Following a sluggish 2014, this year delivered a wealth of great pop records, including the the return of gifted singer/songwriters and pop divas. All of these albums garnered repeat plays in my house because they are well-written, thoughtfully assembled, and beautifully performed.
5. 7 by Paula Cole
To the surprise of her fans, Paula Cole dropped a new record, making her shortest gap between recording projects. Ever since going independent, Cole has found a groove of sweet, smart, and confessional pop tunes that highlight her gift for melodies and earnest vocal delivery. 7 continues to push the stripped down sounds of 2013's Raven. However the songs never sound Spartan; the singer/songwriter is a smart producer, and she brings in enough instrumentation to warm up each track, including the melancholic "New York City," her cover of lullaby "Goodnight Irene," and (my favorite) the catchy "Chickadees (and Sipping Tea)." Paula Cole is still making some of the best singer/songwriter pop out there.
4. What's Inside: Songs from Waitress by Sara Bareilles
Until now, I have not had the chance to tell you how much I adore Sara Bareilles's excellent new record, What's Inside: Songs from Waitress. The surprising thing about this project is that plays extremely well as a Bareilles records, despite being composed of tunes she wrote for her musical Waitress. It works so well because it is as carefully and lovingly produced as all of her previous records. Anyone of who loved Kaleidoscope Heart in particular will find themselves singing along to these bouncy, energetic tunes. Highlights include: "Opening Up," "Soft Place to Land," "She Used to be Mine," and "Everything Changes."
3. Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves
I'm sure you are seeing a pattern develop here: strong, thoughtful female singer/songwriters writing melodic and carefully produced songs. Joining the group is Kacey Musgraves and her followup to her break through album. This year's Pageant Material does not necessarily break new ground for the country star, but it does play more with character than place. For example, the catchy "Dime Store Cowgirl" is a country manifesto about growing up and finding success but still remembering where you come from. Musgraves handles these tunes with lots wit and heart.
2. Rebel Heart (Deluxe Edition) by Madonna
Madonna's Rebel Heart had a difficult roll-out that included problems with leaks and a rushed release of material, but none of that should detract from the fact that it is Madonna's best album in over a decade. Because it plays with the dichotomy of the diva's public persona (the rebel provocateur and the romantic), the album moves between these two poses over a sprawling 19 tracks. However, the results are diverse, catchy, interesting, and often warm. The dance music (like "Devil Pray," "Bitch I'm Madonna," and "Holy Water") is adventurous and rugged, just as the ballads (including "Ghosttown," "Joan of Arc," "Wash All Over Me," and "Rebel Heart") unearth the warm spirituality absent from her music since the early 2000s. Rebel Heart deserves Grammy attention, and it warrants many listens. Every time I revisit the record, it surprises me.
1. Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen
The award for Perfect Pop Record of 2015 goes to Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion. Though written with a large cast of cowriters and producers, the album deepens Jepsen's sound while also playing within her signature 80s retro wheelhouse. Each tune is expertly crafted around an infectious hook and Jepsen's sweet voice. Emotion is also a lot of fun, featuring tunes like the aching title track, bouncy "Boy Problems," the Sia-assisted "Making the Most of the Night," campy "LA Hallucinations," and modern "Warm Blood." The album's quality is so consistent, it's difficult to even recommend individual tracks. Just go buy the entire record and enjoy.