Entering a new decade is a great time to look back at the old one, either to laugh at trends that quickly disintegrated or pick out artists and albums that helped redefine genres. For pop music, the shift over the last ten years has been enormous, and those shifts have been brought about by one-off records just as much as they have by the long career arcs of certain artists. For instance, Adele’s 21 was named the No. 1 album of the year in 2011 by Rolling Stone, shifting the notoriously rock-centric publication toward pop in a way that nobody could’ve predicted, and dragging a lot of other music criticism along with it. And when she went on to win multiple Grammys for Album Of The Year — both for 21 and beyond — she helped establish a pattern of critical acclaim for pop music that Taylor Swift had laid the groundwork for the year before. Young women could make serious music now, too — even if they weren’t rockers.
Other random records that barely ever enter the conversation anymore proved more prescient than they seemed. Katy B’s debut record On A Mission set her up as an artist to watch, and though she hasn’t become a mainstream icon, the sounds on that album are certainly concurrent with today’s pop aesthetic, ten years later. Miranda Lambert’s massive country-pop album Four The Record opened doors for the likes of Kacey Musgraves (who co-wrote that record’s biggest hit) and Maren Morris. And, Lights turned Ellie Goulding into a genre star who could make it on the strength of her voice alone, mostly existing without the help of tabloid storylines. That model has been harder and harder for younger stars to follow, but early releases from The Weeknd and Frank Ocean proved that pop audiences were intrigued by a mystery, and that the genre would open its borders to elements of R&B and hip-hop production, as long as the artists stepped out of the shadows eventually.
As poptimism — or the idea that pop music should be taken as seriously by critics as other more esoteric, cerebral forms of music — began to take hold over the course off the decade, some of these records prove the point more clearly with every passing year. Others fell through the cracks as they should, but still had their place in the sun, at least for the year. Check out our picks for the twenty most influential records of 2011, whether they defined that year or kept pushing forward into the future.
Lady Gaga – Born This Way
Addressing what amounts to the best and most important pop album of the year first, Lady Gaga’s second proper record was the one that transformed her from rising star into global sensation who could hold the world’s attention in the palm of her hand. This was the Gaga era that solidified her glam-rock shtick with enormous balladry gone electric like “Marry The Night” and the unstoppable hooks found on songs like “Edge Of Glory” and “Judas.” Rarely has a straight pop star gotten a gay rights anthem so right in the way that “Born This Way,” did, and after so many years of queer fans devoting themselves to women in music, it was something of a miracle for a star to openly give that love right back. Gaga laid out the blueprint for how pop stars should support marginalized communities, and has continued doing so all the way into the next decade by speaking up about Black Lives Matter and all of the continued advocacy she does with her Born This Way Foundation. A pop star as a political force seemed far-fetched ten years ago, but in 2021, it’s the reality for anyone that matters.
Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
Though she had already been through some of the worst years of her life and placed under a conservatorship, Britney Spears was still making hits in 2011. Femme Fatale, the follow-up to 2008’s incredibly influential Circus, actually kicked off an era of even more successful singles for Spears. “Hold It Against Me” debuted at No. 1 and put her in rare company, as only the second female artist after Mariah Carey to debut more than two singles at the top of the chart. Even if it wasn’t as big a radio hit, “Till The World Ends” went all the way up to No. 3, and “I Wanna Go” also reached No. 7. While Femme Fatale didn’t necessarily set the table for a late-career surge, it proved that Britney was still in control enough to release two great albums back-to-back, and also earned her the Vegas residency that has been a core element of her recent arc. As The New York Times and others focus on the #FreeBritney movement, interest in the singer has reached a peak once again, and a potential change in her legal situation might be coming soon. Britney influenced the way we treat our pop stars, as the ramifications of her tabloid craze days become more clear — and more damning.
Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Ten years ago it wasn’t a given that Lykke Li would be the one laying down the blueprint for languid, beat-inflected songs that turned their sadness into the hook. But take a look at the pop landscape in 2021 and consider how much Lykke’s early ear for combining the melody of pop and the percussion of trap beats has come to dominate modern songwriting. She’s still employing the same formula with as much success on her latest record, 2018’s so sad so sexy, but it’s the next crop of teenage stars who took it and ran with it that should really be sending their thanks. The fact that Wounded Rhymes sounds current ten years later points to just how far ahead of her time Li has always been.
Beyonce – 4
Back before Beyonce was the kind of unimpeachable icon who can make the entire world stop with a social media post — let alone a surprise album drop — 4 was still one of the best pop albums in recent memory. If the classic devotion of “1+1,” irreplaceable good-time jams of “Party” and “Love On Top,” and eternal declarations like “Dance For You” and “End Of Time” weren’t enough, then throw in the feminist anthem “Run The World (Girls)” and remarkably complicated emotional rollercoasters like “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Rather Die Young.” Oh, then there’s the top-tier layered Beyonce song, “Countdown,” which would probably be a weak mess if another vocalist attempted it. No, we didn’t yet know that Beyonce was going to run the whole entire world and then some, but there’s enough clues on 4 that this was a pop star in a league all her own. 4 is a great enough album that, even after of a few of the flashier records, some fans still love to claim this one as their favorite project in her expansive discography. Click play above, and by the time you get to that third key change in “Love On Top,” who can argue with them?
Adele – 21
Though her debut album, 19, instantly transformed her into a massive presence in the pop world, it was the follow-up that cemented Adele as the next great Voice in the modern music industry. Recognizable after a single syllable, and beloved by young and old alike, her tales of heartbreak and renewal were somehow timeless and decidedly born of the 2000s in the same breath. Though some critics felt her next album, 2015’s 25, wasn’t as strong as her first two records, the Grammys didn’t agree, once again awarding her the coveted Album Of The Year trophy. The British singer’s ability to transcend age, gender, and genre is certainly part of her global appeal, and none of it would possible without that Voice. Proving that even with all the productions tricks and AutoTune plug-ins available now, there’s still something about raw vocal talent that will sell records. She seems to have switched things up quite a bit over the last five years, and is preparing to release a new record very soon, so this year we’ll see where she takes her legacy next. No matter where she goes next, “Rolling In The Deep” will always be gospel.
Selena Gomez & The Scene – When The Sun Goes Down
If you were already an adult by 2011, odds are one of Selena’s earliest records — one of three with her band, Selena Gomez & The Scene — didn’t really make its way onto your radar. But as unobtrusive as it might have been, this record quietly set Selena up to make her transition from Disney child star to adult musician. The leadoff track “Love You Like A Love Song” predicates the unusual, disco-y beats she’d be drawn to later on, and highlights her penchant for musical metaphor. The album’s next best offering is the title track, channeling early Kesha glitchy, hedonistic freedom, but without all the adult references. Selena was already pushing at the boundaries of a Kids Bop take on pop music, and the album’s closer, a Spanish remix of one of the album’s toothless, teeny bopper hits “Who Says,” translated to “Dices,” indicates that even years ago, Gomez was thinking about how far-reaching her fanbase was. As she embarks on her first-ever Spanish-language EP next month, the strides she’s taken couldn’t be more obvious, even if the groundwork was there all along.
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
Ah, remember when pop music had bands in it? While Coldplay continue to walk the line between mainstream rock and mainstream pop – as do fellow chameleon acts like 21 Pilots, Imagine Dragons, and Walk The Moon — back in 2011 this album marked a shift toward pop for Chris Martin and co. Between the electropop inclinations define “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” and a full-blown Rihanna feature, this still-guitar-heavy album was a huge step toward radio-friendly material that has now come to define the British rock group who once seemed intent on swinging for the classic rock fences. Between the AutoTune and ecstatic noodling on “Hurts Like Heaven” and the tearjerker-y ballad, “Us Against The World,” this record practically screams I want to work with Beyonce. Though “Hymn For The Weekend” was another album, a whole “conscious uncoupling” and another four years away, Mylo Xyloto alerted the world to the fact that Chris Martin wasn’t going to turn up his nose at pop. And by the time they were collaborating with The Chainsmokers in 2017, the fit was perfect.
Demi Lovato – Unbroken
Plenty of child stars need a couple albums to really get their sea legs as adult pop stars, and though Unbroken was Demi Lovato’s third record, it was the first time she really began to connect on a singles level. Her second album, Here We Go Again debuted at No. 1 but failed to get a single into the top ten. Unbroken, on the other hand, put “Skyscraper” solidly at No. 10. The rest of the record featured contributions for Missy Elliott and Timbaland, leaning into an R&B sound instead of the power balladry of Again or the Jonas Brothers, who co-wrote and produced her debut. A female pop star turning away from pop-rock and belting and toward the likes of Jason DeRulo seems like a given these days, but back in 2011 it was still pretty unusual. Demi and Ariana Grande — who would release a rap-influenced debut two years later — were teen stars who quickly learned that R&B and hip-hop could help them sound grown up fast. Though the last decade Demi dealt with mental health and addiction issues along the way, she also leaned into rap far less — and Ariana soon eclipsed her as a result.
Kelly Clarkson – Stronger
Kelly Clarkson has now settled comfortably into the world of talk show host, but ten years ago she was on top of the world as one of the only American Idol contestants to actually crossover as a tried and true pop star. Stronger actually won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album. Still, Stronger was the beginning of the end for Clarkson in some ways, who went on to release a Christmas album, Wrapped In Red and a final record on RCA, the fairly weak Piece By Piece, before releasing her a soul/R&B-inspired record Meaning Of Life on Atlantic Records in 2017. Though she’s teased plans for a new album this year, it’s her recent Emmy that proves a point, Clarkson has become much more of a force in the world of television than music this side of 2020. But what pivot could be stronger?
Florence & The Machine – Ceremonials
I remember seeing Florence Welch play her own harp on the tiny stage of The Troubadour back in 2009, so as the years passed and it became clear she would soon begin headlining stadiums, it was hard to reconcile her “indie” origins with the mounting fame. The bridge between those early, desperately lonely Lungs tracks and their eventual breakout in 2015, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, was 2011’s Ceremonials. While this album lacked the gigantic star power of a towering single like “Cosmic Love,” it more than made up for it with the much more palatable, radio-friendly hit “Shake It Out.” A few years later, Rihanna would also employ a snippet of the leadoff track, “Only If For The Night,” in promotional materials for her own stone cold classic record, Anti—, in some ways reviving interest in Ceremonials. But Florence is the rare “indie” pop star who never lost her songwriting credit even as the stages got bigger and bigger, and, ironically, her latest album High As Hope is closer to her debut than anything else she’s done. She might be playing the Hollywood Bowl now, and someone else takes most of the harp parts, but Florence is just as influential now, as a massive star, as she was when she was a rising one.
One Direction – Up All Night
Ah, we were so young, back before the band broke up and everything was beautiful. One Direction fans knew early on that the eventual split was coming, that driven by desires for solo careers, the pressures of fame, and simply growing up this teen boy band sensation would fall apart someday. But back in 2011? They were going stronger than ever, fresh off a synthesis concocted by Simon Cowell on the British singing show The X Factor and releasing their debut album, Up All Night in the UK and Ireland. Even four albums and a breakup later, “What Makes You Beautiful” is still up there as one of the all-time 1D hits, and fun fact related to an early entry on this list, the song “Tell Me A Lie” was originally intended for Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger. After the album got a full global release in early 2012 — one that even had to be moved up due to fan demand — the group quickly followed it up with their second album, Take Me Home. And the rest, they say, is history. Though Harry Styles has become the de facto 1D member still carrying the torch, his last album Fine Line came out in late 2019 and was still resonating in a big way in 2020. With all this time on his hands in lockdown, will Harry release a third album this year? Or will all the demand for a return to live music once the pandemic is finally settled convince the band to kick off a reunion tour in 2022? Either way, One Direction made sure everyone released the power of a teen girl fanbase, and never again will a young, female expert on pop music written off as a “groupie.” At least not on Harry’s watch.
Rihanna – Talk That Talk
In 2021 the desire for a new Rihanna album is so strong that it’s hard to believe she used to release one new project a year, like clockwork, for almost a decade. Talk That Talk was the sixth album in what would be a seven year streak — save 2008 when no new album came — that defined RiRi as one of the most influential pop stars of the 2000s. Over fifteen years after her debut record hit America in 2005, Robyn Fenty has transitioned into a mogul of makeup and skincare, lingerie, and even luxury couture design, but arguably, none of that would’ve happened without “We Found Love.” Sure, there are other massive Rihanna hits, and yes, she probably would’ve made her way to mogul someday, either way, but this all-encompassing, dancefloor-packing, completely unexpected depression EDM jam might as well have defined the entire experience of the 2010s. It put Calvin Harris on the map, and definitely helped bring EDM more directly into mainstream pop in America — I think it was the first song I ever heard that had a “drop” in it. Basic, I know. Anyway, other bangers off Talk included “Where Have You Been,” an ill-advised attempt at reconciling with Chris Brown on “Birthday Cake,” and a return to Jay-Z collaborations on “Talk That Talk.” Throw in “Cockiness (Love It)” and it quickly becomes clear this is one of Rihanna’s best albums ever. What’s most astonishing about listening to her material from ten years ago, though, is how little it would have to tell us about where she went next — Anti— is still a left-field curveball that nobody could’ve predicted. And despite the Internet’s constant thirstiness, I’m pretty positive whatever she gives us next will be, too. For now, put some lip gloss in your cart and be happy. This might be a hopeless place, but we still have Rihanna here with us.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Some melodies are so strong that even without lyrics, it’s so easy to sing them out. That’s the case with M83’s “Midnight City,” an instrumental song with such an undeniable hook that most music fans can probably identify it by humming it to each other. M83 — a French electronic band “named after the galaxy of the same name” — anchored by composer Anthony Gonzalez, along with Nicolas Fromageau and Morgan Kibby. Their 2011 record Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming defied all odds when it became a seminal album despite the fact that it was mostly instrumental and not what most successful pop albums of the era looked like. After three decades spent living in France, Gonzalez moved to California and began writing the album as an outlet for the emotions he was feeling while visiting places like Joshua Tree for the first time. Aside from the spectacular, dreamy, nearly cosmic feel of the record, marketing campaign from Urban Outfitters and huge co-signs from music critics, topping year-end lists and picking up a Grammy nom for Best Alternative Album. Sadly, this is one case where lightning couldn’t strike twice, and band hasn’t released anything on par since. Still, catching lightning in a bottle, even once, is a thing of beauty. This record will sound just as alarming, beautiful, and nostalgic in any era.
Miranda Lambert – Four The Record
If you love Kacey Musgraves, then you’ve got Miranda Lambert to thank. Lambert helped put Musgraves on the map in a big way by cutting a song she co-wrote, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and turning it into a rambunctious hit that blew up the country charts, hit No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, and quickly went platinum — which may or may not have inspired the title for Lambert’s next (and best) album. But the success of this single didn’t just help Kacey, though you might get lucky and hear her play it herself someday on tour, if she’s in the mood — it also helped make Four The Record the highest-charting album of Miranda’s career, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and proved that women in country could be modern and go mainstream, skirting the line between genre diehards and pop fans. If you’re grateful for Kacey, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce — hell even the success of rougher and folksier types like Ashley McBryde and Brandi Carlile — thank Miranda for paving the way, and give the album a spin. You just might hear something you like, including a Gillian Welch cover, a Blake Shelton duet (RIP that relationship), and a song written by then-undiscovered Chris Stapleton, “Nobody’s Fool.”
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia Ultra
It would be easy to simply call this mixtape the blueprint for the next ten years of pop music and stop there. Because if other musicians weren’t blatantly copying Frank, then they were hoping what they made sounded like him. Though he’d infamously had a hard time getting noticed on his label, and would later execute some pretty clever tricks in order to get out of a binding contract, when Nostalgia Ultra hit all most people could do was notice how he synthesized every other sound or song or chorus and made it his own. Even when he’s rapping or singing over some of the most well-known melodies in the musical canon, Frank stood out above the source material. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime artist letting us hear his sketches before he’d paint his masterpiece. It was a moment of complete hope and unbridled anticipation for an industry that had managed to produce plenty of “hit” artists, but so rarely nurtured a true genius in the recent past. And to give credit to Frank, he succeeded despite this industry, not because of it. Nostalgia Ultra was an emblem of its time, a digital tape full of uncleared samples and the kind of freedom that comes from not giving a f*ck about arbitrary rules. Ocean has given us two perfect records since (sorry, I don’t count Endless), and if the next decade even gives us two more, we should be happy.
Jennifer Lopez – Love?
It would take almost the full decade for mainstream pop music to catch up with the Latin stars who were blazing their own trail in American music anyway, so Jennifer Lopez is in a much different place right now than she was back in 2011. Though at the height of her fame back then, she was still pushing against a whiter, less diverse industry, and Love? got her dropped from her label, Epic Records, when the lead single “Louboutins” failed to achieve commercial success. Undeterred, the triple threat signed a new deal with Island Records and released the record after all, anchored by songs written with the likes of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream and a massive Pitbull collaboration called “On The Floor.” That song became a No. 3 hit and despite mixed reviews, the album itself had a No. 5 debut on the Billboard chart. Though Lopez released one more album after this, A.K.A in 2014, it’s only been over the last five years that Latin music has become such a powerful force in the pop mainstream. Between the massive success of stars like Bad Bunny and J. Balvin, and the groundswell of support that surged after her latest movie Hustlers was a smash hit, the timing might be perfect for J. Lo to dip her toes back in. After all, she was doing it way before Selena Gomez, why not carpe diem?
Katy B – On A Mission
For lots of solo British pop stars, crossing over into America can be a tricky thing. Unless it happens in a big way like it did for Adele or One Direction, occasionally translating across the pond is a difficult game. For Katy B, her debut album did just that, bringing dancier sounds like dubstep and house with her, and making On A Mission one of the most, in a very literal sense, futuristic-sounding records of the year. Still, there was no real narrative to tie Katy to, and as celebrity relationships and love life happenings became a bigger and bigger part of a pop star’s appeal, Katy B never quite ascended, even if this album did. She followed the record up with a few more releases, Little Red in 2014 featuring fellow critical darlings like Jessie Ware and Sampha, and Honey in 2016 (Not to be confused with the 2018 Robyn album of the same name), but neither achieved the same acclaim in America that her debut received. Given how popular electronic music has become in the intervening five years, it just might be time for her to think about a new record.
The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
After taking the biggest stage in the industry a couple weekends (heh) past at the Super Bowl halftime show, Abel Tesfaye has more than officially broken into the top tier of modern pop stars. He’s in elite company with that under his belt, joining the likes of Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga, and his subject matter drastically strays from what those three divas cover, too. Back when he was a faceless music blog lothario, The Weeknd put out a series of steamy mixtapes kicked off with House Of Balloons. Most listeners downloaded it for free, or received the zip file from a friend in the know, making him the kind of artist who spread like gossip among friends. Listening to the earliest project Tesfaye created, all the dark, sardonic brilliance is right there, even if he’s polished it until it shines over the last ten years. Where does he go next? Who knows, but the After Hours era will easily continue in 2022 when touring is feasible again, and if he plays “Wicked Games” or “High For This” on that tour, tracks off his earliest album, the crowd will still know every word.
Jessie J – Who You Are
See the Katy B blurb above for a primer on how British pop stars sometimes struggle to connect in America. Jessie J definitely deals with that drawback too, and even if her debut did well enough commercially, it wasn’t a hit with critics. With a debut that hit No. 2 on the UK charts and six singles in the top ten, Jessie actually broke records by being the only solo female artist with a single album with that many songs charting so high. Her third album, 2014’s Sweet Talker was preceded by the massive group single, “Bang Bang,” featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, but that already-explosive pair easily outshone her, and the record didn’t have much crossover in the US, though it once again fared better in the UK. Still, in the context of 2011, a brand new pop star from the UK who was pissing off critics and breaking chart records was still an exciting thing. And even if she’s yet to release a truly fantastic album, there’s still plenty of time for a late-career resurgence.
Ellie Goulding – Lights
Strangely, Ellie Goulding is one of the few stars in recent memory to make it big without a host of celebrity drama or controversies following her around. Oh, well there was that Ed Sheeran/Niall Horan rumor, but aside from that she’s squeaky clean! Maybe it’s feathery, pitch-perfect vocals, maybe it’s the icy electropop chill, either way, Lights became an instant-classic, and led Goulding to collaborate with some of the biggest names in electronic music, from Skrillex, to Zedd, to Calvin Harris. These days she’s still doing just that even if the producers have changed, releasing a new track with Diplo and Mark Ronson just a few weeks ago. Goulding became a perfect guest feature for EDM-heavy tracks, balancing the sometimes jarring music with her calming, sweet vocals. Last year’s Brightest Blue might’ve flown under the radar a bit, but she still knows how to pick the right collaborator, enlisting fallen rapper Juice WRLD to feature on the track “Hate Me” before his untimely death.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.