If you're not diligent, music can pass you by. That's true now more than ever. Artists have the tools to create and release new music at any moment with the push of a button.
This means any newcomer - any passionate or lonely kid in a room with a song in his or her head - can have as much power as any established artist with a SoundCloud. You don’t even need a record label to become famous. In many ways the streaming age has become the great equalizer. Cardi B’s first single can unseat Taylor Swift. Lil Peep, a largely unknown emo rapper, can amass internet fame and help direct the future of a new hybrid genre. The year 2017 wasn’t an easy one - for any reason. Yet music this year was defined by outrage, by progress, by passion and escapism. Below we’ve listed 50 of the best songs of 2017. Listen to our Spotify playlist here or at the bottom of the page.
Kendrick Lamar – "Fear"
It's on "Fear," near the end of the album, that Kendrick Lamar finally states his thesis of DAMN.: "Within 14 tracks, carried out over wax / Wonderin' if I'm livin' through fear or livin' through rap." The track is nearly eight minutes long, but it doesn't feel that way, given the song's many movements - a voicemail sermon from his cousin Carl Duckworth, a section of looped vocals that sound like Lamar is speaking in tongues, a list of all the ways a young black man could die, a chorus about rising above it all. This is where Lamar synthesizes DAMN.'s many themes, bringing in elements of love, faith, DNA, and humility. It could be the greatest exploration of mortality in hip-hop, a universal song that's breathlessly honest to Lamar's own experience, place in the world, faith, and the fears that come with all of it.
Lorde – "Green Light"
Lorde seems like the only millennial qualified to sing about the modern teenager. Sure, her formative years were hardly normal, but she seems to have a removed objectivity about her peers that makes her an authority. That, and she avoids cliches both musically and thematically, crafting pop music that’s neither obnoxiously bubbly nor overtly somber. Instead she exists in a fascinating middle ground. This is often because Lorde’s music plays in the mixolydian mode, it’s hard to really pinpoint if she’s happy or sad. Even something as upbeat as her pop-focused “Green Light” with its cheering chorus falls into that uneasy space that doesn’t exactly a major or minor melody.
Kamasi Washington – "Truth"
This song is 15 minutes long and, honestly, I could take 15 minutes more. There's something transcendent about the movements, which grow from a feel-good motif to a spiritual chorus of voices. There's a true zest for life, like this is what happiness should feel like. It's possible to get so lost in the song's many wordless emotions that you can miss the drums, which almost ceaselessly shred for the entire quarter of an hour. It's called "Truth," a title that gives all the information you need. Truth is life, it's growth, it's beauty, it's everything we take for granted while bombarded with television news, with the politics of hatred and conflict. This is a reminder that there's something greater out there.
Sufjan Stevens – "Visions of Gideon"
Written for Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name, “Visions of Gideon” is the kind of wistful and bubbling ballad of love that only Sufjan Stevens could create. His whispering soprano is as delicate as a sob and as intimate and familiar as your own bedroom. Stevens’s music often feels too personal and ephemeral to hold onto, like a sentiment that’s drifting just out of reach. His music is something to carry with you to augment your own experiences, which in the context of a movie provides the perfect emotional companion. Even if you don’t know Gideon, you know Gideon. Is it a person, is it a biblical allusion, or neither - just an expression of a feeling?
Cardi B – "Bodak Yellow"
It takes a powerful debut song to knock the Queen of Pop, Taylor Swift, off the top of the pop charts. And that's what Cardi B did with the historically successful "Bodak Yellow." The swaggering hit marked the first time a female rapper scored a solo No. 1 song since Lauryn Hill in 1998. It makes total sense, too, as the song takes Cardi B's no-fucks-given approach to life that made her an Instagram and reality star. If that's not the perfect encapsulation of popular culture in 2017, then I don't know what is.
Porches – "Country"
“Country” is a song that’s tragically short. At two minutes and 14 seconds long, when it ends with a flickering synth, one might first say, “Fuck, that’s it?” And then one needs to play it again. But even though it leaves you wanting more, “Country” is as long as it needs to be - a focused and concise meditation. It’s a short and perfect journey, structurally sound and built on a gradually increasing series of growing instruments into a chorus of soaring harmonies. You’ll play it again, because you have to. It’s like a short story that you keep coming back to, an experience that feels good to have one more time.
Hundred Waters – "Blanket Me"
Nicole Miglis's vocal performance on "Blanket Me" is among the finest - if not the finest - of the year. Midway through the track, she enters a cyclical chant of the words "blanket me" that last for nearly two minutes. It's a fascinating section of the song, and it's almost impossible to tell if her vocals are looped or if each utterance of the phrase is live. It's a chant that draws the listener into a trance, and even if her vocals are looped, each one sounds powerful - unique as if it's the first time she's ever sung the phrase. But even the opening moments of the song, when she's sings "shame on you / shame on me," seems to hit every note and emotion on the spectrum. It's a performance that's never eclipsed by the pristine sound production on the rest of the band.
Tyler, the Creator – "911 / Mr. Lonely"
Much has been written about Tyler, the Creator's intentions - good or bad. Writers, critics, and fans have tried endlessly to explain him, to make sense of the often crazy and sometimes brilliant shit he does in his music, his lyrics, and his performances. On his latest album, he again surprises every listener by making something that seems truly sincere. The multi-movement song "911 / Mr. Lonely" is a fascinating and seemingly honest exploration of solitude. "I'm the loneliest man alive, but I keep on dancing to throw them off," he raps as the chorus begs you to call him. The only problem is that his number is "9-1-1." Maybe that's the easiest explanation of Tyler, the Creator we'll ever get.
N.E.R.D. feat. Rihanna – "Lemon"
Every once in awhile there’s a song that, from its opening notes, you know is going to be something you play on repeat. N.E.R.D. and Rihanna’s “Lemon” is that, three-fold. The opening quote from Pharrell - “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” - is as compelling as it is accurate for our time. Then that beat hits like you’ve just been dropped in the middle of the most dizzyingly lit club. It happens again as Rihanna comes into her verse with a confident, comfortable groove. But beyond hearing these artists on one song, it’s great knowing that this song - which will soon be played just about everywhere - includes a Pharrell verse warning about drinking the Donald Trump Kool-Aid.
Charlotte Gainsbourg – "Deadly Valentine"
When she released the video for “Deadly Valentine,” which included choreography from Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Charlotte Gainsbourg said of the song: “I wanted to express the idea of a lifetime engagement; a couple running to church, from childhood to old age, a lifetime path.” And the song, made with French producer SebastiAn, has that type of endless linear chase, with Gainsbourg’s whispering, dreamy vocals. There’s danger, love, movement, and life in the song, on which, Gainsbourg wrestles with the mortal promise of marriage, singing, “From this day forward, for better, for worse, until death do us part.”
Lil Peep – "The Brightside"
Lil Peep had been a fascination for me throughout the past year or so. His general aesthetic, his balance of emo and hip-hop, into something weird and unique, was a taste I was slowly coming to terms with when he died in November at the age of 21 from an overdose. Since then, I haven’t been able to get the hook of “The Brightside” out of my mind, his anguished, yet casual, plea: “Help me find a way to pass the time / Everybody telling me life's short, but I wanna die ... Everybody telling me not to, but I'm gonna try / Now I'm getting high again, tonight.” Despite releasing his debut album this year, Peep had a massive following with millions of plays across streaming services. This song remains a haunting reminder of the dangers of depression and drug abuse - one that has become a wake-up call for his many fellow artists and fans.
Dua Lipa – "New Rules"
Dua Lipa seemingly came out of nowhere in 2017, releasing her debut album to impressive numbers and scoring massive tours with Bruno Mars and Coldplay. In fact, her following has gotten so big that she's embarking on her own arena tour in 2018. And that's because Lipa's mournful but upbeat pop music has arrived at the perfect time, when it feels like there's not much to be overtly happy about. It even acts as a pretty good guide to heartbreak and breakup, with lyrics on "New Rules" like "If you’re under him / You ain’t getting over him." And that's a pretty concise life lesson.
Harry Styles – "Sign of the Times"
In 2017, everything must have a "take." It's a time when the most salacious thing will be the most popular, when even a shitty opinion is more viral than no opinion or a good opinion. And, in that sense, it's kind of refreshing that Harry Styles doesn't have anything particularly difficult to say on "Sign of the Times." It certainly seems like his heart is in the right place, as he told Rolling Stone that "Most of the stuff that hurts me about what's going on at the moment is not politics, it's fundamentals. Equal rights. For everyone, all races, sexes, everything. ... 'Sign of the Times' 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.'" It's hard, exactly, to pinpoint what he's talking about. And it's not the bravest stance. But, hell, it's nice that he's not problematic. Along with the nostalgic, Beatles-esque ballad build and chord progression, there's ultimately something so safe and comforting about this song. Styles is on your side.
Sunflower Bean – "I Was a Fool"
Sunflower Bean emerged in 2016 with the coolest and strongest debut album of a New York band that year. Rolling Stone literally called them “NYC’s Coolest Young Band.” And they’re not wrong. Having been buzzing for the better part of a year, the band was a fresh take on a throwback, psych-leaning sound - propelled by the effortless style of frontwoman Julia Cumming. Now, returning with their first new taste of new music since their arrival, the band has refined its sound, cleaned up a little touch, and added a lovely bit of mid-summer charm. It’s light, it’s pretty, without sacrificing any of that coolness.
Fever Ray – "IDK About You"
When The Knife announced its dissolution after the triumphant Shaking the Habitual, it seemed like the conclusion of a very weird and very thrilling part niche of electronic music. Thankfully, Karin Dreijer has returned as Fever Ray, a music project that 2017 needed for so many reasons. On “IDK About You,” Dreijer takes full command of what sounds like a frenetic hook up. It’s a tumbling, chaotic, and breathless night of lovemaking, which brings new meaning to the idea that you never really know someone until the two of you have sex. It’s a song of pure sexual expression, an idea that feels so depressingly threatened in this era we find ourselves in.
Young Thug, Carnage – "Liger"
Here are some fun facts about the liger, the largest known feline, via Wikipedia: “they enjoy swimming,” they “are very sociable,” they “typically grow larger than either parent species.” In other words, ligers are fucking awesome, and you’ll probably never have one - unless you’re Young Thug, that is. “I bought a Rollie', but I coulda bought a Viper / Everybody got tigers, so I wan' go get a liger / I'm so different from these niggas, I won't be like 'em,” he sings in the chorus of "Liger." It’s a statement of originality - something that Young Thug has never been lacking. And if he can have any spirit animal, it’s definitely a liger.
Ibeyi – "Deathless"
In an interview, Lisa-Kaindé Díaz - who makes up Ibeyi with her twin Naomi Díaz - said the narrative from “Deathless” was inspired by when she was stopped by a racist police officer, asking if she smoked or drank or used drugs before throwing her bag on the floor. "I think I was reading War and Peace, and I had Chopin,” she told NPR. “And I think he thought, ‘Oh, she might be intelligent and have something in her head.’ So he just gave me my empty bag and left. To be ‘Deathless’ means that there's no end.” And in this track featuring Kamasi Washington, she captures menacing feeling of that story, while turning the phrase “deathless” into an empowering chant.
King Krule – "Dum Surfer"
From the opening moments of “Dum Surfer,” which sounds like the ambient noise outside of a dirty club, King Krule is letting you shadow him on a journey. It goes to dark places, but it’s undeniably cool. By the end, you’re rolling a cigarette next to someone playing the sax on some surreal street corner. And even if you don’t get all the gritty imagery told through his British slang, you still get the picture and can probably put together what “I’m feeling slightly mashed” means.
Lil Uzi Vert – “Neon Guts”
I guarantee, whenever Neil deGrasse Tyson learns from this song in two years, he’ll do some sort of Twitter thread debating the accuracy of dark matter in the chorus: “Higher than Elon Musk / So high stars eat our dust / And I got a colorful aura / Like I got neon guts / Dark energy, we don't touch.” Meanwhile, Elon Musk is probably blasting this through his lounge on his secret Mars base as we speak. It’s a sexy sci-fi hip-hop song that Musk would absolutely appreciate.
Charli XCX – "Boys"
It's hard to separate the video for Charli XCX's "Boys" from the song itself. To be stuck forever thinking about boys means picturing Riz Ahmed with a teddy bear or Mac DeMarco licking a guitar. But the video itself is good evidence of how well Charli understands meme-able culture. Somehow, she morphs a clichéd theme - daydreaming about hunks - into something that feels fresh for the Internet Age.
Jay-Z – "Smile"
Jay-Z hasn't been this honest on a track in decades. While the headlines were obsessed with his marital problems, it's on "Smile" that Jay-Z opens up about his mother Gloria Carter coming out as a lesbian. Who knew Jay-Z still had it in him to write a line as personal and beautiful as "Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Doesn't matter to me if it's a him or her?"
Meek Mill – "1942 Flows"
Meek Mill has taken his share of Ws and Ls. And he's finally ready to put them all behind him, as he makes clear on "1942 Flows." It's a song where he's finally untouchable; he's risen above the stupid beefs, the memes, and the bruised reputation to do the thing that matters most: making music. He somehow couples this idea with sudden political commentary in his opening verse, rapping, "I'm like, Trump ain't feelin' us, cops still killin' us / Niggas takin' shots, can't stop me, they ain't real enough." He's right on all accounts.
Rae Sremmurd – "Perplexing Pegasus"
If Mike WiLL Made-It didn't have such an incredible hit-making track record, I'd go as far as to say this was the best year of his career. Keep in mind he made Beyoncé's "Formation" last year and still somehow matched his output in 2017. First came Kendrick Lamar's "Humble," and now he's back again with a dreamlike beat that seems to be challenging the dexterity of Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi. They have no problem with it, moving around on the beat like it's a goddamn jungle gym. And it's one that could even top 2016's "Black Beatles."
St. Vincent – "New York"
Now that St. Vincent is one of the most iconic figures in modern art rock, she returns from the digitized, near-future chaos of her self-titled album with the charming ballad "New York." It's at once pulsing and breezy, a love lost and beautiful two-and-a-half minutes you wish would keep going.
Kevin Morby – "City Music"
What starts out as a slow patient groove steadily builds into an all-out garage rock jam over nearly six minutes. Normally jams that go on for more than 20 seconds aren't typically my thing, yet Morby transcends masturbatory instrumentation. This is a tribute to the ebbs and flows of music, a sound in flux that can grow, morph, and change.
SZA – "Drew Barrymore"
What begins as a vivid description of the dying embers of a party becomes a stunning confessional. "I get so lonely, I forget what I'm worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works … I'm sorry I'm not more attractive / I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike," she sings over a lush composition of strings and airy drums. With her debut album, Ctrl, SZA is the most-nominated woman at the 2018 Grammys, and this song is proof of why she absolutely deserves that honor. It’s a dreamy and stunning image of insecurity.
Frank Ocean – "Chanel"
There's something so fascinating with what Frank Ocean does rhythmically here. The beat of "Chanel" is a normal enough, shuffling 4/4 beat. But the way that his voice comes and goes and pulses in and out and stretches at its own whim, cutting himself off and crescendoing at unexpected moments, he pivots what could could be a simple song into something that's challenging for reasons you can't quite put your finger on. There's also no real linear construction. The chorus, the clever lyric - "I see both sides like Chanel" - only arrives twice in the song between two verses of completely different length. Like Ocean always does, he leaves you wanting more, and he makes you come back for answers.
Perfume Genius – "Slip Away"
The buoyant No Shape confounds conventional song structure. It's filled with explosions of light like one minute into its second track, "Slip Away." It's both an enormous sound that's touching and intimate. This is song seems to defy all logic, with a chorus of voices, fluttering synths, blasts of cymbal, and a swirl of noises that get nearly close enough to grasp.
Alex G (Sandy) – "Sportstar"
Though he's been a prolific musician for years - eight albums on three different labels - Alex G's biggest brush with mainstream popularity came with the linear notes of Frank Ocean's Endless. It's there, on Ocean's big return, that Alex G is listed among the contributors. The connection isn't always obvious, but "Sportstar" has a dreamlike connection to Ocean's newest music. It's a bubbling melancholy track carried to new heights with Alex G's helium computerized vocals.
Carly Rae Jepsen – "Cut to the Feeling"
Carly Rae Jepsen is pop music in its purest form. Emotion was the album that Katy Perry and Lady Gaga wanted - and are still trying desperately - to make. It's smart, precinct pop music that would sound like laboratory bubblegum if it wasn't so plugged into emerging tastes. Jepsen's latest track "Cut to the Feeling" is among the dozens of tracks reportedly cut from Emotion. Like virtually every song on that album, "Cut to the Feeling" is boundlessly fun. Just let loose to it - jump on your bed in your underwear, be your own '80s rom-com montage, hang through the sunroof of a limo. Just let Jepsen - who must have been genetically engineered to be a pop star - transport you to a world without problems.
Vince Staples – "Big Fish"
After the dark, subtle tone of Summertime '06 and Prima Donna, Vince Staples returns with the more explosive, club-friendly "Big Fish." But just because the sound is more mainstream, Staples has not dumbed down any of his ideas. "Another story of a young black man / Tryna make it up out that jam, goddamn," Staples raps, setting up the theme for his album, Big Fish Theory. It's another unflinching analysis of himself, his surroundings, and society as a whole.
Selena Gomez – "Bad Liar"
If David Byrne approves of your song, you know you've done something right. And that's especially important in the case of "Bad Liar," Selena Gomez's new song that samples Tina Wymouth's bass line from Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." It sounds like a combination that would make Talking Heads elitists groan, but it's so perfectly incorporated into Gomez's silky groove.
Haim – "Want You Back"
Breakups suck, but regretting a breakup is even worse. There's always the want-you-back phase, and when that inevitably arises, we now have Haim to turn around a shitty feeling. For all its Fleetwood Mac-appropriate relationship drama, Haim's return after the breakout success of Days Are Gone is anything but a mood-ruiner. Those big opening chords, that slappy bass line, and the beautiful call-and-response vocals are enough to turn around any bad vibes.
Gorillaz – "Saturnz Barz"
Popcaan has quietly contributed to the last three years of songs of the summer. He appeared on Jamie XX's 2015 party anthem "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" and on Drake's inescapable 2016 billboard smash "Controlla." One of Jamaica's most successful dancehall artists, his sound has been co-opted by American pop stars who are clamoring for the global aesthetic of his genre. A Popcaan song can survive in any market in the world, which has become the key to success in this modern music ecosystem defined by streaming numbers. And few acts have defied the constraints of genre than Gorillaz. Self-described music diplomat Damon Albarn has collaborated with Popcaan on a track that maintains their individual backgrounds, while elevating the track into an eerie and universal experience.
Girlpool – "It Gets More Blue"
People will do some crazy shit to get someone to notice them. That longing from afar can manifest into some awkward things, like in Girlpool's "It Gets More Blue," in which they'll go as far as fake "global warming just to get close to you." Of course, there are more traditional acts of devotion, too, like reading the books, drinking the drinks. For their sophomore album, the L.A. duo has filled out their sound with a drummer and is evoking the feel of iconic '90s indie rock. The music is louder, it's more devoted, but it maintains their intimate harmonies, and that sensitivity that's so damn relatable.
Phoenix – "J-Boy"
For nearly two decades, Phoenix has defined the glittering aesthetic of French synth-pop. And somehow in that time the band has neither abandoned its sound for something more modern or felt like it's living in the past. Phoenix has always sounded timeless, if only because Phoenix has always sounded like Phoenix. On "J-Boy" the first single from their sixth album, Phoenix is once again a stunning display of shimmering synths and effortlessly cool vocals. The world might change, fads might come and go, but Phoenix will remain an ageless example of exceptional French style.
Drake – "Passionfruit"
It's clear that something as simple as an arbitrary term for a collection of music can be freeing for an artist of Drake's stature. A playlist - that's just a word. But his is how he labeled More Life, his batch of 22 new songs. By removing the pressure of something as daunting and serious as "an album," Drake was able to approach this release from a more organic perspective. Rather than release a bunch of clinical tracks manufactured for maximum commercial value as he did on Views, Drake could finally relax. "Passionfruit" might be Drake at his most chill. It's certainly Drake at his most unabashedly cheesy. It's Drake making a hit by not trying to make a club banger. This is like if "One Dance" took a bunch of Ambien and got super emotional. "One Dance" is album Drake; "Passionfruit" is playlist Drake. I'd imagine the latter is the closest to the real deal.
LCD Soundsystem – "American Dream"
What's certainly most rewarding on "American Dream" is James Murphy's writing, which is some of the most detailed, personal, and touching of any LCD Soundsystem album. On the title track for the band's first release in a decade, Murphy sings, "In the morning everything's clearer / When the sunlight exposes your age." And maybe for LCD Soundsystem, "American Dream" represents the morning after the party. This is a lavish, existential hangover that can only be realized after becoming the wise, aging sage of hipsterdom.
Fleet Foxes – "Third of May / Ōdaigahara"
It's been six years since we've heard a new Fleet Foxes song. In the music world that's an eon - especially for a young band with as much forward momentum and buzz as Fleet Foxes had in 2011. As if to make up for lost time, Fleet Foxes returned with the nearly nine-minute "Third of May / Ōdaigahara." There's a four-minute radio edit, but you'd be remiss to prefer that version, if you'd like to get the full effect of this song. (Plus it's been six years - take every second you can get!) It's clear that frontman Robin Pecknold, who took a break to finish school, returns with a tighter grasp on musical theory. The song is challenging in its abrupt dynamic changes and harmonic juxtaposition. But at its heart - those stunning harmonies - it remains the band that created a new direction for indie music in the late 2000s.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – "Pa'lante"
Roughly translated to English, "Pa'lante" means "onwards, forwards." Here, singer Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent, uses it as a rallying cry in the face of cultural assimilation. "Colonized, and hypnotized, be something / Sterilized, dehumanized, be something / Well take your pay / And stay out the way, be something / Ah do your best / But fuck the rest, be something," she sings on the track. By the second half of the six-minute track, which uses a sample of Pedro Pietri's 1969 poem "Puerto Rican Obituary," it transitions into a celebration of culture. This is a voice and a sentiment that needs to be heard in this country now more than ever, and "Pa'lante" is the ideal political anthem of our times.
Father John Misty – "Ballad of the Dying Man"
Father John Misty is understandably a polarizing figure. He's kind of like a folk music troll - a modern embodiment of the traveling bard, but one who gets to your town and makes a mockery of your scene. But at the same time, it's hard to doubt the sincerity of his music, which is often preachy about the many failings of humanity. In "Ballad of a Dying Man," it's almost as if Josh Tillman is envisioning the death of his own jeering persona. Whatever his intentions on this song, he's produced a melodically dynamic and truly beautiful ballad for a man checking his phone with his final breath.
Lana Del Rey – "Love"
If David Lynch ever makes his own La La Land-type movie, I really hope he casts Lana Del Rey as its lead. On one hand, her music has overwhelming romanticized imagery of youth culture that makes teenagers love her. But on the other hand, it's so goddamn surreal and creepy. "Love," the first single from her latest album, features the sound that is eerily similar to someone cocking a gun while she coos the song's chorus. With those deep, doomed drums - and her haunting "don't worry, baby" - it's all so menacing. But that's what makes Lana fascinating as hell.
Mac DeMarco – "My Old Man"
Mac DeMarco idolizes Neil Young so much that he's known to force his entire live audience to kneel before the fellow Canadian-born singer-songwriter. DeMarco is Neil Young if Young spent more time on the beach and cared less about shit. This breezy acoustic number, like Young's classic, contemplates aging and masculinity. But DeMarco seems to at once acknowledge it and not be at all worried about it. And in the face of mortality, that's the most comforting thing I can think of.
Calvin Harris – "Slide"
Not even Calvin Harris can ruin a track with Frank Ocean and Migos. Harris makes big, dumb, fun music that's either just big, dumb, and fun or just a sappy breakup track about Taylor Swift. Fortunately, anything Ocean touches is instantly gold, and here, even when he half-asses his vocals, he turns Harris' tropical disco beat into an absolute delight. And if you weren't having a good time yet, Migos come in to bark and woo and splash the song with onomatopoeia. The world sucks anyway, so fuck it, and let Harris, Ocean, and Migos make it more bearable.
Stormzy – "Lay Me Bare"
As evidenced by Skepta's Mercury Prize winning album last year, grime music in the U.K. is currently in a great place. But in the U.S. it's still trying to catch up to the popularity that trap is enjoying. On Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy attempts to show his sensitive side along with his aggressive, scrappy side - as the title would suggest. Album closer "Lay Me Bare" is the perfect harmony of these two ideals. It's a five-minute, unflinching personal examination with a mid-tempo breakbeat and Stormzy in complete control of his flow.
Run the Jewels – "Legend Has It"
Technically, Run the Jewels released this album early in December and released "Legend Has It" before that. But since, on paper, this album came out in 2017 and it didn't make it on our 2016 lists, we'll include RTJ here. If half of rap is about bragging, then RTJ are the best at bragging about bragging. Killer Mike and El-P are the only ones with the writing skills to pen their own legendary status. Their militant assault of pop culture references and jokes can swipe between Tinder and Fargo and The Godfather within an instant. In a year where we need humor and politics from these two funny, well read guys, Run the Jewels started it off strong.
Sampha – "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano"
A song with a title like this could have been bad. This could have been another sadboy, lonely piano ballad. But Sampha's delivery is sincere, it's raspy like he's spent the night crying, and it's believable. This isn't a metaphor. It's not personification. That piano, the one he's playing, is real, and you can just hear him sitting there writing this melody all alone.
The xx – "Replica"
One of the things that's always been so stunning about The xx's music is their patience in finding subtle grooves. And from the first measure, The xx are already locked into the groove of "Replica." And it's this airy, trickling verse which constitutes most of the song. It dives into the wordless chorus with a bass slide, and it's beautiful and so brief.
Migos – "Big on Big"
Everyone who heard "Bad and Boujee" - or who dabbed through 2016 (and there were a lot of you) - was likely expecting more viral club bangers on Migos' Culture. Then, midway through the album comes the piano-driven and dramatic "Big on Big." It's like the Migos biopic through the lens of Migos themselves. It's almost beautiful, it's menacing, theatrical, and the serious larger-than-life artist story that Migos must picture themselves living. And no one can say they're wrong.
Priests – "Nothing Feels Natural"
Jesus Christ, this year. Nothing feels natural when you watch the news, look at the Internet, or in any way communicate with another member of American society in 2017. Sadly, it's the perfect time for an art-punk debut as confident and fierce as Priests'. "This is when I'd give a God a name, but to people in sanctuaries all I can say is you will not be saved," sing Katie Alice Greer at the climax of "Nothing Feels Natural." It's doom that feels all too real. You don't even need to give it a name. Ironically, this song in this time is the only thing that does feel natural.
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