The two biggest pop releases of 2016 came in the form of semi-sneak attacks from superstars whose boldface-name status transcends music. Rihanna’s Anti, which arrived rather suddenly in January after a relatively long wait for the Barbadian superstar, was a taut offering that showed Rihanna working her voice in new ways (as on the torchy “Love on the Brain”) and dominating all who came near her (like overpowering Drake on the sinewy “Work” or setting highways aflame on “Desperado”). Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which launched in April with an HBO special, took on black womanhood and genre-melding with brio. She enlisted a murderers’ row of collaborators while embracing spite (the Jack White-assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and tenderness (the wedding-dance-in-wait “All Night”) with equal vigor. Both were also big releases for Tidal, the streaming service that launched in the U.S. in 2014 — both stars have ownership stakes in the service.
Other festival-fillers came on strong as well. Fifth Harmony’s 7/27 showed off the fivesome’s overflowing confidence; the sparse “Work From Home,” which dominated radio in the first half of the year, gave way to much more crowded, yet no less inviting, tracks, including the Mad Cobra-interpolating “All In My Head (Flex).” Tegan & Sara’s Love You To Death saw the group delving further into heartbreak with a meditation on love and its attendant anxieties buffered by pillowy synths. M83’s Junk, meanwhile, rummaged through radio’s rubbish bins, spinning signifiers that defined CVS bangers of yore (gold-spun sax lines, Steve Vai solos) into pop fantasias.
Guitar-based music has largely been absent from Top 40 playlists, but artists operating in the pop-rock idiom had fun pushing forward. The 1975’s sprawling, winking I Like It When You Sleep for You Are so Beautiful Yet so Unaware of It is more stuffed with ideas than its lengthy title, with frontman Matt Healy taking aim at the ego’s many foibles over jittery riffing. The Monkees came back with Good Times, a hodgepodge where newer tracks by the likes of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and XTC’s Andy Partridge were mixed in with older offerings by longtime collaborators like Neil Diamond and the late Harry Nilsson. Cuomo, too, had a triumph with Weezer’s hook-packed Weezer; Weezer’s summer tour partners, Panic! at the Disco, released Death of a Bachelor, a genre-spanning showcase for frontman Brendon Urie’s still-formidable vocal. (His soaring performance on the title track pairs nicely with Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain”; someone pair these two up an album of standards, stat.) Dutch act Eerie Wanda’s Hum and British miserablists Flowers’ Everybody’s Dying To Meet You came out on tiny labels, but proved their pop mettle with instantly hummable, if wounded, offerings.
Gloomy synthpop with bite — anthemic, brooding, indebted to both early New Wave and the upgrades that “bedroom pop” technologies have experienced in recent years — has had a great 2016 so far. Kristin Kontrol, the new alias of former Dum Dum Girls mastermind Kristin Welchez, put out X-Communicate, which swapped out her former band’s swirl of guitars for otherworldly synths. Garbage asserted their status as masters of dark pop with the ice cube-cool Strange Little Birds, the outfit’s sixth album. Kitten, the project of Los Angeles singer Chloe Chaidez, got fuzzy on Heaven or Somewhere Like It, highlighted by the storming “Fall On Me” and the holy-water-dipped “Church.” New Romantic pioneers ABC, meanwhile, celebrated their 1982 breakthrough with a straight-up sequel, The Lexicon Of Love II, that showcases frontman Martin Fry’s floppy-collar grandiosity.
But despite these albums, pop still remains a genre for singles. Lizzo‘s boisterous “Good As Hell,” produced by omnipresent 2016 producer Ricky “Wallpaper” Reed,” is a straight-no-chaser shot of self-confidence with a call-and-response chorus. San Diego solo artist Henry Chadwick‘s giddy “Guest At Home” rides its yellow-pills high to a sublime chorus before turning around and doing it all over again. And Pitbull teamed up with Enrique Iglesias for “Messin’ Around,” the front-runner so far for this year’s Most Unexpected REO Speedwagon Interpolation.