Nflx
Image source: Netflix.

The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) had a subpar 2015. The index fell slightly from year-ago levels, and even after adding in returns from dividends, the S&P's total return was only about 1%. Yet despite that flat performance, the top stocks in the index posted stellar returns. Let's take a look at the list of the best stocks in the S&P and then draw some conclusions from their performance.

Stock

2015 Return

Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX)

134.4%

Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN)

117.8%

Activision Blizzard

94.1%

NVIDIA

67.1%

Cablevision Systems

57.9%

Hormel Foods

54.5%

VeriSign

53.3%

Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI)

48.7%

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX)

48.2%

First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR)

48%

Data source: S&P Capital IQ.

The Internet strikes back
Ever since the tech boom of the 1990s and the collapse of Internet stocks in the early 2000s, commentators have looked constantly for signs of a new bubble in the sector. Even though some investors came into 2015 thinking that stocks like Netflix and Amazon were in bubble territory, they only accelerated their share-price gains during the year.

For Netflix, success with its original series has helped bolster its subscriber ranks, and the opportunity for international expansion has opened new frontiers for the streaming video service. Given the inexpensive value proposition that Netflix delivers its customers, shareholders rightly think that there's more opportunity for widening profit margins down the road. The task right now is to firm its grasp on a potential global empire, and Netflix is working hard to make that a reality.

Amazon is a Netflix competitor in streaming, but its aspirations are much larger. The e-commerce giant has continued displacing brick-and-mortar retailers and has expanded its grip on the retail industry generally, forcing even its largest counterparts to respond on the digital front. Meanwhile, Amazon gave shareholders positive operating income to satisfy those who thought that the tech giant might simply go on expanding forever without worrying about profitability. With Amazon Prime developing its ecosystem, Amazon has plenty of growth potential for the future.

Beyond tech
Tech stocks played a big role in 2015, but there were other winners as well. Reynolds American soared after completing its acquisition of Lorillard and solidifying its status as the No. 2 player in the U.S. tobacco market. Reynolds also hopes to expand in the direction of alternatives like e-vapor products, where its Vuse offerings have competed well against the products its rivals have released.

Similarly, Starbucks continued to see a ramp-up in its customer counts, hitting the 80 million mark for weekly transactions and getting customers to spend $5 billion in loading up their Starbucks loyalty cards during the year. Launches of mobile ordering and payment systems, further expansion in its store network, and extension of its Teavana and Starbucks Reserve brands all contributed to gains.

Finally, First Solar benefited in what was a topsy-turvy year for the solar industry. Solar installations have boomed recently, as falling prices for panels have made potential projects more economically feasible. The company has improved its module efficiency, partially catching up from a deficit in the past, but the real strength for First Solar was the fact that its strong balance sheet gave it the ability to pursue opportunities as they arose. That was a major competitive advantage against debt-ridden rivals that are struggling to make past initiatives work, and First Solar's reputation for doing large projects should serve it well.

Even though the S&P 500's returns in 2015 weren't all that great, these companies show how you can still profit from smart stock-picking. These stocks might not match their 2015 gains this year, but many of them have the potential for further advances in 2016 and beyond.

Dan Caplinger owns shares of Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Activision Blizzard, Amazon.com, Netflix, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool recommends NVIDIA. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.