What determines a good song in 2015? Does it simply have to be well written? Does it get stuck in your head? Does Drake have to sing it? Well, there’s no real answer to this question. Like all music, it’s just a feeling. When you hear a good song, you just kind of… know. So, with that in mind, we know why you’re here. You want to do a CTRL+F for your favorite tracks on this list and then argue about their respective placements. We get it. You want to have your tastes reaffirmed.
We here at Noisey feel the same way. In fact, compiling this list—after we determined our five Artists of the Year—was as close to a brawl as you can get between music writers—that is, we all voted and then sat in a conference room and talked in a civil manner over a few hours about which songs deserve placement and where. Fortunately, aside from a few scrapes and black eyes, nobody was really that hurt (except emotionally) and we’ve emerged with this list of the 50 best songs of 2015. Got a problem with it? Why don’t you call us on our… cell phone (heh).
50. Drake – "Know Yourself"
The song that would launch a thousand Facebook statuses deserves to be higher on the list, but the introduction of the reference track that inspired the song robbed it of a lot of its magic. That’s not to say that’s it’s any less fun to run through your city with your woes, just that it’s harder to live vicariously through Drake when he’s rapping vicariously through someone else. Nonetheless, “Know Yourself” is the seminal Drake song of 2015, the one that would inspire anthems to sing along to, and would be remixed by Dilly Dally to exceptional praise. It may not be the Drake song we expected, but it’s the one we deserved.
49. Hudson Mohawke – "RYDERZ"
Hudson Mohawke’s “RYDERZ” is not only a great single but, like many other artists this year, it marks a musical turning point for the producer. The maximalist touches of previous works Butter and Satin Panthers are still here in the form of blown out horns and regal-like strings. But the track's lean pacing and spacious construction allow the holy anointed gospel sample to breathe while leaving hints of the electro R&B flourishes that now serve as his playing field. Nevertheless, “RYDERZ” is a sound display of Mohawke’s newfound mastery of high octane bangers with soul. And one that remains a highlight as the year comes to a close.
48. Disemballerina – "That Is the Head of One Who Toyed With My Honor"
Inspired by the real-life story of a woman who decapitated her rapist, "That Is the Head of One Who Toyed With My Honor" is the pinnacle of Disemballerina’s latest neoclassical chamber doom album, the revenge-themed Poison Gown. The song builds tension carefully, methodically, the rising swells of its weeping strings and fluttering chords punctuated by the steely whisk of a sharpened machete. Who’d have thought that a cello, a harp, a viola, a guitar, and a bajo quinto could sound so mortally terrifying?
47. Torres – "Strange Hellos"
“Strange Hellos” is the crushing opener to Sprinter, the acclaimed sophomore album from Mackenzie Scott a.k.a. Torres. Produced by PJ Harvey’s drummer and producer Rob Ellis, “Strange Hellos” brings grungy hooks to a devastating folk song about a mother’s death. Torres hits a sweet spot between 90s alt-rock and folk Americana with impressive balance and precision.
46. Mas YSA – "Margarita"
The universe can generally be confronted in one of two ways: You can marvel at the vastness of it and ponder its infinite possibilities, or you can ball up your fists and scream into the unanswering night sky seeking an explanation for its cruelties. This song, with those gentle pan flutes, that massive bass, that pleading exhortation to its subject—“don’t you leave us too soon”—angrily and joyously does both.
45. Courtney Barnett – "Pedestrian at Best"
Courtney Barnett is one of the best songwriters working today, because she is, above all, a terrific storyteller. Who else could turn an anecdote about having an asthma attack while gardening into an existential meditation? On “Pedestrian at Best,” the lead single off of her first proper LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett churns her wry humor and incisive observations into full-on rage, smashing off the pressure release valve to make for a deeply satisfying fuck-off anthem that plays like a sarcastic, self-loathing update to “Positively Fourth Street.” The verses are Barnett’s unfiltered id at its best, funneling her stream-of-consciousness rambling into sharply self-aware choruses that spit her anxieties about fame and favoritism back out onto the haters. The title itself is never referenced or explained, but it’s easy to imagine the pencil-necked doofus who might’ve coined it, now rocking out to her in shame.
44. Whitey Morgan – "Waitin’ 'Round to Die" (Townes Van Zandt)
Every road-hardened troubadour worth their daily bread and beer keeps a Townes van Zandt cover in their pocket, but few pull it off as convincingly as Whitey Morgan does on this mournful rendition of “Waitin’ 'Round to Die.” The steel guitar weeps, the guitar trills, and Morgan’s rough-hewn, Michigan-bred drawl coats the lyrics in shades of pathos and resignation; it’s an outlaw’s lament, a travelin’ man’s torment, and a grim resolution keep on moving forward, ’cause where else are you gonna go?
43. J Hus – "Dem Boy Paigon"
To see the impact of this record in 2015—a record that’s had no radio play, was written about absolutely nowhere when it was first released, a record that is underground in the truest sense of the word—you have to watch a video recorded by an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch in North London. They’re trying to warn people of a disturbance in the area, with young people appearing to have taken over an entire housing estate to turn into a party. Entirely unwittingly they filmed hundreds of kids all screaming along to “Dem Boy Paigon” every syllable of Hus’s flow amplified 1,000 times over. It’s nothing new to call out a bunch of your enemies as wastemen, but something about this record, its jerky bashment beat and Auto-Tuned hooks, made it feel entirely new and set J Hus off on a spectacular year that culminated in a spot on the BBC Sound of 2016 shortlist.
42. School of Seven Bells – "Open Your Eyes"
Here are two things we can agree on: it’s fucking hard to stay close with an ex, and there’s something in the fiery twist of a dying love affair that'll continue to feed the hurt party long after the fact. That elixir of fury, injustice, and tear-drenched pillow-pain is as addictive as it is bitter and “Open Your Eyes” deals in this. But this is no introspective sob story, it's more an encouraging anthem of forward propulsion—let go, move on—which singer Alejandra Deheza sings in incantatory verses backed by melodies that cascade like water. This is the first new School of Seven Bells song released since Benjamin Curtis lost his battle with T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma at the end of 2013. It’s also the first sliver of the duo’s final album, SVIIB, written and largely recorded before Curtis passed away and set for release this coming February: the final chapter in the duo’s ten-year partnership, which birthed four stunning albums and a love story that’ll make you cry. In 2016, you won’t find a record made up of more exposed emotion and candor, but until then, this tease projects positivity from the space it was written, even if its lyrics now ring bittersweet by the reality of what came to pass. Still achingly beautiful, pure and simple.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
41. Sam Russo – "Sometimes"
Anyone can be sad through a break-up. That’s easy. But it takes a true masochist to look at their life when everything’s on the up and up and say, “Sometimes I just want to hurt.” That’s Sam Russo. He made his gift for melancholy abundantly known on his severely underrated 2013 album, Storm, which chronicled a dissolving relationship. And while things have been going well for Russo since then, he’s not about to let happiness get in the way of a good song. “Sometimes,” the first track off of Storm’s follow-up, Greyhound Dreams, is about the belief that true love should hurt like hell, and ultimately learning to accept life’s good things.
40. Miguel – "the valley"
Miguel may as well have named “the valley,” off of this year’s underrated opus Wildheart, “Unadorn.” It’s a carnal anthem so urgent in its desire that there’s no room for subtlety, nuance, or romance. Even its steady, throbbing synth line sounds like the melody to “Adorn” turned inside out, pulsing with inevitability. That kind of spelled-out explicitness usually feels hamfisted or trying too hard—leave something to the imagination, etc.—but Miguel’s breathy, mercurial delivery straddles (ahem) the line between emotional candor and control, making listening to it an entirely vulnerable experience. It’s the sonic equivalent of refusing to break eye contact. That unblushing rawness, both lyrically and musically, may have cost Wildheart its commercial success, but makes “the valley” an instant classic.
39. Murder by Death - “I Shot an Arrow”
With its wonky-ass opening groove, “I Shot an Arrow” does not sound like the beginning of a typical Murder by Death song, but as singer Adam Turla builds into a howl, it sure as hell ends like one. And maybe there is no such thing as a typical Murder by Death song. Over seven albums, the Indiana band is constantly challenging you to label them (gothic folk punk, mayyybe?). “I Shot an Arrow” also has the distinct honor of being the only song on this list based on an episode of The Twilight Zone.
38. Jack Ü – "Where Are U Now"
At the beginning of the year, no one would’ve thought Justin Bieber would redeem himself in the eyes of the public, especially a run that would start on a feature track by Skrillex and Diplo. In one swoop, the production duo collectively known as Jack Ü managed to succinctly mark the final combination of EDM and pop, as well as lay the first brick for Bieber’s return into good graces. “Where Are Ü Now” takes both Skrillex and Diplo’s high points, mixing the vocal distorting effects in Skrillex’s output and bouncing them off the dancehall drums perfected by Diplo. On top of that, Bieber shows how powerful and touching his voice has grown over the years. “Where Are Ü Now” finds its strength in being appealing and powerful to both teenagers and adults alike. Fun knows no age.
37. Japanese House – "Still"
There’s a moment in every doomed relationship where you’re certain it’s time to leave, except you can’t. You’re stuck. Instead of getting out, you’re too enveloped in the situation: falling asleep next to someone that’s cheated on you, broken your heart, lost it. As a result, you feel dead inside. That’s the sort of heartfelt moment that 20-year-old Amber Bain deals in. And on “Still,” she captures it with deeply moving harmonic vocals that communicate the fragility of the situation in a way like no other.
36. Rich Homie Quan – "Flex"
Whether he was being accused of jacking Future’s sound, being dismissed as the lesser half of his collaboration with Young Thug, or indirectly spawning one of the year’s biggest dance memes, Rich Homie Quan has rarely gotten his due as a gifted pop songwriter and original talent in his own right. “Flex (Ooh Ooh Ooh)” is his answer to the doubters, an elastic, unapologetically fun song that imagines a sunnier, funkier version of Atlanta’s increasingly well-worn trap sound and somehow makes the prospect of earning a hundred thousand dollars sound even cooler than it already was.
35. Grimes – "Flesh Without Blood"
The first official taster from Grimes’ hotly anticipated, three-year-in-the-making follow-up to Visions—with an entire album scrapped during that time because “it sucked”—“Flesh Without Blood” was a bold move. A celebratory kiss-off aimed at the same fickle blog-based hype culture that powered her rise, the track was, in a way, a caveat stipulated ahead of her most accessible and least personal body of work to date. One that reasserted Claire Elise Boucher’s prowess as both the pop star and the mastermind behind the scenes; a proficient multi-instrumentalist who can and will create Kelly Clarkson-style power-pop at its most accomplished.
34. Drake and Future – "Jumpman"
Who do you know that could take a single two-syllable word and turn it into a club banger? You could maybe name two artists capable, and both of them teamed up to make “Jumpman.” Far from the best song on What A Time To Be Alive (that would be “Jerseys”), it became the song that would break apart from the rest for its sheer absurdness. It inspired remixes and video games, all while promoting Drake’s partnership with Jordan brand sneakers. You have to credit Metro Boomin with creating an instrumental that’s both joyous and creepy, but the real award goes to Drake for making something that sounds like a placeholder into a song that’s taken on a life of its own.
33. Kacey Musgraves – "Dime Store Cowgirl"
This is the song on Pageant Material where Kacey Musgraves really hits her first stride. On an album full of songs about reflection and never really escaping your roots, “Dime Store Cowgirl” sums it all up: “You can take me out of the country / But you can't take the country out of me, no / 'Cause I'm still the girl from Golden / Had to get away so I could grow,” croons Musgraves. Coupled with some seriously heavy steel guitar, this song is bound to make you reconcile with the person you used to be.
32. Car Seat Headrest – "Something Soon"
A trend that everybody loves to mention when they talk about music in the year 2015 is that guitars are dead. Bye bye, six strings. Kids prefer the ol’ computer to make music now versus the Fender Strat. That may be true to a certain extent, but holy Christ is it not in others. Car Seat Headrest—from a dude in Seattle named Will Toledo—is an example of the latter, and “Something Soon” is his best work to date, which is saying something considering Toledo has been recording and releasing hundreds of songs on the internet for the last five years, with only recently getting signed to Matador for his latest release, Teens of Style. His music is charmingly introspective; the kind that forces you to stare at the sky and think about why staring at the sky is so therapeutic.
31. Bleed the Pigs – "Born of Filth"
Bleed the Pigs blessed us with multiple releases this year, but the Nashville band’s split with Thetan was the first, and arguably the most potent. “Born of Filth” is a filthy dirge, spanning gutter sludge, churning grind, ominous death, and caustic hardcore in the space of four and a half paranoid minutes. Bleed the Pigs is brilliant at any tempo, but that shuddering crawl really drives the horror home.
30. BEA 1991 – "Filthy Believer"
You would never guess, if you just heard the first 30 seconds of this song, how it would all end up. It starts with calming, chill-out synths like you’ve just stepped into a hot yoga class and the instructor is lighting a patchouli Yankee Candle. Dutch anti-pop star BEA 1991 quietly coos “crawl under mighty refine,” sounding a bit like Lorde if she was having an enema. Then a bunch of searing rape alarms start to sound and the whole thing becomes hysterical, like an enema gone wrong. Each bit on its own sounds weird, but taken together, it’s a masterpiece. BEA’s ability to shock and confuse marks her as one of the most expressive and arty new pop prospects.
29. Appalachian Terror Unit – "Casualties of a Rape Culture"
The title hits hard—and then the song itself kicks in. Taken off the West Virginia militant crust quartet’s first full-length since 2008, "Casualties of a Rape Culture" surges forth atop an urgent d-beat. Vocalist Sarah spits venom and truth via spoken word condemnations of the way our fucked society silences, exploits, and abuses women, before launching into her signature raw-throated rasp to exhort change—”Sisters of the world we will never be quiet / We have a voice, we will not drown in the silence.”
28. Lady Leshurr – "Queen's Speech 4"
“Brush your teeth!” And here endeth the lesson from Lady Leshurr, a Birmingham-based grime MC whose fourth installment of her Queen’s Speech freestyle series went viral in August with over a million views in a week. With timely nods to Rachel Dolezal, Fetty Wap, Rick Ross, and a problematic reference to Caitlyn Jenner (misnamed Bruce Jenner), “Queen’s Speech 4” gave UK hip-hop a fun, fresh do-over. In an industry that tends to be London and male-centric, Lady Leshurr came through to occupy a space she has made her own, with a boss flow, undeniable hooks, and tongue firmly wedged in her minty fresh cheek.
27. Young Thug – "Hercules"
This past year, music has seen varying grades of beef. When Young Thug went after Metro Boomin over some tweets he made, the fate of their long awaited collaboration mixtape Metro Thuggin seemed to be in jeopardy. Luckily, it didn’t last more than a week, and the duo dropped some of their best work in “Hercules” at the end of it. The song is extremely self-aware, giving a sly wink to beefs with Thug repeating Metro Boomin’s tag before dropping his own. It’s also aware of the capabilities both artists have to compose hits, and how well their talents intersect. Thugger’s vocal register bounces off of walls, following in tandem with Metro’s beat. It’s a distillment of their feats of strength this year into one track; Metro Boomin coming into the forefront as the year’s most important producer, and Young Thug putting more quality projects than ever.
26. Jidenna – "Classic Man"
Jidenna’s summer anthem started a bit as a catchy refrain but then full on morphed into a lifestyle. What, exactly, is a Classic Man? It’s more than a guy in a fancy suit—although that doesn’t hurt. Instead, a Classic Man is a state of mind. “All style is a form of resistance,” Jidenna told The Fader earlier this year. A Classic Man knows no gender. A Classic Man is one that’s progressive, that’s uplifting, that’s positive, that’s thoughtful, that’s challenging. Friends, find your inner Classic Man. #JidennaHive is real.
25. Tame Impala – "Let It Happen"
Tame Impala weren’t supposed to sound this good. Until this point, Kevin Parker’s project has been, at best, an interesting psych-rock distraction from the glut of ever disinteresting guitar music found pretty much everywhere else. So when their third album opened with “Let it Happen,” a near eight-minute tortured wail—as defiant as it is fearful—we were stopped in our tracks. A remarkable, hallucinatory exercise as comfortable in a sprawling cosmic DJ set as it is a dorm room bong sesh.
24. Meat Wave – "Delusion Moon"
“Delusion Moon” is the perfect song to kick off an album by a band named Meat Wave. That’s exactly what it sounds like—a relentless pummeling to your ears, like waves of meat slapping you about the face, pounding you over and over on the head until you’re shaken and disoriented. It’s like going a round with Mike Tyson in his prime, with only slightly less ear-biting.
23. Hop Along – "Waitress"
Hop Along singer Frances Quinlan seems to have an unending bag of tricks she can draw from with her voice. She throws cracks and squeals onto a song to add inimitable character, like the hisses and pops of an old record spinning on a turntable. On “Waitress,” a song about the crushing dread of running into someone you know when you’re just trying to get by at your damn restaurant job, her trick is that she crescendos each chorus, louder and louder, decibel by decibel, until the end of the song where she is really testing the limits of what the track can handle.
22. DonMonique – "Pilates"
"Pilates" is not a song about how to achieve an elongated, washboard core, but rather a slinky-ass tune with an ominous boom of a beat where 21-year-old Brooklyn rapper DonMonique namechecks Kendall, Kylie, and yeah, Miley, turning their mononyms into code for drugs (Kendall’s a model, so she’s coke, Kylie frequently favored green hair—she’s pot, and Miley’s obviously molly, duh). A kind of supple, slo-mo twist on trap, “Pilates” trumpeted the arrival of a one-to-watch talent with glinting talons and baggy tracksuit tops, and a clutch of uncluttered cuts pulled together on her hefty debut EP Thirst Trap. This year, the best part of the Kardashians' ongoing insidiously pervasive stranglehold on popular culture was DonMonique’s appropriation of the clan’s youngest offspring for her own lyrical amusement and ours.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
21. Stormzy – "Know Me From"
Stormzy is great because Americans don’t understand him. He’s like Cheeky Nando’s in aural form. Merky? Peng? Bare? Wasteman? Pagan? What are these things, America is saying, all the while being unable to avoid the fact that “Know Me From” puts a lot of Stateside rappers to shame with its production, big-balled confidence, and music video—which, above all things, features Stormzy’s mother. Being British is a wonderful thing and Stormzy is the foot soldier that represents what it’s really about, which is far from the Ellie Gouldings and Ed Sheerans the country usually gets associated with.
20. Alex Winston - "Down Low"
Winston has the knack: The ability to mine her reserves and serve up songs that drip with emotion—revisit 2013’s “101 Vultures” for past evidence. As a buffer between her 2012 debut King Con and her forthcoming sophomore record, the Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based singer unveiled her EP, The Day I Died this summer. The title track may be the obvious peacock of the slim collection—perky like peak-era Molly Ringwald in a ra-ra skirt—but “Down Low” is the real scene-stealer. An 80s power ballad fleeced of its bombast and all the more resonant for its relative sparsity. The 28-year-old’s delivery is so breathily intimate you can hear her parting her lips, her tones gossamer fine like Kate Bush and just as effortlessly elastic in their range. It’s a breakup ballad that’ll drag you straight back to the time you felt hollowed with loss, when you shuddered with a longing so acute that in that moment you’d take back every gilded shared experience just to make the ache disappear. Jeez, Alex, thanks for memories! But truly, why pussyfoot when you can strike straight at the jugular?
—Kim Taylor Bennett
19. Speedy Ortiz – "Raising the Skate"
“Raising the Skate” is the off-kilter rock song Speedy Ortiz was born to write. The alternative stylings of the Massachusetts quartet fronted by indie’s reigning smart-aleck Sadie DuPuis comes to a head on this Frankenstein of a single. It’s a mathy declaration of power that tangles Speedy's signature angst with commanding attitude.
18. Tirzah – "Make It Up to You"
Who wants to listen to countless pop songs about being in love or being dumped, when you can listen to the more realistic sound of Tirzah delicately berating her bae for being a useless shit? That’s the essence of “Make It Up,” her August single which had previously become a jewel of much internet obsession after Four Tet dropped a snippet on his Radio 1 show. The Micachu-produced house beat beneath is an undulating funk; murky and bubbling, like the muffled boom of a soundsystem that’s drowning slowly in some liquid deep and viscous. In essence, this is the sound of you arguing on the smoking area then turning heel and walking straight back in the club.—Joe Zadeh
17. Fetty Wap – "My Way"
Fetty Wap’s smash “My Way” is amazing because it is essentially a four-minute chorus, modulating between just two vocal lines with the switch falling into spots in the song where it feels like it shouldn’t. It’s as though the artist thinks the hook is so hot he refuses to change it up. It feels unruly, disruptive, and the same could be said for the Patterson, NJ native himself. He comes from a state not known for trap, and his rise to the top of the charts happened in the absence of the usual mainstream rap cosign ecology. His is a kingdom built wholly on the backs of limber little turns of phrase like these, melodies that mystically feel just as fresh the third time around as the three hundredth.
16. Father John Misty – "I Love You, Honeybear"
Josh Tillman doesn’t call his wife “honeybear.” He doesn’t call anyone that. (Why in god’s name would someone do that?) But he sings the word over and over again at the very beginning of this song to kick off the album of the same name as a way of driving home what you’re in for: a sap-heavy record about a man who is truly, obsessively in love. Of course, to avoid being written off as another straight white male singing songs on an acoustic guitar about his feelings (lame!), he buries this sentiment under several layers of irony with his Father John Misty character. But when you dig through all the self-awareness, there is a truly beautiful song about two cynics falling for each other and saying fuck the world. Plus, it includes one of the most wonderfully cadenced first lines of any album: “Mascara, blood, ash, and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love.”
15. Chris Stapleton – "Tennessee Whiskey"
It takes a clever soul to turn a pretty George Jones hit into a torchlight blues pulsing with hot longing. It takes a master to give it a vocal performance for the ages. Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton achieved both with “Tennessee Whiskey,” the shock hit from his long overdue debut solo album Traveller. Stapleton and band give the song a slow swing it didn’t know it needed, a sparse and guttural groove that leaves the singer space to emote. And emote, he does, especially in the chorus, which is both believably sincere and gobstoppingly accomplished from a technical standpoint. Stapleton’s years of work as a Nashville hired hand show in the sharpness of his singing and playing, and with this song’s post-CMA Awards ascent to the charts, the singer finally gets to enjoy the spotlight himself.
14. Kanye West feat. Paul McCartney – "Only One"
Most pieces of music that artists make about their kids suck. It’s a fact that nobody like your kids as much as you do, so it stands to reason that people won’t like any music that you make about your kids either. And yet, rappers continue to try to prove that wrong. Jay Z took his shot and missed with “Glory,” and when it was announced that Kanye would be trying to break the curse, it was easy to doubt him, which is what made “Only One” such a surprising success. The song is nothing but sweet, likely because it’s as much a letter to his departed mother as it is a love letter to his new daughter. Kanye’s Auto-Tuned singing is affably bad, and the Paul McCartney addition acts more like background coloring, but the whole thing just feels sentimental. If old family footage stored on VHS tapes had a universal soundtrack, it would be the Kanye West deconstructed production that’s behind “Only One.”
13. JME – "Man Don't Care"
From the houseparty to the club to the playground to the backseat of the 106 to Finsbury Park, “Man Don’t Care” became UK-omnipresent the moment it dropped this summer, and if you had to pick one hit to define grime’s growth, then something that bangs hard and contains verses from both JME and Giggs is a damn fine place to start. Now, let’s take this opportunity to herald “box in the eye with the fob I use to log in to my HSBC” as the most millennial GBH threat ever put on paper.
12. Kendrick Lamar – "Alright"
There was one complaint sandwiched among the critical praise that arrived with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly earlier this year. Some believed that compared to Lamar’s previous release good kid, m.A.A.d city, TPAB lacked songs (as if “King Kunta,” “i,” and “These Walls” weren’t single stand outs). As the year ends, and as “Alright” has soundtracked a civil rights movement that’s tackled police harassment, it’s curious to wonder if those same people still have the same view. “Alright” is more than the sum of its parts; it’s become something meaningful to people at large. That’s a great thing. And that’s before we’ve even got to the video. That deserves all the attention “Hotline Bling” received.
11. Kanye West – "All Day"
Flamethrowers! A 30-strong gang dressed in hoodies and tracksuits! Lionel Richie’s reaction! The subsequent critical response! Has there ever been a better performance at the BRIT Awards than Kanye West’s “All Day?” The track (which had been worked on for the better part of a year) stunned when it arrived, and in lieu of SWISH continues to be a talking point. Is it the sound Kanye will go for on his next record? Who knows! Whether or not it sparked bigger things is irrelevant. Because if there’s one moment this year that succeeded in galvanizing both the United States and the United Kingdom, then it’s this track.
10. Dilly Dally – "Desire"
There is nothing in Katie Monks’ lyrics and voice that suggests anything but complete and total possession of desire on “Desire.” Monks screams and howls throughout the song, which seems to take the listener on a slow walk toward something bigger, though we never know what that “something bigger” is.
The Alexis Krauss-meets-Courtney Love sound of this song literally burns you. “This fire, this fire, this fire, desire,” repeats Monks, over and over, until you feel like a walking zombie. All you can think about is who—or what—it is you desire and there’s no way you can stop. It lulls you into a state between dream and reality, burning with desire until there’s nothing left but to hit repeat.
9. Carly Rae Jepsen – "Run Away with Me"
Is there any moment in music this year more joyous than when the saxophone kicks off Carly Rae Jepsen’s dynamite record EMOTION? Immediately, we’re presented with a sound that’s fresh, exciting, and explosive—and bubbling with personality. Because at the heart of it, that’s what makes Jepsen a very special, almost mystical artist. Her music channels something on the inside of you, one that’s built on that indefinable feeling—you know the one—that moment when you start to fall, or more accurately, feel yourself fall, for a new person. “Run Away with Me” is everything the song title is—a proclamation that we should grab that someone, kick our responsibilities off the cliff and run the other direction, holding hands and flying alongside the butterflies that’ve escaped our stomachs. “Baby, take me to that feeling,” she sings. “I’ll be your sinner, in secret, when the lights go out, run away with me.” One might point to the lyrics and call them romantically simplistic or maybe even juvenile, but Jepsen’s commitment to the fleeting moment is what makes her so captivating. For just over four minutes, she refuses to let you stop falling in love.
8. Bully – "I Remember"
“I Remember” is the ultimate "fuck you" anthem for everyone who has ever had their heart broken by a friend or lover. It’s personal, and it’s raw; it’s the type of song you turn on when you’re having feelings about someone who isn’t in your life anymore, and you’re mad they’ve made you feel that way.
Its ambient, maxed-out sound and the screaming vocals of Alicia Bognanno might remind you of Hole, or of riot grrrl in general, because so much of the music in 2015 seemed to sound like that, but Bully and Bognanno bring something new to the riot grrrl revival table with this song. It’s a song about being lovesick, about wanting revenge, about the strange possessiveness you feel over a person even after they’re out of your life. From the first wail of the guitar to the last of Bognanno’s yells, this song will have you punching holes in walls and yelling at the top of your lungs.
7. Rihanna – "Bitch Better Have My Money"
The savviest move of Rihanna’s decade-long career was the moment she decided to step back. With the exception of 2008, Rihanna’s dropped a record every single year she’s been active, albums that, despite the close proximity of their release dates, have marked a notable progression in her evolution as an artist, each further cementing her position as a pop culture deity. That said, by the end of Unapologetic’s promotional run it was time to GTFO. We’d reached Rih-saturation point. As much as her caramel curves on Instagram were a cozy constant in our collective endless scroll (and a reminder to go the gym), last year's six-month 'gram hiatus was necessary. Missing someone is nice. Of course the irony is when you’re a star as sparkly as Ms. Fenty, the public's thirst is so utterly unquenchable, she's never really out of reach: We conjure her and the long lenses and headlines give us our fix.
This year, Rihanna orchestrated an extended session of foreplay, kicking off in January with “FourFiveSeconds,” compounded by an endless stream of fashion collaborations and the fact that she wore the most meme-able outfit to this year’s Met Ball (made up of enough fabric to reupholster a three bedroom house), and finally book-ended by “American Oxygen.” Who knows, maybe the 28-year-old will close out the year by surprise-launching her Samsung-backed eighth album, Anti, but in the meantime, her strongest stunt of 2015 was “Bitch Better Have My Money.” With its threatening fairground waltz keys and trap hi-hats, her unimpeachably confident staccato—“Brrap! Brrap! Brrap!”—and of course the divisively brilliant, blood-spattered video, “BBHMM” is a purported diss song aimed at her swindling accountant. More than that, it's a commanding, no-bones-about-it reminder that this Barbadian will continue to press buttons while we chatter incessantly about her every move, gazing up from where we sit, nestled in the palm of her hand. “Don’t act like you forgot: I call the shot-shot-shots!” Doesn’t she just.
—Kim Taylor Bennett
6. Kendrick Lamar – "The Blacker the Berry"
In January of this year, the wounds of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner still fresh yet the flames of the Ferguson riots not yet realized, Kendrick Lamar came under fire for comments he made regarding his conviction that the starting point for stemming violence against African Americans had to be “within”—with many feeling he was in some way blaming victims of police brutality for their own fates. By February 9, he had released “The Blacker the Berry” and any questions of his true intentions were stunned silent. We eulogize most great politically charged pieces of music for their universality, their ability to behave as statements for all people during all times. “The Blacker the Berry” pits the opposite response. It seethes with personal venom and confusion. Lamar spits “You're fuckin' evil / I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey” as if pinning the entire weight of white hegemony up against a wall in fit of spontaneous, uncontrollable dangerous rage.
This is what makes it such a potent and lethal work. As full of hate for others as it is himself, it crucially doesn’t try to provide any answers. Instead it is the sound of untethered mourning. Generations of pain spat back in an instant.
5. Future – "March Madness"
It’s hard to argue that this year belonged to anybody but Future. His run over the last 12 months, which gave us Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights, DS2, and What a Time to Be Alive, is nothing short of legendary and should firmly place him as one of the all-time great MCs. This period has delivered some of the best music of his career—and in true Future fashion, he’s been too good for his own good, creating so many hits that each failed to truly take off in a commercial way. The standout among standouts, though, is “March Madness,” the swirling, titanic smash from 56 Nights that is no doubt your favorite rapper’s favorite song. It’s not only, lyrically, one of Nayvadius’s best efforts—fearlessly addressing the political chaos that plagued our country in 2015 with a music video full of police brutality to match—but sonically, this track’s become a blueprint for Future’s sound: syrupy, monstrous, and aggressive. Put this on in the club and act like you aren’t gonna flip a table and stand on some furniture.
4. Skepta – "Shutdown"
It’s not known if Skepta was trolling his Canadian BFF by using the monologue from Drake’s Vine to open up the song that would become an international hit, but it’s nice to pretend. Nonetheless, it takes a special amount of talent to come out from behind Drake’s shadow, and Skepta became an unlikely candidate for breakout artist of the year thanks to this song. Sure, he had a long career prior, and had a number of hits crossover, but none did so the way that “Shutdown” did. It is now almost impossible to refer to anything Skepta has done without using that verb: if he played a show, he shut it down; if he’s brought out as a special guest, it was shut down. The infectious horns at the start of the song have become the hallmark for Skepta’s 2015, and the fact that a Grime song has achieved such global popularity is a feat that hasn’t been touched in a long time. Skepta’s ability to rap over sped up instrumentals is just one of the reasons he’s made it big this year, the other being how well he’s able to keep grime—which is generally seen as an inaccessible genre—in the mainstream. Hopefully he’ll be able to continue this onslaught throughout 2016 so that he can shut down that year as well.
3. Drake – "Hotline Bling"
Drake spent most of 2015 staking his claim as rap’s biggest winner, sometimes to the point that it felt like bullying. But despite his chest-thumping on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, his surgical dismantling of Meek Mill’s career, and even his self-appointment as conductor of rap’s meme orchestra, the most convincing argument he made was an incidental one, in the form of a tossed-off Soundcloud loosie called “Hotline Bling” that became his biggest and best hit.
“Hotline Bling” was neither an instant success nor humorlessly engineered to be one—both rarities for 2015 Drake. Instead, it’s borderline goofy, with a hook that’s just unique enough of a phrase—“you used to call me on my cell phone”—to lodge itself forever in your brain and find its way into conversation during the eight million moments a day that we spend discussing our phones. It’s Drake as we like to imagine him—hapless and pining over an ex—but in it is also the full spectrum of how we see ourselves. Sometimes we’re the ones with the glasses of champagne out on the dancefloor; other times we’re the ones pettily wondering how that person who used to call us is having so much fun with people we’ve never seen before. Drake gives each equal weight. In the process, he invites everyone to the dancefloor, where that cheesy, instantly retro beat is already anticipating the moment, 20 years from now, when we’ll play this at weddings and remember our glory days of sending thirsty texts, hovering over each other’s Instagram feeds, and sharing hilarious memes. Even though the phenomenon of “Hotline Bling,” with its parodies and covers, embodies our of-the-moment culture, it is a song that will last forever.
2. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan – "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)"
When the Oxford English Dictionary evolves to include MP3s alongside this year’s addition of the “crying-face emoji,” the Jamie xx and Young Thug and Popcaan track needs to be the immediate definition for “Good Times.” For the entirety of summer 2015, it seemed physically impossible to have a good time without hearing, or at the least thinking about the track. And for good reason too. Is there another track that sounds like “Good Times?” It’s one of a kind: splicing dancehall, Young Thug’s yelps, and Jamie xx together. It also has the unique quality every single strives for, where the riff or any number of lines—literally every other bar on his Thugga’s two-verse buffet is a quotable—has the potential to reverberate around the listener’s head for days. What that comes down to is optimism, which, really, is what’s at the track’s core—from the confidence the collaboration would even work to the result. Perhaps that’s what makes it sound like that moment in spring when everyone decides it’s nearly warm enough to leave the house in shorts. By distilling that moment into a song, Jamie xx has ensured we can return to idealistic and fun positivity whenever we put our headphones on.
1. Justin Bieber – "What Do You Mean?"
Justin Bieber’s embroilment in perpetual controversy has a habit of distracting from his abilities as a pop artist. But as he moves further away from the petulant mould of the manufactured child star he was originally presented in, it’s becoming increasingly irrational for the stigma of his teenage actions to outweigh his contributions to modern pop.
Bieber has delivered his fair share of mature material before now, 2012’s “Boyfriend” and the much-overlooked Journals are testament to that, but “What Do You Mean?” came with a new stamp that was distinctly his own. Searching for emotional clarity, “What Do You Mean?” has all the instantly memorable pop hooks we have come to expect from a “Bieber banger” but with an additional layer of nuanced, tropical house-inspired detail that allows it to operate on club rotation as well as being interesting enough to live on your iPod free of self-consciousness. Co-produced by Bieber himself and “Boyfriend” collaborator MdL, “What Do You Mean?” has infinite groove, a pan flute hook no less, and vocally he’s never sounded better. With an impressive display of resolve, it's perhaps his strongest bid to be taken seriously as an artist by adults, as an adult.
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