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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.

Monthly Playlist: Oct. 2020

2 Nov

As 2020 draws to a close, and we start making the first drafts of our end of year lists, we took a look back at some of the best songs in October 2020. Read on for a quick spin through everything from dance-rock to synth-pop – to whatever Gorillaz is…

5. “I Love It” by Kylie Minogue

The firs of our big-name artists to feature on the list this month is Aussie pop legend Kylie Minogue, who blessed us this month with the 1970s disco-throwback gem called “I Love It”. Readers of Top Five Records will note that this particular aesthetic is rather chic among female pop singers this year, whether it’s Dua Lipa or Jessie Ware or Gaga herself. Kylie carries forward this year’s trend with this bouncy, Technicolor soundtrack to all the parties you wish you’d had this year.

4. “Straight to the Morning” by Hot Chip feat. Jarvis Cocker

Dovetailing right into Kylie’s above track is “Straight to the Morning” by British dance/synth-pop outfit Hot Chip, featuring none other than Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. As you may expect from this combination of artists, “Straight to the Morning” is a classic heartbeat-speed of a dance track, supported by Cocker’s irreverent drawl. Hot Chip are, of course, famously known for making great music videos, so be sure to check out the one for this track.

3. “Intercontinental Radio Waves” by TRAAMS

British indie rock three-piece TRAAMS is #3 on our list this with their catchy jam, “Intercontinental Radio Waves”. You simply can’t ignore the bluesy, sludgy bassline that hits you right at the start – and before you know it, you’re nodding along to lead singer Stuart Hopkins’ sharp, staccato pronouncements. The band last released an album a few years ago (2015’s Modern Dancing), so perhaps this is a sign of new music to come. If so, they’ve got new fans here at Top Five Records.

1. (Tie) “The Valley of the Pagans” by Gorillaz feat. Beck & “The Pink Phantom” by Gorillaz feat. Elton John and 6LACK

Over the course of this year, Gorillaz have been releasing a song every few months, including the recent ScHoolboy Q collab that we covered here at Top Five. All this new music from the virtual band was a lead-up to October’s Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. All tracks on this perfectly-titled album (for, after all, these are indeed strange timez) are collaborations between Gorillaz and an eclectic mix of artists, from niche (e.g. CHAI) to arena-filling (e.g. Elton John). Naturally, such a mix has resulted in a number of possible picks for a stand-out track this month, but we decided to go with two, both of which we’d rank as some of the best songs this month.

With its slick, dance-rock embellishments and playful pacing, “The Valley of the Pagans” is reminiscent of the golden Demon Dayz-era Gorillaz. “The Pink Phantom” features the one and only Elton John, whose vocals shine on this slowed-down, melancholy track. Elton’s voice is impressively – and surprisingly – complemented by American rapper 6LACK’s Auto-tuned, R&B-tinged verses. Props to Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn for putting all the pieces together!

Have you started thinking about your Albums of the Year and Songs of the Year? Let us know in the comments below!

Monthly Playlist: Jul. 2020

2 Aug

This month in music, we saw everything from surprise albums, to much-awaited sophomore albums, to some unexpectedly good remixes. Read on below for a quick breakdown of our top five songs this month – plus, a bonus track!

5. “SWAG” by YG

With its bouncy, summer-ready beats and the titular use of the 2010s-peak slang word, “SWAG” is almost a blissful blast-from-the-past, before the hellscape that is 2020. Compton-based rapper YG’s lyrics on this track are definitely nothing to write home about – the chorus is largely a repetition of the word “swag” – but damn, is it catchy. The best part about this song, however, is the music video. Aside from the 90s style visuals (think “Drop It Like It’s Hot”), the clip features an homage to Colin Kaepernick and cameos from two very special fellow Compton natives (check out around the 1:17 mark below).

4. “Night Garden” by BENEE feat. Kenny Beats & Bakar)

20-year-old New Zealand singer-songwriter BENEE has been blowing up for a few months now. In 2019, she released not one but two EPs, Fire on Marzz and Stella & Steve, the latter of which featured the TikTok viral mega-hit “Supalonely”. Her laidback vocals and relaxed vibe – like a Kiwi Corinne Bailey Rae – prove especially alluring in today’s times. New track “Night Garden” features producer Kenny Beats’ slick arrangements, as well as a choice verse from young London singer Bakar, whose cool vocals fit quite well with the entire ethos. BENEE is surely one to watch, because “Night Garden” really does evoke a nocturnal, wistful stroll. Check out the animated music video below:

3. “Televised Mind” by Fontaines D.C.

We have yet to fully absorb Irish punk band Fontaines D.C.’s sophomore album A Hero’s Death – released just two days ago – but the single “Televised Mind” has been top-of-mind for us since its release at the start of July. Like many other of this band’s songs, the track features uneven guitar sounds, steady drums, and lead singer Grian Chatten’s magnetic, poetic Dublin-drawl vocals. “All your laughter pissed away / All your sadness pissed away / Now you don’t care what they say,” describes he of the ostensible televised mind, before ending with the kicker: “Nor do I”. We’re looking forward to taking in the rest of the album; let’s hope it lives up to their spectacular 2019 debut Dogrel.

2. “Psychonaut” by Mr. Gnome

The excellently named Mr. Gnome is a husband-wife duo with a floaty, psychedelic vibe to their tunes. Singer-songwriter Nicole Barille and drummer / pianist Sam Meister have released a quartet of albums over the past twelve years or so, followed by July’s single “Psychonaut”. The song’s pulsing, memorable intro section sounds a bit like the famous laser scene in Ocean’s Twelve, and the entire song does have a similar air of nonchalant coolness. Special props to Barille’s spindly, dreamy vocals here, for making the listener want to do nothing less than walk on the moon, as the lyrics suggest. “Psychonaut” will be featured on the band’s upcoming double-LP The Day You Flew Away, out in October.

1. “Pac-Man” by Gorillaz feat. ScHoolboy Q

Since the start of the year, Gorillaz have released a song every month or so as part of the Song Machine series – a deconstructed take on the traditional album format that, to be honest, better fits today’s social media-driven world. In July, the band released the series’ fifth song “Pac-Man” featuring LA rapper ScHoolboy Q.

The song starts off with a tinny, MIDI-esque riff, in line with the theme of being like Pac-Man stuck in his little maze. Damon Albarn’s mantra-like vocals (“I’m stressing out, I’m stressing out..”) mesmerize like a high with malignant undertones – until you’re shaken awake by ScHoolboy Q’s sharp flow. Incongruous as they may seem, the pieces fit; and the result is a track that you can’t help but replay. Also, if you are a fan of the classic “Feel Good Inc.”, you may be happy to know that “Pac-Man” is probably the closest that Gorillaz have sounded like that in a long time.

As with all Gorillaz songs, one is meant to enjoy the music in a complete multi-media sense through the music video – after all, it is at its core a collaboration between Damon Albarn and artist / illustrator Jamie Hewlett. So, without further ado, enjoy:

Bonus:

We typically don’t include remixes on our Monthly Playlist – there’s enough great music every month to not need repeats – but we must make special mention of the Tensnake remix of Dua Lipa’s “Hurricane” from this year’s astounding Future Nostalgia. The ramped up bassline and Giorgio Moroder-esque synth breaks give the song a decidedly Daft Punk edge to the already-flamboyant disco vibes.

Listen to these songs along with all of our other 2020 Monthly Playlists on Spotify:

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