Ariana Grande has pulled off the near-impossible since her 2018 return, releasing the most acclaimed and fastest-selling album of her career… and then coming back six months later with an even more-acclaimed, faster-selling follow-up.
Already one of pop’s brightest stars, Sweetener and Thank U, Next have catapulted Grande into the all-decade discussion, while giving fans a stunning 27 combined new tracks for their daily rotation. And while both albums are fully winning on their own — each following its own compelling internal logic with its track ordering, pacing, collaborators and single selections — we at Billboard couldn’t resist the temptation to see what it might look like if we tried to combine her last 12 months into one package, to make the most immaculate nu-Ariana single LP possible.
But just because we’re pulling from both sets doesn’t mean we want it to feel like a Greatest Hits: We still wanted to maintain the coherence and flow of a traditional album, while keeping the running time easily digestible. Sadly, doing so meant parting with some favorites from both sets — including “R.E.M.,” “Get Well Soon” and “God Is a Woman” from Sweetener, and “Needy,” “Bloodline” and “7 Rings” from Thank U, Next — because they didn’t quite fit our vision. We’re left with 13 tracks: six from each of the two sets, plus one bonus cut from a recent feature of Grande’s.
It won’t replace either of the two original albums in our hearts, but it’s a fascinating exercise in trying to encapsulate the very best of one of the greatest year-long runs in recent pop memory. Below, we present to you: Sweet, Thanks.
1. “No Tears Left to Cry” (Sweetener)
The song that kicked off her comeback in spring of last year was, at the time, an unexpected and even slightly confusing dance-R&B hybrid combining emotional exhaustion with musical and physical release. Returning to its hard-earned ecstasy almost a year later, it’s almost impossible to imagine this era of Grande’s starting any other way.
2. “NASA” (Thank U, Next)
“NASA” is one of the most fun songs Grande’s done in recent years: A buoyant bop that turns a request for breathing room in a relationship into a singalong built around a four-letter chant. For earlier Ariana albums it’d be in consideration for lead single material; on Thank U, Next, it’s gonna have to wait its turn.
3. “Blazed” (feat. Pharrell) (Sweetener)
The first full track on Sweetener, following the 40-second a capella “Raindrops (An Angel Cried),” “Blazed” is even giddier than “NASA,” thanks to a particularly frisky, practically samba-ing Pharrell beat and hook. We have to take it a little easy on the Pharrell cuts on Sweet, Thanks, because his contributions so reflect his own sonic signature that they can occasionally distract from Ariana’s own presence, but this one is an easy must.
4. “Imagine” (Thank U, Next)
An inspired choice of for opener on Grande’s latest, “Imagine” is much slower and more emotional than your average leadoff cut, but in that slot, it sets the tone beautifully for the lyrically intimate, sonically enveloping set to follow. Here, it provides a necessary wind-down after three up-tempo cuts to start, as well as the best vocal showcase for Grande thusfar.
5. “Bad Idea” (Thank U, Next)
Another potential single-to-be off Thank U, Next, “Bad Idea” winds a prickly new wave guitar riff around a boom-bap club beat and one of Ariana’s most playful vocals — though of course, not even the most notable track on the album about her idle hands being the devil’s playthings. A perfect cut to keep our set’s first-half momentum going.
6. “Sweetener” (Sweetener)
The Sweetener title track is one of the set’s most delirious: an impossibly bright combination of near-choral melodic gratification and lyrical sensuality, with a fundamental mixture of carnality and spirituality that you won’t really hear anywhere else. Pharrell’s popcorn synths provide the final ingredient to making this a necessary additive to any best-of from this Ariana period.
7. “Thank U, Next” (Thank U, Next)
One of the sneaky brilliant things about Thank U, Next is how it saves its first three singles for its very end, until they register almost as afterthoughts, despite them now being three of the biggest pop smashes of the last four months. Placed in the middle of our edit, “Thank U, Next” instead shines as the centerpiece — a fitting spot, considering it essentially marked the transition point between the two albums. (And honestly, we didn’t plan on purposefully having the two title tracks at the center of Sweet, Thanks, but it does help give our set a nice symmetry.)
8. “Better Off” (Sweetener)
A sort of secret highlight from Sweetener, buried after the set’s singles and Missy Elliott feature, “Better Off” is an ideally short-and-sweet comedown after “Thank U, Next” — and here, it offers a nice callback to the earlier “NASA” with its “You keep me in your orbit” opening lyric.
9. “Dance to This” (Troye Sivan’s Bloom)
And now, our wild card pick — this slithering duet with kindred spirit Troye Sivan, which ended up on Sivan’s Bloom album last year. The song might actually have been an even more natural fit on Sweetener, as a dance song that never goes quite four-on-the-floor and instead feels more like an intimate night in than a cathartic night out. It’s hard not to wish the single had been saved for half a year later for the height of Ari’s bulletproof commercial run; released last June, the song somehow missed the Billboard Hot 100 entirely.
10. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” (Thank U, Next)
An ideal radio single that throws back to the turn of the century with both its impeccable pop-R&B hybridity and, of course, its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it *NSYNC interpolation, which feels like a knowing wink delivered across generations of pop stardom. It’s telling that the only thing currently keeping it from No. 1 on the Hot 100 is a different Thank U, Next cut.
11. “Pete Davidson” (Sweetener)
“Better Off” may have been interlude-like in its understatedness — lyrics about fucking on the roof aside — but “Pete Davidson” was a legitimate interlude, a 74-second snippet of a song that starts to fade out as it feels like it’s hitting its stride. Still, it’s essential to the period, both for its resolute (if somewhat insecure) euphoria and its title, reflecting a commitment to in-the-moment decision-making for which few pop stars have ever had the audiacity.
12. “Ghostin” (Thank U, Next)
The uncomfortable insistence on happiness that ends “Pete Davidson” makes for a natural segue into the emotional nightmare that is “Ghostin,” the most personally overwhelming track on either album. Devastating anywhere it falls in a tracklist, “Ghostin” lands here as the veritable climax, and it’s even more of a gut-punch given the relatively sunny disposition most of our set has had thusfar — an unfortunately appropriate one given the rollercoaster period this past year has been for Grande.
13. “Breathin” (Sweetener)
Pivoting from the low point of “Ghostin,” our set ends with “Breathin,” a song that sounds like it was mean to be a sort of conclusive final word on this “When you’re going through hell, just keep going” era of Ariana’s life. But if “No Tears Left to Cry” is an anthem about surviving tragedy, then this cathartic mantra is about getting through the everyday drudgery and anxiety that follows survival — and thus makes for the perfect bookending close to our Sweet, Thanks.
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