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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. 

Lykke Li, 'I Never Learn'
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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'
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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'
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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'
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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'
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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'
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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'
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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.

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