1. Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher makes the Best of 2020 album list for three key reasons: consistency, authenticity and replayability. Punisher is Bridgers’s second solo album, following her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. Like her previous work, Punisher is full of Bridgers’s trademark dreamy, indie-pop style. Some tracks, like the esoteric instrumental “DVD Menu” and the folky “Graceland Too,” push boundaries with stylistic experimentation; however, characteristic of a second album, Punisher largely remains within the realm of Bridgers’s comfort zone, never straying too far from what she’s best at. Fans of Bridgers will welcome more of what they know and love, while newcomers will find Punisher a straightforward introduction to an artist on the rise.
While Punisher feels familiar to Bridgers’s other work, the album is still an exciting and profound work of art. At the heart of the album is self-reflection: Bridgers, as always, withholds none of her emotional gut punches. Punisher is an album that brings the nitty-gritty of our lives to the forefront. As much as the album is a story about Bridgers –– who she is, who she wants to be –– Punisher is universal. Each track speaks to a flaw or vice that is not often put into words. Punisher is a confrontation; Bridgers encourages her audience to engage in the same vulnerable, perhaps brutal, self-examination that she does.
Tracks such as “Kyoto” tackle the seeming contradiction between desire and necessity: “I wanted to see the world / then I flew over the ocean / and I changed my mind.” Often what we dream of can become unsatisfying when realized –– what we want is not always what we need in the moment. Is it greed or weakness to mistake one for the other? Punisher doesn’t attempt to answer the questions it provokes but, rather, works to articulate emotions and internal contradictions that exist solely in the realm of anxiety, shame and rejection of the self. “Savior Complex” speaks to self-destructive behavior masked by charity, seeking out toxic environments in an effort to heal someone else, rather than ourselves. The album manages to grasp a level of emotional authenticity that almost feels audacious in its truthfulness and accuracy.
Punisher, aside from its emotional complexity and limited experimentation, is still an enjoyable album to listen to at the end of the day. While superficially solemn –– like a lot of indie projects –– Bridgers’s latest work doesn’t land too heavy. Punisher doesn’t require multiple listens to enjoy but finds replayability in the fact that it’s just good music, plain and simple.
— Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer
2. Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM
The third record from the Haim sisters is a brilliant summation of their previous work and melds the indie-rock edge of their older albums with a new sense of rhythm, production and lyrical structure. Every song on Women in Music Pt. III is different and brilliant in its own way, traveling from the classic songwriting they grew up on to hip-hop and hard rock influences that surprise.
If Los Angeles was made of music, I would guess that it would sound much like HAIM. This is furthered by the references to the city throughout the album and the sense of chaos and freedom that the band captures in their instrumentation. The Haims have made an album that represents them perfectly, a mix of musical influences that fit together like a puzzle.
But the true feat of WIMPIII is how much the music seems to represent us too, articulating the relatable struggles of young adulthood through a poignant narrative voice.
— Clara Scott, Daily Arts Writer
3. Circles, Mac Miller
Circles is a bittersweet reminder of the talent the rap community lost when Mac Miller passed away in 2018. His gentle, husky voice envelops you into his world, one of tentative hope, reserved happiness and subtle sadness. Miller plays into his characteristic lyricism in this album, drawing out words into beautiful, long, legato phrases. Listening to the single “Good News” evokes complicated emotions, like imagining good times with a friend who isn’t around anymore — a gentle nostalgia. Another track that stands out is “Blue World,” which elicits feelings of a naive optimism combined with an almost defeatist jaded tone.
It feels as if Mac Miller came into his own style in this album. All the things that made Miller himself permeate the music: the ethereal choruses, simple electronic percussion and the creative, diverse uses of synths. It sounds so sure of itself, a feeling we got a glimpse of in his previous album Swimming, but here it feels more fully-fledged, with a sentimental ending.
— Jason Zhang, Daily Arts Writer
4. folklore and evermore, Taylor Swift
2020 was, in many ways, Taylor Swift’s year. After releasing Lover in 2019 to mixed reviews, Swift did her most drastic 180 ever. Lover is a pop-ballad record full of tracks dedicated to her relationship with Joe Alwyn. On the other hand, folklore and evermore are two sister albums, each telling different stories from Swift’s life as well as ones she manufactured herself. Both albums completely step away from any sound she’s tried in older projects. folklore is an alternative masterpiece, chock-full of folk and country-inspired songs as well as heart-wrenching ballads. The two albums also boast impressive features, with contributions from Bon Iver and HAIM.
Swift not only proves her ability to write impeccable lyrics but her strength in storytelling as well. From the love story gone wrong told on folklore in “august” and “betty” to the story of a girl moving from her small town to Hollywood on evermore in “‘tis the damn season” and “dorothea,” Swift creates realistic and tangible stories with her music.
Both albums fit many listeners’ moods during the pandemic; with outdoorsy imagery and heartbreaking lyrics, the two albums are timely soundtracks to staying indoors and reminiscing about the past during a time characterized by isolation from the world and the people closest to us.
— Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer
5. Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor
Few artists are able to bridge the gap between glamour and grime as well as Yves Tumor. Following the release of their exceptional experimental album Safe in the Hands of Love in 2018, the Florida-born, Turin-based musician masters a unique amalgamation of glittering rock and synth on their latest project, Heaven to a Tortured Mind.
Heaven’s sound ricochets from psychedelic noise on tracks like “Medicine Burn” to smooth rock-infused R&B on “Superstars” and “Kerosene!” with ease, proving that Tumor has not shed the meticulously-crafted chaos of their previous works, but instead has polished it into a fine gem. Heaven to a Tortured Mind explores everything from intense pangs of emptiness and oblivion to rich glimmers of pure sensuality.
In an interview with The New York Times, Tumor explains that the project is “a buffet of sonnets and emotions,” with a little something for every listener and every mood. It is Tumor’s ability to pair gritty lyricism with swirling, textural instrumentation that makes the listener feel like they’ve just floated through a metallic nebula of clouds. The artist seamlessly steps into the off-kilter rockstar persona, all the while remaining as raw as ever below flamboyant layers of silk and prismatic makeup.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind stands as one of the year’s most alluring reflections on inner turmoil, not so much an escape from life’s ugliness but an embrace of it.
— Nora Lewis, Daily Arts Writer
6. songs and instrumentals, Adrianne Lenker
No emotion exists alone, as Adrianne Lenker’s twin albums songs and instrumentals show us. Love rarely exists without some melancholy, which Lenker pairs with appreciation. This emotional medley leaves you with a sense of wonder. If attempted by other musicians, this constant blend of themes could be slightly overwhelming, but Lenker’s unassuming vocals and intricate guitar strumming patterns, combined with the sounds of the natural world around her, leave you with a sense of peace instead.
The lyrics are beautiful and soul-searching, with complex rhymes like “His eyes are blueberries, video screens / Minneapolis schemes and the dried flowers / From books half-read” from “ingydar.” As she sings “Oh, emptiness / Tell me ‘bout your nature / Maybe I’ve been gettin’ you wrong” on “zombie girl,” Lenker shows how each experience in our lives teaches us something new, even about emotions we thought we already understood. After all, we love each person in our lives in a different way just as we lose people in our lives in different ways.
With each new experience, we are constantly reshaped as emotional beings. Lenker accepts the ever-changing, unstable nature of this and, instead of getting weighed down by it, continues to musically explore and marvel at it.
— Rosa Sofia Kaminski, Daily Arts Writer
7. Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin, Eartheater
Created in a year that feels close to hell, Eartheater brings a piece of hell to us: seduction. The seductress element portrays itself first through the cover art, a sexy and fire-born phoenix — perhaps she will pick us up and carry us with her.
Alexandra Drewchin, also known as Eartheater, surrenders to vulnerability and lets it burn away for 13 songs. The first lyric and one that is repeated on the album, “the only way out of this is through,” acts as a mantra for the year and for the album. Eartheater does not ask us to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but, instead, to become the light for ourselves or, in her case, to become a phoenix.
One can almost taste the desert’s scorn on the album, as it was composed at Eartheater’s artist residency in Zaragoza, Spain, so close to the heat of the desert. Comparing this album to Eartheater’s past work, the influence of the artist’s residency, as well as its collaborative elements, like the harp and violin contributions from Marilu Donovan and Adam Markiewicz of LEYA, softens Eartheater’s typical dark, freaky sound.
This album might be experimental, but Eartheater seems to be creating space for sounds like hers to become something more.
— Katy Trame, Daily Arts Writer
8. Sawayama, Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama is a chameleon in the most basic sense of the term, changing and reinventing herself several times, even within one song. On Sawayama, her breakout 2020 release, this kaleidoscopic energy bursts out of every track, from the dance-pop capitalist critique “XS” to the reflective anthem “Bad Friend.”
You can’t sit still or stay silent listening to Sawayama’s infectiously catchy music no matter how hard you try. These are songs to dance to in sweat-soaked clubs, sing in the shower or scream out of the window driving down a nighttime freeway. Sawayama captures the maximalism of modern life with her lyrics, but the contagious beats and mix of genres beneath them are what truly make her work stand out.
Sawayama is a must-listen in any case, even if you haven’t put on your dancing shoes in quite a while.
— Clara Scott, Daily Arts Writer
9. Shore, Fleet Foxes
Joy: a common emotion for humans to feel, but one that 2020 rarely surrendered to us. In that way, Fleet Foxes’s Shore feels like something the year let slip through the cracks, a glitch in the matrix.
Should I really feel this happy right now? That was a question that plagued me while listening to this project. To call Shore merely happy does it a great disservice, though. Fleet Foxes exhibits an intense gratefulness for the beauty that still exists in life and implores that we do, too. Realizing this made the question feel unimportant.
Songwriter Robin Pecknold wants to show that happiness without guilt can be accomplished if humility is included as well. On top of this, the band demonstrates their inner Beach Boys on this record with their instrumentation taking on a much brighter tone. All in all, Fleet Foxes manages to confront the brutality of 2020, not with the unbridled rage that it perhaps deserves, but with a delicate poise, and we’re all better for it.
— Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
10. Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee
Waxahatchee is practically begging you to take a road trip with her album Saint Cloud — there’s the Ford truck front and center on the cover; her sorrow, anger and joy are as expansive as the Kansan landscape and Nevadan mountains.
The song “Lilacs” concerns itself with the unending work and the people around who make each day a little more bearable. “Can’t Do Much” is about love, in the most realistic of ways. Waxahatchee sings, “Do you think that you were reading my mind? / My uneasiness materialized.”
Additionally, the album standout “Fire” has messages of self-preservation and actualization. Again, it all ties to this country we call home and what we can find around us.
— Vivian Istomin, Daily Arts Writer