Was 2016 the worst year ever? Given the unthinkable tragedies, the stranger-than-fiction political fiascos, and the loss of beloved icons like Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, many would say yes. But if the past 12 months have left us bruised and battered, they’ve also proven that troubled times make for great art. For its short format, music remains a powerful medium. This year’s best pop songs were more than just fodder for the dance floor—they were four-minute, concept-driven think pieces. Whether offering incisive critiques of a nation plagued by inequality and disillusionment, or merging old ideas with new ones to create a sound that transcended that disillusionment, artists from every genre were pushing us into thrilling new terrain. If 2016 was rough, it was also galvanizing.
This was the year that hit-makers like Rihanna, Kanye, and Beyoncé opted for riskier, more experimental fare, and saw it pay off. It was also a year of dynamic releases from queer artists: Frank Ocean, ANOHNI, Tegan and Sara, serpentwithfeet, and Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, to name a few. And, of course, it was the year of swan songs from some of our greatest legends. These visionaries may have left us, but their music lives on.
Below you’ll find a list of our 50 favorite tracks of 2016. The top 10 tracks are broken down in detail followed by a Spotify playlist that includes most of the top 50. Sadly, two tracks aren’t available to stream, but if you haven’t already heard them...well, we’re not sure where you’ve been this year.
50. The Goon Sax, “Boyfriend”
49. The Range, “Florida”
48. Chance the Rapper, “All Night”
47. Japanese Breakfast, “The Woman That Loves You”
46. Jamila Woods, “Blk Girl Soldier”
45. Tinashe, “Ghetto Boy”
44. dvsn, “The Line”
43. Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
42. Weyes Blood, “Do You Need My Love”
41. serpentwithfeet, “four ethers”
40. Kaytranada, “Lite Spots”
39. Bon Iver, “22(OVER S∞∞N)”
38. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam” [ft. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin]
37. Drake, “Feel No Ways”
36. Savages, “Adore”
35. James Blake, “Two Men Down”
34. Maxwell, “1990x”
33. Preoccupations, “Memory”
32. Låpsley, “Operator” (DJ Koze’s Disco Edit)
31. Whitney, “No Woman”
30. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, “A 1000 Times”
29. Rihanna, “Kiss It Better”
28. Frank Ocean, “Nikes”
27. Bon Iver, “33 ‘GOD’”
26. Car Seat Headrest, “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”
25. Jessy Lanza, “It Means I Love You”
24. Radiohead, “Daydreaming”
23. The xx, “On Hold”
22. Angel Olsen, “Never Be Mine”
21. KING, “Native Land”
20. Blood Orange, “E.V.P.”
19. ANOHNI, “Watch Me”
18. Dawn Richard, “Not Above That”
17. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
16. Kevin Morby, “Destroyer”
15. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
14. Frank Ocean, “Self Control”
13. case/lang/veirs, “Atomic Number”
12. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree”
11. David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
10. Jenny Hval, “Conceptual Romance”
On the centerpiece of her vampire-themed album, Blood Bitch, the Norwegian art-pop siren is plagued by the uncertainties of love. But as she parses her neuroses over a cushion of fluttering beats and lush synths that seep through the track like the first rays of daybreak, she remains steady and self-possessed. This is the sound of Hval opening the tomb to face her demons.
9. Nicolas Jaar, “No”
From its haunting tribal percussion to its hypnotic Spanish vocals to its brilliant samples (including a Chilean harp piece and a cryptic conversation between a young Jaar and an older man), “No” is an absolute stunner—a strange, experimental fantasia that reveals new surprises around every one of its shadowy corners.
8. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People…”
The scathing highlight of the hip-hop trailblazers’ stellar farewell album, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, “We the People...” gave us the timeliest, catchiest, most compelling refrain of the year: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” It’s as if the lines were delivered by The Donald himself.
7. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
An outsider anthem with an explosive chorus, the half-Japanese indie-rock ingénue’s breakout single is a story of cultural divides and crippling insecurities. But the clincher is its electrifying climax, in which Mitski finds her confidence and coolly declares, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”
6. Beyoncé, “Formation”
Since its premiere at the Super Bowl in February, the first taste of Queen Bey’s irresistible Lemonade has continued to slay, sinking her pop contemporaries like the police car she mounts in the song’s glorious video. Set to a nasty trap bass line and splashed with enough hot sauce to make your eyes water, “Formation” is an exhilarating, endlessly quotable celebration of blackness, sisterhood, economic self-sufficiency, New Orleans, and all things fierce. Rallying cries are seldom this intoxicating and inspired, but they are never this fun.
5. Blood Orange, “Best to You” [ft. Empress Of]
While much of Freetown Sound, Devonté Hynes’s excellent third album as Blood Orange, fixes its gaze on the big issues—racism, homophobia, religion, heritage—its finest cut, a duet with Lorely Rodriguez (aka Empress Of), tackles power struggles and displaced identity in a more intimate setting. “I can’t be the girl you want / But I can be the thing you throw away,” sings Rodriguez over watery keys and a galloping Afro-pop beat, setting her dignity aside to receive even a hint of validation. Because in the game of love, we are sometimes our own worst enemies.
4. Frank Ocean, “Nights”
A perfect encapsulation of everything that makes Ocean’s long-awaited sophomore album, Blonde, so spectacular, “Nights” is a shape-shifting, genre-blurring, time-traveling trek through the artist’s psyche. As its arrangement morphs from melodic, mid-tempo hip-hop into a psychedelic guitar-rock freak-out, the R&B auteur reminisces about his hardship in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reflects on trust and relationships, and longs for solitude and good weed. The result is a richly produced reverie, a beautiful tale of old flames and new beginnings.
3. Angel Olsen, “Sister”
Angel Olsen knows heartache; she has seen her dreams crumble. But on “Sister” she reemerges from the wreckage tougher and wiser: “Know that this wild road / Will go on forever / I want to live life / I want to die right,” she sings. The track’s eight-minute running time mirrors the long, winding path ahead, and her patience as she takes it all in. By the time it reaches its astonishing conclusion—complete with an awe-inducing guitar solo—it’s as if she’s climbed to the top of the mountain, watched the sunset, and howled into the canyons. When she proclaims, “All my life I thought I’d change,” it’s not defeatist—it’s Olsen savoring the fact that she finally has changed.
2. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
Released just three days before his unexpected passing, the video for “Lazarus” was David Bowie’s final masterstroke. A nod to both his Station to Station days and his impending mortality, it was as dark, discomfiting, and inscrutable as death itself, reminding us yet again of the legend’s uncanny ability to take us to places we’d never been, to make us feel things we’ve never felt. Featuring some of the saddest, stateliest saxophones ever recorded, the song itself was equally evocative, a paranoid, apocalyptic fusion of guitar rock, jazz, and musical theater. “I’ve got drama / Can’t be stolen,” Bowie intones, before announcing that “just like that bluebird / I’ll be free.” As it edges toward its finale, the track swells and soars, and then it all just drifts away.
1. Beyoncé, “All Night”
Yes, “Formation” is Lemonade’s “important” song. But “All Night” is its heart and soul, where its fundamental message lies. On a visual album that sees her swinging baseball bats, giving Becky the finger, and confronting infidelity, racism, and misogyny head-on, Beyoncé is ultimately just trying to push through her pain and fury to get to the other side, to find light beyond the darkness. The way forward, she insists, is through empathy and forgiveness. “I’ve seen your scars and kissed your crimes,” she sings, before the ballad gives way to a trumpet-laced chorus that’s as sensual as it is angelic. To underscore her thesis—that “nothing real can be threatened”—the video for “All Night” splices footage of Bey and Jay Z’s wedding with clips of various couples: young, old, black, white, queer, straight. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more life-affirming statement in pop music this year.