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.

5. Pepé Deluxe – Phantom Cabinet, Vol. 1 [Catskills]

Pepe Deluxe - Phantom Cabinet Vol 1

As you go through year-end album writeups, some records might be called “most surprising.” Yet what about just “the most?” Without question, Phantom Cabinet, Vol. 1, the fifth full-length from the ever-eccentric Finish duo Pepe Deluxé, is the most album you’ve heard this year. Every single second is crammed sonic details, every layer EQ’d for maximum pop impact, featuring every outrageous instrument the duo of James Spectrum and Paul Malmström could find.

One song has a pyrophone, one 1800s device uses human ear cartilage to make noise, and at one point, the clunk of the world’s largest cowbell. Yet these sonic curiosities would mean nothing if the songwriting wasn’t in place, and thankfully every track on Phantom Cabinet contains an entire album’s worth of melodies. It’s almost intimidating to take it in all at once, but we’d recommend the absurd guided house tour of “Halls of Kalevala” to get a sense of the size, scale, and insanity of one of the most outrageous, delightful, and memorable albums of the year. – Evan Sawdey

4. Magdelena Bay – Mercurial World [Luminelle]

Magdelena Bay - Mercurial World

Spread across 14 utterly distinct tracks, Mercurial World feels like a greatest hits album that just so happens to be disguised as a debut. Yet the Los Angeles duo of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin have stumbled across a winning formula of precision electropop that is as retro-leaning as it is futuristic. After all, most synth acts wouldn’t deliver us a “Rock the Casbah”-via-J-pop styled piano pounder as a closing track while calling it “The Beginning”.

The strength of Magdelena Bay is how they capably adapt genre tropes to their own needs, whether it be ’90s teen-pop drum machines for their lively “Secrets (Your Fire)” to appropriating the Legend of Zelda NES dungeon theme into the digitpop banger “Halfway”. Knowing your references is a skill all its own, but transmogrifying them into memorable songs is a talent that few possess. As Mercurial World shows, Magdelena Bay is a very talented twosome. – Evan Sawdey

3. Adele – 30 [Columbia]

Adele - 30

The best part of 30, Adele’s fourth full-length album, is that it sounds the least like an Adele album as we’ve come to know it. Sure, “Easy on Me” was the big heartwrenching single, and the string arrangements on “Love Is a Game” are breathtaking, but 30 finds the young superstar stretching out her sonic to its breaking point. She’s had upbeat numbers before, but never has she made feel-good songs infused with strongly-characterized backing vocals quite like this. Tracks like “Cry Your Heart Out” and “Oh My God” have her trying out new production styles in a way that sounds fresh to her but also evokes Amy Winehouse at her Frank-era loosest.

Backed by a who’s-who of songwriter/producers (including Inflo, Max Martin, Ludwig Göransson, and her partner-in-crime Greg Kurstin), Adele avoids the usual breakup album trappings by never feeling too sorry for herself, taking the blame when it’s warranted, and letting us into her life, even including audio recordings with her son as she tries explaining divorce to him. Adele has always been as approachable and artist as they come, but with 30, she may have just made her best album to boot. – Evan Sawdey

2. Lil Nas X – Montero [Columbia]

Lil Nas X Montero

Casual observers might have been distracted from Lil Nas X‘s music by his social media activity, his fast-food commercials, his Satan Shoes containing human blood, or his giving Satan a lap dance in the video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”. That’s somewhat understandable. What’s inconceivable is passing up Montero, Lil Nas X’s full-fledged debut, when everything about it is so compelling.

Montero represents a sense of vindication for the formerly assumed one-hit-wonder who made “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus. There, Nas was melding hip-hop and country in ways that might have made Nelly say, “That’s what I meant to do,” in reference to his own “Over and Over” track with Tim McGraw. Here, Nas is still our favorite collaborator, but these pairings never dilute his presence or the rumble in his voice. He’s brazen alongside Doja Cat (“Scoop”); embodying the viewpoint of his haters with Sir Elton John’s assistance (“One of Me”); living ostentatiously with Megan Thee Stallion (“Dollar Sign Slime”); and longing to be remembered in a duet with Miley Cyrus (“Am I Dreaming”).

Genre exercises in hip-hop, rock, pop, and samba-infused funk sound authentic. Partially bright (as in the gargantuan sound and rhythm of the title track and opener) and partially filled with sorrow and ennui (“Dead Right Now”), Montero finds Lil Nas X becoming increasingly at ease at the intersection of race, youth, queerness, and melancholy. The world usually seems more comfortable discussing only one of these at a time, if at all, rather than all at once. What makes this album so special, aside from the grooves, is listening to Lil Nas X declare his identity while defying simple characterizations of that identity. – Quentin Huff

1. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour [Geffen]

Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

With her debut effort SourOlivia Rodrigo gives a voice to teens of her own generation while also reminding us of the enduring appeal of rebellious young women. She manages to create something uniquely and unabashedly her own simply by refusing to be anyone but the current version of herself—messy emotions and all. Rodrigo also puts her own spin on the eclectic sounds of her predecessors, with everyone from Lorde to Alanis Morissette.

The difference now, of course, is that the cultural appetite for female anger has been completely redefined, thanks in large part to the rise of social media, the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, and abject governmental failure on a global health crisis, among other things. Sour‘s ability to play between the lines of angsty rebellion and imperfect young human being who’s aware of the ample room left to grow is surely what resonates most with listeners of any generation. And after all, if there was ever a time the world needs your anger, it’s now. – Jeffrey Davies