Our countdown is complete, and top spot goes to a timely blast of identity pop – adding to a fine selection of albums that range from the socially conscious to the political, as well as pure slices of ecstatic rock and cutting rap
1. Christine and the Queens – Chris
From Chris’s opening song, she sets out listening as a gesture of intimacy between her and her listeners. It’s a salvo that draws you close, preparing to plunge you into the sensations she sings about. Sometimes, those are lascivious, but most often they’re alienating – reflecting how even a steady sense of self can be undermined by rejection. It is a sadder conclusion than you’d expect from a record perceived as a raunchy flex, but a truthful one: what if self-belief isn’t always enough? This album runs counter to empowerment pop’s current doctrine but feels more truthful for it.
2. Robyn – Honey
Soon after Robyn released her era-defining 2010 album Body Talk, similar armour-plated bangers about female empowerment duly took over the charts. But pop moves fast and a new, woozier kind of tune by the likes of Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa has made such coldly strident numbers seem old-fashioned. So how would Robyn stay ahead of the game? By making a looser, clubbier album, one which had the intensity of a full-on dance record and a less ruthless approach to melody; and which never sacrificed Robyn’s irresistible blend of sadness and euphoria.
3. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer
A record about womanhood, and black womanhood in particular. “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?” Janelle Monáe asks on Django Jane, a song that celebrates “black girl magic” while also acknowledging she has been treated as less-than by a Eurocentric industry. Having starred in two acclaimed, black-led films (Moonlight and Hidden Figures), and been a vocal proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, this was not new territory for Monáe, but it was more overt than ever in her music. In letting go of her old alter ego and opening up, she created her best work yet.
4. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
Before the Bronx rapper released her 2017-defining single Bodak Yellow, she was better known for snatching wigs on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop. Bodak Yellow changed the script: a brilliant track that earned pop cultural momentum from the novelty of Cardi’s melodic, withering flow. But what has made Invasion of Privacy a success a year later, the novelty of her debut having worn off, is her personality: steely realness shot through with a bolt of humour.
5. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
With Be the Cowboy, Mitski continues to disrupt and update the conventions of indie rock. Gnarly guitars contrast with her extraordinarily nimble, pure voice; there are upbeat disco numbers and delicate, ethereal piano ballads. As a rule, the cheerier songs conceal the bleakest sentiments. The album has an arch, dark humour that echoes Marry Me-era St Vincent, paired with an underlying maelstrom of high drama, loneliness and psychosexual dysfunction. Yet Mitski does not simply portray a victim; there is a sense of fighting back against these forces. The title of the album exhorts the listener, and possibly the artist herself, to swagger.
6. Idles – Joy As An Act of Resistance
Addressing politics in pop can be a tricky balancing act, yet Idles frontman Joe Talbot charges across the tightrope in heavy boots, screaming in the face of the farce unfolding around him. There is untrammelled aggression in his voice, a directness that leaves spittle on your cheeks, but it is humour, not anger, that is his most devastating weapon. Beneath the rage and the humour, though, lie real human emotions: vulnerability, comradeship, warmth.
7. Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
Heaven and Earth can sound like a shout of frustration at the world’s ills, but it also offers hope in the brightness of its harmonised voices and the endless breath of its wind instruments. It is a searching record, one that reflects an artist casting about for the beliefs behind his music, but also one with an underlying energy to enact change: whether that change takes place within the mind or without, or whether that constitutes a difference at all.
8. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
LSD and music are old bedfellows. You can hear the drug’s perspective-expanding effects on rock bands ranging from the Beatles to Tame Impala, while the word acid got added to house to describe the psychedelic weirdness of the squiggling basslines made by the Roland TR-303. Kacey Musgraves, who took LSD while writing her fourth album, Golden Hour, seems to use it to lightly expand her creativity. The results were not endless wig outs and lyrics about riding the snake to the ancient lake, but 13 excellent songs characterised by crystalline emotional and melodic clarity.