This year, already-familiar faces in pop music like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey all made us realize that perhaps the best of their careers is still ahead. Jepsen quite possibly topped her quintessential Emotion with the equally fluorescent Dedicated, Swift reminded us that she’s still a singer/songwriter at heart and Del Rey displayed her broad range. While it was delightful to watch some of our favorite pop artists experiment and grow, it was equally exciting to witness a brand new slate of stars break into the culture. People like Lizzo and Caroline Polachek tested pop music’s boundaries to radiant effect. Indie-pop artists like Sir Babygirl and Marika Hackman tackled taboo topics, while indie-adjacent star Charli XCX took her career to the next-level. Billie Eilish showed us that Top 40 pop can be depressing, dark and dangerous, not just easy-going. It was a weird year for pop and a beautiful year for pop. 2019 gave us a taste of what the next decade’s charts may offer. Here are the 15 best pop albums of the year.
Listen to our Best Pop Albums of 2019 playlist on Spotify right here.
15. Tegan and Sara: Hey, I’m Just Like You
Hey, I’m Just Like You, the sisters’ ninth album, arrived in tandem with a memoir about their fraught high school years titled, appropriately, High School. The album comes with an impossibly alluring origin story: While writing High School, the twins unearthed two “lost cassette tapes that had been unheard for over 20 years.” Those cassettes contained early songs the sisters wrote during the mid-to-late 1990s, when they were self-described teenage dirtbags—skipping school, experimenting with acid, shredding their fingers on their first electric guitar. Now, at 38, they’ve revisited and revised those songs with adult voices and (let’s just assume) a far heftier recording budget. Hey, I’m Just Like You is entirely comprised of those re-recordings. On these tracks, you can hear Tegan and Sara’s younger selves coming to terms with early relationship experiences, rejection, their own queerness. “Right now, I wish I was older,” Sara sings on “Hello I’m Right Here,” a pining ballad written after she was rejected by a straight-girl crush. The time-capsule quality of the material allows for multiple meanings. When sung by a thirtysomething, the deceptively ebullient “We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore” could be a lament for a passionless marriage. In fact, it’s a teenager venting about alienation within one’s own friend group. The tracklist is full of angsty declarative titles like that, would-be lines from a high schooler’s diary: “Keep Them Close ’Cause They Will Fuck You Too,” “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie),” et. al. —Zach Schonfeld
14. Tinashe: Songs For You
Before Tinashe signed to RCA on the strength of a couple hotly-tipped mixtapes—including a joint featuring the then-fledgling Travis Scott—she filmed a look inside her home studio. “I’ve come to realize that I’m not only more comfortable in my own environment, but some of the best sounding music I’ve created has come from this equipment,” she explained in the video. In retrospect, it feels like a major label cautionary tale: A young, wildly skilled musician who intimately knows the machinations of the industry (she spent the turn of the last decade in a girl group with Hayley Kiyoko, after all) about to re-enter the sticky firmament of suits, negotiations and concessions after years of homespun, un-mandated freedom. The process for new album, Songs for You, perhaps felt closer to the Tinashe sharing her homespun R&B on YouTube than the one who spent years in gestation fighting for a heel turn into stardom. It’s her third album and her first since leaving RCA—the label where she put out two albums—one excellent (Aquarius), the other, Joyride, merely good. Tinashe told Paper that after departing RCA, she made a home studio, invited some folks to record with her—G-Eazy, 6LACK and Ms. Banks among them—and altogether returned to the creature comforts of doing it her way. (A management deal with Roc Nation is a nice touch, too). On Songs for You, Tinashe shows off how adept she is at flitting between genres, hopping on moody, woozy R&B, sun-dappled G-funk, ’80s pop, acoustic devotionals, club-worthy drum ’n’ bass and skittering trap, sometimes in the span of a single song without so much as straining her airy, but substantial soprano. There are a few songs left over from a scrapped album with RCA, but here, they feel part and parcel of the vision Tinashe has for herself—not as a trend-riding chameleon, but as an artist who omnivorously studies trends, big and small, and subsumes herself wholly into them, and them into her. —Joshua Bote
13. Sir Babygirl: Crush On Me
Kelsie Hogue, better known as Sir Babygirl, pulls a Trojan Horse trick on her debut album Crush on Me. The LP is wrapped up in epic pop bombast—heavy club beats, Hogue’s startling vocal range, and Lisa Frank-brightness—but hides an incredibly vulnerable exploration of trauma (“Haunted House”) and queerness (“Cheerleader”), among other subjects. Her “hardcore bubblegum pop music,” as she described it to FADER, has the feeling of being in a particularly supportive mosh pit, knocking you over one minute with its frantic energy, then propping you up with Hogue’s tender lyrics. As a non-binary, bisexual artist, Hogue’s addictive, sugary style feels like an appropriate representation of 2019 pop music. Crush on Me is a sour straw: equal parts sweet and tart, and impossible to stop consuming. —Clare Martin
12. Taylor Swift: Lover
Say what you will about Taylor Swift, but girl’s got spunk. Embroiled in an ongoing feud with Scooter Braun after he bought out her first six albums, Swift has faced her share of music industry malarkey this year. Some critics may chastise her for speaking out about what she believes to be an unfair acquisition, but no matter how successful she is with or without ownership of those records, Swift is at the center of a debate about artists’ rights—particularly women’s—and that matters. She gets to the crux of the matter on her song “The Man” from her rosy 2019 record Lover. Exhausted, Swift shouts, “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can / Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man.” Cue a chorus of “Same, girl”s and “I’ve been there”s from every woman in pretty much every industry across the board. Many of Swift’s stabs at social commentary (the LGBTQ+-friendly “You Need To Calm Down” among them) and her weird self-love-fest (the abhorrent, Brendon Urie-featuring “ME!”) sound even more stale now than when they arrived earlier this year, but thankfully she spends most of the album in a different headspace. She’s back to her Swift basics: delicate pop-country, love songs and breakup songs, and, perhaps surprisingly, these are some of her best yet. Deep cuts like “Cornelia Street,” “Cruel Summer” and “False God” feature those biting pangs of nostalgia that were all over the best songs on Red, and free-flying sentimentals like “Death By A Thousand Cuts” and “Afterglow” are reminders that Swift can tap into pop majesty whenever she feels like it, as she did often on the high points throughout 2014’s 1989. She plays with ’90s dream-pop on the loopy, luscious title track, teams up with the Dixie Chicks for a song about her mother’s battle with cancer and explores Paramore-level pop-punk on the rousing “Paper Rings.” Lover, an absolute delight compared to 2017’s Reputation, shows us Taylor Swift’s range. —Ellen Johnson
11. Maggie Rogers: Heard It In A Past Life
In a way, Maggie Rogers is the exemplary model of a modern pop star. Her success story is one that’s exclusive to our times, when the Internet has the power to make moguls out of memes overnight. But Rogers is no Mason Ramsey: Her story begins not with a Walmart yodel, but with an unbelievably perfect demo, played for Pharrell Williams during a songwriting masterclass at New York University in 2016. The video of his reaction (stunned, in the best way) went viral, and Rogers stumbled into sensation. As Pharrell more or less said upon hearing that first cut of “Alaska” (which now boasts more nearly 100 million Spotify streams and club remixes for days), Maggie Rogers is singular. Other Internet-made stars flake and fade, but Rogers has continued to burn oh-so bright, incomparable in terms of musical style. While she’s kept us satiated with an EP and a crop of sparkling singles, we’ve been waiting for Heard It In A Past Life for a few years. Now that it’s here, one thing’s clear: Maggie Rogers is a pure pop star and a deserving one, at that. She’s self-assured in a way other radio stars aren’t, never afraid to fold in her folk background and do whatever she wants. And you just can’t help but root for her. If Maggie Rogers can find a way to exist alongside the likes of Billie Eilish (which she has, at least by this list’s judgement), she’ll be the next big thing in pop. The charts are starved for something real and down-to-earth, and her songs, while heavily produced in comparison to some of her folksier beginnings, have an earnestness to them that can’t be fabricated. Rogers’ career may have first sparked on the internet, but now it’s a fire burning IRL. —Ellen Johnson
10. Billie Eilish: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Billie Eilish’s career to this point has been one that could only have happened now. She has only ever made music in the streaming age, where she’s translated copious plays into press hype, rather than the other way around. But her music, songs that emphatically encapsulate teenage angst for an existential era, is very much of this period as well. So perhaps, when we eventually look back on the music of this era a few years from now, there will likely be no singular album that absolutely nails the sound of 2019 quite like Billie Eilish’s debut record, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, for better or worse. She delivers the record that her generation has been waiting for, one with loads of in-jokes and language (the album literally begins with a joke about pulling out her Invisalign, while “all the good girls go to hell” ends with a joke about “snowflakes”). After all, this album isn’t made for critics—or even anyone born more than a few years before 9/11—it’s for those who share the same teenage hormonal desires and emotional pitfalls that Eilish is currently going through. While someone like Snail Mail, only 18 months her elder, can put out a record with largely the same themes as WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, yet still speak to an older audience, Eilish’s debut largely doesn’t care, well aware that she doesn’t need anyone above, say, 25 to make her the biggest pop artist on the planet. —Steven Edelstone
9. Charli XCX: Charli
Although Charli is described as British pop auteur Charli XCX’s third studio album, it’s really her seventh album-length project. Charli has released four mixtapes in addition to her studio albums True Romance (2013) and Sucker (2014), so to call Charli merely her third studio album isn’t just deceiving—it ignores the very existence of the quietly revolutionary 2017 “mixtape,” Pop 2. The guest-stuffed, career-peak Pop 2 was a record in all but name. It presented Charli as a savant of futuristic synths, fanged digital programming, actually good AutoTune, and bionic bangers and ballads. Charli executive produced Pop 2 alongside PC Music’s A.G. Cook, who helped her fully access the cyborg aesthetic she’d been crawling towards for years. “We wanted it to feel like a complete restart,” Cook told The FADER upon Pop 2’s release. If Pop 2 was indeed a restart, then Charli is the thrilling next step on the journey. Across 15 songs and 50 minutes, Charli consistently matches the addictive, robotic bombast of Pop 2. Charli is a more-than-worthy follow-up to arguably the decade’s best pop release. —Max Freedman
8. Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend
Female ownership of sexuality is nothing new, not since Madonna’s cone bra or Salt-N-Pepa’s declaration that their activities between the sheets are “None of Your Business.” More often than not, these sex-positive declarations exist in purely heteronormative terms, with any lady-on-lady action fetishized for male pleasure (think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”). Times are happily a-changing, though, and Marika Hackman’s latest LP, Any Human Friend, provides a hypnotizing case-in-point. Hackman, the folk artist turned synth-rock darling, cares only for the female gaze—the queer female gaze, that is, and more specifically, her own. This album—a treasure trove of zippy guitar hooks, glimmering synths and lemony vocals expertly curated by Hackman—is all about human connection. She hones in on her emotional and sexual connections both to herself and others post-breakup. The truths Hackman discovers along the way, illuminated by songs both inventive and entrancing, are enough to make anyone want to be her human friend (or, at least, a rabid fan). —Clare Martin
7. Ariana Grande: thank u, next
Released mere months after the love-soaked Sweetener and Mac Miller’s death, thank u, next grapples with a difficult quandary: How do you live and love healthily, sustainably, when the world around you is watching you grieve in real-time? Grande figures it out with effervescence, joy and pop brilliance, crafting a loosely autobiographical concept album filled with self-actualizing (“thank u, next,” “fake smile”), self-discovery (“needy,” “ghostin”) and, between thirst and retail therapy, a few, all-too-human self-soothing mechanisms along the way. It’s her most focused, most inward work yet, delivered with the deftness and universality of a bonafide pop star. thank u, next is a guidebook on how to thrive, complete with an eminently Instagram caption-worthy mantra — one that gave Grande her first Billboard No. 1 single after all this time. —Joshua Bote
6. Clairo: Immunity
After years of releasing demos on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, including songs under the name DJ Baby Benz, Clairo has dabbled in everything from pop and rap to R&B and indie. One sonic trajectory is clear—her music has increasingly shifted away from hazy sketches and bloomed into hi-fi recordings. Immunity retains her past dreaminess via noodling synths, but her vocals are now at the front of the mix. She might not have fashioned herself as much of a singer before, but her silky voice is the lifeblood of this album. Clairo is at her best when her heartbreakingly relatable lyrics match up with her unfettered vocals and enthralling choruses. Songs like “Bags” and “Feel Something” are at their core, great pop songs. It’s hard to believe that two years ago, the artist behind some of 2019’s most luxuriant pop tunes was a Syracuse freshman. It’s when Clairo leans into her more vibey, loungey sides that her music can appear interchangeable with other trendy new subgenres. Immunity is a smoothly-produced pop record about queer relationships—there’s no discounting the value of these stories in the lives of queer people and the population at large. Her sultry confidence and steadfastness, even in the face of anxieties and insecurities, is empowering. Immunity has just enough unforgettable glimmers to justify Clairo’s buzz. The question is whether listeners who weren’t already head over heels for her previously released music will hop on board too. —Lizzie Manno
5. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You
“Let yourself go” has a negative connotation to it—doing as such would imply something like cancelling all physical activity, restricting your wardrobe to sweatpants and purchasing all your meals from a drive-thru, hair long and unkempt and fingers coated in Cheeto dust. But what if “letting oneself go” looked like something else? What if it meant letting go of self-hate, bad energy and your host of inner demons? What if it included forgetting about the odds against you and just loving yourself with an uninhibited pride? Cuz I Love You looks like that. It’s a parade of Lizzo’s most prideful tendencies and a dazzling way to experience the triple-threat talent (rapper, singer, flautist) who’s currently guiding us in a much-needed confidence craze. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s fortified voice could collapse buildings, her lyrics could bring you to your knees and her unprecedented assurance could inspire you to love yourself just a little bit more. It’s Lizzo’s energy solidified—everything you love about her, wrapped up in one twerkable package bursting with bold statements, bad bitches and, perhaps most notably, bops. Lizzo preaches self-worth by declaring self-worth. She opens “Like A Girl” with the words, “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President / Even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messaging / I’m about to add a little estrogen” before later name-dropping some of her girl heroes, like Chaka Kahn, Lauryn Hill and Serena Williams (“Willy”). Arguing with Lizzo is tricky business—it’s difficult to disagree with someone who has so much confidence in herself, which is why Cuz I Love You is such a winner. Lizzo is impossible to ignore, and with this album, she lets us know she’s here to stay. —Ellen Johnson
4. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!
From outside her corner, Lana Del Rey has always appeared more aesthetic than artist. She emerged in 2012 as the gray-eyed anti-Katy Perry, a pop star who preferred sultry sleepers over big hooks. Like Perry, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, she acquired leagues of stans—but also plenty of haters. She went on to release five major label LPs that, while maybe singular within pop music, don’t really stand out in the context of her personal catalog. Del Rey’s music was often synonymous with sameness, and her personal brand with a tired California cool-girl image. You were more likely to buy Born To Die or Lust For Life at Urban Outfitters than a local indie shop. You can still buy Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey’s long-awaited sixth studio album, at Urban Outfitters (in a $40 pink vinyl exclusive, no less). But it’s so much more than an accessory for your Crosley Cruiser. Delivered with her signature slyness, this is a record that, while evoking decades of folk, rock and Americana traditions, feels so tightly woven into the fabric of today’s America that the word “classic” is an immediately obvious descriptor. You’ll know it’s something special about 15 minutes in—if not sooner—just as rusty acoustic guitars and electronic whirs mesh with stuttering psychedelia on the staggering nine-minute centerpiece “Venice Bitch,” which holds the album’s first great one-liner: “Fear fun, fear love / Fresh out of fucks, forever.” NFR! isn’t another slice of monotonous desert pop—it’s a lyrical triumph and a masterclass in pop production. —Ellen Johnson
3. Caroline Polachek: Pang
A handful of pop songs in the past decade—think “Teenage Dream” or “Run Away With Me”—bottle the lightning feeling of whirlwind love perfectly, the sound of a saxophone horn or a vocal swell sublimating the yearning of a new romance. Pang, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her own name, stretches out that feeling, eking out the intricacies of feeling simultaneously liberated and trapped by the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone else. It’s a big task, but Polachek might be the ideal candidate, an indie darling who shaped her last band Chairlift’s twee-pop origins into big-budget, emotional cinema to brilliant effect. The most sublime moments on Pang match the all-cylinders feeling of falling into new love, each neuron so stimulated by the feeling that they threaten to overload and collapse entirely. The divine title track is, at once, twee and lustful, as if The Postal Service were tasked with making a quiet-storm track—the base feeling of unexplored love compounded with each touch of the skin. By the end of Pang, Polachek has fully opened up to the headrush of new love—both in the chance that it could devastate, and the very real possibility that it could result in something transcendent. “The parachute, I’ve got to trust it now,” she sighs on album closer “Parachute,” her voice weightless, at ease. It’s a relief, for her—and for us. —Joshua Bote
2. FKA twigs: MAGDALENE
In the five years since her transformative debut album, 2014’s LP1, FKA twigs has been through a lot. As though having six fibroids removed from her uterus during this period wasn’t torment enough, she dated and split up with two famous actors, to one of whom she was engaged. As she suffered both immense emotional and physical pain, she all but rebirthed herself. This rebirth narrative is one possible reading of the stunning video for “cellophane,” the first song released from MAGDALENE, LP1’s long-awaited album-length follow-up. A devastating piano lament that only vaguely includes the howling, clicking and stuttering vocal and synth tricks of LP1, “cellophane” arrived alongside a video that, like the majority of FKA twigs’ visuals to date, exists in a not-quite-terrestrial space full of forthright sexuality, brooding sci-fi, angular dancing and plain old horror. The two videos that have followed have been, well, exactly not that, and that contrast lies at the heart of what makes the game-changing genre-less artist’s sophomore album so special. MAGDALENE is the sound of an artist gluing together the million tiny shards in which she found herself after an explosive breakup. If FKA twigs previously sang about her isolating sexual desires, here she details the journey to regain her strength after she’s seen the other side of romantic fulfillment. As expected, the climb is often challenging: On the loping, shapeless “daybed,” ostensibly the only track to survive FKA twigs’ 2016 sessions with Oneohtrix Point Never, she struggles to even leave her bed. As she sings lines like “dirty are my dishes,” “friendly are the fruit flies” and “possessive is my daybed,” she equates the disheveled state of her home with the disheveled state of her heart, and the analogy is nothing short of crushing. —Max Freedman
1. Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Since we’re living in a post-Emotion world, it’s hard to remember a time when Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t regarded as an accomplished pop icon. But before the sexual torment of “Emotion,” the sweet rush of “Gimmie Love” and all those “Run Away With Me” saxophone memes, Carly Rae Jepsen was, to most, “Call Me Maybe” and nothing more. 2015 became her moment, and Emotion the pop album to save them all. Now in her thirties, going on four years since then, Carly Rae Jepsen is perhaps even more the music media darling and pop culture mainstay. And while we’ve never really looked to her for lyrical profundity, she’s always been savvy when it comes to pure feelings, making her fourth LP Dedicated another beacon of emotional intelligence, and Jepsen a straight-A student of pop history. Dedicated is about relationships, but it’s also an examination of self. She sashays from one romantic identity (single, heartbroken, in love) to another, but as the record beams on, it becomes clearer they’re all one in the same—a trinity. If the bar for Carly Rae Jepsen—and maybe even 2010s pop as a whole—is the intellectual pop perfection of Emotion, then Dedicated falls only a little short, landing somewhere between effortless earworm territory and therapeutic ecstasy. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to our Best Pop Albums of 2019 playlist on Spotify right here.