Favourite songs of 2015

Final list, I promise. Usual rules: one song per artist, with entries pushed up if a whole body of work needs recognition. The list is mercifully shorter than last year's mammoth two-parter, partly because I've listened to more albums this year, and relied less on browsing soundcloud for a quick fix. Most of the top 10 has an album behind it, the rest is largely grime loosies – a reflection of the resurgence the genre has had in 2015. I've tried to compile a soundcloud playlist with some of the above (plus a few other faves) here.

This one in at number 20 – as I've just discovered it. But it's grime at its most youthful and infectious – shamelessly biting the drums and horns from Amerie's '1 Thing' and laying them over a turbocharged 2-step beat. Elf Kid is just 18, a member of Novelist's Lewisham-based The Square, and self-consciously channeling Tinchy at his precocious best. He's just one of many examples demonstrating a genre in rude health.

19. Sir Spyro feat. Teddy Brukshot, Lady Chann & Killa P - Top A Top
I had some difficulties with my portable music player at the beginning of the year, which meant falling back on Rinse FM podcasts for a couple of months. Spyro's Grime Show was a go-to regular, and while the sets were wonderful (and best watched on youtube for the full effect), some of the dubs he would spin for the first hour were incandescent. For a little while I got a sense of what it must be like to listen to grime like a real fan, following DJs every week and trying to piece together tracklists of unreleased material. This is one such nugget, recorded and uploaded to youtube, but still without a proper release.

18. Jammz - 128 Bars (prod. Spooky)
If Kanye West's 12 minute account of how he became a rapper at the end of College Dropout was condensed into four minutes, it might sound a bit like this. Jammz rattles through his 128 bars in double-time, touching on some personal shit along the way only to run away from it – trying to get to the aspirational boasting that is every MC's bread and butter. Spooky lifts Kanye's Dropout-era sped-up samples to suggest a space for reminiscence, but the barrage Jammz delivers shows a man looking forward not back, and keeping busy in order to forget the poverty he grew up in.

17. Wolf Alice - Your Loves Whore
Grunge revivalists, apparently (or maybe not). I prefer them channeling Angels & Airwaves, tbh. The riffing is stadium-sized, but the verses stop and start along to Ellie Rowsell's flirty daydream as she gazes at the object of her idolatry. This is desire at its most naive, idealistic and obsessive – worth every compromise, every abasement. I'm sure Roswell has grown out of it, and has more self-respect. But she still remembers what it feels like.

16. Darq E Freaker feat. Dai Burger - Choppin Necks
Darq E Freaker's clanging grime bangers have the whiff of the pre-school playground. In his hands, the silliness lurking under so much of rap's machismo is brought to the surface, and painted in primary colours. Dai Burger's flow is cut price Nicki Minaj, but it works perfectly in this context – brash, lewd, arch, and very very catchy.

15. Kero Kero Bonito - Picture This
I wrote last year that all of KKB's songs sound like manifestos, and this one's no exception: "hold your camera high, and click / exercise your right to picture this". Refreshingly, attempts to satirise the selfie generation are thin on the ground. The knowing send-ups that sink so much of PC Music is eschewed here for pop music pure and simple. And honest. You know what? It is freaking amazing that we can capture and preserve moments of happiness that would otherwise get lost or rewritten by our imperfect memories. This song is great at not only encapsulating the fun of taking those snaps, but the fond recollection of reviewing them years later. The unhealthy side (competitive snapping and sharing, FOMO perusal of facebook walls) isn't even hinted at. It's about being selfie-stick-armed and proud.

14. Kelela - A Message (prod. Arca & Boots)
For my money, the best fka twigs track released this year. Much like 2014's much admired 'Pendulum', this deals with an emotionally distant lover slowly slipping through your fingers. But while twigs is inwardly fractured and contorted by the pressure of hiding her dissatisfaction, Kelela is remarkably composed – only a slight hesitation is audible when she wonders if it's too hard to face what will be lost. Her gliding vocals over Arca's stop-start production captures the sensation of rising above a difficult situation, and moving on.

13. Sufjan Stevens - Drawn To The Blood
I lost track of Sufjan sometime around The Age of Adz, but with Carrie & Lowell he returned to familiar territory, and I found my way back in again. This is more of an interlude than a full song, with the last third simply being a wash of oblique synths – signalling an epiphany, or maybe something a bit more sinister. While Sufjan balances the anguish of other songs with moments of contentment and acceptance, 'Drawn To The Blood' leaves all that to the wordless denouement. The rest is just rage and betrayal. A loving God does not shield the faithful from suffering: "what did I do to deserve this?", "tell me what I have done?"

12. SafOne feat. Trilla, PRessure0121 & Bomma B - She Wants A Man From Brum (prod. Preditah)
Grime hasn't been a London thing for a while now, but while the instrumental stuff has gone truly global, MCs from outside the UK capital have been thin on the ground. 2015 felt like the year this changed, and the most fertile spot for new voices seems to be Birmingham. 'She Wants A Man from Brum' is bullshit of the tallest order (very much doubt that SafOne's link "wants a man that rolls with a gun", for example). The fictional women described by the four lads are status symbols – props to (bruised?) self esteem. They are hot, rich, lascivious, and crucially, not from Brum. The song is a subliminal plea for recognition. And it looks like it's finally on its way.

11. Fetty Wap feat. Monty - Jugg (prod. Salik Singletary)
Fetty Wap isn't a rapper – a fact recognised by the sagacious staff of Islington Libraries, who've shelved his debut album in the R&B section. Instead the man is a wellspring of catchy hooks, which are crooned in a deep, autotune-slathered baritone. 'Jugg' doubles down on the exuberant sounds Fetty can emit from his throat – a ponderously slow strip-club anthem which stretches the warbling almost past endurance. The less-than-impressive Monty (who accompanies Wap for half the songs on the album) has his finest moment here, wringing everything he can get out of a single melodic phrase. I can imagine this stuff would test the patience of many a listener, but for me there's been little in 2015 that has sounded more joyous.

10. Stormzy - Know Me From (prod. ZDot)
"Got bit by a snake, but I'm over that / Can't chat about gyal, I get loads of that". With such premium non-sequiteurs, it's no wonder Stormzy bigs up Wiley at the end of his breakout single. This is a no-holds-barred grime tune, with a don't stand by me attitude and a fierce suspicion of fakers cashing in without doing the hard graft. But what sticks is the infectious giddiness of Stormzy's delivery, a highed-up playful energy that gives him the confidence to proclaim "Stiff Chocolate" as one of his many aliases. The sentiment in the the lyrics is confrontational and uncompromising, but the personality is pop all the way through.

9. CHVRCHES - Clearest Blue
A song of two halves built around a very big drop. And fittingly it's about meeting people in the middle – the tension between yielding and resisting at the heart of all relationships, romantic and otherwise. Mayberry sings about being an object 'shaped' between the earth and sky, between 'every open eye', and having to defend her ground against the demands of others. Her coos during the build are countered by one of those colossal synth hooks CHVRCHES do so well. The muscular second half is an assertion of confidence, ready for EDM-sized venues. But Mayberry's vocal echoes over the barrage are pliant, almost pleading: 'will you meet me half-a-way'. Bluster is for teenagers. Adults have to compromise.

8. K. Michelle - Love Em All (Toyboy & Robin Remix)
Partly here to make up for not getting around to the K. Michelle' album until this year. Toyboy & Robin leave the verses well alone, but cut-up the anthemic chorus into UKG-style vocal samples, and gird it all with lush piano chords ready-made for Balearic sunsets. And in the process, K.Michelle's victory in her personal battle of the sexes becomes something universal – a loved up, open-armed embrace of everyone on the dancefloor.

7. Abra - Pride
Over hypnotic snares and piano lines, Abra spills out her lovelorn guts. This is obsession felt like a haunting, a desperation that eats away at your self-respect until you are reduced to begging for a touch or a glimpse of your beloved. Abra's 80s R&B sound acquires gothic overtones here, massed choirs writhing around the chorus. It's more representative of the (brilliant) album than the coquettish single 'Roses', and it shows Abra to be a glum romantic idealist at heart.

A bit like the CHVRCHES pick, this is kitted out with big drops and synth hooks made for festival stages. And the lyrics are similarly cosmic – people as circling interstellar bodies, lifetimes stretching to aeons, a second chance blown up into "another eternity". The space between Megan James and her partner stretches out only to be collapsed, the widescreen chorus yearning for the close-ups in the verses. The orbits of a relationship become like the laws of physics, psyches mapped like kinetic forces. Volition becomes abstracted, a curious kind of out-of-body experience. The weapon-grade thuds of the synth riff are a little too on the nose, but James's blissful "o darling"s capture some of the magic of the first album.

5. Dawn Richard - Billie Jean (prod. Noisecastle III)
Knowledge of the MJ classic isn't strictly necessary to get the point – this is an update from the female perspective. And although Billie rejects the notion that she is anyone's "girl", she's still a "wet dream", trading clothes for vodka bottles "in a city full of thirsty hoes". The predicament of making a living out of your status as an object must be all too familiar for a hard-grafting R&B artist like Dawn Richard. For most of Blackheart she's moved on to loftier concerns – musically as well as lyrically. But here she's in the grim business of crowding men out of her life and generally making them uncomfortable – half rapping the verses and pitching her voice almost comically low on the hook. Subverting your objectification may still demand you to compromise yourself, but for Dawn this is only the first step towards freedom.

4. Future - No Basic (prod. Zaytoven)
I haven't been able to fully digest all of Future's output this year (haven't even got around to DS2). But the work with Zaytoven on Beast Mode was the most instantly appealing. Future's subject matter doesn't stray far from the trad trap rap topics, even if he adds the occasional confession of drug dependency and oblique reference to the end of his marriage to Ciara. Zaytoven enlivens this mix with a truly luxurious blend of piano trills and head-nodding beats. My fave is this city-sized paean to the daily grind, wrapped up around a song about how great your car is. It's like 2013 Kevin Gates favourite 'Just Ride' meets Lil Wayne masterpiece 'Hustler Muzik' (in my head anyway).

I wrote the above a week ago, and since then I've been chaining 'March Madness' and 'Fuck Up Some Commas' and a lot of other gems other people have picked out from the post-Honest mixtape trilogy (still haven't got around to DS2!) 'No Basic' may not reach those highs, but it was my way into the post-breakup anti-hero Future of 2015.

3. Riko - Ghost Chilli (prod. Rapid)
This year's obligatory inclusion from Riko is a soundcloud loosie over Rapid's 'Pepper Riddim' (it was on Rapid's EP for Butterz, but those guys really need to put this out in some form as well). The relentless forward motion of the instrumental is more than matched by Riko's outrageous gun talk. 'Ghost Chilli' revels in images of war – Riko has long described himself as the 'London city warlord' – the Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe of the urban jungle. But here the violence pushes the boundaries of taste even for a grime tune. The closest approximation of the chorus is: "if boy eva try this / rise up me gun like ISIS", which will become less funny if there's an attack on London similar to the one in Paris.

Arguably, these unsettling undercurrents have always been present in grime – see Trim semi-seriously flirting with the Taliban from at least 2007 on. This is shock tactics to be sure, but the nose-thumbs at the establishment hint at how grime has always positioned itself – harnessing the humiliation of powerlessness, and flipping it right back at the listener as an assertion of power. That brutally uncompromising form of aspiration is what makes it so exhilarating. But it's zero-sum – success is predicated on the humiliation, defeat, and enslavement of other competitors. The prize isn't only escape from subsistence living, but the invigorating sensation of dominion over others.

2. Sam Binga feat. Redders, Deft, Chimpo & Fox - Steppin V.I.P.
Sam Binga has had a banner year, and this more than anything else on the list is a stand in for the artist's entire 2015 output. It's the victory lap at the end of a great album, a reworked version of a track from a great EP, with a bunch of MCs jumping on to toast the year away. Redders, the star of so many Binga cuts, slows down his delivery and offers some of his funniest bars, although nothing beats his ad-libbed "bingie bingie bing" at the beginning.

1. Redlight x Tinashe - Pretend
Like the K. Michelle entry, here partly because I didn't get around to the album last year. That said, I could have picked something from the Amethyst EP to make up for it, but this bangs an awful lot harder. There's very little of Tinashe left on Redlight's remix. Instead, a slice of her vocal gets looped as the intro, voice becoming percussion until the first drop, after which successive layers of drums and bass weigh in. Redlight's D&B origins are betrayed by the multiple rhythmic accents added over the beat. But here the bass is deep and warm, the swung drums inviting, the vocals oozing like strawberry milkshake. It's an invitation to pull shapes like no other I received in 2015.

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