As famously bad as 2020 was, this year saw one of the most stacked music release lineups in memory—largely due to increased creative activity during COVID-19 lockdown, part of what made the year so horrendous. Career best albums seemed to pop up every few weeks, from pretty much every corner of the music scene.
In light of just how massive of a music year this was, I’ve asked people at the station to write about their favorite releases of the year, ranging immensely wider than you might expect from a college radio station. There’s something for everyone on this list, and the variety here speaks to just how personally cathartic music was for all of us this year.
UNLOCKED — Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats
UNLOCKED revitalized the art of the album with an entire video storyline and animation for every song. It’s forever replay-able, with every song flowing seamlessly into the next.
Essential track: Take_it_back_v2
— Asya Azkin, Staff Writer
Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak) — Slauson Malone
This EP is emotionally provocative through its stripped production and echo-y vocals. Malone conveys his struggle to overcome his past and the pain it has brought and makes the listener feel like they have gone through the same strife. The EP sounds like every chord, every lyric, every pause has been critically selected. Crater Speak builds off of his former project, A Quiet Farewell, which gives it even more meaning, as AQF dealt with many of the same themes. It’s sonically unique and one of the most exciting listens of the year for me.
Essential track: THE MESSAGE 3
— Hayden Kraus, Staff Writer
Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers
In all honestly, I had only really ever listened to random songs by Phoebe and boygenius before this album. But I sat down and listened to the entirety of Punisher and it really blew me away. I probably listened to “I Know the End” 20 times in a row as I drove home from Nashville to LA and it was the most perfectly beautiful and ominous song for the setting. I also heard Copycat Killer, her EP with instrumentalist Rob Moose that features 4 orchestra arrangements of songs from Punisher (including Savior Complex and the Kyoto rendition that Phoebe performed on the Late Late Show with James Corden) and it nearly made me cry. I think Phoebe is an incredible lyricist and the melodies in her choruses are hypnotizingly beautiful.
Essential tracks: I Know the End, Savior Complex
— Emma Johnson, Staff Writer & Music Director
Eternal Atake — Lil Uzi Vert
Eternal Atake feels like a victory lap for Lil Uzi Vert. Released in early March right before the COVID-19 pandemic caused much of the world to go into lockdown, the album is almost like a moment in time. After three years of anticipation, snippets, leaks, and missed release dates, it seemed like an almost impossible task for Uzi to deliver on such a hyped-up project. However, he managed to accomplish it by releasing a cohesive project that has something everyone can enjoy, as well as a sprawling “deluxe” edition of the album with snippets and leaks that fans have wanted for what feels like an eternity. Eternal Atake sees Uzi returning to his roots (“Venetia,” “Secure the Bag”) while also trying out new styles that still manage to fit into his overall sound (“Silly Watch,” “Celebration Station”). The album is loosely connected by a narrative of Uzi getting kidnapped by aliens, dividing it up into three different “acts” each with a distinct sound of its own. These acts allow Uzi to try out new styles and experiment while also maintaining a cohesive project, which makes for an easy listen. The narrative also assists with the overall sound of Eternal Atake, which could he described as “spacey”, “fun”, “bubbly”, or “futuristic”. Thanks to Uzi’s delivery and style, it feels impossible to not be happy while listening to this album. He delivers on arguably every single track on the 18 song project, with the last two spots being reserved for previously released singles “Futsal Shuffle 2020” and “That Way”. As previously stated, there truly is something for everyone on here, and the end of the album even sees Uzi making a sort of sequel to his 2017 hit “XO Tour Lif3” with “P2”. Despite reaching near-insurmountable levels of excitement and hype, Uzi managed to deliver on all fronts. If you’re an Uzi fan, you’ll definitely be satisfied with this project. This is an album that will remain in rotation for a long time to come.
Essential track: Prices
— Julian Barretto, Staff Writer
reimagined — flor
Quarantine has been oxymoronically stagnant and chaotic. It felt like we all experienced a shared pressure to make the most of this cursed year, and not to speak for y’all, but in my case, that optimistic productivity was not realized. On a less depressing note, this year was also full of looking back and looking within. This EP speaks to all of this: by beautifully reimagining some of their foundational tracks, flor doesn’t succumb to the pressure of the music industry’s cyclical demand for constant content, instead reflecting on their already brilliant sound while also giving their listeners some novelty (and some much-needed serotonin.) Maybe I love reimagined, maybe I love the new spin on songs I fell in love with when I was 15, or maybe it just eases some of my dissonance this year, but regardless, give it a listen and be well.
Essential track: warm blood
— Hayden Kraus, Staff Writer
Peaceful as Hell — Black Dresses
In 2020 Black Dresses gave us an album about needing love and friendship as the world crumbles around us. The duo drowns catchy and well-structured melodies in layers upon layers of noise and distortion. Sometimes you can barely make out their desperate screams for acceptance in the harsh synths and drums that explode all over the mix. This album drags you by your hair to hell and back in 45 minutes and complements your outfit the entire time. The dose of insanity we all need right now.
Essential tracks: DAMAGE SUPPRESSOR, BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP, CREEP U OUT
— Brendan Sawyer
I’m Allergic To Dogs! — Remi Wolf
This EP has such a feel good vibe. Guaranteed to get anyone out of a funk and onto the dance floor. I listen to these songs when I’m feeling down and want to get back to my groovy self. Not to mention, the title is hilarious!
Essential track: Disco Man
— Paige Warren, Training Director
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately — Perfume Genius & græ — Moses Sumney
I spent a while trying to decide which of these albums to talk about, and eventually I realized that was because they feel like two sides of the same coin. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately sounds like everything; there’s touches of old pop in there, of country, of alt rock and ambient and americana and experimental noise that Perfume Genius and producer Blake Mills combine into one utterly coherent experience. græ, meanwhile, sounds like nothing else at all; it’s a completely singular performance, a sound that I can only describe as Moses Sumney singing about, and for, Moses Sumney, an introspective journey into melancholia that we just happen to get to witness. And yet, to me, these albums didn’t feel all that different – though they came from different places, they arrived at the same one, sharing a space of sonic decadence, soul-baring lyricism, and an infectious sense of self-realization. These are albums about pain and love and the ways we process both, about hurting and healing and finding yourself in the process. But above all else, these albums are about the musicians who created them, two people whose different experiences instilled in them the same creative honesty and unflinching identity that drives their songs forward.
Essential tracks: Whole Life (SMHOFI), Cut Me (græ)
— Matty Templeton, Outreach Director
how i’m feeling now — Charli XCX
Charli XCX didn’t need to make How I’m Feeling Now. After releasing her stellar third album Charli over the summer of 2019, it would have been perfectly understandable for the pop maven to take some time off, to ride the well-deserved high of an extremely acclaimed project. And this is probably exactly what would have happened in a world with no pandemic; but, of course, the world and Charli found some other plans. Recognizing the newfound loneliness, anxiety, and whatever host of other emotions that come with months of quarantine and general doomsday-ing, Charli decided to dig into these feelings in order to create another album – this time on a stricter time limit and under public scrutiny in a way many artists wouldn’t dare undertake. Over the course of a single month, and with the help of both new and familiar collaborators including A.G. Cook, Dylan Brady, Palmistry, and BJ Burton, Charli XCX recorded and released the crowning jewel of quarantine records and, depending on who you ask, her best project to date. Charli has always had her finger on the pulse of the internet-addled American youth, but How I’m Feeling Now manages to transcend any audience, emerging as a preeminent encapsulation of an unforgettable time in the history of an entire nation.
Essential track: anthems
— Cole Jackson, former Training Director and Internal Communications Director
Fetch the Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple
Pitchfork’s first 10 since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is arguably the best album of Fiona Apple’s formidable discography. With themes that couldn’t be more relevant in the midst of isolation, Apple’s latest without a doubt has changed the music landscape forever. It’s absolutely brilliant, and listening to it never gets old.
Essential tracks: Shameika, For Her
— Ayden Eilmus, Station Manager
folklore / evermore — Taylor Swift
Duh. As if I would write about anything else. Despite these records not being my #1 favorites (that honor belongs to Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters), they unsurprisingly defined pretty much my entire 2020. Or, really, the back half of it, despite feeling like I’ve lived in this Swift-by-way-of-indie universe for years now. I’ve written at length about both of these albums and the new creative horizon they represent for Swift, both in their musical content and their promotion strategy (or, more aptly, lack thereof).
As life began to grow more barebones and reflective, so did Swift, as she radically pivoted from the maximalist pop she’s been exploring since 2012’s Red. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Swift think so massively outside of herself, with a majority of the tracks on these albums being fictional stories instead of the ripped-from-the-headlines confessionals she built a career on.
Moreover, these albums feel inseparable from one another—Swift dubs them “sisters,” which feels appropriate. Notably, though, they’re not twins: where folklore feels instantly classic, evermore is weirder, more challenging. It’s hard to say which is “better” (though I personally prefer the immaculate quality of folklore), which is a testament to Swift’s remarkable artistic evolution. When we look back at this bizarre moment in which we find ourselves, I have no doubt that these records will be seen as an essential artifact. Few things sum up our situation better.
Essential tracks: mirrorball, august (folklore); ivy, evermore (evermore)
— Taylor Lomax, Blog Editor