Pop music can make you sweat. Pop music can sometimes make you shed tears. Pop music can change lexicons, unite fandoms, and even be a vehicle for change and progress. It endures ridicule, embraces camp, and — at its very best moments — changes the way we think about music in general. In 2020, perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, pop music did all of those things and more, punching well above its weight as the world dealt with societal, systemic, and economic challenges. We can’t go clubbing anymore, but that’s not stopping us from popping earbuds in and having a dance party on our own terms.
As the world adjusted to a new way of life amid the coronavirus pandemic, pop stars themselves had to think outside of the box, canceling tours of elaborate album cycle plans to go instead virtual — or delaying releases outright. Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande dropped massive records with short notice. HAIM collected two years of one-off singles into what may be their finest work yet. Beyoncé paired a trimmed-down
Lion King soundtrack with a new album-length film to create something genuinely dynamic, now streaming for your family on Disney+, one of the many new media services that grew as millions now found themselves staying at home.
Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion broke through to the pop mainstream without compromising their styles. Charli XCX made an electronic quarantine album that captures the intangible moodiness of what the first few months of quarantine felt like. Harry Styles finally shed his boy band past to score a psychedelic chart-topper. The biggest Western K-pop crossover in history transpired when BTS put out their first English language single, breaking down cultural barriers in the process. Pop idols made huge inroads in getting their fanbases to vote in the 2020 presidential election, and drive-in theaters turned into the hottest new concert venues. Bandcamp generously waived its fees on certain Fridays to give back to musicians whose expected touring incomes had vanished, and artists of every genre made it known that Black Lives Matter and always will.
For many of us, pop music has always been an escape, and in 2020, alone with our loved ones and connected by Ethernet cables, that escape has never been more vital. 2020 was the year that pop music had to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting for us, and as these 15 records show, the best of it proved to be nothing short of transcendent. Let’s celebrate those records that moved us, grooved us, and gave us glimmers of hope in what ended up being the most bizarre years in modern history.
15. Love Fame Tragedy – Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave [Good Soldier]
Matthew “Murph” Murphy of the Wombats somehow finds time to eat and sleep, which is honestly amazing given that it appears he spends 24 hours a day writing self-deprecating dance-rock like his life depends on it. He did it for years with his group the Wombats for a run of brilliant records, but now, under his new solo moniker Love Fame Tragedy, he continues to write excellent self-deprecating dance-rock songs. Maybe having another vehicle away from his main group is what he needed to reignite his creative muse. Still, no matter how he gets there, the result is undeniably satisfying. The choruses are huge, the melodies are catchy on first listen, and the lyrics touch on everything from his own cheating heart to comparing a relationship to a “poorly timed backflip.” At 17 tracks, Wherever I Go, I Want to Leave is a lot to take in at once, but when you’re penning skittering rock bangers at such a rapid pace, who are we to tell him to stop what he’s doing?
14. Mandy Moore – Silver Landings [Verve]
“Somewhere between the demo / And the lonely public eye / So real, real famous / Without even knowing why,” sings Mandy Moore on the song “Fifteen”, a light acoustic number that references her time as a dance-pop starlet in the early-2000s boy-band rush. Understated and self-referentially clever (So Real was the name of her 1999 debut per the above lyric), Silver Landings is easily the most mature record Moore has yet created. It’s relaxed and unpressured given that her Emmy-nominated work in This Is Us means that she doesn’t have to worry about chart success or making a hit single.
Working again with producer/songwriter Mike Viola, her key collaborator on her cult classic 2009 record Amanda Leigh, Silver Landings ends up sounding more like a contemporary Laurel Canyon folk-pop journey than it does an actress vanity project. The echoing vocal stacks on “Easy Target” and reverb-drenched guitars on “When I Wasn’t Watching” sound like nothing else Moore has recorded before. In truth, Moore has been working as a serious performer and songwriter long before her acting career took off, and with Silver Landings, it feels like she’s finally come into her own as an artist. A nice Landing indeed.
13. NZCA Lines – Pure Luxury [Memphis Industries]
For awhile, NZCA Lines’ Michael Lovett and his creative partner Charlie Alex March created some groovy neon synthpop that was catchy if somewhat fleeting. Wrapping their simple-but-syrupy grooves around a few prominent sci-fi themes, the group’s sound was immediate if also a bit emotionally cold. With Lovett now taking writing and producing primarily by himself, NZCA Lines’ third album, Pure Luxury, absolutely bursts with life and color. Lovett swaps out basic synth loops for colorful keyboards, thick basslines, and a much more mature songwriting approach. His influences move from Erasure and Depeche Mode to instead encompass his love of all things Prince, Beck, and Queen at their most egregiously ’80s.
While the opening title track may be a disorienting cataclysm of too-many-ideas-at-once, Pure Luxury soon settles into a funky party groove that’s unafraid to embrace the campiness that was always lurking underneath NZCA Lines’ sound. The moody strut of “Larsen” is the kind of song the NZCA Lines of old could never pull off, and the slinky synths on “Opening Night” emit dangerous sexual energy. With Pure Luxury, NZCA Lines’ freak flag is flying high, and for a good reason: Lovett has just made his hands-down best record.
12. Little Dragon – New Me, Same Us [Ninja Tune]
Having formed close to a quarter-century ago, it’s fair to think that one of Sweden’s most beloved alternative-dance exports, Little Dragon, have explored the depths of their sound, frontward and backward, several times over by this point. However, anyone who knows the band knows that they play by their own rules, bending their sound to the breaking point and constantly rewriting the concept of genre. Their last record, 2017’s underrated Season High, flirted with alternative R&B and minimalist textures.
For New Me, Same Us, their sixth full-length proper, their songcraft draws heavily on funk and dub stylings, although filtered through their distinct pop perspective. Flutes and string sections accent deeply romantic grooves and Yukimi Nagano’s ever-flexible voice, which can be anything from a husky whisper (the dry closer “Water”) to a hushed falsetto (the minor-key pop miracle that is “Every Rain”). “I feel good / My life is about to explode!” Nagano says at the start of “Kids”, and she’s right: her life — and your eardrums — are about to go incredible and unexpected places.
11. Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine [Skint]
Beloved Irish disco oddball Róisín Murphy has garnered acclaim for her forward-thinking pop music. Still, despite a devout following and even a Mercury Music Prize nomination to her name, she’s always been more of a cult sensation than a major cultural force. WithRóisín Machine, her fifth studio full-length proper, all of that has changed. Maybe it was the goodwill she gained after guesting on two tracks of DJ Koze’s 2018 masterpiece Knock Knock. Or maybe it was dropping an endlessly replayable dance record at the perfect moment in the middle of global quarantine. Whatever the case is, Róisín Machine is a killer disco record.
At some points, it’s hypnotically psychedelic (like on the eight-minute opener “Simulation”). At others, it engages in adrenaline-powered hyperdisco (the roaring closer “Jealousy”). After all of that, it’s still unafraid to open up its frothy exterior to show a real, vulnerable heart beating underneath (like on the untouchable “Something More”). In a career that’s careened from one critical high to another, Róisín Machine became her highest-charting album to date, proving that after all her years in Moloko and then as a solo artist, Róisín Murphy’s moment has finally arrived.