So are those people correct — is Carly Rae Jepsen really pop’s most underrated artist right now? This is something I’ve been thinking about for weeks, have been bugging my friends and colleagues about, and finally decided to explore. Hence: a scientific investigation to find out which pop artist is really the most underrated, by breaking down the “underrated” credentials of Jepsen and nine other overlooked pop performers!
A few qualifiers before we begin: this list of 10 artists obviously does not include every underrated pop performer, of which there are dozens. These are the ones that I wanted to highlight because I thought they had a legitimate claim to Most Underrated. Second, all of these artists are solo acts — maybe a scientific investigation into the most underrated pop group can come at a later date — and each artist’s “underrated-ness” has been broken down into four categories, with each category being graded on a 1-to-5 scale by me, subjectively.
The four categories are:
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS. How popular or well-known is this artist with the general masses, right now and in the past, and specifically in the United States? This is obviously a highly subjective ranking, but I’ve tried to keep in mind album sales, single performances, touring opportunities and perceived awareness from casual pop fans. A 1 in this category means they are extremely successful commercially, and a 5 means that they have yet to grace even basic pop success.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: How do critics perceive this artist and their music? I used the review aggregating site Metacritic and common sense to determine the scores in this category. A 1 in this category means that critics regularly champion this artist, while a 5 means that critics openly dismiss or deride their music.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: Has this artist been underrated throughout the entirety of his or her career, and is that career more than a few months old? A 1 in this category means that they’ve been overlooked for a short amount of time, while a 5 means that they have been criminally underestimated for half a decade.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: An artist can be underrated with a few good singles to their name, but he or she would be far more underrated with a full discography of authoritative pop that has yet to breach the masses. A 1 in this category means that the artist’s music is good, while a 5 in this category means that the artist’s music is… well, mind-blowing.
Got all that? Great. Let’s determine which of these 10 pop artists (including Carly Rae Jepsen) is, mathematically, the most underrated:
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 2. Charli XCX has had a total of three songs in the Top 10 of the Hot 100: her solo hit “Boom Clap,” her Iggy Azalea team-up “Fancy” and her Icona Pop collaboration “I Love It.” She’s performed on award shows, toured internationally and covered magazines. The only reason Charli avoids a 1 here is because she hasn’t been able to unlock a hit album, as both 2013’s True Romance and last year’s Sucker failed to stick around at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. Properly rated singles artist, underrated albums artist.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 1. True Romance and Sucker were rightly championed as witty, forward-thinking full-lengths, scoring near-universal acclaim on Metacritic and boasting critically adored singles like “You’re The One” and “Boom Clap.” If Charli XCX is underrated, it’s not for critics’ lack of trying.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 2. If one is to consider Charli XCX ‘underrated’ as a huge pop entity, then that status dates back roughly two years, when True Romance was released and fulfilled the promise of her early singles. Charli does have two albums that were overlooked by the general public to her name, but she’s been around for a relatively short amount of time and has limited underrated equity.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 5. True Romance is going to be on a short list of the best pop albums of the 2010’s when the decade comes to a close, and Sucker moved in lots of different directions but none of them disappointed. Charli XCX is making stunning music, and it’s reasonable to already be excited for her next full-length project.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 10/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 2. Olly Murs is obviously a bigger deal in his native U.K. than in the U.S., but he’s still go his 2012 Flo Rida collaboration “Troublemaker,” which peaked at No. 25 on the Hot 100 chart, as a calling card. And although the 31-year-old hasn’t turned that song into a presence on the stateside touring circuit, he’s a top-line artist overseas who has opened for One Direction and recorded with American stars like Demi Lovato and Travie McCoy.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 4. The British press is pretty okay with Murs’ feel-good pop, but over here, it’s difficult to find too many takes on his brand of hook-filled radio fodder (USA Today did review his last album, 2012’s Right Place, Right Time, but called it “formulaic”).
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 1. It’s difficult to call Olly Murs “underrated” prior to his most recent studio effort, Never Been Better, which included a likable lead single (“Wrapped Up”) and some expertly crafted pop tunes, as compared to the generic collections he previously released. Murs’ songwriting is undervalued, but we’re only just now starting to see that.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 1. Murs needs more albums like Never Been Better to firmly plant his feet in the ‘underrated’ territory, but his new full-length is a nice start.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 8/20
Carly Rae Jepsen
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 2. Sure, Kiss did not sell a ton of copies upon its 2012 release, and E•MO•TION will likely not be a blockbuster success following the stinted chart run of lead single “I Really Like You.” Still, it’s hard to claim that an artist with two Top 10 hits — including a nine-week run at No. 1 — and arena experience opening for her pal Justin Bieber is commercially unsuccessful. Jepsen is popular enough thanks to “Call Me Maybe” that your mom probably knows her name, and even if it didn’t take off at radio, “I Really Like You” still managed to crack the Top 40 and get played on Saturday Night Live.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 3. This is going to drop as more rave reviews come in for E•MO•TION, but Kiss only has a score of 63 on Metacritic — far too low for one of the decade’s most effervescent pop full-lengths — and was largely dismissed by taste-making publications as The Album With “Call Me Maybe” On It. The recent reviews of Jepsen’s latest singles and album have been largely positive, and she’s been championed as pop’s underrated princess on social media for months, but we’ll see if sites like Pitchfork fully embrace her as best new music.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 3. Carly Rae Jepsen was undervalued the minute her magnificent Kiss album was released in September 2012, a month after “Call Me Maybe” had abdicated the Hot 100 throne. At that moment, Jepsen went from No. 1 smash to underwhelming album sales, and has spent the past three years trying to convince the world that she is far more than two hit singles (counting “Good Time” with Owl City). She was underrated in 2013 and 2014, and in 2015, “I Really Like You” and the other advance E•MO•TION singles were underrated.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 5. Seriously, E•MO•TION really is the Pop Album of the Year, and looking back on it, Kiss is a slightly flawed but wholly exhilarating listen. If we are evaluating modern pop artists, Jepsen has to be placed among the cream of the crop.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 13/20
Marina and the Diamonds
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 3. Marina Diamandis has released three albums and has zero Hot 100 hits to her name; her latest full-length, Froot, did debut in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 albums chart earlier this year, but has sold only 75,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music; and her striking pop anthems draw sizable festival crowds (and have been heard opening for Coldplay and Katy Perry) but have yet to yield an XL U.S. headlining tour. Marina and the Diamonds grinds out singles commercially, but has yet to come close to a home run.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 1. Marina’s manicured indie-pop is catnip for serious rock critics — even when one of her projects is not considered up-to-par, as was the case with 2012’s Electra Heart, a lot of respectful ink is still being spilled. For those wondering, Froot is among the best-reviewed pop albums of the year, with an average Metacritic score of 75 yielded from multiple rave takes on the third album.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 5. As a British artist hoping to rearrange the U.S. pop music scene, Diamandis has essentially been underrated her entire career, dating back to her 2010 debut The Family Jewels. Peers like Charli XCX and Ellie Goulding have had songs break through to Top 40 radio, but Marina and the Diamonds is still searching for that foothold.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 4. All of the Marina and the Diamonds albums are intensely rewarding without quite crossing the threshold to indispensability. Still, that’s an impressive feat for three straight LPs, and a best-of Marina and the Diamonds album that cherry-picked the highlights of each set would be pretty killer.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 13/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 2. The U.K. X Factor finalist scored a gigantic U.S. hit in 2012 with “Want U Back,” and “With Ur Love” and “Swagger Jagger” popped on the charts overseas. Cher Lloyd might have have a ton of name recognition to casual pop fans in America, and her last album, 2014’s Sorry I’m Late, failed to spawn any hits, but she’s headlined tours, has 7 million Twitter followers and proven her Top 40 popularity in the past.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 5. Lloyd is a classic case of a commercial pop artist that has been shirked by tastemakers — or bashed by them. Debut album Sticks + Stones was met with bad reviews, and Sorry I’m Late did not crack the Metacritic radar. “Critically acclaimed pop star Cher Lloyd” is a string of words that does not make any sense right now.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 1. That is, Lloyd has been underrated for exactly one year, from when Sorry I’m Late was released and Lloyd unceremoniously parted ways with Epic Records. That’s because…
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 2. The reason Cher Lloyd is on this list is because Sorry I’m Late, an album that came and went last year, is quietly a blast, with lots of spunky British humor and spark-plug hooks coiled around synth-pop stems. Lloyd is not making the type of boundary-pushing pop as some of the other artists here, but for what she offers, the U.K. singer-songwriter is rated far too low.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 10/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 3. Jesse McCartney hasn’t had a mainstream hit in a number of years, but he still boasts a mid-00’s singles discography with five Top 40 hits (including “Leavin’,” his biggest smash to date) and — fun fact — he co-wrote Leona Lewis’ career-defining single “Bleeding Love.” Although it’s been a good half-decade since Jesse’s last Hot 100 hit, he’s got a track record most up-and-comers would kill for.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 5. If McCartney’s singles and albums weren’t being largely ignored, they’d be soundly mocked by critics, solely based on the perception of the singer-songwriter as a relic of another era of pop. That’s completely unfair, but aside from on the most hardcore pop blogs, you’re not going to find a lot of J-Mac love.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 3. Jesse McCartney has been underestimated as a performer for years, but only started being overlooked as a recording artist with 2014’s suave, soundly entertaining album In Technicolor. Following 2008’s Departure, McCartney endured extended label struggles and scrapped an album titled Have It All; it was only last year that McCartney delivered a tangible product that the masses could underrate, though.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 1. Look, Jesse McCartney’s new music presents a polished take on the funk-driven dance music a lot of male pop stars are currently exploring, and deserves to be checked out by more people. Still, In Technicolor is not a “mind-blowing” release, and McCartney needs to continue getting down with his funky self (and some top-notch producers) before he earns the Most Underrated title.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 12/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 4. Sky Ferreira can brag that she’s played arenas while opening for Miley Cyrus on her Bangerz tour, but none of her singles — not even the blog-loved “Everything Is Embarrassing” — have graced radio, and her long-delayed 2013 album debut Night Time, My Time was hardly a huge seller. There’s no indication that Ferreira will soon, or ever, find a crossover hit as a lead or featured artist — in other words, have her Charli XCX moment.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 2. “Everything Is Embarrassing” was hailed as the pop song of 2012 upon its release and Night Time, My Time was basically bulletproof when it came to negative reviews. Ferreira’s blend of glam-pop and razor-sharp indie rock does not quite get the critical adoration of, say, a Grammy darling like Kacey Musgraves, but the blogosphere has propped up her music for a while.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 5. Ferreira originally planned to release her debut album in January 2011, after releasing the magnetic single “One” in 2010. The singer-songwriter has morphed into an entirely different artist since then, but she’s spent the entirety of her career being undervalued as a dynamic pop entity.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 4. “Everything Is Embarrassing” is as timeless as advertised, and Night Time, My Time was a gloriously messy work from an uncompromising auteur. Ferreira is docked one point here solely because she probably can go even bigger and better without commercial expectation tying her down.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 15/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 3. The Australian-born singer-songwriter has opened for Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue, performed at most major U.S. festivals and scored a viral hit when her single “Somebody Loves You” soundtracked a YouTube wedding proposal video that become an online hit in 2013. “Somebody Loves You” was a dance hit that failed to ignite the Hot 100 chart, and gorgeous debut album Take Me When You Go came and went on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 3. Betty Who is a blog favorite and has been declared a must-listen by sites like SPIN and (ahem) Billboard, but has yet to be taken seriously by the Pitchforks of the world, and Take Me When You Go did not even register on Metacritic. She’s not totally dismissed, but she’s not totally beloved, either.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 1. Who’s debut album is only 10 months old, so her run as an underrated pop performer is relatively short.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 3. Take Me When You Go, anchored by “Somebody Loves You” and follow-up single “All Of You,” is a stellar debut with a big heart and 80’s roots. Who is currently at work on the follow-up, and if she scores again, her underrated claim could quickly improve.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 10/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 4. Aside from his Gorgon City collaboration “Ready For Your Love” that became a Top 5 hit in the U.K. and a few high-profile production and songwriting gigs, Uzo Emenike has had virtually no mainstream looks to date, and is only followed in the U.S. by pop obsessives. He’s just getting started as a solo artist, of course, but for a British prodigy keeping good company, it’s been a fairly quiet start.
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 3. Pitchfork, the BBC and the Fader have all given MNEK a good amount of shine, for both his solo work and collaborations with artists like Rudimental and Duke Dumont. His debut EP, Small Talk, was not critically embraced upon its release earlier this year, but it’s only a debut EP, and still received positive press.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 1. Again, MNEK only has one EP out as a solo act — a very good, definitely underrated EP, but still, one EP.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 1. “Ready For Your Love” knocks and “Every Little Word” was one of last year’s slinkiest bangers, but this category is more about quantity, not quality. If MNEK keeps putting out more overlooked house jams, he can join the underrated upper echelon.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 9/20
LACK OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS: 3. Robyn is famous outside of the pop blogosphere — even if casual music fans don’t know much of the blonde-haired Swede, they probably know “Show Me Love” and “Dancing On My Own,” and might recognize her from opening for Katy Perry or popping up at their favorite alternative music festival. Still, Robyn’s mid-90’s one-two punch of “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love” has led to a second career of poor U.S. album sales and ubiquitous singles that somehow never crack Top 40 radio; for as much as everyone loves “Dancing On My Own,” the song never even cracked the Hot 100!
LACK OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM: 1. Robyn is one of the most critically lauded pop artists of the century, with her Body Talk album series earning her international fawning after 2005’s Robyn was championed overseas. The term “critical darling” was basically created for artists like Robyn.
LONGEVITY OF BEING UNDERRATED: 5. Make no mistake, Robyn should have been headlining U.S. arena tours five years ago, when Body Talk expanded her sound and collection of perfect pop singles. Robyn has spent the past 18 months recording and touring with Röyksopp and working on her upcoming collaboration with La Bagatelle Magique — both intriguing projects that deserve far more shine than they are being granted.
AMOUNT OF MIND-BLOWING MUSIC: 5. Since 2005, Robyn has smashed her competition whenever she has decided to slip back inside the pop universe; it seems as if she has an endless amount of sleek melodies waiting to challenge the genre. Even her minor works, like the Röyksopp mini-album Do It Again, are essential.
TOTAL UNDERRATED SCORE: 14/20
THE MOST UNDERRATED POP STAR AWARD GOES TO…
SKY FERREIRA! (15 points)
RUNNER-UP: ROBYN! (14 points)
SHARING THE BRONZE: CARLY RAE JEPSEN & MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS! (13 points)