More than half of 2016’s best pop records come down to not just sister’s working out, but actual female siblings — think Solange and Beyoncé Knowles — who both released master works this year, each displaying their own unique character, dispositions and personality quirks, and often over the same incidents. If you listen closely, you get a quick lesson in birth order and nature over nurture. Then there’s those eccentrically talented Canadian twins, Tegan and Sara Quin, who graduated from being coy, clever indie darlings of the early oughts to pop smart truth tellers on I Love You to Death and We Are King by KING, the debut album from a vocal trio comprised of twins Amber and Paris Strother and Anita Bias.
Then there’s the case of Lady Gaga who pronounced her album was dedicated to and inspired by her father’s late sister Joanne, who died before the singer was born. While Ariana Grande doesn’t have a sister, that doesn’t make her guest-star packed Dangerous Women any less musically lethal, or Britney Spears’ showing this year. But before you say Year of the Woman, there were also standout albums by Kayne West, Chance the Rapper, Zayn Malik and Nick Jonas.
Solange, A Seat at the Table
There is something unstintingly honest and raw about Solange’s third album, beginning with the album cover, which shows the singer a little unfinished in hair clips with a 100-yard stare in her beautiful eyes. While her older sister’s politics are more personal, Solange’s vision is far bigger and more all-encompassing, a celebration of her own coming of age as a black woman, and in a larger context the celebration of black women in these race-fractured times. The ache of “Cranes in the Sky” will stay with you for a long time.
The Knowles sisters seem to have had it up to here, since both of them took on the idea of being black and fiercely female in their albums. Beyonce’s attack on this album seemed more focused and personal as she unpacked her dirty laundry and hung it out on a gossamer clothesline like revenge ballads, if not a cautionary tale.
Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death
After shrugging off their sometimes fey and cute folkie personas from 2013’s Heartthrob, Top 40 producer Greg Kurstin returns to guide the twins on their follow-up, *Love You to Death. *The talented sisters show that this was a hard left turn, and they continue down this glossy pop vein without apology. Nor are they playing down their sexuality or preferences anymore. In short they’ve stopped playing it safe, if lead single “Boyfriend” is any indication of where they’re headed.
Lady Gaga, Joanne
Lady Gaga returns with a new album that sheds much of her last album’s brittle disco glitter and arch sexuality for something a lot more sincere, stripped down and sentimental with the help of producer Mick Ronson. A homage to her father’s sister who died at 19 from lupus before Gaga was born, but whose death ripped a psychic wound in the Germanotta family that’s never been healed, the artist does her best to let Aunt Joanne live again by inhabiting her wistful spirit on “Angel Down,” then trying to exorcise any lingering ghosts on power ballad “Millions of Reasons.”
Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
You only have to look at the cover of Grande’s third album to see that she’s moving into a more risqué state of mind, the black nefarious latex bunny ears telegraphing that something else might be on the menu other than being a former Nickelodeon star. But we shouldn’t be surprised, the winsome lingerie-wearing diva warned us on 2014’s “Bang Bang” when she cooed: “You need a bad girl to blow you mind.” Which is exactly what she’s done here with the help of Swedish pop genius Max Martin and Alexander Kronlund, especially on the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head “Into You.”
Kanye West , The Life of Pablo
After tinkering for more than a year on his seventh album, The Life of Pablo, Kayne finally stopped trying to bend into an unnatural shape and let it be what it was supposed to be: A messy sprawling behemoth. It has none of the focus or sharp vision of his earlier work — or even an organizing property — instead the album skitters from song to song, genre to genre tracing the journey of a man attempting to find himself, first in the gospel of “Ultralight Beam” which features Chance the Rapper, then in the smoky seduction of “Famous” with it’s Nina Simone sample to the alien moonscape of “Wolves.” But there is something honest and unfinished in this album that shows the measure of the man, and the inside of his psyche far more than anything he has done before. It’s a mood swing, a madman’s diary, and ultimately his best work.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Kayne may have claimed that The Life of Pablo was a gospel album, but it turned out Chance the Rapper’s really was. Perhaps inspired by his guest spot on “Ultralight Beam” on West’s TLOP, the Chicago native released his rather bi-polar gospel hip-hop album that teeters between sin and salvation, church and state, spirituality and hard partying. Is he mixed up? Nope, he gives equal attention to all the stations on this cross.
Britney Spears, Glory
It was time for the pendulum to swing back for Spears after 2013’s unenthusiastic Britney Jean. On Glory the former teenage popette has grown up, she’s 34, bad, even blonder and has switched out most of her overworked EDM club bangers of albums past for a more of-the-moment dance pop, breathy seductions and heart catching R&B. Some of the credit goes to new producers Mattman & Robin and Nick Monson, but in the end, she just sounds engaged and engaging.
Zayn, Mind of Mine
Released a year to the day after Malik issued a press release announcing that he had left One Direction, it’s clear he had only a single direction in his head — to distance himself as far as possible from the zippy jumped-up anthems of the his former (pretty) boy band, replacing that construct of clean living with this darker vision of slow brooding sex jams and weed-fueled indiscretions. “It’s You” is the album standout.
Nick Jonas, Last Year Was Complicated
Since we’re on the subject of boy bands, Jonas Brothers expat, youngest brother Nick’s third album is a bitter Valentine: a moody, sulky walk through heartbreak and out the other side. Instead of slapping a happy face on his break up with former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, Jonas uses it to delve into his psyche, on the darker than normal (for him) “Jealous,” the clubby, but revelatory “Champagne Problems,” and finally confessing his fear of intimacy in the excellent “Close,” his duet with Tove Lo.
KING, We Are KING
This debut album is smart, subtle, with deft songwriting and an ethereal blend of voices and strange whimsy. It’s sexy, but not overt, romantic and introspective, elusive but approachable and pure class, reminding one of Sade when she sizzled. This trio comprised of twin sisters Amber and Paris Strother and friend Anita Bias write and produce all their own material, and we guarantee this is not the last you’ll hear of them.