Twenty20: The Year Of Women (In Music)

Yes, there is still a solid five months left of 2020 – I know, I know, sorry for the reminder – but I’m calling it now. This is the year of women in music.

There’s little point in saying much of anything about the state of the world this year, but as art always does, music has risen to the occasion; and so much of what has made this year’s music so powerful is largely because of the female artists who have gifted us with their talents in profound ways. With incredible albums, stunning visuals, broken records, and notable firsts, 2020 hasn’t been all bad.


WOMEN RULE THE ALBUM

Overall, this year has actually been incredible for new music – one of 2020’s few redeeming qualities, to say the very least. Almost everyone with a new project to unveil had a monkey wrench thrown in their plans this year. The glass half full here is it meant that, without much of the “fluff” that goes along with releasing new music, good work was left to speak for itself.

Even outside of several landmark moments, women have, overall, dominated the album format this year. In the context of these trying times, there have been records to escape to, to emote to… hell, even some of them came to be as a direct result of what’s taken place. Where women are often expected to focus heavily on visuals to sell their music, it’s been made clear that their talent is enough – it’s always been enough.


MARIAH MAKES HISTORY

Fascinatingly, an unimaginable 25 years after its original release, Mariah Carey’s legendary “All I Want For Christmas Is You” finally made its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, its sustained popularity reached such a climax that it spent three whole weeks there, taking us from Christmas into the New Year. This may just be the biggest phenomenon in the history of the singles chart.

Okay, so first of all… already popular songs absolutely do not become consistently (and considerably) more popular over the course of a quarter of a century. It just doesn’t happen, not like this. But what turns this landmark feat up to 11 is the fact that when the track reached the summit, Mariah Carey joined an elite class of artists who landed number one singles in three consecutive decades. For added drama, keep in mind that this happened on the very last two weeks of the entirety of the 2010s.

However… when it spent its third week at number one, it not only became the first number one single of the 2020s, but it meant that Mariah was the first artist in history to have number one singles in FOUR consecutive decades. What a way to start the year.


WHITNEY HOUSTON’S LEGACY LIVES ON

Whitney Houston… well, “Whitney Houston” went back on tour this year, kind of. In the brief period before COVID lockdown, a hologram tour of the late legend kicked off in the UK, and actually squeezed in a brief run before canceling the remainder of the European dates. Even with a career-spanning setlist of her legendary hits, An Evening With Whitney could only replicate a true live experience so much, but it’s impossible not to appreciate her God-given talents.

From “Tupac’s” surprise Coachella appearance in 2012, “Michael Jackson’s” Billboard Music Awards performance in 2014, and a highly anticipated ABBA “reunion” hologram tour (despite all four members still being alive) in the pipeline for next year, we’ve been heading this way for a while now. Ethical debates aside, this was a fitting artist to pilot this kind of tour with.

Additionally, as an even more fitting honor to her legacy, Whitney Houston was announced as of one of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. This is bittersweet for a few reasons, not least of which being that the legendary artist isn’t here to accept the honor. However, with constant criticism for lack of female representation in the Hall of Fame, this does give the impression of intending to be more inclusive – but she was one third of the only female nominees out of the sixteen this year. Hopefully the Hall of Fame will do better.


BILLIE EILISH’S HISTORIC GRAMMY SWEEP

On Grammy night back in January, that massively talented Billie Eilish became the second artist in history to win the “Big Four” awards – Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist – in one night. It was the stunning climax of Billie Eilish’s meteoric rise to becoming the biggest star in the world. Yet, despite feeling insurmountable, it still feels as though the best is yet to come.

Having just turned eighteen a month earlier, not only was she the youngest artist to sweep the four major awards, she was the first woman to do so.


LATINAS OWN HALF TIME

With Miami hosting Super Bowl LIV, it was only right that half time put the spotlight on Latin music. Cue the dynamic duo we never knew we needed – Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, two of the most successful Latina artists of the last two-plus decades. In addition to showing off their stacked catalogs of hits in rapid-fire fashion, the artists interspersed modern Latin classics (“Mi Gente,” “I Like It,” etc.) and welcomed the likes of Bad Bunny and J Balvin as guests. Maybe a guest (or co-headlining) spot from Gloria Estefan would have tied it all together, but that’s just being nit-picky.

In the context of a Super Bowl spectacle, J.Lo and Shakira opted to let the kaleidoscope of Latin music and choreography speak for itself – and it made for one of the best half time performances in recent history. It was energetic, nostalgic, modern, and pure fun – they almost made it look easy. If you look over the last decade-plus of half time shows, there’s no doubt that women completely own this space. It was important that Latina voices were not just included, but set front and center.


FUTURE NOSTALGIA, INSTANT CLASSIC

Okay, so if you’re still sleeping on Dua Lipa, this is your final warning. Never has a title lived up to expectations the way Future Nostalgia has – truly, in any way you interpret it. Pop music so rarely sees a record come along quite like this one; it’s cohesive, concise, and lacking filler entirely. The fact that it dropped almost in lock-step with COVID quarantine – when the world craved escapist dance pop more than ever – felt like a premonition.

Despite finding massive success with singles like “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart,” Dua Lipa decided to up the ante by having the Blessed (née Black) Madonna remix stand-out track “Levitiating” – and put the ACTUAL Madonna …and Missy Elliott on the damn thing!

Just when you thought there wouldn’t be another landmark all-female collaboration this year…


FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS

Just when we needed her most, Fiona Apple announced that she was dropping her fifth studio album, her first in eight years – and it felt like she was saving the world. In times of such fear and uncertainty, Fetch The Bolt Cutters felt as much an outlet as it did an escape. The record is challenging without feeling terribly uncomfortable – a true testament to her genius.

She is hardly the most prolific artist of the last quarter century, but Fiona Apple is undoubtedly one of the greatest.


SYLVAN ESSO’S SELF-REINTERPRETATION

Artists just don’t do this kind of thing anymore.

If you’re not yet familiar with Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, better known as alternative electropop (if that’s even a thing) duo Sylvan Esso, they’re basically one of the best acts in the world today. (So know them.) They’ve spent the better part of the last decade blurring the lines between simplicity and intricacy both with their music and their live performances. Up until recently, a Sylvan Esso concert was an exhilarating experience, but it was just the two of them. The formula didn’t necessarily need a shake-up, but that’s usually the best time to try one. And they did just that by calling up some of their super-talented musician friends to help them reinterpret their electronic songs with live instrumentation – and play a few gigs.

Earlier this year, the duo surprise-dropped a live album recorded during, and named after, the resulting WITH mini-tour with the ensemble. For as different as the arrangements were from the original recordings, the integrity of each song (a bulk of their catalog is represented) held unbelievably well; it’s a real testament to their songwriting. Somehow, with all of that, it’s the vocals that steal the show. What already come through impeccably on record becomes completely undeniable in a live setting – Amelia Meath has one of the most impressive, interesting, and dynamic voices in the world today. The nooks and crannies and rhythmic pockets she’s able to find, twisting phrases and words to fit exactly as she wants them to …it’s jaw-dropping at multiple points on the album.

WITH feels like a moment that’s going to be thoroughly appreciated well after its time. Whether or not it’s true, the album feels like the shows were done specifically to make it. In many ways, it’s one of the best live albums, both in concept and in quality, in recent history; it deserves so much more recognition. Not to mention, it acted as the perfect palate cleanser for their upcoming Free Love album.


NICKI FINALLY HITS #1

Believe it or not, despite countless hits under her belt, Nicki Minaj found her way to the top of the singles charts for the very first time this year. Actually, for the first and second times, having capitalized on 6ix9ine’s surge in popularity following his early release from prison by joining him on “Trollz.” But it was her added feature on Doja Cat’s “Say So,” which gave the track the boost it needed to rocket to the top, gave Nicki her first number one on the Hot 100. Notably, it was the first of three all-female collabs to do so this year.


Which brings us to…

FEMALE COLLABS REIGN

Another chart phenomenon took place this year. During peak-quarantine, for the first time in 30 years, there were six different consecutive number one singles over six consecutive weeks – four of the six were by women. In fact, out of the 12 unique number one hits this year, exactly half were from female artists.

Even more notably, and in less than a month, three of them were all-female collaborations. Between the Nicki Minaj-featuring remix of Doja Cat’s “Say So” had it’s turn, the BEYONCÉ-featuring remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” and Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande mega-collab “Rain On Me,” the soundtrack to escaping the pandemic belonged to the ladies – and it was truly because these were three incredible songs by six incredible artists.


WELCOME TO CHROMATICA

Fresh off the mammoth success of A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga’s next album was always going to be one of the most anticipated of the year. When it was made clear that she was stepping back into avante garde dance pop with the release of “Stupid Love” and the announcement of Chromatica, the hype blew through the roof – and Gaga had big plans to back it up, including a surprise Coachella performance. Of course, all of that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world in its tracks; even the album’s release was delayed.

With the title named after a utopic fantasy world, Chromatica (although unplanned) became the perfect escape from a grim reality we were all collectively experiencing. Even out of that context, though, the album is a complete success. It’s cohesive, forward thinking, euphoric, quirky, and poignant all at once – and if we’re still staying “bops” these days, every track is a bop. More importantly, Chromatica is not a “return to form” for Lady Gaga. No, this is very much a step forward for her as a multi-dimensional artist. She has always been many things at once, so just because it exists in a familiar space doesn’t actually make it familiar.

We might never know when Gaga actually is at the top of her game because has done nothing but get better at what she does. Clubs will forever lament being closed down for its release.


‘UNGODLY HOUR’ IS A GODDEND

In the time since transitioning from YouTube popularity to Beyoncé-protégé, the immensely talented Chloe and Halle Bailey have earned themselves a couple of Grammy nods and plenty of acclaim. Now with their second studio album, dubbed Ungodly Hour, the sisters have proven that they are indeed the present and the future of R&B and popular music.

Yes, this album has Queen Bey’s DNA all over it, but Chloe x Halle’s own perspective, artistry, and talent saturate every second – if you don’t know already, they are songwriters, producers, vocalists, and instrumentals. Each track is definitively their’s, and although everything is filtered through an R&B lens, it’s clear that their interests and influences are vast. Notably, the collaborations, including Disclosure’s production on the incredible title track, and Swae Lee and Mike Will Made-It features on “Catch Up” (the only vocal collab on the whole album), highlight their talents instead of masking them; you’d be surprised how often that’s the case.

Ungodly Hour leaves no question about the role Chloe x Halle have to play in today’s musical landscape. And with the album dropping amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bailey sisters completely dominated the at-home/quarantine performance format, often schooling tenured musicians who couldn’t quite figure out what to do besides sit at their piano or strap on an acoustic guitar.

New or rising acts are often referred to as “the future,” but Chloe x Halle are the present – they just happen to have a very bright future.


‘WIMPIII’ IS ANYTHING BUT

Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim are three of the most talented musicians on the planet – I’ve been saying it for years. The trio’s third studio album, Women In Music Pt. III, left absolutely no room to dispute that fact.

The project, co-produced with the immensely talented Ariel Rechtstaid and Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend fame), was teased over the course of almost a year, dropping a whopping six singles over that time. The slow build up probably ended up being a blessing in disguise, considering the full album was released mid-pandemic and (as with many artists) most promotional plans had to be scrapped. More importantly, many of the album’s themes – isolation, depression, uncertainty – took on a new context during these times. All of this, of course, is paired with the quality of the music itself… which is through the roof.

However, there’s one moment on here that particularly sums up why the album, famously abbreviated as WIMPIII, feels so meaningful at this time. “Man From The Magazine,” a simple acoustic track with musical nods to Joni Mitchell, details two encounters that exemplify the kind of misogyny female musicians still face. As artists – songwriters, performers, producers, vocalists, and multi-instrumentalists… each – the HAIM sisters go toe-to-toe with just about anybody, if not run circles around them; this album more than proves it if, for whatever reason, their previous output wasn’t already enough to do so. This song… no, this entire album… no, their entire existence calls out the fact that society’s first instinct is to treat an all-female act both as sexual beings and as inferior musicians.

WIMPIII is anything but “wimpy.” This album is a brave, confident, impeccably crafted set of songs – and it very easily could be considered the best one of the entire year.


A COMEBACK AND A REINVENTION

It had been 14 years since The Dixie Chicks’ last studio album, Taking The Long Way – released after a whirlwind of criticism for being an all-female country act from Texas who dared speak their minds. Backlash ensued, they won a ton of Grammys, they’ve been vindicated by history, yada-yada-yada … TL;DR: they kick so, so much ass.

For as chaotic as things were then, if there were any time we needed these Chicks more, it’d have been right about now. Thankfully, Natalie Maines (sadly fresh of a nasty divorce,) Emily Robinson, and Martie Maguire entered right on queue – right as the world was just about to burn to the ground – with an earth-shattering new single, “Gaslighter,” the title-track from their upcoming studio album. With Jack Antonoff co-producing the record with the trio, this felt like an easy win for once. Until George Floyd was murdered and the world woke up.

As if political apocalypse and a global pandemic weren’t enough to be changing the ways of world in real-time, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a long (long, long, long, long…)-overdue collective reckoning regarding race relations in America. The need to address systemic racism in our society became so urgent that corporations, entertainers, and sports teams were being held to account to use their platforms to affect real change, to varying degrees of success. As we began to view the complete picture of history, revisions began to be made – amongst them being the group known for decades as The Dixie Chicks. Acknowledging the many negative connotations of “Dixie,” the trio made the decision to drop the word altogether and move forward as The Chicks – which is extremely badass in its own right.

And then they went ahead and dropped the best album of their career. On one hand, Gaslighter is country’s answer to Lemonade (although without the happy ending), but it also resonates powerfully in the world today. Few artists have consistently made such great, important records for as long as The Chicks. If a decade-and-a-half ago someone said their most relevant work was yet to come, I’m not sure many would have believed it would have been possible.


folklore

July 23 began like any other, well in the context of today’s version of “normalcy,” until Taylor Swift tweeted. Tweets come and tweets go, but when arguably the biggest star in the world announces – with 16 hours notice – that she’ll be dropping her eighth studio album, folklore, at midnight, this was one for the history books.

This wasn’t going to be just any Taylor Swift album, either. In said tweet, she announced that folklore was a completely organic process – written, recorded, and produced during COVID-19 quarantine. And, oh yeah, in addition to contributions from long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff, the record would largely be a collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dressner, with some added help from Bon Iver/Justin Vernon. In other words, the biggest pop star (née country crossover star) in the world was going full-on indie folk at the peak of her unfathomable success.

The 16 track opus completely abandons so many Swiftisms all at once, you couldn’t say folklore is anything less than a complete reinvention. Her album rollouts have historically been all about creating buzz, building momentum, releasing a few massive singles before the full LP sees the light of day. This go-around, we got 16 hours and the announcement of a single and video that would be dropping simultaneously. More impressively, there’s no need for singles on this album – folklore is a singular body of work, best consumed in one sitting. For the rest of her career, Taylor Swift will be able walk out on stage, play any of these songs, and hear the audience singing it back to her. That’s the beauty of the “album” as an artform – and this particular album is a landmark; there’s not a single moment out of place.

So when Taylor Swift tweeted the details about the album’s pending release, she forgot to mention that it would be not only the musical moment of the year, but the best album of her career. Then again, I can see that would have been implied.

From a historical standpoint, folklore is always going to be remembered as the soundtrack of these times.


BEYONCÉ IS KING

You can no longer talk about Beyoncé in the same context as any other artist in the world today. To try and pinpoint the moment she went from being just the biggest force in music to existing on a completely different plane is difficult, but it probably took place with the release of her self-titled fifth studio album in late 2013. Nevermind the fact that it was surprise-dropped out of nowhere without any singles or buildup, the landmark moment that was the Beyoncé album was that it was not just an album, it was a visual album. A complete set of music videos accompanied the release – each one of them a fully executed work of art.

Ever since, Beyoncé has always delivered a complete 360-degree, audio-visual experience with everything she’s done. Lemonade came next, and was instantly poured into the history books thanks to its award-winning accompanying film. Then she performed at Coachella – excuse me, had the greatest performance in the festival’s history – and documented it with, you guessed it, a live album and accompanying performance/documentary film – it was similarly well-received.

So last year when Beyoncé released The Lion King: The Gift to accompany The Lion King film in which she co-starred, there was an obvious missing element. Little did we know what she actually had up her sleeves. Black Is King, the visual companion to the album may have come a full year later, it feels as though we’re hearing them for the first time. The film, written by, directed by, produced by, and starring Beyoncé is her greatest visual accomplishment to date. Not only is it visually stunning, but it is as reflective, as moving, and as powerful as some Oscar winners – oh, and at no point do you forget how incredible the music is.

At this point, it’s clear Beyoncé isn’t doing anything for chart positions or sales, she’s making art for art’s sake, and that’s the kind of thing that makes the world a better place. Without a doubt, there is no more important artist on the planet than Beyoncé.


FIVE MONTHS TO SURVIVE

The bad news: there’s still five months left in 2020. The good news: there’s still five months left in 2020 – and there is still lots of great music in the pipeline. From Angel Olsen giving us one last great summer moment with Whole New Mess, arriving later this month, to BLACKPINK dropping their proper debut album and the legendary Kylie Minogue serving up a much-needed DISCO escape this fall, there’s a lot to be excited for.


Elsewhere, the future has some serious opportunities to really, truly make 2020 the Year of Women In Music. With all of the incredible albums released, I would expect that most of the Grammy Album of the Year nominees will be from female artists. Honestly, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that they’d all be from them. Additionally, with the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees a few months away from being announced, it would rally help if more than 2 or 3 women saw nominations – and ultimately more than one actually gets in.

Regardless of how the next few months shake up, it’s already a done deal. Female musicians have done as much as anyone could to salvage the hellacious year that is 2020. It’s important to remember that this isn’t new… women have always made incredible, powerful, groundbreaking music. But at a time when it so often feels like the world’s kicking our ass, it’s important to acknowledge that female musicians are kicking its ass right back.

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