Co-written by Gersham Johnson
2017 was a year of confrontations. Some confrontations, to be sure, were red herrings. Did Cardi B confront and best the white supremacist heteropatriarchy, or did she simply write a banger? Did the new Taylor cut down the old Taylor with a katana in a bout of single combat? Did Ed Sheeran have sex one too many times?
In a year in which any sort of struggle towards equality seemed to have degraded into a trenched battle for the very survival of progressive ideals, we’ve often had to search for a silver lining. But only the best music of 2017 dealt with genuine confrontations: confrontations that change the way we think, that spark our creativity and momentum in our lives as well as in society.
Featured on the list, somewhat inevitably, is arguably the greatest artist of the decade: Kendrick Lamar. In his masterful album DAMN., K-Dot generates limitless confrontations: between fear and the self, between nurture and nature, between power and the oppressed, between free will and destiny. Every moment in the album forces a listener into a new perspective from which they can not just see but deeply feel confrontations that we all must face.
But Kendrick is just the tip of the iceberg of confrontations. Japanese producer and underground legend Cornelius returned to write pop music infused with loneliness and the confrontation between the individual and gnomon, the void where something used to be. Camila Cabello went solo from Fifth Harmony to juxtapose Havana and Atlanta, immersing a listener in cultural clashes. Moses Sumney released his first full-length album, a confrontation between a society obsessed with romantic love and an individual that cannot accept such a world.
In terms of genre and stylistic significance, “nu-R&B” rules the present as well as the future. SZA, Kelela, and Sampha delivered other-worldly vocal performances inspired by R&B but otherwise worked to shatter the genre as we know it. Alternative rock acts like St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear applied the tools and techniques of hip-hop and electronic production, creating brilliant anthems that sound genuinely new.
Meanwhile, rap music’s influence has continued to push popular music further away from the Sheet Music Era of traditionally sung melodies with precisely chosen notes and intervals. Artists such as Oxbow, King Krule, and Gesu no Kiwami Otome have been able to craft great songs while rejecting even explicit rhythmic shapes in their “melodies,” bringing spoken-word into the mix with relative ease.
Perhaps there were few giant “consensus” albums this year because so few of the innovative artists were willing to embrace standard pop forms. Even Lorde, who is somehow vying for title of Queen of Pop despite lacking a single substantial 2017 chart hit, challenged our notions of what pre-choruses should do, how choruses should sound and what it looks like to write about romantic love in a pop song.
These songs toe the lines between music as pleasure and as art, between structural form and innovation, between lyrical familiarity and ingenuity. These are the 40 best tracks of 2017.
(Check out the Spotify playlist here)
“Pleasure” – Feist
“Attention” Bassline – Charlie Puth
“Fruitflies” – Gabriel Garzón-Montano
The word “shit” on “I Did Something Bad” – Taylor Swift
All of the words in the title of “All the Punks Are Domesticated” – Ron Gallo
Taylor York’s guitar on all of After Laughter – Paramore
#40: “Percolator” – Charly Bliss
Writers: Charly Bliss
Producers: Charly Bliss and Slick Johnson
Though Taylor Swift managed a more financially successful heist in her “Getaway Car,” it’s Charly Bliss who invite you along for a ride to remember. Turning a few explosive metaphors into surgically precise melodicism, this is power punk at its most vital. The guitars and vocals can barely contain themselves before exploding into new hooks every few bars. If this is the sound of freedom going up in flames, you could scarcely imagine a more satisfying end.
#39: “The Evil Has Landed” – Queens of the Stone Age
Writers: Queens of the Stone Age
Producer: Mark Ronson
“Come close” approaches as an ominous drone before Queens of the Stone Age simply do what they do best: rock out. “The Evil Has Landed” is a Led Zeppelin ripoff of the best sort―rock grooves with over-the-top guitar and bass riffs, minimalist lyrics that are more atmosphere than message, and an epic bridge that launches into a musical world of its own. 2017 didn’t yield a lot of good rock music, but Queens of the Stone Age are undoubtedly among the best rockers in recent memory.
#38: “Havana” – Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug
Writers: Camila Cabello, Starrah, Ali Tamposi, Brian Lee, Andrew Watt, Pharrell Williams, Young Thug, Frank Dukes and Louis Bell
Producer: Frank Dukes
While “Despacito” is inarguably the most commercially successful of the Latin crossover smashes, “Havana” lays claim to being the most artistically successful. Havana and East Atlanta collide both musically and lyrically, as classic Cuban piano chords merge with dirty hip-hop sub-bass, percussion and of course Young Thug’s flow. There’s no big poetic message here, but like with “Despacito” the musical language speaks of a multi-cultural universality that we can all understand.
#37: “The Upper” – Oxbow
Album: Thin Black Duke
Producers: Joe Chiccarelli and Niko Wenner
Label: Hydra Head
Come for the great piano motif, horn section and overall chaos. Stay for the vocal performance, which defies the laws of music in its rejection of melody and rhythm and yet succeeds all the same. And recall a time when guitar-playing was genuinely able to strike fear into the hearts of millions. This is Oxbow’s seventh album, but their refusal to take musical styles on anyone else’s terms but their own is positively contemporary.
“The Upper” begins at 23:55.
#36: “Confessions Pt III” – BadBadNotGood feat. Colin Stetson
Label: Innovative Leisure
“Confessions Pt III” features BadBadNotGood’s first real dive into experimental jazz. Always talented instrumentalists and creative arrangers, the 21st century jazz quartet finally uses their skills to create an utterly unique jazz soundscape. The swirling saxophone resembles planetary bodies orbiting each other in space, pulling on each other within an invisible cosmos across millions of miles. “Confessions Pt III” is this year’s best way to go somewhere you’ve never been before through music alone.
#35: “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” – Joey Bada$$
Album: ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Writers: Joey Bada$$, DJ Khalil, Sam Barsh, Dan Seeff and Chin Injeti
Producer: DJ Khalil
Label: Cinematic/Pro Era
Joey Bada$$ is one of the most promising young rappers, with dexterous flow, slick internal rhymes and word-play, a wide-range of emotion in his voice, and an uncompromising willingness to dive into sticky political issues. “AMERIKKKAN IDOL” has the boldest political message of the album, throwing out a furious criticism of the government and criminal justice system that verges on conspiratorial over some brooding, ominous funk. Realistically Bada$$ bites off more than he can chew with the cringey overtness of the lyrics. Still, someone needed to say “Fuck white supremacy” this year. For that we thank Joey.
#34: “No Halo” – Sorority Noise
Album: You’re Not as ____ as You Think
Writers: Sorority Noise
Producer: Mike Sapone
Label: Triple Crown
“Show, don’t tell,” all the English teachers say, and here Sorority Noise achieve their best execution of that idea, evoking the conditions and feelings of depression without recourse to explicit despair in words or music. The rush of rapid and droning sixteenth-note guitar trades off with a desperately half-shouted vocal as the lyrical focus shifts from images of self-neglect to the neglect of a friendship that ended in tragedy. “God called you to fulfill a vacancy/I tried to see why it wasn’t me” is about as heartbreaking as it gets, but the giant hooks and synergy of the band push forward to celebrate a life that could have been and a life that still can be.
#33: “Gwan” – Rostam
Writers: Rostam Batmanglij and Ramesh Srivastava
Producer: Rostam Batmanglij
It feels a revelation to hear a pop song that feels so thoroughly “composed.” Cello lines twist and turn around each other down below, vocals move in contrapuntal lines high above, and a lone piano strikes out in the middle to define classically inclined chord progressions. Rostam already proved with Vampire Weekend that he was a musician’s songwriter, and now we know that he is a musician’s solo artist as well. Vocal presence aside, the music is as musical as ever.
#32: “勝手な青春劇” (A Selfish Youth Drama) – Gesu No Kiwami Otome
Album: Daruma Ringo
Writer: Enon Kawatani
Producer: Enon Kawatani
One of 2017’s rare innovations in indie rock kicks off with the year’s catchiest guitar lick highlighted by creative change-ups and a sticky, math-rock inflected solo, and concludes with mounting pressure on the concept of hedonistic youth that eventually caves in on itself. The most important lyric occurs in the transition towards the bridge: Kawatani sings “もう一回” (One more time). He doesn’t ask us if we want to redo our youth over again, but rather dares us to do so, regardless of how foolish it ultimately might be.
#31: “Call the Police” – LCD Soundsystem
Album: American Dream
Writer: James Murphy and Al Doyle
Producer: James Murphy
LCD Soundsystem capture a sense of recklessness and nostalgia like no other modern band. James Murphy’s crooning spirits each of us into our own most anxious, yearning, joyful moments with four-chord 1980’s grooves that warp into the positively triumphant. It’s easy to get lost in the pummeling bass and drums and want to scream along with Murphy: “Just CALL the police!” Just try to ruin this band’s fun. I dare you. You can’t.
#30: “Symmetry & Black Tar” – Thomas Abban
Album: A Sheik’s Legacy
Writer: Thomas Abban
Producer: Thomas Abban
Label: Deck Night
Thomas Abban is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new faces of 2017, a masked and tattooed guitar virtuoso equal parts gentle and poetic, fierce and grand. “Symmetry & Black Tar” combines all of these qualities into a single song, floating across rapid guitar licks and bare spaces of poetry before Abban fuses it all together into pure rock. His lyrics call back to the sparse, folk-influenced hymns of 1960s psychedelic rock, while his playing style conjures Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix in equal measure. “Symmetry & Black Tar” is the can’t-miss rock song of 2017.
“Symmetry & Black Tar” not available for free online streaming.
#29: “Brassy Sun” – S. Carey
Album: Hundred Acres
Writer: Sean Carey
Producers: Sean Carey, Zach Hanson and Chris Messina
A remarkably spare track that’s even more remarkable for its sheer beauty, “Brassy Sun” is itself a musical sunset. A gorgeously lithe keyboard progression that rolls and recedes like peaceful waves remains a near-constant source of light for the duration of the composition, save for a few moments of transitional dissonance that preface a fade-out into darkness. The atmospherics of the music perfectly mirror the lyrics, also incredibly bare but evocative of an intangible and restless nostalgia. A beautiful reflection on the past that points towards promises of more great things to come from S. Carey.
#28: “Better” – Kelela
Album: Take Me Apart
Writers: Kelela, Mocky and Romy Croft
Producers: Mocky, Bok Bok, Ariel Rechtshaid and Kwes
Always the inventive songwriter, Kelela really shines when the production largely drops away, allowing her inspired melodies and vocal arrangements to build the story her lyrics sketch out. The dissolution of her relationship is a solo vocal line that floats reticently over an electric keyboard. Six months later they’re trying things again, and reconciliation is a haunting, building choir of harmonies that weave in and out of each other, refusing to fully cadence and signaling the pained incompatibility of irreconcilable differences. Industrial drums then clash and echo against the song’s most mechanical vocals, a concrete acceptance of failure in an astonishingly successful bridge. For Kelela, the music is the message, and we’ve received the memo loud and clear.
“Better” not available for free online streaming.
#27: “Rest” – Leif Vollebekk
Album: Twin Solitude
Writer: Leif Vollebekk
Producer: Leif Vollebekk
Label: Secret City
Rest, in both the everyday world and in the one crafted so delicately by Leif Vollebek, is a beautiful, fragile tension that is held together by solitude. In each verse Vollebekk turns the words “close my eyes” into a mini-religious cadence, ornamenting his lonely melody as the featherweight atmosphere he creates continues to swirl round and round him like an undiscovered galaxy. Each harp string and saxophone in his orbit withholds itself from the release that you know will hit like a giant wave—but then over eight minutes passes by and you’re still left rocking like a rowboat on a calm sea. This is the opposite of maximalist pop, but it’s not quite minimalism either. “Rest” paints the world in giant emotions that stretch all the way to the sky.
#26: “Variations on an Aria” – People Like You
Writers: People Like You
Producer: Sai Boddupalli
The best proof that horns have been the missing link in contemporary pop music. Just listen to the way the trumpet hugs the gorgeous vocal melody—and also listen to the way it subtly defines both the depth and warmth of the whole track. The music is indeed beautiful, but People Like You are also a band that can play with the best of them. So crisply are the lines executed that each cascading rhythm feels like its own instrument. This is a song just begging to be held close, in summer and winter months alike.
#25: “Till Death” – Japanese Breakfast
Album: Soft Sounds from Another Planet
Writer: Michelle Zauner
Producers: Craig Hendrix and Michelle Zauner
Label: Dead Oceans
Michelle Zauner infuses all of her work with just the right amount of self-aware sarcasm and irony. “Till Death” is no different: as Zauner explains, it’s a song about marriage. From that perspective, the song’s message progresses from entirely pessimistic to entirely optimistic: in spite of everything terrible in this world, in marriage she and her partner are in it together until the end. Japanese Breakfast is also among the best at crafting a uniquely gorgeous musical atmosphere. Zauner delivers simultaneously heavenly and abyssal orchestral beauty through a mere four chords, and that alone is enough to make “Till Death” a must-listen.
#24: “Czech One” – King Krule
Album: The Ooz
Writer: King Krule
Producers: King Krule and Dilip Harris
Label: True Panther/XL
King Krule is an artist who manages to defy conventional pop structures while simultaneously breathing new life into our most significant popular music genres. Jazz-inflected saxophone lines, bluesy piano runs and hip hop-styled keyboard loops come together to form an unclassifiable portrait of alienation and longing. Or is it a love song? Like in many of his songs, the object of his affection is a Third-Person “She” that isn’t defined by melodic verses and choruses but by rap-sung stream-of-consciousness observations. When he pivots from being “impaled forlorn/And thrown into a pile” to describing her eyes as the place “where tiny men have been absorbed/For questioning the sky,” any imagined boundaries—between love and longing, hack poetry and brilliant lyricism, pop music and everything else—dissolve before your eyes.
#23: “The Bus Song” – Jay Som
Album: Everybody Works
Writers: Jay Som
Producer: Jay Som
Labels: Double Denim/Polyvinyl
In a year where alternative rock has evolved towards electronic and hip-hop-inspired production, Jay Som sounds like throwback indie rock with catchy guitar chords, a dreamy chorus, upright piano, swelling horns, and shout-along moments. “The Bus Song” is a story told through one controlled moment—a song about a relationship within the context of a single bus ride. The specificity of a well-told story gives way to lyrics we can pocket and bring home, for a rainy day or a hot shower. Jay Som gives us a song that we can remember at the moment each of us needs something to sing.
#22: “Provider” – Frank Ocean
Writer: Frank Ocean
Producers: Jarami, Caleb Laven & Vegyn
Frank Ocean continues to build his reputation as one of the best lyricists of his generation. Each and every line brings to light a dense array of gorgeous images, ingenious references, and myriad interpretations (try thinking about how much “Sleepin’ on my belly in a loop like a serpent/Talking Heads ripplin’ on the surface” manages to conjure in just two lines). Ocean croons over a skittering jazz-inflected experimental beat, stirring in insecurity and self-doubt in one of the year’s most innovative love songs.
#21: “911 / Mr. Lonely” – Tyler, the Creator
Album: Flower Boy
Writer: Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Raymond Calhoun
Producer: Tyler, the Creator
There’s something simultaneously quirky and disturbing about this medley: the combination of the sixteenth-step delay in the beat, the trippy synths, and the sharp shift between Tyler’s cavern-deep rapping voice and the nasally, airy singing. But for a song about desperation and loneliness, there’s so much that is pleasing to the ears. There are sunny chord progressions lacing the change-ups; vocal layering that walks the line between harmonies and frenzied chanting. Tyler embraces an under-discussed and under-emphasized topic, especially in rap music, and paints a vivid picture of loneliness and everything it entails.
#20: “ELEMENT.” – Kendrick Lamar
Writers: Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, James Blake and Ricci Riera
Producers: Sounwave, James Blake, Ricci Riera, Tae Beast and Bēkon
Label: Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment
Forget “Bodak Yellow,” this is the year’s best in hip hop braggadocio. Forget “HUMBLE.,” this is the year’s best sinner-saint dichotomy. And forget “XO Tour Llif3,” this is the year’s most relevant drum pattern. Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit, ’cause it’s a crime that we’ve had to hear “DNA.” like ten times as much. But if you’d rather listen to “XXX.” (or maybe even “FEEL.”), we won’t complain.
#19: “Yellow” – Aminé
Album: Good for You
Writers: Aminé, Frank Dukes, Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz, Chester Hansen and Nelly
Producers: Frank Dukes, Metro Boomin and Murda Beatz
While so many of the year’s artists have used their music to express insecurities, heartbreak and other personal demons, Aminé is the rare musician who manages to sustain humor, major chords and an unrelenting sense of fun throughout a whole song. Nearly everything about “Yellow” is playful and in bright colors: the over-the-top synth riff, the light buzz of the electric keys and a lazy Sunday morning rap that references Krabby Patties and Cruella de Vil. This feeling of genuine exuberance makes “Yellow” a great party track, but what gives it depth are the subtle nods to overcoming hard times that Aminé places at the beginning of each verse, reminding us that even the most frivolous sense of happiness must be earned.
“Yellow” not available for free online streaming.
#18: “Sleepwalker” – Julie Byrne
Album: Not Even Happiness
Writer: Julie Byrne
Producer: Eric Littman
Label: Ba Da Ding/Basin Rock
Sometimes all an artist needs is a guitar and their voice to capture universal truths and listeners’ hearts in equal measure. Julie Byrne’s vocals and guitar-playing—both ethereal and precise and yet roughly-hewn—combine with astonishing forcefulness on lines like, “Before you, had I ever known love?” Byrne poses this admittedly well-worn but searching question near the beginning of the song, but the turning point from good songwriting to great occurs when she answers: “The one sense of permanence that I came to feel was mine/Only beneath your gaze.” “Sleepwalker” really speaks for itself: a simple soundscape serving up philosophy both profound and poetic.
#17: “New York” – St. Vincent
Writer: St. Vincent
Producers: St. Vincent and Jack Antonoff
Label: Loma Vista
The greatest love song of the year is less a tribute to the Big Apple and more an instantly iconic distillation of all the love and heartbreak the city inspires into a series of slogan-ready, million-dollar lines worthy of a tourist’s T-shirt. Several of music’s biggest names have spent the past year lamenting the loss of our former heroes and idols, but when St. Vincent declares she’d still “do it all again” over a deceptively optimistic set of rising piano chords, she invites us to look beyond New York the Monolith to see the millions of beating hearts that make the city worth living and dying for.
#16: “How Far” – Tei Shi
Album: Crawl Space
Writers: Tei Shi and Gianluca Buccellati
Producer: Gianluca Buccellatti
A rising star out of Argentina seems an unlikely candidate as the mastermind behind one of the year’s most entertaining jams. Tei Shi takes Tame Impala’s groove and stirs in a greater attention to melody and vocal delivery: her soft but soaring voice contrasts with the bottom-heavy brawl of funky instrumentation. Crawl Space is one of the year’s most enjoyable start-to-finish listens, but “How Far” stands above as a gem that can be listened to over and over again. It’s a song begging to be remixed and played at a club near you.
#15: “Up in Hudson” – Dirty Projectors
Album: Dirty Projectors
Writers: David Longstreth, Ewan MacColl, David Ginyard and Tyondai Braxton
Producers: David Longstreth and Tyondai Braxton
An orchestral, swelling horn section. A complete tale of forged and fallen love. An extended percussive outro. “Up In Hudson” is the most ambitious work on Dave Longstreth’s 2017 project, and has all the makings of a musical epic. The story of his relationships mixes the banal (“Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway riding fast”) with the brilliant (“Do the things that lovers do/Slightly domesticate the truth”) and the always admirable dose of Dirty Projectors’ experimental rhythms and sound effects. What makes “Up in Hudson” such a unique song is that the story is so fully crafted and honest that the resulting message verges on the brutal. In the song’s conclusion he reminds us over and over and over again: “Love will burn out/And love will just fade away.” But as he sings that moral over a dizzyingly optimistic melody, love still has a chance, at least in a listener’s mind.
#14: “Third of May / Odaigahara” – Fleet Foxes
Writer: Robin Pecknold
Producers: Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset
“Third of May / Odaigahara” puts on display everything that makes Fleet Foxes a special band. The opening verses are babbling streams through a sunny day that turn upwards towards a vast sky in the chorus. The shift halfway through the song sends us over the edge of a waterfall, seizing a listener in a bone-chilling tempest. Fleet Foxes have pinpoint control over their own dynamics, rushing from a cavernous roar to a single drop of sound concentrated in Pecknold’s sigh. Like no other band, Fleet Foxes evokes the natural world in all its beauty as well as its sublime horror, as all their sounds seem to stand as symbols and keys to greater depths of human thought and feeling.
#13: “The Old Shade Tree” – Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
Album: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
Writers: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
Producers: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
What else is there to say? Two of the greatest living musicians fuse a folk atmosphere with pop sensibilities and a jazz playing style in one of the best instrumental performances of the year. Chris Thile’s soaring falsetto is only an accent on a masterful duet of at-once dueling and harmonizing piano and mandolin. Thile and Mehldau use primarily a single chord progression to orchestrate a stunning build-up of emotion, noise, and virtuosic flair. Six minutes will pass before you can exhale.
#12: “If You’re Here” – Cornelius
Album: Mellow Waves
Writers: Cornelius and Shintaro Sakamoto
Label: Warner Music Japan/Rostrum
Cornelius has always been a producer three steps ahead of the game. In the early ‘90s he was spinning his own modern twists on latin jazz and funk, and after a prolonged absence he comes back with an arrhythmic, sparse and thoroughly lonely love song. Cornelius plays with every production tool available to him, sending wiry shivers across his guitars and synths alike. But more importantly he does not forget the old tools of songwriting—evolving reprises, moody solos, key-changes, and a restrained vocal performance—even as he embraces the new. There’s nothing else that sounds quite like Cornelius now, although there undoubtedly will be if you check back this time next year.
#11: “Plastic 100ºC” – Sampha
Producers: Sampha and Rodaidh McDonald
Label: Young Turks
There’s the mesmerizing melancholy of the chords, the sudden soulful vocal bursts that seem to come from the stratosphere, the other-worldly instrumental (featuring a gorgeous kora pattern) that seems to come from all directions at once, and a lyrical double-entendre equating fame and the isolation of outer space. If you were asked to give this amalgam a name, you’d have to call it “Plastic 100ºC,” the standout moment from the standout debut from Sampha. The song can seem almost overwhelming in the way that the vocals and instruments continue to thicken like mist throughout the song, scarcely lifting as gears imperceptibly shift from verse to chorus. The arpeggiated patterns evoke Johanna Warren, and the lyrical conceit recalls Bowie, but the bending of these elements—and their amplification amid a sea of other textures and vocals—results in a cohesive musical moment as unique as it is beautiful.
#10: “Strangest Thing” – The War on Drugs
Album: A Deeper Understanding
Writer: Adam Granduciel
Producer: Adam Granduciel
Adam Granduciel is the latest in a lineage of Wall of Sound-obsessives that includes talents as diverse as Brian Wilson, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Bruce Springsteen. Granduciel’s work most frequently draws comparisons with the latter, but his genius has been to take the seeds of sorrow and introspection that lurk underneath some of The Boss’s biggest hits and construct entire monuments to them, using layers of guitars to suggest both space and constriction, distance and familiarity, frigidity and warmth. Each guitar seems processed to its own unique emotion: one axe punctures the soundscape with aggressive rock and roll swagger while another cries above the mix in one of the most memorable solos recorded this year. The lyrics speak of an unknown but shifting sense of loss, which may be Granduciel’s way of reminding us that fashioning a gigantic instrumental presence is only half the battle. The instruments must shift and move to remind us why they’re there in the first place, so that they may take us somewhere entirely new.
#9: “シアワセ林檎” (Happy Apple) – Gesu no Kiwami Otome
Album: Daruma Ringo
Writer: Enon Kawatani
Producer: Enon Kawatani
After a year of intense criticism in Japan following the exposure of Enon Kawatani’s extramarital affair with a well-known J-Pop idol, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he wishes he could simply leave his cares behind. As a result we get one of the most entertaining tracks of the year—breakneck pace, catchy chorus, singalong bridge, and rampaging solos all included. Kawatani’s rap-inflected style spits out bitter complaints before launching into dreamy idealism, backed by top-notch talent at guitar, piano and bass. At times Kawatani feels wistful to the point of satire, but the music speaks for itself—this is a song that grasps towards the joy of self-expression in times of trouble. And that’s what music is all about, isn’t it?
#8: “Three Rings” – Grizzly Bear
Album: Painted Ruins
Writers: Grizzly Bear
Producers: Chris Taylor
Grizzly Bear’s music has always felt like an instructive class in songwriting and instrumentation, and this year’s Painted Ruins added “production” as a new subject at Grizzly Bear Academy. The lyrics are vague enough to conjure a sense of longing and broken-heartedness that perfectly aligns with the explosive drumming and haunted synths that form the basis of what is realistically one of the “pop” songs on the album. “Three Rings” stands out for its brilliant song structure: the vocal harmonies and sing-along chorus fade into a prolonged rhythmic jam with the ambience of swirling winds, lulling the listener into repose. Increasingly violent iterations of the established verse and chorus approach piece by piece with a sense of inevitably, until at once the listener is gripped violently by the throat as Droste shouts the final chorus under a thunderous, melting sky. Grizzly Bear fine-tunes every sound in the track to resounding beauty—the song is truly a master class in crafting musical atmosphere.
#7: “Supermodel” – SZA
Writers: SZA, Pharrell Williams, Tyran Donaldson, Punch and Greg Landfair, Jr.
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA
Though she’d like say differently, SZA’s meteoric rise to pop stardom should come as no surprise. Her voice alone is one of the most unique sounds heard all year. It’s an instrument that in two words can shift from a full-throated and piercing clarity to an unpolished sneer, and in two lines can effortlessly scale an octave, dividing up the interval into subtle rhythmic shifts that move about like a breeze diverted. But “Supermodel” stands above the rest because of strong songwriting that marries a dissonance-drenched guitar progression with lyrics that traverse heartbreak, vengeance and insecurity. But again, it’s her voice that makes even the simplest of lines sound like profound poetry. Though comparisons to Amy Winehouse abound, one cannot help but recall the phrasing of Nina Simone—but seemingly by way of The Beatles’ “Michelle.” Three repetitions of “I need you” somehow manage to say as much as many of her peers’ entire songs. And her voice says even more than that.
#6: “Wreath” – Perfume Genius
Album: No Shape
Writer: Perfume Genius
Producer: Blake Mills
No Shape finds Perfume Genius embracing spirituality completely on his own terms, and “Wreath” is the album’s greatest emotional and metaphysical release. He rejects all bodily definitions and limitations, declaring at the beginning of the track that “I wanna hover with no shape.” But it’s in the final moments of the song where he defines this declaration. The rising swell of synths, guitar, heartbeat-tuned kick drums and vocals that conclude the song—featuring wordless yodeling straight out of Kate Bush’s “The Big Sky”—move beyond words to a weightless and intangible spiritual climax that only music can provide. In this way, “Wreath” is also the answer to the questions that Bush herself raises on “Running Up That Hill”: perhaps changing bodies with another (or genders, or physical limitations, or anything else) is the only way of inhabiting another’s perspective, but it’s in the shared moments of spirituality that music can provide where we have the best chance at shedding our differences like an old skin.
#5: “Quarrel” – Moses Sumney
Writers: Moses Sumney, Cam O’bi and Paris Strother
Producers: Moses Sumney, Cam O’bi and Joshua Willing Halpern
“Quarrel” is a mind-bending jazz masterpiece. Sumney’s peerless, soaring falsetto spirits us across a starry soundscape of twisting bass, shimmering harp, and cavernous strings, which eventually devolves into a preposterous gut-twisting jam. Sumney’s Aromanticism features one of the most unique lyrical messages of 2017 as an album exploring the implausibility of romantic love according to society’s expectations. “Quarrel” hones in on the consequences of failing to live up to romantic ideals in relationships, following up “We cannot be lovers/As long as I am the Other” with a climactic fight expressed through expansive timbre and violent rhythm alone. He takes his message to another level by expressing it equally through the content of his lyrics, the texture of his voice, and his elegant song craft. Never before has a lover’s quarrel been more enjoyable.
#4: “The Louvre” – Lorde
Writers: Lorde and Jack Antonoff
Producers: Lorde, Jack Antonoff, Flume and Malay
Leave it to Lorde to pen the most cynical chorus for a love song this side of Bob Dylan. But the callousness is borne as much by the music as it is by the words. “Broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make ‘em all dance to it” sits jaggedly atop a marriage of undanceable percussive effects and unidentifiable vocal motifs, defying us to partake in the commodification of something that once may have been sacred. What results is simply the greatest “fuck you” to song structure in any pure “pop” song this year. And that’s not to mention the rest of the song: The musical climax occurs in the pre-chorus and the greatest line and album thesis statement is an aside from Verse 2, where it’s suggested that the tales of young love that she’s been trying to sell are in fact high art. And who knows? Maybe “high art” really is just a convincing lie we all agree to tell each other. In that case, the pop charts are just as worthy a source as any. Funny that Lorde now avoids them like the plague.
#3: “The Story of O.J.” – Jay-Z
Writers: Jay-Z, No I.D., Nina Simone, Gene Redd and Jimmy Crosby
Producers: No I.D. and Jay-Z
Label: Roc Nation/UMG
Good luck finding another chorus this year (or from most other years, for that matter) that can better encapsulate the history of classism and racism in America, using just six lines and rap’s most ubiquitous epithet. A master class in irony, “The Story of O.J.” juxtaposes this chorus with observations on how the oppressed and disadvantaged can turn capitalism to their advantage. The fact that he’s encouraging the exploitation of the very system that made writing that chorus necessary is not lost on him. In the final verse, he remarks on the exponential growth in monetary value he achieves from a nameless and authorless piece of artwork, reminding us over a chopped up sample of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” that even as we mine cultures and peoples for entertainment and monetary value, we can’t truly escape the messages or history that they transmit. And don’t let his tricky use of a Jewish stereotype fool you: Hov knows that, when living in a society that endlessly confronts us with a barrage of stereotypes and distortions, sometimes it pays to embrace the ones that can help you the most.
#2: “Dum Surfer” – King Krule
Album: The Ooz
Writer: King Krule
Producers: King Krule and Dilip Harris
Label: True Panther/XL
“Dum Surfer” is not a California surfer groove turned bad acid trip. It’s what happens when you go on that acid trip and end up bleeding, dead, and in a ditch. Rich musically and lyrically in its endless evocations of all five senses and beyond, with chaotic, spine-tingling production fine-tuned with imperfection like singed gossamer, Archy Marshall portrays an internal state of madness, a psychic struggle for survival in the oozing ecosystem of his own mind. Marshall seems to have taken a lesson out of the ambiguity of ancient Japanese and Chinese poetry, wherein a single word has multiple meanings, lending a single poem several completely different readings. Marshall mimics this technique using his inimitable, grating howl, creating overlaps like “dum surfer” with “don’t suffer,” and “we’re mashed” with “we’re matched.” King Krule treats his own voice not as vocals, not as another instrument, but as a mere sound effect, equivalent to ominously stirring background atmospheres, or falling rain. Ambiguity thrives and King Krule converses with himself, conscious and subconscious minds arguing with each other. He mashes a listener’s mind into a muck, a sonic state of horror, in the year’s most innovative track.
#1: “XXX.” – Kendrick Lamar feat. U2
Writers: Kendrick Lamar, Mike Will Made It, DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Top Dawg and U2
Producers: Mike Will Made It, DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Top Dawg and Bēkon
Label: Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment
When the unfinished but implicitly understood question, “Can you help me understand?”, is raised in the opening seconds of “XXX,” Kendrick brings a listener into the desperate mindset appropriate to the most powerful track on the most important album of 2017. Kendrick leaves us craving answers in a constantly devolving chaos, transporting us from a race through hell bombarded by sirens into a dreamy, bass-studded groove, the picture of the American flag wrapped with explosives hanging in a haze. Kendrick hits a listener with personal and political image after idea after story, delivered with an almost unbelievable dexterity and tight control over his own flow. It’s an impeccable montage of issues (education, police brutality, the fear of death) and images (crucified Jesus, borders, reflections) condensed into 4 minutes flat. You could write an essay about this song, or a novel based off it, and the breadth of the world it evokes is suspended in perfect balance with the specificity of the song’s impact. The result? A throbbing urge, a wound numbed by opioids, to move into the future, and perhaps fix it.