Best Pop Albums of 2021
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The 20 Best Pop Albums of 2021

The 20 best pop albums of the year radiate with unstoppable playlist power, much-needed sweet escapism, self-reflecting moments, and killer melodies.

20. Slayyyter – Troubled Paradise [FADER Label]

Slayyyter - Troubled Paradise

It used to be that we could never have too many pop stars, each one indispensable. We needed the party girl, we needed the artsy freak, we needed the tomboy, we needed the sexpot, we needed the edgy one. Now it’s a fight to secure a seat at the table for even one. Given the opportunity, former champions of the genre cough up cheap fan service, offerings that are too left-field to stick with the general public or flaccid pop-by-numbers with zero club appeal. It’s a cliche at this point to label any singer with vaguely catchy electronic music “the future of pop”, but with Troubled Paradise, Slayyyter provides pop music an exciting present, so that it might have a future at all.

Slayyyter strips the cynicism from hyperpop, invokes the best parts of the last generation of pop powerhouses, and fills the void in culture left by the last time Katy Perry went #1. Each song on Troubled Paradise is a reminder of how good we had it, but more importantly that we still can have it back. It’s a funny, catchy, boundary-pushing collection of songs that bring a desperately needed light to a genre whose prospects seemed extremely dark. She has risen! – Nick Malone

19. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan [New West]

Aaron Lee Tasjan – Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan

Aaron Lee Tasjan is a musical chameleon. Because he performs so many rock styles so well, it’s easy to overlook just how good he is at all of them. The 11 tracks on his latest album sound like a lost jukebox full of cool b‑sides that should have been a-sides by British Invasion bands from the ’60s, glam rockers from the ’70s, new wave singles from the ’80s, country-rock jams from the ’90s, and TV theme music from this century.

In other words, one minute he’s Elton John, the next he’s Tom Petty, etc. Tasjan writes clever lyrics whose songs are full of insights about the modern world and the innate desire for connections with others, often with a winking eye and his tongue in cheek. Although he sardonically sings on “Computer of Love”, “May the guitar rest in peace / for it’s dead once more,” he is also an underrated electric guitar player who gets the full range of sounds out of his box of effects. – Steve Horowitz

18. Alessia Cara – In the Meantime [Def Jam]

Alessia Cara - In the Meantime

In many ways, In the Meantime feels like it completes a trilogy of albums chronicling both Alessia Cara‘s rise to fame and the unease that comes along with becoming a fully grown human being without your consent. The album is sonically and lyrically her best work yet, and proves that any process of healing is never black or white and does not exist on a straight line. Most importantly, nothing on an Alessia Cara album ever feels like filler, even when that might’ve been its purpose.

Even on shorter offerings like “Lie to Me” or “Clockwork”, the singer’s pensive lyrics remain nothing short of spellbinding for the demographic of introverted, home-bodied youngsters she first recruited back in 2015 with “Here”. While many music critics found fault with an “unfinished” quality of songwriting on her sophomore effort, The Pains of Growing, Cara has returned to finish the assignment on In the Meantime, creating another compelling body of work that feels both complete and necessary to share. – Jeffrey Davies

17. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power [Capitol]

Halsey – If I Can't Have Love

It’s been fascinating to follow Halsey‘s musical career over the past seven years, as she has shown steady growth with each new album. Last year’s eclectic, aptly titled Manic was a creative breakthrough, but their 2021 follow-up turned out to be even better, thanks in large part to her new collaborators. It was a big surprise to learn Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are co-producers on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, but it turns out to be a perfect fit. Firstly, they help steer Halsey’s ambitious ideas into a cohesive whole, and secondly, they bring a 1990s aesthetic that suits Halsey’s style impeccably.

She takes particular delight in exploring more rock-oriented sounds: “Easier than Lying”, “Honey”, and “You Asked For this” are marvelous shoegaze/industrial-informed tracks. Meanwhile, Reznor and Ross show just how well they can fit in a more pop-oriented milieu, as on the show-stopping “I am not a woman, I’m a god.” For all the high-profile guests – including Lindsey Buckingham, Dave Grohl, Dave Sitek, and Kevin Martin of the Bug – Halsey is the one person whose vision everyone defers to. This enthralling exploration of humanity’s millennia-old preoccupation with the Madonna and the whore firmly establishes Halsey as a first-rate auteur, not to mention one of the most fascinating pop stars in the world right now. – Adrien Begrand

16. Lake Street Dive – Obviously [Nonesuch]

Lake Street Dive - Obviously

Don’t let the “Dive” fool you. This is no bleary-eyed bar band that’s rousing the regulars, banging out roughshod rock ‘n’ roll. On their latest album, ObviouslyLake Street Dive once again make a smart, soulful pop that hums along with the integrated precision of an Indy race car.

The initial attraction here is the silk-and-smoke voice of Rachael Price, but as winning as her vocals are, she is whisked along by a great band that falls in place around her like a Secret Service detail cutting through a crowd. As a frontwoman, Price is like a classic rom-com sidekick: clever, funny, cool, and unflappable. She just happens to have a voice to die for. If the “Dive” in the band’s name signals anything, it is that their warm affability can sidle up to you like an old friend during a night out drinking. — Marty Lipp