Pictured, from top: Liv.e, Waxahatchee and SahBabii for their respective albums, Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, Saint Cloud and Barnacles. (Graphic/Yasmeen Altaji)
In a listener’s world, the end of 2020 means more than the start of a new year. Consequences of COVID-19 lockdowns altered the entertainment landscape, and adaptation to limitations made for a year unparalleled by any other in terms of music production. In a time when bedroom pop seems more a technical default than a stylistic sub-genre, artists spent much of this year at home with nothing to do but create. We asked WNUR members to select their favorite albums of the year.
Here are their picks.
The Slow Rush, Tame Impala
Kevin Parker is a musical genius.
This is a fact that has been apparent to fans since his first album, InnerSpeaker, which dropped 10 years ago. Upon listening to The Slow Rush for the first time in my Plex dorm room back in February, I couldn’t help but utter those words time and time again as tears streamed down my face. For 57 minutes, we act as the Tame Impala frontman’s therapist while he tells us about his experiences with everything from love to loss to nostalgia. At the same time, we’re treated to a masterclass in instrumentation and production, as I can genuinely say that my mind is blown by the sounds blaring from my earphones. Over the years, we’ve seen an immense shift in Tame Impala’s sound from the grinding indie rock of his earlier releases to the psychedelic trip that was 2015’s Currents. However, The Slow Rush takes elements from all aspects of Tame Impala’s past and introduces us to what will hopefully be his future. Five years was certainly worth the wait for this instant classic, and without a doubt, it belongs on any album-of-the-year list.
-Christian Wade, Media Team, 2022
Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, Liv.e
This album does not have a skippable song from front to back. Liv.e is an artist-producer out of Dallas who makes loop-based, genreless soul/R&B/rap music in a similar style to Standing on the Corner, or some of Earl Sweatshirt’s recent production. The two-minutes-or-less, all-loops song formula can get old sometimes, but Liv.e does it so well, shifting from orchestral piano to warped funk with ease. Some songs are nothing but a hook over and over again, like “LazyEaterBetsOnHerLikeness,” but they’re so well-produced that they could play for hours and you’d still be into them. Give it a listen.
-Layton Guyton, Rock Show, 2021
Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa
Stuck at home during the pandemic, Dua Lipa gave us a reason to dance.
If not for COVID-19, the London-born pop star would have launched one of the biggest world tours of the year, bringing the disco-pop revival of Future Nostalgia across the globe. Instead, she dominated the virtual sphere, performing at every major talk show and awards ceremony, shooting music videos and putting together a multi-million dollar ticketed livestream concert. Future Nostalgia is full of pop euphoria. “Don’t Start Now” glides across smooth synths and a bouncy bass line, while nothing compares to the soaring chorus of “Levitating,” elevated by synthetic strings and a grooving talk box. Lipa exudes effortless confidence on “Pretty Please” and channels ‘80s dance-pop on the driving “Physical.” With Future Nostalgia, Lipa proves that disco is cool again and that you don’t need stadium shows to be the greatest pop star in the world.
-Ethan Shanfeld, Media Team, 2022
love is not dying, Jeremy Zucker
From the opening song, “still,” to the closer, “oh, Mexico,” Jeremy Zucker’s love is not dying is an experience that is a must-hear on headphones. Zucker’s lyrics are relatable in a way that connects to his audience far better than typical clichés in songs about love and falling out of love. Songs like “lakehouse” are artistically created with nuances of multiple genres, beautifully crafted background chaos and smooth chords. Each song blends into the next, creating an experience perfect to listen to whether it’s raining outside, you’re reflecting on life or you’re just looking for a vibe.
-Ire Arogundade, Streetbeat/Airplay/Jazz Show, 2023
Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otro Demonios), Kali Uchis
New collaborations and spunky singles marked only the beginning of Kali Uchis’ 2020 trajectory. Then, the November release of her second album, Sin Miedo, opened the door for the unorthodox.
A genre-defying first Spanish-language album for the Colombian American artist blends tradition with innovation and technology with technique. The project is filled with not-so-subtle allusions to the styles that Uchis said “made my childhood”: telltale sounds of Latin jazz, the warmth of traditional instrumentation on “que te pedí” and others. Interludes sprinkle the album with sounds evocative of the homey, unfiltered emotion one might associate with small-scale local shows then transition fluently to the album’s showcase of bold reggaeton upheld by gritty bass. Delicate production accompanies Uchis’ powerful voice to avoid the trap of noisy overkill that pop albums so often fall into, all the while tackling new genres in the artist’s portfolio with grace, confidence and control.
At the close of a glum 2020, Sin Miedo illuminates the world of cross-genre pop with shades of clear artistic intent and refreshing novelty.
-Yasmeen Altaji, Media Team, 2023
Forever, Ya Girl, KeiyaA
When Solange released When I Get Home in early 2019, I liked it, but in more of a solemn, appreciative way than in a must-shove-these-songs-down-my-ears-24/7 way. I didn’t realize that my reservations were because I was faced with something so fresh I couldn’t yet fully process it.
It’s 2020 now. I’m older. Times have changed. KeiyaA has moved from Chicago to New York, started collaborating with the Slums Collective, and dropped her debut album, which operates within a similar arena as the Solange album. But by now, my two-years evolved ears can’t get enough of that sound: the inviting, layered R&B vocals, the ambient electronic textures, the minimal, at times non-existent beats, and the spare but defiant lyrics. When KeiyaA croons “When you see me / Do yourself a favor, walk on by babe,” the point is clearly made without wasted words. And by the concluding moments of Forever, Ya Girl, it’s clear that KeiyaA is confidently taking psychedelic soul, in a wonderfully unusual form, into the 2020s.
-Nat Scholl, Rock Show, 2021
Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee
“And the lilacs drank the water, and the lilacs die / And the lilacs drank the water / Marking the slow, slow, slow passing of time,” Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee croons on “Lilacs,” from her fifth studio release, Saint Cloud. What she didn’t know was how slow time would pass when this album released at the beginning of quarantine in March. But that’s what made this album perfect — it offered listeners clarity in a time when everything was unknown. Compared to past releases with convoluted production and overly metaphoric lyrics, Waxahatchee creates a world of precise folk and Americana stories that take listeners on a journey away from the current times. Each track of this album flows seamlessly into the next, creating the illusion of one long song in which the listener doesn’t realize how much time has passed. With this album, Waxahatchee welcomes long days and short days alike and gives listeners something to look forward to.
-Kiersa Berg, Media Team, 2021
SahBabii’s album, Barnacles, was the most cohesive and quality rap album released this year. While plenty of other artists dropped projects that were hyped up and had big releases, SahBabii’s mellow, melodic trap album is still 2020’s most listenable and original rap project from front to back. He has constructed a unique, niche sound that tickles a sensory sweet spot in the ear that few other rappers have reached.
-Sean Malaisrie, Streetbeat, 2022
Dreaming of David, Ryan Beatty
This album, Ryan Beatty’s second full-length release, came out on Jan. 31. So, for the first month of its existence, it was my go-to album for my subway commute home, perfect for the days when it got dark at 5:00 p.m. I would listen straight through, the album ending when I reached home. Obviously, everything changed in March, but my love for this album certainly hasn’t. It’s low-key yet lush, allowing Beatty’s voice to take center stage, distorted on some tracks, harmonizing with itself on others. I’ve now soundtracked my quarantine activities with songs from this album because it makes everything far more enjoyable. Snuggling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a warm blanket? “Backseat.” Walking through the park? “Hawkshaw,” or maybe “Flowers At The Door.” Baking yet another loaf of banana bread? “Dark Circles.” Trying to go to sleep after a long day of doing nothing? “Genesis.” Overall, I didn’t expect this album to play such a big part in my life, but it’s been a much-needed source of comfort during this year.
-Isabel Podolsky, Media Team, 2024
Baby, It’s Okay, flora cash
flora cash has been rolling out a mix of introspective lyrics and haunting melodies for a few years now, and Baby, It’s Okay perfectly captures their slow, powerful sound. It features a few fan favorites like “Missing Home” and “You’re Somebody Else,” but each song carries its own weight. This album is enjoyable from beginning to end and requires no skips.
-Stuart Sumner, Media Team, 2023
Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
Somewhere between YouTube concerts and TikTok sounds, Phoebe Bridgers really blew up this year. Maybe it’s because heartbreak, escapism and existential dread seem to be the recurring themes of 2020. Punisher serves as somewhat of a departure from the LA singer-songwriter’s previous projects; though she sticks with her signature plaintive guitar and brutally honest lyrics, she also ventures into more driving rock in songs like “Kyoto” and “ICU.” The catharsis of Bridgers’ music is what makes it special, and that’s exactly what Punisher offers. It’s a space to cry and scream, maybe even at the same time.
-Catie Moore, Rock Show/Media Team, 2023
Lomelda is a stage name for Hannah Read — an element of abstraction for an otherwise extremely personal body of work. Many of her past lyrics are similarly abstracted and disjointed, but these new songs prove to be an exception. No longer just a whispered voice over acoustic guitar, Lomelda’s music has paradoxically evolved into something even more intimate, recounting real-life stories in “Hannah Sun” and personal mantras in “Hannah Happiest” and branding it all under Read’s real name for the first time. Hannah is equal parts of everything I love about Lomelda. Some tracks are intimate and meditative, while others are absolutely electrifying. Most of this record, though, jumps back and forth between the two extremes. It’s an intense album, especially in its moments of quiet. While “Wonder” is a two-minute highlight of unrelenting energy, its heights are only made higher by the quiet, folky confidence that follows in “Polyurethane.” Read absolutely deserves her indie-folk label, but her new record defies any limitations of the folk genre. It exhibits an intimate yet full-band sound that was, impressively, almost entirely engineered by Hannah and her brother Tommy’s production. It’s a career high on all fronts and beautiful from beginning to end. Read is, both literally and figuratively, an absolutely unique voice in the songwriting world, and this record shows every side of that.
-Jack Parker, Rock Show/Airplay, 2023
RAZZMATAZZ, I DONT KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME (iDKHOW)
After releasing several EPs, iDKHOW blessed us with their first album, RAZZMATAZZ. Contrary to what the flashy title may imply, RAZZMATAZZ is a cool, retro-style album filled with a mix of raw instruments and synthesizers. Former Panic! at the Disco member Dallon Weekes and Falling in Reverse drummer Ryan Seaman bring a sophisticated and experienced sound to the duo for a robo-jazz experience only they can pull off. From the harsh realities of an unknown band described in “Nobody Likes the Opening Band” to the head-banging beat of “Sugar Pills,” iDKHOW display their versatility throughout the dozen songs on the album. Exactly what I needed during 2020, RAZZMATAZZ is a fresh and addicting sound for the alternative rock scene.
-Joanne Haner, Media Team, 2024
Welfare, Lucy Liyou
This is some of the most beautiful and vulnerable music. Lucy Liyou’s sound design and awareness of musical space are enough to draw anybody into a reflective and emotive story, and the use of computer-generated voice is a very interesting layer over such dynamic instrumentations. Don’t let this project pass you by.
-Thomas Kikuchi, Airplay/Media Team/Rock Show, 2021