What an absurdly abundant year for songs, from all over the map. These are my 25 favorites of 2015 (though some gems are over on my albums list, to avoid duplicating all the same artists). Including but not limited to: hits, obscurities, pop bangers, guitar monsters, rap anthems, drunk-dial slow jams, punk ragers and karaoke room-clearers. And David Bowie, obviously.
1. Drake, “Hotline Bling”
A break-up song in the classic Paul McCartney “you stay home, she goes out” mode. Apparently nobody on earth has more fun than a girl who’s just stopped banging Drake — in fact, the Drakean FOMO seems tragically justified, since ever since he left the city, the entire population of Toronto is having one big champagne orgy on the floor to toast him not being there. Lucky girl. Lucky city. Sad little Drizzy, though that Seventies beatbox sample — from Miami, of all places — will keep him warm tonight. Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” sounded so DIY and low-tech in its time, yet it became the heartbeat of 2015. (I learned that song from Sade’s version — God, I’d love to hear her sing “Hotline Bling.”) You could hear this as a perfect example of how pop works as a time-travel machine — or you could just hear it as a hit that kept giving up fresh surprises all year long, definitely including Aubrey Graham’s dance moves.
2. Ought, “Beautiful Blue Sky”
The year’s most dependable “today sucked until I put this song on” song — one that can catch you in a bleak moment and remind you it’s not over yet. The Montreal postpunk kids lock into a staccato guitar groove and stretch it into a beautiful long marquee moon of a thing. (Especially live — the Paris 9/18 version is my go-to.) Tim Darcey starts out sneering easy-target buzzwords (“Warplane! Condo!”) and then the kind of phony cliches people say in cartoons (“Fancy seeing you here! Beautiful weather today!”) then his own awkward confessions: “I am no longer afraid to dance tonight, because that’s all that I have left.” The longer the band beats up on the groove, the more brave and gauche it sounds, with a touch of electric piano to cushion the guitar slashes. It has the emotional reach of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” except without the friends.
3. Alessia Cara, “Here”
My new life coach Alessia Cara showed up at your party just to make you have the same terrible time she’s having. One of the things that keeps me obsessive about pop is how crazy things happen every year that never happened before, like this: an unknown YouTube teen from Toronto flukes into a glorious trip-hop buzzkill of a Top Ten smash, proclaiming herself the resident “antisocial pessimist.” It’s the same party Lita Ford hated in “Kiss Me Deadly,” the same party Paul Westerberg hated in “Color Me Impressed,” the same party John Lennon hated in “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” the same party Morrissey would have ruined if anyone had been foolish enough to invite him. It’s the party where rock & roll malcontents have prided themselves on having a flamboyantly miserable time since the days of the late great Lesley Gore. I love every second of this, especially “I don’t dance, don’t aaaask.” Stand firm in your refusal to have fun, Alessia. Adulthood is long and crowded.
4. Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
Best use of “like” in an opening line since Nelly’s “I was like good gracious, ass is bodacious” back in 2002. There’s so much going on emotionally in the way Fetty says “introduced her to my stove,” so much intimacy and trust. Fetty makes me want to be a more generous person in sharing my stove with my loved ones, more open about showing them how to whip it. I love all his shout-outs to 1738 — I know it’s his posse’s favorite cognac, but part of me still believes Fetty has strong feelings about the Treaty of Vienna confirming Augustus III as King of Poland. (Stanislaus I got hosed!) A love story for our times. Treat her right, Fetty.
5. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
Bowie makes yet another grand entrance, dropping a surprise 10-minute torch song that mixes up Coltrane’s Olé and “Planet Rock” beats, unfolding stage by stage without a false note. He’s back in outer space, the place he always goes to ponder basic Bowie questions like love and death and the terror of knowing what this world is about.
6. LVL UP, “The Closing Door”
These Brooklyn guitar dudes serenade a mystic girl (or maybe just a really baked one — it’s hard to tell) with a ballad that feels modest and majestic at the same time. (Their late-2014 album was one of my most-played this year, though the band’s gotten twice as good since making it.) I’ve spent entire days lost in this song, even though it’s less than four minutes long. Guitar fuzz with actual emotional impact: what a concept.
7. Missy Elliott, “WTF”
The return we were all hoping for, although Missy doesn’t waste any time explaining herself — just a flurry of Missy madness in her hyperactive “Pass That Dutch”/”Let Me Fix My Weave” mode.
8. One Direction, “Perfect”
The world is a beautiful place and I am no longer afraid to die.
9. Royal Headache, “Garbage”
In a year that desperately needed some love songs, these Australian punks said “naaaah” and wrote one mother of a hate song, a rant aimed at an enemy who deserves exactly as much of your time as Shogun takes to spit out the words “you belong in the traaash.” Guess the world never stops needing righteous hate songs.
10. Adele, “Hello”
What a trip to hear a song like this for the first time at karaoke. (The last time that happened with a hit this big: Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”) I was actively avoiding the new Adele — sad songs are too hard sometimes, you get it, right? (You could call it “feelings avoidance” but I prefer “aggressive sadness management.”) Until a Saturday night in November, when I found myself in a karaoke bar full of strangers and a rowdy Australian lady got up to sing it for the birthday of her friend (who had just done “Bust a Move”). She sang this long, winding, sloppy thing for its full five minutes, a song I had now officially failed to avoid. I felt like the guy who foolishly picks up Adele’s thousand-and-first call. I left without saying goodbye to any of the friends I came with, without singing the request I’d put in the queue (“Hotline Bling,” which I was no longer in the mood for), sat on the G train and stared into space for a while. The other side can be a rough place to get stuck. Sometimes you can escape hellos from it you don’t want; sometimes they find you anyway.
11. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away With Me”
The best psuedo-Quarterflash sax solo in the history of … actually, I’m not sure there is a history of pseudo-Quarterflash sax solos. The whole Carly Rae album is full of lovingly detailed Eighties homages, especially this giddy opening track. Can’t believe nobody beat her to the line “I’ll find your lips in the streetlights.” And if you love Eighties mall-disco enough to love Carly Rae, do yourself a favor and track down a copy of Stacey Q’s 1988 Hard Machine, one of that decade’s shiniest mall-disco masterpieces, even if it sold about as many copies as E-Mo-Tion did.
12. Vince Staples, “Norf Norf”
A glimpse of the cold blood under all the criminal-minded bravado: Vince Staples reports from northside Long Beach, where the skinny carry strong heat, over a cinematic Clams Casino production that turns police sirens into a low-end ghost rumble.
13. Wax Idols, “Lonely You”
Goth avenger Hether Fortune is the only person I’ve ever heard try to karaoke Soft Cell’s over-the-top weeper “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” which barely gives a hint of badass her music is. In this highlight from the breakthrough American Tragic, she overdubs herself into a sinister Siouxsie with an entire army of Banshees.
14. Miguel, “Leaves”
There are all other Smashing Pumpkins rips, and then there’s this one: Miguel turns that “1979” guitar hook into an R&B elegy, using California as a symbol of everything he’s ever left behind, asking “Where did the summer go when you loved me?” 2015 has to set some kind of record for California-as-lost-youth metaphor songs, from Adele to Grimes to Selena to Lana to Carly Rae. (How did the Chili Peppers fail to make a record this year?)
15. Selena Gomez, “Hands to Myself”
This song makes me happier than a girl after Drake leaves town. I’m getting “I mean I could but why would I want to?” tattooed on my forehead.
16. Future, “I Serve the Base”
“Tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster” — Future lets his monster roar, with Metro Boomin handling the horror-movie soundtrack.
17. 5 Seconds of Summer, “Hey Everybody!”
The only pop-punk pin-ups to salute both Duran Duran and Bad Brains on the radio this year. Hail the kings and the queens of the new broken scene.
18. Deaf Wish, “Sex Witch”
Guitars for people who hate people but love guitars. “Sex Witch” is a near-perfect Sonic Youth–style hormonal-angst dirge, with male and female voices fighting to see who can Kim-out harder. I know nothing about this band beyond their appalling name, but damn, those guitars.
19. Miley Cyrus, “Something About Space Dude”
I totally get why you have issues with Miley making a unbearably pompous art-rock record and I feel your pain, but since I enjoy loads of unbearably pompous art-rock records, my only concern is whether she’s doing it right and here she is — a lament for a boy who reminds her of David Bowie in good ways (he’s hot, he’s from space) and bad ways, i.e., he’s maybe 15 or 20 per cent less than what she craves in the sincerity department. Not exactly an uncommon problem with Bowie boys. But compared to Earth dudes, he’s still a tempting option.
20. Richard Thompson, “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road”
The Celt-folk guitar god raises a pint in praise of a rambling gal who’s always wearing less and going out more, from one of the men she’s left in her dust, who can only drown his sorrows in a guitar solo.
21. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Chance the Rapper’s jazzy ode to family ties. “I like my hugs with a scent” is the best line about grandmothers in a while. (The spiritual flip side of Kendrick smelling his grandpa’s medicine on a wino’s skin.) For months I had no idea Taylor Bennett was Chance’s brother, so the line “Only ones she loves as much as me is Jesus Christ and Taylor” made me wonder where grandma stands on the 1989 vs. Red debate.
22. Diet Cig, “Breathless”
Everybody wanted to sing about 1994 this year, especially singers who weren’t born then, but this New Paltz boy/girl duo did it funniest. Alex Luciano comes on like an overcaffeinated Jane Wiedlin motormouthing through collegiate torpor, moping around her first apartment, wishing she had some friends to “watch The Simpsons on my floor/Pretend it’s 1994.”
23. Jeremih, “Oui”
A late-night loop of dirty doo-wop piano and “aw yeah” moans as Jeremih explains why “there’s no oui without you and I,” with a taste of Shai to wash down the love.
24. Car Seat Headrest, “Stranger”
Home-taping prodigy Will Toledo really introduces you to his stove here, confessing, “When I was a kid I fell in love with Michael Stipe.” He speaks for so many bored small-town kids before him, though judging from his guitar, it’s Peter Buck who stole his heart.
25. ELO, “When I Was a Boy”
Out of the blue, indeed. Comeback king Jeff Lynne was writing “hello from the other side” phone songs before Adele’s mama was born, and this ballad summons all his strange magic. Even if he wants to start calling himself “Jeff Lynne’s ELO,” he’ll always be the Electric Light Orchestra who soundtracks our bluest days and blackest nights. Let it ring forever more.