Top 10 Songs of 2015

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Didn’t 2015 feel great? Wasn’t there so much good music? Here’s what we thought was the very best.

2015 was a wild year for music. From Sleater-Kinney in January to Cage the Elephant last week, there was great music being released nearly every week. And the singles charts were loaded with songs we’ll be hearing for years. For every “Cheerleader,” there were two “The Hills” – songs with clarity and density, songs with a reason to exist. Bruno Mars jammed earplugs into our ears whenever “Uptown Funk” came on – the biggest hit of the year, and a great song that we’re sick of now. Justin Bieber demanded a career redemption with two songs – and got it. Bieber, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and even Taylor Swift grew up, all proving serious musicianship (and Miley dressed up like a baby). One Direction finally fell to Earth and broke up, but not before dropping some surprisingly great farewell tunes. Madonna, Motorhead, Missy Elliott, David Bowie, Iron Maiden, the Sonics, Marilyn Manson and Jeff Lynne all proved they’re not going anywhere (and Keith Richards proved he should). Drake also reinvented himself, crushing Meek Mill and the charts in the process. The Weeknd, Fetty Wap, Vince Staples, Torres and Grimes all made bids for greatness. Kendrick Lamar released one of the best albums in years. And not to mention, Adele, Rihanna, Kanye and Lana Del Rey all graced us with releases. I tried to make a loose “50 great songs from 2015” playlist on Spotify and I couldn’t even wheedle it down to 50, there was so much great music this year. But what was the very best?

As with my previously published albums list, I have chosen not to include the late-2014 releases of Nicki Minaj’s “The PinkPrint,” D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and Charli XCX’s “SUCKER.”

#10. Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”

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Some unknown kid from New Jersey swiped the de facto song of the summer out from Bruno Mars’ feet, and made one of the best jams of the year. Fetty Wap was an unknown, putting his stuff on Soundcloud at the beginning of the year, and by the year’s end, he had three top 10 hits (“Trap Queen” hit #2). His first album debuted at #1 and he got himself two Grammy nominations. Fetty’s voice is equally gritty and welcoming, and his music is beyond infectious. It’s an ode to a partner in crime, literally, and surprisingly sweet about it. Also, sure it might mention cocaine, but it’s not the only song on this list about coke (in fact, all three summer songs make some reference to it). Fetty Wap had a bigger 2015 than almost anyone else, but “Trap Queen” almost became a martyr hit, as Fetty got into a bad motorcycle accident the day his debut album came out.

#9. Viet Cong – “Death”

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I usually allow myself one personal choice on these lists, a fault of a listener who listens to everything, but predominantly pretentious noise-rock. I think last year I picked a sub-2 minute hardcore feminist punk anthem. This year is a noisy, 11+ minute endurance test. Viet Cong came under heat this year – their first year – for their racist name, as they are four white dudes from Canada (two of whom previously played in a band called “Women”). Their debut album, unfortunately great, explores the genre post-punk as two elements – catchy and noisy. It fluctuates between the two without warning. The heaviest, longest and best song is the closer, which would be a relatively normal post-punk song if it wasn’t for the six-minute guitar sledge right in the middle. There’s two three-minute guitar segments that are repeated until they’re more than driven into your brain. It’s heavier than any metal song released this year, and it’s not for everyone. But it’s a great, and exhausting, odyssey.

#8. Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood”

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Another personal favorite of mine from this year is Grimes’s most conventional song to date. With a borderline pop-punk bassline that sounds accidental, this song was jarring to Grimes fans. But after only two plays it was stuck in my head. The song is a relatively morose look back on a relationship that fizzled out, and has one of the catchiest choruses of the year. Her album was famously delayed after she scrapped everything but one song, feeling it was “too sad” to play on tour. The result was songs like this – melancholy, sure, but catchy as hell. Even if the song is conventional, though, there’s always the title, and the video, with Grimes growing increasingly bloody in an elegant dress in a variety of locales. Grimes does everything herself – the music, the production, the tours, the videos, album covers and choreography. So when you hear this anti-ballad, you know she’s baring all.

Author’s note: Congratulations to Grimes, the only person on this list two years in a row.

#7. Adele – “Hello”

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“Hello, it’s me” might be the most literal lyric Adele has ever sung. Adele announced her lead single relatively shortly before it came out, just enough time for the world to grab their Kleenex boxes. “Hello, it’s me,” is all Adele has to sing to make us fall to our knees. It’s amazing, really. Adele simply announced her presence, and Rihanna, One Direction and Bieber altered the release dates of their albums so they didn’t have to compete. (Clock’s ticking, Rihanna!) But beyond that, it’s a great song of a heartbreaker calling years later to apologize, recognizing that he has probably moved on just fine. My favorite thing about Adele is how she’ll occasionally position herself in an antagonistic role. She did it on “Rumour Has It,” and she does it here. “Hello” might be exactly what we expected, and it might sound exactly like what Adele has done before. It’s also exactly what we wanted.

#6. Drake – “Hotline Bling”

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Speaking of phone calls, Drake is bemoaning them too. Now that Drake is big and famous, he’s sad that some girl he used to bone in Toronto is off doing her own thing. Or at least, that’s what he’s singing about. I, for one, think it’s about something else, because that’s not a very Drake-y premise for a song. And not to mention, it samples Timmy Thomas and has a video inspired by artist James Turrell. Those influences clash with the song’s literal meaning. Drake’s biggest hit is also his most minimal – just him singing and rapping over a simple beat. A Soundcloud throwaway, it somehow still climbed the charts. The memes and parodies of this song continue onward and have included, unfortunately, versions with both Trump and Bernie Sanders. But they only bolster the original, one of the best songs Drizzy has ever made.

#5. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”

The best song off the best rock album of the year, Alabama Shakes cram an Adele-level of emotion into a blues-funk song. The riff is immediately groovy, and Brittany Howard’s prolonged squeal announce that the Shakes are out to have some fun in the studio. And across the album, they do, but as “Fight” goes on, it becomes a more and more strained ode to a failing relationship. The song is dominated by Howard’s commanding voice, one of the best voices in music right now. It’s a rock song that builds like no other, and the song’s pained climax will leave you with chills running down your spine. The band picked up a Grammy nom for this song, and it’s well-deserved.

#4. Rihanna – “Bitch Better Have My Money”

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If you had told me that a new pop song was coming out called “Bitch Better Have My Money” and asked me who I think it’s by, I’d say, “obviously Rihanna.” To be a successful pop singer these days you have to have a personality, real or not. And Rihanna’s image as a badass, hedonistic, crime lord-cum-singer was finally fully realized. Rihanna’s most minimalist song is also her most abrasive, most upfront. The title says it all – Rihanna is the alpha. She doesn’t need music to aid her – there’s barely even a full-fledged song here, it’s just her over trap beats, mainly. And the accompanying music video, with Rihanna kidnapping and murdering(?) the wife of her unwise accountant, played by the Casino Royale dude, is the best and most faithful video of the year. It’s so explicit in every way, you need to prove to Youtube you’re 18+ to watch it. Whether or not this song is directed towards someone – and some have speculated it’s actually about her accountant, who Rihanna sued for breach of contract in 2009 – it’s a brutal claim to throne. Rihanna says she calls the shots. We’d better believe it.

#3. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”

Like many, I got into Courtney Barnett through her early hit, “Avant Gardener.” The song is a muted, chorus-less, introspective ramble about having an asthma attack while doing some Monday gardening. This song is the exact opposite – loud, jangly, angry, and outward. The song kicks in with a guitar rhythm straight out of the Stephen Malkmus playbook, before Barnett comes in with a vocal line that sticks words and rhymes in so incoherently that she’s practically rapping. The song is a 90’s indie mimic, and it builds to a big chorus of “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / You tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very fuuuuuunnnnnnyyyyy,” the last word of which she holds for 5 whole seconds. As the verses go on, Barnett’s voice gets more emotional and she starts to overpower the rest of the band, as tension builds. It’s one of the most energetic, singalong and fun songs of the year, which is impressive considering it honestly includes the line “I’m having an existential time crisis.”

#2. Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”

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Let’s be honest – if this list were the actual best songs of the year, at least three or four of them would come from Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the best album in years. My personal pick is “King Kunta,” one of the album’s more prominent singles. In a year where funk had an out-of-nowhere revival, it was the funkiest song on the album. In just one song, Lamar mixes funk, a deconstruction of rap, anger about his depression, Compton politics and an ode to childhood in one big, overflowing pot. Every loose end that he raps about on the album is present. It’s a lot, and Lamar raps like he’s about to lose control. There’s a reference to Michael Jackson, and a sullen prediction of the Drake/Meek Mill beef that would erupt only months later. This is a song that can be put on when you’re in any mood – there’s something that reflects it. Lamar puts himself on record, and he’s a complicated guy. He’s out to make rap more complicated, more dense, be it intentional or not. And so far, this is his best work.

#1. The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”

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There are a number of contenders for sexiest song of the year, and a few come from The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness.” But his first-ever big hit, and the second-biggest chart hit of the year, has more meat than his others. The Weeknd usually sings about either women or cocaine. In this song, he personifies cocaine to make it sound like he’s singing about a woman. Not a big leap, but it’s a great song still. The song has a dreamy, almost red herring intro before the bassline kicks in and it becomes an all-out groovefest. It’s a guaranteed nightclub jam, I can’t even sit still when it comes on my radio in the car. With the possibility for widespread popularity and a strong hint of eeriness, the Weeknd really might be the next MJ. This song is the whole package – funky, huge, memorable and cohesive. Pretty good for a song about predicting your own untimely death by cocaine overdose.

Your favorite didn’t make it? Here’s the runners-up, in no order: Beck – “Dreams,” Modest Mouse – “Lampshades on Fire,” Waxahatchee – “<,” Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell – “WTF (Where They From),” Tame Impala – “Let It Happen”

Check my personal blog, by the year’s end to see my personal list of best songs, and a playlist to accompany it.

-By Andrew McNally

One Response to Top 10 Songs of 2015

  1. […] As a critic, I’m obliged to do a “Best Of” list, but that can be viewed over here. Here is my “best of,” list, less capitalized, less formal. Posted right below is a […]

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