What makes for a perfect pop album?

A combination of things raise some albums above their peers. Hit singles with irresistible hooks. Key album tracks that become classics in their own rights. A certain alchemy of singer, songs and production that’s almost impossible to calculate or replicate.

There are any number of reasons that perfect pop albums flip a switch in listeners’ brains and take up residence here. There have been many over the years. Here are ten of the most memorable.

Thriller by Michael Jackson

Any discussion of perfect pop albums has to start with Thriller. Michael Jackson had enjoyed some solo success before this. Off the Wall was a huge hit four years earlier and established Michael as a solo star. Thriller was something else. Seven of its nine songs were released as singles. All reached the Top 10. #1 hits “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” defined ’80s music and remain among the most respected songs in the pop/R&B canon. Thriller has sold over 32 million copies in the U.S. alone and more than 65 million worldwide. The album netted a truckload of awards for Jackson and visionary producer Quincy Jones, including eight Grammys. Moreover, Jackson’s videos for the singles revolutionized the then-developing medium and had far-reaching influence. The extended clip for the title track remains a Halloween staple. Even after all the hoopla, even after years of Jackson’s eccentricities and legal troubles, the songs are still great. They’re as compelling 23 years later as they were when they first debuted. Jackson earned the “King of Pop” honorific and Thriller may be the epitome of the perfect pop album.

21 by Adele

If there’s a female counterpart to Thriller, it’s probably 21. But while many expected big things from Michael Jackson, Adele’s rocket to pop immortality wasn’t quite as obvious. Her debut, 19, had been well-received and sold decently, but hadn’t made Adele a household name, exactly. 21 blasted off three indelible, massive #1 singles in “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire to the Rain.” The young British singer tapped into universal experiences of heartache and regret and delivered them with such raw emotion, that they grabbed an audience consisting of “everyone.” “Rumour Has It” landed in the Top 20, and other songs like “Turning Tables,” “One and Only” and “I’ll Be Waiting” got a lot of exposure. Plus the album contained unheralded gems like “Don’t You Remember” and “Take It All.” Adele connected with listeners in a way that almost defies explanation. It added up to global sales north of 30 million and Adele winning just about every music award there was. It’s sort of amazing to think that a singer scored a perfect pop album only her second time out.

Purple Rain by Prince

Prince had generated several pop, R&B and dance hits across his first five albums. But it was Purple Rain that brought the iconoclastic musical genius to a whole new level. Calling card single “When Doves Cry” was like nothing audiences had ever heard before. It gave Prince his first pop #1 and alone might have made Purple Rain a perfect pop album. Follow-up “Let’s Go Crazy” also went to the top, two more singles (the title track and “I Would Die 4 U”) made the top 10, while “Take Me With U” made it to #25. Key album tracks “The Beautiful Ones” and the gleefully filthy “Darling Nikki” became pop classics in their own right, each inspiring multiple covers. Purple Rain sold more than 13 million copies and won numerous awards, including an Oscar (it was a soundtrack, after all) and a pair of Grammys. Moreover, it influenced scores of pop, R&B, hip hop, dance and rock artists for years. Even today it still shows up on “best albums ever” lists and remains a vibrant touchstone for a variety of musical movements. Even as fans have struggled to understand some of Prince’s later work, Purple Rain remains a shining example of the perfect pop album.

Tapestry by Carole King

Until Thriller displaced it a decade later, 1971’s Tapestry reigned as the best-selling album in the U.S. and for good reason. Carole King had written some of the biggest hits of the ’60s, but her career as a performer hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. Recording an album of her own versions of some of her best known songs, plus a few new compositions, turned out to be a genius move. She scored a #1 single with the double-sided “It’s Too Late”/”I Feel the Earth Move” and made the Top 20 with another dual-sided hit “So Far Away”/ ”Smackwater Jack.” Those four cuts were a good indication of King’s diversity as a writer and Tapestry may be the best example of the ’70s singer/songwriter album. The production is fairly simple, not junking up the sound with too many frills. King may not be as dynamic a singer as some of the performers who covered her material, but her voice had a warm, expressive quality that delivered her words in a way that other singers didn’t quite match. Beyond the two hits, Tapestry is packed with classics like “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Beautiful,” “Where You Lead,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Natural Woman.” It netted four Grammys, including Album of the Year, and has sold in excess of 10 million copies in the U.S. Tapestry wasn’t just a perfect pop album, it defined its era.

Saturday Night Fever

It’s tempting to bill Saturday Night Fever as “only” a Bee Gees album. They’re on the cover and their influence is strongly felt on this late ’70s disco soundtrack. And of course, the fraternal trio scored five #1 pop/dance singles (“Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing”) that would move just about anyone’s feet. They reached the Top 40 with their other contribution, “More Than A Woman,” and wrote another #1 single from the album, Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.” Those songs alone would qualify Saturday Night Fever as a perfect pop album. But many fans forget the other contributions. Disco music’s reputation has come a long way since snobs regularly attacked it with a venom usually reserved for mass murderers. The other cuts on the album showed how interesting dance-based songs can be. A couple of tracks recast classical compositions as dance jams quite effectively; Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” was another #1 for the soundtrack. “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps also hit the Top 40. The album sold over 15 million copies in the U.S., making it one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. And it defied its detractors’ distaste to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. These songs keep popping up on radio and television, even almost four decades later. Saturday Night Fever transcended its milieu to become a timeless, perfect pop album.

Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson

Kelly Clarkson might have become a footnote after her modestly successful first album. Instead, the original American Idol came back with a collection that cemented her place in pop history. Breakaway generated four Top 10 hits, including the title cut, “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Because of You.” But it was “Since U Been Gone” that really caught the music world’s attention. Clarkson injected some rock swagger into the irresistible dance/pop template, making the song a classic kiss-off. “Walk Away” also made its way into the Top 20, and “Gone” got some decent airplay, too. Album cuts like the indie rock-baiting “Addicted” and “Hear Me” earned Clarkson some cred. More than anything, Clarkson demonstrated on this album how relatable a pop star she is; fans felt a strong connection to the singer, like she was a friend or sister. The album got a lot of praise and sold over 6 million copies in the U.S. alone and earned Clarkson a pair of Grammys. Clarkson has pretty much personified the adult pop sound of the past dozen or so years and Breakaway stands as her perfect pop album.

An Innocent Man by Billy Joel

Billy Joel was pretty deep into his career when he released An Innocent Man in 1983. Unlike others who served as exemplars of a particular moment in contemporary pop, Joel created a perfect pop album by returning to the sounds of the past. An Innocent Man was a pop revival collection, translating the sounds of the ’50s and ’60s of Joel’s youth into modern hits. It was a template that many after him would follow. And it worked rather well. The album sold over 7 million copies in the U.S. and generated six Top 40 hits. Most memorable was the #1 single “Tell Her About It” and fellow Top 10 hits “Uptown Girl” and “An Innocent Man” were ubiquitous. “The Longest Time,” “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” and “Keeping the Faith” all kept Joel in the spotlight. “Easy Money” and “This Night” got some attention, too. An Innocent Man earned Joel a couple of Grammy nominations and even if it seems a bit quaint three decades down the road, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t know all the words when one of the songs pops up somewhere on the radio.

Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

Heart Like A Wheel was the album that finally made Linda Ronstadt a big star, after years of more modest success. While it’s not as big a seller as some of the other entries on this list (“only” double platinum in the U.S.), it was a showcase for both a wide variety of mid-70s songwriters and the production genius of Peter Asher. Her covers of “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” hit #s 1 and 2, respectively, on the pop charts, while she took her version of “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” to #2 on the country chart. But the album is packed with fantastic songs and some of Ronstadt’s best performances. She’s amazing on the title track (written by Anna McGarrigle), possibly one of the best album cuts of the era, and she blows away James Taylor’s own version of his gentle “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Heart Like A Wheel was nominated for several Grammys (winning for “I Can’t Help It”) and often pops up on “best of” lists. As the embodiment of the ’70s California Pop sound, it’s more than earned its status as a perfect pop album.

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

The legend that surrounds Rumours is almost as compelling as the album itself. Recorded while the two couples that made up 4/5 of the band were breaking up, Rumours went on to become one of the biggest-selling pop/rock albums ever, moving over 20 million copies in the U.S. alone. It generated four Top 10 hits, including “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac’s only #1 single), “Go Your Own Way,” “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun.” But this is a collection whose album cuts are just as crucial. For almost 40 years, those songs have made up the bedrock of a variety of rock and pop radio playlists. “The Chain,” “I Don’t Want to Know” and “Gold Dust Woman” are AOR radio staples. Meanwhile, the gentle “Songbird” is one of pop music’s greatest lullabies. Rumours won the Album of the Year Grammy and its songs have frequently been covered, often bringing the album to the attention of new generations. For its quality, success and far-ranging influence, Rumours epitomizes the perfect pop album.

Surfacing by Sarah McLachlan

Surfacing can be a divisive album for Sarah McLachlan fans. Those who discovered her via her earlier albums view it as the moment when she moved away from the alternative world to pursue pop success. Others view it more fondly as the vehicle that introduced them to the Canadian singer/songwriter. Regardless of the interpretation, Surfacing makes a good case for being a perfect pop album. McLachlan’s prior singles had some modest pop success, while making her a star on the alternative scene. Surfacing gave McLachlan a quartet of Top 40 hits, including “Adia” (#3) and “Angel” (#4), while making her a huge star in the adult pop world. With over 8 million copies sold in the U.S., it’s the singer’s biggest hit. It also caught McLachlan as the face of the mid/late ’90s explosion in female-centric pop and rock, which all came together on the hugely successful multi-artist Lilith Fair tour, which McLachlan organized. Beyond the hits, songs like “I Love You” and “Full of Grace” turned up quite a bit, often via television placements. McLachlan picked up a pair of Grammys for the album and then went on to fully embrace her role as the Queen of Adult Pop.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 17, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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