By its very nature, pop is the least underrated genre of music — if you define underrated-ness by commercial success alone. Sure, a pop star may not live up to sales projections and be dubbed a flop for selling hundreds of thousands of copies, but there’s also the critical side of this specific coin. Many well-performing pop albums — in comparison to their lauded lead singles — get no critical love upon release and little consideration for the pop canon down the line, despite being embraced by the music-buying masses (see: Faith Hill, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne).
Of course, there is also the opposite case, exhibited most recently by artists like Sia and Charli XCX. Then there are those albums that make no splash commercially or critically, despite their quality (see: Rachel Stevens). The ‘hidden pop gems.’ Oh the struggle of a singles genre.
So ‘underrated’ is a complicated idea, really. All interpretations of it are on display in this list, which focuses on the last 20 years of pop. In the last two decades, poptimism has shifted to become as respected a critical viewpoint as rockism. We’ve given many pop stars more credit than they would have received decades ago, Beyoncé chief among them. We focus on some of the darker horses here.
Britney Spears — Blackout (2007)
Britney’s public breakdown is what most people remember about her 2007, despite the fact that she released her most consistent album to date just months after performing the world’s most notorious act involving an umbrella. A formidable collection of producers — Bloodshy & Avant, Danja, The Neptunes — helped Britney create a dance-pop masterpiece that’s still influencing Top 40 and EDM. Not only was Blackout the best use of Auto-Tune since Cher’s “Believe,” but tracks like “Freakshow” predicted the dubstep trend that would creep into mainstream pop years later. “Piece of Me” is one of the all-time greatest odes to a PR problem, “Gimme More” remains as classic in Spears’ discography as “Toxic,” and album cut “Heaven on Earth” is disco revivalism in its most nimble form.
Kylie Minogue — Impossible Princess (1997)
In this album’s opening track, Kylie asks, “This time I went too far, huh?” It’s a fitting summary of how people felt at the time about Impossible Princess, which didn’t even garner an initial US release after disappointing sales outside of Minogue’s native Australia. In retrospect, Kylie’s sixth album has been embraced a bit more as her own Ray of Light. Sure, her autobiographical lyrics tackle self-discovery á la Madonna’s beloved 1998 album, but the big draw of Impossible Princess is Kylie’s experimentation with the era’s musical trends. Trip-hop, drum and bass, techno, and world music find a home next to the jubilant instrumental rock of “I Don’t Need Anyone” and co-writes with alt-rockers Manic Street Preachers (“Some Kind of Bliss”). Those who only know Kylie based on her dance-pop hits will be shocked by Impossible Princess.
Charli XCX — True Romance (2013)
Charli XCX, then known to the uninitiated as the writer behind Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” was deemed one to watch long before the release of her 2013 debut. The critical buzz remained intact when True Romance finally arrived, but commercially, the album failed to even crack the Billboard 200 album chart. It’s a shame, since it features some of the most well-crafted electronic pop in years. From the infectious Panda Bear-sampling single “You (Ha Ha Ha)” to Charli’s numerous tales of toxic love (“Set Me Free (Feel My Pain),” “Stay Away”), True Romance remains consistent in its bold exploration of goth-pop.
Faith Hill — Breathe (1999)
Faith Hill is a hard sell on this list. For one, she’s retreated from her country-pop crossover approach in the time since Breathe went platinum… eight times. History has not remembered “Mrs. Tim McGraw” (ugh) with the same mainstream respect her peers — namely Shania Twain — have earned. So while Twain’s Come On Over and each and every Taylor Swift album get critical love for their songwriting sass and pop hooks, allow me to make a case for Breathe: the subtle merging of electronics, country, and blues with traditional pop vocal harmonizing leaves “The Way You Love Me” untouchable; “Breathe” transcends mere Celine-with-a-twang territory with its restraint-filled crescendos, and album cut “Love Is a Sweet Thing” is a Beatles-y, bongo-filled, boho-country celebration.
Panic! At The Disco — Pretty. Odd. (2008)
Energetic pop-punk mistakenly dubbed “emo” came to a breaking point with Panic! At The Disco’s 2006 debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. The band moved away from the Hot Topic set with the Beatles-influenced folk-pop of their sophomore album, bewildering their core fan base and surprising those who’d written them off with “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” The Vegas band took what they got right on A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out — hooks on par with any pop tart that permanently resides on the Hot 100 — and translated it into a beautiful album that pays homage to the pop-rock tradition while still maintaining some signature drama (case in point: the brass and strings of “Nine In the Afternoon”).
No Doubt — Return of Saturn (2000)
Five years after Tragic Kingdom introduced No Doubt to the masses, fourth album Return of Saturn attempted to show a more vulnerable side of the Anaheim band’s ska-tinged pop-punk via New Wave synths and lyrics that pined for domesticity. Singer and lyricist Gwen Stefani essentially showed listeners what life was like after the so-personal-it’s-awkward anthem “Don’t Speak” (about her break-up with bandmate Tony Kanal), starting squarely with bitter opening track “Ex-Girlfriend” and ending with “Dark Blue,” one of the most brooding songs she’s ever touched. Fourteen years later, Return of Saturn remains one of the realest collections of songs about growing up female.
Avril Lavigne — Under My Skin (2004)
Avril Lavigne’s 2002, “Skater Boi”-featuring debut was all teenage mood swings for the diet pop-punk set, but her sophomore album was fueled by full-on angst with a harder edge to match. Melodic rock ballads more akin to Evanescence than blink-182 populated Under My Skin, which drew mixed reviews upon its release. In the albums since, Avril has returned to her “so whatever” state of pop arrested development, but for Under the Skin, she found the ideal way to express earnest vulnerability over failed romance and trust issues (“Don’t Tell Me,” “My Happy Ending”).
Carly Rae Jepsen — Kiss (2012)
Was “Call Me Maybe” juvenile fun? Sure. That’s part of why we loved it. An entire album in that vein, however, was less revered. Carly Rae Jepsen was nearly 27 when she released Kiss, a masterclass in teen-pop that appeals to those who left behind first loves and locker gossip long ago. Jepsen’s relentlessly energetic second album works so well precisely because it feels musically nostalgic — for ’80s synth-pop, disco, and “Hey There Delilah” — while forcing grown-up listeners to remember a time when love was less complicated. Simple, sugary, and synthy — in the best way.
Ashlee Simpson — Autobiography (2004)
Anti-pop tarts used similar tricks in the early ’00s, namely: go pop-punk, or at least pop-rock. Ashlee Simpson did both deftly on her 2004 debut, Autobiography, which paired diary-style lyrics with catchy, guitar-driven hooks. Despite eventually earning a position next to Milli Vanilli in the lip-synching hall of fame, Simpson pulled off a debut that remains consistent top to bottom. Songs like “La La,” a tongue-in-cheek ode to brazen female sexuality, kept Autobiography from wading too far into Alanis-style angst. Still, the album feels shockingly authentic — stains on Simpson’s T-shirt and all.
Will Smith — Big Willie Style (1997)
I know what you’re thinking: Will Smith’s solo debut is a joke. As the goofy spoken-word intro suggests, this is not a rap album despite Smith rapping on it. His abilities lie in entertainment, and Big Willie Style is entertaining top to bottom. Yes, that is in large part thanks to Smith’s classic taste in samples, ranging from Chic and Bill Withers to The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder. But that only helps to establish a timeless vibe even when the album dips into more novelty territory (“Miami,” “Men In Black,” “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”).
Garbage — Beautiful Garbage (2001)
For their third album, Garbage supposedly “went pop” (to some fans’ displeasure). This hype about a transition away from industrial-tinged electro-rock was only partially true. Dark singles like “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains” were replaced with the barely detectable guitars of “Androgyny,” which sounds like something Madonna might have released during this era, and “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go),” Garbage’s catchiest song to date. Both are strong, though not necessarily representative of the album’s overall direction. The most surprising result of the band’s experimentation on Beautiful Garbage is the trip-hop vibe that peaked through on “Nobody Love You” and “Untouchable.”
Kelis — Flesh Tone (2010)
Kelis has dressed up her sound many times, but rarely has she committed as fully to the concept as she does on Flesh Tone. She made a dance-pop album that’s more legitimate house music than Top 40, at a time when the Hot 100 was littered with EDM wannabes. It’s funny, since some of the production masterminds behind this EDM-pop boom (David Guetta, will.i.am) helped Kelis find her new groove. There’s something to be said for the conciseness and complete dedication Kelis shows over the course of five instrumental segues and nine songs, which juxtapose futuristic beats with lyrics about motherhood and the overwhelming nature of life.
Rachel Stevens — Come and Get It (2005)
Remember S Club 7, the British pop group with a goofy sitcom that aired in America circa 2000? Well, first off, they were an actual band, and one of S Club’s female members — Rachel Stevens — went on to make one of the best dance-pop albums of the ’00s. Unfortunately, many people don’t know that, even in the UK, where Stevens is a sex symbol who spawned four Top 20 singles with Come and Get It alone. The album peaked at No. 28, despite the fact that it does everything right: not only is Come and Get It wildly consistent beyond its singles, but it hits the sweet spot between experimenting with new electronic techniques and production and still feeling familiar from a pop songwriting point of view. Goldfrapp circa Supernature meets Kylie Minogue circa Fever.
JoJo — JoJo (2004)
There is more to JoJo than “Leave (Get Out).” Her debut, released when the singer was just 13, suggested a slightly more poppy slant on Aaliyah-style ‘too-young-to-have-experienced-it’ love songs. Her label, Blackground, brought in an army of R&B producers (like Soulshock & Karlin) to help the prodigious JoJo sound decades more mature than she actually was. The result isn’t exactly Mary J. Blige, but JoJo is a fun and funky R&B-pop record with production that doesn’t sound terribly dated even a decade on.
Matchbox Twenty — Mad Season (2000)
In many ways, Matchbox Twenty’s adult-contemporary future can be traced back to their sophomore album. Unshakeable hooks find their way into nearly every track on the album, even the broken-and-bruised ballad “If You’re Gone.” The slight post-grunge edge of the band’s debut is all but gone, acknowledged merely as a production technique on an album chock-full of big, shiny sounds. To some it may seem disingenuous, but with the ’90s alternative days firmly in the rearview, Mad Season joins the ranks of an entirely different beast: post-millennial pop-rock.
Spice Girls — Spiceworld (1997)
It’s easy for some to chalk Spicemania up to a certain era and a young female fan base, and thus write it off entirely. That would be unwise, as Spiceworld holds up in a distinctly anti-teen-pop way. The Spice Girls make doo-wop sexy with “Too Much,” for crying out loud, and that’s far from the only vintage sound the British vocal quintet mines. “Never Give Up On the Good Times” serves up Chaka Khan-style disco, while the campy closing track, “The Lady Is a Vamp,” features the Spice gang giving a Broadway-style history lesson on leading ladies through the ages. The consistency here is in the message, as if anyone alive in the mid-’90s could forget girl power.
Weezer — Green Album (2001)
Allow me to preface this by saying that while Weezer’s third album is not technically a pop album, subgenres are fair game in this list (hence the inclusion of Panic!, Matchbox Twenty, etc). The Green Album is the finest power-pop album since The Cars, whose leader Ric Ocasek helped Weezer mount a 2001 comeback with the LP. The nerd-rockers’ first two albums — Blue Album and Pinkerton — have been praised up and down, while the succinct, impersonal brilliance of their next two albums — Green and Maladroit — have largely been forgotten, thanks to the pop-rock crimes committed by Weezer’s following four releases (sigh). In the course of just 28 minutes, Green offers up one sunny pop smash (“Island in the Sun”), one aggressive (and aggressively cheeky) alt-rock radio hit (“Hash Pipe”), and eight tight tracks of feedback-fueled non-filler.
Goldfrapp — Head First (2010)
How does one follow up fantastical folktronica? By updating Xanadu, ABBA, and Giorgio Moroder, of course. With Head First, Goldfrapp took their biggest hit to date, “Ooh La La,” and created an oversexed and under-dressed Hi-NRG universe around it, so much so that the result borders on a concept album. Not even Alison Goldfrapp likes Head First, which is a damn shame because it’s quite the joyous homage to an earlier era of pink-hued dance music.
Maroon 5 — Songs About Jane (2002)
Perhaps it’s difficult for you to remember a time when Adam Levine wasn’t so cringe-inducing, so allow me to remind you: his band Kara’s Flowers was reborn as Maroon 5 with this solid debut. Songs About Jane not only features three Top 20 singles of hook-heavy pop-rock (“Harder to Breath,” “She Will Be Loved,” and “This Love”), but its album cuts are pure white-boy soul. A little heavy on the lovey-dovey cheese, maybe, but more respectable than anything Maroon 5 has done since.
The-Dream — Love Hate (2007)
Terius Nash, i.e. The-Dream, is best known as the Grammy-winning songwriter and producer behind “Umbrella,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and other pop smashes. Despite never cracking the Top 10 with one of his own songs, The-Dream continues to release consistent collections of R&B-pop that are more adventurous than Chris Brown, Jason Derulo, even Usher. His first album, Love Hate, impresses by mixing the sexual swagger of the aforementioned stars with a bold, bubbly production style signature to The-Dream: one part Timbaland, one part Quincy Jones, one part The Neptunes.