10 Essential 21st century pop albums

Treble staff

When Treble highlights the essentials of a particular style of music, we can sometimes pick apart the particulars of what makes something fit under a very specific, very restricting genre. But when it comes to picking apart our favorite pop, that’s essentially like opening Pandora’s Box. Pop can and often does mean just about anything and everything, and depending on what word you place in front of it (synth-, electro-, K-) the definition changes significantly. This week, we’re talking about the best pop of the past 16 years, but we’re defining it by the old-fashioned, populist, top-of-the-charts definition. Though, admittedly, not all of our choices made it to the top of the charts. But that’s neither here nor there. These are the 21st Century albums that hit every pleasure center for us, that made us dance and sing along to karaoke and made the commute to work a little less miserable. They changed how we heard pop, and changed what pop meant in the new millennium. But most of all, they just sounded amazing. Enjoy our picks for the 10 best 21st century pop albums.


21st century pop albums KylieKylie MinogueFever
(2001; Parlophone)

Kylie Minogue isn’t necessarily responsible for the rise of “poptimism” as we know it—the idea that all music is valid and should be evaluated on a level playing field (though not necessarily that everything is always good). But strictly speaking from anecdotal evidence, in the early ’00s I had several conversations with people who had grown bored of Radiohead’s conceptual pop and sought refuge on the disco fabulous shores of Kylie Minogue’s Fever. Already a couple decades into her career, the Australian pop sensation had gone from teen idol to duetting with the likes of Nick Cave. With Fever, her eighth album, Minogue had not just proven herself in terms of endurance or her ability to adapt over time, but had actually grown much stronger as an artist. Anchored by Euro-disco megahit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” the album is steeped in a sleek, sexy and modern aesthetic, with jerky funk rhythms in the title track, Daft Punk-style house filters in “Love at First Sight,” and shimmering synths on “In Your Eyes.” With so much ear candy, compelling production and simply wonderful melodies on Fever that it’s no wonder so many rethought tired old stereotypes about pop music upon hearing it. – JT


21st century pop albums Rachel StevensRachel StevensCome and Get It
(2005; Polydor)

Rachel Stevens’ career in pop began with UK post-Spice Girls act S Club 7, and if you don’t remember that name, you’re not alone—they never quite made the splash stateside that they did across the pond. After leaving the group, however, Stevens came into her own as a formidable solo artist. Her 2005 sophomore album Come and Get It followed in the footsteps of Kylie’s Fever while showcasing a broader depth of sound and an impressive display of versatility. Much of the strengths of the album come from Stevens’ team of producers—including Xenomania, Jewels & Stone and Richard X—who build up a stunning futureworld of hypnotic synthscapes (“Crazy Boys”), Kylie-esque disco (“Funny How”) and Adam-and-the-Ants-style burundi beat new wave (“I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)”). Stevens, likewise, is at her most charming and confident, and for that matter delivers what might secretly be the best hook of the ’00s in “Some Girls”: “Some girls always get what they wanna wanna/ All I get is the other other.” Disappointingly, this perfect slice of pop was released to tepid sales, which should have been a sign early on that the industry was broken. How a pop album this good slides under the radar is a genuine mystery. – JT


21st century pop albums AnnieAnnieAnniemal
(2004; Vice/Atlantic)

Norwegian chanteuse Annie Lilia Berge Strand never got anywhere near the level of chart success that Beyonce or Kylie or Rihanna did, and even Robyn had the fortune of being a musical guest on SNL. So perhaps her brand of pop stands out a bit in terms of its indie appeal, but while songs such as “Chewing Gum” and “Heartbeat” spoke to the same crowds that spun DFA label singles on the regular, there’s no mistaking the music’s root in early ’80s Madonna and turn of the century disco. In other words: This is pop, dammit, hipster appropriation be damned. Naturally, its production team includes some names that show up elsewhere on this list, including Richard X and Norwegian electronic duo Røyksopp, but there’s a weirdly nostalgic vibe about songs like “Me Plus One,” which feels like a spiritual successor to The Human League’s biggest hits more than any contemporary dancefloor filler. Figuring out where it fits into a contemporary zeitgeist is fine on paper, but music with this much life only makes sense when your ass is moving. – JT


21st Century pop albums TimberlakeJustin TimberlakeFuturesex/Lovesounds
(2006; Jive)

Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds soundtracked the most awkward years of my life. Ironically enough, the album reminds me of a much simpler time. The back-to-back top cuts, “My Love” and “LoveStoned” are equal testimonies to Timberlake’s innate sense of pop innovation. Not only a perfectionist in his musical craft, but an entertainer across a wide domain of pop culture, Timberlake’s ability to capture the essence of a distinct persona is phenomenal. FutureSex/LoveSounds sets a bar for 21st century pop, as it’s knack for natural hooks seem to be ingrained within the core idea of the album, sewn together with flawless production. FutureSex/LoveSounds is a quintessential example of Timbaland’s peak pop era, his prolific composition techniques also contributing to hits from the likes of Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent and Kanye West. With a prominent presence on 10 of the 12 tracks, Timbaland’s co-starring voice mingles flawlessly with Timberlake’s, creating an atmosphere that digs deeper than Timberlake’s boy-band past would suggest. – PP


21st century pop albums Roisin MurphyRóisín MurphyOverpowered
(2007; EMI)

Ireland’s Róisín Murphy launched her eccentric career in pop in the ’90s (one that’s been more than a little influential on Lady Gaga’s pop-star as art installation bit), fronting alt-pop outfit Moloko. That group landed a minor hit with “Fun for Me,” though after Murphy went solo, she found herself exploring weirder and more experimental realms of pop, first collaborating with electronic innovator Matthew Herbert before landing on a stunning collection of heady club jams with Overpowered. As synth- and beat-driven pop goes, it’s a diverse collection, ranging from the 303 acid basslines of the title track to the new wave pulse of “You Know Me Better,” and from the symphonic funk of “Checkin’ on Me” to the soaring disco-ball serenade “Let Me Know.” Murphy’s made more experimental albums, and certainly some weirder ones, but none that can compete for pure pop goodness. – JT


21st century pop albums Body TalkRobynBody Talk
(2010; Cherrytree/Interscope)

Swedish pop artist and overall pop culture icon Robyn never really needed a comeback, with a back catalog that defends itself and a steady stream of strong singles. But by the late oughts she felt the need to shake things up a bit, releasing a series of genre-mashing, electro-pop EPs, each under the name Body Talk. Those EPs were well received, and she repackaged them as the Supersunnyspeedgraphic-esque Body Talk LP. Starting strong out the gate with the firey, robotic “Fembot,” Body Talk includes some of Robyn’s catchiest and most innovative work to date, including the cathartic “Dancing On My Own,” the heartfelt “Hang with Me” and worst-break-up-advice-ever anthem “Call Your Girlfriend,” and many more synth-pop adventures just begging for a dance off. Body Talk isn’t just an extraordinary pop album for the 21st century—it’s a classic example no matter what date range you’re pulling from. – ATB


21st century pop albums Katy BKaty BOn a Mission
(2011; Rinse/Columbia)

Kathleen Brien made her debut in a year when dubstep became a catch-all buzzword that was applied, in equal measure, to both the overbearing arena buzz of Skrillex and the subtle, R&B-influenced balladry of James Blake. Katy B split the difference by finding a comfortable middle ground between the mythical drops and the arty, textural constructs. Her pop, heavily influenced by dubstep, UK funky and future garage, represented a forward-thinking and very British form of pop in the ’10s that yielded some of the most fascinating, albeit accessible tracks of recent years. On A Mission is more than an exercise in genre, but rather a collection of songs that at the time seemed to point directly to the future of pop. The title track is just such an example, a sputtering dubstep fun-with-filters playground that yields an entire album’s worth of hooks. Meanwhile, “Broken Record” is the more universal pop anthem, a hyper-ballad that serves as both a showcase for Katy’s vocal strengths and Geeneus and Zinc’s production prowess. The rhythms are wonky, the effects disorienting, but at the heart of it all is one of the decade’s best contemporary pop albums. – JT


Beyonce - BeyonceBeyonceBeyonce
(2013; Columbia)

Enough time has passed since the surprise release of Beyonce Knowles’ fifth studio album that if it were to have been worth little more than the novelty of its arrival, we would’ve forgotten it by now. With all the “YASSSS QUEEN” explosions behind us, there’s still Beyonce—a near-perfect song cycle that presents Knowles in stark relief the way she can’t appear in photographs or interviews. (The calculated nature of that shit is irrelevant so long as the music, her primary creation, is honest.) WIthout even broaching the oft-discussed emotion and sexual frankness of the lyrics (which is all remarkable), consider the music’s diversity. It draws on everything from quiet-storm R&B (“Rocket”) and synthpop (“XO”) to the rawest Southern hip-hop (“Partition,” “***Flawless”) and Reznor-esque noise (“Haunted”), always a perfect match for the needs of individual songs. While plenty of that can be credited to BOOTS, Timbaland, Hit-Boy, Pharrell and the album’s other producers, it’s Yonce’s ultimate vision they’re following. And what a vision that is, resulting in one of the most universally appealing records popular music has seen in a decade. – LG


21st century pop albumsTaylor Swift1989
(2014; Big Machine)

You got me, T-Swift, I’ve been a hater. Well, not exactly a hater, but about as far away from being a fan as I could be without having a strong opinion. I used to hear “You Belong With Me” at the dentist’s office and think “OK, this is fine, can I have more novocaine please?” I respected that Swift wrote her own music and wrote in her own voice, but it just wasn’t for me. Then Red came out and my interest was piqued, but I still wasn’t really a fan. But there’s something about 1989 that’s hard to really focus in on, but definitely exists on most amazing pop albums. Maybe it’s the sense of character that Swift injects into songs like “Welcome to New York” or “Out of the Woods.” Maybe it’s the mix of retro-vibes and cutting edge production tricks on “Blank Space” or “Bad Blood.” Or maybe it’s just the killer hooks. But something about this record makes it stick out from start to finish, re-play after re-play. And, no, Ryan Adams’ version isn’t better. – ATB


Carly Rae Jepsen Emotion reviewCarly Rae JepsenEmotion
(2015; Interscope)

As someone who’s featured on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Wikipedia page, my enthusiasm for her third album, Emotion, is well-documented. Stuffed wall-to-wall with anthemic hooks, bright synth riffs, rich bubblegum-funk production and sharp, deceptively simple songwriting that outclasses most of the Top 40, I strongly believe it’ll become a cult classic. Jepsen is masterful at exploring the overwhelming ways that romance and infatuation (and heartbreak) feel on this album. Others may write more “realistic” love songs, but that emotion’s intensity rarely feels “real” in its purest forms. It feels like the aching need of “Your Type” when your love is unrequited or misunderstood. Or like the desperate rush to be there for someone you care about depicted in “Making the Most of the Night.” And most of all it feels like the mad euphoria of “Warm Blood,” “Gimme Love” and “Run Away With Me”—when your whole body knows as well as your mind that someone has captured your heart, and you feel giddy and irrational and fully alive. – LG

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