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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.

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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.

Tove Lo, 'Lady Wood'
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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'
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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'
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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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