A Beginner's Guide to Pop
Unlike genres such as jazz and rock, there are so few conventions to pop music that it’s difficult to define it as its own distinct genre. Therefore, pop is treated more as an umbrella term, overlapping across all genres from soul to dance. Although “pop music” is a vague label, there are still commonalities found across all forms of the genre that make it easy to spot: catchy melodies, memorable hooks, and more emphasis on lead vocals than anything else. Pop music is made to be marketable, accessible, or, at the very least, catchy. Because of its broad nature, pop is not the simplest genre to condense into a handful of recommendations, but with this list, I hope to offer a fairly comprehensive guide into its many sounds. From ‘60s pop rock to 2020’s city pop, here are twenty-two albums to ease beginners into the vast and exciting world of pop music.
1. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
There is no better introduction to pop music than the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. Thriller is a dance-infused departure from the disco soundscape of his previous masterpiece, Off the Wall, but the heart of what makes Michael’s music so brilliant is still apparent. His vocals are strong and animated, given more energy by the crisp dance-pop production from Quincy Jones. Even if you haven’t heard Thriller in full before, there’s a good chance you’ll know every song already because the track-listing is just that famous. Whether it be the cinematic synths on “Thriller” or Michael’s smooth, vulnerable vocals on “Human Nature”, each track is full of personality without a bad note of singing nor a single blemish in the production. The hooks are addictive and the groovy dance instrumentation makes it twice as catchy. Thriller encapsulates all the instantly-gratifying bliss of pop, striking the perfect balance between dance-pop bangers and calm, R&B balladry. It’s all tied together by the futuristic synths and funky bass from Quincy Jones, whose incorporation of dance would influence generations of dance-pop singers to come.
2. The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
The Beatles are the quintessential rock band, and their impact stretches into the realm of pop as well. Abbey Road is the band’s excellent take on pop rock, putting aside the more avant-garde elements of their previous work in favour of a cleaner, more precise sound. Hits like “Come Together” and “Here Comes the Sun” offer a great impression of what the album is like — brimming with memorable melodies and catchy choruses but maintaining the detailed compositions which make their sound so compelling. It’s a brilliant blend of accessibility and complexity, and established the blueprint for pop rock going into the ‘70s. The summery choruses of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Octopus’s Garden” sound so light and carefree, contrasting starkly against the crashing guitar build of “I Want You”, the track sandwiched between them. Despite hopping across so many styles, the sound of Abbey Road is invariably accessible and any music fan can find something to admire in its composition. In every way, Abbey Road is essential: it’s a brilliant entry point for The Beatles, an excellent introduction to rock, and a fantastic doorway into pop rock.
3. Sade – Love Deluxe (1992)
Love Deluxe is a brilliant example of sophisti-pop, a brand of pop music with a greater emphasis on jazz, soul, and R&B elements. This album forms a dense, languid atmosphere with its thick, rippling basslines and synths which ebb and flow, complemented by the occasional saxophone which makes it all the more soothing. The lead vocalist of the band, Sade Adu, has a deep and silky voice, building on the relaxed mood of the record. She has a brilliant range, making full use of her voice’s strength on the ballad “Pearls” and also providing a bright, joyful chorus on “Kiss of Life”. Love Deluxe is a fantastic introduction into the more downtempo side of pop music. While not every track is an earworm, the power of Sade’s voice coupled with the vivid instrumentation is enough to make Love Deluxe captivating from start to finish.
4. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion (2015)
For those who aren’t well versed in Carly’s music, their knowledge of her catalogue may start and end with her hit single “Call Me Maybe”, but her impact on pop music goes so much deeper. Her 2015 magnum opus, Emotion, is a dance-pop masterpiece which resurrected the classic ‘80s sound of dance and put a modern twist on it. The subject matter is nothing unique – with each song either about falling in love, being in love, or falling out of love – but Carly’s writing and performance make the album the essential it is. Her voice is so expressive and lively, conveying so much joy, heartache, or excitement depending on the track, with a detailed synthpop backdrop to support her. The synths scream; the bass swells; the drums clatter and bring new strength to Carly’s performance. From the radio-made hits like “Run Away With Me” and “I Really Like You” to the deep cuts such as “Let’s Get Lost” or “Making the Most of the Night”, each track is packed with detailed production and addictively catchy hooks. There is so much heart and energy crammed into every moment of Emotion. With this album, Carly Rae Jepsen perfected her sound and crafted a flawless example of contemporary pop music. She revitalised the classic dance-pop formula, and if not for her, the ‘80s resurgence we hear dominate the charts today may never have happened.
5. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Queen Is Dead is a classic jangle-pop album, fusing “jangly” guitar sounds with catchy pop melodies to form a more rustic and indie pop sound. The whole record embodies a despairing atmosphere with its melancholic guitar-work and the mournful vocals from lead singer Morrisey. There are bright moments, such as the fast-paced grooves of “Cemetry Gates”, but those glimpses of optimism are sandwiched between long passages where Morrisey explores his loneliness, regret, and longing for love. Although the subject matter is bleak, the album is still irresistibly catchy, with the same simple melodies and unforgettable choruses of any good pop album. The Queen Is Dead reveals a darker, more subdued side to pop music rarely heard nowadays.
6. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
When it comes to the most influential pop albums, Pet Sounds is up there with the most important records ever made. It’s a perfect example of baroque pop, combining the simple formula of pop music with the soundscape of classical music, incorporating strings and the harpsichord to create a more elegant sound. Although Pet Sounds isn’t a favourite of mine, there’s no denying its importance to the pop landscape, and it would be remiss of me not to include a classic beloved by so many. It’s often praised for its charming writing and complex arrangements, forming these walls of warm, summery instrumentation complemented by the dreamy, lovestruck harmonies from the band. From the nostalgic hits like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” to the deep cuts, each track is intricately detailed and helped define the layered sound of baroque pop we know today.
7. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love (1985)
Kate Bush is arguably the most recognisable woman in pop, and that’s for good reason, because her unpredictable take of art pop has led to some of the greatest albums in the genre, with Hounds of Love being her finest work. Kate’s vocals have a theatrical flair, complemented by the grandiose instrumentation of chattering drums and triumphant strings. The album covers a range of sounds where Kate flexes her creativity, with the ominous, distorted vocals on “Waking the Witch” offering a dark contrast to the uplifting glee of “The Big Sky” only tracks prior. Hounds of Love is a whirlpool of ideas and sounds, but Kate’s colourful performance ties everything neatly together, screaming at the top of her lungs on some songs and offering cheery choruses on others. It’s a magnificent display of Kate Bush’s unbridled sense of creativity, and despite its many experimental moments, the album as a whole remains light and accessible.
8. Björk – Vespertine (2001)
Walking the line between pop and electronic, Vespertine takes art pop in a futuristic direction with its glitchy, distorted soundscape. Björk has a unique vocal style, disregarding simple melodies in favour of a rambling, half-rhyming delivery as strange and disjointed as the production itself. Her writing reads like poetry and the instrumentation is just as intricate, with each song being a dense blend of harmonising synthesisers and stuttering percussion. There are slow, atmospheric moments like the frigid emtpiness of “Cocoon”, contrasted by more uplifting tracks like the haunting opener “Hidden Place” or the song “It’s Not Up To You”, where Björk’s voice is at its strongest. Vespertine is not the easiest album to love the first time round, but given repeated listens, the countless complexities of the production begin to unravel and the strength of Björk’s voice in the chilling atmosphere becomes apparent. It may not be as catchy as dance-pop or as easy on the ears as sophisti-pop, but within Vespertine is some of the most expertly crafted electronic music of all time, and with patience, its genius becomes obvious.
9. Charli XCX – Charli (2019)
A relatively new brand of pop music is hyperpop, taking the bombastic sound of bubblegum bass and combining it with mechanical percussion, glittering synthesisers and autotuned vocals to create a colourful and unpredictable style. While Charli XCX wasn’t the one to pioneer hyperpop, she did perfect it, with Charli representing the genre in its sharpest and most accessible form. Having spent her early career as a mainstream popstar, Charli knows exactly how to make a pop song stick in your head. She is a master at forging pop bangers, and with the vibrant tools of hyperpop at her disposal, she effortlessly crafted an album equally eclectic and accessible. The production can shift from chirpy electropop to thundering bass within a matter of seconds, only to switch back again on the next track. Charli’s vocals have a distinct robotic quality to them, not using the autotune to patch up a shaky voice, but rather to build on the ultramodern polish of the record and weave her words into the soundscape. Charli is the pinnacle of hyperpop and defines the alternative style of pop which has dominated the genre into the 2020s.
10. Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)
Violator is a fantastic synthpop album, making heavy use of dazzling synthesisers along with punching drums to give the record some head-bopping dance appeal. While synthpop is often associated with upbeat bangers and radio hits, Depeche Mode take the sound in a grimmer direction, with David Gahan’s moody, baritone vocals giving the whole record a dark edge. The instrumentation is dominated by a choir of synthesisers, weaving in and out of one another and harmonising to create a hypnotic spiral of sound. The bass growls, the drums slam, and the guitar wails, but it’s those prominent synths which form the backbone of this album and define its moody sound. Violator is one of the finest synthpop albums ever made, and a brilliant gateway into the genre.
11. Cocteau Twins – Treasure (1984)
The dream pop aesthetics of Treasure are enchanting, with a ripple of guitars forming an aurora of ethereal sound. Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals are angelic, using her voice more as an instrument to build on the bright and dreamy ambience of the record. The focus is not on catchy hooks or earworm riffs, but instead to build a wall of dense, magical sound, transporting the listener into a dreamlike state. While the songs may not be as strong in isolation as tracks off other pop albums, as a whole, Treasure is a cohesive masterpiece with an otherworldly sound no other pop artist could replicate.
12. Prince – Sign “O” the Times (1987)
Prince has always been an eclectic artist, unable to be boxed into a single genre. Sign “O” the Times isn’t a straightforward pop album, borrowing elements of rock, funk, and soul, but at its core, the album is Prince’s colourful take on pop rock, sprinkled with elements from all over the musical spectrum. His performance is magical, with an expressive tone and unhinged energy that make every track a highlight. He adapts to all different kinds of production effortlessly, with the screeching electric guitars on “U Got the Look” and the sparse, soulful ambience of “Adore” only being a few examples. While Prince covers a huge variety of styles, the album never sounds messy, with the tight instrumentation and Prince’s impassioned vocals remaining flawlessly consistent throughout. From its addictive hooks to the funky beats, all the elements coalesce into this warm, busy feeling like basking in the atmosphere of a concert. That feeling is made even more apparent by the album’s climax, a live rendition of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” where the crowd chants along as the jazzy production swells. This is one of Prince’s many masterpieces, and an essential for any pop fan.
13. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
Rumours is another fantastic example of pop rock, but it’s not as loud as Abbey Road nor as vibrant as Sign “O” the Times. Instead, the strengths of Rumours lie in its intricate acoustic instrumentation with strumming guitars and steady percussion, added to by the gentle vocals from the band’s three lead singers. The sound of Rumours isn’t daring but it’s so sharp and precise, with Fleetwood Mac taking the softer elements of rock music and perfecting them into a run of unforgettable highlights. The album is packed with hits, with some of the best moments being “The Chain” with its dramatic hook and iconic bass outro, and “Dreams” with its sparse production and angelic vocals from Stevie Nicks. Rumours is pop perfection, and it would be no surprise if you knew every track before hearing the album in full, because each song is just that iconic to the pop landscape.
14. Sweet Trip – Velocity : Design : Comfort (2003)
There’s no better way to understand the genre-fusing excellence of Velocity : Design : Comfort without hearing it for yourself. It’s one of the defining albums in glitch pop: an experimental brand of pop music with disjointed production littered with passages of distorted sound, chopped up synths and dance-inspired melodies. This album fuses the messy conventions of glitch pop with the compressed vocals of shoegaze and the electronic catchiness of IDM. It reads on paper as though the record would be a mess, but Sweet Trip fuse the genres seamlessly, delivering a seventy-three minute monster of glitch pop bliss where the production is ever-evolving and the gentle lead vocals keep the listener engaged in the swirl of colourful sounds. It’s far from your conventional pop album, but within its vibrance is a relatively accessible project which offers a great taste of what glitch pop is like.
15. SOPHIE – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES (2018)
The unpredictable sound of hyperpop would be non-existent if not for the innovations SOPHIE made with this album. She took the mechanical dance melodies of deconstructed club, deep bass, and the flashy appeal of modern pop music, and mashed them together into a disorganised riot of accessible and chaotic ideas. The opener, “It’s Okay to Cry”, lowers your guard with a heartfelt ballad sung over a waterfall of synths. Then the album takes a sudden turn with “Ponyboy”, which incorporates pitched-up vocals, sizzling bass, industrial percussion and a sea of synths and voices which ebb and flow in the chaos of the track. The rest of the album maintains this messy style, with the occasional moment to breathe interrupted by another explosion of synthesisers and crashing drums. While Charli is hyperpop at its cleanest, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is the genre at its most unapologetically abrasive.
16. YUKIKA – SOUL LADY (2020)
It would be ignorant of me only to include English-speaking pop artists in this list, because the scope of pop’s diversity as a genre cannot be understood by listening strictly to American and British artists. YUKIKA’s SOUL LADY embodies a sound you simply will not find in the West. It’s a city pop album – a style of pop which emerged in Japan in the ‘80s – blending smooth jazz and funk with bright dance-pop production. SOUL LADY takes you on a journey through a woman’s life as she travels from Japan to South Korea, but you don’t need to fully grasp the concept to appreciate this album. The lush instrumentation with its groovy basslines and swelling horns gives the whole record a glamorous feel, building on the themes of urban city life that city pop is known for. YUKIKA has a strong presence, hitting such high notes and conveying so much emotion that you don’t necessarily need to understand each word to appreciate the artistry of her music. Although city pop is not as prominent as it once was, YUKIKA is helping revitalise it, and there are few introductions to the genre as consistent and cohesive as SOUL LADY.
17. LOOΠΔ Odd Eye Circle – Max & Match (2017)
Over the past decade, K-Pop has risen to become one of the most successful pop genres of all time, so it would be remiss of me not to include it here. LOOΠΔ Odd Eye Circle is a sub-unit of the humongous K-Pop girl group LOOΠΔ, and Max & Match is their only album. In a mere twenty-five minutes, they encapsulate everything wonderful about K-Pop, from its fast-paced dance production to the brilliant chemistry between the singers. They hype one another up and harmonise to forge some of the most energetic and fun songs out of South Korea. The singers have fantastic voices – with each chorus insatiably catchy – but it’s the production where Max & Match shines most. “LOONATIC” has these pulsing guitar riffs and an unending barrage of drums which build on the unhinged energy of the track, while “Girl Front” contains these zigzagging synthesisers which explode with the chorus. So much detail and excitement is packed into such a short runtime, making for an album you can’t help but play again once it’s over.
18. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (2019)
Titanic Rising submerges the listener in a thick, riveting soundscape of swelling strings and ripping synthesisers, creating an atmosphere as rich and colourful as its album cover suggests. It’s a modern approach on baroque pop, combining those classical elements with the ethereal ambience of dream pop. Natalie has an almost operatic voice, holding these long, dramatic notes and bending her words like instruments to fit the grandiose sound of the record. Titanic Rising is a culmination of decades of pop’s evolution, borrowing ideas from all over the musical spectrum to form one of the most entrancing experiences in pop history. “Movies” is perhaps the most obvious highlight, starting out with a calm patter of synths which rise and fall with Natalie’s voice which echoes back in the spacious production. From its brighter, piano-dominated moments to the ambient deep cuts, Titanic Rising is brimming with emotion and creativity.
19. Ariana Grande – thank u, next (2019)
She may not be among the most influential artists in this list, but Ariana Grande is one of the biggest pop singers of this generation, and so I believe her placement is essential to fully understand the modern pop landscape. Her 2019 album, thank u, next, is her most emotionally provocative, sonically compelling, and cohesive project to date. Ariana is a wonderful vocalist, perfectly suited to ballads to belt out her voice as well as more lowkey cuts where she flexes all the different riffs she can pull off. The production on thank u, next oddly contains a lot of trap influence, with the chattering hi-hats of Southern hip hop giving an added punch to the downtempo electropop backdrop. Ballads like “imagine” and “ghostin” showcase just how much power Ariana can put into her voice, but it’s the more traditional pop bangers where this album is strongest. “NASA”, “bloodline”, “fake smile”, and “bad idea” are only a handful of fantastic songs where Ariana makes full usage of the classic pop formula and shows off her innate ability to craft a hook that will loop on the radio for months. Thank u, next isn’t experimental, nor is it particularly innovative, but Ariana is a master when it comes to traditional pop music, and so when she makes a hit song, it always hits hard.
20. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? (2020)
The ‘80s revival trend in modern pop music has led to a plethora of brilliant throwback records being made, but my favourite has to be What’s Your Pleasure?, a dance-pop masterpiece with no shortage of disco influence. The production is magical, with layers of funky bass, groovy synths, strings and backing vocals converging into one of the most sonically-detailed albums in modern pop. Jessie Ware’s voice is calm and soothing, making those few moments of balladry all the more impactful when they occur. The intricacies of the production, the thoughtfulness of Jessie’s writing, and the flawlessness of her voice make for a hypnotic listen where the highlights never seem to end. From start to finish, What’s Your Pleasure? perfects the dance-pop formula, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest pop albums of the 2020s.
21. MGMT – Little Dark Age (2018)
MGMT are one of the most notable duos in the modern alternative scene, with Little Dark Age being among their most concise and consistent efforts. It’s a synthpop album making heavy use of cheery synthesisers and danceable percussion, juxtaposed by a range of dark and crestfallen verses which display the duo’s knack for powerful lyricism. The popularity of this album outweighs its influence, but I still believe it to be an essential listen because it represents the dance-influenced, psychedelic state of modern synthpop.
22. Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (2021)
While the rest of the albums on this list have represented the various landmarks and innovations of pop music in the past, I believe that Mercurial World represents the shape of pop to come. The duo of Magdalena Bay work perfectly together, with Matthew’s abrasive, messy brand of synthpop contrasting nicely against the soft and mellow vocals from Mica. The album feels so cohesive due to its transitions, with each song having these subtle instrumental changes which ease one track into the next, turning this compilation of songs into a single, unending stretch of synthpop glory. From the glittering synths to the bright piano samples, each track is vivid and rich in detail. The duo’s blend of maximalist production and understated vocals is genius, because the record would sound far too busy if Mica were as loud and dominant as the synths around her. The duo have perfected their own unique brand of pop music with one album, and with the new decade still in its infancy, I have no doubt we will see more artists as forward-thinking as Magdalena Bay emerge to reinvent the pop formula once again.