2016 may have been marked by some as a year of loss, with notable celebrity deaths including David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds tarnishing the seasons for many; but at least in pop music it was a year of great success and activity, with major releases from some of our consistently brilliant pop girls (Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Rihanna) and some unexpectedly stellar debuts from newer artists who weren't even a blip on our radar last year (Terror Jr, Kiiara and Dua Lipa) keeping us going through the tragedies that dotted the months. With so many great singles topping the charts this year, and even more coming to our attention through the blogospheres and Spotify, it was hard to cut down our list to just ten, an action which necessitated losing several well-loved bops from our ranking (although a part of me is glad I don't have to admit how many Justin Bieber songs I genuinely enjoyed this year). But after much careful consideration and weeks of rearranging, we've finally come up with our definite list of the best singles of 2016. It might be a little too late to play these at your New Years Eve celebrations, but they should still be good to tide you over until the wave of new releases hits us in February. Don't forget to let us know your own opinions regarding the years best tracks in the comments section below!
10. Tove Lo - Cool Girl
One of pop music's biggest dark horses, Tove Lo's unexpected breakthrough with 'Habits' seems to have instilled a possibly ill-advised sense of trust into the singer from her label. With one hit under her belt, Lo has managed to not only release a received and provocative sophomore album with Lady Wood, but also a short film which includes every song from the album and a slew of hit singles; all while Lady Gaga struggles to get funding for even one decent music video. But there's little to complain about when each of Lo's songs seem to be so meticulously planned and executed, as we noted once again with this years lead single 'Cool Girl'. An advancement from the sombre, moody beats of 'Habits', 'Cool Girl' aims for a snappy, sexy techno vibe with biting lyrics of "I'm a cool girl/Ice cold, I roll my eyes at you" to match. We're not quite sure how she manages to keep breaking into the mainstream with her unique, wacky brand of personalised pop and arthouse visuals, but if Tove Lo has more tracks like 'Cool Girl' in store for us then we're definitely in for the long haul.
9. Ariana Grande - Into You
Often referred to as 2016's most perfect pop single, Ariana Grande's 'Into You' owes much to it's cast of co-writers which includes the legendary Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya, Alex Kronlund and, of course, Grande herself, who seem to have crafted the song as a composite based off the best parts of other successful tracks. Beginning with a moody thump of beats before rising into a crescendo perfectly designed to show off Grande's pitch perfect vocals, 'Into You' is somewhat let down by a chorus which doesn't quit match the expectations set by it's verses, but all is saved with a climactic bridge and some meticulous ad-libs from the singer. Riding the dance-pop train that first started with Lady Gaga's 'Just Dance' back in 2008, 'Into You' hardly adds anything new to the pop genre like some of the other tracks on Grande's Dangerous Woman release, and the lyrics are as generic as can be. But like the guilty pleasures of Carly Rae Jepsen and Alexandra Stan before it, the song accomplishes everything it sets out to do and earns its place as a near-flawless single, a title aided by its raunchy music video and several high-profile performances. We're just surprised it didn't make it higher on the charts.
8. Skylar Grey - Come Up For Air
From the outside, it seems as though Skylar Grey has always fancied herself a rebel without a cause - an image she tried and failed to cultivate with her mess of hip-hop beats and trailer trash glam lyrics back in 2013s Don't Look Down. But what we didn't know is that when she stops trying so hard, as she did in this years single 'Come Up For Air'. there was an abundance of vulnerability and beauty to her on the inside which we had never before seen. Backed only by a sparse R&B beat produced by frequent collaborator Eminem, Skylar plays the role of a long-suffering lover who waits for her partner to "come up for air" from the scary seas of their depression. And her voice, when she doesn't strain it with belts or hide it behind the tones of their collaborators, conveys a beautiful vulnerability that's rarely found in pop music. Time will tell if Skylar's ever able to blow up on the charts as a solo artist, but if she continues the winning formula of ballads she's captured with 'Come Up For Air' and 'Coming Home', she's bound to find her niche no matter what.
7. Bonnie McKee - I Want It All
The incredibly talented Bonnie McKee has been searching for a hit ever since her debut album, Trouble, failed to make any impact on the charts back in 2004. Since then, the self-proclaimed "popstar in training" has done more than her fair share of self-education, penning hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Kesha; but even with the commercially-minded bangers 'American Girl' and 'Sleepwalker', she's failed to nab the elusive #1 record she so desperately seeks. Yet even with her previous bops taken into consideration, Bonnie hasn't ever come closer to an iconic song than she did with this year's 'I Want It All', the third single from 2015's Bombastic EP. From the opening stomps of the 808 to the guitar riff which sounds like something right out of Michael Jackson's Thriller, 'I Want It All' trades the bubblegum pop of McKee's major label efforts for a 80s glamrock anthem which takes more than a few liberties with her tried and true pop formula. Unheard of in a McKee song, the track takes over a minute to finally hit on a hook worth humming too; but the slow burn is more than worth the payoff when the head-banging, fist-pumping chorus finally kicks in. And the 'Billie Jean' inspired music video, in which a pink haired Bonnie struts down a dark alley in a leather jacket and crotch pumps the leader of a gang, just makes the whole thing even better. After giving her ideas away to other popstars for so long, McKee's bravely reclaimed the sound she created; let's just hope it's not too late for her to make it big.
6. The Weeknd - Starboy (Feat. Daft Punk)
The Weeknd's lead single 'Starboy' from the album of the same name promised a revolution from the opening frames of its video. Set in an archetypal Hollywood Hills mansion adorned with posters and placades of the singer himself, the clip begins with a masked figure sitting across from The Weeknd, silhouetted by his trademark chicken hair; before the man in the mask abruptly strangles him and takes off his balaclava, revealing himself as a newer, better haired version of the man himself, who then goes on to smash up the rest of the mansion with a pink neon cross. It's an obvious metaphor but an effective one: and anything that replaces his chicken hair with a buzz cut and his slow R&B beats with some heavy 80s synths courtesy of Daft Punk is fine by us. 'Starboy' trades The Weeknd's usual cooing for a dark, urgent lament of LA materalism before slowing down for a sparse, eerie refrain of "Look what you've done/I’m a motherfuckin' starboy", implicating the audience in his own success and, by association, his sadness. It might not be the feel good song of the summer, but 'Starboy' was instrumental in pushing The Weeknd's sound forward from the now popular slow-pop genre he helped to develop which has infilitrated the mainstream in the last year, and remains one of the most interesting songs of the year.
5. Fifth Harmony - Work From Home (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
While they first hit the big time with their breakout single 'Worth It', Fifth Harmony (or H4RMONY as they're now unnofficially referred to by fans) really only came into their own this year with 'Work From Home'. Riding the wave of construction themed songs they started with 'Sledgehammer' which was continued by Miley's 'Wrecking Ball', the girls utilise their subject matter to its full shameless potential, working in lyrically genius lines such as "I know you're always on the night shift but I can't stand these nights alone". But it's not until that ridiculously catchy chorus, in which the girls chant "You don't gotta go to work/Let me body do the work/We can work from home" that the song makes its mark as a dancefloor banger. A moderately inoffensive verse from Ty Dolla $ign and a high-dance, high-budget music video in which the girls seductively stroke hammers and pour cement are just the cherries on top of this dessert. With 'Work From Home', Fifth Harmony have finally shed the good girl image they cultivated on The X Factor, and we can't wait to see what happens next.
4. David Bowie - Lazarus
The world was shaken this January when it was announced that David Bowie, one of the most iconic popstars of all time, had been found dead in his home of liver cancer: an event made even more shocking given the fact that the notoriously private Bowie had not even disclosed news of an illness to the public. And as with all celebrity deaths, Bowie's passing forced a reevaluation of his previous works, most notably his last recorded album Blackstar (which was released two days before his death on his 69th birthday) and his New York musical Lazarus (whose opening night was the last public event Bowie would attend in his lifetime). On the one hand, the fact that Bowie's recent work was getting the recognition it deserved was a godsend given that it was some of the best of his career: but on the other, it was a shame that it took his death for the public to appreciate his latest efforts. 'Lazarus', the third song on the album and the title track of the musical, is one of his best: written in the months leading up to Bowie's passing with longtime producer Tony Visconti, the song acts as a self-epitath for the funeral he never had which foreshadowed his impending death. "By the time I got to New York/I was living like a king," he reflects, a possible reference to the days of partying which caused his terminal illness: before promising that soon "You know I'll be free/Just like that bluebird". Powerful, spiritual and enigmatic to the end, Bowie's swan song is a rare glimpse into the life of someone who is so close to death they can taste it: the final character in the singers revolving door of alter-egos.
3. Rihanna - Work (Feat. Drake)
Given the unprecedented four year wait between her last album, Unapologetic, and her current project, ANTI (Rih typically releases an album every year on the dot), expectations were high for the Bajan popstars lead single from #R8. Smartly, she avoided any hugely dramatic rollout for the single in exchange for what amounted to a surprise release, announcing the existence of 'Work' only hours before we first heard it; and the lack of spectacle extended to the songs sound as well, which avoided the huge EDM choruses of leads like 'Only Girl (In The World)' and 'We Found Love' for an altogether slower, more laidback vibe. Avoiding the temptation to continue one upping herself yet another dancefloor hit, Rih instead opted for a twist on her dancehall roots, launching off the back of her previous reggae and Drake-assisted songs like 'What's My Name' to craft a new sound for herself unlike anything else on radio. And thanks to some catchy wordplay that matches the nonsensical catchiness of her breakout 'Umbrella' and those trademark husky vocals, the song still remains quintessentially Rihanna. Despite some concern from critics, 'Work' provided the comeback that the popstar needed after her hiatus: it's just a shame that once she had us hooked with the lead single, she let us down with a B-grade video and an absolute mess of an album campaign.
2. Kiiara - Gold
From the very opening trip-hop strains of Kiiara's breakthrough single 'Gold', we knew we'd found the song we'd be obsessed with for the rest of the year. What we didn't realise was how it would light up the charts, or how long such a process would take: the single was actually first released in October 2015, but promo really only began in after all the unofficial online buzz in May, and the track peaked on the charts in October of this year. Hit or not, the songs ridiculously catchy and nonsensical hook assured its presence on hundreds of Spotify summer BBQ playlists, and introduced Kiiara's name and trademark style of breathy digitized vocal delivery to the masses. Little seperates Kiiara from her younger cousins over at Terror Jr, with the acts sharing sound, producers and fame - but where Terror Jr cultivates an ambibuous identity, Kiiara puts her trailer trash aesthetic beginnings out there for the world to see, something she's been doing a lot more of since promo for her EP officially began. Now all we're waiting to see is if she can sustain her fame with follow up singles 'Feels' and 'Hang Up Tha Phone'.
1. Terror Jr - 3 Strikes
We may still not definitively know who the elusive 'Lisa' behind Terror Jr's hits might be - is it Lisa Vitale? Kylie Jenner? Or a complete unknown? - but one things for sure: the band, comprised of an enigmatic female singer, The Cataracs' David "Campa" Singer-Vine and Felix Snow has yet to make a wrong move, an impressive feat given their association with the Kardashians and an entire EP rollout. They kicked things off with '3 Strikes', an edgy and provocative track which first rose to prominence with a placement in a Kylie Jenner lip gloss ad but which has since stuck on Snapchat stories and Spotify playlists for months. Utilising 2016's favourite vocal stutter technique and some deliciously ridiculous lyrics - "You were like 95 on the interstate/Looking for a dinnerplate" - '3 Strikes' excels at quirky, catchy pop with a difference, and it does so exceptionally well. Where other artists struggle without a label and a big budget, Terror Jr has utilised their lack of resources in a viral, interesting way - and the fact that they hit #1 on our list without an official single release or music video says a lot about the state of pop music in 2016. Regardless of what does or doesn't happen for the band in the new year, we're sure that their particular brand of promotion - where artists forsake big label opportunities to create meaningful and intimate connections with the fans who have "discovered" them - will continue for years to come.
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