25. Zayn – “It’s You”
Zayn’s debut album was too drowsy, too self-consciously artsy, too reliant on atmosphere as a substitute for songcraft — except on “It’s You,” a graceful ballad that seemed to float a few feet above the earth’s surface. Thankfully he paused his Weeknd worship for a moment to breathe the spirit of Thom Yorke into an adult contemporary slow jam.
24. Hailee Steinfeld & Grey – “Starving” (Feat. Zedd)
Just when I thought Steinfeld was getting over her fun but inessential musical side hustle and getting back to her prodigious acting career, she went and dropped a pristine, state-of-the-art, head-over-heels love song that feels suspiciously like the edge of 17.
23. The 1975 – “The Sound”
The band name has always been a misnomer, but especially so on an exultant pop/rock/house/gospel track that collapses the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts into one big emotional party.
22. Beyoncé – “Hold Up”
Beyoncé + Diplo + Ezra Koenig + Karen O + Father John Misty = a deceptively chill track about confronting your cheating husband.
21. Ariana Grande – “Dangerous Woman”
20. Rihanna – “Kiss It Better”
Sultry sex slow jams with ’80s electric guitar solos were back in a big way this year, thank God.
19. Drake – “One Dance” (Feat. WizKid & Kyla)
Just when we thought he’d missed his shot at #1 when a chart technicality stonewalled “Hotline Bling,” Drake bounced back with a breezy faux-dancehall delight that topped the chart for 10 weeks.
18. Bruno Mars – “Versace On The Floor”
Gloriously schmaltzy baby-making New Jack Swing from an artist whose homage expertise knows no bounds.
17. The Chainsmokers – “Closer” (Feat. Halsey)
Did it deserve to become one of the 17 biggest songs in Billboard Hot 100 history? Nah. Was it one of the 17 best pop songs of this year? Sure.
16. Maggie Rogers – “Alaska”
15. Fifth Harmony – “Work From Home” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
What shit luck that “Work From Home” came out weeks after Rihanna released her own “work work work work work” anthem — and what good fortune that radio programmers decided to play this one anyway. I’m also grateful that Ty Dolla $ign treated this track as more than a paycheck; the West Coast bounce that makes his own music so satisfying pleasingly courses through “Work From Home,” too.
14. Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”
Not sure “Put your pinky rings up to the moon!” is ever gonna catch on as a catchphrase, but for three minutes and 47 seconds, this song certainly makes me want to acquire and flaunt such a ring.
13. Alicia Keys – “In Common”
Why this brisk, minimal, Jamie xx-indebted dancehall excursion wasn’t included on Keys’ new album is a mystery. It’s her best single in years and one of the best of 2016.
12. Rihanna – “Needed Me”
I love that DJ Mustard — whose minimal, snapping West Coast ratchet music once took over Mike Will Made-It’s vaunted place in the rap and R&B production hierarchy — has now, upon that signature sound’s near-total disappearance from pop music, delivered his own version of a Mike Will Made-It beat, and that it doesn’t bang so much as heaves, and that Rihanna used it to finally achieve apotheosis for her no-fucks-given reputation.
11. The Weeknd – “I Feel It Coming” (Feat. Daft Punk)
The Toronto of my imagination feels a lot warmer when this is on.
10. Ariana Grande – “Be Alright”
“Be Alright” hits like a breath of fresh air and glides like gravity can’t hold it down, and its bridge is pop’s best pillaging of playground nursery rhymes since “Country Grammar.”
9. Drake – “Too Good” (Feat. Rihanna)
8. Rihanna – “Work” (Feat. Drake)
Drake and Rihanna’s romantic entanglements may or may not be a good idea, but please, let’s keep getting them together for duets. To a flawless library that already included “What’s My Name” and “Take Care” we can now add two more masterworks of wistful twilight R&B.
7. The 1975 – “UGH!”
This song’s sonic building blocks pop, drop, and lock with such a funky cyborg pizzazz that I am still perplexed about why half the world responds to the 1975 with a revulsion usually reserved for Maroon 5. If you can’t appreciate “UGH!,”I don’t even know what to say anymore except you have bad taste in music.
6. Usher – “Crash”
I’ve passionately evangelized for “Crash” twice already, and I even included it on my personal list of the year’s best songs. It is truly excellent, and it deserved to be as big as any Usher song has ever been.
5. Beyoncé – “Formation”
4. Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
A real crowd-pleaser, and one that kept alive Rae Sremmurd’s streak as zeitgeist-seizing hit-makers with a reach far beyond hip-hop’s usual audience. If a doofy viral video challenge can elevate a song this good from critically acclaimed deep cut to five weeks at #1 (and counting), maybe doofy viral video challenges aren’t so bad after all.
3. Beyoncé – “Sorry”
Everything about this swaggering synthetic kiss-off is so awesomely memorable that it’s hard to keep track of all the highlights. For instance, I almost forgot it features Beyoncé telling Jay Z to suck on her balls.
2. D.R.A.M. – “Broccoli” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
The piano, the flute, the low-end keyboard detonations, the harmonious Auto-Tuned mumbling about protecting friends and spending a paycheck on Mom, the detailed anecdote about enjoying bagels with salmon and capers on a square plate, the unbound joy of being beyond all that fuck shit: It’s all good.
1. Ariana Grande – “Into You”
May Ariana Grande and Max Martin conspire to top this list every two years for the rest of time. In 2014 the young American entertainer and the veteran Swedish songwriter-producer joined forces on “Problem,” a sassy saxophone throwback to a moment in pop history that had not been properly excavated by the nostalgists up until then. It was the best pop song of the year. Grande, Martin, and his team of pop professionals attempted to recapture their winning chemistry on 2015 single “Focus,” which hit all the same beats as “Problem” with significantly diminished returns. So they gave up trying to make lightning strike twice and instead came up with something completely different, an aggressive synth-disco tidal wave that inspires a whole other range of physical reactions.
“Into You” rides like a million-dollar sports car, breathlessly accelerating around corners without smudging its pristine exterior. But it also feels entirely human in depicting an attraction that can barely be contained — the kind that begs, “a little less conversation and a little more touch my body” (an aspiring queen of pop nodding to the King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll) — and sells the tortured syntax with such conviction that it seems like the most natural thing a woman possessed by lust would ever utter. From the pulse-pounding intro to a chorus that hits like explosives rippling through subway tunnels, it is just a genius piece of music — a joy and a thrill, the kind of song that makes you feel like a glamorous superhuman for four minutes at a time, every time.