Great pop albums arrived in all shapes and sizes in 2020, from veterans returning to form to unknowns upending expectations, from genres we never knew could sound so good together to familiar styles we could wrap our arms around. During a dismal year for the world at large, several pop projects offered escapes to entirely different universes. Don’t love being stuck at home for months on end? At least we could join Taylor Swift for an adventure in the woods, or daydream about 5 Seconds of Summer’s next arena tour, or visit a planet called Chromatica — which we never knew existed before this year, but is now indispensable.
Before the calendar flips over, it’s worth celebrating these pop projects for the solace they provided, often through daring artistic choices. Here are Billboard staffers’ picks for the 25 best pop albums of 2020, in alphabetical order by artist name (and including a few EPs for good measure).
0171, Change Nothing
Lykke Li and Chairlift fans had better take note of East London duo 0171 (Joe Bedell-Brill and Georgie Hoare), who have been quietly crafting extremely weird and delightful pop. Their sophomore EP Change Nothing qualifies for this list based on the spellbinding “Follow” alone, but the droning dark-pop opener “Automatic” is worth taking up four minutes of your day too. – GAB GINSBERG
5 Seconds of Summer, CALM
The Australian quartet doesn’t deliver the “calm” promised within the title of their fourth album (an acronym of their four first names). Instead, CALM invigorates their innate pop-punk spirit on anthems full of foot-thumping bass lines, fist-pumping productions and expansive storytelling about chaotic relationships. The combination has no doubt built up fans’ anticipation for when they can hear these songs live in an arena. – HERAN MAMO
Alec Benjamin, These Two Windows
On These Two Windows, Benjamin’s full-length debut with Atlantic Records, the singer-songwriter’s talents have become fully formed, as he tackles the ups and downs of relationships, anxiety and twentysomething life in 2020. The set includes two of his best songs yet: the melodic “Must Have Been The Wind,” a tale about a woman in an abusive relationship, and “Jesus In LA,” a ballad in which Benjamin serves up a sharp critique of the music industry. The LP indicates that Benjamin has far more to offer beyond his 2018 breakout hit, “Let Me Down Slowly.” – G.G.
Allie X, Cape God
Shedding the archetypes she embodied on 2018’s Super Sunset EP, Allie X resurrected a version of her 13-year-old self on sophomore LP Cape God. Brimming with a sense of what the singer describes as “North American melancholy,” and featuring collaborations with Troye Sivan (“Love Me Wrong”) and Mitski (“Susie Save Your Love”), the LP explores themes of identity and grappling with past trauma through a newly minimalist sonic palette, all while expanding the indie star’s uniquely avant garde sensibilities. – GLENN ROWLEY
Alma, Have U Seen Her?
Finnish singer-songwriter Alma has collaborated with pop heavyweights like Tove Lo, Charli XCX and Miley Cyrus, and her astounding debut album shows off exactly how much she’s learned along the way. Each song on Have U Seen Her? burns brighter than the one before it, as Alma addresses industry fakery (“LA Money”), competition among creatives (“Bad New Baby”) and a tough breakup (“Final Fantasy”). – G.G.
Annie, Dark Hearts
Arriving 11 years after her second album Don’t Stop, Annie’s Dark Hearts was the Norwegian alt-pop album that 2020 did not expect but so desperately needed. Dark Hearts plays out like a companion piece to a slightly more romantic follow-up season to Twin Peaks: The Return — it’s an alchemy of nostalgia, artifice, cloying sweetness, desperation and emptiness. Dark Hearts sounds like an artist who’s scraped the bubblegum off her shoe and is looking for the next best sugar rush… but isn’t quite sure where it is, or if she even wants it. – JOE LYNCH
Ariana Grande, Positions
Ariana Grande’s theatricality takes center stage on a sultry body of work that focuses on a new romance. Positions switches from fantasizing about sexual dominance in tracks like “34+35” to succumbing to the anxiety of trusting someone again in contemplative ballads “Off the Table” with The Weeknd and “Safety Net” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. Grande listens to what her body wants, but ultimately follows her heart, as it gradually heals from the past relationships and traumas she explored on 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s Thank U, Next. – H.M.
Ava Max, Heaven & Hell
When your debut single is as undeniable as “Sweet But Psycho,” crafting a first album to meet expectations can be a daunting task. Fortunately, dance-pop star Ava Max throws caution to the wind on Heaven & Hell, and simply sounds like she’s having a blast while skipping across bangers like “Kings & Queens” and “Who’s Laughing Now.” Extra points for the self-imposed no-ballads rule, and a few more for the recent ATC-interpolating single “My Head & My Heart” on the deluxe edition. – JASON LIPSHUTZ
BENEE, Hey U X
With the Gus Dapperton collaboration “Supalonely,” New Zealand singer-songwriter BENEE unwittingly crafted the perfect hook for a socially distanced year, and scored a top 40 hit once it went viral on TikTok. Her recently released debut album reveals far more skill than a timely 10-second refrain, though: Hey U X contemplates the woes of Gen Z with a keen ear for choruses and arrangements that oscillate between indie rock and hyperpop (the latter on the Grimes team-up “Sheesh”). – J. LIPSHUTZ
Blackpink, The Album
Blackpink’s The Album arrived roughly a year-and-a-half after the K-pop girl group wowed a massive audience at Coachella, slowly growing stateside anticipation until a late 2020 payoff. And while the eight-song project only lasts 24 minutes, The Album accomplishes exactly what it needs to: allowing the quartet’s pop-rap ambitions to shine in technicolor, with well-placed guest stars (Selena Gomez, Cardi B) and lots of attitude (“Pretty Savage,” “Love To Hate Me”). – J. LIPSHUTZ
BLACKSTARKIDS, Whatever, Man
Split the difference between the titles of Whatever, Man and its lead single “BRITNEY BITCH” and you have something close to the BLACKSTARKIDS’ governing vibe — one equally enamored with ’90s slackerdom and ’00s pop star worship, without seeing the ideological splits between the two that might have divided their predecessors. The young Kansas City trio is having too much fun creating genre mishmashes (and inventing their own college radio station to play them in heavy rotation on) to pay mind to such concerns anyway, and the second-hand glee from their outside-the-lines coloring is intoxicating enough to make you blindly shout “Dude, we should totally start a pop band!” into your nearest group chat. – ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Christine and the Queens, La Vita Nuova
On her most subtle Christine and the Queens project to date, Héloïse Lettisier sets out to prove that she doesn’t need to send you to the dancefloor to get you listening to her songs. She succeeds with La Vita Nuova, which offers a quieter side of Lettisier’s artistry, as songs like “People, I’ve Been Sad” and “Mountains (We Met)” offer introspective lyrics and glittering rhythms. Meanwhile, the Caroline Polacheck-featuring title track balances Italian and English lyrics about passion and fury over the shimmering Europop production that made Letissier a star. – STEPHEN DAW
Dua Lipa, Future Nostalgia
As the title suggests, Dua Lipa’s sophomore album seamlessly blends sleek pop production with retro, disco-inspired flair. Wrapped around the 25-year-old’s sultry vocals and her innate DGAF swagger, Future Nostalgia creates a glittery world that easily solidified her star status in the pop sphere. And though an album meant for dancing ’til the break of dawn arrived in a year where the coronavirus pandemic shut nightclubs down, Future Nostalgia held fans over as they transformed their living rooms into dance floors. – RANIA ANIFTOS
Georgia, Seeking Thrills
U.K. pop artist Georgia begins her second album, Seeking Thrills, with the slinky house jam “Started Out” and the smashing electro-pop single “About Work the Dancefloor.” The rest of the album tries its best to catch up to that dizzying one-two punch and mostly succeeds, with Georgia offering tracks that toe the line between major-key dance floor fodder and synth-heavy introspection to listen on headphones. – J. LIPSHUTZ
Glass Animals, Dreamland
After a period of processing a near-fatal accident and creating music amid a global pandemic, Glass Animals found peace in Dreamland, their characteristically experimental but most personal project to date. The album touches on frontman Dave Bayley’s wide range of musical influences from the Beatles to early-2000s hip-hop, plus a number of “only 90’s kids will remember this” references and audio from home movies. The result is a metaphorical Dreamland, a world where the people and things you love matter most. – R.A.
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene
Grimes’ latest album title puns on misanthropy (disliking humanity) and Anthropocene (a proposed name for our geological era where human activity shapes the climate more than anything else). Those themes aren’t exactly the bedrock of top 40 magic, yet open-minded popheads would be hard-pressed to find anything in the alt realm that’s more irresistibly melodic and worthy of repeat listens than this dark, thoughtful chronicle. – J. LYNCH
K/DA, All Out
K-pop and gaming collide on the debut EP from League of Legends’ virtual girl group (whose name refers to the in-game term for a player’s kills, deaths, and assists), and it’s pure mayhem in the best possible sense. Every chorus strikes like a thunderbolt, and all of the real-life vocalists — including Madison Beer, Jaira Burns and (G)I-dle’s Miyeon and Soyeon, plus appearances from Kim Petras and Aluna — are given opportunities to showcase their individual talents. Standouts like “The Baddest” and “Villain” are impressively balanced, with no one vocalist having to carry another — and yes, we could use some “More.” – G.G.
Lady Gaga, Chromatica
There was perhaps no album more hyped entering 2020 than the famed “LG6”: for years, Lady Gaga’s stans had been steadily raising their expectations for her return to pop. What’s shocking is that when “LG6,” Chromatica, finally did come out, fans felt that those expectations were largely met. Filled from start to finish with the dance-pop, disco and electronica that Gaga had largely avoided since Artpop, Chromatica became a glitter-filled escape out of a pandemic-ridden world, onto another planet where pain (“Rain on Me”), romance (“Stupid Love”), life’s mysteries (“Enigma”) and even gossip (“Babylon”) could all be explored to the soundtrack of a 21st century pop icon returning to her roots. – S.D.
Little Mix, Confetti
Nearly a decade into their reign as the 21st century’s most enduring girl group, Little Mix dropped Confetti, a celebratory collection taking inspiration in equal parts from pop music of the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s. Whether they’re finding empowerment in the booming Europop of “Happiness,” delivering a kiss-off on “Sweet Melody” or cleverly taking aim at the music industry itself in “Not a Pop Song,” the girls prove that they’re at the height of their powers as each piece of Confetti rain downs upon them. – G.R.
Miley Cyrus, Plastic Hearts
Miley Cyrus wouldn’t be the only person this year who sought comfort in the safety of the past, but few did so as productively. Plastic Hearts finds the longtime pop nomad wading in the waters of early-peak MTV, a period where pop and rock were fusing in the megahits of artists like Joan Jett, Billy Idol and Stevie Nicks — all of whom show up to grace the album. Their presence is welcome, but their wisdom is unnecessary; Cyrus and her writer-producer dream team have done their homework, and brawny, neon-rimmed bangers like “Gimme What I What,” “Prisoner” and lead single “Midnight Sky” are probably inspiring some film studio to remake Flashdance as we speak. – A.U.
Rina Sawayama, Sawayama
In 2020, the nostalgic pop trend du jour was very clearly a disco revival, embraced among stars like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga. But no pop fan was expecting the nu-metal movement to find itself revitalized by a pop icon-in-the-making. Rina Sawayama’s Sawayama doesn’t hide its own weirdness — the project bares it as a means of catharsis, like telling a racist date to “STFU,” or begging your parents not to send you to boarding school and let you keep “Paradisin.’” It’s the unexpected twist that makes Sawayama a piece of pop brilliance. – S.D.
Selena Gomez, Rare
Ah, the freedom of having no more drama and a No. 1 single in your back pocket. Gomez banked her first Hot 100-topper in late 2019 with the breakup exorcism “Lose You to Love Me,” and you can feel the weight subsequently lifted from the rest of Rare, an album of such unencumbered joy that it’s the, yes, rare release from a 2020 pop star that could be accurately described as casual. “It feels so good to dance again,” insists one track, and the drop that follows isn’t one of explosive club-floor catharsis, but more of a grinning, dance-like-nobody’s-watching shuffle. It’s been a long few years in the spotlight for Selena, but mmm mmm mmmm, look at her now. – A.U.
Shawn Mendes, Wonder
You don’t have to wonder what it’s like to be loved by Shawn Mendes any longer; his fourth studio album spells it out, with a romantic through-line running from the one-minute “Intro” through the intimate conclusion of “Can’t Imagine.” The 14 tracks cover all facets of a relationship, whether it’s the euphoria of a new love (“Higher”), the insecurity of worrying your partner might stray (“Piece of You”), the tenderness of intimacy (“Teach Me How to Love”) or even buying a home together (“24 Hours”). But the true emotional highlight is realizing lead single “Wonder” and “Always Been You” are two sides of the same coin, with Mendes first dreaming of a potential relationship with the object of his affection and then making that dream a reality. There are a couple of outliers — the Justin Bieber duet “Monster” and “Call My Friends” wrestle with the rocky sides of fame more than romance — but the bulk of this joyful project is all about Shawn being in love with being in love, and it shows. – KATIE ATKINSON
Taylor Swift, Folklore
What more can be said about Folklore, which spent eight weeks on top of the Billboard 200, earned five Grammy nominations and seeped its way into our hearts so thoroughly that it had us wanting to move to a cabin in the woods to stare forlornly into a cozy fire? An atypical release for Taylor Swift led to her most brave, personal work — even if she admits that now she doesn’t feel like she has to rip the headlines straight from her life to write songs anymore. Folklore is Swift creating music for music’s sake — sure, August slipped away in a moment of time, but this album will always be ours. – DENISE WARNER
Upsahl, Young Life Crisis
Fresh off a Dua Lipa co-write (“Good in Bed”), Upsahl released her own EP, Young Life Crisis, with songs as catchy as they are raw. The title track sees the L.A.-based singer-songwriter wielding a killer sense of humor as she laments, “It’s what they call the young life crisis, pour it on ice/ I take it down with problems and pride/ A dash of disappointment, little bit of lime/ Chase it with some boys and a little bad advice!” Each track on the project positions Upsahl as an artist who’s as great at writing a hook as she is at singing one. – G.G.
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