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The 25 Best Singles of 2015

Our picks for the best singles of the year found new, inventive means of correspondence between the past and the present.

The 25 Best Singles of 2015
Photo: Gregory Harris/RCA Records

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


25. 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


24. 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


23. 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


22. 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


21. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, “Betry 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


20. Tobias Jesso Jr., “How Could You Babe”

Tobias Jesso Jr. isn’t the best singer on a technical level, nor the best pianist, but nobody else in Hollywood howls a love song like he does. His chords are simple, his lyrics little more than a reworking of classic lovelorn clichés, but somehow, with sheer spirit and gumption, Jesso transforms the derivative into the transcendent. That Randy Newman-esque timbre and unflinching, puppy-dog earnestness implore us to touch the raw emotion that birthed such platitudes about love as “trying again” and “easing the pain” before they were platitudes. It’s no coincidence that Adele famously endorsed “How Could You Babe” via Twitter, as the song perfectly mirrors her trademark style of overwhelming modest love lyrics with tremendous emotion. Jesse Nee-Vogelman


19. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, “January 10th, 2014”

Based on a New York magazine article about a mysterious, deadly vigilante exacting her revenge for the unprosecuted disappearances of over 100 female bus riders in and around Juarez, Mexico, “January 10th, 2014” sees the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die exhibit all the tricks that have made them basement-show legends: placid guitars erupting into magnificently orchestrated crescendos, vocalists trading lines for dramatic effect, math-rock-indebted riffs, and a communal chorus forceful enough to empower anyone who’s been preyed on: “Our hands on the same weapon/Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow.” The single is an absolute juggernaut that shows that indie rock in 2015 has so much more to offer than slacker detachment. James Rainis


18. Mykki Blanco, “Coke White, Starlight”

Conceptually, “Coke White, Starlight” stays well within familiar hip-hop terrain: Over dark, abstract synths, Mykki Blanco takes an inventory of his hard-won triumphs, itemizes his cultural and economic capital, and reserves ample time for letting the rivals and the haters know exactly where they stand before unleashing righteous justice on them. But semantically, Blanco is a man (“in a dress”) apart, a “big broad like Serena/Effeminate, offending them,” accompanied by an entourage of “trade from Nicaragua,” weathering the storm of hyper-macho homophobia by turning his queerness into a source of menacing power. The-Drum’s Jeremiah Meece embeds Blanco’s homophonic verbal violence in an industrialized acid nightmare that accelerates without warning at the halfway mark, finishing off anyone left standing on Blanco’s scorched Earth. Aspray


17. Chance the Rapper ft/ Saba, “Sngels”

With critical favor passing on in the last decade to artists who freely combine the introspective and the ignorant, conscious rap is effectively a defunct distinction, the domain of aging pedants and white people with dreads. Still, some younger rappers are keeping its lucid, soulful spirit alive. Chicago’s Chance the Rapper is one such artist, pairing a recent Twitter blast against Spike Lee’s polemical Chi-Raq with “Angels,” a horn-gilded reflection on unconditional loyalty: to his troubled hometown, and that of his longtime supporters, distinguished from the fair-weather hangers-on that came with fame. “Angels” is more about Chance’s reputation for rigid beliefs—for being “Kosher”—than articulating any of those beliefs in particular. But the ecclesiastical imagery allows the Englewood native to broaden his address to include those claimed regularly by the gang violence depicted in Lee’s film. For the folks who have to live with this reality, Chance suggests here and elsewhere, there’s no choice but to be conscious. Aspray


16. Titus Andronicus, “Dimed Out”

“I only like it when it’s dimed out,” screams Patrick Stickles, referring to a term for an amplifier whose every possible setting is turned up to the maximum value. True to his words, “Dimed Out” rages like no other track on Titus Andronicus’s massive The Most Lamentable Tragedy. It’s a hardcore punk anthem from the first snare roll to Stickles’s final fading scream, a song that demands moshing, fighting, drugs, and bodies smashing into bodies. The guitar is quintessential fiery Titus, the screeched-out lyrics begging for volume, debauchery, and a rejection of everything establishment, like punk rock’s great answer to “Turn Down for What?” While Titus Andronicus has defined angsty rebellion since the late aughts, Stickles has never before sounded so pumped-up or strung out, like a beautiful, degenerate Icarus flying too close to the hedonistic pleasures of ear-splitting rock ‘n’ roll. Nee-Vogelman


15. Vince Staples, “Norf Norf”

Brimming with a smooth combination of insight, anger, and stone-cold confidence, Vince Staples’s “Norf Norf” and its unforgettable refrain—“I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police”—anchors an album horrifyingly relevant to 2015, a year haunted by the names of Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and countless others. “Norf Norf” cements Staples’s reputation as an aurally gifted MC, with a special ear for internal rhyme and vowel repetition, turning stark scenes of Long Beach streets into a masterwork of violent poetry. With an unimpeachable flow and talent for intricate, detailed verse that belies the rapper’s mere 22 years, Staples already seems like an elder statesmen of the genre, destined to guide rap through a turbulent political era. Nee-Vogelman


14. Destroyer, “Dream Lover”

Since 1996, Destroyer has essentially just been a nom de plume for Vancouverite bard Dan Bejar, but on 2011’s Kaputt and this year’s eclectic Poison Season, the focus has been less on Bejar’s idiosyncratic byzantine wordplay and more on the six-piece crack-backup band he assembled for those two albums. Poison Season’s “Dream Lover” is that lineup’s crowning achievement to date, and possibly Destroyer’s hardest-rocking tune ever—controlled chaos at its finest. While a simple, triumphant trumpet riff grounds the song, it eventually gets swallowed up by a squall of shrieking sax and guitar. At the center of it all is Bejar, giving a suave-as-hell vocal performance and delivering his inimitable brand of weird, meta lyricism: “I think I used to be more fun/Ah shit, here comes the sun.” Winograd


13. Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”

Fed up with “rock’s next great hope” designations and John Lennon comparisons, Kevin Parker decamped and made Currents, an album of shattered, psychedelic space disco. “Let It Happen” is the album’s finest moment, a Zen-like reflection on life’s futility and inevitability that’s absolutely bursting with gorgeous sounds. Its urgent opening salve gives way to siren-like synths, a Bach-worthy organ lead, melodramatic strings passages, and, ultimately, a filtered chorus of vocals that owes Daft Punk more than a little back rent. It’s a modern-rock fantasia that errs more fantasia than rock, a missive from one of music’s most bountiful imaginations. Rainis


12. Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique ft/ Maluca, “Love Is Free”

A clattering acid-house mashup of hiccupping synths, digitized cowbell, and insistent bass, the first single from Robyn’s La Bagatelle Magique project, a collaboration with Markus Jägerstedt and the late Christian Falk, is charmingly retro (even guest artist Maluca’s rap includes a cheekily antiquated reference to “safe like a rubber”). A track that might have gotten heaps of airplay on urban radio alongside the likes of Full Force and Clivillés and Cole back when condoms got their own commercials, today serves as a mere curio for hardcore Robyn fans wondering why she still isn’t an international superstar. Cinquemani


11. Courtney Barnett, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”

A withering ode to introversion, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is, ironically enough, an irresistibly upbeat party-starter. Maybe not for a 2015 party, but with its catchy, straight-outta-’66 bubblegum-chic chorus and Kinks-y guitar riffs, it would have been the perfect soundtrack to a rager at the Whiskey a Go Go 50 or so years ago. It’s also a masterful example of clever incongruity between lyrical and musical tone in the tradition of “Born in the U.S.A.” As guitars swirl around her, Barnett sings about just wanting to stay home alone and her distaste for extroverts, epitomizing the endearing sharp-tongued girl-next-door persona she displays throughout her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: “You say, ‘You sleep when you’re dead’/I’m scared I’ll die in my sleep/I guess that’s not a bad way to go.” Winograd


10. Janet Jackson ft/ J. Cole, “No Sleeep”

Giving precisely zero fucks after dispensing a string of albums and singles that were desperate for them, Janet Jackson trusted the soft sell when choosing the lead-off single from her Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced reunion album. The downtempo “No Sleeep,” languorous (or “plush,” as she coos twice) in every respect but for those sharp, assertive echoing claps on the backbeat, isn’t so much sexy as it is something increasingly less easy to come by in pop: intimate. Which isn’t to say its replay value hasn’t proven tantric. Like making love with someone you truly know, “No Sleeep” somehow gets better the more times you lay it down. Henderson


9. Disclosure ft/ Lorde, “Magnets”

“Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know,” Lorde sings on “Magnets,” an understated offering from Disclosure’s sophomore effort, Caracal. The tropical house track, which features Indian rhythms, backward synth washes, and a patient, pulsating beat, succeeds—with a little help from its fiery music video, of course—at shifting the New Zealand pop singer’s profile ever so slightly from gawky teen to sultry chanteuse, her performance at once singular in its edgy hesitance and startling in its unexpected seductiveness. Cinquemani


8. Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”

Before he was rap’s preeminent sweetheart, before he was inspiring children to embrace their differences, before he was an assumed one-hit wonder—before all this, Fetty Wap was simply the purveyor of the year’s most indelible, topsy-turvy, never-ending hook. Held aloft by plinking keyboards and double-time 808 trap beats, “Trap Queen” is so packed with shout-outs and unapologetic stunting (Fetty’s verses and Nitt Da Gritt’s sign-off are mostly just plugs for the Remy Boyz crew and prophetic visions of their soon-to-be lifestyle) that its commercial triumph felt inevitable. “Trap Queen” is the sound of unrepentant joy, an introduction to a star that literally begins with a “Hey, what’s up, hello.” Rainis


7. Father John Misty, “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”

As Father John Misty, Josh Tillman feeds the painfully personal through the willfully ironic, dressing up raw confessionals in the boilerplate emotional appeals of post-hippy L.A. cheese—exactly the sort of slick Nixon-era soft rock spoofed by Bill Hader and Fred Armisen’s Blue Jean Committee. It’s a stylistic pose that lends the hilarious lyrical candor of songs like “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” an unshakeable ambivalence. The track takes the form of a venting session, in which he enumerates a lover’s many faults: first her infelicitous use of “literally,” then her penchant for “patiently explaining the cosmos,” and finally the “soulful affectation white girls put on.” Hardly moral failings, of course, and what makes the song so poignant is that, ultimately, it signifies self-loathing, displaced into the vapid women he keeps around as convenient villains, delivered via an unsolicited monologue to a lover with more patience than he deserves. Aspray


6. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, “Really Love”

Black Messiah’s lead single drips with both sensuality and reverence: Spanish guitars, a string ensemble written and orchestrated by the late Clare Fisher’s son, and possibly the most earnest, lovely D’Angelo falsetto vocal to date. While fire-and-brimstone anger at this country’s shameful compulsion toward racially motivated terrorism otherwise pervade the album that very suddenly returned D’Angelo from a 14-year wilderness period, the sometimes-reluctant loverman chose to announce his reemergence with the set’s airiest, most enchanting ballad. And it’s a song that effectively represents this political album’s greatest power. Much like Spike Lee with his new Lysistrata adaptation, Chi-Raq, “Really Love” is a monument to the simple but transformative idea that sex can sometimes be the most potent weapon against violence. Sam Mac


5. Missy Elliott ft/ Pharrell Williams, “WTF (Where They From)”

Someday, you’re going to be telling your grandchildren about the communal sigh of contentment your social media streams exhaled on Thursday, November 12, 2015, the day Missy Elliott finally ended her decade-long retreat from the pop spotlight. Following the drips and drabs of half-hearted activity that only served as a reminder of what we lost when Elliott set up shop on the backburner, “WTF (Where They From)” confirmed the promise of her scene-stealing Super Bowl cameo and crucially timed Janet Jackson collaboration, “BURNITUP!” With snapping drumline cadences, effortlessly playful couplets, and trademark Missy non sequiturs, “WTF” is the no-contest party-in-a-box comeback of the year. Henderson


4. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away with Me”

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion opens with a declaration of reckless passion, a scintillating escape song that’s both tightly regimented and spilling over with intense energy. Not innately more substantial than the frivolous bubble-gum fluff that defined her previous work, the track’s immediately gripping sense of momentum signals the singer’s segue into a new stage of development, bolstered by potent faux-retro production and an ever-stronger control of phrasing and tone. Making material this overwrought work is always a matter of confidence, and Jepsen comes through on her pop-star potential by totally selling the torrid mixture of frustration and obsession, her voice as giddy and assured as the deliriously cheesy synth-sax effect which streaks across the song like a comet. Cataldo


3. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”

Serving as Courtney Barnett’s reintroduction to the public after the stoned diary folk of The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas created a deafening Internet buzz, “Pedestrian at Best” is a thrashing paean to imposter’s syndrome. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” sings Barnett, launching into anxious streams of consciousness that touch on legacy, Freudian nightmares, and towering self-doubt in the face of success. The heady lyrical diatribes are cut by her band’s furious noise, lending righteous anger and stomping fuzz to her uncertain sentiment. It’s as swaggering a crisis of confidence as any songwriter had this year. Rainis


2. Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”

Anyone can name a track after Kunta Kinte and ride the Roots reference out for all the establishment-bucking, shackle-shedding potential the name infers. It takes an artist as acute as Kendrick Lamar to push beyond just shared anger (though that alone would be as justifiable as ever in 2015) to examine all the emotions that come to define his individuality. Lamar’s crown-snatching boasts are backed up by a sturdy cast of characters, sly disses on the subtweet level, jovial late-P-funk velocity, and a snatch from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” to let anyone who somehow missed that “this dick ain’t free” in on the joke. If there’s a hip-hop Inside Out this year, “King Kunta” is it. Henderson


1. Drake, “Hotline Bling”

There are plenty of totally legitimate reasons to be annoyed by “Hotline Bling,” even without considering its dorky dancing video. Chief among them is the same condescending attitude toward women that diminished Drake’s last big pop moment, “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” But once you realize that neither D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” which Drake’s been accused of ripping off, nor Erykah Badu’s spaced-out cover of “Hotline Bling” come anywhere near exploiting the full potential of the 1972 lounge-R&B hit that inspired their rhythm tracks, you’ll have to hand it to Drake and his second-best producer, Nineteen85. Both artists bring subtle embellishments to the minimal beat of Timmy Thomas’s original song, like the melancholy layer of oscillating synths (translated from the original Hammond Organ part) that rises from the din to diffuse lines like “glasses of champagne out on the dance floor” of their braggadocio. Or the evocative bridge, in which Drake’s flow sounds like slowly falling into an abyss of despair, a feeling he hasn’t captured since “Marvin’s Room.” Then, of course, there’s the solid minute at the end devoted to that one-of-a-kind rhythm—making Drake’s contemporary iteration of Thomas’s composition the only one to gesture back to that song’s beginnings as a free-floating instrumental. That this little outro gives everyone the chance to dance like they’re in The Cosby Show credits is just one of the necessary evils the song has well earned. Mac

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