The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2015

I did the rap list the other day, so here my favorite pop radio songs of 2015, following my previous lists for 2012, 2013, and 2014. There were no shortage of dominant trends in Top 40 radio this year, from tropical house to the total market saturation of Max Martin, and a lot of big stars forced really bad songs onto the air. But amidst it all, I think some surprising sounds popped up and some songs I might actually remember and want to hear in a few years. Here's the Spotify playlist

1. Jason Derulo - "Want To Want Me"
#1 Pop Songs, #5 Hot 100
A lot of writers condescendingly romanticize the “sugar rush” of “pure pop” every once in a great while, and usually I find that kind of language either inadequate (if the song is good) or unwarranted (if it’s not). But “Want To Want Me” was one of those songs that made me want to actually use those words, the whole thing is just an urgent throb of histrionic falsetto hooks that have never sounded better elsewhere in Jason Derulo’s often shrill, eager-to-please catalog.  It’s hilarious that the first verse starts 2 seconds into the song but he still finds room to fit a whispered “Derulo!” in there, like an “I approve this message” tag at the end of a 30-second political ad.

2. Demi Lovato - "Cool For The Summer"
#3 Pop Songs, #11 Hot 100
I really like Lovato's underrated earlier work, but it was fun this year to see her kind of graduate to a higher profile and more established collaborators like Max Martin and come out with a song that sounded a little different from everything out there and got a buzz outside of her fanbase and kinda rebooted her career.

 3. OMI - "Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Call it "tropical house" or, I dunno, Beats Of No Nation: one of the big threads in 2015 pop music was taking vague signifiers of Caribbean grooves and European dance music and fusing them into a weird day-glo Frankenstein aesthetic that was from nowhere in particular and appealed to people everywhere. A Jamaican singer like OMI topping charts around the world because of a German DJ’s remix of his song is very different than, say, Sean Paul topping charts with a Jamaican producer’s riddim a decade ago, but it was interesting to see how reggae can still cross over in weird bastardized ways, 40 years after Eric Clapton recorded “I Shot The Sheriff.”

4. Fifth Harmony f/ Kid Ink - "Worth It"
#4 Pop Songs, #12 Hot 100
One year’s fluke is the next year’s formula. After saxophones unexpectedly came back into vogue in pop music around 2011, Jason Derulo’s 2014 hit “Talk Dirty” made unlikely source material of a fluttering horn loop from a Balkan Beat Box track into a global pop hit. And “Worth It” was the result of pop producers Stargate going straight to the source and having Balkan Beat Box saxophonist Ori Kaplan give them a fresh new riff to build a track around. The sax-driven chorus is really just one of about 4 different sections of the song that all feel like hooks, every single piece of this song is working overtime to lodge itself into your brain, even the unfortunately enjoyable Kid Ink part. And this song was also part of my favorite Vine of 2015, which featured Guy Fieri signing Lean Cuisines and throwing them to people while “Worth It” blasted from a nearby speaker.

5. Taylor Swift - "Style"
#1 Pop Songs, #6 Hot 100
Nobody really thinks that the pop charts are a meritocracy, but you do hope to see it in some manner, even just within an artist’s career. Every Taylor Swift song is successful to some degree, so shouldn’t we be able to see her best songs chart higher than the worst ones. Nope! “Style,” easily the best song from her everything-to-everyone Max Martin phase of global domination, is the only one of 1989’s first four singles that didn’t hit #1 in America – it even charted lower than the vile 5th single, “Wildest Dreams.”

6. One Direction - "Perfect" 
#16 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
There have been almost as many (confirmed or suspected) disses, subliminals, and response tracks on Top 40 radio this year as on rap radio. Taylor/Katy, Ed/Ellie, Justin/Selena, it’s a blind item gossip columnist’s dream. I don’t really think knowing or speculating about this stuff makes the music any better, though – it’s either good or it’s not. Still, I appreciated that “Style,” Taylor Swift’s best single in recent memory that was supposedly about Harry Styles, apparently prompted a response in “Perfect,” which turned out to be One Direction’s best and most immediate single since “What Makes You Beautiful.” They even cop a little of the “Style” cadence in the hook, like a mixtape freestyle that uses a flow from the song it’s responding to.

7. The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
I never cared for The Weeknd’s glum, meandering mixtapes that had a huge and often depressing influence on R&B. So I’ve probably never been more happy to see someone sell out, call Max Martin, and start making songs with actual hooks than The Weeknd. “Can’t Feel My Face” is an almost eerily ideal fusion of the established Weeknd aesthetic of sickly druggy pleasure and pain with an actual catchy melody and beat you can dance to. 

8. Tove Lo - "Talking Body"
#4 Pop Songs, #12 Hot 100
Tove Lo is a sad-eyed Swede who sings debauched sexy druggy post-Weeknd lyrics with the kind of blankness that feels like she's either way too deep in the lifestyle she sings about or is just phonetically reciting English lyrics she doesn't understand. I hated that formula on her big 2014 breakthrough "Habits (Stay High)," but I love it on this admittedly similar follow-up, go figure. 

9. Mark Ronson f/ Bruno Mars - "Uptown Funk"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
I’m generally pro-Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox was a solid album, and if we’re gonna have a ton of retro pastiche on the radio, it might as well be from a skilled craftsman like him. Still, the inevitability of this song being a world-conquering record-breaking hit was even more obvious from the first listen than it usually is with Mars singles, and once you got the most you could get out of the song on the third listen, there were still 6 months of hearing it every single day ahead of you. It’s hard to fault a pop song for doing what a pop song does so effectively, but after a solid year of ubiquity, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for it.

10. Adele - "Hello"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
As with “Uptown Funk,” I’m a little blasé about how brutally effective “Hello” is. For me, it’s hard to muster any personal enthusiasm about Adele songs that aren’t “Rolling In The Deep,” but I can appreciate how good she is at songs like “Hello,” which is essentially a Heart power ballad from the ‘80s. The first 30 seconds of the song, when they popped up in a TV ad before the release of the full song, gave me chills, but it turned out that’s the best part, the chorus is just some loud mush about “the other side” that even Adele has confessed she doesn’t really understand and makes it sound like she’s singing from the afterlife or some shit.

11. Pitbull & Ne-Yo - "Time Of Our Lives"
#4 Pop Songs, #9 Hot 100
 With Macklemore flopping and Iggy canceling tourdates, it appears that Pitbull and Flo Rida's jobs at pop radio's favorite rappers are safe. "Time Of Our Lives" is undeniably a lesser sequel to Pitbull and Ne-Yo's first collaboration, 2011's chart-topper "Give Me Everything." But man, these guys have a good rapport, they could do a whole album together. 

12. Flo Rida f/ Sage The Gemini and Lookas - "G.D.F.R."
#8 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
Flo Rida is less of a natural born hitmaker than Pitbull -- it seems like he just got his foot in the door with a T-Pain hook and keeps on finding other choruses to keep him afloat. This year, he stayed on the charts by helping Sage The Gemini build on the breakout success of "Gas Pedal" and "Red Nose" into some pop radio exposure, and Sage proved surprisingly ready to rise to the occasion. 

13. David Guetta f/ Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack - "Hey Mama"
#2 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
The era of EDM pop is hardly over, but the days of European producers loading up singles with stars and scoring big U.S. chart hits seem to be on the wane outside of the occasional Calvin Harris hit and David Guetta's latest monstrosity. Between the bluesy Alan Lomax-recorded vocal sample and the competing voices of Nicki Minaj and Bebe Rexha, there's almost too much going on in this song, but I enjoy it. 

14. Maroon 5 - "Sugar"
#1 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
Maroon 5's glorified-Adam-Levine-solo-career period continues to trudge along with a fraction of the charm of the Songs About Jane-era hits that were actually played by a band. But this song had a pleasant light-footed lilt that felt like a real palate-cleanser after some of their other recent singles.  

15. Tori Kelly - "Nobody Love"
#16 Pop Songs, #60 Hot 100
2015 was Max Martin's 19th year of producing American pop hits and perhaps his most unstoppably ubiquitous year to date -- he worked on 1/4th of the songs on this list. The lead single from Tori Kelly's debut album, which probably didn't introduce her to the American public as well as her countless TV appearances this year, is the closest thing to a failure on Max Martin's scorecard this year, and even that song was pretty great. 

16. Ella Henderson - "Ghost"
#11 Pop Songs, #21 Hot 100
 Another song I loved that never quite got its due in the U.S., although it topped the charts in the U.K. 

17. Rudimental f/ Ed Sheeran - "Lay It All On Me"
#17 Pop Songs, #48 Hot 100
Ed Sheeran's x has been an unstoppable blockbuster over the past 2 years, with a couple of awful ballad hits and a couple of cringe-inducing songs where he raps. But his collaboration with London producers Rudimental was a minor hit that at least hinted at his ability to make something tolerable. 

18. Ellie Goulding - "On My Mind"
#5 Pop Songs, #13 Hot 100
"On My Mind" is Ellie Goulding's response to "Don't," one of those skeezy songs where Ed Sheeran raps, and it's also yet another Max Martin production, situating Goulding in more of a pop star mold than her previous EDM hits. 

19. Justin Bieber - "Sorry" 
#2 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
The idea that Justin Bieber and Skrillex doing techno reggae would be the hot sound of 2015 would've almost been too obvious of a joke to make in 2012. But people really love this shit, and this song was a more palatable iteration of the sound for me than "Where Are U Now" or "What Do U Mean." 

20. Alessia Cara - "Here" 
#7 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
In the mid-‘90s, signature songs by both Tricky and Portishead sampled “Ike’s Rap II” by Isaac Hayes. 20 years later, sample-friendly R&B producers Pop & Oak introduced Def Jam-signed teen Alessia Cara to the public with an "Ike's Rap II" sample that basically minted her sound as Kidz Bop trip hop. Cara strikes me as even more of an eye-rolling fake deep Daria type than Lorde, but "Royals" was a hell of a calling card to start your career with, and so is "Here." 

The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2015:
1. Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds”
2. Ariana Grande – “Focus”
3. Charlie Puth f/ Meaghan Trainor – “Marvin Gaye”
4. Andy Grammer – “Honey, I’m Good”
5. Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”
6. Selena Gomez – “Good For You”
7. Taylor Swift – “Wildest Dreams”
8. Major Lazer & DJ Snake f/ MO – “Lean On”
9. Shawn Mendes – “Stitches”
10. Rachel Platten – “Fight Song”
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