Overall, 2016 was quite a bummer of a year, with heartbreaking, stupid, jaw-dropping moments: the deaths of way too many beloved celebrities, hate speech during the rise of a divisive presidency, a deepening divide between the two major political parties, an unprecedented activation of the race wars, cops versus the black community, the continued increase of ISIS terrorism overseas, tons of hacks and viruses, Kanye’s breakdown… Enough.
It seemed like the year would never end. But alas, it wil endl in 24 hours. Despite the hardships, EDM house music saved 2016 from total ruin, making everything worthwhile.
Interestingly, instead of one superstar dominating the airwaves with that one earworm, 2016 ushered in a quiet revolution of true artists discovering the power of music and rediscovering the power of their own original voices, unadulterated by the superficial or the bottom line. They also managed to tap into everyone else’s internalized dialogue in these turbulent times with some very dope tunes.
You won’t see Beyoncé, Adele, or even Taylor Swift (maybe) on this Top 5 list. Too mainstream for the cool kids.
The top five pop hits of 2016, plus a bonus rap track, came from the most unlikely saviors, elevated and redeemed by some seriously respected music stylists. They include the four-time Grammy-nominated Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and the Chainsmokers, up for “Best New Artist” and “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance,” for that soundtrack, “Closer,” featuring Halsey.
These artists made the death march of 2016 just a little easier to bear.
Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You” and “Cold Water”: Bieber just might sweep the Grammys in Feb. with his multi-hit album, Purpose, and deservedly so. Bieber’s collaborative album earned four nominations, including “Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year” for “Love Yourself.” He worked with powerhouse producers DJ Snake (“Let Me Love You”) and Major Lazer (“Cold Water”) to improve his teeny bopper-turned-celebrity-punk image on these soul-baring tracks. Together with Skrillex, and other powerhouse producers, the Bieber team infused a tremendous amount of style and substance in his fourth studio album from Def Jam Recordings and School Boy Records. But credit goes to Bieber himself for delving deeper into his character for this new, mature, thoughtful sound that ventured into R&B/EDM territory. Most of all, these songs reveal a gifted artist at heart who is willing to drop the façade, strip down to the core, and get real.
“Let Me Love You” is Bieber, stripped down, far from the Hollywood scene, open and vulnerable. The pulsating hook of that EDM music cutting underneath could come from any car stereo of any ride-or-die late night out. The lyrics naturally flow from authentic self-reflection.
“Cold Water” is less internalized, slightly less musical, but still groove-worthy, banking off that bulbous bass hook and the constant tease of a full-blown Flamenco gypsy guitar arrangement riding side by side with Bieber’s earnest, yet chill mantra. It’s way better than the empty grasping wannabe Shawn Mendes does on “Treat You Better.”
Calvin Harris’ “This Is What You Came For,” featuring Rihanna: Cable users searching for missed shows on On Demand may have heard this catchy dance hit vocalized coolly from Rihanna. (She does everything cool, man.) Winner of two MTV Video Music Awards, Harris is a Scottish DJ, songwriter, record producer, singer, and hip stylist who — with, surprise!, Taylor Swift — used a dreamy, lyrical heartbeat of a hook to dress up Rihanna’s simple but poetic one-liner. “Lightning strikes every time she moves” has got to be the ultimate in lyrics. Usually, songs that go on repeat — the KC & The Sunshine Band syndrome — tend to fall flat, lacking imagination. Not this one. Harris and Rihanna groove off subtle shifts in tension to keep you hooked on what is essentially one word headed toward some subliminal climax. Harris captures the searching, hunkering down vibe of 2016 and Rihanna’s dance goddess persona in one hypnotic trance.
The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” featuring Halsey: Another multiple Grammy nominee, the YouTube “#Selfie” dance sensation of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall became this year’s biggest pop sensation. But, according to last night’s “Nightline” segment, “Smoking Hot,” they’re just normal, hardworking guys who get to play music they like and use social media to share that music (a new song dropped today). What they like, we like, because everything since “#Selfie” has stolen our hearts. Usually fronted by female vocalists, The Chainsmokers prefer to work behind the scenes to manipulate real instruments on computers to get a vibe for some crazy, infectious sounds, and some amazingly rhythmic phrasing found only in jazz circles. These ordinary guys can take a few ordinary lines and make entire mind-boggling soundtracks out of them. “Closer” caught everyone off-guard, boasting almost a billion views on YouTube.
The Weeknd’s “Starboy,” featuring Daft Punk: The lyrics don’t make sense. “House so empty, need a centerpiece | Twenty racks a table cut from ebony | Cut that ivory into skinny pieces…” But the Weeknd, aka Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, makes the fast-paced, hustling song sound good somehow. Produced with French EDM duo Daft Punk, a known hit maker, “Starboy” borrows from a lot of different vibes, including a rhythmic, 2013 throwback to Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” His previous hit, “Can’t Feel My Face,” is proof this Canadian artist can repackage existing rhythms and his patented adult lyrics into fresh PG-rated beats.
YG & Nipsey Hussle’s "FDT (F*ck Donald Trump)": A runner-up, bonus track in the Top 5, the popular vote got down with this hardcore hip-hop social statement against President-Elect Donald Trump. Less about melody and dance, and more about freedom of expression, the rap-heavy track refused to flinch from some hard truths, encased in raw poetry and in-your-face attitudes for the ultimate street music. As upsetting as the lyrics are, the chorus is quite catchy, so catchy G-Eazy and Macklemore got into the act with their own version. Predictably, the rap song incited calls for censorship, even involving the Secret Service and the LAPD, which shut down a planned anti-Trump rally/video shoot last spring. "Secret Service hollered at the [Def Jam] label. They asked if they could see the lyrics on my album to see if I'm talking about it on my album. 'Cause I'm talking about it on my album, they gon' try to take it off the shelf," YG told TMZ on April 25, 2016. But the song united two of the biggest gang rivals in L.A., the Bloods and the Cripps, and got everyone talking.
Always challenge yourself pic.twitter.com/uJD7v6BgF1— THE CHAINSMOKERS (@TheChainsmokers) December 26, 2016
For your consideration... pic.twitter.com/AZB4DbSOhd— SB Projects (@SB_Projects) December 26, 2016