Album Review: Future Nostalgia

The year 2020 was a notable and arguably formative year for pop music, during which time we witnessed a popular revival of disco, glam rock and synth pop influences exemplified through recent releases by Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue, Miley Cyrus and Rina Sawayama. Some of these throwback-inspired projects were more effective than others, which, in such an instrumentally heavy and electronically influenced genre, can be largely attributed to production. While Lipa’s March 2020 release, Future Nostalgia, was far from a perfect album, it was one of the more popular works within this epochal revival and has been met with critical acclaim. 

Most of the early colloquial conversations about British-Albanian artist Dua Lipa surrounded her admittedly lacking stage presence and a few uninspired JC Penny-core singles, though more recently in 2020, her breakthrough into TikTok popularity with the song “Don’t Start Now.” However, Future Nostalgia, the album containing the trending TikTok track, has received significant acclaim for its thematic and stylistic cohesion as well as its production, even receiving nominations for the Grammy Awards as Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album. 

Lipa stated that she wanted the atmosphere of the album to feel like a dancercise class, an apparently successful endeavor as critics noted its similarities in sound to the works of Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue, Blondie and Madonna, among other classic pop artists. Certainly, one of the greatest contributing factors to the album’s effectiveness is the competence in production. Lipa enlisted a slew of producers for the project, adding Kanye-collaborator Jeff Bhasker as well as DJ, writer and producer Stuart Price who has worked with Minogue and Missy Elliot, as well as Canadian producer “Koz” to her debut album’s previous collaborators. Price’s co-production of the eventual singles “Hallucinate” and “Levitating” stands out in its similarity to his work on Madonna’s 2005 “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” two significant tracks that anchor and redeem much of the album’s retro pop style. 

The 2021 re-release Future Nostalgia: The Moonlight Edition features several bonus tracks, including Lipa’s collaboration with Miley Cyrus on the song “Prisoner,” originally released as a single off Cyrus’ most recent album, Plastic Hearts, another revival album with disco and glam rock influences. This track was produced by the Monsters and Strangerz, who also did limited work on Future Nostalgia, and both albums also featured Andrew Watt as a production influence. The overlap seemed promising, but the production of the two albums turned out to be disappointingly divergent. 

Prior to the release of Plastic Hearts following Future Nostalgia, the announcements of Cyrus’s foray into glam rock with Plastic Hearts seemed incredibly promising between the singer’s impressive affinity for rock vocals recently exemplified in her “Heart of Glass” cover — the album’s guest vocalists featuring Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks — and the potential similarities in production overlapping with Lipa. However, while the vocals and overall concept had noteworthy potential, its sound was significantly obstructed by its unfortunately lackluster, safely predictable pop production that is liable to take listeners back to a middle school mall excursion, digging infinity scarves from the sale bins at Forever 21. The uninspiringly generic instrumentals and mixing undercut and underwhelm the vocals in an unfortunate contrast to Future Nostalgia; Cyrus should have called Jack Antonoff like the other pop girlies or Sawayama’s Clarence Clarity to do her vocals justice, especially after the notable success of Sawayama’s genre-bending 2020 self-titled album that much more effectively integrated its rock influences. 

While some of the hype surrounding Future Nostalgia may be a bit overdramatic, especially when compared to the comparatively underappreciated SAWAYAMA, Lipa succeeded where Cyrus failed in actually choosing producers with experience in the musical epoch and genres she sought to emulate.