Music

The Best Pop Albums of 2015

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.

5 - 1

Artist: Carly Rae Jepsen

Album: E·MO·TION

Label: Giant Little Man

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/carlyraejepsen2015cd.jpg

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Carly Rae Jepsen
E·MO·TION

You really can't blame the critics for this one (OK, you can blame them a little). When Carly Rae Jepsen's E·MO·TION dropped this summer, virtually every publication, both mainstream and indie alike in a rare show of unity, ran a thinkpiece about how the Incredibly Bubbly '80s Synthpop Record That Could managed to become the darling little disc that everyone not only wanted, but absolutely needed in their life, with even the most hardened of cultural cynics succumbing to it's infectious spell, it's many tracks serving as the perfect fertilizer for an army of earworms. It's just a shame, however, that none of those critics really gave Kiss, Jepsen's 2012 effort (i.e. The Album "Call Me Maybe" Is On), the time of day, because when it came to effervescent cotton candy hooks and effortless charm, Kiss rules over E·MO·TION in virtually any matchup. When you really get down to it though, this is nothing more than nitpicking, comparing one pop classic to another and trying to decide which is better. At the end of the day, Jepsen has given us not one but two exemplary pop discs that are free of both pretension and filler (for the most part), staging her as the undisputed heir to the girl-pop throne that has been occupied by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Carole King, which becomes an even easier comparison when you realize all three of them dropped their most defining records (E·MO·TION, She's So Unusual, and Tapestry) right around when they all turned 30. Taking this into consideration, it's obvious Jepsen is royalty now, and what do you do in the presence of royalty? That's right: you bow down.

 
Artist: Alpine

Album: Yuck

Label: Ivy League

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Alpine
Yuck

The groovy, lounge-ready pop leanings of Melbourne, Australia's Alpine was very much in its infant stages when 2012's sparse-but-lovely A Is for Alpine was released, a largely-acoustic but intricately-layered exploration of moody-but-hummable song stylings that were clearly made with the coffeehouse set in mind. Perhaps the group spent time at a few too many coffeehouses promoting that disc, because Yuck, their sophomore album, benefits from a whole bunch of perk. Moving towards more fully-bodied studio sleekness and a reliance on lush synth textures that they were apparently afraid of using on their debut results in a full-length where all the things that worked on the last album sound even better this time out, with the sly groove of the sultry "Foolish" and the Bjork-indebted synth crunch of "Shot Fox" showing a much more focused, energetic approach to their sound, upping the catchiness while never once skirting on the shared vocal harmonies of singers Phoebe Baker and Lou James, who's every vocal tic and turn-of-phrase radiates a warmth that must be heard to be believed. Hearing the stuttering, sample-based "Damn Baby", which could just as easily double-over as a remarkable K-pop album cut, makes you realize that at the rate they're evolving, Alpine are running away from their influences and instead becoming an influence all their own, a remarkable condition for a group that's only on their second full-length and are only just now finding one of the most distinctive identities in pop music today. Damn baby, indeed.

 
Artist: Ryn Weaver

Album: The Fool

Label: Interscope

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Ryn Weaver
The Fool

Ryn Weaver is a living contradiction. She's blessed with a rare vocal confidence that draws a direct line of inspiration from Stevie Nicks, but nonetheless writes pop hooks that wouldn't sound out of place on a Maroon 5 album. She bills herself (and is marketed) as a pop artist but tours with a tight, lean rock band and could do all her songs acoustically on the turn of a dime. Tracks like the skyscraping "Promises" could've easily hit some #SquadGoals by hanging out in the Top 40, but few artists in that echelon would have the balls to try something as gutsy as "Traveling Song", an ode to her grandfather that has a single-take acapella outro where Weaver is clearly trying to hold back her own tears as she sings. The Fool, Weaver's long-in-the-works full-length, is a stunning display of songcraft at its finest, a collection of tunes as mature as they are thrilling, as emotional as they are ass-shaking. Weaver may seem like the new kid on the block, but with an album this spellbinding, it's clear she's going to be around for a long, long time.

 
Artist: Caravan Palace

Album:

Label: MVKA

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Caravan Palace

Caravan Palace and Parov Stelar are acts that have been frontlining the "electro-swing" movement for years now, mixing big band and swing samples with modern production and a club-filling eagerness, ultimately creating a style that had undeniable niche appeal but was ill-suited for anyone outside of that delightfully nerdy niche. Well, guess what kids? Caravan Palace has gone rogue, as their unpronounceable third album ups their game considerably, with lead singer Zoé Colotis transitioning between time-locked chanteuse and speed-rapping barracuda with astounding ease, playing into the world that her bandmates have so carefully constructed with equal parts playfulness and confidence, as every melody stands out even as the group pulls off the rare feat of making no two songs sound the same (doubly remarkable given the subgenre's obvious restrictions). From the stellar (Stelar?) stunner of an opener "Lone Digger" to the cut 'n' paste orchestrations that make "Aftermath" so charming to the pocket keyboard-funk escapade that is "Wonda", the group has absolutely hit their stride, crafting an album that manages to be unrepentantly modern while tipping their hat to the past with homages that seem to crop up by the second. It's a dance album that is as joyous as it is fleeting, yet unforgettable in it's carefully curated eccentricities. Instead of being a mere slave to the easy "electro-swing" tag, the group has decided to instead own it, reinventing both themselves and the entire genre in the process, leaving a trail of smiling, dancing fans and a dynamite classic of a pop album in their wake.

 
Artist: Skylar Spence

Album: Prom King

Label: Carpark

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Skylar Spence
Prom King

It started out, somewhat famously, as some project known as Saint Pepsi, which it turns out was Ryan DeRobertis' stage name for his numerous vaporwave creations, spearheading a movement that was built upon slowing down samples of admittedly-cheesy music and adding in beats, color, and countless other aural decorations to create something shiny, danceable, and vaguely futuristic, turning low forms into high art with a wink and a smile added in for good measure. Although a cease-and-desist letter from a soda conglomerate put the kibosh on his handle, his new form under the name Skylar Spence caused DeRobertis to get much more serious about his music, but even with that dramatic setup in mind, there are few, if any, who would've guessed that the end result to all of this would be a modern pop masterpiece in every sense of the word. Prom King is a rare treasure: a pop album that is absolutely in love with every single aspect of pop music itself. Even if the songs weren't as good as they were, this album would still top this list based on enthusiasm alone, which is why it's easy to elevator pitch Prom King as "Ben Folds singing over Daft Punk beats while being produced by the Avalanches" -- and, amazingly, that's exactly what it sounds like.

Yet even in the midst of the pop-disco firestorm that is "Can't You See" or the lovely guitar chimes that make "Fall Harder" so indelible, there's a hint of sadness to DeRobertis' lyricism, ranging from the hurt of lost loves to dealing with the crushing weight of others expectations to even making a tongue-in-cheek pass at his own rise to fame ("I was working / Trying my hardest / Slowed some music down and called myself an artist"). It's that divinely human element that grounds Prom King, keeping us invested even as DeRobertis does his best to craft hooks on top of hooks on top of hooks, and, astoundingly, he makes every single one of them work, as if he crammed several albums worth of ideas into the space of a single disc and didn't break a sweat while doing so. These aren't just songs that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the week: they'll be there for the rest of your life. And just as it's too easy a cop-out to call this the "feel good album of the year," you have to remember that when you get down to it, it's really not: all it is is just the best album of 2015, and it's in love with its own reflection.

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