The Song That Will Give You an Instant Sugar High:
Blackpink & Selena Gomez, «Ice Cream»
After guesting on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica track “Sour Candy” and scoring a top 40 hit with their own single “How You Like That,” K-pop group Blackpink continues its steady U.S. takeover with “Ice Cream,” a new collaboration with Selena Gomez that doubles as one of the most high-profile pop releases of 2020. Uniting two huge fan bases with lots of sweet-tooth euphemisms and a dizzying hook, “Ice Cream” is an inspired style clash, with Gomez hitting the more subtle notes (“Coldest with the kiss, so he call me ice cream,” she happily shrugs) and the Blackpink ladies serving up ostentatious belting and rapping in turn. If “Ice Cream” represents a crucial step for the group’s stateside crossover, they sound like they’re having a blast taking it, as their new friend Gomez is all smiles as she quite literally drives the ice cream truck.
The Album That Repositions a Pop Heroine:
Katy Perry, Smile
At the center of Katy Perry’s new album, Smile, are a song titled “Resilience,” in which the pop superstar sings, “You’re gonna watch this flower grow right through the cracks,” and another titled “Not the End of the World,” on which she asserts, “Flipping off the flop, now I just enjoy the ride.” Perry’s follow-up to 2017’s uneven Witness is in some ways a response to her first commercial misstep, but as the former mainstay atop the Hot 100 moves into the next phase of her career — and personal life, welcoming her first child, Daisy, just this week — she’s embracing change while adhering to her positive pop foundation. Previously released tracks like “Never Really Over,” “Harleys in Hawaii” and the now-prescient “Daisies” still serve as grade-A earworms, while “Cry About It Later” could be the sleek, carefree radio hit that Perry is still able to conjure. As Perry evolves, her voice remains a touchstone of modern pop, and it’s good to have it back.
The Song That Requires Mood Lighting:
The Weeknd & Calvin Harris, «Over Now»
It’s fair to say that the commercial appeal of a collaboration between The Weeknd and Calvin Harris in 2020 is a question mark: although Abel Tesfaye has remained a dominant chart force this year, Harris has strayed from his radio-friendly production and used his Love Regenerator series to explore some left-field impulses, often to great effect. “Over Now” plays out like a meeting in the middle of crowd-friendly and idiosyncratic, an expertly produced lounge single that finds The Weeknd tossing out hooks and relying on his falsetto to navigate the throwback R&B terrain. As the first team-up between the two A-listers, “Over Now” is not the mainstream wallop it could have been, but a slinkier, ultimately effective vibe.
The Album That Will Have You Longing For a Club Night in Quarantine:
Dua Lipa & The Blessed Madonna, Club Future Nostalgia
Although Dua Lipa’s outstanding sophomore album Future Nostalgia is barely five months old and is plenty uptempo on its own, the pop star has dropped a full dance remix album, in collaboration with the Blessed Madonna, into a world that could sure use a dance break amidst the tumult. Club Future Nostalgia is often a euphoric exercise, especially for those who have played the original songs on repeat — hearing the structures of “Hallucinate,” “Break My Heart” and “Pretty Please” broken down and reassembled by artists like Paul Woolford, Jamiroquai and Masters At Work demonstrates the craft of each multi-dimensional hook. And when a few pop stars show up to the party — Madonna and Missy Elliott on the “Levitating” remix, Gwen Stefani on a Mark Ronson rework of “Physical” — Lipa makes for a gracious mistress of ceremonies.
The Song That Will Compel An Online Shopping Spree:
Ty Dolla $ign feat. Nicki Minaj, «Expensive»
Ty Dolla $ign’s last single, “Ego Death,” was a rhythmic, multi-part experiment that featured Kanye West, Skrillex and FKA Twigs — a collection of visionaries that are difficult to collect onto a cohesive four-minute jam. “Expensive,” his follow-up featuring Nicki Minaj, is a more streamlined effort, an ode to a woman with expensive taste that turns on Minaj popping in midway through to play the part of that woman. “Gotta get me ice if he tryna skate!” she declares on the guest verse, after name-checking Patek and before mentioning Chanel and Tom Ford; Ty Dolls $ign is simply asked to float above an itchy guitar lick, and the mission is accomplished. These two teamed up this time last year on “Hot Girl Summer” with Megan Thee Stallion, and once again exhibit top-notch musical chemistry.
The Album That Will Make You Yearn To Attend a Concert:
Halsey, Badlands (Live From Webster Hall)
“I miss performing for you live more than anything in the world so here I am. Right in your bedroom.” Halsey tweeted that out upon the release of Badlands (Live From Webster Hall), the pop star’s first live LP that doubles as a commemoration of the five-year anniversary of her debut album. Although New York’s Webster Hall is a little bit bigger than a bedroom, the album, recorded last year during a two-night underplay, offers an intimate look at a stage show that has expanded to fill arenas but hinges upon the vulnerability in Halsey’s vocal delivery. Plus, hearing the crowd shout along with every word of the fiercely loved debut full-length makes for a nifty bit of fan service, as if Halsey’s supporters have become part of the music, too.
The Album That Will Inspire Spontaneous Movement Around The House:
Energy is full of just that, a tour de force third full-length from U.K. brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence that recalls the propulsive presentation of Disclosure’s 2013 debut, Settle, while righting some of the wrongs of its 2015 follow-up, Caracal. While that album was slightly unfocused and full of disparate guest stars, Energy stays lean, refracting the duo’s brand of house music through vocalists — Syd, Channel Tres, Kehlani, Mick Jenkins — that complement each other and help the songs sound part of a whole. The opening track, “Watch Your Step” with Kelis, soars as high as Disclosure’s best work, and Energy rarely looks down from that start.
Maryland native Cordae has dropped the “YBN” prefix from his name and effectively begun the second phase of his career: “Gifted,” featuring 2020 MVP candidate Roddy Ricch, is an appreciation of past struggles and how they have birthed a bright future. Instead of confining their similar sing-rap energies to separate verses, “Gifted” plays out as a conversation between the two MCS — as soon as Cordae wraps up an anecdote about his teenage drug experimentation, Roddy grabs the mic and asserts that he was fortunate enough to buy foreign cars for his many cousins. There’s a sweetness to “Gifted,” thanks in part to the detailed storytelling; the more Cordae lets us into his imagination, the more success he’ll find.
The Song That Functions as a Nice, Deep Breath:
Chris Stapleton, “Starting Over”
Starting Over, the forthcoming album from country great Chris Stapleton, was completed in late February, a few weeks before “social distancing” became part of the cultural lexicon in the United States. Yet its title track sounds designed for this moment, an exhalation in the middle of an anxiety-stricken year, with Stapleton’s gruff voice providing hope for a better future. “Nobody wins afraid of losing / And the hard roads are the ones worth choosing,” he sings, the focus on Stapleton’s message as the rambling guitar leads an unobtrusive arrangement. “Starting Over” portrays a sense of simple satisfaction, and right now, it’s a helpful feeling.