At the beginning of each week in 2021, the Billboard team has collected 10 cool pop songs to help get you through that week — not-so-hidden gems worthy of playlist additions and repeat plays in order to combat a present and future case of the Mondays. As the year comes to a close, we wanted to highlight some of the top-notch pop full-lengths that may have been overlooked but are worthy of any Best of 2021 round-up. Some of these artists are veterans, some are just getting started, but they all added something singular and special to the pop world this year.
Check out Billboard’s list of 21 cool pop albums from 2021 that you might have missed, listed in alphabetical order:
Alessia Cara, In The Meantime
“Wish I knew what I’m becoming,” Alessia Cara sings on In The Meantime, an album that forces the 25-year-old former best new artist Grammy winner to prod at her sense of self after millions of streams and multiple hits. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more vulnerable pop album in 2021, and Cara treats the layer-shedding process with a professional curiosity and a personal hopefulness.
Aly & AJ, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun
Aly and AJ Michalka, former Disney stars who showed plenty of promising flashes during the 14 years between proper Aly & AJ full-lengths, finally released the dizzyingly fun adult album that longtime fans knew they had in them, as A Touch of the Beat… sounds like both a retro pop-rock pastiche and a reassuring check-in with where the sisters are today.
Bleachers, Take The Sadness Out of Saturday Night
In between contributing to projects by Taylor Swift, Clairo, Lorde, St. Vincent and Lana Del Rey this year, Jack Antonoff released his most fully realized Bleachers album to date, a project confident in its most personal moments and unabashedly buoyed by the multi-hyphenate’s heroes, as Bruce Springsteen and Zadie Smith both appear on Take The Sadness Out of Saturday Night.
Chloe Moriondo, Blood Bunny
Chloe Moriondo’s Blood Bunny was a pleasant surprise adjacent to the pop-punk revival of 2021, a full portrait of a striking teenage identity that has emerged as a recording artist after a series of ukulele covers on YouTube. “I Eat Boys” and its Jennifer’s Body-inspired music video remains a flash point, but across 13 songs, Moriondo beautifully renders angst and self-assessment over buzzing guitars.
CL has been exhibiting her musical dexterity in the spotlight for over a decade, but Alpha finally gives her the platform to showcase her full range as a singer, songwriter, rapper and world-builder. While her boisterous attitude hums beneath the surface of every track, the tracks themselves are more well-rounded here than on any previous project, a fresher canvas for the story CL deserves to tell.
Claud, Super Monster
Plenty of artists made records about the euphoria and frustration of teenage romance this year; few, if any, made one as accomplished as Claud’s Super Monster. Songs like “Soft Spot” and “Guard Down” beguile immediately while others take longer to sink into, but Claud’s songwriting and point of view never fail to reward on repeat listens.
Cold Cave, Fate In Seven Lessons
Post-punk torchbearers Cold Cave could make this list solely based on the drop at the 40-second mark of “Night Light,” one of the most exhilarating moments of dance splendor in 2021. Fortunately, Fate In Seven Lessons contains more than just that high point, with synth-pop coursing through the seven-song project’s darkly lit moments to produce some wickedly retro pleasures.
Drew Sycamore, Sycamore
Coming from a small town in Denmark’s countryside, Drew Sycamore makes pop that sounds like it wants to swallow the entire planet and then search for parties across the cosmos. Sycamore, which desperately needs a greater North American audience, is both relentless — even the down-tempo songs are stuffed with hooks — and effervescent, a perfectly executed attempt to inject joy into the listener.
Griff, One Foot In Front of The Other
Although technically billed as her debut mixtape, Griff’s One Foot In Front of The Other carried enough spectacular pop moments to rival any 2021 full-length. Self-produced by the rising British star in her bedroom, the seven-song project tossed out both immaculate hook construction (“Black Hole”) as well as warm, woozy production (“Shade of Yellow”) with a effortlessness most pop artists would love to possess.
Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More
Illuminati Hotties mastermind Sarah Tudzin thrives in experimentation, throwing around disparate sounds and themes in the studio and emerging with a fully congealed, wholly splendid product. Let Me Do One More can be achingly sweet and devilishly noisy, sometimes within the same song — the one constant across the LP is Tudzin’s energy, which careens forward and won’t be denied.
Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take
Indigo De Souza’s 2018 debut, I Love My Mom, showcased a voice that could roam and drift skyward when needed; with follow-up Any Shape You Take, the North Carolina singer-songwriter now has a collection of indie-pop songs that match her voice’s complex beauty. Even when the album focuses on soul-gnawing romantic struggles, De Souza’s tone never ceases to brighten up the dark corners.
Julia Michaels, Not In Chronological Order
The gifted singer-songwriter finally got the chance to present a full-length statement after a series of EPs, and Not In Chronological Order boasts some of Julia Michaels’ most singular pop moments yet, from the tense bounce of “Lie Like This” to the devil-may-care guitar ripcord “All Your Exes.” NICO caps off a breathtaking five-year run from Michaels, and now, she can do anything she wants.
Kississippi, Mood Ring
“I wrote these songs thinking like, ‘Okay, if people are going to be crying in the audience, I want them to be able to dance too,’” Zoe Reynolds told Billboard in August of her album Mood Ring. Indeed, Reynolds pens songs that provoke movement as well as heavy emotion, and that balance makes Mood Ring — a project that recalls Tegan and Sara’s brightest indie-pop moments — an endearing listen.
Laura Mvula, Pink Noise
The first words Laura Mvula sings on Pink Noise are “I will give you all of my soul, for your pleasure / I will give you everything that I own, for good measure.” The British artist isn’t singing to her audience, but she may as well be: Mvula has spent a decade working up to the groovable, starry-eyed tunes on display here, fulfilling her early promise by pouring her soul into her first album in five years.
Lily Konigsberg, Lily We Need To Talk Now
Earlier in 2021, Lily Konigsberg’s indie-rock trio Palberta released a wide-ranging and enjoyable album, Palberta5000; in late 2021, Konigsberg gave us something even better, in the form of an eclectic and wondrous solo LP. Lily We Need To Talk Now twitches and darts around, refusing to settle on a sound or sense of calm for more than a moment, as Konigsberg bounces between pop melodies and conversational asides in riveting fashion.
Magdalena Bay, Mercurial World
Ah, the early-to-mid 2010s, when artists like Charli XCX, Allie X, Warpaint and Chairlift were plotting bold new paths for synth-pop; Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, the duo behind Magdalena Bay, have studied that not-long-ago era well and bring it into the 2020s on Mercurial World. Each arrangement is lush yet not overstuffed, and when an unexpected element shows up — like that “Wannabe”-esque squeal on “Secrets (Your Fire)” — Mercurial World builds upon its sturdy foundation.
Marina, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land
Marina Diamandis has spent her career creating ornate, exquisitely catchy pop songs across a variety of topics, and while Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land turns toward the socio-political — songs about climate change, dismantling the patriarchy, overcoming inequality and reckoning with racism — Diamandis addresses each issue with a steady point of view, and often atop a danceable piece of production.
Pale Waves, Who Am I?
The title of Pale Waves’ sophomore LP is deceptive — the British quartet both asks and answers questions about their identities on the follow-up to 2018’s My Mind Makes Noises, and figures out a streamlined pop-rock sound that suits them well. The group’s X factor remains Heather Baron-Gracie, a risk-taking leader who never flinches when addressing her sexuality or the sordid state of the world.
Although Serpentwithfeet’s musical skill was undeniable on his early recordings, Deacon represents the moment that the singer-songwriter unlocked the way to best utilize that talent, with songs that communicate a peaceful exhalation — the stunning “Fellowship” in particular — during a year where one was sorely needed.
One way to understand why Tinashe commands such a devoted online following is to… listen to Tinashe’s music: throughout the twists and turns of her career, each project carries such polish and personality that you, too, will soon have no choice but to stan. With 333, she continues to forge a singular path between pop and R&B, with songs like “Bouncin” and “The Chase” demonstrating Tinashe’s continued mainstream appeal.
Wondering why Drake bequeathed the spotlight to Yebba on the song “Yebba’s Heartbreak” from his Certified Lover Boy album? One listen to Dawn, the Arkansas singer-songwriter’s long-awaited debut album, should clear up any questions: the soulful vocals and poetic lyricism on the full-length, along with well-placed guest spots from A$AP Rocky and Smino, suggest a recording star in the making.