5. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B [School Boy/Interscope]
Before the release of 2019’s excellent Dedicated, Carly Rae Jepsen claimed to have written over 200 songs prior to creating her generational pop masterpiece Emotion. Such claims bore some truth when a year after Emotion‘s release, she dropped the lovely EP Emotion: Side B, which contained some of her weirder creations. Now, following the warm reception to Dedicated, she decided to reward her fans with yet another batch of unreleased material in the form of Dedicated Side B.
The key difference this time around is that while Emotion‘s bonus serving had eight songs, Dedicated‘s newest expansion pack is a full dozen unheard compositions, including two tracks she worked on with uber-producer Jack Antonoff. Across the board, it’s fully-considered, maximalist pop music crafted the way only Jepsen’s knows how. From the could-have-been-single that is opener “This Love Isn’t Crazy” to the boppy guitar pop of “Let’s Sort the Whole Thing Out” to “Heartbeat”, the closest she’s come to a ballad in some time, all Dedicated Side B does is show how even Jepsen’s throwaways are better than most artists greatest hits compilations. Carly: any idea when we’re going to hear the rest of that 200 song batch?
4. HAIM – Women in Music, Pt. III [Columbia]
Most artists have promotional cycles that last a few months or even a few weeks before a record’s release, and that’s pretty much industry standard. In the case of Haim‘s third and best full-length offering, they spent the better part of a whole year teasing out new music, dropping no less than six singles before the release of Women in Music, Pt. III. The trio of sisters got into a bit of a holding pattern with 2017’s overbaked sophomore effort, Something to Tell You. There are a rawness and effortlessness to the music of Women in Music, Pt. III that was only hinted at in their earlier work.
Before this record, they never hit a groove as beautifully laid back as on “Summer Girl”, never played around with DIY electropop in such a gritty way as they do on “I Know Alone”, and never flirted with country harmonizing like they beautifully achieve with “Hallelujah”. At 16 tracks in length, it is quite an intimidating record, but when you’re writing songs as good as this, why would you ever want to stop? A remarkable confection.
3. Lady Gaga – Chromatica [Interscope/Streamline]
Lady Gaga didn’t need to redeem herself, but being Lady Gaga, she did so anyway. While 2016’s twangy detour Joanne felt like a somewhat aimless change in direction, her work on the 2018 A Star is Born remake helped thrust her into new artistic realms, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song and netting a nomination for Best Actress. It earned back the trust of some fans who felt she was losing her way. With Chromatica, Gaga leaned hard into the brand of hyper weird dance-pop that brought her success in the first place and effectively gave fans the album they’ve been waiting for since 2011’s Born This Way.
Not a ballad in sight, Chromatica jumps from highlight to highlight. There’s the ace Ariana Grande collaboration “Rain on Me” and the deliberate Madonna cosplay of “Babylon”. “Chromatica II” features an immaculate transition. “911” is a thumper and of the best pop music moments of this young new era. Chromatica is Gaga’s most satisfying record in nearly a decade, proving that no matter whatever extracurriculars she engages in, she never forgot what she made her name on. A classic the second it dropped.
2. Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure? [Virgin/PMR]
Jessie Ware has always been a dynamite pop performer, her songs radiating a maturity that set her apart in the UK chart sweepstakes. Although she was known for collaborating with many groundbreaking electronic artists, few would ever think of her as an outright dance diva — at least until What’s Your Pleasure?. On her dynamite fourth full-length, Ware reunites with Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford to craft a record that plays with dance music’s storied past in a fascinating way, gussying up her influences in contemporary clothing while never once losing sight of who she is as an artist. Vanity 6-styled ’80s girl group club numbers? She gladly takes on the role in “Ooh La La”.
Trying to one-up Robyn in terms of dancefloor catharsis? That’s exactly how the stellar single “Save a Kiss” goes down. Mixing syrupy bass pads with yearning string sections like the best Goldfrapp recordings? Ware could do “In Your Eyes” with her eyes closed. Throughout What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware pulls off all of these stances without once showing off for the sake of it: each song is gorgeously constructed and every lyric carefully considered, nodding to the past but styled in her own vision. The album is asking you a question: What’s Your Pleasure? Whatever it is, you’ll probably find it on Jessie Ware’s best record.
1. Sam Sparro – Boombox Eternal [Sparro, Inc.]
Best known for his 2008 worldwide hit “Black and Gold”, Australia’s Sam Sparro has been making his own brand of literate pop for over a decade, even as each release since his 2008 peak has been met with diminishing commercial response. By the time his self-produced, self-released Boombox Eternal arrived in 2020, barely anyone acknowledged its existence, and it is a damn shame, as Boombox Eternal is the most colorful, joyous, and feel-good pop records released in the last five years. Designed as a love letter to the ’80s synthpop and ’90s New Jack Swing records he grew up on, Boombox Eternal painstakingly recreates the DayGlo synths and programmed drumbeats of that era to give life to a new set of original songs, and each one, without exception, will get stuck in your head on first listen.
From the explosion of color that is the propulsive dance number “Everything” to the light hip-hop flavors he achieves on the stellar “THE PPL” to the cool synth ballads of “Eye to Eye” and “Save a Life”, every song has its own distinct sonic identity. He may sound like Prince on the delectable “Marvelous Lover” and conjures the ghost of Spandau Ballet on “Outside the Blue”, but all of these influences feel expertly repurposed, these clear inspiration lives injecting his songs with a vitality that other pop records simply lack. Boombox Eternal is that rare kind of record that you love on first listen and find new things to love about it on each subsequent spin. None of these retro flavors would taste as good had they not been used in songs so carefully constructed, and the end result is the best pop record of this new young decade, full stop.