There was a lot of great music this year from a variety of sources: pop stars and indie acts, rappers and singer-songwriters, old favorites and new talents. As the music industry remains ever in flux, artists continue to produce compelling work within (and in spite of) a broken system. In order of least favorite to most, here are my top five songs of 2017.
5. “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez
Gomez’s career has produced some fairly entertaining tracks, but this is her best song by a wide margin, even if it wasn’t a major chart hit. Over an ingenious sample of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, Gomez gives herself room to play around, walking the line between flirtation and desperation. She may not have the vocal range (or the tabloid controversies) of fellow Disney graduates Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, but it’s hard to imagine this sung by anyone besides Gomez. Her quietly brilliant performance fits snugly in the song’s off-kilter edges, and a lesser performer would overwhelm the key balance. This song is as sly, subtle and addictive on the hundredth listen as it is on the first.
4. “New York” by St. Vincent
Annie Clark has spent her career making rock music that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s — her complex instrumentation, oblique lyrics and otherworldly performances put the music in a class of its own. With the single, “New York,” Clark bravely ditched almost all of her trademarks. A quiet piano melody replaces wild guitar solos, and emotional nakedness replaces the often-impenetrable writing on previous albums.
After years of sonic experimentalism and gonzo art rock, the simplicity of “New York” feels jarring, even rebellious. The song’s (relatively) traditional presentation turns out to be a secret weapon — it scrubs away any filler and leaves only a raw emotional core. In just a few lines, she paints a picture of loneliness, loss and longing that is both vividly realized and emotionally honest. Few artists this year managed anything as poignant and devastating as the song’s final lines: “I have lost a hero/ I have lost a friend/ But for you darling/ I’d do it all again.”
3. “Little of Your Love” by HAIM
In just two albums, HAIM has proved themselves to be almost scarily proficient pop craftsmen, and “Little of Your Love” is one of their most impressive feats yet. The trio repurposes overused ideas like doo-wop keyboards and copious hand claps and turns them transcendent instead of cheesy. The song is so impossibly catchy you almost forget that the lyrics are about romantic indifference. HAIM is not about to let you wallow in self-pity, and with this kind of hairbrush-in-the-mirror, scream-along-in-the-car kind of anthem, it is easy to oblige.
2. “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
Rap music is a genre that often coasts on pleasure seeking and wish fulfillment, but it has never sounded particularly fun to be Kendrick Lamar. From the beginning, Lamar has been on a self-imposed mission to save rap music from itself, and in his brilliant, expansive music, he lets listeners feel the weight on his shoulders. I love Lamar the poet, politician and prophet as much as anybody else. Didn’t it feel nice this year to hear him finally have some fun?
With “Humble,” Lamar delivers the best rap song of the year seemingly without breaking a sweat. All year long, “Humble” has dominated every arena. It’s a perfect radio hit, a perfect club song, a perfect party starter and it’s perfect every time it comes on shuffle. Over a monstrous beat, Lamar mocks his competition, remembers his humble origins and even finds time to share his opinions on asses. (For the record, stretch marks are preferred.) It’s all fairly standard territory for a hip-hop diss track, but in Lamar’s hands every line is funnier, smarter and more memorable than the last. It’s another kinetic, genius performance from a once-in-a-generation talent.
- “Green Light” by Lorde
Really, I could fill out an entire top five with songs from Lorde’s incredible album “Melodrama,” but if I’m picking just one, it has to be “Green Light.” The song completely encapsulates both the album’s sadness and its joy. “Melodrama” is structured as a kind of bildungsroman, portraying a time where you are just young enough that every first kiss or late-night party feels life-changing. “Green Light” is an ingenious breakup anthem — the verses are angry and coiled, slowly building tension into the cathartic release of the chorus. It’s sad, hopeful, messy and human, exactly what a pop song should be.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that our culture is dangerously ignorant toward the voices and experiences of women. Lorde writes about her life and experiences as a teenage girl in a world that marginalizes and minimizes that very existence. For decades female pop music has been dismissed as niche or not serious, even when men covering the same territory are celebrated. At this point, Lorde is simply too good to ignore. Her music is more interesting and moving and alive than anything else I heard this year. None of “Melodrama” is explicitly political, but its very existence feels like a victory we so sorely needed in 2017. If this was the year of melodrama on Twitter, in politics and in seemingly every aspect of American life, thank God it was also the year of “Melodrama.”
Honorable mentions: “Any Party” by Feist; “Bank Account” by 21 Savage; “Cut to the Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen; “Love” by Lana Del Rey; “Love Galore” by SZA ft. Travis Scott; “May I Have this Dance (remix)” by Francis and the Lights and Chance the Rapper; “Midnight” by Jessie Ware; “My Boy” by Billie Eilish; “Performance” by The xx; “Praying” by Kesha; “Rake it Up” by Yo Gotti ft. Nicki Minaj; “Slip Away” by Perfume Genius; “Told You So” by Miguel; “Tyrant” by Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith; and “Uh Huh” by Julia Michaels.