“Mainstream”, like any label or genre, is a fuzzy construct with unclear parameters. Equally ambiguous is the relationship between the mainstream and pop music. Certainly, not all pop is mainstream or even popular; some indie pop artists would surely bristle at the thought of shamelessly gunning for the charts, preferring instead to mine their genre with a smaller and ideally more devoted fan base. It is another thing entirely, neither better nor worse necessarily, to operate within and against the bounds of the radio and to truly seek mass appeal. There are, it seems, at least two different pop worlds that work with different assumptions and perhaps even different value systems. As such it is worth considering them separately.
Listening to Top 100 radio can be a peculiar experience. One is all but guaranteed to encounter some distasteful stuff on there, a parade of songs that come across as regurgitated, overly commercialized, half-baked, or phoned in. And then there are those songs that provoke unreasonable levels of excitement when they come on. In the age of streaming, many of us hardly have to rely on the radio to listen to any given song, and yet hearing one of your favorites coming through the frequencies still feels like receiving your personal shout-out from the universe.
Often, these songs become “guilty pleasures” for music snobs; because of their lowbrow, unpretentious nature, they may be cast as artistically vacant. It is hardly fair to assume that these singles, by being crafted with the masses in mind, are entirely without their particular brand of intricacies. Culturally, they also have the potential to become enormously meaningful. While it would be a mistake to overstate the “populist” nature of the pop machine, massive hits have a unique and unparalleled ability to, if not bring people together exactly, then at least initiate a common dialogue. What would we do without those cultural touchstones?
Usually, the quest for popularity involves “playing the game” to some extent, although to what extent exactly depends greatly. We’ve all heard a song become ubiquitous despite sharing little in common with the usual chart-toppers, and we’ve all heard songs that we immediately knew would be record-smashing hits. Artists that have accumulated a degree of industry credibility might have an easier time pushing boundaries and getting away with it (Beyoncé) than those just beginning their careers. Other artists do everything right by the pop book and still don’t receive their proper dues (see: the fact that Robyn hasn’t charted on the US Top 100 since 1997, despite releasing numerous perfect singles in the mid- to late-2000s).
This list examines the best pop singles that played the game in 2016. Regardless of where they ended up on this or that chart, these are the ambitious songs that operated within the constraints of “radio music”, truly a genre all its own, and produced excellent results. Constraints, after all, can be healthy in music; it is exciting to observe how artists choose to approach and negotiate them. These are the best songs you may have heard on the radio this year, plus a handful that deserved more recognition than they got.
“One Dance” (feat. Wizkid and Kyla)
One of the truest tests of mainstream pop singles is whether they can withstand excessive ubiquity and still be listenable. The overexposure of “One Dance” on the radio this summer came close to making the song intolerable for a second there, and yet here it remains at the end of the year, still infectious and warm as ever. For one thing, the song perfectly encapsulates a particular trend in radio music this year, featuring a dancehall beat and prominent, timeless rhythm piano that immediately grabs you by the waist and pulls you close. Never has Drake’s flirtation sounded so convincing: if anyone else ever tried me with a line like, “As soon as you see the text reply me”, I’d immediately be halfway out the door, but somehow when Drake sings it, it just sounds endearingly urgent. Kyla’s sampling of her own “Do You Mind” adds to the loose, languid easiness of the track, which is sure to soundtrack humid summer nights for years to come.
“Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
This one was of course released last year on Adele’s third album 25, but it wasn’t until mid-2016 that “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” was released as a proper single and received its widest circulation. The track is Adele’s nimblest performance to date, her voice leaping through octaves and briefly becoming ever so slightly unhinged before returning to her familiar coffee shop croon. Never has being an adult and dealing with breakups in a mature manner sounded so gratifying; Adele embraces her past hurt and her bitterness without qualms, apologies, or reservations, but she also seems to legitimately wish the best for her former partner’s next relationship. “Hello” may have been the most theatrical and dramatic single from 25, but the sheer sass and cold honesty of “Send My Love” is arguably even more irresistible. Just make sure no one else is around when you try to sing along to it in the car.
Tegan and Sara
Tegan and Sara have made the best music of their career since their pop metamorphosis began with 2013’s Heartthrob, continuing this year with their eighth studio album Love You to Death. That said, I must admit I have a strange tendency to hate their new music when it first comes out. Heartthrob‘s “Closer” was a brilliantly delirious anthem to young love and lust alike, but it took me a while to come to that conclusion, at first dismissing it as an inane and shallow pop song. I did the same thing when I first heard “Boyfriend”. The track can certainly be jarring when it transitions from the smooth, cool verses to the wild synth stabs of the chorus, and while the pop hooks are undeniably catchy, it is almost to the extent that you kind of resent. Here’s the key, though: stop resisting. Let the song worm its way into your mind and simply accept that it won’t stop being stuck in your head until late 2017, and you will find yourself suddenly fall in love with it. “Boyfriend” tells a story largely foreign to typical radio fare, with Sara Quin beseeching her novice gay lover to stop compartmentalizing her sexuality and to truly treat her like a partner. This is potent stuff and cements Tegan and Sara’s newfound legacy as pop icons.
You probably didn’t hear the lead single from 4Minute’s farewell EP Act. 7 on the radio unless you live in South Korea, but “Hate” is nonetheless a beguiling pop song that deserves wider international recognition. If a North American indie artist like Grimes represents the uncanny distortion of familiar pop tropes amalgamated with a dizzying array of other genres, 4Minute reverse engineer that eclecticism back into the mainstream with a single that veers effortlessly between pristine balladry and sassy, tweeny put-downs. It sounds restless and multifarious enough in its first minute alone, and that’s before it all breaks down entirely into a stomping, incinerating horn section that thoroughly obliterates its target. The resulting track is one of the most inventive and fascinating takes on a pop song that we’ve heard in years. K-Pop hasn’t really received its proper dues in the West since Psy’s “Gangnam Style” tore up the radio a few years back, and while “Hate” was always unlikely to reproduce that level of commercial success (rage can be a tough emotion to sell, it turns out), it still stands as a totem of the genre, as cathartic as it is unpredictable.
I never thought I would refer to a song as “Bieber-esque”, least of all one as gorgeous as “In Common”, but there it is. Alicia Keys adopts and repurposes the aesthetic assumed by Justin Bieber ever since his redemption project began last year, incorporating a faint dancehall vibe along with subdued, breathy, lovelorn vocals. The result is every bit as successful as “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry”, and in some ways even more so. Instead of make-up sex, “In Common” is better suited to crying in the rain at an empty bus stop. “If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too”, Keys sings heartbreakingly, illustrating the competing neuroses of two partners that all relationships are bound to consist of. It’s hard to listen to the song without feeling invested in the fate of Keys’ relationship, bleak though the outlook may be. If nothing else, she piercingly conveys the moment of reckoning when one realizes that something may be too deeply flawed to save.