We’ve lamented ad nauseum about the lowlights of 2016, but there were also some pretty exemplary highlights. Simone Biles (and all the other #BlackExcellence at the 2016 Olympics) happened. Donald Glover’s Atlanta happened. The hashtags #ObamaAndKids and #BlackBoyJoy happened. LeBron James bringing an NBA championship to Cleveland happened. Stephen Curry’s record-breaking three-pointers happened. It wasn’t all bad, thanks to a slew of inspiring moments.
Other moments in 2016 came by way of songs, as artists pushed boundaries, paid homage, broke new ground and stuck to their respective scripts. A full-fledged movement was created by Beyoncé. Rihanna had us all singing along to words we couldn’t readily decipher. Rae Sremmurd had us all standing in place to the tune of their first No. 1 single. New York City made a comeback with Fat Joe, Remy Ma and Young M.A. Kanye West took us all to the altar. As a much-needed accent to a trying year, music did what it was meant to do: alleviate.
Sifting through a bevy of tracks that surprised us, became mainstays or just straight-up knocked, we have compiled our list of the top songs of 2016.
P.S. — Don’t @ us.
After years of domination by the likes of Atlanta and Los Angeles, New York City finally put another benchmark year on the hip-hop scoreboard. A large part of the winning year can be attributed to Fat Joe’s return to the charts with “All the Way Up,” as he teamed up with Remy Ma yet again to rep for the Five Boroughs. – Iyana Robertson
2016 offered up quite a few New York City anthems, but “OOOUUU!” was arguably the most impactful for a few reasons. One, Young M.A. defied gender roles in rap with her tougher-than-leather bars and incision-inducing lyricism. Two, we will forever name check “Headphanie” and still have no real idea why. And three, the phrase “OOOUUU!” replaced emojis as the most meaningful way to express yourself. *100 emoji* – Kathy Iandoli
“Too Much Sauce” can almost be a modernized Lil Boosie “Wipe Me Down,” but with tons more flavor. You can’t just grab a trio of trap music’s favorite DJ, Auto-Tune and new kid on the block and expect anything short of a radio-saturated banger. And with Atlanta’s studio all-star Zaytoven in the producer’s chair for the single? Yeah — way too much sauce. – Diamond Alexis
After two years of grinding and putting in work following his debut LP, A$AP Ferg solidified his place as a mainstay in the rap game with the Future-assisted "New Level." The lead single off of his sophomore Always Strive and Prosper is a self-celebratory anthem soundtracking that very moment when you realize you done gone and leveled up. A perfect song for stuntin' and praising your own progress. – KC Orcutt
Drizzy’s domineering attitude toward crossing genres was just the one he needed to champion his new “ting” for culturally-themed hits. And he did so triumphantly, fitting Afrobeat into dancehall rhythms like key-in-lock while still managing to ride the pop music wave. “One Dance” and “Controlla's” one-two punch took Caribbean funk’s main stages for Summer ’16 with island vibes Drake couldn't wait to deliver. Admittedly so, neither could we. – Diamond Alexis
After watching his incredible glo-up this year, including snagging a Grammy nomination, collaborating with Erykah Badu and performing at the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards, D.R.A.M. still humbly refers to his breakout collaboration with Lil Yachty as "just good timing." With the mutually beneficial single "Broccoli" helping each to reach new heights, it’s safe to say the song grew into much more than originally anticipated and its lighthearted, feel-good vibe is one to keep close. – KC Orcutt
According to DJ Khaled, “they” didn’t want to him to have another anthem. So, he made sure he got another anthem…with the assistance of Drake, of course. But what makes this cocky joyride worthwhile is the nostalgia it instantly purveys. Drake’s lyric and cadence sampling of Too Short's "Blow the Whistle" paired with producers Nineteen85 and Jordan Ullman (of Majid Jordan) interpolating Akinyele's "F**k Me for Free” put all naysayers on ice. – Ashley Monaé
As the summer’s latest artist to plug a dancehall track into the mainstream, Tory Lanez used the anthemic Jamaican classic “Everyone Falls in Love” to make “Luv” as irresistible as Tanto Metro & Devonte’s. Even though Tory is straight out of Toronto, he’s got the flair for paying his ancestral homage the right way, by getting island jam hit-making down to a science. – Diamond Alexis
As the first single from Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine, “Dang!” set the sonic ambitions of the 24-year-old rap star at his highest. A departure from the catchy singles and campy backpack boom bap-inspired rap we’ve come to expect from him, his creativity knows no bounds on the mellow groove full of velvety, sweet-sounding soul compositions. From his cracked croon and hotshot rhyme pattern to Anderson .Paak’s slick vocals, we can’t help but to get lost in the joyous track. – Ashley Monaé
As further exemplified with "24K Magic," Bruno Mars has a tried-and-true (and somewhat magic) ability to conjure up a nostalgic yet timeless anthem, always finding a semi-permanent way into our ears, a la "Uptown Funk." His latest chart-topping single truly was a beacon of pure joy in a year that desperately needed it, full of funky synths, an insanely catchy chorus and that Bruno Mars-brand of braggadocio we all have come to appreciate. – KC Orcutt
Who said gangsta rap had no political voice? Brazy as it was, YG even got a call from the Secret Service for this one, forcing him to censor the lyrics. Brandishing his valiant red flag against America’s stars and stripes, YG activated a blunt, definitive message to former reality star turned president-elect Donald Trump: “F**k you.” If this wasn’t the best way to sum up a loathed post-Obama election year, I don’t know what is. – Diamond Alexis
It didn’t take a rocket scientist or gossip blog expert to know Zayn Malik was going to eclipse his “humble” One Direction beginnings when he departed from the band last year. But nobody could have predicted his first solo single “Pillowtalk” would be so damn sexy. Leaning heavily on pop-R&B production, this cut not only slid its way up the pop charts, but became an R&B fan favorite. Is it safe to say Zayn Timberlake’d the game? Pretty much. – Kathy Iandoli
Solange became the voice of the vulnerable with her album A Seat at the Table, laying bare the homogeneous experience of being Black and proud in today’s America. And while the album is a picture of strength in its totality, it is also a testament to the fact that strength exists in spite of weakness. This becomes audible on “Cranes in the Sky” to the tune of Raphael Saadiq’s bass. – Iyana Robertson
Travis Scott undoubtedly secured his first No. 1 album with Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight thanks to the lead single “Pick Up the Phone.” Thugger comes through with some pleasantly coherent bars flanked by Migos’s Quavo, Starrah and of course Travis as they question the whereabouts of the girl on the other line. Apparently they didn’t have her Find My iPhone login. Now that’s a twisted love story for our generation. – Kathy Iandoli
Although ScHoolboy Q was originally reluctant to reach out to Kanye West for that rare guest verse and enlisted TDE CEO Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith as a willing middleman, something tells us he has no regrets. On "THat Part," Ye's "OK"-laden bars complement ScHoolboy's hypnotic lyrical pattern effortlessly, with the banger's menacing production tying it all together. Even if the song is pompous by nature, with the collaboration scoring West his 40th Top 40 hit and ScHoolboy some major clout, they both earn the right to #notsohumblebrag. – KC Orcutt
On “untitled 07 | levitate,” Kendrick is provocative, straightforward yet nimbly expressive and incalculable. What’s most refreshing about the layered, retro-futuristic track, which earned Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys's five-year-old son Egypt his first production credit, is the fact that he still handles rap as both an art and sport: open minded to experimenting with his already crowned superior flow and venturous enough to flaunt an inflated confidence for the sake of competition. And to put things into crystal clear perspective, he bodied all his peers with a previously unreleased demo from 2015. Come harder. – Ashley Monaé
Remember in 2015 when Migos was being touted as better than The Beatles? OK that was absurd, but who knew that a year later, Rae Sremmurd would swoop in with their single “Black Beatles,” hit the top of the charts and birth the #MannequinChallenge? If anyone should be compared to the leaders of the British Invasion at this point, it’s the ear drummers from ATL. Just sayin’. – Kathy Iandoli
Even if you couldn’t make out Rihanna’s West Indian jargon, you still sang “Work.” Even if you couldn’t wine up your waist like a Bajan, you still sang “Work.” Even if you didn’t quite know what “Work” was, you still sang “Work” Why? Because that’s what Rihanna does; she seduces you until you are nothing but obedient silly putty in the palm of her hand. Just ask Drake. – Iyana Robertson
When Kanye proclaimed his seventh record as a gospel album, many wondered if this was another Yeezus-sponsored rant. But as promised, he delivered a prayer on the album’s opening that unshackled troubled souls, tackled self-condemnation and resurrected faith. Possessing a creative energy reminiscent of “Jesus Walks," the synergy between The-Dream’s crumbling coos, Kelly Price’s stacked harmonies, Chance the Rapper’s best verse of the year, Kirk Franklin’s humbling call to the altar and a robust choir shines brightest. Say what you want about the man, but Kanye is still out here doing God’s work. – Ashley Monaé
Beyoncé pulled up on Black History Month with a song and video that no one could have predicted. A blaring reaffirmation of her Blackness, “Formation” became Queen Bey’s most woke single to date, featuring her love for her Negro nose, baby hair and Afros. Sealing her intent with a nod to the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl the very next day, “Formation” became more than a song, but a movement that would reverberate for the remainder of the year. – Iyana Robertson
(Photos from left: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)