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Among fans of hip-hop, Pusha T’s reputation precedes him. Since the early 2000s when he and his brother No Malice formed the legendary hip-hop duo Clipse, Pusha T has enjoyed consistent acclaim from fans and critics alike. The most recent subject of this acclaim was his album “Daytona” — released as part of a series of five albums produced by Kanye West which were released on consecutive weeks during the Spring of 2018. For many fans — myself included — the soulful instrumentals and uncompromising lyrics of “Daytona” seemed like hip-hop heaven, and it was hailed as one of the best albums of 2018 and the 2010s. Naturally, I was elated when Pusha T announced “It’s Almost Dry,” his first solo release since “Daytona.”
If you’ll excuse the pun, I seem to be building a reputation for myself as The D’s resident Taylor Swift reviewer. In May 2019, I deemed “ME!” from “Lover” uninspired. In July 2020, I fancied the mature melancholy of “folklore.” Now, in December 2021, I’d like to talk about “Red (Taylor’s Version).” There is something so innately powerful in those parentheses — they signify that Swift has become the songsmith and owner of her music. Indeed, the re-recorded version of her 2012 album is a strong, intentional reflection on fame and heartbreak, guided by its thematic and tonal lodestar, the epic 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” A pivot from the in-your-face nature of her prior pop albums, this music, like “evermore” and “folklore,” employs minimal instrumentals and lucid, expressive vocals that tell a tale of graceful rebirth.
Billie Eilish revolutionized pop through the institution of a dark, eclectic style in her debut studio album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” Between the tantalizing whispers and her penchant for contrasting harsh instruments with soft vocals, Billie Eilish united reality and fantasy to tell the story of teenage trauma through lucid dreams. Winning a whopping six Grammys in 2020, Eilish skyrocketed to mainstream success and mass fame at just 18 years old.
When Tyler, the Creator released his album’s new single, “Lumberjack,” on June 16, it was unclear which version of him we would get on “Call Me If You Get Lost,” his sixth studio album. Tyler’s discography has seen a major swing from aggressive and alienating lyrics to exploring introspective, vulnerable themes. The album’s first single gave us the old, aggressive Tyler; it boasted of wealth over an abrasive sample from the pioneering horrorcore group Gravediggaz, but with humor and grace infusing the lyrics. Its sound is comparable to his earlier albums, but in a way that is more mature and secure, foreshadowing the feeling of the album that would follow.
Big Red Machine, a duo composed of The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is releasing its second album “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?” on Aug. 27. The album is the latest installment in a burst of creative energy and wide-ranging collaboration, sparked by the pandemic, from Dessner and Vernon. Leading up to the album drop, they have released three singles that offer a glimpse into the experimental compilation.
Machine Gun Kelly’s newest album transcends his former rap concentration and launches the artist into his newest exploration: pop-punk. Based heavily on popular music of the early 2000s, “Tickets to My Downfall” marks the genre’s return to popularity with a new edge that makes it stronger than before. With over 66 million streams, Kelly has seen more commercial success from this album than any of his previous work, proving his versatility by successfully making the difficult jump to a new genre.
Frontwoman Tamara Lindeman takes a grand leap on The Weather Station’s fifth album, “Ignorance.” She departs from the band’s previous indie-folk sound to undertake an emotive art rock project brimming with existentialism. Lindeman interweaves personal storytelling with reflections on climate change and urbanization, bringing emotional weight to easily depersonalized issues. Despite a sometimes simplistic sound, the masterful lyricism of “Ignorance” offers a poignant take on the ongoing destruction of the natural world.
No other band has had as inconsistent a career as Weezer has. After achieving critical and commercial success with the power-pop of their 1994 self-titled first album, the darker direction of Weezer’s second album, “Pinkerton,” initially drew negative reviews, despite later achieving cult status. Lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s embarrassment over “Pinkerton” led to a long series of albums in the 2000s full of safe, boring pop music that lacked the magic of Weezer’s early work. While the band did produce a couple of albums I enjoyed during this period, particularly 2016’s “White Album,” they reached a low with 2019’s “Black Album.”
Since the release of his debut album in 2015, Chris Stapleton has made a name for himself in country music — opting for the grit and rough edges of the genre’s earlier days rather than the bikinis and pickup trucks of its pop iteration. Gifted with masterful songwriting and a powerful voice, Stapleton knows how to write an affecting song and drive home its emotions with his distinctive, raspy tone. With his fourth solo album, “Starting Over” — which debuted in November — Stapleton has truly mastered his craft, tugging at heartstrings with the lyrics of one song and excoriating your soul with his vocals on the next.
From beginning to (almost) end, 2020 has been the most unconventional year in recent memory. And naturally, the music released this year has been strange. While those who released music at the beginning of the year largely finished recording before the pandemic began, many artists releasing albums at the tail-end have had to work around stay-at-home orders and general shutdowns. As always, art has found a way to overcome, and these 10 albums represent some of the best music released in this otherwise difficult year.
For the better part of the decade, experimental hip-hop group Clipping — stylized as clipping. — has played a pivotal role in the revitalization of horrorcore. Consisting of rapper Daveed Diggs — known for his role as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the 2015 Broadway hit “Hamilton” — and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, Clipping prides themselves on taking elements of horror films and transforming them into musical form. The trio’s name perfectly encapsulates their production style, as harsh, industrial noises overlay unnerving, spine-tingling screams and discord.
Over the past few years, former YouTube star George Miller — better known as Joji — has become one of the most popular internet artists in the mainstream world of music. Given his background, a career in serious music sounds unlikely; under his YouTube personality “Filthy Frank,” Joji was known for his dark, gross-out humor and his wild alter ego, Pink Guy. However, Joji’s transition from fringe YouTube comedian to mainstream R&B artist was more successful than anyone could have imagined.
With their self-titled 2008 debut, Fleet Foxes established themselves as an indie folk outfit with achingly sincere, pastoral lyrics and a penchant for vocal harmonies. And unlike many folk rock artists emerging out of the late 2000s, they have remained fresh, while managing not to make a major departure in style on any of the three albums they have released since their debut. After a six-year hiatus, their third album “Crack-Up” dove headfirst into progressive folk, with denser instrumentation, longer songs and unorthodox song structures. With “Crack-Up,” Fleet Foxes proved that they could work within their established style to create a challenging, dense album of music that defied accessibility. With their newest album “Shore,” released on Sept. 22, Fleet Foxes have proved the opposite: Their music can be equally powerful with simpler instrumentation and more accessible, catchy songs.
Varsity, a five-person indie pop band from Chicago, has solidified its place in the genre of indie pop with its new album, “Fine Forever.” Composed of lead singer Stef Smith, guitarists Dylan Weschler and Pat Stanton, bassist Paul Stolz and drummer Jake Stolz, Varsity released “Fine Forever” on May 29 through independent record label Run For Cover Records. While the album’s self-aware lyrics touch on themes such as loneliness and heartbreak, the cheerful instrumentals infuse their songs with an optimistic quality. In “Fine Forever,” Varsity layers complex anecdotes with upbeat indie-pop sounds to stress a message of positivity amid the difficulties of life.
Charli XCX’s latest album “how i’m feeling now,” released on May 15, is her most conceptually cohesive and emotionally vulnerable album yet. Created entirely during the COVID-19 lockdown, the album portrays the loneliness, fear and hope that she has encountered while isolated from the world.
Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes released their latest project, “What Kinda Music,” through the jazz label Blue Note Records on April 24. Their collaboration is an experimental album combining the upbeat, polished chords and production of Misch with the jazzier, more experimentally inclined sound of the drummer Dayes. “What Kinda Music” is Misch’s first project since his 2018 album “Geography” and is also Dayes’ first album release since 2017. “What Kinda Music” is exactly what the name implies — a genre-defying album, incorporating the best of both Misch and Dayes. It’s a project that’s part electronica, part jazz and part hip-hop. Dayes’ experimental inventiveness melds with Misch’s catchy chords and pitch-perfect voice (and a well-rounded range of featured artists) to create an original UK sound.
Every 20 years, like clockwork, American culture repeats itself. This does not mean that the same exact trends are recycled in an endless loop. Rather, after about 20 years, outdated culture becomes “retro,” and nostalgia for past decades shapes new styles and artwork. The 1970s had “Happy Days,” and the 1990s had “That ’70s Show.” In a more abstract sense, the infatuation with the glamorous lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy in the 1980s inspired reality television and “Gossip Girl” in the 2000s. As we enter the 2020s, the music stylings of the early aughts are making a comeback. Artists like Charli XCX and Slayyyter evoke Britney Spears-style pop, while Poppy and Grimes both recently released music that is heavily reminiscent of nu metal.
After eight long years, 1990s teenage pop sensation turned reclusive savant Fiona Apple has released her fifth album, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” As longtime fans know, Apple’s album release schedule is erratic; she has only released five albums since her 1996 debut “Tidal,” which she released when she was 18 years old. Apple’s prodigious talents as a writer are apparent even on her first album, but her teenage immaturity and naivete are also obvious. While the 90-word title of her second album, often shortened to “When the Pawn …,” initially annoyed fans and critics when it debuted in 1999, the complex, jazzy instrumentals and tremendous lyrical improvement won over most listeners. A protracted dispute with her label created a six-year gap before the release of Apple’s third album, “Extraordinary Machine,” in 2005, which introduced full orchestration behind her music.
On March 27, English pop artist Dua Lipa released her sophomore album “Future Nostalgia” one week early, in the midst of the global pandemic. With millions around the world quarantined in their homes and looking for a way to pass the hours, the timing couldn’t be better. The album’s upbeat sound is exactly what the world needs in this time of uncertainty and confusion.
For Claire Boucher, the last few years have marked a massive change in popularity. Between the critical and commercial success of her 2015 album “Art Angels” and her high-profile relationship with billionaire Elon Musk, Boucher, better known as Grimes, has become a genuine celebrity. Her prodigious rise to stardom probably comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with her work since the beginning — which was full of obscured vocals and avant-garde goth-punk — especially since it took four albums for her to become a household name.