How many pop stars working today have been able to dominate mainstream pop culture as much as Ariana Grande has? From her iconic ponytail to the endless amount of broken sales records, there’s little doubt that she’s comfortably taken a spot within pop music’s ruling elite.
Now nearly a decade into her career, Ariana’s careful navigation through the fickle nature of mainstream music produced an artist whose music absorbs the best qualities of her contemporaries while still maintaining a signature aesthetic that makes her music tick.
With only 6 studio albums out (no, I’m not counting the Christmas stuff and live album), there’s a lot to unpack within her eventful career. So let’s get to ranking them.
Let me get this out of the way, I don’t think Dangerous Woman is a bad album. In fact, it houses some of her most iconic (also some of my favourite Ari tracks to date – “Into You”, “Greedy”) and is overall still enjoyable. However, I’ve always found the entire project to be a bit…unfulfilling.
Donning her signature ponytail and a black-latex bunny mask, the album marked her move from bubblegum pop to a more mature (though still as playful) sound. The resulting album is exactly that – a transition. Like the emotionally vulnerable and climatic title track or booming walk-of-shame anthem “Side to Side” with Nicki Minaj, Dangerous Woman feels like Ariana trying new things and checking to see what sticks.
I’ve seen talk online claiming that this was the record that saw her transition into an album artist and that vision is definitely felt. However, the scattershot sound just doesn’t do it a lot of favours when taken in as a full experience.
Where Yours Truly felt like a distinct breath of fresh air, My Everything instead assimilates into the conventional top 40 tropes of the year. Just look at the tracklist, you’ll see a string of hits starting from “Problem” all the way down to “Love Me Harder” – an 8 track run that absolutely nails the genre she was going for; be it pop, R&B or EDM.
However, the calculated nature of the tracklist makes My Everything feel like a checklist of sounds to have rather than a cohesive project that showcases Ari’s artistic vision. Individually some of these songs are the best in her career, it even includes some of the most adventurous work of her career too (“Hands On Me”). On that front, the album is still able to stand strong as a solid body of work that marks Ariana’s capabilities to captivate mainstream music’s attention.
By far her most experimental album so far, the Pharrell Williams-assisted Sweetener is a welcome departure of the usual pop tropes we had gotten used to from Ariana up to that point. It’s a divisive album thanks to Pharrell’s usual kooky production – incorporating hip-hop and neo-soul elements that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern day Missy Elliott album.
Often times the album starts to feel Pharrell’s influence a little too much (I swear some of these tracks could have just ended up on G I R L), despite how good the music sounds. Still, Ariana is a strong enough force to wrestle control back and produce an album that’s definitive and unconstrained.
Coming off the back of the harrowing Manchester bombings, Sweetener is a bright and intrepid declaration of an artist who holds the usual optimism found through her career, backed by a newfound and unshakable confidence.
As her 6th studio album, Positions truly feels like the end of a chapter for Ariana’s run towards becoming the biggest pop star in the world. Sweetener was a claim for the throne, Thank U, Next then solidified her claim, and Positions was a victory lap that doubled as proof that Ari is still one of the most exciting acts in music today.
Trading trap-flavoured pop for slowed-down R&B, the album didn’t push any boundaries but instead explored a sound that she once championed on her debut and occasionally hinted at on her Christmas efforts. It took on a more contemporary flair to fit into today’s current R&B landscape, which really highlighted how at home she sounded on this record.
The only reason this album isn’t placed any higher is the one lifeless dud on the tracklist – “off the table” with The Weeknd, which makes an otherwise incredible album fall flat on its face right in the centre of its runtime.
2. Yours Truly
Some people might call me crazy for putting this album up this high and some might say it used nostalgia to buy its way here. Regardless, this was my favourite Ariana album for the longest time until a certain industry-shifting record dropped a few years ago.
Yours Truly was the solo debut of a Nickelodeon teen star who combined 50s doo-wop and 90s R&B into a pop sound that felt unique and fresh in 2013. Where pop slowly transitioned more into electronic beat drops, Ariana went the opposite route and embraced the organic qualities in pop divas of yore.
However she was more than just that – a throwback pop diva who never felt tied down by sentimentality, paying homage to classics (“Piano”) while also welcoming modern ideas (“My Way” with Mac Miller). It was the first sign of how adept Ariana was at combining genres to produce a sound of her own, and the first step of a career that has shown no signs of slowing down since.
When the title track of her career-defining 2019 album dropped, it all but confirmed Ariana Grande as the single most talked about celebrity of the 2010s. The discussions and breakdowns of her personal life following “Thank U, Next” saw her dominating pop culture all before the actual album dropped.
What came later was a whirlwind of a record that doubled down on the hip-hop influence of Sweetener, incorporating trap elements that saw it setting a precedent for similar styles of pop music in the next few years. Ari career had always been assimilating into the sound of the times, but for the first time, she stood at the forefront of pop music as its then progenitor (how appropriate her influence regarding this sound is a conversation for another time though).
Thank U, Next embodies everything that made Ariana captivating – assertive soul-bearing, unapologetic lyricism, impressive versatility and gracefulness of a true pop diva. It’s the best album of her career and a body of work reflecting an artist who truly understands her dominion over mainstream audiences.