2015 the year in… pop music
We dish out the awards and celebrate the weird and wonderful moments that defined the year in pop music.
2015 was an important year in pop. 1D broke up, before many of us had a chance to listen to any of their songs, before many of my friends (though far from all) had a chance to sleep with Harry. But don't worry, the dream is not over, because pop has not been so brilliant in a long, long while.
BEST POP STAR... Justin Bieber - Sorry
Not so long ago it seemed that Justin Bieber's career was going completely off the rails: he was urinating in the kitchens of restaurants, he was risking his life in illegal drag races, there were rumours that he had coldly abandoned his pet monkey, Mally, in a German airport.
Now he's back with the biggest songs of the year: Sorry, and What Do You Mean?, and of course the Skrillex-and-Diplo-produced anthem Where Are Ü Now, which was the highlight of most of this summer's parties. At the beginning of the year I'd never intentionally listened to a single Justin song, couldn't even name one - now I listen everyday. As for Mally the monkey? They were emotionally reunited this spring on Comedy Central.
BEST BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST... Fetty Wap - Come My Way
A lot of rap music is really just pop these days, and Fetty Wap has twisted his songs into a perfect sort of rap as pop - melodically sung, full of unusual intonation, voices trembling, close to breaking. Having released a couple of absolutely colossal songs, Trap Queen and My Way, he's amassed hundreds of millions of plays and blown out car soundsystems the world over, and become the most important one-eyed musician since Sammy Davis Jr.
Honourable mentions must also go to Young Thug - a rapper who, rather than writing out his oft-incomprehensible lyrics before going into the studio, instead draws an abstract symbol representing how he's feeling - for songs such as Again in which he continues his ongoing mission to make the most comprehensively offensive music video imaginable whilst dressed like a mannequin in the window of All Saints.
BEST LOOK... Björk - Lionsong
Björk came back with heart-breaking album Vulnicura about her marriage to Matthew Barney falling apart, sublimely produced by Arca and The Haxan Cloak. Around the same time a story spread across the city that she had ordered a Red Bull in a London curry-house and poured it over her curry before having it - make of that what you will.
Lionsong is depressing and beautiful and its video, directed by Inez & Vinoodh and styled by i-D contributor Mel Ottenberg, portrays Björk as an opera singer from space, wearing a porcupine-halo of quills by up-and-coming Japanese milliner Maiko Takeda. Which only goes to show: one day you're studying fashion at the Royal College of Art, the next you might be making pop's most otherworldly and celestial look.
Lastly, Mica Levi's stirring karaoke mix of Lionsong is also a must-listen, although nigh impossible to sing along to.
BEST ARTWORK... Arca - Mutant
For a while now Arca (Alejandro Ghersi) and his best friend and closest collaborator Jesse Kanda have been sculpting an entirely new aesthetic out of unfathomably mathematically complex 3D-animation software, and pushing music visuals into another dimension of baroque grotesquerie (and sometimes being thrown off Instagram for their troubles). This album cover, to me, looks like a Leigh Bowery nightmare made of congealed bodily fluids.
They've also been working with actual video footage, such as Jesse's intimate, nude self-portrait for Front Load which was not allowed on YouTube and designated "NSFW" by all manner of music and style sites. He tweeted in riposte, "it's gentle, beautiful, feminine… how we as 'straight men' feel sometimes."
BEST TOPIC... Hailee Steinfeld - Love Myself
Hailee Steinfeld's first single is an ode to onanism, a paean to masturbatory pleasure with lyrics like "I'm gonna put my body first, and love me so hard 'til it hurts," and she has admitted to as much many, many times over in interviews. I attended her EP launch at the weekend and, luckily everyone kept their hands where I could see them.
BEST RECORD DEAL... Danny L Harle - Forever
PC Music have been inhabiting that seldom-inhabited space in-between Goldsmiths performance art troupe and bubblegum Korean pop stars for a few years, and this autumn they announced their partnership with Columbia Records (meaning, I believe, that they have been bought by a major label) with this extraordinary manifesto posted on Facebook announcing their intentions to create:
"A NEW, PERFECT BREED OF MAJOR LABEL. A NEW, HIGHLY ADVANCED POP WEAPON… A MULTI-TIER ATTACK EXPOSING THE RADICAL DNA OF CHART MUSIC, AND THE HEART AND SOUL BEHIND EVERY LAB CREATION. TO BE CONTINUED..."
Their first official signing is Danny L Harle who recorded a wonderful Christmas cover for us this time last year, and his Broken Flowers EP is out now. All of which is very good news for pop.
Earlier in the year, in a Rolling Stone interview with label boss A. G. Cook and closely affiliated producer Sophie the latter explained, "I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing… And I think it's a very valid challenge - just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally." Which is a brilliant way of looking at pop in 2015, as an art form that overwhelms the senses whilst leaving the heart untouched.
BEST VIDEO: Life Sim - IDL
However one PC Music track that is full of emotion, far too much emotion - for me, anyway - is this, with its unrelentingly sentimental and teasingly heartstring-playing video directed by South London artist Daniel Swan. This song just builds, and builds and builds, and builds and builds and builds, and then…
BEST LYRICS: Anohni - 4 Degrees
Antony Hegarty is back, at last, only she's called Anohni and singing a devastating apocalyptic protest song about environmental catastrophe and global warming, and now she's produced by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke. It's an Earth Song for this moment in history. One of my mates complains that there are no lyrics here to match Michael Jackson's "What about elephants? Have we lost their trust?" but actually I love Antony's "And all those rhinos and all those big mammals, I wanna see them lying, crying in the fields," and "All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures - I wanna see them burn," and just generally all that dark imagery about watching the world collapse. It's like a Hieronymus Bosch painting made into a song.
I think it's beautiful that pop stars are making protest songs again, whether it's Anohni's 4 Degrees or M.I.A.'s Borders because why shouldn't pop music address the troubled world around us? However whether you want protest pop, or masturbation pop, or heartbreak pop, or apologetic, questioning pop, or emotionally bereft but really loud and bright pop - it's all out there for you this year, and it's really, really good.
Text Dean Kissick