Year End Music Countdowns #16: 2017

Hey. How are you doing? Everything ok? Good to hear! Alright, here are the best songs of the year:

The Top 25 Songs of 2017

 

25. City of Stars– Justin Hurwitz feat. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone —

With a soundtrack rightfully lauded by critics as one of the best in 2016 cinema, La La Land left behind something so few movies do nowadays: a lasting sonic impression. Memorable hooks are a thing of the past for most Hollywood scores, but they’re plentiful in this film and in this song. Sung by the leads, it straddles a precarious balance between wistful and optimistic, delivering a little of both from each side of the emotional spectrum. It results in a perfect emotional arc contained entirely within a few minutes.—————————————–

24. Three Rings– Grizzly Bear —Somewhere right now in his avant-garde British home Thom Yorke opens an envelope from his mailbox, taking out a royalty cheque addressed to him from the boys in Grizzly Bear. “Three Rings” is Radiohead to a T, from the swaying tempo to the mournful vocals to the pinwheel arpeggios to the lush soundscape. It could stand to use about thirty seconds of extraneous instrumental bits, but it’s a lot more structured and concise than both the artsy UK crew’s recent output and Grizzly Bear’s own work.

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23. No Known Drink or Drug– JapandroidsIt’s hard to pinpoint exactly what genre Vancouver duo Japandroids fit into. The band is frenetic, loud, and mercilessly fast. But they’re too experimental for punk. Too polished for garage rock. Too upbeat for emo. They bear all the hallmarks of different styles but slotting them into any particular one will cause debate. Like this song, a lot of the songs from the new record revolve simply around frontman Brian King being…really happy that he’s in love. It’s strangely endearing.

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22. Total Entertainment Forever– Father John Misty —

Josh Tillman should be taking notes on his current tour, specifically “the crowd loves my upbeat songs”. His latest album Pure Comedy is pretty light on them, with the eternal cynic channeling his effort into pure piano ballads this time around. This first single is an exception, and a marvelous one at that. It’s vast and orchestral in Tillman’s singular style, filled with horns and piano licks leading to a sublime bridge. It’s also got the balladeer’s trademark insightful lyrics, this time taking on the rising phenomenon of VR headsets.

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21. Sunset– Acceptance

Sometimes the best palate cleanser is something simple. In a climate where artists are scrambling to mine any scene that hasn’t been scavenged yet and every genre is being mashed up with every other genre, it’s the regular four-piece alternative rockers that stick out. The average has become the outlier.

There’s no boundary pushing here. This is the familiar, uncomplicated sound of a singer, guitar, drums, bass, and a keyboard. There’s a few verses, a few choruses, and a clear-throated vocalist soaked in reverb delivering them with a hard emphasis on melody over lyricism. It’s essentially Don Henley‘s “Boys of Summer” in a minor key interpolation; a mopey man singing about some lost love during the warm months of the year. Nothing less, nothing more.

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20.  Holy Mountain– Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds —

In case it hasn’t become obvious over the past decade- Noel is the superior Gallagher brother. Wittier, more intellectual, and overall a better musician than Liam, he also has this strange habit of actually finishing his sets! Noel’s also unafraid of a little experimentation, while Liam’s still doling out the soccer hooligan pub fare he’s been doing since the Oasis days. On the latest record from the High Flying Birds Noel’s gone retro, and this chugging first single is unlike anything he’s ever done before. Brass instruments and a lead keyboard hook crisscross throughout the 1960s styled stomper that finds the elder Gallagher reinvigorated after a slightly turgid offering in 2015, showing that there’s a lot of neat ideas still left in his “potato head”.

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19. Eloise– Hollerado  —

Thanks a lot, Trump- everything is upside down in 2017. It legitimately feels like there’s been some sort of warp in the space-time continuum and we’re in some alternate universe where logic doesn’t apply anymore. But hey, at least we got a good song out of Hollerado. Yeah, for real! The merchants of jangle-rock have legitimately written a straightforward rocker with a nice collection of hooks. The 90s alt-rock influenced tune even manages to dole out some decent lyrics.

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18. Deadcrush– alt-J —

Alright, this is the weirdo-indie we wanted! It’s full of the band’s trademark touches, from the sampled SFX acting as surrogate percussion to the nonsense lyrics. They also dabble with some modern tricks like pitch shifted vocals that float in and out throughout the song. Most importantly though, it’s got a defined structure and unique but complementary chord progression. It’s the most accessible moment on the new album, and a single-worthy contribution to modern alternative music.

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17. Half a Million– The Shins —

It seems like James Mercer is turning into indie rock’s Rivers Cuomo– plundering his “legacy” (the infamous Garden State quote) and image in order to continue making music. He even sounds like the Weezer frontman on this song, which borrows liberally from The Cars‘ songwriting. It’s the best song from the new record though, and the fact it has two choruses is commendable.

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16. Bad Luck Again- Rural Alberta Advantage —

Frontman Nils Edenloff is probably sick to death of hearing the Billy Corgan comparisons, but man this band is literally if Smashing Pumpkins went folk- and that’s very much a good thing. Ever since they appeared on the radar back in 2010 they’ve been a reliable source of well-structured, dynamic tunes. They’re also positively furious on stage, which bodes well for when they play “Bad Luck Again” in the future. The song bristles with energy, getting louder and louder exponentially as it travels toward its tumultuous end.

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15. Aurelia– AFI —

What a strange year for Davey Havok. He put out this album with AFI, then toured behind it, then formed a weird and kind of pointless supergroup with the guys in No Doubt, then went back to touring with AFI??? Which makes sense, because this is a pretty good album and song and he should be pushing this rather than an overdone new wave act.

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14. No Promises– San Fermin —

San Fermin have an interesting set-up. There are two vocalists, but neither is the songwriter. That duty belongs to Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who composes the ornate songs but leaves the singing to Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye. Each one usually helms an entire track, with the lead position evenly divided on each record.

Tate’s contributions have been double-edged swords. While they have been the more popular songs, Tate’s also received criticism for “ripping off” The National vocalist Matt Berninger.

For whatever reason, Tate is on far fewer tracks on the new San Fermin record, and the ones he does feature on are decidedly lesser songs. Kaye’s got the biggest and best hooks, including this Stevie Nicks inspired number. It’s most likely true that Tate wouldn’t be the best fit for the frenetic choruses or bridge, but it would have been nice to hear his steady baritone during a verse or two. Regardless, the song hits hard and nails the exact modern-poet aesthetic Ludwig-Leone has perfected.

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13. Live in the Moment– Portugal. The Man —

Traditional career trajectories have been thrown out the window in this new climate. Where it was once standard practice for a band to toil in obscurity for years before achieving success, it’s more of a “get big quick or go home” type deal now. That’s why it’s surprising (and awesome) to see that long time indie rockers Portugal. The Man stuck it out for a decade and eight albums to finally get their time in the spotlight. Woodstock‘s first single “Feel It Still” was their first Billboard Top 100 song, and this follow-up should ensure a repeat visit to the charts.

It’s beefier than “Feel it Still”, and not quite as lyrically lighthearted, but no less catchy. It’s virtually one giant hook, with the melody winding up and down all the right notes over the rumbling rhythm that’s underpinned hits like The Black Keys‘ “Howlin’ For You” and Muse‘s “Uprising”. Let’s hope this track joins their ranks.

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12. Angel– Shout Out Louds —

Who are these guys? Like the similarly named Shout Out Out Out Out, they rode a wave of brief hype in the mid-2000s and have stayed firmly ensconced in that era ever since. It’s almost as if they don’t want to be big! This song could be a modern indie hit, and they’ve buried it deep in their latest album. A shame, because it’s literally the perfect pop song. It’s essentially one long hook from start to finish; four distinct and totally unique melodies stitched together in a wonderfully sticky manner and clothed in strangely indescribable style. It’s kind of like Empire of the Sun and The Verve mashed together; “indie alternative” is about an apt a label as you can get.

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11. Attention– Charlie Puth

2017 just keeps on throwing wrenches into the mix, as one time Sam Smith imitator Charlie Puth has dropped not just a tolerable radio hit but the best pure pop song of the year. With its spindly Arctic Monkeys guitar line, speaker-shaking bass, and slinky-coil hooks it digs deep into your brain and resides there for the better part of the day. It’s not perfect– Puth’s voice still sounds like a deflating air mattress, and some of his affectations can be a little cloying. (Side note: in addition to all the unnecessary vocal tics, there’s a random sigh towards the end of the song that sounds like he’s about to burst into tears?) All that said, the good parts of the song outweigh the contrivances and result in an ultimately listenable Top 40 hit.

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10. Close Your Eyes– The All-American Rejects —

Tyson Ritter and crew aren’t too far removed from straight up pop. Though they emerged from the mainstream emo scene of the 2000s, nobody would blink if they went the route of their sunny peers in Plain White T’s, Hot Chelle Rae, and American Authors. They may very well continue down that path, considering the A-side of this song is the radio friendly arena stomper “Sweat”. But as this song proves, there’s always been a more adventurous side to Ritter.

(One needs only to remember that their contribution to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland soundtrack was a supremely strange multi-part song called “The Poison”. It was pretty awful, but it still showed the band willing to experiment long before every other alternative act was dabbling in unconventional song structure.)

On “Close Your Eyes”, the band tries their hardest to distance themselves from pop-punk and the risk pays off remarkably well. The song gives off a late night beach side atmosphere, sounding not too dissimilar to Brandon Flowers‘ single “Only the Young”. The warm synth pads, the laid back rhythm, the slide guitars of that song are all here as well. Ritter even does a surprisingly competent impression of The Killers frontman during the bridge, right down to Flowers’ trademark cadence. Hey, there’s much worse songs they could have ripped off, and they made it different enough to stand on its own. At least they tried. *star sticker*

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9. The Man– The Killers —

For all their melodrama, the Las Vegas quartet has always had a sly sense of humour present in their music. Their “Derelict Santa” Christmas trilogy is a good example, as are their sketches with Jimmy Kimmel. This humour’s helped offset their towering statements with a wink and a grin, and it’s amped up a bit more than usual in this song for any listeners who don’t understand subtlety. Brandon Flowers plays a swaggering caricature of machismo with an ego so big it almost matches those of real celebrities. It’s beefed up so much you couldn’t possibly take the words at face value, particularly lines like “Baby I’m gifted/ See what I mean?/ USDA/ certified lean”. In case all that isn’t enough- there’s a sound effect of a champagne cork popping to hammer the sarcasm home. The lyrics match the thick, brawny riff perfectly, and the Bowie-esque strut (including a shout out to Fame) makes for a confident first single that sets the stage for an exciting new sound from the band.

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8. american dream– LCD Soundsystem —

Upon listening to my 2016 year-end countdown, someone told me that my taste in music was “sad man wailing over twinkling bells”, which isn’t entirely inaccurate. It also describes this song to a T.

Yes, LCD Soundsystem have written a song that checks every one of my boxes.

It wasn’t until seeing the band headline a festival last year that I understood exactly why they’re so revered. This isn’t to say that I’m suddenly a #1 fan of James Murphy‘s repetitive 7-minute electronic poetry, but I respect his craft and recognize him as an auteur of genuine art.

A cursory glance shows that this new song bears all the hallmarks of your standard LCD Soundsystem song. It’s six minutes long, built over a cyclical chord progression, and the lyrics are about a guy disillusioned with modern love. Unlike the rambling milquetoast of “Someone Great” however, “american dream” is- dare I say, melodramatic? The celestial keyboard riff sounds like the saddest lullaby melody ever recorded, and Murphy sounds legitimately distraught at times. There’s even a fully cohesive outro where everything escalates and comes together like a real song and everything. New York’s poet laureate actually caved and wrote something in traditional song structure, and it worked out wonderfully.

 

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7. III Ray (The King)– Kasabian —Kasabian are part of that group of second-tier UK garage-rock revivalists who had a few big hits about a decade ago and then subsequently dropped off the buzz bin radar. See also: Kaiser Chiefs and Hard-Fi. However all three of these bands have continued to release dependably solid and criminally underrated albums over the past ten years. Kasabian’s track record is pretty great, barring 2011 misstep Velociraptor.

This album looks to be another collection of eminently listenable tunes, with this song being a feisty highlight. It’s a high-energy Arctic Monkeys knockoff, but it’s fun and in the absence of material from that band it’ll do.

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6. Don’t Take the Money– Bleachers —

Interesting how the influence of the 80s is so incredibly prevalent in modern music, but it’s really only mined from a handful of artists? There’s a whole decade of sounds to use and yet most acts only take cues from U2, Prince, INXS, The Cure, and Bananarama.

Jack Antonoff though, being the drama geek he is, knows that the most emotive moments are sometimes also the most heavy-handed. And he’s not embarrassed to telegraph his appreciation for those moments. “Don’t Take the Money” has hints of Erasure, Simple Minds, and even a little Howard Jones in its DNA. It’s decidedly uncool, but after years of constant plastic jangle-funk “coolness” from every other band in the world, this New York-centred story of picking love over money is a welcome island of respite.

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5. Adore– Amy Shark — 

Most contemporary love songs are just a series of generic platitudes and vague declarations of devotion. There’s a bank of about 50 words that artists dip into and make their lyrics with. To add to the interchangeable nature, the perspective is always the same as well- that of someone in a relationship that is either going really well or not so well.

“Adore” is the heart wrenching sound of Amy Shark pining away for an unrequited love, a late night ballad thrown over a woozy guitar hook and a leisurely hip hop beat. Shark speaks directly from the heart, but it’s never accusatory or bitter. She simply celebrates tiny moments with her object of affection, relaying the entirely relatable experience of magnifying every interaction when in the throes of love. The simplest brush of your arm against theirs becomes the stuff of legend; you’ve got a permanent set of rose-coloured glasses on. The sincerity dripping from Shark’s voice when she delivers these and other sentiments is very evidently genuine, especially when she sings the words “I adore you”. It’s a pure expression of emotion that makes every other pop song sound like it was written by a Hallmark card committee.

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4. Run– Foo Fighters — 

If you’d told me last year that the Foos would even be on my chart this year, I would have scoffed pretentiously and taken a sip of some rich person drink. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked the band, but I’d also sort of written them off as anything worth paying attention to. I was more surprised at this song than I was with the solid offerings from artists I previously disliked (Katy Perry, Hollerado, Said the Whale, LCD Soundsystem).

The Foos have delivered something really special here. As I’ve written before, the eminently reliable kings of alternative rock are still at the top of their game commercially. Now with about thirty radio singles to their name, you’d think they’d be shelved to legacy act status or at least relegated to active rock markets. Nope, they’re still a big deal. Luckily this time around the lead single is worth the fuss. A bizarre cross between Dave Grohl‘s Probot side project and the more emotive Foo singles (“Everlong”, “Best of You”, “Rope”), it stands out immediately not just on its own terms but as one of the band’s singles as well. Twenty-two years into their career, have written one of their best songs ever. The Foo Fighters aren’t just relevant- they’re vital.

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3. Cali God– Grace Mitchell — 

If Lorde‘s abdicated the throne of dark mistress of darkness, perhaps it’s Grace Mitchell who can sit herself down in that seat. The Oregon-born ingenue doesn’t have too much of a catalogue to pore over, but it definitely seems like she’s vying for the title of Lorde 2.0. So far, she is doing a pretty decent job! The first time many people heard of the very red-headed Portland native was when the then 16-year old prodigy covered Hall and Oates‘ classic “Maneater” for the Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack back in 2013. She’s gearing up to introduce the world to her original work on a grand stage, playing not only WayHome but also this year’s Coachella, and there’s been a smattering of new material released over the course of the past year. 

This is the latest offering, and it’s a heavy-hitter that makes Lorde’s “dark” songs sound like Anne Murray ballads. A demonic chorus of pitch-shifted vocals hit what sounds like the lowest bass note possible, and the whole affair evokes a nightmarish post-party scene in a Los Angeles ghetto at 3:00 AM. Mitchell’s husky voice sets her apart from the dozens of singers trying so hard to be the next Ella Yellich-O’Connor, and adds the dramatic weight this song requires.

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2. Violet– The Districts — 

With its odd time signature, “Violet” is a shining example of how to try something different but still make a song people actually want to listen to. It’s not just the heartbeat rhythm that stands out either; pinpointing a definitive influence is challenging as well. Singer Rob Grote‘s vocals are absolutely informed by Hot Fuss era Brandon Flowers, and the lead synth line sounds like something from that record as well. The bouncy folk crossed with distortion guitars is a little more difficult to trace to a specific sound though, and makes for a song that can truly be called original in this day and age.

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AND THE BEST SONG OF 2017 IS…

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1. Ran- Future Islands — 

 

Well, they’ve done it. It was 2010 that Future Islands first appeared on these charts with the queasily great “In the Fall”. Since then they’ve improved exponentially every time they released another record, jumping up a few spots each time. A few years back Sam T. Herring and company finally broke through to the mainstream with the hit “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, along with Herring’s inimitable dance moves on Letterman. While that song was great and deserved the accolades it got, it was missing a few touches that would have launched it into stratospherically great territory. Clearly the band feels the same, as they’ve essentially rewritten that song but augmented it with a more melodic bass line and a crunch to the chorus that amps up the song’s dynamics. They’ve essentially delivered the purest expression of their band’s directive, the perfect Future Islands song.

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The 5 Best Albums of 2017 –

Here are the most well-rounded efforts taken into consideration as a whole piece of work:

5. [Near to the Wild Heart of Life]Japandroids

(Choice Cuts: “No Known Drink or Drug”, “North East South West”, “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will”) 

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4. [Woodstock]Portugal. The Man

(Choice Cuts: “Live in the Moment”, “Feel it Still”, “Number One”) 

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3. [Evolve]- Imagine Dragons

(Choice Cuts: “Whatever it Takes”, “Believer”, “I Don’t Know Why”) 

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2. [About U]- MUNA

(Choice Cuts: “Crying on the Bathroom Floor”, “Winterbreak”, “) 

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1. [Popular Manipulations]- The Districts

(Choice Cuts: “Violet”, “Salt”, “Will You Please Be Quiet Please?”) 


THE REST OF 2017

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There’s not really much to complain about this year. That’s both a comment on the tepid, inoffensive state of pop in 2017 and the fact that once again there were barely any songs worth talking about. Here’s a thorough list of THE BIG ONES.

The Shape of You-Ed Sheeran

Bodak Yellow- Cardi B

Bad & Boujee- Migos

Despacito (aka Sad Macarena)

New Rules- Dua Lipa

Mask Off- Future

HUMBLE- Kendrick Lamar

Wild Thoughts- DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna

Sad Macarena was undoubtedly the biggest of the big ones, with Ed Sheeran‘s kind-of-cringey Timberlake rip close behind. Mumble rap started to come into its own as a legitimate genre. To this day I still haven’t heard the Dua Lipa or Cardi B songs, but I’ve seen tons of memes about them so by my rules they qualify as hits that entered public consciousness. Kendrick Lamar will obviously win like 10000 awards. And then there’s the awful “Wild Thoughts”.

In a way it’s kind of reassuring that Rihanna can still deliver something reliably bad. Remember how annoying “Shine BRIGHT like a DIAmond!” was? How about last year’s “werk werk werk werk werk”? Good news, “Wild wild wild thoughts” is even worse. Enjoy “Wah- wah wah. Wah- wah wah.” This is dreck, plain and simple.


If there is one major sonic trend that dominated the airwaves this year, it was the rise of a very specific brand of female voice. It’s hard to precisely describe the affectation or its roots, but here’s a short list of those who employed it:

Alessia Cara, Billie Eilish, Julia Michael, Jocelyn Alice, Hailee Steinfeld, Halsey, Bebe Rexha, Kayla Diamond, Daya

The biggest influence is most likely Lorde. It’s about 45% of her hushed, smoky, precocious tone, combined with 35% old school Amy Winehouse drawl and 20% Demi Lovato‘s seam-bursting melodrama. Maybe a light touch of Caribbean patois in some cases. In any case, it seems like every female singer wants to be seen as a teen prodigy like the New Zealand native, a young millennial queen. Aka…self proclaimed spokesperson for the new youth: Halsey. Just listen to any Halsey song to hear it.

But that’s about it for music! Taylor Swift made some tabloid headlines and sold some albums but none of her songs made any sort of dent in public consciousness. Katy Perry did some bizarre promotion and also flopped. Even Drake and Eminem failed to have breakout hits. Spotify and streaming continue to eat away at music’s relevance as a commodity worth paying for, and it’s really only legacy acts that are surviving now- though even they’re fading.

OK well, I’m done writing now, maybe I’ll see you next year.

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