The year is now over.
I would say “thankfully,” but we should probably learn by now not to pile all of our hopes and dreams into the New Year. Let’s make like Mariah Carey and proceed with caution into 2021, instead. How about that?
What 2020 failed to provide in stability or sanity, it made up for in the music. Pop music thrived throughout the past twelve months, largely offering some of the most imaginative escapes and greatest, gayest dance-pop and disco records still due to be properly appreciated once the bars and clubs are open once again.
You already know the drill: these are my personal (raw) 10 picks for the year – the top albums that got me through it, for various reasons. There are dozens more incredible records that came out throughout 2020, as covered on MuuMuse. You also already know I hate lists like I hate awards shows (except for my own), but I must be some kind of Masochist, so here we are.
If you’ve followed along for the journey with me this year and beyond on MuuMuse and/or Legends Only, the album of the year – and all the rest of the picks, really – should come as no surprise.
Please let me know your own Top 10 album picks in the comments. Outrage is unwelcome and will be wholly ignored – it’s just not that serious. Without any further ado, enjoy.
BoA, Better (Original review)
Twenty years deep into the game, Kwon Bo-ah made a case as to why she wears the crown and reigns as the Queen of K-Pop™.
Róisín Murphy, Róisín Machine (Original review)
The incomparable, delightfully odd art-pop pioneer blazes her path further with a sweaty, sultry continuous play of bright disco lights and an insatiable desire for more.
Tom Aspaul, Black Country Disco (Original review)
Heartbreak, heading home and finding happiness (and horniness) again: the British singer-songwriter pens a dance floor-ready ode to the queer experience.
Toni Braxton, Spell My Name (Original review)
T-O-N-I: the vocal powerhouse spells out her legend status once again, and dances the night away while doing so.
Annie, Dark Hearts (Original review)
Norway’s “Chewing Gum” crooner and early ’00s blog darling comes full circle after a decade, goes home and explores the ghosts of the past in a musical landscape perfectly suited for the soundtrack of an ’80s movie.
10. Selena Gomez, Rare
Look at her now: somewhere along the way in the past decade, Selena Gomez became the premiere purveyor of good, weird pop. Just ask Britney which “Spanish and a baby” singer’s album inspired her 2016 triumph, Glory. Rare is the sound of Selena leaning even further into the breathy bops and quirky, hiccuping productions as first established on 2015’s Revival with Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels onward, staying vulnerable while doing so. (To that point: “Vulnerable” is one the year’s chill-inducing standouts, easily.) Shaking off that on-again, off-again very public romance once and for all and triumphing over mental and physical health struggles? It still feels so, feels so good to dance again.
9. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Released: June 12, 2020
While the fate of girl groups in the West remains bleaker than ever, one wildly talented sister duo arrived to do it for the girls all around the world, mentored by one of the best to ever do it: Beyoncé. Ungodly Hour is a tight set of modern R&B filled with heaven-sent harmonies and chill, tripping beats that finds the girls all grown(-ish) up from their YouTube cover days, supplying a thoroughly cool, sleek, early ’00s energy musically and visually – think Aaliyah meets The Matrix. The endlessly replay-friendly “Do It,” as well as the thumping, Disclosure-produced title track could and should have been Songs of Summer ’20 in a sunnier parallel universe. And when it came to pandemic performances and photo shoots at home, quite frankly, no one did it better – armed with one extremely versatile tennis court.
8. Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
Released: April 17, 2020
Buy it now on vinyl
Oh me, oh my! After bubbling under for years, Rina Sawayama made her long-awaited debut in 2020 – which also happens to be the year’s best debut in pop. From the confident strut of the ode to the queens “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” to the arena rock-style “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” the maximalist set plays like a frenzied, frothy blast of sticky, Max Martin-style power pop chords and early ’00s J-pop recalling the emotional melodies of Utada Hikaru (her idol!) and crunchy guitar edge of Ayumi Hamasaki, resulting in a cross-cultural blend of queer rage against the “XS” machine that feels both familiar and excitingly fresh.
7. Miley Cyrus, Plastic Hearts
Call it Destiny: Miley Cyrus was born to channel her inner rock goddess, and Plastic Hearts is the best demonstration of that yet. Harnessing her decade-long “Can’t Be Tamed” rebel energy, she slices and dices through ex-flames and the fakes of Hollywood across searing guitars and crashing drums while preserving the pop hooks that made her the superstar she is today. After a summer full of fantastic classic rock covers, one of the year’s best singles (“Midnight Sky”), and endorsements from the likes of multiple legends – from Stevie Nicks to Joan Jett to Billy Idol – the shape-shifting (and wig-changing) Disney alum finally found her lane, and made good on her promise to be America’s next punk-pop sweetheart.
6. Taylor Swift, folklore + evermore
Released: June 26, 2020
A Swiftie I am not, although this year did sort of formally turn me into one. Taylor took ten steps away from “Me!” territory (thank God) and slipped away into the woods at the start of the pandemic, carving out not one, but two stellar exercises in stripped-down songcraft and storytelling. (They’re sister albums, but I’m counting the family as a surprise package deal.) The tracks intentionally centered fictional characters, rather than providing tabloid fodder with her own relationship narratives. Of course, it wouldn’t be Taylor without a billion and one subtle personal references along the way, but taken at face value, these are great songs in their own right, conjuring rose-colored memories of simpler summer days and spooky winter nights. With the Swift (folk)lore and easter eggs added in (there’s a whole love triangle), it’s an exponentially more rich listening experience. The slow lurch of “This Is Me Trying” alone embodied the general mood of this year like no other song. “At least I’m trying…”
5. Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Before birthing our future supreme leader X Æ A-Xii, Grimes delivered a most beautiful and heavy creature in the form of Miss Anthropocene, a grim and dooming concept album loosely based on the “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change,” plus some mid-pregnancy introspection. Filled with the Canadian Art Angel’s signature ethereal coos, the futuristic set alternates between chill soundscapes, including “hard Enya” opener “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” and heartrate-spiking jolts like the Bollywood movie-inspired “4ÆM,” as well as some gorgeous synth-pop throbber moments, including “Violence.” The most chilling standout of the bunch however is “Delete Forever,” a surprisingly simple, mournful ode to the opioid epidemic and all the losses she’s personally felt. One thing’s for sure: Grimes doesn’t ever do dull.
4. Lady Gaga, Chromatica
Released: May 29, 2020
Buy it now on vinyl
Our Stefani Gerrmato. The Italian girl from New York City returned to her dance-pop roots in 2020 for the most unabashed fun she’s had on record in years. She wasn’t exactly having fun tonight, though: Gaga was candid from the start while recording with BloodPop that she was depressed (suicidal, even), and Chromatica was the labor needed to feel the (stupid) love again for her persona and all the pop star trappings that come with the gig. The record is a frantic, don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus whirlwind of early ’90s-inspired club beats, dramatic vocals from our favorite theater nerd, and s-s-sour candy delights aplenty. While she’s arguably promoted her makeup line more than her music in 2020, Gaga still supplied an accidental meme of the year (“Chromatica II”-into-“911”) and a fitting grit-and-bear-it pandemic gay anthem (grab your Chromatica jockstrap!) with Ariana Grande (“Rain On Me”), all while doing some full-circle introspection about how the Fame Monster ate her heart, years later. When Earth felt all but uninhabitable this year, Gaga’s imaginative interplanetary musical escape made life a lot more fun at home.
3. Kylie Minogue, Disco
Our Disco has always needed Kylie, and the Dance Floor Darling came twirling to our rescue on her “Magic” stick once she saw the disco ball-shaped bat signal in the sky. Only two years after taking a detour to Nashville, Kylie quickly and unexpectedly heard the alarm sounded early into quarantine, ditched the twangy tunes, and went scrambling to learn Logic Pro and craft an at-home studio of pillows and duvet covers to put together a classic Kylie no-skips dance record that sonically sits somewhere between Light Years and Fever. With fun, on-the-nose nods to past disco hits and a sense of earnest optimism and loving energy that only our Mighty Aphrodite can conjure, Disco is the essence of the joy of Kylie. Her Infinite Disco remains one of the year’s best virtual concert experiences, and “Say Something” stands out among accidental quarantine anthems as the most sincere, lump-in-throat-inducing dream of a brighter tomorrow. We are so lucky, lucky, lucky.
2. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
Disco that’s done the homework. Jessie Ware returned in 2020 with a studied and sophisticated homage to the legends that have come before with a modern flair, serving up nods to everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire (“Remember Where You Are”) to Fern Kinney (“Save a Kiss”) to Kylie Minogue (“What’s Your Pleasure?”) – and God willing, a destined collaboration with the latter will come by this time next year. A result is a start-to-finish rich sonic experience, filled with Jessie’s signature vocal tenderness drizzled over warm, pulsating beats, easily making it her best outing to date, from the cheeky, “Pull Up to the Bumper”-esque wink-wink of “Ooh La La” to the midnight drama of the Royksöpp-style “The Kill.” What’s Your Pleasure? is not as much a four-to-the-floor sweaty dance floor set as it is best served as the pulsing soundtrack to a poolside party or rooftop soiree sometime off in the (hopefully) not-so-socially distanced future. Disco was certainly top of mind in 2020, and Jessie thoroughly embodied the spirit. A pleasure, indeed. Thoroughly.
1. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
Future Nostalgia is an ambitious title for an album, implying that its contents will be impactful enough to conjure some sentimental memory in the far-off distance. And while the memories of 2020 won’t be quite as warm as the 25-year-old singer likely had in mind while crafting her retro-meets-modern sophomore record, Dua still managed to nail the assignment with a record that lives up to its name.
Future Nostalgia was among the first major pop albums to kick off a most uncertain New Normal (if not the first?), as the music world debated how to proceed while live entertainment came to an abrupt, indefinite end.
And in spite of dropping during peak panic, the rich dance-pop record proved to be just the right at-home musical medicine, providing us with some of the year’s biggest hits, including last year’s still-perfect disco-pop masterpiece “Don’t Start Now,” which has since lived a year’s long life on the charts, and is now a certifiable modern classic.
The hits are fast and frequent, including “Break Your Heart,” “Levitating,” the Confessions on a Dance Floor-adjacent “Hallucinate” and almighty chant-along bout of sexercize “Physical,” my favorite song of 2020. Deeper cuts are still as worthy of single status, including “Pretty Please,” “Love Again” and closer “Boys Will Be Boys,” which found an appropriate forum for its double standard-denouncing message at the 2020 Billboard Women in Music event at the end of the year.
Beyond good songs, Dua proved that the album experience doesn’t have to live and die on a single New Music Friday, and quality music can and should have a shelf life, despite our exponentially shrinking attention spans in a streaming world.
She constantly found new ways to breathe new life into the record – endless live performances, collaborations aplenty, a remix album full of A-list samples and features, a massive year-end virtual spectacle in the form of Studio 2054 – resulting in one of the most long-lasting and thoroughly enjoyable Main Pop Girl™ eras in years. If there’s any album from this year that will genuinely provoke any sort of nostalgia in the future for me, it’s this one.
“I hope it makes you dance and I hope I make you proud,” she tearfully offered on a live stream days after the world largely shut down. Don’t worry, Dua: you did.
These albums are all featured on the MuuTunes Spotify playlist. Subscribe!
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