Welcome back for Day 4 of Listmas! After looking at the worst of the worst yesterday, we’re back to examine the bright spots of this year’s pop chart. Same rules apply (gotta make the cut, peak this year, no repeats), and before we get started, I just want to say that 2015 was a solid enough year that picking the ten best was substantially harder than picking its ten worst. Well done. Anyway, let’s get started.
Honorable Mention to the Honorable Mention: iLoveMemphis – “HIt the Quan”
This mention has much less to do with the song itself than the fact that its use in the video for Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” has never failed to brighten my day.
Alright, that and “We are both thots so WE ARE BOTH CRAZY!” is actually a good punchline.
Honorable Mention: Drake – “Back to Back”
One of my favorite shows this year was Marvel’s Daredevil. A key scene happens after crime boss Wilson Fisk is interrupted on an endearingly awkward dinner date by a Russian gangster who wants to do business with him. We then see Fisk, who has been portrayed as a soft, hunched introvert barely capable of speaking above a whisper until this point, arrange for the gangster to be driven to the water front, where Fisk beats the man within an inch of his life before decapitating him with a car door (you can watch the scene here, but fair warning, it’s as graphic as it sounds). It’s a brutal but compelling scene that serves as Fisk’s establishing character moment.
I’m reminded of that scene when I hear Drake’s supervillain move on “Back to Back”, the second diss track he released during his beef with Meek Mill this summer. Over a beat that’s downright frigid, Drake pulls out every passive-aggressive or cheap shot possible, a good number of which involve Nicki Minaj, whom Meek Mill is dating and is Drake’s good friend. Bringing her up in lines like “Is that world tour, or your girl’s tour?” and “I don’t wanna hear about this ever again, not even when she tell him that they better as friends” is a cheap shot, but part of being a cheap shot is that it works. Even as you whisper, “Aubrey, you can’t say that“, it’s hard to deny “Back to Back” did its job damn well.
Maybe a little too well. It was hard to not see the lousier parts of Drake’s persona (possessiveness, manipulation, condescension, and overall Nice Guyness) crystallize into something newer and colder during 2015. His status as an underdog dissipated this year, and the “Hotline Bling” video struck me as #branding manipulation at its finest. It’s kind of soured me on him. But, just as it’s hard to look away from Fisk smashing a Russian’s head to a pulp with a car door, so too was it hard to stay away from “Back to Back”. These guys will do anything to be on top.
10. DJ Snake & AlunaGeorge – “You Know You Like It”
DJ Snake’s commercial high point this year was helping with Major Lazer and MO’s “Lean On”, but I prefer this remix he did of AlunaGeorge’s “You Know You Like It”. It still has the sleek groove of “Lean On”, but has a more powerful low-end and percussion. The snares during the chorus build-up are great, and AlunaGeorge keeps enough of her cool from the original to keep the song from feeling like a “Turn Down For What” retread. Lots of dance tracks this year favored a light, tropical bounce, making something a little darker like “You Know You Like It” a welcome change. AG’s original is quite nice, too. They know I like it because, well, I do.
9. Adele – “Hello”
Adele’s welcome back single to us heartbroken mortals is comforting in all the familiar ways. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s sad. All this means that “Hello” should have felt stale on arrival, but like most of Adele’s work, it’s gotten more enjoyable over time. Adele gets the craft; her best songs won’t be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard (hence its ranking here), but they’re approachable and lend themselves well to multiple listens. The peculiars of “Hello”–its SNL performance, that damn flip phone in the video–will fade, but it already feels like the song will endure. Adele’s good at those.
8. Skrillex and Diplo featuring Justin Bieber – “Where Are U Now?
As of writing this, Justin Bieber has three songs in the top ten. I think one of these songs is okay, one is much better than okay, and one much worse, but I also think none of them would be here without “Where Are U Now?” Aside from the fact that it’s the template for two of them, “Where Are U Now?” is what convinced the public that Bieber could be trusted with a good song. I used to write off his presence on what’s already a stacked tropical EDM track as stunt casting by Skrillex and Diplo (the instrumental percussion interlude after the chorus is still my favorite part of the song), but lately, I’ve realized that his brand of melancholy vocals give the song a leg up, and he is the one who did that wordless hook. It’s not quite “nothing but the beat”, after all.
7. Big Sean ft. E-40 – “I Don’t Fuck With You”
This is the “hard-to-defend pick, but I’m gonna try anyway. From the jump, you’ve got that sneering beat: a near perfect synthesis of Kanye West chipmunk soul sample and DJ Mustard banger that sounds larger than life. The production alone makes “I Don’t Fuck With You” appealing.
With the lyrics, it’s harder. It’s like the defense Chris Rock has for Ludacris’ “Move Bitch”: “Well, as you can see, there’s a bitch whose a stupidass that he no longer fucks with. Thus the term, ‘you little stupidass bitch, I ain’t fuckin’ with you’. You need to open your eyes so you can stop fuckin’ with stupidass bitches.” “IDFWY” is ugly and petty, but also ineffectual. With lines like “I got a million trillion things I’d rather fucking do/Than to be fuckin’ with you” and “I mean for real, fuck how you feel”, Big Sean has all the impotent rage of a petulant toddler; it’s not some Tyga and Future shit (Tyga and Future also didn’t have E-40). Preening asshole has always been part of Big Sean’s appeal, so when he goes off like this, it works. That and try to say “I don’t. Fuck wit. Chuuuuu” a few times and not feel gratified.
6. Alessia Cara – “Here”
Sometimes, you just don’t want to go out, you know? I’ve had a blast on nights where everyone’s screaming, the music’s too loud, something got spilled on my shoe, and I’m shit-talking everyone with a friend by the patio, and I’ve had nights at the same spot where I’ve asked myself “Oh God why am I here?” Alessia Cara’s murky jazzy piano, strings, and drums jam “Here” is for those off nights, where you’re there out of obligation and counting down the minutes to leave. You can hear strands of Lorde’s “Royals” in Cara, both in her smoky delivery of a song whose message is a little holier than thou, and in the detailed production. Aside from genre–minimal electropop vs. soulful R&B–the biggest difference between Lorde and Cara is voice: while Lorde has a cool delivery that compliments her sound, Cara has more warmth and character. That likeableness goes a long way to selling “Here”: She’s here, she’s over it, but she probably won’t bug you. Just don’t kill her vibe.
Listmas 2015 Schedule
December 16th: Favorite Albums
December 17th: Worst Hits (10-6)
December 18th: Worst Hits (5-1)
December 19th: Best Hits (10-6)
December 20th: Best Hits (5-1)
December 21st: Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Year in Rant: Odds and Ends