Pop pop pop pop pop: It does not stop, even when your spirits drop. Sometimes it’s pretty good, too! Sometimes it can comfort you in your sorrow and anger and confusion; sometimes it can lift those spirits right back up.
A magnificent pop song can jolt you back to life like nothing else, tapping into emotional and psychological realms only music can reach. As with any genre, there is a lot of unlistenable dreck on the radio and the charts, but they also contain songs that make you think, “Holy shit,” and songs that bypass thinking altogether to elicit sheer physical elation. This can be true of any music, but pop is special in that it aims for that effect outright. It paints in broad strokes, and it aspires to be something bigger than one person’s private moment or even the province of a tiny community (both noble aspirations in their own right — please refer to Ecclesiastes and the Byrds for further comment).
Such an ambitious approach can yield monumental distractions and crass lowest-common-denominator debacles, but the drive to create something universal also feels vital at a time when unity is hard to come by and subtlety ain’t doing nothing for nobody. And when it works, and music is transmuted into magic, we all get to share it.
This year, like every year, the best pop music soared to such heights. Much of it came from A-list stars working with massive teams of industry professionals; some of it was generated at home, by one person with some big ideas. A lot of the resulting tracks became ubiquitous; some of them merely should have been ubiquitous — and given the way songs like OMI’s “Cheerleader” and Kiiara’s “Gold” have emerged from obscurity years later to become smash hits, maybe some of them still will be.
Pop’s predominant currency is the hit single, so although an assessment of the year could take many forms, the most pleasurable is a playlist of jams — a rundown of quality tracks that will endure in the cultural memory plus a few that would go down in history too in some superior timeline. The following is just such a list.
Before we proceed: What constitutes a pop song? It’s a question I often consider when writing this column, assessing the constantly shifting imaginary borders of what passes for music’s mainstream. When it came time to run down the medium’s finest singles, per tradition, I had to draw some arbitrary lines. So: The focus here is strictly on songs aimed at top-40 radio and hits that performed well on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. That means no country, no “alt-pop” or “indie pop” or whatever you want to call it, and no modern rock, though all three genres have crept their way into The Week In Pop’s coverage this year. Consider this a yearbook for a monoculture, with an emphasis on pure sonic pleasure over all.
40. Little Mix – “Shout To My Ex”
Imagine Icona Pop’s “I Love It” as reinterpreted by Fifth Harmony and you might conjure the exuberant spirit of this punchy kiss-off anthem.
39. Sia – “Cheap Thrills” (Feat. Sean Paul)
Weirdly, “Cheap Thrills” surpassed “Chandelier” to become Sia’s biggest hit ever, and wonderfully, it brought Sean Paul back to pop radio saturation for the first time in a decade. It’s an internet cliché to describe quality singles as “a bop,” but that’s exactly what this song does. Whichever A-list artist turned it down made a big mistake.
38. Nick Jonas – “Close” (Feat. Tove Lo)
This lurching, synthetic steel-drum groove features convincing performances by Jonas and Tove as two people inching tantalizingly close to release. And yes, the video elevates it to a completely different echelon.
37. Charli XCX – “After The Afterparty” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
Here we have “We Can’t Stop” and “Ignition (Remix)” and Charli’s own contributions to “Fancy” and so many other after-hours anthems all rolled up into one music-box ditty, topped off with post-everything internet rap warbler Yachty affirming his true calling as a pop sideman.
36. Tove Lo – “Cool Girl”
Icy Swedish pop precision and the plot of Gone Girl caught up together in a burbling synthetic slipstream.
35. Ariana Grande – “Side To Side” (Feat. Nicki Minaj)
Watered-down dancehall was the sound of so many hits this year, but not many of them were as fun as Grande and Minaj’s winking ode to sex so visceral you can barely walk.
34. Machine Gun Kelly – “Bad Things” (Feat. Camila Cabelo)
Am I out of my head, am I out of my mind, or is the collision of an old, forgotten Fastball song, the biggest star in Fifth Harmony, and Cleveland’s foremost white trash rapper-turned-actor actually a good thing? What can I say, it’s complicated.
33. Daya – “Sit Still, Look Pretty”
Bubbly feminist synthpop from the best Chainsmokers collaborator in the game.
32. Lady Gaga – “Perfect Illusion”
I left a lot of hits off this list according to the logic that getting stuck in my head all the time does not necessarily make them great songs. Such was the fate of “Perfect Illusion” at one point, but every time I caught myself singing, “It wasn’t la-a-ahve, it wasn’t la-a-ahve,” my heart found a little more room for Gaga’s relentlessly pounding rock-disco rave-up. Also, “moccasin game is strong” is the best misheard lyric of 2016 bar none.
31. The Chainsmokers – “Don’t Let Me Down” (Feat. Daya)
Between “Roses,” their best song, and “Closer,” their biggest, the Chainsmokers gave us this weird convergence of xx guitars and faux-Rihanna vocals and vaguely Eastern EDM drops. It rightly ruled the summer.
30. The Weeknd – “Starboy” (Feat. Daft Punk)
The Toronto of my imagination feels a lot colder when this is on.
29. Desiigner – “Panda”
Kanye West grafted a wide-eyed 19-year-old Future impersonator’s obscure SoundCloud loosie into his album, and that song ended up bigger than anything Kanye or Future released this year, mostly because there’s some kind of mystical power in the way Desiigner strings together the words, “I got broads in Atlanta.”
28. Bridgit Mendler – “Atlantis” (Feat. Kaiydo)
A master class in post-Imogen Heap pop craftsmanship in which life underwater serves as both a metaphor and an aesthetic.
27. DJ Snake – “Middle” (Feat. Bipolar Sunshine)
To think that the guy who gave us “Turn Down For What” is also responsible for this exercise in pulsating transcendent melancholy.
26. DJ Snake – “Let Me Love You” (Feat. Justin Bieber)
Bieber gave away so many hits of this ilk to big-name producers this year that you can be sure his next album will sound nothing like Purpose.