In a very strange rollercoaster of a year, the comforting sweetness of pop music was essential. Not just for a return to the joy a crowd enjoying live music can bring, like what Harry Styles accomplished during his Love On Tour, but also for old favorites updated to become better than ever, and strange new records like Lorde’s Solar Power that represent left turns that will change her trajectory forever. 2021 was a year for grappling with the unexpected, and understanding how some things continue to impact us long after they’re “over” — or realizing that the impact of some events never really ends, it just changes and morphs over time. In that spirit, here our are unranked picks for the 23 best pop albums of the year. Let’s all do our best to enjoy the bops while we’re here.
On another sumptuous, diva-level pop record, Adele lets the world in on the painful process of her own divorce, with a greater emphasis on family and extremely personal heartache than ever before. Yes, she’s always given us songs of epic longing and love lost, but the classic ballads on 30 chronicle a woman growing up, coming to terms with the idea that teenage dreams and the effortless intentions of your twenties can — and do — fade away. But 30 isn’t a despairing album by any means, in fact, it focuses on what each loss leaves behind, and offers a blueprint for rebuilding in a new decade. – Caitlin White
Bebe Rexha, Better Mistakes
Make no mistake about it, Bebe Rexha is going to do… whatever the hell she wants. From kicking off a year that saw a resurgence in Travis Barker’s career, starting with their “Breaky My Heart Myself” collab, to songs with Doja Cat (“Baby I’m Jealous”), Lil Uzi Vert (“Die For A Man), and even Rick Ross (“Amore”), Rexha took the idea of what a pop star should do for their second full-length record and turned it on its head. Better Mistakes is a punky, no-holds-barred expression of a pop star who is unabashedly herself. And that kind of commitment is never a mistake. – C.W.
Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever
For a brand new artist, pushing past the massive surge of a super successful debut can be a challenge. But not for Billie Eilish. Barely taking a breath between accepting a record number of Grammys for When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? and releasing new singles, Eilish weathered the pandemic by slowly trickling out songs like “Everything I Wanted” and “Therefore I Am” to set up her next phase. Happier Than Ever was a jazzy, downtempo left turn after her trippy gothic debut, and more proof than Eilish will be doing whatever she wants from here on out. When the vocals sound this good, genre becomes irrelevant. – C.W.
Bleachers, Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
Already well-known for helping pop stars of all shapes and sounds bring their best songs to life, Jack Antonoff went back to the drawing board in 2020 to refocus on his own sonic vision. Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night is undeniably that: Antonoffian. Who else would be eager to feature Bruce Springsteen and Lana Del Rey on the same record? Who else would be focusing on the moments of the weekend that feel melancholy? And who else would concoct an epic breakup anthem begging the other person to let go already? If you like saxophones, earworm melodies, and yes, sadness, this Bleachers record is for you. But most of all, after all those songs with other people, this album is for Jack. And despite all the sadness, there’s joy in that. – C.W.
After the breakout success of her debut album Immunity, all eyes were on Clairo when she released her sophomore album Sling. But rather than lean into the bedroom pop that first popularized her name, Clairo instead took Sling in a different, more reflective direction. The album is jam-packed with quiet and tender piano songs that draw inspiration from doleful-yet-warm acoustic sounds of ’70s ballads. The notable shift is attributed in part by her simply getting older and growing into herself and her sound. But Clairo also noted that, while writing the album, she had much time to reflect on the domesticity that come with caring for her rescue dog. – Carolyn Droke
Claud, Super Monster
Claud was shouldered with a major responsibility late last year: They were the first artist signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory label, so it was up to them to set the tone and represent the label well. Fortunately for all involved, Claud completely exceeded expectations and became one of 2021’s favorite new bedroom-pop artists with their debut album, Super Monster. Claud shows off some range on the LP, too, as it features everything from the pop-rock of “That’s Mr. Bitch To You” to the mellow synth-pop of “Guard Down.” – Derrick Rossignol.
Breaking records back in 2016 as one of the first K-pop stars to ever land a spot on the Billboard Hot 100, CL came back in a big way after a few years on hiatus. After splitting with a massive major label machine, she slowly began to figure out what it meant to be an independent artist, and the kind of music she wanted to make as a solo star. But when tragedy struck and her mother passed away, CL put out one of her best, and most unexpected songs so far, with the poignant “Wish You Were Here.” Her debut album, Alpha, went in a more boisterous direction, with preening singles like “Spicy” and “Lover Like Me,” but taken together, what her one-off single and the project revealed is that CL has the range. Give her time, and she’ll be back on top of the chart once more, this time, as a fully independent performer. – C.W.
Coldplay, Music Of The Spheres
Back when “Yellow” came out, it probably never occurred to anyone that Chris Martin and co. might one day be collaborating with the biggest K-pop group on the planet. It just wasn’t in the cards for the indie-rock outfit. But then came “Viva La Vida,” and “Fix You,” and soon enough, Coldplay was one of the biggest acts in pop. They took the pivot full circle on Music Of The Spheres, going full blast for “My Universe” with BTS, and other standouts like “Higher Power” and the Selena Gomez-assisted “Let Somebody Go.” Coldplay had one of the best pop albums of the year, and my little “Yellow”-loving heart is proud to witness the growth. – C.W.
Doja Cat, Planet Her
Ladies and gentlemen, Doja Cat has arrived. After two albums of fun, frothy, somewhat inconsequential stabs at pop-laden hip-hop and R&B, Amala stuck her nose hard to the grindstone to turn up a much more focused, slicker slice of her world. She still wields the same wicked sense of humor that got her national attention with “Mooo!” in 2018, but now it’s a scalpel instead of a hammer (“Get Into It“). Her pop sensibilities have sharpened as well, allowing her to trade in glimmering dancefloor anthems (“Kiss Me More“) and stargazing kickback staples (“Need To Know“). – Aaron Williams
Ed Sheeran, =
As one of the biggest pop artists in the world, when Ed Sheeran decides to return, it’s going to cause quite a commotion. For =, the UK songwriter doubled down on his album naming trope, but little else remained the same. Veering as close as he ever has to full-blown pop material, Sheeran didn’t abandon his keen sense for lyrics and catchy melodies, just turned everything up to eleven. After getting married and having a child, he reached a new level in his personal life, and = reflects a new side of his career, too. – C.W.
Girl In Red, If I Could Make It Go Quiet
Girl In Red has dominated a niche corner of pop music since she began releasing singles in 2018. But with her debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet, Girl In Red (moniker of Norwegian Marie Ulven) takes center stage. With a hit track like “Serotonin,” which gets real about the painful ebbs and flows of her journey with mental health and self-love, If I Could Make It Go Quiet beautifully crosses the boundary between electrifying pop bangers and sizzling ballads about the realities of queer relationships. A self-produced project, Ulven’s debut album highlights her vulnerable lyricism and has since empowered a following of Gen-Z listeners who feel understood by her powerful message. – C.D
Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Working with your idols can be daunting, even devastating in some cases. But every once in a while, game recognize game and everything flows into the ideal collab. That’s what happened when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross started helping Halsey retool their sound for the spectacular If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Dark, chaotic, and much more rock-centric than her last album, Manic, this fourth album is as good as a magnum opus for the alt-pop star. Wading through pregnancy, misogyny, historical sexism, and so much more, this record crystallizes her sound in unexpectedly moving ways. – C.W.
Justin Bieber, Justice
Despite the slight misstep of using a sample of Martin Luther King Jr. and naming the album Justice after a massive social movement highlighting the Black community in America, this R&B-leaning record is actually a very solid project from Canada’s greatest pop star. Though it might’ve been more appropriately titled Haley, this project is full of odes to Justin’s beloved new wife, as he explores the insecurities and deeper intimacies of married life, and looks inward to find what he most wants to project outward in the next phase of his life. “Peaches” is the obvious radio hit and standout, but “Hold On” is a slow-burning anthem that keeps hitting even days after an initial listen. – C.W.
Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed
One of two excellent divorce albums by divas this year, Kacey Musgraves definitely dived a little bit deeper into the psychedelic nature of love, connection, and separation than anyone else in 2021. Star-Crossed is perhaps the only album that could’ve followed up its glowing, critically-acclaimed predecessor, Golden Hour. Sure, sometimes the perfect, golden love fades, but going through the wilderness to find yourself again is all part of the journey. No matter what, the risk was all worth it, and this woozy record of self-reclamation is another ode to all the magic of this beautiful, twisted life. – C.W.
Kississippi, Mood Ring
Kississippi’s sophomore album Mood Ring was instantly captivating from its earliest demos and drafts. The LP finds Zoe Reynolds making the jump from the emo scene to the pop sphere, taking cues more from Taylor Swift than Jimmy Eat World. “Mood Ring boasts some of the most exciting and emotionally vulnerable songwriting to come out of the emo world in recent memory, proving once and for all that it is possible to widen your scope up the steps and out of the basement, and aim it towards arenas,” I wrote in an interview with Reynolds earlier this year. – Zac Gelfand
Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters
On her second release of 2021, the ever-prolific Lana Del Rey goes woozier and more meandering than she did on her earlier Chemtrails Over The Country Club. She seems to be doing a full-blown Cass McCombs impression on the standout duet, “Dealer,” and the regal trip-hop of “Interlude — The Trio” proves that just when we think we have her figured out, she’s happy to pivot once more. This is not Lana’s strongest songwriting of the year, but an indication that her new productive streak is well worth paying attention to. – C.W.
Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over The Country Club
While she may not be navigating the treacherous waters of social media with the most grace, Lana does best when she leans into her songwriter side and leaves Instagram be. That’s exactly what Chemtrails Over The Country Club is all about, as Del Rey descends into psych-folk smashes like “White Dress” and “Tulsa Jesus Freak.” Folksy ballads like “Wild At Heart” and “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” showcase Lana when she’s stripped back, free and easy, and completely offline. – C.W.
Lorde, Solar Power
Every perfect summer’s got to take its flight, right? Solar Power might not have been the album Lorde fans wanted, but she’s adamant that, with time, they’ll realize it was the album they needed. Tuned to the frequency of ’70s folk rock and nu-age, tongue-in-cheek sing-alongs, the uneven record still had unbelievable standouts like “Big Star” and “Fallen Fruit.” On her most anti-fame work to date, Lorde asserted that a lack of pressure can be good for many, many things — it just turns out pop songwriting isn’t one of them. – C.W.
PinkPantheress, To Hell With It
PinkPantheress‘ success may have started out on TikTok, but opposed to other songwriters who got their start on the platform, PinkPantheress is an example of the anti-influencer. The UK producer began posting snippets of her music on the app and many went mega-viral (“Just For Me” was used in over 2 million videos), all the while the singer rarely showed her face and kept tight-lipped about her personal life. But after releasing her debut album To Hell With It, PinkPantheress proves why she soared in popularity. Her music often remixes old house classics like Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman,” while distorted vocals and wobbly synths toe the line of the recently popularized hyperpop genre. – C.D
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s had a bigger 2021 than Olivia Rodrigo. In time between sharing her debut single “Drivers License” in January and releasing her No. 1 album Sour in May, Rodrigo went from Disney Channel fan-favorite to one of the most talked about musicians across the globe. She raked in award nominations, dominated streaming services, and smashed charting records held by the musical greats. Throughout the 11 tracks on Sour, Rodrigo positioned herself as an ever-talented songwriter capable of crafting both touching heartbreak ballads and roaring pop-punk anthems. The album captivated audiences of all generations with relatable lyrics and effervescent instrumentation while simultaneously rewriting the persona of the typical pop star. – C.D.
Slayyyter, Troubled Paradise
Fearless and unfettered, Slayyyter is one of the most exciting voices in pop. Full stop. Kicking off her career with some raunchy, internet-ready viral hits — and don’t worry, “Throatzilla” is present — Troubled Paradise proves that her ’00s-nostalgia is put to good use when she harnesses it for synthy dream-pop like “Clouds” or the strangely technicolor balladry of “Cowboys.” Darker and sometimes much louder than expected, Slayyyter is getting her sea legs in a churning pop world where she just might have a shot at the top, despite it all. – C.W.
Taylor Swift, Evermore
If there was anyone who was going to spend the pandemic creating not one but two perfect albums, it was always Taylor Swift. Even as the ripples of Folklore were just beginning to dissipate, Taylor gently sent a second album out into the world. This one is a little bit darker, a little more country, and just as satisfying as the first. Between her epic murder ballad collaboration with Haim and features from Bon Iver and The National, Evermore is still distinctly Taylor: Sharp, funny, sometimes scathing, and eternally devoted, despite it all. – C.W.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.