Released in isolation: The top 10 albums of 2020

Released in isolation: The top 10 albums of 2020

By Joshua Sokol, Living Arts Editor

2020 has been a year of disappointment. Internships were cut. Intense feelings of isolation and general melancholy reigned in relation to the state of the world. People turned to baking, crafts and other domestic activities to try and kill time. But one thing held this year together: new music.

This list of 2020 albums is by no means exhaustive, but I decided to compile these together based on my personal interests. These are the albums that comforted me, energized me, and gave me company—the ones I kept going back to.

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

I first discovered Phoebe Bridgers in 2018, a year after her debut album Stranger in the Alps was released. It was an intense emotional rollercoaster of melancholy—an album that seemed to admit the defeat and intensity of heartbreak with a niche precision and beauty.

When the musician’s sophomore album, “Punisher,” came out this year, it immediately felt like a reunion with the emotional range that Bridgers is known for: anger, melancholy, and a sense of release from identity. Notable tracks include “Moon Song,” with the lines “you couldn’t have stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody / who loves you more?” and “I’ll wait for the next time you want me / like a bird at your door,” still ringing in the back of my head. The vulnerability and transparency of emotion is enviable at first, then translates into something accessible to anyone who has experienced betrayal and unrequited love.

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The album ends with the epic “I Know the End,” a chronicle of departure and temporality. With the pandemic and political turbulence, 2020 easily felt like the end of the world. Bridgers captures this within a small, intimate moment of escaping one’s perceived life and into another. This song is about being at peace with destruction, the inevitable end of all things. “No I’m not afraid to disappear,” Bridgers sings. “The billboard says, ‘the end is here.’” 

2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

After an 8-year hiatus, Fiona Apple stormed back on to the scene with her fifth studio album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album which is conceptually centered around acquiring the tools for personal liberation. 

The album received a perfect score of 10/10 on Pitchfork, a rarity.

This album discusses incredibly difficult and challenging topics, feeling bound by unrequited passion and devotion to a person unwilling to reciprocate. But to say this album is simply about relationships with others is doing it a disservice. It reaches deep for the things we must grapple within ourselves, abolishing loneliness and taking a hammer to the chains that bind us— whatever form they may take. Apple takes rage and angst alongside her in this journey, acknowledging that they are necessary in the process of freeing yourself and severing ties. 

There is a sense of humor in Apple’s writing as well, with the song “Rack of His,” she writes this double entendre: “Check out that rack of his / look at that row of guitar necks.” A nod to the objectification of women, flipping the script on the male gaze.

The album also features a land acknowledgment to the indigenous territories the album was recorded on, Apple writes: made on unceded Tongva, Mescalero Apache, and Suma territories,” which are located in the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

3. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

This album is bizarre in the best way possible. In her debut album, Rina Sawayama mixes elements of pop and nu-metal that work perfectly in sync to portray bubblegum rage, like spun cotton candy being twisted around the point of a rusty needle. I can’t even begin to describe what the listening experience of this album is like, other than an incredible and mind-boggling maelstrom of well-composed noise.

After listening to this album—on repeat no less— it’s safe to say the future of alt-pop is in good hands with the British-Japanese artist.

 

 

4. Empress of – I’m Your Empress Of

Lorely Rodriguez, known professionally as Empress Of, released her third studio album in April of this year. The album is an indie pop powerhouse of emotionally-charged lyrics. It explores concepts of femininity, love, and confidence. In the song “Void,” a spoken portion breaks in the upbeat melody, a narrator charges forward with “you wanna make yourself the woman / that nobody wants to mistreat.”

The album seems to travel from a realm of heartbreak into the idea of finding that lost love within yourself. In the song “Awful,” these feelings of abandonment after heartbreak spill out. “I have to reinvent myself someway / And catch myself when I say things you say.”

 

5. Samia – The Baby

Debuting with the indie rock album The Baby, Samia layers intimate lyricism with a desire to keep details obscured. Is it a romantic interest that she is singing to? Is it herself? The term “baby” can be endearing,or infantilizing, depending on the context. 

Her dual use, a juxtaposition between innocence and intimacy, can be seen in the song “Big Wheel,” with the lyrics “good girl / sharp teeth.” This desire to remain neutral and to stay out of conflict layers the album in emotional complexity. Love can bite, but it can also reward.

 

6. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

Even in a year marked with doom and gloom, Dua Lipa released an album that acts as a dopamine rush and harkens back to the days of disco. The sad reality is that we still can’t go to clubs and parties, so this album will have to do.

The album has a transformative quality in any given situation or setting. Sweeping the floor or doing dishes becomes a one-person performance—dancing, singing, the whole nine yards. Lipa stacks pop sounds with disco beats, ascending a person out of their everyday life and into the magical universe of Future Nostalgia.

 

7. Matt Berninger – Serpentine Prison

As a longtime fan of The National, the band Berninger fronts as the lead singer, I was intensely awaiting the release of his debut solo album, Serpentine Prison.

With his iconic baritone, Berninger delivers the usual melancholy of his stylings. He mulls over the prospects of lost relationships—forlorn and strung out over emotional energy without a place to put it. He sings of distance and time, in the song “One More Second,” he spills into the music “give me one more second to dry my eyes / give me one more day to realize.” Asking the listener, what would you do with more time to fix something seemingly broken forever? 

More importantly, what can be gained from living in the past? 

 

8. HAIM – Women in Music Pt III

This album is a love letter to Los Angeles, in all of its complexities, beauties and conflicts. It mixes the feeling of how small an individual relationship can feel in a big city. It humbles, and it magnifies

The album tackles the subject of misogyny, loss and depression, all the while producing a sound that is energized by those same feelings. Negativity and reclamation make room for abundance. HAIM, in their third studio album, emphasize the importance of powerful women in alternative music. 

 

 

9. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately

Physical distancing has been a Herculean feat to overcome this year. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, whether it was intentional or not, put into words our craving for intimacy and connection. 

A celebration of vulnerability, Perfume Genius, also known as Michael Alden Hadreas, recounts his first gay experiences and the weight that those carried. A transparency that is both brave and poetic, this album breaks down the intricacies of love and compassion with musical scores that match in emotional depth and drama.

 

 

10. Chloe x Halle – Ungodly Hour

The sophomore album from the Atlanta duo introduces themselves with the emotional gut punch of “Forgive Me,” with the lyrics “why you wanna plead the fifth / You ain’t gotta tell me what it is.

Much like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, this album has the transformative quality that is spiritual in nature. It takes infidelity and betrayal,and makes it a display before heaven—a moment of divine judgement. 

The sisters, Chloe and Halle Bailey, have had a busy year. Between a Grammys performance and a powerhouse record, the duo shows no sign of slowing down their creative pursuits.