20 Best Pop Albums of 2016 - Rolling Stone
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20 Best Pop Albums of 2016

Rihanna, Gaga, the 1975 and more of the year in hooks

20 Best Pop Albums of 2016

Rihanna, Lady Gaga and the 1975 made some of 2016's best pop albums.

Samir Hussein/Redferns/Getty, Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty, Chris McKay/Getty

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.

Pet Shop Boys, 'Super'

Pet Shop Boys, ‘Super’

"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, 'Joanne'

Lady Gaga, ‘Joanne’

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.

Carly Rae Jepsen, 'E•Mo•Tion Side B'

Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Emotion: Side B’ EP

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.

Britney Spears, 'Glory'

Britney Spears, ‘Glory’

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.

The Monkees, 'Good Times!'

The Monkees, ‘Good Times!’

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.

Tove Lo, 'Lady Wood'

Tove Lo, ‘Lady Wood’

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, 'Anti'

Rihanna, ‘Anti’

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 1975, 'I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet so Unaware of It'

The 1975, ‘I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It’

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.            

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