Considering how many A-list pop stars crowded the last quarter of 2013 — Britney, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga — 2014 felt a little light on pop releases by comparison. The stars releasing new material this year and recognizable by first name alone — Taylor, Lana, Mariah — were few and far between, and many of 2014’s biggest music stories belonged not to veterans, but to young upstarts like Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor. (Sia may be the most obvious exception.)
But that doesn’t mean every pop record received equal attention. Below are 7 albums that either weren’t talked about enough, didn’t find much commercial success or didn’t get the year-end recognition they deserved.
Write to Nolan Feeney at email@example.com.
Katy B, Little Red
Sam Smith may have been heralded as the male Adele in his breakout year, but the closest anyone got to filling the void of the “Rolling in the Deep” singer this year was Katy B on the stellar “Crying for No Reason.” A graduate of the BRIT School — which, in addition to Adele, also counts Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Jessie J as alumni — the singer born Kathleen Brien transformed herself from dubstep sweetheart to ‘90s dance diva on her sophomore album, Little Red. When she’s not pumping up listeners on high-octane club-thumpers like the “I Like You” or her spellbinding Jessie Ware duet “Aaliyah”, she’s showing off her pipes on songs like the soaring ballad “Still.” Even better is the album’s continuous mix, an hour-long re-sequenced version that lets the whole record become more than the mere sum of its parts.
Next step: Read TIME’s original review of Little Red
Bleachers, Strange Desire
The debut solo album from fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff isn’t shy about its 1980s influences: it features behind-the-scenes work from Vince Clarke of Yaz and Erasure, and its synthesizers sound straight out of Born in the U.S.A. (It’s no surprise, then, that Taylor Swift recruited Antonoff to recreate those vibes on her similarly inspired new album, 1989). But to call the record merely a pastiche is misleading, as there’s plenty that looks forward — like the jittery production and piano-smashing samples in lead single “I Wanna Get Better.” Strange Desire is light on its feet — the sounds aren’t as dense and heavy as those of Some Nights — but the tracks are still muscular and anthemic, making them a perfect match for Antonoff’s lyrics about pushing on in the face of trauma, heartbreak and profound loss.
Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds
Tove Lo has a genuine hit on her hands with “Habits (Stay High)” — she’s the highest-charting Swede on the Billboard charts since Ace of Base’s “The Sign” peaked in 1994 — but her debut album, Queen of the Clouds, didn’t get the widespread recognition it deserved. The 27-year-old has plenty of on-stage charisma, but she’s a songwriter first, having worked as top-line writer for Icona Pop, Girls and Cher Lloyd before embarking on a solo career. With a resume like that, the record is unsurprisingly full of searing melodies that burn their way into your brain. And while her topics — partying, heartbreak, sex — aren’t particularly novel for pop, Tove Lo’s sharp lyrics put her at the top of the class when it comes to capturing the pain and anguish she’s singing about.
Cher Lloyd, Sorry I’m Late
Hailing from the world of reality talent competitions, the X Factor alumna has all the resources of the pop music machine behind her, and it shows her on her sophomore outing: the songs are concise, punchy and jam-packed with hooks from start to finish. That kind of Top 40 bait (or at least Top 40-aspiring) isn’t a fit for everyone, but Sorry I’m Late deserves extra consideration from skeptics for its self-aware spunk, cheeky humor and some distinguishing influences — album highlight “Dirty Love” draws on the jungle sounds of her home country’s electronic music scene. The album didn’t make much of a splash across the pond or stateside — which is a shame, because tracks like “Human” are as a bulletproof as anything else up there.
Yelle, Complètement Fou
The French electro-pop band, led by frontwoman Julie Budet, has had a small presence on U.S. dance charts since breaking out with the saucy, tongue-in-cheek “Je Veux te Voir.” That could change in the near future: their latest album, Complètement Fou, came out on Kemosabe Records, the label founded by superstar producer Dr. Luke (Britney Spears, Kesha, Katy Perry). The album title is French for “completely crazy,” which is both an apt description of their sound and perhaps an explanation for why it may not have founded a bigger audience: Complètement Fou has all the energy of a Dr. Luke creation but feels far from cookie-cutter thanks to its production quirks (the band wrote most of the material themselves, with Luke credited on a handful of tracks). Oh, yeah, and it’s all in French — but with melodies as good as Budet’s, who needs to understand what she’s saying?
Nick Jonas, Nick Jonas
Former Disney kids trying to enter adult pop stardom are like pendulums held back for too long: when they swing the other way, they swing hard. Miley Cyrus warned Hannah Montana fans that she couldn’t be tamed, but audiences still had trouble adjusting when she twerked against Robin Thicke and embarked on a hip-hop transformation. Nick Jonas’ transition hasn’t been any smoother— one-third of the Jonas Brothers has bulked up and posed in jarring sexed-up photoshoots — but what gives him a fighting chance at legitimacy is surprisingly good music with all the right endorsements (like a remix from “2 On” siren Tinashe). This self-titled record isn’t without its flaws, of course — some tracks fall flat, and the uncensored version of “Jealous” is trying a little too hard to be bad — but the electro-R&B direction (Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds isn’t a far-off reference) should have shed any hang-ups about his past.
Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions
The quality of an record’s origin story doesn’t always match the quality of the record, but the 13th studio album from the queen of hip-hop soul is an exception. The story goes like this: after misstepping with this year’s Think Like a Man Too soundtrack, which received mixed reviews and sold poorly in January, Blige got a second wind in 2014 when a one-off Disclosure collaboration took off on the U.K. dance charts. What began as an idea to record a follow-up EP with the British duo soon turned into a month-long visit to London, where Blige cranked out songs with not only Disclosure, but also Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé. The move was unexpected, but the music was nothing but inspired. New collaborators sent a bolt of electricity through Blige’s more on-brand soul, and the cutting-edge dance tunes proved the diva doesn’t need “Family Affair” to get a party started. Considering how reinvigorated Blige sounds — to say nothing of Smith’s 2014 takeover — that the record flew relatively under the radar is more surprising than its genesis.