As the holidays grow nearer, pop music shows no sign of slowing down. After months’ worth of entries in this column, Zayn finally dropped his long-awaited sophomore solo album, Icarus Falls, on Friday. Ariana Grande, the fastest writer in all of pop, released an excellent follow up single to “Thank U, Next.” (Even without a rom-com inspired music video, “Imagine” is already massive.) Miley and Allie X brought out some Christmas covers to get us in the spirit, and although Maggie Rogers‘ cover of “Tim McGraw” technically isn’t a holiday cover, it seems like a gift tailor made for me. (I promise I didn’t mean to make that Swift pun.)
Every Monday, Uproxx will round out the very best pop releases from the week. If you’re feeling like a Grinch in that pre-holidays crunch, let the sweet boys of PrettyMuch and the whistle-y optimism of Ariana Grande warm your heart.
Ariana Grande, “Imagine”
The queen of love songs is back with another one. Sweetener was a lovely, optimistic record about the healing power of love — and despite her much-publicized 2018 break-ups, fans know Ari is still a romantic at heart. “Imagine” is a soaring ballad about a love that’s so amazing and encompassing it might be unattainable. Grande asks us to imagine a love where normal couple things — ordering pad thai and sleeping in and posting Instagram pictures — are the stuff that makes a grandiose, fairy-tale, cinematic romance. When she asks us to “imagine a world like that,” she sounds almost like she has resigned herself to its impossibility, but not all the way. This song (and Ari herself) are full of hope and joy.
Miley Cyrus And Mark Ronson, Feat. Sean Ono Lennon, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
After Cyrus and Ronson’s frenetic disco-pop collaboration, “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” the singer and DJ’s second team-up is a mellower track. Cyrus and Ronson are joined by Sean Ono Lennon for a spirited cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” We already knew Miley has a great voice for country and pop, but she uses her lower register to great effect here, and sounds like a legit rock star. Cyrus, Ronson, and Lennon add an intriguing synth-y beat, making the holiday classic all their own.
Zayn, “Back To Life”
Icarus Falls is a mammoth of an album. At 27 songs, Zayn’s sophomore solo album is an hour-and-a-half-long dive into the highs and lows of relationships, the comfort of having someone who understands you and the hurt of being betrayed by someone you cared about. Like Mind Of Mine, it’s alternately horny and vengeful, but at 27 songs Icarus Falls is hard to sum up in a neat couple of paragraphs.
After a few listens through, “Back To Life” is my early favorite song on the record. It’s a dense and sexy electro-pop banger about the kind of love that saves your life. Zayn tosses off a million what-ifs and imagined disasters, but one he loves is there for him through everything, giving him “oxygen when it gets hard to breathe” and assuaging his anxiety with her steady comfort. Zayn is too often painted as the moody, broody bad boy in press and other narratives, but his music shows that he is actually a dedicated romantic. Also, the bass on this one is just really hot.
Maggie Rogers, “Tim McGraw”
Taylor Swift‘s “Tim McGraw” holds a special place in my heart. Swift might be one of the biggest pop stars on the planet now, but I first got to know her as a pre-teen country music fan. “Tim McGraw” is a timeless song. It seems aware of how nostalgic it is, narrating a teenage romance and imagining how you’re both going to look back on it in the future.
Maggie Rogers is poised to approach Swift-level stardom. She’s already had her “Tim McGraw”-esque breakout — what’s up, “Alaska” — but Rogers’ retelling of “Tim McGraw” is yet another reminder of her incredible talent. Rogers reworks the country-pop classic into something completely different, finding the sweet spot between arena pop and Joni Mitchell-esque intimate confessional.
Carlie Hanson, “Numb”
After a slot opening on the Bloom tour with Troye Sivan and Kim Petras, 18-year-old Carlie Hanson is poised to break out in a big way. “Numb” is short and sweet — it’s only two minutes long, but the trap-pop banger is a showcase for Hanson’s confidence as a singer and songwriter. The song glitches and slides as Hanson sings about her hazy apathy. In the song, she warns you not to get too close, but with a song this good it’s impossible not to step in and admire her talent.
Allie X, “Last Xmas”
Before this December, I would have told you that no one should touch “Last Christmas” apart from George Michael. But Robyn delivered a killer Live Lounge cover of the song earlier this month, and Canadian pop singer Allie X has transformed the holiday classic with her own excellent (X-cellent?) cover. Allie’s rendition adds a dance-ready synth beat, but it maintains the melancholy and desperation of the original. I especially love the incongruous saxophone solo in the middle of the song. The lyrics of “Last Christmas” are pretty sad, but any sax solo immediately makes me think of Carly Rae Jepsen and trailing glitter across the dance floor. Allie X perfectly captures the catharsis and longing of one of my favorite holiday songs, and reminds us why she’s one of the greatest innovators working in the genre right now.
The boys of PrettyMuch are one of my favorite discoveries of 2018. The American-Canadian pop group, Simon Cowell’s latest franken-band of glossy-haired teenage boys, released a fun EP earlier this year, and they followed it up this week with the joyful, hip-hop-influenced single “Jello.” I admire PrettyMuch’s commitment to the metaphor: “Girl, you can call the shots like Jello / Got me weak in the knees like Jello / And the way we jell together, make ’em Jello / Everybody want a taste of what you got.” Listen to it once and it’ll be stuck in your head for a full week. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).
The Chainsmokers, Feat. Winona Oak, “Hope”
Fine, I’ll admit it. I like another Chainsmokers song. I adore Winona Oak’s voice. Her tone is unique and enchanting, elevating what might otherwise standard Chainsmokers track into something that feels like a discovery. The Chainsmokers’ boldness in venturing into other genres has been admirable lately. Between “Hope” and “Side Effects” and “This Feeling” from earlier this year, the EDM duo are letting their beats be a platform to boost some talented singers who deserve exposure. Winona Oak is a real talent, and “Hope” is a real banger.