Over the course of its first decade, self-described “pop alternative source” Cherrytree Records has traded in everything from garage rock revivalism to wholly above-ground radio assaults.
Though still housing a diverse roster, Cherrytree has come into its own by solidifying a niche as a key importer of highbrow pop from abroad. During the last several years, the label has handled the US releases of some of the most forward-thinking European albums to still fall somewhere under the umbrella of popular music; for evidence of their discography’s progressiveness, consider the feverish creativity of Robyn’s Body Talk series versus the predictability of artists who are more content to play fair with Top 40 norms, or look to the power of Jessie Ware’s Devotion relative to Adele’s decidedly safer retro-future soul.
This list, which features Cherrytree’s very first record and winds its way right up to the present, is an attempt to catalog the releases that best provide a subversive counterpoint to mainstream conservativeness.
10. Röyksopp and Robyn – Do It Again (2014)
Though Röyksopp’s The Inevitable End isn’t without gravity, it could be argued that the Norwegian twosome’s 2014 album — reportedly their last LP — navel-gazed and meandered too much to register as an entirely satisfying swansong. Perhaps it’s more fitting to think of this collaboration, released several months prior to The Inevitable End, as the duo’s proper farewell to the full-length (never mind that it’s technically considered an especially long EP). It’s here, contending with Robyn’s restlessness and bravado, that Röyksopp were able to reconnect with the exploratory yet debonair sensibility that helped their 2001 debut, Melody A.M., stand out so gracefully from the rest of the down-tempo pack.
9. The Fratellis – Costello Music (2006)
Though The Fratellis have always been pegged as pilferers of historic Brit rock, Costello Music’s secret weapon is a knowingly Neanderthal quality borrowed from The Ramones (dead giveaway: Fratelli is a phony surname adopted by each band member). The choruses of major UK hits “Whistle for the Choir” and “Chelsea Dagger” glow with a kind of idiot glee, but the band simply couldn’t sustain this manic energy, and this debut LP was followed by an underwhelming sophomore effort, a lengthy hiatus, and the general dissipation of garage rock’s 2000s comeback. No matter — Costello Music, like some fine but forgotten pub rock record of the mid-‘70s, remains worthy of rediscovery.
8. Lady Gaga Featuring Beyoncé – “Telephone” single (2010)
Over the course of Fame Monster’s 34 minutes, Lady Gaga’s self-consciously sleazy Euro-disco pretentions tend to grate, but the single “Telephone” acted as a tidy summation of everything that once made her seem like someone who could believably toe the line between pop universalism and escapist insanity. The song can be digested by nearly anyone, is frivolous in a way that has surely infuriated some, and was just eccentrically kitschy enough to sound slightly different from everything else that hit the radio in early 2010 (the single’s blatantly Tarantino-esque music video and winningly assaultive guest spot from Beyoncé didn’t exactly hurt matters, either).
7. The Pipettes – We Are the Pipettes (2006)
Just before the likes of Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and Wavves helped make girl group pop ubiquitously cool again, The Pipettes inched onto year-end lists with this campy yet reverent take on Phil Spector-esque confectionaries. Sure, the “Be My Baby” beat and Wall of Sound productions have intermittently served as indie touchstones throughout the decades (see: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, etc.), but back in the mid-2000s, The Pipettes’ blend of winking naiveté and bubblegum-sticky sha-la-la hooks felt entirely fresh. That The Pipettes chose to spike all this sugar with lyrics that gently lampoon the gender stereotypes common to classic pop only makes We Are the Pipettes sound better on repeat listens.
6. La Roux – La Roux (2009)
It’s one thing to affect the production techniques, moods, and visual panache of vintage synthpop, and on their eponymous debut, UK duo La Roux certainly indulged in their share of unapologetic retro posturing. But as so many tepid new wave revivalists have proven, actually crafting songs that rival the infectious plasticity of classic ‘80s pop is another matter entirely. Just one listen to “In for the Kill” and “Bulletproof” (the latter a top 10 charter on both sides of the Atlantic) is enough to tell you that Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid are the rare throwback songwriters who have legitimately mastered the architecture of the radio-ready single. Unsurprisingly, these hits are the album’s melodic highpoints. Yet La Roux’s passionate, straight-faced embrace of the absolutely silly aspects of their influences makes this an oddly touching front-to-back listen.
5. Feist – Let It Die (2004)
Assembled from the sounds of French yé-yé pop, late-night jazz, sophisticated singer-songwriter records of the ‘70s, a Bee Gees cover, and whatever else happened to pop into Leslie Feist’s head, 2004’s Let It Die is collage art as a personal statement (and, incidentally, Cherrytree’s first release). Many were quick to appropriate this patchwork aesthetic, but few (if any) of Feist’s peers matched her effortless dexterity. Perhaps more than any album, it’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which hit theaters a couple of months before the release of Let It Die, that feels like the most appropriate companion piece. Like Michel Gondry’s film, this record is so eager to please with its joyously imaginative cutting and pasting that it can totally blindside you with its sudden bursts of heartbreaking vulnerability.
4. Feist – The Reminder (2007)
The elegantly twee sound Feist engineered on 2007’s The Reminder has become so ingrained in pop culture that it can be difficult for present-day listeners to lend the album the open mind it deserves. Feist’s palette of jaunty banjo plucks, adorably sparkly vibes, group handclaps, and whoa-oh choruses are now a veritable template for the sound of laboriously cute TV advertisements and artists looking to cash in on quirk. But those able to dissociate The Reminder from nearly a decade’s worth of disingenuous sound-alikes and cloyingly scored car commercials aping “1234” will be greeted by one of the most generously warm, outsized pop albums to ever be slapped with the “indie” tag.
3. Jessie Ware – Devotion (2012)
Just thinking about a decidedly adult pop artist trying to latch onto youth trends is often enough to make one shudder with secondhand embarrassment. Yet in the case of Jessie Ware’s Devotion, the singer’s old-fashioned balance of soul-deep yearning and refined stoicism is somehow made to feel new, while of-the-second dance productions are allowed the grace to sound timeless. If the most arresting moments are all about the direction R&B is headed, the album’s quieter shadings ultimately prove Ware doesn’t have to rely on contemporary rhythms to hold our attention. Perhaps it’s actually the modern pop climate that desperately needs the dignity of her voice.
2. Robyn – Body Talk (2010)
Coming off like a best-of album in miniature, this unusually cohesive comp plucked highlights from Robyn’s 2010 Body Talk EPs and added a series of new, equally inspired songs. The resultant record easily ranks as one of the Swedish diva’s most adventurous, emotionally nuanced releases. As expected, Robyn impressed with her ability to construct immediate songs out of truly progressive electronic soundscapes. Perhaps even more admirable, however, was her willingness to look inward and backward without betraying her future-pop vision. Body Talk features everything from a reunion with hit-tooling savant Max Martin (who helped craft some of Robyn’s most successful mainstream work in the ‘90s) to the irrepressible swagger of “Fembot,” but it’s the nakedness of “Dancing on My Own” and “Hang with Me” that somehow feels boldest.
1. Disclosure – Settle (2013)
Many great electronic artists seem to work from the inside out; that is, they start with a feeling, then use the technology at hand as a means of shaping, refining, and expressing that emotion. Perhaps in the case of Guy and Howard Lawrence, it works the other way around. Whether toying with their vintage Juno synth, Sam Smith’s voice, or a motivational speaker’s rant, the brothers Lawrence are able to locate the carnal within the mechanical and accentuate the heady and heartfelt aspects of music that’s aimed at the feet. Just about every individual sound on Settle is alive with a sense of discovery and genuine novelty — which are, of course, qualities common to not just the best house records, but the finest pop music in general.