This year, music has been an important source of comfort and joy, especially for those locked down or shielding. Meanwhile, lots of our favourite artists endeavoured to bring new music to fans. For lots of musicians, the pandemic has been devastating. Now more than ever (is this the phrase of 2020?), it’s important that we celebrate and support artists, big and small.
Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ – a single from her 2019 album Hot Pink – gained widespread popularity after being used for a viral TikTok dance challenge, propelling her to stardom. Doja Cat even pays homage to the dance’s creator, Haley Sharpe, in the music video. On a number of occasions this year, Doja Cat has shown that her live vocals are just as good as the studio version. Most notably her mashup performance at the BBMA’s and a nu-metal reworking of ‘Say So’ at the EMA Awards, which demonstrated her boundless versatility.
South African multidisciplinary artist Desire Marea released their first solo album, Desire. Marea released Desire on 10 January because it was the first new moon and lunar eclipse of the new decade: symbolising rebirth after the passing of their grandfather. Marea is best known as one half of the queer performance art collective FAKA, which combines different art mediums to “express their ideas about themes central to their experience as black queer bodies navigating the cis-heterotopia of post-colonial Africa”. Densely layered vocals mesh with 80s synths and South African gqom, in an exploration of the divine, desire, love, lust and loss. My favourite track is ‘You Think I’m Horny’ about craving intimacy rather than sex.
In late February, Perfume Genius released Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, which is a little bit country, a little bit prog rock, at times folksy. In this album, like its predecessors, Michael Hadreas tackles his most personal struggles. ‘Without You’ is “a country song about body dysmorphia”, while ‘Jason’ is about a one night stand Hadreas had with a straight man. Meanwhile, the upbeat ‘On the Floor’ is about having a crush when you haven’t come out yet. Hadreas told Pitchfork: “When you’re queer, you’re taught that who you want to have sex with is the shameful part of you, and that’s before you’ve even done it yet”.
Just a few days later, close friend of Michael Hadreas, Christine and the Queens, released the EP La Vita Nuova. The song ‘People I’ve Been Sad’ from the EP has adorned numerous top ten 2020 songs lists. Along with the EP’s release, she released a stunning short film, directed by Colin Solal Cardo. I oscillate between favouring the intimacy and melancholy of ‘People I’ve Been Sad’ and ‘La Vita Nuova’ which is pure pop and features the operatic soprano of Caroline Polachek.
Dua Lipa released Future Nostalgia. The sound and visuals of this second studio album are more mature and cohesive than on her eponymous debut. It earned her rave reviews and became her first UK number one album. Future Nostalgia is filled with hedonistic dance anthems (that we will save for 2021…) ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Physical’, ‘Break My Heart’ and ‘Levitating’: all catchy chart-toppers. My favourite, though, is the more understated ‘Cool’, in which Lipa sings about how falling in love makes you lose your cool. Future Nostalgia was the most streamed album by a woman on Spotify in 2020.
Lyra Pramuk released her stunning debut album, Fountain. An experimental, choral, dare I say, a masterpiece. Pramuk is classically trained and creates songs using only her voice. Despite the often-sparse nature of the vocals, every instrument-like sound is Pramuk.
Fiona Apple released her first album in eight years: the universally adored and much written about Fetch the Bolt Cutters. She sings of cool girls, bullies, toxic masculinity, the patriarchy, abuse and rape. ‘For Her’ was written in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings in 2018. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an impressively cohesive piece of work as each track flows seamlessly into the next. Despite having been recorded over the last five years, the album seems sonically to reflect the cabin fever frustration of lockdown, with songs that make you feel like drumming at the walls.
Rina Sawayama released her debut studio album, Sawayama, to widespread critical acclaim. Though classed as pop, Sawayama flouts and bends the pop genre. From pop anthem ‘Comme des Garçons (Like The Boys)’ to nu metal-inspired ‘STFU!’ to pop-rock track ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’, Sawayama demonstrates an admirable degree of versatility. The lyricism of the album is also unabashedly political. For example, in ‘STFU!’ she touches on the fetishization she has experienced as a British-Japanese woman. She sings “How come you don’t respect me? / Expecting fantasies to be my reality.”
It was really Megan Thee Stallion’s year. A remix of ‘Savage’ featuring Beyoncé was released, becoming her first US top 10 hit. Proceeds from the song went to Bread of Life, a charity based in Beyonce and Stallion’s hometown of Housten, Texas. The charity provides disaster relief for residents affected by Covid-19.
Half Waif released her fourth studio album The Caretaker. With vocals reminiscent of Kate Bush, Half Waif’s Nandi Rose produced a critically adored LP that deserves far more recognition in 2021.
Yves Tumor released their incandescent experimental album Heaven to a Tortured Mind. It’s hard to peg Tumor in a genre. They are all at once synthy, bassy yet majestic. At times reminiscent of some Dev Hynes projects; it is unsurprising that Yves Tumor has collaborated with Hynes and supported Blood Orange on tour in 2018.
Korean-American producer Yaeji released her mixtape What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던. Highlights include ‘MY IMAGINATION 상상’, ‘MONEY CAN’T BUY’, featuring Nappy Nina and ‘WAKING UP DOWN’. Yaeji doesn’t shy away from politics. She was particularly vocal during the Black Lives Matter resurgence, recognising her position as a non-Black woman of colour. She donated all profits from sales of the vinyl album to the organisations Black Trans Femmes in the Arts and the Black Art Futures Fund.
Sister duo Aly & AJ of ‘Potential Breakup Song’ fame made a comeback with two dancefloor-worthy singles: ‘Attack of Panic’ in February and ‘Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor’ in May. The latter pays homage to the French hero of the Hundred Years’ War. Indeed, the video for the single was heavily inspired by the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Released at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were in full thrall around the world, Aly told Insider:
… we wanted to write something that felt very anthemic and would be able to lift people up, make them feel like they could be warriors, in whatever way that is — whether that’s standing up for their religious beliefs, their sexuality, their rights.
Aly & AJ will release their album next year. It will be their first LP in over 13 years.
Lady Gaga released her sixth studio album, Chromatica, which was her first in four years. It’s a riotous delight of danceable hits. The sequence of ‘Stupid Love’ followed by ‘Rain On Me (with Ariana Grande)’ and ‘Free Woman’ is a sure-fire way get you dancing in your living room.
Charli XCX released her fourth studio album how i’m feeling now, which she said would be “indicative of the times”. Not only reflecting the mood of lockdown and isolation, how i’m feeling now was made at home and in collaboration with fans.
Chloe x Halle released their second album, Ungodly, to critical acclaim. The singles ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Do It’ are particular bops. They gave a number of Covid-friendly performances this year, most notably a performance of ‘Do It’ on Jimmy Kimmel in August and of ‘Ungodly Hour’ at the Billboard Women in Music awards show. The visuals are stunning and creative and Halle’s angelic yet powerful vocals stand out.
H.E.R released the single ‘I Can’t Breathe’ alongside a moving video of footage from Black Lives Matter protests, with all proceeds from the song going to the movement’s US chapter. Referring to the murder of George Floyd, in the chorus she sings “I can’t breathe / You’re taking my life from me / I can’t breathe / Will anyone fight for me?” In the middle of the song, she raps: “We are fed up eating your shit / Because you think that your so-called ‘Black friend’ / Validates your wokeness and erases your racism / That kind of uncomfortable conversation / Is too hard for your trust-fund pockets to swallow / To swallow the strange fruit hanging from my family tree / Because of your audacity / To say all men are created equal in the eyes of God / But disparage a man based on the color of his skin”.
Victoria Monét released Jaguar: A Short Film, teasing the release of her first project, also called Jaguar, which was released the following month. If you haven’t heard of Monét by name, you sure will have heard music she has worked on as she’s a prolific songwriter. She has written or co-written for Ariana Grande, Nas, Janelle Monáe and Chloe x Halle. Monét came out publicly as bisexual in 2018 and in her first full solo project, she sings openly about her queerness, sexuality and feminism.
August Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’. Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and NME have all named it the best song of the year. As the kids say, it was a cultural reset as it women’s sexuality, albeit a heteronormative one, front and centre.
Miley Cyrus released the single ‘Midnight Sky’, which sampled Stevie Nicks’ 1982 single ‘Edge of Seventeen’. In November, Cyrus would release her seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts, that sees Cyrus return to a rockier sound than some of her recent albums. It sees her take ownership of the narrative surrounding her divorce. It also includes a mashup of ‘Midnight Sky’ and ‘Edge of Seventeen’, with the vocals of Nicks, as well as live covers of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass ’and The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’.
Glaswegian band Walt Disco released their EP Young Hard and Handsome. The infectiously danceable opening single ‘Hey Boy (You’re One of Us)’ is about teaching someone how to cross-dress. The chorus – “Black Leather / Magazines / Locked away inside your dream / We’ll teach you the ways of / Red Velvet / Double Cream / You know your baby wants a queen” – is deliciously high octane. The deep, New Romantic vocals of frontman James Potter ooze out of a decidedly post-punk instrumental.
Dorian Electra released their album My Agenda. Hot off the back of their first album, Flamboyant, Electra again proved their ability to simultaneously push genre boundaries and subvert the status quo. In My Agenda, they dabble in metal, dubstep and hardcore punk, which are “all these hypermasculine, testosterone-filled genres” as they told The New York Times. The title track impressively features The Village People and Pussy Riot, where they satirise the idea of a homosexual ‘agenda’, while ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Monk Mode (Interlude)’ both lampoon incels. ‘Sorry Bro (I Love You)’ lets Electra poke fun at the difficulty some men have in expressing love to other men.
Rina Sawayama made a sparkling television debut performing the song ‘XS’ on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
A few days later, Ariana Grande released her sixth album, Positions. The titular track was also the first single, accompanied by a video released just before the presidential election. The video depicts President Grande and her multi-ethnic, multigender, multigenerational cabinet. While given cooler treatment by critics than some of her predecessors, Positions, brought me back to Sweetener (2018) heights. It’s Ariana at her most vulnerable: in love, but cautious. She goes from euphoric adulation in ‘Positions’ with “Heaven sent you to me” to ‘off the table’ where she asks: “Will I ever love the same way again?” and later “Do I sit this one out and wait for the next life? Am I too cold? Am I not nice?” On the album’s closing track, ‘POV’, she graciously accepts love while admitting her fears: “I’m getting used to receiving / Still getting good at not leaving / Imma love you even though I’m scared / Learnin’ to be grateful for myself”.
Irish singer Róisín Murphy released her fifth solo studio album, Róisín Machine. One of my favourites of the year, Róisín Machine opens with eight-minute long ‘Simulation’, which is a clear throwback to ‘Sing it Back’ by Moloko – Murphy’s 1994 to 2004 project with Mark Brydon.
Bree Runway released her debut mixtape, 2000and4Eva. The iconic song ‘ATM’ features the Missy Elliot.
The 2021 Grammy Award nominations were announced. For the first time, the nominees for best rock performance were all women, including ‘Shameika’ by Fiona Apple, ‘Kyoto’ by Phoebe Bridgers and ‘The Steps’ by Haim. I’m torn between Haim and Fiona Apple to win, but think Apple might pip them to the post.
John Lewis released its Christmas advert, featuring the single ‘A Little Love’ by British breakthrough Celeste. It became the first original song to be featured on the advert.
Kylie Minogue released her fifteenth studio album: the perfectly danceable and euphoric DISCO.
Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande joined the queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey, for the song ‘Oh Santa!’. Mariah and Ariana’s harmonising whistle subsequently broke the internet, but we can’t forget the sumptuousness of Hudson’s voice.
Oh, and Megan Thee Stallion released a second album, Good News, all while studying for a degree in Health Administration. No biggie.
Honourable mentions: L Devine’s single ‘Don’t Say It’, Beatrice Dillon’s album Workaround, Jayda G’s single ‘Both of Us’, Gia Ford’s EP Murder In The Dark, Kiana Ledé’s album KIKI, Little Simz’ EP Drop 6, MEI’s EP No Steps Now and single ‘I Don’t Know What’s Next’, Rico Nasty’s Nightmare Vacation, Dark Dog, an EP by October and the Eyes, Angel Olsen’s album Whole New Mess, Kelly Lee Owens’ album Inner Song, Princess Nokia’s albums Everything is Beautiful and Everything Sucks, Tei Shi’s EP Die 4 Ur Love, Jesse Jo Stark’s singles ‘Die Young’, ‘Tangerine’ and ‘Angel from Montgomery’, Taylor Swift’s two albums folklore and evermore, Weyes Blood and Tim Heidecker’s single ‘Oh How We Drift Away’, Hayley William’s album Petals for Armor, Zsela’s EP Ache of Victory
This is a collage of five images side-by-side. From left to right, this shows Christine and the Queens performing live on stage. She is singing into a black mic and has her left hand on her chest. She is a white woman who wears a red oversized shirt and black trousers. She has very short brown hair. Photo courtesy of Mr. Rossi. The second image is of Rina Sawayama mid-performance. It is a close-up of her face. She is an east Asian woman who is wearing her hair is long, straight and platinum blonde. She has heavy liner flicked into a wing. Her mouth is slightly parted. Photo courtesy of Jason Higuchi. The third photo is of Dorian Electra. They are white with short, straight lilac hair. They are wearing purple tinted sunglasses and an unbuttoned silver shirt that is tied at the waist. They have a drawn on moustache and a beauty spot on their upper lip. They are looking to their left. Photo courtesy of Dorian Electra. The fourth image is of Cardi B. She is walking up some stairs with both hands on the handrail, but she is looking left to the camera. She is a light-skinned Black woman. Her tongue is pointed out. She has long blonde hair, wears a short, dark green dress and has long acrylic nails. Photo courtesy of Chrisallmeid. The fifth image is of Yves Tumor. They are performing live and holding a black mic in their right hand. They are dark-skinned Black. Their hair is shoulder length and dyed green. They wear black sunglasses, a beige blazer with the Gucci logo printed all over it and snakeskin flared trousers. Photo courtesy of Tower Hamlets Council.