2017 sucked like no year since 2016. But pop music kept giving us reasons for hope – from Harry Styles’ glam grandeur to Cardi B’s Bronx fire to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s takeover of middle America. Atlanta trap stars like Migos, Future and 21 Savage slow-rolled out addictive smoked-filled hits. Julia Michaels, Lorde, Tove Styrke and Taylor Swift put their personal stamp on the glistening pop confessional. The pulse of the radio opened a little, via the breezy island beats that powered Drake and Ed Sheeran, or Selena Gomez dubbing in a little Talking Heads on “Bad Liar.” Even rock nostalgia felt more fun than it has in ages, whether it came via Portugal. The Man’s Motown throwback jam, the blurry Nineties-punk recollections of of Charli Bliss and Diet Cig or veterans like U2 and Beck making music that updated their classic moves. Here are our 50 favorites.
Not really the best year to listen to some rich guy survey us poor suckers from atop his mountain of cash. But this (self-produced) trap-rap itemization orgy came tinged with just the right amount of creepy beauty and dead-eyed aspiration, a realist, no-frills window into the dark heart that beats beneath the $7,500 Saint Laurent jacket.
Singer-guitarist Danielle Haim and her harmonizing sisters float in on the gold-dust pop of Fleetwood Mac, the country-rock swag of the Eagles and the giddy digital crackle of youth. The result: an uncanny re-ignition of Rosanne Cash’s Eighties synth-twang classic “Runaway Train.”
A sunshine-y summertime banger for the mellow, post-Drake, post-Auto-Tune era where little bangs in the traditional sense. Infectious, booming and a little apologetic: “I got the hottest 16, one of the best you’ve ever seen,” Lucci croons, “But she like it when I sing on it.”
Nelson’s world-weary response to Trump-era malaise is a loose-limbed rave-up that lyrically combines the pragmatic with the pessimistic. Over seething acoustic guitars and a sputtering harmonica, he ruminates on the circle of life and the possibly looming end of the world. It sounds a lot more upbeat on record, thanks to Nelson’s tenderly empathic vocal.
When Marling says “you wanna get high” near the start of this stark acoustic ballad, it’s no invitation – it’s an indictment of a soulmate repeatedly advised to “stop playing that shit out on me.” An impressive rewind of vintage Bob Dylan bile and Joni Mitchell ache by a woman who regularly channels both with aplomb.
A long way from the bawdy rebellion of 2013’s Bangerz, Cyrus’ wistful, sweet “Malibu” introduces a happier, more adult era of her life and music. Above a tinny guitar, she celebrates a love re-ignited through the sunny lens of the Southern California city.
Canada’s hook hero saved 2017 with her bracing rejoinder to Xanax-pop malaise, a rainbow-bright collision of “Lucky Star” synth bursts and processed-handclap beats. Jepsen’s boisterous vocal adds extra urgency to this jump-along anthem’s much-needed e•mo•tional rescue.
Hearty, rambling Midwestern romanticism from Brooklyn indie upstarts. Two lovers drive down the highway but only one survives a wreck in this twang-y slow-burner.
Florida rapper Kodak Black unfurls his rubbery voice on this narcotic track about staying focused in lieu of legal troubles (the controversial performer was charged with sexual assault last year). With a floaty flute melody borrowed from Chilean folk band Inti Illimani and Kodak’s liquid delivery, “Tunnel Vision” details a man trying to not let anyone – including himself – get in the way of success, and that means taking his mother’s advice to do the right thing: “I’m thug to the bone,” he says, “but I’m still her baby boy.”
“So much of the political climate these days has put so much negative energy toward our differences, I wanted to write something that celebrated them,” Kamasi Washington, the leader of jazz’s new old school, told The Beijinger. “So I wrote five songs that each sound like they come from entirely different places.” This ambitious, cinematic 13-minute suite is their collision, a labyrinth of themes and melodies with a small choir and 21 players, chaos crescendoing into beaming explosions of spiritual jazz.
Fergie skates over the iconic “It Takes Two” Lyn Collins break, tweaks verses from two different Big Daddy Kane songs and pals around with Nicki Minaj. After years of chasing the pop brass ring, the chameleonic vocalist for BEP Soundsystem finds her edge.
The title track of the Black Keys CEO’s country-soul-rock solo joint is a zen-like meditation on craft co-written with John Prine. Part Nashville and part Motown, it’s the platonic ideal of a Seventies crossover hit, blue and red states belted together in the front seat of a Rambler, singing along to A.M. radio cranked loud.
This highlight from Damon Albarn’s latest animated all-star mixtape matches his ruminations about dancing alone with holograms in a “mirrored world” (Instagram v4.0 perhaps?) with crossover-minded chants by young Jamaican star Popcaan. He shouts out dancehall forefather Bounty Killer while spitting about his own sufferings and success over shimmery electro-dub.
This Lindsey Buckingham-penned track from his and Christine McVie’s Fleetwood Mac sabbatical is shot through with the simmering tension of Mac’s most emotionally brutal songs. Buckingham’s yelp and McVie’s sober alto blend into a mourning whole over the unsteady riffing of the verses, giving added poignancy to the already-dashed hopes in the choruses.
OVO’s breakout R&B duo keeps it steamy with a hazy, wine-soaked slow jam that hearkens back to the bump-and-grind Nineties.
With its electro-warped doo-wop intro over abstracted New Orleans brass, this love song starts with a meet-cute at the Bowery Ballroom and winds up sad-sacking in upstate New York. “Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway riding fast,” reflects Dave Longstreth morosely, envisioning his ex “out in Echo Park blasting Tupac drinkin’ a fifth for my ass.” The singer caps his lamentation with a wicked drone-guitar and percussion jam, because when all else fails, music heals us.
A starlit rollerskating jam about love’s all-consuming joys, this collaboration between up-from-YouTube diva Dua Lipa and R&B polymath Miguel gets its kicks from its depths-plumbing groove and the crazy-in-love vocals of its two principals.
Though the flighty, careening, twee-punk song-raps of Lil Yachty failed to turn him into the pop star hinted at by his multiple Top 10 guest spots and his Target commercial, this love song with Diplo suggests the alternate universe where giddy, melody-frying, Biz Markie-esque caterwaul can soundtrack our biggest EDM bangers.
Country’s protest-song tradition continues with Margo Price’s plainly stated broadside against Americans who weren’t born into white manhood receiving the short end of the economic stick. Price’s bell-clear soprano underscores her no-nonsense argument in favor of equality, with the accordion-aided reverie of its chorus adding to its ultimately hopeful charge.
An unforgettably vivid story of a death, a drug deal, a Prince-soundtracked road trip and a bleary shot at momentary redemption on Michigan Avenue that collapses into unspeakable grief. The Hold Steady frontman’s uncharacteristically spare, calm delivery and some somber piano make the song punishingly stark as he crams a novel’s worth of emotional and physical detail into five heartbreaking minutes. A new peak for one of music’s most indelible image-slingers.
On this tender throwback, singer-rapper Jidenna practically tips his fedora as he croons over muted highlife guitars and steelpan chimes. He exits the doo-wop reggae portal for a quick Drake-ish interlude, but soon returns to his gentle jungle metaphors, riding out on nifty, programmed beats.
With the public primed by global pop crossover “Despacito,” French producer Willie William drops an infectiously forlorn synth-horn riff and rattling beat, while Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin campaigns on an all-inclusive, no-borders party platform.
A breakup song that’s as self-lacerating as it is self-liberating, this pogo-along track from the New York grunge-pop trio Charly Bliss uses the sweet-and-sour contrast of Eva Hendricks’ coo to showcase the high-pitched conflict of dating someone who’s a little bit too much like you.
Swaying summer escapism expertly done by Harris, who gooses the dance-pop groove with a bumpy bass line, and Frank Ocean, whose coos (pitched up for the irresistible kid-like intro) cast an esoteric melodic spell. Bonus: Quavo casually escorts you to the bridge where Offset gruffly exclaims, “Good gracious!”
Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley went to jail in 2014 as a former Michigan State University freshman; and shortly after emerging he became one of 2017’s most astonishing, emotive new rap stars. Recorded, literally, on his first day out (and reportedly while he was still in his prison clothes), Tee Grizzley unleashes a spill of thoughts finessed through months of updating – a detail-filled, technically nimble rap full of joy and pain.
Somebody loves the squishy sample-pop of Beck or Gorillaz as much as they love weed! Though the mostly U.K.-based group has eight members, this scoop of hybrid gelato sounds as if coy Japanese singer Orono could’ve whipped it up while still half-asleep after a nap.
A Palestinian-American producer and a Caribbean-Canadian songwriter sample a collaboration between a Nineties Haitian hip-hopper and Sixties Mexican-American rock icon. A Barbadian pop star tries on her old school New York rapper shoes and a Southern trap&B upstart adds come-ons via references to Jason Voorhees and The Waterboy. An undeniable pop moment transcending region, genre, time and taste.
A daydreaming player’s addictive apologia to her girlfriends by the chameleonic British pop heroine. The nursery-rhyme toy-synth melody sinks its hooks in instantly. But the all-star beefcake video doubled its punch, with the singer directing a harem of hotties (including Joe Jonas, Ty Dolla Sign, Jack Antonoff and Mac DeMarco) to show their stuff.
A sweaty funk-rock jam that puts a laser focus on Spoon frontman Britt Daniel’s sneering, smoldering sexiness. This delicious dancefloor detour from the Austin rock lifers conjures jittery tension from droning synths, frantic riffs and shrewdly deployed cowbell.
What’s got Win Butler’s goat this time? Everything! He and his Canadian confrères cope with the daily onslaught of bad news by going full ABBA. It’s a perfectly bittersweet pop gem — a “Dancing Queen” for the end of the world.
Tay’s pre-Reputation release singles were all over the place, from the playfully clever “Gorgeous” to the cranky “Look What You Made Me Do,” but this one turned out to capture the vibrant spirit of the album – a stark synth-pop love song about how sometimes all the social media you need is the direct connection between two people.
The New York duo turn in a timeless tale of adolescent confusion: “When I was 16, I dated a boy with my own name/It was weird,” Alex Luciano sings. Then the song bursts into punky exuberance, just the way most teen lows eventually turn into highs, given enough years. It’s a far better song than that other Alex, who sounds like a tool, deserves.
The lyrics are about inertia and ennui – two of Beck’s favorite topics, dating back to “Loser” – but the song is a blissful rush, spiraling up into a spaced-out fantasia with shades of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. A decade or two ago, Beck might have delivered this song with a shrug and a smirk; now he’s confident enough to let its pop beauty stand unruffled.
It says something about this dreary year that one of its defining successes was a numb, drugged-out emo-rap sulkathon centered on the lines “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead.” Then again, Lil Uzi’s insouciant delivery guarantees that you can’t help singing along by the time the chorus hits. As Sinatra once said, that’s llif3!
Michaels is an indispensable Top 40 songwriter – that’s her in the credits of the Selena Gomez song coming up at Number 12. She’s just as dazzling front and center on this breathless ode to an affair that’s much too hot to take it slow. “It’s rare when the panic in my mind feels so damn good,” she gasps. The song’s damn good, too.
Only Drake would look at a tasty tropical fruit and see a metaphor for a girlfriend’s passive aggression. But that’s why we love him: At his best, which includes this wonderfully leisurely R&B/house groove, he makes long-simmering resentment sound sexy. “Passionfruit” might be his coolest, calmest kiss-off ever.
Seven minutes of strangely liberating synth-funk paranoia from the masters of dancing through the bad vibes. LCD leader James Murphy played on David Bowie’s Blackstar last year, and you can hear what that taught him — he sounds like the Thin White Duke’s nervy American cousin, zonked out on the 2017 blues.
Sheeran famously considered giving this one away to Rihanna before deciding to keep it for himself. Smart guy! With its irresistible marimba beat and its unpretentious vision of seduction (which other pop star would cue up Van the Man in the club?), it’s no wonder “Shape of You” was a record-breaking smash.
Stop making sense, indeed. America’s sweetheart bites a New Wave bassline from the Talking Heads and turns it into a fiendishly clever tale of addictive lust. Whether Selena is whispering, cooing or belting it out, she makes every moment of “Bad Liar” prove that this girl’s got her feelings on fire.
A fiendishly catchy song about an instant crush, sung with wild Nordic verve by this onetime Swedish Idol also-ran. “Say my name/Wear it out like a sweater that you love,” Styrke teases just before the playful digital-guitar riff hits. It’s the best pop hook about cozy winterwear since Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song).”
Future Hendrix gets bold as love with his “Percocets/Molly, Percocets” chant, going off about his Rick James chains and pink molly over that eerie jazz-flute loop. The Kendrick remix brings “Mask Off” to a new level as he declares himself the incarnation of Prince and yells, “Get your ass up and be inspired!”
Del Rey’s Cali-goth empire stretches out past the Hollywood sign and deep into the desert of the soul on this darkly lustrous duet with fellow sad-eyed beauty the Weeknd. “We’re having too much fun,” she sings, savoring every second as slow-dissolve girl-group-boom-bap pulls them under.
A long-running bunch of rock dudes from Portland suddenly stumble across pop gold with the year’s slickest and glossiest Motown trip. “Feel It Still” reaches back to the frantic mod sweat of vintage Detroit soul, with the unlikely hook: “Oooo, I’m a rebel just for kicks/I’ve been feeling it since 1966.”
The year’s biggest hit is also one of the year’s best – a seductive reggaeton groove that took the beat of San Juan to Middle America. “Despacito” took over the Number One spot on the charts and refused to let go all summer, becoming your suburban grandmother’s favorite Spanish-language song since “La Bamba.”
The Atlanta crew landed one of the year’s most ubiquitous hits, setting out to reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard. Offset, Quavo and special guest Lil Uzi Vert toast the pleasures of new money over the Metro Boomin bass, switching their flows like clothes and ordering the chicken with blue cheese.
No one does redemption like U2. “I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead,” Bono growls over a gnarly, Stones-y riff from the Edge. It’s a hell of an opening statement, followed closely by a defiant declaration: “I believe my best days are ahead.” Everything that makes this band great is here, from that fighting spirit to the skyhook of a chorus that takes it all home.
How exactly did we get over before we had Cardi B in our lives? The self-proclaimed “strip club Mariah Carey” blew up worldwide with “Bodak Yellow,” announcing her arrival with her raw Bronx flow: “Got a bag and fixed my teeth/Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap.” Cardi doesn’t dance now – she makes money moves, stomping her haters in bloody shoes. Like the lady says, only the real can relate.
The greatest rapper alive goes for the kind of achievement that didn’t seem to interest him until now – a pop hit – and scores his first Number One with a hilariously defiant ode to realness, with a track to match from producer Mike Will Made It. For all the pop finesse, “Humble.” sounds as real as ass with some stretch marks.