While the campaign surrounding reputation was all about Taylor Swift being big, bold and bad, it's most triumphant moment was also its most intimate and humble. "My castle crumbled overnight," Swift sings as she addresses her public demise in the most genuine, subtle of ways.
No video catapulted a song more than the video for Dua Lipa's New Rules did this year. It amplified the songs cheeky yet empowering message that was lost on first listen. Suddenly, we were all recalling Dua's three rules from memes to genuine conversations.
Mallrat's greatest strength has always been her direct honesty but on Better she added maturity to the mix. The heart of Better beats more emotionally than any of her previous songs, mixing hopefulness with purity. "Maybe when the summer ends I'll drift away from all my friends," captures being in your late teens and early 20s so poignantly.
St. Vincent is a wildly experimental, boundary-pushing artist but sometimes her finest moments are when she cuts straight to the heart. "You're the only mother fucker in the city that can handle me," is one of the best lyrics of the year. It's tough, heart-wrenching and direct, detailing both the relationship with a city and a person. An incredibly succinct and perfect moment.
Inspired by everyone from pop greats to emo cult figures, E^ST is the quintessential Aussie pop star. Life Goes On is her relealising her full potential, combining euphoric pop with a hint of darkness that pulls out lines like, "I should let go." Heartbreak is best expressed on the dancefloor and E^ST is borrowing from Robyn's playbook on this incredible moment.
It's easy to focus on Kelela's ability to deliver left-centre, experimental R&B but she's also a soulful, direct lyricist and the open space the Frontline's opening sequences provide give her a chance to prove that. Singing, "I'm quitting," in the first song of an album is such an abrubt start but there's also something really rejuvinating about it when Kelela sings it.
She may have been flanked by DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller but this is Rihanna’s moment. She oozes sex appeal over an otherwise blank canvas beat, making this the most seductive tune to come out this year. The Maria Maria sample may sizzle but nothing comes close to RiRi uttering, “I know you wanna see me nakey, nakey, nakey,” with that raspy voice.
After four years, HAIM needed a strong return and one way to do that is to come in with the vocal within the first second of the song. As soon as Danielle Haim’s vocals flood from the speakers you know it’s HAIM-time once again. Then everything else starts falling into place. The funky bass, the groovy percussion, those trademark harmonies. It’s a confident extension of their sound that adds to the formula without tampering and it’s a total winner.
Selfish, Draco or Comin’ Out Strong would’ve been the more obvious hits off Future’s two 2017 albums but instead Mask Off rose to the top of the crop. Metro Boomin’s flute-starring beat has a lot to do with it but it’s Future’s short, sharp delivery that keeps it pacing along. It’s a lesson to Future that he doesn’t need to aim for a commercial aesthetic to create hits. When he’s on his game with what he does best, he sets the bar.
Kendrick has never been so melodic and simultaneously personal as he is on ELEMENT. He manages to address family struggle and take shots at fellow rappers all while creating something that’s sonically his sexiest song ever. Just when you think he’s settled in to ride the melodic wave though he breaks it down and raps, “most of y’all ain’t real.” Never get complacent around K.Dot. He may be making radio tracks on DAMN. but they’ve got more depth than most’s deepest cuts.
We didn't enter this year expecting one of the most classic hooks to be on a Tyler The Creator song but he surprised us all this year. See You Again captures Tyler's newfound maturity. It takes its time and unfolds over a sweeping instrumental while Tyler leans backs into it. Rather than leading it, it leads him and that shows exactly how far he's come. Kali Uchis delivers a vintage that never would've worked on any other Tyler record.
“All that I want is to wake up fine, tell me that I’m alright, that I ain’t gonna die,” is not exactly the first line we expected from the sunny instrumental that opens Hard Times but it’s that juxtaposition that makes this such a success. Paramore are dancing while the world is crumbling around them. Throwing their hands up and saying, “fuck it,” and somehow that amounts to the most liberating pop track of the year.
Lana Del Rey has gone through many phases since Video Games but her classic, direct songwriting has always been there, somewhere. Love sees her peel back the layers to reveal that once again combining her starry-eyed nostalgia with her unfiltered view of love. Add a splash of grandeur and you've got her best single in more than five years.
George Maple is a bold songstress who has always favoured dense, threatrical productions but on Hero she's stripped bare. The production is as pulsating and smokey as ever but she's vocally and lyrically present. Soaring through heart-wrenching lyrics like, "I lied to you and made you feel small," she lets us peer into her personal world. It's a delicate portrayal of heartbreak but as always with Maple there are undertones of empowerment.
If you want an indication of just how good Carly Rae Jepsen’s E.MO.TION was, remind yourself that Cut To The Feeling was left off it. This is an offcut and yet Jeppo’s scraped it from the cutting room floor and turned it into one of 2017’s glorious, most unabashed pop moments. It bleeds euphoria and consistently feels like the sun is shining out of every angle of it and that’s the kind of Jeppo moment we want.
Songwriters so often consider the big picture without looking at the smaller, overlooked details that make up our thoughts about the world and more specifically, our personalities. For Lorde, nothing is off limits when it comes to analysing. Nothing's too young or too dumb and as a result, she's managed to make a song that makes grand realisations about her place in the world by depicting the euphoria and the comedown of a party. She throws back drinks, flails her arms, finding her happy place but she also pinpoints the exact moment where she realises this is temporary. The best part about perfect places is that it doesn't find sadness in its findings. Instead, she reassures that it's ok to be searching.
Sigrid came out of nowhere with Don’t Kill My Vibe, launching her entire career off the strength of one song. You’ve gotta be very confident in the song, if you’re going to introduce yourself that way and thankfully Don’t Kill My Vibe is one of 2017’s golden moments. It’s a fragile, exposed song that builds strength, marching towards a chorus that could fight off an army. A fight that would ultimately be won by Sigrid’s soaring, powerful voice.
Charli XCX’s rogue Number 1 Angel mixtape was full of severely underrated pop gold but even among those songs, Pull Up (3am) shone bright. It’s a perky, PC Music club jam but it’s driven by Charli XCX’s emotional top line. She holds nothing back here even telling her ex to, “go fuck yourself,” in the final chorus. Nothing’s censored and that’s when Charli’s at her best. She’s undoubtedly one of the best pop writers in music.
It took so much pain and longing to get Blonde that most of us had settled in for another four year without Frank. The elusive singer had other plans though, debuting Chanel on his radio show and playing it on repeat for an hour. Over that hour the song revealed itself, exposing hidden melodies with each listen and placing emphasis on beautifully vivid lines like, “freeze smoke rings.” This is Frank at his most exposed - a masterclass in creating something that appears simple but actually has layer upon layer of complexity.
This one was not one for repeat listens this year. It’s not made for it. It’s so emotionally weighty and profound that one listen is enough to cut straight to the heart. Sampha’s beautiful ode to his late mother is not just a tribute. It’s a vivid tapestry that pieces together his childhood with his present and connects it to his relationship with music. He finds solace in the piano and that’s essentially what makes this song comforting rather than devastating. It’s such a touching, careful moment and one that only Sampha’s supremely soulful voice could’ve constructed.
An unlikely but necesasary hero of 2017, Cardi B scaled the heights of the charts with a song that had more fire, self-confidence and hunger than any other hip-hop track this year. It had this infectious power to it that uplifted any audience it came it to contact with. If you haven't been roused by a crowd singing this song this year you haven't been out. Cardi is a superstar and this is no one hit wonder.
The xx have always had a very honest, forthright approach to songwriting so it was a risk to expand their soundscape. They could have diluted their genuity and washed-out their personalities in the process. Say Something Loving proved they could tackle something grander and keep that glass-thin fragility. Romy and Oliver trade verses like only lifelong friends could and gently lead us towards a chorus that bleeds emotion and dazzles with tender harmonies. It’s a spectacular masterpiece that allows The xx greater ambition and ultimately a bigger legacy.
You could be sure that Kesha was never going to return to the glittery pop princess she was but no one could've predicted just how high she'd soar on her thundering return. Kesha chanelled everything from the past few years into an empowering ballad that showed her vocal chops in a way we'd never seen before. "Well you almost had me fooled," still sends shivers up the spine everytime and in a year where a similar story to Kesha's was told throughout the world time and time again, Praying is an anthem that gives strength. Full of emotion with a better future firmly in sight.
When Calvin Harris first teased a Frank Ocean collab on Snapchat, it didn’t seem believable. How could an EDM giant convince one of music’s most defiant, unpersuasive artists to jump on his song? Little did we know, it was the start of a new Harris. A funkier, more organic producer that managed to create this slippery, effortless West Coast beat. Frank took that and gave a vocal so natural that it’s as if the words fell out of his mouth the first time he heard it. “Do you slide on all your nights like this?” Frank asks, creating this simultaneously melancholic and neon-lit atmosphere that just feels so right. Getting Migos on it at the peak of their career was a choice move too.
It takes a solid understanding of yourself to make an album that connects but it also takes an understanding of the trends around you to make something that goes far. Lorde's Homemade Dynamite was already pop perfection but she masterfully pulled together the three most hyped, exciting artists of the year and let them infuse Homemade Dynamite with their personal flavour. The result is a song that sounds distinctly like 2017. Call it your party montage.
Stormzy’s return had to be alarming. There was always something alarming about his freestyles and Big For Your Boots expands on that. It explodes with a shuffling grime beat, choral samples and actual alarms that are tackled by Stormzy’s cocky, fast-paced delivery. This isn’t about Stormzy being egotistical though, it’s about telling everyone else to get off their high horse. Telling them they’re not too big, too cool or too good for anything. Just when it feels like Stormzy may be getting too big for his boots, he ensures he comes down to a relatable level telling us, “you’re never too big for Adele.” It’s these details that make Stormz both dangerous with words and extremely likeable.
No one could’ve predicted that Kendrick would follow-up his most complex projects with a Mike Will Made-It produced track, destined to take over the airwaves. HUMBLE is a giant. One of those songs that feels like it could shake the earth. Kendrick has always been a social and autobiographical but he's never had a selfish moment. One that explicitly aims for the throne and allows him to puff his chest momentarily. HUMBLE isn't as shallow as that but it is his throne-snatching moment. It's a hearty warning that no one's raps are more intelligent, quick-witted or loaded than K.Dot's. The work-of-art video is just the cherry on top.
At the hands of anyone else Boys', "I was busy thinking about boys," hook would sound laughable but with Charli XCX in charge, it's genius. She takes pop's oldest playbook and reinterprets it, using simplistic, meaningless ear worms and twisting them into sugary, delectable moments that envision pop's future. Pop doesn't need to get serious to progress. Boys proves there's merit in guilty pleasures and we've all spent the year thinking about Charli's Boys from those Nintendo sounds to that video.
SZA’s Drew Barrymore may have marked her arrival but Love Galore solidified her position as one of 2017’s greats. She so beautifully weaves her vocals around this sleek beat, remaining vulnerable while she also grabs control. She takes her time and rolls out one of the sleekest and most seductive vocal delivery of the year. There was no room for Scott to deliver a lazy, phoned-in verse, it just wouldn’t have been believable. Instead, he rises to the occasion delivering one of his rawest verses in recent memory.
It's almost as if pop didn't know how to progress at the beginning of 2017. Its greats, from Katy Perry to Taylor Swift, were losing their crowns and everything commercially was beginning to feel a bit stale. The arrival of Lorde's Green Light felt like a celebration. Everything about it was bold, unforgiving and radically different. She embodied Bowie's oddities, embraced Robyn's danceable heartache and magnified her intensity, creating the most unashamedly emotional and liberating anthem of the year. It sounds like she's trying to be one of the greats but it also sounds intimate, as if her texts were being broadcast through the city via huge speakers.
It’s so vivid that you can place Lorde in every part of the song, hanging out of the uber and dancing through the streets of New York. At the end it releases so much pent-up energy that you can’t help but feel like dancing breathlessly, celebrating letting go, even if just for a night. No artist made a moment so personal, so universal this year. Green Light is a triumph for Lorde and a triumph for daring pop music.
And here is the full top 50 in a Spotify playlist.
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