Great pop albums are on the brink of extinction as we plunge ever deeper into the singles-dominated streaming age. The once-powerful LP doesn’t sell anymore, so why bother creating a cohesive body of work when you can drop the occasional bop and make the same amount of money? Happily, a handful of artists bucked the trend and delivered a listening experience in 2018. Mariah Carey escorted us down memory lane on the ’90s R&B-channeling Caution, while Mitski became the alt-pop connoisseur’s new fave with the revelatory Be The Cowboy.
Not that it needs to be that deep. There’s still something to be said for a collection of really good bangers, and club-friendly queens like Tove Styrke, MØ and Rita Ora (I said what I said) took care of that. After whittling down a long list of great releases, Life’s Prism was left with the year’s 25 best pop albums. I have to admit that my definition of pop is rather loose. There’s a sprinkling of country, alternative and hip-hop, but each album falls under the pop umbrella to some extent. As usual, don’t pay too much attention to the rankings. The difference between 1 and 25 is negligible.
25. Lilac Everything — Emma Louise
Key tracks: “Wish You Well” and “Just The Way I Am”
And the award for the year’s most curious album goes to Emma Louise’s Lilac Everything. The Australian singer/songwriter recorded a beautiful album of gut-wrenching ballads with Tobias Jesso Jr. (he helped shape Adele’s 25) and then asked for her vocals to be pitched down to an unrecognizable, androgynous baritone. In lesser hands this could have been a total cluster-fuck, but the end product sounds like Sam Smith on heavy tranquilizers… which turns out to be a very good thing! Mark this down as an oddball gem that really comes alive in the early hours of the morning.
24. Saturn — Nao
Key tracks: “Another Lifetime” and “Yellow Of The Sun”
Nao was heralded as the future of R&B on the strength 2016’s spectacular For All We Know. Her sophomore album, Saturn, arrived with less fanfare in 2018, which is something of a travesty. The Brit defiantly bucks the trend towards R&B classicism on this daring opus. There are no ’90s-channeling bops or breathy mid-tempos. Instead, Nao delivers a concept album about her Saturn return (an astrological event signaling upheaval and rebirth). While the soundscape is vast and the ideas epic, the “Bad Blood” singer’s sugary sweet vocals and knack for insightful songwriting create a deceptively intimate journey.
23. Désobéissance — Mylene Farmer
Key tracks: “Sentimentale” and “N’oublie pas”
It feels a little glib to describe Mylene Farmer as France’s answer to Madonna, but such is her enduring success, undeniable impact and love of controversy (who else has their own line of sex toys?). However, while Madonna has experienced diminishing returns of late, Mylene continues to dominate the charts and cultural landscape in her homeland. Désobéissance became the 57-year-old’s 14th number one album in October and delivered a string of hits including the sexy “Rolling Stone” and LP-assisted “N’oublie pas.” Other highlights include the dreamy ’80s synth-pop of “Sentimentale” and fucks-free club bangers like “Get Up Girl” and “Histoires de fesses.” Mylene will rage against the dying light until the last breath escapes her body, and that’s what makes her a living legend.
22. Nation Of Two — Vance Joy
Key tracks: “Lay It On Me” and “Saturday Sun”
After cracking America with “Riptide” and the platinum-selling Dream Your Life Away, Vance Joy’s sophomore album arrived earlier this year to surprisingly tepid reviews. The general consensus seemed to be that Nation Of Two plays it a little too safe, which is strange because releasing well-crafted folk-pop in 2018 feels quasi-rebellious. While the Australian’s attempt to brighten up his minimalist sound with pop-friendly hooks gives the album a lighter feel than his debut, Nation Of Two meets its quota of quiet introspection via finely-crafted songs like “Call If You Need Me” and “We’re Going Home.”
21. Sway — Tove Styrke
Key tracks: “Mistakes” and “Changed My Mind”
Tove Styrke’s Sway is possibly the briefest greatest hits compilation ever released. The nine-track album combines a handful of perfect electro-pop singles (“Say My Name,” “Mistakes” and “Changed My Mind”) along with the Swede’s sublime cover of Lorde’s “Liability” and a smattering of new material. Sway is a master class in minimalism. There isn’t a wasted beat or unnecessary synth to be heard. Instead, Tove strips away the usual trappings to give you pure, unadulterated pop. Sway is an album that never outstays its welcome. And how often can you say that in 2018?
20. Beerbongs & Bentleys — Post Malone
Key tracks: “Better Now” and “Psycho”
It’s time to stop clowning Post Malone. Yes, he makes music for the masses (his streaming numbers are the envy of every record label) and spawned an army of increasingly unsavory clones. But there’s no denying that the 23-year-old is one of the most influential artists of our time. The way he relentlessly mashes genres has shaped not only the sound of hip-hop, but increasingly pop music, too. On top of that, Post comes through with absurdly catchy bops. “Better Now” is a perfect pop song that will stand the test of time and “Psycho” is musical crack. The Grammys decision to reward Beerbongs & Bentleys with an Album Of The Year nomination was entirely appropriate.
19. Zwischen Meinen Zeilen — LEA
Key tracks: “Leiser” and “Zu Dir”
Germany is known as a hotbed for EDM producers, but one pop star really caught my attention this year. LEA (full name Lea-Marie Becker) landed a hit at the end of 2017 with an introspective ditty called “Leiser” and then proved equally adept at loved-up pop anthems when the glorious “Zu Dir” arrived in 2018. Her major-label debut album dropped in September and Zwischen meinen Zeilen is a pitch-perfect pop opus with keenly-observed lyrics about relationships, loneliness and general youthful confusion. It will be interesting to see if LEA is content to rule the roost at home or branches into English-language fare to reach a wider audience.
18. Upside Down Flowers — Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
Key tracks: “Ohio” and “Paper Rain”
Andrew McMahon is that rarest of creatures in the 2018 musical landscape — a singer/songwriter with a poet’s heart. His magical pen has been on display on previous albums like his 2014 self-titled solo debut and 2017’s Zombies On Broadway, but Upside Down Flowers is his most fully realized work to date in that it combines his whimsical, oft-melancholic lyrics (“And I see clouds where the mountains meet the valley floor, where the neon soars like a hand to heaven” is how he describes Las Vegas) with bigger pop hooks and more instant arrangements. From the saddest song ever written about a road-trip (“Ohio) to the previously referenced ode to gambling your way out of debt (“Paper Rain”), this is an album that unravels another layer with each listen.
17. Saved — Now, Now
Key tracks: “SGL” and “MJ”
Minneapolis-based indie-pop duo Now, Now took a five-year hiatus and then casually returned with the best song of 2017. That set the bar scarily high for their third LP, but Saved absolutely lives up that promise. A riot of guitars with an explosive chorus, “Yours” strikes a similar vein of euphoric indie-pop as “SGL,” while the murky “AZ” is a testament to their seductive dark side. If you miss the ’90s when jangly guitars and unmanufactured weirdness ruled the airwaves, Saved is the album for you.
16. Phoenix — Rita Ora
Key tracks: “Anywhere” and “Only Want You”
Everyone has something smart to say about Rita Ora, but she pulls off one hell of a magic trick with Phoenix. After suffering more setbacks than American democracy, the 28-year-old’s forever-delayed sophomore LP finally arrived in 2018 and it is a revelation. Instead of being tempted into faux-R&B ) or falling into the usual trap of angling for critical praise by opting for something “a little more personal,” the Brit embraces her pop roots and delivers an album full of eclectic bangers. From “Anywhere” to “Let Me Love You,” this is all killer no filler.
15. Bloom — Troye Sivan
Key tracks: “My My My!” and “Dance To This”
Troye Sivan bloomed just for you in 2018! The pop star walks the fine line between indie artfulness and pop production with skill of an acrobat on the follow-up to 2015’s Blue Neighbourhood. If the Aussie’s debut was about those first, tentative steps as a baby gay, then Bloom finds him significantly further down that path — reveling in sexual exploration, relationship drama and Grindr hookups. That makes Bloom a rare snapshot of a young, gay man living unapologetically and fully. Oh, and it also includes the best song that Ariana Grande released in 2018 — the criminally slept-on “Dance To This.”
14. Liberation — Christina Aguilera
Key tracks: “Unless It’s With You” and “Accelerate”
She didn’t exactly give us what we wanted in 2018 (i.e. a blockbuster era with radio-conquering smash hits and endless promo), but Christina Aguilera gave us what we needed. And that’s a cohesive collection of hip-hip bops and soulful bangers that showcase her incredible vocals. Liberation might have been short on hits, but the best tracks were never released as singles. “Deserve” deserved. “Like I Do” earned its Grammy nomination. “Pipe” is that X-rated anthem. “Unless It’s With You” will be played at weddings for decades to come. So where does that leave us? With a slightly perplexing era, but an album that is by no means dwarfed by classic projects like Stripped and Back To Basics.
13. The Tree — Lori McKenna
Key tracks: “People Get Old” and “The Fixer”
Lori McKenna has long been country music’s secret weapon, penning Grammy-winning modern classics like “Humble And Kind” and “Girl Crush.” Curiously absent from this year’s nominations is her stunning 10th LP, The Tree. Spearheaded by the gut-wrenching “People Get Old” (a song that will probably only get its due when someone covers it), this is the musical equivalent of a unicorn — an album written by someone with life experience about adult topics like motherhood and caring for elderly parents. If you appreciate the art of songwriting and want to get lost in a collection of heartfelt songs, give Lori’s latest masterpiece a spin.
12. Language — MNEK
Key tracks: “Girlfriend” and “Tongue”
The path from songwriter to pop star is increasingly well-worn, but few artists have jumped as many hurdles as MNEK. As an openly gay, loud and proud, makeup-wearing black man, the 24-year-old had to literally break the pop-star mold. And he did it with a bravery and minimum of fuss that deserves so much more recognition. From the sexy “Tongue,” which introduced the world to MNEK’s beautiful truth, to the outrageous “Girlfriend” (a glorious throwback to early ’00s R&B filth), this is a brilliant showcase of one of pop’s most defiant minds. More importantly, his songs slap and the Brit can sing.
11. Honey — Robyn
Key tracks: “Never Again” and “Honey”
No album released in 2018 made me work harder than Robyn’s Honey. As a long-time devotee, the album’ eight-year gestation period was a cruel and unusual punishment. However, my belief that it would be worth the wait was unwavering. And then Sweden’s grand dame of electro-pop turned in an album that is more concerned with mood and atmosphere than bangers. As soon as I came to terms with that development, Honey began to taste a whole lot sweeter. The throbbing title track, in particular, ranks as one of the 39-year-old’s best singles, while bops like “Never Again” and “Because It’s In The Music” offer reprieve from the more obtuse cuts. It might take a couple of (dozen) listens, but Honey is well worth the effort.
10. Love Monster — Amy Shark
Key tracks: “I Said Hi” and “I Got You”
Amy Shark’s Love Monster won the ARIA Award (Australia’s answer to the Grammys) for Album Of The Year and it’s hard to argue with that decision. Since breaking big with “Adore,” the 32-year-old has edged away from the alt-leanings of her debut EP towards a rock-tinged, hook-filled version of pop. Think Lorde by way of Pink. To achieve this, Amy roped in super producers like Jack Antonoff and Joel Little. Together, they stuffed her debut album with massive pop anthems like “I Said Hi” and “I Got You.” Her range (and willingness to break as many rules as possible) comes through on quirkier cuts like “Psycho” and “All Loved Up.”
9. High As Hope — Florence + The Machine
Key tracks: “Hunger” and “Patricia”
Snubbed by the Grammys and conspicuously absent from most year-end lists, Florence + The Machine’s High As Hope appears to have been fundamentally misunderstood by critics. There’s nothing safe about her decision to pare things back. The Brit’s 4th album is every bit as raw and tortured as all that has come before it. It just finds her in a different, largely sober headspace, which gives her the mental bandwidth to process topics as diverse as religion and the influence of Patti Smith on her music (“Patricia”). And then there’s that voice, which soars higher than ever before on gems like “100 Years” and “The End Of Love.”
8. Forever Neverland — MØ
Key tracks: “Blur” and “Imaginary Friend”
Take a bow, MØ. The prolific Dane is arguably pop’s MVP, dropping a long list of hit collaborations and solo bops. The “Lean On” singer finally got around to releasing her sophomore set in 2018 and Forever Neverland is about as good as electro-pop albums get. The eclectic soundscape is full of unexpected flourishes, while MØ’s knack for pop hooks and melody elevates even the most curious experiment into an instantly hummable anthem. Pay special attention to the grungy, ’90s-tinged “Blur” and wacky “Imaginary Friend.”
7. Be The Cowboy — Mitski
Key tracks: “Nobody” and “Old Friend”
We love a critical darling. Particularly when they live up to the hype! Mitski utterly charmed the music world with Be The Cowboy, her lush and layered fifth album. While the 28-year-old’s music is often classified as alt or indie-rock, this project veers close to mainstream pop — at least as far as the synth-tinged production is concerned. What makes the album such an impressive achievement is the fact that none of the unease and general existential anxiety that coursed through her earlier albums has been lost in the process. Take “Nobody.” Has anyone ever captured inexplicable loneliness better in a pop song? The cool crowd has a new queen and she’s magnificent.
6. One Big Nothing — Cloves
Key tracks: “Better Now” and “Hit Me Hard”
It’s time to stop sleeping on Cloves. The singer/songwriter delivered an absolutely impeccable debut album in the form of One Big Nothing. There’s a rawness and rock sensibility to tracks like “Better Now,” “California Numb” and “Hit Me Hard” that separate her from other singers with a big voice. The Aussie newcomer takes us to occasionally uncomfortable places, exposing insecurities and personal failings with a bravery that should have paid big dividends. Her time will come. In the meantime, One Big Nothing is a treasure to be appreciated by a select few.
5. Golden — Kylie Minogue
Key tracks: “Every Little Part Of Me” and “Dancing”
Kylie Minogue’s Golden makes no sense in theory (the doyenne of dance-pop heads to Nashville to make a country-tinged, super-gay pop album for no particular reason), but I probably listened to it more than any other release on this list. That has a lot to do with my loyalty to Queen Kylie, but also because this is a project that demands a little digging. Take the lead single. On the surface, “Dancing” is a ridiculous yee-haw tune that contains every country cliché in the book. When you listen a little closer, however, it’s also a searingly defiant mantra about living life on your own terms. That duality runs through the whole album. There are the usual heartbreak anthems, but they come from an unusually adult place. “A Lifetime To Repair” deals with the hesitation to put yourself out there after being burned one too many times, while “Live A Little” tackles aging head on. As with Impossible Princess, it will probably take a decade or two for Golden to get its due.
4. Dirty Computer — Janelle Monáe
Key tracks: “PYNK” and “Take A Byte”
After the quasi-exhausting epic scale and relentless experimentalism of The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe takes a very different approach on Dirty Computer. This is a lean, mean funk-laced pop album that finds the R&B hitmaker channeling Prince through the lens of a very modern, sexually-liberated woman. It’s fierce, defiant and, perhaps most unexpectedly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. From “PYNK” to the slinky “Take A Byte,” there are bops a plenty. After taking herself (and her music) so very seriously for such a long time, it’s refreshing to hear Janelle in a lighter, more celebratory mood.
3. Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves
Key tracks: “High Horse” and “Space Cowboy”
From releasing a universally-praised album to wearing the most glamorous outfit in the history of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Kacey Musgraves had a blockbuster 2018. At this point, there’s nothing left to say about Golden Hour. Kacey pulled off the rarest of feats with this album. She charmed the music snobs (take a look at that 8.7 Pitchfork review), won over the pop-loving gays and endeared herself even further to the country crowd. Her secret? A Dolly Parton-esque charm that cuts through genres and demographics like a warm butter knife and an ability to express thoughts and emotions that usually just bounce around our heads. This is a classic album in every sense.
2. Chris — Christine And The Queens
Key tracks: “Doesn’t Matter” and “5 Dollars”
With Chaleur Humaine, France’s Christine and the Queens dropped one of the best debut albums of the 2010s. Lesser beings might have succumbed to the sophomore slump, but Héloïse Letissier (her real name) raises the bar for challenging, rule-breaking pop even higher on 2018’s Chris. As with all things French, pop music is treated as an art-form and Christine uses the genre as a vehicle to discuss topics like masculinity, domestic violence and sexual liberation. The fact that she does so within dizzyingly catchy four-minute bangers is a pop miracle. As is her ability to blend elements of ’90s funk and ’80s euro-pop into her very modern soundscape.
1. Caution — Mariah Carey
Key tracks: “8th Grade,” “GTFO” and “Giving Me Life”
Instead of opting for power ballads or hopping on the latest production fad, Mariah Carey retreats to her happy place on Caution. Which just happens to be ’90s R&B. In doing so, Mimi delivers the most cohesive and timeless album of her career. A song like “Giving Me Life,” a six-minute opus featuring Blood Orange and Slick Rick, could have been released in 1998 or 2018. It’s hard to single out a track that sums up the album’s unique genius, but I would probably opt for the retro-heartbreak of “8th Grade.” If you can listen to this and not believe that Mimi is at the very peak of her powers, your ears need to be checked.
What was your favorite album of 2018?