“Old Town Road” was the biggest single of the year and also the biggest single of all time (based on chart metrics alone). It went #1 in a year when the other chart-toppers were the commercialism anthem “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande, “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers, and “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello. In short: as the world burns and our headlines get more depressing by the day, one of our best coping mechanisms was the pure escapism provided by pop music — and the weirder and funnier it was, the better.
In an age of rampant corporate greed and immense wealth disparity, the relatively low costs of music streaming services allowed the public to anoint their kind of pop stars that best represented them. It’s difficult to imagine a genre-breaking oddball of Billie Eilish’s caliber breaking through in an era where CD sales still mattered. Even at this year’s Tony Awards, a small musical called Be More Chill ended up netting a major nomination after the cast recording went viral all on its own, forcing its creators to stage a remount. The voice of the listener is bigger than ever, and suddenly the “popular” cause célèbre of the music world can take on forms heretofore unknown. In short, it’s a thrilling time to be a pop music fan.
With this in mind, we’ve combed through the dance-pop depths to find albums both popular and forgotten, with newcomers and warhorses alike considered for the honor of the Best Pop Album of 2019. There were multitudes of great candidates this year, and they are all worth celebrating. Load up those playlists and strap in; we’re about to go a journey, friends.
12. Instupendo – Boys By Girls EP [self-released]
“I feel like a princess when I’m around you,” coos Instupendo’s Aidan Peterson on his excellent single “Cinderella”, and it the effect is transfixing. Mixing dreamy synth sounds and with lo-fi drum machines, Instupendo’s third EP is a shimmering fever dream of a pop record, one that is as romantic as it is self-deprecating. Amidst the lush sonic gossamer, Peterson expresses love in dynamic gender fluid ways, turning the lyrical pop tropes on their head with a casual disregard. “I feel like a bride to be / It’s like something off of TV,” he sings on the stuttering, Bjork-like “Antidote”, sometimes using lengthy instrumental passages to sell an emotion or intention, covering a lot of cathartic ground in a scant 20 minutes. It’s a record that is full of longing and full of questions, but by the time he wonders whether or not he left his earrings on a lover’s bed, we’re caught up in the drama of it all. Instupendo doesn’t have all the answers, but the joy is joining him on his journey to find them.
11. Fastball – The Help Machine [Zuni Tunes]
Back in 1998, Fastball were on top of the world, with their easy-going pop-rock songs “The Way” and “Out of My Head” becoming alt-radio perennials. While the group never reached the same commercial success again, a surprising use of their “Out of My Head” chorus during a Machine Gun Kelly/Camila Cabello duet lead to renewed interest in the band, leading to 2017’sStep Into Light. Yet this year’s The Help Machine, the band’s seventh album overall, feels like a minor pop miracle. Chief songwriters Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga trade-off songwriting duties with every other track, and this friendly competition generates a deep pull from assorted rock styles as if the bandmates are trying to outdo each other with each new pop innovation. Opener “Friend or Foe” is one of the breeziest pop numbers the band has ever put out, while the stomp-and-strum outlaw number “Redeemed” feels like the work of another band entirely. Power pop, AOR anthems, and the stunning synth sculpture that is the title track all come together to paint the picture of a band that’s not only revitalized but enjoying the creative connection they have.
10. Betty Who – Betty [AWAL]
It’s weird to describe a song as having “Britney Spears drums”, but on “The One”, the penultimate track on Betty Who’s thrilling third full-length, the Australian singer is aiming at pure pop song fantasy camp, invoking that Max Martin sound that was omnipresent in the twilight of the 1990s. It’s the only stylistic detour of that nature on Betty, but it comes as a sharp relief from her last record, 2017’s The Valley, where she felt the squeeze of major label influence. Now defiantly indie, Betty glistens with a sense of wonder and discovery on it, opening up new facets of her songwriting (like on the intimate, sensual “All This Woman”) while never forgetting that she’s a dance-pop diva first. The album delivers a litany of brand new classics just because she can (“I Remember”, “Ignore Me”). It’s a wonderful new start for a perpetually underrated singer, which is perhaps why she named the album after herself. After all, with a reintroduction this bold, maybe it will finally stop people from asking, “Betty Who?”
9. Lucy Spraggan – Today Was a Good Day [Cooking Vinyl]
There’s a lot of joy and a lot of heartbreak on Today Was a Good Day, the fifth full-length for British singer-songwriter Lucy Spraggan. Juggling a variety of themes, there’s a sense of acceptance on this lovely acoustic pop record, one where easy, strummable choruses sometimes belie dark and depressing subject matter — all delivered with her trademark conversational charm. The anthemic opener “Breathe” finds joy in the mere fact that we’re alive in these trying times, while “Dinner’s Ready” is a lovely, forlorn remembrance of her mother. Even on the slightly peppier number “End of the World”, she feels lucky that she’s celebrating the apocalypse in her favorite bar with her favorite people. Even on the extremely self-referential “Don’t Play This on the Radio”, Spraggan admits that “I’ve been writing songs I don’t like / For someone to tell me they’re still not right.” Having listened to Today Was a Good Day, we’re happy to tell Spraggan that the tides have changed. We like these songs plenty.
8. the bird and the bee – Interpreting the Masters Vol. 2: Van Halen [No Expectations / Release Me]
In 2010, the charming quirk-pop duo of singer-songwriter Inara George and mega-producer Greg Kurstin dropped an unexpected little record called Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall and John Oates, wherein the group recontextualized the 1980s pop duo’s classics in their own unashamedly contemporary style. It was a surprise hit, and while the bird and the bee have released albums since then, many wondered what the living hell they would do for Volume 2. The answer? Van Halen, baby. Grabbing the pop-metal sounds of the 1980s radio kingpins and giving them a synth-heavy, female-fronted new look allows for some dexterous recontextualization of the band’s songwriting. They switch roles on “Hot for Teacher” — complete with sexy Beck cameo — and it unveils new depths to what was previously dismissed as one of the decade’s defining horndog anthems. Vol. 2 is rife with daring new poses of songs we thought we knew. The bird and the bee take Eddie Van Halen’s breakthrough guitar-solo powerhouse “Eruption” and redo it as a piano-and-synth flop-sweat that is as daring as it is cheekily fun. Some albums have no right to be this entertaining, so “Jump” on it already.
7. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You [Nice Life/Atlantic]
With the great throwback pop workout of “Juice” as the lead single, the April 2019 release of Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third full-length, surprisingly did not turn her into a superstar. Instead, 2019 was the year where her years-old singles, “Truth Hurts” and the untouchable “Good As Hell”, shot to the top of the charts and made her a household name. That made for a hell of a narrative, but we can’t let such a great story get in the way of how good Cuz I Love You is. Using a major-label budget to her full advantage, Lizzo’s distinct brand of inspirational soul-pop is now presented in widescreen, bringing in A-list cast members (Missy Elliott, Gucci Mane) to join in on songs that rumble with their sheer sonic size (“Cuz I Love You”, the almost-tender “Jerome”). It also just so happens to leave us with one of the best pop songs she’s ever written (“Soulmate”), one of the best empowerment anthems we’ve heard in years. We’re happy that Lizzo’s old classics are finding fresh ears, but let’s hope we don’t have to wait two years for the rest of Cuz I Love You‘s best moments to become hits on their own.
6. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated [Schoolboy/Interscope]
Once dismissed as the decade’s de facto one-hit-wonder, Carly Rae Jepsen came back in a big way with 2015’s Emotion, which didn’t light up the charts so much as it endeared herself to critics, tastemakers, and superfans all at once, with everyone suddenly acknowledging her craft and talent in creating some of the best bops of the decade. It was a quantum leap forward in Jepsen’s songwriting abilities and the kind of record that’s impossible to follow up. So for Dedicated, Jepsen continues her artistic journey, her fourth full-length sometimes feeling more like a sequel to Emotion than her own odds-and-sods comp Emotion: Side B was. Bear in mind, we’ll always take more of a good thing, and Dedicated offers just enough twists and additions to Jepsen’s now-trademark sound that things remain fresh and undeniably danceable. From the sly opener “Julien” to the utterly irresistible jam “Now That I Found You” to the horn-driven flirtation that is “Want You in My Room”, there is so much fun to be had here. Still, tracks like “Too Much” also hint at more complex emotions on display than you’d initially think. Jepsen is still firing on all cylinders here, and radio support or now, her fanbase will forever remain Dedicated.
5. Yuna – Rouge [Verve Forecast]
Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna has been working in the contemporary pop idiom for her past few albums, even scoring a minor hit with her Usher duet “Crush” back in 2016. The number of guest features on Rouge, her seventh studio album overall, can be seen as a crass doubling down on the collaborative success of “Crush”. But no matter how many talented performers are brought in (and there are a lot, ranging from Tyler, the Creator to Little Simz to Jay Park), Yuna is always the star of the show. The spry “Teenage Heartbreak” openly confesses to ignoring obvious relationship problems when being inexperienced in love, while the sleek disco of “Pink Youth” alludes to a new generation of female empowerment. Best of all, however, is “Likes”, which turns comments she’s received on social media (“Oh, she Muslim? Why she singing on stage?”) into a way to boost her standing in the world (“Let me leave another comment out of spite / Let’s hope I get more likes”). It’s a record where the production is so sleek, and the melodies so inviting you almost gloss over some of the incredible themes brought to the forefront. We certainly do hope she gets more likes out of this.
4. Crazy P – Age of the Ego [Walk Don’t Walk]
Great things can sometimes come from unexpected places, just as how one of the best dance albums of the year came from a band that was originally called Crazy Penis. Having been around for over two decades, core members Chris Todd and James Baron classed things up a bit and cut the name down to Crazy P in 2008. Still, in truth, the name is the least interesting part of this UK collective, as the band’s undeniably funky sense of songcraft has garnered them a cult following in the dance world. Age of the Ego, the group’s eighth album overall, features them not only firing on all cylinders but now using their distinct sense of grooves to help push through larger ideas and themes.
The lovely electropop of “The Witness” makes no bones about how our technological evolution should be viewed with caution. It’s a theme that contrasts perfectly with the brisk basswork of “Barefooted”, which features the only lyric, “I’m barefooted / I stand tall”, a simple but evocative line. The group treats every song as a different genre exercise, and Age of the Ego excels because you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. Cinematic horns blare over crisp electro beats? They got it on “Is This All It Seems”. A 1980s throwback production that would make the Thompson Twins blush? Covered on “SOS”. A Steely Dan-esque mid-tempo ballad? Closer “Night Rain” is where it’s at. You will keep coming back to these songs time and time again because Crazy P ‘s latest is crazy-good.
3. Spencer Sutherland — NONE of this has been about you [SM1/BMG]
Spencer Sutherland learned early on that it’s all about song selection. When he was a contestant on the UK’s reality-competition show The X Factor, Sutherland’s delicate, lovely voice stood out in a crowded field. But his personality was less apparent, getting voted off the program after a bland, indistinct rendition of a Jessie J number. Now writing songs on his own, Sutherland has vowed never to let his personality get lost behind a bland song ever again, which is why his debut EP feels like the work of a songwriter nearly twice his age. No one can be this young and write a pop number as funny and quietly affectionate as “Sweater”. Nor should he know how to loop his voice enough times to get it to sound like a multi-member choir the way he does on the title track. His songcraft is immaculate, and the mid-tempo stutter of “Freaking Out” — a song about wrestling with insecurity within your relationship — matches its tones and effects with its lyrics near-perfectly. All of this points to a fresh new talent who now knows, more than ever, the importance of song selection. After all, it’s easy when you save all the best songs for yourself.
2. Friendly Fires – Inflorescent [Polydor]
For the past several years, the UK’s great dance export Friendly Fires have been dodging a fundamental question: “Where the hell are you?” After acclaim and chart hits with their first two albums in 2008 and 2011, the band basically disappeared for six years, with members forming side projects and guesting on the records of friends. Some 2018 singles hinted at what could be, but the truth of the matter is that 2019’s Inflorescent is better than we could’ve ever hoped for. Aiming directly for four-on-the-floor excitement with a distinct pop bent, the band hasn’t missed a step with Inflorescent, sounding confident and contemporary.
Tracks like horn-powered “Offline” grooves with youthful energy, and the stuttering “Heaven Let Me In” makes you wonder what would happen if the Avalanches dropped all the samples and made straight-up club tracks. Whether gunning for the hard dance crowd with strobe-ready songs like the Daft Punk-y “Almost Midnight” or aiming for more straightforward pop fare with the likes of “Kiss and Rewind”, there isn’t a weak track to be found on Inflorescent, which is an especially hard thing to find in the dance world. As great as Friendly Fires’ latest sounds on your headphones, this thundering new album is best experienced in its natural environment, right on the dancefloor.
1. Sean Nelson – Nelson Sings Nilsson [Equivocal]
Sean Nelson has been working on his heartfelt tribute to Harry Nilsson for close to two decades. For a while, he did occasional small club shows singing the hits of Harry, shared everything from demos to finished songs online, and journaled his experience along the way, once tweeting that he was finally mixing the record … in 2012. Anyone can release a covers album, but to cover one specific artist throughout a full-length is a particular gesture, one that’s meant not so much as a nod to one’s idol so much as to salute what they mean to the performer. For the former Harvey Danger frontman, Harry Nilsson means a damn lot.
With a 27-piece rock band in tow, Nelson straps his favorite Nilsson compositions to fireworks and lets them loose in the sky, excited to see what shape they take. Every track here follows the tone of the original Nilsson recordings, but Nelson always twists them and recontextualizes them in new ways. “Daddy’s Song” adds in singing children to drive that message of abandonment home, “Gotta Get Up” adds in crunching horns and crashing drum hits to wake the listener out of a slumber, and “Without Her” benefits from some tasteful, striking new string arrangements.
Nelson Sings Nilsson bursts with energy and reckless creative abandon, a passion project that is truly brimming with passion. Nelson stretches his voice from scratchy wail to hushed whisper whenever its called for. His rendition of “Don’t Forget Me” imbued with arguably more vulnerability and pathos than the original — about as high a compliment as one could ever achieve with a project of this nature. Nelson Sings Nilsson because Nelson loves Nilsson, and in paying homage to his idol as intensely and lovingly as he does here, we end up loving them both as well.