Words by Sam Murphy and illustrations by Bianca Bosso.
Maggie Rogers, the artist who captivated Pharrell last year with her tune Alaska, returned this year to capitalise on the viral success and she succeeded with glittery pop track On + Off. It’s the most immediate things she’s ever made, one that encapsulates her folky tones while still taking them to a soaring new place.
Drake’s dancehall effect continued this year as plenty of artists looked to the genre for inspiration but the most successful was J HUS. The young Brit made this year’s most personable song with quick-witted lyrics like, “I’d be a genius, If I didn’t think with my penis.” Somehow he’s found a way to be a genius and think with his penis.
On her new music, Lana Del Rey's combining everything that’s made her successful over her career - Hollywood, romanticism, grandeur, pop and The Weeknd. It all comes together on this sleek, forthright anthem that has Lana demanding, “take of all your clothes.” The Weeknd plays the supporting role well but it’s all about the mystery of Lana here.
Lil Yachty’s Teenage Emotions may have been a little over-stuffed but this jam plucked straight from an ‘80s prom rose above the pack. Yachty’s best when he’s a wild extrovert and he packs this full of so much cheese that it’s impossible not to find joy in it. The saxophone solo would’ve pushed most artists over the edge but at the hands of Yachty, it’s just right.
Pop music is getting serious and complicated which is why Your Song proved to be so refreshing this year. It’s a simple pop tune that places its focus on devourable melody and wins with one of the biggest earworm choruses of the year. Ora oozes personality which is why she can make something so simple, a signature.
Whether you know it or not yet, George Maple is the best popstar we’ve got in this country. She’s got ambition and a sense of grandeur like no other and it all comes together on the pulsating Kryptonite. She tempts you into her world and places you under a spell with her smoky vocals and heart-racing instrumental.
Drake’s More Life was a return to form because he took a step back and let his collaborators help him make the project great. Get It Together succeeds for that very reason. Drizzy plays the supporting role to Jorja Smith’s sleek, seductive performance and in the process make his best club-centric song to date. It’s flavoursome, genuine and exciting.
Middle Kids are the best new band in the country and they came to prove it this year with this gigantic anthem. The trio pack so much emotion into the first verse that it could pop at any minute but they save it for the explosive, raucous chorus that soars like a meteorite. Frontwoman Hannah Joy is wise yet vulnerable and her vocal conducts like a legend that’s been doing it for many more years than she has.
SZA’s growth this year has been nothing short of extraordinary and it’s because she stopped holding back and started to give everything. Drew Barrymore was the first example of that. An anthem where she opened her voice and sang, like really sang. “Warm enough for you outside baby,” she sings, addressing notions of insecurity and identity in a relationship. She remains vulnerable but powerfully in control.
Rihanna is the features Queen this year and she added this soaring moment to Future’s HNDRXX record, the better of the two he’s released this year. Selfish took us back to Pluto Future with the rapper ditching his hard trap style for something emotional and soaring. It explores the best facets of both’s vocals but RiRi’s performance is exemplary.
We knew Jack River had potential the minute we saw her live but we didn't think she'd be fulfilling that potential so quickly. Fool's Gold is the best local pop track of the year. It's a shimmering marvel that draws you in with its tempting guitar plucks and keeps you there with that elongated, magical voice. She keeps you guessing in the verses but she totally lets loose in the chorus, holding nothing back and that's the sort of ambition we love to see in a young artist.
She may have been flanked by DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller but this is Rihanna’s moment. She oozes sex appeal over an otherwise blank canvas beat, making this the most seductive tune to come out this year. The Maria Maria sample may sizzle but nothing comes close to RiRi uttering, “I know you wanna see me nakey, nakey, nakey,” with that raspy voice.
After four years, HAIM needed a strong return and one way to do that is to come in with the vocal within the first second of the song. As soon as Danielle Haim’s vocals flood from the speakers you know it’s HAIM-time once again. Then everything else starts falling into place. The funky bass, the groovy percussion, those trademark harmonies. It’s a confident extension of their sound that adds to the formula without tampering and it’s a total winner.
If you want an indication of just how good Carly Rae Jepsen’s E.MO.TION was, remind yourself that Cut To The Feeling was left off it. This is an offcut and yet Jeppo’s scraped it from the cutting room floor and turned it into one of 2017’s glorious, most unabashed pop moments. It bleeds euphoria and consistently feels like the sun is shining out of every angle of it and that’s the kind of Jeppo moment we want.
Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory may essentially be an electronic record but its title track is one of his more meaty hip-hop moments. The mumbling, wobbling beat that hovers in the background of the verses emerges from the shadows to give us that hard chorus and then tucks itself away again when it comes time for Staples to spit bars. And he takes his moment to drop incredible one-liners like, “Compensation conversations is what I’m about.”
“All that I want is to wake up fine, tell me that I’m alright, that I ain’t gonna die,” is not exactly the first line we expected from the sunny instrumental that opens Hard Times but it’s that juxtaposition that makes this such a success. Paramore are dancing while the world is crumbling around them. Throwing their hands up and saying, “fuck it,” and somehow that amounts to the most liberating pop track of the year.
Sigrid came out of nowhere with Don’t Kill My Vibe, launching her entire career off the strength of one song. You’ve gotta be very confident in the song, if you’re going to introduce yourself that way and thankfully Don’t Kill My Vibe is one of 2017’s golden moments. It’s a fragile, exposed song that builds strength, marching towards a chorus that could fight off an army. A fight that would ultimately be won by Sigrid’s soaring, powerful voice.
Selfish, Draco or Comin’ Out Strong would’ve been the more obvious hits off Future’s two 2017 albums but instead Mask Off rose to the top of the crop. Metro Boomin’s flute-starring beat has a lot to do with it but it’s Future’s short, sharp delivery that keeps it pacing along. It’s a lesson to Future that he doesn’t need to aim for a commercial aesthetic to create hits. When he’s on his game with what he does best, he sets the bar.
It took so much pain and longing to get Blonde that most of us had settled in for another four year without Frank. The elusive singer had other plans though, debuting Chanel on his radio show and playing it on repeat for an hour. Over that hour the song revealed itself, exposing hidden melodies with each listen and placing emphasis on beautifully vivid lines like, “freeze smoke rings.” This is Frank at his most exposed - a masterclass in creating something that appears simple but actually has layer upon layer of complexity.
Kendrick has never been so melodic and simultaneously personal as he is on ELEMENT. He manages to address family struggle and take shots at fellow rappers all while creating something that’s sonically his sexiest song ever. Just when you think he’s settled in to ride the melodic wave though he breaks it down and raps, “most of y’all ain’t real.” Never get complacent around K.Dot. He may be making radio tracks on DAMN. but they’ve got more depth than most’s deepest cuts.
Charli XCX’s rogue Number 1 Angel mixtape was full of severely underrated pop gold but even among those songs, Pull Up (3am) shone bright. It’s a perky, PC Music club jam but it’s driven by Charli XCX’s emotional top line. She holds nothing back here even telling her ex to, “go fuck yourself,” in the final chorus. Nothing’s censored and that’s when Charli’s at her best. She’s undoubtedly one of the best pop writers in music.
SZA’s Drew Barrymore may have marked her arrival but Love Galore solidified her position as one of 2017’s greats. She so beautifully weaves her vocals around this sleek beat, remaining vulnerable while she also grabs control. She takes her time and rolls out one of the sleekest and most seductive vocal delivery of the year. There was no room for Scott to deliver a lazy, phoned-in verse, it just wouldn’t have been believable. Instead, he rises to the occasion delivering one of his rawest verses in recent memory.
When Calvin Harris first teased a Frank Ocean collab on Snapchat, it didn’t seem believable. How could an EDM giant convince one of music’s most defiant, unpersuasive artists to jump on his song? Little did we know, it was the start of a new Harris. A funkier, more organic producer that managed to create this slippery, effortless West Coast beat. Frank took that and gave a vocal so natural that it’s as if the words fell out of his mouth the first time he heard it. “Do you slide on all your nights like this?” Frank asks, creating this simultaneously melancholic and neon-lit atmosphere that just feels so right. Getting Migos on it at the peak of their career was a choice move too.
This one was not one for repeat listens this year. It’s not made for it. It’s so emotionally weighty and profound that one listen is enough to cut straight to the heart. Sampha’s beautiful ode to his late mother is not just a tribute. It’s a vivid tapestry that pieces together his childhood with his present and connects it to his relationship with music. He finds solace in the piano and that’s essentially what makes this song comforting rather than devastating. It’s such a touching, careful moment and one that only Sampha’s supremely soulful voice could’ve constructed.
A piano line borrowed from ABBA, a pan flute, sweeping orchestrals. What the fuck happened to Arcade Fire? They started to dance on Reflektor but Everything Now is another level. It’s their most unapologetic pop moment yet and it’s bloody glorious. They hold nothing back on their journey to euphoria and it’s that freedom to go as big as they want sonically that makes it so exciting. It’s still weighted by Win Butler’s emotional delivery of line like, “Daddy, how come you’re never around?” and that connects it to their earlier work enough that old fans aren’t alienated.
It takes a lot to stare a camera straight in the face and sing, “you think you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar.” It’s so honest that it almost doesn’t feel right. Melodically, it’s jarring and on the first listen it just doesn’t feel right. By the fifth or sixth listen though, you could feel Lorde’s genius. It raced like a beating heart, cut straight to the emotional point without metaphor, exploded with the feeling of letting go of a relationship. It’s so vivid that you can place Lorde in every part of the song, hanging out of the uber and dancing through the streets of New York. At the end it releases so much pent-up energy that you can’t help but feel like dancing breathlessly, celebrating letting go, even if just for a night.
The xx have always had a very honest, forthright approach to songwriting so it was a risk to expand their soundscape. They could have diluted their genuity and washed-out their personalities in the process. Say Something Loving proved they could tackle something grander and keep that glass-thin fragility. Romy and Oliver trade verses like only lifelong friends could and gently lead us towards a chorus that bleeds emotion and dazzles with tender harmonies. It’s a spectacular masterpiece that allows The xx greater ambition and ultimately a bigger legacy.
Stormzy’s return had to be alarming. There was always something alarming about his freestyles and Big For Your Boots expands on that. It explodes with a shuffling grime beat, choral samples and actual alarms that are tackled by Stormzy’s cocky, fast-paced delivery. This isn’t about Stormzy being egotistical though, it’s about telling everyone else to get off their high horse. Telling them they’re not too big, too cool or too good for anything. Just when it feels like Stormzy may be getting too big for his boots, he ensures he comes down to a relatable level telling us, “you’re never too big for Adele.” It’s these details that make Stormz both dangerous with words and extremely likeable.
No one could’ve predicted that Kendrick would follow-up his most complex projects with a Mike Will Made-It produced track, destined to take over the airwaves. HUMBLE is a giant. One of those songs that feels like it could shake the earth. Kendrick has always been a social and autobiographical but he's never had a selfish moment. One that explicitly aims for the throne and allows him to puff his chest momentarily. HUMBLE isn't as shallow as that but it is his throne-snatching moment. It's a hearty warning that no one's raps are more intelligent, quick-witted or loaded than K.Dot's. The work-of-art video is just the cherry on top.
Songwriters so often consider the big picture without looking at the smaller, overlooked details that make up our thoughts about the world and more specifically, our personalities. For Lorde, nothing is off limits when it comes to analysing. Nothing's too young or too dumb and as a result, she's managed to make a song that makes grand realisations about her place in the world by depicting the euphoria and the comedown of a party. She throws back drinks, flails her arms, finding her happy place but she also pinpoints the exact moment where she realises this is temporary. The best part about perfect places is that it doesn't find sadness in its findings. Instead, she reassures that it's ok to be searching. "What the fuck are perfect places anyway," she sings at the end, voice quivering. It's as if the music has gone quiet as everyone is collapsed on the floor, left to deal with the harsh light of day. The imagery in this song is supreme and the fact that she's made a song that makes you want to get drunk but also consider life at large is wickedly wonderful.
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