May 28 2020 – Matt Rogan
The music industry has seen a revival in concept albums. In the current streaming era, where chart-chasing singles are far more accessible than the commitment of a forty-minute album, it’s a welcome return to form. As society has made huge social and scientific advancements, we’ve seen how our art has been influenced by it. Artists now have a platform to not only use, but to advocate on. If art imitates life, then contemporary music mirrors our social landscape.
Underlying messages in music are becoming more popular and political. Whether it be as a springboard for mainstream attention or a form of therapy for the artist themselves. Inspired by this, we take a look at the four most critically acclaimed and socially conscious albums of 2020 so far.
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
In her eponymous debut album, SAWAYAMA, Rina Sawayama carves a name for herself in the alternative pop scene. As a British-Japanese bisexual, the struggled upbringing of aligning both her sexual and racial identities bleeds into her music. Though upbeat in its sound, it’s clear that unravelling her suppressed identity has informed this album’s declaration of defiance. Reflective of her multi-faceted persona, SAWAYAMA experiments with a range of genres, from RnB, to bubble-gum pop, to nu-metal and more.
It is a journey of self-discovery and self-care. Now unapologetically herself, Rina takes control of her own narrative and her heritage becomes a badge of honour rather than a burden of shame.
Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
Despite the infamy that comes with being Mrs Elon Musk, Grimes has already established herself as a ground-breaking and genre-bending musician. In promotional interviews for Miss Anthropocene, Grimes explains that her creative vision was to‘make climate change fun’ in order to ‘find a way that’s useful to society’. Surprisingly, through allegory instead of reality, she is able to illuminate these important issues rather than trivialising them.
The songs are theatrical and whimsical but the subtle ironic nod to our ongoing situation (specifically, ‘Before the fever’) strikes as a cautionary warning to its listener. The album is deliberately incohesive and it becomes a fitting statement on the chaotic world Grimes is dedicated to salvaging. As pop’s new ethereal supreme, Grimes proves that the best pop songs are the ones that can get you both moved and moving.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple is no stranger to social distancing. Having spent 8 years away from the spotlight after her last album rollout, she returns in determined disarray. Apple has no social media and is famously selective of any publicised media appearances – being in the industry for nearly 25 years has afforded her to do so. Yet even she recognises the importance of questioning social injustices.
Especially in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, Fiona questions what we do with the freedom we are allowed. She sings about how the illusion of freedom can often restrain us if we allow it to pacify us. Gender equality still needs to be fought for, and not to be perceived as a battle already won. In splattered symphony, she howls and hurls her feminine rage into a processor of rousing lyricism and intense percussive beats. She finds that freedom is messy. But on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona consolidates her messy freedom by embracing its beauty.
Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
Wrote and recorded completely in quarantine, Charli XCX’s new album is as timely as it is futuristic. Back in March, and on her own accord, Charli announced her desire to release and document an album from scratch by the end of May. She has posted early song demos, created a contact email for artistic collaboration and even video-called celebrities and fans on Zoom. Charli has remarkably shared and sculpted a whole body of work in real time with real innovation.
For such an intimate record that covers personal anxiety to romantic heartbreak, How I’m Feeling Now exists in an extremely socially aware context. The result of which is a disorientating trip of the highs and lows of life in lockdown. Charli is undoubtedly a new-age popstar. A millennial marvel that moulds her own soundscape. When we needed it most, Charli rebooted the internet.
Albums have become artefacts of our social climate. Having a platform, no matter the size or scope, will amplify your voice. There is a power in positive messages that can’t be drowned out by negative noises.