In a year that swerved headlong into the unknown, musical artists, actors, and directors debated releasing new works. They questioned whether their work would even be deemed relevant to a global atmosphere that was relentlessly shifting and descending into greater unease and unrest. This year was not only shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and social and cultural shifts due to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the presidential election, but also by the artists whose works persevered during these times.
Despite these events, creativity was not stifled. Instead, artists were challenged to develop both timely and inclusive content and to create movies and albums in safe, socially-distanced environments. Movie studios found a way to produce films, and musicians, with canceled band tours and heaps of time, were newly inspired to deliver music to their fans. If there’s one thing this year proved, it’s that artistic modes of expression became essential materials for generating distraction, nostalgia, and hope.
Included below are reviews of some works—a small selection of standout artistic achievements from 2020. The following albums and movies are a testament to the artistic resilience that continued to offer audiences momentary escapes from the present.
‘Punisher’ – Phoebe Bridgers
by Grace Mayer, Arts Editor
Released in the summer during the peak of pandemic lockdowns, Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher, delivers poignant themes of loss and longing layered with apocalyptic undertones. The 26-year-old’s sophomore album leaps beyond her collection of comparable slow ballads debuted on her 2017 album Stranger in the Alps. Instead, Bridgers surges beyond the soft pop genre, delivering rock songs rooted in dark and delightful fantasies on Punisher.
She calls upon some of her familiar tropes—ghosts, haunted houses, and a dead bird or two—even crafting a whole song honoring the escapist opportunities these illusions grant her on “Halloween.” But interwoven with the fantastical, she sings about ordinary yet precise facets of life—saltines, 7-Eleven, Scorpio astrological signs. This blend of lyrical imagery and specificity has positioned Bridgers as one of the up-and-coming musical artists of the year. She was nominated for four Grammys this year, including Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album, along with Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for her single “Kyoto.”
The quick-paced rock anthem “Kyoto” is filled with brassy trumpet bursts and bouncy drum beats that uplift the melancholic tone found in her lyrics as she sings about forgotten birthdays, sobriety, and strained family dynamics. On “Punisher,” Bridgers assumes the role of an admiring fan as she obsesses over Elliot Smith. She croons about the details of Smith’s life, factoids that draw her closer to the musician as she sings, “What if I told you I feel like I know you / But we never met? / It’s for the best.”
She closes out the album with “I Know the End,” an unnervingly quintessential rock ballad for the pandemic age. As Bridgers sings about driving to escape town, she embarks on a journey to discover “creation myths” and squints past the sun in hopes of seeing alien spaceships, before erupting into an earth-shattering scream then capsizing into laughter.
‘Women In Music Pt. III’ – Haim
by Katherine Canniff, Assoc. Arts Editor
The monotony of quarantine this past summer was interrupted by the upbeat rock rhythms of Haim’s latest album Women In Music Pt. III. Recognized as a pop rock band rooted in Los Angeles, the group consists of the three Haim sisters, Este, Danielle, and Alana. The record, which was released in June, was lauded by critics this past summer and received Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance for the album’s single “The Steps.”
The title is an ironic jab at the recurring question the three are asked about: what is it like being a woman working in the music industry? Addressing the patronizing doubt often directed at them on their acoustic track “Man from the Magazine,” the group creates an anthem with complex electric guitar solos about moving on from love.
The album is a perfect mix of the trailing, bass-heavy rock songs that filled their previous albums paired with more experimental R&B and electronic sounds, and softer acoustic tunes scattered throughout. The strangely prescient third track “I Know Alone” speaks to timely feelings of isolation and stagnancy as the band sings, “‘Cause nights turn into days / That turn to grey / Keep turning over.” Quirky sound bites in “Up From A Dream” and “3 AM” show that the group isn’t afraid to defy expectations and stray from the tightly composed sounds established on their past albums. The trio weaves all these genres—rock, pop, and R&B—together with personal and playful lyrics about heartbreak, depression, and love.
Arriving in the midst of quarantine restlessness, the album is perfect to put on repeat during drives around town with no destination or as the soundtrack to midnight banana bread baking. Haim’s album makes everything seem alright, even momentarily forgotten, during these times just by setting their lyrics to irresistible electronic and drum beats that can pull anyone out of bed to dance instead.
‘Palm Springs’ – Max Barbakow
by Alicia Kang, Asst. Arts Editor
A lot of this year has felt like living through the same exact day. Hulu’s Palm Springs has somehow made watching that cyclical experience enjoyable. Nyles (Andy Samberg) is stuck in a literal time loop, reliving the wedding of his acquaintances Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) every single day. Everything Nyles does is impossibly inconsequential—that is, until he ends up leading Sarah (Cristin Miloti), Tala’s sister, into the cycle with him. The film condenses overdone time loop tropes into a hilarious, wacky ride that perfectly exemplifies the this-might-as-well-happen-today feeling of quarantine. So perfectly, in fact, that it’s almost hard to believe that it was filmed pre-pandemic in April 2019.
Palm Springs enables the audience to use Nyles and Sarah as its proxy. These characters indulge viewers by exploring all the little existential queries people could possibly have, extending beyond problems that exist only in a vacuum. They suffer through love, friendship, boredom, confusion, and loss, all while learning about each other. Surrounded by countless people who have no clue about the time loop, the two build a beautiful, genuine connection. Their friendship, artfully rendered through Samberg’s and Miloti’s realistic performances, reminds the audience to look for the things that matter when life feels repetitive and even senseless.
Palm Springs is a loose but anxious, careless but nervous movie masterpiece. It reinvents its cinematic predecessor Groundhog Day in a way that encapsulates the bored yet restless emotions of 2020. It captures never-ending anxieties and makes audiences laugh, not at themselves, but at two remarkably relatable protagonists trudging their way through life.
‘folklore’ – Taylor Swift
by Julia Landwehr, Heights Staff
At midnight on July 24, I grabbed my headphones to listen to Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore, for the first time. Less than a year earlier, I was singing along to Swift’s Lover.
The 16-track surprise album is unlike anything heard before from Swift. folklore takes an entirely new approach to the issues of fame, love, betrayal, and friendship that are common themes in her work. Swift challenges the extent of songwriting by incorporating songs written from the points of view of fictional characters—a first for Swift, who often capitalizes on her personal life when composing lyrics. The record feels authentic and introspective—a piece of pandemic art that confronts head-on the isolation and loss that many people felt during the most intense moments of the past nine months.
On “epiphany,” Swift reflects with grace on the experiences of health care workers battling COVID-19, exerting energy from the depths of human kindness. On “peace,” Swift questions true love and gives voice to insecurities that fetter relationships—“I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best / But the rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me.”
It’s not just the concept of folklore that shines. The album features some of Swift’s best and most ambitious singing efforts. She croons in a low register alongside Bon Iver in “exile” but hits every high note on “my tears ricochet.” folklore was able to do what all great music does—bridge the gaps of time, space, and individual experience to make people feel a little more connected. It’s a testament to Swift’s genius and her ability to make specific experiences universal and imaginary worlds encapsulate a familiar sense of nostalgia.
‘Circles’ – Mac Miller
by Shannon Carmichael, Heights Staff
Listening to Mac Miller’s posthumous album, Circles, is a bittersweet experience. The 26-year-old’s September 2018 death slowed the world in a lasting way, creating shock among fans and those indifferent to his music alike through the sheer tragic nature of his abrupt departure. The album serves as the singer’s final work—the end to a discography that progressed from the electrically catchy rap of Blue Slide Park through the jazz-influenced The Divine Feminine and concluding with the more somber, low-fi sounds of Swimming and, finally, Circles. The 2020 album is a conclusion that perfectly encapsulates the extensive and impressive life and career of Miller.
Circles was released at the beginning of the year, extending Miller’s voice and art into a year that has desperately needed it. The decision to release the album posthumously was somberly made by Miller’s family, who spoke to the difficulty of the decision on a final post to Miller’s social media accounts. His family wrote, “This is a complicated process that has no right answer. No clear path. We simply know that it was important to Malcolm for the world to hear it.”
The album was intended to be the companion album to his 2018 record, Swimming. The theme of searching for a way to break the cycle, the tendency of Miller to “swim in circles,” connects the two works. Miller’s unfiltered dialogue of his dealings with anxiety and depression are not new to the album, but is instead more closely analyzed by a listener who knows the tragic outcome of the singer’s life. But Circles can’t be defined solely by a melancholic tone. Miller speaks with optimism about the prospects of his future that adds sweetness to a bittersweet listening experience.
Circles immortalizes Miller beyond his death. As Miller says himself in “Blue World,” “F**k your bulls**t / I’m here to make it all better with a little music for you.”
‘Tenet’ – Christopher Nolan
by Michael Wickwire, Heights Staff
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, released in September starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, was produced and premiered in a year filled with many challenges and difficulties to overcome due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film, although slightly challenging to follow for it’s convoluted plot, fits into Christopher Nolan’s directorial style perfectly as an action and sci-fi piece with a twist on the laws of physics and time travel.
The future is at war with the past due to the severe impacts of climate change, and an unnamed CIA agent (Washington) is tasked with finding the source of the futuristic technology being used to manipulate the forces of the present. For example, as shown in the film, to pick up a weapon, one would imagine dropping said weapon, and the weapon would go back in time and return to the one who imagined dropping it—a confusing concept to fully grasp. But, the movie doesn’t gift the audience the time to fully explain the physics behind the technology, as Nolan pushes past explaining these concepts to direct the audience’s focus to the film’s world.
From there, the unidentified agent takes his initial steps toward finding the arms dealer by tracing futuristic bullets back to a location in Mumbai. The agent teams up with Neil (Pattinson), a British intelligence agent, to track down the dealer. After a successful raid, Neil and the unnamed agent question the dealer, who says that she sold bullets to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a representative figure of the future’s war on the present. The film then follows Neil and the agent as they track down Sator before a weapon called “the algorithm,” which is used to reverse the entropy of time, detonates.
Nolan does what he does best in Tenet by challenging his audience to dissect his elaborate concepts alongside his characters, throwing them into a world facing a challenge only Nolan himself could create.
‘Horizons’ – Surfaces
by Kieran Wilson, Heights Staff
It’s almost as though Surfaces knew the world would need an extra shot of sunshine and good vibes when they released their future quarantine-saving album Horizons in late February.
The duo of Forrest Frank and Colin Padalecki rose to prominence following their 2019 single, “Sunday Best,” and have not looked back since. Horizons follows closely in the footsteps of the duo’s previous two records but is undoubtedly the most upbeat of their three albums. Of course, shortly after Surfaces released Horizons, the world plunged headlong into a pandemic, months of quarantine, social unrest, and general feelings of despair.
But for anyone with access to Surfaces’ newest project, hope was never far, as it was interwoven into the album’s songs. Songs like “Take It Easy,” “Good Day,” and “Keep It Gold” effortlessly transport the listener into a new and optimistic headspace—one filled with sun, sand, and sea. These songs were especially helpful to those who were trapped in their homes without an opportunity to take a beach day. Additionally, softer-sounding tracks like “Sky Interlude” and “Sunny Side Up” urge you to take on a positive outlook, “hold your head up high,” and “keep my sunny side up.”
Horizons has come to mean even more in light of this crazy and wildly unpredictable year, and while none of the 12 songs on the album ever venture into lyrically complicated territory, the overwhelming message of the album is simple: stay positive. With their latest album, Surfaces managed to keep listeners company through some truly extraordinary times, while spreading good vibes and encouraging people to keep an eye on the horizon.
‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ – The 1975
by Lily Telegdy, Heights Staff
The 1975’s most recent album Notes on a Conditional Form was released in May, early on in the pandemic. The experimental album combines classic pop songs familiar to fans of the band with instrumental and spoken word pieces mixed in. The first single released from the album, “The 1975,” was released almost a year earlier. The song is a speech from young environmental activist Greta Thunberg—a plea to take action against the current climate crisis over synthy instrumental music.
“People,” the second single released, strikes a completely different chord from the singles on their previous album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. “People” would easily fall into the rock genre, while the other single “Me & You Together Song” sounds much more like the traditional hyperpop songs The 1975 is famous for. But, a point that the band seems to want to prove with this album is that it has no genre. Combining pop, electronic house, rock, instrumental, and spoken word, The 1975 is pushing the limits for the genres an album and a band can represent.
The chaos and confusion of this album seem to mirror the chaos and confusion that 2020 has brought with it, so its timely release may have added to its power. The album analyzes religion, sex, and climate change, but somehow these themes work in harmony. The album presents a beautiful chaos that is revolutionary for the band. The 1975 once again proved that it can make a hit pop song while still contributing something new to global conversations.
Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor