The Best New Music That Got Us Through the Worst Freaking Year

If anything, our favorite music this year has us, dare we say, excited about what's to come in 2021.

The year is 2020. It's February and all eyes are on two dazzling, age-defying, and very bendy Latina women at a football game.

Of course, we're referring to Shakira and J.Lo's Super Bowl LIV performance, in which the "Hips Don't Lie" singer and Jenny from the block appeared in shimmering, barely-there costuming as they tapped each other out to perform high-octane medleys of their respective hits, including J.Lo's 1999 club banger "Waiting for Tonight." And then, after some booty-shaking, came the brief introduction of illuminated dome cages strewn across the football field containing children in all white, an obvious statement against the president's immigration policies, which separated thousands of families at the border and placing many in deplorable detainment centers.

Even in pre-pandemic times, 2020 was gearing up for some shit. The signs were there at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, which, for a moment, may have been, unbeknownst to us, our last chance at fantasy. But the clues that things were off appeared again days later when Eminem curiously showed up at the 92nd annual Academy Awards to perform a song he won an Oscar for — but didn't show up to receive — 17 years prior.

And, as news reports would later show, while Em was taking us back to 2002 with mom's spaghetti for no real reason, COVID-19 was spreading faster than the flurry of dislike buttons smashing on YouTube elicited by that fucking god awful celebrity rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" that was meant to, well, we don't know what it was meant to do other than to remind every Joe Schmoe that no amount of imagination would make a single $1,200 check during a national crisis make sense.

In 2020, we may not have been able to hang with Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli at the Woodward Theater, reunite with rockers Foxy Shazam at the Taft or attend the annual Over the Rhine Christmas concert. But what we got, in the face of uncertainty — and the deaths of musical powerhouses Eddie Van Halen, Little Richard, Kenny Rogers, John Prine, Adam Schlesinger among them — is nothing short of a miracle. We got music, baby. Lots of really good music that provided comfort, excitement, and much-needed disruption.

Cue up some of these tunes or, you know, fuck it and listen to your favorite album from 2004 on repeat for days because no one is going to stop you. If anything, our favorite music this year has us, dare we say, excited about what's to come in 2021.

This is the way.

1. Fiona Apple | Fetch the Bolt Cutters

"This world is bullshit," a 20-year-old Fiona Apple told the star-packed teen dream crowd during the 1997 MTV VMAs after she had just landed recognition for Best New Artist, a sentiment that would carry through her limited catalog, including this year's jarring, soul-opening, percussive, and dog bark-filled triumph, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. "Kick me under the table all you want/I won't shut up," she warns on "Under the Table," setting a general tone for the record — her first in eight years, which was recorded in the singer's Venice Beach home, where she and three musicians (and Cara Delevingne) used pots, pans, and, as can be heard on the album's title track, dog barks. (Dogs Maddie, Mercy, Leo, Alfie, and Little are credited in the album's liner notes for their "backing barks, thrashing, and collar jangles.") The record, a restless reckoning of trauma, shitty relationships, childhood allies (hi, Shameika!), and female solidarity in the face of infidelity was set to be released in the fall but, Apple, in true Apple fashion, said fuck it and released it early as a comfort to her isolated fans and as a way to free herself from press-related obligations down the line. "And I know none of this will matter in the long run/But I know a sound is still a sound around no one," she sings on "I Want You To Love Me." We do love you, Fiona, and we fucking hear you.

Listen to: "Shameika"

Use this lyric to break out of your own mental prison but not pandemic-mandated isolation: "Fetch the bolt cutters /I've been in here too long" | "Fetch the Bolt Cutters"

2. Taylor Swift | folklore and evermore (Tie)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2020 — that's right, we said biggest — is not the surprise release of two Taylor Swift records but that both folklore (released in July) and its sister, evermore (released in December) are basically masterclasses in expanding upon a sonic universe. On the pair of records, both written and recorded in isolation, each with their own thematic swells, invisible strings, cottagecore energies, and ancestral storytelling, Swift has clearly shaken off her heavy polished pop crown in exchange for an old, musty-ass cardigan that we cannot stop huffing. OK, so admittedly it's a little upsetting to see Taylor Swift records labeled "alternative" as Apple Music has categorized folklore and evermore (it's not like she's a known shapeshifter like Miley Cyrus), but her clever placement of words "shit" and "fuck" and recruitment of producer Jack Antonoff, collaborator Aaron Dessner (The National) and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who appears on two duets across both records, is a game-changing move for an artist who is being forced to re-record and reimagine almost her entire catalog of music after record mogul Scooter Braun sold the rights to her masters.

"To put it plainly, we just couldn't stop writing songs," Swift wrote ahead of evermore's surprise release. While both records have their standout moments ("cardigan," "seven," and "invisible string" on folklore and "'tis the damn season," "tolerate it," and "marjorie" on Evermore) the records are not interchangeable, nor does evermore (or as the L.A. Times' Mikael Wood calls it, Use Your Seclusion II) feel like a rush job or a record of B-sides parading around as a wannabe folklore. In fact, they might just be the best albums of her career. In fact, we know they are.

Listen to: "'tis the damn season" | evermore

Use this lyric when embattled with a skeezy record exec holding more than a decade's worth of your music catalog hostage: "What did you think I'd say to that?/Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?/They strike to kill, and you know I will/You know I will" | "Mad Woman" from folklore

3. Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher

"I call it 'Fucklore," Phoebe Bridgers captioned a behind-the-scenes photo from a recent music video shoot with director, actress, and screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a collaboration that happened via email. It's not that Bridgers, the icy-haired songstress, and CEO of her Saddest Factory Records who managed to promote one of the best records of the year wearing a skeleton printed onesie from her bedroom, is the anti-Taylor Swift. It's that she speaks to millennial dread in a way that feels truly irreparably messy, not like, whoa, my French braid is so disheveled and I sent a baby gift to my ex kind of way (sorry, Taylor, we clearly love you). On Punisher, Bridgers' first solo follow-up since her stirring 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps (she dropped an EP as boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus in 2018 and a collaboration with Conor Oberst as their group, Better Oblivion Community Center last year), the daring 26-year-old confidently took us on a hushed journey through Kyoto, feelings of imposter syndrome, a world where Elliott Smith is still alive, and a fear of god — you know, the usual shit. For a record that references the idea of a punisher, an industry term used by musicians to describe overbearing fans who push for photos, autographs, conversation, and connection, Bridgers poses the question: Are we the punished or the punisher? At some point, it might be uncool to fangirl over Bridgers (kind of the same way it's now very cool to fangirl over alternative artist Taylor Swift), but Bridgers will be the first to let us know when that happens.

Listen to: "Moon Song"

Use this lyric on your dating profile: "But I'm too tired to have a pissing contest/All the bad dreams that you hide/Show me yours, I'll show you mine" | "Savior Complex"

4. Rina Sawayama| SAWAYAMA

If you put '90s Alanis Morissette, early 2000s Evanescence, hard Britney and ChristinaKornDestiny's Child, and a light sprinkling of Final Fantasy in a musical blender, you might get but a teaspoon of the flavor dished out on Rina Sawayama's bold and untouchable debut record, which might well be the year's most exciting release. Sure, at first listen Sawayama might feel like a bundle of ironic kitsch, but behind the album's sonic pocketless low-rise jeans and chunky highlights is a complex nu-metal/pop-forward tale of intergenerational trauma, the pains of casual — and systemic racism (Sawayama is a Japanese Brit), ageism (she's 30), and taking risks as evidenced by "Snakeskin," "STFU," "Paradisin'." Though Rina has been putting out singles, EPs, and remixes since 2013, dropping a turn-of-the-Millenium intergalactic R&B-sounding self-titled EP in 2017 that addressed phone fatigue, FOMO, and social isolation, on her debut full-length, she's finally the fully actualized person she described on the 2017's "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome": "I am the girl you want to watch." (Pro-tip: Watch the video for "STFU.")

Listen to: "Who's Gonna Save U Now?"

Use this lyric on 2020's headstone: "Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up (You)/Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up (Uh-huh, shh)/Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up (You, I see you)/Shut the fuck up (Uh-huh, shh)" | "STFU"

5. Adrianne Lenker | songs

To everyone who has gotten to know every house on their block during their mandatory daily masked anxiety walks or who've come to appreciate decrepit garage doors and faded alley murals, or for those who've assigned names to each dog chained to neighbors' back porches, Adrianne Lenker's songs is for, well, all of us. For songs, the companion to this year's instrumentals, the Big Thief singer-songwriter captured the intricacies of longing, isolation, nostalgia, and grief, in what feels like a gentle but persistent wave lapping the shore, soaking through our boots. Recorded during the spring while a broken-hearted Lenker locked herself away in a one-room cabin nestled in the woods of Massachusetts, songs is not a sad and soggy boot sock. The 11-song record is basically a sweepingly descriptive meditation on survival, complete with a babbling brook, chittering birds, and brutally gorgeous lines like this: "Sleep paralysis, I sworn I could've felt you there/And I almost could've kissed your hair/But the emptiness withdrew me/From any kind of wishful prayer."

Listen to: "Anything"

Use this lyric when you get that "u up?" text: "As the coastline is shaped by the wind/As we make love and you're on my skin/You are changing me, you are changing" | "dragon eyes"

6. Megan Thee Stallion | Good News

Megan Thee Stallion really titled her debut record Good News just four months after being shot, and it's perhaps one of the biggest fuck you's in music. But the album's opener, "Shots Fired," a song that boldly samples Biggie's "Who Shot Ya?" and addresses the incident that occurred in July in which Tory Lanez shot the Houston rapper in the foot, might go down in the pantheon of great diss tracks. Since being denied a hot girl summer (I'm talking about us, Meg is four seasons of hot), Good News represents what the year could have been: wet 'n' wild.

The self-proclaimed "Hood Mona Lisa'' didn't try to reinvent raunchy hip-hop on Good News (though it could be argued that her non-album collab with Cardi B via "W.A.P." was, in fact, a barrier-breaker). But that's what makes it so pure. (OK, it's weird to call a record that boasts lyrics like, "I'ma make him eat me out while I'm watchin' anime/Pussy like a wild fox, lookin' for a Sasuke" or "Let you put your hook in my bumper like a repo" pure, but in 2020, lyrics like "Deeper, deeper, I need a reaper/Thought I was in trouble how he tearin' them cheeks up'' feel like gospel.)

While her debut studio record preaches body positivity and a whole lot of sexual agency, a few things missing that would've taken the record from Good News to "Great News" like some one-on-one alone time with Meg and maybe a sprinkling of the other things she stands for. In the past year, she's launched a scholarship fund for women of colorpenned a New York Times editorial about the importance of protecting Black women, and used her October performance on Saturday Night Live as an opportunity to protest the Breonna Taylor ruling. Regardless, we know that this record is a bold new step for an artist coming into her own.

Listen to: "What's New"

Use this lyric to caption your Top Nine on your fucked-up year-end Instagram post: "Bullet wounds, backstabs/ Mama died, still sad/At war with myself in my head/Bitch, it's Baghdad/New nigga tryna come around and play clean/And my clothes fit tight, but my heart need a seamstress" | "Circles"

Honorable mentions:

Tim Heidecker | Fear of Death

No Home | Fucking Hell

The Weeknd | After Hours

Laura Marling | Songs for My Daughter

Rufus Wainwright | Unfollow The Rules

Miley Cyrus | Plastic Hearts

Soccer Mommy | color theory

Waxahatchee | Saint Cloud

Dua Lipa | Future Nostalgia

This story was originally published by CityBeat sister paper Detroit Metro Times

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