The 5 Best Songs of EDM2015
5. The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”
Abel Tesfaye has never been so comfortably numb, maintaining a remarkably expressionless facade during his express elevator ride to the top of the Billboard charts. The only time the Weeknd has succumbed to his own song’s chest-swelling, fist-pumping, sing-along-until-your-throat’s-sore ecstasy is when he jumped so high at the VMAs that Kanye jumped with him. Maybe he’s still reeling from the brilliant shock of pop svengali Max Martin’s syncopated clap-backed beats, which punch through “Can’t Feel My Face” as hard as the Weeknd’s own monosyllabic cinderblocks. No matter how far they fall from ubiquity on the radio dial, the guitar-trailed yelps and gulps of his increasingly uncanny Michael Jackson pop chops aren’t going to fade anytime soon. — HARLEY BROWN
4. Jamie xx feat. Young Thug & Popcaan, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”
It wasn’t exactly shocking when the tracklist for Jamie xx’s solo debut, In Colour, revealed that the U.K. producer had tapped his co-conspirators in the xx, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, to contribute guest vocals. Much more intriguing was the presence of Atlanta oddball Young Thug and dancehall star Popcaan, who tag-team the LP’s liveliest cut, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).” Decorated with dashes of steel drums and propelled by a chest-puffing (and, despite some initial confusion, totally legit) sample of the Persuasions’ 1972 song “Good Times,” the collaboration injects In Colour with some much-appreciated jubilation.
The 11-track album is no doubt an accomplishment and one of the finest full-lengths of the year, but after 30 minutes of moonlit brooding, it’s refreshing to have some sun-bathed optimism in the mix. So, Jamie sets the scene, Popcaan supplies the bridge, and Thug uses his pinched vocals to stretch and smush vowels like they’re laffy taffy. Of course, anything this attention-grabbing is going to incite some backlash — complaints that it’s too populist, too safe, too pat — and those grievances are totally valid; to certain segments of the Internet, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” is too clean and probably was forehead-smackingly obvious. But to others, it simply delivers on its name. — KYLE MCGOVERN
3. Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
Fetty Wap could’ve had eight top-ten hits this year — he only had three, ho hum — and there’d still be people who’d refer to him as a one-hit wonder. When an artist releases a debut single as wonderful as “Trap Queen,” you just sorta assume that they’ll spend the next decade trying in vain to replicate its success, that first hit still casting a shadow over all follow-ups. With moon-bounce sonics, a nursery-rhyme-catchy melody, and of course that one-of-a-kind croon — appraised on the track by hypeman Nitt Da Grit at a zillion bucks, and he might’ve lowballed — “Trap” sparkled like the North Star on hip-hop and Top 40 radio this year, the song that was clearly going to define 2015 before we even really knew what 2015 was. “My Way” and “679” were bangers in their own right, and Fetty’s self-titled debut LP made for one of the year’s most satisfying pop listens, but it’s “Hey-what’s-up-hello” that we’re going to be cooing to our kids as a bedtime lullaby someday. —ANDREW UNTERBERGER
2. Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
The middlebrow ain’t what it used to be: Where one woman’s alt-rock rallying cry was once “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover,” 2015’s banner rock’n’roller smashes her alarm clock to mutter, “I’m hungry, I’m a Scorpio.” On her soon-to-be-signature hit, Barnett conjures Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up” in reverse, an auctioneer rattling off her inadequacies through a megaphone as fast as she can, trying to get every bidder to walk away. Born to conduct her power trio, with some extra crunch from co-producer Dan Luscombe, she roars over Dave Mudie and Andrew “Bones” Sloane’s best Krist-and-Dave with her anxiety-attack guitar and still probably ranks herself fifth in the crew. Fueled by unrelentingimpostor syndrome, Barnett vows to slay the dragons of excellence with her sword of mediocrity, and luckily, she loses. How will she sleep at night over all this success? On top of a pile of money, all folded into elephants. — DAN WEISS
1. Justin Bieber, “What Do You Mean?”
The tick-tocking clock that leads off “What Do You Mean?” could very easily have come straight from Justin Bieber’s head. The annals of pop history are littered with obnoxious teenage megastars who the public decided they didn’t like so much once they came of drinking age — in another world, maybe Bieber becomes the laughing stock of the Internet for his sadly ludicrous claims to being the successor to Michael Jackson. After spending two years hand-cranking the tabloid–media cycle, enduring his biggest commercial failure, and permanently destroying his Ideal Underage Boyfriend image, the Biebs was at risk of becoming a relic, the sort of performer whose continued presence in pop culture mostly serves to remind his onetime audience of how young they no longer are. The inspired Jack Ü collaboration “Where Are Ü Now” was a brilliant re-branding for Bieber, but it also could’ve been a fluke, a favor from EDM cool kids Skrillex and Diplo, one where the most memorable hook came with the singer’s voice rendered unrecognizable. He’d have to prove it on his own, too.
The suspense of whether or not “What Do You Mean?” would be the song to put Bieber back on top lasted maybe 15 seconds. If it’s technically possible to resist those dawn-of-a-new-day piano chords as long as they’re only accompanied by the metronomic timepiece, once Justin utters the title phrase for the first time and the parkour-hopping synth hits, it’s all over. The groove is instantly familiar, but not quite like anything else you’ve ever heard: No pop song in recent history has been this light on its feet, to the point where the most apt musical point of comparison isn’t really the tropical house of Kygo and Robin Schulz, but the weightless, pleasure-center-poking scores to ’90s video games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Kart 64. And Bieber does an expert job steering the beat, breathing life back into the production with his evenly paced, scale-stepping vocals — in the past, his pinched wail would’ve sucked the oxygen out of the song with brash over-expression. Even thematically, the song avoids ever getting too heavy — asking a girl why her body language is conflicting with her words might not be the least-problematic thing you can write a song about in 2015, but at least he’s legitimately asking; previous Bieber jams would’ve almost certainly offered, “Girl, let me tell you what you mean…”
The flawless victory of Justin Bieber’s return single — and somewhat symbolically, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Biebs’ first single to ever reach pole position — is the latest and most convincing example of something we’ve always known to be true: There’s no amount of bad press that can’t be undone with one truly great pop song. (Just ask former collaborator Chris Brown, whose crimes were legitimately terrible and whose take-me-back hit single wasn’t even quite this good.) As much as the pubic enjoys climbing on their high horse to tut-tut the minor and major sins of an irresponsible, hot-headed young star, they’ll always dismount in a second’s time if they hear an undeniable hook over an electrifying beat emanating from the dance floor. That’s because, as David Marchese so brilliantly put it in his profile of another pop icon who’s had transgressions far tougher to answer for than Bieber’s, songs are better than people. And “What Do You Mean?” was better than anyone in 2015. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER