Critics' Picks: Billboard's 10 Best Pop Songs of 2016
Here are the top tracks that pulled us closer in 2016.
Pop music's best wasted no time getting into formation this year, with major releases from a galaxy of our brightest stars cluttering the calendar's opening months. But even with so many established huge names taking up space on the marquee, what really made the last 12 months in pop special was how they also found room for the lesser-known little guys; a Desiigner for every Drake, a Kiiara for every Kanye. Soundtracking a period of seemingly limitless real-world disagreement and strife, these artists big and small provided us with rare moments of much-needed unity, ones we all would've actually wanted to freeze time on.
(Note: Songs were considered eligible for this list if they were either released in 2016 or peaked on the Hot 100 during that time — unless they already appeared on our 2015 list.)
10. A Tribe Called Quest, "We the People..."
Who would've guessed that in a year where Public Enemy hooked up with Rage Against the Machine for the ultimate power-fighting supergroup, it would be a reunited A Tribe Called Quest who'd deliver the finest protest song from hip-hop's golden class? From the clever (but not too clever) Black Sabbath sample and spare, old-school beat to lyrics about bald-faced racial and religious bigotry and deportation threats, "We the People" instantly became the national anthem of the anti-Trump nation. “All you black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans you must go ... Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways,” Q-Tip mews on the chorus, (barely) parodying the sentiments of our future president. Who can come back years later and still hit the shot? These guys, clearly. — GIL KAUFMAN
9. Rihanna, "Needed Me"
We already knew that Rihanna was a savage — her supreme self-confidence and total lack of f—s to give have made that abundantly clear over the years. But in case you missed the memo, "Needed Me" is the perfect reminder, pairing nihilistic razor-sharp lyrical barbs with a bass-heavy down-tempo beat that could almost be confused with a pained love song — but only if you weren't paying attention. The way she eviscerates a former lover ("Don't get it twisted / You was just another n—a on the hit list") is delivered so casually and with so much barely concealed contempt that it can't even be called cocky; she's just stating the truth, and if you haven't caught on by now there's no hope left for catching up. — DAN RYS
8. Fifth Harmony feat. Ty Dolla $ign, "Work From Home"
Fifth Harmony’s follow-up to its 2015 debut Reflection was always going to feature a maturation of sound and substance, and the fact that sophomore LP 7/27's lead single is packed with sexual innuendos (while not dropping any explicit language) was a logical progression that pop fans saw coming a mile away. But “Work From Home” is much more than cheeky lines about “Ain’t no getting off early!” — the vocal performances from the quintet are incredibly poised, selling every wink and come-on with a confidence in concept that was missing from the group’s debut. Combined with a pumping chorus that sounds specifically designed for spin classes, and Ty Dolla $ign in full goofball mode on his guest verse (including the world's most dramatic crooning of the word “timesheet”), “Work From Home” puts in extra hours to showcase 5H’s collective charm, and where they’re heading as adult artists. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
7. Drake feat. Kyla & WizKid, "One Dance"
"One Dance" earned Drake his long-awaited first No. 1 as a lead artist on the Billboard Hot 100; and the song comfortably sat atop the charts for 10 weeks, most of which while parent LP Views was still in residence at the Billboard 200's peak. With a molasses-sweet-and-slow Kyla hook (lifted from her own "Do You Mind?") and a bouncing, piano-led dancehall groove so hypnotic not even a midsong round of gunfire could break its spell, the tropical track served as an infinitely repeatable summer jam. "You know that I don't play," Drake sings, and the hit's success makes him irrefutable. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
6. Ariana Grande, "Into You"
Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman is rife with provocative lyrics, but the album's second single feels like the sexiest track of them all, because of its seductive bass and the 23-year-old singer’s alluring vocals. Even apart from than the Elvis (or Fall Out Boy?)-borrowed “a little less conversation and a little more touch my body" chorus, though, the lyrics are subtle in their raciness, simply teasing at the quality time to come with her desired object, rather than heading straight for the bedroom. And even if you don't want to follow her up there, "Into You" is catchy and propulsive enough to work just as well on the dance floor. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY
5. Kanye West, "Ultralight Beam"
Before The Life Of Pablo dropped — back when it was called Swish, or maybe Waves — Kanye said he was making a gospel album. Given Mr. West’s penchant for hyperbole, people scoffed; then, on Feb. 11, he opened his listening party/fashion show at Madison Square Garden with a sample of a viral video of a four-year-old talking about God. Then a lone synth, then The-Dream, then Kanye, praying. The song built, but the climaxes didn’t come from West himself — instead, he receded into the background as Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin offered spine-tingling sermons in turn.
In a year when everything appears to be coming apart at the seams, Kanye offered community, togetherness and hope — a musical statement completely in opposition to most of the year’s politics, in spite of his stated affinity for the president-elect. Hopefully in 2017 he’ll go back to pursuing change we can believe in — like most of his best songs, this sounds nothing like a Kanye song — and let artists everywhere keep feeling like Chance: “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.” — NATALIE WEINER
4. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, "Starboy"
Centric pop with frayed edges has been the M.O. for The Weeknd ever since he first signed on to the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, and "Starboy" proves the culmination and likely end of that formula. With Daft Punk in tow to provide sighing background vocals and occasionally drift the song's production dangerously close to out-of-frame, the spellbinding night-drive assumes Abel Tesfaye's new alternate identity with the confidence of a star big enough to dictate his own nicknames. Even the opening lines ("I'm tryna put you in the worst mood, ah / P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah") barely bother setting the scene, since you remember where the movie last left off. "Starboy" might not've been titled to serve as a Ziggy Stardust tribute, but it reflects how, like Bowie, Tesfaye understands the importance of constant evolution in both his music and his image. When he shows up in a white suit doing K-Ci and JoJo covers on his next album, try to act surprised. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
3. D.R.A.M. feat. Lil Yachty, "Broccoli"
Leave it to Big Baby D.R.A.M. to make his Top 40 entrance with a song that turns the most villainous of parent food into a narcos watchword, and leave it to Lil Boat to one-up that by rhyming "sunshine" with "Colombine" in his guest verse's opening couplet. That was "Broccoli" in 2016: R-rated programming on daytime television, a song that embraced the world's negativity as an opportunity to rise above the f— shit. The co-headliners spend their verses celebrating their unlikely success with Rodeo Drive shopping sprees and lox-and-bagel breakfasts, while the flute hook instructs the youth of America to follow the duo's pied (and otherwise) piping. The lesson, obviously: Smoke your vegetables, kids. — A.U.
2. Beyonce, "Sorry"
Between "Tell 'em boy bye" memes and the "Becky with the good hair" witchhunt, Beyonce's "Sorry" ignited more online chatter than most non-Trump political campaigns this year. But more importantly, Beyonce executes one miraculous vocal tonal shift after another on "Sorry," going from pissed-off exasperation to dignity at any cost ("Suicide before you see this tear") to small-voiced vulnerability at the very end. On "Sorry," Beyonce proves your life doesn't have to be perfect for you to remain flawless. — JOE LYNCH
1. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane, "Black Beatles"
To say we needed a song like "Black Beatles" at the end of 2016 would be a "Hey Jude"-sized understatement: With the charts stagnant, the surprise-release schedule slowing down and the real world desperately needing distraction, Top 40 was begging for any kind of Invasion. That it came from Atlanta made as much sense as anywhere; years of rapturous reception on the internet and hip-hop radio to local cult heroes like Future, Young Thug and, yes, no-flexing duo Rae Sremmurd was bound to culminate with one smash crossing over to all levels of mainstream America. It'd be a song bleeding with raw underground energy and youthful vitality, with hooks enough to co-exist alongside Drake and The Chainsmokers in the pop stratosphere. And in the spectral hopscotch of "Black Beatles" — featuring the joint blessings of ATL aural architect Mike WiLL Made-It and godfather MC Gucci Mane — we finally had the song.
An intoxicating mix of futuristic production and retro cultural references that somehow balanced out to sound more like the present than any other song this year, "Black Beatles" was a touchdown before it even got to its instantly iconic opening lines and just ran up the score from there, winning more hearts with every meme and Fab Four reference. Of course, the rise of "Beatles"-mania happened as rapidly as it did thanks to the Mannequin Challenge, the hyper-viral internet phenomenon that adapted the song as its unofficial freeze-frame soundtrack, bringing it to the attention of everyone from Michelle Obama to Paul McCartney himself. But the song's rock-star exuberance and mesmeric sonic palette would've eventually seen its momentum snowball to viral proportions regardless. In the end, the swag you take is equal to the swag you make. — A.U.
A version of this story originally appeared on Billboard.com.