The 10 Best Pop Albums of 2018

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The 10 Best Pop Albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 was about perspective. Of course, there were the usual lineup of catchy love songs, radio (or Spotify) anthems and Chainsmokers collaborations. But there were also a greater number of fresh, new voices on the charts—pop artists who used their unique backgrounds to tell stories previously untold, artists who weren’t content with blending in. In 2018, love songs weren’t just about one type of love. Radio anthems were graceful testimonials to ex-loves—or the female anatomy. And The Chainsmokers, well, they wrote a song about Beach House. In any case, pop norms were smashed. We’d also be myopic not to recognize the impact Latin music had on the charts this year. Three artists on this list—Empress Of, Camila Cabello and Kali Uchis—all come from Hispanic backgrounds, and they all sing in both English and Spanish. Chances are, one of your favorite pop songs this year contained at least one verse in Spanish or a hint of Latinx trap, be it Cardi B’s “I Like It,” Bad Bunny’s Drake collab or Empress Of’s masterful language-switch on “When I’m With Him.” Pop’s melting pot certainly expanded, but a few familiar faces made welcome comebacks, too. Florence Welch got real about eating disorders and loneliness on her new album, and Swedish dancefloor goddess and heartbreak doctor extraordinaire Robyn made her long-awaited return, right on time. In terms of both popular music and the genre’s sonic definitions, pop in 2018 was a big rainbow quilt, and there’s room for many more beautiful patches.

Here are the 10 best pop albums of 2018:

10. Florence + The Machine: High As Hope
A mix of raw-nerved personal reckoning and outward-looking, life-affirming anthems, Florence and the Machine’s follow-up to the chart-topping How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful soars just as high. A new level of vulnerability from Florence Welch and deft, atmospheric production from Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey) make High As Hope another album of cathedral-filling, mountain-moving sound, with Welch’s vocals the main source of power. It’s the last song of the album, “No Choir,” that proves to be the most revealing. Like the title suggests, it begins with Welch’s voice alone, until the piano comes in as she delivers the most vulnerable lyrics of the album: “But I must confess / I did it all for myself / I gathered you here / To hide from some vast unnameable fear.” It’s one of the ultimate divulgences an artist can make—admitting to using their art, fans, and fame to distract them from everything dragging them down. And in Welch’s case, it didn’t work. But that was then, High As Hope is now, and the song ends with Welch sounding finally at peace, the faint “La da dah-da da’s” closing out her latest chapter on a distinctly positive note. —Madison Desler

9. Miya Folick: Premonitions
After releasing two EP’s—2015’s Strange Darling and 2017’s Give It To Me—Los Angeles singer-songwriter Miya Folick shared her debut album in the form of the starkly titled Premonitions, which is characterized by her jaw-dropping vocal range. Her larger-than-life vocals derive, in part, from her classical training, but she also has the kind of pipes that just don’t seem teachable. On songs like “Stock Image” and “Thingamajig,” she exhibits an otherworldly, operatic beauty, while on “Freak Out” and “Cost Your Love,” there’s a bouncy, sugary and simple joy marked by frenetic synths, grounding guitars and spry percussion. Even the largest songs have a clear sense of intimacy while introspective tracks like “Baby Girl” and “What We’ve Made” are distinctly grand. A lyric from “What We’ve Made” is a perfect metaphor for the album. She sings, “We make tiny happinesses in each moment,” which is exactly what this record feels like. She handcrafts everyday situations into something angelic yet relatable and celebratory yet poignant. Her appeal extends well beyond the realms of pop as there’s a distinct, developed lyrical voice and a dynamic, extraordinary literal voice that makes 2018 feel much less scary and isolating and much more pure and magical. —Lizzie Manno

empressof_us.jpg8. Empress Of: Us
Lorely Rodriguez, who records as Empress Of, is one of the most dynamic vocalists in pop music right now. Her 2015 debut, Me, an entirely self-produced synth-pop explosion, put Rodriguez on the map, and since then she has appeared on songs with the likes of Khalid and Dirty Projectors. While her 2018 sophomore record, Us, hasn’t gotten her quite as much attention, it’s still one of the more interesting pop albums to be released this year, at its most fun when Rodriguez embraces her Latin roots: She’s bilingual and sings in English and Spanish, very often on the same song. Latin music has ruled the pop charts this year, and Rodriguez’s take on Spanish-language music styles is fresh and groovy. Nowhere on the album does the bilingual effect take as much hold as on “When I’m With Him.” At first listen, it sounds like it’s about falling in love (“You found me lost / Loved me like a desert rain”). But, later, you realize it’s about falling out of love (“I don’t know how to love now, I pretend / When I’m with him”), a painful realization after embracing the song’s cheery, catchy vibe. But like Robyn does so well, “When I’m With Him” makes heartbreak danceable, which is not an easily achieved task. —Ellen Johnson

camilacabello_camila.jpg7. Camila Cabello: Camila
If you’ve never heard of Camila Cabello, 1. Learn her name right now—you’ll be seeing her around, and 2. You’ve probably at least heard her voice. The American-Cuban pop star’s ridiculously catchy single featuring Young Thug, “Havana,” is the most-streamed song ever by a solo female artist on Spotify (that’s more than a billion streams, y’all), and it has spent more time atop the Billboard pop charts than any other song in the last five years. It’s easy to hear why “Havana,” which also appears on Cabello’s stunning solo debut Camila, is so addictive: The repetitive lyrics (mostly just “Ha-va-na-ooh-na-na / He took me back to East Atlanta”) rhyme to perfection while the same handful of beats, piano chords and Young Thug backup quips drift along like crashing waves. Saccharine soprano ballad “Never Be the Same” might just be the best album opener of the year, and “She Loves Control,” seething with tight Latin drum loops, is the kind of salsa-infused bop you just want to wiggle your shoulders to. Noticeably snubbed from the Best New Artist category in the recent Grammy nominations, Camila Cabello is still on her way to becoming the next great international pop star. Heck, with billions of streams on Spotify, she might already be there. —Ellen Johnson

troyesivan_bloom.jpg6. Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan’s queer perspective is utterly necessary in 2018, even in the pop realm. The Australian former YouTube singer and now international pop sensation adds another voice to the chorus of much-needed LGBT musicians, which is especially important given his mainstream platform. Though his musical repertoire at times appears limited, his suave vocal melodies and lyrics that use flirty, sensual romance as a vehicle for escape are this record’s X-factor. Despite a production style and song structures that are a bit too homogenized for comfort, Sivan is a candid and compelling lyricist, and he refuses to use subtle hints of his sexuality—this record is poignant and striking in its emotional honesty. Bloom embodies the romantic inadequacies of young adulthood and fleeting moments of happiness that make all those insecurities temporarily fade away. —Lizzie Manno

arianagrande.jpeg5. Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Though she was shockingly shut out of the top Grammy categories, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener was easily one of the most gabbed-about records of 2018—and for good reason. Her smooth, voluptuous vocals accent the strongest tracks while fortifying the lackluster ones. With sprinkles of trap, funk and R&B, the result is an empowering, satisfying pop confection that warms the heart as much as it instills confidence in its listeners. Though it’s not the most transgressive pop record you’ll hear this year, she’s able to transform love and breakup songs into something much more profound. Sweetener is musically transfixing with a range of polychromatic synths, varied beats and tempos and an overarching multi-dimensional sound, particularly on songs like “R.E.M.” and the title track. —Lizzie Manno

4. Christine and the Queens: Chris
Chris, one of two albums Hèloïse Letissier recorded this year under the moniker Christine and the Queens, aims to subvert the male gaze. But not necessarily in the way we’re often used to seeing. Female artists have attempted to subvert this gaze in a number of ways throughout their music and videos—infantilizing themselves to mirror the way men patronize women, changing their appearance to appear more traditionally masculine, appearing scary, gross or violent to ward off suitors, to use a female gaze to objectify males’ bodies, etc. But the approach she takes on Chris feels fresh, especially powerful and provocative. She reclaims female sexuality by adopting the physical movements and overtly sexual lyrics typically attributed to a dominant, horny male. On “Girlfriend,” she points out men’s selfishness to only satisfy their own needs during intercourse, highlights the tired real-life question she gets about her own gender and sexual identities, and even “manspreads” in the track’s video. Her dance-pop and funky synth-pop easily parallels the intrigue of her brawny lyrics, and though she may feel frustration from the record’s narrative being solely steered towards her pansexuality, new short hairdo or the record’s relevant themes in the wake of #MeToo, let it be known that this is one of the finest pop works of the year. —Lizzie Manno

3. Kali Uchis: Isolation
“There’s no tracking where I’m going / There’s no me for them to find.” The riddle-like words drift in covered in mist. The sounds of Tropicalia and bossa nova surround your ears with humidity. Are you dreaming? Are you flying? This is “Body Language,” the lush intro that transports you to the world of Kali Uchis, a world the Colombian-American songstress invites you deeply into, as she compellingly keeps herself a mystery. From the all-Spanish, dancehall romance of “Nuestro Planeta” to the boss-ass-bitch anthem ”Miami”—as sexy and diverse as the city in the title—Uchis gives ample nods to her Latin roots, while asserting herself as a strong, independent woman. “Why would I be Kim? / I could be Kanye,” she sings on “Miami,” never content to be anywhere but the driver’s seat. On the Reggaeton highlight, “Tyrant,” she’s pondering the question of whether or not to give her man any power, the slightest control only hers to hand over, even when she’s head-over-heels in love. For this self-preservation she sacrifices never being truly known—perhaps even to herself—a trade she seems eager to make, holding back to avoid being hurt on her road to ruling the world. “You never knew me then / And you’ll never know me now,” she sings on “Just A Stranger,” which infectiously glides over a bouncy groove courtesy of whiz-kid Steve Lacy, one of several promises she makes throughout the album to be untouchable. —Madison Desler

robyn-honey.jpg2. Robyn: Honey
No one serves up catharsis quite like Robyn. Whether you need to hysterically sob or gleefully and blissfully “move your body” across a dance floor, the Swedish pop diva’s Honey is there to satisfy. Remarkably accessible, Robyn’s long-awaited follow-up to her Body Talk trio is the purest purge. It baptizes you with tears or sweat or both, bidding the promise of a deep cleanse. The only faucet necessary is a pair of headphones, or—better yet—a team of pulsing, surround-sound speakers. Honey is a near-flawless dance pop album. It doesn’t need political or cultural commentary to assert relevancy; in Robyn’s deep understanding of human emotion and what moves us, Honey feels dire all the same. Release through dance has long been a tactic wielded by humankind, but rarely has it felt this inclusive, kind and positively radiant. —Ellen Johnson

janelle-monae-dirty.jpg1. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer
After years spent building a successful acting career, Janelle Monáe released her third studio album, Dirty Computer, in April via Atlantic Records. The first single, “Make Me Feel,” showcases Monáe’s greatest strengths: It’s a funky, soulful, slightly left-field pop song that would fit right in on the INXS back catalogue. Led by Monáe’s luscious, strong lead vocals, the song is sprinkled with glittery synth riffs and a wide range of sound effects like finger snaps and tongue clucks. “Django Jane” is a sex-fueled empowerment anthem. “And we gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot / or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet,” she spits. Monáe refers to her new album as an “emotion picture” releasing it along with a 48-minute, futuristic narrative film. —Lizzie Manno and Loren DiBlasi

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