Best of 15: The Hottest Jams of 2015

Welp, that’s it for 2015. It was an incredible year for music, and it was tougher to whittle this list down to 65 than in recent years. Thank you for joining me for another year of ThunderPenguin, and it’s been awesome to see this little site growing. Hopefully, the album list will be up in a day or two.

65. Post Malone
“White Iverson”
Digital Single
I hated it, then I loved it, and then I hated myself for loving it, then I hated it again, and now I’m just confused about it. No matter where I end up with it, the Houston crooner’s ode to the Answer deserves a spot on this list, because of the emotional energy I expended dealing with it.

64. Nicole Dollanganger
“You’re So Cool”
Natural Born Losers (Eerie Organization)
Remember that 90s movie Crazy/Beautiful? The 23 year-old Canadian’s breakthrough LP should really be called Creepy/Beautiful. Its towering closing track is half wedding first dance, half slasher flick, as Dollanganger stretches her unique falsetto to extol the virtues of a love interest who seems to have committed some very grizzly murders (“You got guns for trophies mounted up like animal heads with the skulls of all the high school champs you keep in rows above the bed”). It’s unsettling, romantic, creepy, and very, very beautiful.

63. f(x)
“4 Walls”
4 Walls – The 4th Album (SM Entertainment)
The Korean girl group’s bilingual banger is bright, breezy, and far from the average American perception of what K-Pop is supposed to sound like. There’s bits of R&B, hip-hop, and New Jack Swing (seriously!) in here, and it brings me back to the girl groups of the early 2000s, like Dream, 3LW, and 702, which — in my book — is pretty high praise.

62. Justin Bieber
Purpose (Def Jam)
I considered “I’ll Show You” (Justin’s very own “I’m not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”), but I settled on the 21 year-old’s delightfully sarcastic mea culpa. It should really be called “Sorry (Not Sorry),” and Bieber plays the mischievous scamp to perfection, acknowledging his past hijinks (i.e. monkey buying, speeding, this haircut) while hinting that he’s just getting started. Let’s hope he is.

61. Sufjan Stevens
“Should Have Known Better”
Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
There are a lot of meaningful lyrics on “Should Have Known Better” and many more on the exquisite album that spawned it. But none touched me like the final one here: “My brother had a daughter. The beauty that she brings, illumination.” My sister had a daughter last October, and I’ve been consistently overwhelmed by the staggering mass of power and beauty yielded by someone so small. Much of Carrie & Lowell is focused on the final acts of the people we love, but this special moment of tribute to his niece stands out as a shining beacon of light on a very dark album.

60. Anohni
“4 Degrees”
HOPLESSNESS (out in 2016 on Secretly Canadian)
The 44 year-old promised that her fifth LP would “have teeth,” and holy hell, she bears her fangs on its lead single. Along with co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, “4 Degrees” is a vicious, uncompromising look into her (and our) complicity in climate change and the great deal of unseen suffering we are responsible for. It’s deeply unsettling, but Antony’s best work often is, and “4 Degrees” feels like just the tip of the iceberg from what might be the best LP of her illustrious career.

59. Samo Sound Boy
“Baby Don’t Stop”
Begging Please (Body High)
Few artists balance restraint and ecstasy like Samo. Over five hypnagogic minutes, the Body High leader deftly unwraps a delicate melody around a devotional vocal sample, almost religious in its fervor. Though the vocal and Samo’s percussion constantly threatens to tip over, the Angelino harnesses it with trademark ease, delivering a single that encapsulates the bleeding heart that drives the excellent, Begging Please.

58. Craig David & Big Narstie
“When The Bassline Drops”
Digital Single
I don’t know when it was or how I got it, but I remember listening to the cassette version of Craig David’s classic debut, Born to Do It, so much that the paint started to strip off the plastic. More than 15 years on from its release date, the South Coast crooner is having another moment, popping up all over the place and unleashing his still-pure tenor on the suddenly Craig David hungry masses. That said, it’s far from just a nostalgic exercise, as this new track is a ravishing slice of post-garage pop. The two vocalists take turns slaloming over a delicious two-step beat with Narstie’s forceful bars balancing out the David’s legendary finessin’. More like this, please.

57. Erykah Badu & André 3000
But You Caint Call My Phone (self-released)
The best duets are those ones sung between people who have real feelings for each other. So when two people as outrageously talented as Erykah and André who have an actual child get together, you are basically guaranteed magic. “Hello” offers a rare glimpse into the palpable connection the two share and the real people behind the outsized personas. It’s like we’re listening into a private conversation between two former lovers, just calling to catch up and wondering why they ever said goodbye in the first place.

56. Chromatics
“Just Like You”
Dear Tommy (out next year on Italians Do It Better)
The only thing disappointing about Johnny Jewel and co.’s fifth LP is that it still isn’t out yet, as it was slated for a Valentine’s Day release. However, its three exquisite pre-release singles hint that it’ll be a masterclass. The best of the lot — the restrained, dramatic, “Just Like You” — tells Ruth Radelet’s heartbroken battle to move on to someone actually different, rather than just someone new.

55. Natalie La Rose
“Somebody” (f/ Jeremih)
Digital Single
The borrowed hook isn’t the only thing Whitney-ish about the Dutch singer’s breakthrough single. While there’s no hint that La Rose can touch St. Houston’s ungodly range, the 27 year-old’s voice that has the same timeless ease that made Peak Whitney so undeniable. La Rose effortlessly bobs over a buoyant arrangement and the ever-reliable Jeremih, leaving her mark on one of the best radio singles of the year without getting out of second gear.

54. Turnover
Peripheral Vision (Run for Cover)
I’ll always have a soft spot for this kind of emo-cum-soft-rock ballad, and the Virginia Beach quartet’s jangly makeout jam ticks all the important boxes. Windswept, reverb-y guitars? Check. A sweeping vocal hook? Check. Lyrics of pure, unadulterated devotion? Check fuckin’ mate. They had me at “with you, I know I’ll make it out alive.”

53. K-Major
“I’m Single” / “Cheat Code (CarShow)”
Category V (Contra Paris)
I had such a hard time picking a favorite from the Northwest Atlanta native’s criminally underrated debut project that I decided to pick two. Located in the guts of Category V, the two concurrent tracks highlight the dichotomy of an artist who makes music that is both reflective and lascivious. Very much a modern R&B singer — equal parts Sadboi & Lothario — Kendricke “K-Major” Brown is astute enough of a writer to know that those personas are different sides of the same coin.

52. Natasha Kmeto
“Your Girl”
Inevitable (Dropping Gems)
It could because I spent 75% of this year in a long distance relationship, but Kmeto’s stunning love song about leaving her girlfriend to go on tour really got under my skin this year. Perfectly capturing the ache of being away from the one you love, Kmeto’s soft voice and droopy synths were my melancholy soundtrack to numerous long drives up the 5 and short flights from SFO to LAX.

51. Kelsea Ballerini
The First Time (Black River Entertainment)
Billed by my many as a young T-Swift, the 21 year-old Tennessean could have easily been weighed down by such heady, unfair expectations. However, her debut album is an effortless triumph, stuffed full of expert, wind-through-your-hair Nashville Country tracks. The disc’s grace is best summed up by its closing number, a lithe, mid-tempo ode to the innocence of growing up.

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