2016 was jam-packed with albums from just about every superstar on the planet. 2017 looks … a little different. But into that vacuum have stepped a number of artists more than worth our time, and certain albums, EPs, and singles have risen to the top. They’re great, or weird, or mystifying, and sometimes all three. To take stock of the year in music as we wrap up the first half of 2017, The Ringer handed out awards for an elite class of songs and albums. And the winners are …
Best Lil Yachty Song to Convert a Lil Yachty Hater: “Like a Star,” Lil Yachty
Donnie Kwak: There’s at least one thing that Yachty and Jay-Z have in common: Both the King of Teens and the King of Olds believe in starting an album off strong — if not with a bang, then at least with a convincing mission statement. Of course, Hov repeated this trick over umpteen summers of dominance, while our Most Vilified Rookie has only one, much-maligned album to his name.
But that first song, though. I won’t say that the Teenage Emotions opener completely converted me from Boat skeptic to Boat fan, or even that I think it’s his catchiest or best song. “Like a Star” did, however, crystallize for me the reasons Yachty is so endearing to many. No, it’s not his bars, but his aura — guileless, earnest, and joyful. When Yachty croons “Tryna figure out why these n*ggas mad at me,” I had to pause and ask myself that same question. By the time we arrive at the sweetest of bridges — “Look Mama, you made a star!” — I wanted nothing but success for this young man and his family. Look, it’s no “A Million and One Questions” or The Dynasty “Intro,” but … I get it now. Let Yachty live.
Best Old-Fashioned Country Tear-Jerker: “Bottle by My Bed,” Sunny Sweeney
Rob Harvilla: Texan singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney, architect of sublimely weepy and/or sassy jams like “From a Table Away” and “Bad Girl Phase,” has deserved more attention, more breathless accolades, and way more country-radio airtime for years. Which is not, as she once hilariously insisted, a “Backhanded Compliment.” But on this year’s excellent Trophy, she unveiled her weepiest broadside yet.
The bottle in “Bottle by My Bed” is not for her, you see. “All my friends are raisin’ babies / I’m still raisin’ Cain,” Sweeney begins. “They must think that because I’ve waited / that I don’t want the same.” They are mistaken. For a tender ballad, the brutal one-liners come fast and furious: “Only call my husband baby ’cause I love the word.” “Don’t even know you yet but I know I love you.” And, finally, the bridge: “We wait / We wait / It’ll be our turn someday.” This song is autobiographical. It is “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn” in country-song form. You’ve been warned.
Best Reason to Forgive Selena Gomez for ’13 Reasons Why’: “Bad Liar,” Selena Gomez
Kate Knibbs: Selena Gomez is an executive producer of 13 Reasons Why, a callous soap opera which misunderstands itself as noble rather than exploitative. It sucks, a lot. But I’m inclined to forgive Selena for her poorly-executed foray into teen dreck whenever I turn on her most recent single, “Bad Liar,” which does not suck at all. In fact, “Bad Liar” sounds like opening an ice-cold Coke in mid-August. It’s crisp and witty, with an understated Talking Heads sample anchoring Gomez’s dense, conversational vocals. Here’s hoping Gomez will keep channeling a more danceable Regina Spektor instead of a less responsible Aaron Spelling.
Song That Makes the Revolution Sound Like the Most Fun: “The Underside of Power,” Algiers
Michael Baumann: Message music frequently sucks, partially because it’s earnest and the more earnest art is, the easier it is to mock, but also because it’s a compromise. Social commentary and music sometimes mesh like chocolate and peanut butter, but frequently one has to get mashed up to fit the other. It’s tough to be good at both, particularly as today’s politics demand good protest music not only as a means of persuasion or a call to action, but as an emotional release, a musical scream into a pillow.
That’s why the title track off Algiers’s new album, The Underside of Power, is so impressive. It starts out feeling like a throwback, with the distorted bass of turn-of-the-century mainstream alt-rock (but in a good way) and the pressing urgency of mid-2000s post-punk (which happens when Matt Tong, the best thing about Bloc Party, is your drummer). The verses feel angry, ominous, and convicted, like if Rage Against the Machine’s kids were raised by Interpol or Franz Ferdinand.
The chorus, however, is … well, let me put it this way: If the Antifa spring semi-formal had a big dance number like the American Bandstand bit in Grease, this is what would be playing in the background. Without diluting the message of a record saturated with Black Panther imagery one bit, Algiers turned out a banger, an outburst of joy born out of confidence that we’re stronger and more numerous than the bad guys and will therefore prevail.
Best Top 40 Admission of Deep, Relatable Anxiety: “Issues,” Julia Michaels
Amanda Dobbins: Julia Michaels is one half of the songwriting duo behind, among other songs, the iconic Justin Bieber hit “Sorry;” “Issues” is her first solo single, and sounds a lot like a reference track for some bigger, bolder name. But Michaels’s tentativeness is the point — this is a song about anxiety, and fear, and anger, and all the other bullshit feelings that bubble up when you accidentally fall very much in love with someone. It is the most honest love song to hit the radio this year, among a crop of very excellent songs written by Michaels herself. I also enjoy the strings arrangement!
Best Second Act: ‘After Laughter,’ Paramore
Sam Schube: Here’s a Google Trends chart mapping the rise and fall of the phrase “emo revival” over the past five years:
Starting in early 2014, the idea spiked in popularity, and then kept doing so every few months. Critics will tell you that emo is back — and they’ll be right, because it’s always coming back.
Paramore was poised to ride that wave. Instead, the band — largely the project of singer Hayley Williams, the only member of the group actually signed to a record deal — turned elsewhere: to the 1980s. This was an extremely good call.
After Laughter, the band’s fifth album, is all neon-tinted guitars, yelps and squeals, Talking Heads– and Graceland- and Blondie-indebted songs that sound like Memphis furniture looks. This might strike you as crass, or cynical. But the band’s emo songs jammed because they were deeply melodic, and pop in their own way. And when Hayley Williams — rock god, proprietor of a line of hair dyes called goodDYEyoung, wife to the guy from New Found Glory, and possessor of maybe the most impressive voice of her generation — is your singer, you can get away with just about anything.
Most Fitting Soundtrack to Your Road Trip Into the Heart of the Apocalypse: ‘Paradiso,’ Chino Amobi
Danny Chau: One of the first things you hear on Chino Amobi’s utterly arresting debut album, Paradiso, is a car navigating through a storm. Through sirens. Through … the hell-gurgling breaths of a demon? A reimagination of Edgar Allan Poe’s “City of Sin” is the first of many narrations in this apocalyptic pastoral. Sirens and klaxons are so omnipresent, they melt into white noise.
Paradiso is a world built by Amobi, the son of Nigerian immigrants, who was raised in the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederate States of America. It is that tension — existing in the patchwork present while coexisting with the lingering subtext of history — that informs his work: Amobi released Airport Music for Black Folk last year, a shrill and lurching inversion of Brian Eno’s genre-establishing ambient album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, capturing the dread of traveling as an other. In Paradiso, that feeling is magnified tenfold, expressed in a sound collage (with collaborators all around the world) that I couldn’t possibly explain with coherence. “There are many different styles of music overlapping, exploding, collapsing, dying on top of one another,” Amobi explained in Resident Advisor.
Amid massive industrial noise, tranquilized spoken-word poetry, and raps that serve as pure conduits of rapturous anger and panic, there are moments of pretty that would conceivably exist in our own world. There is “The Floating World Pt. 1,” a brief respite that wouldn’t be out of place on a Justin Bieber album. The seventh track, “Antikeimenon,” features a Spanish guitar and hand drums. But nothing lasts in Paradiso, bad or good. As the song rouses into crescendo, a haggard voice emerges: “You want democracy? You want freedom? You’re crazy. That’s why you’re here. To take your final breaths.”
For 65 minutes, there is only one tether to reality, a jubilant radio drop that descends sporadically throughout the album: “Welcome to Paradiso! You are now listening to NON Worldwide Radio with Chino Amobi!” Whose reality you’re tethered to is too overwhelming a thought to consider in the moment.
Best Hyper-specific Social Media Reference: “My Story,” Popcaan ,Davido
Hannah Giorgis: “My Story,” a collaboration between dancehall giant Popcaan and afropop superstar Davido, makes almost too much sense. The track is as fun to dance to as both of Drake’s summer 2016 club hits — the Popcaan-assisted “Controlla” and Wizkid-assisted “One Dance” — but it dispenses with the diasporic interloper. “My Story” pairs Popcaan’s explicit patois rhymes with Davido’s sensual, Naija accent–inflected crooning, all over a beat that marries the energy of the complementary genres. The song is so smooth, the synergy between Popcaan and Davido so natural, that you almost forget what they’re actually saying. The song’s central premise is simple: all either man needs is 24 hours with the object of his desires. You know, like a Snapchat story. The chorus repeats the boast — with Davido introducing the time period: “I need to be honest with you / I want to be your number two / Tell me what you waiting for (for, for, for) / All I need is 24, 24.” In case there’s any confusion, Popcaan clarifies repeatedly: “24 like Snapchat.” It’s not the most updated technology reference of all time (let’s be real, Insta Stories been more relevant than Snap for some time now), but somehow, it works. Not enough to raise Snap’s stock anytime soon, but maybe just enough to make me post a Story or two.
Best Argument for Moving to New York City: “Magnolia,” Playboi Carti
Andrew Gruttadaro: New York is crumbling: Lower Manhattan will be swallowed by the sea in the next 100 years; a new report says all of the subway system’s problems will take 52 years to fix; we’ve got poetically-on-the-nose rats dragging trash across Brooklyn sidewalks.
But living in New York makes sense for three-minute bursts — from when “Magnolia” begins with rapper Playboi Carti yelling “Yo Pierre, you wanna come out here?” to when the song’s pulsing synth and meandering melody dissipate. An Atlanta expat who’s linked up with A$AP Mob, Carti has exploded in 2017 on the strength of “Magnolia,” a track that’s entrancingly repetitive and full of ad-libs a la Carti’s peers Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty. But whereas those artists can sometimes come off as cacophonous and droll, Playboi Carti’s breakout single is deliriously vibrant, capturing the vibe of a laid-back hot summer day — Pierre Bourne’s production sounds like how baking in the sun on a Brooklyn rooftop feels. And though Carti’s hook is a nod to slinging dope, its first line “In New York I Milly Rock, hide it in my sock” transcends the reference, so successfully evoking a sense of location that the song works as a soundtrack no matter where you are in the five boroughs. It’s a New York song that feels like New York, and that just sounds better in New York.
L.A. might have perfect weather; I hear the quality in life in Denver is just phenomenal. But New York? Well, at least we have “Magnolia.”
Best Breakup Song that Could Also Contain a Reference to Onion Rings: “Supercut,” Lorde
Alyssa Bereznak: “Supercut,” the best track off Lorde’s newly released Melodrama, is ostensibly a story about a breakup. Over her signature slow-building bass, the internet’s favorite former teen wistfully recalls a stream of disconnected emotions and moments in a relationship. You can almost envision a Tree of Life–esque series of clips in slow and fast motion as she recalls the time in the car with the radio up, the call where she forgives him, the fluorescent lights at a dance party. But what if — and hear me out on this — “Supercut” is a song with a hidden Easter egg? Earlier this month, a Pulitzer-worthy investigation from the New Zealand website Newshub suggested that Lorde — who was a frequent patron of New York City diners while recording her new album — ran a short-lived Instagram account that rated onion rings. The singer later confirmed as much to Jimmy Fallon: “It was like a funny thing that I did with, like, my friends on the tour,” she said. “It was fun for, like, five seconds.” Sounds like something that, I dunno, could casually make a supercut?? Especially when you consider the line in the song where she sings “these ribbons wrap me up.” What more more delicious ribbons exist on this holy earth than the dangling white insides of a sweet and crispy onion ring? I know, I it’s a stretch. But either way, the song is — to borrow some scoring parameters from the once-famous @onionringsworldwide — 5/5, very good.
Most Worth the Wait: ‘Ctrl,’ SZA
Lindsay Zoladz: “Ain’t you so patient, you sick of waiting?” the shape-shifting, 26-year-old singer-songwriter SZA sings on “Prom,” a highlight of her recently released debut album, Ctrl. To which most of her fans would answer, yes; after an attention-grabbing series of mixtapes, the record was originally slated for release last summer, then pushed back to February, then entered an indefinite state of limbo until it finally dropped June 9. Having now heard the finished product, I would have gladly waited several more lifetimes (but am even more glad I don’t have to).
SZA exists in a genre of one. Partially because there’s nobody else out there making music that sounds like this: dissonant acoustic guitars mixing with stuttering beats, pop hooks that disperse into experimentation, a voice that’s equally hesitant and soulful. But also because there’s a rich undercurrent of loneliness and longing running through her beautifully evocative lyrics. “Why am I so easy to forget like that?” she asks on the opener, “Supermodel,” a confession of smallness that swells into a hugely powerful chorus: “I could be your supermodel if you believe.” Even more immediate is “Drew Barrymore,” a glorious, loving ode to awkwardness. “In every movie she played, she was always the oddball,” SZA recently told Rolling Stone, speaking about her admiration of the titular actress. “Even in Charlie’s Angels, she was the one that was out of control.” Ctrl is an homage to the oddballs — the unruly ones who do things in their own time but deliver so completely you’d never even think of rushing them.
Best Title-As-Branding-Exercise the Song Itself Couldn’t Possibly Live Up To: “Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind,” Lana Del Rey
Alison Herman: After taking a bye on marketing and promotion for the Honeymoon album cycle, pop’s foremost brand maestra is back with a vengeance for Lust for Life, her upcoming fourth LP. In the last few months, Lana Del Rey has unleashed a cutesy-creepy album trailer, like if Ryan Murphy directed the script for The Love Witch; dropped a music video featuring her and the Weeknd dancing atop the Hollywood sign; and released a steady trickle of singles, the most recent of which, while being far from the best song in Del Rey’s discography, easily has the best song name in her catalog.
“Coachella — Woodstock in My Mind” isn’t great, but how could it be? It’s written from the perspective of someone comparing a massively profitable and painstakingly choreographed corporate happening to a onetime event so anarchic there were improvised “bad trip tents” for concertgoers on LSD. The track is, however, evidence of Del Rey’s increasingly tight grip on her own image — an impressive feat, considering her mainstream career started with a self-directed video that expertly laid out her entire sensibility in less than five minutes. This time, Del Rey has added to the feminine vulnerability and vintage Americana something that once seemed antithetical to her entire ethos: a sense of humor.
Much has been made of the appearance of a smile on Del Rey’s typically scowling visage in Lust for Life’s promotional photography, and the album trailer even features a joke or two. But “Coachella — Woodstock on My Mind” takes the pivot to another level, cheerfully owning up to the charges of inauthenticity that have plagued her entire career. The analogy it’s based on is ridiculous and Del Rey knows it; this is less a song than a four-minute assurance that she’s in on the joke.
Best Album by a Septuagenarian: ‘Americana,’ Ray Davies
Ben Lindbergh: Despite the seemingly lesser life expectancies of performing musicians, this category remains crowded enough that Ray Davies’s latest release isn’t even the only new album by a 70-something former member of the Kinks. In addition to brother Dave’s latest solo work, Americana is competing with Bob Dylan’s triple batch of crooner covers and Roger Waters’s worth-the-wait return to original rock albums after 25 years. That’s not even counting new work by Brians May and Eno, Alice Cooper, and Santana, who are all still 69. Throw in a never-ending torrent of reissues, and the survivors of the ’60s scene are straining the savings of boomers who budgeted for earlier rock retirements.
Americana is Davies’s first non-Kinks-retread release in a decade, aside from his 2013 memoir of the same name, from which this album is loosely adapted. Both musically and lyrically, the new songs are strong, and the 15-cut collection sounds a little livelier than Davies’s solid solo (nonsoundtrack) debut from 2006, Other People’s Lives, or Working Man’s Café, his 2007 follow-up. That’s partly a product of the invigoration that often arises from collaboration between a long-lasting artist and accomplished admirers whom his early work influenced — in this case, the Jayhawks. The venerable alt-country group serves as Davies’s backing band and plays a more prominent role on certain tracks, most notably the beautiful “A Place in Your Heart,” Americana’s most classically American-sounding song, which rests on a vocal from Jayhawks keyboardist Karen Grotberg.
Americana isn’t so much an American Arthur as a series of slice-of-life songs peppered with USA signifiers like cowboys and highways. The stars-and-bars cover smacks of Springsteen or Mellencamp, and Davies does occasionally channel the besotted (if ill-informed) dreamer of “Oklahoma U.S.A,” but as one would expect, he spends some of his time looking askance at his second country. Davies, who celebrates his 73rd birthday Wednesday, is still singing about superficiality, materialism, and, of course, corporations.
Americana is a former frontman’s clear-eyed portrait of the place that banned his band in the ’60s and made it a ’70s arena success. As Davies sums up on “The Great Highway,” “The great illusion it may be / But always somethin’ else to see.”