The word “pop” derives from “popular”, which means universal – and that’s what we kept in mind while compiling a list of the 20 best pop albums of all time. These are albums that touched hearts around the world, represented a cultural era and, invariably, sound fresh to this day. You can probably name dozens of classic albums that should be on this list – and you’d probably be right. What we can say for these 20 classic pop albums, however, is that the world would be considerably poorer if any of them hadn’t been made.
Think we’ve missed some of your best pop albums? Let us know in the comments section, below.
Best Pop Albums: 20 Essential Listens For Any Music Fan
20: Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Get Happy!! (1979)
Elvis Costello’s melodic knack and wordsmithing were at their absolute peak for this manic 20-song outburst. While he was paying homage to classic soul (more Stax/Volt than Motown), he was already thinking like a classic pop writer. Every track here offers the best of both worlds; every song knocks you on the head from the first notes, and more than a few are surprisingly poignant.
Check out: ‘Riot Act’
19: Genesis: Invisible Touch (1986)
About as far as Genesis could get from their prog roots, the hit-filled Invisible Touch was the perfect mix of the creative and the commercial, in a sleek 80s style. By this point, Genesis knew how to pull every ounce of drama out of a darker piece like ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’, and when to step back and let the emotions come through on a ballad like ‘Throwing It All Away’. Topping it off was the endlessly radio-friendly voice of Phil Collins.
Check out: ‘Throwing It All Away’
18: Lady Gaga: Born This Way (2011)
Lady Gaga’s finest album to date – and one of the best pop albums of the last decade – is inclusive in every way possible, taking in everything from 70s arena-rock to Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, to modern electronic pop, with the confidence that she can do it all her own way. The title-track opener to Born This Way assures the misfits and boundary-pushers in her crowd that she’ll always be one of them.
Check out: ‘Born This Way’
17: Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson (1972)
“Harry’s got a rock album,” proclaimed the original ads for Nilsson Schmilsson. What Harry really had was one of the greatest pop albums of the era, exploring the scope of pop songwriting and excelling at every turn. The three hits alone ranged from tropical novelty (‘Coconut’) to manic rock’n’roll (‘Jump Into The Fire’) to one of the era’s great heart-on-sleeve vocal performances in ‘Without You’. If you love this classic pop record you may be ready for the brilliantly off-the-wall follow-up, Son Of Schmilsson.
Check out: ‘Without You’
16: Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac (1976)
Rumours may have been the last word on failed marriages and 70s decadence, but Fleetwood Mac, the first album by the Rumours line-up, was a more joyful affair, revelling in wide-eyed romance and scruffy rock’n’roll, while embracing the band’s blues roots (on ‘World Turning’) for the last time. Meanwhile, Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘I’m So Afraid’ and Stevie Nicks’ ‘Rhiannon’ hint at the angst and the mystic adventures to come.
Check out: ‘Rhiannon’
15: XTC: Skylarking (1986)
Even when they first appeared as a spiky new-wave band, XTC were already writing some of the sturdiest melodies in modern pop. On the pastoral Skylarking, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding turn the melodies loose while daring to reach for greatness as singers. Whether they got along with him or not, producer Todd Rundgren had the vision to turn a bunch of wonderful but unconnected songs into a resonant birth-to-death song cycle, resulting in one of the best pop albums of all time.
Check out: ‘Dear God’
14: Laura Nyro: Eli & The 13th Confession (1968)
A visionary album in a few respects: Laura Nyro’s Eli & The 13th Confession was the bridge between Brill Building “girl group” pop and the thoughtful singer-songwriter era (three years before Carole King’s Tapestry) and it blurred spiritual and sensual matters decades before Prince got the idea. Three songs were hits for others, but nobody matched Nyro’s own rapturous singing.
Check out: ‘Eli’s Comin’’
13: Aaron Neville: Warm Your Heart (1991)
How do you harness an unearthly voice like Aaron Neville’s? Producer Linda Ronstadt knew the answer. You insist on nothing but first-rate material and let a little funk slip into the mix, so that the ballads stand out in higher relief. The peak of Warm Your Heart is a pair of Allen Toussaint compositions that do just what the album title says.
Check out: ‘With You In Mind’
12: Frank Sinatra: Come Fly With Me (1958)
Long before “world music” became a marketing strategy, Frank Sinatra and arranger Billy May took a jet-set trip around the globe, making every destination sound like a place where you could fall in love, savour the food and spirits, and generally live the good life. While Come Fly With Me’s high-spirited tracks are a blast, ‘Autumn In New York’ may be the most loving musical caress that city’s ever gotten.
Check out: ‘Autumn In New York’
11: Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
One of the best pop albums and greatest Americana albums was made by an artist who hadn’t yet set foot the States. But then, most of us have never lived in the Old West era, either, which is beautifully evoked in these figments of Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s imaginations. He never topped the grandeur of ‘Burn Down the Mission’ or the bliss of ‘Country Comfort’, and while the love songs don’t fit the concept of the Tumbleweed Connection, they’re still pretty wonderful.
Check out: ‘Country Comfort’
10: Blondie: Parallel Lines (1979)
In which new wave opens its heart to the whole of pop history; never again would Buddy Holly (who gets covered) and Robert Fripp (who guests) fit comfortably on the same album. Debbie Harry gives one stellar performance after another – playing a West Side Story heroine one minute and sending it all up the next – and every track on Parallel Lines sounds like the AM radio of your dreams.
Check out: ‘Heart Of Glass’
9: David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)
Considering David Bowie wasn’t remotely famous when he made this album, its audacity is something to behold. Every track practically screams, “Here’s another place you didn’t think pop music could go.” He begins the album by effectively killing off the 60s on ‘Changes’, then ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ celebrates a sexual-freedom movement that hadn’t even kicked into gear yet. And let’s not forget the album’s closer, the glammy rocker ‘Queen B__ch’, followed by the most disturbing song Bowie ever wrote, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’.
Check out: ‘Oh You Pretty Things’
8: Madonna: Like A Virgin (1984)
Madonna still had a foot in New York’s dance subculture when she made one of the greatest pop albums of the 80s, and the spirit of that world (before it was cruelly ravaged by AIDS) is forever preserved in Like A Virgin’s teasing sexuality and self-mythologising. Meanwhile, tracks like ‘Angel’ revealed the classic-model pop singer she aspired to (and soon would) become.
Check out: ‘Material Girl’
7: Michael Jackson: Off The Wall (1979)
Michael Jackson invites the world onto his dancefloor, crafting a universal version of pop with Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney both in the mix. At this point he was unmatchable as a singer, writer and stylist, and the grooves don’t let up. It might even be a better album than its mega-hit follow-up, Thriller.
Check out: ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’
6: Taylor Swift: Red (2012)
Taylor Swift’s Red is the perfect update of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, and it took a fast-evolving country artist to make it. Swift ups the ante for sass and attitude while adding in the last couple decades’ worth of pop history, with hip-hop and electronic touches. Once again, it’s an album of terrific (and mostly non-autotuned) vocal performances; Swift is your tour guide for one gloriously dramatic love life.
Check out: ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’
5: Tina Turner: Private Dancer (1984)
Tina Turner pulled a small coup here by harnessing the sleek sounds of mid-80s synth-pop to the lyrical perspective of a worldly-wise diva. Classic soul (‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’) meets theatrical monologues (‘Private Dancer’), with a strong feminist sensibility throughout on one of the greatest pop albums of the era. Hidden gem: the rocker ‘Steel Claw’, a Paul Brady tune that Dave Edmunds also cut that year.
Check out: ‘Steel Claw’
4: Tony Bennett: The Beat Of My Heart (1957)
The young Tony Bennett recruits a dream team of jazzmen – including six drummers, hence the title and theme – to give definitive versions of songs by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others. You decide if it’s a pop or a jazz record, but both worlds came out ahead. And while we love Bennett as an elder statesman, he sounds spry and downright sexy here.
Check out: ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’
3: The Beatles: Help! (1965)
What, instead of Sgt Pepper? Sure enough, Help! (in its proper, UK version) was where The Beatles’ creative imagination really took flight: John with his daring lyrical angles (the title song and ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’), Paul with his most soaring melodies (‘The Night Before’ and ‘Yesterday’). And, to cap it off with something Pepper didn’t have: a wild rocker in ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.
Check out: ‘Help!’
2: The Beach Boys: Smile (1967)
For decades it was more a rumour than an album, but when the world finally heard Smile (in both Brian Wilson’s newly recorded 2004 version and, later, the restored 1967 original), it turned out to be everything it was long promised to be: a visionary song cycle of unique resonance and beauty, plus a joy and humour that the surrounding myth had threatened to forget. Sure, it missed its chance to change the world in 1967, but that’s a small wrinkle since, whatever year it was release, The Beach Boys’ Smile stands as one of the best pop albums of all time, and will endure for centuries to come.
Check out: ‘Good Vibrations’
1: Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
If one album could bring everybody together under a groove, it was Songs In The Key Of Life. Earlier Stevie Wonder albums may have been more daring, but on this two-and-a-half record set, Stevie knew he had the whole world’s ears. The hit songs are positively anthemic (and ‘Sir Duke’ is easily the only 70s chart-topper to reference Duke Ellington), but the album’s depth comes from lesser-known tracks like the sobering ‘Village Ghetto Land’ and the great lost funk workout, ‘All Day Sucker’. But even while it honours love and sex, Songs In The Key Of Life is marked, above all, by a conscience and positivity that gets more necessary every year.
Check out: ‘All Day Sucker’
Looking for more? Discover the greatest albums you’ve never heard.