Youth Culture Window

The No. 1 Songs of 2016

Dynamic ImageBreak ups and hook ups. Drugs and alcohol. Musical legends and unknown newbies. 2016’s most popular songs were marked by tremendous diversity in theme, genre, and artists.

But when the music ended, what did our kids really hear?

Rhythmic Influence
Today’s music dictates so much about young people’s lives. It affects fashion, relationships, politics, emotions, self-perceptions, and much more. In a sense, music is becoming “influence with a beat.” And if today’s music impacts a young person’s values, morals, or practices, what will that mean for their future?

For quite some time, we at The Source for Youth Ministry and The Source for Parents have tried to answer that question by recapping the year’s most popular songs (here is last year’s recap). We examine the No. 1 songs (as ranked on Billboard’s Hot 100) by taking a look at lyrics, videos, and even the artists themselves. This article will highlight the eleven songs that rose all the way to the top of the charts in 2016. We’ll share lyrical excerpts, some links to online videos, and a brief discussion of the song’s meaning to help you understand what elements were imparted to teenagers through the music.

As often as we can, we’ll also link free resources (such as our MUSIC DISCUSSIONS for youth workersand for parents) that help adults have conversations with kids about today’s music, and more importantly, its messages. We’ll even share a few simple tips at the end of our article that will help parents and youth workers learn how to screen music and start dialogue about today’s most popular songs.

Here are 2016’s No. 1 songs in chronological order.

Hello (Adele)
Before 2016 even began, Adele took the No. 1 spot with Hello on November 14, 2015, and the song didn’t get knocked out of the lead until mid January.

The song immediately broke records, her music videobeating Taylor Swift for the most views in 24 hours, and then the song selling 1 million downloads in a weekHellowas on fire (yes, even in the rain).

It’s clear. The world loves her music.

But why does her music resonate with people so much?

Adele sings about pain and regret, and let’s be honest, everyone knows what that feels like. This song is no exception. Hello is sung from the heart, looking back after a breakup and wishing things were different; but apparently, the feelings aren’t mutual and the efforts aren’t reciprocated. Of course, Adele says it a little better than that:

So hello from the other side
I must have called a thousand times
To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done
But when I call you never seem to be home
Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart
But it don’t matter it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore

Knowing the song’s impact, we wrote a music discussion for youth workers about Hello (and one for parents as well), using it as an opportunity to talk with young people about reconciliation.

But Adele wasn’t the only one saying “sorry” in 2016…

Sorry (Justin Bieber)
Sorry didn’t have a long reign in the number one spot, but its popularity was undeniable.

The music video alone garnered 2 billion views on YouTube. Yeah… that wasn’t a typo. Two “billion.” The video is three minutes and 25 seconds of girls dancing in front of a plain white background. Did I mention the video has been viewed by two billion?!!

Here’s a snippet of the lyrics:

I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice
And by once or twice I mean maybe a couple of hundred times
So let me, oh, let me redeem, oh, redeem, oh, myself tonight
‘Cause I just need one more shot, second chances
Is it too late now to say sorry?
‘Cause I’m missing more than just your body
The positive message is Justin’s willingness to admit he’s made mistakes and his desire for reconciliation. The singer seems to yearn for more than just “her body” and wants to give things a second chance. This could stimulate some engaging discussion with a generation of young people who are rarely equipped with any kind of conflict resolution.

The negative in this is the subtle message that people in relationships are sexually active. In today’s entertainment media, if you’re in a relationship—you’re sleeping together. Period.

If I were talking with a young person about this song, I would try to focus on the positive and strive for some engaging discussion about conflict resolution and the importance of saying sorry. I’d probably save the sex discussion for a later time, simply because sex is so prominent on our culture, we would have to have that discussion 17 times a day if we addressed it every time we encounter it in entertainment media (and this list of songs will actually provide multiple opportunities to do just that).

Justin’s Sorry stayed on top of the chart for three weeks before being replaced… by his own song!

Love Yourself (Justin Bieber)
Just when we were excited with Justin’s willingness to reconcile… apparently the negotiations didn’t take. Because Love Yourself is a breakup song. No forgiveness or regret, just “bye-bye!”

Here’s a glimpse:

My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone
And I never like to admit that I was wrong
And I’ve been so caught up in my job,
Didn’t see what’s going on
But now I know,
I’m better sleeping on my own

So much for reconciliation.

And yes… again… they were sleeping together.

We used this song to provoke meaningful conversation about “true love” in a music discussion both on our parents web site and our youth ministry web site.

Love Yourself stayed No. 1 for one week before this next song, then it resurfaced to No. 1 for just one more week. Two weeks total.

Pillowtalk (Zayn)
So, what happens when you part ways with an internationally-renowned boy band and try to go it alone? Well, if you’re Zayn Malik, you get your very first No. 1 hit.

And this one isn’t subtle about sex.

On none other than Valentine’s Day, former One Direction hottie, Zayn, had his song Pillowtalk capture the top spot on Billboard’s chart. Given the title of the song, you might expect something sweet, something gentle, or something romantic. That’s not exactly the case. Zayn describes bedroom exchanges with his significant other in fairly “raw” terms.

A place that is so pure, so dirty and raw
In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day
F***ing in and fighting on
It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone
It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone
Pillow talk
My enemy, my ally
Then we’re free, it’s a thin line

According to him, sexual expression is “pure” but also “dirty” and “raw.” It’s both a “paradise” and a “war zone.” He doesn’t see a conflict there, believe it or not. In fact, during a radio interview, the 23-year-old artist talked about the meaning of his song this way:

“The actual intent of the song is even though you have great times in a relationship, you have really bad times as well but that’s what makes it worthwhile because you learn things and you go through experiences that bring you closer together.”

At least 650 million people agree with him. That’s how many times his music video for the song has been viewed on YouTube.

Pillowtalk only stayed at the top for one week before being overtaken when Bieber’s Love Yourselfmade a resurgence. Then both of them faded into the background when Rihanna went to “work.”

Work (Rihanna featuring Drake)
Work hit No. 1 on February 28 and rode the top for nine weeks, almost into May.

Rihanna is no stranger to the top of the charts. She’s had 14 No. 1’s (only outdone by Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles) and is almost perpetually in the top 40. Rihanna is also no stranger to being overtly sexual and raunchy. With songs like BBHMM (with an even more controversial music video) and Birthday Cake (don’t look up what that one’s about), or Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s obvious Rihanna isn’t shy about using sex and controversy as a commodity.

There’s some debate as to the meaning of the song, probably because the lyrics are confusing. Not just vague… literally intermixing a different language. If you listen to the song, this is what you’ll hear:

Work, work, work, work, work, work
He said me haffi
Work, work, work, work, work, work!
He see me do mi
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!
So me put in
Work, work, work, work, work, work
When you ah guh
Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Meh nuh cyar if him
Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting…

Some have made efforts to translate parts:

Work, work, work, work, work, work
He say me have to
Work, work, work, work, work, work!
He see me do me
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!
So me put in
Work, work, work, work, work, work
When you all gon’?
Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Me no care if him
Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting

A translator might be exactly what you need. Because Rihanna is using the Jamaican dialect Patois throughout, where the word “work” can mean either “work” or “sex.”

But I’m sure Riahanna would never hint towards sex as being a key part of a relationship.

Rihanna tries to clarify a little about the song in her Vogue cover article:

“You get what I’m saying, but it’s not all the way perfect, because that’s how we speak in the Caribbean.”

Rihanna goes on to praise Drake in the article. Drake joins her in the song and explicit video, grinding her from behind while she jerks and twerks… dance moves not in any way unfamiliar to any of us who have chaperoned a high school dance and wondered, “Where did they learn those moves?”

Work eventually faded, and another song rose to the top… or did it sink to the bottom?

Panda (Desiigner)
For two weeks this year, the top song in the nation was a tune that included repeated references to drug use, objectification of females, racial slurs, and an endless supply of expletives and self-aggrandizement. Of course, we’re talking about Panda, a hip hop song by Brooklyn-based rapper, Desiigner.

On April 31st, Panda climbed to the top of the charts…bringing music to an all-new low. The song gets its title from the fact that BMW’s luxury car known as the X6 resembles a panda with its black and white design. Deep stuff, right?

What is the source for such profound inspiration? According to the artist, the violent and racy video game series known as Grand Theft Auto. Here’s how Desiigner came up with the lyrics for his very first #1 song. “It was inspired by GTA. I’m in the crib. I got the beat from one of my dudes. He said ‘whip it up.’ Gave it to me, whipped it up and I was thinking of Grand Theft Auto. I had just seen the Panda emoji. My mind was thinking about all these things throughout the week. It happened like that. I was thinking about Fast and Furious, racing. And I saw the white X6 outside.”

The song’s lyrics and accompanying music video are so vulgar we’re not going to link them here. Sadly, in spite of the “adult” themes mentioned above, the song still received nominations at the Teen Choice Awards show earlier this year. Like the animal it was named for, the song was put on the endangered species list after just two weeks…and finally killed off on May 14th by another hip hop icon.

One Dance (Drake featuring Wizkid and Kyla)
Believe it or not, One Dance is Drake’s very first No. 1 song.

Yes, Drake had been very near the top in the past, namely with songs like Best I Ever Had and Hotline Bling, both of which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s charts. And yes, he’d even found his name in the very top spot in the past with songs like Work that we just discussed above…but always as the “featured artist.” All that changed when he collaborated with Nigerian singer Wizkid and English songstress Kyla on One Dance proving he’s more than just a capable sidekick.

So, what about this song’s message makes it worthy of being called No. 1?

Well, it’s not exactly clear. In the lyrics, Drake seems to be talking about a relationship with someone in particular (Rihanna?). But he discusses dancing and drinking alcohol on a frequent basis, as well. The song’s official music video doesn’t shed much light beyond that. Maybe it’s the “afrobeat” elements (to quote the music industry) the song incorporates that made it so popular. Or maybe it was the fusion of artists from three separate continents colliding at just the right time.

Regardless, the song spent a total of nine non-consecutive weeks at the top of the charts. It went No. 1 for a week between May 15th and May 21st. But then, it rebounded to the top after a one-week interruption by the next song on our list for eight more weeks from May 29th all the way through July 30th making it the undisputed song of the summer.

Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake)
I wish the feeling wouldn’t have stopped, but unfortunately for Justin, it did, after only one week.

The cleanest and most uplifting song of the year went No. 1 for just seven days in 2016. I’ll let you cast your own speculation as to why.

Here’s a glimpse at the lyrics:

I got that sunshine in my pocket
Got that good soul in my feet
I feel that hot blood in my body when it drops
I can’t take my eyes up off it, moving so phenomenally
Room on lock, the way we rock it, so don’t stop

The music video is actually innocent and fun…. much like the next song…

Cheap Thrills (Sia featuring Sean Paul)
There is no doubt that the “dance” genre is making a comeback in today’s music. Both Work and One Dance(above) prove that. That shouldn’t be a big surprise given that dancing is one of the most basic purposes of music.

If any artist on our list knows that, it’s Sia Kate Isobelle Furler, an Australian-born singer who has the distinction of being the oldest performer to make it to No. 1 this year. At 41, Sia’s been making music across three decades and landed in the top spot with Cheap Thrills, a catchy song about dancing. (And to think, Rihanna had first shot at this song.)

While collaborating with Jamaican rapper Sean Paul, Sia talks about going dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. Her lyrics are pretty straightforward:

Hit the dancefloor hit the dancefloor
I got all I need no I ain’t got cash
I ain’t got cash but I got you baby
Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight (I love cheap thrills!)
Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight (I love cheap thrills!)
I don’t need no money
As long as I can feel the beat
I don’t need no money
As long as I keep dancing

The remainder of the song’s lyrics are much of the same. The music video, which has been watched almost 700 million times on YouTube, is actually a black and white throwback to the bygone days of TV dance shows that featured fully clothed young people doing fairly clean dances.

In keeping with the current theme, Cheap Thrills gave Sia her first-ever No. 1 hit (excluding David Guetta’s Titanium which featured her in 2011). Cheap Thrills held the top spot for four weeks during the summer, from July 31st to August 27th. Her run at the top finally came to an end…but only by a song that was arguably the biggest of the year.

Closer (The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey)
Closer definitely wins the prize for the longest-lasting No. 1 hit of 2016, riding 12 weeks at the top, almost an entire quarter of the year. It launched at the end of the summer and lasted until the week prior to Thanksgiving.

This beguiling tune is yet another hit from an unlikely duo, the two bros who came on the scene three years ago with the hit #Selfie, and now literally live in the top 100. And trust me, many are taking note if not mimicking their electronic-dance sound.

This particular hit, a duet, featuring the vocals of Halsey, is the story of two ex lovers who happen to meet at a hotel bar and they can’t resist hooking up again…

Now you’re looking pretty in a hotel bar
And I can’t stop
No, I can’t stop
So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover
That I know you can’t afford
Bite that tattoo on your shoulder
Pull the sheets right off the corner
Of the mattress that you stole
From your roommate back in Boulder
We ain’t ever getting older

The encounter immediately gets heated (“I can’t stop, no I can’t stop”), quickly resuming in the “backseat of your Rover,” and then continues back at her place with a passionate exchange including “biting” and “pulling sheets right off the corner.” Subtle nuances in the lyrics hint that this is much more than a hookup. This guy is definitely sexually excited, but he can’t help but reminisce to a time when they were together. This is evidenced by how well he knows her, from her struggle to make a car payment to the mattress that she stole from her old roommate. The two have bonded in a way that made this connection special.

Funny how that works, huh? It’s almost as if –once you bond so intimately with someone, you’re meant to stay together.

I don’t know if the Chainsmokers know they are making a case for monogamy and the inherent human desire to bond with one person for life, but the song makes the point. Of course the pair doesn’t even know it. They can only exclaim, “We ain’t ever getting older,” a live for the moment mantra so prevalent today. If only the couple would think to the future and ask themselves, What sounds better, “We ain’t ever getting older,” or the unstated, “I could grow old with you.”

What an amazing discussion to have with this younger generation (after all, they all know the song). “What kind of relationship, and yes, even sex, is more rewarding… sex and intimacy with whoever you want… or with one person for life?” (A question I answer thoroughly and biblically in Sex Matters)

It’s intriguing how much truth can’t help but poke out in the most unlikely places in today’s entertainment media. Of course, the world tries to suppress these ideas, especially when they point to a loving Creator.

After 12 weeks and 90 million views on YouTube video, the Chainsmokers passed the baton to a newbie…

Black Beatles (Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane)
When Black Beatles reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard, it was like a musical version of déjà vu. Drug references, binge drinking, defamation of females, ubiquitous vulgarities, and vain self-promotion seemed to be on repeat.

Yep, it’s like a reincarnation of Desiigner’s Panda.

Featuring Atlanta-based rapper Gucci Mane, this foul – but highly popular – song is the brainchild of two brothers, Khalif and Aaquil Brown who go by their stage name Rae Sremmurd (which is the name of their label, EarDrummers, spelled backwards). The duo isn’t new to the music scene, but as you might have guessed, Black Beatles did give the brothers their very first #1 hit of their career.

As for meaning, the song is nothing more than the brothers boasting that they are so popular that they consider themselves the African-American version of British rock icons The Beatles. (Yep, they’re as audacious as they are tasteless.) The music video is equally unimaginative. In fact, many claim this song’s popularity was helped along by the #MannequinChallenge craze that recently swept through social media circles. Once again, we’re going to forgo linking the song’s lyrics and music video due to the completely baseless filth they contain.

In spite of the song’s genre and lyrical repetition of PandaBlack Beatles has been the #1 song in America from November 20 until this writing. Only time will tell if Black Beatles can survive the competition and remain on top at the turn of the New Year.

Let’s just hope this generation can survive while being saturated with such seductive imagery and irresponsible messages.

Pointing Them Towards Truth
There it is, the top hits of 2016. When you throw them all together, step back and take a birds eye view, it’s hard to miss two prevailing themes flowing from these charts: live for the moment, and feel regret.

Hmmmmm. It’s almost like they have a connection.

But how often do our kids actually stop and think about the media they are absorbing? And how can we, as caring adults teach them discernment and help them learn to make wise media decisions?

Let’s be honest. Some of this music was pretty raunchy, a few songs in this list – and countless other tunes from 2016 – were absolute trash. But there were some great tracks too, like Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling, or anything from 21 Pilots. Can our kids even tell the difference? How can we help them do this?

In a world so full of lies, the first thing we need to do is point our kids toward truth. Look for one-on-one opportunities where you can spend time with them talking about life and digging into God’s Word for truth. If you don’t know where to look, don’t be afraid to use discipleship resources (I list a bunch here). But don’t only spend time teaching them scripture, make sure you’re spending time in God’s word so you know and live the truth. Your kids will see this in your lives, and actions speak way louder than words.

But also keep aware of the influences that kids encounter daily. That doesn’t mean you have to start buying all of Eminem’s CDs or start downloading Rihanna, it simply means “tuning in” to what our kids are tuning in to. Here are a few very simple ways to make sure you stay “on beat” with today’s music.


  1. Harness the power of the Internet. When you come across an unknown song (or your teenager wants to download something you’re not familiar with), just do a quick Google search for the song’s lyrics. Then, in about 90 seconds, you can read exactly what’s being conveyed in the song. Next, go to YouTube and search for the song’s accompanying music video. (NOTE: Sometimes, music videos are intentionally released a little later than the song.) This additional step, which can take about 4 minutes depending on the length of the song, offers more clarity about the song’s message in case you need it.Bam! By this point, you should have almost everything you need to make a decision about a song’s appropriateness for your child. Now….
  2. Set parameters for musical choices. Without coming off as a dictator, carefully and tactfully talk with your kids about what music is good to go…and what music has to go. The best way to set these parameters is “together.” It’s a whole lot easier to “enforce” those parameters when you have your kids’ buy-in.The best way to achieve that buy-in is to ask some well-crafted questions. Here are a few to get you going, but feel free to add your own:
    • Why do you listen to music? What do you want to get out of a song?
    • Are there messages or themes in this music that violate our values or contradicts what we have been reading in God’s Word? If so, what should be done?
    • Are there elements that will get a song immediately rejected? If so, what are they?
    • What role does faith or godliness play in choosing music?
    • Should the artist’s lifestyle/actions affect whether or not we listen to his/her music? Why or why not?
  3. Take advantage of resources on the subject. Here are a few resources you can use right away to help guide your thought processes on music.

                    The Source for Youth Ministry’s MUSIC DISCUSSIONS page On this webpage, we’ve created biblical                        discussions for youth groups based on some of today’s top music. They are categorized by song title,                      topic, artist, and release date. The best part? They’re all free! Totally free!

                    The Source for Parent’s MUSIC DISCUSSIONS page This resource is identical to the webpage above                        with one distinction: we’ve personalized the resources so they can be used right inside your                                  home…with your family. Yep, they’re free, too!

                    Jonathan’s Blog. OK, this one isn’t “always” about music, but it is almost always about today’s youth                      culture and trends, so it touches on the subject  quite frequently. If you subscribe to Jonathan’s blog                      (also free), you’ll receive consistent tips and insights for parents and youth workers to digest as they                      shape young lives. All of them apply to mentoring young people.

Music can be loud. That’s okay. What’s not okay is for you to be silent about it. Make sure you are engaging yourself into your kids’ musical choices. Not every song, not every day… but engaging. It doesn’t require much effort to stay informed, and you can use that knowledge to influence your teenagers.

And that’s influence they desperately need.

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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