The end of one of the craziest years in recent memory [2016 I am also looking at you] is ending. But nonetheless, this year brought a lot of great music of all types amid a modern-era worldwide pandemic. With that, I will note my 4 top albums of 2020. Keep in mind that there are countless other great albums in all genres, and these are just some of the many albums that kept us float in 2020.
Regarded as one of the best pop albums to come out in 2020, Dua Lipa has made herself not only a worldwide pop star but one of the leading artists to be running pop right now. Releasing the first single of the album, “Don’t Start Now” on October 31, 2019, brought a new sound for Dua, going retro with a disco-inspired track. In the subsequent follow-ups of “Physical” and “Break My Heart,” it was apparent Future Nostalgia would be an all-throwback dancefloor of Studio 54.
After the album leaked, just as things were getting crazy with COVID, Dua felt defeated with the leak and the pandemic. Still, nonetheless, she persevered with going ahead and releasing the album. By the end of the year, many British tabloids called Future Nostalgia the soundtrack of the quarantine for that reason.
With COVID 19 halting the world, Future Nostalgia has suffered a lot of “what-if’s” and a paused grand world tour, but the pandemic did not stop Dua. She still made sure that all following singles such as “Hallucinate” and “Levitating” would receive well-made videos. She released an entire remix album executive produced by the Blessed Madonna, which features music titans such as Madonna, Missy Elliot, Gwen Stefani, Mark Ronson, Dimitri from Paris, and much more (and released visual videos for all 17 remixes). And on top of that, she worked with J Balvin, Bad Bunny, and Tainy on the Spanish track “Un Solo Dia”; later with French pop star Angèle for the single “Fever”; weeks later being a feature in “Prisoner” by Miley Cyrus. To top it off, she did a concert livestream called Studio 2054, which drew a whooping 5+ million viewers (rumors say up to 7 million) with guest such as FKA Twigs, Elton John, and Kylie Minogue.
Retrofuturism is the aesthetics of the era, with nu-disco, pop-funk, house, techno, and Eurodance just being some of the album’s influences. The first time I listened through the album, I was doing nothing but jumping for joy at the production and the detailing of vocal effects, sound effects, and alterations of chords. How can a straightforward pop album be so excellent? How can an album that I am listening to for the first time is making me dance already?
Tracks such as “Don’t Start Now”, “Levitating”, and “Hallucinate” are discography highlights. With a Metacritic score of 88/100 and now 6 GRAMMY nominations, this album is definitely a magnum opus… insane to say considering this is her sophomore album. No one guessed Dua’s second album would be mind-blowing, and now expectations for album 3 will be even higher. But in the meantime, 2021 will bring the B-Sides/leftover tracks of FN, and the disco party won’t be over anytime soon.
Everyone seems to hate her, yet she is literally the music industry; and this is no Twitter stan talk. Taylor Swift’s reach and touch over the charts and music industry mechanics genuinely scare people. Nevertheless, she knows what she is doing, but a last-minute creation of an album in the middle of the pandemic was not on her to-dos list. In 2019, Swift released her 7th studio album, Lover, the first one under her new label Republic Records which brought her more creative control and credit. Just as she released her Netflix documentary and the single “The Man” in January, fans speculated whether “Cruel Summer” would be the next single by the end of Spring.
With COVID halting the world, Taylor had to go back and figure out what she would do with this sudden time freeze. Realizing that she can still create music with no self-imposed restrictions, she hit up lead band-member of The National’s Aaron Dessner and longtime co-worker Jack Antonoff to create a series of songs.; causing her 8th album folklore to be born and be released as a surprise dop.
Swift says she has curated her albums based on chart success and public perception. With this project, all of that went out of the window. Apart from writing new material, she revisited old material she had co-written with Antonoff.
With folklore, we get a massive package of a rustic-indie cottage-core Taylor. We get 17 tracks of glittery acoustic guitars, soft tapping pianos, violins, drums, harmonicas, and her most mature and explicit songwriting to date. She turns away from her personal experiences and conjures storytelling of a made-up couple going through the motions. Simultaneously, one track speaks of the history of the previous owner of the house she purchased years back in Rode Island.
Taylor’s lyrics are a mixture of reality and fantasy, less personal yet realistically gut hitting. Tracks such as “the 1,” “cardigan,” and “invisible string” are my top tracks of this project. They are definite wound openers if you still have mixed feelings about a past lover. Although many casual listeners will find this album okay or dull, we realize that Taylor can switch genres and create some of her best lyrics effortlessly.
Time will tell, but with a Metacritic score of 88 (her highest), this could very well be a contender for the magnum opus title in her discography. And with a sudden release of her 9th studio-album and sister album evermore in December (which extends the same sound and aesthetics of folklore), both folklore, evermore and their main singles debuted simultaneously at #1 (first artist to do it for the first, and now a second time, and all in one year). Taylor will keep being the music industry.
The pandemic may have shadowed this album from being more prominent, but do not let it defer that music fans and critic circles have been praising this project for the last few months. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama is one of the most diverse and colorful albums released in a while.
As I stated in my review of this album (my first review as well), the mixture of Evanescence nu-metal rock, Janet Jackson R&B, Britney Spears Pop, orchestra and dubstep simply blew me away and left me speechless at first listen. Rina, born in Japan and raised in the United Kingdom, mixed her influences of music and culture and created an album of storytelling; how she feels about the racism, she has faced, her position in the LGBT community, how her parents expected her to carry their family legacy, and how we need to be more concerned about the environment.
What is great about this album is that Rina is not trying to convince anyone of her stances; instead, she explains why she is the way she is. Just like Future Nostalgia, clear and detailed instrumentations and effects fill up this album with blob, plunks, dings, horns, or violins that do not feel out of place, thanks to leading producer Clarence Clarity.
With “Akasaka Sad”, “Dynasty” and “XS” being one of my favorites in this project, there is ironically a favorite track for all music lovers, because the mixtures of genres are almost endless, as one can see in the Composition content listing in the albums page on Wikipedia:
With a Metacritic score of 89/100, it will be a while before this album cycle ends, but fans and others will be waiting to where her sound will carry to next. Because I truly believe that she will be a trailblazer of how pop music will and should sound for the rest of the 2020s.
I will say that I did not play this album as much as I should have, like other projects, but with one or 40 listens, you can tell that Ungodly Hour rightfully so deserves the praises it has received in countless end-of-year lists others are releasing. This R&B sophomore album made by duo sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey is an astronomical upgrade of sound and image for the singers compared to the teen imagery they had for their debut album.
Influenced by 90s and 2000s production, the album takes a more mature approach to pop, trap, soul, and hip hop. Lyrics concentrate on how we navigate through messy situations, especially ones caused by ourselves. Love, public perception, and being unapologetic about one’s true selves are other themes explored through this project.
The one and only Beyonce is executive producer and mentor of the girls and album. With a powerful cast of producers such as Disclosure, Boi-1da, Mike Will Made-It, Soundwave, Scott Storch, and others, we hear nothing but modern sounds and composition that beautifully fits in with 90s R&B throwbacks.
Highlights such as “Do It,” “Tipsy,” and “Busy Boy” will keep you in a groovy mood or dancing in your car. The project is cohesive and mature enough to not follow the “good girl gone bad” trope when female singers enter their 20s. Nonetheless, this duo’s impressive vocals are the top frontier for what R&B needs to have to stay afloat in the next decade ahead.
Other 2020 albums to check out:
Fiona Apple: Fetch The Bolt Cutters
The Weeknd: After Hours
Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
Haim: Women in Music Pt. III
Tame Impala: The Slow Rush
MISSIO: Can You Feel The Sun
Glass Animals: Dreamland
Lady Gaga: Chromatica
Chris Stapleton: Starting Over
Miley Cyrus: Plastic Hearts
Ariana Grande: Positions
Beach Bunny: Honeymoon
Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud
Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher