It’s easy to close your eyes and imagine — or idealize — summer. Our mouths flood with the tastes of ripe, juicy fruits and our noses smell backyard barbecues. Our minds fill with nostalgic images of childhood bike rides in suburban neighborhoods and deep sunburns. Our skin aches for the touch of the sand and the feel of the ocean. Our lips long for a summer love. During any other year, these textures and ideas might come to us in May and be gone by August (when we’re sick of the heat and ready for pumpkin-flavored everything). But 2020 has robbed us of these experiences.
Thankfully, we’ve had music — and what a year it’s been for the music industry! New releases comforted us in our lonely beds and joined us on our bedroom dancefloors. Some artists used their quarantine time to make their best works (Taylor Swift), while others had to scrap album release plans and work with what they could (pretty much everyone else). Songs like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s award-winning “Rain On Me” (2020) and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s record-breaking single “WAP” (2020) gave us TikTok dance challenges and plenty of iconic music videos. In no particular order, here are the best releases of the summer.
Arca’s “KiCk i” (2020)
Arca’s latest work is celebratory but difficult to pin down. Throughout its tracks, “KiCk i” shifts between tenderness and coldness, flesh and metal, and fun and introspection. It’s never quite clear how we should approach Arca’s work — some songs (“KLK (feat. ROSALÍA),” “Machote”) are club bangers, while others (“Afterwards (feat. Björk),” “Rip the Slit”) take time to sit with. But thankfully, we can count on Arca’s incredible visuals to help us process her work. “KiCk i” music videos are artistic accomplishments of their own, featuring demonic love interests and distorted self-images. Those self-images hit at the heart of “KiCk i,” which is undoubtedly a journey through learning more about Arca’s world, past and future.
City Girls’ “City on Lock” (2020)
“City on Lock” combines Yung Miami and JT’s sass with wisdom and lyrical genius. The result is some of the duo’s best music. It’s certainly easy to identify “City on Lock” as a 36-minute run of party jams (or tracks to blast in your car while driving down the highway) but there’s something deeper here; the duo is vulnerable with its listeners, rapping about the artists’ pasts and their successes, all while enjoying the fruits of their labor. “Pussy Talk (feat. Doja Cat)” is an immediate highlight, a single that’s sexy, cocky and intimidating.
Taylor Swift’s “folklore” (2020)
A perfect surprise drop for a quarantine summer, “folklore” is Swift’s best album — sorry, “Red” (2012) — and the prime example of why she’s one of the best songwriters in the game. The album’s focus on storytelling — characters, love triangles, longing, nostalgia, loss — makes it easy to get lost in. And the indie alternative vibe simultaneously feels like the perfect place for Swift and a foreign setting that she’s adventuring into. It all adds to make “folklore” an extremely versatile album — it’ll stand the test of seasons and settings.
Phoebe Bridgers’ “Punisher” (2020)
At first, Bridgers’ intensely personal, descriptive and desperate world might seem off-putting. No other songwriter can hit you in the gut with such intensely personal stories and experiences. But despite feeling too specific to connect with, so many of these lines stick to your ribs after listening (like the absolute sobering “ICU” lyric, “I’ve been playing dead / My whole life / And I get this feeling / Whenever I feel good / It’ll be the last time) because their specificity is what makes them powerful — the connection is in the feeling rather than the experience. “Punisher” is a haunting body of work that might turn your world on its head or remind you how messy and dark the human experience is.
HAIM’s “Women in Music Pt. III” (2020)
Oh, what a good album. “Women in Music Pt. III” is a foot-tapping, body-shaking experience; it’s a party that the Haim sisters decided to host, with instruments and cocktails and laughter. But these songs are stories, too — one-night stands, deeply lived in experiences, love, dreams, loneliness — and explore the lives of the three Haim sisters in equally deep measures. Each song could be considered a highlight, but “Up From A Dream,” “Gasoline,” “3 AM” and “Man from the Magazine” become earworms long after you’ve stopped listening. “Women in Music Pt. III” blends genres and plays with various sounds to create a space of ultimate creativity where HAIM can do its best work.
Flo Milli’s “Ho, why is you here?” (2020)
Flo Milli’s debut mixtape doesn’t necessarily show a rap star on the rise — singles like “Beef FloMix” and “Like That Bitch” have been smash hits across social media in dance challenges and fancams for a while now — but rather a rap star who knows her talent and is ready to take her place at the top echelon. “Ho, why is you here?” is a veracious, confident release that’s easy to listen to and perfect for summer walks and car rides. While Flo Milli’s lyrics are particularly genius (“Pussycat Doll” features some personal favorite lyrics), it’s her delivery that really hits hard.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Dedicated Side B” (2020)
It’s pretty insane how easy it seems to be for Jepsen to craft songs (she’s got about 200 of them in a vault somewhere). And the fact of the matter is that she doesn’t have a bad one. But we can only relisten to her discography so much before we long for something new. Following “Dedicated” (2019) last summer, “Side B” comes just when we need it. It’s refreshing bedroom pop that’s perfect for late night walks and silly singing in the mirror (“Summer Love” and “Fake Mona Lisa” immediately come to mind).
Charli XCX’s “how i’m feeling now” (2020)
Made and released in Charli’s home studio during the early days of quarantine, “how i’m feeling now” feels worlds away by now, but it has aged well. It’s an album that feels incredibly fixed on that particular moment, but its longings for pre-shutdown life (parties, friends, no social distancing) still hit. And while that’s partly due to the state of the world, it’s mostly thanks to Charli’s ability to express her own personal experiences in a way that’s relatable and sharp. Sure, “how i’m feeling now” is a standout in Charli’s discography, but it still sounds familiar. These are club bops, meant to blast our eardrums and send shivers down our skins. Even in our tiny childhood bedrooms, that remains true.
Katy Perry’s “Smile” (2020)
Despite being chock-full of songs that deserve to be hits, Perry’s new album is quite apologetic; it’s easy to hear how badly Perry wants to move past “Witness” (2017) and remind listeners of her previous successes. Its themes of heartbreak, loss, fulfillment, love and confidence all combine to create cohesion and fun. And “Smile” barely slows down for its listeners while exploring plenty of sounds (disco, tropical pop, ‘80s synth, electropop) and featuring some of Perry’s strongest works (namely “Champagne Problems” and “Tucked”). It’s a palette cleanser that’s certain to set up a successful follow-up album.
The Chicks’ “Gaslighter” (2020)
After 14 years, the recently renamed group hasn’t lost its spirit or spit. “Gaslighter” is a cohesive, country-pop album full of beautiful emotion (The Chicks have a lot to say about their pasts, relationships, men, love and pain) and gorgeous instrumentals. It’s certainly their most subtle album — gone are the days of “Goodbye Earl”— but songs like the title track and “Julianna Calm Down” still hit at the heart.
Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour” (2020)
Wise beyond their years, the Bailey sisters managed to release a fantastic R&B album that plays well in just about any environment (backyards during summer afternoons, bedrooms with late night wine sipping, car rides through the city). “Ungodly Hour” features smart and sharp production, full of songs that can be replayed plenty of times. Even “Do It,” a highlight from the album that has been performed countless times throughout the summer, remains fresh thanks to its approachable sound, bright hook and Chloe and Halle’s stunning vocals and relatable lyrics.
Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica” (2020)
On “Chromatica,” Mother Monster reminds us of the purposes of her art and the intentions of the captivating artist who makes them. This album is another world, a place Gaga travels to (and dances at) when she wants to process her pain, trauma, self-doubt, fears and hopes. This album is Gaga’s journey to healing her traumas through dance music. On tracks like “Rain On Me,” “911” and “Replay,” the dancefloor is therapy, while tracks like “Free Woman” and “Babylon” celebrate Gaga’s ability to accept herself and party. And we’re there too — no other album this summer absolutely transported the listener to an unrecognizable place of salvation and understanding, a place where we can be whole again. Considering how lonely this summer has been, we need one-way tickets to “Chromatica” more than ever.