Pop music is such a wash. 95% of it sounds the same, has the same message and pretty much contributes the same to the music landscape (nothing). That being said, pop music is EVERYWHERE: commercials, movies, clubs, Spotify playlists and PA systems in shopping malls. It’s practically inescapable, but 2015 was the year when it felt more dominant than others. Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Adele each had a big year in 2015 with chart-topping hits and albums. But they’re a dime a dozen and there were a bunch of other hits this year. Some good, mostly annoying. With that in mind, here (in no particular order) are ten of the biggest hits this year that went down easiest on the earholes.
“Worth It” – Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink
For what essentially is the female American version of One Direction, Fifth Harmony turned out pretty great. The quintet formed in the second season of The X Factor USA in 2012 and had a breakout 2015 with their debut album Reflection featuring thumping hits like “Sledgehammer,” and “Bo$$.” Their big hit was “Worth It,” flexing their vocals around reminding guys that all the pressure’s on them because they know they’re the total package. The hand claps, spare electro drums and saxophone (courtesy of Stargate) move the song along without being more EDM backwash. But Fifth Harmony themselves are the driving force, with flexing vocal chops that evoke brass and sexual bravado. “Worth It” can be described as a feminist anthem on confidence or just a sexy party song for girls to order more drinks to. Whatever the case, every time Fifth Harmony sings they sound like they’re kicking down a door. So yes, more of them please.
“Blank Space” – Taylor Swift
Unless you went to live on that island from Cast Away, it was impossible to avoid Taylor Swift in 2015. She had four major hits from her blockbuster album 1984: “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood.” Despite her becoming a full-fledged pop star and virtually selling out her sound, her songwriting thankfully remained intact as evidence by “Blank Space.” Swift talks about the early bliss found in love at first sight (“Saw you there and I thought/Oh my god, look at that face/You look like my next mistake”), is honest with herself (“So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames”) and the psychotic back-and-forth about relationships (“But you’ll come back each time you leave/Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”). She puts the blame on her, but still waxes philosophical on the men in her life (“Boys only want love if it’s torture”). Swift’s pop transition has turned her mildly pleasant country into occasionally overblown stadium pop, but Max Martin’s stripped down drum taps and glass synths let Swift speak for herself. If Swift’s music has gone shallow, at least her lyrics are growing up.
“Where Are Ü Now” – Skrillex & Diplo feat. Justin Bieber
One would think the collaboration of a dubstep master, an EDM superstar and a global pop phenomenon would be a recipe for an overindulgent, big-headed ego stroke. There’s a lot to say about Skrillex, Diplo and Bieber (mostly bad things), but they seemed to have struck a musical sweet spot this year. Featured on their collaborative album Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now” is a surprisingly restrained club banger from two of EDM’s loudest maestros. It’s propelled by slight piano and a quiet repeating beat, even the bass drop with the Eastern island feel feels sparse. Then there’s Bieber himself (pop’s Biggus Dickus), who uses the song to kick off the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour” he started with all of his somber, apologetic hits this year. He just wants to know where his true love has gone (where art thou, Madame Gomez?) and actually sounds sorry about it. Somber and lonesome doesn’t usually mesh with summer club smash, but club-pop’s Holy Trinity of douchebags pulled it off in spades.
“What Do You Mean” – Justin Bieber
Speaking of the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour,” Canada’s former teen heartthrob is older now and is trying to make everyone forget that he’s an awful human being. He himself is brought up more than his music, so it’s easy to find his work easily ignorable. This year, he synchronized with the EDM craze in pop to co-produce “What Do You Mean” with MdL. It’s a laid-back jam with the same Eastern sound as his collab with Skrillex & Diplo. This time around, he’s questioning the mixed signals a girl is giving to him. It’s pretty simple stuff but works because it has the one thing that makes Bieber tolerable: restraint. Bieber can be a bit much at times, but his matured vocals are lower and not as whiny as it was when he was younger. He doesn’t oversell it, just rides the beat. If this is the new sonic direction he’s going for, he might earn some points back.
“Sugar” – Maroon 5
Ever since they started using outside songwriters on their 2012 album Overexposed, Maroon 5 has been morphing into a more flaccid commercial act. They’ve dipped in club music (“Love Somebody”), white-guy reggae (“One More Night”), power-pop (“Maps”) and stuff you’d probably hear in a dentist’s office (“Daylight”). But with all those new forms of pop comes one that fits them surprisingly well: discount-funk! Much like Bruno Mars did with “Treasure,” Maroon 5 tapped into the more disco-oriented R&B with “Sugar,” a sex song played with a simple party tune. Light synths, funky bass lines and a light guitar riff keep the energy fun and easy. Even singer Adam Levine, mostly known for a high-pitched voice that borders on whiney, finds a good pitch to keep the song fun. It’s one of the most fun songs to hear this year despite climaxing with the fact that the whole thing is about a girl’s *ahem* sweet spot (“I want that red velvet/I want that sugar sweet/Don’t let nobody touch it unless that somebody’s me”). Adam Levine, master of subtlety.
“Hotline Bling” – Drake
For all those times you laughed at his dancing or made a meme from the music video, know this: that’s exactly what Drake wanted you to do. On top of everything else that he did this year (a full mixtape, dropping singles on his Apple Music radio show, a collaborative mixtape with Future), Drake seems to have figured out how to immediately get attention in today’s climate. But let’s put his Internet-culture mastery aside and focus on his continued mastery of rap/R&B jams. “Hotline Bling” is a sober sequel to Drake’s 2011 single “Marvin’s Room,” being a somber jam about one of Drake’s former flames living life without him and he’s not too happy about it. Whereas “Marvin’s Room” was woozy and meant for introspection, “Hotline Bling” is a chilled-out party jam that seems to encourage dancing to it. The tropical beat (once rumored to be lifted from D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” but actually samples Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”) glides through the song without overstaying its welcome. You could hear the music in a tiki lounge drinking mojitos by the beach as the lounge music, even it was just an instrumental on loop. It’s almost perfect music for a guy to be sitting at a bar alone, scrolling through his Instagram feed, seeing photos of his ex living an awesome life without him and remembering the simple times when the only way she got good lovin’ was when she would blow up his phone. Drake sounds surprisingly relaxed when talking about something that makes him seem like a jerk. He sounds jaded (“Everybody knows and I feel left out/Girl you got me down, you got me stressed out”) and is only seeing things from his perspective (“You make me feel like I did you wrong….You don’t need nobody else”). The lyrical content makes Drake seem like a bitter jerk, yet he knows “when that hotline bling,” he thinks it’s still from the girl he lost. It’s amazing that something so danceable and memeable is from a song from a lonely ex. But that’s Drake for ya: the man who turns a sad broken heart into being the coolest thing in the room.
“My Way [Remix]” – Fetty Wap feat. Drake
Fetty Wap had four big hits in his breakout year of 2015 and all of them just missed the mark of being enjoyable for me. “Trap Queen,” “679,” and “Again” were all fine but it always felt like something was missing from all the songs, like a special “it” factor to drive it all home. “My Way” was the closest to being good, as Fetty throws bars about being turned on by a hard-to-get girl (“flexing on your ex, I know”). Sure it’s another club banger about how much money one guy has than others (“watch me pull out all this dough….I got deep pockets and I swear my sh*t’s on sink), but Fetty’s voice seems more sincere than most rappers and maybe that’s what people like about him. For those wondering why the remix is here and not the original, it’s because the remix has the “it” factor: Drake. He’s fully turned on by a high-rolling successful woman (“I like all my S’s with two lines through them sh*ts..I know you work hard for your sh*t/You know they gon’ hate/Just don’t play no part in that sh*t”) and sounds like a boss proclaiming it. In fact, where was this Drake on “Hotline Bling” and why isn’t this the role model guy?
“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd
The best and most modern Michael Jackson song the late-King of Pop never got to make is a double meaning for cocaine that came from a Canadian alt-R&B star turned mainstream breakthrough artist. “Can’t Feel My Face” is another Max Martin joint and, like “Blank Space,” it’s refreshingly simple: a funky bassline and clapping drums with some occasional ominous filler for the opener and the bridge. The focus is all on The Weeknd, and he hits a home run. His vocals are fantastic, both inherently cool and wallowing in the doomed druggy love affair (“And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll be both be numb/And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come/All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love”). When he hits those high notes, it’s a perfect climax to each verse. He knows he’s in a bad romance, but he gets a kick out of it. It’s almost the archetypal love song for 2015: finding fun in doom.
“FourFiveSeconds” – Rihanna feat. Kanye West & Paul McCartney
Yeah, bet this was a collaboration you’d never think would happen, let alone work so well. Nothing but an organ, some electronic fading and Sir Paul’s simple strumming in the background keeps the focus all on RiRi and Yeezy as they come clean about being occasional unhinged jerks. “FourFiveSeconds” feels like what a popular music artist feels about the gossip columns and being independent in a time where one’s image is seen more than the person him or herself. Rihanna is beautiful, but don’t take her lightly (“Cause all of my kindness/Is taken for weakness/Now I’m FourFive Seconds from wildin’”) as she sings to the highest heavens. It’s sad that she has to remind us that she’s actually a good singer, what with most of her biggest hits drowned in EDM overkill. Mr. West is no different, continuously stating how he will not be controlled by THE MAN (“See they wanna buy my pride/But that just ain’t up for sale”). Who would’ve thought one of the best songs about rage could be presented in such a restrained musical format?
“Drag Me Down” – One Direction
The apocalypse has come, the Seven Horsemen have rode through the desert, the globe is splitting apart and the skies are on fire….I like a One Direction song. Now that they’re a quartet and are supposedly going on hiatus, One Direction decided to go out with one big blast of reggae-tinged pop rock. “Drag Me Down” has a good pace that builds up to a bouncy chorus that manages to come back down to relaxed vibe. What’s more interesting is how it’s easy to identify the four different voices on the song and how they all come together for the second chorus. Sure, it’s another corny love song for all their passionate female fans, but it also feels like a backhanded slap to their ex-bandmate Zayn. Dammit all if they’re down one man, they’ll still pose pretty if it’s the last thing they do. VIVE DIRECTION!!!!!!