Before we dive all the way into 2018, let’s take one last look back.
Thirty-eight albums made it to the top of the Billboard 200 last year. Here’s every last damn one of them, listed from worst to best.
38. Pentatonix—A Pentatonix Christmas
Singing the worldly Buddhist Jew Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as an a cappella Christmas carol makes Baby Jesus roll his eyes.
37. The Chainsmokers—Memories...Do Not Open
36. Kenny Chesney—Live in No Shoes Nation
In 2018, let’s work together to leave our children a better world, a world where Dave Matthews joining Kenny Chesney onstage for a medley of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is the worst thing straight middle-aged white men have to answer for.
35. Brand New—Science Fiction
Some fans will miss disgraced creep Jesse Lacey. But sullen simulations of introspection and dreary midtempo anthems ain’t hard to come by in emo-land.
There’s a popular white Christian rapper who sounds a lot like Eminem. Now you know.
33. Fifty Shades Darker: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Dear 2009-Keith: Taylor Swift recording a hit song for the soundtrack of a popular BDSM-lite flick isn’t even among the 100 most unexpectedly awful things that will happen in 2017.
32. U2—Songs of Experience
William Blake, call your lawyer.
31. Niall Horan—Flicker
The One Direction solo album with “Slow Hands,” not the One Direction solo album with “Strip That Down.”
30. Katy Perry—Witness
She’s a decent enough person to feel the need to respond to Current Events in some way more concrete than just squabbling in the president’s Twitter mentions. But the Resistance will not be Spotified.
29. Ed Sheeran—÷
Pop needs a uniter, not a divider.
28. Bryson Tiller—True to Self
Even if you like fucking to 808s, whatever marginal utility Tiller might have as an unobtrusive bedroom soundtrack gets cancelled out by a petulant need to express himself.
27. Linkin Park—One More Light
Chester Bennington’s death sparked overdue recognition that LP really were a taut, powerful singles band back in the nu metal era. But no one’s likely to wax nostalgic in years hence about this appointment with the same song doctors who cured Imagine Dragons.
26. Luke Bryan—What Makes You Country
Releasing a Luke Bryan record in December makes as much sense as putting out a Christmas album in time for spring break, but he still managed to wiggle his legendary butt into the year’s final #1 slot with this bro-to-man claim on maturity. The title track is as ecumenical a list of clichés as a non-purist could ask for—and with music this pop, it had better be.
So "1-800-273-8255" is like a non-ironic version of “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” from Heathers, right? And because I’m old enough to make that comparison, I’m also old enough to feel bad about mocking a song that tells children not to kill themselves. My therapist, a much kinder man than I, loves it.
24. The Killers—Wonderful Wonderful
What do you know—there was a Killers album last year. Huh.
23. Lil Uzi Vert—Luv Is Rage 2
The supreme bummer that is "XO Tour Llif3" has more insight into the mechanics of dysfunctional love and chronic depression than your average mope-along. Elsewhere, though, the guy does wallow.
22. Thomas Rhett—Life Changes
Pop country too domesticated for the bros, or what happens when you find the driveway you want park that pickup in for the rest of your life.
21. The Weeknd—Starboy
There’s something just too impenetrably bland about Abel Tesfaye’s fuckedupedness, too skillfully airbrushed about his anguish. It’s as though there’s a seven-second delay between his experience of an emotion and the moment he expresses it, and while I get why some are swept away by this stylized disorientation, I’ve never found bed spins seductive.
20. Harry Styles—Harry Styles
The most personable of the One Direction alums also released the musically astute 1D solo joint, plundering many Britpops of yore, including the rock kind. No wonder everyone overrated it.
19. Foo Fighters—Concrete and Gold
Dave Grohl’s craft hasn’t deteriorated over the past two decades, but familiarity has made his ease and mastery of riffage and melody less surprising. No, this don’t offer much beyond hooks and expertise. But let’s not kid ourselves—you could say the same about his band’s 1995 debut..
18. Arcade Fire—Everything Now
Earnest bands shouldn’t kid around—their schticky album roll-out left such a bad aftertaste it was hard to hear the slight pleasures that their danceable social critiques offered. As a result, Everything Now is sure to be overrated someday by certain fans as ’90s U2 is now. Get ahead of the contrarian curve.
17. Taylor Swift—Reputation
1989 wasn’t just pop-as-in-Max-Martin—it was pop-as-in-Andy-Warhol, endlessly fascinated with the joys of the superficial. The glittering “Welcome to New York” was as self-consciously unrealistic as the stage set of Our Town, “Style” reduced a lover to archetypes from glossy magazine ads all the better to fantasize about him with, and “Blank Space” took the essentially Shakespearean perspective that love is a fool’s game, beguiling us with its attractive surfaces. In this comparatively drab sequel, the once-charming deceptions those surfaces offered are now presented as grotesque distortions, and the music suffers as a result. Like all great pop artists, Swift’s got a killer instinct for how to connect—here in the global panopticon where each of us acts as watchdog for the other, the fact that an electronic reputation precedes all of us is the one thing celebrities still have in common with their fans. But the only alternative she can think up is love-true-love, and only on the fabulous “New Year’s Day” does she convince me she’s thought about the implications of this worldview—mostly because she also acknowledges that happily-ever-after is hardly a sure bet.
16. Big Sean—I Decided.
Kanye’s a bad influence in so many ways. He can pull off his klutzier lines with sheer personality and force of will, which gives the wrong idea to non-geniuses like this not-ungifted kid, who still can’t help but act like he deserves a pat on the head whenever he drops a groaner.
15. Pink—Beautiful Trauma
“What About Us?” is a hit anti-Trump power ballad. “Revenge” matches wits and rhymes with Eminem. Going on two decades of fame, she’s still got some surprises left.
14. DJ Khaled—Grateful
The party winds down long before its thuggy second half poops it, but the high points—Bey and Jay waxing connubial, Rihanna stealing the show on “Wild Thoughts”—remind you that well-connected impresarios have always had an important place in pop.
13. Drake—More Life
At nearly 82 minutes, he sure does mean more. And though he still makes a languid virtue of not trying too hard, a glib appropriation of global pop rhythms has indeed given his world-weary lyricism some life. Verdict: Truth in advertising.
12. Shania Twain—Now
Her songs are no longer overloaded with exclamation points—maybe Mutt Lange got custody of ‘em in the divorce settlement. Or maybe the lack of drama is intentional, since her pop is now pleasant rather than exciting, the soundtrack of a middle-aged woman easing out of heartbreak and into a new life
I suppose it’s progress that critics now overrate the adequate work of middle-aged rappers the way they once overrated the adequate work of middle-aged rockers. Reports of Jay’s career decline have been exaggerated; so have estimates of this slight course correction. Sure slaps harder than Oh Mercy or Steel Wheels though.
10. Sam Smith—The Thrill of It All
By overemoting for all he’s worth in that quavering falsetto, Smith camouflages his pop smarts, but listen harder than those big ol’ hooks demand and the lyrics carve out a durable persona: A sucker not just for love but for heartbreak whose thoughtful self-awareness doesn’t edge him a sliver closer to romantic satisfaction. In other words, the sort of person who loves to hate himself for crying along to Sam Smith songs. And the quavering, the overemoting—maybe even the camouflage—are all essential to the role.
9. Lana Del Rey—Lust for Life
As always she feigns flakiness as means of achieving profundity, and she sure had more to say about 21st century America than either Randy Newman or Father John Misty did last year—which was still not nearly enough.
8. LCD Soundsystem—American Dream
Both musically and lyrically, James Murphy’s inevitable comeback is by turns spare and dense, minimal and overstuffed, as though, like a lot of recently cowed middle-aged white guys, he feels reticent about how much he should say but then blurts out what he’s been holding back.
Quality control has never been his strong suit, and releasing a new album two weeks in a row was a good old cash grab disguised as a display of abundance. But if back in the days of Use Your Illusion we had to pay for the privilege of letting Axl and Slash flay our tympanums, now you can just make a playlist that reduces two decent collections into one great one. Intoning along with the addictive drug koan “Percocets/ Molly Percocets” was high on my list of 2017 survival techniques.
His flow rides Metro Boomin’s beats with such melodic effortlessness that the effect is genuinely narcotic—when the Weeknd and Rihanna stop in to sing some big pop hooks, it’s like hearing a Jimmy Page solo in the middle of an Eno record. And if you think a line like “My wrist got an ego, my watch in an igloo/ We took illegal, got stripes like a zebru” is brilliantly nutty, wait till you hear the loop de loop path he takes to get there.
Not an unqualified triumph: Her retro soul is aces, but her classic country is just serviceable, and following a song about dating Godzilla and with another about flying away on a spaceship is too quirky even for a pop star whose need for escapism is even more justified than most. Still, not only does she excel at bludgeoning her foes with backhanded empathy, but when she teams up with Queens of the Stone Age to new-wavily rock out she sounds crazily like Kathleen Hanna.
4. Halsey—Hopeless Fountain Kingdom
The casually queer and slightly bratty “Bad at Love,” crammed with details of her serial romantic disasters, finally helped me listen through the sometimes too generic sheen to hear this next-gen pop star’s sometimes too idiosyncratic charms. But can we make a deal, Halz? We won’t hold the Chainsmokers against you if you don’t let G-Eazy hold himself against you.
After eight years and umpteen mixtapes, they’re just getting started, suggesting that the triplet flow they didn’t invent but sure as hell took pop is endless adaptable while proving that it’s not the only trick in their bag.
An art weirdo grows up in public, coloring outside the lines with Jack Antonoff as her Crayola 64-pack. Equal parts exhilarated and exhausted, she’s bored with easy sex (though not so’s she’s about to go home alone) and peeved (rather than oppressed) by heartbreak. Too smart to mope about the constraints of fame, she instead delights in abusing her newfound power as a woman, a celebrity, and an artist.
1. Kendrick Lamar—Damn
Tough times call for something more direct than the ambitious, ambivalent struggle with culture heroism and next-level jazz-funk elongations of To Pimp a Butterfly. Flexing unencumbered virtuosity over spare beats, Kendrick made a defiant statement to the nostalgic racists whose idea of culture is overpriced steaks cooked to the consistency of jerky: You will never be this great. You will never be this good. You will never be this.