2016, the year that pop got odd
Has this year been the weirdest yet for pop music?
Looking back, nothing in 2016 was how it was supposed to be. 80s-referencing nostalgia fest Stranger Things — by far the best TV show of the year — posited the idea of the Upside Down, a sort of alternate reality where everything was a bit shit. Basically, 2016 was the Upside Down. But this sense of everything being off-kilter actually worked in pop music's favor; it was the year it went properly rogue.
For example, it was the year that started with Rihanna — pop's go-to hit machine — finally releasing her long-delayed album Anti, only for it to bamboozle everyone (in a good way) by featuring a cover of Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala ("Same Ol' Mistakes"), heart-wrenching blues ("Love On The Brain") and no obvious singles beyond the Drake-assisted "Work." Oh, and it also sampled Dido! Weirdly, that same month also saw the release of Sia's This Is Acting, an album that you'd assume might be more likely to sample Dido but actually included a rework of Sisqo's "Thong Song." Add into that mix the fact that This Is Acting's "Cheap Thrills" — a very Rihanna song Sia wrote for Rihanna but that she rejected — went on to be a US number one for Sia, and you're already so far into the Upside Down that Winona's getting her fairy lights out. As producer Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira) asked Pitchfork recently, "What the fuck is pop, man? I have no clue... Pop is not even pop anymore."
This being 2016, Rihanna's shift away from pop didn't last long of course. Perhaps missing dance music, and more specifically EDM, Rihanna collaborated again with Calvin Harris for the summer's "This Is What You Came For," a song perhaps more famous now for being co-written by Taylor Swift. Given the year, this fact wasn't made public — it was initially credited to a non-existent "Nils Sjöberg" — until Swift and Harris broke up and the news of Swift's ghostwriting broke on TMZ.
While Rihanna's Anti may be a cleansing period ahead of a full-blown return to pop, another era-defining pop star came back with something perhaps more permanent. Ditching the synths, drum machines, and poor old DJ White Shadow in favor of electric guitars, country warbling and Mark Ronson in full-blown authentic mode, Lady Gaga's Joanne — complete with pink stetson — made the conscious decision to take her out of the running for the world's biggest pop star. Perhaps bruised by the muted reaction to the muddled ArtPop, Joanne — which you imagine will be viewed more favorably in years to come — sought to showcase the real Lady Gaga, a tough task given the various layers of wonderful artifice she'd already constructed.
Continuing the theme of odd pop/indie collaborations, and highlighting again the lack of disparity between what is and isn't pop nowadays, Joanne featured the likes of Josh Homme, Beck, and professional Twitter troll and sometime musician Father John Misty. The latter also showed up on Beyoncé's all-conquering visual album Lemonade, co-writing "Hold Up" alongside the likes of MNEK, Diplo, and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. On an album that picked its samples wisely when it came to telling its tale of a relationship bruised by infidelity, that song alone featured samples of songs by Andy Williams, Soulja Boy, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If anything showcases the true magpie spirit of pop, and Beyoncé's position as the best post-genre pop star since Michael Jackson, it's an album that veers effortlessly from country ("Daddy Lessons"), to rock (the Jack White-assisted "Don't Hurt Yourself") and, on the riotous "Formation," springy, New Orleans-infused trap. "Formation" also announced Beyoncé's return, appearing out of nowhere in February accompanied by a video that celebrated blackness and made unequivocal statements about the treatment of blackness in a way she'd not done before. It was a statement that weaved in and out of pop throughout 2016, also via albums by Solange and Blood Orange.
2016 was also a year of warring streaming services, and Lemonade's still-impressive sales were hampered by its exclusivity to Tidal, a service that had earlier accidentally leaked Rihanna's Anti album ahead of schedule. In fact, the effects of streaming in general really started to take hold of the charts in 2016. Its dominance suddenly creating a distorted sense of what constitutes a hit. In further evidence of the Upside Down, pop stars — typically the dominators of the charts — were suddenly hit where it hurts. Let's take Olly Murs as an example. Prior to streaming being included in the chart rundown, Murs had scored eight UK top 10 singles, including four number ones. Since the beginning of 2014, however, he's had exactly zero top 10 hits, with his position outside of the typical Spotify playlist fodder meaning his latest single peaked at a lowly 25. Mind you, fellow X Factor alumni Little Mix crashed straight into the top of the charts with "Shout Out to My Ex, a song they released on a Sunday rather than the typical Friday, so there's hope for Olly yet! For less established pop acts, streaming has meant the parameters of what constitutes a hit has shifted. For example, two major label acts with big hopes for 2017, Dua Lipa and Anne-Marie, both scored slow-burn top 15 hits this year, their longevity fueled by steady streaming numbers. A few years ago anything outside the top 10 for an artist who had likely had a few dollars chucked at them would have been shown the door; now it's streaming stats that govern how well an artist is doing and patience is key.
But enough of the new. 2016 was also the year of the ridiculous comeback. First of all, Rick Astley somehow went from internet meme to actual bonafide chart mauler after his eighth album, 50, crashed into the top of the album charts and sold over 100,000 copies in the process. Only marginally less surprising was the return of Craig David, who managed to shake off the double embarrassment of "What's Your Flava?" and "Bo Selecta" by patiently waiting for his time to come around again. That the resulting album, Following My Intuition, sounded both current and nostalgic is probably down to the fact that most producers working today grew up on Born to Do It. That the album featured a sample of Justin Bieber (more specifically, Jack Ü's "Where Are Ü Now") on "16" isn't surprising either: first, Bieber's always been a Craig David fan, and second, the specter of Bieber was all over 2016, specifically that of 2015's tropical house-tinged "Sorry." You couldn't move for chorus-less, tropical house semi-bangers in 2016, with the virus eventually mutating into tropical house remixes of just about every song ever released (fancy a tropical house remix of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up"? You got it!).
Perhaps pop's greatest achievement in 2016, however, was making French oddball Christine and The Queens, aka Héloïse Letissier, a global star. Queering the mainstream at a time when right-wing conservatism has been given a new lease on life, Letissier offers up a new, genuinely exciting, and brilliantly frank alternate voice. Just what we needed in this year of the Upside Down.
Text Michael Cragg
Image Rihanna, Anti