Only as 2016 drew to a close did it become abundantly clear: what a horrible goddamn year this was.
It wasn’t just the Presidential Election that bummed people out: it was the build up to it, people taking stances and spewing out hate to each other without regard. A single hack attack of a major internet hub on 16 October resulted in a good portion of internet services going down for half a day. Bombings continued around the world, racism came to the fore of Western civilization in a way it hasn’t for years as Black Lives Matter rose into a legitimate protest movement, and just when some people turned to entertainment as a distraction from society’s ills, 2016 showed absolutely no mercy in taking away some of our best talents.
In the world of pop music alone, people were stunned and saddened by the January passing of David Bowie, his illness kept a secret from his fans at large as he worked on Blackstar, his final opus. From then on, we were met with a tragic parade of lost idols, from the young (Christina Grimmie), to the old (Kitty Kallen, the great Jean Shepard) to a near endless stream of great icons like Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Vanity, Maurice White, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Billy Paul, Keith Emerson, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Leon Russell, Sir George Martin, and Glenn Frey (and don’t forget about the hero Bernie Worrell of Parliment-Funkadelic!).
After Bowie’s passing, the loss of Prince just felt all the more devastating, the announcement of his death just as shocking because he was still performing and releasing songs at a regular clip, showing no significant signs of slowing down. After the new hit us, his albums went back into the charts, his singles re-entered Billboard’s Top 10, and movie theaters began showing select screenings of Purple Rain. In rare form, Prince—a vigilant defender of his copyrights who frequently spent money ensuring that the only things on the internet about him are things that he himself either approved or got paid for—soon took over the entire web, with people uploading rare clips of him in droves because unlike other idols, Prince’s work simply wasn’t available on YouTube or on most streaming services, forcing many fans to actually buy his music or seek him out on other mediums. It may seem trivial now, but at the moment, it proved to be a unique way to mourn in the age of social media, and in its way, it forced fans both hardcore and casual to do more to interact with his legacy than with any other recent passing.
So with so much heaviness and so much sorrow encompassing our lives, celebrating the Best Pop Music of 2016 feels essential. None of the below albums articulated the national mood or offered up profound moments of societal protest (save maybe our Number Five pick), but none of those records needed to, either. Pop music—from bright Top 40 dance trash to lushly melodic indie guitar noodling—serves as unique a form of escape, giving us catharsis and indulgence in equal measure, and boy did we need it in this year.
After all, there were numerous releases from a variety of subgenres that could have well slipped into our Top 10 here, and it would be a shame if we didn’t mention the sturdy synth structures of Porches’ Pool, the shameless mainstream exhibitionism of StaG’s Don’t Check Out, Midnight Faces’ utterly dynamic Heavenly Bodies, Ladyhawke’s lush romp in the form of Wild Things, Butch Walker’s straight-ahead rock formality with Stay Gold, The Monkees’ incredible nostalgia trip that is Good Times!, or the new-school attitudes Paul Simon gave his defiantly old-school set Wristband.
Similarly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t single out achingly stunning songs like Bear Hands’ gender-bending lament “2AM” , Rogue Wave’s triumphant “Oceans”, Korean group Twice’s album’s-worth-of-hooks-in-a-single-song stunner that is “TT”, Miguel’s modern pop classic “Cadillac” (neatly tucked away on the soundtrack for the Netflix show The Get-Down), Bastille’s triumphant return to form “Good Grief”, Rukhsana Merrise’s stunning announcement to the world in the form of “Money”, or 2016’s relentlessly feel-good, underlooked pop song of the year: Fleur East’s flawless jam that was “Breakfast”.
After all that, we are still left with ten stunning albums that fulfilled pop music’s escapist potential to the absolute max, these bright stars guiding us in the cold darkness of night, even if some of them existed for the sole purpose of letting us shake our ass without caring who sees it. And you know what? Sometimes that’s all anyone needs.
Orenta came out in late 2015, but for the Polish collective known as Kamp!, their second album was barely promoted here in the UK and US markets, and by the time it got released, lists much like this one you’re reading right now had already been written and in some cases published. Thus, it feels wrong to let end-of-year timing effect the spotlight of an album as dynamic, nuanced, and compelling as Orneta, which shows the trio moving away from the UK-inspired brand of indie-dance from their 2012 debut and into more ethereal, nuanced territory. The group kicked off 2016 with a video for their song “Dorian”, a glorious upbeat number that sounds like the best Chemical Brothers song in years, but the Kate Bush-indebted instrumental “Trap Door” and the extraterrestrial lullaby that is “3000 Days” show that by mellowing out, Kamp! have truly found their groove as artists, creating electro-pop music that transcends continent, genre, and—considering its release date and its ranking on this list—even time itself.
“Throwback pop” is such an overused term at this point that albums fitting such a template are no longer revolutionary—they’re merely expected. What follows? A little bit of fame and maybe some NPR exposure, the artist goes on to play some sizable halls and festival billings, mild applause, we usually don’t hear from them again, the world keeps a-spinnin’. How lovely it is, then, to see Detroit’s Empty Houses come out of nowhere with an album as utterly unpretentious as Daydream. Bright, sunny, and thankfully stripped down, the piano-driven numbers of this trio evoke Carole King one moment, Motown the next, but all with their modern spin on song structures that we thought were forgotten to the sands of time. The group vocals on the title track transport you back to an earlier era, one of buying records on vinyl or cassette, dancing in the living room, and perhaps even getting your parents to join along with you. The real shocker is that this is a new band, out there right now, ready to recreate those moments for you in person. Don’t take treasures like this for granted.
Where’d Your Weekend Go?
For the California-bred Mowgli’s, putting out immaculate sing-along pop-rock anthems is their day job, and they’ve been doing it since their first album came out in the ancient times known as 2012. Their songs have been in movies, they’ve performed on Kimmel, and yet throughout all of this, true fame has eluded them, and even with Where’d Your Weekend Go?, their fourth and far-and-away best album, they failed to even chart in the U.S. Shame too, because while they’ve always had a knack for the kind of hooks that stay in your head for days, songs like “Bad Thing” and “Alone Sometimes” feeling like monster radio smashes transmitted in from another universe. There’s nothing particularly innovative about what the Mowgli’s do—“Spiderweb” comes right out of the Andrew McMahon songbook—but the hints of sadness that surrounds tracks like “Alone Sometimes” and “Freakin’ Me Out” only makes those neon choruses sound all the more spectacular, as if the melodies were deliberately made to be this bright so that they’d outshine the darkness in the lyrics. Props are due: calling your album Where’d Your Weekend Go? makes for a rhetorical question, ‘cos we all know what the answer is: “Spent it listening to the Mowgli’s again.”
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: Wildflower is not Since I Left You. The Avalanches’ 2000 debut was the kind of cult hit that passed by those who were nowhere near its sample-driven gravitation pull. But anyone who got sucked in was sent to a universe unlike any other, pulling that rare hat-trick of sounding both 100% new and 100% familiar at the same time. The LP’s reputation grew to the point where even attempting another album would be like Neutral Milk Hotel releasing new material: there’s no way a new album could live up to everyone’s unrealistic expectations.
Now for the good news: Wildflower is not Since I Left You. What makes Wildflower so fabulous is how distinct an identity it has. The core group oriented their grab-bag of influences and found sounds into more formalized songs and familiar structures, still keeping the anything-goes flow of Since I Left You but working in great guest spots from Biz Markie (the Gorillaz-esque “Noisy Eater”), Camp Lo (“Because I’m Me”, arguably their finest standalone single), and several others. Sure, Wildflower meanders at times, but by the time you hit the closing triptych of “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”/“Stepkids”/“Saturday Night Inside Out”, you realize that you’ve experienced something new, different, and—yes—at times even more ambitious than Since I Left You. Yes, Wildflower has its own identity, its own personality, but much like its predecessor, the more time you spend with it the more you discover, proving that this isn’t the kind of album you’ll be listening to a few times and be done with it, no. You can listen to Wildflower two days, eight months, or nine years from now, and just like Since I Left You, you’ll hear something new every single time.
For former (and per some reports, maybe current) Paramore drummer Zac Farro, his first departure from the platinum rock outfit meant he got to explore his muse, which he did by forming the band Novel American (which no longer exists) and his electronic side-project Halfnoise. While the latter outfit made serviceable than it was satisfying, few, if any, could have expected Farro to drop an opus like Sudden Feeling on us: a stellar, deeply considered, and downright incredible journey through his synth-pop influences. Drenched in keyboard twinkles that would put a smile on Mark Bell’s face, Farro has learned how to put both his ideas and melodies right in the forefront, factors that were notably missing from Halfnoise’s previous efforts. Opener “Know the Feeling” struts and swags, while “My Mind” feels like the kind of song Wayne Coyne would record if he were on a serious electronic kick. The title track, however, is the highlight. It’s a sublime slice of UK radio piano-pop that lets us know that no matter what his pedigree is, Farro is an artist in his own right, and as Sudden Feeling now proves, he’s truly a force in the music world.