THOSE WHO SCOFF at pop music, insisting that nothing good has climbed the charts since Kurt Cobain checked out, simply do not listen to the radio. While there was plenty of derivative crap on offer this year, of which more shortly, I am here to tell you that the state of pop music is strong. These 30 tunes are not just the 30 best tracks of the year; they are also 30 songs I really, genuinely, sincerely dig. No joke! I had to, like, whittle down a longer list and everything.
Taylor Swift owned the pop radio this year, despite strong performances by beta-boy crooner and self-styled hobbit Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Jason Derulo, and the spelling-impaired The Weeknd (who’s a guy, not a band). Meanwhile, Miley, Katy, and Gaga sat 2015 out, while Ke$hia is in some sort of airlock pending a lawsuit. This made for an interesting mix of old and new.
A few words on my (unabashedly subjective) methodology: I have two kids in grade school, and they insist that we listen to K-104.7. As pop stations go, K-104 mixes stuff up even less than, say, WPLJ in New York. When “Bad Blood” was #1, for example, they played that song every 20 minutes, until there was actual bad blood in my brain. So my listening was necessarily informed by the good people of that fine radio station (thanks, Paulie Feva). There are plenty of popular songs that charted but, because of explicit language, were not played on K-104, and thus escaped my attention. Sorry, Fetty Wap.
As for what constitutes a “pop song,” it’s simple: these songs were all #20 or higher on the Billboard chart at some point this past year. For purposes of this list, release date is not important; chart position is all. So “Shake It Off” qualifies, even though that track, and indeed all the others on the historically excellent 1989, was technically available in 2014. On the other hand, anything from All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes, my favorite release of the year, didn’t chart, so doesn’t count.
The 20 Worst Pop Songs
are bad because they are wholesale rip-offs of old songs, or earwormy schlock, or both. “Shut Up and Dance With Me” is my least favorite song of 2015, because 1) it’s a U2 song, 2) it sucks, and 3) I could not get it out of my head for weeks at a time.
“Locked Away” is the legally necessary number of notes away from something on Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s.
“Somebody” is so close to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that I hope they are paying royalties on it; “Heroes (We Could Be)” similarly steals from Bowie.
“I’m Worth It” lifts its riff from Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me,” which lifts its riff from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and is not, it says here, worth it.
“Fight Song” and “Heartbeat Song” suck. “Break a Sweat” sucks even harder.
“Marvin Gaye” is pure sacrilege, and the sooner the pop world is rid of Charlie Puth, the better. “One Call Away” is a goober anthem that he should be ashamed of.
I would also not mind if Meghan Trainor had been a one-hit wonder. The insipidity of the lyrics to “Lips Are Movin” is surpassed only by the generic lameness of the tune.
Do we need another song that questions the depth of your love, a query first, and more elegantly, posed by Barry Gibb?
I like “Good for You,” Selena Gomez’s monster hit, but I hate that they defaulted to the rap part for the bridge. With its spare and haunting arrangement, that tune desperately needs a killer electric guitar solo. I’m sure Dave Gilmour was available.
“Bad Blood” is just a lazy piece of songwriting. It’s like she gave up halfway through. You’re better than this, Tay-Tay. (And if you’re reading this, here’s some dating advice).
Sorry, Adele, but my kids can’t stand you; I don’t know why you say “Hello,” we say goodbye.
I like Tove Lo, but “Taking Body” is not a winner.
Which brings us to “Thinking Out Loud.” The whining voice too high for its natural register. The white-boy bluesy chord progression. The trite lyrics. The fact that I could not get it out of my head for weeks and weeks and weeks. Sing it with me! We… found… shite… right… where we are.
I’m not sure if that’s 20, I lost count, but let’s move to
The 30 Best Pop Songs of 2015
30. “What Do You Mean,” Justin Bieber
A year or two ago, when Bieber was being carried around by his bodyguard like an American Girl doll, driving his Ferrari drunk, and otherwise acting like an entitled asshole, I thought for sure he was done. How wrong I was. The Biebs is back! The guy can really sing. That affected boy-band voice that these guys all go for comes naturally to him. Effortless. And the production value of the new album is insane. I guess what I mean is, I (ugh) like Justin Bieber.
29. “Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
We men do indeed love the Game. And we do only want love if it’s torture. But you gotta wonder, Tay, when the same thing happens over and over again…maybe it’s you?
28. “Here,” Alessia Cara
Sounds like a lost Amy Winehouse track, which is good enough for me. Alessia is not related to Irene, far as I can tell, but I won’t hold that against her.
27. “Stressed Out,” twenty one pilots
My daughter sings this one on repeat. Clever lyrics, catchy tune. Too many pilots do not spoil the flight.
26. “Wake Up,” Vamps
Channeling The Arcade Fire. Or maybe all songs with this title are good?
25. “Cheerleader,” OMI
Let’s forget that “Hula Hoop,” his follow-up, is pretty much the same song, kind of like how Airplane 2 is basically Airplane but in space. This remains a sweet, tender bit of reggae-infused fun.
24. “Hey Everybody,” 5 Seconds of Summer
The melody line of the verse is exactly, and I mean exactly, the same as “Hungry Like the Wolf.” But I love “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and I love this one, too. Give it up for socialism!
23. “Hold My Hand,” Jess Glynne
Of the same anthemic subgenre as “Fight Song,” but, unlike “Fight Song,” good.
22. “Honey, I’m Good,” Andy Grammer
There is a point at which the insidious catchiness of this track might make you crazy. I have not yet reached that point. Although I did kinda get tired of him on DWTS.
21. “Love Me Like You Do,” Ellie Goulding
Another of my daughter’s favorites. And the nine-year-old-girl demo is, I think, what Goulding’s going for.
20. “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd [sic]
The best song ever written about Bell’s Palsy.
19. “Ghost Town,” Adam Lambert
The acoustic guitar and whistle contrast beautifully to the electronic instrumentation. And we all know Lambert’s got himself some pipes.
18. “Emperor’s New Clothes,” Panic! at the Disco
Holy crap, it’s a rock song!
17. “One Last Time,” Ariana Grande
Because I have a nine-year-old daughter, I know more than I care to admit about the Ariana Grande-Jennette McCurdy feud that led to the cancellation of the popular Sam & Cat after just one season—the Tupac-Biggie of Nickelodeon tween programming. And I’m resolutely Team Jennette. But I can’t not like Ariana.
16. “Centuries,” Fall Out Boy
They could have gotten away with doing the song without quoting “Tom’s Diner,” but I like that they did, and I like that they sample Suzanne, because when I hear this song I…am…thinking of her voice, and of the midnight picnic once upon a time before the rain began.
15. “Want to Want Me,” Jason Derulo
This just in: this guy is really talented. I wish he were a bit less potty-mouthed and sexual, though. Like, “Talk Dirty to Me” would me a million times more interesting if “dirty” were replaced with “Farsi.”
14. “See You Again,” Wiz Khalifa/Charlie Puth
My wife’s favorite track. I think the sappy Puth part sounds like a mishmash of old Alanis songs, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
13. “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” Silento
Best dance song of the year.
12. “Hey Mama,” David Guetta with Nicki Minaj
For Blue Oyster Cult, the prescription was more cowbell, but even the Bruce Dickinson would concede that what pop songs all could use is more Minaj.
11. “Animals,” Maroon 5
I don’t think these guys write songs. I think they take old radio hits, change as few notes as possible to make them legally different, and write slightly different words. Like, this is a great, great song; instantly catchy, and featuring a terrific vocal performance by renowned d-bag Adam Levine. That it has the same chords as “Maneater,” and the same tempo, and IS ALSO A SONG ABOUT LOVERS LITERALLY FEEDING ON EACH OTHER, only adds to its appeal. And by “appeal,” I mean of the court case when Daryl Hall sues them.
10. “Hotline Bling,” Drake
I didn’t like it at first, because the lyrics seemed too stupid. Like, you used to call me on your cell phone. You dialed up my number and pressed talk. What was he going for? But now I get it, and I get Drake, and the fuss over Drake. (Somewhere in Seattle, Sean Beaudoin is shaking his head and muttering something about Timmy Thomas, who I really hope is making some bling off this).
9. “Don’t,” Ed Sheeran & “On My Mind,” Ellie Goulding [tie]
When I first heard “Don’t,” I formed an impression of Ed Sheeran as being this ladykilling bad-ass. It was only when I actually listened to the words, and then had the rest of his lamentable oeuvre foisted upon me, that I realized that Sheeran is the most beta beta-male that ever existed. Even in this song, he’s basically whining because the woman he hooked up with hooked up with someone else, even though he says himself that there was no commitment. What’s she supposed to do, Ed? Read your mind? You gotta lock that down! The woman in question, of course, is Ellie Goulding, and “On My Mind” is a killer response to Sheeran’s own song. Ed warns her: “Don’t f*ck with my love,” but Ellie says: “You don’t mess with love, you mess with the truth.” Ouch! And he’s only on her mind, it says here, because she’s pissed at him for being such a wuss.
8. “Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars
It sounds like every Prince song, but that only means it sounds like nothing else on the radio now. You had me at “Michelle Pfeiffer,” guys.
7. “Habits (Stay High),” Tove Lo
The conceit of the song is that she has to be on drugs all the time to get over you. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Amy Winehouse saying rehab won’t help because there’s no rehab for a broken heart. Exquisite lyrics (although I could have done without the “sex club” talk when playing it with my kids in the car), terrific melody line, and a top-drawer vocal performance. Plus, her name is an anagram of LOVE TO.
6. “I Don’t Mind,” Usher
I wrote about this one before. It’s a really gorgeous song, a slow tune with sparse arrangement…achingly beautiful. I mean, I really like the song a lot. The lyrics begin: Shawty, I don’t mind / If you dance on a pole / That don’t make you a ho. And that’s what the song is about: Usher gallantly proclaiming that even though his girlfriend is a stripper, it’s fine by him. It’s at once this incredibly moving show of grace by Usher, and at the same time male chauvinism of the highest order. As our hero puts it, “I’m proud to call you my bitch.” I wish it weren’t so crass, but it’s just such a great tune.
5. “Shake it Off,” Taylor Swift
Remember in Return of the Jedi, when Luke showed up in his black robe to rescue Han, and we were all like, Oh shit, THIS mf-er’s something special? That’s how I felt when the video dropped. You just knew this was a big deal. There are people who don’t like this song. I think they secretly love it but don’t want to admit it, because they’re haters, and haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
4. “Uma Thurman,” Fall Out Boy
The second song on the list to name-check an actress who appeared in Dangerous Liaisons. All we need is Glenn Close for the hat trick. I like how the Munsters guitar riff apes the surfer-rock sound of Pulp Fiction, which is obviously the iteration of Uma Thurman referred to.
3. “She’s Kind of Hot,” 5 Seconds of Summer
From the slick but easy opening riff to the build of the chorus, a perfect pop song.
2. “Ex’s and Oh’s,” Elle King
Sexy-ass song, pure Bayou, that sounds like it could be the theme from a reboot of True Blood. “They always wanna come, but they never wanna leave” is just the right mix of clever and naughty that is usually absent from pop music lyrics.
1. “Budapest,” George Ezra
Give me one good reason why I should ever make another track #1. When I first heard Ezra play this, on SNL, I thought it was a cover. It sounds like a Buddy Holly song, which is about as high a compliment as I can bestow.