It’s December, Christmas is right around the corner, and a new year awaits us. That means it’s time for one of my favorite genres in pop culture writing: the end-of-year listicle. So before we shift our attention to 2018, let’s reflect on some of the best music to come out in 2017 (for last year’s list, go here).
An end-of-year list inevitably reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of its curator, so here’s some background on my musical palate. My favorite genre is pop, although I take an expansive view of what “pop” can mean. I think it’s the one artform whose guiding preoccupation is to create the most pleasurable sound possible.
It is to be preeminently motivated by, and fundamentally committed to, the feeling of pleasure. Its overriding priority should not be to “challenge” or to be thought-provoking, as it is for other artforms. Without further ado, here are the 50 best songs of 2017.
50. “Blood Under My Belt” — The Drums
The first single from the band’s “Abysmal Thoughts” is a masterful example of how to layer driving pop vocals, shimmering guitars, and sky opening strings. Usually, one of these elements overwhelms the others, but the blend here is just right. “Blood Under My Belt” would have made the Top 50 list of any year in the 1980s, which is the best compliment I can give a band whose sound almost entirely comes from that era.
49. “Happy Hour” — Weezer
Rivers Cuomo and the gang have remarkable pop sensibilities. Try something: listen to a power pop standout from the band’s heyday—say, “My Name Is Jonas”—alongside “Happy Hour.” You’ll find it hard to believe it’s the same band. “Happy Hour” feels as good as its namesake. Bottoms up.
48. “Can’t You See” — Raekwon
It’s hard to believe that a song that begins “Yeah, n-gga. Where the maid at, man? She ain’t fold my socks, son. Sh-t is real, man” will turn out to be the most moving of the Wu-Tang member’s career. Matches “All That I Got Is You,” the touching retrospective from Raekwon’s long time Wu ally, Ghostface Killah. The production here from RoadsArt is spectacular.
47. “Bloodstream” — Chainsmokers
The Chainsmokers often make really bad music. “Bloodstream,” a raw account of how newfound fame can frustrate, is an exception. It’s capricious, sure, but the transition from verse to chorus is special.
46. “Yah” — Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick’s “DAMN.” is widely regarded as one of the best releases of the year. I don’t rate it as highly, but the real divergence is between the songs popularly taken to be the best on the album and the two that have made this list. While the attention has largely fallen on his two rap bombs, “Humble” and “DNA,” for me, Kendrick’s non-rap offerings eclipse his rap ones. “Yah” slows to a thumping, R&B crawl, a perfect showcase for Kendrick’s drowsy delivery.
45. “Jaja (Grandmother)” — Ennanga Vision
Ennanga Vision defies easy explanation. Is it African indie pop? Is it Afro-electro downtempo dance? Whatever way we describe the sound, the entire album is excellent, though “Amadinda Eyeball” and “Jaja” are the clear standouts. The sound of children playing adds to the latter track’s warmth.
44. “74: No” — Magnetic Fields
Earlier this year, Stephin Merritt released a concept album that, in the hands of anyone else, would have registered as a stunning case study in artistic self-importance. The album, “50 Song Memoir,” is, well, 50 songs about Merritt’s life, one for each year. The entry for 1974 has a simple pop structure that belies the existential import of Merritt’s lyrics.
Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?
Is there a place dead loved ones go?
Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through?
Will there be peace in our time?
My mother believes that this physical universe
Is a big holographic show
And she says someday science’ll catch up with her
Has she a shred of evidence?
43. “Dream of Mickey Mantle” — Bleachers
Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, who is also the lead guitarist for the band Fun, has a refined instinct for pop spectacle. Antonoff’s songs are always bursting with anthemic power. Though the promise of “I Wanna Get Better” has not yet been realized, “Dream of Mickey Mantle” is a step in the right direction.
42. “Kinda Bonkers” — Animal Collective
Animal Collective is kinda bonkers. Anyone who listens to them is aware of this. For example, on this year’s “Jimmy Mack,” the band imports ‘80s synths into a ‘50s rockabilly song structure—but that’s not the weird part. The band also adds a curious layer: a loop of a pig snorting. With that said, there is nothing quite so strange on “Kinda Bonkers,” whose melodic, lazy swerve is almost hypnotic.
41. “Blu” — Mura Masa (feat. Damon Albarn)
Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, makes the most of Mura Masa’s dreamy production. A gorgeous track.
40. “Recite Remorse” — Waxahatchee
The contrast between “Silver”—number 30 on this list—and “Recite Remorse” couldn’t be greater. The former sneaks melody into a musical explosion, while “Recite Remorse” is a slow-building, ethereal change of pace.
39. “Jennifer” — Fazerdaze
2017’s best dream pop entry. Gorgeous musical layers blanket Amelia Murray’s airy vocals.
38. “Siphon” — Zola Jesus
The song’s texture, a stripped-down echo chamber with intermittent, thundering drums, allows Nika Danilova the space she needs to sing on a devastating topic: a friend’s struggles with depression. Haunting.
37. “Solo” — Future
Dre Moon’s mesmerizing production gives Future the perfect showcase for his greatest gift: his fusion of singing and rapping that leaves the track at the intersection of both genres.
36. “Little Of Your Love” — HAIM
The sunshine bounce of “Little Of Your Love” is the album’s second brightest moment—no small compliment given the dizzying number of pure pop moments on HAIM’s “Something To Tell You.” Watch for the impressive tempo shift midway through.
35. “Virtue” — Kllo
I see in the work of Kllo, The xx, and similar acts an elevation of the same musical impulse that first made the House genre so special. On “Virtue,” the sample serves as a kind of parallel beat, working in tandem with the electronic backdrop that functions as the track’s primary rhythmic force.
34. “On Hold” — The xx
Jame Smith’s production is the highlight. “On Hold” slowly builds from a Phil Collins-era Genesis arrangement and brings in one of the most infectious samples of the year.
33. “Real Love” — Future & Young Thug
On a simple additive theory of musical greatness, one would think that since Future and Young Thug are independently strong artists, a collaboration between them would reach even greater heights. But “Real Love” appears here in spite of Future’s performance, not because of it. While Future can’t even stay on beat, Young Thug’s verse is inspired, managing to augment the production’s atmospheric lushness by orders of magnitude.
32. “Creature Comfort” — Arcade Fire
Many Arcade Fire fans consider “Creature Comfort” to be “Everything Now’s” best offering. I rate it as the album’s second-best track. Its anthemic power is irrepressible. Read my fuller review of the album here.
31. “Call It Dreaming” — Iron and Wine
Iron and Wine is far and away the best lyricist on this list.
Say it’s here where our pieces fall in place
Any rain softly kisses us on the face
Any wind means we’re running
We can sleep and see ’em coming
Where we drift and call it dreaming
We can weep and call it singing
Where we see enough to follow
We can hear when we are hollow
Where we keep the light we’re given
We can lose and call it living
Where our water isn’t hidden
We can burn and be forgiven
Where our hands hurt from healing
We can laugh without a reason
30. “Silver” — Waxahatchee
“Silver” has, without a doubt, the simplest chorus of all the entries on this list. But what does that matter? It glides alongside the thumping guitars with effortless grace.
29. “Lovelife” — Phoenix
The indelible warmth of “Lovelife” is hard to overstate. This is the French electronic outfit at their shimmering best.
28. “American Dream” — LCD Soundsystem
In 2016, James Murphy announced LCD Soundsystem would be coming out of retirement. After nearly a year and a half of recording, “American Dream,” sporting an impossibly basic album cover, was released. The album’s title track is an atmospheric powerhouse. From the rhythm synths to the haunting organ synths interspersed throughout, no one can set a mood quite like Murphy. It’s a pity he wasn’t blessed with a vocal presence to match the foreboding music a la Bowie or Cohen. Sounds like a “Twin Peaks” episode in sonic form.
27. “Ocean Eyes” (Astronomyy Remix) — Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” is hauntingly beautiful. I like Astronomyy’s remix better than the original because, unlike most remixes, Astronomyy’s meddling doesn’t erase what makes the original great but rather augments it.
26. “Dirty Work” — Marko Penn (feat. Lil Dicky)
Marko Penn’s debut “Dirty Work” was criminally overlooked in 2017. Penn has stronger pop instincts than artists with far larger fanbases. Take, for example, the chorus on “Dirty Work,” a repeated crooning pattern as lovely and catchy as anything on heavy rotation. Though the song is nearly ruined by the disastrous Lil Dicky, Penn’s immense talent is enough to carry it forward. “Good Time” is another standout. Keep an eye out for Marko Penn.
25. “Take Care” — Young Thug
It’s fitting that the best song on Young Thug’s “Beautiful Thugger Girls” shares a title with Drake’s eponymous 2011 album. Drake’s penchant for R&B and rap mashup arguably paved a way for the broad acceptability of Young Thug’s outlandish commitment to melodic sing-rhyming.
24. “How To Talk” — Lil Uzi Vert
It’s hard to determine which of the two is better: WondaGurl’s sparkling production or Lil Uzi Vert’s melodic short-burst rhyme pattern. One of the best beats of the year.
23. “Hug of Thunder” — Broken Social Scene
Wistful, pulsating indie rock at its very best. This is Leslie Feist’s ode to the manifold contradictions of growing up, and to the music that shapes us along the way. “Survival by the soundtrack made of our short lives.”
22. “Do Not Disturb” — Drake
“More Life’s” closer, “Do Not Disturb,” is a rare solo rap standout from an artist whose formidable artistic versatility often sends him in many different musical directions. The track features a reflective Drake (when is he not?) attempting to bring listeners into his world. Best line: “Seasons go by like I’m binge-watching.”
21. “Keep Your Name” — Dirty Projectors
Although “Keep Your Name” contains an inexplicably bad musical digression toward the midpoint that nearly ruins everything, the song is too strong to be brought down that easily. David Longstreth is one of the most gifted talents in pop music. On “Keep Your Name,” he warps his voice, giving the song an unsettling feel, as if the producer wanted to protect the identity of the singer. Longstreth is the best in the game at being imaginative without losing the intrinsic charm of beautiful pop.
20. “Sportstar” — (Sandy) Alex G
“Sportstar” is a beautiful piano ballad with distorted guitars gently adding texture in the background, perfectly accompanying the altered vocals.
19. “Madiba Riddim” — Drake
Although “More Life” was a better record than “Views,” the latter had more standout tracks. Yet “More Life,” which is more musically multifaceted, is arguably the more impressive record. The Caribbean stroll of “Madiba Riddim” is one of Drake’s sunniest songs.
18. “Babygirl” — Charli XCX
With two strong albums and a litany of solid guest appearances, Charli XCX has had a wildly successful 2017. She appears three times in my top 20, which is good enough for top honors. What makes her so special is her thoroughgoing commitment to strong melody. These days, there’s no shortage of options for pop gimmickry, no shortage of studio techniques that can mask subpar material. The genius of Charli XCX is really just her prioritization of the music above all else. “Babygirl” is the essence of bubblegum pop.
17. “Tears” — Mr Jukes (feat. Alexandria)
A truly beautiful song.
16. “XO TOUR Llif3” — Lil Uzi Vert
Shoulda saw the way she looked me in my eyes
She said: ‘Baby, I am not afraid to die.’
Push me to the edge
All my friends are dead
Push me to the edge
All my friends are dead
To call this emo rap is to discredit it—emo never produced anything as musically interesting as “XO TOUR Llif3.” Like Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert defies easy categorization. He inserts singing and rapping into his verses with no regard for traditional rap’s neat linear structure. And the music world is all the better for it.
15. “Kept Me Crying” — HAIM
It can sometimes seem as if HAIM’s music is conventionally structured pop rock. But there is complexity underneath. “Kept Me Crying” doesn’t seem like a multi-layered song, but that’s exactly what it is. This is blissful pop conviction with rock and roll swagger.
14. “Love” — Kendrick Lamar (feat. Zacari)
That an artist can bulldoze his way through rap’s landscape on a song like “Humble” then effortlessly pivot to syrupy sweet R&B just isn’t fair. Kendrick Lamar is a remarkable all-around talent. The way he modifies his delivery to perfectly match the melody is a thing to behold.
13. “Boys” — Charli XCX
With lyrics like “head is spinning thinking about boys,” it shouldn’t be a sing-a-long favorite for me. But that’s just what it is. That’s Charli’s power.
12. “I’m The One” — DJ Khaled (feat. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne)
An instant summertime classic. The beat by Nic Nac is effervescent. Quavo and Chance make pitch-perfect guest appearances. The one slip-up is that Lil Wayne’s portion should’ve been cut, both because it makes the song too long and because it’s not up to par. But summertime is too fleeting to spend it complaining.
11. “Marcy Me” — Jay-Z
Jay-Z described it this way: “‘Marcy Me’ is a nostalgic walk through Marcy, and it’s about that hopefulness, that feeling of ‘Man, can I really do this? Can I really be one of the biggest artists in the world?’ You have these dreams, ‘Can I be one of the biggest basketball players?’ We have these dreams.”
No ID’s production is the highlight here. Jay-Z’s rapping is strong, and he uses the opportunity to attempt a “Juicy” of his own, but it’s the Chicago beatmaker who shines brightest on “Marcy Me.”
10. “Wicked” — Mansionz (feat. G-Eazy)
The irrepressibly sunny, rubbery R&B that the 1980s and early 1990s gave us—think Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” and Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”—is perfectly, and I mean perfectly, captured here on Mansionz’s “Wicked.”
The song’s only downside is that G-Eazy is terrible and nearly ruins everything.
9. “North East South West” — Japandroids
“North East South West” gives you the usual Japandroids features. There’s the Canadian apologetics. The brief tempo shifts. The over-enunciated vocals. But there is also pure, cathartic release.
This is a U2-sized song, built for the arena. At their best, the Japandroids function as a summoning of Springsteen’s line: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
When the band slows things down toward the end, it’s clear they’ve achieved something very special.
8. “Slide” — Calvin Harris (feat. Frank Ocean and Migos)
“Slide” is undeniably a summer song. With an infectious chorus and an inspired Frank Ocean, Calvin Harris gave us one of the brightest moments in the year.
7. “Love Gang” — Whethan (feat. Charli XCX)
Whethan’s production is equal parts utopian and apocalyptic. He juxtaposes a thousand motorcycles revving alongside subtle, swirling synths. And it helps when Charli is at her best. Unstoppable.
6. “Adore” — Amy Shark
Capturing the gravity of being young and in love, the world-collapsing seriousness of having a crush on someone, is not a novel concept in pop music. Big Star’s “Thirteen” remains the apex, but what Amy Shark’s “Adore” does better than any other track I’ve ever heard is convey the all-consuming nature of liking someone intensely. The slow-pounding beat, the emotive power of the subtle chords, and the gorgeous vocal loop all come together to perfectly capture what it’s like to be young and really into someone.
5. “Too Hotty” — Migos
Father God, Father God
I just wanna live life
That’s how Offset, who absolutely spazzes out on this song, begins his verse. It’s difficult to imagine how 2017 might have gone better for him. He outclassed Quavo on the group’s biggest hit, “Bad and Boujee,” and put in a number of impressive guest appearances throughout the year. But Offset’s verse on “Too Hotty” is something else. It’s difficult to imagine how someone could ride a beat more perfectly than this.
The production is like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” The best rap song of the year.
4. “20 Something” — SZA
Though “Supermodel” and “Love Galore” have gotten more attention, “Ctrl’s” real gem is the album’s closing track, “20 Something.” The vulnerability SZA displays, her ambivalence toward the stage of life she finds herself in, and her sublime singing make this one of the most heartfelt songs in years.
Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end
Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends
Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me, don’t kill me
What a remarkable thing, being young. From one line to the next SZA acknowledges that her twenties might kill her, yet she doesn’t want them to end.
3. “Up in Hudson” — Dirty Projectors
“Up in Hudson” is a seven-and-a-half minute long, breathtakingly beautiful arrangement whose only jarring moment comes from Longstreth’s lyrics: the juxtaposition of the wide-eyed wonder of new love alongside the feeling of interminable bleakness when it later fades away. We get this:
We talked for like two minutes
But I had a feeling
Something awkward but new between us
Something strong and appealing
And we both had girl and boyfriends blowing us up SMS
But we both knew a mood like this so strong would be wrong to suppress
Felt like it bore the impress of destiny
In a minivan in New England, our eyes met
We said yes and we said yes
Next to this:
And love will burn out
And love will just fade away
And love’s gonna rot
And love will just dissipate
Longstreth has acute pop sensibilities, but he’s too musically expansive, too creative to passively embrace the genre’s conventions. On “Up in Hudson,” none of Longstreth’s tinkering gets in the way of a spellbindingly pure pop moment.
2. “Electric Blue” — Arcade Fire
In a piece earlier this year, I described Arcade Fire’s “Electric Blue” as what you would get if Prince had produced Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” A reference to David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” (one of my favorite songs of all time), “Electric Blue” is, alongside my No. 1 pick, the most radiant song of the year—though you wouldn’t think so given the song’s opening lines: “Summer’s gone and so are you / See the sky electrocute”
But the music is pure, dreamlike joy. The synths sparkle and twinkle like stars in the blue night. A perfect song.
1. “Oh Baby” — LCD Soundsystem
You’re having a bad dream
Here in my arms
LCD Soundsystem’s fourth studio album, “American Dream,” begins this way. The song’s opening lines convey tenderness. This is James Murphy at his most welcoming. As on “Someone Great,” he uses effulgent synths to envelop the subject matter, which is gloomier and scarier than the music would suggest. The effect doesn’t so much erase the “bad dream,” in this case—or death, in the case of “Someone Great”—but rather situates it as a part of life.
Murphy’s ear for pop as a songform is unparalleled. It has a structure that he just innately gets better than anyone else. That’s how he’s able to use a series of sounds and studio features that most people don’t even realize are unique. His command of how these elements should be arranged for the form to come together as a memorable song is so well honed that listeners don’t realize the individual components are unconventional.
Some artists use unconventional elements in a lazy manner, as mere props, ways for listeners to be impressed with how much the artist is trying to challenge them. It takes considerably more work, and requires considerably more talent, to use those elements in the service of beautiful music. “Oh Baby” is celestial, and it’s my song of the year for 2017.