28 Dec ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
If anything was worth enduring 2020 for, it was the music.
I’ll be candid. Like most of the world’s population, this past year did a number on my mental health. All that time spent alone in quarantine brought on a sudden, painful awareness of my personhood. Everything that helped me mediate this existential agony was linked to music: practicing guitar, spontaneous dance parties in my bedroom. Many bike rides occurred with one earphone in and the other wrapped around my bra strap so I could hear oncoming traffic.
Now, at the threshold of a new year, wherein we may or may not return to “normal,” I figured I should express my very much biased opinions about certain albums that came out in 2020. These thirteen records–ranked least to most favourite—aren’t necessarily the best ones of the year, but they are the ones I returned to time and time again, whether I was on cloud nine or about to hit rock bottom. Enjoy, and happy listening!
13) how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX
Charli XCX is simply the most inventive pop artist of her generation! It’s true! how i’m feeling now was created entirely in the early stages of quarantine, and despite its maximalist brain-melting production, its strongest moments are when Charli delves into her feelings of uncertainty and isolation. Vulnerable love songs sit comfortably next to pristine club bangers, both sounding like artifacts from either a mid-2010s rave or a distant future where we’ve all become cyborgs. Ideal soundtrack for headbanging, or just banging your head against a wall.
Best Tracks: forever, claws, anthems, visions
12) folklore – Taylor Swift
Much has already been written about this album (and its equally lovely successor, evermore), but I figured I would throw in my Extremely Professional opinion. folklore weaves new details—a drunken widower, generational trauma—alongside familiar narratives about love and loss, creating a gorgeously cinematic record that’s still more mature and restrained than her previous works. There’s a slightly overwrought metaphor for every line as quietly brilliant as “I knew everything when I was young,” but that’s the Taylor I know, love, and accept. While storytelling does drive the music, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner do a wonderful job on the production, which is more minimal and yet more interesting than the bombastic sound behind 1989 and Reputation. When I was young and foolish, I proudly identified myself as a Taylor Swift hater. I’m glad that that era of my life is over!
Best Tracks: mirrorball, betty, august, illicit affairs
11) SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
What do you get when you cross Britney Spears with Korn? SAWAYAMA, the most exhilarating pop album of the year. The production on this album is out of this world, meshing present-day “hyperpop” sensibilities with Y2K and late ‘90s nostalgia. Sawayama switches easily between bubbly and furious as she touches on capitalist decadence, anti-Asian racism, and queer solidarity. Though it’s largely carried by its intoxicating melodies and effortless genre-switching, SAWAYAMA is also a fresh, powerful self-portrait of someone who’s only just gotten started.
Best Tracks: STFU!, XS, Bad Friend, Tokyo Love Hotel
10) Alfredo – Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist
Not a single song on Alfredo falters behind the rest. Meticulously crafted and bitterly clever, it’s the sound of two phenomenal artists working in perfect tandem as they enter the mind of a gangster. Alfredo explores the rap world’s affinity for flex culture and the mafia, with the charismatic Gibbs providing incisive, acrobatic bars over the Alchemist’s luxurious beats. The record isn’t long, but Alfredo is deliberately dense, each track a four-course meal in itself.
Best Tracks: God is Perfect, Scottie Beam, Frank Lucas, Skinny Suge
9) Circles – Mac Miller
“There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side,” Mac Miller sings on “Good News,” a shattering coda to his career. “I’m always wondering if it feel like summer.” Mac’s death still devastates me to this day. Only a month after Swimming was released, he was gone. Circles is an act of closure, both for Mac and his fans, but it’s still a hard listen. It’s not really a rap record; this feels like a singer-songwriter album, punctuated with sighs rather than snark. Both Swimming and Circles center around Mac’s struggles with depression and substance abuse, but he sounds mellow, even optimistic in this album—which makes it hurt all the more. Although it might leave you choked up, it’s a beautiful, thoughtful send-off for a man who wanted to accomplish so much more.
Best Tracks: Complicated, Blue World, Good News, Hand Me Downs
8) The Baby – Samia
The Baby, with its walls of guitars and lyrics about teenage yearning and breakups, could have leaned too hard into cliche indie-rock tropes. But Samia Finnerty’s pristine vocals and dedication to transparency lift the album from good to great. She’s frank about the ugly parts of young adulthood, touching on eating disorders, disillusionment with celebrity, fears of aging and death. She conveys painful sentiments without complicating them, choosing to sing as if reading directly from a diary. Take the first verse of the album: “I said loving you is bigger than my head/And then you dove in/And then I said, ‘I’m afraid that I need men’/ You said, ‘Need me, then.’”
Best Tracks: Fit N Full, Big Wheel, Limbo Bitch, Is There Something in the Movies?
7) What’s Your Pleasure? – Jessie Ware
Yes, I have listened to Future Nostalgia; Dua Lipa imitates the ‘80s, but Jessie Ware embodies them. Ware’s breathy, suggestive vocals evoke queens like Donna Summer as she tries on different combinations of disco, funk, and electro-pop. While much of the album feels like a carefree, glitter-coated spin around the dance floor, there are charming moments of vulnerability scattered throughout, as Ware muses softly about the uncertainty of new love. What’s Your Pleasure is the most compulsively danceable record of the entire year.
Best Tracks: Spotlight, What’s Your Pleasure, Save A Kiss, Mirage (Don’t Stop)
6) Women in Music Pt. III – HAIM
I have been a HAIM stan for many years now. They truly do not miss. Even in the shadow of their other two critically adored albums, Women in Music Pt. III, or WIMPIII, only builds on their success. The Haim sisters retain their sunny, essential groove—”power-walking music,” they’re sometimes called—but in WIMPIII their lyrics are more profound, the images they conjure now in Technicolour. Grief, depression, and toxic relationships are recurring themes in the album, but HAIM retains their optimism and sisterly bond throughout. They’re just smarter this time around.
Best Tracks: The Steps, Up From a Dream, Gasoline, Summer Girl
5) Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
One possible reaction to severe trauma is that the subject will become, somewhat contradictorily, inundated by a sense of peace. It’s not denial, just the mind’s inability to understand what just happened. Punisher watches the world burning, sees the oncoming apocalypse, and retreats inward. Phoebe Bridgers sings about profound intimacies and the mysteries of our universe with a mixture of dread and eerie calm, inviting the listener to process reality with her. Her storytelling ability is breathtaking; she expresses sorrow, anger, anxiety, and loneliness with blunt lyricism, yet allows those same feelings the space to transform. I would not recommend Punisher if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable—it gets very depressing.
Best Tracks: Garden Song, Chinese Satellite, Moon Song, Graceland Too
4) Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
Excuse me if I sound shallow, but one of the things I miss most about the pre-COVID era is going to the club. I would gladly stand in line for half an hour in deep snow if it meant I could stand on some kind of elevated platform and scream-laugh at my fellow intoxicated youth. A night like that never really is as good as you want it to be, though: that’s where Chloe and Halle come in. Ungodly Hour sounds like the Platonic ideal of a night out, detailing the rituals of getting dressed and getting drunk; dancing your heart out and then dealing with the aftermath, as indignant exes and current crushes come crawling out of the woodwork. The Bailey sisters are in total control here—they wrote and produced most of the album themselves, and their huge artistic growth resonates throughout. Equally tender, intimidating, and funky, Ungodly Hour is an infectious celebration of the messy (and fun!) side of young womanhood.
Best Tracks: Forgive Me, Do It, Tipsy, Ungodly Hour
3) Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling
I apologize for the abundance of sad white women on this list. However, I am a sad white woman, and thus, I write what I know. Although a comparison to Joni Mitchell’s best work feels accurate here, it takes away from the unique beauty of Song for Our Daughter. Where Joni on Blue still sounds naive, Laura Marling is intelligent beyond her years. Marling’s voice is crystal clear as she addresses an imaginary daughter, delivering ruminations on love and womanhood that are in turns funny, sarcastic, and mournful. World-wise and mature without falling into “adult contemporary” stereotypes, Song for our Daughter is some of the most thoughtful, gorgeous folk music I’ve ever heard.
Best Tracks: Held Down, Strange Girl, Only the Strong, Song for Our Daughter
2) Saint Cloud – Waxahatchee
Katie Crutchfield’s voice, with its light twang and honey-coated vowels, is a perfect balm over this horrible year. Her previous works are imbued with melancholy, circling around tales of trauma and heartbreak; Saint Cloud radiates liberation, true love, and healing. Crutchfield employs simple, folksy chords and blues patterns as a conduit for her lush, evocative lyrics, creating a narrative world that feels both gentler and more real than our own. It’s Americana that goes toe-to-toe with greats such as Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. It’s music for running through a meadow in the rain, or maybe dancing in a barn with your cowboy boyfriend. Every word, every note, feels like the sun coming out.
Best Tracks: Oxbow, Fire, Lilacs, Arkadelphia
1) Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
What else is there to say! Fiona is a goddamn genius. This album makes me feel every human emotion all at once. If you haven’t listened to it yet, frankly, I’m disappointed in you.
Best Tracks: I Want You to Love Me, Shameika, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Ladies
LISTEN TO THE PLAYLIST HERE
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