Best Albums of September 2020: Alicia Keys, Neil Young, and More - Rolling Stone
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Best Albums of September 2020: Alicia Keys, Neil Young, Toots and the Maytals, and More

Here are the best albums of last month, from horn-driven reggae-funk blasts to autumnal pleasantness

Best Albums of September 2020

Each month, the editors and critics at Rolling Stone compile a list of our favorite new albums. Our picks for September include the final LP from late reggae legend Toots Hibbert, a synth-pop stunner from Sad13, protest songs from Neil Young, and reissues of albums by Prince, the Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed.

Alicia Keys, Alicia

Alicia is one of Keys’ most musically engaging LPs, moving easily between moods and styles, from the disco throwback “Time Machine” to “Me X 7” (a bit of moody R&B ache with Tierra Whack) to the slinky reggae of “Wasted Energy,” with Tanzanian singer Diamond Platinumz. Keys balances personal pleas with larger aspirational notes, and the songs that connect with larger issues are predictably down-to-earth. —Jon Dolan
[Stream the Album Here]

Yusuf/Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman²

For the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough album Tea for the Tillerman, the singer-songwriter decided to rerecord it, aptly titling it Tea for the Tillerman². At 72, Stevens sings in a deeper, grittier register, making the songs sound more mystical than they did in 1970. There’s also new arrangements, recorded with the original album’s producer, Paul Samwell Smith, and guitarist Alun Davies. Hearing it reimagined all these years later, the album’s themes — transcendence, renewal, breaking free of materialism — resonate even more than they did all those years ago. —Angie Martoccio
[Stream the Album Here]

Public Enemy, What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down

For their 15th album, Public Enemy are back on Def Jam, the powerhouse label they helped build with their golden-age hip-hop classics. When the Grid Goes Down is at its best when PE’s vision is generous and expansive, when they create a vision of their own history that echoes into our own moment. They hold forth on technology overload, politics, and rap history, with help from pals like YG, Nas, and Rapsody. The most heartening thing about this record isn’t the critical takes, it’s the guys bringing the noise. —J. Dolan
[Stream the Album Here]

Sufjan Stevens, The Ascension 

Maybe it’s the result of scoring an angsty teen drama like Call Me by Your Name, but Stevens’ first full new record in five years is a moody electronica beauty stripped of some of the cutesiness of his early work. In one song, he takes God to task for being essentially MIA, then begs him to intervene in another; elsewhere he declares his ambivalence toward social media and admits to craving meds to quell his 2020 anxiety. The synths whirring around him sound like mournful doorbell chimes, yet the album is also strangely, eerily uplifting — synth-pop for the apocalypse. —David Browne
[Stream the Album Here]

Toots and the Maytals, Got to Be Tough

The reggae architect, who passed away shortly after this record was released, left us with a roaring album co-produced by Zak Starkey for his Trojan Jamaica label. With contributions from Starkey’s dad, Ringo Starr, Got to Be Tough is the result of two rum-fueled, ’round-the-clock recording sessions that blends incendiary, soul-inspired resistance music (“Freedom Train”) and horn-driven reggae-funk blasts (“Just Brutal”). “We were brought here/Sold out, victimize, brutally,” Toots sings on the latter before expounding on the need for peace. “We need more love in our heart.” —Jason Newman
[Stream the Album Here]

Prince, Sign ‘o’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition)

If you were one of Prince’s friends at the time, you might have worried about him. After trying to best Purple Rain’s success with the box-office bomb Under a Cherry Moon, he was behaving like a man who knew his fate, frantically fitting in everything he could into all hours of the day. Sign ‘o’ the Times was an eclectic funk-pop-rock-R&B-gospel-novelty hodgepodge of songs about love, sex, and Jesus that sounds awful on paper — what great record this side of Little Richard could include the phrase “green eggs and ham,” as Prince deadpanned on “Housequake,” and still work? — yet it was a masterpiece. Its very lack of focus was its greatest strength. It seems like even more of an achievement after sifting through the nearly four hours of previously unreleased tracks on Sign’s super-deluxe reissue. It’s impossible to trace his thought process, which makes it all the more exciting to find the diamonds he left in the vault. — Kory Grow
[Find the Album Here]

Big Sean, Detroit 2

Big Sean’s long-awaited fifth studio album — a sequel to his 2012 mixtape — serves as a resurrection for the MC. He emerged as a rap superstar three years ago with I Decided, but struggled to get back to his roots. Detroit 2 shows him rapping with a purpose, as he delivers verses about wrestling with anxiety, religion, holistic healing, and more over Hit-Boy beats. It’s clear he’s back to his old ways. —Dewayne Gage

Neil Young, The Times EP

Like many artists, Young took to posting performances from his Colorado home when concerts became a thing of the past. Whether he’s singing to chickens in his barn or outside in the falling snow, the Fireside Sessions are arguably the greatest homemade performances of the Covid-19 era. So great, in fact, that Young turned one session into an EP. The Times consists of politically charged songs ahead of the 2020 election, ranging from fan favorites like “Southern Man” and “Ohio,” as well as the 1976 obscurity “Campaigner” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin.'” Young also reworked 2006’s “Looking for a Leader” with anti-Trump lyrics: “Yeah, we had Barack Obama/And we really need him now/The man who stood behind him/Has to take his place somehow.” Young has several projects under his belt, including a Return to Greendale live album and film and the highly anticipated Archives Volume 2, but this is the one that hits home when all feels lost. — A. Martoccio
[Find the Album Here]

Bob Mould, Blue Hearts

Blue Hearts gushes more piss and vinegar than Stanley Kubrick could fill a hallway with, but what makes it jaw-dropping is the precision with which Mould has focused his ire on conservatives, evangelicals, homophobes, while leaving room for some self-criticism as well. He has said that his mission statement with the record was to speak out against Trump in a way he felt he couldn’t four decades ago during his time in the pioneering punk trip Hüsker Dü, when he was still in the closet. Subsequently, Blue Hearts often feels like a lost Hüsker Dü album with Mould howling invective over his buzzsawing guitar. —K. Grow
[Stream the Album Here]

Fleet Foxes, Shore

Robin Pecknold is back in his sweet-leaf safety zone here, fighting off the pandemic-etc. sads with an extremely songful record that doesn’t dilute any of the compositional detail that marked Crack-Up. Where that album seemed to map a fragmented mind, Shore is much gentler-feeling, and even if you’ve been the kind of mellow-harshing grinch who has at times found the Fleeties’ golden-beard aesthetic a little silly, the beauty here is essentially undeniable. It’s hard to find faults when you feel like you’re floating in an amniotic fluid of autumnal pleasantness. —J. Dolan
[Stream the Album Here]

Sad13, Haunted Painting

Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis returned with her second solo album under the moniker Sad13, and it’s a wicked delight. From synths to marimba, Dupuis uses a variety of instruments to accompany sharp songwriting — which tackles mental health, grief, and the pure ecstasy you feel from choosing a night on the couch over a visit to the club. She also weaves in eerie imagery just in time for the fall season: “What a scream, you sanitize me,” she sings on “Ooops…!” “Crouching in congress with the vampires/That’s where I aspire to be.”  — A. Martoccio
[Stream the Album Here]

The Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup (Deluxe Edition)

Goats Head Soup didn’t — and still doesn’t — sound like what one would have expected from the Stones after Exile on Main St. By the time the album came out, Jagger had hit 30 and Richards was just a few months away from that milestone, and you can hear the impact of that benchmark throughout. After 10 years of recording, touring, and the accompanying excess, the Stones sound burnt out, regretful, melancholic, even at times vulnerable — in other words, like human beings, not invincible rock gods. How many times has that happened with them? Not many, which lends the best parts of Goats Head Soup a mesmerizing mood all its own. —D. Browne
[Find the Album Here]

Elizabeth Cook, Aftermath 

You could slice through a tin can with Nashville songwriter Elizabeth Cook’s Ginsu-sharp Aftermath. Butch Walker’s production, the band’s dueling guitars, and Cook’s forever-country voice and lyricism classify her latest album as a lethal weapon. She sneers at posers in “Perfect Girls of Pop” and seduces in the gloriously punch-drunk “Bayonette.” “Ain’t nobody here tried to kill me yet,” she sings in the latter. But Cook’s wit will strike you dead. —Joseph Hudak
[Stream the Album Here

My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall II 

The orange waterfall on the cover says it all: My Morning Jacket bliss out on 10 psychedelic, Southern-tinged, soft-rock mood pieces about traveling, getting wasted, and falling in love. The songs are leftovers from the sessions that yielded 2015’s The Waterfall, but they feel less like a tributary and more like their own river. When Covid-19 forced the world into lockdown, frontman Jim James played his iTunes on random and stumbled on “Spinning My Wheels,” a gorgeous ballad about feeling stuck that he and his bandmates had orchestrated with a Rhodes piano melody, and it inspired him to listen to the rest of the outtakes. Unsurprisingly, the songs all sported a similar sense of groove, and voilà, an album. —K. Grow
[Stream the Album Here]

Ziggy Marley, More Family Time

Ziggy Marley is a global music royal with a deep Rolodex. His latest is a children’s album that, like his 2009 release Family Time, is full of famous friends and very kind vibes and intentions. Marley says he wanted to reflect the spirit of his four-year-old son, Isaiah, and to help create the right Saturday-morning pajama jam vibe, he’s recruited his other children to appear on the album. The result is an ideal time filler for parents looking for something/anything to put on the stereo and get your kids shaking out the sillies between bouts of remote learning. —J. Dolan
[Stream the Album Here]

Our Future Is an Absolute Shadow, Our Future Is an Absolute Shadow

An abrasive self-titled EP from a three piece with vocals by David Norman of YouTube and Zegema Beach Records fame. The tones span the gamut of skramz, including epic dirges, droning walls of sound, and beautiful melodies all crammed within a tape that is less than 15 minutes long. —Rick Carp
[Stream the Album Here]

Lou Reed, New York (Deluxe Edition)

“Faulkner had the South, Joyce had Dublin. I’ve got New York,” Lou Reed told Rolling Stone at the time of this album’s release. His politically charged 1989 album chronicled a city in crisis, taking on poverty (“Dirty Blvd”), the AIDS epidemic (“Halloween Parade”), racial violence (“Hold On”), and the fractious nature of liberal politics at the time (“Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”). It was some of Reed’s sharpest, funniest writing ever, and it echoes many of the challenges New York faces right now. This deluxe edition adds a live album in which he plays New York in its entirety, as well as a disc of outtakes and demos. —J. Dolan
[Find the Album Here]

Idles, Ultra Mo

On their third album, the Bristol bruisers blend steamrolling riffs and dance-floor rhythms with frontman Joe Talbot’s over-the-top, feel-good messages of positivity. The singer shouts, “Your body is your body, and it belongs to nobody but you,” on “Ne Touche Pas Moi” (which also features Jehnny Beth joining him to sing “Consent!”), he turns the aphorism “Kill them with kindness” into a foot-stomping hard-rock mantra on the song of the same name, and he conjures outrageous words of encouragement on “Mr. Motivator” like, “I intend to go, go, go like David Attenborough clubbing seal clubbers with LeBron James … you can do it.” Talbot’s enthusiasm is both hilarious and contagious. Throughout, Idles continue the loud, obnoxious traditions of British post-punk and max them out, making them sound something like Gang of 40 or maybe Public Image Unlimited. —K. Grow
[Find the Album Here]

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