Allow us the bratty spoiler right off the bat: Goodbye, “Hello.” Adele’s latest wound-healing, relationship-fixing, cancer-curing single may have emerged in 2015’s 11th hour as one of the year’s fastest-selling singles, but no matter how many weeks it staves off all other current contenders (including, as it turns out, this list’s #1 track), we shed no tears over its exclusion from our roster of the year’s best singles.
In fact, though chart longevity has been so en vogue ever since Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” crushed all comers for 10 straight weeks, the singles we’re betting on for the long game tended to play with shorter fuses, blaze less gargantuan trails, flourish in the crawlspaces of our collective consciousness—and not, as per Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s ubiquitously catchy but elementally reductive fraternity rocker “Uptown Funk,” strut their retro bona fides around like Meryl Streep’s bass-ackwards crab walk in Death Becomes Her.
That’s not to say the artists represented below didn’t find new, inventive means of correspondence between the past and the present; the best of them helped show that bridge as a conduit and a nourishing source of inspiration, while the worst of them set up a T-shirt stand at the midway point. And so we begin, appropriately enough, with one of the only still regularly working artists whose own body of work could span virtually any arroyo between pop eras. Eric Henderson
Madonna, “Living for Love”
There were reportedly at least half a dozen versions of Madonna’s “Living for Love” bouncing around the recording studio before the singer and producer Diplo settled on the mix that would ultimately be released as the lead single from the queen of pop’s Rebel Heart. The final version toned down the gospel elements that made the initially leaked incarnation of the track more than a little reminiscent of “Like a Prayer” and traded the retro house beats for a more modern-sounding 808 pulse. Overworked and overthought, for sure, but the song’s essence remains in tact, and if Madonna’s message of life after love didn’t register as a commercial comeback on the scale of, say, Cher’s “Believe,” it remains a pop-gospel sequel of the highest order. Sal Cinquemani
Wilco, “Random Name Generator”
Ever since Nels Cline joined Wilco over a decade ago, Jeff Tweedy has, at least in the studio, seemed unsure about how best to use his new guitar army; the attempts at ’70s soft rock on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, while perhaps criticized to an unfair degree in retrospect, weren’t the best applications of the current lineup’s talents. He finally figured it out on “Random Name Generator,” the only single off of the surprise-released album Star Wars. There’s an almost goofy quality to the spiky, lumbering guitar riff that kicks off the song, but it doesn’t stay that way for long, with Cline, Tweedy, and Pat Sansone launching into tightly synchronized, increasingly heavy variations of that main riff as the song goes on. The moment when they launch into the propulsive final section hits with the power of a rocket launch. Jeremy Winograd
Cakes da Killa & Moonbase Commander, “Serve It Up”
If lyrical technique were the sole metric for rap stardom, 23-year-old MC Cakes da Killa would be everywhere. It isn’t, of course, and homo-hop has a ways to go before monocultural legitimation, so the self-proclaimed “Cunt Queen of New York” is forced to hustle on SoundCloud until then. “Serve It Up” serves up an unfussy platter of pure flow. Four quick metronomic thumps of Moonbase Commander’s Spartan Eric B.-like beat give way promptly to Cake’s hypnotic verbiage, with a delirious call-out right out the gate: “The embodiment of quiche just sun tanning on a beach/Bitches popping on the net/But they ain’t stunting in the streets.” This is battle rap of the highest order, redolent with gender-bending slang, bestial metaphors, internal rhymes, and designer snapbacks, delivered with the boastful charisma and ratatat cadence of a seasoned pro. Benjamin Aspray
Adam Lambert, “Ghost Town”
When the glitter settles, Avicii may end up a mere footnote in the EDM explosion of the 2010s, but his melding of Eurotrash and Americana may have longer legs than his own career. To wit, fellow Swede Max Martin’s production on American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert’s goth-pop single “Ghost Town” juxtaposes spare, acoustic guitars with electronic drops, and spaghetti western-style whistles with a propulsive house beat. Despite the apocalyptic track’s Scandinavian pedigree, though, an out-and-proud queer pop star singing about God, guns, and the death of love is decidedly all-American. Cinquemani
D’Angelo and the Vanguard, “Betray My Heart”
Less of a showstopper than first single, “Really Love,” from Black Messiah, the quietly funky “Betray My Heart” serves an entirely different purpose, easing back from the apocalyptic, densely produced sound of the rest of the album, providing a peaceful neutral space between the solemn, knotty menace of “Prayer” and the escalating energy of the forceful “The Door.” The perfect predecessor to that song’s sendoff of an ungrateful lover, “Betray My Heart” works in the mode of the love song while focusing its message inward, endorsing pride as the essential foundation for internal assurance, finding a resolution for the simmering issues of conflict identity and crisis that plague much of the rest of Black Messiah. Playing out its psych-up confirmation of self-worth in the sparsely produced confines of a languorous slow jam, the track again confirms this stunning album’s wide emotional and musical range. Jesse Cataldo