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An Open Investigation: Why Was 2016 Music So Good?

Niamh Dillon | 29 June, 2022

My friend sent me a playlist the other day dubbed “2016 type s***.” We were both 16 turning 17 in 2016. It was our junior year spring semester, summer break, and senior year winter semester. There was an end in sight for the high school nonsense. So, was this music really that good, or did this music just come out when we were having some good times? Or, were we just young and naïve?

Well, let's look at the top 20 of Billboards Hot 100 of 2016 for some better insight.

Let's then rule out some outliers and point out some obvious stars from this glimpse of the chart.

Outliers: Desiinger, Lukas Graham, and (up for debate) G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha

Stars: Justin Bieber, Adele, Drake, Rihanna, twenty one pilots, and Calvin Harris

I know my choices for those two categories may seem a bit controversial at first glance but hear me out:

  • Lukas Graham and Desiigner have not made a chart-topping hit since, along with G-Eazy.

  • G-Eazy has a weak fan base and a controversial reputation.

  • Drake rules the charts upon any release of a single or album.

  • Rihanna has a chokehold on pop culture

  • Any influence of another genre adds to pop music's acceptability and credibility, making twenty one pilots and Calvin Harris stars.

  • Finally, Bieber is Bieber.

Let's talk about some of these stars, consistencies, and phenomenons we see in pop music that made 2016 music particularly impressive—beginning with the infusion of genres.

Infusing Genres

2016 was a pivotal time for EDM and the closing scene for alternative punk music (until its recent revival thanks to Machine Gun Kelly). Artists like Calvin Harris, The Chainsmokers, and twenty one pilots were the leaders of blending other genres with pop at the time. This changed the music landscape for 2016.

So, EDM. Rave culture had been going on for years but began to popularize in the mainstream throughout the 2010s. Specifically, I believe that EDM began to take modern day form around 2016 and 2017. The Chainsmokers were dropping hit after hit: "Roses", "Don't Let Me Down" featuring Daya, and of course, "Closer" featuring Halsey. I remember "Closer" really having a chokehold on me during 2016. It was fun, it was pop, and it was different.

Along with The Chainsmokers was Calvin Harris. He had been in the pop electronic dance space since 2011 with "Feel So Close", so why was 2016 any different? I'll tell you why. His career in 2016 was different for two reasons: pop EDM was popular, and he had just dated Taylor Swift. Now, I am not accrediting Taylor Swift with the success of his music. However, I will say, the relationship helped launch Harris into becoming a household name, and overall just more popular. With more people in the same genre as him, his increase in popularity, and an essential collaboration with Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For”. This song became a summer anthem in 2016, it now has 1.2 billion streams on Spotify alone. His work in 2016 made him a key player in 2016 music and in electronic pop today.

Now, here comes every Tumblr kid's favorite band at the time twenty one pilots. They were edgy, they were weird, and they were just what we needed in 2016. They gave alternative punk rock and alternative people a place in pop music. We haven't seen much out of twenty one pilots since 2016 “on the mainstream level”. So, I think similarly to Rihanna, we look back at 2016 music with fondness because we miss the sound they offered. We have not heard anything like twenty one pilots since they faded from the limelight. They gave such a contrast to pop music at the time because their approach to music was quite opposite of the dance-y R&B pop and the fun and young EDM pop we were used to hearing. They were mysterious, sang about darker themes, and used different instrumental elements than all other top musicians at the time. Without songs like "Stressed Out" and "Heathans", 2016 music would have much less dimension.

I would also like to note that twenty one pilots have come out with new music since 2016. It is just that it did not land as well as it did in 2016, so we don't hear about them as much as we used to. I think that speaks to the concept of time pieces and the importance of acknowledging and leaving art in its time. I'm not saying that 2016 was the only time for twenty one pilots to thrive on the pop charts, but I am saying they filled a void in the music landscape at the time which is why they were so impactful.

This case is still open…

But we’ve only scratched the surface of what made 2016 music great. We still have more to discuss the importance in the music and the stars that made 2016 so iconic. Moreover, we still need to talk way more about Rihanna and her impact.


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