Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2020

This category is notorious for giving me the biggest headache. Between narrowing it down, and choosing honorable mentions, to committing to a list with 30+ mainstream pop albums from the year that I still haven’t listened to, nailing this one down is a marathon that begins in November and leaves me second-guessing through February. But for what it’s worth, here are 10 of the albums I listened to the most this year, in chronological order — why has everything been in chronological order this year? My unconscious motivation has been perfectly and succinctly explained over at Burn Your Hits, who says “I added release dates this year because I think they were especially relevant in 2020 (how quickly was the world ending when you first heard this song?)” — now with extra references to “quarantine,” “escapism,” and “not as good as their last, though.” (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

Rare feels different, not just because fans have been teased with Selena Gomez collabs and feats for years, but because the singer’s statements regarding gossip-heavy story lines involving her life feel more personal than ever. There’s no hidden message or subtext behind songs like “Lose You to Love Me,” or “Look at Her Now,” and even in “Dance Again“and “Rare,” she’s not shy, lyrically, about claiming her own narrative. The album was a strong start to the year, a month we rarely see pop albums from big names as solid as this, and a January that now seems as distant and hazy as your very first day of school. Still, with everything that’s happened in between then and now, this album has remained as accomplished as ever, both for its creator, I’m sure, but also for the listener who appreciates records as brave and open as this.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Out of all the ex-One Direction members’ solo albums, Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather remains one of the best and most underrated. Sure, it’s missing the charisma, charm, and overall controversy-baiting of a Harry Styles, but its dependence on genres like new wave, synth, and acoustic keep the album anchored in time-tested comfortable familiarity. Between the acoustic and the synth sections, I find myself returning to the latter, like the arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” and “Cross Your Mind,” songs the album would have been smarter to crowd out the weepies with. It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released at the beginning of the year can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it unfairly buried.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

The big story in the music world this season was the obvious, and allegedly deliberate, omission of The Weeknd among the Grammy nominees, an omission so glaring that, as Main Pod Girl points out, tips from snub to scandal. Despite anyone’s personal feelings about The Weeknd’s behavior and lyrical content, anyone would be remiss to ignore this album’s stunning production value and national embrace in 2020: “Blinding Lights,” which rolled out at the end of 2019, has now officially lingered in the Top 10 of the Billboard’s Hot 100 longer than any other single in Hot 100 history. Most importantly, it has had the amazing capability to sound as fresh and exciting as it did a year ago when it was first released. While I’m still not sold on the entirety of the first half of this album, After Hours, with all of its interesting, successively topped performances, from fireworks to more fireworks, has slowly won me over during a year when wondering what Tesfaye and Team would come up with next provided much-needed, pleasant distraction. And if it’s true he missed out on noms because he chose to perform at the Superbowl over the Grammys? He made the right choice.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

When every other artist postponed their albums and canceled roll outs, Dua Lipa was the outlier, sending her album out into the world a week earlier than planned, on March 27, in the midst of history-making lockdowns. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but releasing a dance record during a global pandemic, with clubs shuttered and social gatherings verboten, is even tougher. Yet Future Nostalgia pulled off the impossible, streaming into living rooms and headphones with a welcome joy and comfort through its bite-sized, 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths. The album will forever remain “the quarantine album,” but for positive reasons, beaming light and hope into living rooms and kitchens through quirky pop songs about love, lust, betrayal, and the anticipation of the return to normal we can all look forward to if we’re brave and patient enough to meet it.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Despite the hokey, ugly visuals for much of this album cycle, Chromatica has grown on me. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials, drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night,” to Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

I’m still not sure that this album is better than their debut, but Ungodly Hour is so intent on pleasing, it’s hard to ignore its magnetic pull. The album sees two young women now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go. This album shows that the journey to getting there will be as rich as its destination, offering much more than the average pop star ever could — I’ll take the scenic route.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

Jessie Ware brings a levity and seriousness to disco on What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s origins. The attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience is commendable; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too. As my introduction to Jessie Ware, this one has the unintended consequence of setting the bar beyond an ability to surpass.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, Taylor Swift greets us with her disappointment at being snubbed a best-album nomination at the Grammys, determinedly avowing to do better next time. folklore is that next time. As an album, folklore works best when viewed in the context in which it was conceived, produced, and executed: a classic Swift album in texture and sound, but also desperate to please, competing against all of the other women who released career-defining albums this year, but mostly, seemingly, against herself. For better or worse, embracing all of that is part and parcel of Swift fandom. Yet folklore is also an album that has reached beyond the bubble, from everyone to casual listeners, to indie publications who appreciate its slicked-back production and elegant story-telling. It’s a new peak for the writer, who after seven albums, still proves to draw from a bottomless well of inspiration. In a time of endless “quarantine albums,” Swift’s is the ultimate flex, the one that captures what a creative mind can conjure with a solid work ethic, plenty of time, and complete creative freedom.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

positions, while not the best album of Grande’s career, is as consistent as its predecessor thank u next, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level of the year. Listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed, but that ship has sailed in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that flaunts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd. The album could do with a bit more variety and a bit more flesh on its track’s run times, but its warm strings and laid back chill has stayed with me these last few months, a palliative to some of the more frenetic albums on this list.

Kylie Minogue: Disco
(2020.11.06)

Kylie Minogue is first and foremost a pop star, not a disco diva, and the structure of each of the songs on this album keeps her rooted in very familiar territory. Disco joins a long list of club-ready hits from Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Roisin Murphy this year, but besides Lipa’s, Minogue’s boasts the most accessible and the least experimental approach to its revival, a disco album for a general audience content to dabble rather than immerse. It’s an achievement nonetheless, banking on its ability to offer escapism and help put out the dumpster fire that was 2020. In that sense, it has succeeded. As the album I have listened to more than most of the others on this list in the last month and half alone, its ability to provide some sense of obliterating peace cannot be overstated.

Honorable Mentions

Allie X: Cape God
Meg Myers: Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco I’d Like 2 Go Home Now
Cleo: SuperNOVA
Bright Light Bright Light: Fun City
Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

Bonus Track: Top 5 Hard Rock/Metal Albums

As I said previously, I don’t want to do an official top ten for this category this year due to the less-than-usual number of new metal albums I was able to listen to, but for what it’s worth, here are my top five from what I did manage to hear in this category, including what is probably my favorite record of the year. I look forward to disowning a large portion of this list as soon as I tackle all the great releases I missed from numerous, well-curated year-end lists, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some amazing stuff to be heard here.

In This Moment: Mother
Stallion: Slaves of Time
Unleash the Archers: Abyss
Movements: No Good Left to Give
Oceans of Slumber: Oceans of Slumber

June 2020: Highlights

What should be one of the best months of the year for pop music is instead one of the most disappointing. Pickings were understandably slim this June: there’s not much to celebrate; clubs, concerts, and large gatherings of any kind are still verboten; and the fatigue of endless 90+ degree F humidity makes it very hard to appreciate all the sunshine we’re finally getting (at least here in the appears music lounge). That leaves very little inspiration for songwriting or incentive for labels to release jams of any kind. Nevertheless, here are some interesting releases, served for our still-responsibly-staying-at-home consideration — the rest of us can keep listening to Chromatica, I guess.

Jamal Green: Skelattack (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.06.05)

Since Danny Elfman is one of the most well-known and iconic producers of modern film soundtracks, it’s almost cliche to cite him as an inspiration, and borderline psychotic to attempt imitating his sound. Yet Jamal Green does just that for the soundtrack to the video game Skelattack. Full of all the moody atmospherics of the composer’s best horror soundtracks (and there are so many), the music is a fitting soundscape to the inherently all-ages, Tim Burton-theatrics of the game’s spoopy game play. It can all get a bit your local Michael’s Halloween arts-and-crafts aisle, but that’s always been my favorite aisle (outside of October, it’s the pen and marker one).

Cosmic Girls (WJSN): NEVERLAND
(2020.06.09)

There were plenty of girl group comebacks to go around in June — and boy bands too — TWICE, IZ*ONE, and NATURE to name a few. Hot take: All of these were miles ahead of their male counterparts, who keep flirting with ways to sound more like their predecessors, with half of the motivation. As a long-time fan, I’m inclined to think WJSN’s NEVERLAND leads the pack. Though we have yet to receive a genuine, marketed-as “summer single” from K-pop, “BUTTERFLY” soars as close to that burning sun as we might get during this pandemic summer. (But it’s only June! Surprise me!) Still, we could do worse than the pastel brushstrokes all over these breezy watercolors. There’s nothing original about the title or concept art here, a very Anne of Green Gables meets Disney Golden Age, but I get enough pleasure and imagery out of mere words like “beach towel,” “popsicle,” and “Coppertone SPF50” to understand the power of sticking to the traditional, and very safe, playbook, the kind of joy sparked by the powerful pull of word association in touch and taste, in sight and smell, and in sound.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

There are other artists out there who can do what Chloe x Halle do, but few who do it so earnestly. As two young women who debuted at the age of 13 and 15 respectively, we have been given the opportunity to watch them grow, smoothing out the wrinkles of identity and personality that we do. Ungodly Hour sees them now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go; no one emerges a Homecoming-Beyonce before putting in the work of a Destiny’s Child-Beyonce. After naming The Kids Are Alright one of the top ten debuts of 2018, and spending some time with its follow-up, I’m happy to continue keeping my eye on this duo’s evolution and obvious drive not just to create something great, but to contribute something truly unique and singular to the genre.

Poppin’ Party: Breakthrough
(2020.06.24)

Like many anime and game idol-franchises before them, from Creamy Mami to the ubiquitous Oricon presence of iDOLM@STER, Poppin’ Party, the group from BanG Dream!, releases music to the public as any real-life band or idol. They are, after all, backed by real-life seiyuu like Ayaka Ohashi, who enjoy success through the mixed-media marketing strategy that easily parlays into solo careers. Because these groups are a dime a dozen now, and many up-and-coming vocalists will have gotten their start in one of these animated or virtual arenas, the music itself is instantly recognizable: upbeat, rock-driven, and lyrically focused on recurring themes of goal-setting, and the self-determination, drive, discipline, and relentless perseverance that it takes to reach them. Poppin’ Party already released one big compilation of their anthems last year, and it was fairly enjoyable. Breakthrough coasts on the same energy, but unfortunately filters out most of the personality that made Poppin’on! so memorable. This sieve-like effect, where the second round is similar enough to warrant consideration, but missing a vital essence, is nothing new for a concept that is now reaping diminishing returns with the sheer number of more-of-the-same options. It’s a genre in desperate need of some novel, revitalizing gimmick, and one that I eagerly hold out for in between high-quality, but self-congratulatory echo chambers like this.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

It’s nice to get the follow-up to Fever that we all deserve, and it’s none the worse for coming from Jessie Ware, who has released what is the best disco album of the year, and probably decade. This is actual disco, not electro-pop with some strings pinched into the production, or whatever modern K-pop tries to pass off as “disco-inspired” on occasion when it’s better off just being promoted as great pop. Ware brings a levity and seriousness to What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s vintage origins. As someone who grew up with ABBA, I respect and admire the attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

The Japanese idol business has had a steady influence on K-pop long before NiziU, from Girls’ Generation on up, but it’s the sound that seems to be the main talking point with NiziU, who made their (pre-)debut this month with “Make you happy,” the type of throwaway effervescence common among debuts from Red Velvet’s “Haengbok (Happiness),” to the aforementioned SNSD’s “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world).” It’s hard not to root for them when they’re following in such hallowed footsteps. The J-pop connection is a bit muddier; the group sounds heart-whole K-pop here, with the precise cut and paste choreography of their contemporaries. A Japanese word in their name and harmony-less shouts don’t a J-pop idol group make. If anything, this EP sounds a bit like early DalShabet, a “Mr. Bang Bang” send-up that makes me a little achey for a decade ago, when groups aimed to sound more like this all the time than “How Do You Like That.”

Top ten debut albums of 2018

Debut albums are opportunities to establish a voice, a sound, and a vision — a promise of what’s to come. Sometimes this long-labored effort is never replicated again, and what we’re left with is one great moment, no less worthy because of its singularity. Who will be the unlucky few not to make it? That debate is fun, but not nearly as much as watching someone, against all odds, succeed and grow as an artist. If all of us have at least one great work of art within us, these are ten, in no particular order.

Ella Mai: Ella Mai
Ella Mai is the logical love-child of SZA’s breakthrough last year and the lingering chart run of the magical Khalid & Normani duet “Love Lies.” Ella Mai could do without all the cheesy talking (personal pet peeve) and I’m not sure why anyone is still letting Chris Brown be a thing, but this album’s cool evocation of 90’s R&B styles (see “Boo’d Up”) is a lovely addendum to a year full of them.

NINA: Sleepwalking
Italo-disco inspired, heavy retro-pop done expertly, with all the best intentions, from cited influences Depeche Mode and Kavinsky. Don’t expect the latter’s heavier electro bits: this isn’t Drive. It’s more delicate than a lot of the usual from the synth-wave/Bandcamp set, but no less evocative (“It Kills Me”), and no less rich in wistful affection for the kind of dreamy 1980s you can only find in music (“Beyond Memory,” “80’s Girl“).

fromis_9: To. Heart
Melissa Johnson does a phenomenal job tracking all the rookie groups in a given year, and brace yourself: there are dozens. It’s hard to bank on any when so many come and go quicker than mouse clicks, so it’s no use predicting if fromis_9 have any staying power. But they have released two EPs this year, and like many of the recent girl groups before them, expertly re-imagine the best parts of early Girls’ Generation (SNSD): fluffy pop confections lighter than meringue and just as sweet.

Chloe x Halle: The Kids Are Alright
Their 2016 EP and 2017 “not really a mixtape” hinted at what this duo could achieve, but the two young sisters, Chloe and Halle, surpassed expectations with their first studio album The Kids Are Alright. In what is becoming the new-traditional, the girls were discovered on YouTube, but prove they are more than their origin story on this electrifying debut that’s so good you can forgive the typo.

Hayley Kiyoko: Expectations
This personal collection of songs is less specific than it is general, a gift to anyone looking for direction, or even just company. It is wonderful having a person in the mainstream whom someone confused or overwhelmed can look up to, and not only is Kiyoko happy to represent, but like peers Dua Lipa, Kehlani, and Kali Uchis, she shows great potential as a pop artist.

Fickle Friends: You Are Someone Else
This British synth-pop duo have carved a commendable niche for themselves in a genre brimming with second-rate hacks and overindulgent copycats. Perhaps this is because the group is committed to relatable dance-pop gems like “Glue” and “Hard To Be Myself” that express a realness often glossed over as inconsequential, laying bare even the smallest anxieties and truths of the everyday mundane by spinning them into noble anthems that make even the tiniest doubts worth chiseling in stone.

Black Honey: Black Honey
The reissue of Garbage’s Version 2.0 has exposed a void left behind by Shirley Manson’s lithe vocals and industrial-sized rock. Black Honey might not fill that hole perfectly, but they could, and lead single, “Midnight Honey” off of this debut album tells you exactly why. Without losing a sense of fun, Black Honey rocks as hard as any mainstream album released this year.

Laurel: Dogviolet
Bedroom singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, so it takes a lot to stand out from a crowd of pushy opportunists. But Laurel has an ear for melody, one that takes the form of lingering drums and rich piano, of raw guitars pillowed by scratchy vocals. All of these elements come together on Dogviolet, a promising debut album that proves there’s still plenty of room for anyone willing to put in the work to make cliches sound oh so new again.

DIAMANTE: Coming in Hot
Although there’s no shortage of female vocalists in hard rock and metal, most of these powerhouses tend to be found in bands. Very few have made it on the strength of a solo career in the genre. Whether or not DIAMANTE ticks past her fifteen minutes remains to be seen, but Coming in Hot is an especial treat given its draw: there have been many interesting debut albums this years, but none as arresting as this dichotomy — a blue-haired siren delivering tough-as-nails vocals ripped from the throat, straight to your gut. But these are not just the gripes of a teenage brat with a recording contract (and really, it would sill work if it was): DIAMANTE has steel here, in songs like “Bullet Proof,” “War Cry,” and the gritty “Haunted.” It’s the unexpected violence that fascinates, the frustrations of young womanhood given an aggressive, super-melodic outlet with a willingness to fall just a touch too far outside the acceptable, classically-trained, pretty-angry zone that makes it so honest, and so important.

Eves Karydas: Summerskin
When Eves Karydas disappeared to hone her songwriting skills, no one expected her to come back with such razor-sharp precision. Melancholy like Lana Del Rey (“There for You” sounds particularly reminiscent), moody like Lorde, but as charming as Baby One More Time-Britney, Karydas’s debut album is a promising addition in pop’s new emphasis on authenticity and the realities of first-person, lived experience. Summerskin has all of it, and gorgeous melodies on top.

Honorable Mentions

Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville
Frozen Land: Frozen Land
VHS Collection: Retrofuturism
RIRI: RIRI
Party Nails: Past Lives & Paychecks