Sorry I’m a little late on this one. Finals and whatnot. This was a pretty solid month for music. Not much in the way of earth-shattering singles, but we did get some hotly-anticipated returns by the likes of Eminem, Beyonce, Rihanna, N.E.R.D., Natasha Bedingfield, Ashanti, and many more. At least three members of One Direction put out new music (plus one Big Time Rush member and one Jonas Brother), Sia dropped a surprise Christmas album, and a ton of other artists were putting out great new music throughout the month, though things seemed to quiet down a bit towards the end. Still, only twenty singles made the list, and to kick things off, here’s a long-awaited release by DMX.
20) RUDOLPH THE REDNOSE REINDEER – DMX
Back in 2012, DMX did a radio interview where he performed a live cover of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That video went viral, five years passed, and now here we are. I’m not the type to put a ton of stock in novelty, but this is actually a really good cover. DMX’s off-the-wall energy brings sheer fun to a Christmas classic, aided by a really solid hip hop-infused instrumental. I was genuinely surprised by how good this turned out to be, and I like DMX.
19) TRAVELING LIGHT – Talib Kweli feat. Anderson .Paak
When he’s not engaging in pipin’ hot discourse on the world wide web, Talib Kweli still puts out music. Back in April, he dropped a solid EP with Styles P, and he’s already back with a full-length this month. The first single off that new album, “Traveling Light,” is a frenetic five-minute display of charisma and penmanship, slathered liberally with silky Anderson .Paak vocals. 20+ years into his career, Kweli’s as sharp as ever, and if you’re looking for bars, he’s got ’em in droves.
18) SOMETHING FOREIGN – SiR feat. ScHoolboy Q
SiR is the latest signee to Top Dawg Entertainment, and “Something Foreign” is his silky-smooth new single with fellow unconventionally-capitalized TDE crew member ScHoolboy Q. It’s got a cool, old-fashioned soul beat, with a late-night jazz club piano backing and rainy day drums. SiR’s unassuming voice carries free-flowing, flirty vocals, leading up to ScHoolboy’s show-stopping verse. Q doesn’t give out guest verses to just anyone, but when he comes through, he comes hard.
17) PIÑATA – Vice feat. Bia, Kap G, and Justin Quiles
This was the last song I decided to put in the top 20. It was between this, Louis Tomlinson’s new song, and a couple others. I ultimately chose “Piñata” because it was the one I was thinking about the most. It’s not perfect. It’s a little simple, it feels like it could’ve come out in 2014 or 2011 or maybe even 2009. The hook is pretty ridiculous. There’s a buildup, but no real drop, which can be irritating a lot of the time. But it’s just… fun. I love the hook, I love that ludicrous suh-winnng! sound effect, it’s just a really enjoyable, memorable song. I’ve also been meaning to put something by Kap G on one of these lists for a while. Mostly the other stuff, though.
16) CARTOONS – CupcakKe
“Cartoons” is exactly the kind of song CupcakKe shines on: a dizzying two-and-a-half-minutes of raw energy, lyricism, and unfettered personality. Everything about her is over the top, from her image to her raunchy lyrics to her indulgent beats. There’s lots of wonderful wordplay all over this track, but my personal favorite is probably “I’m a snack, so I attract Scooby Doos.” CupcakKe was one of the rap game’s biggest revelations this year, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
15) PINEAPPLE SKIES – Miguel
Miguel came back in a major way this month with a summery, idiosyncratic record full of soaring vocals, glitchy pop beats, and metaphorical critiques of American imperialism. “Pineapple Skies” is one of the sunnier tracks on the record, with beachy synths and assurances that “everything’s gonna be alright.” It’s a four-and-a-half-minute journey of ecstasy, one of the most blissfully enjoyable R&B songs to come out this year. After his 2015 album Wildheart was seen as a stagnation of sorts, “Pineapple Skies” is a welcome reinvention of Miguel.
14) FAKE HAPPY – Paramore
Speaking of new directions, Paramore traffics in depressing ’80s-infused pop jams now. “Fake Happy” runs in the same vein as “Hard Times” and many of the other tracks off After Laughter, one of the best albums of the pop punk band’s illustrious career to date. Conceptually, you get a lot of what “Fake Happy” is about from the title: the narrator is fake happy, and she’s trying not to confront her reality, noting “I bet everybody here is fake happy, too.” Hayley Williams delivers an excellent vocal performance, which I suppose is to be expected, but it comes out especially on this song in particular.
13) RODNEY, LEHMAN BROTHERS PROFITED FROM SLAVERY AND OTHER TALES – Lupe Fiasco
This is another track released via Twitter by Lupe Fiasco, featuring a handful of lyrics from the previous set. It’s also another eight-minute lyrical tirade by Lupe Fiasco, swimming from topic to topic effortlessly with legendary lyrical skill. You can also barely hear it. As the song opens, you listen and think “Oh, he must have recorded this on his phone, since he’s releasing it on Twitter and everything.” But as the song wears on, you notice some samples standing out in front of others, the beat becoming clearer, deeper, while Lupe’s voice fades into the background. I have no idea what he was going for with this, but it’s mesmerizing regardless.
12) OBSESSION – OK Go
The trouble with OK Go, or perhaps their entire strategy, is that they put so much time, money, and energy into their videos that the music often gets lost in the fray. Outside of “Here It Goes Again,” their biggest hit and potentially their best song, I can’t say I remember many of their songs. It’s hard to even get an idea of how I feel about them as a bad when the videos themselves are so dazzling. I like this one, though. Lyrically, it’s not the most revelatory stuff I’ve ever heard, but there’s something about the instrumental. Something about those space-age synths, the sparse use of hard rock guitar and cowbell. It’s simplistic in a lot of ways, but deceptively complex, and it’s as tightly-produced as we’ve come to expect from the band. This is one OK Go song I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
11) SOMETHING BOUT OUR LOVE – JONES
JONES is a British alt-pop artist whose first album came out late last year. I had never heard of her before this month. But if this song is any indication, she’s found a new fan. “Something Bout Our Love” is a sparkling disco-infused electropop track with an absolutely killer beat and a pretty solid hook. I don’t have too much to say about it, it’s just a great tune by an artist with tons of potential. Check it out, why dontcha?
10) STRANGERS – Sigrid
Speaking of big tunes, I’m really digging this song. I’ve heard Sigrid a few times before, and I always felt she had a certain je ne sais quoi that I admired. This song immediately stood apart from the pack, though. Its most obvious inspiration is 1989-era Taylor Swift: introspective lyrics, hard-hitting ’80s synths, that one “hey!” sound effect in the background, you get the idea. Still, Sigrid expands on Swift’s ideas, creating someone that sounds particularly modern while still wearing its influences on its sleeve. And what a hook. It stands about halfway between Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me,” and that’s high praise.
9) TISK – MellowHype
After being declared dead in January 2015, cult favorite hip-hop duo MellowHype (consisting of Odd Future’s Hodgy and Left Brain) return, sounding fresher than ever on “Tisk.” The track serves as a five-minute show of lyrical strength by Hodgy, who swims through complex wordplay and elongated syllables over the simple, mesmerizing Left Brain beat. I was impressed with a lot of the stuff on Hodgy’s most recent solo effort, but he’s really stepped up to the plate on this track. At one point, he uses the word “Lincoln” about six different ways in the span of a few seconds. I’ll admit I never listened to MellowHype in their heyday, but after this onslaught, I’ll be sure to keep my ears peeled.
8) SAY LESS – Ashanti feat. Ty Dolla $ign
After a few years of dormancy, early-’00s R&B it girl Ashanti is back on a new track with Ty Dolla $ign, produced by DJ Mustard, and it absolutely slaps. Musically, the beat is a slight step backwards for Mustard, who proved his prowess with Rihanna’s “Needed Me” last year, but despite him playing his old tricks, he’s clearly harnessed their power in a major way. The beat is infectious from start to finish, as Ashanti and Ty$ glide from hook to hook with no end in sight. I don’t want to jump the gun and say this is another hit for Ashanti, but with the right team behind her, it certainly has it.
7) JUICE – Chromeo
Chromeo is a group known for bringing an ’80s flair to their electropop bangers, and “Juice” might be their freshest yet. It’s delightfully corny, incessantly catchy, and it’s got a talkbox solo. What more could you want? The hook (“You got the juice / That’s why I keep pressing ya, pressing ya”) is pure camp brilliance. Earlier this month, I revisited Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic after it was nominated for Album of the Year. “Juice” embodies a similar spirit, and its swagger can’t be tamed.
6) LEMON – N.E.R.D. and Rihanna
Yes, after years of silence (SpongeBob soundtrack album notwithstanding), N.E.R.D. is back and as ahead of its time as ever. “Lemon” is an acquired taste; its pulsating beat feels a little too fast, and Pharrell’s whiny, repetitive vocals are just barely tolerable. But once Rihanna starts rapping, there’s no turning back. You’re hooked. Rihanna’s always carried the swagger of a rapper, and this song is all the evidence we need that she should pursue rapping on a larger scale. The world needs a Rihanna rap album, that’s all I’m gonna say.
5) HEY BOY – Natasha Bedingfield
You might remember Natasha Bedingfield from her two smash hit pop masterpieces, “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine.” Those two songs remain ingrained in the psyches of Generation Z, but little was heard of her since then, and she hasn’t released a full-length album since 2010. Now, the voice of a generation is back with “Hey Boy,” a swinging retro pop song taunting immature men in power. It’s iconic, it’s powerful, and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, when the world is in desperate need of A) shitty men to be taken down a few pegs and B) more Natasha Bedingfield. Also, apparently this song was co-written by Linda Perry? That’s fucking wild.
4) FINALLY IT’S CHRISTMAS – Hanson
For those of you not “in the know” who only faintly recall Hanson as mildly irritating ’90s teenyboppers, please be advised that they’ve since become the greatest Christian rock band of all time. Okay, it’s debatable whether they’re the greatest, or especially Christian, or rock, but they are a phenomenal pop rock group, and “Finally It’s Christmas” is a fine introduction to their many charms. It knows what it is, it gets you in the Christmas spirit, and it absolutely kicks ass in the process. As previously mentioned, Sia put out a Christmas album this month, and it had a few singles I seriously considered putting on the list, but at the end of the day, I haven’t heard a new Christmas song that works as well as “Finally It’s Christmas” in ages.
3) CHECK YA FABRICS – DRAM
DRAM has quickly set himself apart as an artist for whom I’ll drop everything to listen when he puts out a new single. “Check Ya Fabrics,” produced by the incomparable Rick Rubin, is one of his best songs to date. It’s a simmering slow-burn full of dizzying observations on DRAM’s own obsession with clothing. The chipmunk vocals deterred many fans, but I think they suit the song perfectly and make for a delightfully weird experience, which is what all the best DRAM songs deliver. There’s something so perfect about how it all comes together. I don’t know who it’s for, or why it was made, or what mood it’s trying to convey, but I love it all the same.
2) PUT JEWELS ON IT – Statik Selektah feat. Run the Jewels
I sort of surprised myself with how high I ended up putting this on the list. I love Statik, and I love RTJ, but it’s not like I was clamoring to see these two forces collide. There’s just something about the way they work together on this track. It’s rare to hear an RTJ track without El-P producing, but the duo’s lyrical stylings suit Statik Selektah’s refined old-school sound effortlessly. This is also one of the more impressive lyrical displays by RTJ to date. It most reminds me of the song they did with DJ Shadow last year, “Nobody Speak,” and as much as I love that song, I’m tempted to say this one outdoes it. I may come to regret putting this so high up on the list, but I’m certainly not there yet, so enjoy it!
1) KIWI – Harry Styles
November is the month Harry Styles got absolutely robbed by the Grammys, receiving a resounding zero nominations for his beloved debut Harry Styles or its lauded lead single “Sign of the Times.” November was also the month that the album’s latest single “Kiwi” was released, and it proves why Harry deserved better. I’ve probably listened to “Kiwi” more than any other song on the album, including “Sign of the Times.” It’s just so infectious, so fun, so raw. In it, Harry plays around with vintage punk aesthetics to describe a debauched encounter with an anonymous woman (ostensibly a Kiwi). If anything, it’s a show of Harry’s sheer artistic range, transitioning seamlessly from boy band fluff to glammy, indulgent ballads to this fuzzy, unfiltered rock. There’s some great lyrical moments (“It’s New York baby, always jacked up / Holland Tunnel for a nose, it’s always backed up”), but what drives the song is Harry’s sheer energy, hollering classic rhythms with a delightful intensity. It kicks ass.