While admittedly not quite the out-of-nowhere commercial success of its predecessor Kiss — which produced two Top 10 singles, including the immediately indelible “Call Me Maybe,” the Billboard-anointed Song of the Summer and outsold any other single in the universe in 2012 — Emotion was easily the most critically acclaimed mainstream, Top 40-style pop album of 2015, and possibly in years.
Placing an astounding third in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll (better than Taylor Swift or Justin Timberlake have ever done), it was named to year-end best-album lists of publications ranging from Time and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, where a poll of readers also named it 2015’s “most underrated album.”
“Call Me Maybe” itself had been nominated in two Grammy categories (Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance) in 2013, after everyone from Justin Bieber (who initially plugged the tune on Twitter) to Colin Powell to assorted sports teams either sang, danced or lip-synched to it in public.
Jepsen, a Canadian native, won a Juno Award for Single of the Year while Kiss took home Album of the Year and Pop Album of the Year trophies. This time out, though, Jepsen’s Juno consideration is limited to a “Fan Choice” award, and for the Grammys, she was shut out entirely — though clearly plenty of tastemakers out there would deem her at least as worthy as Pop Vocal Album nominees Kelly Clarkson, Mark Ronson, Florence and the Machine, or, um, James Taylor, whose songs, interestingly enough, Jepsen said her dad used to strum on acoustic guitar for her when she was a kid.
Anything that brings me pleasure doesn’t make me feel guilty
What critics liked most about Emotion — or E·MO·TION — was Jepsen seemingly stretching her sonic and emotional boundaries way beyond the wholesome sunshine of Kiss, as well as her lesser-known 2008 debut Tug of War, which got a bit of attention in the Great White North after she’d finished third in the reality completion Canadian Idol.
Emotion’s roll call of producers and collaborators was part of it: Sia, Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend (who Jepsen said made her sound like an actual vampire in “Warm Blood”!), Ariel Rechtshaid (whose lengthy resumé includes work with Haim among others), Swedish Svengali Shellback, Peter Svensson from the Cardigans (also Swedish), Devonté “Blood Orange” Hynes, and Vancouver indie popsters from the Zolas and Data Romance who made Jepsen’s BuzzFeed-namechecking “LA Hallucinations” rather trippy.
Jepsen said she had help whittling a couple hundred songs she wrote down to the album’s dozen (three more songs surface on the record’s deluxe edition), while she immersed herself in ‘40s swing, ‘70s disco, and especially the ‘80s hits of Prince, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, “this really emotional era of pop music,” she offered when interviewed by Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson. The goal, she told Samantha Vincenty from Popcrush was “an album that’s stuffed with some radio songs, but also some very left turns.”
Jepsen may even be teaching the hipster crowd a thing or two, if they generally resist catchy music
Emotion is certainly is that, though one could argue that the tracks that deviate least from the bouncy blueprint of “Call Me Maybe” — the extremely pop-crushy “I Really Like You,” and the girl-bonding “Boy Problems,” which almost didn’t make the cut — work best. The album starts with a bleating saxophone, not unlike the Sam Cooke swipe that launched Kiss, and between the neo-bubble-soul of “All That” and the merger of Yazoo synth-beats with Supertramp take-the long-way-home words in “Let’s Get Lost” and the Asian-restaurant tinkling of “When I Needed You” and the negative vibes of bonus cut “Black Heart,” not to mention Art of Noise-style “hey!” interjections here and there, it’s undeniably got a whole lot going on.
It’s all sort of like Jepsen’s career: Late last month, she played Frenchy on Fox’s Grease Live — “There’s a ‘50s-‘80s retro combination of cool right now,” she explained to Logan Hill of Billboard. That this ex-musical-theatre kid can appeal to the wide demographic tuning in to that TV event, while still reeling in critics and Pitchfork readers who keep tabs on indie’s trendiest stirrings, is nothing to sneeze at. Jepsen may even be teaching the hipster crowd a thing or two, if they generally resist catchy music. “Anything that brings me pleasure doesn’t make me feel guilty,” she sagely told Rookie.
All in all, 2015 for Carly Rae Jepsen was probably not a bad year to turn 30. But a Grammy nod still might’ve been nice.