10. Half Waif – The Caretaker [Anti-]
When not contributing pianos, vocals, and synths to Pinegrove, Nandi Rose Plunkett has been releasing lush, synth-heavy pop records under her own Half Waif moniker for some time now, and with her fourth studio full-length The Caretaker, she’s moved into bigger leagues by signing with Anti- Records. It’s understandable why she’d generate some serious interest with The Caretaker because it’s her biggest, boldest, and downright best album to date. At times mournful, bombastic, colorful, and personal (and sometimes all these things at once), The Caretaker moves from mood to mood with ease, the expert production and Plunkett’s careful vocal stacking creating an environment that’s as engaging as it is dramatic.
It’s a pop record with a real sense of purpose, tackling themes of isolation and community with surprising grit and nuance, at one point even advising to “Feel the love of who you’re with / Even if you’re all you need.” When she gets around to wrapping layers of her beautiful vocal tones around the phrase “feeling it” in the chorus to “Ordinary Talk”, it’s clear that we’re feeling it too. It’s an incredible rendering.
9. Beyoncé – The Lion King: The Gift [Deluxe Edition] [Parkwood/Columbia]
When The Lion King: The Gift dropped in 2019, it was clear that Beyoncé wanted to use her platform as part of the cast of one of the highest-grossing films of all time to create something epic in scope that celebrated Black culture. The album was sprawling, but being peppered with so many interludes and dialogue snippets from the film diluted its power. While some of those bits of movie dialogue still made their way back into the Black Is King visual album she directed for the Disney+ streaming service in 2020, this new hyper-colorful epic breathed new life into a record that most people had already forgotten about a year after its release, surprisingly written off as a byproduct of the film’s promotional cycle.
Stripped of the interludes and sprinkled with new tracks (including the excellent new horn-driven number “Black Parade”), The Lion King: The Gift [Deluxe Edition] sounds like the Beyoncé record we should have gotten the first time. Danceable, emotional, and littered with superstar performances across multiple continents, this Gift gave us Beyoncé at her most streamlined, borrowing from decades of Afrobeat subgenres to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
While we understand why she chose the Broadway torch song of a ballad “Spirit” as the set’s lead single, its tracks like the liquid soul of “Find Your Way Back”, the thumping “Water”, and the thundering empowerment anthem “My Power” that leaves us with the most vital impressions. It’s next to impossible for an album to get a second chance to make a first impression, but when you’re Beyoncé, doing the impossible feels like another fun challenge.
8. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia [Warner]
Dua Lipa‘s 2017 track “New Rules” was as slow-burn a pop anthem as they come, as her inhumanely catchy cautionary tale took close to a year after its initial release to finally enter the U.S. Top Ten. Initially dismissed as a one-hit-wonder who wasn’t ready for prime time, Lipa took time to work with contemporary legends like Calvin Harris and Diplo to expand her sound and even refine her image, coming back in 2020 as a diva who had something to prove. The cover of Future Nostalgia tells you everything you need to know about the new Lipa: she’s found her artistic voice and is fully in control now.
Trading in radio exuberance for stripped-down-yet-powerful arrangements, Future Nostalgia messes with disco basslines and ’80s synth-funk in equal measure, even going so far as to rewrite Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” as a carnal dance track that wouldn’t sound out of place in a slasher flick. Sure, the record’s last two songs (“Good in Bed” and “Boys Will Be Boys”) continue to be up for debate as to whether they should’ve been included, but for a record that contains not only her biggest pop hit (“Don’t Start Now”) but one of the best dance songs of the past five years (“Hallucinate”), it’s clear that Dua Lipa has established herself as a top-tier diva whom we’ll be hearing from for years to come. Future Nostalgia doesn’t further her young legacy so much as cement it: it’s really that good of an album.
7. Various Artists – Exquisite Corpse [Polyvinyl]
Amid the existential horror of a global pandemic, most musicians weren’t sure how exactly to handle things now that primary source of income, touring, was no longer viable. Some dusted off old projects that they had been putting off for some time, while others created new albums in these challenging new positions. Over at Polyvinyl Records, known for its unique brand alternative pop, Rainer Maria’s Kaia Fischer had a brilliant idea: with the entire Polyvinyl roster now with a free schedule, why not collaborate?
Instead of making a straight-up compilation, cross-pollination was encouraged. Several signed acts — many of whom have never met each other in real life — began recording instrumental and vocal parts to email back and forth. The result is a lively indie-rock record with the excitement of the most big-budget pop spectacles. The backward-warped synthpop goodie that is “Somebody Else” is like biting into sonic candy. The easy and delightful singalong of “Some Storms” sees Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids working with members of Anamanaguchi, Psychic Twin, and Mister Heavenly.
For such a vast roster of artists from primarily rock backgrounds, Exquisite Corpse rings with optimism and effervescence that overpowers the circumstances that lead to its creation. Our only hope is that some of these crossover acts continue to work with each other. Make no mistake about their indie pedigrees. Exquisite Corpse is one of the best pop albums of the year.
6. Alice Ivy – Don’t Sleep [Dew Process]
Melbourne’s own Alice Ivy graced PopMatters’ Best Pop Albums of 2018 list for an apparent reason: she knew what kind of musician she was. Wrapping smash-and-grab samples, late ’90s DJ edits, and a delectable sense of melody around her unique and propulsive dance songs, she created a record that felt fully lived-in, sounding both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. With Don’t Sleep, the guest list has expanded even as her sound zeroes in on the club tracks, focusing on making the kind of groovers and shakers that would’ve killed in a pre-pandemic era.
Cowbell and looped horn riffs dominate the best tracks, like on the groovy opener “Sunrise”. But it’s Ivy’s poppiest moments, like the Teef and TESSA-assisted “All Hit Radio”, that sounds like Ivy is having a ball throwing every sonic idea she has at the wall and seeing what sticks. Heck, even when she dips into the guise of a ballad, as she does so tenderly on closing track “Gold” (sounding like a Basement Jaxx downtempo cut in the process), she does so in gorgeous fashion — and she still can’t help but sneak in a thumping backbeat when appropriate. Don’t Sleep on this record.