2016 has been a great year for pop music, featuring defining releases from several bonafide legends (think Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga), a couple of albums from our more stable hitmakers (such as Tove Lo, Sia and Ariana Grande) and some groundbreaking debuts from total newcomers to the game (like Zayn, Aurora and Petite Meller). The sheer volume of impressive albums from our faves and flops this year has made deciding how to rank each one a difficult task; but after several weeks of consideration we've managed to whittle down our list from several dozen amazing LPs to just the absolute best of the best. Our list below features our top ten favourite albums of the year 2016, ranked from least favourite to most favourite. Check it out below and let us know who we've neglected and who we've misranked in the comments section!
When Sia announced last year that she would be releasing an album comprised entirely of demos that she had failed to sell to other artists, fan reactions were a mixture of intrigue, excitement, and disappointment. They had long wanted for Sia's versions of her co-writes on tracks such as Rihanna's 'Diamonds', Britney Spears' 'Perfume' and Beyoncé's 'Pretty Hurts'; but there was concern from some that Sia including songs she'd written for others would create a sense of disassociation and detachment from her own music. The Australian-born singer has for a long time had a certain self-loathing towards the pop songs she writes for others, and when you compare the tracks she now writes such as the Jamaican dancefloor ready 'Cheap Thrills' or the Shakira reject 'Move Your Body' to the masterpieces of her early career such as 'Breathe Me' or 'I'm In Here', you can't help but feel as though she's simply going through the motions without putting any real effort into her latest subjects. Nevertheless, This Is Acting still provides a handful of club ready hooks, some spectacularly catchy choruses and, of course, her trademark husky vocal runs. It may not quite hit the level of amazement that we know Sia's capable of, but This Is Acting still makes for a solid pop album.
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction last year may have shocked fans, but the true shock came this year when he became the first of the boyband's members to release a solo single, the metaphor-drenched ode to sex that was 'Pillowtalk'. Lighting the charts ablaze internationally, the song was a total turning point for Zayn, who had previously complained about his inability to write his own songs, explore new sounds, talk about sex and, weirdly grow facial hair during his time in 1D. And 'Pillowtalk' was only the beginning, with Zayn going all in to release his debut album Mind of Mine several months later. Backed by a consistent slew of heavy R&B beats, a more accessible version of the trippy hazy production popularised by The Weeknd in recent years and some velvety vocals, the album manages to nail the halfway point between pop and personal, allowing an intimate look at the enigmatic singer through a collection of slinky R&B slow jams. The album does tire some during it's second half - after all, eighteen tracks is a lot to get through - but when it's at it's best, as it is with the aforementioned lead single, 'Befour', 'Like I Would' and a handful of others - Mind of Mine is the most promising debut we've had from a popstar in the past few years and a bold step forward for any former boyband member to take.
Since blowing into the pop stratosphere back in 2013 with the Hippie Sabotage remix of her debut single 'Habits' (redubbed as 'Stay High' for the single release) Tove Lo has been a pop anomaly: she rarely makes headlines for her personal life, makes pseudo-experimental music and doesn't have any social media presence to speak of but her songs still do surprisingly well and she thus has a healthy relationship with her label. Like Gaga before her, Tove restrains herself from making songs which are too edgy in content by softening the blow with a catchy hook or two and some intricate production work, this time around handled largely by The Struts and Oscar Holter. The end product of her labours is Lady Wood, a loose concept album split into two parts which centre around the highs and lows of a drug hit (and a relationship) respectively. It's not a particularly complicated concept, but it's unique enough to intrigue; and the same can be said for the songs, with the closest we come to real vulnerability coming in the form of 'Flashes', a song which details the conflict between fame and relationships. Nevertheless, there's an honesty which pervades each drug-related confession Tove makes and a lack of repetition in the songs which makes Lady Wood a transformative and enjoyable listen; and it definitely helps that 'Cool Girl' can turn any nightclub into a dancefloor with just one verse.
After a somewhat disappointing showing with Don't Look Down, Skylar Grey's 2013 debut release full of angst, trailer trash imagery, rent-a-rappers and white girl hip hop beats, expectations weren't particularly high for Natural Causes, her latest project released in September. But Grey surprised everyone with an understated, tender and vulnerable album which trades in the harsh genre changes and lyrical inconsistencies of her first for an atmospheric concept album loosely (but not strictly) based around the wonders of the natural world. From the vibey introduction track, 'Wilderness', to the cold and sombre 'Come Up For Air' (which may surpass 'Coming Home' as the most beautiful song she's ever written), to the acoustic musings of the Radiohead-esque 'Moving Mountains', Grey continues to find new and unique ways to express herself without ever sounding scattered or confused as she did on her debut. More impressively, she's been able to carve out a new lane for herself and develop a new sound far distanced from the piano ballads she wrote for others, like Rihanna ('Love the Way You Lie') and Christina Aguilera ('Castle Walls'). With Natural Causes, Grey has finally found her unique voice and sound that work for her; now all she needs is for the public to find it as well.
Kanye West's latest album went through a plethora of changes since its inception three years ago in 2013, when it still went under the working title So Help Me God. Back then, the album was intended to feature productions by Rick Rubin and Q-Tip and had a new soulful, acoustic sound showcased by the stand-alone singles 'Only One' and 'FourFiveSeconds', both of which featured Paul McCartney; but it wasn't long before SWISH was teased as a title and then WAVES, with each new project title bringing a harder, more classically hip-hop sound than the last. Even after the album was released on February 11th, updates continued to arrive in the form of altered tracklistings, updated productions and even entirely new tracks up until the albums final form in June. Listening to the final product of The Life of Pablo, it's easy to hear the multiple changes in direction that took place throughout the recording process; but rather than detracting from the project as a whole, these inconsistencies instead serve as our only doorway into one of the most creative and genius minds of our time. Whether he's spitting mean bars over the new wave instrumental on 'Feedback', harboring the combined talents of Sia, Frank Ocean and Vic Mensa on 'Wolves' or courting controversy with the Nina Simone sampling 'Famous', West makes sure to keep all the attention squarely on himself - a talent he's since extended to his personal life as well. The Life of Pablo hasn't had any new tracklist changes recently; but even without the monthly updates, the albums spirit of experimentation, recklessness and courage is bound to live on in West's future releases.
Gwen Stefani's long-awaited third LP might have had a few false starts - even though 'Baby Don't Lie' goes off, we're still recovering from the misstep that was the Pharrell-assisted 'Spark The Fire' - but when she finally came through for her fans, Gwen gave them everything they'd been waiting for and more. Inspired by her breakup with longtime husband Gavin Rossdale, Gwen threw aside the co-penned tracks that had been written for her by the likes of Charli XCX and Ryn Weaver and instead headed back into the studio to record an entire albums worth of songs over several weeks - this time with each one written by herself and the current pop dream team of Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. Ultimately, the albums designation as a "breakup album" turned out to be a little inaccurate - Stefani spends much of the time buoying from songs about dirty text messages ('Send Me A Picture') to singing about new love ('Make Me Like You'), and even when she allows a moment to mope, it's often backed by a strong beat and some classically Gwen vocal delivery ('Used To Love You'). But the sound is consistent, effortless and fresh, and most importantly it sounds like a true Gwen album that she, not her label, has helmed. Let's just hope we don't have to wait so long for the popstar to find her voice again for the next one.
JoJo's third studio album may have taken over ten years to finally be released (although we did get several albums worth of unreleased songs to hold us over in between), but if Mad Love proved anything it was that she was definitely worth the wait. After a somewhat lukewarm reception to the three singles she released through her C-side Tringle project, JoJo retooled the album from the house-leaning project The Aftermath to the version we ended up with, a fusion of futuristic R&B, house beats and piano ballads; and while she might have originally been known for her cheesy 2000s R&B tracks and vocal-led ballads, JoJo proves here that she can hold her own with the up-tempo girls, bringing some dancefloor ready hooks on tracks like 'Vibe.' and the MNEK-produced fan favourite 'Good Thing.'. She asserts herself further with the sexy, sassy ode to independence 'High Heels.' as well as the drug-induced haze of 'Clovers.': although in truth the album's best moment is when she returns to her roots both musically and lyrically on the stunningly autobiographical opener 'Music.' Fingers crossed that the next album won't be another decade away; but even if JoJo never releases another album again, it's satisfying to know that she's released the album of her dreams, and probably the album of her career, with Mad Love.
Following the release of 2014's collaborative album with jazz legend Tony Bennett Cheek To Cheek, and a collection of well-received tributes to Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga was primed for success with LG5, her mysterious album which was billed as a comeback from 2013's perceived critical failure ARTPOP. Promises were made of collaborations with the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers, as well as an Elton John feature; the third the duo has recorded that would ultimately go unreleased. But when 'Perfect Illusion', the adrenaline-pumping disco-rock anthem first single was released to little fanfare, all hopes for a dance record were thrown out the window and fans were forced to reevaluate their hopes for the long-awaited record. Ever the shock artist, Gaga threw off Little Monsters even further with the release of promo singles 'Million Reasons' and 'A-Yo', both of which explored a new country vibe, and which would go on to reflect the albums folky atmosphere more accurately. Joanne is not without fault - the short track times and lazy (and frankly nonsensical) songwriting on lines such as "It's like that I've stopped breathing but completely aware" is a turn off, and Gaga's new acting role as a southern belle isn't always completely convincing ('Sinners Prayer''s opening line of "I came down the mountain" is slightly cringeworthy if we're being honest). But at it's greatest moments, such as the heartbreaking chords of 'Angel Down' or during the female empowerment anthem 'Hey Girl' with Florence Welch, it provides us with some of Gaga's best and most unique moments to date. Joanne successfully continues Gaga's tradition as one of music's greatest shapeshifters; now all that remains to be seen is what form she'll take for the next album.
A year in music wouldn't be complete without an album from the Princess of Pop herself, and Britney Spears came through in 2016 with one of the best albums of her career. Long gone are the days of the lifeless Autotuneney we heard in 2011's Femme Fatale and the Confuseney (or Confuseyah Marie) we had to sit through in 2013's mess of genres and sounds Britney Jean. For the first time since Blackout, Britney's vocals are at the forefront: she giggles, gasps, moans, screams and shouts all over each track, making for an album which features some of the most interesting vocal performances of the year. She evokes the cold, detached robot persona of Femme Fatale in tracks like the "artsy fartsy" 'Coupure Electrique' (which, in Brit's most experimental move to date, is sung entirely in French): the repressed sex kitten of 'I'm A Slave 4 U' in 'Do You Wanna Come Over?'; the 90s teeny bopper of '...Baby One More Time' in 'Hard To Forget Ya'; and the high-pitched trumpetting of Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel in 'Private Show', a new sound for the reigning queen of Vegas. But the most impressive thing about Glory is Britney's own presence on the album. It's clear to fans that 2016 was the year that she came out of her shell - from swearing off relationships publicly to talking openly about her conservatorship and making more TV and festival appearances than she did for her last two albums combined - and her newfound independence is reflected all over this album. Glory might not be an album without missteps, but it's propelled forward through it's dullest moments by a quintessentially Britney energy: a tangible spark in the popstars eye which hasn't been harnessed since at least 2009's Circus. It might not have ignited the charts, but in the eyes of her fans, Glory has proved that Britney is officially back.
We always knew that behind the sugar-coated R&B-pop veneer of perfection she displays in every strand of her ponytail, there was a rebel hiding inside Ariana Grande - and 2016 was the year she proved it. When she wasn't out licking donuts with her boyfriend or calling out Ryan Seacrest live on radio, Grande was promoting her latest effort, the aptly titled Dangerous Woman - and with three singles, six music videos and a plethora of live performances to consume, it's clear that this is the album that she, and her label, are most dedicated to. From the soulful and powerful belting in the title track to the chilled out hip-hop vibes of the Lil Wayne assisted 'Let Me Love You' to the reggae-styled beats of 'Side To Side', a song which is literally about being fucked so hard you can't walk straight, Ariana diversifies her sound here like never before, stepping away from the saccharine tones of her previous singles to explore a darker, more edgy sound. And even on the album's filler tracks, Ariana keeps the transformative tone consistent, making the inspired choice to work with R&B legend Macy Gray on 'Leave Me Lonely' before jumping into the realm of dark-pop with fan favourite 'Touch It'. The vocals and production may still be a little too pitch perfect to suggest any real rebellion, and the fake lashes may prevent us from seeing too deep into her eyes, but the tracks on Dangerous Woman mark a sorely needed step forward for Grande; and mark a solid, cohesive body of work from the most effortless popstar we've seen in years.