a popping noise could definantly be a ball joint. i would also check for a sticking caliper pin, and piston especially since the brakes feel different to you. it might help some more if you could explain how the brakes are feeling(soft, hard, vibrating, etc).
here are some things to check. jack the front end up. move the tire from left to right rapidly if there is excessive movement then you have a bad tie rod. next move tire up and down if you have excessive movement there it is probably a ball joint problem. make sure you check both tires. next you could find an empty parking lot and turn sharp cirlces putting a lot of pressure on the front tires. if you here a clicking, popping or thumping noise you now it is a suspension, steering problem. if you still have not found a problem then i would take the calipers off. check for excessive wear on one side(caliper pin), but since this is a new problem i would clean and grease the caliper pins. if still you haven't found anything then i would have a steering, suspension check and brake check. hope this helps and good luck.
[ December 20, 2002: Message edited by: tonylsg ]</p>