Our Top 25 Songs of 2017.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut To the Feeling” [Interscope/School Boy]
If 2015 was marked by Carly Rae Jepsen’s lowkey entry into the cultural zeitgeist — Emotion established her as indie’s favorite idol, a popstar for the poptimists — then 2016’s Emotion Side B EP was a surprisingly strong victory lap. Once previously panned as a one hit wonder, suddenly her b-sides were getting as much attention as any normal release, as evident as what amounts to a movie soundtrack throwaway placing so highly in our list. At this point, this year’s “Cut to the Feeling” is her simply showing off, CRJ flaunting yet another effortlessly whimsical pop bop.
At this point, it’s par for the course for her, from its brilliantly colorful handclap and shuffling percussion driven intro to its sparkly synth driven chorus with blink and you’ll miss it adlibs sprinkled throughout. There’s an innocent glee to all of it (after all, it was originally used in the 2016 children’s animated film, Ballerina) not too dissimilar to “Call Me Maybe.” But whereas her original hit saw her pining for a romantic interest, “Cut to the Feeling” finds Jepsen calling the shots. “Cancel your reservations / No more hesitations, this is on / I want it all or nothing / No more in-between, now give your…, she urges, drawing her breath into a tight gasps of, “… everything to me, let’s get real baby.” As always, her ebullient attitude remains infectious. – Edward Dunbar
4. The National – “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” [4AD]
The National is one of those rare bands that is better to see live than to listen to on record, because they still sound a little scrappy live, whereas on record they have increasingly sounded like a Mature Rock Band, with plenty of strengths but also muddy crescendos—like the E Street Band on quaaludes
A song like this, then—apart from its preposterous title—brings back a bit of edge and urgency to a band that needed a kick in the pants. Though its opening flirts with U2 territory, it settles into a “Sympathy for the Devil”-style shuffle punctuated with an actual riff (!) and lightly syncopated rhythms.
Lyrically, the verses traverse well-trod Berningerian ground, which is to say they are vaguely affecting and affectingly vague. He is a master of the non-sequitur, which he deploys not in the service of irony but, rather, in a way that would seem to mirror the addled thoughts of a confused mind—“I thought that this would all work out after a while/ Now you’re saying that I’m asking for too much attention/ Also no other faith is light enough for this place/ We said we’d only die of lonely secrets.” Though addressed to an unnamed “you,” it often sounds like he could be talking to and of himself.
Lines like these don’t really “scan” or even read particularly well, but if anyone knows how to sing them, it’s Berninger. Above all, though, it’s the chorus that makes the song–“I can’t explain it/ Any other, any other way”—a chorus sung in a higher register to disarmingly catchy effect. That, and the honest-to-goodness guitar solo that follows makes this a tune that shows that the National guys still have a few tricks up their sleeve that we hadn’t seen yet—The National ain’t done haunting us yet. – Dylan Montanari
3. Lorde – “Green Light” [Republic/Lava]
Even though recent releases by Lana del Rey and Halsey are still capitalizing on Lorde’s alt-brooder sound from Pure Heroine, Lorde’s latest release moves beyond her youthful debut with the aid of acclaimed producer Jack Antonoff, who pushed her further into the realm of anthem-pop. Although Melodrama relies on her typical brooding affect, Lorde’s lead single “Green Light” demonstrates her knack for creating infectious pop hooks out of depressive motifs. While “Green Light” maintains the emotion of Pure Heroine, the song skips with the pop energy of a dance-floor diva ready to push her sound even more mainstream, resulting in the ultimate pop break-up anthem of 2017.
Starting with open piano chords, Lorde bares her wounds about a broken relationship as she seethes in her characteristic whispery contralto: “I know about what you did/ And I want to scream the truth.” But the pre-chorus bounds with a jangly piano riff and a throbbing four-on-the-floor kick, she strives to find something positive, despite her loss: “I hear sounds in my mind/ Brand new sounds in my mind. These “new sounds” aren’t enough, though, to keep her from projecting images of her absent partner everywhere she goes.
Even as she tries to move on, her chorus hook resounds with unfulfilled romantic desire: “I wish I could get my things and just let go.” Despite her desperation to “just let go” of a poor relationship, the chorus achieves the sing-along anthem status that Antonoff strives for in his other projects, bringing Lorde’s typical pessimism into the realm of arena pop: she shouts laden with reverb, “I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it.
Although Antonoff’s grandiose production of “Green Light” is a surprising twist after Lorde’s more minimal dark alt-pop debut, this single maintains the more brooding themes of her earlier work, while also seamlessly integrating contagious pop hooks in a way that showcases that she is more than a one album wonder. – Ethan King
2. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.” [Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment]
Kendrick Lamar in 2013: “I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York/ King of the Coast; one hand, I juggle ’em both.”
Kendrick Lamar in 2017: “Get the fuck off my stage, I’m the Sandman/ Get the fuck off my dick, that ain’t right/ I make a play fucking up your whole life.”
The former comes from Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control”. The latter comes from Lamar’s number one (!) single “HUMBLE.” Lamar turned 30 this year, making him a de facto elder statesman of hip-hop. One would think the spectre of the big Three-Oh would cast a shadow of modesty over him. Yeah, no. He may be more reasonable than his peers in his desire for honest portrayal in the media, but by no means does he see himself as anything but the best in the game.
The scary part is that he’s probably right. We probably take for granted Kendrick’s ability to astonish as he expertly slides in and out of the pocket of a beat. Here, he dances both with and between ominous piano plinking and concrete-splitting 808 bass, courtesy of Mike WiLL, making it seem like his voice is a part of the production.
And yet, it’s not the beat or Kendrick’s flow or his dictionally-efficient hook that gives “HUMBLE.” its staying power. Rather, it’s the song’s universality that’s derived from its simple directive – “Be humble/ Sit down”. It’s aimed at every other rapper in the game, yes, but Kendrick could also be talking to the president or even you. We as a people could use a little humility these days, so let’s all take a moment to thank King Kendrick for the reminder. – Steve Lampiris
1. Kendrick Lamar – “DNA.” [Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment]
As Jordan Peele’s powerful directorial debut, Get Out, horrifically satirized on the silver screen this year, America’s entrenched racism runs more than skin deep; rather than color alone, our ugly racial history has often fixated on “genetic makeup.” Kendrick Lamar’s incisive salvo “DNA” doesn’t explicitly discuss broad themes of racism in America, instead personalizing and internalizing the discussion all the way down to his genome.
Kendrick unloads on the double standard that often applies to African Americans when it comes to success: poverty is seen as a personal flaw while wealth or fame as a bestowed privilege. Kendrick recognizes that platforms achieved through talent and hard work are often held against those black artists or athletes who use them to express their voice. Smack dab in the center of “DNA,” Kendrick samples the Fox News quote, “Hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” an asinine statement by talking mustache Geraldo Rivera, which encapsulates how, even as emboldened neo-Nazis and KKK members march in the streets, black men bluntly expressing the realities of their experiences are often seen as a greater threat.
With “DNA,” Kendrick also delves into the duality of human nature, which is capable of both good or ill (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.”) Over an infectious low-end thump provided by producer Mike Will Made It, Kendrick spits braggadocio about his ascension to music “royalty” and its corresponding wealth. It’s a celebration of transcending his gritty origins that Lamar acknowledges may irk Fox News pearl-clutchers (“Shit I been through prolly offend you”), who routinely rail against PC-culture run amok while hypocritically decrying free speech they don’t like. In a year that has rubbed salt in America’s racial wounds, “DNA” finds catharsis in exultant and unapologetic swagger. – Josh Goller