This wasn't just a great year for pop music, it was the year when pop music was solely responsible for nearly all of 2015's best albums.
There was something in the air in 2015, a strange otherness that pumped through the speakers of Top 40 stations and earbuds connected to YouTube videos that racked up record numbers of views. The usual fallback arguments were still churned out, with cultural snipers and poptimist-debunkers dismissing the current crop of dance-pop starlets as nothing more than featherweight charity cases for multi-millionaire producers, but this year, none of that rhetoric really stuck.
At first, it was hard to nail done what specifically was so fundamentally different about the way pop music was perceived in 2015, but it all seemed to center around the notion that, for the first time in a long time, it was OK for musicians to simply be themselves -- so long as they were their "real" selves. As strange it may be for an industry so often maligned for celebrating the plastic and artificial, the tired and true concept of "authenticity" went further this year than it ever had before, and the end result was something altogether stunning: a remarkable spat of good, if not downright engaging pop albums.
Of course, a lot of the 2015 pop soundscape was still dominated by something released in 2014: Taylor Swift's 1989 continued to be a cultural juggernaut, every song released from it turning into a smash, her much-publicized tour featuring a new celebrity drop-in that sent various fanbases on fire the second they happened, and it proved to be chart-topping album that even scored it's own Top 10 album in the form of Ryan Adams doing a song-for-song cover of it. Meanwhile Katy Perry, an occasionally-stellar songwriter who nonetheless is one of the most plastic and inauthentic singers out there today, did a Super Bowl half-time performance that was so high on spectacle and meme-ready setpieces that many rightly overlooked her often too-icy performance aesthetic, to say nothing of the fact that it took only two minutes of Missy Elliott to completely upstage her (which served as a great precursor for Missy's inevitable and most-welcome return to the spotlight).
As 2015 rolled on, however, that battle of "authenticity" versus put-on personas and hollow gestures waged heavily, perhaps no more obvious than the perpetually-hollow carnival that was the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, where a nominated director had to crowdfund his own ticket to the event (and apparently had a real depressing time when he got there), Miley Cyrus unveiled a double-disc album of Flaming Lips-assisted stoner-jams that will go down as 2015's worst release, and Kendrick Lamar's earth-shattering, utterly astounding clip for "Alright" lost the Video of the Year award to, of course, Taylor Swift and her army of hot friends.
Yet even Nicki Minaj beefs and numerous FCC complaints couldn't make the show's ratings do any better, and in a year that was filled with amazing sales weeks and numerous pop-buster events, it's hard to ignore the fact that in the doldrums of summer, Billboard reported having the single worst sales week ever when the soundtrack to Disney's made-for-TV movie The Descendents topped the charts with a paltry 30,000 copies. It serves as sharp contrast to when November hit and the multi-year anticipation of a new Adele album, to say nothing of the rapturous reception that greeted lead single "Hello", lead to the British songstress to break every single record in the history books, with her Streisand-indebted album 25 proving to be cool enough for the indie kids, calm enough for the NPR set, and emotional enough to appeal to just about everyone else.
Yet that's the thing about Adele: no one ever doubts her intentions when singing, as her voice and careful key changes manage to hypnotize and make you empathize with her all over again, her to-the-point performances making you completely forget that Demi Lovato put out an album this year. Adele's appeal is hugely stepped in the fact that she isn't putting on an act, which is simultaneously admirable and also intensely ironic, given that 25's epic rollout was due to the machination of an army of publicists and label heads. One doesn't ever think of Adele as the kind of person that plots out strategies for planet-swallowing chart domination, but, much like her peer Taylor Swift, she knows how to appeal to millions while also making songs she genuinely enjoys herself, collaborating with hit songwriters like Max Martin and the Bird & the Bee's Greg Kurstin while also being self-deprecating enough to pretend to be Adele in a room full of Adele impersonators and, even with its viral video-readiness, it still doesn't ring as an empty ploy.
When it comes to summing up the Best Pop Albums of 2015, however, 25 is not on the list (it's a very good album, but lesser, passable fare like "River Lea" ultimately weigh down its stellar highlights). Justin Bieber, building off of his success with the Jack U collaboration "Where Are U Now?", discovered a unique brand of contrition-pop that served a floor-filling atonement for his sins of the past. The resulting album, Purpose, was lead by two excellent songs but was filled with too many so-serious-it-got-funny moments to even get an audition for a spot. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, his former flame, Selena Gomez, traded in years of anonymous pop anthems for a new aesthetic that was sexy, proud, bitter, and, yes, even authentic. Her appropriately-titled album Revival didn't make the cut, but neither did Madonna's best album in years, Janet Jackson's long-overdue and very-welcome comeback, the Weeknd's star-making turn (and speaking of authenticity, who would have ever thought that the dreary "The Hills" would spend more weeks at #1 than his stab at Michael Jackson revivialism with "Can't Feel My Face"?), FKA twigs latest batch of experimental head-scratchers, Madeon's occasionally thrilling peaks of EDM-infused pop wonderment, Miguel's psychedelic carnival of carnality, K-pop warhorses f(x)'s and the Wonder Girls' exemplary new sets, Ellie Goulding's remarkably mature new effort Delirium, Dan Deacon's latest venture into the indie-synth abyss, Disclosure's expansive-yet-unadventurous second full-length, CHVRCHES' mature sophomore outing, the Wombats' expert display of maximalist chorus-porn (h/t Adam Downer), Grimes' extraordinary must-hear Art Angels (our official #11 on this list), or even the double-disc dance epic that is the soundtrack to the video game Hotline Miami 2: Missed Call.
Instead, we are left with ten absolute treasures: towering examples of pop songcraft that belie the accepted, rigid notions of genre. Each one points towards a different end game, but what they share between them a level of quality that is stunning, these rare beasts containing everything from four-on-the-floor bangers to moments of exquisite heartbreak, often set to a thumping 4/4 time signature (but not always). There is no doubt that 2015 will go down as one of the best-ever years for pop music, and when your grandkids start asking if you were there for any of it, all you have to do is pull up any one of these ten examples and start spinning yarns about how they never make records as good as these anymore ...
Album: Mean Dreams
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Miracles of Modern Science
At first glance, it's just so quaint: a group of friends met at Princeton and decided to become indie-rockers, with one drummer in place followed by a violinist, a double bassist, a cellist, and a master at the mandolin. They built up their fanbase with YouTube covers of famous pop songs (a tired and true method, even if it's a bit conventional at this point), and started touring and releasing albums. It feels like a story we've read countless times over, but Mean Dreams, Miracles of Modern Science's second full-length, is a different beast entirely. Lead singer/songwriter Evan Younger has finally shipped off his desire to be the quirkiest songwriter out there and instead starting writing songs from a much more personal space (although some tracks, like "Don't Feed the Party Animal", really should've been saved for an EP instead of an album proper). The highlights are staggering, with tunes like the wistful "Mothers in Jeans" and the quiet ode to the tragedies of the everyday "Bad Body" making for compelling personal tales on a lyrical front, but they're anchored by the band's incredible chemistry and shared love of pop music in general, making the shout-along chorus of "Jimjams" and the pocket anthem that is "Follow Your Heart (Or Something)" the headphone stunner you've been so desperately missing in your life. While their first album, 2011's Dog Years was a solid debut, Mean Dreams is a gigantic leap forward, the band leaning up against the wall of pop greatness and realizing they can saw their way through it one rocked-out violin solo at a time. Here's to gettin' to the other side, kids.
Album: Pulling Strings/Pushing Buttons
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Pulling Strings/Pushing Buttons
Richard Jankovich has been playing the Big Ol' Game of Pop Music for some time now, having first had a taste of success as part of the quirky electro project called, well, the Burnside Project, which ended up with him having some chart success in the UK in the early 2000s. This later lead to a small remix project that he simply called Pocket, which then put out a full-length set that was filled to the brim with his childhood heroes, artists like Tanya Donelly and Robyn Hitchcock guesting. The set never made many waves, but that didn't stop Jankovich, who finally came back after some years with Mon Draggor, his latest moniker, and arguably his greatest incarnation. Releasing two albums for free at the same time, the upbeat Pushing Buttons and the more contemplative Pulling Strings exhibit two notably different sides of his personality, but, against all odds, neither wear out their welcome, as Jankovich finds a unique diversity in tone and texture with each new song, leading to easy dancefloor filler like "Armageddon Baby" off of Buttons and Dan Deacon-indebted robo-voiced ballads like "m81" off of Strings. Both albums are clearly labors of love, but like most twins at birth, they aren't readily separated, as each disc does a remarkable job of complimenting its companion, Strings serving as the groovy Yin to Buttons' propulsive Yang. Yet after listening to each set multiple times, one could make the easy argument that, at the end of the day, both albums do an even better job of complimenting their creator, who, even after a decade and a half in the game, still sounds like he's just getting started.
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All it takes is four seconds. Within that span of time at the start of Kate Boy's album-opener "Midnight Sun", the pounding, immediate keyboard hook has had its first repetition, and already, you want to hear it all the way to its raucous conclusion. Following a string of EPs (including a self-titled one this year that makes up a majority of One's final tracklist), the Swedish trio of Kate Akhurst, Markus Dextegen, and Hampus Nordgren Hemlin have taken that whole "let's take '80s synthpop and give it a modern edge!" concept to a whole different dimension, one where they can be as weird, freaky, and dark as they want, but never (ever) at the cost of a great pop chorus. The clattering"When I Was Young" and the galloping "Self Control" show the group's mysterious and alluring range, but it's the multi-layered, evolving closer "Run As One" that exhibits what Kate Boy does best: strut. Each and every song reeks of confidence, and even with the occasional lapse into a wee bit of textrual repetition, it's of little matter, because One is a pop album that doesn't demand respect so much as it just expects it, intimidating onlookers with a frightening proposition: if they can craft a killer hook in just four seconds, just imagine what they can do with a full-length album.
Album: Best Blues
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Small Black singer Josh Kolenik was putting the finishing touching on his band's sophomore album when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, devastating his family home and destroying a lifetime worth of memories. After scouring through what could be salvaged, Kolenik not only found the faded photograph that would become the cover of Best Blues, the group's best, most accessible full-length, but Kolenik also found inspiration in his loss, crafting a surprisingly-upbeat set of immaculately-composed pop numbers that seem to exist in a timeless place, stitched together from '80s rock production but with a mindset that is clearly set in the now, with tracks like "The Closer I Look" proudly echoing past heroes like 'Til Tuesday without ever once resorting to rote imitation. Sure, M83's Anthony Gonazlez would've paid good money for the DIY prom night catharsis that is "No One Wants It to Happen to You", and album opener "Personal Best" truly lives up to its own title, but even as Kolenik sifts through his memories, he never forgets to hang his discoveries on immediate (and only occasionally mournful) hooks that will remain in your head for days. They say that when you're rebuilding something, the aim is to make it better than what came before, and with Kolenik's music, he's crafted not only his most personal songs to date, but, also, of the year's best set of pop songs hands down.
Album: JR JR
Label: Warner Bros
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Some snickered at the clever literary allusion that it was, but goddamn was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. a terrible name for a band. Consisting of the Detroit-repping duo of Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott, the group had been toying around with indie-pop formalism for some time, and previous albums It's a Corporate World and The Speed of Things were pleasant if fleeting affairs, the efforts of two guys with natural chemistry that were still afraid of going outside of their Flaming Lips/MGMT-indebted and very blog-friendly comfort zone. What an absolute surprise it was, then, when the fellas changed their name to the much manageable JR JR and unleashed an album of stunning compositions that leaves all their previous efforts as ever-fading landmarks in their rearview mirror. While JR JR rarely deviates from traditional radio-ready song structures, the band have found a color and enthusiasm that their two albums sorely lacked, finding indelible, unforgettable hooks in everything from whistled melody lines ("Gone") to chant-along choruses ("Caroline") to expertly-implemented shout samples that get your body moving and shaking ("As Time Goes") ... and that's just the first three songs. While it took a long time for the guys to get to this remarkable point, the wait was worth it, 'cos even after a joyous landmark like this one, one can't help but wonder what the freshly-named and intensely-energized duo is going to cook up next.