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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
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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