The Best Albums of May 2020: Lady Gaga, Bad Bunny, Future and More
Each month, the editors and critics at Rolling Stone compile a list of must-hear new albums. Our picks for May include Lady Gaga’s return to the dancefloor, Bad Bunny’s quarantine quickie and Steve Earle’s tribute to coal country
Lady Gaga, Chromatica
Chromatica is a return to form, and a return to the dance floor for Lady Gaga. The singles “Stupid Love” and “Rain on Me” have the pop sensibilities of her early hits, and the music throws back to house, disco, and even new wave, but it still feels like a progression as Gaga sings about rising above past bad romances and her hope for the future. She kept the guest list tight this time, so when Ariana Grande offers up breathy verses, Blackpink rhyme Gaga’s English lyrics in Korean, and Elton John does his best Rocketman on a song about, surprisingly, sine waves, it’s never too distracting. Although there are a few missteps on Chromatica — as always, whenever Gaga gets too high concept, such as on the Barbie metaphor “Plastic Doll” or “Babylon” (a blatantly Madonna-esque ode to gossiping, whose title should be read “babble on”) — Gaga crafted a potent antidote to the quarantine blues.
Future, High off Life
High Off Life is the first Future album since January 2019 — an eternity by his standards. It’s been a rare breather for the hardest-working rapper in the solar system, the Atlanta trap legend with a voice full of the Auto-Tune blues and a head full of astronaut status. Future was originally planning to call it Life Is Good, but he changed the title at the last minute in response to the global health crisis — a rare case of Future adjusting to the realities of any world outside his mind. High Off Life is Future at his most optimistic, as the man from Pluto decides to send out a positive message. But it’s still got the spaced-out melancholy that always fills his sound, as he clocks some serious demon hours in the late-night druggy strip-club haze of his soul.
Steve Earle & the Dukes, Ghosts of West Virginia
From a narrative standpoint, Earle’s latest record, Ghosts of West Virginia, is likely the most tightly focused and thematically driven collection of the songwriter’s career. Its inspiration was the horrific 2010 West Virginia mining explosion that killed 29 miners, and the album took shape as Earle signed on to provide music for a theater production called Coal Country. The songs on Ghosts feel mostly like a summation of the sounds and styles Earle has made his trademark since edging away from the country marketplace and towards singer-songwriter folk in the late Nineties.
Hayley Williams, Petals For Armor
Though several of Williams’ bandmates in Paramore contributed to the album, their presence is hardly felt. This is Williams’ journey to take. Released in three parts over the course of this spring, Petals for Armor can be viewed as a trilogy of five songs each, where Williams explores her changing coping mechanisms in the midst of hardship. Her path leads through seething rage, spontaneous revelation and, eventually, new romance. Sonically, there are hints of the disco-funk grooves explored on Paramore’s last album, 2017’s After Laughter, which paired Williams’ musings on anxiety and depression with a twinkling Eighties pastiche. But whereas After Laughter was a geyser of anthemic choruses and bright emotionalism, Petals for Armor’s moodiness stays just below the surface. It’s murkier, more eclectic, and much less predictable.
Bad Bunny, Las Que No Iban a Salir
Las Que No Iban a Salir is a 10-song dive into Bad Bunny’s hard-drive of set-aside, previously discarded, or otherwise unreleased songs unveiled on Mother’s Day. Though the specific origins of this material remain unclear, most of these tracks appeared in some form during his Instagram Live quarantine event in early May. As he virtually teased hundreds of thousands of viewers with snippets, lip-syncing and even singing over some of them with a wood spoon substituting for a microphone, it was unlikely that many anticipated an actual release would come so soon. “Bendiciones” kills his haters with kindness while offering empathy and hugs for those affected by the virus and natural disasters that have imperiled his home country. The quarantine theme continues for “En Casita,” a duet with girlfriend Gabriela Berlingeri that stresses the need for social distancing even with the emotional costs.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated B Side
Carly Rae Jepsen wrote 200 songs for her 2019 album Dedicated, and that number has loomed over the heads of her loyal fanbase for the last year. She was similarly prolific for her acclaimed Emotion, which was followed up with the also beloved EP Emotion Side B, a collection of songs that didn’t make the album’s final cut. Jepsen’s Dedicated Side B is a full album of material this time around, brimming with disco sweat from the pop star and collaborators like Dev Hynes, Jack Antonoff and Ariel Rechtshaid. She breaks up, makes up and dances her way through Dedicated run-offs that actually high-end, top-shelf pop from one of the genre’s best.
Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open
A big part of Toledo’s charm is his ability to craft sweeping epics that explore unified themes, sometimes across whole albums. He’s described Teens of Denial and Twin Fantasy as a bildungsroman and a romance, respectively. MADLO wasn’t built with any such narrative arc. It’s still concerned with the Big Stuff — “anger with society, sickness, loneliness, love…” Toledo wrote in his statement — but there’s a quotidian feel to it, a mundanity that fits the understated hum of Toledo’s singing voice, which he’s able to use in thrilling and unexpected ways.
Charli XCX, How I’m Feeling Now
The adventurous pop singer’s latest was conceived and written during quarantine. “I’m so bored/Wake up late, eat some cereal/Try my best to be physical/Lose myself in a TV show/Staring out to oblivion/All my friend are invisible,” she sings. It’s definitely a sentiment for our times. But while songs like “Detonate” channel our fearful and confused mood. the album is no depressed lonely wallow. “Pink Diamond” is a pure dance-club banger, while “party 4 u” hangs intimacy. isolation and longing, as she sings “I only threw this party for you / For you, for you, for you.”
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’ sound mixes a loving sense of pop history and a blithe disregard for stylistic boundaries, causally traversing goth, glam, synth-pop, soul, and indie-rock, collapsing decades into his music. “Describe” beautifies Nineties guitar sludge, feeling at once like a subversion and a love letter. “On the Floor” plays gracefully with Eighties R&B, evoking Tina Turner via Erasure. He gets his Dusty Springfield on during “Jason,” his voice rising into a translucent falsetto. His songs can be as inviting as the warmly burnished folk-pop of “Without You” and as bracing as the metallic goth stomp “Your Body Changes Everything,” or tenderly longing like “One More Try” and “Leave,” in which longtime collaborator Blake Mills’ string arrangements stretch out across ballads that recall forlorn Fifties rock and roll crooning.
Nick Hakim, Will This Make Me Good
Will This Make Me Good, the second album from Brooklyn musician Nick Hakim, begins with the Earth on fire. Cities crumble, tides rise, and yet “All These Changes” is a climate catastrophe dirge that swaddles and rocks you with its bobbing guitar strum, sighing strings and Hakim’s own tender croon–which assures, “She’ll flood us out her heart is flaming/Pretty soon we’ll be underwater.”That mixture of misfortune and cursed hope takes various forms throughout Will This Make Me Good, an album that feels like a dispatch from the deep, black pit of the hypotheticals its title elicits.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Reunions
There’s a reason Isbell chose to open Reunions, his seventh album, with the image of someone up late alone, plagued and comforted by the past. In addition to being his most crisply produced, sleek recording yet, Isbell’s latest is also his most haunted and ruminative (the word “ghost’ appears no less than five times). As such, Reunions feels meaningfully, if subtly, removed from the trilogy of post-sobriety records the Nashville-via-North Alabama songwriter has written over the past decade.
The iconic Los Angeles punk band’s eighth album overall and first with virtuoso rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!, is a rare animal among comeback records — it both feels like a continuance of the band’s classic Eighties sound and it’s actually good. They’re still obsessed with the same themes vocalists John Doe and Exenne Cervenka have detailed eloquently in the past — freedom, fearlessness, and fun (and not always in that order) — in typically poetic lyrics.