The Best Songs of 2017 (So Far)
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. Here we are, a little halfway into 2017, and we've heard some truly memorable albums. And every single day, artists are sharing new music from records to come later this year.
Even an industrious music consumer can miss things. That's why, for the casual or obsessive listener, we'll be curating the best songs of the year as they're released. Keep checking back as the list of best songs grows throughout the rest of the year.
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.
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?"
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, where 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.
Meek Mill - "1942 Flowers"
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 Flowers". 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 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. It's a dreamy and stunning image of insecurity from Top Dawg Entertainment's only female artist.
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 upcoming 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"
Popcan 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 Popcan 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 Popcan on a track that maintains their individual backgrounds, while elevating the track into an eerie and universal experience.
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 whilst bombarded with television news, with the politics of hatred and conflict. This is a reminder that there's something greater out there.
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.
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.
Kendrick Lamar - "The Heart Part 4"
Over the days after Kendrick Lamar suddenly released "The Heart Part 4," I found myself having passionate arguments with friends about which section we liked the most. At nearly five minutes long, the song has at least four distinct parts. It's a schizophrenic collection of each one of Lamar's identities. And together it becomes a stunning cross-section of what he can do—almost as if when he clearly spells out that he is "The. Grea-test. Rap-per a-live," the song's macro construction itself is the proof.
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.
Fleet Foxes - "Third of May /?daigahara"
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 / ?daigahara." 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 upcoming 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 UK 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" (Run the Jewels 3)
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.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.