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Since I was able to listen to a substantial amount of music while quarantining in 2020, I also decided to make a list of my favourite albums of the year! As always, there is a runner up section for albums that did not make the top ten but I thought were worth mentioning. Enjoy!
Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas
What sparkled on her debut, Lianne La Havas zeroed in on for her self-titled sophomore record. Lianne is wholly captivating as her silky-smooth vocals and jazzy songwriting make the record feel like a conversation with a good friend rather than some grandiose presentation. Nothing is overdone, every piece feels like it has just enough to perfectly frame Lianne’s voice and nothing more. Although the instrumentals are often sparse, Lianne uses this to its maximum potential on tracks like “Can’t Fight”, “Paper Thin”, and her stunning cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”. It is beautiful, soft, and warm, making this record a much-needed pick-me-up for 2020.
Notes on a Conditional Form – the 1975
If you’re not interested in the strange experimentation and overindulgence of the 1975, this record will most likely leave you feeling confused. Despite its polarizing nature, the 1975 comes through with a batch of solid tunes and interesting arrangements that feel more like a journey than a typical album experience. The sounds shift at abrupt intervals, keeping the listener constantly on their toes. Although it fails to reach the soaring heights and urgency of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, Notes on a Conditional Form still stands out as an interesting, albeit lengthy, addition to the 1975’s discography.
Man On The Moon III: The Chosen – Kid Cudi
It’s safe to say that no one was expecting Kid Cudi to release the finale to the album series he began over a decade ago. It was previously rumoured to drop soon after Man On The Moon II, but was eventually abandoned by Cudi and most expected it to never see the light of day. Needless to mention, there was a lot riding on this record and somehow it managed to live up to the hype. Each track features extremely atmospheric production that seems to sound like the unbelievable cover art. Tracks like “Tequila Shots”, “She Knows This”, “Sad People”, “Lovin’ Me” (featuring none other than Phoebe Bridgers), and fan favourite “The Void” are the best of the bunch and reveal Cudi’s ear for melody and moving lyricism. After a string of polarizing records, it seems like Cudi saved the best for the last of his trilogy. Luckily, this is not the end of Kid Cudi as he has teased a deluxe edition of this record coming in early 2021. I cannot wait to see what else he has in store.
10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Fiona Apple
I think it’s safe to say that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is unlike any other record that has come out this past year. It is an achievement that could have only come from Fiona Apple. It is wholly and uniquely her own, never ashamed of its form and style, the most obvious example of this being the stunning opener “I Want You To Love Me” which ends with dolphin-like squeals from Fiona. It is not often that an album is met with instantaneous critical acclaim and hailed as a “classic” but it is undoubtedly deserving of it. On Fetch, Fiona is laser-focused on her personal expression in the #MeToo era. Whether it be highlighting the importance of female empowerment on “Shameika” or addressing the misogynistic silencing of women on “Under the Table”, Fiona unapologetically addresses the common struggles of women in the twenty-first century.
The biggest standout moment on the record comes in the form of the song “For Her” which rapidly changes pace and genre throughout its near three-minute run time and was written in solidarity with Deborah Ramirez and other survivors of sexual assault. Its disorienting structure is no doubt a reflection of the confusion and rage many felt over the tragedies of these women. Yet, through the frantic and blunt pain (“You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”), there are moments of hope in Fiona’s angelic vocal harmonies that close out the song. Through stunning poetic lyrism and homemade instrumentals, Fiona rallies support and draws attention to the mistreatment of women, bringing together a supportive community that refuse to be silenced.
9. Ungodly Hour – Chloe x Halle
Until now, Chloe x Halle had really just been a Beyoncé-supported YouTube sensation. In 2020, however, Chloe x Halle had their breakout year with a series of unforgettable performances and award nominations all kicking off with the release of their sophomore album. Ungodly Hour flaunts the sisters’ sheer talent and ear for ear-worm melodies and innovative production. There is never a dull moment on this record despite the subtle nature of a lot of the songs. They seem to creep up and become immediately infectious. Tracks like “Lonely”, “Busy Boy”, “Do It”, and the title track show that Chloe x Halle are not to be messed with. Talents like these only come around once in a while and, although they might be dealing with the worst, most confusing times of their lives, Chloe x Halle have never sounded more heavenly.
8. evermore – Taylor Swift
The praise for folklore was so pervasive it was hard to miss. I mean, who else could drop a critically acclaimed, indie folk record after working exclusively in pop for the last 6 years? It could only be Ms. Swift. However, to me, Taylor’s second surprise record of the year surpassed its subtle sister record. Where folklore was more reserved, evermore let loose to allow Taylor Swift to dive farther into plucky folk (“willow”, “dorothea”, “marjorie”), boot-stomping country (“no body no crime”), lush electronica (“closure”), and indie pop (“gold rush”, “long story short”). But the standouts by far are when all of these genres blend perfectly on the Bon Iver assisted tracks “ivy” and the title track. Folklore was unexplored territory for Swift, but evermore proved she can master even the most uncharted waters.
7. SAWAYAMA – Rina Sawayama
At the beginning of 2020, Rina Sawayama was only on the radar of the most dedicated underground pop connoisseurs. She has since skyrocketed in popularity after the release of her debut album to much-deserved acclaim. SAWAYAMA is a smorgasbord of different genre experiments including metal (“STFU!”), arena rock (“Dynasty”, “Who’s Gonna Save You Now”), experimental pop (“Akasaka Sad”), and theme music (“Paradisin’”, “Snakeskin”). And yet, it somehow maintains a certain cohesion that is no doubt the product of Rina’s uncompromising vision. The album is truly a journey into the Rina’s world and throughout she makes it clear that she is only just getting started.
6. Maverick City Vol. 3 – Maverick City Music
Born from their writing camps that unite songwriters from across the globe, Maverick City Vol. 3 is one of the most impressive releases to come out of the Christian music industry in years. Diversity for them is not something they strive for but is woven into the fabric of who they are. Their desire is to bring people of all backgrounds together to share in community and collaboration. Perhaps this is what made the hateful comments they received when standing against the unjust killing of George Floyd sting that much more. These songs are not only products of their deep faith and dependence on God, but are sung through all of the unique pain and joys they have experienced.
There is a sense of authenticity on this record that is not always as present on other releases in a similar vein. Whether they are venturing into traditional ballads (“Promises”, “Lean Back”, “Be Praised”, “God of Midnight”), gospel (“Man of Your Word”, “My Heart Your Home”, “Yahweh”), or folk musings (“Holy Ghost”, “Closer”), simplicity is key to Maverick’s success. Their writing is sharp but some of the most impactful moments are in the repetition of their thoughtful phrases. Instrumentally, the album would seem at home at a campfire or quaint cabin in the woods. Admitting they would be nothing without Jesus, Maverick City Music beautifully illustrates faith-filled community and the simplicity in worship that makes the heart soar.
5. how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX
I seriously do not think anyone other than Charli XCX could create an album in thirty days during a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and have it turn out this good. Not only that, but she found a way to perfectly capture the sentiments of the time. how i’m feeling now truly deserves the title of “the first quarantine album”. From the erratic “pink diamond” to the self-doubt of “detonate” to the yearning of “anthems”, Charli was able to successfully unveil the feelings of being quarantined and coming to terms with life in the current decade better than any artist this year. But it was perhaps the standout single, “forever” that is truly an anthem for our distanced world. The fact that she made this while filming herself to get input from fans in a month’s time only adds to the impressive nature of this project.
4. After Hours – The Weeknd
The Weeknd is perhaps most known for his dark, late night jams about partying, drugs, and other forms of escapism. However, After Hours sees the self-titled “King of the Fall” start to reflect on the effects of his excessive hedonism. Abel cleverly uses retro-synth soundscapes to create a feeling of nostalgia while drawing visual/narrative inspiration from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Somehow he weaves these references through his own self-analysis and eventual breakdown on the final track “Until I Bleed Out”. Abel pulls out his best tricks from his discography on After Hours while making it a momentous commentary on the consequences of hedonism, something that not only applies to Abel but extends outward to all of us. It not only feels like a logical evolution of the Weeknd as a character but of Abel’s entire constructed world.
3. Women in Music Pt. 3 – HAIM
Funnily enough this is the only album on this list that is nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys. It goes without saying I am rooting for it to win. This is without a doubt the Haim sisters’ best record. The songwriting is sharper, the melodies slicker, and the production more engaging. It is everything one could want from them.
As the title suggests, HAIM use their 16-track record to explore what it’s like being women in the music industry and in the world in the #MeToo era. “Man from The Magazine”, “Los Angeles”, and “3 AM” each deal with the various advances of men in their lives and careers and how this impacts them. Each song not only feels timely but deeply personal and urgent. The implementation of jazzier instrumental mixes only adds to these mature themes.
One of the most interesting things about the album is the inclusion of “Pt. III” at the end of the title shows that, as their third album, it is not only an investigation of their experience for a singular project but ingrained in their existence as artists. Not only are the hooks catchy and memorable but they infuse their work with rare, brash empowerment and truth.
2. Restoration – Lecrae
This. This is the album I always knew Lecrae was capable of making and he exceeded my expectations. Restoration is at once an honest confessional and narrative album about redemption and the struggles of being a Christian and, yet, still being prone to sin. Whereas Anomaly and All Things Work Together felt like collections of well-produced singles, Restoration feels like a hero’s journey to which anyone can relate. It is dark, chaotic, and, simultaneously beautiful.
It opens with the fittingly titled “Restore Me” which acts as the thesis statement and prayer which guides the rest of the experience. Over the album’s 14 tracks, Lecrae unpacks his own past traumas and addictions, struggles with fame, and constant conflict with systemic racism only exacerbated by the senseless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of racist police and citizens in the United States last summer. As a result, Lecrae crumbles on tracks like “Drown”, “Deep End”, and “Only Human” which populate all sections of the album, not just the first half. This creates a similar statement to that of Kings Kaleidoscope’s 2016 epic Beyond Control, where one’s redemption story through Christ does not just take place at a single fixed point in time: it is a continual process.
Restoration‘s message is similar to that of Kirk Franklin’s message on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo: “you can never go too far where you can’t come back home again”. Oddly enough, Franklin shows up here, not to offer a message of reassurance but rather to present a wake-up call of the fleeting nature of life inspired by the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others at the beginning of the year. The record at once exerts a timely and timeless message of redemption for all while also presenting a reactionary journey through the chaos of the modern world.
1. Punisher – Phoebe Bridgers
I could go on for ages about this record. For your sake, I will try to keep it relatively short. It has been a long time since I have heard an album that has captured a beautiful simplicity such as the one displayed on Punisher. Phoebe’s songwriting and vocal performance are so incredibly addictive and feel claustrophobically lived-in. The minimal yet haunting production perfectly complements Phoebe’s musing about “love” (“Savior Complex”, “Moon Song”, “Halloween”), God (“Chinese Satellite”), and the apocalypse (“I Know the End”).
In a year as tumultuous as this one, Punisher feels more like a good cry with a close friend than just another record about the topics above. It just feels like a perfect statement for a such a confusing and difficult time. Phoebe’s honest anecdotes often come as a relief, perhaps best displayed on “Garden Song” where she flirts with the possibility of disposing of the body of her skinhead neighbor who has met an unfortunate end before fantasizing about what her life could look like in the future. But she also doesn’t shy away from orally depicting the tension of the modern age whether it be through her passionate screams on “I Know the End” or her honestly about disassociating from those she disagrees with on “Punisher”.
Although the range of topics and emotions covered on Punisher is vast, the project somehow does not feel like a behemoth on its own and I think that is what makes it so special. Phoebe was somehow able to break these large ideas and feelings into digestible, and frankly, entertaining vignettes which play out like a home movie projected on a wall. Overall, Punisher demonstrates Phoebe’s unparalleled ability to transcend her music and truly connect with her fans in the most beautiful, human way possible.
Thanks for reading!