Here are our 25 favourite “commercial pop” albums of the year.
They’re not ranked strictly on the star ratings they’ve been given as the year has gone on, but rather in a post-Christmas “ahhh but it was a corker, wasn’t it” kind of way. For example, Lady GaGa’s Born This Way was given 4 stars when we reviewed it back in May, but in this list it features above a couple of records we gave 5 stars to because, as time has gone on, it has stayed amazing to the point where, in a situation where all music ever was about to be deleted off the face of the Earth and it was either BTW or, say, the 5-star Florence album we were allowed to keep, we’d actually probably take BTW. MAKING SENSE?
There are also a couple of albums that have the odd corker on them, but were just too disappointing as a whole body of work to be classed as a highlight of 2k11. The artists responsible – Beyonce and Pixie Lott – have therefore featured in our Top 50 singles list, but not on the albums list. Along similar lines, there are LPs from artists we are fond of that we’d love to have squeezed in, but 25 is quite enough thanks very much and they’ll just have to try even harder in 2012. Still, honorable mentions are in order for The Wanted, Emma’s Imagination, Melanie C, Alexis Jordan, Example, Jennifer Lopez and Matt Cardle.
But anyway, that’s enough of that. Here are the best 25 albums of the year in pop. A better list than the 2010 one, we think you’ll agree.
LOOK AWAY NOW, LMFAO.
25. Nicole Scherzinger – Killer Love
March, chart peak #8
It takes a lot for an album housing a song titled ‘Club Banger Nation’ to be considered one of the best of the year, but in spite of ‘Right There’ Killer Love was a well-produced pop record. Opening with the explosive ‘Poison’ and closing with the piano ballad ‘AmenJena’, via amazing midtempo corkers like ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ and ‘Desperate’, The Scherzinator didn’t deliver the perfect solo disc but she certainly hit the ground running, packing more than enough punch to earn a place on the outskirts of our year-end highlights.
24. Jessie J – Who You Are
February, chart peak #1
If there’s one thing Jessie needs to do for her second album, it’s CALM DOWN A BIT. The two factors that hindered Who You Are were her tendency to comically over-sing every last crotchet, and the annoying way of over-pushing every ‘message’ she wants to get across – i.e. “HAHAHA I’M REALLY GOOD” on ‘Who’s Laughing Now’. Of course this is all sounding negative and we’ve made Who You Are the 24th best pop album of the year, so obviously the rest of it is all very good. Note especially ‘Price Tag’, ‘L.O.V.E.’ and the platinum edition’s ‘Domino’.
23. Cher Lloyd – Sticks + Stones
November, chart peak #4
The person who decided to release ‘Swagger Jagger’ as Cher’s lead single needs both a raise and a swift firing. The latter because, obviously, the song is bad, but the former because, for one reason or another, it got to No. 1. But whatever you think of that particular track, the rest of the album does actually make a lot of sense. It’s far from perfect, but the songs on which she doesn’t take herself too seriously and embraces her spunky youthfulness are commendable. ‘Grow Up’, ‘Over The Moon’, ‘End Up Here’ and next single ‘Want U Back’ won’t be to everyone’s liking, but credit where credit’s due – the girl did good.
22. Ed Sheeran – +
September, chart peak #1
After centuries of honing his craft, Ed finally made his mainstream breakthrough in 2011 with a handful of radio-friendly singles and a rather lovely debut album. + sagged a bit in places, but it certainly had its highlights. ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ had some smart lyrics despite its biting-the-hand-that-feeds-it theme, and ‘Lego House’ is simply one of the best singles of the year. At times Ed’s tuneage sounds like it could soundtrack those annoying dating website ads where the girl’s on the other platform and the guy serenades her, but generally the record has far more + than – (GEDDIT?).
21. Susan Boyle – Someone To Watch Over Me
November, chart peak #1
SuBo put out a surprisingly brilliant third album, and yes, you could say “Well she’s always been a good singer, hasn’t she?”, and you’d be right, but if you’re going to say that then you may as well say “well Jade Ewen’s got a good voice, ergo Sugababes’ ‘Freedom’ is brilliant”. The (tenuous) point is that it was the production that made STWOM a really good record, and a restained vocal from Susan that complemented it. The way that ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and even ‘Unchained Melody’ were made to sound was commendable and, at times, this was a disarmingly haunting listen.
20. Rizzle Kicks – Stereo Typical
October, chart peak #9
Among the very few good things Olly Murs has done for pop music over the past couple of years is the boost he gave to Rizzle Kicks on summer anthem ‘Heart Skips A Beat’. The cameo allowed the duo to gain more exposure for their brilliant ‘Down With The Trumpets’ and album Stereo Typical. It’s a riot – their lyrics are both clever and fun (take note, Dappy!), with ‘Miss Cigarette’, ‘Prophet’ and ‘Mama Do The Hump’ being particular faves. Interviews give the impression that they were talked into “going commercial” for their debut by their record label, so let’s hope that when they inevitably “mature” on their second album the quality doesn’t drop.
19. Kelly Rowland – Here I Am
November, chart peak #43
Yes, yes, how dare Kelly be featured but not Beyonce etc etc. Well the answer is that, as an overall body of work, Here I Am works a lot better than 4. The UK edition united the club and urban sounds a lot better than the original US release, with tracks like ‘Lay It On Me’, ‘I’m Dat Chick’ and even ‘Down For Whatever’ stringing together nicely in a non-stop tirade of ‘putting it down’. The sheer horniness of ‘Motivation’ isn’t for everyone, but the fact it performed better in the US than any of Beyonce’s 2011 singles speaks volumes.
18. Katy B – On A Mission
April, chart peak #2
Typically speaking, there isn’t really room in the mainstream market for any more solo females, so it says a lot about the appeal of Katy B that she’s made such a great start for herself in a hugely saturated market. ‘On A Mission’ was one of the best club hits of late 2010, and set a good tone for the album of the same name. ‘Broken Record’, the third single, is arguably the best song on the set, but the whole blend of garage, dubstep and just the right amount of pop to keep “serious” critics happy got the LP rightly nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
17. Selena Gomez & The Scene – When The Sun Goes Down
July, chart peak #15
Selena Gomez being Selena Gomez, the brilliance of When The Sun Goes Down went by largely unnoticed – especially, it must be said, by the rather critical Trash Lounge review. But actually, it’s really good. ‘Love You Like A Love Song’, ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and ‘Whiplash’ (written by Britney!) have got the same kind of muted brilliance as some of the recent Kylie Minogue stuff, and even though ‘Who Says’ is a load of shit, Pixie Lott collab ‘We Own The Night’ is one of the year’s best pop songs, full stop.
16. The Saturdays – On Your Radar
November, chart peak #23
The Sats are the definition of a manufactured pop group, but as long as they have the right producers and songwriters at their disposal, they’ll also be one of the best. On Your Radar may have had the odd filler – not least the Travie McCoy collab ‘The Way You Watch Me’ – but the Xenomania-produced amazingness of ‘All Fired Up’ and ‘Get Ready Get Set’, the gloriously camp ‘White Lies’ and the euphoric ‘Faster’ made it their best album since Chasing Lights. Of course the challenge now is continuing to stay on the A-game despite the record’s weak chart reception, and the arrival of “next big girlband” Little Mix.
15. Bruno Mars – Doo-Wops & Hooligans
January, chart peak #1
‘The Lazy Song’ was so polarising that many preferred ‘Friday’, but take that to one side and Doo-Wops is what you’d call a “solid debut”. ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘Grenade’ are both brilliant, ‘Count On Me’ is sweet and ‘Runaway Baby’ is bang on where Bruno should be as an artist. Oh, and late addition ‘It Will Rain’ is a slightly under-appreciated stroke of goodness. One of the UK’s Top 5 best-sellers of the year, it’s easy to miss (what with Adele n’all) the impressive fact that the record has never been out of the Top 15 in the almost-a-year since it was released. FACT.
14. Natasha Bedingfield – Strip Me Away
May, did not chart
Who knew Natasha Bedingfield bought an album out this year?! Absolutely nobody, that’s who. But it’s so good to hear her again. Ryan Tedder masterpiece ‘Strip Me’, the uplifting ‘Weightless’ and the heart-wrenching ‘Can’t Fall Down’ all show her at the very top of her game, and there’s a lot to be said for ‘Little Too Much’ (as featured on the Something Borrowed trailer) and ‘Neon Lights’ as well. Those who found her strong empowerment themes a little over-wrought in her earlier stuff won’t change their minds now, but the fact she’s still the same girl she was back in the 00s is lovely and somehow re-assuring to hear.
13. One Direction – Up All Night
November, chart peak #2
It’s easy to dismiss One Direction as a bunch of unugly boys shamelessly targeting the teen market, but lest we forget that behind the loudly-coloured trousers and romances with older women there is a team of highly qualified songwriters and producers who are more than capable of bashing out the occasional smash hit. ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ hits the nail on the head, as does the title track, next single ‘One Thing’ and the Kelly Clarkson-penned ‘Tell Me A Lie’. Up All Night does fall flat on its arse occasionally, but it’s the best boyband LP of the year by a fair distance.
12. Rihanna – Talk That Talk
November, chart peak #1
Six albums in six years is an impressive work rate, and Talk That Talk kept the tunes coming thick and fast for restless hitmaker Ms Fenty. ‘We Found Love’ is a career highlight, thanks to Calvin Harris, and there’s more amazingness to be found in ‘Where Have You Been’, ‘Talk That Talk’ and ‘Farewell’. Lyrics like “suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion” are becoming a little laborious now, but play TTT on a good stereo system with massive fuckoff speakers and you’ll find the urge to move hard to beat.
11. Will Young – Echoes
August, chart peak #1
If Will Young could literally never stop making music, that would be great. Echoes is top-notch from start to finish, opening with the incredible ‘Jealousy’ and continuing onwards via the brilliant ‘Come On’, ‘Happy Now’ and ‘Silent Valentine’ to name but a few. Beautifully under-stated and marvellously produced by the likes of Richard X, it shows that even after a decade in the business there is absolutely no sign of the quality dipping or the willingness to take risks fading. WHERE THERE’S A WILL THERE’S A WAY, ISN’T THAT RIGHT LADIES AND GENTS.
10. Avril Lavigne – Goodbye Lullaby
March, chart peak #9
After letting her hair down on 2007′s The Best Damn Thing, Avril returned after a four-year wait with her ‘Serious Singer-Songwriter’ opus, Goodbye Lullaby. Fun trailer single ‘What The Hell’ was a one-off: the rest is all no-dancing-please straight-facedness, but it’s still very good indeed. ‘Push’ is one of the best tracks she’s ever recorded, ‘Wish You Were Here’ is right up there with ‘When You’re Gone’ and ‘I’m With You’ in the Avrilballad stakes, and finale ‘Goodbye’ is a thing of wonder. If anyone affiliated with her record label is reading this, please don’t make us wait another four years for Album Number 5.
9. Demi Lovato – Unbroken
September, no UK release
It’s all well and good saying Demi “arrived” with Unbroken after two LPs obeying the strict Disney pop-rock rulebook, but even when she was aiming squarely at the tween market she still showed flashes of potential brilliance. And this record is fantastic – ‘Skyscraper’ deserved all the hype it received, ‘Lightweight’ proves that Timbaland hasn’t run out of tricks just yet, ‘Hold Up’ is the kind of loud down-the-line pop music Katy Perry or Ke$ha would be proud to put their name to, and next single ‘Give Your Heart A Break’ is a simple, no-frills-attached slice of gold. OK, so the collabs with Iyaz and Dev could have been done without, but the rest is all incredible.
8. Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
October, chart peak #1
What was great about 2011 was the way so many artists (Pixie Lott notwithstanding) avoided ballsing-up the notoriously difficult second album. Florence Welch was no different, offering up another platter of wailing wonders on Ceremonials. ‘What The Water Gave Me’ sent everyone outside the NME readership to sleep, but it’s on its own – from the haunting ‘Never Let Me Go’ to the hands-aloft ‘Shake It Out’, Flo was simultaneously all over the place and impressively cohesive on her sophomore set, and even though it went to No. 1, it deserved much higher sales figures.
7. Kelly Clarkson – Stronger
October, chart peak #4
The brilliant thing about Kelly Clarkson is the way she disappears for an infuriatingly long time, then returns with an album of 17 tracks (none of that pathetic 10-track bullshit, no sir!) that never slip below par. Most of Stronger is of a typically high standard, with the three songs produced by Greg Kurstin – ‘Dark Side’, ‘Honestly’ and the title track – being the runaway favourites. The strong suit of the record is the way the classic Clarkson pop-rock has matured rather than drastically changed, for instance ‘I Forgive You’ is like a grown-up ‘what happened next’ sequel for the likes of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’. It’s SO good to have her back.
6. Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes
September, chart peak #17
Critics agreed unanimously that Cinderella’s Eyes is by far the best Solo Aloud album to date, but sadly the essential radio stations didn’t seem as enthusiastic. But thanks to some effortless cool from Nicola and some quality production from the likes of Diplo and Metronomy, the Team Ginge frontwoman’s first foray into lonesome hitmaking was a triumph, with tracks like ‘Say It Out Loud’, ‘Lucky Day’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Sticks + Stones’ contributing to an honest, original, self-assured and above all confident record.
5. Lady GaGa – Born This Way
May, chart peak #1
This time two years ago, GaGa was the latest American fad working her way over the Atlantic, with her debut single ‘Just Dance’. Now, she’s not only one of the world’s biggest-selling artists but also one that critics generally agree is fucking ace. Born This Way is packed with massive choruses, strong vocals and unique lyrics: ‘Americano’ is a song only GaGa can pull off, ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ is darkly brilliant, ‘The Edge Of Glory’ is just exceptional… the whole thing is exceptional. It’s loud, it’s proud and its shortcomings are more than compensated for by the simple fact that, as a whole, it’s amazeballs.
4. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
October, chart peak #1
An album so commercially-friendly even Rihanna’s on it, Mylo Xyloto has led to many people who didn’t particularly give a shit about Coldplay to begin with claiming they have “sold out” just by adding a few more swishy electronic sounds to their music. But that bollocks doesn’t seem to have dented their selling power in the slightest: housing two of the year’s best singles, Mylo is different to their earlier work without being any less sensational, and one that packs a fair amount of emotional punch, too. As affecting and heartbreaking as it is euphoric, it’s bound to sound even better live than it does on record.
3. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
March, chart peak #9
Giving Britney all the credit for Femme Fatale is like giving Dermot O’Leary all the credit for The X Factor. She may be at the front of it all doing a good enough job of linking it all together, but it’s the knob-twiddlers that make this one of the best records of her twelve-year career. Perhaps her first ever LP to feature absolutely no bad songs, it’s the classy night out to Blackout‘s tits-out booze-fest, and the Deluxe Edition extends the amazingness by exactly four songs. ‘Till The World Ends’ is officially our favourite single of the year, and the rest of the set is pretty epic too. If there is to be a fifth single (unlikely), might we suggest ‘Inside Out’?
2. Rebecca Ferguson – Heaven
December, chart peak #3
So much has been made by the broadsheet critics of Rebecca Ferguson’s debut being “really, really good for an X Factor contestant” that focus has been lacking on the fact that, X Factor or no X Factor, Heaven is exceptional. Each of its ten tracks is sensational, from the restrained anguish of ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’ to the wistful glee of ‘Mr Bright Eyes’, and from the vulnerability of ‘Teach Me How To Be Loved’ to the confident finger-wagging of ‘Glitter & Gold’. It’s all capped off by the no-frills beauty of its lead single, ‘Nothing’s Real But Love’, a song that perfectly justifies Heaven‘s status as the best début album of 2011.
1. Adele – 21
January, chart peak #1
Who else?! Labelling 21 as Album of the Year may be a bit predictable, but there’s a reason why critics have loved it and it’s sold over 12 million copies around the world: it’s phenomenal. Themes of love and heartache are so common across most genres of music that it’s fantastic how Adele has managed to make all 11 of the songs on her sophomore album so refreshing, emotionally satisfying and easy to relate to. Its two squillion-selling singles sum up the variation nicely – book-ending the whole disc are the venomously wrathful ‘Rolling In The Deep’ and the utterly devastating ‘Someone Like You’, two songs that do perfect justice to the album they represent. ‘Turning Tables’, ‘Rumour Has It’, ‘Take It All’, ‘I’ll Be Waiting’, ‘One and Only’… genuinely every single song is incredible. It’s so rare for an album to connect with so many, and though it may be an obvious choice for 2011′s best pop LP, there really is no alternative.