2016 was pretty universally considered a bad year. Political upheaval and protest marred the news, and we lost beloved celebrities like Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher. Even the simple act of complaining about 2016 turned into a tiresome meme endlessly rehashed on social media by would-be comedians.
One of the sole shining lights of 2016, however, was pop music. Musical superstars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Britney Spears released their first albums in years, Drake and Justin Bieber reinvented their musical personas, and plenty of newcomers (hello, Dua Lipa!) set the stage for future bangers to come.
The following list ranks my top 10 favorite singles released in 2016. I did not consider any album deep cuts, no matter how deserving of praise or radio play they may have been. I did not attempt to remain impartial and unbiased; my opinion on everything from a popstar’s social media presence to the quality of their music video informed my decision.
10. “Pillowtalk” by ZAYN
I tried to resist “Pillowtalk” for as long as possible due to my loyalties to One Direction (rest in peace), but Zayn’s R&B slow jam won me over eventually. The crescendo of the drums on the chorus mixed with Zayn’s unique elision of consonants makes for a trippy, intense listening experience. While I cannot stand the pretentious, first-year-in-art-school music video, I’m a sucker for pop songs with wailing electric guitars and howled vocals.
9. “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake feat. Justin Bieber
2016 was the year that Justin Bieber cemented his status as the king of EDM vocals. The “nah nah nah”s on the chorus are entrancing, and Bieber has always excelled at emoting on even the most generic of lyrics. The hidden gem of this track is Justin Bieber’s surprise falsetto on the second verse, which lends a softer tone to the driving background beat.
8. “Hello B*tches” by CL
Like Bieber, CL also made a career transition during 2016. The Korean popstar, formerly of girl group 2NE1, launched her international solo career with “Hello B*tches,” a swaggering and arrogant Korean-English rap song. CL partnered with Parris Goebel and the ReQuest Dance Crew (known for their work on the video for Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) to make an aggressive, exhilarating music video that shows off CL’s ability to dance and sneer in equal measure. The thundering horns and booming bass in the background mix perfectly with the sing-song chorus and snarled verses.
7. “Side to Side” by Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj
Pop singer Ariana Grande and rapper Nicki Minaj collaborated on a club-ready sultry anthem that zigzags between mid-tempo verses and a frenetic pre-chorus. Minaj and Grande have worked together before on “Get On Your Knees,” and “Side to Side” asserts their chemistry as collaborators. Nicki declares in her verse that “I’m the queen of rap, young Ariana run pop,” and not many would disagree.
6. “Make Me (Cry)” by Noah Cyrus feat. Labrinth
“Make Me (Cry)” is definitely one of the weirdest mainstream pop singles of 2016. The pared-down wistful vocals from Cyrus and Labrinth are paired with jarring tonal discord and water droplet sound effects. The overall result is a hyperactive track that soars on the chorus only to spiral into a disconcerting drop. Cyrus sounds a lot like her sister Miley, and she uses the melancholy tone of her voice to great effect.
5. “Closer” by The Chainsmokers
Only the truly great (or truly terrible) pop songs become as ubiquitous as The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” did in 2016. In my opinion, the best pop songs are a little bit great and a little bit terrible, and “Closer” is no exception. The moody, confessional lyrics are highly singable and the nearly wordless chorus – a chant of “we ain’t never gettin’ older” over a clanging, simplistic electronic melody – is completely irresistible.
“Closer” also inspired my absolute favorite video of 2016, in which a teenage girl in a bear costume (no explanation for the costume is given, which makes the video that much more delightful) completely loses her mind when the song comes on.
4. “Shout Out to My Ex” by Little Mix
This single by Little Mix sounds quite a lot like G.R.L.’s “Ugly Heart,” one of the best singles of 2014, so it makes sense that “Shout Out to My Ex” is one of the best singles of 2016. The deeply personal lyrics (“I hope she’s getting better sex/Hope she ain’t fakin’ it like I did, babe” and “Guess I should say thank you/For the ‘hate yous’ and the tattoos”) are buoyed by the foursome’s gorgeous harmonies and folksy guitar of the chorus.
3. “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit feat. Anne-Marie and Sean Paul
I didn’t realize how much I missed Sean Paul until I heard him yell “daily struggle!” to illustrate the hardship of being a single mother. Hopefully, 2017 will bring many more Sean Paul features, but for now “Rockabye” is a great vehicle for the rapper. Tropical house was one of the most popular genres of 2016, and “Rockabye” rose above the competition thanks to its soaring strings and touching subject matter.
2. “Work from Home” by Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign
It is fitting that one of the best songs of 2016 also had one of the best music videos. “Work From Home” announced to the world that Fifth Harmony had grown up and was ready to make some phenomenally cheesy sexual puns. Sometimes, sex puns and a simplistic chanted chorus are all you need for pop success.
1. “Formation” by Beyoncé
Only the best pop songs can inspire hundreds of think pieces, captivate millions during the Super Bowl, and single-handedly boost Red Lobster’s sales.
What were your favorite singles of 2016?
[Featured Image by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images]