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The Apple Music personality talks pop music in 2016 — and what to expect to hear on the radio next year

By Jeff Nelson
December 13, 2016 06:21 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Apple Music

As the year comes to a close, PEOPLE caught up with mainstream radio veteran Zane Lowe to talk the biggest music of 2016 — and what pop fans can look forward to in the new year.

The Beats 1 anchor and his New York and London counterparts — Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga — pulled together a list of the top 50 songs of the past 12 months, based on tracks they played most the most on the Apple Music digital radio platform.

“[It was] a year of mixed fortunes. We lost heroes and icons. That side of it has been hard for all of us to process, but it’s also been a very creative and prolific year full of incredible music,” New Zealand native Lowe, 43, tells PEOPLE.

“You have to acknowledge the huge albums from Drake, Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper and the Weeknd: They defined the U.S. charts and radio play this year. They’ve helped to define a mainstream that feels a little more unique than in recent years. … We’ve had reassuringly great albums from our favorite artists, and bold opening statements from the new gen. In many ways, 2106 sonically redefined pop.”

Since launching in the summer of 2015, Beats 1 and its deejay hosts have scored interviews with the who’s-who of pop music, as well as premiered new tunes from acts on the rise and beloved fan-favorites alike.

As for what’s to come in 2017, Lowe expects more artists from across the pond to make a sonic splash.

“There’s still a lot coming out of the U.K.— it’s a very open, artistic environment; they keep bringing us bright new voices. If you like Adele, Amy and Ed Sheeran, this year you have Jorja Smith. She’s pretty amazing,” says the Beats 1 host. “We want to see new superstars and festival headliners. I think next year, festival line ups will start to reflect that school of thought in a big way. … There will be big records for sure … I know Haim are coming back and LCD Soundsytem are rumored, Arcade Fire, Ed Sheeran, Lana Del, Run the Jewels. But there will be some real surprises as well. It’s an exciting time.”

Below, Lowe weighs in on seven of the biggest tracks from Beats 1’s year-end list top-50 playlist, which you can listen to above (or click here).Drake feat. WizKid and Kyla, “One Dance” “Unavoidable greatness. After ‘Hotline Bling,’ everyone was waiting for the next one from Drake and he came for the summer with a song that sounded like no one else at the time. 2016 is his year, no question.”

Kanye West (with Post Malone, Ty Dolla $ign), “Fade”

“Incredible record. Deep and lean. Slowing down that house music classic like that — pure Ye.” Sia feat. Sean Paul, “Cheap Thrills” “I love Sia and everything she does — she’s one of the most honest artists I’ve ever met.” Lady Gaga, “A-YO” “This is the record her fans wanted to hear: a raw version of herself people hadn’t seen before.”

The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey, “Closer”

“This record rode a big wave this year. It’s a mix of big EDM-pop and that reflective youth that Blink 182 do so well. No wonder it was massive.”

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar: “Freedom”

“An amazing song from one of this year’s best albums. It was a moment in American music this year. This combination of Beyoncé and Kendrick is ferocious and thought-provoking.”

Calvin Harris feat. Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For”

“I mean – their creative relationship is the real deal: a stone-cold hit.”