Where better to start again than with a retrospective?
There’s plenty that could be said about 2020, but for now, I’ll leave it up to a future post to pick over the miserable carcass of the year. If nothing else though, 2020 was an exceptionally good year for music.
The return of disco? Check. Heavy eighties influences? Check. The influence of lofi hiphop coming to the fore? Check.
This year had it all. And of course, in a punishingly cruel twist of fate, this was, of course, the year that we couldn’t go out and dance to it. But nonetheless, here we are. Below is my look back at my favourite albums and EPs from the past year, plus a little look forward to what 2021 might have in store.
These Two Windows
I’ve been following Alec Benjamin since the release of his first record Narrated for You which I absolutely loved (and was number 11 on my Top 20 Albums of the 2010s), and this year, we got a fully fledged album from Alec Benjamin, These Two Windows.
What I find most intriguing about this album is that it almost has echoes of Ed Sheeran, whose music I cannot stand. Alec Benjamin’s unique, delicate high voice carries his gentle, sad core, hip-hop influenced songs wonderfully. I do get that his voice might not be for everyone, it is very distinct, but his music is tinged with a late-millennial nostalgia and melancholy that really strikes a chord.
Recommended track: Match in the Rain
Another reappearance from my My Top 20 Albums of 2010s post, the former number six is at number nine on this year’s list with her EP Coquette. Hailey Tuck has found a formula of combining intricate Parisian-style jazz with her American country roots, and the result is a polished, gentle, almost bohemian coolness that oozes sophistication and glamour.
It’s almost a little Bond-esque, with the twanging guitars and brush jazz drums, and continues the splendid melodies and production that were present in her first album Junk. We also get the added bonus of songs in French on this EP, too, which if you’re a keen French learner like me, is a nice little addition!
Recommended track: A Bit of You (originally by Rufus Wainwright)
Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass
Lana Del Rey
OK, OK, hear me out. This isn’t technically an album, so much as an audio-book, but as it’s a reading of her poetry, accompanied by music written and produced by Lana and her long-standing collaborator Jack Antonoff, and they released it as a vinyl, I’m putting this on the list!
Anybody that knows me knows that I’m a huge Lana Del Rey fan, and have been for 10+ years now, so, obviously I’m going to nothing but shower her with praise and glory, but I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that Lana Del Rey is one of the best songwriters and lyricists working today. I know that not all of her lyrics are created equally, and some of them are a tad… trite? But, I honestly believe as a lyricist, musician, and poet, her work is so potent, evocative, and effective, especially in that Americana tradition, that she’s a natural successor to the likes of Bob Dylan in her abilities.
Now that I’ve got that out the way, let’s talk about Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass, Lana’s first collection of poetry. I think it’s superb. How much of it is written from the point of view of Lana Del Rey the character as opposed to Elizabeth Grant the person is up for debate, but as a product of ‘Lana Del Rey’, I find it sublime. Best read with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, preferably parked up overlooking a vista at dusk in the heat of summer (or listened to ready by Lana herself in one go). It’s an experience.
Recommended track / poem: LA Who Am I To Love You
From one evocative dreamscape to the next, the debut album from Honey Gentry, H.G. is an exceptional body of work from the English singer-songwriter. First of all, as well as being self-penned, Honey Gentry also self-produced the album, which considering how delicately and carefully it’s been crafted, is such a feat.
If you’re heading to a sun-baked vista to listen to Lana Del Rey, my recommendation for Honey Gentry’s H.G. is a meadow, brimming with wildflowers in late Spring. Whilst I think it’s fair to say that the overlap between Honey Gentry and Lana Del Rey is noticeable (think references to California, Sylvia Plath, vocal harmonies, muted percussion, and soundscapes), Honey Gentry retains a distinct, sublime personality throughout the album.
It’s minimalist, deep, light, delicate, floral, smokey, and fascinating. I love it. More please!
Recommended track: The Bell Jar
God I love this album. Allie X firmly establishes herself as the club kid of alternative pop with Cape God, with an exceptionally well produced album of dark pop hits. It’s clever pop music, and acoustically, it bounces around from almost electronica, to Fleetwood Mac-style classic rock-driven pop. It’s an album where not only is every track a surprise, within the tracks themselves, there are twists and turns that keep you totally enveloped.
Again, Allie X was on My Top 20 Albums of 2010s list with CollXtion II, and from 2017 to 2020, there’s a darkening, deepening, and refining of Allie X’s sound and songwriting which really. damn. works. But it still hasn’t lost that slightly kooky, fun, wink to the listener that Allie X gives which tells us she knows exactly what she’s doing and why we love it so much.
Recommended track: Super Duper Party People
Hell & Heaven
This probably can’t come as much of a surprise. Listen up, folks. This isn’t the perfect album. It’s not particularly clever, witty, or even original. But is it fun? Absolutely. And y’know what we needed this year? Fun.
There is a dose of, what the cynics would call, plagiarism going on in this album. Some of those chord sequences seem awfully familiar, some of those melodies you find yourself humming to, only to find you’re actually humming something else.
But that said, it’s a great EDM album. If you like early Gaga, a little bit of MARINA, Rhianna, Katy Perry, then I think you’d like this album. Interestingly, if you look at the production credits on the album, it was exec. produced by Cirkut (who’s produced, among others for Jessie J, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Kesha, Katy Perry, and The Weeknd), as well as a couple of tracks by frequent early Gaga produced RedOne, there’s a very noticeable reason it sounds like it does: it’s meant to.
Even the album concept isn’t particularly original… the double side album (light / dark) was only just done by MARINA with her album LOVE + FEAR back in 2019 (as well as numerous times before!) but again, I kinda don’t mind that. Anyone searching for deep and meaningful music won’t find it here, but where escapism has formed such an important part of our cultural response to 2020, I repeat: that’s totally okay.
Recommended track: Belladonna
Ahhhhhhhhh man, Woodkid. There is nobody doing what he’s doing.
Woodkid (stage name for multi-discpinary French artist Yoann Lemoine) is pushing the boundaries of music, art, technology, and performance way beyond the rest of the industry.
S16 is the follow up to his first album way back in 2013, The Golden Age, which even then was a revolutionarily good album. S16 strips back the fullness of the first album and introduces industry as a thematic influence that flows throughout the album. Woodkid is also embracing, exploring and celebrating his LGBT+ personality, too, making direct gendered pronoun references to his sexuality (the track So Handsome Hello is particularly great) that is a refreshing change either from the queer-baity likes of Harry Styles (though, coincidentally, Woodkid directed the music video for Sign of the Times), or overt twinkiness of artists like Troye Sivan.
It’s a complex album, and it must be said, not as infinitely listenable as The Golden Age, but a technical, songwriting, and artistic marvel. I’m a huge fan. Woodkid’s vocals, too, need mentioning. His voice is so curious, with the subtle blend of French and American, it sinks to incredible depths, and also soars in his falsetto, with several songs layering and blending them together, Woodkid really is worlds apart from the industry.
Recommended track: In Your Likeness
The perfect pop album? Certainly very close. And with Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, the return of disco was firmly solidified. This is an absolutely stellar album. Brilliantly written, expertly produced, I mean, there really isn’t much more I can see about it that hasn’t been said by several critics time and time again. So instead, a couple of my standout tracks:
Love Again was the first track on the album I heard I think, and instantly fell in love with. The string introduction? Love that. And can we talk about the fact that it also samples one of my favourite songs from the nineties, Your Woman by White Town (which I’m reliably informed was itself a sample from the song Your Woman from the 1930s)
Hallucinate was perhaps the second song I’d heard from the album, and whilst it’s a superb track on its own, I think I first discovered it online where someone had remixed it with Donatella by Lady Gaga, which, now, I can’t un-hear that version. Still bloody love it though.
Physical is probably the other standout track on the album for me, just a thumping great modern pop song. Dua Lipa has really just captured the zeitgeist with the album, infinitely shareable, listenable, enjoyable pop music that will be the absolute perfect dance floor accompaniment when we can be back together again.
Happiness in Liquid Form
If Billie Eilish and Finneas have taught us anything, it’s that you can produce a stunning album / EP from the comfort of your bedroom. Second place goes to Alfie Templeman, who at, NINETEEN, has produced this incredible EP.
Lofi, effortlessly cool, alternative, this is an antidote to over-production. Dare I say, it’s kind of the perfect music for the TikTok generation, but, I’m totally at peace with that. From what I can see from his socials, Alfie Templeman is a hella nice guy, with a hella great talent for producing and performing pop for the 2020s.
This EP has featured on my most played lists from this year, and has sent me down into the warren of Templeman’s already accomplished and impressive back catalogue. I cannot recommend it enough, fresh, modern, almost indie-pop that just hits every right note. Chef’s Kiss.
Recommended track: Things I Thought Were Mine
Yeah, this isn’t a surprise to anyone.
In an astonishing, and well overdue return to form, Lady Gaga has returned to her anthemic EDM pop roots with album that’s practically perfect from start to finish. Orchestral interludes, disco and house influences, collaborations, continuity, narrative, and typical Gaga theatricality. This is the follow up to 2013’s ARTPOP that we’ve been waiting for.
An album perfect for the dancefloor, the car journey, the house party, karaoke night, and stadium tour, Gaga’s Chromatica is a tour de force of an album, best listened, it must be said from start to finish. OK, there are one or two album fillers in there, but, I don’t tend to skip them, even if they’re not as strong as the others.
But, the albums second (of three) acts is a masterpiece. From the Chromatica II orchestral interlude to 911 (which itself became a meme for a while!), followed by Plastic Doll (ok, maybe a bit of a filler track), then into Sour Candy, Enigma, and Replay, I mean, it’s pure pop perfection.
Then to finish the album off in the third act with an ANTHEM of a duet from Gaga and Elton John (Sine From Above) and then finally Babylon? Genius. Babylon, is in my mind, already iconic. A worthy tribute to, and natural successor of Madonna’s Vogue, like the album, it’s empowering, thoughtful, and cements Gaga’s return to the top of pop. Where does she go from here? I’m not sure. But if nothing else, Gaga is, and always has been, a queen of reinvention. I’m looking forward to it immensely. As long as it’s not another Joanne…
In a year of exceptional music, I’m not going to lie, there have been a few misses among the hits. Whilst I won’t dedicate a whole list to them, there are some albums I was really excited for that just… missed the mark.
- Paloma Faith’s Infinite Things was perhaps my biggest flop of the year. Paloma, who I used to love so dearly, has been getting slowly less and less interesting with every album release, and her latest effort really does solidify that trend. It’s a very dull album. There are maybe two standout tracks (Falling Down and Better Than This) but other than that, it’s 47 minutes of Paloma giving a good vocal performance of some very clichéd, tired sounding songs.
- La Roux’s Supervision should have been a highlight of the year, in a shifting industry, unapologetically queer, electronic pop will find a loyal, loving audience. But Supervision is really not good. There’s practically no distinguishing between the eight tracks, which all sound, if not identical, then not far off. An album I felt that was missing a concept, or sense of continuity, or, well, any drama. Bland, background electronica. Very disappointing.
- Lux Lyall released an album called Vamp which should have been right up my street. It was described in the promo: ‘In Lux Lyall’s dark and decadent world, little is as it appears. Theatrical songs steeped in sumptuous strings owe a debt to old-school Hollywood, but have their roots in Camden’s gritty rock haunts.’ and opens with an interesting and almost Bond-esque Mad With the Moon but it, like the rest of the album, I think, suffers from really bad production. The vocal / instrumental balance is so far off, with Lyall’s vocals being swallowed up by the band and orchestral elements, but also, and I know this may sound harsh, there’s no reason for production to sound this cheap where several artists on the list above are producing with little more than a mic, MIDI keyboard and a laptop. No matter how good the strength of the song-writing or singing is, there’s no excuse not to sound great, and with Vamp, the album sounds slapdash. Which is really, really sad.
- Kylie Minogue’s Disco should have been a triumph. Musically, it really wasn’t.
In terms of 2021, if this year has taught us anything, it’s not to make any firm plans. But there are a couple of albums and projects I’ll be keeping an eye out for:
- Lana Del Rey’s new album Chemtrails over the Country Club
- Billie Eilish’s as yet untitled follow-up to Where We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? which she hinted at in her yearly interview with Vanity Fair.
- KALEO’s new album Surface Sounds (and follow up to A/B) is (apparently) out on New Year’s Eve!! so will be looking forward to more thumping rock from them during the road trips in the new year.
So there we go! Do you agree with my selections? Disagree? Something I missed? Something you hated? Let me know!
Until then, wishing you a very Happy New Year.