2020 was the biggest year for pop music in a long time. Every big artist you can think of has released an album this year. The pandemic and the isolation that came with 2020 have given artists the best possible excuse to make music. The music that has come out of this insane, unprecedented year did not disappoint. Despite the fact that many were unable to properly promote their music this year due to the situation and were forced to postpone their tours, they gave us amazing music at a time when we needed it most. Some blended old sounds with new, others became full on rock stars and experimented with a wide array of new sounds and they all did what they could to perform for us from home or through virtual live events.
So, COVID-19 aside, let’s dive into what made this year amazing: the music...
Map of the Soul: 7 and BE - BTS
BTS, like Taylor Swift, dropped not one, but two albums this year.
Map of the Soul: 7 is their most vibrant and captivating album to date. “Boy with luv” featuring Halsey was released in April 2019 and made fans jump out of their seats and very excited for the next era of this K-pop sensation. The blending of musical styles in this album is so masterful, and it is reflective of BTS’ evolution. Virtually every musical genre was used in this album and took listeners for a ride they did not expect. The breakdowns and hype factor skillfully add to the colorfulness of the album, as seen in songs such as “Dionysus.” The interludes are powerful and prepare you to take the ride that is the next chapter of the album. The rock star potential in BTS comes across blatantly in “Interlude : Shadow.” The hard production and marching band-sounding background of “ON” and its breakdowns exemplify BTS’ versatility; the track is both right in the middle of the album and concludes the album in a version featuring Sia. “Friends” highlights Jimin’s amazing and angelic vocals and Taehyung’s deep soulfulness in a playful and anthemic early 2000s pop style. Map of the Soul: 7 really goes to show that BTS cannot be put in a box; they are not merely pop artists, rappers, or classical vocalists--they are all of that and more. They are a powerhouse boy band that transcends every other KPOP group and boy band that came before them and have broken the world music scene with their unmatched versatility.
BE was released towards the end of the year and gives listeners a more toned-down and raw feel of everything that BTS has been through this year with pandemic-related postponements and life in their own little bubble during this time. “Life Goes On” revolves around the idea that life must continue on, despite the craziness of this past year. The music video that came with the song is their most comfortable and intimate one yet, showing them going about their daily lives at home during quarantine and looking on to the future and better times that are hopefully yet to come. “Fly To My Room” gives us some funk with a hard beat and an organ instrumental that surprisingly suits their vocals very well. “Blue & Grey” is a sad ballad which is literally about sadness, something we know all too well this year and it shows that BTS has shared that same feeling. “Dis-ease” lifts you up a bit with some 90s-inspired production and colorful rap verses. “Dynamite” is disco, K-pop edition, and it is their first all English song. The music video, vibrant and visually appealing as always, features BTS doing funky disco dance moves which suit them very well. This is their most fun song and music video, which garnered the most views ever for a YouTube video within a 24-hour period.
After Hours - The Weeknd
Starting off the 2020 trend of retro and disco-influenced sounds, The Weeknd brought back the nostalgic feel of music and mixed it with modern sounds to create a 2020 disco revival that we did not realize we needed.
“Alone Again” is reminiscent of 90s experimental electronic music, which already breaks today’s conventional pop standards and shows the listener that After Hours will be anything but your average pop album. The darkness and contrasting softness of The Weeknd’s voice is littered all throughout this track as well as the rest of the album. “Scared to Live Again” puts forth a tasteful organ instrumental and The Weeknd’s beautiful belting register comes forth on the track as well. “Escape From LA” gives us the album’s first taste of trap and keeps the mood chilled down with some heavier production before moving into the more upbeat bar-spitting track “Heartless.” “Blinding Lights” is the most well-known track on the album, mainly due to its huge Tik Tok fame which allowed it to top the charts throughout 2020. It is the album’s most disco-influenced and catchy track, perfect for a dance to be made from it, as was done on Tik Tok. “In Your Eyes” keeps that same upbeat, disco feel but with a little more lyrical substance and a nice saxophone to allow for a little more flavor and another different style on the album. At this point, the album’s mood has really shifted and becomes more dance-driven and pop-y. The synth-driven indie beat of “Save Your Tears” makes for a lighter feel, bringing us back to the early 2000s pop scene. “Until I Bleed Out” is the most interesting track production-wise with a slow, mystifying beat and haunting vocals.
The Weeknd has set the standard for 2020 music, and Dua Lipa and others to follow further explored the retro feel we all needed to hear again.
Future Nostalgia - Dua Lipa
Dua Lipa, like The Weeknd, decided to bring back and reinvent disco in 2020. Named People Magazine’s number one album of the year, Future Nostalgia came almost three years following her debut, self-titled album, and followed a series of singles she released in between that time, including “Electricity” with Diplo and Mark Ronson and “Kiss and Make Up” with BLACKPINK. The Future Nostalgia era kicked off with the catchy and danceable chart-topping hit and Tik Tok song, “Don’t Start Now.” We could tell right away the direction Dua was headed in based off of this track; she decided to bring back disco in a unique modern, yet nostalgic style at a time when it was severely lacking. This became a trend among artists in 2020, with The Weeknd and Dua paving the way for this new nostalgic and contemporary sound, hence the album’s name. Future Nostalgia was one of the first big pop albums released at the onset of the pandemic and Dua decided to release it a week ahead of the original release date because she and everyone else were feeling like they needed something to make them happy, so she did not want to wait. This, as well as After Hours set off a chain reaction of amazing pop albums to follow in 2020.
The album is littered with a dirty bass and a wide array of retro instrumentals from the 80s and 90s. “Physical” is the most upbeat, energetic song on the album, so the name is very fitting, and it is also a sample of Olivia Newton-John’s 80s hit “Let’s Get Physical.” “Levitating” makes you want to put on a pair of skates and dance under the stars, and the song has been remixed not once, but twice, first with Madonna and Missy Elliott on the remix album Club Future Nostalgia and then with DaBaby--both came with music videos. “Pretty Please” puts a nice, deep dirty bass and intimate vocals at its forefront more than any other track. “Love Again” has a beautiful string arrangement and showcases Dua’s vocals in an elegant way, making this the album’s most beautiful track. “Break My Heart” is even funkier with some heavy bass and layered, more modern pop-driven vocals and came with arguably one of Dua’s best music videos to date. “Boys Will Be Boys” closes out the album with an orchestral arrangement and lyrics that shine a lot of the dangers girls face in today’s society and the importance of teaching boys how to be respectful--a message that Dua, if anything, wants us to take away from the album.
Towards the end of 2020, Dua’s thirst for live performance caught up with her, so she put together Studio 2054, a huge concert-extravaganza that viewers from all over the world tuned into, which featured performances by Miley Cyrus, Elton John, and more. This year, she collaborated with everyone from Miley Cyrus, Madonna, and Missy Elliott to international artists J. Balvin, Bad Bunny, and Angèle, adding to her already sizable repertoire of collaborations. Dua was nominated for six Grammys, which attests to how successful of a year she has had and finally cements her success in the U.S. She broke pop barriers in 2020 and successfully broke into the U.S. and World music scene after years of being popular in her home county, the U.K.
Chromatica - Lady Gaga
The pop queen herself made her return to music with her first studio album since Joanne. The evolution and artistry of Lady Gaga is truly unmatched; she is a force in music and pop culture to be reckoned with. In between the release of Joanne and Chromatica, she performed the half time show at Super Bowl 51, starred in the Oscar-winning film, A Star is Born alongside friend and collaborator, Bradley Cooper, and of course, won an Oscar, proving that she is still a multi-talented icon who can do anything with her talents.
This is an album in three parts, with beautiful orchestral interludes in between that Gaga herself composed. The primary goal of Chromatica is to make us dance to songs that make you feel sad and touch on a topic that is very personal to Gaga, mental health, as she reflects on her own struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction, and psychosis through songs like “911” and “Replay” that highlight her past mental struggles and past trauma. The album includes collaborations with Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK, and the great Elton John. “Stupid Love” marked her highly anticipated comeback along with a desert-based, shot on iPhone music video. The song expresses Gaga’s passion to show love and kindness to all, which are the main drivers of her outlook on life, as she told Oprah earlier this year. In “Rain on Me” with Ariana Grande, there is a double meaning of letting the tears fall (crying) and drinking away one’s problems because it is better to cope and be alive, rather than to hold in one’s feelings and pretend everything is okay, eating one up inside. The pumped beat and intimate feel of “Sour Candy” with BLACKPINK reflect their versatility and make you want to walk down a runway with flashing lights. “Sine From Above” with Elton John is the album’s most mystifying song and its lyrical content represents Gaga’s love for music and appreciation of it as an escape from her inner struggles. She said to Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, that a “sine” wave from above, music, is what healed her and allowed her to dance through all the pain, essentially reviving her. The album closes with its most grand, jazzy, soulful, and in-your-face track, “Babylon,” which makes fun of gossiping and “babbling” through wordplay and puns, once again, making you want to strut on a runway to Lady Gaga’s iconic Madonna-esque speaking vocal.
Smile - Katy Perry
Katy has been through a very tough time the past few years since the release of her last studio album, Witness. She said in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe that this album tells the story of how she got her smile back.
One could say that Katy’s prominence in music is “Never Really Over,” which just so happens to be the name of this album’s lead single and most hard-hitting track. The progression of the album itself is quite telling of what Katy has been through--from her experience dealing with depression as early as the Prism era to all of the relentless criticism she faced during the Witness era. We see a tone shift from sadness to resilience and an overall journey to happiness. As with Lady Gaga’s album Chromatica, this album aims to make you dance to songs with sad undertones--we see this in “Cry About it Later” and “Teary Eyes.” “Not The End of the World” is all about moving past something you thought would be the end, putting on some fancy clothes, and turning your frown upside down. This album was released just two days before the birth of her and husband Orlando Bloom’s first child, Daisy. The song “Daisies” is named after her newborn daughter and conveys a powerful message of succeeding and coming back stronger despite what others say you can and cannot do--an ode to Katy’s career. In the last lyric of the last track of the album, “What Makes a Woman,” Katy says “There it is, Katheryn” in reference to her smile being back again after everything she had been through.
Smile is the best culmination of Katy’s story so far and is her most personal album by far. The production is nothing too special but is just enough to express the raw emotion and genuineness of her journey and personal triumphs, and it makes you want to dance the sadness away. It is true what Katy said--this album will help you get your smile back.
THE ALBUM - BLACKPINK
The debut album of the biggest girl group in K-pop did not disappoint. However, it was nothing like what anyone had expected. Half of the album is fully in English, which was a smart strategy on their part because this way, it reached wider global audiences in order to expand BLACKPINK’s already huge sphere of influence. All four girls--Rosé, Lisa, Jennie, and Jisoo--equally shine on THE ALBUM.
It starts off with the hype banger, “How You Like That” which marked their strongest comeback yet and got blinks more excited than ever for what was to come in their full-length album debut era. THE ALBUM also features collaborations with Selena Gomez and Cardi B. Not only that, but BLACKPINK also collaborated with Lady Gaga earlier this year in Gaga’s album on “Sour Candy” and with Dua Lipa in 2018 on “Kiss and Make Up” so they are no stranger to working with big Western artists. “Ice Cream” with Selena Gomez has a bubblegum-pop sound where Selena Gomez fits in perfectly. “Pretty Savage” is a direct message to their haters: everyone raps in it, even Rosé and Jisoo. The album ends on a stripped down, emotional note with “You Never Know,” directly addressing all of those who judged BLACKPINK throughout their career and could not see past the surface level of their fame and stardom.
This album’s debut came shortly before the release of BLACKPINK’s Netflix documentary Light Up The Sky, where we get some insight into their rise to stardom and the inner workings of their entertainment company, YG. All in all, this album gave blinks exactly what they were waiting for: a full-length album rather than just another EP, which, according to Rosé, is the reason that it is called “THE ALBUM.”
Confetti - Little Mix
Little Mix has always been a highly underrated girl group. It is composed of the brilliantly talented vocalists Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Jesy Nelson who made their debut on the British version of The X Factor in 2011. Even though they have successfully broken into the European market a long time ago, they have yet to break into the U.S. market, which is long overdue. This is definitely the most fun and conventionally pop-y album that came out this year. Almost every song makes you want to get up, dance, and sing in the mirror to your imaginary (or real) ex-lover. The running theme here is breakups and past, as well as new, love interests.
Right off the bat, “Break Up Song” has a nostalgic sounding, heavy dance beat and powerful, harmonizing vocals calling out their exes and embracing their past breakups. This is how you know you are listening to a Little Mix song. “Sweet Melody” shows the degree to which Little Mix has matured over the course of their career and they reminded us that they are some of the most powerful vocalists of our generation. They did a great job at keeping pop music fun while having meaningful lyrics and amazing vocals as they always given us in the past. “Happiness” is obviously the happiest sounding song on here, and for good reason--listening to it makes you want to be happy 24/7. Believe it or not, “Not a Pop Song” is a pop song, but not just that; it is a ballad that communicates the message of independence from society’s (and Simon Cowell’s) expectations of Little Mix and what they should or should not sound like or do with their careers. Following the trend of some of the previous albums, Little Mix did not hesitate to use retro sounds and styles in many of their songs on Confetti. They took us back to the early 90s and early 2000s with “If You Want My Love,” which is reminiscent of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys’ distinctive sound. The album’s saddest song, “My Love Won’t Let You Down” utilizes all four girls’ powerful, belting, and melodic vocals in an emotional ballad with brilliantly executed high notes.
The main takeaway from Confetti is that pop music can still be fun in 2020 and there is nothing wrong with singing fun songs about breakups and ex-lovers.
Plastic Hearts - Miley Cyrus
It is official. Hannah Montana said what she said back in the day, and she meant it: “I might even be a rock star.” Miley Cyrus has manifested this, and has now reached the peak of her musicality, doing so as a glam rock star. Plastic Hearts has brought rock music back to life with the help of Stevie Nicks, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Dua Lipa collaborations. Miley being a rock star makes sense in so many ways, it is as if she is in her most natural form. This album has been in the works for a long time, and the wait was worth it because this is without a doubt some of her best work yet, both production-wise and vocally.
The album’s first track, “WTF Do I Know” immediately pulls you in, making you want to rock out and crazy dance all over the place. In a recent Howard Stern interview, Miley said this song is partly about her on and off relationship with Liam Hemsworth. “Prisoner” featuring Dua Lipa is the collaboration we did not know we needed but it makes so much sense that it happened. In multiple recent interviews, Miley said that this song was not originally meant to have anyone else on it, but while she was in the process of making it, it sounded so much like a Dua Lipa song. “Night Crawling” featuring Billy Idol is a savage hard-hitting track that sounds like it is straight out of an 80s movie. “Midnight Sky” is the album’s lead single which first showcased Miley’s new sound and kicked off her new rock era. It is a sample of the legendary Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” of which she got the approval to use from Nicks herself, and even did a fantastic remix of the song with Nicks on the album. “Hate Me” sounds like an early 2000s angsty teen anthem which expresses Miley’s anger towards the tabloids and critics who hated her for everything she did. The final collaboration on the album is “Bad Karma” with Joan Jett which has a unique grunge to it, with a distinctive moaning that is resemblant of both Miley and Jett’s signature savage musical attitudes. The album’s bonus tracks include her covers of “Heart of Glass” by Blondie and “Zombie” by The Cranberries, both of which she executes perfectly with a lot of grit that we have not previously seen from Miley and some of her strongest live vocals.
If there is one thing that we can say about 2020, it is that despite the ongoing pandemic, the music that we were blessed with this year lifted us up and showed us that pop music is still very much alive. The Weeknd and Dua Lipa revived disco and mixed it with some of today’s styles, BTS and BLACKPINK broke into the global music scene with even greater force than they already have, Lady Gaga made her highly anticipated return to stardom following her movie debut and Oscar win, Katy Perry released her first album as a proud mother, Little Mix reminded us that there is nothing wrong with singing about breakups in the form of fun pop songs, and Miley Cyrus became a rock star.
When you look back at 2020, do not just think about the craziness of this year’s events. Think about the music.