If you could wrangle up the themes that pervaded popular music in 2015 – if you could get a rope to encircle some thesis about the soundtrack to our lives – you might find that it was overwhelmingly about being overwhelmed.
Drake made a mixtape about the burden of fame. Alessia Cara couldn't stand the party. Justin Bieber begged for forgiveness. Adele wanted to say sorry too. Kendrick Lamar questioned his country, his city and himself. Carly Rae Jepsen felt infatuated. Even The Weeknd, pop's finest hedonist, grappled with a sudden bout of monogamy.
For fans, too, music has become overwhelming. The Internet has made music easy to find for a while, sure, but subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music are finally putting tens of millions of songs in one place, and they're signing up record numbers of users. This convenience can sometimes feel vastly impersonal; how can you possibly navigate it all?
By sharing. We tend, after all, to take stock of the past year just as the season of giving is upon us. Music's monetary value may have fallen in the past 15 years, but its social value remains. So sit down with a coffee or a cocktail and think about the music that made you happy. The music that made you think. Go out of your way to give it to others, which technology has made easier than ever. Then ask for some music in return. It'll pay back more than you might expect.
For the past five years, I've taken part in a "best-of" mixtape exchange, trading my favourite songs of the year with friends and strangers. Last year, my mix was all punk and garage – White Lung, Against Me!, King Tuff – with songs so urgent they feel like bursting out of your chest as soon as they pass through your ears. So 2015 marked a sharp turn. I found that same sense of overwhelming urgency in many of this year's chart-toppers. Honing it, as always, was a chore: Do I err on the side of Know Yourself Drake or Hotline Bling Drake? Should I include a Kendrick Lamar song, since I thought To Pimp a Butterfly was best experienced as a whole? After years of reticence, am I a Belieber?
But making it isn't nearly as fun as sharing it. I look forward to each December's mixtape exchange as much as I do seeing my family at Christmas. It's more than a way to take stock of 12 months of good times; it's a chance to admit your own blind spots and discover new sounds.
As I was going through a rough stretch in 2011 – the news is a wonderful business, but mixing overnight shifts with a prolonged breakup can mangle your mood – I sought solace in music. As Christmas approached, I got word of a mixtape exchange, run by Young Lions Music Club, a nascent marketing agency. I agreed to go at the last minute, putting together a slapdash mix with my friend Mark: some Destroyer, some Bon Iver, some Fucked Up, whatever we could agree upon.
We walked in the door with five hand-labelled CDs – we wanted to splash each with our faces superimposed on the cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, but ran out of time – not knowing what to expect. What we found were three dozen others who wanted to trade their favourite music, each with more creative mix packaging than the next: a grid of CDs revealing a Time magazine cover; a Guess Who game board with each character as de facto mixtape, download code inside; a bouquet of balloons, waiting to pop and reveal a track list within.
This particular exchange is a decade-old tradition, and the rules are set in stone: Everyone puts his name in a hat five times, then draws five names at random to trade mixes with. Each participant winds up with a different set of five. That first year, my mixes gave me a slew of new artists to listen to, most of whom I'd slept on and many of whom I still listen to today: M83, Kurt Vile, Real Estate. And with each CD and novelty gift I collected, I met someone who cared about discovering music as much, if not more, than I did.
My rough stretch melted away. I returned each year, meeting friends I trade music with to this day. New people with new tastes show up each time, and there are new ways to share songs. These days, most of us make playlists on streaming services, which is less convenient for in-car listening but significantly more fair for artist compensation. I joined the novelty packaging game too, trading Serial podcast-themed boxes of cereal last year and, in 2013 – I am a terrible person – draped hit records in Drake puns, the worst being Nothing Was the Haim.
Young Lions, meanwhile, became a sought-after music-marketing agency, but its proprietors, Bobby and Anna, moved to Hamilton earlier this year, taking the exchange with them. I mulled over skipping it, but it turned out others were just as excited about the tradition as I was. We filled a car and made the trek.
The party was packed. Some Hamilton neighbours showed up, but more than a few loaded cars arrived from Toronto. Sharing music, it turns out, was worth the commute. And so were the novelty gifts: commissioned drawings of the year's biggest artists, bars of soap, even cans of hard-to-get pop (pineapple Crush, "Sangrita Blast" Mountain Dew) for Bobby's pop-heavy mix.
To honour my own mix's pop leanings, I called it Solid Gold Hits, and in honour of the new host city, I packaged it with hammers, spray-painted gold. It was – sorry – a hit. And now I get to sit back and enjoy songs I slept on this year from the likes of Allie X, Amen Dunes and Prince Innocence. It'll take me a while to get through it all, sure, but it's far more fun than overwhelming. Sharing is a good thing. Give it a shot.
Solid Gold Hits: Josh's Best of 2015 Mixtape
1. BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
2. Carly Rae Jepsen – Warm Blood
3. Justin Bieber – Sorry4
4. Grimes – Flesh Without Blood
5. The Weeknd – In the Night
6. Baio – The Names
7. Miguel – waves
8. Jamie xx featuring Romy – SeeSaw
9. Nicole Dollanganger – Angels of Porn II
10. Unlikely Friends – Soft Reputation
11. Ceremony – The Separation
12. Wavves & Cloud Nothings – Come Down
13. Radioactivity – Pretty Girl
14. The Beverleys – Visions
15. Titus Andronicus – I Lost My Mind (DJ)
16. Beach Slang – Throwaways
17. Bully – I Remember
18. JEFF The Brotherhood – Coat Check Girl
19. Drake – Know Yourself
20. Vince Staples – Norf Norf
21. Future – Fuck Up Some Commas
22. Majical Cloudz – Heavy
23. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames
24. Joel Plaskett – For Your Consideration