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20 Best Pop Albums of 2014

From Taylor Swift’s platinum victory to Kitten’s under-the radar triumph, the year in huge hooks

20 Best Albums

In 2014, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, Sam Smith and Nick Jonas dabbled in R&B crossovers; Lana Del Rey and Charli XCX flipped the bad-girl script; and Lorde didn't release an album, but put forth her vision through EDM producers. Off the Top 40, were clutch of women whose versions of "pop" were singular yet irresistible, from the genre-busting Kitten frontwoman Chloe Chaidez to the Prince-sized ambitions of the New Zealand singer Kimbra. And leading the year? Taylor Swift, of course, the most popular of the pop stars, who left Nashville behind to pursue her New York dreams on her own terms. 

Sam Smith, 'In the Lonely Hour'

Sam Smith, ‘In the Lonely Hour’

In the Lonely Hour is the year's plainest appeal — its young English star sheepishly grasps the mic, tenderly empties his heart and makes us bawl buckets of empathy. Whether the song's a towering, time-stands-still ballad (the omnipresent "Stay with Me"), a skittering house track (Disclosure's "Latch," his own "Money on My Mind"), or a pint-nursing pub plaint ("I'm Not the Only One"), Smith's elegant quaver swells with desire, regret and despair. The album's narrative — Smith pleads, seethes, bottoms out, exults in independence and pleads all over again — mirrors the arc of feckless, devastating young love. Adele, you're up. C.A.

La Roux, 'Trouble in Paradise'

La Roux, ‘Trouble in Paradise’

With its aching love amid swaying palms, "Paradise Is You" sounds like the ballad playing in the beach scene of a Hollywood weeper. Which is to say, it doesn't sound like La Roux circa 2009, in which androgynous dreambot Elly Jackson fronted partner Ben Langmaid's frigid Eighties simulacrum. The shift reflects the pair's split, with Jackson taking control and adopting a friskier sound that draws on funk, reggae and calypso. Warmly layering her voice, she directly addresses her conflicts and frustrations on concisely melodic synth romps ("Cruel Sexuality," "Kiss and Not Tell"). But the album's boldest turn comes on "Silent Partner," as Jackson proclaims matter-of-factly over a wiry bass throb, "You're not my partner/No, you're not a part of me." With Trouble in Paradise, the dramatic universe La Roux inhabits goes from iced-over to a full simmer. C.A.

Pharrell Williams, 'G I R L'

Pharrell Williams, ‘G I R L’

Following his production of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" — the 2013 mega-smash that generated accusations of misogyny and glorification of date rape — Williams here devotes himself to pro-female pop euphoria. "Happy" epitomizes this refreshingly jubilant approach, but the rest is nearly as sunny. Like last year's "Get Lucky" hit with Daft Punk, much of G I R L sounds simultaneously retro and futuristic, down-to-earth yet otherworldly, as if Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and gospel's Mighty Clouds of Joy had jammed with beings from a conflict-free galaxy. "Though my planet's full of warfare/You make me feel like a dream," he croons to his "Lost Queen" muse as if describing his own childlike music's uplift. B.W.

"Weird Al" Yankovic, 'Mandatory Fun'

“Weird Al” Yankovic, ‘Mandatory Fun’

In a post-YouTube world where there's only a handful of hits that could comfortably be called "ubiquitous" anymore, pop parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic had to set his sights on the biggest targets possible — "Fancy," "Blurred Lines," "Happy," etc. Luckily those songs were monsters for a reason and Yankovic, simply by dint of holding himself to his own exacting standards, cleanly sliced through the morass of here-today-gone-tomorrow online comedy. "First World Problems" is the best Pixies song released in at least a decade and "Foil" — which combined Al's 30-year obsession with food and the barely there beats of Lorde's "Royals" — might be one of the smartest realizations of his abilities yet. M.J.

Ed Sheeran, 'X'

Ed Sheeran, ‘X’

Ed Sheeran and friend/collaborator Taylor Swift seem to have come to the same conclusion. Following up the standard singer-songwriter fare of his 2011 debut, Sheeran goes pop with no reservations, singing, "I'm not a rapper, I'm a singer with a flow." On X, Sheeran becomes an R&B lothario and riffs like a hip-hop raconteur, and his storytelling capabilities get the beats they deserve thanks to guest producers like Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin. That bit of groove is just what Sheeran needs for biting musings on everything from heartbreak to how he got "so faded," on "Bloodstream" B.S.

Kimbra, 'The Golden Echo'

Kimbra, ‘The Golden Echo’

In a year when pop radio became increasingly defined by its own tunnel vision, the second full-length by the New Zealand-born singer Kimbra (a former chart-topper via her turn as Gotye's "Somebody I Used To Know" foil) was refreshing for the way it leaned increasingly outward, bringing slinky disco ("Miracle"), icy glitch ("90s Music") and sultry R&B together in the name of finding pop transcendence. The Golden Echo's hard left turns and buried production treasures — not to mention the assists from the R&B polymath Bilal and the pop savant Van Dyke Parks — show that there's still uncharted territory left in pop, and that Kimbra is more than willing to take a fantastic voyage in order to find it. M.J.

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'

Various Artists, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

Though Jennifer Lawrence's role as The Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen has been a starmaking turn, the character itself is, to be kind, broadly drawn. But on this electronic-pop-leaning soundtrack envisioned by a clearly inspired Lorde, Katniss instantly develops a more complex, combative, introspective personality. CHVRCHES' synth-pop ricochets with playful morbidity; Charli XCX and Simon Le Bon(!) give a hopeful tinge to the darkened-bedroom piano ballad "Kingdom"; Tinashe wails from a sultry void and Grace Jones adds dub jitters. Lorde herself contributes the stormy, enigmatic goth processional "Yellow Flicker Beat" (which Kanye West remixes), a delicate Bright Eyes cover ("The Ladder"), plus assists on Major Lazer's "All My Love" and the air-raid soul of Chemical Brothers and Miguel's "This Is Not a Game." Talk about heroines! C.A.

Lykke Li, 'I Never Learn'

Lykke Li, ‘I Never Learn’

Heartbreak of varying degrees has been the driving force for some of pop's greatest works, but Lykke Li's third album turns up the pathos to a level that's almost painful at times. The production on I Never Learn treats her voice — it shudders and cracks as it outlines desperation and numbness — as if it's a blighted, disaster-hit landscape. Her songwriting has become even sharper, with her bleak revamp of the power ballad ("Never Gonnna Love Again") serving as the album's emotional centerpiece. M.J.

2NE1, 'Crush'

2NE1, ‘Crush’

Almost two years after K-pop first giddily barged into America's imagination, the genre hasn't sustained a post-"Gangnam Style" wave, but the Seoul machine keeps humming. Female foursome 2NE1, buoyed by a cameo on The Bachelor, moved more units of their album in its first week of release than any previous Korean act. That was about it for sales records, but the album itself was no stiff; in fact, it's a canny downshift from the wigged-out "I Am the Best" maximalist mash-ups of the past. "Happy" is a sunny, strummy jaunt with no manic gimmicks and the ballad "Good to You" soars and sweet-talks likably. But Crush's centerpiece is "MTBD," which spotlights group member CL on a bratty squirt of EDM-hip-pop with a bubblegum trap groove. C.A.

Ariana Grande, 'My Everything'

Ariana Grande, ‘My Everything’

Despite Miley's relentless twerk party, Nickelodeon has surpassed the Disney Channel as the alma mater of America's pop contessa. With her savvy second album, Ariana Grande expands her tiny, retro-tidy shadow, leading with a trio of undeniable Max Martin-polished boom shots — sax-squawking funk frolic "Problem" (with Iggy Azalea), gloriously soaring EDM flex "Break Free" (with Zedd), pulsing prom ballad "Love Me Harder" (with an awakened the Weeknd) — and then reaching in unexpected directions. "Hands on Me" (featuring a bubbly A$AP Ferg) is a winningly goofy sex jam, while the Benny Blanco/Cashmere Cat collabo "Be My Baby" explicitly ushers Grande from the soda counter to bottle service. C.A.

Maroon 5, 'V'

Maroon 5, ‘V’

Since their 2002 debut, the pop-rock stylings of Maroon 5 have increasingly become more pop than rock (on V, Sia, Ryan Tedder and Rodney "Darkchild" Jenkins all add exciting layers) and the band's ability to make catchy singles has increasingly become more nuanced and effortless. V is the sound of a band fully relaxing into their position as the Top 40's house band, with "Maps" and "Animals" ruling the summer with addicting choruses and electropop-tinged energy. B.S.

Lana Del Rey, 'Ultraviolence'

Lana Del Rey, ‘Ultraviolence’

Featuring nightmarish levels of romantic codependency set to astoundingly dreamy orchestrations, Lana Del Rey's best album celebrates the poisonous power of the unsettlingly soothing lullaby. Sweet and creepy, Ultraviolence pushes the Stepford Wives vibe of 2012's Born to Die to the hilt while refining its vertiginous beauty. Produced largely by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, it's a fastidiously sick shrine to junkies, alcoholics and the good-girls-gone-bad who adore them. LDR feeds her appetite for self-destruction, spinning it into an ocean-sized F.U. to all her haters. Swapping trip-hop for swirling rock ballad sophistication, Ultraviolence showcases the once-derided singer's drastically improved pipes and far more nuanced delivery; her sighing alto warble now imparts lust and resignation, determination and simmering rage — even in the softest, most symphonic moments. B.W.

Taylor Swift, '1989'

Taylor Swift, ‘1989’

Country bequeathed Taylor Swift a devoted fanbase and grounded her will to power; but as a maturing songwriter, she was destined to reject the faux-smalltown party. On 1989, her vision fully blooms in a pop landscape unbound by demands of authenticity. The album's sound draws from an Eighties moment when heartland pop-rock meant vistas of keyboards, reverb and synthetic drums; on masterful songs like "Blank Space," "Style," "Out of the Woods" and "Clean," Swift storifies clichés to imply intimate, dramatic narratives; and producers Max Martin and Shellback ensure that every sonic space hooks you in. Infectious lead single "Shake It Off" is a rare slip, calling out haters in a goofy cheerleader chant, while the video positions Swift as a normcore naif. But otherwise, 1989 pulls off a rare trick: It portrays a glossy reinvention as finally coming home. C.A.

Charli XCX, 'Sucker'

Charli XCX, ‘Sucker’

Charli XCX is the pop star 2014 was waiting for: a badass songwriting savant who's the most fun girl at the party. After helping Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea hit the Top 10, the 22-year-old Brit broke out on her own with Sucker, a middle-finger-wagging teenage riot packed into 12 punky gems. She channels the Ramones while singing about swaggering around Hollywood ("London Queen") and turns out a perfect piece of Fifties jukebox pop ("Need Your Love"). Sucker is a dance party, a mosh pit and a feminist rally. "Everything was wrong with you, so breaking up was easy to do," she sweetly sings while unloading a loser boyfriend on "Breaking Up." Sorry, bro: Now everyone knows Charli's in charge. C.G.