2020 has been a uniquely difficult year to enjoy pop music—dancefloor-packing anthems hit different when the dance floor is just your living room, and you’re the only one in it. Such is the hard reality of a year in isolation, but that shouldn’t take away from these outstanding 2020 albums, which got us dancing with ourselves despite the rather grim context of their releases. Our picks are evidence of the ever-changing pop landscape: These albums pull from popular sounds of the past, present and future alike, dipping into everything from the halcyon days of disco and the Laurel Canyon sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s to hip-hop and electronic sounds distinct to the 21st century, as well as new stylistic blends and textures altogether alien. Some of these artists are known quantities firing on all cylinders, while others are up-and-coming visionaries sure to be fixtures of the genre for years to come. But all of them put out records that pushed pop forward in 2020, complicating its mass appeal and asking more of modern listeners, from Taylor Swift going “indie” to Charli XCX’s defining lockdown album. See the rest of our picks for the best of 2020 pop below.
Listen to Paste’s Best Pop Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.
070 Shake: Modus Vivendi
Born Danielle Balbuena, 070 Shake (named in part for her New Jersey area code) got her big break courtesy of one Kanye West, stealing the spotlight on his 2018 ye track “Ghost Town” as a rising G.O.O.D. Music signee. Her acclaimed debut album Modus Vivendi (“way of life” in Latin) delivered on that promise this year: From the glittering future pop of “Guilty Conscience” to the ascendent psych-R&B of “Rocketship,” her music is like the Uncut Gems opal, prismatic and powerfully intoxicating. Shake has described her music as “feeling put into frequency”—we’d be hard-pressed to say it any better ourselves. —Scott Russell
Regresa, the title of Buscabulla’s debut, references duo Raquel and Luis Alfredo’s 2018 return to their native Puerto Rico after living in New York. Together, they make organic electronica with reggaeton inflections that is equal parts tense and starkly immediate. Through the drumline beat of “Vámono” and the tribal shimmer of “NTE,” Buscabulla ruminate on coming back to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, amidst growing income inequality and steadfast Boriqua traditions that persevere. Nothing sounds like this right now, and it’s informed by a unique journey and distinct musical reconnaissance that begs for your ears. —Adrian Spinelli
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated Side B
The long-hinted-at twin to Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2019 album Dedicated arrived in a surprise cloud of glitter and joy in May, and I’ve been gleefully playing it on repeat ever since. Dedicated Side B isn’t all that different from the OG Dedicated in any significant sonic ways, but, of course, it feels like a whole new chapter in the CRJ universe (as any release of hers does)—but with the added angle of receiving this record in quarantine (CRJ knows when she’s needed). Thankfully, it’s much better than her last official drop—the sweet but empty one-off Valentine’s Day single “Let’s Be Friends”—and, in my completely objective, not-biased-at-all opinion, rivals the best of her discography (this is the woman who landed on our best albums of the 2010s list and then promptly secured the number seven spot on our best albums of 2019 roundup with Dedicated). From the sugar-rush of “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” to the Emotion-level “Stay Away,” to the milkiness of her signature funky pop smoothie on “Summer Love,” Dedicated Side B is nothing but a pure, perfect gift to CRJ fans. —Ellen Johnson
Charli XCX: how i’m feeling now
When Charli announced she would be recording how i’m feeling now from her home studio with remote assistance from A.G. Cook (who supposedly was working from Montana with an awful wi-fi signal) and BJ Burton, the result—something fun, experimental, and a bit contemplative—was more or less expected. What came as a surprise was the album’s heavy nostalgia. As opposed to Charli’s future-forward self-titled album from last year, how i’m feeling now reflects on her DIY past and preternatural obsession with the dancefloor. how i’m feeling now’s narrative is defined partially by Charli’s interactive video diaries through Instagram Live and Zoom, which served both as real-time documentation of her creative process and an opportunity for fans to offer input on lyrics, production choices and beats. There is no “Vroom Vroom’’ on how i’m feeling now, and certainly no “I Got It,” but here Charli still brings the glowstick mania and crunchy bedroom beats of the past, complete with antique waveforms and over-processed vocals. While how i’m feeling now is by no means Charli’s most genre-pushing work, nor an indication of the creative potential she has left, it will be remembered as a quintessential 2020 album—not just because of its unique recording constraints, but because of the passion, authenticity and work ethic interwoven in every fuzzy beat and every sprightly, lovelorn lilt of Charli’s most intimate vocal work to date. —Austin Jones
Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
Chloe x Halle have had an incredible ascent since their early YouTube cover stardom. The Georgia born and bred sisters signed to Beyonce’s entertainment company, performed at the White House, star in the ABC sitcom Grown-ish and have received a handful of Grammy nominations, including a nod for their 2020 album Ungodly Hour. Their second studio album, Ungodly Hour, follows 2018’s The Kids Are Alright, and it’s an R&B-pop record celebrating self-worth, harmless fun and sisterhood in the broader sense of the word. It rests on their rich harmonies and gauzy vocals, both incredibly imaginative and easy on the ears, and though these songs don’t aim for addictive, chart-topping pop anthems, their flare shines through their unruffled tracklist. Equal parts stylish and carefree, Ungodly Hour radiates poise and self-confidence. —Lizzie Manno
Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
The worst Pop Hits feel focus-grouped to death and engineered in a lab, as bloodless and calculated as any big business venture. But the best—Dua Lipa’s inescapable Future Nostalgia singles “Don’t Start Now” and “Break My Heart” among them—manage that kind of “resistance is futile” appeal without coming across as too fake to fail. The key to this album is in its oxymoronic title: Dua Lipa carries retro disco sounds into the present moment, imbuing her bubbly, bass-driven dance tracks with a timelessness to outlast top 40 trends du jour. Her mezzo-soprano vocal delivery has confidence and style to spare, while the immaculate production all around her deftly blends funk and electronic instrumentation, an irresistible alchemy that gets listeners “Levitating” above their stresses. —Scott Russell
Ela Minus: acts of rebellion
As 2018 ended and 2019 began, Ela Minus was putting the finishing touches on what would become the most prescient song of 2020. “We’re afraid we’ll run out of time / To stand up for our rights / You won’t make us stop,” the Brooklyn-via-Bogotá synth savant murmurs invitingly on “megapunk,” which finds a brooding-then-explosive middle ground between New Order and Aphex Twin. Before the song’s final chorus, she becomes even more direct: “You’re choosing to lead us apart, but against all odds,” she warns, “you still won’t make us stop.” As the apex of an album released 11 days before the 2020 presidential election, “megapunk” couldn’t be more timely. It’s an uncompromising reminder that if the current president and his cronies attempt the coup they’re all but promising, we need to rise up even if we face threats of violence and jail. It’s also, as the second single and most thrashing entry on an album named acts of rebellion, something of a thesis statement. On her debut LP, Ela Minus explores the role of community in subverting both fascist governments and oppressive everyday expectations. It’s a prophetic, vital message, and it’s wrapped in some of the best electronic and pop music of the year. —Max Freedman
Georgia: Seeking Thrills
In 2019, Georgia turned heads with a simple subject-verb agreement error. “I was just thinking about work the dancefloor,” goes the processed, multi-tracked chorus of her beloved single “About Work the Dancefloor,” a banger that bursts with electronic vigor from its very first barrage of synths and only gets hookier from there. The song is so euphoric, so primed for post-midnight, er, dancefloors that the subject-verb agreement error is clearly not a mistake, but instead an intentional verbal glitch that matches the song’s almost-robotic, gurgling groove. In other words, to quote the esteemed New Yorker critic Hua Hsu, “About Work the Dancefloor” is “dance music about dance music.” The track is one of many dance songs on Seeking Thrills, Georgia’s analog-dominated sophomore album and first LP in nearly five years, that’s about dance music. Even when Georgia sings about relationships, love, romance and all that standard pop music fodder, her lyrics tend to double as tributes to the joy of dance. —Max Freedman
HAIM: Women in Music Pt. III
Danielle Haim begins the third HAIM LP by bemoaning the city that built them. “Los Angeles, give me a miracle,” she sings after a flurry of saxophone starts the song. “I just want out from this.” She continues into the chorus as her sisters Alana and Este join in on backup, singing “These days I can’t win.” The City of Angels is also the city of sweaty, broken dreams, as any struggling actor, screenwriter or regular-person-stuck-in-traffic can tell you. Even Danielle—primary songwriter for the trio—who was born, raised and primed for rock stardom in the sprawling city, clearly can’t stand it some days. Danielle’s depression, which she has attributed to the struggles she and her partner/producer Ariel Rechtshaid faced upon his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2016, informs some of WIMPIII’s most specific and heartfelt lyrics. But her sisters’ struggles are just as important. Alana remembers her best friend who passed away at 20, while Este’s life has been full of ups and downs since her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis during her freshman year of high school. They all lean on each other, and that love is perhaps loudest in stirring folk number “Hallelujah.” Though outwardly carefree, WIMPIII finds HAIM exploring darker and more serious matters than ever before, which is one reason why it’s their most complete and forward-thinking release yet. Many of these songs find Danielle, Alana and Este flat on their backs, but it’s never long before they’ve returned to their default position: upright, strutting confidently through the streets of L.A. and life itself. —Ellen Johnson
Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
In these reflective, soul-searching post-pandemic times, there are some musical tones that dance-pop diva Jessie Ware has been looking back on with an unusual degree of fondness. The rubbery, ’80s-retro synthesizer textures of some of the material on her new fourth outing What’s Your Pleasure?, for instance, like the New Order-ish “Soul Control,” a Chic-funky “Ooh La La,” the “Beverly Hills Cop”-elastic “Read My Lips,” and a decidedly ABBA-reminiscent title track. “I love those kinds of vintage sounds that you could say sound like cheese,” says the sultry British artist, who also co-hosts a popular food-themed podcast with her mother Lennie called Table Manners. “But I like the brashness, the flirtation of those sounds—they’re fun, and they really pack a punch. I wanted all of that for this record—I was greedy!” —Tom Lanham
Jessy Lanza: All The Time
All The Time, the third album from Canadian producer and musician Jessy Lanza has a bold, sensual flow. It spans bright, club-ready pop and idiosyncratic R&B, and Lanza plays around with bubbling textures throughout. It’s an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously—it’s all about the pulse, which falls in and out of listeners’ reach in an instant. Her beats and synths are mystifying, and Lanza’s quicksilver vocals resting atop them are another part of its appeal. On “Face,” her morphed voice verges on robotic, on “Anyone Around,” her dizzying pipes are so high they’re almost childlike, and on “Like Fire,” she puts on a stunning classic R&B vocal clinic. —Lizzie Manno
Lido Pimienta: Miss Colombia
Colombia-born and Toronto-based artist Lido Pimienta shared her second album Miss Colombia earlier this year via ANTI- Records. Pimienta won the Polaris Music Prize for her 2016 debut La Papessa (the first artist recording in a language other than English or French to take home the award), and her Polaris Prize-nominated (and Grammy-nominated) follow-up is even more ambitious. Mixing electro-pop, industrial and reggaeton music with cumbia rhythms, Miss Colombia is a fearless album about identity, resistance and pain. —Lizzie Manno
Rina Sawayama: SAWAYAMA
We’ve been inching towards an early Max Martin-esque maximalist pop revival for several years now, between artists like Liz, Kero Kero Bonito, Holiday Sidewinder and, in a strange way, 100 gecs, but SAWAYAMA solidifies the notion that bubblegum pop is back, fully self-aware and ready to conquer. With the help of her longtime producer Clarence Clarity, Rina Sawayama modernizes a sound made famous by Britney Spears, *NSYNC and all who reigned supreme on Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 countdown around the turn of the last millennia. More importantly, however, she upholds the integrity of the genre, gently reminding us why we all, deep down, truly love pop music. Right off the bat, SAWAYAMA is powerful. The first three tracks are insanely dynamic, stringing together two vibrant pop songs (the first about standing up on your own, the second about excessive wealth) into what can only be described as Gwen Stefani-meets-nu-metal. As far as the meaning of this record goes, Sawayama sums it up herself in a recent interview: “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.” —Annie Black
Róisín Murphy: Róisín Machine
Irish pop singer Róisín Murphy first made a name for herself as one half of ’90s U.K. trip-hop duo Moloko. After the group disbanded in 2004, Murphy embarked on a solo dance-pop career that saw her release four riveting albums, then vault back into the limelight in 2018 as the vocalist on DJ Koze’s immaculate “Illumination.” She’s now revving up her fifth LP, Róisín Machine, which sees Murphy unfurling into a full blown disco diva with a collection of tracks she’s banked across the last decade. Róisín Machine is a collaboration with producer Crooked Man (aka Sheffield’s DJ Parrot), and tracks like “Murphy’s Law” and “Narcissus” are disco-pop at its absolute finest—this is seriously like Robyn meets Sylvester. Murphy needs to be considered among Irish pop’s most accomplished artists, and “Incapable” alone is one of the best dance floor tracks you’ll hear all year. —Adrian Spinelli
Taylor Swift: folklore
Taylor Swift has leveled the hell up. There isn’t a better way to phrase it. The bright-eyed-country-musician-turned-serious-pop-titan didn’t need to—she could’ve quit music last year and still left behind a lasting pop discography. But on her new album folklore, which arrived less than 24 hours after she announced it with a woodsy social media rollout, she stepped up her game in a way she never had before. Free of the usual album cycle fanfare—the splashy lead single, months of social media theatrics and a massive world tour—Swift had a rare opportunity with folklore to ignore timing and expectations. “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” she wrote. Created entirely during isolation, Swift’s eighth LP feels like it landed at our feet straight from another universe. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to Paste’s Best Pop Albums of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.