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.