Summer may winding to a close, but August was a packed month for pop releases. Robyn dropped a sparkling single that feels like diving into an ice-cold pool, and Calvin Harris’ latest could have been the song of the summer, if only it came out earlier and “One Kiss” didn’t already have a claim for that title. Each new single from The 1975 is better than the last.
But August was also an incredible month for pop albums. Ariana Grande’s Sweetener delivered on the hype, and Blood Orange’s latest is lush and gorgeous. In the next few weeks, the leaves will change. The last few summer music festivals will empty out after one last Post Malone set. But for now, shining summer is still here. Let’s look back at the albums it gave us.
Conner Youngblood, Cheyenne
I’m not sure “pop” is the most accurate genre designation for Conner Youngblood’s music. Cheyenne, the Nashville-based singer’s sophomore LP, is intricately layered and impossible to categorize. On first listen, you might notice the blooming strings of “Lemonade” or the metallic beat of “Los Angeles.” (“Metallic” might seem like a weird descriptor, but listen to the song and you’ll see what I mean.) On each consecutive listen, Cheyenne reveals another layer, the lyrics opening up to a different interpretation or another instrument isolating itself. Youngblood turns places into music — the album goes everywhere from bird rescues to cityscapes to quiet Scandinavia. It’s easy to lose yourself in Cheyenne, but Youngblood’s ambient soundscapes keep you tethered to earth.
lovelytheband, finding it hard to smile
lovelytheband’s “broken” was one of the surprise radio smashes of the summer. Going home to Chicago at the beginning of the month, I heard the song every time I got into a car or made a return at Forever 21. “broken” is incredibly catchy — the hook is reminiscent of the Foster the People/Young the Giant/early Imagine Dragons era of indie pop, joyful and big and built for summer. lovely’s album, finding it hard to smile, is packed with similarly catchy summer anthems. And with the band playing festivals and opening for 5 Seconds of Summer on tour this fall, they’re poised for even greater exposure. I’m sure “broken” isn’t the last hit they’ll land.
Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Was there any other album as anticipated as Sweetener this summer? (Well, Scorpion and Astroworld, but still.) Since Dangerous Woman in 2016, Grande has had a whirlwind few years. Her massive tour for that album was wrecked by tragedy. She ended her long-term relationship with rapper Mac Miller. She fell in love again. She released one of the best pop singles of the last decade — one that, since its release, seems to only get better and better with every listen. Sweetener could have coasted by on Grande’s buzz alone. Sure, there’s a song called “pete davidson.” But Sweetener is fifteen songs, classic after classic. Grande’s celebrity shines bright, but her voice is even more show-stopping.
Liam Payne, First Time
One Direction’s Payne was set to release a debut solo album in September, but releasing the EP First Time instead was an inspired choice. The four-song EP is meant to tide fans over while Payne finishes writing and recording the album after a change of heart — Payne recently suffered a break-up, and presumably doesn’t feel up to releasing a bunch of carefree club beats — but First Time also stands strong on its own. The title track is as fun and catchy as Payne has ever been, and “Depend On It” is the lovely ballad we’ve been wishing for since he dropped “Strip That Down.”
BTS, LOVE YOURSELF 結 ‘Answer’
Answer, BTS’ fourth (!!) album in the last 12 months, is the Korean pop band’s strongest compilation to date. Answer is the culmination of the band’s smash year — the album features material that was on Face Yourself and LOVE YOURSELF 轉 ‘Tear’, and the album’s seven new tracks are just as strong. (“IDOL,” which features Nicki Minaj, might be the best work Minaj put out this month.) As the title suggests, the album is about self-acceptance and finding confidence in your own voice. Of the twenty-five tracks, seven are sung solo by one member of the band. “Euphoria,” the album opener (and Jungkook solo), is a highlight, even if the chorus does sound a little like The Chainsmokers’ “Closer.” BTS are one of the biggest bands in the world. Answer will only make them bigger.
Blood Orange, Negro Swan
In some ways, Negro Swan is a lonely album. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Dev Hynes writes about the isolation of belonging to a marginalized group. Hynes is tired of being ostracized, but also exhausted with his own reactions. It wears on you to be constantly angry, anxious, and on edge. On “Chewing Gum,” one of the album’s breakout singles, Hynes sings, “no one wants to be the odd one out at times.” But with his own voice doubled, Hynes doesn’t sound alone. Hynes is a prolific collaborator in his solo work, and Negro Swan features A$AP Rocky, Kelsey Lu, Janet Mock, and others. No one wants to be the odd one out at times — with all the voices narrating the pain of isolation, the chorus makes the experience a little less lonely.
Crazy Rich Asians: Original Motion Picture Sountrack
The song I’ve listened to the most this August is actually by an artist I’d never heard of before this month. Katherine Ho’s lovely cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” plays over the cathartic final scenes of Crazy Rich Asians, and the song is the perfect soundtrack to the romantic climax. The Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack features a handful of Mandarin covers of popular American songs, and across the board spotlights Asian and Asian-American singers and musicians. As a movie, Crazy Rich Asians movie is incredibly fun, bright, and original, and it’s got the soundtrack to match.
Troye Sivan, Bloom
Troye Sivan’s highly anticipated follow-up to Blue Neighbourhood finally arrives today. Bloom had an incredible run of pre-release singles — “My, My, My!” is Sivan at his most confident and sparkly, and “Dance To This” is a chilled-out, groovy collab with Ariana Grande. Bloom has everything from high-energy bops to melancholy meditations on heartbreak, each song a shimmery pop dream.