In some ways, it feels like it’s been 2020 for 10 years already. On the other hand, it feels like April was yesterday. It’s been a strange (as well as painful, of course) year to say the least, and that means some of us are listening to new music even less than we might be otherwise. Certain rituals that previously involved music—like car and train commutes, workouts at the gym or hanging out with friends at a party—are, for many, no longer part of life in a pandemic. Lucky for you, we here at Paste listen to new music constantly, pandemic or no pandemic, and we take pride in having our thumbs on the pulse of great new albums and songs from across genres—even in 2020. With such a clogged release calendar (yes, even in 2020!) it can be difficult to keep up with the best new music, so here we’ve gathered a few of our favorite albums that maybe got lost in the shuffle. Enjoy this list of 10 underrated albums from this godforsaken year (so far), listed in alphabetical order by artist.
Listen to the full Spotify playlist here.
1. Backxwash: God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It
Zambia-born, Canada-based artist Backxwash dropped one of the creepiest rap albums of 2020 so far. Ashanti Mutinta’s voice is threatening, both in her normal cadence and the contorted form used throughout her records. Her ferocity paired with off-kilter, spine-tingling beats is best experienced at night with eyes wide open, stored-up rage and a desire for bloodthirsty imagery. While her 2019 album DEVIANCY was explosive, maniacal and perfect for letting loose in a live environment, this year’s follow-up is more detailed and downtempo, but it still retains its predecessor’s mystifying qualities. DEVIANCY raged against patriarchy and traditional beauty standards as she crowned herself a “witch bitch,” rather than a “rich bitch.” On 2020’s God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It, she’s even bolder, asking for “war with these bitches”—those “bitches” being abusers, her own demons, complacency and others. It’s her first record with her own beats, and she doesn’t disappoint. She also sprinkles in various samples from Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne and wolves, making for the perfect dose of supernatural fury. —Lizzie Manno
2. Clem Snide: Forever Just Beyond
Produced by The Avett Brothers’ Scott Avett (and featuring him throughout), Clem Snide’s recently released album Forever Just Beyond follows a tumultuous season of life for singer/songwriter Eef Barzelay. His marriage, money and band all fell apart within a matter of years, and he turned around and channeled his anguish into an album of thoroughly thoughtful, beautiful and imaginative indie-folk songs. On “Roger Ebert,” Barzelay ponders the film critic’s “dying words,” allowing his metaphor to take a much larger shape. “There is a vastness that can’t be contained / Or described as a thought in the flesh of our brain,” he sings. “It’s everything, everywhere, future and past / Dissolving forever in an eternal flash.” —Ellen Johnson
3. Jaime Wyatt: Neon Cross
Dramatic country with a rough-and-tough flare: That’s what you get when you check into Jaime Wyatt’s smoky, swirling fun house. The Washington-born, California-built, Nashville-based country singer has lived a lot of life in her 34 years, including eight months in jail, one marriage and a battle for sobriety. Neon Cross feels like the exultant freedom on the other side of all that mess—and lots of hard work. Wyatt’s crisp, commanding voice will capture you from the first few bars of intoxicating album opener “Sweet Mess,” which you can imagine hearing from the back of a misty club as you, clad in a 10-gallon cowboy hat, pull from a fancy cigarette, and keep a tight hold on you through the sweltering “Make Something Outta Me” all the way to the Shooter Jennings-featuring “Hurt So Bad.” Neon Cross is honky-tonk with an added dose of bad-assery (Is that a word? It should be). But sometimes the most badass thing about her is Cross’ openness and bare humanity. “Because I’ll be honest — it feels like I’m gonna die if I don’t tell people how I feel and who I am,” she said in a statement upon the album’s release. “It sounds so dramatic, but that’s the truth. It’s been just this gnarly, gnarly process, but one that is so human. So there’s been a lot of turmoil and drama. But this record is a lot about rebirth, too.” —Ellen Johnson
4. Jake Blount: Spider Tales
On his expressive and intensely spirited new album Spider Tales, banjo player and fiddler Jake Blount explores the deep roots of African American music. Spider Tales is an enlightened and alive folk album, but it’s also so much more than its persistent sonics. “There’s a long history of expressions of pain in the African-American tradition,” Blount said in a press statement. “Often those things couldn’t be stated outright. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person back then you could die from it, but the anger and the desire for justice are still there. They’re just hidden.”
5. Kiran Leonard: World Argument Live
I first wrote about Kiran Leonard back in 2018, just after he released Western Culture, his first studio album and first with his backing band. The Manchester, U.K. singer/songwriter has been uploading music to Bandcamp since 2013, and he’s released three albums with Moshi Moshi Records—quietly becoming one of the most fascinating singer/songwriters and gifted artists of our time. His brand new release, World Argument Live, includes live recordings with his old band from 2016 and 2018, along with newly-recorded versions of previously-shared tracks. Leonard codes the song titles in abbreviated capitals, so it might be difficult to decipher for anyone unfamiliar with his music, but fear not, I can help—highlights include “Öndör Gongor” from 2016’s Grapefruit (“ÖN/GO”), “An Easel” (“EAS”) and “The Universe Out There Knows No Smile” (“U/OUT”) from 2018’s Western Culture. By the bold titles, you can tell Leonard isn’t your average artist—he has a unique sonic and thematic imagination that becomes apparent immediately. This new release merges chaotic art rock jams with regal and pastoral compositions that border on chamber-pop and psych-folk. This combination of experimental clamor and pretty subtleties is precisely what makes Leonard such a dramatic force of nature. File World Argument Live under “albums so incredible that you have to pace around the room in deep thought.” Leonard is donating the funds from this release to The Music Venue Trust and the United Families & Friends Campaign, so please consider purchasing it on Bandcamp here. —Lizzie Manno
6. Nadia Reid: Out of My Province
New Zealand singer/songwriter Naida Reid released Out of My Province, her debut LP for Spacebomb Records, earlier this year, and it’s one of the most eloquent, shockingly overlooked folk-pop releases from 2020. Reid cites Joni Mitchell and Rufus and Martha Wainwright as influences (especially for her song “Oh Canada,” which serves as a tribute to the country and Mitchell, the Wainwrights and all its many musical exports), and it’s not such a stretch to hear little bits of those accomplished lyricists in Reid’s soft-spoken inflection. These are the kind of songs you might fancy listening to over a cup of coffee in the morning, or maybe moodily by a window during a summer rain shower. This is all to say they have a lovely vintage bent to them and will make you feel things. Reid can shift from sharply written soft rock (“High & Lonely,” “Other Side of the Wheel”) to contemplative folk (“Heart to Ride”) to wistful radio pop à la KT Tunstall or Colbie Caillat (“Best Thing”) at a moment’s notice, and all together, Out of My Province displays an artist gracefully establishing her sound through the art of genre-mixing. —Ellen Johnson
7. Sault: Untitled (Black Is)
“The revolution has come (out the lies!) / Still won’t put down the gun.” This is the first line of Sault’s new album Untitled (Black Is). It’s time to amend your album-of-the-year lists, because the album of the Movement has arrived—and every second of it is glorious. Last year, a mysterious soul group named Sault arrived out of nowhere with two albums, titled 5 and 7. No one knew the identities of its musicians, and the albums were released on an independent label, but they drew rapturous acclaim. 5 and 7 were feasts of rhythmic and exuberant Afrobeat, soul, funk and R&B—the songs are passionate, radiant, radical and rooted in rich Black musical traditions (which by extension, are the same roots of most popular genres). They were unexpected triumphs, but after releasing two albums in the same year, one might’ve figured they would go silent—at least for a little while. But last month, something incredible happened—they surprise-released another album, Untitled (Black Is). On June 12, they posted a square image of a Black power fist on socials with the caption: “We present our first ‘Untitled’ album to mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives. RIP George Floyd and all those who have suffered from police brutality and systemic racism. Change is happening…We are focused.” The languid synthesizers on “Eternal Life,” the fury-filled shared vocals on “Stop Dem,” the jazzy guitars on “This Generation” and the skittering beats on “Black” make up a rich tapestry of soul, funk and gospel music. While there are nods to Motown, these aren’t your parents’ classic soul records—you’re hearing the eccentricities, voices and personalities of today and tomorrow. —Lizzie Manno
8. Scott Hardware: Engel
Engel, the sophomore album from Toronto singer/songwriter Scott Hardware, was inspired by Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, which follows angels in pre-unified Berlin as they listen to the thoughts of humans and comfort them. “I sought with this album to capture the film’s velvety feeling—funny, depressing, dark and mundane—in LP form,” Hardware says. “These songs imagine Wenders’ angels buzzing around my friends, my family and I. Writing from their point of view allowed me unfettered access to my own thoughts about them and myself.” Engel is filled with touching, elegant art-pop that evokes the flaws and triumphs of everyday people. Plush strings and piano are perfectly suited to this brush with angels while the occasionally jarring electronic textures that adorn this LP point to the world’s beautiful yet cruel disarray. Hardware’s rich vocals are so gorgeous that they embody the noble, supernatural and biblical qualities of these winged healers. —Lizzie Manno
9. Westerman: Your Hero Is Not Dead
After British singer/songwriter Will Westerman released the exceptional folky electro-pop tune, “Confirmation,” two years ago, anticipation began to grow around his first album. Its gorgeous, artful nature and emotional maturity were impressive, but its pop effortlessness was even more impressive. He later signed to Partisan Records to release his debut Your Hero Is Not Dead, which brims with flowy synths and Westerman’s textured falsetto, fully justifying his hype. Westerman’s blend of soft rock and art-pop offers a treasure trove of sublime sounds. From exalted, yet down to earth (“Drawbridge”) and soothing and warm (“Blue Comanche”) to stylish and inspired (“Paper Dogs”), Your Hero Is Not Dead is an incredibly graceful listen. Though avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell is the one reference he’s tagged with most—given their similar voices—there are hints of Devon Welsh, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake mixed in, too. His musical instincts and wisdom are quite clear, and majesty emanates from his lyrics as well—there’s an appreciation for the vast and philosophical as well as the granular. The focus is largely on the arrangements as Westerman deliberately keeps his instrumentals sparse, but consistently thought-provoking. —Lizzie Manno
10. Whitney Rose: We Still Go To Rodeos
“We Still Go To Rodeos” is not a sentence you can speak truthfully in 2020, considering that any and all cattle-focused arena events are probably stalled due to the coronavirus. What’s not on hold, however, is good country music, and Whitney Rose has that in herds. The Austin-based singer’s fourth album finds her both leaning into classic country (“Just Circumstance”) and broader pop and rock sounds. “I’m not changing styles or redirecting my career as much as I’m expanding on avenues that I’ve explored previously,” she said in a statement earlier this year. “Maybe it’s because I heard Marty Stuart call Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the best country band of all time and I got excited. In any case, this record has some distinct differences in production style and instrumental focus from previous works.” Indeed, she’s all over the map—in a good way—from the ABBA-esque flare of “A Hundred Shades Of Blue” to the fuzzy pysch goodness of “Through The Cracks.” And fans of Margo Price will love her high-pitched vocal delivery. But she always finds her way back to twang and melancholia, the bread and butter of country music. Maybe she’s a country purist at heart. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to the full Spotify playlist here.