In 2020, I didn’t have the energy to write about music at all, even when I really wanted to. As such, I will be posting reviews of my favorite albums of last year — approximately as the anniversary or their release approaches — to allow myself to capture what made me love them so much. Here is the first!

Manic is an apt title for Halsey’s third record. Described by the singer as “chang[ing] its mind as often as [she does]” in the lead up to its release, the album is a hodgepodge of different styles, genres, and subjects held together by the cult of personality that is Halsey — or Ashley, as she’d rather be referred to this time around. Ranging from sweet country to biting pop-punk, tragic acoustic ballads to multi-language k-pop bangers, pansexual love stories to necessary self-reflection, the singer puts pen to paper on everything she’s experienced since her career took off with 2014’s “Ghost,” with most attempts exceeding expectations. …


When Jazmine Sullivan drops a body of work, it’s always a statement. On her last proper album, 2015’s Reality Show — released almost five years after its predecessor — the singer embodied the stories of Black women in all their facets, from scorned lover to envied Instagram influencer, from ride-or-die to “stupid girl.” Speaking her truth, she left no stone unturned and no person unscathed (herself included) before she quietly retreated from the spotlight until she had something of substance to voice again.


FKA twigs has been broken. While much of the singer’s music showcases her vulnerability, little of it details as devastating scenarios as the lyrics on MAGDALENE, her sophomore record, and her first release in over four years. With such a lengthy gap between projects — her last being 2015’s M3LL155X EP in a four-year streak of releases both big and small — the anticipation can easily dwarf the quality of the content, causing a respectably fine project to be ripped to shreds for “forcing” listeners to wait for something they don’t want. …


If “cellophane” was FKA twigs’ exercise in minimalism, “home with you” — the third single from the forthcoming MAGDALENE — finds the singer at her most maximalist. Continuously building much like 2014’s “Pendulum,” the track transforms from a sinister, distorted dirge into an airy, operatic ballad about devotion; the first half is supported by synthesizers and faint piano, while the second half is a delicately layered vocal laid atop prominent wind and string instruments. Playing out like a two separate movements in a symphony, twigs embodies both extremes exceedingly well.

The beginning of the track is quite grim, twigs’ vocals vocodered beyond recognition as she details the lengths she would go for her partner, culminating in declaring she’d “die for [them] on [her] terms.” As she moves deeper into the song, the singer’s lyrics and inflections become more aggressive, snarling through lines in the pre-chorus like “the more you pull away the more that they depend on you” and “I wonder if your needs are even meant for me.” She pulls herself back into the doting lover of the verse during the chorus, her voice piercing through the central lyric “I didn’t know that you were lonely/if you’d have just told me, I’d be home with you.” Mimicking the sensation of flying that comes from a tender love such as theirs, “home with you” shows twigs is still interested in pushing boundaries in her own artistry. …


Over five years and four records, Tove Lo has made a name out of being the horniest mainstream popstar to grace the airwaves — just look at most of her album titles (Lady Wood and BLUE LIPS are particularly evocative). She has also earned a reputation for providing much bleaker bops than most of her peers. On Sunshine Kitty, yet another play on the singer’s vagina, Lo attempts to deliver a lighter record than its predecessors to varying levels of success; after the near-apocalyptic relationship that preoccupied the content of BLUE LIPS, it’s exciting to hear her sing about a much healthier romance. …


If Charli XCX’s 2017 mixtape Pop 2 was meant to usher in the second phase of pop music, her third album, Charli — her first in nearly five years — takes that space and treats it like a personal playground. Having straddled the fringes of both experimental and mainstream pop since her 2013 debut, True Romance, XCX didn’t fully come into her sound until her first mixtape of 2017, Number 1 Angel; Charli is the culmination of all of the exhilarating output she’s produced since linking up with the PC Music collective back in 2015. …


With a title like “Graveyard,” one would imagine a dark and/or aggressive sound to match — especially following previous single “Nightmare” — but then you don’t know Halsey. Subverting expectations once again, the lead single to her forthcoming third album, Manic (which “Nightmare” is noticeably absent from the current tracklist), is a somewhat acoustic affair; hand claps and other natural percussion dominate, with minimalist synths maintaining an undercurrent for the by-the-books melody. Closer to the soundscape of 2017’s hopeless fountain kingdom than its direct predecessor, it’s an intriguing step back into safety.

Like many great Halsey singles, “Graveyard” examines her gravitation to toxic lovers. “It’s crazy when/the thing you love the most is the detriment” begins the track, the singer forcing herself to accept the observation; she continues in destructive metaphors before jumping into a shockingly sweet chorus about staying by her partner’s side to — you guessed it! — the grave, for better or for worse. Verse two marches on in much the same fashion as the first, with less romanticized lyrics that hint at abusive behaviors. The “bridge” (consisting of a mere two lines) is the most exciting moment of the song, the singer taking a deep breath like she’s just surfaced from a live burial. It’s that kind of melodrama that makes a Halsey track, and adds a much-needed thrill to “Graveyard.” …


Change is an essential part of life — we face changes (be they minuscule or all-encompassing) what feels like every second of our lives. As people move through life, their experiences shape them in both fantastic and tragic ways, eventually culminating in a fully-realized person in the best of cases. This is particularly true of artists, who have the unique ability to translate what these events impart on them into consumable media. …


Welcome to the world of Romance. Teasing the release of her forthcoming second album, it was anyone’s guess if Camila Cabello would stick to the successful Latin sound she fostered for her self-titled debut or explore uncharted territory for the singer. Upon the release of dual lead singles “Shameless” and “Liar,” the answer is a mixture of both; while prior single “Señorita” and “Liar” rely on Cabello’s tried-and-true formula, “Shameless” is an ominous track that sits well with the pop production of 2019. …


Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the record Lana Del Rey has been working towards her entire career. Since 2012’s Born to Die — and even 2010’s Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant, if you wanna get technical — it’s been clear that the singer is most inspired by the folk rockstars of the ‘60s and ’70s, but she didn’t truly begin touching those sounds until her last album, 2017’s bloated but brazen Lust for Life. A well-received folk record focused on capturing fleeting moments of happiness and offering vaguely political statements, it ushered in an era in which Del Rey could explore her influences in a more direct way without fear of backlash from the public. Enter Norman Fucking Rockwell!, …

About

TJ Lovell

A music business student with a passion for writing about music almost as intense as his desire to curate it.

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