Music

The Best Pop Singles of 2016

Celebrating the songs this year that operated within the constraints of "radio music", truly a genre all its own, and produced excellent results.

5 - 1


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Artist: Beck

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/beck-wow.jpg

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Beck
"Wow"

Beck says that he almost didn't send "Wow" to his record label, but was persuaded by his kids to do so. His initial reservations are understandable: the track comes very, very close to being pretty bad, complete with repeated directives to "giddy up" and lyrics that veer from the totally nonsensical ("Girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini Shih Tzu") to carpe diem platitudes ("It's my life, your life / Live it once, can't live it twice"). Somehow though, improbably, "Wow" manages to achieve total pop gloriousness. Re-integrating hip-hop into his musical DNA, Beck sounds unapologetically goofy and uncool here, but it's all part of what makes the song so infectious. It's also deceptively musically inventive, with Beck's vocals veering everywhere from "Loser"-style rapping to a delightfully lascivious baritone and, in the chorus, boyish schoolyard chants. "Wow" is not one of those perfectly calibrated, exacting pop songs engineered to perfection; it is an example of the equally laudable tradition of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. In this case, to everyone's surprise, it really, really stuck.

 
Artist: Beyoncé

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Beyoncé
"Sorry"

"Sorry" understands the role of the meme in contemporary culture better perhaps than any other pop song. At every turn, Beyoncé presents us with an instantly quotable put-down that, in addition to viscerally expressing her heartbreak, rage, and dismissiveness, can also be readily applied to any situation where her devotees want to revel in being unimpressed. "I don't give a FUCK" might not be a unique line, but the way she sings it, turning the last word into a hysterical octave-leaping hiccup, is immediately memorable. Other moments are equally potent: she tells her disgraced lover to "suck on my balls", instantly persuades anyone within earshot to put their "middle fingers up", and then of course there's "Becky with the good hair". "Sorry" takes the furious thunderstorm of preceding Lemonade track (and decided anti-single) "Don't Hurt Yourself" and combines it with canny hooks and an acerbic, crazed humor. In the same way that we're all still quoting Mean Girls 12 years after its release, people will be saying "Boy, bye" and thinking of this song for years to come, thanks to its undeniable pop brilliance.

 
Artist: Rihanna

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Rihanna
"Kiss It Better"

Oft-overshadowed by "Work" and sister single "Needed Me", "Kiss It Better" is a crucial dose of vulnerability among Anti's jaded kiss-offs. It's one of the more retro things Bad Gal Riri has done, complete with '80s hair metal guitar and smoldering synths that channel the intensity of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away". Few pop artists know how to simultaneously sound so utterly cool and desperate like Rihanna does. Here she places us at the culmination of a long-simmering relational conflict, gloriously shouting, "Man, fuck your pride!" before tearfully imploring, "Are you here to take me back?" A public figure who has had her own personal trauma exposed for all to see, Rihanna has long had a powerful ability to sublimate fraught, tormented, or even violent relationships into striking pieces like "Stay", "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)", and "Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary", not to mention the iconic music video for "We Found Love". It's unclear where exactly "Kiss It Better" falls on this spectrum, because the song is inherently uncertain as to where things will ultimately fall. The tension such ambiguity creates makes this easily one of Rihanna's best and most criminally underrated singles.

 
Artist: Sia

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Sia
"The Greatest"

"The Greatest", like Sia herself, is a changeling and a chameleon. After Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of lacking "stamina" in a presidential debate, the singer uploaded to Facebook a short "I'm With Her" video featuring clips of Clinton backed by her latest single's refrain, "I've got stamina". In that context, "The Greatest" sounded simply like a lighthearted motivational anthem. Watch the characteristically dark and disturbing music video for the song though, which pays homage to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and one will walk away with a quite different impression. "The Greatest" is the sound of an adrenaline-flooded mind in survival mode: Sia's vocals dart breathlessly in and out of cover as she seeks to escape an unidentified threat. In the handling of Sia's shattered, heartrending voice, a platitude like "Don't give up" suddenly sounds vital and real, and issue of life or death. As she did with "Chandelier" several years ago, Sia has managed to slip some uncomfortable truths about pain and suffering onto the radio undercover, once again proving her irreplaceability and her profound importance in the pop world today.

 
Artist: Beyoncé

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Beyoncé
"Formation"

Nine months before the United States saw a white nationalist movement wrest executive power from the country's first black president, possibly the biggest pop star in the world released a single that was decidedly not for white people. Plenty of white people enjoy it, sure, but seemingly for once they sensed they were not the target audience of a major song, and had absolutely no business singing along with lyrics like, "I like my Negro nose and Jackson Five nostrils". For that, many of us were quite upset, as spoofed by a brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch. White feelings were only further hurt when Beyoncé chose to use the single's music video, and her performance of it at the Super Bowl halftime show, to protest racialized police brutality. A sharp, swaggering anthem in its own right, "Formation" remains a political statement before anything else, a risky move in a pop song that in this case pays off enormously.

The track is a rebuke and a disruption to histories of pop music that all too often consist of black innovation cycled with white appropriation. Solange Knowles, Beyoncé's sister, echoed this repudiation with her recent album A Seat at the Table, and the track "Don't Touch My Hair" in particular. Beyoncé, however, took advantage of the massive cultural and institutional capital she has accumulated and propelled her subversion deep into the airwaves towards a wider audience. "Formation" will only grow more vital with time because of its devout, unabashed black pride. As we enter an age where so-called "identity politics" are going to come under increased fire from the left and right alike, it is an important reminder to resist the silencing and shame advanced by much of our dominant culture, lest non-dominant voices are erased entirely.

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