The Top Albums of 2020

Twenty twenty: what a rough year. One in which, simultaneously, nothing and everything seemed to happen. 

A recurring idea I had this year revolves around identity. What is it? Where and when is it formed? How do we keep an “identity” under extreme pandemic conditions in which we are no longer allowed to do what we love, see who we love, or just follow our daily habits and routines? Am I still who I claim to be, even when I no longer do what once defined me? This thought goes beyond pandemic conditions, as it is caused by the steady, or a times, drastic changes we face in our life situations, or within ourselves. I encountered these questions repeatedly and consistently in this year, even in the music.

It has become part of my identity, or at least a yearly habit, to see my year through the lens of the music I’ve listened to. The year started out quite normal, upbeat and energetic as the KAYTRANADA albums I was into in January and February (and in November, in an epic virtual concert). I live in South America, so in those early months, the earworm singles off J Balvin’s Colores inundated every medium, but by the time the full album was released in mid-March, Ecuador was already on lockdown.

KAYTRANADA – 99.99% (2016)

Top songs: seriously, all of them, but if I must choose it would be “Bus Ride”, “Together”, “Glowed Up” and “Vivid Dreams”.

KAYTRANADA – BUBBA (2019)

Top songs: “Go DJ”, “10%”, “Culture” and “The Worst In Me”.

J Balvin – Colores (2020)

Top songs: “Amarillo”, “Verde”, “Gris”, “Arcoíris”, y “Blanco”.

Remember when we thought this would last a couple weeks? 

I know it is a privilege to say it, but at the beginning of the pandemic, staying home felt like a welcome respite. After all, we did truly believe that this would pass in a short while, but then, the gravity of the health and economic situation was unimaginable. Ecuador was one of the first countries to feel the deepest impact.

To cope, I made a collaborative playlist with friends around the world. Also, I kept a guarded positive music space with mainly happy beats including Taylor Swift’s Lover, Caribou’s Suddenly and Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride.

Taylor Swift – Lover (2019)

Top songs: “Cruel Summer”, “Lover”, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”, “Paper Rings”, “Cornelia Street”, “Soon You’ll Get Better”, “Afterglow”.

Caribou – Suddenly (2020)

Top songs: “Home”, “Lime”, “Never Come Back”, “Like I Loved You”, “Cloud Song”.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (2019)

Top songs: “Harmony Hall”, “This Life”, “Big Blue”, “Rich Man”, “Married in a Gold Rush”, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”.

Then, in late July, the best thing happened: folklore dropped. I could geek out on what a genius songwriter I think Taylor Swift is, especially on this album, but suffice it to say that folklore is perfect. And it wholly encapsulated the sentiments of this year—nostalgia, wistfulness, a sense of loss, disillusion, “exile”. In the music video for “cardigan,” where she is shown on an empty dark ocean with a piano that she uses as a life raft is what this album was for me, a musical lifeline and refuge. And the beautiful stories told in each song made folklore its own world to explore, much like reading a great book.

It blows my mind to think that, had this pandemic never happened, Taylor Swift would have carried out her busy tour schedule for Lover and this album (and evermore) may have never been. The pandemic took many things away, for sure, but what did it gift us? In the very least, an opportunity to look through old photos and letters from ex-boyfriends while listening to “the 1.”

Taylor Swift – folklore (2020)

Top songs: “the 1”, “cardigan”, “the last great american dynasty”, “exile”, “my tears ricochet”, “seven”, “invisible string”, “mad woman”, “peace” and “hoax”.

Because of folklore, I went on a female artist kick, starting with The Chicks’ Gaslighter. The Chicks (previously the Dixie Chicks) haven’t released an album in fourteen years. That is a lifetime for music. Again I pondered questions of identity. Are you still a musician if you no longer create music? In the case of The Chicks, indisputably yes. They are all beautiful singers and multi-instrumentalists, and surely practice their craft often, even if it wasn’t in the public eye for some time. Still, it did cause me to think about one-hit wonder artists and those that go on a long hiatus, and about what happens to them on an emotional level after a moment in the limelight—however long that moment may be. Gaslighter, with its deeply personal songs about marriage, divorce and general relationship drama may have some clues.

The Chicks – Gaslighter (2020)

Top songs: I like most of them, especially “Sleep at Night”, but not a fan of the title track “Gaslighter”.

Identity is much more fluid than I may have thought before, and the longer I live, the more I see the ebbs and flows of interests and commitment to those interests. Even in quarantine, where I thought there would be plentiful time to do creative things (like make music and paint), I found that my semi-anxious mood did not inspire…much at all. After this experience, I can confirm that I lack discipline, but luckily for the world, there are exceptional artists like TOKiMONSTA that overcome the worst possible situations to make the most beautiful and inspiring music, a.k.a. Lune Rouge.

I have been listening to TOKiMONSTA for some time now (“Darkest (Dim)” was my jam a few years ago), but I did not know much about her. In quarantine, I watched the first episode of the Netflix documentary Explained, where TOKiMONSTA discusses being diagnosed with the rare moyamoya disease for which she had to have brain surgery. After surgery, she lost the ability to speak, understand music and said it sounded only like noise. Again, I was floored by the emotional mind space that she must have faced as a musician who has lost the ability to do what (at least publicly) defines her. How to cope? Lune Rouge was the result of TOKiMONSTA’s rehabilitation and recovery. When I first heard the album’s first two songs (“Lune” and “Rouge”) I could see in my mind’s eye the effort of the composition, the careful arrangement of the sounds and the production, which literally drew frequency spectrums inside my brain and sparked awe and hope. TOKiMONSTA is criminally underrated.

TOKiMONSTA – Lune Rouge (2017)

Top songs: “Lune”, “Rouge”, “I Wish I Could”, “Bibimbap”, “Don’t Call Me”.

At last, my year ended with a return to Florence + The Machine’s Lungs, an album that—had I made these lists/posts back then—would have been a favorite in 2010. It’s a curious thing to go back to something you loved ten years ago. In this case, it has almost exactly the same appeal, and in truth, many of these songs have been such a consistent presence over the last decade that including it in this list seems a bit like cheating. However, I must admit that Spotify allows me to access the deluxe version, which adds eleven new songs to a comfy, but worn, album. In this year, I have learned that there are some things that no longer fit your headspace or interests when you try to go back to them after some time has passed, but I’m happy to say that is not the case with Lungs at all. Forever one of my favorite albums of all time.

Florence + The Machine – Lungs (Deluxe Edition) (2009)

Top songs: All of them! I’m not even gonna try to pick my favorites, but “Cosmic Love” does have a special place in my heart.

Other albums that almost made the list and deserve the mention:

  • Beyoncé – The Gift (2019)
  • Diplo – MMXX (2020)
  • Major Lazer – Music is the Weapon (2020)
  • Taylor Swift – evermore (2020)
  • TOKiMONSTA – Oasis Nocturno (2020)

And the links to the playlists I’ve made that have rocked my year:

Cheers to the end of a crazy year. Without putting too much pressure on 2021, l wish anyone reading this a better upcoming year, as well as peace, love and music always. 

Happy New Year!

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