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The 101 Best Songs of 2015

Future-ThoughtItWasDrought

20. Future, “Thought It Was a Drought”

No matter how celebratory he sounds, Future’s output over the course of the past year has been world-weary and drowned in codeine, slurry odes to a lifestyle that he doesn’t even really sound that stoked to be living out. Few opening lines — like, ever — feel as triumphant as “I just f**ked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops,” but repetition reduces even that extravagant transgression to a chore. “Thought It Was a Drought” stands as Future’s most compelling depiction of anhedonia: You go through your day and do all the s**t you’d always do and still feel nothing. — COLIN JOYCE

AlexG-Bug

19. Alex G, “Bug”

Simple and strange tend to be the leading descriptors of Alex G’s music, but “Bug,” the first single from this year’s sweetly unnerving Beach Music, deserves another crop of adjectives: Removed. Achy. Heartbreaking. You end up thinking of all the intangible stuff you’ve lost when he whimpers, “And when you go there, you stay there.” And yet, for all of its doldrums, the song leaves a trail of bizarre humor. Composed of lo-fi acoustic strums, lightly chiming tambourine, and the Philly native’s almost-whispered falsetto, Giannascoli warps his voice like a chipmunk on helium to bleat, “Bug in the crosshaaaair.” It still goes to show: We can dwarf an insect in size, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling small either. — RACHEL BRODSKY

Shamir-CallItOff

18. Shamir, “Call It Off”

The death of electroclash wasn’t some cyclical hype thing; the genre lacked warmth and friendliness in its posturing distance. Shamir’s blocky, 8-bit cartoon synths could squeeze into a PVC corset and knee-high leather boots no doubt, but not without cracking up giggling. And thus a kettle-voiced 21-year-old’s buoyant anti-gaslighting anthem (“You had me blame myself / Question my mental health”) deservingly took hold. The other kind of bro dance music, as in the bigger little bro we all wish we had. — DAN WEISS

MajorLazer-LeanOn

17. Major Lazer and DJ Snake feat. Mø, “Lean On”

Electronic emperors Major Lazer (Diplo, Jillionaire, Walshy Fire), Danish pop singer Mø, and producer DJ Snake struck gold this year with this pulsing, hooky-as-hell dancehall-pop banger. Even if you didn’t actively tune in, chances are you heard it somewhere: Top 40 radio, someone else’s too-loud headphones, or atop a Spotify playlist (it became the service’s most-streamed song ever with more than 500 million plays). As for why “Lean On” has been so pervasive, just look to the Bill Withers 1972 smash invoked therein: Sometimes the simplest concepts are the most effective. — RACHEL BRODSKY 

Deerhunter-Snakeskin

16. Deerhunter, “Snakeskin”

The shame of “Snakeskin” is that the song came out in 2015 and not 1996, the year in which its idiosyncratic funkiness would’ve been most appreciated by the mainstream. The choppy guitar slink and (duh) slithering vocals may speak to the trickle-down influence of all the T. Rex that frontman Bradford Cox listened to on the set of Dallas Buyers’ Club, but the song’s indie-dance shuffle and enigmatic lyrics (“I was born with a crippled man on my back / I was national, I was geographic black”) are pure “Pepper” and Primitive Radio Gods — you can almost see Beck, patron saint of the period, breakdancing over the bridge’s drum breakdown. It should have been the song where we look back in 20 years and go, “Remember when Deerhunter had that one huge crossover hit, how weird was that?” Instead, it’ll have to suffice with simply being the band’s best pop tune to date. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

Sophie-JustLikeWeNever

15. SOPHIE, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”

SOPHIE’s PRODUCT — a collection of singles new and old that, for all intents and purposes, serves as the London producer’s de facto debut album — isn’t completely removed from the sort of high-minded gimmicks employed by his friends in the PC Music collective. But separate PRODUCT’s final and most fulfilling tune, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” from that extraneous context and what you have is a futuristic take on pop’s oldest and corniest trope: the love song. In this case, it’s the story of estranged lovers reconnecting and falling for each other like it’s the first time. The feminine, pitched-up vocal, intestine-twisting synths, and lack of proper percussion have the same effect on the listener — a worn-down topic becomes shiny and enthralling, and a simple line like “You still remember my favorite place,” sets off a sharp twinge. No instruction manual necessary. — KYLE MCGOVERN

JackU-WhereAreUNow

14. Jack Ü feat. Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now”

Compared to the raw desperation in just one line of Jack Ü’s beatific bang-a-rang, “Where Are Ü Now,” Justin Bieber’s tearful collapse to his knees at the VMAs reads like he was teleprompted. When the angel-voiced comeback kid of 2015 suddenly growls this song’s titular verse between clenched teeth, it’s like a table flip after what everyone thought was a mature breakup conversation. #Expensivestep or not, Diplo and Skrillex definitely found sounds no one’s ever heard before when they decided to fill their bass-cratered caverns with Bieber’s yodels, swirled in a computerized pitch he desperately needed to breathe again. — HARLEY BROWN

Bully-Trying

13. Bully, “Trying”

As a kid, you think adults have it all figured out — then you grow up and realize that no one knows anything. That’s what Bully frontwoman Alicia Bognanno has in mind on this breaking-point plea, which finds her “hiding from my mind,” “waiting for my period to come,” and “questioning my focus, my figure, my sexuality.” That’s clearly a lot to process, but the Nashville-based singer knows how to work out her frustration: via cathartic, voice-cracking yowls, classic alt-rock guitar ca-chunks, and a final round of asking, “Why am IIIII????” The answer, like the question, is deceivingly simple: All anyone can do is try. — RACHEL BRODSKY 

Drake-HotlineBling

12. Drake, “Hotline Bling”

Fitting that the best and biggest pop song by the greatest Canadian MC of all-time should sound like the world’s dopest Zamboni music. With its tired narrative thrust — good girls, why oh why do you still insist on feigning badness in Drake’s presence? — “Hotline Bling” could’ve easily been an eye-roller, a heavy-handed triviality dismissed as a D.R.A.M. rip-off. But with Drizzy skating over the tap-tapping beat and organ swivels lifted from Timmy Thomas, the song achieved a light-hearted jubilance unheard from the singer/rapper since 2010’s “Best I Ever Had,” tied together with Aubrey’s masterful use of vocal call-outs (“I know when that hotline bling!” “Ever since I left the city, you!“) to release the beat. It was the world-conquering single Drake needed to put the Meek Mill feud in his rearview, and everything about it — the tell-me-more title, the instantly iconic cover art, the confidence of cutting his final chorus off and just letting the beat rock a little longer — proved that he was still Jari Kurri with the shot, boy. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

NickJonas-Levels

11. Nick Jonas, “Levels”

“Levels” clocks in at under three minutes, but were Nick Jonas and his production/writing team the Monsters and the Strangerz (alongside with Ian Kirkpatrick) to expand it to three hours of immaculately stacked madness, we’d still play it on a loop. The 22-year-old Jonas has always possessed soulful pipes worthy of production far superior to what he’d been offered previously, but “Levels” finally offered a beat flexible and exuberant enough to challenge him to rise to the upper-floor. Just like how Timbaland handled almost the entirety of Justin Timberlake’s grown-man breakout, 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, “Levels” makes the case for the Monsters and the Strangerz to take the reins on Nick Jonas’ rise to the — shout it with us, now — ROOFTOP. — BRENNAN CARLEY

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10. Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”

Compressing a novel’s worth of social nuance into a five-minute grenade launch, “The Blacker The Berry” is the most politically direct track on Kendrick Lamar’s resistant, mystical, prophetic third album, To Pimp A Butterfly. It was released during a bloody season, the spring of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. And in America’s ongoing reckoning with racial doublespeak and exploitation, Lamar is exceptional in every way. He’s a millionaire 18 times over, a black man almost universally beloved, who’s seen in his honesty to be some sort of release point for anger and guilt. On this track, he’s uncommonly furious about all of it. He raps raggedly, and Boi-1da’s production hits hard, a swaggering march. The sound is as engaged with the subject’s politics as Lamar’s verses are explicitly: The backdrop is laced with pain and anxiety and promise, and the beat sounds like it’s both running towards and away from something, while bodies fall heavy on the floor. — JIA TOLENTINO

DeathTeam-FuckingBitchesIntheHood

9. Death Team, “F**king Bitches in the Hood”

Once in a while, something glorious really does just come from the middle of nowhere, in this case a dolphin-obsessed Swedish duo who’ve strung together the most perfectly WTF rap verse of 2015. And they repeat it verbatim with maniacal, second-verse-same-as-the-first aplomb in all of its insane-person glory; making Trump-level claims of how deep their songs are and of owning a million white horses, generally writing all sorts of checks they can’t cash without a single line you can safely tune out. There’s a piano solo. Nothing means anything. Their other songs are completely negligible. But one thing is completely certain for two and a half minutes of Death Team’s impossible rock’n’roll magic: They’re the kind of people that you don’t want to f**k with, f**k with, you don’t want to f**k with. — DAN WEISS

Ought-BigBeautifulSky

8. Ought, “Beautiful Blue Sky”

By now, it’s no secret that Ought frontman Tim Darcy has a way with words. Between the Montreal foursome’s two studio albums — last year’s More Than Any Other Day and this fall’s Sun Coming Down — the thought-punk poet has recorded reams of lyrics examining, fussing over, and panicking about modern life. On the new LP’s sprawling side-two opener, “Beautiful Blue Sky,” when Darcy isn’t aiming his gaze with awe at the open canvas above us, he’s targeting with contempt the empty, insincere pleasantries that contaminate our daily lives. While he’s doling out tight six-string stabs, the singer-guitarist spits out and cycles through snatches of small talk (“How’s the family?,” “Beautiful weather today,” “Fancy seeing you here”), invokes images of war planes and fresh condos, then equates dancing with death, but finds freedom in both because they’re all he has left — well, those and the big, beautiful blue sky. Remember: The moon belongs to everyone, and the best things in life are free. — KYLE MCGOVERN

TameImpala-LetItHappen

7. Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”

“Let It Happen” is the Discovery of psych-rock, eight minutes of steady vamping that coalesce into an ideal synthesis of Tame Impala’s gentle, kaleidoscopic powers and big-tent EDM’s ability to physically command. As multifaceted, whole, and mesmerizing as a disco ball, the song rotates in its own light: The drums come like flashes, the synth like static and lightning, a hum in the back like a sunrise. It’s almost wordless, but the narrative is utterly consuming, time-lapsed and panoramic. The emotional landscape roils through itself continually, with mournfulness becoming ecstasy, then questioning, then panic, then absolution. Against this relentless forward movement, the loop that comes halfway through is an unmatched minute of genius: A split-second skips, repeats, and glitches for longer than you could have ever imagined, and every time it feels like something you never knew you wanted till you had it, a certain type of strange and hollowing love. — JIA TOLENTINO

Kelela-Rewind

6. Kelela, “Rewind”

Misremembered fogs of K-Ci and Jojo and other hazy abstractions of the past somehow became the default mode of R&B experimentation over the past few years, but Kelela’s undoubtedly a futurist and “Rewind” is her most bafflingly forward-thinking take on the genre to date. Aided by her former Fade to Mind labelmate Kingdom and a pair producers from their British sister label, Night Slugs, Kelela morphs synthesizers and skittering drum samples into the sorts of impossible shapes and anachronistic technologies that other pop music Nostradamuses have been talking about for the last couple of years. It’s sort of like seeing a hoverboard (like, one without wheels) in the middle of some Bushwick warehouse party — or witnessing anything but a “Rewind.” — COLIN JOYCE

TheWeeknd-Can'tFeelMyFace

5. The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”

Abel Tesfaye has never been so comfortably numb, maintaining a remarkably expressionless facade during his express elevator ride to the top of the Billboard charts. The only time the Weeknd has succumbed to his own song’s chest-swelling, fist-pumping, sing-along-until-your-throat’s-sore ecstasy is when he jumped so high at the VMAs that Kanye jumped with him. Maybe he’s still reeling from the brilliant shock of pop svengali Max Martin’s syncopated clap-backed beats, which punch through “Can’t Feel My Face” as hard as the Weeknd’s own monosyllabic cinderblocks. No matter how far they fall from ubiquity on the radio dial, the guitar-trailed yelps and gulps of his increasingly uncanny Michael Jackson pop chops aren’t going to fade anytime soon. — HARLEY BROWN

Jamiexx-IKnowThere'sGonna

4. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

It wasn’t exactly shocking when the tracklist for Jamie xx’s solo debut, In Colour, revealed that the U.K. producer had tapped his co-conspirators in the xx, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, to contribute guest vocals. Much more intriguing was the presence of Atlanta oddball Young Thug and dancehall star Popcaan, who tag-team the LP’s liveliest cut, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” Decorated with dashes of steel drums and propelled by a chest-puffing (and, despite some initial confusion, totally legit) sample of the Persuasions’ 1972 song “Good Times,” the collaboration injects In Colour with some much-appreciated jubilation.

The 11-track album is no doubt an accomplishment and one of the finest full-lengths of the year, but after 30 minutes of moonlit brooding, it’s refreshing to have some sun-bathed optimism in the mix. So, Jamie sets the scene, Popcaan supplies the bridge, and Thug uses his pinched vocals to stretch and smush vowels like they’re laffy taffy. Of course, anything this attention-grabbing is going to incite some backlash — complaints that it’s too populist, too safe, too pat — and those grievances are totally valid; to certain segments of the Internet, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is too clean and probably was forehead-smackingly obvious. But to others, it simply delivers on its name. — KYLE MCGOVERN

FettyWap-TrapQueen

3. Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”

Fetty Wap could’ve had eight top-ten hits this year — he only had three, ho hum — and there’d still be people who’d refer to him as a one-hit wonder. When an artist releases a debut single as wonderful as “Trap Queen,” you just sorta assume that they’ll spend the next decade trying in vain to replicate its success, that first hit still casting a shadow over all follow-ups. With moon-bounce sonics, a nursery-rhyme-catchy melody, and of course that one-of-a-kind croon — appraised on the track by hypeman Nitt Da Grit at a zillion bucks, and he might’ve lowballed — “Trap” sparkled like the North Star on hip-hop and Top 40 radio this year, the song that was clearly going to define 2015 before we even really knew what 2015 was. “My Way” and “679” were bangers in their own right, and Fetty’s self-titled debut LP made for one of the year’s most satisfying pop listens, but it’s “Hey-what’s-up-hello” that we’re going to be cooing to our kids as a bedtime lullaby someday. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

CourtneyBarnett-PedestrianAtItsBest

2. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”

The middlebrow ain’t what it used to be: Where one woman’s alt-rock rallying cry was once “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover,” 2015’s banner rock’n’roller smashes her alarm clock to mutter, “I’m homely, I’m a Scorpio.” On her soon-to-be-signature hit, Barnett conjures Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up” in reverse, an auctioneer rattling off her inadequacies through a megaphone as fast as she can, trying to get every bidder to walk away. Born to conduct her power trio, with some extra crunch from co-producer Dan Luscombe, she roars over Dave Mudie and Andrew “Bones” Sloane’s best Krist-and-Dave with her anxiety-attack guitar and still probably ranks herself fifth in the crew. Fueled by unrelenting impostor syndrome, Barnett vows to slay the dragons of excellence with her sword of mediocrity, and luckily, she loses. How will she sleep at night over all this success? On top of a pile of money, all folded into elephants. — DAN WEISS

1. Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”

The tick-tocking clock that leads off “What Do You Mean?” could very easily have come straight from Justin Bieber’s head. The annals of pop history are littered with obnoxious teenage megastars who the public decided they didn’t like so much once they came of drinking age — in another world, maybe Bieber becomes the laughing stock of the Internet for his sadly ludicrous claims to being the successor to Michael Jackson. After spending two years hand-cranking the tabloid-media cycle, enduring his biggest commercial failure, and permanently destroying his Ideal Underage Boyfriend image, the Biebs was at risk of becoming a relic, the sort of performer whose continued presence in pop culture mostly serves to remind his onetime audience of how young they no longer are. The inspired Jack Ü collaboration “Where Are Ü Now” was a brilliant re-branding for Bieber, but it also could’ve been a fluke, a favor from EDM cool kids Skrillex and Diplo, one where the most memorable hook came with the singer’s voice rendered unrecognizable. He’d have to prove it on his own, too.

The suspense of whether or not “What Do You Mean?” would be the song to put Bieber back on top lasted maybe 15 seconds. If it’s technically possible to resist those dawn-of-a-new-day piano chords as long as they’re only accompanied by the metronomic timepiece, once Justin utters the title phrase for the first time and the parkour-hopping synth hits, it’s all over. The groove is instantly familiar, but not quite like anything else you’ve ever heard: No pop song in recent history has been this light on its feet, to the point where the most apt musical point of comparison isn’t really the tropical house of Kygo and Robin Schulz, but the weightless, pleasure-center-poking scores to ’90s video games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Kart 64. And Bieber does an expert job steering the beat, breathing life back into the production with his evenly paced, scale-stepping vocals — in the past, his pinched wail would’ve sucked the oxygen out of the song with brash over-expression. Even thematically, the song avoids ever getting too heavy — asking a girl why her body language is conflicting with her words might not be the least-problematic thing you can write a song about in 2015, but at least he’s legitimately asking; previous Bieber jams would’ve almost certainly offered, “Girl, let me tell you what you mean…”

The flawless victory of Justin Bieber’s return single — and somewhat symbolically, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Biebs’ first single to ever reach pole position — is the latest and most convincing example of something we’ve always known to be true: There’s no amount of bad press that can’t be undone with one truly great pop song. (Just ask former collaborator Chris Brown, whose crimes were legitimately terrible and whose take-me-back hit single wasn’t even quite this good.) As much as the pubic enjoys climbing on their high horse to tut-tut the minor and major sins of an irresponsible, hot-headed young star, they’ll always dismount in a second’s time if they hear an undeniable hook over an electrifying beat emanating from the dance floor. That’s because, as David Marchese so brilliantly put it in his profile of another pop icon who’s had transgressions far tougher to answer for than Bieber’s, songs are better than people. And “What Do You Mean?” was better than anyone in 2015. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER