Pop music can make you sweat. Pop music can sometimes make you shed tears. Pop music can change lexicons, unite fandoms, and even be a vehicle for change and progress. It endures ridicule, embraces camp, and -- at its very best moments -- changes the way we think about music in general. In 2020, perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, pop music did all of those things and more, punching well above its weight as the world dealt with societal, systemic, and economic challenges. We can't go clubbing anymore, but that's not stopping us from popping earbuds in and having a dance party on our own terms.
As the world adjusted to a new way of life amid the coronavirus pandemic, pop stars themselves had to think outside of the box, canceling tours of elaborate album cycle plans to go instead virtual -- or delaying releases outright. Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande dropped massive records with short notice. HAIM collected two years of one-off singles into what may be their finest work yet. Beyoncé paired a trimmed-down Lion King soundtrack with a new album-length film to create something genuinely dynamic, now streaming for your family on Disney+, one of the many new media services that grew as millions now found themselves staying at home.
Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion broke through to the pop mainstream without compromising their styles. Charli XCX made an electronic quarantine album that captures the intangible moodiness of what the first few months of quarantine felt like. Harry Styles finally shed his boy band past to score a psychedelic chart-topper. The biggest Western K-pop crossover in history transpired when BTS put out their first English language single, breaking down cultural barriers in the process. Pop idols made huge inroads in getting their fanbases to vote in the 2020 presidential election, and drive-in theaters turned into the hottest new concert venues. Bandcamp generously waived its fees on certain Fridays to give back to musicians whose expected touring incomes had vanished, and artists of every genre made it known that Black Lives Matter and always will.
For many of us, pop music has always been an escape, and in 2020, alone with our loved ones and connected by Ethernet cables, that escape has never been more vital. 2020 was the year that pop music had to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting for us, and as these 15 records show, the best of it proved to be nothing short of transcendent. Let's celebrate those records that moved us, grooved us, and gave us glimmers of hope in what ended up being the most bizarre years in modern history.
Guitar-Fender-Pink by rahu (Pixabay)
Matthew "Murph" Murphy of the Wombats somehow finds time to eat and sleep, which is honestly amazing given that it appears he spends 24 hours a day writing self-deprecating dance-rock like his life depends on it. He did it for years with his group the Wombats for a run of brilliant records, but now, under his new solo moniker Love Fame Tragedy, he continues to write excellent self-deprecating dance-rock songs. Maybe having another vehicle away from his main group is what he needed to reignite his creative muse. Still, no matter how he gets there, the result is undeniably satisfying. The choruses are huge, the melodies are catchy on first listen, and the lyrics touch on everything from his own cheating heart to comparing a relationship to a "poorly timed backflip." At 17 tracks, Wherever I Go, I Want to Leave is a lot to take in at once, but when you're penning skittering rock bangers at such a rapid pace, who are we to tell him to stop what he's doing?
"Somewhere between the demo / And the lonely public eye / So real, real famous / Without even knowing why," sings Mandy Moore on the song "Fifteen", a light acoustic number that references her time as a dance-pop starlet in the early-2000s boy-band rush. Understated and self-referentially clever (So Real was the name of her 1999 debut per the above lyric), Silver Landings is easily the most mature record Moore has yet created. It's relaxed and unpressured given that her Emmy-nominated work in This Is Us means that she doesn't have to worry about chart success or making a hit single.
Working again with producer/songwriter Mike Viola, her key collaborator on her cult classic 2009 record Amanda Leigh, Silver Landings ends up sounding more like a contemporary Laurel Canyon folk-pop journey than it does an actress vanity project. The echoing vocal stacks on "Easy Target" and reverb-drenched guitars on "When I Wasn't Watching" sound like nothing else Moore has recorded before. In truth, Moore has been working as a serious performer and songwriter long before her acting career took off, and with Silver Landings, it feels like she's finally come into her own as an artist. A nice Landing indeed.
For awhile, NZCA Lines' Michael Lovett and his creative partner Charlie Alex March created some groovy neon synthpop that was catchy if somewhat fleeting. Wrapping their simple-but-syrupy grooves around a few prominent sci-fi themes, the group's sound was immediate if also a bit emotionally cold. With Lovett now taking writing and producing primarily by himself, NZCA Lines' third album, Pure Luxury, absolutely bursts with life and color. Lovett swaps out basic synth loops for colorful keyboards, thick basslines, and a much more mature songwriting approach. His influences move from Erasure and Depeche Mode to instead encompass his love of all things Prince, Beck, and Queen at their most egregiously '80s.
While the opening title track may be a disorienting cataclysm of too-many-ideas-at-once, Pure Luxury soon settles into a funky party groove that's unafraid to embrace the campiness that was always lurking underneath NZCA Lines' sound. The moody strut of "Larsen" is the kind of song the NZCA Lines of old could never pull off, and the slinky synths on "Opening Night" emit dangerous sexual energy. With Pure Luxury, NZCA Lines' freak flag is flying high, and for a good reason: Lovett has just made his hands-down best record.
Having formed close to a quarter-century ago, it's fair to think that one of Sweden's most beloved alternative-dance exports, Little Dragon, have explored the depths of their sound, frontward and backward, several times over by this point. However, anyone who knows the band knows that they play by their own rules, bending their sound to the breaking point and constantly rewriting the concept of genre. Their last record, 2017's underrated Season High, flirted with alternative R&B and minimalist textures.
For New Me, Same Us, their sixth full-length proper, their songcraft draws heavily on funk and dub stylings, although filtered through their distinct pop perspective. Flutes and string sections accent deeply romantic grooves and Yukimi Nagano's ever-flexible voice, which can be anything from a husky whisper (the dry closer "Water") to a hushed falsetto (the minor-key pop miracle that is "Every Rain"). "I feel good / My life is about to explode!" Nagano says at the start of "Kids", and she's right: her life -- and your eardrums -- are about to go incredible and unexpected places.
Beloved Irish disco oddball Róisín Murphy has garnered acclaim for her forward-thinking pop music. Still, despite a devout following and even a Mercury Music Prize nomination to her name, she's always been more of a cult sensation than a major cultural force. WithRóisín Machine, her fifth studio full-length proper, all of that has changed. Maybe it was the goodwill she gained after guesting on two tracks of DJ Koze's 2018 masterpiece Knock Knock. Or maybe it was dropping an endlessly replayable dance record at the perfect moment in the middle of global quarantine. Whatever the case is, Róisín Machine is a killer disco record.
At some points, it's hypnotically psychedelic (like on the eight-minute opener "Simulation"). At others, it engages in adrenaline-powered hyperdisco (the roaring closer "Jealousy"). After all of that, it's still unafraid to open up its frothy exterior to show a real, vulnerable heart beating underneath (like on the untouchable "Something More"). In a career that's careened from one critical high to another, Róisín Machine became her highest-charting album to date, proving that after all her years in Moloko and then as a solo artist, Róisín Murphy's moment has finally arrived.
When not contributing pianos, vocals, and synths to Pinegrove, Nandi Rose Plunkett has been releasing lush, synth-heavy pop records under her own Half Waif moniker for some time now, and with her fourth studio full-length The Caretaker, she's moved into bigger leagues by signing with Anti- Records. It's understandable why she'd generate some serious interest with The Caretaker because it's her biggest, boldest, and downright best album to date. At times mournful, bombastic, colorful, and personal (and sometimes all these things at once), The Caretaker moves from mood to mood with ease, the expert production and Plunkett's careful vocal stacking creating an environment that's as engaging as it is dramatic.
It's a pop record with a real sense of purpose, tackling themes of isolation and community with surprising grit and nuance, at one point even advising to "Feel the love of who you're with / Even if you're all you need." When she gets around to wrapping layers of her beautiful vocal tones around the phrase "feeling it" in the chorus to "Ordinary Talk", it's clear that we're feeling it too. It's an incredible rendering.
When The Lion King: The Gift dropped in 2019, it was clear that Beyoncé wanted to use her platform as part of the cast of one of the highest-grossing films of all time to create something epic in scope that celebrated Black culture. The album was sprawling, but being peppered with so many interludes and dialogue snippets from the film diluted its power. While some of those bits of movie dialogue still made their way back into the Black Is King visual album she directed for the Disney+ streaming service in 2020, this new hyper-colorful epic breathed new life into a record that most people had already forgotten about a year after its release, surprisingly written off as a byproduct of the film's promotional cycle.
Stripped of the interludes and sprinkled with new tracks (including the excellent new horn-driven number "Black Parade"), The Lion King: The Gift [Deluxe Edition] sounds like the Beyoncé record we should have gotten the first time. Danceable, emotional, and littered with superstar performances across multiple continents, this Gift gave us Beyoncé at her most streamlined, borrowing from decades of Afrobeat subgenres to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
While we understand why she chose the Broadway torch song of a ballad "Spirit" as the set's lead single, its tracks like the liquid soul of "Find Your Way Back", the thumping "Water", and the thundering empowerment anthem "My Power" that leaves us with the most vital impressions. It's next to impossible for an album to get a second chance to make a first impression, but when you're Beyoncé, doing the impossible feels like another fun challenge.
Dua Lipa's 2017 track "New Rules" was as slow-burn a pop anthem as they come, as her inhumanely catchy cautionary tale took close to a year after its initial release to finally enter the U.S. Top Ten. Initially dismissed as a one-hit-wonder who wasn't ready for prime time, Lipa took time to work with contemporary legends like Calvin Harris and Diplo to expand her sound and even refine her image, coming back in 2020 as a diva who had something to prove. The cover of Future Nostalgia tells you everything you need to know about the new Lipa: she's found her artistic voice and is fully in control now.
Trading in radio exuberance for stripped-down-yet-powerful arrangements, Future Nostalgia messes with disco basslines and '80s synth-funk in equal measure, even going so far as to rewrite Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" as a carnal dance track that wouldn't sound out of place in a slasher flick. Sure, the record's last two songs ("Good in Bed" and "Boys Will Be Boys") continue to be up for debate as to whether they should've been included, but for a record that contains not only her biggest pop hit ("Don't Start Now") but one of the best dance songs of the past five years ("Hallucinate"), it's clear that Dua Lipa has established herself as a top-tier diva whom we'll be hearing from for years to come. Future Nostalgia doesn't further her young legacy so much as cement it: it's really that good of an album.
Amid the existential horror of a global pandemic, most musicians weren't sure how exactly to handle things now that primary source of income, touring, was no longer viable. Some dusted off old projects that they had been putting off for some time, while others created new albums in these challenging new positions. Over at Polyvinyl Records, known for its unique brand alternative pop, Rainer Maria's Kaia Fischer had a brilliant idea: with the entire Polyvinyl roster now with a free schedule, why not collaborate?
Instead of making a straight-up compilation, cross-pollination was encouraged. Several signed acts -- many of whom have never met each other in real life -- began recording instrumental and vocal parts to email back and forth. The result is a lively indie-rock record with the excitement of the most big-budget pop spectacles. The backward-warped synthpop goodie that is "Somebody Else" is like biting into sonic candy. The easy and delightful singalong of "Some Storms" sees Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids working with members of Anamanaguchi, Psychic Twin, and Mister Heavenly.
For such a vast roster of artists from primarily rock backgrounds, Exquisite Corpse rings with optimism and effervescence that overpowers the circumstances that lead to its creation. Our only hope is that some of these crossover acts continue to work with each other. Make no mistake about their indie pedigrees. Exquisite Corpse is one of the best pop albums of the year.
Melbourne's own Alice Ivy graced PopMatters' Best Pop Albums of 2018 list for an apparent reason: she knew what kind of musician she was. Wrapping smash-and-grab samples, late '90s DJ edits, and a delectable sense of melody around her unique and propulsive dance songs, she created a record that felt fully lived-in, sounding both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. With Don't Sleep, the guest list has expanded even as her sound zeroes in on the club tracks, focusing on making the kind of groovers and shakers that would've killed in a pre-pandemic era.
Cowbell and looped horn riffs dominate the best tracks, like on the groovy opener "Sunrise". But it's Ivy's poppiest moments, like the Teef and TESSA-assisted "All Hit Radio", that sounds like Ivy is having a ball throwing every sonic idea she has at the wall and seeing what sticks. Heck, even when she dips into the guise of a ballad, as she does so tenderly on closing track "Gold" (sounding like a Basement Jaxx downtempo cut in the process), she does so in gorgeous fashion -- and she still can't help but sneak in a thumping backbeat when appropriate. Don't Sleep on this record.
Before the release of 2019's excellent Dedicated, Carly Rae Jepsen claimed to have written over 200 songs prior to creating her generational pop masterpiece Emotion. Such claims bore some truth when a year after Emotion's release, she dropped the lovely EP Emotion: Side B, which contained some of her weirder creations. Now, following the warm reception to Dedicated, she decided to reward her fans with yet another batch of unreleased material in the form of Dedicated Side B.
The key difference this time around is that while Emotion's bonus serving had eight songs, Dedicated's newest expansion pack is a full dozen unheard compositions, including two tracks she worked on with uber-producer Jack Antonoff. Across the board, it's fully-considered, maximalist pop music crafted the way only Jepsen's knows how. From the could-have-been-single that is opener "This Love Isn't Crazy" to the boppy guitar pop of "Let's Sort the Whole Thing Out" to "Heartbeat", the closest she's come to a ballad in some time, all Dedicated Side B does is show how even Jepsen's throwaways are better than most artists greatest hits compilations. Carly: any idea when we're going to hear the rest of that 200 song batch?
Most artists have promotional cycles that last a few months or even a few weeks before a record's release, and that's pretty much industry standard. In the case of Haim's third and best full-length offering, they spent the better part of a whole year teasing out new music, dropping no less than six singles before the release of Women in Music, Pt. III. The trio of sisters got into a bit of a holding pattern with 2017's overbaked sophomore effort, Something to Tell You. There are a rawness and effortlessness to the music of Women in Music, Pt. III that was only hinted at in their earlier work.
Before this record, they never hit a groove as beautifully laid back as on "Summer Girl", never played around with DIY electropop in such a gritty way as they do on "I Know Alone", and never flirted with country harmonizing like they beautifully achieve with "Hallelujah". At 16 tracks in length, it is quite an intimidating record, but when you're writing songs as good as this, why would you ever want to stop? A remarkable confection.
Lady Gaga didn't need to redeem herself, but being Lady Gaga, she did so anyway. While 2016's twangy detour Joanne felt like a somewhat aimless change in direction, her work on the 2018 A Star is Born remake helped thrust her into new artistic realms, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song and netting a nomination for Best Actress. It earned back the trust of some fans who felt she was losing her way. With Chromatica, Gaga leaned hard into the brand of hyper weird dance-pop that brought her success in the first place and effectively gave fans the album they've been waiting for since 2011's Born This Way.
Not a ballad in sight, Chromatica jumps from highlight to highlight. There's the ace Ariana Grande collaboration "Rain on Me" and the deliberate Madonna cosplay of "Babylon". "Chromatica II" features an immaculate transition. "911" is a thumper and of the best pop music moments of this young new era. Chromatica is Gaga's most satisfying record in nearly a decade, proving that no matter whatever extracurriculars she engages in, she never forgot what she made her name on. A classic the second it dropped.
Jessie Ware has always been a dynamite pop performer, her songs radiating a maturity that set her apart in the UK chart sweepstakes. Although she was known for collaborating with many groundbreaking electronic artists, few would ever think of her as an outright dance diva -- at least until What's Your Pleasure?. On her dynamite fourth full-length, Ware reunites with Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford to craft a record that plays with dance music's storied past in a fascinating way, gussying up her influences in contemporary clothing while never once losing sight of who she is as an artist. Vanity 6-styled '80s girl group club numbers? She gladly takes on the role in "Ooh La La".
Trying to one-up Robyn in terms of dancefloor catharsis? That's exactly how the stellar single "Save a Kiss" goes down. Mixing syrupy bass pads with yearning string sections like the best Goldfrapp recordings? Ware could do "In Your Eyes" with her eyes closed. Throughout What's Your Pleasure?, Ware pulls off all of these stances without once showing off for the sake of it: each song is gorgeously constructed and every lyric carefully considered, nodding to the past but styled in her own vision. The album is asking you a question: What's Your Pleasure? Whatever it is, you'll probably find it on Jessie Ware's best record.
Best known for his 2008 worldwide hit "Black and Gold", Australia's Sam Sparro has been making his own brand of literate pop for over a decade, even as each release since his 2008 peak has been met with diminishing commercial response. By the time his self-produced, self-released Boombox Eternal arrived in 2020, barely anyone acknowledged its existence, and it is a damn shame, as Boombox Eternal is the most colorful, joyous, and feel-good pop records released in the last five years. Designed as a love letter to the '80s synthpop and '90s New Jack Swing records he grew up on, Boombox Eternal painstakingly recreates the DayGlo synths and programmed drumbeats of that era to give life to a new set of original songs, and each one, without exception, will get stuck in your head on first listen.
From the explosion of color that is the propulsive dance number "Everything" to the light hip-hop flavors he achieves on the stellar "THE PPL" to the cool synth ballads of "Eye to Eye" and "Save a Life", every song has its own distinct sonic identity. He may sound like Prince on the delectable "Marvelous Lover" and conjures the ghost of Spandau Ballet on "Outside the Blue", but all of these influences feel expertly repurposed, these clear inspiration lives injecting his songs with a vitality that other pop records simply lack. Boombox Eternal is that rare kind of record that you love on first listen and find new things to love about it on each subsequent spin. None of these retro flavors would taste as good had they not been used in songs so carefully constructed, and the end result is the best pop record of this new young decade, full stop.
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