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20 Best Pop Albums of 2017

Kesha, Harry, Taylor and more of the year in hooks

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
11

Kelly Clarkson, ‘Meaning of Life’

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
display. M.J.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
10

Blondie, ‘Pollinator’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
9

Dua Lipa, ‘Dua Lipa’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
8

Charli XCX, ‘Number 1 Angel’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
7

Lana Del Rey, ‘Lust for Life’

“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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
6

Paramore, ‘After Laughter’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
5

Harry Styles, ‘Harry Styles’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
4

Sam Smith, ‘The Thrill of It All’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
3

Taylor Swift, ‘Reputation’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
2

Kesha, ‘Rainbow’

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.

top 20 pop albums of 2017
1

Lorde, ‘Melodrama’

At age 20, the teen prodigy of “Royals” raised the bar, marrying the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade on her second LP, with help from co-producer Jack Antonoff. The invulnerable high-school snark broadened into a wider emotional palette – musical too, with guitars and brass lacing through synthetic beats and dub effects. At its most ambitious, it could recall art-rock godmother Kate Bush (see the single “Green Light”). But its greatest achievement was making 21st century pop feel as genuinely intimate as as it did huge. A record that should stand as a touchstone for young pop hopefuls for years to come. W.H.

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