2016 was a vibrant year for music and one of the best of the decade. No matter the style and artists you were into, chances are some great tunes hit your ears.
So what were some of the best songs from 2016? Join us as we take a look at a few of the tracks that made 2016 so special.
1. “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski
Mitski was an underground indie artist at the start of 2016, but her album Puberty 2 and song “Your Best American Girl” helped her break into the mainstream and become the star she is today.
“Your Best American Girl” sees Mitski talk about the difficulties she faced due to her racial identity of being Japanese-American. The song is autobiographical, and Mitski sings of a relationship that cannot work out due to racial tension. The song begins very quietly before exploding into bombast during the chorus.
2. “Formation” by Beyoncé
“Formation” was a surprise for Beyoncé fans. She announced the song and released the music video with no build-up, and the video began life unlisted. The only way to find the video was to follow a link Beyoncé posted.
“Formation” was a smash hit for the already very successful Beyoncé, and it is another excellent example of her female empowerment music. The song has trap influences that have become bigger in popular music since its release. Beyoncé performed this song during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show.
3. “Lazarus” by David Bowie
David Bowie shocked the world by releasing his 26th studio album Blackstar in 2016 with little fanfare. Two days after he released the album, David Bowie passed away from a cancer diagnosis almost nobody knew about.
“Lazarus,” as well as the rest of the Blackstar album, is autobiographical. Bowie sings about accepting death and critics see the song as an epitaph for the man’s legendary career. Many listeners believe Bowie was singing about the increase in fame he expected from his death.
4. “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West (ft. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin)
Kanye West and his album The Life of Pablo went through a tumultuous year in 2016. The album was plagued with a troubled production and frequent revisions, and the media tour for promotion was not without controversy.
“Ultralight Beam” is a testament to West's ability to reinvent himself as a producer. Moving away from soul-inspired hip-hop to gospel music, “Ultralight Beam” is a touching song about faith and one man’s struggle with it. The production and featured tracks add to the song, and it remains one of the best album openers in West’s discography.
5. “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange
Solange took inspiration from soul and classic R&B music for “Cranes in the Sky.” The result is one of the singer’s best-remembered songs and a Grammy Award. The instrumental track came before the lyrics, and Solange wrote them while listening to the instrumentation.
The lyrics talk about a person trying to avoid talking about something that is bothering them. They want to steer clear of the pain and focus on things that do not upset them as much.
6. “Work” by Rihanna (ft. Drake)
When two supernovas of pop music team up, is it any surprise when the resulting song is a smash hit with critical acclaim? Drake and Rihanna collaborated on “Work,” one of the Barbadian singer's best songs. “Work” takes inspiration from several genres, including R&B, reggae, pop, and dance hall music.
The song put Rihanna in rarefied air, giving her the fourth-most number-one songs of all time behind only Elvis Presley, Mariah Carey, and The Beatles. The production subtly samples from other songs and uses slight auto-tune on Rihanna’s voice.
7. “Shut Up Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen kept the spirit of rock and roll alive in 2016 with her album My Woman, which established her as one of the leading ladies of indie rock music. Olsen said in interviews that the album and its songs focus on the difficulties of being a woman in the modern age.
“Shut Up Kiss Me” is a typical rock song with elements of romance. The song is both upbeat and melancholy at once and reflects the tumultuous feelings one has when in love.
8. “Drone Bomb Me” by ANOHNI
“Drone Bomb Me” is the last single ANOHNI released, but it is a powerful dance track. She is part of the band Antony and the Johnsons, but this song and its accompanying album were independent projects.
The song draws on real-world issues and is a love song from the perspective of a girl from the Middle East. Her family was killed in a drone strike, and she has lost the will to live, hoping to be the next person killed by an attack.
9. “Ivy” by Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean stunned the world in 2016 with his album Blonde, and the song “Ivy” from the album was perhaps his best work. Regardless of where you put “Ivy” in the ranking of all of Frank Ocean’s music, it is one of the best songs of 2016.
“Ivy” takes plenty of inspiration from indie rock, and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend produced the song. Ocean sings about regret and the loss of youth and innocence. “Ivy” is a powerful track that left a mark on everyone who heard it.
10. “True Love Waits” by Radiohead
For many years, “True Love Waits” was the best-kept secret of Radiohead's discography. The band never recorded the song in the studio; the only way to listen to it was a live track from a concert in Oslo.
Radiohead recorded a studio version in 2016, and it lived up to fans' expectations. The song is a powerful and melancholy track to close the band’s A Moon Shaped Pool album. Not only is “True Love Waits” one of the best songs of 2016, but it is also one of the saddest ever recorded.
11. “A 1000 Times” by Hamilton Leithauser/Rostam
“A 1000 Times” is an indie rock song emphasizing an incredible vocal performance. The lyrics are a most basic love song, but the production and singing take it to the next level.
“A 1000 Times” and its album I Had a Dream That You Were Mine was a collaboration between Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam, the former producer for Vampire Weekend. The production is deceivingly simple, with plenty of details and unique sounds.
12. “Human Performance” by Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts are notorious for being a bit obtuse or unapproachable for new fans. “Human Performance” is no exception, pushing the boundaries of music and giving fans an arty track and accompanying album.
The simple nature of the lyrics belies the complex production. The song deals with the grief one feels about a love that was lost. “Human Performance” is a simple song packaged in a complex way.
13. “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd (ft. Gucci Mane)
“Black Beatles” was a smash hit for the duo Rae Sremmurd, and helped put them on the map outside of America. The song charted well in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
The song’s production took cues from lo-fi and trap music, with a hint of psychedelic music thrown in for good measure. The lyrics are youthful and showcase the forward-thinking nature of the band.
14. “We the People….” by A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest went out with a bang with its final album, and “We the People….” is one of the enduring hits of the band’s catalog. The group did not plan on making another album until a live performance inspired them to put aside differences for one last record.
Lyrically, “We the People….” is a politically-charged song about the contemporary landscape of America. A Tribe Called Quest lays down its political philosophy and sings about the upcoming election.
15. “Best to You” by Blood Orange (ft. Empress Of)
Dev Hynes has gone through a few names in his career, most notably Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange. The different names allow Hynes to experiment with genres and styles.
“Best to You” is an R&B song with more avant-garde inspirations that lands it on our list of good music from 2016. The lyrics deal with independence and a quest to be the person you want to be. A complex and musically fascinating track wraps up these simple themes.
16. “Angels” by Chance the Rapper (ft. Saba)
Thanks to his popular mixtapes, Chance the Rapper was already a household name before ever releasing an album. 2016 saw him release his first album, Coloring Book. The album and its singles helped cement Chance the Rapper as a major player in modern hip-hop.
“Angels” has a bouncy production and showcases the upbeat nature of Chance’s music. The song is an ode to Chance’s hometown of Chicago.
17. “29 #Strafford APTS” by Bon Iver
Bon Iver made waves with its debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, thanks to its sparse production, straightforward folk sound, and unique vocal qualities from lead singer Justin Vernon. Fast forward two albums and Bon Iver released 22, A Million, an album full of complex production and electronic sounds.
“29 #Strafford APTS” is a powerful song in the middle of the album. The lyrics do not particularly tell a story but rather conjure images in the listener's head.
18. “Fill in the Blank” by Car Seat Headrest
Indie fans appreciate Car Seat Headrest for keeping the spirit of rock and roll alive. “Fill in the Blank” is another example of the band taking inspiration from the 1960s and 1970s rock and roll to create something unique and different from many of its contemporaries.
“Fill in the Blank” deals with love, as most of the songs on its accompanying album do. Lead singer Will Toledo said he was in a bad place in his life when recording the album, and the lyrics reflect those feelings.
19. “Come Down” by Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak was still finding his footing in the hip-hop world in 2016, but his album Malibu helped earn him a spot at the table with other big players in the genre. The artists even received a Grammy nomination for the album.
“Come Down” is one of the standout tracks of the album and is both positive and negative. The song features plenty of bragging and cockiness while remembering that things can change in a heartbeat.
20. “Good As Hell” by Lizzo
Today, Lizzo stands as one of the top artists in pop music. In 2016, she was still a mostly under-the-radar artist that only superfans knew about. “Good As Hell” was the first hit of her career, though it did not catapult her into stardom quite yet.
“Good As Hell” is all about self-empowerment, and Lizzo sings of someone who realizes their worth in a relationship and decides to make a change for the better.
21. “Really Doe” by Danny Brown (ft. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt)
Danny Brown showcased his unique styles and comedy throughout his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition. While much of the album has an underlying anxiety to its lyrics, “Really Doe” is more about Brown showcasing what makes him unique as a person.
Brown is cocky and a braggart in the song, detailing his sexual prowess and the rap game. The song caused bad blood between Brown and collaborator Ab-Soul, leading to the two rappers having a falling out.
22. “I Need You” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds had been making music for a long time when 2016 rolled by, but few of the band’s songs have ever had the emotional resonance of “I Need You.” The production is sparse and powerful, and the lyrics and background hit hard.
Cave’s son died in the middle of recording the album. “I Need You” is the man’s attempt to work through the grief of losing his song to an accident at just 15.
23. “I Need a Forest Fire” by James Blake (ft. Bon Iver)
James Blake remains one of the biggest producers in music today, but his solo work is also a standout. “I Need a Forest Fire” saw Blake work together with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to create the perfect mix of R&B and electronic music.
The song sees Vernon sing about the need for a spark in their life. They are not necessarily in a state of dismay, but they need something to inspire them and get them to move forward.
24. “Wyclef Jean” by Young Thug
“Wyclef Jean” took its name from the famous Haitian rapper who was part of the Fugees. In the song, Young Thug sings with his trademark unique voice and brags about his life.
The music video was a viral hit, partially because Young Thug was not in it and never showed up for shooting. The video even won a Grammy, and Thugger did not know about it until later when someone told him.
25. “Because I’m Me” by The Avalanches
Few bands make music as unique as The Avalanches. Dubbed “plunderphonics” by music critics, the band composes almost all of its music from samples of other songs. The Avalanches released its second in 2016, led by the single “Because I’m Me.”
“Because I’m Me” is an upbeat rap song perfect for a summer drive or party. The production is unlike anything else you will ever likely hear.
26. “Untitled 02/ 06.23.2014” by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar surprised fans with a compilation of unreleased demos in 2016. Lamar recorded all the songs while working on his masterpiece album, To Pimp a Butterfly. While the compilation album does not have the same connectivity as other Lamar projects, it is full of interesting songs.
“Untitled 02/ 06.23.2014” features a heavily jazz-inspired production and sees Lamar take on the mantle as one of music’s biggest stars. Lamar believes he is at the peak of his power and that nothing will bring him down.
27. “One Dance” by Drake (ft. Wizkid and Kyla)
Drake took his music in a new direction with his 2016 album Views, and “One Dance” perfectly encapsulates this change. The Canadian rapper moved away from traditional rap to dance hall music with an afrobeat bend. The result was a smash hit for Drake, though some fans longed for a return to his early style of music.
“One Dance” was one of the biggest songs of the year from a commercial standpoint and was a staple on Top 40 radio for most of the year. The song and its accompanying album helped solidify Drake as one of rap’s biggest players.
Top Songs From 2016, Final Thoughts
There was so much good music in the year it is hard to narrow down the best songs of 2016. So many established artists continued to impress while new kids on the block were making names for themselves.
What’s your favorite song of 2016? Did we miss any of the best? Let us know what you think the best songs of 2016 are.