The Pop Stars Who (Almost) Saved my 2020

To say that 2020 is a year that will go down in history would be quite the understatement. December is often a time of reflection for many of us, as we consider the personal journeys we have made over the previous twelve months, as well as the national and international events that shaped the course of the year. This year however, it’s understandable if you irrepressibly jerk in horror at the thought of considering the shitshow that was 2020, instead choosing to ply yourself with Baileys and mince pies in a festive attempt to self-soothe. But whilst I certainly couldn’t go as far as saying I’ve had an enjoyable year, there is one thing I felt rather blessed with through it all: incredible female pop. The monotony of lockdown life was in dire need of an uplifting soundtrack (one that wasn’t a bunch of celebrities singing ‘Imagine’) and the albums of a few female artists in particular came along to provide a swift boost of joy in the moments where my levels were rapidly depleting. Of course there is music from a variety of artists within a plethora of genres that I’ve hugely enjoyed this year- as there was certainly plenty of free time for me to listen to it, but it was top notch pop sung by amazing women that especially gave me some highly sought-after audio comfort.

I shan’t be looking back on many aspects of 2020 in a genuinely positive light, but I would happily keep this selection of albums in a time capsule for future reference.

Because I can’t pick favorites, these are simply listed in chronological order.

Dua Lipa- Future Nostalgia

It feels almost sacrilege to admit this, but as Dua Lipa singles go, ‘Don’t Start Now’- the lead single of Future Nostalgia- is probably one of my least favourites. But as a fan of her first album, I still held out hope that her sophomore offering would be an equally wonderful work of pop. As soon as the next single ‘Physical’ was released, I knew Miss Lipa (fondly known as Dula Peep to some) would not let me down. With an accompanying workout video that pays homage to its Olivia Newton-John namesake anthem, ‘Physical’ was an immediate classic that I’m sure was blaring during many spin classes in its short-lived pre-pandemic glory. The rest of the album, as its title suggests, similarly references classic pop tropes whilst remaining entirely relevant and enticing to a modern-day listener. With an unfortunate release date of the first Friday of the UK lockdown, this album may have been tragically robbed of its full appreciation by hordes of sweaty, dancing revelers across the land, but at least it provided some good vibes at a time when it felt like the country was at a standstill.

Top of the bops: Physical, Break My Heart, Hallucinate

Rina Sawayama- SAWAYAMA

I have a weirdly vivid memory of the first time I heard ‘XS’, arguably the biggest single from Rina Sawayama’s debut album. I was in the gym (blissfully unaware that they would be closed for the foreseeable future in a matter of weeks) doing an ab workout, and I was listening to a playlist of new single releases. As soon as this song started playing, it’s genre-switching instrumentation and noughties nostalgia (combined with lyrics that mock capitalism in the most infectious way possible) filled me with a surge of energy that powered me through my exercises, before swiftly crashing as the song ended and messaging one of my friends to demand he listened to this masterpiece ASAP. I was unfamiliar with Sawayama before hearing this single, but soon after her album was released the Japanese-British singer-songwriter skyrocketed up my list of favourite artists. I was slightly worried that ‘XS’ may have been an incredible fluke, but thankfully the rest of this impeccable album is filled with surprising songs that bounce between genres in the most delightfully dizzying way. Music fans and critics were surprised to see her snubbed by both the Mercury Prize (which led to controversy as it was revealed that it Sawayama’s lack of a British passport made her ineligible for this award and the Grammys, but with a debut as strong as this, Rina’s star is certainly set to rise regardless.

Top of the bops: XS, Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys), Paradisin’

Lady Gaga- Chromatica

Although in reality I have not travelled further than an hour and a half away from my house in the last ten months, I have spiritually been residing part-time on planet Chromatica. Lady Gaga’s new album is more than just an album; Gaga’s promotion and latest aesthetic has created a fantastical world that is free from hate, inequality and injustice (and if you get peckish whilst visiting, it also now has its own version of Oreos). As a long-time Lady Gaga stan, the release of lead single ‘Stupid Love’ conjured up feelings within me that reminded me of being 12 years old again in 2011, playing ‘Born This Way’ on repeat in a state of euphoric awe. Whilst her last album experimented with country and light rock influences, Chromatica marks an exquisite return to the quirky dance-pop that made her one of the biggest artists of the 2010s. With inspired features by Elton John, BLACKPINK and most notably Ariana Grande, this collection of high-camp, high-drama songs provided the symbolic fleeing to another planet that so many of us dreamed of, and that kind of extra-terrestrial escapism feels like something that only a star of Gaga’s magnitude could accomplish.

Top of the bops: Rain On Me, 911, Babylon

Chloe x Halle- Ungodly Hour

*insert bad joke about how there is nothing ‘ungodly’ about Chloe and Halle’s decidedly angelic vocals*

Okay, so I’ll admit this is technically an R&B album rather than a pop album, but it felt wrong to do a write-up of all of the albums that delighted me over the year and exclude this one, and this sister duo have certainly made a significant cultural impact in 2020. With well-publicised endorsement from their mentor and record label manager Beyoncé, and Halle Bailey being an official Disney Princess-in-waiting after her casting as Ariel in the reboot of The Little Mermaid, this was probably one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Thankfully, the Bailey sisters proved that their (still very young) pairs of hands are exceptionally capable at crafting an excellent album, which was met with critical praise and eventually a Grammy nomination. Unlike some of the other albums on this list, Ungodly Hour isn’t a listen that demands to be enjoyed through a booming speaker with a drink in hand, but songs such as lead single ‘Do It’ (which will have you pining for the simple, almost forgotten pleasures of getting ready for a night out with your pals) incorporate slick beats with sweet-as-honey vocals to create music that will slink its way into looping round your head for hours.

Top of the bops: Do It, Ungodly Hour, Busy Boy

Jessie Ware- What’s Your Pleasure?

Jessie Ware is an artist I’ve been aware of for a long time and has been an awards show favourite since her debut album, but this album signified the first time I’d ever really listened to her music beyond watching her perform a set at Parklife two years ago. But after hearing the incredibly memorable singles ‘Save A Kiss’ and ‘Soul Control’, I knew that What’s Your Pleasure? was a release that I was going to be a fan of. Inspired by disco (making it unbelievably the first of two disco-themed albums on this list) in a way that somehow feels effortlessly cool and laid back, Ware manages to put her own spin on the musical conventions of this nostalgic genre. Her distinctive vocals glide smoothly over funky instrumentation with an ease that makes it hard to believe that this is her first time releasing an album of this ilk. The overall result is a track list that floods your eardrums with rhythms that will fill you with the uncontrollable urge to bop, or at the very least will warrant a subtle body roll.

Top of the bops: Soul Control, Spotlight, Ooh La La

Kylie Minogue- Disco

If you had told me this time last December that one of my favourite albums of 2020 would be from none other than Kylie Minogue, I would have been somewhat confused. Whilst undeniably iconic, the Australian pop legend isn’t someone I’ve often chosen to listen to outside the realms of a throwback playlist. But in a year where nothing is all that surprising anymore, it's understandable that Disco would bring me some solace in the form of an incredibly cohesive collection of tracks that effortlessly evokes the archetypal images of bright lights, big hair and glittery jumpsuits of the era that its title celebrates. As perfectly demonstrated by lead single ‘Say Something’, Kylie’s sunny vocals and lyrics that definitely do not scrimp on optimism are able to generate the kinds of feelings that our souls have been starved of lately. This album feels like a blissful daydream (which makes sense given that a lot of it was produced by Minogue at her home studio during the pandemic) as its retro musicality beckons you to step out onto an imaginary dancefloor. Whilst I may not have been on a single dancefloor since February, I did have one particularly good hoovering session whilst listening to this album, which is honestly the most I can really ask for from an album in 2020.

Top of the bops: Real Groove, I Love It, Where Does the DJ Go?

Little Mix- Confetti

From filming a music competition tv series to pissing off Tommy Robinson, the girls of Little Mix have had a busy year, which culminated in the release of their sixth album, Confetti, in November. In their almost decade-long career- which is no mean feat for a collective who auditioned for The X Factor as solo artists and were brought together in a miraculously successful attempt to launch a new girl band- Little Mix have become some of the most reliable women in pop, releasing hit single after hit single whilst still somehow remaining indefinitely relatable. Their latest album launched after a string of excellent singles and promotional singles, which had already given a pretty good indicator of the direction this album was headed in: glossy, polished pop numbers that are unashamed in their celebration of self-love and sisterhood. Confetti manages to include anthemic crowd-pleasers, club bangers and a couple of softer ballads that all still feel true to Little Mix’s established sound and brand, and it’s clear to see that the group’s reign as the top UK girl band isn’t going to be ending anytime soon.

Top of the bops: Happiness, Sweet Melody, Confetti

As this hellish year comes to an end, I hope everyone has a few positives - however small - to look back on. Let’s hope 2021 will treat us all better, and that female pop stars will continue to flourish throughout.

Written by Olivia Cox