Credit: Illustration by Maressa Roberts

26 Essential Albums You Might Have Missed in 2020

From Anz to Yaya Bey, these under-the-radar releases deserve more love than they got.

We all had big plans for 2020. But instead of gathering with your friends and taking in live music, you're on the couch watching reruns of Frasier, trying out weird new hobbies, and eating way too many hot dogs. You'd be forgiven if you're not checking out as much music as you would be in normal times, but we're here to help.

Things are bleak, but they aren't totally hopeless. Music is still happening even as the world seems to have temporarily stopped. Without the in-person community offered by shows, band practices, and regular recording sessions, people have been scrappy about making connections in the digital space—through live streams, fundraisers, and supporting artists directly. Live music is on indefinite hiatus, so this is the way forward for now.


This list contains some of the under-the-radar releases that deserve more love and attention. Take these recommendations not as a definitive overview, but as a launching point for your own music discovery. If any of these acts give you a sense of comfort with their songs, consider returning the favor by tossing some bucks their way on Bandcamp or at your own independent record store.

Anz, spring/summer dubs 2020


The fifth annual installment of the UK DJ/producer Anz's series of mixes of her own productions, as she puts it on her Soundcloud page, were "forged in turbulence." Stuck at home, without the prospect of any clubs opening any time soon to play her tracks at, she worried that she'd lack the motivation to work on any music, a "if a tree falls in a forest and no one's around to hear it" scenario, she told Mixmag. So she set herself a measurable goal, over her months in quarantine, no matter what it took, she'd make 40 tracks, just to have some sort of tangible project to work on during her time away from the scene that she calls home.

Per recent interviews, she more than doubled that figure, and a vast majority of those tracks fill spring/summer dubs 2020, as bubbly a collection of dance music as you're likely to hear in any year, let alone one that's been as unsettling and uncertain as this. Sprightly and upbeat as a rule, while remaining textured and complex, it's a testament to the power of this sort of music to envision better worlds, and a reminder that even in the worst times, you can always dance through it. —Colin Joyce | LISTEN


Bacchae, Pleasure Vision


Washington, D.C. quartet Bacchae are responsible for one of the most compelling juxtapositions of 2020: the righteous anger of punk mixed with breezy power-pop signifiers. “Hammer” is a sunny, beach-ready pop gem, while opener “Leave Town” is menacing and driving scream-punk. This band is dominant at both extremes. The true highlight is the deliriously catchy privacy anthem “Stop Looking." The line "I wish everybody’d stop looking at me!” will be bouncing around in your head the next time you have social anxiety. —Josh Terry | LISTEN

Elah Hale, Room 206


Elah Hale's songwriting sits on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. Room 206, named after her college dorm room, is a moody introduction to the New York-based singer. At times she is reveling in solitude like on "ITPA," where she's consumed by her thoughts at a party alone. Other times, like on "One Star Rating," she's using Uber rides as a metaphor for relationships. But standout "My House" is proof that not every song is an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes the remedy is finding someone who's willing to split a bottle of cheap wine with you. —Kristin Corry | LISTEN

Guapdad 4000, Platinum Falcon Tape, Vol. 1


A few years ago, many of us were introduced to Guapdad 4000 in on a now-viral birthday shoutout to himself. He was surrounded by Pokémon stuffed animals, cradling a bottle of Hennessy while $100 bills rained from the sky. Turns out the Oakland native was setting the stage for what we could expect from his rap career. Platinum Falcon Tape, Vol. 1 is a drunk fantasy world ruled by money, and Guapdad 4000 is our mischievous tour guide. Over the years, he's made scamming look glamorous and he continues that tradition on Platinum Falcon Tape. On "Greedy," Guapdad is as menacing as the production, providing a play-by-play account for how he survived in a country as capitalistic as this one. "It all started with the sidekicks, you know the swipe flick, I was snagging them fools / Upgraded to the iPods, cameras, tripods, I was grabbing em too." But there are moments, like on "Dolce & Gabbana Dalai Lama," where he isn't so confident. "I'm still scared / What if my ego lying to me and I'm not it? What if I play this and nobody is astonished?" —Kristin Corry | LISTEN


Honey Harper, Starmaker


Honey Harper—né William Fussell—grew up by a swamp in Georgia, and his father was an Elvis impersonator; it's these memories that shaped his gentle, romantic country songs. Harper describes them as “celestial cosmic country music” or “glam country,” far more in the vein of Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt (albeit wrapped in lamé) than, say, that cornball Gwen Stefani is dating. His debut full-length, Starmaker, isn't made for tailgating or cranking from an F150; it's for psilocybic camping trips in Joshua Tree, stargazing, longing for someone, and making earnest attempts at introspection. Misty tracks like "Suzuki Dreams" and "Strawberry Lite" are gleaming constellations of Americana; they sound like they're messages from long ago, just now reaching us after a long journey through time and space. —Hilary Pollack | LISTEN

Hum, Inlet


Twenty-two years after their last record, Downward Is Heavenward, 90s space rock kings Hum decided that this strange moment in 2020 might be the right time to release a new album. Thankfully, they were right. Hum has been a huge influence on the past decade's revival of shoegaze and reverb worship, but they still do it better than any of their imitators; right out of the gates on opener "Waves," the guitar riffs are like lava consuming everything in their path, searing, sludgy, and glowing. Best of all, it truly feels like new material, firmly planted in their tradition of introspective and huge-sounding rock but with better production, cleaner vocals, and more meditative heaviness. Can't wait to enjoy it live with my fellow 'gaze freaks, someday, when the world feels big again. —Hilary Pollack | LISTEN


John Carroll Kirby, My Garden


My Garden is the first solo album from behind-the-scenes jazz innovator John Carroll Kirby. Kirby has collaborated with everyone from Harry Styles and Kali Uchis to Frank Ocean and Solange, and My Garden is his expansive debut solo body of work. The album begins with “Blueberry Beads” drawing inspiration from Japanese computer jazzer Yoshio Suzuki. Kirby moves through kaleidoscopic sounds—keys recorded via iPhone voice memos, mellow pads, and obscure synthesized flutes—taking his time exploring humanity in technology. My Garden channels late 60’s Herbie Hancock through an experimental contemporary lens. —Jaime Silano | LISTEN

Knxwledge, 1988


Knxwledge has been making music around the clock all year. Since the release of 1988 in April, he's put out 10,000 Proof and Koko EP , followed by two more projects on Bandcamp, Musiq.PRT_2 and VGM’s.PRT_1 . There is a massive amount of music coming from the LA producer’s brain; it feels like he's quilting, resurfacing musical memories in hazy nostalgia and abrupt moments of precision in the form of sharp loops and samples. In exploring this year’s releases from the gifted beatmaker, 1988 is the place to start. The second half of the project—from "gangstallthetime" to the last track "minding_my business" featuring Durand Bernarr and Rose Gold—is some of Knxwledge’s best work of the year. —Jaime Silano | LISTEN

Lil Tjay, State of Emergency


Living during a global pandemic and civil unrest makes State of Emergency an apt title for Lil Tjay's latest mixtape. The project is a defiant offering that declares that some communities, like his native South Bronx neighborhood, have been living in a state of emergency. On the opener, "Ice Cold," Tjay walks us through his troubled past, remembering the days where he didn't think he'd live to be old enough to vote. Now 19, Tjay is able to reflect on his experiences in the juvenile system though his music. "First time getting sentenced, I was 13 / First time ever getting knocked I was twelve." Joined by peers Jay Critch, Sheff G, J.I the Prince of N.Y, Fivio Foreign, and Pop Smoke, New York's rap scene thrives in its ability to party amid the pain. —Kristin Corry | LISTEN


Machine Girl, U-Void Synthesizer


If these are the end times, Machine Girl is the sound of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, foaming at the mouth and raging as the judgement rains down on all who deserve it. Biblical in scale, but purely sacrilegious in execution, U-Void Synthesizer is the latest in the Pittsburgh transplant's violent, gory celebrations of the incestuous intersections between rave, punk, metal, and the other extremities working in the Northeast basement scenes. Whether the self-proclaimed mutants care for morality in the traditional sense is an open question, but the grueling grind of U-Void Synthesizer might be an effective punishment for your sins, if you believe in that sort of thing. Kneel and beg for forgiveness. —Colin Joyce | LISTEN

Melkbelly, Pith


Melkbelly’s alchemy depends on the violent pummeling of their rhythm section and the mercilessness of drummer James Wetzel and bassist Liam Winters, paired with the sweeter sensibilities of singer/guitarist Miranda Winters and her husband guitarist Bart Winters. On sophomore LP Pith, the Chicago rockers have perfected their DIY-tested chemistry on relentlessly ripping songs like opener “THC.” The more anthemic offerings like “Season of the Goose” keep the blistering energy without sacrificing any of the hooks. Like their influences and former tour-mates the Breeders, Melkbelly’s power comes in masterfully straddling the line between noise and pop. —Josh Terry | LISTEN


Naeem, Startisha


The beautiful thing about life is that there is no limit to the number of times you can reinvent yourself. Naeem Juwan, formerly known as Spank Rock, is a relic of the internet's music scene in the early aughts, using the pulse of Baltimore-club music to marry his love for genres like hip-hop and house. It's been nine years since Juwan released music. Now going by just his first name, his moniker isn't as flashy, but that doesn't mean his music is any more pared down. Standout song "Let Us Rave" is the drug-induced escapist soundtrack we all need during a time as unprecedented as this. The constraints of quarantine, especially during the peak of summer, is enough for all of us to scream for a roaring good time. —Kristin Corry | LISTEN

Navy Blue, Àdá Irin


The New York rapper Navy Blue's debut album takes its title from the story of the story of Ogun, a Yoruba god who used an iron sword to "clear the path and make the way." It's a fitting title for these 11 tracks full of fractured memories, ancient myths, and misty dreams of the future that swirl delicately over ghostly piano pieces and slivered samples of forgotten soul songs. It's a tenuous tether between the here and hereafter, a meditative and mystical reflection on the weight of the past and the forces that have made him what he is. Like a shattered pane of stained glass, it's abstract, but shimmering, full of truth to be divined as you comb through the sharp fragments. —Colin Joyce | LISTEN




NNAMDÏ’s 2020 output has proven how essential he is. In the past month, the Chicago artist put out EP Black Plight, the best selling Bandcamp Day release of June, and his LP Krazy Karl, a Looney Tunes-inspired LP of bonkers prog. His first album the year, Brat, remains the highlight of this splendid recent work, an adventurous, genre-defying stunner full of moody experimentalism like “Glass Casket” and celestial hip-hop in “Gimme Gimme.” Few albums from this year have the eclecticism that contains both the weirdo-folk of “Flowers to My Demons” and the gaudy, alien-like “Price Went Up.” —Josh Terry | LISTEN

The Orielles, Disco Volador


The Orielles pack a ton of globetrotting influences, from Turkish funk, smooth jazz, K-pop, to Brazillian samba, into their palatable and slinky indie rock songs. Though they're much bigger in their native U.K., where they were set to play Glastonbury had COVID-19 not wrecked everything, the dynamic tracks on their excellent sophomore effort Disco Volador deserve a broader audience stateside. If bands like Crumb and Khruangbin feature on your quarantine playlists, there's little need to sell you on an act like this trio. Take the immediate, Talking Heads grooves of single "Bobbi's Second World" or the Stereolab-for-zoomers vibes of "7th Dynamic Goo" and you've got a winning and endlessly repeatable combo. —Josh Terry | LISTEN

patten, GLOW


One of the most compelling and underrated acts ever to emerge from the Warp Records stable, patten’s shift towards independence continues to produce appointment audio. Where 2019’s FLEX came immersed in a diverse yet U.K.-centric dance music mode, its follow-up GLOW emancipates patten from genre as if an ill-fitting skin to shed. Recorded during lockdown, the hour-long project disavows the beat to yield ambient echoes on “Lavender Crest” and digitally rendered shoegaze on “Memory Palace.” With its off kilter melody and last gasp turntablism, “Lariat” recalls the extraterrestrial wonderment of Oneohtrix Point Never while avoiding his former labelmate’s calculated oddity. One of several highlights, “Valley Commerce” is what Trent Reznor wishes he could soundtrack in 2020. —Gary Suarez | LISTEN


Rah Swish, WOO Forever


Following Pop Smoke’s tragic and untimely death, Brooklyn drill perseveres. Though insularity and factionalism naturally persists, a slew of new mixtape and EP releases from the past few months offers assurances that this scene contains no shortage of talent. Better than some of the major label looks, Rah Swish’s WOO Forever exists as an unofficial complement to Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon. He pays his respects on “Feel Like Pop” and tries to move beyond grief through hedonism on the title track. While largely reliant on dark and resonant U.K.-sourced rhythms, snappy outlier “We Can Do It” incorporates R&B more credibly than many of Rah’s peers. —Gary Suarez | LISTEN

R.A.P. Ferreira, Purple Moonlight Pages


Chicago rapper and producer Allen Philip Ferreira (formerly milo) puts his impeccable dexterity and writing skills on display over chaotic funk and blues instrumentals on Purple Moonlight Pages. In the album’s third track “NONCIPHER”, the rapper describes the project as music that “sounds like rap but it’s the art of falling down.” By blending ominous, industrial beats with thoughtful and jovial wordplay, Ferreira presents a body of work rich with perspective and puzzles. —Jaime Silano |LISTEN

Ratboys, Printer’s Devil


Early on in Ratboys’ career, they made music they lovingly referred to as “post-country” with twang that masked the larger alt-rock aspirations they’d fulfill on 2020’s muscular Printer’s Devil. The Chicago four-piece leans more heavily anthemic and guitar-driven on this LP, with songs like “Look To” and “Anj," which channel 90s arena rock. Things truly shine for Ratboys when they branch out, like on ambling, “Victorian Slumhouse,” a song full of references to British TV, and the unhurried “Listening," and the title track, which sonically feels like a loving update to Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater.” —Josh Terry | LISTEN


Rookie, Rookie


The debut LP from Rookie makes a good case for being the most fun no-frills rock record of the year. With a healthy serving of Thin Lizzy-esque riffs along with boisterous choruses that rival their former tourmates Cheap Trick, the Chicago band values good-hearted anthems over everything. Take the 70s swagger of single “I Can’t Have You But I Want You” which has ample hooks or the sleek solos of album centerpiece “EJam,” and there’s enough revivalist charm to have real staying power. But the real highlight is “Elementary Blues," where bubblegum harmonies make the track a stunner. —Josh Terry | LISTEN

Roy Kinsey, Kinsey: A Memoir


Roy Kinsey has worked as a librarian for the past decade, which makes sense given his thoughtfulness as a lyricist and rapper. While his 2018 effort Blackie: A Roy Kinsey Story navigated the brutalities of systemic racism, his latest Kinsey: A Memoir is full of personal observations from his perspective as a queer Black man living in Chicago. Single “Fetish” deals with a night out in Boystown, a heavilly-LGBT neighborhood in the city that has been dealing with a reckoning of racism and transphobia. He raps, "White gays say ‘Yasss’/White men say ‘Mama’/They wanna take back the night/From the girls that look like Marsha.” —Josh Terry | LISTEN, aIMless

1594756727410-Rumgold-aIMless's voice aches with the pain of words left unsaid, but his music expresses those desires anyway. aIMless is as courageous as it is vulnerable, and the singer's buttery vocals only add to the depth of his songwriting. Paired with a production that is almost hymnal, the six-track EP feels like church. "Save You" is a heroic baptism of love, wishing his emotions could have the power to heal. "If you only knew all the love I had for you / You'd see why I wanna save you," he sings. —Kristin Corry | LISTEN


V.V. Lightbody, Make a Shrine or Burn It


Though never derivative, several of the offerings on V.V. Lightbody’s masterful Make a Shrine or Burn It feel so familiar that they feel timeless. Opener “If It’s Not Me" is a welcome flip on jealousy tropes, accepting change and the past with the refrain, “If it’s not me, I’m happy for you.” Lightbody excels in navigating delicate melodies, like on the pristine “Damn Golden” but also soars in louder bursts, like the horn-led skronk of “Horse of Fire.” Though understated, this is an album that broadcasts its charm in every track. —Josh Terry | LISTEN

Walter Martin, Common Prayers


Listening to Walter Martin’s Common Prayers, which he early-released in March to help ease the misery of quarantine, feels like getting under a weighted blanket: Its simple, soothing songs settle over you, each one lessening your anxiety bit by bit. The songs are stripped-down, comprised mostly of a softly strummed guitar, purring organ, a plucky stand-up bass, and a lazily played drum set. Martin’s voice is quiet but rich with character, like a cross between Ray Davies’ and Jonathan Richman’s. His songwriting is potent and poetic, with lines that hit you hard in your chest and linger in the back of your mind for days. "So here we sit, I guess this is it, watchin' the world burn down on TV," he sings, "But if you still feel like dancing, honey I do too." It captures 2020 in a nutshell, adding only a little splash of hope—one that makes you want to keep trudging along. —Drew Schwartz | LISTEN

Wares, Survival


With the fierce new LP from Edmonton punks Wares, frontwoman Cassia J. Hardy's brave storytelling consistently and obviously raises the emotional stakes, even on first listen. Her songs deal with trauma and resilience, like the empathic narrative of “Jenny Says,” where a chance encounter with a stranger leads needed bonding. Songs like bombastic “Surrender Into Waiting Arms,” verge from hopeful and ecstatic into brooding and unsettling as it reaches its climax: "Kiss my lover in the sun / feel their heart pressed / between finger and thumb.” Elsewhere, sun-kissed synths drape over the fact that the track “Surface World'' deals with death. There are heavy themes here but Hardy and her bandmates tackle them with grace and indie rock vigor. —Josh Terry | LISTEN

Yaya Bey, Madison Tapes


This album is a thought-provoking string of neo-soul songs and spoken word interludes from Brooklyn R&B singer and poet Yaya Bey, whose 2016 project The Many Alter-Egos of Trill’eta Brown was a notable debut for a songwriter with immense potential. Madison Tapes is a warm summer R&B album full of lessons about trauma, relationships, truth, and loss. The project gently embraces life’s difficult questions; “Have you ever loved someone who didn’t have the tools to love you?” and “ How long does it take to get good at love?”Jaime Silano | LISTEN