Join us all month long as we celebrate the best music, film, and television of the decade. After revealing our Top 100 Albums of the 2010s, we’re now getting a bit more specific with genre-by-genre breakdowns. Next up, our Top 25 Pop Albums of the 2010s.
Nailing down the defining sounds of a decade is a hell of a lot easier once you’ve actually left it. It’s through the absence of certain sounds in the present that our image of the past forms — the ‘80s became the Eighties in our cultural rearview once everyone stopped pouring gated reverb and seven layers of synth on every single track. See, pictures of the past get colored in by whatever crayons were popular and critical fashion has left outside the box.
That’s one of the reasons why this decade’s pop music has been so hard to pin down. The 2010s was the era where nothing got left out. Maximalist pop, trap, country, electro, indie, funk, Nancy Sinatra-style torch singing: Everything got swirled together into singularity and fears around major labels versus indie labels and authenticity in comparison to the contrived ceased to exist. The rockists became poptimists while the poptimists mourned the death of the monoculture. All the while, everyone sat online, furiously firing off their opinions about the same 10 things at the same time while (by some kind of Satanic pact) Ed Sheeran became a household name.
Looking back on the biggest and best pop albums of the last decade, it’s clear that female artists dominated the landscape, both commercially (Hello, Adele!) and critically (Grimes, before she got Elon’s musk on her). And while the ladies have long been the face of pop music, in the last decade, artists like Janelle Monáe, Lorde, and Taylor Swift made a case for themselves as auteurist musicians in the molds of, say, Prince and/or Joni Mitchell. In other words, they were fiercely in control of their artistic vision.
There’s more than just gender that unites our top pop albums of the decade. What these musicians share is a willingness to play with contradictions: to make music that’s deeply personal and insular yet speaks to millions of strangers (Robyn, Lorde); to write quiet songs that bang as hard as club anthems (Billie Eilish, Grimes); to weave different genres together to create a distinctive sound (Rihanna, Taylor Swift); to play with different personas and identities (Janelle Monáe, Lana Del Rey); and to go for broke with big anthems (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga).
The pop music of The 2010s was both retro and futuristic: You could picture Lana Del Rey crooning for a crowd of holograms in a William Gibson novel while Art Angels and Dirty Computer both sound like the sort of music that people in the ’80s thought we’d be listening to in the year 3000. These are albums with hooks so big you need to drive with the top down while listening to them. What’s more, each of these records pulls off the magic trick that all great pop albums do: They were made to be consumed by everybody, only they feel like they were made just for you.
Click ahead to see our Top 25 Pop Albums of the 2010s…
25. Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death (2016)
From the Archives: “Love You to Death trucks in the kind of synth-washed confessionalism that powered Heartthrob. These are tight pop cuts that pack a swift punch before disappearing in a cloud of glitter confetti, showcasing ’90s keyboard sounds and drum machine beats. These indie pop stars didn’t sell out. They were just waiting for the mainstream to catch up.” Read Katherine Flynn’s full review.
24. Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow (2011)
From the Archives: “That voice soars once more on ‘Among Angels’, noting Bush’s deeper register, and along with the glassy, frail piano, she sings of seeing angels shimmering ‘like mirrors in summer.’ Her own dazzling existence is contained within that poetic line, but it also serves to remind that words mean just as much to her as the musical atmosphere she creates. While looking for 50 Words for Snow, she has found 50 other original ways to express herself effortlessly, creating another intriguing piece of work. In 1980, she sang that ‘December Will Be Magic Again’; in 2011, she has made it so.” Read Siobhán Kane’s full review.
23. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness (2015)
From the Archives: “Whether building off of torch songs (‘Betsy on the Roof’), galloping country (‘Everytime Boots’), or jazz fusion (‘Vasquez’), Holter takes on each style’s trappings (a smoky tone, a smirk, a clipped syllable) to dive into unique, personal depths. She doesn’t convey specific messages or exhaustively detail narratives, but to listen to each song on Have You in My Wilderness is to inhabit a feeling in all of its pain and all of its glory.” Read Adam Kivel’s full review.
22. Kali Uchis – Isolation (2018)
From the Archives: “Uchis builds off a classic foundation of soul, R&B, funk, and blues, bursting outward in dozens of innovative contemporary directions. On Isolation, she never sounds trapped in another era; she sounds free and inventive. And with nary a dud to be found among its 15 tracks, Isolation deserves a spot in the dance pop and neo-soul pantheons.” Read Kayleigh Hughes’ full review.
21. Perfume Genius – Too Bright (2014)
From the Archives: “Despite its heightened complexity, Too Bright still fosters an intelligible world where Hadreas can bridge the distance between his vulnerability and self-assuredness. ‘Heart long desperate for just a little bit,’ he sings on the album’s closer, ‘All Along’. I don’t need you to understand,’ he goes on. ‘I need you to listen.’ How could you refuse?” Read Zander Porter’s full review.
20. Miley Cyrus – Bangerz (2013)
From the Archives: “Miley is digging to define who she is, and like any 20-year-old woman, she’s going to fuck up. Like any 20-year-old, she’s also got the urge to pretend that none of this is affecting her and to refuse to apologize or even take a step back. But, making this the focus detracts from the album. Too many critics are caught up in the media instead of the music. Sure, she’s tapping into hip-hop, but with Pharrell and Mike Will Made It, she’s also just employing the best producers in the game right now. Be more focused on that even at 20, Miley can open her scope to encompass country, hip-hop, ballads, and even the electronic impulses of today’s pop. She’s looking beyond herself, and though her steps may be gawky or unwieldy, the strides she’s taking still suggest a woman with fierce, interesting instincts.” Read Caitlin White’s full review.
19. Lykke Li – I Never Learn (2014)
From the Archives:“Most of the affecting moments on I Never Learn don’t really depend on the arrangements but tighten their grip with just the fingers of sentiment and conviction. “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” is almost tearful in its titular plea, with Li somehow able to hold the sorrow back from swallowing the song before it ends (the singer even loses some of the lyrics for the final chorus, as if she just can’t get all the difficult words out of her throat). It’s not the kind of song that makes you feel sorry for her but angry at the cause of her pain, while Li sings the song with the futility of a scream into the Grand Canyon, backed by the sparest arrangement on the album, aided by a tunnel of reverb that makes her sound omnipresent. It’s just perfect, and maybe Li’s best song yet.” Read Philip Cosores’ full review.
18. Ariana Grande – thank u, next (2019)
From the Archives: “These days, Ariana Grande’s worldview seems to be a little more messy; or at least she has allowed her public image to get messier. Of course, the album is a highly polished product and not some diary page. But it feels lived in, truthful, authentic. thank u, next is a personal statement from a generational talent who is still only 25 years old. And maybe that’s the most exciting part: Ariana Grande is just now entering her prime.” Read Wren Graves’ full review.
17. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
From the Archives: “Few artists have taken a logarithmic hit like ‘Call Me Maybe’ as a sign to push even further, to make something better, more human, and more electric. But Jepsen is the kind of singer who thrives on the stakes that unapologetic pop music offers. Everything lives or dies on a glance or a kiss; desires grow tall and come crashing down hard. Whether she gets what she wants or she goes home broken, Emotion finds life in the wanting itself.” Read Sasha Geffen’s full review.
16. Rihanna – ANTI- (2016)
From the Archives: “Anti is an example of one of the biggest pop stars in the world subverting expectations by releasing an album of disparate styles, ranging from old-school soul and dancehall to funk and psych rock. Few tracks seem tailored to the radio. There’s nary a ‘Diamonds’ or ‘Love the Way You Lie’, let alone a ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. Instead, Rihanna made an album with a minute-long approximation of the most recent Thundercat record and a cover of a Tame Impala song not six months old. Up to 2012, Rihanna released albums almost annually. Now that it’s been over three years without her, she has made it clear how vital she is to the current state of pop music. Anti takes risks and disregards convention in a way that only a true superstar like Rihanna could pull off.” Read David Sackllah’s full review.
Click ahead to see more of our Top 25 Pop Albums of the 2010s…