The Top Ten Best Hit Songs of 2017

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:

10. Zara Larsson and MNEK – Never Forget You The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses Coldplay – Hymn for the Weekend

8. Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out

7. One Direction – Perfect Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind

6. Ariana Grande – Into You One Direction – Perfect

5. 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.

The Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2017

Okay, so if you’re at all familiar with internet music reviewers in general, and folks like Todd in the Shadows in particular, then you already understand what I’m doing here. If not, an explanation: every year, Billboard Magazine publishes a list of the top 100 hit songs, the pop songs that, through a combination of sales, radio play, and streaming, were the most popular tunes of the time. They’ve been doing this since the late 1950’s, and going back through old lists of hit songs is an enlightening exercise.

Of course, I’m not interested in the hit songs of the past right now, but of the present. In general, the 2010’s have been a strange decade for popular music, in large part because pop music has had an increasingly nebulous definition during this time. For any number of reasons, including the dissemination of indie and underground artists, the decline of sales and radio audiences, and the eccentricities of streaming, pop has become less and less dominant in the popular consciousness.

In addition, different genres of music have started to converge on each other sonically, and hell, also lyrically in a lot of ways. This development has been called the mono-genre, where all different forms of music seem to be congealing into the same percussion-heavy, melody-challenged blend of alt rock, synthpop, R&B, hip hop, EDM, country music and reggae that’s become increasingly characteristic of the 2010’s. People have come up with a multitude of explanations for this phenomenon, mostly relating to a desire to cross demographics and appeal to everyone, but I think there’s one observation that people have missed. And it’s this: the mono-genre is the 2010’s answer to easy listening music. I’ll get into more detail on this later, but I suspect that a big part of the mono-genre’s development has been to make music that appeals to everyone, but not just through incorporating sounds different people like, but also generally being inoffensive and unthreatening. Just like the AM soft rock of the past, it’s something to chillax to, rather than more aggressive bangers or dance music. That monotony came to a head last year, which most of the internet seems to agree was an utter disaster for pop music.

But you know, in spite of mono-genre mush still being a big problem, 2017 was a lot better than the year before. Several long time critical darlings managed to score chart success, some previously disappointing artists returned to form, and we got a fair bit more diversity on this year’s pop charts. So, with that in mind, I’m cautiously optimistic about popular music right now. Of course, that doesn’t mean we didn’t still get a generous helping of dreck, so today I’ll sort through some of it.

Now, to lay out the basic ground rules here: to be eligible for this list, a song needs to appear on Billboard’s Year End Hot 100 chart for 2017. The reason for this is that this is, at its core, a form of social commentary. I could spend my time lambasting Jake Paul or Jacob Sartorius or other easy targets, but I wanted to make a larger point here. Not only are all of the songs I’m going to talk about here quite terrible, but they were also exceptionally popular. Also, there’s one other proviso. Privately, I’ve been making lists much like this one for several years now, and for some perspective, here’s the one I have for last year.

10. Justin Bieber – Sorry

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer

8. Charlie Puth – One Call Away

7. Rihanna ft. Drake – Work

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home

5. Kiiara – Gold

4. Thomas Rhett – Die a Happy Man

3. Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

2. Post Malone – White Iverson

1. Meghan Trainor – Me Too

Now, my tastes and preferences are as susceptible to shifting as the next guy’s, and so honestly, if I did the same list again today, some of those would be different, or shifted around some. So with that in mind, I think I’d arrange things now to be more like this:

10. Justin Bieber – Sorry X Ambassadors – Unsteady

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer Justin Bieber – Sorry

8. Charlie Puth – One Call Away The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer

7. Rihanna ft. Drake – Work Pink – Just Like Fire

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home Charlie Puth – One Call Away

5. Kiiara – Gold Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home

4. Thomas Rhett – Die a Happy Man Kiiara – Gold

3. Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

2. Post Malone – White Iverson

1. Meghan Trainor – Me Too

Okay, so the main changes there are the two songs I removed. I think I probably overreacted to Thomas Rhett finally getting a crossover hit, and while Die a Happy Man is still a tepid Ed Sheeran ripoff, and Rhett himself among the worst singers in mainstream country, I just can’t hate it the same way anymore. The turgid incompetence of X Ambassadors was a more than worthwhile replacement, and I likewise swapped out Rihanna for Pink, the latter having disappointed me far more with her most recent output. And that leads me to the last stipulation – nothing that made my 2016 top ten lists may be used again this year, even if it charted in 2017. So in this case, Closer won’t be on this list, even though I still despise it. And with that out of the way, it’s time to talk dishonorable mentions.

Pop                                                                                          Billboard Year-End Position: 1

Yeah, unfortunately the number one song of 2017 was exactly the kind of mono-genre sludge I was complaining about in my intro. You’ve got this stiff and pokey tropical house beat, and Ed Sheeran providing all the details behind a mundane and tedious hookup. Detailed songwriting is nice, but only when the nuances set a mood, and this song lacks one. More than that, it lacks the emotional core of songs like Don’t or Castle on the Hill, and cribs its instrumentation from the same EDM bandwagon that’s been huge for over a year now, plus the beat from Sia’s Cheap Thrills, one of the biggest hits of 2016. This is album filler, and doesn’t display any of Sheeran’s significant strengths as an artist. Ed, you can do better than this.

Pop/R&B                                                                                     Billboard Year-End Position: 26

Okay, I’ll freely admit that this song’s association with the Fifty Shades of Grey series makes it an easy target, but trust me, it’s every bit as unsexy as the films. Actually, it occurs to me that the simplest way to describe this song is as an uninspired sequel of its own, specifically to Earned It by the Weeknd, from the original Fifty Shades soundtrack. Zayn attempts to emulate the Weeknd’s style and image, but his piercing falsetto is agonizing. Taylor Swift isn’t much better, alternating between distractingly breathy and just checked out, and the lyrics aren’t particularly evocative, of the film or of anything in particular. So in other words, this is below the usual standards of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. And that’s certainly the meanest thing I’ll have to say on this entire list, so let’s move on.

Pop Rap                                                                                   Billboard Year-End Position: 41

I expected this to make the list proper for the longest time, but in the end, there just wasn’t room. Still, I had my reasons to single it out. They foolishly decided to sample Out of My Head by Fastball, but translating a rootsy alt-rock song into a pop rap single isn’t an easy task, and that’s before you get to Camila Cebello, formerly of Fifth Harmony on the hook. And let me get this out of the way: but for two minor details, Camila is the worst vocalist in pop music. Her voice audibly cracks when she tries to hit those high notes, and neither she nor Machine Gun Kelly sound the least bit sexy on this song that’s supposed to be about kinks. For his part, Machine Gun Kelly’s bars are painfully basic, and with this likely going down as his only hit, he’ll be remembered as just another of the mediocre white rappers of the mid 2010’s. No John Dillinger, this one.

R&B                                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 65

Next, the passionfruit! When your assailant lunges at you with a passionfruit, thus –

All right, obvious reference there, but Drake wishes he could be as funny or as quotable as Monty Python. I’ll have more on that subject later, of course.

Hip-hop                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 81

Okay, this is the first of what’s gonna be a multitude of mediocre trap songs on this list, and they all have roughly the same problems: the beats are sparse, the production is too minor key and dark to be any fun, and the MCs are equal parts disinterested (because boredom is mistaken too often for sounding cool these days) and just plain incompetent. I’m bringing this one up specifically because Kodak Black felt the need to tell us all how “I’m the shit I’m farting, I don’t know how to potty,” a line that even Lil Wayne must be laughing at. Good Christ.

Pop “country”                                                                      Billboard Year-End Position: 100

Wow. Even by the low, low standards of modern Nashville, this is quite possibly the least country song to ever dare market itself as such. Unfortunately, the guitars are also too underweight to provide a solid groove here. And the lyrics are also kind of dumb, as Keith Urban basically gives us a nice guy anthem, with lines like “Cause your precious heart is a precious heart,” not to mention the general absurdity of Carrie Underwood running to him for support instead of the other way around. In fact, Carrie’s talents are wasted in general on this – she doesn’t even get a verse. This wasn’t even the worst song on Ripcord, which is as good an indicator as any that Keith Urban needs to pack it in.

EDM                                                                                      Billboard Year-End Position: 91

I really didn’t want to put Demi Lovato on a list like this, and to be fair, her pre-chorus is by far the best part of this song. The problem is that the rest is an overproduced mess, any power behind Demi’s vocals gets processed away, and the guy from Cheat Codes is so flat, he makes Andrew Taggert sound like a Righteous Brother. Yikes.

Hip Hop                                                                               Billboard Year-End Position: 98

What’s the point of appropriating a nursery rhyme for your hook when you don’t even sing the right notes? Also, “do, re, mi, fa, so fucking done with you”? That’s your hook? Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you?

Well, with those taken care of, let’s move onto the list proper.

10. Okay, Sam Hunt and his execrable Body Like a Backroad dominated the conversation about country music this year, for worse or for worse, and it seems to be making most of the various Worst Lists floating around the internet. Most of the other country hits from 2017 are being ignored in comparison, since nothing else was as big or as transparently idiotic. Still, The Fighter didn’t deserve a pass, and neither does this.

10. Dustin Lynch – Small Town Boy

Country                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 94

While flashier performers like Florida-Georgia Line and Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan draw the most attention when people talk about bro-country, it’s important to remember that this phenomenon has suffocated country music for much of the last five years like so much kudzu, and at its roots, you have b-listers like Dustin Lynch. This song checks all the usual boxes for a bro-country hit, including the lyrical cadence that’s all about checking off the usual boxes of country stereotypes, like a grocery list. Listening to the opening lines, you can tell how Lynch is just racing to invoke the sacred dirt road as quickly as he can.

The rest of it could fairly be characterized as humble bragging, as Dustin rattles off the reasons his girl is so amazing, and expressing his ‘amazement’ that a woman like that loves a guy like him. It’s exactly as smug and insufferable as it sounds, not helped by Dustin Lynch’s sour, acerbic voice. There’s nothing to relate to here, and it’s so transparent that this song was built on an assembly line to pander to just the right demographics to make it an acceptable space filler on the radio. And ultimately, that’s all this is, a cheap substitute for radio static.

9. I understand that for songs like this, I’m not the target demographic, and so the emotional appeal, such as it is, doesn’t resonate with me. Be that as it may, I still maintain that the presentation itself is bad enough that it deserves to appear on this list.

9. Lil Uzi Vert – XO Tour Llif3

Hip Hop                                                                             Billboard Year-End Position: 13

I mean, I think I get why this song exists, and that there’s some existential trauma being worked through here that others could find compelling. Me, I can’t really get past how godawful Uzi’s autotune sounds, or the way he wanders off topic to talk about money, cash, and stealing your girl. I mean, compare this to I Took a Pill in Ibiza from last year, where Mike Posner also talked about money and cars and girls, but actually made a convincing case that they weren’t fulfilling to him in the slightest.

I’m leaving this low on the list because there’s at least the kernel of an interesting idea here, but pain doesn’t excuse terrible behavior. Also, there are much more flagrant examples of rappers behaving poorly, on record and in real life, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

8. Okay, to go back to what I said about genres converging on each other, and revealing easy listening as the core of the mono-genre, it’s occurred to me that this is a big part of why mainstream rap music has become so downbeat. There are rappers like Sage the Gemini or Future who seem to think that mistake gravitas for sounding like they don’t care about anything, but I think that misconception on their part bleeds into the kind of rap music that people listen to to relax. There’s not much daylight between the kind of hazy downtempo rap music that currently dominates the charts and the kind of soporific soft rock that dominated much of the early 80’s and early 90’s.

What I’m getting at here, is that if the guy from Air Supply had a rap career, he’d sound like Post Malone.

8. Post Malone ft. 21 Savage – Rockstar

Hip hop                                                                                            Billboard Year-End Position: 56

A lot of my hatred for this one boils down to the artless pretentiousness of Post Malone in general. I utterly loathed his mumble rapping on White Iverson last year, and while he doesn’t exactly reach that same level of repetitious droning on this song, he’s not far off. He certainly doesn’t seem to realize that the reason rock stars were idolized in decades past was because of the passion, energy and charisma they exuded, all qualities that Post himself utterly lacks. Throw in a pointless and forgettable verse from 21 Savage, and this manages to be even worse than the Nickelback song of the same name from eleven years ago.

It also doesn’t help that the music isn’t there to support him. For comparison, Rae Sremmurd didn’t approach being in the same universe of quality as the Beatles like they intended, and their song didn’t much sound like the Beatles either, but that darkwave-esque production still had some dark intensity and power to it. Here, we’ve got some minimal bass, light piano, and synths that sound like they were recorded underwater. The Lumineers rock harder than this.

7. I said that I’d talk about Drake again. And I’ll level with you guys, I’ve had a passionate hatred for the guy for a while now. He was the one who first showed me that easy listening hip hop could be a thing, when he made Hotline Bling sound like literal elevator music. And for a year and change after, he went on a tear, releasing mountains of content with no semblance of quality control, yet somehow becoming bigger than ever in the process.

Until this year, when everything finally collapsed around him. And for a very good reason.

7. Drake – Fake Love

Hip Hop                                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 39

What’s unusual about Drake compared to a lot of other rappers is that he’s always worn his insecurities on his sleeve. Even on songs where he tries to show some bravado, there’s still an awareness that his fame will be fleeting. In this song, however, we go several steps beyond that, to paranoid whining about “fake people” feigning affection and adulation to him.

The problem is that there’s no edge to this. He’s doing what sounds like a Young Thug impression and it sounds terrible. More to the point, however, it doesn’t provide the kind of lurking horror or any other appropriate reaction to the idea that enemies lurk behind every corner, crocodile grins firmly in place. It just sounds whiny, like a five-year old throwing a tantrum about how his friends don’t really like him. Yeah, no, if you keep this up, Drake, you won’t have any friends, real or fake. Or, for that matter, fans.

6. Speaking of trends that reached a screeching halt this year, we don’t seem to be getting as many Vine dance crazes as we did two years ago. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a subgenre of sorts where middle-schoolers bray over cheap, generic crunk beats from when the rappers in question were wearing diapers. And although this one appeared late last year, it only charted for 2017, so here we are.

6. Zay Hilfigger and Zayion McCall – Juju on That Beat (TZ Anthem)

Hip Hop                                                                                         Billboard Year-End Position: 50

Okay, this song got picked pretty clean before 2016 was even over. My main observation here is my amazement at just how thin the whole damn thing is. Zay barely fills in six bars, and while Zayion does a lot more, it’s clear that they struggled to fill even two minutes of song, even despite repeating themselves constantly. What also amazes me is how they barely even attempt to make rhymes; Zayion abandons a rhyme scheme altogether when he starts repping for Detroit. God, if only the Motor City had some other noteworthy rappers who could represent it – oh, right.

It is a little mean to pick on songs like this and their purveyors too harshly, especially since they’re significantly younger than me. Still, their age shows on the song itself, and between Zay’s nasal hook and Zayion sounding like he’s out of breath during his verse, it gets on your nerves in a hurry. And when they’re not pulling a Silento and listing other people’s dances (including the song whose production they stole for this one), they’re calling my dad ugly for some reason. Yeah, this is a trite novelty song, where the only novelty is when it gets annoying. Thankfully, these kinds of songs aren’t a good basis for a lasting career, so I’m pretty confident that after this year, Zayn and C.W. McCall here will be well forgotten.

5. To steer things back towards my complaints about easy listening, there was one other pop hit that jumped onto the tropical house bandwagon with horrific results. And if Post Malone is our new Air Supply, then here we have the new millennium’s answer to Peter Cetera.

5. Maroon 5 ft. Kendrick Lamar – Don’t Wanna Know

Tropical House                                                                             Billboard Year-End Position: 38

Actually, that comparison may be too harsh – to Peter Cetera. Yeah, the former Chicago frontman was a terrible vocalist, and dragged down what had previously been an interesting jazz fusion/prog act, but at least his vapid love songs were just that, vapid love songs. No more, no less, there’s a limit to how offensive that can get. Maroon 5, however, love to write these bitter, sour breakup songs instead, that paint Adam Levine as pathetically possessive and petty. You know, when he isn’t going full Patrick Bateman.

And Don’t Wanna Know follows in that vein, a song where Adam whinges about how he doesn’t want to know who his ex is seeing now, and what she’s doing, while giving every impression that he thinks of little else. That internal contradiction aside, there are two other obstacles that prevent this song from wringing out any of the pathos that Levine is aiming for. First, there’s the mountain of prior Maroon 5 songs about this same topic, most of which had more thought and effort devoted to them. Second, while any pretensions Maroon 5 has had to being a rock band, or, for that matter, a band, are long gone, it still beggars belief how phoned in this whole song feels. It’s got the same tepid tropical beat no doubt pulled from the dumpster behind Kygo’s place, and the most embarrassingly lazy Kendrick Lamar verse I’ve ever heard. When one of the best rappers alive feels safe rhyming words with themselves, you know a song just doesn’t matter.

4. I mentioned two minor details that prevent me from calling Camila Cabello the worst vocalist in pop music. This entry is one of those hiccups. Some great singers have failed hard when it comes to writing their own material. By the same token, some professional songwriters should not sing. Ever.

4. Julia Michaels – Issues

Pop                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 29

I’ll just say it now: Julia Michaels is the worst vocalist in pop music today. Hell, I listen to a reasonable amount of oldies, and she’s still one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. Most pop singers aren’t necessarily brilliant, but they’re at least competent, they can carry a tune. The dangerously off-key warbling that Julia delivers is striking in just how transgressive (and not in a good way) it is. Rebecca Black could blow this woman off stage. That Cheat Codes guy I was complaining about earlier at least had some awareness of his own limitations, while Julia Michaels keeps going flat in a vain attempt to hit high notes that are way out of her range.

And despite her background as a professional songwriter for other artists, which gave her connections and a whole bunch of Grammy nominations she doesn’t remotely deserve, I also don’t care for Michaels’ songwriting. Not on all of the Selena Gomez songs she’s written, and especially not here, where she tries to glamorize a broken relationship. It feels a lot like Selena’s rather uncomfortable Good for You (which Michaels also wrote), only more violent. Throw in some pretentious strings and a stalking piano line that sounds like she ripped off AWOLNation, of all bands, and you’re left with a serious mess.

I’ve got issues too, of course. And one of them is studio hacks who grotesquely overestimate their own talents.

3. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of country music. I like it when some stuff crosses over to the mainstream, even if it tends to pale in comparison to what the underground provides. By the same token, however, when the genre screws up, I’m only gonna be that much harder on it.

So let it be known: when I use the word execrable to describe something, treat it as foreshadowing.

3. Sam Hunt – Body Like a Back Road

Pop “country”                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 8

Do I even need to provide commentary for this one? Isn’t the title condemnation enough, not just that this song is stupid, but the particular flavor of stupid it embodies? In 2017, we officially hit Peak Bro-Country. That’s not necessarily to say that this is the worst bro-country song ever, although it’s certainly down there. No, I mean that no matter what horrors the future has to offer, it’s inconceivable that anyone anywhere will ever write a broier song than Body Like a Back Road.

With every note, Sam Hunt’s smarminess and self-satisfaction bleeds through your speakers, and if you were somehow able to get past that, this DJ-Mustard wannabe production will bore you to tears. The gang vocals are actually one of the less monotonous things in the mix, amazingly enough. And for a song about cars and dirt roads, this music poses a serious risk of leaving you asleep at the wheel.

It’s easy to get lost in the details when a song has lyrics as idiotic as this one. Still, you shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture, either. Just like Dustin Lynch, Sam Hunt here is gloating about the ass he gets to tap, only this time in painful, painful detail. So both musically and lyrically, this is not a country song, so much as it is a bad R&B song. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sam Hunt doesn’t want to make country music at all, but does it because the field is less crowded than it is over on the R&B stations. In other words, he’s just not talented or charismatic enough to make it in a genre currently defined by superstars like Chris Brown and Jason Derulo. Ouch.

If music is a highway, then this song is the equivalent of week-old roadkill, and exactly as appetizing.

2. Now, I usually talk about politics in this space. That said, when I decide to take that hat off and write about music or movies instead, I like to impose a little compartmentalization on the two broad categories. When I talk music, I’m generally gonna leave my personal politics at the door, even if the music itself is getting more political in its message. Be that as it may, I think there’s still something people of any political stripe can agree on, and that’s contempt for an opportunist.

2. Kodak Black – Tunnel Vision

Hip Hop                                                                                        Billboard Year-End Position: 55

I feel dirty even linking the music video for this one, because it’s such obvious bait. That said, the hamhandedness of that is your first indicator that this song’s hook isn’t exactly the socially conscious message it pretends it is. Now, before we get to lyrical content, I should first observe that the music on this song sucks just fine on its own. The eerie guitars aren’t well supported by the fake strings and that cheap flute loop, and Kodak’s nasal voice as he raps the nursery rhyme hook just leaves a kind of greasy feel over the entire track. It’s kind of an earworm, but it’s exactly as slimy as having a literal worm in your ear would be. Also, it revolves around rhyming “winning” with “penitentiary”, which speaks for itself, and brings me back to the songwriting.

Now, for the uninitiated, some personal context: Kodak is trying to make a song about how he’s a victim of systemic racism, and claims that “they” don’t like the idea of a black kid like him enjoying success. Back in reality, he’s got an arrest record as long as my arm, including rape charges, repeated parole violations, and charges for false imprisonment of a child, a bit where I didn’t even want to probe the details. Now, there’s the argument that I shouldn’t let these things color my perceptions of his music too much: even before the #MeToo movement became a thing, even a cursory knowledge of music history would tell you that many of the greatest musical icons of all time were also terrible people. John Lennon, Phil Spector, Bobby Brown, the list goes on, and I like music from all of those people regardless of their personal ethics.

Two problems emerge when trying to apply that same standard to Kodak Black. First, as I’ve explained already, the quality of his music doesn’t hold up even if you ignore his personal life. His rhymes are are painfully basic, and just like on Drowning, he includes another “I’m the shit” lyric that, just like when Lil Wayne does it, practically invites you to take it literally, and imagine him as talking feces. The second problem, of course, is that he won’t let you ignore his personal failings. The second line of his first verse has been altered in the music video above, to avoid digging himself even deeper during his legal troubles, but originally, it read: “I get any girl I want, I don’t gotta rape.” Yeah, no. Just no. Kodak, you’re right about one thing: they don’t like to see you winning. With the mountain of legal troubles, plus your general inability to control your own impulses, it’s just as well that you won’t be winning for much longer.

1. Okay, a quick history lesson before my number one. So, back in the 1990’s, country music was dominated by Garth Brooks. I wouldn’t call him the most talented artist in his scene or anything, but he did have the goods, and was a downright masterful marketer of his music. And it showed: to this day, Garth remains one of the best-selling artists of all time, with album sales rivaling Elvis and The Beatles. Seriously. So, in 1999, when he was on top of the world, he did something strange. He decided to reinvent his entire image, taking on a new identity, an alt-rock singer named Chris Gaines, and released a film explaining his fictional backstory, plus a rock album titled The Life of Chris Gaines. Now, this was dumbfounding news, especially because Gaines’ image was this brooding Hot Topic anti-hero, and it takes some real imagination to consider this man:

Image result for garth brooks

turning into this.

Related image

Unsurprisingly, the album flopped. Garth had handled some darker subject matter before (see The Thunder Rolls), but nobody wanted an edgy 90’s antihero reboot of Garth Brooks. He spent the next decade and change not making any music, and is only now clawing his way back to prominence. It was likely the stupidest and most avoidable career misstep in music history. Until now.

1. Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do

Pop                                                                                                  Billboard Year-End Position: 39

Here’s a question: what makes a song bad? Lots of things can, of course, but for a song to be the worst of a given year, I think it needs to be a compilation, a place where one sees every negative musical trend and trope of the period all converging on one single track.

And on that measurement, Look What You Made Me Do delivers in spades. You’ve got the dourness of Dustin Lynch, the cheap angst of Lil Uzi Vert, the paranoia of Drake, the disinterest and emotional facades of Maroon 5, and the peddling of controversy to get attention just like Kodak Black. I could go on for days about the myriad things that go wrong here, but let’s start with the production. As many people before me have already observed, this sounds like a bad Black-Eyed Peas song. It also strongly resembles Me Too by Meghan Trainor, which, if you’ll scroll up, you’ll notice was my least favorite hit of last year. This doesn’t have that blubbery bass line that that song did, but the chorus makes up for it with these ear-splitting hi-hats that make it unlistenable. The pre-chorus actually does have a decent crescendo, but as is typical with bad mid-2010’s pop music, that buildup comes to a screeching halt once the chorus begins. The gratuitous music video tries to add gravitas to a song that utterly lacks it, but the one thing it did get right was where Taylor crashes a car at the start of the hook, because that’s exactly what happens to this song’s momentum. Now that’s a metaphor that works.

Now, when it comes to lyrics and tone, I’d say that this song is divided against itself. On the one hand, it’s attempting to intimidate Taylor’s celebrity rivals, promising vengeance for slights real and imagined (I still don’t understand what happened between her and Katy Perry, but it sure sounds pointless). This is undercut, however, by the empty songwriting. I find it hilarious that as she and Katy Perry came to blows, their lyrical styles have converged on each other, with both descending into vague platitudes. And that’s not to mention the parts that are simply unconvincing. “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”? Oh, really, is that why you surround yourself with other celebrities and call them your squad? And as a villain song, it contains no real threats beyond “you’ll all get yours” and “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”. Compared with Carrie Underwood’s threats to key your car, to say nothing of Lydia Loveless burning your house down and you along with it (and that on a sad song!), this doesn’t exactly leave me shaking in my boots.

But that’s the point, some may say. It’s not a straight villain song, but another satire, in the vein of Blank Space. Taylor’s poking fun at how the media’s portrayed her as a supervillain in the aftermath of her dustup with Kanye and Kim Kardashian. Even the producer said the song was supposed to be camp. Now, the funny thing is, I see a case for this, but it actually makes the song worse, as far as I’m concerned. Here’s why: I’ve always gotten the impression that Taylor Swift is a fundamentally humorless person, and I only recently realized why that might be the case. See, to tell a joke, or at least a good joke, you need to be able to detach yourself emotionally from something. You can’t poke fun at yourself without looking outside yourself first. And Taylor Swift has never been able to do that. With the odd exception of Blank Space, she’s never written a single song where she’s anybody other than herself. That’s been a problem when she wrote songs like Fifteen, which would have been far stronger had she had the courage to portray herself as abandoning her dreams and losing hope at that young age. Without that ability to detach, her attempts at humor come across as bitter and vitriolic, uncorking acid and throwing it blindly in an attempt to create some distance between herself and something that pains her. And I can relate to this; I was actually quite the dour, self-serious little shit when I was growing up. Learning to laugh at myself was the best social skill I ever picked up.

And that fundamental tension is murderous when it comes to this song’s quality. It explains that godawful Right Said Fred sample in the chorus. Taylor Swift simultaneously tried to do two things here: on the one hand, she tried for a campy villain song, but it failed because her inability to detach from herself emotionally meant that she couldn’t make actual humor here. At the same time, she wanted to make a serious song where she’s a rebellious badass out to ruin her enemies. But she’s so drunk on post-modern irony and media cynicism that all she can deliver in defense of her own self-image is this disinterested drone, look what you made me do, look what you made me do. The fact that Poppy, a YouTube star who exists to satirize modern culture and pop music, could still throw more passion and energy behind a song about losing her microphone than Taylor does on this track, well, it’s a sad commentary. This is lol, nothing matters: the song. It’s the inevitable consequence of mistaking artifice for art, and it is the Worst Hit Song of 2017.

 

“Antisocialites” by Alvvays – An Album Review

Image result for antisocialites alvvaysSo, my last music review probably made it clear that I listen to a fair amount of country music, but I also listen to plenty of pop as well. And one of the oddities that I’ve noticed over several years of observing the Billboard Hot 100 is that, well, Summer’s not always a season of Summer songs. The cliche is that there will be a ton of up-tempo dance jams starting every June, but sometimes the opposite happens, and the pop charts turn to downbeat mush instead.

This was probably most true back in the Summer of 2014, when Iggy Azalea’s Fancy was the number one song in the country. That tedious four-note bass line was inescapable, despite it being a terrible foundation for any song, let alone something to enjoy the sunshine in. Those were grim days, so I count myself lucky that a blog I follow happened to drop a review of an obscure Canadian retro-surf act. And that review was very positive, so I found myself listening to the debut from the band Alvvays. Yes, those two v’s make a w, by the way.

And yes, that self-titled debut was a damn solid record. Songs like Atop a Cake and Next of Kin were exactly the burst of upbeat energy I was looking for at the time. More impressively, the band had the songwriting chops to back up their gorgeous melodies, telling some downright fascinating stories that showed some real darkness beneath the sunny B-52’s-esque instrumentals. All in all, that debut was easily one of the best pop albums of 2014, bar none, and it left me looking forward to see where they would take their sound in the future.

Well, the future is here, as the Canadian band have finally dropped their sophomore album, Antisocialites. I listened to and liked the three songs that released in advance of the album, so I got the whole thing on Friday and have had it on repeat since then. So, does it hold up to their excellent debut?

Well, that’s a complicated question, to be totally honest. What isn’t complicated is that this is still a great album and definitely worth your time. Antisocialites shows Alvvays tightening their retro sound even further, and delivering better melodic hooks than ever before. At the same time, I’m not quite sure the narrative ambition is there in the same way as their last release. The level of songwriting detail is still impressive, but the subject matter feels more limited and less subversive. All in all, I’m inclined to call this a bit of a lateral move.

Like last time, let’s start with the production. If you have listened to their first album, then you’ll see that their sound hasn’t changed a whole lot on this project, with the same combination of jangling 80’s alt-rock and 60’s surf music undergirding these songs. Of course, that’s a fair description of a lot of modern indie rock acts, from M-83 to Beach House. What sets Alvvays apart from their peers is a fantastic gift for striking melodies that shined on their last album and is even more accentuated here. The hooks on songs like Plimsoll Punks, My Type, Lollipop (Ode for Jim), and Saved by a Waif will stick in your head for days.

That said, I noticed one detail that has changed in the production compared to their old album is the distortion. On their debut, Alvvays had these more washed-out guitar tones and fuzzy, low-fi production, and none of the polish of their most obvious inspiration, the B-52’s. Here on Antisocialites, the sound is a fair bit crisper and less distorted, especially on songs like Plimsoll Punks or Dreams Tonite. That’s not to say that distortion is gone, but it often seems relegated to the beginning or ending of tracks like Hey (where they seem to have specifically appropriated A Flock of Seagulls), Lollipop or the album closer, Forget About Life. The album actually ends with the instruments coming to a warbling halt and radio static kicking in. Regardless of these minor stylistic changes, I’d still call this album exceptionally well-produced, building on and accentuating their strengths and creating a set of fantastic summer songs.

Of course, what really caught me off-guard about Alvvays when I first listened to them was the ambition and subtlety in their writing, so it’s worth addressing that as well. And on some level, they’ve kept up their standards here, too. Lead singer Molly Rankin is great at capturing a wide range of emotions, both in her singing and the songwriting itself. The lyrics on Alvvays songs are always vividly detailed, from the deeply uncomfortable confrontation on In Undertow, where she and her lover try to convey frustrations that they can’t quite put into words, to the reckless and utterly hilarious partying on Your Type, to the throwbacks to classic Punk icons on Lollipop, and so on. These songs are all expertly written and extremely precise in their focus. So, why am I unsatisfied?

Well, the problem I have is more with the broader theme of this album. Alvvays’ self-titled was defiantly unique thanks to its insightful look at millennial social anxieties, and the struggle of a generation trying to reconcile ironic detachment with that yearning for real emotional commitment. The band spared no effort in showing the bad decisions that could result from that dissonance, and the consequences of those decisions. By contrast…Antisocialites is, well, the breakup album. Clever construction can only do so much to conceal this – Not Your Baby has some nice metaphors, but it’s basically Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson minus that song’s cathartic fury. There just doesn’t seem to be a cogent arc on this album like on their debut.

Now, that’s hardly a dealbreaker by itself, but it does mean that instead of a strict narrative, we instead get an exploration of the various moods that surround a failing relationship. And these still make for some powerful stuff by themselves. In Undertow reminds us of the subversiveness of Alvvays’ use of surf music – in this band’s songs, water is something to dread – where the titular undertow represents the inexorable currents of time and incompatibility pulling two people apart. Dreams Tonite tries to recapture some of the old relationship’s magic even as it’s slipping away from memory. And Already Gone may be the biggest gut-punch here, with its story of a missed connection, the draining pool, and the end of Summer. Rankin ends the song despairing of ever recapturing that moment ever again. The magic is lost.

Thankfully, there is still room for optimism and hope amidst the gloom on this album. Lollipop is a more upbeat tune about the heady rush of a new relationship, and Saved by a Waif does one better by providing the hope that even a flagging love can be reinvigorated. Finally, there’s that album closer, Forget About Life, where Rankin finally lets go of the dread of the water and the astrological superstitions of previous songs, and resolves to live in the present. It wraps things up with a vestige of inner peace attained finally.

So, all in all, I still found Antisocialites to be a very good indie rock album. It’s got some of the best melodies I’ve heard in 2017, along with intelligent writing and an emotive frontwoman who can make you laugh, cry, and regain your sense of comfort and hope over the course of the album. I still wish it had the same subversiveness and scope as their last album, but what’s here is still done well, so I’ll give it an 8/10, and a recommendation. If you’re still wanting to hear some good summer songs this fall, then turn on Antisocialites and forget about life a while. You won’t regret it.

Recommended tracks: In Undertow, Dreams Tonite, Plimsoll Punks, Lollipop (Ode to Jim), Already Gone, Forget About Life

Weakest Track: Not My Baby

 

“The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – An Album Review

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Back when I first started writing here, I mentioned offhand that while my main focus would be political, I’d occasionally find time to write about music or movies or the like. Now, I’m not much of a movie guy, to be totally honest, but I do like listening to different kinds of music, and there have been plenty of albums in 2017 that I’d have loved to talk about. I plan to have mid-year and end of year explorations of some of these albums, but before then, it’d be weird if I didn’t have at least one standalone album review under my belt. So, on that self-critical note, let’s talk about Jason Isbell.

For the uninitiated, it’s important to note that Jason Isbell is an artist that straddles two different genres. He’s mostly known today for country music, but he got his start as a member of The Drive-By Truckers, legends in the Southern rock genre. Since leaving that band in 2007, he’s slowly grown in stature in the independent country scene, but still commands significant rock credibility as well – his last album Something More Than Free topped Billboard Magazine’s album charts for both rock and country albums. And to get my own opinion out here, Isbell deserves all of the success and critical acclaim he’s gotten and then some. Not only is he a powerfully evocative songwriter, but his instrumental prowess probably goes underappreciated on his more recent (and more country-inflected) releases. Some of the compositions on Something More Than Free approached being a blend of Americana and progressive rock, and the result was my third favorite album of 2015, even better than To Pimp a Butterfly, if you’ll believe it. And so here we are with another album from Isbell and his band The 400 Unit. Like his last two, it’s produced by Dave Cobb, a bonafide superstar in the world of country producers. Naturally, I had extremely high expectations for this project, both because of Isbell’s previous work and the song I heard in advance of its release, the harrowing If We Were Vampires. So enough stalling – did Jason Isbell make magic again?

Yes, yes he did. I’m happy to report that The Nashville Sound is another stellar entry in Jason Isbell’s already impressive discography, and easily one of the best albums of 2017 so far. I’ll have to get back to you guys on whether or not it’s better than Something More Than Free, but that’s because it’s a different animal than that last record in quite a few ways. So let’s start with music here, and my first impression here is that it’s a more fiery release than Isbell’s previous one, and more uptempo at times. If you’re more of a rock fan and want to hear some distorted electric guitars, you’ll get those on songs like Cumberland Gap, Hope the High Road, and the intro and outro to Anxiety. Those first two are the fastest-paced cuts on the album, and Isbell makes the most of it with some sticky hooks, but that’s not to say that the slower songs don’t also have some moments of real instrumental excellence as well. The smoky guitars and squealing fiddle on White Man’s World really captures the flavor of the old-school Muscle Shoals sound (something that seems increasingly common in independent country these days), and there’s some excellent mandolin and fiddle work on the closer Something to Love that adds some nice texture. One musical choice that caught me off guard was on If We Were Vampires, where the bridge features what I can only call a reverb solo, and it sends a chill up my spine every time. Dave Cobb’s an exceptionally versatile producer who can tackle a variety of different genres well, but he also knows when it’s time to strip things back and let the words carry a song, like on the opener Last of My Kind, where the guitars and fiddle are there to support Isbell’s vocals, the latter positioned at the front of the mix where they belong.

But as good as the instrumentation and production is, the main attraction of a Jason Isbell project is always going to be the lyrics and the stories that he tells, so let’s get to those. It’s important here to note that his last album was a transitional one, to some degree musically, but mostly conceptually. On Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell made a point of closing the door on his past, ending one chapter of his life and starting a new one, his old insecurities and failings behind him at last. And this album reflects that matured perspective – Isbell is married and raising a child now, and his songs are now less introspective and more concerned with the world around him. Just because he’s faced down the demons of his past doesn’t leave him entirely at ease, though. And what’s always set Jason Isbell apart as a songwriter is his unstinting, unflinching honesty; he tackles uncomfortable, intimidating subjects and cuts straight to the core of what frightens us. He did this when talking about the ugliness of dying on Southeastern, and again on Something More Than Free when he described the painful cost of teen pregnancy. On this album, I thought I’d seen the darkest of it when I heard If We Were Vampires, which has absolutely haunting observations on bereavement – true love may last forever, but lovers don’t, and one will probably have to learn to live without the other. However, the track before it, White Man’s World, proved just as shocking. Again, Isbell’s strength is his honesty and his refusal to hold anything back as he gets to grips with the legacy of white, and especially white male depredation in shaping America, and the kind of country he’s leaving behind for his daughter. And while he’s never tried to participate in that kind of oppression himself, as he acknowledges on the fourth verse, sometimes complicity is as small as looking the other way as you see someone else be cruel.

In fact, White Man’s World was another surprise for me in showing that this album would be more political than Isbell’s prior work. I expected more extroversion, but a big part of this album isn’t just focusing more on other peoples’ struggles, but also Isbell trying to see things through the perspectives of others, whether that’s the displaced rural man who worries that history is leaving him behind on Last of My Kind, or the alcoholic miner’s son desperate for escape on Cumberland Gap, or the recent divorcee looking to start over again on Tupelo. Isbell treats each of these characters with appropriate empathy even while acknowledging their failings, like the protagonist in Cumberland Gap’s inability to find his own calling, which leaves him wallowing in his cups for lack of other ideas, or the man on Tupelo’s bitterness. Isbell does well in making these songs feel lived in and three-dimensional.

That said, the character sketches are one part of this album, but the bulk is devoted to Isbell’s new role as a husband and father. On Anxiety, he observes that as much as he’s been blessed to have what he does, there’s always that lingering shadow of doubt as he wonders if it will last. And as I mentioned already, If We Were Vampires makes that fear more explicit, since he knows this marital bliss can’t possibly last, and either he or his wife will have to face losing the other and coping with that loss. These two running themes of the album, aging and the growing concern for other people, are brought together on the two tracks where Isbell references his year-old daughter. On White Man’s World, Isbell says that it’s not too late to make amends so long as you’re still breathing, but he finishes up by saying that as much as this world’s injustices have shaken his faith, he still feels something when he sees the fire in his little girl’s eyes. His wife Amanda Shires joins him in singing that final line, which just sells that moment where they both share a vision of a brighter future for their child. Lastly, there’s the album closer Something to Love, a song of advice written to his daughter. On this one, Jason Isbell talks about the formative experiences that shaped his childhood and his love of country music, and shares his hope that his daughter will find her own dreams and passions to carry through life. Musically, it’s one of the most country songs in Isbell’s discography, and it concludes this album on one hell of a high note.

So yes, I absolutely loved listening to The Nashville Sound. It’s not perfect – there’s a conspicuous flubbed rhyme on Molotov that I think breaks the momentum of the song, but this album still offers a great deal of musical and lyrical diversity, going from heartwrenching to heated to haunting to hopeful over just ten songs. Overall, I’d give this album a 9/10, and my highest recommendation. If you like either country music or southern rock, you need to hear this. Even if you don’t, I still recommend it for its impeccable storytelling and emotive delivery. If Jason Isbell’s brand of cerebral and highly melodic Americana truly became the sound of Nashville, then we’d all be better off for it.

Recommended tracks: Last of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, White Man’s World, If We Were Vampires, Anxiety, Hope the High Road, Something to Love.

Weakest track (but still quite good): Molotov.