Halfway Through 2020, These Albums by LGBTQ Artists Are Some of the Year’s Best
More than half of 2020 is gone, though who even thinks about time when every single day bleeds into the next? Good riddance to all of it, except the LGBTQ artists below who’ve provided fantastic 2020 album releases to guide us through our isolation.
Here are a mere 10.5 of those LGBTQ 2020 album releases, and this list could have easily been thrice as long.
Half-way through the year, here are our favorite 2020 album releases by LGBTQ artists:
1. Rufus Wainwright – Unfollow the Rules
This golden child of a legendary musical family arrives at a place I believe many of us have been waiting years to hear: a moment of transcendence. Wainwright’s 10th studio release is all the promise and ambition of his debut reversed. That eponymous release was a stunning look-at-me moment — sophisticated, emotional, theatrical, textured, passionate; gay and unapologetic, which in 1998 was still a brave position — and you could hear how hard he was trying.
Unfollow the Rules is effortless; 12 tracks of the type of singer-songwriter pop that hasn’t been in vogue for quite a spell yet still registers as timeless. He’s just as ambitious as a composer at his level of melodic sophistication would be by nature, but he’s not sweating it. And shit does get epic: the Brechtian stroll of “Early Morning Madness” cascades into a 20th century crescendo mimetic of a morning-after hangover; “This One’s for the Ladies (THAT LUNGE!)” is Sparks-meets-Eno on a rocket to space; “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” a libretto as applicable to gay liberation as it is to Black Lives Matter.
His voice has never sounded better. He hits notes he rarely attempted before. And the ballads — an area where he has never faltered — are all shades of there-aren’t-enough-superlatives-in-the-world. That newfound vocal prowess sends the title track into instant classic status. It’s slow and steady; languorous; assured; minor-key, before he marries all his sophisticated, emotional, theatrical, textured, passionate, gay and unapologetic impulses into a primer on surviving a trauma that could never have anticipated the moment we’re in right now yet feels tailor-made for it.
2. Mavi Phoenix – Boys Toys
They’re an Austrian import whose journey to coming out as trans is documented all over Boys Toys, but not in any way you might expect. Whether they’re coming on to your mother in the salacious “12 Inches” or the title track where Mavi claims themselves as the music industry’s newest misfit, their place in the world — and their right to not just be in it, but to thrive there as well — is imprinted into every programmed beat and contemporary indie pop/hip-hop trope the young — and most progressively tolerant — generation claims as its own.
3. Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
Sawayama represents just being on her impressive debut. A Japanese/English artist who writes songs about and for women, she’s bisexual or pansexual (depending on the source/interview). Her vocal prowess is pitched somewhere between Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. She’s enamored of pop, hip-hop and guitars that careen in and out of tracks like the ghost of Prince took over. This is the kind of hybrid of which the world could use more, especially when she essays the type of casual racism that happens in the painfully funny date at the center of the video for “STFU!”. (“XS”; “Bad Friend”)
4. Princess Nokia – Everything Sucks / Everything Is Beautiful
Her third and fourth releases, respectively, came out on the same day in February, while COVID-19 was ravaging her beloved NYC. Without that as a background, this double album in everything but packaging is about the struggles and good times of a New York woman whose resiliently funny and welcoming yet will cut a bitch if disrespected. Everything Sucks is the slightly harder, shorter of the two; Everything Is Beautiful the somewhat more pop flip side. With the pandemic in the background, it’s exactly the same, but heroic. It captures the spirit of the City — the urban sprawl lows (“Crazy House”; “Welcome to the Circus”) and the celebratory highs (“Wavy”) — with the same detail and enthusiasm of a borough-born pragmatist that doesn’t sift wheat from chaff because, hey, that’s life.
5. Arca – KiCk i
Alejandra Ghersi came out as nonbinary between 2017’s Arca and latest effort, the beguiling KiCk i, and while Ghersi’s sound has grown incrementally more mainstream, that’s only because the mainstream has moved farther to the left with the breakdown and reimagining of genre restrictions. Fellow electronic rabble-rouser SOPHIE graces the deconstructed “La Chíqui” with her by-now-trademarked metallic slash-and-burn production technique (I love how she creates rhythmic implosions and accelerations by what sounds like two knives slashing). Björk, a soulmate in eccentricity, joins Ghersi for “Afterwards.” And the English electro artist Shygirl brings a cool eroticism to the steamy “Watch.” No matter who Ghersi collaborates with, however, Arca is always front and center. The videos are fascinating — sometimes eerily so — with images of morphing transformations (“Mequetrefe”) and surgical adjustments (the combative and self-accepting “Nonbinary”). Ghersi is in the front ranks of electronic trans artists reshaping the restraints of music to more fully express the experience of becoming in novel, future-forward ways.
6. Car Seat Headrest – Making a Door Less Open
My love for Will Toledo and his DIY indie aesthetic grows deeper with each new release. He’s stuck somewhere between the template for most great indie rock sharp hooks; unexpected singalong choruses; jams — and the expanding sonic palette of pop (that now encompasses nearly every genre imaginable in reconstituted contexts). His 12th studio record (give or take; there’s a lot of self-released items from 2010 until his 2015 Matador debut) feels transitional. He introduces electronic elements into his arsenal of tricks that never detract from his indie rock bona fides; and his more pop-centric cuts here — the buoyant “Can’t Cool Me Down” or The-Strokes-humping-MGMT of “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” — would be full-on indie pop if he’d drown his vocals in heaps of echo. (Thankfully, he has the restraint not to traffic in that already tired trope.) I find it comforting that many of his fans are grousing over this one. It means that he’s in that career space where he’s outpacing his cult and gaining traction in the mainstream. And I doubt he cares one whit. He did this all by himself for long enough not to take any of it too seriously. I only wish his experience in “Hollywood” — a standout track here — isn’t as dire as he makes it out to be. But that’s a by-product of the “Famous” which he’s well aware he’s on his way to becoming.
7. Populous – W
Andrea Mangia is an Italian musicologist and producer active since 2005. Yet he flowers on his recent W, a world music exploration infused by a queer sensibility that transcends language and expresses itself in the rhythms of an international dance floor. The smooth indie pop of “Out of Space” with vocals by Cuushe; the motoric heart of the Kraftwerkien “Roma” featuring Matilde Davoli; and, especially, the ballroom burn of the fabulous “House of Keta” featuring M¥SS KETA & Kenjii — all speak volumes about diversity and inclusiveness. Where better to display your true colors than in the comfort of a pulsating, sweaty club?
8. Katie Dey – mydata
This transgender Australian traffics in experimental pop music that’s grown more palatable with each release. mydata, her fourth record, continues to play with sonic flourishes and altered vocal tones, though it’s approachable and generous with melody and hooks. Unlike Kim Petras — whose commercial music is refreshingly professional and built for maximum impact — Dey comes across like Grimes playing in the pop sandbox. She’s still wildly eccentric and drawn towards the awkward contours of her tunes, though she bends just enough to cultivate a larger audience. So for every “difficult” piece of work — like the squelchy technological breakdown of “Leaving” — there’s an easier counterpart, like the joyful indie pop of “Dancing.” It’s the Trojan horse created to deliver a message of acceptance that might not normally get to a more close-minded listener. And it’s necessary.
9. Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’s transformation from soft-voiced indie balladeer to full-throated indie rocker is complete with his fifth release, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. This wounded bird is now a spectacular beast of prey. (His new muscular body is physical evidence of this as well.) That’s not to say he’s abandoned what brought him to attention — that tremulous sensitivity that was his both his shell and his armor against the cruel world — but that he’s augmented it with a musical scope that’s grown more elaborate and expansive since the haunting sparseness of his debut, Learning. I love the deceptive drone of “Just a Touch” that pierces the surface when Hadreas soars into falsetto. The grunge strut of “Describe” is the best reason to reevaluate the pleasures of ’90s alternative rock. And the ebullient “On the Floor” seemed beyond him just a few years ago: a nearly funky slice of lost love that undermines its thematic sadness with a groove that just insists that in the face of conflict, you just have to keep moving on.
10. Matt Katz – All Them Princes: Vol. 1
Brooklyn-born and Oregon-based Katz is a compositional throwback to singer-songwriters of yore — Joni Mitchell, for certain; early Rufus Wainwright; maybe some Van Dyke Parks and even, hell I don’t know, the soft pop of The Carpenters. He’s tuneful and he knows his historical references (beyond the four originals on this introductory EP, he’s a master at covers from Roxy Music to Stephen Sondheim that you can pull up on YouTube). And while that might make him seem like a man out of time, there’s an audience out there for this — witness Lana Del Rey’s Laurel Canyon homage of the Grammy-nominated Norman Fucking Rockwell. Each song about a different man — each a Prince (though not the Prince) according to Katz — that have shaped his journey thus far. And it makes us hungry for the next installment to come. (“Terrence”; “Exposé”)
10.5. Cub Sport – LIKE NIRVANA
An Australian indie pop band with a gay married couple — Tim Nelson (vocals/keyboards/guitars) and Sam Netterfield (keyboards/vocals) — as half of its membership, they’ve grown as a band and as human beings since the release of their debut, This Is Our Vice, in 2016. They’ve released new material roughly every 14 months, and the more Nelson has opened up about his struggles coming out, his love and ultimate union with his bandmate, and his resistance to the gender binary, the stronger they’ve become as a band. LIKE NIRVANA wastes no time in getting right to it with the slow burning “Confessions“: “The truth is I don’t wanna be one of the boys / The truth is living by a gender makes me feel annoyed / The truth is I still don’t feel like I fit in anywhere,” sings Nelson through a prism of distorted vocals and minimal electronics until his confusion and discomfort can no longer tolerate its self-imposed and societal oppression. He’s confident enough to essay an old-school ’80s ballad like “Be Your Man” that questions the very essence of what those three words can mean. And he’s fast becoming a confessional singer-songwriter as smart and impactful as Matthew Healy of The 1975: the kind who takes the painful (and sometimes funny) details of their own personal experiences and transforms them into universal anthems for the other sensitive, questioning, still growing and learning young folks (and those of us long past that time) who are drawn to their vulnerability.