Monday, January 4, 2021

2020: The Year in Music

Thanks to the global pandemic that rocked everyone’s world this year, the first year of the new decade saw an unprecedented demand for at-home entertainment and solo leisure time pursuits. The written word probably fared the best, with people stuck at home and picking up a book for the first time in years. Movies and television were a catch-22; although the demand was there and people were willing to pay, there was limited new content because either production had been shut down or movie studios opted to delay or postpone theatrical releases versus release to VOD for fear of losing too much money. 

Music fell somewhere in between. With artists creating new music remotely pre-pandemic, production capability wasn’t an issue. What stopped some artists from releasing new product was the inability to promote new music with live shows. In today’s business model, it’s the touring that brings in the bigger bucks—not releasing $1.29 singles on iTunes. Although streaming was up (despite listeners spending far less time in the car or at the gym), the streaming of new releases wasn’t, with data showing that folks opted to stream older catalog titles, like musical comfort food. Artists grappled with the timing of new releases—from competing with the coronavirus for media time to promote their music to the fact that people were just overall distracted. Less people traveling to and from work lessened the importance of radio play, while the closure of schools severed that all-too-important word of mouth publicity pipeline among the under 18 set. So, like movies, the amount of new music put out in 2020 was markedly less than previous years. 

Still, there were some spectacularly good releases in 2020. If there was a theme in music during this pandemic-afflicted year, it was escapism. Artists created hopeful albums, filled with songs that were uplifting and uptempo. Lots of tunes to dance to—even if the dancing was relegated to living rooms. My own annual Top 10 list held true to past trends and personal patterns of predilection: Lots of Brits, heavily female artist skewed, and at least one new discovery. This year’s list sees the reappearance of artists you’ve seen grace my year-end favorites before, with two notable exceptions: Miley Cyrus and Love Fame Tragedy. Cyrus released a phenomenal collection with Plastic Hearts, an eclectic blend of pop-punk-country-glam-rock and homage to 80s-era New Wave that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Cyrus pays tribute to female rock icons with covers of Blondie’s Heart of Glass and The Cranberries’ Zombie, while bringing in rock royalty like Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks for duets and clever mashups. Cyrus made me a fan with this album.

Love Fame Tragedy is a collaborative solo project created by Matthew Murphy, the Wombats’ lead singer and lyricist. The album—Wherever I Go, I Want to Leave—is a glorious indie pop-rock masterpiece filled with Murphy’s wry, high-end songwriting on 17 tracks covering a range of musical styles from electro rock to ambient house, indie synth-pop, neo-funk, and even R&B.

Topping my list this year is one of my “newer” favorite artists—Jessie Ware. Once described by Rolling Stone as “the missing link between Adele and Sade,” Ware has made consistently good albums since her 2012 debut, Devotion. Her fourth—this year’s What’s Your Pleasure?—is a pure pop-dance tour de force, finding Ware more comfortable than even in her own musical skin. The album is ripe with every variation of dance music—from disco to hi-NRG and house and back again to disco-funk. It’s frothy and flirty and frivolous fun and just the kind of record we needed this year to remind us to dance like nobody’s watching. It easily lands at a firm #1 on my year-end list.

Speaking of, without further chitchat, here’s what you came for: 

#10 – HOTSPOT / Pet Shop Boys

#9 – CHROMATICA / Lady Gaga

#8 – DISCO / Kylie Minogue

#7 – LOVE GOES / Sam Smith

#6 – PLASTIC HEARTS / Miley Cyrus

#5 – INFINITE THINGS / Paloma Faith


#3 – WHEREVER I GO, I WANT TO LEAVE / Love Fame Tragedy 


#1 – WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? / Jessie Ware

Honorable Mentions: No formal ranking, but worthy of a listen or two. 

  • I HAVE MY STANDARDS / Martha Davis
  • THE NEON / Erasure
  • FOLKLORE / Taylor Swift
  • RAZZMATAZZ / I Don’t Know How But They Found Me (aka iDKHOW)
  • HATE FOR SALE / Pretenders
  • FUN CITY / Bright Light Bright Light
  • SPELL MY NAME / Toni Braxton
  • DREAMLAND / Glass Animals
  • AFTER HOURS / The Weeknd
  • CHIP CHROME & THE MONOTONES / The Neighbourhood
  • THE RARITIES / Mariah Carey

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