2020 certainly hasn’t been the best year for music. COVID-19 rendered concert tickets moot, left arena dancefloors abandoned and pressed pause on a bunch of projects. But, it wasn’t all bad. The silver lining is that, like you and me, musicians have been cooped up with nothing but free time, their talents and a world up in flames to fuel their creativity.
Whether that creative fodder appeared in the form of nostalgia for a pre-pandemic past, introspective realisations or hope for the future, there’s certainly no shortage of things to write about. So it’s probably no surprise that while we were struggling to make sourdough bread or remember what day it was, many artists were busy at work.
So to celebrate the bright side of what has been an unprecedentedly shitty year, we’ve rounded up five of our fave records that were created in the confines of quarantine.
‘how I’m feeling now’ – Charli XCX
British pop superstar Charli XCX wasted no time spinning the chaos of 2020 into musical gold. In fact, Charli forged the record in just six weeks and entirely from her LA home. Released in May, it held a mirror up to the world in the first of its many phases of the quarantine blues. On ‘Anthems’ her glitchy auto-tuned vocals croon: “I’m so bored. Wake up late, eat some cereal. Try my best to be physical. Lose myself in a TV show” over frantic electro beats. We feel ya, gal.
In the music video for the honey-dripping love song ‘claws’, Charli channels Y2K vibes while dancing in front of a green screen that she rigged up in her house with the help of her boyfriend Huck Kwong.
When it came to collabs on the album, she subbed out record producers and label reps for her angels. She workshopped songs on Instagram Lives, picked the album cover art based on story polls and comment sections and released the green screen version of ‘claws’ for her fans to download and play with.
In essence, how I’m feeling now encapsulates exactly that. It’s the type of record that literally couldn’t have existed in any other era and will act as a beautiful time capsule to remind us of an otherwise ugly time.
‘Superbloom’ – Ashton Irwin
After drumming for the pop juggernaut 5 Seconds of Summer for the better part of 10 years, Ashton Irwin used lockdown to make the leap and create his debut solo record. Titled Superbloom, it’s an exercise in what you can stumble upon when you venture beyond your comfort zone. Over the course of an intense four months, Irwin and his housemate-slash-producer Matt Pauling threw everything they had physically, mentally and creatively at the wall to see what would stick.
Away from the pressure of the pop machine, he made something earnest and gritty. Rather than a recount of 2020 itself, it’s a reflection of every year in his life until then. He opens up about body dysmorphia on ‘Skinny Skinny’, his struggles with addiction and sobriety on ‘Matter of Time’ and the pressure of the pop industry on ‘Perfect Lie’.
Musically, it’s much grungier than 5SOS. You can hear the influence of the artists who have occupied his headphones over the years, from The Cure and Tears For Fears to Soundgarden and My Bloody Valentine. It’s a departure from what we’re used to, but it’s a genuine one that reflects his growth as both an artist and a person.
‘In A Dream’ – Troye Sivan
Australian pop prince Troye Sivan’s dreamy breakup record In A Dream was the perfect soundtrack for iso. It’s a painful, confessional and yet sometimes hopeful snapshot shared over electro-pop and ’80s-style synth.
Technically, the EP wasn’t made entirely in lockdown. Sivan had written five of the six tracks with producer Oscar Görres between LA and Stockholm by the time he returned to Melbourne to wait out lockdown from his family home. Sivan then put the finishing touches on the record and released it to the world in August.
Despite this, many of the songs sound like they were written for pandemic life. “I just wanna sing loud. I just wanna lose myself in a crowd,” he begs on the nostalgic ‘Rager Teenager!’. And on ‘Take Yourself Home’ he chants “I’m tired of the city. Scream if you’re with me. If I’m gonna die, let’s die somewhere pretty.” It’s an eerie foreshadowing that even he admits hits differently in a world that’s still largely locked down.
‘DISCO’ – Kylie Minogue
Surely we should’ve guessed that only a Kylie Minogue disco record could save 2020. In short, DISCO is musical escapism in its purest form. Lush disco-pop and heavenly vocals transport us to the technicoloured dancefloor of a discotheque in some COVID-free dimension far, far away.
Recorded at her home studio, DISCO has been hailed as the national treasure’s best work in the last decade. It’s a ray of hope in the form of a shimmering reflection of a disco ball in otherwise dark times. “Monday Blues” is a deliciously cheesy ode to the lovin’ on the weekend, “Till You Love Somebody” is a bubbly banger and the glittering opener “Magic” dares us to embrace the fantasy. It’s kitschy, it’s sexy, it’s fun and it’s Kylie. And in a year like this one, do we really need anything else?
‘Folklore’ – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift is truly an overachiever, creating not one but two records in lockdown. Folklore was the first and seemingly dropped out of nowhere in July. Her own take on indie pop, it’s a beautifully written and stripped back follow up to 2019’s sonically extravagant Lover.
While Swift has long been praised (and oftentimes vilified) for her autobiographical songwriting, folklore also showcases her knack for stunningly vivid storytelling. ‘Epiphany’ draws inspiration from her grandfather Dean landing on the beaches of Guadalcanal during WWII. She paints the picture of a free-spirited debutante who once lived in her Rhode Island mansion on “the last great american dynasty”. The heartbreaking trilogy of young love ‘cardigan’, ‘betty’ and ‘august’ is told from the perspectives of three protagonists swept up in a teenage love triangle.
Both folklore and her most recent release evermore were created in collaboration with producers Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner. They see Swift swap glossy pop for acoustic guitars, gingerly fingered piano melodies and atmospheric indie rock. The sharp turn on folklore might’ve felt like whiplash at first, but five Grammy nominations and best-selling status prove that it was a welcome wind of change.