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.

10. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure [Fiction]

Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem, has created something messy, loud, angry, and above all glorious in her second album, Prioritise Pleasure, having emerged from the band Slow Club a glittering pop queen. Lead track “I Do This All The Time” – a part spoken-word, part gospel song of extraordinary power and warmth – is surely a contender for Single of the Year. But beyond that, the album is fabulous and funny, without being frivolous. It’s a way, as Taylor puts it, “to be defiant and euphoric in response to trauma”.

From the magnificently subversive “Moody” (a song celebrating being a “moody cow”), the irresistibly lusty title track with its call to “prioritize pleasuring me”, to the empowered, barking rage of “I’m Fine”, the album offers unashamed power tunes. At any given moment it can surprise, contradict, shock, comfort, delight, and enrage. It’s uniquely Taylor’s voice, in that sense, but, refreshingly (bearing in mind the insular pop that currently dominates the charts), she’s generous. She wants us with her. She wants to make us laugh, reassure us, and inspire us. She wants us to answer her call to arms. And, of course, she wants us to put on our brashest outfit and dance up a storm with her. – Adam Mason

9. Django Django – Glowing in the Dark [Because Music]

Django Django - Glowing in the Dark

Django Django have built on the momentum of their previous records with the brilliant Glowing in the Dark, a fantastic whirl of the band’s sonic influences. The different sounds incorporated into the album – psychedelic pop, surf rock, indie, synthpop, dance, even funk – gives listeners a dizzying tour into their favored musical inspirations. Glowing in the Dark sports a thick, dense sound that feels like a celebration of studio trickery and musical prowess. The LP is the band’s fourth studio release after the well-received Marble Skies (2018) and continues with Django Django’s further exploration of the intersection of indie rock, new wave, and dance club culture. The sound of Glowing in the Dark works as a joyful, articulate valentine to the London music scene.

Much of Glowing in the Dark is a mixtape of 1980s to 2020s pop music, all of which has been streamed through a buzzy, crackling pop filter. The hooks are indelible, and the sound is plump, shiny, and thick with gloss. It also features some virtuoso percussion and dazzling guitar work, along with soft, sweet vocals. Though much of Glowing in the Dark is felt in Marble Skies, the album is still a swirling mass of exciting surprises. — Peter Piatkowski

8. Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed [Interscope]

Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed

Who knew that a post-divorce album could lean so heavily into one’s pop instincts while also showing signs of regret and pathos that skewer the usual scorned lover narrative? Yes, we could be talking about Adele’s 30, or we could be discussing Kacey Musgraves stellar star-crossed, a bold new document from a country singer who doesn’t much care to sound like a country singer these days. While unapologetic in dragging her ex at times (like on the fiery highlight “breadwinner”), the joy of star-crossed is that Musgraves has fully turned her sound around, taking the eccentric notes of Golden Hour and taking them to their logical Technicolor conclusions.

While her sonic detours may get the most immediate attention (especially the disco detour “there is a light” and the Spanish-sung closer “gracias a la vida”), it’s her lyrics, as always, the have the most impact. “If I cry just a little / and I laugh in the middle / If I hate you / and I love you / Then I change my mind,” she’s just more than a little “justified” she sings, articulating how a breakup is never as clear-cut as some make it out to be. At the rate she’s going now, Musgraves will keep raising our expectations with each new record, and she’s more than justified in doing so. – Evan Sawdey

7. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence – EMI

CHVRCHES - Screen Violence

For some, CHVRCHES’ 2018 release Love is Dead flew a little too close to the Top 40 sun, as their album-length collaboration with Adele superproducer Greg Kurstin gave them a certain blandness that was missing from their usually-sharp self-produced records. Thus, Screen Violence feels like a correction to their musical arc, focusing their synth-rock instincts down to a laser, making for their sharpest record since their debut.

Collaborating with Robert Smith was just a boon to a group that feels absolutely unleashed, hitting dramatic pauses, churning guitar choruses, and moments of emotional gravity with astounding ease. Lead single “He Said She Said” serves as a haunting example of romantic gaslighting that still is hooky and catchy, proving that this Scottish trio hasn’t lost any of their lyrical bite. Don’t mind us, though: we’re just listening to the beautifully stripped-down closer “Better If You Don’t” on a loop with our lighters up (and will continue to do so well into the next year).Evan Sawdey

6. Maisie Peters – You Signed Up For This [Gingerbread Man / Elektra]

Maisie Peters - You Signed Up For This

“This wasn’t how it’s supposed to go,” goes the opening lines of “John Hughes Movie”, the lead single from Maisie Peters’ first studio album You Signed Up For This. It’s a proclamation that ultimately becomes the general theme of the record, a stunningly heartfelt depiction of 21st-century young adulthood. With a songwriting prowess comparable to that of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now or Alessia Cara’s The Pains of Growing, Peters creates a loveable, introspective journey into the chaotic emotions that often accompany the transition into early adulthood. She also displays a knack for the kind of hooks needed to make an inescapable pop earworm, something sorely lacking from an otherwise stagnant year for pop music.

 It’s easy to view You Signed Up For This as about young heartache and attempting to be happy in your early 20s—as if one even knows what that means yet at that age. However, the record actually explores the emotions typically associated with an introvert’s inability to understand why being young is supposed to be fun. And even though one could easily view the twentysomething turmoil on display here as being heavily influenced by our year of solitude, You Signed Up For This is not a pandemic album. It’s a much-needed coming-of-age tale that just so happened to be released during the umpteenth phase of a never-ending crisis. – Jeffrey Davies