2016 was another great year for pop music — and not just based on the singles that ruled radio and helped define pop culture. Beneath every No. 1 hit were dozens of undervalued gems, some created by superstars, others by newcomers just wading into the game.
Discover some of the coolest pop tracks that casual fans missed in 2016, from Zayn, Bridgit Mendler, Florrie, The Knocks and many more:
Remember Zedd’s song “Clarity”? Of course you do. Its vocalist released an album this year, titled All I Need, full of romantic bubblegum gems. Some of the highlights are even stronger than “Clarity”; the snappy “Cruel” is one of them.
Sometimes you need a pop song that feels like a warm cup of tea on a gray winter afternoon. “Heartless” sounds like a particularly experimental Dido song, which may be as high of a compliment as can be given.
Zayn, “Like I Would”
Two scientific facts from 2016 that both involve Zayn Malik’s debut album, Mind of Mine: The album should have had more official singles, and one of the songs that was an official single, “Like I Would,” should have been way bigger. Zayn as electro-pop torch singer? We’re all in.
Tinashe made ‘Bae Watch’ a reality with her “Superlove” music video, but even before the inspired visual was unveiled, the “2 On” star made a powerful pivot toward rhythmic pop (produced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart!) with the unjustly ignored single.
Bridgit Mendler feat. Kaiydo, “Atlantis”
We shook our fists at U.S. listeners when Bridgit Mendler‘s “Ready or Not,” an impossibly winning pop confection, did not hit its ceiling as a Top 40 smash. “Atlantis” is purposely enigmatic but no less enjoyable — Bridgit 2.0 is coming out of the gate strong.
Florrie, “Real Love”
It’s got a chorus that vaguely recalls “Boom Clap” and a music video that echoes Lana Del Rey’s sun-stroked fatalism. Florrie’s best song isn’t derivative, but if it was, we wouldn’t really mind.
FRENSHIP feat. Emily Warren, “Capsize”
Emily Warren has co-written a handful of pop jewels for other artists over the past three years (including some under-appreciated cuts on Shawn Mendes’ debut album Handwritten), and her Spotify-approved featured turn on “Capsize” is Exhibit A for those expecting big things from the NYC native.
Dua Lipa, “Hotter Than Hell”
Honestly, there are about five songs from British dynamo Dua Lipa that could have made this list. Let’s go with “Hotter Than Hell” because the back half of its chorus lives up to the title, shall we?
The Knocks feat. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Love Me Like That”
Queen of Underrated Pop Carly Rae Jepsen unleashed a B-sides album upon her adoring fans this year, but her team-up with NY duo the Knocks (for their 55 album) was her most dizzying accomplishment of 2016, another glamorous ‘80s strut that pulls back when you think it’s going to explode.
Shura, “What Happened To Us?”
The pop blogosphere has been (rightly) obsessed with Shura songs like “Touch” and “What’s It Gonna Be?” for some time, but real heads know that “What Happened To Us?” has her best combination of ‘80s panache and clever songwriting.
Hanna & Andrea, “Always On My Mind”
Zara Larsson scored a stateside hit in 2016, with “Never Forget You”; her sister, Hanna Larsson, did not, but her pop duo Hanna & Andrea dropped a debut single that would be wowing arenas in a more just world.
Matoma & Becky Hill, “False Alarm”
Immaculately sung and containing a post-hook drop that would make DJ Snake green with envy, “False Alarm” is the dance stunner that Adele needs to record on her next album to up her diva game even further.
Little Mix, “Touch”
As a society, we do not appreciate Little Mix’s ability to barge into our lives every year and shed deliriously enjoyable pop music like it’s pocket lint. It’s been a tough month for girl groups; let “Touch” restore your faith in the medium.
NAO, “Inhale Exhale”
The slinkiest cut on NAO’s excellent debut For All We Know, “Inhale Exhale’s” funk riff is so effortless that it’s a wonder it hasn’t existed before 2016. How much more fun would the year have been with this song in regular Top 40 rotation?
Maggie Rogers, “Alaska”
There’s a reason why Pharrell Williams was blown away when NYU student Maggie Rogers played him her song “Alaska”; there’s no reason why the sleek, surprisingly hopeful track isn’t as inescapable as “Royals” was, especially considering Lorde’s prolonged absence.
MUNA, “I Know A Place”
One of those songs that has you hooked within the first two words: “I Know a Place” is the sound of a new group challenging established acts like Chvrches and HAIM, ahead of their February 2017 debut LP.
Phoebe Ryan, “Chronic”
Last year, singer-songwriter Phoebe Ryan impressed us with the debut single “Mine,” and this year, she recorded a single with the Chainsmokers. In between was “Chronic,” a spry flirtation that gets extra points for being more than a bundle of weed metaphors.
Allie X, “Old Habits Die Hard”
Allie X, Katy Perry-approved Canadian pop genius, is forever pushing at the visual boundaries of the genre with looped music videos and avant-garde short films. Don’t have time to pay mind to the experimentation? Don’t worry — “Old Habits Die Hard” is another icy banger.
Tegan and Sara, “U-turn”
Tegan and Sara returned three years after their tremendous Heartthrob album with Love You to Death, a slightly less enthralling synth-pop project that still featured one of the strongest singles of their career. Listen to “U-turn” once, twice, one hundred times; you won’t need to turn anywhere else while it’s playing.
KDA feat. Tinashe, “Just Say”
It’s worth noting that Tinashe is the only artist that appears twice on this list… and it’s because one underrated Tinashe single simply isn’t enough to demonstrate her unique skill of being unjustly overlooked by pop radio. “Just Say” is more entrancing than most pop tracks released this year — put it on any party playlist, and see everyone in its presence happily bop along to KDA’s beat.