1. “Gosh” / “Loud Places” [ft. Romy] — Jamie xx
“Gosh” begins as a relatively tame electronic tune with fluttering percussion and vocal drops. Halfway through, the song transforms into an experiment, with the British producer seeing just how high he can take a euphoric synth line. “Loud Places,” on the other hand, is his most pop-leaning track, a house anthem about searching for connection on the dance floor. Together, they reflect the dualities that define Jamie xx’s work: maximalist and minimalist, pop and experimentation, isolation and connection. No other songs communicated as much pure, unrestrained joy in the past year.
2. “Run Away With Me” — Carly Rae Jepsen
“Run Away With Me” is a perfect pop song. It’s four minutes and 11 seconds of euphoric synthpop, with Carly Rae Jepsen perfectly capturing infatuation. “BABY! TAKE ME! TO THE! FEELING!” she screams on the chorus, as a synthesized sax line underlines just how giddy that feeling can be.
3. “Leaving the City” — Joanna Newsom
“Leaving the City,” like its parent album, finds Joanna Newsom pondering the passing of time. It effortlessly blurs the lines between past and present: Newsom’s harp is baroque, while the Mellotron is out of Zeppelin; she yearns for the pastoral, even as she seems uncertain about leaving the city.
4. “King Kunta” — Kendrick Lamar
“I got a bone to pick!” Kendrick Lamar yells at the outset of “King Kunta,” the most fired up he’s sounded since his kingmaking “Control” verse. Over a grooving G-funk bassline, Lamar delivers a warning shot to his competition — calling out his peers’ use of ghostwriters months before Meek Mill — while working through his conflicted relationship to power.
5. “Sunday Candy” — Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Amidst becoming a father, headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival and collaborating with everyone from Towkio to Stephen Colbert in 2015, Chance the Rapper found time to write this loving tribute to his grandmother. The beautiful piano-led track glides on the weightless fairytale-like flow of Chance’s vocals, as well as brass, keys and percussion from his closest childhood friends.
6. “Kill V. Maim” — Grimes
Claire Boucher combines the aggression of an assassin with the pep of cheerleader for this chaotic track from the perspective of a gender-switching, space-traveling Michael Corleone. She throws into the mix video game synths, spaghetti-western guitars, pitch-shifting vocals and ghoulish screams to create a banger that doubles as a gender studies lecture.
7. “Where Are Ü Now” [ft. Justin Bieber] — Jack Ü
In which Diplo and Skrillex run a paper-thin Bieber ballad through an EDM shredding machine. The verses set the template for Bieber’s “Born Again” phase, but the real redemption here is that drop, which distorts Bieber’s whine beyond recognition until it sounds like an otherworldly flute. Maybe Bieber was right when he said he was detrimental to his own career.
8. “Elevator Operator” — Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett has a profound talent for telling painfully funny and often heartbreaking stories about the mundane. “Elevator Operator” follows a young man whose life hasn’t gone the way he’s wanted it to, an ode to anyone with a dream and to the early ‘70s rock that so clearly inspires her guitar line.
9. “Know Yourself” — Drake
Eight months before he became a dad dancing GIF, “Know Yourself” cemented Drake as music’s foremost meme generator. The Canadian rapper’s great talent lies in creating indelible tweet-sized phrases and this woozy mixtape cut had kids far from Toronto yelling, “I WAS RUNNING THROUGH THE SIX WITH MY WOES!”
10. “Dimed Out” — Titus Andronicus
“Dimed Out” is a punk anthem for introverts — an unrelenting three minutes of self-affirmation from a shy kid who resolves to live life to the fullest. Patrick Stickles races from one line to the next, barely allowing himself a moment to catch his breath, and the guitars race to keep up, underscoring the urgency of his message.
11. “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” — Rich Homie Quan
While “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)” came out in the summer, Rich Homie Quan’s huge earworm continued to resonate long after Labor Day. Nitti Beatz and DJ Spinz’s elastic synth line and Quan’s incredibly singable hook imbued “Flex” with lasting power.
12. “Raising the Skate” — Speedy Ortiz
“For the first time in my life, it’s starting to feel like rock music is a girls’ club,” Speedy Ortiz founder Sadie Dupuis wrote recently. “And it’s refreshing!” The Massachusetts indie rock group’s “Raising the Skate” tumbles forward with a messy confidence. Dupuis emphatically declares, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” making this the de facto anthem of rock’s girls’ club.
13. “Señorita” — Vince Staples
There’s always a tinge of horror on the production of any Vince Staples track — appropriate considering how many discuss the horrors of his youth. “Señorita” follows suit, with its “Halloween”-like piano intro, absolutely booming bass and eerie nonsensical Future sample. The biggest, hardest hitting songs are increasingly doubling as real crushing insights into the plights of Black Americans, and “Señorita” is no exception.
14. “Feeling Myself” [ft. Beyoncé] — Nicki Minaj
The second teaming of Queen B and the Queen of Rap finds each surveying their respective empires: Beyoncé boasts of being able to stop the world with an album release while Minaj is at her most dexterous, cycling through four different flows. Yet what makes “Feeling Myself” so exhilarating is the playful chemistry between two women at the top of their games.
15. “Trap Queen” — Fetty Wap
2015’s most endearing love song was an update on Bonnie and Clyde in which the bank robbers become drug dealers. Nothing else on pop radio this year matched the pure joy of Fetty Wap’s Auto-Tuned yawp of “yeaaaaaaaaah.”
16. “F**k Up Some Commas” — Future
On the club banger to end all club bangers, Future wrote one of the wildest hooks of the year, and producers DJ Spinz and Southside effectively retired the wiry 808 sample off the “Ironside” theme song that was a necessary part of any club track in 2015.
17. “Coffee” — Miguel
“Coffee” finds Miguel taking the torch from Prince for a deeply sincere slow burn about “old souls who found a new religion.” Backed by shimmering synth arpeggios, the R&B singer updates the age-old pop theme of the sensual as spiritual for a new generation.
18. “Grief” — Earl Sweatshirt
Earl Sweatshirt hadn’t left the house in three weeks when he wrote “Grief,” and the sludgy beat is appropriately claustrophobic. His verbose verses wrestle with anxiety, addiction and mortality, before arriving at something like a life philosophy: “I just want my time and my mind intact / When they both gone, you can’t buy ‘em back.”
19. “Tiger” — Krill
At their best, the now-defunct Krill wrote beautifully crafted songs exploring the weird recesses of otherwise ordinary bouts with anxiety. “Tiger” continues this streak, with abstract lyrics that pack the emotional punch of a diary entry from someone who knows exactly what you’re going through, a warm guitar lead and a subtly tricky rhythm section. Krill hints at something huge before the song balloons into a career-summarizing crescendo of cathartic release.
20. “Strange Hellos” — Torres
“Strange Hellos” is the most muscular song Mackenzie Scott has recorded as Torres, a scathing tale of hatred and resentment. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” Scott sneers, buttressed by a grungy guitar riff that matches her aggression.
21. “Monstro” — Downtown Boys
The lead-in to “Monstro” is a 12-second speech by Downtown Boys’ lead singer Victoria Ruiz titled “(Brown and Smart).” If the message of racial equality and uplift weren’t already so inciting, its horn melody and quick-hitting, trashy drums could have done just as much of the heavy lifting. “Monstro” is, at its core, a punk, protest song, but one for a modern incarnation of punk: one that isn’t dominated by white men.
22. “Sparks” — Beach House
“And then it’s dark again / Just like a spark,” Victoria Legrand sings in whispered tones on this gorgeous slice of shoegaze. The track ebbs and flows in much the same way — moving in and out of the shadows cast by Alex Scally’s fuzzy guitar and Legrand’s ethereal looped vocals.
23. “Boys Latin” — Panda Bear
“Boys Latin” is perhaps the most immediate song of Panda Bear’s career. There is little build up; what you hear from the moment it starts is what you will hear for its unrelenting four minutes. Panda Bear mixes his fondness for Beach Boys-style reverbed harmonies, Krautrock synths, ‘90s hip-hop percussion and ambiguously melancholy lyric, amplifying them all to their upper limits before the elements become unrecognizable.
24. “Billie Jean” — Dawn Richard
Michael Jackson dismissed Billie Jean as just some gold-digging groupie, but Dawn Richard tells another tale on this feminist reimagining: “I’m not yo girl,” she shoots back. Richard’s “Billie Jean” is just as electric as Jackson’s, with her elastic voice gliding over funk guitars, synthetic strings and skittery drum machine loops.
25. “All Day” [ft. Allan Kingdom, Thelophilus London and Paul McCartney] — Kanye West
“All Day” is possibly the oddest posse cut in recent rap history. While showcasing a couple of talented rising stars and a pop veteran (you guess who is who), the track continues where West left off on “Yeezus” two years ago. The scratchy production, acerbic hook and weird asides indicate that West has no intention of slowing down.