During this period of time when everyone, in their own ways, reflects on the year that was 2017, I aim to do my part by partaking in that most noble of pastimes: Having (bad) opinions about the United States of America’s tastes in pop music.
If you’re looking for an underlying mission statement about The State of Mainstream Pop for the year, I’m not sure there’s much I could really offer. Truthfully speaking, with the likes of Spotify and YouTube being my main means of engagement with music as a whole this year, I don’t really have a pop music experience that’s distinct from everything else that I listen to; it all more or less blends together into a single, ginormous, amorphous shuffle playlist. Queens of the Stone Age mingles with Ke$ha, Lil Uzi Vert shares space alongside Snail’s House, and so on and so forth.
Taking into account the stuff I heard that did happen to hit the 2017 Billboard charts, however, I can at least say this: 2017's pop music does seem to be an improvement over 2016's pop music. At the end of that year—widely derided as just a bad year for pop—when making a top ten list as part of an effort that never materialized as a video, article, or something else, I struggled to even come up with ten sufficiently good to great songs; a couple of them weren’t even actually hits. This year, however, there were options aplenty! And I think I came up with a pretty good list from what was on offer.
Now, I claim zero objectivity and no pretense of scientific rigor for how this top 10 list pans out. All of my selections, how they have been ranked, and my reasons for why they are there are 100 percent based on my own opinions and musical preferences. However amount of weight you give my choices, please keep all of that in mind, along with that I not only don’t expect agreement, but guarantee that you will disagree at least a little.
Before diving in, here are my ground rules for what constitutes a “hit song of 2017.” Most importantly and concretely, it must have shown up on Billboard’s weekly Hot 100 charts at least once in 2017 to count. On a more subjective, less concrete note, it needed to have first been on my radar in 2017, so for example, if I first heard of it during the previous year, I did not count it as a 2017 hit song.
Additionally, for the sake of getting a broad range of songs, I instituted a one song per artist limit on this list. Precisely what song that may be for any given artist was chosen at solely my own discretion.
So with all of that fully laid out, Justin hereby presents...
#10. French Montana feat. Swae Lee - “Unforgettable”
Sure, technically speaking, it’s a French Montana with a melodic hook assist by one of the two dudes from Rae Sremmurd. But the artist credits might as well be flipped, because Swae Lee’s hook is far longer than either of French Montana’s verses. Maybe that would be a knock against most songs, but not so here; the trippy autotune-reverb vocals utterly own, and the rap verses largely staying out of their way, with just the occasional “Wicked Games” reference sprinkled in, is arguably for the best.
None of that even gets to the true star of “Unforgettable”: That marvel of a beat. It’s hollowed-out, digitally cavernous monolith that splices tropical house to a blippy reggaeton rhythm. Yet despite those traditionally sun-soaked genres being at play, and even with an additional assist from the steel drums, this is dark-room music to the bone.
With all of that taken together, this was one of the weirder and more unique songs that hit the charts.
#9. The Revivalists - “Wish I Knew You”
Its basic setup—a throwback potpourri of 90's hit alt-rock moves, strongest with those electric organs, with a subtle spaghetti western bent—is rather straightforward, and quite pleasant on its own. What then takes it beyond nostalgic curiosity and makes this a potent song is the mixture of those vibes with a “Staying Alive”/”More Than A Woman” Bee Gees drum beat and KC and the Sunshine Band-style lite funk staccato guitars and horns.
It’s an unconventional match for sure, but also seamless. The 70's touches aren’t about adding boogie to the proceedings. Rather, it seems to be the smoothness of groove from that particular strain of disco that The Revivalists are after. They chose well; 90's alternative is no stranger to the occasional disco influence, but none of those songs were ever smooth as hell like “Wish I Knew You” manages.
#8. Childish Gambino - “Redbone”
The sound of time folding in on itself—the past and the thoroughly modern Internet-age present—all at once, in a single moment: An act of self-vaporwavization against its own old-school R&B pastiche. How else to explain why the beat sounds like it’s been pitched down? Yet with Donald Glover’s singing then sounding like it’s been pitched up towards unrecognizability? Despite apparently no pitch-shifting whatsoever being performed anywhere?
All of which is pretentious-speak, I suppose, for “Redbone sounds weird as hell, but I sure dig it!!” It also has the nerve to conclude with over a minute and a half of looping guitar riff harmonies—not a solo, a riff—which is the canonical ending of the song and any radio edit that cuts it off is not to be trusted. How the hell did this crack the Top 40?? And can we make something like that happen again, please?
#7. Taylor Swift - “...Ready For It?”
Taylor Swift’s deal with the devil—exchanging musical domination based on lyrical prowess with musical domination based on persona and attitude, dovetailing with the gradual move from country-pop to purer pop—kicked off back in the “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” days of 2012, appears to have been finalized once and for all. Was it worth it?
Well, it’s plagued us with “Show Me Your Peaches Impression, T-Swif! (Said No One Ever)”, so consider that to be one big mark for NO. But given enough time, things often have a tendency to balance out, i.e. it’s not unreasonable that the same impulses responsible for “Look What You Made Me Do” can also breed a slab of sheer ridiculous awesome that could not have been delivered before this year.
Through its deranged pursuit of synth distortion-fueled sonic maximalism, “...Ready For It?” is a convincing Western-made K-Pop banger. Fifth Harmony had been teasing us with the prospect of such a thing for the past couple of years, yet it was Taylor “Teardrops On My Guitar” Swift, of all people, who could finally deliver the goods in earnest. Repeat after me: “Are you ready for it BRRRM. BRRRM. BRRRM.”
#6. Lil Uzi Vert - “XO Tour Llif3"
Turn-of-the-millennium rap beats were often dinky MIDI-fests. But praise be the lord, since then, producers everywhere learned how to use synthesizers, and now the beats are leagues better than they used to be. That does, however, also come with unintended and not entirely positive consequences. Case in point: mumble rap, a whole genre about being meandering and incomprehensible and only being able to potentially get away with it on the sole account of a quality backing track.
That is, arguably, a practically wholesale betrayal of the entire rap ethos, where living or dying on the basis of the rhymes is supposed to be the whole damn point. From that angle, Lil Uzi Vert, as one of the more exceptionally mumble-tastic, meandering, and incomprehensible rappers in this group, might be among the most offensive. Yet despite all that, through a somewhat similar tack to ILoveMakonnen, I think there’s something good to him.
Rather than the strengths of a skilled cipher, his appeal lies more with an arsenal of multiple vocal inflections, autotune-assisted musicality, and brain-melting beats that congeal into psychedelic tone poems. “XO Tour Llif3" is the definitive case for those merits. That killer music box-inflected beat combined with Lil Uzi Vert emoting his pants off leaves behind one hell of an impression, an aural funhouse mirror room fever dream that encapsulates the insanity of life in 2017 better than most coherent prose could ever manage.
#5. Kendrick Lamar feat. Rihanna - “LOYALTY.”
There is a litany of good singles from DAMN.—“HUMBLE.” and “LOVE.” chief among them—but this one gets the honor of beating out everything else via the one-song-per-artist rule because it’s the most killer driving song. I was out in southern California on a business trip a few months ago, rental car included, but because what they gave me didn’t have Bluetooth functionality, I was stuck with FM radio for the week. That meant, in large part, turning to rap stations in the area, which ended up being one of my first constant exposures to rap as a whole in a long, long time.
Much of it was a constant stream of “Bodak Yellow” and Post Malone’s “Congratulations”, but they also absolutely love Kendrick Lamar. Which makes sense, considering how arguably this era’s most esteemed and successful rapper of the current era is one of Compton’s own. And so part of my stay in the LA area involved copious amounts of “LOYALTY.” Before then, I didn’t have much interest in it, but being a captive audience forced me to acknowledge the error of my ways.
The sample used here is so unrecognizably mangled, that until hearing it with headphones for the sake of writing about the track literally right now, I thought they were some messed-up bagpipes. It’s ridiculous yet awesome. Kendrick stretches his potent skills for the occasion, pulling out an effortless double-time flow oscillating between pure rapping and a singsong flow. Also, much respect to Rihanna, who really delivers on her end of the effort as well, not merely content with handling a sung hook, but actually trading lines with Kendrick throughout without breaking a sweat.
#4. Portugal. The Man - “Feel It Still”
You know what this song reminds me of? Like, heavily reminds me of? The DJ Shadow and Run The Jewels joint “Nobody Speak”, which perhaps might be surprising on paper, but is actually close to obnoxiously obvious once heard side by side, given how they re-purpose 60's sounds in similar ways.
And I’m quite partial to “Nobody Speak”, so maybe that’s one reason why “Feel It Still” would naturally just click in my mind. I think there’s more to it, however. In both sound and tone, for music in general this year but particularly among other hit songs, this is one of the lightest tracks around, and unquestionably the lightest dance track. May all other follow-ups to “Happy” that we ever receive be as gosh-darned dapper as this one.
#3. Bruno Mars - “Versace On The Floor”
To this day even still, one of the most shocking jumps in quality was Bruno Mars suddenly going from mawkish and asinine dreck like “Grenade” or “The Lazy Song” whose showstopping vocal chops deserved better, to materializing as a swaggering, scarily competent, Las Vegas showman-ass copycat once “Locked Out Of Heaven” hit. That’s been his entire shtick ever since, but goddamn does he make it work; he has been one of the most consistent purveyors of good hit songs for a while now.
After all, a copycat Bruno Mars may be indeed, but he is a copycat with remarkable range. So it follows that when he decides to tackle parts of the 80's legacy that are vastly underrepresented in the current nostalgic rose-tinted view of that decade—electric piano-drenched and drum machine-heavy R&B ballads—he knocks it out of the park.
I am a total sucker for cheesy kitsch of the caliber that those e-pianos are at, plus holy shit do they also sound absolutely gorgeous, especially when placed alongside that patently artificial drum machine. “Versace On The Floor” is additionally yet another example of Bruno’s knack for absolutely selling a song through his performance, giving it all of the horny earnestness it requires. Even when the conclusion goes oh so slightly over the hilarious edge of ridiculous.
#2. Drake - “Passionfruit”
I’ve never really been a Drake fan, and he’s gotten especially stale in the past few years, but I sure do respect what he’s accomplished in his career. He is a strong argument for how one’s artistic limitations don’t have to kneecap their ability to make good art if they know how to work within them and properly leverage whatever good skills they do have. Frankly, he is not a wellspring of raw talent. A decent but limited rapper, a decent but limited singer, and that’s about it.
The two things that he seems to actually excel at, if anything, are being highly self-aware of what he can and cannot do, and having impeccable taste in music. Usher, talented as shit, sprung Justin Bieber onto us; when Drake does something comparable, he turns everybody onto The Weeknd. And I am being genuine here, that ain’t nothing! It feeds into a sharp ear for good-ass beats, and when put to use, that concretely benefits one’s musical output. At Drake’s best, when his creative faculties are firing on all cylinders, he’s able to pick out choice pieces of music that effectively complement his particular rapper/singer skill set.
It’s been a long while since he put that to full use, though. Until, that is, “Passionfruit”, easily his best song in years. I’ve always preferred his singing performances (e.g “Find Your Love”, “Tuesday” with ILoveMakonnen) over his raps, and staying within the comfortable part of his range gives this one an especially laidback vibe. It’s exactly what’s called for, given this precious gem of a nocturnal 4am after-hours club beat. I can personally attest to this being a perfect song for a nighttime drive, and as an added bonus, it’s also fun as hell to sing along to.
And what do you know! This all came about because Drake was digging the prior work of UK-centric producer Nana Rogues, and that eventually led to him being tapped to produce “Passionfruit”. Once again, don’t underestimate the strength of having a good ear for music.
Nine songs listed, one more—the choice for standout hit of the year—to go. Before that, time to indulge in an overview of everything else that did not make the list proper!
Cardi B - “Bodak Yellow”: Annoyed me on first listen, majorly grew on me after repeated exposure on rap radio in California, then felt overexposed to it shortly after. Can’t make a Top Ten that way, unfortunately. That beat is fire, though, and Cardi B’s delivery has verve to spare; each “lil bitch” she pops off sounds especially delicious.
Halsey - “Now Or Never”: Her half-raspy voice matches well with quite the good dark, minimal trap beat.
The Chainsmokers feat. Coldplay - “Something Just Like This”: Easily the Chainsmokers’ warmest, most charming tune. About 10 percent on account of an actually decent drop, but mostly because of Chris Martin’s performance.
Katy Perry feat. Migos - “Bon Appétit”: The dance beat, chock full of propulsive synth chord stabs, is fantastic. Everything else in the song is a letdown in comparison.
Charlie Puth - “Attention”: The vocals of a pretty damn good song underpinned by a frail beat that inexplicably dulls the funk.
Logan Mashups - “Bon Appétition”: Turns out “Bot Appétit” and “Attention” go pretty well together. Thank goodness; an awesome beat finally gets to punch worth its weight by hosting a vocal performance in desperate need of a strong backbone!
Kim Petras - “I Don’t Want It At All”: Yeah, it falters badly in the rewarding-not-shitty-human-beings scheme of things. Giving Dr. Luke work? Boooo. Being in the service of a transgender singer? Maybe that makes up for things somewhat. A big maybe. But I’m also not about to argue the merits of music—playful, upbeat, infectious, catchy, groovy dance-pop topped by an enthusiastic performance from Kim Petras—that’s made me smile more often and more consistently than any other song this year.
Funkerman - “Speed Up (Another Version Of Me)”: A self-done remake of a nearly ten-year-old dance hit, this trades in the house trappings of the original for something a bit more tuneful and disco-tastic. It makes that transition remarkably naturally. It’s baller.
Charli XCX - “Boys”: Truth be told, good bouncy song though it is, there’s a chance that it nonetheless might not have made it onto my list even if it was a hit. But DAMN IT America!! That doesn’t amount to any less of a gross oversight whenever there’s a year where Charli XCX releases quality pop music and you don’t reward her in kind on the charts.
St. Vincent - “New York”: No shade intended towards Ke$ha whatsoever, because “Praying” is solid, but if she could get a hit out of a piano ballad (granted, due in large part to some inescapable Dr. Luke-related subtext), St. Vincent seems due the same courtesy. A potent, wistful two and a half minutes, complete with the most stellar singalong chorus of the year.
The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk - “I Feel It Coming”: It took a little time to get used to, as it didn’t “sound as Daft Punk” as one would expect, but “Starboy” was a good, bumping proof of concept for Daft Punk as pop/R&B producers. Little did I know, however, that hidden in The Weeknd’s corresponding album was another Daft Punk collab. And this one not only sounded far closer to the Weeknd-Daft Punk dream song I was anticipating, but blew past my expectations.
Daft Punk lay down a “Something About Us”-esque beat, then pump it with some of the studio-band craftsmanship that they picked up from their Random Access Memories experience, resulting in true R&B digital funk sumptuousness. It’s a gigantic opportunity to hand to any singer; thankfully, it went to The Weeknd, and he absolutely decimates with a killer performance that tones down the braggadocio and infinitely dials up the emotive-ness.
Had I first become wise to it in 2017 rather than in the waning months of 2016, this would have easily been near the top of this list, maybe even taking the top spot. Alas, my honor compels its disqualification. Let it be known, however: I love this track. It is a true highlight of Daft Punk’s catalogue, practically in the top three of my favorite Weeknd songs, and I am extremely happy it ended up being a legitimate hit during the past year.
That concludes the ToddInTheShadows-inspired interruption. We now return to our regular programming.
#1. Demi Lovato - “Sorry Not Sorry”
The first time a Demi Lovato song has ever been my jam, let alone this much of a jam. But that’s where things were at this past year! Where we get the closest thing to a vaporwave hit song, were Portugal The Goddamn Man reaches the top 40, where Kendrick Lamar has an album release...and yet my choice for hit song of the year goes to some uber-conventional pop shit. Not that I’m about to take it back, because this is pop shit that does so much so impeccably right.
In the grand scheme of Nick/Disney-originated pop singers, I’ve always been most receptive of Ariana Grande, so perhaps it’s fitting that my spirit Demi song sounds more like an Ariana song than anything else. Ariana’s strengths, however, lie with her unreal vocal range; Demi’s, on the other hand, lie in delivering pure ferocity. “Sorry Not Sorry” demands ferocity.
The backing track is an endlessly propulsive trap beat dotted with synth hits, feeling like it moves faster than it really is, but it’s ultimately rather sparse. It’s up to the performer to fill up the roomfuls of remaining space. Demi, obviously, must have been up for the challenge, because god fucking daaamn, she turns in a cosmic powerhouse of a performance. This shit is a dense stack of sonic C4.
Also, it completely owns because it’s one the most dementedly upbeat “Fuck you”/”Bye bitch” soundtracks that we’ve gotten in a while. I especially love how Demi says that beyond “how bad it must hurt to see [her] like this...it gets worse,” but then doesn’t say HOW it gets worse. As if you don’t even get the merciful closure of know the specifics! All that awaits is eternal torture by your own imagination.
Songs about being better off than the exes and/or haters are a dime a dozen, but none of them are this outright primal, this outright gleeful, so happy about its rage-filled vengeance burning all targets to a crisp. That right there is what truly makes this a modern classic in my mind. It fulfilled an emotional need that was especially welcome in this, the absolute worst of years a.k.a. 2017, better than anything else in recent memory: Triumphant catharsis.
I’d like to think that for every Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roy Moore, or Papa John that finally—finally—got their sweet comeuppance over the last year, “Sorry Not Sorry” was its soundtrack. I sung this shit at full volume every time it came on in the car, and it felt not just good, but liberating, every time. If I was going to feel like burning everything to the fucking ground, at least there was a song on hand that made such a prospect sound like a joyous occasion.
That’s the list. That’s where everything stands. If you got this far, I’d now like to turn this over to you!
- Which of these songs suck actually?
- What songs should have been on this list but weren’t, thereby proving what a fool I am?
- What was your personal top ten?
- Were there any songs that you heard this year, and felt that they deserved to be hits, but cruelly were denied the chance?
Thank you for reading. Here’s to a good upcoming year for music.
RedStripe Loved Trax—originally from days of Tumblr past—is a series about the music Justin adores, with special emphasis on songs from (or introduced by) video games and anime.