Ranking the Best of 2015 Music Lists

by | Jan 12, 2016 | Arts & Culture, Creative Nonfiction, Music

If you are like me, you are quickly overwhelmed by the year-end lists. Here’s a humble attempt to make sense of it all. A totally unscientific survey of some of the lists floating around out there at year’s end. From worst to best.


This is just sad. Remember when MTV used to be the go-to place for cutting edge music? Now there are high school newspapers that have better lists than MTV’s. This is not a stretch. Of course, MTV abandoned music completely a long, long while back, ushering in our current 1984esque mentality where words mean the opposite of what they should (no music on music television). Double-speak rules and MTV drools. I’m not even sure what to say about this sad little list of really obvious Billboard hits, other than it blows. Be yourself, MTV—you hate music and love the Kardashian 21st Century drivel. Own that hate. But please rename yourself; you are confusing the kids who don’t remember Adam Curry.

#9—USA Today

Hey, at least USA Today is trying. The problem with their list is that it is, for the most part, a list of the Billboard top 100 songs. Most of the songs here feature dolla signs (D.R.A.M., “A$AP Rocky,” Travi$ Scott), Drake, Adele, and so forth (very soon the dolla-sign-name-thing will be the bell-bottoms of the 20tens). But, you know what? Hop Along made their list, as did Waxahatchee. So the USA Today is not entirely useless. Perfect to go along with a muffin and coffee when you are waking up at the Red Roof Inn.

#8—New York Times
This list is a major disappointment for the country’s best-known daily newspaper. What the Times did here is skirt the issue of ranking entirely and run, instead, various top ten lists by the paper’s critics. Unfortunately, this means a lot of Billboard crap and lists where Bob Dylan is bested by Justin Bieber (Jon Pareles). Way too much Fetty Wap, Drake, Madonna, and Kendrick Lamar for my tastes. A half-hearted effort, at best.


All tricked-out with hipster posing, Pitchfork so desperately wants to be cool it will do anything, even if that anything means picking songs that are so anti-hipster and just plain bad. It’s ironic, see (what’s bad is kinda good). Except it’s not. When you are asked to form a list and you pick Drake as number two and Kendrick Lamar as number one (and four, by the way), and are heavy on the Grimes and Chvrches (not to mention Adele and Rihanna) and other overly produced non-rock that purports to be rock but sounds like B sides from Scritti Politti, you have lost all bloody credibility. The only reason, Pitchfork, that you beat out USA Today is because you have nice little narratives about each song, even though the narratives at the top end of the list read more like apologies.

#6—Boston Herald

This is the part of the list where I cease with the hatin and start offering compliments. Nice job here, Boston Herald. Good boy. The descriptions are succinct and to-the-point. I am also impressed by the breadth and eclecticism of your list. The only problem here is that when you list two hundred and fifteen best songs it’s just too many and too overwhelming. You might as well list every song released in 2015. The reader is either going to skip the bottom half of your list or become completely subsumed and just move on to tidier pastures. Jed Gottlieb—for next year, more is less. And no, sorry, “FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney was not the best song of the year. Just no.

#5—Rolling Stone

Obviously, Rolling Stone has lost much of the cache it once had<, made even worse by the falsified UVA rape story recently. However, they can still put together a decent list, even if their top ten resembles some of the lists in 10-7 above. The bottom half of their list is solid and focused though, with room for winners such as Alabama Shakes, Nathaniel Rateliff, El Vy, Kurt Vile and company. I’m willing to overlook some of the Lana Del Reys and Selena Gomezes in exchange for more music made by real musicians. However, Rolling Stone’s list includes too many Auto-Tune glazed guilty pleasures and not enough, you know, rock and roll.

#4—The Loft

This is a great and tuneful list from one of the best stations from the Sirius/XM empire. The only problem with this list is it’s not really a list—it’s just a bunch of songs the DJs played during their “year in review” show. I had to navigate the Loft’s Facebook Group Page to actually find the songs they picked. However, because it does attempt to capture the best songs of the year—and does a bang-up job of it—I’m including them here. Frankly, if they posted an official list, this list would rise in the ranks. I docked them points based solely on disorganization. The Loft caters to Indie Rock, Alt Country, Folk with a smattering of World Music and everything else. As a result, their list includes The Mavericks, Calexico, My Morning Jacket, The Arcs, Los Lobos, St. Germain, Courtney Barnett. To my ears the Loft’s taste in music is all but impeccable. If The Loft ever gets into publishing and/or blogging, look out!

#3—Paste Magazine

Witty and knowledgeable list with commentary. The best part of this list is that it includes commentary from various Paste writers, rather than solely one person’s fetishes. At fifty songs this list is also manageable and well-culled and gives the reader a sense of order and context. Some great picks here, also—Sleater Kinney, Tame Impala, Hop Along, Hot Chip, Leon Bridges (oddly neglected despite such a superstar turn), and “Pedestrian At Best” by Courtney Barnett occupying the number one slot—a brilliant and well-deserved pick.


Okay, there is nothing exactly “cutting edge” about NPR. Okay #2—like the Times they sidestep the issue of rankings. However, unlike the list provided by the Times, NPR breaks their best-of into genre and offers an expansive and well-informed base for further exploration (that’s the whole idea, right?). Sure, perhaps it’s a cop-out to avoid comparing apples to oranges, but NPR doesn’t begin or end with the typical rock/pop/rap combo. They also include classical, country, electronica, jazz, Latin, world music and so forth (their thinking here is that comparing Grimes to Los Lobos is absurd). This list is a terrific jumping off point and somehow, despite its inclusivity, it doesn’t seem as overwhelming or scattered as even some of the shorter ones.

#1—Aquarium Drunkard

Is there any doubt that Justin Gage is THE man? Not only does Aquarium Drunkard’s list offer a course in music history (of multiple genres), but in its eclecticism Aquarium Drunkard almost makes most other lists seem narrow-minded. What Justin Gage has done here is give the interested reader a look not only into the best new releases of 2015, but also reissues and many, many obscurities worth further exploration. How Gage finds out about some of these things is beyond me (there is some really terrifically spacey shit here). At the same time, the Aquarium Drunkard list doesn’t ignore fairly obvious picks such as Sufjan Stevens, Low and Kurt Vile. Gage doesn’t rank here, but that’s okay, somehow—the knowledge and insight he shares on his blog and on the radio show I try to listen to each week is an absolute gift. Aquarium Drunkard is doing now what Rolling Stone used to back in the day. Maybe even better.


Photo: David Bowie – Black Star


About The Author

Nathan Leslie

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and ShootSibs, and Drivers.  He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review.  His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com.