Talk about "pop" usually means humongous hit singles, and 2016 sure had its share. But the full-length pop album was as healthy as ever, showcasing veterans like Rihanna and Britney Spears at their most revealing, and allowing a newer star like Tove Lo to come into her own. Guitar-based pop stood firm too, from those wry kids in the 1975 to those spunky old-timers in the Monkees. It was a year to listen past the hits to hear what pop stars are all about.
Kristin Welchez, better known as lead singer Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls, remakes herself as synth-pop superheroine Kristin Kontrol, who summons memories of the Eighties with wiry guitar lines, a wide array of vintage electronic textures and even the clean, shrill saxophone tone that pierced Psychedelic Furs songs. What keeps X-Communicate from dipping into mere kitschy pastiche isn't just its broad palette of sounds, but the solid songwriting of an artist trying to work through the snags and snarls of adult love. The pouty authority of her delivery makes these romantic dilemmas sound lived-in. K.H.
Few pop albums this year were as eagerly awaited as the third release by JoJo, some 10 years in the making. In that decade, the "Leave (Get Out)" singer grew out of her teens, weathered label drama that would have sunk many a career, and released brooding singles that only hinted at where she'd wind up. Possessing a keen maturity that blends pop's feisty nature with a seen-it-all wisdom, Mad Love is a showcase for JoJo's vocal power and versatility: The title track transforms her into a torch singer, "Honest" pairs take-me-as-I-am lyrics with her upper register, and "Music" searingly chronicles her reaction to the loss of her father. JoJo's comeback album solidified her as one of pop's most dynamic stars, her hard-won knowledge and undeniable vocal prowess combining for a potent record of real talk. M.J.
On her fifth album, Maya Arulpragasam's singsong flow is more playful and subtle than ever, splashing around in a stream of hooky electronic details that she crafted in tandem with collaborators such as Blaqstarr and Skrillex. With its rolling tablas and bhangra tumbi, the Sri Lankan expat's sound nods more toward south Asia than ever before, disregarding musical borders as blithely as her lyrics dismiss the real-life national kind. The calm good humor with which M.I.A. addresses the international refugee crisis is a touch jarring until you listen more closely. "Refugees learn about patience," she tells us, insisting that the jolted lives of the displaced teach them how to live in an age of increased instability – or, as she puts it on "Survivor," "Men are good, men are bad/And the war is never over." K.H.
In the years since she formed Kitten, Los Angeles singer Chloe Chaidez has cemented herself as one of pop's most intriguing forces, her unabashed emotions and scorching voice combining to dizzying effect both live and on record. Her band's celestially minded 2016 EP Heaven or Somewhere In Between showcases the versatility of her voice, which can handle outsized glam and chilly synth-pop with equal amounts of verve and charisma. Glittery guitars and Chaidez's whispering vocals make the title track shiver-inducing; "Fall on Me," the sweeping first single, uses a broken heart as an excuse for rock & roll salvation. M.J.
Not many groups release their best work a decade and a half into their career, but Cosmic Explorer – the year's most expansive and infectious J-Pop album – is Perfume's high point to date. As on their past four LPs, this trio of female singers – who go by Kashiyuka, A~chan and Nocchi – were abetted here by electronic whiz Yasutaka Nakata, who handles all writing and production duties, wiring indelible pop hooks into dramatic EDM structures. Churning gears of rhythm send melodies pinging about the mix until they're borne upward on explosively cresting electronic waves. Cosmic Explorer may be sugary and exhilarating, but don't overlook its ambitions – the nearly six-minute "Story" is a dance-pop mini-symphony. K.H.
Australian singer-rapper Tkay Maidza impressed discerning discothequers earlier this year with the Martin Solveig collaboration "Do It Right," but garnered little press for this intelligent debut LP, filled with whirring, densely percussive tracks. She's a better rapper than singer, as evidenced by "Tennies," an ode to tennis shoes, but the winsomeness of her chorus in the M.I.A.-esque "Simulation" should have yielded a hit. The album's standout jam is "Monochrome," in which she revels in her ethnicity and rhyme prowess and tells the rich to fuck off. A.S.
"Good as Hell," the first single from Minneapolis MC-singer Lizzo's major-label debut, was one of 2016's most potent expressions of self-empowerment, its shout-along chorus and Lizzo's support-system verses combining for a song that would have the grumpiest listener flipping their hair and flaunting their manicure. The rest of Coconut Oil, produced by the year's pop alchemist-of-choice Ricky Reed, is imbued with a similarly confident spirit, showcasing Lizzo's ability to turn any type of song into something joyous and unmistakably hers. The title track is a sparse R&B track that flaunts her formidable voice, "Phone" turns late-night regrets into a dizzying broadside against achy footwear and gnat-like men, and "Worship" uses her gospel background in service of self-love. M.J.
Like his younger brother before him, Joe Jonas has mastered the secret to having a successful second life in pop music: not taking yourself or the business too seriously. On his funk-pop band's debut album, Jonas & Co. host the perfect party that's fashionable without being alienating, silly without being annoying, sexy without forgetting to tease. Single "Body Moves" shows off their catchiness while tracks like "Be Mean" show off Jonas' vocal dexterity and the band's funk cohesion. Most importantly, they prove you can have your "Cake by the Ocean" and eat it too. B.S.
No working pop star tells you to get naked quite as sweetly as Bruno Mars – he rhymes "Miami" with "no jammies" and announces his desire to see some "Versace on the Floor" as graciously as if he were offering to take your coat. But as Mars warns on the title track, he can also be "a dangerous man," whether he's channelling Morris Day on "Perm" or warning his lady of his other romantic options: "I got Alesha waiting, Iesha waiting, all the -eesha's waiting." 24k Magic laces the kind of high-energy Eighties dance-pop homage Mars perfected on "Uptown Funk" with some Nineties retro flavor (check out that new jack swing drum break on "Finesse") for a blissful exercise in retro escapism. K.H.
Max Martin lent his unflagging instinct for a hit to the three big singles here, each carefully crafted by the Swedish maestro's minions to flatter and flaunt Ariana’s breathy cravings and titillating mini-Mariah swoops. The title track is a guitar-prickled Bond theme in the making, "Into You" offers the singer an obscenely slinky bass to ride to new depths of obsessive carnality, and the reggae-pop lope of "Side to Side" has a wobbling gait. But the stuff that didn't make it to radio – including the retro vocal showcase "Moonlight," the deep house homage "Be Alright" and the title-says-it-all "Touch It" – is just as worthy of your acquaintance, as are ace vocal assists from Future, Lil Wayne and, least expectedly, lost soul oddball Macy Gray. K.H.
Keeping the girl-group torch alive in 2016 proved to be simple for Fifth Harmony, who have outlasted the TV show that spawned them and become gale forces in pop. "Work From Home," their second album's winking collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign, was the mega-hit, an "Afternoon Delight" for the smartphone generation that fluttered by on minimalist synths. But the album thrived on its unapologetic celebration of girl power. "That's My Girl" was a joy-saturated back-pat for all the independent women in their squad of Harmonizers, "Not That Kinda Girl" rebuked unwanted advances with the assistance of sizzling keyboards, and "All in My Head (Flex)" rounded up the chorus of Mad Cobra's "Flex" and the gleeful "Trap Queen" MC Fetty Wap to assist its self-admiration. M.J.
Using relentless hooks, the simplest of synth presets and their mastery of verse-chorus-verse structure, Tegan and Sara Quin examine desire from all sides on their eighth LP. Aided by producer Greg Kurstin, this era's Shadow Morton, the sisters do it for themselves on Love You to Death. Sometimes the Quins are so expert that they sand off their tunes' psychological complexities. Not on "Boyfriend," though, in which they keep stiff upper lips as a girl crush chooses a worthy dude, or on the ballad "100x" where they promise themselves never to go through this shit again. For Tegan and Sara, craft and poise are inseparable. A.S.
"Feelin' good, in the mood/That's the state I'm in," Neil Tennant sings. For the 14th Pet Shop Boys album, he and impassive-behind-designer-shades partner Chris Lowe minimize the rue and up the beats. The result is an album of club jams that would exhaust most ravers, never mind pensioneers Tennant's age. Take "Burn," an ode to revelers burning the disco down. As usual with Tennant and Lowe, they plan for every occasion: A song called "Twenty-Something" cocks an eyebrow at kids with "issues" and nothing to say, but the classic is "The Pop Kids," about the boys from their 1990 evergreen "Being Boring" falling in love on the dance floor to a song and with each other. Only when they're dancing can they feel this free – where have we heard that before? A.S.
Lady Gaga promised country-pop for her fifth studio album Joanne, but actually served up an excellent slice of acoustic pop that was part Seventies FM, part Nineties alternative. From the driving "Diamond Heart" to the excellent ballad "Million Reasons," Gaga's soft-rock transformation takes the pop star into a new direction without losing her flair for the dramatic and penchant for the kitschy. Those moments of fusion – like the novelty country-dance tune "John Wayne" and Beck co-penned masturbation banger "Dancin' in Circles" – are where the pop diva thrives, finding a character to embody and then letting the music tell a new story. B.S.
When Carly Rae Jepsen released her opus of the heart Emotion in 2015, she let slip that she had written some 250 songs for the project. Emotion: Side B collects eight of the cast-offs from that album, and it's not shocking that they're as satisfying as any other pop released in 2016, foregrounding Jepsen's ability to imbue a diary entry's worth of feelings into a single syllable. "Higher" anchors its besotted lyrics and fizzy synths with storming New Wave drums; "Cry" turns a coffee-klatch lament about a reluctant lover into a tear-jerking ballad. Even "Store" flips the sing-song refrain "I'm just going to the store, to the store" into a Dear John letter to be danced (and cried) along with. M.J.
After 2013's more personal, though often tepid, Britney Jean, Britney Spears' Glory felt like a breath of fresh electro-pop air. A star-studded array of pop's strongest producers and writers – including Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Cashmere Cat, BloodPop and more – helped elevate the LP to the levels of dance perfection seen on 2007's Blackout. Single "Make Me" allows Spears to thrive at her coo-iest, and she shines as a Eurotrash sex robot on the electric "Do You Wanna Come Over?" Even the softer moments like the sweeping "Just Luv Me" and the whisper-y "Better" have Spears at her liveliest in years. B.S.
Adam Schlesinger, who made his name reviving power-pop as half of Fountains of Wayne, gathers together a crew of clever songwriters – including Rivers Cuomo, Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller – to provide top-shelf material for a reunion that lives up to the album's title and its exclamation point. But though Good Times! updates the Monkees' sound, it also keeps one foot in the past: A tweaked Sixties demo allows Micky Dolenz to perform a virtual duet with the title track's composer, the late Harry Nilsson; and Davy Jones (who died in 2012) appears via a 1967 outtake. Septuagenarians have never celebrated puppy love so winningly. K.H.
On her second album, this Swedish pop singer-songwriter is just as sexed up and drugged up as she was when she was passing out in the tub on "Habits (Stay High)" or promising "we fuck for life" on "Talking Body." On "Influence" she warns you not to trust her when she's loaded; on the title track she whips out her metaphorical gal boner. And whether she's riffing off a monologue from Gone Girl on "Cool Girl" or lunging into yet another doomed relationship on "True Disaster," Lo crafts the sort of messy but consistent three-dimensional character that's in short supply in contemporary pop. The album's spacey electronic production, with beats dropping in and out, offers the sonic equivalent of the carnal and pharmacological pleasures she sings about. K.H.
Rihanna's long-simmering eighth album brought together stinging songs that showcased the pop provocateur's ever-widening range, both stylistically and vocally. She channeled late-night loneliness and regret-tinged isolation on clamorous club arguments ("Woo") and faithful covers of Aussie indie-psych ("Same Ol' Mistakes") alike, creating a stark tableau on which she could work out grievances with those who have disappointed her. There are quite a few: The sinewy, dancehall-inspired "Work" is a parry toward a guy (portrayed by frequent foil Drake) who only wanted to connect physically; while the DJ Mustard-produced "Needed Me" is a biting kiss-off to a lover whose flights of romantic fancy proved to be too much. Her torch song "Love on the Brain" proves that she isn't totally immune to heartache, with an all-in performance that only strengthens the song's hurts-so-good imagery. M.J.
The barely contained erotic energy and boundless hooks of the 1975 make them INXS for the Snapchat generation. The band's take on pop is jittery and malleable – they work with sumptuous synth-pop on the pulsing "The Sound," cover themselves in glam-era glitter on the posturing "Love Me" and give listeners a taste of their mini-epic ambitions on "Please Be Naked. But leader Matthew Healy's winking lyrics and his bandmates' ability to keep their eyes on the melodies, even when they're flipping through genres, make them especially vibrant. The 1975's self-aware bravado, circa-1988 retro production and knack for brain-Velcro melodies make this sprawling collection both a rock anomaly and a pop event. M.J.