As 2016 comes to a close, I add some commentary and rank my 50 favorite pop releases of the year (K-Pop included)*. Comebacks, group disbandments, and new artist debuts were all common themes this year, as was the rise of EDM into mainstream music. Oh, and remember last December when I said Fifth Harmony would have their biggest year ever? More on that later.
*Release dates must have fallen between January 1st, 2016 and December 12th, 2016 to qualify for this list.
#50. Fergie – “M.I.L.F. $”
After “L.A. Love (La La)” failed to take off in 2014, Fergie took some more time off and returned with a new sexy concept and bundled it with a high-profile music video featuring guest stars such as Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen, and Ciara. Unfortunately, the publicity didn’t make up for the lack of quality, and the song was soon forgotten.
#49. Jessica Jung feat. Fabolous – “Fly”
After being abruptly dismissed from K-Pop supergroup Girls’ Generation in late 2014, Jessica released her first mini album in May to favorable critical reception. Dually-released in both English and Korean, and showcasing her unique vocals, Jessica proved that leaving one of the biggest girl groups wasn’t as detrimental as everyone assumed it would be.
#48. Britney Spears feat. G-Eazy – “Make Me…(Remix Version)”
Britney’s lead single from her latest album was definitely a foray into a new sound. However, the remix version that she performed at the 2016 MTV VMAs which interpolated G-Eazy’s hit “Me, Myself & I” with original feature Bebe Rexha’s vocals swapped with Britney’s gave the track a fresh twist.
#47. Empire Cast feat. Serayah – “Look But Don’t Touch”
With so many performances per episode, it’s easy for viewers to forget the songs they hear on Empire. However, this track by budding superstar and Taylor Swift Squad member Serayah was a catchy and memorable highlight of Season 2.
#46. Cash Cash feat. Christina Perri – “Hero”
This dance music group teamed up with vocalist Christina Perri and proved that when you combine the right producers with the right singer, you can make a killer dance track.
#45. Grace feat. G-Eazy – “You Don’t Own Me”
This track is an interesting for a few reasons. First, the verses are a cover of Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit of the same name. Second, the song mixes in tongue-in-cheek rap verses from G-Eazy. Probably most interesting, however, is the vocal talent of Grace; her sultry vocals and Christina Aguilera-esque runs for the last 40 seconds of the song are enough to make you want to play the song again.
#44. Far East Movement feat. Tiffany & King Chain – “Don’t Speak”
On their newest album, Far East Movement seem to have ditched their gimmicky trend-hopping and refined their sound to incorporate a nice blend of hip-hop and EDM with the majority of the vocals handled by featured artists. There are several catchy tracks on the album, but this song features a surprising beat drop and wispy vocals from Tiffany of K-Pop girl group Girls’ Generation.
#43. Gwen Stefani – “Make Me Like You”
Casual music listeners probably forgot that Gwen Stefani made a comeback earlier this year. Despite a high profile “live music video” shot during the Grammy Awards and Gwen’s coaching gig on The Voice, this catchy song fizzled out halfway up the Hot 100.
#42. Rebecca Black – “The Great Divide”
No, your eyes did not deceive you – this is the same Rebecca Black who made most of our ears bleed with her kiddie-pop guilty pleasure “Friday” in 2011. The years seem to have been kind to Black, who took vocal lessons and made a name for herself as a YouTube personality in the interim. The lyrics are meaningful, the production is solid, and the vocals are improved just enough to make you sort of forget where she started.
#41. Alan Walker – “Faded”
At only 19, Norwegian DJ Alan Walker made a name for himself when this EDM track featuring uncredited vocals by Iselin Solheim became an international dance chart hit. The perfect blend of haunting vocals and complementing production make this a rare gem.
#40. Hyoyeon, Min, & Jo Kwon – “Born To Be Wild”
This K-Pop collaboration track was released as a single for label SM Entertainment’s weekly digital series, but was also promoted on all of South Korea’s major music shows. In addition to the clearly infectious beat, listeners were also ecstatic about under-utilized Girls’ Generation member Hyoyeon’s participation in the song.
#39. Britney Spears – “What You Need”
Personality like this hasn’t been felt in a Britney song since her Blackout album days, and the instrumentation was a nice switch up from the synth tracks that have become synonymous with Britney’s name. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to a Britney version of Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics album.
#38. Rain Man feat. Oly – “Bring Back The Summer”
If you’re a fan of beat-heavy dance tracks with female vocals, give this song a spin. If you’re still unsure, just skip to the breakdown when the vocals go up a few keys and really start to soar. You’ll be hooked. Or, at the very least, impressed.
#37. Dami Im – “Sound of Silence”
Australian X Factor winner Dami Im debuted this powerful ballad at the Eurovision Song Contest where she took second place. With soaring vocals and perfectly placed high notes, this is an impeccable and not very commonplace pop song.
#36. Tiffany – “I Just Wanna Dance”
Even though K-Pop fans were familiar with Tiffany’s vocal ability as a member of Girls’ Generation and its TaeTiSeo subunit, this was the first time Tiffany was able to step onto the stage and debut as a soloist. Her throwback 80s sound worked well with her voice, despite the track not being the automatic hit one would have assumed.
#35. Simple Plan feat. R. City – “Singing In The Rain”
Yes, Simple Plan are still making music, although their sound has changed directions quite often. Their most recent release was more pop-infused than their previous efforts, and this track, with its tropical reggae feel good vibe, was a clear standout and a hit that should have been.
#34. Craig David & Sigala – “Ain’t Giving Up”
Newcomer British DJ Sigala and R&B veteran Craig David team up on this electro-anthem about not giving up on true love. The theme may be a tired one, but the production and energetic vocals sure aren’t.
#33. Mollie King – “Back To You”
Mollie should have been the last member of The Saturdays anyone would have expected to go solo due to the limited vocal abilities she displayed in the group. However, she proved everyone wrong when she not only became the first member to release a major-label solo effort, but a standout one at that. With its clear Ellie Goulding influences, it’s bizarre the British public didn’t make it a hit.
#32. Elliphant – “Love Me Badder”
Signed to Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records, this singer-rapper-producer dropped her debut album earlier this year featuring additional production credits from Diplo and Skrillex. Lead single “Love Me Badder” is an island heavy-hitter that could easily have had some crossover appeal if given a fighting chance.
#31. Hyoyeon – “Mystery”
Following Jessica and Tiffany, Hyoyeon is the third Girls’ Generation member to go solo this year. The difference between her and the other two is that every K-Pop fan knows Hyoyeon is known more for her dancing and rapping than singing. It was no surprise that this track has a strong Selena Gomez “Come And Get It”-esque vibe to allow her dancing to shine during live performance. The actual surprise was how strong the vocals were and the track is truly a testament to how talented and grossly underrated Hyoyeon is.
#30. Gwen Stefani feat. Fetty Wap – “Asking 4 It”
The single that should have been, this stomper is a nice throwback to Gwen’s early solo work where she was more about having fun than concerned with deep lyricism. Luckily, this track has both, plus a unique feature verse from Fetty Wap.
#29. ZAYN – “Pillowtalk”
Less than a year after officially leaving One Direction, and barely a month after the group went on an indefinite hiatus, Zayn burst out full-force solo with this R&B midtempo, complete with sexual references and multiple F-bombs. Until “Pillowtalk” dropped, no one had quite understood why Zayn chose to leave One Direction. The stylistic change in his music was clearly much needed, and it paid off; “Pillowtalk” became his first solo Hot 100 #1.
#28. Louisa Johnson – “So Good”
After slaying performances left and right and eventually going on to win The X Factor UK in 2015, Louisa debuted with the appropriately named “So Good.” With a powerful chorus and relatable lyrics, Louisa is asserting her place in the British pop music scene.
#27. Fitz & The Tantrums – “HandClap”
Featured in several TV commercials thanks to its brassy chorus, this indie pop band got their first taste of mainstream acknowledgement with a track that – you guessed it – will make you want to clap your hands.
#26. RedOne feat. Enrique Iglesias, R. City, Serayah, & Shaggy – “Don’t You Need Somebody”
Pop mega-producer RedOne is known by many for his signature work on Lady Gaga’s debut album. Here he produces his own solo track featuring vocals from a slew of singers, giving the track a summery island vibe that’ll have you chanting along to the chorus in no time.
#25. Alesso feat. Nico & Vinz – “I Wanna Know”
Two pop epicenters – Norway and Sweden – collide for the perfect mashup of dance-pop, showcasing fluttering vocals over a lightly pulsating beat.
#24. Salvatore feat. Enya & Alex Aris – “Dive”
A stem sample from Enya sweetens this unassuming EDM track. The vocal introduction sets the tone for the song, and when the beat kicks in it really creates a unique listening experience not commonly found in dance tracks.
#23. CL – “Lifted”
With K-Pop group 2NE1 officially disbanded, former group leader CL is left to fend for herself, but that’s nothing new. Following her 2015 buzz single “Hello Bitches,” CL returns with another English pop-rap offering. While the lyricism is nothing to write home about, it’s catchy enough to move along her reputation in the States as she prepares her oft-delayed American debut album.
#22. Laura Marano – “Boombox”
If you haven’t heard of Laura Marano, you’re probably not alone. The Disney Channel star known for being the female lead on Austin & Ally steps out solo as so many of her Disney peers before her have done. The difference? “Boombox” is actually a catchy pop gem that highlights vocals most people would not expect from a Disney star, while also being the type of debut pop single many of her peers would kill for.
#21. The Chainsmokers feat. Charlee Nyman – “Inside Out”
While not as big of a hit as “Don’t Let Me Down,” due partially to its release coinciding with “Don’t Let Me Down” still climbing the Hot 100, this track still shines thanks to woozy vocals from Charlee.
#20. Fifth Harmony – “Dope”
Produced by Jack Antonoff, the mastermind behind Taylor Swift’s “Out of The Woods,” this track is a switch up from Fifth Harmony’s traditional pop sound. The synths and vocal effects are spot-on, the chorus is powerful, and the breakdown by Ally towards the end of the song is one of the standout moments on Fifth Harmony’s entire 7/27 album.
#19. JoJo feat. Remy Ma – “F.A.B.”
Years of record label drama and personal growth have left JoJo feeling extra angsty, as evidenced by this diss track to all the “fake ass bitches” in her life. It’s real, it’s raw, but most importantly, it’s relatable.
#18. Jessica Sutta – “Forever”
It’s coming up on seven (yes, seven!) years since The Pussycat Dolls officially announced their disbandment. The members have all pursued music in some form, but none seem to have hit the nail on the head quite like Jessica. As a Hollywood Records artist, her debut solo track “Show Me” hit #1 on the dance chart in 2011. She has continued to release quality dance and EDM-inspired tracks, and “Forever” is no exception.
#17. The Veronicas – “On Your Side”
Many people likely still view The Veronicas as angst-filled alternative chicks. However, the last several years they have subdued their image and changed their sound to a more indie-dance vibe. If you like a little heart behind the lyrics in your dance tracks, then “On Your Side” is everything you’re looking for, plus a little more.
#16. Britney Spears – “Liar”
With a slight country twang, Britney calls out the liar in her life. This track also incorporates dance and traditional pop elements to create an interest sonic experience. Nobody thinks of Britney when they’re looking for a song with personality, but this track is definitely a standout on her Glory album.
#15. f(x) – “All Mine”
Underrated K-Pop girl group f(x) released this one-off track to huge response from fans. Many were surprised that such a high quality song was wasted on a simple digital release rather than as their official comeback track, and it’s obvious why. You don’t have to understand Korean to sing along with that pre-chorus. There’s also an unexpected rap verse immediately followed by an awesome key change.
#14. JoJo – “Music.”
After literally a decade, JoJo released her impressive third album this year. While most of it is filled with an eclectic mix of pop, dance, and R&B, the album’s opening track serves as both an ode to her late father and a testament to her true vocal ability. The girl can SANG, and if you don’t think so after listening to that final chorus, you are deaf to true talent.
#13. Daya – “Thirsty”
Most are familiar with Daya’s name being attached to the feature on the recently Grammy-nominated Chainsmokers’ hit “Don’t Let Me Down.” However, the 18-year-old singer also released her own debut album late this year, featuring this electro-bubblegum stomper that’s as much fun as it is true.
#12. Fifth Harmony – “I Lied”
It was hard to reduce Fifth Harmony’s step-up sophomore album to only three tracks on this list, because most of them are amazing. However, this is one that should have been a smash single. The EDM-inspired beat on the chorus packs enough punch by itself, and that’s not even factoring in the killer high notes from two members on the final chorus.
#11. Zara Larsson – “Ain’t My Fault (R3hab Remix)”
The original track is pretty solid on its own, but R3hab takes it to a whole new level by kicking up the pace. The result makes Larsson’s raps seem all the more impressive, while also demonstrating that a solid beat change is all you need to give a track good crossover appeal.
#10. 4minute – “Hate”
4minute is yet another long-regning K-Pop group that kicked the bucket this year, but not before leaving fans with this powerful diss track, produced by Skrillex. The raps, the music video choreography, the screams on the pre-chorus…everything fits together just right – including that misleading vocal introduction.
#9. BLACKPINK – “Whistle”
2NE1 carbon-copy BLACKPINK debuted late this year with dual title tracks “Boombayah”/”Whistle.” While both were strong debuts, the latter had the advantage of being more addictive with its simple, repetitive production and literal whistle during the chorus.
#8. Ariana Grande – “Touch It”
Ariana’s Dangerous Woman album was very hit-and-miss. However, “Touch It” was a sure ballpark hit. With grating synth undertones and soaring layered vocals, it showed some sonic growth while also mostly remaining traditional Ariana. Oh, and those concluding whistle notes? Nailed ’em.
#7. Little Mix – “Shout Out To My Ex”
If you are a One Direction fan, you know Little Mix as the band headed up by Zayn’s ex-fiancee Perrie Edwards. Well, fast-forward to now and the group have just released their fourth album, featuring this track as its lead single. There’s no denying who the song is about, and there’s also no denying it’s singable, relatable, and catchy as hell (a la “Ugly Heart,” by G.R.L.).
#6. JoJo feat. Wiz Khalifa – “Fuck Apologies.”
If you can get past the initial few seconds of Wiz Khalifa’s cringeworthy spoken-word intro, this comeback track by former pop princess JoJo is a true masterpiece. If your personal life mantra includes any of the following: having pride, being brutally honest, sticking up for yourself, and/or standing your ground, then this is your jam. “Anthem” isn’t a word I throw around too often, but it definitely applies in this context.
#5. Sia – “Cheap Thrills”
Summer 2016 was interesting, as there was no clear “Song of the Summer” as there has been every summer for the past decade. However, if there was a solid contender, then “Cheap Thrills” would quite arguably be it. While the radio remix version that shot to #1 features reggae veteran Sean Paul, the solo album version is just as good. An ear worm from the first listen, Sia’s vocals on this track are unusually controlled and utilized just sweetly enough that she doesn’t overpower the beat.
#4. BLACKPINK – “Playing With Fire”
BLACKPINK’s second comeback of the year was not as instantly popular as their debut. However, the music was just as strong. Bear with me here, but the chorus on “Playing With Fire” features a very similar beat to the background music featured in some levels of the Donkey Kong Country Nintendo games from the 1990s. Whether it’s the rapid-fire rapping by Lisa or simply the similarity to a nostalgic beat, either way the track is pure gold and makes you curious as to whether BLACKPINK can have a third fire comeback (pun intended).
#3. Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign – “Work From Home”
From the initial few seconds of that tropical beat, it was likely that this was going to be Fifth Harmony’s biggest hit, and by the time the bass kicked in on the chorus, it was clear. Was it a perfect track? Of course not. Camila was unnecessarily all over the ad-libs on the final chorus (which, granted, grew on me), Lauren was once again snubbed on a solo verse, and Ally’s verse was way too low for her usual register. However, this was still a career defining moment for the group. It showed that they were versatile enough to have some growth in both their sound and image, and were finally being taken seriously as artists. The song was all over the radio at the beginning of the year and became Fifth Harmony’s (and Ty Dolla $ign’s!) biggest hit to date. Remember when I called this last year? Me too.
#2. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”
What is there to say? For a song that was made for a movie soundtrack, it’ll make you want to groove; people love a good throwback vibe in their music (see: the success of “Uptown Funk”). Plus, not many pop songs get nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Grammy (oh, and a Video Music Award, People’s Choice Award, Teen Choice Award, and Critics’ Choice Award, just to name a few). The song will also go down as being the best selling digital song of 2016, with over 2.4 million copies sold.
#1. The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey – “Closer”
Where Hurricane Adele reigned last year, Hurricane Closer took over this year. This track was everywhere, evidenced by its performance as the longest-running Hot 100 #1 of 2016 and its breaking of about a dozen different chart records. Once you look past the ridiculous lyrics on the pre-chorus, it is a truly solid EDM song – the type you will hear a few years down the road and remember where you were and what you were doing the first time you heard it. It’ll still sound fresh, and it’ll still bring back memories. If you expected anything else to be at the summit of 2016’s Top Tracks, you’re crazy.