If you follow me at all on social media (@PopMusicNotes to be exact), then you know that 2016 was not a good year in my eyes. Whether it was politics, family losses or idol losses, I didn’t have a great ride last year. Having said that, there still was amazing music that captured my ears and heart. These aren’t the only songs to move me over those 12 months, but they’re the most memorable in retrospect to me.
Ariana Grande – “Into You”
A little bit scandalous, but baby, don’t let them see it
A little less conversation and a little more touch my body
Someone in Ariana’s camp is doing a bang-up job with picking material for her that plays to all aspects of her audience. Whether it was the left-field smolder of “Dangerous Woman,” the duet with attention-grabbing Nicki on “Side to Side,” or the pop perfection of “Into You,” Ariana came back from some poor PR in a strong way. Lyrically “Into You” is okay, but sonically it’s everything I want in a great pop song.
Jon Bellion – “Guillotine”
The secrets you tell me I’ll take to my grave
There’s bones in my closet, but you hang stuff anyway
Jon’s been building a rep in the industry for a few years, but 2016 was the year that the hard work came to fruition. You’re probably hearing “All Time Low” on your radio right now, and that’s a good thing since it’s a stone-cold jam, a major earworm, and a lyrical triumph (“You’re the reason why I masturbate”…who else can fit a line like that into a mainstream pop song?). But “Guillotine” was the track that grabbed my ear and caused me to be obsessed for weeks early this summer. The way Bellion puts together a track with crazy disparate parts turns an ordinary cut into a pop music Voltron. “All Time Low” looks like it’s peaking on the pop charts, so here’s hoping “Guillotine” is single number two from Jon’s The Human Condition opus.
Bright Light Bright Light – “Symmetry of Two Hearts”
One kiss and the ice might melt, remember
One word and the world might fall at your feet
Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows that I totally stan for Rod Thomas, aka Bright Light Bright Light. His music consistently comes up in my conversations about year-end favorites, and this year was no exception. Choreography seems like the most mainstream album that BLBL has released, and yet I’ve felt that about each of his previous releases as well. While it’s frustrating to a long-time fan who wants to see Rod conquer the pop charts, I love that he has the freedom to record the material he wants, release it on his own terms, and then promote it in a way that feels authentic and honest to the music. “Symmetry” and the video that accompanies it (plus some brilliant remixes) all embrace that spirit, and I kept this on repeat for months.
The 1975 – “The Sound”
It’s not about reciprocation, it’s just all about me
A sycophantic, prophetic, socratic junkie wannabe
It seems like everyone is offering up The 1975’s “Somebody Else” as their favorite track from I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It, but for me “The Sound” was THE sound. Such a catchy hook, and the lyrics are just ambiguous enough that you can read them as being about a superficial lover, an inability to commit, fame, or wanting more from a relationship. Following last year’s “Shut Up and Dance,” this was a tune that demanded you turn up the volume and enjoy it no matter where you were at.
SHINee – “1 of 1”
Neon ‘1 of 1’ girl
Bruno Mars may have come back with a 80s/90s R&B-influenced album, but SHINee got a head start on him with their new-jack jam “1 of 1.” They’ve had a tendency toward 90s pop/R&B (see 2012’s “Sherlock“), and “1 of 1” keeps that streak going. The album of the same name is strong, with other highlights including “Feel Good” and “Don’t Let Me Go.”
Lady Gaga – “Perfect Illusion”
I felt you touchin’ me
High like amphetamine
Maybe you’re just a dream
To those who think that Gaga’s comeback this year was a disappointment, I will suggest that maybe you wanted more of the same from her, and no legitimate artist can keep doing that. For me, Joanna was a welcome departure from gimmicks to a more down to earth production. That’s not to say that Gaga isn’t still out there, but from the first time I heard “Perfect Illusion,” I was smitten by how she pointed her vision in a different direction and still delivered. Pop perfection to my ears.
William Michael Morgan – “Vinyl”
Let the needle drop and play it all night
Might have a little static but it’s all right
Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop our groove, no
2016 was not a great year for Country music and myself. Although Country radio continued its shift away from Bro Country, I didn’t feel like a lot of the music on the radio was very inspiring. And let’s be clear…there’s a difference between mainstream Country and Americana, which should be getting airplay but is relegated to the fringes even though some Americana albums outsell their airplay-ready counterparts. Fortunately, William Michael Morgan was a traditional standout. Mainstream radio played “I Met a Girl,” while The Highway on SiriusXM went with “Vinyl.” The analogy is so simple, but it works.
Empire of the Sun – “High and Low”
Let’s get together and forget all the troubles and just float
I don’t want you to go
I need to be closer to now
Some songs transport you away from your hum drum existence, and Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” always did that for me in its multiple runs on my iPod. I don’t have a lot to say about “High and Low” other than that it should have been a hit, but it never quite had the same effect as “Dream.” Hopefully they can recover from Two Vines not making much impact on the charts.
Keith Urban – The Fighter (featuring Carrie Underwood)
To heal all the pain that he put you through
It’s a love like you never knew
Just let me show you
I think a lot of music fans tend to write off Keith Urban at times because he has a tendency to fall into current country pop formulas, but Ripcord is a solid set that relies more on solid songwriting and classic hooks. Such is the case with “The Fighter,” which is reportedly the next single going to Country radio. This was my go-to summer song, and it will probably be a great summer song this coming year as well because it’s guaranteed to go to pop radio once it’s done on the Country charts.
Maggie Rogers – “Alaska”
And I walked off you
And I walked off an old me
Oh me oh my I thought it was a dream
My favorite song of 2016 by a wide margin was “Alaska.” Maggie Rogers came to fame through the now-infamous video where Pharrell was blown away by this song, but Maggie didn’t just rest on that viral clip. The song, the video, the soon-to-arrive EP and national tour…she seized on that first burst of fame and is coming for you in 2017. But for me it’s all about the song: “And I walked off an old me.” As someone who hikes to get away and clear my head, that was my lyric of the year, and the sonic portrait that Rogers created using ambient sounds as well as undeniable hooks drove it home.