20 Must-Hear Pop Albums From 2018

and 12.06.18 9 months ago

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Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it’s meant to highlight the best work in the genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

2018 was an incredible year for pop.

I know that sounds silly to say. Pop music happens every year! And every year, it’s good. But in 2018, pop felt especially urgent. Ariana Grande was here for it all, from reminding us that there’s no heartbreak that can’t be healed with dancing, and to remind us that we should be “so f*ckin grateful” for everything tough that we’ve made it through to still be here. Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko, King Princess, and so many more queer artists had massive breakout years. While Donald Trump tried to erase their existence, these artists filled concert venues with brave, joyful dancers.

This year was so, so tough and ugly in so many ways, especially for women, queer folks, and people of color. But the pop musicians on this list — almost all of whom are women, LGBTQ+, POC, or many intersecting identities — gave us art that can heal us. Pop is often seen as ephemeral, dying with its last play on the radio. But the music on this list deserves to live on past this year, as a monument to everything we fought against this year.

Most of the music on this list isn’t radio pop. We’ve got everything from holy, hell-raising mezzo-soprano powerhouses to sweet-voiced teenage dreams, weirdo queer electro-pop to the A Star Is Born soundtrack. Maybe you won’t love everything, and maybe you’ve heard some of it before. But give the whole list a listen. Remember the year of incredible, joyful pop, and remember how we danced.

20. Rita Ora, Phoenix

Atlantic Records

2014’s “I Will Never Let You Down” was supposed to be Rita Ora‘s big hit. The Calvin Harris-produced dance banger is joyful and delightfully retro, with shades of Whitney and Mariah. But Harris, bitter after what must have been an ugly breakup, forbade Ora from putting any of their material on a new album or playing any of the songs live. “I Will Never Let You Down” was a killer single, and Harris let it die on the vine.

But Rita Ora is a fighter. Or, more accurately, she’s a phoenix, rising from the ashes of the pop career that has been burned by spiteful exes and mean-spirited critics. Ora’s resilience in the face of all of this is damn inspiring. No matter how loud her detractors, she will make herself be heard.

Since the release of Ora’s debut album in 2012, the English singer has been touring diligently, releasing at least a few new singles every year. Phoenix is the culmination of six years of hard work. The album has some familiar tracks — with pretty much everything she has released since 2014 included, Phoenix is partially a collection of Ora’s greatest hits. But the new material is what makes this album so exciting. “I Will Never Let You Down” should have been Ora’s biggest hit, but don’t count her out. Rita Ora is a phoenix, and she’ll fly.–Chloe Gilke

19. Sophie, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

MSMSMSM/Future Classic

Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is a chaotic, exhausting album. The first time I listened to it was in a friend’s car, and with “Not Okay” blasting so loud I could feel my internal organs humming, it may have been most stressful rush hour traffic experience of my entire life. But Sophie doesn’t make music for car rides. Her electronic beats are abrasive and harsh, the kind of music that makes you forget that you’re dancing — that you have a body, even — everything but the songs themselves.

Sophie has collaborated with some of the most exciting names in pop and hip-hop — Charli XCX, Vince Staples, Let’s Eat Grandma, and more. You can hear Sophie’s influence in their music, as well as the music of their peers. As much of pop learns further away from organic, real-girl guitar to an alien, immaterial sound, Sophie finds beauty in the shift. Just listen to “Immaterial.” Who needs legs or hair or genes or blood when we’ve got all this?–C.G.

18. Allie X, Super Sunset

Twin Music Inc.

Across just eight tracks, Allie X asserted herself in 2018 as one of indie pop’s most powerful chameleons. Her third album, Super Sunset, establishes the Canadian-born singer as not just another singer-songwriter, but a staying presence in a genre that often favors quick hits over longevity. Allie — aka Alexandra Ashley Hughes — began her career in Toronto toying with indie rock, until she realized her true calling as one of LA’s own local stars. Though her crisp, low-end hits are indebted to both hip-hop and Lana Del Rey’s languid phrasing — listen to “Not So Bad In LA” in particular for the LDR influence — Hughes makes every track on Super Sunset her own, even the two thirty-second plus interludes. Their surreal Lebowski supermarket vibe is essential to building out her release as a short, succinct distillation of the city’s sweeping, starlit nights, and all the odd, chintzy moments in between. No, it’s not so bad in LA, especially if you own the place like Allie X does.–Caitlin White

17. Kali Uchis, Isolation

A Rinse/Virgin EMI Records

It’s hard to believe Isolation is only Kali Uchis‘ first studio LP. The singer has collaborated with everyone from Daniel Caesar to Tyler, the Creator to Juanes, building up an incredible collection of features that display her eclectic genre influences. Uchis does everything and more on Isolation — she’s neo-soul on “Your Teeth In My Neck,” synth-y electro-pop on the Damon Albarn collab “In My Dreams,” hazy and genre-bending on “Miami.”

On “Miami,” Uchis asks “Why would I be Kim, I could be Kanye.” There are definitely better legends to aspire to, but the sentiment holds up despite Kanye’s increasingly problematic politics. Uchis is more than a killer feature or a sidekick to hip-hop’s biggest names. You could be the king, but watch the queen conquer.–C.G.

16. BTS, Love Yourself 結 Answer

Bighit Entertainment

Korean pop group BTS is the biggest band on the planet right now. The band released three (!!) studio albums in 2018 — an output that could make even Van Morrison gasp. Any of BTS’ three records deserve to be on this list, but Answer, released in August, is the culmination of the band’s incredible year. Featuring hits from their other compilations (“DNA” from Her and “Fake Love” from Tear) along with new songs, Love Yourself 結 Answer is a 26-track dream. The songs range from hip-hop to synth-pop, with solos to spotlight the unique talents of each member. Jimin is a crooner, RM and J-Hope rap, and Jungkook is a bona fide pop star. BTS also embarked on their first-ever US tour this year, selling out some of the biggest arenas in the country in seconds.

I can’t imagine a band getting bigger than this. I can’t wait to see BTS do it in 2019.–C.G.

15. Christine And The Queens, Chris

Because Music

This enormous, double-disc undertaking caught the ear of the world when it dropped back in September, not just because of the exquisite, polished synth-pop that Héloïse Letissier consistently delivers, but because of her insistence on exploding the gender binary that has long held so many women (and men) hostage. On Chris, Letissier created a persona of pure masculine energy, allowing herself the freedom to harness the carnality and lust that men may incorporate into their music at will, but women are routinely judged for tapping into. Doubling down on her pansexual identity in the lead-up to the album’s release, and incorporating themes of feminism and queer theory into her signature French-tinted pop, Letissier stands as a paramount artist in the modern pop landscape, wielding her perspective on identity with as much grace as she does her astonishing voice and sonic ideas. Christine And The Queens have long honored and deconstructed gender fluid concepts in their shimmering, serious funk-pop, but never quite as masterfully as on ChrisC.W.

14. Little Mix, LM5

Simco Limited/Sony Music Entertainment

Every song on LM5 should be a massive hit. UK girl group Little Mix packed their fifth album (named for their stans’ system of nomenclature) with radio-ready dance-pop singles. “Woman Like Me” features queen of pop features Nicki Minaj, and “Strip” is a Pussycat Dolls-esque confidence anthem with a 2018 hip-hop beat. “Told You So” is a tender ode to female friendship, and the indescribable “Wasabi” is brilliant, beautiful chaos.

Little Mix are huge in Europe, but even with five incredible albums, the band haven’t hit quite as hard in the US as that other band to come out of The X Factor. Blame it on bad promotion or misogyny, but you can’t blame it on Little Mix. LM5 is a triumph of infectious fun. Europe gets it, and hopefully LM5 will be the album that helps them break out here in the US.–C.G.

13. Alison Wonderland, Awake

Astralwerks

It’s a well-documented reality that the electronic music world is hugely dominated by men. Then again, most of the music industry is — to take things even further, most of the world is still disproportionately set up to favor the male identity. None of this matters to Alison Wonderland, EDM-wunderkind and a bonafide star in her own right. After her debut album dropped on Astralwerks, Alison began touring the world in support of it, quickly making new fans wherever she cropped up, and gathering perspective and experience that would inform her stunning sophomore album, Awake. With battle cry hymns like “Church,” which demands a lover worship at the altar of her body like they would a deity, Wonderland is bringing down the petrified past mindsets that have held women back in electronic music and the world itself. She may be new on the scene, but she’s quickly brought the rest of the industry down the rabbit hole with her, casually revealing what a world might be like where women are respected like gods — even when the beat drops. Especially when the beat drops.–C.W.

12. Kimbra, Primal Heart

Warner Bros. Records

In a perfect world, the angular art-pop of Kimbra’s underworld flips the script and pulses to the top of the charts, ruling the radio’s waking hours instead of just providing an underground nightscape. For those of us down here in the dark, though, a release like Primal Heart is a thundering, starlit rebuttal to the blinding, sometimes intractable trap sounds of mainstream pop. No rappers guest on the New Zealand ingenue’s third full-length album, and she never cashes back in on the fame that her world-stopping hit, “Somebody That I Used To Know” with Gotye, afforded. Instead, she labors in solitude, co-writing and co-producing every track on Primal Heart to suit her own needs — let the world come to her, not vice versa. All the wild hearts will find Kimbra, in the end, be that in 2018 or fifty years from now. And when this left-field, near-perfect pop album does finally get its due, the resulting influence on other artists will be beyond wild.–C.W.

11. Kero Kero Bonito, Time ‘N’ Place

Polyvinyl

For their second studio album, English electro-pop trio Kero Kero Bonito sought inspiration from childhood. Prior to the recording of the album, singer Sarah Midori Perry’s childhood home was demolished, flooding the singer with memories from the time she spent living there. On Time ‘N’ Place, Perry embraces a youthful mindset, pairing lyrics that harken back to childhood with glittering, chaotic synths.

Fans of KKB’s earlier work might notice that the band have moved from bubblegum pop to a dynamic, rock-adjacent genre amalgamation. “Flyaway” and “If I’d Known” have swaggering rock beats, and the band’s live gigs are more guitar driven than Bonito Generation era. But with Time ‘N’ Place, KKB prove that change isn’t so scary. It can be freeing to let it all fall down, and to find yourself amid the wreckage.–C.G.

10. Wet, Still Run

Columbia Records

There’s a sense of relief that fills Wet’s second full-length album, Still Run, with a sweetness that speaks to the difficulty the one-time trio had in moving forward from their initial EP and eventual full-length debut. Inner turmoil aside, Still Run is a feat of musical fortitude, indicative of all of the steely determination it takes sometimes — just to keep the band together — and manifests in the kind of songwriting that sticks with you long after the songs finish. The dreaded sophomore slump is a specter many bands fear, and since this record took several years to coalesce, it’s not unreasonable that fans would fear the influential indie pop group may have lost themselves on the major label track. But those fears are all dispelled by the intelligent, technicolor waves of Still Run. “It’s nobody’s business / who cares if anyone listens,” Kelly Zutrua sings on the album’s standout track, “There’s A Reason,” declaring: “There’s a madness to this, and it’s getting to us.” That may well be, but in this case, the madness is the beautiful kind.—C.W.

9. The Blaze, Dancehall

Animal 63/Sony Music

On Dancehall, French duo The Blaze are doing a couple difficult things. They’re potentially introducing new audiences to the quaking shimmer of late night, dance floor music that populates electronic clubs all over the world; they’re attempting to bring this same obscure morning hours aesthetic out into the daylight, and allow it to function more traditionally as pop; and they’re establishing their place in the canon, entering the scene on the strength of their own full-length debut. The Blaze have managed to cut through the noise and become one of the ones to watch in the electronic scene, but it remains to be seen if they can catapult themselves to the massive heights of fame plenty of electronic-focused duos have found before them (see, The Chainsmokers). It’s easy to discern that Dancehall is more high-minded than plenty of what crops up in this corner of the industry, with the juxtaposition of full-throated, arresting vocals and itchy, ever-building beats creating a record that is full of arresting and inspiring anthems. Carefully balancing between hits and high-minded art, The Blaze are a shining example of how pop need not be mindless to be catchy and engaging as hell.–C.W.

8. Shawn Mendes, Shawn Mendes

Island Records/Universal Music Group

Shawn Mendes is sweet and full of empathy, and so is Shawn Mendes. The Canadian singer-songwriter’s third album is his strongest yet, displaying songwriting maturity beyond the singer’s 20 years. “In My Blood” is an honest look at living with anxiety, and “Youth” is an anthem about the power of young people to change the world. Shawn Mendes is often serious and aware of its massive cultural reach, but it’s also just a really fun album. “Lost In Japan” is a bouncy radio hit, and “Nervous” glitters with that signature Julia Michaels pop sheen.

Mendes is one of the biggest stars in pop these days, capturing fans as only handsome, sensitive boys with guitars can. And these fans know what they’re talking about — Mendes has serious songwriting talent, and his voice is incredible (that falsetto in “Why”!!). Shawn Mendes is sincere and self-reflective, a warm blanket of an album that only gets more impressive with each listen.–C.G.

7. Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass, The Future And The Past

ATO Records

The first thing you’ll notice when listening to Natalie Prass is her breath control. The sudden stops, starts, sighs, and pauses that the singer uses to emphasize and punctuate her vocal phrasing are just as important as the lyrics themselves, sometimes even more so. Prass has a sense of dramatic timing that pairs beautifully with the jazzy, sometimes funk-indebted sound she pursued on both her thrilling self-titled debut from 2015, and this year’s follow-up, The Future And The Past. Disappointed and saddened by the results of the 2016 election, Press set out both to educate herself and to uplift and inspire others to action on this second full-length release, which was once again fleshed out with contributions from Matthew E. White and the Spacebomb community. She’s openly discussed how old and disconnected the songs on her debut were, to her, by the time they made their way out into the world; The Future And The Past, then, is her opportunity to put out music that feels electrifyingly present. This is gospel-pop for an era of turmoil, and Prass is preaching the good news, one beautiful breath at a time.–C.W.

6. Jorja Smith, Lost & Found

FAMM

The alluring, arresting voice of Jorja Smith is so perfect it almost feels unreal. Barely out of her teens, the UK singer was discovered, in a sense, but none other than Drake himself, who plucked her out of obscurity and smuggled her seductive vocals onto his Caribbean-influenced “playlist” More Life from early last year with no warning. For her part, Smith took the sudden fame in stride, quickly pulling together the kind of full-length release that put her on the map as not just another powerhouse singer, but an artist with real depth and unexpected insight. One of the oldest songs on the resulting Lost & Found is called “Blue Lights,” a meditation on the unjust and immoral practices of policing brown and black communities the world over, or how quickly a kid can fall off track for simple, unassuming mistakes. Elsewhere, “Teenage Fantasy” reflects on the unrelenting power of a crush, and how human beings seem destined to want only what the can’t have, caught in a loop of unfulfilled desire. These are heavy subjects for a debut, but Smith handles them with grace and wisdom, introducing herself to a world that can be cruel to new stars with the confidence that she will be found, by those who need to hear her most. And if 2018 is any indication, Jorja Smith is going to be finding new audiences to impress for a long time to come.–C.W.

5. King Princess, Make My Bed EP

Zelig Music

How did an artist who released her first-ever single in 2018 pull off a sold-out headlining tour, catch the attention of some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and make one of the best pop albums of the year with only 15 minutes of music?

Since the release of her longing, nostalgic single “1950” this spring, King Princess has had a meteoric rise to success. She’s the first signee to Mark Ronson’s new label Zelig Records. Harry Styles tweeted lyrics to one of her songs, and asked her to open for his show at Madison Square Garden. KP put on incredible live shows, shredding like St. Vincent, cracking jokes like a professional comedian, sending us to heaven with “Holy,” and sharing the good word with “P*ssy Is God.” Make My Bed EP is just six songs, but from this small sampling, you can tell Mikaela Straus is going to be a massive star soon.–C.G.

4. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

This Compilation/Interscope Records

The most impressive thing about the soundtrack to A Star Is Born is that these sound like real pop songs. Some of the biggest names in music worked on the soundtrack — Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, Mark Ronson, and Julia Michaels all contributed to writing on these songs. Cooper sounds like he could fill the Greek Theatre with “Diggin’ My Grave” and “Black Eyes,” and Gaga’s pop songs could easily be on the radio. (Ally’s sellout bops “Hair, Body, Face” and “Why Did You Do That”) could be an alternate version of The Fame-era Gaga, if she were the kind of pop star who wore neon miniskirts and not meat dresses.)

The soundtrack breathes life to the movie, making its already compelling characters more dimensional, and providing its best moments with music that takes it to the next level. (The “Shallow” scene is a classic of 21st century cinema, and I’m only exaggerating a little bit.) A Star Is Born could have gotten away with a lesser soundtrack, but it’s all the more impressive for featuring some of the best pop music of 2018.–C.G.

3. Empress Of, Us

Terrible Records

Lorely Rodriguez’s smoky, sparkling indie pop comes completely on her own terms. On Us, the follow-up to her 2015 debut Me, she mixes her dreamy, experimental synth-pop with an open, conversational tone that’s impossible not to feel completely at home in. Long spotlighting her Latin American heritage in her work, including releasing bilingual singles and an entire bilingual EP, Systems in 2013, Us is true to its name, more focused on a blossoming, tantalizing relationship that eclipses any other subject matter. Rodriguez details the way her lover has impacted her life on flirtatious tracks like the heady, bass-heavy “Just The Same” and the shimmering, swaggering album centerpiece “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed.” Elsewhere, slower ballads like “When I’m With Him” pick back up on her Spanish language impulses, proving that in the best kind of love, the other is only accentuated by the beloved, not erased. On Us, Rodriguez comes into her own, not necessarily because she’s in love, but because she’s learned how to expand ever outward at an exponential rate.–C.W.

2. Hayley Kiyoko, Expectations

EMPIRE/ Atlantic Records

In its thirteen songs, Expectations holds joy, angst, jealousy, and heartache. It’s classic pop, with the kind of confessional lyrics and dance-pop production that wouldn’t be out of place on a Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez album.

But these well-worn roads of love and heartbreak are novel coming from an openly lesbian pop singer. Kiyoko finds new stories to tell in yearning for a friend who has no idea how you’re feeling (“Sleepover”) and a lover who plays games (“He’ll Never Love You (HNLY)”). Kiyoko is one of a cohort of breakout queer artists to release new music this year — Troye Sivan, King Princess, Janelle Monáe, and more. Expectations is the pop record I wish I had when I was a teenager, but thankfully, generations of young people have this record to soundtrack their crushes, heartbreak, and discovery.–C.G.

1. Florence + The Machine, High As Hope

Virgin EMI Records

The mighty force that is Florence Welch was tested to her breaking point in 2018. Talking openly about her battles with addiction and sobriety, and even using her music to acknowledge a long-standing struggle with an eating disorder (see the compact, candid “Hunger”), Welch busted open her elegant, filigreed format to let the lyrics bleed a bit. The result is Florence’s finest album to date; her wounded pop is more resonant than ever in a year that felt, to borrow a line from Jason Isbell, like a struggle for most people we know. High As Hope more than lives up to its name, reaching the towering heights that her astonishing soprano is capable of cresting, but it also dashing back down to the devastating lows, the kind of shattering heartaches that threaten to destroy the self. Check out “Big God” for a brusque, dodgy bit about the demons of religion, “South London Forever” for a tribute to some shiny, golden moments in Welch’s past (and a few drunk ones), and “Sky Full Of Song” for the kind of spectacular imagery that makes her more pop poet than star, and finally, “Patricia” for a staggering hymn of tribute to the one and only Patti Smith. It’s a testament to both Florence and her songwriting that by the time the record concludes, with a song that discusses the boringness of happiness, “No Choir,” she and her music just as fascinating as she was when things were in turmoil. —C.W.

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