2017 was stuffed to the gills with too many good songs to count, and thank goodness for it. How would we have survived this hellscape without them? Here goes nothing.
Honorable Mentions: Literally everything on the Phoebe Bridgers record but especially “Funeral”; “Perfect Places” & “The Louvre” – Lorde; “The Gate” – Björk; “Wave to Anchor” – Hundred Waters; “JUNKY” – BROCKHAMPTON; “Sacrifices” – Drake (feat. 2 Chainz & Young Thug); “Expect the Bayonet” – Sheer Mag; “Mary” – Big Thief; “Appointments” – Julien Baker; “Shadows” – Future Islands (feat. Debbie Harry); “I’ll Still Destroy You” – The National
A Song That Wouldn’t Be On Here Without the Video: “Boys” – Charli XCX
But boy, what a video.
And now, the list.
20. “8TEEN” – Khalid
Khalid is only nineteen, but American Teen is one of the most assured pop debuts since Pure Heroine, so it’s fitting that he’s opening for his pal Ella (now 21-going-on-ancient) on her new world tour. “8TEEN” is naïve and verging on twee – “I’m eighteen and I still live with my parents,” “Damn, my car still smells like marijuana / my mom is gonna kill me” – but it’s a joy to listen to, and Khalid charms throughout. Give him time: just a couple of years ago, Lorde was “getting on [her] first plane.” This teen is here to stay.
19. “Call Ticketron” – Run the Jewels
LIVE FROM THE STAGE OF THE GARDEN WE BE THE REALEST OF THE KILLERS OF THE FUCK SHIT SQUADRON.
18. “The Brightside” – Lil Peep
In the wake of Lil Peep’s death in November at the age of just 21, it’s hard not to read “Brightside” as a cry for help: “Everybody’s telling me life’s short, but I wanna die.” Peep’s music, blending emo, rock, and rap, was visceral and honest, often to a fault. But against the current climate of unending untruths, his radical candor was cathartic, even transcendent. For some, it might even have been a lifeline. Like all of Peep’s music, “The Brightside” is breathtaking in its generosity: it doesn’t ask for help, it offers.
17. “Safe” – Young Thug
2017 saw Young Thug experimenting with a newfound coherence. Both on his show-stopping feature on Drake’s “Sacrifices” and here, on the gorgeous one-off “Safe,” Thug’s vocals remain best-in-class, but he seems newly dialed in: he’s moved from substances to just plain substance. On “Safe,” Thug “spend[s] more money on security than [he] make[s].” If he stays this locked in, it’s everybody else who should be scared.
16. “New York” – St. Vincent
“New York” is one of the most drop-dead gorgeous songs of the year, recalling a love that is intense and specific: “If I call you from 1st Avenue / well, you’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me.” Ah, to live and love in New York.
15. “Big Fish” – Vince Staples
Big Fish Theory is the year’s best rap album, and its quasi-title track stunts and stuns in equal measure. Juicy J drops by for the instantly unforgettable chorus: “I was up late night ballin’ / countin’ up hundreds by the thousand.” At this rate, he’ll be counting for a long time to come.
14. “God in Chicago” – Craig Finn
The Hold Steady are a bar band, baby, and while their music often touches on the darker sides of drugs and drinking, people don’t usually die. Killer parties almost killed them, but in that almost there’s hope for redemption. The characters in “God in Chicago” aren’t out for hope or redemption: that’s not even on the table. People already died. They’re just looking to get to tomorrow.
13. “Up in Hudson” – Dirty Projectors
Each time I listen to “Up in Hudson,” I ask myself: Is this one of the best songs of the year, or one of the worst? I still don’t know, but I know that I love it, whatever that means. It’s a masterclass in oversharing, a tour-de-force of TMI. Its production is as ornate as a Chippendale chest, its worldview as simplistic as a Chippendale dancer. Its climactic lyric is, well, this: “Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway, riding fast / and you’re out in Echo Park blasting Tupac drinking a fifth for my ass.” It’s even more absurd once you realize he’s obviously listening to 808s. But hey, I’ve always thought 808s was underrated.
12. “Boyish” – Japanese Breakfast
The fraying relationship at the core of “Boyish” isn’t over yet – but it needs to be. The boy has wandering eyes; the girl hates herself for still wanting to please him. The song sounds like a dream, all gauzy and shimmering, but Zauner’s lyrics cut through the haze like a searchlight: “Your boyish reassurance is not reassuring / and I need it,” and later, “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general.”
She ends with a plea: “Love me!” She can do so much better.
11. “Motion Sickness” – Phoebe Bridgers
At the end of “Motion Sickness,” the narrator tells herself to “surrender to the sound.” If you listened to Phoebe Bridgers this year, you’ve likewise had no choice but to surrender: her music is massive – it sucks you in and tosses you around and throws you out. You emerge battered, but you don’t care. You go in for another round.
“Motion Sickness” is the year’s best breakup jam and the lone up-tempo number on the impossibly good Stranger in the Alps; it’s also an apt description of how it feels to listen to this album, to become obsessed with this album, to forget what it felt like before this album existed. “I have emotional motion sickness, somebody roll the windows down,” she sings, gleefully, on the winningly emo chorus. “There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out.”
10. “XO TOUR Llif3” – Lil Uzi Vert
“XO TOUR Llif3” is an emo-trap fantasia of the highest order, thrust into internet ubiquity on the strength of Uzi’s harrowing vocal performance and, of course, that chorus. “All my friends are dead / push me to the edge” is so shockingly direct an admission of vulnerability that it might literally have changed the accepted definition of rap by the time it hits the second time. Try to imagine Drake, rap’s former arbiter of emotions, delivering the line: you can’t. Uzi has crafted a song so real, so urgent, that it erases much of what’s come before it. Push me to the edge indeed.
9. “IDK About You” – Fever Ray
A bizarre, exhilarating force of nature: if clubs played music like this, I might actually want to go to clubs.
8. “Abandoned Flesh” – The Mountain Goats
Tucked away near the end of the glorious Goths, “Abandoned Flesh” is the most unassuming song on this list. It doesn’t aspire to much: it’s a linear telling of the career of the largely forgotten goth band Gene Loves Jezebel. It’s mundane, unadorned, simple. It references their Wikipedia page, and this reference has since been added to that Wikipedia page. But somehow, by the end you’re crying for this band you’ve never heard of, cheering them on, cursing their detractors. John Darnielle is unparalleled in the art of finding triumph for the downtrodden, and he does so here with one of his finest lyrics ever: “The world will never know or understand the suffocated silence of the Once and Future Goth Band.” Hail Satan.
7. “Boredom” – Tyler, the Creator (feat. Rex Orange County and Anna of the North)
When Tyler, the Creator shattered minds and exoskeletons alike with “Yonkers,” his talent was apparent. But in the years since, Tyler’s output has been a mixed bag, more interested in provoking than progressing. At the very least, you never thought he’d make a song that could genuinely be called “gorgeous,” let alone an album full of them. “Boredom” is the loveliest song on Flower Boy, adorned with a full suite of backing vocals, woodwinds, strings, and a whole slew of fresh ideas. When the old Tyler was bored, he would sling slurs; the new Tyler is conducting a symphony, and there’s nothing boring about it.
6. “Cut to the Feeling” – Carly Rae Jepsen
I’ve written a thousand words about this song already, and I stand by each and every one of them.
5. “Mask Off” – Future
No one so wholly embodies rap’s present as Future, and on “Mask Off,” he asserts his dominance, casually hitting upon two of the most undeniable hooks of the year in the same song. “Percocet – Molly, Percocet,” and “Mask on – fuck it, mask off” don’t look like much on paper, but Future delivers them with such convincing bravado that they sound like eternal truths, sitting atop a bed of the most sinister sounding flutes you’ve ever heard. “Mask Off” is Future as kingpin and king. Long may he reign.
4. “Dum Surfer” – King Krule
Archie Marshall’s otherworldly voice has always sounded like it had the power to accidently summon the Dark Lord while drunkenly ordering a fry-up, but “Dum Surfer” might actually do the trick.
Built around a single, harsh rhyme – cash/slash/trash/mash/stash/lash/crash – “Dum Surfer” tells the tale of an awful night out. It starts inauspiciously but innocently enough – “this band that’s playing is playing fucking trash” – but quickly gets weirder: “As Venus completes orbit, I’m feeling slightly mashed / the stir-fry didn’t absorb it, I need another slash.” And bleaker: “If we were commuting, this train would fucking crash.” And bleakest: “Getting lashed by all of the gods.”
At the end, after a menacing guitar and sax solo that sounds like an unending line for the bathroom and the end of the world, his cab crashes (“it was only minor”), and he stumbles home. “Dumb surfer, don’t suffer,” is the parting wisdom. What is a dumb surfer? Can he scream when the wave takes him under? Or can he just hope it won’t hurt too much?
In a year of bad nights, “Dum Surfer” is our reality and redemption: a ticket straight to hell, but afterwards, perhaps, to sleep.
3. “Supercut” – Lorde
“Born to Run” and “Dancing on my Own” have a child, and it grows up in a world of Facebook memories and Instagram stories, where the only things not forgotten are the things the algorithm deems worthy of serving to the top of your timeline. This child is called “Supercut,” and it lives in the singularly bleak liminal space we all now inhabit, where everything – our most passionate relationships, our deepest hopes – becomes a string of 1s and 0s broadcast to our friends and connections and followers. “Supercut” is what happens when love pivots to video and the video won’t stop buffering.
Over a pulsing beat and a piano melody that’s slyly reprised from first single “Green Light,” Lorde plays back the highlight reel of a now-lost love. Her words glimmer, she’s “wild and fluorescent”: it’s three minutes of ecstatic, exceptional pop. The “supercut” motif is at once foreign and familiar – not unlike “hotline bling,” the great nonsense phrase-cum-global phenomenon of our time – nailing the zeitgeist squarely despite not being a thing anyone actually says.
But the problem with highlight reels is that they remove context: when we forget the bad moments, the best ones feel merely de rigueur. At the end of the bridge, the music drops out. The video stops. We’re wholly in the present. Lorde lets out a wild, primal scream: a bright white moment of truth that no algorithm could ever undo.
2. “Chelsea” – Phoebe Bridgers
On “Smoke Signals,” Phoebe Bridgers toasts to idols both living and lost – Morrissey, Lemmy, Bowie. Noticeably absent, for me at least, is another recently toppled titan: Leonard Cohen. After the countless hours I’ve spent with this record this year, Cohen’s is a striking omission, because at her best, Bridgers’ songs are cut straight from the great master’s finest cloth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Chelsea,” the most inscrutable, most enchanting song on Stranger in the Alps. Unsurprisingly, the song draws heavily from Cohen’s timeless “Chelsea Hotel #2,” his unflinching account of two souls sharing a lonely night. “We are ugly but we have the music,” he suggests in the song’s lone glimmer of hope: music can make beauty where there is none.
Enter Phoebe Bridgers, who, more than anyone this year, made beauty where there was none. Her “Chelsea” is less forthright than Cohen’s, but it’s just as grippingly intimate – a relationship told in code, just beyond our reach. It’s the only time on the record where Bridgers sounds like she’s hiding something, the torn out page from the open book. It’s hard not to spend months searching for that page.
“You spit the blood back, spit the blood back, baby / I’m amazed that you’re alright,” she sings on the chorus, fighting hard against the beat, as though time itself has drawn this blood. So here we are at the end of 2017, battered, exhausted, bloodied – but somehow, it seems, alright. How did we do it? “Chelsea” doesn’t provide an answer, but more than any song this year, it commands us to look for one.
1. “American Dream” – LCD Soundsystem
It feels like a copout to say “American Dream” is the best song of the year. It has Great Song written all over it: its imposing length; the way it sits unmoving on the same simple riff, drilling itself into your brain; the way the inevitable catharsis comes not in the form of some winning refrain but instead in a rush of frantic anxiety, of complete self-laceration. Sound familiar?
But “American Dream” is no mere retread of “All My Friends.” Indeed, no song this year more perfectly encapsulated the waking nightmare of our new reality than “American Dream,” a rumination on the emptiness of drugs, sex, everything. Murphy’s lyrics drip with sarcasm as he eviscerates the politics and pretensions of, well, the majority of his audience. The song is, at its core, a systematic takedown of liberal apathy, entitlement, and insufferableness, and it’s never been more needed.
After running through a litany of liberal annoyances – Marxist proselytizing, fun-sucking self-seriousness, the pursuit of victimization – the song ends with some more empty sex and a biting refrain: “American Dream!” Murphy sings over and over, against some doo-wop “sha-langs.” He sounds as enthused as the MC on a bad TV game show.
Ten years ago, the iconic refrain on “All My Friends” retained a glimmer of hope: “Where are your friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight!”
In 2017, there’s no room for such idealism. “Look what happened when you were dreaming,” he demands, “and then punch yourself in the face.”