Despite promoting his fourth album with the message “Let music heal us” during quarantine, The Weeknd doesn’t exactly heed his own advice on the spellbinding After Hours. Instead, the ‘80s-inspired disco and synth-pop heard in his smash hits “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” fuel hazy, yet unforgettable nights in the Las Vegas backdrop of his damaging, debaucherous cycle. But once the party’s over, The Weeknd feels alone again with his self-deprecating thoughts (“‘Cause I lost my faith/ So I cut away the pain/ Got it swimming in my veins/ Now my mind is outta place") echoed throughout moody introspective tracks like “Snowchild” and “Faith.” Sonically, After Hours hits the sweet spot between the soul-corroding decadence of his Trilogy mixtapes, the melancholic, garbled melodies of My Dear Melancholy and the futuristic frenetic pop rhythms of Starboy, projecting a gleefully basking The Weeknd directly into the bright luminescence of international superstardom. -- H.M.
2. Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
It's all there in the title: Dua Lipa's dancefloor-commanding sophomore album makes listeners nostalgic for the sequined days of Studio 54, while piloting the recently revived disco sound into the future. Yes, there are callbacks to bygone eras of dance-pop -- "Love Again" borrows from White Town's '90s one-off "Your Woman" (via Al Bowlly) and "Break My Heart" interpolates INXS' '80s chart-topper "Need You Tonight" -- but merging all these classic inspirations is far from derivative; in fact, it makes for something wholly fresh when paired with Dua's cheeky lyrics and confident vocals. And while there are far more heartbreaking reasons to bemoan 2020, robbing Future Nostalgia and its countless standout cuts (Is lead single "Don't Start Now" best? Or maybe it's the would-be '80s dystopian soundtracker "Physical"? Or effortlessly ebullient latest single "Levitating"?) of being played in a nightclub is a damn shame. Perhaps the way the album has created its own constantly expanding universe since its March release -- from August's transportive Club Future Nostalgia remix album to November's polished Studio 2054 livestream concert -- is proof that we'll still be dancing to these pulsing beats when we can all be shoulder-to-shoulder at a club once more. -- K.A.
1. Taylor Swift, Folklore
On July 23, Taylor Swift came to save us from our socially distanced monotony -- announcing an eighth studio album that would drop the next day. The news blindsided the pop music world; Swift was on some new shit, and she was gonna make it count. Teaming up with The National's Aaron Dessner and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, Swift made a surprise record for the ages -- and she did it in isolation, including producers, writers, mixers, duet partners and engineers scattered across the country. Pandemic or not, Folklore quickly proved that it transcended These Unprecedented Times and will be remembered as one of Swift’s seminal albums. The tranquil voices, the soft piano riffs and the pristine production come together to create just over an hour of cathartic and escapist listening. Here, past influences and daring risks add up to something that feels fresh -- but still familiar, like oh maybe an old cardigan.
With writing skill and vocal talents honed over her decade-plus of stardom and an impressive continued willingness to evolve, she blended the best of her previous efforts into one work that at times is a little bit country, but always alternative rock and roll. (Who had Swift becoming one of the first artists to top Billboard's New Hot Rock & Alternative Songs Listing on their 2020 Bingo card?) Fans of her previous Antonoff collabs will hear shades of 1989's "Wildest Dreams" and Reputation's "Getaway Car" in "Mirrorball" and "August" respectively, while the country-tinged "Betty" brings us back to the days of Red, when she first began to experiment outside of her comfort zone. The trinity of "Cardigan," "August," and "Betty" also evokes the storytelling of Swift's youth -- this time with a more mature perspective on relationships, love and growing older.