Welcome to our Best of 2017 series, in which we explore the year’s best albums, songs and extended plays.
We’ve revealed our Best Albums and EPs of 2017 (so far), and now, it’s time to take a look at those songs and radio singles we can’t seem to get our of our heads. While the mid-year reports surrounding bodies of work are more about telling a complete story, the song scorecard hones in on a few handfuls that define the more intimate moments of our lives and are able to stand on their own two feet. B-Sides & Badlands has compiled a list of the 25 best songs, ranging from irresistible beats to gritty folk tales and fiery melodies. And don’t forget to check out the accompanying playlist at the bottom.
Without further adieu, take a gander:
Jaymes Young, “Stone”
Album/EP: Feel Something (buy)
Key Lyric: “Your father came and went like the ocean’s tide / And the day he left, he never said goodbye / Your mother started drinking like the whole world died / You’ve been waiting for a miracle all your life”
The up and comer exposes every gruesome scar on this stark piano ballad. His entire full-length debut LP is certainly worth a listen, but this moment is his finest accomplishment. He reflects on the death of a loved one with heartfelt precision, balancing the starry romanticism of death itself with the harrowing reality weighing on his shoulders. Even when murky percussion kicks in, it is grounded in simplicity and truth.
Michaela May, “1954”
Album/EP: Rogue EP (buy)
Label: iKON Records
Key Lyric: “Can’t live my life stuck in an old cliche / Gotta let it go / Time to break the mold / Gotta do it my own way / I see you judging me every time I walk outside the door / Tight skirt and a little cleave / But this ain’t 1954”
May frames the year 1954 as a time warp and as a way to shatter gender stereotypes, upholding feminism and the boldness of toppling kingpins of the patriarchy. The atypical production style, down to the flickering synths inhabiting a heartbeat groove, “1954” out-schools Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran and The Chainsmokers at their own game. Never sacrificing a swirling, well-constructed arrangement for the sake of digestibility–instead she basks in the rhythm, letting it lead her but always with a sharp, narrow vocal.
Sarah Darling, “Where Cowboys Ride”
Album/EP: Dream Country (buy)
Label: Be Darling Records
Key Lyric: “Life moves on, goes so fast / We’re all afraid to come in last / We’ve got it made but could you take me back where cowboys ride?”
Darling’s independently-released new album could play as the soundtrack to an old western film starring John Wayne. It’s vivid and dusty, painted with breathtaking imagery–and her “Cowboys” ode rises to the top. Her vocal is sweet, but there is a remarkable heaviness to the arrangement, from the aching, boundless strings to the prominent guitar. She’s been toiling away in the industry for more than a decade, and it seems her blood, sweat and tears have finally paid off.
Natalie Hemby, “Cairo, IL”
Album/EP: Puxico (buy)
Label: GetWrucke Productions
Key Lyric: “Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks / Oh nothing moves but nothing stays / Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join / Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois”
The songwriter behind some of the biggest albums and singles of the modern era, Hemby gets around to finally releasing her debut album–and it was well worth the wait. Her distinctive, straightforward perspective sits nicely among many of today’s leading players and storytellers, from Margo Price to Andrew Combs and Kasey Chambers. The longing in her voice here is especially haunting. Sometimes, less is more, and she excels with flying colors.
Halsey, “Heaven in Hiding”
Album/EP: hopeless fountain kingdom (buy)
Key Lyric: “I push up on my toes, you call me ‘sweet thing’ / And breathing down your neck, your body screaming / And you thought that you were the boss tonight, but I can put up one good fight / I flip the script like I can take a beating”
Halsey has (once again) saved pop music. Her sophomore album tightens her songwriting and concepts into a feverish smorgasbord of pain and addiction, stretching the boundaries of her sonic palettes, in the process. Here, she fuses rock and intricate hip-hop flourishes with her incredibly intimate and specific penmanship. She surrenders herself to a man, who discovers exactly how sublime she really is, from her touch to her sly, charming intellect.
Liz Rose, “Ex-Husbands”
Album/EP: Swimming Alone (buy)
Label: Liz Rose Records
Key Lyric: “A cowboy in a bar and a boy with a guitar and a real-life marlboro man / The one that liked to pout, and the one that shouldn’t count ’cause I barely even wore that wedding band / They all had something and I really did love ’em but my heart was busy making other plans”
Rose, behind many of Taylor Swift’s best songs (“All Too Well,” “White Horse”) crosses out the men of her life, cheekily scrawling vignettes to great effect on this saloon-style romper, a cut on her long, long, long-awaited debut album, Swimming Alone (likely her only one). Done up with the tear of guitar, sizzle of piano and a honky-tonk slink, the song highlights both her sheepish personality and compact, striking songwriting.
Mother Mother, “Baby Boy”
Album/EP: No Culture (buy)
Key Lyric: “The devil is at my door / And I know what he came here for / The kind of fun that I adore / I let him enter to make some more / Fire it burn my skin / But I still want to play with it / Like a shark fin in the swim / I cut myself and jump on in”
The band’s sixth studio LP examines the political and personal spheres, detailing abnormalities in humanity, as well as inner demons leaching onto our minds. Frontman Ryan Guldemond struggled valiantly against addiction, and he addresses it here, along with “confession and intervention,” as he put it. The distressing lyrics are filtered through audible screeches and ghost-like harmonies, backed by an even harder outer shell.
Astrid S, “Breathe”
Album/EP: Party’s Over EP (buy)
Key Lyric: “It’s been a week since you hit my bed / And since then, you’ve started living in my head, eh / Seven days and I’m nearly dead / Never thought that I’d reboot / But you’re a different kind of new”
The Norwegian singer sure knows how to deliver a bangin’ melody. Her breathiness snuggles against a backdrop of house, with rafters of R&B running through the mix and splitting the production in two. As the opener to her second EP, it raises the bar on the ongoing construction of her Ellie Goulding-blended sound–supplemented with songs like “Such a Boy,” “Bloodstream” and the misty closer, “Does She Know.” Her voice is unmistakable, and the path to superstardom is clear and unobstructed. We side with fate.
Lauren Alaina, “Same Day Different Bottle”
Album/EP: Road Less Traveled (buy)
Key Lyric: “I’ve watched you try to drown the past / But those demons just keep draggin’ you back / In my heart there’s still no doubt / Someday you’ll hit your knees, you’ll finally bottom out / I want so bad, to help you stop the bleeding /But you get so mad when I ask you what you’re needing”
The young woman who once sang about getting “Barefoot and Buckwild” has blossomed into one of country’s best storytellers. Her sophomore LP blends the best aspects of both pop and country, and she never shies away from being honest about her life: here she addresses her father’s alcoholism with specific detail. She has never sounded so anguished, raw and vulnerable on record.
Harry Styles, “Sign of the Times”
Album/EP: self-titled (buy)
Key Lyric: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times / Welcome to the final show / Hope you’re wearing your best clothes / You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky / You look pretty good down here / But you ain’t really good”
On the heels of Katy Perry’s purposeful-pop jam “Chained to the Rhythm,” Styles looks to David Bowie, emulating his sweeping, alt-pop sensibilities–and mixing in a ’70s-rock approach to the phrasing. He keeps the lyrics vague, and, reportedly, they are about a dying woman about to give birth, telling her child how disastrous the real world is. “This song came from ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time,'” he said.
Madelin, “Good List”
Album/EP: self-titled EP (buy)
Key Lyric: “Lately, I’m been thinking blow the whole thing up / Running scissors through my dresses till they all cut up / I’m gonna show my legs, I don’t give a fuck / They call holler at me but my headphones up”
Madelin conceives a massive takedown of the patriarchy with “Good List,” her EP’s most scornful and empowering clapback at being cat-called. It’s equal parts bubbly-pop and ferocious hip-hop, with a biting alt-rock undercurrent. Her vocal is razor-edged, gliding across the arrangement, smoothly but assuredly. The distortion–vocoder-like–on the harmony is a rich and unusual inclusion, taking the track next level.
Chris Stapleton, “Broken Halos”
Album/EP: From a Room, Vol. 1 (buy)
Key Lyric: “Don’t go looking for the reasons / Don’t go asking Jesus why / We’re not meant to know the answers / They belong to the by and by”
Challenge: name another vocalist better than Stapleton in country music right now. I’ll wait–but you can’t. Stapleton’s scruffy voice stands mightily next to George Jones and Hank Williams. He has rightfully stepped up as keeper of the flame, and with the release of his second album, he has not fallen into the sophomore slump. To the contrary, he has delivered a follow-up worthy of every award in sight. This stripped-back barn-burner is the pinnacle of the record: soaked in his rollicking blend of tradition and soft-rock. He’s unstoppable.
Album/EP: Leap! soundtrack
Key Lyric: “I had a dream, or was it real? / We crossed the line and it was on / (We crossed the line, it was on this time) / I’ve been denying how I feel / You’ve been denying what you want / (You want from me, talk to me baby)”
If there had been any justice in the world, EMOTION would have been the album to break her away from novelty act. But alas, here we are. Again, Jepsen hits on all cylinders with low-key the song of the summer–angelic, beachy, fun. Written during her previous album cycle, there’s no denying it’s eerily similar in tone to “Run Away with Me,” “Boy Problems” and “I Really Like You”–but it wields one unbelievable hook. Tragic, it’ll be relegated to a soundtrack. Sigh.
Allie X, “True Love is Violent”
Album/EP: COLLXTION II (buy)
Key Lyric: “Don’t know what you got until it’s gone / Don’t know what is right until it’s wrong / Heaven could fall and angels swarm / But hell is ours to face / Ah-oh, true love is violent”
Ripped from her stormy new LP, the best album so far of 2017, this brooding ballad is her finest composition to-date, which needles pitch-black sorrow with an extraordinary vocal. Bow to me, she seems to smirk over eclectic, tinkling production and ruptured percussion. She compares the tragedy of love to a wind-torn, weathered sailboat–thrashing on the water amidst the perfect storm. There is so much misery stored in three minutes, 30 seconds, she drains your heart dry.
Crystal Bowersox, “Marlboro Man”
Album/EP: Alive (buy)
Key Lyric: “I had to climb the highest tree to taste a fruit that ain’t meant for me / Every limb and branch on my way back down, felt like the day he came to town”
Recorded live at the Kitchen Sink Studio in Santa Fe, Bowersox’s new record gracefully captures the magical twilight and art of performance. This deep cut, “about a wannabe cowboy,” as she described the song, tells the tale of a calamitous entanglement to a man who becomes her kryptonite. From the panoramic arrangement, lit with only a couple guitars and pitter-patter of drums, to her specter-like vocal, the song rattles with heartache and suffering.
VÉRITÉ, “Phase Me Out”
Album/EP: Somewhere in Between (buy)
Key Lyric: “Eventually you’ll crack / And remember there’s no need for / Siphoning some reason / From a dissipating line we drew”
Having a real singing voice is typically not a requirement for pop music. It’s about the performance, the flashy backing dancers, kaleidoscope lighting tricks, the beats and too many costume changes to count. But VÉRITÉ mixes both, a splendid, acrobatic and rock-leaning vocal with less smoke and mirrors than most. There is just enough vibrant decor to heighten her performance, though, and when she pulls back for this blustering tribute to decaying relationships, she spills her deepest and darkest insecurities with whimsy and gusto.
Key Lyric: “It’s electric how symmetric / We both get when you lay beside me / It’s phonetic how our mouths grip / Almost too tight to the words we’re sayin’ / We’re in deep now, should we slow down?”
She’s only two tracks into her solo career, but she’s already demonstrated two things: writing intimidating, addictive hooks is not exclusive to artist handouts; and her biggest influences are Gwen Stefani and Alanis Morissette. Coming off contributions on Selena Gomez’s comeback album, Revival–with hits like “Hands to Myself” to her name–her music is frenetic, production oozes from acoustic guitar to thumping, urban drops, with delicate piano peppered in. Album now, K?
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, “White Man’s World”
Album/EP: The Nashville Sound (buy)
Label: Southeastern Records
Key Lyric: “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes / Wishing I had never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke / Times ain’t forgotten”
Isbell owns up to his complicity. Given his place as a cis white male, he’s had all the power in the world, and he’s now using his growing superstardom to elicit change. He admits he was wrong and vows to teach his daughter how to live and love, properly. Slathered with electric guitar and pained fiddle, the song carries the weight of every racist, both inside the White House and out, but with a shimmering hope for the future. “I still have faith and I don’t know why, maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes,” he concludes.
Lindi Ortega, “Final Bow”
Album/EP: Til the Goin’ Gets Gone EP (buy)
Label: Soundly Music
Key Lyric: “I should buy my soul back from the devil / I’ll just cut my losses with my dues / Making changes, turning pages, stepping off of all the stages where I sing the blues”
Nearly two decades into her career, she almost gave up. When she sat down to write “Final Bow,” it was her full intention to walk away forever. But something clicked. She found herself again, and music came alive. She moved back to Canada, for love not because she was run out of Nashville, and a new EP was born. This despondent ballad echoes with the spirit of millions of singers walking dead-eyed and lonely in their bid to forge viable careers. Ortega is country’s most crucial storyteller, and she won’t go down without a fight.
Betty Who, “Wanna Be”
Album/EP: The Valley (buy)
Key Lyric: “When a stranger says we look good together, we just laugh / If you only knew how it hurts ’cause you’re my other half / This nightmare has become my favorite dream / ‘Cause I’m standing in for a love that is the real thing”
There were severe reservations upon the first few listens of Betty Who’s second album–but it proved to be a grower. And this dreamy mid-tempo is the crown jewel of her catalog. The ethical dilemma–trapped between her morals and lusting after another man–is steeped in typical ’80s-fashioned synths and drums. She might use active verbs but it reads as a hushed inner monologue, as she stares through his bedroom window or writes furiously in her diary. And that chorus is enormous.
Key Lyric: “My fears trying to crucify me / I will find a minute, line ’em up and shoot ’em dead”
Dark and twisted are apt qualifiers for the Fargo up and comer’s debut single: the pounding piano is spooky, while ghoulish synths breeze past you in the background. Then, gun shots flutter underneath him, as he recalls his teenage angst and grueling mental struggles. He also relates that theme to bloodshed soaking media these days–same deadly wound, different marginalized individual. His hip-hop vocal is fragile but tough, flipping between melodic intones and syncopated rhythms. If this is his impressive start, he is headed for even greater things.
Little Big Town, “Beat Up Bible”
Album/EP: The Breaker (buy)
Label: Capitol Nashville
Key Lyric: “This beat up bible / Dusty on the shelf / Worn out and torn up / It don’t look like much but it will get you through hell / It’s been held in the hands / Of all the ones that I love / It might be falling off the binding but every line in it still holds up”
There is no other group currently making music that has as wondrous, tightly-knit harmonies as this four-piece. When you give them such a tender, acoustic ballad, they can turn any kind of pain into understanding and hope. Kimberly Schlapman’s conviction is drenched in the blood of the Lamb, and whatever you’re going through, you see it with clear, renewed mind, body and spirit.
Key Lyric: “Close your eyes, I’ll sing your favorite song / I wrote you this lullaby / Hush now baby, don’t you cry / Anything you want could not be wrong”
Joanne was Gaga’s needed artistic-expansive, delving into country, indie-rock and dive-bar delight. When she dropped this surprise track, it was crystal clear she wanted another bonafide radio hit. Fizzy and brisk, it touches upon on today’s trending sounds without relinquishing her quirky charm. It is still unclear where this single is leading her, but it is an intriguing stepping stone. Much like Carly Rae Jepsen’s radio fate, this has had little impact–but damn isn’t it a bop, yeah?
Alison Krauss, “All Alone Am I”
Album/EP: Windy City (buy)
Label: Capitol Records
Key Lyric: “All alone am I ever since your goodbye / All alone with just a beat of my heart / People all around but I don’t hear a sound / Just the lonely beating of my heart”
No one can exactly live up to Brenda Lee, but Alison Krauss, one of the greatest singers of all time, comes pretty damn close. She kisses and caresses each lyric, bending around the flickers of goodbyes and heartaches. Elegant strings and piano ebb and flow behind her, nurturing her pristine capabilities. It’s as if she is whispering right in your ear, exposing all her secrets and the most intimate of thoughts. The classic melody remains intact and you can feel the presence of Lee guiding Krauss’ interpretation.
Sigrid, “Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Album/EP: Don’t Kill My Vibe EP (buy)
Label: Island Records/UMG
Key Lyric: “You love to tear me down, you pick me apart / Then build me up like I depend on you / But I throw myself from heights that used to scare me / Guess you’re surprised I’m the puzzle you can’t figure out”
A kiss-off anthem to end all kiss-off anthems, Sigrid goes for the jugular…in the classiest way possible. Lightheaded synths and quintessential drops color the three-minute track, which launches with subdued piano and distorted vocal. When the chorus rings out, drums and hand claps vibrate across the arrangement and serve to intensify the breezy fist-pumping vibes. You can be assertive, but remain true to your personal truths–and Sigrid ain’t playing around.
Spin the accompanying playlist below: