No introduction necessary, you know what we’re doing.
5. Rihanna – “Needed Me” (#13)
Rihanna’s secret is that under her famous “IDGAF” persona, she actually does give a fuck, but albeit a fuck that is deployed very selectively. “Needed Me” is the moment she finally gives one; it’s the fuck that comes after she’s quietly watched your every move, counted your every pace, and knows exactly how to stop you dead. The song’s been out since January, and it still wows with what a thorough dissection it is of the dude who thought he was playing Rihanna. She just takes him apart limb from limb, and it’s great: you were just some guy on the list, you were only good for the hookup, and fuck your white knight bullshit; you’re the one who needs her. That all this happens on a song with a standout Rihanna vocal and a DJ Mustard beat colder than this polar vortex is just icing on the cake. “Needed Me” has a loud and clear message: if you fuck with Rihanna, you hurt yourself.
4. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane – “Black Beatles” (#UNRANKED, WHAT?)
HERE’S OUR RULE BREAKER. “Black Beatles” didn’t make the year-end Hot 100, thus disqualifying it from my list, but I’m saying to hell with my rule because Billboard’s ruling on the matter is fucking stupid. As I write this, “Black Beatles” is in its fifth week at number one on the charts. Let me underline that: “Black Beatles” has been the biggest song in the country for more than a month, and still missed the year-end because of when the charts are called for the year. Just speaking logically, you cannot be the biggest of something for almost 10% of the time, and stay losing to competition that peaked as Halloween ’15’s last minute costume. That’s the rules’ fault.
I will gladly break the rules for “Black Beatles,” too. This might be Mike WiLL Made-It’s best ever production: a take on Atlanta trap that’s as melodic as it is massive with a surprisingly emotive synth interwoven between skittering drums and divebombing bass, and it provides the necessary room for Sway Lee, Gucci, and Slim Jxmmi’s distinct verses. Sway is nimble, sing-y, and bounces between hedonist and melancholy; Gucci’s here in Atlanta elder statesman mode for the cool; and Slim Jxmmi counters both of them with his bellicose boasting. All four guys involved with this song bring their best, and “Black Beatles” was already one of my songs of the year before it made the charts.
Not that it’s really essential–I’d put the odds that Rae Sremmurd came up with the concept of “Black Beatles” because it sounded like some cool shit to say at about 65%–but I do get Beatles vibes here. There aren’t any superficial comparisons, sure, but “Black Beatles” totally nails the strung out, emotionally frayed, melted “I haven’t lived a normal day in years” psyche that ran rampant on the Fab Four’s The White Album. Sway Lee’s disconnected lines have the same fractured twist of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” while Slim Jxmmi bellowing “I HAD HATERS WHEN I WAS BROKE/I’M RICH I STILL GOT HATERS” isn’t so far from McCartney’s “I’M COMING DOWN FAST BUT DON’T LET ME BREAK YOU” on “Helter Skelter.” “Black Beatles” sounds as art-damaged as the group did in their later days, which is more true to the Beatles than a “Hard Day’s Night” sample any time.
3. Ariana Grande – “Into You” (#51)
Can a track by one of our most mainstream contemporary artists and produced by the insider Swedish pop god be considered a cult classic? Because “Into You” seems destined to live on only with pop music obsessives despite being designed to be as big a hit as possible. Really, “Into You” is structured to always keep its momentum going forward with verses that build gracefully into blockbuster choruses, and it’s vocally right down the middle for Grande’s multi-octave voice. She sounds great, and Max Martin brings his nicest sounding robo-disco synths and drum machines for the hook; “Into You” is nearly the platonic ideal for the industry-approved Swedish pop jams we’ve had since the turn of the century.
The only reason I could see for why “Into You” didn’t go further (it stalled out at #13, which is weird considering how long we held onto like, “One Dance”) is that it isn’t “Into You” isn’t very–God, I can’t believe this is an actual metric necessary for success; 2016 sucks so hard–meme friendly. Like, Grande’s “Side to Side” has become something of a sleeper hit, and it’s hard to argue that “dick bicycle” didn’t help keep it in public consciousness at least a little. “Into You” is woefully lacking on the dick bicycle front, and has to settle on being killer pop music instead.
2. Zara Larsson & MNEK – “Never Forget You” (#46)
If “Into You” represents Swedish-written pop music of the past, then Zara Larson and MNEK’s “Never Forget You” represents Swedish-written pop music going forward. It’s still based in dance pop and precise, almost numeric melodies, but adds breaks and touches of tropical house to compete in a post-EDM world. Another key difference is that a song like “Into You” is meant to sweep you up, whereas “Never Forget You” is overwhelming by design. The song runs through its rise and fall verses right into a building chorus, which then drops into a break reminiscent of “Where Are U Now?” but faster, and then does a rinse/repeat with MNEK joining Larsson on vocals. Throw in another charging chorus with extra percussion and a final break where Larsson and MNEK trade off on vocal runs, and “Never Forget You” ends with all the elation of running a marathon. It’s a lot, but “Never Forget You” wouldn’t be as satisfying if it backed off any. Sometimes, you just have to let a song run away with you.
1. Beyonce – “Sorry” (#71)
It wouldn’t be an end of the year list if Beyonce didn’t top something. That’s not to say that “Sorry” was a preordained number one here, but even against the competition, it’s just that good. I’ve written before about “Sorry” as the best representation of Lemonade‘s ethos, and a smooth blending of electropop, R&B, and hip-hop, and I still stand by that; if you can only play someone one song from the album, I’d go with this over “Formation.” As for the charts, what makes “Sorry” stand out is how un-loud it is: it’s not unassuming or quiet exactly, but it isn’t trying to wrestle your attention to it with both hands or pummel you with its hooks. Instead, it has some empathy with its listeners who might be going through some shit, and implores you to “Tell’em boy, bye” in defiant celebration. “Sorry” is inviting in large parts, which only makes its falling in slow motion end even more affecting. So for nailing its emotional high-wire and the sound of like, 4 different radio trends, “Sorry” is our best hit song of 2016.
That’s it for the hits! Come back tomorrow for my 50 favorite songs and the 5 most under/overrated albums of the year!
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