The musical downpour of 2020 keeps bombarding us with more and more great albums to get lost into. I am personally overwhelmed (in a good way) with all of the amazing tracks that keep coming out. To be honest, I feel I am actually very behind with being up to date with the new releases and this is one of the reasons for this post.
The collection of worthwhile new music this year includes one genre I unintentionally tend to neglect. Despite being the most widespread one, I don’t find it as appealing as some other music scenes and therefore pop always remains on my “to review later list”. In reality, the genre (I hate this word) has a lot to offer – this is why in this blog post I am taking a look at my favourite pop albums of 2020 so far – let’s give the segment the attention it deserves.
I might be late with the reviews but pop does make frequent appearances in my Weekly Music Fix playlist
Pop has always been a very strange classification for me. Nowadays, the image of the style is associated with commercialism, “selling-out”, template-based rhythm, beat, and lyric construction, and generally low-quality substance of music.
Looking at it realistically pop music stands for whatever is currently in demand – this can include styles different from the most commonly associated with pop dance and mainstream rhythms. A quick check-up reveals that the origin of pop as a genre goes back to 1950s – back then pop music was equivalent to rock and roll (also The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, ABBA as the biggest “pop” artists in the next decades).
Naturally, as every music-related matter, pop music evolves with time and changes its shape and form. What was previously associated with melodic riffs, youth-inspired lyrics, and free-spirit mindset had undergone many metamorphoses to shape the image of today’s simple verse-chorus construction and dance-oriented rhythm structure.
I guess different people define pop in different ways – it really is a strange thing to put in a box. But what I find important to point out is that the genre is often underestimated – despite the generally repetitive formula and lack of substance in some songs (and artists) pop has a lot to offer if you stay away from generalization and bias. This is exactly why I wanted to write this blog post – to challenge my understanding of the genre and dig deeper to prove myself there are many gems to be found.
I am ashamed to say I allowed my bias and negative attitude to prevent me from properly exploring the genre for way too long and now I feel the need to catch up on all the great stuff I have been missing.
My list of favourite albums is not 100% refined. I am certain I am missing some on-point releases but those are the ones that I have had on repeat for a while. If you have any suggestions for what I should hear next do not hesitate to reach out and enlighten me, I would be grateful!
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
I am pretty sure the first pop album I heard and instantly loved this year was Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia.
The sophomore record of the rising pop icon lives up to the expectations the title sets. It unveils a nostalgic pop-disco fusion combining a variety of other influences to achieve the quality it stands out for.
Dance-pop is not the only noteworthy aspect – synth-pop, funk, electronic, techno, and even RnB can be spotted in what Lipa herself describes as the record which is mostly inspired by the music that shaped her childhood (which includes styles from the 70s to the 00s). Of course, the modern touch is still present thus the title – Future Nostalgia is a bold unison of retro sounds and modern, futuristic touches to create something completely new.
There is a noteworthy cohesiveness in the entire record and high-quality production as expected from a top-charting pop record. Even the cover conveys the whole idea gracefully with the retro restaurant outfit, vintage vehicle, and subtle modern elements incorporated in the composition.
The sound is definitely what won me over with this one but the themes are also interesting to look into. As one might expect Lipa dedicates a large part of the record to love-related themes, lust, and physical attraction. I have to say they create an irresistible urge to “dance your pain away”.
Tracks like Future Nostalgia and Boys Will Be Boys (purposefully or not the first and last on the tracklist), however, direct the attention towards the necessary female empowerment with condiment statements and bold exposure of actual facts. This makes the record coherent but diverse enough to not get repetitive or boring.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Lady Gaga’s Chromatica is another pop album that took me by surprise. The level of conceptual thinking, production value, and lyrical substance are really impressive. Chrmoatica creates an entire world with illustrative storytelling and honest emotional transmission. How can anyone resist that?
Rolling Stone defined the album as therapy pop and I couldn’t agree more. The themes ranging on this record are entirely powered by Gaga’s personal experience and struggles which is why the songs hit so hard and feel so genuine.
Mental health, depression, loneliness, love and hardship, emotional breakdowns, and distant traumas leading to declining of self-worth are all explored in detail during the tracklist.
What Gaga tried to do, and in my humble opinion succeeded, was create a dimension showing the power of healing and exposing the possibilities of living in equality and acceptance. The record is thematically separated into three parts, each starting with a powerful instrumental interlude and continuing with a set of touching themes.
To make it better, Gaga recruited some serious names in the music world including Elton John, Ariana Grande, Blackpink, Skrillex, Axwell, and others for appropriate contributions in the right types of songs.
When it comes to musical inspiration, Chromatica has a similar vibe to Future Nostalgia – dance-pop, synth-pop, various EDM movements, and funk are easy to notice. The majority of the record plays with the contrast of heavy lyrical content and uptempo beats to symbolize the importance of finding joy and strength in rough times. A truly well-executed peace once again showing why Lady Gaga is and will forever remain one of the most influential artists in the music world.
Selena Gomez – Rare
Well, I already talked about Rare in my Music Overflow of January 2020 blog post but can I skip it when I’m discussing the best pop albums of the year? Not with a clear conscience.
I am not going into details as I already covered the main points. All I want to say is the Rare is one great comeback filled with the necessary empowerment and healing needed after a rough relationship. Selena Gomez stays true to her natural instinct of expressing love-related ups and downs with all their pain and glory.
Despite the overruling of mostly heavy themes explored through Rare, the album certainly achieves an effect of empowerment and liberation which makes it, together with the refined sound, of course, a must-hear in my list.
Taylor Swift – Folklore
Folklore might be the biggest surprise in terms of 2020 music. A certified pop icon turned to indie/alternative inspiration and managed to create a touching record consisting of some really unexpected but truly beautiful songs.
Taylor Swift’s alum number eight is a surprise in many ways. It is the first record taking such a direction and exploring something alien for the artist. It is also a surprise in terms of announcement and promotion – the record dropped without any warning and managed to increase the effect of shock dramatically.
Folklore has the delightful length of one hour divided into sixteen very interesting songs. Most of them have a down-tempo ballad nature with lo-fi beat structure and gracious melodic build-up.
The whole record radiates nostalgia and melancholy with lyrics primarily focused around love-related topics as well as some interesting conceptual ideas. For example, it includes a story about a ghost finding its murderer at its funeral, a teenage love triangle seen from the point of view of all people involved (Cardigan, August, Betty), and other intriguing stories involving widows, alcoholics, and other peculiar characters.
I personally think Swift outdid herself and managed to achieve a one-of-a-kind feat with Folklore. It has the depth, storytelling, and noteworthy novelty her music has never managed to reach before. Even if it remains as a one-time experiment the album will surely be remembered for a long time.
Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA
I came across Sawayama by accident but it didn’t take much to win me over as a fan. In fact, this might be my favourite pop album of them all so far.
The record is a magical fusion of pop with heavy instrumentals and elements of nu-metal, rock, and RnB. Mostly influenced by the signature styles of the 2000s Sawayama features a compelling sound and elevates it with quality lyrical content.
The focus of Rina Sawayama’s full-length debut is a topic which is close to her heart. This is exactly the reason why the artist manages to convey emotions and tell stories in such a powerful way. Rina puts it best in her own words:
Sawayama is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what “belonging” means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.
Most of the tracks are indeed focused on the topic of “family and identity” and a large part of them radiate nostalgia. They also clearly showcase the process of accepting circumstances and finding your true identity that leaves listeners with a feeling of empowerment and hope.
Even though the majority of the record deals with that specific theme, it is anything but repetitive or overwhelming. The diversity of the sound certainly contributes to the effect of newness in each track. However, the topics also twist and turn to hint about the artist’s various points of concern.
XS, for example, boldly tackles consumerism and capitalistic approaches that have ruined society. Fu*k This World also touches on similar topics with the on-point remark towards the messed up way of life we have all adopted and how much it has destroyed our only home.
Social stigmas (Like The Boys), microaggression derived from personal experience (STFU!), good and bad relationships with friends (Bad Friend, Chosen Family), as well as the negative effects of cultural over-obsession without actually understanding the true nature of the given culture (Tokyo Love Hotel) also add up to the pleasant diversity of topics. Those things fuse with different sound influences to make Sawayama the great album it is.
I am personally amazed by the artist – one more record added to the debut hall of fame in my list.
Conan Grey – Kid Crow
I heard Conan Grey a few times before and when I found out he was releasing his debut full-length it immediately joined the 2020 albums I was very excited about.
I think Grey has the potential to achieve a lot with his incredible voice, great musical arrangement, and heartfelt, honest lyricism. Kid Krow is an album which displays all those qualities very well.
The whole record has a very cosy and comfortable feeling – the one that makes you feel at ease and supported in whatever misfortunes might be troubling you. The themes the album explores are strictly personal and inspired by the artist’s experiences which is why the hit hard and feel so comprehensible for the average listener.
The sound of Kid Krow is what I would classify as modern pop – attractive contemporary beats and indie-inspired instrumentals spiced up with rock and dance elements every once in a while.
The record is a teenage pop album, therefore you need to be in a specific mood to fully enjoy it. Otherwise, you risk feeling that is slightly overdramatic. Nevertheless, the good points about it stand strong and are easily noticeable.
Most of the record deals with Grey’s identity and life journey. This includes experiences acknowledging the importance of friendships (Comfort Crowd), teenage love struggles with exceptional storytelling and symbolism (Wish You Were Sober), long-distance relationships (the witty and very well executed interlude Online Love), negativity and backstabbing (Maniac) as well as manipulation and decrepit (Checkmate). Some of the tracks go into an in-depth elaboration of certain topics and each one has the typical for Conan Grey downpour of emotion and strong metaphors to tell real stories.
The rest of the tracklist makes the album even more diverse while sticking to the concept of Grey’s early life experiences – painful relationships are explored in Cut That Always Bleeds, a melodramatic story about cheating in Fight or Flight, the realization that money cannot buy happiness in Affluenza, jealousy taking shape in Heather once again highlighting the artist’s storytelling abilities.
The record fulfils its purpose completely with the last two tracks taking a closer look at the most important aspects of Grey’s childhood – Little League is the necessary nostalgia infused realization that life was simpler and more pleasant when you were a kid. The Story is the most honest work of the artist so far allowing us to take a closer look at his past which makes the end of this particular piece.
Alec Benjamin – These Two Windows
These Two Windows is another debut by a very promising artist. Alec Benjamin shines with a great voice and an admirable ability to transmit emotion.
His first full-length is inspired by his personal hardships. It is quite diverse in terms of themes but each song falls into the category of heartfelt emotional journeys and learned lessons. The personal touches in the storytelling approaches make the album a great delight to explore in-depth.
A lot of indie/alt inspiration is visible as well as a ballad-like structure for most of the songs. This is well-complimented by humble modern beats and gentle instrumentals that perfectly fit the songs.
Alec Benjamin goes into detail about the most recent haunting thoughts he has had including how he deals being stuck in his own head, loneliness, finding help, and suffering heartbreak. These Two Windows also gives attention to the past (as expected from a life-inspired album) and pays a beautiful tribute to the artist’s father at the closing act.
It is, all in all, a beautiful record showcasing Benjamin has a lot to offer to the music world.
Those are some albums currently on heavy rotation in my playlist. Pop music proves to be exceptionally good recently and I am happy I finally decided to dedicate the necessary attention to it. I am sure those albums are just a fragment of the great releases I need to catch up with but I think they are a good start.
I will be on the lookout and keep updating you with my latest favourite discoveries. With so many great albums officially announced until the rest of the year, there sure is a lot more to come.
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