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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
Allie X: Cape God
Meg Myers: Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco I’d Like 2 Go Home Now
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