This year was such a solid year for pop music that I’m actually a bit taken aback. It’s not that we’ve had a drought. It’s just that 2016 brought a vast variety of genres — and yes, pop can be any genre that’s commercially viable enough to succeed on a mass scale — to the forefront of the music scene and breathed life back into the art of the album.
So as we prepare to say goodbye to one of the world’s most hated years, let’s look back at 16 of its most magical musical offerings.
1. The Weeknd – Starboy
Starboy is exciting and ambitious, equal parts a throwback to the kooky ‘80s and a flash-forward to whatever shiny android era we’re diving into. The cover art alone — solid red background, bold yellow lettering and a blue Abel Tesfaye — makes for a complete departure from the monochrome and (literally) torn-apart imagery of his previous record. A joy from start to finish.
2. Beyonce – Lemonade
I can’t tell you why I find it personally fulfilling to watch Beyonce find her style — both in the studio and on stage — but I do. Lemonade finds itself scattered across genres but rooted in defiance, reinvention and self-assertion. The album is up for nine nominations at the Grammy’s next year and I wouldn’t be surprised if it walks away with just as many.
3. Panic! at the Disco - Death of a Bachelor
Death of a Bachelor is at once a party record and an un-apology for being the best and worst of who you are. Front man Brendon Urie — once a replacement guitarist, now the only remaining member of the band — has finally found his groove here. His voice is one of the most emotive, satisfying voices in rock at the moment, holding a conviction too potent to ignore.
4. Lady Gaga – Joanne
A stripped down version of Lady Gaga is a version I’m interested in. It’s like someone had been shining a bright light up at her, creating this massive, monster-like shadow on the wall, and they flicked off the switch to show her actual human silhouette. Admittedly, Joanne is a grower not a shower, but it’s worth the exploratory listen.
5. Drake – Views
By the time Drake dropped Views, I had only just jumped onto the If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late bandwagon. But it worked out fine, seeing as Views is just a continuation of the diary-like sound Drake has a chokehold over. An ode to Toronto, a memoir, a lament on everything that’s slipped between his fingers and a lewd gesture to the haters, Views is peak Drake.
6. Zayn - Mind of Mine
It feels like the hype over Zayn going solo has been around since the beginning of time. As a former 1D obsessive, I went into Mind of Mine with unrealistic expectations, but it didn’t disappoint. Zayn crams a lot into this record — a clear attempt to unleash half a decade of pent up creative ideas – but it’s a nice insight into his head. Now that the daunting debut is out of the way, it’ll be interesting to watch him hone his sound and focus on what really makes him tick.
7. Frank Ocean – Blonde
The punchline to an unstoppable internet meme (“Where’s the album, Frank?”) that’s littered with photos of skeletons who were still waiting on Ocean’s sophomore record to drop, Blonde finally arrived. It’s the natural successor to Ocean’s game-changing debut Channel Orange — an elusive, drawn out and sprawling soundscape that never really picks up pace, but Ocean’s affinity for storytelling shines through yet again.
8. DNCE – DNCE
As someone who completely missed the Jonas Brothers train, I didn’t see this coming: I’m a DNCE fan. Started by Joe Jonas, the four-piece doesn’t take itself too seriously but makes some seriously good and endlessly danceable music. Their debut album is just one earworm after the other — like Jonas Brothers on steroids. If you’re a fan of pop, you’re a fan of this.
9. Chance the Rapper - Colouring Book
There’s something epic about Colouring Book. It’s gospel meets hip hop meets orchestral greatness, underscored by the way Chance sings like he’s got all the time in the world. ‘Music is all we got’ is the mantra on the album opener and every song thereafter delivers on that promise. It’s an expansive, ebullient, collaborative piece of art that’s not for the lazy of heart.
10. Solange - A Seat at the Table
Airy, soulful and subtly psychedelic, A Seat of the Table combines sobering storytelling with tranquil melodies. Solange takes direct aim at racism while exploring what it means to be black. The record weaves important truths together via soft falsetto, the occasional synth and instrumental anecdotes from Solange’s family about the oppression they’ve faced.
11. Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered.
untitled unmastered. is art as resistance. Technically a collection of demos — a compilation record — it’s as cohesive as they come. Fired up, political and existing firmly outside the box, Lamar sings like he’s sick of waiting his turn. Lamar’s voice is a treat — literally, I feel blessed listening to him tease and twist his vocals — and his message is eternal.
12. Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere
Cashmere is not, by any stretch, a pop album (though one of its songs, Zayn Malik, namechecks one of the biggest names in pop right now). But it’s a must-listen. American act Heems (of alt hip-hop band Das Racist) teams up with British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed (of The Night Of and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fame) for a political, radical and highly-listenable album that crosses all kinds of borders, but stays rooted in the duo’s experiences as part of the South Asian diaspora.
13. Rihanna – Anti
There are some songs on Anti that are so un-Rihanna that they become, somehow, quintessentially Rihanna. Same Ol’ Mistakes (a Tame Impala cover that runs for a whopping six-and-a-half minutes), Never Ending and Love on the Brain are back-to-back examples of this: slow, vulnerable and hard to skip. Anti doesn’t pigeonhole itself into one genre, tempo or theme, which is what makes it so simple to get into.
14. Shawn Mendes – Illuminate
Mendes loses points for sticking to the ballads on this one — seriously, he’s produced some epic fast-paced bangers in the past, where have they all gone? — but his voice and maturity at 18 are impressive and easy to latch onto. Plus, Mercy is the perfect song to blast when you want get all the Bad Feelings out of your soul.
15. Sia – This Is Acting
Sia is still exploring her identity on This Is Acting, delving into the disconnect between being famous and having no connection to fame. Her vocals and peculiar enunciation are always fun to listen to, and while she still won’t show us her face, she lays everything else on the table here.
16. Kanye West – Life of Pablo
Much hype surrounded The Life of Pablo leading to its release, and unlike some of West’s words and actions in 2016, Pablo failed to divide critics — virtually everyone agreed it’s a solid album. Firmly devoted to his art form, West delivered yet another intricate experience to his listeners.