This year, pop’s best albums came from strong women who had a lot to say: Lorde’s searing look at loneliness, Kesha’s raucous statement of liberation, Taylor Swift’s reckoning between her self and the version presented in the press. But pop’s wider world also offered a lot of pleasures from artists all over the spectrum – 20th century legends like Blondie and Tori Amos asserted their place in the new millennium, upstarts like Dua Lipa and Girl Ray established new rules, and One Direction refugees Harry Styles and Niall Horan set out on their own, building on the promise they’d shown in their X Factor days.
Pink is the most persistent and consistent pop star of the last two decades, churning out album after album of megapop hits: a pretty incredible feat considering her place in the early Aughts pop landscape was to be the antithesis of bigger bubblegum stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Across seventh album Beautiful Trauma, the singer analyzes married life, motherhood and the state of the world with help from Jack Antonoff, Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr., Greg Kurstin and more. A solid LP that successfully avoids mimicking trends. B.S.
During her time in the Dirty Projectors, Amber Coffman established herself as one of indie-pop’s most distinct vocalists. On her solo debut, she explores her love of R&B and pop. The songwriting is surprisingly conventional, allowing Coffman to show off the effecting soulfulness in her voice, sometimes evoking a 21st century art-pop Laura Nyro or even Sade. Highlights include the lovely doo-wop-tinged “All to Myself” and the warmly smooth and seductive “Brand New.” What holds it all together is the elegance of her vocals and the pure, unguarded emotion that comes through in every song. J.D.
The Poppy “project” began as a series of high-concept,
low-fuss YouTube clips that focused on a wide-eyed woman who made compulsive
behavior (eating cotton
“I’m Poppy” for ten minutes, interviewing a plant)
absolutely compelling. Her perhaps inevitable evolution into a pop star began
in 2015 and crests with Poppy.Computer,
which adds her airy voice to hyper-stylized, detail-rich gloss-pop. “Bleach
Blonde Baby” skewers male expectations over luscious synths;
“Software Upgrade” views a bad boyfriend as a computer that needs to
be rebooted, icy keyboards zigzagging around Poppy’s litany of demands.
“Pop music on the radio is boring, so I don’t want to be boring,”
Poppy told Rolling Stone this fall. Poppy.Computer‘s off-kilter recounting
of microcelebrity, hiccuping vocals and intricate production help her neatly
avoid that fate. M.J.
One Direction’s affable Irishman turns on the soft-rock charm on his solo debut, which, at its most satisfying moments, brings to mind Maroon 5’s earlier, funkier days (“On the Loose”) and Jason Mraz’s semi-unplugged balladry (“This Town,” “Fire Away”). Nashville upstart Maren Morris drops by for “Seeing Blind,” a duet that updates the Kenny-and-Dolly ideal. And “Slow Hands” – not so secretly one of the best solo singles from a former 1D member to hit radio this year – rides a slick guitar line as it meticulously unspools its tale of seduction, allowing Horan to winkingly flaunt his fully grown status. M.J.
North London trio Girl Ray formed three years ago when their members
were in high school, but the craftsmanship on their debut full-length calls
back to Tapestry and
“Tempted” and Tiger Trap. Here, gauzy intertwining vocals and gentle
instrumentals cushion the blow of their more biting lyrics. (“Talking to
our friends all about their favorite cleanse/It gets so old,” vocalist
Poppy Hankin sighs on “Don’t Go Back at Ten.”) “Stupid
Things,” with its rolling piano and sunlight-beam backing vocals, is
Carole King by way of K Records; “Just Like That” shimmies and sighs
over exclamation-point riffs. But Girl Ray isn’t completely tied to the
verse-chorus-verse ideal: The 13-minute title track blossoms from
dark-cloud moodiness into progged-out clamor. M.J.
The sixth album from Demi Lovato reaches its peaks when the pop princess unleashes her powerful voice, which can leap octaves in a single bound and – as “Sorry Not Sorry” proved every time it crash-landed into drive-time – upend the chilled-out mundanity that dominated 2017’s radio landscape. Lovato’s instrument is in fine form on the regretful “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” a tour de force ballad that allows her to turn vowels into Silly Putty; “Sexy Dirty Love” zaps her into robot disco; and “Concentrate” strips down as it heats up. Lovato’s enthusiasm is so apparent that it even makes the lyric “Coldplay on the radio” sound kind of seductive. M.J.
Aimee Mann has called Mental Illness, her first album in five years, her “saddest, slowest, most acoustic, if-they’re-all-waltzes-so-be-it-record” release to date – and like the title itself, that description is both tongue-in-cheek and tartly honest. Embracing her most dour, dreary and dire moods has freed Mann to fully explore her sardonic fits of despair in lyrics that, as always, are both allusive and precise. Mental Illness brims with tweaked commonplaces – “Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly,” “Falling for you was a walk off a cliff,” “Boy, when you go, you go/3,000 miles, just so I’ll know/You never loved me” – that rejuvenate pop’s romantic clichés. And the arrangements, all expertly worried-over soft rock, perfectly complement Mann’s vocals, which barely conceal a seething pain underneath her icy reserve. K.H.
Tove Lo is not subtle. The Swedish pop star’s carnal demands are so raw and raunchy that she makes K. Michelle sound like Taylor Swift (some lyrics from “Disco Tits”: “I’m fully charged/Nipples are hard/Ready to go”). Lo swaggers through a world of dreamy synth whooshes and sleazily skittering beats, boasting of her bisexual prowess on “Bitches” (“Bitches, I don’t trust ’em/But they give me what I want for the night”) and trying to determine whether the high she experiences on “Romantics” is the chemical effect of lust or drugs. Under all that dirty talk, though, there are hints of vulnerability and a desire for emotional openness – or, as she puts it, “The struggle is real/When you don’t tell me how you feel.” K.H.
Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman’s storytelling reached a new
pinnacle on his fourth record, which combines stories of personal rebuilding
and reflection with joyous dance music (the steel drum-assisted “What’s
That Perfume That You Wear?,” the giddy “Wedding in Finistere”)
and shimmering synth-pop (“Postcard #17”). In a year where even
the biggest pop titans got down with introspection, “How Can I Tell
Him” was a track that stood out for its searing thoughtfulness; its string
flourishes and gently strummed guitars framing Lekman’s tale of male friendship
and its communication breakdowns (“We can talk about anything/As long it’s
about nothing,” he sighs). The song ends with the singer thinking – but not
saying – “I love you, too” as his pal bikes away. M.J.
The inaugural American Idol’s
live shows have always been electric affairs, with the Texas-born singer and
her backing band tearing through soulful throwdowns. Her eighth album – and
first on Atlantic Records, her new label now that she’s fulfilled her Idol prize’s contractual obligations –
is her first to truly capture that vibe. The torch-y “Meaning of Life”
and the enchanted “Slow Dance” show that she can still own a ballad,
but it’s the upbeat tracks – the refractions of Nineties R&B like the
jittery “Heat” and the sinewy “Medicine,” the Earth Wind
& Fire-assisted statement of feminine intent “Whole Lotta Woman”
– that put her still-formidable vocal power and forthright charm on full
Not every band can sound fresh 40 years into a career, but not every band is Blondie. On Pollinator, the vets find common ground with the contemporary rock bands and pop acts that wouldn’t exist without them, sharing writing credits with Dev Hynes, Charli XCX, Sia and the Strokes. The final product is a refreshingly fun pop gem that traverses New Wave, electro-disco and dance-pop – an update from punk’s original genre-hoppers. B.S.
The London-bred daughter of Kosovan-Albanian immigrants, singer/songwriter Dua Lipa has been steadily releasing a string of sharp singles since 2015, beginning with the flirty “Be the One” and finally hitting the jackpot with last year’s slow-burning U.K. hit “Hotter Than Hell” – both collected here on her terrific debut album. She emotes with some of Pink’s husky attitude and some of Sia’s theatrical so-over-it-ness, but she’s a warmer singer than either, whether shrugging off a lover on the self-explanatory “IDGAF” or matching Miguel’s intensity on the steamy “Lost in Your Light.” The beats expertly match her mood, taking in just about every flavor of clubby pop from the past few years but favoring a soulful deep house pulse. K.H.
Forever pop’s Number One rebel, Charli XCX returned with an excellent surprise mixtape. The collection felt like a catch-up on everything she had been doing since her last full length album, 2014’s Sucker, specifically working with members of the experimental dance-pop collective PC Music and releasing more hip-hop-leaning promotional singles. With all its eccentric beats and bubblegum, Number 1 Angel feels like the purest distillation of the U.K. star’s leftfield pop brilliance, whether she’s having an EDM sugar rush with Sophie and up-and-coming rapper Cupcakke on “Lipgloss” or swimming in a romantically dreamy post-club haze with Mø on “3AM (Pull Up).” B.S.
“Part of the past, but now you’re the future,” Lana Del Rey sings on Lust for Life‘s opening track, “Love,” as the bass hollows out a cavernous space that connects Phil Spector to Atlanta trap. Del Rey’s fifth album drifts along on a sunset cloud so familiar and comforting, it’s easy to miss how focused and quietly audacious this music is. She shuffles mythic figures like she’s scrolling contacts in her phone. The lyrics invoke Iggy Pop, Patsy Cline, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin; the guests include the Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, A$AP Rocky and Sean Ono Lennon. Whatever she needs to invoke the weightlessness of life in our new not-normal, she takes. “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” she intones in “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” “No, it’s only the beginning.” As true, and as terrifying, a thought as any song this year produced. J.L.
The tension between Paramore’s high-intensity hooks and withering lyrics explodes into fluorescent colors on After Laughter, which aims toward pop’s most hypermanic ideals while detailing inexorable drifts toward despair. The mania resulting from that split manifests in despondent-yet-danceable jams (“Hard Times”), mirror-image synth-pop (the acid-laced “Rose-Colored Boy”) and heartbreakingly wise balladry (the string-laden “26”), with highlife guitar tones and shimmering countermelodies adding to the overdriven atmosphere. Hayley Williams remains a powerful up-front presence, a belter who can croon as convincingly as she can yelp. Her vocal bravado almost makes you forget that After Laughter is an up-close chronicle of her weariness with the world. M.J.
After a stellar run with One Direction, Harry Styles could have gone anywhere he wanted. What would he try for his big solo move: Glitzy radio pop? Celebrity guests? The usual slate of big-name producers? Instead, Styles stakes his claim as a rock star, getting personal with a sublime album of Seventies-style guitar grooves. “Sweet Creature” and “Ever Since New York” are intimate acoustic ballads; while “Kiwi” lets him strut his Oasis-style self at top volume. “Two Ghosts” is a break-up lament worthy of his muse and cosmic mentor Stevie Nicks. Unlike most boy-band dudes going solo, he never sounds like he’s sweating to get taken seriously – he never loses touch with the exuberance and swagger he brought to One Direction in the first place. So get used to this man – you’ll be hearing a lot more from him. R.S.
Sam Smith is a fluid soul man, with style channeling Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles alongside modern icons like Amy Winehouse and Adele. The follow-up to his massive In The Lonely Hour leads with That Voice, and what it lacks in the club beats that were his early signature (see Disclosure’s “Latch”), it more than makes up for in dazzling, falsetto-barbed vocal pyrotechnics. The standout is “Him,” an uplifting tear-jerker about queer love and cultural intolerance that, in its understated, gospel-charged way, is an LGBTQ civil rights anthem. It’s the sound of a gay man intent on reaching a universal audience on his own terms, and succeeding handsomely. W.H.
The bad blood is coming from inside the house! After laying low for months, Taylor made a spectacularly bold return with this glittering palace of luxurious grudges and crystalline trap beats. The heel turn of “Look What You Made Me Do” is one for the history books, and pop scholars will likely debate for generations whether it was a brilliant P.R. coup or an epically tone-deaf move. Luckily, the singles are only half the story with Reputation, whose ultra-polished surface conceals some of Swift’s realest, most lived-in songs ever. On “Dress,” she’s high on the rush of a new romantic thrill; on “New Year’s Day,” she’s trying to figure out what she has after the party’s over. It adds up to a pointed reminder that Her Royal Swiftness can reclaim her place at pop’s cutting edge whenever she feels like it. S.V.L.
After her legal travails, anything Kesha released would have a veneer of triumph. But this comeback set, seven years since her debut, was an artistic warrior cry more potent than any might’ve expected. It began gently with “Bastards,” an acoustic guitar-led anthem and instant lighters-up classic, pivoting into punk-pop (with Eagles of Death Metal) on the badass “Let ‘Em Talk,” in which she caps the line, “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick,” with a cheek-pop. The gem-like moments keep coming, but the best is the sound of her cracking up mid-verse on the fist-pumping, Dap-Kings rocking “Woman” – it’s the sound of someone who’s survived a journey through hell knowing unquestionably she’s stronger for it. W.H.