Currently, a single stream of a song is worth about a third of a penny. That’s obviously problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because: Certain songs are worth an immeasurable amount—whether they take over the airwaves and become a part of the environment collectively, or whether they play on repeat for you alone and transform your world selectively. Music is a powerful drug when it works, and when a specific song has something that connects on a molecular level, it can’t be placed with a monetary value. But if it could, it would be a lot more than $0.0033.
Trying to wrap your head around the quality and impact that certain songs make during a single year is getting more and more difficult, but the art of the single itself is still very much alive. Here are the ten songs from 2017 that pushed through the hardest to remind us of the true value of a good tune.
10. Chad VanGaalen — “Old Heads”
With Chad VanGaalen’s history of eccentric lyrical ballads, the unmasking of “Old Heads” as Light Information’s lead single may have caused some alarm due to its immediate plunge into progressive politics (“No one cares about their old heads,” warbles VanGaalen, “because the new ones work just fine, don’t they?”). But by the pulsating chorus of Cartesian-lite philosophies and jangle-pop rhythms, the song blossoms into pure VanGaalen-ian bliss reflecting a nostalgia for the frigid compositions of his early production work more than the lo-fi folk songs he’s been penning for over a decade. Instead of translating Calgary’s glacial winters into the bitter soundscapes of Women’s disperate factions, though, “Old Heads” is a playful romp through a fresh coat of powdery snow. It’s a wonderstruck dash of imagination negligent—if only for four minutes—of a tumultuous world in favor of the mystery of human existence, boasting the most puzzling query in a Canadian pop song since the enigma of what the hell was on Joey’s head. — Mike LeSuer
9. The Weather Station — “Kept It All to Myself”
During a conversation I had with Tamara Lindeman for FLOOD earlier this year, she explained that this dichotomous track has evolved into an inside joke of sorts. “Kept It All to Myself” has become the one song audiences consistently sing and dance along to at her live shows. It makes sense given the upbeat nature of the track’s instrumentation. But what began, for Lindeman, as bold meditation on introversion and privacy has evolved into a public singalong—a thing of beauty and of great amusement to the Canadian musician. She explained that she purposely set such heavy lyrical weight with a pop sensibility, complete with tambourine shakes and an anthemic string section. It was a means of exploring the many sides of romantic love and the self. The song’s a lyrical ringer, packed with philosophical insights and actual words, delivered via Lindeman’s dense-yet-fluid phrasing—a signature and arguably her greatest strength as a songwriter. It’s a multifaceted feat that has defied expectations, including the songwriter’s, in the best way possible. — Erin Osmon
8. LCD Soundsystem — “Call the Police”
Everything you needed to know about the return of LCD Soundsystem was right there in the first single: a “double-A-side” of “Call the Police” and “American Dream.” Just the juxtaposition of those two titles alone is enough to get where James Murphy is coming from. Reuniting his group during a climate in which people were literally fighting for simple acknowledgment that their lives mattered, in which hate and fear were the major arteries of a developing presidential campaign, Murphy didn’t have much choice in terms of what he was going to write about. On an album with four legitimate singles, “Call the Police” is the crown jewel, a massive airstrike of a song delivered from a generation-defining New York artist coming to terms with having to watch his city and country go to war with itself. “Call the police?” he asks incredulously at the end of the song, before answering himself: “You’re crazy, man.” The dream’s turned into a nightmare. — Nate Rogers
7. (Sandy) Alex G — “Proud”
James Carville once described Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle,” so it should’ve been no surprise to hear Rocket, Philadelphian Alex Giannascoli’s journey into Americana. While much of it has more of a Deliverance than an O Brother, Where Art Thou? feel, “Proud” has one of the rosiest folk instrumentals of the album. As we could have foreseen, though, it crescendos with darkness—“If I fuck up…” he sings to someone he loves, but those are the last words we hear. The song sees Giannascoli at his most organized and professionally recorded yet, though it still maintains the deadpan vocals and homy production that make his emotions all the more rattling. As always, his style is drained of all pretense and showmanship, so that feelings are all that remain. That’s exactly what indie rock was meant to be before it was imperialized, and in 2017 Giannascoli sounds like a lone survivor of Armageddon. — Jamie Lawlor
6. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie — “Sleeping Around the Corner”
When Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie recently returned to the studio where they recorded Tusk in 1979, they were gearing up for what they thought would be a new Fleetwood Mac album. In classic Mac fashion, something didn’t work out, and Stevie Nicks decided she was gonna sit this one out. Also in classic Mac fashion, Buckingham and McVie acted like that didn’t bother them in the least, so they made an album anyway. In listening to that album, you can tell that the two were bringing their A-Game for what would have theoretically been a highly-scrutinized legacy album for the main group, and nowhere is that more evident than on opener “Sleeping Around the Corner,” one of the most low-key fun songs of 2017. With hooks for days, it’s a masterclass example of the shameless pop that the band perfected in the ’70s and ’80s, with a perfectly balanced melodic structure anchoring those impossible-to-imitate hard-love aphorisms that the band was always so good at. (“If you want me to stay, you got to let me go,” Buckingham sings, whatever the hell that means.) Forget the reunion: This one might be better than the real thing. — Nate Rogers
5. Aldous Harding — “Imagining My Man”
In “Imagining My Man,” New Zealand singer/songwriter Aldous Harding sets the scene, and pulls mercilessly at heart strings, with this simple and profound utterance: “It’s not what I thought / And it’s not what I pictured / When I was imagining my man.” The song’s earnest examination of expectations, desire, and regret, the tender and cutting sides of new love, acts as a shot of blackstrap molasses. It’s slow-moving and bittersweet, filled with stuff that is good for you and stuff that is decidedly not—a touch of danger amidst all the essential nutrients.
Harding’s voice takes center stage among a simple piano repetition, soft guitar picking and gentle drum taps, hushed and soaring, inviting the listener to step inside an experience that is deeply personal and wholly universal. It’s one of this year’s finest confessions. And who knew that the quick “Hey!” that dots the chorus could be so controversial? The merits of the cheerful interstitial have been debated ad nauseum this year. It’s unexpected and saccharine, as jarring as it is welcome amidst a series of otherwise wistful and powerful lines. Love or hate it, the “Hey!” made the year’s most arresting folk ballad that much more intriguing, and proved Harding much more complex than the “goth folk” tag affixed to her past works. — Erin Osmon
4. Alex Cameron — “Marlon Brando”
Despite being the best song on the album, “Marlon Brando” wasn’t chosen as a single to Alex Cameron’s years-in-the-making Forced Witness—and when you get to the second verse, you know why. After some upbeat, bouncy synths set the scene—synths that recall Hans Zimmer’s marimba theme to True Romance (itself inspired by Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” used in Badlands); synths that make you feel like you’re starting a movie about people that you’re supposed to be rooting for—only then do we hear the story. And to put it bluntly, it’s a story about a real piece of shit.
“An angel, standing right there before my very eyes,” Cameron opens. “A vision on the arm of another man, but, baby, this should come as no surprise.” OK, nothing too out of the ordinary there. But after the other man apparently says something to our narrator, that’s when the vitriol starts. That’s when we get to The Line: “You tell that little faggot call me faggot one more time.” The first time you hear it, it’ll stop you dead in your tracks. It’s legitimately shocking to hear in a pop song, and you have to consider the substantial risk that came with including it, considering the fairly likely scenario that people would hear it, be disgusted, and turn it off. But it’s a risk that pays dividends, because it encourages listeners to consider more closely the story that they’re listening to—and at that point they’ll realize that even though the song sounds like a hero’s tale, it reads like an exposé.
The most clever thing about Alex Cameron’s approach to critiquing the white, straight, male psyche is that his machismo-based ’80s sound is a perfect representation of what the people in his songs feel like the soundtrack to their life should be. And at that level of obliviousness, sometimes you can’t help but laugh. But the longer the joke goes on, the more it becomes a tragedy. — Nate Rogers
3. Thundercat — “Show You the Way” feat. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins
Nowadays, it seems like anybody with some charisma can grab a producer and become a pop star, but once upon a time in the ’70s, the pop charts were filled with folks like Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Daryl Hall—charismatic personalities who also happened to be experts at music too.
From the retroactive genre title “yacht rock” to 40-Year-Old Virgin’s historic “Yah mo burn this place to the ground” scene, there’s been a notion among the hipster generation that Michael McDonald’s legacy is something to laugh at. But if ever McDonald, or Kenny Loggins, began to think yacht rock gags had crossed the line of disrespect, Thundercat’s “Show Me the Way” was their unforeseen chance to set it straight: In case you didn’t know, these are all-time music legends we’re joking about. Loggins’s falsetto proves timeless, and McDonald’s sizzling vocals and chords could liquefy a Rhodes piano.
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner himself found their appearances “very funny,” but this is a man who’s also likened his own vocal chops to farting into a microphone; if there’s one thing the virtuoso bassist has mastered in his solo career, it’s the balance of somehow perpetually goofing around while exerting dead-serious skill the entire time. McDonald and Loggins showed Bruner the way of seasoned songwriting, and in return, he’s showed them the way of making self-deprecating humor into a masterpiece. — Jamie Lawlor
2. Lorde — “Green Light”
How many signifiers of euphoria can Lorde fit into one four-minute burst? On “Green Light,” she goes for broke, ticking the boxes for skyscraping hooks and four-on-the-floor beats; disco pulse and Springsteen grandeur; electronic tics, drum rolls, a full diva vocal turn; the central metaphor is all about driving, for godsake.
For a song about desire—about grabbing opportunities even amidst sadness and uncertainty, loving fearlessly even after getting hurt—she takes the full-on maximalist approach. Staggeringly, the whole thing works—and for that, credit is due to hitmaker du jour Jack Antonoff, who helmed some great music by P!nk, Taylor Swift, and St. Vincent this year, but may have found his perfect muse in Lorde, whose self-professed love for capital-M Melodrama meshes well with his showman’s flair, his unerring belief in the life-giving pleasures of pure pop.
And this is the good stuff—the straight dope: Antonoff orchestrates its perfect build, somehow sounding inevitable and sleek even as more and more elements pile on; it cuts it off when you’re sure another round or two of the chorus wouldn’t hurt, and you lurch away wanting more. But it’s Lorde who steers it all. There’s nothing glib or detached in her performance; this isn’t pop as nostalgia or as kitsch. It’s pop as life and death—as seizing the moment. She wants it, and she won’t let go. — Josh Hurst
1. Kendrick Lamar — “HUMBLE.”
It’s kind of curious, watching the real-time reaction of a legitimate classic being born. March 30 was an ordinary workday until Kendrick Lamar released “HUMBLE.,” but as soon as that video was out, it spread across the landscape like a funky disease, echoing from offices and houses and street corners. 2017 wasn’t the first year in which the technology allowed for a song to be able to spread that quickly and completely, but it very well might have been the first time that one was immediately powerful enough to do it.
So how did Kendrick pull off an all-timer? Well, he definitely didn’t start by watching Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, that’s for sure (it’s never too late to work in an Adam Levine hologram into a remix, K. Dot), but therein lies the genius of the song: By creating a hook that critiques the bravado so routinely fallen back upon by his contemporaries, he built a path to slyly slip into that mode himself—which, it should be noted, he’s fucking great at. The irony, of course, is that if anyone in music has earned the right to cheese on the world until the end of time, it’s Kendrick (how many people can say that Obama paged them and have it most likely be true?), but that disinterest in the norm is part of why he’s unequivocally the best rapper alive.
Quantifying DAMN. is a little tough—there’s a very good case for “DNA.” to be the best song on the album—but it’s a fool’s errand to try and pretend like “HUMBLE.” isn’t the song that will define not only Kendrick Lamar in 2017, but also simply culture at large. On an ordinary day, it arrived as a transmission from a humbly proud voice lifted up amongst a sea of downturned heads. And before long, Kendrick took a seat, and we all picked up where he left off. — Nate Rogers