The most game-changing tracks of the last 12 months, from RiRi’s revenge anthem to Sophia Grace’s viral Technicolor smash
20. KEITH APE – “IT G MA”
If one song could sum up this year’s Korean rap invasion, it would be “It G Ma” – the viral supernova headed up by gold-grilled trap king Keith Ape and backed up by other, equally eclectic members of The Cohort crew he belongs to, including mastermind JayAllDay and Seoul’s underground rapper Okasian. Yes, the track takes heavy influence from ATL trap originals, and yes, it gives a big, unapologetic nod to OG Maco’s “U Guessed It”, but its clanging beats, uber-aggressive spitfire chorus and neon purple-splashed music video give “It G Ma” a wonderfully weird, explosive life of its own.
19. ABRA – “ROSES”
If commercial pop this year belonged to maximalists like Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, DIY princess Abra was their underground, oddball equivalent. With dance-ready jams that are always slightly, intentionally off-key, the Awful Records upstart knows how to craft a perfectly shaped Malibu-and-Coke pop tune with a rebellious, lo-fi twist. Nowhere is this style clearer than in “Roses”, the song that burst out of May this year just in time to be our on-repeat summer banger. Ending the track by repeating the line, “I’m young and I’ll waste you away,” “Roses” is a love song with a dose of darkness, earning the artist her self-proclaimed title of ‘Darkwave Duchess’.
18. DONMONIQUE – “PILATES”
“Got Kendall, got Kylie, got Miley,” Brooklyn rapper DonMonique drawls over icy blip-studded production and spaced-out hand clicks, “Got Kendall, got Kyle, got Selena – and we all pulled up in the beamer.” Far from being just a squad-goals hip hop anthem, “Pilates” is a woozy, slinky ode to drugs and parties, topped off with a barely decipherable dose of side-eye directed towards our favourite Hollywood kids. What makes this track even better is the amusing thought that Kendall, Kylie, Miley and Selena might have got their hands on it, and probably got stoned and listened to it at least once, right?
17. J HUS – “DEM BOY PAIGON”
It’s been an intense year for east London’s brightest new rapper J Hus. After being stabbed five times this September, he was pictured making gang signs from his hospital bed, sparking a backlash from anti-knife campaigners for promoting violence. All that aside, the fiercely talented MC was responsible for one of the best mixtapes of the year (The 15th Day) and the remarkable Afrobeat-grime hit “Dem Boy Paigon”, which spent the summer being blasted out of car windows and racked up more than 3.5 million YouTube hits seemingly overnight. With its semi-sung lyrics, lean-’n’-bop beats and unapologetic 90s pop references, it’s one of the most on-fire creations we’ve heard all year.
16. TINASHE – “PARTY FAVORS”
Tinashe might have spent the last couple of years evolving from cult mixtape queen to R&B’s brightest hope, but she never dropped the alt-DIY edge that kept her kicking in the underground. In “Party Favors”, the 22-year-old singer/producer melts a woozy falsetto over heavy-lidded, half-baked beats like a sultry ode to getting leaned out, messy and sexy at the same time. “I got some party favours for you,” she sing-slurs on loop, like that one girl at the party that fixates on that one thing. Although instead of getting irritating, the track twists and curls into one of this year’s most addictive 4am jams. Shout out to the version with a Young Thug verse too.
15. HOLLY HERNDON – “INTERFERENCE”
Holly Herndon’s ability to take the most inhuman elements of digital noise and shape them into something organic and accessible – poppy, even – is always astonishing. In “Interference”, the innovative artist uses deep, shivering bass, squelching electronics, brushes of white noise and warped, alien-like vocal shapes to create a track that throbs with chaos, but still stands as one cohesive creation. “There’s just a seamless fusion between the digital and physical world in what I’m doing,” Herndon told us earlier this year. “It seems incoherent, but it’s a new kind of coherence. The coherence of the internet. It’s like a new way of our brains organising things – everything at once.”
14. CL – “HELLO BITCHES”
As CL’s upcoming American solo debut dangles tantalisingly on the horizon, our obsession with Korea’s most badass superstar – 2NE1’s singer/rapper Lee Chae-rin – is quickly reaching boiling point. While her earlier collab with Diplo, RiFF RAFF and OG Maco (“Doctor Pepper”) gave us a taster, it’s the banging, dance-floor thud of “Hello Bitches” that got our insides flipping. Flitting between English and Korean dialect, and rapping over Middle Eastern melodies and lurching bass, CL sticks a (literal) middle finger up to basics. “Hello Kitty getting hella old,” she raps, “Want me to love them long time, and I tell ‘em no.” CL might have caught our attention as the Rihanna of K-pop style, but she’s since evolved into an artist that defies comparisons.
13. ARCA – “VANITY”
We’ve been obsessed with Venezuelan producer Arca ever since his Stretch 2 EP on cult label UNO NYC and 2013’s game-changing production turns on Kanye’s Yeezus and FKA twigs’ EP2. Since then, the Dazed 100 alumnus has drawn us deeper and deeper into his nightmarish, dystopian universe – an other-world propped up by Jesse Kanda’s macabre, alien-like visual alchemy. This year saw Arca push music’s boundaries even further with Mutant, an album that merged beauty and ugliness as if they were the same thing, and standing at the forefront of this creation was “Vanity”, a cut-’n’-spliced, ice-filled track that danced between fear and indulgence, minimalism and chaos, all within the same breath.
12. KEHLANI – “THE WAY (FT. CHANCE THE RAPPER)”
Earlier this year, we broke down all the reasons that Kehlani’s mixtape You Should Be Here is one of the best of 2015, and seven months later, our obsession with the fearless alt-R&B star lives on. Yes, she turns it up on every track, but it’s the slinky, off-kilter bedroom jam “The Way” with Chance the Rapper that stands out like its shining figurehead. “It’s the way you walk, the way you talk, babe, it’s the way you love, the way you fuck,” she sings, her silky-smooth voice gliding over late 90s R&B vibes, like TLC with a future-shock twist. It’s a song that oozes with self-aware sexuality and sparkles with the sheer fun of it.
11. STORMZY – “KNOW ME FROM”
This year’s new wave of grime kings threw up all sorts of treasures, from Novelist’s easy street anthem “Ignorant and Wot” to old-timer Wiley keeping it lit with his quickfire inspirational track “Chasing the Art”. But for all the grime that rolled off London’s streets like it was 2005, one man (and one track) stood out like a lightning bolt on a clear day. Stormzy’s “Know Me From” brims with lyrical wit from start to finish, its winking, lo-fi video and production from P.Dot glimmering with throwback flair. “If grime’s dead then how am I here?” he spits, “Big man like me with a beard, look how am I scared?” He pins up the question and hammers it in, making it impossible to disagree.
10. MABEL – “KNOW ME BETTER”
Sometimes a pop song seems to spring out of nowhere and floor you, leaving a comet trail of questions in its wake: Who? Her name’s what? She came from where? This is what happened when 19-year-old Mabel posted “Know Me Better” on to Soundcloud earlier this year, an instantly replayable, truth-telling jam with a chorus that sticks like syrup. “Doesn’t matter what you wear now that I’ve seen you like this,” she sings, her voice a glimmering, soulful presence over 90s-style piano lines and trip-pop production. “I thought I knew you but there’s something I missed.” She’s also the youngest daughter of riotous pop icon Neneh Cherry and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey, so no wonder she knows how to craft a standout song with staying power.
9. ALICE GLASS – “STILLBIRTH”
When Alice Glass left Crystal Castles last year, few would have predicted what would come a few months later. Her debut solo track “Stillbirth” marked an explosive, punch-to-the-gut moment where she screamed, “I’ve been waiting for you to die” over apocalyptic stabbing synths, her rage so palpable that you could almost feel heat radiating from the speakers when it blasted out. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) just the relentless, buzz-wire synths, treacle-thick wall of distortion and bile-fuelled vocals that make this track a standout, it was the powerful statement against abuse that she posted alongside it. Glass used her sheer force of being to confront a damaging experience, and twist it into something cathartic, positive and fearless.
8. KANYE WEST – “ALL DAY” (ft ALLAN KINGDOM, THEOPHILUS LONDON & PAUL MCCARTNEY)
When Kanye West rocked up at this year’s Brit Awards to perform “All Day” with a crowd of hooded UK grime artists in tow (Skepta, Stormzy, Novelist, Jammer, Fekky, Krept and Konan) some viewers found it patronising that a longstanding UK genre would need US help, while others lauded Kanye for giving grime the spotlight it had always deserved. Wherever you stood, it’s hard to deny that the weird intersection between grime and hip hop can make magic. With Yeezy’s distinctive spaced-out, dominant energy alongside the vivid, jagged grime-inspired beats, “All Day” feels powerful and rebellious simultaneously, a triumphant reminder of Kanye’s ability to push at the edges of what’s possible.
7. RIHANNA – “BITCH BETTER HAVE MY MONEY”
“Don’t act like you forgot / I call the shots, shots, shots.” Rihanna’s instantly recognisable voice slices through the track’s bouncing trap beats like a knife to a finger. “Bitch better have my money! Bitch better have my money!” RiRi might not have dropped an album in three years (ANTI, where are you?), but she’s arguably bigger than ever, and this uber-confident, tongue-in-cheek revenge anthem served up a stark reminder of her powers. Coupled with a brilliantly controversial music video dripping in cult film references, already-iconic style moments and, of course, blood – “Bitch Better Have My Money” marked a timeless addition to the Rihanna canon.
6. JUSTIN BIEBER – “WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
I never thought I’d say that Justin Bieber – the same boy who sang “Baby”, pissed into a mop bucket and spat at his fans – could emanate style and sex appeal, but in the cinematic, neon-sheened video for “What Do You Mean?” the pop prince-turned-king is so hot it actually hurts. That aside, this tropical house-flecked, slicked-back pop track marked an unexpected foray into brilliance, with Bieber’s effortless, ice-clear falsetto acting as a flagrant reminder of the undeniable talent that made people notice him in the first place. Coupled with Jack Ü’s shimmering EDM masterpiece “Where Are Ü Now?” and Bieber’s literal and figurative apology “Sorry”, his transformation has proved hard to shake off. A far call from Bieber’s corny beginnings, “What Do You Mean?” (which was co-produced by himself) emerged from 2015 as a smart, certified banger.
5. GRIMES – “FLESH WITHOUT BLOOD”
We always knew our favourite pop powerhouse would deliver on her third album Art Angels, and deliver she did, with the syrupy-sweet kiss-off “Flesh Without Blood” emerging as the jewel in the crown. “You claw, you fight, you lose, got a doll that looks just like you,” she sings, her whispery-high vocals floating over pop-punk guitar and a shimmering, hook-driven electronic melody, “Remember when we used to say, ‘I love you’ almost every day?” Emerging halfway between Grimes’ DIY, lo-fi aesthetic and her ability to craft perfectly shaped hooks, “Flesh Without Blood” is the anti-pristine pop song that we can’t get enough of.
4. SOPHIA GRACE – “BEST FRIENDS”
Twelve-year-old Sophia Grace’s viral, Technicolor smash “Best Friends” was the best pop song to come bounding out of January, and easily this year’s most fun. With its uber-catchy, instantly replayable chorus and production that veers between the style of DJ Mustard and the candy-coated sounds of PC Music, “Best Friends” marks a heavy dose of unexpected, infectious brilliance. It shouldn’t be dismissed as a tweeny-bopper anthem, either. With a girl-empowerment code that takes cues from Sophia’s idols, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, the track sticks two (non-explicit) fingers up to society’s limitations of what young girls ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, and does so with a dash of lip-gloss and an avalanche of pink tutus. “No one to defend us, no one to defend us,” Sophia sings in Autotuned melody. “We gon’ make through singing like we do, we gon’ laugh at them boys when they talk to us.” It’s a message that holds resonance, whatever your age.
3. FKA TWIGS – “IN TIME”
FKA twigs has always been an artist that sets the standard, and when she released her audiovisual EP M3LL155X, it arrived as a beautiful, fearless avalanche of pregnancy, sex dolls and voguing, marking one of the most radical and defiant creations to arrive this year. Leading the way was “In Time”, an attitude-packed track that felt like it was aimed at every online troll, journalist and misogynist that has tried to silence her and other women. “You’ve got a goddamn nerve,” she spits, her Autotuned vocals rising over clattering rhythms and intricate production. Message aside, it’s also just a banging track; shaking with bass and perfect to dance to.
2. KENDRICK LAMAR – “ALRIGHT”
Kendrick Lamar’s third album To Pimp a Butterfly hit everyone like a 200mph cargo train. With its free-falling jazz complexity, explosively skillful wordplay and dizzying rush of anger directed towards white supremacy, the album was fearless in its musicality and endless in its scope. While many of the tracks could be considered some of this year’s best (“i”, “King Kunta”, “The Blacker the Berry”) it was his hopeful, post-depression anthem “Alright” that glued itself to the public consciousness at a time when it was needed most. Chanted as protesters left a Black Lives Matter conference earlier this year, “Alright” has become a rallying cry for solidary in the face of racial hate.
1. YOUNG THUG – “PACIFIER”
If there was one artist that embodied what it means to be radical in 2015, it was 24-year-old Atlanta rapper Young Thug. With his reckless swagger, shining rows of gold teeth and flamboyant sense of style, Young Thug is a misfit hero who has ripped up the hip hop orthodoxy from the off, and redefined what it means to be punk in the 21st century.
In a Dazed cover interview for the autumn issue, the ATL rapper revealed that he thinks he “can do a perfect song in ten minutes”, and while this sounds like an ambitious claim, it’s hard to deny that the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced track “Pacifier” is exceptional. Brimming with combustible energy, the track shakes, bounces and bursts, his signature yelps and rasping exclamations tumbling out at 100mph. “Drinkin’ on this Easter pink, I feel like an egg, attracted to these drugs, I feel like a fuckin’ fed,” he booms in a barely intelligible slur, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened.