I remember once being annoyed by pop music. Oh, for sure, a broad swath of pop music is still terrible, as is a broad swath of music or any other media form. But in the realm of contemporary pop music, Ariana Grande looms large for me. Effecting (or being subjected to) a transformation from young, family friendly Nickelodeon teen to a sexualized diva, Grande has benefited from an array of music producers and image stylists over the course of the seven years she has released her six albums (and before that as well). Her latest, POSITIONS, is the most recent and most explicit affirmation of Grande’s “grown up” attitude, and it’s the impetus for this piece. I am unashamedly an Ariana Grande fan, even though I don’t care about the Pete Davidson drama or the constant tabloid surveillance of her life. I’m all about the music, man, the semi-shallow, manufactured-by-committee music, man.
#6 — MY EVERYTHING (2014)
Favorite track: “One Last Time”
Grande definitely faced the sophomore slump with MY EVERYTHING, her second album. Its array of hit singles, which really stand as my earliest awareness of the singer, are certainly the weakest in the span of her discography. The record feels like an attempt to “mature” Grande’s sound, as a half step between YOURS TRULY and DANGEROUS WOMAN, but in the process, MY EVERYTHING feels the blandest of all of her releases. “One Last Time” is a nominal favorite, but it’s also indicative of my lukewarm response to the album. It’s a middling pop record, and not much else.
#5 — DANGEROUS WOMAN (2016)
Favorite track: “Bad Decisions”
But DANGEROUS WOMAN was clearly the definitive image shift. Adorning the cover is a picture of Grande in a latex rabbit mask, evoking a dominatrix Playboy Bunny. The title, and its single of the same name, cements the step away from relatively inoffensive lyrical content. Oh sure, the music on DANGEROUS WOMAN is still in the same vein of inoffensive (in a different way) modern pop music that is present on MY EVERYTHING. It’s just much better. The hooks are stronger, the production more memorable, and the vocal delivery from Grande more varied. “Bad Decisions” has a catchy chorus, overriding the groove of even “Dangerous Woman” and the jangle of “Be Alright.” DANGEROUS WOMAN was definitely where I took more notice of Grande, but there was clearly better to come.
#4 — POSTIONS (2020)
Favorite track: “Nasty”
POSITIONS is the third in a trilogy of Grande albums that seems geared to more personal expression and the cultivation of critical praise. As with her previous two albums, all of the track titles on POSITIONS are stylized in lower case, continuing the lowkey vibe set by SWEETENER. It’s rendered with more, I guess an appropriate word is “sultriness?” Look, POSITIONS, as you might guess from the title, is just about sex. The best song, “Nasty,” is groovy, and the title single is definitely catchy. And with names like “34+35” and “POV,” well, you get the point. But all of this innuendo, and then explicit sexual content, is contained within songs that just don’t hit the same as Grande’s other recent releases. It carries an impressively cohesive sound across its 14 tracks, like its two predecessors do, but there aren’t as many songs that stand out to me.
#3 — YOURS TRULY (2013)
Favorite track: “Honeymoon Avenue”
In fact, the opposite bookend to Grande’s career, her debut YOURS TRULY, stands as a greater pop achievement. As opposite from POSITIONS as you can get within the singer’s discography, YOURS TRULY has simpler, more innocent lyrical content and a ’60s, doo-wop influence. The latter fleshes the album out into something much richer than you might expect. Modern production and pop styles still primarily define YOURS TRULY, but a song like “Honeymoon Avenue” has staying power. The record is as silly as you get in an already pretty silly poppy body of work, but YOURS TRULY is simply an enjoyable, catchy listen.
#2 — SWEETENER (2018)
Favorite track: “Successful”
SWEETENER was actually Grande’s best received album since her debut, at least critically. And as much as you can make fun of some of his work, I think that can be chalked up to the influence of Pharrell Williams’ production on the record. SWEETENER is probably the most “experimental” of Grande’s albums, and you can hear that in a song like “The Light Is Coming;” N.E.R.D.-ish sounds abound on the songs Williams produces, and the others feel a little more conventional. “Successful,” another Williams joint, is the best track on the album, with some great bloops and blips (sorry I can’t get more technical than that), and indeed the rest of SWEETENER paints an intriguing and immersive soundscape.
#1 — THANK U, NEXT (2019)
Favorite track: “Needy”
But the album that really took the world by storm is, so far, Grande’s best. THANK U, NEXT is a moody, powerful piece of pop music, compelling like not much else coming out in that field today is. Lord knows I played “Needy” on repeat for a while there, as a real theme song for someone who came out of a five-year relationship just over three months before the record came out. The rest of the album is, of course, uniformly great, full of absolute bangers that often outshine the huge hit that was the titular single. I listen to THANK U, NEXT and wonder, if this is where Grande had taken her career (or where others had taken her career) in just (at that time) six years, where will she be in another six? Or sixteen? Will she be able to mature into a new sound, or will her reliance on a huge batch of producers end up leaving her in the dust? Truly, that speculation is too cerebral after listening through THANK U, NEXT. This is as good as pop music gets right now.