative music, exploding the expansive formula of early Arts & Crafts catalogue with open-hearted clarity.
Tom Beedham

9. Grimes
Miss Anthropocene
(Crystal Math)

Billed as an album-length meditation on climate disaster, this dark, ethereal dream pop goes beyond questions of the environment, reflecting on gender roles, artificial intelligence, depression and insomnia, and the pleasures of romance. Grimes's Miss Anthropocene is pop music refracted through a prism, with its beautifully eccentric melodies, floaty semi-verbal vocals, polished electronic production, and hyper-femme video game and fantasy aesthetics.
Angela Morrison

8. Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist

Though Freddie Gibbs is a force in his own right, his collaborative projects draw a sharper energy from him that always seems impossible to improve upon — until he does. On Alfredo, Gibbs and veteran producer the Alchemist are perfect complements: Alchemist hangs back sonically, providing a simple yet impactful bowl of beats for Gibbs to devour.
A. Harmony

7. Pantayo
(Telephone Explosion)

A Filipina-Canadian collective mixing kulintang gongs with modern pop and R&B, the debut album from this Toronto collective expertly blends unexpected sounds with sensuous grooves and righteous anger. Wrapping the whole thing in a wholly unique point of view, Pantayo is truly one of the year's most singular listens.
Ian Gormely

6. Yves Tumor
Heaven to a Tortured Mind

Yves Tumor's visceral Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a sprawling noise creature that smashes disco strings, industrial glitches, grunge guitars and sensual R&B grooves against one another. This elusive experimental artist's latest album is dangerously unrelenting, building to nearly unbearable peaks, with literal fireworks acting as a centrepiece for this masterpiece. 
Sam Boer

5. Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney's double album græ is a lesson in absolute vulnerability, in unadorned, raw emotional connection. With his foundation of soul and funk, Sumney's exploratory and experimental navigation on græ includes collaborators like Thundercat and Adult Jazz, and embraces topics like pain, weariness, disgust and eroticism with consideration and often joy.
Ashley Hampson

4. Caribou

Inspired in part by the birth of his second daughter and sudden death of a close relative, Caribou's seventh studio album, Suddenly, finds Dan Snaith mulling over life's big moments atop some of his most shape-shifting tracks to date. Despite its woozy melodies and disorienting turns, it's an album that's easy to inhabit — a comfort during these uncertain times.
Matthew Ritchie

3. Run the Jewels
(Jewel Runners/BMG)

Pity the charlatans. Hide the crooked cops. And the meek? Well, they best duck inside. Killer Mike and El-Producto, a pair of 45-year-old rap snipers, have unleashed arguably their fiercest, funnest and freest record. As far as music to revolt to goes, RTJ4 is a thinking man's Godzilla. If you hate Run the Jewels, you don't love the truth.
Luke Fox

2. Fiona Apple
Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple lives and creates on her own terms, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters captures that spirit of self-determination. Apple's voice drives the album with visceral vulnerability, against a backdrop of cacophony that remains controlled. Untethered and achingly self-aware, Apple's fifth record is a fiercely intimate testimonial to tender resilience.
Safiya Hopfe

1. Backxwash
God Has Nothing to Do with It Leave Him Out of It

Backxwash is fast cementing her place as a fiery MC with several quality albums under her belt thus far. With God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, she makes the perfect aural parallel for the chaotic bizarro world that is 2020; an otherworldly blend of the darkest corners of horrorcore and industrial hip-hop, with warped samples (you'll never hear "Black Sabbath" the same way again) and equally chilling production.

At a time when Canada's role in propagating systemic racism and discrimination against BIPOC individuals is under the microscope more than ever, this record serves as its own form of protest song, as Backxwash turns the paranoia, fear, discrimination and persecution she faces as a Black trans woman into fuel for a series of tense, powerhouse tracks. Packed with plenty of intense moments throughout its short length, God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It is a vital reminder that when life throws everything it possibly can at you, sometimes all you can do is rage.
Josh Weinberg

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