Dec 15

Popular Crystal Ball: 2015 – At Least I Can Say That I’ve Tried

FT + New York London Paris Munich17 comments • 1,507 views

I must glumly report that my relationship with contemporary music seems to be broken. Not because I dislike it. The distillate of year-end lists I’ve been playing this week is full of wonders. But the part of me that knew where and how to find those things for myself has vanished. My desire to gatekeep went years before. And often once I do find new music, it’s like parts of a jigsaw where I’ve lost the box and half the pieces. What consequences this will ultimately have for Popular are uncertain. Still, the hits keep coming and they don’t stop coming, and some of them are better than others. Here are the records that reached Number 1 in the second half of 2015, arranged in order, from best to worst.

1. JUSTIN BIEBER – “Sorry”: The production’s the thing here – that clip-clop beat and the tinny phone-alert hoots, shrieks and miniature riffs. Bieber is, as ever, a malicious little fucker but the particular combination here – entitlement, self-justification, and maybe even real contrition – is savagely familiar.

2. ADELE – “Hello”: Balladry as logistics – all about maneouvering that chorus into position and letting it detonate. Its simplicity of ambition – go big then go home – makes it my favourite Adele single, I guess.

3. KDA ft TINIE TEMPAH and KATY B – “Rumble (Turn The Music Louder)”: Uses Tinie better than anything since “Pass Out”, i.e. he’s bearable. Uses Katy B at all, which pushes it up this list.

4. JUSTIN BIEBER – “What Do You Mean”: A snapshot of an grossly unhealthy relationship, viewed through a filter of emotional illiteracy and garnished with the sweetest woodblock sounds money can buy. Some pop makes me miss being young. This really doesn’t, which is not entirely a weakness.

5. DAVID ZOWIE – “House Every Weekend”: In the vocals there’s a little – just a little – of that old house music dread. I approve.

6. LITTLE MIX – “Black Magic”: Sounds like an off-brand out-take from 1989, so hardly awful. But trying and failing to work out exactly what it reminds me of has made it as as annoying as it is pleasant.

7. ONE DIRECTION – “Drag Me Down”: There’s an urgency to this – despite the overdone whoah-whoa stuff – which appeals. Not top-flight One Direction, I am informed, which sounds plausible.

8. JUSTIN BIEBER – “Love Yourself”: Quite like how sparse it is without ever threatening to be worthy, or wanting much empathy. Also quite like how the title promises affirmation and the song delivers purest spite. The weakest of the Biebslaught, even so.

9. JESS GLYNNE – “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”: The Bieber track might as well be a direct rebuke to this muscular finger-wag of a song, halfway between Florence Machine and Heather M People. I’ll be as hard on myself as I jolly well like, thank you very much.

10. THE LEWISHAM AND GREENWICH NHS CHOIR – “A Bridge Over You”: Not much of a fan of either part of the song, but I like this thing more than most of the choral hits of recent years, because it feels most like a choir: a bunch of decent if unschooled voices working together for mutual benefit (A BIT LIKE SOCIALISM) rather than for the elevation of THE MAN (i.e. G Malone).

11. RACHEL PLATTEN – “Fight Song”: I can’t remember who made the great point that this is what an empowerment song sung by an actually anxious or underconfident person (as opposed to, say, Katy Perry) might sound like. Anyway, that’s exactly right, but this is still feeble.

12. LOST FREQUENCIES – “Are You With Me?”: Would have fitted nicely into 2014’s wistful deep house heat-haze. Now it sounds beached, and a travel website Mexico blurb does not a lyric make.

13. SAM SMITH – “The Writing’s On The Wall”: Incontinent slosh somehow becomes the first Bond number one. Makes me feel bad for the rest.

14. SIGALA – “Easy Love”: ‘Desecrating a classic’ is the laziest of possible criticisms, which is apt, since this is the laziest of possible songs.

15. CHARLIE PUTH ft MEGHAN TRAINOR – “Marvin Gaye”: A wordsearch in the shape of a song, sung by a demon in a Bruno Mars skinsuit.

And that was a year. Not a great year for number ones – worse than 2014, which was better than it seemed, and certainly worse than 2013. I am fairly convinced that streaming has hurt the charts by tilting the delicate balance between slow-burners and novelties, but we’ll see how it all plays out.


  1. 1
    Auntie Beryl on 31 Dec 2015 #

    “Black Magic” contains traces of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and is by some distance my favourite of the list.

  2. 2
    Steve Mannion on 31 Dec 2015 #

    One thing surprising me was The Weeknd notching up 8 Top 75 entries this year – more than 1D, Jess Glynne and anyone else except Bieber who had almost double that – 15! Not sure how many are downloading the non-singles in either’s case.

    The biggest threat to the chart is it being increasingly clogged with tracks all from the same album, even if only by a handful of acts. That said, 2015 would’ve seen the fewest Top 75 hits since the chart was first extended to that number had it not been for the aforementioned acts charting with such frequency.

    Still now the (actually now fantastic) Official Charts site finally gives you the full 100 (including archived!) the limit of 75 is certainly no longer relevant, however much the chart(s) maintain interest.

  3. 3

    Black Magic sounds a lot like – and rhymes with – Man in Motion (Theme from St Elmo’s Fire) by John Parr. Makes me like it even more, call me what you will!

    I’ve not been a massive fan of the new streaming rules. They have hurt an already declining (since c. 2010) diversity in the singles chart, saturating the top 100 with too many fly-by-night fanbase hits – not having a rocksplaining dig at 1D or the increasingly defended Bieber, but Christ, wait your turn or you can go to your room without any supper!

    However, this might make it easier for independent, Arctic Monkeys-esque word-of-mouth acts, RATM-style social media campaigns or good old British pranks to get through. I don’t know. If, for example, I want to thrust a track I like by my friends into the charts – (i.e. Lip Service by Medusa off the album Headcase’s Handbook – #notaplug ;)) , will it have more chance of breaking into the top 100 if I actually chip in and pay for 200 ITunes copies, rather than leaving Spotify on all night and streaming it 200 times? Or are individual IPs only counted once for the times they stream a track?

    I have these romantic visions, a bit like chip shops in Altrincham and school staff rooms in Canvey Island listening to the FA Cup draw at lunchtime, praying for a trip to Man United or Liverpool, of everyone in a small-town office praying for a local artist, say “our golden girl/boy/girls/boys/hamsters” to make it to number 1 by all chipping in on their PCs to buy or stream such artist’s potential hit? Or am I dreaming, like John Major’s infamous speech, of warm beer on the village green, and old maids cycling to church in the morning mist Britain that never really existed?

    Glad you’re back and feeling better Tom. Have a brilliant New Year and all the best to you and the Popular crew for a happy, successful, and picking some cream- of-the-crop pop picks 2016.

  4. 4
    Tom on 31 Dec 2015 #

    The thing about Bieber, Sheeran, and other streaming giants is that people are undeniably listening to them A LOT – hundreds of thousands of weekly plays. So “fanbase hit” the way we’ve been using it on early 00s Popular – one or two weeks in the Top 10 then out – doesn’t really apply. Yes, it’s fans listening, but it’s a lot of fans doing a lot of listening.

    Maybe there needs to be a cap on songs in the chart by individual artists, or some kind of ‘designated singles’ thing.

  5. 5
    Mark M on 31 Dec 2015 #

    All fairly bleak. I appreciate the technical cunning of the Bieber songs, but I’ve tried to make myself sit through them, and just find myself flipping channels (and as he doesn’t appear in at least two of the videos, that’s not just because he’s a repellent little creep).

    KDA/Tinie/Katy is OK, the Little Mix one is perky enough but totally larcenous, and that’s about it.

    Good spot on the Jess Glynne/M People comparison – like them, she’s cumulatively indigestible. Charlie/Meghan at least prompted a bit of generation gap comedy, as adults hearing kids talking about the ‘Marvin Gaye get it on song’ actually thought they were referring to the 1973 libidinous soul classic (I witnessed this more than once. And didn’t clear up the confusion).

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Dec 2015 #

    “Black Magic” to my ears by some way the best of this not really impressive bunch – shocked to learn it was Little Mix, actually, as it is heads and shoulders (even just in terms of complexity) over all of their previous singles.

  7. 7
    Tom on 31 Dec 2015 #

    I think I’ve liked everything else by them more! They had a kind of Belle Stars chant-and-clap thing going on “Salute” and a couple of other tracks which was really enjoyable. “Black Magic” feels like better acts’ leftovers.

  8. 8
    AnotherPete on 31 Dec 2015 #

    I did start listening to the charts again in 2015, which was more thanks to the rundown now tying in with my commute home on Friday afternoon. Though I only managed to do so for about a month or so before craving something a bit more diverse.

    Love Yourself wears it’s Ed Sheeran co-write a bit too close to the surface which makes it feel more like a cover of a B-side (or as they’re now known a deluxe album filler track) .

    Black Magic sounds like something that would suddenly kick in halfway through the end credits of a non-animated Disney movie of a certain vintage.

    Easy Love is clearly a joke that got out of hand ‘I’ve used a Michael Jackson sample no-one has ever considered before.’

    A bad as the Marvin Gaye song is. It reaching the top was at least something of a rare surprise. A second number 1 for two acts you least expected to repeat that feat, with a sound so out of step with everything else around it.

  9. 9
    punctum on 31 Dec 2015 #

    All those Ruby Murray songs in the Top 10, we people of 1955 demand ACTION!

  10. 10
    weej on 31 Dec 2015 #

    Approve of all the JB releases, especially Sorry, just glad that he’s reached this level of popularity at the same time as peaking in terms of quality, this is very rarely the case in pop.

    The Adele song is just dull.

    Black Magic is my favourite Little Mix track so far, though it has grown on me a great deal.

    I found Easy Love via the Popbitch newsletter, they loved it and I thought it was pretty good, but it hasn’t grown on me at all. The remix is better.

    Charlie and Megan can fuck off, of course, but just want to point out for the masochistic that the horrible video works as a sequel to the equally horrible video to Dear Future Husband and that you can watch them together if you want to get the full horrible effect.

  11. 11
    Ronnie on 31 Dec 2015 #

    “Marvin Gaye” got to number one over there??!

    As an American I don’t know whether to scorn you for letting it get so high or apologize for sending it to you in the first place. How does this sort of thing happen? How??

  12. 12
    JLucas on 1 Jan 2016 #

    Oh I love Black Magic. It’s so effervescent and un-self conscious. It’s such a treat these days to hear such lightness of touch in a #1. The fact that they’re genuinely charming and convincing as a bunch of mates is refreshing too after the bleak period when the dead-eyed Saturdays were the UK’s premier girl group. The releases from their second album were perfectly decent, but felt a bit too forced, particularly on the bargain basement Beyonce of ‘Salute’. This bubblegum sound suits them far better. Retro, but not in an obnoxiously knowing sort of way.

    The Jess Glynne #1s are very catchy, but she’s so curiously anonymous for a now five-time UK chart topper. I’m still not sure I’ve ever heard her speak, and I can well imagine her disappearing as quickly as she arrived and ultimately having no influence whatsoever on the pop stars who come after her. I’ve seen the M People comparison a few times, and it’s definitely apt in my opinion. Though if she ever records anything as brilliant as ‘Renaissance’ I’ll forgive her everything.

    Bieber’s certainly hit his stride this year after skirting dangerously close to the pop dumper in 2014. What Do You Mean and Sorry are great – what was the last UK #1 to feature panpipes? Love Yourself is unfortunately completely obnoxious and mean spirited, the latter of which I never enjoy in pop music unless it’s delivered as high camp.

    I think I like Adele as a sort of foul-mouthed Celine Dion figure, it suits her. 25 feels like Spiceworld to 21’s Spice, hitting essentially the same beats, but ramping everything up to imax scale.

    I was really surprised when Fight Song went to #1, it feels like much more of a low top ten that hangs around a bit. There’s something very retro about it too. Pop songs are rarely allowed to be straightforwardly uplifting these days. I doubt she’ll last long, but I enjoy it as a slightly retro curio.

    Turn The Music Louder is my favourite #1 of the year. It strikes me as a 2015 take on 2 Unlimited, which is obviously brilliant. They say everything comes back around at some point – if 2016 turns out to be the year of the Eurodance revival (in the 2 Unlimited/Dr Alban/Haddaway sense as opposed to the dreary house songs that dominated this summer) then colour me firmly on board. Katy B’s out-of-nowhere money note is a thing of pure joy too.

    House Every Weekend and Are You With Me do nothing for me – boring. Easy Love is incredibly basic and lazy, though I did enjoy the bizarre spectacle of Deniece from Five Star (of all people) trying to deliver a live interpretation of the sample on TOTP this afternoon.

    Sam Smith – zzzz.

    One Direction – Half-hearted Maroon Five knock-off, you can totally tell weariness has set in, and whoever A&Rs them knows that as long as their songs are vaguely radio friendly they don’t really have to stretch themselves. Compare with Bieber whose team clearly made an actual effort this year, and it paid off.

    NHS Choir – Nice statement, but nobody will ever play the song again, nor should they.

    Puth & Trainor – Abysmal.

  13. 13
    Erithian on 2 Jan 2016 #

    The NHS Choir was indeed a Gareth Malone project, albeit one that continued after his involvement was over. They’re also, as of yesterday, the act with the biggest ever drop from Number One, landing at 29 on the New Year chart. The chart is clearly a different beast these days: James Masterton noted the biggest drop stat as well as the presence of three Bieber songs in the top five, which last happened in the weeks following John Lennon’s death – but physical copies of the songs no longer need to be available. To echo Tom’s comment above, what consequences this will ultimately have for Popular are uncertain

  14. 14
    JoeWiz on 2 Jan 2016 #

    ‘Black Magic’ is sensational to my ears, and the Motown tinged follow up ‘Love me like you’ is even better. Much the same for 1D, ‘Drag Me Down’ is passable enough, but ‘Perfect’ is easily in their top 5 singles. ‘Made in the AM’ is a bit patchy and Zayn is definitely missed; they’re wisely calling it a day now.
    Sam Smith worked passably enough in the context in the film, but that’s about the best that can be said about it.
    Adele? I really like ‘Hello’, and the album does *just about* everything you need.
    Jess Glynne? Very, very bland personality wise, but some of those singles are decent enough.
    I’m still smarting no one bought that sensational Carly Rae Jepsen album..

  15. 15
    flahr on 3 Jan 2016 #

    Sparse, spiteful and with a perfunctory instrumental solo – wait, is “Love Yourself” indie?

  16. 16
    James BC on 5 Jan 2016 #

    My rank – Tom’s rank – Track – Thoughts

    1 – 6 – LITTLE MIX – They get better and better.

    2 – 9 – JESS GLYNNE – Especially with the video with the guy finding salvation through drumming, this walks a knife-edge between uplifting and eye-rolling. Most songs would fall off into the pit of hell but I think Jess pulls it off. Could suffer if overplayed though.

    3 – 3 – KDA – Katy B does a reasonable job, and it’s nice she’s got a hit, but it’s Tinie who makes this anything more than average. He’s making it look very easy at the moment.

    4 – 14 – SIGALA – This is cheap, easy, sacrilegious and the rest, but do I enjoy listening to it? Yes I do.

    5 – 1 – JUSTIN BIEBER Sorry – Good noises. Bieber does the 90s boyband thing incredibly well so it’s pleasing that his material’s picked up.

    7 – 12 – LOST FREQUENCIES – Sounds lovely on the radio but it’s very wispy.

    6 – 8 – JUSTIN BIEBER Love – I don’t particularly like this but it doesn’t sound like anything else and I’m pleased it was number 1. Looking forward to Olly Murs’s copy of this one.

    7 – 4 – JUSTIN BIEBER WDYM – The Chvrches Live Lounge version was excellent. I was aghast to find that to buy it, you have to buy the whole Live Lounge album. Which I am NOT doing.

    8 – 2 – ADELE – Well written, well sung, well executed, well duh.

    9 – 11 – RACHEL PLATTEN – I’ve only heard this about once and it did not stand out much.

    10 – 15 – CHARLIE PUTH ft MEGHAN TRAINOR – Not actively offensive to me but the 50s (?) production doesn’t go with the 70s Marvin Gaye reference and it’s all a bit of a mess.

    11 – 7 – ONE DIRECTION – Too brooding.

    12 – 5 – DAVID ZOWIE – I like this slightly more than I like David Bowie.

    13 – 10 – NHS CHOIR – Lovely.

    14 – 13 – SAM SMITH – Sam has no chance with me because I don’t even like Bond when it’s good.

  17. 17
    snoball on 6 Jan 2016 #

    The Adele track did exactly what it needed to do, ie, remind people why they probably liked Adele in the first place. It’s amazingly efficient at that, but it’s like looking at a completed painting-by-numbers landscape otherwise.
    Bieber is a petulant little shit IRL but it’s intriguing to me that he’s found a way to siphon that into a performing persona. Or maybe it’s not deliberate and he’s just stopped caring. I suspect the latter but I still find these three singles among the most interesting of the year.
    The Bond tune is like three different X Factor winner’s singles stuck haphazardly together, and it’s been focus-grouped into blandness. Fitting really as the movie seems like that too.
    David Zowie – I’ve not even heard this, but the possibility that someone thought this name idea was funny even for a second chives my spuds.
    ‘Black Magic’ nails the mid-to-late 90s girl band sound. It was played relentlessly on our local ’80s/90s and new singles’ radio station, and I really thought it was something by Bewitched (pun not intended). But that also highlights the problem with a lot of Little Mix’s singles – they get caught up in the retro trappings and sound a bit anonymous.
    I have a hard time remembering how ‘Fight Song’ goes, so bland is it’s vocal. Still probably better than the winner’s song from this year’s The Voice.

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