One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to listen to more music, but specifically to branch out of my comfort zone and find artists I have never even heard before and give them a try. I reached out to friends, relied on magazine reviews and score aggregation sites like Metacritic and Album Of The Year, and wound up discovering 33 new artists whose projects I listened to. Not all stuck with me, obviously, but my goal was so successful that 6 of the 10 albums on this list came from artists I found this year, and I enjoyed the process of listening to something new for the first time that I’ll definitely continue this in the following year. But for now, here are 10 albums from 2020 that brought some light in this unusually dark year.
10. Lianne La Havas, “Lianne La Havas”
“No more hangin’ around!” Lianne La Havas asserts during the opening track, “Bittersweet,” during a year that has been spent mostly hangin’ around. Her prediction might not have come true, but despite the uncertainty and anxiety this year has produced, this album is here to quell it. The mostly R&B and neo-soul album floats through down-tempo instrumentals and calming beats. It’s a perfect summer album for sitting out in the sun, shown through “Can’t Fight,” “Bittersweet,” and “Sour Flower.” Despite its tranquility, there are powerful moments: A cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” marks the climax of the album, and the lush instrumentation surrounding La Havas singing the lyric “Yeah, I’ll hit the bottom / The bottom and escape, escape,” repeated three times, each time more intense and drawn out than the last, makes for a 2020 highlight. “Sour Flower,” too, ends the album with a powerful mantra: “When I’m hot, when I’m blue / I’m not crying over you / When I cry, now I’m free / Sour flower, it’s on me,” and ends with a minute-long hand-clapping outro. Whatever emotion you feel, this album is like a 50-minute therapy session.
9. Chloe x Halle, “Ungodly Hour”
If you didn’t actually hear Chloe x Halle’s sophomore album, Ungodly Hour, chances are you saw them on your screen at some point during the year. The Bailey sisters earn the “Hardest Workers” achievement for the year, performing at the VMAs, People’s Choice Awards, BET Awards, the TODAY Show, and the US Open. They’ve sang the incredibly catchy “Do It,” the glimmery “Ungodly Hour,” and the dark “Forgive Me.” Recently, the theatrical and dramatic “Wonder What She Thinks of Me” was nominated at the 2021 GRAMMYs for Best Traditional R&B performance (They received two other nominations, including Best New Artist). On their second record, they mix their angelic voices with fantastic, clean production, ending up with juicy cuts like “Don’t Make It Harder On Me,” “Busy Boy,” and “Lonely.” Their personality also shows a humorous side, joking to their lovers to never break their hearts: “If you love your little life, then don’t fuck up.” What showcases the sisters’ talent and makes the album all the more impressive is the album credits: They wrote and produced the majority of the record. Come for the voices, stay for the rich, glossy production and sharp lyrics.
8. HAIM, “Women In Music, Pt. III”
The Haim sisters’ 3rd studio album arrived after a period of stress in their lives, and during one for the entire world. That doesn’t stop it from being a sun-drenched, upbeat and distinctly Californian record for most of the time, though: Album highlights “The Steps,” — recently nominated for a grammy — while about traditional gender roles, has a belt-along chorus featuring “And though we share a bed, you know that I don’t need your help,” and the sultry “3 AM” shows a different side of HAIM, about a booty call. “Now you’re callin’, 3 AM / my head is spinning,” the catchy chorus asserts. Where there are highs, there are lows, and “I Know Alone” was released early to become the soundtrack to early quarantine ennui: “‘Cause nights turn into days / That turn to gray / Keep turning over.” The structure of the song reflects the mood, similar to how “Now I’m In It”’s fast pace shows the quick, sporadic thinking of the narrator. At the end, when it quickens and the surrounding voices are saying, “Looking in the mirror again and again / Wishing this reflection would tell me something,” you’ll believe you’re in it. This is the sisters’ best album yet, due its personality and inherent likability.
7. Taylor Swift, “evermore”
Taylor Swift’s second 2020 isolation album, coming five months after its predecessor, does a great job at showing Swift can truly master any sound and hone her craft. Continuing the same musical style as folklore, evermore produces more high-quality stories that reside in ambient, easy-to-listen tunes. “happiness” and “cowboy like me” especially are two slower songs, but have tangible momentum. “long story short,” with its hyper BPM and clever lyrics, sounds like something belonging on 2012’s Red, like “Starlight” or “Holy Ground.” Two emotionally poignant songs are “coney island” with The National’s Aaron Dessner, the two trading off heartbreaking lyrics about a break-up (“Did I close my fist around something delicate? / Did I shatter you?”), and “tolerate it,” a story inspired by the novel “Rebecca” where love isn’t so much unrequited as it is unappreciated. “I know my love should be celebrated,” she sings, “but you tolerate it.” evermore is missing something special that folklore possessed (possibly owing to the diminished shock value of a second completely surprise album), but it is still a great follow-up that shows Swift can still create stories despite not experiencing them.
6. Jessie Ware, “What’s Your Pleasure?”
Where Kylie Minogue’s DISCO and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia focus on explosive, disco bops that highlight the brightest and catchiest of the genre, Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? is a more cerebral and mature approach. Don’t be mistaken, there are still dance-floor fillers but this album is filled with slow-burning, shimmering stories reminiscent of Robyn’s Honey (2018). “Adore You” and “In Your Eyes” take this approach, but highlight tracks like “Soul Control” and “Spotlight” are catchy up-tempo jams that make incredible use of the past production styles. The moment “Soul Control”’s instantly recognizable instrumental starts, there’s no turning back. Ware smartly has highs and lows on the album, dance breaks and rest breaks, which culminate in the grand finale, “Remember Where You Are.” On it, she sounds identical to Janelle Monáe, known for her imaginative album concepts. “Can we keep moving in the after hours? / Can we keep loving on the edge of doubt?” she asks in the closing moments, in a theatrical, grand exit.
5. Yukika, “Soul Lady”
The cultural zeitgeist of ’80s throwbacks and disco seemed to permeate the entire music industry, as K-pop newcomer Yukika’s debut album showed. Across 10 tracks, she explores various facets of the ’80s sound, going all in on fantastic title track “Soul Lady” and, fittingly, the hooky “NEON 1989.” It’s one of few albums where the interludes aren’t throwaway, unnecessary fillers, and they all showcase the production team’s insane attention to detail. “I Need A Friend” is a perfectly dramatic phone call with a lovely, video-game-esque instrumental, and “All Flights Are Delayed” creates a sonic liminal space with its gorgeous ambient atmosphere, reminiscent of the lo-fi hip hop relaxing background music trend. “Pit-A-Pet,” about Yukika’s dog, is a full on electro-pop banger, but tracks like “I Feel Love” and “Cherries Jubiles” are effortlessly light. The whole album is a treat to indulge in, and transcends the K-pop label, holding its own against Western pop music. It’s just that immaculate.
4. Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia”
After closing out 2019 with two excellent singles — The sleeper hit “Don’t Start Now” and funky, confident “Future Nostalgia” — Dua Lipa ramped up her energy in January 2020 with “Physical,” a powerful anthem that showed off her strong voice. The subsequent album rollout didn’t go perfectly according to plan: Its initial release, April 3, was pulled forward a week earlier. “I hope [the album] brings you some happiness,” she said on an Instagram livestream. What followed was a tight 11 songs, showcasing her immense growth from her self-titled debut album in 2017. As its name suggests, Lipa brings the past to the future, one of the first artists to kick off the 2020 disco revival. There are some insanely fun moments, like the interstellar “Levitating,” the groovy and summery “Cool,” and the catchy cowbell-filled “Break My Heart.” If she’s improved this much between albums, her horizon is endless.
3. Kylie Minogue, “DISCO”
Kylie Minogue heard the calls of a 2020 disco revolution, the current state of the world, angst, loneliness, and fear, and said “You guys are in a crisis. I’m on my way.” The Princess of Pop released two disco throwback albums during the turn of the century: Light Years, a kitschy, dramatic, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach, and Fever, a sleek, well-produced and elegant take. Minogue has known to revive herself and introduce a new persona with each album cycle since then: 2003’s Body Language was R&B, 2007’s X focused on electronic music, she ventured into country on 2018’s Golden. But now, she returns to the music she grew up with — and produces some excellent tunes along the way. “Say Something,” the lead single, is a career highlight. Not written during quarantine but speaks to it, Minogue asks, “‘Cause love is love, it never ends / Can we all be as one again?” “Miss A Thing,” the “Spinning Around” of 2020, is a shiny, atmospheric anthem, and the catchy “Real Groove” follows after, also performed on Dua Lipa’s “Studio 2054.” There are some heartfelt moments, like “Celebrate You” and “Hey Lonely,” where Minogue reaches out to a friend in need, but they keep the good times rolling. Minogue is in her groove here, and when the world needed it most, she brought some good dance music to help out a bit.
2. Taylor Swift, “folklore”
The first of two 2020 releases for pop superstar Taylor Swift, “folklore” marked a distinctive switch in her release cycle: It was a complete surprise, to be released 16 hours after it was announced. Usually, there is meticulous planning from Swift in her team, leaving easter eggs and teasers in music videos, but this time the hard work was done within the album. “Folklore” is an album full of stories, some interconnected with a string, like the “Teenage Love Triangle” comprised of “betty,” “august,” and “cardigan,” songs written from the perspective of different people in the same tale. Swift even went so far as to line up the lyrics “She said ‘James, get in, let’s drive’” from “august” and “Remember when I pulled up and said ‘Get in the car’?” from “betty” at the exact same time: 2 minutes and 47 seconds in. Swift’s attention to detail is on full display here: Each song is a package full of great lines, some truth, some fiction, to eventually be passed down. “the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, comparing her public image to Swift. “epiphany” likens the current Coronavirus pandemic to her grandfather’s experience during the war, producing one of the most heart-wrenching images of the entire record: “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now / ‘Doc, I think she’s crashing out.’” The album is uniquely special, and Swift’s storytelling capabilities have come to life in this well-produced, low-key record.
1. Rina Sawayama, “SAWAYAMA”
It makes sense that in a year as insane as this, the best album is one that continually keeps the listener guessing with every song, line, and genre. Rina Sawayama’s debut album pulls from nu-metal, disco, rock, synthpop, trap, europop, all within its 45-minute runtime. You can feel Sawayama’s extraordinary talent, the fact that she’s been studying pop music for years in order to produce this collection of songs. The themes she touches on transcends the normal “break-up album” or “regular pop album,” instead, it stretches in every direction, taking the listener on an emotional rollercoaster. On “Comme Des Garçons,” she’s as confident as ever, crooning “Hot like a fever, make you a believer,” a rare instance where a British singer’s accent shines through. She’s criticizing capitalism and rampant consumerism on “XS,” (Call me crazy, call me selfish / I’m the baddest, and I’m worth it”) playing into the stereotype like Taylor Swift did on “Blank Space.” But she also tackles loneliness and fear, isolation and exclusion from her family and heritage like the soaring “Dynasty,” my personal favorite song of the year, and “Akasaka Sad.” And then there’s friendship, whether a fractured one (“Bad Friend”) or a nostalgic memory of it (“Paradisin’”). There is coherence within the craziness, and this is the sound of an artist whose imagination can go in 14 different directions — each door wide open for her to explore.