Text by Adam Lehrer
Earlier this year, I interviewed fashion designer Siki Im, and we discussed the ramifications of the term “elevated sportswear,” and his response was rather elegant: “Everything is elevated these days,” said Im. He was right. 10 years ago, when the phrase “pop music” conjured associations of Backstreet Boys and Britney, I would have never even thought to make a pop music list. But we are well into the Internet age at this point (it feels like just yesterday when I was on the Shoutweb message boards, discussing the excellence of KoRn and Slipknot with other pimply faced malcontents, but in reality it was 15 years ago), and the artists that grew up watching TRL and then reading Pitchfork on their desktops have come of age. Pop music has mutated into a variety of forms, only connected through an accessible, danceable, and sing-along quality. You can have the retro-psych R&B of Miguel, the post-modern alterna-pop of Bjork, or the British dancefloor celebration of Jamie XX, and it is all pop. Sub-culture has thoroughly been erased, and that isn’t a bad thing. It just means that individual taste has come to the forefront. You will have a much harder time finding someone who is only into black metal these days, but you might find a girl who has Grimes playing on her headphones sitting at the coffee shop wearing a Darkthrone t-shirt.
The point is, the artists making pop these days are very much artists, and not corporate drones. They by and large love music and are acquainted with at least some form of music history. In the words of Future and Drake, “What a time, TO BE ALIVE!”
D'Angelo - Black Messiah - Track: Betray My Heart
R&B has arguably become contemporary popular music’s most important genre: 808z, Frank Ocean, Miguel, Jeremih, the Weeknd, Kelela, Nao, How to Dress Well and the list goes on and on. But D’Angelo, as part of the neo-Soul movement in the mid-‘90s, was already demonstrating the inherent possibilities in groove-driven soul melodies matched with amazing vocals over 15 years ago. Black Messiah came out at the tail end of 2014, so it missed its chance for most year-end lists. I simply must pay respects to it here, because it is the best record that has come out since its release. People waited for 14 years for this thing, ever since the majestic Voodoo was unleashed upon the world in 2000, and Black Messiah immediately established D’Angelo once again at the forefront of the world’s most riveting entertainers. It took Voodoo’s abstract and far out grooves ever farther into the abyss, and the record sounds minimal but dense all the same. It re-established soul music as a powerful form of protest, possibly the first record of its kind to do so this well since Sly Stone put out There’s a Riot Goin’ On in the early ‘70s. D’Angelo has an amazing ability to pay homage to his forefathers while sounding utterly contemporary. D’Angelo spent a decade caught up in drug, legal, and financial problems, finally releasing that tension in this beautifully written record. “I been a witness to this game for ages, And if I stare death in face, no time to waste,” he sings on 1000 Deaths. D’Angelo pours his personal life into his sounds and uses it to indict a racist and unjust system. He is one of the last revolutionaries we have. And his voice hasn’t lost a step.
Björk - Vulnicura - Track: Black Lake
Bjork winds up labeled as experimental music just as much as she does pop, and that is testament to how utterly alien her fairly straight forward songwriting style sounds. Vulnicura is Bjork’s best album since her masterpiece, Homogenic. Consider the 18 years of Bjork musical domination that have transpired since 1997, and it’s staggering to think of another artist that has remained that relevant for that long. Of course we all know the story behind the record, that Matthew Barney jilted Bjork after a decade of domestic bliss leaving her utterly heartbroken. But Bjork is not the type to lie down, and instead belted out that frustration in this transcendent body of songs. Vulnicura finds Bjork at her most lyrically straight-forward, trading obtuse haiku for succinct declarations of strife: “ I did it for love, I honored my feelings, You betrayed your own heart, corrupted that organ.” Bjork, displaying eternally excellent taste, lets hot shot producers bring the weird, with Arca and the Haxan Cloak both bringing their abstract production techniques to an otherwise string oriented album. Bjork is simply Bjork, transcending any notion of popular music or trend, and she will always resonate.
The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness - Track: As You Are
Toronto’s The Weeknd’s career exploded this year. But as he established himself as one of the world’s most popular artists, he also found himself as probably the least critically acclaimed of the contemporary R&B stars. Of course, Abel Testaye doesn’t make it easy for himself, with his occasional outright over-the-top misogyny, but I’ll be damned if Beauty Behind the Madness isn’t an absolutely perfect R&B record. Many of my friends said they have preferred The Weeknd’s earlier, weirder work. But you ask me, this is the type of music that Abel was meant to make: big, arena ready, anthemic pop music. It’s like a Phil Collins-led group playing R&B, and that is a compliment. The Hills, Can’t Feel my Face, and more were some of the tracks that had me putting a clinic on the dance floor all year. There also has to be something said of The Weeknd’s voice: there is nothing like it. It doesn’t even sound very trained, as if Abel just opens his mouth and that is what comes out of him.
Nao - February 15 - Track: Inhale, Exhale
With only an EP and a single to her name, the East London-born Nao has re-defined danceable R&B. Often compared to other transformative R&B artists FKA Twigs and Kelela, there is something undeniably less austere and far more youthful about Nao’s sound. From the opening glorious bassline of February 15’s first track Inhale, Exhale, Nao conjures up images of neighborhood block parties and dance-offs. Her voice is high-pitched and adolescent-sounding, Nao’s sound is completely all her own. Much less self-consciously arty than her peers, Nao’s sound almost comes off like an elevation of the bubblegum soul of Deniece Williams. It is more street-wise, to be sure, but this is music to dance to. I listened to these five songs dozens of times throughout the year, and never did I get sick of it. Nao is fully in control of her product (she even released her music on her own label, Little Tokyo).
Miguel - Wildheart - Track: Hollywood Dreams
Miguel’s deep love of music has always been apparent; he has equal adoration for artists as disparate as Prince and Led Zeppelin. As good as his 2012 release Kaleidoscope Dream was, Miguel needed to grow as a musician to fully embrace the retro-tinged neo-psychedelica soul that he has achieved on the excellent Wildheart. Miguel always felt like he might be the millennial answer to Prince, but with this sound he has gotten there. The album is dripping with sex, but like with Prince it comes off as more a celebration of sex than a misogynist fantasy. Miguel is as focused on the woman’s pleasure as he is his own, and somehow that comes through sonically. The album is fairly maximal, similar in production to big ‘70s rock albums, and Miguel has emerged as a guitar player to be reckoned with. Miguel is a big Lenny Kravitz fan, and Lenny appears on the excellent album closer face the sun. But Miguel’s sound feels like what Lenny’s music could be if Kravitz weren’t so concerned with making songs that can accompany car commercials (people often forget that Lenny’s first record was actually pretty fucking good though).
Jamie xx - In Colour - Track: Stranger in a Room (feat. Oliver Sim)
Perhaps some would feel more comfortable placing Jamie XX’s solo masterpiece In Colour on a list of electronic albums, but the record is far too joyously accessible to be taken as anything other than pop. Unlike bro DJs like Diplo and Steve Aoki that try and make dance music more pop, Jamie XX’s music feels both essentially pop and essentially dance. In Colour is a celebration of the UK’s deep history in dance music re-purposed for a magical conceptual pop record: Good Times channels grime, Stranger in a Room taps into Madchester dance pop, SeeSaw goes for trip-hop, and Sleep Sound re-ignites the acid house. So many styles filtered through such an unmistakable musical voice. Jamie XX is an obsessive fan of British music and has created a record that feels at once beautiful as much as it does culturally relevant. Though he got help from his cohorts from the XX on this album, Jamie XX seems to find much more joy behind a stack of records and a labtop than he does a guitar an a mic. There is more exuberance to this music than anything the man has ever been a part of. This is the future of dance music AND pop music.
Grimes - Art Angels - Track: Venus Fly (feat. Janelle Monae)
Remember that scene in Twin Peaks when they are all at the Roadhouse? Donna and James are making up. Ed and Norma are confirming their love. And Coop, just before the Giant tells him that is happening again, is tending to a beer while admiring the synth-y ‘80s goth pop group with a bleach blonde singer on the stage. Grimes to me is that fictional band made non-fiction. When profiled by Dazed earlier this year Grimes got a little defensive when pressed if she is reaching for a more accessible sound. But I think she was getting defensive because her music has always been quintessentially pop, but undeniably alien all the same. Venus Fly with Janelle Monae is ready for college kid catering night clubs, while California makes a grand case for the virtues of Bedroom Bubblegum, or some critic cliché to describe the sound of that song. The record is tight and well-sequenced, edited with the precision of a Hype Williams music video.
Jeremih - Late Night: The Album - Track: Planez (feat. J. Cole)
I had kind of given up hope on hearing anything new from Jeremih in 2015. The single for Don’t Tell ‘Em came out way back in summer of 2014 for chrissakes. But, the internet does it again and Jeremih’s excellent new collection of ‘90s R&B revitalizing tracks, Late Night: The Album, made it into our iTunes feeds a couple of weeks back. There are some beautiful melodies on this record. Opening track Planez finds a slow burning bass line under sequenced synths and utterly muscular vocal lines from the man himself. Actin Up takes a minimal beat with a sparse string section and lets Jeremih’s voice do all the talking. Jeremih, the man of a thousand hip-hop features, proves himself a capable album maker all on his own with Late Night: The Album.
Kelela - Hallucinogen - Track: Gomenasai
For whatever reason, Kelela’s brand of late period Aaaliyah-referencing dark and sexy R&B works really well in short bursts. The Hallucinogen EP, six tracks in all, feels fully fleshed out. Warp Records, legendary for their its with experimental electronic icons like Aphex Twin (a personal hero of mine) and Autechre, released this album. That alone provides some indication of the punk mentality Kelela exhibits. At this point in her career, she could start to shoot for RIhanna, or at least Janelle Monae-like, success. But that isn’t where she is at musically. Arca, the Venezuelan genius who basically popularized experimental music in 2015, produced the record and brings some delightful grit to the listening experience. That being said, Arca is a malleable producer, and the beats on this record feel more polished than anything he’s ever done before; almost sounding like Timbaland’s B-side deep cuts. Kelela regular Kingdom brings some dancier cuts to the mix, too. The record leaves you simultaneously satisfied and begging for more.
FKA Twigs - M3LL155X - Track: Figure 8
FKA twigs, the London-born former dancer, is a multi-media genius. She is a dancer for one thing, employing mesmerizing chereography into her performances. She knows her fashion, employing the looks of futuristic London-based designers Craig Green, Nasir Mazhar, Cottweiler and many more. Her 2015 EP, M3LL155X, came complete with a video spanning the record’s entirety utilizing bizarre images and close-ups of Rick Owens’ wife Michelle Lamy’s face. The film was directed by Twigs herself. All that versatile talent has potentital to distract from how utterly unique her music is. Twigs grew up listening to soul like Marvin Gaye and Ella Fitzgerald and punk and glam like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam Ant. Her music sounds nothing like that. She is the rare artist that is in no way bound by her influences. M3LL155X, though perhaps not as incendiary as 2014’s LP1, is another landmark record for the 27-year old artist. Abstract electronics collide with smoky R&B rhythms. The industrial tinge gives the sound a cold detachment, but the swirling soul grounds it in humanity.
Tame Impala - Currents - Track: The Moment
On any other record, I would have classified Tame Impala under rock n’ roll. Currents, Tame Impala’s 2015 release, is a pop record through and through. And if you ask me, they are all the better for it. I enjoyed Kevin Parker’s first couple of records, and especially admired his jaw dropping guitar playing, but Tame Impala always came off as a little too Arcade Fire-y to me. Not sonically, just in the sense that it was the type of rock guaranteed to be adored by Pitchfork and loved by a certain type of indie rock fan (the kind who has no clue what SST records is). Currents is Parker’s most accessible album, and it also feels like it’s his sweet spot. The record, while still featuring some stunning guitar work, emphasizes club-ready synths and beats. Parker has admitted that he was eager to hear Tame Impala in a dance setting, and it works. The album was recorded entirely at Parker’s home studio in Fremantle, Australia, but sounds like it could have been recorded at a Jay-Z studio. Polished, would be the best word for it. But Parker infuses big grand emotion into his music, and Currents is most confident and exuberant work yet.
Janet Jackson - Unbreakable - Track: BURNITUP! (feat. Missy Elliot)
Two years ago, when Beyoncé surprise released that stunning self-titled record, she was praised for blurring the boundaries of genre in efforts of pushing pop music into a more musically dense future. And she deserved it, that record is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, people seem to forget that Janet had already done that with her albums Rhythm Nation, and especially The Velvet Rope. Both those records are stunning masterpieces of auteur-driven pop music. Janet hadn’t put out anything close to hitting those records’ majestic heights since. 2015’s Unbreakable, though no Velvet Rope, is a thorough return to form for the icon. Janet has always reflected the music of the time into her music, as much as she has social issues. On this record she takes on EDM, that most maligned of popular music, but manages to not embarrass herself one iota (I wish we could say the same for Madonna). People often forget how tremendous a singer Janet is, and she reminds them of that undeniable range on After you Fall, a track that must be dedicated to her late brother, Michael. This is a woman going on her fourth decade of super stardom, not even her brother was making good music that long.
Adele - 25 - Track: Other Side
The criticism of Adele’s music (for example: Damon Albarn of Blur and Noel Gallagher of Oasis have both called her granny music, to paraphrase) I mostly agree with. Compared to where most of pop is at these days, her music feels conventional and safe. 25, like its predecessor, has some truly epic songs, like smash single Other Side. But it also has some skip overs. But all the criticism is undone when you consider that voice, which she has added even more range to with this new record. She hits some notes that leave you with goosebumps; a physical reaction that overrides critical conceptualization. And she also sold 4 million records in two weeks, so she is pretty much single-handedly keeping the record industry afloat (I exaggerate, but fuck that’s a lot of CDs).
Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon - Track: High by the Beach
I really have tried to avoid Lana del Rey’s whole thing. In no way do I think her deserving of the “Lynchian pop” description that critics have often tagged her with. Her music is more or less soul-driven pop with a smokier and sultrier voice than most of are used to. That being said, I really loved Ultraviolence; tracks like West Coast and Shades of Cool were full of darkly evocative mood and swagger. Honeymoon feels a bit rushed in comparison with its predecessor, but its first half is fairly flawless, with High by the Beach sounding like Lana at her most irreverently Lana-ness. Does Lana have many more records in her? It does sound like she is floundering a bit.
Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion - Track: I Really Like You
I avoided this record until last week. I was perfectly content to have Carly be that one girl with that one seductively annoying great pop song, Call Me Maybe. Then, at a party I heard that chorus, “I really really really really really really really like you,” and while initially offended, found myself singing along before I caught myself. Carly’s music gets IN YOUR HEAD. But while it’s there, you realize you don’t want it to go away, like a Britney Spears song infecting your brain like a tumor. You want those offensively catchy melodies to stay in there, like a safety blanket. I hate this record as much as I love it, and that’s what makes it so fun.