Tuesday, December 26, 2017

the top ten best hit songs of 2017

So as I said in my last list, I haven't considered 2017 nearly as bad of a year as some critics have, especially when it comes to the hits. Yeah, there was a lot of stupid, misinformed, or just outright offensive garbage that clogged up the charts, and I can see if you weren't willing to dig beyond the top ten you might dispirited in the dreary trap slog, but the truth is that the songs that did break away from that sound or mold - or hell, even a few of the tracks within it - were true gems across multiple genres. Yeah, country struggled in the mainstream this year, but there was real greatness in pop, hip-hop, EDM, R&B, and even some rock-leaning tunes. I wouldn't quite say the overall quality or sheer number of hits is comparable to 2015 or 2012, but it is up there. 

And what surprised me in a great way was the truly amazing hits of this year were strong enough to maybe even reach my year-end list of my favourite songs of 2017, not just the hits! And you know, for as many obscure or weird albums as I cover and then love, this is still a great feeling, that sometimes quality does win out and rise to mainstream prominence for everyone to share, and that's good for culture everywhere! Yeah, I know some of these picks might be controversial - especially in my Honourable Mentions - but as always they debuted on the year-end Hot 100 for 2017, and I did manage to find some quality here. So let's start with the Honourable Mentions, particularly one that if you saw my worst hits last year might shock you a bit...

Look, 'Treat You Better' is still one of the most reprehensible songs ever released this decade to become a hit, but I was saying back in 2015 that Shawn Mendes had real potential and while this is not his best, it is a step back in the right direction. It narrowly beat out Miley Cyrus' 'Malibu', but while that song grew on me a lot this year, it also doesn't really evolve in a satisfying way and I ended up a bit lukewarm as a whole. But 'There's Nothing Holding Me Back' feels like the propulsive, long-delayed apology for Illuminate being garbage that I'm welcome to receive. Yeah, I might not be crazy about the stuttered guitar melody that opens the track, but what this song had in its favour was momentum and sharper electric chords that drive a galloping hook. And in comparison with how sterile so much of Mendes' material is, I appreciate it when he's getting yanked out of his depth into rougher territory that could compromise him, it adds a sense of danger and stakes, even if I get the feeling for Mendes the most these manipulations might led to are going to a dive bar or listening to an actual rock song. But hey, baby steps, and at least he's going in the right direction.

I was all set for this song to land on my top ten proper... and yeah, it cooled on me. Don't get me wrong, it's cool to see an indie mainstay like Portugal. The Man do as well as they did, and that deeper snapping bass groove bouncing off the squonk of the horns and remarkably complex guitar line is genuinely great, the sort of 60s throwback that might not have the bite of the protest songs of the era but does capture the groove. But I was never quite won over by John Gourley's falsetto, and the more I read the lyrics the more I get the feeling it's more of a 'protest because it's trendy and profitable' tune than anything with actual fire, and that's hard to get over - and yeah, when Todd In The Shadows juxtaposed this with the infamous Pepsi ad, that didn't help. I dunno, for as great as the groove and musicianship is, I wish I could put this higher, and it wasn't like the rest of Woodstock wasn't a letdown either... but still, read the room, dude.

Oh, I know I'm going to get hate for this, and while the troll in me is looking forward to the scandalized reactions, I genuinely do think critics trashing this song have consistently missed the mark. Oh god, I can't take Ed Sheeran making a sex song seriously, look at how he fills the song with so much mundane detail, it's not romantic - duh, that's the point. This is very much not a romantic song with the sort of details and framing how disposable it all is, and it plays into the rough-edged, sleazier side of Ed Sheeran that informed tracks like 'Don't' and 'Bloodstream' and to a lesser extent 'Galway Girl', which is far more textured and interesting than the saccharine dullness of 'Thinking Out Loud' or 'Perfect'. Oh, it sounds like a Rihanna ripoff - well, yeah, because if you look at tracks like 'Desperado' or 'LOYALTY' that's a solid lane for her too in the past few years! And really, I'd take Sheeran writing for Rihanna with the brittle strums, minor keys with nervy energy and a ridiculously tight hook that lead into a post-chorus that has surprising depth of tone. Yes, it was overplayed and kind of shallow - there are many other songs that deserved to have the #1 spot in 2017 - but it's a song that knows it and does it well, I'll take it.

And speaking of complete shallowness, here we have Bruno Mars mashing together early 80s R&B and mid-2000s hip-hop with glorious indulgence, and while I personally would have preferred 'Versace On The Floor' become the retro power ballad that ruled this year, I dig this regardless. I like how Bruno Mars oozes raw charisma in his shamelessness, because like with 'Uptown Funk' the lyrics are cocky and goofy as hell - only he could get away with shouting 'hashtag blessed' or dissing the bad bitches and their ugly-ass friends in a song like this, and I'm not even sure if he does. And that's the trick of this song: it's borderline a joke, because nobody buys that he's a 'dangerous man', and he's got all the depth of a Vegas showman, but like the best showmen Bruno Mars is going to pull you along for the ride on a technicolour song that revels in its artificiality, with the heavy usage of vocoders, flashy synths, and hype men bouncing around him. It's retro cheese, but with this much personality in a year desaturated in trap, it's the best sort of escapism. And yet how much longer Bruno can coast on this... that's anybody's guess.

This year I saw Travis Scott in concert - and look, for somebody who actually didn't mind Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight, this was a highlight, with Travis Scott playing off the murky, atonal echoing guitar tones to cultivate a weird hypnotic vibe. And yeah, on some level it's just another vapid party banger, but dig a little deeper and you note how much this girl bucks against Scott's expectations for not being as hedonistic as he is, something that throws him into unfamiliar territory... all the more emphasized when an uncredited Kendrick Lamar shows up and drops a verse of pure braggadocious flair enticing the girl into the swirling murk. It's the sort of verse that shows up out of nowhere and only makes the song better, with strikingly sharp bars that balance the ego and go beyond just flimsy seduction. A lot of this song is capturing that unstable, slightly unnerving mood and then tilting into it - and the fact they made one hell of a banger out of it is a credit to them both.

In 2017, Calvin Harris and Migos decided mutually to start making good music, and really, that's good for all of us, especially if you're going to give Frank Ocean the biggest hit of his career along with it - even though I'd argue Ocean is the least interesting part of the song. But yeah, for as much as 'goosebumps' was intoxicating and dark, 'Slide' is pure glossy retro-disco, production that Migos flows so well against I'm a little stunned they don't do it more! The sharp bounce of the bass playing off the echoing claps, glossy shards of synth, the subtle touches of melancholy as Frank Ocean knows there isn't really much of a connection being formed, but he's going to roll with whatever he gets anyway. And while nobody's expecting depth out of Migos, they play to that carefree vibe really well, and Offset's flow and flexing here is perfectly timed. Again, I'm not saying this isn't a little vapid - that, along with the shrill opening keeps songs like this and 'goosebumps' off the list proper... but man, this was so much fun.

I feel like I owe an apology to somebody for this... but I can't, I'm sorry, this was a damn good song from the very beginning that I tried to desperately deny - and yet with every listen it got better. Yeah, it's choppy pop country with a cheap backbeat and an acoustic line cribbed from High Valley, and it doesn't use Lauren Alaina nearly as much as she deserves, and yes, it's all so much of a vapid hookup jam... and yet I can't get around how well that hook works, delivered with the sort of conviction which Kane Brown's baritone can actually sell. And I like how so much of this song is flying in the face of every expectations, taking all the negative second-guessing and flipping to a positive, which works better when played as a big duet where both are asking the questions and Alaina actually seems receptive, which knocks it above the average bro-country hookup jam. Look, at the end of the day, for as much shady nonsense that I've heard about Kane Brown's promotion and how I really can't recommend his album, at heart there's something of a neotraditionalist there, because you don't fill your bridge with pedal steel otherwise, and when you factor in real passion and firepower from both artists... yeah, it gets there.

So yeah, now the list proper, starting off with...

10. So when I picked my #1 top hit of 2016, it came at a weird moment: it caught the melancholy I was feeling at that time, there was a deeply held moment of wistful sadness that resonated at just the right frequency, and I genuinely love it. This song... well, not as much, but the fact that a good two years after the album dropped this still has staying power for me, that says a lot.

10. 'Water Under The Bridge' by Adele
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #88
(no video, unfortunately)

At this point Adele has gotten so good at breakup songs that you almost expect a track like this to play in this territory - but what I appreciate is how 'Water Under The Bridge' completely upends that, because it's a love song. Yeah, that threw me off too, I expecting with the primary metaphors that this was the moment before the separation, with Adele just asking to make it easy if it's not going to work. But what throws her is that it is working, getting more serious in a way that you can tell has put her more off-balance than him - the caution is certainly justified but the revelation is just as euphoric. And when you factor in the gentle gallop of the guitar line that builds to the heavier percussion bombast of the hook. And with the bridge building the handclap a little more as the vocal layering swells, it's a potent climax and the emotional bait-and-switch connects. Again, it's not a better song than 'Hello' or 'When We Were Young', but the fact this did as well as it did with no promotion or video from Adele... yeah, that says a lot, because this is a great tune.

9. ...honestly, this doesn't need an introduction, I'm just going to let it play.

9. 'HUMBLE.' by Kendrick Lamar
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #4

So remember how I said I saw Travis Scott this year? He was opening for Kendrick Lamar, and watching the entire arena scream back every single word of this song at Kendrick line for line was unlike anything I had ever seen at a hip-hop show. And yet the funny thing is that this is just as much of a heel turn for Kendrick as 'Look What You Made Me Do' was for Taylor Swift. This is the moment that when confronted with an increasingly uncaring audience and media holding distorted mirrors of who he is, he succumbs to his own rage and vanity to become everything they've projected upon him. So we get a blocky trap beat from Mike Will Made It playing off harsh piano chords off the revving guitar and Kendrick proving that he can play his own distorted shadow just as well as his true self... even as you realize his hook is just as self-flagellating as it is commanding. Yes, there was controversy surrounding the photoshop line and how one projection of male fantasy is just replacing another, and a few forced rhymes and a slightly less fiery delivery that keep this from being higher on the list, but Kendrick's first #1 only gets better in the context of the album and features some of the most stark, hard-hitting but accessible multisyllabic bars where more mainstream hip-hop wouldn't even try. And frankly, with the praise this song and DAMN. got, you all already know it - but more on that later. 

8. You know, The Weeknd should have had a much better 2017 than he did, because while 'Starboy' was an amazing song that lasted into this year, it didn't seem like he knew how to follow it up properly. As much as I loved 'False Alarm' for the darkwave smash it deserved to be, it was never going to be a hit... but 'Reminder' and 'Party Monster' underperformed and missed the cut, and 'Secrets' and 'Rockin' were never good enough to be hits - bizarre choices considering 'Sidewalks' had Kendrick on it and could have been a bonafide smash, and arguably 'Six Feet Under' could have done even better. In short, I can make the argument The Weeknd mishandled his 2017... with one exception.

8. 'I Feel It Coming' by The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #34

At some point, The Weeknd just needs to cut a mixtape or EP with Daft Punk, because between their worship of retro R&B and how well their melodic balance works against tight rhythms, they're a natural fit for each other. And yeah, this track has been dismissed by some as the most blatant Michael Jackson pastiche The Weeknd has ever done, which is true but it's not like this brand of R&B is getting real traction anymore and that's a damn shame. A beautifully solid melodic foundation in the muted keys off the razor-sharp groove, the subtle touches of multi-tracking complimented with Daft Punk's remarkably emotive robotic vocals, and the sheer sense of joy The Weeknd brings is infectious. Again, this is a love song to the same dead-eyed girl that shows up in all of his music, but you get the feeling that the message and feeling is touching him as well, exposing him to the possibility of that genuine connection that's something he's avoided for years. I like the brighter feeling of euphoria, the dawn breaking on the oppressive night that has lingered over him for so long - there's catharsis there, and if it has to embrace a shameless double entendre to do it, so be it. Criminally underrated, so happy this was a hit.

7. I haven't talked much about memes in these lists - mostly because memetic culture falls into a weird spot on the internet and it's not really my cup of tea. And more often than not, it's been responsible for pushing disposable music that's been more about the meme than the song itself. There was, of course, one big exception, and when combined with its feature in a little horror movie that turned into a cult phenomenon that was the highest grossing film based on an original screenplay, we got this...

7. 'Redbone' by Childish Gambino
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #25

The fact that there is a Childish Gambino song on the year-end Hot 100 - in the top quarter of the list with no music video - is absolutely mindblowing, and it's indicative of the best hits of 2017 sounding so little like anything else on the Hot 100. Like The Weeknd Childish Gambino might embrace tones from the past - as well as a high-pitched vocal delivery that took a lot to grow on me properly - but it executes them flawlessly, playing off the rich funk of the bassline with the sparse twinkles around the plucky yet lingering electric guitar and muted electric piano. It's subtly eerie with the spikes of synth bass, but oddly hypnotic and enticing - no surprise that Jordan Peele decided to include it in Get Out! And that's not even getting into the content, which to Donald Glover's credit is ambiguous but potent however it's interpreted. On the surface it seems like a warning given in the inevitable breakup after she may have cheated and isn't as invested in the relationship, but the haunted vibe and title of the song 'Redbone', to say nothing of the inclusion of the phrase 'stay woke' implies something more unsettling, that a light-skinned black woman might find herself a target or getting exploited by the world around her, especially if she finds herself looking to embrace elements of the culture that might fetishize her, be they white or black. And while Childish Gambino probably wasn't planning on a song like this becoming a meme, in the vein of other memetic, internet-driven tunes like 'Chocolate Rain' it slid a fascinating portrait of complex racial politics right under everybody's nose - and when it sounds this good, how can I pass it up?

6. So critics who cover this list often talk about the fluke indie hits - and honestly, I think it's a term that should be retired - in the era of commercials driving more indie rock to popularity, the burgeoning Soundcloud rap scene, and the prevalence of industry plants, it's a term that feels more and more flimsy. But among the oddities that landed on this list, there was one that seemed just idiosyncratic enough to make this list, that overcame its terminal flaws and perpetual awkwardness to resonate even if it wasn't quite independent... and here it is.

6. 'All Time Low' by Jon Bellion
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #75

I stand by the fact that Jon Bellion's debut The Human Condition is an unbelievably uneven record, an factor that with every repeated listen stands out all the more: the bad songs get worse, the good songs get better. Thankfully, this is among the better category even though I wouldn't put it on the same level as '80s Films' or 'Morning In America' or 'Fashion' or 'He Is The Same' or especially 'Hand Of God' - and yet I can see why some people consider this just as flawed, it's a misshapen, weird song. The pitch-shifted nonsense sprayed around the organ line, the overweight knock of the beat, the odd belching as the song kicks into a chorus repeating one word into shrill incoherence, the fact that anyone wants to hear about Jon Bellion masturbating, giving us all the reason in the world why he got dumped! Of course, just like twenty one pilots ahead of him puncturing his useless pride is the point of the song, it's a stern wake up call to get over himself at the pits of his self-pity... and Bellion knows it, which leads to the bridge and the best part of this song, where he runs out of breath midway through repeating the hook and makes the sort of unforced sigh that places his humanity in plain view and lets you empathize with the hook coming back all the stronger. It's adolescent, it's twee but in a way that's tolerable, and it's by far one of the stranger hits you'll hear on the Hot 100... but in a year where a lot of folks hit rock bottom, I get the pathos.

5. Granted, if you're looking for a song that addresses the rock bottom directly, in a way that confounded all expectations and surged to become one of the most critically beloved mainstream pop rock songs of the year if not more...

5. 'Sign Of The Times' by Harry Styles
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #87

Look, I'm as annoyed as anybody that Niall Horan's 'This Town' didn't make the year-end Hot 100 - it's a damn great song, and the charts deserved better. But even with that, 'Sign Of The Times' was the track that proved to so many people that post-One Direction these guys had something to offer, and Harry Styles did it in the best possible. Styles has always been charismatic, but cutting loose on what could have been a classic rock ballad forty years ago let him open up his range on a huge song that offered no easy answers, taking a bleak, borderline apocryphal situation and hurling it back into the stratosphere. Now as a classic rock fan it's not on the level of Bowie or Freddie Mercury - it takes a bit too long to get going, it doesn't have the edge or true roaring solo it needed, it doesn't quite cut as deeply as it could. But if I'm comparing a single in 2017 to rock legends, something is going right, and Harry Styles playing off the wailing rock guitars as the song builds layers of cacophonous swell is a phenomenal fit for him, especially in taking the steely-eyed, thousand mile stare of someone who has seen it all come and come again, and now is preparing to do it all again. It's the sort of startling, titanic hit that sets sky high expectations, and while I don't quite think Harry quite got there, I'm thrilled to see whatever comes next.

4. And here's the song that I've been predicting will make my list for months now, and I get the impression people will still be surprised it's here, especially considering it won't likely make many other lists... but yeah, it deserved it.

4. 'It Ain't Me' by Kygo & Selena Gomez
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #27

This, more than ever, represents exactly the reason why Kygo is head-and-shoulders above so many of his peers in EDM. A phenomenal grasp of melody and willingness to embrace organic guitars to play off the shimmering synths, the bouncy tropical snap, and sandy vocal syncopation, all paired with Selena Gomez as her most distant and dismissive with a monster of a prechorus and hook. And while I'd love to think this is a song directed at Justin Bieber, it's a monumentally satisfying track to come after a breakup, capturing whiskey in a high rise and a giant middle finger to the lack of class and courtesy her ex showed. It's not even angry so much as it is weary and burned out, filled with the desire to move the hell on and get things over with, reflecting a level of maturity with which Gomez is surprisingly convincing. So let's not mince words: it's her best song since 'Naturally', it laid the groundwork for Kygo to have more crossover success, and that hook is one of the best of the year.

3. There was a part of me that didn't quite believe it what this was being pushed as a single. I mean, this artist was on top of the world, he had a big #1 single, but they wouldn't let him push something like this against the deluge of trap and desaturated pop, something that might actually... rock?

#3. 'Castle On The Hill' by Ed Sheeran
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #40

I'm not going to deny that there's a part of me that wishes all of Ed Sheeran's music was in this vein, something where the drums pound and the shimmering electric guitar surges and the entire track feels like a late 80s U2 song. And the fact that Sheeran doesn't embrace his inner rock star will always drive me crazy, but that's not where the money is, I get it... but my god, this was the sort of song we just don't get on the Hot 100 anymore! A love letter to his old friends in rural Suffolk that captures the wistful promise and his own failures in youth but also isn't afraid to show where they're at now without a shred of judgement - he knows the people who shaped him in years past that references a hardscrabble youth and feels believable and not self-serving. And really, Sheeran is the star of this track, the sort of heartfelt rock tune sold with raw sincerity that has far more power than any overdone ballad. I know that some of my love for this tune is the fact that, deep down, this sort of rock short-circuits my critical faculties, but even beyond that, it's one of the best damn songs Ed Sheeran ever wrote. And if we have to get an avalanche of treacly romantic gunk in order to get more like this... I'll take it.

2. Okay, if you only pay attention to the Hot 100, you might not realize there are songs that shouldn't become hits - they aren't crafted or designed to be hits, if they cross over they're a novelty or seem like they're from an entire different universe, they only get traction because they're a meme or a joke or a passing fad... or in this case, given success by a man whose fame is starting to defy words.

2. 'DNA.' by Kendrick Lamar
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #62

Look, I love 'DNA.', it's the furious slice of Kendrick Lamar that shreds every target in his path with ruthless efficiency while still highlighting the deep sins within himself that he hasn't quite reconciled. But you all need to understand: there's no hook, he switches up his flow in double time against the echoing darkness of the melody off the thrumming beat and trap beat as the melody contorts before switching into an entire different track and Kendrick goes even harder, against a contorted sample of a FOX News correspondent as a stunning rebuke of their asinine criticisms of 'Alright' - three minutes of nonstop bars, you don't understand how this rarely if ever happens, even in the golden age of hip-hop or in the gangsta rap boom in the 90s! Yeah, the trap sound might be close to what's popular in the mainstream - at least until the beat switch throws all of that out the window - but if you're a hip-hop head you don't dare to dream a song like this crosses over - it's the same feeling I got whenever I listened to 'The Blacker The Berry', you can't expect the mainstream to ever get onboard, it's too dark and dense and aggressive and borderline political! And yet by some miracle of streaming and the fact that Kendrick made a terrific video and has reached the A-list of modern music, 'DNA.' lasted long enough to become the barsfest that no other mainstream artist came close to touching this year. And for a while, it was my #1, because there wasn't a chance in hell there's be something so monumental, so powerful that it would override this, right?

1. I don't consider the cultural impact of the songs that I place upon this list - it's my list, I choose the tracks that resonate the most for me of the hundred that notched their spot. I don't care about their ubiquity or the memes they spawned - at the end of the day, the music has to stand for itself. But I'm not going to deny, in a year that could feel pretty damn bleak both on the Hot 100 and off of it, there was one song by an artist I'd never expect to see popularity again that hit the sweet spot - and you all know who it is.

1. 'Praying' by Kesha
Billboard Year-End Chart Position: #67

Yeah, it's predictable, you all saw it coming - I don't care, I'm not in the business of surprising or trolling my audience when the quality is this potent and worthy of recognition. I've been onboard with Kesha since at least 2011, I made multiple Special Comments on her lawsuit with Dr. Luke, I don't deny being a fan - but even as a critic this was not my favourite track off of Rainbow, which is one of the best records of 2017 but I wouldn't say it's quite better than Warrior. And while I will not claim a song like this was the sole factor that blew upon the cultural floodgates on sexual harassment allegations, like 'Same Love' before it in 2013 it's hard not to see the cultural resonance. Because while 'Praying' takes a while to get going and isn't quite as roughscrabble and lean as Kesha is at her best, it was the stunning artistic rebuke to the world: to the producer who used and abused her, the media that derided her, the popular and critical consensus that for years treated her as a punchline. The pain is plainly real and organic, the story personal in its context but universal in its truth, and while it's not a moment of forgiveness, it's a decisive finale that closes the door on a nightmarish saga that has kept Kesha away from the spotlight for too long. And coupled with the slow, dramatic production from Ryan Lewis that brings heavenly elegance while allowing Kesha's raw edge to cut through, and deliver a vocal performance devoid of autotune to prove to us all she never needed it, including hitting a whistle tone that so few in modern pop would dare even attempt. I love the build from pianos and organ to blasts of horns, heraldry to a new beginning, that defied all expectations and finally brought her the critical acclaim she so rightly deserves. In other words, Kesha's 'Praying' is the best hit song of 2017, and I'm so happy to have her back. 

1 comment:

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