My Top 100 Singles of 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

I already wrote at length about most of these songs in my individual genre lists (rap, pop, country, rock, and R&B), although in the top 100 I ended up squeezing out some of the country, rock and R&B to make room for more rap and pop. So now all that's left is to throw them all in one big list, and in one big 6-hour Spotify playlist, which has 99 out of 100 songs (THANKS, TAYLOR).

1. Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"
2. Jason Derulo - "Want To Want Me"
3. Demi Lovato - "Cool For The Summer"
4. Jeremih f/ J. Cole - "Planes"
5. Walk The Moon - "Shut Up And Dance"
6. Little Big Town - "Girl Crush"
7. Tory Lanez - "Say It"
8. Monica f/ Lil Wayne - "Just Right For Me"
9. Fetty Wap  - "Trap Queen"
10. BØRNS - "Electric Love"

11. Future - "Fuck Up Some Commas"
12. OMI - "Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)"
13. Fifth Harmony f/ Kid Ink - "Worth It"
14. Taylor Swift - "Style"
15. Usher f/ Juicy J - "I Don't Mind"
16. D'Angelo And The Vanguard - "Really Love"
17. Brothers Osborne - "Stay A Little Longer"
18. Cam - "Burning House"
19. Nicki Minaj f/ Drake and Lil Wayne - "Truffle Butter"
20. Miguel - "Coffee"

21. Rich Homie Quan - "Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh)"
22. Thomas Rhett - "Make Me Wanna"
23. One Direction - "Perfect"
24. Robert DeLong - "Long Way Down"
25. The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
26. Tove Lo - "Talking Body"
27. Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"
28. Adele - "Hello"
29. Pitbull & Ne-Yo - "Time Of Our Lives"
30. Rae Sremmurd f/ Nicki Minaj and Young Thug - "Throw Sum Mo"

31. Colonel Loud f/ T.I., Young Dolph and Ricco Barrino - "California"
32. K Camp - "Comfortable"
33. Silento - "Watch Me"
34. AWOLNATION - "Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)"
35. Foo Fighters - "Congregation"
36. Mumford & Sons - "The Wolf"
37. The Struts - "Could Have Been Me"
38. Twenty One Pilots - "Tear In My Heart"
39. Young Dro - "We In Da City"
40. Flo Rida f/ Sage The Gemini and Lookas - "G.D.F.R."

41. Meek Mill w/ Nicki Minaj and Chris Brown - "All Eyes On You"
42. Fetty Wap f/ Remy Boyz - "679"
43. Dej Loaf f/ Big Sean - "Back Up"
44. Rae Sremmurd - "This Could Be Us"
45. Trey Songz - "Slow Motion"
46. Avery*Sunshine - "Call My Name"
47. Janet Jackson - "No Sleeep"
48. Wolf Alice - "Moaning Lisa Smile"
49. Bleachers - "Rollercoaster"
50. Royal Blood - "Figure It Out"

51. Nothing But Thieves - "Trip Switch"
52. David Guetta f/ Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack - "Hey Mama"
53. Sevyn Streeter f/ Chris Brown - "Don't Kill The Fun"
54. Jill Scott - "Fool's Gold"
55. Tyrese - "Shame"
56. Beyonce - "7/11"
57. Maroon 5 - "Sugar"
58. Tori Kelly - "Nobody Love"
59. Meg Myers - "Lemon Eyes"
60. Ella Henderson - "Ghost"

61. Rudimental f/ Ed Sheeran - "Lay It All On Me"
62. Ellie Goulding - "On My Mind"
63. Justin Bieber - "Sorry"
64. Alessia Cara - "Here"
65. Sara Bareilles - "She Used To Be Mine"
66. One Direction - "Night Changes"
67. Nicki Minaj f/ Beyonce - "Feeling Myself"
68. Future f/ Drake - "Where Ya At"
69. Kevin Gates f/ August Alsina - "I Don't Get Tired"
70. Kid Ink f/ Dej Loaf - "Be Real"

71. 2 Chainz - "Watch Out"
72. Kanye West - "All Day"
73. Meek Mill - "Monster"
74. Action Bronson f/ Chance The Rapper - "Baby Blue"
75. Maroon 5 - "This Summer's Gonna Hurt Like A Motherfucker"
76. Little Mix - "Black Magic"
77. Calvin Harris f/ Ellie Goulding - "Outside"
78. The Weeknd - "The Hills"
79. Jazmine Sullivan - "Let It Burn"
80. Rico Love - "Somebody Else"

81. Kendrick Lamar - "King Kunta"
82. K. Michelle - "Love 'Em All"
83. E-40 - "Choices (Yup)"
84. Nelly f/ Jeremih - "The Fix"
85. K Camp - "Lil Bit"
86. Puff Daddy & The Family f/ Pharrell - "Finna Get Loose"
87. Sam Hunt - "House Party"
88. Zac Brown Band - "Homegrown"
89. Jana Kramer - "I Got The Boy"
90. Brett Eldredge - "Lose My Mind"

91. Chris Janson - "Buy Me A Boat"
92. Kendrick Lamar f/ Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat - "These Walls"
93. Parmalee - "Already Callin' You Mine"
94. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Eric Nally, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Caz - "Downtown"
95. Adam Lambert - "Ghost Town"
96. Ne-Yo f/ Juicy J - "She Knows"
97. Chris Stapleton - "Nobody To Blame"
98. Thomas Rhett - "Crash And Burn"
99. One Direction - "Drag Me Down"
100. Ariana Grande – “One Last Time”

Thursday, December 24, 2015

This week I put up my favorite albums of 2015, but I also contributed to the Baltimore City Paper's annual Top Ten Issue. I wrote about Future's DS2 in the Top Ten (nonlocal) Albums list, and in the Top Ten Baltimore Singles list, I wrote about songs by TT The Artist and Future Islands.

My Top 50 Albums of 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 was a great, busy year for me. My second son, Daniel, was born, I started two bands, I wrote a lot and I worked a lot. Ultimately, I didn't have as much time as I would've liked to listen to music, but that's a minor complaint -- I heard a ton of music, I just didn't listen to each record many times. I feel like I could take another year to digest these albums and maybe offer a slightly more coherent reflection or accurate ranking of them. But, to paraphrase Lorne Michaels, you don't finish your year-end list because it's ready, you finish it because the year's over. I made a Spotify playlist with one favorite track from each album, so that hopefully you can click through that and find something you might enjoy as much as I do.

1. Beauty Pill - Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are
I've been waiting a few years to call this my album of the year -- I got to listen to an early mix of the album (in surround sound!) in 2012, and I knew back then how amazing it was going to be. I've been a fan of Chad Clark and Devin Ocampo since their short-lived '90s Dischord band Smart Went Crazy, and it's been fascinating to hear them both move onto other projects and eventually arrive at something as musically and lyrically ambitious as Beauty Pill's second album, The kaleidoscopic arrangements, with the talented 5-piece band and guests fleshing out Clark's electronic demos, sound incredible, and the funny, strange lyrics that wrestle with racism, mortality, dreams, and awkward interactions with baristas. Getting to talk to this band, and write about this album at length, was one of my best professional experiences in 2015, in addition to the joy of finally having this album at home to listen to anytime I want.

2. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar's verse on Big Sean's "Control" was a chest-thumping announcement of his quest for rap greatness, in which he mentioned 11 contemporaries by name and several of them interpreted it as a diss. The confidence in that verse made it sound like Kendrick was ready to drop an album that week, but instead, over the next 18 months he released a lot of subpar guest verses and "i," a song about self-esteem that many heard as a cheesy crossover attempt. At least, that was before "i" was put in proper context on To Pimp A Butterfly as the flipside to "u," the low point of a platinum rapper's crisis of self-confidence. At a time when you might expect the guy to be basking in the afterglow of good kid, m.A.A.d city's success, he was making an album in which other voices are often heard jeering things at him like "don't tell me they got you on some weirdo rap shit" and "you ain't no king!" It reminds me of De La Soul Is Dead, the album revealed that De La Soul to be a lot more restless, angry, and funny than they were on their universally acclaimed debut. I was kind of a good kid agnostic -- it was down at #20 on my year-end list in 2012. But Is Dead is my favorite De La Soul album, and To Pimp A Butterfly is my favorite Kendrick Lamar album. Getting to see several songs from the album performed in concert for the first time was a bonus.

3. Jeremih - Late Nights: The Album
I loved Jeremih's 2009 self-titled debut back when nobody was really checking for the guy beyond "Birthday Sex," and I feel vindicated that 6 years later, people were clamoring for his long-delayed third album (even if they didn't really buy it once it did finally arrive). The long, infamously mishandled advance campaign for the album finally ended this month with dismal sales, but really I was just happy that he finally got to release something. Really, I would've been happy with "Planes" and "Don't Tell 'Em" and any old songs he had lying around to pad out the album, but instead there's top shelf material like "Pass Dat" and "Oui," an amazing Twista guest verse, and ample evidence that Jeremih is not just a unique voice but a strong songwriter coming into his own.

4. Heartless Bastards - Restless Ones
I love when a band that's been making good albums for a while just gets into the right studio with the right producer and everything just clicks. I've liked previous albums by Ohio's Heartless Bastards, but Restless Ones just leaped out at me as the one that really made the band sound amazing, particularly drummer Dave Colvin, who just lets loose all over the album with these huge grooves and creative fills. Credit goes, probably, to producer John Congleton and the El Paso studio Sonic Ranch for giving Erika Wennerstrom's voice and songs the surroundings they've been waiting for.

5. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
Most of the unusually large number of high quality major label rap albums released in 2015 can be attributed to artists getting enough clout to basically go off and make whatever album they wanted without much label intervention. Summertime '06 is something else entirely -- a young rapper with a little bit of fame from a loose affiliation with Odd Future but not really on any kind of career track with a lot of commercial potential. And yet here we are, with Def Jam releasing his 2-disc debut album, largely produced by label exec No I.D., and it really seems like a label that hasn't given a damn about artist development in decades nurtured a kid into making his masterpiece. Staples got a lot of attention this year for being more funny and interesting than the average rapper on Twitter and in interviews, but that doesn't mean he's better at that stuff than music, it just means people aren't listening to this marvelous album enough.

6. Rae Sremmurd - SremmLife
Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy were 19 and 20, respectively, when they burst onto the radio last year with "No Flex Zone." And since then the duo, particularly Swae Lee, have proven their worth with an avalanche of great hooks and rubbery, dexterous verses on their debut album, which yielded 5 hit singles, as well as various guest appearances. But there are still some skeptics, including famous radio personalities, who keep trying to cram Rae Sremmurd into their reductive idea of the 2015 version of Kris Kross, a duo who were 13 when their one ghostwritten hit topped the charts decades ago. But honestly, it's not that hard to see these guys in the context of actual contemporaries who got famous around the same age, like Travis Porter or even Migos, and appreciate the unique twist that Rae Sremmurd has put on the swag rap tradition, with Mike WiLL Made It stepping up to the plate with the best collection of beats of his life.

7. Dawn Richard - Blackheart
I will love Dawn Richard forever for her contributions to Diddy-Dirty Money's Last Train To Paris, one of my favorite albums of this decade. But I continue to be amazed by her solo career, which keeps surpassing my expectations. The sound she perfected on the Armor On EP and Goldenheart had kind of run its course by the time she parted ways with producer Andrew "Druski" Scott, but I didn't know if she'd make something as great without him. But Blackheart is a whole quantum leap forward, maintaining her ear for sad melodies and danceable beats but twisting everything inside out with structurally unpredictable suites and gorgeously strange soundscapes.

8. Future - DS2
The prevailing sound of Atlanta used to get passed like a baton to someone like Lil Jon or Lex Luger for a couple years at a time, but since Mike WiLL Made It's hot streak, there just seems to be this teeming hive of creativity, London and Sonny Digital and the tireless Zaytoven all working hard and nobody breaking out as a clear #1. Most of Future's 2015 releases have been shorter projects that let one particular producer dominate the sound -- Zaytoven on Beast Mode, Southside on 56 Nights, Metro Boomin on What A Time To Be Alive (and Mike WiLL on Ape Shit whenever it drops). But DS2 is my favorite partly because it's more of a team effort, from Metro and Southside and Zay and Sonny all having multiple credits, often collaborating on the same track. They're all playing around in the same overall aesthetic, but bring their own twist to it, and you never get any overkill of, say, Southside's siren beats like on 56 Nights. It reminds me a little of how Jay-Z had Kanye and Just Blaze and Bink all together on The Dyansty and The Blueprint, where it was more about getting a particular sound from multiple sources than the usual modern rap album quilt of incompatible styles.

9. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable
Janet Jackson's three albums between 2004 and 2008 seemed like a panicked tailspin, as she released albums more frequently than she ever had before in a futile attempt to reclaim superstardom, even doing an album without Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. So it's refreshing to hear her back with Jam & Lewis, 7 years later, sounding so well rested and serene, at piece with her legacy and ready to add to it with sumptuous slow jams and offbeat experiments that revisit the vibe of her '90s masterpieces The Velvet Rope and janet.

10. Rico Love - Turn The Lights On
Scumbag soul is in vogue these days, and while a lot of the buzz was around the misanthropic R&B of albums by Ty Dolla $ign and The Weeknd, I got more mileage out of the solo debut by the hitmaker writer/producer Rico Love. He doesn't come off as much like a sleazeball as he did on the 2013 hit "They Don't Know," though he still does goofy little rap verses with a Ma$e flow on most songs. But the production is just fantastic and there's a real emotional weight and sadness to a lot of these songs that I think is missing from the new macho antihero strain of R&B.

11. Jazmine Sullivan - Reality Show
A lot of middle-tier music stars hang onto fame these days with cable reality shows, especially R&B singers. But Jazmine Sullivan is just at home, watching those shows and writing funny, finely observed songs inspired by unscripted soap operas. I think this album kinda got a lot of the praise that Sullivan's last record, 2010's more musically adventurous Love Me Back, deserved. But she remains a powerhouse vocalist with an interesting perspective as a songwriter. and this album has a few stunners.

12. Young Thug - Slime Season 2
Young Thug didn't release a solo project all through 2014 as he became the year's breakout star, and I think the first of his three 2015 releases, the good but oddly low energy Barter 6, got a little inflated by the pent up demand for an album. Instead, I think the two Slime Season mixtapes he released in quick succession a few months later satisfy that demand more fully, especially the second one, which engineer Alex Tumay helped mold into a cohesive, well sequenced collection after so many of its songs had been carelessly leaked in various states of completion.

13. Kane Mayfield - The Return Of Rap
Kane has been one of the funniest people I met him in 2008, a couple years after he moved to Baltimore from Long Island. And he recently moved away from Baltimore, after releasing an album that felt like the culmination of everything he'd been building toward in his years recording and performing here, all these sharp observations about the world presented as funny, conversational verses over warm, funky production.

14. Sun Club - The Dongo Durango
I have a lot of artists from Baltimore on this list, as I do every year, and a lot of time they end up being people I know in some capacity or have interviewed or worked with, and I hope it doesn't come off as namedropping or trying to push my friends on you -- Baltimore is genuinely full of amazing musicians and I don't even make room for any local records on my year-end lists unless I think it's absolutely justified. It's just a small town, though -- I've been admiring Sun Club from afar for a while, enjoying their EP last year, and then rooting for them as they signed to a big label, ATO Records, and released their debut album last month. And then without knowing it, my band booked a show with a weird guy named Albert Bagman who turned out to be a member of Sun Club, so I got to meet those guys a little and tell them that this record is great. They have this really exciting mix of impressive musicianship and songwriting chops with a total absurdist attitude that keeps their songs careening in these unpredictable directions.

15. Miguel - Wildheart
Kaleidoscope Dream was a tremendous album partly because of the balance between lithe, radio-friendly R&B and the edgier guitar-driven direction Miguel was headed in. Wildheart is a less interesting or varied album because he's completely arrived at the sound he was transitioning toward on Kaleidoscope Dream, and somewhat predictably, it resulted in him struggling to score radio hits the way he used to with ease, while critics have remained enamored with him. Wildheart still has some really great songs and amazing vocal performances, though, if anything it just suffers from bad sequencing -- one of the few albums I liked this year that I listened to on shuffle mode more often than not.

16. Sara Bareilles - What's Inside: Songs From Waitress
Adrienne Shelly wrote and directed a lovely, sweet, dark, memorable movie called Waitress shortly before her tragic death nearly a decade ago. A stage musical of Waitress won't be opening on Broadway until 2016, but singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles has already released an album of the songs she wrote for it, and even as a fan of her previous records, I'd say it's by far her best album. She just nails all the unusual shifts in tone and combinations of dark humor and sentimentality that were in Shelly's film, even Jason Mraz voicing the male lead on a couple of songs doesn't hurt the album too much for me.

17. War On Women - War On Women
I've been a fan of Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan since their previous band Avec, and I worked with Potter on some music that's going to be coming out soon. But I'm still just amazed at how much they sharpened the knotty, brooding sound of Avec into War On Women's political hardcore, with almost every song on 2012's Improvised Weapons EP and this year's self-titled full-length tackling issues of rape, reproductive rights, and differing schools of feminism with searing anger and wit over ear-splitting riffs.

18. Meek Mill - Dreams Worth More Than Money
Summer 2015 for Meek Mill was one of the most surreal up-and-down periods in any rap career in recent memory -- he scored his first #1 album and first #1 radio hit, but in the middle of that he picked a fight with a much bigger star, Drake, and lost. Badly. Meek is one of my favorite rappers of the past 5 years, and it's bittersweet to read this piece I wrote just after Dreams Worth More Than Money was released, knowing what was to come and that he might be headed back to jail in 2016. But I still stand by that piece, and I think Dreams is a dope record and If You're Reading This is trash and even the pretty undeniable outcome of their beef doesn't change that.

19. SiR - Seven Sundays
Right now, Inglewood R&B songwriter SiR is kind of under the radar, slowly stepping into the spotlight this year co-writing Jill Scott's hit "Fool's Gold" (co-produced by Baltimore producer D.K. The Punisher, who I interviewed this year) and guesting on Jay Rock's 90059. His solo album Seven Sundays is the kind of gentle, introspective record that doesn't seem like it's poised to turn him into a mainstream star, but it definitely deserves a cult fanbase, and to get him some more work as a writer.

20. Brett Eldredge - Illinois
Country radio is currently as stiflingly, and contentiously, dominated by male artists as it's ever been, and the worst part about it is that most of the guys clogging up playlists aren't even very good singers. But Brett Eldredge has emerged as one of my favorite new voices in country since 2012's "Don't Ya," the first in a string of #1 singles he's been enjoying. His voice just has this burly warmth, and his album has a nice sprinkling of variety without going for scattershot crossover experiments like his recent tourmate Thomas Rhett. In summary, Brett Eldredge's Illinois is the best album to ever bear that title (suck it, Sufjan).

21. Boosie Badazz - Touch Down 2 Cause Hell
The perennially underappreciated Boosie got a hero's welcome in 2014 after he came out of 5 years in prison. But once he got back to releasing music that was even more somber and wounded than what he'd been making before 2009, he went right back to being underappreciated. Touch Down 2 Cause Hell, his first album for Atlantic, is, along with the mixtapes Life After Deathrow and Thrilla, Vol. 1, a great run of new music that digs deep for stark, sincere songs like "Sorry," but just as before, few outside of Boosie's core fanbase have really taken notice.

22. One Direction - Made In The A.M.
Last week, One Direction officially began their big ominous hiatus, which either means the end of the group or a fairly long break, after 5 albums and 5 years culminated in the tumultuous 2015 in which Zayn Malik left the group and they lost a sales war to Justin Bieber. All of One Direction's albums sound like they've been expertly engineered to exploit the feelings of the group's passionate fanbase, and Made In The A.M. capitalizes on that weary, worried sense of something coming to an end with an avalanche of bombastic power ballads. But the album also features some of One Direction's jauntiest, most playful and deliberately Beatlesque music to date, and puts an interesting cap on the last few years of world domination.

23. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf
While Chance The Rapper's actual first solo project since 2013's Acid Rap appears to be right around, Surf became a fun, odd chapter in his unpredictable career: a rapper on the precipice of serious stardom decided to put his own record on hold to play a supporting in his backing band's weird trumpeter-led jazz odyssey. Really, the record isn't that strange -- there's a lot of (uncredited) guest stars and some really big hooks -- but as a de facto star vehicle for Chance, or just as a hip hop album, it can be hard to digest. I recommend just sitting back and enjoying the ride and letting Surf throw every haunting instrumental interlude and delirious mood swing at you that it wants to.

24. Butch Walker - Afraid Of Ghosts
I'm a fan of Butch Walker mainly for the fast, funny and catchy tunes he's churned out on his solo albums and for various pop stars and major label bands. So a fairly somber downtempo album produced by Ryan Adams is not necessarily something I would've wanted from him, but the album's heartbroken songs about the death of Walker's father give the record an undeniable emotional heft.

25. Dwight Yoakam - Second Hand Heart
Although he may not be the star that he was in the '80s and '90s, Dwight Yoakam is just incredibly consistent at what he does, and his voice has held up well for a guy who's pushing 60. And his last few records have gotten into a real sweet spot of beautifully dry production and a band that just hammers away with a ton of energy even on the midtempo songs.

26. JuegoTheNinety - Abandoned Mansions
Last year's Sonny September CD was one of those Baltimore rap tapes I hear every now and again that blows my mind and has me marveling at the depth and variety of talent in the city. Juego has a taste for seasick, claustrophobic beats, mainly produced by DATA and Killer Bee, and he stretches his voice in unpredictable directions, but unlike a lot of people we could politely refer to as 'weirdo rappers,' this dude can really fucking write and can really fucking flow, and songs like "When I Was A Boy" are just a tour de force from a guy who clearly has already really figured out what he wants to do and is ready for you to love it or hate it. Check it out on Soundcloud.

27. Future - Beast Mode
56 Nights was the very popular Future tape with the intriguing backstory about DJ Esco getting locked up for 2 months abroad with a hard drive of all of Future's unreleased music. But, as he explained later on the song "Kno The Meaning," "that's when I did Beast Mode," the other mixtape that he put together during Esco's ordeal. And to me, that's the most interesting part of the story. And Beast Mode's bright, relaxed production by Zaytoven (still making bangers 10 years after Gucci Mane's "Icy") is, to me, a lot more interesting that Southside's endless variations on the "Fuck Up Some Commas" beat on 56 Nights.

28. Jason Derulo - Everything Is 4
Even though Jason Derulo released my favorite pop song of 2015, "Want To Want Me," he's the kind of ephemeral, eager-to-please Top 40 singer who you don't necessarily expect good albums from. But Everything Is 4 is thoroughly enjoyable, from incredible would-be hits like "X2CU" to a duet with K. Michelle, "Love Like That," that positions Derulo as a credible R&B singer for the first time in his career. Even the weird song featuring both Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder is more entertaining than bad.

29. Among Wolves - Separation And Other Loves EP
Among Wolves has been one of my favorite bands in Baltimore for years, I'm really in awe of their songwriting and their band chemistry. And because Baltimore is such a small town in some ways, I've gotten to know the guys a little bit, and last year when I needed a practice space, they offered to let me use theirs. So I occasionally cross paths with them in the space, and get little updates on what they're up to, and I knew they were working on an EP, but it was a pleasant surprise when it showed up online a few weeks ago, and I love it like everything they do. I wish it was another full-length album, but I know those things can take a while, and this is good for now.

30. Mac McCaughan - Non-Believers
Over the last 25 years, Mac McCaughan has written and sung hundreds of songs, virtually all of them released by either Superchunk or Portastatic. And then, for whatever reason, 2015 was finally the year that he released an album under his own name. It doesn't seem like a particularly personal album, at least beyond the extent that most of his music feels handmade and heartfelt and a direct result of whatever's going on in his life, but the gauzy synth sheen over uptempo songs is at least an aesthetic he hasn't quite done on any previous album, and it works well with the expressive croak his inimitable voice is aging into.

31. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
2013's Same Trailer Different Park was such a perfect debut album, that presented Kacey Musgraves and her sound and her persona so completely over the course of 12 songs, that it didn't leave much for a follow-up to accomplish. So Pageant Material is in no way a disappointment, but it's also just doomed to never be more than the 2nd best Kacey Musgraves album, particularly since it lacks a little of the biting pessimistic edge that made Same Trailer one of my favorite albums of the hardest year of my life. But the dry humor and

32. Jess Glynne - I Cry When I Laugh
I wouldn't call it an "invasion" or anything, but the last few years have been probably the best time for British stars to cross over to the American charts in decades. But it seems like it helps to be a heartbroken balladeer like Adele or Sam Smith, because for whatever reason, Jess Glynne's historic run of #1s in the U.K. didn't really translate across the pond. Maybe her upbeat soulful house sound is a little too British, I dunno, but I Cry When I Laugh is a tremendously enjoyable album that I wish had the kind of ubiquity here that it has at home.

33. Teedra Moses - Cognac & Conversation
Teedra Moses released one great album of cosmopolitan R&B, Complex Simplicity, back in 2004. Then her label, TVT, imploded, and she landed on Mayback Music Group for a couple years before that went south, and she finally got around to releasing her second album independently. Cognac & Conversation is a refinement of a sound that was pretty refined to begin with, with Moses making the most of her very specific vocal comfort zone and very particular vibe, and I wish it hadn't gone even further under the radar than Complex Simplicity.

34. The Water - The Place To Be
The Baltimore instrumental duo The Water have been a favorite of mine since the first time I saw them play a show -- a few years ago I even invited them to perform at my 30th birthday party, and everyone loved them, even my dad. 2012's Scandals And Animals ran through their early live repertoire, and when that happens it's always interesting to hear how a band builds up a new repertoire for their second album. And The Place To Be continues to move the basic building blocks of what James and Dan do into some interesting new shapes, varying tones and tempos enough to get away from simple loud/soft cliches of post-rock (even though they do those really, really well, especially live). Check it out on Bandcamp.

35. Damond Blue - Blessonz
Damond Blue is a rapper that I took note of over a decade ago, when he was a promising teenager on the Baltimore battle rap scene. But honestly, I've seen a lot of talented kids over the years that don't keep at it, and it's been really gratifying to see Blue grow up and reinvent himself and become a major presence on the city's rap scene. Blessonz was supposed to drop a few weeks after my 2014 interview with him was published, and things being unpredictable in independent music as they often are, the album took about 8 more months to finally surface, but it really came together nicely, with features from Bun B and Fat Trel and a lot of Baltimore talent. You can listen to it on DatPiff.

36. Puff Daddy - MMM
Sean Combs had already redefined popular music a few times before he made Last Train To Paris, which is a complete masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. So I've been very curious to see what he does with this supposed last push he's making as a solo artist, reverting to his old moniker Puff Daddy for a sequel to 1997's No Way Out. But along the way to that record, he dropped a mixtape that's as good as most albums being released, with a hodgepodge of old Bad Boy buddies (Lil Kim, Jadakiss, Styles P.) and newer stars jumping in the mix (Big Sean and Travi$ Scott, both of whom are very unwelcome on the inferior new version of "Workin'"). The plush, cinematic vibe of Last Train is hanging around more than I thought it would, particularly on "H.M." and "You Could Be," but even the harder-edged rap material is a little fresher and more interesting than I expected based on earlier singles like "Big Homie."

37. King Los - God, Money, War
In 2005, a Baltimore kid named Los came over to my old apartment on Pratt Street for an interview, and by then he was already friends with Sean Combs, but nobody really knew who he was yet. And it's been thrilling to watch from afar as he's made these huge strides, doing things no other rapper from Baltimore has ever done. God, Money, War was released by RCA Records with zero promotion, essentially as a retail mixtape to build buzz for 'the real album' to come, which is pretty funny when you consider this record has fucking R. Kelly on it, but that's the state of major label rap these days. Since the album was released, he's performed on Hannibal Buress's show on Comedy Central, and appeared on mixtapes by Puff Daddy, Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa all in the last 2 months. Every time I think Los has peaked, he just keeps climbing higher, so I'm excited to see what 2016 holds for him.

38. Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood
Eric Church is far too popular and acclaimed to name his albums things like The Outsiders and Mr. Misunderstood, and even sending a single to country radio with shoutouts to Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy isn't as daring as he probably things. But the chip on his shoulder sure seems to help him write great songs, and he continues to here with "Record Year" and "Mistress Named Music."

39. Halestorm - Into The Wild Life
Jay Joyce might be my favorite producer working today, or at least my favorite one who puts microphones in front of instruments and amps, and he works primarily in country, producing albums this year by Carrie Underwood and longtime collaborator Eric Church. But this year he branched out and produced the third album by Pennsylvania hard rock band Halestorm. And the difference was immediately clear to me -- in fact I noticed how great the production was before I checked the credits and realized it was someone I was already a fan of.

40. Trunkweed - Trunkweed Live, Man
About a year ago, I saw Trunkweed play in a basement in Baltimore and thought they were fantastic. The studio album Days Of Haze had the songs I heard at that show, and was pretty great for that reason, but didn't quite have their live sound, so I was pretty happy when a live album materialized on Bandcamp a few months later.

41. Fall Out Boy - American Beauty / American Psycho
After a brief mid-career sales dip and hiatus, Fall Out Boy are back in the rarefied air of the handful of acts that could be considered biggest rock bands in popular music. And a lot of times it seems like they achieve that by constantly reaching outside of rock to stay relevant -- performing with Fetty Wap and Thomas Rhett at award shows and remixing their current single with Demi Lovato and so on. But American Beauty / American Pyscho (which, according to Pete Wentz, is surprisingly a hat tip to the Grateful Dead and not Sam Mendes) is a full-on stadium rock record, even with the occasional drum machines and synth horns than pop up, with the band embracing their Pump-era Aerosmith rebirth as Top 40 darlings and still managing to be utterly themselves in all the odd lyrical turns and bratty energy.

42. Diamond Youth - Nothing Matters
Diamond Youth are a Baltimore band that I don't know much about but their record just sounds incredible, like dude is kinda crooning over these riffs with a surf rock-style guitar reverb, but the whole thing still has a lot of punk propulsion.

43. The Honest Mistakes - Get It Right
A couple weeks ago, The Honest Mistakes played their 'final' show in Baltimore, before Chris and Joylene packed up their family to move to a far corner of Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, they released one more album of snappy, earnest power pop. And whether or not they had any clue it might be their last album, it definitely plays that way now, opening with "This Is Where I Gave Up" and closing with "I Am The End."

44. Scarface - Deeply Rooted
It's kind of shocking that Deeply Rooted is the first album Scarface has made since turning 40 -- it seemed like he's been a world weary 40-something for decades. He keeps talking about walking away from rap entirely, and then he makes another album with that booming godlike voice and those smooth, booming N.O. Joe beats and I'm just glad that he's still around.

45. Estelle - True Romance
I dunno why Estelle bothered to name her album True Romance when another British star, Charli XCX, just did that 2 years earlier. But this record was really something special, and I say that as someone who never really fucked with "American Boy" or any other records from her commercial peak. Aside from a guest role on Empire that briefly got "Conqueror" some buzz, this album really did nothing, didn't chart in the U.K. or in America, and it's a shame, she landed on a really interesting dance-inflected sound with some great production.

46. Jay Rock - 90059
A couple years ago, Top Dawg Entertainment seemed to be making moves to set up all 4 members of Black Hippy with viable careers, with Jay Rock making up for the years between solo projects with great guest verses that sustained his buzz, But in 2015, it seems like only Kendrick Lamar matters and everyone else has suffered from TDE's bad ideas, especially Jay Rock, 90059 had the dumbest, most mishandled album rollout I've ever seen, with a "we'll move the release date up the more people preorder" scheme that backfired horribly and resulted in an awkwardly timed release with dismal sales (even Ab-Soul's These Days..., the label's previous biggest fiasco, sold more). And it's a fucking shame, because Jay Rock made a really good album and nobody cares.

47. Fetty Wap - Fetty Wap
As I said in my year-end Fetty Wap essay, people who derided his album for actually featuring all the old Soundcloud tracks that made him a star are maybe missing the point that this is what debut albums used to be: a document of a new artist making the songs that put them in the spotlight. He's got the rest of his career to go in the studio with big stars and superproducers and try to sustain this moment, but Fetty Wap is a fun, imperfect snapshot of a kid from Paterson, New Jersey and his crew stumbling onto a sound that the whole world wanted to hear.

48. Young Thug - Slime Season
I didn't like the first Slime Season quite as much as the second, starting it off with an old-ass record like "Take Kare" was a weird move. But it's still a lot stronger than Barter 6, and has some great songs on it, including the big breakout hit "Best Friend" and maybe my favorite song he released all year, "Thats All."

49. The Bird And The Bee - Recreational Love
The Bird And The Bee is still just a clever little indie pop duo from L.A., but in the time since they last released an album, Greg Kurstin has become an immensely successful producer of chart-topping hits like Adele's "Hello" and Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger." And it's kind of refreshing to see him still put his talents to use on a small project like Recreational Love when he could be off making millions, but I get it, because there's a coy charm to Inara George's songs that brings out a funky, offbeat side of Kurstin's sound that he doesn't really get to show in his outside productions.

50. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - The Traveling Kind
Back in January, I spent 2 days working at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington for rehearsals for an all-star Emmylou Harris tribute concert. It was an incredible night that gave me a new appreciation for an artist I'd previous only casually admired, and they filmed it all, so I'm kind of impatient that it hasn't shown up yet as a TV special or a DVD or anything, hopefully it still will. But Rodney Crowell performed a lot that night, and a few months later he and Emmylou released their second collaborative album together, and it's pretty beautiful and brings back memories of that night.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

I wrote about the year in music videos for Complex.

Friday, December 18, 2015

This week my first piece for Stereogum was published, After Empire: What's The Future Of Hip-Hop On Scripted Television?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I contributed to The Fader's list of the best songs of 2015, I wrote about Vince Staples and Dej Loaf.

The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2015

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

After rap, pop, country, and rock, here we conclude this year's overview of popular music with R&B. Barring the enormous success of The Weeknd, it was not easy to be an R&B act in 2015. A lot of albums dropped with a thud, and a lot more stayed in the label vault even when there was a hit single to capitalize on. And if you're a woman, forget about it, there were no new stars on the scale of Tinashe or Jhene in previous years, and it was hard to even score a major R&B hit unless you're a crossover superstar like Beyonce or Rihanna. Still, there were some damn good songs on the radio. Here's the previous lists for 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the Spotify playlist for this year's list.

1. Jeremih f/ J. Cole - "Planes"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #44 Hot 100
"Planes" seems to epitomize the way Jeremih's career has been stalled and sabotaged, either by Def Jam or himself or fate itself, every step of the way lately. He previewed the song live early in 2014 as a collaboration with Chance The Rapper, before Chance was replaced by one of the worst rap verses on an R&B song in recent memory by the more bankable J. Cole. The studio version was teased as a snippet in fall 2014, and then was finally released (and pulled from Spotify, and then put up again) in early 2015, months after his momentum from "Don't Tell 'Em" had dissipated. And even with all this, and no video or announced album release date, "Planes" managed to climb the airplay charts and become one of the biggest R&B songs of 2015. And then Def Jam changed the official title of the song to "Planez" for no apparent reason. At least we finally got the album.

2. Tory Lanez - "Say It"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #30 Hot 100
Tory Lanez, a Canadian singer who doesn't want to call Toronto "the 6," doesn't sound all that different from the various Bryson Tiller types flooding the R&B world these days. But his big single, produced by R&B nostalgists Pop & Oak, makes great use of a '90s sample, of "If You Love Me" by the girl group Brownstone, to fill the song's chorus with the kind of lush harmonies you rarely hear in modern R&B, and it makes all the difference, even if Tory Lanez did write a pretty great song over the sample as well.

3. Monica f/ Lil Wayne - "Just Right For Me"
#18 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
20 years out from "Don't Take It Personal," Monica is one of the more resilient female stars in R&B, still making impressive singles. "Just Right For Me" features one of the best beats from Polow Da Don and one of the best R&B guest verses from Lil Wayne that we've heard in ages, and it's a shame the song didn't blow up as big as it would've in 2008 when those guys were on top.

4. Usher f/ Juicy J - "I Don't Mind"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #11 Hot 100
Usher had one of the biggest R&B songs of 2014 with "Good Kisser," and that June he quietly released another song, "I Don't Mind," that slowly, slowly wound up one of the R&B songs of 2015, and we're still probably never going to get that album he was supposedly working on. And this is Usher, a superstar. The R&B business really is in the toilet. "I Don't Mind" is a an incredibly spare production, especially for pop mogul Dr. Luke, with two electric piano chords going back and forth for the entire song with a clap beat, and a very soft kick drum that comes in for a few bars here and there. But Usher just fills out the track so beautifully with his voice, making maybe too much of a show of not judging a stripper girlfriend but still a pretty charming effort in the "these hoes ain't loyal" era of R&B.

5. D'Angelo And The Vanguard - "Really Love"
#24 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
D'Angelo was probably never going to have another blockbuster single on the order of "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," especially when it took him 14 long years to deliver his third album, Black Messiah. But the album was worth the wait, and "Really Love" was a beautiful, surprisingly guitar-driven single that I wish R&B radio was more welcoming towards.

6. Miguel - "Coffee"
#27 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #78 Hot 100
Miguel was probably never going to have another blockbuster single on the order of "Adorn," especially when it took him 3 long years to deliver his third album, Wildheart. But the album was worth the wait, and "Coffee" was a beautiful, surprisingly guitar-driven single that I wish R&B radio was more welcoming towards.

7. Trey Songz - "Slow Motion"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #26 Hot 100
Charlie Puth was responsible for some of the worst popular music of 2015, from Wiz Khalifa's "See You Again" to Lil Wayne's "Nothing But Trouble" to his own "Marvin Gaye" with Meaghan Trainor, the guy was just a total shit factory. But amidst all that, he co-produced and co-wrote one of the best Trey Songz singles in recent memory, and I try not to imagine Puth singing it when I hear it.

8. Avery*Sunshine - "Call My Name"
#15 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
The closest thing to a breakout female star R&B radio had in 2015 was Pennsylvania singer/pianist Avery*Sunshine, who turned 40 this year. And she got this much airplay from an indie release, too. It's a great song that really takes its time growing on you, which makes its unlikely success all the more remarkable.

9. Janet Jackson - "No Sleeep"
#12 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #63 Hot 100
Janet Jackson's return this year was so refreshing, partly just to have her back after 7 years, but also because she returned to the open arms of R&B radio, after her 2000s albums strained harder and harder for pop crossover and 2008's Discipline even abandoned her reliable team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. "No Sleeep" was tainted with a J. Cole verse on the remix sent to radio a few weeks after the original song's release, but at least we got a version without him too, unlike "Planes."

10. Sevyn Streeter f/ Chris Brown - "Don't Kill The Fun"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Sevyn Streeter is one of my favorite singers to break out on R&B radio in the last few years, and the EP she released this year, Should've Been There, Pt. 1, was solid. It bums me out that she needs Chris Brown features to keep her career afloat, but at least he's a pretty minor presence on this song.

11. Jill Scott - "Fool's Gold"
#17 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
This year I got to interview Baltimore producer D.K. The Punisher just after he got a big break working on the lead single for Jill Scott's latest album with songwriter SiR (who released one of my favorite indie R&B projects of the year, Seven Sundays). Jill Scott has such an established sound and voice that "Fool's Gold" was a really interesting track, put her in a whole new light and made her sound more modern without trying too hard.

12. Tyrese - "Shame"
#13 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Tyrese Gibson has had a weird career, hopping from introducing videos on MTV to co-starring in Transformers movies to being one of the most entertainingly inarticulate celebrities on Twitter to making intermittently quality R&B as well as way too many songs where he raps in his "Black Ty" persona. And this year he became an unlikely torchbearer for "traditional" R&B when he scored the first #1 album of his career driven by the great single "Shame." I don't understand why his label is called Voltron Recordz, though, this dude is set tripping with different giant robot crews instead of being loyal to Transformers.

13. Beyonce - "7/11"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #13 Hot 100
I've never heard people call in to the radio to jeer with disapproval for a new Beyonce song the way they did in late 2014 when "7/11" leaked. But the video, the ridiculous delightful video that somehow puts this odd song in a context that makes sense, was released soon after, and it seemed to change everyone's mind and make it even sound good on the radio.

14. The Weeknd - "The Hills"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
The slick, smooth songs that made The Weeknd into a pop radio darling were produced by Max Martin, and represented a pretty big aesthetic leap from the dark, brooding mixtapes that made The Weeknd into a cult R&B sensation in 2011. But his whole crossover narrative got turned on its ear a little when his longest-reigning #1 single of 2015 wound up being "The Hills," a throwback to his creepy House Of Balloons sound with longtime producer Illangelo, cementing the fact that The Weeknd changed the sound of pop as much as pop changed him.

15. Jazmine Sullivan - "Let It Burn"
#30 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Jazmine Sullivan released her third album, Reality Show, in 2015, and it was as strong as her first two albums, cementing her as a great vocalist and a creative, offbeat songwriter. Unfortunately, it was her first album that didn't have a major radio hit. And it was bittersweet that she finally scored a sleeper hit with one of its best songs, many months after the album's release.

16. Rico Love - "Somebody Else"
#47 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Rico Love's Turn The Lights On was another great album that failed to generate a hit on the scale of 2013's "They Don't Know." And that's really a shame, because "Somebody Else" is a beautifully sung track that I thought really brought some emotional dimension to Rico's sound that's sorely missing from some of his scumbag soul contemporaries like Ty Dolla $ign.

17. K. Michelle - "Love 'Em All"
#26 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
It says everything about R&B radio's harsh climate for women in 2015 that one of 2013's big breakout stars couldn't get much airplay, even with a smart, catchy response song to Chris Brown's douchebag double standards anthem "Loyal."

18. Ne-Yo f/ Juicy J - "She Knows"
#6 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #19 Hot 100
"She Knows" was kind of the flipside to Usher's "I Don't Mind," another Dr. Luke-produced ode to a stripper featuring Juicy J that ran radio in early 2015. And even if it's easily the lesser of the two songs, it's a pretty great club record. We really don't appreciate Ne-Yo enough.

19. Robin Thicke - "Morning Sun"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
After the rocket ride of "Blurred Lines" in 2013 and the crash of Paula in 2014, it's hard to know what the future holds for Robin Thicke. Based on the performance of this and "Back Together," the more pop-leaning other single he released in 2015, he's got more of a future back on his old R&B radio turf, but his image is still in the toilet and he's got a ways to go to mount a real comeback. "Morning Sun" was a good start, though.

20. Jodeci - "Every Moment"
#18 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Jodeci made an enormous impact on R&B in the '90s, and then went their separate ways for almost two decades. And given the fact that the scale of their original success doesn't really exist for R&B groups anymore, any reunion was doomed to be anticlimactic. Still, they ended up with a pretty nice comeback hit.

The 10 Worst R&B Radio Hits of 2015:
1. Ciara - "I Bet"
2. Janelle Monae f/ Jidenna - "Yoga"
3. Jidenna f/ Roman GianArthur - "Classic Man"
4. Chris Brown - "Liquor"
5. Omarion f/ Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko - "Post To Be"
6. Jamie Foxx f/ Chris Brown - "You Changed Me"
7. Bryson Tiller - "Don't"
8. Rihanna - "Bitch Better Have My Money"
9. Vivian Green - "Get Right Back To My Baby"
10. The-Dream f/ T.I. - "That's My Shit"

The 20 Best Rock/Alternative Hits of 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Commercial rock radio is an easy target for derision for most 'serious' music fans, who might've listened to it as a teenager but have largely moved on to more obscure and/or diverse musical interests. And while alt-rock radio still leans heavily on recurrent '90s hits, and will incessantly play any new song from the handful of big '90s bands still going, I have been impressed in the last few years by the number of new acts that have broken through. Even some bands I don't really like have made some killer singles. And things were really good in 2015 -- there was a week, in late May, where I liked every single song in the top 10 of Billboard's Alternative Songs chart. But then, this week, I don't like much of anything, so it's unpredictable like that. Imagine Dragons sophomore slumped faster than you can say Fairweather Johnson, but then we got X Ambassadors, who are practically the same band. That's the kind of year it was. Here's the lists I did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the Spotify playlist for this year's list. 

1. Walk The Moon - "Shut Up And Dance"
#1 Alternative Songs, # Mainstream Rock Songs, #1 Rock Airplay, #4 Hot 100
The Ohio quartet Walk The Moon had their first alt-rock radio hit, the pleasantly upbeat "Anna Sun," back in 2012, but I had no clue that they'd return with a monster crossover hit on their second album. And since I don't really care for the other alt-rock hits that crossed over to pop radio this year (X Ambassadors and Elle King), this was an easy favorite for me. In one sense, it's kind of an on-the-nose homage to the '80s that seemed to blow up in part by reminding us of a time when rock bands made Top 40 records, not unlike "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains Of Wayne. But I also just loved the energy and the arrangement of the song, and the way they took the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" chords and altered them just enough to make it a song of its own. All the "I said"/"she said" dialogue stuff in the chorus is a little Deep Blue Something-esque, but it's still a killer hook. 

2. BØRNS - "Electric Love"
#15 Alternative Songs, #22 Rock Airplay
Given the name and the androgynous voice, when I first heard "Electric Love" I thought that BØRNS was probably, like, a Swedish woman. Turns out it's a guy from Michigan. This song is just gorgeous, though, I was disappointed that it didn't get bigger on alt-rock radio. But the other day, I heard a DJ on a pop station introduce the song as "new music," so I'm hopeful that it'll get a run at Top 40 radio in 2016. 

3. Robert DeLong - "Long Way Down"
#3 Alternative Songs, #9 Rock Airplay
Indie pop guys who start making music with synths and drum machines tend to make some limp wack beats, but this song really jams, lot of interesting textures and a real swing in the drums. 

4. AWOLNATION - "Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)"
#1 Alternative Songs, #12 Mainstream Rock Songs, #4 Rock Airplay
AWOLNATION's 2011 debut single "Sail" is one of my favorite songs of the decade, and easily one of the weirdest songs to go 6 times platinum. The lead single from the band's long-awaited second album, "Hollow Moon," doesn't quite live up to that high standard, but it's still an intriguing fusion of synth pop and angsty rock that somehow works better than it should. The part where Aaron Bruno sings "I run away every couple years just to prove I've never been free," the beat drops out, and then things come charging back in with a scream of "THEY WILL NEVER FIND ME HERE!" is really one of my favorite moments on any song this year. 

5. Foo Fighters - "Congregation"
#5 Alternative Songs, #1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #1 Rock Airplay
It's easy to take Foo Fighters for granted as the most consistently ubiquitous band on rock radio for the last couple decades. But in my opinion they still manage at least one killer single off of every album, and this was the one for the admittedly lackluster Sonic Highways. I always love getting the chance to hear someone perform their current hit in concert, and "Congregation" sounded fantastic at the band's 20th anniversary concert over the summer. 

6. Mumford & Sons - "The Wolf"
#4 Alternative Songs, #17 Mainstream Rock Songs, #3 Rock Airplay
I like to imagine that in some pompous corner of Mumford & Sons' folkie revival, someone yelled "Judas!" when they plugged in and inevitably made a modern rock anthem with electric guitars. It sure as hell sounded better than their old timey songs, though. 

7. The Struts - "Could Have Been Me"
#5 Alternative Songs, #12 Mainstream Rock Songs, #4 Rock Airplay
U.S. rock radio has been full of U.K. acts the last few years, including over 1/3rd of this list. And most of them are popular at home, too, but The Struts seem to have little commercial profile in England, while this song blew up on American radio and got used in a trailer for a Bradley Cooper movie and shit. It's a really theatrical scenery-chewing anthem, but it works for me. 

8. Twenty One Pilots - "Tear In My Heart"
#2 Alternative Songs, #2 Rock Airplay, #82 Hot 100
Twenty One Pilots had a couple of minor hits a couple years ago, and in 2015 they kind of became a big deal, with a #1 album, an appearance at the VMA's, and two huge radio hits. There's some cringe-inducing rapping on a lot of their songs, including the hit "Stressed Out," but "Tear In My Heart" is a pretty charming piano pop song. 

9. Wolf Alice - "Moaning Lisa Smile"
#9 Alternative Songs, #19 Rock Airplay
Another British band, one that did get a lot of breathless hype from the typically hyperbolic British rock press, basically for sounding like Veruca Salt or something. A decade ago, the word "wolf" had a weird ubiquity in indie rock, and in 2015 it seemed to finally seep into mainstream rock, between this band, the AWOLNATION and Mumford & Sons songs on this list, and a handful of other minor hits (“Wolves” by Dreamers, “Big Bad Wolf” by In This Moment,” and “Rabbits Foot” by Turbowolf)

10. Bleachers - "Rollercoaster"
#3 Alternative Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
I was pleasantly surprised when a member of fun. spun off into Bleachers with one of my favorite alt-rock singles of 2014, "I Wanna Get Better," And their solid album Strange Desires notched another great single this year, as well as the interesting Terrible Thrills, Vol. 2 project, in which female vocalists sang the band's, and Charli XCX did a good job with "Rollercoaster. 

11. Royal Blood - "Figure It Out"
#10 Alternative Songs, #3 Mainstream Rock Songs, #5 Rock Airplay
"Figure It Out" is another great follow-up to one of 2014's more promising breakthroughs, Royal Blood's first American hit, "Out Of The Black." Bluesy hard rock duos with one drummer and one guitarist are kind of a thing now, but at least they don't really sound like the other well known bands with that kind of lineup. 

12. Nothing But Thieves - "Trip Switch"
#13 Alternative Songs, #40 Mainstream Rock Songs, #17 Rock Airplay
There have been countless Jeff Buckley wannabes in British rock over the last couple decades, but the singer in Nothing But Thieves really sounds more like Buckley, down to the tiniest vocal flourishes, than any of them. But musically, "Trip Switch" is doing something more unique and has really hooked me as my favorite song on the radio lately. 

13. Meg Myers - "Lemon Eyes"
#23 Alternative Songs, #42 Rock Airplay
Meg Myers released her major label debut Sorry this year, and has now had 3 minor radio hits and several entertainingly creepy videos. I feel like she still has the potential to be a pretty big deal, but right now she's just underrated and "Lemon Eyes" deserved to be much more of a hit than it was. 

14. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness - "Cecilia And The Satellite"
#5 Alternative Songs, #4 Rock Airplay, #96 Hot 100
Since 2002, Andrew McMahon has been occasionally grazing the alt-rock charts with his bands Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin. And this year, he finally got into heavy rotation with a bittersweet song that crossed over to pop radio (and, amusingly, seems to refer to Something Corporate as "a punk rock band"), By the way, my car died this week, and her name was Cecilia. She was named after Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia," but this song reminded me of her too.  

15. Catfish And The Bottlemen - "Kathleen"
#17 Alternative Songs, #21 Rock Airplay
Another British band with a stupid name and a stubbornly catchy single. See what I mean? There's just a ton of them lately. But wouldn't you rather I talk about some of these new bands instead of the so-so singles Muse released this year? 

16. Florence & The Machine - "What Kind of Man"
#8 Alternative Songs, #7 Rock Airplay, #88 Hot 100
I kind of figured that Florence & The Machine had kind of a trajectory that had them headed for more polished, mellow music, so I was surprised when the first thing they released from their 3rd album was this big, ominous, guitar-driven thing that really put Florence Welch's voice in an interesting new light. 

17. Zac Brown Band f/ Chris Cornell - "Heavy Is The Head"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
Zac Brown's been dominating country radio since 2008, but he made a successful play for rock radio in 2015, first guesting on Foo Fighters' "Congregation," and then releasing a sing featuring another grunge icon. They're mostly doing a Soundgarden pastiche here, but it works about as well as anything off of Soundgarden's last album. 

18. Beck – “Dreams”
#2 Alternative Songs, #39 Mainstream Rock Songs, #3 Rock Airplay
In February, Beck's Morning Phase won the Grammy for Album of the Year. And a few months later, he released the Greg Kurstin-produced "Dreams," a single that seemed to vaguely promise that an upbeat radio-friendly album, his first in a long time, was on the way. Instead, no album came, and "Dreams" dominated radio anyway, and standalone singles are pretty rare in mainstream rock. 

19. Halestorm - "Amen"
#1 Mainstream Rock Songs, #19 Rock Airplay
An interesting thing in the last couple years is that hard rock radio seems more open to female-fronted bands than alt-rock radio -- Halestorm and The Pretty Wreckless have both notched multiple #1s on the Mainstream Rock chart with their latest albums, and there's really no equivalent on the Alternative chart. Jay Joyce, a producer who's all over my country countdowns every year and made his mainstream rock breakthrough a couple of years ago with Cage The Elephant, makes some of the best-sounding records with live instrumentation in any genre these days, and he made Halestorm sound fantastic on their third album Into The Wild Life

20. Saint Motel - "My Type"
#9 Alternative Songs, #11 Rock Airplay
A goofy horn-driven song by an L.A. indie pop band that never quite got big enough to lead them to release more than an EP this year, but it really grew on me over the course of 2015. 

The 10 Worst Rock/Alternative Hits of 2015: 
1. X Ambassadors - "Renegades"
2. Imagine Dragons - "I Bet My Life"
3. Elle King - "Ex's & Oh's"
4. Modest Mouse - "Lampshades On Fire"
5. Halsey - "New Americana"
6. Twenty One Pilots - "Stressed Out" 
7. George Ezra - "Budapest"
8. Theory Of A Deadman - "Angel" 
9. Shinedown - "Cut The Cord"
10. Breaking Benjamin - "Failure" 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

I wrote whatever on my boy: here's my essay for Noisey about Fetty Wap's 2015.

The 20 Best Country Radio Hits of 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

A year ago in this space, I noted that in 2014, country radio was as male-dominated as it'd ever been, with only 11 of the top 60 songs on Billboard's year-end Country Airplay chart featuring female vocalists. This year that number dropped to 10 (and 3 of those were female guests on songs by male artists), and there was a pretty big media controversy about a comment a country radio consultant made in which women were described as the "tomatoes" in the airplay "salad," which was soon dubbed Tomato-Gate. Truthfully, a lot of men who are totally indistinguishable from each other are singing some real garbage on country radio these days, but that helps the women who are there stand out more. Check out the Spotify playlist, and the previous lists I did in 2012 and 2013.

1. Little Big Town - "Girl Crush"
#3 Country Airplay, #18 Hot 100
I'm still not clear on how much the 'controversy' over "Girl Crush" was real or manufactured (some stations supposedly refused to play a song where a woman sings "I've got a girl crush," even though the song is essentially about jealousy over a man). But the publicity it generated helped push a song that sounded little like anything else on country radio into becoming a major country radio hit as well as their breakthrough to adult contemporary radio and Little Big Town's biggest Hot 100 hit to date.

2. Brothers Osborne - "Stay A Little Longer"
#8 Country Airplay, #65 Hot 100
This is still rising up the charts right now but it really shot up towards the top of my list as soon as I heard it. Anything produced by Jay Joyce (who's done every Eric Church album and the latest Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood records) sounds so much better than almost everything else on country radio, so that partly made this stand out, but it's just a great song. And these guys are from Deale, Maryland, not far from where I live, so I'm really rooting for them, their album comes out in January. You don't hear a lot of guitar solos on country radio that aren't by Brad Paisley or Keith Urban, and those guys are good guitarists, but it's really refreshing to hear John Osborne let a long amazing solo rip at the end of this song, even in the radio edit a fair amount of it plays out.

3. Cam - "Burning House"
#6 Country Airplay, #48 Hot 100
Cam is a songwriter who worked on Miley Cyrus's Bangerz and Jeff Bhasker is a producer best known for working with fun. and Kanye West, but together this unlikely pair made the most spare and harrowing country ballad I've heard all year. Love the 7/8 meter in the verses.

4. Thomas Rhett - "Make Me Wanna"
#1 Country Airplay, #43 Hot 100
Thomas Rhett is the only act who I just had to put on the list twice this year -- the lead single from the album he just released is further down the list, but I just had to go to bat for the fifth and final single from his 2013 debut, which just has the most delightful lightfooted Bee Gees groove.

5. Sam Hunt - "House Party"
#1 Country Airplay, #26 Hot 100
You can scroll down to the 'worst' list to see how I generally feel about Sam Hunt, who has released some absolutely terrifying songs where he does a 'slide' from talking to singing mid-verse that's very clearly influenced by Drake. But "House Party" is a pretty great song that would probably be a hit in any genre.

6. Zac Brown Band - "Homegrown"
#1 Country Airplay, #35 Hot 100
When you're old and married with kids like me, you hear some of these wholesome-ass country songs and actually identify with them.

7. Jana Kramer - "I Got The Boy"
#12 Country Airplay, #77 Hot 100
The first time I heard this song on the radio, I actually said out loud to myself, "Damn, that's a good chorus." Nashville can still turn out those perfect little gems where you get a whole life story unspooled in a few couplets where not a word is wasted.

8. Brett Eldredge - "Lose My Mind"
#1 Country Airplay, #48 Hot 100
"Lost My Mind" was the first single from Brett Eldredge's Illinois, one of my favorite country albums of 2015. I hope he turns out a half dozen more singles from that record, it's got a lot of potential hits.

9. Chris Janson - "Buy Me A Boat"
#3 Country Airplay, #41 Hot 100
Chris Janson has written some crap like Tim McGraw's "Truck Yeah" and LoCash's "I Love This Life," and in all honestly his first hit as an artist, "Buy Me A Boat," could probably be considered crap too. But it's really amusing, immediate crap that got stuck in my head from the first time I heard it.

10. Parmalee - "Already Callin' You Mine"
#12 Country Airplay, #96 Hot 100
Sometimes I hear a song a lot on my local country station and am just baffled that it's not in the top 10 on the national country charts. "Already Callin' You Mine" has been on Billboard for 40-something weeks now and is still kicking around just outside the top 10, don't know why enough stations haven't come around on it yet to make it a major hit.

11. Chris Stapleton - "Nobody To Blame"
#26 Country Airplay
A month ago, the CMAs marked one of the biggest awards show coronations in recent memory. Chris Stapleton, a veteran songwriter whose debut album hadn't sold much or generated any radio hits, won several major awards, performed with Justin Timberlake, and immediately shot to the top of the charts. This week, he got an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys, but country radio is still slowly coming around to his current single (which wasn't the one that he performed on TV and sold a ton of downloads of). It's a good song and he has a strong voice but it does sound a bit different from what's on the radio, makes me wonder if he'll even get as much as a top 10 hit like Kacey Musgraves did before country radio completely shut her out and left her to crossover audiences.

12. Thomas Rhett - "Crash And Burn"
#1 Country Airplay, #36 Hot 100
Thomas Rhett's second album Tangled Up is one of those country albums that tries a little too hard to show of all its influences from outside country, and a lot of it goes off the rails and becomes irritating. But "Crash And Burn" is one song where it all works, the song where he can get away with interpolating Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" and ghost riding the whip in the video and performing the it on TV with Fall Out Boy.

13. Carrie Underwood - "Smoke Break"
#2 Country Airplay, #43 Hot 100
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Carrie Underwood, who has a long list of mostly lousy hits. But her latest record was produced by Jay Joyce and had some strong singles.

14. David Nail - "Kiss You Tonight"
#17 Country Airplay
Another song I heard on the radio a lot that I'm kind of mystified didn't chart higher.

15. Michael Ray - "Kiss You In The Morning"
#1 Country Airplay, #55 Hot 100
Nobody watched "The Next: Fame Is At Your Doorstep," the singing contest reality show that aired on The CW for one season in 2012. But country singer Michael Ray won, and he has the good fortune to be working in the only genre that actually lets reality show people be successful anymore, so this year his debut single went to #1.

16. Maddie & Tae - "Fly"
#8 Country Airplay, #61 Hot 100
Last year, Maddie & Tae tweaked the male-dominated country landscape with their debut hit "Girl In A Country Song." This year, the top 26 most played songs on country radio were all by men, and then Maddie & Tae's follow-up single sat at #27.

17. Kelsea Ballerini - "Love You Like You Mean It"
#1 Country Airplay, #45 Hot 100
One of the next biggest country songs this year by a female act was by Kelsea Ballerini, who had the distinction of going to #1 with her first single. Shame she couldn't keep that streak going, her second single "Dibs" is terrible.

18. Easton Corbin - "Baby Be My Love Song" 
#3 Country Airplay, #56 Hot 100
Corbin generally makes songs I don't like and has an annoying voice, but this one just has some gorgeous chords that make the whole thing float dreamily.

19. Justin Moore - "You Look Like I Need A Drink"
#41 Country Airplay, # Hot 100
Justin Moore is a relatively minor star with a great voice who I've included in this list all 3 previous years. I hadn't heard him on the radio this year, but I checked to see if he'd released anything, and it turned out he has one new song on the charts that hasn't been big yet, but I like it, hopefully it'll catch on.

20. Eric Church - "Talladega" 
#1 Country Airplay, #43 Hot 100
Eric Church released a surprise album, Mr. Misunderstood, a few weeks ago, and its Jeff Tweedy-namechecking title track is still climbing up the charts. But throughout 2015, his last album The Outsiders kept spinning off singles, including this nostalgic ode to NASCAR that features the line "here's to turnin' up." Shout out to Jay Joyce, his 4th production on the list.

The Worst Country Radio Hits of 2015:
1. Sam Hunt - "Take Your Time"
2. Sam Hunt - "Break Up In A Small Town"
3. Kelsea Ballerini - "Dibs"
4. Brantley Gilbert - "One Hell Of An Amen"
5. The Band Perry - "Live Forever"
6. LoCash - "I Love This Life"
7. Dan + Shay - "Nothin' Like You"
8. Luke Bryan - "Kick The Dust Up"
9. Brad Paisley - "Crushin' It"
10. Chase Rice - "Gonna Wanna Tonight"