The 40 Best Pop Albums of 2021

Featuring Olivia Rodrigo, Xenia Rubinos, Rosie Tucker and more

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The 40 Best Pop Albums of 2021

Pop music has come a long way in the public eye, rising to become respected as a genre of music as worthy of analysis and criticism as any other (although Paste has always been of that belief). 2021 was a particularly fruitful year for pop, whether it be the triumphant liberation of Britney Spears or the year that Doja Cat became inescapable. Olivia Rodrigo shattered records and Lil Nas X proved that viral marketing is still viable in an internet-obsessed world. Paste stayed tapped in with the best and brightest pop albums of 2021. Here they are, for your listening pleasure.

Listen to Paste’s Best Pop Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.

Adele: 30

The critical consensus around Adele’s much-anticipated first album since 2015 is that it’s the powerhouse vocalist’s finest outing yet, and deservedly so. Rather than retreading the familiar ground of 25-era balladry, the pop superstar pushes herself in fresh directions on 30, her immaculate vocals flourishing more than ever amidst a diverse palette of sounds. All-star producers Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, Shellback, Tobias Jesso Jr, Inflo and Ludwig Göransson help Adele navigate lush neo-soul (“My Little Love”), thumping dance-pop (“Oh My God”), bubbly reggae (“Cry Your Heart Out”) and lavish R&B (“All Night Parking (with Errol Garner) Interlude”). Meanwhile, voice memos peppered throughout offer intimate glimpses into Adele’s thoughts and feelings. Listeners expecting emotional devastation will find what they’re looking for, particularly on “Woman Like Me” and “To Be Loved,” but 30 is far more than a divorce record. It’s Adele’s loosest, liveliest and wisest album yet (“Why am I obsessing about the things I can’t control? / Why am I seeking approval from people I don’t even know?” she sings on “I Drink Wine”), finally pairing her otherworldly vocal ability with instrumentation to match. —Scott Russell

Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams

Arlo Parks has already accomplished one of her biggest goals. The 19-year-old British musician, born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, has said that she writes her songs “to feel both universal and hyper-specific.” The high-profile fans—Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, Michelle Obama—whom Parks has accrued since her 2018 emergence certainly attest to her music’s broad relatability, and her music itself displays her talent for intimate, you-had-to-be-there details and unyielding, wise-beyond-her-years empathy. On Parks’ long-awaited debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, her narratives remain vivid and often crushing. Likewise intact is her vibrant fusion of rock, jazz, folk and hip-hop, a combination both dedicated to her idols Frank Ocean and Radiohead (she namechecks Thom Yorke on “Too Good”) and sprinkled with a blueness distinctly her own. Her sound is compelling enough that, even when her lyrics regress into platitudes, her music remains stirring and intense. —Max Freedman

Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever

Following the chart-topping, reputation-establishing charm of 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? sounds like a monumental task, but on Billie Eillish’s latest album Happier Than Ever, she makes it seem effortless. In some of the most dynamic, emotionally complex and brilliantly produced music of her career thus far, the singer copes openly with the strain her recent superstardom has had on her relationships, her sexuality and her path in life. Bold risks, like the multiple sections of “GOLDWING” or the 2000s neo-soul revival of “Billie Bossa Nova,” pay off in part because of the artist’s incredible capacity for building emotional tension within her lyrics. Happier Than Ever ranges between club ragers, personally empowering pop and all-out confessionals, marking a distinct shift from the singer’s knowingly playful debut that pays off wonderfully. —Jason Friedman

CHAI: WINK

Though hyperpop, noise rock and other saturated genres are glorious in their own rights, it takes a lot of skill to leave behind the bells and whistles and still turn out a good record. Case in point: Japanese outfit CHAI’s third album, WINK, which abandons their bombastic approach to production but still makes you smile at every turn. Their previous releases PINK (2018) and PUNK fly in the face of anyone who claims less is more. The two records defy genre, skipping from hip-hop to synth-pop to bubblegum punk and buzzing with frenetic energy. More than anything, though, they are delightful in the purest sense of the word, overflowing with humor and optimism. The four-piece change tack with WINK, intentionally stripping back their sound (relative to their previous work, that is; don’t expect anything that sparse) to emulate the type of music they typically listen to at home. Much of their punk or power-pop influences are put aside for a more R&B-inflected sonic palette. Just compare the laid-back, Tame Impala-esque vibes of opener “Donuts Mind If I Do” with the first track of PUNK, “CHOOSE GO!”—an exuberant song that feels as all-caps as its title. But even with their energy tempered slightly, CHAI make every moment feel like a treat. —Clare Martin

CHVRCHES: Screen Violence

Though CHVRCHES do little to shake things up on their fourth album, Screen Violence isn’t without its shining moments. Opener “Asking for a Friend” recalls the anthemic vigor of their first two albums, and it serves as a reminder of why CHVRCHES attracted the attention of so many in the first place. It also sets the template for one of Screen Violence’s major motifs: admitting past wrongs and coming to terms with them. “So what do you say when you lose your way? / The past is in the past / It isn’t meant to last,” Lauren Mayberry sings over sparkling synths and a vocoded harmony. “California” is also a highlight, and it continues the thematic thread of finding “freedom in the failure” and recognizing the solace of imperfection. “Violent Delights” is another one of Screen Violence’s best tracks, opting for a darker sound with filtered breakbeats that burst into a wave of festival-ready impact in the chorus. —Grant Sharples

Claire George: The Land Beyond The Light

Rarely has dance floor euphoria hurt as much as it does on Claire George’s debut album The Land Beyond the Light. Sure, the record’s woozy atmospherics and unhurried tempo recall something closer to Robyn’s “Honey” or the lighter side of Thom Yorke’s solo discography, but it’s not hard to imagine some hazy dance floor with pink and blue lights shining through the thick fog. There’s more than a hint of melancholy in the music itself, but the driving and morose minor key piano chords frequently get obscured by the record’s steady percussion keeping things moving along. It is dance music, after all. Dig deeper and you’ll find a collection of songs crying out from the lowest of lows, heartbroken and in mourning. But instead of wallowing in that despair, the L.A.-based artist utilizes dance beats and synths to propel her voice skyward in hopes that she’ll find some sort of catharsis in the process. To turn that pain into something constructive is an achievement in and of itself. To transform it into nine thrilling and gorgeous pop tracks is a miracle. —Steven Edelstone

Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time

Things Take Time, Take Time is a record of contemplation, that damnable, lazy buzzword folks use when art denies them obvious adjectives for describing a deliberately relaxed piece. In Courtney Barnett’s case, contemplation is her immediate aim, though this can be broadened into a larger story about slogging through negativity to find a bit of sunshine. For a record born of introspection, though, Things Take Time, Take Time is surprisingly fun. Barnett flirts with lugubriousness, but doesn’t actually commit, because committing to moping isn’t the point. Looking inward and working through depression, exhaustion and other stresses naturally means facing up to a degree of sadness, but Barnett reaches the other side of her emotional processing with newfound optimism. Tell Me How You Really Feel didn’t pull punches; that record cut and stung as Barnett meant it to. She kept the music honest. Things Take Time, Take Time is vulnerable music, which represents an honesty Barnett tends to stray from in her superb discography. —Andy Crump

Crumb: Ice Melt

Psychedelic indie outfit Crumb have outdone themselves again, dialing heavily into the serene and atmospheric corners of their creativity for a deeply complex album with even more difficult questions behind it. Frontwoman Lila Ramani describes the record as an examination of “real substances and beings that live on this planet.” The album was recorded with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado in Los Angeles to create a surrealist atmosphere that takes cues from genres such as disco and dream-pop. It’s a thrilling expansion to Crumb’s endless void of creativity. —Jade Gomez

Dawn Richard: Second Line

For someone so committed to flexing her New Orleans roots, Dawn Richard often makes music that sounds like it’s coming from an entirely different planet. On previous albums, the former Danity Kane and Dirty Money member often sang about love and life in the language of sci-fi and fantasy atop equally celestial beats. Her music likewise sounds interstellar throughout most of her sixth and newest album, Second Line: An Electro Revival, but here, she sets an explicit goal of shouting out her homeland more than ever before. Richard weaves New Orleans into Second Line more in spirit than in sound. Short but frank audio clips from Richard’s mother about her Louisiana upbringing and Creole roots open several tracks, but you won’t hear bombastic walls of bounce (save traces in the bassline of “FiveOhFour”) or bursts of Louisiana Indigenous zydeco. Instead, Richard shows us what being a “Creole girl” (to quote her mother) or “Creole King” (the fictional protagonist who supremely loosely guides Second Line) is like by just being herself. —Max Freedman

Doja Cat: Planet Her

2021 was the year of Doja Cat. After 2019’s bright and bubbly Hot Pink, the rapper/singer set her sights on even larger horizons. Planet Her is aptly titled, and Doja’s expansive vision is fully realized. Infectious dance grooves such as “Woman” and “Get Into It (Yuh)” brush shoulders with sultry R&B tracks like “You Right” and “Alone.” Doja embraces her rap skills and channels her charming falsetto that exists with her distinct raspy rap. Planet Her is a welcome reminder that good pop music is still out there, and you can be risky while still being radio friendly. —Jade Gomez

Erika de Casier: Sensational

Erika de Casier’s buttery, woozy Sensational shows the Copenhagen-based singer/songwriter blossoming into the ‘90s- and early-2000s-shaped sound of her 2019 debut Essentials, clearly becoming more confident in her hushed voice than before. On Sensational, de Casier longs for the right kind of romance. She embraces her independence. She’s defiant and spryly in control at every moment of the situations she croons about, even amidst all the relationship drama she’s endured. Sensational takes the genre of bedroom pop to heart—creating an album that is so interior that it feels like it was made in the most intimate of spaces, and you’re experiencing de Casier’s innermost thoughts. It is that strict focus on the personal that makes the lyrics so succulent, observant and wise. —Ana Cubas

Faye Webster: I Know I’m Funny haha

In conversation with Paste about her 2019 standout Atlanta Millionaires Club, Southern songwriter Faye Webster told us, “I think what makes it nice is that there are songs on this record that could have been on my self-titled or could’ve even been on Run And Tell, my 16-year-old album. Every album has been like the small gateway to something new, but it still all makes sense.” That holds true on the 23-year-old’s fourth album (and second for Secretly Canadian), another lovely collection of loping, lap steel-laced Americana-pop that’s as nuanced, yet charming as Webster herself. An ATL native with ample ties to the city’s sprawling hip-hop scene, the singer/songwriter reunited with frequent collaborators including producer/mixer Drew Vandenberg and pedal steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel to create I Know I’m Funny haha, her most thoughtful, intimate and self-assured effort yet. —Scott Russell

Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Purists of alternative ’90s music cringed upon the announcement that Halsey was working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it was hard not to be worried after finally escaping that Chainsmokers song. However, Halsey always had it in them to ease into this sort of dark, brooding pop, laced in the macabre elegance that only Reznor and Ross can provide. On If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey evolves their artistry without feeling like a desperate attempt at retconning their poppy roots. The album strikes a happy medium between the two, with such a dynamic production duo creating a gothic wonderland woven between Halsey’s delicate vocals. This does not sound like a Nine Inch Nails album, and it speaks to the duo’s versatility as they ease into a new sphere of music. Explosive pop hooks find their place next to trip-hop glitches, and Halsey masters it all. It is their most impressive work to date, adjusting to the pervasive sense of despair in the youth they have connected with, showing a darker side to life that cannot be ignored. —Jade Gomez

Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take

Asheville, North Carolina’s Indigo De Souza clears the sophomore slump by leaps and bounds on Any Shape You Take, the follow-up to her 2018 self-released debut, I Love My Mom, and her first LP for Saddle Creek. Any Shape You Take, a fitting title for the multitudes that De Souza and her new songs contain, is about the difficulties and joys of pushing through the growing pains of change: “I’ll be here to love you / No matter what shape you might take,” De Souza sings on “Way Out,” an all-encompassing declaration of unconditional love. De Souza and her co-producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Waxahatchee), who recorded Any Shape You Take at Sylvan Esso’s Chapel Hill studio, couch the album’s confessionals in vivid, dynamic sonic rollercoaster rides, from the vocoderized synth-pop of opener “17” and the palm-muted harmonics on “Darker Than Death” to the peaks and valleys of “Late Night Crawlers” and the explosive emotions of the closing cut, “Kill Me.” De Souza’s singular voice is the invaluable core running through it all: She can do pure pop on “Die/Cry,” get downright operatic on “Bad Dream” and slip into an effortless falsetto on “Pretty Pictures,” taking any shape she likes. —Scott Russell

Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee

Michelle Zauner’s third album as Japanese Breakfast finds her shedding the sadness and trauma of her past, embracing joy and celebrating Jubilee. Upon its announcement, Zauner said of her follow-up to 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet in a statement, “After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy. For me, a third record should feel bombastic and so I wanted to pull out all the stops for this one.” The soaring, yet densely layered Jubilee lives up to that billing: Zauner’s palette boasts more colors than ever—the yearning strings that conclude “Kokomo, IN,” the regal horn outro on “Slide Tackle,” the noise-rock crescendo of closer “Posing For Cars,” so much more—and her new masterpiece is abundantly vivid as a result. —Scott Russell

Katy Kirby: Cool Dry Place

The inevitable messiness of life is what makes it so painful, interesting and enjoyable, but learning to be okay with it all is much easier said than done. Nashville-via-Texas singer/songwriter Katy Kirby is well on her way in that journey. On her debut album Cool Dry Place, Kirby tries to decide what’s worth holding on to and what’s worth seeking, but also allows herself the freedom to pause and just revel in precious moments, like a drunken walk home (“Peppermint”) or the fantasy of protecting someone you love (“Eyelids”). Whether slipping into playful metaphors or arriving at an important realization, Kirby sounds, at once, comfortable and uncomfortable with the fluidity of interactions and situations, which is what makes this record more than just an incredibly pleasing collection of songs. Wants and needs are blurred, relationships shapeshift, but more than anything, a human desire for intimacy and understanding underpins it all. After dropping in and out of school, religion and recording music, Kirby is searching for a sustainable source of warmth—whether a person, a plant, Target lingerie or “a secret chord that David played.” —Lizzie Manno

Laura Mvula: Pink Noise

A few months after 2016’s A Dreaming Room was released, Laura Mvula was dropped from her label. So, she did what anyone else would do: made a kickass pop album to show them what they were missing out on. Her righteous return on Pink Noise is a crisp homage to the ‘80s, with elements of Michael Jackson and Prince finding a fitting home within Mvula’s impressive artistry that extends far past the music into the entire aesthetic (have you seen those press photos?). Mvula didn’t get bitter, she got better, and it’s a refreshing comeback if we’ve ever seen one. —Jade Gomez

Lil Nas X: Montero

Lil Nas X is a star. That’s all there is to it. On his newest album Montero, he takes his charming brand of pop-rap to new heights, getting personal about desire, relationships and sex. From viral rap sensation to one of the biggest artists across both pop and hip-hop, Nas defied the odds of disappearing into a one-hit-wonder abyss and stepped up into longevity, thanks to his ear for hooks and his refreshing sense of humor found throughout his presence and visuals. Montero is a chance to see the man behind the memes and radio hits, and he more than proves he is capable of handling the tricky balancing act of his characters.—Jade Gomez

Lily Konigsberg: Lily We Need to Talk Now

The proper full-length solo debut of Palberta’s Lily Konigsberg has been quite a while in the making. The Brooklyn singer/songwriter worked (and reworked) on these songs from 2016 on, with an assist from producer Nate Amos (of Water From Your Eyes), whose text message to Konigsberg inspired the album’s title—it’s a self-confrontation that reveals no shortage of emotions, nor sounds. Lily We Need to Talk Now runs the gamut from the ebullient indie rock of “That’s The Way I Like It” and “True” to the jazzy and even avant-garde art-pop of “Don’t Be Lazy With Me,” “Hark” and “Goodbye,” opening its arms to slick dance music (“Sweat Forever,” “Alone”), fuzzy proto-punk (“Bad Boy”) hooky folk-rock (“Roses, Again”) and synth-wreathed power-pop (Adam Schlesinger tribute “Proud Home”) along the way. You come away from the record wondering what Konigsberg can’t do, impressed by the scope and vibrance of her stylistic vision, and the ease with which she inhabits her many musical selves. —Scott Russell

Magdalena Bay: Mercurial World

Synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay, aka Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, have fully embraced the secret blessing of the pandemic. Following the unfortunately timed release of their 2020 EP A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling at the cusp of lockdown, the ensuing isolation gave time for the EP to resonate with fans, leading to a growing support system that crystallized into the hype for their debut album Mercurial World. The duo fully embrace the changing tides of pop music via their take on bubblegum and electro-pop with the vulnerability of Gwen Stefani and the infectious hooks of Grimes, two influences the group regularly circle back to. Mercurial World finally offers the space for the two to sink their teeth into the ideas touched upon in their previous projects, with a newfound vigor that only a global crisis could incite. —Jade Gomez

Mickey Guyton: Remember Her Name

It’s been a long road for Mickey Guyton, who spent the better part of a decade trying to be the artist she thought the Nashville country establishment wanted her to be. When that approach resulted in a whole lot of nothing much, she remembered to trust her own instincts and be the artist she wanted to be. The initial result is Remember Her Name a big, bold album with a polished sound that’s unmistakably—but not exclusively—country. Guyton is a versatile singer who is as capable of power as restraint, and she handles the weighty topical themes on opener “Remember Her Name” as comfortably as the more romantic fare on “Dancing in the Living Room.” She’s neither shy, nor apologetic about singing from a perspective that’s not often heard in mainstream country: Songs including “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” are insightful and powerful reminders that there is (or should be) room for everybody in country music. —Eric R. Danton

Nation of Language: A Way Forward

We almost didn’t get to hear Brooklyn band Nation of Language’s stunning 2020 debut Introduction, Presence. Like many bands, Ian Devaney, Aidan Noel and Michael Sue-Poi struggled financially, until Noel and Devaney got married and asked their loved ones to fund their album as a wedding present. And now, thanks to the unexpected (but totally deserved) success of their first album, we’re being graced with A Way Forward, a carefully constructed and emotionally resonant sophomore effort. Nation of Language don’t just keep doing more of the same on A Way Forward, though they totally could have gotten away with that. They extend themselves, influenced partly by krautrock, rather than sticking entirely with the new wave sound of their debut, but also remain impressively sonically consistent. With their sophomore album, Nation of Language solidify themselves as mainstays of ’20s synth-pop music. —Clare Martin

Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR

2021 was the year of Olivia Rodrigo, full stop. The 18-year-old pop sensation made a multi-platinum entrance with “drivers license,” proved she was no fluke on “deja vu,” and put her range on display with “good 4 u.” Still, the lingering question in the lead-up to her debut album SOUR was, “Is Rodrigo for real, or just a flash in the pan?” From the record’s opening moments, it was clear we had our answer: “brutal” begins with a mock orchestral intro before uncorking a left hook in the same pop-punk revival vein as “good 4 u,” with Rodrigo confessing over chugging guitars, “I feel like no one wants me / And I hate the way I’m perceived.” From that song’s supremely relatable teenage angst (“jealousy, jealousy” is another standout of that stripe) and heartfelt ballads like “enough for you” and closer “hope ur ok,” to the hits that made this album an event, SOUR cemented Rodrigo as an artist deserving of the year’s most meteoric rise. —Scott Russell

PinkPantheress: to hell with it

Listening to a PinkPantheress song is like finding a secret diary that was never supposed to be read. Her songs carry this sense of wistful sorrow, jaded to the world’s idealism, yet still believing good exists somewhere. She has a reluctant optimism about love and connection, as well as the intelligence to realize that life is not a romantic comedy, making her instantly relatable to anyone who grew up in a time where social media became the new journal. But when an artist makes their name off short snippets, it begs the question: How will they hold up when the time comes to paint on a full canvas? For 20-year-old Londoner and TikTok phenomenon PinkPantheress, the answer is better than many expected. Her debut mixtape, to hell with it, isn’t a deep concept album, nor a tell-all about her life (presumably). Instead, it’s a collection of prior snippets and more fleshed-out material that proves her staying power, while also teasing her limitless potential. —Josh Svetz

Pom Pom Squad: Death of a Cheerleader

Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad has long been an avid explorer of pop culture, though as a person of color and a queer woman, neither facets of her identity have historically been given much attention in media. She dealt with this lack of representation resourcefully, finding snippets that resonated with her. She explains in a press release, “I absorbed everything I could and tried to make a collage that could incorporate every piece of me.” Now, with bandmates Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass) and Alex Mercuri (guitar), Berrin is ensuring that present and future generations won’t have to live on meager scraps. Death of a Cheerleader synthesizes Berrin’s various influences—aesthetic, musical, cinematic—but ends up as a creature entirely its own, telling Berrin’s story in a way that’s sure to hit home with many who struggle to see themselves in whitewashed Hollywood releases. The album is well-realized conceptually and brilliantly, viscerally executed. —Clare Martin

Porches: All Day Gentle Hold !

Porches burst onto the scene years ago with Slow Dance Through the Cosmos, an album that blended lofi synthscapes, blunt guitar lines and neurotic, but funny lyrics. Maine really found his footing with 2016’s Pool, though. That album toyed with bohemian new wave, oblique dance music and alluringly vague songwriting. It set Maine up for success, thrusting him to the forefront of the alternative underground, alongside his ex-partner Frankie Cosmos. But right when it seemed like Maine was poised to be one of the most beloved weirdos of our time, he fell off. The albums that followed, The House and Ricky Music, were brief, rigid affairs that felt a touch too tailored for Spotify playlists like Pollen and Soirée. Toying with a myriad of styles, and drawing inspiration from genres past, Porches’ latest, All Day Gentle Hold !, finally breaks the mold that listeners may have come to expect from Maine’s recent endeavours. Flirting with new wave, dream pop and electronic music, it doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the good old days, but it definitely feels ambitious compared to the two records that preceded it. —Ted Davis

Porter Robinson: Nurture

North Carolina-based producer and songwriter Porter Robinson exploded onto the EDM scene in 2010, headlining festivals worldwide at just 18, years before releasing his first proper album, 2014’s Worlds. Even in those days of dubstep and drop worshipping, Robinson’s music had an uncanny sensitivity, with a fragile beauty present even in his bangers. But his meteoric rise threatened to suffocate his creativity, placing an immense amount of pressure on his songwriting—in many ways, Robinson’s journey back to a place of creative fulfillment is what his first new album in seven years is all about. Nurture draws its power from “hope, overcoming despair, faithfully pursuing a sense of purpose, and trying to prove that it’s worthwhile to try,” as Robinson puts it, frequently stripping away everything but his vocals and piano, as if to bare its soul for the listener. Bright, unerringly melodic and upbeat textures abound, yet a song like “Dullscythe” feels as if it’s coming together in real time, beginning as a collection of synth stutters before coalescing into a gorgeous, sweeping piece of electronic pop. Nurture is welcoming and vulnerable from beginning to end, radiating gratitude for all who take the time to find refuge in it. —Scott Russell

Remi Wolf: Juno

Remi Wolf is one of pop’s most exciting acts in recent memory. Following a series of EPs beginning with 2019’s You’re a Dog!, Wolf has since gone on to collaborate with everyone from Beck to Nile Rodgers, thanks to her joyfully eclectic brand of soul and funk. Her debut album Juno was preceded by a hefty amount of singles, which utilize the same palette in an ever-changing kaleidoscope’s worth of ways. Whether singing about ordering Chuck E. Cheese on Postmates or calling herself a “thrift store baddie” on “Liquor Store,” Wolf’s brand of humor is just as tapped into current culture as someone like Lil Nas X’s, if not a little more crude and surreal. Wolf has most of the pieces in place to become the next big thing, and Juno is the final one. —Jade Gomez

Rochelle Jordan: Play With The Changes

Rochelle Jordan has added to the growing amount of dance albums of 2021 that yearn for the intimacy of the dance floor. U.K. house influences combined with the soulful vocals that dominated ‘90s dance music make Play With The Changes sound like a fresh take on a beloved, nearly inimitable time and genre. Jordan’s whispery crooning skips delicately and sensually over percussive clangs and 808s as she brings in a modern cool-girl R&B flair for fans old and new to enjoy. The introspective rumination on Black womanhood grounds much of the album, as she channels pain and empowerment in new, innovative ways while paying tribute to the music that made her. —Jade Gomez

Rosie Tucker: Sucker Supreme

Sticky hooks abound on Sucker Supreme, the Epitaph Records debut from Los Angeles-based rock singer/songwriter Rosie Tucker and their band. But once Tucker’s bright alto and insistent melodies reel you in, you’ll find an album that, just like Tucker, refuses to conform to reductive binaries, pushing tirelessly for nuance, honesty and inclusivity. “You can hold my head to the light / I can tell you all of my names / You can print whatever you find / You can call me anything,” Tucker sings on “Different Animals,” as if liberated by the multitudes they contain, opening their heart to let them all flow out. The songwriter’s current touring band—drummer Jessy Reed, guitarist Jess Kallen, and bassist and Sucker Supreme producer Wolfy—join the recording mix for the first time on the album, their performances adding further dimension to Tucker’s vision: splashing vivid pop-punk colors on a singer/songwriter’s expansive emotional canvas. —Scott Russell

Self Esteem: Prioritise Pleasure

Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure may seem like a standard pop album, but a deeper dive reveals a refreshing and sharp wit. Self Esteem, real name Rebecca Lucy Taylor, brings back the fun in the genre, with lyrics digging into sexism and pleasure. ‘80s-inspired synths and groovy R&B hooks give Taylor’s music a nostalgic warmth, and her lyrics feel like diary pages or a long talk with an old friend. Prioritise Pleasure prioritizes Taylor’s need for vulnerability, and she revitalizes a facet of a genre in the process. —Jade Gomez

serpentwithfeet: DEACON

On DEACON, serpentwithfeet presents Black queer love and joy more as a series of little everyday moments than an all-consuming, mystical force. While vivid details and a Black queer foundation are nothing new for the Ty Dolla $ign and Björk collaborator—on “fragrant,” from his 2018 debut LP soil, he recalled asking all of his ex’s exes one by one to kiss him—the presence of unbridled joy and love on his sophomore album is a striking sea change. Where serpent mourned fizzling loves on soil and debut EP blisters, here, he hails the simple glories and everyday little moments of thriving Black queer romances. His perspective, though a stretch to read as some sort of overt or grand political statement, is a beaming needle in the ever-cluttered, often redundant haystack of romantic music. —Max Freedman

Slayyyter: Troubled Paradise

On Slayyter’s debut album Troubled Paradise, the singer proves her throat prowess in more ways than one. Throughout the glossy, hyperpop-propelled album are raging, sex-fueled club hits meshed with sensitive portraits of the artist’s soul. Littered with influences from Y2K aesthetics and the music of artists like Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne, Slayyter successfully recalls the saccharine magic of that era. Through banger anthems like “Throatzillaaa” and “Venom,” the artist takes the aesthetic ideals of her influences, reclaimed from the way they were often discussed and vilified in pop culture, and distills them to their purest form, pushing the vision even further. The robust beats and hypersexual lyrics are fun, radical and ceaselessly danceable, making the vision behind Troubled Paradise a successful statement for the artist. —Jason Friedman

Snail Mail: Valentine

“Referring to the process as the deepest level of catharsis and therapy I have ever experienced would be a huge understatement,” Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan said of making her new album. That healing comes packaged in a blend of blistering rock and pensive singer/songwriter product that isn’t too far off from what we first heard of Jordan on Lush and even her Habit EP from 2016. The main difference on Valentine is Jordan’s newfound vocal confidence: She has perfected her singing voice to match her musical maturity, making Valentine more like Lush’s cool, assured older sister than simply a sequel. Undoubtedly one of the best songs of the year, the triumphant title/opening track, also the album’s lead single, finds Jordan beyond frustration while yearning for the ex who dumped her, or maybe just someone out of reach. The song’s grand scale works because it’s so easy to believe Jordan is as desperate as she sounds. Breakups aren’t just sad—they’re rage-inducing. “So why’d you wanna erase me?” she hollers through the tears, before adding, “You won’t believe what just two months do / I’m older now, believe me / I adore you.” —Ellen Johnson

Tasha: Tell Me What You Miss the Most

Following 2018’s Alone at Last, Chicago-native singer/songwriter Tasha’s second album, Tell Me What You Miss the Most, finds the artist with a honeyed confidence and a warm bliss about her, the kind of evolution that could only happen with time. What may make Tell Me, and Tasha, most sincere is that we experience that evolution with her. Tasha illustrates her journey with love, loneliness, nature or nostalgia with a natural arc, like watching the sun rise or progressively watching the phases of the moon. Tasha’s blend of R&B, folk and pop feels as comforting as warming up in a crisp bed, her voice dreamy enough to narrate any reminiscing one may do while listening to the album. —Ana Cubas

Tinashe: 333

Since the beginning of her career, singer/songwriter Tinashe has excited her audience with her unique, passionate and blunt pop music. On her latest album 333, she sounds fully unrestrained, confidently using her expressive voice atop futuristic, genre-melding beats that blur the lines between pop, R&B and electronic club music. This unique sonic palette, made up of textural noise, orchestral strings and fat drums, generates some of the most engaging work Tinashe has released thus far, feeling constantly dynamic and often addictive. From the synth-pop-inspired thrill of “The Chase” to the lush and experimental title track, 333 is another exciting entry in Tinashe’s discography. —Jason Friedman

TORRES: Thirstier

Amid the seriousness of her 2017 album Three Futures—it was primarily about reckoning with religious trauma, after all—TORRES’ Mackenzie Scott predicts, in the glow of disjointed synth-pop, “There must be a greener stretch ahead.” And after what feels like a lifetime, it sounds like the Georgia-born, Brooklyn-based artist is finally basking on those green lawns she sketched out nearly four messy years ago. The music of TORRES has never been desolate, but there’s a clear change in tone on Scott’s fifth record under the moniker. Scott’s music has shifted from experimental rock to progressive pop and back again, and her career has been exciting to witness, but there was always the sense she was capable of something more energized, more her. In her latest release, Thirstier, we finally have the complete picture, and it’s as lively a rock album as you’ll hear this year. —Ellen Johnson

Water From Your Eyes: Structure

Call it cliché, but the only muse Brooklyn duo Water from Your Eyes follow is their own. Try pinning down the exact genre in which Nate Amos and Rachel Brown operate, and you’ll wind up sorely out of luck—acoustic daydreams often precede gently grating electronics, and ballads co-exist with quirky dance numbers. Theirs is the kind of music that feels acoustic when it’s electronic and electronic when it’s acoustic. A great example is how “Saw Them Lie,” a highlight of the pair’s 2018 sophomore album All a Dance—named after one of the album’s most invigoratingly arrhythmic DIY dance-punk tracks—sounds like a synth-pop whisper even though it’s mostly built from guitars. Following that album’s lovably sloppy experimentation, its refinement with 2019’s Somebody Else’s Songs and a dissonant spoken-word detour with last year’s 33:44, Structure is Water from Your Eyes’ first record to boast something consistent: excellent production and melodies across the board. —Max Freedman

The Weather Station: Ignorance

Ignorance, the fifth and best album by The Weather Station, is the kind of album that arrives in the middle of an artist’s discography and marks a clear, penetrating break with everything that came before it. Think The Dreaming, or Kaputt: abrupt stylistic leaps that subvert and explode whatever category the artist previously seemed to occupy. In The Weather Station’s case, that category was folk music. For more than a decade, the Canadian band—led by singer and former child actor Tamara Lindeman—specialized in delicate indie-folk, rooted in fingerpicked guitars and light, rustling percussion. 2015’s Loyalty and 2017’s self-titled follow-up enlarged the band’s sonic range and empathetic lyrics, but still operated within the folk tradition. Ignorance is a departure. More specifically, this album is a stunningly assured plunge into a sleek, buzzing jazz-pop wilderness. Lindeman’s guiding impulse here is rhythm: interlocking polyrhythms (“Robber”), hi-hats that rattle and hiss like gently persistent metronomes (“Wear,” “Separated”), even some outright four-on-the-floor beats, which spring to life on the sparkly disco-pop of “Parking Lot” and “Heart.” And on “Atlantic,” she’s more expressive than ever, fitting a world of pathos and awe into the way she utters the mere words “My god.” The song describes the feeling of marveling at natural beauty and yet being unable to let go of dread, unable to dismiss grim thoughts of what humans have done or will do to all that beauty. —Zach Schonfeld

Xenia Rubinos: Una Rosa

Five years on from her second album Black Terry Cat, Xenia Rubinos shows the value in waiting. Her third album, Una Rosa, is a welcome treat after such a long period of silence. Combining Cuban boleros with synths and drums marries what seem like two opposite sides of her world, creating an album rife with experimentation without feeling alienating. Rubinos dances between English and Spanish, layering mind-bending harmonies and clashing melodies in such a breathtaking way. Rubinos’ artistry will only continue to expand from here. —Jade Gomez


Listen to Paste’s Best Pop Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.