If 2016 was good for anything, it was music. Yes, we lost a few truly brilliant minds in David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, and Leonard Cohen. But on the whole, music thrived in 2016. Massive pop stars dropped albums overnight, albums that had eluded us for half a decade suddenly appeared, and captivating new names rose from nothing. To pick a top 15 songs in a year like this feels almost dismissive, cruel even.
So instead of picking the absolute best songs — those that stretched the boundaries of the medium or genre — we’re redefining “best” to mean songs that made this year, in its deepest and darkest moments, feel a little bit less like a raging garbage fire.
These songs together create a 1,000-foot view of this year. They are songs that made an impact, and songs that didn’t. Songs that hit No. 1, and songs that didn’t chart at all. They are songs by women, by people of color, by debut artists and seasoned veterans. But mostly, they are songs that are good and feel good.
1) “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
“Black Beatles,” the hit single off Atlanta hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd’s sophomore album, is an irresistible jam. It’s fitting that it became the soundtrack to so many people’s mannequin challenge videos, where frozen people struggled to keep their limbs and heads unmoving as the incredible bouncing beat just begged them to move. An ode to rock-star style and swagger, “Black Beatles” takes a party anthem and makes it into an arena-worthy masterpiece. This is a song for everyone: young bloods, old geezers, weirdo girls with green hair, dealers, and haters.
2) “Formation” by Beyoncé
Beyoncé dropped “Formation” the weekend of the Super Bowl, and then quickly stole the halftime show from Chris Martin with a team of Michael Jackson–inspired, Black Panther–derived backup dancers. With “Formation’s” hoarse whispering intro, Beyoncé Knowles Carter entered a new dimension, a realm where she’s not only a force of pop music but also a driver of political conversation. It’s a song steeped in New Orleans bounce music that shredded the already fragile genre boundaries in which critics threatened to constrain Beyoncé. With the music video’s sinking police car imagery and a rallying cry of “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” Beyoncé gave the thriving Black Lives Matter movement an anthem.
3) “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski
The best art tackles life in all its complexity, instead of paring it down to its simplest concepts. On “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski unabashedly discusses the American dream, femininity, girlhood, parental expectations, and racial dynamics, all in three uncontainable minutes. The song’s verses are gentle, lilting things that rise and rise into the roar of a chorus steeped in anger. This isn’t a female-empowerment anthem arrived at easily; it’s the product of years of reflection and frustration, simmered until it thickens into something rich and substantive.
4) “Angels” by Chance the Rapper feat. Saba
“I got my city doing front flips,” Chance the Rapper crows at the beginning of “Angels,” and nothing seems truer in 2016. Culturally speaking, this was a great year for Chicago: Not only did the Cubs win the World Series but two homegrown, mega-talented hip-hop stars joined forces to create an incredible song. With a church choir background and a steel drum, Chance the Rapper delivers a song that truly exemplifies black joy. It’s beautiful, it’s energetic, and boy is it happy.
5) “Female Vampire” by Jenny Hval
“It hurts everywhere,” Jenny Hval whispers at the very end of “Female Vampire.” It’s a single line that forces listeners to reconsider the preceding three minutes of shining synths, breaking vocals, and gradual growing dance beats. Before the end, the song has the feeling of falling into a trance — but that whispered line makes obvious just how laden with emotion “Female Vampire” is, its thumping beats less a disguise than a plea for help. It’s gorgeous in its pain.
6) “Tennessee Song” by Margo Price
Watching Margo Price perform feels like stepping into a time capsule. Wielding an acoustic guitar and sporting a teased bouffant hairstyle, she looks like something out of a different era — and she sounds like it, too. Though 2016 was not the best year in history for country music, this 33-year-old Midwesterner quietly released one of the year’s most underrated albums, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. “Tennessee Song” is warbling and toe-tapping and just the right amount of twangy. “In this world, we won’t be long,” Price sings, but it sure seems like she’s here to stay.
7) “Soy Yo” by Bomba Estéreo
Choosing the most sonically addictive riff from 2016 would be a difficult task, but the climbing flute that backgrounds Bomba Estéreo’s “Soy Yo” is a strong contender. The song rose to prominence thanks to its viral music video, which follows a young girl with giant glasses who is so self-confident she cannot bother to care what popular girls or older basketball players think about her. But part of what makes that video such fun to watch is that “Soy Yo” has a lilting buoyancy to it that very few songs in 2016 had. It’s just, well, happy.
8) “That Old Black Magic” by Bob Dylan
It was a good year for Bob Dylan. He became the first musician ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the first American to win the prize in more than a decade. But he also released an excellent — if a little weird — cover album of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. Dylan takes a song that, in Sinatra’s voice, is beautiful, enchanting, and as mushy as love songs come, and makes it menacing. Which means “That Old Black Magic” does exactly what great covers are supposed to do: honor the original while making the song his own.
9) “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange Knowles
Ethereal, quiet, and steely, Solange Knowles’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” has soul. A display of activism as specific as the individual hairs that grow from a black woman’s head, “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a song built on tiny decisions that have a deep impact. The song’s quiet lyrics and plummeting vocal runs are built atop a thumping drum beat so rhythmic it feels more like a human heartbeat than a sonic effect. “Don’t Touch My Hair” is grooving, emotional, beautiful, and the first song in a long time to make a cowbell sound cool.
10) “Sister” by Angel Olsen
In eight minutes of dreamy, lush chord progressions and glimmering symphonic effects, Angel Olsen evolves away from her standards with “Sister.” The first two glittery pop songs to emerge from her album My Woman (“Intern” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me”) are quick-paced soft-bangers perfect for a party playlist. Listening to “Sister,” though, is like listening to an artist find a space just for herself. “She came together like a dream / that I didn’t know I had,” Olsen sings — a line that describes this song as much as anything else.
11) ”Adore” by Savages
Starting from a simple walking bass line, “Adore” is darker than most of the songs on this list — but it’s also incredibly rich. “Is it human to adore life?” Jehnny Beth sings over a steely guitar line, and that’s just the beginning. As the song progresses, the guitars become more discordant, the bass line gets faster, and Beth’s voice grows angstier and angstier until she’s screaming a “truth that cuts like a knife.”
12) “Nostrum” by Meshuggah
Swedish metal band Meshuggah’s “Nostrum,” the second single from this year’s The Violent Sleep of Reason, is as chaotic as this year felt. This is a heavy, hammering monster of a song, laden with snare drums and rapid, cascading guitar riffs that evoke the feeling of tumbling down a too-tall flight of stairs. There’s some gorgeous drum work behind all that noise, and a few frenzied guitar parts that create really enjoyable rhythmic interplay. But really, the appeal of this song lies in screaming and thrashing along — which was sometimes exactly what this year needed.
13) “Needed Me” by Rihanna
The biggest hit from Rihanna’s 2016 release Anti was far and away the No. 1 single “Work,” featuring Drake. But deeper in the album, in a place less warm and inviting, is the stunning track “Needed Me.” Here, Rihanna is icy, almost unfeeling. With its strung-out vocals and twisting, climbing chord progressions, “Needed Me” is Rihanna at her absolute best.
14) “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West feat. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper
Part gospel and part hip-hop, “Ultralight Beam” is Kanye West at his gentlest, a song with such emotional weight it propels the rest of The Life of Pablo forward. West is a divisive character in any room, and the biggest hit on his 2016 album, “Famous,” became that less because of its quality than the reality TV–worthy drama it inspired. By contrast, “Ultralight Beam” is not dramatic, but rather a soft, prayerful rumination on the world and the spiritual realm. It’s an unhurried reminder that hip-hop can be beautiful, careful, and insistent even when it’s slowed down.
15) “Gold” by Kiiara
Kiiara’s “Gold” is a hit made by the people. After uploading it to SoundCloud last summer, the more or less unknown 21-year-old Illinoisan struck gold: In 2016, her song was streamed on Spotify more than 238 million times. That success soon bled into more traditional music outlets: “Gold” started getting radio play, peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Listening to “Gold,” it’s easy to see what made the out-of-nowhere track so enticing: With her sliced-and-diced vocals and a choppy electronic beat, Kiiara created something that’s just unstable enough to be addictive.