The Year in Music: How Popstars Evolved in 2016

The Year in Music: How Popstars Evolved in 2016

In 2016, the biggest names in pop music managed to redefine the field and achieve creative career highs.

In 2016, the biggest names in pop music managed to redefine the field and achieve creative career highs.

Text: Jake Viswanath

2016 was utterly strange and flat-out terrible at times for numerous, obvious reasons, but one thing we have been blessed with this year is good music: songs that hit hard emotionally, get stuck in your head instantaneously, and still push the music landscape forward. Surprisingly, it was our favorite pop artists that have branched out and gotten more strange than ever. They seemed to collectively stop giving a damn this year, releasing albums that pave new ground while embodying the signature quirks that make their music great. They embraced strong changes in sound rather than sticking to previous expectations, making for an unexpectedly thrilling year for music.

At the beginning of the year, Rihanna came out with her most accomplished effort yet, Anti, setting the precedent for her peers to move pop music forward. Bad Gal Riri continued her genre-jumping ways more seamlessly than ever before, dabbling in spacey psychedelic pop, Motown grooves, and classic rock ballads, and somehow making them perfectly compliment each other. As we all know, Beyoncé came out of the gate storming harder than ever before with Lemonade. She dared to jump out of the musical box assigned to her as a black female artist and experimented with vengeful rock tracks, country hoedowns, and reggae-lite rhythms to soundtrack her story of infidelity, making for one of music’s most thrilling rides.

The legendary miss Britney Spears made a grand return to form with Glory, her ninth album and ultimately one of her best. She took cues from the slow-burning mid-tempos and quirky pop productions of her past, getting both smooth and completely unhinged with her vocals like never before and creating one of the more distinctive albums of the year. Finally, Lady Gaga made a beautifully jarring and adventurous musical transition with Joanne. Although the soundscape leans more toward brazen pop-rock and organic country influences, her distinct lyrics and Gaga-isms prove that she will always sound like classic Lady Gaga no matter which genre backs her up.

It seems like a mere coincidence that our generation’s most famous pop artists all decided to jump ship from their career paths at once, considering that each of them clearly produced what their heart desired this year. But that wasn’t a clear case for each lady last time around.

Rihanna was engulfed in a pattern of yearly factory-made albums, providing the incredible bops but never a strong artistic evolution. Gaga dealt with a tumultuous era of backlash with ARTPOP that seemed to lead to a shift away from electronic dance-pop. Admittedly, Britney hit a creative low with Britney Jean, a hodgepodge of uninspired will.i.am-produced cuts and bland ballads. Only Beyoncé hit a career peak with her self-titled opus, but even she was apparently hungry to go vastly beyond her R’n’B roots. It's evident that their prior efforts lit a fire under them to command more creative control and take risks.

Looking at the current music landscape, it seems that the rise of alternative music also had some impact on their creative choices. The fact that Florence Welch and Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker managed to land on two albums (Anti and Joanne) is a testament to this. Every artist seemed to merge their signature musical traits with a touch of indie sound and spirit, elevating them to the next level.

Beyoncé brought Jack White and James Blake onto Lemonade to explore their sounds, while Rihanna delivered a faithful tribute to Parker with a cover of Impala’s “New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes.” Britney took cues from the slowly emerging neo-R’n’B movement (and doo-wop of all genres) and put her stamp on each track, and Gaga formed a power team of indie commodities, including Parker, Welch, Beck, and Father John Misty, to embed their influences within the typical Gaga sound.

These creative decisions have paid off in spades. Never have they seemed happier, more powerful on stage, and more creatively vibrant. Their commercial success hasn’t waned either, given that most albums hit number one and produced top 20 hits. Arguably, they are in an even better place now than ever before. For Lemonade especially, the socio-political impact was enormous, raising awareness on the treatment of black women and serving as a celebration of their power. Even Joanne’s message of unity and awareness re-established Gaga as a voice of passion and activism for our generation.

If 2016 has proved anything, it is that nothing is impossible, for better or worse. But in the world of music, this mantra does more good. What people once thought was the definition of pop music—cookie-cutter melodies and electro-lite production simply no longer exists. These four artists are just the biggest examples of how pop music can change in an instant, get inspired by what’s going on around them, and still remain undeniably pop. These women were daring and downright weird at times on their records, and the results were glory-ous, giving them the freedom to continue doing what they damn want in the future. No one knows exactly what’s in store for pop in the coming years, and that is a very exciting prospect.

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