Top 10 Songs of 2017

(Photo Credit: Fahrenheit Magazine)

Some songs dominated 2017, from popularity to critical acclaim – which songs did we think were the very best?

Let’s be honest, this this year was kinda brutal. It wore nearly all of us down. I, as did many reviewers, expected 2017 to be full of protest music. But it wasn’t. In honesty, there was very little true protest music this year, and it largely came from acts who aren’t in the current zeitgeist. So while a few artists went outwardly political, many, many artists looked inward and reacted to their world through their own lenses. With the current state of the world, who’s to say otherwise? We are all having a tough time processing everything going on. It’s all so ugly all the time that it doesn’t feel real. And if an artist cannot place themselves in the current disaster that is global politics, then how accurately can they really reflect on their views?

I do not and cannot hold it against any artist that decided against directly commenting on politics this year. We all had a lot to take in, basically regardless of what country we live in. And between Brexit, Trump, the Rohingya genocide, the Syrian genocide and the North Korean crisis, no part of the world has exactly felt safe. To release ‘safe’ music in 2017 was almost akin to showing a state of privilege that wasn’t common before. Indeed, music in 2017 was so extraordinary because we saw so many artists leave their comfort shells. The rise of emo-rap felt more natural this year than it would have any other year, because some of the best young rappers are taking much darker approaches to music (as evidenced multiple times below). Indie bands and pop singers weighed in on the troubles of the world in their music, often growing dark or, in some cases, trying to bring some light. Nearly all genres saw artists releasing deeply personal music fir for a troublesome, uncomfortable year.

2017 certainly was no 2016, but it may be a long time before we see a year like that. On every level from superstar to up-and-coming indie band, there was incredible music. It may not have fit the mold that we predicted, but it was amazing nonetheless. I won’t spend a lot of time running down the genres like I did in my albums post, so I will just say that this list was incredibly tough to narrow down and that many, many excellent contenders missed the cut. Let’s get to it.

#10. LCD Soundsystem – “call the police” 

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

LCD Soundsystem rebounded with their first album in seven years, an album that grappled with the dance-punk band’s legacy and the changing scope of current pop music. It was a hit-and-mess affair, but the hits hit hard, including first single “call the police” (co-released with the title track). The beat and music of the song don’t sound noticeably different than any older LCD songs, but there is little less rhythm to the song, an influence James Murphy probably came under while working with David Bowie on “Blackstar.” The song drones as much as it dances. It has no lack of James Murphy’s bonkers charm though, with dark-as-night existential lyrics delivered with a misplaced, enthusiastic charm (check Murphy’s wild jump to falsetto on the line “we all start arguing the history of the Jews”). The song is a trip through hell but with the typical optimism of even the saddest LCD songs. And it’s a welcome return for a legendary group.

#9. Migos (feat. Lil Uzi Vert) – “Bad and Boujee”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

The bad boys from Atlanta jumpstarted their already-quick uprise by releasing one of the year’s biggest songs, the #1 hit “Bad and Boujee.” Like many of their peers (one of whom is featured), Migos thrive on simplicity, and this song is almost stupidly simple. It kicks off with first-grade rhymes, delivered with such conviction that they’re nothing but infectious. But the real beauty is how each rapper puts their own twist on the simplicity. Vert comes out of the gate hot with his verse, with his instantly-iconic “yeah yeah yeah’s,” complementing the cool, suave energies Offset and Quavo each bring. Also, there’s just like a million words in this song. It’s just pure fun to hear a few rappers at the top of their game play off of each other for a few minutes with some supremely entertaining rhymes.

#8. Mount Kimbie (feat. King Krule) – “Blue Train Lines”

(Photo credit: Genius)

One of the darkest and most provocative songs of the year comes shrouded in cryptic lyrics and bursts of percussion. The song, with lyrics likely written by Krule, finds Krule coming across a lover moments after she has attempted suicide. The relatively straightforward act of finding her is masked by references to trains, record labels and even other King Krule songs, which all hide the outcome of the situation. But even with the lyrics, which only get darker the more you investigate them, the song is propelled by the music. It starts with a percussion line that then fades away for about two minutes before suddenly pounding away again at a seemingly random time. Counter that with a sad drone of a synth line, and Krule’s background screaming as his character reckons with the scene unfolding. Krule’s pseudo-rapping has always been beneficial to his music, but here it (and his vocal rhythms) becomes an integral part of the song. One of the year’s most chilling tracks.

#7. Kesha – “Praying”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Tired: making a diss track to crush a music rival

Inspired: making a diss track to punch up and get retribution against an abuser

It’s difficult to pinpoint a start to the #MeToo movement, which ended up gracing the cover of TIME Mazagine’s Person of the Year issue. Was it Rose McGowan, calling out Harvey Weinstein? Was it Anita Hill calling on Justice Thomas in a national spotlight? Was it earlier? There is no specific answer, but one important possibility was Kesha, who sued her producer, the uncertified Dr. Luke. Luke was allegedly physically, sexually and mentally abusive to Kesha over a very lengthy period of time. The court case hit the public eye, as Kesha – known for explicit party music – stood up against sexual assault. The world was, unfortunately, stable when Dr. Luke prevailed. Kesha could’ve pulled a Prince and released garbage to fulfill her contract, but instead she released a diverse album full of country, rock jams and ballads – the best of which is “Praying,” a not-so-subtle stab at the bad doctor. In the song, Kesha prays for an unknown person, hoping that they can find a way to right their wrongs. It’s a diss, but it’s also honest as hell, and Kesha does it with extreme talent. She often hid her true vocals on her first two albums, but she lets it shine here. Were this song vaguer and less biting, it might register as a solid Katy Perry album track. But with the (assumed) context, it becomes not only an extremely painful listen, but an incredible act of courage, as well as one of the best vocal tracks of the year. Let Kesha live long and loud. #FreeKesha

#6. Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3”

(Photo credit: Soundcloud)

The meteoric rise of emo-rap Soundcloud artists has had weird results, from the tragic (the near-immediate passing of the amazing Lil’ Peep) to the ugly (the brutal allegations against XXXTentacion). But the main success has been Lil Uzi Vert, thrust into the national spotlight on not one but two of the year’s biggest songs (the other of which you just read about it). The song is manic, and at the hands of a rock band it would be a torturous, migraine-inducing affair. But we should be glad it isn’t. The song’s chorus, consisting mostly of just the lines “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead” is delivered by Vert with an almost complete apathy, as if there is a foregone conclusion the listener isn’t in on. The song was about the break-up of Vert and a girlfriend, but the terrifying calmness applies to much of the climate of 2017 in general, an accidental success. Rap can often be terrifying, and it can often be chart-topping – but rarely both. Kendrick has only gotten there through sheer power. This song comfortably entered the Top 10 in the US, and it doesn’t have the subtlety of a song that masks its true intention. It couldn’t be less blunt, and it proves that the future of rap might be about to take a weird, sinister turn.

#5. Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

The Rock, Kylie Jenner and, uh, Donald Trump. America loves the stars of reality television, but rarely do the stars of reality television get to love America back. Cardi B joins the ranks of these aforementioned stars with her debut single “Bodak Yellow.” The song isn’t honestly much beyond what a male rapper tops the charts with nowadays, but that is some of the song’s beauty. Cardi B recognizes that she shouldn’t have to do anything differently than any of her male counterparts. Cardi’s flow mimicks that of Kodak Black, as the title plays on his name. Cardi B is the 21st century American Dream, moving from stripping to the top of the Billboard chart (dethroning Taylor Swift!) in only a few years. And not to mention, she’s only the second female rapper to have a #1 hit with no features, second only to Lauryn Hill nineteen years ago. Not bad for a debut single.

#4. Gorillaz (feat. Vince Staples) – “Ascension”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first – this is essentially a Vince Staples song. Had this shown up on “Big Fish Theory,” it would’ve just had a weird Damon Albarn feature. This song is all Staples. The hyper music fits both artists perfectly. But Staples, in an award-worthy guest verse, wastes no time in getting to the point. His voice is the first thing you hear in the song, and the song starts only 25 seconds into the album. Staples lays into the track heavily early on and never lets up, only giving way to a quick Albarn interlude, to remind you that this is in fact a Gorillaz song. I am always in awe when artists can use profanity in a way that seems unique, and Staples does so on this track, on the line “Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me / Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.” Staples’ enunciation on that final F-bomb hits so hard that it seems like he’s taking on the weight of the world’s racism. The sheer anger of the lyrics fits nicely against the party-chaos music that Gorillaz are doing in support. This is a track that doesn’t get old after 100 plays (trust me).

#3. Harry Styles – “Sign of the Times”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a bold move to try and hone in on Prince’s legacy. It’s an unfathomably bold move to name your debut single after one of his hits and release it on the 30th anniversary of that song’s release. Is it as good? Of course not. But the .2 Directioner’s solo debut is still an impeccable ballad. His very first solo song clocks in at a longer length than every song in the entire One Direction discography (not counting remixes), and showcases just what a solo career can be. It’s a total, tonal shift from the happy-go-lucky feel of his previous group’s hits (something reflected in the solo music from every other member, too). A piano ballad through and through, Styles sings about relationships through the lens of war, a metaphor that feels tired but seems completely renewed through his blunt lyrics and flat, falsetto notes that aren’t ugly, but aren’t exactly comfortable notes, either. It also served as a nice intro to his acting debit, in “Dunkirk,” a war movie.

#2. Lorde – “Green Light”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

Green for go. The best pop song of this year was a song that many youths (which I, admittedly, am not anymore) can relate to. Lorde tells the tale of a doomed side romance, mired in lies and cheating. But even as a personal relationship, Lorde relates it to the general ennui of today’s youth. “Green Light” is an emblem for today’s young people – lost, alone and bored. The song mixes Lorde’s always-amazing vocals with off-center keyboards. Famed unrelated-producer Max Martin called it “incorrect songwriting,” in a brutal self-own. He was referring to how long the delay is until the keyboards come in which is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a perfect amount of time. The ‘boards suddenly kick in and “Green Light” becomes a club banger, but one with despondent lyrics. Jack Antonoff, the sudden production master, helms this great track (and album). If you can still relate to it, then damn, it’s earth-shattering. Lorde is our new pop queen.

#1. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”

(Photo Credit: Aftermath Records and Top Dawg Entertainment)

HOLD UP. Lamar’s return to Earth centered on an album full of real, dirty tracks, the best of which was lead single “HUMBLE.” It’s K-Dot’s first #1 solo hit (and second after “Bad Blood”). The brisk song features all the intensity of Lamar’s previous work, but trimmed down of all the poetry and jazz influences. It’s just Lamar going off for a little under three minutes. The horns hit and Lamar almost immediately screams the instantly-iconic lines, “Nobody pray for me / Even a day for me,” and from there on it’s a rollercoaster of Lamar telling his rise to fame through references to food. This song is pure boasting, and deservedly so. Lamar has earned his title as the best rapper today. References to Grey Poupon and paging Obama feel real because they probably are – Lamar visited the White House a number of times (before 1/20/17). Lamar’s constant blend of poetry, rap, funk, jazz, soul and just honest human emotion has always been extremely insightful and important. But man, it’s also a ton of fun to hear him just kick it into overdrive for three minutes, too. This is one of a few tracks on “DAMN.” where he just goes off, rushing off sheer talent. The fact that it was a #1 hit feels inconsequential. YEAH YEAH.

Runners-up: The XX, “Hold On,” Sampha, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” Vince Staples, “Bagbak,” Mount Eerie, “Death is Real,” The Mountain Goats, “Rain in Soho”

As always, thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out with any comments, disagreements or suggestions for songs you think should’ve made my cut! Also check back here daily for our continuing coverage of the best shows, movies and music of the year! Check out my much more personal lists over at postgradmusicreviews.com, whenever I find time to actually write it. Here’s to a plentiful 2018!

-By Andrew McNally

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