Without the allure of arena tours and blockbuster ticket sales, pop albums landed a little differently in 2020. They were gentler, more intimate, more open, and, occasionally, even wild. From the outrageous mania of Halsey’s incredible body of work on Manic — a prelude to how crazy the rest of the year would get — to the dancefloor ecstasy of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, and even the sleek, star-making charisma of Dua Lipa, here are the best pop albums of the year.
20. Benee — Hey U X
Benee has not had the average rise to fame. After her hit song “Supalonely” went viral on TikTok, the New Zealand singer experienced her global breakout during a pandemic. Even still, the young singer was able to successfully maintain the momentum for her debut album, Hey U X, which blends exuberant beats heard on her previous EPs with more earnest lyricism. The result, both playful and heart-wrenching, proves that Benee can turn even the biggest obstacles into fuel for success.–Carolyn Droke
19. Shawn Mendes — Wonder
Shawn Mendes has been breaking records since the beginning of his career. All three of his previous albums debuted at No. 1, and at 23 he’s one of the youngest artists to ever achieve that. On his fourth record, Wonder, Mendes is a devoted and attentive partner, having fallen madly in love with fellow pop star Camila Cabello. While this makes for a slightly more saccharine song cycle than he’s released in the past, Shawn’s vivid songwriting is full of glancing emotional phrases and tender moments. The perfect pop album if you’ve just fallen in love, and can’t get over the allure of another person.—Caitlin White
18. The Chicks — Gaslighter
After an extremely long hiatus, fourteen years to be exact, Natalie Maines and co. are back and funnier, sharper, and more vulnerable than ever on Gaslighter. As the album unfolds, it becomes clear why it took so long: the group’s leader, Maines, has been betrayed by the love of her life, and though the subject is painful, it makes for a rich array of songs that tackle marriage and manipulation (“Gaslighter”), a return to the art of the crush (“Texas Man”), and breakup songs that sting with the trio’s fondness for exacting details (“Tights On My Boat”). A fine return to form, and let’s hope the next installment doesn’t take fourteen more years.—C.W.
17. Lady Gaga — Chromatica
Chromatica did something Gaga fans have been wanting her to do for at least two album cycles — get back to the dancefloor. Overstuffed with poignant house bangers like “911” and glittering anthems like the Ariana Grande-featuring “Rain On Me,” this album reminded fans that even after years of piano ballads and rock/country left turns, Gaga has not forgotten or moved beyond her time as a full-blown pop star. In fact, she’s never been better.—C.W.
16. BTS — Map Of The Soul:7
If somebody told you that BTS is the biggest band in the world, it would take some real thinking to form an argument against that claim. The South Korean group cemented themselves as an international pop force thanks to Map Of The Soul: 7, which is even more of a feat considering that you need to speak Korean to know what they’re even saying.—Derrick Rossignol
15. Gus Dapperton — Orca
Following a particularly tumultuous time on the road promoting his debut album, Gus Dapperton decided it was time to prioritize his physical and mental health. The shift is apparent in Dapperton’s sophomore album Orca, where he trades in fuzzy instrumentals in favor of more defined tones. He also gets personal in his lyrics, singing about the difficulties of healing while airy beats melt under his far-reaching vocals for an impactful collection of songs.–C.D.
14. Dominic Fike — What Could Possibly Go Wrong
Fike is an up-and-comer, but on his debut album, he managed to be a stylistic chameleon and sounded confident while doing it, which isn’t easy for any artist, especially a young one. As Uproxx’s Caitlin White noted, “For an artist who is just starting to get his bearings, Fike has settled into the pocket of his sound immediately.”—D.R.
13. Conan Gray — Kid Krow
Busting right out of the gate with his debut album, Kid Krow, Conan Gray has already amassed an enormous fan base from years of sharing his life and talents online. The self-made pop star was discovered by the music industry when his homage to small town life “Idle Town” went viral. Now, he’s had plenty more massive hits like the careening clapback “Maniac” and the longing ballad “Heather.” Kid Krow establishes Gray as a fully-formed artist who is well on his way to conquering the pop world.—C.W.
12. Halsey — Manic
Grammy nominations or not, Halsey’s Manic is one of the best, most versatile, and fascinating pop records of the year. Fearlessly pivoting from the beat-driven melancholia of single “Without Me” to the surprising hip-hop-inflected country on “You Should Be Sad,” guests as disparate as Suga of BTS and Alanis Morissette prove that Ashley Nicolette Frangipane is at her best when she’s embracing every single one of her wildly eclectic impulses.—C.W.
11. Empress Of — I’m Your Empress Of
Though it unfortunately got lost in the shuffle of an America on the brink of shutdown due to the pandemic, I’m Your Empress Of will live on in the discography of Lorely Rodriguez as her most mesmerizing, comprehensive work to date. Meticulously constructing dancefloor bangers out of her own misery, a late-night soundtrack that sparkles with tears and uncertainty, this third full-length assures Empress Of’s place among pop royalty for years to come.—C.W.
10. Dorian Electra — My Agenda
Cementing their spot among pop boundary-pushers, Dorian Electra’s My Agenda is a wild ride through the darkest corners of the internet. The hyperpop artist is known for subverting normalized aspects of our culture, and that’s exactly what they do on their sophomore effort. The record explores problematic internet communities through tongue-in-cheek lyrics, disruptive beats, jarring synths, and distorted vocals.–C.D.
9. Blackpink — The Album
Blackpink in your area. Even when global quarantines rendered this infamous tagline necessarily false, Blackpink still encroached on new territory all year. With their boisterous debut, unceremoniously dubbed The Album, this Korean girl group became the highest-charting act of their kind with a Selena Gomez assist on “Ice Cream” and seven other tracks that wield aggression like it’s a necessary accessory for rising pop stars. Why should they be sweet when hostile sounds this inviting?–C.W.
8. Rina Sawayama — Sawayama
If you don’t know the name, you will soon. Rina Sawayama was born in Japan but grew up in London, bringing the best of both worlds into her global pop sound. This year’s self-titled debut Sawayama manages to include a nod to practically every sonic era of pop, with standouts like “Commes Des Garcon” leaning heavy into house. Incorporating commentary on everything from sexism to friendship to chosen family, Rina is on her way up. You can come along or watch her rise, up to you.–C.W.
7. Selena Gomez — Rare
In the months before the world fell apart, Selena sang to us about her rebirth. Rare is a declaration of independence from an artist who has been entangled in codependence and dealing with the pressures of fame since she was a young girl. Coming into her adulthood necessarily meant facing down those two demons, and she does it with idiosyncratic lyrics, outstanding vocal performances, and earworm hooks. It’s the closest step to an absolute classic album that Selena has ever taken.–C.W.
6. Bad Bunny — YHLQMDLG
It hasn’t taken long for Bad Bunny to become an international superstar. While his ascent has been aided by collaborations with established English-language stars (Cardi B and Drake), he stuck to his roots this time around by working with Spanish-language artists. It paid off, too: YHLQMDLG debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard and was therefore the highest-charting all-Spanish album ever.–D.R.
5. Charli XCX –How I’m Feeling Now
At the onset of the pandemic, Charli XCX set out to do something unheard of — writing, recording, and producing an entire album in just two months. To make her vision into a reality, the singer leaned on social media as a crowdsourcing tool for collaboration. Fans were able to help Charli select beats, lyrics, and even single art for her music. The result, How I’m Feeling Now, offers a unique snapshot of how we were all truly feeling in quarantine, coated with Charli’s signature beat drops and mechanical samples.–C.D.
4. Ariana Grande — Positions
Perhaps “Positions” felt like a curveball when it arrived out of nowhere in late October, but contextualized within the glowy, loved-up feel of the rest of the album, it’s a hell of a lead single. Horny, giggly, and still slightly terrified, Ariana is back with a whole new set of slow jams and casual bops that build on each other until her thesis becomes crystal clear on the massive final track “POV.” All relationships work best when they bolster self-love, and if she’s finally gotten there, bring on the romance.–C.W.
3. Harry Styles — Fine Line
Swooping in during the final weeks of 2019 to deliver a gut-wrenching, beautifully rendered pop classic, Harry Styles is sitting pretty on his Fine Line momentum even a whole calendar year later. Without a much-anticipated world tour, the songs from this era have still resonated all year, from the glorious smack of “Watermelon Sugar” to the shimmering title track and gentler love songs. Whenever he gets back on the road, Harry will properly flesh out his brilliant second record, building in golden moments where we haven’t even anticipated them yet.–C.W.
2. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia
With astonishing grace, Dua Lipa makes becoming a top-tier pop star look easy. Some artists fret over a second record, whether it will be well-received, whether it will be as good as their debut, Dua simply buckles down and produces more flawless, disco-flecked pop without worrying about the details. Future Nostalgia is a classic, sleek pop record with bubbly emotion that never overflows, making her a buttoned-up star in a messy era. As if that wasn’t enough, she came floating back in the fall with a reimagined, remixed alternative record that hails the heritage of all the disco and house she called on before. She’s already learned the most important lesson — no one can properly herald the future of pop without nostalgia for the past.–C.W.
1. Taylor Swift — Folklore
There are many reasons why Folklore deserves to be Album Of The Year, the most basic of which is that it’s a towering collection of songs by one of the generation’s most important voices, that sits comfortably among the best work she’s ever created. “The Last Great American Dynasty” proves she’s as adept at storytelling as ever, “Exile” offers up Taylor Swift as the ultimate collaborator (both vocally with Bon Iver and in the songwriting sense with Vernon and not-so-secret guest writer Joe Alwyn), and “Betty” reminds that genre walls are made to be burned down, with Swift still able to find as much success in the country world as she does on the Hot 100.
But Folklore also represents something particular about this year. Conceived entirely in quarantine, Swift was experiencing something that many were, with more time to create, learn, and grow. But she didn’t just get really into banana bread like the rest of us, she reached out to some of her favorite musicians and found the acceptance and grace to get firmly out of her comfort zone in unprecedented circumstances, creating something that couldn’t happen in any other time. Folklore isn’t a concession that her more overt pop gestures were somehow flawed, it’s just further example of Swift’s range, as she sounds as much at home working with Aaron Dessner of The National as she has in the past with Max Martin. But the lasting effect, how for a moment in the summer all the pain and anguish and anxiety of the world dissipated briefly and music fans took to social media to share in this glorious surprise — it can’t really be measured how much this album meant, and how it altered the cultural landscape. When we look back at this year’s 50 best albums, and the many more that aren’t on the list, that’s probably what matters most — how they helped us all survive.–Philip Cosores
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.