Music! Everyone loves music. Lists! Everyone loves lists. Hit the deck.
The first time I heard this album, I was biking home way too late through one of those glorious, infernal, motionless, 100-degree California summer nights, heading back from some barbecue or river party or something, and I was probably a little sweaty and drunk, and the opening bumps of “Gosh” came on, and everything just kinda clicked, like one of those hokey scenes from teen movies, except this movie has Young Thug in it, which made everything even better. -Patrick Redford
Another brilliant, fundamentally sound rock song from England’s Most Charming Asshole. -Drew Magary
Where are you now? What do you mean? Is it too late now to say sorry? Justin Bieber’s greatest musical triumphs of 2015 were powered by the same sort of polite confusion that has defined the second half of my very own year. His tribulations are far more enjoyable, though. Like any decent tween heartthrob, Bieber’s earnestness comes threaded through the sort of slack-jawed, doe-eyed lens of puberty that makes you say, “Aw!” What do you mean when you don’t want me to move, but you tell me to go? Oh man, that’s so rapey! Biebz, babe, lemme teach you about consent! Where are you now that I need you? Babe! When you saw one set of footprints in the sand, that’s when I was carrying you in my arms at rave-church! I’ve been here the whole time. I’m RIGHT HERE. Is it too late now to say sorry? Aw! Are those the first signs of a mustache! You’re too young for me to stay mad at you!
What a lovable, idiotic goon.
But the baby can sing. Truly, Bieber has been a breath of fresh air in a year when it was hard to pull radio dance-pop free from the tropical trash-wave that drowned out everything else. While Lite-EDM persisted at the hands of Disclosure, Calvin Harris, Mr Probz, and Robin Schulz, Bieber helped a handful of ex-ravers and global scavengers (Skrillex, Diplo, and Blood Diamonds) beat out the one-hitters and their more predictable productions. And there’s something satisfying in knowing the smarts that went into your favorite, family-friendly pop songs, like how that the fluttering flute riff on “Where Are Ü Now” was revealed to be a manipulated Biebz vocal. (For reference!) Or that “Sorry,” which could have ended up being a ballad in less intuitive hands, was the most masterful use of reggaeton in pop since the dawn of moombahton a few years ago. It’s here that I’ll say that Jamie xx’s In Colour was the best dance album of the year, hands down, no question about it. The best dance song, however, is the one that makes you want to stop everything and do just that: dance. “Sorry” is that song. -Puja Patel
So sometimes you’re at a concert, and maybe it’s just because you’ve got the exact right number of beers in you, or maybe it’s because you are just feeling particularly good that night, but you end up feeling like the performance you just witnessed was A Moment. That’s how I felt when I saw Weaves, a band I’d never heard of before, rip shit up in a small, back-room venue at this year’s CMJ Music Marathon in NYC.
Weaves, a four-piece rock band from Toronto that meanders between mid-tempo haze and full-throttle walls of noise, spent 45 minutes exerting its ownership over everyone in attendance. They were led by singer Jasmyn Burke, a teasing, off-kilter performer who never stopped working the room, and who plays like a downshifted Karen O. About 15 minutes into the set, I started to feel bad for the bands that had been onstage before, because nobody was going to remember them. After about 30 minutes, I started to feel bad for the audience—we’d come for a cheap weeknight out, and were about to be sent back into the world with no faces, for our faces had been rocked off.
Anyway, you should check out some Weaves jams; I’ve grown particularly fond of the stripped-down cover of One Direction’s “Drag Me Down” above. They should have an album out sometime in 2016, and you can bet your life that if they hit it big, I’m going to spend the next 10 years being that extremely annoying guy who says, “Oh, Weaves? Yeah, man, I saw them in the back of a little bar in New York before they were big [fart noise] [fart noise] [something about authenticity]” every time they come up at a party. -Tom Ley
This year, I discovered the music of Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitarist based in Niger. He’s the star of a movie that came out this year called Akounak Teggdalit Taha Tazoughai—which translates to Rain the Color of Red with a Little Blue In It—that is reportedly the first feature film produced in the Tuareg language. Based on both the title and the trailer, you can easily figure out that it’s a remake of Prince’s Purple Rain, only set in West Africa. But Moctar is deserving of the lead role, as both his stage presence and technical skill evoke the Purple One. He just completed a tour of Europe, and if more people see this remarkable film, it’ll hopefully lead to him playing some shows in the U.S. He’s absolutely worth it. -Tim Burke
One of the happiest moments I’ve had this year was when I first pressed play on Drake and Future’s What a Time to Be Alive, and “Digital Dash” welcomed me with the tag, “Metro Boomin want some more, nigga.” Then I heard Future’s gritty, slurry voice as the rapper ad-libbed his way onto the tempo, and then Metro dropped that bass right on my fucking head, and for two and a half minutes, I was alone with the two of them.
In January, Future released Beast Mode, which is one of the best mixtapes of the year, along with 56 Nights, which he dropped two months after that; in July, he offered the “official” album DS2, the best rap album of the year that doesn’t reach for a Willie Lynch letter reference. September’s surprise release of WATTBA, the most hyped musical collaboration of the year, felt like a coronation.
Over the last year, Future has cemented himself as one of the best rappers alive, while his muse, Metro Boomin, has separated from the rest of the pack of Atlanta producers. The two artists have shaped each other, no longer merely existing within the confines of Atlanta trap, but embodying it. There are too many bangers across the four projects to name, but what they all have in common is that they’ve tended to leave me in a conundrum. Metro Boomin produces beats that consistently have me almost moshing on the subway on the way to work, or looking for a partner with which to dance and belt out lyrics at the bar, even though the stories that Future provides once he settles in are haunting and solitary.
Future is relatively meat and potatoes lyrically, covering all the run-of-the-mill rap shit—drugs, girls, gunplay, money, and jewelry—but he never flat-out glorifies any of it. Instead, he warbles his way from subject to subject like a drunk, because he probably is. When he talks about drinking gallons of Actavis—or simultaneously fucking real actual blood sisters, or cooking crack, or shooting people, or mourning lost love—he lends each equal weight, and his voice is scarred with memories of a past that he hasn’t yet escaped. Over the last year, there’s been more urgency to his songs, more to take in, than any other rapper’s. The stakes feel higher in Future’s songs, and simply dancing to his songs like they’re run-of-the-mill club bangers can feel almost vulgar.
If not more talented than Drake, Future is deeper, more textured, and more important. It was obvious that flying down to Atlanta to record What a Time to Be Alive was Drake’s attempt to trade on Future’s momentum and depth, but for the first two and a half minutes of the mixtape, I was alone with Future and his producer as he slid drunkenly from subject to subject, never lingering on any of them. Eventually, Drake came in, rapping beautifully about having cool friends, petty haters, pretty girls, and lots and lots of money, and the mixtape turned into something much less than what it could and should have been. But I’ll always have those first two and a half minutes, and he’ll always have last year. -Greg Howard
I looked up the actual song (“Move Mountains,” by Alkaline) and tried listening to the entire track, but it wasn’t the same. It’s so much better this way. -Samer Kalaf
I want this song played at my funeral. I’d also like my burial plot fitted with a motion-sensor device so that this song starts playing if you get within 10 feet of my headstone. And when the trumpet sounds and the Rapture commences and the Lord bids all the dead to rise once more, I will burst from my grave bearing a gilded saxophone and honking out the intro riff, until everyone in Heaven is sick of my bullshit and I get kicked out and I have to convince my wife to voluntarily leave with me, and this song will convince her, because that is the title of the song, and verily it is The Jam. -Rob Harvilla
Young Thug probably released more than 200 songs this year. Most of those came via random blog-circuit one-offs, barely announced mixtapes, and a series of massive leaks from the Thugger vault. But that haphazard approach is what makes him such a thrilling act to follow, underscoring the impossibly prolific, seemingly offhanded genius that’s actually a direct result of probably the most singularly focused and dedicated work ethic in the business. And it mirrors his own hushed, screeching, hyperactive, laconic voice—which often dips and peaks and sways through the whole gamut within a single verse.
It’s almost irrelevant to talk about single collections of work with a rapper like this, but I’d still point to one 17-track chunk unofficially called The Bleak 2 as perfectly indicative of Thug’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Songs like “Beast” and “Hey I” take the (relatively) more restrained approach he was tinkering with on this year’s more “official” album Barter 6 and improve on it. (Those two songs also underscore downright sweet he can be, in his own way: Thug raps about going down on his girl the way the Beatles sang about holding hands with theirs.) “Spaghetti,” “Freaky,” and “Keep It Leave” flaunt the unhinged, gothic, “alternate-universe ‘Thriller’ video” style fans might remember from the 1017 Thug era. This collection even has the cheery, anthemic “Proud of Me” (YouTube only has the inferior chopped and screwed version, but whatever), which calls to mind the wave Thugger was riding back in the I Came From Nothing 2 days.
That’s the best thing about The Bleak 2: It proves that while Thug is capable of donning, flaunting, and then shedding whole new lyrical styles and sounds as brilliantly and casually as he does his new wardrobes (his Instagram is still required viewing, by the way), he never completely abandons them. They always remain in his head, rhythms and cadences and sounds that he can and will return to when the mood strikes. It may seem like a chore to some, juggling all those disparate guises, but to him, it’s all just part of the fun. -Billy Haisley
There’s something a little drunk, a little sneering, a little sad about the Weeknd’s “The Hills,” right down to the fuzzy lyric “when I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” This isn’t a song glorifying sex, and yet it sounds exactly like sex: dark, messy, and a little screwed up. The whole of Beauty Behind the Madness rolls on like this, through lyrics that at times brag, at times succumb to the hangover, all of it sounding nothing like Song Sex and exactly like Actual Sex. There’s regret all over this album, and yet I regretted nothing about listening to it so much this year. -Diana Moskovitz
How you evaluate any piece of music as “the best” or even “good” depends largely on what you want from it, and the vast majority of my music is background: a soundtrack to writing or commuting, or getting wasted and dancing to. I want something fun.
No song could possibly have been any more fun than Eagles of Death Metal’s “Complexity,” a bass-driven, bluesy, floor-stomping, shit-kicking, delightfully self-aware piece of kitsch that Steve Miller is kicking himself for not having written. It’s the perfect standard-bearer for the Eagles’ dirty retro-simplism, an ethos where the riff is the point, and if a song can’t be clapped along with, it’s not a song worth performing. The vibe may be cartoonish, but there’s real musicianship here, and what appears for all the world like genuine appreciation for giving listeners a good time. Sometimes, that’s everything you need. -Barry Petchesky
Pop tween Bea Miller’s music is mostly indistinguishable from other pop tweens’ music, and with a few vocal tweaks, her sophomore album, Not an Apology, could be the sophomore album of any one of a handful of young pop stars. But right there, smack dab in the middle of all those syrupy-sweet clichéd love songs and overwrought breakup anthems, is a track with an extremely apt title.
“Force of Nature” is also a syrupy-sweet clichéd love song, but one that demonstrates why the form is so alluring in those rare instances when someone gets it right. It trades in the full pop ensemble for a stripped-down acoustic guitar, and showcases the immense range and beautiful rasp of Miller’s voice. The beat of the guitar drives the song forward while leaving enough room for mournful rumination, and in the chorus, Miller hits bewitching, ethereal high notes I didn’t know existed. It’s too bad the rest of the album is so forgettable. -Kevin Draper
Essential Logic, one of my favorite-ever bands, didn’t even record 20 songs, but I never paid any attention to Peel sessions, poorly recorded live shows, and the like before this year, just because what they did record is so good and so unlike anything else that I didn’t really want to hear anything—say, performances where they sounded like just some band—that might take away from it. This was, in retrospect, a pretty silly thing to be worried about. -Tim Marchman