Justin Bieber grew up, Selena Gomez got real, Darlene Love returned and Adele blew everything out of the water. Here's the year's best in pop.
Ryan DeRobertis, who'd been flooding the internet with woozy downtempo indie-dance since late 2012 under the alias Saint Pepsi, transitioned to hooky meta-pop in 2014 with "Fiona Coyne," a mash note to a Degrassi character that archly pledged "I'll love you till the record stops." That single resurfaces on the singer/producer's debut as Skylar Spence, which unveils his full makeover from cool-kid experimentalist to bedroom-pop loverboy. Over disco beats retooled with just enough nuance to keep his old fans' attention, DeRobertis obsesses over his love for love in a plain yet frisky voice, basking in his self-conscious narcissism so nicely that you'll happily bask along. "I'm in love," he sings on "Can't You See." "With my own reflection," he adds. K.H.
Dance-pop didn't get much more utopian in 2015 than this day-glo debut from flirty charmer Shamir Bailey, who bounced along squelchy winks of synth bass and cowbell patterns as he shrugged "This is me on the regular, so you know." Shamir's gender-defiant voice wends up into a feminine upper register with just enough effort to remind you of the cultural constraints seeking to weigh it down, and it electronically modulates into low bassy menace that insists masculinity is a joke still worth telling. He encounters plenty of romantic drama in the clubs he only became old enough to drink in legally last month, he throws himself on sleek and homemade beats like a giddy teen on his bed after a promising first date, and he makes gender fluidity sound like a great pop adventure. K.H.
When Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør began work on her sixth album, she wanted to put together a collection focused on violence. But – perhaps inevitably – the dominant subject shape-shifted into love, and the former M83 collaborator wound up focusing on affairs of the heart. The end result is a startling collection that puts Sundfør's clarion voice among gorgeous, rich backing arrangements: a pipe organ and mourning choir on the elegiac "Darlings"; icy synths that blast off into space on the gloriously doomed "Kamikaze"; and piston-rigid electronic percussion and swooping strings on the warning shot "Delirious," which makes explicit the link between the original subject and the new one. M.J.
Roísín Murphy's take on pop music makes her work equally appropriate for the wee hours of clubbing as it is for dreary-day brooding. Delicate instrumentation drapes itself over thudding beats – two disparate elements that are tied together by the former Moloko frontwoman's whispery alto and knowing lyrics. The wobbling, winding "Exploitation" has Murphy whisper-singing "who's exploiting who?" before a blurry late-night oblivion takes over and eventually ends in blackout. "Unputdownable," meanwhile, is an initially tentative love song that blooms, briefly, into a joyous sing-along before ending amongst a minimalist confusion – the sonic representation, one might imagine, of actually entering the unknown territory that is a lover's mind. M.J.
British belter Jess Glynne established herself as a pop force with her star turn on Clean Bandit's exuberant "Rather Be." Her first solo collection brings together club-friendly songs that put her ability to be both vulnerable and joyous on full display. "Don't Be So Hard on Yourself" is a sequined invitation to work out one's internal strife on the dance floor; "Gave Me Something" places Glynne's burr in front of a gospel choir, turning a love devotional into a divine ode; and "Ain't Got Far to Go" is rollicking and reflective. A triumphant album led by a singer who isn't afraid to reveal her scars while she's on top. M.J.
The gutsy Disney escapee came of age in 2015 with this full-throated dare of a pop record. Lovato snarls in the face of public struggles with drug abuse, mental illness and eating disorders on "Old Ways" and goes all in vocally as well: When she ripely rips into ballads like "Stone Cold," her acrobatic unconcern with prettiness is more Steven Tyler than Adele. And, of course, Confident leads off with two of Max Martin's most club-clobbering electro-bludgeons in years. The lip-smacking hit "Cool for the Summer" is an oblique invite to a girls-only death-wish joyride, while the title track stomps into the arena like a jock jam for dominatrixes, asking "What's wrong with being confident?" K.H.
Though they haven't received quite as much recognition as they deserve, especially outside their native U.K., girl group Little Mix continued their streak of releasing strong pop collections. On their third LP, the ladies go Eighties and get quirky, achieving their most consistently exciting and delightful album to date. Single "Black Magic" is an enthusiastic, dance-pop stomper while "O.M.G." goes full Abdul with a swaggering, stuttering synth beat that recalls "Straight Up." Of course, it wouldn't be a Little Mix album without a reflection on impending – or just-achieved – adulthood, and the ladies deliver on the anthemic, playful "Grown," which has them teetering between horn-friendly Motown influences and dubstep drops that intertwine as perfectly as the group's harmonies. B.S.
Danity Kane's 2014 reunion-slash-implosion presented an opportunity for Aubrey O'Day and Shannon Bex, who decided to team up as the winkingly named Dumblonde. Away from the world of reality TV and Diddy co-signs, O'Day and Bex created a confident, wide-ranging collection of electro-pop that runs the gamut – "remember me" runs on breathy tra-la-las and sparse instrumentation, the sisterhood-minded "you got me" is a house music slumber party, and the pounding "Dreamsicle" time-warps synthpop to 2075. Through it all, O'Day and Bex show that they're still ideal foils, bouncing off and around each other in a way that celebrates and cements their longtime bond. M.J.
On her third album, arty U.K. singer Ellie Goulding made a leap into dance-pop, trying out sleek beats and sheer melodies on songs like "Something In the Way You Move" and "On My Mind." And she did it without ruining her Kate Bush-at-a-rave soul: "Holding On For Life" was the fierce, hard-rolling Adele song Adele forgot to put on 25, only Goulding's version came with a splash of keyboard that evoked Derrick May's Eighties techno classic "Strings of Life." J.D.
Bieber took a new type of teen-star transitional turn and branded himself as the EDM pop king we've been waiting for. His singles for Purpose followed in the turnt-up club vein of his Jack Ü collaboration, "Where Are Ü Now," and helped not only redeem the (former?) bad boy's image but also shift him from teen icon to club staple. "What Do You Mean?" and "Sorry" were subtle dance hits, turning away from the big room EDM of the past three years and moving confidently towards moombahton and trop house. But that wasn't enough for the Biebz: He linked up Ed Sheeran, who co-wrote the acoustic and biting diss song "Love Yourself" and got with some fantastic house and dub beats on the Skrillex-and-Blood-Diamonds-assisted "Children." B.S.
In 2013, One Direction took a left turn and went folk with "Story of My Life" and the boy band hasn't looked back since. This year's Made in the A.M. makes a strong case that 1D may be one of the most sonically malleable pop groups of all time: They can be Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles ("Olivia"), Eighties Fleetwood Mac ("What a Feeling") or even the Verve ("Hey Angel") at a moment's notice, compiling their influences into a sturdy piece of work that may, unfortunately, be their swan song. But what a way to bid adieu. B.S.
The former X-Factor contestants are a force on their debut, walking some midpoint between rap-centric pop and electro-centric R&B. With incredible vocal ranges, they have a refreshingly sweet cheekiness closer to Gwen Stefani, Fergie or Icona Pop than their girl group forebears. Reflection is full of stomps and claps, melodies that stretch like elastic and voices that love to explore the quirky peaks and edges — though they're certainly not beyond a classic Mariah Carey style vocal run, like they do with aplomb on the tribute "Like Mariah." B.S.
With all the arty innovating going on in R&B, it was easy to undersell the easy charm of a smoothy like Jason Derulo. There was something unpretentiously enjoyable about the warm, unassuming way he floated between styles – from the disco smash "Want to Want Me" (essentially the un-creepy version of "I Can't Feel My Face") to the bright island flavor of "Try Me" to "Broke," his country-hip-hop-soul collaboration with Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder. What emerges is a party thrown at the intersection of everything and everything else. J.D.
On Emotion, Carly Rae Jepsen moves past 2012's still-stuck-in-your-head "Call Me Maybe" in a way that solidifies her as not only one of the strongest pop writers of her generation but also one of the most compelling pop stars of the moment. Her second album revels in neon-lit 1985 textures, filled to the brim with long night-drive soundtracks and lyrical pining that broaches the debate of what is more intense: crushing hard or being crushed. Even when tackling heartbreak, Jepsen serves as a beam of light and a sister-in-arms. Plus, the Sia-assisted "Boy Problems" was a criminally overlooked addition to a year of songs about phone calls. B.S.
How did it take this long for Madonna to write herself a theme song titled "Unapologetic Bitch"? No apologies offered or needed – Rebel Heart was the queen's finest album in a decade, picking up the disco-stick baton of her 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor as Madonna voyages back into the groove and reflects on where she's been lately. "Ghosttown," "Devil Pray" and "Living My Life" offer state-of-the-art radio beats with producers like Diplo and Avicii, while she testifies about endurance in the aftermath of divorce. Yet she's even stronger when she gets further out, as in the Nicki Minaj-seasoned "Bitch I'm Madonna," or her conspiracy-minded Kanye collabo "Illuminati," which comes on like a "Vogue" for the New World Order. She also throws down with rappers from the new school (Chance The Rapper), the old school (Nas), and the non-school (Mike Tyson). Of course she goes too far – this is a Madonna album, capisce? – with "S.E.X." ("Perfume, switchblade, absinthe, Novocaine / Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair") and "Holy Water," where she chants, "Yeezus loves my pussy best." Bitch, get off her pole. R.S.
Gomez's loyal fans are probably the only people who expected the former Disney star to make one of the most three-dimensional pop albums of 2015, but she pulled it off with flying colors. She steps up her game in every way on Revival: The production is cooler, the melodies are stickier, the lyrics are sexier and her vocals are more comfortable and confident than ever. There are no duds to be found as Gomez takes a spin on the dance floor with Max Martin ("Hands to Myself"), plays a self-possessed femme fatale ("Good For You") and air-kisses goodbye to a no-good ex ("Sober," "Same Old Love"), all with the same understated flair. The wildest part? The heartfelt ballads ("Camouflage") are some of the smartest and best-crafted songs here. If Gomez started the year as one of many bright young celebrity faces, she ended it as a pop star who demands to be taken seriously. S.V.L.
In 1962, her towering vocals were the heart of the Phil Spector-produced "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Loved," with her expression of female desire answered by her own strength. But through a career that's included time on Broadway, stints as a duet partner for Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, and a scene-stealing moment at the 2014 Oscars when 20 Feet From Stardom won for best documentary, it's taken Darlene Love six decades to reintroduce herself in proper style on this LP. Lovingly produced by Steve Van Zandt and featuring new songs from Springsteen and Elvis Costello, the album runs from super-charged bar-band soul to the string-fueled Jimmy Webb epic "Who Under Heaven." At 74, Love's voice has deepened a bit but lost none of its power – if anything, it's shifted from a marvel of indomitability to a miracle of agelessness. Highlights include the bluesy and horn-charged "Painkiller," a cover of "River Deep Mountain High" scored for strings and power chords, and the Springsteen-penned "Night Closing In," which gets the Wall of Sound treatment and suggests a girl-group makeover of Born to Run. After a set of songs about trials and tribulations, the album closer — "Jesus is the Rock that Keeps Me Rolling," written by Van Zandt — finds Love getting happy in the name of the lord. It's a burst of pure joy from a singer whose art and example have never let up. J.D.
Florence Welch's most personal, vulnerable and moving album to date explodes with confusion from the very first song, the urgent and catchy "Ship to Wreck." From there, though, it's the uplifting and often anthemic way she exorcises her doubts, fears and anxieties that makes the LP one of the most moving and inspiring breakup albums in recent years. She howls in disgust on the pounding, almost Zeppelin-esque "What Kind of Man," condemning the lover who's holding her heart captive. She writhes amongst orchestral strings and funky horns on "Queen of Peace," declaring "all that's left is hurt." She finds some solace in St. Jude, the "patron saint of the lost cause." And she welcomes an executioner to end the relationship on the surprisingly upbeat final track "Make Up Your Mind." With songs that drift between disco, hard rock and impressionistic pop – while all retaining that beguiling Florence feel – the record makes for the best kind of concept album: a journey on which each song she sings has a life of its own. K.G.
"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me," Lana Del Rey intones at the beginning of her third album. It's quite a way to kick off a Honeymoon, and exactly the kind of sultry gloominess we've come to expect and love from the high priestess of moody torch-pop. After injecting some garage-y guitars into 2014's Dan Auerbach-producedUltraviolence, Del Rey returned to the cinematic trip-hop of her star-making 2012 debut Born to Die, balancing catchy slow-burn come-ons like "Freaks" and the hit single "High By the Beach" with artier moments like "Burnt Norton," her dreamy recitation of a T.S. Eliot poem, and the goth-soul Nina Simone/Animals cover "Don't Let Me Be Understood." Her gauzily distracted Peggy Lee persona and coolly sensual vocals were as alluringly provocative as ever ("you're so art deco baby out on the floor," she sings on "Art Deco"). But it was the haunting sense of heartache and aloneness in her evocations of the emulsified L.A. high-life that made Honeymoon such a devastating listen. J.D.
The feverish four-year wait for the follow-up to Adele's triple-platinum blockbuster, 21, was unlike anything we've seen this decade – and she didn't disappoint on this thunderous triumph. 25 tells the story of a young woman making her uneasy peace with adulthood, like Carole King on Tapestry. The pop-savvy "Water Under the Bridge" and the soaring piano ballad "Remedy" take on relationship drama with realist fire, while the lighthearted "Sweetest Devotion" dances right into ecstasy. Adele and her A-list co-conspirators (Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr.) fly from drum-cannon Eighties balladry to classic gospel and blues to the kind of piano power surges that are her epic signature, holding it all together with the nuanced, towering vocal performances that have already made her iconic. "If you're not the one for me/Then how come I can bring you to your knees?" she sings. On 25, she does it over and over again. J.D.