All corners of the music world kept booming in 2016 — even when everything else about our world looked like it was on the verge of blowing apart. From rock & roll legends to rap upstarts, from future-shock R&B visionaries to Aussie hip-hop trailblazers, from the dance floor to the mosh pit, great songs seemed to keep coming out of nowhere. Some became worldwide hits; others were lurking in the shadows. But these were the songs that hit hardest and rang truest all year long.
By Rob Sheffield, Rod Yates and Jonny Nail.
25. Leonard Cohen, “Treaty”
The ultimate Zen sage offers a poetic goodbye to the battlefield and the bedroom. Farewell, old friend.
24. Courtney Barnett, “Three Packs a Day”
The Melbourne indie prodigy fesses up to her rock & roll vices, but she’s mainlining ramen noodles, not cigarettes.
23. The Griswolds, “Out of My Head”
Singer Christopher Whitehall wrote this sound-of-summer pop belter after splitting with his girl. Who says heartbreak has to sound sad?
22. Ariana Grande feat. Nicki Minaj, “Side to Side”
The teen-pop princess turns dangerous woman on an ode to having so much sex you can’t walk straight the next day.
21. Illy feat. Vera Blue, “Papercuts”
Pair play-act out a dysfunctional relationship, with a unique spin on the traditional hip-hop back-and-forth battle.
20. Bob Dylan, “That Old Black Magic”
Dylan pays his respects to the Chairman of the Board, yet somehow brings his own sense of menace to it.
19. Danny Brown, “Really Doe”
His hard-stomping posse cut, passing the mic to Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt in a virtuoso battle rhyme.
18. The Monkees, “Me & Magdalena”
What a comeback: Mike Nesmith shows off all the mileage on his country-fried pipes in this superb road-weary ballad.
17. Violent Soho, “So Sentimental”
In which the Brisbane quartet ease off the distortion pedal and deliver one of the best moments on WACO.
16. Chance the Rapper feat. Saba, “Angels”
Chance gives it up to his native Chicago with this steel-drum funk, spreading juked-up positivity through the streets.
15. Wilco, “If I Ever Was a Child”
Jeff Tweedy at his most low-key and likable, a three-minute acoustic memory of growing up miserable in the Midwestern suburbs, with a taste of Nels Cline twang to make the pain go down smooth.
14. Kendrick Lamar, “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014”
K. Dot debuted this as part of his epochal Grammys performance in February, tapping into spiritual doubts with a sax sample from jazz legend Eric Dolphy and a heavenly R&B hook sung by Anna Wise.
13. Hilltop Hoods Feat. Montaigne, “1955”
Structured around a soaring chorus from 2016 breakout soul star Montaigne, the Hoods’ daydream of small town simplicity is undercut by sharp social analysis.
12. A.B. Original feat. Dan Sultan, “January 26”
One of the year’s most incendiary songs also features one of its best lyrics: “I remember all the blood and what carried us/They remember 20 recipes for lamingtons”. You’ll never look at Australia Day in the same way.
11. Middle Kids, “Edge of Town”
The Sydney trio only played their first show in July, but their debut single has already gathered two million plays on Spotify and the patronage of Elton John, who played it on Beats 1. Moody, melodic, gorgeous.
10. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles”
No wonder Macca himself is a fan. The rap duo come together and rock their John Lennon lenses with a party-and-bullshit anthem so undeniable it hit Number One in the US. A blunted time is guaranteed for all.
9. LVL UP, “Pain”
The year’s most heart-shredding air-guitar jam. The Brooklyn indie upstarts deliver a hate song that feels so real because it’s also a love song, rocking out with a climactic guitar outburst that reaches back to Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young.
8. Flume feat. Kia, “Never Be Like You”
Through a patchwork of glitter, glitch and grandeur, Flume steers the anti-linear path, but it’s Kia’s cameo – equally anguishing and anthemic – that makes this his biggest and boldest pop move yet.
7. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”
Solange describes the kind of sadness she can’t escape by crying, drinking, sexing or shopping it away. The music builds from quiet meditation – that Raphael Saadiq bass – into towering soul.
6. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, “Starboy”
On the Weeknd’s inevitable transition from late-night R&B sleaze to modern-era MJ, this audacious Daft Punk collab is more than just a stepping stone. This “Starboy” is ready for his stadium spotlight.
5. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”
Kanye goes to church, with a gospel choir chanting, “This is a God dream.” He brings in Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price, the-Dream and Chance the Rapper to help him plant a foot on the devil’s neck.
4. David Bowie, “No Plan”
Recorded during the Blackstar sessions, but held back for the Lazarus cast recording, “No Plan” is a magnificent coda. The Thin White Duke sings a spectral torch ballad about floating over New York City; he gazes down on Second Avenue with a ghostly sax as his life fades out of sight – one last transmission from the Bowie universe.
3. Drake feat. Wizkid, Kyla, “One Dance”
Aubrey Graham celebrated the big 3-0 by scoring his first U.S. Number One hit as a lead artist: a tropical summer jam with a Caribbean lilt that evokes Lionel Richie in pastel-shirt mode. When Drake mixes in Nigerian singer Wizkid and London diva Kyla, he turns “One Dance” into a Utopian fusion of global styles, by way of Toronto.
2. Frank Ocean, “Ivy”
It was worth the wait. Ocean sings an avant-R&B tale of heartbreak over distorted electric guitar, his plaintive voice confessing, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” The guitar – from Rostam Batmanglij, late of Vampire Weekend – follows him all through the song, as he revisits memories of lost youth and innocence. It’s the most powerful song Ocean has created yet (also co-written with producer Om’Mas Keith and Jamie xx), a highlight of Blonde that mixes up the soul and rock elements of his music with a sensibility that still feels unmistakably hip-hop. In “Ivy”, he gives the sense of a diary entry where a long-buried memory surges back into his mind in bits and pieces. Even if his broken romance was sheer misery at the time, he still misses it, right down to the way he mourns, “We’ll never be those kids again” – building to a Brian Wilson-worthy wipeout wave of bittersweet angst.
1. Beyoncé, “Formation”
Beyoncé dropped this battle cry at the Super Bowl, shocking the nation with her Black Panther-inspired imagery. “Formation” was the omnipresent hit that just seemed to get more massive and demanding with time. Even before the rest of Lemonade existed, it stood as Bey’s most lyrically defiant and musically militant statement about who she is, where she’s from and where she’s going, declaring, “My daddy Alabama/My ma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” That Mike Will Made It synth hook is the hot sauce in her bag, an ominous warning siren. From an artist who’s already spent so long at the centre of American culture, it was a statement of blackness and feminism, and a party invitation nobody could resist. “Formation” is a song that has kept hope alive in a bleak year – and it will be essential ammo for the struggle to come. Get in formation.