20 Best Pop Albums of 2018 - Rolling Stone
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20 Best Pop Albums of 2018

Camila Cabello, Ariana Grande, Robyn and more of the year in hooks

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This year has seen ambitious returns from old favorites and groundbreaking debuts from a collection of new artists changing the genre’s look and sound. A new identity for the genre has emerged, and its vision of the future is extraordinary. Here’s the year’s best.

BTS Love Yourself Tear

BTS, ‘Love Yourself: Tear’

BTS conquered new territory for K-pop this year: the top of the American charts. The South Korean boy-band kings debuted at Number One with their breakthrough Love Yourself: Tear. But it’s more than just their biggest album – it comes on so strong, it’s practically the K-pop Appetite for Destruction. They show off everything they can do without watering down their style (or abandoning their language), making a chump out of anyone who claimed U.S. fans weren’t ready to embrace the sound of Seoul. BTS leap from genre to genre, from the R&B smooch ballad “Singularity” to the strange yet irresistible Latin hip-hop strut of “Airplane Pt. 2.”

Tove Styrke Sway

Tove Styrke, ‘Sway’

Even by Swedish pop standards, Troye Styrke is pretty damn Swedish. Ten years ago, at the tender age of 16, she was a contestant on Swedish Idol. Her third album, Sway, is her true coming-out party as a star, riding the wave of her minimal synth-pop smash “Say My Name.” She stakes out territory to the left of Robyn, somewhere between her tourmates Lorde and Katy Perry. On Sway, Tove whispers her breathy crushed-out sentiments over the quirky electro-bloops of producer Elof Loelv in “Mistakes” and “I Lied,” closing out with a cover of Lorde’s “Liability.”

Kylie Minogue Golden

Kylie Minogue, ‘Golden’

Kylie goes country? Why not – she’s tried everything else. Always hot to invade new musical territory, the “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” legend takes over Nashville with the rhinestone-cowgirl disco twang of Golden. It’s a confident statement about sashaying into her 50s, facing up to mortality and heartbreak – in many ways, her most personal album since her underrated turning-30 cult favorite Impossible Princess. The One True Kylie gets elegiac in the ballad “Music’s Too Sad Without You,” but she sparkles brighter than ever in the banjo-disco of “Raining Glitter.”

King Princess Make My Bed

King Princess, ‘Make My Bed’

A new breed of queer pop icon: King Princess, the Brooklyn teen who snagged a surprise hit with “1950,” her ballad of forbidden lesbian romance in the old days, crooning like a hungover Lana Del Rey. She got a boost from fan Harry Styles, who played “1950” over the speakers on his triumphant summer tour and tweeted out the lyrics. (Her girlfriend, actress Amandla Stenberg, directed the “Talia” video.) Make My Bed is her five-song debut EP, yet it’s a fully realized pop statement. And King Princess has just kept going since then – as in her new single, the self-explanatory “Pussy Is God.”

Shawn Mendes Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes, ‘Shawn Mendes’

At 20 years old, it was finally time for Shawn Mendes to embark on pop’s greatest rite of passage: growing up. His third album fits all of the tropes of pop maturity as he expresses his carnal desires more prominently and even experiments with touches of R&B. But the real trip is the mental health journey Mendes takes us on: He writes and sings openly about anxiety and helplessness on stadium-rock opener “In My Blood” and Khalid duet “Youth.” Of course, the more physically minded songs are still bops, with Mendes singing and playing with more playful confidence than ever on highlights like “Nervous,” “Particular Taste” and “Where Were You in the Morning?”

Mariah Carey Caution

Mariah Carey, ‘Caution’

The queen of comebacks is at it again: Caution has reaffirmed Mariah Carey as one of the greatest, most versatile stars of both the 20th and 21st centuries. With producers like Nineteen85, Dev Hynes and Timbaland in the credits, Carey found a way to better amp up her inimitable attitude through excellent songwriting (the sass of “A No No” is some of the finest and most playful this year) and, of course, iconic singing (check the soft restraint on “GTFO” and the powerhouse performance on “Portrait”). This album is a not-so-gentle reminder that this hitmaker is not one to be counted out.

Troye Sivan Bloom

Troye Sivan, ‘Bloom’

With Bloom, Troye Sivan finally found the spark that separates himself from the pop pack. The LP is overflowing with bangers of vulnerability as the South Africa-born, Australia-raised singer/actor/YouTuber reflects on loss of innocence, heartbreak, intimacy and that all-too-short precipice between youth and adulthood. His breathy, soft voice feels larger-than-life on songs like the cheeky title track, the heart-wrenching “Postcard” and the alluring “Lucky Strike.” Here’s a star just before he, potentially, reaches total domination.

Hayley Kiyoko Expectations

Hayley Kiyoko, ‘Expectations’

Just like Hayley Kiyoko says, this year is 20GayTeen. Fans call her the “Lesbian Jesus,” and she lives up to the name on Expectations. After so many years in the game, going back to her Disney Channel days as the high-school rock star of Lemonade Mouth, Hayley started all over with Expectations, getting raw about queer romance in hits like the bizarre love triangle “Curious” and her Kehlani duet “What I Need.” This summer she sang “Curious” with Taylor Swift on the Reputation stadium tour; in December, she and Taylor just did a stunning acoustic duet on “Delicate.” Will we see a full-on studio collaboration between these two pop goddesses? Let us pray.

Cher Dancing Queen

Cher, ‘Dancing Queen’

Who else could get away with a whole album of ABBA songs besides Cher – the Super-est of all Troopers? After she stole the show in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again by stepping out of a helicopter to belt “Fernando,” she really had no choice. So on Dancing Queen, the diva pays respects to one of the few mega-pop franchises that can rival her for staying power. (This was also the year she followed ABBA to Broadway with The Cher Show. Get this woman her EGOT, stat!) She torches up Seventies divorce laments like “The Winner Takes It All” and “One of Us.” Maybe next she can top Bohemian Rhapsody with a Queen tribute; fans have craved her “We Are the Champions” for years.


Robyn, ‘Honey’

What’s pop without Robyn? Well, in the years since Body Talk debuted, her world-wearied synth-pop was jacked and flipped by everyone from Lorde to Carly Rae Jepsen, showing that we’re never too far from the Swedish star. Her return this year was as dramatic as one would hope, following a year of fans begging for an official release of new song “Honey” after it was featured in the final season of Girls. Finally, she gave us “Honey,” dammit, and then some: Her full-length LP is a nine-track doozy of pop melodrama, riding on waves of gorgeous, hypnotic, dancefloor-drowning synths.


Bradley Cooper Lady Gaga A Star Is Born

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, ‘A Star Is Born Soundtrack’

The insane pop world of 2018: Always remember it this way. Lady Gaga goes back to her Seventies soft-rock fantasy and rediscovers her voice as an artist – like she sings, it’s “buried in my soul like California gold.” Bradley Cooper directs his rock-star trip and proves he’s got the Eddie Vedder growl to go with his Eddie Vedder jackets, especially in the Jason Isbell ballad “Maybe It’s Time.” And when Stefani Germanotta belts those Deep Estefan piano ballads, she proves that for all her lofty art concepts, what’s always made her a legend is that mother monster of a voice.

Ariana Grande Sweetener

Ariana Grande, ‘Sweetener’

Ariana Grande has had an extremely less-than-enviable couple years: tragedy, heartbreak and loss have all coincided during the process of not only writing and recording her incredible album Sweetener but also while promoting it. Her 2018 LP turns the tartest of lemons into the tastiest lemonade with its Pharrell and Max Martin-assisted, left-field R&B-pop. Tracks like the clubby “No Tears Left to Cry” and Imogen Heap-interpolating “Goodnight n Go” are some of her most experimental and personality-capturing songs yet. Thank u, more please.

Camila Cabello Camila

Camila Cabello, ‘Camila’

The year’s most exciting debut album lays incredible groundwork for what will ultimately be a long career. Camila is a brilliant statement of intent: mature without theatrics, grounded in her history and, of course, deliciously catchy. Runaway hit “Havana” set the tone, with Cabello reminding us that she wasn’t going to just hit the trends when it came to securing her pop voice. Instead, Camila melds together touches of rock, old-school latin pop and traditional singer-songwriter cues for an indelibly honest portrait of the artist as a young woman.

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