Monday, December 7, 2020

Top 10 Albums of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has required artists to get creative when producing and promoting a record: More than a few records were birth in at-home studios via virtual collaboration. Stripped live performances from the living room took the place of cross-country tours. Music videos were filmed from the front-facing cameras on smartphones. It was a strange year for most and a destructive one to the entertainment industry, but these artists endured the circumstances and prevailed. Here are the top ten records that defined my year.


10. CHROMATICA • LADY GAGA

Admittedly, Chromatica carries itself with less ambition than previous Lady Gaga records. Gaga scales back to dance music basics and smooths her cumulative level of service. While the record doesn’t enjoy any noticeable high spikes in quality as it plays out, there also isn’t a single unlikable song in the bunch. Ultimately, her approach works to the record’s benefit, as each song acts as a short burst in a never ending endorphin rush. "This is my dance floor I fought for," she asserts on "Free Woman" – and she doesn't leave her post for the entire 45 minutes of Chromatica. She seems ready to relinquish her worries, throw down some four-on-the-floor, and just dance once again, holding true to the promise she made to herself and her fans the very moment she hit the global stage. Click here to read the full review.



9. PETALS FOR ARMOR • HAYLEY WILLIAMS

Not to be chalked up as just Williams’ dead sprint toward amplified pop music, Petals for Armor treats her solo material as the elastic venture it should be. While she grabs onto others' established stylistic choices from across contemporary music to craft her own fleeting shades of pop, Williams has crafted a record with few pitfalls; it remains engaging without losses in consistency or storytelling. With blunt lyricism, dynamic vocal performances, and progressively expansive soundscapes, the tracks carry a lineage that seems natural and logical. If it were a secret-spilling book, it would be a tough read for quite a few chapters. As a record, however, Petals for Armor translates a postmortem on the past decade of her life into a career-redefining musical monument. Click here to read the full review.



8. SAWAYAMA • RINA SAWAYAMA

Greed, consumerism, and Western culture are explored over similarly interesting backdrops. She ties inherited money with the (dis)honor and hostility that come with it on “Dynasty,” a prelude to the album on which she pleads, “Catch me before I fall.” “XS” is an exhilarating take on turn-of-the-millennium rhythm and blues with sarcastic maximalist lyrics. And “Tokyo Love Hotel” is her love letter to Tokyo – and an overt self-awareness PSA to visitors to Tokyo who treat Japanese culture as a disposal hobby. While “Chosen Family” proves to be a bit dull and “Paradisin’” is charmingly chintzy, no track goes without ambition: Each one blindsides the senses from a new direction. The record’s elasticity and potency are its hallmark – and despite its losses in consistency, Sawayama is a high-definition snapshot of nearly an hour of controlled chaos. Click here to read the full review.



7. DREAMLAND • GLASS ANIMALS

Dreamland may journey into the abstract much less than the band’s previous records, but its balance between straightforwardness and poetic imagery is something to be admired. The record scrapbooks repressed memories and splices in some stray thoughts – admittedly, we all have drifting thoughts of "big dicks and big 'ol titties on the sly" from time to time, don't we? – while gluing them over the band’s sharpest melodies and most gratifying instrumental visions yet. Not if, but when 2020 in the fine arts can be viewed through rose-toned reminiscence a few years (or maybe a few decades) from now, Dreamland could be misfiled as an oasis from quarantine. Though it is just that in some ways, what's more memorable is what we learn about Dave Bayley through his processing of the people who molded him well before 2020 – and he just happened to put it all to some pretty rad music, too. Click here to read the full review.



6. PLASTIC HEARTS • MILEY CYRUS

“Midnight Sky,” a new pinnacle in Cyrus’ career, was the harbinger to Plastic Hearts, her rock-indebted seventh record. Inspired by and later remixed with Stevie Nicks, the single delivers the best possible combination of elements in a Miley Cyrus song: Thrashing bass meets metallic synths, demanding the full weight of her voice to compete with the energy. With inspiration, co-signature, and collaboration from rock music’s legacy names, the rest of Plastic Hearts follows a similar trajectory with contemporary flair: Rock titans Joan Jett and Billy Idol appear on uncanny replicas of their own areas in rock music, while disco revivalist Dua Lipa appears opposite of Cyrus on “Prisoner,” a slamming rocker made for the dance floor. Not a single moment of the record underutilizes her voice, her presence, or her power: Representing the musical space within which she most comfortably resides, it is the record Miley Cyrus was destined to produce. That is, until the next one proves us wrong once again. Click here to read the full review.



5. FUTURE NOSTALGIA • DUA LIPA

Future Nostalgia charges at a full sprint from the starting gun: The title track alone spits confidence unimaginable from a woman who was just coming to terms with her place in the industry a few years prior. However, she understandably broke down that wall earlier this week: "I don’t want to do this," she said between tears on Instagram Live, just before she announced the album‘s promotion would continue through the largest global health crisis in decades. The decision surely wasn’t an easy one, but it seems the best results came from it. Decades from now, we’ll never forget the artist whose absolutely electric pop songs gave us permission to dance through the worst – and without a doubt, those songs will live on to accompany some of our brightest moments, too. Click here to read the full review.



4. FOLKLORE • TAYLOR SWIFT

Opposed to her last three records, Folklore boasts an under-produced acoustic ecosystem of guitars, strings, and keys – an environment in which Swift can relax her voice into a thin, natural tone, with nothing in the musical landscape to tug at its limits. The 16 songs send listeners on a trip into an endless forest; once sucked in through the first few songs, it's nearly impossible to stop the journey until the edge is finally reached – in the record's case, the ending tracks "Peace" and "Hoax," the former of which feels like a more appropriate closing number. Though the record's long-winded nature equates to feeling like she retraces territory already explored at times, Folklore sounds effortless and uncomplicated – and deservedly so, it's the most at ease Taylor Swift has ever sounded. Click here to read the full review.



3. WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? • JESSIE WARE

When the fairytale overture on opening cut “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support the album’s best vocal work. From there, What's Your Pleasure? is a slow burn of hazy titillation via lounge-chic seduction ("In Your Eyes," "Adore You," "The Kill") and more often, throbbing pulsations: A drum and bass tickle the senses beneath “Save a Kiss,” preluding a dance-induced sweat tsunami forming on the horizon, and a whiplash beat tosses the chorus chant of "Mirage (Don't Stop)" from wall to wall. When the doors to the club are kicked open in the morning, though, there's a sobering reminder: "The heart of the city is on fire. Sun on the rise, the highs are gonna fall," she sings on the closing number, reminding us that reality can't remain suspended forever. And while that's true, What's Your Pleasure? is at least one well-deserved midnight escape for the senses. Click here to read the full review.



2. FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS • FIONA APPLE

Apple cuts into a primal heartbeat on “Heavy Balloon,” shaking loose from depression’s grip with an outburst: “I spread like strawberries. I climb like peas and beans.” If not for the title track, the similes for her self-nurturing would have acted as the record’s de facto mission statement. Despite its abrupt twists and blatant imperfections, Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels more homegrown than spontaneous by its end, having established a complex root system of heavy percussion, expressive vocal deliveries, organic household clatter, and flat-out brutal bluntness. With the sharpest, most interesting songwriting of her career, she unleashes a record that has waited not just eight years, but an entire lifetime to be made. Fetch the bolt cutters, indeed. Click here to read the full review.



1. WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III • HAIM

At nearly an hour long, Women in Music Pt. III is a towering testament – and not a single moment feels inessential. Danielle steps forward more firmly as the band’s pseudo-frontwoman in a traditional sense, but the three women’s talents are balanced and spotlit in their own rights. They each prove to be crucial to the record’s success: Danielle earns co-producer credit on every song and takes responsibility for a myriad of instrumentation. With this album’s dependency on sturdy underlying grooves, Este’s sublime bass work dictates each track’s mood board. And though Alana’s instrumental contribution shouldn’t be underplayed, some of the record’s most enthralling moments transpire when her vocal harmonies radiate out from behind her sister. The very best recorded display of their collective synergy and musical force, Women in Music Pt. III reflects three women who – both metaphorically and literally – have hit their stride. Click here to read the full review.

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Maira Gall