Welcome back, everyone. Last time, I mentioned that I thought 2017 was a pretty good year for pop music, and here I’ll get to explain exactly why I feel that way. Like I said on the intro for the worst list, there was a lot of diversity, and lots of artists outdid themselves, both artists I like getting a rare shot at the mainstream, as well as established hitmakers exceeding my expectations. I had to make several cuts when I finalized my worst list, but I also had to make just as many cuts here. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an indicator of a solid year for music.
Now, the rules for eligibility are the same as before. A song must appear on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Chart for 2017. And just like I made an unofficial worst list last year, I did a best list as well. Here it is:
10. Zara Larsson and MNEK – Never Forget You
9. The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses
8. Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out
7. One Direction – Perfect
6. Ariana Grande – Into You
5. Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind
4. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – Starboy
3. The Weeknd – In the Night
2. Mike Posner – I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Remix)
1. Adele – When We Were Young
Now, again, my choices today wouldn’t be quite the same as last year. So an amended list would look like this:
Zara Larsson and MNEK – Never Forget You The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses
The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses Coldplay – Hymn for the Weekend
8. Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out
One Direction – Perfect Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind
Ariana Grande – Into You One Direction – Perfect
Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind Ariana Grande – Into You
4. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – Starboy
3. The Weeknd – In the Night
2. Mike Posner – I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Remix)
1. Adele – When We Were Young
Not as many changes as on the Worst List, in large part because songs I hate are far more likely to lose my interest than songs that I like. The only omission is Never Forget You, which has cooled on me a bit since last year. Hymn for the Weekend has grown on me since then, so it made the most sense as a replacement. And again, anything from this list is ineligible for the list I’m doing now. In other words, Starboy is out of the running despite recharting this year. And now, let’s begin with honorable mentions.
R&B Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 3
Yeah, Bruno Mars is a pretty easy choice for a lot of lists like this. His command of classic R&B is basically beyond reproach now, and like the best showmen, he’s got a suaveness to his delivery that’s always a joy to listen to. This song is pretty arrogant in a sense, with the boasting and the rattling off of luxury branding, but it’s inclusive, as well: Bruno promises nothing but the best for his girl, and the bright production plus his infectious charm leaves a smile on my face every time.
Hip hop/Disco Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 71
And from the solid reliability of Bruno Mars, we go straight to one of the biggest surprises in this year’s pop music. A hit for Frank Ocean, and a song where Calvin Harris and Migos deliver quality work? If I hadn’t listened to some of the stuff Harris had released before he got big, I’d never have believed he had it in him to produce a slick melodic groove like this. Frank Ocean himself seems spaced out here, but that seems to fit given the subject matter, a kind of low-key affair that doesn’t have a deep connection, but he’ll enjoy it while it lasts. And Migos’ trademark triplet flow is actually perfectly suited to this beat, with Offset being the standout as usual.
More than anything, this is soothing music done well. A lot more so than the neo-easy listening I lambasted on the worst list, this actually feels relaxed, rather than angsting for ill-defined reasons, and I can appreciate it for what it is. And speaking of strong grooves…
R&B/Funk Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 22
And while we’re on the topic of artists who defied expectations. Charlie Puth’s disastrous Nine Track Mind was one of the worst albums of 2016, and his pitiful efforts at blending early 60’s doo wop with mid-2000’s hip hop production gave us the unforgivably awful Marvin Gaye, which was also a big influence on my thoughts about the mono-genre on the worst list. This year, though? He’s reinvented himself, but in a way that actually makes a lot of sense. He always wanted to present himself as a smooth man of romance, but he’s chosen a much more potent instrumental direction for that kind of ambition. That bass line is simply to die for.
What’s more surprising are the lyrics, which are refreshingly honest in portraying an ugly affair, as well as how his own weaknesses reinforce the bad relationship. He knows that the girl he’s singing about isn’t really interested in starting things up again, that she’s trying to pique his attention for its own sake, but despite that awareness, he can’t quite resist the temptation and snaps at the bait. It also helps that he’s playing in his lower register, rather than that thin falsetto he used to indulge. The bit on the bridge where his voice cracks is still a weakness, and kept this out of the top ten, but still, it’s a major improvement, and leaves me genuinely interested in where he goes from here.
Pop rock Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 23
And speaking of artists from last year’s worst list outperforming expectations, we have this, a song so good, his record label is apparently manipulating his Wikipedia entry, to try and convince us that this track was on Illuminate all along. And I can see why they did it. It’s as if at some point, somebody realized, “Hey, we’re marketing Shawn as an acoustic guitar singer, it might help if he actually got to show off his instrumental chops at some point.” And so we get a guitar rollick that’s infectious as hell, and far more reminiscent of his early stuff like Something Big, rather than the moodier music he’d been doing after Stitches was a hit.
And again, the lyrics match the new sound. Instead of some moodiness about some failing or abusive relationship, we’ve instead got a song where Shawn Mendes is pushed into bolder, more adventurous territory by the girl he’s with. Now, I can only imagine that for him, adventure involves going to a dive bar once a month or something. But you know, baby steps. Mendes’ delivery has this wry bemusement to it, which is a much better emotional fit than the angst or, worse, predation of Stitches and Treat You Better. And with this song doing as well as it did, I can only hope that Mendes continues in this vein, with nothing holding him back.
Country Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 57
Now, this is an unusual case – you don’t get this kind of neotraditional sound on the Hot 100 much anymore. Now, there’s a drum machine, which I’m tired of hearing in country music, but otherwise, the production is solid. The guitars have some nice textures, and Brett Young is a good performer, with a distinctive raspy voice that has some real sincerity. And the lyrics may not be anything special, but they’re sincere, and a straightforward love song about how he cares even if he’s not great at expressing it all the time – well, it’s a very relatable sentiment, and I think we’ve all been there. It’s a solid, straightforward song.
Pop Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 96
And here we have two more artists I previously disliked delivering quality music. This was the other problem I mentioned with calling Camila Cabello the worst vocalist in pop music. Despite her serious, serious limitations, this song kills. Like Charlie Puth, she has a pitchy and thin upper range, and so by focusing on her lower register in this song, she was able to play to her strengths. And the production is also on point, providing convincing atmosphere for a smoky bordello from a hundred years ago. And with a fantastic trumpet solo near the end, this song sounds incredible.
Young Thug is a bit of a weakness, but he also stays in a lower register than usual, and it still fits the atmosphere surprisingly well. And the fact that this did as well as it did, rising to number two on the charts and being a shoo-in to re-chart much higher next year, it leaves me with some hope that Camila will give us more strong music in the future. There’s not much more I can ask for.
Indie rock Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 45
And here’s another shocker. Just as I’d been thinking that indie rock crossovers were sputtering out, suddenly one of the biggest names in the indie scene were surging into the top ten. And while I’m not entirely sold on Portugal. The Man’s new direction, this is still a solid Motown groove they’ve put together here. The lyrics are maybe a little too ironic for my taste; I’ll certainly get into this in more detail when I get back to political writing, but now’s not exactly the time for rebellion “for kicks”. Still, this added some upbeat, cerebral diversity to the pop charts, and I’m happy it exists.
And on that note, let’s begin the list proper.
10. Now, I talked a fair bit about tropical house on the worst list, and how I felt like a lot of it was playing in very safe, easy listening territory. I do think that a lot of that’s intentional. The idea of incorporating tropical flavors into house music was to create something relaxed, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Still, to make it really interesting, you need an edge, and I’ve seen two big ways you can provide that. You can do what Seeb did when they remixed I Took a Pill in Ibiza, and play up some melancholic emptiness, which house music is well-suited for. Or, you can do what Kygo does, and emphasize more texture in the mix. Or, if you’re Clean Bandit, a little of both.
10. Clean Bandit ft. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie – Rockabye
Tropical House/Baroque pop Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 44
Now, this is another of the tropical house hits we’ve been getting over the past couple years, but I think it’s far better than most, for a few reasons. First, Clean Bandit were already a deep house act, so the transition to tropical sounds, basically just a subgenre of that same style, weren’t nearly as stark as for Ed Sheeran or Maroon 5. Hell, they were mixing reggae and house music before the world had even heard of Kygo. They already knew how to make this sound work, and despite losing their violinist, Grace Chatto’s cello still adds some texture that makes this stand out.
And those lyrics. My favorite EDM is often in this vein, romantic with big emotions even if they’re not especially complex. That’s why I loved Rather Be so much in 2014, and they deliver again here. The nursery rhyme on this chorus works because it fits the theme, of a single mother trying to protect her child and make sure he lives a better life than she has. The chorus is spoken as words of comfort, but you can still hear the desperation behind it, especially in the prechorus. The result is a thing of beauty, and even if it falls short of Rather Be, that’s still a high bar to clear.
9. Of course, with tropical house being as big a musical trend as it has for the last couple years, it was only a matter of time until the originator himself could leverage that into a hit. And the result was amazing.
9. Kygo and Selena Gomez – It Ain’t Me
Tropical House Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 27
Like I said, Kygo is several steps ahead of his peers in house music, and with the balance of actual guitars with the synths, this song has a sense of real tangibility and weight that imitators tend to lack. And this might be Selena Gomez’s best song, since it plays to her strengths. She can’t belt like Ariana Grande or Demi Lovato, so playing towards a more reserved haughtiness fits a lot better. And despite being more restrained on the verses, this song also features an incredible singalong chorus, with Selena telling someone she’s had enough. But, again, there’s a wistfulness behind this, which forgives the choppy vocaloid drop thanks to the emotional context. That provides a sense that although it’s time for Selena to move on, there’s still something being lost here, and that kind of pathos elevates your average breakup song. It’s a great track, and not even the best on Kygo’s sophomore album, so I’m looking forward to whatever he gives us next.
8. Now, the Chainsmokers might be the most divisive act in pop music right now. Closer was one of the biggest hits of the decade, but also one of the most despised. And although I count myself in the latter camp on that specific song, there are other songs of theirs I like, despite my misgivings about their production skills and the incipient chauvinism that permeates even their good songs. But add a good performer and some less contentious song concepts, and they can still work some magic.
8. The Chainsmokers and Coldplay – Something Just Like This
EDM Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 5
Now, there are some real shortcomings to this song, mostly relating to production – the drop is clearly recycled from their previous hit Roses, and the hook is the same cadence as Hymn for the Weekend. Of course, I like both of those songs, and considering what’s coming up on this list, I can only get so mad at that. And of course, the fact that they brought along the whole band instead of just Chris Martin is a big help; Jonny Buckland’s guitar solo really puts this over the top from a musical standpoint.
Still, I’ve always been more interested in the lyrics, because they’re what made me realize that this collaboration brings out the best in both acts involved. The Chainsmokers occupy a strange place as songwriters, because I’ve always gotten the sense that they feel like they were born in the wrong generation. Their breakthrough hit #Selfie was a trite novelty, lambasting a shallow girl at a club, but that same focus on Millennial angst and frivolity has appeared in their music again and again, and you start to realize that this is a big part of their appeal. They speak to a generation that’s been told again and again that they’re what’s wrong with the world, and they’ve internalized a lot of that criticism. Here, they confront imposed expectations that seem insurmountable, and Chris Martin sells that uncertainty with real earnestness. And with the help of the girl he’s singing about, he’s able to overcome that weight of unreasonable expectations and accept who he is. It’s cathartic, and basically makes this the Stressed Out of 2017. I’m still deeply skeptical of the Chainsmokers in general, but I can’t deny the kernel of brilliance here.
7. Of course, the Chainsmokers weren’t the only ones who fought through emotional baggage for a moment of pure catharsis, so let’s talk about a much better EDM act who did the same thing.
7. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – I Feel it Coming
R&B/French House Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 34
Now, I don’t know how popular this opinion is, but I think I like this even more than Starboy. Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but let’s not let that distract us from what an unusual step this is for the Weeknd. He’s always played towards the angstier side of R&B, so to close out his album with this, it shows the emotional growth he’s gone through. He’s singing about/towards the same dead-eyed, damaged girl he’s always referenced, but this time, he can finally offer more than just empathy, he can offer hope. You can tell that he sees something of himself and his own damage in her, and that offers a connection he can reach out with.
And of course there’s Daft Punk, who offer a lot here as well. The slick, lush production here is just fantastic, and I’ve always been a sucker for their vocoder vocals as well. They’re always so emotive in their odd way, and they add to the euphoria on this track. This just fills you with hope, and I’m nothing but optimistic for what both acts have to offer us next.
6. There are those who seem to take offense at retro pandering on principle, especially in R&B, but honestly, I just use one simple yardstick to decide if something retro works. If it’s good enough on its own merits that it would have been recognized as quality music in the time it emulates, then it’s a good song. And I submit that this delivers on that front just fine.
6. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic
R&B/New Jack Swing Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 16
Yes, this is Uptown Funk again. Got a problem with that? I can say this for 24K Magic in particular – it woke me up to a big part of Bruno’s massive appeal, specifically in his songwriting. Now, if you pay attention to the lyrics in songs like this or Uptown Funk or That’s What I like, then you’ll notice some major flexing and arrogance in all of them, as I noted above. But there’s a way he defuses what could otherwise become obnoxiousness – he plays up his boasting to such comical extremes that you know he’s not quite serious. Whether he’s singing about making dragons want to retire, or of giving the color red the blues, you’re just left laughing and chanting along to his backing singers’ ad-libs. It’s ingenious, and makes songs like this an absolute thrill to listen to.
And there’s the production. Bruno’s never lacked for good music, and here, you’ve got a sort of late-80’s vocoder touch which may take some getting used to, but still helps it stand out. This is cheesy in the extreme, but still just a ton of fun, and really, that’s all a song needs to succeed sometimes. I’m sure Bruno Mars needs to start changing up his formula soon to avoid getting stale, but his charm hasn’t worn out on me yet.
5. Now, this singer released two singles pretty much at the same time early in 2017. One of them was a big hit, reaching the top ten and sticking, while this other one started high, but plummeted almost immediately. I didn’t expect it to make the year-end chart, but it did, and that was one of the happiest surprises the year had to offer, because this song is incredible.
5. Ed Sheeran – Castle on the Hill
Rock Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 40
Now, this is the kind of song that I want to hear from Ed Sheeran. Hell, it’s probably my favorite from Divide, something where his detailed storytelling carries the emotional power it needs. A nostalgic reminiscence of his old friends from Suffolk, and how they came of age before going their separate ways, you could make a solid movie out of this kind of story. Ed doesn’t pull any punches in describing things, both in the past and the present, but he also doesn’t judge, simply putting it all out there as it is.
And yes, this is rock music, not even indie or alternative rock, but the kind of overwhelmingly earnest arena rock you’d hear from U2 or Journey. This music and this storytelling hits harder than a hundred mawkish Thinking Out Louds. I don’t have any illusions of Ed switching his focus onto more songs like this – he knows what pays the rent – but still, I’ll happily put up with more Shape of You’s if we can get another song like this out of the man. Songs like this are what will cement Sheeran’s legacy as an artist, and a great one.
4. Now, Adele’s When We Were Young topped my best list for last year, and I stand by that. It’s a fantastic, stirring song, and my favorite from 25 overall. River Lea is probably my number two, and would have been in the running to top this list had it been a hit. And my third favorite was this.
4. Adele – Water Under the Bridge
Pop/Soul Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 88
Now, 2017 was a year of pleasant surprises, and this is one too, in a way. Because it’s an Adele song where she resists the urge to break up. If 25 as a whole was about moving on after the breakup, then this song represents the fear of being forgotten, and Adele’s need for what they have to mean as much to him as it does for her. Naturally, Adele sells this yearning with the same charisma we’ve all come to expect from her.
The production is another surprise, as instead of a piano, this song is anchored in a liquid guitar line that provides a nice rollicking melody, with the percussion adding more weight to the hook. All in all, it’s probably the poppiest song Adele has released, but it still plays to her distinctive strengths, and was a definite highlight, both on the album and on the charts.
3. When One Direction broke up, it surprised a lot of people that Zayn, of all of them, wound up having the most successful solo career. Now, I’m inclined to believe that that was more dumb luck than anything. He left the band first, so he had the advantage of releasing solo material first. Certainly, I’ve been less than impressed by any of his output. As for Harry Styles, the one we all expected to be the Justin Timberlake of the group? Well, Liam seems to be emulating Justin more, and instead of that, Harry gave us something very different.
3. Harry Styles – Sign of the Times
Pop rock/Soft rock Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 87
As for surprises, the fact that Harry Styles decided to go the classic rock route actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. One Direction always had a strange affinity for sampling or covering classic rock songs, and well, now we know where that drive always came from. Still, I need to register my greater astonishment that something like this charted at all. When you pay attention, you’ll notice that retro-leaning music on the pop charts is always a throwback to New Wave, or to Disco, or maybe to Funk or Soul. It’s always either R&B or dance music. We don’t get homages to 70’s glam rock, and in a world where rock music feels increasingly irrelevant in the popular consciousness, I can’t help but welcome this on novelty alone.
And like I said above, if a retro song is good enough on its own that it’d be recognized even in the past, then I give it a thumbs up. And Harry Styles delivers extremely well here. In fact, I’d argue that he’s the biggest selling point here, showing off some truly impressive vocal range. From crooning to a falsetto that puts Zayn to shame, to some incredible belting on the outro, Harry shows that he really does have the makings of a superstar here. And again, the music is solid. The guitars aren’t as meaty as they could be, which keeps this song from being even higher on the list, but the piano and drum work give this ample swell for Harry to play off against. He’s still not in the same territory as David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, but to even be in consideration for that at all is a real achievement, and leaves me with only the highest expectations for whatever he comes up with in the future.
2. Now, the rap songs on the Hot 100 this year were unfortunately pretty lousy on the whole. And that sucks, because not only is it not hard to find talented rappers making great music at this or any other time, but the genre, perhaps more than any other, has become very bottom-up in its approach to songs and artists. So many underground or otherwise obscure rappers have launched into the top ten in the past couple of years, but they’re mostly imitators or mediocrities like Desiigner and Cardi B.
We can do better, but lyric-driven, conscious rap music just doesn’t seem to chart right now. So, when this rapper, who’s been a critical darling for half a decade and has certainly flittered in and out of mainstream consciousness for a while now, suddenly surged and became one of the biggest names in music this year, I could hardly believe it. We don’t get bars like his on the radio anymore. But this year? Something’s changed.
2. Kendrick Lamar – DNA
Hip hop Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 62
Yeah, I can’t deny I’m still shocked by this having been a top five hit. Kendrick Lamar is not the kind of rapper who becomes a huge pop star. He’s too cerebral, too intense, too intimidating, even, and yet somehow, quality has won out in 2017. This wasn’t even a single, its popularity just swelled organically, and forced the record label to belatedly shoot a video. Otherwise, there wasn’t promotion, this got big entirely because audiences were hungry for a rap song with unbridled ferocity and fiendish complexity.
Both musically and lyrically, this is a dark song, with a thrumming bass and trap beat acting as a foundation for three minutes of ruminations over the struggles of the black community, over original sin, and offenses that are borne in the blood. While I keep talking about surprises, I think I owe an apology to producer Mike Will Made It, whose work on Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz and a multitude of other lousy hip hop beats has been largely redeemed by this. To make a sound that plays off the darkness of Kendrick’s bars, and to keep up with him even as he switches up his double-time flow, that’s not something I ever imagined Mike being capable of. This is the kind of song that backpack rap fans would usually enjoy, but not dare imagine crossing over to the mainstream, but somehow, it happened, and it raises expectations for the entire genre. People want more thought, more passion, more depth in their music, and Kendrick has shown how to deliver. This song is so intense, so intricately crafted, so powerful, that it raises the question: what could possibly top the likes of this?
1. Now, I wish I could say that I’ve been with this artist ever since she first got big around the turn of the last decade, but that’s not really true. I can say that by 2012, she’d won me over, and I have followed her tribulations since then with no small amount of anguish. I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that just as she’d been coming into her own artistically, she’d never have a hit again. Thankfully, she’s powered through, and here we are. Kesha, I’m glad to have you back.
1. Kesha – Praying
Pop/Gospel Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 67
This isn’t exactly a surprising pick – no doubt it’ll make most other people’s lists as well, but although anyone making top ten lists like this needs to balance honesty against predictability, for me, honesty will always come first. And I said before that I tend to leave political leanings at the door when I review music, and that’s still true. As much power as this song has as a feminist statement, it’s also just a powerful statement in general, and an incredibly potent song.
And you know, there’s a certain symmetry in putting this at the top of my list, while Taylor Swift topped the worst list. Both this and Look What You Made Me Do were responses to slights, but their execution is vastly different. For one, this song doesn’t waste its crescendos. It does take its time building up, but producer Ryan Lewis keeps adding more and more to the mix, from piano and organs to horns, a rich and symphonic accompaniment as Kesha builds up to a cathartic climax. Her fans have known for years that she can sing without autotune, but Praying shows that she can do far more than carry a tune; she can belt, and hits a high note that most pop stars would hurt themselves trying to imitate.
The other big difference between this and Look What You Made Me Do is that although it promises karma, there isn’t any ego involved. Kesha isn’t interested in exacting personal vengeance on Dr. Luke, her abusive and vindictive ex-producer, but simply reminds him that wrongs like the ones he committed against her, as well as the moral failings that motivated them, those things carry a price. If not in this life, then in the next. He needs God more than she does, when it comes down to it. And for herself, she finally enjoys the freedom to make the music that she wants, and has the critical acclaim that’s eluded her for so long. With songs like this, that acclaim is nothing but deserved. It’s the best hit song of 2017, and I fully agree with her that the best is yet to come.
I’m not quite done with year-end reviews, though, so stay tuned for next time, when I present the top 50 songs of 2017.