1. Skrillex and Diplo f. Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now”
Diplo was not the first person to use alliances to make his own brand stronger, but he’s certainly been loyal to that model for a long time—from his early collaborations with M.I.A., to his rotating-cast reggae project Major Lazer, to Jack Ü, a recent partnership with Skrillex. For their debut album, released as a surprise in February, Diplo and Skrillex recruited a wide range of vocalists (Kiesza, Bunji Garlin) including Justin Bieber, the singer who was then doing time in satisfying R&B purgatory, awaiting his chance to make a big public apology. As the story goes, this team came together seamlessly. Diplo happened to run into Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun at a fashion week afterparty; Braun emailed Diplo a short vocal track on the spot, of a looped piano ballad Bieber had written with his buddy Poo Bear.
From there, Skrillex and Diplo engineered a rap-nodding pre-drop and a double-time real drop; they pitched a snippet of Bieber singing up two octaves then used distortion to destroy it. That resulting sound, like a violin/flute/dolphin, makes up the song’s instrumental chorus, a departure from the earworming vocal pop of the radio we’ve already known. The hook’s effect is vaguely magical, managing to evoke the song’s melody and the spirit of the real person who made it, even if it's not a human voice at all.
These days, phones facilitate friendship’s growth and decay—a hit song is only one email away, just like someone’s sense of worth can be obliterated by a text left unanswered. We want to be paid attention to by the people we pay attention to, especially now, when personal success so often requires a supporting squad. We want to know who will be with us when we need them. These anxieties aren’t new, but we’re getting used to experiencing them in a new way, just like we’re still getting used to Skrillex’s computer music. Which is why, I think, the human core of “Where Are Ü Now” is what makes it so impossible to resist. To the New York Times, Skrillex explained it best: “I just like it. It makes me feel something.” —Naomi Zeichner
2. Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney, "FourFiveSeconds"
In 2015, more than 6.5 million Syrians were displaced from their homes. Many of them will end up scattered throughout the Middle East and Europe; some will make it across the ocean to America and Canada, where strangers will call them towelheads and terrorists. Others will die surrounded by water or desert, unnamed and unclaimed. Also this year, American police killed more than a thousand civilians. By the first week of December, the country had witnessed over 355 mass shootings. Meanwhile, we pump fumes into the sky and suck oil out of the ground for the sake of petty pleasures and minor conveniences. It's a miracle that this rock we call Earth hasn't exploded yet.
These are among the many concerns by which we will likely remember 2015, and the collective anxieties I’ve felt listening to Rihanna’s "FourFiveSeconds" all year. The song, an acoustic collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney and with backing vocals from Wilson Phillips, was released in February as the first single off of Rihanna’s forthcoming, still-MIA eighth album. It was a surprising choice, a sharp turn from the bombastic, pop factory-workshopped fare we’ve come to love and expect from her. Over crisp guitar screeches and slides and a lumbering organ, she and Kanye trade pained verses, both of their voices cutting through quiet space to sit high in the mix. It is indisputably Rihanna’s best vocal performance to date.
Beyond the shift in style, "FourFiveSeconds" marked new emotional territory for Rih. It was early in the year, but the trio was prepared to spaz on anyone and anything in their way, presciently weary of the taxing months that would follow. When Rihanna sings Ooh, I swear, I wish somebody would try me, I imagine her frustrated with an irritating boyfriend or employee or composite hater. But I also imagine it as an expression of existential fatigue, an anthem for a populace tired of the slog of daily life and angry at the inevitability of our own futility. Who isn’t four, five seconds from wilding every time they read the news? Like Kanye, you may have woke up an optimist, but by the time you make it home from work, the world has likely squeezed all the sunshine out of you, turned you reckless like Rihanna when she sings, I think I’ve had enough/ Might get a little drunk. —Rawiya Kameir
3. Jamie xx f. Young Thug and Popcaan, "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)"
To make the year’s purest turn-up anthem, Jamie xx enlisted two of contemporary music’s most fascinating outsiders: Atlanta rapper Young Thug and Kingston dancehall artist Popcaan. The soft-spoken, Grammy-nominated electronic artist also makes good use of "Good Times," a soulful tune by a Brooklyn-bred group called The Persuasions, first appearing in the early ’70s on a collection of a cappellas called Street Corner Symphony. Here, Jamie fishtails that track’s unaffected harmonies around steel drums, claps, snaps, and a jungle-inspired beat. Of all the songs Thugger touched this year, several of which wound up on this list, this has got to be the most beaming. He sounds borderline approachable, even when he’s singing and stretching his desire-laced couplets like a piece of saltwater taffy. Even in the summertime me and shawty cuddle, he says at one point.
Popcaan, whose presence is minimal yet absolutely crucial, sings a wormy refrain: Work every day 'til me meet ends/ Haffi tun it up pon weekends. It’s the outlook of a hard-partying working stiff, and it meshes nicely with The Persuasions’ blue-collar barbershop croons. Jamie xx works hard to hide the seams, shifting what could’ve been a clickbait collab into a vital, feel-great summer smash. In the last few weeks of another year of extreme highs and hopeless-seeming lows on Planet Earth, it feels good listening to this only-in-2015 mash-up of blindingly optimistic voices. Better days are a-coming, they insist. For the song’s 3.33 joy-filled minutes, it’s really easy to believe them. —Patrick D. McDermott
4. Drake, "Hotline Bling"
When "Hotline Bling" materialized in late July as one of three loosies released via OVO’s biweekly Beats 1 radio show, it struck a universal nerve. An instant-classic ode to an iPhone-obsessed generation’s worst post-break-up impulses, the song quickly exploded, inspiring countless covers, memes, merch, and late-night tweets. It eventually hit the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts, and with good reason: in its fundamental pettiness, "Hotline Bling" acknowledges the sick collective inclination to obsess over an ex-lover or -friend by scrolling through their social media accounts, wondering when they switched up their style, their social circle, and, ultimately, why they’re tweeting and snapping and gramming but not hitting you up.
Buoyed by nineteen85’s effervescent flip of Timmy Thomas's 1972 soul smash "Why Can't We Live Together," "Hotline Bling" is surprisingly complex—sunny and dark, bitter and wistful, drenched in a heap of nostalgic regret and entitlement. By the time it reaches the bridge, Drake’s voice aches with selfish sorrow—These days, all I do is wonder if you're bending over backwards for someone else/ Wonder if you're rolling up a Backwoods for someone else/ Doing things I taught you getting nasty for someone else/ You don't need no one else, he sings. On paper, the lyrics read like the words of a man unable to let go, but the tenor of Drake’s vocals hints at something deeper: begrudging acceptance that even after all the accolades and power and achieving a life in which the world bends to your every will, you are no match for the slow march of time and the inevitable quietus of love. —Jordan Sowunmi
5. Future, "March Madness"
A sick part of being human is that when you’re sad, you want everyone to be sad. “March Madness” is a sad song, where Future stubbornly refuses to admit that he’s not okay. Instead, he finds comfort in inebriation, or straight-up lying, which all feels like its own form of protest, or a desperate strategy for maneuvering through a world that feels like total bullshit. In a year of great Future songs, this was the best. The most direct (and stickiest) expression of a guy racing to outrun himself. Despite his manic self-assurance that everything's cool, it's clear from the way he sighs Whatever that fuckin' means that he's not buying it. Hence: 200 miles on the dash, double styrofoam in the cupholder, evil cops in the rearview. Drive the foreign like it was a Chevy. Switch lanes recklessly. No one can touch you. Just for the love of god, keep moving. —Meaghan Garvey
6. Drake, "Know Yourself"
As an origin story and a rallying cry, "Know Yourself" was Drake's definitive 2015 single: an aggressive chest-thumper with an unstoppable hook that could only be surpassed by radio catnip like "Hotline Bling." It’s more self-assured than "Charged Up" and "Back To Back", brawny summer drops aimed at an easy target. It’s also a direct analog of Nothing Was the Same’s "Worst Behaviour," setting up an us-versus-them dichotomy that is among Swole Drake’s most consistent tropes. In sound and emotion, it is a sonic emblem of civic pride that bangs whether you’re in Scarborough or Tottenham.
"Know Yourself" is set in Drake’s two versions of Toronto. First, he’s chilling in that now-infamous condo at 15 Fort York, making missions in a Subaru hatchback, wearing baggy jeans and pink polos and listening to College Dropout-era Kanye. Then there’s an alchemic beat switch. Time slides forward. Now, he’s international, name-dropping his squad and shepherding a city he successfully re-christened the 6 (with the help of a pal). Whether you’re hearing it in headphones or 15 minutes before last call, "Know Yourself" is sublime—a rare case of a languid BPM going way off in the club. It’s a legacy track and Drake’s mid-2000s prophecy of carrying the city on his back realized, finally. —Anupa Mistry
7. Tame Impala, “Let It Happen"
The best early review that I heard of Tame Impala’s Currents suggested that it was a great album for people who enjoy crying on the dance floor. Upon hearing this comment, I didn’t imagine some spastic, drug-addled sob fest by a messy twentysomething. I thought of a slightly older person, maybe me, pulling through an awkward social run-in and its subsequent emotional aftermath with some semblance of grace by camouflaging tears with the strobe lights. True to this early assessment, Kevin Parker’s third full-length album with Tame Impala was equal parts synth-y big-room bangers and heart-wrenching tales of envy and lust gone awry. It’s one man’s woeful, first-hand account of losing his shit after fucking up love.
Currents eight-minute opening track, "Let It Happen," sets the pace for the tripped-out emotional roller coaster ahead. It’s a jittery, stretched-out, immaculately produced sound bath that washes over the listener, beckoning them to submerge in the madness of feeling feels. All this running around/ I can't fight it much longer, Parker sings at one point, when the shimmery disco pulse slows to a near-halt. Something's trying to get out/ And it's never been closer. Expanding on the woozy drone of Lonerism and their mumbly rock roots, Currents is the closest thing to straight-up electronic music that Parker has released to date. It’s a snapshot of an introverted genius dragging his sound, and every devastated emotion that comes with it, to the very center of the dance floor. —Deidre Dyer
8. Grimes, "California"
Growing up on the East Coast, California seemed pretty cool. It took on borderline mystical properties by my early teens—a promised land full of blue oceans and punk bands and casually dressed high schoolers that looked like 25-year-olds, all blown-up and distorted in my mind like a blurry slide from one of those View-Master thingys they used to have at the doctor’s. Claire Boucher, the strictly do-it-herself songwriter and producer best known as Grimes, wasn’t the first person to shatter that illusion for me, but her song "California," which sounds sunny but is actually heartbreaking, reminds me how fast dreams can change.
I never really learned first-hand whether California’s promises are empty or full, and it’s possible Boucher is still figuring that out herself. It’s hard to listen to the twangy crunch of "California" and not picture her driving anxiously through Los Angeles, nearly causing a fender-bender while telling a jumbled account of her life story to a reporter for this magazine. The things they see in me, I cannot see myself, she sings, just one of the song’s wispy, world-weary sentiments, possibly about living a scrutinized life in the spotlight. On the unflinchingly radio-friendly hook, Boucher stretches her adopted home state’s name into 10 glorious syllables, singing in a beautifully pinched timbre atop a dancehall drum loop that sounds more like "Pon de Replay" every time I hear it. But it ends on a defeated note: I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad. "California" is full of uncertainty, which means it’s probably not the best reflection of this year’s bold-sounding Art Angels, nor indicative of the hard-earned narrative of fearless independence that’s been attached to it. But it’s simply the catchiest and most affecting song on there—a secretly tragic soundtrack to the cross-country road trip I’ll probably never take. —Patrick D. McDermott
9. Young Thug f. Birdman, "Constantly Hating" / Young Thug, "Check"
Young Thug shone brightly on three major releases this year, each further establishing his oft-kilter genius. Take "Constantly Hating," the expertly sequenced opener from Barter 6. The song cemented his controversial alliance with Birdman and positioned him as something of an underdog happily embracing the challenges ahead: But really what is there to do?/ When the whole world constantly hating on you?, he asks, almost rhetorically. I might piece him up and let my partner smoke him, he answers later about one hater in particular, employing a flow whose sunniness belies the very serious threat.
A few tracks later, on the Barter 6 payday celebration jam, "Check," Thugger switches gears and tempos. There is talk of women and money and trapping, but with his off-the-wall ad-libs (ai! yah! sheesh!, he yelps) and weirdo lyrics (She shinin' like butter/ The bitch from Chicago, I call her young Cutler), Thug takes otherwise stale tropes and metabolizes them into captivating songs. Between the introspective "Constantly Hating" and the braggadocious "Check," his greatest and most inimitable qualities come through: versatility, timing, and unpretentious wit. —Jordan Sowunmi
10. Skepta, "Shutdown"
You could say the success of Skepta’s "Shutdown" lies in its beautifully orchestrated simplicity: rude bass, brassy chords, and an earworm of a hook that wriggled its way into 2015 vernacular. It was certainly 2015 grime’s sing-a-long moment—witness the crowds pulling their weight in London, Paris, and New York—but it was also this year’s smartest move. With Drake and Kanye West publicly on his side, all eyes were on Tottenham’s son, and he didn’t waste a second grabbing the moment with both hands. With its nods to the previous summer’s singles "That’s Not Me" and "It Ain’t Safe," as well as his Nasir Mazur collaboration, "Shutdown" served up Skepta’s recent resume in capital letters.
Bold and ballsy, it acted as a celebratory stomp for those that’ve been rooting for him forever, and a catchy recap of achievements for those just crawling out from underneath a rock. It had room for classic bars (They tried to steal my vision/ This ain’t a culture, it’s my religion) and an even better #humblebrag (Wanna know how I did with no label/ No A-list songs, and I told them/ Blud, I just shutdown). But, above all, it succeeded because everyone was invited to the party. Drake might’ve provided a lyrical launchpad via that Jungle sample, but only Skepta could turn #Shutdown into a movement. —Ruth Saxelby
11. Kendrick Lamar, "Alright"
There comes a moment around the two-minute mark of "Alright" when Kendrick Lamar starts to spin out of control. I can see the evil, I can tell it, I know it’s illegal, he raps in a sort of madcap frenzy. From there, the velocity of his rhymes accelerates, and you think Lamar might actually lose command. Almost like he’s teetering on the edge of a building—somewhere high above Nickerson Gardens or Jordan Downs, the dystopian project encampments in Compton’s sister neighborhood, Watts—ready to descend into the abyss below. It is at this point—as Lamar searches for proper footing (I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow)—that their names come to you: Renisha. Jordan. Big Mike. Tamir. Rekia. Tray. Laquan.
You are again reminded that, to America, blackness has always been a thing to be destroyed. And it is into this Hell, where black boys and girls are remade into ghost stories, that you envision Lamar falling as he hops across "Alright," skittering over meandering horns and skittering drums, wilding alongside Pharrell Williams’ sage, calming presence. You recognize this Hell because you have attempted to avoid a similar one. You have tried to outrun this feeling of unalrightness, this cocoa-colored blues, since you can remember. "Alright" was the fourth single off Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but perhaps its most enduring. This is why: like Lamar, you understand suffering is unavoidable. So you rap along, shouting to the heavens, dancing under the crimson glow of clublights as demons nip at your ankles. You begin to teeter—but then the chorus hits. And it’s here, in the song’s final minute, that you believe in its promise: Nigga, we gon’ be alright.—Jason Parham
12. Wizkid, "Ojuelegba"
Let’s get what we all already know out of the way: Drake hopped on this song from Nigerian artist Wizkid for a remix, generously making the song more famous (at least in America) than it might’ve been on its own in 2015. But let me state this clearly and definitively: the song never needed him. No matter the celebrity, you can’t improve on perfection, even if the Skepta verse that accompanied Drake’s on the remix was pretty great. No, "Ojuelegba" is best on its own, a graceful slice of rhythm that does not need cultural translation. Like Popcaan’s "Everything Nice," the iconic global jam from last summer, it has a message of grace, thankfulness, and happy perseverance that resonates in every home. And that beat? It’s got a shoulder-shrugging momentum so joyful, how could it not have wound its way all over the world? —Alex Frank
13. Future, "Commas"
Southside and DJ Spinz uncovered a sinister piano riff to make the "Commas" beat, which Future took and made his accomplice. He projects quarterly growth as shifty drums explode beneath him; sums multiply at seemingly random intervals, and they do so with a momentum it would take a small army to reverse. On old valentines like "Astronaut Chick" and "Turn on the Lights," Future used Auto-Tune to bare his soul; here the vocal filter's robot distortion gives the impression that he never had one in the first pace. If the song lacks any explicit threats, it makes accumulation itself appear destructive—even while joyously celebrating that fact. The phrase We don't give no fucks has never sounded more serious. —Nick Murray
14. OMI, "Cheerleader (Felix Jaehan Remix)"
A 2012 reggae track rescued from obscurity in 2014 by German house producer Felix Jaehn, OMI’s "Cheerleader" and its unlikely, boomeranging trajectory to the top could only have been possible in a year like 2015, when tropical house DJs headlined festivals and Top 40 radio placed much of its money on unobjectionable chill. The relentlessly optimistic "Cheerleader" announces itself with a sunny trumpet and a cruise-ship beat; it feels like a lullaby remixed to make an enormous crowd bop, possibly for the filming of a soda commercial. There were other songs in its heavily-streamed class, but "Cheerleader" was the best—as pretty and vacant and consoling as the summer it dominated. —Jia Tolentino
15. Erykah Badu f. Andre 3000, "Hello"
Many of the year's biggest hits came from adult voices, emerging and established, wrestling with miscommunication across physical and emotional distance. Like the all-knowing sages they are, Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 made our self-doubts sound like child's play on "Hello," the closing collaboration on Badu’s But You Caint Use My Phone mixtape. In the song’s opening seconds, chirping birds and grass crunching underneath bare feet evoke an Eden ripe with fruit, a safe paradise teeming with love. But the track soon gives way to Badu and 3000, ex-partners and co-parents, sparring gently over tickled chords and a bright, airy beat produced by Zach Witness.
In a reimagined version of The Isley Brothers’ 1974 break-up anthem "Hello It’s Me," itself an interpretation of Todd Rundgren’s 1972 song of the same name, Badu and 3000 offer up a quandary for the iPhone age, in which we spend most of our time communicating but somehow still can’t hack it. Ask yourself honestly, would you come up on the winning end of this Three Stacks challenge for 2015: Leave your phone unlocked and right side up, walk out the room without throwing your bitch off balance. Probably not. In their singular way, they arrive at a wise consensus, finding peace in conflict and love in negative spaces: Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine, but I can’t help it, Badu sings, making the Todd Rundgren- and Isley Brothers-inspired promise ring true for a feels-obsessed generation several decades later. Let’s hope the two of them stay just like this forever. —Rawiya Kameir
16. Silento, "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)"
Have you seen the one where the pregnant lady dances with her midwife in the hospital hallway between contractions? Or the Instagram clip of Riley Curry celebrating her third birthday? The one of the Alabama teacher and his P.E. class? I’m sure you’ve seen the video where, during a scrimmage, members of the peewee football team cannot physically stop themselves from interrupting gameplay to dance, which has 5 million views. Fan videos were almost totally responsible for the unprecedented Hot 100 tenure of "Watch Me," which spent more than 40 weeks on that chart this year, including a championship four months in the top 10. The music industry has already learned to mine social media for viral hits, but it’d be wise to more seriously value dance—what is Justin Bieber’s "Sorry" without Parris Goebel’s girl gang, what is Drake and Future’s "Jumpman" without the dab? What is all of Atlanta without @shelovesmeechie? What united more Americans in 2015 than the nae nae? I can’t think of one thing. —Naomi Zeichner
17. Fetty Wap f. Monty, "679"
Twelve months ago, Fetty Wap seemed like a potential one-hit wonder, and the Remy Boyz were a group of otherwise unknowns with, one had to assume, a fondness for middle-shelf cognac. For all that went wrong in 2015, it's comforting to know that neither is still true. "679" went almost unnoticed when the Paterson crew uploaded it to Soundcloud last summer, but the song soared to the Top 5 of the Hot 100 after its June re-release. It's easy to see why. Fetty's I've got a glock in my 'rari is the most quotable line I'm never in a position to actually quote, and his bud Monty steals the show on enthusiasm alone. You don't want sauce/ No A1 isn't much of a kicker, but They, like, Monty can you be my daddy/ I'm like, Yeah! still surprises. Say yes to everything—a year ago, wasn't that your New Year's resolution? —Nick Murray
18. Chris Stapleton, "Tennessee Whiskey"
When Chris Stapleton premiered "Tennessee Whiskey" on The FADER this past spring, he was far better known—to the few who did know of him—for his songwriting than his solo material. His debut album, Traveller, only arrived after he’d penned some 150 songs for other artists, from George Strait to Adele. For a while, Stapleton’s album—arguably the single most soulful country LP in a period ripe with them—was moving units like he was that same old no-name guy in the background. But after a stunning run at the CMA’s this fall, where he took home totally deserved but even more totally unexpected trophies for New Artist, Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year, people bought more Chris Stapleton albums in a single day than they had in the whole six months prior. In the two weeks following the awards, Traveller went No. 1 in America, for any genre, and the big-bearded long-hair from Kentucky was minted a genuine genre star.
"Tennessee Whiskey" is his most crossover-y track, with a thumping, romantic gut punch that’s more like Sam Cooke than Blake Shelton. Leon Bridges wishes he had this one. Stapleton’s cadences are out of this world—he kneads seven syllables into the word "dry" at one point. But what makes this so sweet of a standout, to me, is that Stapleton didn’t even write it—it’s a country standard 30 years old, by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove. Trying to write about country music can often degenerate into nominating any new, "real" artist as the genre’s savior—something I’ve been guilty of—and for many, that’s what Chris Stapleton is now. "Tennessee Whiskey" shows he knows better than most, though, that in work as in love, nobody can do it all by themselves. —Duncan Cooper
19. Kelela, "Rewind"
Skin glistens more lustrously in the club. It’s the result of salt-laced sweat and laser-licked air, which together gift the body with a very specific glow. At night, in the embrace of music, we are free to fully inhabit our own bodies—a reprieve from the day’s grip on our brains—as well as appreciate those around us. It’s like Diddy said on Cassie’s "Must Be Love": I could be your love in the club for as long as the song lasts. This year, the song that best captured that heart-pounding moment you lock eyes with a beguiling stranger across the dancefloor was "Rewind."
Cause I’m heating up, are you reading my mind/ I know that I’m stalling, don’t leave me behind, Kelela sings as the track begins to build steam, the beat oh-so-subtly dropping on up. "Rewind" is all about subtlety. It swerves the conventional club track’s usual peaks and troughs for cheek-flushing bubbles and rolls, finding its power through delicately ascending and descending chords—just enough to give your body that first-touch adrenaline bump. Where her breakthrough mixtape CUT 4 ME pivoted off untethered emotion, on "Rewind" Kelela has the poise of someone in full possession of their powers. For all its narrative frustration of a missed opportunity (You’re standing next to me, I’m about to break the rules/ Turn my head to the right, now I’m looking for you/ For the rest of the night), the song takes pleasure in that suspended moment. Because when nothing is certain, anything is possible. —Ruth Saxelby
20. Vince Staples, "Norf Norf"
Long Beach native Vince Staples was a baby when rappers like Snoop Dogg and Warren G were shouting out the 213 on chart-topping records. And while Staples is far from a household name—even with an acclaimed debut album out on Def Jam this year—he represents LBC more than well on "Norf Norf," Summertime ‘06’s warped, sour version of a hometown pride banger. He shouts out one of his forefathers (Nate Dogg still here ‘cause of niggas like me), but Staples, who ruffled feathers on Twitter this year with an irreverent attitude towards ‘90s rap nostalgia, isn’t trying to recreate the past. Clams Casino, who’s spent the last couple years farming out his cloud rap aesthetic to clientele as diverse as FKA Twigs and Foster the People, sharpens his clicks and drones for possibly the meanest flow that’s ever graced one of his beats. —Al Shipley
21. Ramriddlz, "Sweeterman"
In an era in which fame can find anyone, 21-year-old Canadian crooner Ramriddlz perfectly illustrates two phenomena underpinning common music industry trajectories in 2015—the thirst of the viral web and the power of a Drake cosign. With his springtime release of "Sweeterman," a bizarre, bumbling ode to a late-night, weed-fuelled courtship, he got both: a DIY music video that was the talk of Twitter for at least a week and a Drake remix that premiered on OVO Sound Radio in July. "Sweeterman" was the first song Ramriddlz ever wrote or recorded in earnest and it shows; he conceptualizes sex like he learned about it from watching porn and uses his voice like he’s singing in the shower, to an audience of one. But the song’s flaws add up to an off-kilter charm that made it a breath of fresh air amidst the glossy sheen of this summer’s biggest smashes.
"Sweeterman" received a lot of flack for blurring the line between Serious Music™ and parody gone too far, but the song’s transcendent power lies beyond its blinking synths, auto-tuned melodies, and pun-filled one-liners. As the work of an Egyptian-Canadian kid making music equally indebted to contemporary R&B and Jamaican dancehall, it’s emblematic of a singular second- and third-generation immigrant sensibility that might not be wholly understood beyond the 6, whose population spans more than 200 different ethnic origins. The song is an apt, organic interpretation of true culture-mashing and presents a potential blueprint for a new approach to a distinctly Toronto sound, one that can easily be translated for a larger audience by a cultural mediator such as Drake. For of all of its imperfections, "Sweeterman" hints at the dreamy possibility of a borderless utopia and a peacefully shrinking world, one that perhaps looks a little like Toronto’s outer boroughs. —Rawiya Kameir
22. JME f. Giggz, "Man Don’t Care"
JME has no Instagram, no PR, no label, no manager, no personal assistant. He doesn't eat meat, dairy, egg, or fluoride. He follows no one on Twitter, but tweets constantly, engaging his audience of more than 400,000 in banter about British telecoms, automobile manufacturing ethics, and post office deliveries gone awry. In a year when grime expanded outwards, with ambassadors like Skepta and Stormzy making inroads beyond the U.K., JME did the opposite, shirking off interview requests and encouraging fans to vote for other rappers at award shows.
This spring, he released his third studio album, Integrity, on Boy Better Know, the label he runs with Skepta (who also happens to be his older brother). The cover is just a zoomed-in picture of JME’s cheeky, lightly mustached grin. It’s weird because he’s weird. "Man Don’t Care," featuring veteran English rapper Giggs, is a thesis statement of JME’s borderline antisocial persona, a muscular declaration of his no-gimmicks, no-frills asceticism and approach to rap. The beat, courtesy of Birmingham producer Swifta Beater, sounds like the cold, sinister score of a superhero flick. JME rides it in his singular style, by alternately beating his chest with badman boasts, making nerdy Harry Potter references, and reminding fans and friends that he’s fundamentally unbothered. Man don’t care about much other than shiny Charizard Pokémon cards and vegan snacks. —Rawiya Kameir
23. Kacey Musgraves, "Dime Store Cowgirl"
Kacey Musgraves doesn’t shy away from kitsch. No, she of the light-up cowboy boots and glittery pink stage designs embraces kitsch, hugs it so hard that she lifts kitsch up off the ground, maybe do-si-do’s it behind her back, then deadlifts it overhead. I’m not always super interested when she does this—when the real characters in her songs get buried under wordplay and platitudes—but the kitsch certainly does ratchet up the wallop when she gets to more emotionally bare songs like "Fine" and, one of my favorites, "Dime Store Cowgirl."
As Musgraves explained in her The FADER cover story, the title "Dime Store Cowgirl" comes from when she was a kid in an old-timey chorus and a judgemental mom leveled an insult her way—that she was cocking her cowgirl hat tastelessly high. The song unfolds as a series of brief, equally humbling vignettes from her actual life that illustrate how Musgraves has grown but also stayed true: the first time she stayed in a hotel with a pool, the first time she met Willie Nelson. That last point is even more powerful when you reach Nelson’s surprise guest appearance on the final song of Musgraves’ sophomore album, Pageant Material. Now she’s in a place to surround herself with country icons and flying unicorns at the same time. More power to her. —Duncan Cooper
24. Rich Homie Quan, "Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)"
In 2015, Rich Homie Quan stood alone. Just months after Young Thug rapped on "Lifestyle" that he would die for him, Quan made a public break from the partner with whom he had produced his best music and scored his biggest hit, entering into a cold war with one of rap’s brightest new stars. In a year dominated by Future’s resurgence, Quan went nowhere near the man whose music lorded over their hometowns of Atlanta. Instead, he released a series of dreamlike left-field mixtapes and surfed the wave of "Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)," his own solo smash. Where much of Atlanta rap was defined by a certain antisocial moodiness derived from both Future and Thug, "Flex" is a purely joyous track that fuses the minimal pops of snap music with the elasticity of a dancehall riddim. And yet, the star was Quan himself, delivering askew punchlines that were as funny (I’m a bad boy but I don’t wear big clothes like Ma$e) as they were peculiar (I wear glasses cause I know these niggas watching). Come to think of it, maybe he wasn’t so far away from Thugger after all. —Jordan Sargent
25. Oneohtrix Point Never, "Sticky Drama"
Sometimes I wonder if "Sticky Drama" hits me so directly because I was once a 13-year-old boy with hormones oozing through my body like an incurable virus. Of course, I’ll never know how anyone else experiences it, but I’m sure that it is equally as powerful for listeners who aren’t male-identifying. In fact, if you stripped it of the alien effects, including those gripping bursts of mind-numbing static, the hyper-processed vocal melody would be one of this year’s most elemental pop hooks. But like the whole Oneohtrix Point Never full-length it appears on—Garden of Delete—"Sticky Drama" absorbs the shock and shame of male puberty, even drawing sonic inspiration from the grungy rock that soundtracked Daniel Lopatin’s own mid-’90s coming-of-age. Knowing that, it’s tricky to separate the sounds from the disorienting surges of masculine energy I experienced in my own early teens. The gross, two-part short film that Jon Rafman created to accompany it doesn’t help either, setting a LARP war in suburbia. It’s a feverish reminder that at that age, your small-time universe is as scary and treacherous as the whole world. Every puss-filled pimple and sinking feeling is seismic and soul-crushing, like an abrasive barrage of head-spinning noise. —Patrick D. McDermott
26. Adele, "Hello"
All divas know that the key to a great ballad is dynamics. Whitney and Barbra recognised when to dial the volume of their voice down as well as when to amp it up, and Adele learned a lot by singing from from the same hymnbook as these musical heroes. Less is more in "Hello," and I think everyone must have turned the sound way up to hear the song’s softly delivered verses, before getting an audio assault from the chorus.
The thing is, we want to hear those quiet verses, with their conversational and slightly banal lyrics (It’s so typical of me to talk about myself I’m sorry). Adele regrets how things went down, but can’t stop apologising for her outburst even as she pours out her heart. In the chorus, too, she sings how It doesn’t matter / It clearly doesn’t tear you apart any more, implicitly before the addressee has even had a chance to speak. This impulse mirrors the way we talk now, and It’s the first power-ballad I’ve heard that has captured how we always seem to be apologising for our feelings these days, as we lighten the weight of a text by putting ‘lol’ at the end, or say it’s fine when it isn’t.
Does the message actually reach its intended? Maybe not, despite all those calls. It’s an even more heartbreaking idea than outright rejection—and that’s where the emotional heft of the song really lies. Director Xavier Dolan riffs on this in the track’s video, where phones ring unanswered and Adele is shown closing the curtain (literally, at the end) on communication with her intended recipient. Her one wish is to apologise, and to say at least she tried. But the diva is denied this. As a smash hit single, "Hello" reached millions despite—or, perhaps, because—Adele's message never found its true home. The song reeks of unfinished business, pointless heartache, and a pain that no one else can ever know. —Owen Myers
27. Kehlani f. Coucheron, “Alive”
Being a fan of Kehlani is like being a fan of J. Cole. You believe that full projects should be loved as much as singles, that stars should be socially conscious, and that lyrics should be revealing. You want them to make it to radio, but by defying radio’s norms. You cling to others who feel the same way. You see them at the concerts you buy tickets for, wearing the same T-shirt you purchased.
Kehlani isn’t for every target demo, she’s just for her people. Lots of young women, more than a few young men, and anyone who’s felt good after proving—to themselves or others—a capability to pick themselves up after a shitty time. Resilience is the subject of countless pop songs, but few people embody it as well as Kehlani, who looked after herself through a tumultuous childhood, and has found purpose in looking after others. “Alive,” the closer of her album-presented-as-mixtape You Should Be Here, is a pact between one self-empowered artist and her self-empowered fans. You can start over as many times as you want, it promises. I believe her. —Naomi Zeichner
28. The Weeknd, "Can’t Feel My Face"
As John Seabrook outlines in his much-discussed recent book The Song Machine, the key to super-producer Max Martin’s irresistible signature style in the ’90s was his welding of minor-key pop melodies with a guitar-rock strut and R&B snap. It’s how he made his name, but the Swede’s soulful formula hasn’t always been immediately obvious in his recent productions for artists like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry. So perhaps it’s no wonder that his collaboration with Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) on "Can’t Feel My Face" felt exhilarating. Martin’s early passions were coming home to roost.
After an album (Kiss Land) and video ("Pretty") that took his drugged-out and noirish aesthetic to uncomfortable extremes, Tesfaye needed the boost that Martin was able to provide. The headrush-inducing "Can’t Feel My Face" dealt with his usual themes more smartly, and came with lofty touchstones, too: the Toronto artist noted Michael Jackson as a key inspiration for his new style, channeling the rhythmic strut of "Blood Is On The Dancefloor" in the production and Thriller era in its execution. Maybe this isn’t entirely coincidental: Martin recorded with Jackson himself in the mid-90s, while working on 3T’s debut album Brotherhood. "I lost my mind," Martin recalled of that experience. With "Can’t Feel My Face," you feel like you’re losing yours. —Owen Myers
29. Big Sean f. Drake and Kanye West, "Blessings"
Big Sean, Drake, and Kanye united to acknowledge a higher being on “Blessings,” the song from Sean’s February album with the most tweetable hook. In the song’s spooky video, Sean, Drake, and Kanye appear up in the clouds, confessing and praying, imagining themselves on a godly level. But arguably no one better channeled blessings this year than untouchable Warriors point guard Steph Curry’s daughter, Riley. Like a star student of the Montessori school Kanye dreams of opening on “Blessings,” the then-two year old hijacked the mic at one of her dad’s post-game press conferences in May to sing. Waaaaay up, indeed. —Tara Mahadevan
30. Nicki Minaj f. Lil Wayne and Drake, "Truffle Butter"
On "Only," one of two singles on The Pinkprint lassoing this trifecta of rap elite, Drake and Lil Wayne fetishize Nicki Minaj’s sexuality, turning their Young Money peer into an object of desire. It’s an egregious concept: to spend an entire verse ignoring Minaj’s outstanding accomplishments and success in favor of expressing libido-driven cravings felt cheap and perplexing, made even more so with her stamp of approval. "Truffle Butter" is far less crass, the opposite side of the coin, a simple beats-and-rhymes formula that errs from the more traditional pop structures that Minaj has taken favor to. A sample flip of Maya Jane Cole’s "What They Say" hypnotically hums behind the trio; each deliver peacocked rhymes that toy with meter like a ragdoll. It's less so a rap song than it is a reminder: that the Young Money skein is built on skill, not flash. —Steven J. Horowitz
31. Courtney Barnett, "Depreston"
"Depreston," a dusty gem off Courtney Barnett’s debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, is a comforting reminder that I am not the only one who experiences existential crises in the most mundane of situations. "Depreston" is about house hunting in a suburb of Melbourne, but actually, it’s about growing old and the inevitability of death. Sometimes you see death in everything, even a handrail in the shower, or a collection of canisters for coffee tea and flour. It’s a morbid fascination that doesn’t let up, even when Barnett’s worrying about whether or not she’s a millennial gentrifier over a carefree-sounding guitar riff. The magic of "Depreston" lies in how effortlessly Barnett melds the humdrum with the scary. It can be terrifying to age, but really boring and stupid too. This place seems depressing, Barnett sings. But the song isn’t, and that’s kind of the point. —Leah Mandel
32. Björk, "Stonemilker"
One of the most magical things about Björk is her ability to show the world from a different angle, whether she’s turning the idea of an album on its head or reminding everyone that sartorial choices can spread joy. Over the past 20-odd years, she’s navigated a path that has gracefully, and often playfully, avoided cliche or common tropes. Of course, she’s sung about love countless times, but always with an invigorating perspective on how its chemical flood can shape actions—causing one to roar into oceans or throw cutlery off mountains, for example. But on the Icelandic icon’s ninth album, released suddenly in January after a leak forced her hand, there was no dancing around an idea. Instead, Vulnicura meets us at eye level, and slaps us round the face with a pain we all recognize.
The lyrics to "Stonemilker," the album’s opener, spell out the beginning of the end of her relationship with longtime partner Matthew Barney. Written nine months before they separated, the language is uncoded—she makes references to being open or closed, to a desire to synchronize feelings, to rare moments of clarity. Show some emotional respect, she calls out, her rolling Rs hanging like question marks in the air above the song’s gut-wrenching strings. In interviews Björk has admitted embarrassment at the prosaic nature of the record but she, like all of us, knows that healing only follows the naming of one’s pain. "Stonemilker" is a beautiful song about an ugly reality, and whether or not the fibers of our own unions are unravelling, there’s strength to be gained from following her lead. —Ruth Saxelby
33. Little Simz, "Dead Body"
Sell her soul is the last thing Simbi Ajikawo, aka Little Simz, would do. The British rapper has "sat down with almost every single label in the U.K.," she told me when I was writing her GEN F profile this summer, "but none of them have got it." Ultimately, she turned her back on all them to self-release an intensely dark, meticulously crafted debut album in October. Even so, it’s a dilemma she ponders on the hook of her wildest single "Dead Body," where her imagination runs away with itself to create her most troubled persona yet: I just might sell my soul if it’s worth anything.
The track is the most immediate and visceral introduction you could get to Simz’s world, where she flits between alter-egos (and flows) and deeply inhabits each one of them. As the distorted, sparse beat runs rings around your head, so too does her ability to shapeshift, hurling herself into an ever-escalating narrative yet never seeming like she’s swept up in it. The character you hear in "Dead Body" is fearless. Little Simz is too. —Aimee Cliff
34. Major Lazer f. MØ and DJ Snake, "Lean On"
If DJ Snake has a signature, it’s that he makes tracks addictive with an almost chemical ferocity. Off the back of last year’s ubiquitous hit "Turn Down for What," perhaps it’s no surprise that he also had a hand in this year’s most inescapable song. An overdose of classic dance-pop sorcery, "Lean On" became the soundtrack to hordes of beer-spilling festival crowds this summer and the most streamed track on Spotify this year (550 million plays and counting).
It's testament to how good this song is that I'm not even mentioning the video, a eye-rolling exercise in cultural appropriation. Co-producing with Major Lazer, this is DJ Snake giving his best bouncy beat to date—and once this is injected with Danish alt-pop singer MØ’s solemn, pleasingly strange vocal, it becomes impossible to stay stationary whenever you hear it. Sure, there’s a sense of melancholy running through the plaintive melody, and the deep insecurity of the lyrics (What will we do when we get old?). But the genius of this track’s infectious house vibe is that you barely even notice, as the beat lifts you up into ecstasy, whether you like it or not. —Kieran Yates
35. The Internet, "Girl"
There’s an element of queer sex that straight people will never truly know. It’s a moment of ultimate self-confidence. And nowhere is that spark better captured better than in The Internet’s "Girl," which features mood-shifting production from Kaytranada. From the opening of the verse, Passion burning, causing rapture of laughter / Pressure building, falling faster and faster, it’s right there—these are two girls in pure splendor. When the chorus hits, I picture the "anything" that the girl is asking for is an eight-scoop hot fudge sundae, surrounded by stacks of gold coins on all sides. Then there’s the ultimate flip and what makes the song feel so very current: Would you let me call you my girl, my girlfriend, my girlfriend. That’s a request for monogamy, the most ordinary sort of romance. In the coda of the song, Syd reveals that something else is at work here— She gave in, I gave up/ Can we just live in the moment? The fire has burned too bright, it’s going to all flame out. But the sex in "Girl" is the kind you think about years later, when you’re both with other people. It’s that intense. —Myles Tanzer
36. Young Thug, "Best Friend"
Very little in life is better than rap songs about friendship: from "If My Homie Calls" to "Ladies Night" to the entirety of Ferrari Boyz. Young Thug’s "Best Friend," the centerpiece of September’s Slime Season mixtape, belongs in that canon. Over hypnotizing harp arpeggios by producer Ricky Racks, Thug pledges his allegiance to his financée and his sisters. But it seems Thug’s ultimate ride-or-die is actually himself—the bemused What?! and Sheesh! exclamations that dot Thug’s bars are like the inner dialogue of a perpetually racing mind that cracks itself up at every turn, having outpaced its competition long ago. Thug’s devotion to himself is perhaps on best display in the song’s excellent video, a calm and trippy self-contained universe that’s part Magritte painting, part Nutty Professor sequel, as directed by David Lynch. —Meaghan Garvey
37. Jazmine Sullivan, "Let It Burn"
When it comes to being a fan of Jazmine Sullivan, the phenomenal Philly singer-songwriter, there can be equal parts excitement and frustration. As you hear the masses go on and on about one particular ultra-talented, big voiced singer who perfectly captures the every inch of the emotionality associated with love, you can’t help but think, "But have you heard Jazmine Sullivan?" Not to make it a tit for tat, it’s just that Sullivan’s horn ought to be tooted for more than it presently is. Look no further than her conceptual and well-crafted third album, Reality Show, and in particular, the infectious "Let It Burn."
The track, which samples the still-stunning After 7 1989 hit, "Ready or Not," is Jazmine at her finest. You can’t help but catch feelings as she sings, I want to be good to you baby (oooh)/ Call me crazy ‘cause I think I found the love of my life (that’s right). One wonders why it never the track never had a formal release, especially after seeing her perform it live at this year’s Soul Train Awards (in a medley with After 7, who did their original hit). It’s soulful, sang brilliantly, and most importantly, catchy as all hell. It’s a reminder of what great a gift Jazmine Sullivan is—one that not enough people are bearing witness to. —Michael Arcenaux
38. Beach House, "PPP"
In a way, dream-pop stalwarts Beach House relied on happy accidents ahead of Depression Cherry’s release. Instead of choosing singles to speak for the album, the band’s Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally created a "Single Finder," which allowed fans to choose their three favorite Beach House songs from the past. An algorithm would then spit out a brand-new single based on similar sounds, because, as the band wrote in a statement, "No one song ever feels like a perfect representative for a record." That’s how Depression Cherry’s soft-spoken—but hard-hitting—standout "PPP" came into the world. But despite the low-key marketing fanfare, "PPP" stands among one of the most swoon-worthy songs released in 2015, in part thanks to Legrand’s signature breathy sing-speak, which causes the track to feel like a woozy fever dream. Are you ready?"Legrand asks. Are you ready for this life?. Coupled with the band’s masterful synth swells, "PPP" is less a song as it is a swift kick to the heart and head. It’s possible that the meaning of the titular acronym is "Piss Poor Planning," one-half of the popular 1950s saying in that urged people to act like good Boy Scouts—to always be prepared in order to prevent pitfalls. It happens so fast, Legrand wistfully notes on "PPP." Planning only helps so much, especially with something as infuriating and spectacularly fickle as life. —Paula Mejia
39. Omarion f. Chris Brown and Jhené Aiko, "Post To Be"
It’s a sentiment not echoed nearly enough, but Omarion’s post-B2K musical offerings have had far more hits than misses. Still, he’s never quite broken out as a solo act the way many other former boy band lead singers have. So, when he made his way on over to Love & Hip Hop Hollywood, many rightfully wondered if he had finally set sail on his cruise to a future episode of TV One’s Unsung. That is, until his monstrous hit, "Post To Be," featuring Chris Brown and Jhené Aiko made its way to radio.
What’s interesting about this song is that even by Omarion’s standards, it’s not a very adventurous release. The beat, crafted by DJ Mustard, is good but one we’ve heard a thousand times over already. Chris Brown’s feature is forgettable, but you know, nice to see you again or something, sir. What makes this song is Aiko’s distinct delivery on new and more sexually explicit terrain—particularly But he gotta eat the booty like groceries.
If not for that line, which one cannot help but meme and repeat, the song may have fizzled away. That alone made the song great. Granted, it’s no "Ice Box," but it gave Omarion another shot at making one. —Michael Arcenaux
40. Migos, "Pipe It Up"
The road from cult stardom to mainstream success in rap is filled with pothole-like obstacles, and can feel rigged from the jump. Migos found that out the hard way earlier this year when their debut album Yung Rich Nation underperformed, lost in the shadow of Offset’s lock-up and further sidelined by Drake and Meek Mill’s beef. It’s a shame, because the album was stacked with quiet gems. Its lead single "Pipe It Up," built on exuberant production from frequent collaborator Murda, is classic Migos: repetitive phrasing, patented triplet flow, stone-faced humor. Thanks to a demonstrative video and punctuating dab! adlib throughout the track, "Pipe It Up" helped launch the elbow-led dance into the stratosphere, much to the delight of teenagers, NFL stars, and clueless old people eager to understand youth everywhere. Now remember, ‘fore we made this song, nobody said "pipe it up," Takeoff said near the end of his verse. They still don’t. But the dab is experiencing a cultural moment so ubiquitous, it made its way into NBC’s The Wiz Live! and onto 2 Chainz’s official merch. When one door closes, a window opens. —Jordan Sowunmi
41. Post Malone, "White Iverson"
Among the unlikely but persistent class of white hip-hop bro artists, Allen Iverson continues to be a popular choice: first Asher Roth rhymed his name with "champion" and "beer pong" on "I Love College," and now L.A.-via-Dallas singer Post Malone (né Austin Post) has paid tribute, with his maddeningly beautiful breakout track. Blessed by the sure instincts of production duo FKi, "White Iverson" is effervescent and expansive, lonely and warm. The synth in the background floats angelically, like fog at dusk over a quiet city, and Post Malone transposes the earworm of a hook up into the clouds. He’s gotten called out for being somewhat of a caricature of blackness, but this track has as much in common with Hot Chip’s "Boy From School" as it does with Drake, who himself has shown that a good hook is as sufficient as other hip-hop bona fides. —Jia Tolentino
42. Jeremih, "Planes"
The premise of Jeremih’s great sex song "Planes" is sex on a plane, speaking literally, and sex as plane, speaking transcendentally. In an age of doing the most, "Planes" is minimal and translucent—there’s space for the gentle but turbulent bass to rattle around, and for your imagination. As a bonus, the song’s also a time capsule. At its start, an anonymous vixen introduces Thumpy Johnson and his bacchanalian paradise, harkening back to the original title of Jeremih’s third album, which was released in December after some three years of production and delay. The evolution of "Planes" itself was similarly convoluted. It began as a collaboration with Chance the Rapper, who was then swapped for J. Cole, only to be stripped for parts and re-worked by Chance collaborator Lido into what is perhaps the song’s ideal form. Finally, it was retitled as "Planez," for some reason. With enough imagination, you can squint until all these versions form one glorious hybrid. Preferably sans any allusions to dicks, feet, and mouths. —Meaghan Garvey
43. Bryson Tiller, "Don't"
A clattering midnight bus ride to win back a girl who isn’t actually his in the first place, Bryson Tiller’s "Don’t" is a classic I’m-just-saying-you-could-do-better plea, elevated by its melodic surefootedness and melancholy restraint. In a year of songs with near-wordless hooks ("Where Are Ü Now," "Lean On"), Tiller lets the one-word spark of Don’t hang heavy in the atmosphere. The way he holds back around that word gives the song space to furl out and down around the melody, which hits R&B perfection on the second verse. 32 million people have streamed "Don’t" since it was posted on Soundcloud in late 2014, all perhaps surprised by the snippet of Mariah Carey’s "Shake It Off" that sneaks in there, as well as the chopped-and-screwed coda that soaks you in syrup at the end. It’s a big play, which Tiller’s debut full-length, released in September, hasn’t yet been able to follow—but maybe, in 2016, he’ll surprise us again. —Jia Tolentino
44. Travi$ Scott, "Antidote"
Travi$ Scott didn’t even want all of this to happen. “Antidote,” the song that broke him to the mainstream, wasn’t even in the plan for his album. In a message posted on the track’s Soundcloud stream Scott said, "This is for the real fans; the real ragers! This is some vibes for the summer. This isn’t on Rodeo… it’s coming soon." But once it made the rounds, there was no stopping the song, or Scott’s, momentum. The bassline that kicks off the cut is a surefire way to make any crowd stop what they’re doing, look around, and initiate the turn up, a feat that only an elite level of songs—like Usher’s “Yeah”—can accomplish. — Jeff Ihaza
45. Dej Loaf f. Big Sean, "Back Up"
The first time Dej Loaf and Big Sean found each other on the same track, a year ago, it was Eminem’s "Detroit vs. Everybody," an overstuffed boom bap posse cut made with some of Michigan’s more seasoned stars. On "Back Up," however, the city’s two youngest and most radio-friendly representatives get together on a spare sample of Chicago footwork producer DJ Clent, with bleeps and chants leaving ample room for their distinctive voices. I’m too holy, bitch, I’m godly is Dej’s whole endearingly confusing persona in a nutshell, while Big Sean, an erratic presence in the best of times, gives one of his best verses to date. He references T-Baby’s immortal viral hit "It’s So Cold In The D," drops a few slick punchlines, and parts with the vivid word picture that is She gon’ hold this dick like a Grammy. —Al Shipley
46. Boogie, "Oh My"
Boogie’s breakout hit "Oh My" spread like wildfire after its jocular hook—Oh! My! Goodness!—was appropriated by hyped-up Viners and amped partygoers last spring. Make no mistake: anchored by thumping 808s courtesy Jhalil Beats, it does bang. But upon closer listen, you’ll find that the Compton rapper’s cry is in anticipation of his listeners’ response to the harrowing tales he has lived to tell. With a slight lisp, he recalls being shot while sitting on a park bench and watching his mother cook drugs before dinner. Painting a vivid picture of the streets and society that shaped him, he raps: It ain’t no Jordans when seeing them dudes camp/ Know niggas who got work from selling their food stamps. At which point, that Oh! My! Goodness! begins to strike a darker and more complex note. —Zara Golden
47. Chance The Rapper f. Saba, "Angels"
In the lead-up to The Social Experiment’s Surf, Chance the Rapper was careful to make it clear that, despite his affiliation with the band and appearances on the album, it really wasn’t his project. At the time it seemed like an easy way for Chance to deflate expectations after his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap, but "Angels," a new single he debuted out of nowhere in a blistering performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, made it clear that he actually wasn’t bullshitting. The song is a clear extension of Acid Rap, but it also delivers on all the potential that mixtape promised. "Angels" is both broadly lovable—there are overt soul and gospel influences—and deeply idiosyncratic, with juke rhythms, South Side slang and radio dial shoutouts pumping the track alive with the history of Chicago. There are nods to the social consciousness that made Acid Rap feel so precociously vital but "Angels" mostly just bursts with the excitement of having accomplished greatness and being on the cusp of something even greater. —Jordan Sargent
48. Empress Of, "Kitty Kat"
"Kitty Kat," the second single off of this year’s Me, is an anthem of independence. Over two and a half minutes, soaring synths and limber vocals explode Empress Of’s pared down lyrics. I’m fending for myself when you still call me pretty, Lorely Rodriguez sings in a limber falsetto, before crescendoing into the chorus: Don’t ‘kitty, kitty cat’ me’ like I’m just your pussy. What "Kitty Kat" lacks in verbosity it makes up for with raw power: somehow, in just eight lines, she forcefully rejects gender binaries, manipulative relationships, and assumptions about how beauty inversely correlates with agency. The track’s blistering textures, the tangible frustration in Rodriguez’ vocals, and its bloody, beating heart work to make the song one of the year’s messiest, sincerest, and outright best. On an album crowded with technically immaculate songs that have potent symbolism and intimate messages, "Kitty Kat" just seems to vibrate at a higher frequency. —Liz Raiss
49. Chris Brown f. Tyga, "Ayo
On collaborative album Fan of a Fan, Tyga and Brown affected callousness and chauvinism to avoid admitting to the vulnerability that might lie beneath. It was masculine in the most embarrassing way. I neglected to share my disappointment only because my once-high expectations suddenly seemed absurd. For that— the expectations—I blame "Ayo," 2015's most surprisingly poignant top-down summer banger.
The song doesn't lack macho posturing—I'ma take her ass down when she bring her friend around goes the hook, Fuck 'em both like ayo—but producer Nic Nac undermines the lyrics with a Vengeance Studio sample called "VVE1 Vocal Phrases 052": a simple I Need you is interjected every 20 or so seconds. Though neither rapper nor singer ever acknowledges the intrusion, it seems to echo from deep in their consciences, revealing loneliness at the moment they're most desperate to deny it. —Nick Murray
51. Florence and the Machine, "Ship to Wreck"
Florence has always had the kind of pipes that can make her sound like a wild animal, letting her voice roam over the years across a beloved catalogue of unkempt, sometimes magical songs. But "Ship to Wreck" is where she finally figured out that the craziest thing you can do with such savage talents is to lock them up within the same simple structure as every other catchy pop song out there and see how loudly they roar trying to break free. The best song of her career. —Alex Frank
51. Justin Bieber, "Sorry"
Former bubblegum icon Justin Bieber's turn on Jack Ü's "Where Are Ü Now" marked an intended pivot: to use music as a means of saving the grace of the public, soured by personal antics spanning lecherous brothel excursions to getting arrested for a DUI. Purpose, his album-length redemption song, completed the mission. Bieber sounds tender and brazenly apologetic throughout, none more so than with "Sorry," one of his finest singles to date. Skrillex and BLOOD confect a trampling tropical house waist-winder, hollow vocal sample and all, that Bieber achingly croons against with convincing remorse. He’s assumedly singing to an ex—Is it too late now to say sorry?/ Cause I’m missing more than just your body—but he’s also looking beyond. "Sorry" is a rapt metaphor to plead for the world’s forgiveness, not a note or lyric wasted, as if he recorded the song on his knees. Making amends on a global scale is ambitious, and Bieber made it all look so simple. —Steven J. Horowitz
52. Earl Sweatshirt, "Grief"
Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside finds the rapper capturing a moment in his personal growth, a stage full of hazy weed smoke and isolated introspection. On "Grief," the first single from the album, Earl invites us into this world: When it's harmful where you going and the part of you that know it don't give a fuck, he raps over the song’s muddy production. Earl produced most of the tracks on IDLSIDGO and on "Grief," you understand why—the song feels as cohesive as anything the rapper has put out, with its brooding drum patterns matching the rapper’s slurred delivery like they were made in the same state of mind. Earl’s honesty anchors the entire album, as he offers snapshots of the real, and sometimes heartbreaking moments of post-adolescence. —Jeff Ihaza
53. Kamasi Washington, "The Rhythm Changes"
Jazz musician Kamasi Washington waited three years to release his official debut album The Epic and while he grew frustrated and irrational at the delays, the timing proved perfect. In February 2015, the saxophone licks and string arrangements he'd lent to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly brought Kamasi and the L.A. jazz community he's been a part of into sharp focus. The Epic followed in the spring via Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, best known for its beat oddities and electronic eccentricities, and it capitalized on the new wave of interest to remind everyone that jazz could still be cool and, perhaps most importantly, still captivate the youth.
"The Rhythm Changes" closes the first of the album's three volumes—the whole thing weighs in at 19 tracks—a catchy and delicate number that remains spine-tingling in its progression and delivery no matter how many times you repeat it. As the seven-minute composition settles into its groove, Washington delivers an uplifting saxophone solo full of vibrancy but it's the tender voice of guest singer Patrice Quinn that steal the show, as her lyrics take on a mantra-for-life quality: no matter what happens, I'm here. —Laurent Fintoni
54. Meek Mill f. Drake, "R.I.C.O."
I wonder if "R.I.C.O." will always sound like the scene of a crime, or if that will fade. Listening to it today, you can’t help but read between the lines, looking for the specific points of rupture where cautious friendship blurred into public rivalry. What happened here? This was the year’s most depressing celebrity argument—watching fans and critics and Canadian politicians pile onto Meek Mill was nothing if not draining. I wonder how many people first heard of Meek Mill because of it. Was that the point? Was there a point?
I spent a few days following Meek around L.A. earlier this year for The FADER. I remember Drake’s name coming up exactly once, and that was because he had recommended a sushi restaurant that we passed on the Pacific Coast Highway. Meek is not a music fan, he is a rap fan. Meaning that he admires people who rap, who do it well and who care about it in the abstract. He mentioned a lot of artists in this realm who he considers peers, mentors, competitors, sui generis weirdos. Drake just wasn’t one of them. It appeared that, to Meek, Drake is in another realm.
My favorite part of "R.I.C.O." is the end of Meek’s verse, when he imagines the song itself is being tapped: I can hear echoes from feds on this beat from informants, he raps. I think they’re recording. It’s a line that might forever date this song to the era of Snowden and absolute state surveillance. It’s also a mark of Meek’s anxiety. And he doesn’t let us off the hook. Like Phil Spector pointing a gun at our heads, he draws us into his paranoid pop-star perspective. He asks us to listen closer, to tell him he isn’t crazy: Shhh, listen, you hear that? —Will Stephenson
55. Machel Montano f. Angela Hunte, "Party Done"
Pretend the Grammys awarded Song of the Year in a competition where the field was bigger than March Madness and the pageantry rivaled that of SummerSlam. This would be the American equivalent to Trinidad's International Soca Monarch, the Carnival-weekend concert where, in 2014, Machel Montano used a stunt-double skydiver to represent his hit "Happiest Man Alive" and still only earned second place. Had he and Hunte chose to visualize the unstoppable "Party Done" at this year's event, they would have needed a working freight train, a few cases of Brugal, and enough dancers to swing an election.
Soca plus house is an old equation, and one Machel himself first solved it on 1995's "Come Dig It." Twenty years later, he's still tweaking the terms. The drop on "Party Done" may be pure EDM, but the tireless drums call back to Peter Rauhofer big room, collapsing into your chest with enough force to crack concrete. Not to be outdone, the two singers stack hook upon hook, then envision a dancefloor solidarity intended to outlast any fete. I am coming for that ass, watch me ride it/ And when I'm finished we gon' stand there united sings Machel. Party on. —Nick Murray
56. Joanna Newsom, "Divers"
Joanna Newsom is a woman capable of so much—complex chords, lyrics that defy understanding, structural masterworks—that it can sometimes seem silly, even condescending, to remark on just how beautiful what she makes is. But it is beautiful. If heaven does not already have a soundtrack, the first 30 seconds of glittering harp that open "Divers" should be the muzak that plays in the waiting room outside St. Peter’s pearly gates.
We waited five years for this album, which seemed unfair at the time but now only feels appropriate. These talents aren’t cheap; they come when they come. Newsom is most of all an original, but "Divers" is not one of her stranger songs; In fact, this is as close to a traditional love song as can be found on the album, telling the story of a woman and her underwater beau. And yet, how could you mistake that voice, that melancholy, that momentum, and, of course, that harp for anyone else?
In 2014, I interviewed Joni Mitchell, and she did not seem thrilled with the state of music as she had left it to young people. But I wonder if she had ever heard Newsom, a woman as sharp, independent, honest, and capable of beauty as she has always been. This album debuted higher on the Billboard charts than any other in Newsom’s discography. She reminds me of Mitchell, and of Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Didion and Willa Cather, too—any successful artist who does exactly what she pleases and does it well, who goes forth to the wilderness with only her tools, reports back on all the things she finds at the edges of freedom, and is welcomed home for her bravery every single time. —Alex Frank
57. Section Boyz, "Lock Arff"
The real test of a track's success is the reaction to it being played out in the rave or on the street. This year, U.K. road rap crew Section Boyz have quietly commandeered the scene with industry accolades (namely their MOBO win and nomination for the BBC Sound of 2016)—but more to the point, their breakthrough single "Lock Arff" dominated car interiors all summer.
The hypnotic beat guides you through as the south London group flex their street capital in this tribute to local life, answering their opening question, what do you know about lock arff? by declaring that when they come through, they shut down the party. "Lock Arff" might seem like an-anti pop reaction to Skepta’s bombastic "Shutdown," but they have a similar charisma to grime crew Boy Better Know—both constantly look like they’re having the best time of their life. This is a low-key, unpretentious track with a clear mission statement: it’s been a healthy year for quotables in U.K. rap (see: "Shutdown") and new talent (see: Stormzy) but when it comes to the roads and the rave, Section Boyz have got it on lock. —Kieran Yates
58. Sheer Mag, "Fan the Flames"
Few bands felt as unanimously embraced by the underground this year as Sheer Mag, a press-wary five-piece from the South Side of Philadelphia. They make soulful rock with rough edges—loud, fuzzy anthems for any angst-filled human with an ear for sleazy riffs. "Fan the Flames," a hell of a song from their dauntless second EP, features streetwise lyrics about crooked landlords and a run-down house with drippy pipes. They ain't gonna fix it 'til it's too far gone, howls Christina Halladay, whose gritty chops and ferocious charisma—she really sings her heart out—make her one of the year’s most magnetic front-people. Part of the endless charm of "Fan the Flames" is how it sounds familiar the second you put it on, like something on one of the vaguely warped Southern-rock cassette tapes your parents used to play from a boombox while sun-tanning on the back porch. Go see their unruly live show in some lawless punk space, though, and you’ll be glad your folks aren’t around. —Patrick D. McDermott
59. Madeintyo, "Uber Everywhere"
Madeintyo doesn’t drink lean out of double cups and he doesn’t sell drugs out of trap houses. As an army brat, he spent six years living just outside of Japan’s capital, where, tired of waiting on friends to send him beats, he began producing his own shit. But back in Atlanta after high school, he leaned deeper into rapping and built a bona fide fan base off a couple of SoundCloud hits. He now pals around with guys like Ty Dolla $ign and OVO don Oliver El-Khatib—a rare case of a true outsider worming his way inside.
In sound and style, Madeintyo resembles dozens of the other internet-obsessed offspring of Gucci Mane and Chief Keef, distilling wide-ranging influences into a post-Awful Records simplicity perfect for Instagram captions and FADER spine lines. But it’s the singular perspective he brings to that omnipresent sound that’s made his tracks stand out to bliss-chasing kids across the country. In a year of rap about hopping out of Porsches and cruising in white Phantoms, Madeintyo delivered "Uber Everywhere," a dreamy theme for the great transportation equalizer. It clocks in at just 2 minutes and 23 seconds, with swift, effortless verses that are as efficient as the start-up they praise. Even his pervasive ad-lib—a high-pitched skr, skr—sounds optimistic, like he’s truly content with riding around in the backseat of someone else’s car. He’s zen enough to be grateful for his blessings, but ambitious enough to know bigger things await him in 2016: in a word, he’s enlightened, in another, Based. Yeah, I wanna get the ‘Rari, but I know it take some time, he raps—who can't relate? —Rawiya Kameir
60. Fetty Wap, "Again"
"Trap Queen" might be more prolific, but "Again" is Fetty Wap’s most epic and heart-rending love song to-date. The track—which, so the story goes, was impulsively uploaded in some unfinished form by the rapper himself about a year ago—finds an aching Fetty making pleading with his lover. Of the new girls who he’s hanging around, he offers we call them fans though, you know what we do; and he grovels, time and time again, I ain’t playing no games, I need you. Every note seems to be pulled straight from the bottom of his heart—and given that it clocks in at five-plus minutes, it’s an impressive showing of love and of endurance by the Paterson rapper. —Zara Golden
61. Thundercat, "Them Changes"
As summer began, Brainfeeder’s bass virtuoso Thundercat snuck in through the back door and delivered the perfect seasonal ballad. "Them Changes," from his mini-album The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, hooks you in with a drum beat lifted from The Isley Brothers, layers some warm bass, and then, 10 bars in, grabs you into its arms and doesn't let go: Nobody move there's blood on the floor, and I can't find my heart. And yet, "Them Changes" is a sad song: a song about loss and moving on, a song with no chorus, a song that ends just as it gets started. In many ways it's the perfect soundtrack to a year of social upheavals, a soft and tender counterpoint to a world that makes less and less sense with every passing day. —Laurent Fintoni
62. Girlpool, "Cherry Picking"
Girlpool’s hauntingly simple debut full-length, Before The World Was Big isn’t hinged on much—just some bright, roomy melodies and generous two-part harmonies. If you didn’t glean from its title, the LP thematically explores the hazy limbo between childhood and, well, whatever comes after that. It’s a confusing place to be in, and judging from the duo’s warm reception in twee-punk circles and beyond, a hopelessly relatable one. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad inhabit the space with wide eyes, level heads, and zero pretension. Though not explicit, it’s likely that slow-crawling standout "Cherry Picking," built upon a gradually quickening couple-note riff, is about the dissolution of a romance, something that started hot and heavy but ended when lovers turned to strangers. The whole thing culminates in some petulant, tuneful shouting: Yes I am picking cherries! I have a hard time staying clean!. If you saw a Girlpool show this year, there’s a good chance they ended their set with this one. It’s maybe their most spellbinding live number, a skeletal reminder that a bad feeling can start small and escalate fast. Sometimes, the only thing that helps is singing really loud with a friend. —Patrick D. McDermott
63. Tinashe f. Young Thug, "Party Favors"
A lot of club tracks, whether accessible or left-of-center, are made for dancing more than anything else. They’re designed to make limbs gesticulate and inhibitions evaporate, a process occasionally aided by a little plastic baggy of whatever mind-altering drug is on-trend that season. But every once in blue moon, a track comes along for the way you actually party: on the couch with heavy lids, nursing a too-stiff drink, wisps of exhaled smoke stuck in the air. Tinashe’s "Party Favors," which features Young Thug, is that kind of jam—a woozy tribute to chilling extra hard. Tinashe sounds sultry over a slow-sizzling production dreamt up by a crack team of big-hitters: Allen Ritter, Illangelo, Boi-1da, and Vinylz. Like a lot of the California-bred R&B singer’s best endeavors, it should have been waaay bigger than it was. It’s the coolest song she’s ever made, and I listened to it so much this year that the mischievous opening synth melody has become hyper-familiar—ordinary, almost. But it still triggers a jolt of excitement, like the sound of ice cubes clinking around in a highball glass. —Patrick D. McDermott
64. Arca, "Front Load"
Much of Mutant, the second full-length album that Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi has made as Arca, stalks, gropes, and lurches. On "Front Load," he constructs a veil of choreographed symmetry. On a skim listen, it is a pretty little thing: a parlor dance between the harpsichord and violin, spinning and curtseying with theatrical politeness. Hit replay, though, and the corners of this perfect picture begin to curl. Amidst the froth are specks of insubordination: a comic twang here, an off-guard gulp there. They’re elements that in a different context would sound off, but under Ghersi’s gaze are lent affection. They disturb "Front Load"’s still waters, leaving enchanting ripples in their wake; it’s that delight in so-called imperfection that drives the track’s appeal and keeps me coming back for more. —Ruth Saxelby
65. Missy Elliot, "WTF"
The opening moments of Missy Elliott’s first video in seven years signal a departure. Rather than opening in a hyper-colourful fantasy landscape, it’s 2015, da real world (sorry!), amidst the bustle and car horns of downtown L.A. Here, the shuffling beat of her comeback single "WTF" is a soundtrack to the streets, with the beat blasting across boulevards and in doorways to dime-stores. It’s already the jam of a nail technician, a young guy driving, and a girl who’s feeling herself with her earbuds in. It takes chutzpah to position your track as a song of the people before anyone’s heard it, but Elliott basically summons this into being. She cannily taps into the Misdemeanor you love—slurping up the signatures of her past hits so effortlessly that you wonder whether she’s consciously interpolated the beat of "Gossip Folks" or cadence of "Work It" in the track, or whether Elliott is just being her irrepressible self. In an era where most chart-topping artists are in constant throes of reinvention, Elliott is one of the few artists who remains steady and sure in her vision. Nearly twenty years after "The Rain," she is still schooling her peers. —Owen Myers
66. YG, "Twist My Fingaz"
Midway through the recording of his upcoming album, Still Krazy, Compton rapper YG was shot in the hip outside of a recording session in Studio City, California. On the way to the hospital, rushing through traffic, his friends swerved and slammed into a concrete divider in the center of the road—their car was instantly totaled. YG was pulled, bleeding, from the wreckage and finally taken to the nearest emergency room, but by all accounts he checked out of the hospital that night, and was back in the studio the following day. Like Werner Herzog, he refuses to let a gunshot distract him from his work.
Think of that story while you listen to "Twist My Fingaz," and it adds a certain quality—a sense of taunting, easygoing endurance in the face of inexplicable violence, which is what YG’s music was always about anyway. It’s hard to point to any specific novelty here. The song is as nostalgic as anything by Adele (only for the era of DJ Quik’s Rhythm-al-ism rather than Dusty in Memphis). But it isn’t a statement of reverence to tradition. YG undercuts the whole Compton mythology here in a few lines—I'm the only one who made it out the West without Dre—because he doesn’t need it. To YG, G-funk is just Americana. "One Nation Under A Groove" is just a staple of backyard cook-outs. And a gunshot is just an obstacle to be overcome. —Will Stephenson
67. Chinx Drugz, "On Your Body"
The line Don't you worry, girl, I'm on your body is forever tainted; death is as much a part of this song as the arrow in the FedEx sign. It’s not like there’s conflict in continuing to listen to "On Your Body" or any other Chinx Drugz song after the Queens rapper’s May murder—it’s impossible not to love the lovable—but that the song now feels like a palm tree in the winter, a promise broken. Chinx’s voice should have bubbled out of drop tops for years to come; his face should’ve been on billboards, not memorial T-shirts. And yet. Welcome to JFK, his first album, was released just weeks after his death. His manager Biggs said, "It’s the most surreal thing. I had to literally go from planning an album to planning a funeral." There's a moment in the song that wasn’t ever transcribe by Genius, when Chinx imitates the sound of his Porsche key fob, boop-boo-woop-ing. It's pure, unadulterated joy and also a terrible reminder, that we used to listen to his wordplay and now ache for his voice. In the video, Chinx isn’t there to say that line. But it will endure, floating on the air forever. —Jeff Rosenthal
68. Kanye West f. Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney, "All Day"
Award shows provided some truly life-giving moments this year, from Nicki’s roasting of Miley Cyrus at MTV’s Video Music Awards to Viola Davis’ stirring speech at the Emmys. And in February, Kanye debuted "All Day" onstage at the BRIT Awards amidst a throbbing scrum of blowtorch-toting goons dressed in all-black. The moment was so iconic, and created such a furor amongst some Brits, that Skepta commemorated it with a mid-track skit on his gatecrashing single "Shutdown." Kanye has pared down his sartorial and visual aesthetic over the past couple of years, and blacking out that stage was a hint that even though he’s more preoccupied with fashion these days, he’s still capable of using music to create mayhem. As a song, it’s mighty. The beat sounds like something that’s emerged, in tact, from the rubble that was Yeezus. It groans and flickers and trembles, and he dances and lobs questions like a diabolical Rumpelstiltskin over top, assisted by Minnesota newcomer Allan Kingdom. It’s classic Kanye: humor, hubris and, as the proclamation I be lookin' at the Grammys like, huh, that's us right now betrays, lots of heart. —Anupa Mistry
69. J. Balvin, "Ginza"
Colombian singer J. Balvin’s call to action on his summer single "Ginza" is short and sweet: Si tu necesita reggaetón, dale. Quite simply, if you need reggaetón, you should come and get it. With more than nineteen weeks at the top of the Billboard Latin charts, the call clearly resonates. It’s not just Balvin’s moment—his home city of Medellín has become the capital of a reinvented urbano industry, and is making good on "Ginza"’s invitation too: as the N.Y.C. and San Juan generations migrate to Colombia to be a part of the burgeoning homegrown movement, they become part of reggaetón’s rebirth, too.
"Ginza" softens the edges of previous reggaetón iterations, dropping urbano-lite futurism with precise dembow kicks and a fine-tuned glossiness that sounds closer to a pitched-down techno melody than to the Fruity Loops Studio signifiers that previously defined the genre.
It’s these blurred territories that J. Balvin occupies comfortably: he’s co-signed by urbano gatekeepers like radio host Alex Sensation of N.Y.C. landmark station La Mega 97.9, and Puerto Rican reggaetonero of the previous wave, Farruko, yet he’s no stranger to the mainstream with verses on both Justin Bieber and Major Lazer singles this year. Eleven years after Daddy Yankee’s crossover classic Barrio Fino, "Ginza" is "Gasolina" 2.0: a reminder of pop music’s ability to reposition the visibility of sounds and communities previously othered, just as as reggaetón did for barrio storytellers in its earliest days. —Sara Skolnick
70. Bobby Brackins, "My Jam"
It takes a certain audacity to title your song "My Jam," but in the case of Bobby Brackins, he was pretty much dead on. The Bay singer’s breakout hit—which is produced by DJ Mustard-dupe Dem Jointz and might be best described as "bubblegum snap"—is more than worthy of its title. Sticky from the first beat, young red carpet killa Zendaya brings a sweet element and an appearance by Jeremih assures that it’s just sexy enough. But it’s a pivotal performance from Brackins, who’s got a distinctly pinched-up voice, that is most likely to tickle you. And when he yelps It ain’t loud enough, I wanna hear my jam bang, singing along is not optional. —Zara Golden
71. TOPS, “Anything”
For a good chunk of the video for “Anything,” Jane Penny sits on a low-end cruiser, just sort of staring. It’s nighttime, and you can’t really see much other than her face. It’s lit up by a spotlight, or maybe an iPhone flashlight. The track, a non-album treatise on loneliness, will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed TOPS’ reliably great rock songs over the past few years. “Anything” uses their formula—soft-glowing synths, slow guitars, a nocturnal atmosphere—but it also features one of Penny’s most heartbreaking vocal performances ever; when she drops down to a languorous contralto and sings things like if ever there was anything that could change this thing that’s happening, her existential ache becomes a tangible thing—like the slow-growing flame on a naked mannequin that shows up later in the video. But it’s really those shots of her on the motorcycle, totally stationary, that feel truest to the track's vibe of mystery, sadness, and dread. What happens when you’re ready to ride, but there’s nowhere to go?—Patrick D. McDermott
72. Alex G, "Brite Boy"
Alex G has been releasing hordes of home-recorded rock albums since his teens. But 2015 marked major a milestone for the Pennsylvania-bred 23-year-old: he dropped his first major-indie release, Beach Music, on Domino. The album is an escape into another world of fuzzy guitars, nimble keys, and insightful lyrics. "Brite Boy," is pretty, pained, and poignant. While it started as a post-punk demo, the toe-tap-worthy version we know now plays out like a mantra-stuffed conversation between Alex and his pitch-warped alter ego. The songwriter flexes his gentler side while probing a familiar theme: wanting to make a connection with someone who lights up your life: Brite boy I can help you if you let me take your hand, he offers. All we can do is extend a hand and hope that someone takes it. What happens after is, hopefully, as bright as the sun. —Paula Mejia
73. Jamie xx f. Romy, "Loud Places"
These days, unfettered happiness in a song can be as unsatisfying as it is unrealistic, and straight-up woe hardly leaves any room to dance. Enter the sad banger: iron-wrought, stadium synth structures wallpapered with lyrics from a tear-stained journal entry. It’s in this category that "Loud Places," the unofficial The xx reunion track on producer Jamie xx’s debut solo album In Colour, stands. Incidentally, it occupies a not dissimilar space to the textbook sad banger of the year, "Where Are Ü Now."
Featuring all the things that made us fall for The xx in 2009—glassy, warbling percussion, woozy and swollen basslines, and Romy Madley-Croft’s rapt mid-range—"Loud Places" is a wistful anthem that, unlike the majority of songs on which the two bandmates appear together, really does seem fitting to play in a loud place. Despite going up against flyaway chatter and atmospheric din, Madley-Croft is as up close and personal as ever: I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with, she confesses. Moments later, the chorus slowly blossoms into a joyful affirmation: I feel music in your eyes. It’s a sad banger alright, but it’s one shot through with hope; a song about wading through a chorus of voices for that one whisper that’ll make you feel alright. —Juliet Liu
74. Tate Kobang, "Bank Rolls"
Tate Kobang uploaded the original version of his "Bank Rolls" video to YouTube on April 19. That morning, Freddie Gray died, the result of a nearly severed spinal cord sustained in the custody of the Baltimore police. Kobang, an East Baltimore native who’d steadily built up a local buzz, couldn’t have known. His little wisp of a song still managed to express the opposite of brutality. It’s less than two minutes of rapping with no hook. (Later in the year, Kobang signed with 300 and added another verse.) There’s a hand clap and some bass tremor, on loan from a previous generation of Baltimore innovators. And through it, Kobang two-steps his way across his home turf, shouting out neighborhoods, street names, familiar faces, loving what he sees, because it’s his. We can’t let Freddie Gray’s story fade out with the new year, but we shouldn’t forget Kobang’s either. —Meaghan Garvey
75. Dilly Dally, "Desire”
People really got into Dilly Dally this year, especially those who are nostalgic for sonic throttles and thrashes reminiscent of the Breeders, Hole, and Sonic Youth. The Toronto quartet, helmed by childhood friends Katie Monks and Liz Ball, released their much-anticipated debut Sore, and our ears are still bleeding. Sizzling album opener "Desire" tackles the feeling of loving someone, or something, so much that it that burns. "Desire" is flames, and it’s not just due to the exceptional interplay of squalling guitars rattling against Monks’ unholy howl, which transcends from a rasp to a croon in just seconds. It’s also because "Desire" presents passion as it actually is: an all-consuming thing that can leave everything and everyone charred in its wake. —Paula Mejia
76. Janet Jackson f. J. Cole, "No Sleeep"
When we welcomed Janet Jackson back this year after seven years without an album, there was a peculiar, almost comical sense of deja vu. So many singers—Kelela, Ciara, and Tinashe with their whispering seductions, Rihanna with her riot grrrl righteousness, Beyoncé with her choreographed pop power—have been treading the tracks that Jackson made so many years ago that it felt like she’s been here all along. And in some cases, she who did it first still does it best: "No Sleeep" did not exactly shake the zeitgeist, nor blaze new trails or new sounds, but stack it head-to-head with any song made by a much younger artist, and it will sound slinkier, more naturally sensual, sexier than all of them. OK, so the J. Cole verse will probably not hold up well in the future, but everything else about "No Sleeep" will. And that’s been Jackson’s not-so-secret weapon all along: a kind of timelessness that ensures she never leaves. She’s woman who can make songs in any year that will get stuck in your iTunes and feel like they’ve been there forever. —Alex Frank
77. Young Thug, “Pacifier”
In 1992, Ice-T had a metal band called Body Count. When they released the song “Cop Killer,” one outraged policeman alerted cops nationwide, setting off a national hysteria about rap that led president George H.W. Bush to denounce Time Warner, Body Count’s record label, and Ice-T to remove the song from the album, ostensibly to save his career.
23 years later, Young Thug scats bleed the cops, bleed it, bleed it, bleed it, bleed it, bleed on a hook, and all Genius annotators can muster by way of meaning is: “Young Thug is pacifying himself with some pills.” To me that line is electrifying and radical, an expression of a person’s capacity for power over authority, delivered with pleasure. I’d call it a direct response to the recent police killings of hundreds of unarmed black people, if the timeline was more clear—“Pacifier” was probably recorded in early 2014; before the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the wide recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement.
If it’s not an outright protest song, “Pacifier” is stranger than most hits. Mike WiLL Made It produces a wailing choir of electric guitars; the structure feels constricting to Thug’s typical ballet. But I don’t mind the mismatch. Mike and Thug are both ferociously talented; here they play around in the shadow of Outkast’s ruthless “B.O.B.” rap rock. Upon its release in 2000, “B.O.B.” didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100. I’m betting “Pacifier” will find its place in history eventually, too. —Naomi Zeichner
78. Stormzy, "Know Me From"
Grime MC and Snapchat prince Stormzy understands social media better than most. After all, his 2015 breakthrough single "Know Me From" came with both a self-aware viral video and a couple of endlessly repeatable hashtags. The rapper’s relationship with his online fans is fluid and instinctive, and yet, the most pertinent line in "Know Me From" is one that sees him honor his genre’s history: If grime’s dead then how am I here?
As much as he’s part of grime’s new digital age, Stormzy (aka Big Mike, aka Stiff Chocolate) also bears the sharp-tongued wit of the genre’s old school. "Know Me From" shows him doing exactly what Wiley once urged him to do, carrying the torch for original grime (complete with Roll Deep reference and "I Luv U" sample). It’s what gave the tune the strength to be an explosive finale to Stormzy’s first headline show at London’s KOKO, backed by JME, Lethal Bizzle, Giggs, Chip, and more stalwarts of the scene. Stormzy’s breaking new ground without leaving the old one behind: that’s why "Know Me From" feels not just shareable, but canonical. —Aimee Cliff
79. Tory Lanez, "Say It"
When it comes to revisiting the classics of the ‘90s, many often miss the mark for not truly capturing what made that decade’s R&B so endearing—the men. Back then, male groups like Jodeci were considered both cool and "masculine," yet completely vulnerable.
Tory Lanez doesn’t completely capture that with the Brownstone sampling "Say It," but he certainly comes closer than most. A lot of that can be attested to the use of the hook from the group’s "If You Love Me," but give Lanez some credit, too. This track is soulful and his own musings over the track are in line enough with the original vision of the song he pulls from. Lanez is Canadian, yet another sign that these days, the Canadian boys are getting R&B better than a lot of their American counterparts. —Michael Arcenaux
80. Kodak Black, "SKRT"
"SKRT"—a song from a 2014 mixtape by the teenage Florida rapper Kodak Black that bubbled above the surface late this year—is, on its face, about robbery. Built primarily atop a few solemn keyboard notes, "SKRT" has an emptiness that suggests an air of grim obligation—even the snares thwack away dutifully like a construction worker hammering a nail. It’s no surprise then that "SKRT" is really about the loyalty one covets when you’re in the business of finessing. You my dawg then just be my dawg and don’t you change on me, Kodak raps. But a few lines later we find out exactly how that turned out: I ain’t in no gang, but if you run up I’m gon’ bang homie. It can’t be said, though, that the threat comes without warning. Buried deep in the chorus is an ad-lib that’s as clear as any directive can be: I will fuck you over.—Jordan Sargent
81. Krept & Konan f. Jeremih, "Freak of the Week"
Traditionally, U.K. major labels have struggled to find crossover success for artists in the rap and grime scenes. How do you mass-market black guys that intimidate conservative middle England, while still retaining their core discerning fans? It’s this idea that black male identity only fits one narrative that British duo Krept & Konan are defying: they’ve proved you can come from road rap roots and still be an accessible pop act dominating U.K. radio all summer. "Freak of the Week," with its bouncy Jeremih feature, is a glossy anthem with a playful relationship with the underground and mainstream. It's an energetic homage to sex being so good that you wanna reclaim the word ‘freak.’ In a year where Drake expected us to lament the loss of the ‘good girl,’ I like to think of her as wearing less, going out more, and listening to this. —Kieran Yates
82. Juiceboxxx, "Alone and Insane on a Friday Night"
What makes a star in 2015 is basically trend-forecasting: Drake or Grimes noticing untapped yet marketable sounds and combining them into something new and transcendent. No one seems simultaneously better and worse at this, to me, than the Milwaukee-born rap-rocker Juiceboxxx. Like music’s biggest winners, he pans for pop gold at the intersection of a few streams nobody else is working at right now. It’s just that, in Juiceboxxx’s case, he’s arrived at the water either too early or way late. His weaving together of Bruce Springsteen and the Beastie Boys—despite these artists’ hugely successful and creative careers—is basically the least career-boosting thing imaginable right now.
That’s why the fatalistic "Alone and Insane on a Friday Night" hits me so hard. Seven years after Lloyd and Lil Wayne, Juiceboxxx’s beat filches the drums from P.M. Dawn’s epic "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" but replaces the original’s uplifting Spandau Ballet guitar with a bummed-out electric riff. Lyrics-wise, his main purpose is to provide himself motivation as he inches closer to an inevitable-seeming demise, and here he nails the feeling in a monotone: You’re going to spend your whole life in this broken town trying to get out of this mess/ It’s never going to be alright, it’s never going be alright/ Alone and insane on a Friday night. "Saying it’s rap-rock is obviously confrontational," Juiceboxxx told me in a revealing interview, "but there are a lot of alternate realities where rap-rock can be sick." Most times, his alternate reality is exactly where I’d rather be. —Duncan Cooper
83. Jam City, "Today"
Let’s be honest about the internet. It’s useful, but it can also be devastating. Feelings are used as personal brands, and the information we share can build us up just as quickly as it can ruin us. There’s no longer any opting out of what we’ve constructed—and there probably shouldn’t be. In these precarious times, we need art to help navigate this new world. On Dream a Garden, Jack Latham, as Jam City, engages with that concept in the most heartbreakingly wistful way he can: by looking inward and speaking honestly about what he would like to do differently.
Latham’s greatest success is that he does this without proselytizing or being cynical. "Today"—with its lite funk bassline and fuzzy keys—is plainspoken, less a call to arms and more a series of tiny realizations. Latham sings with a distant, weary sincerity: And not so long ago/ I was a child with a computer/ All the fumes today/ Make me wish I’d burned it sooner. Later he notices that both the stars and his best friends are fading away—even in the warm, white glow of a computer screen, time does still pass—and it feels less like he’s looking for a revolution so much as a change in his own life. On "Today," Latham conveys this realization with maturity. He’s just striving to be better without making a whole thing out of it. —Sam Hockley-Smith
84. PARTYNEXTDOOR, "Wednesday Night Interlude"
If Drake’s "Marvin’s Room" was a chain of toxic voicemails between ex-lovers, then PARTYNEXTDOOR’S "Wednesday Night Interlude" is the ghost in the answering machine. Snuck into the middle of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the track is a smeared gasp of desperation and longing. Drake sang of drinking Rosé and XO, but Party mixes Remy with a little bit of Henny and it shows. The song—which samples Canadian producer Ekali’s "Unfaith," which itself samples Ciara’s "Body Party"—swims and swirls in extreme drunkenness. The beat is a room that won’t stop spinning, and wheezing vocal samples, reverbed echoes and Party’s own slurred singing morph into an imperceptible fog. But where "Marvin’s Room" was a snapshot of smoldering pettiness, "Wednesday Night Interlude" is the point where you just don’t even care how pathetic you sound. Well, almost: I’m lonely Party acknowledges. I’ll admit if you just keep quiet.—Jordan Sargent
85. Molly Nilsson, "Happyness"
I recently did an interview with the producer bo en where he makes the opposite point, but I still think it’s the coolest thing ever when an artist finds their one true sound—the thing they do better than anyone else, that fits what they say exactly. For Molly Nilsson, a Swedish musician working in Berlin, that sound is a gothic, beachy, cabaret-meets-reggae style of analog synth-pop. She found her wave six albums ago, on These Things Take Time, and has surfed it flawlessly and repeatedly ever since, up through this year’s aptly named Zenith. That album’s lucky seventh track, "Happyness," is one of her best ever, with an intro instrumental that sounds like a whole rave bottled up into a butterfly that’s flying over a sunrise. Midway through the song, she offhandedly delivers a lyric that seems to speak not just for her, but maybe the entirety of weird, self-released DIY music—hell, homemade art in general. I was always so embarrassed by what I wrote/ But deep inside there was always a little hope/ That someone’s gonna find my note. —Duncan Cooper
86. Christine and The Queens, "Tilted"
The French crossover alt-pop star Christine and The Queens was one of the few truly sui generis artists to emerge in 2015, and she’s at her best on the half-en-francaise "Tilted," a song that—as they tend to say about the French in general, and about Christine for sure—manages an almost alchemical combination of assured and effortless. "Tilted" is so well-structured that it’s almost synesthetic—gridded and pricked with percussion, thrumming with physical force. As with all of Christine’s songs, it sounds perambulatory, like discovering things around corners on a long walk. A synth riff lands from on high, like a butterfly perched on your shoulder, and the springtime melody strides forward easily. It’s fresh and wavy, crisp and clean. —Jia Tolentino
87. Popcaan, "Never Sober"
"Never Sober" swerves, its chords expanding like puffs of smoke and arriving at unexpected intervals, unsure of their own tempo. Is the beat supposed to sound drunk? Maybe, but more than that, it sounds free. Celebrating a day away from his j-o-b, Popcaan considers what to make of that freedom, floating through a lucid dream that moves from the beach to the skinny-dipping spot to the first party to the second. There's weed and booze, of course, but they're almost beside the point, a common denominator more than the raison d'être. Poppy may not always be intoxicated, but that doesn't mean he's ever coming down. —Nick Murray
88. Young Fathers, "Shame"
The first time I heard TV On The Radio, I was taken by the Brooklyn band’s ability to create chaotic beauty out of everything other than their traditional instruments—voices, hand claps, table-stomps, tweaky snippets and samples run through lo-fi electronics. As their songwriting evolved, my attraction became about how Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s yearning, mournful lyrics came breathlessly to life through these found sounds.
The first time I heard Young Fathers, I thought I was listening to TV On The Radio. That’s meant as the most favorable of comparisons. Their debut album, Dead, introduced the group as an experimental hip-hop trio. It won the U.K.’s Mercury Music Prize in 2014.
But it’s "Shame," from this year’s White Men Are Black Men Too album, that proves the Scottish group have found their form. A song about reaping what you sow, "Shame" is their "Wolf Like Me"—an indestructible pop tune that would feel lesser in the hands of anyone else. Starting out with a submerged break-beat, looped doo wop vocals and a modulated synth bass-line, "Shame" slowly escalates, sound by sound. Beat-box hollers, organ grinds, and church hymnal backup vocals all combine into a throaty catharsis that will leave you howling at the moon. —Joseph Patel
89. Panda Bear, "Tropic of Cancer"
Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, released a rather doomy-sounding LP called Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper this year. But the title shouldn’t be taken at face value: as he told his friend and collaborator Eric Copeland in Interview, Lennox hoped the album would be like "a Trojan horse: grabbing somebody's attention with something that felt really fun, fresh, and easy to digest, and then you secret in this twisted stuff." One of the album’s standouts, the poignant "Tropic of Cancer," certainly perverts what we traditionally think of lullabies. Lennox hovers over the song like an omniscient narrator, waxing on sickness and health: When they said he’s ill / Laughed it off as if it’s no big deal / What a joke to joke no joke he purrs, but it’s no laughing matter. Listening the lilting harps woven between Lennox’s pained voice, I mean really listening, it’s almost hard to not shed a tear. That urge might be an unconscious reaction to song’s fraught inspiration: as Lennox told FADER earlier this year, he wrote the song about finding out that his father had contracted a life-threatening illness. If there’s any bright spots to be found amidst the inevitability of death, "Tropic of Cancer" finds them beautifully. —Paula Mejia
90. Ty Dolla $ign f. Babyface, "Solid"
Truth be told, you wouldn’t be able to detect Babyface’s involvement in "Solid" if his name wasn’t appended to the track’s title. The song’s six-stringed strumming is an obvious callback to Babyface’s own aesthetic, but "Solid" feels distinctly like a prefab acoustic cover of a classic sneering Ty club banger: Hunnid with my bros you know I’m solid, he sings over his own raking. I guess you wouldn’t know nothing ‘bout it." But instead of feeling like some missed opportunity, "Solid" shows the purity of Ty’s songwriting. Ty grew up in and around music, and his recently released full-length Free TC is stuffed with R&B OGs and driven by a deep and learned musicality. In a year in which DJ Mustard’s influence finally waned, "Solid" is a gleaming example that the singularity of Ty Dolla $ign is context free. —Jordan Sargent
91. Rae Sremmurd, "This Could Be Us"
By the time 2015 rolled around, rap fans were already well versed in Rae Sremmurd’s energy, charisma, and catchy singles. “This Could Be Us,” from the duo’s January album, starts out on a melancholy, downtempo note (Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy are not down with girls who play games) then picks itself up. The song’s more contemplative than many of the #ThisCouldBeUsButYouPlayin memes that have torn through Twitter in the past year or so, which are hilarious at best and tragic at worst. But, like we already knew, and Rae Sremmurd are too spry to stay wistful for long. SremmLife 2 can’t come soon enough. —Tara Mahadevan
92. Julia Holter, "Feel You"
There's a line in Just Kids, Patti Smith's bestselling memoir, that I think of sometimes, usually when the weather turns to shit. "There were days, rainy and gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph," she writes. Even though Julia Holter lives in chronically sun-wrecked Los Angeles, it’s not hard to imagine her being similarly inspired by what others find dreary: rain-dappled windows, damp earth, dense layers of dark clouds. There are so many days of rain/ In Mexico City/ A good reason to go/ You know I love to run away from sun, she signs on the opening verse of "Feel You," an achingly pretty track from the experimental singer-songwriter’s fourth full-length, Have You In My Wilderness. It’s a sophisticated pop song, with Holter’s voice swimming around harpsichord, splashes of strings, and lots of low-humming empty space. The atmosphere has a certain webbed, old-timey majesty that recalls Brian Wilson’s wobbly pocket symphonies, and Holter’s lyrics are some of the year’s loveliest, each stanza unfolding like dialogue from an existential art film. My eyes know very well/ that it’s impossible to see/ who I’m waiting for/ in my raincoat, she sings on the radiant hook. It’s a romantic scene, soggy with possibility. Patti Smith would probably take a picture. —Patrick D. McDermott
93. Jlin, "Infrared (Bagua)"
Jlin stands tall in a scene known for its rhythmic intensity, reliance on old samples, and dominance by men. The Gary, Indiana producer first emerged as a unique voice in footwork four years ago with her contribution to Planet Mu's compilation Bangs & Works Vol. 2, "Erotic Heat," a blistering slice of beats that found its way onto Rick Owen's runways in 2014. As spring arrived this year, Jlin made her full-length debut on Planet Mu with Dark Energy: a bold statement of intent that shunned many of footwork's tropes yet maintained high energy levels.
"Infrared (Bagua)" captures the young producer at her best: dark and visceral, yet sensual and hypnotic. Vocal snippets from Mortal Kombat and an unknown Chinese language source zipline above a cauldron of pounding kicks and synthesized melodies fashioned from burning emotions. Jlin finds beauty in even the ugliest of terrains, a rare and precious quality. —Laurent Fintoni
94. Mas Ysa, "Margarita"
As Alex Frank wrote in his in-depth feature, Mas Ysa "never seems happier than he is when he’s singing about all the things that are hardest to say." No song better exemplifies project mastermind Thomas Arsenault’s uncanny ability to condense feelings too messy for day-to-day life than "Margarita," a song named after his mother. The soaring track, a meticulous blend of piping flutes, swirling synths, and top-of-your-lungs vocals, has the feel-good payoff of a Disney movie and the primal draw of an arena rock anthem. The darkness lurking below the song’s surface—Arsenault begs, No Margarita/ don’t you leave us too young—is not subverted by its larger-than-life production, but rather blown-up into a kind of universal bittersweetness. When you’re listening to "Margarita," it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine you’re surrounded by a sea of a thousand people, all mouthing the song’s lyrics, each one experiencing the same exact catharsis. —Liz Raiss
95. Holly Herndon, "Morning Sun"
Back in her 2012 GEN F interview, L.A.-based artist Holly Herndon told The FADER that "computers are the most personal instruments you can use right now." In 2015, smartphones are arguably even more personal than computers—we trust them with recognizing the contours of our thumbprints, and with the task of waking us up every morning. "Morning Sun," off Herndon’s LP Platform, sounds like a busy processional for both mind and body, as well as an array of digital device familiars churning into motion for a new day. An iPhone sliding to unlock, staccato syllables chirping gotta wake up, and layers of Herndon’s electronic compositions stir together into a portrait of a 21st-century morning.
The song dances in that liminal space between modes of consciousness: dreaming and waking, night and day. The song's video adds another layer via a cryptically hopeful statement: "May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." With that, "Morning Sun"’s motif of new beginnings extends beyond the obvious, towards a yearning for a more just world. But just like a dream that fades too fast, the space between a better future and today’s reality can be painfully hard to grasp. There’s a lot more waking up to do. —Juliet Liu
96. Carly Rae Jepsen, "All That"
When I spoke with Carly Rae Jepsen this summer, we talked a lot about authenticity. The singer, who is still best known for the earth-transcending "Call Me Maybe," worked with hip producers like Dev Hynes, Rostam Batmanglij, and Ariel Rechtshaid, on her album EMOTION. But she also worked with a team of Swedish pop engineers, and the album has a beautiful duality to it. I asked her what it was about the conflict between pop and "real music" that makes some artists defensive. "I think pop’s just as real as anything else," she said. "If you get a good one, it can hit you right in the center of your heart." That’s very evident in "All That," a heart-wrenching song she made with the help of Hynes and Rechtshaid. Although most of the album is rooted in ‘80s mainstream pop, "All That" could fit snugly on any quiet storm radio station. But the the sense of longing in Jepsen’s vocals is why the song works: she is a woman who’s on the verge of begging, but only because she’s not afraid to be intimate. It’s emotional honesty that only a real singer like Jepsen could knock out of the park. —Myles Tanzer
97. Wiley and Zomby, "Step 2001"
In a year where music and fashion borrowed heavily from grime, the Eskibeat sound was criminally underrepresented. That’s until the original Eskiboy himself, Wiley, released “Step 2001.” a complete rework of his now classic “Step 20” freestyle backed by Zomby at the controls. Leaving the original riddim on the cutting room floor, Zomby does what Zomby does best (besides tweeting), filtering the last 30 years of UK dance music into a refreshing and forward-focused production that is still true to the icy “Eski” sound. From his introductory Ya dun know, you can already tell this is a much denser and darker exercise than the original, with synth lines dancing in and out of focus. When Wiley finally comes in with Step 20/ The last of many, I can’t seem to remember any other grime hits from this year. When he rhymes “basmati” with “happy,” I know he’s still the greatest to ever do it. *Rewind.* *Airhorn.* —Rob Semmer
98. Kamixlo, "Paleta"
10 years ago, Puerto Rican reggaeton duo Wisin & Yandel released their most successful album to date, Pa’l Mundo. The party-starting tracklist included a song called "Paleta" which featured fellow MC Daddy Yankee (then riding high on the breakthrough of "Gasolina"—the biggest global reggaeton hit of the last decade). Chilean-British producer Kamixlo was at that point 11 years old.
It says something about the unique shifting of cultures and contexts in 2015 that, a decade later, that sickly sweet paleta, dame paleta hook has provided some of my most euphoric moments this year. Kamixlo shreds the frantic Dem Bow beat of the original "Paleta" into something more shadowy and industrial than its predecessor, placing its lilt firmly within the more grey context of low-slung basslines and DIY basement parties in his home of Brixton. Even so, with its stuttering drums and flirtatious moans, it’s at the most playful end of the spectrum of music you hear in London clubs. The track’s brutal first 20 seconds are all about waiting for the relief of the dame paleta sample to kick in, and once it does, it could be 2005 or 2015: doesn’t matter, Kamixlo made a whole new generation hungry for the sound. —Aimee Cliff
99. Rabit, "Pandemic"
Sometimes we want music to be a temporary fantasy vacuum where the problems of the world don’t rear their heads—like a shield gently cloaking ears, if only for a few minutes. At other times, we need it be just the opposite. Rabit’s "Pandemic," off the Houston producer’s debut album Communion, gets very real from the start—jarring sounds grounded in a violent world are the skin and bones of the track’s three-minute frenzy. It doesn’t feel right to call the gunshot sounds "samples" because, about two-thirds in, the shots and reloads are less garnishes to the track’s beat and more the main event.
Rabit lets loose a few monosyllabic human cries in the midst of the barrage and leaves a few seconds of hollow silence at the end of the track so your heart rate can fall back to baseline. Between a title suggesting global, viral sickness and the undercurrents of Communion that take aim at the systemic ills of today’s world, there’s a lot being said by this wordless sonic pummeling. Maybe right now all we need music to be is an uncomfortably real reflection of what 2015 sounded like all too often. Perhaps this is what it means to face the music. —Juliet Liu
100. Nick Frazer, "Why You Lying?"
September, 2015: the instrumental to Next’s hallowed creep anthem "Too Close" spills from the DJ booth at Tropical in Chinatown, and the floor groans with cyber recognition. R.L. Huggar’s phallic spoken word doesn’t come; instead, a 21-year-old from Queens asks knowingly, and the crowd questions with him, Why the fuck you lying, Why you always lying. We’d been laughing at the refrain during the day alone with our screens. Nicholas Fraser’s hilarious meme managed to make the impressive leap from Instagram to IRL DJ lists and beyond. Some time later, he released a long version, but the brevity of the original can’t be beat when it comes to pumping up a crowds. Comedy-cum-music can skew corny after the dust of novelty settles—see how The Lonely Island fared— but I have a feeling Fraser’s contribution, for its pettiness and its simplicity, will age well. Seldom do memes translate off screens, much less become standards in the club like Fraser’s ditty. Or in regular conversation—guaranteed you and all your friends use his exclamation, mmmohmygod, in your group chats all the time now.
"Why You Lying" spawned renditions in Spanish, Haitian Kreyol, Vietnamese, Korean and Hmong; it inspired white people to write thinkpieces on deception and to produce radio shows on the mind of a liar. Okay, that Radio Lab episode might have been a coincidence, but that’s immaterial. What is material is this quote, by Fraser, who is thankfully pursuing a career in comedy—"I don’t want to be known as the ‘why you lying guy.’I want to be known as Nicholas, the funny guy." —Doreen St. Félix
101. Alessia Cara, "Here"
In 2015, being the life and soul of the party was no longer a prerequisite to being a major star: 18-year-old Canadian Alessia Cara made her name on singing songs into her webcam, alone in her house. After being snapped up by Def Jam, she released an EP that laid out a whole new blueprint for a pop personality: an anxiety-ridden teenager, slowly becoming an adult who’s firmly comfortable in her own company, and forever an introverted daydreamer.
"Here," in which she introduces herself to the world as an anti-social pessimist, is the most perfect encapsulation of this sensibility. The first time I heard this song, I was rapt not only by the freshness she gave to a sample of Portishead’s "Glory Box"—a song I piped into my headphones on repeat as a teen when I’d rather not speak to anyone—but by the line: I’m stand-offish, don’t want what you’re offering. Hearing a mainstream female pop singer so openly reject the socially acceptable things she doesn’t want was life-giving. —Aimee Cliff
102. Kode9, "Zero Work"
The loss of footwork pioneer DJ Rashad and U.K. MC Stephen "the spaceape" Gordon in 2014 left gaping holes in the life of Hyperdub Records boss Kode9, and in the music scenes attached to both. Nothing, Kode9's debut solo album, is both a step towards addressing those holes, and towards a life after death. The grieving process forced the Scottish producer down a wormhole of zeros and voids—ruminations on the nothingness that death leaves in its wake—and he emerged from it with a new mindset and motivation, which led him to synthesize three of his musical loves: dubstep, grime, and footwork.
"Zero Work," named after a term from the left-wing Autonomism movement of the ‘70s, is hypnotic in the use of a stunted grunt stab motif, catchy in its syncopated dubstep-cum-footwork rhythm, and physical in its frequency manipulation, as rumbling low end clashes against brittle percussion. It's music for a future where humans don't have to work, one in which the machines roam freely as we gaze into nothing. —Laurent Fintoni
103. Selena Gomez, "Hands To Myself"
On Selena Gomez’s sophomore album, the singer alternately slinks and marches through cuts meant to clue her listener in on the fact that she is a grown 23-year-old woman. She’s mostly successful in her mission. The strongest of those tracks—the one that made me smile and break out into an extreme yaaass—is "Hands To Myself," which contains one of the year’s best moments in pop music. Over a horse-trotting beat produced by Max Martin and his latest protegees, the incredibly named Mattman & Robin, Gomez’s whisper sounds like Carla Bruni through the lens of Britney Spears’ Vegas revue. Swedish perfection aside, Gomez makes the song. Her vocal performance is equal parts power and fun. Then there’s that special moment, just before the song’s last chorus, when the music cuts out entirely. The only sound is Gomez, who sings I mean I could, but why would I want to in one melodic burst. It’s adult material. —Myles Tanzer
104. Hudson Mohawke, "Ryderz"
For those who first caught wind of Hudson Mohawke during his TNGHT period, "Ryderz" is a track straight out of the left field. A crackling, slow-burn of a song, it's like the sonic equivalent of football stadium lights being slowly flickered to life, bulb by bulb. It's rounder and scruffier than the shard-like sounds that planted the Glaswegian producer on people's radars. Built around a choice sample of DJ Rogers' 1973 song "Watch Out for the Riders," "Ryderz" would find more of a home on an extraterrestrial College Dropout reboot than on a HudMo-produced Yeezus track. But "willfully weird" musical impulses are just what people should be expecting from someone whose fascinations growing up hovered around "happy hardcore." "Ryderz" is 2015's cup of just-right espresso: it's warm and soothing, but it makes every red blood cell in your veins tingle, too. —Juliet Liu
105. Madd Again!, "Duggu"
In some corners of the globe, if it’s not carnival season then it’s carnival preparation season, making it never bad timing for a new instructional whinery track. And even when the moves to the newest dance craze steps have yet to be laid out, sometimes all one needs to get started is an minimalist U.K. garage bassline and a bashment proclamation. Step forward Madd Again!’s "Duggu," which dropped a couple of months before this year’s Notting Hill Carnival. Primed by Manchester MCs Killa Benz, Trigga, and Specialist Moss, on a beat by producer Zed Bias, "Duggu"—named for a patois term that can be loosely translated as "time to get it on"—was born of a quick studio freestyle, providing plenty of raw energy to fuel your sweaty dancehall heart’s desire. —Sara Skolnick
106. Young Greatness, "Moolah"
In a year during which pretty rap reigned, Quality Control’s Young Greatness was perhaps overshadowed by giants like Future, Fetty Wap, and Rich Homie Quan, but "Moolah" shines bright. A pean to his hustle, the track finds the New Orleans-born native rap-crooning about his hard earned riches in the same sincerely sweet tone that one might expect from, say, a parent cooing over a newborn baby. Legendary Young Money producer Jazze Pha’s piano-laced production gives off a regal feel, as does the way Young Greatness pronounces "moohlah," delicately, almost in a hushed whisper. May we all be so lucky as to have something to make music like this about.—Zara Golden
107. Jidenna f. Roman GianArthur, "Classic Man"
Since releasing his breakthrough single "Classic Man" in February, Jidenna has posited himself as somewhat of an anomaly. The dressed-up maybe singer, maybe rapper hasn't tried to be hip, or appease a certain crowd, much like his peers. Instead, he's been intent on etching a space for himself as a sort of forgotten gentleman who exudes etiquette, the type of hand-shaker who says "please" and "thank you" and "yes ma'am" at every turn. His piece de resistance is a DJ Mustard-indebted eleganza of politesse, cheerful and bright in all its AutoTune glory, echoing the coffin-cold bounce of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" with a masculine charm. There's still a glint of straight-lipped bravado ("Keep my gloves dirty but my hands clean," he sneers), and yet, it codes as strong and gentle. That the resurrection of the classic man is embossed in a song so firmly rooted in the sonic conventions of today is a welcome, and shamelessly enjoyable, juxtaposition. —Steven J. Horowitz