Yes, yes, schedule slip again, although given the sheer scope of this list, I hope I’ll be forgiven my usual procrastination. Now, this is exactly what it says on the tin – a list of the songs that are, in my opinion, the very best that 2017 had to offer, not simply the popular ones. Of course, I listen to quite a bit of music, and while these 50 tended to command a disproportionate amount of my time and attention, they’re still only a subset of the much larger amount of music I had to sort through in order to narrow things down. This was not an easy endeavor, and I fully anticipate this being the longest piece I’ve written in this space yet. Buckle in, because we’re in for a ride.
Now, the rules for eligibility are very simple this time. To be in the running for this list, a song needs to have been included on a full-length album that was released in 2017. That’s it. I don’t care if it was released as a single before this past year, or even if it was included on an album from before 2017 – so long as it was also on a 2017 album, it counts. And lastly, I’m limiting myself to three songs per album maximum, otherwise the contenders for my favorite albums of 2017 would command an even more disproportionate share of this list. Besides, it promotes diversity in this list, which is important in and of itself.
Lastly, I forgot to add this disclaimer when I did the previous top tens, but I should say that this list, along with all of my other reviews, consists purely of my personal opinions, and in no way do I misconstrue these assertions as objective fact. Other peoples’ opinions and tastes will no doubt differ, and that’s perfectly acceptable. That’s life.
With all of that said, let’s begin.
50. St. Vincent – Los Ageless
Indie Pop Masseduction
Definitely the highlight of St. Vincent’s challenging album Masseduction, this song has a sense of coiled danger in it, from that tight bass groove and the abrasive synths to the lyrics, which for me conjure up the claustrophobia of Sam Shepard’s True West more than anything. In large part, that’s because they touch on the same topic, I suppose, the superficiality of Hollywood culture and the psychological instability that lies beneath it. Still, this song does a masterful job of making that conceit its own, and provides one of the most chilling tunes that 2017 had to offer.
49. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton – Minefield of Memory
Indie Pop Choir of the Mind
This is a lot more subdued than St. Vincent’s contribution, but don’t mistake that for it being an easy listen. The piano line to this is subtle, but mesmerizing, and the lyrics about retreating in on oneself, facing and putting on a facade of inner peace are downright eerie. Her own memories, and all of the ugliness that she hints at lie buried in her past, but there’s so much to forget that traversing this territory at all is, as the title implies, an explosive proposition.
That she finds her center here, even amidst all the buried bodies, well, there’s something impressive about that, and the understated beauty is more than reason enough to earn a spot on this list.
48. Kygo ft. The Night Game – Kids in Love
Tropical House Kids in Love
Kygo’s sophomore album offered some major improvements over his debut in terms of perfecting his sticky melodic hooks, and in my opinion, the title track is the best of the bunch. Like I said in the last post, my favorite EDM tends to traffic in earnest, romantic sentiments, and the fervent delivery The Night Game brings to this track is infectious.
This song actually samples Baba O’Riley by The Who which, although not an original choice in terms of sampling, still provides those tremendous keyboard riffs, so I’m not left complaining. It’s not really a complicated song, but the emotions are huge, and especially for tropical house, the production has the power to match those big, anthemic feelings. In other words, the perfect kind of cheesy, un-self-conscious pop song.
47. Elbow – Magnificent (She Says)
Progressive Rock Little Fictions
There’s a fair amount more progressive rock on this list than I expected, but what can I say – the best in this genre tend to marry their high-minded concepts and complex compositions with strong hooks, and Elbow is no exception.
The melodies are tight, the keys are gleaming, and the lyrics are about giving a message of hope to a child ready to get out into the world – there’s experience behind the words, and the knowledge that there will be adversity and challenges, but also optimism that they can be overcome. It’s a beautiful song that fully lives up to its title.
46. Poppy – Interweb
You know, I mentioned Poppy in passing on my Worst Hit Songs list. What I didn’t mention at that time is that she’s actually really good. I spent a lot of time trying to decide which song from her debut album was the best – Computer Boy has a fantastic melody, but its sequel Software Upgrade had me rolling over in laughter, the story was just so funny. In the end, I realized that this song encapsulates all of the things that make Poppy such a compelling artist. A solid groove, sharp, satirical lyrics that can make you chuckle, but also the darker side behind her dead-eyed pop diva image.
Because yes, famous pop stars like the ones she skewers have a vast, almost insidious influence over our culture, and never more so than in today’s digital age. Like spiders or fishermen, they rope us into their world, their mind, and by extension, into their own pathologies as well. Poppy understands both the potential and the danger that’s involved in that symbiosis. Throw in those shimmering synths and thrumming bass, and you’ve got a challenging and even a little intimidating Warholian deconstruction here. A potent track for sure.
45. Algiers – Cleveland
Post-Punk/Gospel The Underside of Power
If you’re unfamiliar with the band Algiers, well, all I can say is that this song will introduce you to them going at full force. Their blend of punk and industrial grooves with gospel elements is so innovative and powerful, I honestly consider them to be pioneering their own genre of music on this album and their debut. And frontman Franklin James Fisher is a superstar on the mic, with his booming voice delivering the band’s political messages with nothing short of righteous fire.
And that message, wow. They take aim at the institutions and culture that’s inflicted and condoned so much suffering in the black community here in the United States, and how the specter of racism carries itself in different shapes depending on where you are, but is still animated by the same hateful spirit throughout. But innocence will return, they say, not as a benediction, not even as a threat, but as a promise. A promise of justice for the dead, and penance for the living, a reckoning that cannot be avoided, nor delayed for long. It’s a harrowing message, but given the political climate of modern America, it’s also one that can’t be ignored.
44. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Cumberland Gap
Southern Rock The Nashville Sound
No less strident or potent than Algiers is this track, probably the most aggressive from Jason Isbell’s fantastic 2017 album, which I reviewed months ago. And I stand by pretty much everything I said at the time, including the bits about this song. Cumberland Gap is a song filled with hard-scrabble desperation, and yearning to escape the chains of one’s past, but ultimately getting sucked back into that swirling vortex of economic hardship, alcoholism, and the sins of one’s own family history reprising themselves over generations.
This is a letter from old coal country, the territory that’s grown apart from and feels increasingly disconnected with urban American in general and Washington in particular. And if the rest of us want to understand this mindset and this struggle, well, there’s no substitute for seeing it for yourself, but this song still provides a poignant snapshot, and a powerful song to boot.
43. Jillette Johnson – All I Ever See in You Is Me
Singer-Songwriter All I Ever See In You Is Me
And after all of that rock energy and bombast, here we have another slow, reflective piece. This is the kind of song that relies on its emotional foundation more than the music itself, if that makes any sense.
As the title suggests, this is a song about self-reflection, as Jillette Johnson looks at the struggles her family and an ex are all going through, and sees something of herself in each of their situations. It’s a low-key and subtle understanding, but in turning her own critical lens on herself, Johnson is able to learn a little bit more about herself, and that’s ultimately more valuable. This song isn’t as immediately gripping as a lot of the others on this list, but it’s still a rewarding listen that I’ve come back to time after time.
42. Deep Purple – The Surprising
Progressive Rock Infinite
Okay, potentially unpopular opinion here, but if you ask me, Deep Purple may well be the last classic rock band that are still making music that rivals their glory days.
The Surprising is an ample testament to the fact that Deep Purple, despite having been in the game since my parents were in grade school, still have the kind of creative spark that acts decades their junior would kill to have. It’s a song that promises new conquests, new territory over the horizon. And between touches of theremin and absolutely killer guitar work, it more than lives up to that promise. This is one of the best songs the band has delivered in my lifetime, and easily one of the best songs of 2017.
41. Chris Stapleton – Scarecrow in the Garden
Country From a Room: Volume 2
He’s probably the biggest name in country music right now, so you can’t be too surprised that Chris Stapleton was in contention for this list.
Despite Stapleton’s incredible vocals and some smooth acoustic production, this song may seem rather corny at first, with the chorus comparing a scarecrow to Lucifer. Still, as the story continues, and this farm decays over generations, with that lone ragged figure twisting in the wind, well, the ominousness starts to creep in, and that parallel feels uncanny, earned. Stapleton’s closing lines, as he sits and contemplates his misfortune curled up in a defensive crouch, well, they sealed the deal, and earned this song’s inclusion here.
40. Clean Bandit ft. Zara Larsson – Symphony
Baroque pop/Deep House So Good
Okay, I’m sort of using a loophole here, but this was a bonus track on Zara Larsson’s 2017 album, so it counts.
Honestly, though, I think the real standouts here are Clean Bandit, who produced something that’s even more pristine and beautiful than Rather Be. Their blend of shimmering synths and organic strings has always been a joy to listen to, and even the sappy music puns are endearing in much the same way. Shades of Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Heroes, but going even further.
In general, I worry that Clean Bandit have tried too hard to recapture lightning in a bottle, but here, they’ve proven that they can still top themselves, and still make music that’s charming, textured, but still immaculate.
39. Yelawolf – Sabrina
Alternative Hip-hop Trial By Fire
Yelawolf is a fascinating artist to talk about, in large part because he’s done the most to legitimize the idea that mixing country music and rap isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But you shouldn’t let that conceit distract you from the larger point, that Yela is one seriously impressive rapper, regardless of the music behind him.
To avoid giving too much away, this is a story about parenthood, and plays upon the insecurity that comes with it, as Yelawolf can’t find his daughter one morning, and his anxiety builds and builds. The production is impressive in the way it builds atmosphere – you get bird song and the tinkling of chimes in the breeze, but under the circumstances, these innocuous sounds only add to the sense of unease as the narrative continues. The payoff to all of this buildup is nothing short of horrifying, and makes easily one of the most frightening songs that the year had to offer.
38. Kendrick Lamar – DNA
Hip Hop Damn.
Yes, this top five hit on the Hot 100 was so good that it’s appearing on this list, too. Now, I’ve already talked about it at some length, go see my last post for it, but to reiterate quickly: this is a hard-hitting, incredibly cerebral rap song where Kendrick confronts everything that holds the black community down, and takes everyone to task. It’s dark, it’s got a grimy trap beat, but it’s powerful enough to work.
One of Kendrick’s best songs, and definitely worthy of inclusion here.
37. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Indie Folk Pure Comedy
Now, I wouldn’t call this song, or the album in general to be as good as Josh Tillman’s 2015 masterpiece, I Love You, Honeybear, but that doesn’t mean much.
This is a song about the cosmic absurdity of life, and how our attempts at understanding the world, especially through religion, often serve no greater purpose than satisfying our own vanity. I’d be lying if I didn’t think it tread the line of heavy-handedness, but what makes this great is that Josh Tillman has no greater answers either. If we’re just clumps of matter spinning blindly through the void, well, it’s a sobering thought, and we need whatever we can get to numb the ache of existential loneliness.
The title is, as you’d expect from Father John Misty, something of a misnomer. The only humor here is mostly the kind of thing Kafka would find funny. Despite that, there’s still a heart underneath all the snark, and that’s the main draw, as far as I’m concerned.
36. Natalie Hemby – This Town Still Talks About You
Now this is an underrated track from an underrated country artist. Both the production and Natalie Hemby’s voice are warm and incredibly expressive. I remember someone calling this music “country shoegaze”, and with the sort of glossy textures at work here, that sounds about right.
While the story is about someone who left their small town home and moved on to bigger and better things, it’s less about him and more about how his childhood community remembers him. Honestly, I’m not sure if the guy who left to pursue his dreams actually found what he was looking for, but what matters here is that he’s still remembered fondly by his old friends and neighbors. Easily one of the most uplifting songs on this entire list, and one of the best country songs of the year.
35. Zara Larsson – Lush Life
Pop So Good
Wow, this is the best Rihanna song I’ve heard in years!
Jokes aside, this is a fantastic pop song here, and why it wasn’t a hit in the US when it was huge most everywhere else, I’ll never know. That bouncy, wiry synth line is instantly catchy, and Zara Larsson’s playful delivery matches it well. It’s a straightforward summer love song, yes, but it accomplishes those basics so well and so memorably, that I had to include it on this list.
34. Creeper – Black Rain
Punk Eternity, In Your Arms
You know what I miss from the mid-2000’s? The pop punk scene. They had this Gothic theatricality to them that added, if not edge, at least some flavor and bombast that elevated their material from the threadbare whining of a Simple Plan or the like.
With this song, the easy highlight from Creeper’s excellent debut album, we finally get some of that Goth bombast back in our lives. This is melodramatic in all the best ways, and between great interplay from the two vocalists, fantastic guitars, and one of the most explosive hooks of 2017, this is an absolute gem of a song. With mainstream rock suffocating under the influence of acts like Imagine Dragons and X Ambassadors, something like this could act as the shot of inspiration and energy we need to bring the genre back to life. More than any other song on this list, this is the one I’d most like to see become a hit. It won’t happen, but the fallout if it did would be nothing short of amazing.
33. Harry Styles – Ever Since New York
Pop rock/Folk rock Self-titled
Yes, I’m putting a One Direction Member on this list. No regrets.
For starters, the acoustic strumming on this track sound gorgeous, reminding me of Tom Petty, oddly enough. This more folk-oriented track shows off more of Harry Styles’ impressive musical and vocal versatility, and the multi-tracking on the chorus further sells the heartbreak in the story he relates. This is just more evidence of the serious talent that Styles has to offer us, and makes me eager to hear more from him. It’s so rare for pop stars to do anything this crisp yet organic anymore. Stunning work.
32. Alvvays – Lollipop (Ode to Jim)
Indie rock/Surf rock Antisocialites
I really liked Alvvays’ sophomore album Antisocialites back when I reviewed it, and with its frenetic energy, this song has always stood out from the pack.
This song is brilliantly detailed in describing a hookup that it’s pretty clear from the start is puddle-shallow on an emotional level and isn’t going to go well. It’s more about the physical attraction and copious substance abuse than anything deeper, but there’s still an effervescent energy that carries the relationship and the song. Like a lightning bolt, indeed.
Every so often, the indie scene spits out a song like this, with a sticky 80’s groove and the perfect sort of energy to make a fantastic summer song. This follows in that tradition, and makes for a fantastic listening experience.
31. Steven Wilson – People Who Eat Darkness
Progressive Rock To The Bone
Now, I haven’t been a historical fan of Porcupine Tree or Steven Wilson, but with his most previous two albums, he’s shown some real versatility, pivoting towards pop structures that compliment his knack for melody without sacrificing his songwriting, which is nothing short of challenging.
This is another song full of creeping, incipient paranoia, and the disconnect between people. That’s actually a running theme for several songs on this list, which is quite the commentary on 2017. But the idea that people around us, who look, sound, and act just like anyone else, yet who bathe in darkness behind closed doors…I mean, the parallels to the current American political climate almost go without saying.
What’s even more chilling is the bridge, which approaches this question from the perspective of an anxious parent, whose lost touch with their children and doesn’t understand why. It’s an ominous track for sure, and definitely one that fits 2017 all too well, for better or worse.
30. Jaime Wyatt – From Outer Space
Country Felony Blues
This one YouTuber I follow calls this the best space-themed love song since David Bowie wrote Space Oddity. I haven’t heard enough space rock to say if I agree, but I can certainly see it.
In this case, the space imagery is used to convey the distance and the disconnect between the two people; the physical and emotional distance presents a challenge, but it takes more than lightyears to truly separate them. The vocal production adds just enough swell to drive the hook, and when you throw in the piano and pedal steel and snippets of fiddle, it all comes together into one of the best and most breathtaking country songs of 2017.
29. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Hope the High Road
Alternative country/Southern rock The Nashville Sound
It’s difficult to hit the nail on the head any harder than Jason Isbell does here. “Last year was a son of a bitch,” indeed. Still, that’s just the prelude to his attempt to extricate a friend from their doldrums, and counseling them to trust the high road to take us all to a better place.
Lyrically, this is the simplest song from Jason Isbell’s last album, but for self-esteem anthems, he’s still miles ahead of the sorts of platitudes you’ll tend to hear in pop music. The righteous anger and rock energy are more than enough to carry this, and its uplifting message is one that we all need to hear.
28. Kesha – Praying
Yes, this absolutely belongs here, and this high.
I’ve already talked about this one as well, of course, so I’ll just recap quickly: on this track, Kesha confronts her demons, and the man who ruined her life, and rises above it all. She offers Dr. Luke empathy, but not forgiveness. Honestly, “I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees” is a far more chilling lyric than any idle threats that pop singers usually sling at assholes.
Throw in one of the best crescendos and most cathartic payoffs that you’d hear in 2017, not just in pop music, and you know you’ve got something really special in front of you. It’s an affirmation of her own resolve to better herself and move forward, and I couldn’t be happier.
27. Ayreon – Into the Ocean
Progressive metal The Source
Okay, I’ll admit that the latest project from Dutch producer Arjen Lucassen is flawed, to say the least, especially in advancing his overall storyline. That said, it still produced some amazing standout tracks that I’d put among his best, and this is one of them.
In this song, refugees from a dying world reach their destination in a distant solar system, a breathtaking expanse of pristine ocean where they will rebuild their shattered civilization. For the characters, this seems like a final victory, and the euphoric opportunity to put their troubled past to rest powers an excellent hook. Despite that, the seeds of hubris are still visible, and the errors of the past are ready to repeat themselves.
All in all, this remains an excellent slice of space-inflected rock opera, while still standing well on its own.
26. Che Aimee Dorval – Buried
Alternative country/Blues rock Between the Walls and the Window
With one exception, this is probably the most obscure artist I’m going to feature on the entire list. Don’t let that discourage you from seeking it out, though, because Che Aimee Dorval is an incredibly gripping singer with a unique grasp of country music that I guarantee you won’t hear anywhere else.
Dorval’s voice is the main draw for this, as she manages to express some extremely complex emotions with power and ease. Still, the production is exceptional in its melancholic beauty, and the lyrics about repressed emotion also cut deep. It’s a subtle song that takes a bit of work to untangle, but it’s also extremely beautiful and rewards repeated listens.
25. The xx – Dangerous
Dream Pop/Alternative dance I See You
I’ll fully admit that electronic music isn’t generally my thing, and I’m something of a Johnny Come Lately on The xx; I’ve known of them since 2012, when Drake and Rihanna sampled them, but only dove into their own catalog in 2015 when Jamie xx released In Colour, a fantastic and incredibly diverse album. And Dangerous continues their hot streak, with a fantastic groove and interplay between Romy and Oliver Sim.
The lyrics are about pursuing a dangerous relationship in spite of what other people have to say about it – kind of reminiscent of Take Care, actually. I think the most striking line is when Sim says “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared” – it’s not that he’s blind to the risks that lie ahead for the two of them, but that he thinks the reward will have been worth it, his favorite mistake, as he puts it. The production adds to this, especially that opening blast of shrill horns – like a warning siren. It’s a great opener to the album, and an excellent pop song on its own.
24. Jaime Wyatt – Wishing Well
Country Felony Blues
You know, for as much as I love the uniqueness and charming lyrics of From Outer Space, this was always the highlight of Jaime Wyatt’s short, but eclectic and powerful debut album. Wishing Well has the stickiest hook on the album, with fantastic steel guitar work, as well as some stirring lyrics about sticking with your dreams even when they seem out of reach.
You know, Felony Blues isn’t really the Folsom Prison-esque set of prison songs that the title and Wyatt’s biography might lead you to expect, but even though there’s only one song that directly addresses Wyatt’s own experience behind bars, that adversity still suffuses the rest of the project, in a more subtle way. And this song in particular is just more evidence that we’ve found someone special in Jamie Wyatt, and I can’t wait to hear what she can really do on a lengthier project in the future.
23. Steven Wilson ft. Ninet Tayeb – Pariah
Progressive rock To the Bone
I’ll admit, I haven’t been doing a great job of compartmentalizing my commentary about music and politics, but when so many intelligent artists are addressing the moment we’re in, and doing it as well as Steven Wilson does, I can’t really ignore it. Here, Wilson expresses his exhaustion with and isolation from the modern world, but that despondence is balanced by Ninet Tayeb’s raw passion, and a message of hope.
It plays with themes of introversion and social interaction, and poses the question of whether the digital age, in which it’s difficult to be truly alone, is more of a gift or a curse, especially for a withdrawn personality like Wilson’s. While there may not be a conclusive answer to that, there’s some cautious optimism that’s ultimately more honest, and resonates more deeply for it.
22. The xx – I Dare You
Dream pop I See You
Honestly, I don’t think a lyric has ever summed up The xx’s mission statement quite as aptly as “I’ve been a romantic for so long/All I’ve ever heard are love songs.”
Of course, The xx have never minced words – that’s another reason I like them so much more than most of their genre. If you must be minimalist, you need to say a lot in few words. The poetry on this track is perfect in capturing attraction, the claustrophobia and introspection and two people just hoping, daring the other to make a move. Combine that with some fantastic swell on the hook, and this song will definitely send a chill up your spine, in the best way possible.
21. Paramore – Hard Times
New wave After Laughter
This is probably the best song of Paramore’s entire career, if you ask me. It wasn’t a hit, unfortunately, but one theme of the pop songs on this list is that upbeat dance tunes apparently can’t succeed on the Hot 100 without Justin Bieber, apparently.
In any case, this seems like a sequel of sorts to Ain’t it Fun, with the same theme of naivete being shattered by a cold slap from reality. What’s also interesting was when I heard Haley Williams remark about how “You can run on the fumes of being a teenager as long as you want, but eventually life hits you real hard.” Damn if that doesn’t describe the dilemma that most of the old giants of pop punk seem to be struggling with now.
In any case, I’m a sucker in general for songs that disguise anguish or depression in a glossy pop sheen (just ask Alvvays), and here, Paramore deliver one of the best examples I’ve seen in a long time. Wonderfully subversive.
20. Kesha ft. Eagles of Death Metal – Let ‘Em Talk
Pop punk Rainbow
I like Praying a lot, of course, but for as cathartic and powerful as that song is, Let ‘Em Talk is the kind of music I really want to hear more of from her in the future. It’s a joyously irreverent middle finger to anyone who dismissed her or stifled her ability to express herself. It’s meticulously crafted yet loose enough to be fun, and an amazing taste of what Kesha can do with the freedom to pursue her own creative vision.
19. Ayreon – The Day the World Breaks Down
Progressive metal The Source
This is the opener to Ayreon’s flawed but still characteristically ambitious The Source, and it does a great job laying out the operatic excitement to come. One of the running themes of Arjen Lucassen’s music is the toll that dependence on technology can have on us, as we lose sight of our own humanity. And in this song, we see an alien society struggling with that same problem, as their world falls apart when the machines they rely on turn against them. You know, Skynet, basically.
Of course, the meat of the best Ayreon projects is always the human element, and this song features a veritable cacophony of different voices, each competing for attention as the world crumbles around them. I’d be remiss not to admit that the album squanders a lot of these tensions later, but the buildup is still quite something, and as usual, Arjen transitions beautifully between a multitude of different styles and superstar vocalists on this twelve-minute titan of a track. Like any great prelude, it lays out an epic journey to come.
18. Temples – I Wanna to Be Your Mirror
Psychedelic pop Volcano
Now, you might be tempted to dismiss the retro-60’s indie band Temples as a Tame Impala ripoff. That would be a grave mistake, however, because not only does this band has an incredible gift for hooks that will stick in your head for days, but they’re no slouches at songwriting either.
And honestly, not only does the music evoke the sounds of the psychedelic era, but I’d say the lyrics do, as well. It’s full of bittersweet nostalgia and longing for simpler times. They’ve always been very reminiscent of The Beatles, and here, the parallel seems starker than ever, while still feeling slick and modern. If you haven’t yet listened to Temples and their brilliant recapturing of psychedelia, well, this is reason enough to rectify that oversight as soon as you can.
17. Misterwives – Chasing This
Indie pop Connect the Dots
Here’s another indie pop gem that probably got overlooked in 2017. Misterwives made improvements across the board on their second album, and this song is the highlight of those efforts.
This song hits you right out of the gate with its rollicking exuberance, meaty guitars and excellent drum work. The lyrics here are very earnest, especially courtesy of frontwoman Mandy Lee, but there’s also a wistfulness to it, and all of the things that she sacrifices in pursuit of her dreams. Despite some lingering regrets, when that bridge hits, reprising the countdown that started the song, it’s one of the brightest and most cathartic moments that 2017 had to offer.
16. Kesha – Hunt You Down
Pop country Rainbow
And this is another fantastic cut from Kesha’s comeback album. It’s been six years since Saving Country Music wrote their piece on how it was only a matter of time before Kesha went country, and although we’ve seen bits and pieces of that before, Rainbow finally showed us what that would look like.
This song, just like Let ‘Em Talk, expresses the cheerful exuberance that Kesha feels with the freedom to chase her own dreams finally. I actually really love the hook’s use of paralipsis; the vague implications are much more light-hearted and funny than actual threats would have been. All in all, it’s a rollicking, fun time, and overall, my favorite track from an incredible pop album. It shows more of Kesha’s musical versatility while still enjoying itself, and that kind of fun can’t help but be infectious.
15. Ayreon – Everybody Dies
Progressive metal The Source
I’ll say this for The Source: although he’s written about the dark side of technology for over twenty years now, this is the first time Arjen has shown us the robot apocalypse in full detail, and this track epitomizes the frenzy of confusion and panic that results.
As usual, Ayreon features a multitude of top-tier heavy metal singers, but here, the real standout is Floor Jansen of Nightwish, who really kicks the hook into high gear at the end. This is the kind of cheesy power metal that almost doesn’t need to be thought about too hard, but is still one of the most intricately crafted songs to be released in 2017.
14. Eric Taxxon – Real Boy
(No YouTube for this one, unfortunately. His BandCamp is here.)
With some really obscure artists, you can tell simply by an amateur critic like myself bringing them up, what kinds of critical circles they tend to dwell in. And yeah, for me to be talking about Eric Taxxon at all, it becomes really obvious which YouTubers I tend to follow. But credit where it’s due – on Real Boy, Eric Taxxon made one of the most emotionally gripping pop songs of the decade.
Taxxon is no great singer, but his rather tremulous voice works to his advantage here, as he describes finding love on the internet, and the intense longing he feels to meet his boyfriend in person someday, so he can feel like a real boy at long last. “One day we’ll see each other without counting all the pixels,” he says. I’m almost at a loss for words at something like that. It’s one of the most powerful love songs of the year, no question.
13. Yelawolf ft. Joshua Headley – Shadows
Country rap Trial by Fire
Ever had a music genre you were just inherently skeptical towards, until you heard that one song that just made it all click? Yeah, after hearing this song for the first time back in 2016, I can no longer dismiss the idea of country rap as cheap pandering.
This is another song about desperation, and bad habits that carry across generations despite everyone’s best efforts to put them aside – seems like 2017 had a lot of those. But again, Yelawolf’s bars drip with descriptive detail and imagery, of the sort that’s always characterized the best country music and the best hip hop. That’s another reason why this genre fusion is able to work, because when it comes down to it, both country and rap are storytelling genres about poverty and doing what’s necessary to survive. Yelawolf’s voice is something of an acquired taste, but he sells the vulnerability and horror at what his circumstances have forced him into.
And country singer Joshua Headley provides a strong hook, one about that insidious transformation, where the ugliness of one’s upbringing is eventually reflected in one’s current self. This is Southern Gothic storytelling worthy of Faulkner, and easily one of the best and most haunting songs of the year.
12. Jason Eady – Barabbas
I think I was favorably disposed towards this one on concept alone – there’s so much religious music in the world, but who’s ever thought to write a song about the outlaw who walked free while Jesus met his fate on the Cross?
Novelty aside, this succeeds because it’s so broadly applicable while sacrificing none of its unique power. Most of us probably aren’t criminals, but, just like Barabbas, we all go through our lives, the beneficiaries of lucky breaks or mercy that others didn’t get, and that’s a guilt that we have to carry with us. And even if we don’t understand why we’re spared, we simply have to take our second chances when we get them, make them count, and live what we’ve been given to the fullest.
Jason Eady’s minimalist production is, as usual, extremely sparse, but the melody has elegance in its simplicity, and his soft-spoken poetry hits plenty hard enough to carry the song. All the more evidence that Eady is one of the best and most audacious songwriters that modern country has to offer.
11. Chelsea Wolfe – 16 Psyche
Gothic rock/Doom metal Hiss Spun
Some songs aren’t there to make you feel happy, or even sad or excited. Sometimes, a song succeeds by gripping you with primal dread and fear. This is probably the least accessible song on the list, at least musically. That slow, creeping guitar that builds into a distorted roar on the chorus, plus Chelsea Wolfe’s sparse, but cryptic lyrics, this is the kind of song that’s difficult to get a grip on. But when you do…
Well, I’ll be straight: this is a song about sex, specifically about teenage experimentation and aversion to intimacy. And, strange as it sounds, there is something to that groove, to Wolfe’s vocals, that does convey a twisted sort of sensuality nevertheless. Hiss Spun is an album about cutting through the noise, and pulling some clarity from the morass, and this song is an encapsulation of that existential yearning, along with an acknowledgement that you won’t necessarily like what you see at the core. It’s a daunting listen, for sure, but extremely powerful despite that.
10. Open Mike Eagle – My Auntie’s Building
Hip hop Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
This song also fills you with dread, but it’s a more tangible sort of fear.
It’s also a weird album closer, I’ll admit that, but it still hits hard, as the foundations of Mike’s life are quite literally demolished while he can only stand by helplessly and watch. And his bars paint the desperation and despair that so many families face when displaced by gentrification. This is a song that defies escapism and easy answers, and also like Chelsea Wolfe, it’s not an easy listen, but it’s one that needs to be heard regardless.
9. Lorde – Liability
We all had high hopes and expectations for Lorde’s sophomore album, especially since it’d been four long years since her debut. And while I’m ambivalent towards favorable when it comes to Green Light, Liability guts me every single time. The soft, mournful piano is perfect in its melancholy as Lorde tells us a richly meta story about a boy who can’t keep up with her.
The more she relates, though, the clearer it becomes that this isn’t about a relationship with a single person, so much as it is with the general public, which can’t handle her passion and intensity. She describes herself as a flavor of the week, someone who’s held up and doted over, but only until such time as people get bored, and seek something less demanding, more comfortable, less challenging. And yeah, I get it.
And to hear such a young artist content herself with loneliness like this, the maturity and, yes, tragedy behind that kind of reconciliation is heartrending. This is an emotional powerhouse of a song, with the kind of incisive lyrics only a truly brilliant songwriter could deliver.
And Lorde, if you do disappear into the sun, I’ll be watching, and knowing that we’re all lesser for the loss.
8. Algiers – The Underside of Power
Post-punk/Gospel The Underside of Power
If Algiers and their fiery political sermons seemed powerful back when they debuted in 2015, they feel downright prophetic now. This has a lot of the same things going for it that I described about Cleveland before, including the same authoritative bass from Franklin James Fisher. What it adds is an amazing hook, full of righteous fury and, again, the promise that systems and institutions that perpetuate injustice are less firm and secure than they seem.
It’s an amazing balancing act that Algiers pulls off, delivering raw, undiluted anger at racial injustice, never watering anything down, but at the same time, doing it in a dense, intensely cerebral style. Shadows on the wall, indeed. That’s certainly another thing that Algiers can offer in a time like ours – a brutally honest attack on the world and its problems, yes, but also hope that someday, things will get better. Also, the best punk song of the year, hands down.
7. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed
Want to know a secret? This song isn’t actually about drinking. Crazy, huh?
No, what it’s really about is the road not taken, and the opportunities that fall by the wayside due to the demands of being an artist. Sunny Sweeney looks at friends of hers who’ve married and had kids, and feels the pangs of longing for the chance to be a mother herself. That bottle is for the baby she yearns for but doesn’t have.
I should definitely give props to songwriter Lori McKenna, who, as always, does a fantastic job of injecting so much detail into the situation that it feels lived-in and real. “I don’t even know you yet, but I know I love you” might be the most cutting lyric I heard all of last year. Sweeney herself performs this excellently, putting the final stamp on what’s easily one of the best country songs of 2017.
6. Steven Wilson – To the Bone
Progressive rock/Pop rock To the Bone
I had a lot of different expectations when I went into Steven Wilson’s 2017 album. What I wasn’t prepared for was this groove-heavy, almost funky title track.
I should start with the lyrics, though, because this essentially gives the mission statement for Wilson’s ambitious concept album. To the Bone is about capturing essential truth in a world where more and more, reality feels not only subjective, but captured by warring factions. Amid such turmoil and confusion, Wilson calls upon all of us to look deeper, past superstitions and tribalism and politics, to find the core of things.
As strong and resonant an exhortation as that is, what really vaulted this song so high on my list is the instrumentation and production. Steven Wilson has been pivoting towards more pop structures and sounds for a while now, but this is the pinnacle of those efforts. Between some incredibly textured bass work and roaring guitars, he delivers an incredible melodic hook, easily the best from Wilson’s solo career or from his earlier band Porcupine Tree. It makes it clear to you that his search for truth is an adventure, and one that’s more than worth your time and attention.
5. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires
Alternative Country The Nashville Sound
When I reviewed the Nashville Sound months ago, I talked this track up more than any of the others, and for damn good reason. In a discography full of gripping, emotionally weighty songs, this may be the best Jason Isbell has delivered yet.
What makes this song work is that it’s not really about death; it’s about living, and how it’s only in the shadow of death that life and love have real meaning. Maybe you and that special someone will have forty years, but one day, you’ll be gone, and knowing that makes those years all the more special. The Gothic imagery and the title that by itself may seem silly, work because they’re grounded in a strong emotional core. Isbell’s performance effortlessly conveys a painful awareness of the loneliness and heartbreak that his lyrics prophecy.
On top of that, this might be the best production work Dave Cobb has ever put together. The melody is simple, but effective, and the echoing reverb on the bridge will send chills up your spine. This is easily the best country song of 2017, an instant classic.
4. Run the Jewels ft. Kamasi Washington – Thursday in the Danger Room
Hip hop Run the Jewels 3
Although El-P and Killer Mike are probably best known for their intense interplay and hard-hitting, tasteless yet endlessly clever multisyllabic rhymes, if this song and Crown from their last album are any indication, they might actually do their best work when they stop joking and get serious.
Both El-P and Killer Mike’s verses deal with death, and more than that, how death affects people around you. El-P watches a friend struggle with a terminal illness, wishes the man would die faster so as to ease his suffering, only to hate himself for daring to think such thoughts. Full disclosure: because of medical troubles in my family, I’ve had thoughts like this on my mind a lot in the last couple of months: seeing infirmity, and it’s all too easy to slip and, as he puts it, “be too weak to be strong.”
As cutting as that verse is, Killer Mike manages to top it, rapping about a member of his old gang getting murdered for his chain, and how that man’s family struggles to get by without his support. Mike sees and feels that pain to its fullest, but when he directs his thoughts to the killer, all he can do is wish that that man was able to buy his way off the streets, so that his loved ones don’t have to suffer like those of Mike’s friend. That way, at least something could be salvaged from a petty fight over a gold chain. It’s a stunning display of human empathy, the kind that’s all too rare in music and in the world.
Songs like this show just how effective El-P and Killer Mike’s collaboration can be. They’re among the best in the game, and never fail to surprise.
3. The Mountain Goats – Rain in Soho
Indie rock/Goth rock Goths
Sometimes, you get a song that just gives you a perfect snapshot of a place or a culture with its words, and even if you’re not familiar with what it’s describing, you still just get it, because it’s conveyed so well.
Goths is an album that sketches the aging and decline of goth culture, and as the album opener, this song provides a foreboding prelude of what’s to come. Oddly enough, there’s no guitar on this track, just that piano and the ominous bass, which provide just the right atmosphere for John Darnielle’s ruminations about how the Meccas of the goth scene succumb to the very decay and obsolescence that’s always been such an important motif in their poetry.
I’m almost reminded of Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree – it’s the ultimate test of artistic fortitude, to spend a career dealing in matters of death, only to be confronted with the real thing. And as you hear more and more details of this collapse, the vocals get progressively more intense, hitting a tremendous climax, before everything comes to a halt, and the song ends in ambient silence. It’s the best and most harrowing storytelling of 2017, and a true magnum opus for The Mountain Goats. Andrew Eldritch must be proud.
2. Temples – Mystery of Pop
Psychedelic pop Volcano
Let me tell you, when this melody gets lodged into your cerebrum, it will never let go. It’s the most instantly catchy song of 2017, and further evidence that Temples is a criminally underrated band.
And for a retro act like Temples, the lyrics are about their own experience, examining the music legends of the past and trying to synthesize those varied ideas into something original, a fitting tribute to their inspirations. Songs about making pop music aren’t that uncommon, but what’s rare is for it to be played as straight as this, and you can tell they take their charge, to “marry tunefulness and words of wisdom” dead seriously.
Something this indelible, with that stomp-clap cadence, almost doesn’t need lyrics to work. That it happens to be sharp and incisive enough to match the instrumentation creates something magical as the end product, and this nearly topped my list, but, well…
1. Dua Lipa – Be the One
More than any other song, Dua Lipa’s Be the One ruled my year in 2017. Her self-titled debut was solid in general, but there’s this effervescent optimism to this song that made it stand out above the others for me. It’s got this playful and bouncy synth line, plus one of the most explosive choruses last year had to offer.
Dua Lipa’s delivery is another major asset to this song. She’s got this raw, husky voice that’s kind of reminiscent of Pink. And honestly, with Pink increasingly running out of ideas and treading water creatively, Dua Lipa is a burst of dynamism that the pop sphere really needs. And with one of her singles finally in the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100, it seems like the public is starting to agree with me on this point.
The lyrics aren’t anything too ambitious, but they’re still potent in their own right. It’s a song about a relationship on the rocks, but the framing and description indicate that the differences between the two people aren’t irreconcilable, there’s simply some gaps in perspective that can be overcome, and that amazing hook is Dua Lipa’s assertion that yes, she can still be the one for him, there’s still something worth holding onto.
This is the best kind of pop song, one that expresses some simple sentiments, but does it extremely well. And really, it just fills me with hope for the future, and amid the tumult of 2017 and 2018, it’s one that everyone needs to hear. It is the best song of 2017.
Thanks for reading, everyone. This is definitely my longest work yet by a mile, although even with that in mind, I was entirely too slow in getting it done. Still, there’s just one last retrospective on 2017 I want to do. So stay tuned for next time, when I list the Top 25 Albums of 2017.