The pop landscape changed significantly during the 2010s. On the one hand, pop as we know it ceased to be the dominant genre in the mainstream, and was instead overthrown by the new wave of trap-leaning hip-hop. Pop music was still, well, popular, but for the most part, pop artists didn’t enjoy the same kind of commercial success in the charts as they used to, and when they did, it often came in the form of mind-numbingly asinine singles by artists like Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (two artists who came together in 2019 for ‘I Don’t Care’, a song that seemed to epitomize everything that was wrong with contemporary pop). On the other hand, the rising tide of poptimism within the critical sphere led to a much-needed reappraisal of pop music, which was still seen as inferior and less authentic in many ways than more “serious” genres. It was in this climate that pop artists began to step out of their comfort zone, leading to more experimentation in the genre, and ultimately, more interesting, genuine, and artistically compelling music.
Instead of focusing merely on making great hits, more and more mainstream pop artists utilized the full-length album as a medium for artistic expression and storytelling, which was something quite rare in previous decades. This was especially the case in the latter half of the 2010s, as 8 out of 10 of the albums on this list came out during this period. It might just be recency bias, but 2019 was also a particularly strong year for pop – if I’d replaced two of these albums with records their respective artists released this year (which I easily could have, considering their quality), 2019 releases would have made up half of the list. It’s also worth noting that 9 out of 10 albums were made by female artists, particularly young female artists, which is perhaps reflective of the critical reevaluation that (female) youth culture has undergone in the 2010s.
There was one clear rule I set for myself: only one album per artist. But what made compiling this list difficult wasn’t so much picking the right albums as much as deciding what was even eligible, what could be considered pop. Somehow, an album by FKA twigs felt more pop than an album by Lana Del Rey, even though the latter is definitely considered more of a pop star. Perhaps that’s because as artists began to push their sound forward (or in strange directions), the boundaries between pop and indie, mainstream and experimental, became increasingly blurred. But that’s also exactly what made pop so exciting in the 2010s. From Robyn to Billie Eilish, it felt like the genre had been set free.
10. Ariana Grande, thank u, next (2019)
Ariana Grande has been, without a doubt, one of the most prominent pop figures of the decade. Some might even call her the last true pop star of her calibre – after all, who else with such a traditionalist, Max Martin-backed approach to pop managed to survive the radical changes the mainstream music landscape underwent in the 2010s? Even though she’s still just 26 years old, her sound kept growing and maturing with each new release, culminating in her most personal and introspective effort yet, thank u, next. It’s the result of a truly tumultuous string of events – first, the terrorist attack during the Manchester concert of her 2017 Dangerous Woman tour, her engagement with comedian Pete Davidson, then the tragic death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and her subsequent break-up with Davidson. While 2018’s Sweetener is undoubtedly an admirable and occasionally great record that features some of Ariana’s best hits to date, it was still bogged down by too many guest features and occasionally messy production. By contrast, the understated, unfiltered, and dark nature of thank u, next makes it her most liberatingly earnest and consistent. It’s a markedly authentic Ariana Grande project, and a great one to finish off the decade with.
9. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion (2015)
After releasing the ubiquitous single ‘Call Me Maybe’, Carly Rae Jepsen seemed to fade from the public spotlight. But her case serves as a great example of how the influence of a mainstream pop artist in the 2010s could be measured by more than just commercial success. Jepsen earned a cult-like following online, where her adoring fans made memes comparing her to Mozart and giving her a sword – one even wrote a 149-page thesis analyzing her music. So even though her third album, Emotion, didn’t see the kind of chart success major labels might expect, the devotion it received from her fans is a more reliable testament to its lasting impact. And it’s not hard to see why – the album’s 80s-inspired, neon-tinged brand of synthpop strays as much from the artist’s bubblegum roots and the sound of contemporary pop as from those trying to subvert it. Emotion proves that there’s a space for unapologetically formulaic, nostalgic pop music made in the post-post-modern age, especially when made by pure pop perfectionists like Jepsen. With lyrics that tuck at the heartstrings, lush instrumentals (nothing can beat that opening saxophone riff on ‘Run Away with Me’), and hooks that stick to your head, what’s there not to (really, really, really, really) like?
8. FKA twigs, MAGDALENE (2019)
It might be paradoxical to place an album that did its best to defy genre in a ‘best pop albums of the decade’ list. But in the context of FKA twigs’ career, MAGDALENE is the album that saw her going from the left-field R&B sounds of LP1 to a markedly more accessible and, yes, pop-sounding approach. Drawing influences from the likes of Kate Bush and Björk, twigs’s varied and revelatory sophomore LP boasts an impressive list of guest contributors from both the art pop and mainstream pop worlds, from experimental artists like Arca and Nicolas Jaar to megaproducer Jack Antonoff and rapper Future. But MAGDALENE is also a devastatingly personal album, as FKA twigs twists and stretches her voice in a remarkably expressive and immediate manner to evoke the shattering pain of heartbreak. From transcendent, expansive cuts like ‘thousand eyes’ and ‘mary magdalene’ to heartbreakingly spare ballads like ‘mirrored heart’ and ‘cellophane’, MAGDALENE is the sound of a fallen alien trying to reach out to the people of Earth by means of their most universal art form, just like FKA twigs flirts with the peripheries of commercial pop and ends up becoming one of its leading vanguards.
7. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013)
Of all the albums on this list, none was as much of an artistic detour as Random Access Memories was for Daft Punk. The fourth studio album by the French electronic duo saw them trading EDM synths and samples for session musicians and live instruments in a genuine effort to pay homage to the disco and electronic dance music scenes of the 1970s and 80s. On a purely technical level, Random Access Memories is simply masterful: meticulously crafted, flawlessly engineered, and expertly mixed, it’s hard to deny the sheer sonic beauty of this album. But what’s most remarkable about it is that unlike all the other electronic acts of the decade that artlessly stole musical tropes from that era of pop, RAM feels so much more than just a dire exercise in nostalgia. The songs here are not just catchy – there’s a reason ‘Get Lucky’ dominated the airwaves, though it’s a shame other cuts didn’t find the same success – but also surprisingly ambitious in concept and narrative: once you dig deeper into the album, tracks like the nearly 10-minute prog-pop epic ‘Gorgio by Moroder’, album centrepiece ‘Touch’, and touching piano ballad ‘Within’ turn it into a holistically rewarding listening experience. With RAM, Daft Punk injected humanity into their robotic personas’ genetic code.
6. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer (2018)
At first glance, Dirty Computer might have seemed like a sub-par release compared to Janelle Monáe’s more expansive and ambitious concept albums, namely 2010’s sci-fi odyssey The ArchAndroid and 2013’s looser follow-up The Electric Lady. The record finds her stripping away the elaborate, sometimes difficult-to-digest features of her previous releases and tightening her focus to create a straightforward yet flawlessly executed and empoweringly liberating pop album. It has all the elements that make Monaé’s music so uniquely enjoyable, but this time designed for a newfound mainstream audience that was just starting to discover her work following her acting turns in 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight and Hidden Figures. But at no point does it feel like she’s doubling down on her approach: it’s a fearlessly joyful, uncompromisingly radical, and above all danceable record that’s filled to brim with queer sexual energy – look no further than the infectious lead singles, the Prince-indebted ‘Make Me Feel’ and the Grimes-featuring, irresistibly sultry ‘Pynk’. Yet it’s also Monaé’s most personal record as she abandons the persona of Cindi Mayweather and opens up about her own insecurities, unveiling the humanity that’s always been behind Monaé’s dense Afrofuturist worlds.
5. Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
Beyoncé had already risen to prominence as a cultural icon at the start of the decade. But although she had multiple great hits under her belt, she was always primarily a singles artist. This changed with her 2015 self-titled album, which took the female empowerment narrative she’d built a reputation for and extended it into an ambitiously feminist LP without sacrificing any of her commercial appeal. But it’s her follow-up record, Lemonade, a bona fide artistic statement and her most fully-fleshed album to date, that earns a spot on this list. In art, the personal has long been political; but before this album, the personal had largely been missing from Beyoncé’s music. Lemonade is an album about infidelity that only Beyoncé could have made: unashamedly angry, relentless, and raw, as much as an album engineered for mainstream popularity can be. What was perhaps more unexpected was the diverse range of genres through which the singer chose to express her frustration, as she drew from rock n’ roll, blues, and even country alongside her familiar R&B and pop stylings. There’s no doubt Beyoncé will find a way to stay on top in the 2020s – let’s hope it gives birth to more albums like this.
4. Charli XCX, Pop 2 (2017)
Charli XCX’s rise in the pantheon of pop was slow and steady, from her guest spot on Icona Pop’s massive 2013 hit ‘I Love It’ to the critical and commercial success of her 2019 album, Charli. But back when she released her first two albums, no one quite expected her music to become as subversive as it eventually did, as she utilized a relatively tried-and-true pop formula. Her 2016 avant-pop Vroom Vroom EP completely tore those expectations apart, signaling the beginning of a new, boundary-pushing phase for Charli. This led to Pop 2, the second of her two 2017 mixtapes, another collaboration with the experimental pop label PC Music. What made the mixtape so uniquely infectious was that instead of completely abandoning familiar pop tropes, Charli twisted them and pushed them to their extreme, giving birth to an abrasive, futuristic approach to the genre. While her 2019 album Charli is perhaps a more cohesive Charli XCX experience – and some might reasonably argue a better one – Pop 2 earns the spot on this list for being the more influential release. Don’t be surprised if the sound of pop in the coming decade can be traced back to this mixtape.
3. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)
Not since Lorde’s Pure Heroine has a debut pop album made such a splash as Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? The two albums have a lot of things in common: they were both made by teenage songwriters with a distinctive pop vision that felt intimate yet relatable. But where Lorde connected with the millennial generation, Billie Eilish has captured the existential fears and personal vulnerabilities, but also the quirky and referential sense of humour, of Generation Z. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? showcases the singularly post-genre approach Eilish and her brother and close collaborator Finneas have come up with – it’d be a stretch to argue that they invented all the musical ideas presented here, but it’s the way they managed to bring together lo-fi production techniques, catchy yet intimately evocative songwriting, as well as Eilish’s underrated vocal delivery, and package them in a way that actually resonated with mass audiences, that earns it a spot on this list. It might be too early to tell if it will be as influential as Pure Heroine or Body Talk was, but if I had to guess, this album’s sound will no doubt be all over the 2020s.
2. Robyn, Body Talk (2010)
It might come as a surprise that at the time of its release, Body Talk was perceived by many as kind of a disappointment. But not due to lack of quality – Robyn had simply built so much hype around her in 2010, fans expected a full-length album of new material, rather than a compilation of tracks from her previously released mini-albums plus five new songs. But even as a standalone project, Body Talk acted as a surprisingly coherent greatest hits-type album that signaled the Swedish artist’s rebirth (or, rather, reboot). Body Talk was praised for its sharp and mature electro-pop songwriting, but time has also revealed how influential it came to be. It proved that pop could be forward-thinking yet accessible, danceable yet heartfelt, vulnerable yet triumphant. That it could have personality and attitude without losing its commercial appeal. After all, would there be a Charli XCX or a Janelle Monaé if Robyn hadn’t sung “Fembots have feelings too”? Would there be a Lorde without ‘Dancing on My Own’ or a Carly Rae Jepsen without ‘Call Your Girlfriend’? Body Talk has not just withstood the test of time – it has left a bigger mark on the shape of dance music than any other album this decade.
1. Lorde, Melodrama (2017)
When you listen to Melodrama, you can feel its pulsating heart beating through your chest. Lorde broadcasts the fears and anxieties of an entire generation with searing humanity and makes us want to dance to them. It’s not just infinitely relatable, but deeply resonant – if Pure Heroine was about exploring young adulthood, Melodrama is the definitive soundtrack to growing up. She proves that what society views as “generation L.O.V.E.L.E.S.S.”, young people that are as addicted to ephemeral relationships as they are to their phones, are in fact too cautious about their punctuation use because they simply have more love in them than their heart can handle. “I’ll love you ‘til my breathing stops,” Lorde bellows on ‘Writer in the Dark’. Against Jack Antonoff’s swooning, evocative production, her delivery goes from fierce to vulnerable, fearless to uncertain, capturing the loneliness of feeling everything in extremes. But feeling heartbroken after a breakup or alone at a party full of people are just parables for something bigger, something more existential. If all we spend our time doing is trying to find “perfect places” to make us feel more connected to each other, then Melodrama might be the closest thing we have to that. It makes you want to cry your eyes out, sing ‘til your lungs hurt, and share its beating heart with the world – and isn’t that what pop music’s supposed to do, after all?