When life deals us cards
Make everything taste like it is salt
Then you come through like the sweetener you are
To bring the bitter taste to a halt
That’s the hook of the title track off Ariana Grande’s fourth album Sweetener. It’s an album that came after a period for her where positivity was surely not the easiest emotion to conjure. Grande looks optimistically forward on Sweetener and as a result it’s the sunniest and best pop album of the year, held together by its unwaveringly positive title track. Pop hasn’t smiled this hard since Mariah Carey gave us Rainbow or Janet Jackson healed on Together Again.
Positivity in pop is certainly not something new to 2018. Radio sounds better when the music is light-hearted and sunny but this year’s positivity feels like it has substance. Grande’s Sweetener, created in part with Pharrell, goes deeper than say Pharrell’s Happy. It details her own struggle with anxiety, giving succinct and simple but affective advice. On Breathin she sings, “just keep breathin’ and breathin’,” and on the stunning closer Get Well Soon she tells herself, “girl, what’s wrong with you come back down.” When she reaches that bliss “state of mind” (as she recalls on No Tears Left To Cry) she gives us cocky moments like Successful.
Sweetener may be the most explicitly positive pop album of this year but it’s not the only one. In fact, most of 2018’s best pop albums take positivity as a key motif whether it be personally, politically or sexually. When we scroll down our list of favourite albums this year, it’s a different collective feeling to the albums that make up our best of list in 2016, the year Trump won the election and the UK voted in favour of Brexit. That year Beyoncé gave us the heartbreaking yet powerful and liberating Lemonade, Rihanna moved towards dark, distorted R&B with ANTI and Solange documented her healing process with A Seat At The Table. Even Lady Gaga, pop’s resident euphoria-maker, was heartbroken on Joanne. That’s obviously not entirely to do with the political state of the world but that feeling of backwards progress has shaken music’s greatest thinkers for a few years.
This year was kicked off by the often politically-motivated Janelle Monáe, who returned with her third album Dirty Computer. Monáe said herself that she has had “a lot of anger” since Trump was elected. Dirty Computer isn’t angry though. It’s liberating, empowering and, at times, optimistic. Make Me Feel celebrates sexual liberation, Screwed dances through the apocalypse with tongue in cheek and Americans reclaims American rhetoric with social justice at the forefront.
A big part of Dirty Computer‘s celebratory atmosphere is Monáe’s declaration of pansexuality. On previous albums, she’d never revealed that much about her, often giving us Monáe as fictional characters. If anything good has come from conservative and backwards decision-makers falling into positions of power, it’s the artistic liberation rejecting any attempt to box-in minorities.
It was only a few years ago that the press was making Sam Smith’s use of male-pronouns on his debut album In The Lonely Hour a major talking point. In 2018, Troye Sivan has made a top 10 US album Bloom featuring a title-track which depicts bottoming for the first time. Bloom may be heartbreaking at point (Postcard will tug at you) but for the most part it’s this endlessly enjoyable celebration of being comfortable in your own skin. My My My! projects joy, Dance To This finds euphoria in moments of intimacy and Animal settles in momentary bliss that feels endless.
Sivan’s unwillingness to hold anything back when it comes to depicting his life as a young queer artist has rightfully made him one of this year’s most important artists. Similarly, Ryan Beatty’s debut album Boy In Jeans centres around his sexuality in an autobiographical way. On the radiant opener Haircut he reveals he tried to hide it but ultimately found joy in embracing himself. “It starts right now,” he sings over beautifully organic instrumentation.
The search for personal bliss without ignoring anxiety and the outside world has produced some very special moments this year. Texan country singer Kacey Musgraves is an artist who has come under scrutiny for her loud distaste of Trump and support for the queer community within one of the most conservative genres. She may not be getting the airplay she deserves on country radio but she’s become an unlikely alternative and gay icon thanks to her third album Golden Hour. Musgraves has analysed the outside world in her music before but Golden Hour sits in this inspiring moment of personal contentment after her marriage to fellow country singer Ruston Kelly. She shuns negativity on High Horse, floats with happiness on Butterflies and finds joy in taking time while the world turns on Slow Burn. It’s the piano-led closer Rainbow that delivers the most positive statement, “there’s always been a rainbow hanging over your head.”
Even our goth-pop queen Lana Del Rey, who last year was writing sad songs about tensions between North and South Korea while at Coachella, has found contentment this year. The wandering 10-minute long Venice Bitch has her singing, “If you weren’t mine, I’d be/Jealous of your love.” It’s just her and her “one lover”. The rest of the world a million miles away.
It’s naive to think that the problems of the world can be healed by a smiling face in pop but it helps. Pop music in its purest form trades in escapism and the best moments of this year are finding a way to balance personal and political turmoil with positivity. It may not heal the world but if it can heal us even for three minutes, we’ll take it.