For several reasons, 2016 has been the worst, and pop music wasn’t spared this year’s wrath. This year may go down as one of the most unremarkable years in recent pop memory, filled with forgettable, uninspiring, and just plain awful tracks that made you wish Beyoncé or Adele or Prince or David Bowie could be cloned.
But instead of lamenting the utter dirge that topped the charts, let’s celebrate the great songs that slipped through the cracks into our ears. Here are my picks for 2016’s best songs (in no particular order):
Can’t Stop The Feeling! – Justin Timberlake
Reluctant as he seems to be about it, Justin Timberlake is the closest as anyone’s getting to claiming the King of Pop crown, and this song is just more proof of it. Teaming up with Max Martin for the first time in over a decade, JT crafts the year’s most effervescent, buoyant slice of pop, commanding its listeners to skip, not run, to the dance floor with their hands firmly in the air. What’s even more impressive is that this #1 smash was for The Trolls soundtrack, meaning he probably wasn’t even trying.
Formation – Beyoncé
“Formation” and its accompanying music video set the world on fire earlier this year, and for excellent reason. Before anyone knew Lemonade as anything more than a refreshing beverage, Beyoncé turned the world upside down with this fierce proclamation of her Blackness, particularly her Black Womanhood. For an artist so closely guarded, she went all out on this track and dared anyone to question her. The results paid off in spades; nearly every lyric entered the cultural lexicon, critics showered her with praise, and even after months of being available for free, the song entered the Top 10 when Lemonade was released.
Somebody Else – The 1975
No one did the 80s better than British band The 1975 and their obnoxiously long-titled but oh-so-worth-it-album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, and “Somebody Else” is the crown jewel. This ethereal ode to self-indulgent jealousy references the best of New Wave and adapts it for the Instagram generation. The song is a dreamscape of sound that’s a perfect counterbalance to the biting, witty lyrics.
One Dance – Drake
The first song to reach one billion streams on Spotify, Drake’s breezy summer jam was inescapable no matter when you were listening to it. Nearly everyone jumped onto the reggae-lite pop trend this year, but no one did it as well as Drake. The whine-ready beat and his earnest, airy vocals made for a relaxed but club-ready listen, guaranteeing a multi-week #1 and the Toronto rapper’s title as the year’s most successful artist (not named Adele).
Water Under The Bridge – Adele
The best-selling artist of the year by a country mile, Adele didn’t have to release another single off of her diamond certified 25. Bless her, she released two. While “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” is quirky fun, “Water Under The Bridge” is the better track, a pleading declaration of love that also happens to be the happiest-sounding song of her career. Euphoria has never been in Adele’s wheelhouse, but no word better describes the climax of this perfect-for-winter thumper.
Kiss It Better – Rihanna
It’s been a long time coming, but Rihanna finally released a legitimate sex anthem. While not as successful as lead single “Work” or “Needed Me”, Rihanna has never been sexier than on the writhing, slinky “Kiss It Better”. The pop princess yearns, pleads, and taunts over the wicked buzz of an electric guitar, working listeners into a fevered frenzy. ANTI may have been the missive for her “no fucks given” persona, but “Kiss It Better” touts the lusty benefits of when she actually does.
Superlove – Tinashe
I’m late to the party, but Tinashe was the most deserving of a breakout hit this year. The R&B singer’s summer single should’ve been playing at all of the barbecues, cookouts and beach parties, with its bouncy sound recalling the best of the 90’s. It’s The-Dream’s best production in years, and Tinashe’s confident, flirty performance more than handled the task. Here’s to hoping that Tinashe properly takes off in 2017.
Starboy (feat. Daft Punk) – The Weeknd
After the year The Weeknd had, no one could blame him for being about cocky. With “Starboy”, the lead single from the same-titled album, The Weeknd sits back and meditates on his success while dismantling his haters, all against the sparse, eerie beats from French electronic duo Daft Punk. Largely eschewing the MJ comparisons of his breakout hit “Can’t Feel My Face”, The Weeknd proved that he wasn’t just resting on his laurels and was willing to experiment and surprise (including shaving his famous hair).
Ivy – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean had almost destroyed any goodwill that channel ORANGE had given him with his frequently delayed album Boys Don’t Cry. Then he released Blonde and reminded everyone why his absence from the music world inspired such fury. His evocative vocals and vivid storytelling are unequaled in R&B, making him one of the most exciting and enigmatic artists in music. One of the album’s highlights is “Ivy”, a dreamy, fuzzy Californian rumination on love and growing up.
Fade – Kanye West
When Kanye West wasn’t driving everyone who ever liked him absolutely insane with his incomprehensible behavior, he managed to drop one of the year’s best workout tracks. It is pulsating, slightly manic melodrama, reminding us of the brilliance that can come when Kanye channels his worst public impulses into his music. Plus, the music video introduced Teyana Taylor to the mainstream, and we are all the better for it.
This is What You Came For – Calvin Harris and Rihanna
Like I Would – Zayn
Still Falling For You – Ellie Goulding
Into You – Ariana Grande
Hurts – Emeli Sandé
Million Reasons – Lady Gaga
Cheap Thrills – Sia
I Took a Pill in Ibiza – Mike Posner
In Common – Alicia Keys
Mercy – Shawn Mendes