As promised, here is Part II of my top 10 pop singles on the radio in 2015. Please note that Part II is way too long and I was including way more than just the last five pop songs, so nothing makes any arithmetic sense.
You can view Part I here.
5. Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Last year, Paul McCartney became Dave Grohl’s best friend, but this year, he’s decided to offer Best Friend Status to the one and only Kanye West.
And unlike the sloppy jam session that apparently, won both Grohl and McCartney their upteenth Grammys, West and McCartney went deeper and sadder, with more yearning and regret than any other pop song this year.
Gone is Kanye’s signature grit. Here’s a softer Kanye–now a father, a husband, a mourning son. And he’s accompanied by a softer Rihanna–now soulful and mature, her voice tearing down her bad girl rep, and begging to find all the wisdom a young woman could ever have.
Kanye’s and Rihanna’s vocals are kept in time with the simple strumming of McCartney’s guitar–present, but not overbearing; aged, but not expired. They all occupy the same space, and so damn well. Because no matter how young or old we all are, we’re all sort of after the same things, and even pop superstars are no different.
4. Shawn Mendes, “Stitches”
Currently, there is only one reason to be a teenage girl in 2015, and it is to have a better chance with Shawn Mendes, the 17 year old boy behind the radio hit, “Stitches.”
At its core, “Stitches” is a silly song. It’s a song that feels like it was precipitated by a bad breakup on a middle school dance floor. The song lyrics sound like they were originally scrawled on the flip side of a sad boy’s algebra homework. But gosh darnit, guys, call me sufficiently charmed–this Ed Sheeran wannabe is the best Ed Sheeran wannabe on this side of the radio.
Mendes, who until this year, was slaving it out on Youtube doing covers of pop songs with his guitar, like Bieber and 5 Seconds of Summer before him. And like those teen stars, he was discovered by a music industry insider, and was inevitably catapulted into cultural relevance, and most importantly, the hearts of teen girls everywhere.
Yet, unlike the origins of Bieber’s ultra-commercialized bubble gum, and 5SOS’s tongue-in-cheek punkness, Mendes, whose pop origins pretty much has just begun, is surprisingly earnest, clearly channeling his best Ed Sheeran, or his best John Mayer–musically, at least. In fact, Mendes’ earnestness is what makes “Stitches” work as well as it does. Yes, “Stitches” lacks the bite of Sheeran’s and Mayer’s best work, but it doesn’t need any of that bite. Because when you’re trying to sing the lyrics on the flip side of your algebra homework–smudged by the very tears that shall transform you from boy to man, no less–you don’t need bite.
After all, Shawn Mendes’ vocals tell us he’s human, and that’s all we need to know, as we’re inclined to adore him for it.
3. Drake, “Hotline Bling”
Drake has two distinct personas: Rapper Drake, and Sensitive R&B Singer Drake. To clarify, yes, he is TWO PERSONAS in ONE MAN, kind of like Sasha Fierce and Beyonce, but with worse dancing.
Being an obvious girl, I prefer Sensitive R&B Singer Drake. “Take Care” remains Drake’s best song to date (and also, his best album), a song that is as much as a pop masterpiece as it is a slightly voyeuristic conversation between Drake and ex-girlfriend Rihanna, whose vocals are featured on the song, and make the song soar as far, far away as the song tenderly demands of her, and of him, too.
And he finally has a song to match his 2011 “Take Care” effort, and it’s in the form of “Hotline Bling,” a song as soulful and voyeuristic as his best work, but also more daring, edgier than any R&B song he’s ever recorded.
“Hotline Bling” sounds like old school Drake, akin to something he could’ve recorded in Lil Wayne’s likely luxurious, coked-up basement. It’s honest, emotional, and raw–all the things we’ve come to love and identify with R&B Drake. Yet, it’s a song that has a distinct sound, that is unique–a sound that vibrates with the confessional hunger in Drake’s vocals.
When you strip Drake of all his ridiculous antics, antics that are likely a result of his Rapper Drake persona–false claims that he started from the bottom, his feuds with his fellow R&B singers and rapper, and semi-regrettable dancing in the soon-to-be-iconic “Hotline Bling” video–at his best, we know that he can sing, and you will certainly feel.
2. Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”/”Where R U Now?”/”Sorry”/”Love Yourself”
Never has there been an album that represented a celebrity’s repentance for his public sins as much as Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did. “Runaway,” the first single off that album, was a direct response to the haterade fuel that lit up his critics after he jumped on stage to interrupt Taylor Swift’s VMA speech back in 2009 with his “Imma let you finish” Beyonce defense.
But it’s 2015 now. Kanye West is now a husband and father of two, and he and Swift are on good terms. Times are changing, and we, as the public, are looking for another celebrity to repent in front of our very eyes, as Kanye’s repentance tour has ran its course to a very dead end, despite all the ego that remains.
Enter Justin Bieber, post-monkey, post-peeing, post-Selena, post-shawty. He’s the answer to the People Magazine readership’s need for modern celebrity atonement. Because simply put, Bieber has been the most hated celebrity for the better part of the decade.
Even before the arrests, “One Less Lonely Girl” was destined to be ridiculed by a so-called hip, mainstream crowd, even if it did happen to be semi-backed by a cool guy like Usher. When the rest of the shit started to hit the fan, Bieber looked like he was going to fade into oblivion: Bieber’s Believe album nearly pushed Bieber’s career narrative into that of another Justin Timberlake wannabe that never quite made it.
Then the music industry reminds us that it can be fickle, and resurrections are possible. Because on the drive home from work in the middle of summer, I heard “Where R U Now” on the radio for the first time, and proclaimed it the best song of the year at the time. Soulful, but modern–just what this summer, and this year, needed on top 40 radio.
To me, it was a “Who’s that boy?” moment, a sentiment surely echoed throughout the airwaves. And of course, the DJ, bearer of important information, voiced some FACTS: Diplo, Skillrex, FEATURING JUSTIN BIEBER, of all people, made that song–and you can all suck it.
What song would top “Where R U Now”? Well, look no further than “What Do You Mean?” (Then an Adele song.) Oh, and “Sorry” is equally good. And “Love Yourself” is also fantastic. The rest of the album is also pretty gold, a marriage of EDM at its most accessible and unobtrusive, and pop sounds at its most catchy and effective.
I’d love to analyze all those songs individually, but for the sake of space and time and your attention span, the songs are great because, well, Bieber is evidently not interested in Selena Gomez, or a groupie, or whoever else a teen heartthrob would bang, but the public. Surely, Bieber’s longest-running public relationship has been with the public herself (well, in Bieber’s eyes, he’s been catering to a largely female demographic)–a public that once declared him a young musical talent, but soon berated him for having the audacity to hope the Anne Frank could ever be a Belieber, started a petition to deport him back to Canada, and abandoned him for One Direction.
All I’m saying is–it’s been a tough three years for Justin Bieber. And that is present in his music. He’s apologizing for his crimes, but it’s an apology with reservations–like, well, did all the shit he did really affect the public, or did the public just wanted something to shit on? And did the public really need to shit on a troubled teenage pop star who was making mistakes in a very public way, and paying for them in a very public way? Bieber poses all those questions with a bratty falsetto that is as disconcerting as it is funny, sarcastic, and self-effacing. It’s as rare as it is refreshing for a teen heartthrob to be so brutally honest and self-aware all at once.
So welcome to the real world, Justin Bieber. Now that it’s socially acceptable to blast your music in places occupied by self-conscious people, we really hope you stay.
1. Adele, “Hello”/”When We Were Young”
Winter quarter 2011, freshman year of college: I spent many nights listening to Adele’s 21 album on repeat, often alternating tracks from that album with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy through my dorm building’s iTunes home sharing network. Try it; you’ll thank me later.
A college degree and typical twentysomething entry-level employment later, I was awarded a new Adele single on pop radio, her first single in four years: the beautiful, haunting, and very excellent “Hello.” And the song is pure Adele, its productions miming the gloriously bombastic highs of “Rolling in the Deep,” and its lyrics continuing Adele’s pop lineage of heartbreak and regret.
Yet, “Hello” is more nuanced, as it’s from the perspective a slightly different Adele character from what we knew before. Here’s an Adele with the upper hand–she broke up with him this time around, but she wants to mend those bridges. She is reaching out, but alas, he doesn’t pick up, he doesn’t call back. Has he moved on? She doesn’t know, we don’t know. It’s an ambiguity that “Hello” hinges on, which makes it all the more sad, and all the more real.
Because she hasn’t moved on from him, and we–we, as lovers of really intelligent, mature pop music–has certainly not moved on from Adele.
“Hello” is going on to define 2015 as we know it, but Adele also dropped “When We Were Young,” another gem from her 25 album. “When We Were Young” proves again that Adele is an old soul, not just because her voice sounds like aged wine, but the content of her lyrics, too. Because with “When We Were Young,” Adele shows that she is not only a poet of heartbreak, but a true blue storyteller.
While “Hello” is destined to define pop radio circa 2015, “When We Were Young” is Adele’s more artistically confident single–a song that is emotional, nostalgic, heartbreaking, and everything that we’ve come to love about Adele, but also a song that is also occupied by seemingly living, breathing people who have lived pasts, presents, and futures.
Long live the queen of contemporary pop music. Viva la Adele, the woman behind the greatest pop songs of 2015, and beyond.
Sort of an honorable mention, but also potentially a runaway for my favorite song of the year because I didn’t know how to rank it:
Mike Posner, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”
To be honest, by the time I heard “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” (the SeeB Remix) on the radio in early 2016, and subsequently Posner’s original, Passenger-esque version of this song, I’ve already compiled my top 10 list and wasn’t sure what compromises I wanted to make, so here you have it: an awkwardly tacked on write-up about how much I love this song.
Mike Posner, for the kids unfamiliar with his name, was a big deal back in 2010, namely for the dancefloor hits on his 31 Minutes to Takeoff album. When you listen to songs like “‘Please Don’t Go,” “Bow Chicka Wow Wow,””Cooler Than You,” and “Cheated,” you can also hear the faint slide of a Motorola phone of a college frat boy trying to get the number of some overly intoxicated freshman girl. Because just let this sink in: the last time Posner’s songs were cool was back when frat boys who wanted to be cool used Motorola phones.
So we’re all getting older. And Posner is getting older with us. “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is the most personal, honest song I’ve heard on the radio in a long, long time, and there isn’t a single remix out there that will be able to hide that fact that Posner, as a lyricist and a musician, has become an entirely new artist. And in the stripped down version, Posner’s voice seems more vulnerable than ever.
There is something startling about Posner’s opening confession: “I took a pill in Ibiza/to show Avicii I was cool,” which is self-effacing, funny, and sad all at once. Because listeners will think: of course that would happen. And from there, you get a lot of what seems to be “being famous is not all that great” cliches, but there’s real pain in the specifics Posner describes, which feel exactly like when a friend is pouring his soul out to you.
For all his wealth, Poser wants to issue a cautionary tale that he and his contemporaries were no different than the characters occupying his songs or the people at the clubs who danced, snorted, and hooked up to his songs. Even if you’re rich and famous, there are still the cool kids, and there is still peer pressure to be exactly how your culture is supposed to be perceived. And in the end, everyone is still just as empty and miserable.
I suppose “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is sort of a downer of a song, but the fact that Posner’s sound has drastically evolved suggests an artist on the verge of a metamorphosis. In 2016, let’s all make Mike Posner relevant again.