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These are my favorite albums from the Worst Year Ever

Stephen Bruner of Thundercat
Stephen Bruner of Thundercat performs on the NTS stage at OnBlackheath at Blackheath Common on September 10, 2016 in London, England.
(Gus Stewart / WireImage)

Despite 2020 being the literal worst, one element that didn’t suck were the new music releases. To my surprise, both emerging and seasoned artists alike delivered great songs that we could play on repeat — briefly letting us forget our reality, indulge in our pain, or a little of both.

Yet some musicians went a step further and delivered something truly holy in this ungodly year: a near-perfect record comprised of a track list requiring few, if any, skips. And if there was ever a time to fully immerse yourself in an album for escapism purposes, it’s 2020.

So with that, here are the eight albums that barely got me through 2020. (If you want to hear my favorite tracks from this year, here are the eight songs I played on endless repeat to deal with 2020. And click here to read last year’s album roundup, with the poorly aged title: “The 9 albums that helped me survive 2019.)

All albums are listed in order of release date.

1. “Circles” by Mac Miller
Release date: Jan. 17, 2020
Genre: Alternative hip-hop
Queue up: Circles, Complicated and Good News
Listened to when: I needed to wind down.
Why I love this album: Though released pre-pandemic, Mac Miller’s posthumous album — released after his 2018 overdose — is arguably the saddest, given the circumstances. Yet rather than listening to try and piece together what Miller may have experienced leading up to the accident, try to distance yourself from his death when streaming “Circles” to fully appreciate the body of work. The songs center on Miller’s vocals recorded before his death, accompanied by percussion and strings added in later by his collaborator Jon Brion. To me, the album feels more serene than depressing; rather than cry, the tracks prompt me to close my eyes and sway. It’s definitely a departure from his previous work, but the creative leap executed the landing. And though I believe Miller’s personal arc should be viewed separate from his album, it’s still a beautiful homage to the late artist’s life.

Mac Miller
(Courtesy photo)

2. “The Slow Rush” by Tame Impala
Release date: Feb. 14, 2020
Genre: Psychedelic pop/rock
Queue up: Borderline, Is It True and Posthumous Forgiveness
Listened to when: I wanted to remember better days.
Why I love this album: Tame Impala’s fourth album was my most anticipated release for 2020 — and while “The Slow Rush” wasn’t his best album, it definitely didn’t disappoint. (Honestly, I don’t expect anything to ever beat his 2015 masterpiece “Currents.") Tame Impala, aka Australian musician Kevin Parker, has an uncanny talent to create hypnotizing music that is bizarre, relatable and catchy all at once. “The Slow Rush” is also close to my heart since Tame Impala’s concert at Pechanga Arena on March 9 was the last show I attended, and listening to the album transports me back in that distant memory ... man, I sure miss crowded stadiums and overpriced beer and loud speakers.

Tame Impala
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

3. “color theory” by Soccer Mommy
Release date: Feb. 28, 2020
Genre: Indie rock, dream pop
Queue up: bloodstream, circle the drain, and yellow is the color of her eyes
Listened to when: I sat alone in my car (likely having a 2020 meltdown).
Why I love this album: Aptly titled “color theory,” Soccer Mommy’s latest collection is sectioned into three parts of different shades: blue for sadness, yellow for illness and grey for morality. Even though lo-fi darling Soccer Mommy — aka Sophie Allison — has spoken out about the inspiration for many of the tracks, such as mental illness and her mother’s battle with cancer, the songs are still open to interpretation, giving the listener an opportunity to reflect on their own personal experiences and present struggles. Every color song leaves you in an emotional state of rich emptiness; the best way I can sum it up is with a line from her opening track, bloodstream: “it’s a half-hearted calm, the way I’ve felt since I was 13.” It’s not a feel-good album, but each song makes me feel something real.

4. “It Is What It Is” by Thundercat
Release date: April 3, 2020
Genre: Funk, progressive R&B
Queue up: Funny Thing, Dragonball Durag, and Black Quails (featuring Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington & Childish Gambino)
Listened to when: I was working on my quarantine hobby, ceramics.
Why I love this album: I’m convinced Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, is a god. I’ve always been more of a guitar person, but the way Bruner shreds on the bass is mesmerizing and makes me reconsider my instrument ranking. His music is no doubt influenced by acclaimed acts he’s befriended and worked with over the years, from Kendrick Lamar to Michael McDonald, but the bassist has a sound that is uniquely his own. Compared to his 2017 hit record “Drunk” (one of my all-time favorites) “It Is What It Is” — who he dedicated to his close friend and collaborator Mac Miller — feels more relaxed, yet still just as funky and funny. Especially Dragonball Durag ... just try to listen to that song and not crack a smile.

Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner
(Courtesy photo)

5. “Punisher” by Phoebe Bridgers
Release date: June 18, 2020
Genre: Indie rock, emo-folk
Queue up: Garden Song, ICU, and I Know The End
Listened to when: I did literally anything.
Why I love this album: I want to be buried with this album. If that sounds morbid, it’s probably because I’ve been listening to indie emo goddess Phoebe Bridgers far more than is emotionally healthy. There’s just something about this woman — who I discovered in June, at my lowest point of the pandemic — that just mesmerizes me. “Punisher” is both creepy and beautiful, making my heart ache and swell simultaneously. It’s a whirlwind of emotions (for reference, it feels like Soccer Mommy on drugs) delivered with such raw yet refined talent that I want to scream ... which Bridgers literally does on the album’s final track, I Know The End. I could go on for paragraphs, but I liken “Punisher” to movie with plot twists you don’t want to spoil, so I encourage you to carve 41 minutes out of your day (better yet, put the record on at night to match its darkness) and experience the magic yourself.

Phoebe Bridgers perform during the 33nd Annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert & Gala on February 26, 2020 in New York City
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 26: Phoebe Bridgers perform on stage during the 33nd Annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert & Gala on February 26, 2020 in New York City.
(Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tibet House)

6. “Women in Music Pt. III” by HAIM
Release date: June 26, 2020
Genre: Indie pop, soft rock
Queue up: Los Angeles, The Steps, and Don’t Wanna
Listened to when: I needed motivation to accomplish something (usually basic tasks) in quarantine.
Why I love this album: I’ve listened to a lot of sad shit this year, but HAIM’s latest release was a welcome change of pace. The sister trio’s third album is the literal definition of grrrl power, in which the three women tackle depression, questionable relationships and definitive f— boys with empowering energy. Though the lyrics are heartbreaking at times, the album’s whole vibe is upbeat ... even if the addressed issues haven’t been resolved by the time the track fades to silence, you somehow know in your gut that it’s all gonna be OK in the end. And while the album is definitely focused on personal growth, I highly recommend the opening track: a lighthearted song that serves as a love letter to Southern California. (Alright, so it’s really written about Los Angeles — but it still feels very relatable as a San Diegan.)

Haim.
(Courtesy photo)

7 & 8. “folklore” / “evermore” by Taylor Swift
Release date: July 24 / Dec. 11, 2020
Genre: Indie folk, pop
Queue up: cardigan, august, champagne problems and gold rush
Listened to when: I was feeling *contemplative*
Why I love this album: Oh Taylor Swift, how did you end up on my roundup list again this year ... with not just one, but two new albums?? Admittedly, my pretentiousness initially got in the way of me appreciating her indie folk rebrand, and it took time for me to warm up to her breaking into the genre. Yet after a few listens I was, inevitably, hooked. I’ll leave the lyrical breakdowns and bridge rankings and song conspiracy theories to SwiftTok (aka a TikTok community of Taylor Swift fans, which is truly fascinating), but I will say she delivered some solid songs with a broader range than I expected. Plus, while I can barely will myself to shower or clean my one-room apartment in quarantine, Taylor has the ability to write, record and release 32 (!) new songs amidst a global pandemic? If that’s not motivation to get through 2020, I don’t know what is.

A photograph of Taylor Swift for her new album "Folklore."
(Beth Garrabrant)


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