With the addition of Spotify to my life last September, my ability to stream entire albums increased by a significant amount. Before that I kind of floundered about, hearing singles here and there, or seeking out new releases from my favorite artists. Now I was able to stream new and old albums by musicians from big labels or small, all over the world, and fill the increasing amount of time in my home as quarantine wore on. With their voices and songs, the mood sometimes lifted, shifted, or melded around me.
Without further ado, these are the albums that helped me thru 2020.
- aurora by Bea Miller (2018). I first heard of Bea Miller with her song “Dracula”, but then she kind of fell of my radar until “S.L.U.T.” popped up in a Spotify playlist. This album has a good variety of sound, and I love the general sense of empowerment in some of the songs, such as “motherlove”, “buy me diamonds”, and “girlfriend.” The beats and her vocals feel timely and she definitely fits into her genre. This is definitely for when you’re in the mood to dance around the apartment, feeling yourself, and not needing company to enjoy it.
- Birds of Prey: The Album (2020). One of the few compliments people paid to Suicide Squad was that it had a killer soundtrack, and this is no different. The exception here, of course, is that this mix features some amazing vocals from some of the best women in the game and more. Doja Cat starts us off right with “Boss Bitch”, setting the mood for the entire album; Megan Thee Stallion, Halsey, K. Flay, and Charlotte Lawrence contribute notable tracks, but it’s all around a great time. It will make you feel like a badass even if you’re just folding laundry.
- Gaslighter by The Chicks (2020). I grew-up loving The Chicks, singing along to “Ready to Run” and “Goodbye Earl” in my mom’s car, so I knew from the get-go I was going to love this album. The first single was released while I was in Texas and I remember sitting there, jamming to the titular song with my friends. Then I played the album on repeat in July. There’s something particularly sweet about revenge via music when a man does you wrong. “Sleep at Night”, “Tights On My Boat”, and “Julianna Calm Down” are all great in this vein, but “March March” adds something new to their oeuvre.
- Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa (2020). Remember at the beginning of quarantine when this dropped and everything still felt really positive? I do. I was dancing around my kitchen to “Don’t Start Now” and “Physical” and feeling the vibes in “Love Again” and “Levitating.” It really passed the time while I was adjusting to working from home, anxious over the state of the world, and generally felt like what should have been one of the great albums of summer parties and clubs.
- Blood Harmony (Deluxe) by FINNEAS (2020). This debut EP comes from one of my new favorites. He’s a talented musician and can only grow from here. “Shelter”, “Let’s Fall in Love for the Night”, and “Break My Heart Again” all display a good sense of lyricism and range in sound, going from a fast-paced rhythm and ascendant mood to a low melancholy piano beat. It’s a great album whether you’re focused on the songs or just putting it on in the background while you work.
- Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (1977). Okay, technically I was familiar with all of these tracks thanks to my Fleetwood Mac compilation album that I’ve had for a few years now. However, I hadn’t really listened to the songs as intended by the band. So in spring, it ended up becoming one of those albums I had on repeat while I worked on finishing up my degree. When the album ended up peaking again thanks to that viral TikTok of Nathan Apodaca and “Dreams” charted, I felt like I’d been magically ahead of the game (which sometimes happens). It’s definitely become, perhaps, one of my All-Time Favorites since I can listen to “Second Hand News”, “Never Going Back Again”, “The Chain”, and pretty much all of them whenever, wherever.
- Manic by Halsey (2020). This was one of my most anticipated albums of the year and I bought it upon release all the way back in January. And it’s pretty much stayed in my constant rotation ever since. I’ve been a Halsey fan since Badlands and it’s been great to hear her sound evolve and grow into its own with every album. This one, in particular, is very much shaped by her experiences and her relationships, and I love that it came at a time in my life when I needed to hear it. From “clementine” to “929”, “Graveyard” to “Without Me”, there’s a variety in the intensity of the tracks but always a consistency to the lyrics. “You should be sad”, “killing boys”, and “I’m Not Mad” all bring this great motif of revenge to the album that I vibe with so hard.
- From the Outside by Hey Violet (2017). Remember that hit song “Guys My Age”? Somehow it totally skipped my attention that there was a whole amazing album to go with that singular song. As sweet as bubblegum pop punk attitude and Manic Panic hair dye, Hey Violet’s album is full of the kind of songs that feel perfect to drive around at night screaming along to. There’s a sense of longing, heartbreak, and falling-in-love-with-the-wrong-person type of appeal that I really like. Notable tracks such as “Brand New Moves”, “Fuqboi”, and “Unholy” add to their sound and make for a great time.
- kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini (2020). So I’d mostly heard Ballerini’s singles since 2014 as they played on the radio and I thought they were good, but they didn’t overly grab my attention—until “Miss Me More” became one of my post-breakup anthems. So when her third album came out in March, I made sure to check it out. I found a nice blend of the country-pop sound that is popular right now, but with songs and lyrics that felt relatable and like a nice form of escapism as the lockdown wore on. I liked listening to “homecoming queen?” and “hole in the bottle” as I put my laundry away or cleaned. And I listened to “the other girl”, which features Halsey, on repeat and loved the narrative it told. This is probably one of the newer country releases that I’ve really enjoyed.
- High Road by Kesha (2020). Another album that I highly anticipated, I enjoyed how High Road defied so many expectations. It mixes her Animal and Cannibal partying nonchalance with some of the emotional keynotes of Rainbow to create something that feels almost like a newer level of Warrior. While she does address some of the real-world drama that has surrounded her career, she seems more interested in moving forward and enjoying the present than being mired in the past—this seems like an album that has accepted the good and bad and meshed them together in great ways. You have the party anthems like “Tonight” and “Raising Hell”, backed with some reflective songs like “My Own Dance” and “Shadow”, but then there are songs like “Kinky (feat. Ke$ha)” and “Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” which just feel like the best kind of freedom we could give Kesha in 2020.
- Sorry by Meg Myers (2015). I’ve been listening to songs from Meg Myers since 2018 but hadn’t gone into a full album. Thanks to Spotify, I was finally able to indulge in her discography and enjoy her breathy vocals over various 90s-esque alternative rock beats. Sorry is my favorite because of the cohesion in the album, the power in her vocals throughout, and so many enjoyable songs. “Motel” and “Make a Shadow” have this great echoing choir sound throughout, “Desire” feels like a feminine version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer”, and “Lemon Eyes” is just fun and has some really great lyrics. This feels like lounging in a seedy basement in kind of the best way.
- Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus (2020). This year I finally learned to appreciate Miley Cyrus. Before I enjoyed her music in a guilty pleasure way—like “Oh, it’s Hannah Montana” or “It’s just a good song”—but I spent a lot of time listening to her live performances on BBC Live Lounge, and then she started releasing new music with an 80s rock vibe that really showcased her vocals in a way pop hadn’t before. This album feels like great aspects of the past melded with the musical sensibilities of the present. From the titular “Plastic Hearts” and its hip-shaking chorus to the soaring vocals of “High”, it’s all Miley but feels fresh. Features from Billy Idol (on fantastic track “Night Crawling” with his signature growl), Joan Jett, and Dua Lipa create unique collaborations that compliment both Miley and the other artist’s sound. If this is where Miley Cyrus’ music is heading, I’m all for it.
- THE END OF EVERYTHING by Noah Cyrus (2020). Not all of the music of this year was uplifting; some of it fit the depression perfectly. This EP uses guitars, pianos, percussion, and Noah Cyrus’ vocals to empathize with how lonely some of us are feeling, or how hard things have been. “July” was a fairly successful hit, deservedly so, but “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus” has its own charms. “Lonely” and “Young & Sad” are both perfect for when you want to cocoon in a blanket and not emerge until the world looks better, but it also says that maybe that’s okay. Noah’s vocals are smooth throughout the tracks and I appreciate how authentic this album feels from the get-go.
- Use Me by PVRIS (2020). I love PVRIS’ sound because it’s like a perfect blend of rock energy and electro-pop synth, but in a way that doesn’t feel like it leans too close in either direction. It’s not too upbeat or saturated with mainstream sound and feels almost entirely their own. This album has so many great songs, perfect for dancing, driving, or vibing to, such as: “Gimme a Minute”, “Dead Weight”, “Death of Me”, and “Stay Gold.” Each track feels uniquely its own but, at the same time, blends in with their overarching sound. The lyrics, while perhaps second to the sound and vocals, work pretty well when you pay enough attention. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.
- Only Child by Sasha Sloan (2020). Sometimes YouTube leads you to new artists who end up capturing a mood or voicing your feelings in a new way. This is very much ‘sad girl vibes’ from Sloan’s voice to the general lyrics and music. “House With No Mirrors” feels relatable to anyone who has struggled with body image issues; “Lie” and “Someone You Hate” analyze relationships that clearly aren’t working; “Hypochondriac” and “Matter to You” show how moments of sunshine can break through the dreariness. It’s a great album to put on in the background but paying attention to what’s going on is also worth your time.
- Promising Young Woman soundtrack (2020). I had a feeling from the first trailer that this film was going to have a decent soundtrack, but I didn’t have any idea how good until almost a year later (thanks Covid). Not only does it feature female artists exclusively, but the songs feel satirical at times, tongue-in-cheek, or like a knowing wink across the bar. While I won’t know how they’re incorporated into the film until I see it, I have high hopes based off of this. Highlights include “Last Laugh” by FLETCHER, “Selenas” by Maya B, a surprising inclusion of “Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton (which is not as bad as I remember it being!), and “Drinks” by Cyn among many, many other great tracks. This album carries a lot of great energy which I hope is translated into the movie, but it definitely is a top album.
- Six: The Musical Original Cast Recording (2018). My sister was obsessed with this musical for a time, but it wasn’t until I got back into Broadway during lockdown that I understood why—it’s fun. Not only does it tell the story of King Henry’s VIII’s six wives from their perspectives, but the musical styles feel original (compared to the time period) and by virtue of the point-of-view we’re given new insight into these women. If you were to compare it to Hamilton, the only real similarity is that they’re both historical musicals wherein the audience can learn some stuff through the music. “No Way”, Catharine of Aragorn’s number, has nods of Spanish flair—perfect for her. Anne Boleyn’s “Don’t Lose Ur Head” has some great lyrics that play on modern language against historical events. Katherine Howard’s “All You Wanna Do” is one of those great songs that seems upbeat but reveals itself to be deeper than at first glance and also gives depth to the character. I would definitely love to see this production live because, even as an album, it’s a great time.
- evermore by Taylor Swift (2020). We got not one but two surprise albums from Taylor Swift this year. As someone whose life has had her music in the background, I couldn’t believe what a blessing and escape this was. My friends and I streamed it the second it was available and chatted our way through the listening. In many ways, evermore feels livelier than folklore, but they really do feel like two halves of a whole (or a third if you believe the theories). In just the first few weeks of its release, I’ve listened to it on repeat, over and over, absorbing the mood. While the whole album is notable, my standout songs include “champagne problems”, “tolerate it”, “no body, no crime (feat. HAIM)”, and “marjorie.” I have trouble listening to just one song from the album and figure I might as well just listen to the whole thing, again, because it’s just that good. The lyrics are fantastic, the motifs and mixes are great, and I already cried multiple times while listening so it’s been tied to my heart in more ways than one. If you’re not a Taylor Swift fan by now, maybe you just haven’t found the right album or the right song, so what better time to go through her discography?
- folklore by Taylor Swift (2020). This unexpected joy has shifted a bit of my life since July; I mean, it’s been in my favorite song list consistently, and hasn’t left my CD player either. You’d think I’d be tired of it by now. You’d be wrong. This initial surprise from Taylor Swift was like a breath of fresh air in a claustrophobic summer and brought just the right touch of depression to everything. Taylor Swift has been a part of my life for so long it only felt right to have her be a part of my lockdown experience too. While folklore perhaps has more lulls than its sister, that just means its more sensitive and softer and there’s nothing wrong with that. My favorite tracks are: “the last great american dynasty”, “exile (feat. Bon Iver)”, “august”, “illicit affairs”, and “betty.” I love how this album brings a touch of the cottagecore aesthetic to any day and makes everything seem cozier.
- After Hours by The Weeknd (2020). Another album from the beginning of lockdown, but this one felt like a gift we were being given as a consolation for what we were going through (in the best way). I’d slowly been getting more into The Weeknd’s sound, but, with the release of this album, I dove all the way in and listened to it repeatedly while finishing up the semester. “Blinding Lights” and “Heartless” gave me some of the energy I needed to work when it felt like I had none. “Hardest to Love”, “In Your Eyes”, and “After Hours” captured my attention every time no matter what I was doing. The vocals glide effortlessly over every track, hitting those highs and lower notes perfectly, and the accompanying beats blend so well with the sound. It is at once an album of its time and genre, but also so attuned to its artist and his sound that I couldn’t picture another artist doing these songs. I’m excited to see what a future album will bring for The Weeknd.
*Honorable Mentions: Melodrama by Lorde (2017) and Hozier by Hozier (2014).
Obviously, this year was dominated by female artists (as it usually is), and the pop genre was a bit more prevalent in my life than usual. I’ve discovered new artists who I’ve loved, such as Ashnikko, and found comfort in old favorites as well. One of the few benefits of spending so much of this year trapped inside was the time I had to listen to music, to dive back into Broadway cast recordings, to appreciate how a single song could lift my mood—if only for a moment. I hope that the music of 2021 will continue to provide relief, escapism, and good times amidst everything else in the world, and that I’ll find so much more to appreciate.