All the dirt, news, culture and commentary for Oklahoma's second century.

Best pop albums of 2016

Fertile Ground Compost Service
Help support Red Dirt Report

OKLAHOMA CITY – 2016 is nearly over. (Thank God.) 

And you know what that means. It’s that special time of year when we look back at some of the best pop releases from the past twelve months and get into fist-fights over how so-and-so could possible be ranked over what’s-her-name. 

But that’s one of the many pleasures to be had from pop music and the various stans and fangirls so devoted to it. After all, playful debate and fiery conversations about our favorite artists are just part of the fun of being a pop music fan. 

I don’t care what the critics said about Beyonce, how many weeks Justin Timberlake spent at number one, or how many people bought that new Meghan Trainor album (shame on all of you who did, though). The only thing I or any music fan should care about is the music that stands out and makes you feel something special. And in a year that blessed us with new releases from Alicia Keys, Gwen Stefani, and God-ney Spears, I definitely felt a lot of things. 

These just so happen to be my personal list of favorites. 

20. The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It: The 1975 seem to be every pretentious indie kid’s favorite band, and lead singer Matthew Healy is their equally obnoxious god. But while they’re hardly my generation’s answer to INXS, there’s something to be said about the ‘80s-inspired avenue their newest album takes. A bit overstuffed but undeniably catchy, I Like It When You Sleep is an adventurous pop-rock record with some brilliant moments and a wryly dry sense of humor. Best Track: A bouncy beat paired with Healy’s clever wordplay makes “UGH!” nearly impossible to dislike. 

19. Banks, The Alter: Spooky-girl pop has a new face in the form of Banks, the 28-year old singer whose cryptic lyrics have made her an indie darling. Her 2014 debut was impressive, but The Alter is better, bigger, and an even more confident showcase for her talents. The warts-and-all approach to songwriting is similar to Tidal-era Fiona Apple, and it makes one excited to see all of the possible directions Banks could go from here. Best Track: Album opener “Gemini Feed” has such a huge sound, you don’t even realize how gut-wrenching the lyrics are until it’s over. 

18. Zayn, Mind of Mine: I never thought I’d live in a world where I respected a member of One Direction, but I guess anything was possible in 2016. Zayn Malik always had the best voice out of the 1D boys, and his buttery falsetto is put to great use on the soulful Mind of Mine. It may be too early to label him a potential successor to Justin Timberlake, but this album is certainly a step in the right direction. Best Track: “Like I Would” is a club-ready banger that best represents the album’s thematic mixture of lust, love, desire, and frustration. 

17. Fifth Harmony, 7/27: Girl groups are a dying breed, but for a while it looked like Fifth Harmony were going to keep the trend alive. But now that Camila Cabello’s left the group and they’re continuing as a foursome, it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll go next. At least we can rest assured knowing we have 7/27, the girls fantastic sophomore release. Upbeat and energetic, 7/27 comes at you full-speed from the opening track “That’s My Girl” and bombards you with all manner of girl-power anthems and dancehall bangers. Ass always the harmonies are out-of-this-world, while also giving each girl the chance to showcase their individual vocal talents. Best Track: “Work From Home” may be really obnoxiously stupid, but I’m always too busy grinding along to it on the dance-floor to even notice or care. 

16. Wet, Don’t You: The indie pop trio Wet got our interest when they first emerged way back in 2013, but they earned our full attention this year with their stellar debut. Don’t You is a murky, moody album that almost threatens to drown itself in melancholia. Lead singer Kelly Zutrau’s lovely vocals inject every single track with a type of tenderness that can’t be faked. It may be a little too low-key for some pop music fans taste, but Don’t You’s inherent sweetness and haunting arrangements always keep things interesting. Best Track: Sweepingly beautiful, “Deadwater” sounds like the type of song Mazzy Star made in their prime.

15. Tove Lo, Lady Wood: I desperately hope Tove Lo doesn’t get written off as a one-hit wonder based off the success of her first big hit “Habits (Stay High).” The Swedish performer is one of the best songwriters working in pop today, and Lady Wood is an even better showcase of her knack for injecting dark and gritty concepts into songs catchy enough for the masses. Lady Wood is weird, confessional, and brutally honest, which are all things desperately needed in today’s cut-and-paste musical landscape. Best Track: Wiz Khlaifa’s appearance is superfluous, but the rest of “Influence” is a hard pop-hop cut. 

14. Sia, This Is Acting: When Sia mines her heart and soul for songwriting material, the results are transcendental. She’s so good that even when she’s slinging out pop singles she claims to have written in ten minutes, the results are still ridiculously impressive. This Is Acting is a collection of songs Sia originally wrote for other artists but decided to record herself. As a result, it lacks the personal touch of her other releases and feels like a collection of singles rather than a coherent album. But even watered-down Sia is still better than everything else populating Top 40 radio. Best Track: “Confetti” is a pretty conventional breakup record, but under Sia’s capable hands these musical cliches sound gloriously fresh again. 

13. Alicia Keys, Here: There’s no one else working in music today with quite as much fire in their soul as Alicia Keys. With each album, she pushes herself out of her comfort zone i to all kinds of twisted and sonically adventurous directions. With Here, she mines classic gospel and roots music for an album that plays like a bold and brassy symphony. Composed of heartfelt and relevant songs on black life in America, Here begs to be listened to. Best Track: I have no idea why Keys left a song as loose and funky as “In Common” off her album (it’s a bonus track), but geniuses are weird I guess?

12. Gwen Stefani, This Is What The Truth Feels Like: As Stefani’s first new release in over ten years, she certainly had a lot of life experience to inspire new material. And she certainly doesn’t disappoint, with an album that delivers hope and heartbreak in equal doses. I may never understand what she sees in Blake Shelton, but if he inspires songs as vulnerable and giddy as “Make Me Like You” or “Send Me A Picture”, I guess I can support it. Best Track: Stefani may best be known from her pop-rock days with No Doubt, but she’s at her best on the reggae-tinged tearjerker “Misery.”

11. Jojo, Mad Love: A record label dispute forced Jojo away from music for over a decade, but she clearly used that time to her advantage. The former teen idol is now a grown woman, and Mad Love marks a triumphant, creatively invigorated return for the criminally underrated singer-songwriter. She turns her personal tales of love, friendship, and heartbreak into an album with a singular message: This time, she’s back for good. Best Track: With lyrics like “If you wanna come eat edibles, do some freaky shit incredible, I’m your girl,” “Edibles.” is the downright sexiest song of the year. 

10. Tegan & Sara, Love You To Death: The Canadian sister duo only recently made the switch from punk-rock to pop, but they’re so good at it it makes you wonder why it took so long. Pop music is often criticized for its lack of musical depth, but the genius of Love You To Death is the way Tegan & Sara write gorgeously stunning songs and build the hooks around them instead of the other way around. It may all be fun and carefree dance music, but there’s a beating heart underneath all of the bubblegum theatrics. Best Track: In a better alternate reality, “Boyfriend” was the real song of the summer blasted across radio stations and played at pool parties all season long. 

9. Solange, A Seat At The Table: Proving that she’s far more than Beyonce’s younger sister, Solange caught everybody off-guard in 2016 with her alarmingly mature, powerful third LP. Exploring themes of prejudice, blackness, and life as she knows it, you often get the sense that you’re listening to Solange reading straight from her diary. It’s that touchingly personal, but made exquisitely listenable thanks to the funk and neo-soul sounds sprinkled throughout. Best Track: Lead single “Cranes in the Sky” will leave you speechless as Solange sings of the pain you can’t escape regardless of how much you cry, drink, or sleep around. 

8. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion: Side B: Jepsen’s 2015 release E•MO•TION was the best album of 2015, so it makes sense that even its rejects would make for a stellar EP. This 8-song set is a sugar-coated collection of pop gems heavily influenced by the sounds of ’80s synth. It’s home to such clever songwriting and indelibly frothy hooks that it’s making the wait for her “disco-inspired” follow-up close to unbearable. Best Track: While Side B as a whole is buoyant and upbeat, the melancholic ode to lost love “Roses” cuts the deepest. 

7. Lady Gaga, Joanne: Joanne is not a collection of pre-packaged single but instead a showcase of Gaga’s breathtaking vocals, fearlessness, and versatility as an artist. At times loud and abrasive, but mostly quiet and contemplative, the album takes on a lot of subjects and manages to pull it all off with aplomb. As both a tribute to the women in Gaga’s life as well as a reflection of her own trials and tribulations, Joanne is a vulnerable look into the heart and mind of a poet posing as a pop star. Best Track: With it’s shimmery production and “girl-power” attitude, “Hey Girl,” Gaga’s duet with Florence Welch, is some serious musical ear-candy.

6. Tinashe, Nightride: When are people going to stop sleeping on Tinashe and realize that she’s the real deal? The R&B songstress is only 23 years old, but you wouldn’t know that listening to this eccentric, creatively fluid LP. Tinashe’s theme of the album being a “ride” is spot-on as it starts out slow and smooth, slowly reeling you into her world of broken hearts and twisted romance. By the end of Nightride, you feel like you’re simply chilling in Tinashe’s bedroom with her, reflecting after a night of partying and having a casual conversation with an old friend. Best Track: As if we needed any more proof that Tinashe was the next R&B superstar, “Sacrifices” gives off some serious “Velvet Rope”-era Janet Jackson vibes.

5. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound: Social commentary is hardly a new concept in music, but the way Blood Orange weaves themes of political unrest and personal strife so effortlessly into Freetown Sound is something to behold. Sampling everything from movie dialogue to spoken-word poetry to news interviews sounds like it might be jarring, but it always sounds and feels right at home alongside the music. Freetown Sound gets a prime spot for the top-notch collaborations alone, with everyone from Nelly Furtado to Debbie Harry featured throughout. Best Track: Who thought Blood Orange and Carly Rae Jepsen would make such a dynamic musical duo on the perfectly spastic “Better Than Me”?

4. Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman: Ariana Grande’s first two albums launched her from a Nickelodeon kiddie star to a pop juggernaut. But it’s Dangerous Woman that’s going to solidify her status as one of the best hit-makers in modern music. Stripped of the sugary emptiness that kept her previous releases from making any sort of real impact, Grande’s third LP is a soulful, sultry collection of R&B bliss. Grande’s always had “the voice,” but now it feels like she actually has something to say with it. Best Track: The provocative “Into You” is the single best pop record to come out of 2016, or any other year for that matter. Play it at any gay club and the dance-floor will be filled by the time Grande’s done purring the opening lyric “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe..”

3. Rihanna, Anti: Bad girl Ri-Ri has a fan-base so loyal that she could easily spend the rest of her life in a musical comfort-zone and never have to worry about chart success. But Anti is a big middle-finger to an industry that hasn’t treated her with the respect she deserves. Filled with everything from slow-burning R&B jams to psychedelic rock to piano ballads, it’s a messy, bold, and endlessly interesting listen. Best Track: Prince would be proud to hear his influence on “Kiss It Better,” a synth-driven sex anthem that’ll have you fanning yourself by the time she hits that killer chorus. 

2. Beyonce, Lemonade: Even the most hardened Beyonce detractors can’t deny the facts: she owned 2016. And Lemonade was the shining jewel in Queen Bey’s crown, an explosive confessional detailing everything from a broken marriage to more internalized struggles. Its commentary on race struggles and the state of the human condition are just as poignant, making for an album that deserves every bit of praise heaved on it. Lemonade also proves that pop music still has the power to be the ultimate provocateur, with it still inciting discussion and debate nearly eight months after its release. That’s just the power of Ms. Carter. Best Track: It may not be the most politically-charged track on Lemonade, but “All Night” is one of Beyonce’s best vocal performances to date made all the more stunning by its Motown-inspired melody. 

1. Britney Spears, Glory: Being a Britney Spears fan sometimes feels more like being a Britney Spears apologist where you’re constantly on the defensive (““Pretty Girls” isn’t that bad!"). But when the reigning pop princess returned with what was without doubt the best pop LP of the year, even her most ardent haters had to give her credit where it was due: she's back and better than ever. Brit’s never pretended to be anything she’s not, and she rightfully leaves the social/political commentary and trendy self-empowerment pop to the other girls. As a result, Glory is the ultimate return to form for a performer who was born to make us happy. At times slinky and provocative, others playful and introspective, Glory is the best thing Spears has given us since her magnum opus, 2007’s Blackout. Given the tragedy and negativity that has come to define 2016, Glory provides Spears’s fans the ultimate form of glittery escapism that’ll put a smile on the face of anyone looking for a good time. It’s sure not going to win Spears any new converts, but who really cares? Glory is something you’ll be able to turn to when you wanna sweat, dance, twirl, and fuck your cares away to some seriously great hooks and supremely catchy lyrics. It’s oh so glorious, to say the least. Best Track: Picking the best song on Glory is like my version of Sophie’s Choice, but it has to be a two-way tie between the musical equivalent of Tinder, “Do You Wanna Come Over?,” and the Latin-infused fire of “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes).

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

read more

Enjoy this? Please share it!

About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

Member of the Oklahoma Press Association
Member of Investigative Reporters & Editors
Member of Diversity Business Association
Member of Uptown 23rd
Rotary Club of Bricktown OKC
Keep it Local OK