2016 is nearly over. I think I can speak of behalf of a majority of the public when I say: thank fucking God.
Music was a crucial distraction in a year so frequently dominated by sorrow, anger and faded hopes and crushed dreams.
The moodiness of the songs released throughout the year suggests that our pop stars couldn’t help but feel the funk, too: most pop efforts felt more serious, lonesome, and occasionally politically charged. Even Justin Bieber’s tropical House anthems tinged with sadness.
The charts, now a confused mish-mosh of streaming, radio and physical sales (remember CDs?), were mostly a bleak mess — The Chainsmokers and Halsey commanded the longest-running hit of the year with “Closer.” Hailee Steinfeld is being taken seriously as an artist. Musical.ly ‘stars’ are on the cover of Billboard. I have no idea what the general public even wants. More and more, I’m enjoying my bubble.
As always, my Top 20 Albums list is a little more personal (raw): these are the pop picks that got me through it this year — not what’s Most Popular or Highest Charting or Most Culturally Relevant. (Oh, and beyond my picks for #1 and #2, the rankings are somewhat arbitrary…I’ve never enjoyed that part.)
Feel free to leave your praise and gripes alike in the comments section below (and even your own Top 20 Albums of the year), but know that I probably won’t be looking much. Nothing good ever comes of that.
20. Gemini, Wanderlust
19. Niki & The Dove, Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now
18. All Saints, Red Flag
17. Foxes, All I Need
16. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
15. Tiffany, I Just Wanna Dance
14. JoJo, Mad Love.
13. Zayn, Mind Of Mine
12. Terror Jr, Bop City
11. Sia, This Is Acting
10. Madeline Juno, Salvation
Pop’s greatest surprise comes in the form of Madeline Juno, an enviable hair-having German singer-songwriter crafting unstoppably solid electro-pop. Salvation offered a breath of fresh Berlin air early in 2016, supplying Ellie Goulding-meets-Tove Lo-like major pop hooks and wispy vocals, Taylor Swift-esque lyricism and sparkling electro-pop production that didn’t necessarily follow this year’s downtempo groove. There’s a kind of magic in the melodies, from the charming ode to fleeting romance (“You Know What?”) to the album’s shimmering title track. Considering German-based talent is hardly common on the pop scene, Salvation feels all the more special.
9. Tinashe, Nightride
Tinashe, wigless and dead pop phenom, deserves so much more than the bumpy ride that is the journey to Joyride — but she’s still having a pretty killer year, from the fierce-as-fuck “Just Say” with KDA to guesting on her idol’s own “Slumber Party.” It’s not even the actual album, but Nightride still delivered the signature spaced-out sound we’ve come to expect from the deeply underrated artist in mixtape mode. Cuts like “C’est La Vie,” “Sacrifices” and the ultimate striptease “Touch Pass” remain immediate earworms, and the Nicola Roberts co-penned (!), Dev Hynes-produced (!) “Ghetto Boy” is one of the year’s finest productions. For supplying the slinky soundtrack to between-the-sheets action or kicking back and getting existential past the midnight hour, trust in Tinashe to bring you there.
8. BANKS, The Altar
Bolder, badder, and more unfuckwitable than ever before, BANKS brought a bad-ass sense of confidence to The Altar, the jagged follow-up to her 2014 debut filled with shadowy kiss-offs timed perfectly with the chill of Halloween. From the FKA twigs-like “Fuck With Myself” to the damning “Trainwreck,” the brooding singer-songwriter found plenty of menacing beats to wrap her quivering, Fiona Apple-esque vocals around on her second g-around. Standouts like “Gemini Feed” and “This Is Not About Us,” while demonic and twisted-sounding, certainly could stand on their own at radio. And few records felt quite as cathartic this year as “To The Hilt,” the album’s raw, emotionally drained bid adieu.
7. Tove Lo, Lady Wood
Didn’t you know? Tove Lo’s (still) gotta stay high all the time. Two years after crash-landing from the sky as the Queen of the Clouds, the messy-and-proud Swedish singer-songwriter returned with a more feminist-minded, thrill-chasing follow-up in Lady Wood, an unabashed ode to carnal desire, living without abandon and getting into all sorts of fucked up trouble. With her knack for razor-sharp hooks still in tact, Tove went the way of most artists and took it into moodier territory production-wise with slow-burners like “Influence” and “Cool Girl.” Standouts like “True Disaster,” “Vibes” and “Imaginary Friend” prove that she’s still the most important Swedish pop export to make it on US radio airwaves since Robyn.
6. Beyonce, Lemonade
It was impossible to ignore the impact of Lemonade in 2016, an album that provided a series of catchphrases instantly embedded into the cultural consciousness: “Becky with the good hair.” “I slay.” “Boy, bye.” In fact, one song alone caused her fanbase to unleash their fury on at least a few women suspected of being “the other woman” in her relationship with Jay Z. (The Hive is terrifying, to say the least.) Beyoncé’s long done away with her radio-friendly pop star trappings since 4, and each album feels like more than a movement than music: “Formation” alone, a rallying cry and #BlackLivesMatter anthem, is art that will go down in history for its sheer importance and power. “Daddy Lessons,” too, feels like an act of rebellion in the face of racially-charged criticism from the country community. (It’s also just a damn catchy tune.) Bey’s ability to disrupt, sonically step up and stop the world is unparalleled. And when the weight of the world feels too much, few songs feel as good to unwind to as “All Night.”
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, E•MO•TION: Side B
Carly Slay Jepselegend, Canada’s answer to Kylie Minogue, pop savior and Queen of “Queen Of” Memes, served up last year’s greatest pop album in the form of E•MO•TION. It only makes sense that just some of that record’s scraps are, in fact, pure gold. From the misleadingly chipper “Store,” which quickly took off as a Vine (RIP) viral sensation to A-plus pop servings like “Higher,” “Body Language” and “Fever,” Side B made the lack of an original LP from CRJ feel tolerable. But since Carly does friend-zoning better than anyone, it’s her whimpering moments like “Roses” and “Cry” that cut the deepest. It’s hard to believe this was a mere appetizer before the already-too-much-to-handle “disco”-inspired record that’s on the way. (Chills already.)
4. Rihanna, ANTI
In the few hours after ANTI‘s not-so-surprise release, I overrih-acted to Rih’s departure from radio-ready pop bangers with a fury, before quickly coming to appreciate, then love, her moody masterpiece for what it is: her most cohesive and interesting work of art since Rated R. (Besides, who could actually be mad at Rihanna?) As she’s done for years since her debut, the Barbadian goddess shaped the sound of radio in 2016 with the shadowy, sinister “Needed Me” and twerk-ready “Work,” which supplied dancehall in non-Justin Bieber/Diplo/Chainsmokers watered-down form. Songs like “Love On The Brain,” plus soothing closing ballads “Never Ending” and “Close To You,’ supplied proof that Rih’s soulful voice carries without the need for any souped-up production. Oh, and the sexy, electric guitar-whining “Kiss It Better” is one of her very best. In 2016, we came to terms with the fact that Rihanna isn’t satisfied with being a pop princess anymore: she’s a true artist. Yeah, I said it.
3. Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
Despite all of her success over the past year, Ariana Grande still has an underrated body of work hidden behind her lil’ latex bunny ears with Dangerous Woman. The album is a start-to-finish solid Max Martin and Savan Kotecha production, and yet some of its best moments — like the vogue-ready “Be Alright,” “Touch It,” “Thinking About You” and the dark and pulsating “Into You,” arguably the best pop song released in 2016 — were unjustly overshadowed by the less spectacular ode to dick overload “Side To Side (feat. Nicki Minaj)” which, to no surprise, took off with the clueless general public. It’s obvious that Ari’s still sorting out things visually (that “Into You” video, a snooze), but sonically, the pint-sized vocal powerhouse broke free in 2016 as one of the strongest contenders among the new pop princesses.
2. Utada Hikaru, Fantôme
The best art can come from the grimmest of circumstances. After nearly a decade since releasing her last Japanese studio album, Utada Hikaru returned to the music scene with the somber Fantôme in 2016, a tribute to her late mother, who tragically committed suicide in 2013. Inspired by the conflicting emotions of both becoming a new mother and losing her own within the past three years, Hikki channeled her complex feelings into the largely stripped-back and sentimental productions, putting the lyricism at the forefront, resulting in some of her most poetic and personal work to date. There are momentary musical escapes, as with the charming “Nijikan Dake No Vacance” with Shiina Ringo, an ode to LGBTQ unrequited love (“Tomodachi”) and heartbreaking lullabies (“Ningyo”) — but, above all, a lingering sense of hope remains. Nothing is quite as haunting this year as the self-encouraging chant running throughout opening track “Michi”: “It’s a lonely road, but I’m not alone.”
1. Britney Spears, Glory
Shocking, I know.
All but obscured beneath the shadows of one of the most grim years in the recent history of the world, there was this — a twinkling, brightest morning star called Glory; a much-needed distraction from the fear, violence and grief that overtook the headlines.
In the New York Times review, Jon Pareles summed up the Britney of 2016 as an impersonal “sexpot” with no message in her music. That’s true: half of Glory lyrically reads like a Grindr exchange. But even when self-empowerment pop was picking up speed five years ago in a world of “Firework,” “We R Who We R,” “Born This Way” and “Who Says?”, Britney was busy dancing “Till The World Ends.” Simply put: she’s just not that artist.
But then, most of her fans don’t want, or need, to be hit over the head with confidence-boosting platitudes or deep social commentary. They want to dance. They want to fuck. And they want, at least briefly, to escape the world.
If anything, Britney’s mere existence post-2007 (and she’s thriving in 2016, truthfully) offers all the “messages of doubts overcome, of pride, of confidence, of empowerment that doesn’t depend on pleasing a guy” that I don’t need explicitly spelled out for me in her music. So sorry, Pareles.
Glory isn’t just Good Straightforward Pop (and make no mistake, quality escapist pop is a dying art), but a milestone in the catalog of the Princess of Pop; a pop star in her mid-thirties who has, in no small miracle, reignited at least some small interest in her nearly 20 year-long career.
A Britney Spears record at its best, much like the Instagram account of the artist at hand, is bizarre: it’s sexual, silly, erratic and lowkey sad girl. Glory covers all those bases, hopping from joyously rowdy odes to NSA fun (“Do You Wanna Come Over?”) to the batshit brilliance of the meme-generating “If I’m Dancing,” to the ever-so-slightly suicidal “Man On The Moon,” to the wildly wailing “What You Need” to the goofy bilingual tryst that is “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortés).”
Even while trying out some more “not-so-poppy” sounds than usual on this LP — the heaven-sent opening of “Invitation,” the ecstatic coo-oo-oohs of “Make Me,” the chilly “Just Luv Me” and the pitch-black(out) French language outro-slash-Blackout homage, “Coupure Electrique” — Britney still stayed true to the essence of Britney Spears, The Pop Star.
Britney’s contemporaries, like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, pushed themselves into more serious-faced, at times politically-charged sonic territory in 2016. And that’s great: I genuinely appreciate the intention behind those records. They’ll be blessed with the top spots on most mainstream music publications’ “Best Of” lists and showered in award nominations. But self-care is important, too. And never has it been more crucial to hunker down, log out and appreciate what makes us happy – like a Britney album. She was born to do it, after all.
While the “comeback” narrative is beyond tired for someone who has “returned” again and again and again after that era, even Britney’s most devoted fans can admit that this year was her most astounding return-to-form since Circus, and her most musically ambitious since In The Zone and Blackout. Thanks, Amazing A&R Karen.
From her noticeably revitalized energy onstage (and yes, even spoken word renditions of ’90s hits), to dozens of promo interviews, awards show performances — hell, even festival sets, 2016 gave us the best of Britney Spears we’ve seen or heard in years.
We cautiously hoped it would be good. It’s so much better.
Listen to the Top 20 Albums of 2016 playlist on Spotify and Apple Music.
See the Top 20 Albums of 2015.