Picture this: You’re on a video party — a fleeting trend before Zoom fatigue sets in — dancing with some friends to a club mix. You’ve just made a stiff vodka soda (more like vodka with a pipette’s worth of club soda), and you’re ready to party. Well, relatively.
It’s not what you — or anyone — expected would become the norm this year. You thought you’d hear something like “Hallucinate” (2020) or “WAP (feat. Megan Thee Stallion)” (2020) in a nightclub, surrounded by sweaty strangers. And you will, soon.
It’s certainly easy to list all the ways consuming music changed. But plenty of our normal listening activities remained. We still take walks around the neighborhood. We continue to listen while studying or ignoring our roommates and families. And as always, the shower is still the stage for our world tour performances.
Perhaps we’re listening to music now more than ever — what else is there to do? Artists are comforting us (BTS, HAIM) and bringing the energy (Megan Thee Stallion, Rina Sawayama). Some make it feel like a party (Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue), and others remind us why we’re in therapy (Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers).
In alphabetical order, here’s a roundup of the best releases of the year.
“BE” by BTS
BTS may have released “Map of the Soul: 7” in February, but “BE” feels much more relevant to life right now. It might be the album’s length (around 28 minutes), which feels more consumable than “Map of the Soul: 7” (which clocks well over an hour). Or maybe “BE” sounds so fresh because it was created in response to COVID-19. Regardless, it’s a nugget of pop perfection, easy to listen to and exciting at every step. All hail the Princes of Pop. Highlights include “Dis-sease” and “Stay.”
“Chromatica” by Lady Gaga
“Could you pull me out of this alive? / Where’s my body? I’m stuck in my mind,” Gaga ruminates on “Alice,” the ‘90s house-inspired opener of “Chromatica.” The sixth album comes at a time when we can’t enjoy the music like Gaga intended. But it’s still an important journey of loving and healing on the dance floor. It’s the chameleon’s most cohesive work yet. And there’s fun and thoughtfulness that will sound fresh for years to come. Mother Monster is inviting us to party through our problems. How could we say no? Highlights include “Rain on Me (with Ariana Grande),” “Replay” and “Babylon.”
“DISCO” by Kylie Minogue
Looking for nonstop serotonin? “DISCO” arrives just in time, with 12 tracks (16 on the deluxe) of dancefloor fun. Minogue made much of the album herself in her home studio, working to record and engineer her vocals. The result of her hard work differs from other albums created during lockdown — perhaps that’s what makes “Disco” so exciting. It’s an escape to a different galaxy where the disco ball hangs and bell-bottoms swish. Highlights include “Supernova,” “Last Chance” and “Fine Wine.”
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple
Another album mostly made at home, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a years-long creation from Apple’s great mind. The album’s sonic realm is filled by experimental percussion items (dog’s barking, household items) and cathartic vocals. It’s all breaking free from something, processing and releasing. And rhythms are feverish and unpredictable, as instruments and patterns appear and disappear. Indeed, Apple’s ability to share this chaos with us is something special. Highlights include “Rack of His,” “Newspaper” and “For Her.”
“folklore” by Taylor Swift
The definitive quarantine album comes with a reminder of Swift’s songwriting abilities. That’s the focus here. The stripped back indie folk gives the longings, whispers and hauntings space to fill out each of the 16 tracks. Those stories might make “folklore” an escape. But it also makes it perfect for car rides and teatime with cozy sweaters. Swift has made her best album yet, with her mighty pen in hand. Highlights include “august” and “invisible string.”
“Gaslighter” by The Chicks
“Just put on, put on, put on your best shoes / And strut the fuck around like you’ve got nothing to lose.” Those “Julianna Calm Down” lyrics define The Chicks’ first album in 14 years. There is a newfound wisdom, like the trio has fully grown into themselves. And that comes at the perfect time: No year has felt riper to honor the legacy of country’s most important act. If any naysayers still exist, let them be silenced. Highlights include “Gaslighter” and “Young Man.”
“Good News” by Megan Thee Stallion
It is Meg’s year, plain and simple. The San Antonio-born rapper brings her sexual, confident and expressive lyricism to “Good News.” Over the course of 17 tracks, Meg shows a mastery over the material. The flows remind us why she’s one of the best around, full of hilarious rhymes and enthusiasm. Despite its being her debut album (she has released other extended plays and mixtapes), comfort and excitement are ever-present. Highlights include “Circles,” “Body” and “Outside.”
“Ho, why is you here?” by Flo Milli
No one makes you grin like Flo Milli. The rapper is well known for “Beef FloMix,” but her debut mixtape shows she’s capable of more than just catchy songs on social media. “Ho, why is you here?” brings a too-cool-for-school attitude, with rhymes oozing confidence and sexuality. It’s one of the wittiest releases of the year, and Milli never lets her guard down. Get her a verse on every song in 2021, stat. Highlights include “In The Party” and “Pussycat Doll.”
“how I’m feeling now” by Charli XCX
Charli dropped “how i’m feeling now” in early quarantine (what feels like years ago). Inspired by those first weeks of immense loneliness, the album switches between the online world and real life. It is mournful and frantic. There’s a desire to party and be in crowds: a longing to love and socialize. Charli is showing how easily she responds to the world and her fans, connecting with them through this love letter. Highlights include “pink diamond,” “forever” and “visions.”
“KiCk i” by Arca
Arca discusses acceptance, existence and expression on “KiCk i,” her fourth studio album. It’s electronic pop that explores who she can be and what defines her. And it does this with wit and humor. There is glitching here, disruptions between identities and presentation. And with a heavy emphasis on technology and the body, Arca has made some of the best music videos of the year: “Time,” with its sexy purple-horned man, and “Nonbinary” come to mind. Highlights include “Mequetrefe,” “Rip the Slit” and “La Chíqui (feat. SOPHIE).”
“Plastic Hearts” by Miley Cyrus
Cyrus continues her chameleonic career on “Plastic Hearts,” an album with more than enough space for her newfound rock diva role. It is the former Disney star’s best release yet (and comes with “Midnight Sky,” the best lead single of the year). Full of rock and grimy ‘80s pop, the personality and creativity sell themselves. It feels like the first time Cyrus has been completely comfortable with herself. And it’s open about discussions of sexuality, identity and bad behavior. Highlights include “WTF Do I Know,” “Midnight Sky” and “Bad Karma (feat. Joan Jett).”
“Punisher” by Phoebe Bridgers
“I’ve been playing dead / My whole life / And I get this feeling / whenever I feel good / It’ll be the last time.” The lyrics of “ICU” — much like the entirety of “Punisher” — are like the soundtrack of roaming empty streets, feeling too much. Bridgers’ songs are like personal stories: full of empty moments, unrequited feelings and longing. It reminds us how much we want to be wanted. With Bridgers, we’re a little less lonely. Highlights include “Kyoto,” “Moon Song” and “ICU.”
“SAWAYAMA” by Rina Sawayama
The genre-blending and intensely fun “SAWAYAMA” brings family, fame and desire to the table. We sense the processing, but it’s presented with wit. Likewise, we feel the anger, and it’s loud. Sawayama’s debut album is deeply rooted in identity, flowing through the legacy she’s inheriting and the material dreams she’s wishing. It serves as a powerful moment for music’s most exciting new star, who proves she can do just about anything. Highlights include “STFU!” “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” and “Snakeskin.”
“Ungodly Hour” by Chloe x Halle
The angelic sisters are synched vocally and expressively. They’ve always been talented, with gorgeous harmonies and approachable lyrics. But on “Ungodly Hour,” new heights are reached. The duo has excelled into frothy heights. For other artists, this level might be a peak or just out of reach. But the best part isn’t how good they’ve gotten, but their newfound focus on consistent visuals. They’ve given quarantine’s best performances. Highlights include “Baby Girl,” “Do it” and “Ungodly Hour.”
“Women in Music Pt. III” by HAIM
HAIM is a once-in-a-generation band. They have the energy of Fleetwood Mac and talent to spare. And on “Women in Music Pt. III,” their focus seems to be experimenting with new themes and melodies. Warm like the summer sun, the album shows the sisters having fun, blending genres and embracing the complexities of love. It’s all so catchy and easy to listen to. Vocals flow and guitars strum. It feels sickeningly hedonistic to enjoy music this much. Highlights include “The Steps,” “3AM” and “Don’t Wanna.”