2020 Retrospective: Best Albums of the Year

The forests of woodvale. The Las Vegas strip. Mars. Florida. The bedroom. The sounds and stories to come from this oppressive year have been some of the most imaginative and forward thinking. In a physically stifled year, creativity and imagination ran rampant. Below is a list of just a few of the countless gems to come from the music of this year.

20. THE ALBUM – BLACKPINK

19. Future Nostalgia – Dua Lipa

BLACKPINK lights up the sky in new doc

When it comes to BLACKPINK, the four woman K-pop group that infiltrated 2019’s Coachella with a disciplined mix of cuteness and absolute savagery, many of these details couldn’t be further from the truth. With BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky, the group is introduced and their story of endless effort, constant evolution, and developmental frenzy is revealed.

Director Caroline Suh introduces each member with a rhythm reflective of the group’s easy swagger, swiftly breezing through their impressively dissimilar upbringings. There’s lead singer Jisoo, born and raised in South Korea; Jennie, singer/rapper who spent much of her childhood in New Zealand before returning to her birthplace of Seol; Lisa, rapper and lead dancer from Thailand; and Rosé, a lead vocalist born in Auckland to South Korean immigrants before moving to Melbourne where she grew up.

The four met throughout their shockingly long stint as trainees in YG Entertainment’s song and dance program. American Idol with no off switch, the program saw the girls spend years mastering their craft, testing their chemistry with fellow trainees until they joined one another to become something entirely new to the K-pop genre, BLACKPINK.

Flashforward through years of touring and smash hit global singles comes their history making Coachella performance. The documentary details the group’s shock and awe in exceeding the bounds of their already multicultural backgrounds to break onto perhaps the most mainstream festival stage in music today.

The documentary drops viewers into the group and their already long established dynamic well into their global success, with noticeably more quietly outgoing Jennie appearing as the evident leader of the group. The first to release her own work in single “SOLO,” she explains that the group is deep into work on their first full length LP; what would become October 2020’s release of THE ALBUM, a record that would skyrocket to the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts higher than any female K-pop group has ever gone.

The group then introduces songwriter/producer Teddy Park, a K-pop performer turned producer who helped the group find their sound and become what they are today. He describes the group’s initial release strategy favored singles before leaning more heavily into the personal storytelling of their latest project.

The film is so interesting for its multifaceted nature, outlining the similarly atypical group of women and their worldly experiences. They each possess such specific personalities that, when blended together, shine the light on why the group has become so universally resonant among audiences around the world.

Emotional, revealing, and eye opening for a corner of a massive genre constantly evolving, BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky is nearly impossible to look away from, and soon after audiences will find themselves digging through the group’s growing discography.

Gaga repairs her wings in ‘Chromatica’

What do you call a Mad Max themed gay club?

Chromatica.

"Chromatica," Lady Gaga
Chromatica, Interscope Records

A self-described dance record, Chromatica is extremely theatrical – an operatic symphony set to the best club soundscapes of the last few decades. Executive produced by BloodPop, the album is an extremely singular vision through which Gaga can fully execute her storytelling.

The record has a clear three-act structure, broken into segments by “Chromatica” interludes each setting the tone and providing delicious musical segues into each chapter. The story reveals itself to be one of redemption. In Act 1, Gaga seeks a love, fails, and is left to pick up the pieces. Act 2, specifically outstanding for the segue into “911,” tests her strengths and her grieving process, exposing moments of weakness and pain intercut with episodes of extreme confidence and progression. It isn’t until Act 3 when Gaga discovers her one true love: music. With the help of Elton John, whose personal narrative immaculately thematically aligns with the album’s story, Gaga expresses this.

Like many pop albums before it, when the flamboyance of Chromatica is stripped away, it is a classic tale of overcoming heartbreak. The point isn’t to tell an unfamiliar story – it rarely is in pop music. Instead, its to welcome the listener into a world of hope that transcends any sort of turmoil they are feeling.

Gaga and her producers’ ambition knows no bounds on Chromatica. The cohesive sound is impressively maintained throughout the album’s 16 tracks. This is as much an asset as it is a weak point. Several songs on the record build endurance only to be undercut by an underwhelming or trivial dance break.

Most prominently suffering from this anticlimax is “Rain On Me,” Gaga’s viral smash with Ariana Grande. Where it resonated with a public looking for hope and acceptance in an incredibly strange time, the track remains, well, not that good.

Like her duet with Elton John (“Sine From Above”), this collaboration utilizes the history of the guest artist to enrich the theme of the song. Anyone who knows Grande knows she has dealt with a lot in the past few years, not to mention her artistic imagery featuring rain and tear, and “Rain On Me” is a good fit because of this.

That said, the single suffers from a less than stellar chorus with the post chorus following suit.

Similar are later tracks “Enigma” and “Replay.” Featured in the album’s second act, the two songs encapsulate the duality of strength and weakness Gaga faced post breakup. In the context of the album, their presence is clear. As single tracks, both are easily forgotten.

Not all of the middle section of the album is like this, nor is the album generally. BLACKPINK lends a much needed injection of style and sleekness to the record, deepening Chromatica with the strongest club banger on the album. “Sour Candy” is a sultry, confident bop from a group of women expertly balancing their sex appeal and power.

Equally euphoric is solo standout “Free Woman.” One of the few tracks to reflect inward, it’s confident and one of the more danceable tunes on the album. The mode of communication Gaga utilizes here lyrically lays in subtext. What often appear as basic pop melodies are really layered insights into Gaga at this point in her life.

Another great example of this is the track “Plastic Doll.” Gaga fittingly uses the seasoned metaphor of the novel female pop artist – the plastic doll that everyone loves, for a time. She’s top shelf, meaning she can withstand the short attention spans and sexist career cycles of women in her genre. Underneath all of these appearances, though, is a deep sadness stemming from the broken-hearted insecurity within the artist.

While it has clear highlights, some of the record comes off painfully commercial. It’s a far cry from the “art pop” the singer has intended to be known for. Where albums Born This Way and The Fame had a lot to say under their glossy production, Chromatica does little to transcend the lived in heartbreak narrative. It lacks the edge that made her two strongest albums pop classics.

Chromatica closes with Gaga’s best “Vogue” impression under the pseudonym “Babylon.” Meant to close the album on a confident note, Madonna’s presence is palpable and impossible to ignore. If nothing more than slightly jarring, its enough fun to hear on the ride home from Chromatica.

At the end of it all, the record sounds exactly as expected. Fans of strobe swaying Gaga will lose it over the collection, while those looking for something new or innovative will shrug and move on as if they never heard the record.

In other words, Chromatica is for the Little Monsters turned Kindness Punks. For proof, see the type of merch Team Gaga is selling.