What the fuck is pop music? More than any other year, 2015 forced us to grapple with what we mean by the term. Do we mean the word’s historical roots in “popular,” as one radio DJ helpfully mansplained to me on the phone a couple weeks ago? Do we mean the way these songs sound–big, glittery, sharp, packed with the youthful approximations of exultation and wonder? Or do we mean celebrities superpowers, artists whose every move has been documented from such a young age that as they enter their twenties, they’re already more god than human?
I think I–and we–mean all of this, and more. I think ye dreaded “poptimism” has sprung not as much from a rejection of the idea of rock-as-highest-art, as the revelation that we can now more freely express our fascination with this other way of hearing the world. The bombastic, world-stopping brass and pomp of pop is what draws me in, the idea that these songs are as close to a universal language as we can possibly get. Or, there’s the languid, dreamy aspect of the genre, the possibility that it was created in bedrooms, written in quiet. It feels like a given that these universal sounds sometimes come laden with the same toxic baggage that chases us elsewhere, but also, that they’re the greatest force we have to fight against that baggage. So without further pontification, here’s our 20 best pop albums of this year.
20. Enya — Dark Sky Island
Enya’s music has always been composed of teeny tiny pieces that combine to form a weird, wild synergy all their own. Accordingly, Dark Sky Island flows like a tide, surging toward something bigger and more mysterious than mere water drops, moonlight or gravitational force. Amid all the harp-like synths (or synth-like harps) and layered vocal takes, Enya’s magic emerges; the world looks and feels different if you consider every blade of grass to be worthy of jumpy, elegiac examination. Flickering in and out of lyric and melody, this distinct spark continues to smolder against an ever-darkening backdrop. And still she shines.
19. Brandon Flowers — The Desired Effect
There’s always been one deeply convincing reason to love The Killers—those fucking choruses. I’m talking about 3:18 here, 4:01 here, and of course, that first one at 1:01 here. At its best Brandon Flowers’ second solo record The Desired Effect hits those same peaks, leaning way more new wave and disco than the bleak post-punk battle cries of The Killers. At its worst, this record falls into the schmaltzy, over-produced drama that huge hooks can so easily slip into. When it hits though, it fucking hits, like on the jagged, determination space-out “Can’t Deny My Love.” There’s no denying the magnetism of Flowers’ omnipresent sky-high tenor, either.
18. Jess Glynne — I Cry When I Laugh
Last year a weird little EDM earworm called “Rather Be” by the English electronic group Clean Bandit shot up the dance/electronic charts, driven mostly by the incredible acrobatic performance of its guest vocalist, Jess Glynne. The British singer was relatively unknown before that song hit, with one other feature on Route 94’s “My Love,” a remnant of her past that appears on this debut album in a hushed, acoustic form. And though they’re all pleasing, none of songs here achieve either the heights of “Rather Be,” or live up to the experience the album title I Cry When I Laugh proclaims. Instead, they slow-burn in the same key, mournful heights and soaring despairs, chamber music from a pop diva still discovering how to separate her emotions into meaningful discrete units. Yet even though it’s mostly a jumble, the soul-and-piano pop found on here is pleasing in small doses.
17. Janet Jackson — Unbreakable
Not to get too personal, but some reporting I did earlier this year unveiled Janet Jackson’s plan to release a new album long before it was announced. Jackson’s return felt inevitable, imminent in the wake of other legacy artists reassuming a place in the spotlight, and Unbreakable is an elegant return to form. It’s slinky, soulful and most of all, understated; a reminder that pop can be so restrained. Even if the music is minimalist, Jackson’s personality spills out unchecked, declaring a “side one” and a “side two,” murmuring “Cole world” with a sensuality that he does not deserve on album stand-out “No Sleeep,” and playing with the syllables on “Dammn Baby” like a vocal-fried-millennial. She’s simultaneously larger-than-life and down-to-earth across this collection of nostalgia-laced R&B jams. Unbreakable is the soundtrack of a rhythm nation ringleader lounging in between shows.
16. Adele — 25
The narrative of Adele’s return was better orchestrated than the album that ensued, but narratives are what sell albums in 2015 and 25 set new records in an era that had almost given up on album as a form. Her barn-burning anthems do more than reminisce or attempt to rekindle old flames, they take a fine tooth comb to scorched earth, currying the dirt itself, despairing for details. There are times when these songs are necessary, soothing, balmy relief for a bleeding heart. But they grow bland in excess, and further, all the melodrama goes cold in the face of a truly exuberant declaration like album closer “Sweetest Devotion.” Adele’s pain stays with us always, and will live on, but I can’t wait to watch her joy unfold. Growing older doesn’t have to mean growing colder. Soon, if we’re lucky, she will burn in a different way.
15. Samo Sound Boy — Begging Please
I’ve either written about this album too many times, or not enough. Begging Please is a case study on a relationship’s dissolution, and it moves with all the desperation and lucidity that those phases of heartbreak bring with them. As the solo debut from DJDS’ Samo Sound Boy, it wraps all the mindless, initial glee and all the soul-destroying magnetism of losing someone in warped soul samples and impeccable house minimalism. Begging Please is an electronic populist must-hear for anyone grieving the loss of anything in 2015.
14. Little Mix — Get Weird
Get Weird is the musical equivalent of a chick flick. There’s effervescent love-potion anthems, best friend montages, moon-eyed ballads, and borderline embarrassing odes to fucking. Partially because they were a product of a talent-finding show, Little Mix are more comfortable veering into campiness than anything else. But sometimes campiness, and a hell of a lot of handclaps, is exactly what works. This album lives up to its title self-described weirdness, clicking and popping with enough girl power sizzle, harmonies, and crisp production to rescue it from ever straying into corniness. That’s what I call black magic.
13. Björk — Vulnicura
Vulnicura is Björk’s masterful reflection on the disintegration of her heart. That’s the thing about hearts, they only partially belong to us; when a co-owner vacates the premise there’s more than just empty rooms to fill. So into all that throbbing space Björk poured Arca-laced orchestral pop experiments about a grief so harsh it threatens to manifest itself physically. Of course, this kind of powerful feminine expression of male betrayal has some insipid commentators insisting that we gotta hear both sides! You’ll notice this argument crops up far more often when a woman is speaking about romantic pain than when a man is. Björk’s pain supersedes the romantic here, though, and here she’s given us the fullest possible reflection on the all-too-common experience of the family unit’s dissolution. Even mortally wounded, Björk remains maternal, coupling with her pain to give us Vulnicura.
12. Hudson Mohawke — Lantern
Lantern flares and quivers like its namesake, running on the fumes of EDM past and beckoning toward the possibilities of electronic music’s future. Hudson Mohawke came up straddling the twin steeds of TNGHT’s maximalist synth-hedonism and Kanye West’s burgeoning G.O.O.D. music label, so returning to the template of a solo album after his star had risen was something of a bold move. The resulting record is even bolder, incorporating guests as disparate as Antony and Miguel, flitting between soul, R&B, and the very edge of British electronic impulses. It’ll take another couple of years for the rest of the pop world to catch up with HudMo’s left-field instincts, so he’s given us the throwback-glory of “Ryderz” in the meantime. While we feel in the dark toward what electronic music will become, HudMo is just ahead, tapping recycled soul samples and enormous beats together like morse code to light the way.
11. Tamaryn — Cranekiss
Tamaryn’s Cranekiss is full of pulsing, majestic flourishes that flash and gleam in the light, and later, in the dark. This is an album full of hungry desire boiling under the skin until it emerges in flashes of exhibitionism. All that hasty passion is contained in languid 80s balladry and gigantic synthy mysticism, but it’s the way Tamaryn sings them that destroys your heart. She sings like a fated heroine, each syllable a sword-in-the-stone wrenching act, each note another pre-destined moment. I’m beginning to think they invented the term “underrated” solely for her output.
10. Chvrches — Every Open Eye
The precision with which Chvrches produce pop music feels effortless. It isn’t. When I shadowed them for a cover story prior to the release of their unflinching second album Every Open Eye, they spoke at length about the amount of time the spend in the studio, forcefully interrogating their definition of pop. These songs are streamlined, silvery expressions of intent, and instead of freezing up in this reduction, they burst forth even hotter, burning with coppery feeling. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry is well-known at this point for her no-fucks-given feminism, and her determination to make the world better for other women is part of what fuels the fire of Chvrches’ success. In a world of blurred lines, these are the good guys.
09. Miley Cyrus — Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz
Most writing about Miley Cyrus is prescriptive. Her music is a vanity project, or she’s too earnest, or she should’ve submitted her rebellion into the hands of someone older and wiser who could’ve refined it. This is isn’t how pop is supposed to sound; she’s too weird, too sprawling, and far too rich. This writing, obviously, moves quickly beyond her artistic output — that endless VMA twerking fiasco, her extremely whack criticism of Nicki Minaj, a predictably terrible stint hosting the VMAs. The chance to criticize a young woman in America never gets old–especially for other young women–and there is ample carelessness to put on blast here. Yet, the actions of Miley Cyrus aren’t equatable to the yearning, often-gorgeous 23-track album she surprise-released this summer. Dead Petz is a carnival of emotions and influences, from the drag queens she brought up onstage for the first rendition of “Dooo It!,” to her collaborations with The Flaming Lips, Mike Will Made It, Ariel Pink and more. Through all the scorn and contempt, Miley continues to do just as Miley wants, and there’s something admirable in this insistent self-expression. Dead Petz floats from crude and country sex-talk to gossamer mourning, existential ’80s power ballads, and plenty of druggy, sparkle-fucked pop weirdness. This is the sound of a young woman in transit, fearlessly narrating her journey while guzzling electric Kool-Aid acid. Miley sounds her barbaric yawp, not a bit tamed, not a bit translatable. But her song is not herself, and each deserve their own analysis.
08. Fifth Harmony — Reflection
If misandry replaces infantilization in female pop music for the next 500 years, it still won’t be long enough. Fifth Harmony, at least, give us a good start. Reflection is full of so much smiley self-swagger that 11-year-old girls everywhere are going to stop believing the boys who pushed them on the playground are viable candidates for a crush. “Give it to me I’m worth it,” they demand in unison on “Worth It” and even Kid Ink can’t ruin this pop gem’s delicious demand. The title track is a love song sung from the subject back at her own image, instead of to the dude who thinks it’s for him–this is truly next level pop misandry. Cap that off with the getting-money anthem “BO$$,” which name-checks the first African-American First Lady in our nation’s history, and the pulse-fluttering power of “Sledgehammer.” Heedlessly clambering over the fools who might get in their way, on Reflection Fifth Harmony have entered pop’s upper echelon.
07. Shamir — Ratchet
In early 2014 a friend sent me some tracks by a Las Vegas teen with enough starpower to fill that entire glamorous city and keep glo-ing up. That teen was Shamir, the now barely 21-year-old genderqueer pop star who released his flickering pop-funk debut Ratchet this spring and has continued to glow ever-brighter without ceasing. He’s an unstoppable force on stage, on record, and out in the world, portraying the possibility of creative, sunny existence to a world full of people that our society disenfranchises sight unseen. Shamir is the living, breathing embodiment of pop music future; dance pop for a party without a list.
06. Eskimeaux — O.K.
Gabrielle Smith’s work as Eskimeaux was first brought to my attention when I was interviewing her biggest fan: Frankie Cosmos. The two women are part of a larger, loose artistic coalition known as The Epoch that has produced an aesthetic all its own; gossamer, heartfelt strands of DIY pop that coalesce into simple, stunning anthems for growing up. Smith is a prodigious, prolific musician, but O.K. is her first clear statement of intent; this is not a collection of Bandcamp castaways, but a distillation of her artistic purpose. Smith’s songwriting is searing and gentle, an exploration of the existential wounds of youth, and, how to heal them. “You know what being scared is / But not how to be scary,” she sings on “Pocket Full Of Posies.” Here’s hoping the next generation of women internalize this nursery rhyme instead, and find a way to be fierce–even scary–in their own right.
05. Purity Ring — Another Eternity
Few lyricists explore the physicality of emotion with the painful precision of Megan James. Hearts sigh and drop like tired shoulders, bodies nearly split in two as they ache with spectacular grief, mysterious liquids hold or heave pain that threatens to wipe out human existence. Across, behind and through this plotted sadness, Corin Roddick stipples the pop-and-trap beats and synths that have become the core of “cool” pop. Remember, as you’re scoffing at Another Eternity‘s sonic palette, just how sci-fi freak-outrageous Shrines sounded in 2012. Or, if you can’t remember, put this album on and begin again. Three years later, pop may have cannibalized the sound, but there’s still no one even close to the mesmerizing body-as-cosmos lyricism James brings forth.
04. One Direction — Made In The A.M.
Even as they’re moving toward dissolution, One Direction manage to sound like the most cohesive boy band this planet has ever seen. Their combined force of charisma is world-stopping, and indeed, the announcement of their looming hiatus seemed to have almost stopped the world. Until Made In The A.M. set it back in motion, a burst of sunrise pop glory that sounded so full of a light and love it makes their fan’s devotion seem not just logical, but prophetic. Who knew the multitudes these five young men contained? Only Simon Cowell, and every teen or teen-hearted girl on the planet. But instead of easing off the gas pedal as they move from ensemble beginnings to solo second acts, they went full throttle. Made In The A.M. will be remembered as a pivotal pistol of pop precision, the weapon that made severing ties with the mysticism of One Direction possible. I’d heard of sweet goodbyes, but never believed in them until now.
03. Selena Gomez — Revival
While everyone else was focused on Selena Gomez’s personal life, she was concentrating on making one of the best goddamn pop albums of the year. My favorite kind of art is the stunning creations that women produce when told they’re not artists, not good enough, not talented enough. Everyone who ever doubted that Selena could be a pop star can listen to Revival and eat their little hearts out. It’s been said elsewhere that feeling the need for revival as a 23-year-old is a little early, but since Gomez has been in the spotlight since she was eight, fifteen years in seems right on time. On her first real record as an adult, Selena is at turns sexy, like on the inimitable female-lust elevating “Hands To Myself,” done with toxic shitheads on “Same Old Love,” or upholding her predictably sweet image on “Kill Em With Kindness.” Even in the wake of the enormous tabloid romance that continues to trail after her, Selena remains slightly above the fray. Yes, she talks about the pain of watching someone you love lose sight of themselves on “Camouflage,” but she levels no judgement at this reality, instead reflecting on how much she treasures her beautiful memories of the past. I don’t need to tell you what songs to contrast that sentiment with, do I? Every song on here deserves its own paen, but I’ll end by praising “Me & My Girls,” a song that openly references Selena’s Latin roots and changes the subject from ex-boyfriends to life-affirming female friendship. Men, as much as they would like to believe it, aren’t a woman’s only purpose in life.
02. Lana Del Rey — Honeymoon
Honeymoon is an album about female sadness that’s not designed for the male gaze. From the moment “Video Games” hit, until the final, sauntering phrase of her cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the final track on this album, Del Rey has been just that. Because these songs aren’t for men, they’re for women. They’re about us, and how we feel and especially how we feel about men, but they still center the feminine perspective. It’s as if Lana is speaking to a male protagonist onscreen, but looking at all the women watching the movie out of the corner of her eye, letting them know who her performance is really for. Obviously, this technique has, and will continue to confound listener’s expectations; even women are used to filtering art back through the omnipresent made-of-money male eye. But whether we get it or not, Lana will continue to dizzy up our gender expectations and hew close to the dreamy 1950s aesthetic we so closely associate with establishing the way those modern day roles. “Music to Watch Boys to” is probably the closest she gets to stating her thesis outright: “I like you a lot,” she sings. Ladies, she’s talking to us. Turn the music up.
01. Grimes — Art Angels
“I’m not explicitly religious, but I think this album is about God,” Grimes told Rolling Stone in a recent, magnificent profile they ran on her prior to the realease of Art Angels. “I feel a lot more in touch with something scary and omnipotent,” she said. Scary and omnipotent is absolutely how I would describe this album, a work of art so powerful it forced me to confront some failings within myself about past judgements of the multi-talented Canadian musician. Maybe I was able to do this kind of soul-searching because of the valiant way Grimes reexamines herself here. “I get carried away commodifying all the pain,” she sings on banjo-pop banger “California,” quick-pivoting from critique to self-love a few songs later: “Easily, I’m the sweetest damn thing you ever saw.” She’s not wrong, either time, and it’s the ability to see herself so clearly that informs Art Angels. Self-knowledge empowers the subject to examine the outside world with renewed fierceness, so we get her skewering male apathy toward the current state of masculinity on “Kill V Maim,” the lagoon-psych champagne headiness of living in her world on “Realiti,” or the Moulin Rouge gone rogue EDM-swagger of “Venus Fly.” On the best song here, “Belly Of The Beat,” she muses, “I’ve been thinking, I could leave the world today.” So before she does, she’s stretched herself as close to God as she can get. I imagine Art Angels to be her very own Creation Of Adam. Like Michelangelo’s version, there’s more packed into the remaining space between woman and God than in the potential that they’ll one day touch.