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.
On their third album, the 1975 show off their growing ambitions as a pop group. Combining jazz, New Wave, sophisti-pop, radio hooks and biting social commentary, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is a challenging project that never veers too far from the group’s mission to pick apart the internet’s effect on our interpersonal relationships. For such a big topic, it’s both a relief and a treat that the hooks on tracks like “Give Yourself a Try,” “Sincerity Is Scary” and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” are so deliciously enjoyable.
Barbra Streisand heard you talking about a version of A Star Is Born that she doesn’t star in and came back with a political powerhouse of an album to amend that. A mixture of both new originals and covers of classic standards, the LP follows a general theme of political upheaval. Songs like “Don’t Lie to Me” are written as a direct, open letter to President Trump while covers of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Take Care of This House” (from the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) are transformed to fit her message of protest.
English upstart Anne-Marie scored one of the year’s weirdest time-travel hits with “2002,” her worldwide smash about her teen nostalgia: “Oops, I got 99 problems/Singing ‘Bye Bye Bye’/If you wanna go and take a ride with me/Hit me, baby, one more time.” Hardly any of these songs are from 2002, but that just adds to the charm – as does a guitar assist from Ed Sheeran. Anne-Marie lives up to that spirit all over Speak Your Mind, showing off her admirably salty attitudes in “Ciao Adios” and “Bad Girlfriend.”
After Stripped, Christina Aguilera’s magnum opus of vocal range, sexual freedom and emotional maturity, the star has spent her time genre-hopping. She went back to the mid-20th century on Back to Basics and explored futurepop on Bionic, but the themes and hoopla, while fun, distracted from the real Aguilera. Liberation, her first album in six years, is a perfect reintroduction, where she finds a way to stay current while letting her greatest instrument lead the way. Between subtly sexy moments like “Right Moves,” aggro rap-pop collaborations like “Accelerate” and belt-offs with Demi Lovato, Liberation sounds as if an artist who has been through the industry’s ringer finally found peace.
“I rock my soul on both sides of my T-shirt,” Alessia Cara proclaims on The Pains of Growing, as she makes the move from sullen teen to self-actualized adult. She’s three years past the moment when she blew up as a 19-year-old Canadian YouTube newbie with her trip-hop introvert anthem “Here,” the hit that tapped into the Nineties techno dystopia of Tricky or Portishead to complain about being bored at hip parties. She’s had a few false restarts since then, but The Pains of Growing is where she finally steps forward as an artist, from the break-up blues of “Not Today” to the tropical R&B lilt of “Trust My Lonely.”
After his underwhelming 2016 debut Nine Track Mind, Charlie Puth finally finds his signature style the second time around on Voicenotes. This guy clearly lives for the soft-rock sound of Seventies AM-radio gold – if his James Taylor duet (“Change”) doesn’t convince you, the Hall & Oates one (“Slow It Down”) will. Like Hayley Kiyoko, Puth shines in a Kehlani duet (“Done for Me”) and honors the Nineties R&B boom in “If You Leave Me Now,” going down on bended knee to harmonize with Boyz II Men.
This was nearly a decade in the making: Rita Ora has been on the tips of our pop-knowledge tongues for years and with Phoenix she finally released her U.S. debut album. Record contract purgatory kept her singing career stalled, but she didn’t need an album to keep our curiosities piqued as she released singles and collaborations, acted, modeled and became a tabloid fixture. Thankfully, the music matched the persona. Phoenix is a perfect platform for Ora’s smoky soul-pop voice, and she pairs it seamlessly with upbeat, radio-friendly power-pop as heard on singles “Your Song” and “Anywhere.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.