50 Best Songs of 2016 - Rolling Stone
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50 Best Songs of 2016

Beyoncé owned our world, Drake lit up the dance floor, and Rae Sremmurd got their John Lennon on

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

Fifth Harmony, Drake and Rae Sremmurd made some of the best songs of the year.

Ida Mae Astute/ABC/Getty, Chris McKay/Getty, Roger Kisby/Getty

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.

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”

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.

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

Pwr Bttm, “Projection”

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.

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

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.


David Bowie, “No Plan”

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.

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

Drake feat. Wizkid, Kyla, “One Dance”

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.  

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

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 (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.

Top 50 Singles of 2016, Drake, Fifth Harmony, Rae Sremmurd

Beyoncé, “Formation”

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.

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