To read about what the songs of the year meant to 2017, see Lindsay Zoladz’s accompanying year-end essay.
10. Kesha, “Praying” / “Woman”
In early July, Kesha released “Praying,” her whistle-noted fuck-you to her former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke. In the short time since, it’s come to feel like one of the defining songs of the year for all the wrong reasons. The past few months have found us publicly reckoning with the effects of sexual abuse and harassment on a scale that, as recently as a year ago, felt unimaginable. “Praying” is a wrenching, of-the-moment anthem of modern victimhood: Kesha sounds bruised but certainly not broken, and yet the song’s triumphant tone doesn’t blunt the pain she has endured — and she’s unafraid to call out the man who caused it. The song and its album, Rainbow, earned Kesha her first two Grammy nominations, and it garnered respect for a raw, soulful voice that most listeners had previously only known coated in Auto-Tune. But though it wasn’t as gravely important, I liked even better the album’s second single, “Woman,” which found Kesha joyfully declaring her independence (“I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight”) and just generally sounding like she was having a whole lot of fun recording it. Its message was as implicitly hopeful as “Praying”: Somewhere, someday, on the other side of all this pain, there’s still a party raging somewhere.
9. Perfume Genius, “Slip Away”
As Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas has explored some dark places: One of his best songs, “Mr. Peterson,” is about a relationship between a 16-year-old and a teacher, who dies by suicide after jumping off a building. So often the queer experience is chronicled in stories that end in tragedy; No Shape is Hadreas’s most radical album yet because it revels in the possibility of joy. The stirring single “Slip Away” distills all of this emotion down to a three-minute pop song. “Baby, let all them voices slip away,” Hadreas coos, right before a chorus that explodes like a confetti cannon straight to the heart.
8. St. Vincent, “Happy Birthday, Johnny”
Annie Clark is a master of artifice, and the sharp-plastic persona she crafted for her fifth record, Masseduction, was perhaps her most provocative yet. Which is what makes the sparse, alarmingly candid piano ballad “Happy Birthday, Johnny” so striking: It is — out of nowhere — Clark’s barest mask-off moment to date. “Johnny” is an open-hearted letter to an old friend who knew Clark before she became successful and has since fallen on hard times; as she tries to reckon with the isolation of her fame, her voice breaks when she imagines Johnny asking, “What happened to blood, our family — Annie, how could you do this to me?” Clark is savvy enough to know that vulnerability is its own kind of performance, too, but for a magical three minutes, she tricks you into believing you’re seeing directly into her soul.
7. Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3”
Lil Uzi Vert’s accidental hit “XO Tour Llif3” was the perfect distillation of hip-hop’s recent, unexpected embrace of goth and emo culture — anchored by the uncomfortably catchy refrain, “All my friends are dead / Push me to the edge.” And yet, as of-the-moment as the track sounds, there’s something timeless about its emotional core, chronicling the over-the-top melodrama of young love. When Uzi graced the cover of The Fader in February, he wore a Marilyn Manson T-shirt and Gucci flip-flops: “XO Tour Llif3” is basically the sonic manifestation of that outfit.
6. Waxahatchee, “Never Been Wrong”
“You love being right, you’ve never been wrong!” Katie Crutchfield wails; if eye-rolls were audible, they’d be accompanying her in harmony. Waxahatchee’s excellent Out in the Storm was a richly realized break-up album — a cathartic catalog of long-repressed grievances, a candid journey inward, and an ultimate excavation of a former, independent self. But, also much more simply, it bangs. “Never Been Wrong” is an exhilarating slice of ’90s alt-rock radio cut with the salty-sweet twang of Crutchfield’s singular voice. In a year when it was very much needed, “Never Been Wrong” was the feel-good anti-mansplaining anthem of the summer.
5. DJ Khaled, “Wild Thoughts” (featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller) / “I’m the One” (featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper, and Lil Wayne)
With two small adjustments, I do believe “Wild Thoughts” could have been the Song of the Summer: nix Bryson Tiller and put in his place another Rihanna verse, and swap out the “Maria Maria” sample for “Smooth.” Regardless, “Wild Thoughts” is irresistible, from that slinky DJ Khaled beat to Rihanna’s taunting quotable, “I know you wanna see me nake-nake-naked.” And because I can’t choose: ANOTHER ONE. “I’m the One” is pure sonic gak, the most cuddly, crayon-brite posse cut since Ma$e, Blackstreet, and Mya teamed up on the Rugrats soundtrack. In a year when I felt exhausted by so many things — including, at times, DJ Khaled, Celebrity — I never tired of hearing either of these pop trifles on the radio, and they never failed to bring a much-needed smile to my face.
4. Kendrick Lamar, “Humble.”
To Pimp a Butterfly was the touchdown; “Humble.” is the end zone dance. Kendrick usually raps like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and impressively, he can handle that load — but one of the great things about “Humble.” is how unburdened and light he sounds. Kendrick has certainly earned the kind of bragging rights he revels in here — his left stroke did indeed go viral, so let the man shout it from the highest mountain. In classic Kendrick form, you can read the song as an almost Biblical parable in which he’s reminding himself to stay in touch with his own humility. But it’s so much more fun to hear “Humble.” as a deserved, sleeve-busting flex.
3. SZA, “Supermodel”
“I’m writing this letter to let you know I’m really leaving,” SZA sings, although by the end of this three-minute therapy session set to guitar, you’re unsure if she really will, or if she’ll send the letter at all. But such is the searing emotional honesty and confessional tone of SZA’s Ctrl, the fantastic record for which “Supermodel” serves as an introduction. “Wish I was comfortable just with myself,” SZA sings, “but I need you, I need you, I need you … I could be your supermodel if you believe.” A gentle bit of percussion stirs when she says that great line, like a fluttering heartbeat. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time, but, if we’re being as honest as SZA, so is life, most of the time. Ctrl is all about the gray areas in between absolutes, the places where most of our actual living takes place. “Supermodel” isn’t the catchiest song on the album, but it’s the one most likely to invade your subconscious in the middle of a sleepless night, and that’s got to count for something.
2. Lorde, “Supercut”
To quote a wise man: The best song wasn’t the single. (Although those were pretty great, too.) “Supercut” is a lot of things: a meditation on memory’s distortions, a precise distillation of the ways the internet shapes and warps how we experience life, and also, on a much less deep level, a great pop song in the spirit of Body Talk–era Robyn. It’s a sad song, too, but ultimately there’s something liberating about its end. Lorde sings mournfully before the bridge, but then a beat later, she flings away her grief with this wild, freeing, “Aaaahhh!” It’s the triumphant sound of Getting Over It, or maybe just unfollowing an ex on Instagram.
1. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
Every generation gets the “Juicy” it deserves. Ours might swap Word Up! magazine for Instagram feeds and Sega Genesis for Louboutins, but the message remains: Everyone in my life used to doubt me, but now I am rich because I’m really fucking good at rapping. Cardi B was an internet personality before she was a musician; she only started rapping a few years ago when one of her managers suggested that the stream-of-consciousness flow of her Instagram videos meant she might have talent as an MC. Was he ever right. Part of what’s so exhilarating about “Bodak Yellow” is that it has the spirit of someone who is still learning that they are innately good at this thing they hadn’t before tried: By the last verse of the song her cadence is that of a high-speed joyride with the brakes cut. Cardi’s rise was so quick, complete, and triumphant that we’re all still reeling, but from her positivity toward other female rappers to her social-media-driven success, it’s impossible not to feel like her story says something positive about the future of hip-hop. Her 2017 was so incredible, it sometimes felt like it was all a dream.