Like just about everything else, the music industry was shaken from top to bottom in 2020 by the ongoing global pandemic. As albums and singles were recorded and released from apartments, and would-be club bops became the soundtrack to solo bedroom dance parties, for many, the past year upended the way music was made and listened to.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — the chaos, it also happened to be a fantastic year in music, as both newcomers burst onto the scene with brilliant debut albums and seasoned veterans giving us some of their best work in years.
10. Rina Sawayama: SAWAYAMA — Ecstatic, eclectic, and chaotic in all the right ways, Rina Sawayama’s debut album is the mash-up of pop and nu-metal nobody knew they needed this year. Described as a work of self-exploration and self-discovery, with a focus on the scars the past leaves on the present, SAWAYAMA makes a melodramatic mockery of its subject matter with over-the-top production and a boldness matched by few other albums.
9. Sufjan Stevens: The Ascension — How did Sufjan Stevens get so jaded? If we take him at face value, The Ascension reads as a prolonged answer to that question. Wrapped in pulsing electronic harmonies that bring to mind a more subdued version of the lightning in a bottle that was The Age of Adz, The Ascension is one of those rare records that present morose, world-weary musings in a fun, glitchy, completely absorbing listen.
8. Lianne La Havas: Lianne La Havas — As solid as her previous work has been, British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas never seemed quite able to capture the magic that audiences at her live shows would rave about. Her self-titled album shakes that off with a more sparse production that puts her vocals front and center, letting the rest of us in on what we’ve been missing – intense, passionate lyrics delivered by one of the best vocalists working right now.
7. Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Dirt and the Stars — Master storytellers outdo even themselves from time to time, and in 2020 Mary Chapin Carpenter proved herself no exception with The Dirt and the Stars. The album, written by Carpenter at her Virginia farmhouse, stands out as her most intensely personal yet. Its tracks have a pointed sense of poignance that gives them a quality that is both haunting and compelling.
6. Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia — In a year that saw disco-pop explode in popularity, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia stood out among the pack. While paying tribute to the disco tracks that influenced her artistic turn with funky bass lines and brilliantly-used samples, she also made it very much her own. Bringing together past and present in an immensely catchy package, Future Nostalgia gave us some of the most memorable pop music of this or any year.
5. Róisín Murphy: Róisín Machine — Not to be outshone by upstart pop divas that tried their hand at disco-pop this year, Murphy returned with her first album in what feels like forever to show them how it’s done. Róisín Machine proves she is a master of her craft. It is not only a stellar disco album, it is one of the most well-polished and genuinely interesting albums of the year.
4. Bright Light Bright Light: Fun City — If you needed a feel-good dance bop to make it through the Fall, Bright Light Bright Light had you covered with his love letter to queerness past and present. Featuring a roster that reads as a who’s who of LGBTQ musicians, Fun City distills an unbelievable amount of queer joy and queer talent into one glorious, glittering package.
3. Christine and the Queens: La Vita Nuova — Released on the eve of rolling global lockdowns, Héloïse Letissier (better known as Christine and the Queens) couldn’t have known how her stellar EP would resonate the way it would. La Vita Nuova opens with the lyrics, “It’s true that, people, I’ve been sad,” all but foreshadowing the months of loneliness and isolation that would follow. Clocking just over 22 minutes of intense multilingual emotion neatly framed by remarkably tight, precise songwriting, this is Letissier at the top of her game.
2. Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters — It’s hard to think of a more aptly titled album. Fiona Apple’s lyrics are more raw and pointed than ever and her vocals are snarling and defiant to match. They are the work of an artist who is finally breaking free — from what, it’s not immediately clear, but the album is a journey that is at once so well-crafted and so completely unpredictable that it’s all but impossible not to follow her, if only to see what comes next.
1. Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately — Leave it to Perfume Genius to make brooding fun. Intense and powerful, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately explores human intimacy and the tenuous connections that make it possible in all their messiness and wonder. As thoughtful as it is viscerally compelling, it is an album that beautifully captures the feeling of connecting with another human being in a year when our need for that connection was thrown into sharp focus by its absence.
Sean Maunier writes about music for Metro Weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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