These days there sure aren’t many pure pop albums that really satisfy. The problem is, what differentiates a pop album from an album of popular music that is a little deeper and more sophisticated is just that: pure pop albums are limited by the fact that they aren’t very deep or sophisticated by design. In the movie industry, broad comedies are similarly unsatisfying; and it’s pretty much by definition — they’re broad. This is the nature of the entertainment beast now: everything is specialized, marketed to fill a particular niche or target audience. Strangely, pop is now one of these niches, even though this harsh reality decidedly flies in the face of the genre’s catch-all description. But as the mid-’90s became the late ’90s, the music industry shifted away from the exciting days of the decade’s first half — which saw the mainstream receive three different transfusions into its bloodstream courtesy of alternative rock, hip-hop, and electronica — towards stale, safe, sterile, corporate, controlled, “produced” music.
At some point — during the teen pop craze of the late ’90s, if I had to put my finger on it — pop became completely separate from rock, for pretty much the first time since rock came on the scene in the ’50s. Increasingly, we saw music that was simply programmed or synthesized as a means of recreating something real, which resulted in really processed music. And I’m not sure what you can find on the Billboard Hot 100 today is any different, at least in that sense. Because of this, the scope of pop has been dramatically reduced to include music that is inherently shallow. (You know, the Top 40 stuff.) It’s very close to what I would call a flawed genre — nearly everything it includes now has very little chance of being great. Part of the issue lies in our tendency to classify everything to death in our current digital age, when the infinite abundance of every kind of music has resulted in the narrowing of genres (particularly when music reaches the marketing phase of its release).
This is a pretty odd phenomenon to witness, since there actually is a greater diversity of music being made now than ever — and it’s just a search away. But where does this leave pop, especially when it comes to pop albums? One of the inherent problems with making a straight-ahead pop record these days is that it’s usually pretty evident that every song wants to be a hit single, which is why the cliché that every pop album only has two or three good songs on it has some truth to it, at least in the sense that it’s usually clear that some songs are better than others — some songs become hits, while the rest don’t make the cut. During the album rock era’s 1970s peak, perhaps the most consummate pop record was Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours, which certainly played like a pop album, even if upon closer inspection it clearly isn’t.
Underneath the surface, Rumours had so much to offer, since the band’s three singer/songwriters had distinct presences and personalities, which resulted in an endlessly faceted experience with plenty of depth. In the modern era, the album that best fits Rumours‘ description is none other than Adele‘s recent blockbuster 21, which hardly fits the ridiculously tight 2010s definition of pop I mentioned earlier. “Rolling in the Deep” is a magnificent pop song in the traditional sense; it crossed over onto multiple radio formats during its apex, like all the huge hits used to do, but this is the exception to the rule nowadays. The Top 40 stations are almost their own world now — how else can you explain Drake’s chart successes? — and very few albums that are pure pop are worthy of much attention.
Which brings us to Charli XCX‘s SUCKER, which was the final major release of 2014. Despite not appearing in stores until mid-December, SUCKER was all over many year-end lists, including Rolling Stone‘s. This was a major signifier to me that I had to take SUCKER seriously — frequently, albums released in December get left off year-end lists since publications typically have to have them finalized by the beginning of December. (Rolling Stone‘s certainly fit this description, appearing on the web on the first of December.) SUCKER was appearing on lists before it was even available to the public. On paper, you could make the argument that this created a lot of hype, but to be honest, I didn’t get around to listening to SUCKER until a little while after it’s release. (It’s just a busy time of year, with Christmas, family, and travel on everyone’s agenda.) Now that I have had time to fully evaluate it, I can report that SUCKER really is as solid as pure pop albums come these days. Naturally, this means it isn’t great, due to reasons already discussed: Every song has pretty much the same approach and sound, which is simply the nature of the beast these days. But no songs are bad and there are several highlights such as the title track, “Gold Coins,” “Caught in the Middle,” and “Famous.”