Overall, I think this was sort of a mediocre year for pop. Maybe we were a bit spoiled by 2015, but I think the real key issue is that we’re entering an experimental era for the genre. You listen to the new albums by Rihanna and Beyonce and Drake and it feels like stuff that would have been considered avant-garde not too long ago. But once everyone’s experimenting, the problem arises of people not knowing what to do with their ideas. Plenty of songs this year, like “Pillowtalk” or “Work,” wound up sounding half-baked because they utilize unfamiliar elements and are tracks designed for an album-oriented approach that were kind of forced to be singles. Still, there was plenty of good music to go around. Here’s my top 20. Note that “hit” refers to anything that made it into the top 40 at any point this year, though I mostly avoided tracks that made it there for other reasons, like a person’s death (“Lazarus”) or being on a popular album (“Reminder”). Alright, let’s kick it.
20) ALL IN MY HEAD (FLEX) – Fifth Harmony feat. Fetty Wap
“All in My Head” is weird because there’s a lot of reasons it should be terrible. The writing isn’t great. It’s gratingly un-catchy. An already-washed-up Fetty Wap doesn’t offer much. But at the end of the day, it’s just a fun song. I think my main problem with “Work from Home,” Fifth Harmony’s other hit this year, is that it just wasn’t enjoyable. This song is a good time, and that’s all it needs to be.
19) OUI – Jeremih
As much as I love Jeremih’s miscellaneous mouth noises, what really makes this song is its thesis: “There’s no oui without u and i.” The nuanced goofiness of that line is as clear a representation of what this song’s about as I could ever come up with.
18) CAROLINE – Aminé
“Caroline” is like if J. Cole made a D.R.A.M. song. The fact that this song became a hit is a testament to the benefits of the combined influence of musical.ly and Billboard’s inclusion of streams in its charts. It’s goofy, it’s all kinds of weird, and unlike so many rappers today focused on image above all, Aminé isn’t afraid to portray himself as a cartoonish douchebag. It’s a little repetitive, but the beat is interesting enough to make up for it.
17) CONFIDENT – Demi Lovato
This song was more polarizing than I expected it to be. Personally, I think it’s awesome. It might even be my favorite Demi Lovato song, and that’s saying only a little bit. Yeah, it’s cheesy and over-the-top and parts of it sound like they were meant to be performed by a high school marching band, but it’s like a good action movie. It’s full of pulse-pounding in-your-face moments, but it knows when to calm down and leave a little levity. It’s like if a Mission: Impossible movie was a pop song. Mission: Impopsicle.
16) LET ME LOVE YOU – DJ Snake feat. Justin Bieber
Could you imagine being told in 2013 that DJ Snake and Justin Bieber would make a song together, and that it would be really good? “Let Me Love You” is DJ Snake’s latest foray into pop, although it may not be fair to call it a foray since he’s been producing Pitbull and Lady Gaga songs since 2009. This year, Snake and Major Lazer, who collaborated on “Lean On,” one of the best songs of 2015, split up to each make practically-identical songs with Justin Bieber. I gave the edge to this one, because I like the lyrics more and it’s substantially more memorable than “Cold Water,” although “Let Me Love You” has to contend with about a dozen other “let me love you” songs this year. Whatever, I’m rambling. It’s a good track.
15) NO LIMIT – Usher feat. Young Thug
Who’da thought Usher and Young Thug would jell so well together? I mean, there are brief moments on this song where you can’t tell one from the other. From what I gather, this is a song about having sex… with Master P? To Master P? While Master P watches? I don’t know. It’s full of really clever dual references to No Limit Records and sweet, sweet lovemaking, which I highly commend Usher for. Young Thug delivers one of his best verses of the year, his most stellar year to date. No one can tell me the line “MARTA outsmart the Rari-Rari / Fill the session with Bacardi Barbies” is anything other than brilliant.
14) GOLD – Kiiara
This song, admittedly, is probably more interesting than it is good. But goddamn, is it interesting. It combines the minimalist electropop sound of Marian Hill with that voice thing. You know the one. Incorporating segmented, indecipherable bits of the lyrics into the beat creates a really interesting, sort of creepy atmosphere. Above all else, this song is about atmosphere. I’ve never been able to pay attention to the lyrics, but I like the vibes.
13) ALL TIME LOW – Jon Bellion
This is an average dance pop “missing you” ballad with all the “average” taken out. It’s all run-of-the-mill elements, but done spectacularly. The lyrics are unique, rap-like, candid, vivid. The beat is intricate, flavorful, integral. The drop can also be the emotional climax of the song. Admittedly, it’s actually one of the weaker spots on Bellion’s new album, but that album’s great, so whatever. It’s cheesy and made of mainly familiar elements, but the way they come together is spectacular.
12) PURPLE LAMBORGHINI – Skrillex and Rick Ross
“Purple Lamborghini” is one of the best beats Skrillex has ever made. It’s brassy, distorted, in your face, irresistible. It manifest itself in brassy yellows, bright reds, broad silvers. And Rick Ross 100% sells it. He’s more enthusiastic about Suicide Squad than anyone else involved in the movie’s production. Lyrically, Ross flounders at times, but Skrillex’s insane production always has his back.
11) CLOSE – Nick Jonas feat. Tove Lo
Mewling synths punctuate this high-concept dark-electropop number by the best in the best high-concept dark-electropop singers in the biz, Tove Lo and Nick Jonas. The two work off of each other perfectly, and really sell the song’s admittedly confusing message. This song is so fucking weird.
10) NEEDED ME – Rihanna
ANTI is the best Rihanna album. By a long shot. And “Needed Me” is honestly a highlight. It’s got a great, defiant swagger about it. I’m tempted to say it’s the best beat DJ Mustard has ever made. It’s simple, yet it conveys so much. Everything from the lyrics to the vocals to the atmosphere is just about pitch perfect. And that’s just #10.
9) LOVE YOURSELF – Justin Bieber
“Love Yourself” is the most charming “fuck you” song on the radio in years. It sounds grown, which is something I never thought I’d say about a Justin Bieber song, especially one where the chorus is literally saying “go fuck yourself.” The trumpets breakdown at the end is really sweet. It’s as sincere a Justin Bieber song as I’ve ever heard. I don’t know, man. It’s a very simplistic song, I feel like it’s best left in few words.
8) CAKE BY THE OCEAN – DNCE
“Cake by the Ocean” was probably the most fun song on the radio this year. Joe Jonas’ funk-pop collective DNCE released this song just days after officially forming in September 2015. The jury’s still hung on whether or not their unabashedly ridiculous, funky style works in a longer form, but it definitely does wonders for this song. They’ve got the energy and craftsmanship of ’00s Maroon 5 with the irresistible catchiness and swaggery funk vibes of ’10s Maroon 5. You could even call them this generation’s Duran Duran. Whoever they are, this is their message: “Ah-ya-ya-ya-ya-ah, keep on hoping / We’ll eat cake by the ocean.” Just what we needed.
7) TIIMMY TURNER – Desiigner
And now for something completely different. “Tiimmy Turner” isn’t just a song; it’s a journey. From compelling XXL Freshman freestyle to Kanye West remix, it proved once and for all that Desiigner had more to offer than an above-average Future song. It’s a twisted tale of hood redemption, a fascinating new direction for an artist still finding his path, and an insanely catchy trap anthem. And it’s named after a goddamn cartoon character. This year, Kanye chronicled filth, devastation, retribution, and redemption over the course of a 20-song album. Desiigner did it in four minutes.
6) DANGEROUS WOMAN – Ariana Grande
Geopolitically speaking, this was a rough year, but if anyone had a great year, it was Ariana Grande. Her album Dangerous Woman received critical acclaim and spawned three huge hits. At the center of it all, we have the album’s title track: “Dangerous Woman.” It’s hard-hitting, empowering, and above all else, different. It stands out in Ariana’s discography, in the Billboard charts, and in the pop music world in general, with it’s slow-building electrosoul vibes.
5) ONE DANCE – Drake feat. Wizkid and Kyla
It’s sort of insane that the practically undisputed song of the summer 2016 doesn’t have a music video. But “One Dance” is almost a video in and of itself. Its atmosphere is palpable, vividly painting its hazy dancehall setting with Kyla and Wizkid samples swimming in and out of the understated production. VIEWS isn’t a perfect album, or even really a good album, but this song sort of makes the whole thing worthwhile. Producer 40’s experimentation shines through and works in tandem with Drake’s subdued persona.
4) BLACK BEATLES – Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
The genius of “Black Beatles” is in its defiance. It doesn’t matter if Rae Sremmurd are really the black Beatles. It’s about the brazen disregard for the Beatles. Looking at cultural icons like the Beatles and turning them into props for their fun little pop rap track is as rock and roll as it gets. Mike WiLL Made-It does an incredible job with the beat, and Gucci Mane fits the track well, even if he doesn’t add much to it. Its claim to being a genuine hit song is dubious, since it seems to have more to do with the Mannequin Challenge than people actually listening to it, but it’s been at #1 for weeks now, so at some point you’ve just got to stop worrying and accept the black Beatles.
3) FATHER STRETCH MY HANDS PT. 1 – Kanye West feat. Kid Cudi
Sure, you don’t really get the full “Father Stretch My Hands” experience just by listening to part 1. But truth be told, you don’t really get the full experience unless you also listen to “Ultralight Beam” before and “Famous” after. Still, even stripping away the full Pablo experience, even just taking this as two minutes of fleeting bliss, it still works. Kanye, Rick Rubin, and Metro Boomin do an incredible job with the production. I love the rattling drum line. I love the angelic choir segueing between the verse and the hook. AND THAT DROP! I don’t need to talk about the drop because it’s so perfect it’s become a meme unto itself, but holy shit. Say what you will about the verse (which I personally think is fine), but this song is an experience.
2) I FEEL IT COMING – The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
This song is perfect. The lyrics are great. The production is incredible. The Weeknd and Daft Punk are both in rare form. The song’s placement as the last song on the Weeknd’s Starboy album is perfection: it encapsulates his artistic growth and illuminates the shift in sound throughout the album, while also shedding the artist’s brooding persona for a song that’s, above all else, truly fun. The title “I Feel It Coming” is also apt, as it finds itself at the end of the album and draws its elements from the sounds of the ’70s, while also portending and offering a bright future. George Michael is, tragically, dead, but if anyone can carry his torch, it’s the Weeknd and Daft Punk.
1) FREEDOM – Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar
LEMONADE starts out plain as day. Beyonce’s been cheated on. She’s upset. She’s emotional. She’s angry. She’s happy. But as the album goes on, she starts to clue you in on the idea that there’s more going on here than just relationship drama. This all comes to a head on “Freedom,” where we come to realize that this album isn’t necessarily about Beyonce, but meant to inspire black women the world over. True, the notion of “freedom” can be applied to relationship drama, but something about Bey portraying herself as an unstoppable force of nature and lines like “I break chains all by myself / Won’t let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! Imma keep running ’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves,” makes you think otherwise. By the time Kendrick’s showstopping verse comes around, there’s no question. “Seven misleading statements ’bout my persona / Six headlights waving in my direction / Five-O asking me what’s in my possession.” The production on this song is incredible. The drums, the southern rock organs, the background vocals, every last second of it. It’s inspiring, powerful, uplifting, extremely well-written, and one of the most important moments on one of the best albums of the decade.