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. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of 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 is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
In a world where poptimism is the reigning force, and superstars like Kesha, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus are all staging their respective comebacks, pop music is nothing to shake a stick at. In fact, I would almost argue that this was one of the best years for pop in recent memory, it’s just that the music came to us from weird places and with unexpected twists. In that spirit, here is a mix of albums that topped charts and turned heads, and records that you may have not read about anywhere else yet.
20. Miley Cyrus, Younger Now
When Miley Cyrus decided to emerge from her self-imposed exile and follow up the wild, wacky Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (which, to be honest, I still deeply ride for) with a grown-up album that isn’t quite as strident as 2013’s Bangerz was, I was totally excited. After a couple of tumultuous years exploring her sexuality and gender identity, it felt like Miley was going to put her powerhouse vocals and country-pop pedigree to good use. And frankly, on Younger Now she absolutely did.
Unfortunately, as a fan of hip-hop, and a person who routinely defended Miley for dabbling in it, insisting she really cared about the culture, this new album is marred by the fact that she felt the need to throw rap under the bus in the press cycle leading up to its release. Utilizing the trappings of hip-hop as an outsider, and casting them aside when they no longer appeal is not the work of an artist, but a cavalier, selfish person without a proper understanding of their privilege.
If or when I’m able to put that disgust out of my mind, Younger Now is a great little album; her duet with her godmother Dolly Parton on “Rainbowland” is technicolor sweetness, lead single “Malibu” is a glittering power ballad, and both of them represent her new aesthetic, leaning into the country roots her Nashville upbringing and country star father provide. But, what I most want to hear from Miley right now isn’t another shimmering country pop song — it’s an apology.–Caitlin White
19. Taylor Swift, Reputation
Leave it to Taylor Swift to slide in at the tail end of 2017 and create more of a stir than any other pop star the rest of the year. Between a couple direct subs to Kanye West, a whole host of tiny, stinging shots at no one in particular, and several doe-eyed love songs, Reputation is full of the vivid emotional highs and lows that Swift has built her pop empire upon. This album is so bombastic that if you try going back and listening to 1989 directly after, that shiny pop masterpiece actually sounds a bit slow.
Say what you will about how overstuffed and underwritten this album is (seriously, for how poetic she’s been in the past, a lot of lines here ring hollow), it’s still an event album that threw the world for a loop on the short-lived No. 1 lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” and then boomeranged right back across the fourteen other tracks. Sonically, most of Reputation reminds me of what you would find if you looked up the word “electro-pop” in some sort of musical dictionary. Like, the fact that this record sounds derivative of her 50 Shades Of Gray duet with Zayn is the worst news I could deliver to my past self. Truly, we all hoped that was going to be a fluke, and instead Taylor used it as a blueprint.
But, because it’s Taylor, there’s still a couple songs that escaped the Bangerz treatment, and both “Call It What You Want” and “New Year’s Day” have made it onto my constant-rotation playlist. Also, I might be the only one that finds Future and Ed Sheeran on a song together fascinating, and actually pretty good. Who else on the face of the planet would come up with that odd couple? Meanwhile, despite the autotune saturation, “King Of My Heart” is also growing on me. Cut out the fluff, and you’ll still find that same sly little songwriting genius whose self-obsession (almost) always works in her best interest when it comes to crafting a killer pop song.–C.W.
18. Faith Healer, Try ;-)
Because of pop’s fickle nature, it tends to be an all or nothing game. Either, you’re in the upper echelon of the most famous segment in the entire world, or your album flies by, under the radar and largely undiscovered. Such is life, but I simply couldn’t rest without at least attempting to spread the music of Faith Healer as far and wide as I can. Dream pop spiked with jangly guitar solos, Faith Healer’s second album Try ;-) is presented as the work of Jessica Jalbert and Reny Wilson working in tandem, whereas Jalbert’s debut album as Faith Healer, Cosmic Troubles, was primarily her with Wilson producing.
Cemented as a duo, the two worked together to construct psychedelic pop songs that are informed by the aesthetics of classic rock, growling, theatrical guitar solos, and Jalbert’s voice, split and harmonizing with itself out into the infinite wide open. Despite these complex musical elements, the songs on Try ;-) are more reflective of its playful name, and even venture into the realm of silly, making the album a blessed relief from the self-serious, dreary, and dark tones that have infiltrated some of the biggest releases of the year.–C.W.
17. Marika Hackman, I’m Not Your Man
On her first album for Sub Pop, 25-year-old British musician Markia Hackman has proven herself, even if we’re only talking about the beyond bizarre video for “My Lover Cindy” (which I won’t spoil here). Past the absurd visuals and indie slacker rock vibes, though, are serious themes of relationships and homosexuality that she handles with grace.
“If I was a liar, I would call you my friend / Let’s hope the feeling’s mutual in the end / Symbiosis, can we keep it how it was? / Now the levy is broken / I want more,” she sings on “My Lover Cindy” to address the complications that come early on in a relationship, especially a queer one. The vessel for these meaningful words makes you forget how serious it all is, given the garage rock meets sugar-sweet pop aesthetic that combines indie instrumentation with catchy earworm melodies. The album is a complex and profound work, even if it doesn’t seem to be presented that way at all.–Derrick Rossignol
16. Charli XCX, Number 1 Angel
The infectiously simple, video game-influenced pop of “Boys” may have been the defining male-centric moment of 2017 for Charli XCX, but the studio album that song comes from is still on the horizon, much to her frustration as issues with her label keep the record’s release at bay.
What we did get this year, though, is the Number 1 Angel mixtape, which she made behind Atlantic’s back. It proves that Charli XCX doesn’t need to comforts of the traditional album format to create some sweet pop: “3AM (Pull Up)” recruits MØ for an electropop banger, while album opener “Dreamer” is more of a slow building pop-rap anthem. It’s an impressive collection, especially as an in-between project that Charli XCX says she wrote in two weeks.–D.R.
15. Halsey, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom
On her 2015 debut album, Badlands, Halsey turned her internet fanbase into a living, breathing organism, willing it to go with her through the wilderness — or Madison Square Garden, as it were. In the intervening years, Halsey’s star has only risen exponentially higher, and the thought of a sophomore slump is almost laughable. When hopeless fountain kingdom came out this summer, it jumped to the top of the Billboard 200 chart, and both early singles, “Now Or Never” and “Bad At Love,” entered the Top 20. So yes, while all the commercial success a pop star hopes for has abounded in Halsey’s career, what remains the most compelling about her story is the connection she shares with her fans.
From the beginning, Halsey has been open about her bisexuality, her struggles with bipolar disorder, and her biracial heritage (her father is Black). These uniquely mixed identities — affectionately called “tri-bi” — resonated with a generation of fans who shared many of these qualities themselves, but rarely see them represented up on arena stages. Informed by her singular backstory and propelled forward by a heartbreak, hopeless fountain kingdom was easily one of the most successful and interesting pop albums released this year.–C.W.
14. Diet Cig, Swear I’m Good At This
Pop albums come in a lot of shapes and sizes. For Diet Cig, a two-piece indie pop band from New Paltz, New York, pop music feels at its most quaint and personal. On their debut LPs opening song, “Sixteen,” frontperson Alex Luciano flirts with TMI by recounting a story of dating a boy with the same first name and moaning it while they had sex. It’s par for the course for the band that shifts from confessional to exuberant at a moment’s notice, that knows that feminism and fun-loving can be overlapping characteristics, and that honors their own youth without a shred of embarrassment. For a band whose popularity was largely build upon their high-kicking live shows, Swear I’m Good At This fulfills the difficult task of not only living up to those performances, but proving the band can live just as comfortably on headphones. Luciano’s melodies swim with such ease that Diet Cig’s modest, instantly catchy songs provide an ideal counterpoint to the maximal pop records that populate the radio. Diet Cig’s just here to remind you that there is room for both.–Philip Cosores
13. The Chainsmokers, Memories… Do Not Open
This was the album the world loved to hate. At one point this year, a gleeful internet pointed out that Memories… Do Not Open had the lowest Metacritic score of any other album in the site’s rankings. So be it. That doesn’t really change the fact that The Chainsmokers know how to put together a goddamn pop earworm, and even if the antics of the DJ duo behind all those sick beats and drops have been a PR nightmare for themselves since basically day one, there’s enough excellent fodder on this album to catapult it onto our best pop albums list.
Don’t believe me? Try out album opener, “The One,” a breathy kiss-off about a toxic relationship that neither party has the courage to end, or the gleeful build up of “Paris,” an escapist dream about falling in love on the edge of rebellion. “Bloodstream” is a dark pop anthem that almost confronts the specters of anxiety and depression, and at the very least represents an open struggle with them, but it’s the harmony-heavy collab “Last Day Alive,” with fellow most-hated-but-extremely-popular country counterparts Florida Georgia Line that really will blow your mind. Think of it as a lowest common denominator Springsteen rip off, then add a drop. I dare you to get to the end of this song and tell me it’s not art.–C.W.
12. Deerhoof, Mountain Moves
Like many artists in 2017, Deerhoof decided to try and make sense of our turbulent times through music. On their 14th album, the Bay Area area pop rockers don’t get explicitly political, but it’s hard to hear this collection of music as anything less than a fist aimed toward the powers that be. The first single after was debuted on Democracy Now! The most obvious — or at least most impactful — protest comes dead center in the middle of the album with “Your Dystopic Creation Doesn’t Fear You.” The music drives at a catchy, guitar-propelled clip, while Awkwafina growls over and over again about “rats.” Outside of that, Deerhoof plays to the strengths that got them into this position for going on 20 years now. Mountain Moves is yet another superb collection of off-kilter musical passages, whimsical vocal accents, and diverse sonic touchstones. It’s pop. It’s rock. It’s a little bit of everything.–Corbin Reiff
11. Muna, About U
Shortly after signing to RCA, LA’s Muna prepared and released their debut full-length, About U, a supremely fun collection of twelve “dark pop” songs that showcase the talents of the three women who created them. Combining synthetic and organic instrumentation, Katie Gavin’s vocals, Josette Maskin’s lead guitar, and Naomi McPherson’s rhythm guitar and synths make for an album that is equal parts dance party and heartbreaking existential crisis. About U is a long record — clocking in at just under an hour — but it never gets stale, each song bringing something new and intriguing to the table. Gavin’s vocal performance stands tall throughout, with tracks like opener “So Special” and lead single “I Know A Place” epitomizing her ability to fit her voice to a variety of different song structures and styles. For a band as nuanced as Muna, it’s the ideal ballast to build their impressive record.–Zac Gelfand
10. Jay Som, Everybody Works
There are many moments on Jay Som’s breakthrough album, Everybody Works, that make the project of Melina Duterte stand apart from both her pop and indie rock peers. But most memorable might be how the album ends, with the sprawling “For Light” soaring in meditative bliss, flying rapidly toward the horizon in search of an endless sunset. It’s both an intimate and an inviting musical moment, its repetition serving as a mantra to bolster up the audience for anything they might face after listening. It also stands as a bit of contrast from what Jay Som does best, breaking down the barriers of small club indie with warm melodies and warmer guitar tones. Where else could the otherworldly, expansive “Remain” hold its own next to a fuzzed-out garage rager like “1 Billion Dogs.” Jay Som’s coins are not limited to two sides, and everything feels fair game when in her hands.–P.C.
9. Ed Sheeran, ÷
After seeing Ed Sheeran live a few years back, I admittedly have a soft spot for his music and performance. After all, his ability to play massive stadiums with literally nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal is incredibly impressive. In preparing for his third LP, ÷, Sheeran took some time off to deal with his building problem with substance abuse. Doing so allowed him to take a break and refocus, gaining a new perspective on his fame and putting together some of his strongest work to date.
÷ features Sheeran’s biggest songs ever, most notably the inescapable “Shape Of You,” but some of its deeper cuts are just as memorable. Tracks like “Perfect” and “How Would You Feel (Paean)” are wonderful testaments to young love, the latter of which even features a guitar solo from John Mayer. Sheeran’s third album is his most focused, and also shows his range as a musician, expanding his sound to incorporate more instruments outside his one-man show, with pleasant results.–Z.G.
8. Amber Coffman, City Of No Reply
Being in a band with your significant other may be #relationshipgoals, but like relationships themselves, it can get complicated. When things went south between Dirty Projectors members David Longstreth and Amber Coffman, so too did the group. Coffman left the band, calling it “the only healthy choice for me” and “a loss to no longer be involved with Dirty Projectors,” but it was time to move on.
She did so in a fantastic way on her debut solo album, which Longstreth co-wrote and produced before their relationship turned too sour. Coffman’s response to this particularly challenging time in her life is marked by a distinctly old-school feel: Lead single “All To Myself” has strong doo-wop vibes but with Kanye West-style vocoded backing vocals and “No Coffee” is vintage guitar-led R&B. That said, it’s not all throwback Thursday thanks to songs like “Nobody Knows,” which comes off like a modern imagining of a groove-driven Nelly Furtado track.
City Of No Reply is a triumphant end to a great chapter of Coffman’s career. The album is likely the last time she’ll work with Longstreth (at least for a while), so now we wait to see how she’ll manage more completely on her own. As shown here, the early returns are promising.–D.R.
7. Sylvan Esso, What Now
When we first met Amelia Meath, it was as a third of the a cappella folk group Mountain Man, a trio that was never really meant for wide audiences but still found themselves touring as a part of Feist’s backing band at their peak. But there’s something poetic in the fact that Meath is now finding the biggest success of her career in a duo that makes ebullient bangers that lack both self-consciousness or pretention. Meath is certainly a woman who can exist at both poles of pop music, but it’s her chemistry with bandmate Nick Sanborn that makes What Now such an engaging listen. It’s electro-pop for people that don’t listen to techno, party-starting anthems whose titles (“Radio,” “Kick Jump Twist,” “Just Dancing”) act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Maybe it is the pair’s background in indie that keeps Sylvan Esso from coming off as bombastic, and maybe their rising above their old scene is why energy becomes such an operative word in the project. With a recent Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album, Sylvan Esso are becoming a band that defies easy classification, uniting fans because their music is damn fun, and damn infectious.–P.C.
6. Casey Dienel, .Imitation Of A Woman To Love
Casey Dienel is a completely independent artist working in a genre built on machination. Recording and producing her lightning pop record Imitation Of A Woman To Love all on her own — even working within her own independent studios — Dienel created not just one of the year’s most compelling pop albums, but one of the most compelling albums, full stop. Free from the constraints of commercial expectation, Dienel frequently meanders into lengthy six-minute territory. Whether it’s exploring a one night stand in Palm Desert, or grappling with the dissolution of a relationship marred by economic disparity, these are not easy songs that will lend well to breezy listening.
Dienel makes difficult music that’s easily accessible, but not necessarily easy to access. An undercurrent of the sardonic infuses her synthpop with a bite that not a lot of modern pop is brave enough to keep intact in 2017. She confronts difficult subjects that women in particular face in relationships, unabashedly discussing masturbation, trauma, and lust without shying away from the ramifications these experiences actually bring with them. The resulting album is a crushing, fascinating exploration of what pop music might look like if women were always in charge. Even if it’s a short-lived experiment, at least we get a sense of what that alternate reality could be like.–C.W.
5. Maggie Rogers, Now That The Light Is Fading
EPs aren’t allowed on this list, it’s a list of albums, so imagine how fucking good Maggie Rogers’ Now That The Light Is Fading must be to make the cut. The reason why it did is because this short collection of five songs had just as much an impact on the pop world as a full-length album from anyone else. Rogers’ rise to fame has been told over and over at this point, by a rapt audience who point back to her senior thesis audition of sorts with Pharrell at NYU.
Once Pharrell hears her initial hit “Alaska,” he basically loses his mind, declares it an instant hit, and says he can’t find anything wrong it, it might be a perfect song. This is the reaction that most people have when they first hear it, including me. After that clip went viral online, so did Rogers, and a series of sold-out tours in support of this small collection helped boost her profile even more.
To hear her tell it, Rogers used to solely make simple, traditional folk music, and it wasn’t until she studied abroad in Europe and had a deep spiritual experience with electronic music that she sought to mix her old style of songwriting with synthetic production. Luckily for all of us, that mix brought her into the national spotlight, and a full-length debut can’t be too far behind.–C.W.
4. Calvin Harris, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
I’m not going to try and pretend that I’m nothing less than stunned to be writing this entry right now. At least for me, there hasn’t been much in Calvin Harris’s history to suggest that he’d be able to put together a project this warm, this impactful, or this fun. Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 features some of my favorite superstar collaborations of the year, and some serious song of the summer contributions, including, what I expect might be an all-time entry for Young Thug, Ariana Grande and Skateboard P himself Pharrell in the super-sunny “Heatstroke.” And even then, I’m not sure that’s even the best song on the record. That distinction probably belongs to the opening track, a Frank Ocean and Migos venture titled “Slide,” which is greased by some bright handclaps, throwback chipmunk vocals, and an adoringly elegiac piano melody. So many times, this year we got superstar hookups that failed to deliver on the promise of the names that created them. Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is a glorious exception.–C.R.
3. Kesha, Rainbow
Even if this record leans as much to the country end of the spectrum as it does pop, it’s impossible to discount the enormous impact that Kesha has on the pop culture world at large when she makes a move. Although we’re currently swept up in a wave of women confronting the men in their industries who have abused their power in physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional forms of misconduct, it was Kesha who filed her case in court back before anyone else was waging this war.
You can hear the impact of these traumas on Rainbow songs like the looming “Praying,” and the self-aggrandizing “Woman,” a balm in the face of all the other forces at work. On the album opener, “Bastards,” Kesha channels Kris Kristofferson, and sounds like she’s right in the running to challenge Shania Twain (“Learn To Let Go”). Actually, that’s not a bad tour idea.
Between her other two tear-jerking ballads, “Hymn” and “Rainbow,” and plenty more tracks on this lengthy return, Kesha finds time to dabble in her old synthpop world, but she’s mostly in singer-songwriter mode here, and her collab with Dolly Parton on a country standard written by her own mother, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You),” is a highlight. My favorite, though, is the closer, “Spaceship,” which imagines another way off the planet than death. Even if she feels like an alien here, there has never been a pop star more human than Kesha.–C.W.
2. Dua Lipa, Dua Lipa
It’s hard to pick a favorite song off Dua Lipa’s luminous self-titled album of the same name. Album opener “Genesis” is currently my favorite, a breezy, beat-driven dance floor anthem about a perfect lover who might be on their way out. Or, it could be the first track Lipa ever released, “Be The One,” a cloudy, synth-driven ballad that’s, unsurprisingly, about why she’s the ideal match for the object of her affections. Of course, neither of these songs have had the impact that her most recent single, “New Rules” has had; that song put Lipa on the map for even the casual music fan, listing all the things to avoid doing with an ex if she wants to recover. The song centers caring for the self over getting an ex back, a positive message of self-care in a world that urges women to put everything on the line for men, a rare sentiment in pop.
But for the 22-year-old Lipa, that kind of casual feminism is ingrained in everything she writes. It’s impossible not to hear Rihanna’s influence on her earthy, low vocals, but sonically, her sound leans much closer to house production and electronic music than most of RiRi’s oeuvre. “IDGAF” is, unsurprisingly, another kiss-off to an ex, but her collab with Miguel “Lost In Your Light” — which sounds more like a Miguel song she jumped on than vice versa — is a bright happy-ending love story. Whether she’s mourning or back-pedaling in an effort to hang on, or basking in the glow of a current crush, Lipa makes every second feel like a thousand years, which is the exact kind of dramatic staying power that a pop star on the rise needs. Dua Lipa will be inescapable in 2018, and I have a feeling she wouldn’t have it any other way.–C.W.
1. Lana Del Rey, Lust For Life
Earlier this year a friend remarked to me that Lana Del Rey didn’t really work in 2017. I couldn’t help but agree with him on some level — her certain languid disaffection seemed to be at odds with the urgent need for action and caring that our current political climate doesn’t just suggest, but demands. Yet, arguably, when she tried to get political on Lust For Life, on the late-addition track “Coachella — Woodstock In My Mind,” she failed miserably.
The longer 2017 stretched on, the more I found myself returning to Lust For Life anyway, seeking respite from the entrenched opinions and doomsday posturing that occupied seemingly every other facet of my cultural consumption. Pop music is founded almost entirely on the premise of escapism, and in 2017, the inability to reconcile Lana’s style with what’s happening in the real world actually became a point in her favor.
Between the happiest song she’s ever written, “Love,” and her new Weeknd duet, the self-titled track off this record that finds her dancing on the “H” of the Hollywood sign, Lana’s album is a fantasy world with absolutely no connection to reality. These slow-burning bonfire anthems that lament the need to go to multiple beaches in one day to find peace, or touch on surface-y concerns like summer love were a balmy escape that I couldn’t have gotten through this year without.–C.W.