You’ve seen our 50 best albums of 2015, now check out our 100 best songs:
100 Jai Wolf, “Indian Summer”
99 Hot Chip, “Huarache Lights”
98 Drake, “Energy”
97 Susanne Sundfør, “Delirious”
96 Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, “Love is Free”
95 Kurt Vile, “Pretty Pimpin”
94 Chromatics, “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around”
93 Blur, “Lonesome Street”
92 Will Butler, “Witness”
91 LoneLady, “Groove it Out”
90 The Go! Team, “Waking the Jetstream”
89 Protomartyr, “Dope Cloud”
88 Kamasi Washington, “Final Thought”
87 Future, “Thought It Was a Drought”
86 Petit Noir, “Chess”
85 Tobias Jesso, Jr., “How Could You Babe”
84 Panda Bear, “Boys Latin”
83 Le1f, “Koi”
82 Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”
81 Alabama Shakes, “Future People”
80 Leon Bridges, “Coming Home”
79 Ought, “Beautiful Blue Sky”
78 Madonna, “Living For Love”
77 Julia Holter, “Sea Calls Me Home”
76 Skrillex and Diplo, “Where Are Ü Now” (featuring Justin Bieber)
75 Holly Herndon, “Chorus”
74 Björk, “Lionsong”
73 Big Sean, “Blessings” (featuring Drake)
72 Demi Lovato, “Cool for the Summer”
71 Wet, “Weak”
70 Kanye West, “Only One”
69 Joanna Newsom, “Sapokanikan”
68 Janet Jackson, “No Sleeep"
67 Father John Misty, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”
66 Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, “Slip Slide” (featuring B.o.B, BJ the Chicago Kid, Busta Rhymes, Janelle Monáe, and Ady Suleiman)
65 Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”
64 D’Angelo, “1000 Deaths”
63 Carly Rae Jepsen, “Warm Blood”
62 The Chemical Brothers, “Under Neon Lights” (featuring St. Vincent)
61 Kanye West, “All Day” (featuring Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom, and Paul McCartney)
60 Giorgio Moroder, “Deja-vu” (featuring Sia)
59 Shamir, “Make a Scene”
58 Beach House, “Sparks”
57 Youth Lagoon, “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”
56 Skepta, “Shutdown”
55 FKA twigs, “In Time”
54 Beck, “Dreams”
53 Young Thug, “Constantly Hating”
52 Death Grips, “Inanimate Sensation”
51 Lana Del Rey, “High By the Beach”
50 Erykah Badu, “Hello” (featuring André 3000)
49 Neon Indian, “Slumlord”
48 Empress of, “Standard”
47 Chairlift, “Ch-Ching”
46 Braids, “Bunny Rose”
45 Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Alexander Hamilton”
44 Big Grams, “Fell in the Sun”
43 Adele, “Hello”
42 Nao, “Inhale Exhale”
41 Earl Sweatshirt, “Grief”
40 Deerhunter, “Breaker”
39 Snakehips, “All My Friends”
38 Titus Andronicus, “Dimed Out”
37 Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
36 Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”
35 St. Vincent, “Teenage Talk”
34 Destroyer, “Dream Lover”
33 Hop Along, “Waitress”
32 SOPHIE, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”
31 Panda Bear, “Tropic of Cancer”
30 Sufjan Stevens, "Fourth of July”
29 Björk, “Stonemilker”
28 Viet Cong, “Death”
27 Jeremih, “Planez” (featuring J. Cole)
26 Courtney Barnett, “Depreston”
25 Vince Staples, “Norf Norf”
As a child in the South Bay, adjacent to Long Beach, one of my favorite songs was The Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC”. For years that song and it’s eminent light was the sound of Long Beach in my head. “Norf Norf” is its polar opposite and displaces the easy living you’d expect from a California beach city with tense shadows. This Long Beach is built up as a stressful way of being. It’s a condition, where the wrong words trigger conflicts and your set and side of the city is your way of life. The beat is weird—a bare but diverse set of percussions are the only constant presence. An electronic bass, way down low on the register, provides only the bare minimum groove. A ghostly drone’s anti-melody bends in and out, but the song is still good enough to play at a party thanks to Staples’ flow. His rapping is relentless and kinetic. He never stops for a breather, never relies on a hook for the meat, and drops a dozen pictures in one verse. It’s not a bleak song, or one that trades in gawking at gang life. It just feels like a life, one that is honest about its complexity, and the friction that comes from that. — Justin Pansacola
24 The Weeknd, “Can't Feel My Face”
I was aware that Abel Tsefaye was being groomed for major label success (just watch/listen to Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” as proof), but did I think that the nocturnal, Torontonian lothario to Drake’s diurnal sad boy would emerge from the shadows, eclipse his mentor, and rule the airwaves in 2015? Not in a million years.
Of course, Tsefaye, the man behind The Weeknd, has long had the necessary trappings to launch an assault on the mainstream: an angelic voice and an uncanny ability to impersonate Michael Jackson. All he needed was the right people to harness those talents and unleash them upon the world. Enter Max Martin, and “Can’t Feel My Face”, the disco-aping Michael Jackson homage with yet another drug=love conceit at its center and a BPM high enough to make everybody forget about it, is born. To be sure, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a fireball of track, but a conventional one at that, a mass-produced drug made knowing exactly what the masses crave. However, the mantle of Jackson’s legacy has fallen upon capable shoulders; Tsefaye, as usual, renders an impeccable vocal performance.
Yet to me, “Can’t Feel My Face” is more of the exception than the rule, and entrée for Tsefaye into the world of Top 40 pop from which he can release his less immediate material. Because after all, Mom is much more likely to let you blare “The Hills” with her in the car if you explain to her that it’s by the same dude who sings “Can’t Feel My Face”. “He seems like a nice boy. Reminds me of Michael Jackson,” she will say, and then you’ll cruise down the 405 with her blessing while bumping a track with a melody partially consisting of the mixed sounds of a woman’s scream. — Jean-Luc Marsh
See also: “The Hills”
23 Sleater-Kinney, “A New Wave”
The thing that’s continually amazing about Sleater-Kinney is how much Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein can do with very little. That’s why I always come back to “Words and Guitar”, one of the best songs from the band’s 1997 record Dig Me Out (note: I will say “one of the best songs” about any track from Dig Me Out). Corin sings with an unrestrained, breathless joy about defining yourself through music: the music you make, and the music you love. “Take the noise in my head come on and turn it up.”
Perhaps the reason I love the band’s 2015 record No Cities to Love so much is that it includes a song that feels like Carrie’s response to “Words and Guitar”—“A New Wave”. It showcases at its very core the necessity of these two women’s partnership—Corin’s serpentine guitar line perfectly undercutting the central riff; her vocals in the chorus—and it profiles how artwork and its accompanying social movements can define not only the zeitgeist, but first and foremost the lives of makers and fans. “It’s not a new wave—it’s just you and me,” Carrie sings, and I like to think she’s singing about her creative friendship with Corin, or about her affection for her band’s fans—it certainly seems she evokes them with, “Let’s destroy a room with this love.”
Sleater-Kinney might well be the only rock band with no gimmick; that’s what’s rightfully elevated them to such an esteemed position in the pantheon of guitar music. “A New Wave” is their most straightforward assertion of just that, from a band who first defined themselves with a song called “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”—a band for whom refreshing, intense, in-your-face straightforwardness is a central, vital ideology. — Geneiveve Oliver
See also: “Surface Envy”
22 CHVRCHES, “Clearest Blue”
Any song based around The Build is inherently ambitious. That’s because two tricky things need to happen simultaneously for The Build to succeed. First, the song needs to take its sweet time to develop without getting boring—a tough balancing act to pull off. Second, the eventual payoff needs to be worthy of The Build itself—and if that Build is too exciting to begin with, you run the risk of a disappointing climax. “Clearest Blue” passes both steps of that test with flying colors, relentlessly driving forward for two heart-pounding minutes, masterfully adding subtle new layers of sound along the way, before exploding into a joyous, larger-than-life burst of the year’s bounciest synthesizers. CHVRCHES have given us plenty of anthems before, but this one feels different—less about the chorus, more about catharsis. — Adam Offitzer
21 Hudson Mohawke, “Ryderz”
The delirious “Ryderz” is everything strange, wonderful, and exciting about pop music in 2015. We live in a moment where computerized music can be grafted from the oddest of discarded parts, but Hudson Mohawke, as with much of his debut Lantern, exhibits profound gifts this weird new frontier we find ourselves in.
“Ryderz” is a chopped and screwed party jam built around a forgotten 70s soft-rock also-ran, erupting into an instant trap-pop classic. Building its bizarre manifesto around D.J. Rogers’ dusty “Watch Out for the Riders”, the sample goes on for nearly an uninterrupted minute, like a crackling spaceship transmission beamed in from the past. And then that drop—a rapid-fire, boom-bap implosion that unrelentingly twists Rogers’ also chipmunk-frequency vocals into an increasingly bizarre series of squawks and howls.
What exactly does it mean to “watch out for the riders”? It is a symbol of hope? Dread? Exhilaration? If Mohawke knows us—he’s not telling us, and that’s part of the beauty of this track. “Ryderz” manages to capture the full emotional structure at once, all amidst a clattering, almost suffocating din. It shouldn’t work—it certainly doesn’t on paper—but Kanye West’s favorite producer works sampling wonders with the most far-flung of raw materials. – Zach Bernstein
20 Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy” (featuring Jamila Woods)
Surf’s most popular song is a joy on its own but works even better in the context of the album, the penultimate celebration of all the dazzling colors and varying moods that came before. After all those summer conflictions, it’s Sunday now and you’d best get your butt inside the church before it starts raining—hell, you might even learn something. It’s the big singalong culmination of grandmotherly love and a devotion to making your own quirks work for you (and for the world). And also, can we talk about how rare it still is to hear a pop song treat rain as something energizing and glorious rather than gloomy or anxious? It makes plants grow, y’know! The gospel-y singing (epitomized by the maternal Jamila Woods) is only part of the musicality: note how the tones of the piano, all in an ever-so-slightly wobbly treble range, eventually start plinking like rain starting to patter on a roof before the drum programming makes it pour. The hoots and hollers, the tune itself, that one guy’s bass voice undergirding the back half of the song, Chance the Rapper’s most endearingly childlike performance among some already strong competition...a Sunday kind of love, yes indeed. — Nathan Wisnicki
19 Missy Elliott, "WTF (Where They From)" (featuring Pharrell Williams)
The instantly viral “WTF”music video pulled a clever little trick when it dropped on November 12—showing the song blasting from cars, nail salons, and headphones everywhere, with everyone singing along like it was already a ubiquitous hit. And then, Pharrell’s trademark stutter-step beat kicked in, the studio version kicked off, and just like that, Missy’s self-fulfilling prophecy was fulfilled. It took just 20 seconds to establish “WTF” as a hit track before anyone even heard the song. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. The beat is that tight, Missy is that cool, and the hook is that good. But if Missy’s long-awaited comeback single somehow wasn't enough, we all got an added bonus gift: Pharrell’s most focused, frenetic, fiery verse in years. — Adam Offitzer
18 Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
Multi-Love has a well-established mythology at this point. With just a hint of context it casts almost the entire album in a new light. While you may not be able to relate to its finer points, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” details an obsession that you’re likely familiar with. Ruban Nielson obscures his voice at key moments, but it’s hard to miss the tracks thesis: Technology separates us as much as it brings together, a fact you can now dance to.
Then there’s the music. Nielson has already established his songwriting chops, fussy production tics and singular guitar style – his earlier singles could be top 40 hits in more aspiring hands. It all converges here. Even if the lyrics are indecipherable in places, the melody is an earworm of the highest order. We can debate whether it’s the best song in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s canon, but it’s certainly the biggest. — Brendan Frank
17 Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
With a physical intensity worthy of prime Ice Cube or KRS-One and scarier than either because he’s already smarter than both (sometimes I have to remind myself he’s only 28), Kendrick Lamar rolls the word “black” around in his mouth through the opening seconds like it doesn’t mean anything anymore, then declares himself the biggest hypocrite of 2015 and proceeds to throw racial contradictions up in the air and strut-march through the ensuing rain with straight righteous fury. You can hear this song many ways at once: as an attempt to jump-start black Americans away from racial self-hatred; as a violently despising rejection of the white-driven machinations of a club that wouldn’t have him as a member anyway and still doesn’t even have the courage to admit it; or as just a sheer apocalyptic vision of watching the whole thing burn to the fucking ground. Does he know what he’s talking about? How the fuck should I know?
As music, it’s fire. True, Assassin’s hook isn’t anything to write home about, and frankly I still think the key final lines don’t hit quite as hard as was intended, just from a sheer phrasing perspective. Quibbles, though. Laying out hypocrisies across all lines so we can view how sad and terrifying our state really is, this is a powerful view of systemic malignancy that we humans navigate uncomprehendingly and, apparently, uncaringly. Which is why the occasional apocalyptic vision can be so rousing sometimes. Vroom. — Nathan Wisnicki
16 Jamie xx, “Gosh”
For its first half, “Gosh” is a sparse, grim-faced bass shuffle laced with a well-selected vocal clip. In these two minutes and seventeen seconds, it’s Jamie xx’s most successful attempt at a ruthless dubstep clatter. It’s good, if workmanlike. Then, ever so slowly, something odd happens. Up out of the undulating low-end rises a solitary, high-pitched synthesizer note that eventually bends and contorts into 2015’s strangest solo. Jamie xx never turns back from this left-field development, but he never adds anything else to the song, either. He doesn’t need to: that synth solo is one of the most mesmerizing things you’ll hear this year, filling in the monochromatic skeleton of the song’s first half with a radiant spectrum of colors. Achingly melancholy, hauntingly gorgeous, it transforms what might have been a solid, if rote club experience into a transcendent emotional epiphany. I intend no hyperbole when I tell you “Gosh” is perfect. I think it might be magic. — Samuel Catlin
15 Father John Misty, “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”
Josh Tillman set out to write an album of perfect love songs, songs that resist easy corniness and melancholy, and he is at the height of success on “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)”. Lesser love songs focus on perfection that feels unrealistic, or broad appeal that feels generic. They are always about the way you look at me, or your smile, or something about sunshine. The brilliance here is that the only perfection is in small, mundane-yet-profound details, like “your perfect script” or the act of eating buttered bread. Most of the time is spent painting a funny, colorful portrait of not just Emma, but of the two of them in their relationship. We learn what they value, how they spend their time, their sense of humor, their anxieties and how this love overcomes them all. To do so in short, succinct verses speaks to Tillman's novelistic writing prowess. I Love You Honeybear explores other angles of the relationship, but “Chateau Lobby” is the purest celebration, a masterwork of optimism that doesn't feel remotely naïve or idealistic. Set to rousing mariachi horns, sweeping strings and a wall of acoustic guitar strums, it is appropriately beautiful. It makes you believe in the weight of marriage in cynical times; a momentary mind-alteration that only perfect music can accomplish. — Justin Pansacola
14 Miguel, “Coffee”
Miguel’s approach to love and relationships should be incredibly unfashionable in our day and age, where all it takes size up and dismiss someone is half a second and a swipe to the right. He not the hero we deserve but the hero we need, even if we don’t think we do. Old-fashioned idealists have never been more necessary, and Miguel leads the charge on “Coffee”. Anyone who can sing about bubble baths and tangerine skies free of irony without sounding like a total cheeseball… Okay, well maybe he does, but that might just be the whole point. Opening himself up to the same extent you would for open-heart surgery, Miguel imbues “Coffee” with startling intimacy and feverish romanticism. It's almost as if it's casting a spell. Buoyed by skittering drums and propelled by feathery synthesizers, it’s a rose-colored vision for the world, where you can stay in bed all day, completely absorbed in the person beside you. Sweet dreams. — Brendan Frank
13 Sufjan Stevens, “Should Have Known Better”
The one thing Sufjan Stevens doesn’t want us to do with Carrie & Lowell is presume the feelings conveyed on the album are brand new. They aren’t; on the contrary, Stevens has spent the majority of his career painting lurid pictures of his upbringing, constantly questioning the meat of his adolescence and smiling wincingly as though the shortcomings don’t matter that much.
But that’s the thing: Not even Sufjan Stevens is capable of committing to a lie that dramatic. The truth of the matter is that his childhood laid a foundation for almost every single note Stevens has ever performed. It’s the beating heart of his entire musical existence, and Carrie & Lowell, his phenomenal new LP, serves as the EKG needed to confirm the muscle still works. “Should Have Known Better” stands out for a bevy of reasons, but most penetrating is its immediacy as a memoir. This is a story of woulda, coulda, shoulda. Was a better relationship with his estranged mother even possible? Stevens uses “Better” as a platform to jump-start his imagination. How would his life have changed given a different relationship?
This is the million-dollar question, and its implications span much farther than just the notes in “Better”. 2015 has been a case study for poor decisions and the regret that ensues, which makes this song wildly more valuable. Stevens has always been a lyrical auteur—a man so hell-bent on the anatomy of human connection that he skipped right over his own. With Carrie & Lowell, and even more emphatically on “Should Have Known Better”, Stevens makes critical progress by backtracking, asking himself the kinds of questions that’ll lead him to a higher level of understanding. — Austin Reed
12 Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
As a generation, we don’t really do protest anthems. We take to social media, we organize marches and campaigns, we occupy, but we rarely rally around mainstream music anymore as an impetus for political change. And yet, “Alright” is a genuine protest anthem for 2015 that became an anchor for political activists—that’s a big part of what makes “Alright” such a special and important song.
Amidst the rage, sadness, and insight intermingling on To Pimp A Butterfly, PMA’s #1 album of 2015, “Alright” is the distillation of its conflicted essence. An anthem against gun violence and excessive capitalist consumption, Kendrick turns his critical eye both outward (“I can see the evil, I can tell it I know when it’s illegal) and inward (“my rights, my wrongs are right till I’m right with God”). And that music video—a stark black and white, stylish yet unflinching look at police violence and hip-hop culture that renders it not only the best music video of the year, but also one of the most significant of the decade thus far.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the song itself is one hell of an earworm, floating optimistically on Pharrell’s layered harmonies and Kamasi Washington’s sermon-on-the-mount saxophone before crashing back down with a pummeling machine gun beat and Kendrick’s astonishing wordplay. “Alright” is a swirling cacophony, echoing the countless combative voices and acts of violence plaguing both our televisions and the outside world. The song is a raging storm, and yet, in the end, Kendrick remains strangely calm at its center eye. Maybe he knows something we don’t know. Maybe we will be alright. — Zach Bernstein
11 Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
“Just...let...me...go.” Yeah right. When this track sneaks in your head, you try letting it go. Back in 2012, Grimes used a similar assortment of bleeps, blips, coos and claps throughout her acclaimed album Visions, loading it with earworms that ended up on plenty of year-end lists. But on Art Angels, Grimes achieves something more remarkable—she keeps the wonderful weirdness of her sound, while widening the scope just enough to hook some new listeners. On no song is that more apparent than “Flesh Without Blood”, where the guitar riff is inches away from “Since U Been Gone”, but the vocal effects are still way too weird for mainstream pop radio. As the album cover suggests, Grimes is making extraterrestrial music—and just like E.T. himself, it’s entirely different but still wildly familiar; an alien sound nonetheless packed with human emotion. — Adam Offitzer
10 Jamie xx, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” (featuring Young Thug and Popcaan)
This year gave us a number of candidates for song of the summer—“Cheerleader”, “Trap Queen”, “Can’t Feel My Face”, all excellent in their own right—but for our money, this one was the only true winner. This genuinely unexpected collaboration radiates pure warmth—musically, lyrically, and emotionally. It’s a much-needed palate cleanser, a point of emotional redemption in Jamie xx’s otherwise resolutely bleak debut In Colour. And a little bit of optimism certainly never hurt anybody.
It’s indisputably a bizarre pairing on paper—moody scene-kid Jamie xx, Caribbean dance-hall maven Popcaan, and America’s favorite upstart hip-hop class clown Young Thug. And yet their talents mesh perfectly, and improbably—Thugger’s spastically exuberant come-ons meshing seamlessly with Jamie xx’s pristinely crafted background of sunny xylophone hits, hand claps, and a lovely Persuasions sample anchoring the positive vibe. The closing chatter of party guests seals the deal to cultivate the perfect social gathering mood.
We need songs like “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, simply because we need reminders to be positive. Jamie xx hardly seems like the likely candidate to offer such a message, but then again, he’s always been full of surprises. — Zach Bernstein
09 Tame Impala, “‘Cause I’m a Man”
Make a run through the milieu of music publications spread across the internet, and you’ll likely notice one sweeping declaration saturating year-end lists more than any other: “2015 was the best year for music in recent memory.” Quite the statement, huh? Now, whether the declaration holds up is a matter of opinion, but it’s alarming to note how many publications have joined the hit parade here. Even the ones most notorious for downplaying pretty much everything have confidently labeled 2015 as a game-changing year for music.
My opinion is hardly the thesis. However, I’m want to believe that when a year’s musical offering is as holistically transformative as 2015’s, critical reception translates it into a massive win. So let’s assume that’s the case. If 2015 was in fact the most transformative year for music, there might not be a more case-representative track than “Cause I’m A Man”—the best, deepest and most prolific offering from Tame Impala’s tremendous third LP Currents.
Kevin Parker did something phenomenal in 2015: He opened up. Previously lauded as a spacey, psych-obsessed rock and roll maestro with a penchant for saccharine undertones and cool-as-fuck light shows, Kevin Parker opted to focus Currents on heartache, grief and the next steps that accompany each. One of those next steps is self-reflection, and “Cause I’m A Man” works as his perfectly summarized, eloquently admissive soliloquy for transgression, and that’s not even the most impressive part.
The most impressive part is the universal relevance of the message. By crafting a sweet, subtly hopeful melody to accompany such intimate material, Parker geared “Cause I’m A Man” to be relatable experientially. So when he sings, “‘Cause I’m a man, woman/Don’t always think before I do.” you don’t just hear the words; you feel the pain of self-deprecation. Being transformative is one thing; being relevantly transformative is something altogether more impressive, and Parker executes the latter like he’s been waiting for the perfect moment. Welcome to that moment. — Austin Reed
08 D’Angelo, “The Charade”
Say what you will about the collective genius behind 2015’s musical offering, but some of that genius was prodded by (and evaluated because of) an overwhelming amount of #realtalk. Was it warranted? Probably. Chances are high that, 30 years from now, we’ll look back and label 2015 as a year when nationwide volatility hit an all-time high. Guns, drugs and presidential candidacy platforms were misused to a laughable degree, so we should be thankful, then, for artists who know how to use their words a little more tactfully.
“The Charade” excels for reasons that might surprise a more incumbent audience. Prior to Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s sensational return to form, the most talked about event in D’Angelo’s history was the music video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” in which a liberal camera pan-out exposed more than just a G-rated torso. On Black Messiah, D’Angelo continues the shock value, but this time, the impetus focuses on his message instead of his perfectly chiseled abs. The theme here exemplifies a universal sense of shame, which is almost never an easy pill to swallow. D’Angelo, however, is intent on force-feeding the idea without ever seeming pushy. “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Instead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/Revealing at the end of the day the charade.” These are the words of a man who has worked his whole life to earn happiness, only to discover that his journey ends with even more sorrow than it started with. The disappointment is palpable, but D’Angelo’s iconic salty vocal delivery and effervescent loft allows the message to sound hopeful. 2015 has been a year of constant volatility, but if history tells us anything, it’s that we make the most beautiful art when we’re conflicted. D’Angelo and the Vanguard are proof positive. — Austin Reed
07 Rihanna, “FourFiveSeconds” (featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney)
Rihanna’s star persona is all about giving zero fucks, but she’s nevertheless one of the most poised singers in contemporary pop. Even when she appears to fling herself into hysterical histrionics, as on “Only Girl”, it’s always pretend—she’s still in full control of her voice and the song. Never before has she actually sounded so loose, so comfortable as on “FourFiveSeconds”.
Abandoning her usual steeliness, Rihanna lets her voice—hoarse like she just took a hit, which, you know, she very may well have done—bend, crack, and strain in ways that are surprisingly raw and personable. Joined over a rough acoustic strum and a soulful organ by a newly mellow Kanye and an honest-to-god Beatle, Rihanna & Co. spin out a melody that’s as catchy and easygoing as McCartney’s early hits. “FourFiveSeconds” sounds like three friends blowing off steam at the neighborhood bar. Yet for something so familiar in feeling, it’s utterly fresh territory for the headlining singer. For what I think is the first time, she allows us to glimpse the human behind the hit machine—and she’s never been more captivating. — Samuel Catlin
06 Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away With Me”
The saxophone had a major renaissance in 2015, and it was rarely better utilized than on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me”. The opener to her sophomore record, Emotion, it confirmed a rebirth as a more mature artist for Jepsen, and stands as one of the year’s best endorphin rushes.
As pop music has become more and more influenced by EDM, “Run Away With Me” served as remarkably effective counter programming. The track has the same endearing earnestness of “Call Me Maybe”, but here it’s sharper and far more focused. Part of that comes from the impeccable production of Shellback and Mattman & Robin, a heart rate-raising surge of synths and booming drums, all capped off with that impeccable sax line.
Jepsen may have gotten snubbed at the Grammys, but anyone who heard Emotion and its mammoth intro track knows that she deserves a spot on 2015’s pop Mount Rushmore. — Grant Rindner
5 Drake, “Hotline Bling”
2015 was the year in which we reached peak Drake. First a surprise album à la Beyoncé, then a beef with Meek Mill (lol), followed by another album in collaboration with Future, and finally, the meteoric rise of what essentially amounts to sing-song bars over elevator music from the backwaters of SoundCloud to any and every source of music in the country. The pervasiveness of “Hotline Bling”, the final item in Drake’s cultural takeover agenda for the year (so far), only attests to how far October’s Very Own has come, and the precious real estate he solidly owns in the pop culture psyche of every sentient being below the age of 30. The fact that a half-Jewish rapper, former child actor, and Canadian has managed to permeate the zeitgeist so solidly speaks not only to Drake’s skills (the man can rap), but to his immense ability to create content that is simultaneously relatable and targeted.
“Hotline Bling” speaks more to the latter, with Drake flexing less of his rap muscle, and focusing more on the feels and how to make sure everybody gets to participate in them. The result is a song so universal that only someone who has never encountered the deterioration of a relationship/FWB arrangement since the invention of the telephone can claim a get-out-of-jail-free card for this one. Relating to “Hotline Bling” is something I’m certainly guilty of, and now every time that I come back to New York after some time away, I think of my old flames and how they’ve fared “ever since I left the city.” It’s silly, pathetic, and a little stupid, but frankly, so is “Hotline Bling.” That’s what makes it human. — Jean-Luc Marsh
04 Jamie xx, “Loud Places” (featuring Romy)
Sure, the official song credit goes to Jamie xx with a featured spot by bandmate Romy Madley-Croft, but “Loud Places” is essentially, in the best way possible, an xx track. The spare yet brutally effective piano notes, the gently throbbing beat, Oliver Sim’s billowing, gothic guitar, and Romy’s delicately swooning vocals will all sound welcome and familiar to fans of “Intro” or “Angels”. What’s more, the track boasts a spiritual similarity to the work of Jamie’s more high-profile gig—an appreciation for the contrast between club dancing and pillow talk, and the strange kind of intimacy that can characterize both interactions in equal measure. Romy’s character goes to clubs in the hope that she won’t have to anymore, all to forget the person who made those clubs so ecstatic in the first place.
For all of its familiar comforts, though, “Loud Places” is also a bold step forward for Jamie xx’s career. It’s unmistakably a dance track of sorts, but a strange one—a clapping, gradually building beat that never truly reaches its denouement, buoyed by electronic clinking that sounds like a sorrowful convocation of shot glasses at the bar. The song gently lifts, rather than pummel indelicately. It’s a minimalist triumph in an album full of them, directly at odds with the maximalist aesthetic of modern EDM. Then there’s that ghostly sample of Idris Muhammad’s disco deep cut “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”, fading in like the booming soundtrack to those nightclubs that Romy hates so dearly.
The end result is positively hypnotic. Muhammad’s words—“I have never reached such heights”—mock Romy’s grief and celebrate her perseverance. The song manages to be both deeply despairing and resolutely uplifting at the same time, a four-minute minimovie scored by a headphones rave. It’s chilling, it’s profoundly beautiful. — Zach Bernstein
03 Grimes, “Realiti (Demo)”
Looking back, it’s strange that this was the opening salvo to Grimes’ comeback year. 2014’s “Go,” despite being decried as inauthentic, a cop-out, and a colossal misfire (it’s really not that bad, guys), seems more indicative of the ferocity that characterizes Art Angels with its frenetic bro-step drops and dance-floor sensibilities. “Realiti”, on the other hand, a tantalizing remnant from the now-mythical “lost album,” sees Claire Boucher going back to basics in many ways. Heralded as the sign that everybody’s favorite Canadian electro princess had returned in peak form, the track was elevated from discarded demo to cult favorite. Even Boucher herself seemed shocked by the overwhelmingly positive reception, making a complete 180 and reversing her decision to exclude the cut from the final album. Today, a polished version of “Realiti” sits pretty as track number 10 on Art Angels.
Taken together with this backstory, “Realiti” emerges as one of the most singular songs in Boucher’s entire catalog. Forget for a moment the pleasant accompanying footage and light cultural appropriation, and instead focus on the music. Imperfect as it is, the song is a diamond in the rough; the various compressions and distortions that attenuate the presumably once-sharp sonic edges imbue the track with a history and fight that is impossible to manufacture. “Realiti” has history, man. This is a song that went through the wringer and back, that navigated Dante’s purgatory until ascending into heaven and assuming its rightful place on Boucher’s fourth LP.
Boucher, almost prophetically, sings of such a journey on “Realiti.” “Every morning there are mountains to climb/Taking all my time,” she coos with a penetrating, almost glacial clarity that her previous oeuvre lacked. The struggle is real, she seems to be saying. But with fruits of labor as sweet as this, the grief is all worth it. Real art is not easy, and Boucher seems to have faced that fact head-on in the interim between Visions and Art Angels. It’s something she’s been trying to tell the world about for a while now. “Welcome to reality.” — Jean-Luc Marsh
02 Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
In the late 1970s, two academics coined the term “impostor phenomenon,” now commonly known in psychology as “impostor syndrome.” Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified “women [who] do not experience an internal sense of success” in scientific fields, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The syndrome is widespread across both sexes, and it extends beyond academia. Kurt Cobain, the greatest songwriter of his generation, thought he didn’t have the right to write music on a song he titled “All Apologies”. Courtney Barnett, a straight-A student of ‘90s rock, takes the notion of being an impostor to its illogical extreme.
Her frothing “Pedestrian at Best” rages with misplaced self-loathing, twisting internal rhyme, and crunchy guitar pandemonium. The song also drips with outward disdain (“I think you’re a joke/ But I don’t find you very funny”). It may be hard to believe Barnett doubts herself for a second on such a confident track. But the anger that she directs inward is key to the fury she unleashes. Courtney Barnett lowers expectations (“Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you”), and then raises the bar so high it’s obstructed by stratospheric clouds. “Pedestrian at Best” is throwback rock of a kind that’s highly unfashionable and impossibly thrilling. Um, Nirvana who? — Peter Tabakis
01 Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”
For eight consecutive January nights in 1977, America witnessed the moral outrage of slavery and its aftermath. Roots—a miniseries based on Alex Haley’s bestselling biographical novel, published a year earlier—was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Nearly half of all television viewers tuned in for its full run on ABC. Roots’ conclusion was the third most-watched episode of TV, ever. This country’s worst shame, made shockingly real with depictions of sickening brutality and the consequences of institutionalized racism, came and went with monumental ratings. But a brief national reckoning ended along with Roots’ finale. The status quo, if it was shaken at all, returned to place shortly thereafter. At long last, the chickens’ homecoming is at hand. Quoth Kendrick Lamar: “What the fuck happened?”
On “King Kunta”, Lamar revives the memory of this remarkable moment in monoculture, when historical villainy was widely dramatized across American airwaves. The track is named after Kunta Kinte, the enslaved African patriarch of Haley’s saga. Kendrick frames his own upbringing and rise to prominence as the continuation, if not a culmination, of Kinte’s personal tragedy (“Everybody wanna cut the legs off him,” Kendrick says of himself). Then he claims the title as the reigning monarch of hip hop (he’s gone “from a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king”). Who, apart from Kanye West, perhaps, would be inclined to disagree? To Pimp a Butterfly is already a modern classic, and “King Kunta” is its mesmerizing and throbbing standout, the greatest example of self-described triumph on a triumphant work of popular art.
“King Kunta” may be To Pimp a Butterfly’s least challenging track in terms of theme and sound. It’s a marvelous, if fairly straightforward, burst of celebratory funk. But the song’s mix of indignation and exultation serves as a rare bright spot on a harrowing album. Kendrick (mirroring Haley) digs back to his musical roots and rewrites “Get Nekkid” by his early Compton hero Mausberg. The “bone to pick” here might as well be with pop-chart rap, which has become woefully bland. “King Kunta” reminds the listener that hip hop can be devastating and danceable at once. There was a time when this wasn’t a radical combination. Thankfully for us, Kendrick Lamar has a long memory and a deep sense of nostalgia. — Peter Tabakis