the-best-pop-albums-of-2016

The Best Pop Albums of 2016

In a year when we lost too many music icons (and maybe even our minds in the process), the escapist power of pop music is needed more than ever.

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.

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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.

 

Artist: Kamp!

Album: Orneta

Label: Brennnessel

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Kamp!
Orneta

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.

 

Artist: Empty Houses

Album: Daydream

Label: Sargent House

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Empty Houses
Daydream

“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.

 

Artist: The Mowgli’s

Album: Where’d Your Weekend Go?

Label: Photo Finish

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The Mowgli’s
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.”

 

Artist: The Avalanches

Album: Wildflower

Label: Astralwerks

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The Avalanches
Wildflower

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.

 

Artist: Halfnoise

Album: Sudden Feeling

Label: Congrats

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Halfnoise
Sudden Feeling

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.

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Artist: Beyoncé

Album: Lemonade

Label: Columbia

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Beyoncé
Lemonade

Beyoncé is arguably the only true pop superstar in the world right now, not merely making hits but also deeply affecting culture with each new release. Whether it is the made-up controversy for her Super Bowl halftime performance or the continuous roll of genuinely thoughtful think pieces that emerged since the release of Lemonade, her second “visual album”, no other pop act on the planet has even half of her influence. Make no mistake, Lemonade could only be made with major label money. But of all the artists who have tried this long-player format since then, ranging from Tove Lo to the Weeknd to goodness knows how many others, the only one who could ever hope to top Lemonade‘s power is Beyoncé herself.

While her past two efforts very much saw her extend her range beyond the R&B/pop template that made her a star, Lemonade‘s genre-bending boldness comes not from the styles she tries but just how far she burrows into each one. It’s not that “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a Jack White rock collaboration: it’s a fiery scream fest that would satisfy even the most ardent of Led Zeppelin fans. It’s not that “Daddy Lessons” is a mere country song: it’s a chord progression that reads more Waylon Jennings than it does Gretchen Wilson, giving outlaw strums an injection of bad girl pathos. While you can argue the effectiveness of the James Blake’s meager whisper of a ballad, the sappiness of the Mark Romanek-directed “Sandcastles” clip, and the timing and media manipulation of the Jay-Z cheating rumors, none of this takes away from Lemonade‘s power and impact. Pop albums rarely get this bold, and as it currently stands, few albums after it ever will.

 

Artist: Cardiknox

Album: Portrait

Label: Warner Bros.

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Cardiknox
Portrait

Especially following the universal acclaim that greeted her last album Emotion, landing an opening slot on Carly Rae Jepsen’s tour could very well blow up any pop group worth their salt, and while early singles “Technicolor Dreams” and “Hold Me Down” hinted at promise, it wasn’t until the Seattle duo Cardiknox released their full-length album Portrait that they proved themselves ready to bat with pop music’s major leaguers. The choruses are bright and vibrant, the synths lush and aqua-blue, the hooks memorable and more ’80s-indebted than the band would probably admit. Yet much like Jepsen, Cardiknox knows how far you can take a listener with simple repetition, deviation, and actual personality. “Supermodel” struts briskly across fuzzed-out basslines, the pre-chorus to “On My Way” is perfectly suitable for the kind of one-person raves that haven’t been seen since Robyn’s heyday, and “Bloodlust” punches like a great Phantogram B-side. Much like the Mowgli’s above, Cardiknox aren’t rewriting any rules here, instead focusing on polishing their work inside the confines of genre to simply be the best at what they do. Well, guess what? Looking at this Portrait, it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t going to be an opening act much longer — or ever again, for that matter.

 

Artist: Field Music

Album: Commontime

Label: Memphis Industries

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Field Music
Commontime

For their sixth album, the British wunderboys behind Field Music tried something new: instead of throwing all the music theory they know at these pleasant, ornate arrangements, they tried to just find their groove — and boy did they. Always reliable for extolling the virtues of heroes like the Police and Squeeze, Field Music decided to use Commontime to embrace their influences with boldness and ferocity, sounding like the goddamn living embodiment of both Talking Heads and XTC but with a dollop of funk coating these finely-proportioned servings of brainy dance-rock. Songs like “It’s a Good Thing” would slap a big ol’ smile on Andy Partridge’s face, and the playful string section that comes in on the second pre-chorus of “But Not for You” is a delightful surprise in a song so full of melodic twists and turns that you’re constantly stunned that it even coheres together. Sure, “Disappointed” sounds like the greatest song David Byrne ever lost in his sock drawer, but maybe it’s by the time the bossa nova guitars of “That’s Close Enough for Now” morph into an otherworldly Steely Dan homage that it hits you: Commontime sounds like the kind of album that could’ve come out in either 1982 or 1977 or 2016, and thank the pop gods above that it actually got released in the latter. It’s not that groups like Field Music are reminding us of the great bands of yore: it’s that they’re taking these sounds, refracting them through their dynamic perspectives, and creating something that’s joyously new and nostalgic in equal measure. While their discography runs deep, Commontime is their obvious crowning achievement. Well done boys: it’s not every day you get to come across a masterpiece like this.

 

Artist: The 1975

Album: i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Label: Interscope

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The 1975
i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Clocking in at a full 74 minutes and featuring one of the most ludicrous titles this side of a Fiona Apple record, calling the 1975’s sophomore effort pretentious isn’t only easy: it’s fun! The group attempts numerous washed-out synth experiments in the set’s latter half. Obviously, the group had been on a steady diet of Peter Gabriel records leading up to recording. The more you read about singer Matthew Healey’s Gallagher-level statements of hubris in the press (“Rumours about me being dead are not true; rumours about me being a massive legend? All totally true.”), the more one can understand why you’d never want to board the 1975 train.

Apparently cheesed by their reception as a barely-talented boyband who just so happened to play their instruments, this quartet from Wilmslow made a point of going bigger, bolder, and brasher than ever before on album number two, bearing their souls while baking their songs in a thick bed of ’80s production gloss. The result is outstanding. It’s clearly the work of a band that’s absolutely in sync with themselves, Adam Hann’s guitar lines add layers of melody to songs that already sound like they belong on a greatest hits record: the plastic funk of the emotionally voyeuristic “UGH!”, the perfect piano bounce of “The Sound”, the sample-drenched sadness that fills up “Loving Someone”, the choir-backed questioning of the sparse “If I Believe You” — and so forth. While even the band may admit to this not being a perfect album, its highlights are so towering and dominant that they threaten to crush lesser songs in their shadow. If the goal was to be taken seriously, then i like it when you sleep… worked in spades, because no matter how ridiculous Healy’s antics get going forward, this band’s output will never be laughed at again.

 

Artist: Young Gun Silver Fox

Album: West End Coast

Label: Legere

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Young Gun Silver Fox
West End Coast

When Young Gun Silver Fox’s West End Coast dropped in Europe in November of 2015, virtually no one cared.

In many ways, this was to be expected, because Shawn Lee, the genius multi-instrumentalist who can tackle literally any genre you can throw at him, has been more than happy to be a background player, releasing tactfully diverse albums with AM or his Ping-Pong Orchestra on small labels while supporting himself by doing studio work with the likes of Lana Del Rey and Alicia Keys. His collaboration with Andy Platts, who is best known as the brainchild behind UK funk group Mamas Gun, was unexpected, to say the least, but the resulting album as Young Gun Silver Fox is nothing short of the year’s best pop record.

Steeped in ’70s culture, West End Coast (which finally got a quiet Stateside release this year) works simultaneously as homage, tribute, and joyous reinvention of California vocal pop, at times sounding like the Doobies, the Dan, Hall & Oates, and countless other yacht rock icons to name. Yet with Lee’s astounding attention to detail mixed with Platt’s earnest vocal delivery, West End Coast doesn’t just sound like it came out in 1978: it feels like there is actual sunshine caked deep in each and every song. “Saturday” struts around like Tom Johnston did during the Doobies’ peak, while the chorus vocal swells during the playful “In My Pocket” recall an unpretentious innocence of a forgotten era, that hook firmly lodging itself in your head for months to come. Actually, that’s a problem with every song on this album — no exceptions.

Oh, what Darryl Hall wouldn’t have given to sing “Distance Between Us”. Spandau Ballet are probably trying to find a way to integrate “Better” into their sets without anyone noticing that they didn’t write it. The possibilities continue to roll on, and while on paper this may all come off as plastic, disposable, and utterly white, there is a particular radiant essence that Lee infused West End Coast with that belies mere explanation. There are smiles behind each and every note, the duo clearly being so infatuated with their influences that this record feels less like a product than it does a love letter, one so expertly executed and flawlessly presented that a single spin instantly transports you to another decade, another location, another mindset altogether. It’s escapism in its ultimate form, and for that and many other reasons, there is no better fitting candidate to bestow the title of Pop Album of the Year.

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