Hayley Williams is the musical gift that keeps on giving. Not content with her role as one of emo’s most iconic frontpeople in Paramore, this year in quarantine she blessed us with her first solo album, Petals for Armor.
From the fierce hums and seething rage of opener ‘Simmer’ to the rousing dreaminess of final song ‘Crystal Clear’, over fifteen tracks Williams is vulnerable, hurting, and healing, detailing her struggles with mental illness and processing the breakdown of her marriage. The experimental alt-pop veers from downbeat ruminations to full-on groovy funk, building on the tropical foundations of 2017’s After Laughter with a more sombre overtone.
Standout track ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ features the soothing lull of boygenius’ vocals, a meditative and compelling tale of recovery; “I will not become a thorn in my own side/And I will not return to where I once was”. In classic Paramore style, oft-remixed ‘Dead Horse’ masks dark lyrics with foot-tapping dance riffs and a glossy buoyance. Despite the pain it tackles headfirst, the overarching mood is hopeful, finding catharsis in articulating hurt and working through it.
An album simultaneously danceable and cry-able, Petals for Armor is 2020’s perfect tonic.
“Did a full 180, baby,” Dua Lipa announces on the biggest single from her album ‘Future Nostalgia’. These words are about more than the breakup that the track, ‘Don’t Start Now’, refers to. Lipa’s sonic transformation is the real ‘180’ here.
Ditching the generic pop aesthetic she had on her debut album, Lipa develops a rich, funky sound that draws from Prince, Outkast, and Giorgio Moroder. Her passion for the project shines through, filling every song with diverse, catchy hooks. The synth flutes in the background of ‘Physical’, the thick bassline beneath ‘Pretty Please’, the White Town sample that forms the backbone of ‘Love Again’, would all have made this album inescapable to partygoers, had clubs been open this year.
Lipa’s first foray into future funk is not without its failings - the final track ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is rather heavy-handed with its (incredibly important) message, and the really bad bad bad bad bad chorus of ‘Good in Bed’ prevents it from reaching the heights of the rest of the album.
Ultimately, though, the bold new direction of this album, and the (near) flawless execution of its production, make its release an event we’ll all be nostalgic about for years to come.
In the midst of the pandemic, Taylor Swift’s concoction of whimsical love and wonder which was beautifully infused into her album ‘folklore’ swiftly became my muse. Due to lockdown, I have been more prone than ever to pensiveness; in this context, folklore is such a comforting album to listen to as its the epitome of profound thought during uncertain times.
Swift successfully mimics my thoughts, particularly with her song ‘epiphany’ given that it’s a melancholic track that’s instilled with gratitude for health care workers. With the lives of millions of coronavirus patients resting on their shoulders, they deserve a resounding level of support and appreciation. The bridge is especially poignant: "Only twenty minutes to sleep but you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief to make some sense of what you’ve seen"; here, Swift emotionally writes that making sense of all the trauma is not much more than a dream.
Imagery and storytelling are how folklore blossoms and is distinguishable from other albums. Whenever folklore is even mentioned, I feel as though the Tardis has transported me to Windermere, which actually inspired the track ‘the lakes’. Hopefully Swift reschedules Grunewald; just imagine a concert in the forest with this soundtrack!
Phoebe Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps was always going to be hard to beat, yet her sophomore album Punisher took up the challenge and emerged undefeated.
Released in June, Punisher serves us the soft alt-folk, acoustic sound that we expected, but infused with heavy-drumming and brass-intervals in tracks like ‘Kyoto’, her prolific multidimensionality is more apparent than ever.
Even on its darkest and most vulnerable moments, Punisher is a symbol of assertiveness and resilience – reflective of the Bridgers who, amidst a global pandemic and wide-scale US riots, released the album early, declaring she won’t wait until "things go back to 'normal' because I don’t think they should". Aided by the featuring of musicians Bridgers has long sought inspiration from – Julien Baker, Conor Oberst etc – the album feels as if it has been meticulously woven together to form an almost coming-of-age project. The candid and unfiltered lyrics see Bridgers mobilise her songs as if they were short-stories in an edited volume, ultimately unrelated yet thematically unified in their shared painful emotion; telling of everything from strained father-daughter relationships to arguments about John Lennon. "The doctor put her hands over my liver / she told me my resentment’s getting smaller" in ‘Garden Song’ shows the 26-year-old address her anguish whilst recognising recovery – a message underpinning the entire record.
It’s those same frequent stings of raw emotion that evoke winces upon listening that make it sit comfortably as one of this year’s best albums. Punisher is one of those records that after each listen you take something new away with you – like spotting those hidden Easter eggs in your favourite films, it’s a process that’ll never quite tire.
SAWAYAMA feels as if everything that is cool about pop music for the last forty years has been thrown in a blender - accompanied by a dash of rock, dance and R&B. Somehow, it all works fantastically. While it is hard to designate the album to any single sound, it is, at it's core; high-quality, danceable pop music. Unrelentingly catchy hooks and incredibly crisp production are a mainstay from front to back.
It's not only the production that dares to explore, as Rina traverses a plethora of topics across the LP. On some tracks, Rina opts for nostalgic self-reflection, on others, she offers scathing criticism to racism and capitalism. Charismatic playfulness ('STFU'), bittersweet recollection ('Bad Friend') and effortless coolness ('Comme des garçons') are all found in abundance.
In short, SAWAYAMA feels like if you took prime '00s pop, dialed the production quality up to eleven, and switched trajectory to far more compelling lyrical themes. It feels like one of the most complete pop albums in recent memory, keeping things varied without sacrificing any consistency in the tracklist. SAWAYAMA carves an identity of its own by pulling on nostaglic influences and amalgamating them into something new - and brilliant.