Halfway through 2017, I sacrificed music blogging to focus on my day job. My dismissal and subsequent destitution were never actually on the cards, but my anxiety had built a persuasive case to the contrary, and I felt pressured to hone my professional skills.
Writing about music, conveying love for a lyric or sonic embellishment, is among my favourite things to do. It hurts to think I could lose a good six months of it to anxiety, and let the year by undissected, so here’s a peace offering to my former, less-confident self – a two-thousand-and-late-teen roundup of the year’s best pop!
Oh, and here’s the Spotify playlist. Enjoy!
21. Taylor Swift – …Ready For It?
By keeping mum on a heap of political issues – Trump being the apex – Swift clung to her red and blue state appeal. After the bile-spitting ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ got a thumbs-up from Breitbart, along came this capital-P pop song – which jacks Sleigh Bells’ noise pop to riveting effect. A strong if cynical example of having it both ways.
20. Miley Cyrus – Younger Now
Like the LP it was burdened with launching, ‘Younger Now’ was, by all accounts, a critical and commercial failure. Despite being underwritten, the song’s message – accept your past, embrace your present – is the essence of self-love. Perhaps it arrived too soon, but flop or not, Cyrus has an enviable career retrospective in her canon.
19. The Killers – The Man
‘The Man’ is four minutes of dick-swinging – and I’m not even talking about the dance moves best suited to its sleek, Talking Heads-indebted funk. Careening from deadpan to diva-ish deliveries, Brandon Flowers disappears into the role of an arrogant lout.
18. Thundercat – Friend Zone
In the midst of confronting a flakey love interest, ‘I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway’ is one of Thundercat’s many dorky kiss-offs. He’s a big nerd at heart, and producers Flying Lotus play even more to the singer’s sensitive side, accentuating creamy high notes with bubbly synths and a wonky bassline.
17. Pixx – Romance
Pitched down for the hook to ‘Romance’, Pixx’s woozy lower register is something alien and sinister. Bird-like harmonies and keyboards tinged with fuzz add to the unease, while searing lyrics – ‘You don’t care as long as you leave in a pair’ – render this a spectacularly bitter break-up track.
16. Lorde – Supercut
Aside from one strikingly raw vocal, ‘Supercut’ is a dizzying, piano-led dance track. Booting up your mental iMovie and compiling clips of a relationship to build your ideal narrative shouldn’t make for the most immediately compelling pop song. And yet, Lorde’s neuroses speak to a generation cultivating carefree existences on social media.
15. The Orielles – I Only Bought It For the Bottle
This Halifax-born trio – ranging between 17 and 21 years of age – peddle indie rock that’s too observant to be considered dreamy. Sure, the guitars are hazy, and the vocals are as cool as VapoRub, but the wry lyrics lampoon a society obsessed with aesthetics.
14. CamelPhat & Elderbrook – Cola
European house hasn’t been the genre du jour for some time now, but hazy allusions to cocaine binges are always in style. This Grammy-nominated track pairs pure paranoia with a four-on-the-floor beat – the lyrics are cruelly voyeuristic, while the synths writhe and jerk as if attempting to escape a straitjacket.
13. Run the Jewels – Stay Gold
Run the Jewels’ anti-establishment bent is (partially) dialled back for ‘Stay Gold’ – a downright affectionate sketch of the ‘brain-with-an-ass’ girls in the duo’s lives. The electro-hip-hop beats are still chrome-plated, but Killer Mike and El-P’s gratitude gleams even brighter.
12. Charli XCX – Roll With Me
You might not think you need 90’s bubblegum-house in the vein of Aqua in your life, but you’re wrong. “Roll With Me” is more than the sum of its ostentatious parts. When the sparkly thump gets too much, Scottish-born producer SOPHIE – an affiliate of London’s trendy PC Music label – breaks up things with bludgeoning drums and warped vocals.
11. Travis Scott – Goosebumps (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
Murky trap and a pop chorus generate an addictive friction on ‘Goosebumps’. In a less exciting musical climate, one can imagine a certain Mr. Bieber taking the hook, but Travis Scott makes light work of it. Whether he’s singing seductively, or rapping maniacally, Scott’s voice strokes the eardrums like sandpaper.
10. King Krule – Dum Surfer
Infusing Blur-like Brit pop with grungy guitars and menacing jazz, ‘Dum Surfer’ is an inebriated – yet surprisingly detailed – account of a night on the town… then on the road.
9. CupcakKe – CPR
CupcakKe’s wordplay is X-rated and witty, lending an audacious charge to scorching hip-hop, as well as poppier fare. On the ‘Macarena’-aping ‘CPR’, the rapper has her sights set on dance floor domination, turning a promise to save your dick ‘giving it CPR’ into a hook you can sweat your inhibitions out to.
8. Lil Uzi Vert – XO Tour Llif3
TM88’s twinkling yet zombified production is more conducive to an panic attack than a party. Thematically, it’s a hard sell, too. In addition to one of the bleakest hooks in recent memory – ‘All my friends are dead’ – Lil Uzi Vert reckons with infidelity and substance abuse, shrugging them off in his elastic slur.
7. Brockhampton – BOOGIE
This hip hop collective excels as a boyband and self-sufficient creative agency. There’s fifteen members to handle everything from the music to the art direction – and ‘BOOGIE’ sounds crowded in the best way. A melting pot of bite-size verses, hardcore horns, and what sounds like a looped kazoo, it’s a rave-up from start to finish.
6. Katy Perry – Bon Appétit
Neither credible enough for critics, or trendy enough for music buyers, this was 2017’s most misunderstood single. When it dropped, I said the production was so fresh, it was antiseptic. I stand by that – those 90’s house synths poke and prod at the pleasure centre, and aren’t worlds away from what the critically-fêted PC Music lot are doing.
5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow
Prior to becoming the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to score a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Cardi B was a successful TV and social media personality without a single chart entry. Not that you’d know it from ‘Bodak Yellow’’s not-so humblebrags, which revelled in the Bronx native’s pop domination before it even seemed possible.
There’s nothing original about what Cardi’s celebrating – she’s made a fortune, had some cosmetic surgery, and primed for a good lickout. But her infectious flow and giant personality is that of a global superstar, and it helps that the hook was made to be sung at the back of a school bus. In many ways, 2017 belonged to Cardi B.
4. Kendrick Lamar – Humble
An impeccably timed comeback single, ‘Humble’ dropped two months into Trump’s presidency. As the chaotic administration dominated the news cycle, America putting a request to an ignorant oaf to take a seat at #1 was the palette-cleanser we all needed.
3. Vince Staples – BagBak
‘BagBak’ snarls at fraudsters across society – from fame-hungry sycophants, to profiling police, to pitiful governments. Surfing a foamy electro bassline and leather-gloved handclaps, Staples is a galvanising presence – and that’s before he tells the president to suck a dick.
2. Tove Lo – Disco Tits
Sexual liberation has been Tove Lo’s M.O since 2016’s Lady Wood – her sophomore album and an expression for the female boner. On this nü-disco banger, she wears her stiff nipples as two badges of honour. The bass pulsates, and synths trickle like tetris blocks, but Tove’s body confidence has its own gravitational pull.
1. Dua Lipa – New Rules
Only in late August did UK music listeners send a lead female artist to #1, and what track could be more qualified to smash the patriarchy than ‘New Rules’?
A five-step guide to leaving fuck boys in your dust, Dua Lipa’s international hit is dripping with girl power. Hear how the backing harmonies in her verses recall late 90s girl groups, and dilute an implicit heartbreak that would otherwise consume our protagonist.
Despite channeling the tropical house trend, the song’s obvious money shot is its unclassifiable post-chorus drop – a befuddling swirl of slippery honks and fried vocals. Although Lipa’s smoky tone is chopped and contorted beyond recognition here, she’s no mere cipher.
Chalk it down to her it-girl aura, or a distinctively chill singing technique, but on ‘New Rules’, Lipa seized her chance to be confessional and fierce all at once – becoming #bestfriendgoals for millions of fans, seemingly overnight.