This has been a rich year for popular music, driven by major artists who continue to evolve in ways that are surprising and distinct from their peers. With a third of the year still before us, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, David Bowie, Charli XCX, and Kendrick Lamar have transcended expectations with albums that respond to the modern channels through which stardom is built and maintained. No longer do you need a radio hit or arena tour to matter. A 45-minute visual depicting the assembly of a staircase will do.

In comparison, last year felt a little smaller, a little more favorable to artists who don't cast such a large shadow. Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion was an album suited to that context. It is a rigorous display of craftsmanship and a testament to the mechanics of songwriting and production. It has nothing to say about the world around it except that we should enjoy songs for their own sake, even if they don't announce their social or political significance. The songs, in the beauty and ingenuity of their construction, are enough.

So it's a strange year for Jepsen to return with a collection of Emotion outtakes. Had they been released as bonus tracks on the album's deluxe edition, they would have lent depth to a particular moment in Jepsen's career. But the current chronology suggests a prolonged fixation on certain ideas and techniques, contrasting against the music we've received this year from pop artists who are anything but static, and in some instances are defined by their repulsion to stasis. Ask the fan who longs for the "old Kanye" or has fretted over whether Ocean's Blonde is a proper R&B album.

Context does not make Emotion Side B a "worse" album than it would be in another environment. But it sheds light on Jepsen's talents, obsessions, and processes in relation to other artists making music for a mass audience.

The work of pop song-making--the repetition, refining, and discarding--is the core of Jepsen's artistry. In an age where celebrity is a 24-hour-per-day, multimedia project, Jepsen's musical self is useful only within the confines of her songs. She does not suggest much internal conflict, but rather lives in a constant state of romantic longing that is not subject to examination. It is accepted as a way of being.

Jepsen's only tension--the relationship between cool and uncool--exists outside herself, and is a result of her cultural environment. This relationship is anchored in a revival of the musical signatures of 1980s pop music, in which digital sounds produced anxieties about the replacement of human expression with machines. Perhaps in response to these anxieties, the sounds of 1980s pop music had an exaggerated, physical presence. There was a firmness to them, a tactile quality that announced the means of their production.

In the 1990s, these sounds became uncool because they came to represent a primitive reaction to fears of technological progress. This is how culture works--the preoccupations of an era are discarded and demonized once they are recognized as trends, lie dormant, and eventually are reconsidered through the lens of nostalgia. This cycle has reached its latter stages in the previous decade, as the children of the 80s have become the people who make and write about music, shaped by and reverent toward the music of their formative years. Suddenly, the digital sounds of the 1980s became reference points for modern innovations, and were cool once again.

Within Jepsen's music, there is much less tension. It is not full of dynamic social or political ideas, so execution is essential. Her best songs arise from a great harmony of songwriting and production, in which the melody, lyrics, and vocals are sharpened or transformed in the studio.

'Run Away With Me', from Emotion, is a product of this harmony, building and throbbing until it finds release in a chorus that is a marvel of misdirection--it creates the appearance of abandon through a sudden leap in volume and the compression of sonic space, but operates with precision and control. It's the tightening, the sudden shift in presentation, that simulates catharsis, and it's an act of expert craftsmanship. Here, Jepsen captures longing in its most intense and vulnerable state, the moment when your entire capacity for desire is concentrated on one object, and it seems entirely reasonable to leave everything else aside.

On Side B, nothing approaches that symbiotic wholeness. In each song, there is something missing, or an error of execution. The latter is most apparent on 'Body Language', which features one of Jepsen's nimblest melodies. Jepsen sings it as such, engaging in a verbal hopscotch as she skips through certain phrases, varying her tempo and emphasis. But the track behind her stiffens just when it needs to bend. There is too much--a bass line turned too loud, a harmonized chorus made too large--and the song falls out of alignment.

Throughout the record, minor errors of emphasis and addition create small disruptions that have large consequences. The alchemy of pop music requires a precise combination of inspiration and revision. When the two come together, the result is the sort of magic that can unite a nation for months at a time--think 'Call Me Maybe' or, from this year, Rihanna's 'Work'. A single mistake can be fatal. In isolation, Side B's problems can seem microscopic, but they ripple outward, leaving fault lines that pull songs apart.

This kind of entropy can be exciting when embraced as a compositional strategy. Rihanna's Anti, West's The Life of Pablo, and Ocean's Endless and Blonde are each unified by curiosity more than a single aesthetic or thematic mission. Between and within songs, frequent sharp turns create a restless urgency. You get the sense these artists think from second to second, from sound to sound. When they tire of one arrangement, they don't waste time. But each also understands sound on an emotional level, how shifts in pitch, timbre, volume, and texture can produce a mutual vulnerability between the listener and artist. When neither side knows the destination, the journey becomes an act of exploration.

Jepsen's music doesn't work like that. The success of Emotion and its predecessor, Kiss, was a product of balance. From song to song--with a few exceptions--the proportions were just right, allowing her melodies and vocal decisions to shine at an ideal angle.

Side B does not find that balance, and is most instructive in the ways it illuminates her process. It lets us peek in on the misfits that are the product of every pop album, and hints at the unsexy labor of music-making. The hits that sound so easy are anything but, and with Emotion Side B, Jepsen has the evidence to prove it.