Well, we’re halfway through 2017, and it’s been a pretty solid year in terms of music thus far. This month alone had more killer comebacks than some entire years do, and we’ve still got six more of them to go. June saw new music from the likes of Katy Perry, Halsey, Jack Antonoff, Sufjan Stevens, Dua Lipa, Major Lazer, Vic Mensa, Chuck Berry, Santana, DJ Khaled, Vince Staples, Lorde, SZA, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Big Boi, 311, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Arcade Fire, Jay-Z, and about a thousand other big names, but only 20 could make this list, so let’s dive right in.
20) ALL I THINK ABOUT IS YOU – Ansel Elgort
Fun fact: Coldplay put out a song this month by the exact same name. That song was a throwback to Coldplay’s roots. Which is to say, it was boring and terrible. Ansel Elgort’s take on the six-word refrain is much more palatable. The pop singer/actor who also made waves this month as the star of the best film of 2017, Baby Driver, provides an emotionally-palpable and purely enjoyable electro-pop banger. The production is impeccable; it fits neatly into the staples of modern EDM-pop, but carries a unique flavor that complements Elgort’s voice. I’ve always really appreciated his voice. He’s not a good singer, per se, but his voice is different from anyone else in the business. Admittedly, centering the drop around his idiosyncratic pipes may not have been the best idea, but the song works well regardless.
19) THE UBER SONG – D.R.A.M.
Early this month, D.R.A.M. dropped a new pair of singles, presumably following up his fantastic 2016 album Big Baby D.R.A.M.. “The Uber Song,” the better of the two tracks, has that goofy, infectious charm that put me on to D.R.A.M. in the first place. It’s hilarious, shameless fun with a great chorus and everything I’ve come to love from the golden-throated Virginia MC.
18) INSTRUCTION – Jax Jones feat. Demi Lovato and Stefflon Don
Caribbean-infused dance pop took the world by storm in the past two years, with mixed results. Sure, it’d be ideal if more pop-EDM acts took the Calvin Harris route and carved out their own niche, but a good song’s a good song, and “Instruction” is a very good song. If it catches on, it could be huge. It has an irresistible hook, fun earworm-y lyrics, and a killer verse by Jamaican-English rapper Stefflon Don. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good instructional dance song. I love those.
17) KEEP IT 100 – Joyner Lucas
I’ve already talked about Joyner Lucas a couple times (he once got #1 on one of these lists for “I’m Sorry,” a deeply moving track about suicide), but he’s one of the more impressive up-and-comers in the rap game right now. He embodies a classic ’90s lyricism and delivery, elevating that timeless sound to new heights with breakneck flows and impeccable storytelling, as we see on “Keep It 100.” The song follows the journey of a $100 bill in the hood, examining the hardships of lower-class life and the corrupting force of money. It’s poignant and at times gut-wrenching, especially with its video. The parallels between the first and second verses are really cool, and the Chekhov’s Gun ending is a showstopper. It’s a movie in seven minutes, and a solid hip-hop song to boot.
16) TOTAL DESTRUCTION TO YOUR MIND – The Isley Brothers and Santana
The award for song title of the year goes to “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” a ’50s-style rock-and-roll banger by two of the greatest bands of all time, the Isley Brothers and Santana. As I understand it, the two are coming together for an entire album, which I’m extremely excited for, but hearing anything new from either of these groups is a pleasure. Santana’s been grinding since the ’60s and the Isleys since 1954. And this is a great song! Ronald Isley’s vocals are soulful and fun, and the instrumentation is incredible. It’s basically what I was hoping to hear on Chuck Berry’s recent (posthumous) record. It’s fun and new but still distinctly rock-and-roll. Can’t wait for the album.
15) KNOW NO BETTER – Major Lazer feat. Travis Scott, Camila Cabello, and Quavo
Major Lazer may be my favorite mainstream EDM-pop act. Sure, mainstream EDM has vastly improved in general over the past five years or so, but they came through with that dancehall sound well before everyone else was doing it. Diplo’s a great producer, Walshy Fire and Jillionaire infuse their tracks with a really unique multicultural soundscape, and the group always comes through with meaningful, superbly-enjoyable dance pop tracks. “Know No Better” is no exception. It’s catchy, layered, features really solid performances from Travis and Camila, and it wouldn’t be a 2017 pop song without a Quavo guest verse. Similar enough to be a hit, different enough to be something greater.
14) GOOD COP BAD COP – Ice Cube
Ice Cube put out three great new tracks this month in celebration of the 25th anniversary of his classic album Death Certificate. The most urgent of the three is “Good Cop Bad Cop,” a bombastic G-funk track that delves deeper into the themes of seminal Cube works like N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” Here, rather than expressing distaste for the police as a whole, Cube specifically calls out the “good cop,” and critiques the “hardworking men and women” who are “just doing their jobs” for refusing to stand up to the crooked system of “bad cops” which they seem ready to identify, but never to confront. To Cube, the passive “good cop,” and the general network of ostensibly-upstanding cops, is just as bad as the offenders themselves. A corrupt system can’t ever hope for real change if even the most moral members of it are more concerned with personal relationships and paychecks than the lives of innocent black Americans. This song is yet another exhibit for Ice Cube’s status as one of the great rappers of all time.
13) CHOPPING BLOCK – Royce da 5’9″ feat. Slaughterhouse
Royce da 5’9″ just dropped a grueling 28-track mixtape full of non-stop lyrical lightning. That’s to be expected from another of the greatest MC’s to ever do it, but the standout track on that record by far is “Chopping Block,” marking the triumphant return of Slaughterhouse. Over a hard-hitting instrumental, the four horsemen trade whiplash-inducing lyrics for a glorious five-and-a-half minutes. The real showstoppers are Royce and KXNG Crooked, but newly-minted celebrity Joe Budden reminds us that in addition to being a godsend for the hip-hop gossip column, the dude can still rap his ass off.
12) YELLOW LIGHT – Pharrell Williams
Hey, you know who else can rap? Pharrell. He doesn’t do that on this song, but it was as good a segue as I could come up with. For the longest time, I actually had four Pharrell songs in the running for this list, because he’s so goddamn good at everything, but I was able to narrow it down in the end. See, Pharrell technically put out an entire album this month; the soundtrack for Despicable M3. The best single off that record (i.e. the one that doesn’t feature dabbing Minions in the video) is “Yellow Light,” which is a fairly enjoyable song that may or may not be about alternative-medicine wavelength mumbo-jumbo and is almost definitely a Trump-era revamp of “Happy.” I say “Trump-era” because a solid chunk of this track is condescendingly speaking directly to Trump. “The brat is in his tower singing the flag-burning blues / But we feel like the nuts ’cause we feel the screws.” Those who only know Pharrell from his sunny pop tracks may be surprised by this hard-hitting political lyricism, but it’s not out-of-place in his catalogue. Is it as annoying as “Happy?” Absolutely. But it’s also just as excellent a song.
11) ELEMENT. – Kendrick Lamar
Pretty much any single off DAMN. would have been likely to make it onto this list, but “ELEMENT.” is especially noteworthy because it’s a song that I appreciate a lot more than I did on the album. In the context of the album, it’s brash, cocky, and portrays Kendrick’s own character flaws in a way few artists in his position would be bold enough to examine. In the context of the video, it also examines the roots of his violent, hedonistic tendencies. The video is gut-wrenching, violently poetic, portraying an entire world in a series of moving photographs. Rarely does a video do more service to a song than “ELEMENT.,” which was a pretty great song to begin with.
10) SIGNS OF LIFE – Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire is another act that was a struggle to pin down for this list. They put out three new songs this month, each of them endearing, poignant, and enjoyable in their own way. Ultimately, I chose the cinematic vibes of “Signs of Life,” a ’70s film-inspired romp with an equally-delightful video following two interracial alien-hunting partners-in-crime portrayed my Moonlight actor Shariff Earp and Michigan artist Carly Mark. The song features the same goofy indie-rock charm of Arcade Fire’s other two recent releases, along with some really cool space-disco instrumentation and a pretty solid hook. I’m starting to realize I really like Arcade Fire.
9) STOP, DROP, ROLL – Macy Gray feat. Nik West
I’ve already talked to death about my profound admiration for neo-soul singer Macy Gray, but her latest single “Stop, Drop, Roll” is fantastic. It’s politically-charged, boundlessly energetic, and features some killer bass work from Nik West. I dare say it’s even better than her other political soul track this year, “White Man.” I could easily see this song being my latest obsession.
8) OMG – Vic Mensa feat. Pusha T
Okay, so I lied. There’s technically two Pharrell songs on this list. He just handles the production on “OMG,” but I’m pretty sure that’s also him on the chorus. Still, the star of the song is undoubtedly Vic Mensa, a critically-acclaimed young MC who manages to go toe-to-toe with the legendary Pusha T. Together, the two artists deliver a total of three effortless, swag-dripping verses full of politically-charged boasts and dense rhyme schemes. The chorus is a little bland, admittedly, but it provides perfect contrast for the in-your-face verses. Vic Mensa’s cool factor is a head above the competition.
7) TUMBLIN’ – Rei
I actually don’t know much about Rei, other than that she’s a Japanese pop-rock artist who was discovered doing guitar covers on YouTube. Regardless, this song is just delightful. It’s a timeless, upbeat, jazzy track with a manic energy that’s impossible not to groove along to. You know I’m a sucker for some fun-loving brass, and this track’s got that in spades. It feels familiar, yet excitingly new. That’s one of the greatest compliments you can give a song.
6) SWERLK – MNDR and Scissor Sisters
“Swerlk,” for the uninitiated, is what you get when you twerk and you twirl and you werk and you swirl and you swerve (SWERLK!). This song got lodged in my head from the moment I heard it. Apparently, it was written to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and all the proceeds go to the Contigo Fund, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ charity. That’s all the more reason to support it, but it’s also an absolute bop. Scissor Sisters is a legendary queer pop act (Bono once called them “the best pop group in the world”) that I tragically missed the boat on before they went on an indefinite hiatus in 2012. So, of course, it’s a delight to hear new music from them, and this is also an incredible song that’s hilarious and infectious and really clever. I can’t recommend it enough.
5) MK – Kintaro feat. Anderson .Paak
Bruner is a family name you’ll find all over the music world this year. Elder Bruner brother Thundercat and Ronald Bruner Jr. both put out acclaimed albums this year, and youngest brother Kintaro now joins the club with an excellent EP available on SoundCloud. The stand-out track from that record is “Mk,” a killer electro-funk track featuring music’s favorite Martian, Anderson .Paak. The track is groovy and both artists turn in hilarious verses, with .Paak also adding a great hook. It’s an excellent extension of Anderson’s sound, and I’d really like to hear these two collaborate for a whole album.
4) SOBER – Lorde
Remember that article I made like, one week ago where I said “Perfect Places” was the best song on Melodrama? Haha, yeah. I’m a fickle pickle, what can I say? I don’t know if I can definitively say “Sober” is the best track on Lorde’s incredible new album, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best single. Sparse electro-pop is nothing new in this day and age (Marian Hill, Julia Michaels, etc.), but Lorde brings a refreshing flavor to it. All of Lorde’s music is deeply affecting; the trumpets on this song hit you like a clean punch in the teeth. And, of course, being a Lorde song, the lyrics are absolutely masterful. Sometimes, it’s a compliment to say a song hearkens back to the past. “Sober” feels brand new, in a way very few songs ever do.
3) NOT ENOUGH – Lido feat. THEY.
Speaking of hearkening back to the past, this is some straight-up Boyz II Men shit. THEY. is an R&B/hip-hop group that I’ve heard around for a year or so now. They’ve developed a bit of a cult following, but I don’t think I fully got it until this song. A collaboration with Norwegian superproducer Lido, this song showcases THEY.’s true appeal: a modern, gritty reboot of Bell Biv DeVoe. I would honestly kill for a new jack swing revival, or at least a whole album of THEY. doing ’80s R&B tracks. It’s got enough modern flourishes to keep it from feeling like a straight retread, and it’s just an absolute joy.
2) WHO DAT BOY – Tyler, the Creator feat. A$AP Rocky
I’ve often expressed distaste for artists who rehash the same song ad infinitum. Call me a hypocrite, though, because Tyler, the Creator has dozens of songs exactly like this and I can’t get enough of them. There’s something positively mesmerizing about these aggressive, sinister songs. His delivery, his production, his movements, his voice, something. Of course, this one takes it to a new level with an excellent appearance by A$AP Rocky, who’s been as jiggy as ever this year. Hopefully he has a new album on the way, but what this song really makes me crave is a whole collaborative album between Rocky and Tyler, who also went on tour together last year. Rocky’s got the swagger, the flow, the lyricism; Tyler’s got the character, the style, the coordination. Together, the results are always breathtaking.
1) LOYAL LIKE SID AND NANCY – Foster the People
Quite frankly, this song could be garbage. Does it rely on its indie novelty a lot? Sure. Should Foster the People be spitting over-written raps about police brutality? Probably not. But it’s just such a left-field song from these guys that I can’t help but admire it. If you only know these guys from “Pumped Up Kicks,” this song will take you by surprise. It actually has more in common stylistically with “Who Dat Boy” than the band’s entire catalogue, essentially. That being said, it’s also very well-written, beautifully-produced, and absolutely captivating. It slaps, it’s unabashedly pretentious, and I really dig it.