Posted on December 19, 2020
Despite being such an upside down and difficult year, and the chaos in the music industry due to the pandemic, so much amazing music was released. It was a real struggle every single month to choose just one song (and as you can see, in some cases I couldn’t). Having said that, my mental health has been really bad for most of the year and I listen to music less when I’m depressed (I think it’s just too emotional when my emotions are already very fragile) but when I felt able to, it was and is such a comfort. So I’m really, really grateful to all the artists who continued to work on and put out music in a year when so many people really needed it.
1. 929 by Halsey
I was so excited about Halsey’s new album and it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. I absolutely adore it, adore almost every single song. So this was a really hard choice (although I think ‘More’ was a pretty close second). But I love this one because it’s so simple and it tells so many stories and shares so many beautifully detailed painful and powerful moments, like “And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me” and “I lost the love of my life to an ivory powder but then I realise that I’m no higher power.” It drew me in straight away; it’s so visual and yet so emotional that you could be experiencing it all for yourself. It’s honestly hard to describe how and why I love it so much. But it’s one of my favourite songs of hers and I’m so glad I got to hear it live.
Favourite Lyrics: “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well she told me / She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied / And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed”
A very important note: I love that, on The Manic World Tour, she changed the lyrics from “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied” to “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think she was right.” It got the biggest cheer both nights I saw the show and I cried my eyes out even though I knew it was coming from all the videos posted of the shows.
2. Life of the Party by Ingrid Andress // Small Town Hypocrite by Caylee Hammack
I absolutely loved ‘Life of the Party’ when Ingrid performed it on tour so I was very happy when it was on the album (although ‘Blue’ may have beaten it if she’d released that one). I love the contradiction of the sad emotions painted as an upbeat, party song. It’s like the song is literally a manifestation of the denial that the relationship is over and everything is awful. Ingrid’s vocals are incredible anyway, but they seem particularly stunning in this song: you can hear how close to the edge all of these volatile emotions are, all the anger and misery and hurt, and how much she’s trying to ignore them. In just her voice. She’s an amazing vocalist. I don’t know how she’ll do at the upcoming Grammys with such heavy competition but just to be nominated for three really significant awards on her first album is incredible. I can’t help thinking back to when I first met her in 2018 and what her reaction would’ve been if I could’ve told her where she’d be today.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m the life of the party / Round here, everybody loves me / But they don’t know that I’ve been hurtin’ / ‘Cause, baby, ever since you left me / I’ve been the life of the party”
I first heard Caylee sing this song in 2016, on my second trip to Nashville and Tin Pan South. It was so heartbreaking then and somehow, it seems even more heartbreaking now. It tells such a sad story in such rich and painful detail that I can’t help but get caught up in it every time I listen to it. The lyrics are all so stunning and her vocal performance is amazing; she conveys the regret in the song so powerfully that it often makes me cry. Caylee has since released her debut album, If It Wasn’t For You, and it’s full of songs that are just as powerful and emotional. I love most of them but I think my favourites – or at least two of them – are ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something.’ They both hit me so hard each time that I usually end up in tears. If she ever tours in the UK, you’ll be able to recognise me as I will probably be sobbing obnoxiously through the entire show because her songs trigger such big emotions in me.
Favourite Lyrics: “And that scholarship was a ship that sailed / When I chose you and daddy gave me hell / I made myself into someone else just to love you, damn I loved you / Took all my plans and I put ’em in a box / Phantom pains for the wings I lost”
3. the other girl (with Halsey) by Kelsea Ballerini
I was so excited about Kelsea’s new album and I was not disappointed. There were so many songs I could’ve chosen, including ‘the way i used to’ and ‘half of my hometown.’ But I absolutely adore both Kelsea and Halsey and their friendship is so freaking adorable (their CMT Crossroads was a true gift) and I love that it’s a female/female duet, which you don’t get half as often as a female/male duet. And what makes it even better is that it isn’t about two girls fighting over a guy, but about each of them recognising why he likes the other so much – because they’re both awesome women in their own way: ‘who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – and realising that he’s treating them BOTH badly. It’s about whether either of them are willing to put up with it. It would be super cool if they collaborated again and continued the story (in my mind, they both dump him and go on to be best friends) but I can’t really see it happening. It’s super catchy and their voices really compliment each other; it’s such a good song. And this performance (I’m assuming it was during the rehearsal for the CMT Crossroads as they’re dressed and made up differently) of it really shows what great performers they both are.
Favourite Lyrics: “Are you mad? Me too / And I wonder in his world / Is it me? Is it you? / Who’s the other girl?”
4. Couch (Unreleased) by Kalie Shorr
During the first lockdown (in the UK), Kalie was doing a lot of different livestreams on various platforms and I swear, it was one of the things that kept me going when I was really struggling with everything. And during an Instagram live with Savannah Keyes (another awesome – and lovely – Nashville singersongwriter), she played two songs that they’d written together with Skip Black, the day after the big break up that inspired a lot of her album, Open Book. The first was ‘The One,’ which made it onto the album (and is definitely one of my favourites) and then this one, ‘Couch,’ which remains officially unreleased (although she has played it on her podcast, Too Much To Say). I fell in love with it straight away; it was just so raw and heartbreaking. I ended up working out the chords and play it on the piano quite a bit. I just absolutely adore it. It’s such a beautiful song.
Favourite Lyrics: “You left a picture on your old night stand / Like it’s some kind of message, like, ‘I don’t give a damn’ / If I need a reminder that I’m brokenhearted / Baby, there’s a million in this apartment / I don’t need a picture on your old nightstand”
5. Atom Bomb by Lauren Cimorelli // California by Kina Grannis
I loved Cimorelli (at the time, a band of six sisters but the youngest has now left) as a teenager and when I looked them up again a while back, I saw that a few of the girls were releasing their own music. I gravitated towards Lauren’s very quickly because of the lyrics, melody, and production. They just fit my taste in music better. I rediscovered her just after she’d released ‘Atom Bomb’ and I just loved it. I loved the detail and emotive language in the lyrics, the melodies were so catchy, and the production was epic; it really reminded me of ‘Wonderland’ by Taylor Swift. I love how she compares the end of a relationship with something of such catastrophic destruction because that’s often how my emotions feel: enormous and overwhelming and end-of-the-world. So I really relate to it emotionally as well as loving all the songwriting and sonic elements. She’s since released several more songs and ‘Rabbit Hole’ also ranks very highly on my list.
Favourite Lyrics: “What’s yours, what’s mine / Keep trying to pick up what’s left of me / Breathe slow / Let go but that smoke just keeps / Suffocating me”
During the first UK lockdown, I spent a lot of time playing the piano. I find it hard to think about anything but what I’m playing, something I desperately needed, and the lower octaves felt very soothing. One of my favourite songs to play is ‘California’ by Kina Grannis, which she wrote while trapped for a hundred days in Jakarta due to visa problems while touring in 2015; it’s a beautiful song and the sound of it is so gentle and comforting. I ended up thinking a lot about the parallels between the song and everything that was going on in the world at that moment: the pandemic, the lockdown, and how all of that was affecting us all (I hope Kina herself has been coping okay having had to go through these two similar, extremely difficult situations). It’s still one of my favourite songs to play (when the nerve pain I’ve been experiencing isn’t too bad); it feels like a desperately needed hug in these really hard times and I never take for granted how much comfort it brings me.
Favourite Lyrics: “Hey there, California / I can hear you when I wake up / In the distance, like the ocean / You calling me back to your side / Holding my breathe in the night / I listen again for your song”
6. Little Voice by Sara Bareilles
I distinctly remember listening to this song for the first time: I was lying in bed in the dark and it felt like Sara was singing directly to me, putting so many of my thoughts and feelings into words. I listened to it over and over again and just cried my eyes out. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s so simple but the lyrics are so powerful, effortlessly capturing so much emotion with so few words. Months later, I don’t have such an extreme emotional reaction but it still means a lot to me. It both lifts me up and calms my soul.
Favourite Lyrics: “It’s just a little voice and if you’re listening / Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things / It’s just my little voice that I’ve been missing”
7. this is me trying by Taylor Swift
It’s very, very, VERY tempting to cheat and just say the whole of Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album, folklore, or at least list my top five (‘the 1,’ ‘exile,’ ‘my tears ricochet,’ ‘mirrorball,’ and ‘this is me trying’) but I’m trying my very best to keep to the tradition of having a somewhat concise list. The top spot is a rock solid tie between ‘mirrorball’ and ‘this is me trying,’ because I love them both so much and relate to them both so strongly but, in the end, I decided to write about ‘this is me trying’ because, having had such an awful year mental health wise, it felt more fitting. It just sounds like how I feel so often and Taylor’s voice as she sings it… she sounds like she’s feeling all of it, all of these emotions I feel so strongly, and that only made me feel more connected to the song, to the album, to her. The lyrics are just stunning and I related to so many of them: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back,” makes me think about how everyone called me ‘gifted’ as a child and young teenager but ever since then, my life has been put on hold somewhat by having to deal with my mental health and the difficulties caused by my Autism and that third line is so similar to a recurring thought pattern of mine, of wondering whether anyone would even notice if I disappeared; I feel “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” so strongly it’s painful, both in the sense of getting sucked into spirals of fear and anxiety and in the sense of having periods of feeling suicidal; “They told me all of my cages were mental” reminds me of how hard I had to fight to get my diagnoses because nobody believed me and I was constantly dismissed, which has ultimately resulted in even more problems; “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here / Pourin’ out my heart to a stranger” could be the story of my life in how I was always ‘the best’ at things because I was so driven by perfectionism and the fear of getting things wrong or letting people down and while that initially put me ahead, it ended up backfiring and resulting in mental health problems that have now put me behind in so many ways, many of which I’m now dealing with (or trying to deal with) in therapy (although I’d hardly call her a stranger, having seen her for almost six years now); the line “And it’s hard to be at a party / When I feel like an open wound” really just describes any mental health bad day, when having to function feels excruciating because just existing is painful; and “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying,” just sums me up. I’m always trying. always, always trying.
As I’ve kind of just described, I related to it so much because, with my Autism, my mental health issues, my physical health problems, and so on, I feeling like I’m trying my goddamn hardest everyday, just to get through the minute, the hour, the day. And most of the time, no one even knows that all of this is going on under the surface, sometimes because I don’t want them to and sometimes because I already feel so fragile that to let it all pour out would shatter me. Because it’s taking all of my energy to hold it together and if I let go, I might never be able to get a hold on it all again. And doing all of that work takes so much energy. When you’re working that hard to just survive, it’s so easy to feel like you’re failing because you’re not achieving in the same way as everyone around you – getting through the day doesn’t feel like an achievement when your best friend has just got a promotion or your sibling has gotten amazing grades. It’s easy to feel like it just isn’t worth trying but it is and this song is a testament to that, to staying still instead of moving backwards, to making baby steps of progress, to trying and trying and trying, even when it feels excruciating. I related to all of those feelings so strongly that it took my breath away. It’s an incredible song and maybe one of her most important ones.
Favourite Lyrics: “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that / Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down”
8. Wait For It from Hamilton
I finally saw Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ and I absolutely loved it, every element, from start to finish. It was just incredible. I know that it’s not without its flaws but it’s really fascinating, especially from a creative perspective. It’s so clever and layered and I find it so inspiring as a writer. I’ve been watching it over and over again and I get more out of it every time. I could’ve chosen almost any song because I love so many of them but after much deliberation, I chose this one. I can’t explain it really; there’s just something about it.
Favourite Lyrics: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes / And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died / I’m willing to wait for it”
(And just in case I needed more awesome, Chloe Bennet – who played Daisy Johnson in Agents of Shield, my all time favourite character – and her cast mate, Jeff Ward, did multiple lip syncs to Hamilton songs and they’re hilarious. As if I needed more reasons to love both Chloe and Hamilton…)
9. Coming Back To You by Sara Bareilles
I was in a pretty bad place mentally when this album, More Love, came out so I kept putting off listening to it; I didn’t want my depression to taint my feelings about the songs. But eventually I managed to listen to it and, as always with a Sara record, I fell in love with it. There are multiple songs that I really, really love but ‘Coming Back To You’ just really spoke to me from the first listen. I love the energy, I love the instrumentation, the melodies are super catchy, and the lyrics are just so beautiful. I connected to the verses especially straight away, especially the ones I’ve listed as my favourites. They just hit so close to home and yet singing along to them feels so freeing. I love it.
Favourite Lyrics: “I’m facing all of my fears / I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years / They had me crippled before / They made a home in my heart but they’re not welcome anymore”
10. My Voice by Kalie Shorr
October was the month of Kalie Shorr. She announced her record deal, announced the upcoming re-release of her upcoming album – titled Open Book: Unabridged – released her new single, ‘My Voice,’ played an awesome livestream show (I mean, what I saw was awesome but I had major difficulties with the app) during which she also played another incredible new song, ‘Eighteen,’ and she released a worktape of her unreleased song, ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ (which she’d promised to do if Biden won the US election) which was awesome (if the lyric ‘you might find it surprising I stopped taking shit from anyone’ doesn’t describe my life the last few years of my life than I don’t know what does). So a Kalie song was necessary for this month. I could choose all three of the songs we got this month because they were all fantastic in their own way but I’m gonna go with ‘My Voice’ since it was the single she released that month. It’s an awesomely feisty and empowering song that’s a devastating ‘fuck you’ to the music industry but it’s also more than that. It’s also a song about celebrating who you are in all your uniqueness, regardless of what other people tell you. I love the defiance in it, the rebellion of choosing yourself: I find it really inspiring. It actually makes me feel more confident and not just in the dance around like an idiot in front of whoever’s around kind of way but in the deep in your gut way. The lyric, “Get used to the sound of my voice” gets me every time because it makes me feel like, somehow, being me is enough. Enough to do the things I want to do, achieve the things I want to achieve, and be the person I’m often scared is out of my reach. And if I ever needed a song like that, it’s this year.
Favourite Lyrics: “Too rock for country, too country for punk / But who said I had to pick either one / Tattoos at the Opry / I could cover ’em up but it’s not me”
11. Carry You by Tim Minchin
In November, I watched ‘Tim Minchin: Apart Together, The Album Live!‘ which was absolutely incredible. I loved it and I loved pretty much every song he played. He had some awesome, super high energy songs and then some quiet, profound ones that just created this beautiful balance for a show, especially one during these times. My absolute favourites were ‘Absence of You,’ ‘Leaving LA,’ ‘I Can’t Save You,’ and ‘Carry You.’ I could’ve chosen so many songs from his new album but ‘Carry You,’ even though I’d heard it before, pre-pandemic, it just really got me when I watched this show. I guess, in the context of the pandemic, it just hits differently. It was very emotional and I was crying by the end of the first chorus.
Favourite Lyrics: “And though we cannot be together / I know that I will carry you, wherever I go / I will carry you / Lord knows / I will carry you / I will carry you”
(Also, shout out to Kalie Shorr’s ‘Lying To Myself.’ It’s an amazing song, with utterly stunning lyrics, including, “I put you up on that pedestal, and damn, you looked incredible, I guess coming down’s inevitable…” and “Picked out all of my favourite things you said, and like a delusional architect, I built you up like a house of cards…”)
12. Show Me Around – Carly Pearce // marjorie by Taylor Swift
I first heard Carly Pearce play this song during the virtual Tin Pan South festival a few months ago and she called it a tribute to busbee (an incredible songwriter, producer, and member of the Nashville community) who died last year. She described how she’d been inspired by something said at his funeral about how of course he had to get to heaven first so that he would be able to show his loved ones around when they eventually arrived and thus a song was born. I’m not religious but it’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad but also incredibly warm and comforting. I was in tears before the second verse started. As I said, I’m not religious but the loss of loved ones is such a painful thing that sometimes, I wish I was; it’s nice to listen to the song and just pretend for a little bit that I am. It helps.
Favourite Lyrics: “Bet you’re up there right now making plans and writing out / All your favourite places that you just can’t wait to take us / And we’ll get to spend forever talking about whatever / When I get there, promise you’ll track me down / And show me around”
I thought I was done but then, Taylor Swift gave us all the shock of our lives and released her second surprise album in six months, evermore. I’m still absorbing all of the songs but a handful of them stuck out to me straight away, including ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ ‘happiness,’ ‘ivy,’ ‘long story short,’ and ‘marjorie.’ I could’ve written about any of these but ‘marjorie’ feels so incredibly special that I think it was probably always going to be that one. It’s so heartbreakingly sad but such a beautiful tribute to her grandmother, especially given that it includes recordings of her grandmother’s opera performances as background vocals. That just gets me every time. Justin Vernon’s backing vocals in the choruses also add a gorgeous depth to the song that only makes it more powerful and emotional. The whole sound world of the song is full and warm and rich without being too busy and it just feels like it fills my entire body.
I love the simplicity of the verses and they feel very much like advice her grandmother might’ve (or would’ve) given her but it’s the bridge that has me in tears every time (these are the ones listed as my favourite lyrics because they’re just so powerful). I relate to that section and the last section (“And if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now / If I didn’t know better / I’d think you were still around / I know better / But I still feel you all around / I know better / But you’re still around”) so strongly that it makes me cry every time I listen to it. But even though it’s an incredibly sad song to relate to, there’s something really special and important to have a song like this to relate to, to feel understood in these emotions. I absolutely adore it already and I’m pretty sure it will always have a special significance for me, even though it’s only been out a short time. I wish I could hug Taylor and tell her just how grateful I am to have this song in my life. And I can only hope that one day I can write as good a tribute to my Dad as Taylor has done for her grandmother.
Favourite Lyrics: “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt / ‘Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me / Watched as you signed your name Marjorie / All your closets of backlogged dreams / And how you left them all to me”
There are so many songs I could’ve put on this list (and I’m already over my self imposed twelve song limit…) but if I wrote about them all, we’d still be here at the end of 2021. So I’ll stop here. But this has been really good fun. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here’s a Spotify playlist so that you can check out the songs!
What were your songs of 2020?
Category: covid-19 pandemic, depression, emotions, favourites, mental health, music, video Tagged: 2020, 2020 in songs, 929, atom bomb, california, carly pearce, carry you, caylee hammack, chloe bennet, cmt crossroads, coming back to you, coronavirus, couch, covid-19, depression, eighteen, evermore, favourite lyrics, favourite music, favourite songs, folklore, halsey, hamilton, hamilton the musical, ingrid andress, it's time to go, jeff ward, kalie shorr, kelsea ballerini, kina grannis, lady like, lauren cimorelli, life of the party, little voice, lockdown, lockdown 2.0, lockdown 2020, long story short, lying to myself, lyrics, manic, marjorie, mental health, mental illness, mirrorball, music, my voice, open book: unabridged, pandemic, pandemic 2020, playlist, sara bareilles, show me around, small town hypocrite, songs, songs of 2020, strawberry blonde, taylor swift, the other girl, this is me trying, tim minchin, unreleased, unreleased song, video, wait for it
Posted on October 10, 2020
Back in the early weeks of lockdown, I wrote a (very long) post about my favourite albums from the 2010s. I love albums; I love the putting together of a collection of songs to create a bigger, more expressive and more meaningful piece of work, both as a listener and as a songwriter. I think it adds so much more to the listening experience than the release-one-single-at-a-time approach. I love diving into them and getting lost in these little pocket universes they create and generally, once I love an album, they remain high on my musical lists.
And since today is National Album Day (as well as World Mental Health Day), I thought I’d do a little write up of my favourite albums of 2020 so far…
Manic by Halsey (January 2020) – Despite coming out so early in the year and with all the competition since, it’s easy for me to say that this is at the top of my list of 2020 albums, or of albums in general. I absolutely adore it. I love her previous work and the way each body of work existed in a larger metaphor (Badlands is another of my very favourite albums) but there was something truly special about this album and how personal it was, how it felt like we were truly seeing Ashley for the first time; there was something so sacred about that, especially on the first listen. I love how eclectic this album is – in genre, production style, featured artists, subject matter – because that’s something that’s always been indicative of her as a person: she experiments with her hair, her style, her musical projects, her artistic projects, and so on. That the album reflects that feels very authentic and real. And yet somehow it fits. It works. I could write in depth about every song but I’ll just stick to a couple of points: I loved how you feel the transition from Halsey to Ashley in ‘Ashley’; I love the journey, both lyrically and production wise, that we experience through ‘Forever … (is a long time)’; I love the vivid imagery and storytelling that we get in songs like ‘Finally // Beautiful Stranger’; I love and feel honoured by her willingness to be so open and vulnerable about some of the most difficult parts of her life, such as we hear in ‘More’ and ‘929.’ I’m so inspired by her as a songwriter and as an artist and as a person that I think this album will be very special to me for a very long time, if not forever.
Favourite Tracks: Ashley, You should be sad, Forever … (is a long time), 3am, killing boys, More, Still Learning, and 929.
Good Years by The Shires (March 2020) – I’ve loved The Shires’ music since they released ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ in early 2015 and Ben and Crissie are just such lovely people. Their voices sound gorgeous together, complimenting each other perfectly, and their melodies are always incredibly catchy; I’m usually singing the melodies before I even know the lyrics. The production is also stunning; I would describe it as having the glossiness of pop music while staying very true to the country instrumentation and arrangement. There’s a warmth to it; I always feel enveloped by the very sound of the songs. My only wish would be for some development album to album, for example in the song content; after their first album, love songs feature heavily on every album and I just think it would be really interesting to hear them sing about different subjects. They proved on the first album, Brave, that they could do it and do it well with great songs like ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ and ‘Made in England’ and they’ve come so far since then.
Favourite Tracks: Lightning Strikes and About Last Night.
kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini (March 2020) – I’m consistently awed by Kelsea’s ability to perfectly balance country and pop, blending the intimate storytelling and warm instrumentation of country and the glittery production and melodies of pop. And I love how you can feel her growth in each album, as an artist, as a songwriter, and as a person. To me, this album sounds like the universal inbetween of becoming a real adult: getting comfortable in your skin but still nursing some of your deeper insecurities, walking that line of the steadiness of adulthood and the flightiness of youth, and establishing the anchors of your identity while continuing to grow.
Favourite Tracks: club, the other girl (with Halsey), bragger, half of my hometown (feat. Kenny Chesney), the way i used to, and needy.
Lady Like by Ingrid Andress (March 2020) – I’d been excited for Ingrid to release music ever since I first heard her play ‘Lady Like’ at a Tin Pan South round in 2018. She was just fantastic and I couldn’t wait for her to release more than the two singles that were on iTunes at the time. It only took one song to tell what an amazing talent she was. I love the album – I particularly love her lyrics, her ability to weave humour into one song and then vulnerable, heart-wrenching imagery into another, and it’s really cool to have so much piano in country songs – but I was a bit disappointed that there were only eight tracks and that I’d heard all of them by the time the album came out. It’s great, of course, to finally have them to blast in the car and so on, but I would’ve loved to hear a song she’d been holding back for the release or something like that. And I was really sad that ‘Blue,’ which she’d played on tour, didn’t make the album because it was absolutely stunning.
Favourite Tracks: Bad Advice, We’re Not Friends, More Hearts Than Mine, Life of the Party, and Lady Like.
folklore by Taylor Swift (July 2020) – I’ve already written a bit about this album (and because I am such a songwriting nerd, I’m writing another post about it in more detail because there’s just so much to say about it) but I couldn’t not include this album in this post. I’ll just try my best not to go overboard. This feels like the album of a pure singersongwriter, an album where the songs themselves are given centre stage to shine. Somehow the album is her most experimental yet while still being so true to the songwriter that she has always been. I love the production style, which often centers around the piano, the minimal arrangements, and the lower vocal range that Taylor takes the time to explore. I love the different narratives and perspectives that she writes from while still sharing her emotions and experiences. And I love how vulnerable she allows herself to be, over and over again. Whether these lyrics are autobiographical or drawn from elsewhere – “You know the greatest loves of all time are over now,” “I can see you starin’, honey, like he’s just your understudy, like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me,” “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” “I’m still a believer but I don’t know why, I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try,” “Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously any time I wanted,” “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, could’ve followed my fears all the way down,” “And you know damn well, for you I would ruin myself, a million little times,” “But the rain is always gonna come, if you’re standing with me,” and “Stood on the cliffside, screaming, ‘Give me a reason'” – they prove what an incredible songwriter she is, what a deeper thinker she is, and how deeply she feels emotions (something that has always made me feel really connected to her and her writing). These are emotions she’s related to, whether the events happened to her or not, and to turn those feelings into something so beautiful and to then share it with the world is so, so special. There’s so much more I could say but it’s a stunning album and I love it more than I can express. It’s one of those albums that arrived in my life just when I needed it and my god, I am so grateful.
Favourite Tracks: the 1, exile (feat. Bon Iver), my tears ricochet, mirrorball, this is me trying, illicit affairs, and mad woman.
If It Wasn’t For You by Caylee Hammack (August 2020) – I first heard Caylee sing at Tin Pan South in 2017 and I just fell in love with her songwriting. I’ve been waiting for her to release music ever since and so when she announced this album I was ecstatic. ‘Family Tree’ was the perfect first single: it feels like such a central theme in the album and one of the strongest songs in every aspect. Just because of what was going on in my life when it came out, I haven’t had the opportunity to really delve into it – into the lyrics and stories and so on – but I’m really loving listening to it and just taking it all in (full disclosure, I cried when I first heard ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something’). She has an amazing voice and I love her ballsy, unapologetic attitude but that she can also let that fall away and open up to write and sing these incredibly vulnerable songs. Her lyric writing is also something really special: her songs are full of little details that make them so unique. I can’t imagine anyone else singing them and really making them work. There are also various production choices that really stick out to me, things that you – or at least I – don’t hear all that often, like her use of backing vocals and ‘non-musical sounds’ like the cheering of a football game on TV in ‘Family Tree.’ My only sadness concerning this album is that she didn’t include a song she sang when I heard her at Tin Pan South, probably one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard: “Laid an old friend in the ground before saying ‘I’m sorry’, and that’s something that I don’t expect forgiveness for, I should’ve called more.” I would’ve loved that song to be included on the album because it was absolutely beautiful.
Favourite Tracks: Preciatcha, Sister, Forged In The Fire, Family Tree, Mean Something (feat. Ashley McBryde & Tenille Townes), and Small Town Hypocrite.
Badlands (Live from Webster Hall) by Halsey (August 2020) – Before I talk about the live album, I have to mention the original first because it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. I love how different it is; I love the production and all the extra details that give it it’s unique sound; I love her vocals and the the myriad of little ways she uses her voice to convey emotion; I love the stories she tells and the lyrics she writes, all of the detail she includes and within them, which ones she chooses to develop, the themes she brings into the songs time and again. She’s truly one of my favourite artists.
But back to the live album. I love how much energy and passion she puts into her performances and I love how you can hear her smiling and responding to the crowd as she sings (and oh my god, how gloriously loud the crowd are). Her vocals are incredible (they’ve grown so much since she toured this album) and I love how she’s made little changes: changing the rhythm, speaking a line instead of singing it, and so on. The music behind her, whether it’s live or programmed or a combination of both sounds great and I can absolutely imagine her up on that stage, leaping around just as she did when I saw her on the Badlands Tour in 2016. I also loved the spoken parts (and especially relevant to this post, how she talks about how much she loves albums and how much everyone in the crowd loves albums if they love Badlands as much as they clearly do) because she speaks so beautifully and has such an interesting way of seeing the world. I guess my only sadness about those tracks is how clearly she’s talking to the audience right there (as it should be in a live show, in my opinion) and it just reminds me how I’ve never felt part of the fanbase – or any artist’s fanbase – regardless of how much I love her. I always feel on the edge, feel like if I took one step back and disappeared, no one would notice. And given just how close Halsey is with her fanbase – always taking photos, signing things, replying to tweets, getting tattoos with them, making them feel truly valued as individuals – it’s not difficult to feel even more invisible than usual. I guess that’s one of the downsides of artists being able to connect to fans one-on-one: it’s great for the fans it happens to, but really hard for those it doesn’t.
It’s worth noting that it’s hard to separate my favourite songs from the Badlands album and my favourite performances from the Badlands (Live at Webster Hall) album but I’ll try my best because they’re not necessarily the same…
Favourite Tracks: Castle, Hold Me Down, Hurricane, Roman Holiday, Colors, Tiny Little Babies – Talking Break, Strange Love, Forget Her and Find Her – Talking Break, Coming Down, Control (this one is so powerful), Young God, Gasoline, Some Kind of Stardust – Talking Break, and Is There Somewhere.
More Love: Songs from Little Voice Season One by Sara Bareilles (September 2020) – I’m aware that having not seen the show, Little Voice, yet, listening to this album may be a different experience than that of someone who has seen the show. I do really want to watch it but with my mental health in mind, I’m conflicted: I want to see anything Sara Bareilles is involved in creating because I love her and I love her work but I’m also wary that media about my chosen career path, about becoming a singersongwriter, has the capacity to seriously trigger my anxiety, something that I’m extra cautious of in these present times when my anxiety is already so high. But regardless of that, I couldn’t let a Sara Bareilles album come out and not listen to it. I have found it a little harder to get into than some of her others (but again that maybe be that I haven’t seen the show that gives the songs context). But there’s something so distinctly Sara Bareilles about it that I love. The songs feel hopeful and have a certain warmth, creating an instant emotional connection. It’s just stronger with some than others. The production feels like the big sister of the Little Voice album and her vocals her just incredible. Her lyrics are just stunning as always – “I’m barely brave enough to be breathing,” “So I will write it down, all the jagged edges,” “I’m facing all of my fears, I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years,” “I hit my head against the wall, a portrait of my grief,” and “Looking over the precious moments, it hurts don’t it, they can cut both ways” – and I feel like they’re coming to me just at the right time. There’s something about Sara’s music that has always felt just so healing and I’ve never needed that more than I do right now. I think it’s also worth noting that I’ve never had to pause an album so many times to write down song ideas.
Favourite Tracks: More Love, Simple And True, Coming Back To You, and Little Voice.
ballerini by Kelsea Ballerini (September 2020) – While I’m pretty sure I prefer kelsea to ballerini, I think this is a really fascinating project and it’s really cool to see how different the songs could’ve been, what a different life they could’ve had. I found the instrumentation a little repetitive but I loved some of the changes she made, particularly the little lyric tweaks that gave you a brand new, and often a more vulnerable, insight into the songs. Some songs had a completely different emotional vibe that was really unexpected but so cool to experience. As fans, the songs obviously speak differently to us with these changes but I admit that I’m super curious how they’ve taken on new meaning for Kelsea. It will be really interesting to see, when she is able to tour again, how she chooses to perform these songs, which version she chooses or leans into more.
Favourite Tracks: club, homecoming queen?, bragger, half of my hometown, the way i used to, needy, a country song, and la.
Lady Like (Deluxe) by Ingrid Andress (October 2020) – This album was announced less than an hour after I wrote the paragraph of Lady Like, where I talked about wanting some songs I hadn’t already heard. That made me laugh; it was like I had willed it into existence. The livestream before the release was great and it made my little songwriter heart happy to hear all the stories from the behind-the-scenes of writing those songs. And when it was over, the album was available on iTunes. I love that she changed the tracklist to tell the chronological story (using the tracklist to actively tell a story is something I’ve always been a fan of, rather than just putting the songs in an order that sounds good – not that there’s anything wrong with that) so it was a bit like listening to the album all over again and I just feel like it gave the album a slightly different vibe, a different emotional context. I’m not gonna talk about the songs from the original album because I’d just be repeating myself but the five new tracks were definitely a cool addition to the album as a piece of art (I’m still sad about ‘Blue’ though – hopefully she’s just saving it for a future project). I liked the simplicity and honesty of ‘Feeling Things,’ ‘Boys’ is youthfully lighthearted and flippant, and ‘Waste of Lime’ is full of the acerbic wit and attitude that Ingrid does so well, just as well as she does vulnerable and heartfelt. And the added voices of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman from Little Big Town bring a beautiful, almost choral effect to ‘More Hearts Than Mine.’ As I said, I think these extra tracks really add to an already great album and I’m so glad that Ingrid decided to expand on the Lady Like era before moving onto the next project.
Favourite Tracks (not including those from the original edition of the album): Feeling Things and Waste of Lime.
I’ve struggled to sit and just listen to new music over lockdown – my brain seems insistent that I always be doing something to keep my anxiety at bay – so there are still multiple albums that I really want to listen to but haven’t been able to focus enough yet to do so. Some of these are:
I’m really looking forward to them though and having something to look forward to in times like these is definitely not a bad thing.
Category: emotions, event, favourites, music, response Tagged: album, badlands, badlands (live from webster hall), badlands live, ballerini, caylee hammack, favourite albums, favourite music, folklore, good years, halsey, if it wasn't for you, ingrid andress, kelsea, kelsea ballerini, lady like, lady like deluxe, little voice, manic, more love, music, nashville, national album day, national album day 2020, production, sara bareilles, singer, singers, singing, songwriter, songwriters, songwriting, taylor swift, the shires, tin pan south
Posted on April 15, 2020
(NOTE: I’ve lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown but it feels like forever and I’m BORED. And my boredom – combined with my passion for music (and writing/talking about it) – has culminated in this post. It’s a very, very long post so no worries, I won’t be offended if you don’t read all of it, or even read it at all. This was just a bit of a passion project that once I started, I couldn’t put down.)
This is ultimately a blog where I write about living with mental health problems and Autism but music is such a big part of my life that, now my creative brain is coming back to life (a round of applause for Phenelzine), some music content was always going to appear. And I was scrolling through my iTunes (or whatever it’s called now) when it occurred to me that while I write about the important songs of each year, I’ve never talked about albums. And as we’ve entered the new decade, I thought I’d write about some of the most significant albums for me over this last decade, the decade where music really became my life.
It was a really difficult job but I’ve narrowed it down to fifteen (I’m deliberately leaving out singles and EPs because otherwise we’d be here forever). This isn’t necessarily the order in which I discovered them but there’s no way to tell that so I’ve just organised them by release date…
Love Hangover by Alyssa Bernal (2011)
I’d been following Alyssa Bernal on YouTube, after discovering her ‘I’m Yours’ cover. She has such a gorgeous voice and when she covers songs, it doesn’t feel like she’s deliberately trying to make the song her own; they just sound new and fresh and like her own songs simply because she’s singing them. She’d posted a few original songs and those were the ones I always longed for (as much as I loved her covers) and so I was ecstatic when she was signed and announced that she was releasing an album. She toured with Lifehouse (she vlogged the experience – the first one is here) and it was so cool to hear the songs and see her find her confidence on stage. But then the album didn’t come, and didn’t come, and didn’t come (for reasons outside her control). It was so frustrating because she was so good; she deserved to have the songs she’d recorded out in the world. But somehow she got it released independently and while I was sad that some of the songs she’d previously posted on YouTube weren’t on it, I loved it and played it constantly. And now, almost ten years later, it holds such nostalgia for me. My favourites then and now are ‘Stay’ (I love the lyric , “Stay if I get lost along the way and I start fighting windmills, trying to make sense of everything that don’t make sense”), ‘Raincloud Grey,’ and I’m so, so glad that ‘Hey Love’ made it onto the album. I’m pretty sure that that song was the song that got me into songwriting: the lyrics especially just changed something for me, like when you read a book or see a movie and it feels like the whole world has changed. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song.
RED by Taylor Swift (2012)
This was simultaneously a hard call and an easy one. I love all of Taylor’s albums from the 2010s (shout out to Speak Now, RED, 1989, reputation, and Lover) but RED has got to be one of my favourite albums of all time. It was the first Taylor album I was there for from the livestream announcement (I became a fan sometime during 2011) and so it was all new and exciting to me. I remember being up at 2am, jamming to ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ when it was first released. It’s hard to choose favourites; it’s more a case of which songs do I love more than I love others. I love ‘State of Grace,’ because it was the opening number of The Red Tour, the first time I ever saw Taylor live. The moment during State of Grace, when the curtain dropped, was amazing and is a moment I want to remember forever. The song also became very important to me in a different way when a relationship in my family broke up. The lyric ‘we fall in love ’til it hurts or bleeds or fades in time’ was the only thing that explained all the emotion I felt over it. I love ‘Red’ because the lyric writing is so clever despite having such a simple concept. Me and my best friend used to play it on guitar over and over again and it was so much fun. I love ‘Treacherous’ and I always play it when I’m in the car at night. The bridge is so beautiful and the lyrics throughout the song are so emotive. I love ‘I Knew You Were Trouble,’ and I especially loved it after seeing it on TV when she sang it at the Brit Awards, the chaotic-ness of it, especially as it speeds up towards the end. ‘All Too Well’ will forever be one of my absolute favourite songs, as well as being one of my favourite Taylor songs. It’s so beautiful. The story is told so well, the detail is hypnotic, and the emotions are so strong and perfectly presented. I felt every moment of it. And to hear it live on The Red Tour was so special. I could talk about this song forever, how it’s another essential for any car journey, my favourite lyrics, the production, etc, etc. I really could. I’m actually writing an essay about it for my Masters at the moment. I love it so much. And ‘so casually cruel in the name of being honest’ has to be one of my favourite lyrics ever. I could talk about that one lyric forever. I love ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ because it always reminds me of that first night, the first time I heard it on the live stream. And I love singing along to it at full volume in the car. I love ‘The Last Time,’ and how the two voices sound together, how it really sounds like a conversation. I think it’s one of the saddest songs on the album. I love ‘Holy Ground’ and how joyful and almost triumphant it feels and sounds. I was so glad to hear her feel so good about a past relationship, even if it had ended badly. I loved the performance on the tour and whenever I listen to this song, I always feel a surge of hope that, eventually, everything will be okay. I love ‘Begin Again.’ I remember when it first came out: I was in college early and I was sitting in a stairwell with my eyes closed, just letting the lyrics sink in. A lot of the lyrics really resonated with me so I think it’ll always be one of the important ones for me. And I love ‘The Moment I Knew.’ Whenever I need to cry and let my emotions out, this is the song I turn on. It always breaks my heart how sad Taylor sounds. I think it’s so simple and beautiful – the imagery is just so vivid – although I can’t listen to it all that often because it makes me so sad. So… my list of favourites is basically the tracklist. I just love all the changing emotion and detail and imagery in the lyrics, the catchy – both subtle and obvious – melodies, the experimentation in the production, and so on and so on and so on. I love everything about it. And that was such a tumultuous period in my life that there are so many emotions and memories attached to it. And as I said, it was also the first time I saw Taylor live so the RED album and The RED Tour (I went to several tour dates and for one of them, I somehow ended up in the second row and I can confirm that Taylor’s hair is made of magic) are really special to me.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Lauren Alex Hooper (@laurenalexhooper) on
Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves (2013)
It was really hard to choose between this first album and her third album, Golden Hour, but I think that, because this one introduced me to Kacey Musgraves, that just put it over the top (but still, a major shout out to Golden Hour). It was this album that had me falling in love with Kacey’s songwriting and it was one of the albums that got me into country music. I heard her play ‘Merry Go Round’ on Jools Holland, I think, and she was playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire the next night so I bought a ticket and played the album on repeat so that I’d know the songs and could sing along. My immediate favourites were ‘Silver Lining’ (such an amazing opener), ‘Merry Go Round,’ ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ (I especially love the production on this one), ‘Back On The Map’ (and the guitar solo in the live performance is just gorgeous), ‘Keep It To Yourself’ (I think this is my ultimate favourite – the loneliness, in the lyrics and the production, just gets me every time), ‘Stupid,’ ‘Follow Your Arrow’ (I love how enthusiastic the crowd gets every time she plays this song), and ‘It Is What It Is.’ So basically the whole album. I love how gentle her voice is, her attention to detail, the different stories and emotions on the album, and how those emotions seem to effortlessly spill from the lyrics. It’s a beautiful, beautiful album.
Native by OneRepublic (2013)
I can’t remember now how I came across this album and OneRepublic in general but I loved this album from the moment I listened to it. Ryan Tedder is an incredible writer and I love the production: I love the anthemic quality to the whole album. I want to be able to write songs like this one day. My favourites tend to change every time I listen to it but my top five have remained roughly the same: ‘Something I Need,’ ‘I Lived,’ ‘Feel Again,’ ‘What You Wanted,’ and ‘Preacher.’ They all give me such a lift; they give me this feeling of being able to breathe again after being underwater for too long. I think ‘Something I Need’ will always be my favourite OneRepublic song, not only because it’s a great song (Ryan Tedder’s described it as their ‘pub or last call song’ and it really sounds like one) but because it was a favourite song that me and my best friend in sixth form shared. It reminds me of her, of that time in my life, of summer, grassy fields, and driving with the windows down. The two of us actually got to go to the Teenage Cancer Trust show with OneRepublic shown in the video below and it was incredible. I only wish I’d taken more photos and video but at least I have this. Ryan Tedder is an amazing performer and has such a captivating stage presence. And when they did ‘Something I Need,’ he put everything into it. It was one of the best moments, everyone singing and shouting along as Ryan Tedder leapt around the stage, having just as good a time it seemed as we all were. That unity that you get at concerts, during songs like that… that’s just pure magic. In my opinion, at least. Whenever I listen to this song and this album, it reminds me of the lift that show gave me.
Don’t Look Down by Skylar Grey (2013)
I discovered Skylar Grey after she released her single, ‘Invisible,’ (which completely coincidentally was the name of my first single, something I completely didn’t realise until I started writing this) and just fell in love with her, her lyric writing in particular. I loved her solo version of ‘Love The Way You Lie’ as well so I was so excited when she released her album. My favourites even now are ‘Wear Me Out,’ ‘Religion’ (I love the simplicity in the lyric), ‘Clear Blue Sky’ (I loved this one so much that I learnt it on guitar and posted it on YouTube when I did YouTube covers and it was one of the most popular videos I ever posted), and ‘Tower (Don’t Look Down),’ which I think is my ultimate favourite off the album, although it’s really hard to choose. She has a gorgeous voice, the production is always interesting but fitting to the song, her melodies are so slick, and I just love the way she writes lyrics. They weren’t like anything I’d ever heard. She just depicts all of these different emotions so viscerally, with so few words, which takes such skill. And some of them are so achingly vulnerable, like in ‘Tower (Don’t Look Down)’: ‘I always knew that you would follow your big dreams, what I didn’t know is that your dreams never did include me.’ That breaks my heart every time I hear it. I think it’s one of my favourite lyrics on the whole album. It’s lyric writing like that that’s been a big influence on my writing. Someone actually asked me in class a while back if I’d heard of her because the song I’d just played sounded like one of hers and that was such a huge compliment to me. She’s one of those songwriters that just makes me want to get better, be the best writer I can possible be and then some. Like all of the songwriters included in this list really.
Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse by Sara Bareilles (2013)
This was a really difficult choice. I have to give a shout out to her other albums of the decade, Kaleidoscope Heart, The Blessed Unrest, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, and Amidst The Chaos because I dearly love them all but there’s something so special about this one, about how it’s just Sara and her piano. I also love that it allows for a selection of songs from all of her albums. So maybe this is a little bit of a cheat but I have just said I love all of her albums of the last decade so I think it’s okay. I love the different production style of each album but as I said, I love how this one shows off Sara’s incredible range of skills: singing, piano, and guitar playing. It also lays bare her songwriting ability, letting the lyrics and melody truly shine. I love the revitalised version of ‘Love On The Rocks’ (it has some incredible lyrics in it), mashed up with ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ I love the unassuming but nevertheless empowering version of ‘Uncharted’ (probably my favourite song of hers, along with ‘She Used To Be Mine’). I love her cover of ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.’ I love the vulnerability of ‘Manhattan.’ I’ve always loved ‘Let The Rain’ but the eagerness of the crowd’s participation and Sara’s interaction with them is so funny and warm that I laugh every time I listen to it. I love ‘I Just Want You’ and how this is the only version of it, because she always wanted it to be a live song, since it’s about her connection with her audience (as I believe she once said). I love the updated version of ‘Come Round Soon,’ which begins with this incredible, laid back coolness that moves effortlessly into sheer power and ferocity. I love the nostalgia of ‘Once Upon Another Time’ and how you could hear a pin drop throughout the whole song, when it’s her voice alone and then when she brings in the harmonium (it’s an incredible performance). She displays her absolutely incredible vocals on ‘Brave’ and ‘Gravity,’ both such special songs. I could go on and on. It’s a beautiful album. Sara is one of my favourite artists as a whole but her lyric writing blows me away every time – the detail, the imagery, the emotion, all in such a short space of time with so few words – and I only hope I can write a song as good as some of hers one day.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! (2014)
I was introduced to Against Me! by one of my best friends and my brother, who were both really into them. They made me a playlist of their favourites and gave it to me to listen to. I’ve never really listened to punk rock before so it was all very new to me and a bit of an adjustment having only really listened to pop, country, and singersongwriter stuff but by about the third song, I was a huge fan. I loved most of the songs they’d given me, especially those from the then current album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. My favourites were and still are: ‘True Trans Soul Rebel,’ which always reminds me of one of my best friends who is one of the best, most incredible people I love; ‘FUCKMYLIFE666,’ which the three of us would scream along to in the car, the idea of being in tune abandoned in the face of sheer passion for the song; ‘Dead Friend,’ the story of which must’ve been hard to write about and so I always feel honoured to have had it shared with me; ‘Two Coffins,’ which is incredibly sweet despite the morbid sounding title; and ‘Paralytic States,’ a song that I feel deeply connected to, although I’m not ready to talk about why. I just love Laura Jane Grace’s writing: her lyrics are brutal but honest and empowering in their honesty, even when the songs aren’t emotionally empowering, if that makes sense. The stories told in the songs are also ones that I’m not used to hearing, including being transgender (obviously), the death of a friend, suicide, and more. These are all stories that I can relate to in some way and so it’s incredibly validating to have the music you’re listening to acknowledge these very real things, rather than simply stories of falling in love (not that there’s anything wrong with those songs in themselves). And the production on the album is just gorgeous; I particularly love the electric guitar sounds and am always trying to sneak similar ones into my own music, even though the genres are very different. Anyway, it’s an amazing album. And then we were lucky enough to see the band play when they came to London, which was amazing, one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever been to. The crowd was so alive and invested and exhilarated; and screaming – literally screaming (our voices were all an octave lower and raspy the next day) – the lyrics together with fifteen hundred other people who were as passionate about the songs as we were was just incredible. So the album also holds some very special memories for me – I still get very emotional when I listen to it – as well as being lyrically and musically a big favourite of mine.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Lauren Alex Hooper (@laurenalexhooper) on
Brave by The Shires (2015)
I can’t remember what made me download The Shires’ debut single, ‘Nashville Grey Skies,’ but I guess something about it just spoke to me. I do remember listening to in the car on the way to a gig and then serendipitously running into Ben Earle (one half of the duo, in case you haven’t heard of them) at the bar. He was lovely and we talked about music and songwriting and generally got on really well. And then the album was out and I was at their first ever album signing. I love pretty much every song on the album – it felt like a unique little gem of an album in an ocean of music – but my particular favourites were and are ‘Tonight’ (always a high point at their shows), ‘Brave,’ ‘All Over Again,’ ‘State Lines’ (the imagery in this song is just ridiculously good), and ‘Made in England’ (a song I’m so, so glad made the album – I actually think they should’ve named the album after it – because so much country music references traditional American imagery and I just loved and still love having a country song full of English imagery and stories). But I think ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ will always be my favourite song of theirs, of all of their songs. It holds so many beautiful memories that it will always be so special. It’s also something I desperately wish for: a Nashville in the UK. And I’ve followed them ever since. They’ve recently released their fourth album, which is really, really good. I just love the blend of their voices, their melodies, and the imagery in their songs. I love all of their albums (shout out to My Universe, Accidentally on Purpose, and now Good Years, although that was released in this new decade) but there’s something really special about this first one, maybe because it was the first and because it started such a journey.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Lauren Alex Hooper (@laurenalexhooper) on
Badlands by Halsey (2015)
I think the first Halsey song I ever heard was ‘Colors’ and I instantly fell in love, with her lyric writing, her voice, and with the production. It was like she was the artist I’d been looking for, filling a gap in the music I’d been listening to. I listened to the Badlands album over and over again until I knew every word. I love how it’s a concept album and still experiences that she’s lived, ‘the Badlands’ a dystopian place (wherein the stories turned to songs take place) representing her mental state – I definitely related to the themes of mental illness and distress. I love the detail and emotion and imagery in her lyrics; they’re so real and vivid. I also love the attention to detail in every song, right down to specific sounds and backing vocals. Again, I basically love every song on the album but I do have my ultimate favourites. I love ‘Castle’ and how empowering it is. It’s an incredible opener, especially for a debut album, and the production only adds to that power. I love ‘Hold Me Down’ because it was one of the early songs I heard and so it’s intrinsic to Halsey in my mind (the VEVO version she did of it is incredible) and I’m so fascinated by it: it’s so dark, with so many layers and so much imagery. I love the emotion and the lyrics in ‘Roman Holiday,’ especially “’cause I remember when my father put his fist through the wall that separated the dining room.” There’s so much in that lyric that’s never addressed and I love how she does that: layer and layer and layer her stories with moments that aren’t always explained but are somehow absolutely vital to the song as a whole. As I said, ‘Colors’ got me into Halsey and I just love how detailed the story is and how she uses the colour metaphor but without it getting obnoxious or boring. And the bridge will always be gorgeous, always classic Halsey: “You were red and you liked me because I was blue, but you touched me and suddenly I was a lilac sky and you decided purple just wasn’t for you.” What fucking fantastic imagery. It’s a story all on its own. I don’t know if I can explain why I love ‘Gasoline’ so much but something about it just connects to something inside me and that’s really special. ‘Control’ is really important to me; I’d always listen to it before I had to do something scary because it made me feel brave and fierce and invincible. I still use the same strategy sometimes. And I love the lift ‘Young God’ gives you when you listen to it. I also loved what she did with Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk The Line.’ The production is gorgeous and the way it builds is so satisfying.
I got to see Halsey live for the first time on The Badlands Tour in 2016 and she was incredible. It was basically just her onstage, her band (or tour musicians, I’m not sure if they were her official band) and she was absolutely captivating. The musicians were amazing and the backgrounds were stunning, something that has been a running theme throughout her career. It was an awesome show. So that makes this album extra special for me.
I actually got to meet her afterwards. I waited in the cold for hours and hours (it turns out she almost didn’t come out and we weren’t allowed to do autographs, only pictures, because she’d twisted her ankle on stage so everything was done at super speed) but she did eventually insist and hopped out to meet the few remaining people. She was so sweet and just delighted by each person who’d waited, which was a bit of a shock after seeing this fierce, defiant force of nature on stage. I was so excited to meet her but then, as it got closer and closer to my turn, my anxiety took over and in the end, I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say (I desperately wished I’d kept the letter I’d handed in for her). When the anxiety subsided, I was so frustrated with myself and I still am to this day because as she gets more and more famous, she plays bigger and bigger venues and the chances of meeting her again get slimmer and slimmer. I’ve left letters but I have no idea whether she ever got them.
Wildfire by Rachel Platten (2016)
I first heard ‘Fight Song’ when I was in a period of a deep depression and it was the only thing that made me feel better. I listened to it over and over and eventually managed to get up and shower for the first time in several days. It helped and I still go back to it on bad days when I need to get up and face the world. The album came out and while ‘Fight Song’ remained and remains my favourite, I fell in love with ‘Stand By You’ (it’s so uplifting and joyful) ‘Better Place’ (I love the lyric, “and the colours are golden and bright again”), ‘You Don’t Know My Heart’ (the rhythms in the chorus melody are so cool), and ‘Astronauts’ (I particularly love the first verse and the energy in the chorus is just so fun). She’s got an incredible voice and the melodies in particular are just stunning. And then, not long after it came out, her record label ran a competition for a handful of people to meet her before her first London show and somehow, I won a spot. I actually started crying in the car when I found out because day by day, ‘Fight Song’ and all of the songs on this album were pulling me out of my depression and suddenly I had the opportunity to thank Rachel for that.
Meeting her is a treasured memory and she was so, so lovely. She listened intently and hugged me over and over again, saying how glad she was that the song had been able to do that for me. And while she was meeting the rest of the group, I talked to a couple of people that I’m still friends with today and see at concerts.
I was right at the front for the show and it was so much fun. She’s such a great performer and she was just smiling so big the whole time; you could tell she was just having the best time. I haven’t had the opportunity to see her live since then but that almost makes the show all the more special: it was so small and already special because it was her first UK show. Hopefully I’ll get to see her again at some point.
Hero by Maren Morris (2016)
I’ll admit that it took me a while to get into Maren Morris but then I saw her live at Country2Country in 2017 and it just clicked – her voice just soared through the arena and I just got the songs in a way that I hadn’t up until then – and from then on I was obsessed with this album. Me and my best friend and writing partner, Richard, (who’s also a huge Maren Morris fan) would listen to it before every writing session, during our breaks (while we played Mariokart), in the car… All the time. We were (and still are to an extent) complete songwriting nerds about it, discussing in depth the lyrics, the melodies, and the production, and how unique they all are. Major shout out to GIRL because I love that album too but this one holds a special place in my heart, maybe because it’s the album that introduced me to Maren Morris, to her gorgeous voice and her incredible songwriting. I also saw her live on the accompanying tour with Richard (second row at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – it was an epic show) and also met her for the first time at the tour meet and greet (I was anxious and shy and felt like I only made an awkward impression, rather than the positive, personal, and maybe even memorable one I’d hoped to make). So, yeah, the album holds a lot of special memories for me. I love pretty much all of the songs but I do have my absolute favourites. The melodies in ‘Sugar’ are so gorgeous and catchy, and the imagery is really unique: “Just a little bit is all it takes, like a Coca-Cola on Christmas Day.” The sass in ‘Rich’ is just so great and it’s always so much fun at her shows. I don’t even know how to describe ‘My Church.’ It feels spiritual, like a hymn, but in a real way and it reminds me of Nashville and the atmosphere there and feeling so alive. ’80s Mercedes’ is a masterclass in imagery and the production is just so rich and gorgeous. I love the honesty and vulnerability in ‘I Wish I Was.’ So many people talk about how women always paint themselves as victims in their songs (which is total bullshit) but there’s something so real and admirable about the way she honestly takes responsibility for her part in the breakdown of the relationship and how as much as she wishes she was right for the other person, she’s just not. I especially love the line, “so go on, hate me if you have to, I still care about you.” I loved ‘Second Wind’ when Kelly Clarkson released it but there’s something particularly special about it in Maren’s voice. It’s so empowering and uplifting; it’s one of my favourite songs for when I need a pick me up. But I think that ‘Once’ is my ultimate favourite. Apart from the incredible vocals, I love the emotion in the song: the resignation, the pain, the nostalgia, the unresolved love. The lyric, “don’t forget that you loved me once,” just breaks my heart every time. It’s a stunning collection of songs.
View this post on Instagram
Oh @marenmorris, you absolute rockstar. What a show. I don’t even know what to say. That was amazing. After feeling so disconnected for so long, I felt alive. I felt real. And I’m so grateful to you for giving that to me. That’s what music can do. How incredible is that… 💜
A post shared by Lauren Alex Hooper (@laurenalexhooper) on
Isn’t It Strange? by Lauren Aquilina (2016)
Lauren Aquilina is another artist I initially discovered on YouTube and she was just so like me (I mean, we even have the same name) that I immediately related to her. I loved all three of her EPs: Fools (my favourite song was ‘Wonder’), Sinners (my favourite song was ‘Irrelevant’), and Liars (my favourite song and maybe favourite song of hers overall is ‘Square One’). I loved all three of those EPs so I wasn’t surprised when I loved her album, ‘Isn’t It Strange?’ I loved the lyrics, the melodies, the arrangements, the production, the sounds she used… The whole thing is just beautiful. When I first listened to it, I remember thinking that it sounds like it could’ve been written all in one night about the same person because it flows together so perfectly, sonically and thematically. And I loved that she included ‘Fools,’ a nod to her beginnings. My favourite songs were and still are ‘How Would You Like It?’ (I love how quiet, how simply this one is arranged – it allows the emotion the lyrics and emotions to have so much more impact), ‘Hurt Any Less’ (I love everything about this one: the production, the melodies, the fact that the choruses are in half time – I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone do that – the structure of the bridge section, the imagery, the lyrics in the second verse, the lyrics in general – I think my favourite lyric has to be, “this was never love, it was chaos,”), ‘Thinking About’ (I love how there’s one piano note that continues throughout the whole song, like the memory of the person you’re trying not to think about, and I think the lyric, “but all I’m thinking about is not thinking about you,” is so clever in its simplicity, and even more clever when the next verse starts with “I’m thinking about you and…”), and ‘Ocean’ (it feels, to me at least, that the production perfectly reflects the emotion and the vibe of the song and the lightness of it, combined with the freedom in the final lyric of ‘well, I know that one day it’s an ocean I’ll be,” makes it the perfect album closer). If my first album is this good, I’ll be one happy girl.
Puxico by Natalie Hemby (2017)
I remember actually squealing when I heard the news that Natalie was releasing her own album. I’d seen her perform at Tin Pan South a couple of times (I think) by then and she’s such an amazing songwriter and singer. She taps into detail so beautifully and brings out the emotion in a way that seems effortless. The songs link so well and it almost feels like you’re walking through the little town in Missouri the album is named after. The imagery is so vivid but with a kind of hazy nostalgia. And her voice has this gorgeous, almost raspy tone that only adds to that nostalgia. As good as I think the whole album is, it’s the second half that really stands out for me. I love the steady conviction in ‘Worn,’ that all the important things in life are just that. And I love the last couple of lines, “the finish of a wedding band, you and I, together we stand, worn.” I love the almost fragile detail in ‘This Town Still Talks About You.’ ‘I’ll Remember How You Loved Me’ has the most tender, gentle chorus. ‘Return,’ in my opinion, feels like the high point that the album has been building to, with some particularly gorgeous guitar parts in the middle and vocals that are just so emotional. It’s the perfect closer. I’d love to know how she wrote the album, whether she had all the concepts and then worked on the songs until they were perfect or whether she wrote a handful of the songs and then worked the rest around those or something completely different. I’m fascinated by the songwriting processes of all of these writers – I read as much as I can find in interviews and so on – and would love to know more about how they practice and improve their craft.
Unapologetically by Kelsea Ballerini (2017)
It feels very strange to be talking about Kelsea’s last album when she’s just released a new album but that is the oddity of life. Anyway. I first got into Kelsea Ballerini at the Tin Pan South festival on my first trip to Nashville in 2016. I’d heard some of her music but not had time to sit down and really listen to her album. Hearing her perform live and hearing her talk about songwriting, I just fell in love, with her lyrics and her melodies and her voice (I actually got to meet her afterwards but I was so jet lagged that I look somewhat zombie-like in the photo). I liked the first album (I did love ‘XO, ‘Square Pegs,’ and ‘Stilettos’) but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Legends’ that I felt like a true Kelsea fan. It just sounded like she was really solid in her musical and lyrical comfort zone and therefore producing great songs, but also like she was more comfortable exploring new things too. I can honestly say that I love every track on the album, although I didn’t love them all straight away. But within a few months, yeah, I loved every single song. But if I had to choose my favourites, I think they would be ‘Graveyard’ (the melodies are to die for), ‘Miss Me More’ (I love how empowering it is), ‘Get Over Yourself’ (I love the imagery and, again, the melodies are awesome and so freaking catchy), ‘Roses’ (the chorus lyrics are SO good), ‘Machine Heart’ (I love the way the chorus lifts and the power that movement has), ‘Unapologetically’ (I love how unapologetically – pun actually not intended – romantic it is and the production is stunning), and ‘Legends’ (I think this is my ultimate favourite on the album because it’s so lyrically rich and emotional; I think it’s the perfect closer for an album called Unapologetically). The songwriting is incredible (she’s a big inspiration when it comes to lyric writing – although I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to get as many words into a song as she can) and the production is just so rich and gorgeous. I saw her perform a few of times during the ‘era’ of that album and she was fantastic each time. (The new album is fucking great too.)
View this post on Instagram
Can I be @kelseaballerini when I grow up? What a fab show. I loved every second of it. I may have cried a little bit because I want to write songs and sing them too and I want it so badly but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are made to love things and I love music unapologetically.
A post shared by Lauren Alex Hooper (@laurenalexhooper) on
Open Book by Kalie Shorr (2019)
I was so excited for Kalie to release a full length album (I adored the preceding EP, Awake) and it tied with Taylor Swift’s Lover for my favourite album of 2019 (which I’d also been super excited about). It’s such a special album, filled with razor sharp wit, painful honesty, captivating imagery, and gorgeous guitar parts. The sound is just so Kalie, which makes complete sense if you read her social media bios (which only recently changed to ‘I’m an open book’): Country singer still recovering from her emo phase. She’s easily one of my favourite songwriters – I particularly love her lyric writing, her honesty, her refusal to shy away from subjects and emotions that most people might avoid and her ability to express them so accurately and beautifully – and I’m obsessed with every track on the album. ‘Too Much To Say’ is the perfect album opener, the chorus ending with, ‘I’ve got too much to say and I’ll tell it all to you.’ You’ve been warned. ‘Escape’ is breathtakingly vulnerable, exposing problems her family have faced along with her own, with a lonely electric guitar for a backdrop. ‘Messy’ is one of my absolute favourites: revealing the isolation of a disintegrating relationship through simple but visceral imagery. The internal rhyming in this one is just amazing too. ‘The One’ may be my absolute favourite, with stunning lyrics, visually and emotionally complex, with production that is somehow equally emotional to match. It follows the ups and downs of an imperfect relationship that ultimately ends in crushing disappointment and I cried the first time I heard it, and multiple times afterwards. ‘F U Forever’ is a delightfully upbeat and sassy song, throwing shade at every possible opportunity, but dig a little deeper and you can see the traumatic relationship underneath. Ultimately though, it’s a triumph – a ‘fuck you’ in no uncertain terms, leaving no twisted detail unexposed. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a letter to the next girl, a warning, dressed up in literary metaphor (a technique that reoccurs throughout the album). It has so many layers and hidden details that I’m still sorting through them months later; it feels like a concept album in one song. And just as we’re starting to find some peace, we’re hit with ‘The World Keeps Spinning,’ a tribute to her sister who died suddenly and tragically at the beginning of 2019. I can’t help but sob helplessly every time I listen to this one because I relate to it so strongly: the moment everything changes forever, the painful, unexpected details of loss, the cruelty of everyday life continuing as normal, all described so simply – not one word is superfluous – but so perfectly. In my experience at least. It’s Taylor Swift level storytelling. ‘Big Houses’ gives us an intimate glimpse into a relationship with her mother and her childhood, capturing and balancing the memories, both positive and negative, the good of her relationship with her mother and the implied difficulties they faced together. It’s nostalgic but not in a way that whitewashes the past; it’s real and uncompromising but it still sounds gentle, perhaps an ode to childhood when the hard edges were a little softer. ‘Gatsby’ (another literary reference) is a witty, self-deprecating song that describes the mask she wore to cope with the difficult emotions she was dealing with but also takes a hard look at the part she was playing in her potential downward spiral. It’s catchy as hell and the production is extremely congruent (one of my uni lecturers favourite terms) but as with ‘F U Forever,’ look beneath the surface and there’s a whole lot more going on. That’s something I love about Kalie’s songs: there’s a whole lot more in them than you hear in the first listen. ‘Thank God You’re A Man’ is perhaps the song I connected to least on the album but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it and its place on the album. I’ve always been particularly impressed with how the production feels all consuming, matching the concept of the song, of being consumed by another person. I love ‘Vices’ and how effortlessly it describes how easy it is to get sucked into bad habits, especially when you’re dealing with a lot. Lyrically, I think this song is incredible and its honesty and vulnerability gets somewhat overlooked in the face of songs like ‘The World Keeps Spinning’ and ‘Escape.’ ‘Lullaby’ is another of my favourites from this album: the lyrics are beautiful, the imagery is stunning, but it’s the emotions conveyed that really stand out for me, the combination of strength, surety, delicacy, and vulnerability. Ultimately I think the first line of the chorus sums up the whole song – lyrics, melody, and production – perfectly: “This is the sound of letting it go.” The album could’ve easily ended there but there’s one last song that feels both like a triumphant ending and the first steps of a new chapter. ‘Angry Butterfly’ might be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. It’s the culmination of the origin story that is Open Book, a brutally honest assessment of what she’s gone through and where she’s headed now, casting off the past but acknowledging how it’s changed her. This is her story, this is who she is now, and she’s not ashamed of any of it. This review kind of got away from me but oh well, it’s written now and I’m proud of it. As I’ve already said, Kalie is one of my favourite writers and I’m so inspired by her, by her lyric writing and guitar playing in particular (it’s a pipe dream of mine to write with her one day). This album is incredibly special to me and I think always will be, coming into my life just when I needed it. Having said that, I can’t wait to see where Kalie goes next.
If you want to see me ramble about my favourite lyrics of each track, you can find the Twitter thread here.
So I hope you enjoyed this somewhat all over the place review of my favourite albums of the 2010s and that you maybe found a few new albums to listen to. My current soundtrack still includes tracks from these albums but I also have a handful of brand new albums to listen to, including Manic by Halsey, Good Years by The Shires, kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini, and Lady Like by Ingrid Andress, all of which I highly, highly recommend.
Category: covid-19 pandemic, emotions, favourites, music, video Tagged: 2010s, against me!, album, album review, alyssa bernal, badlands, brave, brave enough, coronavirus, covid-19, decade, don't look down, favourite albums, favourite music, fight song, halsey, hero, hey love, how would you like it?, isn't it strange, kacey musgraves, kalie shorr, keep it to yourself, kelsea ballerini, last decade, laura jane grace, lauren aquilina, lockdown, love hangover, love on the rocks, love runs out, lullaby, maren morris, natalie hemby, native, onerepublic, open book, puxico, rachel platten, red, red album, ryan tedder, same trailer different park, sara bareilles, skylar grey, taylor swift, the shires, tower, transgender dysphoria blues, unapologetically, wildfire
Hi! I’m Lauren Alex Hooper. Welcome to my little blog! I write about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as several mental health issues. I’m a singersongwriter (and currently studying for a Masters in songwriting) so I’ll probably write a bit about that too.
My first single, ‘Invisible,’ is now available on iTunes and Spotify, with all proceeds going to Young Minds.
I’m currently releasing my first EP, Honest, track by track and all five songs are now available on all major music platforms. However, there’s still more content to come…