2016 was a tough one.
It’s not like nothing good happened this year (especially if you’re a Cubs fan), but after twelve months of tough times, heartbreaking losses, and a bitterly contested election, many of us are facing down the new year feeling a little drained.
But, while it may not have been easy on the soul, the year was actually pretty great for music.
It would be impossible to list all the songs that lifted us up, and helped us get through the year, so we’ll just do 16.
Here are some of the songs that saved 2016. (WARNING: NSFW lyrics in some of the songs).
1. Beyoncé – “Formation”
Why it saved 2016: To address the elephant in the room, this entire list could have just basically been Lemonade. But when the “Formation” video dropped, Queen B found a way to use her mega-star platform to promote social conversation, and push the boundaries of what an album can be. It can be hard to top Beyoncé, but one person you can always count on to do it is the woman herself.
2. Ariana Grande – “Into You”
Why it saved 2016: You could also go with her amazing Nicki Minaj collaboration “Side to Side” or “Dangerous Woman” here, but we have to include something after the 23-year-old actress put out her best and most inspired album yet. We’ve known she had singing chops for awhile now, but Dangerous Woman puts Ariana squarely in the conversation of tour de force pop stars.
3. Sia – “Cheap Thrills”
Why it saved 2016: We can’t see her, but we never get sick of hearing her! OK, that was a bad joke, but it doesn’t change the fact that the ellusive pop singer managed to follow up the massive banger “Chandelier” with this formidable hit on her newest record, This Is Acting.
4. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam” feat. Chance The Rapper, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin & Kelly Price
Why it saved 2016: Kanye’s year had some highs and lows to say the least, from the release of The Life of Pablo to his recent hospitalization. And while “Ultralight Beam” certainly wasn’t the 39-year-old rapper’s most “Famous” song of the year (sorry, Taylor Swift), we chose it because it shows a side of the rapper that a lot of people don’t see, given the lightning rod for controversy Kanye has become. If “Famous” is Kanye at his Yeeziest, “Ultralight Beam” shows him at his quietest, most genuine, and deeply caring of the art he puts out to the world. Despite his flaws, many of us who do “love Kanye” love him because we know he’s capable of songs like this.
MORE: Beyonce’s 17 Biggest Moments of 2016: Grammy Noms, the Super Bowl, and a Little Album Called ‘Lemonade’
5. Chance the Rapper – “Summer Friends”
Why it saved 2016: Speaking of “Ultralight Beam,” the song features an unbelievably good verse from Chance the Rapper, and turned into the preamble for his third mixtape Coloring Book, a gripping GRAMMY- nominated third effort for the indie artist, who never failed to find the light in a year that felt so, so, dark to many of us. “Summer Friends” is a perfect encapsulation of how good listening to the album feels. It’s no wonder why the Obamas invited the 23-year-old to perform at the White House.
6. Alicia Keys – “Holy War”
Why it saved 2016: After the 2016 election results left so many divided, Keys’ soulful ballad — released in the days before — provided us all the healing we didn’t know we would need.
7. Frank Ocean – “Nikes” (WARNING: NSFW video).
Why it saved 2016: He made us wait, and then he made us wait longer. But when he finally delivered, Frank’s groundbreaking Blonde became an instant contender for the year’s best album (certainly, to Kanye it is), kicked off by the all the curious, pitched up feelings on “Nikes.” Frank Ocean “saw the future first,” and it was worth the wait
8. Stranger Things, Vol. 1 – “Kids”
Why it saved 2016: Netflix’s Stranger Things won us over this summer with its reminiscent (but not derivative) feeling, all-star performances (including maybe the most talented kid actors…. ever?), and unbelievably good background music, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The ‘80s-tinged arrangements set the perfect tone for the show, and this track the perfect thing to throw on if you ever feel like getting trapped in the Upside Down.
9. Calvin Harris – “This Is What You Came For” feat. Rihanna
Why it saved 2016: Never mind that this was the second major pop hit involving a narrative Taylor Swift could not be excluded from, “This Is What You Came For” is impossibly catchy on the strength of a characteristically terrific performance from Rihanna. Calvin and Taylor’s romance may not have survived 2016, but this song will help our hearts carry on through.
10. Major Lazer – “Cold Water” feat. Justin Bieber & MØ
Why it saved 2016: After going through something of a renaissance with Purpose, which earned Bieber his first “Album of the Year” nod from the GRAMMYs, the singer put on quite the show in his collaboration with Major Lazer. It’s just a great trarck. And in a year where many of us could “feel ourselves sinking,” there’s something reassuring about hearing Bieber sing that he’ll jump in after us, no matter how cold the water may be.
11. The Weeknd – “Starboy” feat. Daft Punk
Why it saved 2016: If Beauty Behind the Madness found the Weeknd taking his dark, moody Trilogy melodies to new heights, Starboy finds the singer fully embracing his place in the upper echelon of pop music.
12. The Chainsmokers – “Closer” feat. Halsey
Why it saved 2016: We still don’t really get the deal with the mattress or the roommate in Boulder, but this song plus “Don’t Let Me Down” pretty much won the Chainsmokers 2016 (both songs are currently north of 600 million plays on Spotify), so you can’t really NOT include them on an end of year list like this.
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Store”
Why it saved 2016: Perhaps sagely sensing that we collectively still had some major feelings to work out, Carly dropped Emotion: Side B in 2016, featuring the infectious melody on “Store,” a song that reminds you that sometimes, all you need is to take a deep breath, and go to the store.
14. Drake – “One Dance” feat. Kyla & Wizkid
Why it saved 2016: You don’t become the most streamed song (ever!) on Spotify for no reason. Drake is a great rapper, and also has a knack for earworm-y pop hooks that you just want to play over and over. He did it with “Hotline Bling,” and somehow topped it with this VIEWS single. He may have once proclaimed to have “started from the bottom,” but with “One Dance,” the rapper is undeniably one of the biggest artists in the world.
15. The Hamilton Mixtape (Various Artists)
Why it saved 2016: While we still haven’t gotten tickets, many of us were dazzled in droves by the inventive, riveting compositions from the Original Broadway Recording last year. So, when the mixtape dropped, featuring some of the musical’s most popular tracks performed by powerhouse artists like The Roots, John Legend, Alicia Keys and more (there’s seriously too many to list), it was like Lin-Manuel Miranda gave us Christmas early. Alexander Hamilton may never be satisfied, but we certainly were!
16. Childish Gambino – “California”
Why it saved 2016: Alright, so a safer choice would have been “Redbone,” given that this track has people pretty divided, but on an album that was a complete left turn for the multi-talented performer, “California” was by far the leftest, and it completely won us over. With his acclaimed FX series Atlanta and bold, funkadelic release Awaken, My Love!, Donald Glover has reminded us to never stop pushing our creative boundaries, and that’s something worth dancing to when the ball drops.
So many more great songs could be included, but we’ve got a year to end here.
What songs saved your 2016? Check out some of ETonline’s favorite jams below, and let us know what we missed at @etnow!