Greetings, Glancers! Ok, I know I didn’t get through many of the 2020 albums in 2021. You didn’t think I really would though, did you? In an ideal world I’d like to do this sort of series every year, to give me a flavour of what’s popular these days. Actually, in an ideal world I’d like to have the time and money to do nothing but listen to music and watch movies and post shite about them. In any case, if the 25 albums (or was it 30) I picked from 2020 are as good as they’re supposed to be, then they should be considered timeless classics and it shouldn’t matter to me when I listen to them or to you when I talk about them.
Dua Lipa then. I don’t know anything about her, I don’t know any of her songs, but I think I read somewhere that she’s a Liverpool fan. I don’t know if that means she’s from Liverpool, if she’s English, or if she’s from outside of the UK but has heard of Mo Salah and is therefore a Liverpool fan by proxy. I know she’s popular though – I recently started properly using Reddit after years of occasionally looking at it – and joined the /music and /popheads subs. She’s mentioned quite frequently in the Popheads one, though the Music one is mostly filled with Boomers and Ween fans and would likely dismiss her. I’m willing to give everyone a shot, so by the end of this post she may have a new Gen X/Gen Y/Millennial/WhateverthehellIam fan. As always, I take a gander at the album cover to get some almost certainly inaccurate feelings about the artist and her art.
I’ll assume that’s her, because most popstars will feature themselves on their album artwork, at least until the point they become famous enough that they can sell based on their name alone rather than their appearance. It’s a striking enough image, suitable and colourful enough to appear as a small jpeg on your phone and lacking any fine detail. But I like it, particularly the huge blue moon in the background. I’m not convinced that those gloves are a good match for that steering wheel – the gloves seem lacking in the grip department, while the steering wheel a highly glossed wood – lets hope she isn’t doing 42mph in a School Zone. Does any of this tell me anything about what the music will be like? Of course not. Lets find out, shall we?
Without giving away too much about what I think of the album, I’m going to jump in now and say that so far the most overt, traditional Pop albums I’ve listened to as part of the 2020 series have been the ones I’ve enjoyed most. Fine, the Bad Bunny album was crap, but the Bob Dylan, Deftones, Biffy Clyro, and Code Orange albums didn’t have much impact on me. I still crank out a handful of the Chloe X Halle tunes. Am I losing my Metal cred? I don’t hold much stock in such matters and have always been up front in my love for good Pop music – good music, regardless of genre. Future Nostalgia? Good. Pop. Music. Future Nostalgia is an apt title – you can hear the 80s and 90s Pop influences in certain tracks, and Dua Lipa’s music seems like the logical continuation of, say, Madonna. I can’t say that I’ve listened to much Top 40 music in the last 15 years so I’m sure there are many artists filling in the gaps between Madonna and Dua Lipa, but you can see the pattern of influence.
There are any number of floor-filling bangers here, great for blasting in the club, on the radio, or in the house. Crucially though, there is also humour and intelligence, both in lyric and composition. That’s where Pop becomes something elevated, something more interesting to me; I can enjoy a catchy jingle as much as anyone, but if there’s a bland message and a lack of emotional connection, no matter how you dress up the song with Production and Performance, I’m not going to care about it beyond a cursory acknowledgement of its existence. I do have issues with the album – issues others won’t give two shits about – but which affected my enjoyment; Most of the songs revolve about love and relationships. Madonna, to continue with that example, could sing about shagging till the cows came home, but she would throw in a few songs each album which overtly were not about romance. If we look at my favourite modern Pop artist – Sia – which Dua Lipa’s vocals have more than a passing resemblance to on Future Nostalgia – Sia will cover any number of topics unrelated to love even in her most successful works. Future Nostalgia doesn’t have many non-love related songs – it is bookended by two future Feminist anthems in the title track and closer Boys Will Be Boys, but even those are done through the lens of a woman’s relationship to men. Boys Will Be Boys is the closest to being its own thing as it sings of empowerment and fear, taking that hateful phrase which politicians and sexual predators use to dismiss criminal and violent behaviour against women, and twisting it around to rip that defence apart. I’m not sure how much of this song was written by Lipa versus Justin Tranter – a lyricist known for his advocacy in this respect – but it’s entirely possible that Lipa pulled Tranter in for this album because of his past work. In any case – powerful message, great song.
While there may not be many overt non-romance based songs, several songs are at least presented in a more refreshing way, usually with a more empowering female perspective – Dua Lipa calls herself a female alpha in the opener, Cool and Physical are pure exaltations of feeling and confidence, coming across as sincere versus more generic fare, while Break My Heart takes a more pensive, apprehensive approach due to past hurt. Even when the lyrics are generic in structure and theme and content, there are at least jokes or nods to past works from Olivia Newtown John, Bing Crosby, White Town, or INXS. I could be picky and state that the songs aren’t the most structurally interesting, but that would be a valid criticism for the vast majority of music released each year so I don’t believe it would be fair here – it’s a pop album, so you want the familiarity of verse, bridge, and chorus loops.
My second more genuine criticism – still a personal thing – is with some of the vocals. Lipa can sing, alternating styles and strength between and often within songs, but she isn’t immune to some of the quirks which piss me off about most modern singers. The way ‘body’ is sung with a hard, almost double or triple D sound in Pretty Please (one of the weaker songs) reminds me of that fucking awful Royal Navy advert song with the ‘awrite guvna, reDDee, steDDee yip yip aye’ lyrics. Christ that thing is on every 15 minutes and gets muted every time. She overdoes the screechy Sia thing in Hallucinate and repeats probably the one trait which annoys me most in vocalists over the last fifteen years or so – adding these unnecessary Y-type vowel sounds to words which don’t need them, while simultaneously doing a little vibrato. Why is this a thing, and why do so many singers do this? Why does it annoy me? All unanswerable, but listen to the middle of Hallucinate and how ‘dark’ and ‘start’ are pronounced as ‘doweek’ and ‘stoueet’ respectively. You should know by now that certain accents or pronunciations in songs are enough to make me never listen to the song again, and I admit that when Lipa begins her Cockney shtick in the album’s opening verses I was already moving the cursor towards the top right corner of the window. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, and elsewhere the vocals are excellent.
Aside from the performance and personality of Dua Lipa, and aside from the infectious melodies which should be the principle hallmark of any pop song, the album’s production is one of the keys to its success. The warm production firmly places many of the songs into the power-pop region, adding force to its synth and drums, and turning songs which I may not normally have much affinity for into something I can enjoy, sing, and leap about to. Hallucinate is a good example of a song and genre I typically would not give a second glance, but the production allows it to level up while Level Again would be typical repetitive pop junk if not for the use of strings and samples. Cool, probably the best song on the album, would still be a good pop song but is again taken up several notches by the, well the modern synth based off an 80s formula. Cool is a banger for the ages, striking that fine balance I look for in any song – emotion, melody, and an artist giving a peak performance.
The album stumbles in the middle, perhaps due to the fact that each of the opening four songs are so strong. It picks up again with Break My Heart and those closing three songs are each high points in different respects while not hitting the heights of any of the the first four. Comparing it to a similar nostalgic pop oriented album which I’m familiar with, Sia’s We Are Born was nowhere near as successful as Future Nostalgia, but edges this out in terms of quality. Future Nostalgia isn’t far off, but is lacking some of the additional emotive force and variance of genre to Sia’s early classic. In any event, fans of Future Nostalgia who may be reading this, should check out We Are Born and will likely enjoy it too. I was surprised I liked this as much as I did – again, most of the modern chart pop songs I’ve heard in recent years have been, for lack of a better term, apocalyptically shite and creatively barren, but this is brimming with spirit, wit, and love. I had not heard any of the songs till I put on the album for the first time, and at least six of the songs here will be added to my pop playlist.
Sales: 4. You should know by now that attempting to judge album sales now is a complete shit show, but the best estimates show that via a combination of physical sales and streams it was one of the top ten selling albums of the year. Depending on whether you compare this against albums of the past in pre-streaming days, I could see people giving this a 5 or a harsh 3.
Chart: 4. Hit the number 1 spot in the UK and Australia, along with various other territories, made the top ten in the US. I think to get a 5 here, you really need the Number 1 spot in US and UK, or if not both some other exceptional metric.
Critical: 5. Almost all overwhelmingly positive across the board, never less than a 4 out of 5 equivalent rating and the album and many of its songs feature on year end Top Ten lists.
Originality: 3. Maybe I’m a little harsh here, but it’s not the first album ever, or in this generation, to give a modern twist on a particular sound, vibe, or genre. It does it well, but it never reaches the point of being revolutionary.
Influence: 3. I say this every time, but this is incredibly hard to judge without time having past. Based on its sales and success I can see it being influential on other artists, but given the lack of revolutionary traits and the fact that it is a retro influenced album, I don’t know how influential it can be.
Musical Ability: 3. Another tough one to judge because the focus is on Dua Lipa as a musician and primarily a vocalist – I don’t know how much influence she had on the actual music beyond composition, and the vocal have their own category. The contributing musicians do their part, but nothing exceptional.
Lyrics: 3. Do I go 4 here? It’s tricky because I’m very picky with lyrics. Old tropes are both avoided and embraced, and the fact that most of the songs are still under the overall umbrella of ‘Love’ means I can’t honestly give a 4 – if there were revolutionary statements about romance or some beautifully shattering, unique, and incitement lines on the subject I would push to a 4. They are stronger than your average pop, but that’s an incredibly low bar to step over.
Melody: 4. A very solid, high 4. Some of the songs in the middle of the album prevent this from possibly reaching a 5, but as a whole most songs have potent melodies, and a few of those melodies are striking and effortlessly infectious.
Emotion: 3. I did have a 4 for this originally, but downgraded to a 3 because most of the emotion which came across to me is really down to the sincerity I felt – that can go to the authenticity score. There’s emotion, but not peaks, not a lot of variance of emotion.
Lastibility: 4. It already feels a little timeless. That could be due to how recent it is and the blend of modern and the nostalgia. Looking again at Sales and success, and how much I enjoyed it, I can see me and others continuing to listen for many years hence.
Vocals: 4. Not quite a 5 due to some of the quirks I mentioned, but a very solid 4. Good performance, a lot of charm, and plenty of different vocal styles.
Coherence: 4. It’s very coherent. You can argue that it lacks say, a slow ballad, or something to break up the endless loop of up-tempo pop/dance tracks, but I don’t think that would impact the coherence. While there are different styles, it’s still a nostalgic synth based pop/dance album, primarily concerned with feelings of love and empowerment.
Mood: 4. It creates a mood. A dance mood, a fun mood. Not exactly the sort of mood I go for, but it’s there. I could equally go 3 here.
Production: 4. Great work. Not revolutionary, but it nails the desired style and fits the theme of looking forwards and backwards.
Effort: 4. I’ve no idea how much effort went into this, but it was a step up in success from her previous album, the number of singles, the quality of the output. Go 3 here if you want.
Relationship: 3. As mentioned on the Chloe x Halle post, there’s only so much I can relate to here, being a 30 something white bloke from Northern Ireland – who has never been into dance music, clubbing, or much of what is talked about in pop music. I am however a music fan, I think I understand emotions, so that is what I relate to here.
Genre Relation: 4. It relates to other modern and older pop music but, for me at least, excels over much of what is new and some of what is old.
Authenticity: 4. Everything comes across as authentic and sincere – any pop album is designed to sell, to make as much money as possible for all involved while heightening the status of the performer. That’s the business. But Dua Lipa uses the album as a platform for good, for progress, and it doesn’t feel like a cash-in using the buzzwords of culture today. Lyrically, musically, and based on her performance, this all feels authentic.
Personal: 4. I can argue that I both over and underscore pop albums. I can underscore based on the overwhelming response by actual critics, but I can over score purely because it’s a modern pop album which managed to speak to me and given me some enjoyment – it’s an anomaly when a modern pop album does this, and so I maybe bump up my score a little. But it’s a good album, no doubt.
Miscellaneous: 3. I saw some of the music videos. Lots of fashion. Lots of dancing. Nothing to interest me. Standard 3 score.
Easily the highest score I’ve given to a 2020 album in this series so far, and easily my favourite listen in the series. In starting this series I wanted one album which I could enjoy from start to finish – this kind of gets there in that even the weaker tracks don’t piss me off – and it’s an album I’ll definitely return to.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Future Nostalgia!