On one hand, who can think about stuff as trivial as this? On the other, what else is there to do? If art was made to fill a cultural vacuum, well… now’s the fucking time, buddy. Hopefully, you’ve been binging every show, reading every book, repainting every bathroom you’ve been putting off. Hopefully, when (and if) we make it out of quarantine alive, we’ll be able to look forward to better things. For now, we still have music.
Some of the great albums and EPs below demand your full and undivided attention. Some of them demand to intensify your workout or gaming session. Mostly they just sound good, and you should pair them with whatever activities music enhances for you. Even sleep; lord knows that could be improved upon. Others will keep you wide awake. If any of these albums make you think, sing-along, scream, laugh, or dance, this list will have done its job. But judging by these titles, music is healthier than ever, even if little else is. Fire it up.
AceMoMa, A New Dawn (Haus of Altr)
Jazzy, frenetic, soulful, Adrian Mojica and Wyatt Stevens’s first LP as a duo mines the rawest energies of ’90s house and techno on a 12-track collection that should make their TR-909 ancestors proud. Mining their club roots in tribute of the African-American and Latinx producers that came before them, AceMoMa’s very first full-length both honors the lineage and adds a strong new link to the chain. It also slaps. Close your eyes and get transported to warehouses of yore. We swear you can taste the smoke machine. — Kat Bein
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic)
Bitter and sweet, fragile and tough, the percussive Fetch the Bolt Cutters finds Fiona Apple concluding a raw journey of self-discovery. Apple’s fifth studio album — her first since 2012’s The Idler Wheel… — is her most liberating. Full of free-form melodies and jazzy piano bars, it’s Apple’s most full-bodied work yet, ironically without a studio orchestra. Spending time alone has left the singer to reflect on everything from the evil of entitlement (“Relay”) to her complicated relationship with fame as a teen (“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”) and how the power imbalance sadly entwined the two. As she jaggedly rips apart her own layers, her mantric repetition of phrases (“Like you know you should know, but you don’t know where it’s at,” “Shameika said I had potential”) is as jarring as it is a balm for life. Made at home in isolation and released during a pandemic, it’s undeniable how eerily prescient she was. “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long,” Apple whispers over her own barking dogs. She’s not wrong. She’s all of us. — Ilana Kaplan
Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLB (Rimas)
“Yo hago lo que me da la gana” means “I do whatever I want,” just like “urbano” means “for lack of a better term.” It beats “world music” though, and if any artist requires a big stylistic umbrella, it’s Benito Ocasio, whose cosmopolitan approach to genre and gender has won him universal acclaim and sales even before this sprawling artistic breakthrough made him reggaeton’s most indispensable melodist. For 20 straight winners, Bad Bunny corners and captures every stray tunelet out of thin air, whether it’s the gargled hook of “P FKN R” or the soaring refrain of “Soliá” or the sparkling emeralds that comprise the gorgeous backdrop to “Pero Ya No.” In fact, its front end is rather gorgeous, too. — Dan Weiss
Beauty Pill, Please Advise (Northern Spy)
Washington D.C.’s Beauty Pill started out two decades ago as far and away the most futuristic and electronic band on Dischord Records. And bandleader Chad Clark, producing under the playfully aggrandizing but fitting alias ‘Brown Eno,’ continues to assemble soundscapes that are at once forward-thinking and dreamily psychedelic on this four-song EP, their first new music since 2015’s rapturously received masterwork Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. New vocalist Erin Nelson serenely intones verbiage recycled from Prince and Donald Trump among other public figures in the surreal cut-and-paste incantation “Pardon Our Dust,” while Clark offers a raspy, broken-beat take on the polyrhythmic Pretenders classic “Tattooed Love Boys.” If only this amazing title (the words of Miles Davis’ A&R upon learning he was about to call something Bitches Brew) was paired with a full-length. — Al Shipley
Black Dresses, Peaceful as Hell (Blacksquares)
Like Blade Runner, which takes place one year earlier, Peaceful as Hell opens with police sirens, imperious synth pads, and exposition; but unlike Blade Runner, it picks up speed from there, like it’s getting used to life in flames. Devi McCallion and Ada Rook’s frankly bleak handbook for life as a scared animal amidst collapse embraces noise, chaos, and glitch the way you have to with your habitat. Here the duo behind 2019’s Love and Affection for Stupid Little Bitches dice brittle, depressive vocals into skittering beats unto themselves and layer them atop ultra-compressed guitars, making a home of this flattened, bloodsoaked, always-on-fire landscape, “like a pearl / Formed from the pressure.” — Theon Weber
Chubby and the Gang, Speed Kills (Static Shock)
“Gang” as in gang vocals, every word quadrupled or quintupled in a time when togetherness is fleeting. And it’s a throwback for sure; you don’t hear the words “juvenile delinquency” much in #okboomer times. They’re all in other bands, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll make this a priority. But the perfectly fine Sham 69 didn’t have this many tunes, this much locomotive propulsion for 25 warmly pummeling minutes, or the empathy to muster up something like the closing tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire after the particularly uplifting guitar solo in “Blue Ain’t My Colour.” It’s remarkable how many punk bands sound like this but not really. Just like Nirvana. — D.W.
Denzel Curry x Kenny Beats, Unlocked (Loma Vista)
A slap-shot patchwork of samples, beats, and gunfire verses in just 17 minutes, Unlocked is one of the meanest rap releases you’ll hear this year. Denzel Curry’s smart, snarling punchlines hit like spit in the face, even when they’re as goofy as “fire flows like I’m red and white Mario.” And they’re backed by dark, sharp little head-knockers courtesy of star Rico Nasty collaborator and The Cave host Kenny Beats. It’s brutally addictive for those who can keep up, a tight mix of ’90s NYC grit and unbridled futurism from two of the most tireless monsters in the game. And the references to Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks hint that he’s thinking bigger already. — K.B.
Dogleg, Melee (Triple Crown)
From the first riff of “Kawasaki Backflip” through the symphonic coda of the appropriately titled “Ender,” the debut album from this Detroit emo unit could have had whole basements of kids singing or moshing along at almost any point in the last two decades. Sprinkled with references from their not-too-distant childhood (even the album’s title stems from their love of Super Smash Bros.) and doused heavily in the anxiety and emotional trauma that’s inspired gut-wrenching classics from their forebears, Melee is one of the most complete post-hardcore experiences of the past decade. And it’s only Dogleg’s first try. — Josh Chesler
Fake Names, Fake Names (Epitaph)
When did supergroups get so disciplined? Modeled after Ex Hex’s Rips, wherein Mary Timony retconned her whole career to see how “Fox on the Run,” “Hot Child in the City” and “Baby Baby” (The Vibrators, remember?) would sound Frankenstein’d together, Fake Names is a bunch of beloved punks’ 27-minute glam-rock session. Dennis Lyxzén was never this tight or tuneful in Refused, but in Minor Threat and Bad Religion, respectively, Brian Baker sure was. Embrace’s Michael Hampton and Girls Against Boys’ Johnny Temple are just happy to go along for the ride, which includes several dynamite guitar ideas (“This Is Nothing,” “All for Sale”), a synth on “Heavy Feather,” and rarely sounds like the key members of moderately legendary acts. But that’s why Fake Names is the side-project moniker to end them all: The desire to play regular guys rocking out without preconceptions. And like Ex Hex, it’s accidentally the best thing these fellas have ever done. — D.W.
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene (4AD)
If climate change was a Goddess it would be Miss Anthropocene — weird, terrifying, and radiant, at least according to Claire Boucher. Mixing fantasy and villainy, Grimes rails against her nearly mainstream pop stardom and tabloid-tweet celebrity with dark synth-work, nü-metal overtones, and an overall embrace of impending doom. It’s more somber than 2015’s audaciously sugary Art Angels, but Miss Anthropocene still encapsulates the camp flourishes of her last record as her looped, layered, celestial vocals overtake the songs. However, the standout emerges when she ditches the frills and sings as one direct voice. With its Oasis-inspired strums, “Delete Forever” is a stunning tribute to Lil Peep and others lost to the opioid crisis. It’s nothing fancy, just a reminder that her talent and heart still remain when you strip away the futuristic tech-worlds her music, visuals, and weapons-grade trolling have built. — I.K.