While making this list, it was clear this was going to be a painful process. There were truly too many good songs this year. This should not have come as such a surprise given the treasure trove of albums that dropped this year, and a good album usually has a great song or two. Nevertheless, narrowing the playing field down to a list of 25 tracks proved a herculean task.
But we did it. From Kanye to Bey to Ri to, well back to Kanye, here are our picks for the 25 best songs of 2016.
25. Drake–“One Dance”
It’s not the best Drake song, nor is it the most fun Drake Song, nor is it even that Drake of a Drake song, but in a year of such turmoil, “One Dance” is the Drake song we deserved. The skittering piano chords and evocative dancehall beats took us to a faraway place, one where liberation on the dance floor is not an ideal, but a way of life, and where lovers don’t have to worry about feelings getting in the way, they just shut up and kiss.
There were times when it seemed like Desiigner’s “Panda” was a biblical plague, sent to punish us for the sins of our fathers. In 2016, it was truly inescapable. It first slipped into our minds thanks to a serious up from Kanye West, but the sheer oddity of Desiiger could not be contained to a single track on The Life of Pablo. Now, even so many plays later, it is clear what Kanye saw in this talented New York upstart. The kid has an ear for relentless hooks, even if you’re not entirely sure what he’s saying over them.
23. Blood Orange–“E.V.P.”
Dev Hynes has always used his work as Blood Orange to evoke the glamor of eras past in songs that sound uncannily like his disco and new wave influences. This is the first time that he had broken that mold. “E.V.P.” does not pull from past sounds as much as it hops in a DeLorean to 1980 New York, kidnaps Debbie Harry in the middle of a Blondie show and takes her back to the present to create a new kind of club music to save us all. I’m hardly exaggerating, and yes, that is Debbie Harry singing on this track. And good god is it funky.
22. Young Thug ft. Travis Scott & Quavo–“Pick Up the Phone”
The single is so nice they put it on an album…twice. Appearing on both Young Thug and Travis Scott’s respective solo albums, and with an additional guest spot from Migos frontman Quavo, “Pick Up the Phone” is a Greek chorus of a booty jam. But unlike your average sexy-time song, the leering synthesizers and warbled, underwater-like beat add a layer of foreboding, reminding you that as much as you need this sex, the jaded morning after is just a few hours away.
21. Jessy Lanza–“It Means I Love You”
“When you look into my eyes boy, then it means I love you” is one of the more opaque, confounding come-ons in recent memory, and it forms the lyrical core of a dance track that carries those exact same qualities. It immediately lures you in with a syncopated drum beat and rhythmic vocal interjections. Then this voice is pitched up to chipmunk proportions, followed by the sharp-as-knives samples and the proverbial shit really hits the fan. Before you know it, you’re trapped in a four-on-the-floor footwork frenzy.
20. Vince Staples–“War Ready”
Settling down for a good Vince Staples listening session implies that you’re going to get taken to some very dark places, quickly. But “War Ready” reaches that point with an alarming amount of dexterity. It is also just straight up strange. Boasting an exactingly minimal production job from James Blake, the track opens with a single drum beat and a nearly 30-second sample from an André 3000 verse in an OutKast song. For the rest of its short running time, the track is best described as Staples rapping over the soundtrack to Halloween. It is haunting, it is innovative, and it is among his best.
19. Princess Nokia–“Tomboy”
I can think of few things as quintessentially 2016 than a 24-year-old Afro-Latina woman raised in Harlem dropping a rap track about taking pride in defying traditional gender norms, and that also happens to be hard as fuck. This is a song that builds a rally cry out of “My little titties and fat belly,” paying respect to Missy Elliott, name checking the ‘90s children’s television show Blue’s Clues and contains a verse in Spanish. Her presence is so effortlessly commanding that she doesn’t even need to remind us that the answer to “Who Dat?” is “Princess Nokia Baby Fat.”
18. Kamaiyah–“How Does It Feel”
Nearly every song has at least one reference to the joys of getting paper. But the narrative of rappers finding power and pride in currency is completely turned on its head “How Does It Feel.” Kamaiyah, in her classically bemused tone, wonders with genuine, open-hearted honesty what it will feel like to be surrounded by wealth after a lifetime of poverty. “How does it feel to just live?” she ponders, not bragging or taunting, but overwhelmed by the splendor of a rap game success story.
17. Rihanna–“Kiss It Better”
Rihanna makes a habit of playing her cards carefully; not just anyone gets to know how she feels. Which makes “Kiss It Better,” and its placement as the first big show-stopper on ANTI, a revelation. She is showing her full hand and is not ashamed. Never in your life have you heard the phrase “fuck yo pride” with such piercingly deep heartache. Held together by an immersive synthesizer line and guitar-shredding straight out of early-era Prince, this may be her most delicately wrought single yet.
16. James Blake–“Timeless”
Since day one, James Blake’s artistic output has remained the same. He is a supremely-talented crooner who sings his angelic voice over beats that are mercilessly hard. “Timeless” splits these two elements evenly down the middle. For its first half, it is a haunting, atmospheric track of lost love. Then halfway through the track utterly erupts, turning into a filthy trap-house rave that assaults the senses. Vince Staples contributed a verse in a remixed version, but it only served to distract from the laser-beam clarity of one of the best beats of the year.
It is hard to believe that “Sorry” has been with us for less than a year, as so many of its individual moments have been writ across the pop culture landscape at large. I have lost count of how many memes have been adorned with, “boy bye,” or the number of think-pieces devoted to finding out who, “Becky with the good hair” is, or how many times I have heard the delightful command, “Stop interrupting my grinding!” All of these things are great, but what makes this song so important is the message. You will take every bit of this empowered intelligent woman, and no matter what she does you will not get, nor do you deserve, an apology. Not at all.
14. Danny Brown–“Pneumonia”
Danny Brown continues to be one of the most intriguing (and maybe actually insane) rappers alive, and “Pneumonia” is yet another jewel in his crown. Musically it is one of the strangest tracks he has put on tape; it is comprised of little more than a single guitar chord and sing-songy bell chimes. There is hardly a ‘beat’ to be found. And as with any great Brown song, lyrically you are treated to an X-rated sideshow. “Lick her clit and she do the Macarena,” is the best claim to prowess in oral sex I’ve heard all year.
13. Charli XCX–“Vroom Vroom”
SOPHIE, the enigmatic producer associated with the label PC Music, has a rare gift for making music that is both insanely catchy and downright unpleasant to the ear. Charli XCX is among the more intelligent and brash of pop music’s reigning princesses, and not ashamed to show her dark side. Combining the two together is a match made in some heavily-processed fluorescent pink heaven. “Vroom Vroom” is a bizarre patchwork quilt of pop hooks, some pure candy-coated bliss and others alarmingly jarring, but all of them together make for a truly thrilling, if dizzying, listen.
12. D.R.A.M. ft. Lil Yachty–“Broccoli”
As someone who has spent literal years of their life stoned, I felt mildly ashamed that I had never heard the term ‘broccoli’ to describe Miss Mary Jane. Let alone that I was being taught this term by the duo of D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty, who don’t exactly scream ‘cool.’ But how could anyone possibly stay mad after hearing the song itself? The beat is a mix between the opening of a piano-led showtune and a submarine unleashing a fart, and with goofy grins these two rap about sending checks to Mom and eating bagels and lox. It is absurd and hilariously dumb and perfect.
11. Jenny Hval–“Conceptual Romance”
Blood Bitch is an album that takes time to process, but “Conceptual Romance” serves as an easy-access route inside the labyrinth of Jenny Hval’s masterpiece of an art-rock record. Sonically, the song is a hauntingly fragile slice of dream-pop. Lyrically, it is a piercingly intelligent dissection of our need for human connection. “I understand infatuation, rejection” Hval sings with steely determination, “they can connect and become everything that’s torn up in your life.” It’s part break-up song and part academic lecture, but all crystalline beauty.
10. Kanye West–“Ultralight Beam”
Kanye West has frequently spoken of The Life of Pablo as a “gospel record.” But that claim really only applies to this, the opening benediction to his most difficult work yet. Yes, it helps that an actual gospel choir with singers Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price is on hand to bellow blessings that produce spine-tingles, but it is more than that. It is Kanye acknowledging the chaos and suffering of our world and challenging it, as well as locating these elements within himself and exorcising them through his spiritual successor, Chance the Rapper. It is the only moment on an album chasing glory where Kanye truly ascends and transcends.
9. Rae Sremmurd ft. Gucci Mane–“Black Beatles”
It becomes ever more clear, hit after hit after hit, that producer Mike WiLL Made It must be able to commune with cosmic spirits of groove, holding secrets that we mere mortals can only handle in condensed, four-minute form. Even if we discredit the #MannequinChallenge that catapulted this track to the top of the charts, this is a miraculous song. The hooks are so sugary they have melted into syrup; the brothers of Rae Sremmurd complement each other like the holy union of yin and yang; Gucci Mane is…there. By the time that they yell “BLACK BEATLE BITCH ME AND PAUL MCCARTNEY RELATED” with zero regard for rhythm, we’re entirely ready to agree with them.
8. Solange–“Don’t Touch My Hair”
Despite its quiet, understated approach, “Don’t Touch My Hair” is one of the most (if not the most) devastatingly political songs of the year. Over an atmospheric beat highlighted by a keyboard line that could double for a harpsichord, Solange directly and personally rallies behind one of the most latent forms of the racism and prejudice that affect people of color on a daily basis. It is a feather-light track that carries an overwhelmingly heavy message, and there is not a single misstep in its immaculate execution.
7. Frank Ocean–“Nikes”
It is no mistake that “Nikes” is both the first track on Frank Ocean’s Blond and the first piece of music he released from what was the most highly-anticipated album of the year (or years, arguably). Contained in this song is Ocean’s complete thesis for both this album and his growing identity as an artist. It is a nebulous four minutes of glamor, sex, intimacy, melancholy, queerness, anxiety and bliss. And it is condensed most profoundly in a sing-song refrain of two key words, two words that feel tangibly important in context, that continue to haunt me long after the song ends: “Rain, glitter.”
In a two-decade career of creating longing, atmospheric songs, “Daydreaming” stands out as one of Radiohead’s very best. It is constructed almost entirely around four elements: a piano, a honeyed electronic keyboard, melancholic string instruments and the exquisite voice of Thom Yorke, grown ever more mature with age. Despite its minimalism, the instrumentation is lush, fertile even, creating a greenhouse of sound that houses every haunting moment of this song. And just as things begin to swell, it very quietly ends, leaving us with a warped and pitch-shifted Yorke breathing. There’s no point trying to figure it all out as Yorke sings, “It goes beyond me, beyond you.”
5. ANOHNI–“Drone Bomb Me”
This song would not work without ANOHNI. I can not think of another artist capable of creating an electro-dance track that is told from the perspective of an Afghani girl begging for death after her family and her home have been obliterated in a drone killing. It is the shining highlight of her devastating global protest record. And though the magic of producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, and a glamorous video with Naomi Campbell, all add to the song’s legacy, it is ANOHNI singing “explode my crystal guts” that will stick in the mind after the song’s end.
4. Chance the Rapper ft. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz–“No Problem”
Coloring Book is the most joyous hip-hop album in recent memory and “No Problem” is the most ecstatically ebullient track on the record. Utilizing the loop of a gospel choir, Chance the Rapper does little more than explain his current position in life. Which is as a globally renowned and successful artist who has managed to evade the pressures of the industry and of fame and emerged stronger, better and more confident than ever before. Which all together seems a more-than-valid reason to take to the streets and exalt the moments of bliss and glee we get in this short life.
For comparison, Beyoncé’s previous video release before “Formation” was “7/11,” a hilariously fun romp through her penthouse. So, of course “Formation” took time to process. In little more than a year, Beyoncé went from world-conquering pop star to world-conquering pop star taking control of her narrative and the narrative of her fellow black women, openly chiding the daily prejudices they face and turning even the smallest moments of their culture into a fierce war cry of pride. Now, in a future where the rights of those belonging to this culture are called into question, standing together and, yes, organizing ourselves into formation is not only important, but vital.
2. Rihanna ft. Drake–“Work”
Much like the dancehall beat that darts around and the mumble-jumble of the chorus, “Work” is a hard song to pin down. It is this quality that allows us to approach it fresh and anew even now, after hearing it almost daily for nearly a full year. Rihanna and Drake have a slew of collaborations at this point, but the heat has never felt more palpable than it does here, with the “will they/won’t they” dynamic teased out to its extreme. Not even a classic, face-in-palm Drake-ism like “if you had a twin I would still choose you” can do anything to touch this track. No song in 2016 was more ubiquitous, yet even now it holds elements of mystique, even if a lot of those are trying to translate the syllables of the chorus into concrete, written form.
1. Kanye West–“Famous”
“Famous” is a contender for being the absolute most Kanye West of a Kanye West song. Obscure soul samples transformed into nearly unrecognizable instruments? Check. A feature guest spot to sing the hook? Check (Oh hey Ri!). A veritable novella of hilarious and biting non-sequiturs? Check. And let’s see what else — did it generate controversy? Several, and extra points since most of them were Taylor Swift-related. Is it simultaneously brazenly shallow and piercingly deep? Oh god, yes.
In typical Kanye West fashion, this song is testament to how amazing he is while showing what a horrible human he is. And on a larger scale, it portrays the allure of our fame-obsessed culture while presenting it in a consciously ludicrous form. There is simply no song that captures the zeitgeist of pop culture in 2016 more than “Famous,” and for that reason (in addition to some cheeky Taylor Swift shade), it is the song of the year.
Listen to all of our picks for the Best Songs of 2016 in one handy place — our very own Spotify playlist! Tune in below:
Stay tuned for our best albums of the year to arrive tomorrow. In the meantime, check out our picks for 2016’s most underrated albums.