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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Chris—C.W.
14. Little Mix, LM5
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
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
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
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.