Oh, 2016. You started out with so much promise. Adele had returned from a five year album hiatus, Justin Bieber was cool again, Beyonce started hinting at a potential surprise album drop, and American politics were relatively stable. Kanye West’s biggest issue was his inability to name his new album (SWISH, Waves–may you both rest in peace), Taylor Swift was innocent, and Frank Ocean would maybe have an album out by the end of the year (again) .
In all fairness, 2016 was a pretty disastrous year (Zika, Clowns, Harambe, etc.–they happened), but the music industry surprisingly stood strong. Streaming finally led to music industry growth, dozens of new artists broke into the scene, and this blog started with a post on The Chainsmokers. Sure, it’s one month into 2017 already, but we’re all looking back fondly on 2016–if only for the music. Here are our picks for the most noteworthy songs of 2016 (with a full Spotify playlist at the end of the post!).
Anohni’s “Watch Me” carries an incisive political edge. The track off her debut album, Hopelessness, analogizes the surveillance state with a sexual relationship, perverting the voyeurism permitted by such a system. Anohni tackles blind trust in nationalism (“I know you love me / ‘Cause you’re always watching me”) over undulating dancepop and the effects are chilling. Beyonce’s Lemonade may have garnered much deserved attention for its overtly political nature, but Anohni goes deeper and darker in her debut
“Lisa,” the anonymous singer of Terror Jr (who may or may not be Kylie Jenner), navigates the least subtle double entendre of the year with calculated aplomb. For a track that barely sketches out two lines at a time, “Come First” packs a punch, assisted by the spacey production of Felix Snow (KIIARA, Icona Pop, Leona Lewis, Gallant).
The acoustic track follows Arthur as he attends the shows of his singer-songwriter crush, asking “Could I be the one you talk about in all your stories?” Although the Back from the Edge cut has not yet been announced as a single, Arthur’s vulnerable vocal presence makes it a clear standout. Quick prediction: If it is announced as a single in 2017, “Can I Be Him” could be the most successful Arthur song in America this year, and Blink 182 may nab a writing credit, as the song heavily borrows from the punk rock classic “I Miss You.”
“11 Blocks” is the song that caused Epic CEO and Chairman LA Reid to sign singer-songwriter Wrabel in the middle of the night, after the Berklee dropout had spent several years writing and performing on tracks by other artists in Los Angeles. The wistful ballad was inspired by Wrabel’s inability to get over a past relationship and his close proximity to his ex, a notion geographically etched into the single’s artwork. “11 blocks” showcases Wrabel’s powerful, sometimes twangy vocal, harkening to past ballads by Gavin Degraw (for whom Wrabel opened this year) and Five for Fighting.
Becky Hill’s voice is incredibly controlled and husky in this charming tropical track by Matoma. The delivery of the word “false” on this song is simply my favorite surprise note of the year–the jump into Hill’s register is both strikingly distinct and smooth–and has solidified Hill’s voice as my favorite from 2016.
As one half of DJ production duo Soy Sauce, DC native Imad Royal began producing beats in an artistic community, “Indigo Studios,” that he co-founded. As part of Soy Sauce, Royal raised enough money from producing beats for other artists to donate 15,000 meals to the Los Angeles Food Bank. Now signed to Atlantic records as a solo artist, Royal is making clever hip-hop/electronic hybrids, playing with interesting sounds and his smooth, Drake-like vocals. On “Bad 4 U,” all of these influences are well complemented with a major pop hook.
On this The Human Condition deep cut, Bellion flexes his rap chops, giving us insight into how the New York native wrote megahit “The Monster” for Eminem and Rihanna back in 2013. In “New York Soul Part II,” hints of Bellion’s Disney/Pixar inspirations shimmer in the chorus, and emphatic verses hit us in the gut as the entire tune is sprinkled with staggering production reminiscent of Kanye West. Bellion is currently opening for twenty one pilots on their world tour, and very well may take on a similar level of stardom in 2017.
It would be a disservice to relegate Bibi Bourelly to her songwriting credits for Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Usher when the outspoken artist has released two EPs in the span of a year, both filled with poetic, soulful hooks. In 2016, Bourelly toured the country and was included on the annual Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for music, proving that the artist is a major league contender. “Ego” is where it all began: an expletive ode to bringing yourself up, and not giving into the haters.
“Capsize” may be the most unlikely smash of 2016—despite gaining over 300 million Spotify streams, nabbing a “Songs of summer” accolade, and expanding the careers of two relatively unknown artists, the song was written by an unsigned band based largely on a grandmother’s graduation voicemail. Frenship is now signed to Columbia records and Emily Warren, the co-writer and vocalist featured on the track, has been featured on several further cuts, including The Chainsmokers’ latest single, “Paris,” which hit the top spot of the iTunes charts almost instantly, and debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 this week.
As far as traditional EDM hits go, “Faded” was by far the biggest and most expansive of the year, hitting the top ten charts of 28 separate countries, including in the U.S. and the U.K., and achieving platinum status in twelve countries. The icy post breakup track set pining vocals and an Adele-like piano track to dance floor beats, a strange contrast that pays off well.
“Roses” decidedly transformed The Chainsmokers from a novelty dance duo into mainstream, EDM-flavored pop stars. Laced with looping synth pattern and infectious beats, “Roses” set off a chain of hit singles by the duo, launching or greatly boosting the careers of several female artists who had been slightly under the radar in the process (Rozes, Daya, Halsey, Phoebe Ryan, Emily Warren).
“Lost Boy” is quiet, reflective, and simple–not necessarily the formula for mainstream success in 2016’s music industry. But in a year marked by turmoil, the ballad based on Peter Pan stands out among most radio hits, boosted by Ruth B’s folky vocals and beautiful phrasing. Furthermore, “Lost Boy” separates itself from other hits based on its authenticity–the song was written, produced, and performed by Ruth B before she was signed to a label, and the final product (which certified double platinum and became a top 40 Hot 100 hit) serves as the perfect vehicle for Ruth’s artistry. The tune serves as a reminder that a talented vocalist singing over piano chords can still be magical.
Mendes’ roaring lead single was released last summer to promote his second full-length album, Illuminate, which came out in September of 2016. Making for his second Billboard Hot 100 top 10 single, “Treat You Better” finds Mendes voice reaching new heights in this reggae-inspired stadium track, carrying a soulful grit far from his “Stitches” days. Bolstered by the strength of “Treat You Better,” Illuminate landed atop the Billboard 200 albums chart, in addition to over sixty iTunes charts across the world.
If belting sky-high notes unreachable by most female vocalists is the sign of a future R&B legend, then Gallant is sure to become one. Although his debut album, Ology, may have been a bit too varied, when it hits it hits hard, and “Weight in Gold” is one of those examples of a shining piece of pop that can launch the career of a future superstar. Gallant’s stratospheric vocal range and carefully crafted phrasing have garnered the attention of music legends including Elton John and Seal, and have landed him a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Music list.
It’s been pretty astounding to watch Fifth Harmony evolve from a quickly assembled X Factor group into a top performing act, and “Work From Home” seems to have been the track that brought them fully into the mainstream this year. The minimalistic track not only out-peaked Fifth Harmony’s previous crossover efforts by hitting number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but also sold quadruple platinum: a feat made exceedingly more difficult in the streaming age. Although Camila Cabello left the group at the end of the year, Epic Records will likely keep doing their best to keep these ladies on top with more hits to come.
Generally speaking, if tastemaker Pharrell Williams believes in your music and vision, you’ve probably got something worth sharing. Despite being endorsed by Williams in an NYU masterclass, though, Maggie Rogers’ soft electropop cut “Alaska” stands on its own as exceptional. The self-produced track captures the energy of nature–as highlighted in the song’s music video. Off the success of “Alaska,” the budding artist has sold out her US tour for 2017.
As perhaps the least karaoke-friendly hit of 2016, Kiiara’s “Gold” took nearly a full year to cross over to mainstream radio after being released in June of 2015. The distorted vocals, slow moving bass, and flecks of R&B production were so ahead of their time that it took hits by Justin Bieber and The Chainsmokers to normalize this track’s distorted EDM influence before it took on the airwaves. At the start of 2017, “Gold” remains as a clear standout from last year.
Noyes rebukes an emotionally abusive lover, accompanied by pointed, pizzicato strings. The 19 year old singer songwriter wrote and sang on the Kygo hit “Stay” and has worked with the likes of the Weeknd and Parson James. “in my miNd” is a Spotify hit (nearly 80 million streams) that deserves to go mainstream this year, given Noyes’ breathy voice and sassy delivery. Either way, expect big things from this up and comer in the new year.
In one of the best creative decisions of the year, MGK and Camila Cabello borrowed the chorus from Fastball’s “Out of My Mind” to make the most heavy-hitting rap/female singer ballad since Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie.” There’s something enchanting about hearing Camila Cabello fly up into her head voice on the chorus, and the bridge stands as one of the best of the past year. Channeling Eminem, MGK does the job well, but it’s Cabello whose instantly recognizable voice stands out here.
Although Ed Sheeran took a break from music during 2016, his presence was deeply felt on this Bieber co-write: Bieber delivers pure, stone-faced vitriol over Ed’s signature acoustic guitar strums and underneath his falsetto backing vocals. The Purpose album single went on to be the Billboard Hot 100 top track of the year. Sheeran may be back to performing his own music in 2017, but his perennial diss track and one line in particular (“my mama don’t like you and she likes everyone”) will remain with fans of Bieber for years to come.
Jessie Reyez’ mercurial take on heartbreak explores every twist and turn of the end of her relationship, meandering between belted anger and her feathery head voice. It helps that the young soul singer has a staggering range filled with emotional breadth. The Toronto native is a graduate from The Remix Project, a music academy that gives young artists from underserved areas the resources to forge creative careers (Kendrick Lamar counts himself as an ambassador).
This revenge pop song accumulated 170 million Spotify streams and hit number 3 on the Billboard Bubbling Under charts. The wavering synths and feisty lyrics combined with karate champion Anne-Marie’s flawless delivery prove the rising star is a force to be reckoned with. At this moment, Anne-Marie is cleaning house as a featured artist on Clean Bandit’s “Rockabye” which is vaulting up the BB Hot 100 in the states after smashing abroad. Expect this star to be huge in 2017 (perhaps “Alarm” could be re-released as her first US solo hit).
“Ultralight Beam” stands out as a light in a year full of controversy for Kanye West–the rapper-producer grabbed headlines for his criticism and support of various figures including Beyonce, Donald Trump, and Taylor Swift; canceled his “Saint Pablo” tour in fall of last year; and endured hospitalization shortly after. Looking back, though, it’s clear that West had a coherent vision for The Life of Pablo. “Ultralight Beam” is a neo-soul gem that alternates between a deafening gospel choir and hushed, reflective verses, striving to meld tradition with West’s signature production.
Although The Chainsmokers indelibly made their mark on pop music with 12 week Hot 100 number 1 “Closer,” it was “Don’t Let Me Down” that showed that the electronic duo was ready to take on chart-topping pop balladry. The Chainsmokers’ first megahit paired an enchanting guitar loop with a Sia-like hook that shot the tune to Spotify “song of the summer” status. The live sound of the guitar loop brilliantly offsets the unexpectedly glitchy drop, and Daya’s delivery is nothing short of exceptional.
Perhaps foreshadowing a year of political unease, Beyonce unleashed “Formation” as prelude to an explosive performance at the Superbowl and the launch of her magnus opus, Lemonade. The music video and song lyrics succesfully referenced the black lives matter movement and put questions of black womanhood front and center in pop culture–all over a sinuous beat that helped launch it onto the BIllboard Hot 100 charts. More importantly, Beyonce’s formation set the political tone of Lemonade and galvanized an industry unused to bearing witness to complex political messages unfurled through globally commercial music.
Check out all of the DEAL editor’s picks below!