Some of the year’s most popular songs were also some of the best. Below, I’ve listed my ten favorite Top 40 songs of 2015. All of these songs appeared on the Billboard year-end Hot 100 for 2015.
That self-imposed rules means I can’t include what I consider the cream of this year’s pop crop: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” and “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” and “Run Away With Me” and “All That” and “Let’s Get Lost.” This woman had her 1989 moment this year and America paid no attention. Her manager Scooter Braun now admits something went wrong on his end. Too little, too late. It’s a crime.
“Blank Space” by Taylor Swift
Written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin and Shellback. Produced by Max Martin and Shellback.
The “Bad Blood” video, with its flashy cameos and dazzling stunts, attracted the most attention and generated the most headlines. But the “Blank Space” video is the most successful artistic statement of Swift’s banner year. It complements a song that gleefully sends up the qualities that make some people blanch at the mere mention of Taylor Swift, married to a well-crafted hook and immaculate production.
Released Nov. 10, 2014. From the album 1989.
“Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd
Written by Ali Payami, Savan Kotecha, Max Martin, Abel Tesfaye and Peter Svensson. Produced by Max Martin and Ali Payami.
“The Weeknd is the new Michael Jackson!” the headlines blared. Somewhere, The Weekend was smiling. He went to superproducer Max Martin (see above) asking for a monster hit. When Martin returned with a few options, The Weeknd turned them down and teamed up with Martin to refine his sound. The goal? Make the biggest, broadest pop smash possible, and he succeeded. Blunt drug metaphors aside, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a propulsive slice of ecstatic pop, with the bait-and-switch “Ooh!” before the chorus lending an element of surprise. By some twisted miracle, “The Hills” from the same album proved the more resilient radio hit, but this song feels like the purer example of an artist channeling his most mainstream instincts and hitting every mark.
Released June 8, 2015. From the album Beauty Behind the Madness.
“FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney.
Written by Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Kirby Lauryen, Mike Dean, Ty Dolla $ign, Dave Longstreth, Dallas Austin, Elon Rutberg and Noah Goldstein. Produced by Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Mike Dean, Dave Longstreth, Noah Goldstein and Kuk Harrell.
This sing-songy midtempo acoustic jam was the last thing that could have been expected from a collaboration between these three heavyweights, whose styles only occasionally would seem to dovetail. But the easy chemistry and casual delivery of this low-stakes romp makes the departure from these artists’ usual sound go down smooth.
Released Jan. 24, 2015. From the album ANTI (which has not been released yet because why Rihanna? WHY?).
“Girl Crush” by Little Big Town
Written by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. Produced by Jay Joyce.
This song was the subject of a mind-numbing controversy involving a group of backwards-minded radio programmers who refused to play a song that depicts a same-sex relationship. Never mind that this song isn’t actually depicting a same-sex relationship (though if it were, that would be fine!). In fact, this song is cleverly told from the perspective of a jilted ex-lover who’s jealous of her former beau’s new flame. Thanks to its woozy tempo and unusual lyrical structure, this song stands out from the herd of shallow country anthems that shared the top spot on the charts this year.
Released Dec. 15, 2014. From the album Pain Killer.
“Here” by Alessia Cara
Written by Alessia Cara, Sebastian Kole, Myron Birdsong, Samuel Gerongco, Anthony Life, Robert Gerongco and Terence Lam. Produced by Sebastian Kole, Pop & Oak and Rahul Pathak.
“Here” is the song you can point to when anyone tries to tell you that they don’t like pop music because it’s all about partying. The 19 year-old Cara’s sure-footed tone details her apathy towards the party antics surrounding her. It’s an act of defiance against the party industrial complex, brought to life by Cara’s strikingly mature vocal power.
Released April 30, 2015. From the album Know-It-All.
“Jealous” by Nick Jonas
Written by Nick Jonas, Nolan Lambroza and Simon Wilcox. Produced by Sir Nolan.
Months before the enjoyable sad dad-ness of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Nick Jonas poked fun at his sexual insecurities with this spare, compelling anthem of self-deprecation. On the first few listens, the lyrics suggest Jonas chastising his girlfriend for posting attractive pictures on social media and wearing revealing clothing in public. But after the initial alarm bells of sexism stop ringing, you realize Jonas is in on the joke. The self-awareness, and Jonas’ rich voices, carries the song straight past its problematic tendencies and into the realm of knowing, dumb fun.
Released Sept. 8, 2014. From the album Nick Jonas.
“My Way” by Fetty Wap feat. Monty
Fetty Wap burst into the upper reaches of the pop arts from virtual obscurity on the strength of his breakout “Trap Queen.” His achievements are in sounds more than words. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica said it best on a recent Popcast: (Mr.?) Wap bridges the gap between the gonzo software stylings of Future and the straightforward hip-pop of Flo Rida. The collision is gleeful, ecstatic and satisfying to the senses.
Written by Willie Maxwell and Remy Boyz. Produced by Lil Brandon, NickEBeats and JayFrance.
Released July 15, 2015. From the album Fetty Wap.
“Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Far and away the most popular song of 2015 is a late 2014 release that’s bursting with infectious production, vibrant guitars, passionate vocals and little in the way of narrative. It’s all about atmosphere and attitude. This song packs both into every one of its 288 seconds.
Written by Jeff Bhasker, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Nicholas Williams, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, The Gap Band and Rudolph Taylor. Produced by Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker and Bruno Mars.
Released Nov. 10, 2014. From Ronson’s album Uptown Special.
“Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento
Written by Ricky Hawk and Timothy Mingo. Produced by Bolo Da Producer.
On an intellectual level, I can’t defend any aspect of this song, which exists entirely to be the sonic wallpaper at middle school dances and on athletic fields. But pop isn’t meant to be intellectual. It’s difficult to put into words the abstract joy that springs from this song’s lyrics — all five or six of them. I don’t have the slightest idea how to whip, nae nae or bop it. But thanks to this song, I know what it feels like to want to.
Released June 25, 2015.
“Where Are U Now” by Skrillex and Diplo feat. Justin Bieber
Written by Justin Bieber, Sonny Moore, Thomas Wesley Pentz, Karl Rubin Brutus, Jordan Ware and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd. Produced by Skrillex and Diplo.
Anti-commercial in every respect but the wildly popular featured singer, this fusion of experimental electronic and soulful balladry weaves, soars, skitters, bounces and back on, never settling on a single tempo or finding a comfortable center. The New York Times profile detailing its creation only heightened my enthusiasm for a song that has as many nooks and crevasses as an intricately crafted visual art piece.
(Cheating here, but Bieber’s “Sorry” is also terrific, a “Where Are U Now” for the mainstream crowd. I almost included, but then I would make it a Top 11, and that’s no fun.)
And now, for fun, the five worst songs of the year:
“Cheerleader” by OMI. Love is telling your significant other that you care about them, which makes them decide they probably won’t cheat.
“Downtown” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee & Grandmaster Caz. I admire that this song seems to be really going for something new. I don’t admire that it’s an utter failure in execution, a mishmash of styles that never come close to gelling.
“Kick the Dust Up” by Luke Bryan. He can turn his cornfield into a party any time he wants. I’m not showing up.
“Marvin Gaye” by Charlie Puth feat. Meghan Trainor. This song sounds like it was written by somebody who has only ever come into contact with one Marvin Gaye song, and he didn’t listen to it — he just read the lyrics.
“Only” by Nicki Minaj feat. Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. You lost me with that last featured credit.