By Maddy Reda
Despite the impact of the global pandemic, 2020 was an extraordinary year for music. Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Megan Thee Stallion and even rock icon Elton John are only a handful of artists who dropped chart-topping albums. Many of these albums even received numerous Grammy nominations to recognize their one-of-a-kind artistry. One can only hope that the artists who were unable to release something during 2020 can bring us comfort in 2021 as the pandemic rages on.
As one of the few University of Alabama students who went fully remote for the fall semester, I knew that I would have a lot of free time on my hands. Since last February, I have listened to as many new releases as I could from the mainstream, the underground and every genre in between. In the end, I ended up with an artillery of budding artists, all of whom produced albums that went beyond going platinum. These artists managed to cross genres, paint pictures and tell stories to make one forget about the state of the world if only for a moment. Here are some of the stand-out albums that very well may have saved both 2020 and 2021:
Released: February 21, 2020
Genre: Alternative, Synth-Rock, Pop-Rock
COIN, the synth-rock band from Nashville, Tennessee, released their third studio album titled Dreamland in February 2020. Their trademark use of the drum machine to create gentle summertime sounds and soft bass lines is similarly seen in bands like Wallows and The 1975, the latter having also released a new album of their own this year. While Dreamland isn’t a grand departure from their earlier sound, COIN manages to fuse interesting orchestral overlays with the average, run-of-the mill drum machine to create a sound both calming and exciting to the ear. Their use of addictive bass hooks and playful, light-hearted lyrics grabs the listener’s attention, each part of the album separated with instrumental interludes seen in tracks like “Dreamland Sequence” and “Heaven Hearted.” These instrumentals give a small break to listeners while keeping them engaged at the same time, and the ethereal interludes provide seamless transitions between songs. With a balanced mix of slow, dream-like tracks and songs that are made to be blasted in the car with the windows down, COIN’s Dreamland has a song for every mood a person could possibly encounter in a day.
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Baby,” “Simple Romance,” “Cemetery,”“Into My Arms”
Kid Krow, Conan Gray
Released: March 20, 2020
Genre: Indie Pop, Bedroom Pop
Texas-born Conan Gray was one of many artists who broke into the mainstream thanks to the overwhelming reception of his debut studio album, Kid Krow. Kid Krow is a remarkable album due to its lack of the traditional studio bells and whistles, opting for intimate, stripped-down accompaniments on twelve fleshed-out tracks instead. Gray doesn’t use auto-tune on any of his tracks and demonstrates a strong confidence in his soft, almost meek vocals. “The Cut That Always Bleeds” is one of many acoustic tracks on the album that showcases Gray’s impressive falsetto range. While Gray’s lyrics are impeccably advanced and layered for a writer so young, the most unique element of Gray’s lyrics is the lack of gender binary, most notably in songs like “Heather” and “The Story.” His love songs can work between any pairing of genders or gender identity, making Gray’s rejection of heteronormativity extremely popular with the LGBTQ+ community. One of Gray’s more pop-oriented singles, “Maniac,” went viral on TikTok, reaching audiences on every corner of the world through the popular social media platform.
Recommended Tracks: “Checkmate,” “Wish You Were Sober,” “Heather”
CALM, 5 Seconds of Summer
Released: March 27, 2020
Genre: Power Pop, Industrial
5 Seconds of Summer (5SOS) released their fourth studio album, CALM, on March 27, 2020. In the Australian group’s nine years making music, they have experimented with dozens of genres, debuting first as a pop punk heartthrob band in 2011. CALM proves to be a new era for the band, with darker, more mature themes centered around dealing with lost love and self-growth. 5 Seconds of Summer uses this album to experiment with both acoustic ballads and electronic dance music in order to tell seamless stories that keep listeners on their toes. The new album brings the audience songs that represent beginnings and endings, indisputably bringing something to the table for everybody. Tracks like “No Shame,” “Red Desert” and “Teeth” all showcase a stark departure from the theme of a cookie-cutter, endless teenage summer that the public was used to seeing, especially during 5SOS’s rise to fame by touring with One Direction in the early 2010s.
Recommended Tracks: “Wildflower,” “Old Me,” “High”
SAWAYAMA, Rina Sawayama
Released: April 17, 2020
Genre: Pop, R&B
Japanese-British singer/songwriter Rina Sawayama shows off an impressive, versatile repertoire in her self-titled debut album, SAWAYAMA. SAWAYAMA draws influences from the Y2K era and 90s R&B, all fused together with a touch of death metal, standard club music, and even the occasional orchestral arrangement. This genre-bending album is brought to life with Rina Sawayama’s chameleon-like voice, which can do a breathy R&B song justice just as well as a rough, grating rock ballad. While Rina Sawayama has only broken into the mainstream over the past few months, it is clear that she is far from running out of ideas any time soon. Those nostalgic for the upbeat synthesizers of the 90s and 2000s will be taken on a walk down memory lane through this album, all while discovering a sound unlike anything else playing on the radio right now. SAWAYAMA is the brilliant result of what happens when a musician values artistry and originality above all else.
Recommended Tracks: “XS,” “Paradisin’,” “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”
Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle
Released: June 12, 2020
Ungodly Hour is the second studio album for popular R&B duo Chloe x Halle. The self-taught sisters were originally discovered and signed by pop superstar Beyoncé, and since then, they have broken away from being her protégés. The Grammy-nominated album features songs that highlight fresh tones of contemporary R&B and even venture into the faint wistfulness of a mature, acoustic pop. Ungodly Hour has a lineup of thirteen catchy songs that show off Chloe and Halle’s effortless, air-tight harmonies, all while telling heart-wrenching stories about being the other woman and haunting past relationships. Newcomers and veterans of the R&B genre will be pleasantly surprised by the intricate tempos and array of harmonies in each song. It is clear that Ungodly Hour puts the star on the map for Chloe x Halle.
Recommended Tracks: “Tipsy,” “Do It,” “Wonder What She Thinks of Me”
Positions, Ariana Grande
Released: October 30, 2020
Genre: Trap-Pop, R&B
Vocal powerhouse Ariana Grande has released yet another album, and perhaps the most controversial to date. Easily one of the most talked-about albums of 2020, Grande leaves nothing up to the imagination with her sultry sixth studio album, Positions. Unsurprisingly, several clever songs on the album like “34+35,” “positions,” and “pov” have all gone on to headline numerous TikTok trends. Even so, many listeners have walked away from the album feeling less than impressed. For someone with such an astounding vocal range, many critics point out the laziness and lack of versatility in tracks like “shut up,” “six thirty” and “off the table.” While Positions may lyrically be one of Grande’s most transparent albums, it fails to bring anything truly new or exciting to the table. This is plain to see when Positions is compared to thank u, next and Sweetener, two of Grande’s most critically-acclaimed albums. Positions left fans hungry for a more evolved and intricate version of Grande’s music rather than the bubbly pop that has carried her career for the past decade.
Recommended Tracks: “34+35,” “my hair,” “motive”
Razzmatazz, I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME
Released: October 23, 2020
Genre: New Wave, Indie-Pop, Alternative
The underground duo I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME (IDKHOW) may finally be crawling into the mainstream after the release of their debut album Razzmatazz. Still virtually unknown to the mainstream public despite having been together since 2009, the new wave musical duo has finally amassed 500k followers on Spotify after dropping their first full-length album. Like artists such as Rina Sawayama and Bruno Mars, Razzmatazz continues the tradition of drawing from other eras, mainly the 1970s and 1980s. The result is a twisted, slightly spooky album that features spoken-word clips modeled after vintage actors and ‘talkies.’ Tracks like “Mad IQs” and “Leave Me Alone” demonstrate IDKHOW’s talent to make ordinary noises like dial tones artistic and interesting. Another IDKHOW signature that shines through their debut album is delivering unsettling lyrics balanced out by eerily cheerful and ordinary musicality, as seen in “From The Gallows.” On the surface, the track sounds like a romantic 60s piano ballad, but the undertones contain subtle themes that are actually quite dark and disturbing. Out of every new release in 2020, IDKHOW’s Razzmatazz is one-of-a-kind and the perfect new release just in time for Halloween.
Recommended Tracks: “Sugar Pills,” “Lights Go Down,” “New Invention”
Blame Game, Beach Bunny
Released: January 15, 2021
Genre: Indie-Pop, Pop-Punk, Indie-Rock
Beach Bunny, a relatively newer band based in Chicago, released their EP Blame Game less than a year after their debut album, Honeymoon. The band is still riding the high from one of their most popular singles, “Prom Queen,” and it seems as though the four-track EP follows a similar theme of struggling young people having their own angst-ridden, coming-of-age stories. Beach Bunny’s signature seems to be an odd mixture of 2000s pop-punk guitar, using bedroom pop vocals to put a modern spin on an otherwise classic sound. Fans of early Weezer, We The Kings and Paramore should find nostalgic comfort in this short yet timeless EP.
Recommended Tracks: “Love Sick,” “Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)”
Flowers for Vases/Descansos, Hayley Williams
Released: February 5, 2021
Genre: Intimate Folk, Acoustic
When Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams released her debut solo album in 2020, the world was reeling with questions about the future of Paramore. While Williams confirmed that Paramore was still together, few people expected her to drop another solo album in February of 2021. Flowers for Vases/Descansos is a sharp departure from Williams’s signature punky and experimental sound that has been present in her music for over a decade. Despite the much slower, steady pacing of the songs, the gentle guitars and haunting pianos only add to the quiet, thematic mystery of the surprise album. Williams’s clever, brooding lyrics are stronger than ever, and the softer side of her voice is captivating as it is thrilling. Williams recently announced that Flowers for Vases/Descansos is the last solo album she plans on doing, making her solo stint both fleeting and impressive.
Recommended Tracks: “My Limb,” “Asystole,” “Over Those Hills”
These are just a handful of the countless albums from some artists who changed the game during 2020 and others who are making waves as we head into 2021. Good music is perhaps the only redeeming quality of such a troubling, isolated time in the world’s history. In these uncertain times, it speaks volumes that so many fresh takes on life were given to us through new releases of albums and EPs. For now, one can only hope that the rest of 2021 is just as promising with more new releases from both veterans and rookies alike.