In 2020 more than ever I found myself listening to old favorites rather than seeking out new stuff to enjoy. 80's pop, classic old-school rap, and 80's metal were all reminders of easier times, and that was where my refuge lay. And yet... there was some new stuff which crept into my listening, so here we go...
THE TEN BEST...
#1 Plastic Hearts by Miley Cyrus
I have made zero apologies of my love of all things Miley Cyrus. I loved her through her Hannah Montana years. I loved her as she went full-on rebel mode to escape Hannah Montana. I loved her when she dipped into country. And I love her now that she's taking a welcome plunge into classic rock with a pop edge to it. You can feel her influences for Plastic Hearts which is free of missteps but definitely has a stronger set of tracks to it. And if you don't think I lost my mind when she performed Blondie's Heart of Glass at the iHeart Music Festival, then you don't really know my musical tastes very well, do you? In any event, she's still got that million-dollar-voice that I'm completely addicted to no matter what form it takes.
#2 Shore by Fleet Foxes
Playing right into my dream-pop-loving hands, Fleet Foxes decided to craft an album that comes dangerously close to the sublime dreamy headspace that sends you to another world so effortlessly. I am scared to look at the play count for Shore but I'm sure it's substantial, as it inevitably gets requested when I'm sitting down to work. I work quite a lot, and so...
#3 What's Your Pleasure? by Jesse Ware
I am not really sure if this dance-pop miracle is reaching so far back that it's got disco in its DNA, but it sure feels as though that's the case. Filled with one great track after another, Jessie clearly had a vision for this album which paid off beautifully. Nothing here is going to blow you away lyrically, but the tracks transcend any failing by compelling you to move while you listen to them.
#4 Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa
And speaking of disco DNA, look no further than Dua Lipa's latest to hear exactly how pop tracks can plunder pop hits from the past to create songs built for heavy radio rotation (not that there's anything wrong with that). This is dance-pop wrapped up in everything bright and pretty but somehow still satisfies.
#5 Southside by Sam Hunt
As Country music starts adopting a pop sensibility, I find it popping up in my music more and more (Kacey Musgraves's album Golden Hour was my second favorite album of 2018). Sam Hunt not only has a great voice, but he is really inventive in how he crafts his songs. Some of it could almost be described as contemporary Country blended with 70's soft rock blended with 80's hip-hop blended with 90's pop, and I'm here for it. I remember that the single Downton's Dead actually dropped a long while back(?) but was apparently a single release until it found its way onto this album.
#6 Fun City by Bright Light Bright Light
Rod Thomas has blessed us with another retro dance-pop creation that sounds as if it was lifted wholsale right out of the early 1980's and, though it is a pretty great album in its own right, much of the time it had me reaching back for 2016's Choreography immediately after listening. I don't know that it's because I prefer the earlier album... or if it's because this album just isn't enough. Regardless, I found myself addicted to Bright Light Bright Light most of the year. As if that wasn't enough, Rod dropped what has to be one of the gayest mainstream music videos I've ever seen. And I mean that in a good way. No, seriously, it's super-cute.
#7 Notes on a Conditional Form by The 1975
Their first two albums, The 1975 and I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, cemented the band as one of my all time favorites. Track after track after track they were powering through some of the most brilliant pop I had heard in ages. But then... A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships gave me pause. It was enough of a departure from formula as to be jarring, and I wasn't sure I liked it. Sure there were tracks that fit nicely into what I love about their music, but it just wasn't enough. With Notes on a Conditional Form it's like they took a half-step back maybe? Still not capturing the magic of their first two albums, but there's enough within this 22-track(!) release once the introduction, musical interludes, and faux Marilyn Manson track People are deleted to keep me happy.
#8 Hotspot by Pet Shop Boys
Add another album to 2020's disco album train. I have long since accepted that I will never again get a Pet Shop Boys album where Every. Single. Track, is my favorite song ever. The last one of those was Yes in 2009, and before that was Very in 1993. And yet... this hasn't kept them from continuing to be one of my favorite bands of all time. Fortunately they are prolific enough that I can pretty much just smoosh the best of two releases together and come up with enough tracks to create an album I enjoy (I did this with Elysium and Electric from 2012 and 2013). And here we are again. By combining the best of Super (2016) with the best of Hotspot, I once again have another great release from Pet Shop Boys (though this one took a while to complete given their timing).
#9 RTJ4 by Run the Jewels
Every time Rap or Metal hits my list, people are somehow still surprised to learn that I listen to it, let alone like it. Probably because it's the complete opposite of the pop musings that dominate my musical habits. Well, what can I say, there are times I want to have my utter contempt and disgust of this fucked-up world attacked with a viscious melodic beatdown, and that isn't coming from any pop album. Run the Jewels remains one of my favorite groups, and every reason why can be found on RTJ4. Socially relevant commentary rarely sounds this good.
#10 folklore/evermore by Taylor Swift
My favorite album of last year... by a wide, wide margin... was Taylor Swift's Lover. The woman just knows how to craft a pop song that knows how to push every one of my buttons. So imagine my delight when she unloaded folklore as a surprise album release in July! Then imagine my actual surprise when she released yet another album this month! But, alas, they are not what I'm really looking for from Taylor Swift, so neither of them really did much for me. I mean, sure, there are some tracks that I enjoy (see below) but folk and folk-pop are just not something I enjoy, even when they're really pretty and well-constructed like this. Oh well. Maybe after the pandemic is on its way out she'll resume her "pop reinvention" phase and I can go back to hanging on her every lyric. In the meanwhile, I deleted half of the tracks from folklore and half the tracks from evermore and got an album strong enough to still make my list.
FAVORITE VIDEO OF 2020...
Take Me Home for Christmas by Dan + Shay
Being barely familiar with Dan + Shay (they're the "Tequila song guys" to me), you might as well have knocked me over the head with a snowman when I was watching the holiday rom-com Dashing in December only to have this infinitely catchy Christmas track pop up. I've listened to it at least a hundred times in the span of a month and love it more with each new listen. AND THEN I found this really great video, which is about the sweetest thing ever. I really have to remember to look up more of their stuff, because if this is any indication I've been seriously missing out...
ALSO WORTH A LISTEN...
A few more albums I found myself enjoying in 2020 can be found in an extended entry.
After Hours by The Weeknd
I am not a huge fan of The Weeknd, but the guy knows how to craft a song, that's for sure. After Hours infamously got snubbed by the Grammys, which is odd given the competition. In any event, I would have nominated this for Best Album based on one track alone... Save Yours Tears. This sublimely beautiful and haunting song was on continuous repeat for me once I heard it. The Weeknd went high-concept with a series of videos which had him getting beat up, being covered in bandages, and getting plastic surgery. It was a fun ride, but kinda distracted from the music, in my humble opinion. As it were, there's only three songs on this album that I ended up playing over and over... Bright Lights, In Your Eyes, and Save Your Tears... if the rest of the tracks were in this vein, After Hours could have easily topped my list this year. (I am replacing the lyric video below with the "official video" that dropped on January 5, 2021).
Rare by Selena Gomez
I had to go back and see when the last album release was by Selina Gomez and was surprised to see that it was 2015(!). I honestly don't remember much about it, but there's plenty to remember on her latest album. When the track Past Life hit this Summer, I had it on repeat an embarrassing number of times. It's lush, heartfelt, and beautiful without dropping to annoying levels of sentimentality. Overall, Rare is a winner, even if the track Boyfriend seems like a bit of a copout.
Chromatica by Lady Gaga
I am most definitely not a Lady Gaga fan, but have always appreciated her talent because her music is always so close to the kind of brash pop tunes meant to be blasted to the cheap seats that I enjoy so much. So imagine my surprise when she finally broke down my resistance with Chromatica. Ditching the absurdly misplaced "art is music is art" thing she's had going on from the start... but still being wildly creative visually, there's not a lot here to dislike. From the minute I saw Stupid Love hit my Facebook feed (complete with its stupid intro because I guess old habits die hard), I had a feeling I'd enjoy the forthcoming album. And here we are.
Disco by Kylie Minogue
In a year when absolutely everybody in pop was channeling disco, Kylie just came out and unleashed a disco album proper. Problem is... the pop isn't shining through like it does in so many others which leaves a cruel disco retread that doesn't have enough... something... to keep me interested. Still, there are highlights that makes me not hate it. Say Something is my favorite, and I listened to it almost every day of November, I'm sure.
Positions by Ariana Grande
It's been a bit strange to hear Ariana Grande's music shift more and more mature while her voice stays firmly planted in her earliest days. With Positions she goes full-on R-rated and skirts on X-rated way too close for suburban American moms, I tell you what (seriously, the track 34+35 is sex in song form). That being said, few artists today can ooze out sultry songs like this, and it's a beautiful piece of work.
Suddenly by Caribou
I am not a huge electronica fan, finding it more annoying than music I want to listen to, but Caribou managed to release something that didn't immediately turn me off with Suddenly. Granted, I definitely have to be "in a mood" for it, but there are some nice tracks that made it to my Prime Unlimited playlist, so I feel a shoutout here is warranted.