Hello, and welcome to day 4 of Listmas! We’ve looked at my favorite albums, the worst hits of the year, and now it’s time to look at what gifts were on the charts. And 2016 didn’t lack for solid pop, in fact, I had to make more than a few heartbreaking cuts to keep this list to an earnest 10. There will be more of an in-depth breakdown of what the best and worst lists meant for the state of pop this year on Tuesday, but for now, here are the names and writeups. And the rules again as a reminder.
- Songs have to make Billboard’s End of the Year list to be eligible (this rule gets super broken tomorrow)
- It has to have peaked this year because forget what you heard about leftovers.
- It can’t have been on my best or worst hits list of last year, because why cheat like that?
Honorable Mention to the Honorable Mention: Desiigner – “Tiimmy Turner” (#98) (XXL Freestyle version)
Desiigner’s a weird kid who isn’t really there yet as an artist, and you can heard this when he tries to flip maybe a minute’s worth of material into 4. But the original “Tiimmy Turner,” a brief melodic verse over fingersnaps that skips from a Nickelodeon character to BET to some version of hell in 30 seconds, is oddly transfixing.
11. Honorable Mention: Adele – “When We Were Young” (#83)
Adele’s 25 felt invisible, or as invisible as possible while still selling more records than everyone else. The album’s biggest hit remains “Hello,” (which made last year’s list) and its longest running hit was its most irritating song, but between those two is the lovely “When We Were Young.” The sepia-tinged warmth of “When We Were Young” isn’t going to surprise anyone whose heard an Adele song before, but where it really wows is in the soaring pre-chorus, where Adele swells as she sings “You look like a movie/You sound like a song/My God this reminds me/Of when we were young” with her trademark glow. She truly sounds like she’s yearning for the impossible past, with a hint of astonished joy on “My God this reminds me” that finding that feeling again might just happen. The chorus doesn’t quite match the build-up, which holds “When We Were Young” back despite its nice arranging, but still, this is one to listen to from 25, and a nice reminder that “When You Were Young” is still great 10 years later.
10. DNCE – “Cake By the Ocean” (#18)
Similarly, pop group DNCE’s “Cake By the Ocean” is elevated by a moment of inspiration. For its first verse and chorus, “Cake By the Ocean” glides along as a tightly-wound dance track with no trace amount of Gorillaz in its DNA, but the second verse has this extra funk guitar come crashing in that adds some extra hip sway. On later listens, you hear that guitar tucked away in the hook, but it’s a satisfying extra kick every time it breaks into the verse. It’s a nice human touch; Maroon 5 wouldn’t have thought of that shit back when they were still a real band. And “Cake By the Ocean” is already capable without it as a glistening dance jam that embraces its himbo nature with Joe Jonas’ sighing vocals and sexy dancefloor dude falsetto. That “Cake By the Ocean” gets its name from what the band’s Swedish producers would mistakenly call Sex On The Beach says everything you need to know: this song’s a sugar rush of dumb dancefloor fun in the best way.
9. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk – “Starboy” (#58)
I bagged on The Weeknd a a bit ago for refusing to move out of his lane, but the counter to my argument is that sometimes, Abel Tesfaye really knows how to make that lane pop. “Starboy” marks one of the relatively few times on the album of the same name that Tesfaye sounds inspired, and here, you can see him strike back against his own fame. After radio-friendly singles “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night,” and even “The Hills,” “Starboy” is downright cold. With its pulsating bass and spaceship drums (care of Daft Punk themselves) and with flourishes like the flute on the chorus and sleek piano throughout, “Starboy” sounds like the millions and millions of dollars Tesfaye boasts about spending. And not only is Tesfaye spending all this money, he’s very quick to point out that you aren’t. You aren’t the one buying cars just to fuck with someone else, you aren’t the one pulling hot women, you aren’t the one doing grade-A blow while feeling like shit in a lavish house: he is. And you’re the one who made him famous, so what the fuck did you expect? The Weeknd often shoots for dark and vicious and misses the mark, but the well-heeled villainy on “Starboy?” He’s earned it.
8. Drake feat. Rihanna – “Too Good” (#29)
I think Drake might actually love Rihanna.
Not just because, y’know, real life, but because he’s on his best behavior when she’s on his songs; first “Take Care,” now “Too Good.” Buried entirely too fucking far back on VIEWS, “Too Good” casts Drake and Riri as failing lovers who both air brutally honest and totally believable grievances over the album’s best fake-dancehall beat (apologies to “Controlla” and “One Dance”). Most pop duets honestly oversell romantic drama with lyrics about being torn apart and slipping away–we saw one yesterday–but “I don’t know how to talk to you”? That hurts. And almost nothing hits back at all of Drake’s passive-aggressive deep sighs like Rihanna singing “Lately you just make me work too hard for you,” like he ain’t shit; this needed to be a duet to work. Hell, “Too Good” even softens Drake’s wince-inducing fake patois by sampling the Popcaan song he references. And I like that it ends unresolved: the last line the pair sings before that Popcaan sample fades everything out is “You take my love for granted/I just don’t understand it.“ They really don’t know how to talk to each other.
7. Major Lazer feat. Justin Bieber and MØ – “Cold Water” (#25)
“Cold Water” is like the infinite crisis crossover event of tropical house pop-EDM. It’s got Diplo, Bieber, and MØ (pronounced “Mer” if you were wondering like I was), and industry types Benny Blanco and Jamie Scott on it, too. Ed Sheeran helped write it. With this many hands on deck, “Cold Water” should flounder, but everything about it comes together like a well-mixed summer cocktail. Bieber carries it well vocally, MØ’s end-piece is lovely, the low-end thump and fuzzed out synths of the drop find a nice groove, and the overall song’s well-constructed; you never feel like the verses or bridge are there just to pad out the run time. I was super skeptical of “Cold Water” when it was announced since it seemed like a way to cash-in on the public’s love of “Lean On” and “Where Are U Now?” but then I heard it and was surprised at just how well it’s put together. “Cold Water” is so good any “Bieber does tropical house” song after it sound inert, which is really bad news for DJ Snake.
6. DJ Snake feat. Bipolar Sunshine – “Middle” (#80)
The good news for DJ Snake is that he has “Middle” with Bipolar Sunshine. DJ Snake honestly might be heading into “underrated” territory: he already felt like Diplo’s second banana even while quietly stealing the show on “Lean On,” and his status feels like it slid again with the rise of The Chainsmokers. He’s written off as the “Turn Down For What” guy, but with “Middle,” he has a break as pretty as “Closer”‘s but done by someone who understands what groove and bass actually are. You can dance your ass off to this thing. But British singer Bipolar Sunshine is who takes “Middle” over the edge–while most singers go for cool detachment on these kinds of house bangers, he’s fully engaged and expressive, so much so that you’re almost sad he doesn’t get to sing more on “Middle.” I know there are tons of pop-EDM tracks out there, but this one deserved to be bigger.
Alright, go enjoy your night, we end this list tomorrow!
12/14: Favorite Albums
12/15: Worst Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/16: Worst Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/17: Best Hits of the Year (10-6)
12/18: Best Hits of the Year (5-1)
12/19: The Gibby 50 and Over/Underrated Albums
12/20: The Year in Rant: Odds and Ends