2015: The Year You Used To, You Used To

[If you’d like to listen to a playlist of my top 25 in order from bottom to top, feel free to click here.]

“It’s like looking into a mirror I don’t have the capacity to smash.” (picture courtesy of Pitchfork)

For as long as popular music has put the pop in a category usually dominant and all of its own, the only thing that’s been almost as popular as it is is fundamental mishearings and misunderstandings of the lyrics. People thought that “Louie Louie” was obscene, or that Jimi was taking a homosexual break in “Purple Haze”; that Christina Aguilera’s body would ever want to stop saying let’s go in “Genie In A Bottle” or that Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” wasn’t about getting high and performing cunnilingus; that Chris Cornell should cover “Billie Jean” or Lil’ Wayne should pick up a guitar.


But something really striking happened when the biggest purveyor and victim of this in 2015 came and added its name to a rich tapestry — Aubrey Graham, wheel on down!

When it was released in the summer, people diving into the world of Hotline Bling found a big enough pool to swim in for days and plenty to do laps about. With the production minimal and a slight reworking of a mostly forgotten R&B song, this would push two things to the forefront: at first, the lyrics, and then, secondarily, the video, which would’ve birthed a rich meme-industrial complex all on its own if such a thing didn’t exist.

As Drizzy spilled out his non-on-the-six woes over the course of four minutes over some hypnotic propulsion, it became clearly obvious that you were going to hear this song for the rest of the summer and well into the autumn and winter. But the thing about chords is that different people’s ears get hit differently by what they hear. Many critics of both genders were quick to slam Drake for slut-shaming, sexism, solipsism, self-centeredness, and many other negative attributes that don’t begin with S. And it wasn’t as if these criticisms didn’t have a point or were trying to fashion a click-bait-based narrative out of whole cloth — Drake being who he is and singing the way he does it feels safe to assume that unless he tells us differently that he’s the protagonist and narrator of whatever track he puts out into the world.

Yet something these critics either forgot or overlooked in their froth was that not every narrator is created equal, and a lot of them are unreliable as hell. Another is that by bringing all these negative qualities to light, maybe he’s hoping that they’ll scatter back under his emotional refrigerator.

For many of us, getting called out on our Trump is the easiest way to keep our crap spilling out the back where it’s supposed to. It keeps us held accountable. And Bling is a departure point from where Drake’s gone before, which may be part of the reason it’s his biggest single to date. We’ve heard him be braggadocious before over hard beats meant to incite a party. We’ve heard him be softer and more considerate over something lusher and gentler; Best I Ever Had, his first and his previously most popular single, is probably the best example of this in the T-Dotter’s discography.

As we all know by now, Bling’s a lot of things, but it’s not that. When ABBA released it, they called it “The Winner Takes It All”; when the Police vaulted up towards the top of the charts one more time riding on a wave of even deeper fundamental misreads they dubbed it “Every Breath You Take”; everybody seemed to be fine with ELO singing out an equally catchy chorus with regards to “Don’t Bring Me Down”, and for columnists of a certain age who happen to be me the clearest, starkest allegory was Andrew Ridgeley, whoever ended up playing saxophone and what’s-his-face who when I was a kid taught me one of life’s valuable lessons: if you cheat a friend, you waste the chance that you’ve been given.

In Drake, we see a critically acclaimed multiple award winning young man worth something in the eight figure neighborhood, and for 95% of the video he seems to be doing 45 at 33, 78 at 45, or maybe 55 in a 54. It’s not as if hiring a choreographer is something that would have him baptized in a sea of red ink. Moreover, he’s doing all of this admittedly strange dancing on his own. This is still the 2010s, yes? Didn’t the critical cognoscenti throw out their back throwing laurels to Robyn at the decade’s outset when she took the action and turned it into a song and turned the awkward one-person dance party into a viral video follow-up single? Drake might be dancing again, but it’s as true now as it was some 30 years ago —when you lose a partner you care about, you lose some of your muscle memory. Your sense of dislocation grows. You feel out of step and more out of place out in the world. More succinctly put? Guilty feet have got no rhythm.

And this is where the misread for so many occurs. Hotline isn’t meant to lionize Drake, it’s meant to humanize him. In his world after he left the city, in his heart and mind ignorance was kind. But it’s a digitized age, a series of social media circles forming an ever-tightening cypher, and you don’t even have to blink in your mind’s eye to imagine a slightly if not more so inebriated Graham stumbling onto a top-notch bus or plane, whipping out the bro’s gold iP6 and doing what he shouldn’t but what so many of us in our weaker moments end up doing — the completely digital untraceable check-in on someone who used to mean something or everything to us…you know, “to see how they’re doing”.

They might be doing good, maybe. But the hope is after you give in to your worser urges that you’ll feel great, clean and calm and ready to start again and move on down the road. And then you run into one of life’s most horrifying realities: it goes on without you.

But you’re not emotionally ready for it, since it feels like somebody just express delivered a barbed wire baseball bat into your solar plexus. You can’t admit the truth, that you did this, because you’re not ready for acceptance (and like ‘Nam or the night some people’s favorite band opened for Nirvana, they never get there); you’re back in the high weeds and low quicksand of denial and most importantly, anger. Who the fuck are all these new faces on her Instagram? When did she get a Periscope? How many people are following her on Snapchat? How many girls do I recognize in that shot, 2 tops? Look at all this travel she’s been doing — what the hell, did she wait until the second I left town before beating on her passport so hard I assume she’s calling it Anna Mae?! And that’s damn sure a new dress; she’s just spilling out all over the place! What happened to the simpler times, the better times, the call at 10:30 or the text at 11:45 times, the happier times?

And as your brain starts to go into this Mobius strip made out of broken glass, hobo feces, and all your worst fears, being stressed out and left out makes you make an interpolation based on your small sample size of evidence that could chill you to the marrow: she might be bending over backwards for someone else right now. You put in the work, taught her a few things, picked her up, shook her up and turned her around. That someone new was just fine. But when free agency hit, she took her talents to Houstatlantavegas, and the only thing more horrifying and jarring than seeing an old favorite in a new uniform is what could possibly be happening when it comes off. There’s the worst thing in a lot of worlds out there: imagining the abandoned, noisy, multi-orgasmic pornographic bacchanal that Someone Old is having with Someone New located entirely…in your head.

So you stare dumbly at your phone. Maybe it was the same one she used to call you on. You look at things you know you shouldn’t be looking at but can’t resist, imagine things that you don’t fully know line up in concert with objective fact, leap to a worst-case scenario and completely whitewash old history and put it under a filter so that it shines like new, and while you spare a modicum of room for self-flagellation you lash out and careen wildly. All out of spite. All out of fear. All out of self-hatred. And all because while you used to have a response to this question, you no longer know what to say when you ask yourself But now who’s going to dance with me?

Celebrities (at least Drake for the purposes of this song).

They are just like us.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

25) the Struts, Could Have Been Me

Ladies, gentlemen, and all combinations thereof, welcome to the floor. To get us started on this sonic marathon, enjoy this hand-clapper and anthemic totem from some newly popular Brits about facing down the more ugly devils of one’s nature in order to live as the best iteration of themselves. (The song is better at providing a better singalong narrative than that previous sentence, I assure you.)

24) Future Islands, The Chase

Long before Aubrey missed his ex-FWB, Sam Herring was going viral on Letterman with his own staccato dance moves in the light of lost love while giving the awesome “Seasons (Waiting On You)” much needed oxygen, so it was nice to see him and the boys in midseason form with this opening single off of their latest.

23) the Dead Weather, I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)

It’s a shame that TDW’s big sin seems to be Not Being The White Stripes, but some people never forgave New Order for not giving up the ghost after Joy Division turned into and gave up the ghost, you know? Good songs are still good songs.

22) the Weeknd, Can’t Feel My Face

Actually wrote a bit about this already (check the squib for #41), and this won’t be the last time we spend time with Mr. Frday Nght, Strday & Snday on this countdown. Do you know where we’re going next?

21) Meg Myers, Sorry

About the only thing wrong with this song is that it isn’t a Nerf Herder cover, but at least you get shallowly hypnotic production and lilting melodies that reveal why in its original form this song was called Fuck This Shit, I’m Out*.

*song, best to the author’s knowledge, was never ever dubbed this

20) Frank Turner, the Next Storm

So this is what a positive song for a negative person sounds like: realizing life deals some blows — and some body blows at the worst moments, at that — but knowing that sooner or later you should go outside and face what comes next, no matter how portentous the clouds in the sky.

19) Vince Staples, Norf Norf

The answer is no, and the question is “Did any piece of film better encapsulate the zeitgeist of 2015 than the 183 seconds of this song’s video?”

18) Florence + the Machine, Ship To Wreck

As a writer with above average intellect constantly drowning in the sea of voices in his head who took his one good loving relationship and wished it out to the cornfield over the course of the year, I found nothing relatable about this song and would like to request Ms. Welch try again of course I joke and I found this song so in tune with my being it’s the one on the top 25 I enjoyed the most while cringing (sometimes literally) at my myopic, solipsistic, the-countdown-to-dying-alone-is-on! ways.

17) Nicki Minaj feat. Beyonce, Feeling Myself

Here’s something crazy: I had this ranked here before I heard the song, then heard the song and was like “[claps hands in a dusting off motion] Nailed it!” It’s neither woman’s best, but when two of the best in the world get together at even 90% it’s enough to lay waste to 99.99% of their alleged competition.

16) Kendrick Lamar, Alright

Hey, I already wrote about this (check #6)! Sweet!

15 + 14) Carly Rae Jespen, I Really Like You ^ Run Away With Me

Oh, Carly. Carly, Carly, Carly. I’m so sorry. This was like one of those awardsbait movies where two big names split about the same amount of screen time, important plot points and/or memorable moments, but they’re in the same category and there’s two of them instead of one singular cerebellum rupturing OMGWTFTAKEALLOURSWAG performance so they split the vote and both lose out to some other choice. If this had been only one song it would’ve taken the entirety of the top 3. As it is, I live in a world where the first time I heard E MO TION I was surrounded by dancing twentysomething Pacific Rimmers on vinyl and got hooked so quickly I had the verbatim reaction of “What is this?”; shortly thereafter they became the centerpieces of my Album of the Year. I don’t know who decided CRJ’s next career move 18 months ago should be “Debbie Gibson and Robyn had an awesome synth-pop in-love-with-love baby”, but somebody hand them a Nobel or six, hehn?

13) Ryan Adams, Bad Blood

Hey, and I kinda already wrote about this, too (glom the third paragraph and ignore the fact the last slot in my top 10 has changed)! Woo-hoo unknowingly planting the seeds for your future laziness in advance! U S A! U S A! U S A!

12) Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, S.O.B.

Because sometimes the only proper response to heartbreak is seeing how much of your blood you can convert into alcohol, and sometimes some blue-eyed bluegrass, gospel and soul is the only conduit to help get it out. Would Stax records dare deliver anything else?

11) Rihanna, Bitch Betta Have My Money

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t steal from Ms. Fenty, and you sing this every 2nd and 4th Friday night right before you log into Uber or Lyft (or whatever dates/times you happen to get paid).

10) the Weeknd, the Hills

Vaguely handsome Toronto dude doing hip-pop schizophrenically careening between braggadocio and lamenting how fucked up his relationship(s) ((if those are even what to call whatever it is he’s embroiled in)) are over crazy synths that underscore and propel the desperation in his voice? Sure thing, pal. That’ll fly.

09) Drake, Hotline Bling

See the open. Now that I’m the last person on the Internet to write about Hotline Bling, will somebody kill the lights on this series of tubes?

08) Chvrches, Leave A Trace

What a pain in the ass the music business — hell, the world — is. Everybody leans on you and wears you down while screaming you need to do something awesome, and then for those who taste the rarefied air of doing so they look up at another K2 while hating-ass Sherpas spit Janet Jackson song titles at them. Fortunately for her back up boys, Scottish synths, and music fans everywhere, Lauren Mayberry’s got the ovaries of a thousand women, and as a direct result Chvrches took every single possible idea that a sophomore slump was going to happen, lit it on fire, and made S’mores over it by releasing one of the best albums of the year in Every Open Eye that contained this, the best diss track of MMXV. Sane as she ever was? Bet the mortgage on that.

07) Missy Elliott feat. Pharrell Williams, WTF (Where They From)

If this decade’s taught me anything, it’s that tone policing is taken more seriously when the person doing it is directing it at their own. So to my fellow Rob Gordon/Flemings out there: what the Fox News did you think you were doing last Super Bowl? The proper response isn’t an old man yelling “I can’t believe these kids don’t know Ms. Demeanor!” at the Cloud; it’s informing the kids why Missy matters — how she sounded like she was from the future two decades ago and only a handful are even starting to catch up now, how before going stupid went national that thanks to Timbaland she had some of the craziest beats to make people dance that way anyhow, how she arguably could have a trilogy of Song of the Year title belts, how she overcame a litany of illnesses to get back into the game and then you put on her comeback single that sounds like maybe two people will have caught up to it in 2035, turn it up to 12 and — as the kids say — turn the fuck up.

06) Adele, Hello

The best cover of “Mr. Telephone Man” ever. In all seriousness, we never should have to wait over a thousand days for Adele to punch our heartstrings in the crotch; the difference with this off of 25 as to some of the work prior on 21 and 19 is that the scumbag who torched a relationship and smashed a good person’s heart? That call is coming from inside the house.

05) Beck, Dreams

Mr. Hansen may not always go nice and smooth, but sometimes he rhymes slow and sometimes he rhymes quick. You can hear the latter in rave-ups like “Sexx Laws” and “Mixed Business” and the former in slower and lusher songs like “Tropicalia” and “Lost Cause”. Here he manages to split the difference and ends up with the audial equivalent of the third bowl of porridge, a fast song that never soars to anything crazy but is still going above the advised speed limit due to the cocoon of new love and/or lust he sings about in such an infectious manner.

04) the Arcs, Outta My Mind

I love the Black Keys so much they’re my second-favorite Black Keys (my favorite, of course, is 50% of Alicia) so imagine my pleasant surprise when this side project contributed a lead single that competes with if not flatout beats some of that band’s best. Singing about sacrificing everything familia(r) and comfortable in order to push buttons to maintain sanity isn’t the newest territory in the music world, but that’s only because of the trueness of doing so, and few deliver it as well as this psychedelic garage rave-up homage.

03) Leon Bridges, Coming Home

And I also wrote about this (lodged at #33, a three too many if you asked me, which is why my black Rob Gordon/Fleming behind ended up doing this instead of sleeping or dreaming about bedding Daisy Ridley). But yeah — in addition to regurgitating words, make sure you catch the video.

02) Major Lazer feat. DJ Snake, Lean On

Wearing the crown that comes with being Song of the Summer means you’ve succeeded at every level and beaten the final boss. You’ve been played hundred if not thousands of times from bar speakers, passing cars, and people singing along to their personal devices as they walk the streets, and the reaction to the tune isn’t “Oh, Christ Possible, not this again” but an increase of volume. Here, the same fine people who brought Bubble Butt into the world put together a potent and delicious gumbo of reggae, electronica, dance music, and the sort of vibe that recalls youthful days while making an adult possibly want to dance or sway in a hammock and enjoy the indolence of a summer afternoon. And yet somehow that wasn’t enough to claim my number one spot, since it’s Saturday night and we’re in the spot and all.

01) Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk

And I also had a quick paragraph about this, as well, from the opening position.

Thanks to my Treblezine employers for allowing the reproductions. You should check them out in general if this sort of foolishness amused you but you also want more concrete, comprehensive and better music coverage.

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