2020: A Themed Recap of the Year’s Pop Releases (Part One)

2020 has been an awful year for many. It was a year of much despair and loss. However, there’s a gleam of hope amidst all this chaos. Rays of light that seem to help coax us in the darkest of times and elevate our spirits to places we would never be able to travel to otherwise. 2020, dare I say, has given us the blessing of good music.

The pop landscape has been exuberant this year. In fact, the pandemic couldn’t even hinder the countless releases of sheer excellence and innovation in music. Hence, I have taken the liberty to recap a thematic highlight reel of the 20 best pop projects of 2020. 

Here are the first 10:

Introspection

Halsey: Manic

Cover art for Manic & Promotional photo of Halsey, Source

“I’m bursting out of myself,” Ashley Frangipane confesses on the first track. Manic takes us on a 16-track autobiographical journey behind the pop-star that is Halsey. It brilliantly captures her ambition, heartbreak trauma, miscarriage, anxiety among many other forms of manic. She demonstrates this by bouncing from one genre to another within the same album. 

Lauv: ~How I’m Feeling~

Cover art for ~How I’m Feeling~ & Promotional photo of Lauv, Source

Modern existentialism runs rampant throughout ~How I’m Feeling~, to the point where Lauv himself exclaimed “only I would have THREE songs on a single album with the word ‘lonely’ in the title.” It’s an album that questions the validations of oneself, with its profound examinations of identity crises in this age of social media. Relatable AF, if you ask me.

Self-discovery

NIKI: Moonchild

Cover art for Moonchild & Promotional photo of NIKI. Source

Indonesian rising star NIKI projects her innermost strengths, layered with a fantastic mystic concept on Moonchild. She weaves a narrative of her metamorphosis, journaling a character arc from uncertainty to self reassurance. She sounds confident yet graceful where her lightweight vocals tiptoeing on glimmering, brooding productions. The highlight of the album takes place back to back on “Tide” and “Pandemonium”, as the intensity of the former track fades out into the serenity of the latter.

Duality

Ellie Goulding: Brightest Blue

Cover art for Brightest Blue & Promotional photo of Ellie Goulding. Source

After the rocket rise of “Love Me Like You Do”, Ellie Goulding found herself in a dilemma: to chase after the trends of mainstream pop, or to return to her folk-electronica roots. Brightest Blue dapples with the duality of her identity. On one side, we get an introspective look of Goulding, and sounds reminiscent of the soul-searching and heart-wrench of her 2012 release Halcyon. On the other, we’re offered a compilation of her catchy pop-star collaborations (Lauv, Juice WRLD, blackbear). All in all, these two sides paint a brilliant portrait of who she is.

Escapism

Taylor Swift: Folklore + Evermore

Cover art for Folklore & Promotional photo of Taylor Swift. Source

“My mind turns your life into folklore”, Taylor Swift sings on “Gold Rush” (which is perhaps one of the prettiest songs she’s ever released in a while). It’s a brilliant sum-up of the two surprise albums where her storytelling heavily focuses on inter-related mythologies and fictional stories. For many, both Folklore and Evermore have been a place of comfort and solace in the pandemic. The albums’ minimalist production and slower pacing, along with Swift’s expressive vocals provide for a dreamy and mystical sonic experience. Swift’s songwriting has reached undisputed new highs in her 14-year long career, and it only will go up from here.

Cover art for Evermore & Promotional photo of Taylor Swift. Source

Danceability

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia

Cover art for Future Nostalgia & Promotional photo of Dua Lipa. Source

When life hands you a pandemic, why not bring the club to the comforts of your very own home? Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia blew the pop scene away this year, some might even say she spearheaded the disco revival in 2020. With banger after banger (“Don’t Start Now”, “Physical”, “Levitating”), this 11-track dance-ready album might just solidify her spot as pop’s most prominent stars, alongside the prowesses she cites as influences for this project: Madonna, Gloria Gaynor and Kylie Minogue.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica

Cover art for Chromatica & Promotional photo of Lady Gaga. Source

If Earth doesn’t cut out for you, take a trip to the planet of Chromatica! Lady Gaga packs the album with club-ready numbers that mark the return of pre-Joanne Gaga: maximalist, colorful and unapologetic. The songs are euphoric, surrounding themes of resilience, healing and triumphs over trauma. Her sole live performance of the albums’ tracks at the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards proves that this project was made for the dancefloor. Even if we can’t soak in the euphoria of Chromatica in a sweaty jam-packed club, we can still dance the pain away at home.

Social commentary

Rina Sawayama: SAWAYAMA

Cover art for SAWAYAMA & Promotional photo of Rina Sawayama. Source

2020 saw the release of SAWAYAMA, which is a culmination of arena rock grandeur and infectious pop statements. Rina Sawayama blends genres and tongue-in-cheek lyrics like nobody’s business – “my fine couture is your branded repayment”. She goes on a rampage, charging head-on towards a diverse range of topics such as capitalism (“XS”), climate change (“F*** This World”) and even her experiences of racist microaggressions (“STFU!”). The satire in her social commentary is an appropriate one indeed, especially in the chaos of this year.

The 1975: Notes on a Conditional Form

Cover art for Notes on a Conditional Form & Promotional photo of The 1975. Source

The 1975 doesn’t ever shy away from potentially controversial confessions. Climate activist Greta Thunberg opens Notes on a Conditional Form with an urgent reminder of how it’s time to incite civil disobedience to spark effective social change. The band builds up on that momentum and follows it with a scattershot set of 20 songs. Unfiltered moments of paranoia, masturbation and revolution go side-by-side with sonic elements of house, industrial rock and country. It’s an uncertain and messy record, and that’s why it never felt more honest and timely than ever.

There are so many more pop projects that I adored this year but couldn’t fit in the list. So, here are some honorable mentions:

All album art sourced from Apple Music.
  • Selena Gomez: Rare(Deluxe)
  • Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
  • Conan Gray: Kid Krow
  • Wallows: Remote
  • Alextbh: The Chase
  • Troye Sivan: In A Dream
  • Kylie Minogue: Disco
  • Little Mix: Confetti
  • FLETCHER: The S(EX) Tapes
  • Shawn Mendes: Wonder
  • HONNE: No Song Without You
  • HAIM: Women In Music, Pt. III

Here’s a playlist of some of the standout tracks from the albums aforementioned:

Read Part Two here!

Written by Brendan Chew Yiun Cherk

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