Welcome to our Best of 2017 series, in which we explore the year’s best albums, songs and extended plays.
Songwriting carries varied weight depending on the genre. Where pop music relies on glitter-accented euphoric moods and guitar-led electronica, Americana leans on intimately-scrawled, tattered and torn reflections to unpack a narrative. Underneath both, there is a deeply-rooted and rich layer of honesty, often seeping from within the singer’s passionate, tearing vocal. You might have to dig a bit, but you’ll find it. 2017 was a remarkable year for storytellers, many of whom exposed raw nerves for the sake of unleashing their demons, as a model of catharsis and granting the listener with some blood-soiled grain of truth. Songs, tightly-packed three or four minute snapshots, are as crucial as ever to depict the artist’s state of affairs, from their troubled mental state to a fresh, new lease on life.
Below, B-Sides & Badlands has chosen the 50 songs of 2017 which spoke to us the most.
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.
Album/EP: hopeless fountain kingdom (buy)
Key Lyric: “She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore / ‘Cause it’s more intimate than she thinks we should get.”
It wasn’t until I heard the beat drop in the first 15 seconds, thrumming forward like a dark pink Bentley gliding off into the sunset, that I realized the full extent of Halsey’s prowess as a pop architect. She took a leaf from one of the best pop albums of the decade, Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob, pulling in executive producer Greg Kurstin to construct a lush synth-pop soundscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she also enlisted Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, one of the most politically savvy, outspoken queer pop stars in the game (with a gorgeous voice to boot). ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Label: CN Records
Key Lyric: “I think I’m gonna keep him anonymous / It’s not worth making you furious / I can’t blame you for being curious / But you don’t wanna know.”
The wave of pop coming out of Nashville these days is unreal. At the crest sits Duval, rather majestically, mixing chewy R&B, blistered guitar licks and glazed, syrup pop. She’s yet to release a body of work, but her contagious string of singles (including “Cinnamon Gum”) illustrate her knack for thrilling hooks and intimately-drawn lyrics. “Don’t Ask Me” is charming, addictive and inescapable. She is destined to cut through the static in much the same way as Taylor Swift; it’s just a matter of time.
Key Lyric: “Cause I’ve been hearing symphonies / Before all I heard was silence / A rhapsody of you and me / And every melody is timeless.”
Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” is dance-pop sorcery at its finest, gossamer piano keys twirling around a decadent orchestra of violins and finger-snaps, shining brightly but never overtaking Zara Larsson’s masterful vocal performance. She captures the strongest lyrics with ease, her voice lightly trembling as she closes out the pre-chorus before sending her vibrato to the heavens in the refrain, passion pouring from every note. It’s a gamble when an artist tries to equate a lover to a beautiful piece of music, but much like Kelis with “Acapella,” Clean Bandit create a magnificent ode to the tune of true love. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Vera Blue, “First Week”
Album/EP: Perennial (buy)
Label: Universal Music Australia
Key Lyric: “In the middle of a heartbreak song that I’m writing for you / I find words to escape with all the courage I grew.”
“First Week” is stunning, yet utterly devastating. In its opening verse, Blue is wide eyed but void of feeling, drifting in and out of reality, ending her sentences in murmurs and sighs. Everything is suspended in an incendiary haze, like the first rays of sun tearing through the morning after a night where sleep never comes. As she ruminates, whispers of pain and liberation seep in, building to the blood-letting breakdown, where she calls out “I’ll be whole, but I don’t know when…” before a tidal wave of violent church organs tears through the track like the soul-tearing revelation that she’s alone, free, and entirely haunted. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Album/EP: Rainbow (buy)
Label: Kemosabe Records
Key Lyric: “I’m proud of who I am / No more monsters, I can breathe again / And you said that I was done / Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come.”
We all know Kesha’s heartbreaking story. Drugged and sexually assaulted at the hands of her producer Dr. Luke, she clawed her away through subsequent, very public turmoil to release the best music of her career. “Praying,” a blistering piano ballad, sees the pop singer cleanse her mind and body of the past, vowing to pray for her abuser, rather than wishing him ill. That takes guts and unimaginable strength. “Praying” also features her most moving, raw vocal performance ever. Stunning, really.
Label: Asylum/Atlantic Records UK
Key Lyric: “I’m sorry that I missed your party / I wish I had a better excuse / Like I had to trash a hotel lobby / But I was busy thinking about boys.”
“Boys” is a three-layer cake with a sweet cream center, sprinkled with powdered sugar and covered with fat dollops of buttery, bright pink frosting. As Charli endlessly indulges in fantasies of a multitude of men meeting her every desire, we’re meant to indulge in this overlooked and underrated moment in 2017 pop. But why limit yourself to just aural pleasure, when you could bask in her boy-eautiful video of the entertainment industry’s hunkiest attempting to be innocuous and succeeding at being adorable? ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Label: Epic Records
Key Lyric: “There’s something wrong in the village / In the village, oh / They stare in the village / In the village, oh / There’s nothing wrong with you / It’s true, it’s true / There’s something wrong with the village.”
Written in the aftermath of the withdrawal of federal regulations protecting transgender individuals in public schools, “The Village” is an epic, string-anchored teardown of bigotry. Wrabel has stated it is the most important song he has ever written, and rightfully so. In the age of 45, we must fight. The pop tunesmith reminds the LGBTQIA+ community there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. They are beautiful inside and out. What a powerful, necessary, empowering message.
Album/EP: Ctrl (buy)
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Key Lyric: “Why am I so easy to forget like that? / It can’t be that easy for you to get like that / Ooh no she didn’t, ooh yes I did / Ooh no she didn’t, I’ll do it again.”
“Supermodel” is the angriest song on SZA’s Ctrl, and it’s a perfect portrayal of why Solána Rowe is not only one of the biggest breakout stories of the year, but also the most nominated female artist at this year’s Grammys. The anger doesn’t erupt forth in volcanic shrieks, it’s in the incredible restraint she exhibits over the song’s seething lyrics. And where SZA keeps her melodies strong and emotions understated, the production does quite the opposite, a lone guitar slicing through the air in discordant agony. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Leikeli47, “Miss Me”
Album/EP: Wash & Set (buy)
Label: RCA Records
Key Lyric: “Y’all looking for applause / I’m looking for summer homes, to each his own / And this is why you always gon’ need a loan / Leave me alone.”
Leikeli47 made the OTHER no-fucks-given female rap anthem of 2017, and though “Miss Me” was painfully overlooked on top 40 radio, it doesn’t diminish the pure talent that the mysterious hip-hop artist flexes on this tightly-wound kiss-off. Leikeli47 threads her flow across multiple tempos, spitting and growling through a clattering beat and snide, warped background vocals. She’s confident and doesn’t have time for your shit, and she crunches so many cleverly-penned brags and burns into such a tight space (less than 3 minutes total), you wonder why LeiKeli47 isn’t writing bars for other artists in her spare time. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Taylor Swift, “…Ready For It?”
Album/EP: reputation (buy)
Label: Big Machine Records
Key Lyric: “Knew I was a robber the first time that he saw me / Stealing hearts and running off, and never saying sorry.”
Why is “…Ready” one of the best top 40 pop songs of the year? Firstly, Swift gets major brownie points for bringing the frenzied noise-pop of Sleigh Bells to the radio with subterranean crunch of the verses, Swift aggressively yelping like Alexis Krauss over the cavernous snarl of a beat. Secondly, she takes a cue from “Blank Space” and “Look What You Made Me Do” by giving us a tongue-and-cheek glance into her world, but this time she projects us outward and we see through her eyes what it’s like to fall in lust knowing you’re the pop world’s serial heartbreaker. Finally, the hook is diamond-cut, heavenly perfection from beginning to end. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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. Her future shines bright.
Galantis, “Hey Alligator”
Album/EP: The Aviary (buy)
Label: Atlantic Records
Key Lyric: “Hold me tight and pull me under / You let me drown, you let me dream / Well you should know by now my heart is in your teeth / Hey alligator, have some mercy on me.”
On paper, it is twisted and broken, a stark tale of co-dependency and helplessness at the hands of a manipulative lover. But Galantis (Christian Karlsson & Linus Eklöw) turn it into something strange, pretty, even endearing. Pop singer and famed top 40 songwriter Bonnie Mckee’s vocals are so drastically downpitched she sounds unrecognizable and near inhuman, but she still manages to drench her cries with pain and longing. Above her, Galantis fashion a twinkling trop-house beat that’s radio friendly and refreshingly sparse, creating a declaration of despair that sounds borderline joyful. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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, catapulting the dizzying proclamation into stratosphere.
Demi Lovato, “Daddy Issues”
Album/EP: Tell Me You Love Me (buy)
Label: Island Records
Key Lyric: “Never enough / Addicted to love with the wrong one / Lucky for you, I got all these daddy issues / What can I do? / I’m going crazy when I’m with you.”
Who knew Demi Lovato had such a sharp sense of humor? And who knew it would manifest itself to make one of the better pop songs of her catalogue? “Daddy Issues” is Demi manic and obsessive and above all else, sarcastic as hell. It’s a high octane blast of sugary, mouth-puckering elctro-pop that finds Lovato essentially tying her lover up in a chair and forcing them to listen to everything that’s wrong with the both of them, and why that makes them fit so well together. At least, I don’t know any other scenario where you could feasibly sing this song to someone. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Album/EP: Seasons Change
Label: Triple Tigers
Key Lyrics: “At eighty-six my grandpa said there’s angels in the room / All the family gathered ’round knew the time was coming soon / With so much left to say I prayed Lord I ain’t finished / Just give us five more minutes.”
There’s never enough time. If we’re lucky, we have friends and family that love us and memories to last eternity. McCreery depicts that soul-shaking ache; it’s a bit unnerving, really, but his caramel vocal is warm and comforting, assuring you it was all well worth it. Until now, his output has never lived up to his full potential, but he hits a home run on the defining single of his career, laying the foundation for a legacy.
LÉON, “Surround Me”
Album/EP: Surround Me EP (buy)
Label: Columbia Records
Key Lyric: “Don’t overthink it / Just finish up your drink and surround me, surround me / The night ain’t over / We’re far from being sober surround me, surround me.”
LEON drapes herself in a tapestry of desire on “Surround Me,” brandishing her third whiskey-sour as she breaks through her hesitation, intoxicated by liquor and love and soulfully yearning to melt into the beau at the other side of the bar. If anything about the song sets it above the top 40 rap and pop slithering around the radio, it’s not the understated, home-grown jazz tones of the instrumentation. It’s the way LEON captures every word and note unashamedly dizzy and lovelorn, so head over heels you can hear the pain caked thick in her scratchy vibrato. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Allie X, “True Love is Violent”
Album/EP: COLLXTION II (buy)
Label: Twin Music
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, most visceral pop album 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, bleeding 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.
Key Lyric: “The first wedding that I’ve been in my twenties / Thinking maybe someone is not something to own / Maybe the government got nothing to do with it / Thinking maybe the feeling just comes and it goes.”
“Biking” stands out among the fantastic Blonde Radio singles Ocean released this year because of how unbelievably smooth, intoxicating and effervescent it is, like drinking ice coffee with Khalua as you zig-zag down the sun-speckled hills of the SoCal coast on a road bike. Jay-Z saunters into the song’s opening quarter, his unobtrusive stream-of-conscious flow giving way to a supple acoustic guitar, where Ocean croons as sweet as pecan pie before Tyler, The Creator tops it out with a surprisingly light (but wonderfully satiating) verse. All in all, “Biking” is a pseudo-posse cut that’s the antithesis of everything 2017, effortlessly breezy and care-free. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Gwen Sebastian, “Way to Go”
Album/EP: Once Upon a Time in the West: Act I (buy)
Label: Flying Island Entertainment
Key Lyric: “Oh, maybe, I will go peacefully / Maybe, I will go in my sleep / What a way to go, what a way to go / Thank God I made it to tomorrow / And I know it’s in His hands to choose my way to go.”
Sebastian bookends her dusty saloon-style concept album with a stunning solo write, a bone-breaking composition featuring a quite transcendent vocal performance. “Way to Go” cascades with a sublime, heartbreaking melody, haunting piano and guitar work and her incisive head voice. She carves out a sage reflection on her entire life, unwavering faith and her final moments alive. She curls her lips around the harrowing story, chiseling through cold chains of doubt for redemption. It’s the pinnacle of her career, by far.
Aly & AJ , “I Know”
Album/EP: Ten Years EP (buy)
Label: Aly & AJ Music LLC
Key Lyric: “It takes some time to learn someone / Like the way you ride under the sun / Your light is fading out too soon / Maybe if I could somehow feel this too?”
Aly & Aj’s “I Know” is all rounded edges and plush synth lines, a comforting slice of melodic retro-pop that rests softly on the eardrums like a luxurious pillow. As entrancing as the sisters’ breathy hooks are wrapping warmly around the sighing vocoded keys, it’s the painfully short second verse that allows the song to dip into something truly extraordinary. In just two concise sentences, Alyson and Amanda Michalka are both intimate and distant, consoling while yearning to understand their beau in his or her most intimate moments. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Label: Interscope/Def Jam
Key Lyric: “I could a give a thousand reasons why / But you’re going, and you know that / All you have to stay / A minute, just take your time / The clock is ticking, so stay.”
Can we just talk about “Stay”? How it’s one of the best, if not THE best EDM song of 2017? How Zedd goes above and beyond as a producer, from the soulful backtrack vocal that gives heavy Des’ree “You Gotta Be” vibes to the Daft Punk choir that turns the refrain into a cybertronic transmission lifted straight from the depths of TRON to the glossy, glitched out funk of the breakdown? But above all else, can we talk about Cara, stepping up to the mic as a disco-clad dance diva for the first time and punching each syllable in the pre-chorus like the fully realized pop star that she’s become? ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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: “In my room there’s a king-sized space / Bigger than it used to be / If you want, you can rent that place / Call me an amenity / Even if it’s in my dreams.”
I’ve always entertained the fantasy of “Bad Liar” being born from a drug-fueled studio session between Regina Spektor and Taylor Swift, a chance encounter of two drastically different musicians that creates a cohesive work of pop art that just happened to land in Gomez’s lap. Though that’s certainly not what happened, it’s easy to hear Spektor in the way Gomez playfully sing-talks her way through lyrics that are as charming as they are unsettling. It effectively makes the use of silence in a way no other Julia Michaels co-write has, creating a vacuum between syllables that sucks all of the breath from Gomez’s already breathless croon. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”
Album/EP: DAMN. (buy)
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Key Lyric: “My DNA not for imitation, your DNA an abomination / This is how it is when you’re in the Matrix / Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow.”
As a white man, it’s impossible for me to proficiently encapsulate everything that makes Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” the earth shuddering statement of purpose that it is. It’s more than a seething middle finger to everyone who ever tried to put him in a box because of his race, his style, his genre and his past. It’s more than a call to arms for black men and women tired of the rest of the world trying to relate to them through their own narrow life experiences. And frankly, to even try to understand K Dot’s poetry, you need to listen to not just the song, but the world around you. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Jessie Ware, “Alone”
Album/EP: Glasshouse (buy)
Label: PMR/Island/Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope
Key Lyric: “Say that you’re the one who’s taking me home / ‘Cause I want you on my skin and my bones / Knocking me off my feet / Just say I’m the one that you need (oh, please) / Say that you’re the one who’s taking me home.”
Ware is a pop genius, well ahead of her time. Her third album, Glasshouse, is stacked with hooks on hooks on hooks. But her most searing moment comes with “Alone,” a sultry downtempo about her love for someone, who is so enticing she wrote a song about them. Pinned with finger snaps, haunting gospel-infueced “ooo”s and an earnest vocal, it is destined to get stuck in your head for all of eternity. Hyperbole aside: “Alone” is a masterclass of smart, delicious pop craft.
St. Vincent , “Fear The Future”
Album/EP: MASSEDUCTION (buy)
Label: Loma Vista Recordings
Key Lyric: “When the war start anew / In our bed, in our room / I’ll come for you / Come for me, too.”
If you’re still on the fence regarding St. Vincent’s status as one of the few bona fide rock stars of our era (and if you are, you clearly haven’t touched the bulk of her discography), look only to “Fear the Future” as proof. The stadium sized, apocalyptic rush of tension, rage, and terror finds Annie Clark slicing through the stratosphere with razor-edged guitars and thunderous drums, calling out into the void with incredible vocal power as she bemoans both her partner and the state of the world she lives in. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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 washed in the blood of the Lamb, and whatever you’re going through, you see it with clear, renewed mind, body and spirit.
Key Lyric: “Cause I’m a beautiful wreck / A colorful mess, but I’m funny / Oh, I’m a heartbreak vet / With a stone-cold neck, yeah, I’m charming.”
Kehlani released a lot of great music in 2017, but nothing seemed as simple, sweet and genuine as “Honey,” a same-sex love song she released as a standalone single back in the fall. Where the R&B wunderkind utilized multi-layered, complex production with her previous albums and mixtapes, “Honey” is only Kehlani’s sugary voice and a sprightly acoustic guitar. It’s here Kehlani’s beautiful voice is truly given the space to shine, and she curves it gracefully around her blush-worthy depiction of her lover, Kehlani stopping only to remind her boo of why the sensual songbird is worth staying with. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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, bestowing all her secrets and the most intimate of thoughts. The classic melody remains intact and you can feel the presence of Lee guiding Krauss’ delicate interpretation.
Lorde , “Hard Feelings/Loveless”
Album/EP: Melodrama (buy)
Label: Republic Records
Key Lyric: “But I still remember everything, how we’d drift buying groceries / How you’d dance for me / I’ll start letting go of little thing ‘til I’m so far away from you, far away from you.”
More than any other track on Melodrama, “Hard Feelings” captures the most potent moments found from her debut Pure Heroine – breathy synths, thunderous 808s and a depiction of love in equal parts forlorn and charming. Here, love is a stray ember from a blown out candle, and she watches it flicker out before looking ahead with a soft, sad smile. But If “Hard Feelings” is Lorde content with what she’s left behind, “Loveless” is when the poorly constructed dam built from nights convincing herself “I’ve moved on” breaks, and bitterness bites so deep even the strongest drink can’t quell its molten burn. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
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.
Label: Harvest Records
Key Lyric: “I wanna get you in my spaces / I wanna take you different places / I know the touring is romantic / I know you see me as a frantic girl.”
Untethered by darkness that prowls throughout her most ubiquitous material, Banks creates something gentle, even delicate with “Crowded Places.” I don’t watch Girls, so I can’t fully understand the context in which the song soundtracked the finale, but “Crowded Places” holds its own cinematic power for me. Banks paints a portrait of shattered romance, coming to terms with her own faults and battling with the push and pull of her hesitation and affection. She also sings of a restless April morning, a sweaty spring afternoon, cigarette ash littered on brick, tears staining bed sheets, and above all else, a stomach churning mixture of yearning and isolation. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Label: Keyzar Entertainment
Key Lyric: “And you make me so hollow / Got me empty like this bottle / But when I wake up tomorrow / I’ve been wondering, wondering where I’ve been wrong.”
Sun-scorched and vulnerable, John.k’s ex really did a number on him. There is something truly holy about a redemptive story arc. On “Wrong,” John.k seeks counsel in a sterling group of gospel singers, who turn the fizzy pop track into a come-to-God hallelujah. Its cathedral-like shimmer rattles from John.k’s monstrous falsetto down into the icy finger snaps echoing in some far away cavern. He’s only four tracks into his career so far, and his muscularity with vocal acrobatics and melodic side-swipes is already outstanding.
Album/EP: Saturation II (buy)
Label: Ministry of Song Recordings
Key Lyric: “Seen that shit that they drop, that shit not instantly hot / I give that instant re-bop, that replay value go off.”
It’s clear from the faux-Disney intro that “Gummy” may be the most rambunctious rap song to come out this year, more fun than half of what’s been on the radio and the charts in 2017. It’s because of Kevin Abstract’s Childish Gambino-like snark in the first verse, the hip-swaying hook, the sneering outro. Most importantly, it’s how each mini-verse moves from member to member, each BROCKHAMPTON rapper flexing their own flow and slyly trying to one up each other like only the best of friends do. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Key Lyric: “The older I get, the fewer friends I have / But you don’t need a lot when the ones that you got have always got your back.”
Jackson carries his pain and heartache, joy and comfort, good times and bad, on his sleeve. There is so much sorrow that can come with age, but he reminds the listener, life is as sweet as you make it. It’s a tough pill to swallow, and one we all must take sooner or later. As with much of his work, Jackson’s voice ⎯⎯ which begins to crack with raw emotion on the last few repetitions of the chorus ⎯⎯ is grounded in simplicity, leading the arrangement of fiddle, guitar and gently-shivering drums to be as comforting as it is moving.
MUNA , “Crying On The Bathroom Floor”
Album/EP: About U (buy)
Label: RCA Records
Key Lyric: “I’m crying on the bathroom floor / Tearing off the dress I wore / I wonder if I could ever ask for more / If I’m ever gonna ask for more from a lover.”
In “Crying On The Bathroom Floor,” MUNA describe an abusive relationship in it’s extreme, in equal parts desolate, isolating, shattering and weighty. In order to effectively counteract the raw songwriting, Katie Gavin’s mournful croon is laid across a thrumming, glittery ’80s styled beat that’s meant for the dance floor. This makes the track multi-purpose, whether you need it for when you’re actually crying on the bathroom floor in a private bathroom at work, or for later, to give your morning jog a dance break because you just realized you’re free from the exact relationship MUNA are describing. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Key Lyric: “I don’t get dehydrated, I moisturize it daily / I am my inspiration, I am my inspiration (get up).”
Lizzo’s no-fucks attitude is best displayed through this waterfall-gushing clapback called “Water Me.” Boiling over with an unmerciful hybrid of disco, pop and funk, she moisturizes the eardrums with one of the year’s most invigorating hooks. It’s unruly message of empowerment is exactly what women, non-binary folks and female-identifying individuals need to hear most this year, as they dismantle the patriarchy one bold move after another. Lizzo’s vocal is rather penetrating, sneaking under your fingernails and leaving you emboldened to take on an egregious system, fiercely and unapologetically.
Paramore , “Forgiveness”
Album/EP: After Laughter (buy)
Label: Fueled By Ramen
Key Lyric: “And I don’t pick up when you call / ‘Cause your voice is a gun / Every word is a bullet hole / Shot a hole in the sun / If I never look up, maybe I’ll never notice.”
Hayley Williams is as buoyant as she is blistering on “Forgiveness,” lithe even as she’s boiling in quiet rage. In fact, one of the main reasons this is such a standout on an already cohesively-incredible album is how well she tows the line between reaching inward and striking outward. She’s sneering as she boldly challenges her antagonist in the refrain (“You want forgivness..) but in the same breath, softly chastises herself (“I can barely hang on to myself”). But above her brash finger-pointing and cutting self-admission, a dreamy, island-tinged rock beat steadily plods along, bringing in a cool breeze to sooth the burn. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Label: Swim Out Records
Key Lyric: “I have seen the future / Maybe it’s already here / Stick your head around the corner / Tell me if the coast is clear.”
Richardson wriggles between anxiety and calm, corralling jilted tension on this sparkling but lo-fi alt-pop track. Through her own charred wreckage, she devises a dreamy sonnet about what it means to grow old and understand yourself. It’s the jarring clarity, cutting like a butcher knife through butter, as she wails into the firmament for the meaning of life, that ignites the listener’s own rebellion. Spectacularly overexposed, “Waking Life” hits like the final knockout punch in a boxing match. You know it’s coming, but there’s never any preparing for it.
Kelela , “Frontline”
Album/EP: Take Me Apart (buy)
Label: Warp Records Limited
Key Lyric: “Hold on, wait, you’re fucking with my groove / Getting on this plane, making moves / Cry and talk about it baby, but it ain’t no use / I ain’t gonna sit here with your blues.”
“Frontline” is a text sent in an Uber on the way to the club, body snatched for the gods, dressed to make an entrance, and above all else, newly minted as single. Kelela is crisp, she’s to the point, she’s sympathetic but she’s not going back to her pleading ex-lover. Her unending confidence would be sexy enough as is, but the way she pours her voice smoothly, evenly over the diamond-sharp percussion and sub-zero synths is nothing short of invigorating. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Angaleena Presley, “Dreams Don’t Come True”
Album/EP: Wrangled (buy)
Label: Mining Light Music
Key Lyric: “I thought I’d change the world with three chords and the truth / I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs / My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool / And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school.”
Leave Presley to weave biting humor and demoralizing observations of the music industry in the same phrase. But that’s just her way. Her work, especially on Wrangled, is world-weary, and the only way to lumber through the Music Row swamp is to crack jokes. At the heart of humor is truth, and Presley never sugarcoats, offering up honest, often bleak tales of real life. With the aid of her trusty Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, “Dreams” saws right to the bone.
Album/EP: Pop 2 (buy)
Label: Asylum/Atlantic Records UK
Key Lyric: “In the backseat / Your song, so loud / Driving so fast / I’m better off alone.”
Jepsen & Charli XCX have been the purveyors of exceptional feel-good pop for years, Jepsen focusing on the dizzying head-rush that comes with falling in love, XCX centering most of her hits around neon-lit, liquor soaked nights out on the town. Both have a terrific knack for creating beautifully sad break up songs, downtrodden pop gems buried deep within their catalogs. With “Backseat,” they focus on the latter and channel all of their talent and craftsmanship into the gloomy yet glittery futuristic ballad. Charli’s metallic purr drips across a tale of heartbroken hedonism, and Carly breathlessly questions fading romance in a duet that stands out as one of the biggest pop moments of 2017. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Sunny Sweeney, “Bottle by My Bed”
Album/EP: Trophy (buy)
Label: Aunt Daddy Records
Key Lyric: “My only bedtime story is a People magazine / I’d rather be in a carpool lane than this big cold limousine / I’d trade every pair of high heel shoes for a high chair in the dining room / Don’t even know you yet but I know I love you.”
Encumbered with wanting a child so badly it hurts, Sweeney observes her friends with children and the life she could and should have. She’d even give up “these damn old cigarettes” to hear a baby cry from down the hall. The lonesome violin works in tandem with the throbbing drum kit and Sweeney’s eviscerating vocal. It’s a straightforward, mellow arrangement, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It could happen to anyone.
Key Lyric: “I can see it now, tripping on split stones / Trying to make hits so we could play them loud / Picking at our souls like we didn’t know /Just like we’re only playing with the sound.”
Rogers constructs her voice around music so meticulously crafted you wonder how long it takes the artist to create just one song. “Split Stones” for instance, has a stuttered exhale sporadically spread throughout the song as an echo to the beat, with background percussion that sounds like clinking dinner plates and even at one point, the sound of someone pouring a glass of water. It’s all in a frenzied effort to get the world off its feet and dancing. In fact, when Rogers asks earnestly if we could ever see past the radio fluff to move to the beautiful music around us in everyday life, it’s less an accusation and more a plea. ⎯⎯ Chris Will
Jason Scott’s Honorable Mentions: Taylor Swift’s “Delicate,” Margo Price’s “Pay Gap,” Maren Morris & Vince Gill’s “Dear Hate,” Gonzalla’s “T.M.V.” and Whiskey Shivers’ “ Fuck You”
Chris Will’s Honorable Mentions: Kesha’s “Rainbow,” Betty Who’s “The Valley,” N.E.R.D & Rihanna’s “Lemon,” Lorde feat. Khalid, SZA, & Post Malone’s “Homemade Dynamite” (Remix)