This past year posed unprecedented challenges for many musicians, who could not perform live and thus lost the incentive to release new music. While some mainstream commercial artists sat 2020 out, plenty of exciting albums filled the limelight. In a year lacking physical connection, nostalgia was central to the musical experience; music transported listeners back to happier and simpler times. So, in no particular order, here are 2020’s top music releases.
A wave of female rappers reigned in h hop, and most notable among them was Megan Thee Stallion with her EP “Suga,” which dominated the charts this year. Stallion’s rap is energetic and colorful, and was accompanied by a powerful and shining production. Some of the album’s more low-key songs like “Stop Playing” prove Stallion’s raw talent. Rico Nasty, an Emory McDonough Field alumna, also released a new album. “Nightmare Vacation” blends elements of hyper-pop (some Dylan Brady production) with Rico Nasty’s trademark hardcore flows.
Other influential rap albums last year underscored old-school nostalgia. Rapper Freddie Gibbs and producer The Alchemist dropped a now Grammy-nominated collaboration album, “Alfredo,” a relaxing and masterful saunter through hip hop excellency. The Alchemist cooks up soothing and soulful beats upon which Gibbs effortlessly floats. Westside Gunn’s “Pray For Paris” was similarly impressive, encapsulating the playful energy of boom-bap with a slightly jazzier flavor. Action Bronson also delivered with the hazy and sensual “Only for Dolphins,” one his most exciting albums in a while. With “Dolphins,” Bronson thrives in his trademark New York-foodie Albanian “Wrestlemania” niche of jazz-funk boom-bap. Make sure to check out the track “Sergio” — one of my favorite tracks of the year.
Following the old-school theme, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin released “Savage Mode II.” They came through with a refreshingly original blend of early 2000s trap mixed with new Atlanta mainstream. The vibe of this tape showcases overly swagged-out style of the bling era; there’s even an ultra-heady chopped and screwed deluxe edition to boot. Lastly, Playboi Carti finally dropped his long-awaited album: “Whole Lotta Red.” Inspired by the violent and fast aggression of 1970s punk, vampiric imagery and drug-fueled ecstasy, Carti came through with one of the most bizarre and exciting releases of the year.
The music industry also witnessed the tragic murder of Brooklyn drill pioneer Pop Smoke. Released early last year, “Meet the Woo 2” was an exciting follow-up to Pop Smoke’s first mixtape; tracks like “Shake the Room,” “Element” and “Mannequin” are thrilling, grimy and heavy. It’s depressing to see an exciting young talent like Pop Smoke snuffed out so early in his career.
This year has also been significant for indie music entering the mainstream. Hyper-pop, a subgenre emphasizing absurd and maximalist pop music, is now one of the most dominant indie-subgenres. Less poppy and more hyper, The Garden’s “Kiss My Super Bowl Ring” was a wildly animated and hardcore statement from the blossoming scene. With their newest album, The Garden shifts genres like most artists shift chords, switching through 1990s drum-’n’-bass, to punk and to indie rock within a moment’s notice. Charli XCX’s new album “how i’m feeling now” is similarly filled with mind-blowing production and emotional 1990s club nostalgia. Songs like “forever,” “detonate” and “i finally understand” make me feel like I’m browsing the local Forever 21 in the year 1998. With this newest record, Charli XCX solidified herself as the queen of hyper-pop through brilliant songwriting, experimental production and accessible touch.
Tame Impala’s “The Slow Rush” is an obvious indie highlight, an album teeming with nostalgia. Kevin Parker released “The Slow Rush” in February right before lockdown, so it personally evokes college innocence, an experience countless other students were stripped of due to the pandemic. Post-disco indie anthems on “Currents” blend ambient house, 1970s soft rock, early 2000s pop and vintage synthesizers. Tracks like “One More Year” are atmospheric and groovy with vague and contemplative lyrics that further elicit biting nostalgia.
There was no shortage of mind-blowing electronic music this past year. Baauer’s “Planet’s Mad,” is a memorable showcase of Baauer’s knack for tight, snappy and infectious dance production. With songs like songs like “YEHOO” and “REACHUPDONTSTOP,” Baauer distinguishes himself from other electronic artists by reinforcing more accessible dance beats with bizarre rhythms and eccentric sample choices. Another electronic album, Four Tet’s “Sixteen Oceans,” is a collection of ambient house tracks that are continually perplexing, cerebral and mesmerizing. Songs like “ Baby,” “Love Salad” or “Insect Near Piha Beach” are bright, shining and hypnotic. Whether being used as background ambiance or as a focused headphone listen, “Sixteen Oceans” is mesmerizing and optimistic.
Music has been a crutch for me this year, and these albums are just a few that have helped me through quarantine. Although we often think of older music as being nostalgic, new music can equally evoke that nostalgic void that knocks us off our feet, pulling us out of the current moment and reminding us of a happier past. The global community has experienced this pandemic together, and all of us are yearning for a better time where things just felt normal. Music can’t necessarily solve the current health crisis but powerful music can remind us that we are suffering together. So even though it was nice to listen to music privately this year, I sincerely hope that we will all be able to attend concerts together in 2021.