Music

The Best Pop Albums Of 2016

Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

20. How To Dress Well, Care
For a long time How To Dress Well has fallen into the liminal space called “alt R&B” but listening to Care it strikes me as a very tender-hearted pop album. Perhaps the stretch to view it through an R&B lens is part of why this record hasn’t gotten its due shine in 2016. Sometimes Care is sad and defiant, like on aptly named “The Ruins,” other times it is pregnant with potential and love, like the jazz-infused “Made In A Lifetime.” Despite moments of deep sadness and cutting introspection, Care is a lush and gentle exploration of the way emotion can wall us off, but how empathy brings us back in, every time. Care is deliciously kind pop with plenty of sultry vibes.

19. Sia, This Is Acting
After a triumphant, fierce solo breakout in 2014 as a pop artist going by her own name — instead of behind-the-scenes penning hits for others — Sia followed up 1000 Forms Of Fear with the sweeping, dramatic This Is Acting. Even the name suggests the continued lack of comfort the singer has with assuming a mantle of fame, or the mantle of lived self that we demand from our female pop stars in particular. Instead, she shirked the whole gig by employing mini-me Maddie Ziegler at every possible turn. And well, it just didn’t really work. 1000 Forms Of Fear was effective because it felt like a pop star who was concerned about the effects of fame taking steps to protect herself while still delivering harrowing and personal anthems — This Is Acting felt like, well, acting. That didn’t stop a few of these huge songs from jamming though, like the undeniable “Cheap Thrills” (particularly the Sean Paul-featuring version), her Kendrick Lamar collab “The Greatest,” and my personal favorite, the soaring reclamation of self “Bird Set Free.” Let’s hope Sia reappears in two years with that mentality in full swing, and far less wigs. But this album will continue to sound good for years, even if it does end up being her last solo outing

18. Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
Well, we had a lot of hope for Dangerous Woman, didn’t we Arianators? There was the gorgeous, early single “Moonlight,” which seemed to continue Ari’s perfect marriage of old school elegance and new world pop, there was the fact that Ariana had broken up with Big Sean, and maybe had some ferocious lost love material in the works, and there was plenty of rumors that Nicki Minaj would be involved again. Well, at least the Nicki track came true, and “Side To Side” is one of the only songs on here that made the record worthwhile. Even so, I’m not really a fan of the recycled island-pop throwback with a slow tempo, no matter how raunchy the lyrics are. But that track sound magnificent compared to the rest of the banger-adjacent material on Dangerous Woman, which is mostly, and sadly, too top heavy or hookless to connect. We’ll always have “Moonlight,” oh and the unstoppable cute-thirst banger “Into You.” But hey, she’s still young. How about next album those cat ears are gone for good and there’s more piano ballads?

17. Terror Jr. Bop City
The internet rumor mill is convinced that Terror Jr. is fronted by none other than Kylie Jenner, but the teenage queen of Snapchat has since denied that she’s affiliated with the mysterious pop group. Either way, the confirmed members Felix Snow and David “Campa” Benjamin Singer-Vine (phew!) are excellent at crafting the kind of echoing, sultry gloom-pop that just needs a slinky female vocal to seal the deal, and whoever “Lisa” is, she provides that dark, clear pop vocal without a trace of effort. Bop City may only be eight tracks long, but it lives up to its name by the end of the first one, “Little White Bars.” I’ll let you extrapolate the subject matter from there, but really, this is the kind of fluttering, bird-chirp, chopped vocal pop that PC Music and Justin Bieber perfected, and is the ideal soundtrack to fill the void dark hours when you really need to bop.

16. Wet, Don’t You
It’s fair to say this album has been through the wringer this year. When the Massachusetts-based indie pop trio Wet first emerged back in 2013 with an EP for Neon Gold, I was a huge fan. I awaited their debut record for Columbia with baited breath, and waited, and waited… with both 2014 and 2015 gone and no full-length from Wet, some of the wind clearly went out of their sails. The eventual record, Don’t You was panned by Pitchfork, and while I agree with a lot of the critiques in that review, my eventual love for the band’s gauzy, sheer pop and Kelly Zutrau’s trembling alto had me playing this album over and over. It’s a soothing, murky album full of the kind of emotions that make you stay up all night sobbing, and the kind of melodies that dry your tears.

15. Tove Lo, Lady Wood
Yes, Sweden’s foremost pop star really made her album cover an allusion to a boner — lady style. It’s tacky as f*ck and I love it. Misandry sometimes needs to assume the lowest common denominator just to get the point across, and though that may be the case with her album artwork and title, Tove Lo is still dishing out high caliber pop on her sophomore album. The inescapable irony of lead single “Cool Girl,” is icy within another subversive twist of the heteronormative trope that women are the ones that want relationships and men are the ones who just want to hook up and be wild and free. Tove twists the nice by self-declaring herself a “cool girl” and shirking a title, and I can’t for the life of me figure out if she’s being sarcastic or not, which of course begins to seem like the whole point by a seventh or eighth listen. Most of Lady Wood plays with signifiers, sex, and desire in a similar way, and its the cleverness and lack of judgement at the heart of it all that makes it one of the best pop records of the year.

14. Emeli Sande, Long Live The Angels
Scottish singer-songwriter Emeli Sande’s 2012 debut caused quite a stir in the international pop scene. Even if you didn’t hear Our Version Of Events all the way through, it’s pretty much a given that at one point or another in the last four years you’ve heard “Next To Me,” the global hit that album spawned. And even if Sande’s follow up Long Live The Angels didn’t have that kind of commercial success, it’s packed with the same gospel-pop mountain top anthems that were all over Events. But Angels also finds Sande growing — by diminishing her powerhouse voice to something more manageable, like on “Give Me Something,” and the ravaged, tender plea of “Right Now.” When she shows a more human side, Sande soars even higher above the lofty bar she set for herself.

13. Britney Spears, Glory
America loves a comeback story, and Britney Spears has been building her own brick by brick since 2007. If Britney can survive 2007 — her infamously bad year — then you can survive whatever lies in front of you, as the adage goes. For her part, Ms. Spears seems more than happy to put together an extremely simple life for herself: She’s a single mom who is devoted to her sons and enjoys singing, dancing, and performing in her Vegas show. So too, Glory is a simple, almost wobbly-kneed pop album. It’s chaste even in moments of desire, and oh so sweet in place of what used to be sultry confidence. But there is power in a quiet comeback, there is glory in the smallness of a lamb who has begun to see it is not, in fact, a lion. The first track here, “Invitation,” is a summons into Britney’s new world. If you can meet here there without dragging the carcass of the past in, you will find much to be thankful for.

12. Kristin Kontrol, X-Communicate
Separating the self from an extension of the self is a tricky process, particularly when it comes to creators. Kristin Kontrol, aka Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls is actually one Kristin Welchez, a woman who has been making smart, funny, and challenging pop and rock music for almost a decade. Whatever name she goes by, Dee Dee or Kristin, Welchez or Kontrol, the music she makes is undeniable. There was no faltering between her decision to leave the Dum Dum Girls behind and her debut as the Kristin Kontrol,X-Communicate, which is a cloudy, ’80s-indebted record full of big feelings and slow-burning, shimmering melodies. For those who love throwback pop from independent songwriters, X-Communicate is a must-hear record in 2016.

11. Santigold, 99 Cents
Santigold’s quirky and light-hearted pop funk is shot through with punk and glam notes — she never lets herself get too soft even when she gets really sweet. 99 Cents is decidedly sweet, but not in the Ariana Grande come hither way, more in a carnival or confetti way, the songs on this record are like blasts of excitement that hinges partially on how short-lived the hooks are. “Banshee” is one of the standouts, and so is the self-aggrandizing, warped bronze pop lead track “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself.” Back in 2008 Santigold was poised to be a huge indie pop star in the US with the release of Santogold, but I think what has happened in the ensuing years is actually better — she remained niche and released music when it felt right. She followed that up with Master of My Make-Believe in 2012, and began working in the weird limbo that many artists deal with as labels rearranged and rebuilt in the streaming era. She’s definitely savvy to the fellow oddballs of this current era too, Makonnen shows up here for goodness sake, but mostly it’s her sing-song chant and amalgam of pop, funk, rock and punk that keep her quietly on top of the pop game.

10. Carly Rae Jepsen, EMOTION Side B
Honestly, Emotion Side B is like hooking up with someone you should’ve cut out of your life months ago. On the flip side, a hook up like that is always guaranteed to be one of the best hookups of your life, right? So even ifE•MO•TION Side B isn’t close to the brilliance of E•MO•TION proper — read me going gaga over that record a year later if you’re a fan — it is enjoyable because it lets us hang onto what could’ve been for just a little longer. Speaking of what could’ve been, “Cry” is the most gorgeous gloomy-blue song about an unavailable lover that should’ve definitely made the original. This record is also fun because it lets you make assertions like that one. Oh, and because it spawned a whole subgenre of obsessive fan commentary about going to the store. Isn’t it great how love makes even the most mundane tasks romantic?

9. Tegan And Sara, Love You To Death
In some ways, Love You To Death is a coup for Tegan and Sara fans. The Canadian indie pop duo, composed of identical twins who are both openly out as lesbians, have been grinding away for the last two decades — yes, Under Feet Like Ours came out back in 1999! Both of their last two albums have come out via Neil Young’s Warner Bros. imprint Vapor Records, a pretty legit rock co-sign that some may be unaware of, but even more than 2013’s Heartthrob, their 2016 release put them firmly in the pop star circle. Lead single “Boyfriend” explores the liminal space between lust and respect while maintaining the hardest and sweetest pop-hurt pout since 1989 hit the radio, and “That Girl” is an incredible synthy-sad self-interrogation of self-sabotage in love. Tegan And Sara have always been incredible because they put uncommon topics into extremely common pop terms, translating years of self-awareness into a three minute hook that will speak to teenagers and adults alike. Love You To Death is pop music with empathy, heart, and near twenty years of hard work to back it up.

8. Lady Gaga, Joanne
I was just as prepared to hate this album as the next scoffer, until I fell harder for Joanne than anyone who self-identifies as a little monster. From the Americana-pop tones (“Sinner’s Prayer”) to the heartfelt ballads (“Angel Down”), oh and the still very much present over-the-top pop tracks (See “A-YO” or “Perfect Illusion), Joanne is a bold, diverse record from a woman who sounds like she was, well, born this way. If Artpop cast a shadow of doubt across Lady Gaga’s formidable tower of pop success, then Joanne diversifies it so much that it will never be threatened again. She pulls off burlesque piano rockers and even country-leaning jammers without batting an eye, and her voice has never sounded grittier, better, or more golden. The best part is that while her early discography was devoted to mindless partying (a good thing too, natch), these songs are interested in female friendship, self-discovery and the wild beauty that can be found in survival.

7. M.I.A., AIM

It’s a discredit to our entire country that M.I.A. has to struggle like she does despite her clear and present talent. Sure, it seems clear that Maya might have a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but she also conceives of songs and rhythms and sounds in a way that’s completely original. The wonderful arrogance on a song like “Freedun” is balanced out by her focus on issues like refugees, and elsewhere on AIM tracks like “Borders” bring a pop sensibility to pressing political issues that doesn’t feel contrived precisely because M.I.A. has lived through this. If she does decide that the struggle it requires to keep her music as fiercely political and potent as it has been in the past, then maybe we don’t deserve her output at all. Either way, AIM is one of the best pop records of the year, steeped in sharp commentary and inescapable hooks that are all the more precious given it might be our last collection from her.

6. Foxes, All I Need
This is another record that inescapably flew under the radar this year. Foxes’ own breakout album Glorious was eclipsed by her guest vocals on Zedd’s inescapable EDM smash “Clarity.” Funny thing about that song, once when I was at a festival in Mexico with my ex-boyfriend it came on, and despite our broken relationship we decided to make out, because that’s what you do when “Clarity” is on! Then he wrote about it, which I felt was really sh*tty back then, but find slightly endearing now. That story might seem a little silly or personal, or too emotional, but I share it so you get a sense of what All I Need is like. It’s like all those moments on “Clarity” that made you imagine a future with someone who was so clearly not right for you, it’s all the broken shards of that relationship stabbing you for months to come, it’s all the pathos in yourself when you were sure you’d never love again, and that you’ve actually been doomed all along unlike anyone else on earth to be unloveable. If you want a record that will speak to you during, through, and up out of those moments, put on All I Need. It is desperation-pop that can ride with the best of them. And let me tell you, if you’re reading this and it resonates, you are utterly, unbelievably lovable. This too, shall pass. So why not wallow properly until then?

5. A Flock Called Dimes, If You See Me, Say Yes

Pop assumes many forms, and Jenn Wasner has decided to move through her version in the same way birds move. When I interviewed her earlier this year about her first real solo album — despite many years fronting the incredibly awesome indie rock duo Wye Oak — she said she chose the band name based on a pleasing arrangement of words, with no real deeper meaning. The more I listened to If You See Me, Say Yes, though, the more I was struck by the flightiness of it, the way the parts move together like there’s air between them, the feeling that many small things are coming together to make one magnificent whole. I am head over heels for “Semaphore” and have been since I first heard it, but all of these songs swell and grow from the small flapping of wings into a large rush of sounds, and if that kind of pop swelling fascinates you, then this record will draw you in.

4. Bat For Lashes, The Bride

Oh, there is no one like Natasha Khan to construct something desirable out of the bones of sadness. On her fourth album as Bat For Lashes, The Bride, she imagines an entire tragic storyline for a bride who is left at the altar, due to what might be nefarious circumstances, and follows the grieving beauty all the way to its logical end, which is a deeper, more spiritual form of love. While so much of pop music is built on brassy and gold and silvery foundations, Khan keeps things pillowy and satin, slow-burning like low embers without a lot of light but plenty of heat. “Never Forgive The Angels” is a stately summation of the record’s thesis, which is to grapple with the sometimes horrifying forces of the world, and how we’re supposed to be loving in the face of them, anyway. I like this album a lot, too, because it isn’t really a linear narrative of what even happens to this bride and her lover, it’s more of a loose, gossamer framework that imagines vignettes inside and around this couple who are star-crossed for some reason, and are clearly in love but their love is marred with a lot of internal and external obstacles. Also if you’re looking for something decidedly more review-y, I wrote about this record earlier this spring.

3. Emmy The Great, Second Love

This is another pop album that quietly overtook me in 2016. Second Love is Emma-Lee Moss’ third album, but given that her first was called First Love, it’s a nice indication of how far she’s come, and what she’s looking forward to. The lead song off this record, “Swimming Pool,” is a shimmering ode to young love and perfect moments that is so poignant it hurts me in the best way when I listen to it. Later, Emmy imagines relationships in technological terms on both “Algorithm” and “Hyperlink,” worrying at the ways we’re constantly connected, but ending up on the side of fascination instead of frustration. Second Love maintains a stable, silvery tone throughout that makes it a great record for days when you’re feeling serene, or days when you’re desperately trying to soak in someone else’s peace. Whatever may have come before, Emmy The Great is at peace in her Second Love, and that alone gives me hope for mine.

2. The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
This is a record a lot of people told me to listen to throughout the year. I didn’t believe them. This album was my 2016 joy in being wrong album. I had seen them at a random festival a couple years ago and that concert was… bad. Very bad. So I had continued to write off the band based on one bad show, something I myself tell people not to do all the time. Oh how the mighty have fallen! This is almost the best pop album of the year, and I didn’t even get to fully experience that until a couple weeks ago! It’s got that weird swagger-brassiness that only a guy with an acrobatic, beautiful tenor voice like Matthew Healy can really pull off, it’s got undeniable funk without sounding like it’s trying really hard to reference funk, and it’s poppy as hell. It sounds like a pop album that really wants to be pop — not alt-pop, not indie pop, not borderline R&B pop, and definitely not rap pop. Just plain old hooks and riffs and enormous vocals and helium-choruses. We need more people who are as excited about being pop as the 1975 are. You know what album this reminds me of? Yup, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, it’s just as open-hearted and deliciously dark-synthy.

1. Chairlift, Moth

A devastating blow came late last week when Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly announced that they were no longer going to be making music together as Chairlift. I understand that bands move on, time changes things, different set ups start to make sense, but as someone who loved that band very dearly, it felt like another blow on top of an already tragic year. But, then I remembered it can’t really be a tragedy, because all the best things need to end just before they should, and Moth is the perfect summary of who Chairlift were as a band. The pinnacle of the record, “Crying In Public” is about the most New York moment possible, or the idea that this city is so maxed out, and most of our experiences there are so moving, that inevitably one day you’ll be on the subway sobbing, either because your eggs broke, or because you got fired, or because your apartment is flooded, or because, as is the case in this perfect pop song, you’re so overcome with love that all you can do is cry and wonder how you got so lucky? And that’s only one song on Moth.

There’s the lead single, “Ch-Ching,” which is an incredible swagger-pop anthem for the day when you score that dream job, or there’s the loved up R&B flutter of “Show U Off.” Most of this album moves between odes to accomplishments or odes to deep, tender love that doesn’t seem scary because of how sure-footed it finally is, the kind of love you can only recognize after you’ve fallen through the floor of a hundred other hearts. But it’s not until I saw Chairlift had decided to disband that I realized how clearly Moth is a goodbye letter, and a summary of everything this band has accomplished. Of all the tracks here, I have probably listened to “Unfinished Business” more than any other song this year, because it’s how I feel about a city I decided to leave, even though I deeply love it. Because most of all, Moth is a love letter to New York, the city/flame that brought Chairlift into being, and continues to fascinate and feed the creative impulses of the two musicians who made this band their home, and no longer need to do so. As much as I wish the band were still going to make music my own decision to leave the city reminds me how much power there is, too, in knowing when to leave.

×