1. “Alright” – Kendrick Lamar

“We’ve got to wake up at a certain point and recognize what’s going on here!”

In perhaps the most poetically ironic statement of the year, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera made a resounding appeal for the Black Lives Matter movement when he attempted to criticize Kendrick Lamar’s performance of “Alright” on the BET Awards. Forget that his idea of waking up involves completely disregarding the concerns of Black Americans and condemning rap music as the primary cause for their struggles (because it’s certainly not discrimination!). Waking up to Black Americans’ reality is what rap music — and Kendrick Lamar’s music especially — has always been about.

Accordingly, Lamar’s sophomore album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a masterpiece of Black protest art. With the weight and intricacy that carries this album, the genius of “Alright,” one of its most straightforward and commercial tracks, could be initially missed — it doesn’t take more than a single play to understand what “n***a, we gon’ be alright” means. But this kind of blunt activism is exactly what 2015 calls for. With its clear message highlighting police brutality and the roiling racial tensions across the country, “Alright” has become a clearly articulated rallying cry for the fight. Demonstrations across the country have featured the infectious hook shouted alongside speeches by Al Sharpton and prayers for Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and the scores of other Black men and women killed by police in 2015.

“Alright” also happens to be a fantastically well-executed hip-hop song. The psychedelic pop energy that opens the track sustains itself from start to finish, propelled by Lamar’s urgent delivery. It’s this energy that allows “Alright” to function both as a party-ready single and a protest-ready chant. Many have listened to this song during a pre-game or on the way to the bar, enjoying the beat but failing to listen to the lyrics and recognize its poignancy.

 

The powerful music video for the song, however, makes it clear that this isn’t typical radio fodder. Ending with a police officer shooting Lamar down like a hunter takes out a waterfowl to be hanged on the wall, the message of “Alright” is by no means made quaint or complacent. Yet, even with such a heavy burden, Lamar manages to keep the positivity. It’s something that we all need to remember, whether we’re facing a mountain of racial issues or you’re just worried about that upcoming test: we gon’ be alright.

— Matt Gallatin

2. “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” – Jamie xx feat. Yung Thug

Lyrically, the track is life-affirming. For most, it was a groovy, easy beat that many matched with the windows-down, warm-summer and smooth-drinks moments of their summer. Artistically, the track is exceptionally accomplished. What is more important than the catchiness and happiness of the track are the names attached to it: “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” put Young Thug on popular radio. Jamie xx introduced Young Thug, one of the most important rappers of this year and, surely, the upcoming, to those who had not found him yet. Thug and his gloriously eccentric, outwardly clever, and quietly complex rasps were sampled by the American public in this 2015 summer jam. We were given something a little more strong, a little more sonically pungent, to counter the sugary overload of the summer’s pop music circus. Jamie xx set the rap weirdo free on the track, balancing out his raspy words and screams with samples from The Persuasions’ 1972 single, “Good Times.” Popcaan, an up-and-coming Jamaican dancehall artist, added inventive twists and turns to the tracks. His added reggae undertones, pressed up against Thug’s melodic, strange screams, encourage that involuntary head and hip sway.

Jamie xx’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is a smooth balance of something tangy and something sugary. It’s the second-best banger of the year, and it’s actually good. And it actually introduced new, daring artists of the sometimes myopic music industry. It mixed the mainstream, Billboard Top 100 with that which is harder to find. Jamie xx is helping you be better. He is helping you grow. And Young Thug is helping you get better. Because “you don’t got to struggle/ baby girl sit it down….

 

— Amelia Zak

3. “Hotline Bling” – Drake

Is it R&B? Reggae? Merengue? Drake drew from innumerable sources to synthesize “Hotline Bling,” seeming to anticipate everything consumers would want as their anthem. A mix of musical styles just eclectic enough to be interesting, but not enough to alienate the mainstream listener, with lyrics specific enough to be believable but general enough for everyone to get behind and with a video from Director X with the potential for infinite meme adaptations: “Hotline Bling” has exploded into omnipresence. Drake said himself he drew inspiration from the creative process of dancehall — a derivative of reggae in which one or more DJs improvise over the same recorded or live beat — and the merengue-esque rhythm (and dance moves) are impossible to ignore. Take it for what you will — as a sexist anthem of a commodity fetish, that song you hate to love, that song you love to love or all three — we all know when that hotline bling.

 

— Regan Detwiler

4. “Let It Happen” – Tame Impala

One of the most sacred responsibilities in friend groups is bestowed upon he who manages the aux cord. In a room or car full of people with eclectic tastes in music, it’s crucial to select something that everyone can vibe to. There’s always the classic rock enthusiast, the hip-hop head, the “whatever is on the radio” type, and the aux cord DJ has to manage all of these personalities by playing something universally agreed upon as “dope.”

“Let It Happen” is just that: a certified aux cord crowd-pleaser. Despite clocking in at damn near eight minutes, no one ever seems to notice its ridiculous length. The only moment that might cause some head-scratching is about halfway through, when Kevin Parker seems to mash his fist on a particular excerpt that loops just long enough for everyone to notice. But then there’s “the drop.” Across all genres and personalities, everyone loves a good drop, and this one more than delivers.

At this point in the song the vocals return for a now-familiar melody, but this time soaked in a Daft Punk-esque vocoder that makes it pleasantly indecipherable (word to Young Thug). Countless synths layer on top of one another to build a tastefully pop, angelic banger. The title alone suggests some sort of divine advice you already know but need to hear from someone else. Parker almost commands you towards the end of the track with “Try to get through it / Try to push through it / Take the next ticket / Take the next train.” Does the power of Tame Impala compel you to fight the current, as the vortex-shedding album cover suggests? Or perhaps just let it happen and see where the tide takes you? Or maybe you should focus on what you’re playing after this? I don’t know, man. Your call.

— Shayan Shafii

5. “Hello” – Adele

I’ll never shut up about her eyeliner, and neither should you. And who knew sepia was still available as a filter? Was that a flip phone? Is that faux fur coat from Saks? Do they have Saks in London? These are the thoughts that cross our minds when “Hello” starts playing on the radio. All we have to do is hear those fatal opening lines in our cars, and we’re toast. Doomed. Goners. “Hello … it’s me.” (The ellipsis is essential.)

This instantaneous recall — and depression — is a testament to the strength of a signature aesthetic, of her music videos, her ballads, her voice. These ingredients blend into one another, creating the acrylic-nailed, cherub-voiced conglomeration that can only inhibit one name: Adele.

Let us not forget that Adele released this monumental tune a mere three months ago, in October. It quickly broke many records, achieving over a million digital sales and 4.79 million online streams in a week. Its video surpassed Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” in acquiring around 27.7 million views on YouTube within a 24-hour span. What more is there to say? After a painfully lengthy hiatus, people wanted Adele back. And she came to us, finally, in 2015.

The thing is, though, it’s not the videos, the glitz or the glam that cemented her place on our list. All of that helps the situation, yes, but Adele’s fundamental magnetism is her voice. Equally smoky as it is powerful, that London-laced instrument has spawned some of the best ballads of the decade. Drake couldn’t have sung the sumptuously devastating “Someone Like You.” Selena Gomez wouldn’t be able to carry “Chasing Pavements” past the first verse, not in a hundred years. Can Ellie Goulding’s pint-sized pipes handle “Rolling in the Deep”? Ahem.

Alas, no one could’ve said “Hello” to us as melodiously as our most favorite Brit, probably the finest talent to cross the pond since Winehouse. Adele is able to twist a phrase, a banal word, into a mellifluous plea that somehow taps at that little empty space in our hearts, put there in the first place by some awful ex-boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, life. And in doing so she reassures us we’re not alone out there, in the sepia-toned daylight. She’s here for us.

“Hello,” she says, unapologetically. “It’s me.”  

And I can’t stop staring at her eyeliner.

— Melina Glusac

6. “Pedestrian At Best” – Courtney Barnett

Four minutes into Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit you know she’s destined to top charts and win Grammys. With a rough voice that echoes that of Alanis Morisette and a poeticism that recalls an era where NYU students would sit in coffee shops listening to Fiona Apple, it’s no wonder critics have universally dubbed Barnett as one to watch.

“Pedestrian At Best” demonstrates how women are just as capable of producing killer rock music as men are. This song, specifically, is fascinating because Barnett combines a catchy Joan Jett-esque chorus with verses that, without the aid of powerful guitar chords, drums, and bass guitar, would simply be spoken word poetry. Barnett’s unique voice, when matched by equally accomplished instrumentals, brings her poetry to life. “Pedestrian At Best” is a beacon of hope in a day and age when most female musicians/pop stars produce beautiful noise met by average lyrics; Barnett is here to prove that you can have the best of both worlds. It’s possible to intertwine powerful poetic lyrics, standout vocals and unique instrumentals in not only one song, but an entire album. A bonus: it’s nice to see a woman in the industry pen her own music especially considering only one Billboard Top 40 song this year was written by all females. If Barnett’s freshman album and standout song are this impressive, then I can only imagine what’s to come as she matures as not only a vocalist, but a songwriter/poet/creative genius.

— Danielle Immerman

7. “Back to Back” – Drake

To have Drake write a song about you sounds like quite the dream come true for most. However, after Meek Mill opened his mouth on Twitter, the release of “Back to Back” has us all reconsidering. Who’d’ve thought Aubrey from Toronto had this kind of mean streak in him. Someone better send him to detention! That’s a Degrassi joke…

“Back to Backmakes it to number seven on this list for many reasons. The backing track is reticent, ominous and foreboding. It looms and swirls underneath the vocals, completely supporting Drake as he sheds cutting lyrics and brings tears to the eyes of yours truly and poor Meeky alike. The backing is sonically reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s “A Brain in a Bottle” in all of the right ways. This might be the only thing Yorke and Drake have in common and, if you ask me, the world would be a better place if the two started taking after each other. Maybe in 2016.

 

Drake’s rap on the track contrasts the beat nicely, lightening the mood just enough to make the song a banger, but still allowing it to retain its bite. And Retain its bite it does. Busting out of the gate cutting into Meek Mill, Drake doesn’t let up until the song is finished. “You love her, then you gotta give the world to her / Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour? / I know that you gotta be a thug for her / This ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more / Yeah, trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers / Yeah, you gettin’ bodied by a singin’ n***a / I’m not the type of n***a that’ll type to n****s.” Ouch. By mixing attacks on Mill and Nicki Minaj’s relationship with self-deprecating jokes, Drake demonstrates his cunning and produces an impressive track.

While the feud between Drake and Meek Mill is kind of silly, there’s no real question as to who came out of top. Considering that we’re talking about Drake and Meek Mill, there wasn’t really even a question to begin with, right Shayan? While Drake only needed four days to release “Back to Back” after his first diss track, “Charged Up,” here we are at the end of 2015 and it took Meek Mill four months to remix “Back to Back,” opening the whole deal up again. Maybe Meek has learned the only way he can get fame is through tracks Drake is on. After Drake’s impressive year and with his stunning performance on this track, I don’t need to hear the “Back to Back” remix. Cut your losses, Meek. Single Spot #7 goes Drizzy.

— Daniel Saffron

8. “Flesh Without Blood” – Grimes

Grimes had a kick-ass 2015. She dropped an album, released some dope music videos and had success with the all of the singles from her aforementioned album. “Flesh Without Blood” shows Grimes’s evolution as an artist. It is fresh, dynamic and enticing. Not the mention the music video features Grimes dancing about on a tennis court wearing a purple powdered wig and mid-century ball gown, which is eventually covered in her own blood. Her vocals assume the role of a lyrical vehicle, rather than being mainly used as an instrument, and she is able to add another level of complexity to her music. The track also provides listeners with a concise storyline — the honest telling of love gone wrong and its unfortunate yet amusing aftermath. It is unpredictable and bold, just like the artist who made it.

— Carly Snider

9. “Know Yourself” – Drake

2015 was the year that all of Drake’s rough drafts somehow got legendary. A quickly recorded project with Future became one of the year’s most anticipated releases, a low key single grew into one of the songs of the year and, all the way back in February, a planned mixtape turned into an album turned into one of the year’s biggest sellers.

There’s a distinct lack of polish that rests over every groove of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and it’s exemplified best by “Know Yourself,” the highest musical point of Drake’s imperial year.

Opening with street chatter, there’s nothing special about the song’s first minute or so. Drake is mumbling hazy platitudes about reals and fakes, talking a little about his come-up but staying mostly guarded, his hands up like he’s waiting for someone else to make the first move. The bass hits on time with a resting heartbeat. The hi-hat breathes with you, absorbing your concentration.

The first time you hear that hook, it’s practically nothing. All the music cuts out and Drake croons “I was running through the 6 with my woes” like he’s just talking to himself, like his words will get caught on the wind and slowly fade away. You’re anticipating … something. Is it on your back? I was runnin’ through the 6…  You whirl your head around and WITH MY WOES! What the fuck? Did Jimmy Brooks just run up from behind and punch you in the face? You stumble back, a taunting “You know how that shit go” ringing in your ears. You try to steady yourself, but Drake’s all around you now, posing like the champ as he gets a million times more confident on his flow. He knows you’re beat, but he’ll make sure to hit you again with that drop just so you get the point.

All of Drake’s work from this year has been endlessly parodied and recontextualized to the point that it’s almost impossible to listen to his music without amateur comedians’ vines and tweets flashing through your mind. But if you were somehow able to isolate that 10 second burst out of “Know Yourself” from everything else you know about Aubrey Graham, you’d hear a tiger escaping from its cage, a ferocious kick to the head from an underdog fighter, and you’d know that you would never be able to match that man’s intensity.

— Adam Theisen

10. “Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

2015 was the summer the masses embraced cocaine. Knowingly or unknowingly, moms, dads, kids and humans of all ages bobbed in their cars with the windows down to Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s number-one hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” Don’t deny it — embrace it. My mom still stands by the truth that his love was so strong his face went numb, but she knows it’s not the truth deep down.

Subject matter aside, “Can’t Feel My Face” blew up because it seamlessly blends soul, pop, jazz, R&B, electro and hip hop (yes, all of them) into a sleek, catchy track that can work in nearly all situations. Dancing in the car. Dancing at a party. Dancing in the kitchen while making pancakes. Or dancing alone in your bedroom. Or not dancing alone in your bedroom. Or, finally you can do cocaine to it! (In no way recommended).

I swear on Amy Winehouse’s grave, I didn’t meet a person who didn’t like this song this year. Maybe someone did tell me they didn’t like it, but I probably blacked out on the spot. Some liked other songs more. And some thought it got overplayed, but to my knowledge everyone liked this song at some point this year. Which is an impressive testament to The Weeknd’s mastery and makes his future all the more intriguing.

– Christian Kennedy

 

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