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In a year divided by before and after, pop music became whatever you wanted it to be

Taylor Swift delivered two albums of inviting pop in 2020, last summer's "Folklore" and this month's "Evermore."Beth Garrabrant/Universal Music Group

When the Grammy nominations were announced a few weeks ago, I experienced a distinct out-of-time feeling that was different than the normal “oh, haha” reaction I get from that awards show’s lists. The Recording Academy’s awards year went from Sept. 1, 2019, through Aug. 30 of this year — but any honored records that came out before, say, mid-March felt like they might as well have had sepia-toned album art, they felt so old.

It was another sign of how putting a bow on pop music’s past year was going to be a tricky task. That was the case before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world — digital distribution as well as further fragmentation of discovery and listening mechanisms have made “pop music” an increasingly personalized ideal, with the prototypical 12-CD buyer who kept the record business plated in gold and platinum during the ’90s already seeming like as much of a relic as the eight-track tape, replaced by infinite playlists and gigabytes of MP3 files.


The lockdown that hit this spring — and still persists nine months later — served as a dividing line between pop as a communal experience and as something infinitely personal. Never mind the canceled shows in March that would have united throngs of fans behind Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” or Dropkick Murphys’ robust catalog of Celt-punk; staying at home also allowed fewer opportunities to get a feel of other nearby people’s listening habits, whether through music that seeped into spaces through thin walls or radio stations that blared from passing vehicles.

Instead, “pop” became whatever you wanted it to be. In the bigger picture, the Billboard Hot 100′s top spot rotated at quick speed; so far, 21 songs have hit the singles chart’s summit in 2020. The current No. 1 — Mariah Carey’s 1994 holiday standard “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — is a blockbuster of the old school, and brings the chart back to where it was at the beginning of this year; tracks like Harry Styles’s gently funky “Watermelon Sugar” and The Weeknd’s aerobics-ready “Blinding Lights” were chart-topping standouts.


Of course, there was a lot happening below pop’s highest echelons. Just look at Every Noise at Once, the map of genres originally designed by Spotify data alchemist Glenn McDonald; as of this writing it’s sussed out 5,103 “genre-shaped distinctions” among the streaming-music service’s offerings. Bandcamp, the roll-your-own platform for musicians to distribute their wares, is similarly vast, its virtual shelves teeming with enough new and vintage albums and singles to fill every Boston-area college radio station’s playlist for the entirety of a calendar year.

TikTok, the video-sharing service that was in peril for much of the summer, presented its own Top of the Pops to each of its users — depending on which other videos you’d liked and shared, your musical world could be dominated by sugary-voiced young women, lip-sync-ready tracks from currently shuttered Broadway smashes, dance-craze-ready beats, hip-hop meteorites, or loop-constructed bliss-outs. The occasional chestnut would also surface: “FDT,” the 2016 protest against then-candidate Donald Trump by the Los Angeles MC YG and the late Nipsey Hussle; Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” which was paired with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s searing broadside against workplace sexism in the House; Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” the call-and-response opening bars of which were often used as the soundtrack for a “wait, what?” reaction gag; Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which rode a blissed-out skateboard to what felt like late-’70s levels of ubiquity in October.


Amid all this, certain records did manage to capture the spirit of living in 2020, even if some of them were recorded before lockdowns hit and masks became fashion statements. Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the reclusive singer-songwriter’s first full-length since 2012, came out in April, and its startling sonics and searingly honest lyrics matched the feeling of getting itchy from spending too much time indoors. Taylor Swift’s diptych of records (July’s “Folklore” and this month’s “Evermore”) was cozier, inviting new characters into her songwriting orbit in a time when throwing house parties was a no-no. The British band the Cool Greenhouse followed up its spiky, sardonic debut full-length with “Alexa!,” an ersatz love song to the home assistant’s dystopian glitchiness. Chicago rock savant Bobby Conn released “Recovery,” a grimy slab of glam-disco highlighted by the hip-shaking “Disaster.” (“It’s a disaster,” he moans over grimly advancing strings, “we’ve been waiting for for years.”) And the pair of records by the mysterious British collective Sault — ”Untitled (Black Is),” released in June, and “Untitled (Rise),” which came out in September — took the idea of dancing at the revolution to thrilling heights, taking on Black liberation and everyday racism over taut grooves.

If one thing was certain in 2020, it was that few things could actually be counted on for sure. But the pleasures afforded by the best pop music remained reliable, whether the songs were chestnuts reborn by the vagaries of streaming-music algorithms or brand-new tracks recorded in the downtime offered by quarantine.