It’s safe to say 2020 has definitely been one hell of a year. And in such a time of uncertainty, madness and fear, the world of music stepped up in more ways than one. Touring was put on hold, leaving live gigs a thing of the past and online ones the future, and artists had to learn how to market and release an album from the comfort of their own homes. For some artists it was a challenge, but for others they seemed to thrive. We saw a sense of vulnerability and creativity we never had before, with some of our favourite pop icons even stepping back onto the scene and releasing their first album in a few years.
Whether they dipped into something new or went back to what they were familiar with, we review how these artists produced some of the best albums of 2020, and just maybe their entire careers.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
For all its glory, Chromatica deserved a better environment to be released in. Its larger-than-life concept was made for live shows and crazy Gaga press antics, but had to succeed in a turbulent time. That being said, it just might be one of the best albums Gaga has ever made. A wiser and older woman than the bumbling pop prodigy she started out as, the star took all her musical influences and all her talents and crafted and refined them to make one exceptional body of work. This is the album you can give anyone to sum up the entirety of who Lady Gaga is.
One of the best things about Chromatica is its escapism. Featuring a fictional alien world that idolises electronic music, the album unintentionally ended up being our way to block out reality. Formed from a hole of depression Gaga found herself falling into after her 2016 album Joanne, the album aims to shine a light on mental health, trauma and discovering one’s own self-worth (which is a brilliant contrast to the sonic elements). Although made mostly before the global pandemic, it arrived in the midst of universal panic and doom and helped us all to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. Chromatica is Gaga doing what she does best, turning her pain into EDM hits and giving us all a distraction to do the same. And in a year such as 2020, we certainly needed that the most.
Sam Smith – Love Goes
Originally, Smith set out to make a completely different album. While the subject matter of the star’s first real breakup stayed the same, the original look for the album saw a change due to Covid 19. Wanting to call it ‘To Die For’, after their hit single of the same name, Smith decided it was too insensitive with the current climate and settled on ‘Love Goes.’ They pushed back the release date (from May to October) and went about creating new album artwork and imagery, but the end result was well worth it.
A fantastically free and queer pop album, Smith really comes into their own on Love Goes. It might touch on the star’s raw heartbreak, but it only reinforces the importance (and normativity) of queer relationships. The tracks are not empty but hopeful, with Smith closing the door on their last chapter and looking forward to what’s coming next. The star is honest, beautiful, lonely and the most personal they’ve ever been, and it’s a side of ourselves and others that we’ve learnt to embrace more this year. There’s beauty in the fragile and hope in the lost loves and moments; sometimes we just need to take a step back and feel it all.
Katy Perry – Smile
Following the theme, Perry’s latest album Smile since her 2017 Witness celebrates resilience. The icon has walked a mile in the industry and felt all the weight that comes with each step on her shoulders, but she’d just like us all to know that she’s still moving forward. And we should too. With elaborate clown imagery and deeply personal tracks, Perry plays with the idea of fake happiness and the entertainer’s pedestal she’s been placed up on and tries to navigate life as a grown woman in the pop game.
As a whole, Smile is a brilliant album. Not only does it capture the classic Perry sound we’ve all come to know and love, but it separates Perry from her star self to her normal self. She touches on heartbreak and depression following a rough time in her and Orlando Bloom’s relationship, identity and fame issues, and what it means to be a modern-day woman. The star has grown exceptionally and for those of us who have watched her journey, this album is a lovely thing. Smile might’ve taken a while for Perry to get to, but it came at exactly the right time for us.
Ellie Goulding – Brightest Blue
Her first album in five years, Brightest Blue showcases the changes and heartbreak Goulding has gone through in that time and paves the way for a new (now in her thirties) pop star. Broken into two parts, the first 13 tracks of the album are the personal solo tracks Goulding feels brave enough to stand behind, while the 6 others (under the name EG.0) are described as being her alter ego songs and consist of all the hits we’ve heard in the recent years.
Musically, the album seems to stick to what Goulding knows she’s good at: delectable pop powerhouse hits. But she’s pulled the ropes tighter and zeroed in on what exactly makes it work so well, gifting us quieter ballads with ‘80s dance bops and even flecks of contemporary R&B. She remembers relationships of the past, reminiscing and thanking herself for staying strong through all the pain, and touches on her love for her new spouse. An album after five years from Goulding is good on its own, but one as personal as this was definitely a diamond in all the rough.
Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor
While the future remains unclear, it’s comforting to wrap ourselves up in memories; songs and artists we love and have already associated with, as if to shield us from the ‘big, bad world.’ Which is perhaps why Jones’ album is so fantastic. It brings with it the comforting swell of her voice and the familiar jazz lounge sounds she debuted with years and years ago, but there’s an edge to it that replicates our modern world a little too closely despite the album being made before the pandemic.
Technically, the album is a compilation of offcuts from an unplanned recording session that aimed to add a few more bonus tracks to her 2019 EP Begin Again. The leftovers, aka the ones that didn’t make it as a bonus hit, became Pick Me Up Off The Floor. And it’s absolutely astounding that one of the best albums of Jones’ entire career wasn’t even intentional. Peppering in elements of blues, folk, gospel, country and funk, Jones gets political with her lyrics and comments on the world as she currently sees it. It seems that every era gets its Norah Jones album to see it through, and we’re glad 2020 brought this one.