It’s that time again…
This took FOREVER. OK, it actually took about 8 hours spread across 2 separate days, but still, that’s ridiculous, right? Normally when I put together these Top 50 Songs of [x year] lists, I’m done by, at most, the 2-hour mark. I have a rough idea of what’s actually going in and where, the initial shortlist – where I delete the no-hopers and largely-forgotten ones from the field, and pare down an artist’s output for the year to that one killer song as per my rules (repeating via feature spots is allowed) – leaves me with about 70 serious hopefuls, and once the 50 are all in play, I can usually tell very quickly which songs deserve to outrank others and where their climbs halt. But this year? That initial shortlist was 110! I was cutting songs I thought were my genuine Bestest Favourites in sheer agony before that number even sniffed 70! I had to cut tracks by MUNA, Marika Hackman, PVRIS, Bully, frickin’ They Might Be Giants in order to get this list down to 50! You could make an almost-equally as strong list from the “Nearly” pile as the list itself!
Then again, that’s fitting because, although 2017 was just The Worst in almost every other respect, it has been an outstanding year for music. Almost every week, something truly special was gifted to us music devotees. Groundbreaking genre experiments, dramatic reinventions, career-defining statements, long-awaited returns, attention-grabbing debuts, heartbreaking maturity, riotous dumb fun. Some by expected stalwarts, others just getting started, and others still coming out of nowhere with music nobody would have thought them capable of. There was so much music in 2017 that I can’t even joke about my list somehow being more definitive and meaningful than everyone else’s. Even more so than list year’s list (which I notoriously re-drafted 6 months later due to my dissatisfaction with it), this is a list I will likely be criticising myself heavily about within even a fortnight’s time. It is a snapshot in time, of my year in music, and is it already too late to put MUNA back on the list? It is? Well, poo. Here’s a reminder of the previous year’s winners before we dig in.
2011: Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
2016: David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
Let’s do this before I change my mind any further. Today, we’ll cover #50 to #31; tomorrow, #30 to #11, and then the Top 10 after that. There’ll also be a nice Spotify playlist at the end of it all containing all but one of the 50 tracks so you can consider your New Year’s Eve party playlists sorted.
“Arisen My Senses”
I need more time with Utopia. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved all three listens I’ve been able to have of it so far, but there is so much to it, and so many individual tracks that float along in the ether untied by apparent melody or structure, that I need more time than the fortnight I have had to be able to properly dig into its many pleasures. But with that said, “Arisen My Senses” is the exact opener that an album like this needed; exploding out of the speakers with an overwhelming immediacy of pure wonder and joy and discovery. It forcibly grabs the attention in a paradoxically gentle way, every crash and every harp glide filling out the opening of the album’s world ever greater, ever more inviting, and is as firm a break from Vulnicura as possible. A few more months, this is almost definitely higher (and maybe not even “Arisen My Senses”), but it still made it onto the list at all, which is no small feat.
BROCKHAMPTON had a hell of a year. They dropped the conclusion of their SATURATION trilogy only 3 days ago – see, people aren’t even slowing down in December, this year, good lord – and have become the name to watch in the Underground Hip Hop scene as a result of sheer proliferation, clear control of image (they’re a self-styled boy band), and shockingly consistent quality in spite of both of those things. And when narrowing it down to just the one entry for this list, I had to go with the track that brought me to the party. “JUNKY” most puts me in mind of Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” in the explicitly Horrorcore framework rooted in both societal paranoia and drug-induced frenzies, and the constantly ascending yet off-key synth line that pulls the song along. Every member comes to play, with not a weak verse between any of them, although Kevin Abstract still stands above the rest; his spitting about his bisexuality carrying additional power from sheer force of delivery.
48] Confidence Man
“Better Sit Down Boy”
I once introduced a friend to The Go! Team (an act appearing later in this list) and their positive response to them was encapsulated by the observation “I like Jet Set Radio as well.” That has been the best descriptor I’ve been able to come up with in order to explain my love of up-and-coming Australian pop(?) band Confidence Man. The clattering tumble of the guitar, the forward-motion of the drums and percussion, the sassy simplistic lyrics that carry almost no meaning but add texture to the track, the cheese that’s also cool for that exact reason. I guess I can also find elements of Le Tigre to “Better Sit Down Boy,” but I honestly haven’t heard much else like this before, outside of how I remember the Jet Set Radio soundtrack to be. It’s ace, either way.
47] Cherri V
“Leave Me Be”
Sometimes, and it is only sometimes, scanning through music video stations on the tellybox (like somebody who has yet to properly move out of 2005) can result in a genuine discovery, when the channel takes a chance on an unestablished artist and plays something of theirs to little fanfare yet instantly grabs the attention. Such is how I came across “Leave Me Be,” an airy, slightly dreamy ode to wanting to be left the hell alone. Cherri’s voice sits at a weird intersection between human, helium, and artificial, yet the effect is engrossing, and that direct chorus is earwormy in the best possible way.
46] Aimee Mann
“Good for Me”
I am fairly certain that “Good for Me” is the most Aimee Mann song to ever Aimee Mann, on the most Aimee Mann album to ever Aimee Mann its way into a record store near you. Scientists have determined this to be fact after extensive testing. Fortunately, I happen to like me some Aimee Mann, and whilst it would be impossible to pen a song that encapsulates or parodies her music more than this one, it works. It works spectacularly, even, because it’s also restrained in the way that Mann has always understood – other artists would overegg the strings or multi-track an additional few harmonies, but Mann uses them sparely to accentuate rather than dominate – and her lyrics are as brilliantly vivid and poetic as ever.
The Underside of Power
Like almost everything else on The Underside of Power, “Cleveland” monstrously kicks down doors, walls, and all potential boundaries between itself and the listener with a violent intensity and a palpable rage. It’s gospel music for today’s end of the world, bringing forth a sonic reckoning for centuries of injustice against black folk at the hands of an institutionally racist society. Every drum strike (courtesy of ex-Bloc Party secret weapon Matt Tong) is one of supreme force, vocalist Franklin James Fisher yells like his very life depends upon doing so, and the Rev James Cleveland sample has been twisted to menacing effect. But it’s the breakdown, where Fisher reels off a list of black prisoners suspiciously found hanged in their cells whilst awaiting trial as a choir punctuates each name with a defiant “WE’RE COMING BACK,” that truly makes the song. That hope, that something might change, that these people haven’t been forgotten.
44] Death From Above
Outrage! Is Now
“Trainwreck 1979” was the first taste that the world got of a reunited Death From Above (before they needlessly dropped the 1979 from their name) back in 2014, and it threw most for a loop. It sounded positively… poppy. Radio-ready, even. It’s a good song, but was it really befitting the band we last heard dropping “Pull Out” and “Sexy Results” all those years ago? There was even actual piano, for god’s sake! “Freeze Me,” the duo’s return now seemingly being a regular ongoing concern, is effectively a do-over of The Physical World’s lead single, except that it’s faster, more aggressive, and even has one of Jesse Keeler’s tight bass solos in the middle. Now it’s both a great song, AND a recognisably Death From Above song too!
Nothing Feels Natural
In a piece of complete accidental synergy, Priests’ debut album, Nothing Feels Natural, actually reminds me somewhat of Death From Above’s own debut, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. Both are fast, furious, short, sharp blasts of punk that are weirdly danceable and end with a full-on groovy dance track that gradually fades out, leaving the album on a sort of ellipses. The similarities don’t go much further than that – Priests are more politically-minded, less misogynistic, and more indebted to the punk scene of Sandinista!-era Clash – but “Suck” feels like an instant classic in the land of debut closers just like “Sexy Results” did. Direct yet witty lyrics about trying to shut up self-involved White boys, interlocking staccato guitars, and even a saxophone turning up to play along to the vocal melody!
42] Calvin Harris
“Feels (Feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry & Big Sean)”
Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
Earlier this year, 50 Cent wasted a golden burn on a completely undeserving target. Why, in the name of sick putdowns, would you label Jay-Z’s 4:44 as “golf course music” when Calvin Harris’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 was RIGHT THERE?! Harris’s drastic reinvention from the now-dead EDM scene to the no-stakes Hip Hop posse cut scene that dominated 2017’s pop charts was a snooze-inducing bore, when it wasn’t being outright embarrassing. And yet, here’s “Feels,” a song that had the absolute stupidest chorus of the year until WALK THE MOON came along, saddled with a corny Big Sean verse (also known as A Big Sean Verse), and without any kind of ending to speak of. But, even with those charges (and also arguably because of them), this grew on me. Really grew on me, particularly since I could feel the sun rays radiating off of it, and since when has dumbness necessarily been a fundamentally negative trait in pop music anyway?
41] Hey Ocean!
We’re gonna have to wait a little longer for the first new Hey Ocean! album since 2011’s sublime IS, but the three songs that Ashleigh Ball, David Beckingham, and David Vertesi have released from it up to now have been wonderful slices of glossy, earnest Indie Pop. Best of all is “Amsterdam,” a song that swims in shimmering synthesisers, multi-tracked harmonies, and a rushing chorus of emotional honesty, as Ball attempts to stop a friend from brushing off the consequences of a drug-fuelled passionate love confession. It feels like a relative of the latest incarnation of Paramore, except for the passion of love rather than the heartbreak of depression, and it bodes well for the new album that NEEDS A RELEASE DATE ALREADY, COME ON!
40] Mac DeMarco
“Moonlight on the River”
This Old Dog
“Moonlight on the River” is about Mac’s father, him dealing with the emotional scars of his father skipping out on him and his mother at a young age, and the difficulty of reconciling how to feel about the man he never truly knew yet has reconnected with as he dies of cancer. I instead relate to it as a hazy, uncertain mediation about the encroachment of death, of friends lost to time and space. See, I first heard it very recently, in the aftermath of a friend’s funeral, and the general sentiment of the mood, both lyrically and instrumentally, just fit my post-immediate-grieving response that the bitterness in the song doesn’t even register to me. How could it when that outro guitar is carrying me away to melancholy places? Everybody dies.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin describing Black Origami. Like, I know what the inspirations and influences are – spiritual, mostly, polyrhythmic tribal music from way back in the history of black ancestry, as filtered through skittish electronic instrumentation of the modern day – but I don’t feel in any way remotely qualified to adequately talk about it. What I know that I can say for certain is that this album is outstanding and impossible to not listen intently to. The music is too deliberately difficult and off-beat to treat as mere background noise, with “Holy Child” being one of the bravura examples of how Jlin makes so very little ring with such purpose.
38] Queens of the Stone Age
“The Way You Used To Do”
One could be very tempted to claim indoctrination as the simple reason why I eventually came around to this one. “The Way You Used To Do” locks into that groove immediately and barely deviates meaningfully from it for the remaining 4 minutes and 20-odd seconds that it runs for, so that riff eventually overtakes everything, particularly since Mark Ronson’s production is intentionally vacuum-sealed. Do-do-dodo/do-do-dododo/balam-bala-bambam/balam-bala-bambam; over and over again for all time and it just won’t leave my head, it won’t LEAVE! But you know what? It’s a killer riff, and the boogie is strong, and Queens of the Stone Age are damn great at writing fuckjams when they want to, so consider that initial “eh” the result of not having fully moved on from …Like Clockwork just yet. It took me an age to come around to that masterpiece, after all.
Good lord, this bloody year… You know how relentless this year was? Jamiroquai released their best album in 15 years and everybody completely forgot about them within a week of that fact! That’s a damn shame, because Jamiroquai are ace and, despite the fake-out of the title track, Automaton saw them minimising the synths and getting back to the funk, clearly somewhat motivated by Random Access Memories’ world-conquering in 2013. “Cloud 9” is so smooth, so goddamn smooth, with the bounce, warmth, chorus, and pristine shine of a song 30/40 years its senior. Jay K is still the funkiest White man in music, the band are as tight as ever, and I could groove to this thing all night long. Please don’t go away for another 7 years again. And also maybe don’t charge £70 per-standing ticket on your next tour.
“Lemon (Feat. Rihanna)”
No_One Ever Really Dies
Pharrell is not a great rapper. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he’s basically competent and little more. He’s mad corny, his voice is often too nasally, and his flow can occasionally suffer out of a misguided desire to show off. But it turns out that there is a surprising solution to this problem, one so ingenious that I am furious nobody thought of it until now: put his lines in the mouth of Rihanna. Behold, instant classic! Seriously, Rih goes IN on this, and the second that the beat switches and she drops, “Lemon” is elevated about 47 levels. Pharrell holds his own, to give him his due, and the beat is a wonderful throwback to The Neptunes’ heyday, but quite frankly it’s hearing her spit the words “It’s Rihanna, nigga” that gives me the most life when listening to this. 2017: the year we discovered that Rihanna needs to drop a goddamn rap mixtape right the hell now.
Try Not to Freak Out
The first of the threepeater club to appear on this year’s list (they won’t be the last), Sløtface have cornered the market in Punk Pop that’s both a tonne of fun and socially aware by this point. “Pitted” leans more on the fun side of that equation – much of their long-gestating yet of-the-moment debut album does too, honestly – but what sets it apart is vocalist Haley Shea’s lyrics. It’s not just that she’s detailing a wild night out, it’s the detail and simultaneous abandon & embarrassment of what’s happening in her lyricism. “Playing Marry, Fuck, Kill with every actor who has ever played James Bond.” “Doing our Hotline Bling thing/God, it’s embarrassing/God, we’re embarrassing.” “There’s that one song on/I hope for Queen B/But I can fake it to Bohemian Rhapsody.” It all adds to the picture of the piece without sacrificing the pace, the rhythm, or basic structural competence, which is something a lot of other musicians could learn from.
34] Broken Social Scene
Hug of Thunder
“Halfway Home” abuses its chorus like the Loading Ready Run crew do their Random Dance Party button during Desert Bus for Hope streams. Pretty much any time that the energy seems to sag for even a second, in comes that chorus again, soaring along on that trademark dense yet non-muddy production that Broken Social Scene pioneered in the early-00s Indie Rock scene. It feels more like a hug than the album’s actual title track, which is befitting a song that is effectively a total encapsulation of a Broken Social Scene song. In a way, one could argue that makes it one of the lesser songs on Hug of Thunder, particularly since the rest of the album has them engaging with the current world landscape and shifting their sonics to something more anxious, but there really is something warm and comforting about the proper re-introduction after 7 years being exactly what one would have expected.
33] At the Drive-In
Much of At the Drive-In’s comeback record disappointed for almost exactly the reasons one would expect it to: these are not the guys who made Relationship of Command 17 years ago and, no matter how hard they tried, they weren’t going to recapture that specific spirit, energy, and venom after a decade spent slogging through Mars Volta albums. But for 3 and a half minutes, it almost seemed like they could. On “Incurably Innocent,” the punishing momentum, palpable anger, and pained desire to be heard that once upon a brief time made At the Drive-In one of the most exciting bands in the world return with a furious vengeance, with Cedric Bixler-Zavala even curbing the obtuse word association process he utilised for the rest of the record instead of writing actual lyrics, in order to yell out a powerful ode to survivors of sexual assault (specifically his wife’s own). For 3 and a half minutes, it’s like The Mars Volta never happened, and we’ll always have those 3 and a half glorious minutes.
32] Jorja Smith
“On My Mind (Jorja Smith x Preditah)”
We’ve been due a genuine Garage revival here in the British music scene for something like half a decade now – Disclosure were initially going to do it until everybody realised they make Deep House (and later R&B), Craig David made a surprising comeback last year but has now resorted to making personality-free Pop R&B… At this point, it’s probably just not going to happen, which seems mad to me when a Garage revival would also give us undeniable Pop bangers like “On My Mind.” Jorja Smith got that most glamourous of advertising slots this year, in the form of prominent guest appearances on another overlong snoozefest of a Drake record, but she’s determined to show those hooked from there a better way, as “On My Mind” skates along a super-cool beat and surprisingly low-key chorus and vocal turn that only ends up more of an earworm for that exact reason. Here’s hoping that attention holds; she deserves to be more than the next WizKid.
31] Charli XCX
It’s just so frickin’ happy, isn’t it? Seriously, if your heart doesn’t skip in joy at every instance of that Mario coin jingle – I don’t care if it’s a direct sample or not, that’s what it sounds like to me – then I am very concerned for your mental wellbeing. It’s simple, direct, unfussy, and honestly quite funny, just like the rest of the song itself. “Boys” is as basic as Pop music can get, and that’s exactly why it works so well. Well, that and Charli herself. “Boys” is the first single of hers that she had no hand in writing, and yet she is still vital to its charm. The playfulness of her delivery, the understated wink at every mention of the titular word, and of course (whilst not relevant to its placement on the list) that video. I’d question how on earth this failed to make a dent in any of the major singles charts, but the world at large has proven time and again that it does not deserve Charli XCX. Ah, well. We Angels can have her all to ourselves.
Tomorrow, we shall pick back up with #30 to #11.
Callum Petch wishes he had a better excuse.