The 20 Best Songs of 2017
Despite a year dominated by political turmoil and Ed Sheeran, many singles in 2017 remained profoundly emotional and easy to connect to. From artist creating tearjerkers like Mount Eerie’s “Real Death” or Lorde’s “Liability” to artist opening up like Kesha’s “Bastards” or Tyler, the Creator’s “911 / Mr. Lonely” the year’s great music remains able to convey emotion well. There was still the fair share of political rock anthems like Roger Water’s “Deja Vu” and songs ripe with commentary like LCD Soundsystem’s “tonite.” 2017 will be remembered for artist sticking to their guns despite the chaos and miss happenings of the world.
20. St. Vincent, “New York”
St. Vincent’s first single off her new album starts out with a kick in the gut: “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love.” Hearing this led me to believe that the new album was going to have a tone more akin to this song. Strangely enough, “New York,” seems tonally out of place on the new album. Most of the album is populated with densely produced, 80’s inspired synth-pop, but “New York” seems almost minimalist in comparison. There is still little elements of 80's synth-pop throughout the song that is interlaced with St. Vincent’s voice and a piano. Looking at “New York” as a thematic element of the album sheds more light on its contrasting tone. At the core MASSEDUCTION, is about the many facets of love and much of the album is spent looking at some of the darker sides of love (“Pills” and “Los Ageless”). “New York” is a more classically, romantic view of love and is part of what makes the album more of a shopping gallery of love. The first line is just so heartbreaking because it makes you realize that the places lose their luster if we don’t have those that we love to share it with.
Watch the music video for “New York” here
19. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
The continued improvement of Selena Gomez as an artist is staggering. Transitioning from a Disney star to a pop star can be at some times insurmountable but Selena Gomez (with help from Julia Michaels) delivers one of the most infectious songs of the year. Sampling the baseline from the Talking Heads’ legendary song, “Psycho Killer,” “Bad Liar” becomes an inescapable summer jam. Lyrics from Julia Michaels push the song to be even better. The opening line of “I was walking down the street the other day / Tryna distract myself / But then I see your face / Oh wait, that's someone else,” is just so hot diggity damn good. Also one of my personal favorite “But just like the battle of Troy/There's nothing subtle here,” just another winner. Selena’s soft, enticing vocals that build towards a transition make “Bad Liar” by far one of the best pop songs of the year.
18. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, “Over Everything”
One of my most anticipated releases of 2017 (for me) was Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s joint album. While I don’t think the album completely lived up to my expectations, there were still plenty of great songs released by the duo. The first single to be released, “Over Everything,” felt like the perfect blend of angst and passion for the never-ending cycle of vagabonds. The song tackles the intimacy of music/songwriting and how the loss of youth makes it way more personal. The imagery of this song is striking and simultaneously very sad: “When I'm strugglin with my songs / I do the same thing too / And then I crunch em up in headphones, cause why wouldn't you?” The lyrics almost seem better suited for an emo band in the early 2000’s but the great budding instrumentation helps to make the themes more grounded. The irony of two people singing about being alone with their music can be seen as a coping mechanism for the young songwriters. Even if you aren’t struggling with songwriting we can all relate to being little middle schoolers blasting Evanescence from our earbuds being over everything.
17. The National, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”
I go back and forth with my feelings about the National. A lot of their music I love, but at times can feel too drab/monotonous. As a result, I was blown away when I heard “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The instrumentation was so vibrant and varied that I was wondering if I was even listening to The National. The guitars riff and piano melody create such a beautiful sound that makes it almost danceable. Even the vocals vary greatly from the soulful intro to Matt Berninger screams towards the end of the track. Even a song as upbeat as this has some pretty somber lyrics. Particularly when Bellinger sings “ I cannot explain it / Oh, any other, any other way.” This song is so dense that it is hard to unpack everything going on but that is what I wanted from The National. Unfortunately, their album didn’t contain many more songs as diverse as this but it gives me hope.
16. Mount Eerie, “Real Death”
This is by far one of the saddest songs I have ever this year. Mount Eerie’s (Phil Elverum) entire new album, A Crow Looked at Me, is centered around the death of Elverum’s wife. Often death is seen as a hot-button topic that artist use as inspiration for their work. “Real Death” is beyond this and chronicles Elverum’s feelings about how all art becomes null and void in these circumstances: “it’s not for singing about / it’s not for making into art.” It seems as if he is trying to convince himself of this fact as much of his music was seemingly influenced by “fake death.” The story continues as Elverum finds a backpack his wife ordered for their daughter and he “collapsed there on the front steps [he] wailed.” It is hard to describe the raw emotions this song evokes but the minimal instrumentation heightens your awareness of Elverum’s lyrics and in turn heighten their effect.
15. Big Thief, “Mary”
The climax of Big Thief’s new album, Capacity, is a beautiful lullaby that can gently put you at ease. While the rest of Capacity is filled with microcosms of soft rock and beautiful sound experimentation, “Mary” has some of the simplest instrumentation on the entire album. There is still an element of building instrumentation that can be heard through the piano and some ethereal, brass sounds in the background but that’s about it. Despite all of this “Mary” remains one of the most touching and lovely songs of the year. This is achieved because the instrumentation leads way for Adrianne Lenker’s soft vocals. What elevates this track to greatness is the intense lyrics that evoke safety and security. Whoever Mary is we all feel that love and protection that Lenker shows with her soft singing. In this way, Big Thief creates a song full of empathy that draws the listener into a trance.
14. Roger Waters, “Déjà Vu”
Roger Waters has never shied away from being overtly political. Almost every Pink Floyd album that he had a heavy hand in creating turned into a commentary on society one way or another. His first new album in 12 years, Is This The Life We Really Want? reinforces this rule with a wild dive into the crazy political atmosphere of 2017. The crown jewel of this effort is the haunting second single, “Déjà Vu.” The guitar, piano, and background noise are beautiful and a typical Floydian arrangement. Right out the gate Waters ponders “If I had been God” and talks about seemingly little things he would change. It is quite a beautiful set of lyrics as we can empathize looking around and seeing things to be improved. The second half of the song Water takes on an even larger political message starting with Waters singing “If I was a drone” referencing the huge number of civilian casualties from drone strikes. The pinnacle of this song is expressed with the title “Déjà Vu.” The intense changes over the last few years seem drastic but Waters is trying to convince us that it is all the same.
13. LCD Soundsystem, “tonite”
LCD Soundsystem blast back into the music world with this great disco jam. Besides the disco beat, the background instrumentation that flutters in and out is classically LCD Soundsystem. The seemingly lighthearted and upbeat tone of the song is perverted by how at odds the lyrics are. The song is a tirade about popular dance tunes while at the same time being one of these club inspired, dance songs. The instruments almost mask what the song is truly about as James Murphy sings “I never realized these artists thought so much about dying.” As all of the “hits” occupy this weird "you only live once" mentality, Murphy satirizes this with his comments about death. The imagery from this song is incredible as Murphy conjures up everything from rich kids selling sneakers to a person functioning as a “reminder” about the good ol’ days of spinning vinyl. At its core “tonite” is a commentary on popular music’s greed and themes while LCD Soundsystem succumbs to the tide itself.
Read our review of “tonite” here
Watch the music video of “tonite” here
12. Mac DeMarco, “On the Level
The groove of this song is inescapable and brilliant. The song focuses so much on this riff that it is forced into your mind for hours on end. Instrumentally and sonically “One the Level” is one of the more ambitious songs off of Mac DeMarco’s latest album. On the other hand, lyrically this is less complex but is unique because it still is able to convey some of the intense emotions that can be found throughout the album. Wanting to be equal with your old man despite constant failure is a really hard emotional task to grasp or make empathetic. DeMarco does this here while at the same time creating such a great sounding track.
11. Jens Lekman, “How We Met, The Long Version”
Another great groove, “How We Met, The Long Version” is an odyssey of sound and story. The drums, strings and whatever else encompasses this track’s driving beat makes it everlasting. What makes this song so amazing is its fresh take on the very saturated love song / meatque motif. Lekman takes this theme and turns it into almost a history lesson about the formation of the universe and eventually to the moment he met a girl. It gives the song a much more romantic feel than most recent attempts at the genre. When Lekman starts to talk about his encounter, the music transitions into a more petite sounding jam. The creativity in a song like “How We Met, The Long Version” is the juice that many musical genres need in the future.
10. Vince Staples, “Yeah Right”
Interlaced when many of the avant-garde dance tunes that populate Vince Staples new album, Big Fish Theory, are absolute bangers. “Big Fish” could have easily been in this place but the instrumentation along with the Kendrick collaboration push “Yeah Right” over the edge as Big Fish Theory’s best track. The drumbeat on this song is otherworldly. Along with making a great rap song, these beats also fit into Staple’s instrumental themes on Big Fish Theory. Kendrick Lamar pushes this song with his lyrics and flow working so well with the intensely subwoofer enhanced beats. Vince Staples continues to mature as an artist with great tracks like “Yeah Right.”
9. Fleet Foxes, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar
The sultry opener on Fleet Foxes latest new album signals a stark mood shift from their previous work. This is done beautifully with a roller coaster of a song. The song starts out with lead singer, Robin Pecknold, almost whispering sulkily “I am all that I need.” His tone is so somber it is as if he is trying to convince himself of this fact. The opening stanza ends with another low “I am all that I need” that leads to an explosion of sound. The instrumentation that achieves this cacophony of sound and ensuing downwards spiral is really something else. The powerful bass drums and droning baseline fill your ears with a sound that contrast beautifully with the beginning of the song. The theme of dealing with fame is also explored on this song via the very up and down nature of the instrumentation and lyrics. This song does a great job of commanding the listener's attention in order to present them with new ideas and styles that the album is filled with.
8. Björk, “The Gate”
Even someone as artsy and androgynous and Björk goes through the same peaks and troughs of love as the rest of us. Björk’s previous record, Vulnicura, was a breakup album that chronicled the split with her husband. Contrasting that, Björk’s latest album, Utopia, sees her accepting a new love. “The Gate” embodies the major themes of this new album. Comparing her love to an opening gate, Björk is at her most intimate. To nobody’s surprise, the sound of this song is otherworldly. She somehow blends sounds from nature with soft electronic inspired music. Björk continues to be a pillar of art with her continued innovative sound and empathetic themes
Watch the music video for “The Gate” here
7. Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”
There is no denying Kendrick Lamar’s staying power after 2017. The Compton rapper by some regards went mainstream with the sound on his new album. Hits like “HUMBLE” and the myriad of popular features (U2, Rihanna, etc.) led Kendrick to new heights. Despite this more mainstream album, Kendrick is able to maintain some of his previous styles. On “DNA,” Kendrick’s style blends with new mainstream trends seamlessly. He maintains his great songwriting with very politically divisive commentary that was so integrated into his previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The beat of “DNA” takes a more commercial rap approach that is turned up to eleven in the second half of the song. Lamar succumbs to the wave of trap music that was spreading throughout the country with the triplet rap style. Lamar’s aggressiveness in this track does a great job of conveying emotion and makes “DNA” an absolute banger.
6. Kesha, “Bastards”
Kesha’s new album, besides being one of the great comeback stories of the year, is ripe with a wide variety of musical exploration. From traditional pop to heavy rock to country Kesha is more creative than ever. My favorite of her exploration of the musical mythos is the album opener, “Bastards.” Kesha channels her inner singer/songwriter to create a song that is akin to the progression of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and the message of Kanye West’s “Runaway.” With a soft, heartfelt intro, and a booming choir-like chorus, “Bastard” feels like Kesha’s greatest moment of triumph. The message in this song is an integral part of the Kesha comeback story and, along with the rest of the album, continue to inspire.
5. Tyler, The Creator, “911 / Mr. Lonely (feat. Frank Ocean and Steve Lacey)”
Tyler, The Creator’s wildly different Flower Boy shows a step in the right direction. The creative direction on this album is vastly different than any of his past projects. Tyler takes on some of raps two greatest themes, being arrogant and being emotionally open. These themes are explored in depth on the album but they culminate together in an interesting way on “911 / Mr. Lonely.” The first section of this song sees Tyler trying out the arrogant rap stereotype. Rapping about cars, living in the burbs, and mentioning everyone from Beyoncé to Elon Musk, Tyler beautifully plays with this theme while leaning on his comedic background. Despite this, there is a sliver of the emotional openness in this section as the background chorus of “Call me some time nine-one-one” shows his loneliness that will be explored later. In this section, it seems as if Tyler is trying to mask his loneliness and insecurities with five car garages and what not. The song’s flow changes (similar to “DNA”) signaling the change to the “Mr. Lonely” section and Tyler’s more vulnerable side. The section is dominated by Tyler’s inner reflections (almost a roast) on how his extrovert nature is really signaling his inner loneliness. Although lyrics like “They say the loudest in the room is weak / That's what they assume, but I disagree / I say the loudest in the room / Is prolly the loneliest one in the room (that's me)” seem almost rudimentary, coming from Tyler they seem more genuine. “911 / Mr. Lonely” is Tyler at a new creative peak that will surely be surpassed in the near future.
4. The War on Drugs, “Thinking of a Place”
Sonically this song is so entrancing and is the epitome of a relaxing, chill vibe. The instrumentation is an ethereal dip into the world of indie rock. The synthesizer-infused beat that permeates the entire song and the amazing guitar solo in the middle, create such a great flow of the song. My usual criticism for the band fails as they incorporate a wide range of instrumentals and sonic experimentation. In terms of stature, The War on Drugs delivers an eleven-minute odyssey of a nostalgic love song. The lyrics evoke a naive childhood love from a small hometown in the middle of nowhere. “It was back in Little Bend that I saw you / Light was changing on the water / Where birds above had flown / There was pain in your eyes” sound like lyrics to an intense emotional coming of age movie. The beauty of this song is that the sonic landscape that is produced is reinforced by these lyrics. It brings the listener to “think of a place” where love is the law and all those romantic ideals fall into place.
3. Fleet Foxes, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”
Fleet Foxes boomed back on the music scene with this folk-rock epic. Released exactly seven years after the release of Helplessness Blues, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” proves that Fleet Foxes haven’t missed a beat. From the beginning, this song commands your attention with a booming guitar line. The song is vast instrumentally with everything from electric guitars to symbols to an electric organ. The percussion on this song is incredible as moments of almost pure silence are immediately squandered with loud symbols or percussive concussive shells. The production of this song is actually ridiculous. Every second, even if it doesn’t sound like it, is filled to the brim with such well-crafted sound. It is such a dynamic song with so many different sections (instrumentally and thematically). The flow of this song, similar to “I Am All that I need,” goes through a rollercoaster of sound. From the booming beginning, the sound seems constant but slowly reduces over time until the instrumentation explodes when Robin Pecknold sings “Can I be light and free?” This second section also dwindles down and leads into a more droning beat that almost sounds like the ocean, carrying out the song. The album artwork that was released in tandem with this song really encapsulates the feeling of the ocean. The euphoria of the beginning and slow drowning found throughout the song shows some of the feelings the ocean can evoke. “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is simply impressive. It showcases Fleet Foxes at their most creative and most intense.
2. Lorde, “Liability”
Though “Liability” is one of the simpler songs off Lorde’s Melodrama, it is packed to the brim with some of the most emotional moments on the album. This was probably my most difficult choice because my mind was telling me to applaud Lorde’s great maturation in production value with “Hard Feelings/Loveless” but my heart was telling me to go with the emotional destruction of “Liability.” This battle has been waging in my mind for quite a while and I compare it a lot of the time to “Yesterday” versus “Ticket to Ride” by The Beatles. “Ticket to Ride” was one of the most sonically complex songs that The Beatles had made to date while “Yesterday” remains a testament to songwriting and minimalism. I think “Yesterday” endures the test of time a little more because behind all the production is a lovely, simple emotional statement. Similarly what sold me with “Liability” was that although the production and sound on “Hard Feelings/Loveless” were so amazing, the emotional moments of Melodrama are what made the album special. Lorde’s uncanny to tap into our heartstrings is what makes her such an amazing artist. The ability to squeeze every ounce of empathy from us like lemon juice makes songs like “Liability” so dangerous. You can hear the pain in her voice when she sings out “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy / 'Til all of the tricks don't work anymore.” The loneliness is exponentiated when you realize she is “going home” to herself and she is the “only love [she] hasn’t screwed up.” The slight echoing of Lorde’s voice amplifies this idea that she is lonely and it works beautifully. Lorde continues to play by her strength with what may end up being the “Yesterday” of her career.
1. Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
There is no single song that more accurately describes 2017 than Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy.” Everything about 2017 was a mash of cold comedy with just a dash of completely terrifying. Father John Misty channels this with the same level of obtuse comedy and fear for the future. “Pure Comedy” encompasses these ideas but they can be found all throughout the story ridden album of the same name. The great strength of Father John Misty (and many great musicians) is his profound world building/storytelling. All the metaphors and backhanded phases aside, “Pure Comedy” is a look at the very dark sides of our politics, society, human nature and religion Basically one strike away from Linus’s list of things never to discuss with people (the last one is the great pumpkin). What connects everything Misty is talking about is how he believes that one way or another, in each of these paradigms, our humanness is degraded.
It starts out meta as he sings about how human nature produces many of the issues that degrade and divide us as humans. Since “Our brains are way to big for our mothers’ hips” we are doomed to remain, babies unless we have someone to raise and teach us. The next stanza somewhat heavy-handedly describes the reasons for many forms of gender inequality is rooted in biology. He then moves on to criticize religion for its ridiculousness and reaching for meaning in a world he describes as a “horror show.” His next bash is at politics when he sings “Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?” and while this can obviously be seen as a jab at the state of politics today, in an interview with Beats 1 Misty says that this is more about the idea of politics and that we relegate many difficult decisions to a few group of people.
The beauty of this song, when compared to many other tracks on the album, is that it is able to create such a narrative about our world right now. Many tracks on the album construct dystopian worlds or are much more metaphorical but “Pure Comedy” finds a little niche in between. Aside from all the fancy language and commentary, “Pure Comedy” is just a beautiful piano ballad. Much of the album gains its beauty from a very deep grand piano that fills the songs with a sense of simple beauty. Throughout the song, the production slowly increases as a choir appears and Josh Tillman’s voice becomes more and more obtuse until it boils over into an explosive instrumental chorus. Ultimately the reason I feel that this song is so great is that it seems so topical and so 2017, but its themes and language are universal enough that it can probably always feel topical. Father John Misty continues to floor me with his incredible songwriting, production and satirical wit as “Pure Comedy” is by far the best song of 2017.
Listen to the top 20 songs of 2017 on Spotify: