It takes about 15 seconds for Olivia Rodrigo to dismiss any doubts that her much-anticipated debut album, Sour, is going to be spectacular: by the time opening track “Brutal” pivots away from its austere string intro, Rodrigo declares “I want it to be, like, messy,” and fuzzed-out guitars kick off a go-for-broke rock anthem, the new superstar has listeners in the palm of her hand. Rodrigo had lofty expectations to meet thanks to “Drivers License” summarily conquering the world earlier this year, and her first album exceeds them, thanks to the Disney star’s combination of songwriting panache, sonic adventurousness and impossible-not-to-love charm; unabashedly and effectively, Sour stakes its claim as the pop album of the year so far.
After shimmying their way to the top of the Hot 100 chart last year with their English-language single “Dynamite,” BTS unleash another dance-pop confection, ready for summer consumption -- particularly in a world with a growing number of social gatherings and dance functions. With its shiny synth melodies, family-friendly lyrics and pop-rap breakdown, “Butter” recalls late-‘90s boy band singles, ready to entertain younger Army members and their top 40-playing parents alike, as well as keep BTS in the center of global pop culture.
Lil Nas X, “Sun Goes Down”
Multiple listens to Lil Nas X’s “Sun Goes Down” reveal the lushness of the new single’s production, wistful guitar strums placed next to emotional backing harmonies and whispers of strings that grow louder as the song progresses. What immediately leaps out, however, is Nas’ honesty, on a song about finding himself after feeling like the world doesn’t have room for who he wants to be: “It's hard for you when you're fightin' / And nobody knows it when you're silent,” he admits, the “Old Town Road” superstar dropping all pretense and unveiling the person behind the hits.
Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy
If Twenty One Pilots’ 2018 album Trench brought the duo’s sound into murkier territory following their mainstream breakthrough, Scaled and Icy lets the sunlight back in, an alternative rock full-length that wholly embraces the bright optimism of top 40 pop. Although their 2020 single “Level of Concern” is not included here, the quarantine anthem hinted at the glistening sound of tracks like “Good Day,” “Saturday” and new hit “Shy Away,” as if Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have emerged from the pandemic with arms full of uplifting verses and hooks.
Polo G feat. Lil Wayne, “Gang Gang”
Chicago rapper Polo G typically operates in two modes: he has songs where his slows down his flow to allow listeners to linger upon the details of his storytelling -- and then he has songs where he blacks out on the mic and rap circles around his competition. If recent Hot 100 chart-topper "Rapstar" veered toward the former style, “Gang Gang” is squarely in the latter, as Polo G pulverizes a plinking, metallic beat; the real treat comes in during the song’s back half, however, as Lil Wayne slides in and matches the sped-up cadence without breaking a sweat.
Old Dominion, “I Was On a Boat That Day”
Have you ever been unsure if a relationship is persisting or crumbling, because you’re too busy drinking on a boat? Old Dominion have been there (even if you haven’t!), and “I Was On a Boat That Day” allows the country stars to shrug off any drama with a smile and a sunburn. Kudos to the group for providing fans with a left-of-center summer anthem -- simply put, you won’t find too many songs, country or otherwise, with this type of narrative arc.
City Girls, “Twerkulator”
After being teased and delayed for months, making fans anxiously await its “Perculator” sample getting cleared, “Twerkulator” by City Girls has finally arrived in all its dance-happy glory. The house classic gets a 2021 facelift from the hip-hop duo, but its appeal remains intact, as JT and Yung Miami each get a verse to shine and then let its undying hook shine in between.