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 rootsy country story-tellers, from teen-pop smoothies to leather guitar heroes, 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.
The Celtic blues king wanders down some ancient roads – the corner of Wales where the Fab Four first went on retreat with the Maharishi – to hear harmonicas in the wind and meditate on the power of Caledonia soul.
Nicki's answer to "Black Beatles" is high-velocity shade: "Island girl, Donald Trump want me go home/Still pull up with my wrist looking like a snowcone."
Having won his crown as the king of outlaw country, Simpson leaves that pigeonhole behind. He lays out advice for his newborn son ("Don't turn mailboxes into baseballs/Don't get busted selling at 17") with the R&B horns of Sharon Jones' band the Dap-Kings.
An ode to a vegetarian diet – well, at least the kind of vegetable you smoke. D.R.A.M. spends his pesos and eats his fettucine with Alfredo, while Lil Yachty throws a party so big he needs to rent out the Bahamas.
Ecuadoran-American electro mastermind Helado Negro throws a South Florida party at the crossroads – a song about robots in love that turns into a multilingual, multi-rhythmic blowout.
A bona fide arena-ready rock headbanger – from Will Toledo, a lo-fi home-taping songwriter who once seemed like he'd have trouble raising his voice at the library. Will wonders never cease?
The Brooklyn teen scored an out-of-nowhere Future-esque hit with "Panda" – but this follow-up proved he's not going back to nowhere anytime soon. Desiigner flips a Fairly Odd-Parents reference into his desire to "kill everybody walkin'/He knows that his soul in the furnace."
Drifting to a new town, turning 23 without a birthday cake to show for it, calling yourself an artist while working part-time at Whole Foods – indie newcomer Katie Bennett brings an uncommonly funny approach to the slack-ass lifestyle, with a guitar to match.
What a roll this guy is on. This masterful highlight from Patch the Sky has the firestorm guitar attack he defined with Hüsker Dü and Sugar, yet it's anything but kid stuff. Mould snarls about reoccurring dreams that dog him all the way through adult life, facing the real-world future with zero fear.
An enigmatic yet irresistible ballad from synth dream-weaver Johanne Swanson's stellar debut Patientness. She sings in a breathy murmur that hints at intimate heartache, yet refuses to give any of her secrets away.
The raw Philly MC goes off in a standout jam from his mixtape The Perfect Luv Tape, talking the ethics of thug love ("I don't cheat/Me and my girl fuck bitches together") along with his whips, his diamonds, his drugs and his social media profile.
Fifty years after he first hit Number One with "The Sound of Silence," Rhymin' Simon continues his amazing late-game resurgence. He freestyles about a Negro League baseball hero over a West African guitar groove and ponders the word "motherfucker." Not a pretty word, maybe, but like he says, "Ugly got a case to make."
The Nashville breakout star is writing cooler car songs than anyone else these days – she's a "Nineties baby in an Eighties Mercedes," blasting Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on her radio.
The Seattle grrrl-punk band offers a maddeningly catchy escape from city malaise – cruising to the lake for a late-night skinny dip. Bring your boombox, but there's only one rule: You can't play R.E.M.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley wrote an album of political post-Skynyrd rockers for American Band, but Hood really drives it home here, tracing his family roots from Ellis Island to Appalachia, only to end up "a blue-eyed Southern devil" who doesn't feel at home anywhere.
Michelle Zauner vents about grief, sex and food ("Will you lend me your toothbrush?/Will you make me breakfast in bed?") with Cure-worthy guitars and a vocal assist from a kindred spirit, Radiator Hospital's Sam Cook-Parrott. Psychopomp isn't just her album title – it's her way of life.
A TRL princess turned Vegas queen revisits the high-energy disco-ball hysteria of her youth for this shoulda-been-a-hit highlight from her comeback album Glory. No singer has ever brought so much resonance to the word "oops."
"If I could, I'd be your little spoon," Mitski sings in one of the standouts from Puberty 2. The indie firebrand traces a culturally crossed romance, making casual connections between racial and sexual politics, shrugging, "I guess I couldn't help trying to be your best American girl."
The Florida rap phenom has the confidence to call his album Lil Big Pac – a bold claim, even if he wasn't born in either Biggie or Pac's lifetimes. But he lives up to it with this boast: "Before I had the name I had the fame."
Miranda doesn't make nice in her first hit since her high-profile split with Blake Shelton. She's in fighting spirits, an unrepentant Nashville bad girl ready to steal your man then hit the next town to do it all over again tomorrow night.
The triumphant return of the Tribe – including the late, great Phife, who tragically didn't live to see it come out. They trade rhymes about the end of the world, as Q-Tip spits, "We about our business, we not quitters, not bullshitters, we deliver."
The reconstituted Cobalt emerge for the first time in seven years, opening Slow Forever with this massive slab of extremely extreme metal: a nine-minute countdown to Armageddon.
Gaga fuses her neo-folkie Lilith-hippie mode with her disco roots in this Mark Ronson-produced dance-floor confession from Joanne, with a clever nod to Madonna in the "Papa Don't Preach"-flipping chorus.
"I wanna follow my heart down that wild road," the fiery Chicago songwriter vows, in a voice that blends Dolly Parton and Patti Smith. She spends all eight minutes of "Sister" riding that road to the end, from acoustic strums to electric clamor.
The Long Beach gangsta poet speeds through the nightmare of black American history in a James Blake-produced, Outkast-sampling track with a literary punch line: "Edgar Allen Poe tried to warn them of demise/And all he seen was crows."
The ultimate Zen sage was still writing songs on his deathbed, offering this poetic goodbye to the battlefield and the bedroom. Farewell, old friend.
The Australian indie prodigy fesses up to her rock & roll vices – she's mainlining ramen noodles, not cigarettes – with this tune about hiding out from the world and tripping on MSG.
Taylor Swift writes one of 2016's best country hits – a catchy tale of weeping in front of the mirror at four in the morning. With a break-up song this great, we all should have guessed it was Swift from the start.
The teen-pop princess turns dangerous woman, teaming up with "Young Nicki Chimney" for this Max Martin-produced bit of Swedish reggae – an ode to having so much sex you can't walk straight the next day.
The Atlanta trap contender teams up with Future for a thugged-and-drugged banger, boasting "I spent your rent at the mall," while producer Metro Boomin gives it all a creepy cinematic vibe.
The only guy this year to release a Frank Sinatra tribute album and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan pays his respects to the Chairman of the Board, rasping a standard from the Johnny Mercer songbook and yet somehow bringing his own sense of menace to it.
His hard-stomping posse cut with Detroit producer Black Milk, passing the mic to Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt in a virtuoso battle rhyme. Earl has the funniest line: "I'm at your house like, 'Why you got your couch on my Chucks?'"
Who could have expected a comeback this great? Mike Nesmith gets to show off all the mileage on his country-fried pipes in this superb road-weary ballad, written to order by a lifelong Monkees fan, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard.
Barely into her twenties but already a major talent, the Virginia songwriter gets lost in mixed-up identity confusion with some Johnny Ramone in her guitar and a voice that leaps straight to your heart.
Chance gives it up to his native Chicago with this steel-drum funk, spreading juked-up positivity through the streets ("Grandma say I'm kosher, mama say I'm culture") until he gets the whole city doing flips like the Cubs just won Game Seven.
K-Dot debuted this as part of his epochal Grammys performance in March, tapping into spiritual doubts – "I'm living with anxiety/Ducking the sobriety /Fucking up the system, I ain't fucking with society" – with a sax sample from jazz legend Eric Dolphy and a heavenly R&B hook sung by Anna Wise.
The gloriously snotty Philly punks celebrate modern romance as a hellhole, blasting out their shoegaze guitar fuzz. "You would sleep with me if you could do it comfortably" is one very special valentine.
Jeff Tweedy at his most low-key and likeable, 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.
Their big comeback hit collabo with Danger Mouse, with Anthony Kiedis getting personal about his darkest, druggiest memories over a Flea bassline full of blood, sugar, sex and magic.
An up-and-coming Brooklyn MC who's definitely got her own voice¬: She's a bully, a boss, a lesbian and a thug, ruling the radio with a club banger about sipping that drink, smoking that loud, stealing your groupies ("Baby gave me head, that's a low blow/Damn she make me weak when she deep throat") and living that life.
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. Everybody's welcome at their club: young bloods, old geezers, weirdo girls with green hair, dealers, haters, Gucci Mane. A blunted time is guaranteed for all.
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 touch of Elliott Smith in the vocals and a climactic guitar outburst that reaches back to Dinosaur Jr. and Neil Young.
Fifth Harmony celebrate the joys of the freelance life, which for them means having insane amounts of sex on the clock. That lightheaded beat spiced up the radio all year, as these pop divas keep taking care of business and working overtime.
Solange drops a song that can always stop you dead in your tracks, no matter where or when you hear it – describing 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.
The glitter-punk bravados sing about growing up queer and scared and lonesome, staring out the window at the other kids, lamenting, "My skin isn't made for the weather." It gets to the heart of how this whole year felt.
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.
Recorded during the Blackstar sessions, but held back for the Lazarus soundtrack, "No Plan" is a magnificent coda. The Thin White Duke sings a spectral torch ballad about floating over New York City: "There is no music here/I'm lost in streams of sound." He gazes down on Second Avenue with a ghostly sax as his life fades out of sight – one last transmission from the Bowie universe.
Aubrey Graham celebrates the big 3-0 by scoring his first Number One hit as a lead artist: a tropical summer jam with a Caribbean lilt that evokes Lionel Richie in pastel-shirt mode. When he mixes in Nigerian singer Wizkid and London diva Kyla, he turns "One Dance" into a utopian fusion of global styles, by way of Toronto.
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 (co-written with Batmanglij, 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.
Beyoncé debuted this battle cry at the Super Bowl back in February, shocking the nation with her Black Panther-inspired imagery. "Formation" was the hit that stayed omnipresent all year long, yet 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 was the hot sauce in her bag, an ominous warning siren. From an artist who's already spent so long at the center of American culture, it was a statement of blackness and feminism (with Big Freedia to rep for queer voices), but also a party invitation nobody could resist. "Formation" was a song that kept hope alive in a bleak year – and it will be essential ammo for the struggles to come in the next. Get in formation.