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Top Five Albums of 2020 – Neeharika’s List

30 Dec

End-of-year introspection has an entirely new depth in 2020. There was profound sadness, disappointment, discomfort, dismay – but also hope. Hope in the vaccines that have arrived at breakneck speed, hope in the stronger relationships that emerged out of quarantine, and hope in continuing to keep up whatever gave you joy in this hellish year. For me, the year was made better by the presence of the following five albums, plus a few others that I’ve highlighted below. Read on for my take of the Top Five Albums of 2020.

Honorable mentions

  • What’s Your Pleasure? by Jessie Ware: Ridiculously fun, dance-worthy disco jam. (Full review here)
  • RTJ4 by Run the Jewels: Powerful, well-penned and a perfect soundtrack to the racial turmoil this year. (Full review here)

5. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C.

Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. debuted in 2019 with the spectacular Dogrel (which also made it to my list last year), and followed it up in 2020 with a deeper sophomore album – A Hero’s Death. The album was written while the band was on a whirlwind global tour for Dogrel, and consequently highlights their thoughts on fame, identity, America and so much more. With mainstream success comes mainstream expectations; A Hero’s Death sees the band rebelling on tracks like “I Don’t Belong” and “I Was Not Born”. “Living in America” dissects the reality of the United States of America from the mythical land-of-the-free in Irish minds while “Televised Mind” comes back to the theme of the stilted thoughts in today’s consumerist world – a favorite theme of Fontaines D.C. (and punk rock bands everywhere). All in all, this is a great record that proves there’s a lot more to come from Fontaines D.C.

Read our full review here.

4. The New Abnormal by The Strokes

Few records have ever been as perfectly titled as The Strokes’ sixth studio album The New Abnormal. The album was announced in February – pre-pandemic – and by the time it came out in April, the whole world was in an entirely different place. In the wilderness years between their fifth album Comedown Machine (2013) and this one, the band released a sum total of three songs (plus a remix). Most of the members used the seven years to work on side projects and there were rumors that the Strokes were done for. Happily though, the situation now seems as far from that as it has ever been, because The New Abnormal sounds like a perfectly-curated playlist of the Strokes’ creative output – together and apart. There are of course the classic “Strokes-y” songs like “The Adults Are Talking” that could do pretty well on their earlier records; but there’s also tracks like the melancholy “At The Door” with its clear Voidz edge and “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” with its touches of Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo work. On The New Abnormal, the Strokes sound like they’re working well together and having fun again, and that shows in the music.

Read our full review here.

3. Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

If you’re a pop / R&B star not named Billie Eilish, chances are you’ve tried your hand at dance-pop / disco this year. We had 80s-inspired music from Kylie Minogue, Jessie Ware, The Weeknd and so many others, but none can come close to the disco perfection on Future Nostalgia. The album is pretty much just straight hits from top to bottom. The metaphorical strobe lights start flashing right from the opening beats of the bouncy, irrepressible title track; and it’s a full-blown dance party by the time we get to the massive hit singles like “Don’t Start Now”, “Physical” and “Break My Heart”. Dua has also excelled in live shows this year (of all years), taking and running with any opportunity she gets – see her stripped-back Tiny Desk session or her magnetic AMAs performance of “Levitating”. Future Nostalgia is fresh, fun, timeless and an instant mood booster at a time when we all needed it the most.

Read our full review here.

2. SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

SAWAYAMA by Japanese-English singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is, in my mind, undoubtedly the debut album of the year. Imagine a mixtape of all the music you illegally downloaded off Napster in the 90s and early 00s; but somehow all the tracks have magically mashed up across genre lines – that’s more or less what SAWAYAMA is. For example, “STFU!” sounds exactly like a Britney Spears cover of a Korn song, while “Dynasty” has all the harmonized pop extravagance of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, with a hint of Evanescence-style elven vocals. If those come off as odd mash-ups, it’s purely a testament to how well this album has been visualized, produced, mixed and implemented. Songs like “XS” and “Comme des Garcons” are crisp, campy, catchy and everything that good pop music ought to be. Rina’s confidence and integrity of artistic vision belie her discography length, and a legion of fans now eagerly await her next move.

Read our full review here.

1. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz

Until about late November, when we in the music review hobby start charting out our end-of-year lists, I honestly did not think of the new Gorillaz album on this list. Indeed, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez was just released a few weeks ago, and although they have been steadily releasing great singles all year, I didn’t think the combined package would hold up. However, the more I started running through Song Machine, the more I was certain that this was the album of the year.

On Song Machine, Damon Albarn has turned the traditional album-single release tradition on its head. Every song is a single in its own right, and has been more or less treated as such, each with a separate release date, music video, accompanying snippets and so on. Release mechanics aside, the music holds up too: every single song on the 11-track album is worthy of the listener’s attention. Moreover, one must applaud the sheer audacity of throwing together musicians across genres – for example, Elton John with rapper 6LACK on “Pink Phantom” – and creating something totally unique and magical. From the opening notes of the otherworldly title track (“Strange Timez” feat. The Cure’s Robert Smith) to the high-energy closing track (“Momentary Bliss” feat. British rapper slowthai and punk band Slaves), Song Machine is the closest we’ll get to an eclectic and electric music festival this year. Virtually of course – what else could it be in 2020?

Read our full review here.

Fontaines DC – A Hero’s Death

28 Sep

Fontaines DC burst onto the scene in 2019 with their rambunctious, near-perfect debut album Dogrel. The album’s mix of sneering punk, clever literary references and mesmerizing vocals won over many early fans, including us (as you might recall from our end-of-year lists). This summer, the Irish punk quarter returned with an engrossing, worthy follow-up called A Hero’s Death.

On the sophomore album, Fontaines DC keep their trademark self-confidence, but have somewhat smoothed out the edges. Fewer are the pub-fight-friendly tracks like “Big”; largely gone are the spoken-word punk bangers like “Hurricane Laughter”. A Hero’s Death was largely written on a massive global tour for Dogrel, and one can somewhat see the results. This album is more introspective, more cognizant of their growing fame, and perhaps a little dialed-down on the inimitable Irish-ness. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on the listener.

If you’ve heard Dogrel, you’d have recognized the frequent mentions of America within lead singer Grian Chatten’s lyrics. The centuries-long migration pattern from Ireland to the United States seems to have made the latter a part of the Irish identity – not just for those who’ve left, but for those who stayed behind, too. Dogrel’s hit “Boys in the Better Land” centered on America as the titular “better land” that some folks in the old country still keep talking about.

On A Hero’s Death, “Living in America” adds another wrinkle to the Irish relationship to America: namely, the band’s own extensive tour through America and how it fits into the almost mythic Irish idea of the place. “We were kind of fascinated by that and fascinated by when we actually got to America and you travel across it, you do see that there is really a lot of inequality in a real way,” Chatten said on a recent interview. Fittingly, the track has the same kind of manic yet droning energy of a lot of hard-scrabble, dying American cities.

In fact, the band channels that same dissonance – between reality and imagination, between pre-fame life and post-fame life – on a few other tracks here. The album opener “I Don’t Belong” is a defiant rejection of the post-fame life, where Grian Chatten hypnotically repeats the phrase “I don’t belong to anyone” until all the layers stick with you. Screw you: they don’t want to belong to anyone. Too bad: they can’t belong to anyone. Mind yourself: they shouldn’t belong to anyone. Sadly: they don’t belong to anyone. “I Was Not Born” sounds like a song version of what the band may have precociously said to their tour managers; “I was not born into this world / To do another man’s bidding,” Chatten shouts in an echoing voice over incessant drums and guitars.

Although it’s just eleven songs long, A Hero’s Death takes the listener through many different moods and concepts. Right after the aforementioned brash “I Was Not Born” comes the wistful, sad-pop “Sunny” and the beautiful and gentle album closer “No”. Elsewhere, “Televised Mind” is a hypnotic extension of Dogrel’s “Television Screens” – a favorite theme of Fontaines DC regarding the decay of human thought in today’s consumerist society. “A Lucid Dream”, as the name suggests, is filled with trippy lines (“I was there / When the rain changed direction and fled to play tricks with your hair”) made tripper still with unpredictable volume modulations across verses and chorus.

Perhaps the best song on the album is, appropriately, the title track, which we’ve already spoken about extensively. Grian Chatten’s lyrics are intended to be satire on hypocritical, consumerist preaching, but they’ve accidentally come up with enough do-good edicts to start a small cult (we’re personally ready to sign up just with the line “Never let a clock tell you what you have time for”).

We had good things to say about all of the singles, and thankfully the rest of the album holds up too. A Hero’s Death may not be exactly similar to Dogrel, but it’s more multi-faceted and a little more grown-up in its outlook. Most importantly, it proves that there’s much more to Fontaines DC, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Best tracks: “A Hero’s Death”, “Televised Mind”, “A Lucid Dream”

Rating: 8.5/10

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