By Christian Jaeger
2020 was a ridiculous year. And ridiculous years call for especially good soundtracks. Here are this year’s most iconic and influential artists sharing their sounds and recent creations.
If someone were to ask what musical gold should sound like, they could easily find Jorja Smith’s “Rose Rouge” as an answer to that question. Smith released her 2020 cover of French-musician St Germain’s “Rose Rouge” as a sleek, jazzy form of social commentary regarding this year’s protests and global racism. Smith has captivated the world for years — and she’s only 23 — with her powerhouse voice, classic style, and cultural relevance; this year means no different.
It’s eerie how close the release of Grimes’ latest album — Miss Anthropocene (2020) — was to the surprises that would await only weeks later. We knew Claire Boucher was fascinated with aliens, AI, anime, and other futuristic fields; she just had a child with tech-billionaire Elon Musk. But, we didn’t know how relevant and real Miss Anthropocene would be, depicting the fantastical that might not be so fantastical after all. Boucher is incredible at world-building, and it seems she’s finally achieving total, worldwide recognition for her art.
“So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth (Art Mix)” is about her pregnancy with Musk — a topic of seemingly everyone’s conversation sometime throughout the year; “Delete Forever” powerfully and personally addresses drug addiction, including her own; “Violence” is one of the best musical treasures of the year — of many years.
He’s done it again: Abel Tesfaye, known internationally as The Weeknd, added a gritty, melancholy mood to the already wild world when he released After Hours (2020) in March. The Weeknd created more dance anthems with “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” while “After Hours,” the album’s title track, returned to his oldest sounds — haunting and hot. Tesfaye also re-released “King of the Fall” this year, a single he released to streaming services in 2014 to promote his King of the Fall Tour (2014). The Weeknd is one of the many performers who had to cancel a world tour — The After Hours Tour (2020) — because of the Coronavirus.
She’s done it again: Billie Eilish pleasantly surprised the world with “my future,” an ode to herself; given the global success of the song, it’s fair to say that it’ll go down as a defining, unifying track for the modern generation. Other groovy hits she released this year include “Therefore I Am” and “No Time To Die,” the latter to be used as the title track for the upcoming James Bond film.
Childish Gambino introduced 3.15.20 (2020) to the world in March, only days before the United States and the world would go under “lockdown.” The swagger that illuminates from Donald Glover’s latest work is brilliant and apparent. He collaborates with Ariana Grande on the groovy and touching “Time” and with 21 Savage, Ink, and Kadhja Bonet on the psychedelic “12.38.” His solo songs are equally delightful, and the album is a work of true artistic production.
It didn’t take too long for Dua Lipa to gain international fame and prove she’s a generational icon, and if you’re new onboard the Dua train, welcome — it’s a fun ride. Future Nostalgia (2020) is pure fun fuel: “Don’t Start Now,” “Physical,” “Hallucinate,” “Love Again,” “Break My Heart,” and “Good in Bed” are sure to be blasting in bars and clubs once the COVID-19 plague is over.
Just as the world was getting to know the hits on Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa and The Blessed Madonna — an American DJ, producer, and musician — released Club Future Nostalgia (DJ Mix) (2020). The record is a remix edition with a wonderful array of samples and collaborators: Jamiroquai, Yaeji, BLACKPINK, Zach Witness, and many more. Missy Elliott and Madonna assist on “Levitating (The Blessed Madonna Remix)” and Gwen Stefani and Mark Ronson add to “Physical (Mark Ronson Remix),” producing the grooviest songs on the album.
Music mastermind Damon Albarn presents multiple musical perspectives and interpretations of this historical year on Gorillaz’ album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020). His project features a star-studded cast: Robert Smith, Beck, Leee John, ScHoolboy Q, St. Vincent, Elton John, 6LACK, Peter Hook, EARTHGANG, Goldlink, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and more. It certainly does depict the “Strange Timez,” as suggested by the title track.
Proving to be one of the most sincere songwriters of recent years, Phoebe Bridgers can make you tear up and then smile again only moments later. Her pop-folk, alternative album Punisher (2020) is forty minutes of pure emotion. “Kyoto” is the hardest and fastest song on the record, while “Punisher,” “Halloween,” “Moon Song,” “Savior Complex,” “Graceland Too,” and nearly all the rest are wonderful pieces of popular, modern folk. Perhaps the most memorable “Garden Song” is dreamy like a fairytale and depicts manifesting things we want and getting those wants in completely different ways than expected.
Bridgers recently released her heartfelt EP If We Make It Through December (2020) — a compilation of Christmas covers. She so brilliantly curates the EP to fit the confusing, melancholy mood of 2020, and she does so given her source material of choice: Christmas carols. Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger join her on the eerie “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night.”
This next one surprised us all: Mac Miller’s Circles (2020) — released more than a year after the artist’s unexpected death — was introduced to the world in January. Jon Brion, who collaborated with the artist, put the final production touches on Circles before releasing it to the world. We may find it some of Mac’s most personal work, and, unless or until more surprise work is released from the vault, we may find it’s the last time we hear from Malcolm James McCormick.
Whether she’s crooning with her full, deep voice or using her unique falsetto, Kali Uchis sounds like the most seductive angel to ever exist. The Colombian-American artist has not been shy in 2020: she unleashed her EP TO FEEL ALIVE (2020) in April and recently released her album Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞ (2020) in November. Both deserve to be listened to in full, cover-to-cover; it’s hard to decide what’s more impressive: her songwriting or her sound.
The title track off of TO FEEL ALIVE addresses many of her then-current emotions: sensuality, sass, sadness, loneliness, and longing. From Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) ∞, Uchis gives a rich range, open to close — from the enchanting “la luna enamorada” to the trippy “ángel sin cielo.” Good luck getting the melodies of “fue mejor” and “telepatía” out of your head.
Kevin Parker is one of the hottest acts out there, so the release of his latest album The Slow Rush (2020) has been highly anticipated. Good thing Tame Impala’s next project pleased many of those who were patiently awaiting. The album is psychedelic paradise in its entirety, with many notable tracks including “One More Year,” “Borderline,” and “Breathe Deeper.” Parker is yet another artist who had to cancel his 2020 world tour.
“Sofi Tukker! Oh, I love her,” said too many people ever. Sofi Tukker is the best-friend, DJ duo — Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern — who can go hard as hell with their electric EDM, cool down with their latinx-inspired house rhythms, and ascend into the sounds of angels as Sophie sings in Portuguese. They created perhaps the most fun song of the year — “House Arrest” — directly inspired by the strange new times; the track features electronic duo Gorgon City. It’s a defining song of this era, and it’s pure dance heaven.
Scott Mescudi — known globally as “Kid Cudi” — pleased fans with Man on the Moon III: The Chosen (2020), the the third chapter to his Man on the Moon series. One of the most respected rappers in the industry and a genre-bending artist, Mescudi continues his story of self-discovery on the record. “Mr. Solo Dolo III” is the moody and honest third edition of his beloved “Solo Dolo” tracks, describing his mental health journey. “Elsie’s Baby Boy (flashback)” has a gorgeous range of instrumentals and depicts his relationship with his mother. On “Lovin’ Me,” Mescudi and Phoebe Bridgers collaborate, addressing their “hell that lives inside.”
The Strokes pleased the ears of rock fans with their release of The New Abnormal (2020) this year. Frontman Julian Casablancas and the band formed an album full of hits: “The Adults Are Talking,” “Selfless,” “Bad Decisions,” “Eternal Summer,” and “Why Are Sundays So Depressing.” The New York band references their home — New York City — plenty on the album, with “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” and “Ode to the Mets,” but they also capture the sounds of the West; famed producer Rick Rubin assists, putting some California touches on The New Abnormal at his Malibu recording studio, Shangri-La.
Chloe x Halle
Meet Chloe and Halle Bailey, the sister duo known as Chloe x Halle. Their album Ungodly Hour (2020) is R&B bliss, and it’ll surely get you grooving. Here, their sound and story are personal enough to appreciate alone, but their bass-heavy rhythm is loud enough to enjoy with company, especially on the dancefloor. “Forgive Me,” “Do It,” “Ungodly Hour,” “Catch Up,” and “Lonely,” naming just a few, are songs our generation will be playing for years.
You can feel the pain that went into “Ceremony,” Phantogram’s title track off their latest album; it starts soft and beautifully minor before spiraling into something much more harsh, chaotic, and destructive. Ceremony (2020) shows it’s creators — Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter — getting even louder and harder than we’ve seen or heard from them before. And that’s saying a lot, given their diverse collection, including a collaborative album with Big Boi (of Outkast) under the pseudonym “Big Grams.”
The material is heavily inspired by Barthel’s sister’s suicide, and that’s present and clear on Ceremony; the album title says it all. Though the prime source material is dark and devastating, Phantogram still somehow finds a way to keep us dancing. A certain swagger that Phantogram’s so brilliant at achieving shines from “Dear God” and “Love Me Now,” but the coolest sounds arguably come from “Mister Impossible” — the darkest dance track off the album.
Victoria Monét McCants — better known as Victoria Monét — delivered some of the year’s most sleek sounds on JAGUAR (2020). The album’s title track is fierce fun by a fierce female: she collaborated with a range of musicians to create the “magic” that is “Jaguar,” she describes. “My music is a form of protest,” she tells the Associated Press, when asked about racial discrimination inside and outside of the industry.
The album is loaded with hits we’ll be singing and dancing to for years: “Moment,” “Experience,” “Ass Like That,” “Touch Me,” and of course, “Jaguar.” It’s hard to imagine the record becoming any more smooth or sexy; it’s an album about approval, pride, and love — but, coming first and foremost from ourselves.
If you haven’t yet heard of Little Dragon, welcome, though you’ve probably heard plenty of their music; their past collaborators include Mac Miller, Gorillaz, KAYTRANADA, Tinashe, and Flume, to name a few. The Swedish group has created a diverse blend of dance tracks and experimental, electronic sounds. This year’s release of New Me, Same Us (2020) is no different. The album opens with the immediately groovy “Hold On” and doesn’t stop grooving until the record’s end. Here, Little Dragon does what they do best: create chill, funky tracks — like “Another Lover,” “Every Rain,” and “Where You Belong” — that are just about as fun to consume alone as they are with company.
Gaga’s back, and she brought quite the festive soundtrack with her. After her very personal Joanne (2016) and the emotional A Star is Born Soundtrack (2018), Stefani Germanotta returns to her dance roots on Chromatica (2020). “Stupid Love,” “Rain On Me,” “Sour Candy,” and “Babylon” are all hits meant for the dancefloor, but Gaga’s most unique track is perhaps “911” — sure to go down in pop history. She features a wide range of collaborators on the album: Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK, and Elton John.
Black Eyed Peas
That’s right — they’re back. Well, minus one very important member, but we won’t talk about her. Actually, they’ve been back for a while; after nearly a decade-long sabbatical once Fergie departed from the group, the Black Eyed Peas returned with more fantastic music. This year’s TRANSLATION (2020) fits right into the equation.
Will.i.am, Taboo, and apl.de.ap are the Black Eyed Peas, and they’re doing just fine by themselves. Nonetheless, why not have a few more friends? They invite a heap of artists to join them on TRANSLATION: J. Rey Soul, Maluma, Shakira, J Balvin, Tyga, Nicky Jam, French Montana, and plenty more. “RITMO (Bad Boys for Life),” “FEEL THE BEAT,” and “MAMACITA” transition from one to another like a rave queen’s wet dream. The record is jiggy fun, and the Peas even get sentimental on the final “NEWS TODAY.”
This solo release pleased the eyes and ears of many this year. Paramore’s Hayley Williams came out with Petals For Armor (2020) — the pop-rocker’s first album independent of her band. Williams is fantastic at playing with sound, and she’s capable of all kinds: the swift record-opener “Simmer” plays with many vocals, instruments, and uses of the word “simmer,” while the next track — “Leave It Alone” — is slow and beautifully somber. Her whole album’s very much like that: brilliantly vibe-changing almost every other song to tell her whole story and reveal a range of emotions.
Williams was a mid-teenager when Paramore began, and the rest is history. It’s fair to say that a national spotlight at age 16 and an international spotlight shortly after would have quite an impact on one’s heart and soul, and that’s excluding all of life’s surprises since. You can just tell by listening to Williams that she’s real and she’s sincere — nonetheless exceptionally talented.
One of the more moody, experimental gifts of the year came from Bebel Gilberto — a Brazilian-American artist who masterfully fuses bossa nova with Latin-pop, creating trippy jazz for our ears and feet. Her new album Agora (2020) has a gloomy glow throughout the entire record, but in the most marvellous, mysterious way possible. A lot of feeling went into Agora — much of it inspired by the loss of her music-legend father, João Gilberto. Some of the most interesting notes and melodies appear on “Tão Bom,” “Agora,” “Cliché,” “Essence,” and “Deixa,” but Bebel’s whole album is brilliant and should be experienced cover-to-cover.
Ty Dolla $ign
“Ego Death” was undoubtedly one of the biggest songs of the year, and arguably one of the coolest. Music played a little louder in the world when Ty Dolla $ign released his track on July 1st. “Ego Death” features Kanye West, Skrillex, and FKA twigs, all bringing their own element: Kanye West’s rap was instantly iconic and immediately famous; Skrillex adds to the electronics and production of the piece; FKA twigs takes us on a direct flight to dance paradise that concludes the song; and, the host of all this fun — Ty Dolla $ign — delivers 100 percent.
The rapper released his record Featuring Ty Dolla $ign (2020) in October; “Ego Death” — rightfully so — concludes the album. Ty Dolla $ign gives us hits “Spicy,” “By Yourself,” and “Universe,” and he collaborates with an impressive range of performers: Kid Cudi, Post Malone, Anderson .Paak, Thundercat, Nicki Minaj, Jhené Aiko, Kehlani, Musiq Soulchild, and more.
Similar to the buzz that came from Ty Dolla $ign’s “Ego Death,” Billie Eilish’s “my future,” or Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 (2020), Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020) was an international sensation. Fiona Apple’s very creative craft is beautiful, and it shows her — as always — honest and raw. We’ll be singing “I Want You To Love Me,” “Shameika,” “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” and “Under The Table,” for generations, and we’ll be stomping around to the rest. Apple’s album is brilliant, and it’s clear she’s a pioneer in the industry.
A queen of the modern R&B scene, Jhené Aiko brings badass and beauty to her most modern work. Her record Chilombo (2020) — the artist’s last name — sounds like zen; that sort of serenity carries from track to track, but it’s not the subject matter that’s serene — it’s Aiko’s accomplished attitude.
“Lotus (intro)” is a gorgeous introduction to the chill Chilombo, though she’ll sing of life, love, and loss only several tracks later. The album’s most fun moments are on “B.S.,” “P*$$Y Fairy (OTW),” “Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E.),” “Tryna Smoke,” and “Party for Me.” Aiko’s soft side — and a soft side is apparent throughout — shines best on “Triggered (freestyle),” “None of Your Concern,” and “Lightning & Thunder.” She collaborates with Big Sean, H.E.R., Future, Miguel, MicahFoneCheck, Nas, John Legend, Ty Dolla $ign, and more. “10k Hours” — featuring Nas — very well could go down in the books as song of the year.