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."