In a year where I couldn’t feign intelligence by participating in discourse surrounding movies deemed culturally significant, I really leaned into music. The key difference between film and music during a pandemic is watching a new movie in your living room eating microwave popcorn feels sad, while listening to an album in the dark staring at your bedroom ceiling has always been — and will always be — the ideal first listening experience.
Thankfully, the great artists of our world — in a move sold as charitable, though the true intentions could likely be traced back to capitalism — provided us with a bounty of music to make it through 2020. By “the great artists,” I mean women, of course.
- Positions by Ariana Grande had some good tracks, but didn’t offer enough to the general culture nor advance Ariana’s career in a meaningful enough way to earn a spot. It is unfortunately still my third most streamed album. “west side” is really good, as are “safety net” and honestly, “34+35.” Conversely, “six thirty” is the worst thing she has ever recorded.
- Manic by Halsey did not gag nor goop me upon release, but it almost made it onto the list when I revisted it while doing a morning shift at The Gap a few weeks ago. I still think Halsey is a little corny, but I do respect that she’s a Swiftie. “Graveyard” and “Without Me” are amazing pop songs, “3am” is what Mildred Milene Destiny Hope “Miley” Cyrus promised but did not deliver, “killing boys” is a moment and “More” made me cry.
- Hot Pink by Doja Cat was not released this year, but I still wanted to shout it out because it owned me for a solid two months. She’s the most talented new act in music, fight me.
- I famously tweeted that Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus would be album of the year numerous times in the weeks leading up to its release. While I can’t take back what I said, I can correct myself in that it is not the best album of the year, nor is it in the top ten. What made Destiny Hope go down the rock ballad route, we may never know. Within the album are some hits; “Midnight Sky” is one of the best songs of the year, as is “Prisoner,” “Gimme What I Want” is the one and “Never Be Me” checked off like, nearly every box. Still, it drags a little too much for me to be gagged.
- Dedicated Side B by Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t as good as Emotion Side B, and was mostly filler, but it’s still a Carly album, which means it still contained numerous classics — namely “This Is What They Say,” “Solo” and “Window.” Also, what she did with “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away” was nothing short of Shakespearean.
11*. Rare, Selena Gomez
A week ago, Selena Gomez held the 10th spot on this list with Rare, before that title was taken from her due to unforseen circumstances. As one of the few Selena Gomez’s music apologists, I felt like a fraud doing that to her, so here she remains — who says I can’t bend rules that I invented?
A lot of uneducated and, frankly, mindless people like to clown Selena for her music — specifically citing a lack of vocal prowess, if you would — but to that, I say “shame!” Because if there’s one thing Selena Gomez is gonna do, it’s deliver hits! And Rare is full of them. It’s nice to take a break from being pretentious every once and a while and enjoy a pop album that follows every convention, rather than challenges them. I mean, it’s just like the scripture says: They’re the greatest, what’s wrong with that? Best Tracks: Look At Her Now, People You Know, Dance Again.
(TIE) 10. Under My Influence, The Aces
Are The Aces lesbian underground culture? I’m asking seriously, because if they are, I’m really glad to get it. When My Heart Felt Volcanic, the quartets first album, was the perfect soundtrack for the spring, bursting with sunshine and good vibes and those Adidas sneakers paired with cuffed jeans (I’m not projecting).
Under My Influence is less focused on capturing a vibe, yet still manages to be one of the (the?) all-around gayest albums of the year (a compliment). Everything is there; pining after a love that doesn’t exist, deep-rooted loneliness and girls named Kelly. Best Tracks: Cruel, Lost Angeles, Not Enough.
(TIE) 10. Lady Like, Ingrid Andress
I made a vow to myself that I would not ride for any more blonde white women making music similar to every other blonde white women I already ride for. I completely ignore Phoebe Bridgers for this exact reason! But if nothing else, I am weak — what else was I supposed to do upon hearing the delivery of that opening line of “Bad Advice”? “My friend told me if I drink the WHOOOLE thing, I wouldn’t think about you!” God, I am not one of your strongest soldiers.
Corny people who say they like “anything but country” need to leave female country artists out of that conversation immediately. Because at the end of the day, they’re some of the best storytellers in music, which is exactly what Ingrid Andress does throughout Lady Like. She chronicles the stages of heartbreak with vulnerability and humor, and does it all across just eight songs. Best Tracks: Bad Advice, Anything But Love, Both.
9. SAWAYAMA, Rina Sawayama
No artist likes to be put in a box; genre-hopping is a mainstay in the music industry, one that is almost vital to longevity — especially for female acts. On her debut album, Rina Sawayama plays more with genre in one tracklist than some do in their entire careers. SAWAYAMA is a charcuterie board of sounds; bubblegum pop, 90s R&B, arena rock — they’re all there, and they’re all executed to perfection.
The line between pastiche and plagiarization can be a blurry one, but SAWAYAMA doesn’t come near it. The often-times jarring switches between sounds can be attributed less to trend-chasing, and more to a deep appreciation for the music Rina — and countless others of her generation — were raised on. Best Tracks: Bad Friend, Tokyo Love Hotel, XS.
8. DISCO, Kylie Minogue
Speaking of trend-chasing, Kylie Minogue does exactly that on DISCO — and for that we thank her! Because there are some trends that deserve to be chased, and the disco renaissance is most certainly one of them. Many have tried — and many more will attempt — to capitalize on the Studio 54 fantasy taking over mainstream pop, but none have captured the spirit quite like DISCO.
It’s not a perfect album, and it undeniably loses its footing after the euphoric climax of “Dance Floor Darling,” but to fill a record with 10 high-energy, expertly produced modern disco tracks all in a row is a feat in itself. Plus, even the corniest moments have yet to find themselves on the dreaded store playlist at The Gap … can that insufferable Jessie Ware album that every neoliberal gay is trying to convince me is good say the same? Best Tracks: Dance Floor Darling, Real Groove, Magic.
7. Gaslighter, The Chicks
The most cutting, brutal, honest album of the year. The all too true tale of Natalie Maines’ divorce isn’t told through thinly-veiled metaphors or with the backdrop of forgiveness we demand from women of a certain age going through betrayal. Instead, nothing is left to the imagination — her husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called her up, and that is messed up — and nothing is held back; because a peaceful, sleepy departure from this world would be too kind a curse to place on a cheating husband of twenty years.
Divorce media is having a moment right now, and let it be known: Gaslighter is the seminal piece. Best Tracks: Gaslighter, Julianna Calm Down, Sleep at Night.
6. Women In Music Pt. III, HAIM
It’s the swelling of strings that accompanies the “Nope!” in “Los Angeles.” It’s the breakdown of “I Know Alone,” the deep breath at the start of “Up From A Dream,” the way “Don’t Wanna” takes you directly to the beach, while “Leaning On You” soundtracks the cross-country road trip you’ll probably never take. It’s the Joni references delicately and lovingly sprinkled throughout — the smiles that turn into crying (it’s the same release!), the screaming every word of “Both Sides Now.”
HAIM had no need to prove themselves; they did so seven years ago on Days Are Gone, then again on Something To Tell You. They’ve made it beyond clear that they’re not the best female alternative rock band right now, they’re simply the best alternative rock band right now, period. Still, they entertain critics and skeptics and the likes on WIMPIII, their best work to date.
It’s an apt title. The album isn’t filled of capitalist girl-power anthems, or even overt themes of femininity. Instead, it echoes their own statement — women make the best rock music — by way of show, rather than tell. Best Tracks: I Know Alone, Don’t Wanna, Gasoline.
5. Heaven & Hell, Ava Max
From the moment she hit the world’s stage, Ava Max was put down; deemed nothing more than a fraud, something of a Lady Gaga tribute act. The sweet irony, then, that one of these two released one of the best pop albums of the year, while the other spat out a fan-servicing, nostalgia-chasing record that appeals to virtually no one.
Heaven & Hell has not one moment of clownery, nor does it falter for even a second. The highs are astronomical highs; the lows are still pretty high, in comparison. The concept of Heaven vs. Hell is scarcely explored and borderline misguided, but it is so easy to ignore that if this is your one critique of this body of work (and I say that with my full chest), then you need to do some soul searching and also maybe loosen up a little.
In the word’s of Ava Houston Louise Ciccone Carey Max; who’s laughing now? Best Tracks: OMG What’s Happening, Who’s Laughing Now, Rumors.
4. folklore, Taylor Swift
At 16-years-old, Taylor Swift wrote from the perspective of a woman retelling the tale of her marriage on “Mary’s Song.” She was a natural at storytelling, a skill she would only visit in flashes across her expansive career that followed, favoring first-person, deeply personal narratives.
Like every other convention, this was tossed aside on Folklore, Taylor’s first of two surprise releases this year. She dives headfirst into acting as a vessel for others’ stories, passing down tales of misjudged heiresses, heartbroken teenagers, lost childhoods and wartime epics, all set against a forestial backdrop.
It’s not just Taylor flaunting her best-of-a-generation songwriting — which has been a constant, even at her most questionable moments — but rather expanding this skill past her own point of view, a choice that lead to one of her most masterful albums to date. Best Tracks: betty, the last great american dynasty, illicit affairs.
3. Ungodly Hour, Chloe X Halle
A good intro can make or break an album. “Don’t ever ask for permission / Ask for forgiveness,” is on a whole other level. Ungodly Hour was a full plate at an all you can eat buffet, and not only did Chloe and Halle Bailey eat, they inhaled, licked the plate clean, brought it to the back, rinsed it off and threw it into the dishwasher, just for good measure.
The album is otherworldly. It’s the easiest listening experience of the year; each song is so unique, yet connected by the smallest, at-times unnoticeable sonic threads. The minor chords and chant-like vocals that fill the latter half of the album give it an almost Gregorian sound; it’s borderline concerning to hear the haunting delivery of “FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!” in the closer and not be gagged — like, get checked out if that’s the case. Best Tracks: Forgive Me, Do It, ROYL.
2. Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa
Repeat after me: Dua Lipa is the last great American pop star — and she’s not even American! The concept of an album “era” is a fleeting one, and not only did Dua execute a flawless, well thought out era with Future Nostalgia … but she did it all during what truly is a global pandemic.
It’s not just the “Don’t Start Now” choreography or the retro-space-waitress photoshoots that make Future Nostalgia one of the defining moments of the year, though. The short-but-sweet tracklist contains some of the best pop production since Taylor’s 1989, the kind of pop masterpiece that runs out of songs before it runs out of hits. Best Tracks: Levitating, Pretty Please, Don’t Start Now.
1. evermore, Taylor Swift
To put it simply, living through Taylor Swift’s 2020 output is watching one of the greatest artists of a generation at her creative peak. To abandon the constraints placed upon her by an industry she herself has transformed numerous times was always in the cards for Taylor. In practice, however, it has yielded results far greater than I — or anyone with sense — could have ever imagined.
Because just four months after folklore, Taylor dropped what is across-the-board her greatest album to date. Evermore is a gift; somehow more wise, more clever and more focused than its sister album. Each song is a poem, each message meant just as much for the listener as it is for the subject. At the onset of her thirties, Taylor has so naturally transitioned into her role as a modern-day prophet. We should all be praising. Best Tracks: ivy, no body no crime, cowboy like me.