Music

The Phoenix’s Top Albums of 2020

Graphic by Zack MillerFrom left to right: "Alfredo" by Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist (courtesy of ESGN Records), "Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin” by Eartheater (courtesy of PAN), "The New Abnormal" by The Strokes (courtesy of RCA Records), "Gaslighter" by the Chicks (courtesy of Columbia Records), "Future Nostalgia" by Dua Lipa (courtesy of Warner Records) and "Circles" by Mac Miller (courtesy of Warner Records).

In a year where tours were canceled and music enthusiasts were forced to dance in their bedrooms while watching livestream concerts, new music was a refreshing refuge. Here are the albums that helped The Phoenix’s A&E staff through 2020.

Courtesy of ESGN Records

Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist’s “Alfredo”

With an 11-month turnaround from his 2019 “Bandana” project, Freddie Gibbs returned with his fourth full-length collaborative album, “Alfredo,” May 29. The 10-track project was a reunion between Gibbs and producer The Alchemist, following up the duo’s 2018 “Fetti” project. 

The opening track “1985” sets the stage with topical cultural references to Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” and “Tiger King,” along with bars paralleling Gibbs’ drug dealing past to the lucrative work of the mafia. Gibbs delivers these rhymes in a flawless accord with The Alchemist’s instrumental, a style Gibbs calls “God-level flow.” 

The Alchemist develops a unique sonic experience with jazz-inspired, glossy piano riffs, haunting synthesizers and ambiences, and harsh drum patterns. These sounds culminate best on tracks such as “Scottie Beam,” “God is Perfect” and “Frank Lucas,” as these songs feel luxuriously elegant and simultaneously blood-thirsty. 

With game-changing beats from The Alchemist and insightful lyrics from Gibbs — ranging from topics such as police brutality, the NBA and other professional sports, and the drug-dealing lifestyle — each track possesses its own identity. The 35-minute project is compact, cohesive and thought-provoking from one track to the next. 

Chantz Visse

Courtesy of Columbia Records

The Chicks’ “Gaslighter”

The Chicks are back, and sharper than ever. “Gaslighter” is the first original studio album from the country group — formerly known as The Dixie Chicks — in 14 years.

The album opens with an explosive title track, the latest entry in the time-honored country music tradition of putting cheating husbands on blast. Lead vocalist Natalie Maines pulls no punches throughout the record, detailing the trials and tribulations of her recent divorce while still leaving room for listeners to connect with their own heartbreak. 

“Half of this shit you won’t believe / but I know it’s not unique to me,” she croons over twangy banjo and punchy percussion on “Sleep At Night.”

Bluntly autobiographical and sardonically charming, the record is an exercise in catharsis and closure, with producer Jack Antonoff’s distinctive influence permeating each track. 

Despite the blistering condemnation of tracks like “Tights On My Boat,” the record ends not with malice but with a plea for her ex to let her go. Maines has bared her wounds to the world, and now she’s ready to move on. 

Hannah Duff

Courtesy of RCA Records

The Strokes’ “The New Abnormal”

Following their disbanding not long after releasing their 2013 album “Comedown Machine,” The Strokes made their comeback to the scene April 10 with sixth studio album “The New Abnormal.” 

The album, generally lauded by critics, shows a maturity reached by the five band members. Led by Julian Casablancas, “The New Abnormal” comfortably finds its place with the group’s discography. It’s a return to their roots — Casablancas’ passionate lyricism remains — while also combining disco and ‘80s influences. Any new music from The Strokes was welcome, whether or not fans expected what they got in “The New Abnormal.”  

Released in the midst of a global pandemic, the album’s title — inspired by a speech given by former California Gov. Jerry Brown — eerily suited the climate in which it was released. 

Despite its connection to the doom-and-gloom that was 2020, the album was the perfect listen for each drive taken to get out of the house and will continue to serve as carefree listening going forward. 

Emily Rosca

Courtesy of PAN

Eartheater’s “Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin”

Emerging from the primordial lava, Alexandra Drewchin (“Eartheater”), winged and fiery, confronts themes of renewal and rebirth on “Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin.” 

At once ancient and familiar, the phoenix stands a symbol of rebirth, a mythical creature born out of its own destruction. “Phoenix” captures this avian mysticism in its soaring, celestial instrumentals. Yet, its weighted, mythic air never suffocates the flame it kindles.

“I’ve learned by now / That my strength has been forged / In the fire of pain,” Drewchin evaluates on “How to Fight,” strumming her guitar as digitized chirps swirl around her. “Kiss of the Phoenix” sounds like getting baptized in static, with submerged spasms giving way to angelic harps and birdlike coos. 

In “Bringing Me Back,” Drewchin reveals the undefinable through description: “Lifting the words up / Off everything / I feel light as a feather.” In alleviating her memories from the binding constraints of description, she finds the remainder not formless, but free.

Griffin Halperin

Courtesy of Warner Records

Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia”

“If you want to run away with me / I know a galaxy and I can take you for a ride,” Dua Lipa opens with in “Levitating,” encapsulating the sheer strength of “Future Nostalgia” — it’s power of euphoric escapism. 

Influenced by ‘80s pop music, the electro pop album builds off the upbeat hits of the era while carving out its own distinct sound. Each track features rich, groovy production that complements Lipa’s crisp vocals. 

In a year full of boredom and devastation, “Future Nostalgia” serves as a 38-minute, dopamine-boosting dance party. Well, the closing track “Boys Will Be Boys” hits the brakes and is a bit of a dud, but the other 10 tracks are pop perfection. 

Float away to a better world with “Levitating.” Soar through space like you’re being chased by aliens with “Hallucinate.” Throw on “Cool” and some shades and drive around in a top-down vintage car as the lead of an ‘80s coming-of-age movie. “Future Nostalgia” is a powerful release from the stress of life, ripe with vivid daydreaming fodder.

Alec Karam

Courtesy of Warner Records

Mac Miller’s “Circles”

Mac Miller’s posthumous “Circles” opened the year on a somber, yet anticipatory note as fans eagerly awaited the final work from the late artist. 

The album takes listeners on a melancholic stroll through Miller’s internal struggles, allowing them to take a back seat while he berates himself for a lack of self-care and grapples with what his absence would do to those around him.

“Why can’t it just be easy? / Why does everyone need me to stay?” Miller asks on the album’s only single, “Good News.”

The walking pace of the 12-song run feels handcrafted due to the simple instrumentation and production present throughout the record, allowing Miller to fully focus on the concepts brought forth in his lyrics without being lost in the background.

Unfortunately, “Circles” serves as the endpoint to a career that hadn’t quite fully blossomed, making it hard to not mourn what could’ve been while listening. “I might just fade like those before me,” Miller sings on “Woods” — though it’s safe to say his doubtful premonition couldn’t be further from the truth.

Zack Miller

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